Sunday, January 29, 2006


Who is that tall, dark, handsome, fat stranger?

Why it's me! With the hair of a millionaire bottom left (on link as well)

Party animals...

We held our first party in our own house yesterday since getting married, discounting family events like David being aged one etc. It is not that we are insular, our last big bash was Karen's 40th and we held it in a big Function Suite at Morley Rugby Club.

Anyway, it was Karen's idea which was good because if I had suggested it any unpleasant outcomes would have been my fault...

We were celebrating the 1st Birthday of Morley FM and also the celebration of the end of our recent 12 days of Christmas Broadcast. Rather than hold it in the Studios or a Pub, it gave us a chance to be more convivial and not get a taxi home! There were 11 of us in total, all but one of whom had been behind a microphone doing their bit to entertain the hordes of listeners. (In community radio, hordes is defined as more than a dozen!)

Our own experience of parties tended to revolve around a certain amount of mayhem in our younger days, so Karen was naturally worried about red wine stains on the furniture and so on. However, our furniture is not what you would call exclusive, being Habitat, Ikea and Argos based rather than expensive well made items favoured by my Parents. Indeed, much of our furniture is mongrelised to the point when we can't remember (or care) whether it was mine or Karens originally, it just is, so to speak.

Anyway, we needn't have worried. No wine stains, no breakages and as far as the comfort facilities went, no solids. It wasn't a dancing party, mostly just chat, although Martin Green was practicing for his trip to Spain the following day and indulged David with the actions to Superman and YMCA.

What started out as a few nibbles turned into a monstrous buffet as ASDA had a lot of Indian food marked down as sell today cheap in the Whoops! chiller cabinet.

The food was further supplemented by "wee timorous beasties" courtesy of Jack Bradford, our token Scotsman (2nd from bottom) and charming companion Caroline.

We had a cake as well, but we are saving that for Tuesday night, which is our Annual Meeting.

The other nice thing about parties when you aren't in the first flush of youth is that there is more booze left over after the event than before, especially when drivers bring two bottles, one (alcoholic) that they put into the pot, one soft that they sup.

It didn't entirely meet the approval of a certain 8 year old however, who was disappointed at the last-minute pull-out of Danny Mylo, our 15 year old boy wonder who is good at Playstation games and such. In a quiet aside in the kitchen, David told Karen "This party is really lame", he really watches too much American based Kids TV shows! Anyway, he kept himself amused later playing arcade and console games via a controller thingy whilst we kept up the chat, pausing occasionally to admire vintage classics such as Space Invaders, Track & Field, Mario and the like.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Incompetence with distinction...

I have previously grumbled about the inability of a well known Examination Board to confirm I had passed a Diploma that I submitted a substantial Business Case document for in late 2004. After much chasing, they confirmed that I had passed last May but were awaiting Examiner comments to pass on with the certificate. Needless to say, nothing turned up. I chased them again in August and October, which resulted in apologies and assurances but no action.

Last week, I reminded them again, much more firmly. Lo and behold, on Tuesday morning, I finally received my Diploma. There was just one small problem- the covering letter said that I had been awarded a “Distinction” but the Certificate just said a “Pass”.

The pre-requisite for the Diploma (what they called Part one) was passing three individual Certificates, which I passed at “Merit” level. The Business Case document would have had to be somewhat remarkable for me to have achieved a Distinction, or indeed somewhat duff to have only received a Pass, as the Certificate Awards are also taken into account when awarding the final Diploma. Not having received the examiner comments about the business case document, I have no idea what was the case and to be frank, I no longer care as the qualification has now been retired. However, being stubborn as a Mule on points of principle, I have asked for clarification.

I do have a feeling of schadenfreude, as I had to send a cheque along with the original submission and they never actually got round to cashing it. Whilst my Employer would have reimbursed me for the money had the exam board actually been organised enough to pay it in the Bank, it gives me some small pleasure to know that I’m theoretically in-pocket on this one.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

National treasures

I had a Board meeting down in London on Wednesday and found myself with some spare time before the meeting. This wasn’t bad planning on my part- if I arrived at Wakefield station any later than 8am then the car park there is full and alternative parking elsewhere is more risky as well as requiring a pocket full of coins. As it was, there were only a handful of spaces left when I arrived well in time for the first cheap(er) train.

The meeting was at somewhere called the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is off Milbank down in the “Parliamentary Village”, i.e. within Division Bell walking distance from the Houses of parliament.

Fancying a pleasant stroll, I de-tubed at Covent Garden, intending to wander down to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall.

To me, Covent Garden is very much Theatre Land, with the Opera House and my two favourite theatres, Drury Lane and the much less well known (and lamented) Strand Electric demonstration Theatre at 29 King Street. I can recall visiting Covent Garden in the late 60’s when it was still very much a working wholesale fruit & veg market, an interesting juxtaposition of ballerina and barrow boy. Covent Garden tube was a bit of an oddity then because instead of strip lighting and shiny escalators, it had a pair of very large lifts with picket gates (running up and down a vast caisson-like tube) and the platform was still lit by tungsten light fittings with rather quaint opal glass shades. The platforms are much the same as other lines now but the lifts remain, although there are now four of them and they have automatic doors as it is now a much more popular destination.

What caught me by surprise when I got to the surface was the weather- it was precipitating it down. However, I braved the elements as the route was somewhat more interesting overground than underground. The area was visually totally devoid of buskers and street entertainers, although the people paid to stand holding placards advertising where to get Doc Martin Boots were in-situ, if somewhat bedraggled.

On the walk there, I decided to spend some time in the National Gallery (after an unintended quick trip round the National Portrait Gallery- I though they were interconnected but if they are it isn’t obvious). I haven’t been in since the Sainsbury Wing opened and I had recollections of the new wing being elegantly restrained, the main building being rather brash by comparison. The reality is somewhere in-between, the main building has a patterned/embossed paper that if flocked would look at home in an Indian restaurant. The same theme recurs in maroon, orange, pink, green and blue as well as grey and it is in keeping with the style of municipal art galleries although the lighting is generally much more sophisticated. By contrast, now that it is no longer spanking, the Sainsbury Wing galleries look positively dull in their mid grey with grey skirting, dado and cornices, although it makes the particularly vivid works of art stand out as vibrant.

I whizzed round most of the galleries, taking stock of what I recognised and what looked particularly interesting. Even without a catalogue, the display signage is informative although you do have to get up to the velvet ropes to read them.

I particularly enjoyed appraising 'The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838' by Turner which was voted the greatest painting in Britain on Radio 4 recently.

The gallery of Venetian scenes were interesting and there were even some peep shows, although not of the Soho kind! Reviewing their website, I totally missed Constable’s Haywain in my somewhat rapid perambulation and lost interest in the vast number of religious icons somewhat rapidly.

I would have liked to have lingered in the Tom Hunter temporary exhibition which had some very intriguing huge photos of the seedier side of life with small juxtrapositions of renaissance paintings that inspired the style of them. The themes were based on goings-on in Hackney and certainly weren’t suitable for the numerous parties of school children being shown around. It was interesting to linger for a moment, listen to the spiel and see whether the guides were catching the imagination of the kids- some were, some were not…

Leaving the National gallery, I walked past Canada House which has the famous empty plinth opposite that is currently used for temporary sculpture. At the moment has the controversial larger than life figure of someone very disabled and also very pregnant. I do recall reading about it but ddn’t remember her name or who she was. It was covered in pigeons and it occurred to me that whilst there was not a bird in the hand (there being no arms) there were certainly two in the bush!

Moving on down Whitehall, I noticed a new edition to the statuary- a tall black plinth capped with a low pyramid and bedecked with what looked like coats. From a distance it made me think of Luke Skywalker as Jabba the Hut’s wall sculpture but up closer they were recognisable as long coats, dungarees, hats, gas masks and the like, arranged in an imaginary cloakroom. This is the new celebration of Women in World War II sculpture and I thought it was fine from a brief look but felt too damp to cross the road and see it from the other side.

When I reached Parliament Square, I had a quick look round the Parliamentary Bookshop and bought a booklet about Big Ben for David. (Had I noticed it in the Westminster Hall bookshop in the Summer I would have bought it then).

I did pause to read some of the displays of Brian Haw, the long-term peace protester opposite parliament. I was curious to talk to him about how he copes but he seemed to be ernestly engaged in conversation with someone else. One of my questions was answered when a motor bike pulled up and chucked him what looked like a packed lunch. I'm not actually certain whether it was Brian, or a stand-in. Many of his displays were not terribly coherent and were worse the wear from the elements and it is actually quite difficult to negotiate your way across to his side of the square. By the way, his website has a Streetmap link of where to find him, but the arrow is actually pointing at the Red Lion/Scotland Yard.

On reaching the Royal academy of Engineering, the meeting was in a fairly plain modern room although it was livened up by two large photos. Not being the National gallery, they weren’t labelled but told their own story. The first appeared to be the top table at a meeting and whilst I didn’t recognise the speaker, it might possibly have been the Duke of Kent there. The other photo was much more familiar- I immediately recognised Isambard Kingdom Brunel complete with trademark Stovepipe Hat and Cigar. The background was a wall of massive iron chain links but I don’t recall if they were for a ship or a suspension bridge (I've now checked- the former). I did read that this photo has been the victim of political correctness in school text books- it is now sans cigar as it would obviously corrupt young minds if they were to find out that smoking used to be socially acceptable.

It seems the original is in the National portrait gallery but I hadbn't seen a great deal in there for my brief visit. There is a good excuse to look more closely next time.

Faster than the speed of sound

I have been collecting air-miles as a bit of a hobby for many years now. When I was a seasoned traveller in my younger days, the main perk of flying was in accumulating points in order to improve the level of frequent flyer club access. I managed to get myself up to a BA Silver membership but I flew too many different airlines to various places to actually reach the heady heights of Gold (which sometimes got you free upgrades to first class and the like). I have only flown First Class once and that was on a short haul in the Middle East so the food was fine and you got a hot face towel but it was a glorified club class and it meant not having to travel with the great unwashed in the back (often literally the case in the Gulf).

In later years, I qualified for an Aer Lingus lounge card which was actually quite useful as on my regular trip there was a four hour layover between landing in Dublin from the Galway flight and taking off for Manchester or Leeds/Bradford so unfettered access to phone, internet (via dialup), papers, nibbles and Orange Juice/pop/coffee was a real boon to while away the time away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds. (The lounge did have hard stuff as well but I invariably had my car at the other end of the journey). Dublin Airport isn’t particularly inspiring, although it does sell proper Guinness, of course!

I also started staying a lot at a Marriott Hotel near Cheshunt for regular visits down to Harlow. They used to give 50 air miles for a visit and also gave 250 bonus air miles every five visits so a month of stays would earn enough points to be able to travel to Paris. I merrily accumulated large numbers of points and then BA introduced a new scheme (in 1998?) called BA miles (they previously administered the air miles scheme but they then decided to set their own up). The exchange rate was 1 air mile = 10 BA miles but as an incentive to scheme-hop, they offered a transitional rate of 14 BA Miles.

Eventually, I settled down, stopped flying and became a dad. In the spring of 2003, I seem to remember that I was facing the potential of some of these miles expiring (I think they lasted about five years) and I had rather a lot of them so I trawled around to see what I could use them on that all of the family could enjoy. Unfortunately, children used up the same rate as adults and catering for three diluted the potential range of destinations. However I worked out that both Karen and myself could spend a long weekend in New York and travel there in style, First Class each way. I can’t say I was looking forward to the return flight (I can’t sleep very well on planes at the best of times) but if we went from London instead of Manchester, some flights had near-beds rather than recliners so that would have been preferable. Of course, flying from Heathrow, there was another possibility, the supersonic paraffin budgie known as Speedbird One, better known as Concorde.

My first encounter with Concorde was in visiting an HM Customs & Excise building in 1980 located right next to the runway on the fringes of the Airport. It had a very large open plan office area with big windows and everyone stopped for a moment to watch Concorde thunder by with an almighty roar. Apart from seeing it once or twice in the sky or across the apron, the only other exposure I had to it was in the form of a well-known Concorde impersonator by the name of Chris Luby (who also could do marching military bands as well as various other bygone planes). Chris would always ask the crowd if he wanted the impression “with or without afterburners” and the crowd always clamoured for with, although how most people would have been able to tell is anyones guess.

Anyway, it seemed we had enough miles to fly out to New York on Concorde but we would have to slum it on the way back in sub-sonic Club Class rather than First Class (as Concorde was twice the points of regular First Class). Concorde had not been that long back in service after the terrible accident in France and popular opinion was that it wasn’t sustainable as a service longer term so on the basis that we might never have had another chance to fly it, we opted for the Supersonic out/club class back.

Arrangements having been suitably made, we turned up at Heathrow, checked in and made our way to the Concorde Lounge with a celebratory glass of champagne. This was about 9am and the lounge was very busy indeed. The plane itself was about 10’ away through the window, with the famous droop-swoop nose looking close enough to caress. When the flight was called, however, it turned out that most of the other passengers were just ordinary scum travelling on normal First Class flights and not sonic boomers at all. Concorde is something of a letdown inside, being rather long and thin with tiny windows, two seats either side of the narrow centre aisle.

Concorde didn’t have video screens but it did have a particularly high quality audio system with decent headsets (that we couldn’t keep, alas). As it taxied to the end of the runway, I noticed that the old bird could still pull a crowd and there were a large number of plane-twitchers at the perimeter fence.

The take-off didn’t seem massively faster than regular planes but the acceleration was deeper and more sustained. The pilot had to throttle back for anti-noise measures over the South East and of course has to remain sub-sonic until well out to sea. There isn’t the Mach meter on the front bulkhead any more and I was disappointed to find that the toilets were somewhat ordinary and not the Conran designs featured on the telly the previous year. The Stew explained that about half of the fleet had been upgraded so far but they were very expensive to do (in both fitting costs and lost flying time) and BA was being careful with the pennies so they wouldn’t be all completed for another year.

Due to some quirk of the booking system, us air-mile proles were at the very back of the divided cabin whilst the people who had paid real money were in the front (perhaps a dozen of them). There were only four of us in total in sight (we were in the back row to port and another couple to starboard) but as a consequence of the flight being so underbooked we received highly attentive service and the crew were very friendly and down to earth.

They say that you can see the curvature of the earth when at full altitude (which is 50,000’+ in the stratosphere rather than the normal 35,000’ or so of the regular jet plane atmosphere) but I peered through the jam jar bottom that passed for a window and couldn’t actually tell. I could tell when the afterburners kicked in though, there were four slight but distinct kicks as they were switched on, think when a turbo kicks in to get a similar effect but forty times faster!

The food and drink were absolutely superb and I particularly enjoyed the vintage crusted Port that they served after the meal. The consequence of this was that we de-planed at Kennedy airport at breakfast time both in a rather squiffy state indeed. You land before you take off and as we wouldn’t have been able to check-in until noon, we had decided to take the leisurely subway trip from the airport to downtown Manhattan. This involved catching a courtesy bus at the airport that seemed to visit every short and long stay car park on the way to the subway station.

Sitting on the subway as it rattled its way through graffiti lined stations on the way to downtown, I couldn’t help contrasting the two extremes. Concorde- exclusive, price £££ silly money. Subway- common, price $1:50. We had the common sense to remove our luggage labels off the hand baggage as we didn’t want to get stared at too much! (You could take regulation hand baggage onto Concorde but if you didn’t need it on the flight they spirited it away into an accessible bit of hold space as the locker-space is minimal).

It was Karen’s first time to the Big Apple and only my second time. We stayed in the Hotel New Yorker, which is a skyscraper right opposite Madison Square Gardens and we had stunning views from our room only a few floors from the top. Our highlights included Ellis Island, Battery Park (where the somewhat trashed sculpture from World Trade Centre Plaza now sits) and seeing Les Miz on Broadway after buying half price tickets in Times Square (although the children had extremely local accents).

Lesser events were the trip to Radio City Music Hall (which whilst still impressive was now much more of a grockle tour than when I did it twenty years ago), also the easter bonnet parade which was more of a promenade- you turned up with a hat and strolled.

Inevitably, we were drawn to gawp at the giant hole that was the World Trade Centre site. In order to visit the viewing platform, you had to go to a booth at the harbour on the East side to pick up tickets for a timeslot the following day. There wasn’t really very much to see in the hole, other than a residual lump of steel girder formed into a makeshift cross. However, the outpourings of grief, condolences and support around the area in the form of placards, plaques, photos and even dust stained windows all tell the tragic story in their own way.

One of the museums we visited over the weekend had a very poignant photographic exhibition about what happened to many of the Firemen & women that day- some stations lost their entire shift crew on the 11th of September 2001. Photos of makeshift memorials and even a pining dalmation dog were in some ways more unsettling than the site itself.

However, the Big Apple has bounced back. People may never fully come to terms with what happened or why it happened but life goes on. They are fighting back and have reclaimed the streets again. There is a bond of unity that can be felt as an outsider looking in, a shared horror that makes people face up to their demons, push out their chins and carry on. It is in thousands of windows, bumper stickers, T shirts and wrist bands. It may be a flag, a slogan or symbol, but it all says the same thing- up yours, Osama Bin Laden.

Monday, January 16, 2006

New reference work in the Grey Library

My apologies for the lack of posting recently. I was given Roger's Profanisaurus Rex for Christmas (by karen, who really ought to know better!) and it has taken me a while to work my way through the 8000+ entries. It is described as "the ultimate swearing dictionary" and could also be described as a "bag of shite"...

For those not in the gag, Roger Mellie is a larger than life TV presenter character based on a real life North Eastern anchorman who swore like a trooper whenever the red light went off. The Profanisauris is a collection of swear words, euthanisms and witty onomatopoeias generally revolving around things humans do in private or maybe down the rugby club.

It is a feaux style of a professional work, the parody of the name being from Rogets Thesaurus. It isn't actually a thesaurus, but it does contain a number of synonyms in many of the entries.

I had always assumed that Roger Mellie was based onMike Neville who was on the BBC in my youth, although he had more of a talent for falling off bar stools than swearing from my personal memories of him at the Newcastle Festival late night bar in the Centre Hotel. Anyway, my recent reading of Chris Donald's Autobiography "Rude Kids" confirmed that I was totally wrong, it was the guy on the other side called Rod Griffith who I don't remember at all.

The book is a bit of a let-down in consistency- sometimes it references other non-existent entries so the meaning remains a mystery 9although it is probably yet another word to describe the Perineum, (otherwise known as the Barse or Biffin Bridge), there are numerous entries for that.

Anyway, you can give it a try yourself, at Viz online.