Saturday, September 26

What's on your mind?

Wordle is fun software application that you can use to generate word clouds. These are simply images created from words entered into the software. The more popular a word, the larger it'll appear in the final cloud. While its all good fun, it does hint at what's really on your mind, or the real messages in otherwise harmless text. Here you can see the current home page for The Swiss Cottage. I'm clearly talking about Garry as much as do I about Australia and London. Our travel adventures also rank well. However, it's "next year" that's becoming a big theme. This makes sense. Our work permits end late-2010 ans so we have plenty to consider.

I then ran the first six months of this blog through Wordle to see what trends were dominant in 2006. As you'd expect, words like, "new", "first time" and "London" featured regularly. Garry also gets a big mention. When you read these old posts you see how busy he was getting our new UK home set up, while also looking for work. Travel related words were also not particularly common back then. With Garry out of work we'd yet to establish a pattern of weekend excursions in Europe.

Friday Follies

This evening Garry and saw La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre. The venue was ideal for story about transvestite French showgirls. It's a remarkably small, and ornate (read, faux gilded), Victorian theatre near the Thames riverbank. We laughed our way through more than two and half hours of high-camp humour and OTT drag performances.

John Barrowman clearly had a ball playing the role of Albin, the the aging drag queen diva. At one point, during one of Albin's more melodramatic moments, he had to stiffle a large chuckle much to the audience's delight. However, it was John's singing voice that really made the evening. I had no idea he could sing so well. He absolutely nailed Jerry Herman's iconic song, "I am what I am". Believe me, this song isn't one for amateurs! Snce 1983 it's been re-recorded by many of the world's most popular divas including Shirley Bassey and Gloria Gaynor.

I did feel a little sorry for Simon Burke. Throughout the performance the crowd was clearly focused on John - an actor most familiar to a British audience. This rather awkward side-lining continued afterwards in the foyer as John and the cast collected donations for the Macmillan Cancer Support Foundation. However, I did see a few familar faces from Sydney in the departing mob so clearly Simon had his own Australian fan base in town.

Friday, September 25

Expanding roof lines

The family renovations are drawing to a close in New Zealand. I spoke to my mother this morning. Her and Dad moved back into their expanded home last week. The final details are still being attended to such as; having the phone reconnected, installing a door on the shower, connecting external drain pipes to the roof gutters and installing the kitchen bench. It sounds as if the last of the these items will be completed next week with the installation of the bench. My baby brother also moves back into his equally expanded home next week.

Meanwhile, here in London, we've had a decorator in the house repairing water damage caused by a year of roof leaks. You may recall that over Summer we had scaffolding rising up the front of the house as workmen repaired a growing water leak in our spare bedroom. This was the last of two leaks we endured through much of 2008. While these old Victorian buildings look attractive, they're certainly expensive to maintain. I'm pleased to report that we finally have no leaking roof and no visible water damage. Long may it last!

Wednesday, September 23

The end is nigh

It’s time for me to get off the fence. I admit that Summer is officially over. There no point pretending otherwise as today is the autumn equinox. This basically means we enjoyed exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness over the last 24 hours. In fact it's almost dark by the time I get home from work these days. Fortunately, the weather has remained relatively warm (by English standards) with temperatures hovering around 20°C most days. I even joined colleagues for an alfresco lunch in the garden bar of a local pub today.

Daylight isn't the only thing that's rapidly diminishing at the moment. This week the Pound Sterling has weakened against major currencies once again. £1.00 is currently buying only A$1.87. This time last year we were briefly getting A$2.67. It's hard to believe the same currency is now worth 80 Australian cents, or 30% less in a single year.

The dramatic decline in the value of the pound really highlights the rather dire state of the UK economy. The message is hammered home by a story out today about Britain's EU budget contribution. Each member state makes a budget contribution on the size of its economy. The budget typically remains stable from year to year, while the contributions vary between countries. In 2008 Britan contributed €844 million to budget, down from €4.16 billion the year before. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the UK economy.

Given this situation the dominant news story right now is a noisy debate over the size and scale of public sector spending cuts required to get the nation's ballooning budget deficit back under control. As the Government bails out banks and pumps stimulus spending into the national economy its overall debt has grown by £172 billion in a year The national debt now stands at £804.8 billion, or 57.5% of GDP.

A couple of months ago, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, estimated that the government will have to reduce spending, or increase taxes, by £90 billion over the next decade to bring down the deficit. This equals £2,840 for each family annually by 2017-18. Furthermore, analysts estimate that if the Government wants to protect health and education spending, cuts by other public sector departments will need to exceed 13%. Of course none of these cuts are likely to happen before the next General Election (which must take place before June 4 next year). As a result, I can see the Summer of 2010 remembered for its bitter public sector strikes and deteriorating public services.

Sunday, September 20

Keeping ourselves busy

Two weeks from now Garry and I will celebrate the fourth anniversary of our departure from Australia, followed eight weeks later by the fourth anniversary of our arrival in London. It’s hard to believe that our fifth year in the North Hemisphere is almost upon us. This also means we'll soon be entering the final 12 months of our current work permits. We clearly have some serious decisions to make in the year ahead. Should we renew the lease at Swiss Cottage? Should we stay in the UK beyond 2010? As I said to Garry recently, if we stay another year, we’ll probably want to stay a further six months beyond 2011 and enjoy Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, we’ve plenty to keep us busy for the next couple of months. Next Friday we’re off to see La Cages aux Folles. This was actually the first Broadway musical I ever saw live. I saw it in November 1983 as an exchange student on a school trip to New York city. Ironically, the following day, I’ll be off to New York for a week on business.

I wonder how well La Cages aux Folles has stood the test of time? The current West End production should hold its own as it includes two of my favourite actors; Simon Burke and John Barrowman. Simon starred in Phantom of the Opera and is recognized by many young Australians as a former Playschool television host. John is well known in the UK as the star of a popular Dr Who spin-off called Torchwood.

In mid-October Garry and I then fly to Dubrovnik for a long weekend. Late November has me scheduled to be back in China for business. Early-December is another round-the-world trip for both business and pleasure; taking in California and Australia for work, New Zealand for an early Christmas with the family. Garry and I will finally round out 2009 with a Christmas/New Year vacation in South Africa. Plenty more photos and blog post to look forward to!

By the time we ring in the New Year I’ll have completed at least 59 separate flights this year. Along the way I’ll have flown around the world twice, visiting every continent except South America and Antarctica. Somehow 2009 turned into a year of particularly heavy travel. Next year won’t be any quieter. We already have flights booked to Sweden, Greece, Canada, the USA and Australia. We’re certainly getting plenty fo mileage out our annual round-the-world tickets. I'm sure this jet-setting life will come to a sudden stop when we finally return to Australia.

Thursday, September 17

Wet, wet, wet

Yesterday’s appalling weather was a timely reminder that Summer is over in London. Heavy rainstorms and brisk winds battered the city through out the day. Farnborough, on the southern fringe of London, reported more than 57mm of rain in 24 hours. I’ve also seen reports that September’s rainfall hit 82% of the monthly average yesterday, with half a month yet to come. I can honestly say I can’t recall seeing such persistent, intense wet weather for some time.

Having just returned from six weeks of hot, humid and essentially moisture-free weather in Asia, London’s rain was a shock to the system. I’d forgotten how to use an umbrella. Equally disconcerting has been the unexpected sight of trees changing colour as cooler weather sets in. I can’t recall the autumn colours appearing so early. Perhaps they have but I’ve not had an opportunity to compare their arrival with the scene in Asia. There was certainly no hint of autumn colour in Tokyo and Hong Kong.

At one point Asia’s sweaty, sticky Summer conditions actually lead to disappointment. As I flew out of Tokyo, our route took us directly over Mount Fiji. In all my years of flying out of Tokyo, I’ve only once seen Mount Fiji as the postcards show it. Smog or cloud usually masks it or I’m departing after dark. I was looking forward to seeing Japan’s iconic snow-capped peak in all its glory. Sadly, the mountain was bare. The first of the Autumn snow has yet to fall.

Flying out of Japan again reminded me of a night flight I once made from Tokyo. My seat was by the emergency exit. As I boarded I was greeted by several engineers trying in vain to close the door in front of me. After considerable debate, man-handling and the full weight of two men thrown against it, the door was closed and the flight cleared for departure. However, as the plane sped down the runway, I was stunned to hear the sound of wind wistling around the door frame. Of course, once the cabin was pressurised the door sealed seamlessly and flight continued without incident. It's probably the only time I've ever wondered if this was to be my last, fatal flight.

However, another flight will remain forever top of mind. On my way back to London I had an opportunity to finally experience the Airbus A380. The aircraft looked and felt as new as you'd expect. The interior is surprisingly spacious, the cabin remarkably quiet and Qantas has done a magnificant job upgrading its product to match. The grand staircase at the front of the plane alone is an incredibly impressive entrance. You feel like you've walked into a luxury apartment rather than a flying machine. Much to Garry's amusement I confess that I walked the full length of aircraft's twin floors. It's big!

Monday, September 14

The Samurai's garden

My company booked me into the New Otani Hotel during a recent trip to Tokyo. I've never stayed there and wasn't sure what to expect. Online the complex appeared large and sprawling, boasting 643 rooms in three high-rise towers. I assumed the worse - a sterile, slightly aging establishment. Reality proved me wrong.

The hotel actually sits on the site of a former Samurai castle. More than four centuries ago, Kiyomasa Kato (1562-1611), ruled much of the surrounding area from here. Towards the end of his tenure the castle grounds were landscaped into a classic Japanese garden. More than ten acres of land were transformed into a series of ponds, waterfalls and immaculately manicured gardens. At the time the garden was for his exclusive use and thus remained largely hidden from view.

Incredibly, the grounds have been carefully maintained by each successive owner until they were finally sold to a hotel developer last century. The sale was made on the condition that the garden be preserved. As a result, hotel guests and visitors can still stroll through a stunning landscape of more than 800 mature trees and natural beauty. A number of elegant stone lantern dot the landscape, some date back to the garden's creation, while others have been relocated from even older garden. The oldest lantern is almost 700 years old. The end result is a true oasis in the midst of a large and sprawling metropolis.


In 1643 a Confucian scholar, Shunsai Hayashi, published a list of Japan’s three most scenic locations. This list, called Nihon Sankei, drew on his years of travelling by foot around the nation. More than three hundred years later these idyllic beauty spots remain among the nation’s most popular tourist destinations.

I’ve visited the first of these, Miyajima, an island near Hiroshima on two occasions. Its floating crimson torii gate is one of Japan’s iconic postcard images. The second location, Matsushima, is a small bay in Northern Honshu ringed by pine-clad sandstone islands; while the third, Amanohashidate, is a narrow pine tree clad sand bar on the Western coast of Honshu. As of last weekend I can now tick Matsushima off my own list.

The name Matsushima literally means pine-clad islands – and this is exactly what you encounter. More than 260 picturesque pine-covered islands dot Matsushima Bay. Some are barely large enough to support a single mature tree; others are the size of a small village. Most are ringed by a rocky wall of white, sun-bleached sandstone, often carved into elegant shapes by relentless wind and wave action. Some even have small arches carved through their midst. All in all, as you walk along the shore or glide by in a boat, the changing perspectives are truly memorizing .

Everyone that visits Matsushima inevitably takes a boat cruise around some of the bay’s most famous islands. I followed the advice of several travel guides and caught a boat from Shiogama, at the southern end of the bay. From here a leisurely 50-minute route took us slowly past some of the most perfect little islets I’ve ever seen. At times the bay took on the appearance of a giant, landscaped pond. Needless to say my camera worked overtime.

Once ashore I spent the day visiting Zuiganji, the elegant tree-cluttered Zen temple, and several islands reached on foot via the most iconic red bridges you’ve ever seen. This included Godaido, a small island that’s home to a simple wooden Buddhist worship hall, and Oshima, an island dotted by decaying Buddhist memorial tablets. The most famous of these stone tablets sits in the middle of the island, inscribed with a poem by Basho, one Edo Japan’s most famous haiku poets. Legend has it that Matsushima’s beauty left him speechless, so much so that he simply wrote afterwards; “Matsushima, Ah! Matsushima! Matsushima!”

Perhaps the most memorable island I visited was Fukuurajima. A gently curving 252-metre long bridge connects this large island to the mainland, while the island itself is crossed by paths leading to numerous scenic lookouts. I spent more than an hour wandering the island soaking in the view. At times the unexpected sight of yet more picture-perfect islands was truly breath-taking.

Matsushima really is nature at its best. Even the persistent, distant buzz of cruise boat plying the bay couldn’t dampen the experience – and believe me – they are relentless in their pursuit of the tourist dollar. I was lucky enough to enjoy it all in hot, sunny weather, framed by a blue sky and the occassional fluffy, white cloud. Magic!

Saturday, September 5

375km north of Tokyo

I've just returned from a day-trip to Matsushima. This is a pictureque bay of pine-clad sandstone islands in Northern Honshu, considered one of Japan's three most scenic locations. Thanks to the magic of the Shinkansen high-speed train its possible to visit Matsushima from Tokyo, a distance of 375kms. More details on my day in the sun tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 2

I love the night life

This evening I took several staff members out for drinks in Hong Kong. We stopped in at Azure, a hotel complex located in the LKF Tower. At the top of the building sits Slash Bar. On the 3oth floor a small outdoor deck offers patrons a truly stunning panoramic view of the city skyline. Unfortunately my new-found mission to introduce the world's bar staff on the joys of Ginger Caprioskas hit a road block. Despite being one of the hippest bars in town, fresh ginger wasn't available and my ambitions were soon thwarted.