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Friday, 8 March 2013

The Bonus Culture - or, how I got the sack for the first time in my life

I do apologise for my absence over the past ten days or so. I was quite ill for a few days and have latterly been hell-bent on beating a path to the end of this book I'm writing. I have, at last, reached the final chapter. Because the book is, on the face of it, a memoir of the 40-50 jobs I've had over the past 49 years, I'm ending it with my summary dismissal from the Tote (for whom I worked part-time as a betting assistant). My crime? Well, they called it Gross Misconduct. In fact it was a letter, a 22-pager, that I sent to the Chief Exec, suggesting that he and his fellow board members were thieving bastards who deserved a pay cut and the withdrawal of their bonuses. And then I sent copies to the press. They got rid of me 'quicker than Grant took Richmond'.

Because I have dug out this letter, written six years ago, and because I've been going through it with a view to using part of it this concluding chapter, I decided I may as well stick the whole thing on here for anybody who might care to read a 22-page rant written in one sitting after a long day at the races. It still makes me laugh. I hope it affords any readers a wry smile.



An Open Letter to the Tote Board and Management

This is an open letter in which I make a range of comments aimed at a number of people involved in the management of the Tote, so please understand that where I address any remark to “you” it may be taken on an individual or joint basis.  Please understand that I speak as an individual and as a member of the Tote staff.  The idiosyncrasies of my language and the overall temper of this letter may disturb you, but they merely reflect my mood.  The essence of what I am saying is a true reflection of what is going on in your organisation.   It is hard to express it without allowing some of the anger to seep out.

I was on the bus coming home from Pontefract races a day or two ago with a number of other Tote Betting Assistants when I heard someone refer to the senior executives of our organisation having helped themselves to a substantial bonus payment on top of their salaries for the year ending 31 March 2007. 

I found this both interesting and startling, since my own perception of the Tote is of a ramshackle organisation staggering along under the burden of a remote, incompetent management and kept afloat by the stoical efforts of a heroic but disaffected workforce. 

Realising that I must have been mistaken, I got home and immediately turned on my p.c. to have a look at the Tote’s annual report.  It was most illuminating. 

I had no idea, for example, that our Chief Exec, one Trevor Beaumont, had been voted a bonus payment of £266,000, being a sum equivalent to 82.5% of his annual salary – to mention nothing of a “taxable salary supplement of £66,000 in lieu of other pension benefits”.  I do not know who Mr Beaumont is.  I do not know what he does.  But I am mightily impressed.  He has surely achieved great things to be worthy of such a reward.  I would calculate that we’re talking about an annual income for last year in the region of £600,000.  I would like to know what planet in the Tote Universe Mr Beaumont inhabits – and when I next take a holiday I must try and visit it, because, when I look around me at the rickety little starship that I have got to know over the past five years as a Betting Assistant (York) I have to say that I see little evidence of any guiding hand at all, let alone one that might have steered us to such heights that the man on the flight deck should be blessed with a hand-out sufficient to keep me in comfort for the rest of my life.

Since neither Mr Beaumont – nor Mr Joe Scanlon (annual bonus £104,000) nor Ms Carol Thompson (£93,000) - has ever to my knowledge made an appearance at a Tote window in the York area during my five years at the chalk-face, let me offer a few snapshots of a recent weekend for an average Tote worker.  

On Friday we were to take the bus to Thirsk, leaving York at 1130 for a first race at 1400h.  However, on the morning of the meeting I found that an eighth race had been added to the card, due to go off at 1325.  So the day now started with the bus leaving York at 1055h.  Upon arrival at Thirsk we were as usual required to sign on for 1155h, an hour and a half before the first race and prior to opening our windows at around 1210h.  With the last race due to go off at 1725h, and the expectation that we would take bets on the first race at Newmarket (1740h) and Wexford (1745h), and pay out on both, we were going to be at our windows for very close to six hours.  I therefore approached our manager and asked what provision there was for staff to take a break.  I was told that rules and regulations make no allowance for a break until we have put in a minimum of six hours’ work.  And, since we are constantly being chivvied and harassed about never taking food or drink into the work areas – and since at Chester last summer we were told not even to go to the toilet without arranging for a Supervisor to cover our position – I find myself wondering whether Messrs Beaumont and Scanlon, or Ms Thompson, while undertaking such endeavours as require them to be paid several hundred thousand pounds a year, are forced to work six hours before earning the right to eat or drink.  But I put the thought instantly from my mind.  They are of course important people running a very large organisation.  They are doubtless different from us. 

I wonder whether you ever think of your Betting Assistants.  I wonder whether you have the faintest idea what a day’s work consists of.   Let me explain the system of payment for Tote Betting Assistants, because I cannot imagine you have time in your busy working day to acquaint yourself with its intricacies.  We are paid from an hour and a half before the first race.  Never mind the fact that we have boarded the bus two and a half hours before the first race – and let us overlook the fact that some people travel a considerable distance to catch said bus.  We cease to be paid the minute we `cash out`.  I believe in my case, last Friday at Thirsk, I was put down as having finished at 1802h, thus giving me some thirty-seven minutes’ pay beyond the standard five hours and a half.  After we’ve cashed out, we wait – and wait – and wait, firstly for the Supervisory staff to get all the cash sorted out, then for the Control staff to wind up their business.  As a rule we – and the bus – wait for thirty to forty minutes, frequently longer.  Finally we drive back to York, arriving at about 1930.  We are weary, having taken bets on eight races, and we are hungry and thirsty.  But we feel good because we have earned thirty-seven minutes overtime.  Six hours and seven minutes’ pay to come, even though we have been away from home for a shade over eight and a half hours plus the time it takes us to get to the bus-stop.

I hope you are all paying attention to this.  It may seem mundane and trivial, but it is a fair reflection of how we live and how we work, the conditions and hours we endure.  And if you are running an organisation which pays you around £300,000 a year in basic salary, £266,000 in bonus payments, and a casual £66,000 in case your pension isn’t sufficient, then I think you might enjoy knowing where your wealth comes from.  It comes from the sweat of people who work diligently, and willingly, but who resent being treated indifferently – and worse – only to learn that total strangers are earning in a single year what we cannot hope to earn in thirty.  Think about it.  If I could work 300 days a year as a Tote Betting Assistant it would take me several decades to earn the equivalent of what you take home in twelve months.  Please note that I say “take home” - because I do not believe that anyone can earn that amount, any more than I would earn it if I dipped my hand in the till.  However, I digress.

On Saturday we are to work at York.  Let us for the moment leave aside the fact that a considerable number of York staff have been paid individual travel expenses at around £30 a head to go up to Newcastle and work their meeting, while inexperienced Manpower staff are shipped into York at inflated cost on a day when 30,000 punters are expected to attend.  Think how much bigger your bonus might have been had this wastage been nipped in the bud.  Does it make you wince?  It does me.  However, this is no time for me to be fretting over your bonus.   Let us instead dwell on the joys of another eight-race card and the prospect of six hours and twenty minutes’ pay.  I signed on two hours before the first race, as required.  I went to the window where I was supposed to work at 12 noon.  I took with me a cup of coffee.  I’d like you to remember that cup of coffee.  It’ll come up later.  The area I was working in, the Courtyard behind the Paddock Kiosks, was already crowded with punters, all eager to place bets.  I did my best to take their money.  Heaven forefend that the Tote’s profits be diminished due to my lack of enthusiasm. 

There was, however, a problem.  I do not know who is responsible for running the technical side of the Tote operation, but I bet he hasn’t had a bonus this year.  Or has he?  I had two machines in my little cabin – presumably because we would normally have had two members of staff operating there.  The first one I used was faulty.  The cursor simply wouldn’t go where I sent it on the screen.  The result?  Frustrated punters, tickets printed with the wrong horse, wrong meeting, wrong time.  I phone for an engineer, apologise to my punters, and try to keep banging bets out.  After a modest delay the engineer arrives and looks at the machine.  “It’s f****d,” he says.  You must excuse his language.  He is a humble technician, and Scottish.  He tells me that all the new machines are likewise useless, that they are regularly sent to the workshop where the verdict is, generally, the same: yes, they are f****d; they have all been f****d from day one and every technician knows this, even our management, but we are supposed to repair them, so we send them back out, still faulty, in the hope that they may work better next time.  It reminds me of the days when we used to kick the telly to clear the picture.  Does it you?

However, I am getting diverted.  I want to tell you about my second machine.  This one had the discouraging habit of switching itself off and illuminating the infamous `silver box` on the screen.  Now, you may not be familiar with the `silver box`, but if you ask an engineer – and I’m sorry, you’ll just have to put up with the language; they know no better – he will tell you what it is.  What it is for us is a damned nuisance.  It means that the system has frozen, but of course we do not know whether our last bet has registered or not.  Now, faced with a queue the length of a cricket pitch and with the first race due to go off in five minutes I always prefer to keep selling bets.  I care about my punters and want them to have a good day.  Our orders, however, are to stop work and phone a Supervisor.  The Supervisor will then call Control and ask whether the bet – always assuming we can remember what the hell it was – has been registered.  Then he or she will call us back.  If it has registered, meaning that we need to cancel it, no ticket having been delivered, they will give us a sixteen-digit code which we must key into the machine which will then allow us to cancel the bet. Meanwhile, the queue has grown, the race has gone off and the punters are in uproar.  This is why some people – I amongst them – frequently ignore the order and keep selling bets, meaning that at the end of the day our cash balance is awry and we are castigated.  You see, if I didn’t keep banging out bets I would lie awake at night worrying about those Executive bonuses.  I really do care about them.

Throughout the afternoon at York, my machine threw about a dozen `silver boxes` at me.  I kept on selling bets.   On one occasion I was tempted to stop and do as the order required – namely, phone the Supervisor, close down and let my punters stew.  I was tempted because I had spotted my cup of coffee, now stone cold, but still rather tempting.  However, I batted on.  My machine then adopted a new posture, refusing to take tickets for cancellation.  I was very soon faced with half a dozen uncancelled tickets.  I should explain that my punters were nearly all female, mostly drunk, and given to the kind of skittishness that had them changing their minds every minute about which horse they fancied.  When I finally called an engineer he told me to go back to the first machine, the “f****d” one, and that he would endeavour to make the cursor behave.  I realise I have omitted another system failure when neither machine worked for a quarter of an hour since the wireless system signal wasn’t getting through.  I don’t really understand this, and I don’t really care about it, but you might pass it on to your systems executive – and I would imagine you’ll make sure he gets on the case if he wants to make up lost ground in the Great Bonus Stakes next year.

During the afternoon I took over 700 bets.  I kept a whole courtyard of punters happy and smiling, and was a model of manners and decorum.  And that part was easy.  Why?  Because I, like most of my highly disaffected colleagues, love working with the racing public, and enjoy each others’ company.  So please do not conclude that I am just a malcontent having a moan.  I am an excellent ambassador for your organisation who has never had a row with a punter in five years.  I work with a smile on my face and generally manage to put one on the face of my most dour punter.  

When I cashed out at about 1755 – and after several of my punters had thanked me for making their afternoon so enjoyable - I found my cold coffee and realised that, far from having drunk that, I hadn’t even managed a sip of water from the bottle I keep in my bag.  But of course that was a good job, since I still had five minutes to go before I reached the six-hour mark which would have entitled me to a break.  Asked by my Supervisor to explain a £50 shortfall when I cashed in I took some satisfaction in saying that the machine was “f****d.”  Official. 

Sunday – and the road show continues to … Pontefract.  You will be relieved to hear that this was an unexceptional sort of a day.  Left home 1125.  Bus at 1135.  Started work at 1245, took 400 bets on a seven-race card and got the bus home, arriving about 1930.  A normal eight-hour day for five-and-a-half hours’ pay.  But when I say it was unexceptional let me throw in a few of the things that we have to put up with on such a day.  The coach which took us to Pontefract had to be parked some way off course.  We mentioned to the driver that last week when we were at Pontefract we seemed to have had to wait an extraordinarily long time – in the pouring rain - for him to appear at close of play.  Ah, he said, that’s the racecourse authorities; won’t allow me back in the course area until a full hour after the last race.  Now, trust me, I don’t expect a Chief Exec to worry himself about such trivia, but I understand from my previous work in business that senior management and board members these days are encouraged to think of the big picture; and that is what I am trying paint here, the big picture.  The racecourse policy in this case, I understand, is resulting in our all getting overtime every time we go to Pontefract while we await the bus’s arrival.  Only a few minutes, but multiply that by thirty staff and – whoops,  there goes the bonus.

And so a little more trivia.  I am the father of three grown-up children.  I have seen life.  I have travelled, worked here there and everywhere, home and abroad, and have been self-employed for many years.  I have a degree.  I am fifty-eight years of age.  And yet at the Tote I am constantly treated as a child.  I arrive at work day after day, willing and cheerful, and have Supervisors berating me because my clothes are non-regulation, something that last happened to me in 1967.  I reflect on the fact that since I started in February 2003 I have been issued with one pair of dark trousers, and have bought two of my own.  All are worn out, and I decline to spend more of my meagre wage on replacements.  What more trivial complaint can I make than that my work-clothes are tattered?  But think of that big picture.  See it emerge in your mind’s eye: a work-force so dispirited that they will write letters of complaint to a £600,000-a-year man about their ragged trousers.  Add to that painting a horde of female employees, women with fifteen and twenty years’ service, handsome, self-possessed women who take great pride in their appearance but who now speak about the humiliation of wearing drab, washed-out, shapeless, three-year-old lime green blouses while working alongside Manpower girls who are smartly turned out in white ones.

I mention Supervisors.  Most of them are decent women (or occasionally men) but in most cases they are saddled with responsibilities far beyond their capabilities.  At York they are further burdened with a manager who is effectively invisible.  The last time our manager held any kind of staff meeting – two years ago, I believe – she heard a number of the kinds of complaints I’m making here from the floor.  Twice in that meeting she stated quite unequivocally that any staff who felt they were hard done by were welcome to leave and go to work at Tesco.  When pushed on conditions of service she rolled her eyes and uttered the memorable words, “What do you expect, this is the Tote!”  This manager hasn’t approached me, or anybody I know, in any work situation in the past three years to ask a simple question like, “How are things?”  If she did, we might tell her. 

Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you told me I should be writing this to my manager.  Listening to my worries is in part what you pay her for.  You have bigger fish to fry.  My response is that I would write to her if I thought it would elicit a response; but I remember three years ago when I was upbraided for a minor disciplinary matter.  Did my manager come to me?  No, she sent a Supervisor to give me a telling-off.   The poor woman was terribly embarrassed.  I had worked alongside her in York’s sugar-beet factory that winter.  I felt for her; I really did.  I agreed I had done something rather silly, then went home and wrote a letter to my manager apologising and assuring her that I would not do such a thing again.  I never had so much as an acknowledgement, much less a reply. 

A few days ago my manager did address a group of us at one of the cash-cages at, I think, Pontefract.  Was it about policy, about wages, about conditions, about morale, the things that occupy our minds constantly, the issues a manager should be concerned about?  No, it was to tell us that we should not complain about not getting work at Haydock recently, when the  Doncaster team were sent to a meeting we usually cover.  No, she said, it’s nothing to do with me; that was the fault of Doncaster staff who had greedily accepted the offer when they knew full well it belonged to York.  It was them being greedy.  So, an address by our manager which consisted of a blatant attempt to set us at loggerheads with our Doncaster colleagues while protecting herself from any blame.  And you imagine I would address my complaints to her?  I think not.

Speaking of management – although goodness knows we have precious little contact with them - I am going to ask you a question.  If you were a manager and a punter came to you and told you that a Betting Assistant had short-changed him, what would you do?  I would like to know.  I really would.  Because I had a friend, a colleague of some years’ standing, a man I have travelled with and roomed with at away meetings, a family man of good character and decent bearing, who was asked to go and work at Epsom on Derby day.  As you would expect, it was very busy.  And as we would expect, he was sent to a far-flung corner of the course to work in an extremely busy area.  So it goes: he wasn’t complaining.  He wasn’t the type.  At the end of his shift when he cashed in, having taken several hundred bets and suffered the usual catalogue of machine problems, he was told that he was suspended.  A punter had accused him of short-changing him.  Now, we will never know the truth.  It is not impossible that my friend was a thief.  Or perhaps an opportunist.  What do we know?  What can we prove?  Of course, we all wondered why it was that that punter didn’t do what any punter does when you’ve given him the wrong money (as we all have from time to time) and come straight back to remonstrate.  That was most odd.  But that is not the point I wish to stress.  The point I wish to stress is that when my friend went for his disciplinary hearing, after being suspended for a some weeks, and summarily fired, his representative asked the H.R. representative what evidence she had that the accused had committed the offence.  The answer was a letter, written some three weeks after the alleged incident, in which the accusation was repeated by the punter.  When this was challenged as not amounting to evidence, the H.R. representative remarked that inasmuch as the Tote needed to defend its reputation it did not need evidence, only suspicion, in order to sack an employee.  

I would now like you to take a moment to ask yourself why staff morale is rock-bottom.  Any punter – be it from the Royal Enclosure at Ascot or the cheaps at Aintree (and I have worked in both) - can point the finger and get any of us sacked, any time at all.  How do you think that makes us feel?

I do apologise for taking up so much of your time.  I shall wind this up in a moment.  But let me throw in a few more issues that plague us on a daily basis, on the fringes of this universe you have steered to such profitability.  Or perhaps I should ask you to do some research.  Come to Chester some day.  Bring your design team with you, if we have one; and your Health and Safety chaps; have them squeeze themselves into a Portakabin or an `Arfur` on a nice hot day on the Roodee, when they will take 600 bets.  Squeeze twelve of them into a tiny cabin tilted at an angle on the soggy turf.  Let them take a moment, as the punters paw at the windows and demand attention, to decide whether to sit or stand as they work.  If they stand they will bang their heads on the gantries that hold the televisions and have to lean awkwardly forward to shove money and tickets through a mousehole below waist level.  If they sit – on a machine box, most likely, because they will surely have allowed the ladies to take the half-dozen seats provided - they will find it more or less impossible to reach through the mousehole that is cut in the perspex window because the machine is in their way.  (And if we’re at Thirsk they’ll bang their knuckles four hundred times a day on the wooden slat that sits above the counter and still feel the bruise six weeks later).  I can promise you that on the Roodee your colleagues will come away with back-ache, or neck-ache, or shoulder-ache through repetitive strain.  And they will in any case have headaches from having to shout, the perspex being so dense, and the air holes in it so small, that they cannot possibly hear what is being said.

On reflection, let’s leave Chester out of this.  Chester is simply too unspeakably awful, and, even as angry as I am, I wouldn’t wish it on the Tote Board.  Let’s go instead to Ascot.  Ah, Ascot.  The pearl of the south.  Big hats, cleavage and a super new state of the art racecourse.  Roll up, roll up, ladies and gents and get your bets on.  But be warned: you may get the wrong horse.  Or the wrong meeting.  Or the wrong stake.  Why?  Because in the Plaza area, where I worked this year – and possibly elsewhere for all I know – the glass (not perspex) through which we must conduct our business is so thick and the holes for voice transmission so few and so small (I seem to remember four, each the diameter of a slim biro) that we could not hear a word the punters said.  And so I found myself, day one, with an irate customer holding a ticket for a £100 bet on horse No. 3 at Ascot when he’d asked for it at Lingfield.  And oh dear me, the race at Lingfield has gone off, the favourite (no. 3) has dotted up at 100-30 – and he’s holding a ticket for a 40-1 shot right here.  I spent a six-hour shift with eight other operators that day, all of us shouting at the top of our voices, in a brand new state of the art facility.  I reported it to a manager and refused point blank to go back there next day, but of course some poor innocent was sent in my place.  Happily for him, he is a drama student and was able to pitch his voice through the glass with little difficulty.  It was his colleagues who suffered.   I presume Health and Safety are dealing with that manager’s report as I write.

Now, I haven’t got the measure of you yet, but I can promise you this, that had I mentioned this problem to my own manager I would have been told that it was a racecourse matter and there was nothing to be done.  Which further explains why this letter is in your in-tray rather than hers.  I am left wondering, however, how the Tote can agree to operate in a brand new racecourse with palpably inoperable facilities.  What consultation took place – not between the Tote Board and Ascot, but between Tote operatives, the people who work the bloody windows, and the designers or architects who threw the place up?

And talking of consultation, what took place between the manufacturers and providers of the “new” Tote machines and the only people who know about the job, namely us operatives, before they were foisted on us?  We’re back to trivia, I’m afraid, but trust me, I know how businesses work and how reputations are built.  I have written three histories of hundred-year-old firms.  Attention to detail is the thing.  Even trivial detail.  The little snap-shots build the big picture.  Were you aware that on the old machines, the Extremas, we could bang out a dozen bets and the tickets would emerge one by one and sit in their little slot until we were ready to gather them up and hand them to our customer?  And that on the new machines if you place more than one bet the second ticket will shoot up and send the first one flying out?  Jesus Christ!  Why am I sitting here at one o’clock in the morning having to articulate this and write it down?  Because you, my friend, my £600,000-a-year friend, run an organisation that will commission such third-rate machinery and expect us to deal with it hour after hour, day after day.  And so, in the frantic spell leading up to the first race at meeting after meeting, with a fistful of Placepot cards in one hand, and using the other to tap out the bets, we have to find a third hand to stop the tickets spewing forth all over the counter from a new machine designed by an idiot.  If you had given one operator five minutes to test the new machines you would have cancelled the order forthwith.  But no, someone working in your organisation at an elevated level and with a budget whose size clearly overshadowed his intellectual capacity for dealing with it decided to buy them by the thousand and to hell with the consequences.  And do you know what his annual bonus was?  Would you tell me, if I promise not to tell anyone else?

I have probably said enough for the moment.  I could go on – and because it is near my bedtime I must briefly mention overnight accommodation.  I want to ask you how much you can claim in the way of expenses when you go and visit Haydock, for example, and stay overnight.  And then I’m going to invite you, in person, to spend a night with me at the next Haydock two-day meeting – or how about Aintree?  After racing we’ll find the bus, wait an hour for supervisory and Control staff to show up, then enjoy the hour-long drive to Southport.  There I’ll take you to a grotty little B&B that charges £28 a night for a cramped double room and a third-rate breakfast.  We’ll drop our gear and go for a pint of beer, then find a place to eat a meal.  But where?  That is a problem, you see, because our overnight allowance is £42.  We’ve blown £28 on B&B, had a pint and still have to buy lunch tomorrow, plus some supper on the way home.  Okay, so Southport is a cheap little dump full of refugees from industrial Lancashire, but will you take up my challenge of finding a room and three meals for £42?  Oh go on; please.  We could have such fun.  And along the way, we might discuss why so many people are now refusing to work the Grand National meeting when we are likewise required to stay at places like Southport at £42 a night after being abused by drunken Scousers all day.

What I’d like you to take from this, if you have read this far, and always excusing my regrettable tendency to let my anger boil over on the page while I consider the way we are treated as we go about furnishing you with your annual bonus, is an appreciation that you employ in the northern area alone hundreds and hundreds of decent, intelligent, accomplished, charming, loyal, hard-working staff who tolerate the conditions for one reason and one reason only.  We like people.  We find the race-goers engaging, appreciative, and fun.  Infuriating, yes; stupid, yes, occasionally awkward too, always demanding, but by and large great fun.  We talk a lot about the awful conditions we work under, and we talk about why we do it.  It comes down to our liking people, and to our exceptional skills in dealing with those people.  And the general consensus among the men and women I work with is that the Tote management and Board are abusing and exploiting us, and that if they carry on as they are we are all going to drift away to be replaced with fresh-faced students who will come and go season by season, amiable and pleasant, but utterly unversed in racing culture, unable to offer advice to a punter, and ultimately caring not a jot for the reputation of the Tote.  We are also of the opinion that the Board and management know this and do not care.  So I offer you the opportunity (a) of denying it, and (b) of telling your staff what you propose to do about it.

While you ponder that, allow me to offer, off the top of my head, a list of the kind of people you employ in the north and whom I number among my friends.  Retired teachers, retired Army officers, retired bank managers, retired businessmen and women, a stockbroker, former managers from nationalised industries, an opera singer, artists, actors, writers….  The list goes on.  And I offer it simply to let you know that you are wasting valuable talent here, that you have a fantastic resource under your noses and you do not even realise it, let alone take the trouble to nurture it.

I have taken liberties in this letter, but I am unapologetic.  My tone reflects my mood.  I am profoundly angry, and so are a great many of my colleagues – those who haven’t slung their hooks or, in the case of a very good friend of mine, been summarily dismissed because he reached the age of sixty-five in the year that the Government pronounced that age discrimination was a thing of the past.

I am sending copies of this letter out to a number of people within the Tote and the racing industry.  I look forward to your response and theirs.


Alan Wilkinson

Tote Betting Assistant


30 July 2007

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