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Heathrow Security – A Joke?

July 31, 2007

I see the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have grumped about the apparent security mess at Heathrow. Glad they have said what the rest of us were thinking. Especially when they seem so out of step with everyone else. Especially the ridiculousness of the one bag rule. Never mind that the screeching middle aged women (whose families are no doubt glad they are at work) telling you that only one bag is allowed have no idea why. In fact yesterday a BA cabin manager, when asked, had no idea why the rule was imposed either. Most folk, myself included, are happy to buy into an amended rule or process if we know why. We aren’t all dullards from Brixton going to Spain for our annual Vitamin D dose. In the last six weeks I have transited Heathrow twice. Each was a horror experience.

In the first case I was transferring to BA to travel to Europe. With a small bag and laptop, both security cleared through Sydney AND Singapore. Sadly Mrs Bucket thought that was not enough and one or the other had to be consigned to the hold. OK for me in that case but very tough for parents and other travellers with extra bags who suddenly had get everything into a single bag. No warning. It is something you discover after you depart your aircraft and are attempting to reconnect to another flight. And you find yourself in along queue for 30 minutes before the rule is barked at you. Leave the queue to check in one of the pieces at a separate counter and then rejoin the queue. I was sweating making my connection.

In the second instance (yesterday) I was departing Heathrow for the US – this time with laptop and samples. No go. Repack. Again no warning for the first time traveller but I was partially prepared given the previous experience going to Europe. Strangely British Airways reckons it is a government imposition. I thought it was an airline rule and could understand it being in place as a result of some sort of cabin management effort. Any security experts out there with any idea why this rule is helpful?

Heathrow is a second class shambles at the best of times. But this new imposition only creates staggering queues (legendary enough to make it onto YouTube) and convinces the cynic in me that these devices are employment ploys – designed to employ middle aged harpies who feel the need to boss a bunch of tired travelers around. Trouble is, these days you can’t give them a piece of your mind. If you do there is every chance you will be in breach of some sort of anti terror legislation. Off to Guantanamo Bay, you with the two (small) bags and smart lip!!

In Lincoln Inn Fields

July 28, 2007

Lincoln Inn Fields is a very pleasant London park well hidden from the regular tourist beat, not far from Fleet Street and the British Museum. When I dropped past it was home to a couple of homeless men who were stretched out asleep in the sun, while other “classes” played tennis nearby. The sleepers were in stark contrast to the towers of the Courts of Justice nearby or the residences of Holborn. Typical of any city really.

My English master warned of trying to rip off a few words to invent a poem, especially if you are not the poet laureate. Sound advice if you tried to do just that in an English exam – the first two lines were outstanding, the rest (about 100) pure twaddle. That is probably the case here too but these lines were ripped down while I sat on a stone step in Lincoln Inn Fields this afternoon and thought about where these homeless men had found themselves. With a bit of luck that English master won’t see this blog – the hacked meter would give him a heart attack.

In Lincoln Inn Fields
I will lay me down
Under Holborn’s money towers
My bed a public lawn.

In Lincoln Inn Fields
The thok of happy tennis
Played by “your Honour”
Reaches my ear on the lawn.

Behind Lincoln Inn Fields,
Lawyers wigs for sale.
My head is crowned with grey:
Backpack pillow on a damp lawn.

At Lincoln Inn Fields
I read inscribed in stone
Second Viscount of Hambeldon was
A man unselfish – to the bone.

In Lincoln Inn Fields
I dream that such might be
But Second Viscount anything
No hand stretched out to me.

Ah, in Lincoln Inn Fields
“neath singing maple leaves
My chancery lawn is bed enough
Wrapped in a summer breeze.

But Lincoln Inn Fields
Is a harpy when she’s drawn,
You’ll find my bed has shifted
Come autumn’s chilly dawn.

From Lincoln Inn Fields
I’ll shift, tho not very far,
Sadly not under any tidy roof,
Of Holborn’s slate and tar.

Homeless at Lincoln Inn Field
Pack for pillow, lawn for bed
Holey socks and rubbish bin coat
Bad dreams in this down, grey head.

Play your tennis,
Shout your sporting joy,
Relish your Chancery high houses
Justice cares less for this old boy.

I’ll settle for the thrush and blackbird
The Constable cloud wallpaper
The orchestra of the rustling maple leaf
And, alas, the lawn of the Lincoln Inn Fields.

Kensington Gardens

July 28, 2007

Every day is a new experience. And full of new things. Of discovery. Even if that discovery is not pioneering and others have been here before you. And even if the names of the places are so very familiar. I step into Kensington Gardens from off Bayswater Road and am confronted by a sprawling acreage that is full of surprises. And discovery. Its size for a start. The open park come farm feel to the place. Stretching into the distance are chestnuts, beech, oaks and elms, sentinels to pathways and mown edges but most commonly ruling over the unruly and the unkept. Knee high, unmown grass covers most of the place. Dogs love it. Little boys with sticks do what little boys with sticks do. Every now and then you spot the raised knees of someone lying on their back, the rest of them hidden by the grass. Every so often you are startled by the prostrate, bleached white body of a Londoner, in nothing but their swimwear, trying to get some Vitamin D. Although the day is pleasant the sky is a John Constable – more cloud and light than sunlight and blue sky, although patches of that appear through the racing, tumbling clouds. Couples meet for lunch. A scarf covered head has leaning on her the swarthy head of her husband. From behind, as you watch them silently communicate, clumped down in this open field with the breeze snapping around them you imagine an immigrant’s tale. Comforting each other in this strange land but in a field that accentuates our basic cravings for peace and light – and each other. And maybe a stupid dog.

The foliage skirts of the oaks and chestnuts, hems flapping in the breeze, soon give way to the Serpentine and its green silted waters, Italian fountains and arched bridge. I walk along a railed fence, past Peter Pan being assaulted by tourists, past thick undergrowth and then ripening elderberry and clawing blackberry, its hard green fruit just starting to hint at purple. I half expect Peter Rabbit to come squeezing through the railings but I settle for a hen thrush instead, which scurries across the path in front of me. Under rustling beech leaves old men remove their shoes and socks and wriggle their toes in the turf. Families break open lunches. Kids play hide and seek. A scotch thistle gives up its crown, and seeds lift away on the breeze which, incidentally, carries to me the turbo-fan whine of the unending stream of aircraft on long finals into Heathrow. These gardens are a plane spotters delight.

I eventually give in and make like a Londoner, find my own patch of wilderness field and disappear into the undergrowth. As I do so I discover I am checking were I put my feet in case there are any snakes – we are products of our places too. Thrips leap to the white page of the journal and scurry about. A spider runs up the spine and grass seeds are startled by my movement and rain across the pages. In the end the thing most synonymous with this country (OK, apart from the Queen, the Tower and Beckham) moves me on – the ground is damp and the stained patches on my pants had better be dried off before I hit the streets. Only a bleached Londoner could lie in this damp stuff in only his Speedos and figure he was onto a good thing. Perhaps he actually is. Some things are just beyond figuring out.

The British Museum

July 28, 2007

This museum is a zoo! A human zoo. Summer in London and its school holidays and they are here from all corners of the earth looking at all corners of the earth. Fancy a quiet afternoon wandering a whisper quiet, hushed monument? Best go somewhere else. Here a heaving, chattering throng, charging through ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Imperial Rome. School kids from Korea shout into their mobile phones and attempt to answer a written quiz on Celtic England. Their mystification is complete. Tour groups of Chinese throttle along through broken faced Greek statues as they manoeuvre to the next talking point behind a guide holding a little flag up high. Japanese tourists look on in disdain – such travel and guide methodologies are so passé! But they still happily snap away like their parents and grandparents did and cannot resist posing in front of anything standing still – which is course just what they have in spades here. But they snap without too much discernment I suspect. I wonder what Grandma will think of the pose in front of a broken penised Greek god. The marble testicles will show up quite nicely beside her left ear though.

Eastern Europeans outnumber us all. In and out of the museum it seems. They are in a rush to catch up methinks, and they crowd in solemn assembly around Assyrian bull gods, admire Islamic glassware and linger over the mummies of Egypt. I am plagued by a precocious loud mouthed twelve year old from Michigan who is embarrassing his siblings and parents with his know-it-all commentary. We even got the atomic weight of gold as we admired ancient Chinese coins. Despite a crowd of ten thousand he found me in Napoleonic Europe, North European prehistory, Korean prints and even in the book shop where I think his parents were trying to escape him (His older brother had taken a couple of swipes at him in the bookshop which did not connect, and my uncharitable self fancied I should hold him still while brother took another swing at him). I can thank him though for saving me some money – I fled his lecture on the rules of chess in Anglo Saxon times before I could spend anything in that shop.

July 2007

A Grand Piano in McDonalds – Now I Have Seen Everything!

July 25, 2007

It might be raining in the rest of England but London is strangely unaffected. The Thames has a boiling roil of water heading down it and the broken banks visible as you tun to land at Heathrow suggest things are not as the should be. But except for the perfectly inane 24 hour coverage on Sky News you would not know this place had been washed out. It is a mild day, sunny on occasions and High Street in Kensington is as you would expect it to be, with its flower baskets, shoppers, children on holidays and all nationalities mixed up in this cosmopolitan hub. I have to confess to being a cultural Philistine by eating at McDonalds the morning I arrived. As I sat in the window I was amused to watch the two Chinese drivers of a DHL delivery van get booked in the 4.8 seconds they were away from their vehicle by a couple of African giraffes, who if any taller would have been bumping the flower baskets as they casually sauntered along the pavement in that peculiarly rolling African way, issuing their tickets. But the incongruous cultural highlight this morning comes not from the crowds outside, but from inside McDonalds. Tucked into a corner is a grand piano – electronic, so of course it is tinkling away by itself. A grand piano in McDonalds?! I am not sure if that is a marketing misstep by McDonalds or whether someone feels a Kensington fast food joint should look and feel a bit more upmarket. I cannot think why.

An Earls Court Lunch

July 23, 2007

The service is unclear, hesitant and slow. Fish and chips are de rigueur in this part of the world are they not? So let’s order that. I sit on a high-stool 3 metres from a staring bank of faces captured by a double decker bus, which is leaning towards me as it tilts at rest on the camber of the road. A rat tailed Rastafarian looking Caribbean dude is plunking coins into a slot machine which makes mechanical noises back at him for a while then goes silent. It’s the conversation of a tyrannical mistress – stony silence and folded arms, toe tapping even, and bright luminous look . So he makes more conversational noise as he feeds her what she wants. She wins of course. They always do.A fifty something woman sits on her high chair under Sky News describing floods in Tewkesbury. A blond ten year old brat of a boy glares at her from the other side of the menu and demands his meal now! Her shabby clothes, ruddy cheeks, bulging midriff, and thin black eyebrows (why do they do that?) tell their own battling story.
At the bar a sixty something fellow with an open face, goofy smile and the startled look of someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery leans on the bar attempting to look suave. His badly done, patchy, kitchen sink hair dye undoes all the work his flashing cuff links and gums are doing to impress a blond in high heels. Initial impression is “sad case” but as lunch wears on and I hear his polite patter, and especially after she leaves with him that turns (slightly) to admiration. He is working jolly hard. But I hope he has invested in plenty of Viagra – the amount of sherry he toasts her with then sculls means he won’t be getting it up on his own for at least 24 hours. But maybe that is why she is putting up with all this attention, knowing she is under no threat of anything except a free lunch of bangers and mash and some inane toasts to her perfect cleavage.

The Qat, the Jambiya and the Nokia

July 20, 2007

There has to be a profound story in a heading like that. Sadly not here though. Qat, referred to below, is chewed by most. Even our government employed guide and escort (I am being polite – read “guard”) admitted to being hooked on the stuff and the only reason we did not see his cheeks bulging with qat was that he took it out when he was driving us around. When in meetings he snuck it back in for a quick buzz. But he was under strict instructions not to offend our sensibilities. Here a young man selling jewellery displays the ubiquitous chipmunk cheeks that betray the qat chewer. He was also very proud of his two symbols of manhood and of him having “made it” – interestingly a piece of the very old and a piece of the very new. The Jambiya is the dagger, tucked into his belt, which all men wear with pride but which young teenage boys wear with extra pride and swagger (imagine that next time you see a crowd of them milling around at your local mall! Teenage boys that is). You could buy the Jambiya for cents in the lanes of “Old Sanaa” but they looked like my Grade 6 woodwork projects. Or you could spend thousands – and they were probably someone else’s Grade 6 woodwork project! Gorgeous pieces of art at all price levels but the thought of trying to explain myself at various customs checkpoints on the way home deterred me from buying one. And of course he is nothing without his Nokia. These blighters never change the original tone though. How they know which phone belongs to who is beyond me – like a single ewe knowing which bleat is her lamb in all same sounding calls, they seem to know which phone call is for who. It would warm the heart of a Nokia sales rep.

Chewing the Qat on a Sunday Afternoon

July 20, 2007

Its the Sabbath, prayers are done (for a few hours at least) and the family has an afternoon to kill. In Sanaa, capital of Yemen, there are few leisure options up your sleeve. Many head down to the qat (chat) markets, pick up a few kilos of qat leaves then head for the hill. To do what I hear you ask? To sit and chew the qat. Chewing this stuff apparently gives you a high but one young man told me it took ten to twelve hours of solid chewing to get the effect. And I can tell you from experience this is no lettuce leaf structure – about the size and density of a bay leaf. Or a citrus leaf. And completely tasteless. But it must get them in since all these folk parked here on the escarpment to the west of the city were doing nothing but chew the stuff. it would be humourous if it was not so sad. While Yemen has been known for years as a source of the stuff the country is also famous for its coffee. But coffee growers have ripped out their plants to grow qat – it is a more potent cash crop than the stuff you drink and the buzz is apparently worth the short sightedness.

Mama’s Bistro, Ballan

July 15, 2007

Small towns scattered around the goldfields of Victoria offer a certain charm thanks to their architecture, their memorials, Mechanics Institute Halls, old churches, and just all round rural charm. Other towns offer none of that, especially those which have lost their way after freeways have diverted traffic around them. Ballan, squeezed between the railway and the freeway but generally lost to view and mind is one of those bleak places you try and avoid actually. The local cafes offer rubbery sausage rolls, the local pub has paper table clothes, stained from previous meals, and the sub zero chill factor keeps you from wanting to stop too long.

Thankfully we stopped on this bleak day for a quick look at Mama’s Bistro to see if we could get a hot lunch. It turns out Mama came out from Italy after the war (1945) and soon had the locals coming in and ordering “Mama’s pyjamas” (parmigiana). She still cooks there. A sprightly little lady, with a headscarf catching up her hair. Her cackling laugh is infectious and she had us feeling at home straight away. Her daughter helps out. They made us laugh by warning as we placed our orders that “they had not very much of anything”! In the end they served us nine home cooked meals, piping hot and delivered with good humour and a cheeriness in stark contrast to the bleak conditions outside. The human story that we discovered here, along with the hospitality and family table atmosphere Mama created were worth the effort to stop and brave the cold to see what the town offered.

Bastille Day in Dunolly

July 15, 2007

The discussion about small towns is entirely appropriate given I have spent the last week visiting a few of them. On Saturday evening I had the good fortune to sit around an open fire in the Cockatoo Cafe in Dunolly. It was near freezing outside so the fire was a good start. Even more rewarding was the warmth of the company, and the sparkling atmosphere created by the trio called Continental Drift – their range of folk and gypsy music from Turkey, Araby (!), Russia, Ireland and any other number of points had our feet tapping. And of course songs from France and some lyrics in French to suit the occasion of the 14th of July. Mix all that with the general din of chat, families connecting, children playing, good food and wine, and reminiscing, without being maudlin, about our good friend, son, brother, partner Jonathan, and it crossed my mind on more than one occasion during the evening that there are things country folk know that city folk never do (apologies Banjo). If we could recreate that family warmth, connection, hospitality, and joy of life found this evening in the Cockatoo Cafe in our cities we would probably never want to leave them!

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