Sunday, October 31

An economic dawn?


After two years of economic doom and gloom this week’s headlines were filled with unexpected good news. It seems only right that I document this story after two years of blogging about the global recession’s impact. Much to the surprise of nation’s financial commentators, the UK’s economy grew 0.8% in quarter ending September 30. This was double the most optimistic predictions and follows an impressive second quarter of 1.2% growth rate.

This means that, since the start of 2010, the UK’s economy has rebounded at an impressive annualized rate of 3.2%. Economists say this trend is significantly stronger than the recovery in the early 1990s seen after the nation’s last recession. This news also came at a perfect time for the Government. Only six days earlier, on October 20, it had announced details of plans to slash public sector spending by an average of 19%. At least 490,000 public sector jobs are expected to go over the next three years.

Many commentators were up in arms about the size and scale of the proposed cuts. Claims were made that the private sector couldn’t create jobs fast enough to avoid further economic hardship. The scale of the cuts was such that they’d damage the nation’s long-term growth prospects and leave a generation of long-term unemployed in their wake. This week’s news has undermined the more extreme claims. It simply reinforced the credibility of rising employment figures published a week earlier. In the three months to August the number of people in work rose by 178,000.


On a purely selfish note I’m pleased to see positive economic news finally emerging. It means the value of the Sterling will slowly begin to climb above its current low point. Over the course of the recession, the Sterling fell dramatically in value against the Australian dollar. By last month the rate had sunk as low as £1.00 = A$1.60. Exactly two years earlier we’d been getting one additional Australian dollar for every pound exchanged. Believe me when I say that you really do notice the absence of a dollar! Today, you receive A$1,000 less for every £1,000 you convert.

Naturally, as we prepare to return to Australia, the exchange rate is very much on our minds. Garry and I have worked hard to bank respectable savings. With so much at stake we’ll be forced to leave much of this money in the UK until the rate bounces back. Here in Swiss Cottage, the Government isn’t the only party pinning its hopes on a strong recovery.

Saturday, October 30

Bruges


I have a confession. Until we move to Europe I’d never heard of Bruges and its picturesque network of canals. I can now safely declare that my ignorance has been suitably rectified.. Two weeks ago Garry and I caught a Eurostar train from St Pancreas station to Brussels and on to Bruges for a brief weekend excursion. As always Eurostar had us in the heart of Europe in no time at all. I still marvel at the ease with which we’re able to reach France and Belgium.

We arrived in Bruges shortly after 11pm on Friday only to be greeted by steady rain. At first the weather was nothing more than a mild inconvenience as we’d book accommodation within walking distance. However we soon discovered that the street leading to our hotel was under serious repair, making the route an obstacle course of rubble, mud and uneven surfaces. Of course Garry wasn’t least bit fazed by our wet, late-night gauntlet. Thanks to his recent abdominal surgery I’d been assigned to luggage duty.


Fortunately, the poor weather proved fleeting. As dawn broke on Saturday we were greeted by cloudy skies and intermittent sunshine. We were also surprised to discover a street market had sprung up overnight outside our hotel window. After breakfast we took time to wander through the market’s many stalls. Alongside the regular offering of clothing, handicraft and trinkets we come across some fascinating stalls. Two in particular captured my imagination.

Just metres from our hotel room we encountered a couple selling chickens, ducks and geese. The animals were housed in a row of cages with dozens more stacked in the background. The market’s produce section was also an eye-opener. Most stall holders operated from clever custom-designed trailers. The engineering alone was impressive. Many had built-in display shelves, gas ovens and rotisserie racks cooking all manner of delicious meals.


However, the market’s most arresting sight wasn’t the man-handling of chooks and rabbits. It was a giant anatomically-correct 20-metre long naked man floating over the entire scene. Yes – all his bloke bits were in place, dangling over the curious crowd. I later learnt that the helium sculpture was a self-portrait of its Polish artist, Pawel Althamer and was the centre piece of a festival celebrating central European art. His temporary exhibit was scheduled to float over the town for a week. Unfortunately, strong winds on Saturday night ripped its skin, leaving only an eerie giant head still intact the following morning. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there for lovers of art.


Most of our first day in Bruges was spent wandering its medieval heart. The beautifully preserved town center is a truly impressive sight. We soaked up street after street of 18th Century buildings, each capped by classic stepped eaves that just screamed Benelux. Many of the elegant facades included small nooks, often holding religious icons. This has to be one of Europe’s most attractive locations.

We chose a small local restaurant for dinner on Saturday evening. I was keen to try a few local delicacies including Flemish beef stew Cooked in dark beer. We both wanted to also try the local beer, brewed in a micro-brewery sited on the edge of a central canal. Naturally, being in the self-proclaimed chocolate capital of Europe, we had to finish the meal with a delicious chocolate fondue.


Our final day in Bruges was spent wandering its stunning canals. Once again, the surrounding urban landscape has been carefully preserved, giving my camera a suitably thorough workout. We’d also planned on taking one of the many canal tours endlessly plying its waters in sleek speedboats. However, we soon realized the tours lasted all of 15 minutes, covering the same canal route we’d traversed on foot. We soon changed our plans and walked to the edge of the old town where a broad canal circles the town. This was once a moat that wrapped around the city’s defense medieval wall.


Today, all that remains of the 13th Century wall is this waterway, bridged in several place by dramatic gate towers. Perhaps the most impressive of these is Kruispoort which dates from the beginning of the 15th Century. Nearby postcard-perfect, windmills can also be found perched on a row of artificial mounds that once formed part of the defensive wall.

Lunch was spent at a cafĂ© we’d encountered earlier in the day sitting in sunshine on the banks of a quiet canal. I enjoyed a large bowl of mussels, steamed in white wine, celery and garlic. Delicious! Afterwards we forced ourselves to sample the wares of several chocolatiers before making our way back to the station and on to London. Our departure was perfectly timed. Within hours of our departure Belgian railway workers went on strike, paralyzing the nation's network and forcing Eurostar to cancel trains to and from Brussels.

Friday, October 22

Bruges; coming soon


We had a wonderful weekend in Bruges last week. I'll share images and an update soon. However, the photo accompanying this post should be confirmation enough that Garry continues to make solid progress from his surgery.

Tuesday, October 12

Cold weather, cold water. Hello winter!


Winter is near. Two recent incidents have brought this harsh reality. Last week, almost like clockwork (as has been our experience for the last three years), our hot water system went on the blink. We had no hot water for four days until repairs were finally completed. Naturally this misfortune coincided with a marked drop in daily temperatures. In fact, last night the overnight temperature fell below zero in parts of London. Tonight we'll be enjoying a relatively balmy 4°C. I also read today that the daytime high on Monday will be a frigid 1°C.


I thought it somewhat ironic that as our heating system went on the blink last week the road outside the house was briefly too hot to walk on. The local council spent the week stripping and resurfacing the street. Mid-week I wandered out of our front door and almost stepped onto scalding hot tar laid minutes earlier. We now have a shiny black street without potholes and unexpected humps.

Camden Council, our local authority, spends almost £9 million annually on road maintaining almost 12,000 roads and laneways. Interestingly, council statistics also show that at least 33% of its footpath are in need of repair every year. However, my favourite statistics is the revelation that the council maintains 11,000 streetlights. Who would have known?

Scaled Composites temptation


Regular readers will recall that last December I attended the unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s new sub-orbital spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise. The twin-tail vehicle is designed to carry six commercial passengers and two crew in a ballistic trajectory out of the earth’s atmosphere. The astronauts will travel more than three times the speed of sound, soaring to height of 110 kilometres before experiencing four minutes of weightlessness – all for the humble price of US$200,000 per person.

Over the weekend Virgin Galactic’s test flight program achieved another critical milestone. It conducted the first piloted gliding flight of the VSS Enterprise. On Sunday the winged craft was released from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane at an altitude of 45,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. It successfully glided to a flawless touchdown eleven minutes later. The craft was not equipped with a rocket motor for test drop.

The video highlights are spectacular. Scaled Composites, its designer, has created an amazing rocketplane. You can clearly see that the craft generates some impressive aerodynamic lift. Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic’s President, later told me its lift-to-drag ratio has proved better than computer models predicted. We now know it flies as well as it looks. I’m sorely tempted to sign up for a flight now having seen how stable VSS Enterprise is in flight. Of course Garry sensibly reminds me to pay off the mortgage on our Sydney apartment first. Oh the temptation!

Sunday, October 10

Only 61 days remain


The countdown to our departure from the UK reached another milestone today. Exactly 61 days, or two months, remain until we cease to be European residents. Final preparations for our relocation back to Australia are now in full swing. We've interviewed five different removal companies over the last month and will chose one this week. I've formally notified our landlord that we won't be renewing our lease at Swiss Cottage. Garry has begun rummaging through our worldly possessions and identifyng things to discard. Every supermarket trip now involves debate about whether a particular grocery item will be depleted before we leave. In the weeks ahead there are utilities and subscriptions to cancel, bank accounts to consolidate and minor repairs to complete.

Our UK adventures also reached another milestone last week. On October 8 we celebrated the fifth anniversary of our original departure from Sydney, Australia that kicked off our ex-pat adventures. Half a decade on that emotional airport farewell has become a distant memory. Thank goodness for this blog. As I read through the earliest postings I'nm reminded about all manner of special moments. We're scheduled to arrive back at Kingsford Smith International airport on January 15, 2011; five years, three months and five days after our European adventure first began.

Saturday, October 9

Condemned


On September 4 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city, shortly after 4.35am. An impressive four metres (13 ft) of sideways movement occured along a previously unknown faultline 30 kilometres west of the city. It was miracle that nobody was killed. Earlier in year an equally powerful earthquake in Hati killed more than 200,000 people. While no lives were lost in Christchurch an estimated NZ$4 billion of damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure has occurred. To date more than 86,000 compensation claims have been lodged with the New Zealand Government's Earthquake Commission, at least 70,000 in Christchurch alone.

A month later the city continues to be rattled by aftershocks. More than 1500 seismic events have been recorded since the main event, some large enough to cause their own damage. As recently as last Monday the city was jolted by magnitude five aftershock. This is the fifth such aftershock registering magnitude five or greater. As a child I experienced a 4.1 magnitude quake which was frightening enough. This particular quake stuck the southern New Zealand city of Dunedin on evening of April 4, 1974. I distinctly recall my bedroom shaking violently as my parents came racing down the hall yelling for us stand under a door frame.

For a nation that straddles two major Pacific Ocean faultlines, earthquakes are considered a fact of life in New Zealand. I recall being taught survival skills at school (climb under your desk indoors or seek shelter in a doorway) and the local phone book had pages of earthquake emergency information. However, speculation about earthquake damage generally focuses on Wellington, the nation's capital. The city is nestled in the shadow of steep hills that literally trace a series of faultlines for several miles. As a result, the Christchurch quake came as a complete surprise for most people.

PHOTOS: Reproduced from the New Zealand Herald's archive.


This week the Christchurch quake struck a very sobering personal footnote. My mother was born in Christchurch and my father's family have equally strong ties to the area. I've visited the city many times, most recently in 2007. On this last visit I stayed with my Auntie Pam and caught up with cousins who live locally. I learnt today that my Aunt's house, in the suburb of Bexley, has been inspected by an insurance assessor and subsequently condemned. While deemed fit to live it, it's consider structurally compromised and will have to be demolished.

Bexley was scene of dramatic soil liquefaction during the quake. This spectacular phenomenon occurs whenever soil loses its natural stiffness when placed under extreme stress. Reclaimed coastal land and drained wetlands are particularly vulnerable to liquefaction as they generally retain a level of residual groundwater. Bexley is built on large tracts of drained swamp. This meant that at the height of the quake residents witnessed 'volcanoes' of silt and sewerage erupting from the ground or bursting through their floor boards.

More than one hundred homes, almost a quarter of the suburb, were rendered immediately uninhabitable as a result of subsidence and silt flows. Other homes, like Pam's, appeared to survive relatively unscathed. She had a few cracks to repair and interior doors needed a layer shaved off their top edge before they'd close. However, the building's entire foundation slab has tilted and thus the house is no longer stable. There is now talk of the entire suburb being demolished and future development banned. Poor Pam has my heart-felt sympathy.


UPDATE: October 13
Another 5.0 magnitude aftershock struck Christchurch overnight.

UPDATE: October 19

Yet another 5.0 magnitude aftershock has been reported in Christchurch today.

The golden lunch hour


Lunch was interrupted without warning today by the arrival of London’s air ambulance helicopter outside my office. My company occupies the top floor of the building. This meant that as the ambulance descended past our windows the commercial hum of our office was suddenly drowned out by the pulsating thunder of it powerful rotors. At first we thought its arrival was publicity stunt. However our excitement sooner turned to horror as the realization of its true mission unfolded.

Less than 200 metres away, on Hammersmith High Street, a car had struck a cyclist. The driver, clearly in shock, then swerved on to the pavement and hit several pedestrians before crashing into the front windows of a discount supermarket. News stories later reported that nobody had suffered a life-threatening injury. However, those us in the office endured an anxious wait for everyone to return from lunch. It was more than hour before we knew our entire team was safe.

The entire experience, coming so soon on the heels of Garry’s hospital admission, reminded me again how fragile life can be. It was heart-wrenching to think that someone in Hammersmith had gone into town today and, without warning, found their health and well-being shattered within seconds. As some at work later said, ”Take a moment to hug your kids every morning. You never know what may happen next.”


I must confess that the air ambulance is an impressive machine. It’s painted a brilliant vermillion colour (the hue of its corporate sponsor; the Virgin Group). It’s based at Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, about 13 kilometres east of Hammersmith. Incredibly it takes the helicopter less than 12 minutes from take-off to landing at most destinations. This means that a trauma doctor can reach a seriously injured person within the first Golden Hour, dramatically increasing their chance of survival.

Operating the ambulance is an impressive affair. It costs at least £5000 a day to operate. The Civil Aviation Authority grants the crew special permission to land anywhere they consider it safe at any time. With almost ten million people living within its reach, the helicopter is very busy. In 2009 it completed 1741 missions, an average of almost five calls a day.

UPDATE: October 27
The air ambulance helicopter reappeared outside the office today. The local paper later reported that a man had fallen from a roof-top balcony barely 100 metres from our office. It's hard to believe we've seen it twice in less than a fortnight.

Friday, October 8

High speed chocolate excursion


Garry continues to make steady progress. He started working from home today, exactly three weeks after his surgery. At this rate our weekend in Bruges should proceed as orginally as scheduled. We booked a cheap Eurostar weekend excursion several months ago, expecting mid-October to be relatively quiet. Bruges has been on our list of places to visit from the moment we first got wind of its picturesque canals and medieval buildings.

The wealth that built Bruges originally came from a prosperous wool market and affiliated weaving industry. At its height it was considered to be the world’s preeminent commerce centre; the New York of its time. For example it was operating a trading exchange called the Bourse (often described as the world’s first stock exchange) as early as 1309. These days Bruges is better known as the chocolate capital of Europe. It holds an annual chocolate festival and is home to a popular chocolate museum.

It’s also become a lot more accessible from London since Eurostar trains began running into St Pancreas Station, just 15 minutes from our front door. Once on board the train takes less than two hours to reach Brussels where a cross platform change soon has you on a local train to Bruges. We do the entire journey door to door in little more than 3.5 hours.

Saturday, October 2

Amazon.com; the ultimate sign of recovery?


Garry’s recovery is steadily continuing. Today the last of his surgery staples were finally removed. He’s clearly on the improve. Garry’s become increasingly mobile as his stride regains its more youthful gait. For days after first leaving hospital Garry was constantly stooped over, shuffling around like an old man. Yesterday he even started talking about working from home next week.

A return to work is probably well timed as Garry appears to have been constantly shopping online. Of course he always claims everything's an essential item that either he or the household desperately needs stuff like; printer cartridges, linen and electric toothbrushes. It’s a relief to see him returning to normal.

It is true that there are a few one-off essentail purchases cropping up. For example,while Garry was in hospital I had the car die on me. I'd driven to the local supermarket to buy him a few hospital essentials such as shower gel and slippers. Astonishingly, slippers were nowhere to found.

As I returned to the car in defeat my frustration was compounded after it failed to start. My stress levels subsequently rose through the roof as a rather forlorn Garry began calling, asking why I was taking so long to visit him in hospital. Fortunately, the AA breakdown man arrived within an hour and swiftly diagnosed a faulty battery. I shouldn't have been surprised. The car is six years old and still had its original battery installed. We're now £99.99 poorer.

Austerity blues

A 24-hour strike has been called on Monday across the Underground network. It’s the second strike in a month as unions fight plans to close ticket offices and cut 800 jobs. Another two strikes are threatened in the months ahead if the dispute isn’t resolved. Today’s paper was also reporting news of a two-day strike at the BBC. Journalists, technicians and other broadcast staff are due walk out on October 5 and 6 over a growing pension dispute.

Such protests appear to be on the rise throughout Europe as Governments begin implementing increasingly painful austerity plans. On Wednesday a general strike was called in Spain, while protests against austerity measures were held in Greece, Italy, the Irish Republic and Latvia. France has also witnessed angry protests against a planned increase in the minimum retirement age.

Such protests seem dangerously devoid of reality as European Governments continue chalking up staggering deficits. Yesterday the Irish Government announced that its bail-out of the nation’s banks had risen to 45billion euros. The increase will see the government run a budget deficit equivalent to 32% of GDP this year. One statistic really captured my imagination; each Irish taxpayer has forked out the equivalent of 22,500 euros to keep Ireland’s banks solvent.

Elswhere, France has already announced plans to cut spending by 45billion euros over the next three years. The German government has proposed plans to cut its budget deficit by a record 80billion euros. The Italian government has approved austerity measures worth 24billion euros over the next two years. Spain has announced spending cuts of at least 8% and on it goes.

In the UK, on October 21, the Government will announce the results of its ambitious spending review. Almost every Government department will outline proposed spending cuts between 25% and 40% over a four-year period. Once agreed these measures will be progressively introduced starting early next year.

It's clear that strikes and protests will be an increasingly dominant news theme in the months ahead.