Monday, March 30

Celebrity in the UK


Jade Goody was a UK celebrity that mystified Garry and I when we first arrived in London. She was everywhere; gracing magazine covers, hosting reality television programs and the catalyst for endless national debate. We later learnt that, in 2002, she’d been a finalist in Big Brother, a UK reality television show. This television apperance subsequently triggered a uniquely enduring brush with fame. In time she came to symbolize the UK’s obsession with celebrity, no matter how vapid its source. It seems appropriate to blog on a phenomenon so uniquely British.

Last week Jade Cerisa Lorraine Goody died from cervical cancer, aged 28. She left behind a family of two young boys. As with so much of her adult life, Jade’s death became the fodder of magazines, television and political debate throughout the week. She’d planned it this way. Her cancer diagnosis was given while appearing in an Indian version of Big Brother last August. She then allowed a film crew to follow her into hospital, gave heartfelt interviews and sold exclusive rights to her recent wedding.

Jade’s motive for this final burst of publicity was never in doubt. She wanted to build a healthy trust fund for her children and raise cervical cancer awareness. She succeeded on both fronts. Her final weeks of publicity reported secured a £1 million windfall, while latest stats show a 30% rise in the number of women taking smear tests following her diagnosis.

Jade was unashamedly, sometimes surprisingly, ignorant. However, while she may not have possessed any hard-won talent, she did demonstrate a vulnerably and openness all too rare in modern society. Her troubled upbringing also spoke to those seeking inspiration and opportunity against the odds. In the days since her death more than one commentator has described her as Lady Diana from the wrong side of the tracks.

Jade was born in South London in 1981. Her father was a heroin addict and her mother, Jackiey, lost the use of an arm in a motorcycle accident when Jade was five. Her mother later became a crack addict. By the time she appeared on Big Brother she’d been evicted from a council flat and was facing prison for an unpaid tax bill. Her time in the house caused a national storm. Harsh tabloid headlines railed against her, before eventually turning in her favour. Five year on and her fortune was an estimated £4-million.

Her celebrity continues, even in death. Tonight, the first of a two-part television tribute was broadcast with more coverage on the way as funeral plans are finalized. Jade Goody is unique phenomenon, but her rise as a celebrity isn't. The UK's obession with fame goes on.

NOTE:
I've illustrated this post with the cover of OK magazine. It's one of the UK's more popular weekly celebrity news magazines, with a weekly circulation of 500,000. Media reports claim it sold an additional 1.3 million copies in the UK the week it published exclusive images of Jade Goody's wedding. It also publishes USA and Australian editions. The Australian edition was launched as a monthly publication in August 2004, before moving to a weekly edition in October 2006. This publication's success is mirrored again and again by similar titles like Hello and Tatler, and a dozen other clones gracing the local newstand every week.

Wednesday, March 25

Farewell inflation?


Depending on the metric you chose, the UK is currently experiencing rising inflation, or absolutely no inflation. Today the Retail Prices Index (RPI) fell to zero. This index measures the price of popular goods as well as mortgage payments and energy costs. The last time this index flat-lined was March 1960, 49 years ago. Economists predict the RPI will fall up to 4% over the next year, remaining in negative territory for the longest period in more than a century.

Apparently the last time the nation experienced sustained deflation was in the Victorian era. During this period the development of mass production technology and a new national transportation infrastructure (canals and railways) progressively lowered the cost of goods. The Times newspaper says that wholesale prices fell 50% between 1870 and 1896, while the British economy grew a steady 4% annually.

Surprisingly, the more narrowly defined Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased today. Everyone predicted this index, measuring a basket of commonly purchased goods and services, would fall in line with the RPI. However, the rising price of imported fruit and vegetables drove the index up from 3% to an annual rate of 3.2%. Despite this news there is a sense that most prices are falling. I've certainly noticed the change. The price of bread is down, as is cheese, gas, petrol, air travel and clothing. It's a good time to shop if you have the cash.

It’s also an odd time to living in the UK with so many history making metrics in the headlines. Last week unemployment officially rose above two million for the first time since 1997. Many economists predict it will peak above three million next year, representing more than 10% of the workforce. Currently, one in five companies are estimated to have imposed a wage freeze. Add to this the lowest interest rates ever set by the Bank of England and there's no question we’re witnessing economic history in the making.

NOTE:
On March 30 Spain reported its first ever bout of deflation as the annual inflation rate came in at negative 0.1%.

Monday, March 23

Walking in the Park


While in New York last month a couple of colleagues and I took a break from back to back meetings to stretch our legs and clear our heads. I led the group on a walking tour of Central Park, sharing some of my favourite highlights. We wandered past the baseball fields, around the perimeter of the Sheep Meadow (which transforms itself into a sea of sun-baking flesh during Summer weekends) and on to Bethesda Terrace that overlooks the Lake. The edge of the Lake was frozen, making for a hilarious scene, as breadcrumb chasing ducks slipped and slid across its surface.

The terrace is also home to the Bethesda Fountain and its sculpture, Angel of Waters. The sculpture, installed in 1873, is reached via a tiled arcade that passes under 72nd Street. The arcade's ceiling is lined with ornate Minton tiles which have been painstakingly restored, after spending more than 20 years in storage. This was my first opportunity to see the results of the US$7 million restoration. The result is impressive.


We then made our way through the wood-lined Rambles up to Vista Rock. Here is perched the quirky romantic Belvedere Castle. The stone building was designed in 1865 by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould as a Victorian “Folly” (a fantasy building). Its primary function was to provide a panoramic outlook over the park’s northern reaches. This was my first visit to the castle, despite many previous walks in the park.

Besides offering breathtaking views the Castle is also a weather station. Any time you see a reading for Central Park, it comes from here. We were in luck on this occassion as it was open to the public. We took time to explore the castle’s viewing platforms, set on two different levels, before heading back to our meeting.


The view from the castle's is dominated by the Turtle Pond and the 55-acre Great Lawn, site of Simon and Garfunkel’s famous park concert. The Lawn also hosted an open-air mass by Pope John Paul II in 1996. More than 125,000 people attended in what was to become his final trip to the USA.


I took the group down through the tree-lined Mall and on past Central Park Zoo. We were lucky enough to see one of the park’s Polar Bears on display in the distance. Garry and were last here in 2006 celebrating his birthday. On that occasion one of the bears put on a spectacular swimming display.

Our walking tour finished with a brief stop at the ice-skating rink where children were slipping and sliding much like the ducks we’d seen earlier. An hour in Central Park proved the perfect antidote for a week of intense meetings.

Sunday, March 22

Spring Equinox


Yesterday was Spring Equinox. At 11.43am the sun crossed the equator directly overhead, marking the traditional beginning of Spring. The Met Office considers March 1 as the season's official start. I'd believe it. Since returning from my globe-trotting London's weather has been wonderfully sunny and warm.

The trees in our backyard have started blossoming, while daffodils are sprouting in the front yard. Today the temperature even hit a cosy 16°C. With the trees in bloom, the birds have returned with vengeance. They've started crapping on our car with gusto once again.

I also learnt this week that Summer is actually longer in the Northern Hemisphere thanks to the Earth's slighly elliptical orbit. Winter occurs when Earth is slightly closer to the Sun and thus is orbiting more rapidly. This means that winter technically lasts 89 days over here, while Summer is 94 days. All I can say is that these astromoners clearly don't live in London. Winter sure lasts far longer here than I ever recall in Sydney.

For me the most reassuring sign of Spring's arrival will be next weekend's shift to British Summer Time. Our clocks finally go forward one hour. Roll on Summer!

Wednesday, March 18

Pisa


Our weekend in Pisa almost never happened. We reached Gatwick on Saturday morning a comfortable 75 minutes before our scheduled departure time. We planned to whisk through security with our carry-on luggage and settle down for a hearty breakfast in the First Class lounge. As we entered the departure hall our hearts sank. Ahead lay multiple security queues stretching for 100 metres or more. The race was on to make our flight. For the next 45 minutes we inched forward until security staff finally directed us through the express lane. A quick dash across the terminal saw us reach our plane with barely seconds to spare.

With just a hint of irony, our flight touched down in Pisa 15 minutes ahead of schedule. A short ten-minute cab ride and we were outside our hotel, Relais Dell Orologio. The hotel is located in a renovated fourteenth century tower home built on a quiet, narrow laneway. Thanks to the quirks of the old building each room has its own unique character. Our room, at the far end of the building, featured an exposed cobblestone boundary wall.


When we arrived our room wasn’t ready, so we dropped our luggage in storage and made our way to Piazza dei Miracoli , home of the Leaning Tower or “La Torre di Pisa” as it’s known in Italian. Pisa’s most famous sight was barely a four-minute walk away. Upon entering the Piazza we were greeted by crowds, blue skies and plenty of sunshine; perfect weather for viewing dazzling white marble. We purchased tickets for a mid-afternoon tower tour, took a brief stroll along the Piazza and settled down for a leisurely lunch with the tower as our backdrop.


The tower is wonderful construction. It was built as an architecturally sympathetic bell tower for the city Cathedral. It’s construction began in 1173 and continued for almost two hundred years. By 1185 the first subsidence of its foundations occurred in the soft ground holding its foundations. The subsequent incline resulted in a century-long halt in construction. Work resumed under the guidance of Giovanni di Simone, a talented architect who’d previously worked on the church of San Francesco with its own hazardous bell tower.


As construction continued he demonstrated extraordinary skills in limiting the consequences of the degree of incline. He carefully angled the new construction differently from the old. Today, from the right direction, you can still see that it’s not perfectly straight. Its seventh and final level, including the elegant bell chamber, was finally completed in the mid-14th Century.


When I first visited Pisa in September 1990, the tower was closed to visitors. It had been sealed months earlier as officials began preparations to correct its growing lean. A decade of corrective actions followed during which 38 cubic metres of soil was carefully extracted from underneath it raised end. This work progressively straightened the tower by 45 centimetres, returning it to the same angle it occupied in 1838. The tower reopened to the public in 2001.


Currently the tower currently leans 3.9 m from the vertical. The incline is most noticeable when you walk around its mid-level balconies. It’s an unnerving experience. As you rest against a balcony railing the overwhelming sensation is one of falling even though your feet remain planted firmly on its marble deck. Another breathless stair climb soon finds you perched on the tower’s summit. The white marble structure soars more than 55 metres above the surrounding area, offering a stunning view across the city’s red-tile rooftops.


Jetlag found me wide awake about 4am the following morning. After several restless hours it suddenly occurred to me that I was in Pisa, wide awake, with dawn about to break. While Garry slept I rose and made my way to the Piazza dei Miracoli. The grounds were deserted. I had the entire scene; the cathedral, Baptistery and tower to myself. For the next hour I watched the sun rise over the silent city and its famous tower. A magic moment.


After dawn I made my way through the city’s narrow lanes until, by chance, I came across the city walls. The walls, rising more than ten metres above the surrounding streets, were constructed over a two hundred year period starting around 1154. They’re remarkably well preserved and make for a fascinating sight.


After a leisurely breakfast Garry and returned to the Piazza for a tour of the cathedral itself, the baptistery and the imposing cemetery that dominates its north flank. Almost two centuries were necessary to raise and complete tha Baptismal church dedicated to St.John the Baptist, so much so that the foundation of the monument are in Romanesque style and the upper loggia in Gothic style.


The Baptisery was a fascinating building. As we stood in its upper galleries, the security guard stopped to demonstrates its stunning acoustics. It’s hard to describe the war, reverberations that swelled around us as his baritone slowly voice rose and fell.

We spent our final hours in Pisa wandering the city streets, crossing over the sweeping Arno River and past the picturesque Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina. This delicate Gothic church dates from the early 13th century and is reputed to house a thorn from Jesus’ crown.


However, for me the highlight of our walking tour was the Keith Harding mural painted on the south wall of St. Anthony church. Haring was a young American artist known for his colourful, simple "Subway Drawings". The Pisa mural was his last major piece, completed months before his death from AIDS.

Saturday, March 14

Back in the UK


I flew back into London this afternoon, ending a two-week round-the-world business trip. I've spent time in China, Australia, New Zealand and the USA conducting back-to-back meetings most days. I did get 40 hours with my family in Auckland along the way. I'll share more details shortly

This evening we've been packing our bags for another flight tomorrow morning. Garry and I are off to Pisa for the weekend - a 40th belated birthday gift. Check back again for plenty of Leaning Tower images.

Monday, March 2

Beijing Olympic Park


I flew into Beijing for work shortly before lunch today. With a Sunday afternoon to kill I set off for a tour of the city's latest icon; the Birdnest Stadium. Built for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games at a cost of US$423 million, the complex comfortably seats 91,000 people. It stands in the midst of enormous new park carved from the city's northern outskirts and can be reached from downtown in less than 20 minutes via a new subway line.

My route to the nearest subway station took me past the new CCTV tower in the Chaoyang District, Beijing rapidly developing Central Business District. It's seemly unbalanced geometric form towers above the city's Third Ring Road. When I was last in town four years ago, the building's foundations were still being laid. Today it stands almost complete.


Behind the CCTV tower is the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel, an opulent five-star venue that caught fire on February 9. The US$730 milllion hotel had been scheduled to open in May. Now it's completely gutted as a result of a nearby illegal fireworks display that went horribly wrong. No doubt heads will roll. I could almost feel the anguish of its owners as I stood surveying the damage. The fire has clearly destroyed the building, leaving a charred, blackened hulk on the city skyline.


However, the most astonishing sight was that of new, soaring tower in the China World Trade Centre complex. Four years ago, this was just a barren plot of land and had been for as long as I can remember. Today, an almost complete 333 metre building stands in its place.

This is the China I remember. New buildings appearing overnight, almost without warning (like my hotel which was once a municipal bus park). It's mind-boggling stuff. I first came in Beijing in 1998. Back then, I recall witnessing a sea of bicycles in every direction, barely a car in sight and few high-rise buildings of note. Today's Beijing couldn't be more different.


To say that Beijing Olympic Park was impressive is simply an under statement. The complex is stunning. A broad boulevard extending several miles links a number of Olympic venues including the famous National Stadium and the equally impressive Watercube Aquatic Centre. I arrived at the perfect time. The afternoon sun was glinting off every corner of both buildings making for more than one memorable photo.


However, the real highlight today was something totally unexpected. Both venues were open for public viewing. For a few dollars visitors are given unrestrained access to key areas. I couldn't believe my eyes as I entered the Birdnest Stadium and soon found myself standing mid-field looking at the soaring architecture around me. My brother Hamish definitely had a lucky break, standing in the same spot less than eight month earlier as part of the Games Closing Ceremony.


The Watercube was equally memorable. If only for the odd location of the visitor's ticket office which is sited on the exact opposite corner to the ticket holder's entrance. I cannot imagine what bureaucratic process saw fit to force visitor to effectively circumnavigate the entire complex to buy and ticket before entering.


However, the walk wasn't in vain. The venue's inflated plastic skin was almost iridescent in the setting sun; a sight I'll not forget in a hurry. Inside, the venue's four pools are still furbished in television-friendly Olympic hues. The scene bought memories of the Sydney Olympics flooding back. I still recall sitting in the Sydney Aquatic Centre watching the finals of the Men's 10-metre Platform Diving from a poolside seat. Our location was pure luck as the seats had been purchased in a national ticket lottery 18-months earlier.