Monday, June 25, 2012

The Big Day Has Arrived

Yes I can't put it off any longer......unless I was delivered late afternoon or evening on 25th June 1952, I have accept that I'm now 60.

Bloody hell, 60 ! Takes some getting used to I can tell you.

Yes, yes I can get a few things cheaper and even, in the case of prescriptions, free.

Scant consolation.

Friends over 60 remind me that they wish they were 60 and call me a spring chicken ! Friends under 60 fall into two categories : those close to 60 themselves are generally kind as they realise that soon they'll be my age too and payback is a bitch; those WELL under 60 are very very cruel and have clearly not been brought up to respect their elders.

So I believe I'm a senior now. No more fibbing to get a cheap meal or a deal at the movies then !

Mind you, it was always a bit depressing when I've done this over the years and no one challenged me ! I still remember getting a motel discount in the US when I was 49. I guess I'll never be the Cliff Richard of my generation. My face reflects the hard life I've led and decades of being the stand in for a pit pony have aged me before my time.

But as we all say as we reach the milestone ages (apart from 18 and 21....and probably 30......and ok 40 too), it's all about attitude. And my attitude to reaching 60 is.............

Holy crap I'm freakin' 60 !!!!!!!!!!!!!

No seriously I'm very fortunate. I need to count my blessings. My 80" 3D smart tv, my homes in LA and Monaco, my yacht berthed in Barbados........ No ?

Oh my REAL blessings ? Well I won't embarrass myself or my friends by giving the list here but not to boast, I have many. Including being retired of course.

Many people at 60 are still only thinking of retirement as a future dream and I've lived the dream for 11 years now. The idea is to keep on dreaming for many years yet. Actually my idea is to bankrupt the IBM Pension Plan on my own !

Anyway I have to go now. time to put on my eatin' pants as I'm going for a meal with friends. And then a movie tomorrow. Low key celebrations I know but then I'm not one for parties and large groups of people.

I am 60 after all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Day I Held The Olympic Torch

I said a while ago that the Olympic torch would be passing through South Leeds on my birthday (25th June) and I was hoping to get a glimpse of it the day before when it passed through North Leeds where I live.

Well I was always a bit worried that there would be such a crowd at the point where it came closest to my house that I'd only catch a fleeting view of it and probably not get any decent photos of the unique occasion. Sad really as I'd only have to go 2.5 miles.

A week or so ago I checked the torch's route again and noticed that today (19th) it was going to pass at a point just 3.8 miles from my house on its journey around West Yorkshire ! I guessed there wouldn't be as big a crowd at this junction as for one thing, today is a weekday and for another, well it's just not as built up an area.

So at 11:30am I set off and by 11:45am I'd parked along the A659 just as before it joins Harrogate Road at Harewood. There was a good crowd built up with loads of school children from the nearby Gateways School who had been lined up to not only cheer on the torch bearer but also meet and greet Princess Beatrice who was going to 'welcome' the torch into Harewood House.

At this point there would be a rest break for the torch and the support team before they all set off again for Harrogate and finally York later on this afternoon. Hopefully a plentiful supply of cucumber sandwiches had been laid on to feed the massed hoard.

Anyway I positioned myself along the road close to a film crew from Turkey who told me they were to be picked up by the media coach and so I reckoned that was THE place to be if I wanted to get photos of the torch/runner starting out. The flame was being driven along the A659 from nearby Wetherby and then the runner would take it from there.

Whilst waiting, I even got a free commemorative bottle of Coke Zero which cannot be bought in the shops and that'll be on eBay later today !

Joking. I drank it there and then but WILL keep the bottle.

Shortly after noon, the police outriders starting arriving and it was a little odd to see them all waving at the crowds lining the road. Initially I thought they were waving us back to make room for the approaching cavalcade but no, they were just smiling and waving ! No doubt they'll be back to normal tomorrow !

Well when I say crowds, there were only about 15 of us at this point on the road as the vast majority had decided to place themselves at the Harewood House junction a few hundred yards west of us. Big mistake.

A few minutes later, the coach arrived with the runners on board. It pulled up right next to me and I only had to move a couple of feet to be at the door when it opened and so I was the first to greet Roy Leinster, the very fit and young looking 75 yr old torch bearer who would carry the flame to the entrance to the grounds of Harewood House.

Yeah I'm not sure why they've given him an extra surname on the BBC site but anyway...........

I don't think anyone else realised what was happening as for a while, I had the whole area to myself.....well just Roy and me ! I had my Nikon in one hand taking HD video footage and my HTC camera in the other hand taking stills. What a star !

A few other people came along and when I saw Roy was happy to pose with anyone, I handed my camera to the nearest honest looking spectator and got in on the act.

In this next photo, you can hopefully see the tiny hole in the torch (as pointed out by the kind spectator) where one of the support staff would use a 'key' to open the gas valve allowing the torch to be lit from the flame of the previous torch, or in this case, from the flame lantern that had been carried on the coach along the A659 from Wetherby.

To save time and where there would be no spectators anyway, the flame travels by coach.

Apparently once the runner has passed on the flame to the next runner, the 'key' is used again to turn off their gas supply, the gas cartridge is removed, and they get to keep the torch shell. Not sure why the cartridges need to be removed but maybe they get recycled into other torches to save needing 8,000 of them, one for each runner. Seems fair enough.

By now everyone in the small crowd had had their photos taken with Roy and his flameless torch so I upped the stakes a bit and asked to be photographed holding it. Well what the hell, how often do you get such an opportunity ? I knew once it was lit, the torch couldn't be held by anyone other than the runner so it was now or never.

Initially I did hold it all on my own without Roy even being 'in the picture' but the person taking the photo with my camera took so long (took 3 attempts) that Roy got a bit nervous and came back into the shot with me. Hey ho.

That opened the floodgates and suddenly everyone fancied holding the torch ! I felt a bit sorry for Roy but thankfully at this point the coach came along with the flame and the support team (all police staff) and so he was able to be led into the middle of the road for his moment of glory.

With the torch lit, Roy only had to run a few hundred yards before passing the flame onto Janet Baker inside the grounds of Harewood House.

I jogged (ha !) as best I could after the procession thinking they'd stop at the traffic lights where 99% of the crowd was gathered. But no, Roy, the torch and all the support vehicles just went across the junction and through the entrance to the grounds of Harewood House. I heard a few people muttering "was that it ?" as they walked back to their cars - and I didn't feel the need to rub it in by showing them the photos and video I'd managed to get.

Once again it paid off using a bit of prior knowledge to pick my spot and spotting that Turkish film crew helped as well.

Finally here is the edited video I took which puts it all into perspective.

I'll probably still go to see the torch again on Sunday but the 'pressure' will be off and it doesn't matter if I only get to see it over the heads of others. I couldn't possibly get any closer to a torch or torch bearer than I did today and I certainly wouldn't be able to hold it again either.

What an experience and thanks to Roy for being such a gent and letting our little select band of spectators share in his special day.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The France & Spain Tour 2011 - Day 8

The story continues...........

We'd checked out the Barcelona travel ticket the evening before so after leaving the hotel (the oddly named U232 in the heart of the city), we headed to the nearby metro station, got our daily tickets and went down to the almost deserted platform to wait for the train to Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Take the link to read about it as it's a must see if you ever visit Barcelona.

The idea was to get to the basilica before it opened at 9am in an attempt to miss the worst of the lines. Well if that was the case, then I'd hate to go there later ! We had a very long walk to get to the end of one line but once the basilica opened, the lines moved quickly and we were inside the gates by 9:15.

The outside was surrounded by ridiculously tall cranes as, of course, the basilica is a work in progress. This gave me the idea that the inside would be like a building site as well so I was very pleasantly surprised when this was not the case. Very few areas were screened off and so the views I got upon entering were simply stunning.

The immensity of the basilica and the colours created by the light streaming in through the hundreds of stained glass windows combined to take my breath away.

I've been in huge religious buildings both here in England and abroad but nothing in my experience prepared me for what I saw inside the Sagrada Familia. Even inside the Vatican or St. Paul's cathedral, I never really got a sense of how large those structures were. They were very ornate, had lots of side chapels, were rather dark and their very antiquity somehow managed to conceal their dimensions.

Not so here. Being a 'brand new' building, the towering stone columns were clean and bright and designed to not just support the ceiling, but add to the rest of the visual delights all around the basilica. Everywhere you looked, there were carvings, reliefs and mosaics to see. Clearly Gaudi's design was to have a light, bright, uncluttered building with multiple soaring vaulted ceilings and an abundance of natural light coloured by numerous huge stained glass windows.

I'd say that his plan has been spectacularly successful.

I love this first photo because it shows a feature I thought would only be visible to the naked eye. The light coming in at the very top created heavenly rays suggesting a divine presence was listening to any prayers offered up by the congregation below.

The last photo above shows one of the open sided spiral staircases leading up inside the spires. Later on we decided to take the easy way up, via the lift, and take the staircase for the return trip.

This next set of photos gives an impression of the stunning colours bathing the inside of the basilica.

Up inside one of the spires, there were many openings where we could go out onto small balconies and look over the skyline of Barcelona. We were also able to get up close and personal with the outside details of the building and see just why the construction was taking so long.

The second photo was taken looking into the sun so it didn't come out so well. The colours were pretty much bleached out so I decided to remove them altogether by making it a black & white image. I'd probably have deleted it but I liked the view of the iconic Torre Agbar (see a previous blog). Whilst in black and white mode, I decided to make the background buildings in the subsequent photo black and white as well as they were a bit bleached too.

I don't 'do' bleached !

After our time 'up top' we descended via the spiral staircase which wasn't as claustrophobic as many we'd taken. In the first photo, I used a slow shutter speed to try and get an impression of movement but as I was moving myself, the whole image is a bit blurred. Oh well. Once back outside, I took a photo of the spire we'd just been up inside and that's the 3rd photo below.

We'd only spent 2 hrs inside the basilica but it was long enough to be 'suffering' from sensory overload and it was good to be out in the fresh air again. Quite the most remarkable and memorable religious building I've ever been in and that includes the Vatican.

It was time to head back to the metro for the short trip to the start of La Rambla, the most famous pedestrianised street in Barcelona which leads down to the city harbour. This wonderful tree lined mall has everything for those tourists walking down for their first view of the Mediterranean. From high class speciality stores to typical souvenir outlets, from clever street entertainers to even more clever scam artists, La Rambla has them all. Enjoy the entertainers and avoid the scam artists and you'll have a wonderful stroll along this delightful street.

I assume most of these street performers were painted to resemble bronze statues but to me they'd overdone it a bit and looked more like they'd been tango'd.

La Rambla ends down by the harbour at the 197ft tall monument to Christopher Columbus, that well known Italian American who discovered Spain. No ? Ok then, that well known Genoese explorer who was hired by the King & Queen of Spain to go off and find the New World or a McDonald's - whichever came first. No ? Well Google it then, if you're that bothered !

I loved the harbour area. Clean, bright, open. Unlike any harbour I'd ever seen before. And plenty to see and do.

We wandered about for hours, had a snack, wandered some more and then went looking for somewhere to have supper. This meant walking back alongside the beach area and although it was close to 9pm and so getting quite dark, the weather was still great and it was lovely to see locals and tourists out enjoying it.

After a pizza supper we left the harbour area and with a final (for that day anyway) photo of the beautiful sail like W Barcelona hotel, it was also time to use that day's metro card for the last time and head back to our hotel. By then it was close to midnight so it has been a long, tiring but very enjoyable day.

Finally here is a video which hopefully shows off the splendour of the Sagrada Familia, the atmosphere along La Rambla and the beauty around the harbour better than the still photos. The next day, Day 9, would be spent going to even greater heights, literally.

To be continued...........

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Commercial Success Story

My memory is less than perfect. Ok being honest, it's pretty crap really.

I may have mentioned this before but if I did, I've forgotten. Boom, boom.

Actually facts have shown that my memory peaked between 1959 and 1969. Before those dates it was still maturing, still growing, still full of youthful promise. After those dates, it was still full - but just full of 60's musical trivia and little else.

Jump forward 40 years or so and nothing much has changed. I still know more about the world of 60's music and culture than just about anything else. I guess I got a bit of a lemon for a brain as it simply stopped remembering anything new after 1969. This was a bit of a bummer considering I took my A Levels in 1970 !

Thankfully I got such a superb result in my A Level 60's Musical Appreciation that I got a place at Oxford where my thesis on Dusty Springfield is still mentioned as a classic of knowledge over style.

S'all true.

Anyway, I was in bed last night and a commercial jingle just popped into my head. As they do. Suddenly long dormant neurons shot along equally dormant synapses in my brain and I was remembering 50's and 60's jingles for the next hour. Can I remember any from the last 40 years ?


Oh we all know that commercials have been very technically clever for decades now but memorable ?


Not for me anyway.

As a geek and a lover of photography I admire many modern commercials. But only for a short time as one replaces the other and none leave any lasting memory.

My neurons aren't titillated.

My synapses see little traffic.

These days it seems clever computerised images are much more important than jingles and catchphrases. Big mistake. How much money could be saved if the ad men's computers were shut down and instead they give a fraction of their budget to a jingle writer ?

In the wee small hours of this morning I was merrily reciting "A Million Housewives Every Day, Pick Up A Tin Of Beans And Say, Beanz Meanz Heinz."

"A Double Diamond Works Wonders, So Drink One Today"

"The Milky Bar Kid Is Strong And Tough, And Only The Best Is Good Enough.....Nestle's Milky Bar."

"Opal Fruits...Made To Make Your Mouth Water."

"Murray Mints, Murry Mints, The Too Good To Hurry Mints."

"The Esso Sign Means Happy Motoring, The Esso Sign Means Happy Motoring, The Esso Sign Means Happy Motoring, Call At The Esso Sign."

"You'll Wonder Where The Yellow Went When You Brush Your Teeth With Pepsodent"

Remember Phensic ? I do. Never bought any in my life but I remember the slogan......

"Phensic Is Better For Headaches Than Aspirin Alone."

And Mackeson stout......

"Looks Good, Tastes Good And By Golly It Does You Good."

"Now Hands That Do Dishes Can Feel Soft As Your Face With Mild Green, Fairy Liquid."

Even today when I see a block of Turkish Delight, I always think it'll be "Full Of Eastern Promise." Really it's full of starch and sugars but thanks to the slogan writers (and, I suppose, images of belly dancing women from Hull) , I'll always believe the Eastern Promise bit.

My particular favourite ?

"For Mash Get Smash." Ok remembering the cute little metal aliens laughing and getting jiggy with it helps with that one.

So you can see why it took me ages to get to sleep this morning. I was in a tv timewarp and a scan would've shown my brain was lit up like a Christmas tree.

The things is, with modern technology, we can now skip adverts or change channel when they come on and mostly we do. Well I do. I'm not sure I've ever bought something based on a commercial but my subconscious might disagree. In any case, they spoil my enjoyment of whatever I'm watching so I'll do anything to avoid them.

But back in the day, my day, we couldn't do that. No remotes for a start ! I know. Can you imagine it, you young people ? We had to get up off our backsides to change channel and in our house that 'we' meant my dad. I wasn't allowed near the precious tv till I was 27 !

And as we only had 2 channels, dad didn't bother getting up much anyway.

So we saw ads. Lots of ads. And they were often as memorable as the shows, which wasn't saying much.

With nothing in the way of computer trickery, the ad men had to rely on snappy memorable jingles, slogans and catchphrases and as I proved this morning, they did a good job.

At 2am all that brain activity gave me quite a headache.

And for some reason I wanted a Phensic !

Friday, June 08, 2012

The France & Spain Tour 2011 - Day 7

And so, as night follows day and everybody follows Stephen Fry, Day 7 tends to follow Day 6.

Yes we're back to 2011 and back to my summer trip memories, photos and in this case, one short video.

On Day 7 we had a drive of 311 miles ahead of us as we were leaving our base in Provence, France and heading across the border to get to Barcelona, Spain. We were in the car for about 10 hours although we did stop frequently (no comment) and for lunch so there won't be any scenic photographs in this post.

Just saying.

Before breakfast and whilst waiting for Stephen and Daphne to get ready, I had a wander around the lovely Mas Pichony bed and breakfast, our lodgings for the previous few days. The owners had several cats, a large dog and a few horses as the grounds were extensive. They also had a lovely large swimming pool with surrounding areas for lounging and generally "chilling out".

Being prior to 8am, the light was beautiful and highlighted the wonderful outdoor setting for our breakfast, which we shared with half a dozen other guests.

With full stomachs, full suitcases and empty bladders (for now), we left Mas Pichony and headed for Spain. The route took us through the city of Avignon which, of course, required a drive past the 'pont' of musical fame. The 15th century French song was originally called "Sous Le Pont D'Avignon" (Under The Bridge of Avignon) as, back in the day, that's where people would gather to dance. Later for some reason, it changed to "Sur" which means "On" although I'd fear for anyone dancing on it as it only stretches half way across the Rhone !

Repeated floodings and bad rebuilds meant that over 300 years ago, the bridge was finally abandoned with only 4 of the original 22 arches remaining.

We didn't have the time, nor the inclination really, to stop, so these photos were taken from the car as we drove through the city and on past the bridge.

Heading south towards Barcelona, we planned on taking a short detour as we'd be passing about 50 miles from an old friend of mine from my days working in the IT dept of ASDA, the UK supermarket chain.

Miodrag Pasko had upped roots and moved to the small hillside area of Mas Fumats, overlooking the tourist town of Roses. Undeterred by being near the world famous (and frankly pretentious) restaurant of ElBulli, repeatedly voted the "best" in the world, Pasko opened up his own vastly superior restaurant in June 2006, Pasko's Balkan Grill, drawing on his heritage and bank loans to create an awesome menu which brings a taste of the Balkans to the local population, passing tourists and those who didn't get a reservation at ElBulli.

We arived about 2pm and were certainly ready for a late lunch. After showing us around his restaurant, Pasko and his lovely wife, Marija, served us a wonderful complimentary meal, after which it was hard to pass up having a siesta as we still had a long drive ahead of us.

I particularly liked the 'store cupboard' above as Pasko has shown a great eye for a business opportunity by stocking speciality food items from various nations. Have a closer look and spot your own.

Here is 'the man' himself, followed by a photo of his delightful daughter, Aleksija, and then a short video of Pasko, Marija, and their restaurant. And no, we're not twins !

After our meal and a relaxing chat over coffee, we left Pasko with our thanks ringing in his ears and made our way towards Barcelona. It was at this point that we experienced the first rain of our holiday, the first and, as it turned out, only experience.

On the way, we stopped at a petrol station/rest area and I took the opportunity to look at the Barcelona FC goodies on sale in the shop. And despite knowing I'd look like a prawn, I had to try on the hat. As well as knowing I'd NEVER find an occasion to wear it, it just wasn't me ! I think that was unanimous.

There was certainly no chance for any photography but at least the rain stopped as we entered the outskirts of the city. We passed rows and rows of huge apartment blocks and then came upon Barcelona's version of London's "Gherkin" building, the Torre Agbar.

We also got a tantalising glympse of the building we'd be visiting the following morning, Gaudi's iconic Sagrada Familia. More of that on the Day 8 post of course. Well, after I've written it !

We reached our Barcelona city centre hotel, the oddly named U232, at around 7pm so it had been a long day. Part of our reason for booking this hotel, apart from location, was that it has its own underground parking area. This was important as we were staying 3 nights there and didn't need to use the car again until we left.

We checked in and immediately set off to find somewhere to eat, although after our meal with Pasko, it was a light choice. We then explored the area around the hotel and found the nearest metro station to work out how to get our daily discounted tickets in the morning so we could use the underground transit system for the next 2 days.

We'd had a great day and once again, many thanks to Pasko for the meal, the company and the rain storm that followed. Two out of the three were hugely appreciated. The next day would be interesting to say the least and I'd be so glad once again that someone, somewhere, developed digital photography !

To be continued.........

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