Sunday, July 31, 2005

Blue Skies

Day 1. Flying from London Stanstead, which has grown from a tent off the M11 motorway to a full-sized airport in the last 8 years. The last time I used it was on my first skiing trip (where I managed to go the whole holiday without injury, only to pop a tendon running for a flight at the airport.)

This airport is beloved by the budget airlines, since it can still be called "London" even though anyone unfortunate enough to arrive thinking they're near to the great city will find themselves some 50 miles away.

As it is the airport of choice by the budget airlines, it is naturally full of chavs and people too cheap to fly on a proper airline, like me. And so it was that I climbed aboard one of RyanAir's bargain buses and flew to Pisa airport. Though my snobby side hates to admit it, the flight was fine and the plane, though a little elderly, didn't give cause for concern.

Pisa airport was reassurringly Italian. Total chaos. Virtually no passport control or customs to speak of and full of people milling around in confusion. Wonderful. I love this country.

There is a saying in Europe - the perfect Europe is where the houses are British, the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian and it is all run by the Germans. European hell is where the cooks are British, the lovers German and it is all run by the Italians. Or something like that.

I found my farmhouse, after a 2 hour drive and something called a 'raccordo' which I decided was Italian for "really shitty bit of road". The bear approves of the view. Particulary since it was raining in England when we left...

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Bear Sez Ciao

The bear and I are off on our travels. Having spent the last two months averaging 20 hours a day at work, the boss has sent us off for a recharge.

I need it too. The country I live in is starting to resemble a tin-pot dictatorship; I've always been fiercely proud of the fact that the police aren't armed and are a respected organisation.

But now... now I listen to the radio and hear senior policemen cheerfully saying that anyone who looks a bit funny will be shot on sight. In the head too, in case they're carrying a bomb.

Now, the whole reason we don't have the death penalty here in the UK is the "what if we made a mistake" scenario. You can't very well say "Sorreeee" to a corpse. Unless your name is Romero and you've made another really bad zombie film.

And yet after a man whose only crime was to have an expired visa and to run when a copper shouts at him gets pinned down on the floor of a tube train and shot in the head/executed by the police, we have the chap who runs the police saying "Yep, and we'll do it again too"

I tell you this in truth, I'm now more frightened of the police than I am of nutters blowing themselves up.

So I need a holiday. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to Tuscany. To an isolated farmhouse. With a swimming pool. And a fridge full of beer.

Ciao, baby.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Quite Good?

I once saw a show where the star was given three wishes. One of his wishes was to have his own background music, which would change according to what he was doing.

I often wondered if the show had been post watershed we might have seen a sex scene backed by Captain Kirk's fight music. That tune was wasted in its role of drowning out the creaking of Bill Shatner's corset.

Anyhow, I was tempted by the guys in the office to play a video game the other night. One of those 'run around and shoot each other' games. The game itself I could take or leave, but what I really liked was the voice that said "Impressive!" in rich, dark tones whenever one did something 'cool' (shooting a number of avatars in a row, I believe.)

I would wish for that in real life. Whenever I do something even mildly good, I'd like that voice to say "Impressive". If I park the car first time, without the usual 18 attempts: "Impressive". If I select the fruit and salad rather than the All-Day-Breakfast-Lardfest-Baguette": "Impressive". Come up with a witty put-down to The Ex less than 20 minutes after the moment has passed: "Impressive".

Yeah, that would be good. Impressive, even.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Can You Hear Something Whistling?

Geeks that we are, we all gathered around the monitor to watch the Space Shuttle launch.

The boss, still flushed with success having found an American drink called "Spaz" on his recent US trip (thus earning kudos in the office) wandered over to see what we were up to.

"Oh God," he muttered, "You're not watching one of Newly's rockets, are you?"

(For the uninformed, I have an interest in spaceflight bordering on the obsessional - deep down I'm still the little boy who wanted to be a spaceman, but settled for being a computer programmer instead)

I was about to answer when a colleague piped up: "We're not watching a launch. We're watching 7 Americans getting strapped to half a million gallons of high explosive."

There were murmers of assent. I was a little disappointed with the cynicism of my co-workers; but I guess its the same reason why most people like watching motor racing. Its not the race, but the chance of a fatal accident.

Sadly for them, but happily for a starry eyed enthusiast like me, the launch was flawless. Right up until a chunk of foam the size of a small car appeared to break off of the big orange tank. Think it missed the orbiter though.

Listen carefully and you can actually hear the clenching of sphincters in Houston...

Monday, July 25, 2005

You. Will. Be. Served. A. Beer.

"Another beer, sir?" the Dalek asked, the red lights on its head flashing obsequiously.

I peered blearily at the glass. And then back at the inexpensive BBC special effect standing hopefully being the bar. Do Daleks stand, or do they merely 'be'?

"I think I've had enough." I replied, getting to my feet rather unsteadily.

Of course, this wasn't an alcohol fuelled hallucination. No, the landlord of my local had acquired one of the terrors of my youth as a prop for a party at the weekend.

I love Daleks. I love the way that while America devised ever more unpleasant and horrific creatures to terrify its television watching public, the cash-strapped BBC stuck doggedly to the formula of a dustbin with flashing lights on its head and a sink plunger as its major weapon.

And its testimony to the inherent silliness of the British (me included) that we regularly found ourselves watching the screen though hands over our eyes as the wheeled absurdities lurched around the screen; miraculously climbing stairs and negotiating rocky terrain, bellowing 'Exterminate' and knocking chunks of polystyrene off the scenery. Not noted for their stealth were the Daleks.

Alas, I didn't watch the new series of Doctor Who. But I am pleased to have made the acquaintance of a Dalek and, as gratitude for al the entertainment its brethren gave me during the 70s and early 80s, bought it a beer.

I hope it doesn't rust.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

You Couldn't Make It Up - Part 84

The Ex's ever-increasing bulk filled the doorway. She was somewhat pale.

"Have you heard the news?" she said
"Mmm?" I replied, peering round her to see if First-Born was trying to make her escape
"They're trying to track down 100 blood donors who might have New Variant CJD!" The Ex explained
"*I'm* a blood donor. Supposing its me?"
"Mmm," I mused, " 'Mad Cow Disease' - well, it would certainly explain a lot"

At that point First-Born squeezed past The Ex's bulk and headed for the car, thus saving me from a potentially difficult conversation.

I must stop with this Ex-baiting. Its potentially bad for my health.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Now I Am All Growed Up

Current favourite album: Dub Side Of The Moon by the Easy Star All-Stars.

Taking Pink Floyd's slighty trippy 70s album and giving it a reggae spin, while some way short of genius, is certainly a marvellous way to de-stress.

I'm particularly impressed with the opening to 'Money', where the famous sound of coins being scooped out of a cash tray and a register rung is replaced by the sound of a lighter, the bubbles of a bong, an intake of breath and subsequent coughing.

Childish, but lets face it; thats what most of those students who got all intense about Pink Floyd were doing anyway.

Speaking of childish, I think I might be approaching maturity. I gave one of the team a crisp 5 pound note for the collection of lunch. He returned with a single shiny pound coin and a pile of lard.

I took the pound coin and gibbered: "Rich! Rich! I shall leave you all now and spend my new found wealth on fast cars, drugs and hookers!"

My colleague raised an eyebrow: "Where are you going to find a hooker for 1 pound?"

Now, ordinarily I would have quipped: "I hear your Mother'll go all the way for less..." but maturity intervened as I realised that this could be quite a rude thing to say. So I didn't.

Instead, I suggested his sister was a lady of negotiable affection. Better, yes?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Keeping The Noise Down

Precious, precious beer threatened to fizz through my nostrils as a colleague, K, explained the reasoning behind her decision not to change her name upon marriage.

"I've had 30 years with the name 'Pratt' and I've got used to it. I don't think I could stand another 30 with the name 'Cockhead'"

I had to agree. I too am possessed of a faintly silly name (more silly because I was always last to be picked for the football team and, if there was an odd number of players, would be given the task of timing the match or used as a handicap.)

Still - I don't really get the whole changing name thing on marriage (to be frank, I don't get the whole marriage thing full stop; but I am slightly biased in this regard) and I'm pleased that more women are sticking with what they've grown up with, or choose to change rather than it be expected.

But I digress. As K and I chatted at the bar it became quite clear that sex was on the agenda. In the last year I've become better at understanding the signals and, aside from a number of occasions where I figured the act would screw up (pardon the pun) a beautiful friendship, have generally let my groin do my thinking for me.

Not this time though. It wasn't the twinge of guilt that K had only been married a year. Nor was it the jetlag. Nope. It was the thought of the Lovely B.

I pondered this as I went back to the solitude of my hotel room and, despite BBC World turned right up, was still forced to listen to the man next door fucking a prostitute.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Is That A Trick Question?

America, Land Of The Paranoid, did not disappoint.

Having enjoyed a steak at Gallaghers at Newark Airport with a metal fork and plastic knife (evidentally the fact that broken glass can also make a lethal blade has escaped the authorities. I look forward to the day when one cannot board a plane unless swathed in a cotton wool to the extent one resembles a strait-jacketed cloud) I pottered to the boarding gate.

With my new found patience, I let the lemmings queue up. Guys - the seats are reserved. I can promise that you will be able to sit down. Unless you're one of those idiots that insist on carrying on a Volvo-sized bag and calling it 'hand luggage'. Eventually, and buoyed by the now compulsory anti-jetlag concoction of alcohol and industrial strength painkillers, I pottered through the gate and found myself confronted by 8 armed policemen posted at various points along the tunnel.

I mean - really. What do they think is going to happen? I might lunge at a stewardess with a plastic fork and napkin from Gallagher's?

One stopped me, and asked to see my passport (it was only the eightyfirst time a uniformed official had asked in the last three hours. Clearly I look shifty. I wondered if I'd left a towel on my head from my last shower or something.)

He asked the usual questions:

"Where are you headed?"
"Anyone meeting you?"

And so on. And then he threw in a new one:

"In the US we have Attornies and Lawyers. What do you call those people in the UK?"

Alcohol removed the barrier between brain and mouth and I answered:


For the first time, an armed and uniformed official laughed: "I was looking for solicitor or barrister. But I prefer your answer. Carry on, sir."

He was still chuckling as I boarded the aircraft. Perhaps there's hope for his kind after all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wanna Ride My Big Pink Bus?

"Welcome to America" I muttered to myself as I stomped off the aeroplane. Security was conspicuous; lots of short, fat policemen lounged against walls squinting at us passengers. There ought to be a law against arming short, fat men and giving them a badge allowing them to shoot anyone who looks at them funny.

Newark Liberty Airport excelled itself. It took an hour until I found myself fingerprinted by a pig-eyed immigration official. Another hour until my bag appeared on the luggage carousel. And a further hour until the customs officials admitted that their x-ray machine was broken. Lord alone knows why they wanted to x-ray my luggage again. Presumably in case an evil pixie had smuggled weapons into my bag mid-flight.

My colleagues had left a message for me. "The taxi is a big pink bus" they'd said. I'd assumed they meant a light red minivan. But no - it really was a big pink bus. And so I had the most surreal arrival at the US office on record.

Oh, and the bus had a couple of ice-boxes full of beer when I boarded. There was only ice when I left.

Monday, July 11, 2005


"Airline Of The Year 2004" I read aloud from the huge banner above the check-in desks. My, Continental does have a high opinion of itself. Possibly not shared by its victims/passengers.

And also not shared by those standing in the 2-hour long queue that snaked in front of the desks in a manner that would bring tears to even the most hardened theme-park manager, before heading up into the main terminal building and making a break for freedom.

In light of last week's events, security had been stepped up. Unfortunately, this 'stepping up' seemed to consist of more frankly bonkers security questions. In addition to the usual "Are you a terrorist?" or "Do you wear a towel on your head and answer to the name 'Ossie'?" the powers that be have devised a new one...

"Do you have anything with you that could be used as a weapon?"

Well now, lets see. This pen you've just given me could do some damage. And this finger on my hand - well, that could be used to poke you in the eye. And as for this hand luggage which you've just told me is 100 grams overweight, I could stick that right up your...

And as for what happened when I got to Newark Liberty Airport... that can wait for tomorrow. Because now I need to visit Damon's World Famous Bar And Grill and eat some of the unnaturally orange food it serves up.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Making Charity Concerts History

So, Live8.

I'm old enough to remember the original concert (was it really that long ago... whoah... thats the sort of thing to make a person feel elderly. That, and the fact the current crop of recruits in the office don't really remember the first Gulf War.)

Twenty years on, what did that concert truly achieve? Not a lot in global terms aside from a collective easing of conscience: "I gave Bob a couple of quid, that makes me a good person, right?"

And so here we are again. Again we have a concert but this time you don't even have to pay in order to ease the twinge in your conscience. No, you've just got to agree with Sir Bob and your job is done.

Thing is, what are you agreeing to? "Make Poverty History" Oh yeah. That was it. Tick the box and then go back to normal life. Carry on voting for the same individuals with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (who ironically weren't performing - although the spectacle of ColdPlay attempting 'Rocking All Over The World' was something to behold. I never thought I'd find myself wishing for Francis Rossi and his little bald-man pony-tail.)

Ah well. The whole event smacked somewhat of Team America (World Police) as sundry musicians and actors got on stage to save the world with their Talent. "Get up there and perform your ass off!" If you looked carefully, you could even see the strings.

...good show though.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Best Laid Plans

I had a slew of posts planned this week. This being the week that the promised DSL was to be turned on (following a false alarm a few weeks back - premature connection is something that can happen to a guy, you know?)

I had a slighty cynical one about the Live8 concerts, a little poking of fun at the French over the Olympics and finally an observation about First-Born's award's ceremony at school.

Like the champagne for the 2012 bid, I've put them to one side. Just for a little while.

This post still has some First-Born content. She curled herself into a ball on the way home tonight and hid her head between her arms.

"I don't want to hear it" she said

I'd thoughtlessly left the radio on and the newsreader was detailing the ever increasing death toll and morbidly speculating how many more might be inside the remains of the carriages deep beneath ground. The voice of Charlotte Green (who could tie me to a chair and read me Keats any day) should not have to report on the difficulty the police are having with vermin disturbing the forensic 'materials'.

I shuddered and turned it off.

I've lived in London and, until a few years ago, used to regularly work there. Many of the locations shown on television screens in the last few days were regular haunts. Ordinarily, I tend to squeak with delight when I see a place I've been to appearing on the small screen. Not this time though.

But do you know the funny thing? I probed my psyche and didn't feel a thing - no terror, no fear. Just a faint sick feeling when I thought too hard about the final moments or minutes of the victims. I think it may have been because I lived in London while the IRA were regularly blowing stuff up. Fact of life. Move on or move to a Scottish hilltop. Does that sound cold?

It may be the politicians getting to me. I'm not sure who was the most despicable; the solitary Member of Parliament saying, within hours of the incident, "Well, we had it coming, we never should have gone to Iraq", or the scores of lemmings trotting out meaningless platitudes to the media.

I'll be funny again tomorrow. I promise. After all, there's a trip to Allentown next week, and I'll need a sense of humour to deal with ever more paranoid security.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Biometric Caller ID

With all the current kafuffle about biometric passports and ID cards going on at the moment (for non-UK readers, it appears that because some lunatics flew a couple of planes into a US landmark 4 years ago, UK citizens are going to have to give up their last shred of privacy with an ill thought-out ID card scheme) the powers that be have missed a trick in rolling out this technology.

Forget plugging it as a way of catching benefit cheats or thwarting anarchists. No - sell it to us as a way of screening loonies on the telephone. Like tonight.

I had a call, you see, from J. J was a date from January who failed to set off the 'insanity' alarm bells until it was, how shall I put it, 'too late'. This led to a succession of increasingly stalkerish calls which, after a final "please leave me alone" (or words to that effect) I started screening out.

It appears J has a new phone and thus it was that I found myself on the receiving end of a call from a screeching banshee demanding phone-sex.

Now, Biometric Caller ID would have solved all that, do you see? Think I can get the UK goverment interested in this as a way of marketing it to the masses? Aside from J, obviously...

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Got My Ticket To Heaven And Everlasting Life

Tell me, what is scarier than White Van Man?

White Van Man that has discovered God, of course.

In place of the usual collection of soft-core porn tabloids and the inevitable confectionery wrappers there is a copy of The Catholic Herald and a well thumbed Bible on the dashboard.

So we now have a White Van Man who knows that if he dies, he's going straight to heaven where everyone has the latest Ford Transit and fuel prices are at an all time low.

I pity the chap's passengers and those in the car that see this vehicle looming in their rear-view mirror. Doubtless he rams anyone without one of those bloody fish stuck to the back of their cars in a crusade of conversion...

Friday, July 01, 2005

Unreconstructed Programmers

The Team is to be given equal opportunities training. I suspect that this stems from an individual who was fired a few months ago; the chap was a little aggrieved about this and so played the race card. He took exception to the fact that the programmers like to call themselves 'code monkeys' and in a display of spinelessness HR insisted that all monkey related parephenalia was removed from the work area.

I probably didn't help matters by being a little blunt in the exit interview. When he, in true Ali G style, said "Is it because I'm black?" I replied "No, its because you're bloody useless..." before listing examples of said uselessness.

Anyhow, this, and a number of other incidents around the company, has meant that the whole organisation is getting Equal Opportunities training. Looking at the boys (and 'boy' is the best word for them judging by some of the behaviour) in the team, I'm not sure HR realise what they're letting themselves in for:

(HR person spends three hours talking about race and gender equality)

HR: "Any questions?"
Bloke: "So, this is all because there'll be some girls working in the team, right?"
HR: "Yes..."
Bloke: "Oh, right. I've just got the one question then?"
HR: "Yes?"
Bloke: "Do we get one bird each or do we have to share?"

Even I, the most even-handed of people (I treat everyone with equal contempt) have to attend, but as a manager I get an extra hour on top of the three everyone else has to sit through. I guess this will be a kind of 'Directors Cut' of the course. The same as the normal course, but with a load of dull bits that should have remained on the cutting room floor spliced in.