Friday, October 31

Going South

Our cold weather continues unabated. The temperature barely made in above 6.0 °C today. I've started wearing gloves on my daily commute. I've also noticed neighbourhood trees shedding leaves at a rapid rate, while the squirrels display a heightened sense of urgency. Our fourth UK winter is on its way!

Thank goodness we have a long weekend in Barcelona coming up. We're off to celebrate Garry's birthday. Only seven days to go. This is another European destination I've not seen since 1990. I'm keen to acquaint myself with progress on the construction of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia and soak up the colourful sights and sounds of Las Ramblas.

We're less than six weeks from the start of our fourth year in London. I was reminded of the impending milestone after renewing our lease today. We're here for another year and 41 days. It seems this won't be our last European winter after all.

Wednesday, October 29

As cold as ice

Our first taste of winter has arrived. As I write this post the mercury is steadily falling outside. The temperature is currently 3°C and forecast to fall to -1°C before morning. We’ve been told to expect a chilly high of 6°C tomorrow. Up north heavy snow has forced the cancellation of several football matches with more snow on the way. Temperatures won’t warm up anywhere until Friday.

While we shiver in London, Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik will actually be warmer tonight where Meteorologists predict an overnight low of 3°C. Moscow will enjoy 7°C, higher than London's maximum temperature tomorrow. Who would have thought Russia would be warmer than England.

Wet, heavy snow has started falling outside. We've spent the last few minutes mesmerised by the sight of large flakes falling steadily from the sky. In the photo above you can see a thin white layer starting to form on our neighbour's driveway. The photo below shows almost 1cm of snow settling on cars in the street.

Depending on which publication you believe, London hasn't had snow in October since 1934. Others say its only been eight years. Apparently it snows in London in October about once every 12.5 years.

Sunday, October 26

Third time lucky

After two previously unsuccessful attempts, I've finally seen the Victorian dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park. Commissioned in 1852 and unveiled to the public in 1854, they were the first life-size dinosaur sculptures ever created. While subsequent research has rendered many of the reconstructions inaccurate, they remain a remarkable record of Palaeontology's early years.

The dinosaurs are the work of Richard Owen, the same man that first categorised these animals as a new scientific classification and gave them the name, 'dinosaur'. He was commissioned by The Crystal Palace Company, the park's owners to prepare 33 life-size reproductions. Professor Owen called on the talents of renown animal sculptor, Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins to help him create his dinosaurs. Inspiration for much their final design came from observing the movements of modern animals and their skeletons.

Today, fifteen of the original sculptures are still on display, scattered along the shores of artificial islands in the midst of Crystal Park lake. The largest and perhaps most dramatic are the Iguanodons. They're depicted walking on all fours much like enormous rhinos. Modern images depict these animals walking on two large hind legs, with small fore limbs. Despite the error, the surviving sculptures are an impressive sight.

Nearby are three Ichthyosaurus, partially submerged by water. Again the reproductions are now considered dated. However, they remain a captivating sight. Equally, arresting are three Megaloceros, giant elks from the Philocene era which ended 1.8 millions years ago. They stand in a fenced enclosure that's remarkably like a regular zoo exhibit.

As you wander through the park it's easy to forget that these sculptures were created in century when most people believed the Earth was little more than a few thousand years old. Even Charles Darwin had yet to publish his controversial Origin of the Species. Since their creation they've endured neglect and the damp English weather, before finally being restored in 2002. Today they stand tribute to the pioneering research of curious Victorians.

Saturday, October 25

Change is in the air

Summer Time in Europe is over for another year. Our clocks go back an hour on Saturday night. Then, as if we needed further proof of Winter's approach, temperatures are forecast to plunge to 1ºC on Monday night and a bitter -4°C on Wednesday.

Sydney experienced it own version of extreme cold yesterday, recording the coldest October in 30 years. Temperatures fell to a chilly 14ºC. That's the predicted high for London tomorrow. I know where I'd rather be.

Thursday, October 23

Wheels on Fire

In 1991 British comedian, Jennifer Saunders, wrote a 14-minute sketch called Modern Mother and Daughter for the French & Saunders Show. The public loved it. Within a year the sketch had become a global television phenomenon called Absolutely Fabulous. This sitcom eventually ran for three years from 1992, and was revived again for another three in 2001. I am a dedicated fan of the show and fondly recall watching every episode when they first aired.

Fast forward 15 years. I never imagined I’d see French & Saunders perform the original sketch live. Last night I did. A few weeks ago I purchased tickets to French & Saunders’ farewell tour as an early 40th birthday gift for Garry. Last night, after a quick meal at Covent Garden, we joined a sell-out crowd for two hours of fun and laughter.

Watching Jennifer Saunders play Edina Monsoon on stage was pure magic. I can safely say that Modern Mother and Daughter was every bit as funny as the television show I’d eagerly anticipated all those years ago. I’ve since read that both comedians memorized every line of the sketch word for word. It was easy to see why these 14 minutes became a cultural icon. It’s a true classic that’s stood the test of time.

Sunday, October 19

Now you see me

The last milestone in our relocation to London has been realised. Finding an optometrist was the last personal services relationship I'd yet to transition. However, today I ordered my first pair of spectacles and contact lenes, following on from an eye exam scheduled a few weeks earlier.

My hand was forced when my spectacles frame fell apart in May. After four years of continuous use its time had finally come. As a temporary measure I resorted to wearing a frame that Garry first saw me in five years ago. Back then he hated the frame and eventually marched me off to a local optometrist for new look. Fair enough. I only have to look through it, while everyone else has to look at it. Garry joined me again today to help select my latest frame.

As we browsed the racks history repeated itself. Four years ago one of few frames we both liked was also one of the most expensive in stock. The same fate awaited us today. My pricey new pair of spectacles will be here in two weeks. However, vanity aside, as with everything else in London, the cost of my exam and the frames on offer has been mind-boggling.

I wrote several years ago about this nation's misleading price tags. The number printed on each tag is identical to the number in Australia. However, numbers here are written in pounds sterling rather than the humble Aussie dollar. At the current exchange rate, this means things are 2.5 times more expensive than back home. It's sight for sore eyes.

Friday, October 17

Preparing for riots

The countdown has begun to the opening of London’s first Westfield Shopping Mall. While the Westfield phenomenon is well established in Australia, this is a radical new shopping experience for inner London. Posters have gone up around the city announcing the opening of what they’re calling Europe’s largest inner city mall. All will be revealed on October 30.

The mall’s construction has also involved the completion of a new mainline train station and new tube station called Wood Lane. A second tube station has been closed for an extensive refurbishment. Wood Lane is located on the Hammersmith & City line, the same route I take each day to the office.

It’s been fascinating to watch a shiny new station emerge from scaffolding over recent months. Wood Lane finally opened for business last weekend. The new mainline station opened at the end of September. It was scheduled to open last year but, at the eleventh hour, safety experts ruled that one of the platforms was 18 inches too narrow. No doubt someone’s paid dearly for this mistake.

Garry and I are curious to see how this version of Westfield stacks up compared to Sydney. It is huge! The complex contains a retail floor area of 150,000m², housing more than 265 shops, a 14-screen cinema complex and dozens of restaurants. I can clearly see the scale of the construction site from my office window more than a mile away (that’s the view you can see above). At a cost of £1.6 billion I wonder if it’s been money well spent? Early reports promise a stunning interior.

No doubt the opening day will draw in the crowds. London lacks a large number of these convenient super-malls. As a result, such venues are often mobbed in their opening weeks. In the past the city has seen near riots at the opening of Ikea stores.

Thursday, October 16

Wash your hands, you're making me ill

The season's first ailment has struck with vengeance. I woke during the night feeling unbelievably congested and short of breath. Today, I broke out in a frightening bout of sweats and fever as boarded the tube for work. I travelled two stations, decided I felt rotten and promptly returned home. My first winter cold has clearly taken hold. Tonight, I'm loaded with drugs and wiping a runny nose every five minutes.

The source of my infection is obvious if the BBC is to be believed. It's published a story on a recent study that suggests one in four UK commuters carry faecal bacteria on their hands. Apparently dirty hands are one of the most common transmission vectors for the common cold virus. The story is in aid of Global Handwashing Day, an initiative designed to encourage better personal hygiene. They've certainly got my attention!

9000 hits and counting...

I noticed that my visitor counter passed the 9000 mark this week. It's amazing to see so many hits after almost three years of posting updates. I hope everyone still finds it a good read. You may have noticed in recent months that I've tried to write more often about the contrasts between life in Australia and the UK.

As our third anniversary of life in London approaches Garry and I feel less and less foreign every day. However, our resolve not to remain here long-term continues to grow. Without a doubt the weather is a contributing factor, as is the harsh pace of London life.

It would also be fair to say that the British have some odd habits, traditions and arcane institutions that we struggle to comprehend. For example, the blatent lack of care and enthusiasm exhibited by people working with the public is beyond comprehension, while petty nanny-state bureaucracy never fails to astonish.

The English passion for bland food, quaint cups of tea and public drunkeness also stand out, while I personally dislike the fact that so many buildings are poorly designed, feel like rabbit warrens and lack inspiring decor. An obsessive-compulsive minimalist would have a complete and utter break-down within weeks of arriving here.

On the positive side; regional travel is relatively easy and affordable (as are journeys to most parts of London thanks to the tube), the cultural events are numerous (we're off to see Dawn French and Jennifier Saunders next week) and the immersion in living history is unequalled.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 15

Wind-swept Gibraltar

One of my most enduring travel memories is the moment I rounded a large stone boulder near the crest of the Rock of Gibraltar, almost 18 years ago. We suddenly felt the wind in our faces as a stunning, cliff top vista came into view. The contrast between a calm, silent verdant mountain slope on one side and a bleak, sheer cliff face battered by howling winds was utterly unexpected.

On Saturday, the wind conspired to create yet another stark memory of Gibraltar. Hours earlier the southern coast of Spain had been battered by force 8 gale winds sweeping through the straits of Gibraltar. The weather caused considerable damage. Harbour breakwaters were destroyed, homes damaged and several ships wreaked. Dramatic pictures were even published worldwide of a large Liberian-registered cargo ship resting on the rocks of Europa Point, Gibraltar's southern-most tip.

The storm drama as captured by Reuters

Garry and I were obilvious to all of this drama when we rose at 4.15am on Saturday morning for our early morning flight from Gatwick. We even checked online before we left the house to confirm that our flight was on time. It was. However, shortly after reaching our departure gate, we were told that the flight would be diverted to Malaga, 90 minutes north of Gibraltar.

An almost text-book budget airline experience then began to unfold. First, we endured a rough, turbulent flight before finally reaching Spain. Then, airside coach chaos, long immigration queues and transfer bus nightmares meant that we eventually reached our Gibraltar hotel four hours later than scheduled. Garry was absolutely livid. I'd simply resigned myself to letting events unfold as it was clear the weather had won the day.

The main road as its crosses the runway

As we drove down the coast in our transfer bus I was fascinated by the dramatic surging storm waves sweeping in from the Mediterranean Sea. I'd never seen such massive waves in the Mediterranean. It was abundantly clear that the region had been seriously battered. However, in Gibraltar itself, while the surrounding seas were rough the weather was warm with nothing more sinister than high-level haze.

About 4pm on Saturday we found ourselves outside a bar, the spitting image of a classic English pub, ordering a late lunch of English fish and chips. Perhaps our weekend could be salvaged? Given the hazy conditions we decided to fill the remaining daylight hours with a 90-minute "official rock tour" offered by local taxi drivers.

These are great value. Our driver took us through the back streets of the town and up into the Upper Rock Nature Reserve enclosing the top half of the Rock. Here we explored St Michael's Cave, an amazing natural grotto carved into the Rock's limestone interior by seeping rainwater. We wandered through a magic scene of dramatically lit stalactites and stalagmites. One of the cave's largest caverns has even been converted into a concert chamber complete with tiered seating and expansive stage. We're told the acoustics are sublime.

Our next stop was the Ape's Den, a shelter on the crest of the rock where Gibraltar's famous Barbary Monkeys live. While not native to the Rock, these animals have lived here now for more than tow centuries. Currently, more than 60 apes in a five family groups inhabit the area. Tradition has it that the British will leave this territory for good when the last monkey does.

Our last stop on the tour were the Great Siege Tunnels. These were excavated during the siege of 1779-83. More than 300 metres of tunnels were carved by hand along the rock's sheer north face to provide a deadly line of heavy artillery. Today, the same gun emplacements offer stunning views across the airport and white-sand beaches of the Costa del Sol.

Sunday dawned with spectacular blue sky and clear views of the horizon. Our hotel room included a complimentary buffet breakfast, hosted in a rooftop restaurant. As we dined we enjoyed wonderful views across the Bay of Gibraltar and the Strait itself. You can see the view of the Strait above.

After checking out, we rode the local cable-car to the top of the Rock. The views were magnificent. I was reminded once again of the breath-taking experience etched on my mind 18 years earlier. The majestic Rif Mountains of Morocco could be seen less than 20 kilometres away, while dozens and dozens of ships were anchored throughout the area.

Our next stop was Europa Point. We were keen to see the weekend's shipwreck for ourselves. However, police patrols prevented us from getting close and we were left with little more than a fleeting glimpse from our bus as it circled a nearby roundabout. You can just see its mast jutting above the cliff face in the photo above.

To console ourselves we made our way to Catalan Bay, a picturesque village on the eastern coast of Gibraltar. The village offers impressive views of the Rock's sheer cliffs from sea-level. The view skyward is almost as dramatic as the opposing view from the summit. It was hear we also heard the locals talking about the drama of Friday's storm and the subsequent damage they'd encountered. They described it as the most intense storms in more than a decade. Our diverted flight was clearly a minor inconvenience.

A prehistoric dune also dominates the area. It once housed an enormous corrugated iron collection system for collecting rainwater, the territory's only water supply. Today, only a small portion remains as large desalination plants provide all of the area's portable water needs. While walking along the lonely coastal road we stumbled across a gated tunnel that could be seen passing right through the rock itself. We later learned that the rock is riddled with more than 70 kms of man made tunnels.

However, the most enigmatic structure we visited was the Moorish Castle. This is a rugged stone fortress was built in 1333 by Muslim invaders. It sits above the main town bearing silent witness to centuries of war and invasion. Its walls are pock-marked by craters, the scars of cannonball bombardment hundreds of years ago.

Despite the nerve-shattering start to the weekend, Gibraltar was a refreshing break. It bought back wonderful memories and left us with few more. Where else in the world can you enjoy a hearty meal English Fish & Chips, paid for in euros with the mountains of Africa as your backdrop?

Friday, October 10

Year Four

This week marks the third anniversary of our departure from Australia. This time three years ago Garry and I were on our way to Washington DC, kicking off an amazing two-month journey through the USA, Canada, South America and the Middle East. Our leisurely route to London feels like a distant memory.

To celebrate the start of our fourth year we're off to Gibraltar tomorrow. I last visited The Rock in October 1990. I'll be returning almost 18 years to the day since I last left. I don't think I imagined I'd ever have an opportunity to come back. That's me you can see near the summit of the rock all those years ago. It's a long narrow slab of limestone that rises dramatically from a flat, sandy peninsular. It's highest point is 426 metres.

To reach The Rock you must fly into a small airport that straddles a narrow sand spit connecting Gibraltar to Spain. Each end of the runway extends onto reclaimed land that juts into the ocean. This means that the only road into the territory must also cross over the airport runway. As your plane approach, boom gates descend, blocking the road much like those those you see at level rail crossings.

Getting tickets to Gibraltar has been an adventure in itself. Our original tickets were purchased in December last year. British Airways had an unusually cheap deal for one particular weekend. We later found out why. This was the weekend was the closing date for the sale of BA's franchise airline to EasyJet, one of Europe's largest budget airlines. Our flight to The Rock was with BA, whiled our return flight marked the first day of EasyJet ownership.

EasyJet was immortalised on television in the reality program, Airline. Each week viewers would watch passengers get stranded by delayed flights, poor weather and so on. Nothing put me off budget airlines more than this program. Soon after booking our ticket, our experience quickly began to resemble that of passengers on television.

First, BA contacted us and asked if we wanted to transfer our return flight to the new EasyJet owned route home. The alternative was to fly with BA, but depart early on Sunday effectively giving us half a day in Gibraltar. We elected to switch our return flight. It was at this point that the fun began. In March the ticket was changed as my father had taken ill and I wanted to travel to New Zealand at short notice. However, BA failed to update the change correctly. We discovered the problem when our booking suddenly vanished from its website months later.

When I called BA they claimed we'd failed to show for our flight and as a result we'd forfeited our ticket. Numerous angry calls later, BA finally admitted that it had made some errors. It generously offered to refund our tickets and pay compensation. We accepted the offer, rebooked our flight and pocketed the change. Our weekend away is now cheaper than ever. I'll also use the £40 I made from my focus group adventure to buy us dinner. Hopefully our first EasyJet experience won't leave us stranded on Sunday evening.

National laughing stock

I was contacted last week by a television executive. She asked if I'd like to participate in a focus group about new chat show format, explaining that she'd obtained my details from an application I'd made for tickets to Graham Norton's chat show. Never one to be short of an opinion, I agreed to participate and subsequently attended a meeting along with six others.

During the focus group the moderator invited us to view short film clips from different chat shows, starting with Graham Norton's show. We saw interview clips of Jennifer Saunders from Ab Fab fame and pop legend Cindy Lauper. We were then asked for feedback. What did we like? What did we dislike? We offered our candid opinions and general debate ensued. I listened intently for some time before finally vouching an opinion. My timing couldn't have been worse.

Half way through expounding my rather pointed opinion it was revealed that we were in fact live on television, appearing as part of a stunt on Graham Norton 's show. You can see the moment the truth was revealed above. Graham was doing a send-up of focus groups while chatting with his guests. I shall be forever immortalised by Jennifier Saunders as "a guy in silly spectacles."

As Graham cut to the focus group the moderator revealed that the clips we'd been watching were in fact live crosses to a real show. The camera then focused on me looking like a stunned mullet. Graham went on to reveal that as we'd watched ‘clips from his show’ the audience in the studio had watched us (as did a national television audience the following day). English humour can be rather cruel.

I spent most of today thoroughly depressed at the thought of being humiliated on national television. The show was broadcast on BBC2 this evening. Needless to say, I looked a complete fool as I earnestly commented on everything Graham did poorly. This seemed to annoy him but made his guests laugh out loud. Despite the humiliation I have to chuckle. It’s incredibly funny to watch the set-up even if its just a little embarrassing for the victims involved. I'm sure people at work will never look at me quite the same again.

A few months later I ran into one of the focus group participants. The gentleman in question was a member of the cabin crew on my British Airways flight. We both had a good laugh as we recalled our 15 seconds of fame.

Wednesday, October 8

Depression 2.0?

I doubt there's a person in London who isn't acutely aware of the turmoil sweeping the world’s financial markets. What began as an investment bank failure two weeks ago has rapidly escalated. The speed at which the mood in London has changed has been extraordinary. I've seen at least a dozen headlines in the last week titled, "Depression 2.0".

Today’s headlines focused on the UK's FTSE which suffered its largest one day fall in history on Monday. The index fell 7.85% as news of five European bank bail-outs dominated the headlines. Iceland’s Prime Minister also went on television warning that his country faced national bankruptcy.

Similar indices fell around the world yesterday. Germany’s DAX fell 7%. France’s CAC 9%. In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 5.0% and Tokyo's Nikkei Index closed down 4.3%. Wall Street’s Dow Jones fell below 10,000 points for the first time since 2004. It’s clear that the continuing volatility in every market is impacting investor confidence and progressively undermining consumer confidence.

I knew something odd was happening yesterday when the value of the Australian dollar began plunging. In the space of six hours £1.00 bought 15 more Australian cents. The currency rate started the day at £1.00 = A$1.31 and finished at £1.00 = A$2.46. In the space of a few weeks the dollar is back trading at the same level it was when we first arrived in 2005.

Today the news in the UK grew worse as some of the nation’s largest banks saw 40% or more wiped from the value of their shares. Bank share prices have been in free fall for weeks now. Shares in the bank I use fell below a pound for the first time. Six months ago they were trading at £12 each. The graphs being published are staggering, and just a little frightening.

In response the Government called an emergency bankers meeting at Downing Street this evening. The Government is expected to announce that it's taking a £50billion stake in the nation’s major banks overnight. The continuing crisis seems to be throwing up new twists by the hour.

Monday, October 6


Yesterday Garry and I caught up for lunch with friends we hadn't seen for some time. We met at Roka on Charlotte Street. I've walked past this contemporary Japanese restaurant before and always thought it looked fun. We weren't disappointed. The food was delicious and the service, attentive.

Chris, Martin and Jonny were in fine form, making for a leisurely lunch filled with laughter. Afterwards we moved on Swiss Cottage, stopping first to grab a selection of gourmet cheeses from a small shop near Seven Dials. The afternoon continued into the evening as wine and cheese progressively disappeared.

We woke this morning to the sound of heavy rain. It seemed appropriate given the disorderly state of the kitchen and dining room. Annoyingly, a new leak has appeared in the second bedroom. What had been a simple damp patch has become a slow dripping leak. It seems our aging house is struggling to cope with London's inclement weather.

Sunday, October 5

Cooling off

Autumn is in full swing. The signs are everywhere. Trees are changing colour and dropping leaves. I've started wearing a leather jacket to work in the morning. Last night the heating was turned on for the first time this season. For the last week temperatures have steadily fallen, cosistently dropping into single figures at night. Tonight's forecast predicts a low of 6°C.

Meanwhile, Sydney has been enjoying an early Summer heatwave with temperatures climbing into the mid-30s last week. The city hit a high of 35°C on Friday. I try not to think about the contrast!

Wednesday, October 1


The Irish have been far busier than I ever imagined. Visiting Dublin has opened my eyes to an entirely new slice of European history. Famous writers like Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (Dracula) are all former residents of Dublin. I’m also ashamed to admit that I had no idea Guinness was an Irish institution until last weekend. I now know they’ve been brewing the black stuff in Dublin for more than two hundred years.

I’d been skeptical about touring the Guinness Brewery’s visitors centre when Garry initially first proposed it. However, the Guinness story proved fascinating. We eventually spent three hours on Saturday learning how to make wooden beer barrels, brew Ireland’s black gold and sample the company’s finest. Incredibly, the brewery owns a 9,000 year lease on its site, paying the handsome sum of £45 annually. You can view the original document in a glass chamber set into the floor of visitor centre’s entrance.

Our self guided tour culminated in a visit to the Gravity Bar, a 360-degree panoramic bar that sits seven stories above the street. It offers stunning floor to ceiling views of Dublin. Even from a distance it’s clear that Ireland has been booming. Construction cranes littered the skyline and plenty of new structures were evident. Perhaps the most fascinating of these new landmarks is the Spire of Dublin.

The Spire is a stunning silver shard of stainless steel rising 120 metres above the surrounding street. Its three-metre wide base gracefully tapers to a 15cm point. The Spire was completed in 2003, replacing a statue of Nelson that was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1996. Nearby the spires of dozens of churches also rise boldly skyward, including Christ Church Cathedral. We later learnt that Handel’s famous choral arrangement “Messiah” was first performed here in 1742.

Other highlights of Dublin included a stroll through the grounds of Trinity College, where we were able to view the Book of Kells, and the dramatic barrel-vaulted interior of the Old Library. The Book of Kells is beautifully decorated vellum copy of the gospels. Its origin is still shrouded in mystery despite hundreds of years of research.

We also found time to wander the streets of Temple Bar, Dublin’s modern entertainment district, situated in some of its oldest cobblestone laneway. The area is also home to the Ha'penny Bridge, a delightful old footbridge that crosses the Liffey River. A halfpenny toll once imposed on the local gave the bridge its name.

Another sight that caught my imagination is the Molly Malone statue on Grafton Street. Molly was a semi-historical figure who wheeled her cart through the old city's narrow lanes selling seafood. Her life it immortalised in the local anthem, Cockles and Mussels. These days cheeky locals call her memorial "The Tart with the Cart".

Dublin proved to be a lively place. Everywhere we went we saw hordes of people. The streets were filled with activity. I’d expected to find a sleepy, provincial town not a brash, bustling urban centre. While London often seems to have a pub on every corner, Dublin has at least two or more in the same space.

We were constantly amazed by the number of cafes, bars and pubs we encountered – often with two or more pubs sitting next door to each other. Its no wonder Jameson Whiskey was first distilled here or that Guinness thrived. Supporting local employers is clearly a national institution.