Tuesday, 23rd December 2008

Disease vectors are funny things. I never would have imagined when a colleague handed me a christmas card on Friday that it would be loaded with Norovirus. Nevertheless, after I became unwell over the weekend and spotted the same colleague, green faced and dashing to the loo every few minutes on Monday, I was able to pinpoint my Patient Zero.
So it was with some trepidation and a bag full of Immodium that I went through Security at Heathrow Airport on christmas eve. Trellis and I immediately sat down to a wholesome (and in my case, light) lunch in the Virgin Upper Class lounge. I had a much-needed facial and shoulder massage whilst Trellis had a very welcome haircut.

Our flight was slightly delayed, but after a slightly bumpy trip, most of the time had been made up and we arrived at Newark just after half past six in the evening, US time. We checked into the beautiful Inn New York on the upper west side just after nine in the evening, and met up with Trellis’s cousin, Terence, and his fiancee, Roberta, for dinner at a local pizzeria. New York was freezing cold, with piles of grubby snow and ice heaped up by the gutters Even Trellis had to allow himself to wear a jumper, jacket and gloves as a concession to the bitter climate.

Annie Edgar 1916-2009

Thank you for coming here today, we are here to celebrate the life of Annie Edgar who died on 14th November of complications arising from a stroke. The service today will be led by us, her family, as we feel this constitutes her definition of ‘minimal fuss’.

It is strange to think of our grandmother as a young person, as someone who was once the bright middle child of two sisters: Mary (the older) and younger Gertie, brought up in a small town in windswept Northumberland, who missed her chance to go to grammar school because, unfortunately, her primary school did not enter its pupils for the 11+ so she went into service at 14, working in one of the grand houses in the decadent years between the wars. As a young woman who had a brief fling with an undeserving fellow which was resolved when he was drafted to fight in WW2.

The picture comes more into focus when we think of her marrying Jack, our grandfather and the manager of the local cinema. Jack was not conscripted because running the cinema was considered to be a reserved occupation. Annie and he worked instead on keeping the picture house open, offering people an opportunity for a few hours’ much-needed reprieve from the grind, horror and tragedy of the war, as well as showing newsreels to keep everyone up to date with the war’s progress. The music you heard at the start is the theme from Cinema Paradiso, a film about a boy who spends his childhood in a cinema during the 1950s, and it’s a film we all associate with Annie and our mother.

A private, sad tragedy of her own took place during these turbulent times, when Annie and Jack’s first son died only six days after his birth. Although Annie rarely spoke of it, and it was, unfortunately, a commonplace event at the time, we all knew that she had been deeply and fundamentally affected by his death. The birth of her daughter, Diana, our mother, in 1946 offered some consolation. Annie was devoted to her daughter and immensely proud of her intelligence and academic success. She was devastated, as were the rest us, by her death from cancer in 2006.

Jack suffered a stroke in the 1960s, and Annie nursed him for many years, ultimately taking a job in a zip factory to support him. He made a modest recovery and was able to take up driving his Jaguar again a few years later. Sadly, however, a second stroke in 1981 was too much for him and Annie moved from Cumbria to Leeds in order to be closer to her daughter and to look after Jack in his last months. Living only a few streets away from Diana and Annie’s growing brood of grandchildren offered both Annie and Diana solace during a dark time for both of them. Her two sisters, Mary and Gertie, died in 1985 and 1995 respectively, and again these losses were keenly felt. Despite losing so many of the people she was closest to, Annie remained stoical and philosophical throughout her life.

Annie was from a different age. Born during early WW1, she came from a small Pennine village where one was brought up not to speak unless spoken to, not to put oneself forward and to clear one’s plate before leaving the table. It is perhaps a shame that her grandchildren haven’t inherited her graceful manners and respectful nature. This upbringing sometimes came out at family dinners, where she would automatically ask for a “tiny bit”. She was, quite rightly, very disappointed if anyone took her at her word and actually served her with a “tiny bit”.

It is worth remembering that her life spanned two centuries. As well as enduring WW2, she saw the development of planes from rickety wooden death-traps to modern jet airliners; television from a sideshow curiosity to 32-inch HD flat screens with hundreds of satellite channels; space travel from science fiction to the Moon landings in 1969 – and the antibiotics that would have prevented the drastic surgery she had as a young woman when she developed TB in a lymph node in her neck.

She was, however, never fazed by these developments. Sat in front of our computer, Annie took a tour of Horsforth using the aerial images from GoogleEarth. Zooming in on Clarence Drive, we pointed out her house. “It can’t be,” she exclaimed, “I put the washing out this morning and it’s not there!”. Our timid, polite attempts to explain that the images weren’t live were met with a mischievous and knowing giggle. Occasionally she would play the odd practical joke, her favourite being switching off the bathroom light when one of us was inside.

It is in Leeds that we most remember Annie. As children we all remember being taken round to see Grandma, who was surprisingly tolerant of our insistence on building forts from her sofa cushions, eating her food and sorting her button collection according to size, material, colour, and the ones we liked the best. For some reason, her job at the zip factory had left her with a prodigious supply of string, and for many years we all knew that if we needed string, we should go to Grandma’s, where there was also always a cup of tea and a ‘bissskuit’ on offer, and perhaps a 20p piece, (which eventually increased to a pound coin due to inflation) if she was in an especially good mood.

This is an extract from a poem by William Wordsworth, about a character he encountered on his travels. For the very early 19th century, the matron of Jedborough would have been considered very old at 73. However, she wore her years lightly, just as Annie did, and surprised Wordsworth with her warm, fascinating and matronly nature which had overcome adversity and sadness. Nick will read this poem, as it reflects his first impressions of Annie when he met her.

THE MATRON OF JEDBOROUGH AND HER HUSBAND

Age! twine thy brows with fresh spring flowers!
And call a train of laughing Hours;
And bid them dance, and bid them sing;
And Thou, too, mingle in the Ring!
Take to thy heart a new delight;
If not, make merry in despite!
For there is one who scorns thy power.
–But dance! for under Jedborough Tower
There liveth in the prime of glee,
A Woman, whose years are seventy-three,
And She will dance and sing with thee!

….

I praise thee, Matron! and thy due
Is praise; heroic praise, and true!
With admiration I behold
Thy gladness unsubdued and bold:
Thy looks, thy gestures, all present
The picture of a life well-spent:
This do I see; and something more;
A strength unthought of heretofore!
Delighted am I for thy sake;
And yet a higher joy partake.
Our Human-nature throws away
Its second Twilight, and looks gay:
A Land of promise and of pride
Unfolding, wide as life is wide.

Annie was a talented seamstress and knitter. We all spent our childhood in jumpers and cardigans created at (it seemed) lightning speed on her needles, and most of our childhood toys were created, clothed, or both, by her, and she had an apparently magical ability to repair damaged clothes like a prized shirt or expensive dress and make them like new.

During the 1984 Olympic Games, she developed an intense crush on gold medal-winning decathlete, Daley Thompson, to the extent that she had a poster of him in her kitchen for nearly a decade afterwards. Conversely, she could develop intense dislikes, saving the best of her venom for “Daughter of the Dales,” Hannah Hauxwell and, latterly, Ant and Dec.

An outsider, however, would have met a person who was formal and reserved, although woe betide them if they interpreted her respectfulness as timidity. Several of our friends fell foul of her disapproval (in their absence, of course) of anyone who treated her like an old lady.

Always doing something when we went to visit, be it gardening, reading or her puzzles, or indulging in her fondness for watching athletics, Formula 1 or snooker, she constantly rejected any notions of what a woman of her age should be like. A dotage of sitting in front of the TV and only venturing out of the house on pension day was anathema. She remained fully active, bitterly resenting times when illness, including a perforated ulcer and a fractured pelvis, meant she had to be dependent on someone else.

She refused to acknowledge the limitations that are supposed to come with extreme old age, frequently walking the mile or so to Morrisons on Horsforth Town Street in one direction, and to Diana’s grave in the other. In later life her walker, known affectionately as “Troll”, meant she could keep the independence which she prized so highly. She would delight in simple pleasures, like Tunnocks wafer bars, and had learned from experience that there is no point saving such dainties for special occasions: one must seize the day and eat the chocolates, because one never knows what tomorrow might bring.

Despite this, she had a grim sense of her own mortality. If she ate a suspect piece of fish, she would leave a note in the hallway so that anyone finding her would know the haddock had been to blame, and when stung by a bee, she left a note blaming the bee on her chair arm. After she was taken to the LGI, we found a bag which she had very sensibly kept packed and ready in case she needed to be taken to hospital.

Annie remained active until almost her last moment, visiting the Post Office to return a mail-order package the day before her stroke. Just a week before, she had told us how happy she was that her back pain had receded, describing her feelings as though she were having a second childhood. There was a spring in her step and a lightness in her tone that we hadn’t seen or heard for a very long time.

When she was rushed to hospital, it took some time for us to persuade the nursing staff that she had indeed been independent, and lived alone in her house with no other assistance than a cleaner who did for her once a fortnight.

In spite of the grievous illness, her personality and fierce spirit remained. She delighted in the news of Barack Obama’s victory (we suspected a crush on the President-elect), while her nurses stood by and boggled at the fact that this tiny woman, battered by a massive stroke, knew more about current affairs than they. We are very grateful to these nurses and doctors at the stroke ward in the LGI for their care of Annie in her last few days.

This is a gentle and reflective poem by Thomas Hardy.

Afterwards by Thomas Hardy

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”?

After Jack’s sad death, Annie requested that we should scatter their ashes together in a spot near Garrigill in Cumbria. This wild and beautiful area was where she and Jack went courting. We are going to visit there tomorrow to carry out our grandparents’ last wishes.

Annie’s side of our family was always tiny, and now we are all that remain. We do not know whether she was disappointed never to see our having children of our own but, to us, she will always be a great grandmother.

USS Voyager – Sailing the Delta Quadrant – UPDATED

SUNDAY

We left Kings Cross at 9.24 in the morning on the Eurostar. England flashed by as we munched croissants and sipped tea, and by lunchtime we were boarding the TGV at Gare de Lyon to go to Nice.

The TGV was full of English tourists for some reason, and they formed a massive queue at the buffet. The buffet was manned by one single Frenchman who worked at a leisurely pace. He sold us two cans of Orangina, one of which had on the front a disturbing image of a sexy octopus-woman (go to Pub and then “affiches”) in a white bikini and high heels. Apparently this is part of a series which also includes a sexy giraffe-woman in high heels and a tight red dress.

We arrived in Nice in the early evening, and hauled our cases through the town to the Metropole hotel. The beach in Nice is not so nice, covered as it is in sharp stones, but we had a nice dinner of Nicoise style tapas and then went to bed. In the morning, we visited the same cafe for croissants and tea, and then returned to the station for our train to Monte Carlo.

MONDAY

We’d bought the tickets the day before, for the 11.33 train. However, when we got there, the 11.33 was missing from the departure board. As in the UK, so in France. A special timetable was in place meaning that we had to hang around Nice station for an hour before the next Monte Carlo train. However, we got to the playground of the rich and famous in plenty of time.

Monte Carlo is built on a precipitous hill and pedestrians can either take various lifts down to the harbour, or they can toil down seemingly endless staircases. We had heavy bags and it was a hot afternoon, so naturally we decided to get lost and carry our cases down lots and lots of stairs. Finally we spotted some people dressed in country club casual attire towing elegant little bags, so we followed them and finally arrived at our boat.

We were not elegantly attired in country club casual clothing and even if we had been, we would still have been sweaty and dusty. We also did not have any papers, this trip being a last-minute thing. We proffered our passports and other passengers glided by, looking at us pityingly. Poor bedraggled things, they thought, trying to pull a fast one and sneak on the ship.

More fool them. We were allowed on board. Our bags were taken away and replaced with chilled glasses of champagne. Embarkation took about 30 seconds, rather than the usual banana republic style procedures of frequent photocopying and random stamping of various documents. On Costa, for instance, I believe that one must remove every individual item from one’s suitcase and have it photocopied in triplicate before boarding.

We dumped our bags and encountered our ancilla, who introduced herself as Faridah. We immediately noticed that many of the seruae on board have braces, and guessed that RSSC must do a pretty sweet dental plan. After a nice tea and a sit down, we wandered around the harbour and looked at the giant yachts and shiny shiny cars. There was a winding staircase which led up to a little garden and a pile of cannonballs. The reason for this was unclear but it had something to do with Grace Kelly. The only other notable thing about Monte Carlo is that seemingly every street is named after a member of the Monegasque royal family. If a new one is born, I wonder whether they build a new street or rename an old one.

On board and we sailed away. Ahh. During the muster drill, Nick said he thought he heard the captain say something about rough weather. It was hard to say for sure, because we were standing under a noisy air vent and couldn’t hear very much at all. Having once been seasick on the QM2, and wanting quite desperately to not repeat the experience, I had to check with reception, who smoothly assured me that there was only smooth sailing expected that night.

We had dinner at the Horizon Court buffet that evening. At night it transforms into an Italian bistro with a huge selection of antipasti. I had the antipasti, and then lamb chops for my main, followed by ice cream. We followed this with a trip to the theatre.

Apparently Helen Jayne is an international singing star who is very famous in her native England. I disagree. She was fine though, and did a valiant job of My Heart Will Go On.

Bedtime.

TUESDAY

Sea day today. With the whole day at our disposal, we opted to fill it with gym and a talk from an American chap who liked cheese. It appears that Americans are suspicious of any cheese that does not taste and look like plastic, and he’s made it his mission to change their minds. He rather revoltingly described making a paste of wine and cheese in his mouth to see how the flavours went together. I speculated that he was an ex-heroin addict who’d replaced smack with cheese. Why not?

At the pool, we had to talk to some people. Lyn and Jim were from near Chicago and Jim had had his sinuses drained about 20 years ago which left him slightly paralysed on one side of his face, sans three teeth and a sense of smell. That is the kind of delightful tale one always wants to hear on holiday, especially from someone you’ve just met.

There is no escape from shipboard bingo. Even on this swanky cruise, which is so swanky that there are no ship announcements, bingo was on offer.

Before formal night truly started, we had to join in the Ship-Wide Block Party, where we had to leave our cabins and talk to our neighbours. We ended up speaking to a shiny-faced young Republican who announced that he loved Fox News because it wasn’t nearly as biased as everyone said, and began complaining about the trade unions.

We had chocolate Martinis in the lounge, listening to a cocktail pianist as the sun went down. We spotted dolphins frolicking in front of the ship. Apparently they also like messing about in the wake for some reason. I took some moody black and white pictures of a single lady traveller chatting to the pianist and, out of a sense of guilt, showed her them so I wouldn’t feel so bad about putting them on Facebook. She gave me her email address so I could send her a copy.

We had dinner at the Compass Rose restaurant: Fruit Cocktail with Grand Marnier; Cream of Porcini Mushroom Soup; Citrus Avocado Salad; Salmon and lentils with buerre blanc and champagne sherbet. Following this we went to the show, which was quite fun.

WEDNESDAY

Malaga today. We left the boat and took the shuttle bus into town. It was here that we decided, on impulse, to visit Carol, Nick’s cousin, who owns a restaurant near Marbella. We walked to the station and called her. We didn’t really know whether she’d even be in, but she was delighted to hear from us and offered to meet us at Fuerengirola (sp?) station. The little train only cost 2.50 euros each but it did take an hour and went via Torremolinos, and it was full of doughy British tourists straight off the Easyjet. Still.

Carol and her girlfriend, Sandra, drove us to Marbella where a Feria was taking place. Unfortunately we couldn’t get parking, so instead we visited their lovely flat overlooking a valley and then went to their restaurant to have lunch.

Afterwards we walked along the beach towards Marbella before driving back to the station. We had enough time at the station to go to an English bookshop – I managed to find the next book in the series I’d been reading for 2.90 euro – before taking the train back into Malaga. A taxi back to the ship and we were sorted.

We had peppermint tea on our balcony before dinner, which was Golden Spanish Avocado Fritters; carpaccio; bean and squash soup; port wine sherbet; Mediterranean sea bass with pink grapefruit, and cheese to finish.

We shared a Baileys on our balcony before going to bed.

THURSDAY

Cadiz today. We were right in the middle of town, so there was no need for a shuttle bus. It’s a very densely packed little place and navigating was hard, but we managed to find the cathedral first of all. We wanted to go up the tower, but first of all we had to find a toilet. Using our renowned skills of misdirection and legerdemain, we managed to sneak into a nearby Ben and Jerry’s cafe. Yes, we laugh at those signs declaring that the servicios are for the exclusive use of patrones! Hah.

Duly toileted, we toiled up the tower. It does not have steps, but rather a spiral ramp, as if the Catholic fathers who built the place wanted it to be wheelchair friendly. Once up at the top, we listened to a guide to the city which was very interesting and thorough, and also in German. Coming down was a little tricky but would have been very fun to do on a toboggan.

Nick decided he wanted to go and see a fort, so we went down to the sea front after picking up some fruit at the market. There are two forts here, one which was used to hide plague victims at the end of a long, narrow road that juts into the sea, and one which is now used for concerts and so forth. We went to the plague one, of course.

We paused for figs and little pink apricots before turning back to the city. Our next destination was the Torre Tavira, which contains a camera obscura at the very top. It was fun to watch people walk around the narrow streets and zoom in on people’s washing hung out to dry on the rooftops.

Afterwards we went on a sherry quest because, we were told, this region of Spain is renowned for its sherry. We chose one by the time-honoured method of Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo, reasoning that we could always use it for gravy if we’d bought something horrible.

We ambled back to the boat in time for another cheese talk by the man we had now (perhaps unfairly) deemed to be an ex-junkie, and we also managed to not win the quiz.

Gym was next, followed by dinner of: tuna medallion with Sel de Gurande, chilled tomato soup, arugula lettuce salad and lamb curry with coffee ice cream to follow.

FRIDAY

We docked in Lisbon relatively early and took the shuttle bus for the journey to the town centre. It was deathly quiet and the only hint of the reason why was the ankle-deep detritus of bottles, cans and plastic cups sitting patiently in the gutters and on the streets waiting for the cleaning crews to arrive. The night before, Portugal had won its Euro 2008 match, against who I cannot recall.

Friday also turned out to be a public holiday: St Antonio’s day. Most of the shops were closed, but St Antonio’s church was thronged with people and surrounded by stalls selling votives, flowers and various fetishes to offer to the saint. People crowded around waxy piles of burning candles, pushing their own lit offering into the heap, and a huge queue of the faithful lined up outside the church, patiently waiting to go in and see the saint.

We passed the pilgrims and climbed up the city to San Jorge’s castle, a big Moorish edifice offering views over the city. It also offered a much needed and very pleasant toilet stop, worth the 5 euro admission fee alone.

Eventually we left the shaded tranquility of the castle and made our way downhill again to the centre of the town. It was still relatively quiet: the twin influences of Antonio and Dionysus meant that few native Lisobonese were willing to leave their homes today.

On the way down we happened upon a port cellar, where the owner was delighted to give us a talk about the various ports and a short tasting. We were amazed at the 10 year old tawny port she offered us, and equally boggled by the very reasonable price, so we came away with a bottle of the tawny, and a young ruby which was equally delicious.

We enjoyed a Solero on the steps of the impressive modern train station and watched the famous elevator go up and down, loaded with a cargo of our fellow passengers.

We’d been told by various tour guides and Wikitravel that one must take the Tram 28 around Lisbon. However, my endeavours had turned up neither map nor timetable, and we realised that we had no idea how long the route would take, nor whether we would get back to the central square in time for the last shuttle bus. This was a bit of a shame: I blamed the lack of information on Lisbon’s official tourist website.

We had to wait outside the shuttle bus because we were sharing a Calippo (the weather having become very hot and very bright) and apparently we could not be trusted not to rub stickiness all over the bus cushions.

Back on board, we zoomed to the Horizon Lounge to catch some tea and the quiz, almost careening into a decrepit old couple. Nick had to explain that we hadn’t had any lunch and that we were very hungry. We did not do fantastically well at the quiz but didn’t embarrass ourselves.

We had a swim next, which was a balm to our tired and hot little feet.

We went on deck to watch the ship leave, and also to speculate over whether the boat would fit under the bridge. It did, but our diversion meant that we missed the Shabbas service. We arrived late and everyone else had gone, leaving half-drunk glasses of Manschewitz and a twist of exceptionally nice challah. As we munched the bread and wondered whether it would be rude to try the leftover wine, someone came in and took us by surprise. It turned out he hadn’t come to tell us off for pinching scraps when we hadn’t joined in before, but to blow out the candles as they were breaching maritime regulations. He left us alone and asked us to blow the candles out once we’d finished. I assume he thought we’d popped in for a quick pray of our own, and we didn’t disabuse him. We blew out the candles, balancing the possible wrath of Hashem against the definite wrath of the ship’s safety crew.

Dinner in the main dining room tonight consisted of: melons and fresh berries, puree of English Green Peas, Panache of Mixed Garden Greens and Whole Roasted Kosher Empire Chicken with roasted potatoes and Tzimmes Carrots and Baked Alaska. However, we had a booking at Latitudes this evening, so we started with oriental style chicken soup, pomelo salad, chili beef, chicken with galangal and garlic, indonesian vegetables and lovely jasmine rice, followed by mango and strawberry sorbet with passion fruit cheesecake. We accompanied the dinner with Tzingtao beer and iced water.

SATURDAY

Another sea day today. We slept in a little late: so late that I had to dash up to the buffet 5 minutes before it closed to grab some breakfast for us both. We opted for a lazy day at the gym and doing our Latin. I tried to start the Legend Of Zelda on my DS but the sun was too bright, so instead I did some Latin translation while Nick did something more complicated.

We had lunch at the buffet. At the pool bar, the Indian staff had prepared a curry buffet, so we had a bit of that and some of the conventional buffet to follow, finished off with cherry crumble and vanilla cream.

We got very close to winning the quiz today (following the famous Chocolate Tea) but unfortunately we missed out on the tie break question because, having gotten distracted by the final question, we didn’t swap our papers over and so out of honesty we didn’t announce our score.

Dinner this evening was Foie Gras, Vichysoisse, Salade Nicoise, Coq au Vin (Dover Sole for me – I rejected the fish knife and filleted my fish with a surgeon’s skill) and Grand Marnier souffle.

We attended the show, which was a 70s themed dance thingy. The dancers were fine, but we’d noticed the female ones around the ship in trashy cocktail dresses and decided that, since they only do 3 performances every 10 days (once a night) their main function is decorative: RSSC’s version of Cunard’s Gentlemen Dance Hosts on a ship with a shortage of attractive, premenopausal women. They were often to be found hanging around the Observation lounge in the evening.

We had a cocktail (orange juice and lemonade) in the Observation lounge before bed with a copy of The Good Shepherd. This film is OK but it was very very long and it was gone 2.30am before it had finished.

SUNDAY

Bilbao today. We had to drag our tired selves out of bed in time for breakfast before the shuttle bus took us to the town centre. The morning was quite misty and cool, but we didn’t mind: it wasn’t cold by any means. We were dropped off 5 minutes from the Guggenheim, and we headed over there. The grounds of the museum were surrounded by Smurfs for some reason.

The museum was staffed entirely by bossy women who appeared from out of nowhere to bark at you in Basque for various transgressions. These included being pushed against a 10-ton steel sculpture by a group of Spanish teenagers on a school trip, and the heinous crime of approaching an exhibit. Some of the works were protected by proximity alarms which went off if you pointed at something. Of course, once the alarms went off, more bossy women materialised to bark at us in Basque. Ironically, one of the featured artists had stated that he wanted his work to make the viewer feel excluded, so perhaps it was all part of the art.

That gripe aside, there was a wonderful series of exhibitions on the Surrealists, including a couple on the influence of Surrealist design. There were several amazing Schiaparelli dresses on display too.

We emerged from the museum and were surprised to find that what I’d thought would take an hour or so had in fact taken up three and a half. We didn’t really have time to take the metro to the old town, but we did so anyway. The old town, like the rest of Bilbao, was closed for Sunday but it was quite pretty. Nick demanded that we run up a huge set of stairs for no good reason, so we did that, and then took the lift back down.

We missed the 4pm shuttle that would have taken us back to the boat in time for the quiz, but never mind. Back on the boat, we had a lovely swim as the ship sailed away, as it had become hot and sunny, and did a touch of laundry.

For dinner tonight we went to the buffet, which had transformed into a French Bistro. We had mixed cold appetizers from the buffet, followed by filet mignon and foie gras for me, and lamb for Nick.

The show this evening was that old favourite, a speciality act. It was a Hungarian juggler who also span plates. He was very good indeed and left our fellow passengers speculating about whether his equipment was rigged with magnets.

We watched 27 Dresses using the movie on demand feature in our room. It was not a terrible film and was considerably shorter than the Good Shepherd.

MONDAY

Le Verdon today. Mmm, a French container port.

The shuttle bus, however, took us to a little seaside town close by that was very pretty and full of interesting shops. Unfortunately it was raining a little, which was a shame, but we had a nice time nonetheless and were able to get some presents for people along with a French edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

We went back to the ship for lunch of Southern Fried Chicken followed by strawberry frozen yogurt before our tour to the Medoc region. The tour was quite interesting and we got to visit a winery with the chance to taste some of their wines. However, an annoying posh Brit behind us in the bus took it upon himself to spend the trip showing off about how much he knew about wine and how very rich he was. He also showed off about his horrible shapeless and shiny blazer, for reasons best known to himself.

We were slightly late back and they pulled up the gangplank behind us. The sea was quite choppy but not particularly rough, and we popped to the gym before returning to Latitudes, since we’d enjoyed it so much the first time. It was Formal night, so I broke in my nice new green frock. I had to hang around for a while on my own while Nick blow-dried his hair, and the waitresses were very sweet, asking if I was OK and admiring my earrings.

We spent some time in the Observation lounge with a Shirley Temple, and ended up speaking to some fellow passengers. The brand loyalty is amazing: just about everyone on board is on their fourth or fifth trip. We felt like dilettantes, having sailed on four different cruise lines in as many years. They all have different things to offer, however. Princess offers fantastic value for money; Cunard is nostalgic, Costa has amazing itineraries and RSSC is spectacularly posh.

We went to bed with Ocean’s Eleven, which was not as bad as I was expecting it to be.

TUESDAY

Channel Islands today. However, we were not due to come into St Peter Port until 4pm, so we had most of a sea day to ourselves. We did some gym and Latin and enjoyed a spot of lunch by the pool. The pool bar offers things like hot dogs, burgers, chicken wings and the like, with a selection of salads, sandwiches and ice creams. Every so often, a special additional buffet is put on for lunch near the pool bar.

For some reason the crew had set up a crazy golf course over decks 4 and 5, made from cardboard and masking tape. One hole was set up next to the lift, thus enabling the golfer to travel up and down the decks with their ball.

We had to wait in the theatre for our tour, which was of the various occupation sites in Guernsey. We were driven round the island by a very pleasant and interesting coach driver, and taken to the occupation museum and various surviving fortifications. There was a small display in the museum detailing the shabby little story of how the only three Jews on the island were shopped to the Nazis by the local chief of police.

The island itself is very pretty, covered in little woods and colourful meadows. We arrived back in the harbour – this was the only tender port of the whole trip – and got back on board for 8.30. We had made bookings at Signatures (the Cordon Bleu restaurant) for 7.30 but only realised that morning that we would probably miss the reservation. When we called, we were told that we probably wouldn’t get a table.

However, we dashed off the tender as soon as we could (speed being entirely relative on a ship full of AKs and walking frames) and asked whether Signatures could fit us in after all. A lot of our fellow passengers had been in the same boat (literally and figuratively) and so yes, we could. We both ran upstairs to get changed. I started with roast salmon, then asparagus soup, a red wine sorbet, then duck, followed by a lovely lemon syllabub. The waiting staff were Northern, which I was very happy about.

The entertainment for the evening was a British Beatles and Pub Night. What this seemed to involve was everyone hanging around the atrium and watching the dancers jiggle around in miniskirts while the singers made a fist of various Beatles songs. I had heard from somebody else that the crew despise the dancers and singers. They only perform four times on a 10 day cruise, and then only once a night. For this they each get a suite to themselves, and for the rest of the time they are expected to do what Regent call “socialising”, which seems to involve wearing revealing cocktail dresses (for the women – the four men wear chinos and blazers) and drinking martinis in the Observation Lounge in the evenings. They are supposed to go around and talk to the passengers, presumably because young, attractive people of either sex are in short supply. The women in particular reminded me of those modern-day geisha that work in Japanese hostess clubs.

Rather than endure the British Pub Night, we had an evening in the Observation Lounge with the peerless Nathaniel Reed.

WEDNESDAY

Last day today. Sadness. However, first of all, we had to explore our final port of Honfleur. This is a very pretty French fishing village within easy walking distance of the ship. We had to buy presents for people, but after doing this we wandered down to the Satie museum. One must don headphones for this trip, which is best described as a surreal journey into the life of someone who was as talented as he was barking mad. The winged pear, slowly moving up and down to the sound of the Gymnopedies, was a beautiful highlight.

We trailed back to the ship after enjoying a pair of lurid icecreams: one violet and one bright blue “Smurf Bubblegum” flavour. It was very quiet on board as most of the passengers had gone on the Landing Beaches tour – some of them were D-day veterans. We had a late lunch by the pool, then headed down to the Horizon lounge for tea and the quiz. Again, we failed miserably to win at the quiz, but it did give us enough time to digest our tea before going to the gym. I ended up in the middle of two dancers: one of the identikit brunette ones and the fat (compared to her colleagues) blonde one.

For dinner this evening, we had: grapefruit salad with chicken, tomato bisque, caesar salad, red wine sorbet, venison and chocolate gateau. We had already missed the start of the show, so slipped in half way through to watch the performers in a new light as they attempted a bit of Cole Porter. The highlight of the show for me was when one of the dancers’ dresses came undone at the back and she had to sidle off stage clutching at the zip to preserve her modesty.

We were going to be sad to leave the lovely Observation Lounge, so we went back there for a farewell snifter of Benedictine and some more Nathaniel Reed.

We watched Transamerica before going to bed.

THURSDAY

ARRGHGGHGHGHGHhhh. Our Cruise Director woke us up at 6am to let us know that UK immigration were in the theatre and just dying to meet us all. After a shower, I followed Nick downstairs to collect my passport. It was then, for some reason, stamped with a UK tourist visa, stating that I was not permitted to take employment or have recourse to public funds.

When we returned to our cabin, breakfast had been laid out for us, which was very welcome.

Our last view of the boat was leaving the misty, rain-soaked docks in a taxi bound for Dover Priory station and home.

Trash the Dress

Ami posted this link in response to my last post.

This is a trend whereby wealthy American (and some British) brides destroy their wedding dresses in various picturesque, beautifully photographed locations. The site is predominantly focused upon the photography but does mention the message in passing: apparently ruining your wedding dress is a symbol to your husband that you don’t intend to marry again. Since brides tend simply to store their dresses and never wear them again, it might seem to make sense – but there are so many other things one can do with the dress after the wedding.

The assertion that destruction of the dress is a way of showing that you don’t intend to marry again is flawed. Brides just don’t wear the dress from their first wedding at their second. There are all sorts of reasons for that: the first dress has too many memories, it doesn’t fit, it looks dated and so forth. Additionally, if a couple got married with the notion that they might marry again, their motives should be questioned. It’s statistically likely that they might, but I doubt many brides are planning their second marriage as they dodge the confetti at their first.

There is also something so decadent and wasteful about the procedure. The average wedding dress will not leave much change from £1,000. Even second-hand designer dresses maintain a firm price if they are in good condition. One could symbolise the finality of the marriage by selling the frock on Ebay and going on holiday with the proceeds. It is quite depressing to watch someone merrily rip up their dress in a series of beautifully lit images and think that the dress could instead have been sold, or given to someone who could never afford to buy it new.

Several charities exist which will take your dress and lend it out to poorer brides – such places are thriving in Orthodox Jewish communities where cash may be tight. Alternatively, charity shops do a brisk trade in donated dresses.

All these alternatives do the same job as trashing the dress: they remove something a bride will never wear again from her wardrobe, but they also allow that bride to help other people.

Wedding Glossary

Wedding
An event staged for the benefit of photographers.

Photographer
Shabby man in cheap shiny suit who gets in the way of everyone else’s photographs.

Bride
Crazed woman in large white dress.

Groom
Accessory to above.

Guests
Photographic subjects, given food in return for spending a good proportion of their day posing. 100 extra points are scored if two female guests arrive in the same outfit.

Wedding List
Long list of presents which the bride and groom would like to receive. Sometimes these are put on display at the reception, a little like the conveyor belt in the Generation Game.

Ceremony
Sometimes the bride and groom will write their own vows, which isn’t necessarily a good idea unless you’re attending the wedding of Christopher Hitchens and Melanie Phillips, in which case they will at least be interesting. Bad poetry is sometimes unleashed. Duck and cover.

Venue
Large room in provincial hotel with nasty carpet and an epic journey to the lavatories.

Lavatories
Small room in provincial hotel with nasty tiles. At any one time there will be at least one guest crying in there. 100 points if it’s the bride.

Witnesses
Two people who must sign their names clearly and politely on a register to prove that they have been to a wedding.

Wedding Dress
Large, expensive and elaborate white frock, generally worn for the day and then kept safe in case the bride needs it again for her next wedding.

Cake
Large, expensive and elaborate white cake, which nobody ever likes.

Bouquet
Large and expensive bunch of flowers, which gives the bride something to do with her hands. She may throw it at the guests at the end of the day, indicating her general frustration at their inability to behave correctly.

Table Decorations
Guests must note that these are perfectly coordinated with the bride’s dress, and mention this to her, otherwise she will throw her bouquet at them. See above.

Bridesmaids
Friends of the bride to whom she owes a favour. Their main function is to make the bride look hotter by wearing something unflattering.

Mother of the Bride
Shrill concoction under a large hat.

Father of the Bride
Impoverished gentleman in a hired suit.

Mother of the Groom
Confused woman in a small hat.

Father of the Groom
Confused gentleman in a hired suit.

Best Man
Hungover friend of the groom, brought in to cast doubt on the groom’s potency and the bride’s constancy. May sexually harass bridesmaids.

Usher
Male bridesmaid, but not necessarily in a gay way.

Toast
Not the buttered kind, but an experience made pleasant or unpleasant solely by the choice of beverage with which one must drink to the happy couple.

Wedding Breakfast
Distinctly average catered lunch served to guests after they have spent an hour or so hanging around following the ceremony, presumably as a reward.

Evening Guests
Secondary friends who were not deemed important enough for the free lunch. Generally drunker and rougher than the main guests, but a welcome change of scene nonetheless.

Disco
Cheesy dance after dinner. The bride and groom will sometimes perform a humorous skit before the disco begins, traditionally a parody of ballroom dance.

Breezes Bahamas

FRIDAY

We took a taxi to Heathrow. The driver had the Shahadah as his ringtone, which I thought was quite sweet.

The Virgin Upper Class Lounge at Heathrow is so very pleasant that I can well believe people are happy to miss their flights in order to continue being waited on hand and foot. An increasingly desperate series of announcements begged passengers to board the flight to Singapore. Nick and I both had haircuts, in his case sorely needed, and lunched on their justifiably famous burgers.

Our flight, VS009, was very smooth indeed. I watched Enchanted (again) and St Trinian’s, which was not nearly as bad as you might think. It must have lulled our fellow passengers into a false sense of security because one of them undid her seatbelt as we taxied into JFK and started roaming around, yakking to her daughter on her mobile about tennis lessons. As it turns out, some US airlines apparently do let you use your phone while taxiing, but they’re still quite strict about the staying sat down with your seatbelt on thing. It was nice to think that, in the event of a sudden stop, this rather large, posh, American woman would have been thrown around the cabin, less nice to think that she might have hit me or Nick. As I got up myself, my little tin of Vaseline fell into the innards of my seat. I tried to delve around to get it out but had only found a packet of Polos when Nick hurried me out.

All that woman’s efforts to get organised before we disembarked were in vain, however, because Nick and I were first to Immigration thanks to our patented “jogging” strategy.

Reunited with our bags, we took a cab to Nick’s aunt and uncle’s flat in Queens and had dinner there. I slept a rather sticky night on Nick’s cousin’s airbed, borrowed especially for me. While Linda did not, this time, spray me with salad dressing, Martin did pick up my dish of mango sorbet and tuck into it. I was too polite to say anything, and it would all have passed without notice until Linda became confused. There was one unused bowl on the table and she couldn’t work out why, so I had to explain that the bowl was Martin’s, but he hadn’t used it because he’d eaten my pudding instead.

SATURDAY

Martin very kindly drove us back to JFK the next morning which only took about 15 minutes. We checked in with Jet Blue and I went to buy some lip balm. Vaseline seems to be in short supply in the US.

Our Jet Blue flight was quite full, but not entirely, so we had a block of seats to ourselves. We spent a reasonably smooth trip watching reruns of How Clean Is Your House, You Are What You Eat and Gordon’s Kitchen Nightmares.

The airport was very confusing. We spent half an hour queuing in a weirdly lit arrivals hall where everyone immediately looked jaundiced, and it gradually dawned on us that all the other lines were being processed much faster. Our immigration officer, it turned out, was a trainee, and his training meant that he was going incredibly slowly.

Once out of the airport, we were directed into a jalopy by the Breezes staff, who mostly used a system of pointing rather than the more conventional method of speech. We shared the bus with three college students from Syracuse, who were terrified at the notion that in the Bahamas, they drive on the left. We explained that we weren’t frightened because (a) we were used to driving on the left and (b) we lived in London, where the drivers were much more scary.

They told us they had come for Spring Break. As one, Nick and I chorused:

“But we thought Spring Break ended yesterday!”

Apparently, due to the early Easter this year, Spring Break has been spread over several weeks. A little concerned that the resort would be overrun with drunken college students going “whoo”, we entered the hotel.

It was OK, actually. A few college girls in bikinis were roaming around, sipping drinks, but it was all quite subdued, to our relief.

We checked in and went to our room, which was large and little sparsely furnished. In particular, the bath was missing. Distraught, Nick found a courage he doesn’t usually possess and asked Reception why he didn’t have a bath. The baths, he was told, were in the block that’s currently being refurbished. Instead, we got a lovely view of the beach.

We changed and went to the pool grill, where we had hot dog (beef) and nachos. Breezes Bahamas is an all inclusive resort, which includes alcoholic drinks. As a result we expected much vomiting and annoying behaviour, but there was none, at least, not by the pool.

I paddled about in the sea for a while, and then Nick mentioned that he had not packed his shorts or, indeed, his sandals, nor, in fact, any t-shirts. He had come to the Bahamas with very little suitable for a tropical climate, this in spite of my giving him a carefully drafted list. His sunglasses were also shattered. We toddled down to a small tourist market for sunglasses, and resolved to go into Nassau the next day for the rest.

We spent much of the afternoon on hammocks looking out to sea, and spotted the Caribbean Princess, who must have been leaving Princess’s private beach on the neighbouring island of Eluthera.

We were becoming increasingly disconcerted about the lack of mobile coverage. The receptionist told us we needed to set up roaming, but this clearly wasn’t the problem: both our phones worked just fine in Libya. If they worked in the Axis of Evil, why didn’t they work in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas?

There was also no internet, which we found upsetting. We wanted Internet because we had no phone. Without one, we could not find the other. We were directed down to Crystal Palace, an enormo-casino down the road. We got there by walking along the dark beach, scrambling over rocks and then climbing through a gap in a locked gate. We could have walked along the main road and up the grand drive, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun. Yes, they had internet, for the princely sum of $15 a day. Were the efforts of CUT in vain?

A little disconsolate, we went for dinner at the buffet. It’s a good range here, from bland pasta to adventurous Caribbean dishes like mutton curry and roasted plantain.

A beer later, things didn’t seem so bad. We fell asleep to BBC World.

SUNDAY

We visited the gym before breakfast this morning and were confused to discover that some wag had rebuilt the cable stack so that every pulley simply pulled at another handle and no weights were lifted. Moderately amused, we had breakfast and a swim in the sea, which although cool, was much warmer than the North Sea at Scarborough. It was also turquoise blue, rather than brown. Despite this, few were brave enough to actually swim. Private hire companies roamed the beach selling jet ski rides. We then walked along the beach as far as we could go, to see if we could reach what looked like a lighthouse close by. This turned out to be a lighthouse on Paradise Island, a mega-resort just off the coast of Nassau. We would have had to swim for it.

It costs a dollar to ride the bus into town, and that’s what we did after returning to Breezes for lunch. It’s a good deal as it goes, and the bus will stop and pick up pretty much wherever you want.

Nassau is an odd mix of tatty shopfronts and branches of Fendi, Gucci and Versace. I wondered whether Paradise Island had sapped much of the business from the town. We kept trying to pick up a wireless connection using my DS, without much success. Two men with laptops from one of the four cruise ships in port (Celebrity, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and the Regal Empress, which does 2 day cruises from Fort Lauderdale to Nassau and back) had more luck than me. Eventually we found a record shop cum internet cafe down a side street. For a princely one dollar we were able to send a message home and find out that the only networks that allow international roaming in the Bahamas were O2 and Vodafone. We’re on Orange and T-Mobile. The BTC is a monopoly and presumably doesn’t see the need to expand the coverage. I would have to buy a BTC SIM card when the non-tourist shops opened the following day, as I had been wise enough to purchase an unlocked phone direct from Nokia.

Much relaxed, we picked up some flip flops and a pair of shorts for Nick. There weren’t any adult shorts to fit him, so we had to buy some kids’ ones from a tourist shop which clearly catered for the more ample waists of American men. We walked through a market that specialised in local crafts, which appear mainly to be counterfeit handbags. I could have gotten a really good deal on a pretend Kate Spade bag, if I hadn’t have come over all excited at the revelation that it had a shoulder strap. It also had what appeared to be Versace lining and bore no resemblance whatsoever to Kate Spade’s current collection, but never mind.

There was another ship in port which appeared to be of Maltese origin: a rusting heap which had somehow crossed the Atlantic in March in order to flog Christian books to the Bahamaians. We would have gone in, but they wanted to charge us 50 cents a head.

Instead, I am ashamed to say, we had tea in Starbucks. Yes, I know, but it was the only place nearby that did decent tea and where nobody was going to ask me if I wanted my hair braided.

We browsed around those jewellery shops that have a sweet deal going on with the cruise ships, and spotted an emerald ring with no added diamonds that was both quite nice and not overpriced. We said we’d think about it.

Another dollar each and the bus home. Several enormous Americans boarded and made the suspension creak.

We had dinner that evening at Garden of Eden, one of the two proper restaurants here. The meal was all right but wasn’t as good as the food on Princess. There was plenty of it, however, and the waiter was very charming.

After dinner, we fell asleep to Oz and James’s Wine Adventure on DVD.

MONDAY

Our internal clocks were slowly adjusting and we didn’t wake till seven. Nick went on a run and I went to the gym, where they were showing Crocodile Dundee to an ESPN soundtrack. We had breakfast outside, which was lovely apart from the kamikaze seagulls who like to divebomb any unattended plate. One juvenile bird was optimistically eating a paper napkin. Another, adult, bird managed to swallow an abandoned cube of cheese with a volume of about 4 cubic centimetres. The outline of this cheese was visible in its neck. The birds seem to have worked out that bathing in the chlorinated water is good for keeping pests off the feathers.

We snoozed by the pool and I swam in the sea until I realised that the brown and white floating thing was not a coconut, as Nick claimed, nor an abandoned buoy, but most of a dead seagull, bloated with the gases of decomposition so that it floated merrily around. I got out at that point: the swimmers are protected from jet skiiers by a floating rope, so the carcass had no real escape other than getting washed up on the beach.

We watched the bikini hula competition with interest, and then went for a wash and change in our room before going back onto our hammocks.

Lunch was had, and then we went to the tour desk to organise a bike trip for the next day. We booked it, and were then told a few minutes later that the bike tour person was very disorganised and that there was no bike tour. We organised an alternative boat trip to some of the outlying islands instead.

We then walked down the road that runs parallel to Cable Beach. The houses are an odd mix of immaculate, colonial mansions, resorts like our own and derelict houses or vacant lots. Walking into a computer shop on the off chance, we were offered 30 minutes of Internet for a princely $4. Nick tried to convert the locals to the wonders of Ubuntu. Replete with Facebook updates and emails, we passed a strip mall, and discovered a small mobile phone shop. Finally. I bought a SIM and a phone card. In a tiny bay in between Sandals’ wedding pier and a private house, I fiddled about with it and finally was able to call England. England, however, sounded very confused and couldn’t hear me at all.

We strolled back via the enormo-casino, and then tried a sleepy England again. This time, England heard us and was relieved to learn that we had not been eaten by sharks. We ambled down to a dinner of beef chilli, Creole chicken and some sort of whipped pink dessert topped with a maraschino cherry. I spilled a whole glass of frozen strawberry daquiri mix (no rum) down myself, which wasn’t very clever.

The main bar area was full of very young-looking college students enjoying their first taste of legitimate alcohol, which was quite sweet and surprisingly subdued. We saw some US Army personnel who were apparently stranded here a week or so ago when their planes developed a technical problem. They were clearly enjoying the chance to let their hair down in a cheesy resort with copious amounts of free alcohol.

Nick and I fiddled about with the resort computers for a little while. Apparently you were supposed to buy time on the internet from reception. However, it turned out that the username and password combination “TEST” worked pretty well and gave us 10 hours’ worth of free Internet. We were happy about this.

Eventually the lack of Javascript and increasing volume from the revellers sent us to bed.

However, we made a bleary eyed trip to the midnight buffet.

TUESDAY

Oh, noes! It was raining and cloudy outside. By the time we went for breakfast though, it had all cleared up nicely. We had planned to borrow a couple of bikes and ride down to the Paradise Island resort, but a couple of circuits on the beach cruiser style contraption revealed that neither of us were particularly competent at pedalling backwards to stop, and we were advised to get the bus into town instead.

This we did… but not before a good session of toasting by the pool. We tried to go on the Internet again but it appeared the resort staff had gotten wise to our ruse and we were thrown off. Boo.

After lunch we took the bus into town. I dragged Nick into a dress shop to try on something I had no real intention of buying, and then we walked the 2 ½ miles downtown and over a long curved bridge to Paradise Island. Enormous pink towers reared up at us as we passed the crest of the bridge. Everything was like a Disney version of the Bahamas: clean and glossy, with the pastel shades just a little too bright. Docked in the marina were dozens of swanky yachts, one with its own small helicopter lashed to the deck.

The casino was massive and disorienting. I reached into my bag to get out my normal glasses, having come into the dimly lit hotel and casino in my prescription sunglasses. As I did so, I wondered to myself what would happen if I broke my glasses. I opened the case and on cue they fell out onto the floor in two neat pieces. Scrabbling about, I realised that a screw had come loose and I had no hope of finding it on the floor of a busy casino, wearing sunglasses.

Somewhat despondent at the idea of spending the rest of the week fumbling about in shades, I had to cling to Nick as my guide through the darkened corridors lined with luxurious shops, until we found the public access to Cabbage Beach. All beaches in the Bahamas must have such access: private beaches are not permitted. The soft sand dropped away sharply, forming a slope that in turn caused enormous waves to crash onto the beach, to the combined terror and amusement of the bathers. Nick and I bounced around under the waves, the sea revealing itself to be a pussycat really, as the biggest breakers lost most of their energy way before they reached us.

Damp and sandy, we took a taxi back into town (with a nice couple from Salt Lake City – we didn’t ask if they were Mormons but I guess Mormons don’t usually go to casinos) and the most famous optical store in the area. Established for over 30 years, The Optical Shoppe took $3 from me and fixed my glasses up like new. The owner said he had been fixing up or replacing holidaymakers’ glasses for years and had only failed to match a prescription once. He’d fitted the gentleman up with contact lenses instead, and sent him on his way. Opticians are a sort of private club for the visually challenged, with their own language and distinctive smell. Nick sat quietly and read the paper.

We visited Columbian Emeralds International again and got the sales staff all excited over nothing. On any given moment staff outnumber the customers by about five to one and they clearly haven’t heard of browsing. Gesture at something, and a shopgirl is opening the cabinet to proffer you the item before you’ve had time to think. The temptation simply to leg it out of the shop is overwhelming.

I bought some Vaseline to replace the little tin I’d lost on the plane, and then we took the bus back to Breezes. We shared a pre-dinner hotdog and then had dinner. It wasn’t exactly a triumph, being American-style Chinese food, but it was adequate nonetheless.

We sneaked onto the lawn to sit on the double swing, which I assume is used for wedding photos. Unfortunately the presence of a quite powerful lawn sprinkler limited our time on the swing. We messed around in the wedding chapel, which was quite sinister in the dark.

WEDNESDAY

We were up relatively early today, as we had our snorkelling excursion at 11am. We were collected in the now customary clapped out jalopy (usually a beige Toyota minibus which has seen better days) and taken down to the docks. There were some new ships in dock: an NCL and another one, but we couldn’t see which line. Our boat chugged along the channel between New Providence and Paradise Island, and our captain pointed out various houses along the way: Tiger Woods’ surprisingly modest residence, and a white monstrosity which apparently belonged to a Saudi sheikh, who shared the pile with his four wives. The captain speculated that the prince probably had a lot of fun in that house. I imagine he has considerably more fun than he would in Saudi. I can only hope that he has the courtesy to allow his wives to enjoy it too.

We stopped off the coast of Apple Island and jumped off into the choppy and quite chilly waters to snorkel. It took me a while to get used to the waves and the cold, not to mention the lack of a snorkel, but once I did, I had fun swimming about and looking at the fish. My prescription goggles are incompatible with snorkel masks and snorkels. I tried to layer a mask on top of my goggles, and got a pretty good idea of how it feels to have your eyeballs popped out of your skull.

The crew threw some tidbits, and I soon found myself swimming through a shoal of tiny, yellow and blue striped fish. They were very nimble and able to avoid me as I peered at them.

Back on the boat, we were fed jerk chicken with rice and peas, and then carted off to the beach at Apple Island. We discovered that you could pay a little extra and have a go parasailing, banana boating or jet skiing. We were relieved to find out that we weren’t part of this group so I went rockpooling while Nick splashed about in the water. We got up to leave when the Booze Cruise arrived: like our trip, only with free alcohol.

It was only on the way back that I realised that my short snooze on the beach had caused a rather serious problem: I’d managed to sunburn my eyelids. Rather painful.

Nick went for his run when we arrived back, and I tried to coax some sense into my hair, which had transmogrified into candyfloss whilst on the trip. I’d caught sight of myself in the bus’s mirror and was appalled to see that most of it was sticking straight up in the air. I’d asked Nick if it looked OK a few minutes before, and he said it had looked fine. I asked him why he’d lied, and he said that my hair looked interesting when it was vertical.

As we went to dinner a parade of college girls went past, all dolled up. It turned out they were having some photos taken, in an arrangement known as the “Pile of Slappers”. Presumably tonight was their last night. Dinner was jerk chicken, roast beef, chicken paella, rice and salad.

I can’t say much for the entertainment here: the other night we were promised Mr Magic at 9.30 but we gave up when he failed to show before 10pm – however, we did see him at the midnight buffet, resplendent in a zoot suit. Apart from him it mainly seems to revolve around karaoke and drinking.

THURSDAY

Last full day today, and as we’d gotten burnt the day before, we spent much of the morning in two hammocks we’d found, completely shaded from the sun and screened off from the pool. The bikini-clad hi-jinks were barely 10 yards away, yet we couldn’t be seen at all.

This oddly secluded spot turned out to be very popular with the birds, who came out in force to investigate us and to see if we had any food. When they discovered that we didn’t, the sparrows proceeded to mate noisily in front of us.

Lunch was had, and then we took the jitney into town for one last time. The woman in Colombian Emeralds International looked delighted to see me: there was only one ship in today, the Carnival Destiny, and so things were a little quiet. We visited the Straw Market to buy presents for people. Haggling for things is so wearisome. I tried a new technique of hiding most of my cash so when I rooted around in my purse, it appeared I was almost skint. This worked brilliantly on one woman, who was so astonished when I solemnly counted out 8 dollars into her hand and announced that was all I had, that she handed over the goods without another word.

Nick was waylaid by a Haitian gentleman who whispered that he had some Cuban cigars. The Judge likes a cigar every now and then, so we were intrigued. The Haitian withdrew a fake Louis Vuitton holdall from under someone else’s stall with bags of loose cigars within. We asked whether we could get them into the US, which bans the import of any Cuban products – the UK does not. He said that the easiest way was to remove the labels. He then offered us a box of 10 for $60, and eventually gave it to us for $40. As we walked away I remembered a bait and switch scam that had once left a colleague of mine £200 lighter with nothing but an empty laptop case to show for it, and so I forced open the little wooden box, sure that it contained nothing but newspaper.

I’d done the man a great disservice. 10 pristine Cubans nestled within. In the shop, the same box sells for over $100.

Flushed with success, and desperate for a cup of tea, we went to Starbucks. Yes, I know. Several middle-aged gay men were puzzling over how to use the Internet. We assumed they were on the Carnival Destiny, and wondered for a while why, when we could hear its horn, they weren’t returning in a desperate rush.

Turns out it wasn’t the Carnival Destiny but the Regal Empress, off to Fort Lauderdale. We watched it depart.

I collected my newly ensmallened ring from the jeweller’s. Straight out of the cabinet, the thing was too large for my big toe. Catering for the cruise ship crowd as they do, I’m not surprised. It looked like a reasonable job.

We re-boarded the jitney and returned to Breezes. Nick went for a run and a swim while I packed. We seemed to have acquired not only gifts and trinkets, but a great deal of sand.

I had to fetch Nick as he was bobbing up and down in the surf at 7.50 and we’d booked dinner at the other restaurant, Pastafari, for 8. When I’d booked it, I’d been told it was full. When I asked if the receptionist was sure, she simply crossed out another booking and wrote mine in.

We shared the restaurant with a wedding party of 20. A review in Tripadvisor described the Breezes clientele as “Nascar“. This was completely accurate. The meal was reasonable: the buffet appetiser table had some very good options, but we weren’t given our salads and had to wait a while for our mains. Apparently the chef had come in late and the waiter informed us that she wasn’t very efficient anyway.

After dinner we went to investigate the toga party. The staff were parading on stage in various conceptions of togas, none of which seemed true to the spirit of Rome. However, the Spring Break kids seemed to love it, which is the main thing.

FRIDAY

When I’d asked the receptionist what time our shuttle to the airport left, and she’d said 8.30, Nick had sent me straight back to double check and then checked himself. He wasn’t terribly keen on getting up that early. Nevertheless, that was the time, so we duly got up and had breakfast in plenty of time. We shared the bus with some USAF personnel who clearly commuted to the airport this way every morning to tinker with their stricken aircraft. Interestingly, they all seemed to be native Spanish speakers. As the JetBlue plane taxied, we spotted the two khaki planes with the engineers scurrying about.

Two hours of watching How Clean Is Your House and the iconic Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares featuring Bonaparte’s later, we were in New York. I excitedly swapped my SIM cards over on the plane. Apparently England had tried to call a couple of times, but BTC didn’t seem to want to put this through to me.

The next hurdle was getting from JFK to Newark airport. There is a shuttle service, and we had to share this with two girls from Buffalo who spent the whole trip snapping and loudly chewing copious quantities of gum. Had they been the 17 year olds they fondly imagined themselves to be, this would have been mildly annoying, but they were both approximately 10 years older than this. We endured two hours of listening to their saliva being moved vigorously around their constantly open mouths.

Yes, 2 hours. It actually takes slightly longer to get from JFK to Newark than it does to get from the Bahamas to New York. We then had to take another shuttle to the hotel. We were slightly consoled to discover that the girls were staying at the Howard Johnson, which is apparently in Tripadvisor’s top 10 dirtiest hotels in America.

The Country Inn is nice enough, and has a sort of book crossing scheme where you can take books and then return them by post. Nick was delighted to see, as we entered the room, that there was a jacuzzi next to the bed. He spent the rest of the evening in a state of advanced anticipation.

We travelled into town via the Air Train and the NJ Transit, and then walked from Penn Station to the Brasserie where we met Terence and his new fiancee, Roberta. The Brasserie has a sort of 1950s airport theme, and serves lovely food. At the table next to us were seated 6 or 7 women in prom dresses and fascinators. We assumed they were a hen party. I met two of them in the loo and took a photo for them: they were indeed a hen party, from London, and the night had a Sex And The City theme. I said they were the best turned out and best behaved hens I’d seen for a long time.

Back at the hotel, I watched the end of the Matrix Reloaded, which was actually worse the second time around, and Nick had his bath. He was very happy to be wallowing about in neck-deep water.

SATURDAY

OMG I had to get up at 5.40 this morning to get washed before our flight. This being accomplished, we took the shuttle into the airport again, sharing it with a tiny United Airlines flight attendant in a shabby uniform. The driver was kind enough to take us to our terminal, and we had breakfast in the Virgin Lounge which isn’t nearly so nice as the one in Heathrow. There’s no spa here, and the tea comes out of a machine.

I paused to buy a New York Times for Mrs M before we boarded the plane home. The flight was very smooth again, and I had cornflakes for breakfast. Cornflakes at 35,000ft are great fun.

I watched a documentary called the Girls of the Playboy Mansion, which was most amusing, and then Superbad, which was OK. No Country For Old Men was a film I tried to watch, but it was so tremendously boring that I gave up. Like a big bowl of bran flakes, you know it’s good for you, but it’s just too stodgy.

We landed in Heathrow at 7.30pm. There was a huge queue at Immigration, snaking round and round the huge hall. There was no queue for the IRIS machines, however, but I suspected there was a good reason. Indeed, it took a few goes for it to recognise me. I had to remove my glasses, which then made it very difficult to line my eyes up with the targets. However, I passed. The 20 minutes it had taken to register for the scheme had been well spent.

Out of the airport, it soon became apparent that our ride hadn’t showed up. This was quite upsetting for a while, but we philosophically opted for an adventure and took the Piccadilly line instead. Some loud, annoying boys got on at Hatton Cross and bellowed at each other until Leicester Square. However, as they got off the train they paused to pick up all their litter, so I forgave them.

Smells.

Throughout history humans have used plants, minerals and unusual animal glands to make perfume. Such fragrances were expensive, rare and often used only for sacred purposes. Even now, the right perfume on the right person can have an astonishing effect on those fortunate enough to catch a whiff. Perfume houses like Penhaligon can spend hours with a customer ensuring that they are matched with just the right fragrance, which is never overpowering.

However, the invention of synthetic aromatic compounds and mass production has meant that everyone can afford their own pot of scented unction. In fact, perfume’s profit margins are so attractive that many fashion houses’ main income comes from perfume and cosmetic sales: their seasonal collections are becoming more of an advertisement for the branded fragrances than the clothing itself. Even if you cannot stretch to a Burberry cap, you can probably spring the £30 for some Burberry perfume. Reality TV stars and WAGS have also cottoned on to the fact that launching a perfume carries less risk, both financially and to their reputation, than the traditional money spinner of a novelty single. They simply visit a perfume factory, choose a scent, choose a shade, bottle and name, and then watch the cash roll in.

Unfortunately, as with cheap booze, easily affordable and powerful perfume carries with it the risk of abuse. And some people abuse perfume the way others will abuse White Lightning cider. In the late 1980s, Dior’s Poison was a revolutionary fragrance in more ways than one. The overtly sexy advertising promoted a scent so richly powerful that it could knock a donkey off its hooves at ten paces. There was at the time some newspaper coverage of bars and offices that had banned women from wearing the scent because it was so incredibly intrusive. More recently, other spectacularly powerful and sickly fragrances have been launched including Clinque’s Happy, which smells mostly like flowers mixed in with a little bit of sick, and Givenchy’s Insolence, which smells mostly like flowers mixed in with a little bit of toilet cleaner.

The abuse takes place like this. It does not take long for one’s own nose to become used to a smell, so the wearer is probably barely aware of its effect. However, it only takes one woman, fresh from her morning ablutions, to stink out the carriage with a blast of Happy. Since the ban on smoking in public, pubs and bars no longer have the protective veil of stale cigarette smoke, and so a City bar on a Friday evening is wreathed instead with stale perfume… and aftershave.

For the biggest offenders of all are not usually women. Perhaps because women tend to have a slightly more sensitive sense of smell (particularly during the luteal phase of their menstrual cycles), they are slightly less likely to commit the most henious offence of all: that of what is commonly known as the “Lynx Shower”. Men, being less attuned to personal hygiene than women, can resort to spraying themselves liberally with body spray rather than actually washing. Like Jesus, they pour a bucket of perfume over their heads.

This is bad enough, but since a bottle of CKOne or Boss by Hugo Boss is often found in a young man’s christmas stocking, he may well start using that instead. “Fine” fragrances usually come in three strengths: eau de toilette is the weakest, parfum is the strongest, and eau de parfum (the most commonly sold) is in the middle. A mass market body spray like Lynx is usually around the strength of eau de toilette, because it’s designed to be sprayed all over. However, your bottle of CKOne is more likely to be eau de parfum, a far more concentrated concoction, designed to be sprayed on wrists, neck or (the most dainty) in a cloud for you to step through. When sprayed liberally all over the body, this results in the man being surrounded by a choking fug for much of the day, consisting mostly of perfume with a faintest plaintive undercurrent of the armpit smell the perfume’s trying to conceal. Of course, nasal fatigue means he can’t smell it and so feels obliged to top it up at regular intervals.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this habit is the fact that the fug doesn’t leave when its owner does. It hangs around, as if its owner were still there and tapping you gently but insistently upon your left shoulder for several minutes. BO, rank though it may be, hasn’t been selected and designed by fragrance chemists for its long lasting properties, so it has a much shorter half-life than several pints of Obsession For Men, so I believe it is the least worst option.

Gentlemen, a bar of soap costs 50p and a shower takes 2 minutes. There is no allure in smelling like drain cleaner. I wonder if the most henious offenders are those who think women are recoiling in disgust because of their reeking armpits, and so spray themselves even more liberally.

Me? When I choose to be scented, I choose the Cotswold Perfumery’s Pallas.

Ban the Internet!

With a collective sigh of relief on the part of TV networks and film producers the length and breadth of the USA, the writers’ strike has come to an end. A settlement has been agreed to solve the writers’ grievances. These were, in a nutshell, that the writers wanted to be paid not only for writing a film or TV show, but also to be paid every time that film or TV show gets broadcast or a copy of it is sold on DVD, or a ruler with an image of the character they created is sold.

Unfortunately one cannot insist that the writers take a hit when everyone else in the entertainment industry lines their pockets with this free money. Either everybody admits that they’re milking the public dry, or nobody does.

Meanwhile, the government’s latest wheeze to appease the enormously powerful anti-copying lobby, funded and backed by every media company you can think of, has been released. It’s a green paper, suggesting that anyone caught downloading unauthorised material (i.e. everybody) will be banned from the internet after being given two chances to straighten up and fly right.

Apart from being a piece of anti-privacy legislation and censorship that would cause the Chinese government to pause for thought, it is clear that nobody involved in the drafting of this paper has considered how it would actually work.

How would an ISP know that downloaded, encrypted data is copyrighted material being copied illegitimately? Perhaps we should ban encryption – meaning that all those useful things like internet banking will have to go. Perhaps we should ban bittorrents – even though plenty of perfectly legitimate data is traded this way.

And how would this ban be enforced? Would a person subject to a ban be permitted to use a computer in an Internet cafe? How about at work, or at the home of a relative? What happens if the person simply switches ISPs, or moves house? The Internet isn’t like a magazine subscription: it is a method of exchanging data.

The UK government frequently slips up in matters of technology. Grand projects go wildly over budget and fail to function properly because it appears that there is nobody with the ear of the legislature who has any idea how computers work. The NHS struggles on with a mish-mash of ancient databases that don’t talk to one another, meaning that hard-won hospital appointments with a specialist are spent filling in forms with data that could have been gotten from the patient’s GP. The ID card scheme trundles ever on, haemorrhaging cash but failing to actually produce a card the public would be happy to carry, and the DSS’s behemoth seemed unable to organise a simple SQL query (or even deleting two columns of data) in order to anonymise information that was couriered to an auditor.

Holmes Place

Dame Kelly Holmes recently opined that the reason girls are resistant to doing PE and sports in school is because of the dirty changing rooms and the archaic costume they must wear.

While she does have a point, the solution to encouraging girls to play sport, and indeed weaning boys off their monotonous diet of football, is more complicated than mere outfits.

Holmes puts forward the radical suggestion that instead of the time-honoured garb of:

* Airtex shirt. This is a white collared short-sleeved shirt with holes in it, so your bra (or lack thereof) is visible. At my school we were directed to embroider our names on them, just above the left nipple, so the gym teachers knew who they were yelling at,
* Gym knickers. These are sturdy, big pants usually made from sweatshirt type material,
* Mini skirt. Usually pleated and, when sported by the gym mistress, the source of many a young boy’s sexual awakening. This skirt barely covers the gym knickers and serves no real purpose other than to flap about and encourage speculation about what is being worn beneath;

girls should be permitted to wear tracksuits. The traditional gym kit of British secondary school girls has not changed one iota since gymslips fell out of favour after WW2. A modern school hockey pitch in mid-game does not look all that different from an illustration in a school stories annual from 1953. Bear in mind, also, that this garb was (and still is) worn in all weathers and offers precious little protection from the cold. I remember being quite interested in the fact that, when very cold, my legs developed orange splotches. These and the numbness took several hours to wear off. My school, being located close to the Yorkshire Dales, was magnanimous enough to allow tracksuit bottoms to be worn under the skirt and a regulation jumper to be worn on top, assuming you were organised enough to bring some with you – whether PE was to be inside or outside was not notified to us in advance.

You may of course argue that moving about keeps you warm. Well, yes, but that assumes the PE teacher has organised an activity where everyone is constantly moving. My PE teacher used to organise hockey matches in the snow. There is a great deal of hanging around in hockey and usually the only rapid movements are to run away from flying hockey balls or irate bulldyke team captains who have come to yell at you for hiding.

Since the British schoolgirl’s gym kit was invented, the textile industry has come a long way since Artex was pioneered. More effective wicking fabrics have been invented that keep a sports player cool and dry when needed, without being see-through or scanty. It seems bizarre that we continue to dress children in this archaic manner.

Holmes also attacked the current state of British school changing rooms. These places have a signature smell, usually emanating from both the boys’ changing room and the fulminating pile of muddy hockey boots and damp hockey socks in the corridor. One of my PE teachers was, for a while, obsessed with our all having a shower after gym. This was mad for several reasons: firstly, I went to a nice ex-grammar school full of middle-class children who washed regularly; secondly, the shower was lukewarm, apathetic and had two jets, one for the feet and one for the midriff; thirdly, it was COMMUNAL with no soap; and fourthly, roughly 70% of the class had not actually produced enough sweat to shower off in the first place. Certainly it is still a source of personal pride that I survived seven years at school without once breaking into a sweat. The teacher once marched into the changing room and demanded that I show her my damp towel, thus proving that I’d had a shower. Fortunately we were all wise to this ruse, and had been dampening our towels in the shower spray for just such an occasion.

It hardly need be said that the unsupervised changing room is an ideal location for bullying – eagle-eyed popular girls can tease the unpopular over even their choice of underwear. This provides another source of stress and worry – do you have the “correct” brand of deodorant? What is she going to notice this time? Of course it is easy to say in hindsight that a bullying victim could come to school in head-to-toe Prada, scented with Givenchy’s Amarige, and still be teased regardless (probably even more so). However, lessons like these are hard-won, and it isn’t always the case. A classmate of mine had to wear orthopaedic shoes to school and her life was made a misery as a result. When her podiatrist allowed her to wear expensive Nike trainers (and the school permitted this), she became popular overnight.

Providing decent shower cubicles – not even the most vigorous and bracing gym mistress is going to persuade recalcitrant teenage girls to use a communal shower – is a good idea but it’s hard to see how that’s going to encourage girls to do PE in the first place. A clean changing room might be nice, but given the state of most teenage girls’ bedrooms (and indeed socks), they probably don’t find it as offputting as Holmes imagines.

Modern philosophers of education may opine that competitive sports are outdated. Holmes suggests that PE should be more aware of modern exercise trends, such as self-defence or “legs, bums and tums” sessions. It’s true that if a pupil is particularly bad at competitive sports, it becomes quite difficult to persuade them to join in. Group exercise may help build their confidence.

Such sessions may also help with differentiation, which is just as important in a PE lesson as it is in Maths, and things have been improving.

It’s also the case that the obsession boys (and girls, to a lesser extent) have with football to the exclusion of everything else can be damaging. Rather like Harry Potter books and reading, it seems football in the playground at breaktime is tolerated on the grounds that the boys are at least doing some exercise. Playing football, like reading Harry Potter books, is no bad thing in itself, although it may be worthwhile encouraging boys to try other books, and other games. However, football in the playground means that the space is monopolised by careening boys and flying balls so that other children are unwilling to use it. A common sight in schools that have only one playground is a thriving football match going on in the centre, with non-playing boys and most of the girls sitting around the sides, chatting and eating.

Some schools have experimented with banning balls at breaktime and instead have tried to encourage more traditional playground games like skipping or Tig, with some success. Whilst this is often pilloried as the work of a Health and Safety obsessed society,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2000/12/08/nplay08.xml, the intention is to reclaim the playground for all children, not just those able to kick a ball around. Not only that, but some boys may find they excel at other sports, like cricket or basketball, and the hegemony of football means they rarely get a chance to practice.

Games like Tig are individually competitive, burn calories and yet do not particularly rely upon any athletic skill. A slow child learns to dodge while an agile child can outrun. Breaktimes spent running about lead to healthier children who are better able to focus during lessons – apart from anything else, they have not spent the last 15 minutes eating sweets, crisps and vividly coloured fizzy drinks.

However, there is always a place for those talented in competitive sport to flourish and compete. Inter-school sports allows those children a chance to flourish and give the school some good PR. However, the most able children and the keenest PE teachers should not then dominate the PE curriculum, as they so frequently do. Bear in mind that it is these children who then grow up to be PE teachers, and can react with incomprehension when faced with pupils who are either incapable or unwilling to do their best for the good of the team. There are many reasons for this, ranging from shyness, dyspraxia, and bullying: who’d want to benefit a team who are unpleasant to you in school?

Perhaps making competitive sports optional would spare such pupils the psychological damage. Lessons focusing on key skills in football, say, would allow a switched on PE teacher to notice ability that might otherwise be hidden in notes from parents and lessons spent shivering in the goalmouth. Those pupils could then be gently encouraged to join one of the school teams. Allowing individual competition in athletics and swimming would also be beneficial.

The most important factor is encouraging pupils, at a young age, to find an activity that they enjoy. Holmes is right to be concerned, but I think she is being distracted by changing rooms and gym kit. Modern private gyms have beautiful and luxurious changing rooms, with hot showers, fluffy towels and unguents laid on. You can wear whatever kit you like, and some of it is very stylish. However, most gyms have a drop out rate of close to 75%. It isn’t the changing rooms or the kit that are the problem. I am sure that the gym Holmes attends is similarly well-appointed, but she has no real trouble in motivating herself to attend.

The most important lesson of all, which Holmes probably learned at a very young age, is how to enjoy exercise. This isn’t an easy skill to acquire, as, thanks to millennia of evolution, our brains do not want us to overstretch ourselves in order to conserve energy. It can take between 10 and 12 sessions of a particular activity before you can truly say whether you like it or not. School is therefore an ideal time to do this, because one can be compelled to participate.

The Menzies Waterside Hotel, Bath

I think I’m fairly well travelled these days and have stayed in many hotels, both good and OK, and it seems British hotels are the worst in the world. Trip Advisor is usually the best way to ensure you don’t wind up in a shitpit, and as if to underline this, a couple of years ago, Trellis and I were lucky enough to stay at the Menzies Waterside Hotel in Bath.

We visited Botherer and had to stay over, and we’d managed to coincide our trip with the first day of term for Bath University students. Hence, the Menzies Waterside Hotel was the only place with free rooms.

It has a tacky mirrored foyer, but the outside of the hotel looks like a 1960s office block. When we tried to check in, we were told we couldn’t, because of “a problem with the water.” No more information was forthcoming, so we were turned out into the streets for an unspecified period while this problem was sorted.

After a pleasant enough day out in Bath, we returned and were finally allowed into our rooms. Now this is where the typical British hotel malaise kicks in. As usual, there were threadbare carpets and a funny musty smell. Our room was brown, basic and tiny, with scuffed clear plastic guards to protect the bland wallpaper from scrapes and bashes. The bed itself was barely a double, and was made up with what looked like a folded back bedspread at the foot. However, when I picked it up it turned out to be a strip of unpleasantly patterned material, designed to look like a folded bedspread, but in fact nothing of the sort.

No air conditioning and, apparently, no heating, led to a night both stuffy and cold. In the morning, we rejected the prospect of a £22 breakfast (for that I expect it in bed, with foie gras, caviar *and* champagne) and checked out.

And the price for this dreary experience? £140 a night. Yes, £140. For the cost of some LK Bennett shoes, an iPod Nano, an Asus Eee or a 10 course tasting menu for two at Nobu, we had a night in what was basically a Travel Tavern. The Menzies Waterside Hotel in Bath charges nearly three times as much as a Travelodge.

The Menzies Waterside Hotel in Bath is now our benchmark for both quality and cost. When planning trips, we consider whether or not our choice of hotel is cheaper, and nicer than the Menzies Waterside Hotel. So far, the Menzies Waterside Hotel in Bath is the most expensive accommodation we’ve ever stayed in (more so than the Wynn in Las Vegas or the Hotel Arts in Barcelona). It’s certainly the most depressing.

What niggles me is that the Menzies Waterside Hotel in Bath has been panned in Trip Advisor for years, yet there seems to have been no response from the management of the place. It seems people just keep on turning up and paying through the nose for the privilege of an uncomfortable bed in a cheaply decorated room in a substandard hotel, and so there isn’t any need to change anything. It certainly has not changed in the relatively short time since I stayed there: just look at the most recent reviews.

The British hoteliers need to pull their socks up. The English Tourism Council’s accommodation ratings are quantitative, not qualitative: they grade a hotel according to its facilities, not its ethos or value for money. This is why the Menzies Waterside Hotel in Bath can call itself a 4-star hotel – it offers 24 hour room service and the bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms. There is a reason why Fawlty Towers was written by an Englishman and an American: the English are so used to shabby, shoddy hotels that it takes a foreigner (and one from a country that demands good service at gunpoint) to point out how crappy it all is.

Wednesday

We slept late, and Nick went for a run around Central Park. On his return, we walked into town in order to procure presents for those brave enough to empty the cat litter tray. The streets were comparatively quiet but as the sales had started, the shops were busy. We paused for a hot dog and really only had time to browse a little before we had to dash to the Lincoln Center for the matinee performance of the Nutcracker.

This is an odd sort of ballet, hinging as it does on one little girl’s fond regard for a kitchen utensil. It was very pretty and had I been 8, I would have been in raptures. However, there was a certain ragged unprofessionalism in the corps that I’m sure isn’t there in the NYC Ballet’s more grown up performances.

Out of the theatre and back into the shops – we bought some presents and a tie for Nick, and then struck out for home. We changed in the ultra-posh Opera suite as our room had been given to someone else, and then walked down to Daniel, a swanky restaurant, to exercise the weak dollar a little. Daniel is library-silent and plush. We were surrounded by old ladies who seemed able to consume a bottle and a half of very pricey wine per head, and still remain compos mentis. Ladies were provided with a small upholstered stool upon which to sit their handbag. Given that I had not brought my good handbag, I was quite glad to have put mine in the cloakroom.

We opted for the 6-course tasting menu, which was completely lovely, and I finished with a chocolate souffle. The kitchen adapted a couple of the courses for me to eliminate nuts, which was very kind of them, to the extent of replacing my pistachio ice cream with vanilla.

When I collected my coat, I was also handed a small panettone. I wondered whether the tipping culture in New York had gone completely haywire and now the tippees were tipping the tippers. Confused, I didn’t give the cloakroom attendant her requisite dollar, and by my action I may have tipped the cosmos out of balance.

Whatever the reason, it was tipping it down outside when we left. I nimbly erected my umbrella, and Trellis opted for getting wet. I don’t know if New York rain is corrosive or something, but as we walked back through a Central Park apparently plagued with nocturnal rapists and muggers, endless cabs slowed and hooted at us. They were not, as I first thought, admonishing us for jaywalking, but offering us a dry ride home. I wasn’t averse to this but Trellis was by this point so saturated that it really wouldn’t have made any difference. Still, I had been quite fond of the black suede shoes I was wearing.

We collected our baggage and took the subway to Penn Station, then the train to Newark Airport, and then the magical driverless pink shuttle to the airport proper. We were to stay in the airport Marriott, and we waited in the now freezing rain for the promised shuttle bus. When it arrived, it was too full and we had to wait, shivering and, in Trellis’s case, soaking, for another half-hour. What annoyed us most was that the hotel itself was barely 5 minutes’ walk away as the crow flies. One cannot actually walk, however, as this would mean crossing a no-man’s land of criss-crossing freeways and access roads to Newark’s many multi storey car parks.

The Marriott is comfortingly identical to every other Marriott in the whole world. We woke at a truly ungodly 6am and had breakfast in the basic Virgin departure lounge. They do their best but really, nothing can compare with the Virgin lounge at Heathrow, into which I’d happily move. We boarded the plane at 7.30 and took off at 8am. The excitement of cornflakes and milk at 35,000 never palls, even if it is accompanied by turbulence so violent my tea slopped out of the cup and onto the saucer.

The flight bounced all the way home. However, everyone on this plane seemed able to cope and nobody needed to have a nest built.

Tuesday

Yes, it’s christmas, but New York continues pretty much as usual.

We slept late and then walked to the Brazilian restaurant where we were to have our chrimble lunch. This place charges a flat fee. For this you get unlimited trips to the salad bar and as much meat as you want from the waiters roaming the floor armed with huge chunks of meat on massive skewers. It was completely delicious and we both felt suitably unwell afterwards.

Afterwards we went for a walk around Central Park, past the ostentatious Dakota Building and the twee plaque in Strawberry Fields. We had some trouble finding a moment when this plaque was not being photographed by sad-eyed Lennon fans so that I could take a photo of Trellis pulling a stupid face. Any murder is a tragedy but when such a senseless crime leads to a talentless wifebeater becoming an icon, an act of cruelty becomes a tawdry tourist attraction.

We had a New York Limmud. A Limmud was originally a sort of Jew-fest had over the christmas holidays, filled with music, lectures and other fun stuff. However, Blade and the Little Zionist have reinvented Limmud as an excuse to sit in bed all day eating chewy sweets and watching TV. We spent much of the day in this manner, in the company of BBC America.

We took the subway back into town in the evening, to watch The Farnsworth Invention. We were in the front row, which meant we were repeatedly showered with Hank Azaria’s germs. It is a brilliant play.

We repaired home for chicken soup, bath and bed, with The Dog Whisperer.

Monday

It may not have been completely wise to have chosen today as a shopping day. Judge Mailer had specified that he wanted a collared long-sleeved polo shirt from Abercrombie and Fitch. Valiantly, we struggled through what appeared to be a dimly lit nightclub masquerading as a clothes shop, but found nothing meeting his requirements. A later check of their AW07 stock proved that A&F do not have such a shirt in their current collection.

We had a look for some running shoes for the Judge as well. He apparently wants the most expensive Asics trainers and will not settle for anything else regardless of whether they are right for his idiosyncratic running style. We went to a few shops but had to retreat and regroup as we were meeting the Woolfs and Levine for lunch.

Lunch was in a grimy Irish pub next to a parking lot: they park cars one above the other now, the upper car being supported on a hydraulic platform. For this you will pay $16 an hour or nearly $100 a day. I had fish and chips for lunch and was expecting something American about it: what I got was an Everest of chips and an extra fish.

Levine accompanied us to Time Square, where the boys then abandoned me to shop alone. This wasn’t so bad because I knew what I wanted, and did not need to browse. I briefly went into Macys but spent approximately 30 seconds inside before battling my way back to the door. While the other shops were not so terribly crowded, Macys resembled Agincourt shortly before the archers arrived.

Levine and Trellis were relaxing in a diner during all this, and I met them for tea a little later on. We returned back to the hotel for a short while, before getting ready for Dai, a slightly off-Broadway show about Israel.

Such one-woman shows can go either way, but Iris Bahr’s performance was brilliant, a series of monologues illustrating the diversity of beliefs and opinions of modern Israelis, punctuated by a suicide bombing of a cafe. It is a shame that this show is unlikely to make it to London – but I can picture many people walking out if it did. There were many uncomfortable truths in this show, revealed sensitively yet unapologetically.

After Dai, we visited Archie’s Diner for their all-year-round Thanksgiving turkey dinner, which consisted of an entire turkey each with stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash and cranberry sauce. Stomach pump optional.

Sunday

We woke at a not unreasonable 7.30 and had a morsel of a smidgen of something before meeting new New York native, Levine, for brunch with a young lady friend of his.

Levine is doing a postgrad at Columbia, having realised that being single and loaded had some advantages after all. His flat is tiny but serviceable, and the diner he took us to was crowded and staffed with the usual abrupt serving staff that New York produces so efficiently. I had smoked salmon hollandaise, my salmon swimming in a sea of butter and mayonnaise, topped with two fatuously poached eggs.

From the diner, we took our leave of Levine’s young lady friend and visited a judaica shop where I finally managed to lay my hands on a battery operated channukiah. This one is not only a steal at $20, but plays a very annoying version of some Jewish folk song.

We then walked into the city, past NYU. The streets were deathly quiet, which Levine observed was very odd. Levine had promised us a trip to a proper tea shop. However, he couldn’t find this particular tea shop so we had to go to a second one in Greenwich Village called Sympathy for the Kettle. This was a very nice little place that didn’t kick me out when I demanded milk and sugar (not honey!) with my organic Assam. Whilst I am happy to have my tea black, I tend to only do this in a region where I know I can have an unlimited supply of proper builders’ tea. In a nation where one usually gets a bag of Lipton and some lukewarm water, I am not inclined to sacrifice my proper cuppa for the sake of manners. Besides, my palate is sufficiently developed that I can well taste the difference between Tetley fannings and dust and proper single estate FOP, even with the addition of milk and sugar.

Levine had a bizarre smoothie that looked like dishwater topped with scum, apparently very good “for the allergies”. I wondered aloud whether this meant it would set them off, or cure them. Either way, this didn’t sound great: an allergen, or a powerful steroid that would destroy your immune system. Nick had an argument with the waitress about honeybush. She seemed convinced that honeybush was a type of rooibos, left to dry a little longer and flavoured with honey. He informed her that honeybush is a different genus to rooibos, which seemed to make her quite angry. It turns out that the difference goes a lot deeper than genus: down to the phyllum.

We went to the matinee performance of Avenue Q. This was not as good as you might expect given the gushing accolades on the side of the theatre. Rather than a filth-ridden parody of Sesame Street, it had a narrative of puppet meets puppet. However, the performers were good and it wasn’t a waste of time.

Refreshed, we walked to Chinatown for some justifiably famous Chinese food at Joe’s Singapore. We were unceremoniously plonked on a table with a family of strangers, but in the end the goodness of the fare encouraged us to taste each other’s meals, which was quite fun. The whole dinner came to less than $50, i.e. under £10 a head.

We had bubble tea for dessert, at a posh bubble tea bar with a clearly placed sign demonstrating the Heimlich manouvre.

I didn’t mention the fact that it was pouring with rain all day, did I? Well, it was.

When we returned home, I found a huge blood blister on my big toe.

Saturday

We took a cab to Heathrow at 9.30, stopping only to allow the driver to go and have a wee at Asda. We checked in and hung out, as it were, in the Virgin Upper Class lounge until our flight at 2pm. I had a haircut – finally – and Nick had a shave which seemed to involve the removal of much of the skin from his jawline.

The flight was quite bumpy, for a change. This wasn’t particularly scary, but it was annoying when I went to take a sip of my drink and found the glass moving of its own accord. I was on the verge of asking for a straw. The cabin crew admired my bravery at having the soup.

The woman in the seat next to me was having a hard time: due to the partitions between seats in Upper Class, I didn’t realise what was happening until Nick told me that she had spent the turbulence freaking out and the cabin crew, along with her travelling companions, had built her a nest out of blankets and pillows. She huddled in this nest, cuddling a teddy bear, until the bumpiness had passed. Had I known, I would have suggested some whisky and a couple of lightly-tossed Valium.

We landed at JFK at about 5 in the evening and in a low-dollar fuelled fit of extravagance, took a cab to our guest house. The cab driver was a charming Sikh gentleman who spent the whole trip muttering softly in Punjabi into his hands-free phone. The traffic wasn’t too awful and we got to the Inn New York City, on the Upper West Side, for about 6.30. Mine hostess is a nice Barbra Streisand lookalike called Ms Mensch, whose poor eyesight seems to have dictated the lighting arrangements in our suite. Each room has about 8 light switches, all at convenient groping height, and all adjustable.

Our bed is on a high, stepped deck. This would have suited Nick’s old nanny, who apparently believed that one should prop up a bed as high as possible in order to escape the bogeymen that live beneath. Through the bedroom, there is a long galley kitchen with nibbles including shortbread and popcorn, and a nicely stocked fridge. On into the bathroom, there is a massive jacuzzi bath, barber’s chair and separate loo, bidet and shower room. The bathroom also has an open fireplace and a cupboard full of the owner’s scary china doll collection.

We met Nick’s relatives: his aunt, uncle, cousin and cousin’s girlfriend, at a nice chain restaurant called PJ Clarke’s. It is how a TGI Fridays would be if TGI Fridays were middle class, had a simpler menu and cooked things from scratch rather than scorching frozen things in a microwave. Nick had one of their justifiably recommended burgers and I had a shepherd’s pie consisting of a whole minced sheep covered in mashed potato.

Thus stuffed and tired, we went back to the guest house. Nick swam about in the bath for a while and we went to bed at midnight. The jet lag didn’t wake us at 4am as we feared, but instead, the NYPD were kind enough to wake us every now and then by driving very slowly down the street outside, making their siren go “WHAP…WHAP” .

Illiteracy

It is fundamental to the future success of society that computer literacy is considered as significant as functional literacy. It is technical illiteracy that has led to the farce of the NHS’s Choose and Book system. It is technical illiteracy on the part of management that has led to HMRC being unable to randomise and anonymise a database (the work of under an hour) for the National Audit Office, and sending two unencrypted CDs with the full database instead. Even I would be able to delete a couple of columns from a database, and I know almost nothing about them.

Bill Thompson is usually quite bland, but he makes a good point here. We now have a generation of people who are able to create quite impressive looking websites and social networking pages, but who would be utterly flummoxed when asked to change their SMTP server.

I could draw a comparison with cars, in that 20 years ago just about everyone would have been able to facilitate a quick oil change or replace their spark plugs. However, most modern cars would have their warranties invalidated if you so much as peek at the engine, and instead we pay for garages to do that stuff for us.

But this isn’t really a fair comparison. Car engines have become much more complicated – and much more reliable. There isn’t often a need for DIY car maintenance any more. But there is still a need for people to be able to tinker with their computer’s back end every now and then. Everyone should, as Thompson says, be familiar enough with their mail client to change their SMTP server, much as everyone is capable of topping up their screen wash. But it appears that they are not.

I have a colleague who became utterly confused when I, in a fit of energy saving madness, switched her monitor off. She did not even know how to find the on switch, and instead turned the PC on and off with a mounting sense of panic. When the PC crashed a few days later, she blamed me for turning off the “screen”, although I did try to explain that the monitor could have absolutely no influence upon the performance of her PC proper. I have long ago learned not to react with amusement or surprise when someone asks me advice on how to resize an Excel column. They do not know, nobody has shown them, and they have never been confident enough to work it out for themselves.

This confusion and fear when a computer does something unexpected is everywhere. It is prevalent in a faked viral video where an office worker repeatedly tries and fails to print something. In a fit of frustration, he slams his (CRT) monitor on the photocopier, and attempts to copy the image. Clearly this would not work – perhaps it might if he had used an LCD screen instead. This video brought uproarious laughter from just about everyone who viewed it, except me. Presumably this isn’t just because I’m a snotty, humourless old sod, but also because I do not share this experience. If something won’t print, I check the settings of both the software and my printer, and adjust them accordingly. If the printer is jammed, I can unjam it.

It is also prevalent in people’s attitudes generally: when you ring a call centre, and the operator blames her “system” for being slow. It’s in the camera shop, when their digital printing PC infects your USB drive with a virus because the shop manager didn’t know such things could be spread that way. It’s in the pretty pink forums, where users pepper their postings with smiley faces and twee images, but are unable to use simple HTML to create a hyperlink.

We should be as ashamed of our computer literacy as we would be if we were unable to operate a telephone. The two tools are fundamental to our existence. What future is there for a $100 laptop if nobody is able to teach children how to use it?

How quickly an opinion can change.

I never really had strong feelings about second-rate journalist and broadcaster Andrew Collins before. He’s always been a slightly unkempt presence on various celebrity panel games, clip shows and Radio 4 “comedy” chat shows. However, this morning’s experience just goes to show how quickly a non-committal shrug can turn into a desire to see someone committed to an institution.

I have recently become acquainted with his blog. It appears the inoffensive Mr Collins is in fact a stupid person who believes that Gillian McKeith is a real doctor with a real qualification who has a lot of good things to say about nutrition. Of course, and Japan really is hunting whales for scientific purposes. If Ms McKeith’s qualification from a tinpot degree farm makes her a real doctor then I must be one too, since although I never went to medical school, my parents bought me a Fisher-Price medical kit with functioning stethoscope when I was about six years old. And I’m sure my father and sister (both real live scientists) have a white coat or two they could lend me.

Collins also believes homeopathy is an effective medical treatment. Homeopathy is a sort of magic spell whereby someone can take, say, a vial of sedated gorilla blood, dilute it down until not one molecule of the original substance could possibly remain, drip the resulting fluid onto some sugar pills, and then flog them for £6.50 a bottle to someone so gullible and foolish that they not only genuinely believe that the stuff will make them feel better, but also that quantum specialness will ensure that the water will remember the gorilla blood, and that this is what will make them better. Homeopathy has been demonstrated to be nothing more than a placebo in reputable medical trials, and has been demonstrated to be effective only in comedy pretend medical trials. That is an actual demonstrable factual fact with a side helping of factiness.

I am not sure what the gorilla thinks about all this. A docile primate who spends most of its time eating leaves…? Sounds like a stereotypical homeopath.

Poor Mr Collins was apparently so very upset by the excellent Ben Goldacre (who, like, got his PhD from, like, a *real* university, and is your actual, genuine, medical doctor – and I forgive his cretinoleftism because everything else he says is so good) and his brilliant column in Friday’s Guardian that he had to indulge in some therapeutic birdwatching.

Collins was then so upset by one poster in particular that he’s now enforced comment moderation so that nobody can now point out how very stupid he sounds when he claims that a recent indulgence in the EVILS OF WHEAT have made him feel a bit tired.

I don’t get too involved in online scepticism any more: I suppose I completed my own investigations some time ago, to the extent that I can now recognise woo a mile off, even if it’s wearing a smart suit, a decent haircut and uses words like “quantum”. However, I am still active enough to make a couple of snap judgments and pigeonhole someone as a fool after reading a couple of his blog posts.

…tacit.

Goodbye, King’s Cross Thameslink

The end of an era is nigh. In early December, King’s Cross Thameslink will close and trains will instead call at the new, shiny, St Pancras Thameslink station.

King’s Cross Thameslink will be sorely missed. It has had a unique character and charm all its own. To start with, getting there from the main station was always an exciting people safari – a fun walk down the Pentonville Road which was enticing enough during the day, but incredibly colourful at night. The sticky pavements and road crossings which managed to be both confusing and lethal all at the same time just made it even better, especially with heavy luggage. The alternative, underground passage had an odd fresco, repeating the word “SMILE” in bright primary colours.

Oh, I have to SMILE, do I? I have to SMILE as I trail down this endless, gaudy corridor, do I? I have to SMILE at the prospect of either a trip on a Thameslink train, a trip on the Underground or navigating King’s Cross? OH, ALL RIGHT THEN, I’LL SMILE. Do I have to SMILE at the talentless busker or the smelly person sitting next to me on the Victoria Line too?

Once at the station, you would then run the gauntlet of various people asking for money, offering sex, selling drugs or, periodically, all three. Inside, the FCC automatic ticket machines would frequently debit your card, retain it for a few minutes, and then spit it out sans tickets. The ticket office was manned by a staff so miserably inefficient and slow, it was as if they derived substantial pleasure from the knowledge that their lack of haste in selling the precious ticket would lead to your missing the train.

Past that hurdle and through the barriers, you could not safely run for your train. This was for two reasons: firstly, the three flights of stairs down to the platform, and secondly, the very slippery floor covering said stairs that meant any mad dash for the last local service for an hour might very well lead to a broken neck.

The platforms were gloomily lit, with inappropriate happy posters showing happy people happily taking their happy train to some happy destination. This merely served as an ironic juxtaposition when your filthy, overcrowded train finally arrived. When waiting for your train to turn up (on platform B), you had two choices. You could either stand, or perch oddly on a sort of misericord which was both too high and too shallow to serve as a seat. This latter option was made even more depressing when you realised that your feet were now lodged in a gutter that rapidly filled with sick and discarded takeaways in the evening. Inaudible announcements muttered about late or cancelled trains and several of the digital clocks were broken, leading to bizarre times like “28:1H”.

Waiting for the local service late at night, the uninitiated passenger would become excited at the sound of an approaching train, and peer down the tracks in anticipation. However, the more jaded regulars would recognise that this was in fact the sound of the nearby Victoria line trains, taunting us with their audible frequency.

However, it’s not all nostalgia. I am sure that First Capital Connect will continue to carry the pioneering torch of King’s Cross Thameslink. I am absolutely convinced that a new shiny station will do nothing to change FCC’s culture of laissez faire as far as the trains themselves go. Long live the inhumanly crowded four-carriage local services in peak hours, when passengers frequently erupt into fights over space that a battery hen would consider inadequate. I believe the policy of running four empty, eight carriage services an hour fast from KX to St Albans will continue anon.

I hope they never try to get rid of the little frisson of excitement at the prospect that the driver might suddenly decide that he didn’t want to do any overtime and would instead go fast from Hendon to St Albans, turfing off everyone who wanted to get off in between. There’s nothing quite like a long walk from Hendon to Mill Hill in the middle of the night, when you’ve missed the last bus and have had your bag (with cash and phone) stolen beforehand.

They should carry on never announcing when a train is late, or explaining the reasons why the train is late to 100 people on a freezing platform at Mill Hill Broadway who have been there so long a couple of them have built a five-foot high snowman? And I do hope that the trains are always shabby and the seats often damaged – oh, and I really hope they continue to refurbish the 325 units to ensure there are fewer seats overall, but upholstered in a nice shade of pink.

Finally, FCC should never try to get rid of the smell of stale wee in Mill Hill Broadway’s subway. It just wouldn’t be right.

Goodbye, King’s Cross Thameslink. I hope St Pancras Thameslink grows, with enough time and neglect, to be just like you.

A commonplace book on the internet.