Tuesday, 20 October 2009

women, run raster!

I’ve only twice ever beaten my wife in races, and both times, she was really unwell, so they don’t count. In every other event we’ve run together, I’ve usually seen her getting further and further away, until she is a little black and white speck in the distance.

In the latest of these – the Cabbage Patch 10, a pleasant 10miler up and down the Thames – I had a bit of time to think about it. Why am I slower than my wife? She’s got shorter legs, less muscle and she’s a girl, and girls have always been slower than boys by about 10%. I have no excuse.

Or do I? In one hour and 26 minutes, I had a lot of time to think about why our ladies aren’t regularly beating our men, and I don’t get it.

Girls are smaller than boys, so therefore have less to carry round the distance. Remember all the tiny (by height) weightlifters at the Olympics? Its all about power to weight ratios there, and the same should be true with running. I’m slower than her because despite my best efforts I weigh over 12 stone, and she weighs less than 9. If I was 25% lighter, it would be 25% easier to run.

Girls, by virtue of being smaller, are also more aerodynamic. My broad man’s shoulders, wide, lovehandled midriff, massive thighs and big spiky hair, can surely be only causing enormous wind resistance, not to mention my ears, which despite the best efforts of Chepstow’s finest plastic surgeons, are still far from flush against my head. You know how a formula one racing car is all pointed at the front – Girls come with two ready made pointed bits at the front, specially designed to help them cut through the air.

Evolution will have also enabled girls to become natural runners, as they will have spent their entire lives running away from men, as if they were caught, the natural brute strength of the man would win through, (don’t hate me for thinking of this, we’re talking cave men here) so in the last million years, surely women should have evolved a natural speedy defence against (sexual) predators.

Men also have an enormous natural disadvantage, when it comes to running, two in fact, in the shape of testicles. Watching the world gymnastics championships, it would appear that the events have been adjusted to protect the testicles of the men involved, and this has become another reason that man and women aren’t able to compete on a level playing field. I say allow the men to compete against the women on the beam, and penalise them (hurrah – appropriate use of the word penalise!) if they don’t do the landing on their butts and swinging the legs behind and moving to a handstand. If they do, and they can do the rest of the bouncing around as well as the girls, give a guy the beam gold medal – he’ll deserve it. Having a pair of balls swinging around, getting in the way of the legs, which are after all the most important aspect of the running equipment. What do the girls get in that area? Nothing but a little natural lubrication.

Add to this small feet (less blisters), long hair (better removal of sweat from the face), less leg hair (wind resistance again) and I’m amazed I’m not getting beaten by all the girls in the race, not just most of them.

So, to conclude, I’m going to race against the men from now on. I have no excuse for the fat guy I saw enjoying a cigarette at the end of the Thanet 20, while I’d still not got to the 19 mile mark.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Original Flavour

I was sent to the shops to buy some toothpaste, but what to buy. I was looking for something minty I guess, but I found something more unusual.

Toothpaste in “original” flavour. What retro wonder is this – was there something in it when the Victorians first started using soot to clean their teeth? Then I thought, no – people were cleaning their teeth long before black fingers... Maybe original flavour is referring to the original flavour – what was the very first flavour to be tasted? I couldn’t imagine toothpaste coming in Mammoth flavour, or “gathered berries” flavour. Maybe mother’s milk flavour? (Doesn’t bear thinking about...)

Then I sussed it – the only other time I have seen original flavour before – Doritos. No-one wants toothpaste to taste of a mildly spicy and salty corn snack, so I moved on.

Regular flavour? Great regular flavour?

I guess no-one wants their toothpaste flavour to become more or less intense as the tooth cleaning experience goes on. Therefore, in order to eliminate irregular flavour syndrome (think a poorly stirred curry paste, or a sudden mouth based explosion as you accidentally crush a cardamom pod – neither are what you want while brushing your teeth) so for this particular brand, regular flavour is what they sold it on. Still didn’t give me any ideas on what it might actually taste of, so I opened the box, pulled off the lid, removed the teensy bit of tin foil (imagine how nasty that would be if you brushed your teeth with a mini foil grenade waiting to electrify your fillings?) and tasted some.

It was kind of minty, which I liked, so I bought the one next to it that someone hadn’t already been tasting...

Monday, 14 September 2009

Brands and Bling part two - doing it properly

another one from cheekbone magazine.

It doesn’t look like I’m going to be turning pro any time soon – I’m pretty sure I came in second place in the “vitamin water” competition! (out of 7, and I used the Burberry frock picture, which can’t have helped, the eventual winner was very good (but already known to the water people) and had amazing legs.) there were very strange things going on with the voting (at one point 3 entries were virtually tied on 1987, 1986 and 1985 votes, and then after I’d totally given up to them, they whipped all their dubious votes away, and I was back in second place, but had no time to re-ignite my campaign) and I’ve let them know I ain’t happy, but ho-hum, they might send me some posh squash.
I spent a proportion of my last blog entry slagging off designer labels (which may also have not gone in my favour), or – more specifically, slagging off the way certain sections of society wear certain brands of clothes, and the way those brands overdo it, because they realise the brand is the important aspect – not the actual item of clothing.
Since then, I’ve been shopping, and I’ve bought the most expensive pair of jeans I’ve ever bought. In fact – at face value, (and we’ll come to the question of value over cost later) I’m now kind of having a go at being exactly the sort of person that I was so rude about the other day. I could go into scientific reasons why I’m experimenting with this, trying to learn something from my previous ravings, but it would be lies. I love these jeans.
I’d been after a pair of black jeans for ages, since moving to blue about 5 years ago from only doing black for a long time as I was allowed to wear black jeans and not blue when I was in the sixth form at school. Doing my usual scouring of TKMaxx (where I got my nice blue French Connection jeans for about £25) and having spent £60 each (full price) for my current “best” jeans (Duck and Cover and SuperDry) I’d drawn a complete blank on any black ones. Diesel came close with some nice grey ones, but they never quite fit, and certainly the ones in TKMaxx were never in my size. I had some old Cyberdog ones too, but they’d faded badly and I’ve lost so much weight since then you could have fit the wife in there too.
As I may well not have a job in a few days (another story) I decided to spend spend spend in case I couldn’t justify spending any more being one of Brown’s 9million, or whatever the final second great depression figure comes to. If I’m going to be in the dole queue, I might as well look awesome while queuing.
Justifying the expense by going out to by a £350 coat (Hugo Boss) but discovering it wasn’t as nice as it looked in the picture, I glanced at the shiny (they weren’t actually shiny, that would have been nasty) piles of jeans at the Armani concession in Selfridges, and went for it.
Being in Selfridges at about 5pm, wearing my best (Tommy Hilfiger – another TKMaxx bargain) suit and being as beautiful as I think I am (confidence is a great substitute for being genuinely good looking – ask David Tennant) left me getting knowing nods, and the occasional “good afternoon sir” from the polite and probably quite bored staff. The other great thing about trying on clothes in the Armani bit is you get to use their secret changing rooms. Where Hugo Boss have a velvet rope you have to ask permission to cross, at Armani they have secret doors behind the full length mirrors. I felt proper special.
Being able to fit in a pair of designer jeans was good enough, (I’ve gone from a 38” to a 33” waste with all the marathons) and being able to afford them was the clincher. £135 later and I’m getting even more respect from the staff, as not only do I look awesome, but I look rich enough to buy something substantial enough to warrant the enormous yellow bag I was presented with.
I then proceeded to abuse Debenhams one day sale (which I think is into its third month, although that might just be how often I go to Debenhams) for a couple of t shirts and a semi formal shirt, and completed a busy week for the bank card with a few more TKMaxx bargains on Saturday (Bench hoodie, a couple of loud ties, a work shirt, and a stunning Calvin Klein jacket – all heavily reduced – not least the jacket – from £325 to £69.99 – superb).
Based on how often I buy casual clothes (I’ve been more excited about suits and ties for a few years, give or take a healthy smattering of football shirts – I really should lay off the chavs!) I think I can justify this particular £250 splurge.
As for the jeans themselves – they are, as I said, more beautiful than a baby’s first smile and an autumn sunset put together, and I feel pretty amazing when I wear them. The branding is subtle (all in black, with a matt black whatever their logo is on the butt pocket (which is also going to make sure I don’t sit on the leather sofa in them at home as there’d be an Armani shaped dent in addition to my usual groove, and no-one wants that.
So yes – as well as the fact that I love them for being a really nice pair of jeans, I also love them for being a really nice pair of Armani jeans. Don’t judge me.
At least I didn’t go to Armani Exchange – the shop for people who want to wear Armani, but can’t quite afford to.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Cheekbone Magazine - Brands and Bling - overdoing it

This blog - first published at cheekbone magazine
In 4000BC, Tutankhamen died, and contrary to the “Two Ronnies” sketch (two old men watch a funeral procession with about 8 limousines, and one asks “how much do you think he left?” and the other says “all of it – you have to”) he took a large proportion of it with him. In 4000BC gold was wealth, so to show your wealth you wore your gold.
Wind forwards by 6000 years, and has anything changed? The idea of the status symbol is still with us, and we choose different ones to show (or enjoy) our wealth. A big house. A nice car. A massive TV. All very well, but if you are walking down the street (and not therefore in the car/house at the time) how do you show your riches to the people you meet?
Big question – why would you want to? How others perceive us is an important aspect of our self worth. It is only human nature to want to be as good as we can be, and there are only so many ways we can do that.
When I had my first tattoo done, my mum didn’t speak to me for a week. Never mind any other aspects of my life (I’d passed my degree, got a job (it was a terrible job) and was generally happy) but a small, easily hidden logo on my shoulder for some reason made me a colossal disappointment. I’ve had two more since, and she actually likes the third, so hopefully she’s realised there are more important things in my life than the indelible scrawlings of a Welshman on my arms.
As you might have noticed from my tweets, and you’ll soon realise from this blog, I like to look my best, whenever possible and I don’t see why you shouldn’t too. It is only in the last 5 years that I’ve felt nature has given me the chance to do so (I grew up very spotty, I’ll tell you about the cosmetic surgery next time, and a lot of running has finally got my body looking passable – although the grey hairs might need sorting pretty soon) so what do we do?
We dress and we accessorise. It would be a very strange world if we all made like Adam and Eve, so we put on clothes, make up, product, shoes, and jewellery. With the right mix, we can look pretty awesome, but it doesn’t take much to overdo it and look terrible.
Think of the brands we associate with chav culture. Burberry, Von Dutch, Kappa, and to some extent, D&G, Calvin Klein, (depending on how they are worn) all have one thing in common. The brand is the first thing you see about them. Burberry’s ghastly beige check, Von Dutch’s Signature, Kappa’s reclining pair...
The reason people are wearing these brands, is so others can see they are wearing the brands. There are far nicer clothes out there, just as well made and just as expensive, which in this reporter’s opinion (not being someone that I imagine these people are trying to impress) would look so much better.
Vicky pollard is wearing that track suit because it shows that she can afford that track suit. Maybe this will impress people, but she isn’t exactly aiming particularly high. The same goes with “box fresh” shiny trainers – you keep them looking new, so people think you can afford a new pair of trainers every week.
Jewellery is another example - I’ve seen boys on the bus wearing earrings, which I would imagine are vying for the world record of “largest cubic zirconium”. What this might mean to his 14 year old mates, is that he can afford about 10 quid’s worth of earring, what is says to me is that he’d love to have a Beckhamesque diamond earring or two, I have a good feeling (based on the fact that he’s not being mugged, and most tellingly, he wouldn’t be riding on the bus if he could afford the real thing) that it’s the Zircon he’s gone for.

Next example, the Bluetooth headset. You don’t look cool – you don’t look popular as you need to be able to answer the phone to any of your 250 friends – you look like you have a lump of technology hanging off your ear. Are you are a paramedic? Are you on call to avoid nuclear meltdown? Are you Alison Lapper? You don’t need to be able to answer the phone that quickly. People seem to think that a Bluetooth headset shows status – what it shows is that you can afford to go down Carphone Warehouse and pay 15 quid for a Bluetooth headset. You look like an idiot.
Finally we come back to King Tut.
There seem to be a lot of people who choose to wear all their jewellery all the time. Looking like Mr T is only cool if you are Mr T. No one thinks you are a better person because you weigh yourself down with heavy metals
There are others who'll take it another step further and think that wearing heavy gold earrings is so important, they’ll destroy their ears in the process.
I’ve seen women re-piercing higher and higher as the original holes have extended so far the earring has eventually fallen all the way through. Not an attractive look.

So the message is simple – less is more. Keep it classy, and take this advice from my step mum – the classiest person I know:
On choosing a new car, she went for the Si (sporty model – but not the most expensive) over the Ghia. She could afford the top of the range, but looked at the badge, the chrome and the logo, and told the dealer “it’s a little vulgar”.
She was quite right.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Happiness in Magazines

In a fortuitous bit of eBay bidding, I am now the proud owner of a magazine rack. I also owe a friend at work about 19 cups of tea. When you get the chance to buy a “designer” magazine rack for 99p, you take it, but then you have to pick it up from Sevenoaks, but – hey – Al lives there! I’ll drop him a grovelling email while he’s on holiday, and before I go on holiday, and forget a few pertinent facts (like how he might have a life, be on holiday for longer than I thought (he wasn’t but I didn’t check) live in a completely different part of Sevenoaks, (the magazine rack was actually in a village where Sevenoaks is the nearest town), and hopefully when I get back from holiday there it will be, all chrome and shiny and waiting for me.

The plan worked beautifully. It sat on my desk all morning, and drew a few comments, and I explained to the office that we have a problem with magazines. That sounds like I’m referring to magazines like the man who hangs around outside the tube station has a problem with cough medicine. This is actually as true as the original meaning I had when I wrote that sentence, that we have too many magazines for our (yeah right) minimalist lounge.

Lisa the hardcore runner, and me the casual runner and potential triathlete, means we have plenty of copies of Runners World, Running and Fitness, Triathlete’s World, Triathlon Plus, Triathlon 220, Cycling Plus, Lisa’s gardening fixation (in combination with my sister-in-law’s) means we have a pile of Gardeners Worlds, I enjoy Empire, and generally have a few months worth hanging around, as by the time we get round to watching a new film, it will be because it is out on DVD, Lisa was given an Okapi at London Zoo, so we have their magazines, and finally I subscribe to FHM.

It was the admission to buying FHM magazine (I know that would make “For Him Magazine magazine” – kind of like when people refer to their PIN number but I think FHM has moved on since when it launched, as pretty much the first proper magazine for us guys) that raised most eyebrows in the office. The question asked was “how old are you?” My reply was that “I’m 32 and I like Girls Aloud” which is both true, and a damning review of FHM magazine. Maybe a couple of years ago, but not anymore.

Back in the day, FHM was to men, what Cosmo was to girls. As likely to have a picture of a guy on the cover as a picture of a girl, the articles ranged from cookery, books, investigative journalism, and fashion. Yes – there would be photo shoots of the model or singer of the moment, but it was all part of the mix.

I probably started buying FHM a few years in, and I’d occasionally buy the competition – GQ (for richer men) esquire (for older and richer men) Loaded (for men who only bought magazines for the photo shoots) and then, a few years ago, a couple of weekly magazines came out – Zoo (from the makers of FHM) was originally a quarter of FHM (literally – the same stories, often the same photos) for a quarter of the price and Nuts (from the makers of Loaded I believe) was Loaded’s equivalent. Very quickly, both degenerated into a cacophony of girly photos and unpleasant pictures of people with skin missing (who wants to look at that?) with a TV guide and some out of date sports news thrown in. One stand up comic described them as “porn for men who are scared of vaginas”. They are both still around, and I guess they are doing ok. In London we have a couple of free pretenders – Shortlist (which I never pick up) and Sport (which I do if it doesn’t have cricketers on the cover), but I have no idea if they are making money yet.

FHM went a little down market for a while, moving further into the “Loaded” territory of page 3 type shots, celebration of laddishness (drunken stories, confessions from girls, verging on porno mag letters page faire and sex tips (and not a great deal else if I remember correctly). I’m guessing that it is this FHM that my work colleagues were referring to, and they would be right to mock my continuing devotion to such a publication.

Just over a year ago, FHM realised that its readership had grown up. Nuts and Zoo and Loaded were still bridging the gap between the adolescents realisation that girls aren’t smelly, and the ability to actually see real ones in the nude (or buy proper pictures of them from the top shelf – although they all have access to the internet, I’m sure there are some pictures of nudey girls there somewhere...) I think it started when one of their regular columnists left, and as his parting shot, he confessed to all the things he did on the expense account (including getting a Ukrainian prostitute to give him a receipt saying “taxi - $100” while researching Chernobyl) and FHM realised it should grow up too.

I’m just the kind of guy who grew up with FHM, through my university years, sharing the purchase with like minded 19 year old blokes, and can now afford my own (although I always share my used up copies with those less fortunate), and FHM have realised this, so they have grown up with me. I’m probably still a bit old for FHM, but then, I recently watched and enjoyed High School Musical 1 and 2 (three was bloody awful though), and – as previously stated I like Girls Aloud (good songs, great production, and yes – 5 pretty girls (even the ginger one)) and I like FHM’s interesting mix of serious articles, reader interaction, jokes, heroes, fashion, reviews, cookery (yes – they get a chef in each week), gadgets and yes – Pretty girls.

But no nipples.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

National Lampoon’s Animal House

First of all – the context. How much you enjoy a film, is largely to do with how you see it. When I first tried watching The Crow it was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I watched it while tidying my room. I didn’t think much of it. One of the greatest modern film noir horror stories, was lost in my distraction and the situation. There are films to be focussed on, and films to be treated as Saturday matinees.

Also I am a 32 year old English guy, who has never seen Animal House.

Knowing my wife would never sit down and watch it, I snuck it in between other things – while she was in the shower, doing her bit of the cooking, or on her way home from work. In 4 instalments, I watched the film, alone, and generally in the early evening. I gave it my full attention, and was well aware that this is reckoned to be a comedy classic. Empire gave it 4 stars out of 5. “Arguably the most influential comedy of our time.” So my expectations were pretty high. IMDB users have given a score of 7.6 out of 10 and they aren’t generally far off.

For the 4 people who read my twitter feed (and the 62 people who think that I might buy their porn/dating/entertainment services if they follow me too) I put a few of my thoughts down for them as I watched. My first tweet was “12 minutes in. Not laughed once yet. Should I have?” I mention laughing – I mean internal laughter too. I hadn’t identified a joke, or a comedy situation by that point. Of course, I then identified that certain other things had been referencing this film – most notably an episode of Futurama called “robot house” when Bender enrols in Mars University. One of the robots spends the whole time in a little beanie hat, which now becomes funnier, as I have now seen the reference material (I laughed a lot after first seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as it made the Simpsons so much funnier.) Next tweet, after the Futurama reference, was “36 minutes, I sort of smirked”. I have no idea what I smirked at. Following this – “This film is so bad, I’ve stopped forward winding the adverts” (in my defence it was on at 3am on ITV4, so the ads were entirely pretty girls trying to get me to ring premium rate phone lines).

I suspect this was the first film to dare to show pretty girls with their tops off. However – the accessibility of boobs is now so easy, my standards are considerably higher. My tweet that the “topless pillow fight would have been better if they weren’t all wearing MASSIVE granny pants” made me realise that this is something that would have been cutting edge in 1978. I remember when “Y Tu Mama Tambien” was on in our local cinema, and some of the scrotey kids came in, knowing it would have some nudity – they went straight out again when they discovered the main reason for the 18 certificate was a pair of teenagers masturbating into a swimming pool. I guess they would have loved a topless pillow fight – granny pants or otherwise.

I went a little controversial on my next one. “Belushi. Only remembered as good because he died early? With him on the guitar smashing at parties though”. Everyone who has ever been jealous of the smarmy bloke who plays the guitar and has the girls cooing on his every note has wanted to do that. Otherwise, he is playing quite the most charmless and one dimensional character I’ve ever seen in cinema. Deeply unpleasant and unlikable. Anyone whose party trick is crushing a can on his own forehead gets no sympathy from me.

I was now a good half way through the film, and had not identified any plot. I found myself entirely sympathizing with the group of new kids – who have somehow made it to college (later I discover this is the only reason they aren’t being drafted to fight in the Vietnam war, which I can sympathise with, but if going to college is the only way you are going to avoid getting killed in a ludicrous conflict, then surely you’d do all you can to stay there), they are searching for acceptance, friendship and like minded people. Unfortunately for them, they apparently only have two choices – the posh, rich and intelligent kids, or the complete brain dead losers. There was apparently no third choice. The posh kids wouldn’t have them, and the losers couldn’t care less, so the join Delta House, (I still can’t work out where the name “Animal House” came from. I had always assumed it was the name of the fraternity, or at least a comedy misnomer, used in the film – I guess it was descriptive, but maybe it would be explained in the deleted scenes on the DVD?) who are already on “double secret probation” (what the hell is that – how are you supposed to know you are in trouble if you aren’t told about it – that’s like smacking the kid “when Dad gets home”. He won’t know what he’s being punished for!) After various illegal activities, underage drinking, underage sex, hints at date rape (we believe his conscience got the better of him) horse murder, in addition to academic infarctions, such as NOT GOING TO ANY CLASSES or having grade point averages of less than zero, they seem somewhat surprised and shocked when they are expelled.

I did identify a few attempts at humour in the process:
• The inability to open a bra strap has now become such a cliché – and I know it wasn’t a new joke when this film used it – that it is purely not funny.
• The moment when Belushi’s character puts pencils up his nose while in the Dean’s office might have been funny, if he’d removed them on replacement of the Dean’s glasses – although maybe the fact that I was expecting that to happen makes it funnier, although not that much funnier.
• Sex with 13 year old girls isn’t funny either.
• Blatant racism in having a bunch of white kids walk into a bar full of black people, and immediately get threatened with flick-knives, - is that funny because my preconceptions are that this really isn’t realistic behaviour?
The closest thing for me to an actual comedy moment, was when the house was being emptied and a cow was led down the front steps.

In protest at their expulsion, our (anti?)heroes decide to get their revenge, ruining the homecoming parade, an event that the good people of the town were very much enjoying, they assault, molest and pretty much attempted murder their way to notoriety, finishing off with driving their “death wagon” or some such into the platform holding the Dean and his wife. How am I supposed to have any sympathy for people who have no idea that they are in control of their own destinies, that they are guilty of all the charges against them, and completely deserved everything that happened to them? If there was any sense of injustice against Delta House, it might have been a different matter, but these idiots did themselves no favours at all.

31 years have not been kind to Animal House. I grew up with Alison Hannigan doing things with her flute in American pie. With Terrence and Philip singing about inappropriate relationships with their uncles in South Park the Movie. Having your trousers pissed on by a drunken lout (and accepting it) is gross, but not funny. Humour has moved on, and maybe going back in time to where it all started was never going to work for me.

Is it right to love something for what it was, or what you remember it for? Yes – totally. You can’t say 10 Million Years BC is rubbish because Jurassic Park looked so good. Maybe if it was 1978 and I was a bit drunk, at the cinema with my friends, and I’d not already seen Austin Powers, Superbad, or Clerks, maybe that would be the time and the place for me to enjoy Animal House, but I think for me – I’m never going to get it.

Next time - The Goonies - One 90 minute knob gag.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Michael Jackson's “Bad”.

Like many others, I was saddened and surprised to hear of the untimely death of Michael Jackson. I was a fan. I had the albums, some of which had been purchased multiple times across various formats. I even bought “Invincible” (how ironic a title for what would become his final release) although I waited until it was £2.99 in the Tesco bargain bucket before buying, on account of being pretty sure it would be a big old pile of bilge (it was – I don’t think I even stuck with it till the end of the initial listen – it is there for completeness, although I don’t have all the Motown stuff - I’m more of an Epic fan myself).

I suspect I’ve mentioned before, that it is very hard to give an album purchased at the age of 32, when you have several hundred (it might be into the thousands by now) albums to choose from, any real love and attention. I love the Pet Shop Boys enough to buy their albums on the day they come out, in special edition form, even though I know they’ll be discounted soon enough, but I don’t think I’ve listened to the new one more than half a dozen times.

I have a theory on value for money in purchased material. Consider anything you buy (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray) to be worth one pound per hour’s worth of entertainment. Therefore, if two of you watch a film twice (ever) it is worth £8. (2 hours x £1 x 2 people x 2 viewings). That copy of Invincible is worth about 75p, my Pet Shop Boys CD is worth about £8 already, as Lisa’s given it a couple of listens (we saw them live the other day, stunning show, and Lisa needed to research the new stuff). My copy of My Chemical Romance’s “The Black Parade” is probably worth £20 already (it is so good, I listen to it all the time and relive my angsty youth.)

My cassette of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” must be “worth” hundreds based on this scale. It’s 1987. An unusual looking guy in an amazing outfit has made a great album. I know it is – my friends (HannaH for one) have been going on about nothing but for months) and I want it. There is only one problem.

I’m 10.

My pocket money is about 50p a week, and I suspect I’m hopelessly addicted to Mojos. I don’t have a tape player. Or any tapes. Every so often we’ll go to Monmouth shopping, and I’ll pop into Woolworths, and covet the cassette of this album. It calls to me. I want it, but I can’t afford it.

January comes, and its my 11th birthday. Mum takes me to Monmouth. We have about half an hour before the shops close, and the January sales are still happening. I’ve asked for money for my birthday, with a view to adding up the (hopefully) £5 notes I’ll get from all my relatives, in order to be able to afford my dream. I believe I totalled £30.

First we go to Woolies – £5.49p later and I now own Michael Jackson’s Bad. Then it is time to find something to play it on. There is a midi system in the lounge, but a boy needs music on his own terms.

Off to Dixons (that’s what became Currys Digital in the 21st century kids), and we find just what we’re looking for. Radio and single cassette. £25. It’s probably a Matsui, the cheap as chips anybrand that only Dixons sell. After some (attempted?) negotiating with the staff, (the sale finished the day before, but they strangely left the sign up, I’m not sure if they agreed to the price or mum advanced me the next ten weeks worth of allowance) it was mine. 5.55pm, they shut up shop, and back to the car and home.

That cassette was my pride and joy. I listened to it so many times I learned the words by heart, then I looked up the words in the 2 feet of folded inlay card (downloads are killing inlay cards) and re-learned them correctly, then went back to what I’d worked out originally, as I couldn’t sing the actual words and make them sound like MJ did. (how is that “Come On” how?)

Of course then I started finding out about the man. The Oxygen tent. The chimp. The llama, the elephant man’s bones, the plastic surgery. None of that mattered. It was all about the music for me. I got blank tapes and recorded the albums of Off the Wall and Thriller (since purchased on CD – in case the copyright police are reading – home taping isn’t killing music, it is freeing it to a whole new (poor) audience, and we’ll buy it eventually).

Dangerous was the first CD I ever owned, and was held very highly in my affections. I never truly loved Off the Wall or Thriller like I love Bad and Dangerous, because I wasn’t there. (I remember staying up late to watch the Thriller video on channel 4, but mostly because it gave me proper nightmares. In my defence – I was only six.)

I never did understand hysterical fans. Those who would scream and cry at concerts, who’d queue all night for tickets and (now I know) wee into bottles all day to ensure their place at the front of a stadium concert. I’ve done my fair share of front row gigs (and I did queue all night at Wimbledon once) and it is pretty amazing getting that close to the action, and being able to reach out and touch your heroes. There was quite a tear in my eye when the Pet Shop Boys launched into “It’s a Sin” the other night. (IMHO the best pop song ever written – sorry MJ).

I registered for, but didn’t attempt to buy tickets for MJ’s comeback gigs. I would have loved to have seen a fully in-form Michael Jackson performing the hits and reminding the world why we loved him, why we ALL bought Thriller, and nearly all of us bought Bad. Somehow I knew it wasn’t meant to be. Every expected gig and personal appearance for the last 15 years has ended in disappointment, and I didn’t want my memory to be of that. I also didn’t expect the gigs to happen, but not for the reason they didn’t happen.

I’m not going to go too far into the negative aspects of the Michael Jackson story. I hope he was innocent, but anyone who lets kids who weren’t their own share their bed is more than a little odd, and I hope and believe in his mind anything that happened was completely innocent – but I agree with my big brother that someone really ought to have pointed out that this is not the done thing. People will make assumptions - there will be smoke. In many aspects of his life, no-one was able to tell him when to stop. From spending money to having sleepovers, I have a horrible feeling that if someone told him this wasn’t the best course of action, then he would have found someone who thought that it was.

As has been the case with many who have been taken before their time, the surprise seems to be mistaken for additional grief. I’m sad, but I’m not 36 hours of blanket news coverage sad.

I think the media are making sure MJ will be remembered as a Groundbreaking Genius, with one or two issues in his personal life. This is probably fair, as this is the only thing which is beyond reasonable doubt. People ask why he paid $20,000,000 to have a child abuse case dropped. If someone had reason to accuse me of such things (I don’t share my bed with anyone except my wife) and I could pay an equivalent percentage of my personal wealth, probably the price of a packet of crisps at the time to make those accusations go away, I think I would.

I listened to the first “side” of Bad on the tube today. I still love it.

I still can’t make the lyrics I’m hearing to “Speed Demon” make any sense at all.

That makes me love it all the more.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Iceland - All in One.

Day 0

Got all the way to Heathrow (about an hour and a half on the tube with massive amounts of luggage) to be told by the nice lady at Icelandair that our tickets were for Sunday. Not for Saturday. Felt like a proper pair of chumps, then got back on the tube (about an hour and a half with massive amounts of luggage in mid-day heat) and went home. Lisa did some gardening, and I drank beer and watched the cup final. Result. (Unless you are an Everton fan - which I was for the day).

Day 1

Got all the way to Heathrow (about an hour and a half on the tube with massive amounts of luggage) and were very happy when the nice man at the check in desk accepted our passports, took massive amounts of luggage off us and allowed us into the depths of Terminal 1. Had enough time for a sandwich, the purchase of a duty free filter for my camera (circular polarizer) and ogling over a Ferrari (one of those you give us £100 and we won’t call you in a month to ask you where you want your Ferrari delivered things) and we got on a nice big plane to Iceland. A pleasant flight (Lisa watched all the tourism videos, I watched Moulin Rouge (I’d seen it before, but Mei was right – it is “a big camp mess”)) and we landed in Iceland.

We got the flight bus to the centre of Reykjavik, and then took a couple of proper busses to our hotel. When the nice people of Expedia tell you it is in central Reykjavik, check. Nice hotel – in an industrial estate, next to a shopping mall. (It was v cheap though). We didn’t do a great deal on the first night, other than discover that the shopping mall (and all its food outlets other than pizza hut) was pretty much closed – being Sunday night and all so we found a Chinese fast food type place called “Nings” which served both tofu and chicken, thus satiating both of our food based needs.

At about 22.30 we adjusted the curtains, as we realised the sun wasn’t really going to set, being early June and only a few degrees south of the arctic circle – it doesn’t seem to get dark here. Goodness knows how gloomy it gets in the winter.

Day 2

A lovely breakfast, (the hotel was mysteriously empty, but we’ll discover why later) and we walked out to the bus stop to get a bus into the town centre. As we’d discovered, the buses run very much on time, but not very often – and the 2 – our bus to the city, was expected at 41minutes past the hour. It didn’t come. And neither did the 24, the other bus that should have stopped there too. Something was up. We checked the timetable. Then we checked the guide book.

The Icelanders seem to celebrate Whitsun a week late (or more likely the British can’t cope with Whit Sunday falling in June and not May, so moved the bank holiday so it was still the last Monday in May) so we were waiting for a bus that doesn’t run in the mornings on bank holidays. So we decided to walk. In inappropriate footwear, we strolled about 6 miles round the beautiful waterfront of western Reykjavik, admiring ducks, geese, lapwings (we think), footballers (both young girl and fully grown men – I think it may have actually been the national team in training – they were in the gear, and very good, and they do play Holland at the weekend) and bulldozers.

Eventually we climbed a hill and got to the Pearl. A restaurant/observation deck overlooking the city to the North, and the domestic airport to the South, and offering such exciting choices as a very impressive (although we learned – artificial) geyser, a small Viking museum, and a very reasonably priced bottomless bowl of soup and all the bread rolls you can stuff in your cheeks. (That is quite a few). Stopping here to do our best hamster impressions, we did everything listed above except the Viking museum (I’ve seen the film) and then carried on our merry way.

Reykjavik is a very pretty city, and seems to be a delightful mix of Scandinavia and America. Huge American cars mix with little European ones, and Mexican restaurants sit alongside those serving nothing but fish. Being a public holiday, people were cruising the streets in their cars, kids were doing that thing that kids do when they aren’t very good at skateboarding, but they insist on practising in public, as if they either enjoy falling on their butts with a hundred people watching, or they believe that one day they will pull off the perfect bluntside 720 switch purely by accident, and at least someone will have seen them, and won’t beat them up for lying about their coincidental skateboarding prowess. It was baking hot in the sun (it must have been at least 15 degrees) and the queue for the ice creams was insurmountable. We decided not to attempt to surmount it, so had some cartons of strawberry squash from the supermarket instead.

We sat and watched more ducks, where the sport amongst the tiny children was not to feed them, but to throw bread into the water. The ducks were not interested in the slightest. (this was in “the pond”). Then we walked to the remnants of the Icelandic arts festival, where some caravans had been mutilated into mobile artworks (to good effect) and wandered back to the aforementioned Mexican restaurant.

The number 2 bus was running by the time we were done, so we took it back to the hotel.

This was all yesterday now. Tomorrow I’ll tell you all about our fun day, when we left Reykjavik behind, and took a reasonably priced car to Iceland’s top tourist attraction.

Day 3

Another big breakfast (when that’s the pre-paid meal, you make the most of it) and the man arrived to take us to the car rental place. I’m always concerned when renting a car – the miser in me needs good value, the tall person in me needs a car big enough for me to drive without the need to stick my head out of the sunroof (think Dino out of the Flintstones – that’s me in a DeLorean, Ford Ka, Lamborghini Countach and (amusingly) a Ford Focus). 41€ seemed like pretty good value for a small car, and I was there when the (very useful) man at the hotel called to book the car, so he had me and my ludicrous height to use as reference, so I was in safe hands. When we got to the rental office, there was a Blue Chevrolet Lacetti out the front, and I was hoping it would be ours because a – it is big enough (we have quite a lot of luggage) and b – it is EXACTLY the same car used in Top Gear as their “reasonably priced car”, which they then give to celebrities to thrash around the racetrack (one memorable scene springs to mind when Lionel Richie was overtaken by his own front wheel, while sparks flew off the bottom of the car...) so I was very happy when I was told that yes – this would be our ride for a week.

Last time I hired a car, it was a Massive ford mustang, and the first thing we did was navigate our way down the Las Vegas strip with the roof down, which came in handy when kind Americans needed to point out to me that I was drifting between two lanes, and should really learn to drive. Fortunately as the only person driving a convertible with the top down on that cold Vegas morning, it was completely obvious that I was a tourist, so I had a readymade excuse and we all got out of the city in one piece (actually if we all got out of the city in one piece it would mean we all got stuck together and left the city all stuck together, and that would have been far from satisfactory and undoubtedly have added to the extra they charged me at the end of the rental period for not filling it completely with gas.)

This time of course, I was ready. I knew the sort of mistakes a foolhardy Brit would make driving on the right (I mean wrong) side of the road would make, so I gauged where the lines should be, and I got Lisa on “drifting” duty, and I realised that I was sitting on the left side of the car so everything is backwards, so I put the car into R (it’s an automatic, which means I don’t have a bruised left hand from attempting to change gear using the electric window controls, but I do have whiplash from putting my left foot on the clutch which isn’t there but the brake pedal is, and you stop really quickly when you press the brake like you’d usually press the clutch) and we pulled out and onto highway 1.

There is only one big road in Iceland. It is road number 1 and it goes all the way round. Unfortunately we needed to go to the south, so we took highway 41, which is also a road, but only has two lanes. This is fine, and it got us to the Blue Lagoon by about 11am (saving us 26€ in bus fares – another good reason for hiring a car) and in we went.

Iceland is blessed with a lot of geothermal activity. Yes this means that the middle part of it might as well contain dinosaurs, as no-one is allowed there without one of the 4x4s from Jurassic park and Pete Postlethwaite with an extraordinarily large gun as a guide except for about a week in the middle of July, when it is fair game and some towns are in grave danger of being washed away when the volcanoes hit the glaciers and all the ice melts, but it does mean they have a quality source of clean energy.

If you imagine all the hot water that is produced by sizewell B in Suffolk, and deciding to fill a quarry with that hot water, and then charging 20€ for people to swim in it, then you are a sick and twisted human being who ought to be stopped immediately, possibly by Daniel Craig, but that is what they did with Blue Lagoon, except with geothermal water. Yes it smells of eggs a bit, but the combination of creepy warmth, lots of salts, and the encouragement of the staff in smearing white goo all over your face while you float in the water makes it a pretty amazing place to be. We loved it, and may well go back for more next week. They had steam rooms and saunas and a waterfall which pummelled your back and neck in a quite exquisite way, and we even didn’t wait an hour between our very enjoyable lunch (sandwich and Skyr and coffee) and jumping back in the water. I’m not sure my splashing around with white goo on my face counts as triathlon training though.

We tore ourselves away from there, and were back in the car, pausing only to take some photos of the creepy surrounding area, then we decided to take a more direct route to the south east, towards our destination of Vik as the main road would take us pretty much back through Reykjavik, which would seem very like going back on ourselves and wasting time. Bad idea. You remember when I said about Iceland only having one decent road, and then the other road to the airport being a bit small? Every other road looks like I made it. Think a light scattering of stones, and you are pretty much there. Our “short cut” took us though about 30 miles of crawling along, fearing for the underside of our nice car, with only the occasional monster truck overtaking us making us feel in any way that if we broke down we’d not be sitting in the car feeding biscuits to the arctic foxes.

About 14 hours later (ok it was about 2 hours later) we’d enjoyed some nice views we might not have otherwise seen, but we were driving through Reykjavik, in fact – we were driving past our hotel of the previous night, and on our way to Vik.

Day 4

Remember when I mentioned the town that will be washed away when the volcano’s eruption melts the glacier and all the water comes down? Well – that is Vik. Apparently the 200 or so residents regularly practice running up the hill to the church, just to prove they can. I don’t know if there is a time involved – if they have a 5 minute warning between the mountain blowing its top and having to be in the graveyard, but the residents all looked pretty fit. Although one of the waitresses wasn’t as svelte as she might have been, she might have moved in recently, and I’m sure they give new residents a grace period by which they must be at the required fitness level. Obviously the tourists can swim for it – we didn’t have any drills while we were there, although on climbing the hill (we weren’t racing – so I didn’t time us) I was very tempted to start clanging away on the church bell (I have no idea if this is the signal – it would be a bit mad to have the signal at the top of the hill – you’d lose the first 5 minutes waiting for the fittest person in the village to get to the church to ring the bell to let everyone else know they should have run to the top of the hill 5 minutes ago. Maybe I’m thinking about this too much.

The first thing we noticed as we drove towards Vik was a nice line in rocks at one end of the cliff – legend has it that three trolls were pulling their boat in to shore one morning, and were caught by the rising sun, turning them to stone. I like legends like that. Apparently 25% of Icelandic people believe in trolls. (I have a feeling they might have said that mostly because it makes them seem a bit mad, and kind of cool, or they might have misunderstood and thought they were being asked if those horrible little plastic people with the crazy hair existed, which they obviously do).

We were certainly glad of our decision to hire a car, rather than use our original option of the bus. Not only is it giving us the freedom to drive ourselves around, but the hotel in Vik is about 3 miles to the east of the town, so we would have been pretty fed up either staying there for 2 days, or walking a 6 mile round trip every time we wanted to go anywhere interesting. Not that the hotel wasn’t interesting – more big breakfasts, cute waitresses who we annoyed by asking them to find food that wasn’t on the menu for Lisa (vegetarianism hasn’t made it as far as hotels on the south coast of Iceland – Reykjavik has a few veggie restaurants (what would I eat?) but the hotel in Vik had three choices, 2 meat, one fish, so Lisa had soup and a feta salad. I had a steak.) there were oystercatchers nesting in the lawn out the front – they had two very cute and fluffy baby oystercatchers with them, and they made pleasant squawking noises – and they had 4 hot tubs (which we didn’t partake in) so we wouldn’t have gone completely mad, but being able to drive to the village, and climb their hills, walk on their freaky volcanic black sand and visit their little church was certainly a bonus.

In the afternoon, after coming down from the aforementioned hill, we ate at a very sweet little cafe (we’d had coffee and a cake there in the morning) finding a huge veggie pizza, and a very good burger/fries combo on offer. This was about 3pm, so we were back to the hotel by 5, and we did a marathon of “lost” and had a fairly early night! (that was also when I wrote to you about the blue lagoon).

Day 5

Checked out and on the road – a pretty short hop to glacier country. Further to the east, the roads became quieter, (I was driving pretty conservatively at about 80kph, the limit being 90, and in about 100km we were overtaken by 3 cars and a lorry.) I don’t believe there is an Icelandic word for traffic, but if there is, I doubt it is used very often.

A glacier is basically a very very slow avalanche. You’d have to be very foolish to get caught by one by surprise. The ones where we stayed were actually going backwards at the time (partly as it is summer now, and also due to climate change (man made or otherwise). It is very odd to see what looks like a pair of enormous ice creams, melting their way down the side of a pair of mountains.

Our “glacier view” room was a little disappointing (how often would you have to look out of the window at the mountain to get an extra £20s worth of value out of a view, even if you could see it through the clouds, which enshrouded the room for about 90% of the time,) but the walks around the nearby waterfalls and the view over the glacier were all quite superb, so we were very happy overall.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about walking on the ice, and some other things (mostly involving ice).

Day 6
In an attempt to get us up early in the morning, we’d booked an ice walk, starting at 10am. Stuffing ourselves silly with the best breakfast yet (this one had donuts and chocolate chip cookies) we put on all our clothes, and off we went.

Step 1 – put on crampons. Remember roller skates in the 1970s? I don’t, but we still had some hanging around in the 80s when I was a lad. These were similar, clamp them over your own shoes, and tighten the straps, but instead of creaky wheels with rusted bearings, we have metal spikes sticking out in all directions.

Step 2 – take off crampons and get in minibus (no-one wants a minibus with a messed up floor) and a short drive down some hideous un-driveable dirt tracks.

Step 3 – off the bus, and a short walk to the start of the ice. Then on with the crampons and our guide distributed ice axes all round (nice). At this point we were walking on what seemed like a dirty gritty beach like thing, but you didn’t have to dig far to discover the ice wasn’t too deep under our feet.

Just a few steps further and we were on the glacier proper. Starting off pretty filthy – left over ash from quite a few volcanic eruptions (as the snow falls, the ash forms layers through the glacier, as it melts, the ash forms a nice black crust on top) – we learned the basics of crampon walking, and how to hold an ice axe without swinging it into the face of the person walking behind, and we started tramping around the glacier.

When ice is that old, and that compact, it takes on a very different form to what I regularly use the bread knife to scrape out of the freezer. The tour was called the “Blue Ice Discovery” package and every crevice and occasionally just on a cleaner bit under our feet, displayed this weird effect – totally solid, brilliantly transparent, shockingly blue crystalline rocks of ice.

Although our tour was a very sedate one, our guide did demonstrate one of the more freaky aspects of the glacier. Every so often there would be a sink hole – a place where a natural fault in the ice had opened to create a hole where the melting water would pour through. Break off a chunk of ice, and chuck it down there, and it kept on rattling until you didn’t hear it due to it being too far away, not because it had got to the bottom. I remembered him packing a rope in his rucksack – I’m not too sure how useful it would have been had one of us fallen. We didn’t get close enough to find out!

Lunch at their cafe, and then we were still feeling energetic to try the third of the available walks around the hills and waterfalls that surround the glacier. This one was a little more heavy going than the stroll around the base of the hills the day before – this time it was up and over the hill overlooking the glacier, with spectacular panoramas of the glacier itself, the mountain where it all started (the highest in Iceland – next time we’ll be doing the 10-15 hour guided climb up to the top) and the flat, river filled plains where all that water meanders down towards the sea. Another waterfall on our way back, and we felt we deserved our dinner. (which had mysteriously transformed from me having the most expensive roast lamb in the world (it was superb though) and Lisa having the soup, to the place suddenly having an extensive and varied bistro menu, with several veggie options, and a far more reasonable price tag too.

Day 7

Checking out of our hotel, the nice girl at reception gave us a discount for the lack of a view, and the fact we had to use a different room in order to obtain hot water for a shower, although it was still the most expensive place we stayed, and we were back in the car and onwards towards the most easterly point of our little journey.

At Jokul, the glacier ends in a lake of its own making, which is deep enough to allow the ice to break off and float down to the sea in massive blue icebergs. The enterprising Icelanders, realising they can’t charge just for standing by the side of the water (I’m sure the British would try if they could, but Iceland seems to suffer from all the best tourist attractions being natural wonders, which is probably why they need to charge a little (but not that much following the financial crisis!) more for certain things) have set up a tour using amphibious landing craft to drive the tourists into the lake and motor around the icebergs, hopefully spotting a seal on the way (we’d already seen one bobbing around in the water).

Out we went, all life jacketed up (there is nothing cuter than a 9 month old baby in a life jacket) and we chugged along (wheels still turning) keeping a safe distance from the ice (iceberg 101 – nine tenths of them are under the surface of the water) while a pair of inflatable dinghies buzzed round, spotting underwater problems, but also passing our guide a basketball sized chunk of iceberg which looked like one of the examples of a perfect (and freakishly large) quartz crystal you see in the geology section of a museum. You could look all the way through it, it weighed more than it seemed like it should, and when she broke off chunks for tasting, - well – it would have cooled your drink and lasted a lot longer than what my freezer produces. Very strange.

We didn’t see any more seals, but I took about a thousand photos of icebergs (I’ll try and edit them down to something a little more manageable for showing you all)

In the evening we checked into our room (the cheapest, and also the nicest of the trip) ate an early dinner (they found a veggie special for Lisa, while I had a FANTASTIC arctic char (trout to you and me) with a citrus crust – honestly – it was some of the finest food I’ve ever had.

Day 8

I’m going to rattle through day 8, as we didn’t actually do a great deal. A drive back past our haunts of the last few days, and back to Kirkjubaejarklaustur – yes I did just copy and paste the name from the hotel booking form. We did another epic walk round the town and over the hill, including bothering some sheep (they were standing on the major attraction of the town, a giants causewayesque effect of basalt columns tessellating perfectly to form the “cathedral floor” hidden in a field, climbing a cliff, enjoying the view, scrambling back down the other side of the hill, eating dinner at a former nunnery (served by two very surly young ladies, but fortunately cooked by some very talented young men) and back to the hotel, where we finished series 4 of lost, (the hotel boasted 7 TV channels, but 6 of them were not working. – so glad we brought the laptop with us!)

5 days in Reykjavik still to tell you about – I’ll try and get it all down this evening, but you might have to wait until we get home!

Day 9

Another early start, as if we wanted to cram it all in, we had some serious driving to do. Of course, when I say we, I mean I had some serious driving to do, while Lisa had some serious passengering, which involved some not so serious looking out of the window, some rather serious map reading, and some extremely serious telling Dave to drive on the right side of the road you freaking idiot – isn’t the fact that you are on the left of the car and that bus is on the wrong side of the road giving you enough of a hint.

Back past Vik and then a right turn towards Gullfoss and Geysir. These were two of the places we’d had recommended by friends who had been before, and we’d seen pictures from Gullfoss on Jill’s FaceBook so it had to be done. The down side was that to get there from Reykjavik would have been another day’s excursion, and a colossal bill (would have been cheaper to hire another car and drive ourselves) so we took the crazy detour down the less than satisfactory road and crawled our way there.

Gullfoss is magnificent – the best waterfall I’ve seen (and I’ve been to North Wales AND Niagara) with enormous cascades going down big drops and rocky bits and wide bits and producing enormous clouds of mist and pretty much being spectacular and amazing. We’ll be home soon, and I’ll get some photos uploaded. (my) Words can’t describe it. Or if you are really lucky, we’ll come and visit and bring the laptop. You have a week to spare don’t you? Only a few miles up the road was Geysir. Although the original one after which all the others were named is broken (people chucked too many rocks into it) it had a little brother which goes mental about every 10 minutes, sending a plume of boiling water about 30 feet into the air. Shame the whole place smelled of rotten eggs though, but you can’t have everything.

Having only spent about an hour at Gullfoss/Geysir (thus further justifying the decision not to do a separate excursion) we got back to the car hire place in time to drop it off, and get a lift to central Reykjavik, where our apartment was waiting for us. We have a little kitchen, a massive bed and a 32inch LCD TV with DVD, so there will be no excuse for boredom! We went out and ate at our favourite Mexican restaurant (I had fish and chips, Lisa has quesadillas)

Day 10

The whale watching tours can’t guarantee you’ll see anything, but they offer another trip for nothing if you don’t see anything. Therefore – we needed to go early enough in the trip to ensure we’d be able to take them up on this offer. Maybe they have enough people on weekends and day trips it becomes an empty gesture?

We turned up in time for the one o'clock sailing, paid in Kroner (so much cheaper than paying in Euros!) and enjoyed their small but entertaining and informative museum (in the hold of an older ship, which was the holding area and visitor centre – good use of space) until they allowed us onto our boat for the day – a solid ship – probably big enough for about 200 visitors – although I reckon we had 100 on our voyage – which was probably about right, as we all crowded to the front of the outside deck as soon as we got to the feeding ground.

Still within sight of Reykjavik, the guide gave us a quick setting of expectations – allegedly it took them over an hour to see a single whale (enough to satisfy the money back guarantee) – so obviously anything better than that would be a success. Introducing Lisa to the “clock” system of knowing which way to look (obviously – being a chap, I was well used to identifying which direction to look, based on the numbers of the clock) the cry of “12 o'clock” went up and as we looked – there, not quite on the horizon, was a whale doing the “breaching” thing – leaping out of the water (although disappointingly not roaring, (although I’m well aware that the shark in “Jaws 4 – The Revenge”, was a shark, and a fake shark at that and therefore not a whale and definitely a load of old bollocks))

We got closer in, and saw a number of minke whales, just bobbing up to breathe in front of us (and when the wind was in the right direction – we smelled them, which was not fun – they were extremely stinky whales), a few of us (including me, but not Lisa,) saw a pair of porpoises jumping (at one o'clock) out of the water and disappear – not to be seen again) and then, disappointingly without a cry of “thar she blows!” we saw a huge spout going up on the horizon – a humpback whale, which also seemed to breach, and we could see it was massive. The captain put his foot down and with just the sort of lurches that make me rather unwell (I’m fine on little boats, but this one was making me pretty queasy) we headed off at full speed to attempt to catch the humpback. Whenever we saw the spout again, it wasn’t any closer, so off we went again, at full speed. We never did catch up, which was probably for the best, as I have a feeling he was trying to draw us into some sort of whaley ambush, and we’d have been beaten with their tails, scraped across their barnacled bellies, and speared by the narwhals tusks. Instead we ran out of time, and had to head back to the harbour – taking a slight detour to the island of Lundy (Icelandic for Puffin) where, with the aid of binoculars, we saw many puffins doing their thing. In a very cute way.

One of the advantages of the hotel where we stayed was having a kitchen (which I might have mentioned before) so after four hours on the boat, and with half a flapjack and a snickers to feed me, we got some pasta, sauce and cheese, and made ourselves a huge portion each, then hid in the room for the evening, watching Withnail and I on DVD.

Day 11

Lisa pretty much took me to Iceland for the horse riding, so off we went. Icelandic horses are unusual for many reasons. They can never leave Iceland – if they do – they can’t ever come back. This is because they don’t have any horse diseases in Iceland – they’ve stayed quarantined, and a pure breed for a long time. As another result of this, they’ve developed their own weird and wonderful ways. Most horses have 4 speeds – Walk, Trot, Canter and Gallop – those who have read my early work will have heard about how I’ve cantered twice, the first time (in Australia) ended prematurely as Ben was a lazy old bastard, and the second time (in New Zealand) ended prematurely as Caruba was an obstinate bastard and threw me off.

Icelandic Horses have an extra speed – somewhere between the trot and the canter, there is a Tolt. One pair of legs is trotting, and the other is cantering, resulting in a smooth but medium fast motion. Lisa needed to give this a go, so off we went and gave it a go, Lisa doing a 3 hour ride, and me deciding not to chance it, and taking a 2 hour session. I can’t tell you much about Lisa’s other than the fact that her legs were heavily chafed, and she didn’t stop smiling for several days, but mine was great fun – only 6 of us including the instructor, and plenty of opportunity to trot and tolt (we knew we were tolting, as the incessant spanking of the saddle against my butt ceased for a few seconds (being at the back of the group, as soon as the front horse slowed down, so did mine – the instructor gave me her whip for the journey back, which certainly helped)). We also had time to look around and enjoy the scenery, which was more of the weird moss covered lava fields, and we gave the horses a short rest (after leading them to water) half way through.

The best bit was as we were heading home – with little warning the guide told us we’d have a go at galloping, and with a kick and a shout (and a touch of the whip for mine) we were stampeding up hills at full speed – hanging on for dear life and grinning from ear to ear. Lisa doubts that we actually galloped (she didn’t) and I maintain that the solid 1234, 1234 rhythm of the hooves was all I needed to know. Loved it.

In the evening we found the hotel’s communal hot tub empty, so we had a go, sitting in warm bubbles on a cold day, looking out over the city.

Day 12

We had a bit of a quieter day - legs still aching following the riding, so we stretched them with a day wandering around the town – we visited the cathedral – a bizarrely beautiful concrete beast, unfortunately swathed in scaffolding and tarpaulin at the moment, it erupts from the pavement like an organic space shuttle, very beautiful, with the most magnificent organ we’d ever seen. A font carved from about a tonne of crystal, and a gravity defying pulpit finished the place off fantastically. We took the lift up the tower, and looked out (through the scaffolding) on 270degrees of Reykjavik.

All done there, we popped to the bus station (exciting) and upgraded our tickets back to the airport to enable us to detour to the Blue Lagoon, then wandered back and stopped off for a drink at Damon Albarn’s Bar – He bought it, possibly while drunk, at the height of the Britpop years, and it is rather cute (if a little full of people with iMacs and pretention) and the wine was reasonable and cold.

In the evening we cooked more pasta, and watched the Da Vinci code on DVD. (Not as bad as we were expecting).

Day 13

Our last full day was spent visiting Vithy, a small and uninhabited (they tried, but gave up) island, a short and infrequent boat ride from Reykjavik. Obtaining a return ticket including a coffee and a waffle (for only about an extra pound) we first of all sat in the sun and enjoyed a coffee and a waffle (with jam and cream!), then walked pretty much all the way round the island, enjoying seabirds, hairy horses, pretty flowers, beautiful cliffs and rocks, a few ducklings, and a small shrine to the Virgin Mary. A very pleasant way to spend the day. Discovering (as we so often did on this holiday) that it was 4pm and we’d not eaten anything (other than a coffee and a waffle) since breakfast, we took the boat back, found a bus, and got off outside a pizza place Lisa had her eye on and stuffed ourselves silly.

Day 14

One of the advantages of having a major tourist attraction just by the airport is that instead of checking out of the hotel at 10am, then having nothing to do but carry enormous amounts of luggage around for 6 hours until your flight leaves, you can check out of your hotel, put your luggage straight on a bus, go to the Blue Lagoon, where they look after your luggage while you splash around, have saunas, wine, facials, and a waterfall massage, then you get your luggage, check it for drugs and bombs, get back on the coach, get driven the other 10 minutes to the airport, and get on the plane – relaxed, clean and smelling vaguely sulphurous. We were home by 10pm, and can’t wait to get back there.

Thanks for listening. – I’ll be back to whinging about my daily life before you know it.

Monday, 25 May 2009

EnvironMentalism – or – Shouldn’t the Netherlands be underwater by now?

Shouldn't this be Holland by now?

Jeremy Clarkson wrote a recent article about how he recycles; amongst other more unClarksonesque character traits (slowing down for school zones, smiling at pensioners) even though he’s not sure about his reasons for doing so.
I’ve been trying to do my bit for a while. The easy things – recycling, driving a bit more carefully – getting the insulation sorted, and turning the thermostat down (and putting on a jumper when necessary) but most of this is for selfish reasons. It keeps the bills down, keeps me out of petrol stations, and stops me needing a bin that takes up the whole (pretty small) kitchen.
I’ve been doing some reading recently, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that humankind’s impact on the planet isn’t quite as devastating as was once claimed. Having a quick search on the internet – I found sites such as this, which are pretty heavy conspiracy theories about how governments and industry are making up the whole climate change “myth”. It seems that they believe the melting of the ice caps, depletion of the ozone layer and the overall increase in the global temperature are cyclical changes, which have been used as an excuse to increase taxes, control oil production, and generally have an excuse to change how we live our lives – increasing control and surveillance (microchips in wheelie bins anyone?)
There are a few pretty undeniable facts (unless you are a creationist – they’ll deny anything) which certainly add weight to their theories.
A few thousand years ago, there was an ice age. In fact I seem to remember (from books – I wasn’t there) that there were four of them. Mammoths and rhinoceroses were woolly (I can’t get my spell checker to make that word look correct. I want an h in there). In between each ice age it goes to figure that there was a warm bit. Maybe this is just one of those warm bits.
The thermometer was only invented pretty recently – certainly not while ice ages were happening. When they mention that it is the hottest day “since records began”, they mean – “recently” or “in the last few hundred years”, not “since man didn’t have to wear clothes as it was so freaking hot” or “since man had to find a decent tool with which to remove the wool from a mammoth cos it was a bit nippy out there”.
Melting the ice in my cocktail doesn’t give me a wet hand. Melting the North Pole won’t raise the sea level. However – melt the South Pole, or big chunks of Greenland, and you might be in trouble. Of course – if the temperature is hot enough to melt so much ice, it is probably going to be hot enough to evaporate some of that extra water – creating more clouds, and making it rain more, filling the rivers and the oceans and raising the sea level. Maybe. I don’t have a doctorate in enviroclimatology – can you tell?
We aren’t the only ones producing greenhouse gasses. Even Greenpeace admit (possibly the wrong word – they are stating facts as they understand them.) that natural sources of greenhouse gasses are causing a large proportion of the changes. Methane is twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – and there are massive amounts of that under the oceans and generally locked away. Imagine if it all bubbled to the surface of its own accord. Then there would be trouble.
Here’s a theory – lets but combi boilers into the atmosphere – gathering the methane, and burning it into CO2 – hey presto – each methane molecule becomes a CO2 molecule and a bit of water, and that CO2 is far less of a greenhouse gas. (I have no idea how much oxygen would be needed in burning off all the atmospheric methane – possible more than we have to breathe. Please don’t take this idea seriously until you’ve done the appropriate calculations. It might end up like the environmental equivalent of the (awful) movie “vertical limit” which I’ll spoil for you now – it is apparently worth sending 20 mountaineers to their deaths just to save one relatively pretty (but also pretty inept) girl.)
Remember when we were first told about this impending catastrophe? It was about 1990, and the figures quoted were that fossil fuels would run out in the first 25 years of the 21st century, that sea levels would rise significantly within 10 years, Holland, Norfolk, and large chunks of other low lying countries would sink – (of course – New Orleans did – but this would be due to a hurricane – not a gradual increase in sea levels – they were a bit mad to build a city below sea level anyway, and it did give the media an excuse to come up with a new phrase – climate chaos.)
It doesn’t help that with approximately 436 24 hour news channels, we now discover every detail of everything that happens everywhere. With more cameras than there are atoms in the universe (ok I made that up) we see all these horrific images of polar bears looking like the Glacier Mint advert – floating through the ocean on their own personal iceberg.

Every time a bit of ice falls into the sea – we know about it. Maybe this is because of the MTV generation. Who wants to watch a glacier form over 10,000 years, when you can watch one melt in 30 seconds? Which is exciting – which is more fun? Glaciers may well still be forming – the ice will refreeze, and the polar bears will find some more to sit on, and keep on eating the seals.

I don’t think there is 100% certainty that we’re making all the difference. Of course – I also can’t deny that we aren’t helping. Setting fire to large chunks of the world, and killing the aspects of it that would be helping produce the oxygen we breathe are undoubtedly really stupid things to do. So I’m going to keep on doing my bit.
Except for carrier bags. We're always being told about "fixed carbon" and "carbon capture" - what better way to fix carbon than to make carrier bags out of it, and leave them lying around my house. we should be stuffing our cavity walls with them, and insulating our lofts with them. Every extra carrier bag is another 0.000001 tonne of carbon fixed.
Recycling raw materials. Not filling holes in the ground with potentially useful stuff. Not burning fuel we don’t need to burn. Using power obtained in a more natural way. All these things make sense to anyone – whether you think we are to blame or we aren’t – these are easy things I’ll keep doing – they certainly won’t do anyone any harm.
And the world would be a better place with more polar bears. Unless you are seal.