The Random Thoughts of a Forty-Something. Films, Restaurants, Theatre, Concerts, World Events and (Mostly) Nice People.
Tuesday, March 06, 2018
So another huge bricks and mortar chain goes bust, this time Toys R Us, or at least their UK operation. Around 106 stores look set to close within weeks, with a loss of over 3000 jobs.
So what happened? Well it looks like many different reasons, all fairly predictable in hindsight.
Toys R Us landed in the UK in 1985, scything the competition, including many small independent shops which simply couldn't compete with Toys R Us huge stores and buying power. And for about 15 years, their business model reigned pretty much supreme. The famous TV advert was rolled out every Christmas and thousands flocked to the giant stores, packed full of the latest, the strangest and the most classic toys. Many left with trollies full of purchases and it looked like the success would never end.
But around 2005, things began to change. The chain loaded itself with debt thanks to private equity companies and rivals such as Smyths and The Entertainer began to muscle in on their market. But much worse was the steady march of the internet, particularly a site called Amazon. It grew slowly at first, but by 2009 or so, people were beginning to shop seriously online. After this year, Toys R Us only turned a profit once more in the UK.
Rather than taking drastic action, the chain stood still. Their stores looked exactly the same as they had in the 80s and 90s, basically giant sheds with lots of toys, but no edge, no welcome and ultimately no hope.
Debts mounted, rivals improved and Amazon boomed, yet Toys R Us stayed the same.
By 2017, things were critical. Too late, they experimented with smaller shops in more central locations. These seemed to work and began to outperform the out of town sheds. But the debt pile was too great and the recovery too small. The parent US company filed for bankruptcy in October 2017, while a rescue plan around the same time in the UK seemingly bought some breathing space. 26 stores were earmarked for closure and began running down. There was however hope for the rest.
But Christmas trading was bleak, down 9% on the previous year and a huge VAT bill was looming. Frantic attempts to find a buyer failed and on the last day of February 2018, faced with an impossible VAT bill of £15 million, the company admitted defeat and went into administration.
As of now, every store is having a closing down sale. I went to ours last night. The darkness and pouring rain were all too appropriate. The store had barely changed since my last visit several years ago. Perhaps a dozen people were half heartedly browsing and a few downcast staff milled around. The sale featured reductions of 20, 25 or at most 30%, even then probably still dearer than Amazon. I walked around and out again in less than five minutes, the 'see you soon' sign at the exit unbearably poignant.
It's always sad to see a shop closing, most of all for the staff, but there's something particularly heartbreaking about a toy shop. Even a soulless commercial enterprise like this one. It represents so many childhoods, so many memories. Even the TV ad will be sadly missed at Christmas.
Could things have been different? Undoubtedly yes. Less complacency, less debt, more and faster downsizing, more interactive customer experience. And yet these things may have only delayed the inevitable.
The public are changing. They don't shop as much. They don't hoard as much. They still buy but increasingly online. They need reasons to go out shopping. Cold warehouses, depressed staff, high prices and in many cases parking charges, all put people off. Why bother when a few clicks can see things delivered to your door the next day?
So can the high street survive? So many shops and chains are struggling under huge rents, huge council tax, increasing wages and overheads, all in the uncertain shadow of Brexit. Add to that cumbersome debts and the unstoppable power of the internet and the future looks bleak. Will physical shopping be something that parents tell their future kids about? A footnote in modern history? I certainly hope not.
I've finally taken the decision to deactivate my Facebook and it's like having a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. What started off five years ago as a way of keeping in touch with my long lost cousin, turned into an absolute nightmare of backstabbing, jealousy, obsessiveness, exclusion and paranoia. I could (and just might) write a book on my experiences, all concerning people I hadn't known before 'meeting' them on the site. Some I ended up meeting in 'real life', others remained hundreds or thousands of miles away, yet somehow in my living room.
The site began by devouring huge amounts of time, spent posting Youtube music videos, playing online games and 'liking' things on other people's pages. That progressed to flirting, clandestine meetings and stormy encounters, culminating in group exclusion, 'friends' taking sides and ultimately online stalking and lost sleep. The ease of access to the 'delete' button means that Facebook can swiftly degenerate into something slightly less mature than a kids playground, triggering depression and all manner of social demons. At it's worst it became a black hole, sucking in my free time, my emotions and what often felt like my sanity. Every bit as addictive as any drug, I struggled to break free, but like a car crash, it kept drawing me back in. Until now. This time I'm staying away and getting a life. If any of the above sounds familiar to you, I'd advise you to leave now. I'm very glad I did.
In Belfast this week we're 'lucky' enough to have 'Creation Worldview Ministries' holding a seminar. Here's their opening blurb:
''At Creation Worldview Ministries we reintroduce fact and perspective into debates which have been dominated by pseudoscience and, thus, help to improve public understanding of the Bible's incredibly accurate perspective on the origins and history of our world.
In pursuit of this goal, Creation Worldview Ministries seeks to: •Provide worldwide biblical and scientific seminars, university lectures, books, DVDs and CDs concerning the truths of biblical foundations, especially Biblical Scientific Creationism.
•Be a part of the revitalization of classical Christian intellectual activity for the preservation, promotion and propagation of a Christian Biblical Worldview.
• Expose the claims of junk, consensus and imaginary science.
•Be watchful for genuine discoveries which contribute to our greater understanding of our origins.
•Avoid herd-instinct science.''
'Herd-instinct' A term which could certainly never be levelled at religion of course.
'Pseudoscience' Yes indeed, how could the overwhelming consensus of the group who brought us air travel, heart transplants and the internet possibly compete with the writings of some anonymous goat herders who lived over 2000 years ago? How could the evidence of millions of fossils possibly trump the idea that the earth was made in a week by a big man in the sky?
'help to improve public understanding of the Bible's incredibly accurate perspective on the origins and history of our world.'
Erm accurate where exactly? Up until fairly recently, it was regarded by the Christian church as heretical to even suggest that the world wasn't flat or that the sun didn't revolve around our planet. The creation account(s) in Genesis are hugely vague and wonderfully fanciful, as befits all creation myths.
But the thing that really gets me is the way these creationists are more than happy to fly in a plane, recieve surgery or advertise their meetings on the internet. All these things and thousands more are the results of science, a discipline which, up to a century or so ago, was deliberately held back in many hugely important areas, by the church. Now that it's been allowed to improve and enrich our existence, science is just fine and dandy with creationists -- until it inconveniently challenges their myths.
OK so I'm going to have a rant here because if I expressed this opinion on my Facebook page, I'd probably lose three quarters of my 'friends.'
Alcohol is a fact of life and has been for millenia. And like chocolate, big macs and Indian takeways, in moderation it's fine. But it isn't fine to eat three tins of Quality Street, throw up, eat some more, then boast about it the next day. Anyone listening would likely diagnose bulimia and advise you to get down to the doctors asap. But do the same with alcohol and you'll likely recieve the equivalent of a round of applause.
OK we all (myself included) did some binge drinking in our teens, but isn't it something like spots that you're supposed to grow out of? But instead of being encouraged to grow up, friends, work colleagues and even relatives are more likely to encourage you to keep getting pissed and falling over as if it were some kind of skillful achievement.
Why is this? And why is it largely confined to the British Isles? Why do the Brits and the Irish have to act like toddlers around alcohol? How come you can go to mainland Europe and see the locals having a civilised glass of wine with their meal and a beer in a roadside cafe? Beats me.
And why am I supposed to humour people on Facebook boasting about how hungover they are, how much they drank last night and how they're never going to do it again. Until next weekend.
So the A&Es continue to be clogged with drunken arseholes who have fallen over, the pavements continue to be covered with cans and vomit and the police continue to have to deal with stupid drunks acting like two year olds. And now the government is having to introduce a minimum price for alcohol because our nation of neandethals can't control themselves. It's sad. But there you go. Rant over.
This is an article from the Daily Telegraph 2008. It's pretty much spot on.
He's gentle, unworldly, highly attentive and charmingly old-fashioned. The catch? The very things that make Keith so attractive to Sarah are symptoms of Asperger's. Anna Moore meets the couples living with this surprisingly common condition
Sarah Hendrickx and Keith Newton sit tilted towards one other, laughing a lot and disappearing down the occasional alley of in-jokes, as couples do when they're still in that early, besotted stage.
Keith has just arrived at Sarah's home in Hove and they're clearly delighted by the prospect of the next few days together. As always, Keith has switched off his mobile phone because, as he puts it, 'my time here is with Sarah'. They won't see anyone else - Keith has no friends of his own and doesn't feel comfortable socialising - but plan to eat lots of chocolate, walk and watch television. 'We spend a lot of time feeling smug,' says Sarah, 'because we see other couples who don't look very happy.'
In a few days, though, Keith will drive back to Wickham, Hampshire, 50 miles away, where he lives alone and works as a computer programmer. This will always be the case. Despite meeting five years ago, they won't 'progress' as other couples do. They'll neither live together nor have children. Although there's only a year between them, at 39 Keith is so gangly, gawky, boyish and cute that he could be ten years younger than he is.
Yet Sarah - who had a child at 19 and has two marriages behind her - is confident that few women could put up with him. 'God, he's so gorgeous he could have anyone - but not for long,' she says, laughing. 'Three or four months max… then, when the conversation turns to homes and babies and bank accounts, he'd be gone!' The two burst into laughter.
It wasn't always like this. The couple met through internet dating and the first stage of their relationship was fiery and fraught. To Sarah, Keith was 'a puzzle'. He'd plainly state that their blissful weekends were enough for him, that he'd never live with her or even move nearer. Sarah frequently found him selfish, cold and distant. Keith found Sarah hard work, demanding and 'screechy'.
Ultimately, only one thing allowed them to start again from scratch - they uncovered the reason for Keith's 'insensitivity', his aloofness, the fact that he could see no future with Sarah nor seemed to want one: Keith has Asperger's syndrome (AS).
Such a late diagnosis is not uncommon. Asperger's - a developmental condition that falls within the autism spectrum - was identified more than 60 years ago but became a standard diagnosis only in 1992 when it entered the World Health Organisation's diagnostic manual. As a result, the majority of adults with the syndrome almost certainly grew up without knowing they had it.
Estimates vary enormously as to the prevalence, but one in 100 people is thought to be on the autism spectrum, and it is more common in males by a ratio of nine to one. People with AS normally have above-average intelligence but great difficulties with empathy, communication and social interaction.
People with AS struggle to understand the unwritten social rules that help most of us act and speak appropriately. They find it hard to decipher figures of speech, facial expressions and tones of voice, and are frequently (but unintentionally) concise and literal to the point of rudeness. Since the 'real world' becomes an extremely stressful place, many retreat into their own safe haven of routine, solitude and obsessive special interests.
Today AS is likely to be recognised in a child, and his school will be told he needs special support. Twenty years ago, however, he'd be the 'geek' who didn't quite fit but was left to get on with it. And that struggle has continued into adulthood. For someone with AS, the minefield of relationships, marriage and parenthood can be the hardest part of all.
Louise Corbett manages the National Autistic Society (NAS) helpline and confirms that more calls are coming from couples who have recognised Asperger's in their relationship.
'When I started six years ago most of our calls were made by parents about their children,' she says. 'Now we get more adult-related calls than child-related.' As Asperger's seems to run in families, many women identify it in their husbands - or their husbands see it in themselves - only after their child has been diagnosed and they've read the literature. 'They call in absolute shock,' says Corbett. 'Often they've been experiencing difficulties for years without knowing why. There's no way around it: Asperger's can be very hard to live with.'
Maxine Aston, the author of Aspergers in Love (Jessica Kingsley, £14.95), is one of the few counsellors to work specifically with couples affected by AS. Her surveys and questionnaires from the past decade suggest that 75 per cent of such couples seek counselling. 'I'd almost say AS was a "relationship disorder",' she says. 'It affects communication, interaction and the ability to empathise. Any research will tell you they're the key ingredients for a successful relationship.' In Aston's experience - and desperate clients come from as far as Japan, New Zealand and Canada - Asperger's relationships follow a common pattern.
'A huge number seem to meet on dating websites,' she says. 'For someone with AS it's the perfect route.' Where once many people with AS were effectively barred from the dating game, the internet now provides the perfect point of entry (it has, as Aston puts it 'opened the floodgates').
Bypassing the enormous challenges involved in chatting someone up, it allows you to make a checklist and then select according to criteria. Although many people with AS are unemployed or underemployed, others are at the top of their profession. 'On paper they look amazing,' says Aston. 'Doctors, IT consultants, engineers, solicitors… They could be in their forties but have never married - so no baggage. The internet also allows them to build a rapport by email,' she continues. 'When they meet, women are often very charmed by this polite, gentle man with an old-fashioned appeal.'
This was certainly true for Sarah who found Keith completely different to anyone she had known. 'At the end of our first date he kissed my cheek and shook my hand,' she recalls. 'So different to all the guys that ply you with rioja. Keith seemed so untouched by needless fashion and peer pressure - I thought he was a Buddhist!'
However, in Aston's experience, this appeal can wear thin. 'Women fall in love and want to nurture this unworldly, slightly vulnerable man and help him grow up. As the relationship settles, though, they often find their own emotional needs aren't being met.
'Someone with AS probably has good intentions,' she goes on. 'He wants to make her happy but can't read the signs. At the beginning of the courtship the woman could become his obsession and she has probably never experienced such attention. Five years down the line, when he has focussed on something else and returns from work, yet again forgets to say hello and goes to the garage to take the car apart, things are very different. Women often say to me, "He's either got Asperger's or he's the most selfish man on the planet."'
Another problem can be the isolation. People with AS frequently have sensory difficulties - loud noise, strong smells and bright lights can be almost painful. This, coupled with difficulties in social interaction, means that parties, family gatherings and big birthdays drop off the radar.
'I once saw a couple in their eighties who, after 50 years of marriage, realised what the problem was,' says Aston. 'They decided to stay together, but she bought a cottage up the road and he visited for meals. She could have friends and family over and he had space for his routine and interests. Quite a few couples decide to stay together but live apart.'
Penny Jones, an accountant from Oxford, tried this, following the diagnosis of her husband Chris, an IT consultant, six years ago. Chris learnt about AS through a television programme while he was off work with stress. He subsequently saw a specialist who placed him high on the Asperger's scale.
'We got together in 1995 and he'd always been very unusual,' says Penny. 'There are lots of positives about Asperger's. I like its straightforwardness. There's no game-playing. Chris was the first person I had met who just let people be themselves. Most men want you to be a bit more like this or more like that. Chris just accepts you. He's also very intelligent - he has an IQ of over 150 - and very funny.'
However, AS was hard to live with. 'He did lock himself in the room with the computer,' she says. 'We were under the same roof but not together. Rarely did we share the preparation and clearing away of meals because Chris couldn't stand the noise of cutlery and crockery.'
When their children were born - Luke is nine and Beth is seven - Chris found the chaos of family life even more difficult. 'It wasn't predictable and calm enough. Family holidays we gave up on,' she says. 'He would try his best but by day three, without his familiarity, his routine, his computer, you could see all his systems shutting down. Then he'd spend each day with a large crate of beer in front of the television while I took the children out. Chris drank vast quantities to cope with Asperger's - that was another problem.'
When Chris moved out, the plan had been that they would remain a couple, but in the end this didn't work out. 'He drank far less and was clearly so much happier in his own space,' says Penny. 'He would spend a few hours with us, then go home to his bolthole and not talk to anyone for 24 hours. In the end, I couldn't cope with the massive periods of time alone.' The couple divorced last year.
Conventional counselling isn't recommended for AS couples - in fact, it frequently makes things worse. 'Counselling works on empathy,' says Maxine Aston, 'helping you understand each other's point of view. That won't happen if you have AS. You might be told to spend ten minutes a day talking about your emotions. Someone with AS can't do it, feels pressurised and disappointment sets in.' For this reason, the NAS has a (small) database of couples counsellors who specialise in AS - of which Aston is one.
There are many strategies that can help. One is to write things down instead of saying them. Another is for the non-Asperger's half in the relationship to spell things out in no uncertain terms. ('I am feeling sad and would like a hug'), rather than hope their partner will read the cues. However, the key is understanding the Asperger's label, accepting its limitations and adjusting expectations. 'It's almost like blaming it on the Asperger's,' says Aston.
The diagnosis that saved Keith and Sarah almost happened by accident - Sarah got a job working with ASpire, a charity that supports adults with Asperger's. The more she learnt, the more she recognised in Keith. 'At first, I thought it was just a mad, crazy Sarah idea,' he says. 'But as I researched it, the similarities became too great to ignore.'
Learning about AS, he says, was 'life-changing'. Suddenly what Sarah describes as his 'isolated, biscuit-eating life' made sense. Keith had been bullied at school and gone through university with no friends at all. He'd had only two jobs in his life doing the same thing and two very short-lived relationships (the first at 31). 'From an early age you try to join the world, but gradually, with rejection and not being able to understand social situations, it becomes too taxing,' he says. 'I wanted relationships with women but didn't have the confidence, the tools or the means.'
In Sarah, Keith has found the perfect partner. She works with AS adults for a living and now understands his thought processes and almost speaks his language. She can foresee stressful situations, accepts his frequent need to be alone and rarely asks for more than Keith can give.
In return, she has a charming, quirky, logical and attentive partner who is still touchingly old-fashioned - he always opens doors for her, carries her shopping and whips off her glasses to clean them if he sees they are dirty. Most importantly, the two clearly love each other's company, share the same sense of humour - and have co-written a book, Asperger Syndrome - A Love Story (Jessica Kingsley, £12.99), to show that happy endings are possible, even if they're not quite the endings originally envisaged.
There are no plans of marriage or moving in, and Keith certainly doesn't think he could cope with children. But they seem like soul mates. 'With Sarah, I get acceptance and understanding,' says Keith. 'I don't necessarily want to join the rest of the world - but I'd like someone to join me in mine. I'd like to know at the end of my life that there's been one person who got me. That's what Sarah does for me.'
She's back and with not one, but two free download tracks!
Diana is the sole reason the world needs to thank Simon Cowell. OK she came 4th in XF 2008, but since then she's told Cowell where to shove his contract, starred in a West End Musical (Little Voice), had a number one single and album, become a professional model and built up one of the most devoted fanbases of our time. Not bad for a twenty year old on the recieving end of one of the most vicious hate campaigns concievable both during and after XF. Most of her 'haters' have shut up these days. Some have got a life and the more discerning have grudgingly conceded that actually Miss Vickers really does have talent.
Not only talent but versatility if this download is anything to go by. 'Kiss Of A Bullet' is slick,catchy electro-pop with a nice little twist of that Diana quirkiness us fans love. Sure she's refined the vocal that polarised so many on XF, but this is still unmistakably Vickers and damned addictive stuff.
This and the recent 'Music To Make Boys Cry' bode exceedingly well for the second album. Diana is a unique talent, a canny self publicist and one of those mavericks who make the music industry worthwhile.
Flouncing, flamboyant, ethereal -- Florence Welch is all these things and more.
I wasn't a huge fan of the 'Lungs' album -- flashes of genius sure, but hardly a classic. Deciding on both a whim and the recommendation of others to see her live, we were presented with stylish red bin bags to ward off the rain and left to wait for the good lady herself in a haze of drizzle and alcohol fumes.
Despite an opening curtain malfunction, Florence bounced onto the Customs House Square stage with a smile, a wave and a huge rendition of 'The Drumming Song.'
So many performers turn up, run through their set and wave goodbye. Not this lady. She gave us everything, a whirling dervish on stage, showcasing an almost shockingly powerful vocal set against a disarmingly elfine and adorable speaking voice.
Lots of delightful intersong banter, audience interaction and Kate Bush/Stevie Nicks style floatiness made Florence a joy to watch.
All the album was performed, with particular mention for my favourite 'Howl' and a jaw dropping encore version of 'Kiss With A Fist', rocked up to the max with Florence flailing wildly on her drums and even treating us to her keyboard skills.
Far from being a novelty act, Florence is only starting to hit her stride. The new unreleased songs were IMO better than the old, her stage skills are hugely impressive and she's clearly a force to be reckoned with.