Friday, November 28

Glad to be alive

The last 24 hours have been dominated by news of coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai's business district. Three hotels, popular with foreigners, have experienced deadly invasions during which armed men have thrown grenades and shot hotel guests. Other venues nearby have also experienced equally deadly attacks. At last count more than 119 people are confirmed dead. This toll is expected to rise.

As I write this post, dozens of hostages are still be held by gunmen in at least two of the hotels, The Trident and its luxury neighbour, The Oberoi. I have stayed in both hotels for business. The Oberoi has a particularly memorable interior that I can vividly recall even now. To think that people have been killed in the very lobby where I've enjoyed coffee and conversation is a sobering thought.

10,000 plus one

The counter on my blog has just clicked over it's 10,000th visitor. I installed the counter in late-March 2006. It's been interesting to see the visitors come and go. In the last month alone I've had 393 visitors, or average of 13 people daily. I recently set up Google's free monitoring tool to analyze this traffic. I was surprised to discover that 38% of visitors (152 people) linked to the site using a bookmark. This suggests that more than a third of visitors are regular readers. If you're reading this post - welcome back!

Monday, November 24

Up in the air

With winter upon us, Garry and I have already started counting down the days until our Christmas vacation. We're off for eights days in Muscat, Oman where the temperature will be around 26 degrees with a minimum of 16 overnight. We're also talking about a short road trip to Cornwall over the New Year before we go back to work. Garry is keen to see The Eden Project, while I'd love to see St Michael's Mount and Land's End.

We also have a few other excursions planned in the months ahead:
  • We're off to Switzerland in early-January for a long weekend.
  • Followed by another weekend in Pisa, Italy (a discount treat for Garry's 40th) in March.
  • In April we're off to Southern Spain for an Easter week as part of our round-the-world ticket, taking in Granada, Rhonda and the Malaga coast.

Sunday, November 23

The Living Room

I'm back in London. New York's cold snap has followed me home. At 8pm this evening the temperature was a chilly -1°C, with light snow forecast shortly before dawn. Winter has definitely come to town. As you'd expect, we're now wrapped in coats, gloves and scarves whenever outdooes.

Garry and I went for dinner in town this evening at The Living Room in Heddon Street. We discovered this bustling lane way of bars and restaurants just off Regent Street about 18 months ago. The Living Room looked particularly cosy, reminding me of several Surry Hills venue in Sydney. I've been keen to try it ever since.

We weren't disappointed. The menu was diverse, the wine superb and the service attentive without being pretentious. We'll definitely be back!

It didn't snow last night. However we had incredibly cold, heavy rain this afternoon that occassionally become icy sleet.

Friday, November 21

Below Zero

I've been in New York since Monday on business. It's been a week of sunny days, but bitterly cold. Take Tuesday evening as example. I was walking back to my hotel about 8.30pm. I noticed one of the giant billboards flashing an outdoor temperature reading of -2°C. It's currently 1°C and will sink to -3°C.

Tonight snow flurries are forecast but nothing is expected to settle on the ground. Of course I'm secretly praying we'll wake to find deep drifts of fresh snow city-wide. The media says temperatures will remain at least 7 degrees below the city's historical average for the rest of the week.

The impact of the ongoing global financial crisis is clearly evident. Earlier today I walked past the Barclays Capital Bank in Times Square. This high-profile building stands out thanks to video screens that cover its entire facade; from street to six-storey rooftop. Back in August this was Lehman Brothers' headquarters. Elsewhere, scrolling news tickers broadcast today's 5.5% drop in the Dow Jones, and a 5% drop in the Nasdaq.

Friday, November 14

Spanish memories

Antoni Gaudi is possibly Barcelona’s most famous citizen. Born in 1852 he went on to study architecture in the city’s Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura. Despite being a mediocre student, Gaudi went on to create the city’s iconic architecture; including the hillside park of Parc Güell, the Casa Milá apartment and the stunning, but incomplete, La Sagrada Familia cathedral. Last weekend we had an opportunity to visit all of these memorable sights as part of Garry’s birthday excursion.

La Sagrada Família has long been considered Barcelona’s architectural ambassador, much like Sydney’s own Opera House. From almost any city vantage point its bauble-capped towers dominate the skyline. Gaudi began work on the cathedral in 1883, and remained obsessively engaged in the project until his untimely death in 1926 (he was hit by tram). Current construction plans target 2026 for its completion, in time for the 100th anniversary of his death.

Since my last visit to the site in 1990, the building has been transformed. Its central nave vaults are now complete, with work nearing completion on the main southern wall. Work has also begun on the building’s main 170 metre bell tower. The nave’s interior is stunning, with fluted columns soaring and splitting into a roof of geometric shapes 45 metres above the floor.

The Nativity facade on the building’s east remains its most astonishing feature. The facade is overwhelming series of blob-like shapes and classical sculptured figures. I was thrilled to rediscover the curious donkey’s head, a whimsical sight projecting from the building’s otherwise random surface. It really was as novel as I recalled.

Our last afternoon in the city was spent wandering through Parc Güell. I’ve seen many photos of its Gaudi-designed features, but had never seen them first hand until now. The park’s highest point is reached via a series of street escalators. A short walk took us up to a large crucifix mounted on a stone cairn. We arrived in time to witness a spectacular sunset across the city. We then made our way back into town passing by the park’s curving terraces, mosaic benches and dramatic stone porticoes. I for one think the park is magic.

Our first full day in Barcelona was spent wandering down La Rambla and through Barri Gotic, the city’s oldest district. Here you can even find a crumbling section of wall from the Roman city that preceded it. We stopped to complete a circuit of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, filled with some of the most stunning gold chapels you’ll ever witness. We wandered through the area’s labyrinthine cobbled lanes until we reached the waterfront.

When I was last in Barcelona the waterfront had been a vast construction zone. A massive regeneration program was in full swing creating a new retail, entertainment and marine recreation zone. We stopped for an alfresco lunch overlooking a small marina, then ran to catch the last cable-car for a spectacular ride across the harbour-front to Montjuic, a coastal plateau.

Montjuic is home to athletic stadium and diving complex that hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics. It’s also home to Font Màgica , or the Magic Fountain. This spectacular water feature was created for the 1929 Great Universal Exposition. Every evening it delivers a colourful water ballet set to music. We arrived in time to witness several invigorating sequences, which were also the ideal backdrop for several fun photos.

Saturday evening was set aside for Garry’s official 40th birthday dinner. As a dedicated carnivore, we’d been instructed to find an appropriate meat-worshipper venue. Months of research paid off when we discovered El Asador de Aranda. This restaurant is located in a classic Castilian merchant’s home, perched on the side of hill overlooking the city. However, nothing prepared us for the first moment the house came into view.

As our taxi pulled up outside our jaws collectively dropped. The exterior was stunning, with each classic feature lit by a series of artistic, coloured spotlights. The interior was equally breath-taking; filled with soaring wood beam ceilings, cascading stairways and carved cornices. We sampled the restaurant’s traditional Castilian cuisine, including blood sausage and suckling lamb roasted in the kitchen’s impressive wood oven. Needless to say Garry loved his celebration meal.

Tuesday, November 11

Back from Barcelona

We're back from a superb weekend in Barcelona. Our excursion was all in celebration of Garry's impending 4oth birthday. Seven of us flew to Spain last Thursday evening for a long weekend in the sun. The weather played its part, helping to deliver a memorable weekend of fun and laughter. I'll share more details shortly, including plenty of photos.

Tuesday, November 4

Read all about it

For a nation of 60 million people we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to national daily newspapers. There are at least ten titles available during the week including two broadsheet formats, three in a compact format and at least six in tabloid format. The most popular national title is The Sun, a tabloid known for its Page 3 Girl. Each major urban area also has its own daily regional or local title.

By comparison; Australia has only two, The Australian and the Australian Financial Review; while the United States has USA Today and possibly the Wall Street Journal. However, despite the variety, national daily newspaper readership is steadily falling. An average of 3.2 million fewer copies were sold in 2007 compared with six years earlier.

Many readers are moving online. Earlier this year online readership by the 15 to 45 year old age group surpassed print edition readers for the first time. 45% of survey respondents in this age group read publications online, compared to 38% who read hardcopies. I typically check online editions before I leave the house and again when I return in the evening.

Average reading time has also fallen. Today a weekday newspaper is read for an average of 40 minutes. I typically read my paper on the train each morning, a journey that lasts about 35 minutes. I often buy the Times. However, most commuters seem to read Metro, a national free newspaper distributed at tube stations across the city.

We also have two evening freesheets to chose from. The London Paper circulates 500,000 copies each weekday, compared with London Lite's 400,000 copies. Currently each paper is accusing the other of dumping excess publications each day in an attempt to boost circulation numbers.

Commuters certainly dump their well-thumbed copy in the carriage when they're finished. The number of papers left sitting at the end of the line is staggering. In London's West End about 20 tonnes of free papers are discarded as waste every week, almost a quarter of all litter collected by Westminster City Council. This additional litter costs the Council an estimated £111,000 annually to dispose of. Free isn't quite so cheap after all.

Monday, November 3

Seeing things

My new spectacles have arrived. That's the new frame above. My new script has really sharpened my vision. Everything is looking just that little bit sharper and brighter. I also visited the doctor last week. My blood pressure is perfect. Nice to know some things are still in perfect working order.

Sunday, November 2

Stars fall to earth

This week’s storm in a teacup blew up when two BBC radio presenters made prank calls during their regular Saturday evening show. Comedians Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross are renown for their edgy humour offset by a somewhat fobbish demeanor. On this occasion they attempted to call 78-year old actor Andrew Sachs four times for a pre-arranged interview. Sachs is best known for his role as the Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers.

When they couldn’t reach him, Brand and Ross began to leave increasingly obscene comments on voicemail about Sachs' granddaughter Georgina Baillie. Of the program’s estimated 400,000 listeners, only two initially complained to the BBC, including Sachs. However, a media storm soon erupted.

The story came to dominate headlines for days, while the BBC received 37,500 complaints. Most questioned how a pre-recorded show with such deplorable content ever made it to air. All agreed that harassing an old man with obscene calls was in poor taste, even if the incident had become a something of a media frenzy.

In an interesting twist it was revealed that Baillie had dated Brand two years earlier. She was also reported to be a burlesque dancer, performing with a female troupe called the Satanic Sluts Extreme. The group decribed themselves as “four of the sexiest depraved London jezebels.”

As the news hype continued, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron both deplored the calls. The BBC moved from an initially inadequate response to one that risked blowing the entire incident out of all proportion. As one newspaper commentator noted, nothing is more deadly than the British press pursuing moral outrage.

Repercussions quickly followed. Russell Brand initially made a public apology, then resigned. The Controller of BBC Radio 2, the network that broadcast the calls, also resigned. The BBC then suspended Jonathon Ross without pay for 12 weeks and issued a full apology.

Ross is one of the Corporation’s highest paid presenters, currently earning a reported £6 million. I must admit that I struggle to understand why he's so popular. I find him not the least bit talented and rarely funny. British humour can be cruel, as I well know. It’s encouraging to know that it has its limits.