Thursday, September 29, 2005

Back in the Game

Okay, I’m back in the land of the living – but it was touch and go for a while; I thought I was fading out again about eleven o’clock this morning, but luckily I rallied and completed a decent day’s work for the first time since I got back from Sitges.

There’s lots of stuff to cover in today’s edition! I didn’t actually complete my holiday blog and although it seems a bit late to post about it now, let me note, as a kind of future aide-memoire, that the festival through the streets of the old town was just fantastic; music everywhere, fireworks everywhere (minor burns on my arm!), firecrackers at the intersection, a dragon with a flaming mouth and catherine-wheel-tail, the massive mannequins dancing with each other, surrounded by groups of attendants (to make sure they didn’t topple over!) Absolutely great!

The period of being ill wasn’t too bad either. It certainly wasn’t the worst ‘flu I’ve ever had and I got to watch lots of TV and DVDs. (On the TV-front, Jerry Hall’s Kept is a scream; She tries to train a group of fairly rough-and-ready men to move in high society and, in a reality-TV elimination kind of way, keeps setting them challenges to whittle them down to the final winner.) I managed to avoid any of the talk-shows that people usually complain about when stuck at home during the day – although even on the Discovery channel I couldn’t avoid people offering to refinance my debts, no matter what my circumstances. Thank god for Tivo and fast-forward!

Tonight was the first night of my piano course. I’m taking a ten-week night school class to get me started on one of my life-long ambitions. It wasn’t quite what I expected; thirteen students, two pianos and one tutor. Nevertheless we managed what felt like a productive session – although hands-on piano work is obviously limited. It certainly felt good to get some right-brain exercise after a day at the left-brain grindstone. I seem to be one of the more advanced students in the class (inasmuch as I am not an absolute beginner) but even so I fear I am nowhere near the ‘intermediate’ level of the class next term, so I need to do my practicing like a good student. Still, an enjoyable way to spend the evening and I am looking forward to the next lesson.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sick Liam

No, the silence doesn’t mean I died on the flight. Basically I got off the flight and started feeling rough and it was all downhill from there. I fear I have the ‘flu. I was in bed or lying on the sofa all through Saturday and Sunday. I felt better this morning, so went into work, but it didn’t last and I was back home in bed by 3pm. Wish me luck. Give me sympathy.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Sitges - Final Thoughts

I spent a final half-hour in the hot tub with John and Rich which was wonderfully relaxing. A couple of times I almost drifted off to sleep with the sound of the bubbling and the sunlight flashing on the water; very therapeutic.

I have enjoyed the week in Sitges and could probably have easily spent a second week here – although I might have done a bit more exploring out of town in a second week. John, Rich and Jeremy have been great holiday companions with no great pressure on anyone to do anything. I think I can appear to be quite anti-social when I am in full-on relaxing mode; just staring off into space and not feeling the need to make conversation, but no-one seems to have minded and I haven’t felt any awkward silences developing.

Sitges itself is lovely; it is a very friendly, relaxed town. I was a little bit nervous about coming to a renowned ‘gay resort’ thinking it would be lots of teenage twinks, flamboyant queens and bars playing S-Club Seven and having Barbara Streisand and Shirley Bassey Karaoke nights. In fact the town just gets on with it. It isn’t bedecked with Pride flags (in fact I think I’ve seen more bear flags than pride flags around town!) it’s just a regular holiday resort where there are lots of gay-friendly establishments. In fact it feels more comfortable walking along the prom here, holding Brett’s hand than it does back in London. Even in Soho you feel you are making a bit of a statement. Here no-one cares. Definitely somewhere I could come back to.

Rich was chatting to another couple by the pool this afternoon and discovered that there is more to the fiesta going on this evening between 7:30 and 8:30, so we are going to head into town early to see what there is to see and then meet the guys for dinner afterwards.

Sitges - Fireworks

We headed out to dinner last night and it was only as we approached the town that I realised I had left my camera behind and there was supposed to be the climax of the Fiesta Day to look forward to!

We ran into David M, from the Chorus, on one of the streets in the old town. He is here with a friend as Paul, his partner, is off in Brazil with a different friend. He’d had a nasty run-in with a rock while swimming and had a number of stitches in his forehead. Apparently he had been down at our hotel during the day to say hi, but we had obviously been out of town. We invited him to join us for cocktails and/or dinner but he had an errand to run and so scooted off.

We dined in a place called Gabriel’s, which had much more of a Spanish feel to it than our previous choices; the menu was laid out in Spanish style, with a vegetable salad buffet for starter followed by a meat plate that was very light on carbohydrates and vegetables. The waiting staff (owners?) were exuberantly friendly and gave us plenty of time between courses and advice on what to choose. All very pleasant.

Afterwards, we headed down to the beach for 11pm to watch the fireworks – along with most of the rest of the town! We managed to find spaces to sit towards the end of the one of the rock piers which divide the beaches and minimise erosion and we had a fine view back towards to the old town.

Shortly a single rocket went up and exploded with a huge bang. This was the cue for the lights along the front to go out, then the lights in the old town and progressively every hotel along the front turned off their exterior lighting. It was all very well done.

The display itself was heavy on the noise but very colourful and spectacular too. I am sure it wasn’t as good as the displays which we are now unlikely to see in Barcelona, but it was a nice way to round off the day. Around half-eleven, we wended our weary way back to the hotel and fell into our beds after a long, but enjoyable, day.

Today has been lazy. We breakfasted late, lazed around, took a wander into town which was mostly shut (Fiesta Day) and then came back to the hotel for a siesta. I’ve been sorting out the photographs from yesterday and blogging, while Brett has been reading. Tonight we are going back to the Flamboyant restaurant for our final dinner in Sitges. I think there may be a bit of partying goes on afterwards too…

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sitges - Trip to Montserrat

We had an early start today; 9am saw us all in the dining room having breakfast, for we had hired a car and were going to visit the remote monastery at Monserrat.

The journey started out a bit wobbly, as the map provided by Avis was not the best and also had labels locating Avis Offices obscuring several crucial road junctions. We did eventually find a service station (on our third attempt!) that had a map of Catalonia for sale and things proceeded more smoothly after that.

Once out of the urban sprawl surrounding Barcelona you began to get a feel of the country proper, although the mountains of Montserrat are rather peculiar, looking like stacks of dough-balls or profiteroles rather than the usual scrub covered terraces. Unfortunately as we climbed higher what was undoubtedly a stunning view back towards the coast was obscured by what looked like smog. Even so, we passed some dramatic vistas before finally reaching our destination.

The first hint that we were approaching the monastery was the car park barriers across the road. Having collected our ticket we drove up the remainder of the road that was marked out with parking bays on either side. I think today was a quiet day for them, as only maybe the top third of the bays were in use. That said there were thirty or forty coaches in the coach park, which was overflowing!

The monastery of Montserrat is located on a ledge about halfway up the mountain side; it has lovely dramatic views, some of which you can see here in the photoblog, and is a very popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. We followed the typical tourist route I suspect; we visited the Basilica to hear the boys’ choir sing prayers, then took one of the funicular railways further up the mountain to take our photographs of the monastery and finally Brett, John & Rich joined the queue to touch the Black Madonna while I photographed the interior of the Basilica. Unfortunately though, the lighting was too low for my camera to make much of what could be seen and none of the other guys reported a sudden oneness with the universe after touching the statue. It looked like there were other places within the monastery complex that were open to visitors, but we decided to begin our trek home. Montserrat is definitely a place I would visit again though and probably aim to spend a bit more time in. After the noise and bustle of the coast, it was very relaxing to be on the track up to the hermitage, listening to the silence for a while and breathing the fresh air.

We took a more scenic route through the mountains on the way home, further inland than on our outward leg. Apart from a short delay in the rush-hour traffic around a motorway junction, the trip back to Sitges was delightful; we saw a lot more of rural Catalonia than you would even guess existed on the autopista by Barcelona though. It looks like the major crop around here is grapes, presumably for wine. We made it back in good time for a shower before dinner.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sitges - More pool & More food

Nothing much happened this afternoon. It was Jeremy’s last day with us as he has to fly back for work tomorrow, so there was a bit of an atmosphere of giving him a good send off. Hence lots of mucking about in the pool. After we had waved him off, I hopped in the hot tub for a while and then braved the chill of the swimming pool. Having watched a very toned and tanned guy easing through his laps in the pool about half an hour previously though, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by demonstrating my version of doggy-paddle so I just lazed for a while, then transferred to one of the odd little loungers in the children’s area of the pool. Not being a sun-worshipper any more than I am a swimmer, I soon got bored with that too and headed back upstairs for a shower.

Brett and I walked into town a little earlier tonight to see if I could find a decent and relatively cheap tripod for my camera, which we did after a short search. After that we were attracted by the sound of drumming coming from the area of the church. It turned out to be children warming up for the opening of a local festival that is taking place tonight, tomorrow afternoon and Friday – although quite what the festival is, we couldn’t quite work out. Possibly related to the Mercé festival about to start in Barcelona?

Anyway, we met up with John & Rich for dinner, which was another success. We ate at the appropriately named Al Fresco, in the old town and were well impressed with the cocktails, food and service. We didn’t go on to any bars afterwards though, as we need to be up relatively early tomorrow to get a good day’s worth of touring the countryside in!


Well, the hotel does have Wi-Fi ADSL facilities, but they sell it in twenty-four hour chunks at €12 a go; not conducive to casual browsing, but since today is about half-way through the holiday and it’s Jeremy’s last day here (he flies back tonight), Brett and I are having a ‘pool’ day so I thought I’d spend an hour updating my blog. I have uploaded everything I’ve written and photographed so far. Not all of the photographs are referenced in the text though, so you may want to browse the photoblog separately.

Tomorrow we have a car booked and the remaining four of us will be driving up to the Monastery of Montserrat.

I’m deliberately avoiding reading my email though (Outlook tells me I have 81 unread messages!), so if you’ve mailed me, I’m sorry you’ll have to wait for a reply; I’m on holiday!

Sitges - Ten Hours in Barcelona

Yesterday Brett and I went into Barcelona to explore some of the main tourist sights. The train ride from Sitges was cheap and smooth and fairly scenic, as the line follows the coast for a lot of the route.

The first stop on arrival, after picking up a Metro pass, was El Corte Inglés, the premier department store chain in Spain. We weren’t there for the shopping, rather because the stores provide excellent free maps of the city centre and Metro system where they are located.

We also wanted lunch and quite fancied the scenic restaurant on the ninth floor of the store. However there was a queue to get in so in the end we went back out onto Plaça Catalunya and found ourselves a kind of fast-food tapas restaurant. Here I introduced Brett to the delights of Russian Salad and we each picked a few random tapas dishes. The deep-fried baby squid went down a treat but the octopus sprinkled with cayenne pepper was more of an acquired taste; not unpleasant, just an unusual flavour.

After lunch we took a stroll down La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous avenue(s). I had done this some years ago while on a daytrip to the city and been rather disappointed. I had hoped that being better versed in what there is to see along the route would improve the experience, but in the end it did not; it’s a series of avenues filled with people selling birds, pavement art, flowers, etc – pretty much what you can get in Covent Garden or Times Square. Brett was similarly unimpressed.

We paused for coffee at the bottom of the Rambla, by the Columbus monument, and then took the metro into the new town to visit the Grand Expiatory Temple (that’s ‘Cathedral’ to you and me) of La Sagrada Família.

While I had been expecting it, the novelty of Gaudi’s design surprised Brett. We took some photos of the exterior and then bought entrance and an audio-guide. On my last visit I hadn’t had time to go inside and had only seen the exterior façades so I was quite surprised by how much of a building site it still is; there is scaffolding everywhere, architectural elements stacked on the floor waiting to be installed, the building is open to the weather; definitely still a work-in-progress.

The audio guide talks a lot about what the interior will be like when complete but it is difficult to visualise when you are standing there. It wasn’t until we got to the museum in the crypt and saw some of the plans, drawings and scale models that I realised quite how innovative and beautiful it is going to be when it is finished.

Everything about the design is inspired by natural forms; instead of traditional pillars branching into arches, Gaudi’s design has them branching like trees. Instead of gargoyles he has the shells of sea creatures. The roof will be filled with indirect skylights, giving lots of natural light in the interior. The sections which are complete are stunning; in the nave there is some beautiful stained glass already in place, in the cloisters the carving is almost like lace filigree and the two completed façades (the Nativity and the Passion), while completely different are very dramatic.

We chose to climb the towers rather than take the lift and the extra exercise was worth it, as there are lots of little viewing platforms built in to the towers as the staircases wind their way around and up, so you get lots of different views of both the completed and the unfinished work.

I wanted to stay nearby for dinner, so we could take some photographs of the façades when they are floodlit, so we ended up in a Pizza Express opposite the east end of the cathedral. As it turned out, although the flood lighting picked out a lot of the detail you lose in shadow during the day, I couldn’t capture it because I didn’t have a tripod to steady my camera. Oh well, next time!

For the photos that did come out okay, see here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

SItges - Party Time

This is a glorious holiday. We had so much fun last night; we ended up in a small restaurant called The Beach House where the waiters were friendly (and cute) and the food a wonderful Spanish-Oriental fusion. We drank cava again, because it was cheap, although Brett, John & Rich subsequently downed a couple of bottles of Rioja too.

After the restaurant we visited a few more bars, having a drink in each before finally ending up in El Piano. There was no singer there tonight, they were just playing the songs and video clips that they previously had on between his sets. We put in a special request for a video they had played the previous night; a very cleverly done montage of various musical numbers, all over-dubbed by the song I Just Wanna Dance from Jerry Springer the Opera – which regular readers will recall was a big hit in the Chorus’ summer show, You’ll Do For Now. We sang along with gusto.

By the time Brett and I staggered along the beach to the hotel (leaving John, Rich & Jeremy still singing along to the videos) it was gone 2am.

This morning, despite my optimistic setting of the alarm for 8am, we slept until ten and then rolled down to a late and sluggish breakfast. Neither of us was hungover, but then neither of us was full of life either. We decided to pass on visiting Montserrat today and instead do an afternoon and evening in Barcelona, doing the sights that John and Rich have already visited. In theory we’ll get a car and go up to Montserrat tomorrow, have another day by the pool/on the beach on Thursday and then visit Barcelona again with John and Rich on Friday.

Right, off we go!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Sitges - Life in the Pueblo

We had a late lunch and then a wander around the old town, nominally checking the walk-in rates for car hire, but really just exploring the area. Brett was surprised how much the place came alive after five o’clock when siesta finished. We stopped off in a little boutique (which advertised over twenty different styles of men’s white shirt for sale) so that Brett could buy a couple of new ones neither of which, in the end, were white. There seem to be a lot of British-owned businesses here, although thankfully they are blended into the town, rather than being obnoxious Brit’s abroad. None of the ‘little bit of England in Spain’ kind of tourist bars that you see in the more infamous Spanish resorts!

When we got back I spent twenty minutes in the hot tub to relax before having a shower ready for dinner.

Sitges - Food, Drink & Planning

Sangría is a bad idea in the late afternoon; Rich had inadvertently ordered a jug and invited us to help him finish it, which we naturally did, sitting under the awnings outside the dining room. Thereafter we all headed back to our rooms to freshen up before dinner. Brett and I both dozed off, to awake only about ten minutes before we were due to meet again so, instead of the showering and shaving that we had intended, it was a quick wash and a squirt of cologne before a hurried change of clothes and we were out of the door.

We had booked the highly-recommended restaurant El Jardin for dinner and we chose to eat outside in the garden, which turned out to be a mistake as, with no cloud cover, the evening got chilly quickly. Nevertheless, the food was excellent; Brett and I both ordered the same items again (I worry that he may be losing the capacity for independent thought in restaurants!) tonight we ate grilled provolone cheese with tomato salad and a rosemary oil dressing followed by a fine filet steak served with roasted peppers, a potato and cream cheese. Flushed with our previous success at choosing good wine, we went for another mid-price Rioja which was equally delicious. Dessert was a soufflé-esque (I can’t remember the proper name!) chocolate concoction with a spongy chocolate case filled with a rich chocolate sauce, served warm alongside almond ice-cream; heaven on a plate.

After dinner we went on to a couple of other bars, ostensibly so that Jeremy could be shown where they were in case he wanted to go out and party (Brett and I were clearly too old to want to party, although actually in this case that was true!) We headed on to El Piano, where we had been the previous night, and then a nice little spot called XXL (which is nowhere near as big or as bearish as its namesake in London and which I quite liked the look of.) After a drink in each we took the stroll home.

Today has been just as lazy as yesterday was. We had a late breakfast and then the rest of them went out to roast. I sat in the lounge and read through the guidebooks looking for places of interest to visit (I am feeling more energised now than I was in Gran Canaria and think the attractions of sitting and reading all day will soon wear-off.) There seem to be two likely places within easy striking distance; the Monastery of Montserrat and the town of Tarragona. The former is high in the mountains inland of Barcelona and looks very scenic, while the latter is the provincial capital with lots of Roman remains from its time as an earlier provincial capital. I think we will probably rent a car and do at least the monastery tomorrow. I think we can probably do Tarragona by train later in the week, saving Barcelona for Friday ready for the fireworks.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sitges - A Lazy Day

The hotel is really nice; the rooms have wooden floors instead the usual (noise transmitting) ceramic tiles. The furniture is standard hotel fayre, although solidly built and finished in a teak effect. Our balcony seems to get the sun all day, but the room itself hardly gets touched, which means it maintains a comfortable temperature without resorting to closing the curtains and running the air-conditioning.

This morning we had a leisurely breakfast. I was the first one down there at about 08:45 and we didn’t leave until 10:30. Jeremy was the last to join us, having gone out for a run along the seafront before eating. The dining room is lovely; a very modern, stylish design which opens out onto the terrace. After breakfast the rest of the gang ‘basted’ themselves (as John calls it) and hopped onto the sun loungers. I contemplated it, but in the end decided I’d be more comfortable in the adjoining lounge.

I’m still reading ‘A History of God’ and found I made good headway on it today, being able to concentrate instead of only having a fifteen minute train journey to spend reading.

A little later on I thought I’d try the hot tub on the terrace which was very pleasant; a comfortable water temperature kept me cool under the sun. John, Rich and Jeremy joined me, although Brett stayed baking and reading on his lounger. The clouds have all cleared now and it was a lovely Mediterranean day, made all the better by alternate massaging and spine-tingling provided by the jets and bubbles of the tub. I could get used to this!

Had a phone call from Chris C while I was drying off; having read my blog and seen where we were going, he’d rung to tell me about a major fireworks competition taking place in Barcelona towards the end of the week. An international competition between firework display companies; sounds like fun. We should be able to catch a night or two, even though we are flying back on Saturday. He said he would try to pop over for couple of days himself (he is in the display business too) to see what is going on, which would be great fun.

Anyway, shortly thereafter the boys felt the urge for lunch. The hotel does provide snack lunches, but we fancied something slightly more substantial and, as there aren’t any restaurants nearby, we took a stroll along the prom towards the town. I had my camera with me and started trying to be arty – unfortunately the best shots were marred by smudges on the lens where it had been splashed from the hot tub earlier. I’ve posted a few shots (here and here) for you to have a look at anyway on my photoblog.

After lunch, Jeremy and I walked up towards the church in the old town to have a look around while the others headed back to the hotel. The church itself was closed, but it had some interesting buildings behind it and a lovely view along the seafront back towards our hotel. After photographing all of the above, and taking a few shots of Jeremy staring out to sea, we headed back to the hotel to laze some more; eating lunch is a tiring business you know!

Sitges - Arrival

Well, our flight was delayed somewhat, but we took advantage of the spare time to do more shopping. I picked up some Hugo Boss Eau De Cologne, which everyone agreed smelled nice on me and then we sat on the plane for half an hour waiting for a departure slot.

The flight itself was uneventful, as was the taxi ride to the hotel – our taxi had a smart GPS system which told the driver exactly where to go. The hotel is really rather nice. Our room is a little on the small side but it does have a pool view. John W and I tossed a coin to decide who would get it. Their room is larger but overlooks the entrance and a derelict house next door. I believe Rich is going to press for a room change tomorrow.

We got settled in and then took a stroll along the prom towards the old town and its restaurants. En route we passed a group of guys who turned out to be from Seattle, visiting friends who live here. It is a fairly gay resort, but not in the twinky, campy style; more mature guys seem to be the order of the day which makes it all feel very civilised.

As we walked along the seafront, the clouds out over the Med were a dismal grey, but it appears they were receding as we didn’t get any rain during the evening and it was a clear sky by the time we headed home.

John & Rich had found a few nice eateries on their trip here last year so we started off by looking at them. One of them, El Jardin, was fully booked for tonight, so we booked for tomorrow and went on to El Flamboyant (photo here) further into the pueblo. The place is run by an English gay couple; all the waiters were fluent and they were actually quite good fun. The food was good, although I regretted not following John & Rich’s recommendations for the main course; they started with sizzling garlic prawns followed by filet steak. Brett and I started with feta cheese baked in egg and wrapped in filo pastry (which was delicious) and Brett followed with Duck in cranberry sauce, while I had barbequed chicken in a lemon sauce. The steaks were definitely better than the chicken – although there were four or five chicken breasts on my plate – and Brett’s duck was succulent. We were drinking a complimentary bottle of thirty-five year old cava for most of the meal, but switched to six year old Rioja halfway through the main course. It was delicious and only €30 a bottle.

After dessert, I ordered Remy Martin with my coffee and got a goldfish bowl-sized snifter with what would be a triple or quadruple shot back home; foolish of me to forget there are no set measures in Spain. Nevertheless, I battled valiantly on and finished the drink (with a little help from Brett.)

After dinner, John & Rich took us on a mini-tour of the gay bars in town. We stopped off at two of them; the first was a piano bar whose stated capacity was thirty-seven and so was quite cosy inside. In actuality, there was no-one playing the piano but there was a guy singing to backing tracks. He did pretty well and had us all singing along towards the end. After that, we went on to the nearby Bear bar as both John and Brett are into Bears. I haven’t been in many bars of that ilk, but it certainly seemed to fit the mould of what I have seen. We only stayed for one drink, but that was enough for me to get an eyeful of bear-porn; four Michelin men making out with Jabba the Hut, all with WAY too much body hair. Ugh! Definitely not my thing.

By then, it was gone 1am so we headed home along the seafront. Apparently parts of the seafront are quite hot cruising areas at night, but Jeremy (the only single guy with us) was too timid to head off that way (or so he claimed.) We did wonder if he wasn’t going to head back that way after we’d all said goodnight though, but that’s his business.

Anyway, a most enjoyable night tonight, and tomorrow the holiday begins in earnest.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Where ya goin'? Barcelona...

This may be my last upload for a week, as I don’t know what the situation is going to be with Internet access at the hotel. If I can’t post in ‘real time’, I will post retrospectively when I get back.

So anyway, it was a remarkably smooth morning. Neither of us got round to packing yesterday evening. We got an early night and decided to get up early to do all that today. It worked out well; I did more ironing in an hour than I usually do in a month, we both got packed with remarkably little drama (which for me is a BIG result) and left the house on time. Rosie was giving us a lift to the airport but there was a bit of diversion so Brett could collect his latest comics to take along, but despite traffic hold-ups and roadworks we still got to Gatwick at precisely the appointed hour. There were seats on the exit rows available, so I got my legroom and John W got his window seat.

The bag drop queue was about twenty minutes long – which is the longest one I’ve ever seen! That said, the queue for regular check-in had to be over an hour long, so I still think we did okay.

I bumped into Andrew Harwood, Saga Shipping’s accountant in the departure lounge, so we said ‘hi’. He’s off to Paphos with his family for the week. It’s amazing how many times over the years I’ve run into people I know at airports…

So now, Brett & I are having a coffee while the boys are off stocking up on their personal aromas at the Duty Free shops. Another half hour to go before we board.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Holiday Tomorrow!

It’s Friday at last! I swear this week has dragged along sooooo slowly. Tonight, though, I can pack my bags and look forward to a week of doing whatever I feel like in the lovely town of Sitges in Spain.

I feel ready for a holiday as it’s been a hectic summer at work. Brett & I haven’t been away since May – and then it was just the Chorus trip to the festival in Paris. I expect we will spend at least a couple of days exploring Barcelona, which I have only visited briefly before. There will also be a fair amount of lazing around and, I suspect, eating and drinking.

It’s doubly good because, when we get back from the trip, Brett won’t be flying off to Stockholm again – he’s based in London again for the foreseeable future.

The week so far hasn’t been especially remarkable. Our main supplier’s account manager was in the office for a meeting on Tuesday. Although we’ve worked together for a couple of years now, we hadn’t actually met in person until now so it was nice to finally shake his hand (Especially nice since he was actually rather hot!) The meeting covered the value-added services the company provide and since then, I’ve been following up on ideas that came out of the meeting.

It also seems to have been the week for debating with Americans; on Wednesday a US court ruled that the national Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because it includes the words ‘under God.’ I won’t bore you here with the details of the arguments, but if you are interested in my views you can check them out here, here and here.

Right. Into the shower and off to work!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Flight 93 Memorial

Today I’ve been enjoying a storm in a teacup over in the States. The argument is essentially that the memorial to those who died in the ‘fourth plane’ on September 11th 2001 is actually a Muslim Red Crescent and hence the design committee (which includes representatives of the victims’ families) is thereby supporting the terrorists who hijacked the plane.

As far as I can see, this idea hasn’t been picked up by the mass media, so I’m assuming it’s just a lot of arch-politicos looking for ways to out-patriot each other on an otherwise slow news day.

What I find disturbing, though, is the underlying assumption of the argument: The use of a Muslim symbol would be giving ‘aid and comfort to those who wish to kill us.’ Essentially this tars the entire Muslim faith with the ‘9/11 terrorist’ brush. That is a huge and dangerous generalisation, worthy of the late Senator McCarthy! The attacks on New York and Washington were the acts of a tiny number of religious extremists who in no way represent the beliefs of the majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. As long as this ‘connection’ is lurking in the minds of even a few people, then Al Qaeda is winning the supposed ‘War On Terror.’

Monday, September 12, 2005

Sunday - Monday

On Sunday we had lunch. That was about the only thing we achieved. It was a very nice lunch, in very nice surroundings and with very nice company though; It was one of Ping’s events (every so often he organises lunch for a group of friends. Nominally it is a brunch club, but in fact it’s usually late enough to be classified as lunch.) We were at the Four Seasons Hotel near Canary Wharf which is a lovely spot. The food was top quality and the service very smooth and discreet. There were nine of us around a circular table (which was actually the only thing I didn’t enjoy about the meal – shouting across the table wasn’t very intimate.) Mark G and his partner Chris McC were joining us for the first time and seemed to enjoy themselves. The buffet-style presentation was delightful, allowing you to sample a little of everything – to do it so well is quite a coup for a hotel; buffets are hard to do well.

Conversation was a mixture of holiday, gay weddings, chorus and New Orleans’ hurricane talk. The other Chris in the party, Chris McM, was enjoyable company but always leaves me feeling like I’m not quite well-versed enough in pretty much everything. I didn’t notice until midway through the meal, but Brett was very subdued; he seemed to be there in body only. Paranoia immediately set in, but he assured me on the train home that he was just feeling hungover from Paul L’s party the previous night.

Lunch ran on until nearly four o’clock, after which we came home and slumped on the sofa for the afternoon, watching occasional TV, reading and surfing. I also had various admin stuff to do relating to the new Chorus members we recruited last Wednesday.

Today at work was fairly mundane although I am getting increasingly pissed off with our main firewall which has been performing erratically in certain respects lately. Fortunately it is not a security issue, but rather a functionality breakdown for our network; less damaging but, alas, more visible to the users. Tomorrow I am going to be trying to engage the manufacturer’s support team to help me work out why it is going wrong so often when doing something which should be fairly basic!

Chorus rehearsal tonight was uneventful. We had a sectional meeting at the break and were ‘buddied’ up with the new guys. John W got matched up with the guy I had been hoping to get and I ended up with no-one. Hey ho! That’s life I suppose.

Richard B gave me a lift home and was telling me all about a chap he has been seeing. They seem to be well matched for each other but there are a few things they need to work out between them first. I do hope they can manage it. Thanks to Richard’s lift I got home before eleven, but still went pretty much straight to bed.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Party On!

Tonight Paul L was celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday. There was a small party organised at his partner Martin’s flat in Bermondsey. All the usual suspects were there from the Chorus, plus Paul’s flatmate and Martin’s (very attractive) neighbours. Martin has a lovely flat. It is modern but with high ceilings and a balcony with a panoramic, albeit somewhat obstructed, view looking towards the City and Westminster and he has filled it with a variety of art which is quite fascinating.

The party was well catered for with quality food and plenty to drink and the number of guests was just about right for the space to be filled without being crowded. Martin had managed to sneak a birthday cake in without Paul knowing and arranged for him to be out of the room as he lit the full complement of candles. The traditional singing of Happy Birthday then followed (another good reason for having lots of choristers at your parties!) and a brief speech from both of them.

Later in the evening the plan was to go on to XXL, a nearby club, and both Brett and I were up for that… until we considered how we would (or rather wouldn’t) be able to get home afterwards. In the end we skipped the club and came home.

Party-Animal Brett immediately passed out on the bed. Maybe it’s because he was deprived of the endorphin-rush of dancing in a club…

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Look Beyond These Shores

Many years ago I watched a fascinating TV series by Carl Sagan called Cosmos. During one of the episodes he introduced a thing called the Drake Equation which calculates the number of civilisations in the Milky Way galaxy capable of communicating with our own. Over the years popular estimates of the various factors in the equation have varied resulting in answers anywhere between zero and ten thousand advanced civilisations out there.

Personally I am an optimist and news like this from the Cassini-Huygens mission only encourages me. If such similar processes can take place on a second body within our own solar system then surely that indicates a higher likelihood of life-bearing planets in the galaxy?

Let’s get our act together as a species and get out there and meet them!

Recursive Design?

For some reason the concept of Intelligent Design was in my head on the way home this evening. I was wondering why God himself isn’t a subject of the ‘theory’. If there is a God who fits the generally accepted mould of omnipotent, omniscient Divine Creator, then surely he is the most irreducibly complex thing around. If you believe Intelligent Design, God himself must have been designed by a greater creator… and that implies a never-ending chain of ever more complex creators. It makes no sense.

The idea of complexity slowly, ever so slowly, arising out of simplicity through evolution is just so simple, logical and believable by comparison.

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Here, There & Everywhere

A bit of a melange of thoughts tonight:

Today was obviously the day for calling Liam. Rob S called to let me know that today was his last day at his new job with Symantec – the travelling and time away from the family was proving too stressful, so he’s starting a job in Romford in a couple of weeks. We arranged to go drinking in town next week though.

This evening Chris C called to let me know he’s bringing Mrs. C. down to London for their anniversary in November, so we’ll be going out for dinner. It’s a while since I’ve seen Michelle, so it should be a good night.

Brett has finally got his leave from Stockholm. He has another week to do and then that’s it, he’s back in the UK. That also means he’s able to come with us to Sitges, which was in doubt for a while! I am looking forward to the holiday; I could do with a break and John & Rich will be the perfect company I think.

The forecast was for heavy thunderstorms today, but I managed to miss the rain and just got the atmospheric thunder crackling across the sky and some heavy wafts of lavender on the warm, moist air as I walked down to the supermarket to pick up stuff for dinner.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Not Really BOFH*

When I worked at Saga, the guy who booked all of the staff flights had a sign by his desk which read: A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine. As it happens, he was always incredibly helpful when you arrived at 5:30pm and told him you had to be in Timbuktu by morning, but the sign always reminded you, as you stood there anxiously watching him work his magic with the Galileo, that it wasn’t his fault if today’s only flight left half an hour ago, or you had to connect via Amsterdam, Johannesburg and Kathmandu to get there.

I am tempted to put a copy of that sign above my desk.

Today our company has a new project starting up, doing some very lucrative analysis of certain documentation for a client. Unfortunately the project team didn’t really think through their IT requirements ahead of time so, when they found that it was r e a l l y , r e a l l y s l o w to open a 160Mb* spreadsheet over the network, especially when two other people have it open simultaneously, one could detect a certain note of panic creep into the voices: This is a project with a hard deadline.

You can be certain they are worried when you get a call from the Project Director within minutes of speaking to the chief analyst. As it happens, the PD in this case is a pleasant guy who, unlike some of his colleagues, doesn’t ramble, doesn’t expect the impossible and treats IT like professionals, so we had a brief chat about his concerns and the options available and agreed a course of action.

Once settled upon a plan though, along comes the gotcha! – it turns out that some of the analysts are based in a branch office. Accessing the files over the network will be even slower, if not impossible for them – but the PD doesn’t want the data to be copied off-site for security reasons. Hello, rock. Hello, hard place.

In the end we got it sorted by arranging for the analysts to do their processing directly on a server, rather than doing it on their own personal machines. It’s a fairly neat solution although it did mean I had to do some fancy footwork with the security, as the server in question hadn’t quite finished being used by another project.

Still, it ended up with everyone working away and happy. Plus I was only half an hour late leaving work – which isn’t bad compared to some ‘last minute panics’ I’ve had to deal with.

A job well done, I think.

* No idea what BOFH stands for? I'll probably get drummed-out for telling you, but if you surreptitiously check out this link it might clue you in...
** For all the laymen out there; 160Mb = very big!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More Choirboys!

It was the Chorus’ new intake night tonight. As usual, I was helping out by taking the mug-shots of all our new recruits – with the added bonus that somebody else was transcribing the details from their registration forms into a database. A few familiar faces appeared in front of my lens; Chris M (Mark G’s partner) was there, as well as Jonathan P (one of the dancers from the You’ll Do For Now show) and Rohen K (an acquaintance from my university days.)

After the interminable hanging around while everyone had their voice tested so they could be placed in their sections, we settled down as a group to learn some songs. Charlie (our MD) was on his own tonight, as Simon (the Deputy MD) was off with a couple of the guys performing at a fee-paying gig. We started off doing the very lovely, but quite conventional song The Rose. After that, we spent about forty-five minutes on the more adventurous Bootylicious Medley. We only managed to pick up one of the three songs of which the piece consists, but everyone seemed to be enjoying it and it certainly is a break from the ‘Choral norm.’

It was interesting to watch people’s reactions when the choreography was mentioned, though, especially when the existing Chorus members were invited to the front to perform the whole of the medley – which we did fairly well, not having performed it since May!

As we were finishing early, I stayed for a quick drink and had a chat to a couple of the new guys. It also helped me cool down as we were sweltering in the rehearsal room!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Chocolate Teapots?

During my lunch hour yesterday I nipped out into town to pick up some show tickets for when my parents are here next month. I did it in person because I resent paying £3.50 per ticket administration fee over the Internet. (I’ve never understood the economics of that fact: The banks are desperate to get us to use Internet Banking rather than going into a branch because it cuts the cost-per-transaction by about 95% so how can it be cheaper for the theatres to have someone sitting in each box office all day, every day? Maybe it’s like CDs; they charge that much because people are stupid enough to pay it.) Mind you, even without the admin fee; Ouch! A rapid way of spending five-hundred quid is to book good seats for two shows for five people.

Last night’s Chorus rehearsal was fun; a lot of familiar faces back after taking a break last season, the rehearsal spent revising the Bootylicious Medley, which I already know reasonably well. On top of which we got a DVD copy of the Television footage of our performance in Paris in May. My voice is out of practice though, after a month off, so despite a long warm-up I still had bit of a sore throat when it was all over. Came away on my usual high though.

Today was another regular day at work. Played the DVD for my department who all had a good laugh at the choreography but thought the singing was okay.

Had a bit of a bizarre phone call from Owen while on my way home. Apparently he had had a very bad day at work and wanted someone to sound off to. I’m good at that kind of phone call – and it was amusing to hear about the teapots whose handles fall off when you fill them with boiling water! (Although, if I’d bought one, I suspect I would have been less amused.)

There was a bit of disappointment lying on the mat when I opened the door at home this evening. The Advisory Committee to the Lord Chancellor, while they found me ‘personally suitable’, regretted that the number of applicants always exceeds the number of places and so wouldn’t be taking my application to become a Magistrate forward this time. They did however encourage me to apply next year…

I was less disappointed than I thought I would be actually. I had the first hint when I picked up the envelope and only felt one sheet of paper in it – surely if I’d been successful there would have been a second page with further instructions – so I was kind of expecting it. I am uncertain as to whether I will reapply next year; if I wasn’t good enough to make the final cut this year, when there were lots more vacancies than usual because of the reorganisation, would I be any more likely to make the grade in six months’ time? Should the administration of justice, no matter how lowly the level, be left to the also-rans?

Maybe it’s a sign that we really should go off and back pack our way around the world for less than thirty Altairian Dollars a day…

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hampton Court

Had a most enjoyable day at Hampton Court today. See here for the pictures. We got there a bit before midday and the sun was shining. The cost of the ticket (£12 on the door) seemed a bit excessive at first but didn’t seem so bad when I realised it included the audioguide for all four of the palace’s tours. We settled down in the very pleasant Tiltyard Tearooms to plan our afternoon and get fleeced for lunch. (Which we surely did!)

The tours were interesting enough, although Brett observed accurately that the sections by Wren felt like a mini-Versailles. The Tudor section included the massive kitchens complex though, where they had people working for you to talk to as part of the tour while they baked real food of the period. Unfortunately Henry VIII’s State Apartments had largely been demolished when William and Mary remodelled the palace, but the beautiful Great Hall and some of its antechambers were still intact. The Great Hall has a stunning Hammer Beam ceiling! The Chapel Royal (a largely 17th Century remodelling job) had a curious tiled floor; hexagons and triangles which looked remarkably like inter-locking Stars of David curious décor for such religously-aware monarchs. The audio guide didn’t mention anything about it though…

Had a pleasant surprise call from Chris C while we were wandering the gardens. He is looking to come down for a visit with his wife Michelle in November. I confirmed I was likely free around the period he was considering. It will be good to see them again. Hopefully I will be able to take some time off and do some touristy things with them.

Brett picked up a booklet on the history of the royal succession in the shop as we headed back to the car. Apparantly, in the US, schoolchildren have to learn the names of all the Presidents. I have a horrible feeling he's going to try and test me on my knowledge of kings and queens - although during the day I impressed myself by remembering the succession from William & Mary right through to Elizabeth II. I guess some of that old Saga trivia is still lurking in the dusty corners of my brain

We eventually rolled home as the Palace closed for the day, thoroughly exhausted but happy.

A Beautiful Moment in Time

We are off out to Hampton Court Palace with my sister shortly. It is a lovely day today. I am sitting on my sofa looking out of the window at the view and all of a sudden there seem to be half a dozen sparrows or finches darting around in the branches outside. There is no hint of the city around us. It feels like one of those timeless afternoons out in the countryside of a Constable painting. Idyllic.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Random Thoughts

Brett saw what I was reading and worried that I might start getting all religious on him. I assured him I wouldn’t.

We drove out to Heathrow this evening to pick up Rosie as she got back from her trip to Budapest. Apparently it’s a lovely city with great natural hot springs but unusual food and lousy toilet paper. Hmm.

While browsing the shops today I saw a book entitled A Thousand Things to Do Before You Die. Basically a list of interesting places to go and special things to do there. I was rather tempted by it but didn’t purchase in the end. It was only later that I calculated that if, for example, I were to live for another fifty years I would have to average twenty of these Things To Do each year to complete the set.

Am tired, so off to bed.

Fatigue, Disasters and Religion

The rest of the week was busy and I ended up working late on Thursday and Friday. I shall be glad next week when Barry is due back from his leave.

Most of the evenings were spent following the news in Louisiana or commenting on blogs. Charlie Foxtrot had a post that evoked a sharp reply from me for equating ‘the USA with ‘the entire world.’ However as I saw the news developing, I actually rewrote the comment to delete the slap, not wanting to be callous when America was obviously dealing with a major tragedy.

However, Mark Maness in his LeftFieldPerspectives post really got my goat and earned himself a rather uncharitable reply. I really ought to do a post on the subject of the widening cultural gap between the US and Europe as I think that is the root of many misunderstandings that develop between us. We need to stop thinking of Americans as just Brits with a strange accent and realise that they have quite a different mindset to the British.

Last night though, there was limited blogging as I was pretty exhausted from the long week. We were supposed to be hosting a poker game, but only a few people were expected and John M called off during the day, so I postponed it to later in the month with a certain amount of relief! In the end we ate take-out pizza and watched this week’s episode of Lost before getting an early night.

Today Brett is at a Chorus meeting all afternoon. We had lunch down in Wimbledon and then I browsed the shops. I ended up in Waterstones and picked up three books; A History of God by Karen Armstrong, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. Not my usual fare and, to be honest, fairly random selections on the basis of their book-jacket info and the fact that I know of Dawkins, all stimulated though by recent blog commenting: I became involved in a little to-and-fro on the comments section of this post and thoroughly enjoyed the mental stimulation of researching my replies, so with this new-found academic vigour I figured I’d read up a little on the subject instead of just Googling relentlessly to find my answers.

So that’s what I’m off to do now; open a non-fiction book for the first time in quite a while! Wish me luck.