Sunday, December 31, 2006

Technology at its worst ... a gruff Happy New Year

If one more person texts our home phone number - rather than a mobile number - causing Tom Baker to wish me a Happy New Year, I'll ... I'll ... I'll be very very cross.

Rather than a quick beep or a silent vibrate, texting a UK land line (well, a BT one anyway) rings the phone until you answer it, announces the mobile number, and invites you to hit 1 to hear Tom Baker announce the message.

Wonderful technology ... but lousy when it wakes up a two year old who's already thrown up twice tonight and isn't sleeping very soundly.

Tonight I vote with the Luddites - some technology either needs to be time-limited, or just withdrawn.

Happy New Year. From a slightly grumpy Alan in Belfast!

May God bless you with discomfort ... anger ... tears ... foolishness?

I share a Christmas prayer/blessing that was part of a church service this New Year's Eve morning ...

May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in the world
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

(A traditional Franciscan blessing.)

Esma’s Secret (Grbavica) - last film of 2006

The last film I saw in 2006 was Esma’s Secret (Grbavica).

Esma is a single mother living with her daughter Sara. A Bosnian, she came from the Grbavica district of Sarajevo. The scars on her back suggest suffering during the war.

Sara is in her early teens, a tomboy, and needs to pay for her upcoming school trip. As the daughter of a shaheed (a soldier lost in conflict), she is entitled to a discount., But her mother seems reluctant to find the official papers to prove their exact circumstance ... Esma’s secret. Instead she throws herself into a new job in a local bar, alongside some dressmaking, to raise the cash.

Esma has a story locked up inside her. She attends women’s meetings—state-funded group counselling sessions at the local community hall—but doesn’t open up.

Sarajevo is full of those “left behind”, remaining to try to identify the bodies of their loved ones when the next mass grave is discovered. It’s a violent society. And a country portrayed as being still full of hurt, the continuing scars of conflict (that are quite obvious in NI too).

At the end of the film, don’t worry, it’s not really a spoiler, Esma opens up and tells her story to the other women. But secrets carry a price. And is her decision to tell her secret too late for Sara?

It feels like a low budget (cheaply made) film. That’s not a criticism, just a perception. The wide screen felt more 16:9 than the usual letterbox cinematic fare. Yet there are still great shots throughout the film. And the cast’s colourful clothes really stand out in contrast to the bombed shells of buildings in the background.

The film felt like it had been built up too much in the Curzon programme, though it did win a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Good acting by Esma and Sara. Let down by the ending happening too fast.

But watch out for the school teacher who looks like Borat! And watch out for the Kiera Knightly poster in Sara’s bedroom: seems there’s no escaping the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

A year’s travel - what’s the cost?

Crowded scene at Terminal 1 Heathrow on Wednesday 20 December 2006

If you travel enough, stuff goes wrong. You miss the odd flight, some get cancelled, hotel receptionists inform you that they’ve overbooked and don’t have a room for you, you even wake up to find bed bugs on your pillow. It’s all par for the course.

As I come to the end of the year and get all the expenses out of the way, the magic spreadsheet in which I log my travel—mostly to reconcile what’s been claimed for and paid back—tells me that I’ve travelled less than last year. Doesn’t feel like it. But Jury Service after Easter must have taken its toll.

  • In total: I’ve sped down a runway and taken off 82 times in 2006.
  • I’ve spent 51 nights in 18 different hotels.
  • And I’ve spent 85 days working outside Northern Ireland.

(For comparison, 2005 was 100 flights, 64 nights in a hotel, and 114 days outside NI, so 2006 really was an improvement.)

But dear knows how many hours I’ve spent hanging around airports and queuing for trains?

Alan in Belfast certainly failed to live up to his blog name. Alan wasn’t in Belfast in November. Of the 30 days in that month, I worked 19 outside Northern Ireland, spent 15 nights in hotels, and took off a mere 11 times. Arghh. Worst month on record.

I suspect my carbon footprint looks like the back of a coalman’s lorry! And I suspect my ambition of being able to travel less and use technology (will video conferencing ever take off?) will hardly come true in 2007. Fingers crossed though.

Saddam Hussein - why did they have to kill him?

While I'll not weep any tears at the news that Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging overnight, but I do regret that this was how he met his end.

Bringing an evil leader to justice? Yes.

Punishing him by his own sorry methods? No. I don't see what good it does? I can only see the harm.

Supporters wanting revenge for his death? A feeling that the Iraqi state is still one where violence rules (and comes first). The coalition “freedom” forces still being so involved militarily and politically in Iraq while the trial and execution took place. Does Saddam’s blood not spill onto our hands?

Was Saddam any kind of risk to remain in prison for the rest of his life? Would it not have sent a stronger message to Iraq and the world that "things were different now" to have incarcerated him, but left the timing of his death to God and not man?

Maybe someone can fill me in on the religious and cultural reasoning and justification for why it's ok. But from my thousands-of-miles-away Western perspective, I'm disappointed that it turned out this way.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sale of Ballyhackamore shops halted

Further to yesterday’s posting about the sale of shops in Ballyhackamore that looked likely to be bought up by property developers rather than anyone interested in the current commercial use, the BBC reports that

“a spokesperson for the archbishop [Robin Eames] said the property was being taken off the open market to allow further consideration of its future.”

The current tenants—many of whose leases run out next October—still hope to have talks with Lord Eames (the part owner of the row of seven shops) in the New Year.

Update: Saturday's Belfast Telegraph confirms that Lord Eames and his family are the joint owners. The property has been in the Eames family for nearly 120 years.

The Belfast Telegraph have also picked up the story of yesterday’s protest rally

“Mr Shankey said all the traders rallied together and put in an offer 23 times over the estimated worth of the property.

‘We have offered the asking price of £1.4 million, which I have been told is 23 times over the estimated worth of the property. But we have not heard back yet.

We have been told that there is another bid by a property developer for £1.92m. We cannot afford to top that.’”

Lord Eames retires from his job as Primate of all Ireland on 31 December. The remaining eleven Irish bishops will meet on January 10 to decide his successor.

They meet in private and will decide that day who takes over. No campaigning, no public meetings. Just an internal discussion, prayer and an announcement.

While the favourite to take over is the current Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, there is often an element of surprise in these decisions, much like the election of a pope. It would be no surprise if Bishops Ken Clarke or Harold Miller moved to Armagh instead.

The Colour of a Dog Running Away – Richard Gwyn

Waterstones’ “3 for 2” offers have a lot to answer for. I tend to buy books more by the title and cover than the blurb when they’re stacked up high with orange stickers on the tables as you go in through the front door of the Fountain Street branch.

And so Richard Gwyn’s first novel came to sit on my unread pile of books.

The Colour of a Dog Running Away is unusual. It’s a long title for a start. Written in the first person, it’s a story about Lucas, who doesn’t think too straight at the best of times. He follows the cryptic instructions on the back of a postcard that’s pushed under his door and finds himself in love with Nuria. The first half is fairly straightforward.

It’s the second half that ups the tempo and absurdity. Lucas and Nuria are abducted by a Cathar sect which allegedly died out 700 years ago. Living and later held in a Pyrenees settlement, Lucas has been fingered as a reincarnated traitor.

Set in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, with it’s café culture, back street bars, a clairvoyant fire-eater, and the Roof People scampering up walls and over roofs, Gwyn paints a picture of an unusual cast, acting out an barely believable plot, in a hot and sultry set of locations.

“Clever, stylish and supremely entertaining ... this novel offers a feast of sophisticated pleasures and a taste of deeper passions too.” Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

“This is an excellent read. It is cleverly written, dark and funny. Richard Gwyn has entwined a diverse group of characters; given each their own part on his stage, and provided the reader with front row seats at the theatre.” The Scotsman

I disagree. The book has it’s funny moments—like when Lucas’ neighbour takes drastic action to rid his roof terrace of rabbits—and it’s quite a page turner. But it’s not good enough to be wonderful.

Always interested in your views ...

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ballyhackamore shops up for sale - people take to the streets of East Belfast

Ballyhackamore crossroads is identifiable by the huge cluster of estate agents. But for how much longer?

A chip shop, the bakery, Gary Hall’s newsagents, the fruit and veg shop along with Jason Shankey’s male grooming parlour (complete with webcam!) are all part of a block of seven shops that have been put on the market.

Five of the seven leases are up in 2007 making it an ideal time to sell.

Only one snag: the price has escalated beyond the initial asking price of £1.4 million, meaning that it may already be out of the reach of a commercial management company (certainly beyond the pockets of the current tenants) and is likely to fall into the hands of a property developer.

Not brilliant news for the tenants who may not be able to renew their leases, and the chippie that's just invested in a new counter.

And not good news for the local residents who may find fewer independent shops in the area, and be even more reliant on the Tesco Metro and M&S - or a longer walk across to the Belmont Road shops. (I posted about the Co-Op disappearing earlier this year.)

Oh, and the owner. No one has yet reported the exact makeup of the consortium. But retiring Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames is heavily trailed as a part owner. While telling the basic property and human interest story, the BBC’s online reporting seems a lot more interested in Archbishop Eames’ ownership than it needs to be. Maybe it'll become a local Da Vinci Code-like Anglican plot!

(c) BBC

And it is reported that “protesters blocked the Newtownards Road” when “about 60 people” took to the street in East Belfast sometime this afternoon.

(c) 2006 Belfast Telegraph

I missed this brief excitement by being over in the busy-but-not-as-awful-as-I-expected Sprucefield Classic (the original M&S site) car park and associated shops in Lisburn. So I’ve linked across to the BBC and Belfast Telegraph pictures.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Review of 2006 films

Tis the time of year to look back and review.

So what about this year's selection of films?

It only includes the ones I've seen at the cinema or in planes. The better ones - in my opinion - are in larger text at the top, the worse ones in increasingly tiny font size as you go down. Feel free to comment if you strongly disagree.

The best: 13 (Tzameti), Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth

The worst: Little Fish, A Scanner Darkly, Stormbreaker

Park and ride: cheaper parking at Belfast City Airport when catching the bmi bus to Heathrow

If you frequently catch bmi’s bus between Belfast and Heathrow, then there’s good news.

To avoid the extortionate rates charged in the short term car park at St Georges Belfast City Airport, most flyers park in the long stay and walk up to the terminal – hitching a lift if the wee bus happens to be nearby.

Now, bmi have negotiated a deal with the airport to allow diamond club gold and silver members to park in the closer short stay car park but just pay the cheaper long stay car park rates.

The downside is that you can’t just stick your credit card into the machine at the car park entrance and then on the way back out again. You need to take a paper ticket, not lose it during your travels, and present it at the airport information desk along with your diamond club card before leaving the terminal and heading back to your car.

There’s nothing in the bmi news story to say that you have to show your ticket or prove you’ve flown with bmi to get the discount. So it bmi siler/gold card holders may also benefit when traveling via Air Berlin or Flybe. Besides, frequently people travel out on one route, and return on another with a different airline.

So you get a shorter walk in the cold, but traded for spending extra time queuing in the terminal to pay - no such thing as a free lunch!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Torchwood - series two will be on BBC2

(Was Doctor Who and the runaway bride any good yesterday? I haven't seen it yet. Should I be bovvered!?)

Sometimes it feels a little like a Torchwood tribute blog, part of a Torchwood website ring thingy. And that’s when I’m not yet 100% sure the series is working!

Well the BBC are sure, and they’ve green-lighted a second series, and propose to air it on BBC2 ahead of BBC3 (the other way around from the current, first, series).

And yes, I know that some of you will complain about the use of “green-lighted”, but it’s Christmas!

Roly Keating, Controller of BBC2, spoke at the launch of the channel’s winter/spring schedule, and promised that a second series of Torchwood would begin filming in spring with a view to airing next autumn.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

How do we explore the new century?

Various strands of reading and listening have been bubbling around in my head, and are now coming out on the blog.

Reading Magnus Mills’ latest novel Explorers of the New Century, and hearing about David Irving’s views on the Holocaust started me thinking. (I think Irving was a topic on this morning's Sunday Sequence ... but I missed the segment. Must listen again before the week is out.)

I always need to be careful in my life that prejudice and discrimination doesn’t overrule other positive traits. (You can replace “I” with “We” and “my” with “our” in the previous sentence if you want.) It’s all too easy to lapse into nimbyism. Culture and background filter so much of what we do and how we think and react.

Another auditory delight (?) that pumped through my earphones while pram-pushing was an episode of Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan show, in which Adrian Watson (councillor and deputy mayor of Antrim) defended his Christian wife’s right to theoretically refuse a gay couple accommodation in her family-home Bed and Breakfast if they insisted on wanting a double room. Refusal on grounds of religious belief. “Theoretically” since that was the specific question posed by a local rag, rather than an actual occurrence at the door of their B&B.

Less than two weeks ago, the shadow NI Assembly debated the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland).

A debate rehearsed on the local radio airwaves and newspaper columns. A debate centred on rights. The right of some to uphold their right to withdraw other people’s rights (generally, to seek to deny service based on a religious belief towards sexual orientation). The right of others to avail of a service even if the providers were uncomfortable with their lifestyle and the impact on the provider’s family.

But weren’t they missing the point? Do Christians not have a stronger witness (ie, cast a more positive shadow over society) when they open their doors and welcome people in? Even more so when they open their doors and step out through them into the communities in which they live and work?

Inclusivity and tolerance doesn’t mean imply approval or agreement. But exclusivity tends towards rejection and alienation.

The Bible isn’t full of stories of Jesus making people jump through hoops before he would start speaking to them. Rather he started out his relationship with tax keepers, soldiers and women at wells from were they stood. Didn't he made a bigger impact with those isolated from the mainstream church that the religious establishment?

My rule of thumb is that protecting other people’s rights is more important that maintaining your own. Not always easy or pain free, but better than trampling over others to get to the fire escape ahead of them.

Naomi Long, an East Belfast Alliance MLA, didn’t sit on the fence (as her party are oft accused) when she stated during the debate:

“On a personal note, it grieves me, as a Christian, that those of us who profess a personal Christian faith are so often seen to be in the heel-dragging section of the population when it comes to issues of human rights and equality. We ought to be at the forefront of the movement to extend to everyone the same rights that we enjoy. We should extend protections and safeguards under the law to all people, thereby reflecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of every human being, as it is my belief that we are all created in the image of God.”

It’s Christmas Eve ...

Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all People.

Bins emptied ... on Christmas Eve!

A big thank you to the East Belfast bin men who suddenly appeared on our street in their growling lorry about nine this morning.

Luckily we keep our bins near the gate, as we’d no idea they be doing their round today (Christmas Eve) in lieu of Boxing Day. So to the kind man who grabbed the overflowing bin from the driveway and emptied it, thank you.

Have a really Happy Christmas!

Update 22/12/2007 - Not so lucky in 2007 - we forgot to set the bins out and the lorry was down at the bottom of the street by the time I noticed. And this time the bin men didn't reach in to get the bin from just the other side of the gate. Ah well!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Magnus Mills - Explorers of the New Century

I’ve been a fan of Magnus Mills for a long time. At you turn the first few pages of any of his novels, it feels like you are reading a terribly simple story. And then, slowly, a sense of unease creeps across you, as dark and subtle twists and lapses in normality are introduced into the story. Perversion pervades (distortion, not sexual).

In his most recent book – Explorers of the New Century - Magnus Mills tells the story of two teams of explorers, retting across a difficult landscape to find the "Agreed Furthest Point", an awfully long way from where they set off. John’s men (all with English names) set off from base camp with regimental inefficiency, a large team, with hierarchy, roles, and their mules. From early on, I wondered if I was starting to pick up tale tail signs that something wasn’t quite right, but in the end it was still so cleverly disguised.

While not officially a race, the other team is smaller and seems to make simpler progress towards their goal. Yet Tostig’s men have near disaster too.

Twenty pages before the end, I had to laugh out loud as some carpentry was performed. It’ll ruin the story to explain what the furniture was for. But it felt so good to know that Mills had a few more surprises up his sleeve.

In some ways, the book was disappointing. It wasn’t as dark as his first couple of books: The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express.

But by the end the book still made it’s point. I’d heard an interview with the historian David Irving on Radio 4’s Today programme podcast while out pushing the pram this afternoon. Often dubbed a “Holocaust denier”, he’s back in the UK after serving time in an Austrian prison. Historians are in the word trade, so he uses his words very carefully.

Irving told his initial Austrian trial that the role of Auschwitz as a “killing centre” had been hyped to pander to the tourist trade. (He alleges that the gas chambers that visitors see around were actually built four years after the war.) He suggests that there is no evidence that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. On the contrary, he points to evidence that Hitler intervened on behalf of some individual Jews. He also states:

“For the last 15 years, I have made no bones at all about the fact that the Nazis killed millions of Jews in different methods around the world, around their empire, particularly on the Eastern Front.”

It’s a complicated business, and one that I’m far from being an expert in. One instinct tells me to dismiss Irving as a crank; another defends his right to hold an opinion that most will find offensive.

Anyway, why am I telling you this in the middle of reflections on a book? Well, humankind’s desire to deal with other human beings, to categorise them, deal with them, eliminate them, move them, provide for them. It’s continual. Throughout history.

The reason for and philosophy behind the two team’s trek to the Agreed Furthest Point is tied up in this.

Some more thoughts will follow ... but if you like your humour dark, read this book. (See the second post in the thread for regular commentor John Self's review.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

IKEA vs NI Planning Service – It’s a knock out!

Looks like Belfast will get Ireland’s first Ikea store.

Peter Hain visited the Holywood Exchange site this afternoon, announcing that planning permission had been granted for the store.

Hain welcomed the decision, saying that “this is great news for Northern Ireland”. He also welcomed the opportunity to do some last minute shopping at the less-busy-than-Tesco-Knocknagoney next door Secret Sainsburys. (Not sure about that last bit.)

Expect queues to build up on the A2 approaching Holywood Exchange next November (2007) when the store is due to open.

Unlike some big firms who obfuscate the planning process, Ikea are being publicly praised for their transparency during the planning process. The NIO press release talks about

“the Planning Service and IKEA … engaging in constructive pre-application discussions on technical issues … investing time in advance on preparing a quality application … providing additional information as quickly as possible … IKEA contributed to a timely decision on the planning application.”

In fact, Ikea have had less luck in Dublin, where the original first store in Ireland was proposed. The Ballymun site is still embroiled in a planning inquiry that won’t resolve until next year.

Cartoon about an IKEA job interview - unknown source

And next time you want to erect a BoKlok, or add a loft extension “on 2 levels with ancillary facilities such as a crèche, restaurant, bistro, Swedish shop, support offices, customer service area and goods delivery area” along with a new “multi-storey car park and surface level car parking, 12 coach parking spaces and a coach drop off / pick up point” in your front driveway, make an early appointment with your local planning officer and it’ll be smooth all the way!

If you're looking for a job, Ikea Belfast are recruiting (summer 2007) at www.ikea.co.uk/belfast.

Fog affecting the BA Self Check-in machines!

It’s lunchtime. You’re British Airways. And you’ve just cancelled all domestic flights (and a fair number of European ones) leaving Heathrow for the rest of the day in response to the unfortunate fog.

This is what all your self check-in machines revert to.

And given BA's continued cancellation of all UK domestic flights in and out of Heathrow today (Thursday) and tomorrow (Friday) ... you could be seeing more of this!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yeah - home at last

So we were lucky. Touched down a shade after half past eight. A mere three and a half hours late.

Colleagues on the BD96 were less fortunate when it was cancelled. Looks like the other two evening flights (the "half five" and the "half seven") will depart ... but very, very delayed.

Any East Belfast twitchers monitoring late night aircraft movement beyond the 21:00/21:30 cut-off will be busy tonight.

And BA have announced that they've cancelled all domestic departures from Heathrow again tomorrow.

Maybe Santa will squeeze a few stranded travellers onto his sledge to help folk home for Christmas!

Fog - or is it gof?

Good thing I couldn’t get a seat on the earlier lunchtime flight … it was cancelled.

So we’ve bounced around all over the place. First the scheduled 15:35 bmi from Heathrow back to Belfast was delayed to 16:00, then 16:50, then 18:30, and the latest announcement talking about 17:30!

We’ve been told we’re about to board three times now. Including once when they were “just waiting for the crew to arrive”.

I suspect the available plane was stolen for some other valued route.

In the meantime, the bmi Terminal 1 lounge is filling up nicely - should be completely bunged by the time everyone arrives for the evening flights.

Thinking about fog reminds me of the old BBC Weather charts … where “fog” sometimes turned into “gof” depending on how the presenter placed it on the wall.

Fog at Heathrow = BA cancel all domestic flights

Heathrow T1 deaprtures screen - showing lots of flights cancelled

It's foggy at Heathrow!

It must be a real pea-souper since British Airways have just cancelled all the rest of today's domestic flights!!!

Hope bmi don't do the same. Update: they cancelled the 1320 back to Belfast, but the 1535 is still showing ... fingers crossed.

Although I've arrived early, there aren't any seats on earlier flights to switch onto, (thank goodness I wasn't able to move as the flight was cancelled!) and I can't check my bag in until two hours before the flight. So no airside lounge access for another hour and a half.

Arghh. Never travel the week before Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Torchwood vs Lost :: Freeview vs Sky

Media Guardian, a source of overnight viewing figures, reported last week that Torchwood is edging ahead of Lost in the multi-channel viewing stakes.

If you’re new to the terminology—and I’ve been told
off before for being too obtuse
multi-channel refers to TV channels that are available to people watching more than just the five free terrestrial channels in the UK. So it includes Freeview (digital terrestrial), Freesat (free-to-air channels on satellite), Sky and cable.

Since Sky wrestled Lost from the hands of Channel 4, it’s been available only to satellite or cable subscribers with Sky One in their package. As I’ve commented previously, it’s bye bye lost from me. This is a much smaller potential audience than those who can catch Torchwood on BBC Three on Freeview, Cable, Sky as well as a handful on Freesat. Both are no doubt available on BitTorrent!

Last week’s figures:

  • BBC3, Torchwood = 971,000 viewers (up from 958,000 the week before)
  • Sky One, Lost = 863,000 viewers (down below 1 million for the first time this series)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Want a flat-packed Ikea house? Buy a BoKlok.

While Belfast awaits the 2007 opening of Belfast’s very own Ikea store in the sleepy Holywood Exchange at the end of the St George Belfast City Airport and beside Secret Sainsburys and B&Q, you may want to bypass the kitsch lamps and metal bunk beds and leapfrog to the next Ikea revolution.

Ikea bring you BoKlok. Prefabricated, timber-framed homes.

“The BoKlok Concept: BoKlok, roughly translated, means "smart living". This captures the BoKlok concept perfectly: to provide space-saving, functional homes offering good quality at a price which enables as many people as possible to afford a comfortable home. The BoKlok concept is based on customers’ real needs and wishes: a safe environment, roominess and access to green space. BoKlok homes have a flexible open-plan layout, high ceilings and large windows, giving the apartments a light, airy and contemporary feel. The BoKlok vision is: to provide better homes for the many people.”

The FT comments:

“Fortunately—perhaps for those well used to the phenomenon of the missing part or allen-key-wrist—the homes come ready built.”

They’re expecting to sell moderately-priced three-bedroom houses (£150,000) and flats (£100,000) across the UK, starting in Gateshead and Glasgow (presumably before moving onto Gloucester, Greenisland, Glastonbury, Grimsby and Great Dunmow!).

Oh, and did I mention that they all come with Ikea kitchens and wooden floors.

And “when buyers move in, Ikea will even send round a handyman, at the company’s expense, [ahem, you’ve paid for it] to deal with those tedious tasks such as putting up curtain poles.” They could sell that as a standalone service. After 18 months I’ve loads of wee jobs that haven’t been completed.

Given the cheaper prices, rules are applied to limit who can purchase.

  • No buy to let.
  • Household incomes of £12,500–£30,000.
  • Aimed at those who don’t already own a home or needing to buy following a relationship breakdown.
  • And when you move out, the developers will resell your house at the open market value to a new suitable client!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Snail and the Whale

I think we’ve a new favourite bedtime book in our house.

From the makers of The Gruffalo comes the quirky and superbly illustrated The Snail and the Whale, with the words (told through a poem) by Julia Donaldson, and the pictures by Axel Scheffler.

The story of a restless snail who runs away to sea on the tail of a grey-blue humpback whale. They visit far away places, before the whale gets distracted by the earsplitting roar of speedboats and gets beached in a bay. The snail crawls away to find rescuers, saves its life and they return to the snail’s home, where the snail’s mates all hitch a lift on the whale’s tail and sail off for more adventures.

Magical. It’s a two year old’s favourite … and enjoyable for the reader too.

East Belfast - Carols in Ballyhackamore

Out pushing a pram yesterday, I noticed this poster in quite a few shop windows, and also outside the venue itself.

The community around Ballyhackamore - and I’m sure those in wider East Belfast too - are invited to come and join in the Christmas celebrations at Kirkpatrick Presbyterian Church over the festive season.

No need to dress up fancy - I reckon they'll love to see you as you are!

  • Wed 20th at 7pm
  • Christmas Eve at 11am
  • Christmas Morning at 10.30am

It’s just down from the Mandarin City, and across from the laundrette and the Orient on the Upper Newtownards Road.

Tempting to have an AiB meetup on the Wednesday night! And if it puts you in the mood for a carol, why not help CyberScribe write one over at The Bog Standard Blog.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Rogue Spooks – doing a Torchwood

I’ve been a fan of the Spooks (known as MI-5 in the US) since the first series. I think it was the second episode that brutally killed a female character in frying fat.

It was an uncompromising moment. She could have been shot, or the captors could have relented. But no. The story, and the producers and writers, went through with the horrible scenario. As someone pointed out in the poor-man’s episode guide that is Wikipedia, it “… set the precedent that, in Spooks, anyone can die at any time”.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, just as Doctor Who has now spun off Torchwood, the BBC have announced at their winter and spring schedule launch that we should expect a Rogue Spooks show to appear on our screens in late 2007. It will follow MI5 recruits who “follow a different rule book”.

Sounds very like the plot of a David Wolstencroft novel: Good News Bad News and Contact Zero – both excellent page-turning reads. And this should be no surprise since he’s the creator of the Spooks drama.

Torchwood is doing very well on BBC Three (and the repeats on BBC2) – much better audience figures than Sky are achieving with the third series of Lost (recently stolen from Channel 4).

The quality of Torchwood episodes has been variable. Roughly half are very watchable. The rest are pretty woeful. I’m not sure that the cheaper production costs that Torchwood enjoys are a good excuse for poor (or variable) writing. Maybe if Russell T. Davies had time to write more episodes it would have a better batting average?

I worry that Rogue Spooks will have the same problems.

Let there be light!

Let there be light! And an engineer travelled across from the mainland, climbed up and down a step ladder to remove ceiling tiles for most of a day, and finally restored proper lighting to our floor in work (after an outage of 12 days).

As well as a PC controlling the signalling between light switches, sensors and the actual lights, there are apparently fifty one controllers embedded across the floor. They have “redundancy built in”. Leading us to understand that if one fails, the remaining fifty carry on regardless.

No sirree. It means that if one goes wrong, the whole lighting management system on the floor is redundant. One failure took out all the lights.

Interesting definition of redundancy.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Join the queue for London Stansted

The queues to get through security at London Stansted airport are legendary ... but they really exceeded expectation just after 6am this morning.

Thousands - and I mean thousands - of people snaked down through all available aisles - about six queues in all.

The worst was at the right hand side - the one that met me as I walked in from the next door Radisson SAS hotel (I'll post pictures of the wine fairies in its restaurant's wine tower later) in the middle of the hire car park. The other queues were shorter, but little effort was going into balancing them out. Half asleep travellers tend to join the first queue they stumble across.

On the plus side, helpful staff were handing out clear plastic bags for toiletries and giving advice on how to get two bags through security ("tie your handbag to your suit bag and it'll count as one at the scanner madam").

For once the easyJet check-in queue was practically empty. Though easyJet (Swissport staff on their behalf) were up to their usual tricks - half an hour before departure time, they announced the gate was closing over the tannoy in the main airside shopping area.

Fifteen minutes later and they still hadn't started pre-board. Only ever seems to happen for the Belfast flight.

Air Berlin at the next gate along - heading to Belfast City rather than Belfast International - didn't seem to need this panic-inducing measure to successfully board and leave 5 minutes before easyJet.

Maybe the fabled ruthless German efficiency isn't just a stereotype!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ipswich - early morning pictures of Sky


An early morning Ipswich sky. The black blob near the right hand side is a TV news helicopter, one of two hovering above Nacton this morning.

Another early morning picture of Sky - Sky News this time.
Sky News are "proud to be" powered by Microsoft’s Virtual Earth mapping software as they show the various scenes of Ipswich crime, as well as assisting in the explanation of less bloody stories.

But with Sky’s recent deal with Google - where Google got a lot more than Sky - it’ll not be a shock when the reference to Microsoft is dropped. Though I can't see it being swapped for Google Earth!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ipswich

Camped out working in Ipswich this week, lots of familiar place names from hotels and roadsigns have hit the headlines as the tragic murders of local prostitutes across the region dominate the news.

Nacton - Copdock (near the Toys'R'Us roundabout at Tesco) - Hintlesham (home to Hintlesham Hall).

Driving back from work tonight we past the end of a closed off road at Levington, with blue lights on the parked police cars flashing, and the Salvation Army emergency response van catering to cold and hungry police who were at the scene of the latest two body finds.

The city of Ipswich in the county of Suffolk isn't the normally the most newsworthy. Ipswich Town Football Club has runs of good and bad luck; Sir Alf Ramsey was a successful England Manager, and has a road named after him - Sir Alf Ramsey Way - right in the middle of Ipswich red light zone.

It sounds like a cliché when each news bulletin suggests that Ipswich is dominated by the news. But truly, the locals are constantly talking about the drama that is unfolding on their normally quiet doorstep. And the tragedy is rightfully overcoming their disapproval of the victims' occupation.

Now getting a hotel room booked in Ipswich was already proving difficult when our teams organised their travel plans last week. We're spread out across six hotels.

Some of our crowd are staying out at Hintlesham Hall. An up-market, out of town hotel that won't let you in to eat dinner unless you're wearing a jacket and tie. (Spare jackets and ties will be provided if you don't have any!)

Unimpressed with this nonsense - I'm sure some will enjoy getting dressed up, but at the end of a long day, it feels like a step too far - we negotiated to have dinner on our knees in "the Library" - no dressing up, but out of sight of most dressy guests.

A colleague had taken ill, and was unable to fly across from the US. We discovered that he hadn't cancelled his booking. Normally, a hotel would quote the 24 hour cancellation policy and charge for the first night. Not so tonight in Ipswich. There's a waiting list of TV crews all looking for rooms.

Our cancelled room will be hosting a couple of ITN journalists - they're all having to double up due to the shortage of rooms, and also the price they're being charged. Extra beds are being hastily built by weary porters.

Also slumming it in the Library for dinner was a Norwegian TV crew! As I left, dinner was being extended with crews arriving at 11.30pm after finishing their live coverage for the late news bulletins - bet they quickly run out of spare jackets!

Let's hope and pray that the body count gets no higher, and that the killer is caught soon. Being trapped in circumstances that make prostitution a viable alternative is serious enough without the added pressure and uncertainty of being a target for a murderer.

One final observation - I called in Tesco just after midnight to pick up some food to keep us going during the long hours we predict we'll be working tomorrow. Ahead of me at the checkout was a man with 300 packets of raspberry jelly - costing a mere £25 or so. The cash till queried "Are you sure?" when the checkout lady punched in 300! I only wish I'd asked what he was going to do with it all.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Woolly hats, innocent smoothies & Hug a Granny

Innocent smoothier bottle with knitted woolly hat for Age Concern

Innocent have been deliberately quirky right from the introduction of their brand and associated drinks.

This Christmas, bottles of innocent smoothies are once again being decorated with knitted hats. You’ll find bottles wrapped up warm for the winter this year in Sainsburys and EAT outlets.

Last Thursday's lunchtime treat pictured on the right.

Innocent’s website explains:

"Earlier this summer, we got our knitting needles out and with the help of those nimbled fingered knitters at Age Concern we got to work to knit 175,000 little woolly hats.

Why, you ask? Well, it’s simple. Almost 25,000 older people died of cold-related illnesses last winter, so we think that it’s really important for us to do our bit to help keep them warm over the cold winter months.

So, for a limited period only, these dinky little woolly hats will sit on the top of our innocent smoothie bottles ... and for each hat-wearing smoothie sold, we [Innocent Drinks] will donate 50p to Age Concern.

We’ve actually reached nearly 220,000 hats. That equates to £110,000 to help keep older people nice and cosy when it’s cold outside."

They even made a short film about the knitting and posted it to YouTube! Check out the previous hats of the week.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The final Blair years: like a re-run of Clinton’s second term?

It’s traditional to knock politicians when they’re down.

Back in the late ninety’s, President Clinton made his third [in an accent similar to the introduction of each week's The President’s Weekly Address podcast] “historic” visit to Northern Ireland.

Despite having policies and what seemed like a genuine desire to improve the US economy, his second term of office was overshadowed - perhaps sunk - by the Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent impeachment hearings.

Foreign policy and in particular foreign trips were a welcome break from the tedium and embarrassment of life in Washington DC.

The police had sealed all the manhole covers around Belfast's Hilton Hotel and placed crowd control barriers in front of it.

As Clinton walked out of the hotel on that cold morning, was he greeted by the thousands of people who had stood in front of Belfast City Hall on his first visit and watched Clinton turn on the Christmas tree lights?

(Incidentally, either the Ninja Turtles or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers had been booked - can't remember which - but Bill snuck in and switched on the illuminations a week early.)

No. About twenty people greeted him. A couple of cleaners from a nearby building, and some folk who were wandering into work a bit late. Later on, some local office workers chatted to Chealsea in the hotel gym during their lunchtime workout. All very low key.

The reason for this reminiscence? Well, Tony Blair’s presidency seems to be heading downhill fast. His power at home is draining into the already-full storm drains around Westminster.

  • Iraq has not been the success he gambled on. Bush has become an awkward ally, helping to undermine Blair’s genuineness.
  • Blair’s Northern Ireland hopes are far from secure.
  • So too are his efforts in the Middle East.
  • And the Cash for Peerages investigation is sure to mean that the political trivia in history books includes the reference to him being "the first serving UK Prime Minister to be questioned by the police".

Politicians, who are at times noble, still fall as quickly as the rest of us.

Clinton, Blair, probably Bush too. Brown better watch out.

Help! I’m being chased by the Tate Modern!

Slides in Turbine Hall of Tate ModernThe Tate Modern in general, and its Turbine Hall in particular, has been creeping into my life over the last month.

First there was the installation of the helter skelter slides.

Then there was the scene in Children of Men where Theo arrives to meet the art curator. Despite arriving at the iconic Battersea Power Station, Theo drives into the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern (formerly Bankside Power Station, which has been cinematically grafted onto Battersea Power Station).

Battersea Power StationIncidentally, Battersea Power Station hit the news a week ago. Having been bought by Parkview International (backed by the Taiwanese Hwang family) in the 1990s for £10m, it has largely stood dormant (more likely, weathering and disintegrating) since then.

Planning permission for a £90 million regeneration was passed by Wandsworth Council on 10 November, and it was subsequently sold to Irish-owned Real Estate Opportunities for £400 million twenty days later.

A 40 times increase in sale price in ten years! Not a bad profit for little interim outlay. Even beats the rising property prices in Northern Ireland.

And then the Turbine Hall cropped up in the closing scenes of Quatermass (repeated on BBC Four last week).

Oh, and not to forget the free-into-any-Tate-exhibition-for-a-year card I was recently given as a prize in work. (More like half a year ... it expires at the end of April!)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bed Bugs … that should be consigned to Hotel Room 101. Urghh!

Close up of the bed bugs captured in a glassI published a quick teaser post a week or two ago … asking if anyone recognised these beasties.

The story goes that a couple of weeks ago, I was shocked to wake up in good quality London hotel room to discover that I was sharing the bed in room #457 with unpaying guests. And to discover more bed bugs crawling up and down the grooves in the headboard, and one squashed on the pillow. (They pretty much match the Wikipedia entry photo. The modern equivalent of proof by Readers Digest.)

Trapped in a glassAfter washing more thoroughly than normal, and checking through my luggage for signs of infestation (seemed limited to the area of just the one bed), I took two captured bugs down to reception as evidence in one of the bedroom glasses (with an ashtray on top in case they decided to escape)! Glad the other passengers in the lift didn’t ask what I was carrying.

Handing the glass across to the bemused receptionist, she quickly hid the evidence under the counter and agreed to store my luggage until that night when another room would be free. It's one of those inevitabilities about running a hotel that isn't widely or openly talked about. They moved me up to the posher sixth floor: an “upgrade” consisting of a daily bottle of free water and a Kit Kat, along with room to swing a marginally larger cat!

On the headboard tooChecking out two days later, I was surprised to be presented with a bill for the full amount for the three night stay. Despite being recognised by reception as the customer who’d had that problem, they had no notion of cancelling the first night’s charge and wanted to take the full amount … eventually agreeing to knock £50 off the bill. (And subsequently promising several thousand membership points as a good will jesture.)

Being a inquisitive sort, and knowing fine well that I couldn’t avoid staying in the hotel again, I emailed the manager to ask what they had done to eliminate the unwelcome guests from room #457, and prevent their wider migration across the floor.

I would like to confirm that the first room you occupied is currently out of let and therefore not being used by any guests whilst our pest control company eradicates the problem . They are also monitoring the situation in the immediate vicinity, both below and either side of the bedroom. In addition to this my Executive Housekeeper and Chief Engineer are carrying out an inspection of all rooms in the hotel - although I realise that this is of little consequence to yourself at this stage.
Oh, and if you've read this far, stop scratching! And before you ask, I'm being kind and not mentioning the hotel name or chain. Not until I've been back to see what the promised "when next making your reservation ... contact my PA ... will ensure that you are well looked after" amounts to. Two Kit Kats?!

But just in case, avoid any room numbered 457 in London. Say you're superstitious.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Belfast City Hall - men at work (& women too!)

Back in August, the story broke that Belfast City Hall might have to close for major renovations.

"... Belfast City Council is considering closing their own headquarters in the centre of Belfast for up to 12 months to fix the roof, remove asbestos, re-plumb, rewire and repair the stonework of the Edwardian building that recently celebrated its 100th birthday."
The press office have released a statement today to explain:

"The 100-year old building is to close next summer, for a maximum of 22 months. [Write that figure down in case it “does a Wembley”] ...

The City Hall will be completely closed for the duration of the work, with staff moving to offices in nearby Adelaide Street ...

Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies, and all other events, scheduled to take place at City Hall before July 1 2007 will go ahead as planned. The City Hall grounds will remain open throughout the work, with annual events such as the Continental Markets taking place as usual ...

Belfast City Hall will re-open to the public as soon as possible after its forthcoming £10 million renovation and refurbishment programme."

Councillor Alex Maskey, Chairman of the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee and a recent ex-Lord Mayor, said:
“By completely closing the building, we can ensure that all the work is carried out at once, as quickly as possible, and in complete safety.”

Leaving more than your imagination behind at the cinema - France is ill - Gordon Brown's vital statistics

Trawling through the papers this morning on the red eye flight to Heathrow (and trawling was the word given that they had all reproduced the full English primary school league tables destroying a forest the size of Tullymore in the process) the following snippets caught my eye.

Kevin Maher in the Times T2 describes the behind the scenes routine at London’s Odeon Leicester Square cinema.

As each film finishes, staff spend twenty minutes cleaning up the theatre before the next batch of customers arrive.

“The ushers … race up and down the rows, scooping industrial quantities of spilt popcorn and sweets … while collecting and logging an extraordinary amount of lost property … The “stuff” is a vast and genuinely mind-boggling array of forgotten items. And not just missing wallets and bus passes either. Included in the Odeon lost-property logs … are shoes, false teeth, a hammer, a birthday cake, several pairs of underpants, a male hairpiece, a prosthetic ear and … a wheelchair (possibly found after The Passion of the Christ).”

The Odeon’s lost property office logs and keeps it all; there’s no expiration date. So next time you get up at the end of a film, desperate to get out to the fresh air or bursting for a pee, spend a few seconds picking up your belongings before you donate them to lost property.

Over in the Independent, John Lichfield details the “alarming report on the democratic and social health of the nation” released by France’s national psychiatrist, Gérard Mermet. Published every two years, the 500 page report

“suggests that France now suffers from a collective form of three mental illnesses: paranoia, schizophrenia and hypochondria. In Francosopie 2007, M. Mermet says that France is “schizophrenic” because it finds it difficult to ‘recognise the realities’ of the ‘great changes’ happening in the world around it. He says France is ‘paranoid’ because it believes itself to be the victim of a ‘global plot’ and to have been betrayed by its own ‘elites’. Finally, France is a ‘hypochondriac’ because it downplays its achievements and advantages and wilfully exaggerates its economic and social ills.”

All in all, M. Mermet says, the French are individually happy buy collectively miserable.

“Questioned on the future of France, 76% of French people are deeply pessimistic. But questioned about their own lives and hopes, they are fairly optimistic.”

I wonder what a similar study in Northern Ireland would show.

Lastly, the Guardian provides the vital statistics from Gordon Brown’s pre-budget briefing yesterday.

  • 37 minutes - the amount of time Brown spoke for
  • 5,233 - number of words he used (consecutive, rather then unique I think)
  • 21 - mentions of the word ‘education’
  • 1 - mention of the word ‘prudent’

Hardly journalism at its peak … but good fodder for a blog entry!

Fibbing airport screens

Me thinks that the flight information system at St George’s Belfast City Airport don’t always tell the truth!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Pan’s Labyrinth / El Laberinto del Fauno

Having “wintered” in London for most of last week, I caught Pan’s Labyrinth at the Curzon Soho on Thursday night.

Sitting in the darkened cinema, one of the trailers was for the digitally remastered Wizard of Oz that is being released over Christmas. And I wondered if Pan’s Labyrinth would turn out to be of the same calibre as the 1939 classic?

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is difficult to categorise. It’s a dark gothic fairy tale (aided by small characters moving across tall sets). Adult fantasy. Minor tinges of horror too?

Set in 1944 in Franco’s post-war Spain, the plot centres around a military camp commanded by little Ofelia’s new step-father. Remarried, her mother is heavily pregnant and has been summoned to be near to her husband, Captain Vidal, who insists that his son be born close by.

Maybe it’s an unwritten rule, but just as last Christmas’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brought us Mr Tumnus, this film brings us a new faun for 2006. Inhabiting a labyrinth behind the main house, Pan (a Greek mythology god, part of the English film title, but never actually named during the film) challenges Ofelia to perform three tasks before the moon is full in order to prove she is the princess of their kingdom. (A kind of gothic six impossible tasks before breakfast.)
Just like all the other films I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, there is lots of blood and a good few deaths. Mercedes, played excellently by Maribel Verdú, is the Captain’s trusted housekeeper. But she is also the camp’s informer for the resistance, and sister to one of its members. The local doctor is caught up too—jeopardising his level of care for Ofelia’s mother and unborn son.

Everyone is searching. While Ofelia enters her fantasy world and gets muddy performing the tasks and searching for monsters, the other threads of the story unfold. Her mother is not well, and is now bed bound, searching for comfort and relief, offering Ofelia little protection from the harsh nature of her stepfather. He in turn is searching for the local Republican rebels who are living in the hills and continuing to threaten his military supremacy. And Mercedes is searching for her brother, worried that he has been captured.

As well as painting a dark on-screen canvas, Javier Navarrete’s score and the accompanying sound effects create a creepy, rumbling, gusty landscape, providing goose bumps and an air of uncertainly. (And it’s main lullaby theme is considerably more hummable than the Casino Royale Bond theme!)

Watch out for the contrasts between the evil reality of the Captain’s world, and the moral uprightness of the Ofelia’s fantasy land. And the parallels of keys being found or used in both sides. Like a true fairly tale, the spilt blood of an innocent can ultimately free someone and reveal their true identity.

Part of the magic of films like the Wizard of Oz and Pan’s Labyrinth is the feeling of not knowing how much of the fantasy to believe. Is the faun for real. Is Ofelia living in the world of her precious storybooks? I’ll leave you to watch the film and decide.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterpiece and deserves the plaudits that reviewers have heaped on it.

Catch it starting tonight at the QFT in Belfast (or any other cinemas that picks up its distribution) before you miss one of the best films of 2006.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Quatermass Experiment (repeated on BBC Four)

I caught BBC Four’s The Quatermass Experiment. In my teenage years, I’d picked up a Quatermass and the Pit paperback novel in a second hand bookshop, and was immensely frustrated to find that the last page had been torn out … and I only discovered when I’d finished reading the penultimate page. Arghh.

Collapsing the original six half-hour episodes into a single two hour show, BBC Four acted and broadcast The Quatermass Experiment live back in 2005, and repeated it at the end of November 2006.

The original Quatermass serials was broadcast live in 1953 – as there was no way of prerecording in those days! But it’s a long lost skill.

ER and The Bill have previously experimented with live drama broadcasts. Something that the BBC hadn’t tried for twenty years. It’s like doing theatre, with the technical challenges of keeping the crew in sync with the actors. A very different skill to recording sitcoms, soaps and films.

In an interview, the director Sam Miller, pointed out “how the themes of the piece - space and the unknown and biological weapons - still feel relevant today”. Though there’s no promise of remaking the rest of the Quatermass trilogy

Great science fiction. And mainstream TV too in 1953. Preparing the way for Doctor Who. Makes me want to return to finish watching through the Blake’s 7 DVDs!