Sunday, July 28, 2013

Wildlife Rediscovered

In the long-running British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), there was an amusing subplot in which an elderly junk shop proprietor called Auntie Wainwright would find ingenious ways of selling unwanted merchandise to customers who were nowhere near as sharp as she was. If some unsuspecting sap crossed her threshold in search of, say, a kettle, his arm would be up his back in a split second, and he would exit the place, somewhat shaken, clutching a garden rake or a couple of rickety dining chairs. Consequently, I have always been wary of entering any small store in which the only other person is the shopkeeper. Could I retain the willpower to keep my wallet in my pocket, if push came to a hard-sell shove? It is perhaps similar to submitting to hypnosis while mistrusting one’s own ability to resist an absurd suggestion.

Yesterday, my partner and I visited a sprawling crafts-and-antiques centre in the middle of the English countryside. Each ‘unit’ – there were about ten in all – was a converted farm building, manned by an Auntie Wainwright clone, and crammed so full with weird junk that if either of us had sneezed, the entire contents might well have come crashing down on top of us. We were on the lookout for a small wooden platform for a potted plant and some antique silver kitchen knives – her obsession, not mine.

A large proportion of the displays consisted of items which had survived from ‘the decade that taste forgot’ – a.k.a. the 1970s. Every couple of minutes, one or both of us would point at some tasteless contrivance and confess: ‘Urgh, we used to have one of those.’ There were faded postcards, impractical coffee pots, long-forgotten Christmas annuals, manual typewriters and a ghastly, whitewashed wrought iron-and-glass telephone table which we both swore to have seen somewhere before.

For the first hour, my wallet remained strapped to my leg. Despite having not bought anything – yet – it was a captivating place, the closest we could have come to time-travel, and we wandered around in a sort of silent 1970s haze. Whenever I commented on some insignificant detail, she would poke fun at my elephantine memory for useless information, and I would reciprocate about hers resembling a (1970s) colander. (There again, some of life is just as well forgotten.)

After we had scanned innumerable objetos de la nostalgia, one item stopped us both in our tracks. Semi-discarded in a small wicker basket, almost at ground level, was The World Wildlife Collection Card (Figure 64.1), published in 1971, a copy of which we had both owned as children. It was a promotional item, courtesy of Shell Oil and The World Wildlife Fund. The album, a single, folded piece of card, had cost 25 pence (£3 in today’s money), and with each purchase of Shell petrol (Figure 64.2), a 7 x 5 cm lenticular print of an exotic animal would be handed over with the receipt.

Figure 64.1: ‘The World Wildlife Fund exists to back the planning, research and education necessary to conserve for the benefit and enjoyment of mankind, each of the thousand endangered species of wild animals and enough of the wild places they live in to ensure their survival. Many of these species, some of which are featured in the Shell series of 3-D prints, are in immediate danger of extinction. We desperately need to stop this tragedy. This is why Shell and the WWF have worked together to produce a magnificent album. The more people understand the problems we face the more we can do. I think it is really up to us all, in our duty as citizens of the world, to help. If only for the sake of our grandchildren.’ – Sir Peter Markham Scott (1909-89), in 1971

Copyright © 1971 Shell UK

Figure 64.2: Petrol pumps, in the UK, as they were in 1971

Copyright © 2012 Daily Telegraph

I remembered there were sixteen prints in total (Figure 64.3), four to a page, although neither of us had managed to collect them all. Each could be pasted into its own space, underneath which was a paragraph of information about where and how the animal lived. The picture surfaces were, at the time, revolutionary, and made an indescribably cool sound when scraped with a five-year-old’s fingernail.

Figure 64.3: Almost all sixteen species remain endangered, some critically so.

Copyright © 1971 Shell UK

I picked up the album and opened it out carefully. All sixteen prints were present, each pristine and glued precisely in its rightful place. As we looked at each ‘3D’ image, some of our oldest memory cells were switched on for the first time in forty years. It could almost have been the very album one of us had once owned. I handed it over the counter to Auntie Wainwright without even asking the price.

We had gone there looking for a retro plant stand and some kitchen knives ... and come out in a nostalgic trance, proudly holding a small part of our childhood (Figure 64.4).

Cheers, Auntie.

Figure 64.4: Please send me an email if this article has rekindled memories.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Monday, July 08, 2013

Smells Like Double Dip

A dear friend of mine passed away several weeks ago. His cancer had been diagnosed only in March of this year, so it seemed merciful that his suffering was not further prolonged. His wife – they had been together for fifteen years – was, and remains, distraught, and turned to me to sort out all the financial matters and laborious paperwork.

Most of it has been straightforward. Only one matter has caused difficulty, having me sad one minute, raging the next. The two of them bought a timeshare several years ago from what she assured me was a ‘reputable timeshare company’. A blatant contradiction in terms, you might be thinking. Over the past decade, they enjoyed all-season holidays in Andalucía, and I suppose they always tried to make the best of a dubious deal. What I did not know is that, after they had received the tragic prognosis from the hospital, they were approached by a ‘seemingly legitimate’ firm offering to sell the timeshare for them – and it already had a potential buyer. The firm demanded 600 up front; but the alarm bells failed to ring. No proper selling agent either expects, less still demands, payment prior to completion. It was, of course, a simple scam. The ‘business’ was found to have operated from false addresses, and its owners will by now have disappeared into the night. I learned of it only after my friend’s death. He was a gentle soul, always giving others the benefit of the doubt (Figure 63.1).

Figure 63.1: My friend’s lack of cynicism was his Achilles’ heel.

Copyright © 2013 Demand Media Inc.

Shortly after the funeral, his wife – I dislike the word ‘widow’ – told me that she had been contacted by a Spanish law firm investigating timeshare fraud, and that it would apparently cost nothing for them to pursue the matter on her behalf. I collected the entire documentation last week but, before I had found time to digest it, she had been contacted several more times by the ‘fraud-busters’. Each time, however, she explained to them that I would be dealing with all matters henceforth.

My first reaction was that lawyers do not come free, nor cheap, nor anything other than ludicrously, unjustifiably expensive. (The old joke that they do not look out of their office windows in the mornings because it gives them something to do in the afternoons does hold an element of truth – and yes, I have worked for a law firm.) Secondly, given Data Protection legislation, how did they find everything out? Thirdly, such cold-calling is illegal under Spanish Law.

So I phoned the firm, which is based in Málaga, and spoke with the person responsible. As I suspected, only the initial consultation was free. There would be a 1000 retainer; costs would pile up in typical lawyerly fashion; and, naturally, there would be a less than perfect chance of recovering any money. I told them cold-calling was illegal and threatened to report them to the Consejo General de la Abogacía Española (Spanish Law Society). There has not been a squeak from them since.

Sadly, there was more to come, from yet another cold-caller with my friend’s details from heaven-knows-where. This time I shall name the company. It is Milestone Data, supposedly based in London. I checked the address they provided: 145-157, St John Street, EC1V 4PY. This is registered to a company called London Presence, a (presumably) legitimate business which, for as little as £15 per month, provides mail-redirection services to clients who are, self-evidently, nowhere near London. Furthermore, Milestone Data is not registered at Companies House. (This is the British government’s Registrar of Companies which requires, by law, annual submissions, all of which are made publicly available.) I told them, in no uncertain terms, to back off.

Something else has since occurred to me. If a client has been tricked once,  cold-callers with inside information would logically assume that he or she might fall for a follow-up ‘double-dip’ scam, particularly if the second firm offers to track down the first set of crooks and make them pay, on the basis of ‘your enemy’s enemy is your friend’. Such a premise is dangerously unsound. Moreover, who is to say that the first scammer and the second are not in cahoots, or even one and the same?

My friend belonged to a different age. His wife can scarcely believe the unlawful depths which fellow humans will plumb in the name of financial gain. They were a good match, both born way after their time to a world becoming increasingly devious, and shameless, in its criminality. I do not expect it to improve (Figure 63.2).

Figure 63.2: El escritor escribiendo. So long, MMB. I shall keep my word.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery