Monday, 22 November 2010

A Brush with Suicide

Last week I read in The Evening Standard that there were no less than three suicides on the London transport train and tube networks on a single day. That is so tragic and so sad.

It always makes my heart skip a beat when I hear about suicides under tubes because it reminds me of an experience I had on a tube platform about 20 years ago. It was probably the closest that I have come to a suicide incident since the one time that I seriously contemplated suicide myself years before (but that will have to be the subject of another post, perhaps).

On that particular day I wandered down to the platform as normal and flopped down on a bench next to a middle aged man. I noticed that he looked a bit sweaty and agitated, albeit normally dressed in a suit and tie as I was. He was muttering to himself and I remember thinking "oh no, trust me to sit next to the nutter. Must get in a different carriage when the train comes."

I tried to ignore him but then I heard that what he was muttering was "Do it, do it, do it" and he was wringing his hands. I started to get worried. Do what? Could he be planning to....? Do I ignore him in true British fashion or do I say "excuse me, strange muttering person, are you alright?" If I do, does he tell me to mind my own bloody business?

I sat, pretending to ignore him. He kept muttering, geting louder "Come on, do it, do it". I could hear the tube now coming, getting louder. He was getting louder "DO it, DO IT". I was really worried now. We were both still sitting down on the bench. The tube thundered in to the station. He is shouting "DO IT, DO IT". I am staring straight at him now, shouting "DO WHAT? DON't DO IT ! NO! SIT DOWN!" He is white as a sheet. I am terrified. We are both still sitting on the bench.

Train slows to a halt. He leans back. Bursts in to tears. I get up, shaken. Board the train. We don't make eye contact. We don't acknowledge each others presence. I have no idea what he was going to do. Resign from work? Leave his wife? Jump under the train? Book tickets for a footie match? I genuinely have no idea. I have no idea what he did next. I have no idea whether I was supposed to have done something different. Something more. No idea.

But everytime I hear the phrase "person under a train at station xzy" that 30 second incident from 20 years ago pops into my mind and my heart skips a beat.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

When is the best time to kick a man?

I had never been chased by debt collectors before, until last week. It is not a nice experience.

It was all the more annoying because the bank that chased me made the mistake that caused them to chase me in the first place!

In my case it was all cleared up within a day or so with a phone call and an apology from the bank but it gave me a small sense of what it must be like if you are being hunted for real. And "hunted" is definitely what it feels like.

A couple of weeks ago I got a letter from my bank saying that one of my credit cards had been compromised in some unspecified way so they would be sending me a replacement card with a new number. So far, so good. A bit scary that they didn't say what had happeneed to my old card but at least they were being proactive about it.

The new card duly arrives. I cut up the old one and activate the new one. All good.

However around that same time my regular monthly direct debit is taken by the bank to pay the card balance. This is when the fun begins. The payment goes to the old card number but the bank has moved the outstanding balance to the new card that it has issued to me. So, on their systems there is one card with a healthy positive balance and another card with a missed payment. The result is chaos!

An alarm bell must go off inside the bank. "MISSED PAYMENT ALERT, MISSED PAYMENT ALERT". I have images of debt collection types in black ski masks swinging down on ropes and crashing through windows.

My mobile phone suddenly lit up with calls from a mysterious number. I ignored it a couple of times as I don't answer calls from numbers that I don't recognise but when it kept going off I answered and it was completely silent. How spooky is that. Now I'm worried. Who is this and how did they get my number?

Then it occurs to me to google the number. Up come loads of discussions asking "who owns this number?" and replies saying "it's such and such bank's debt collection department". Light dawns, but I am irritated that I'm being houned. As I'm busy at work, I make a note to call them later when I have a chance.

When I get home the first thing my wife says is that my bank has been calling and apparently needs to speak to me urgently. She is concerend. Is there a problem? One of my children mentioned that she answered a call from my bank. "What's that about, dad?" Those who know me will know that at this stage I am getting, how shall we say, erm, "focussed".

Before I called them, I logged on to the bank website to see if I could see what was going on. I tried to send the bank a message asking a question but a box popped up saying that I am blocked from sending messages and I must call debt collection immediately. Those who know me will know that at this stage I have grown horns, my eyes have gone all big and starey and I am speaking very slowly, quietly and deliberately. Yes, I. Would. Like. A. Cup. Of. Tea. Thank. You.

I call the bank. It is a short and quite focussed conversation. They start from the assumption that you are obviously in debt and that you've probably got some story to try to fob them off with. They've heard it all before. I speak in One. Word. Sentences. With a little help, they realise their mistake, apologise and call the dogs off. That didn't stop me getting three more silent, menacing automatic calls over the follow 12 hours though!

I think I must have got about ten called to my mobile and home in a 24 hour period due to their mistake, despite the fact that I had a big positive balance sitting on the old card plus quite large sums of money sitting in savings accounts at the same bank. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience and that was just for me who (a) hadn't actually missed a payment and (b) has been a senior executive in a bank so is quite capable of dealing with such things.

It made me wonder what it must be like if in these difficult times of job losses and so on, you really do find yourself in trouble and miss a payment. All hell must break loose. Imagine that you've lost your job. You have three or four cards. You are trying to keep the plates in your life spinning in the hopes of finding another job soon. You are under pressure at home. YOu are trying to be the breadwinner but you are feeling battered. YOu miss a payment. Can you imagine getting 30 or 40 calls to your home and mobile as the pack descend, just when you are at your most vunerable? The thought makes me shiver.

Talk about kicking someone when they are down. But, hey ho, this is life I guess, and as the old saying goes "if you can't kick a man when he's down, when can you kick him?"

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A view from the top: Don't look down!

A colleague of mine mentioned casually that in his spare time he jumps out of aeroplanes, about 20 times a year. I am hugely impressed. That's real action man stuff. I feel even more whimpish now that I have to admt that I am scared of heights.

What's puzzling me is that I didn't used to be scare of heights. I seem to have developed vertigo as I've got older. I didn't know that the ageing process had anything to do with fear of heights but I was surprised when my older brother revealed that he too has developed a fear of heights in the last few years. How odd.

In my case it has become quite acute. It doesn't help that my holidays keep taking me to places with amazing views. The cable car climb up Table Mountain, Cape Town, had me clinging to the middle of the car for dear life like a paralysed pole dancer. As people gasped at the glorious sunrise on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, I sat shivering and slightly dizzy looking resolutely in the opposite direction. The Stratosphere at the end of the Las Vegas strip where you can see straight down, the stairs to the middle section of the Eiffel Tower, driving through Rift Valley, Kenya, overlooking Niagra Falls and even the view from an old look-out tower atop the hills in the Peak District - all left me scared, sweaty and shaking.

So, how do I confront this? Some people insist that you face your demons. Kill or cure. It's time to "Man Up". Feel the fear and do it anyway. Me? I'm past all that macho stuff. I think I'll just change the places I go on holiday. Holland is looking pretty attractive all of a sudden.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Ties that bind

What exactly is the point of a tie?

That long strip of material that we men are obliged to wrap tightly around our neck and squeeze to the point of nearly, but not quite, cutting off all blood supply to the brain.

I have two offices in my current role. One requires me to wear a tie and the other doesn't. At the tie-office it doesn't matter what job you do - finance, marketing, customer service - you are not complete until you attempt to hang yourself with a dangerous piece of cloth which, if it got caught on a hook as you rush from one meeting to the next, would cause your legs to go flying and you'd land flat on your back like a cartoon character. By wearing a tie you will be able to do you job better. And when men from outside come to the office wearing their own ties you will be able to look at each other in a spirit of brotherhood and say "yes, we are men of ties. Respect, my tie-wearing brethren."

At the non-tie-office it doesn't matter what job you do - finance, marketing, customer service - you are not complete until you strip down to your neck, brazenly flaunting your adams apple for all to see, causing young ladies to faint at the sight of it bobbing up and down as you talk. By not wearing a tie you will be able to do your job better. And when men from outside come to visit, naked from the neck up, you will be able to hug each other with cries of "hey, you hip, young, non-tie-wearing dude. Rock on, buddy!"

Oh, no. I've just realised that wearing a non-tie is as much a uniform as wearing a tie. Is there no escape?

Perhaps I can find a third way. Wearing nothing but a tie.