Thursday, 26 February 2009

The right brolly for the job

There is a definite knack in matching the right umbrella to the right person. Not only must one consider the shelter-worthiness of your gamp, but you also need to think about your lifestyle, job and position in society before making your choice. Sometimes it helps to have some professional advice and we at BUBB are very fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of our corporate supporter Donald Holding, umbrella guru extraordinaire, and his team at umbrella matching specialists, Spokespools. They don't come cheap but are worth the investment if you really are serious about getting the right umbrella for the job. (There you go Donald, I promised you a free plug but don't tell anyone, I wouldn't want any accusations of cronyism again!!).

Yesterday lunchtime is spent at some crappy little church near our offices in North Pimlico for the Ash Wednesday ritual. I don't really believe in God and stuff - a good solid umbrella is all the spiritual assistance and shelter I need in life - but sometimes it is better to be safe than sorry. I spend a long time considering what I will give up for Lent and decide that a few weeks without my favourite rhubarb and custard sweets wouldn't do my teeth any harm.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A load of bankers

We all know that rich overpaid banking numskulls are to blame for the perilous state of the global economy. Yet the government continues to regard these twonks as financial geniuses and so appoints them to sort out the mess they created in the first place. What particularly angers me is that they have dragged the humble umbrella into the whole shambles. Consider Bradford and Bingley. Its public face used to be two bowler hatted chaps carrying umbrellas - the very symbol of trust and decency that encapsulated our faith in the banking system. Now they might as well be clad in hooded tops, and carrying knives with Asbos stuffed in the back pockets of their oversized jeans.

Robert Frost once remarked sagely that banks were the sort of institution that would lend a man an umbrella on a sunny day and want it back when it started to rain. How extra true his words seem now.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Superstitious nonsense?

You'll find a lot of right old scribble on the internet about umbrellas. True, the information superhighway has undoubtedly unlocked access to knowledge on a scale previously unimagined. The advent of blogging has had a profound affect on our society - witness the power of Peston's coverage of the banking debacle, for instance, or the ripples caused in the usually humdrum world of macrame by this blog. On the flipside though is the fact that the capacity to mislead and misinform is also everywhere.

Ponder that old chestnut about why it is bad luck to open an umbrella inside the house. The previous link explores some theories but take it from me, a huge pinch of salt is required while examining these. And I should know as I made all of these supposed historical reasons up myself over a balmy weekend in Blacbury last year. Think of it as Boggapedia.

The truth is far easier to nail as I discovered over the weekend. I was in the drawing room and decided to test the draw (technical term for time taken to fully open an umbrella) on my new Tesco's value range gentlemen's brollie. I over-enthusiastically released the catch and knocked one of my fake Wedgwoood cermaic shepherdess figuerines off the mantlepiece. Unfortunately it landed square onto Barkles' sleeping noggin. He awoke with a start and dashed into the pantry, knocking over the stilton I had bought from the local farm shop that morning. Barkles hates stilton and went ballistic, pawing at everything in his path - including the presentation cabinet containing my priceless pre-War umbrella, reputedly owned by that most famous of umbrella carriers, ("I have in my hand a piece of paper..and a brolly...peace, and shelter from rain, in our time"), Nevile Chamberlain that I secured on eBay for £13.40 last year. Glass, historical spokes and fabric everywhere.

That's why it is bad luck to open an umbrella in the house.

Assessing the climate

I have received the very great honour of giving this year's annual Tommy Steele Memorial Lecture at the London Palladium. Tommy's influence on the use of umbrellas in musical theatre is well established of course and I can think of no greater testament to the work of BUBB in the last few years than to be presented with this chance.

My theme will be on whether global warming presents a threat or an opportunity to umbrellas. I decide to head to Blacbury on Friday and thrash out a few ideas over lunch in a local hostelry with my brilliant policy honcho, Geof Sachell (Oxford, naturally). It will also provide an opportunity for us to work on the informal paper I am writing for James on the role of umbrellas in public sector contracts. James hasn't actually asked me to do this but I thought I'd stick some thoughts down, turn up at his house and make him read it at umbrella point, restraining order or no restraining order.

Geof and I meet up and have a cheeky merlot in the Pipe and Slippers. And then the Tut and Shrug, the Well Red Lion, the Bull and Shite and finally the Paid Volunteer. By which time of course we are completely clattered, and my 18 pages of notes are largely illegible.

However, the next day I nurse my headache with a spot of light gardening - dusting the jasmine, polishing the privets - and manage to dredge back the main points from the sozzled pool of memory.

The global warming argument is a tricky one. My initial view on this was that climate change would be great for umbrellas if it brought wetter weather. Boomtime in brollyland so rev up those gas guzzlers, spew out as much carbon as you can and make like Clarkson.

On the other hand, if the extreme weather is as bad as some of the boffins claim, it could be dangerous for umbrellas. So I am faced with deciding whether ultimately it is in the best long term interests of my members that we destroy the planet or save it. Which could make the lecture an interesting one as I will probably end up having an argument with myself.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Easing congestion

Breakfast with Boris Johnson today in my usual haunt - McDonald's in County Hall. Great place for networking as a number of MPs use it. I have often seen Ann Widdecombe tucking into a bacon and egg mcmuffin while James swears by the hash browns. A big breakfast is necessary as I am feeling a bit tender headed after drinking buckets of absolute filth at the NCVO dinner following the conference.

Anyway, back to Boris. Bold, brash, opinionated, scruffy. I am sure these are just some of the things he is thinking about me as we chat. As well as trying to gain some insight into his mayoral vision for the London umbrella sector I am seeking reassurance on his plans for congestion charging.

I am a big fan of Ken and can think of no greater raconteur and political personality. But his obsession with congestion charging posed a very serious threat to the umbrella owning Londoner. Yes, I accept Ken's point that some of the main London shopping streets on a rainy day have become extremely dangerous as shoppers scurry along, umbrella pulled down tight over their head, with no due regard for the health and eyesight of fellow shoppers.

But I feel that the answer is to educate umbrella carriers on the risks of selfish brolly carrying and not the imposition of a tax on carrying an umbrella in designated London streets while the shops are open. When you consider that Ken wanted to charge an even higher tax for those carrying large family sized umbrellas (the so called Chelsea Gampster) you can see that while it would have led to a very nice pot of cash for the mayor's office, umbrella users would be shelling out hard earned cash just for the right to stay dry while shopping and would ultimately have had to make the decision about whether it was even worth taking an umbrella shopping at all.

Boris, thankfully, agrees with me and I receive floppy haired assurance that he will not press ahead with the plans. I head back to the office pleased that my influence with politicians has once again yielded a positive result for my members.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Imitation and flattery

I suppose there is no higher compliment than to have one's blog parodied, albeit in a slightly amateurish sixth form humour kind of way. It has been pointed out to me that a certain fictional character Stephen Bubb has been spoofing my own thoughts with a joke blog at Bubb's blog. Most of it is pretty lame or harmless (Bubb's village is Charlbury and his dog is called Sparkles, for example - can you see what they did there?) but there are some real comedy moments, absolute "you couldn't make it up" stuff. I take it all in good humour of course, us CEOs have to evolve thicker skins than most in our line of work. One small criticism, however. The spoofer needs to pay more attention to spelling - may I suggest the spell check function?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Friendly rivalry

Oh Lordy, botheration and bugger. I realise halfway through a presentation I am doing yesterday at a high powered conference on waterproofing technology that I have left my disguise in Blacbury. No, I haven't got another wild party at James' house this week, but it is the NCVO conference tomorrow.

Of course, most of what you read in the sector press, notably Brolly Weekly, about my so called rivalry with the NCVO and its chief executive, Hubert Carrington is exaggeration. Sure we have had our differences of opinion but tales of pistols at dawn in Brockwell Park are wide of the mark. (Try handbags, Kensington Gardens, just after lunch, and you're closer to the truth!).

To reiterate my position, I have no problem with the National Canopy and Visor Organisation per se, but I do feel very strongly that they shouldn't presume to speak on behalf of umbrellas without consulting me. NCVO's remit extends to all shielding protection, portable or otherwise and with such a brief it cannot possibly hope to give umbrellas the attention and advocacy they deserve.

Generally speaking my track record at working with other representative bodies is very good. As well as old Hubert at NCVO, I have strong relations with Steve Crikey at the Canopy Finance Directors' Group and Darcy Maxwell at the Institute of Gampraising. Over the last year we have all done a tremendous amount of collective whinging on Umbrella Gift Aid, a scheme whereby the government gives tax relief on the purchase of umbrellas as presents.

Even so, however, after an ugly scene over the vegetarian sandwiches at the NCVO conference a few years ago, I always feel I can get more out of the day if I go in disguise and I had found the perfect costume in one of Blacbury's fine boutiques over the weekend. But I haven't got time to go and get it before tomorrow, so I will just have to wear my Ed Miliband mask. Again.

Monday, 16 February 2009

At the heart of it

Back from an enjoyable weekend in Blacbury. The plan was to slope off early from work on Friday and head up to the cottage for a long weekend. But one of the perils of the job is the inevitable demands on my time from the media and when they come calling, it is one's duty to umbrellas everywhere to reluctantly put oneself in the spotlight.

And so it was on Friday afternoon when I was asked if would do the 6am honours on the shopping channel's excellent umbrella slot on Saturday morning. I have done it before of course but I do love the thrill of live TV. When you consider that audiences at this time can sometimes reach double figures you can understand the touch of apprehension I felt at the same time.

QVC were very hospitable, and while they couldn't stretch to sending a car to collect me, they did send a link to where their studios are on Streetmap and offer me a parking space. And they said I could bring Barkles with me as long as I chained him up to my bumper and he didn't shit everywhere.

It seemed to go very well and there was much excitement in the studio when someone nearly bought a rather quirky and risque "Umbrellas do it going up and down" novelty brollie that I, even if I do say so myself, talked up a storm.

Then it was back to Blacbury for a big lunch, a long walk, and to settle down for Valentine's night.I knew exactly what I was going to do to make the evening special, and it went like a dream. You can keep your fancy meals and champers. You can keep your red roses and diamonique ear-rings. The perfect night is to spend it at home with a loved one and enjoy some culture.

"When the sun shine
We'll shine together
Told you I'll be here forever
Said I'll always be your friend
Took an oath imma stick it out 'till the end
Now that it's raining more than ever
Know that we still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella (Ella ella eh eh eh)
Under my umbrella (Ella ella eh eh eh)
Under my umbrella (Ella ella eh eh eh)
Under my umbrella (Ella ella eh eh eh eh eh eh)"

There have been many great literary contributions over the centuries that enlighten our world for having been written. Shakespeare, Milton, Waugh, Eliot....and Rihanna. Just reading the above lines brings a tear to the eye. Three hours I spent cavorting alone round the front room in my boxers singing it at the top of my voice. Who says that romance is dead?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Lost property

Its a damning statistic but nearly 10,000 umbrellas are left on London Transport every year. Many find their way to the lost property office on Baker St and some are happily reunited with their owners. But the fact that they have been so carelessly neglected in the first place highlights a number of issues.

Firstly, it is indicative of the throwaway society we have become. People buy cheap umbrellas, don't value them, leave them behind, replace them. This results in low-quality rain coverage, and poor quality of life for a lot of my members who haven't been manufactured properly. It also results in a surplus of crap, often imported, brollies leaving the honest British umbrella bemoaning the fact that all these foreign gamps are coming over here and knicking our protection. It's a line you'll see pedalled in the Daily Gale, and not one I subscribe to but the perception is dangerous and we don't to return to the dark days of the British Nationalist umbrella movement. You only need to look at the photos from the 1930s of marches in the East End with the so called Whiteshirts marching in favour of keeping umbrellas a traditional black to see where all this might lead.

This leads onto a particular bug bear of mine - governance. Quite simply the governance of umbrellas in the UK is shocking. The Umbrella Commission, the regulator of umbrellas in England and Wales, tries its best to promote governance standards to ensure the effective management of umbrellas but it is no easy task. How often have we seen the frankly disturbing images of cheap umbrellas, crippled by the wind and tossed aside by the pathway, spokes akimbo, on emergency appeals from esteemed charities such as Umbrella Relief and WaterProtectionAid?

These governance issues extend to bodies set up to try and help umbrellas as well as highlighted by this week's hard hitting report by the Umbrella Commission into mismanagement at Brokespokes, an organisation set up to support mature brollies. The report is there for all to read, which I haven't had time to do yet, but when I do I expect I will find it says that basically a lot of time and money was wasted and older umbrellas are no better off.

I think the real issue is the so called voluntary principle whereby people only take up umbrella ownership voluntarily It has it's merits but surely some sort of remuneration especially for people carrying bigger and more expensive umbrellas would promote a more responsible attitude to umbrella governance.

I am a big fan of the reforms that Dame Luci Vinyl and Patrick Pond have made at the Umbrella Commission. It is no easy task keeping the register of umbrellas up to date, especially as people themselves sometimes have no idea what they actually own, but the Commission's online register is tip-top as far as it goes. And I shouted this at the minister Gavin Lennon whilst stalking him at a conference the other week. But I do think the next task for Dame Luci and Patrick is to reexamine the governance failings at the heart of the umbrella sector. Only then will we see umbrellas get the respect they deserve from their owners.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

A plan of inaction

Better than nothing is about all that can be said about the Government's long awaited recession action plan to support umbrellas in the coming months. Perhaps on reflection £500m was a big ask. The government simply hasn't got that sort of money to splash around unless you are a bank. And so £42m is at least an acknowledgement by the powers that be that umbrellas play a vital role in the economy, and in keeping the nation dry during the storms ahead, and I personally thanked the minister Gavin Lennon on Twitter last night.

The effects of the banking system going down the toilet are not to be underestimated. After all, is it not bankers and city types who are the biggest purchasers of quality brollies? Less jobs on the square mile will see umbrella related expenditure fall.

And will membership to exclusive golf clubs drop, meaning a reduction in spend on golf umbrellas? My members in the golfing fraternity already face an uncertain future over proving their public benefit, what with the accompanying debate about high fee charging and umbrellas having to provide access to shelter to all sections of society not just the rich. It is going to take more than well intentioned umbrella bursary schemes allowing the poor on the council estates outside Wentworth to use a golf umbrella for one aftenoon a week to sort that one out.

And the other, often forgotten, potential victim in all of this is cocktail umbrellas. Cutbacks on lavish entertaining will undoubtedly hit upon the smallest of all BUBB's members.

Therefore it is to be hoped that the government does not simply consider that is has fulfilled its role with this handout but monitors the situation and provides more help if required further down the line. Umbrellas deserve nothing less.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Magritte had it about right

A wintery weekend in Blacbury. Barkles really doesn't enjoy the cold and then gets frustrated at being confined indoors. Still we get out for a good stroll over the common and the rainy weather gives me chance to road test a new umbrella - a custom made black silk classic English with ivory handle.

On Saturday I see a taxi driver in a black cab smoking a pipe. This naturally leads me thinking about Magritte (c'est non un pipe) and I spend a pleasant evening by the fire with a robust rioja, thumbing through my Magritte book. Belgian he may have been but he recognised the symbolism of umbrellas and I defy anyone to gaze upon Les Vacances de Hegel without a lump forming in the throat.

Friday, 6 February 2009

TV crimes

Once again it appears that the humble umbergamp has been treated less than fairly by those over-paid so called entertainers in the media. Before Xmas the whole country got itself into a collective lather when, on air, Ross and Brand abused a venerable 78 year old umbrella which had starred in Fawlty Towers (you can see it in the umbrella stand in the hotel foyer during the Waldorf Salad episode). Some might find it funny to poke fun at this poor brolly's relations (apparently one of them has a see through lining and will open for anybody) but I don't.

And on Wednesday night's Relocation Relocation on Channel 4, apparently Phil Spencer is filmed accidently destroying his blue and white pannelled golf number when miscalculating the width of a gateway whilst using said piece. It's not so much the pain to the umbrella - my members have learned to suffer hardship over the years - but the fact that the whole episode is then reduced to a "bit of a laugh". I have made a note to bring this up with Gavin Lennon, minister for umbrellas, when he next pokes me on Facebook.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

What the hell is wrong with cronyism anyway?

Well, I seem to have put my immaculately brogued size five in it again. And as usual the press tittle-tattle concerns the supposed conflict of interest between my role at BUBB and my completely unrelated position as chair of the government backed funding initiative Umbrellabuilders England (UBE). UBE dishes out loans and investments to umbrella based projects and the suggestion in such ahem learned publications as Brolly Weekly, Rainshield Times, and to a lesser extent, Canopy Finance, is that I will somehow favour the money whims of my members over other deserving projects. As if that is a bad thing!

Last summer one of my members, a particularly fine Burberry umbrella, was suddenly ditched by its owner, reportedly because of its unhappiness to relocate to Australia. Quite right too, a hot climate with sudden bursts of heavy rain is no place for such a classy piece of umbrella engineering. I advocated vocally on behalf of my member, and there was some legal nonsense then it all calmed down.

Last week, a decision was made by UBE, quite independently of myself I should add, that to not use the excellent services of this umbrella and leave it languishing in a dusty attic was criminal so a job was created specially for it as the official rain protector for UBE's chief executive. This involves providing precipitation assistance on the occasions when he has to walk from the car to the entrance of a building in a shower. This has caused a right old furore as apparently we should have advertised the position instead of just handing it straight to the said umbrella but frankly it is the best for the job so there.

All this rubbishing of cronyism is another example of the namby pamby nanny state PC gone mad times we live in I am afraid. What is the point of an Oxford education if you can't help out your old friends when you are in the position of power to do so?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Bordering on the ridiculous

"Fair fa' your honest, silken skin
Great chieftan o' the canopy clan"

The above are of course lines from the lesser known Robbie Burns poem, Address to an Umbrella.

Now as far as I know there are no Scottish connections in the Bogg family, though I suppose there may be a group of McBoggs skulking around the glens somewhere. However, I always enjoy haggis and a wee nip of something warming, such as a ten year old Brawbrichtnicht, on Burns night. Sunday was no exception. This year I raised a specially poignant glass to the great poet in honour of the campaign led by the National Trust for Scotland inviting online sponsorship to preserve some of his artefacts, including the great man's umbrella! Stirring news indeed.

Therefore, it is especially galling that Tuesday should have been taken up trying to smooth ruffled feathers among members drawing up battlelines not seen since Culloden.

BUBB is a British body, we acccept membership from all British umbrellas. However, as with all large affiliations sometimes more regional concerns rear their head and since devolution there has been a growing body of Scottish nationalistic umbrella fervour. There are similar problems in Wales where a Plaid Cymru umbrella splinter group representing umbrellas made of a patterned, woollen cloth is growing increasingly vocal and burning English umbrellas on holiday.

Anyway, a group purporting to speak on behalf of McBrollies has launhed a campaign condemning the use of English umbrellas in Scotland saying in less than jockular terms that it is disgraceful that they are sometimes providing shelter to Scottish people and infringing on the rights of their own umbrellas. This sort of silly teritorial dispute does nothing to further the cause of umbrellas generally and I spend a lot of time on the phone to various parties trying to calm everybody down. But that is all part of the job I suppose and I think by the end of the day everyone has agreed to disagree. I wonder what Burns would have made of it all?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snow worries

Apologies for the delay in posting. I started the blog with good intentions of updating frequently but such is teh life of umbrella advocacy that it isn't always easy. Coupled with the fact that I dropped the trusty Blackberry ironically into an apple crumble over the weekend and it needed to be cleaned of custard before it would work has meant silence but that does not indicate sloth.

Last week saw me struggling with the sheer bloody mindedness of the BBC in its ridiculous decsion not to air an appeal on behalf of British umbrellas caught up in the Israeli Palestine dispute. I will fight for the rights of my members wherever they are in the world and the BBC's statement that by supporting the appeal it may be compromising its impartiality due to umbrellas being caught up in acts of violence when carelessly wielded by Palestinians (hence the term "Eyeless in Gaza") was frankly ridiculous. And I told Mark so whe he rang me up.

The weekend was spent in Blacbury catching up with friends and taking Barkles for long walks, while ruminating over our strategic plan - more on this in future posts.

There were two emotions upon opening the curtains on Monday morning. One was the sheer force of poetry brought on by the sight of the church and the trees draped in crisp white snowy splendour. The other was despair as I realised I would struggle to get into London for a parliamentary reception hosted by James where I was going to outline my vision for the role of umbrellas in the back to work plans.

I decided to make the most of the winter weather and spent a day trudging around. Snow is no friend of my members. They don't really feel useful in the face of a blizzard but I did see a few around the town, struggling gamely with the cold and being hit with snowballs thrown by youths - a bit demeaning really but indicative of the yob culture that sadly pervades even Blacbury. I hope the snow has cleared tomorrow as I have a number of important meetings.