High Bar

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I was grateful to be invited to a 60th birthday party last evening. It was a first for me and I have decided I rather like them. The birthday girl had invited an eclectic collection of guests who touched every part of her life from school days onward. She had a good line in her short and emotional speech, 'I didn't bring my phone because if anything happens anyone I care about in the world is here.' 

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 head for heights

head for heights

The venue was spectacular. I didn't realise you could throw a party on Tower Bridge. It is probably the best venue I have experienced. The choice of Tower Bridge had a lingering emotional trigger. Sue regularly walked across the bridge with her father when young and they used to say to each other, 'one day we'll have a party there.' Her old Dad is no longer around. I'm sure though he would have been proud as punch of his girl. 

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Memorable party but she has set the bar rather high. I'm not sure how one follows that. 

A Young Man's Game

 A young man's game

A young man's game

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I note from the Armed Forces bi-annual Diversity Report that as of the 1st October 2017, 23.6% of the UK Regular Forces and 13.9% of the Future Reserves 2020 are under 25 years old. In the last year, this has decreased by 1% in the UK Regulars and 0.9% in the Future Reserves 2020. Of the Officers, 7% of the UK Regular Forces and 5.3% of the Future Reserves 2020 are under 25 years old. At 1 April 2017 48% of UK Regular Forces personnel were under the age of 30. The overall average age was 31. The Army had the lowest average age (30), and the RAF the highest average age (33).

 Age of Officers in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Age of Officers in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Both Officers and Other Ranks in the Regular Forces are younger on average than is the case in the Reserves. The average age of Regular officers is 37 years old compared to 43 years old in the Reserves while Other Ranks in the Regular Forces have an average age of 30 years old compared to 35 years old in the Reserves.

 Age of Other Ranks in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Age of Other Ranks in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

These average ages appear high. Average ages in the Royal Navy and the RAF are higher than the Army. We would expect that  given the need for more technically qualified servicemen given the nature of their weapons platforms. There is also a minimum requirement, however much the Services have been cut, for command, control, support and logistics which would increase the average age.

 Average age of Infantry recruits from 2001-2012. The leap in average age may be a result of more accessible higher education and benign economic conditions during that period.

Average age of Infantry recruits from 2001-2012. The leap in average age may be a result of more accessible higher education and benign economic conditions during that period.

Notwithstanding that the proportion of servicemen aged between 18-24 has declined in recent years.  In 2000 this age bracket accounted for 31% of all personnel, in 2017 this had been reduced to 24% of personnel.

 More soldiers are aged over 35 than are under 24 years old.

More soldiers are aged over 35 than are under 24 years old.

The ugly fact though, is that war fighting is a young man’s game. I have written before about how small the Infantry portion of the Armed Forces is. The same is true of the other combat arms, Artillery and Armour, but with at a best guess, less than 12,000 fighting infantry soldiers fit to fight, the government of the day has limited optionality in committing itself to any kind of armed response. Worse, if those available forces were to be committed they would again be at elevated risk because there are no great numbers in reserve behind them. In a worst case extreme scenario we could lose the fighting strength of the British Army in a matter of days bringing unthinkable last ditch options in play. In pursuit of short term gain UK governments have therefore lowered the nuclear threshold.

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I would find reassurance in lower average ages across the board but what do I know? I’m just an old guy armed with a mouse and a keyboard.

 Strength of the full-time trained and untrained UK Regular Forces since 1980.

Strength of the full-time trained and untrained UK Regular Forces since 1980.

Size matters. UK Regular Forces are 50% smaller than in 1980. The total strength of the full-time UK Regular Forces (trained and untrained) at 1 January 2018 was 147,033. Between 1990 and 1995 the strength of the UK Regular Forces reduced by around 72,500 personnel (a drop of 24%). The reduction in strength was a result of the MOD’s Options for change strategic defence review announced in July 1990. The review was intended as a response to the changing strategic environment in the post-Cold War era, establishing a smaller better equipped forces and making defence policy focused more on capabilities rather than threats. 

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Since 2000 the total strength of the UK Regular Forces has generally declined year on year (except for four years of slight growth in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010). The Regular Army has fallen in size in the last 12 months by 2.3% with rises in numbers of Gurkha's and Reserves off-setting some of the decrease. Overall, the Army has a 6.3% shortfall in manning from it's Trade Trained liability against 3.7% for the RN and 5.9% for the RAF. 

 trend in the total trained strength against the requirement for the UK Armed Forces.

trend in the total trained strength against the requirement for the UK Armed Forces.

The manning shortfall across the Services is not historically unusual. It has more impact now however because the overall size of the Armed Forces is dramatically smaller than was the case even since 2000. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review has indicated that the requirement for the UK Armed Forces would be 144,200 personnel by 2020. The 2020 target is 53,960 (27%) personnel fewer than needed at 1 April 2000.

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Is the world 27% safer today than in 2000? With our Armed Forces at their smallest since the Napoleonic Wars we would wish that to be the case. Back on Planet Reality we know that is not so. In December the House of Commons Library carried out an analysis that looked at the real-terms (ie inflation-adjusted) changes to defence spending. It found that between 2010 and 2015 the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) budget had fallen by £8bn in real terms. That's a cut of 18% compared with the 2009-10 budget.

In January, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter said in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute that Britain "must take notice of what is going on around us" or that the ability by the UK to take action will be "massively constrained." For the CGS to speak out in public and in plain terms was unusual. In previous times his stark warning would have sparked a national debate about Defence. Not so now. The truth is few people care and why should they when dealing with their own busy lives? Nor do most politicians. The consequences of under resourced defence will be felt hardest by those serving if they are called to action. The repercussions though, will be felt by us all.

Eat Bloody Mackerel!

 What's happening?

What's happening?

The principle characteristic of salmon fishermen is one of optimism supported by patience and sanguine humour. Those qualities though are under duress after the worst start to the fishing season on many rivers in the UK since..... well forever, (although it must be mentioned that many more fishing days than average have been lost to bad weather conditions this year so far). The years preceding 2013 were bountiful but the salmon catch since has collapsed and salmon beats are now recording their worst five year averages since records began. Most of us have clung to the belief that the downtrend is cyclical in nature and will pick up again, as it did after very poor years in 1904 and 1915 for example.

The precipitous and accelerating catch decline though is now causing deep anxiety rather than a concerned raise of the eyebrows. On most rivers, fisheries management is first class and despite grumpy complaints from fishermen about predatory birds such as cormorants and goosanders they alone cannot justify the decline in returning salmon. Nor can coastal and estuary netting, poaching or obstructions in the rivers, almost all of which have been eliminated. Seals remain a problem, having doubled in numbers around our coastline since 2000 but even they are not sufficient to explain what has happened.

 Mackerel spawning areas (purple shading) along the European shelf and the post-spawning and summer feeding migrations (purple arrows). The pre-2006 mackerel summer feeding areas are shown as dark green with the post-2006 expansion in light green - right where our young salmon head.

Mackerel spawning areas (purple shading) along the European shelf and the post-spawning and summer feeding migrations (purple arrows). The pre-2006 mackerel summer feeding areas are shown as dark green with the post-2006 expansion in light green - right where our young salmon head.

The problem lies out at sea and debate rages whenever salmon fisherman get together about what the problem or problems could be. The answer is unlikely to be a simple one. More likely  newly commissioned research will conclude that poor salmon survival rates at sea are the result of many complex and contributory factors. One scientist believes he has identified one factor and it is a whopper. Professor Jens Christian Holst suggests that the massive growth of the mackerel population, (and herring and blue whiting), in the North Atlantic, between the Faroes, Iceland and Norway has created unequal competition for food with young salmon losing out to vast millions of mackerel. The mackerel in turn have been pushed into these areas by an absence of plankton further south.

There is some robust research available on the poleward migration of mackerel stock, most of it rather too academic for this post but if you wish to learn more it may be read here, here and here . A very good talk given by Professor Holst last year may be found here.

So, with salmon fisherman in a melancholic if not glum mood what is to be done? Contrarians of course will look to purchase fishing at depressed prices waiting for them to rally but who know's when that might be. One thing is certain, the way to deplete mackerel stocks is to eat them so please, eat some bloody mackerel!

Recent research has shown that almost all fish will survive if they are treated properly, according to a simple set of rules. Useful video should you be lucky enough to catch one, (and here’s another from Canada).

 wanna no do that?

wanna no do that?

Salmon fishermen are doing their bit within the limits of what is under their control. Virtually no fish are killed on the bank these days and in a complete reversal of historical habits well over 90% are returned and virtually 100% of the spring stock is returned on most if not all UK rivers. Catch and release is treated with near reverend religious devotion these days rather than as a 'good habit.' Many though incorrectly take the fish out of the water for a quick photograph before releasing. It is understandable that folk want a picture given catching the things is both an expensive and rare event but more and more people are frowning on it and many ghillies are encouraging catch and release from the net only without lifting the fish. 

 

Two Sides of The Coin

"98% of people don't understand this" Matthew McConaughey's Motivational Speech.

I am not usually one for motivational videos. Most are promulgated by ego driven self promoters who make motivational videos because they have failed at everything else. At best, they give us some strands of optimism to cling to or reassurance that we are doing some of the right things, whatever they are. At worst, they are deeply condescending and irritating. Occasionally, there are some points that give us pause for reflection which is never a bad thing.

Here then are two, both very different. One from Matthew McConaughey which is typically American in being serious and sincere; the other from Australian Tim Minchin which is witty and irreverent. Reflect at your leisure.

Spatula Challenge 2

 Epic bike ride, nine years ago now.

Epic bike ride, nine years ago now.

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Incredibly, it is nine years since the kids had a bash at, and completed, the 3 Peaks Challenge. That would have been interesting enough but of course they decided to cycle in between the three hills rather than drive which normal people do. It is rather a long way from Ben Nevis to Snowdon, especially when following bicycles in a support vehicle. Still, they cracked it and raised a healthy sum for charity along the way. They called it the Spatula Challenge, (from the movie Run Fat Boy Run), but the one who came up with the name, (the youngest), had to join me in the support vehicle for the duration. Oh what fun we had, setting up camp, striking camp, leap-frogging ahead of them every eight miles, waiting at the bottom of the hills in the rain with hot brews and doing running repairs to the bicycles. Worse than not knowing what I was doing, I thought I knew what I was doing so repair stops tended to linger somewhat. Funny how even with bikes you reassemble them and always have one mystery part left over. 

Anyway, the youngest has grown and does his own thing now and well done to him for cracking the London Marathon in his own Spatula Challenge. Some might suggest that running the marathon in a creditable four hours with minimal training in £26 training shoes from Sports Direct bordered on silliness but he gets a tick in my box for it. He did rather suffer somewhat the next day but hey, it's all for charity!

A Good Day

Two weeks ago the family turned out to attend the Sovereign's Parade at Sandhurst where Commissioning Course 172 had their big day eleven months after being dropped off with ironing boards and what seemed like several hundredweight of kit. A fabulous day it was too, as are they all for anyone passing out from a training establishment be they a recruit or an officer cadet. It was also my wedding anniversary. Days in life, never mind marriage, don’t come much better.

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In his address, the CGS, General Nick Carter, said to the assembled cadets that he would give his rank, his way of life, such material possessions that he has to swap places with any of the young men and women on parade for the opportunity to do it all over again. Thirty six years after my own Sovereigns Parade I was thinking exactly the same thing. I suspect every other person there over the age of forty was too. 

 Eddie & I being questioned by John Knott, the then Defence Secretary (1982)

Eddie & I being questioned by John Knott, the then Defence Secretary (1982)

The day was not without a touch of circular sentimentality for me. When I passed out I did so with a fellow called Eddie Edmonstone next to me. Eddie went off to the Scots Guards while I went off to the Gunners. Today Eddie was there to see his Godson commission into the SG’s, as did my boy. 
Like many, I enjoy musical theatre. The very best musical theatre though is to be found on the drill square and none is bigger, better or more emotionally charged than is Old College Square at Sandhurst. It was, no ordinary anniversary.

 Back we are 36 years later to see the next generation march up the steps

Back we are 36 years later to see the next generation march up the steps

What If?

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The weather today has had a distinctly autumnal rather than spring like feel. Where then is this global warming of which the clever people have lectured us for so long? Actually, they mostly got it wrong so now they speak of ‘climate change,’ which suggests to me they will claim any non-standard event as their domain thereby justifying their self-created industry of research grants, conferences, quango and NGO appointments. Along the way they have scared the bejesus out of a generation of school children and made millions while making millions feel guilty in going about their normal daily lives. Step out of line and criticise them and you are treated like a cross between a medieval heretic and a Brexit voter. Well they can mostly bugger off. I have never swallowed their conceited tripe and I’m not going to start now.

It just may be that changes in climate are simply part of normalised cyclical changes in weather patterns. The problem is, those cycles are many hundreds of years long and are far too gradual to impart the kind of hysteria required to generate huge global misdirection of government funding through political pressure. What though, if these changes point to colder rather than warmer temperatures. The ‘why?’ matters less than the ‘what if?’

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Some scientists are suggesting that the circulation system of the North Atlantic is in its most weakened state seen for 1600 years. If you need something to worry about do read the article. My takeaway is that we have been force fed a diet for the last 20 years of made up scare stories, half-truths and misdirection promulgated by a collection of research grant hungry academics and gullible politicians preying on the natural anxieties of the populace to protect their children. It has though presented governments with a useful excuse to raise additional taxes. There may be some substance to some of the climate propaganda but I can’t help thinking we may all be looking in the wrong direction when we discover the real Inconvenient Truth – that we may have to worry a lot more in the Northern Hemisphere about cooling rather than warming. Why though interfere with our traditions established over centuries of being pathetically unprepared when a bad thing happens.

Parts of America have just experienced the coldest April for 140 years. Indeed, parts of Northern Florida saw snow for the first time since 1899. I suspect that in the next few years the media will start to talk much more about Sun spot activity and its impact on our climate rather than CO2, (about which there is no hard evidence to prove it causes climate change). Few however will sit up and take notice until they see agricultural commodity prices rise in inverse correlation to the prices of farms in more northerly latitudes and for that matter, house prices. That though, will be many years in the future. Nonetheless, I would not be averse to maintaining a healthy stock of tinned food and extra fuel at home next winter; you never know. Wouldn’t it be a tad ironic of population migration did a 180 degree turn and northern Europeans started heading south?  

Corporal Ronnie (Annie) Oakley RHF - Obituary

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We all recall men or women of influence from our younger days. People who perhaps gave the right advice at the right time, who helped steer us on the right path or who bailed us out when things went astray. When then, all these years later we hear news of their passing we find ourselves being hurtled back to the memories of the heady exciting days of our younger selves. What days they were. What people we have known.

One such figure in my life was Corporal Ronnie ‘Annie’ Oakley of the 1st Bn Royal Highland Fusiliers who recently passed after a short illness. The epitaph ‘Legend,’ has become so overused that it’s efficacy as a testament has come to be diluted. Not so in the case of Oakers. While every battalion has its list of ‘Regimental Legend’s,’  Ronnie was special and held in high regard by everyone who soldiered with him.

Meeting Ronnie with 1 RHF, then stationed in Barossa Barracks in Hemer, BAOR, was not part of my life plan. Far from it. But then plans have a way of unwinding at the first hurdle. Mine did when a premature stab at the Commissions Board at the age of 18 left me with what they called a ‘deferral.’ What they meant was ‘go away, grow up and come back and have another try.’ When I arrived back at my Depot at Glencorse near Edinburgh the only advice I received was from a Queens Own Highlander major who said, ‘why don’t you take a banana boat to China and see the world?’ He could have been speaking ancient Aramaic. Of course, he was suggesting I do what would now be called a gap year. I piped up and said ‘I would like to go to a battalion Sir.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said, ‘I’ll speak to the Adjutant.’ The next morning I pulled my feet in and reported to the Adjutant, a Captain Ewan Loudon of the RHF. It was a short meeting. ‘Report to 1 RHF in Hemer on Monday morning,’ he said, ‘get your travel docs from the clerk.’ I walked out stirred, shaken and stunned. I had entertained delusional visions of going to Hong Kong with the Black Watch but here I was heading to 1 RHF. You see, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, recruited wholly from Glasgow and Ayrshire, did not just enjoy a fearsome reputation in the British Army, it held true within the Scottish Division itself. Chastising myself for being really very stupid and wondering how I would survive in the cauldron of the RHF while trying to hide the potential officer label threw me into despair. Sympathy beers from mates in the NAAFI that night served only to darken the mood. It really did feel like the end of days.

As it transpired, my two years with 1 RHF was the most memorable and enjoyable time of my early life. I look back with great affection for the people I met, the life lessons I learned and the laughs we had. Those two years created the bedrock of my life in no small part thanks to the people around me. Men like Annie Oakley.

Oakers joined the battalion in Fort George in 1969 by way of the Merchant Navy. They say that pressure makes diamonds. He was an orphan with no family so the Commanding Officer was his next of kin. The battalion was his family. It still is. (quotes in italics are from fellow RHF soldiers).

There will be much said about him from everyone. I knew him from the first day I arrived in Singapore, he was asleep in the shower after a night on the Anchor beer. To say Ronnie was a character defies the word. He was larger than life and was known and liked by everyone in 1 RHF from the Commanding Officers downwards. He had his fair share of misdemeanours but was always open to giving a helping hand/advice to anyone. I knew him in various ways as a sportsman battalion goalkeeper, as a very fit soldier/NCO in A Coy, as a babysitter and as a friend. After his discharge from 1 RHF he was always involved in veterans activities/events. There are lots of parts to Ronnie Oakley but he always told me THE RHF IS MY FAMILY and he continued to say that to the end.
 Ronnie at a friend's wedding

Ronnie at a friend's wedding

The sad thing about perusing veterans sites and Facebook groups is that one reads of the passing of many old faces. Never though, have a read so many notes of genuine respect and affection as I have seen for Annie. The ‘great and the good,’ don’t get the airtime that he has. He earned it. His tough early start to life didn’t stop him from having a warm, friendly, good hearted and generous nature. He always had a kind word of encouragement for newcomers to A Company, a ‘tap’ of 30 DM’s for someone short before pay day or some friendly banter when someone had some bad news. He was a father figure to many a young Jock and a source of wise words for newly promoted junior NCO’s or newly commissioned officers. As one of the many posts said,

RIP to the best Section Commander I have had the pleasure of working alongside. Booted your arse when you needed it then sat and had a drink with you after it, always there to help his guys when they needed it. A thing I always noticed was that CO’s listened to RSM’s, OC’s to CSM’s, Plt. Comd’s to Plt Sgt’s, but everybody, listened to ‘Annie.’
 Annie, (left) NI patrol base.

Annie, (left) NI patrol base.

Ronnie wasn’t just a good guy to know. He was a very, very good soldier. Some infantrymen get to where they need to be through hard training and application. Some get there through luck and blagging their way through training. Some though, are born to it. Was there ever a more natural infantry NCO than Ronnie? Ronnie wasn't quite cut out for a drill instructors course but no one instilled more confidence on the ground than did he, be it in urban or rural environments. A friend reminded the other day about Ronnie patrolling in the Ardoyne; he wouldn't let anyone turn a corner without first scanning the streets, windows and shoot-throughs with his bino's. They didn’t teach you to use bino's on street patrols at NITAT (Northern Ireland Training Advisory Team), but then NITAT didn't have Annie Oakley instructing there. He instilled confidence in all around him and was completely dependable when ‘on the job.’ As young Jocks, we all respected his soldiering skills and his judgement in the field. Gaining his respect for our abilities was an aspiration for us all.

I wrote this in a previous post before I heard of Ronnie's illness, 'It is of course entirely normal for one generation of soldiers to look out of the window and think things have changed for the worse. It was ever thus. Back in 1980, after many hours waiting on standby in some side streets in Lurgan during the Hunger Strike riots, we got the order to move in and take over from the RUC who were taking a bit of a battering. As we moved forward a more experienced Corporal turned to me and said, 'Dinnea sweat it, this is nothing like as bad as the Ardoyne in '72.' I thought to myself, 'well a brick in the face or a sucking chest wound probably feel just as bad whichever postcode and time you happen to be in.'  That Corporal, 'Annie' Oakley, was incidentally, one of the best infantry soldiers I ever came across. He moved like a cat and had a natural understanding and affinity for his environment, whether on the streets or in rural areas.'

Since I heard of Ronnie’s passing I have struggled with how I would say “Stand Down” to this influential man. Ronnie was a very likeable guy, you couldn’t help but be enamoured by his look on life in the RHF, to most it was a vocation to “Be The Best”, to “Annie” as we all remember him it was learn as you go, do your job but don’t forget to enjoy your life, and Annie had a good life full of work and fun in equal measure. The respect he has been shown in the comments I have read make me feel I haven’t lived up to what it means to be a Fusilier. I was what is called a late developer only achieving entry to the WO’s and Sgts Mess at the end of my stint. But because of people like Annie and others I served with in the RHF I had a whale of a time.

Ronnie recently reminded me in a text exchange when he was in the hospital of a comedy sketch we did together at the Battalion Christmas concert in 1979 at the Globe Theatre in  Hemer. I described it as ‘the beginning, climax and last act in my stage career. We got a few laughs though.’ He replied, ‘I would say a standing ovation.’ That it happened at all was a surprise given the absence of any planning, script or rehearsal. He came to me a few days before the show and said,

 The Globe Theatre in Hemer; we could have had a future in comedy Ronnie.........

The Globe Theatre in Hemer; we could have had a future in comedy Ronnie.........

‘Have you got a suit Davy?’

‘Yes Ronnie, why?’

‘I’ve got an idea for a sketch. You’ll be the interviewer and I’ll answer the questions, it’ll be brilliant.’

‘OK, have you got a script and when do we rehearse?'

‘Dinnae worry about all that Davy, we’ll ad-lib, it’ll be a cracker.’

We got away with it but only because of Ronnie’s infectious charm and native wit. Being the straight man was easy given as soon as we walked on stage Ronnie had them eating out of his hand.

Ronnie died peacefully with close friends from the Battalion at his side. He planned his own well attended funeral even paying extra to have the crematorium service on a Saturday, ‘so folk didn’t have to take the day off work.’ That was typical of the man. He gave more than he took in life and that is the mark of a life well lived and of a gentleman. I shall remember him with affection, respect and genuine thanks for making my life a better one to live. He was the very best of men and soldiers that Scotland produces.

The world is now a sadder place with the passing of Ronnie Oakley. Ronnie, Annie, Oakers and goodness knows how many other names he was called touched the hearts of an entire Regiment, that included our wives and children. We were his brothers, sisters as well as an uncle to our families. He made me proud to be a Fusilier just as he was. Ronnie you brought a lot of joy and happiness to the Royal Highland Fusiliers. You have touched all our hearts. I’m sure we’ll met in another place sometime in the future. God Bless You Old Friend.

Fast Women

Ex F1 driver Riccardo Patrese takes his wife round the Jerez circuit in a Honda Civic Type-R... a little too quickly! Hilarious!!

After a blogging break of a month we're back and with a lot of catch-up posts to do. First, in salute of what must be the most melodic language in the world, here is a clip of Riccardo Patrese driving his wife around a circuit...... and what is there not to love about those Italian girls? My grandfather once said to me 'avoid fast women and slow horses.' I am reconsidering his advice.

Orvis; Get A Grip

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I'm not much one for High Street shopping, preferring like many, clicks to bricks and as a creature of habit I don't do many of those either. I have a small number of preferred suppliers to whom I return on a repeat basis, mostly buying exactly the same things when they wear out. 

Orvis is one, actually probably the main supplier and generally they are pretty good and often have ripping bargains for those who are minded to have a rummage through their digital sales stall. One particular favourite item of mine was the Zambezi trouser until it was discontinued a few years ago. I wasn't happy. I wrote to the CEO, 'Perk' Perkins who kindly dispatched someone to rummage around the warehouse and I was grateful to receive one of the last pairs. They have long since been worn out. So, I enjoyed a momentary uplift when they brought the line back and promptly ordered a pair. Just as promptly I returned them. They simply were not fit for my purpose. So, I wrote a review. The review was rejected. Do Orvis seriously consider Italian Hairdressers to be part of their natural constituency? Come on Orvis, get a grip.

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