Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Strike It Lucky

So what do we all think of this whole strike business then? Last week Unison announced that its members had voted in favour of a strike and then this week the news came that NIPSA had followed suit. The big strike is due to take place on 30 November. So, it is just whingey public servants complaining because their golden handcuffs have now lost some of their shine, or is there a genuine reason for complaint?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make. I am a civil servant. This is perhaps not shocking news, especially when you consider the name of this blog and the picture of a mug of tea above. I am also a NIPSA member.

It wasn't always that way - I used to think that unions were all mouth and no trousers, making mountains out of molehills in individual cases and playing the yappy poodle nipping at the government's ankle with the bigger issues (annoying certainly, but pretty easy to kick should they actually draw blood). Being totally honest I still do think that a wee bit. However, very sadly, in this era of blame culture it's nice to have the knowledge that someone will be on your side if something goes wrong at work, even if only because you're paying them to. And so, after a couple of incidents at work a few years ago that had fried my nerves, I signed up.

This of course means that I get the option to vote when they propose something like strike action. I must admit, I stared long and hard at my voting card before I made a decision this time around. There were two questions, essentially:

(1) Are you in favour of strike action?
(2) Are you in favour of action that is short of strike action?

Since the example given for the latter was stop agreeing to do overtime, I knew I was definitely all for that one - I never get the opportunity for overtime anyway so it was no skin off my nose. However, I pondered, if it doesn't really affect me, what effect is it really going to have on the evil government pension people either? So, to strike or not to strike, that was the question?

Another confession: I don't really understand much about pensions. I get that I contribute a certain amount from my salary and then the government is supposed to cough up a certain amount to go with it, so when I finally retire (probably at the age of 92 the way things are going), have my celebratory bun party and sail off into the sunset on the first Metro bus out of Civil Serviceville, I still have enough of an income to put the central heating on once a week in winter and keep me in tins of cat food. I also understand that the whole problem erupted this time because essentially the government want us to pay more, whilst they contribute less, and make us work for longer.

However that's pretty much all I clearly understand, because all of the other facts are obscured by selective statistics, bold claims and other general propaganda from both sides. NIPSA want us to see the government as the enemy, to the extent that the covers of their recent awareness leaflets actually have targets on them, with catchy slogans as subtle as "government has your pay in its sights" (be afraid worker bees, be very afraid!). In the meantime the government is trying to prevent half its workforce walking out on strike by employing the old stick and carrot routine, on the one hand telling us that their proposed offer will give us "at least as good a pension, if not better, than you get now" (widely condemned as utter nonsense), whilst on the other hand sending us emails warning us that striking will be breaking the terms of our employment contracts (doom, doooooom!).

I can be a little ditzy at times in life but generally I'm a logical and pragmatic person, so it annoys me that I can't just get the straight facts to help me work out what's really in my best interests. It leaves me feeling a little like Clover from Animal Farm, feeling entirely uncertain about who's right and who's wrong, having "great difficulty in thinking anything out" for myself and just hoping that somewhere at the top, the right people really are doing what's best for me. But we all know how that turned out for Clover…

What I have been able to establish is that with the government's current proposals, I could be paying somewhere around £60 more per month to my pension fund. The government will also be paying less in to my pension fund. So essentially I would be paying a lot more of my pay than I can afford to something that will benefit me less in the long run. It's hardly very appealing when you put it like that.

What I don't understand is how the terms and conditions of something like a pension scheme can just be changed without the consent of both parties. I mean, I signed an agreement that I would pay x% and they would pay x% and (naively) assumed that would remain the status quo until I retired, or at the very least that they would have to ask for my agreement if they wanted to change it. Granted, somewhere in the small print there is probably some get-out clause for them saying that the terms and conditions are subject to change, but when you work for the government, you don't really expect that the government will try and screw you over in return, or at least not to this extent. They've already frozen our pay (which, given inflation and cost of living increases, is essentially a pay cut) and now they want us to pay up even more.


The longer I work in the public service, the more cynical I get. Essentially we're just numbers, not valued employees. When I log on to some internal systems it greets me by my payroll number and not my name; it always reminds me of the bit in Who Am I? from Les Misérables when he sings "Who am I? Two Four Six Oh Oooonnnneeee!" Bottom line, so far as senior government officials are concerned, each civil servant is like a maths equation. If employee A works for X hours per week, gets paid £Y per year and produces Z amount of work, solve for potential savings. I feel like going all Elephant Man on them and insisting that "I am a human being!"

Wow lots of cultural references today. Please be assured it's an aberration. My favourite show is Glee for goodness sake!

But actually that brings me back to why I eventually decided to vote in favour of strike action. I know that the unions are always up in arms about something. I know that their propaganda is mostly made up of arbitrary statistics and designed purely to scare people into action. I am not quite so naive that I will blindly believe whatever they tell me but I'll willingly admit that my knowledge of the specifics and the actual ramifications is a somewhat lacking. But yet, even in my ignorance, even I can see the unions have a point this time.

I believe that I currently get paid a pretty fair wage for the job I do. Some private sector jobs in the same discipline pay more, some pay less. However the end result of these pension changes is that I will be more than £750 a year worse off with no immediate hope of any pay increase to make up for it. Also that when I signed up to my job, one of the perceived benefits was good pension contributions from my employer, which is also now headed for a sharp decline.

But perhaps more significantly to me than these disadvantages on a personal level is the precedent it will set. If we all just roll over and say, "sure, screw me over, I don't mind!" this time, what's to stop them doing it again and again in future years? By the time I reach retirement age at 104 my pension could be worthless and I could still be on the bottom of my pay scale.

So I feel it's only appropriate that we take a stand now. Okay so we might not get another improved offer and it could all be for nothing, but at least it shows that we're not going to take it lying down. So I'll be sacrificing a day's pay, but realistically that's less than the extra amount they want me to pay each month in pension contributions anyway. And just imagine if it worked and the government did indeed back down - it could all be worth it. Unlikely (cynical me emerging again) but you never know.

So now there is really only one very important decision I have to make. Will I bother getting out of bed that morning or just make the most of my unpaid day off? I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Cocktails, Culinary Delights and Comedy Gold

I had been looking forward to last Friday night for literally months. The Yorkshireman and I love a good stand up comedy show and we've been to see Jimmy Carr a good few times already, so when we found out he was returning to the Belfast Waterfront Hall with his Laughter Therapy tour this November, tickets were purchased pretty quickly. Friday 4th November was to be the night and it was to be a merry band of three, as sister dearest (also a comedy fan) had decided to join us.

However after a long day (nay, long week) at work, sustenance and alcohol would be required before we even thought about the show itself. We met up in Victoria's Bar on the corner of Victoria Street and Chichester Street. It's a bar that has been through a few incarnations in its time, perhaps most memorably The Advocate, so named presumably because it's across the road from the Courts and was popular with be-suited legal eagles with a cheeky glass of red in one hand and a Blackberry in the other.

These days it's still quite plush but it has a trendier twist to it. It also offers £3.50 happy hour cocktails, which appealed to us greatly. Sister dearest and I happily enjoyed Sex On The Beach (cheeky!) but the Yorkshireman was clearly not in a fruity mood and instead went for a pint of the black stuff (Guinness, for the uninitiated). We sat outside, sipping our drinks as dusk fell over the city, enjoying the slight chill in the air and some good music being piped out of the bar. How very urbane!

A quick time check revealed that we should probably get our skates on if we were to duck in under the bar of the early bird menu at our chosen dinner spot. I've only ever been to The Northern Whig at night, when it was too dark and too loud to communicate with anyone, so it hadn't left an amazing impression on me. However I'd been hearing a lot of good things about their food in recent times and in the spirit of second chances I was willing to give it a chance to change my mind. The fact that they serve an early evening two course meal for £10 was enough to persuade the Yorkshireman.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from our dining experience, but the place was already full when we arrived, so it's clearly a popular choice! A lovely waitress told us that if we could wait five minutes she would find us a table for three. Perfect. We decided on a bottle of wine to share and settled in at the bar in the meantime. The wine was just their house white (a nice Chilean Riveroak Sauvignon Blanc for £14.50) but it was lovely. Sister dearest was all proud of herself when the label confirmed her suspicions of a hint of gooseberry. Perhaps she has a burgeoning career there as our generation's Jilly Goolden. Does anyone else remember her? Why do I remember her?

*Shakes fist at parents who made us endure hours of TV hell in the form of shows like Food and Drink*

Ah well, childhood trauma aside we'll get back to the night in question...

We were merrily sipping our wine at the bar and checking out the elegant and quite plush décor (I do love a good chandelier) when, before we knew it, we were summoned to our table along the back wall. We were given our menus with a warning that the two course set menu was only available until 6.45pm - in only 7 minutes time! With the Mission Impossible theme running through our minds, we quickly made our choices and downed our menus in the hope that the waitress would return on time to take our orders. Thankfully even though she had a huge party to serve beforehand, she was very efficient and we ordered just on time.

For my main course I opted for the pork and leek sausages with colcannon mash and a roast onion jus. The Yorkshireman and sister dearest both went for the lemon crumbed haddock with a crushed potato & saffron cream. My meal was exactly what I'd hoped for: decent sausages and mash with a tasty gravy; just the right sort of comfort food required after a hard week at work. My fellow diners were completely blown away with their meals. The haddock was beautifully cooked and breadcrumbed and the saffron cream sauce was just delicious. So far, so good!

For dessert sister dearest and I had both ordered vanilla tart served with Guinness ice cream and the Yorkshireman had gone for the sticky toffee pudding. We waited a good while for our dessert to show and I started to worry about our timings. Eventually our waitress bustled over, all apologies saying that they had run out of vanilla tart. Okay, no problem. I went for the homemade banoffee toffee and bananas combined on a delicious crumbly biscuit base instead, which had the unfortunate side-effect of getting the Buttery Biscuit Base song stuck in my head (you must watch this if you have not yet had the pleasure). Sister dearest opted for the rocky road frozen ice cream cake with mallow and fudge pieces and chocolate chunks.

By this stage it was 7.40pm (20 minutes before Jimmy Carr was due to start all the way over at the Waterfront Hall) so I had to be cheeky and ask for the bill at the same time. Thankfully our desserts arrived not long thereafter (thanks, nice waitress lady) and they were indeed worth the wait. My banoffee was pretty much like the one I make at home, but I love my banoffee so that was a good thing! The Yorkshireman's sticky toffee pudding was a hit too. I did sneak a taste of his warm toffee sauce and have to agree it was pretty darn good. Sister dearest enjoyed her rocky road too, although the base was unfortunately a bit too frozen for even the sharp edge of a spoon and some brute force to contend with and so some remained uneaten.

Possibly also a contributing factor to the abandoned dessert was that I was ushering everyone out in a hurry, bearing in mind there was now only 4 minutes to go until the show kicked off, a good 10-15 minute walk away. In the end we tumbled into a taxi helpfully parked outside and instructed the driver to go go go! It was £4 well spent and we took our seats just as the bell was going off outside to announce the start of the show. Perfect timing!

The show was, as it has been every year, absolutely hilarious. I am in awe that Jimmy Carr manages to have such a huge repertoire of material. Okay so if you follow him on Twitter or watch some of the TV shows he's on, you might notice one or two jokes being reused, but for the most part every tour is fresh and original. To be fair you could go and see the same show twice and it would be slightly different each time because a lot of it relies on audience participation. Plus the man is a genius when it comes to slapping down hecklers. I won't spoil any of the material for those who might still be going to see it, or will watch it on DVD or TV, but if you ever get the chance to go and see him live, I would snap those tickets up.

You get a good amount of entertainment for your money too. The show started at 8pm and we didn't get home until around 11.30pm. I appreciate a bit of bang for my buck! So all in all it was a pretty great evening. Good company, good food, good drinks and a damn good show. What more can a girl ask for?

The next comedy show we have tickets for is Sarah Millican in March and I'm really looking forward to that one. I always find her hilarious on TV but any time she's been in Belfast the tickets have been sold out before I could get hold of any. So that's something to look forward to. Now just to find another restaurant on my "must try" list to dine at beforehand. Well, you've got to make a night of it, don't you?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Hen Party on the loose - Belfast beware!

A relative of mine is getting married soon, which of course meant a hen party, or as seems to be the increasingly popular choice these days, a hen weekend. However said relative is in her forties, divorced with an adult daughter and actually lives in England now and had travelled "back home" to Belfast to celebrate her last month or so of the single life, so this hen weekend was a little bit different than the usual all-day piss-up in a pink fire engine round your home town. Different, but not boring!

Our group was made up of locals, Northern Irish ex-pats who now live on the mainland, and true Brits, some of whom had never been to Belfast before. The ages ranged from 18 to 60+ and personalities from the introverted to the downright mental. So we had an interesting mix of participants to say the least!

On the first night I actually only joined the party for dinner at the Washington Bar. I was only vaguely aware of this place since I had actively avoided it in its previous incarnation as the Skye Bar, famous for being hugely chavvy and for the infamous attacks and the like outside. However I'm a firm believer in second chances and I love trying out new venues, so I was happy to give it a try. And actually? It was really good! We ate in the upstairs lounge and it was all very ornately decorated but a teeny bit too dark: people were co-opting the tealights from the tables to read their menus. That said, I'm a creature of darkness myself and hiss at bright lights, so it suited me down to the ground. I had a Combo Sharing Platter (which I didn't share) for my meal and every bit of it was wonderful. I'll definitely be back.

After dinner the rest of the hens headed out to M Club's Groovy Train after dinner but it's not really my scene and I'm a bit cash-poor at the moment, so I gave it a miss. Whilst I don't regret not spending the night hobbling around the dance floor in my heeled boots to Jackon Five b-sides and spending a fortune on drinks, I did apparently miss out on meeting Steve Miller of Fat Families fame, who was merrily boogying away with the other hens. I do love that show so that was a bit of a shame. Oh well!

Day two saw us up bright and early for a very educational trip aboard an open-top City Sightseeing tour bus. Well, it would maybe have been more educational if we hadn't all been laughing hysterically for most of it, but I found it a great experience as always.

We left from the city centre (Castle Place, outside HMV) and headed over towards the Titanic Quarter. I think this is the area that surprised a lot of the locals onboard the most. It's not an area that people who live here generally frequent because until recently there wasn't really very much going on over that way except for the shipyards, etc. However there has been a lot of development over the last few years (which is still ongoing) and the area is being completely revitalised. People who actually live and work in Belfast were shocked to discover the lovely new apartments, the new PRONI building, the new Belfast Metropolitan College campus, the new Premier Inn, the Painthall Studio and of course our wonderful new masterpiece in progress, Titanic Belfast, all of which had been built practically under their noses and yet without their knowledge.

After the Titanic Quarter we braved the howling wind on the dual carriageway and headed over to Parliament Buildings. I must admit I do always have to laugh at visitors' panic when the security officers board the bus at the entrance of Stormont Estate and start searching the aisles and looking under the seats. They don't realise that it's just a precautionary measure and are convinced there must be something really wrong. Is there a bomb on the bus?! It is Belfast after all! Aaargh save us! Yeah… no. You'd think the bored-looking faces of the security staff would be a hint that there is not an immediate threat to their safety but I guess people just expect the worst. It's all a bit silly really when you consider how much security you have to go through at an airport these days, and at least these security men let you bring your bottle of water through the gates of Massey Avenue!

Having explained to the British hens what exactly Parliament Buildings was and what happens there (or more often doesn't happen there), we headed back around Lord Carson's statue (giggling because it looks like he's either sticking two fingers up at Belfast or else throwing down some funky dance moves) and back out of the Estate.

We braved the winds once again on the return to the city centre and then headed out towards the Shankill and Falls Roads. This is the part of the tour I never really like. I despise sectarianism in all its forms and I think that, like a two year old having a tantrum, the more attention you give these eejits, the more it encourages them. But still, I realise it's a part of our country's (not so distant) history and so it has the right to be included in these tours.

I don't have to like it though, especially when one of our group (a local) made a sectarian remark herself, which was met with awkward laughter from some, confused glances from others and a huge black look from me. It just proved to me that these sort of backwards attitudes still exist, closer to home than I'd like. On the other hand I overheard some of the British visitors puzzledly ask each other why it should ever be such a big deal what road you lived on, which is what I often wonder too, so perhaps there's hope yet that common sense will eventually overtake ignorance.

Leaving the bitter divides of West Belfast aside, our bus trundled up to the Queens University area, down Great Victoria Street and back into the city centre, where I left the rest of the hens to buy copious amounts of souvenirs from Carroll's Gift Shop and headed home to regroup.

That evening I met up with the group again at the slightly odd location of Long's Fish and Chip Shop, which has a reputation for being the best chippy in the city. Not a fan of batter, I opted for a chicken burger and a curry chip to line my stomach for the night of drinking inevitably ahead of me. Alas even the chicken came battered and I managed to stain my lovely new dress with a big glob of grease! The food was… ok. Nice enough but nothing special; pretty much exactly what you would expect chip shop fare to taste like really. But the "best" in Belfast? I'm not convinced. Certainly it was no better than, say, The Golden Chip in Dundonald anyway. The offish manner of the overworked ladies staffing the restaurant didn't exactly endear me to Long's either though. Ah well it was worth trying once but I won't be hurrying back.

Arteries sufficiently clogged, we embarked upon a booze-filled night of pubs aimed at the older clientelle. We started off upstairs in White's Tavern for a good few hours of live music by local duo Richard and Brendan, who covered everything from Neil Diamond to Journey to Rihanna. I really enjoyed it actually - I'm a Radio 1 kind of girl usually but it's nice to sing along to some of the classics every now and then too.

But then we headed (not very far away) to the back room at Monico Bars for yet more live music, this time a duet of very young-looking girls whose name I didn't catch. Their set was pretty much identical to the one we'd just heard at White's though, so there was a bit of déjà vu going on, not least because a few of the creepier older men who had been slobbering over our group in White's had followed us there. I'm not exactly sure how we eventually managed to extract the bride from the gropey clasps of one particularly creepy guy but eventually we decided to leave.

Our next destination was Brennan's Bar, which I used to frequent back for a decent lunch and a reasonably priced pint of Guinness when it was the Beaten Docket and I worked nearby. Unfortunately by the time we had escorted the (pretty pissed by this stage) bride up to the upstairs bar, we had lost most of our party. Apparently the siren call of McDonalds was too strong for the rest of the drunken hens to resist. Having left the bride at the bar in the company of another (equally pissed) relative, and having extracted myself from the sweaty handshakes of increasingly creepier men more than twice my age (what is it with that handshake thing older men insist on doing?!), sister dearest and I decided enough was enough and made our escape off into the night air.

By the end of the night I had reconsidered my stance on classics from the 70s and 80s: I swear if I'd heard Sweet Caroline one more time I would have felt compelled to "bam bam bammm" the offending act round the head with their microphones. However all in all it wasn't a bad night considering none of the venues were particularly my kind of thing. The bride certainly seemed to enjoy herself anyway and that's the most important thing at the end of the day.

It has given me a bit of a taste for a night out though. I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to enjoy a few drinks and perk up when you hear a good record come on ("Oh I LOVE this song!"). There are maybe only a handful of places I know in Belfast that play the sort of music I like but then crowd tends to be a bit young for me these days. However there are a few newer venues that I'd quite like to try. Now I just need some friends who actually like going out to come with me. And some money. And a spare Saturday night. Hmmm, maybe next year, eh?