Swedish Cultural Hegemony

June 17th, 2010

We went to the temple of semi-disposable Swedish furniture* (AKA IKEA) yesterday. I could write an awful lot about IKEA – in fact I’ve got an idea for a short story set there, and I’ve also got a theory about space and time being distorted inside IKEA, but I’ll try and confine myself.
I’d love to say that, unlike going to IKEA in England, the experience here was one of unbridled joy and happiness, but I can’t. I dread going to IKEA, with good reason. It’s about as far from my idea of a good time as it’s possible to get without actually having someone physically assault you. To make matters worse, we don’t yet have a car. I’ve never been to IKEA without a car. We decided we’d just have the stuff delivered, but on the way from the S-Bahn (thankfully only a five-minute walk away) we saw adverts for Moebel-Taxis – fixed price taxi-vans. Then we got flyered by one of these firms, and when we checked the IKEA delivery prices and found they were higher, it was a done deal, especially as for an extra ten euros you got help carrying the stuff from the driver. We live up four flights of stairs without a lift, and were planning on buying a lot of stuff, so the idea of help dragging the stuff upstairs was very attractive. Can’t remember having seen that in London, though I always had a car…
So we spent the obligatory couple of hours walking round the whole of the upstairs showroom, and managed to agree on a bookshelf. We couldn’t find a bathroom cabinet, though we did find pretty much exactly the kitchen table and benches we wanted, which was a bonus. They weren’t in the catalogue, which I find a bit odd. I can understand the fact that they don’t have all the stuff in the market hall in the catalogue, but you’d think they could put stuff like benches and tables in.
Lunch in the canteen was lunch in the canteen, seemed a little pricier than I remember but filled the gaping hole left by traipsing around. We then realised that we couldn’t pay with a credit card, which is quite common in Germany – most places only take the EC card, which is a bit like an Electron card as far as I can work out. Because we’ve had nightmares getting a bank account set up (that will have to be another post, if not a whole series), we don’t have one of those yet, so it had to be cash. Thankfully, they have a machine there. Fortified by mass cooking, we headed down to the market hall, where we managed to fill a trolley in no time, despite the fact that we were already flagging badly, including finding a bathroom cabinet – for some unaccountable reason these are displayed downstairs. In the end we had to just head straight for the warehouse, in the vain hope we’d make it out in time to get to my nephew’s birthday party. Things went reasonably well at first – we managed to find all the stuff we wanted that was on the left hand side. When we got to the right hand side, though, it was a different matter.
First off, they didn’t have any of the shoe cabinets we wanted – at least in white, which is what we wanted. They had lots in black or crimson, funnily enough. When we asked when they would have more in white, they told us they were discontinued. Ilka nearly cried – we had them in London, but only had room for four, which meant we never really had enough room for all our shoes. Now, we’ve got room for loads, and Ilka had her heart set on covering a wall in them in the same way a friend of ours in London had. I realised they had quite a few on display upstairs, which they clearly didn’t need any more – there’s no point displaying something people can’t buy – so I told Ilka to go and see if she could nab them, while I went to get the rest of the stuff. Cue the next bit of bad news – having agreed on a bookshelf, it turned out to be the only one they didn’t have in stock. So while Ilka tried to negotiate the ex-display shoe cabinets – no easy task, given that she had to find them first** – I started looking at the other bookshelves to find out if they had something like what we wanted in stock. Turns out they had pretty much all of the other bookshelves in stock, and when Ilka came back clutching six ex-display show cabinets and we managed to agree on another bookshelf, it looked like we’d turned the corner.
By now, though, we should have been en route to the party, so we legged it to the obligatory queue at the till, where someone came up to ask me where we’d found the shoe cabinets. Ilka had already been approached by someone else about them on the way downstairs – why are they being discontinued? When the cashier finally finished scanning everything, we found we’d spent nearly 200 euros more than we’d expected. So I had to leg it to the cashpoint again, which I’m sure made us very popular with all the people behind us. In the end, we opted to have two guys to help carry the stuff, as we’d bought so much, so I went back with them and Ilka went to the party without me. The Moebel-Taxi guys were crazy Bulgarians who carried stuff I couldn’t even pick up on on their own up four flights of stairs. Highly recommended.
With apologies to Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing worse than going to buy something at IKEA, and that is going to take something back to IKEA. Which you almost inevitably will, if you go there and buy stuff. Returning stuff at IKEA is like going to the dole office – you take your ticket and wait your turn, feeling institutionalised. Worse still, you feel duty-bound to buy some stuff, as you’ve had to go all the way there anyway. Which is what I’ll be doing next week – we found that one of the folding chairs was broken when we got it home.
I think IKEA is a cunning Swedish plan to take over the world. They’re opening a fourth shop in Berlin this December – when the last one opened, there was a small riot. I’m not joking.
Now, where’s that allen key?

* thanks to Douglas Coupland for ‘semi-disposable Swedish furniture’
** IKEA really does do stuff to the fabric of space and time. You walk round the place, and then decide you want to go back and look at something again. You’re pretty sure you know where it is, so you set off confidently only to end up in the sofa department. Which is fine, as long as you want the sofa department…I’ve taken to adopting a modified form of Douglas Banks’ Zen Navigation, where you follow someone who looks like they know where they’re going (you might not get where you were going, but you always end up where you should be) – I now head for somewhere completely other than where I want to be, most often the sofa department. Like Zen Navigation, you don’t always end up where you were going, but you always find something you want to buy…

My Career As A Political Blogger…

June 14th, 2010

…is over. One of the reasons for setting up this blog in the first place was to comment on politics, in the hope of being invited on to the radio to share my cutting insight into the world of Westminster (see here for more). I’ll happily admit now that I am a miserable failure as a political blogger. During arguably the most interesting general election campaign in living memory, I managed to say practically nothing. This is in no small part due to the fact that I underestimated the amount of work it takes – I couldn’t take the idea of people whose sole claim to fame was blogging seriously at first. To all of those bloggers: sorry!
The more perspicacious among you will have noticed that I haven’t actually posted on any topic for quite a while now. It’s fair to say I got a bit bored with the plastic bag thing, as I’m sure did you – it wasn’t really enough of a challenge. So I’m dropping that too. It filled a gap, but now I’m going to focus on something a lot closer to home: the fact that we’ve just moved to Germany, and what it’s like here for an Englishman. The good news is that so far, it’s pretty good. We’ve been here for two weeks now and we’re getting on pretty well. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, and we still have an awful lot of stuff in boxes, but our new flat is big enough to cope. Ironically I found quite a large number of uses for plastic bags during the move, but I digress…

Bye, bye, Miss American Pie…

November 16th, 2009

So my darling little sister and her dashing young man have made the leap across the pond to San Francisco. I’m now the last of the family remaining in London. Not sure for how long that will be the case, so keep watching this space.
In other news…well, I think I owe a few bloggers an apology. I thought it couldn’t be that hard, and scoffed at people described as ‘political bloggers’ when interviewed. I am now happy to admit that it’s actually a lot more demanding than I thought. Hence the dearth of blog posts recently. I just haven’t had the time. Now if I could find someone to pay me for writing this nonsense, that would be a different matter…
Still doing pretty well on the plastic bag front – I’ve decided that it’s OK to take one if you re-use it, as then it’s no longer a single-use bag. So the one I accidentally took at the chip shop last Tuesday doesn’t count, as I used it as a bin-bag.
Until the next time, dear readers.


October 23rd, 2009

So maybe it’s not so difficult to go without plastic bags after all. Since coming back from Sardinia I think I’ve only had to turn down a bag about three times. Not everyone thinks this way, though – in the chemist last week I was queuing behind a young woman who bought a packet of Nurofen. She asked for a bag for this. For one small item. She needed the bag to carry her Nurofen out to the her car which was parked just outside. I probably should have remonstrated with her but at the time I wasn’t feeling well (hence the visit to the chemist) so I let it go. I did though refuse the bag I was offered…
The downside about it not being so difficult is that it doesn’t give me much to write about…I was hoping I’d have enough material for a small book, as annualism seems to be in vogue at the moment (here’s an article about it), but clearly going without plastic bags isn’t as radical as doing without sex or living on a pound a day. Plus of course by the time the year is up and I’ve collated it all, it probably won’t be fashionable any more. Ho hum.
I must admit that blogging is harder work than I originally thought. My first thought behind starting this blog was to focus on politics, so that I could be invited to give my opinions on topical issues on the breakfast program on Radio 5. They often introduce people as ‘political bloggers’ and I thought “How hard can that be?” and “That’s not really a job, is it?”. While the collapse of the world’s economy and the current Labour administration have provided the odd interesting tidbit, I have to say that politics just doesn’t seem as interesting or exciting as it did was the 80s. So I haven’t really posted much about politics, and can’t see it coming up much until the general election campaigning starts in earnest. The plastic bag theme seemed like a good substitute – after all, most good blogs stick to one theme, while this one has had a more scattergun approach. In fact, the posts that have had the most hits have been ones that featured pictures of the kids. So maybe I should just stick to Twitter and Flikr and leave the blogging to people who don’t have to spend eight hours in the office every day. More than once while I was writing my offline blog on holiday (it will surface at some point, when I’ve got the time to edit it) I found myself writing “Hard work, this blogging business”. Even more depressing was reading (some) of Stephen Fry’s lastest blog entry. He often posts what he calls ‘miniblogs’ which are about as long as most of my posts. “If this is a miniblog,” I thought, “what on earth must his blogs be like?”. Well, his most recent post is six pages, which made me want to jack the whole thing in at once. I can’t compete with that. I don’t have the time to read six pages of blog, let alone write six pages.
Over to you, dear readers, if there are any of you left. I’m half tempted to stick a poll widget on here and ask you to vote for whether I should a) continue b) change topic or c) cease and desist, but I don’t think I’d like the answers…quite apart from the fact that it would be a busman’s holiday. Feel free to add a comment and let me know. Or not.

Plastic bags on holiday

October 7th, 2009

Hello there. Apologies for the lack of posts of late – we’ve been on holiday in Sardinia and my Internet access was limited to say the least. Which was probably a good thing, as it meant I spent some time with my family for a change instead of being glued to a screen.
I’ll be posting some photos and an offline diary I kept for those of you who are interested as soon as I get a chance. As far as plastic bags though – well, yes, we did end up accepting quite a few, despite having taken two re-usable carriers with us. We did manage to re-use every single one as a rubbish bag though, and in an ironic twist of fate, found ourselves desiring one on our last day as we would have had no bin-bag otherwise. I also thought I had managed to fish one off the bottom of the sea while snorkelling which gave me an immense sense of satisfaction until I discovered that it had fallen out of my pocket as I swam back to shore. Ho hum.

The Online Shopping Conundrum

September 18th, 2009

I mentioned in a recent post that one of the problems in avoiding single-use plastic bags was the fact that we usually order our grocery shopping online and have it delivered. Ilka usually does this – who am I kidding, Ilka always does this, so I’m not sure if it’s possible to tell Sainsbury’s or Ocado ‘no plastic bags please’, but I doubt it. In their favour, both of these organisations offer to recycle the plastic bags they give you, but you have to keep the bags somewhere and give them back to the driver next time you have a delivery. We invariably seem to forget to do this. Here’s what Ocado and Sainsbury’s say about recycling bags.
I always mention the fact that I’m trying to live without plastic bags for a year when I’m refusing to take one, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the postive reactions I’ve had. One local shopkeeper even bemoaned the fact that some kids even ask for a plastic bag when they’ve only bought one item and really don’t need one. When I refused a bag at Cafe Soho the other day, I got into a conversation with the guy who runs it about the problem of the bags the online shopping comes in. We agreed that their packing is awful – they sometimes put as few as one or two items in a bag, for starters – and I told him I was struggling to come up with some better ideas to suggest to the retailers. After all, it wouldn’t be right to say “Don’t use plastic bags” without offering an alternative solution. I had started thinking along the lines of giving people their shopping in the plastic crates they use to bring it to the door in – but then one would have to store them and I can see that being an issue. Mark came up with a much better idea – cardboard boxes, and where bags are necessary, paper bags. Much easier to recycle all round. Make the cardboard boxes foldable, and they can be re-used for shopping. Nice one, Mark – I’m going to write to Ocado, Sainsbury’s and in all likelihood the other online grocery retailers and suggest this. I’ll post their replies when I get them.
We do have another use for these bags, though – we use them as bin liners. The Ocado ones are particularly good for this. Ironically if they stop using them for deliveries we might have to start buying bin liners. Hmmmm.

Plastic bag FAIL!

September 17th, 2009

Well, I didn’t quite manage to last a month, let alone a year. I treated myself to a slap-up takeaway lunch today (a Hog Roast sandwich meal deal from Cattle Grid, if you must know) and while I was waiting for it, I went to the loo. As I was hoping, on my return it was ready – I pointed to the bag on the table in front of the counter and said “Is that mine?”. When the friendly waiter said “Yes”, I grabbed it and started to make my way back to the office, having already paid when I made the order. I was more than half way back when I realised that the bag in question was of the single use plastic variety. Had I not been so hungry, I might have gone back and offered it back to them. Technically, I never got the chance to refuse it. But in my heart of hearts I know it’s still a fail. Plastic Bags 1, McCormick Smith…0?

Plastic Bags: An Update

September 7th, 2009

Yes, my life is terribly interesting. That’s why I’m talking about plastic bags again.
In all seriousness, though, I’ve done pretty well on the plastic bag front since I posted on the topic a week ago. Thankfully, I’ve had no more transport-related plastic bag incidents, and in fact I’ve only had to refuse a plastic bag once in the interim – at the chip shop on Friday night, when I managed to refuse one despite having had a beer or three beforehand. There were two other occasions which needed some thought though, and one I still haven’t managed to work out. The first one is this: I often take in a tupperware full of leftovers from the previous evening’s meal to have for lunch. I usually put this in a plastic bag in case it leaks en route, and I had to re-think this on Wednesday. In the end, I wrapped it in some newspaper with an elastic band around it. I could probably manage without this, as I can’t remember the last time a tupperware leaked; however I have a feeling that one must have done once upon a time otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten into the habit of using the plastic bag…
The next issue was the trainers I take to badminton, which normally go inside a ‘posh’ plastic bag in the rucksack I use to take my kit. There are two reasons for this: one is the fact that they tend to reek after two hours of badminton, and the other is that the changing room floors are usually very sandy and I don’t like sand getting all over the rest of my stuff. Particularly so as my t-shirt is usually sopping wet and thus picks up sand very easily. I fell down on this one: I used the posh plastic bag again. I call it posh because it’s not your ordinary Sainsburys or corner shop type thin single-use intended plastic bag – it’s from a shoe shop and is one of those that have a drawstring and can be carried over the shoulder. It’s also made from much heavier-duty plastic. So, dear reader, I ask you: is this allowed? Or should I be looking for a cloth shoe bag?
I’m going to leave the last, and thorniest, issue for another post, though I’ll trail it here: what should I do about the grocery shopping? We usually order online and have it delivered, it always comes bagged, and usually very badly packed so that more bags are used than necessary…

Oh dear

September 3rd, 2009

Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister is beginning to look like a very strange mixture of tragedy and farce. Every time he tries to give himself a boost, someone goes and resigns and spoils it all for him. This time it’s relatively unknown MOD aide Eric Joyce, though of course he’ll be a lot better known after this, coming as it does on the eve of a speech by Gordon Brown on Afghanistan. He also came out recently and slammed the government for taking two soldiers to court to try and reduce the amount of compensation they had been awarded, so you could say he has some form. What really hurts Gordon here is that Joyce is a former soldier and so can reasonably be assumed to have a clue about defence issues.
So OK, my political posts are a bit like buses – none for ages then two at once. Boris Johnson has been caught claiming public money for his website, which contained all sorts of contraband content forbidden by the fees office including campaign material and advertisments for his own books. Tut tut Boris. That was rather careless, wasn’t it? I quite like Boris, just because he proves that someone with the persona of a Beano character can still make it to the top in British politics. And also because he’s so wonderfully gaffe-prone. I would rather he wasn’t mayor though. I preferred him when he was the plain old member for Henly.

The Curse Of The Plastic Bag

August 28th, 2009

Cycling home from work on Thursday I suddenly noticed my gears behaving strangely. This was particularly odd as I’ve just had my bike serviced and it’s been riding like new. When I finally got a chance to look at the back wheel, I saw I had a plastic bag lodged in between the chain and the gears. Extracting it wasn’t too difficult but it was messy…Later the same night we drove down to my Dad’s in Dorset. When we stopped at the services, I noticed that the car smelled a bit funny – there was a smell of burning plastic. When I mentioned this to Ilka later she said ‘yes – there’s a plastic bag stuck to the bottom of the car’. What are the odds of that?
I got rid of as much as I could of the plastic bag that got wrapped around part of the exhaust and then melted to it this afternoon. I have a feeling the car might smell of burning plastic for another couple of days though.
As a result of all this, I have suddenly developed a pathological hatred of plastic bags. They seem to me to epitomise everything that’s wrong with convenience culture. I’m going to try and live without them.