Thursday, July 30

Almost ready to go

Our holiday is almost underway. In less than 24 hours we'll be in the air and on our way to Asia. Garry's upstairs packing his suitcase as I type this post. I've also finished printing out our hotel booking confirmations. Stayed tuned for plenty of photos in the weeks ahead.

Oh - the photo above? My recent post about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 prompted my brother, Matt, to email this photo to me. It's my niece, Brooke, at the Auckland Observatory learning about the moon landings. It's great to see another generation discovering the exploits of the Apollo astronauts.

Tuesday, July 28

Farewell Helen

Terribly sad news. Helen Wieser, much loved mother of my sister-in-law, Karin, died this evening following an all too brief battle with Leukaemia. My heart goes out to my brother Hamish and his extended family in their moment of grief. Helen's passing comes barely a year since Karin's father, Hermann, died suddenly.

It was only five weeks ago that Helen went into hospital for tests after feeling unwell for some time. A positive Leukaemia diagnosis followed soon after. Tragically, after an initial round of chemotherapy, Helen weakened immune system was unable to fight off an opportunistic Pseudomonas Aeruginosa bacterial infection. Septicemia and septic shock followed. She died peacefully with her family by her side around 10.30pm this evening.

Helen was a wonderful person. A strong character, full of presence and mettle. She seemed destined to out-live us all. I can hardly believe the news. I have my own special memory of her. As sun-baked antipodean who'd never owned a scarf Helen taught me how to safely cloak them. During my first winter visit to her Kitzbehul home she taught me to stuff my scarf down the arm of a jacket before hanging it on a peg.

I still vividly recall Helen's lesson, marveling at the simplicity of this handy, yet practical, winter hint. That was Helen - very practical and always well organised. To this day I feel enormously clever every time I cloak my scarf and jacket - and can honestly say I've never lost a scarf in any cloakroom scramble. Thank you Helen. You will be remembered.

Sunday, July 26

Five to go

We’re counting down to our next trip Down Under. On Thursday we depart for South Korea, via Hong Kong and on to the Top End of Australia. We’re making final preparations; printing hotel vouchers, buying sun lotion and setting aside items for family and friends. I’m looking forward to some well earned R&R. Work has been incredibly stressful, with long and exhausting days since our weekend in Milan. I can’t wait to kick back and explore the ancient billabongs of Kakadu.

However, before we pack our bags, there's one final event to host. Garry has invited friends over for a farewell lunch tomorrow. Today we've been preparing food all afternoon; marinating roasts, wrapping asparagus in Parma ham and baking mini pavlovas. The wine is chilling, alongside our salad ingredients and cheeseboard selection. It should be quite an afternoon.

Saturday, July 25

Why gulls live on our chimney pots

The Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 allowed London boroughs to establish smoke control zones. Almost overnight it became an offence within such areas to burn fuel which generated “dark smoke” – and yes – the law clearly defines a shade of grey that constitutes dark smoke. These Acts all but banned the use of traditional domestic fireplaces burning wood and coal. As a result, most domestic fireplaces have become purely ornamental or a home for inherently smokeless gas and electric heating systems.

These laws were introduced in response to the heavy, unhealthy smogs that once made headlines. The worse of them all was The Great Smog of 1952. A five-day period in early December of that year saw London smothered by a thick yellow-grey cloud, much of it generated by dirty domestic coal fires. Visibility across the city was reduced to a few yards making driving difficult or impossible. Public transport ground to a halt. The smog even seeped indoors, causing concerts and movie screening to be cancelled.

The Great Smog also demonstrated a powerful, but deadly, relationship between pollution and public health. As sulphur dioxide and smoke particles peaked (up to seven times higher than normal), so did the number of deaths. By the time the air cleared, at least 4000 premature deaths had been attributed to the Great Smog. More recent research suggests that correct figure may have been closer to 12,000.

The Clean Air Acts have proved incredibly effective. London’s air is remarkably clear for a city of seven million people. The city’s many dormant chimney pots have also become popular nesting spots. Our own home at Swiss Cottage hosts an annual gull nest atop our main chimney stack. This week we spotted the first of this year’s brood attempting to fly the nest.

As happened last year, the young gull became stranded on a window sill part way down our building where it remains for several days. We last saw it striding around the neighbour’s yard on Thursday evening. It was gone by Friday. I wonder if our local fox had a tasty meal overnight?

UPDATE - July 27
Sunday evening we saw an young gull on the neighbour's roof ridge. Shortly after we also saw our fox run by with a large garbage bag in his mouth. It would seem that our baby gull has survived its flying lessons and our fox isn't going hungry.

Monday, July 20

Off the planet

Neil Armstrong on the moon (NASA)

This evening marked the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Shortly before 11pm, July 20, 1969 (3.00am in London on July 21) Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of his lunar module and stepped onto the moon’s surface. For the first time in human history a member of our species was standing on another celestial body. The world then watched in awe as Neil and his moonwalking companion, Buzz Aldrin, spent a further two and half hours bounding across the moon’s surface.

I was three years old at the time. I remember nothing of this momentous event, broadcast live to worldwide audience of half a billion people. However, almost two years later I recall watching live coverage of an Apollo splash down at a family friend’s home near Wellington, New Zealand. It took a bit of collective research with my Mum to identify which returning mission I'd witnessed. She recalls enjoying new season whitebait prior to the telecast. The whitebait season runs from early-August in New Zealand. Apollo 15 returned to Earth on August 7, 1971.

A year later, in December 1972, it was the turn of Apollo 17. This was the final mission of the Apollo era. At the time, few thought these final two astronauts would still be known as the last men to walk on the moon almost four decades later.

In the years since I’ve become a devoted fan of manned space exploration. I’ve visited the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum on the Mall at Washington DC and numerous museums worldwide holding Apollo memorabilia. Regular readers will also recall Garry and I visited Star City, home of the Russian space program, in 2006; then Kennedy Space Centrein 2007, the second such visit for both of us. This year I returned to Kennedy to watch the Space Shuttle launch into orbit. I've also touched moon rocks in three locations and a recovered Apollo capsule itself.

However, the Apollo missions of forty years ago still leaves me in awe. The majesty of the program’s towering Saturn V rocket was brought home to me earlier this year when I visited Huntsville, Alabama. The city’s Rocket and Space Centre has a life-size mock-up of the rocket standing vigil. It’s a prominent landmark, looming across the skyline as you drove up the local Interstate Highway and visible from the air when departing the regional airport. It looks just powerful enough to carry brave men as far as the moon.

Forty years on the three Apollo 11 astronauts are back in Florida celebrating another anniversary of their achievement. However, it’s likely to be the last time they’ll be reunited. Neil is 78, Buzz is 79 and their moon orbiting colleague, Michael Collins, is 78. Within a few years the world’s first moonwalkers will be gone.

Their legacy will live on through devoted followers like me. Although I’m not sure I’ll ever be as passionate as a collector that paid $27,000 last week for a cheque signed by Neil Armstrong on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission. The cheque itself was for $10.50, made out to Harold Collins, a NASA manager, to repay money Collins had lent to the astronaut, to be cashed if the astronaut did not return from the Moon.

Expanding to fill the gaps

Both my brother and my parents are currently renovating their homes. The progress is quite rapid with both properties now sporting smart new roofs. My brother Matt certainly needs to space. His kids are growing up fast and seem to dedicate their lives to filling every available corner with books, toys and discarded clothing. It seems like only yesterday I was sitting in sun in Auckland watching my youngest nephew, Keenan, boldly climbing his way into inevitable trouble. That's him above.

Matt and Shelley are rebuilding the entire back of their house with a larger living area, additional bedrooms and a new kitchen. My parents are extending the front of their property with a larger kitchen, third bedroom and more living space. It seems everyone in New Zealand has dedicated themselves to reviving the nation's construction industry.

Saturday, July 18

Great work if you can get it

It’s been a busy time at work as our financial year draws to a close. It’s always a stressful time as we work to finish strongly and finalise new budgets for the year ahead. As you’d expect, this year’s budget has been all the more challenging as the global recession continues. The stress certainly isn’t helped by continuing headlines of doom and gloom.

This week the Government reported the nation’s largest quarterly rise in unemployment since 1971 (when the measurement methodology was last changed). An astonishing 281,000 people became unemployed in the three months to May. More than 2.38 million people are now out of work. The numbers are simply mind-boggling.

Two weeks ago the Office for National Statistics reported that the national economy shrank by 2.4% in the three months to March; the largest decline since 1958. The result stunned economists, as most had predicted a far smaller drop of 1.5%. GDP is now 4.9 per cent lower than the first quarter of 2008. Depending on who you listen to this is the worst single-year decline in UK history. Within in days it was also announced that projected government debt will to rise to a staggering £1.4 trillion, nearly doubling to 80% of GDP.

Fortunately the news isn't so grim in our household. Garry heard this week that his contract, which expires at the end of the month, is likely to be renewed for a further six months. This will take him through to the New Year with full time work.

Tuesday, July 14

Up and down the planet

Summer continues in classic British tradition. Since our recent ‘heatwave’, temperatures have hovered around the mid-twenties. Today’s high peaked at 24°C. I have to remind myself that, unlike Australia, this temperature doesn’t signal that Summer’s on its way; it’s here! The weekend was also dominated by daily rain showers broken by regular sunny intervals. Similar weather is forecast for the remainder of the week. As the weather correspondent in today’s Times newspaper wrote; conditions have simply, “returned to what use to be called a typical British summer.”

On a whim I checked today’s temperature in Darwin, Australia. In less than three weeks time Garry and I will spending a week in the Top End as part of our annual Summer pilgrimage back to Australia. The overnight low was a cozy 21°C, the same temperature being forecast later this week as London’s daily high. Needless to say I’m seriously wondering if Garry and I will cope with the heat. I suspect we’ve become depressingly acclimatized to cooler Europe conditions.

We have quite a packed itinerary ahead of us. We’re off to Seoul, Korea first for three days, including a full-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. This will be my second trip to Korea, Garry's first. We’re then stopping in Hong Kong for 12 hours where we’re making plans to visit the giant Tian Tan Buddha statue on Lantau Island. It can be easily reached via a cable car close to the airport. I’ve promised myself for years that I’d visit this prominent local landmark but haven’t made despite frequent trips to Hong Kong.

To complete our day in Hong Kong I’ve booked a restaurant in Kowloon overlooking the spectacular lights of Victoria harbour. We plan to be back at the airport shortly after 10pm in time to catch our late-night flight to Perth, Australia. We’ve booked two days in Western Australian before flying up to Darwin. Once in the Top End we’re picking up a camping van and heading off towards Kakadu, Litchfield and Katherine for a week of adventure. This will be my first visit to the Top End. Garry's been before so he's booked as our official tour guide.

You’d think I’d have done enough travel at this point. However, before returning to London, we’ll both be flying down to Sydney where I’ll work for a week. I’ll also be taking a few days off to visit my parents in New Zealand before completing a three-city tour of Asia for work. Garry plans to head straight back to London on the new Qantas A380 aircraft.

This won’t be our last flying holiday for the year. Last weekend Garry and I booked a three-day weekend in Dubrovnik. British Airways was offering return flights for an astonishing £78 in mid-October. The bargain was too much to resist. We’ll be staying at a hotel in the tranquil village of Cavtat, 18kms south of Dubrovnik itself. I've read that boats regularly travel between both locations, offering a chance to see Dubrovnik’s famous city walls from the sea. If time allows we may also drive down to Kotor for the day. This Montenegrin town is known for its remarkably preserved medieval centre.

I also have at least one business trip back to Asia scheduled for November, before heading back to New Zealand in December to join my brothers for a rare family reunion. This will be the first time we’ve all been together since December 2003. While en route to New Zealand I’ll also be stopping in California for week for work. The flying doesn’t stop when I finally arrive back to London as Garry and I have cashed in a fist full of frequent flyer points for a ten-day vacation in South Africa. We’re scheduled to spend Christmas Day in Cape Town before heading up the Garden Route. We plan to be in Port Elizabeth for New Year’s Eve before finally heading off to Johannesburg and back to London.

Phew! Somehow we’ve ended up with quite a heavy travel schedule in the second half of 2009. I’m not quite sure how we managed that. No doubt this jet-set lifestyle will come to an screeching halt the day we relocate back Down Under. It certainly makes the British Summer worth enduring for a few more years.

Monday, July 6

How to blow £260

Our car was impounded today. For several weeks Camden council has been operating temporary parking restrictions as it progressively repairs the pavement on our street. Restrictions began this morning on a new section, exactly where we'd parked the Saab. We'd naively assumed we'd have most of the day to move it. This wasn't to be. £260 later and the car was released from the local pound.

It seems we're in good company. Last financial year (ending March 2008) Camden Council towed 4,314 cars, generating almost £841,000 in fines and pound storage fees. Incredibly, the council issued 529,874 parking violation notices during the same period. In 2005 London councils made £1.16 billion from parking charges and fines, almost twice the value of revenue they raised through Council Tax (i.e. council rates). Parking fines are big business in this country!

Saturday, July 4

As cool as cucumbers

This week's heatwave is almost over. We've had three days of temperatures reaching 30°C. Yesterday the temperature peaked at 30°C for the last time. Today's high was a milder 25°C. The night's have also remained warm. Last night was a sweaty 19°C which has pretty much been the standard all week.

In response we've hauled out our portable air-conditioning unit to cool the bedroom each night. It's good to see Garry's impulse purchase being put to good use. He bought during the 2006 Summer heatwave after weeks of sleepless nights. It then sat in storage for two years, before a breif spell of hot nights last year saw in back in action.

The Met Office has since confirmed that last month was our hottest June in three years. Tesco also reports that sales of electrical fans have soared. Fan sales are up twenty-fold compared to last week.

Radioactive man

Dad's three-stage cancer treatment regime is drawing to a close. Earlier today the final stage, Yttrium-90 irradiation, was completed under heavy sedation. I find this particular treatment fascinating. Tiny polymer spheres (about one-third the diameter of a strand of hair) are impregnated with a powerful radioisotope, then injected into arteries supplying blood to the tumours. These spheres become trapped within the tumour, destroying it with an intensive dose of beta radiation.

This incredible procedure is actually an Australian innovation. It was developed two decades ago by the Cancer Research Institute in Perth, Western Australia. The relatively benign treatment halves the rate of progression in a majority of patients, while improving the five-year survival rate three-fold. Such are the marvels of modern medicine.

Yttrium-90 has a half-life of 64 hours. This means its radioactive energy halves every three days, effectively decaying into a harmless substance within two weeks. The standard precautions after treatment are also rather amusing. My mother's been warned to keep her distance from Dad for the first few days after treatment. In fact partners are cautioned to sleep in a separate bed for the first few nights. Dad also has to fly home on Sunday seated in a window seat with his radioactive side facing the plane's airframe.

Dad's treatment appears to have gone well with only one brief hitch. He suffered a punctured lung earlier in the week when a treatment needle accidentally went astray. Incredibly, unlike most people that suffer a collapsed lung, Dad never suffered any pain or breathlessness. The problem was only picked up during a routine examination by his hospital specialist.

Now the waiting game starts. Only time will tell how favourably Dad responds to this latest round of treatment.