Friday, December 30, 2005

Torchlight Procession

Every Christmas the city of Edinburgh hosts a parade through the centre, lit by thousands of torches. It's open to anybody who wants to walk - on payment of a £5 donation to charity you get a large candle, and then walk from the Royal Mile to Calton Hill for a fireworks display and large bonfire. This is the queue up the back road of Calton Hill, just as my mate Paul's torch got caught by a gust of wind and flamed spectacularly.

Your author braving the sub-zero temperatures to participate, hence the closed eyes. It might look like I'm wielding a flaming sword, but it was actually a canvas tube dipped in wax, with a wooden hilt you held onto. The cardboard coaster was to catch drips, but we all got covered anyway. My friend Michelle actually saw someone whose cardboard protector had caught fire. Time to drop the torch and run, I would have thought.

"Keep what away from my face? This large firey torch I'm holding? No - they can't mean must be about something else. Ow! My face! And my cloth!"

Moving off from Bank Street down the Mound, with the trees of Princes Street Gardens lit up in the distance. This might look like me, but it's actually someone else - I'm in front on the right talking to my friend Mel from New Zealand.

This definately is me - because I've got my eyes closed again. I do this a lot when someone takes my photo. I never know when to stare, when to look normal, and when I can blink. So I just tend to do all three at once and end up looking like I've lapsed into a coma. Paul, as you can see, could out-grin Cherie Blair.

The rickety ferris wheel and carousel on Princes Street.

The procession ends at the top of Calton Hill, where there was a fireworks display. Sadly we missed most of it as we were at the back caught up in the logjam of people in picture 1, but we got up there anyway and made the most of it. The icy wind was whipping across the hill, playing havoc with our dwindling torches. L to R - Richard, Laura, me (with eyes open - I obviously guessed right), Michelle.

This was one of the big showpieces at the top of Calton Hill, a large whicker bull that was roaring away merrily when we arrived. The smoke rising to the right is from a huge bonfire that people were enlarging by hurling their torches at. After warming ourselves at the fire for a while, we went off to the pub for a few cold pints...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Festivity Finished

Christmas trees are just for Christmas

Edinburgh Council has an arrangement whereby you can offload your unwanted Christmas tree on them, and they take it away for recycling. They collect trees from the street, so at this time of year you see battered, yellowing Christmas trees lying forlornly at the side of the road, abandoned by the people who briefly owned them. This tradition signals the end of the festive period, and the start of the push towards the New Year celebrations of Hogmanay. More and more trees appear over the weeks into January, but I took the photo above at about 5pm on the 27th of December - barely 48hrs after the end of Christmas Day. It's certainly the earliest I've ever seen a tree discarded - like the first snowdrop or the new season of lambs, everything seems to be happening earlier and earlier - although I doubt global warming is responsible for this one.

Looking at this needleless sapling waiting for the one-way trip to the shredder, I started wondering about the plight of the humble Christmas tree. I have no idea how long it takes a spruce to grow to a 6ft height, but it must be a few years at least. The poor guy sits there quite happily in a plantation with birds and squirrels frolicking in his (her?) branches, enjoying the changing seasons, indulging in whatever it is trees get up to in a forest with no-one around. Then suddenly over the space of a few weeks, it's hacked out of the ground, bundled up, driven to a shop and sold, and then briefly draped with plasticky baubles, before being dumped in the street and taken away to be mulched. I think artificial trees are definately the way to go. They may look crap, but they look crap for many years.

I hope you all had a festive Christmas, and are looking forward to 2006. I was in London, as I said before, and had a good time. My flights behaved themselves - thankfully I got back before the latest batch of snow arrived in the Eastern UK. I could see it from my window as I was coming back - large pillowy clouds rising up along the coast. By the time we banked into Edinburgh, all I could see was a dark brown cloudmass coming off the sea in a threatening manner. At the moment the city is in the grip of the 'Six days' festival - the nothing gap between Christmas and Hogmanay - which has been marketed as a fun-filled minibreak excuse, apparently. I'll be back at work, but there's a Torchlight Parade coming up and various other festive events, so I'll probably drag myself into the cold for some blogworthy material. And some fun, of course...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas

A Christmas Robin...

A very merry Christmas to all readers of DUaB - and a very happy new year! I'm flying to London tomorrow for the Christmas festivities, but I'll be back on Wednesday the 27th (as I'll be back at work). So until then, all the best to you and yours, don't eat too much, and I'll see you in a few days...

Oh - if you were wondering about the Christmas desk displays, the management decided to award a joint prize between the two competitors I was talking about - so they both won, then. A bit of seasonal cheer all round...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Christmas Competition

Well, it's less than a week until the big festive day, and at our office work is winding down for the holiday and everything is becoming more relaxed. Unless Dorothy is reading this, in which case we're working as productively and efficiently as ever - both as highly committed individuals, and together as a dedicated, customer-focused team. And not just when it comes to sharing out the Miniature Heroes. The office is becoming more Christmassey as people decorate their desks and whatnot - in the festive spirit the Management have offered a bottle of Champagne to the person judged to have the best display. Somehow I doubt your author is in the running for the award, unless they are looking for plastic model crabs and postcards of Sydney. I do have a snow globe from Blackpool Tower though, which you could argue is slightly festive. Not much though, admittedly.

I'm going to try and sneak a camera in to take pictures of some of these desk displays, as some people have gone to bewildering lengths for what will undoubtedly turn out to be a cheapo bottle of Aldi Bulgarian sparkling wine. The thing is, I can't go up to people and ask if I can photograph their pride and joy in order to ridicule them on the internet - which let's face it, is what the internet's for (aside from pornography, of course). So I might have to go in early and take a photo before the owner arrives, which means I run the gauntlet of someone seeing me and coming to the conclusion that I'm a secret fan of office decorations, and therefore a wierdo to be avoided at all costs. As if I have a scrapbook of tinsel samples, or something. I bet someone does, somewhere.

Two of the most spectacular desk displays are right in front of me, so I can look at them all day should I wish. Both put up by men, the first is a truly staggering mass of tinsel, lights, holly, streamers, beads, a 4ft tree (all on a standard office desk). The whole thing merges into a window display with a large flashing net-like arrangement of lights, a Christmas tree (or Holiday tree, if you prefer) made out of fabric, and strings of beads connected to the top of the PC monitor. In short, it's vile. But full marks for effort though. The bloke that put this up spent days - and I mean days - building it up, bringing new bits in, carefully rearranging things for maximum effect - and was then outdone by a competitor in a matter of seconds.

Another man (you can draw your own conclusions) came in and with a strange-sounding grating noise there suddenly emerged a 5ft high blue inflatable Santa Claus. Again, this in on his desk - my desk is full of worryingly urgent-looking pieces of paper, Miniature Heroes wrappers, and of course plastic crabs. With a wicked grin at the man with the window display, he then produced another Santa - this one a traditional red colour - and inflated that on the top of his monitor. It's huge, I'm not kidding. At this point, you could see the first bloke sink into his chair - as the twin Santas rose upwards, his spirits deflated like a week-old airbed. I almost feel sorry for him - all that effort, and he's gazumped by a couple of festive beach inflatables.

The judging is tomorrow, so I'll let you all know who got the prize. The inflatable man (although worryingly he's younger than me) taunted his opponent by tossing cotton wool balls around his desk as snow, and draping fairy lights over his potted plant, sure of victory. It's too close to call though, I don't know who'll be tasting the sweet Cava of victory. It won't be us though, I've got a token length of brown tinsel behind me along the window, and this morning amidst all the excitement one end parted company with the sellotape and flopped, crackling, to the carpet in defeat. It now looks like I've glued an eel to the window - but I like it, I can pretend it's a defiant statement about the over-commercial nature of Christmas. Oh crap. Christmas shopping. Erm...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Xmas in the Office

Disco Fever...highly contagious

Apologies about the lack of posts for the past week - the Christmas rush was combined with mysterious computer failure here, presenting difficulties with getting the blog updated. But, here we are, back to normal. As I promised on my last post this one is about the joys of the office Christmas party. As this time last year I wasn't yet working in Sydney (which thankfully seems to have calmed down recently, violence-wise), I didn't have an office party or staff night out or anything in 2004. This year, back in gainful employment I was determined to catch up on what I missed out on. Apparently what I missed out on was a party held at the local Masonic Lodge - for cost reasons I'm assured, although with our connections to the medical and political communities I bet there was more to it than that. The result, so I'm told, was a good night out - although I would have been more pre-occupied with finding hidden doors and paintings with holes for eyes and suchlike. TV has given me a pretty good understanding of what goes on at Masonic Lodges, I think you'll agree.

But it was not to be, as we were at a backroom of a large music venue/five-a-side football complex in the SE of Edinburgh. I won't name it - but let's just say you might go there to swap maize. We turned up at 7pm, fighting a bitter wind that was piling down from the Pentlands, and were promptly ushered out of a large ballroom with Champagne-toting waiters to a cramped disco round the back, with trays of sausage rolls. Ahh, the public sector. Having found the correct party, it turned into a pretty good night. I was expecting an unexciting wedding-like roomful of people sat at tables, slowly drinking - but give us credit - as soon as the music started everyone crammed onto the bathroom-sized dancefloor and went for it. I will freely admit to being the world's worst dancer - but even I was caught up in the heady atmosphere enough to put down some moves. Or it might have been the lager.

Actually I was still dancing when our pre-ordered taxi came at the end of the night. As usual, there were the serial dancers, who were camped in a small section of the wooden dancefloor all night. There were also the selective types who would rush on when they heard the first few beats of Dancing Queen, or something similar. The highlight of my night was watching what happened when the DJ played Summer of '69 by Bryan Adams, and to a man all the 40yr olds from the IT Department got up, creating a Buncefield-like haze of aftershave over the dancefloor. Aside from similar musical abbherations, the usual Christmassey music was on offer - including the songs where you have to do a special dance, like the bile-inducing Saturday Night by Whigfield. If this means nothing to you (Dad; Mum), then you are very, very lucky. YMCA was played too, of course, along with a few - yes - line dancing numbers I watched with fascination/terror. I'll say this - you put on a record that involves an organised, timed dance in a roomful of drunken statisticians - you'll witness a thing of beauty.

There was a raffle - the highlight of which being when the social club president (a rather portly woman) won a chocolate fondue set - and a semi-edible buffet. Despite there being about 150 people there, mostly we sat at large round tables, school disco-like, in our office sections. Ours had a drinks kitty, which we made full use of. To make life easier for the barstaff, not to mention ourselves, we wrote down each person's drink on a list and just presented it at the bar each time (statisticians, eh?). We had the ubiquitous Christmas crackers - I won what can only be described as a plastic moustache comb - and near the end of the night I realised that I was the last person in the room that was still wearing the paper hat. Festive to the last...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Riots in Sydney

Dark days loom in Cronulla

The news coming from my old home over the last few days has been worrying. A confrontation between a group of Lebanese-Australians and two white lifeguards seems to have caused underlying tensions to erupt. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened - maybe the Lebanese were running, divebombing, or indulging in heavy petting. It escalated from there and this weekend mobs of 'Anglo-Saxon' men went on the rampage - they might as well just call them racists - assaulting people of Mediterranean or Arabic appearance. Police made dozens of arrests in suburbs of South East Sydney - most of them in Cronulla (above) which I visited just over a year ago (see Dec 2004 archive). Predictably gangs of 'Middle-Eastern' youths responded with violence of their own, peaking on Monday night in an attack on Cronulla which forced people to run for their front doors...

...More than a dozen men leapt out of a van and jumped on [parked] cars, smashing the windows with baseball bats. Through a megaphone, they challenged residents to come out and face them. Those inside turned off the lights and hid behind the blinds. (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 14th, 2005)

Now in an entire year of living in Sydney - I never once came across any racism. Although I'm not of 'Middle-Eastern' apperance of course - I'm a non-racist 'Anglo-Saxon', albeit more 'Anglo' than most Sydneysiders. I didn't even get much anti-English stuff either, even when Flintoff and the boys were creaming them in the Ashes all summer. But like most big cities, Sydney has a problem - segregation. This has come about as a result of two factors; size and community.

Sydney sprawls over such a colossal area that people building houses and communities were free to go where they liked - you go on a train from the Pacific coast to the Blue Mountains, it takes two hours to chug through the seemingly endless Western Suburbs. So new arrivals had plenty of choice when they had to find somewhere to live. The second factor then took over - everyone arriving in Australia is an immigrant, in the same boat (no pun intended). When you have to start a new life, it's natural to want to live near people that have come from your country, speak your language, can help you start out. Hence communities of single ethnic backgrounds spring up, and as they grow, become isolated.

Sydney has many of these communities. The Turkish community in Auburn, Vietnamese in Cabramatta, Irish in Bondi. Over the years people - for whatever reason - have felt more comfortable living amongst their own, and it's to the detriment of the overall city. Heck, it's something I was guilty of - I could have moved into any of Sydney's suburbs. I chose Paddington because it was popular with young, go-getting types like me (ahem). I could have lived in Eastwood with the Chinese community - but it didn't enter my mind. So when you have isolated communities, some will inevitably become disaffected, which leads to resentment and anger, and eventually there's a spark that ignites it all.

I think the Australians have been genuinely staggered that it has happened in their back yard - and in one of their beachfront neighbourhoods of all places, the most iconic Australian environment. Australia revels in it's 'fair go for everyone' mantra, and rightly takes pride in being a welcoming society. But maybe this has been relied on too much over the recent years, and the changing populations of the cities have combined with the Howard Government's increasingly Republican-esque leanings to tarnish that ideal (the Government says every few months that Islamic terrorists attacking Australian cities is not a case of 'if', but 'when'. How can those announcements serve any purpose other than to instill resentment?).

I don't think the problems - as of Tuesday night, when I'm writing this - are as critical as some are making out in the media. There have been recent riots in Paris and Birmingham without societies there falling apart. But the rumblings in Sydney have definately found a nerve - as can be seen from the editorial of Monday's Sydney Morning Herald...

..."A nation's reputation for tolerance has been severely damaged...Australia has changed suddenly and inexplicably into an uglier and darker place [and] is now in a racist cul-de-sac. To progress from here, the whole country needs to stop, examine what has gone wrong in Sydney's beachside suburbs, and find a way to reverse direction."

So if the recent trouble forces the Sydney public to look at themselves, and the authorities to look at the causes of the resentment, then hopefully things like this will be the wake-up call a large city needs to re-discover the wonderful reputation it sorely deserves. Anyway, just my thoughts. My next post will be after the office Christmas party, so will probably be a bit lighter in nature - although with 200 drunk statisticians in an enclosed space - you never know...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bonus Australia photos

Time for some more bonus photos of my recent journey - I have plenty to force on you, as you can imagine. These five are from my first few months in Sydney. It's one of those cities where everyone you know who's been there has liked it. Very few people have bad things to say about the Harbour City...

Australia revels in the reputation of deadly animals lurking around every corner - especially to us paranoid Brits who usually deal with nothing more dangerous than cows and squirrels. These wonderful looking things are Stingers - small, brilliant blue jellyfish. After stormy weather you see them littering the strandlines on Sydney's beaches (I took this photo on a rainy day at Bondi). A relative of the feared Portuguese Man-o'-War, they give a nasty burning sting - but aren't really that dangerous. The surfers were still out, albeit with wetsuits to protect them.

I took this at the Museum of Australia in central Sydney. The more I look at it, the more I love the contented expression on the face of this frog. Presumably he's just settling down to a mid-afternoon snooze after an insect-based lunch and a morning of sitting on a branch dozing. Although it was in captivity, I can't honestly say this frog was stressed in any way. I like the way he's resting on his arms, tucked under his chin.

That really was the only cloud in the sky - drifting slowly across the distant buildings of the Sydney CBD. I was standing on the small beachfront road at Watson's Bay, an exclusive suburb in Sydney's East (and one of many). I've been there so many times, that I can look at this picture and conjure up an image of exactly what it was like - even now, sitting here at my computer on a grey Edinburgh afternoon. That surely is the very best thing about travelling.

One of the most touristy things you can do in Sydney is the Bridge Climb. This is a photo of climbers just starting out on the lower section of the bridge above Cumberland Street in the Rocks. You pay $180 to pull on a grey boiler-suit and shuffle up the steps to the top. I really wouldn't recommend it - you are strung together like a chain gang, can't take any photos, and have all kinds of 'lectures' and safety demos beforehand. The whole thing takes about 4hrs. Just above these people is the excellent South Pylon viewpoint - where you can climb up one of the stone supporting pillars of the bridge (that don't actually support the bridge at all), look at a small museum, and the view, for $7. That's my top tip...

Fireworks are notoriously difficult to photograph, unless you've got a top of the range camera, tripod, and a lot of patience. It helps if you're not stood in the middle of the road in a huge crowd of people too - but it was New Year's Eve and the only place to be was within sight of the Harbour Bridge for the display. It was pretty spectacular - not that you can tell from this picture - the bridge was lit up by all kinds of twinkling explosions. It's hard to get an idea of the sheer scale here - those 'shooty' ones firing upwards are going hundreds of feet into the night sky. Unfortunately the lack of wind meant the smoke hung around and obscured most of the better effects, but it was definately worth seeing.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas Countdown

Edinburgh skyline at dusk

The first major sign of Christmas approaching is always the TV adverts. Actually, my Mum starts getting Christmas merchandise catalogues sent to her around August - is that right Mum? (she's obliged to read this), but it's always on television that the impending sense of dread starts to creep in, around the end of October. I'm no Scrooge when it comes to the festive spirit, but after the media try and flog us the doubtful joys of Halloween (something people outside of North America just don't celebrate), the Christmas adverts start. Then the shops get all geared up, and there's no escape.

Edinburgh does the Chistmas thing very well, which helps limit the blow if you're not a fan of the festive. The crushingly dark conditions at this time of the year lend themselves well to decorations, and the entire city sparkles with light. The cavernous blackness of Princes Street Gardens is illuminated by hundreds of light bulbs twinkling in the trees, George Street is draped in Christmas lights strung across the road, and the large Norwegian tree sits proudly atop the Mound, fronting the silhouetted castle behind. It helps of course that Edinburgh is such a picturesque city - you could decorate the streets with razor wire and it would look good. I hear they did that for the G8 Summit last July, actually.

Princes Street hosts the ubiquitous German market, which has grown considerably since I was last here - to appease the colour supplement-reading middle classes no doubt. I wonder if they have British markets in Germany? Spar carrier bags tied in trees and all the bacon Frazzles and lukewarm Carling you can take. The large ferris wheel is there, (see photo above) next to the wonderous jagged monument to Sir Walter Scott. When I see the workers constructing it, for me that's the start of Christmas. There's also an ice-rink nearby - which of course I won't use after my catastrophic skating incident in Boston. I walked past it once when my Mum was up visiting (she's my biggest fan!) and it had rained so much the ice was flooded. Kids were taking it in turns to dive headfirst and slide the entire length of the rink, supported by a large wave of icy water.

I've already seen plenty of Christmas displays in shops and houses on my bus trips back from work - some real corkers. Not quite the scale people go to in (again) North America, but you can only do so much on a budget. This year's must-have seems to be vertical lights that strobe and flash different shades of blue, making the entire window look like one of those insect electrocutors you see in restaurant kitchens. I bet it confuses the hell out of moths. Looking for the best (and worst) of these displays livens up the bus trip - I can remember entire lenghty car journeys as a young lad were passed by counting Christmas trees in house windows as we zoomed past. How gullible kids can be, eh? Anyway, time to start thinking about the dreaded Christmas shopping, and the always worthwile office Christmas Party. Yeah!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Rudely awakened

Pool tournament photo (archive)

3am! Who calls people at that time of the night? The other night I was lying there on my inflatable mattress dreaming peacefully of Rovers winning the league when a devilishly loud screaming woke me up. After I realised it was the phone, I gave up and let it ring out. I was just dozing off when it rang again, so I got up and answered it. It was a middle aged Scottish woman, who sounded perfectly sober and awake. This was the conversation:

me: What? Hello?
her: Hi Wendy!
me: What?
her: Wendy!
me: It's three o'clock in the f*cking morning!
her: Sorry?
me: This isn't Wendy!!
her: It isn't? Oh. Sorry.

She put the phone down, and I went back to bed. On the way to work I started wondering who Wendy might be, and why she would be called at 3am by another woman. How strange some people are. And how annoying.

Last night saw the epic battle for the Duncan Goodhew Trophy* - our annual pool tournament that takes place every three months at Marco's on Grove Street. Having been away overseas, I was of course making my long-awaited debut in the competition, and immediately installed myself as an outside-bet dark-horse to take the title. Sadly, I am bloody-awful at pool, and despite a thrilling opening win I preceded to lose every other game and finish second last. Thankfully the person I beat was just as dreadful as me, or I would have been rock bottom. I won't name and shame him on here - let's just say it was Grant Anthony. I always have high hopes in these kind of things - but once the beer hits my system I'm good for another...oh 30 seconds or so, and then I might as well be knocking tomatoes around with a stick of celery. I did manage some spectacular flukes though, and also didn't fire any balls off the table and have to meekly go and ask for them back. But I was pretty rubbish - the trophy was destined never to be mine. I have excuses though - all the beer I drank, the dodgy burger I ate (must have been, as this morning I had a pounding headache), and the midweek 3am phone call which put me off my game. Hey - maybe it wasn't a wrong number! It's a conspiracy!

*Because he was 'good in a pool'