It might be time…

So it might be time to start writing for fun again.

That sounds a bit odd, especially as my role involves editing six magazines and as many websites.

But that has been part of the problem. Spending so much time and expending so many of the little grey cells on my day job has meant I haven’t always felt the need, the compulsion, the inspiration or indeed the desperation to write any more in my free time.

I’ve filled my time with other things, some of it on two wheels and a lot of it with the ever-creative Mrs Groves.

But my typing fingers – mainly the index fingers on both hands – have started to itch lately.

I feel the need to tap, tap, tap, tap, type, type again.

I don’t know what I’ll be writing – there’s no Apprentice on at the moment thank goodness.

But I have been drawing inspiration from various sources, so watch this space.

Oh and I have a new (old) bike, which I love – especially as it only cost £50 from Ebay.

It is about 30 years old

My new (old) bike

My new (old) bike

So, yeah, that’s it then…all over for The Apprentice

I’m underwhelmed in a way that I haven’t been since…well, the last series finale of The Apprentice.

In keeping with the entire series, nothing much happened in the last episode other than confirmation of a known-knowns as regards Lord Sugar and the programme he fronts.

Wrestling Ricky, aka The Fitness, strolled to a comfortable victory in the final of the latest series and would now like to be known as Richard Martin, something that probably pleases his mum and Lord Sugar.

And we were left wondering whether the last few weeks had actually been worth the effort.

Ricky “Richard” Martin – a £250,000 investment and a boring business idea.

Ricky, sorry Richard, presented a clear, comprehensive and cohesive business plan for his grand idea and the £250,000 investment was never in doubt. Lord Sugar and his Assembled Avengers were suitably impressed with The Apprentice’s simple but effective strategy, unfortunately it made for rather dull viewing.

The biggest things we learned from this final week were more like confirmation of what we already knew.

Firstly, it pays to be loud, obnoxious and ignorant these days as it gets you noticed. Secondly, Lord Sugar hates taking risks.

So, it was goodbye to Jade (horrible business idea which she had no enthusiasm for herself), Nick (promising idea, but totally misguided in suggesting it was the Facebook of the recipe world and would earn tens of millions) and most notably Tom, who came up with a risky idea and earned praise for the thoroughness of his business plan and kudos for his confidence.

But Tom lost because his plan was too much of a risk for the self-made multi-millionaire scrapper who fought his way to the top but now much prefers to play it safe.

And that is why Ricky won.

You can’t blame his little Lordship…well, maybe a little. He is a pensioner and he clearly doesn’t want to do anything other than invest £250,000 and watch his Apprentice – sorry, new business partner – create a profit for him.

Despite his trusted sidekick Nick’s valiant attempt to big up Tom’s idea and tempt Lord Sugar into taking the risk, Ricky Richard Wrestling Fitness Man’s plan for a niche recruitment agency proved far more exciting.

It was all a bit dull and predictable. It is safe, but it is not good telly.

Very safe, but not a very good TV.

We didn’t even get the type of fireworks we’ve previously seen when Lord Sugar’s hit squad went to work.

Chief pitbull Claude Littner raised hope of some classic character assassination when he welcomed Ricky Richard into the interview room. But despite pulling his personal statement to bits, Claude then turned into a one-man cheering squad for Ricky Richard’s business plan.

There was even a depressing acknowledgement from Lord Sugar that it pays to be loud, opinionated, deluded, obnoxious, arrogant and stupid these days as it puts you ahead of the rest. The secret to success comes in tempering those horrible qualities sufficiently to convince people you have a good idea and are worth an investment. And that is exactly what Ricky Richard did.

For the first few weeks he said dumb things, he shouted loudest, he made the wildest boasts, he performed well in Lord Sugar’s eyes (which means he sold stuff) and then gradually we saw less of the obvious obnoxious characteristics and more selling, more consideration and a more business-like apporoach.

He transformed from Wrestling Ricky into Reasonable and Reliable Richard in front of our eyes and secured the £250,000  without breaking a sweat.

Ricky Richard had clearly done his homework as regards The Apprentice.

Be a prick and get an audience, but know when to tone it down and create an illusion of professionalism.

You might still be a prick at the end of the process, but you’ll also be £250,000 better off.

So what does that make us for still watching?

Crunch time on The Apprentice

“If you ever need a salesman, you know where to find me.”

And with those words, Adam waved goodbye to Lord Sugar, Karren, Nick, Nick Nice But Dim and Jade, the receptionist, the taxi driver and anyone else he met along the way.

That is what Adam does and who Adam is – he’s a salesman and he tries exceptionally hard to get on with everyone.

A salesman

But I can’t help thinking he should have made that clear in episode one and not wasted the last few weeks selling like a demon, gurning like an idiot, choreographing anything and anyone that moved, laying claim to any minor triumph and continually boasting about being brilliant at everything and casting doubt on the abilities of everyone he worked alongside.

Lord Sugar should have just fired him in the opening episode and then immediately hired him as a salesman for one of his companies.

That might have given someone with a more realistic chance of being The Apprentice the opportunity to prove their worth.

As it was, Adam sold well each week but also proved just how out of his depth he was when it came to everything else. And Lord Sugar isn’t looking for a salesman, he’s looking for a business partner to invest £250,000 in.

If you ever doubted how out of his depth Adam was, last night’s pitch to a room of industry experts and Lord Sugar sealed the deal. Having written crib notes on the palm of his hand, he immediately began to stumble over his words and as subtly as a schoolboy attempting to cheat in an exam he stole a quick glance at his palm prompts…and still made a complete hash of the pitch.

It might seem harsh to be so critical, but Adam has singularly failed to display anything other than a sales technique that works for him and a big mouth from the very start. So what if he threw himself into each task with unbounded enthusiasm? Previous candidates have been fired on the spot for displaying that very same enthusiasm because they didn’t stop to think about basic business matters before diving headlong into a task.

I can’t help thinking that the likes of Gabrielle, Azhar and even Duane might have  proved more worthy and rounded candidates than Adam has throughout the series. Then again, they didn’t provide the blatant and dubious entertainment value that Adam has.

As it is we are left with Jade, Nick Nice But Dim, Wrestling Ricky and Vacant Tom as the final four candidates…you might have noticed I haven’t given Jade a nickname and that’s because she has proved so bland I can’t think of anything suitable…oh, hang on, I’ll try again…

As it is we are left with Jade (Who?), Nick Nice But Dim, Wrestling Ricky and Vacant Tom as the final four candidates.

Lord Sugar has assembled his Avengers to take on The Apprentice – expect fireworks

They’ll face the ordeal of presenting their business plans to Lord Sugar’s assassination squad – always a highlight of any series. They are Lord Sugar’s answer to The Avengers, a corporate, suited and booted band of business bad-assess, who don’t take any nonsense.

I’m anticipating fireworks, not least from Wrestling Ricky when the Blessed Margaret arches her eyebrow and backs him into a corner. Will he come out fighting, literally body slamming his way out of the interview?

And none of them go into the final week with an advantage over their opponents, whatever the poor deluded souls might think. None of them have managed to forge ahead of the rest in the last few weeks – each victory has been tainted because it has been fundamentally flawed.

We’ve seen classic examples of teams winning for being slightly less crap than the others over the course of this series and particularly in recent weeks. Last night was no exception – Wrestling Ricky and Vacant Tom (have you noticed that when he’s in conversation a blank expression falls across his face?) won because they had at least crunched the numbers and thought about a strategy, even though their “luxury” product was duller than the dullest thing you can think of and their brand was instantly forgettable.

And they mainly won because Adam was project manager of the other team and proved how utterly clueless and lacking in leadership and management qualities he was.

So, it is almost time to pick a winner.

As with the last few series, there isn’t a clear favourite. And I’m not entirely sure there is a worthy winner either.

Things out of place

The excellent Lichfield Lore blog included a post by Kate this week that really got me thinking and looking.

Lost in the Woods details the unusual objects she has found during her regular explorations of Lichfield and the surrounding area – including part of a set of handcuffs.

This is the kind of thing that always intrigues me. Discovering items out of their usual place always throws up so many unanswered questions:

  • How did it get there?
  • Who put it there?
  • Why is it there?
  • Do they realise it is missing?

I’m more than capable of constructing all manner of fanciful stories for such items.

It also made me think I should keep an eye open during my own early morning bike rides around Lichfield. I always see things that should be there – mainly wildlife – but often see things that are clearly out of place too.

Something out of place

On Saturday I drew a blank. But yesterday I ventured a little farther afield and headed out on the lanes to Whittington and during a quick stop for water I did spy something out of place.

Closer inspection revealed it to be a small key ring and compass, looking fairly weathered as if it had been discarded there some time ago. It immediately got me thinking – is the person who misplaced this still lost?

A quick scan over the hedge into the fields did not reveal anyone stumbling around, looking dishevelled and scratching their heads looking for a clue as to their whereabouts.

Is the person who lost this still stumbling around the Staffordshire countryside?

That raised another possibility – was it left deliberately as an aid for someone due to travel along that particular quiet country lane? If so, if I picked it up and took it home or moved it anywhere else would I be causing all manner of problems for the person expecting to find a compass at that particular spot?

So many possibilities and so many unanswered questions for one small item that should not have been there.

The most likely scenario, of course, is that someone simply dropped it by mistake or realised it was quite a cheap and ineffective compass so threw it away.

But I prefer to dwell on the full range of interesting stories and possibilities. Things out of place are fascinating.

So keep your eyes open. You never know what you might find.

His little lordship delivers a double whammy on The Apprentice

It has been a long time coming but finally the main man seemed to grow a pair after the latest abject failure, more formally known as “this week’s challenge on The Apprentice“.

Lord Sugar fired losing project manager Stephen (this year’s pantomime villain) for failing to walk the walk after talking and talking and talking and talking and talking the talk for the last few weeks. He also booted out Gabrielle for her invisibility act this week.

I have some sympathy for Gabrielle as she has at least attempted to ignite some creative sparks this series. But the truth is her contributions have diminished after each passing week and being lumbered all day with Stephen would make anyone throw in the towel.

At the end of the day, the ability to walk quickly with your hands behind your back isn’t even enough to win this competition…although it does display a degree of talent that most candidates can only dream about.

Walking quickly with her hands behind her back was not enough to save Gabrielle.

So we got our long-waited double firing, which probably should have happened in any number of tasks so far, and we also got a moment of pure comedy.

Having dispatched Gabrielle, his little lordship carried on talking and you could see the relief sweep over Stephen’s face as he thought he had once again managed to wriggle his way off the hook. And watching that same expression of relief rapidly disappear as it dawned on Stephen that Lord Sugar was still talking as he planned to fire two people was priceless.

It was a suitable and satisfying demise for Stephen, although none of the remaining candidates can feel too confident as none of them performed well last night (certainly not well enough to merit the title of The Apprentice).

Jade did lead her team to victory, but thanks largely to the inept leadership of her opponent.

Yet the deserved dressing down that Jade and the largely anonymous Nick were dished up by chef Marcus Wareing was conveniently forgotten as her team romped home to a win. As was the failure of Tom and Adam to perform at all in this task.

Tom’s star is falling rapidly. The strong, silent act isn’t enough anymore and after two very mediocre performances as project manager, along with this latest no-show, Tom’s billing as one of the favourites is starting to look a bit silly now.

Adam’s idea of gourmet food seems a little at odds with the rest of us.

Talking of silly, his partner in crime this week Adam once again showed how out of depth he is and even his now legendary selling technique deserted him this week.

We’ve come to expect the dumb, dumber, dumbest act from Adam – “How about a take-away?” he gleefully suggested as they searched for luxury, five-star brands for the discount voucher scheme they were attempting to sell (at least I think he was suggesting it as a sales pitch, rather than an indication that he was feeling a bit peckish).

Talking of which, Ricky once again found himself on the losing side and in the firing line, but at least he managed to blag free scallop dishes for himself from three award-winning restaurants along the way. He outsold Stephen and Gabrielle quite easily, but was also guilty of a few fundamental and mind-numbing errors – something Lord Sugar was happy to point out and which could easily have led to a triple firing.

As it is, we have two weeks left to run and no clear favourite any longer.

The five that are left – Jade, Adam, Nick, Ricky and Tom – all need to put up a good show next week. All five have failed to ignite in recent weeks, displaying the type of basic failures that his little lordship does not normally tolerate.

Obviously, such failings have not hindered winning candidates in the past. But it makes it tricky for us to pick out an obvious champion.

Instead we have five wannabes and absolutely no idea what to expect next.

A change is as good as a rest

When is a holiday, not a holiday?

When it is house sitting for a fortnight 20mins drive up the road.

Rachel and I spent two weeks staying on Cannock Chase in a house sitting stint that we both enjoyed immensely and which had such a positive effect. I did take a week off work, but for the rest of the time I was still commuting to Telford – albeit 15mins closer to the office.

My early morning walking route – 6.30am on Cannock Chase is a good time to be out and about.

And I’m still enjoying the benefit of that two-week “holiday”. It has recharged my batteries and there is no doubt that the change of scenery and break in familiar routines has done us both a lot of good.

Little wonder when the new scenery on our doorstep during the two weeks of house sitting was so fantastic.

My early morning bike rides around Lichfield gave way to a few early morning walks across Cannock Chase, complete with deer sightings and encounters with other wildlife.

There was also another interesting feature – the benefits of bungalow living.

For Rachel the convenience of living without a staircase was noticeable from pretty much our first night of house sitting.

A change really can be as good as a rest.

The art of always giving it 100%

My latest column on a carer for someone with ME/CFS for the ME Association’s magazine ME Essential:

There’s no such thing as apprenticeships for carers. You’re pitched headlong straight into the full-time role without any form of induction, training manual or qualifications.

You learn on the job, so to speak, and you have to learn fast. There’s a lot at stake when you take on the responsibilities of a carer and often there’s not much of a reward or glittering prize waiting for you as each week draws to a close – other than the gratitude of the person you are caring for, which is reward enough.

As a carer you simply get on with it, as quietly and efficiently as possible, rarely acknowledging what you do or what you might have accomplished on any given day.

I was reminded of these basic characteristics of life as a carer when reading a preview of the current series of The Apprentice – the BBC’s annual search for the next big corporate superstar.

No, really, I was. Stick with me.

I am happy to admit that I’m slightly addicted to The Apprentice. In my defence I approach it as one of the finest slices of parody and fly-on-the-wall comedy currently on television – The Office in real life, if you like.

So, what does that have to do with my role as carer of someone with ME/CFS?

It is guaranteed to put a smile on my face, which is always vitally important for carers. It also serves to reassure me that no matter how hard the career-carer juggling act can get at times, it certainly keeps my feet firmly on the ground and completely in touch with reality.

The obsession with wealth and the superficial trappings of success (sic) are, sadly, all too familiar these days. As is the staggering lack of basic common sense displayed by most of those who take part.

You learn little of practical value from The Apprentice, other than how not to do it.

In comparison, the career-carer juggling act has taught me so many lessons that would serve the average Apprentice candidate well.

Over the last few years I have learned important stuff about life in general, relationships, teamwork and financial management – I’ve had to learn these things as often you are left alone to simply get on with and survive. It has been a very steep learning curve, but a rewarding too.

My relationship with Rachel gets stronger every day and with every hurdle safely negotiated. We have learned the importance of asking for help, putting false pride to one side and realising it isn’t a sign of weakness. We have learned to survive on one income – and I’ve always been much more of a fan of words and sentences than figures and sums.

Above all, I think we have learned to appreciate exactly what is important in life (it is something that never features on The Apprentice). It is an attribute that I’d suggest is shared by each and every carer in the country.

Unlike stars of reality TV, carers rarely get the opportunity to stand up and shout about our achievements. But, then, perhaps that isn’t entertaining enough, not least because we have done a pretty good job of coping, of learning, of simply getting on with life.

And we’re not known for shouting how we’ll always give it 150%, making boastful statements like: “I’m the reflection of perfection”, or making pointless claims such as describing ourselves as “better than unique.”

Carers only ever give it 100% because that is all we can give. Anything more simply isn’t possible, is it?

The Apprentice manages to burst its own bubble

Every series of The Apprentice has one and the newest candidate for the pantomime villain award really came to the fore in last night’s task.

Stephen did his level best to eclipse the current title holder – known simply as The Brand – with a carefully crafted display of arrogance and ignorance.

The truth is he still has some way to go before he takes over from Stuart Baggs as the most annoying candidate of all time. I also doubt we’ll reach the dizzying heights of the best Apprentice moment ever when Lord Sugar enthusiastically informed Stuart: “You’re full of shit,” and fired him.

Stephen is the new pantomime villain, but is not yet annoying enough to eclipse The Brand.

But Stephen is on course to be remembered for all the wrong reasons and part of me is actually quite pleased that he somehow managed to dodge the bullet last night. At least we get to see him project manage again next week as he threw down the gauntlet to his little lordship, who responded by making it clear that Stephen needs to win next week in order to survive.

Of course, this being The Apprentice, the chances are Stephen will survive – more by sheer luck and the ineptitude of his opponents than skill and judgement – and we’ll have to endure his deluded performance that little bit longer.

If Stephen can count himself lucky to survive, then winning project manager Tom is a close second when it comes to the fluke effect we see so often on The Apprentice. Leading the team for the second week running, Tom once again failed to deliver on the early promise he had shown in this series.

To compound matters, he failed miserably this week in a task which should have been so easy for him. As director of a fine wine company, you would assume he would be able to come up with a fantastic campaign to raise awareness about award-winning English sparkling wine. But, never forget the first rule of life – never assume!

Instead of leading his team to a glorious and comfortable victory, Tom survived the boardroom simply because the opponents were just that little bit more crap.

While his team failed to get to grips with the task, thanks largely to Tom himself missing the whole point of the exercise, the other team stuck closer to the brief but then produced a monumental cock-up in the shape of their Carry On-style video promo.

There was not much fizz or sparkle on display last night from any of the candidates

No wonder Tom decided he was better off getting drunk with Adam rather than doing any actual work. When he did enter the fray for the pitches, he bored everyone within earshot with his knowledge and proved he didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to be doing – the vacant stare Tom has perfected has to be a real worry for Lord Sugar now.

Adam once again proved how out of his depth he is…this time he seemed happy enough to be awash in wine and sparkling plonk and then did his usual pointless “I’m the choreographer” stuff on the video shoot which left everyone bemused.

An honourable mention should probably go to Gabrielle – although I’m still fascinated by her penchant to walk around with her hands behind her back. She at least showed a glimmer of promise with her elegant logo design.

Yet it says everything about The Apprentice that this review centres around the one that should have got fired but escaped and why the so-called winning team discredited the whole series by being allowed to get away with ignoring the brief completely.

Lord Sugar would be advised to declare this type of task null and void in the future – neither side deserved to win, so get them all back in the boardroom and fire a few, not just one. That would shake things up and if his little lordship did it with his usual bluster and bullshit then it would also provide far more entertainment than we are being served up at present.

The Apprentice hasn’t fallen flat just yet, but it is losing its sparkle.

Not even the pantomime villains will be enough to save it if we keep getting such woeful performances.

I don’t know much about The Apprentice, but I know what I like

“That Banksy, he’s just like The Stig isn’t he?”

Yes, it was time for The Apprentice to have an art attack this week and we were served up the usual treats from the hapless wannabes.

The task was based around flogging urban art after identifying two suitable, saleable artists.

The team led by the ever-smiling, gushing and Teflon-coated Gabrielle was slightly less crap than the walking-talking dictionary of urban art led by Tom, so they got to celebrate by smearing each other with paint…no, really, that was the prize for winning the task and they seemed really happy about it too.

It was a fitting end to a mess of a task that neither side seemed to fully grasp.

From patronising the artists (Tom), to embarrassing fawning (Gabrielle), idiotic suggestions (Stephen), unexpected invisibility (Ricky) and unashamed dumbness (Adam), no-one stood out for positive reasons this week. And the whole thing just fell flat.

The teams made a total mess of the art task

Gabrielle’s team won despite the fact that they managed to completely cock-up the opportunity for a £10,000 corporate commission and Tom’s team lost because he cocked up his Plan A and then admitted he didn’t have a Plan B.

All in all it was a shambles…and not a very entertaining one at that. Not even Adam’s flitting between open-mouthed imbecile and super sales machine was enough to lift the episode – although comparing Banksy to The Stig was a rare flash of genius.

Laura got booted off for failing to sell enough and talking too much.

And that’s all you really need to know about this task apart from Tom seriously blotted his copybook, Stephen confirmed he’s all mouth and trousers, Jade looks to be joining Adam stuck in the deep end, Gabrielle can make horrendous mistakes and still win, and Jenna and Nick got away with doing nothing.

Oh and one other thing, Adam will probably end up winning.

Roll on next week and let’s hope for a bit more light entertainment amongst the ridiculous business decisions.

Ye olde balancing act

The growth of Lichfield continues with news of plans for a 450-home development on land that – for now at least – represents the outskirts of the city.

The plans include a retail element, a community development and associated footpaths and cycle routes.

It will effectively see developments pushing further into the green areas between Lichfield and Shenstone to the south and the proposal has already generated a fair amount of criticism.

Lichfield’s MP has entered the fray by calling for greater balance in such schemes, between the need for Lichfield to take advantage of opportunities for growth and safeguarding the city’s heritage.

There’s little evidence of preserving character and heritage in this part of Lichfield. Ye olde Mega-Tesco is ugly.

Michael Fabricant wants to ensure that developers do not damage the city’s character as they look to meet the area’s housing needs. And I wholeheartedly agree.

Unfortunately, it can be argued that a dangerous precedent has already been set with various schemes that have been completed in recent years. From the Darwin Park residential explosion, to the eyesore that is ye olde Mega-Tesco, there has been little evidence of this delicate balance between progress and protection.

In fact, everything seems to have been tipped in favour of the developers to date with little consideration given to the existing city, its residents and its heritage.

In order to strike the balance the MP is calling for, a fair amount of weight needs to be added to the historic side.

Quite who will supply that weight is open for debate, along with these latest proposals for further development.