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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.

hocpass.jpg

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.

The Long, Dark Stag Night Of The Soul

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“The husband who wants a happy marriage should learn to keep his mouth shut and his checkbook open.”
Groucho Marx
Saturday was the Six Nations rugby cup final. Although, not least because the shower of fools managed to lose against the French, I won’t be talking about it. No, an event that eclipsed all others also took place that night – Matt’s stag do. Get a cup of tea – it’s a long story.
It was a cool, clear morning. The promise of copious drinking and a strip club brought to mind my mother’s advice – “Line your stomach, darling, and you won’t go far wrong.” This turned out to mean bananas and milk all round, and as I left home for Guildford that morning to meet Matt (Michelle’s brother), James and Paul, my lonely banana skin served as a foreboding reminder that things were about to get messy.
In fact, messy seemed an understatement. Take for instance our opening salvo, a few swift halves in Edwards bar in Guildford town centre. A quiet place, you’d think, at 2pm on a Saturday. Three scousers, who looked barely out of their nappies, decided that now was a good time to show how very hard they were, with the victim being some poor, misguided fool who had objected to them. Cue a minute of fighting, four on one, involving chairs and all sorts. It was a severe pasting, but the victim won no points for yelling after every break in pummelling “Come on then!”. They already had – and they did again five minutes later, finally finished with a blood-curdling sound of head against door frame. A good start, we thought, and swiftly left through the blood-spattered door to board a train for the Big Smoke.
Leicester Square was the obvious starting point and we made for the Sussex Arms, mindful of the need to pace ourselves to last the night. A few drinks and an Aftershock later, the plan was in ruins. We bounded merrily along, past the Nags Head, past Covent Garden with its wide, intricate arches and on to the Boks Bar. Rugby-watching was the plan, with a view to celebrating England’s victorious win, and the Boks Bar served us splendidly. A Female Tequila Dispenser was installed in this bar, and she had a particularly wiley way of getting a drink out of us. Togged up in Lara Croft garb, the shot glasses were arranged at conveniently racy points down her torso, which she proudly offered with minimal embarrassment. The picture of her kissing Matt was a great shot, and made us thankful we’d brought the camera. The tequila, however, was disappointing – at ?3.80 a shot, it was watered down, and Matt confronted her with the revelation that while we thought she was downing the shots with us, she was in fact swigging from another water-filled bottle on her left hip. To top it all, she walked off without giving change from ?16. By then, of course, alcohol had taken hold, and we couldn’t have cared less.
We watched the rugby. We cheered. We groaned. We threw things. We bloody lost. By then, Matt was suffering. He’d had his head in his hands for around 20 minutes, and we thought it was high time he got some air if he was going to last the night. It worked, in a way we’d never envisaged – within 2 minutes, he’d emptied his stomach. We pressed on.
Two more had joined us – Mo and his friend, who for completeness I’ll call Gunter. I have no idea of his actual name, but he was German, and a cheery bod. Eager to reach the climax of our night, we grabbed the fifth taxi we could find – the first four were either full or ignored us, rightly guessing we might be a bit of a handful – and sped away to Spearmint Rhino, the Gentleman’s Club.
We made it. More to the point, Matt made it. He was disasterously unwell, and his poor preparation (distinct lack of beer tolerance build-up, 3 hours sleep the previous night) was clearly telling. Once in, he headed straight for the great porcelain bowl, while we sped on to the main room.
And, frankly, what a place. I’ve waxed lyrical about the Caf? de Paris nightclub in my time. This was Caf? de Paris with strippers. If you’re going to go to a strip club, this is plainly the place to be. Mo got a round of drinks to shove in our gaping mouths, and we settled down on a plush red sofa. Topless women danced around, and homed in on us like flies. To save my mother’s blushes, I shall merely say that fun was had, especially by our german friend, who ended up ?120 lighter. After a brief geeky moment wondering if any of the young ladies was the “mysterious literary sensation” Belle De Jour, we left, noting that Matt the stag clearly wasn’t having the time of his life thanks to his unpredictable stomach.
We staggered home, amusing ourselves with the astonishingly near retail store of the company I work for, marvelling at the 130-step circular stairway down to Goodge Street tube station (possibly the most challenging drunken moment of my life), and bumping into my old friend Kate and her sister at Waterloo station. I cannot for the life of me remember what she said, but she’d just been to the party I was due to go to before Matt’s stag night reared its head. I think I said “small world” several hundred times. We eventually surfaced in Guildford early on Sunday morning, considerably worse for wear.
A fantastic night, so thanks to James the best man, who conceived the whole sordid idea, and to Paul, whose witty banter had my cheek muscles aching with pleasure. And to Gunter and Mo, whose dad owns my local Indian restaurant the Madhuban (which happens to be the best I’ve ever been to). And to Matt, who provided endless hours of amusement looking like death warmed up. For all I know he’s probably still recovering.
Now all that remains is to get the long-forgotten camera back from the strip club…