Tuesday, June 30

In working order

Finally! The escalator at our local tube station is back in action. Regular readers may recall it was taken out of service last August for a major refurnishment. More than ten months later the work is finally complete. The station's remaining escalator starts its overhaul within weeks.

Sunday, June 28

The fox


Our neighbourhood fox gave a rare daytime sighting today. For much of winter we've only seen him scurrying down the neighbour's driveway at dusk or briefly bathed in late-night street light. However, as Garry glanced out of our window this morning, he spotted the local fox boldly sunning himself on ivy that covers our back fence. It seems everyone is making the most of our warmer weather.

Heat and hail


Summer is here! The local temperature climbed to 29°C today. It was almost a typical Sydney summer day. Garry and I wore our baggy shorts and spent the afternoon preparing home-made Caipiroska cocktails. Yum! We adapted the classic recipe to include muddled ginger and a splash of Ginger Ale. This was a cocktail variation we discovered last weekend in Milan.

About 7pm this evening the weather broke and an incredibly heavy thunderstorm, complete with hail and lightening, passed over Swiss Cottage. At least 14mm fell in less than half an hour. You can see the "before" and "after" images below as the rain and hail reached its peak. The pavement was transformed into a brief river.

Fortunately, for players at Wimbledon the weather today's weather no longer poses a problem. This year for the first time the Centre Court is sheltered by a retractable, translucent roof. After spending at least £100 million the All England Club is confident that rain delays are now a thing of the past.


However, rain is not likely to feature much after today's downpour. The Met Office is forecasting a week of superb Summer weather. Temperatures will reach a high of 30°C on Monday and Tuesday, before peaking at 31°C on Wednesday. It's going to feel like Sydney for much of the week. Even better, sunrise occurs as early as 4.45am, so we'll have plenty of daylight hours to enjoy it all.

Thursday, June 25

Surgery update

My father is out of surgery and appears to be recovering well. His operation went without a hitch and the surgeon saw nothing of immediate concern. All seems set now for the next stage of Dad's therapy. Chemotherapy is scheduled to start four days from now.

Wednesday, June 24

Milan


Milan’s Duomo, or cathedral, is an incredibly ornate Gothic building – at least from the outside. Its stark white marble walls, roof and flying buttresses are decorated with dozens of miniature spires, each capped by a carefully carved statue. Altogether the roof sports around 3500 carved figures. The overall impression is that of a dramatic oversized, wedding cake. Surprisingly, its interior is relatively simple, almost plain by comparison.


The Duomo’s external delights aren’t just confined to its decoration. A winding flight of 165 stairs takes you up to an equally breath-taking roof tiled in hefty marble slabs. You’re welcome walk across its entire surface. The city has even installed a temporary opera stage and tiered seating along its central spine, more than 40 metres above the surrounding plaza. The roof of a cathedral was the last place I’d ever expected to find an opera theatre.


Garry and I were lucky to see the Duomo in all its glory last weekend. I can honestly say that the building leave an incredible impression. Having seen so many cathedrals over the years it takes a lot to make another one uniquely memorable. Our awe-inspiring encounter is a relatively new experience. The building’s been partially clad in scaffolding for the last five years while it underwent a comprehensive restoration project. The last of the scaffolding was only removed in February.


While in Milan Garry and I also took time to wander through the city’s spectacular Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This indoor space was created in 1877 by covering two intersecting street in bold vaulted roof. It’s often referred to as the world’s oldest shopping mall. The Galleria also connects two of Milan's most famous landmarks: the Cathedral and it’s Opera House, the Teatro Alla Scala.


We also took in the grounds of the Castello Sforzesco, a classic Italian-style castle whose origins date back to the 14th Century. Unfortunately we were unable to secure tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Apparently tickets sell out weeks, if not months, in advance. However all was not lost, in the forecourt of the Opera House we found a statue of da Vinci himself.


However, the most notable highlight of our city tour wasn’t on any tourist map. As we ate an alfresco lunch at a curbside table, we had front row seats for the arrival and departure of Milan’s fashion world elite who were attending an event next door. Jil Sander, a German minimalist designer, was showing off her 2010 Men’s Spring Collection. Outside the surrounding street was lined with paparazzi and chauffeured cars. It all seemed an oddly appropriate scene for the world’s self-proclaimed fashion capital.

Monday, June 22

Viva Italia


We're back from a relaxing weekend in Milan. I surprised Garry with a quick trip to Italy in celebration of our sixth anniversary. We've spent an indulgently relaxing weekend of leisure largely glued to comfortable outdoor chairs in the garden of our Art Nouveau-style hotel, the Diana Majestic.


The garden itself is centred around a scalloped pond filled with fountains, bordered by hundred of bright, white blooms. Sipping refreshing summer cocktails while background jets of water danced and splashed proved the perfect antedote for stress. We've returned wonderfully rested. More photos and details shortly.

Thursday, June 18

12 days in Wellington


Regular readers may remember my Dad’s battle with cancer which began in April last year. He was originally diagnosed with bowel cancer but was later found to have a second carcinoid cancer growing in his small intestine. Sadly, this second cancer had spread to his liver. After two extensive operations, he’s made a good recovery and the current prognosis is encouraging. While nothing will ultimately cure the cancer in his liver we’re at least grateful that it’s a slow-growing carcinoid form. Doctors seem confident that this can be kept at bay for many years to come, while maintaining a good quality of life.

Next week, more than year after Dad’s first operation, the next stage of his therapy begins. He’s off to Wellington for three distinct treatments over a 12-day period. First, while under the knife, a surgeon will remove his gallbladder, tie off several arteries linking the liver to other organs and install a permanent shunt below the skin. The shunt will then be used to deliver a several rounds of chemotherapy; followed by a final, targeted radioisotope therapy.

The oncologist reassures us that Dad's chemotherapy has relatively few side effects thanks to the initial preparatory surgery which effectively isolates the liver. There will be no hair loss and very little nausea. It seems that if you have to have chemotherapy, this is the one to have. He’ll also receive regular injections of a drug proven to significantly prolong life in a majority of patients.

Dad’s specialist is a reputable pioneer of this rather aggressive carcinoid treatment regime. As a result, I believe he's getting the best medical science can offer. While there are few guarantees in life, the specialist is confident this therapy will significantly improve Dad's prognosis for many years to come. I wish my Dad well and hope we be celebrating plenty of encouraging news in the weeks and month ahead.

Monday, June 15

An afternoon in Hampstead


Every so often Garry and I have an inadvertent brush with fame. Since arriving in London we’ve met Barry Humphries , sat in a bar with Graham Norton, slept with Nick Lachey and flown across the Atlantic with the UK’s Atlantic with the UK’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Today we joined friends for lunch at the Foremason's Arms in Hampstead to celebrate Martin's birthday. That's him in the middle, above, with his Mum on the right.

We last dined here for my birthday almost two years ago. Eleven of us enjoyed a jovial lunch in the pub’s sunny, glass roof atrium. Our dining companions included Richard O’Brien, author of the Rocky Horror Show. That's Richard on the left. Garry and I first encountered him as a guest on the Dame Edna Treatment in 2007.

Everyone wanted me to meet Richard as he grew up in Tauranga, New Zealand. My parents currently live in Tauranga’s coastal beach resort of Mount Maunganui. Over lunch Richard spoke modestly of the many star-studded encounters that have marked his career. I also learnt that Hamilton city recently unveiled a statue of Richard. He’s certainly the first person I’ve met to have achieved bronze immortality. Needless to say we all enjoyed a fabulous afternoon in the sun, sipping glass after glass of Moet. Hooray for Summer.

Saturday, June 13

150 years later


Not so long ago I discovered that Victoria Tower, the Palace of Westminster’s tallest structure, is visible from our bedroom window. The Palace of Westminster is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. I quite like the idea that Parliament is visible from our house. Granted the grand Victorian structure is almost four miles away and barely visible above the tree-tops, but visible none the less. Standing in the same spot we can also see part of the London Eye and the BT tower.

When we first started looking for a place to live, I became obsessed with the idea of having a view with at least one London landmark. We looked at several apartments in Vauxhall, on the southern bank of the River Thames. Each had a view of Parliament. However we soon discovered that such views came at a high price, both in terms of the rent you paid, and floor space you received in return. “Overpriced shoebox” is one phrase that springs to mind.


At 98.5 metres, Victoria Tower is slightly taller than it’s more popular companion, St Stephen Clock Tower. St Stephens? Most people call this famous landmark, Big Ben. Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower that strikes the hour. It is big! St Stephen’s Tower stands 96.3 metres high. Its four clock faces are set in an iron frame 7 metres in diameter, while the clock’s hour hand is 2.7 metres long and the minute hand, 4.3 metres.

On May 31, the clock celebrated its 150th anniversary, having first been started on this date in 1859.The clock was commissioned as part of the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster following the fire of October 1834 that all but destroyed the Parliament. The Government called for “a noble clock”, “the biggest the world has ever seen, within sight and sound of the throbbing heart of London”.

The Astronomer Royal also insisted on a clock that would be accurate to within a second. Such accuracy was considered almost impossible given its constant exposure to the elements. A clock was eventually built, all five tons of it, and its accuracy has since become the stuff of legend. Incredibly, the secret to keeping time is a pile of old pennies stacked on the clock’s pendulum. Adding or removing one changes its speed by 0.4 second per day. Perhaps the ultimate excuse for Britain to reject calls to adopt the Euro?

Sunday, June 7

Fixing stuff


The neighbourhood is under repair. Everywhere you look something's getting a make-over. This week the council began ripping up paving stones along both sides of our street. By the end of the month every footpath will have been completely resurfaced. That should see the end of dodging large puddles after every rain shower.

Our landlord has hired a new managing agent. Within weeks our entire front yard was transformed after years of neglect (despite Garry's regular attempts to contain the wilderness). Gardeners appeared suddenly without warning; mowing the lawn for the first time in almost three years, tidying the gardens and shrubs and removing rubbish. Even more astonishing, they returned this week to mow the lawn again. This is now the fourth time in three years the lawn's been mown. We barely recognize the place.

Regular readers will also recall me talking about the £30 million renovation of the five residential tower blocks in our neighbourhood. Work on the fourth block recently finished. The last of the scaffolding has gone, leaving a refreshed, shiny new building in its place. The neighhourhood is looking much smarter. Construction on the new luxury apartments at the end of the block is also continuing apace. The shell of six floors has already risen above street-level.

Earlier this year I blogged about the delay to escalators repairs in our tube station. The first escalator was scheduled to be back in service last December. We were then told it would be May before the overhaul was completed. May has since come and gone and the escalator remains behind hoardings. It's hard to believe that one escalator takes eleven months to refurbish.

Saturday, June 6

Lost in the crowd


Over time I’ve noticed a predictable rhythm to people passing in the street. Every morning as I walk to the local tube station my fellow pedestrians are generally businessmen and women in their suits, jackets and ties. By 10am the crowd has changed. The footpath is now dominated by young mothers and their strollers. In fact, now that the weather is warmer, they often gather by the score around a long, child-proof water feature in the local park. The sight of so many strollers and toddlers can catch you by surprise. By 6pm the demographic has once again reverted to business people returning home.

This evening, around 7.30pm, I noticed yet another slice of society on the move. The local youth was out in force, clearly on their way to a Friday night on the town. I swear couldn’t see a single person over the age of 25. I’ve noticed a similar pattern on the tube as the peak hour crowd descends past my rising escalator. Around 8am, the average age in suits is rather youthful. By 10am the average age has climbed into middle age. You get the impression that older workers have jobs with flexible working hours, while the young find themselves locked into a 9-to-5 routine.

The escalator crowd also use to change shortly after 9am. Senior citizens suddenly appeared enmasse as the City of London’s free transport policy came into effect. However, the election of a new mayor last year saw free travel privileges extended to 24 hours and this pattern has become far less pronounced.

The changing crowd is a wonderful reminder of how diverse London can be. I was reminded of this again last Friday night. As I walked home through Covent Garden and Leicester Square, snatches of passing conversations were all spoken in every conceivable language other than English. I knew I was passing through a popular tourist zone, however the truly international character of the crowd was most unexpected.

This is the second time in recent months that I’ve noticed the buzz and energy surrounding a city of eight million people. People have often spoken of expats that leave London, only to return, having missed its cosmopolitan pace. Until now, I’d never really identified with this experience. Now this all seems to be slowly changing. London's growing impact continues to catch me by surprise!

Friday, June 5

Caught red-handed


They say a week is long time in politics. This popular idiom has certainly rung true in recent weeks. Since May 8, in an extraordinary chain of events, expense claims for every Members of Parliament have been progressively published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Day after day, fresh headlines reveal yet another politician from every faction blatantly rorting the institution’s self-governing expense system.

I find it hardly surprising that all this is happening. When Garry and I arrived in the UK in 2005, the national ethos seemed to be one of unrestrained greed. This ugly tone was present everywhere, driven in part by the burgeoning finance sector. However, despite this broader context, the recent MP revelations are still astonishing. While a small minority has proven exemplary, most politicians, while making claims within the guidelines have clearly and ruthlessly violated their spirit for years. The conduct of a few members has simply been criminal, committing outright fraud.

Highlights have included:
  • a claim for a duck house on the pond of one member’s rambling country estate,

  • the cleaning of a moat on another’s member’s estate,

  • porn films viewed by a spouse,

  • a minister whose designated second home was changed three times in a single year. (MPs are allowed to claim expenses to cover the cost of running a second home, on the basis that they need to maintain a presence in their constituency as well as at Westminster. However, on this occasion, the minister’s second property was refurbished and later sold at a profit.)

  • claims for a second home that was neither in London, nor the member’s constituency, and

  • claims for interest payments on mortgages that had already been repaid in full.
Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man responsible for the nation’s budget, has claimed for an accountant to help him complete his tax return. Apparently even he doesn't understand the nation’s tax policy. Furthermore, these revelations of greed are taking place against a backdrop of the nation’s worst recession for more than sixty years. Understandably, support for the Government has reached an unprecedented low, while calls for electoral reform have been increasingly popular.

Needless to say, each revelation has generated more and more anger. Commentators and politicians report a level of hostility in the community unknown for more than a generation. As the weeks pass, the political toll grows. The Speaker of the House was forced to resign, an unprecedented event for more than three hundred years. At least twenty MPs have announced plans to stand down at the next election, or have been barred from standing again by their party.

However, the last 48 hours have proved the most astonishing. Four cabinet ministers have announced their resignation from the front bench. Tonight tensions rose a notch as a fifth high-profile minister unexpectedly resigned and then made an open call for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign.

There's no doubt the last 18-months have been unique in modern UK history. Garry and I never imagined we’d find ourselves living through quite so many unprecedented events; economic and political; unseen for generations, if not centuries. It seems that more history is now on its way. Tonight commentators question the current Government's remaining lifespan. A General Election is coming fast.

Monday, June 1

Joseph, Rob and a large shoe


I raced back from Madrid on Friday evening in time for an evening at the theatre. Garry had secured some discounted tickets in the front row, centre stage, for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in West End. I first saw this production in 1978 when it was staged by the Hamilton Operatic Society in New Zealand. The role of Joseph was played by the late Rob Guest.

The current West End production is the third such revival. The role of Joseph was originally chosen by a national vote as part of a reality TV show broadcast in June 2007. The winner, Lee Mead, when on complete a popular 12-month contract. Gareth Gates, a Pop Idol runner-up, is currently playing the lead. I’ve heard that Friday’s performance was his penultimate appearance as his six-month contract draws to a close.

So how did it stack 31 years later? Not bad. Gates was superb, as was Jenna Lee-James who played the show’s Narrator. However some of the songs were sung with less than perfect enunciation, thus losing much of the impact I recall them once having. It’s clear the cast has become a little complacent as small details falter. Despite these glitches, the show remains timeless. It’s hard to believe that Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice sold the show’s copyright for a mere 50 guineas in 1969. The last time these right changed hands, they cost £1 million.

Next on our list of West End shows is London's first production of Priscilla; Queen of the Desert, a stage adaptation of the Australian arthouse comedy film took the world by storm in 1994. Currently, the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus is festooned by a giant silver stilletto shoe. It's a wonderfully simple, eye-catching promotion.

Sunshine!

After waiting two years, Summer has finally arrived. We’ve been enjoying glorious weather this weekend. As I write this blog at 7.30pm the sun is streaming in the window, still carrying plenty of warmth. We’ve enjoyed temperatures 24°C today right up until 6pm. Yesterday’s high peaked at 23°C. The Met Office is promising us another two days of sunshine and highs of 25°C. While still rather mild by Australian standards, it feels like a heatwave in the UK, following two years of cool, dreary weather.

The Met Office has yet to confirm predictions of a hot Summer this year. However, all signs already point to a season warmer than the last couple of years. The longest day is less than three weeks away. On June 21 the sun will rise at 4:42 a.m. and set at 9:20 p.m. However, the long days are already apparent, with tonight’s sun not setting until 9.07pm.

Garry and I have been putting the weather to good use. Yesterday we hired a DIY carpet cleaner from the local hardware depot and spend the evening shampooing every tuft in the house. The carpets are now sparkling clean and completely bone-dry within 24 hours. To complete our comprehensive Spring Clean, Garry mopped every wooden floor this morning and swept our front path. We then took a large load of general rubbish and household junk to the dump.

The carpet overhaul is another timely reminder we’ve been living in Swiss Cottage almost 3.5 years. Just long enough to accumulate plenty of junk and layers of dust grime in the corners. The house has never been cleaner. The same cannot be said for my parents house. They've started renovating. The glass conservatory has gone, the lawn dug up and the gardens razed. It sounds like chaos will ensue for the next few months.

It’s not been all work as the weather warms up. Last Monday evening we caught up with my Uncle Richard and Auntie Jan for dinner. We dined at Boathouse, located on the banks of the Regent’s Canal, in Little Venice. The restaurant has a long glass atrium stretching along the canal’s edge where windows are opened to the water during Summer. It’s the perfect venue for a leisurely meal and plenty of gossip. We sat by the canal soaking up the view, watching barges and families of geese glide by. Hooray. Summer is here.