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Blown Away in Leeds

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I was still trying to wake up after an early morning start. The
geek-based course was about to get in full swing, and all the various
course teachers were coming in, vulture-like, picking off the
delegates one by one. Their enforced cheeriness grated slightly after
half an hour spent trying to find a car park in Leeds, a task only
marginally easier than forcing jelly down a drain. However, they did lighten our spirits on the drab, rain-filled morning. I even started looking forward to five days of database training. Sadly, people with personalities generally don’t train people in databases, as I discovered when a small Indian man shuffled round the corner. He announced the course in a thick Indian accent, showing all the excitement of a morgue assistant finding another dead body down the back of the incinerator. We all glanced at each other before shuffling off behind him to the training room.
By lunchtime I had at least learned something – never underestimate a boring man. He seemed to know everything there was to know about databases and computers in general. His problem, sadly, was that he was not good at conveying that knowledge. We could only understand every other sentence and developed a system of nodding whenever he looked at us, attempting to show we were following every word. It took about an hour to tune into his accent, and a further hour before I got into the groove of the difficult topic. Luckily the course notes we comprehensive enough to bluff my way through.
Lunch was not particularly inspirational either. Cold salad, hastily knocked together quiches and orange juice filled the vapid hour before the afternoon session. Thanks to the smokers insisting on going outside in the freezing wet weather to puff on their cancer sticks, the room got colder and colder. It was, frankly, a relief to go back into the training room, and perhaps this was precisely the reverse psychology we needed. The afternoon went with a bang, and before I knew it we had finished the first day. I managed to get to the car park without being blown off course – coinciding the course with bad weather was a possible error – and got into my car on the top floor. “Dammit”, I thought as I saw the NCP car park ticket on my passenger seat. “Please pay on the bottom floor,” it mentioned. So, downstairs I went, wallet in hand. A wallet, it turned out, which caught the notice of a woman sitting huddled on the bottom stair, looking as if she was waiting for someone. Me, as it turned out. “Nice weather,” I ventured, trying to be friendly as I searched for the ticket machines. “Yeah. The machines are other there.” She pointed to a darkened corner of the room. As I opened my wallet and got out wads of cash – NCP managed to charge £14 for 7 hours of parking – she piped up again. “Yeah, I may be homeless but I can be useful.” Here we go, I thought. After a wail about her life story, I felt compelled to give her a couple of pounds. I told myself off as I wandered up the stairs, but it was too late. She had probably bought a quarter pound of brown by the time I’d reached the top stair.
I had arrived in Leeds on Sunday afternoon for the five-day marathon and booked into the closest hotel I could find. It managed to be situated beside a chinese restaurant and a TGI Fridays, which gave little choice for healthy eating – but a big choice for deliciously overpriced fodder. I was here that I returned that first afternoon. As I entered the hotel for the second time that week, a large gust of wind heralded my arrival, blowing everything around me off the table. Hell of an entrance, I think you’ll agree.
After a meal at TGI Friday’s, some newspaper reading and email sending, I settled down to a good night’s sleep.
And that’s how it’s been for the past five nights. The weather has got worse – my mother phoned on Tuesday to check how close I was to the especially windy Pennines – the trainer’s accent has got bearable, and I’ve actually learnt a whole load of useful stuff. Today I’m off home, back to my wonderful girlfriend, my wonderful new house and a whole load of DIY…

A little too trusting…

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When I got my car a good year ago I ordered, nay demanded, in-built satellite navigation. It was a necessity for all those visits to customers, I claimed to the company car people, cleverly disguising the fact that all I really wanted to do was show the funky gadget off to my friends. Twelve months later and those colourful digitised maps have been a blessing in disguise. It sometimes goes a bit wrong, granted, but 99% of the time it’s spot on.
However, the remaining 1% reared its ugly head again last Friday. I had a client in Cambridge to visit, and a quick glance on the night before showed a one and a half hour drive. No problem.
The following morning, I clambered sleepily into my car and plugged the destination into the console. Town? C. A. M. B. R. I. D. G. E. Street? H. U. N. T. I. N. G. D. O. N. R. O. A. D. It was here, blearily, that my morning’s travel arrangements went a tad off the rails. Certainly, said my happy little navigation screen, which of the 9 Huntingdon roads would you like?
7.30 am is not a good time for unexpected decisions. “Well, I don’t know,” I muttered to the inanimate screen. Shrugging, I chose the first road and drove off.
One and a half uneventful hours later I turned into a sleepy cul-de-sac in the middle of large, wheat-laden fields. As I watched old ladies eyeing my car with suspicion, and noted a lack of ugly, grey office blocks, I felt fairly certain that I was in the wrong spot. As I glanced at my navigation screen again, I cast my eye down the list of Huntingdon Roads and reached the horrifying conclusion that if I chose each one in turn, it would take up to three hours to find the godforsaken place. And that is why, for the next hour, I was on the phone to a colleague who had found his way to the offices with simple, old-fashioned papery maps. I turned up 2 hours late. It was a humiliation for technology.
Luckily, I finished the meeting in record time, and left for home at 4 o’clock. Tell-tale water droplets greeted my arrival at the car park, and by the time I’d loaded my sodden laptop computer into the boot I was wet through. Radio reports of flash floods greeted me minutes later, and by 5 o’clock I was sat in a 25 miles traffic jam on the M25, rueing the day I organised this particular diary entry. I limped home at 7.30 pm, two hours later than intended and only half an hour before Michelle and I were due to be entertaining my mum and dad to their thirty-somethingth wedding anniversary at a local Indian restaurant.
So, the moral? Don’t trust in technology too much. And certainly never plan a remote business appointment on a Friday.

Missing In Action; Presumed Busy

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You may be thinking that the lack of posts on shows the dull, slow-paced life I must be having. Quite the opposite, in fact, and that means very little time to post the wonderful, action packed events that have graced the last few weeks. For example, there was:-
– the paintball expedition, where I sustained bruises that were still coming out a week later;
– the visit to Fright Night at Thorpe Park, which entailed 2 visits to the wettest ride in the park, long queues for every other ride and even longer queues to get out of the car park;
– the leaving meal of my old boss at The Pier, which resulted in my first visit to chilly Oxford and a series of particularly appalling renditions at karaoke;
– the designing/building of part of the Fat Face website, done and dusted in little over a week;
– the designing of two other sites in under two weeks;
– the Grand Get Together with 16 of my nearest and dearest, all congregating in Zizzi’s restaurant in Guildford, on a table designed for 12 people;
– A visit to Nick’s house with Sarah and Michelle for a night of drinks, games and pre-birthday presents;
– A knees up with Nick last Friday in Guildford, where we cobbled together an ingenous business plan in a drunken haze.
– Visits to the gym four times a week with Michelle, with a view to turning my body into slightly more of a temple;
And last, but not least – Boris Johnson. Boris Boris Boris. He’s been in the news a lot lately for better or worse, and Boriswatch has been inundated with visitors – an average of 5000 a day for the last two weeks. And then last Friday in a hail of media fire, he was sacked. Cue calls from Sky News and the BBC, asking for comments and interviews – and it all came to a head yesterday, with your humble host popping up to the House of Commons for a lunch date with the great man himself.
So what I propose is this. I’ll blog a selection of these events over the next week of so, and you sit there with the patience of a saint. Sound reasonable?

Driving Me Nuts

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Whenever you start a new job the older, more wise employees seize the moment. They size you up, looking you up and down and finding out what kind of a guy you are. And they need some way to describe you, some kind of “label” to…. well, label you. When I worked at Sun, it was “Student” (entirely appropriate) or “Teaboy”, despite my proven ability to ruin any cuppa I dared concoct. Straight out of university I joined The Pier, where I was constantly referred to as “Techie”. Now I’ve joined Dionex, I’ve been wary of giving them any reason to label me. I’ve made the tea (to perfection, I might add), I’ve been incredibly helpful, fixed things I should have fixed, hidden things I might have broken, and generally been a model employee.
There have, however, been cracks appearing. The first was a month ago. Eager to please for my 3 month induction period, I enthusiastically offered to drive my boss down to Waitrose. This was the first time, however, that I decided to drive, and extra care was needed. I was the careful, responsible employee, remember. I was still getting used to the larger car I’ve been hired, but no matter.
Things took a turn for the worse when I managed to reverse out of the parking space straight into a row of expensive BMWs. I was stuck rigid in shock – how in all the world had I managed that? “You’d best get out and check, Simon,” my manager remarked, after I’d sat there for 10 seconds. Luckily, barely a scrape was registered, and the BMW driver remarked that since they were both company cars we’d make no bones about it.
However, that incident opened the floodgates. The upper floor of our office has an eagle eye’s view of the car park, and in particular my parking space. This is an absolute gift for the Upper Floor Clan. Having heard about my reversing calamity and labelled me “Nigel Mansell”, my usual swing-into-the-space-and-leave policy has come in for severe criticism. In fact, the whole of my office are under scrutiny. The angle of our parking, the speed of our entry – we’re under pressure to perform. To be honest, I think I’ve got it licked. God alone knows what I’ll do when my new car finally arrives – it’s even bigger…

An Element of Security

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“Do you want to be security for me for one night next July? He’s rich, and there’s ?100 in it for you.”
So here I was, one year later, sitting in the pitch black at the entrance to one of the largest houses I’ve ever seen. Paul D, old friend and Event Manager, was organising the night, I’d enlisted Jac as my comrade for the evening, and together our remit was to parade the substantial grounds, making sure no border mischief took place in the grounds. The event? A combination of one birthday, one A-level completion and a 25 year wedding anniversary. The location and family involved I’m sworn to secrecy about, but suffice to say that the party cost around ?35,000 and was frankly enormous.
The evening begin with a stutter. Jac had managed to catch the end of the M25 roadwork nightmare, and issued an urgent text message from the depths of his Renault, indicating a degree of lateness. No matter, I surmised, we’d built in lateness – and sure enough Jac turned up in time for us to don our bouncer attire – suit and a bow tie – and leave for the event. It was about 2 miles from my house – by no means a difficult journey but easy enough, we found, to turn up in completely the wrong place. A few minutes of calling loudly for Paul and a quick phone call ensued, before we bundled back into the car again, following revised instructions. We arrived – and took in the sheer enormity of the estate. The long gravel drive swept past the first field, a huge white tent gracing the area in front of the house and containing the dining area, dance tent and catering section. Leading from the tent, around the side of the house, were fairground entertainments – the Bucking Bronco, Laser Clay Pigeon Shooting and Dodgems. Round the back was the car park – and the headquarters for the event management and security team. Jac and I parked, bristling with excitement.
Paul briefed the team at 1700 hours, informing us that the whole thing should be finished by 2am, as he had to get home to London and up to a Farmer’s Market for 6am, the poor soul. Having had a tour of the grounds, we helped with the flowers (don’t ask) and then headed to our lookout points. Jac, as usual, chose the tradesman’s entrance, with the job of ushering in the staff and bands. I, meanwhile, stood imposingly by the front gates signing off party arrivals, while the third man (and joint organiser of the night) stood by the tent, offering help to drunken revellers.
And that, essentially, was that. The job of a bouncer is not to enjoy the event, but to enforce security – and we were barely challenged the whole night. We rotated our points throughout the night, spying for the slightest breach of security. And save for a passing policeman and a jogger, I can proudly tell you we weren’t breached. The intercom radios provided entertainment (“I’ll take them round the back, over”) and the fireworks at midnight were so loud and spectacular my mother rang from our house miles away to congratulate us. But other than that the night passed peacefully and enjoyably. We left Paul and the rest of the team and drove our weary selves home at 1.30am, hungry – and chortling at the thought of Paul and his imminent Farmer’s Market. Even Event Management has its downsides…

Cranleigh Tour

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Few things are more pleasant than a village graced with a good church, a good priest and a good pub.”
John Hillaby
And so, by rights, Cranleigh is as pleasant as can be. Many a time I’ve been out in Cranleigh, and the drunken antics are legendary. Last Saturday was no exception.
We decided to give Jac’s new girlfriend Debbie (welcome to our world, Debbie) a tour of the local hostelries, all five of them. Lucky her. She was treated first to Little Park Hatch, a pub on the outskirt of cranleigh, for a swift tipple to start the evening off. Michelle and I rocked up at 8pm to find the place full of partygoers, dressed in all sorts of fancy dress (the 118118 guys were particularly inspired, I thought). After queueing for an eternity for a drink, we managed to get a round, and joined the group. Nick, as expected, turned up a little while later, and we merrily buzzed with the thought of the night ahead.
It was then that the night took a turn. One of the 118118 men suddenly lashed out at a man next to him. A considerable fight ensued and, brave souls that we are, we all stood back, backs against the wall, and watched in lurid fascination, wincing as head hit table, gasping as chairs flew. Only Simon H managed to be brave enough to break it up, and after several compliments, he suggested now would be a good time to move on. Event Number One had passed.
Event Number 2 happened mere moments later, when Lucy crashed into an unsuspecting car on the way out of the car park. Someone, we thought, was plainly out to ruin our night.
After a few minutes, we reached a sleepy tavern called the White Hart, confident that we would not be interrupted in our quest for fun. A darts board provided entertainment while I again waltzed to the bar in search of a hearty drink. The barman appeared confused as he served us – nothing unusual in that, I thought, the old soak was probably craving his next pint of bitter. But this shaking hands were a definite cause for concern. I asked around, and Lee piped up that he usually asks for a “pint of bitter, shaken not stirred”. Duly amused, I thought nothing more of it.
Until, of course, Event Number 3 decided to introduce itself. A loud crash signalled that all was not well behind the bar, and we leaned over to see the barman laid out on the floor, convulsing, dribbling and with a trail of blood dripping from a large scar on his cheek. Odd, we thought, and while others had the presence of mind to call an ambulance, we merely stood, stunned at our misfortune. The barman’s colleague fussed around, claiming she didn’t know what to do, and in a rather macabre moment, began serving customers again, mere feet away from the poor wretch shivering on the floor.
It was then that I discovered that Cranleigh is not a place to be if you’re planning on being severely ill. A full half an hour passed before the ambulance turned up, by which time the barman has righted himself and plonked down on a convenient bench, bucket in hand, looking utterly confused. The bench was considerably inconvenient for our bowels however – as Simon H quipped, “The man’s sat in front of the toilets, and has in his hand the only other way we could empty our bladders…”.
We ended up in the Cranley Hotel, which managed to calm our frayed nerves. We supped pints, shorts and shots, and got very merry. Simon H began to utter highly inappropiate comments, and we decided to leave while the going was good. Michelle and I wearily got into bed at Simon H’s, a welcome sight at the end of a very bizarre night.

Alex’s Housewarming Party

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Alex M has moved house. Naturally, it was an excuse for an almighty piss-up, so Jonola, Michelle, Mark R and I descended on his new house. The gleaming, wrought-iron electronic gates that confronted us set the scene for things to come. Alex had described the house very positively – a huge farmhouse, extensive grounds, its own car park and a picturesque lake at the front. Time would tell whether this was the case, or whether it was just an enormous, delapidated wreck in the middle of nowhere, in need of a good lick of paint.
But anyway, back to the gate. Remembering Jac’s instruction to “just think of the Magna Carta”, I entered the correct code, and they slowly opened.
A quick drive down the road revealed that Alex’s description was spot on. It was an impressive find in the middle of Watford, even more so for ?750 a month. The lake, the outhouses, the barns, the large farmhouse, everything he’d mentioned was there. There were even some things he hadn’t mentioned. Like the coffins, cremated remains and several large headstones for example.
The party started off with a barbeque, which was only bought an hour before. The burgers and sausages sizzled, and soon enough Jac was to be found dropping most of his food on the grass, much to our delight.
Then, a new football keepy-uppy game. It was a good game – the ball is passed around, and the person who loses it the most gets to bend over and get a football aimed at him by the other players – but I seemed to be on a losing streak from the outset. However, Mark R got a sweetly-placed football on his posterior, which he seemed to enjoy immensely.
Jac, Mark and I then embarked on a mission to soak each other with a Super Soaker gun, so the rest of the group moved to the front of the house and decided a “homeless-style” fire was in order. We searched for a barrel to fill full of wood. It was then that we discovered, in a large barn, the coffin. And behind it, the headstones. Now, at 12 o’clock at night, in the pitch black, this is not something you really want to find. After bravely venturing in and running out screaming several times, we decided enough was enough, and found a barrel outside instead. Which, as it happens, was full of the most foul-smelling ash you could imagine. God knows what was burnt in there, but throwing caution to the wind I emptied it out. If it was a person’s remains, they are now happily sitting in the middle of a driveway, possibly being driven over every time a car passes. Apologies, Mr Burnt Man, I can only hope you didn’t ironically die in a car crash or something.
It later turned out that the building was used by the local synagogue for storing headstones and coffins, which they come along to collect every week. We rapidly reappraised the “bargain” that Alex had managed to find, and decided that a house without smelly ash, dark mysterious barns, headstones and coffins would be worth the extra loot.

Will’s Wedding

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Ring ring.
“Morning Jac.”
“It’s 7.30 in the morning.”
“Is your smoke alarm beeping?”
“Whhhh…. no.”
“Right. Bye.”
And so ended our stay in Fawlty Towers. It had begun so well. Michelle, Jac and I had been invited to Will‘s wedding in Raunds, Northamptonshire. It was an unusual invitation, as out of the three of us, I was the only one to have met him, and even then only twice. Still, we did manage to get the bride and groom together through the [email protected] internet dating website. Jac and I had each developed a spoof profile of ourselves, and I invited Will along for the ride. He, though, decided to do a real one (here it is), and promptly met his wife-to-be. We sensed a good time was in the offing, and accepted the invitation.

Will’s Wedding – Part 1, “The Build Up”
We set off from Jac’s house in Watford at 1.30 on Saturday afternoon, arriving at 3.15 in Rushden, well in time for the 4.30pm wedding. In our haste, we had discarded the idea of working out where the Rilton Hotel was, deciding that the area was probably only a small village and it would be easy enough to find.
Half an hour later, and with Jac’s expletives getting ever more forceful, we decided to stop at a local newsagents and ask directions. It turned out we had passed it twice in our search through the surprisingly large town. It was an impressive building, and as we swung into the car park, we noted the large sign outside – “Warm Welcome”, “Licensed Bar” and “Restaurant”. Jac, pleased at the reference to a bar, sped up the ramp.
The car park must have had over 70 spaces. Sadly, not one of them contained a car. “Ah.” muttered Jac, as it sunk in that the hotel may not be as popular as it claimed. After parking the car pointlessly neatly in the second space Jac chose, we wandered in to get the formalities done.
“Hello?” My voice echoed down the corridor. There seemed to be no-one around, and wrought-iron shutters blocked the entrance to the spirits bar and restaurant. We ventured down to the end of the corridor, where there appeared to be a reception area. That also had the shutters down. I went upstairs – not a soul. Michelle studied the reception board, and noted that there was a Bridal Suite. Jac’s eyes brightened. “Oh, thats kind,” he said, “I wonder what flavour?” His face slowly slumped as he revealed, “Oh, I thought you meant some kind of complimentary confectionary…” In an effort to redeem himself, he found a phone number taped to the reception area. He rang it. It turned out that the receptionist was at home, and asked if we could hang around for a couple of hours. We pointed out that the wedding was less than an hour away. “I’m on call, you see,” the receptionist said. We bartered. Finally, the best she could manage was 20 minutes. She turned up half an hour later.
In 10 minutes, we had changed into our finest clothes and were in the car, speeding down the motorway to the church.

Will’s Wedding – Part 2, “The Main Event”
The people of Northamptonshire are possibly the slowest drivers in the world. And Will’s wedding day was not the the best time to find that out. Constant cursing and more than a little swerving ensued for the next 15 minutes, before we somehow managed to find the designated car park, with 4 minutes to spare. As we parked up, I reached the last sentence on the sheet of directions: “This car park is approximately 5-10 minutes walk from the church.” More swearing. We ran to the church, and found the service already underway. Another curse passed Jac’s lips. As I opened the huge church door, the entire congregation turned round and stared at the naughty latecomers. I grinned inanely.
The wedding went smoothly, including the obigatory fainting of one of the bridesmaids. The hymns were well chosen, and Jac and I felt confident enough to barely glance at the words, recalling the full verses from our childhood church visits. On one hymn, we confidently finished the last verse on the page, put the songsheet down and looked around to see what would happen next. Much to our shock, the entire church carried on singing, and it took half a verse for Jac and I to find our place again.
After an hour, we wondered down to the reception. We had originally planned to make a dash for it after the ceremony, get changed, and be back in time for Will’s speech, which he promised would include a comical reference to Jac and I, at which point we would stand and curtsey. However, true to form, we completely missed that too. Our dash back to the hotel was at times a slow chug as Jac negotiated the infernally slow local drivers. Back at the reception, my initial huge disappointment was more than countered by 3 large bottles of pink champagne and two double Jack Daniels and cokes, which I was to rue the following day. Contrary to the previous events so far, the evening bash went very well, with Tom, the church usher and friend of 7 long years, providing much needed sordid information on the rest of the congregation. Jac made passing conversation with a rather well-endowed lady next to him. Half way through a particularly enlightening speech from him, the lady suddenly noticed the wedding cake being cut, and pieces being passed round. She yelled, “There’s cake!”. Sadly, Jac completely misheard, and started yelling for a person named Kate at the top of his voice. After we had stopped laughing at him, Jac made his excuses and left.
He finally found a particularly friendly girl towards the end of the night, who looked rather like Sinead O’Connor’s love child, but he fended her off. I managed to glean a taxi number off a Welsh lady at our table, and Michelle, being the only one still capable of speech (Jac: “Ah, a breash of freth air. Try saying THAT after five pints”), rang up. It turned out that it was a little old lady, who moonlighted as a taxi driver to make ends meet. During the whole of the first phonecall, she completely forgot to ask where we were going. When she phoned back and heard we were planning on going around 5 miles away, she took a deep breath and explained that it was further than she was willing to travel. I was frankly relieved. We finally managed to book a taxi, which we made Jac pay for while he was half asleep.

What we have learnt

  • Never assume that every town north of London is bound to be sparsely populated.
  • Always add 30 minutes to your driving time if you are due to be behind any driver from Northamptonshire.
  • When booking a hotel, always go with what you know. A Travelodge would in retrospect have been luxury, compared with the “warm welcome” we received at The Rilton.
  • Watford is the cheapest in the country for unleaded petrol.
  • Rilton Hotel sounds similar to the Hilton Hotel. That, however, is where the similarity ends.
  • There is nothing more annoying than an out-of-reach smoke alarm emitting a low battery warning every 30 seconds at 7.30 in the morning.
  • Drinking 3 bottles of pink champagne renders the drinker very ill for at least half of the following day.
  • There is something to be said for planning ahead.
  • Jac is incomprehensible before 8am.
  • Our snobbish theory that nothing works north of London turns out, in fact, to be correct.
  • There are more rivers named River Ouse in the United Kingdom that any other name.
  • Have I mentioned how slow they drive?

Finally, I’d like to thank Will, and congratulate him on his marriage. Even if we did miss the key moments…

Course: Day One

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Yesterday was the start of my week long course in SQL. I won’t bore you with the details, save to say that it’s going to do my career no end of good. I was a little bleary-eyed after the previous night’s events, and wandered into the car park, only to have my ears rudely assaulted by the sight of my SQL trainer. He drew up in a bright red sports car, exhausts vibrating the surrounding foliage, and jumped out, ready for action. It was his hair that first made me laugh – a bright yellow Eminem-style barnet on top on a distinctly middle-aged man. The next sign of madness was his bright green bow tie and matching waistcoat. “Christ,” I thought. “Blimey,” I uttered, moments later.
Sadly, the rest of the day didn’t have anything remotely noteworthy, and there were no audible sneezes in the hotel kitchen that night. The bombs are still falling, but the power cuts have stopped. It’s all settled down.