Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent 28 years on your trail

The Smiths

30 years is a long time. I haven’t been alive 30 years yet, though I have been exposed to a band for almost that entire time. My father bought a first edition vinyl in 1984, 6 months before I was born, of a band that were relatively unknown at the time. He wasn’t prospecting – I don’t think- he just bought a lot of albums, a hell of a lot of albums.

The record was the self-titled debut from The Smiths, a quirky northern band fronted by a bespectacled, gladioli waving boy with a distinguishable voice. Their style was very different for the time – jingly jangly guitar riffs, heavy drums padding the background and bass solos to wrap songs about the moors murders and yearly fairs in Rusholme, an inner city area of Manchester. By contrast at that time Duran Duran were on boats with synthesisers singing about some Brazilian girl and Spandau Ballet were putting out an ode to a precious metal.

I now have this record, and I daren’t play it. Although it’s been played before, I stick to Spotify or the MP3 recordings I made of it through a USB turntable (the only time I’ve played it). I don’t want it to scratch or crack, I want to pass it on to my son one day, so he can get the same enjoyment out of it that I did, and still get – that is of course if record players can still be found in 15 years’ time anywhere other than on the landfill heap.

It’s said that the best things are the shortest lived, and this can be vouched for with examples like the TV show Fawlty Towers (only 13 episodes, but a world renowned classic) or the movie career of James Dean (3 movies, but forever immortalised). The Smiths were only together for 4 years, and in that time put out 4 albums, but they are culturally one of the best known bands and widely sourced as “inspirational”, and Morrissey voted 2nd “Greatest living icon” in a 2006 BBC Culture Show poll.

People that grab on to the media tagging of The Smiths – and Morrissey in particular – as “miserable”, “depressing” or “sombre” have clearly not listened to more than a few tracks, as in their short history they managed to produce songs that covered the entire emotional spectrum.

There’s a track for every mood. If you’re happy, The Boy with a thorn in his side; depressed, Asleep; feel like dancing, This Charming Man; silly, Vicar in a Tutu; anti-establishment, The Queen is dead - I could go on.

I will concede that The Smiths did put out a good dose of depressing, upsetting or just plain sad songs, but they managed to disguise a few of them well by mixing high noted guitar riffs with particularly unhappy lyrics, Girlfriend in a coma & Unhappy birthday.

But seriously, Frankly Mr Shankly - which is an attack song – is one of the happiest and funniest of the mid 1980’s (and since); without The Smiths my world, and the world in its entirety would be a much gloomier place.

The post title is a lyric from the song Half a Person

How your convenience could be killing small businesses

Maestro ad campaign 2007-2008

It’s a well known fact that credit card companies are greedy. They appear nice, loaning you money whenever you need it, just by handing over your card whenever you need a quick cash fix, but when the bill comes in you quickly see why. Extortionate interest rates are not the only way that they make their money though, they have their cake and they eat it too. When you use your card, a percentage of the total transaction is also payable to the card issuer by the retailer.

Actually, a portion of the total is payable not just to the card issuer, but also to the payment processor. In fact, when you make a card payment there are a whole bunch of different companies benefiting, out of the money that had you paid cash, would all have gone to the retailer.

Although costs do vary between providers, on average a retailer will pay around 4% of the total transaction value on a card payment to the payment processor. There are often monthly costs associated too, and then there can be an amount payable to rent any chip & pin machines. Accepting cards can be very costly.

If this is so, then why do so many small businesses choose to accept cards? Well, simply because they have to. Over the past 30 years, the past 15 especially, paying by card has become the norm. Card issuer Maestro even had a campaign in 2007-2008 telling us that “cash is dead”, which is totally in their interest to do, since for every payment made with their card instead of cash, they make a healthy profit. There is very much the perception now that if you don’t accept debit or credit cards, then your customers will go elsewhere.

When I ran a retail business, the profit margin was very low since we were trying to compete in a very hostile industry. The profit margin we worked between was generally 6-10% over cost price. It was an online business, so we had no choice but to find a payment processor and accept debit & credit cards. After some shopping around, we had to settle with a provider that charged a £15/month fee and 4% on every transaction – this was the best we could find, and there were big limitations. All of a sudden our profit margin fell from 6-10% to 2-6%, a mighty drop when you consider how little we were making anyway. You won’t be surprised to learn then that this business is now defunct.

Another drawback is payment times; again, terms vary, but the time between you making the transaction and the beneficiary receiving the money can be up to three months. In fact, that’s how long most have to wait for the funds to be sent to them. This is generally to do with fraud; giving time for fraudulent use to be reported and investigated.

But what do you care? Well, you shouldn’t really have to. What I’m getting at is this; there’s a lot of talk about supporting local businesses, and a lot of us are. Shopping with independent supermarkets or snubbing Starbucks and going to a local coffee house.

Your local deli, coffee shop or corner shop probably survives profit margins similar to those in the case above, meagre amounts, and although they may have the chip and pin machine for you to pay with, they’re secretly scowling every time that you do, because that split second decision between cash or card can make one heck of a difference to them and their survival. So choosing to hand over the wonga will go some way to making sure they’re still there next week, next month or next year. Think of it like “Gift Aid“, would you leave that box unchecked if you didn’t have to?

tl;dr: Try to pay by cash with small business, especially for small amounts, because credit card companies take a big chunk of their profits.

Let the Vulcan die with diginity

Vulcan-Streetview

If you live South Wales you’ve probably heard of the Vulcan pub, perhaps only as a result of the long-running campaign to save it from being demolished.

The Vulcan is a pub that has been around for over 150 years, and the area that it is in has seen radical changes in the past 40-odd-years. It’s been around so long that the area that it was originally built in no longer exists, yet somehow it lives on, just.

Where it is now is a nowhere area – in between the city centre and Adamsdown – everything around it has been demolished, new buildings have been built up and it’s no longer a residential area – save for the 21-storey block of student flats right next to it.

Local brewery, Brains, keeps threatening to close it and knock it down, suffering the fate of every other building around it – but a high profile campaign that started in 2008, which drew in celebrities like The Manic Street Preachers, politicians like Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and thousands of signatories on a petition has saved it thus far.

Here’s the problem with the campaign to save the Vulcan – despite 5,000 people saying that they want it to remain, none of them actually go to drink there. It’s a love affair with the past that has to end, and will inevitably end, probably soon.

Hell, if they can’t even get the students in from next door – of which there are about 650 – to help them pay the bills by buying a few cheeky pints, what chance have they got?

I’m not one of those people that thinks the past should be unnecessarily levelled to “make way for progress”, but in some circumstances it is right to do so. The Vulcan now stands out like a sore thumb, and it’s preventing anything else from being built on the land around which it stands, where workshops were demolished a couple of years ago, and now is just a tarmac car park. It’s almost there out of spite.

The Vulcan had a reprieve, its supporters had a chance to make a go of it, the fought the good fight, but it didn’t come off – send The Vulcan to Switzerland, it’s time to end it all.

Save the Vulcan campaign

What Cardiff needs (from a ruling party)

Polling Station - Gorsaf Belidleisio

With council elections coming up soon, May 3rd, Welsh citizens get their first chance since the last general election to decide who runs their area for the next four years.

I would argue that these local elections are as important as, if not more important than, Parliamentary elections; the voter pool is significantly smaller, so in a lot of cases “every vote counts”, and the candidates that are being voted for can make a difference to a city, an area, an individual or set of individual directly. Think about it, what was the last thing that David Cameron or Nick Clegg did just for you, your area or your city? The councillors that are being chosen here are working for a smaller group of people, so their attention is more focused and they can make a difference for more people on a more personal level than an MP, and in Wales an AM, probably would (or could).

Cardiff has always been known as a new, little city with big ambitions, but right now is at a crossroads. In years past there was a clear direction, that was presented by necessity – like the replacement of The Arms Park by the Millennium Stadium – or by a policy decided and directed by the council – like the decision to revamp the city centre, focussing on retail and the courting of big chains, but right now Cardiff does not have a very clear set of change policies or ambitions. The global recession certainly helped on this change in priorities, since there are now very few investors willing to pour money into big, adventurous projects – where before they may have had a go, and Cardiff council would have been willing to grease the cogs of bureaucracy for them.
There are a few half baked ideas, which are continually being announced, changed, then eventually scrapped, for example:

  • The Cardiff “business district”
  •  Transport hub (AKA a bus station)
  • Ely “Urban village”

In fact, these two projects are really one and the same, since they encroach on each other’s area, both being situated on Wood Street. These are the only two (major) projects that I can think of that are “in the pipeline” that could significantly affect Cardiff’s fortunes, and both of them are long talked about with no visible progress having been made in at least 4 years.

Cardiff’s bus station terminal was demolished in 2008, the highly visible area surrounded by construction boarding and has been used as some kind of parking lot for construction vehicles ever since. The latest set of plans set out the site of Marland House, about 100m East of the original bus station site, as where the new “transport hub” will be built, and on the site of the old bus station will be the “Cardiff business district”.

According to Cardiff council the plans are still on time and work will begin later this year, which means demolishing Marland House and all surrounding buildings, including the NCP car park. To do this the council will need to use compulsory purchase orders to get the current tenants of Marland House to vacate, these businesses include National Express, Londis, Boots, CEX and Burger King. I have seen no indication that the process of purchasing Marland House, or the land that Marland House stands on, has even begun – though if somebody wants to tell me otherwise, I’d be glad to hear the details.

All this is getting to the real points I want to make, that Cardiff is a unique city that needs a particular type of administration, and this is what we need:

  • Thoroughly planned, innovative projects that benefit the city as a whole.
  • Firm leadership and decision making, because we have endured too many years of “flip-flopping” and bowing to public pressure, like in the case of the “school restructure” debacle.
  • Ideas that buck the trend, not just follow it, or are a knee jerk reaction to other city’s plans, like the “Enterprise zone” farce, that was a reaction to Bristol’s proposal (which has now started construction).
  • A leadership that will engage with its citizens wholly, and take ideas for the future from them. Cardiff has an amazing pool of talent, as demonstrated by some of the groups that have been set up in recent years, such as ThinkArk.
  • A more open council, with good communication at its core. We don’t want to have to read the formal minutes from council meetings, or sub-committee meetings to know what is being discussed or planned in our city, or else be kept in the dark until its formally announced and there is nothing we can do but comment on the decision that has been made.

I think these are some very simple things that can be achieved very easily, but will positively affect every resident and business in the city and make our “capital village” a much better place to live and work.

Should businesses be sorry?

When I worked for a bank, I was sometimes in charge of letting IT users (internally and externally of the business) know that there was a problem (or outage), one of the first things I was told was that in the email or text message I should not apologise for the inconvenience. Essentially, as I was talking “as the company”, I had to refrain from admitting any liability or anything resembling the company from being able to take the blame or be culpable in any way.

In a similar vein, many years earlier when I was working my first job, at a fast food restaurant, on my first day of performing duties cleaning the dining area I was given a mop and a set of instructions; not of the most efficient way to clean the floors, but of how to handle a slip and fall incident: “If someone falls, don’t say it was your fault – don’t ever say sorry”.

I bring all of this up for a reason, because I have had this “corporate indifference” around me me from a young age, whether or not I believe it to be right, whenever I see a company apologise publicly I tend to have a debate with myself on whether or not it is causing damage to their image, or what damage it could cause them should a legal case ensue.

The case that has made me bring this up is Cardiff Bus’ new social networking presence, on Twitter and Facebook. Their social media representative tweets live changes to services, down to “x bus is going to be 20 minutes late”, which is pretty fantastic, really – in lieu of getting their “real time screens” at bus shelters working (which were installed about 10 years ago, but have never been properly operational).

But every tweet or Facebook update is suffixed with “Apologies.” (or sometimes “Apologises”). Does this make them seem unprofessional, or is emotion coming from a corporate entity refreshingly human?

http://twitter.com/cardiffbus
http://facebook.com/cardiffbus