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26 November 2006

Sharks Alive!

My obsession with underwater malarkey is being nicely fed right now by the BBC2 programme "Shark Therapy". It's hosted by Tanya Streeter - who, in her former life as Tanya Dailey - went to the same boarding school as me in the south of England. She was always at home in the water.

Tanya is the ladies' world champion freediver, and does some really great sub-aqua stuff on telly. In this show, she's getting used to diving with sharks. At first, she's freediving with five-six foot reef sharks. I noted at this point that her diving kit - silver bodysuit and dark fins and mask - made her look rather like - well - a shark. I hoped there wouldn't be any cases of mistaken identity.

Thankfully, when she started heading out to find the big boys - lemons, then tigers - her shark hunting expert (as in finding, not killing) advised her a) to use scuba and b) to wear all black. He seemed to be saying "stop dressing like a goddamn shark". So, Tanya gets in, and after some mask issues, becomes at peace with these huge animals.

Watching her do this reminds me - to a much lesser extent - of my own shark experience on my last holiday. I went snorkelling off the beach in Cayman. The missus was resolutely tanning, so I headed out alone. I'm not afraid of the water in any way, and swam out about 150-200 metres from the coast.

We'd seen a nurse shark flash past us when we'd been snorkelling on a finger of reef even closer to the shore, the day before. I knew they were in the area. Locals had also told us that this was breeding season - many sharks were in the waters now, taking the benefit of the upwelling of warm, nutrient-enriched water that comes to the surface around mountainheads like Cayman at that time of year in the Caribbean.

I was hoping that I might see one, maybe two sharks. I was rewarded with eight. Three large females, two or three smaller males, and a couple of pups. I think they spotted me with as much shock as I spotted them. If I hadn't turned around, I'd never have seen them. Immediately, they went into wagon-train defensive drill - they stopped, and began to circle, the large, protective females on the outside, the males and pups on the inside of the ring. And slowly, their jet fighter tails sweeping steadily from side to side, their dead, black eyes focussed entirely on you, they circle.

Suddenly, the rush of adrenaline. Fight or flight neurotransmitters coursing through my brain, my body. Should I panic? Should I scarper? Should I stay stock-still? I gazed at them, wondering what to do - mildly paralysed. I haven't felt fear like that in a long time. Then I worried that my fear was like a ruddy great smell advert to these creatures - that I was announcing my nervous state, loudly.

In the end, I decided to act casual - like I wasn't really interested in them. I suppose I did the sub-aqua equivalent of nicking an apple from the market-stall, and then sauntering off, whistling to yourself. Once the group of sharks saw that I wasn't coming for them, that I was just another pedestrian, they broke from their circle and swam away from me, out to sea. As you can imagine, I was determinedly heading in the opposite direction.

19 November 2006

Dear Birmingham Town Planners

I cannot begin to count the number of times I've wanted to compose a suitably-charged missive to you lot, but here it comes, at last. I will be brief, which will please not only yourselves, but also my regular readership.

Recently, you spent rather a long time sorting out Holloway Head. I know, Mr Beetham went and built another monument to his Liverpudlian greatness slap-bang on the roundabout, giving Birmingham its first tall building since either the Rotunda or the BT Tower. Thanks very much, and nice work, except if you're heading towards the place when the sun's low, when it becomes a dazzling beacon to cause major accidents.

But, in your wisdom, you thought - while the whole area was a mess - you'd jump in and make some much-needed alterations to the traffic light, pedestrian crossing and lane system on the roundabout. You'd got rid of the old pedestrian underpass at the place, so you thought: why not stick pedestrian-controlled lights at a major city centre junction?

Well, much as I prefer the pedestrian, I do not prefer it when they are in charge of the traffic-flow around said roundabout. They should - given the sheer volume of vehicles that pass this point each day - be subject to the terribly-well-thought-out sequence of traffic lighting that you have installed, for the benefit of the driver. The pedestrian must kowtow to the motors in this instance.

But no. They are in charge. Have you had a really good look at what you've done to the traffic around Holloway Head? You've completely and utterly fucked it right up, chaps, that's what you've done.

This gets back to what I've identified on many occasions as Birmingham's fatal flaw. It is so preoccupied with modernity: ref. Rotunda, Bull Ring, all these bloody identikit city centre twat-pads (that I and most of my friends live in), that it fails to recognise when something just needs sprucing up, not completely rethinking. The old underpass system at Holloway Head? That just needed making a bit nicer. It takes the pedestrian under all the roads, avoiding the need to hinder either footman or driver. Why did you not sort that out? There's a lovely pagoda in there, you could have put some benches up? Tch. Wasters.

16 November 2006

Ding Ding, Round Four

Ee, if yer a politics junkie things are very fattening right now, stuffing our faces with US MidTerms, UK State Opening of Parliament. Yesterday's ceremony, turgid with pomp, circumstance and pompous circumstances, gave the greatest insight into our Deputy Prime Minister ever seen on television.

You will remember John Prescott's act of self-defence against an egg-hurling ne'er-do-well during the Labour Election Campaign of 2001. On 16th May of that year, a Wednesday, Prezza was on the campaign trail in Rhyl, North Wales, when a disgruntled farmer chucked an egg at the DPM's face/shoulder from point-blank range. If you'd like a reminder, it's here:


He's got a quick jab, there, hasn't he? Of course, before he became a respected politician, John Prescott was a ship's steward, hence his enormous size. One is to assume from this history that he can a) put a few pints away without blinking and b) stand up for himself. From early days working on ships to union chapel representative, to trades union worker, rising through the ranks until, lumme, he's only gone and become the nation's second most important - maybe third - politico.

And so: the point. The monarch read Mr Blair's speech like a good queen, and she told everyone what Mr B plans for the next year. Once all the tedium was over, the lads got back in the chamber and started rowing again. Boyface Cameron stood up and did he usual haranguing, leading to a point-of-order on "tough decision making". Tone decried the efforts of the New Tory Boy, saying that Cameron was "a lightweight" and that he'd be facing a "heavyweight" - Blair's first open reference to Gordon Brown's forthcoming Premiership. The boxing analogy continues:

"At the next election, it will be a flyweight versus a heavyweight, and however much he might dance around the ring beforetimes, at some point, he'll come within the reach of a big, clunking fist..."

The crowd goes wild. Cameron looks to his chums on the front bench, resplendent in the red flush that all posh boys get when someone else starts making fighting suggestions. Blair senses weakness, and goes for the death move:

"...and you know what? He'll be out on his feet, carried out of the ring, a fifth Tory leader carried out, and a fourth Labour government still standing."

Now, look at Prescott when the PM starts talking about fighting. You can see his bile rise, his blood pressure notch up. As adrenaline prepares his corpulent body for fight or flight, the eyes narrow and the folded arms flex beneath the shiny suit. You just feel he'd like to pop you one.

Did you know Prescott's middle name was Leslie?

10 November 2006

Seeing Red

I've been away in London this week doing yet more tedious shit to get the flat ready for rental. The main thing to have frustrated my already high-tension mind this week is this whole poppy debate. Let me explain for those who don't know. Since 1921 - three years after the end of the First World War - the Royal British Legion has collected money for the old soldiers who served wherever in the world, for their support and care during their evening years. The selling of poppies to raise funds for our veterans culminates in Remembrance Sunday, the sabbath following the 11th day, of the 11th month, at 11am. That was the date of the signing of the Armistice following the end of the WWI.

My grandfather, Fred, was with the RAF in Burma - now Myanmar - during WWII. He fought alongside the Gurkhas, repaired any engine you cared to give him, swapped hats with an Australian squaddie and received a caution from his unit commander for breach of protocol, rode the wall of death on an old BSA bike in the sweltering heat of the jungle, killers just outside the perimeter, watching, waiting, ready to die. And so: my story isn't that far from that of many men my age, which is around the thirty mark. I get really narked when some people suggest that a) the poppies should be white, to represent peace or b) there's a question-mark over whether they should be worn at all. Let me deal with each in turn.

COLOUR. The reason poppies sold by the RBL in the lead up to Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday are red, is that they represent the red poppies in the fields in northern France where millions - MILLIONS - lost their lives at the point of hot metal, or burned from within by gas. The land there was strewn with corpses, rotting, stinking, decaying humanity, for as far as the eye could see. Pointless, perhaps, but nonetheless done: in our names, and for our future freedom. The poppy should be white, eh? Why's that? To represent peace? Hey - let's have a Peace Day, by all means. But this isn't Peace Day. This is Armistice Day. This is the memory of slaughter on an unprecedented scale, a memory of sacrifice, of loss. The poppy stays red, chum.

WEARING ONE AT ALL. I used to think a lot more of John Snow. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a professional aspiration embodied for me, in him. But that is all different now. I accept the fact that one shouldn't use the media as a platform for personal beliefs and attitudes - impartiality is key - but to publicly say that you won't be subjected to "poppy fascism" and refuse to wear it on any news bulletin? Perhaps you'd have preferred REAL fascism to mere floral fascism? Sir, you are a numpty. And what's more, you now look like the kind of woolly, grey, try-to-please-everyone, politically-correct numpty that is symptomatic of the loss of balls within this nation. Oh dear, team.

Wear Your Poppy With Pride. And make sure it's red.

03 November 2006

Europhiles, Unite!

Great story from a good mate in the pub last night. Him and his workmates head to the boozer after work. One of their number has just arrived in England, from Germany. Naturally, this chap's getting all the ribbing you would imagine, being a Kraut, working in the UK. And he was taking it all very well. Right up until his round. Our German friend goes around the group, taking orders. (Not the first time for a for a VaterLander.) Several Carlings and Tetleys are submitted, as well as a few Lowenbraus. Which, as we all know, is pronounced LOW-N-BROW. Our German hero takes immediate umbrage. Vas is das you are sayink? he enquires. Low-n-brow? Hah! You are so stupid. It is LER-VEN-BROY. Kan you not see ze umlaut above ze "O"? Don't vorry, Britisher scum, I vill gett your beers. And our man heads to the mahogany. Please bear in mind, we're in Birmingham, here.

Our European cousin tackles the barmaid, ordering the Carlings, the Tetleys. Finally, he makes it to the Lowenbraus. Whaddayawant, bab? comes the screeched reply? LER-VEN-BROY? We don't have that here, sorry, bab. Our now-very-confused Teutonic pal looks befuddled, before pointing to the tap clearly offering the liquid he requires. No, you haff it, here! Lervenbroy. Ooh, no, bab, you don't understand, the barmaid offers. Leaning over the bar, so that she can actually see the word on the front of the taps and point to each syllable in turn, she educates the visitor, making it all quite clear. No, bab, you see, that says LOW. (pause) N. (pause) BROW. Lownbrow. How many would you like, bab? The glory of a Brummie barmaid, telling an actual German how to actually pronounce the name of a German beer, will remain with me for many years. The poor man must think all us English are mad.

Apologies for the no-show these last days, but things have picked up apace on every level imaginable. Since my last post, our mortgage has been agreed. That was last Friday, which was also the night that all the boys went out and celebrated one of our number's 33rd birthday, back at our old stomping ground, The Swan in Harborne.

Strangely, we all bumped into a chap none of us had seen for about a decade. He's a year older than us, though to look at us all now, you'd think he was 20 years older. Poor Rog is a known alcoholic, declared bankrupt, etc. He's been in Holland for a few years (he says), where he's been doing nothing (he says). Basically, the bloke's a mess and that's upsetting to see, but there's very little that you can do about it, which is equally upsetting, but there you have it. Rog ended up getting slightly irate at the taunting meted out by some of my cohorts, regarding the due date of his baby and so on. Thankfully, none sought to mention the horrendous condition of his skin from years of pickling. That would have been a bridge too far, even for my lot.

After the pub, we all came back here for more of the same plus loud music, which would have thrilled my neighbours enormously. The last reprobate staggered out at 5am, and I haven't had a single complaint. Saturday was written off, and Sunday saw me amd the missus at the previous evening's birthday man's house, giving his youngest son his last birthday present - nearly two months late. The child is very creative, very expressive - he's a star. He told me all about dinosaurs and tanks, and another boy from his old school who always liked to kiss him. Did he kiss girls, too? I enquired. No! came the startled response. And what about other boys, did he kiss other boys, or was it just you? Only me, I was told. Well, I'd watch out for boys like that, I said, feeling immediately the moral panic that the average parent must experience daily. Anyway, he loved his painting set. His mother approved of the junior painting apron.

Wind forward a few days during which I can account for neither my whereabouts nor achievements, and we are at Thursday last week, and the good lady's birthday. She's very old, now, and soon I might have to take her to the Knackers Yard, where she can be turned into glue. With this future on the horizon, I thought it best to take her out for a nice time, perhaps some seaside, countryside, nice places. And so - not entirely unselfishly, but nonetheless amenable to her - we headed to Penarth, just next to Cardiff in Wales. This is where I shall be mooring my speedboat, when it arrives in the UK. Which should be very soon indeed. Anyway, we drove there door-to-door in two hours, and headed straight for the marina.

There, I met the marina manager, Stuart, and a remarkable chap he was. He looked genuinely pleased to see us, given that we'd headed down from Birmingham, and immediately rustled teas and coffees. He took us into the control room for the lock into the marina, urging us not to fiddle, and showed us his big schematic of the moorings - including a magnetic nametag with DADSBOTE on it. They are ready and waiting. We talked boats - his history, mine, the lady's - and once pleasantries were over, we said our goodbyes and headed off for lunch.

I'd planned a nice birthday meal at the St David's Hotel in Cardiff, the Rocco Forte gaff right on Cardiff Bay. Unfortunately, my timing was off by 30 minutes, and when we got there, the restaurant had stopped taking orders. We could sit in the bar - nowhere near the window overlooking the bay - and eat Bar Menu food, which was what we did. Of course, it had neither the breadth nor depth of the Proper Menu, and so lunch was a somewhat muted affair. A brisk walk over to Mermaid Quays, popping our heads into the Welsh Assembly building and a sit under the mushroom, and we were back in the car and heading back north.

Friday last saw me spend the day with Mum looking through EPOS/e-commerce providers and settling on a few that we'd like to meet. We also finished most of the photo work for the website (at least, on a good starter level) and so we can push forward once the database is created via the EPOS system. Sorry, am I boring you?

After the aforementioned, and slightly Tarantinoesque time-shift, night out with the boys at The Swan and present giving weekend, I headed to London to get the last pieces of the London Flat puzzle sorted. As you will know, my London flat is on the rental market. However, feedback was that everyone loved the flat, but the entrance hallway let it all down. The story of my London flat, it's leasehold, and the freeholder to the whole property, is a saga I do not have time for here. It needs it's own space. Suffice it to say, it was looking like a spruce-up job to the hallway would be a good plan. And so, on Tuesday morning, I met up with the contractor (and uni mate's dad) who did my flat renovation, to see what could be done. It's all sorted. It'll cost a bit, but it will give me peace of mind for the future, and making sure no one can complain about it again. That starts on Tuesday.

I got back to Brum on Wednesday lunchtime, where I immediately headed to the new house to meet the missus and the estate agents. The homebuyers' valuation survey is now done, and so we went armed with foreknowledge of the problems/issues. Subsequent to that, we've renegotiated price accordingly this very day, and now a final sum is agreed. Overall, we have reduced the price £6K from our first expectation - representing a 3.7% reduction to IPO. Boom. Bought a belter, for less than UK average house price, in an area becoming increasingly sought-after. We'll see you all in five years with a goldmine.

This weekend sees a university crew reunion in Hampshire. We've hired a holiday cottage (house, really) which will sleep us ten. There will be food, booze, fireworks and fun, for it is 400 years since Guy Fawkes tried to rid us of the scourge of politicians. I like his thinking, but shudder at the alternative. I'll check in next time with tales of debauchery, excess, derring-do and tomfoolery. And hopefully, no injuries. Kaboom. Night, night.