March 2005 Archives - wibbler.com

Metaphorical Buns.

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There’s a dawning realisation that I’m getting on a bit. Or at the very least my friends are. In the nicest possible way.
The first culture shock came about a year ago, when Simon H announced he’d impregnated his girlfriend Lucy and that a sprog was most definitely in the offing. That sprog, James, is now growing up fast and Simon’s even gone and bought a grey Mondeo Estate – a sure sign that he’s settling down fast.

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This from a guy who two years ago had a drunken urge to put his foot through a skylight in the dead of night – and had to be rushed to hospital in the early hours before he was drained of his remaining blood. Ahhh, those were the days…
But the real kicker came last week, when I pottered up to Bermondsey to see some friends, one of which had birthday drinks planned. I’d met them on my work placement at Sun Microsystems six years ago and had been firm, if sometimes distant, friends ever since. And as I sat down and chinwagged endlessly, I found that things were definitely moving on. Mark and his girlfriend had decided to buy a house together, Kiich and a girlfriend I didn’t even know he had were buying a house together, and Chris and his girlfriend were more than content nesting their abode near Fulham. And so, reeling from everyone’s news of settling down, I asked after another friend David S and his wife. To my amazement, David had shoved a small bun in his wife Ange, with their baby due very soon.
The final straw came yesterday afternoon with an email from Milly, who by coincidence had married Alex, another of the ex-Sun gang, a year ago. She apologised for the delay is getting back to me – and then knocked me for six with her excuse. “Our news is that… we are having a baby, still not really used to the idea but very pleased!”
Congratulations, of course, to Ange and Milly – but Jesus Iceskating Christ, what is happening?!

Boris, Blogs and a Chinese…

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Behind me, as I stood gawping at the diminutive man behind a ticket kiosk in Guildford Station, was a brightening summer’s day. True, it was only March, but the temparature had ramped up, the air was breezy and so far everything had gone to plan. I’d breezed into the station at 9am and worked my way to the front of a small queue for tickets. I asked for a Travelcard. The man asked for ?22.50.
I spluttered. I gubbled. I feebly protested. But it seems, at 9.15am, a Travelcard costs ?22.50 from Guildford. Still, I thought, hang the cost, I’m not missing today’s action.

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I was due to be in the Houses of Parliament for a meeting in Boris Johnson’s office, a quick tour around the House of Commons and House of Lords, followed by lunch in Portcullis House and, later on, a much sought after invitation to a weblogging conference in South Kensington. This, I surmised, was not to be missed.
As it turned out, I arrived in Westminster an hour early. On the way, I discovered why visiting political bigwigs cannot understand the fuss about the London Underground – because from Waterloo station to Westminster, the tube system is immaculate. Free from dirt and litter, with everything working perfectly and impressive designed to boot.
I emerged just in front of the Houses of Parliament and sauntered round the corner. Before me stood several political hacks, including the ever-present Andrew Marr, whom I nearly knocked flying. He’s much smaller than he appears on television.
After a walk along the Thames, I decided I may as well try and find Melissa, Boris’s right-hand woman. Once again, like my visit a couple of months ago, a quick frisk and I was in the Central Lobby of the building. It’s deceptively easy to get in, something that unnerves me every time. I asked a loitering policeman to call ahead for Melissa, and within minutes she breezed through one of the countless doors leading from the lobby. “Simon!” she exclaimed, as several looked round in surprise, “great to see you. Come this way.”
And so it was that at 11am I was sitting in Boris’s office, taking in thegreen furniture and Boris’s enormous desk. I even took a few photos while I sat, waiting for my cue to visit the House of Commons
chamber.
The House of Commons is much smaller that it looks on television. So is Robin Cook, unbelievably. And after getting a little bored in the House of Lords – most of the Lords were either asleep or too old to speak coherently – the Boris posse (myself, Melissa and Boris’s reseacher Olly) sat down for a taxpayer-subsidised lunch in Portcullis House, a huge and impressive building accessed from theHouses of Parliament through bunker-style tunnels.
And then, after helping Melissa with some website-related revelations, we were on our way to the second event of the day – the “Blogs in Action” Conference at the Polish Club. I was originally expecting a club full of shiny surfaces, but it turns out it was a club exclusively for VIPs from Poland, and it was a huge building. There was eventually around 70 attendees, and after a chinwag in the bar we headed upstairs for two hours of discussion on weblogs. Nokia were there; Vnunet were there; academics, famous bloggers and blogging companies were all there to hear the gems from the panel of five. It turned out to be thoroughly interesting, with Nokia evangelising about blogging through their new Lifeblog application and Tom Coates (of Plasticbag fame and winner of many website awards) telling us his views on where the whole thing is going.
Even for me, it was amazing how mainstream blogging is becoming. Newspapers like The Guardian (whose blogging supremo Neil McIntosh was also speaking) have their own Online and Observer blogs, and Vnunet have developed not only their own blogs but their own weblogging system for visitors to use.
By far the most interesting speakers was John Dale, who heads the IT Development at Warwick University. He and his team have created warwickblogs, a facility for university students and staff to get their own blogs simply and easily. It has been a huge success, and his combination of clever advertising, great webpage design and homegrown coding is possibly the best implementation of blogging I’ve seen so far. The general theme of the evening was that blogs are transcending geekery, and becoming useful tools for people and companies alike.
By 9pm, the presentations were complete, the wine and nibbles were run dry and Melissa, Dennis and I pitched up at an “All You Can Eat For ?4.95” chinese near South Kensignton tube station. “that sounds like a challenge” I remarked, and within twenty minutes I could barely move, such was the amount of food on offer. An excellent end to the day, we all agreed in the taxi to Kings Cross station…
UPDATE: A full commentary of the conference here, and a full transcript here. Also, pictures of the speakers here.

Look at me! I can train!

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There is a little visited place just outside Leeds that goes by the name of Beeston. Sadly, Beeston is not somewhere you’d find on the front of any Leeds Tourist Board leaflet, covered as it is with empty and broken buildings, large concrete slabs of car parks and a remarkably large travellers site. However, there is a shining beacon of light just near the centre – my company’s northern office – and this was the venue for me to give my first solo training course to unsuspecting trainees on the merits of our software system. They were travelling from Ireland and London, eager to listen to my pearls of wisdom. God help them.
I made it up to Leeds in a mere four hours, taking in the sights and sounds of the M1 along the way. It seems that regular drivers on the M1 have developed their own way of coping with the mangled wrecks and twisted metal of more unfortunate drivers as they pass by – and their coping mechanism involves ignoring other drivers for a good part of their journey. Every time I’ve driven up the blessed road, it becomes the survival of the fittest, each twist and turn of the motorway presenting intriguing uses of the brake and accelerator from each driver, all eager to get into first place in an imaginary race. Most cruise on in the outside lane, daring others behind to undertake illegally – a challenge which I take on with enthusiastic aplomb. Many others, when seeing that most are cruising in the outside lane, take the inside, steaming past all the other cars with a big grin on their faces.
I made it in one piece, and that night began to look through the training notes for the two day course. I ought to know a little about what I’m talking about, I thought…
As it turned out, the trainees were very low maintenence. One, an Irish man from Belfast with a barely intelligible accent, knew very little about the system while the other, a large African woman, knew even less. The best possible training situation had presented itself – and I got stuck in, flirting with the woman and cracking jokes with the man, making sure I’d win round the audience even if the content was a little below par.
In the end, I even surprised myself with the knowledge I was able to give, and we all met in the bar that night to celebrate, accompanied by Dean, a colleague who I’d only recently visited Switzerland with. We talked for hours, over beer and over dinner, about seemingly nothing. The Belfast man turned out to be an ex-employee of the Guinness factory and was able to confirm my recent revelation about the hangover-inducing chemicals in English beer. On top of that, he was able to divulge several other drinking facts. For example, Guinness doesn’t contain any iron despite claiming to do so; the best way to drink without hangovers is to have vodka and lemonade; and that one sixth of Ireland are allegic to rice, meaning that they can’t drink Guinness.
Sozzled, I wandered upstars to my room an hour later, and couldn’t tell whether I was so drunk I was hallucinating – or whether I did actually see my old college friend Rob Simpson (under the amusing moniker Rufus Hound) presenting a late night BBC show called Destination Three.
I was unsure I’d manage to fill the second day’s training, but I’d remembered an old trainer’s trick I’d learnt the night before – “if you’re struggling to fill the last day, bore them a little and then tell them all they’re going home at 1.30pm. They’ll be pleased as punch.” Which turned out to be entirely true, and I managed to be 200 miles away, in the loving arms of my sofa and my girlfriend, before sundown.

Switzerland – Minus seven, and I was still laughing…

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Last time I visited Switzerland, you may remember, I was waxing lyrical about the sheer amount of brothels. Not the wonderful cheese, the spectacular mountains, the glorious Swiss chocolate – but brothels.
And now, at the risk of being utterly stereotypical, I shall discuss at length the quality of Swiss beer. No, actually, first I shall let you in on my trip. And then discuss at length the beer.
It was a trip that had been put off since early January, and my experience of Switzerland before had made me eager to sample more. This time, three of my colleagues were on the plane with me for the three-day jaunt – Ian, John and Dean, who hails from Ireland and had come via a Westlife concert – don’t ask. Ian, John and I managed to meet – almost by accident – at Heathrow Terminal 4 on Sunday afternoon, and after checking in with the first check-in assistant I’ve ever witnessed with a personality, we headed for the bar.
Finding the bar was tricky though, and we split up to search. An excited call from John later, and we were in the Duty Free shop, trying 3 different types of vodka cocktails for free. “You’re meant to buy the bottles afterwards” came the distant call from the waitress as we hurried into the distance, our stomachs warmed considerably courtesy of Smirnoff.
Boarding the plane, Ian remarked that my lack of furry coat may be a problem in Switzerland. “No,” I retorted, “they’re closer to the equator than we are. If anything it’ll be warmer.” My ill-thought logic was woefully off-piste, as confirmed by the helpful captain as we looked over the frozen landscape a couple of hours later. “Best get your woolies on,” he cheerily advised, “it’s minus 7 degree centigrade down there.” Christ, I muttered.
We landed remarkably smoothly despite the Siberian conditions outside, and sidled off the plane in awe at the landscape. Switzerland is reknowned for its beautiful scenery and towering mountain landscapes, but I was blown away. Time was not on our side though – it was getting dark and there was a 1 hour train journey ahead of us. Switzerland’s transport system is legendary (at least in my eyes), and after momentary directional confusion, we found the train and reclined in leather-clad luxury for the smoothest ride I’ve ever experienced.
The hotel, just 100 metres from the station, was a pleasant surprise too. Decked out in classy glass and red leather sofas, mirrored ceilings and a glorious bar, it was manna from heaven at 10.30pm on a cold night. We dumped our bags, met Dean, tested the bar, and then slept. Slept well.
The following three days were a mix of training, evening drinking, laughing, resplendent restaurants and a battle for sleep. My colleagues, I discovered, were genuinely amusing, and I laughed until I cried at least three times a day. There were many hundreds of comical moments – from Dean’s initial greeting as he met us in the bar (as he passed the bar with his travel bags, we misheard “two secs” as “group sex”, a greeting that will forever be repeated on future meetings) to Ian’s “petit peu/petit pois” confusion and Dean’s description of the Irish traffic light system (“orange means put your foot down, red means you’re good for two more cars). I was struggling to stop giggling for most of the trip. The main company bod over in Germany, a large Bavarian man called Herbert, was a drinker beyond compare, and we managed to stay up until 2am every day, sampling the Swiss beer like there was no tomorrow.
Ah yes, the Swiss beer. Now, Dean had informed me of a little known fact at our first meeting about the difference between beer in the UK and Ireland and beer in the rest of Europe. According the gospel of Dean, there is a chemical in the UK beer that is banned in European beer. This chemical, I was informed, causes hangovers, in some complicated way I was unable to fully grasp. “Surely not,” I replied, “I’ve never heard that before”. So, in true British style, we decided to test it out. Nine pints of lager and a good sleep later and Dean’s theory was proved correct – we woke a little sleepy but otherwise completely fine.
And there, my friends, is the secret to the drinking skills of other Europeans. The drink because their beer is actually tasty and because they don’t get hangovers. There are all sorts of questions that arise from this, not least why we have that darned chemical in the first place, but we were content to test the theory every night for three days. On the last day we toured Zurich city centre, and discovered an odd mixture of lapdancing clubs and many, many clothes shops. Its architecture is very like Milan, if you’ve ever been, and I’m eager to visit again, despite their extortionate taxis.
So, another trip to Switzerland finished. Safe to say I was in need of a rest, and slept for most of the next two days. Now I’m back in the land of the living, and eagerly awaiting the next excuse to visit…