Student Loan Overpayment

Recently I have had the misfortune of discovering how student loan repayments actually work in the UK. For those paying out of their salary the Student Loans Company calculates the outstanding balance at the beginning of the tax year. If you still owe money they instruct HMRC to continue to receive payments, these payments are then kept by HMRC and only sent on to the SLC at the end of the year.

This means that if at the beginning of the tax year you owe some small amount, around £100 in my case, you will pay off your debt in the first month but continue to pay for the rest of the year before anybody will take any action to stop the payments. In my case by the time I noticed what had happened I had overpaid by over four thousand pounds!

Given how the system works it’s not surprising that the SLC collected £15 million in overpayments in the 2009/2010 tax year. Another report had the total overpayments at £48 million as of March 2008 with the average graduate overpaying by £533. It seems former students are expected to track repayments closely and contact the SLC in advance of paying off the loan to make sure payments are stopped in time.

The system is simply bizzarre, causing overpayment of student loans by design. I’ve spent today faxing off (my first encounter with this arcane technology) payslips to the SLC in the hope of speeding up the repayment process. I’ve been told to phone again on Friday to check my fax actually got to someone and is being acted upon. I have now joined the 57000 graduates waiting for a refund from the SLC. One of the worst aspects of which being that the SLC never contact you if there is a problem, for example if they are awaiting more information, they will just put your claim at the bottom of the pile and forget about it. This means you have to keep checking up on the progress of your claim in order to get it processed efficiently.

Fortunately the SLC does now accept payment by direct debit allowing you to avoid the old overpayment-by-default system. I only wish they promoted this method by perhaps sending me a letter warning of overpayment and how to avoid it. Given that the SLC knew at the start of this tax year that I owed much less than I paid in the previous year I feel a courteous warning is the very least they could have done. It would be interesting to file a freedom of information request to see what percentage of students have switched to direct debit and how many are unknowingly still on the current broken system.

Update: I spoke about my problems with the SLC on a BBC Radio 4 programme about the issue and was featured in a BBC News article on student loans.

San Francisco

For the last week I’ve been in San Francisco, commuting to work in Silicon Valley. Attempting to explore the city as much as possible I’ve been making use of mornings and nights to wander around before succumbing to jet-lag and retiring at sometimes ridiculously early hours. This probably wasn’t helped by attending a James Ferraro gig in London the night before catching the eleven hour flight. My first activity, a five hour walk from the city to the Golden Gate Bridge, left my muscles aching for half the week. I’m heading back to London on Sunday so there is only one full non-work day in the city left but I’ve enjoyed my visit and managed to see quite a bit in a short space of time.

San Francisco

My arrival in the city was a little scary as I disembarked from the BART at Civic Center without any idea where I was going. The huge number of homeless people on the streets was startling and I was more than a little concerned as I wandered around not really knowing which direction to go in. Checking up on Google reveals the city has somewhere between two and three times more homeless people than London despite having a mere one tenth the total population. There doesn’t seem to be any easy answer to the problem and the city appears to be running out of ideas; they recently banned people from sitting on the sidewalk between 7am and 11pm.

Despite being too tired most nights to check out the local bar scene we’ve managed to visit some really nice restaurants. Absinthe, located on a particularly nice part of Hayes Street has been one of my favourites where I indulged in an exquisite duck breast and finished the meal with one of their many cocktails. At each restaurant we’ve visited I’ve opted for a Californian wine and they have all been gorgeous.

Golden Gate Bridge

Our visit has coincided with Chinese new year and on Saturday morning I wandered through Chinatown to see the setting up of flower stalls for the Chinese New Year Flower Fair. On the eve of the Year of The Rabbit I returned to Chinatown to find the streets beautifully lit by lanterns as warm light and laughter poured from the many cocktail bars and the occasional firework exploded to the applause of car alarms.

My walk took me out the other end of Chinatown and into City Lights Books. A painfully hip bookshop spread over three floors stocking everything from mainstream classics to weird outsider fiction and non-fiction categorised into philosophy, women’s studies, queer studies, music, stolen continents, science and so on. I explored the shop floor by floor and settled with a book in a chair in their beat and poetry section. Grabbing a mixture of staff recommendations and books that caught my eye for the flight home I headed to the till and back out into the city. As I walked back to the hotel past Union Square a busker played cool jazz into the night and the city danced to the rhythm.

Women's Building

On Tuesday morning I managed to head down to The Mission district and explore some of the awesome murals including those in Clarion Alley and the Women’s Building. We grabbed breakfast at Dolores Park Cafe and I skimmed the San Francisco Chronicle while waiting for the bus to take us to Silicone Valley. I’m pretty sure if I ever moved to San Francisco this is the area I’d like to live in. The Mission is slightly warmer than the rest of the city and walking through a sunny park filled with palm trees in early February is a great feeling.

We’ve been staying in the Hotel Adagio where the rooms are clean and spacious but lacking any character. The nearby Hotel Triton which I passed one evening looks much more interesting although I’m unsure how much a room might cost. I’ve still to visit Blue Bottle Coffee which was recommended by a colleague, take the cable car, visit Fisherman’s Wharf and cross off the rest of Time Out’s 20 things to do but there is still time.

All my photos of the trip so far live in this Flickr set.

2010 Retrospective

As the year draws to a close it’s common to take stock. Best albums, films, gigs, personal experiences. For me it’s been an important year. Strictly speaking I moved to London and started my current job in Autumn 2009 but this has been my first full year in the capital. It seems I’ve spent about £1000 on gigs, you can see a partial list on Songkick. Highlights have included Ben Frost setting fire to the equipment at The Luminaire, Carla Bozulich lying on top of me during a set at Cafe Oto, the reactivation of Swans, Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides, Richard Youngs, Oneohtrix Point Never, The Sun Ra Arkestra, Throbbing Gristle, Cafe Oto’s Japanese New Music Festival and a huge number of improv sets involving the likes of John Edwards, Evan Parker, Tony Marsh and Chris Corsano to name a few. On top of that I’ve eaten at a bunch of awesome restaurants visited numerous galleries, exhibitions, pubs and a bunch of other stuff I went on about in a previous post.

Japanese New Music

At the start of the year I bought a record player and have been doing my best to keep up with what’s available from Volcanic Tongue. Some of my favourites have been Call Back The Giants, Autre Ne Vuet, Ducktails – Landscapes, Forest Swords – Dagger Paths, Vulcan - Meet Your Ghost, Tashi Wada - Alignment, Flower-Corsano Duo - You’ll Never Work In This Town Again, Part Wild Horses – Blew in the Face, MV & EE – Liberty Rose, Bill Orcutt – Way Down South, a few Heather Leigh Murray releases and a couple of awesome Richard Youngs LPs.

Not everything great was new though. I got acquainted with Kate Bush by listening to Hounds of Love on loop for a few weeks. London punk poet Patrik Fitzgerald was brought to my attention and Grey Echoes became one of my favourite tracks. On top of that I’ve been listening to pretty much every album mentioned as I read through Rob Young’s excellent history of British folk: Electric Eden. Some awesome reissues I’ve picked up include: Doug Snyder & Bob Thompson - Daily Dance, Vertical Slit - Slit And Pre-Slit, The Dead C - Clyma Est Mort/Tentative Power, Lula Côrtes - Rosa De Sangue, Nihonjin – Far Out, Catherine Christer Hennix - The Electric Harpsichord and Crass – The Feeding of the 5000. Simply put I’ve listened to so much awesome new music this year I can’t even remember it all! That’s not even counting films. I signed up to LoveFilm and watched a bunch of them too, old and new. To top it all off The Wire will publish their end of year list next month and as usual I won’t have heard half of it and will spend the next month or two catching up.

On the down side I spent a little too much money on gadgets and didn’t get the holiday to Tokyo I dream about. However I now have a shiny 13-inch Macbook Air which I love, a Kindle and my prized Nikon D90. Unfortunately I failed to become a great photographer in my first year but I did get contacted by an agent asking to hire me and a venue wanting to use some photos in their press-pack so I must be doing OK. My personal life hasn’t exactly gone to plan either but hopefully I’ll survive.

Now I need to find a new place to live in London before I head back to Glasgow for Christmas. Wish me luck!

The Book of Disquiet

From jumbled scraps of paper found in the trunk of Fernando Pessoa after his 1935 demise The Book of Disquiet is formed. Written as the character, or heteronym, of Bernardo Soares the book is an intimate diary concerned not with external reality but with the world of the mind. The book has few characters or locations and no plot; each brief chapter is a stand-alone meditation on the human condition. As Soares puts it: “along with all the other great unfortunates, I’ve always believed it better to think than to live.”

Soares often writes of himself as being half awake and half asleep and The Book of Disquiet is characterised by this mood. Soares drifts through the streets and daydreams through his mundane work. Despite the tedium which is the book’s primary concern each page is exquisitely written and is often moving, inspiring and even funny. Ultimately I cannot do justice to the brilliance that is The Book of Disquiet, I can only implore you to buy it and discover for yourself. As Philip Pullman recommends on the cover of my Serpent’s Tail edition: this is the book to read when you wake at 3am and can’t get back to sleep.

“These are the thoughts that occur to me standing at my high window watching the slow end of evening, feeling the dissatisfaction of the bourgeois I am not and the sadness of the poet I can never be.”

If you’re still not convinced you can peruse a chapter or two for free on Google Books.

Clang Sayne at Cafe Oto

Cafe Oto is quiet on this bleak bank holiday weekend night, even the sound technicians are on holiday. My only familiarity with tonight’s artists prior to the show was one gorgeous Clang Sayne track on the Wire Tapper 22. Still, with no other plans for the weekend, a show at Cafe Oto – London’s foremost venue for new music – seemed like a pretty good idea.

The night starts off with Hyperpotamus who builds up funky songs and dreamy ballads with just four microphones, some loop pedals and his own voice. It’s an awesome spectacle to behold as he commences singing a few notes or beat-boxing into a mic and we watch as almost magically they come together to form intricate multi-layered compositions. In between he talks to the audience and introduces tracks with names such as The Unhappy Hedonist. For Someone Somewhere lulls us into a dreamland with its gorgeous rhythms as Hyperpotamus intones “Leave your fucking phone off, no use for that here”. When he finishes a queue quickly forms around the merchandise table to pick up a copy of his 2009 debut CD Largo Bailón along with the complementary clothes peg.

He is followed by James O’Sullivan who performs solo improvisations on prepared electric guitar. The electric sound is a departure from what I’m accustomed to hearing from the instrument. Softly and with great precision James draws a soulful lament from the aether. Whether rubbing the guitar with the head of a drumstick, tapping its strings with a spanner or dragging its head across the floor, each tiny contact births a new and wondrous sound.

James then joins up with Laura Hyland and the rest of Clang Sayne for the main performance. The group are comprised of Laura on vocals and guitar, James O’Sullivan, bassist Peter Marsh and percussionist Paul May and are backed by gorgeous blue projections of organic forms. Blending sounds more often associated with free improvisation with more traditional song-forms the group’s music seems like a natural extension of James’ earlier solo set. It retains the beautiful restrained feel but adds rhythm along with Laura’s emotionally charged lyrics crying out softly into the dark. As the gig comes to a close I pick up a copy of every CD available and head home to listen on loop.

A weekend in Ukraine

I have just returned from a weekend in Kiev with some work colleagues. Having slept at most five hours over the whole weekend, including the occasional nap on a bus or plane I’m incredibly exhausted and conscious of the fact that a two day visit to Ukraine doesn’t allow much time to really explore. Due to arrive late on Friday night our flight was delayed, landing at one in the morning local time. Adding to that the slowest passport control I’ve ever encountered and our taxi running out of petrol somewhere outside Kiev meant we were asleep on the couch (don’t ask) of our hostel at half past four in the morning. That gave us about an hour of sleep before the sun burst in through the curtain-less windows.

For Saturday we had planned a visit to Chernobyl and Prypiat. Chernobyl lies within a 30km exclusion zone requiring permission and a guide to pass government checkpoints so we joined up with a group in Kiev which we had booked prior to our arrival.

The guided tour started in the city of Chernobyl which has some inhabitants who work in the exclusion zone as well as permanent residents who have returned at their own risk. We then make our way to the power plant and subsequently on to the abandoned city of Prypiat stopping at various sites along the way. In Prypiat we walk around the city, crumbling due to a mixture of nature and vandalism, and are allowed to enter a few buildings and even climb onto the roof of the hotel for a panorama of the area. Over two decades since its evacuation the city is a post-human jungle with trees everywhere, even inside the buildings.

On returning to Kiev we are introduced to a local bar by one of the owners of our Hostel. As with the hostel itself the bar is down a dark alleyway with no external evidence of its existence. Somewhat magically we descend some stairs, a door is opened and a burst of light and noise flows from the stylish interior. After several drinks we move on to a club on the outskirts of the city and forsake our second night of sleep.

We awake early on Sunday morning and proceed on a whirlwind tour of Kiev before our 4pm flight. We walk through a massive park taking in various monuments and impressive buildings as well as gorgeous views over the city. At the Holodomor monument we encounter a local girl who gives us a very eloquent and touching account of Ukrainian history. We then carry on to the enormous Mother Motherland statue where we catch a taxi and our short encounter with Ukraine comes to an end.

Along with the locals that we met we encountered a large number of travelers in Kiev. We even met one man who was driving to Mongolia in an old ambulance he planned to donate on his arrival. A weekend break seems much too short in comparison. Perhaps it is an appetiser for a future adventure.

Richard Youngs – Ultra Hits

I found myself in Kilburn on Sunday night, enjoying the local park and pubs while waiting for the Richard Youngs gig at The Luminaire. Richard performed a “greatest hits” set followed by a full performance of the newly reissued Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits, which Richard called the “ultra hits” set.  Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits is ostensibly a Richard Youngs pop album, with gorgeous melodies and sing along choruses. Richard even makes attempts at soliciting crowd participation but unfortunately, with a few exceptions, most are too shy to sing along. Regardless, the music is awesome and Richard’s voice is as beautiful as ever.

The set ends all too soon, leaving us hungry for more but Richard simply replies there are only ten ultra hits. That may be true but there is still plenty of Richard Youngs goodness available at Volcanic Tongue.

First few days with the iPad

I gave into temptation on Sunday and picked up an iPad at Apple’s Regent Street store in London. I have to admit I was somewhat hesitant and almost ducked out the queue as I approached the front. A few days on and I’ve been using the device extensively. My laptop and Eee PC don’t even have a look in when it comes to catching up on RSS feeds, browsing the web or even typing emails.

Probably my favourite experience so far has been reading the complementary copy of Winnie the Pooh in the iBook reader which is free to download from the app store. The book looks glorious with lovely full colour images accompanying the text. I’m still not sure if I’m ready to trade in paper books for this thing just yet but the experience is very pleasant and my eyes seemed to have survived the first chapter unharmed. Unfortunately it seems I need a separate app to load PDFs onto the device. The most popular at the moment appears to be GoodReader but the interface is a little clunky in the current version.

By far the majority of my time is being spent in Safari. The browser is fast and the screen is the perfect size for keeping up with the news or Google Reader while reclining on the sofa. There is already is pretty decent WordPress app which I have used to tap out a couple of posts. It could definitely use a few improvements, the addition of formatting options and perhaps a way to view stats which relies on Flash in the web version but it’s usable none the less. For video YouTube plays videos nicely embedded in pages rather than switching to a separate app. In addition Vimeo and BBC iPlayer have Flash-free, iPad friendly videos.

Apps like the Guardian’s Eyewitness Photo App show that there is plenty of scope for creating truly beautiful content and it’s going to be interesting to see how the device grows as more apps hit the store in the coming months. So far it’s my favourite device for watching short videos, reading online content and even writing blog posts and emails.

By The Throat

Part Wild Horses Main On Both Sides kick off proceedings at The Luminaire taking us to another place with flute, drums, sampled birdsong and bells. The crowd sits on the floor meditating as we are pulled into Part Wild Horses’ ritualistic free-jazz. The audience was then asked to stand to let more people in as the next act, Teeth Of The Sea, prepared to begin. Teeth Of The Sea increased the tempo with a kind of prog/punk rock. The drums providing a primal beat on top of which the guitars, keyboard and trumpet created a feedback heavy sonic landscape. Nothing, however, could prepare us for what was to come.

Ben Frost at the Luminaire

Ben Frost took the stage in his bare feet, guitar around his back. As he built the first sounds of the performance he rocks back and forth before his laptop as if charging it with his energy. He then turns his back on the crowd to play guitar before the two massive amps at the back of the stage. The sound is so intense the whole venue is shaking. Glasses slide across the floor and audience members clutch their heads for fear of exploding. The music shakes us and I find myself moving with the beat. The closest reference point I have is the work of Burial et al through some of London’s loudest club sound systems. Between tracks Ben trades remarks with the crowd telling a fellow Scotsman by my side to “just be quiet” and later announcing “here’s the hit single” before commencing a performance of Killshot. The whole of London seems to be crumbling around us as I begin to feel the title By The Throat is incredibly appropriate. Then we start to smell burning. The set continues as smoke pours from one of the monitors. When I get outside I feel like my entire body has been shook to its core. Nothing will ever be the same again.

The Fall at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

I last saw The Fall on the tour of Imperial Wax Solvent in Cambridge only a few days before I moved to London. Mark E Smith was wheelchair bound at the time and gave an awesome but rather strange performance, at one point singing from behind a door off the back of the stage.

I arrived a little early after work so wandered around the nearby Westfield shopping centre which on two separate occasions has been described to me as a likely site of any future “zombie apocalypse”. Shepherd’s Bush Empire isn’t much better, a medium-sized venue run by O2 with a rather soulless atmosphere. The opening act is inexplicably a teen pop-rock outfit who get complete silence from the audience with the exception of a few hecklers. They are followed by a laptop performance which irreverently mixes video and sound sources from the likes of Elvis and Michael Jackson. A similar performance was given on the last tour and I was somewhat taken aback by the intolerance of the Cambridge audience to anything that didn’t involve guitars; Shepherd’s Bush seems more appreciative but their attention starts to wane about 10 minutes into the set. Not long after The Fall storm the stage and launch into Y.F.O.C Showcase.

Tonight’s set draws mainly from Our Future Your Clutter and Imperial Wax Solvent with Mark E Smith giving the kind of performance he is famed for. The band ploughs through the material as Smith snarls fragments of lyrics which loosely resemble what’s on the album. He wanders the stage turning the volume on the amps up full and when that’s not enough presses his mic against them to give the sound an extra boost. The only quiet moment is when the band perform Weather Report 2, towards the end of which Smith seems to be talking to the audience. As I strain to make out the words all I pick up is Smith stating “This song, Weather Report, is the worst song I have heard in my entire life” before he turns his back on the audience and laughs dementedly into the microphone. The band return for a rampaging encore of Sparta FC and when I reach the underground platform the fans are still chanting its lyrics.