Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A Titanic bargain

Image totally yoinked from Titanic Universe

From 31st March to 31st May 2011, Belfast played host to the Titanic 100 Festival, celebrating 100 years since Titanic was built and launched. Yes, she might have sadly met her end with that damn iceberg in 1912 (only 99 years ago) and the resulting deaths are not really something to celebrate, but as the saying around these parts goes, "she was fine when she left here!"

I've always been interested in the story of Titanic - I guess that just comes with growing up in the city that built her - but sadly there hasn't really been any one central place dedicated to telling her story, just bits and pieces in various museums and exhibitions. I was pleased that a whole room had been set aside for Titanic last time the Yorkshireman and I visited the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and I merrily spent a while looking at all the memorabilia that had survived and reading transcripts of the ship's log and personal accounts of those onboard. However that was about it for Titanic really.

I guess I just assumed that no-one really wanted to shout about one of the most infamous maritime disasters of all time in case it seemed disrespectful, but given how huge Titanic was at the time, both in size and fame, it seemed a shame that such an achievement should just be ignored. And not just Titanic itself, but the feats of the Belfast shipbuilding industry in general - we were the biggest and best in the world at that time by all accounts. Imagine, Belfast being famous for something other than pointless violence!

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum has now developed its Titanic display into the new TITANICa exhibition, which seems to go some way to addressing the issue but the museum is a bit too far out of the city centre to make it on to most tourists' must-see lists and so a fitting celebration of Titanic still seems currently lacking.

Clearly the good people at the helm of tourism in Belfast felt the same way and hence sprung the Titanic 100 Festival, with its aim to commemorate "the centenary of many key milestones of the ship's construction as well as some significant centennial anniversaries connected to the Titanic", for example the opening of the Thompson Dry Dock on 1 April 1911, the launch of Nomadic on 25 April 1911 and the launch of Titanic on 31 May 1911. I'd been keeping an eye on the events listed as part of the festival with every intention of at least going on one of the free tours one weekend, but we were a bit busy those few months and I didn't quite get around to it. As 31st May had now come and gone, I thought I had missed my chance.

However last Friday afternoon I was perusing the Belfast City Council events guide for potential entertainment for the approaching weekend (my only alternative seemed to be buying protective safety gear and trying my hand at rollerblading – the Yorkshireman believes that this will increase my confidence for ice-skating - I think he is just trying to kill me) and I noticed that the free Titanic Bus Tours were again running as part of the Belfast Maritime Festival. I decided fate was telling me to take the plunge and go to sea. There was just something fishy about that rollerblading malarkey. Arrrr you bored of the marine-based puns yet?

Luckily when I called on Friday afternoon there were still a couple of tickets left for the 2pm Titanic Bus Tour and so it was decided - no rollerblading for me, yay!

On Saturday afternoon we finally rocked up at the Belfast Welcome Centre at about 1.55pm - the Yorkshireman has very poor bus karma, which means every time we are waiting for a bus together I somehow end up waiting about ten minutes longer than I normally would alone and I end up getting anxious about the potential of being late (a fate worse than death). I think he must have killed an omnibus driver in a previous life or something. But in spite of my timekeeping concerns everything went smoothly and we had collected our tickets from the front desk at the Welcome Centre and taken our seats upstairs on the double-decker Metro bus with a few minutes to spare before we set off. The bus was full except for about two seats so the tour was clearly popular.

Our tour guide, who I think was called Stephen (sorry I'm useless with names - let's just assume for the purposes of this blog that his name was in fact Stephen), was part of the Belfast Titanic Society and more than capably showed us some of Belfast's Titanic hotspots, including the Titanic Memorial statue at Belfast City Hall, the Harland and Wolff Drawing Offices where Titanic was designed by Thomas Andrews, the slipway where Titanic was launched and the Thompson Dry Dock where she was painted, fitted out, etc.

The exciting part for me was that we actually got to go inside the Drawing Office and stand on the slipway. I've been on a good few Belfast city hop-on-hop-off bus tours in my time and they usually drive you past these places and point them out, but the doors of the Drawing Office have always remained firmly closed and the slipway gated off. However this weekend was the exception and it was great fun being allowed into places that are usually off-limits - you feel almost naughty, like you've sneaked in!

I've always thought the Drawing Office was a lovely old building and wish they'd do something to make the most of it. Actually going inside was a bit of a surprise - on the one hand there are these beautiful marble and dark wood walls in the entrance hall and intricate craved detail around the arched and windowed ceiling in the main office, but on the other hand the paint has all chipped away and there's a smell of damp in the air. Some effort has clearly been made to spruce it up a little bit in recent years but the building is still very much straddling that fine line between glory and ruin and I hope someone decides to invest in the potential glory before it's too far gone.

We only really got to enter to main office and have a very quick look into a side passage leading to the boardroom, but I would love to have gone exploring the whole place. Instead I made do with a look at the displays about the ships that had been conceived in that very room and also trying on some hats akin to what ladies would have worn in the days of Titanic. I made the Yorkshireman try one on too - he was not amused but looked very pretty.

I really liked standing on the slipway too. I'd been to the dry dock before and, not knowing very much about shipbuilding, I'd always had it in my head that Titanic was just sort of built there in its entirety. It never really occurred to me that she would have been built and launched from elsewhere and only really finished off in the dry dock. And to be fair, even when we were standing on the slipway itself, I didn't really get it. It was just a big flat area of tarmac with piles of rubble and pebbles and weeds and broken shells (apparently the seagulls drop them there).

However Stephen explained that once upon a time, it really had sloped from the highest point right down into the sea, but that when the slipways had stopped being useful and the shipbuilders decided they needed more room to store shipbuildy-type-things, they just filled it all in with rubble and put tarmac over the top. However the slipways (there are two, one that Titanic was launched from and the other that her sister ship the Olympic was launched from) have been declared scheduled monuments and it's now necessary to dig up all the tarmac and rubble again to restore the slipways to their former glory.

I think that will be a very nice touch for that area, especially since the slipways are at the foot of the new Titanic Belfast building that is currently under construction and due to open next April, so you'll be able to learn about Titanic being launched and then just look out the window and see the actual slipway itself - it will add a certain sense of realism to the whole thing. Stephen also told us about some très cool plans for Titanic Belfast, whereby some very fancy multimedia will make it so that you will be able to see the launch of Titanic as if you were actually there. I hope it turns out as awesome as it sounds.

So anyway, after a very interesting afternoon of Titanic-themed learnin', our bus tour dropped us off outside the Odyssey so we could continue our nautical experience at the Maritime Festival. I didn't go on any of the ships but people seemed to be having a lot of fun exploring them. I instead reverted to a five year old and wanted to play with the Exploris touch tank but apparently you're not actually allowed to touch the creatures - aww! We had a brief look around the market but it's always the same stalls as every other year and, indeed, every Continental Market at the City Hall, so cut our losses and went home.

It really was a very interesting tour though - if they start running them again I would highly recommend booking your tickets, especially if they are still the bargainous price of free! Failing that, if you're itching to learn more about Titanic, you could always check out the TITANICa exhibition and then if all goes according to plan it won't be long until Titanic Belfast is open. Does it make me a titanic dork that I'm really looking forward to visiting it? Actually don't answer that...

Monday, 27 June 2011

Fields of rock

For those who have been cut off from the outside world for the last few days, this weekend was the Glastonbury music festival.

I always feel a bit torn about music festivals. On the one hand: I'm in my 20s; I like music; I listen to Radio 1... I like to think I have a vague knowledge of what music is currently supposedly "cool" (even when I don't personally like it); and I think I could totally get into the right mindset to jump up and down like a loon with thousands of other loons singing along to awesome bands rocking out on stage. On the other hand: I (rather controversially I realise) tend to think that live music is only "better" than the recorded version if you're actually there at the time to experience the atmosphere; I inevitably only know/like a handful of the acts listed; and I wouldn’t fancy lying in mud all night listening to hyper students get drunk and/or high and/or stoned beside my tent or using minging portaloos.

However when the BBC covers festivals like Glastonbury or Reading and Leeds, I always end up tuning in to the coverage for a little while, just to see what the craic is. This weekend was no exception and I had a couple of hours of fun on Saturday and Sunday playing with the multiscreen on the red button. I have no idea when the acts they were showing actually played (either Glastonbury is a magical place where it is daylight and night-time simultaneously or they were re-showing acts that had played earlier in the day) but they had a good variety available anyway.

On the Saturday night I tuned in on time to see an old favourite band of mine from my student days, Jimmy Eat World. That brought back a few memories. In fact just as I started eeeeeing with delight as they played the opening chords of The Middle, the Yorkshireman reminded me that I'd put that very song on a CD I sent him early in our relationship. Bless.

Next up was Coldplay. Now, everybody on Twitter and on the radio this morning was absolutely raving about their set. But - and I hesitate to say this because doing so usually results in huge gasps of horror and tirades about my lack of worth as a human being, etc, etc - I just don't get Coldplay. To me they're just dreary and boring. I even tried giving them a go for a couple of minutes on Saturday night but when my mind started to wander I figured enough was enough and quickly switched to another act. I don't know quite what it is about them that makes me dislike them so. I can only pin it down to being the same thing as makes me dislike bands like Radiohead and Travis. They're all just so depressing. Life is depressing enough - why would you then want to listen to music that just compounds any feelings of discontent you may already be harbouring? I just don't get it. But hey, each to their own. I guess when I'm feeling a bit down in the dumps I just want my music to get me up and jumping again.

Speaking of which, when Coldplay had sufficiently bored me, I switched over to Aloe Blacc. At first I didn't really know who he was, other than instantly funky! I really took straight away to his groovy soul music and was enjoying his set very much… and then he broke into I Need A Dollar and the Yorkshireman and I were like "Oh that's him!" I really like that song and it seems I like some of his other stuff too, which is good to know for next time I go on an mp3-buying spree. I also thought it was über cool when he started a kind of soul medley halfway through I Need A Dollar and had the crowd singing No Woman No Cry and Maneater.

Next up I checked out Noah and the Whale, who were pretty awesome. You've got to love a live fiddle on the stage!

Lastly for that evening I watched a bit of Janelle Monae's set. I still actually don't really know who she is but I tell you something, that chick can sing. Also I loved the whole black and white theme she had going on, including some very enthusiastic backing dancers giving it stacks and also releasing loads of balloons into the crowd. The whole thing was very cool.

I'd tried tuning in on Sunday afternoon for a bit of Glastonbury fun in the sun but it seems the red button was only streaming Friday and Saturday's stuff again. Hmmm - perhaps the festival-goers are still sleeping off the night before at 2pm? But I checked back at night and it was all in full swing again.

The first set I watched last night was Paul Simon. I should explain that one of my favourite CDs of all time is The Definitive Simon and Garfunkel and I pretty much listened to it on repeat in my teens (well, in amongst Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill, Oasis' (What's The Story) Morning Glory?, The Beautiful South's Carry On Up The Charts and Spice Girls' Spiceworld - oh shush, I have eclectic tastes!). So I was pretty intrigued about this one. It was actually pretty great and I had amazing fun getting all groovy to Call Me Al in the living room.

Next up for me was Plan B. I like Plan B's music on the radio but on stage he was coming across as a bit full of himself for my liking, which I guess just comes with the job when you're arguably one of the coolest new artists on the block. But then he commented that he'd been to Glastonbury a few years before and had been standing out in the crowd like everyone else, which was kind of sweet in a way, if still a bit "yay me" for my tastes. His set was pretty good but not the best I'd seen.

Last but not least, we tuned in to the Kaiser Chiefs. Sorry, there's not enough excitement there… KAISER CHIEFS!!!! If I had to choose a favourite band of all the current British bands out there at the moment, I would have to choose the Chiefs. Whether it's because their music is just pure awesome, or whether it's because they're from West Yawksha like my darling Yorkshireman and are fellow Leeds United fans, I'm not sure, but I freaking love them! And they totally did not disappoint. Ricky was up there, jumping around, sweating away and shaking a tambourine (you've gotta love a tambourine) and had the whole crowd going. Occasionally the camera would pan out and show this veritable sea of people jumping up and down, waving giant flags and happily singing along to songs like Every Day I Love You Less and Less and Oh My God with the sunset in the background and I thought, yeah, see it's moments like this that would actually entice me to go to a festival. That's a memory that's going to linger.

Sadly the Yorkshireman and I had other televisual plans for last night so we had to switch off just as Beyoncé was about to come on and see if Glastonbury was ready for her jelly. I think I'll watch that one back on the BBC website though because everyone was raving about her set too this morning.

So that was Glastonbury 2011 anyway. There are loads of other festivals on over the summer to quench ones thirst for live music, wellie boots and overpriced refreshments, but I have to say that so far as Belfast goes I'm not very impressed with the line-up at Belsonic this year. Oxegen seems a better bet (I mean, they've got the Foos dude!) but I'm not sure it's worth the cost and all the hassle of getting down there.

I do think my festival-going countdown clock is ticking though - I don't think I'd feel comfortable slumming it with teenagers when I'm in my thirties, so I essentially have two more summers of being twenty-something to attend a festival and check that off my bucket list. I think I would rather go to the Leeds festival or something though - maybe go and stay with the Yorkshireman's family and then wander off for a couple of days, returning with muddy clothes and a raging desire to shower. Maybe next year..?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

One Summer's Day in Belfast

So the Belfast Telegraph is running their second annual One Summer's Day photography competition. The premise is to enter a photograph you took in Northern Ireland on Saturday 18 June 2011 (last weekend) and say why means something special to you.

Those of you who read my hubby's blog will know that he is a keen photographer. He's also rather good at it and repeatedly puts me to shame as he fiddles with ISO and exposure settings (I still am not clear on what these are despite repeated explanations) to capture the moment perfectly, with soft and sharp focus and bright and dark colours all in the right places and amounts. I, on the other hand, immediately turn the camera to the auto (i.e. idiots) setting when it's my turn to take a photo because otherwise it ends up a big blurry mess. My hands just are not steady enough. However I am not fond of the idiots setting on the Yorkshireman's new camera because everything ends up harshly bright. I'm probably not using it right, even on the idiots setting.

However I am always willing to give things a go even when I suck at them (see my recent adventures in ice-skating for example), and so last Saturday afternoon we set off into Belfast city centre, the Yorkshireman with his trusty digital camera and me with, well, my mobile phone. We couldn't find spare batteries for the Yorkshireman's old camera (which I loved - its idiots setting was very good!) and I refused to pay actual money for new ones so that I could take photos for a competition that I would definitely not win anyway. Hence: lower resolution phone camera to the ready!

Last Saturday was actually the day of the Lord Mayor's Parade, which is always pretty good fun, with a sort of carnival atmosphere taking over the city centre for an hour or two. The perfect opportunity for some community-themed photography! Unfortunately we slept in a bit late and completely missed it. Oops. Never mind, eh? Instead we headed up towards the City Hall where there seemed to be some kind of residual festivities still ongoing. We snapped a few photos, I tried to avoid the men on stilts (creepy and wrong, just like clowns and mimes) and resisted the urge to enjoy an Irish stew-filled bread bowl from one of the food vans (which seems pretty much like the ultimate in comfort food).

Next we walked down towards Corn Market. As usual the area was teeming with shoppers and tourists.

I snapped a few photos of some kids "breakdancing" on the Spirit of Belfast, wishing I were as cool as them… *sigh*

Actually though it depresses me somewhat that these children are indeed the future of Belfast but, as I am often forced to remind myself when confronted with my own dear baby brother, teenagers' brains are actually chemically different than adults', so they'll grow out of it eventually… right..?

Whilst in the Corn Market vicinity I was tempted to take a photograph of Starbucks, being that it is of fundamental importance in my life and, indeed, very special to me. However the Yorkshireman wasn't convinced the Belfast Tele' would really go for that explanation, so I gave it a miss. Shame.

Then it was on to the gym, which is indeed another place that means something to me - namely pain. However I didn't think that photographs of sweaty, grunting people would be greatly appreciated by the competition judges (or indeed the sweaty, grunting people themselves) so I left my mobile in my locker and ran the afternoon away on the treadmill, shamelessly eyeballing some young student-types who were filming a scene for something in the courtyard of St Anne's Square.

So all-in-all it was a pretty typical Saturday in Belfast, right down to the grey skies and drizzle. In fact the photo I took that was probably most appropriate to the competition title of "One Summer's Day" is this blurry little snap of a poor, sad umbrella, abandonned on the bus.

I'm keeping my competition entry under wraps for now but the Yorkshireman and I are both entering and will eagerly await the results, which will apparently be announced in September. I don't think I'll exactly be holding my breath, but it will be interesting to see what everyone else in Northern Ireland happened to be up to on that rainy Saturday in Northern Ireland.

For those who wish to compete against us, the deadline is 30th June, but do bear in mind that your photo had to be taken on 18th June. Bon chance!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Welcome to Avenue Q

So last night I had an absolute blast. You may recall that last November the Yorkshireman and I went to see Avenue Q on our last day in New York and loved loved loved it. I mentioned in the post I just linked to that Avenue Q was doing a UK tour but that, at the time, there were no Belfast dates, which was a shame. However a few months back very exciting news reached me that they had indeed added my own dear city to their tour… they were a-comin' to the Grand Opera House! Practically imploding with the thrill of it all, the Yorkshireman quickly gauged the interest of our merry band of amigos and got booking the tickets. They had been sitting on our fireplace, teasing us, ever since… until last night when the day had finally arrived to go see it!

We had decided to go for a nice pre-theatre dinner and there are certainly plenty of restaurants in that area we were keen to try, e.g. Rhubarb, Made in Belfast and La Boca. However we were bringing my not-so-baby brother along and he is notoriously picky with food. I foresaw limited menu choices that were sufficiently plain enough for him and tales of woe should anything come covered in jus or incorporate unacceptable vegetables. So in the end we switched our plans and headed to Wetherspoons on Bedford Street instead.

Wetherspoons gets a bit of a bad rap sometimes I think. Okay so their cheap food and drink might attract some less-than-classy punters, especially late at night on the weekends, but as an afternoon/early evening spot to have a few wee drinkies and a good value meal, it's hard to beat. My friends and I have fond memories of it especially, as it was one of our student hangouts. It's about a 5-10 minute walk from Queens (depending on how many of us needed to withdraw some vital student loan funds from an ATM en route), so it was perfect for those days when you had a lecture in the morning and then a gap until a lecture in the afternoon. What better way to sustain oneself than a big lunch and a big whack of chocolate fudge cake all for about £7? Those were the days when we were feeling a bit richer though, otherwise it was off to Spuds for lunch and buying a packet of hobnobs in the Spar next door on the way back. Ah memories...

But yes, so last night we revisited our youth and spent a pleasant couple of hours enjoying good company alongside copious amounts of food and bargainous alcohol (bottle of wine for £6.90 - how can you resist?) upstairs in Wetherspoons before walking (or in my case hobbling in high heels) round to the Grand Opera House for our evening's entertainment. Incidentally, for those who might not have been able to sleep through worrying about the issue, not-so-baby brother was ultimately very happy with his sausage, beans and chips and a side order of cheesy garlic bread. At only £25 for three huge meals, the garlic bread and a bottle of wine all in, the Yorkshireman and I were very happy too!

Upon arrival at the Grand Opera House I heard an interesting little announcement, namely that alcohol would be permitted in the theatre for that night's performance. That's a very bad thing to tell people who have already had a bottle of wine that evening and are still harbouring fond memories of drinking monster-themed cocktails the last time they went to see that show. It was kind of cool to be able to enjoy a drink in your seat for a change though. Normally I don't even bother with the bar at the theatre because by the time it gets to the interval you'd nearly be crushed in the stampede to get there and even if you do make it to the front line alive it's like a billion quid for a tiny glass of something mediocre. However last night I was still giddy with the cheapness of dinner (well, and the rosé wine…) so I figured I would indulge for a change.

The show itself was Awe. Some. For those unfamiliar, here's a quick taster - it's the opening number as performed on the Children In Need show in 2006:

We'd had a few concerns going in about the differences between the UK version and the original Broadway version, for example the Gary Coleman character being played by a man here instead of a woman like in the US and what they would say instead of "George Bush" in the song Only For Now (I won't spoil that one for you in case you plan to go see it yourself!). We needn't have worried though. Okay so there are some unnecessary differences, for example when they changed the references to Polish people to French people in Everyone's A Little Bit Racist (why?) but all in all I enjoyed the show as much last night as I did in New York.

Actually I enjoyed it even more because this time I could sing along to all the songs (we bought the soundtrack as soon as we got home from New York) and also because it was great to see everyone else's reactions to it (a couple of our merry band knew the songs and had seen a few YouTube clips but none of them had ever actually seen the show). I think everyone really enjoyed it and it's good because now they'll get my random references instead of just thinking I've gone off the deep end (again…).

It was a thoroughly top night, which ended with a 25 minute wait for a bus (spent comfortably sipping yet more drinks outside Apartment) and then an hour spent tucked up in bed with a pint of milky decaff coffee, the Yorkshireman and his laptop, watching The Apprentice on iPlayer. Well, you have to get your priorities straight: Being able to gossip about The Apprentice at work the next day > Sleep

So yes: Avenue Q is still at the Grand Opera House until this Saturday 25 June, so if you're at a bit of a loose end and you have the cash, I would highly recommend going to see it. Oh, unless you're easily offended, in which case Coronation Street may be a more appropriate thoroughfare for you. But otherwise, enjoy!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Vive LA Revolution!

So clearly the idiot rioters of East Belfast did not read my blog post yesterday, as they had a second night of gun totin' fun last night. Joyous. Can we not just send them all off to some remote field somewhere and let them have at each other? Hubby was keeping an eye on the action as it unfolded via the Interwebz last night and stumbled upon a Slugger O'Toole article which suggested that one of the reasons behind all this crap is some kind of underground leadership contest between East Belfast loyalists. So essentially people are having their property damaged, people are being shot and residents are afraid to stay in their own home… all because of the overinflated egos of some knuckle-dragging wank-stains? Fantastic. Could they not consider cage fighting instead or something, so they only harm each other? Why I oughta…

Speaking of egos have you been watching Jamie's Food Revolution Hits Hollywood? Not that Jamie has the big ego (well…) but that Superintendent dude, Ramon whatshisface, was a complete prick. The final episode of the 6-part series was shown here last night and I was glad to see that progress of some description was finally being made because the first 5 episodes generally consisted of Jamie being shunned in various ways.

I get that nobody likes to be criticised but did the Los Angeles Unified School District not kinda realise that by repeatedly squealing, "oh no Jamie, we're not letting you film in any of our schools or even talk to students about their school lunches - go away!", it made it blatently obvious that they thought they had something to hide? And it's a normal human reaction that when someone refuses to show you the truth about something, you automatically imagine that it's the worst possible situation, which means people were probably assuming the food was even worse than it really was by the end anyway. In fact by the time they withdrew all filming rights, even in the school that wanted to work with Jamie, they just looked petty and like the children's health was their lowest priority. Way to go guys!

Luckily this new Superintendent dude took over the reins while Jamie was there and he was all, "Yeah, let's make changes, but we'll start off really slowly, ok?" In the end the only accomplishment really was that the guy was planning to withdraw sugary flavoured milk from the schools. Granted it's something positive but it's not exactly on the level of the things Jamie accomplished here with his School Dinners show or in the last Food Revolution series filmed in Huntington, West Virginia, which is a real shame.

They showed discussions they had with students in West Adams High School (the school that wanted to work with Jamie) and it was astounding that almost all of the kids knew someone who was suffering with health problems caused by their diet or obesity. The number of people who had diabetes was crazy. Most of the students were really upset talking about it all and some of them were clearly in a bit of a panic about their own future, which is so sad at a time in their life when they should feel fit, healthy, invincible and ready to take on the world.

I mean, let's face facts: we live in a world where convenience and cost are the most important factors in a lot of our decisions. People are juggling so many stresses these days that they're too busy and exhausted to start making 3 meals a day from scratch and even if they had the time and energy to get down with the fresh food vibe, it's often so expensive that it makes it unrealistic. I mean, in Asda at the moment, the cheapest fresh chicken breast fillets I can buy (not organic, not free range, just your bog-standard, own-brand stuff) are £3 for 2. However I could buy a packet of turkey drummers for £1. If your household income is low or you have to feed fussy children or you don't have the time to start chopping and peeling and stirfrying when you get home from work, you're probably going to just go for the drummers. Baking tray, oven, timer, done and all for a third of the price!

However it's often said that your health is your wealth, so maybe a lack of time, energy or money isn't a good enough excuse really. And it's definitely not a good enough excuse when it comes to school meals. You can't criticise a country for becoming increasingly overweight at younger and younger ages one minute and then feed them deep fried oven chips and cheeseburgers for lunch 5 days a week the next. Junk food is created to be addictive, so if the kids are getting it at school every day, they start to want it at home too. And most parents just want to make their kids happy, so a lot of the time they'll end up giving in and feeding their kids more junk for dinner. Eventually it gets to the stage where mum goes to the effort of making a proper homecooked meal with loads of vegetables and pasta and proper meat and the kids don't even want to try it because, dude, where's all the salt and the breadcrumbs and the grease? Ah needz mah fix!

It has to end somewhere and that's why I totally support what Jamie's Food Revolution is trying to do. Okay so Jamie himself might grate on some people but what he's doing is not just a good thing, it's downright necessary. I mean, there was one scene in last night's show where he invited a bunch of local chefs for lunch and then sat them each down to a different school meal as served in the district. One guy picked up his plate of congealed goop (I don't even know what it was supposed to be) and turned it at a 90°
angle - not a single bit fell off the plate, it just stuck to it. What is that going to do to the digestive system of a child?! Yikes!

Then later they showed an example from the new menu that West Adams High would be serving next year, which was some kind of roast vegetable quesadilla made with spinach tortillas. I'm not fully convinced from the students' reactions that they completely loved it, even though they said they did, but I thought it looked delicious! Actually it looked better than our canteen food at work - maybe that should be Jamie's next project. But yeah, there was no comparison between the two dishes. Congealed, sticky, unidentifiable goop or something colourful, vegetable-laden and tasty. Hmmm, choices, choices…

Speaking of tasty, the headmaster of West Adams High was also extremely yummy-looking. If my headmaster had looked like that I probably wouldn't have skipped assembly so much. But I think it was his passion that made him more attractive - he genuinely wants what is best for those kids and these days, with so much red tape and bureaucracy and report-writing and budget restrictons, it's rare to find someone who has had doors slammed in their face repeatedly and yet still has enthusiasm and the willingness to improve things rather than just get by on the minimum requirements. Go fit headmaster!

I hope school meals do improve over time. I would hate to think that one day I might be sending my child to school every day, having made every effort to ensure their health and wellbeing at home, just for the people responsible for their education to feed them junk like it's acceptable and normal rather than an occasional treat. Some of these kids in Jamie's series genuinely thought that honey came from bears… I do not want my child to be so ignorant about what they're fueling their bodies with. So, the way I see it, go Jamie go!

If you happen to live in the USA, do sign Jamie's petition online - there is power in numbers and this is something that really can help kids get the best start in life.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

When stupidity reigns

I sit here at my desk at work angry and appalled by some of my fellow countrymen. A small minority, granted, but an unmistakably public group nonetheless. You see, last night some utter geniuses in the Newtownards Road area of East Belfast decided it would be great craic to go and have a good old riot… you know, because that's the logical thing to do for entertainment on a Monday night in summer. I mean, to quote the Interwebz, WTF people?!

I just do not understand these people. Like, at all. I get that in times of civil unrest, people find themselves siding with one group over another in an inevitably "us and them" situation, perpetuated by factors like the media and rumours and pre-conceived perceptions. I get that fear of the unknown causes anxiety, which causes tempers to flare and hence you will end up with people who had previously been neighbours now considering one another "the enemy". I get that once you feel that you or someone on your "side" has been wronged, it is only fair and just to seek vengence of some description. However somebody should tell these buckos that the troubles have been over for quite some time and that there's just no excuse for all this shit any more (not that I think there ever was in the first place but perhaps that's just me being naïve).

I mean, look at our city these days. We have modern art sculptures and high-rise buildings and chic shopping malls and new cafés and bars and hotels cropping up all over the place. We have carnivals and interesting markets and festivals celebrating film, literature, food, music and even our maritime history. We have a new big TV screen in the grounds of our City Hall, where last night I stopped for a few minutes to soak up the atmosphere as some people had settled down to enjoy Andrew Murray playing in the US Open together, just relaxing outdoors and sharing an experience with strangers. We're even going to be hosting the fricking MTV Europe Awards in November for goodness sake!

The city centre this morning was, as usual, full of 9-5 workers on their morning commute to work, takeaway coffee in hand, heads down and headphones in their ears. I was, as I am every day, one of them and I'm kind of proud to be. Take a random snapshot on a street like Donegall Square West, Chichester Street or Great Victoria Street at 8.30am on your average weekday and you could be in any other major metropolis. We're a modern, vibrant city with plenty to offer citizens and visitors alike...

…so why are these people acting like Neanderthals and ruining it for the rest of us?!

I get that not everyone particularly wants to sprawl on the lawn of the City Hall to watch a game of tennis when they can sit in front of their own living room TV watching Emmerdale with a cup of tea. I understand that your average Joe (or in Belfast your average Billy or Patrick) are more at home in their local boozer slagging off politicians and discussing the likely winner of the 7.30 at Chepstow than debating the situation in Libya over a martini in Bert's Jazz Bar at the Merchant Hotel. That's grand. Each to their own. But you know something?

How would you feel if you couldn't sit in your own home watching TV or go and see your mates down your local pub without people throwing stones, bricks and glass bottles at you? How would you feel if you had to try and calm down your kid who has woken up in a panic because people are shouting horrible things, smashing glass and shooting at each other outside his bedroom window? How would you feel facing a full day's work after you've been kept up all night, firstly with all the violence outside your window and then because you just can't sleep because you're "up to high doe"? How would you feel if it was your elderly mother or grandmother trapped alone and terrified in her house with no way to get to her?

My nerves tense up for hours when the bratty kids in my street kick their football against my living room window, never mind enduring hours of people literally attacking your home with the intention of damaging your property, scaring your family and potentially even injuring or killing you. It's just unthinkable why anyone would want to inflict that upon their fellow man! And in this day and age! Okay so our government leaders aren't exactly best buddies but even they're managing to work together to try and take this country forward, which given the murky pasts of some of them is actually quite an achievement. So, for the rest of the country, quite frankly, "They started it!" doesn't really cut it as an excuse.

And what's it all for? This morning I sat on the bus to work, queued in traffic at the bottom of the Newtownards Road. The traffic is usually alright at that time of the morning in that area but this morning was different. And why? There was a veritible cavalcade of Belfast City Council workers and bin lorries slowly making their way down each side of the road, brushing and shovelling up bits of brick, stones, glass and God knows what else that had been left over from last night's festivities. A little further up the road I couldn't help but notice the irony of a massive pile of post-riot rubble sitting mere metres away from a mural called "No More", which is essentially a poem about the end of sectarian violence. A little further up again a man in a shirt and tie sat waiting for his bus amidst broken bricks. Yet further up there were exhausted looking middle-aged women being interviewed by journalists about their ordeal, whilst the Council workers brushed the broken glass and stones out of their gardens.

All this takes time and money. And yet you can bet that these freaking idiot rioters would be amongst the first to complain if the Council said, hey, sorry people of Belfast, we had unexpected riot-clearing expenses this year so we won't have any money left in the budget to pick up your rubbish for the next few weeks.

And what of their cause? What was the aim? To scare a few people and make them feel unsafe in their own homes? To try and force them to move away and leave that area to the "right" side of the community? Do you really think that's going to happen? Not everyone is as frightened of your bullying as you think and in fact the rest of the country thinks you're kinda dumb. Or was it to make some kind of "point"? If so, please do tell because from where I'm sitting the whole thing is pretty pointless. Or are you just happy going out and fighting this seemingly endless, stupid fight, risking being seriously injured, if not killed, just for the craic, without any regard for anyone else who has to live here with you? Because let me tell you something, if that's the case I can't wait until natural selection takes care of the lot of youse!

And guess what, it's not just "the other side of the community" you're up against any more. You're up against people like me too, who want progress and an end to all this frigging nonsense. People like me who want sectarianism and pointless violence to be a thing of the past, where it belongs. People who just want a normal life without even noticing, never mind caring, what religious background or area their friends and colleagues are from. And you know what? These days I would like to think that there are more of us than there are of you.

That's what gives me hope that one day the attitudes of our countrymen will eventually change. It might not change as quickly as our little city seems to have in the past few years, but it will eventually happen, leaving the remaining wazzocks to lead lonely little lives, blinded by baseless prejudice until their dying days that they're "right" and that everybody else is "wrong" (about what? Do they even know any more?). What a sad, bitter and restrictive little life to lead whilst the rest of us move on and enjoy everything our city has to offer together.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Cup two three four… nil!

This morning my alarm went off at 7.30am (20 luxurious minutes later than usual) and I forced myself out of bed to confront my pale, panda-eyed reflection in the bathroom mirror. You see I had only gone to sleep at 4.30am and 3 hours is just not enough sleep. Okay so I'd also had a brief nap after The Apprentice: You're Fired but that is still not nearly enough sleep. So what was that all about then? Rampant insomnia? Approaching a breakthrough in my secret efforts to cure all the world's diseases? Playing The Sims and losing track of time? Well, being completely honest, that last one has happened before, but this time it was the fault of Lord Stanley.

I didn't really know much about ice hockey until the Belfast Giants suddenly appeared on the scene and my friends and I decided to check out what all the fuss was about. That first time I didn't really understand a lot of it. How many periods are there? Why do they keep stopping all the time? Did they just put that big burly hockey player on some kind of enclosed naughty step? And what the heck is "icing" when it's at home? However there was just something about it that really appealed to me. It was fast, it was furious and the game could change in quite literally the blink of an eye. Men were shoving each other up against plexiglass with impressive-sounding thuds and punching each other in the head… and it was being almost encouraged! How intriguing…

As time went by I went to a couple more games here and there and slowly got a little more familiar with the rules but then I moved to England to live with the Yorkshireman and our most local team (the Sheffield Steelers) were a bit too far away on public transport to bother with. Since we moved back to Belfast five years ago we've been to see the Giants a couple more times but not quite as often as we would like.

So when we were planning our big trip to New York last year, the Yorkshireman struck upon the idea of going to see an NHL game over there. He, and indeed also my sister, apparently spent manys a wee small hour of the morning watching NHL games on Channel 5 back in their student days and had been mourning the channel's loss of coverage the past few years. Luckily we now have ESPN America who screen some of the games but I didn't really know any of the teams and the games were always on at ridonculous o'clock so I never really bothered with them.

However I'm always eager to expand my horizons and with the assurances from the Yorkshireman and my sister that the NHL was "freaking awesome", I was up for it and gave the Yorkshireman my blessing to select the seats of his choice at Madison Square Garden for a game whilst we were there. The game turned out to be New York Rangers vs Boston Bruins. At first I wondered who I should support. On the one hand we were going to be actually in New York and it seemed only polite to root for the home team. However the Boston Bruins had recently condescended to visit our lowly little country to play a bit of a pre-season friendly against the Belfast Giants. Choices, choices…

In the end I decided to lend my loyalty the New York Rangers and boy did they charm me. During our visit they were celebrating their 85th anniversary and we even got free commemorative posters. I do love to get something for nothing! In fact I loved absolutely everything about that experience: the Brooklyn Brewery lager in the commemorative plastic cups we brought home and still use daily, my first ever soft pretzel, the electric atmosphere in MSG, Whoopi Goldberg in the crowd and, of course, the game, man.

It was enthralling and high-speed and violent and skilful all at once. It's unusual for any sports game to hold my attention solidly but I only really started flagging a bit after 3 huge beers and when the exhaustion of a whole day of hardcore touristing had started to hit home. And still I was gripped. The Yorkshireman blogged a good account of it all but in summary the New York Rangers lost the game but they won my heart and henceforth became "my team".

And so, ever since we returned from the Land of the Free and I carefully unpacked my newly purchased K-Mart Rangers merchandise (what? The official stuff is expensive dude!) I've been more into ice hockey than ever before. Our TV is tuned in to ESPN America on a regular basis and I've tried staying up to ridonculous o'clock to watch on the odd occasion they've screened a Rangers game. I even downloaded the ESPN app when I got my new Android phone a few months back, just to keep up to date with all the scores.

The more I watch, the more I "get it", and so when the end of the standard league games approached and people started talking about the Stanley Cup playoffs, I felt myself get a little excited. I was absolutely over the moon when the Rangers scraped through and consequently a bit gutted when, admittedly quite expectedly, they didn't make it very far. However by this stage I was just hooked on the competition - my loyalties changed for each series based on completely arbitrary factors but I just enjoy rooting for someone.

Eventually, for the Eastern Conference, it came down to Tampa Bay Lightning and our old friends the Boston Bruins. Again I felt a little torn as to who I should support. On the one hand we'd seen Boston play and also that whole coming-to-Belfast thing worked in their favour again, but then they had also beaten my precious Rangers. On the other hand we had a vague appreciation for Tampa Bay because in order for the Rangers to get into the playoffs, Tampa Bay had to beat Carolina Hurricanes in their last game and, accompanied by a plethora of Rangers fans chanting "lets go Lightning, lets go!", they did just that, so they'd done us a bit of a favour. In the end though I felt a bit of a kinship with the Bruins (maybe it's all the Irish people in Boston, who knows) and so we decided they would be our team of choice.

The winners of the Western Conference were the Vancouver Canucks and on 1 June they were facing-off in game 1. For those unfamiliar with the rules of the Stanley Cup, they play to a "best of 7" kind of rule, so the first team to win 4 games wins the Cup. This of course adds an element of uncertainty to the whole affair. If you have one team completely whitewashing the other, the series can be over in 4 games. However if your teams are fairly evenly matched it can go right to game 7. Thankfully the latter was the case with this Stanley Cup Final and last night it was the über-exciting game 7.

Obviously going all the way to game 7 is much more exciting and it means more ice hockey to watch. These are good things. However it also means staying up to ridonculous o'clock more times to watch the extra games. This is a bad thing, especially when you have work the next day. Especially especially when there is more than one mid-week game in the same week. Especially especially especially when you're supposed to be going to the gym the next evening too after very little sleep and a whole day at work. Next year I must remember to keep at least 4 days of leave aside for the 4th (and potentially 5th, 6th and 7th) game of the Stanley Cup finals so that I can at least have a bit of a lie-in the next morning!

It had been quite an exciting series to date. The Canucks were home for the first two games and they won them both. It wasn't looking good for the Bruins. However the Bruins were at home for the second two games and they completely trounced the Canucks. They were back in the running - it was all terribly exciting! Game 5 was another home victory for the Canucks, meaning they were 3-2 up and had the chance to clinch it at Game 6. Thankfully they didn't and the Bruins skilfully whomped them, making it a 3-3 tie and it was off to Vancouver for the final game. How thrilling!

So last night, the Yorkshireman, my sister and I gathered for one last, late-night, mid-week hockey night to cheer on the Bruins. We had no idea which way it was likely to go. The Bruins had started slow but when they won against the Canucks they beat 'em good. However the Canucks had won all of their home games so far. It was too close to call. Instead I concentrated on predicting just how delightful Hockey Night in Canada presenter Don Cherry's suit would be. With every game I am certain he has reached the pinnacle of, erm, "uniqueness" with his suits and yet with every game he surpasses my expectations. Kudos, Mr Cherry, kudos. This is last night's feat of tailoring:

Photo blatently stolen from a brilliant little blog called 'Don We Now Our Gay Apparel', dedicated to the Cherry's wardrobe.

Breathtaking, I think you'll agree. It's totally worth watching Don tell it like it is in his Coach's Corner section. Essentially he rants merrily away about the game, sometimes nonsensically, whilst his co-presenter Ron MacLean, who we have nicknamed "Staring Ron" for reasons that become apparent as soon as you watch them together, looks on and occasionally tries to get a word in edgeways. It's a wonderful televisual treat to help pass those boring moments between periods.

So anyway, last night's game was awesome. I won't go into a play-by-play account because, well, I don't have the knowledge, memory or patience for all that, but essentially the Bruins totally stormed it, winning the game 4-0 and taking the Stanley Cup. Woooo! The Bruins woooed a lot too, I was pleased to see. One also briefly swore when he lifted the cup but yet did not seem to face the same damnation as Wayne Rooney - perhaps with ice hockey, it's just expected, just like it's expected to shove ones opponent into plexiglass as hard as you can and occasionally break someone's nose.

Speaking of breakages, there were some "oooooo… ouch!" moments in this Stanley Cup, mostly at the hand of Bruins player Boychuck! I bring them to you courtesy of YouTube:

The first was in game 7 of the Tampa Bay Lightning vs Boston Bruins series, where Lightning player Stamkos got his face well and truly pucked up:

The second was actually looking pretty hairy for a while. It was actually in the early stages of the penultimate game of the Finals on Monday night (well, ok Tuesday morning here) when Bruins player Boychuck had a bit of a run-in with Canucks player Raymond:

There was a lot of concern about his lack of movement and we, even as Bruins supporters, were eager for news that he was ok. Eventually word came back that he had suffered a vertebrae compression fracture (ouch dude!) and would be out of the game for 3-4 months recovering. So you know when you're watching that clip back, and the dude gets hauled to his feet and made to skate off the ice? Broken spine! Dude!!! However you've gotta give these hockey guys credit where it's due - two short days later and Raymond was sitting in the crowd watching game 7 in a rather stunning upper body cast. I would have been lying in a hospital bed begging for morphine but that's just me!

Injuries aside, the other noteworthy point was none other than the Boston Bruins' goaltender, Tim Thomas. The Yorkshireman had remembered Thomas as being a star player even from seeing him play against the Rangers in November and TimTom (as he was dubbed by us) has continued to impress since. I'm fairly confident in saying that without him the Bruins wouldn't have had a shot at winning the Cup. The man can stop pucks in the most unlikely ways, be it between his ankles or by just going for broke and throwing his whole body on top of it. If he has any choice in the matter, that puck will not see the other side of that goal line! He's incredibly bendy too, which led to my sister commenting that he had "stripper legs" and a few minutes' reflection on how well he might do at pole dancing. We agreed that he would definitely be able to hold his own with the Candys and Honeys of the world and that, whilst he should wear his full goaltending uniform, he could leave his helmet off. We may be alone in our deliberation about TimTom's potential success in the field of erotic dancing (and a bit strange if unapologetic), but evidently we were not alone in thinking how awesomely he played, as he also picked up the Most Valuable Player award last night. Well done TimTom - very well deserved.

I actually think I have a little "thing" for NHL goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist for the New York Rangers is also on my "you are just freaking awesome dude!" list. I look forward to seeing them both play again next season. But I shall have to wait. We're now entering that brief sports dry spell in the summer where there are no exciting games to watch. And no, tennis, cricket and golf do not count - I would rather staple my own hand than waste hours of my life intentionally boring myself in such a manner. I'm sure I'll be back debating whether or not to stay up until 4am on a work night again before I know it but in the meantime I have a slightly empty feeling inside now that all the excitement is over. Maybe I should take up a hobby. I've got to learn the words to the USA and Canadian national anthems before the next NHL season starts anyway ("mmmmm mmmm mmmm mmmmmm O Canada we stand on guard for theeeeee" is seemingly not an acceptable way to sing along) so there's a start.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Blogger's Block and Skater's Thigh

Apologies for the long breaks between posts. I tend to experience Blogger's Block in waves. One day I'll have two or three ideas for something to ramble on about but once those posts are written, that's kind of it for a while. I know I should probably schedule the later posts for a few days afterwards in these cases but by that point things might not be as relevant any more - I mean, the Interwebz needs to know my views on last night's Apprentice immediately!

Today I'm experiencing a brief respite from my current bout of Blogger's Block, inspired as I am by another ailment from which I am currently suffering, namely Skater's Thigh. At the weekend the Yorkshireman and I went with our usual merry band of amigos to Dundonald Ice Bowl for some ice-skating. Three of the five of us were very excited about this idea, and the remaining two were somewhat less enthusiastic, verging on petrified. I was in the latter category.

I have explained before about my propensity to fall over when faced with any kind of slippery surface and consequent terror. However with ice-skating my fear was increased by the fact that I had never yet fallen whilst ice-skating. Even though I am pretty rubbish at it and wobble incesantly, I have not actually fallen over on the ice. I know that sounds like a crazy reason to be afraid - after all if I haven't fallen before then why should I be so scared of falling this time? However, knowing how clumsy I am, I knew that my days as a perpetually upright skater were numbered, and my literal fall from grace was imminent. And the only thing worse than falling? Knowing that you will inevitably fall but not when, where or how hard. Would it be a cute little Bambi-esque splaying legs type fall somewhere inconspicuous and close to the edge, or a complete wipeout head-first into the plexi glass, scattering small children and slicing off their extremities with my blades en route? The not knowing was the worst part.

However, as I strapped on my rented, slightly-too-tight-at-the-toes skates on Saturday afternoon, I decided to be very brave and give it stacks. I didn't want to be the wimp not moving more than an inch from the entrance (like previous times… *ahem*) so I held my head up high, refused to let go of the Yorkshireman's hand and soon enough was whizzing around the ice (well, moving forwards in a somewhat ungraceful but fairly efficient manner). The Yorkshireman was a complete meanie several times and kept pulling away from me, supposedly to encourage me to to it by myself but in reality because he is a sadist who clearly wanted me to die. I may in fact have squeaked "I'm gonna dieeeeeeee!!!!" several times.

In the end I did not die. I did however fall. Well, sort of. I came to an abrupt stop at the side of the rink, which turned out to be a little too abrupt, as the force of it sent me slipping backwards. I tried to stop myself falling all the way down by gripping on to the edge but it was a little too late and down I went. The Yorkshireman and another of our friends tried gallantly to yank me back to my feet but I foresaw that ending with me falling straight down again and also possibly taking them with me, so I successfully climbed to my feet with only the assistance of the side of the rink. Yay! I feel glad that I now at least have my first falling-whilst-ice-skating incident under my belt and that it didn't hurt. However it wasn't a proper mid-ice wipeout and if I had fallen by myself in the middle of the rink I have no idea how I would have ever gotten back on to my feet. But the Yorkshireman will probably not support my idea of never letting go of his hand ever again and so I will inevitably end up in said position sooner or later. Essentially the worst is yet to come.

By the time we had handed back our skates and I'd stopped shaking thanks to some coffee from the vending machine and a quick sit-down, I felt knackered but also as though I'd had a fairly decent workout. Given our big lunch at Wolfes (very nice - recommended if you're in the area) beforehand and our plans for takeaway for dinner that evening, all extra calories burned were deemed very useful. So all-in-all it was a good end to the experience and I didn't let fear defeat me…

… Except that it did anyway, in ways unimaginable. You see, because I was terrified of falling over, I had been holding my legs completely rigid while I was skating, in an effort to remain more sturdy. However it turns out that holding your legs completely rigid whilst also making them move quite quickly for about two hours makes your muscles hurt the next day. Namely the insides of your thighs. It makes them hurt quite a lot actually. And of course what's the best way to relieve muscle pain in your legs? Go and work out the next day at the gym? No? Oh, maybe that's where I went wrong then.

Seriously, I thought my legs hurt a lot yesterday, but this morning, post-gym, I woke up to searing pain every time I moved my legs. Even climbing up the one tiny step on to the bus this morning made me wince. Who am I kidding, rearranging my legs under my desk without screaming today is an exercise in logistics. Skater's Thigh is a bitch.

And now my dear family and friends want to go back. They want to inflict the fear and agony upon me again. I figure I either need new friends or new legs. But sadly, sucker that I am, I will most likely voluntarily strap on the skates again next time and once again try to convince myself that there is nothing to fear. It will be fun this time and I'm sure if I just stretch beforehand and try to relax a little more it won't hurt so much the next day. Right..?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Apprentice: you're allllllllll fired!

So, are we all watching this series of The Apprentice then? Apart from Glee there aren't many TV shows on at the moment that have inspired me to watch them. I gave The Hotel a try when everyone was raving about it but it just depressed me. The two minutes I caught of Made In Chelsea left me genuinely confused as to why this would ever be considered entertaining. As for Britain's Got Talent - I disagree. Britain clearly has many oddballs, but talent is most definitely in question. And so, the Apprentice remains pretty much the highlight of my televisual week these days. Well, and The Apprentice: You're Fired, of course.

Last night's episode was very entertaining altogether. The apprentice wannabes had to create and market pet food. As a non-pet owner my interest in the subject at hand was fairly minimal but the task itself is never the important part - it's about the crazy ideas the contestants come up with, how well they manage to pull it off and of course how they all get on with each other. The best episodes are the ones where you think the Project Manager is a complete and utter moron, the rest of the team are bitchy and subordinate, the idea itself is complete rubbish, they embarrass themselves in front of the industry experts and then there's practically a punch-up in the boardroom. The ones where they call each other names are particularly awesome, only surpassed whenever Lord Sugar calls them names instead.

Yesterday's show was particularly good because there was… *drum roll please* …a double firing! Oh yes, Lord Suralan firstly pointed at docile Yorkshirewoman Ellie and showed her the boardroom door but, not yet satisfied, the powerful finger then moved on to sleezy Vincent, who was booted out as an example to anyone back at the house who may be scheming and plotting. Apparently that's discouraged which, given how most powerful business leaders are portrayed in the media these days, seems fairly ironic. A double firing is always a wonderful surprise, like getting two soft toys in one go from one of those arcade crane machines, or two chocolate bars for the price of one from a vending machine, so it made for great viewing. We fancied that Lord Suralan might just get carried away with the power of it all and start trying to fire Nick and Karren too.

It also made for a good You're Fired show afterwards. I love Dara Ó Briain anyway and I think the show's editors have a delightfully wicked sense of humour but last night we had two firees and also one of my favourite comedians du jour, Sarah Millican, on the panel. Great fun! They didn't make fun of Vincent nearly enough for my liking but then perhaps they figured that he was embarrassing himself with his crazy clashing clown outfit anyway.

As for the remaining contestants, my fellow Apprentice fan colleague and I were discussing this morning who we liked and who might win. Neither of us particularly like anyone except for nervous-looking inventor guy (Tom) but we're not sure he's quite dynamic enough to win. I'd like to see him be the PM for a week - I think it would make or break him as a contestant. We're also a little bit wary of crazy Jedi Jim. As a fellow Northern Irish I was rooting for him a little bit from the start, and I was very impressed with his crazy mind-control tricks in the first few weeks, but he's started showing his true colours a bit more now and he's coming across as a bit sly to be honest. He's happy to take all the credit where it's only partially due but the second things go wrong he's the first to point the finger. Unfortunately for him the only pointing finger that matters is Lord Suralan's and he was looking increasingly annoyed at Jimmy boy in last night's boardroom, so he'll need to rein it in a bit if he's going to last much longer methinks.

As for who I think might actually win… I just don't know yet. There are still a few too many of them to have actually seen them all work in much detail yet. I think they've all been the right firing decisions so far, maybe with the exception of Ellie last night, so I guess I'll just wait and see what unfolds in the coming weeks. How exciting!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

How not to chillax, the Mallorcan way

This time three weeks ago I was in sunny Mallorca, enjoying the dramatic scenery from the pool bar at a lovely little hotel called the HSM President in a little place called Alcanada, just along the coast from Alcudia. We were there for a week's all-inclusive relaxation, a little light tourism and, well, gluttony essentially. The Yorkshireman and I had planned our break thinking that our recent holidays had all been very on-the-go and busy, so perhaps it was time to chill out in the sun for a while instead.

What we had forgotten (and what we rediscover about ourselves every time we try to take time out to relax and then promptly forget again after about a week back at work) is that we are not good at relaxing. We get bored fairly quickly. Lying on a sunbed all day is pretty much the most pointless thing I think either of us could think of. You get hot and risk sunburn and lie very still and quiet for, like, hours at a time. Where's the fun?! Nope, the Yorkshireman and I are people who enjoy making the most of our time and so what was supposed to be a week purely relaxing in our carefully-selected, secluded little hotel turned out to be two days of struggling to relax and four days of finding other ways to entertain ourselves.

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the chance to just sit still for a change. I recall being very relaxed on our first full day there, sitting in the pool bar, overlooking the boats sailing on the sea and the mountains in the distance, sipping on some sangria and reading one of my holiday chick lit books (Here Come the Girls by Milly Johnson in case you're interested - thoroughly good candyflossy holiday read but, warning, it will make you want to go on a cruise). I think I could have quite happily spent my day meandering between doing that and feasting on the never-ending supply of food and drink (all-inclusive is very bad for the waistline!).

However I also had a husband to consider. A husband who would only sit in the shade because the sun made him too hot. A husband who does not find reading a fun way to pass a few hours and therefore struggled to find anything else portable enough to amuse himself for very long. A husband who was consistently itching to get up and go and do something. Anythingatall, seriously! On the plus side I think he got a good few blog posts written in his little notebook. Bless.

I mock, but generally I understood his boredom. If I hadn't had a few good books with me I would have been über bored just sitting around too. And so we lined up a few time-passing activities for various points of our holiday, turning our week of super relaxation into a holiday fit for a couple with super short attention spans. We walked, we explored, we visited roman ruins, we swam, we walked some more, we marvelled at the views, we watched box sets of How I Met Your Mother on my laptop in our room, we mourned the loss of my laptop power cable when it mysteriously broke, we went on a bus tour, the Yorkshireman took hundred of photos and I injured myself several times. So pretty much a standard holiday for us then!

The Yorkshireman is writing about it all in more detail, with his wonderful photography saying much more about the things and places we saw than I could ever hope to, so I'll leave that to him I think. I'm just grateful he didn't manage to capture me falling over a small speedbump literally about 50 metres away from our hotel, having already walked about 6km that day completely unscathed. I know, I know...

On our last full day of our holiday we finally found something relaxing to do. Believe it or not, spas are relaxing. Who knew?! We had tried out the gym part of it halfway through our holiday (I managed my usual 30 minute run on the treadmill, even in spite of having already gained about a stone from the never-ending supply of booze and buffets, so I was well impressed with myself - and rewarded myself accordingly with some sangria afterwards) but for some reason we hadn't gotten around to investigating the other parts of the spa. But on the last day we figured, hey why not, and the Yorkshireman treated us both to the health and safety inappropriate plastic flip-flops and very sexy bathing caps that were required for entry.

After about ten minutes of playing around in the heated pool, learning to press the shiny buttons that controlled jets of water and bubbles and all sorts of fun things around the pool, we wondered why the heck we hadn't done this earlier. This would have helped us to relax dagnammit! The steam room in particular was very cleansing (smelling as it did of Vicks vapour rub for some reason) and the powerful flumes of water landing on your shoulders from the side of the pool was like having a massage from a no-nonsense 1950s hospital matron with a grudge. We left our first session feeling so relaxed we ended up returning for a repeat performance a few hours later.

The next morning we awoke and stared out over our beautiful sea-view to see that, overnight, the sky had turned grey and it had started to drizzle. We enjoyed one last mammoth breakfast (complete with free cava just because it was there and we could), we checked out and then we settled in at the damp entrance to the hotel to wait for our transfer to the airport. The bus was half an hour late but we didn't panic and we didn't really mind and we both managed a quick nap en route to the airport. So I guess somehow we did manage to relax that week.

Relaxation (or lack thereof) aside, it was a lovely holiday. Mallorca is a beautiful island and if you avoid the major touristy resorts with their cheap and nasty Red Lion pubs (why leave home at all people?!), its traditional culture still shines through, surviving the influx of the American military in the 1950s to help build the radar station on Puig Major and even the influx of boozy chavs from Britain over the last twenty years. It's wonderful to experience a different way of life for a change and to just slow down and do whatever you want. That said, our next holiday is so totally going to be another city break. We may come home exhausted but give me bright lights, chain stores and coffee shops over sunbeds any day baby!