28 October 2007

A story about Heathrow (a Third World Airport)

"As any English person will tell you Heathrow is one of those places that you simply detest, and is on par with Milton Keynes.....However, with my Lewis Hamilton driving skills, I managed to get to the check in counter really quickly"

The time had come for me to head back to Australia after my 5 week stay in good ol' Blighty. The downside to this, aside from saying goodbye to family and friends, was the fact that I would have to head to Heathrow to catch my flight.

As any English person will tell you Heathrow is one of those places that you simply detest, and is on par with Milton Keynes and, for the Aussies, Canberra in the 'detesting stakes'. The reason being is that Heathrow is always hard to get to if there are traffic delays on any of the connecting roads and, once inside one of the 4 huge terminals (number 5 is nearly operational), it is always quite difficult to get to your departure gate on time.

Naturally my trip to Heathrow was always going to be stressful with a capital 'S'.

We had arranged for a taxi service to take my Mother, Sister and I to the airport. This is a service that we have used many times before and we have got to know the driver quite well. The idea is that you are picked up, with ample time to allow for any traffic delays etc, and arrive at Heathrow in time to check in, say your farewells, buy your London fridge magnet, purchase a box of Tolberones and board the flight on time.

We were advised that the taxi service would be picking us up at 6.30pm. However, when it got to 6.45pm we rang the cab company and was informed that the driver was running about an hour late due to traffic delays on the infamous M25. When I heard this I started to feel the first pangs of worry!

For the uninitiated, the M25 has been called, rightly at times, the world's biggest parking lot. It is a ring road that circles the outskirts of London and is connected to all the major roads allowing drivers to get to, for example, Manchester without having to drive through the centre of London. I suppose it is like a glorified roundabout!

The driver arrived at 7.35 and with my calculations I would have 30 minutes left to check in and say my goodbyes before heading to Gate 456 or whatever the gate number would be. However, if there were any more delays then I could be trying to re-arrange my flight!

To be fair to the driver, he did drive extremely quickly (given the nature of the M25) and we got to the airport with about 45 minutes to spare. I rushed off with my suitcase to find the Virgin Atlantic check in desk. Naturally, it was at the opposite end of the airport. However, with my Lewis Hamilton driving skills, I managed to get to the check in counter really quickly (but I failed to take out the Formula 1 championship just like Lewis!).

I checked in and was told that as my suitcase weighed 28 kilos I would be charged excess fees. However, if I took some of my items out of it and put them into my backpack then I would be ok. So for the next 10 minutes I was frantically taking items out of the suitcase and putting them into my backpack. All the items that I took out were for my daughters. These items included a number of Fifi and the Flowertots books, Lazy Town magazines and, of course, some Dora the Explorer magazines. Finally, despite not getting my suitcase to the correct weight, I was allowed to lock my case and proceed upstairs to Departures.

When I got upstairs my jaw literally hit the ground (thankfully it didn't and I am able to eat and talk fine). There was a queue the length of the terminal with hundreds of passengers waiting to get through the x ray machines and customs. It reminded me of being at a Third World airport rather than at one of the world's biggest and best. I looked at my watch and broke out in a cold sweat. How on earth would I board my plane on time?

Slowly the queue moved forward. I said a quick farewell to my Mother and Sister and continued to slowly shuffle my way to the x ray machines. I spoke to an official and said that my flight was due to leave very soon. Fortunately he let me queue jump a few rows. Suddenly, I was confronted with a plethora of passengers trying to get through the limited number of x ray machines. Finally, it was my turn. To compound my experience I set the x ray machine off and had to be frisked to see what had set it off. Actually, the official couldn't find anything and let me proceed.

By now I had 15 minutes to get to my flight. However, the call of nature was calling me very loudly - in fact it was shouting! So I tried to find a toilet. You would think this would be a simple thing to do. Wrong! For some reason all the toilets were closed for 'cleaning'. After coming across this for the third time, I asked the toilet attendant "if I should piss on the floor" seeing as there was nowhere else I could go. The attendant looked puzzled and just smiled.

Finally, I got to Departure Gate 456 (actually it was Gate 1). Once I had my boarding ticket I headed straight to the plane toilets before going to my seat. I have to admit I did get some quizzical looks from the gay flight attendant!

The rest of the flight was great. I had no problems at Hong Kong airport or indeed good old Sydney Kingsford Smith airport. In fact the efficiency levels at these two airports was in stark contrast to Heathrow.

I got through Australian customs, collected my 'overweight' suitcase and was picked up by my wife and daughters and we drove our way home.

Finally, I fear for spectators who will be flying to London for the 2012 Olympics. Given the chaos of Heathrow I think that they would be better off by flying to Nepal for the world curry eating contest! After all, there are not any queues at Kathmandu airport!!

18 October 2007

Mad Dogs and Quintessential Englishmen go....bus spotting!

"At one stage I had doubled my money to 40p. Wow, I thought, I am rich!...we thought one of the spotters would have a cardiac arrest as three different types of buses all arrived at the same time "

Saturday I had the chance to do something very quintessentially English. A trip to the Kent seaside. So off I traipsed with my mother and sister in tow to the exotically named coastal town of Herne Bay. For the uninitiated Herne Bay is situated on the North Kent coast and is sort of where the Thames Estuary starts. It also has a wind farm clearly visible in the distance. The turbines certainly look like something form a Jules Verne novel.

Unlike other resorts around the world (Ibiza, Hawaii, Malta, Gold Coast etc) you don't really go to the beach at Herne Bay to get a suntan. That's not to say the sun doesn't shine as it does on the rare hot and sunny summer days. It's just that the beach is typically English and has pebbles instead of sand!

Many foreigners find it amazing that the pale skinned Brits (of which I am not) can lie on a beach towel on top of a pebbly beach. Having done this many times in my earlier years (that is before I discovered sand beaches) I can tell you that after 10 minutes of sunbathing and lying on pebbles it gets quite painful.

Mind you, the pain is nothing like going for a dip in the ocean and coming out with purple ankles due to its icy cold temperature. Sometimes bathers come out of the water looking like a purple coloured sea creature! Welcome to Summer - British style. However, there was no way any of us was going in the water in October!

Another quintessentially British thing to do is to eat fish and chips. So for lunch we all headed to a cafe and had the traditional cod and chips. Naturally the cod has to be served in batter. My sister went one better and had a pickled onion with her traditional fayre. Bread and butter was soon added to our gourmet lunch.

The third typically English thing we did was go to an amusement arcade. Growing up, my sister and I had lots of fun putting our pennies in the many different machines on offer and feeling happy when we doubled our winnings to 10p!!! Anyway, we all played the 2p cakewalk style machines this time. At one stage I had doubled my money to 40p. Wow, I thought, I am rich!

We caught a train home and viewed the Kingsnorth Power Station which has recently been nicely decorated by Greenpeace with the name 'Gordon' clearly visible on it's side. Gordon is, of course, the first name of the British PM of whom Greenpeace have issues with regarding power stations.

Finally we arrived at our train station and queued up to catch a bus home. While waiting for the bus I noticed two elderly men in anoraks with cameras and notebooks. For some reason they were keenly looking at all the buses that were passing us by. Naturally our bus was not one of them! Every time a bus passed these men they recorded something in their notebooks. Suddenly it dawned on me what they were doing. These men were bus spotters and were recording details of the different buses - another quintessentially English trait!

To say they were enthusiastic would be an understatement! Bus spotting is rare but train spotting is not. The anorak brigade seem to revel in recording details of trains, buses etc. For some reason it does not appeal to me. There again I don't own an anorak anyway!

At one stage we thought that one of the spotters would have a cardiac arrest as three different types of buses all arrived at the same time. Somehow, despite this excitement, both spotters got to record all details of the buses and resuscitation was not thankfully not required.

While this was going on our bus pulled up and we got on it and made our way home for a quintessential cup of Rosy Lee (tea).

12 October 2007

Is it really the Seventies again?

"maybe Doctor Who put me in the Tardis and, voila, its back to the Seventies....to take out a second mortgage on your house to buy a ticket to see your old faves"

Since being back in the UK I have been experiencing feelings of deja vu. Naturally, deja vu can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what it is. Well in this case I feel that I have been transported back to the late Seventies. The funny thing is I don't remember being teleported back approximately 28 years. Maybe Captain Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise did it while I was sleeping, or maybe Doctor Who put me in the Tardis and, voila, its back to the Seventies. Strange thing is I didn't need my passport!

Despite my youthful age(?) I do remember a fair bit of the Seventies as I was still at school and going through the growing pains of being a teenager. I recall quite clearly that I was a music and sports fan as were all of my fellow friends and schoolmates. In fact I still am. I do recall being a hotshot at table tennis but sadly not any more.

Anyway, getting back to this feeling of deja vu. Some of you may recall that in the late Seventies Labour were in Government and the Prime Minister at the time, Jim Callaghan, contemplated calling an autumn election only to decide against it. When he called the election in the following spring he was comprehensively beaten by the Iron Maiden (Mrs T!).

Fast forward to now and the new PM, Gordon Brown, also contemplated going to the polls but decided against it when the Conservative opposition started to poll well in the opinion polls. Will history repeat itself for Mr Brown? As Cyndi Lauper sang only 'time will tell'.

From a musical point of view progressive rock is making a comeback as groups like Muse and Mostly Autumn bring back the memory of Seventies super groups like Yes, Genesis (the early version before Phil Collins lost his hair), ELP and Pink Floyd. For the uninitiated 'prog rock' consists of long keyboard and guitar solos, songs lasting 15 minutes and lyrics generally with a sci fi or fantasy type theme. Just to inform all that Kylie Minogue and Madonna are definitely not prog rock!

On the touring scene groups like Kiss, Police, Status Quo, Jam, Stranglers and many more (including Cliff Richard - real age 124) are still playing concerts. Whereas the tickets in the old days were a few pounds now you need to take out a second mortgage on your house to buy a ticket to see your old faves!!

Fashion certainly has gone back to the Seventies. If you look in any clothing store, or view a catalogue, you will see this is the case. Flared jeans, platform boots, black leggings, multi coloured dresses, hot pants, smock coats and large hooped earrings are just some of the recycled fashions. I do believe I have seen some huge shoulder pads on view as well! Men are now sporting longer hair ala James Blunt. Also the beard seems to be making a comeback just as it did in the Seventies. Thankfully, I have resisted the urge to make my chin disappear under a face of hair!

If you are watching television here in the UK you will most likely see shows like Fawlty Towers (an all time classic), M.A.S.H., Last of the Summer Wine, Miss Marple and so on. Some of the presenters are still on prime time television. Bruce Forsyth and Des O'Connor are still plying their trade on prime time shows! Similarly, Terry Wogan and Tony Blackburn are still broadcasting on the radio for all to hear!

So will my feelings of deja vu continue? I don't think so. I am sure I will be transported back to 2007 any day now. Even if Captain Kirk or Doctor Who cannot help me I am sure that someone will (pretty please!). In the meantime I'll get out a CD (oops, I mean vinyl) and listen to the sounds of the Seventies on my cd player (erm, i mean record player)!

10 October 2007

The Winning Number is...

"there are more choices of lotteries than there are of breakfast cereal....I can imagine a collective sigh from the anorak brigade"

Every time I come back to the UK I always notice a few a few changes to the culture of the country. On the plus side, for example, it's easier to get a nice cup of coffee in virtually any town or village. A few years ago to get a cappuccino (aka frothy coffee) meant putting a plastic disposable cup under a machine and pushing the correct coffee button. What you would end up with, however, was a watered down coffee with hardly any froth on it. In fact, it probably tasted like washing up water after all the cutlery and crockery from a Sunday roast had been cleaned!

One of the last bastions that the UK had resisted for ages (apart from sushi) was that of holding a national lottery. From memory, I cannot remember when it was initiated but having done a quick search on the Internet my friend Mr Google advises me that it was 1994.

In contrast, Australia has had a lottery in existence since the late 1950's when a lottery was put in place to help fund the Sydney Opera House. I should mention that most lotteries in Australia are state based but there are a couple of national lotteries as well.

Well the UK has certainly been in lottery overdrive mode since the inception of the first one as today there are, aside from scratch cards, 7 lottery draws! For the record (m'lud) they are: Lotto; Lotto Hot Picks; Euro Millions; Dream Number; Thunderball; Daily Play and Olympic Lottery. As you can see there are more choices of lotteries than there are of breakfast cereal (well almost!).

One of the major differences between Australia and the UK is how the lottery draws are presented. The one's Down Under are always shown in an advert break during an evening programme, like one of the multitude of CSI shows that exist. There is no pomp and ceremony just a crossover to a studio where there are three people with clipboards (rumour has it that they are really writing out a shopping list or doing a su-doku puzzle), one machine and a nondescript host who has 2 minutes to watch the balls come out of the machine and advise the viewers of the winning numbers.

Quite often you can answer a call of nature during the advert break and totally miss the lottery draw! And I am speaking from experience!

Here in the Mother Country the lottery draw is done with a lot of pomp and ceremony that you would probably expect from the Americans rather than the British. While the midweek lottery draw is fairly low key the Saturday one surely is not!

The Saturday draw starts off with a quiz show where contestants can win large amounts of money sometimes courtesy of the lottery. The show changes intermittently but is currently one being hosted by Dale Winton. Towards the end of the show there is a crossover to Lottery HQ where a number of lottery draws are made. The presenter is always someone famous. However, most of these famous people I have never heard of!

When the draw is made additional information is provided to the viewer. For example, number 23 has been drawn 74 times and the last time it was drawn was on 5th February 2003. I can imagine a collective sigh from the anorak brigade when the importance of this information has sunk in.

But the fun does not stop there. Whereas in Australia we only have one lottery machine, here in the UK there are twelve of them! The machine used for each draw is selected by some method which I am unsure about. All of the machines have medieval names such as Arthur, Merlin, Galahad etc. The lottery draws are done in two parts during the quiz show with the main one towards the end of the show.

Despite the differences in the way the lottery draw is done I can still not select any winning numbers either here or in Australia. Maybe I should stick to a scratch card. Now there's an interesting topic.....

06 October 2007

Low pressure over the Atlantic!

"I have often thought about offering my services as a 'drought breaker'.....they always have facial expressions akin to a child opening presents on Christmas Day!"

For the first time in the past fortnight the weather here in England has actually been superb for more than one consecutive day. Now I know to a lot of people around the world, especially in Australia, that might be surprising. Indeed it is to me as well. Normally when I am back here in the Old Dart it rains on virtually every day of my stay. For example, a couple of years ago it rained on 28 of the 36 days I was here. Even last year during the English summer it rained on more than 20 days of my five week visit. At the beginning of my holiday the country was in drought, by the end of it the dams and reservoirs were virtually full!

I have often thought about offering my services as a 'drought breaker' as it always seems to rain when I am away from Australia! I imagine that I could charge large amounts of money in places, like Africa, who are crying out for the wet stuff from above. Maybe the UN might be interested in my drought breaking capabilities!

This brings me nicely onto the subject of the weather. To UK people the weather is one of the main topics of conversation. If you want to talk to a stranger on a bus, or in a lift or even in a swimming pool then talking about the weather is an easy option. In fact the Brits are well known to be fascinated by it!

One of the amazing things I have observed has been when the weather forecasters on television are revealing the current situation. I should state upfront that the presenters here are actually qualified meteorological professionals unlike in Australia. In Oz it is not unusual to see an ex comedian reading the weather forecast. I suppose that given the long dry, hot and sunny spells they get then it makes sense to put a bit of humour into the forecast.

Anyway, the forecasters here really seem to like bad weather. I have observed on numerous occasions that when the weather is truly lousy (ie: gale force winds, flooding, snowstorms etc) the forecasters get really excited! The tone of their voices seem to go up a notch and they always have facial expressions that are akin to a child opening presents on Christmas Day!

I imagine that these weather forecasters get up in the morning and, while they are eating their corn flakes and drinking their coffee, check the weather forecast from the Met Office. When they can see that its going to be a truly bad day, from a meteorological point of view, they let out an exultant whoop of joy!

The attitude of these forecasters changes dramatically when the UK experiences normal weather (like we are currently having). On these occasions the forecasts are done in a very monotonic way and the forecasters truly look sad. If you need proof of this check out any UK weather forecast.

The other amazing thing is that a number of these forecasters have become cult figures and celebrities in their own right. Often they will appear in a number of shows either hosting or as a guest. Soon I am sure there will be a weather forecasters 'Dancing with the Stars' here in Britain!

01 October 2007

How much should I bid for this?

“It could be said, however, that one of our greatest antiquities is indeed the Australian Prime Minister!….. or launching a midnight military style raid on Auntie Ethel’s home looking for that one item that could be worth a lot of money”

During the past seven days or so I have had the pleasure (or not) of having watched a large number of television shows. I often find it amazing, that when I am in England, how the variety of programmes differ from that which is seen in Australia.

For example, there are more quiz and cooking shows in England than compared to Australia. Chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Ainsley Harriott are far better known than members of the British government! In fact, every single day of the week there would have to be at least two or three cookery shows on offer to us the viewer. Obviously, the public must be following the recipes judging by the widening waistlines of the vast majority of Britons!

However, there is another category of shows that are extremely popular here in the Mother Country. These are ones that relate to antiques. Since being over here I have noticed that there are five regular antique shows on television. For the record they are ‘Cash in the Attic’, Antiques Roadshow’, ‘Flog it’, ‘Dickson’s Real Deal’ and ‘Bargain Hunt’.

As you can see antique shows are extremely popular. Even at 3am you will see a re-run of one of these shows. I can imagine night security guards up and down the country riveted to their television screens in the early hours of the morning as an antique expert discusses the merits of a Ming Dynasty bowl to a housewife from Accrington! It is possible that these shows act as a cure to prevent sleep for all night workers.

In Australia antique shows have not really taken off. A few years ago there was a similar show to ‘Antiques Roadshow’ but it didn’t last too long as it was axed by the ‘powers that be’. One of the main reasons, if I think about it, is that Australia is a young country in comparison to Britain or Europe. As such we do not have a great number of antiques on offer. It could be said, however, that one of our greatest antiquities is indeed the Australian Prime Minister! However, at the age of 68 John Howard may be deemed too young to be called a fossil.

As for me, I really like the antique shows and I am amazed when an ordinary looking vase, for example, is valued by one of the experts for thousands of pounds. I am already thinking of taking up buying and selling antiques as a hobby in the next year or two. After all, I used to like the television show ‘Lovejoy’ when it was broadcast a few years ago!

I can imagine that there must be thousands of people the length and breadth of Britain searching through their cupboards, attics, garages or launching a midnight military style raid on Auntie Ethel’s home looking for that one item that could be worth a lot of money. It is quite extraordinary to see everyday people being extremely surprised to see that their antique is worth more that they thought. Also the opposite is true. The emotions displayed by some people when they find out that their porcelain jug is worth nothing is priceless too!

Already I have been checking out if we have any antiques here in England that may be valuable. However, I am not sure if my sister’s Osmond’s records qualify as being antique!