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I don't pretend to be an expert on British Gas. I do not know about the extent of their services, nor do I have any comparative experience of other suppliers. I only have my own rather narrow interaction with them to go on, but it seems to tally with a lot of the other reviews here.
I used to live in a 3 bed semi a few miles away. It had a card meter. This means we had a card about the size of a credit card, which we took to shops displaying the PayPoint sign to have it topped up, and then put it in our meter to transfer the credit we'd bought. The important point to remember, at this juncture, is that the meter stopped gas coming through if the credit ran down to zero, so there was no way to use gas we hadn't paid for.
Anyway, we moved in December, so I duly phoned British Gas and informed them, gave them my new address, etc. There was no final bill because we paid for gas up front.
When we got to the new address we phoned through the start reading of the meter and BG said they would set up an account. Imagine my surprise when, after the first month, we had apparently used £133 worth of gas. At first I thought I must have left the immersion heater on all month, or something was leaking quite heavily. Then I realised the start reading on the bill wasn't the one I'd given them.
I phoned, and it turned out they'd gone with the final reading provided by the previous owner, who was a lying little toe-rag and pulled the same stunt with the electic and water. That's beside the point though. I can't believe that a company such as British Gas would simply trust a house owner to provide a final reading with no check from themselves. Actually that's not true. I can believe it, because, reading the other reviews here, it's becoming clear that BG don't care who they charge for the gas, whether it be the new owner or old. They don't care who actually owes the money, as long as they get it, and sending someone out, to see that all happens fairly, would cost them, so why bother.
Anyway, the person on the other end of the line suggested he could launch an enquiry into the matter. Having dealt with a seemingly endless string of utilities, solicitors, insurance firms, banks etc during the move, I was starting to recognise this as the code for, 'I will do nothing when I get off the phone, then you will get a repeat bill and you can phone again." So I exploded at him, and, suddenly, he discovered that it was within his authority to alter the bill there and then.
So I was a fairly happy customer again, merrily using my gas, believing British Gas to be reasonably competent if overpriced, and considering looking into other suppliers. Then, suddenly, four months after we moved out, we got a bill for gas supplied to the old address, to the amount of £130. Remember the all important point that we could not use gas without having bought it up-front at that address. So my wife phoned and suggested that the bill must be a mistake, and the person on the other end said yes it must be, and they were cancelling the bill there and then.
Which is why I was surprised, today, when I received the same bill again, but now for £180. My wife phoned them to see what was going on, and got the world's most job'sworth, moronic git (who I hope is reading this). He could not get into his head the simple issue that we could not run up a bill at the old address. Instead he persisted in trying to pin the blame for this bill on us. First he said that we clearly hadn't phoned to cut off the account at the old place. Again, he could not see that this was beside the point, because we didn't have a billing account. But to humour him my wife pointed out that they had managed to send the bill to our new address, demonstrating that they had a record of us having moved from the old address to this one. He got very snotty, and said we would have to send a letter of completion from our solicitors.
Anyway, my wife phoned me at work, and explained how abusive this idiot had been, so I phoned BG ready to crucify someone. But I started out mildly and, to my surprise, got a fairly cooperative response. The lady at the other end said clearly there was some kind of mistake and she would try and sort it, then left me on hold...
Unfortunately the closest she could come to 'sorting' it was to launch a balance inquiry, which was starting to sound familiar. She tried ending the call by saying, "Until you hear, don't ignore the bill, but don't pay it, YET!!!"
At that point I went ballistic. I asked her what on earth she meant by 'YET?' She had just finished telling me that clearly the bill wasn't mine, but was suggesting I might end up paying it. I told her I wasn't asking for an inquiry - I don't want to know what particular cock-up in the works produced this balance, I just want it cancelling. Guess what response I got,
"All right sir, I'll launch a balance inquiry..."
In the end I gave up, because it was becoming clear I was talking to the monkey. Tomorrow I will shred someone higher up the chain, and maybe I'll amend this review. For the moment though, if you have any choice I would not recommend BG.
Having said that, I'm starting to realise that all customer-services are the same. They all tell you they are doing something, when what they mean is 'Please hang up and try again when it's not my shift.' So I'm not sure that any other supplier would be any better in this respect.
Before I start, just let me make clear that I have had to use Fedex on a great number of occasions, and every one has been a disaster, so this is not a one-off rant based on an isolated incident. Given the number of times I've had dealings with them, and the fact that they have a 100% record of screwing up, I have to believe that some of you - should you decide to use them - would also suffer similar treatment, as opposed to me being a victim of Sod's law.
The most recent delivery I had through Fedex, and which finally made me return to Dooyoo, was last week. I ordered a CD-Rom from the US on the 19th April, and instantly started using the online tracking service. I was a little disturbed that my address was wrong. They had the right street and postcode, but the wrong town. But I supposed that might be because the people selling me the CD had passed it on wrong. So I phoned Fedex customer services to have it changed.
"No problem Sir, I'm changing it on our files as we speak."
That turned out to be a lie, and in fact it eventually took four phone calls, each time being promised that they were changing it there and then, before they actually did change it.
Meanwhile, my package arrived in the UK on the afternoon of the 20th April. I was mightily impressed. That really is international priority I thought. I'm still not sure it's woth $32 for something as small and light as a CD, but it is quick.
I watched as the CD reached Runcorn at 5am on the 21st. That's only 40 miles away, so I was getting all excited that I was about to get my disc only two days after ordering it. The address on the tracking service still read wrong, but I was convinced it must be right on the courier's instructions, because the nice man on the phone had said he was changing it.
Well the disc didn't arrive. On the tracking service it still said it was in Runcorn, which seemed such a shame when it had managed to cross half the world in a day. Nevertheless, I assumed there may have been a lot to deliver that day, but surely it would come the next...
...well, no. So I phoned and complained. When I asked them to tell me my address it turned out they still had it wrong - although it really shouldn't have made a difference since the postcode and street were correct. Lo and behold, after I called, suddenly on the tracking details there appeared an attempted delivery on both the 21st and 22nd, both claiming that I hadn't been in. Unfortunately I had, and there hadn't been any attempt.
Now it was the weekend, so on Monday I phoned and started getting a little testy. The first person I got suddenly thought of a great excuse to get off the phone, and said, "I'm sorry sir, my system has just crashed, so I'll put you through to someone else." This meant I had to start all over again. The next person eventually said she was very sorry about the fake attempts at delivery, and the package would be with me within the hour.
Three hours later I called to see why this hadn't happened, and, after spending half an hour on hold so they could speak to the local branch of BusinessPost, was told very sheepishly, "Sorry sir but your package doesn't seem to be out for delivery today."
At that point I hit the roof, with the result that my package did arrive very early the morning, six days after I ordered it. The CD case was absolutely shattered, but that's not unique to Fedex.
This all wouldn't be so bad so far, but it's the follow up which I know will come. Obviously the package has to come through customs, and I understand that there may well be VAT and import duty to pay. With UPS I never have had to, but that's beside the point. The problem is that Fedex will send me a bill for VAT, duty, AND their charge for bringing it through customs. You get an explanatory letter, saying without their help your package would have languished in customs for days, so they are charging you for speeding it through. For some reason though, this charge is a percentage of the value of the item. If I'm paying for the man-hours of a Fedex employee bringing it through customs then I don't understand why. And I don't understand why they don't tell senders about this later charge so that senders can warn the buyers. Everyone I've bought from has been very surprised to hear that I received a further Fedex bill.
Basically I wouldn't use them if I didn't have to. Unfortunately some vendors only give one delivery option and I do have to.
I would never normally even think about buying MFI, simply because of their prices. I'm more of an IKEA person - cheap, but reasonable quality. I had always made the mistake of assuming, where furniture is concerned, that you get what you pay for. Thus I was under the impression that MFI, should it ever be within the reach of my wallet, would be superb, since their prices are simply astronomical.
Such an opportunity presented itself just after Christmas. We had just moved house, making a certain amount of capital, and MFI were having a sale. There was a wardrobe that seemed ideal. It fit in the gap where we wanted a wardrobe, down to the last centimetre, and had been reduced from about £600 to £200. I made the mistake of believing that a wardrobe that should have cost £600 must be a seriously OK wardorbe, and that I would be getting quite a deal. They also had matching bedside cabinets reduced from £150 to £50, so I thought I would get them at the same time.
The first disappointment was customer service. When I finally managed to get someone to pay any attention to me she was incredibly condescending, rude, abrupt, etc. I think she believed we weren't in the right social bracket to be buying from MFI, or maybe it was just beneath her to be doing something as menial as serving. Which is a shame, because it then turned out she was not only rude, but also highly incompetent. Not only was she not above serving, but actually she wasn't up to it. She stuffed up the VISA transaction twice, and managed to get the wardrobe on a totally seperate delivery from the bedside cabinets, meaning two separate days of waiting in; not only that but the delivery wasn't for several weeks.
The next disappointment was the deliveries. You are only allowed to find out on the day of delivery whether your stuff has been consigned to the morning delivery or the afternoon one. So don't count on being able to plan around it. Not only that, but it turns out that their definition of morning includes 6pm. So I did, in the end, have to spend two entire days waiting in.
When it came to building the stuff I'm afraid I nearly resorted to a whole string of words that I didn't realise I knew. The parts are invariably poorly machined; holes intended for screws and dowels are put in the wrong place, and often drilled at an angle; holes intended for other parts to fit into are never deep enough, and also in the wrong place. I was short of every type of screw. They also only use so many generic screws, which often aren't suited to some of the jobs they assign them to. For instance, the screws which they said to use to screw on the top of the wardrobe were about 5mm too long and came straight out of the top. The overall design sucks - for instance it is impossible to build the wardrobe square, since the top piece protrudes, making it impossible to lie the wardrobe flat whilst nailing the back on (which is the stage that finalises the shape). And don't even get me started on the instructions. I've built several hundred flatpack items and pieces of exercise equipment in my time, from IKEA, Argos, and just about everywhere else. Never have I come across instructions that were so poorly written as MFI's. They are utter gibberish.
Quite frankly MFI are crap. Their stuff is very, very, very highly priced - to the point where you could almost be buying solid wooden furniture - but is actually of much lower quality than the cheap stuff at Argos. If I had bought a £150 wardrobe at IKEA it would have been much higher in quality, much better machined and finished, with useful instructions, and I wouldn't have had to wait weeks for it. MFI is a wannabe shop trying to pose as slightly upper class. Avoid at all costs.
I never really gave Royal Mail much thought before. They were just there. The words post and Royal Mail were synonymous. OK, occasionally it bugged me if I ordered something, paid for first class post, but still didn't get it for three days. By and large, though, I was neither happy nor unhappy with them - they were just there. Recently, though, they've really started to bug me. First there is the unreliability. Things go missing quite frequently. And although I'm a firm believer in sod's law, I can't really believe that it's just my items that are singled out by the universe to go missing. If we assume that I am statistically normal then, in fact, everyone must be losing a similar percentage of their post, which is simply unacceptable. Equally unreliable are delivery days. Our postman seems to simply not come some days - usually those on which I'm waiting in for something I've ordered and paid first-class postage for. Of course you're thinking maybe my item just hadn't arrived, and I had no other post, so the postman just went past my house. I'd like to think so, but asking people down the street, and on the estate, I can't find anyone who's had post on these days. It's gone on for months now. There seems to be one day in every week (other than Sunday obviously) when there simply is no post on our estate. I mean, have the bosses given them a five day week without telling the public or what? And when we are getting post it can be 7am one day and 2pm the next. But my real niggle is that it's starting to cost me money to receive my post. On a very regular basis I'm getting slips saying the local post office is holding something because the postage on it was underpaid, and would I like to go and pay them to release it. Not only the shortfall of postage, but also a 50p handling charge slapped on it by the post office. When I get there I invariably find that it's a parcel or pa
cket, and that's the funny thing. With a parcel the person who posted it must have handed it over to be weighed, at their post office, paid whatever they were told it costed, and then never seen the parcel again. It's not like they could have just bunged a first class stamp on it and shoved it in a pillar box. So the underpayment is in fact entirely down to the mismatch of weighing scales at the two ends, and I am, in fact, paying for the incompetence of the post office. If it's a case of stamps somehow falling off somewhere I could understand, but one item was a book from Amazon, which simply said "postage paid" on the front, so how my local post office determined that it was underpaid I have no idea. If there was any apology for any of this I would be happier, but Royal Mail employees still operate with a civil service attitude, and you'll get all the sympathy, and manners, shown by the average rhino. Suffice it to say that the instant there are real contenders for every day post I will cease to use Royal Mail. 11/04/04 - I feel the need to rant again. We've recently acquired a new postman with all the restructuring of Royal Mail. I'm fairly sure he was simply dragged off the street and given a post bag without any training at all. He has never yet come before 2pm, although I'm sure I share that with many people now. But he also delivers our mail to the wrong address about 50% of the time, and gives us the stuff for people in the next street. Worst of all, though, is what he did if something wouldn't go through the letterbox. He simply left it on the front doorstep - rain, shine, floods, it didn't matter, he just left it there. He didn't even knock first to see if anyone was in. Frequently my wife was in when the post arrived, and was thus rather surprised to find a package on the doorstep when she went out later. And he didn't leave a card to say what he'd done. So if anyon
e had ever nicked one of these packages I would have been convinced it simply hadn't arrived. I tried to lodge a complaint on the internet. After about 3 months I got an autoresponse addressed to a Miss Dyke, claiming they were looking into the matter. Since I'm Mr Mayson I was a little concerned that, just possibly, they hadn't a clue what they were doing. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Another two months later I got an e-mail saying, "We're sorry to hear about your difficulties. Hopefully you've now had a satisfactory answer from another source, but, if not, feel free to contact us again." Obviously my mistake was assuming that one complained about the Royal Mail through the Royal Mail complaints procedure, when in fact I was supposed to complain through my local fishmonger!!! Eventually I solved the problem by catching the postman, one day when I was off work sick, and telling him how to do his job. He still doesn't knock, so EVERYTHING goes back to the depot. And he still doesn't leave a card, but the depot send very friendly reminders after a fortnight or so, asking if we're ever going to pick up our post that is sitting there...
Well the annual re-read of my Pratchett books had to be interrupted for this and The Last Hero, which both came out in the same month. Last Hero turned out to be something of a disappointment. This didn't. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is just a fantastic, charming, witty and downright clever book. It's something of a spin-off. If you've read Guards Guards you'll remember the rats who waited on the Patrician while he was imprisoned. He thought their tunnels probably went under Unseen University, and that some magic must have seeped into the tunnels, making them rather intelligent. This is more or less the story of those rats, although it goes one step further. They have now actually eaten magical garbage from outside the kitchens at Unseen University, and can talk, read, organise armies, and generally outsmart the average human. Add to their ranks one cat, aka Maurice, who also finds himself elevated to talking fairytale creature, and is about as smart as it gets. He finds himself a kid who can play the recorder and the biggest scam in Disc history is born. Basically the rats 'infest' one town at a time, kid shows up, plays his recorder - for a large fee - and the rats follow him out of town. The scam becomes complicated when they arrive in a town which is already being scammed by its resident rat-catchers, a really nasty pair. Not only that, but it becomes clear that they are acting under the guidance of something more sinister - but I'm not going to say any more, because that is the essence of the story. Pratchett somehow manages to pack about 10 different plots into this book, and weave all of them around the main story. What's more, all of them are worked out quite satisfactorily. There's the mental journey of the rats' leader, who just finds his whole new world very confusing, and views this newfangled thinking thing in much the same way that OAPs view Metallica. The only way h
e knows how to lead is the ratty way, and his story is about adjustment and compromise. There's the story of the rats' military commander, widely expected to challenge for overall command, but who realises that the only way to keep the rats together is for him to fiercely support their leader. His plot is about him going from hard-bitten, logical robo-rat, to being able to accept ratty religion. There's Malicia, a young girl whose head is so full of stories that she makes reality fall into plots around her. Her story is about the abrupt shock when reality departs violently from the 'correct' ending. There's the 'visionary' rat, whose faith is founded on a book called 'Mr Bunnsy.' His story is about realising that, when it comes down to it, rats are just rats; in an emergency all their new found intelligence is abandonned, and they panic just like rats. His faith is shattered, and he has to find a way to rebuild it. The characterisation is just the best that Pratchett has done. It's on a par with the way Rincewind, Captain Vimes and Granny Weatherwax have been fleshed out, but done in a much shorter space of time. And what's great - what makes it so fresh - is that Pratchett *really* thinks about his characters, rather than going for stereotypes. After all, talking cats have been done thousands of times. But usually, the moment they learn to talk, they become just a generic, 'nice' fluffy person - taken straight from puss in boots - with no personality. Maurice, on the other hand, remains a cat through and through; a selfish, cunning, amoral, disgusting, flea-ridden whirling ball of claws. The details also make the book. Like the way the rats are named. They take their name from the first thing they managed to read, when they suddenly became intelligent, meaning that it's mainly words you would find on the side of food containers. Some of them will make you howl. And the writing
style itself. Pratchett is the master of what I would call 'camera-angle-writing.' He describes an event from a particular perspective, leaving out everything you wouldn't see from that perspective, so that you find yourself struggling for details. This approach keeps me extremely curious, and I find myself suddenly realising what went on, during an event, several pages later when more details are filled in. For instance, at the beginning of the book, a hold-up is described, where a highwayman tries to rob Maurice and the rats. He ends up in rather a lot of pain, and in fear of his life, but it's only several pages later that you manage to fill in what happened. This book is stunning. Pratchett is truly writing literature nowadays. There is as much in one of his novels, to be gained by analysis, as there is in a Shakespeare play, but Pratchett is a darn sight more entertaining. Read it!!
Is Christmas too commercialised? Well ask yourself this. If you have no money this Christmas - in fact even if you're already overdrawn - can you imagine yourself giving no presents? Can you imagine giving your family and closest friends a simple "Merry Christmas!" and nothing else.... Of course you can't. There's a whole bunch of people you feel positively *obliged* to give a present to. Mum, Dad, Brothers, Sisters, Best Friend, mustn't forget Aunts or they might cut us out of their will, can't leave out John at work because he's going to buy me something and I'd feel really embarrassed saying thankyou if I didn't follow it with "And this is for you," etc. etc. etc. The first subtle hint should be when it takes you hours to think of something to buy for each individual. If you're wracking your brains so hard, then they can hardly need anything. And yet you'll spend ages thinking of something you can buy anyway, just for the sake of it. You give it to them and they take it to be exchanged, whilst you throw away the crap they just bought you. And you're all a bit further in debt with nothing to show for it. If you feel so obliged to give presents, that you'll do it even when it's putting you in debt, and when it's unlikely anyone needs the stuff you're buying, then obviously Christmas is over-commercialised. Christmas is a time when we celebrate the birth of Christ. He never gave anyone a superficial present. No CDs, Playstation games, books, toys, gadgets, etc. When he gave, it was always what people really needed. And he always gave of himself - his time, his talents. Eventually he even gave his life to all of us. And whilst the wise men brought Jesus gifts, the shepherds, who had nothing, didn't. They didn't feel obliged to take out loans so they could give him stuff he didn't need. In all of our giving presents, most of
us become too busy to actually give gifts - our time, our talents. We're so busy Christmas shopping for people who don't need anything that we miss the beggars on the shopping streets, who really need us to give. We spend so much on Christmas that our giving to charity has to suffer for a few months. Yes Christmas is over-commercialised. To the point where most people don't realise who Jesus was, and find it tiresome to interrupt Christmas to remember him.
Just occasionally, as a creative individual, there comes along a work of such genius that I can't help being jealous, and wishing I'd created it. The Rite of Spring, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Planets Suite, War of the Worlds etc, etc.... ...And now Wyrd Sisters. This is where Pratchett's writing started to become really powerful, as well as rip-roaringly funny. This is where his incredible insight into human nature started coming out. This is where he started manipulating literary cliche in a totally new way, and commenting on it at the same time. In short, this is his first literary classic. He has written much better books since, but this was the watershed, where he created a new art form. Since then he's just been working within his new art, refining it, exploiting it. The book is a lampoon of Macbeth and Hamlet, all rolled into one. The King of Lancre is killed by his brother, Duke Felmet, who is actually a bit of a wet, but has a wife behind him who could bully whole nations into action. That’s the Macbeth bit. At the same time the king has a son, who is delivered into the hands of the three witches. The king hangs around as a ghost, and tries to encourage his son to avenge his death, although without much success. So it’s Hamlet too. I don’t want to ruin too much of the plot, which is simply superb, so I’ll stop there. There is a huge jump in writing style from Sourcery to Wyrd Sisters. The flexibility with which Pratchett uses the English language is quite staggering. One innovation is a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing which portrays the mental state of the duke. He slips from considering problems, of his new kingdom, into lunatic ramblings about blood and daggers without pause. In essence he gets a number of soliloquoys, although there is no need for him to speak out loud, since it isn’t actually a play. The style is highly appropriate to a lampoon of Shakespeare.
The language we use to discuss the use of language is called meta-language. Thoughts about the thought process are called meta-cognition. Wyrd Sisters must therefore be called Meta-Literature; Literature which is used to discuss literature, and how it works. Pratchett recognises that there are only so many stories in the world, the background forms behind the detail, and these plots set up certain expectations in us. Usually good literature is that which manages to hide the fact that the basic skeleton of the plot is tired and overused, whilst still allowing the expectations of the background form to be fulfilled, thus achieving the right emotional effect. Star Wars, for instance, is a basic ‘orphan discovers background and achieves greatness’ plot. From the instant we see Luke Skywalker we are expecting a triumphant ending, because the basic form of the plot is programmed into us. And we experience happiness when it is fulfilled properly. But the surface detail of Star Wars is just a little special, and hides the fact that the story has been used eight gazillion times. Pratchett goes entirely the other way. He deliberately points out the background forms of the plot, does everything to make you believe their proper fulfillment is inevitable, and then twists things to avoid the cliché. One plot, for instance, is that of Tomjon, the king’s son, who is smuggled away by a theatre company, grows up outside the kingdom, and then returns to stage a play. Pratchett goes to great lengths to point out how this should go. ‘Fate has brought back the son to avenge his father.’ He even gets all the surface details right – making sure it’s the duke who has unknowingly invited Tomjon back, thus heightening the irony; making sure Tomjon finds the real crown amongst those meant for the play. Then he totally derails the plot, avoiding the inevitable fulfillment. The result is a book which isn’t emotionally f
ulfilling in a simplistic way, but absolutely hilarious. Finally the characterisation. Pratchett has a phenomenal gift for choosing just the right scenes to sketch out a character in a very short time. Not only that, but he has some very complex characters. Granny Weatherwax, the most respected of the leaders that witches don’t have, is hard as nails, but also compassionate; has incredible insight into humans, but can’t be taught to grasp the concept of acting; consistently grumpy, and disapproving of everything, proud as a peacock, stubborn as a mule. When you read a Discworld novel you really feel you are living with real people. In fact characters get priority over plot. You never get the feeling that someone has done something out of character just because the plot required it. Instead the plot develops in whatever way the characters’ natural motivations take it. As I said, this is not the best Discworld novel ever (although still easily a five star book, with room to spare), but it was something of a watershed – the turning point from funny stories to powerful literature. Read it.
I was about to write a bad review about this book. I was about to say how much of a disappointment it was - when I found out there was another Pratchett / Kidby collaberation on the way I was expecting a repeat of the fantasticness of Eric, and Last Hero fell somewhat short. I was about to say how formulaic the book was. But then I thought, well I've more or less kept up with the comic fantasy world this year - the Tom HOlts, Andrew Harmans, Robert Rankins and other wannabes - so what have I read that was better. The answer was, only the other Terry Pratchett novels on my annual re-reading of them. Nothing else came close - in fact Tom Holt's last two offerings were such utter tosh that I won't be reading any more. The thing is that Pratchett is in a league entirely of his own making. When a new book comes along my expectations are based entirely upon his previous massive brilliance. When a book falls slightly short of my expectations - and we all have off days, even Terry Pratchett - I naturally feel a bit disappointed. This disappointment is easy to confuse with the gut reaction to a BAD product, hence my urge to write a bad review. But in fact Last Hero is a very good book, a brilliant book even - it's just not the best Terry Pratchett book. It's still better than anything else that pretends to be comic sci-fi. Having said that, I must detail why it was a little disappointing. The story is about Cohen the Barbarian, who first appeared in The Light Fantastic. Now into his eighties, and decidedly past it, he decides that he’s ticked off with the gods for the way they run the world – specifically the way they’ve let him get old. So he determines to blow them up, his excuse being that man stole fire from the gods, so he is going to give it back. On the other side of the disc the Patrician has the problem of putting together a task force to stop Cohen, for if the gods die then the ice giants wi
ll be freed and overrun the disc. He asks Leonard of Quirm (Pratchett’s Leonardo Da Vinci) to come up with a way to get the task force across the disc in a couple of days, and Leonard comes up with the Disc’s first spacecraft, which will orbit the Disc and drop the task force on the other side. So the other plot, in parallel with Cohen’s, is the rapid development of a space programme and gives Pratchett the opportunity to send up every space-film convention ever, including a lampoon of Apollo13 (Ankh-Morpork, we have a problem). The problem is not with writing style. In that area Pratchett is as on form as he ever was - some of the little touches are just inspired; he can still use an isolated word to say more than a whole paragraph. The biggest problem is the structure. It just isn't satisfying. I get the feeling Pratchett is now beyond the point where he can write miniatures. His ideas are simply too big. The book starts exactly like one of his novels, with a number of parallel strands, which you know are going to intertwine somewhere along the way. The problem is they develop in the same detail as they would in a novel. About half way through the book I found myself thinking, how on earth is he going to sort all of this out? The answer was that after 150 pages he simply put, ‘The End,’ and stopped writing. Well not quite, but that’s more or less how it feels. The development of the space programme is described in great detail, the journey to Cori Celeste takes about 100 pages, then when everyone arrives there the whole confrontation is sorted in about 3 pages flat. Suddenly everyone starts acting very out of character in order to let the whole thing end conveniently, which is extremely unsatisfying. Another problem is that a lot of Pratchett’s humour comes from the development of characters, not necessarily from the plot itself. This book is no exception, but it brings the added problem tha
t characters are thrown together from completely separate strands of his writing, and you need really to understand all of their histories to get most of the jokes. For instance the way Rincewind volunteers for the task force. He says something to the effect of, “I’m volunteering because if I don’t fate will chase me down in the from of some ridiculous Deus ex Machina and I’ll end up on the mission anyway, so volunteering will save me the bother of trying to run the other way first.” If you’ve read The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Eric, Interesting Times and Sourcery you may just get why this fatalism is so funny. So go and read them first. Finished? OK. Now Carrot. The humour of his character derives from the way he always seems to be naïve of the subtleties of a situation, and no-one’s ever quite sure whether he’s genuinely ignorant or just appearing to be naïve for his own purposes. Then there’s his indomitable optimism and belief that people are basically nice, and the way that people end up behaving the way he expects them to. So, if you could just go and read Guards Guards, Men at Arms, The Fifth Elephant, etc. etc. Then, of course, there’s the Patrician and the way he always seems to be ahead of everyone. He’s in about 10 or 11 of the novels. Basically you need to have read everything except the novels about death, and those about the witches, otherwise you’ll miss nine tenths of the humour. This isn’t a book you can simply pick up and find funny, because the characters aren’t developed at length in it. Instead the humour comes from knowing them well. Which isn’t a crime. Pratchett must be allowed to develop people over a series of novels, but the melting pot of characters in this one make it a very tall order for the beginner. The final problem is that the ‘Pratchett Lampoon’ is starting to wear thin. In many of h
is books the plot centres on the development of a part of our civilisation, or society, as it might happen in the magical environment of the Disc. In Moving Pictures it was the film industry, developing from the revolving picture drum to Oscar ceremonies in a few weeks. In The Truth it was the tabloid press, in the Guards books the police force. In The Last Hero it’s the space programme. The problem is that the joke is always the same. Although Pratchett moves to different pastures I don’t think he’s recognised what it is that is so funny. It’s not the tabloid press, or the movie industry that are inherently funny, but the way that, on the Disc, magic replaces the physics of a thing. For instance the camera doesn’t work by exposing light sensitive paper, but by having little demons painting pictures very quickly. It gets metaphysical as well. For instance the driving forces of greed, fame and power which drive our film industry, are personified in the dark spirit of Oscar. For a while this was a fresh technique. But it’s become formulaic. Take an industry and develop it on the Disc, replacing some of its workings with magic. The joke is always the same, so that, although the books are about different things, they leave exactly the same feeling. The development of space travel here doesn’t actually add anything new. Well there you go. I did write a negative review after all. So can I just stress again that this is actually a great book. A brilliant book. It’s still better than anything by anyone else. It’s just not for beginners, and it’s not Pratchett’s greatest work, but still well worth reading.
This film came as a total surprise. From the posters and trailer it was clear it was going to be a Clueless rip-off - the total air-head turns out to have a brain plot. I only watched it because I had seen absolutely everything else at the cinema in question. But it really wasn't all that bad - in fact I would go as far as to say I enjoyed it. The plot is about a girl called Elle Woods. Imagine every OTT stereotype of a Beverly Hills blonde, and you've got her in a nutshell; head of the sorority, obsessed with her manicure, pedicure, the latest in lipstick, daddy's other three cars are also Porsches, I don't have an IQ point etc. etc. It really did look like it was going to be Clueless all over again. Elle's boyfriend dumps her on the night that she thinks he's going to propose. His excuse is that she doesn't have the right image to be his girlfriend, if he's hoping to be a senator. So, utterly enraged, she hires Coppola to direct her promotional video, and gets into Harvard law school. It is pretty cliche-ridden. From the instant she arrives in law school you can see the rest of the plot, and know how everyone is going to fit into it. On the other hand the film doesn't go completely down the route of 'look, it turns out this blonde, who we all thought was an air-head, is actually really brainy.' Instead her success is portrayed as more or less an accident, as her Beverly Hillsisms find the right niche and become virtues rather than vices. For instance she wins a case on the strength of knowing that only a gay man could recognise her shoes as being 'last year,' and that no-one would be washing their hair 20 minutes after having a perm. That's the real strength of the film, possibly the only one. The acting is nothing to write home about - a whole host of B-list actors get their chances at major roles, and fail to dazzle. Basically you'll sit there thinking, 'Oh that
's the guy who designed the Titanic, and that's the partner in Blue Streak,' but won't be able to name any of them. But there are no embarrassingly dragged out bits that simply don't work. Basically it's a sound film that just fails to have anything really new. But it is entertaining enough.
At first glance Wilkinson's appears to fit into a category of store that I've spent some time slating on this site - the 'jack of all trades store.' When you walk in and see decorating gear next to stationery, cosmetics, confectionery, toys, books etc, you could be forgiven for thinking that Wilkinson's might not be able to decide what they are. If the point of the store were convenience - i.e. getting everything under one roof - then this would be a problem. Like WHSmiths, Woolworth's and most other stores that seem to supply some of everything, Wilkinson's have a very limited range of everything. With the advent of malls full of specialist stores, the jack of all trades store is no longer needed. But the point of Wilkinson's is not convenience, but price - and they do it very, very well. Whilst the range may be limited they do manage to have the core brands of most products. I was just decorating, and found Harris brushes, Polycell adhesives, Crown paints and various other traditional names, all at fantastic prices. OK I still had to go to B&Q for a couple of items, but the savings were way more than enough to justify the trip to both stores. Wilkinsons' doesn't have great excitement value. I don't ever think of just going and browsing, in the same way that I might HMV. But what it does - AND THAT'S PRICE - it does extremely well. Give them a try.
OK, I'm a male, 29 year old, built like a rugby player, and with a tendency to like violent computer games. So what am I doing endorsing a teen chick-flick? You've got me. I have no idea, except that I absolutely loved this film. It's just a little bit different from the average cliche-ridden teen-flick. And it doesn't have the false pretences to heart-searing angst that ruins Dawson's Creek and Popular, and other such shows. There are a number of parallel plots to the film, tied together by a cunning ploy. A young man arrives in a new high school, takes one look at a girl called Bianca, and decides he absolutely has to date her. Problem! Her unhinged, gynaecologist dad doesn't let her date, at least not until her sister Cat starts dating. So the young man just has to find a date for Cat. Problem! She is a particularly aggressive tom-boy, with a scowl that could kill at 10000 yards, and is about as likely to date as a mother superior. Enter Heath Ledger, who plays a mysterious, rough-hewn teen, about whom there are all kinds of rumours circulating; ex-con, ate a live duck, sold his own liver, etc, etc. He seems about the only likely candidate who could tame Cat. But it's going to take money to persuade him. So our young man engages a third party, a male model called Joey, who also wants to date Bianca, and has aforementioned spondoolies. He tells Joey that he could date Bianca if he paid the roughian to date Cat. Meanwhile he intends to steal Bianca out from under Joey's nose. Quite a risky way to get the girl, you might think. There are some brilliant scenes. Imagine, for instance, Heath Ledger singing, "I Love You Baby," to the accompaniment of the school marching band, whilst dancing around the arena seating of the school playing field in the style of Lionel Blair. And the acting is brilliant. OK, possibly nothing to unthrone Dustin Hoffman, but certainly some of the most consistent teen acting
you will see, and everyone has to start somewhere. Certainly it's better acted than Dawson's Creek or Buffy. The only slight disappointment is the ending, which is unconvincing. I can't tell you why, because it would give away the plot. Suffice it to say one of the main characters goes from being really, really mad at one of the others, to being totally reconciled, in the space of a few seconds, without anything which would have brought about the change. It's almost as if the scriptwriter wrote himself into a corner, realised he needed an extra half hour to work everything out properly, and said, "Oh, stuff it. Let's do the happy ending now." Otherwise the film is brilliant - I thouroughly recommend it.
There were all kinds of rumours flying about this film, and its striking similarity to Antz. It would seem that Bug's Life was due to be the original, and Dreamworks somehow got hold of the idea, transformed it into Antz, and scrambled to get theirs out first.... ....Which is unfortunate, because Antz is the better film, and, to Joe Public, who can only afford to take his kids to one or the other, it doesn't really matter how it came to be the better film. So A Bug's Life has been somewhat overshadowed, and already looked jaded on its release. But now the dust has settled, and we are all watching it on video, it is actually a gem of a film, fantastic in its own right. It's about an ant called Flick who has ideas - already the similarity to Z in Antz should warn you to expect a similar(ish) plot. He isn't a team player, a colony ant. When his ideas get the colony in trouble with their grasshopper enemies he suggests that he should leave the island and find some warrior insects to fight on their behalf. The princess allows it simply as a way of getting rid of him. Much to the surprise of the colony he returns with a band of warrior insects. Much to the surprise of Flick, it turns out there has been a massive misunderstanding, and he has hired a troop of circus insects who thought they were going to perform to the colony. The plot revolves around his attempts to simultaneously hatch a plot to defeat the grasshoppers, and hide from the colony his latest blunder. It is a very funny film. The animation is superb - it would have been the best there had ever been if Antz hadn't surpassed it and got there first. In fact several moments from Antz are stolen from Bug's Life, such as the bit where two ants get trapped in a drop of water. Even the design of the ants themselves is used in Antz as the design for the worker ants. And the plot would have been totally original. There is nothing for ad
ults in it. Whereas Antz has some fairly sophisticated humour, courtesy of Woody Allen, Bug's Life works all on one level. If you have children you should definitely watch this with them. If you are watching for yourself then plump for Antz.
I bought the Spielberg edition of Empire magazine on Saturday. I'd never read a film magazine before, but I was going to be stuck at Crewe station for some time, and I do like John William's soundtracks, so I thought I'd see what it was like. I was thouroughly engrossed, but then I suddenly realised something. The format of the magazine was that there were a number of articles on Spielberg interspersed with interviews and reviews of each film. I dived straight for the review of Hook, which is almost my favourite film of all time - after the Star Wars Saga of course - and discovered that it got an awful review; two stars out of a possible five. I didn't really agree with most of what was written, but at least the reviewer did put both sides of the arguments over, and made it clear he had a considered opinion. No such luck with the mentions that Hook got in other articles. Dismissive lines such as, "Let's not mention Hook," or, "At least it wasn't as bad as the later Hook," were thrown in, in a cheap attempt to get a laugh. You can't just dismiss the work of someone like Spielberg in one line, as though it were very obvious to everyone that Hook is a flop. No offence, but the critics who were writing are people of relatively low intelligence who survive as leeches on the back of the film industry; if they wish to criticise a film they need to argue it a lot more tightly than a dismissive one-liner. Anyway, I needed somewhere to sound off - redress the balance - and realised I'd never reviewed Hook on Dooyoo, even though I watch it about once a month. So here I am. It's a follow up to the story of Peter Pan. We discover that, after the original, Peter continued to visit Wendy into her old age, and eventually married her granddaughter Moira. He stayed in the real world, grew up, and became a high flying businessman. But he forgets who he is. Whilst visiting Wendy in Lon
don his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook one night. Shortly afterwards Tinkerbell flies in through the window and drags him off to Neverland to help him rescue them, and the adventure begins. Peter spends most of the film with the lost boys, who are trying desperately to remind him who he is, so that he can remember how to fly and face Captain Hook. Meanwhile Hook is trying to really steal Pan's children by making them love him and forget their father. Most of the criticism in Empire magazine arose from expecting too much of the film. It is a children's fairytale - nothing else. No amount of trying to find a dark, adult fairy tale in there will make it one. Yes the film contains things that happen in the adult world - strained family relationships, a workaholic father who pays no attention to his children - but the film is not intended to be a psychoanalytic piece. It is not about deep emotional journeys for any of the characters. It is just a story, with a slight moral (Peter decides that he will spend more time with his children by the end). The production is superb. Some of the most lavish sets you will ever see. The acting is equally brilliant. Robin Williams is at his over-the-top best as Peter Pan, but is still outshone by Dustin Hoffman as a superb Captain Hook. His characterisation really is something to behold - his role here comes close to his Rain Man. And it goes without saying that John William's musical score makes the film. On top of this, the touches which tie it to the original are brilliant. Peter still has a scar from his fight with Hook over Tiger-Lily, the Lost Boys still crow; basically this could be a seamless sequal to the cartoon. Hook is just wonderful. Whilst I said that it's a children's film it should definitely be seen by everyone. Just don't go trying to find adult sub-plots - sit back and enjoy it as a story.
Well the race is on. I'm in the middle of my annual re-reading of the Pratchett books - this year thrown out slightly by the surprise mid-year release of Thief of Time. I'm only up to Sourcery, and I've just discovered that there are two books due out in November. This could seriously put my schedule out of joint. Sourcery is not one of the best Discworld novels, it must be said; which is a shame, since it follows Mort, my all-time favourite. I must make clear that I am not saying it's a bad book. Far from it. It's still infinitely better than anyone else. Tom Holt, Andrew Harman, Robert Rankin - Pratchett could make his weekly shopping list sound funnier than their best efforts. But this tremendous success means that there is no measure for a Discworld novel, other than a comparison with the best Discworld novels; which means that a review of the 'not-so-best' ones will sound slightly critical, when actually it is simply that they are not quite so fantastic as the others. The book is nominally about a young boy called Coin, who is the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son, which - as any idiot knows - makes him a sourceror, a source of magic. His father, Ipslore, should never have had children, since wizards are forbidden certain mattress-located activities, but he had a row with his peers at Unseen University, and was thrown out. So he has an eighth son. This is not all though. When Death comes to claim Ipslore he avoids dying by hiding his soul in the boy's staff - and, since separating him from it would also kill Coin, Death has to let him stay there. So Ipslore tries to run his son's life from the confines of the staff. Coin goes to Unseen University, as an eight year old boy, and seizes control from the resident wizards, demanding to be made Arch-Chancellor. He also gives the wizards fantastic power - as a sourceror he is a channel for magic to enter the Discworld. That's more
or less all you see of Coin. The real plot involves Rincewind the completely incompetent wizard from the first two Discworld novels. He suddenly finds himself being commanded, by the Arch-Chancellor's hat, to take it away from the university so that it can't be worn by the Sourceror. And so he sets off on one of his adventures in which he always seems to run endlessly from one disaster to another. Also the Luggage gets his own little side-plot after being rejected by Rincewind and going off for a sulk. I won't ruin any more of the plot. Basically this is Pratchett's 'Star Wars' book. It's about the battle between the dark side and light side of magic - wizardry and sourcery - and the question of whether great power gained without the required effort is a good idea. It is a sound plot, with far fewer needless diversions than in the first few books, where Pratchett gave the impression that he'd had lots of unrelated ideas, and somehow wanted to get all of them in. There are also no ridiculous Deus Ex Machina. It's just that there is nothing particularly new. Reading this only a couple of weeks after The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, I felt I was reading the same book again to some extent, with a couple of elements borrowed from Equal RItes. But, as I said, I would still rather read this than anything from any of the other pretenders to the comic fantasy crown. It is a very good book, and if you aren't reading it in quick succession with the others, it would be fantastically entertaining.
I'm not a huge fan of those programmes designed to catch out various workmen, and show you just how useless they are; but I have seen enough trailers for them to be a little bit wary about builders, plumbers, garages, etc. etc. Anyway, on Sunday a slate blew from our roof in the storms, sometime in the afternoon. I arrived home about 5pm to find it shattered on my doorstep. I'd known it was going to go one day, because it's been gradually slipping out for months now. So out came the Yellow Pages. Lots of builders claimed to have an emergency 7 day, 24 hour call out service for roofs, but it turned out that was just something added to their adverts to make you think they were worth calling. In fact, of the 15 or so that I tried, I only got one person at all on the end of a phone at 5pm on Sunday. Most just had answering machines. Even the company I did get, by the name of C.J. Hughes, weren't prepared to actually come out on a Sunday. So I duly made an appointment for them to come out on Monday morning. Well, my wife waited in the whole of Monday morning, without a sign of them. In the afternoon she had a bit of a scare with our baby (due January) and had to dash to a doctor - so she was out for about an hour. When she got back she instantly phoned C.J. Hughes and said she'd been out - had they been round? It's unfortunate that she told them first that she'd been out. Because once they heard that, well 'of course they'd been round' They said they'd seen all the damage and would send a quote in the post. I guess I'll never really know if they did come or not. But I was intrigued by the phrase, "All the damage," since only one slate had come down, without dislodging anything else. So I took a look out of our bedroom window, and, sure enough, someone had tried to pull out two more slates; probably in the hope that they would fall out later, while we were in, and convince us tha
t our whole roof was slipping. Well I pushed the other slates back in, and got the problem sorted by someone else. I couldn't be waiting for quotes. It cost £30. Then I got a quote from C.J. Hughes today. I mean, is that really their idea of emergency repair. Five days since the whole in my roof started letting in water, and they're just beginning to think about maybe possibly giving me a quote. And, funnily enough, their quote was for removing ALL damaged slates, and repairing the WHOLE roof, as though they fully expected rather more slates to have slipped since Monday. I'm not going to have a huge grumble about dishonest workmen; but I thought someone may enjoy this story of a customer NOT being taken in for once.