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Great Balls of Pain

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“Would the birthday group please stay behind – the rest of you can go off and get changed.”
The words hit my ears like a juggernaut. We – Michelle, Lucy, Simon H, Jac, Shaun, Nick and I – had been fighting it out in the paintball battlefield somewhere in Horsley for the best part of five hours. Earlier in the month, Michelle had had the brainwave while trying to think of a birthday present for me, and knew that I’d loved paintballing when I’d been before. We’d arrived on time that morning – well, nearly. Jac had had “a hell of a night” and managed to arrive still drunk, still with most of the clothes he had on the night before and “unable to remember much before Junction 11 of the M25”. Still, it provided amusement for the rest of the group, if not for any policemen reading this…
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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 theaa.com 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.

A Month in a nutshell

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“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Great, I’ll put the dinner in.”
Sounding unnervingly like a married couple, I arranged to pop over to Nick’s parents house for a bite to eat, some serious TV watching and a bit of computer troubleshooting – something I seem to do a lot of nowadays. And as I travelled over to Pyrford last night, my mind wandered to the last month’s frenetic events.
Not, of course, that any remaining readers of this blog will know about them. My postings have sunk to an all time low, and the combination of minimal time and a lack of motivation have landed me here – 25 days after my last post.
So, back to the car journey, and mind-wanderings. One of the most adventurous days last month was the trip to Silverstone. Simon B phoned at the ungodly hour of 7.30 (I never even knew he got up that early) to ask if I wanted to go to Silverstone for some corporate hospitality at the Touring Car Championships. And the mode of transport to and from the event? A BMW M3. It was, of course, a formality as questions go and by 8.30am I was taking control of the vehicular beast, charging up the A3, M25 and M40 to Silverstone. It was an awesome car, making me feel completely in control and far superior to anyone else on the road. My experience in it went some way to explaining why BMW drivers drive the way they do. Only some way, mind.
The day at Silverstone was entertaining and, crucially, entirely free. Jensen Button was in the corporate box next to us, his Porsche Carrera outside causing all sorts of sycophantic excitement. There are pictures, which if you’re lucky I may put up before 2012.
Most of the month has been consumed with daily trips to Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Not for pleasure – although it seems a very picturesque place – but for business. I won’t bore you with what my job entails, but suffice to say that the client we were visiting had placed an order with us that was forty times the normal size. So, for me, it was an endless carousel of installing, consulting and 7 days of solid training. I was little more than a wreck by the end of it, although this was mainly due to the travelling – a thirty minute trip on the M25 turned into a 2 hour journey from hell every morning and night.
Michelle has not been without excitement, however. She had all four wisdom teeth out, and my arrival to her hospital bed with flowers and a bunch of unamusing jokes failed to cut the ice as she said there, as white as a sheet and unable to speak. The following week of near silence was unnerving, and it was a relief when I heard the dulcet tones of complaint about the clothes I’d left on the floor again.
Whipsnade Zoo was also graced with a visit a few weeks ago – and gave me a chance to see the elephant Michelle adopted for me at Christmas! For those who don’t know, I love elephants. It’s possibly to do with their large floppy ears or enormous clumpy feet – I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that they don’t grow very fast.
I was expecting my elephant to be an enormous, triumphant beast of a thing, but he was still a mere stripling. I suppose living a long time means that you are smaller for longer – something I’ve never had to experience…
Last Wednesday Michelle, Jac, Debs and I went to see Rob Thomas (ex-Matchbox Twenty) at the Astoria in London. The night was in the clutches of the considerable heatwave and the inside of the venue was akin to standing in a sauna for a couple of hours. The gig was as good as we had hoped – and Glasswerk have a review here.
Michelle and I have also made trips to Paul D’s for a barbeque (and a snoop around his brother’s new house – seven doors down from the doorstep where Jill Dando was shot, I was at pains to point out) and Jac’s new house in Harrow for some technical help and a very spicy Indian. We’ve shopped at Gunwharf Quays, dined at Italian restaurants and ate at a very nice pub for my mum’s birthday. It’s been, frankly, a hell of a month and I’ve rewarded myself with two weeks off. I’m currently lounging around in a dressing gown doing nothing except watching the Lions rugby tour and Wimbledon, which is a rare treat. Michelle is off working in Oxfordshire this week, leaving me to fend for myself. How does the washing machine work? How do I cook anything other than a pizza? I’m not sure I’ll make it through the week…

A Secret Trip to Bath

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The plan was going better than I had hoped. I surged off the M25 slip road and coasted into 6th gear, sweeping past the slow-moving lorry as the rain pattered more and more urgently on the windscreen.
I decided to chance it. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we went away right now for the weekend?” I remarked nonchalantly.
“Yes, it would,” Michelle agreed, looking confusingly at the big navigation screen in front of her, “but we’re going to Paul’s barbeque – he wouldn’t be too happy!”
A mischievous grin spread across my face. “He won’t know.”
“What? Why?”
“Because we’re not going to Paul’s.”
And so it was that for the first time in three and a half years I had managed to put the wind up Michelle, as it were. For the only time in memory, I have been able to keep something a secret from her for a month and a half, and I was proud. As I detailed the lengths I had gone to, and how everyone knew but her, my mind strayed to poor Paul and his girlfriend Liz. Paul and I had planned this event for the last month, only for Paul to have to pull out at the last moment. Never mind – we were off for a lazy weekend hotel stay in Bath, and nothing could stop us.
There is a curious certainty about travelling west of London – that the closer you get to Wales, the more rain you’ll find. This was our 3rd visit to Dorian House in the heart of Bath and my ninth visit to that area of the country – and without exception every trip has been marred by storms, wind and rain. Undaunted, we ploughed on.
We arrived at nine in the evening, and immediately set about ordering a taxi to the nearest Indian. The Eastern Eye, an enormous place in an old Roman banqueting hall, calmed our troubled stomachs and thoughts turned to the next couple of days. Paul, an event manager through and through, had been phoning and emailing regularly over the last few weeks with thoughts on what we should do – a trip to the zoo, and Comedy Walk around Bath, the obligatory visit to the Roman Baths – but without him there was little motivation to move outside our comfort zone. We settled on rising late the next morning, and shopping until the early evening.
And we stuck well to our plan. The exasperated phonecall from the hotel manager at 11am – “we really need to clean your room now, if you wouldn’t mind” – made me think that it was as good a time as any to haul my great carcass out of bed. Feeling energetic, we walked the 1 mile into town, stopping off on route to marvel at new “Japanese-style” apartments overlooking the whole of Bath – “just ?200,000 for a one bedroom home, sir” the saleman informed us, apparently without batting an eyelid. As we landed on familiar High Street territory, The Gadget Shop jumped out at us.
One hour later, having discussed at length with a female assistant the merits of a huge, phallic-shaped vibrating massager – “it gets into all your nooks and crannies” – we emerged with 3 items. One was the massager, and the other two…. well, they’ll be kept secret until the next party. But lunch was looming and after Michelle was attacked by a couple of friendly crows we found the appropriately-named Yum Yum Thai.
By then it was three o’clock and we were waning. Stocking up with edible goodies from Marks and Spencer sounded like a good plan and half an hour later we were at the checkout, about to hail a bus home. The bus came, we clambered aboard with multiple bags, and let the good man drive us up the hill.
And that, pretty much, was that. The hotel was as good as ever, Bath was as enjoyable as ever, and next time, god dammit, Paul and Liz are coming with us. You hear?

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…

Chester Drawers

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Chester. The only thing I knew about Chester before my trip up on was
that it was a bloody long way away. And getting up at four thirty that
morning, with the night still in full flow, didn’t make the trip any
more welcoming. My task for this trip was to find an office (needle) in
Chester (haystack), diagnose the computer’s “issues”, give it a couple
of kicks, and – job done – retire mid afternoon to the luxurious Travel
Inn down the road.
I left at the ungodly hour of 4.30am. Nothing stirred as I left my house
– so quiet that you might hear a pin drop on a leather banquette a goodly mile away. I’d clambered into the
car, banana in hand in case hunger struck, and off I went.
4 hours later, I was still driving. Chester, as I’ve said, is not near
to my neck of the woods, and only a brief visit to the little boy’s room
broke the monotony of the M3/M25/M40/M42/M6 trudge. The beauty of
morning travel though, it’s one saving grace, is that there is barely a
soul on the road. The only car I remember seeing on the M40 was freshly
embedded in the back of a large parked truck – the driver, I surmised,
was probably well on the way down the M99 to heaven.
I reached the outskirts of Chester as the rush hour was in full flow,
and cursed the sleepy, non-indicating drivers in their BMWs. My trusty
AA directions in my sweaty palm, I negotiated several hundred
roundabouts and many old-age pensioners before I found the office at
8:55am. I was brimming with pleasure – 5 hours of driving to a place
I’ve never been, and just look at my timekeeping…
The task was simple. Rebuild the computer, make sure the battered thing
was still working, and leave. And sure enough, in between several trips
to the coffee shop and a deep discussion about fishing, the job was done
by midday. Just in time for lunch, my stomach told me, and a quick
baguette later I was released into Chester. Just for completeness, I can
confirm that it’s a goodlooking place, with rivers, trees and some sort
of northern architecture. However, I was bushed after my early morning,
and I made straight for the Travel Inn.
Well, “straight”. I managed 4 wrong turnings before eventually giving in
and stopping at a local hotel for directions. It turned out to be just
round the corner and I arrived pleasantly surprised. New building, and a
pub just next door. I was blessed with an enormous room too, with a food
and drink machine just outside. And the ‘piece de resistance’ for the
true geek in me – wireless broadband internet access. In a year I may
look back and wonder what the fuss was about, but my virgin experience
sealed my passion for Travel Inns. I shall now request them at every
opportunity.
So, that was Chester. I could take you through my evening meal; the screaming
bores that were sat next to me discussing the pros and cons of the new
Intel microchip; I could even detail the trip down the M40 and on to the
horror of the M25 – but that’ll just bore you. Instead, I shall leave
you with this piece of advice: never try to fob off your spare Euro
change on a British food and drink machine with a queue of people
standing behind you. It gets stuck.

A Trip To Leeds

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My work diary said it quite clearly. “Training in Leeds?!”, I exclaimed, hoping that a statement about the customary wet weather in that region had merely been misprinted. Nope, this was the real deal, and I dutifully trundled up there on Wednesday afternoon, eager to see what the city of Leeds had to offer.
Not a lot, I noted five hours later, as the aforementioned rain came swirling down past the Leeds football stadium. I veered off the M62 down towards the hotel, placed neatly between the motorway and a downtrodden and half-empty business park. Still, the staff seemed oblivious to their location, and emitted plenty of false smiles as they guided me up the labyrinthine stairs to my room.
My manager had warned me about their 12-table restaurant. I know I should have listened, but after 5 hours of motorway, I was in no fit state to drive around for an inviting place to eat. A full 15 minutes after I arrived, a waitress arrived to take my order. “I’d love to,” I replied, “just as soon as you manage to offer me a menu.” The rest of the meal was a comedy act, although the food was passable and the bar was exceedingly well stocked. I wandered up to my room, set my alarm and retired to bed.
As it turned out, there was no need for an alarm – the early morning fire alarm did just the job. After roll call, I decided a short walk to the office would do me good. I’d managed to get vague directions to the address – “Down the road, round the corner, it’s just about 300 yards away, easy to find”. So off I trotted.
A good 30 minutes later, I was most definitely lost. Even the local workers hadn’t heard of Royds Hall Road, and I desperately floundered against the growing flurry of rain. I upped the place.
The trouble, you see, was this. “Just down the road” takes on confusing proportions when you are met with two crossroads and a roundabout within 200 metres of your hotel – and as it turned out the correct road was the very last one I chose. I stormed in, 20 minutes late and soaked to the skin.
The rest of the day was filled with training, training and a bit more training. In fact, the following day was a spitting image, minus the extra mile of walking. The final night, in a moment of utter boredom, I took a trip to the local newsagent for something to munch and something to read. Being a little out of my way, I asked for directions. “Just down the road,” said the receptionist – I’d heard that before – “and it’s on the left, next to White Rose.” The White Rose, I pondered as I spooned myself into the car – a pub perhaps? Maybe a garage. I drove into the night.
After 5 minutes, I was sure I’d gone too far. A quick, slightly illegal u-turn, and I was travelling back. I passed Waitrose on my left. “Waitrose… Waitrose… I wonder…” And there it was. The small white newsagent sign flashed intermittently as the vagaries of the Leeds accent dawned on me. I was grinning all the way back. Little things, eh.
My trip back down was troubled by the usual M25 chaos, and I must admit I was glad to be home. The promised travelling in my role is beginning to take hold – and I must admit it all makes a pleasant change from the Guildford-Liss jaunt.

On the road with a man named Duncan

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“Now, this is where the fun starts – there’s a French lady on reception, and she’s a bit temperamental.”
2 or 3 days a week, my job involves visiting customer sites and fixing their scientific computer-based issues. Three days into the job and I’m still expectedly clueness, so Thursday was a shadowing day. I had driven up to Bicester at the crack of dawn, to be confronted with the blasted M25. Ten miles of its time was all I asked – and I got 8 miles of queues for my trouble. My company car – albeit a hired one until I decide on a real one – was built for traffic jams. The Vauxhall Vectra is a big slab of a car, more functional than fanciful, but it got me to Bicester in some style and an hour early.
Once Duncan the engineer had been located, we set off for Oxford University, where two cries for help needed to be answered. The aforementioned Frenchwoman turned out to be having a good day, and we sailed through the two jobs in a couple of hours. And that appeared to be it for the day. We chowed down on sandwiches, after which I wended my way home, throughly pleased with the early finish. Something tells me the days won’t always be like this…

London Stansted Airport

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London Stansted Airport” the sign finally informed us.

What would you deduce from that simple, triple-worded name? That it was an airport, obviously. That the area of Stansted housed the airport, of course. And that it was either either in, or very near, London.
All correct. Apart from the London part. Getting from Guildford to Watford, a regular trip for friends of Jac, is under an hour away, so I willingly agreed to pick Nick and Sarah up from Stansted on Sunday afternoon, looking forward to the trip. And then, come Sunday morning, Michelle printed out the AA directions off their website. “84 miles” it informed us with a papery grin. “1hr 45min” it added with emphasis. “Bloody hell” I replied, “that’s just one way too…”
And so it was that we toddled up the A3 round the M25, up to M11 and took a left at the signpost for the Outer Hebrides. Still, it was a fun trip, with Michelle and I hastily constructing an amusing sign out of a broken-down box to raise, airport chauffeur-like, on Nick’s arrival.
So, Nick’s back, and very burnt. In fact, Nick’s back IS very burnt… (ah ha ha… ahem…)