Monday, January 25, 2010

Blueprint 2010

Book of the Week: Death Message by Mark Billingham

We finally had the weekend we had talked about for years last Saturday: a night at the Scotsman hotel. It’s been on the to-do list since 2006 or something, so it’s been a long time coming, but man, was it worth the wait. A lush executive room that smelled absolutely delicious, with Highland Aromatics toiletries, flat-screen TV, DVD, five different kinds of tea and coffee, views over North Bridge towards Calton Hill... nice. There were all these little touches that made it extra-special/posh as well, like those leather-bound books by the bedside that looked like they had been pinched from the private library of a 18th-century mansion, and Monopoly (Edinburgh version) under glass on the side table. We spent most of the weekend indoors just enjoying the room, with a couple of excursions out for walkies and food.

Oooh... speaking of food, it was a pig-out weekend. Started with the Mosque Kitchen round the corner from George Street (our excitement at hitting somewhere that was so much like eating in a Malaysian back street was the cause of the only downer, a £30 fixed penalty fine for forgetting the parking ticket). It was a bloody cold morning and the hot pilau rice with sag aloo (for Gareth) and vegetable curry (for me) went down a treat. Later that evening, it was duck (for Gareth) and fish (for me) at the North Bridge Brasserie. And to end the day, a box of Hotel Chocolat (which had fortuitously arrived in the post before we left home that morning).

The Scotsman was a wonderful building to explore. It has loads of character and I could only imagine what it must have been like to have worked there when it was still a newspaper HQ. All that polished marble and mahogany and walnut panelling... the editors’ rooms must have been a dream. Though after what the doorman/porter Ivor told us, it might not have been such a fab place to work, not when there were separate entrances for ordinary staff and directors. Ivor also gave us a tour of the hotel (penthouse £1200 per night; Japanese businessman came in one day, said he’d heard there was a penthouse, looked at it and took it for 12 nights). Loved the stainless steel pool in the basement. Very chic / romantic / cool in that play of light and dark sort of way.

My only regret of the weekend was that we didn’t get to do any walking. The sun was shining, there was a nip in the air, the sky was silvery-dark in that beautiful Scottish landscape backdrop sort of way... perfect photo- walk weather. But maybe I’m nitpicking. There’ll be plenty of time for walks (or so I hope) now that the winter thaw has set in and spring is getting underway.

Anyhoo... so that’s the Scotsman done, another item crossed off the list. I’ve been thinking about what I enjoy doing, what I want to do more of, and what I’d like to achieve this year. Also known as resolutions. Like levels in a Super Mario game, they are imminently achievable, but getting there can often be frustrating with a ridiculous number of obstacles along the way. I know I can get all this done this year; I just have to be focused. It’ll be interesting to come back to this at the end of the year and see how I’ve done. So here we go, in no particular order...

Blueprint 2010
1. Get my NCE.
2. Learn how to ski / snowboard.
3. Learn how to sail (get RYA Level 2 Dinghy).
4. Go camping at least twice.
5. Bag at least five Munros (Ben Nevis being one of them).
6. Complete the Fife Coastal Path (only 62 miles to go).
7. Get full UK driving licence.
8. Lose at least 10 lbs.
9. Get country count up to 30 (currently at 26).
10. Make at least three new friends.

Wish me luck.

Factoids of the Week:
The Scotsman was launched on January 25 1817 (what would have been Robert Burns’ 58th birthday) as a liberal weekly newspaper by William Ritchie, a lawyer, and customs official Charles Maclaren. It started off as a weekly Saturday paper with a price tag of 10p and a circulation of 300. It became a daily in 1855.

It was the first British newspaper to run special early-morning trains from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Trains had a carriage with the newspaper’s livery, and with the time lapse from publication to arrival in Glasgow being just 70 minutes, Weegies could sit down over breakfast with their Scotsman at the same time as Edinbuggers.

The 190ft-high purpose-built Scotsman office on North Bridge (now the hotel) was built at a cost of £500,000 (about £40 million in today’s money) and completed in 1905.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Newton's Three Laws of Motion: Crash Course

Book of the Week: Want To Play? by PJ Tracy

A little bit more of life lived this weekend: sledging, and in proper winter wonderland fantasy style to boot. I would almost go as far to say it was my perfect winter weekend: lots of together time, the great outdoors, perfect weather conditions, plenty of fun (and exercise, although you wouldn’t know it) and good food.

Woke at the ungodly hour (for a Saturday) of 7.30am and after a gruelling journey to Syed’s (two buses, as the car’s fuel injection system is still getting fixed) at 8am to pick up the sledge, we walked along the cycle path to the hill behind Queen Margaret Hospital. It was very cold and quiet, with just the odd dog-walker out on the morning pee run. Made for wonderful walking and was snowy all down the path, with a few flakes falling. A gorgeous wintry scene and beautiful study in perspective as well, with the bare trees lining both sides of the path.

Luckily for us, because it was relatively early, we had the hill all to ourselves. (Being a bit rusty at sledging, it was a good choice. At least we wouldn’t have to go far if we needed the A&E.) But man. Nothing really prepared us for what was essentially a 35° slope... with all of 30ft of flat at the bottom to stop in before you hit the hedges with their hard little twigs and branches like witches’ fingers waiting to poke your eyes out (and there was just as good a chance of you flying out into the main road heading up to the hospital). Gareth went first, after 1) tucking his socks in so his trouser legs wouldn’t turn into snow tunnels and 2) a few deep breaths and oh-oh-ohhhhhhh!-ing. He missed the gorse bushes in the middle by about 2ft.

My turn. I didn’t move for ages. Newton’s First Law of Motion. I simply sat there, sounding slightly manic as I continued to giggle hysterically / nervously. I looked down and thought... gee, this is a really slippery slope... and I’m on this slightly curved, polished bit of plastic... with no brakes or steering except my body weight. (Segue into Second Law of Motion here.) I felt a lot like I usually do about three seconds into a pant-wetting rollercoaster ride, you know, after you’re strapped in and the monster lurches into an upward climb and you know you’re getting closer and closer and closer to the drop... anyway, barring a couple of rather hard bumps on the way down (coccyx and arse still sore), I made it down in one piece. Missed the gorse bushes but nearly careered into the evil witch hedges at the bottom. And I didn’t even scream. Hyperventilated, yes, but no screams.

After about 10 or so runs, we got a bit tired of that particular slope (a hard climb up for less than 100m of down-time) so we caught the bus to Rex Park. It was much chillier in Dunfermline, for some reason, and I was very glad I had that last-minute footie reprieve. It was only about 10.30am but it would really have ruined my morning thinking of having to spend my afternoon on that cold wind tunnel of a terrace, especially when there was so much snow to be enjoyed (the odd few flakes signalled the start of more to come, which would only have made me doubly frustrated).

Rex Park was glorious. We got in through a hole midway along the fence (being too lazy to walk all the way down to the top/bottom) and, given that the park is full of gentle, rolling mounds, didn’t have to go far to find a slope. The curving paths running around the edge of the park made fantastic sledge runs – the gradients ensured you went at speed, but were not so steep that you had to double-check that you had already made out a will. Being paths, they were virtually bump-free so you went like the clappers, yet had sufficient challenging twists and turns. And they went on for absolute miles (well, more like 250m, but when you’re on a sledge, that’s what it feels like.)

And here we come to why this was the perfect winter weekend for me. We had the park and (the paths) all to ourselves. Almost on cue, when we started the first of our dozens of runs, it started to snow properly. Lightly at first, then more and more flakes came down. It got so heavy that, while coming down the 45° Prayer Hill (so called because apparently that’s the last thing you do before you go over the lip) we had the illusion of sledging into hyperspace à la the Millennium Falcon. There were plenty of whoaaaaas and ohcrapohcrapohcraps and tumbles and laughing.

We sledged for nearly two solid hours at Rex Park, and all the while the snow came down. It was just beautiful. My wintry outdoors dream come true. Unfortunately there are no photos – precisely because we knew exactly how things would pan out, we wisely left the camera at home, where it would remain in one piece. Otherwise there would certainly have been a snapshot or two of my very impressive Abominable Snowman impersonation, following a particularly spectacular crash into a snow bank at the bottom of Prayer Hill (Second Law of Motion in action). Perhaps it was just as well it was the only run where we didn’t try going doubles on the sledge (more Second Law of Motion, and no doubt the end result would have been particularly painful – Third Law of Motion).

We managed to finally tear ourselves away at lunchtime and headed to Khushi’s for a hot, delicious meal of fish curry (for me), chicken jalfrezi (for Gareth) and mushroom pilau, topped off with coconut cream smoothies (banana, almond and cinnamon for me, pineapple for Gareth). It was immensely satisfying, given that all we had had for breakfast was a sausage roll each. Unfortunately something must have disagreed with us because we spent the next hour or so in the toilet after we got home. But the afternoon wasn’t a complete loss as we spent it flumping on the sofa watching cheesy movies (Catwoman!!!) and reading (I finally finished The City of Dreaming Books, which was excellent – how can you not like a book that’s basically an adventure about books, reading and writing?)

On Sunday, I scored another first when I went into Edinburgh (to exchange my faulty Zamberlans): I noticed that the Water of Leith had frozen over – gulls were walking on the surface, and a yellow folding chair stuck out from the surface (it IS Leith after all). It didn’t register initially, and I thought it looked grimier and oilier than usual. It didn’t register initially, and I was very happy when it finally clicked that I was looking on a frozen river. What a difference 24 hours makes. By the time I got on the train home, the thaw had started and the snow was turning to slush. But the forecast is that this is just a respite, and that more wintry weather is on its way. I can only hope it snows, and heavily, here. There are lots more winter wonderland fantasy memories I want to build.

Factoids of the Week:
The cycle path mentioned above forms part of the North Sea Cycle Route, a 6000km-long route which goes through seven countries (UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway). There’s an adventure for ya!

Apparently, this is the coldest winter in the UK since 1963. The coldest night of the winter was on January 7, with temperatures between -8 and 0°C in most parts of the country. The coldest place was Altnaharra, where it dropped to -22.3°C.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Gung-Ho New Year Blogging Spurt Part 2

Book of the Week: The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

Man, I wonder how long this New Year resolution will last...??? I'm shocking even myself with this frenzy of posts!

Anyhoo. The New Year weekend has been most unadventurous but very relaxing. Yesterday after a breakfast of fried eggs on rolls (very tasty, made by Gareth – he is becoming so domesticated!) we headed off to Dunfermline to spend our Christmas vouchers, specifically to find machine-washable suits from M&S (Gareth) and get wasted in Trespass/Mountain Warehouse and Waterstone's (me). Getting there was an absolute nightmare – there had been some snow overnight and the slope going up the East Port to the Kingsgate was total mush. The wheels on the Clio were spinning and spewing slush all about (one of the downsides of a small car) and after all that trouble getting parked there wasn't even a wide selection of suits in store. The High Street was all slushy and icy and we had to be very careful making our way to Mountain Warehouse. Alas, couldn't really find anything I wanted there but I did get a new pair of water/windproof trousers at Trespass – can't wait to get out there and sled!

After navigating our way safely across the melting Siberian wasteland that was the High Street we popped into The Pancake Place for munchies – it's always been a place that I've wanted to try because it looks so warm and inviting. It was bustling and we got a table with a street view – very cozy especially with the arrival of a sudden snow flurry. The food didn't disappoint – Gareth had the Bookmakers' Sandwich (fried mushrooms and onions on steak, yum!) and I had the stovies (tasty, could have been better – I always expect it to be a take on potatoes dauphinoise), but the service left a lot to be desired. Food took a while to arrive, staff seemed just happy waiting about the counter, no communication between kitchen and service resulting in food sitting around (our pancakes were apparently “just off the griddle” but were getting cold by the time they arrived). Not entirely sure if I'd go back again, unless I was in the area and absolutely starving.

Coming home we were both struck down simultaneously by a sudden case of the runny jobbies – might have been the eggs. I was especially struggling to hold it in, and all we wanted to do was get home and into the toilet. So it REALLY didn't help matters that, thanks to the snow flurry, the street coming down to the flat had even more slush. It was really quite scary and, for me anyway, a case of nearly shitting ourselves – didn't know if the Clio would go first or we would. It was just skidding along downhill despite Gareth applying the brakes – and after what seemed like a spell of car-in-slow-motion, finally got it to the kerbside. It was a right butt-clencher as we inched our way down slowly to the junction and to the flat (and seeing a couple of cars in front and behind us spinning like tops on the slush while we were at it).

This morning – woke up bleary-eyed (result of playing Indiana Jones: The Adventure Continues on the Wii till 2am) to more snow. About a couple of inches of fresh powdery snow fell during the night – really loved seeing everything blanketed in white again after the melt of the past week. Was supposed to be -10°C last night too. Caught the train into Edinburgh and went for the first service of the year at St Giles' Cathedral – first time we'd both done it. The minister spoke on 'A River Runs Through It' – given that it was the New Year sermon, it was fittingly about time (micro-time and macro-time), how the years bear down on us, and how we conquer the end of our time (death) if we have God and believe in Christ. Not a bad sermon overall but I felt he could have rounded it off better, come to more conclusions – as it was it felt like a lot of clever quotations on the passage of time from learned men throughout history.

Went for lunch at Wannaburger (also another first – never been in there) and had Mos Burgers which were very good. Melted cheese, fried onions and mushrooms on a Scottish beef patty in a toasted sesame seed buns (mine had free extra toppings of pickles, Cajun spices and jalapenos). Then hit Princes Street where Gareth got two suits at M&S and I got a new pair of walking boots – they're comfortable, sturdy and robust, but I think they're a tad heavy. I've yet to find anything half as good as my favourite Adidas ones, which I've been mourning since 2005 when they had to be cut off following my ankle fracture. Sob. We also got a couple of DVDs and books (which is slightly insane considering how many we got over Christmas).

And now here we are at home all cozy, especially in the knowledge that neither of us needs to be in the office tomorrow (though I'll be working from home on my stories, top of the list being the New Year babies). It hasn't been very outdoorsy but I'm not complaining. Not really anyway. Still think the only thing that could have made this weekend more fun would have been more walking... or sledding...

Factoids of the Week:
Even if I don't post anything else for the rest of the year, this should see my trivia quota right through to the next Olympics. For its New Year's Day 2010 edition, the BBC's Magazine Monitor compiled a rather splendid list of the “100 Things We Didn't Know Last Year”. Among the titbits for your delectation are:

Using both hands to read Braille achieves an average speed of 115 words a minute, compared with 250 words a minute for sighted reading.
Triple Olympic gold winner Sir Chris Hoy was inspired to cycle by ET. He started riding in BMX competitions as a seven-year-old after being inspired by the movie.
DJ/musician Moby is related to novelist Herman Melville and was named after his most famous creation.
You can hiccup while asleep.
John the Good was bad and William the Bad was good.
In camel-racing the jockeys are electronic robots.
The bubonic plague still exists. Apparently, it still kills a few hundred a year, and the pneumonic plague can kill within 24 hours.
Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of edible frogs – 5000 tonnes a year. About a billion frogs are taken from the wild for human consumption every year and about a third of all amphibians are listed as threatened species.
The brain chemical serotonin causes locusts to swarm.
Naked rambling is legal in Switzerland.
Being born with additional digits (fingers/toes) is called being polydactyl.
The Channel between Dover and Calais froze over in 1673.
Paraskavedekatriaphobia is the fear of Friday the 13th.
The average number of friends is 150. (This got me a bit depressed.)
Monkeys floss. Researchers from Japan have observed female monkeys in Thailand showing their young how to floss their teeth, using human hair.
Holding your hands up on a rollercoaster stretches the torso, enhancing the physical sensations.
'YR' was an abbreviation for “your” in the 17th and 18th Century too.
Parts of cremated bodies are recycled. Nails and pins from the coffin, prosthetic hips et al joints survive the furnace and are traditionally been buried in a dedicated plot on site or, more recently, have been collected for recycling.
A broken heart is known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and it can be cured.
There are 19 countries in the G20.
Farting is a bookable offence in football.
Being sorry originally meant to be distressed and sad.
Paper can be made from wombat excrement.
Five trees make an orchard.
Wine varies in taste from day to day.
Many mosques in Mecca point the wrong way for prayers. (This REALLY made me laugh.)
An outbreak of swine flu in 1976 killed one person but a vaccine to combat it killed 25. (Gareth will be well pleased to read this...)
Britain once sent an envoy with a quadruple-barrelled name to Moscow – Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurley Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.
Youth hostelling was invented in Germany in 1912.
A tribe in Bolivia has a festival of violence, called the Tinku, to settle disputes.
Franco had one testicle.
Britain had animal welfare laws before it had child welfare laws.
Wayne Allwine, the third man to voice Mickey Mouse, was married to Russi Taylor, the woman who did Minnie's. He had voiced Mickey for 32 years, longer than anyone else, at the time of his death in May 2009.
Stabbing in the buttocks has its own verb in Roman dialect – punctitate.
In the 1970 US Census, the number of people who said they were aged over 100 was about 22 times the true number.
Canada used to border Zimbabwe – 2.5 billion years ago.
More than half of all Patels in the UK are married to people born Patel. (Hmmm...)
Streetlights cause problems for bats. In travelling to feeding grounds, they avoid hedgerows illuminated by streetlights and scientists say this could cause them to use longer and less safe routes.
Scotland has the lowest age for criminal responsibility in Europe: eight. (So why I still see so many gawpy inbred teen yobs up at court every week is beyond me.)
Buddhist monks sleep upright.
Chilli can be used as a weapon in crowd control.
Tennis legend Fred Perry was also table tennis world champion, at 19.
The keffiyeh, a chequered scarf worn mostly by Arab men, and made famous by Yasser Arafat, is now mostly made in China. (Go, China!)
Trousers used to be called unmentionables (from around 1823).
The best place to put a wind turbine is in Orkney – average wind speed 5.75m/s.
Brahms liked his audience to clap in between movements.
The best Italian saffron is made from crocus flowers picked at dawn.
It's always “esq” and never “esquire” as a written honorific.
A third of England's coastline is inaccessible, due to lack of full access to walkers.
Bees warn other bees about flowers where dangers can be expected.
Bristol is the fourth most visited city in England.
You're as likely to be hit by lightning as killed by a mentally ill person.
Only about one or two in 200 people with autism have a savant talent, or exceptional ability.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has a water slide in his garden.
Emoticons in the East are the right way up (^_^).
The UK population grew more in 2008 than at any time since 1962.
With 24.1 births per 1,000 people in 2007, the village of Cambourne, in Cambridgeshire, has a higher birth rate than India and China.
The crease under your buttocks is called the gluteal fold.
Nasa gave moon rocks to more than 100 countries following lunar missions in the 1970s.
Married couples used to always sleep apart. Sleep specialist Dr Neil Stanley says that historically we were never meant to share our beds, and that the modern tradition of the marital bed only began with the industrial revolution, when people moving to overcrowded towns and cities found themselves short of living space. Before the Victorian era it was not uncommon for married couples to sleep apart – in ancient Rome, the marital bed was a place for sexual congress but not for sleeping.
There are so few redheads in Mexico they often greet each other in the street.
Sportswear firms Adidas and Puma have had a 60-year feud.
Banana skins can take two years to biodegrade.
The only woman ever in the French Foreign Legion, Susan Travers, was British.
Ken Livingstone was twice rejected for a cameo in EastEnders – to promote a recycling campaign while he was still mayor.
Homes are 4°C warmer, on average, than 50 years ago.
In the early days of barcodes, there was a plan for round ones.
Male life expectancy in the UK goes up by about three months every year.
William Pitt's dying words in 1806 were about House of Commons catering: “Oh, for one of Bellamy's veal pies.” According to Parliament's website, John Bellamy, the deputy housekeeper, set up “a snack bar, or grill” for MPs' and peers' dining in 1773.
The city of Bath, in Somerset, was referred to as “The Bath” until the 19th Century.
Tattoos can be done with a person's ashes.
The BBC rejected Sesame Street in 1971 because it was “too authoritarian”.
French babies cry with an accent.
Teeth grinding is known as bruxism.
And finally (though not on the list)... the most-read story on the BBC in February last year was about the UK's worst snowfall for 20 years. Personally, I hope this year goes one better...

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Gung-Ho New Year Blogging Spurt

Book of the Week: The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

I had to work on Hogmanay and after I came home we spent an uneventful evening in typical couch potato style, watching TV (we both got lots of cartoon DVDs for Christmas – Dogtanian and Willy Fogg for Gareth and the X-Men and Justice League for me), before heading up to Dalgety Bay to look for a good spot to watch the celebratory fireworks over Edinburgh. We first tried the Harbour Drive development (fantastic views of the Forth and the bridges, but not so good towards Edinburgh), then down Moray Way to Lumsdaine Drive and Donibristle Gardens (views completely blocked by houses) before finally parking by the Dalgety Bay Sailing Club – fabulous panorama of the Edinburgh skyline. It was horribly romantic: a clear, bright sky and full moon overhead (the next time we'll see a full moon AND a partial eclipse is in 2400), a riot of colourful fireworks across the water, ships blowing their foghorns on the Forth. And all I could think of was... gee, I hope we don't catch any radium particles. Oooh... discovered how to use the "starry night" function on the Lumix too and got a couple of good photos. Unfortunately wasn't quick enough to capture the glowing orange lights in the sky that hovered over the Forth... probably Chinese lanterns but wonder if they could be aliens? Might have planned to visit Earth but decided to go home after finding everything was shut for New Year.

I've resolved to do something on New Year's Day each year now, rather than vegetate at home – don't want the day to be for me like it is for a lot of people in these parts, one of the year's "forgotten" days, because they're all too busy recovering from hangovers. So we went out for a good tramp around Culross, during which we discovered two castles – Blair and Dunimarle – within a stone's throw of each other. We use this road regularly, yet had not known they were there until yesterday. Really enjoyed the walk – had the paths largely to ourselves and only saw maybe four other people the whole time. Wasn't too bright and just enough sunshine to make it a clear, wintry day. It was a bit hairy at times with some sections of the route completely covered in ice (and don't even get me started on the horse shit outside Blair Mains Farm) but overall a lot of fun, with the only sounds being the crunch of snow underfoot. Saw an interesting sign for "Plague Grave" on the return path through the conifer forest – am sure there's an interesting story there – and have made a mental note to come back to the fields on Culross Moor for sledding the next time we get heavy snowfall!

Came home, had a lovely steaming plate of chilli and rice made by Gareth (he's getting on so well with his house-husband training!) then sat back for an enjoyable evening with Doctor Who (David Tennant's gone, WAAAAH!!!) , Gavin and Stacey and plenty of coochies. All in all, a quiet, relaxing and enjoyable weekend – it sounds soppy but as long as we're with each other, we're happy. And thanks to the weather, Dunfermline v Raith this afternoon has been cancelled as well – so I get the afternoon off! Yay!

Factoids of the Week:
Culross saw its last outbreak of plague in 1645 and the "Plague Grave" might have been the resting place of a girdle-maker and his family. A recumbent burial stone last seen in 1953 supposedly bore a shield, crown and hammer (insignia of the girdlesmiths) and the inscription, "Here lyes Robert, Agnes, Jeane, Baids, children was to ...I C ... (girdlemak)er bvrges of Cvlros (who departed) af this Lyf in the Visetaseon 24 Septr. Ano 1645". But by 1960, the area had been planted with conifers and no trace of the grave could be found.

Culross is associated with St Kentigern, a.k.a. St Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow. The legend goes that a princess (and future saint) named Theneva or Thenaw, daughter of King Lleuddun of Gododdin (somewhere in the modern-day Lothians) was seduced by the legendary Owain mab Urien and fell pregnant before marriage. Her family threw her from a cliff (said to be Trapain Law) but she survived the fall and soon met with an unmanned boat. She got in and it sailed her across the Forth, landing at Culross where she was cared for by St Serf, founder of Culross, who became foster-father of her son, Mungo.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thanks for the memories, 2009

Book of the Week: The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

Well, here we go again. I have been very, very bad at maintaining this blog this year. I did plenty, saw plenty and experienced so much, yet barely posted any of it. Highlights have definitely been going back for the folks' 40th anniversary in January, then having the family visit for three weeks, and all the travelling I did either with Gareth, the family or with both together (week in New York, long weekend in Zadar, the couple of weeks over in London, Paris and Ireland - again - a brief weekend in Germany, another two weeks in Japan and another long weekend in Madrid). And my first proper snowy winter (white Christmas, yay!). Maybe I'll find some time to blog about all of it at some point. I'm feeling quite annoyed and a bit sad that I didn't, because I know I should - I already have enough trouble trying to remember things the state my memory is in, and I still I didn't. I always say this at the end of the year, but I don't seem to stick to it. That's my one regret for the year. Apart from that, it's been fantastic.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

London Calling

Book of the Week: see previous post.

This post should really have preceded the previous one, but I hadn’t got round to writing it before I got the news that made me so glad and relieved. It’s just cascading happiness around here just now – getting news like that just makes everything pale in significance, and nothing and no one, no matter how annoying or incompetent, can get you down.

Dad being OK really capped off a great weekend – Gareth and I just returned from our second wonderful one on Sunday night. Apart from being really put out by his insisting on holding the handrails on stairs and escalators (all those germs!!!!!!!), it was a great three days.

Took a half day on Thursday and caught the 3pm train to Kings Cross – unfortunately, our seats were on the wrong side of the train so we couldn’t watch the coast go by, but we had fun fiddling about with the videocam and eating Mini-Eggs. One stuck-up auntie kept looking at us – probably jealous that she had to squeeze her biggish arse next to someone else and was facing backwards, whereas we had an entire table to ourselves. But alas, we had to give up our cushy seats at York when almost an entire trainload piled on after their train was cancelled. Ah well. It was good while it lasted!

Kings Cross was less grotty than I remembered it – the last time I was there was 2006 when the folks came over – probably due to the lack of boards and works going on. Our hotel, the Jesmond Dene, was just two minutes away across Euston Road on Argyle Street. Very cosy, warm and welcoming Georgian townhouse – bedroom a bit small (double bed was a foot short, I’m sure of it) and no en-suite but came with breakfast. Everything excellent value and clean showers (extremely important when you’ve forgotten your flip-flops). Certainly recommend it.

Went back out and checked out St Pancras – it really is an amazing building. The neo-Gothic façade is just spectacularly overwrought and the inside has this lovely airy spaciousness. Think we both went a bit mental when we saw there was a Neuhaus store there as well… but we were very good and refrained from stuffing our faces. Found a wee Japanese restaurant, Mai Sushi, by accident – while Gareth got his bottle of water at WH Smith, I sneaked a peek at the Time Out London and found Swizz Szechuan on Chalton Street, which really appealed to me. However, when we got there, it was quite packed and the menu didn’t look all that appetizing – but there was Mai Sushi across the street. Went back through Kings Cross and became the proud owners of an Oyster card each.

We hit the London Eye first thing on Friday and although London at our feet was a visual feast, it made me feel a bit sad that I hadn’t experienced it sooner. I just felt like it was… meh. Another tourist attraction. Ditto the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I was so overwhelmed when I saw them for the first time in 1996 – on Friday, it was just… Huh. OK. Houses of Parliament. Like I’ve said before – travel doesn’t seem to excite me any more. I wonder if I can get therapy for this, do mental exercises to get myself psyched up about places and sights and adventures again. We then walked down the Victoria Embankment to Charing Cross, where I had hoped to surprise Gareth with Davenport’s magic shop, but dang it, he’d been there before. So we hopped on the tube at Embankment to the Natural History Museum.

Now the NHM is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. Well, at least I did until all this enthusiasm drained out of me a few years ago. If I’d visited even just five years ago, I would have gone absolutely bonkers. Wow! Wow! Cool! I love it! OH MY GOD! Oooh… (mental orgasm there). As it was on Friday, it was more, hmmm yeah, nice. I would have been photographing everything, from the diplodocus in the entrance hall to the stuffed hummingbirds, and worrying if there was enough time to take it all in. But it just wasn’t awe-inspiring enough, through no fault of its own (and I greatly fear nothing will be any more for me). But there was no time to worry; it was getting on for lunch, which was horribly expensive at the NHM, and such small portions – but we made up for it that night when we went back to Mai (Japanese food is turning out to be a standard highlight of our trips these days).

We started our NHM tour proper post-lunch with the Earth Galleries. I loved the fossils, especially the ones of the plesiosaurs and the dolphin-like ichthyosaurs. The cast of the archaeopteryx found in Germany got my heart racing too – such a famous fossil. And the giant crocodile skull was amazing. As big as I am tall! Checked out the Creepy-Crawlies and mammals before going for tea (another regular feature of our trips), then nipped in early into the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Really enjoyed that. Some astounding images. Made me very jealous. Also went in early to the Darwin exhibition, which celebrated the 200th year of his birth. It was surprisingly entertaining and informative – the “mouth on legs” frog was funny. Both well worth the entrance tickets for the amount we learnt. (Didn’t know it was finches that got Darwin thinking about evolution.) Went back to Victoria Embankment afterwards, primarily for me to take shots of the London Eye at night, then went back to the hotel. Very sore feet.

The next morning, we found ourselves stuck at Kings Cross – Saturday at 9.30am is SO not a good time – when we discovered our Oyster credit had all but been spent getting around. So we waited in line to top it up – the queues were unbelievable. When we finally got past them, the first place we zoomed off to was the British Museum – site of my first mental orgasm. As usual, it didn’t do anything for me. Nothing does any more. As I told Gareth, I think I need a kid to get myself excited about these things again. See the world through the eyes of a child, and enjoying introducing its wonders. Perhaps that is one way to be refreshed. (No, that is NOT a hint.) Just that you know you’re getting blasé and jaded when you go to the bloody British Museum, and you aren’t instantly filled with this uncontrollable urge to tear around and see the looted wonders of the ancient world in all their magnificence. One of the world’s greatest museums, one of the richest repositories of archaeological treasures, and all I could think of was, gee, my feet are sore, and oooh is that a raspberry tart? That was just so depressing, and such a contrast to the first time I was there, when I hardly saw anything for all the swooning – this time I didn’t see anything at all for the nonchalance.

Anyway, we dumped our bags at the museum (because we’re clever that way – didn’t want to lug them around London, and the lockers were free as well) and went to St Paul’s. Didn’t see anything of it – just walked around the gardens looking for directions to get to the Millennium Footbridge to the Tate Modern. Quite disappointed that it didn’t sway. Would have been quite an experience. The Tate Modern – can’t really comment on it as we only really saw the giant spider sculpture (which left me quite revolted after I saw the handball-sized white foam “eggs” under its body) before heading to Southwark Cathedral. I really enjoyed this bit of the day – didn’t really know about the cathedral before this nor read nor remembered much of what I’d read previously in Lonely Planet. It felt very much like other cathedrals, in the way of vaulted ceilings and arches, but what made it special was the choir singing in the back the whole time we were there. The acoustics were just superb – when I went round back I counted only 18 of them, but how the sound carried! Absolutely angelic harmony as well.

The Borough Market right next to the cathedral was another find. Couldn’t help thinking how much Mum would enjoy this place – must bring her here when they visit. The sights and smells were quite something – I really loved the buzz! Made me wish I had lots of money to spend – the place gave me a serious case of greedy eyes. Oysters on the shell, with a twist of lemon and Tabasco; fresh fruit smoothies; all manner of cold meats and cheeses; sweets and pastries (felt a bit like the Egyptian spice market in Istanbul – all those free Turkish delights); tons of fish and vegetables (one stall was dedicated to just mushrooms – mmmm!); and that huge black steaming wok of paella! It left me feeling extremely hungry and wishing I had four stomachs. Then headed back to the British Museum, where we had some nibblies and tea, collected our bags and hopped on a Chiltern Railways train to Beaconsfield, where Chris picked us up – it was Shelley’s birthday and the food was great (first time we had meatloaf) but the house was even better. To be £200,000 in debt over an enormous four-bedroom house with front and back gardens in the very middle English commuter belt is not a bad financial situation to be in.

On Sunday we came back up after lunch at the Crown in Amersham, and once again, were on the wrong side of the train (bah!) and had the table to ourselves most of the journey. A very perasan guy who got on at York kept placing a sheaf of papers rather strategically on the table, in all likelihood trying to show that he had made it as a contestant onto “A Question of Genius”. Didn’t have to feign disinterest. Got beef curry in a tin from M&S and was very impressed when I had it with pasta – it tasted just like Yeo’s back home. Called home, said a little prayer for Dad with Gareth, had a fitful sleep – then woke up to the good news.

The other nice thing to happen on Monday was that I interviewed Stuart MacBride, who not only seems like a very genial sort of chap, but a very humorous one as well. Made me want to head to the nearest Waterstone’s and get a copy of his latest book. Doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously – I liked that he bothered to explain why he calls himself a “write-ist” as opposed to a writer, author or novelist. Too worthy, too intellectual, sounds like they know what they’re doing. Write-ist sounds like someone who is winging it and will be found out. I feel like that at work sometimes. Maybe I should start calling myself a report-ist.

On Friday, we are off to Mallaig for Wonderful Weekend Number Three on the top-rated train journey in the world (beating even the almighty Trans-Siberian and the Cuzco-Puno and Cuzco-Macchu Picchu lines). Will keep all cameras rolling.

Factoids of the Week:
The London Underground is the world’s oldest underground railway, and Baker Street is the world’s first tube station. It was also the first underground railway to operate electric trains.

The Underground runs on 400km of track and has 270 stations, and is the longest metro system in the world by route length.

The Angel station has the longest single escalator rise in western Europe.

The longest distance between two stations is 6.26km, between Chalfont & Latimer and Chesham on the Metropolitan line. The longest distance between two underground stations is between Caledonian Road and Kings Cross St Pancras on the Piccadilly line.

The shortest distance between two stations is 100m, between Charing Cross and Embankment. (We know, we walked it!)

Waterloo is the station with the most escalators – currently 25.

Monday, March 02, 2009

And again I say rejoice!

Book of the Week: See previous post.

Today I got the news I have wanted, but was always afraid I wouldn’t get, ever since the morning of November 26. Dad is now officially in the Big R. No new lesions. No new growths. No anything. All Clear. I am so grateful and I am so happy. I know it’s early days yet but to hear this at the first scan post-op is tremendous and such a boost. I am sure it’s not just the family who are rejoicing and relieved, I know for a fact that there are so many, many dear friends out there and back home, who have been praying hard all this time, giving thanks as well. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, all.

Factoids of the Week:
One in three of us will be affected by cancer during our life. We’ve already been directly affected twice. I don’t ever want to have to do it again, or wish it on anyone.

One in every nine women will develop breast cancer at some point in her life; more than 45,000 cases are diagnosed every year, or around 125 a day. It is the most common cancer in the UK and the leading cause of death for women aged 34 to 54.

Every year, 300 men in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world. In the UK, it is the second most-frequently occurring cancer, accounting for one in seven new cases, with nine of out 10 linked to smoking.

Bowel cancer, also known as colon, colorectal or rectal cancer, is the third most common cancer in the UK.