Saturday, June 30

The Drowsy Chaperone


The Drowsy Chaperone was refreshing and fun. You must go. Mum and Dad provided tickets for this evening’s performance as an early Birthday and Christmas present. I’ve seen so many musicals with flimsy plots, predicable power ballads, outrageous duets and chaotically choreographed ensembles. The Drowsy Chaperone has them all as well.

However, in a genre that’s generally packed with the predictable, this show offers a refreshing twist and shamelessly hams every conceivable musical stereotype. The end result was wonderfully witty and well worth reviewing with friends over a post-performance beer. I laughed until the final curtain - and even that offered a final twist on the traditional stage bow routinue.

The cast was equally outstanding, each member selected with great care. Bob Martin was truly brilliant as the slightly neurotic narrator, as was Elaine Paige as the Drowsy Chaperone. To round off the experience, the costumes were suitably colourful and the live orchestra in fine form. I’ll be seeing The Drowsy Chaperone again!

Random acts of violence


Terrorism made itself very personal today. Shortly after 1:00am this morning an unidentified man parked a green Mercedes outside one of the city’s largest nightclubs on Haymarket and ran off into the night. The vehicle was later found to be packed with petrol, gas and nails; a simple but deadly effective car bomb. Bomb experts manually disabled the "potentially viable explosive device" by dawn.

A second car bomb was identified later in the day. Apparently a blue Mercedes parked less than a block away had been ticketed by wardens about 2:30am, then unwittingly towed to nearby car pound on Park Lane. This vehicle was also made safe once its true nature was discovered. Subsequently, for much of today the streets around Haymarket and Piccadilly Circus were sealed off as police conducted extensive forensic investigations.

This evening as my parents and I were returning home from a West End show, we stopped outside Tiger Tiger nightclub to view the scene. A lone police van stood vigil and several television reporters were camped out in Piccadilly Circus. The reality of today’s news hit home as my parents recalled walking past the same nightclub less than a month ago. Next week also marks the second anniversary of the July 7 tube bombing.

In the mid-70s my Aunt Shirley narrowly missed being killed by an IRA bomb in Piccadilly Circus. Moments after she'd descended into ticket hall beneath the street a bomb exploded outside the entrance. She recalls the incredible sound it made. Had it been timed to detonate a minute sooner she'd had been walking past the bin in which it was hidden. Too close for comfort.

I find it hard to comprehend that the street we were on tonight had once again been primed for mass murder. The size and scale of these bombs was such that the resulting death and destruction would have been significant. Tiger Tiger was hosting a ‘ladies night’ with more than 1700 patrons inside. This wasn’t happening in some remote suburb, or on a tube line I rarely catch. This was a street I’d walked along at least three times in the last four weeks. Such random violence makes no sense.

Friday, June 29

Theatre, theatre everywhere


My Mum and Dad have arrived back in London this evening. They caught the Lufthansa shuttle into London City, transferred on the Underground and arrived on our doorstep shortly before 9pm. A quick and seamless journey. One of those times when living in London has its benefits.

With the weather being so poor, it seems appropriate to schedule plenty of indoor activity. Mum plans to hit the mid-year sales that started in force this week. I've also secured tickets to an eclectic array of live performances.

Tomorrow we're off to see The Drowsy Chaperone, a new West End production. It stars Elaine Page, a doyen of British theatre who's credits include Cats, Evita and Sunset Boulevard. This production opened six weeks ago to consistently positive reviews.

I've then splashed out for tickets on Saturday to see Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and James Galway, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choral Society. This spectacle kicks off inside the new O2 Arena. Early reviews claim the arena's acoustics are surprisingly good for a large scale venue. Our seats are about 15 rows from the stage. Hopefully we're in for a real treat.

Finally, in another rash moment, I applied for and secured tickets to a live taping of the Graham Norton Show next Wednesday. He's a local talk show comedian who's colourful humour attracts an impressive line-up of A-list guests each week. Recent episodes have featured Alice Cooper, Joanna Lumley , Joan Collins, Dustin Hoffman and Joan Rivers. Hopefully Graham will have guests on stage next week that we recognise. We certainly got lucky with Dame Edna Everage in April.

In between all of this live entertainment we have a day in Fernhurst celebrating my Aunt's 80th birthday. It'll be the largest family gathering Garry and I have attended for several years. Mum and Dad will stay on for another three days. We'll then have two days in London before the four of us fly to Olso for the weekend.

This will be Garry's first trip to Norway and my third. It 's also Mum and Dad's first taste of the Nordics. As this Norwegian weekend draws to a close Garry and I will farewell my parents for another year. While we head off to Heathrow they'll continue on to Stockholm, Copenhagen and Amsterdam before flying back to Austria. By the time they're back in the UK we'll be well on our way to Australia for a much needed Summer respite.

Phew! A quick look at this time last year and I remember things were just as frantic. July is stacking up to be another crazy month.

Thursday, June 28

History in the making

Almost 17 years ago I found myself in London during an unexpected transition of power. On November 22, 1990, the airwaves were filled with news that Margaret Thatcher had been ousted as Prime Minister in a cabinet coup. After almost 11 years as the nation’s leader the public and her party had grown weary of her confrontational style.

Today we’ve witnessed another long standing Prime Minister leave office. Tony Blair resigned shortly after lunch having served more than ten years in Downing Street. The contrast between his exit and that of Margaret Thatcher couldn’t have been more stark. The evening paper described today’s events as "the most carefully choreographed political resignation in history." Tony Blair’s departure has certainly been a while in coming. He announced as early as May last year that 2007 would be his final year. A most fitting end for a man long considered the master of spin.

Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer was sworn in as Britain’s 52nd Prime Minister shortly before 3:00pm. He is a Scotsman from Kirkcaldy, a small town south of Edinburgh. The nation’s last Scottish Prime Minister was Alec Douglas-Home, who served from 1963-1964. Gordon Brown is the eighth Scottish, and ninth non-English man to hold this office.


Our weather has also been making history this week. We’ve had rain falling in volumes never witnessed before. Weather stations have been recording their highest ever rainfall for June. On Monday, 103.6mm (4.1in) fell in 24 hours near Kingston upon Hull, while 242.8 mm (9.56in) fell in eight hours at Bruton in Somerset. Severe flooding has subquently made headlines all week, and the tennis is suffering at Wimbledon.

London was certainly wet this week, but nothing like the conditions further north. It seems we should have seen this coming. Apparently, most of the nation's new Prime Ministers find their day of triumph given over to less than pleasant weather. I wonder if this weekend's forecast is also a sign? We’re being warned to expect falls of up to 50mm in parts of the country. I guess we should be thankful for small mercies. Apparently it rained continuously for 58.5 hours in London in June 1903.

Monday, June 25

Dome debut


The redeveloped O2 Dome was finally opened to the public today. Formerly known as the Millennium Dome, it has sat largely unused on the bank of the Thames since December 2000. At the time of its closure the Dome had cost £789 million to build and operate, of which £628 million had been covered by National Lottery grants. It bright white roof spans a diameter of 365 metres, rising to a height of 50 metres at its centre – making it the world’s largest single-roofed structure.

Since 2005 Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) has spent £350 million transforming the Dome’s interior into a large entertainment arena. In 2012, it will host the Summer Olympic gymnastics, seating 16,500 spectators. The basketball finals will seat 20,000. The arena is a self-contained building sitting in the centre of dome. Surrounding it is a dramatic circular pedestrian street lined by bars, restaurants and public plazas.


Bon Jovi is scheduled to perform tonight as the Dome’s opening act. However, earlier today the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival was hosting a series of eclectic street performances as part of public debut event. Garry and I dropped by mid-afternoon to see the Dome for ourselves and witness the colourful unfolding spectacle inside.


As we entered, we encountered Cirque Bijou’s day-glow hoop skirt stilt walkers and the blue-faced Osadia hairdressers crafting exotic hair styles on several nervous volunteers. The interior of the dome is spacious, with a soaring white ceiling that draws the eye skyward. As we wandered we encountered an aerial ballet soaring high above the crowd, along with a helium-filled zeppelin balloon propelled by man wearing giant orange paddles.


Other street performers that caught our eye included Acrojou, a couple performing stunts on two giant white wheel frames. As we left the Dome, Strange Fruit, a colourful Australian street theatre group was conducting a performance swirling through the air on flexible four-metre sway poles. The effect was electrifying.

Saturday, June 23

Little scraps of trivia


From time to time I come across useless pieces of trivia about life in London. I often find these items in the newspaper, rip them out and leave them scattered about the house much to Garry's frustration. Here's a brief selection of my more recent paper scraps.

Sardine record
London Underground's financial year ended on April 1. In the 12 months to April the tube carried more than 1 billion passengers for the first time. A single day in December saw a record 4 million passengers carried. Last year the network carried a mere 971 million passengers. Elbow room anyone?

Catch a bus home
A new bus service has started - from London to Sydney! OzBus is launching a regular overland bus route between these two cities in September. A fare home costs £3750 (A$9000). Drinks and snacks are not included! Don't plan on being home by dinner - the journey takes 12 weeks.

Rain, rain go away
May was the wettest such month in London for 40 years. The city received 10cm of rain, double the average for the month. Unfortunately, my parents caught the tail end of it while they were in town. If only they'd visited in April. No measurable rainfall was recorded for the entire month. Unsurprisingly, April was reported to be the sunniest and warmest on record.

Thursday, June 21

Domestic details

Our landlord surprised us this week. After months and months of letter writing and nagging, we've finally had decorators in for the last two days repairing damage caused by The Great Flood of 2006 and The Steady Drip of 2007. The place while be looking like new, just as our lease comes up for renewal.

Monday, June 18

Tons of Turkey


FINAL UPDATE

I've finally populated the blog with back-dated posts capturing all of our recent adventures in Turkey. I've kicked of the first of these posts with highlights from our visit to Pamukkale. The Cotton Castles were truly a sight to behold. My second post captures the moment history came to life for me at ANZAC cove, followed by a post on Troy and Pergamum, as well as our day in Ephesus.

I've then added a new post about our first day in Istanbul, the local markets and highlights from a cruise along the Bosphorus Straits on our final day in town. Finally, you can read about our private full day tour of Istanbul that took place after returning rom Pamukkale. The city continued to surprise us despite experiencing so much mind-boggling history all week.

Sunday, June 17

Mountains and Minimundus


On Sunday Hamish drove my parent and I across the southern valleys of Austria to Kitzbühel. We drove across a stunning landscape of feilds and mountains, past the odd castle perched on an isolated hillock and through long, winding road tunnels.


Outside Lienz we stopped on the roadside to admire Bruck Castle. As we stood on the banks of the Drau river it was easy to imagine the Counts of Görz watching over their domain. Nestled in the foothills of the Lienzer Dolomiten mountains, the castle dominates the surrounding countryside. I was staggered to later learn its age. Bruck Castle was built between 1252 to 1277.


Dad loved Felbertauern tunnel. Opened in 1967, its 5,304 metre length passes through the heart of the Austrian Alps. However, I was fascinated by an entertaining series of signs that track progress through highway roadworks. The first sign profiles a large, sad face warning of works for several kilometres ahead. As you progress, the face on each succeeding sign grows progressively happier until the final sign beams in delight as the works conclude.


Natural wonders weren't all that Hamish had in store for us. As we approached the southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt, we pulled off the highway into town, arriving shortly after at Minimundus. This has to be one of most unusual theme parks I've ever visited. Spread across 26,000 m² of manicured parkland are more than 150 scale models of the world's most famous buildings.


Over the next couple of hours we wandered by the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London and even the Sydney Opera House. Surprisingly, while Petra's Treasury and Abu Simbel featured, the pyramids were nowhere to be seen. Two models really captivated me. The first was a model of Barcelona's Antoni Gaudí designed La Sagrada Família cathedral. Just like the original, the Minimundus model is incomplete and features a large yellow crane in the centre of its nave. The second, was a model of Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. This reproduction was almost as impressive as the original I'd visited last month.


However, the highlight of the park was a space shuttle on its own scale-model launch pad. Once every hour it rose off its pad in roar of fire, smoke and steam - just like the real thing. Next month Garry and I witness the real thing sitting on the pad at Kennedy Space Centre. Sadly, it won't be launching while we're enjoying lunch in the sun.

Friday, June 15

Graz


The village of Thal bei Graz can be found less than two kilometres from the heart of Graz in Austria. This unassuming village of 2,138 people is the birthplace of California’s 38th Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He joins a long and distinguished list of people and events that have shaped the history of Graz.

For example, the city’s hilltop castle, Schloßberg, was the only fortification in the region that never fell to the Ottoman Turks. Napoleon also found its walls impenetrable. In 1809 French forces attacked the castle eight times without success. They finally entered its grounds when the Emperor of Austria surrendered at the Battle of Wagram, ordering forces across Austria to lay down their arms.


I finally got a chance to explore Graz myself last week, joining my parent and my brother Hamish and his family for a weekend outing. I flew into Vienna early evening on Friday and caught the train to Graz. The train journey takes less than two hours, winding through broad valleys and spectacular mountains. Unfortunately, much of the view was in darkness as I’d missed an earlier train from Vienna.

At one point I seriously began to doubt that I’d make it to Graz. I’d caught the lime green City Airport Train (CAT) into Vienna only to discover that the terminating station is not the departing station for trains to Graz. The station I needed was located on the south side of the city, not the east side I’d arrived at. Using some incredibly crude Deutsch I successfully commander a taxi and raced across town to Sudbanhof. This brief glimpse of Vienna reminded me how beautiful the city was, encouraging me to return for a proper look at a later date.


I reached Graz shortly after 10.30pm. Karin, Hamish and my parents were still up, waiting for my arrival. Hamish had booked us into a quiet Guesthouse in a traditional Austrian building about 10 minutes walk from the station. The following morning we wandered through the town towards the River Mur. It was here that we encountered the first of several recent additions to the city’s landscape.


In 2003 the European Union designated Graz as the Cultural Capital of Europe. As is often the case, this recognition spurred a series of public projects. Two in particular stand out: Murinsel (Mur Island) and Grazer Kunsthaus (Modern Art Museum). Both are astonishing pieces of modern architecture standing in stark contrast to the traditional red-tiled roofs of the Old Town surrounding them.


Murinsel is a fascinating curving steel, artificial island anchored in the centre of the fast flowing Mur river. It consists of an open air amphitheatre and an enclosed café, sculpted into the shape of an open mussel shell. Between these venues sits a web of enclosed climbing ropes for children. My nieces, Stephanie and Nicole, happily scrambled through the blue web until it was time to move on.

On the day of our visit a giant cigarette dominated the amphitheatre promoting an anti-smoking message. From a distance, the effect was to simply convert Murinsel into an enormous ashtray. While the image was stark, it did spoil an otherwise stunning venue.


We wandered along the river bank encountering an unexpected gallery of entertainment; a climbing wall, colourful graffiti murals and even a city beach complete with sand deck chairs. The river walk also offers wonderful views of Mariahilferkuche, a 17th Century double-tower baroque church and the more recent Kunsthaus.


Designed by london architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, the Kunsthaus is either something you love or hate. It resembles a large bright blue slug topped with stumpy blue bristles, dominating the West bank of the Mur. Its bristles are in fact large portholes in the roof that bath the interior with natural light. A most unusual building.


We spent the remainder of the morning wandering through the old town. Highlights included the Hauptplatz and the Rathaus (central square and city hall), the Cathedral (build between 1438 and 1464) and the imposing wooden façade of Edegger-Tax, once an imperial court bakery. As we wandered, a wedding party dressed in traditional Austrian attire passed by, serenaded by a quartet of musicians.

From the old town we made our way past Schlossbergplatz, a narrow plaza extending from the main street toward the base of the Schlossberg hill. Here we found the Reinerhof, the oldest documented building in Graz. At the far end of the plaza a stunning hanging garden of winding stairways and curving balconies ascends the shear cliff face up to the Uhrturm clocktower, easily the most enduring symbol of Graz. We wisely decided to catch the nearby Schlossbergbahn, a cable car, to the top of the 472 metre hill.


The cable car ascends a gradient of 61%, affording a spectacular view of the city and its environs. The family spent a delightful hour touring the hilltop’s many sights before settling down for lunch at Starcke Winzerhäuschen, a café offering stunning views of the River Mur and Graz below.


Equally stunning views were on offer at the nearby armory where restored canons stand guard over Graz. From here you could see the Kaunsthaus, Murinsel and, in the distance, Stadion Graz-Liebenau, formerly known as the Schwarzeneggar Stadium. Protests over California’s death penalty saw the stadium change its name in 2005.


However, the highlight of our hilltop excursion was the Clock Tower. Erected in the 13th century, its 5 metre wide face has been keeping time since 1712. I first saw the clock in 1990 when I stopped for lunch in Graz enroute to the former Yugoslavia. I never imagined I'd stand underneath its striking face 17 years later.


To reach the city, Mum, Dad and I took the winding stairway back to Schlossbergplatz while Karin and the girls caught a recently installed elevator that descends through the hill’s rocky interior. Surprisingly, this isn’t the only excavation through the hill. At ground level a sloping tunnel, light by only footlights, also crosses from East to West, with a series of side galleries along its length.

We learnt later that the entire complex was dug during World War II as an air raid shelter housing 50,000 people. One of the larger galleries has since been converted in underground bar and nightclub. Graz certainly proved to be a city of surprises.

Monday, June 4

Roses, roses everywhere


Today dawned gloriously warm and sunny. It was the perfect day to take Mum and Dad for a wander through The Regent Park. Garry and I have been keen to get back to the park to see the rose gardens finally in bloom. We weren’t disappointed. Colourful roses were out in force everywhere in Queen Mary’s Garden. It’s been fascinating to watch the roses rise from their short, bare winter stumps to an endless array of fragrant blooms.


We took Mum and Dad into The Regent Park via our favourite route through Primrose Hill, and along a quiet green stretch of the Regent Canal. A few late ducklings were enjoying the warm weather as we passed. The herons were also out in force, standing vigil along the Boating Lake. The daises were also out in force along the lake front, creating a stunning white carpet for families and their picnic baskets.


From the park it was off to Baker Street and home by tube. The afternoon was spent shopping for a microwave oven. Our current model suddenly died on Friday as the last items were being nuked for dinner. This kitchen excursion also gave us a chance to show Mum and Dad the new Wembley stadium. Curry’s appliance store sits conveniently in the stadium’s shadow. We then dashed off Tescos to stock the larder for the week.

Mum and Dad fly out for Munich early on Tuesday morning. I’ll be joining them in Graz for a family weekend, before traveling on to Munich for work. This should be my last flight until early-July when Mum and Dad return. Garry and I have booked tickets for the four of us to spend a weekend in Oslo.

Sunday, June 3

Tunnels, tall Ships and tapas


Soon after Mum and Dad arrived in town the weather turned cold and wet. Now, just as they prepare to leave, the warm weather has returned. Today we decided to make the most of the sunshine. A day of wandering through several areas of London was swiftly mapped out. Our first outing took us through the quiet, but classy neighbourhood streets between Belsize Park and Hampstead. This was my first trip into Hampstead. I was astonished at the activity and variety of shopping in what I’d expected to be a sleepy village.


From Hampstead we caught the tube into town and then on out to Thames Barrier Park. Mum, Dad and I decided to do much of the same walk around the Barrier and East London that I’d done earlier in the year. The scene that greeted us at Pontoon Dock was far more lively than that I’d encountered during winter. Families were everywhere enjoying the fresh air and blue skies.


The barrier literally sparkled in the sunshine, with the Thames itself riding at high tide. The scene was wonderful. After a light lunch in the park we caught the DLR train to the end of the line. The contrast between Hampstead and East London couldn't have been starker. This area is home to many of London poorest migrants. Government officials have noted up to 15 people registering a two-bedroom house address as their place of residence in parts of East London. From here we walked south under the Thames via the Woolrich foot tunnel. The air was wonderfully cool underground offering welcome respite from the afternoon sun.


A brisk 15-minute walk brought us to the Thames Barrier Information Centre. The exhibit here is small, but informative, complete with a detailed working model of the barrier itself. The experience was well worth the £2 a head. As we left the centre we were greeted with an incredible sight. Two majestic tall ships came down the Thames and through the barrier, making the most of the rapidly falling tide. One of the main barrier gates was also out of the water for regular maintenance, giving us a genuine sense of the enormous scale of this unique coastal defense system.


With the weather in such good form it seemed only proper to venture along the Thames riverbank. We soon came upon the Anchor & Hope pub and its sunny terrace overlooking the river. It took seconds for us to deem it our duty to stop and enjoy views of Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome over a few cold ales.


A quick train ride from nearby Charlton station took us into Greenwich for a short stroll through the town. The Cutty Sark looked as desolate as expected following last week’s devastating fire. About 4:00am on May 21, the ship went up in flames while sitting in its dry dock. At the time The Cutty Sark was in the early stages of a £25m restoration. This meant that the ship's rigging mast and about 50% of the structure had already been removed for refurbishment. Authorities are hopeful the ship can still be restored.



From Greenwich the DLR and the tube soon had us home in time to collect Garry and venture up to Belsize Park for dinner. We dined at Tapeo, a quaint bustling Spanish tapas bar, Garry and I have passed on many previous occasions. The wait was worthwhile. The food and wine at Tapeo is divine. We’ll definitely be back for the Sunday Paella special.