Saturday, June 24

Chalcots Estate


In 2008 I published a post about the Chalcots Estate towers scattered along our street in London.  At the time their drab and stained concrete exteriors were being re-clad in modern aesthetic thermal panelling.  The work was part of a comprehensive £66 million refurbishment that saw flats receive an extensive exterior upgrade and new internal fittings.
  
The estate consists of five towers spaced approximately 100 metres apart.  Four of the five towers rise an impressive 67 metres (219 feet) or 23 storeys. Their residents enjoy one of London’s most enviable skyline views; especially those living on the south side. Towards the south lucky residents enjoy sweeping views across Primrose Hill and Regents Park and on towards to the Palace of Westminster and the River Thames. 


Roll the clock forward nine years and the same buildings are back in the news this week.  Sadly the news isn’t good.  On the evening of 14 June a faulty fridge exploded on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower a similar housing estate tower near Ladbroke Grove.  Within minutes the fire, which should be contained within a single apartment, swept up the building’s 70 metre (220ft) exterior.  At least 79 people are believed to have died. Nine people are still in hospital, of which three are in critical care.

The speed at which the Grenfell Tower fire spread and the deadly destruction it’s caused has stunned the nation. The building had recently been re-clad in shiny new insulating panels identical to those used on the Chalcots Estate towers. Tragically, these panels have proven to be highly inflammable and thus wholly unsuitable for high-rise buildings.   


Since the fire testing on similar cladding across London and the UK has found hundreds of buildings harbour the same catastrophic fire risk. Yesterday Camden Council, the authority responsible for Chalcots Estate, ordered an evacuation of its towers. An urgent review had revealed numerous fire hazards resulting from their earlier refurbishment beyond the risk posed by deadly thermal cladding.

Residents living in 711 high rise homes were given just hours to gather their belongings and vacate every building.  Some are now temporarily housed in a nearby recreation centre while others have been placed in surrounding hotels.  Residents are expected to be homeless for several weeks as urgent repairs begin. Eventually the cladding on all five buildings will also be replaced.

Garry and I watched the news in awe as the streets from our old London neighbourhood were broadcast around the world.  For years while on our way to catch the Underground to and from work we’d walk past three of these towers and the local recreation centre. My daily commute also took me past the Grenfell Tower. 


The Grenfell Tower was a prominent landmark.  I use to marvel at the way my elevated train line curved around two sides of the building. The entire experience always struck me as one of those iconic Hollywood establishment shots that a director would use to develop a movie's opening scene.  

It’s hard to imagine that the same landmark is now a blackened, charred hulk.  I also find it hard to comprehend how such deadly material ever came to be used on high rise buildings across the UK. Tonight Garry and I are quietly thanking our good fortune that our Sydney apartment is clad in brick and painted concrete slabs.  Our hearts go out to all those affected by this month’s tragic events.  

Sunday, June 18

A Banksy weekend


I emigrated from New Zealand more than 28 years ago.  At the time my decision was motivated in part by a desire to experience a more cosmopolitan lifestyle.  Since then New Zealand society has transformed itself.  Today when I venture back across the Tasman Sea I find an increasingly diverse range of world class restaurants and entertainment; plus hotels and tourism ventures as sophisticated and immersive as anything I’ve experienced overseas.

The contrast couldn’t have been any starker than when I took time off to spend a long weekend with my mother last week.  My trip began with an Air New Zealand flight in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  I’ve been dying to experience this new 21st Century pencil nosed aircraft.  I wasn’t disappointed. 


The aircraft’s advanced feature were very much on display. For example, the cabin windows are huge.  I had an aisle seat but was still able to enjoy the view as we came into land in Auckland. The cabin felt lighter and airier.  The air wasn’t as dry and dehydrating.  The inflight entertainment system was sleek and responsive.

Soon after arriving my mother asked if I wanted to see the Banksy exhibition in town.  I nearly fell off my chair.  Surely Mum was joking.  How on earth could a regional city in little old New Zealand be hosting a Banksy event?  Banksy is renowned British street artist.  His works regularly sell for upwards of USD 1 million or more.  To date his identify is unknown adding to the aura of his fame.


Incredibly the Tauranga Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of street art.  The event featured 22 works by the elusive Banksy including several instantly recognisable pieces.  The Oi YOU! Collection which includes these works, plus 58 pieces by other prominent artists, has been touring New Zealand and Australia for several years. 

The Collection is owned by George Shaw and Shannon Webster who began collecting in 2005.  Their passion for Banksy art was perfectly timed, They were able to buy several works the price of his work began skyrocketing.  I was delighted to see his famous Flower Thrower.  This work depicts a protester throwing flowers rather than Molotov cocktails. 


The Tauranga Art Gallery had also commissioned a number of street art murals around the inner city.  Mum and I took a walking tour to see these pieces in their all their glory. We picked the perfect day to venture out as the sun was shining and temperatures were surprisingly mild for winter.


Sunday, May 28

Far North Fun


My Mum clocked up a pile of frequent flyer points when we toured Africa a couple of years ago. Last year we realised they were about to expire so Mum and I made plans for her visit Sydney for a week. We scheduled the trip to coincide with ANZAC day as its timing this year allowed Garry and I to book in a four-day weekend. Taking time off has become rather challenging now that we're small business owners.

On a whim I decided we should all take an extra day off and spent four nights in Far North Queensland visiting Garry's brother and his family. My Mum was delighted by this idea as it's been almost 25 years since she last visited Port Douglas. This holiday was also my first visit to this popular resort town.


We flew out shortly after lunch on Friday.  Unfortunately Garry had to cancel at the last moment. He'd come down with a shocking dose of flu and decided he was best to rest and recuperate at home. Our tropical excursion coincided with the tail end of the tropical wet season.  However, we got lucky. the few brief showers we experienced never hindered our plans. Several days even saw enjoying extended periods of passing sunshine.

We based ourselves in a spacious holiday home overlooking Six Mile Beach. I'd rented it under the assumption three of us would be travelling.  As a result, Mum and I really found ourselves experiencing a rather luxurious stay.


Our first day was spent driving north as far as Cape Tribulation.  We began the day with a croc-spotting cruise on the Daintree River.  We weren't disappointed.  We saw one huge croc and several smaller baby crocs happily sunning themselves along the muddy river bank.  Mum and I then caught the Daintree Ferry and made our way to the Cape, stopping briefly at Alexandra Lookout to soak in views of the Daintree river mouth.

Cape Tribulation was exactly as I recall. This was my third time there.  The first was also with Mum in 1992. Back then the road was unpaved and could only be safely traversed in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Today its a comfortably paved road all the way to the cape.  After a rather disappointing lunch and a rainforest boardwalk we made our way home.


On our way we dropped into the Daintree Discovery Centre. We had the centre's rainforest canopy walkway and canopy tower climb largely to ourselves for almost an hour. Sadly there no Cassowaries wandering the forest floor.  However, we did later see a wild Bush Turkey on the roadside.


Our second day was spent experiencing the Agincourt Reef on the Great Barrier Reef.  We caught a Quicksilver tour out to the outer reef.  The company has done a superb job of creating a memorable day. We filled our time with snorkelling, touring the reef in a semi-submersible and viewing the reef from an underwater observatory. I also surprised Mum with a helicopter flight over the stunning ribbon reefs. We were lucky enough to see a couple reef sharks basking in the shallows.  All in all is was an incredible day.


Our third day was spent shopping, dining and generally chilling out.  Mum bought a lovely necklace and I finally found some new swimming shorts that fitted me perfectly.  We also ate some of the most delicious salt and pepper calamari we've ever tasted.


Our final day was spent on the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.  We spent a couple relaxing hours wandering the markets in Kuranda and enjoying some truly mouth watering savoury crepes at a highly recommended market cafe.  It was then back to the airport for an early evening flight home again.


Sunday, March 26

Standing in the shadow of Hitler


Owning a toy company involves a few unavoidable commitments.  One of these includes meeting our key suppliers face to face at least once a year.  The annual Spielwarenmesse, or Toy Fair, in Nuremberg provides an ideal opportunity to meet with many of them in a single journey. 

Garry and I made our second pilgrim to the city in early February.  Along the way we stopped briefly in New York to meet with several suppliers who weren’t attending Nuremberg.  Unlike our first trip to this event this year we felt more in control of the experience.  We knew what to expect and were arriving with another year of exceptional results under our belt.


The fair is an incredible event.  It’s the largest trade show for toy industry in the world.  Every year over a period of six days almost 3000 exhibitors from 60 countries present their products. More than 54% of its attendees are international visitors.  The event fills 17 enormous exhibition halls, many of which are dedicated to promoting a single toy genre.

It was an exhausting time.  We met with suppliers every day.  We walked many of its cavernous halls in search of new suppliers.  Our evenings were then filled by suppliers keen to entertain us and facilitate introductions to new industry contacts.  On reflection we’re glad we scheduled our arrival in Nuremberg to include a full day to rest and recover from jet lag before the madness began.


We spent part of our free day visiting some of the city’s famous sights.  Nuremberg has a fascinating history.  It’s been associated with toy manufacturing for more than 600 years which explains why the fair is held here each year.  However, Nuremberg is better known for its place in the Holy Roman Empire.  It’s been called the empire’s unofficial capital as its Imperial Diet (Reichstag) and courts met at Nuremberg Castle.

In more recent times Nuremberg is renowned for its infamous association with the Nazi Germany era. The Nazi Party chose the city to be the site of huge Nazi Party conventions in part to emulate the Holy Roman Empire historical gathering.  These massive conventions, known as the Nuremberg rallies, were held in the city in 1927, 1929 and annually between 1933 and 1938.

Garry and I visited the Dokumentationszentrum (Documentation Centre), a museum that documents the city’s Nazi era.  It’s housed in the north wing of the partly finished Kongresshalle (Congress Hall).  The exhibition is a fascinating exhibit.  We spent several hours there learning more about this extraordinary period of Germany history. 


Afterwards we walked to the nearby Zeppelinfeld, where most of the big Nazi parades, rallies and events took place. It is fronted by a 350m-long grandstand, the Zeppelintrib├╝ne, where you can still stand on the very balcony from where Hitler incited the masses. It’s an odd sensation to stand here and recall the dramatic black and movie newsreels that captured these rallies.


We then made our way back into the old city and spent time wandering the castle grounds, admiring the view across its red tile rooves and exploring the old town’s narrow cobblestone laneways.  Last year we’d hoped to do this but soon found our days filled with trade show activities.  We’re glad we made time for a short break as the days that followed were even more frantic than those in 2016.

Sunday, February 12

Back in DC


Our business trip to New York originally included a stop in Philadelphia to meet with one of our key suppliers.  However, some last minute changes resulted in them travelling up to New York to meet us.  As a result we found ourselves with 48 hours to spare while waiting for our transfer flights to Nuremberg.

On a whim Garry and I decided to hire a car and drive to Washington DC for a whirlwind tour.  We left New York about 9:30pm and eventually reached our hotel shortly before 2am.  Garry can now boast of driving through Manhattan at night.  Getting out of the city proved relatively easy. Likewise, Washington DC was equally easy to navigate.


DC was bitterly cold…! After a lazy morning resting from our late night arrival we took a walking tour through the Mall.  Our route started at the Lincoln Memorial before finishing with an afternoon at the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Along the way we visited the new Martin Luther King Jr memorial.

Garry and I were last in Washington DC in 2005.  We visited the city while on our way to start our expat adventures in London.  It was wonderful to see visit again.  Washington DC really is a timeless destination.  In many respects it looks no different to my first visit, or this third visit decades later. 

The inauguration of Donald Trump had happened the week before our visit. (We'd watched him depart the White House for the Capitol Building ceremony just prior to boarding a flight from LA to NYC). As a result, many parts of the city were still in the throes of returning to normal.  The massive inauguration platform was still standing in front of the Capitol Building, protest marchers were still crowding the local streets and temporary fencing and media towers were still blocking streets around the White House.


The African American History museum was a fascinating venue.  I learnt a lot about the early slave trading economy and was appalled by the barbaric practises of the slave traders. The museum does a superb job of tracing African American history from its infamous beginning to the history making inauguration of Barack Obama.  One of the venue’s most memorable places is its room of reflection.  A circular curtain of water falls from the centre of the room while the surrounding walls carry quotes from some the nation’s most celebrated African Americans.


Our final day in the city was spent revisiting the Air & Space Museum, plus a few hours shopping for a winter wardrobe to keep us warm in Nuremberg.  We then retraced our steps back to New York and on to JFK Airport for an evening flight to Europe. For me the highlight of this airport transfer was another opportunity to drive over the graceful Verrazano Narrows bridge.