Friday, July 29, 2005

Absolute power Posted by Picasa

Absolute Power

A small delight of living in Britain, with its woeful free-to-air TV (excluding some docos and Doctor Who) is the new series of “Absolute Power”. I missed its first run on TV, and the radio series but it’s refreshing to have a weekly dose of Stephen Fry, especially as the irredeemably smarmy PR guru Charles Prentiss of the firm Prentiss McCabe.

It’s not exactly laugh-a-minute comedy, more like a recognisable, yet surreal satire. The closest I can think of is “The Games”. It has a touch of the same deliciously dark topicality, such as Prentiss McCabe preparing a TV advertising campaign to sell the UK public on identity cards. After a man looking like an Islamic cleric delivers a cringe-worthy speech about making things easier for terrorists to camera, Fry claps him on the shoulder and calls out to the film crew: “Bring on the paedophile!”

While it doesn’t always hit the right nerve, it isn’t afraid of cutting close to the bone.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Seaweed: Isle of Wight Posted by Picasa

Sea crossings and unattended luggage

Yesterday: I’m sitting on a train from Sainsbury to Waterloo Station, ‘twill be interesting to see how I manage to navigate from Waterloo to Kings Cross with the tube closures. Anyway, I’m coming to the end of a week away with the visiting parents.

We were on the Isle of Wight most of that time, staying in the yachting port Cowes the week before the annual Cowes regatta (most amusing local brand: “Mad Cowes” clothing). We had a pleasant, low key holiday that featured rambling round pretty villages and National Trust and English Heritage establishments.

But getting there was another story entirely. Despite Mum’s apprehensions we made the motorway journey from Little Walden (north of Cambridge) down to the London orbital road and out to Portsmouth without a hiccup. We were in fact, the better part of two hours early for our booked Isle of Wight ferry.

Which seemed a good thing, the traffic to the ferry terminal was so backed up. We discovered eventually that our 4.30 ferry would be 60-90 minutes delayed by three breakdowns in the ferry fleet. We were requested first to come back at 4, then to come back again at 4.30. This involved fairly stressful and tedious escapades best not related featuring British multi-story car-parks of the kind despised in detail by Bill Bryson and parking on double-yellow lines. Eventually, we got into the holding pen car-park, were directed into another queue and issued a windscreen boarding sticker.

Now all that remained was a wait in the blazing sun in a shadeless car, right?

Oh, no. The holiday street theatre occasioned by unattended baggage was yet to kick off. We were politely requested to leave our cars and queue on the far side of the road, then asked to back up to the corner, while the yellow-jacketed car queue managers and a single bobby broke out some blue and white police tape.

There was an oddly well-behaved block party atmosphere to the whole thing. No grumbling, not a great deal of mixing among different groups, but a general good humoured wandering about aimlessly in a little street-area between the police tape and cones blocking traffic. Vans of police came and went, the odd idiot driver ignored the cones and came up to the tape before being turned back.

One of the dull, loud, stupid “hooray Henry” types from the next car appointed himself in charge of moving cones out of the way of arriving police vehicles, and then putting them back. A small crowd of middle aged men, in bad floral shirts, worn shorts, socks and sandals listened attentively to a policeman telling them exactly nothing.

It was all rather amusing. I wandered about in my iPod watching people.

Even after what the newspapers are rather tackily calling “7/7”, everyone was calm and knew that this was what it looked like, and eventually proved to be: an inadvertantly abandoned bag.

This phlegmatic acceptance of inconvenience in the name of the public good is probably the best part of the British character, even if present comparisons to “the spirit of the Blitz” are tawdrily overstated.

PS Well, I’m now on an express train back to Cambridge from Kings Cross. The mood on the tube seemed … sombre and quiet. Mid-afternoon Saturday is hardly a peak time, but still, I couldn’t help but feel there were fewer people on the trains than usual.

There was a higher police presence, pairs of officers roaming platforms at Kings Cross station (not the Underground) in their high visibility yellow jackets.

It was all a little salutary, and I’m not sure the UK outside London has fully come to terms with the implications yet.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Roof terrace, our hostel in Barcelona Posted by Picasa
Hola, Barcelona!

My sister and I got back from Barcelona two weeks ago on Wednesday. On a second visit it loved up to my impression of being one of my favourite holiday destinations of last Summer.

We had a magnificent time, and took rather a few photos. The things I love about Barcelona boil down to the pace of things, the locals, the food, the shopping, the variety of local districts and architecture …

What impresses me about the locals, compared to England, is how relaxed the people are. People dress in a way that is distinctively European, yet very relaxed and summery: a kind of smart casual Australians have yet to quite master. Everyone’s also terribly good natured and charming towards bungling English speakers with phrase-book Spanish (the local language is actually Catalan, anyway).

And the food! The sister and I had lunch somewhere different every day, always trying (even if it involved ordering at random) the menu del dia. Our best score was the only place I deliberately went back to from last year: a little restaurant called Barcelonia behind the closed markets near the city park. Three excellent courses, including the best home-made strawberry ice-cream I’ve ever tasted, wine and coffee for 11 euro a head.

Other than eating, drinking a lot of beer, taking in a bit of local culture and lazing on the beach, I got some shopping in. I think my summer-wardrobe top-up is probably done after the acquisition of a couple of short-sleeved tops, a stripey shirt, some chocolate brown linen slacks with a white pin-stripe and some cheap Converse knock-offs.

I also developed a hankering to learn Spanish in the new academic year. Yes, yes, I know Catalan is rather different – but I made some progress in “menu Spanish” this year, and even once or twice got presented with the Spanish language guide for museums just by trying to say “Hello, one please” in Spanish. Encouraging.

Saturday, July 9, 2005

The gift of a departing Californian

Despite my threat to implement military rule at Wychfield and pass an executive Order for the Conservation of Excessively Cheerful Personalities, my flat is slowly dissolving. The Steamy Kitchen is no more.

Still, one of my neighbours left me her copy of “Jeeves and the Impending Doom”, with the following in the front:

Figure 1 Posted by Picasa

To which all I could say was: “Aw, that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said.”

“The fact that you’re the only person who’d think that is what makes it the perfect gift,” she laughed in reply.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

An odd time to be blogging

So, I woke up late this morning and checked before showering. It seemed a power surge had caused five explosions in the London Underground.

My phone bleeped. A friend in Italy had texted, cryptically: "Hi Doug, what's going on? Are you OK?"

I thought this a little odd, but SMS syntax maybe doesn't translate so well. "Hi, I'm fine," I replied. "Just back from Barcelona with my sister. Where are you now? How was Budapest?"

The reply answered my immediate questions but added: "There have been bombs in the London tube. Turn on the TV."

My first reaction, the emotional immediacy of the event, chimed strongest with the experience of hearing about September 11. I was working for a law firm in Sydney at the time, was woken at 4 am by the news, and then went to work in a very tall building. That firm had a lot of secondees in New York.

So, I knew the drill. I wrote a pre-emptive e-mail home to assure people I was fine, and then started e-mailing friends in London.

I'll let Peter and Jasmine tell their own stories in their own time if they want to, but I was glad to hear from them. I knew it was only a one in a thousand chance that they'd be hurt, but was still relieved. Other Aussie lawyer friends in London all seems, some rather shaken and many were basically confined to their buildings for the day. How they got home this evening (or if they're still trying) I have no idea.

Anyway, all of my friends will make it home safe and unscathed. I know that many hundreds of people in London will not be able to say that. They will know one of the dead, or the hundreds of injured.

Obviously, this atrocity has killed many fewer than the Madrid train bombings, let alone the Trade Centre attacks. Nonetheless, even in a country used to terrorist incidents to some extent, the first question for everyone in Cambridge today has been: "Are your friends OK? Is there anyone in London you haven't been able to reach?"

Monday, July 4, 2005

After Jesus: my sister among the survivors (more photos here) ... Posted by Picasa

May Balls

With its usual flair for idiosyncrasy, May Week in Cambridge – the Bacchanalian interval between final exams and graduation ceremonies – takes place in June each year. It commences on “Suicide Sunday”, two days before the St John’s College ball, which always falls on a Tuesday. May week wraps up around the Friday of that week with the First and Third Trinity Boat Club May Ball.

So John’s and Trinity tend to be the mega-balls, tickets are sold only in pairs and tend to be pricey. That said, the events tend to drown in champagne, fireworks and high-profile headline acts. They are also in a position to attract considerable corporate sponsorship. They’re also among the more exclusive balls: you have to apply for tickets through a member of the college. Most balls it’s enough to be a member of the University to apply.

I went to John’s last year, and had a great time, but decided to try and take my sister to a big-ish and a small-ish ball rather than one mega-event.

So, we went to Jesus on Monday (theme: “Xanadu”, as in Coleridge, not ABBA) and Darwin (“Moulin Rouge”) on the Friday, and ducked down to London for some theatre Wednesday night.

Jesus was a great night: they have an enormous set of grounds, which allowed for an ample number of food and drink stalls and activities and dancing tents. As one friend put it, it was a good fun-to-queuing time ratio. The best activity of the night? Dodgem cars (or, over here, “bumper cars”). Oooh yeah. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen people in black tie and ball gowns packed into kiddie-size dodgems. (“Would people please ensure that all of their dress is inside the car,” pleaded the ride announcer.) We also jumped ourselves breathless on the jumping castle.

“How do five year olds do it?” I asked collapsing after what seemed too short a time.

“Well, for a start, they don’t drink alcohol,” answered a friend.

Not that there was that much drinking. There was plenty to drink, but I didn’t see anyone passed out, throwing up or getting aggressive. At five in the morning in the Ceilidh (“kaylie” or Celtic dancing) tent did get a little too much into their high-powered spinning, sending my sister diving out of their way as they took out one collapsible chair and the girl wound up doubled over the back of a second.

Darwin is a smaller venue, and sells a much smaller number of tickets. They have a lovely set of gardens, including an island, backing onto the Cam. Despite early rain (which made queuing for admission a joy), the atmosphere inside was festive and uncrowded – the only long line being for crepes.

This time I got into the Ceilidh, and Salsa and stick dancing classes – as well as some night punting.
For both balls I made the morning-after survivors photo at dawn, and then trooped home in the company of fellow Trinity Hallers. I need to go check on ordering them, actually …

Darwinian survivors Posted by Picasa

Friday, July 1, 2005

The season of farewells

Right, back from Barcelona, my "recovery" holiday with my sister after the madness that is May week. Both deserve special entries I'll try and write in the coming days, but for now, a brief note on the end of Lent term.

One of the harshest, but most apt pieces of advice I was offered by a friend on returning for the PhD was: "Don't get too attached to the new MPhils. They're gone before you know it."

It's both a happy and sad season, at the moment. There are a lot of graduation celebrations going on, and a lot of farewells to be said. The peril of being a PhD student in a collegiate environment is the slow exodus of one-year MPhil students. My MPhil was a dizzyingly intense year, academically and socially, and while the pace of life as a PhD is quite different you can stil get quite swept up in college life and become close friends with a lot of the newbies.

And now many are leaving. It's a frustrating time, as courses finish on different dates, graduation cermonies are scattered across the calander, and people leave Cambridge over a similar range of dates. So there are as many nights being spent at pubs, but more often to say goodbye than hello.

That said, the lovely thing about it all, is the sense that with many it's not "goodbye", it's "until next time."

Aye me.