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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Saturday, 29 November 2003

Long-awaited update...

I've been fairly busy over the past fortnight - plenty's been going on, but I haven't had the time to sit down and recall all the salient details. That, I suppose, is one of the frustrations of living in the 'here and now' - I don't find it easy to take up the present with writing about the past. Modern life is like that.

Anyway, I ought first to update the Pret story. The same morning, I arrived at work and wrote a slightly briefer account of the events you'll have read - thank you for the notes, by the way - on the feedback page of the Pret A Manger website. A couple of days later, I received a lovely email from one of the customer services people, asking me to call the manager of the shop in which I had the experience to arrange a chat about it. It's nice to know they listen - and respond - to their moany old customers! So, I'll let you know what happens on Monday afternoon...

As for other stories of my life, I'll be putting them in the blog at about the same dates they happened, so it's worth checking down for some stories that you might not have seen. Is that the best thing to do? If it's not, sorry! Look out for:
o My debut live performance
o My first football match
o Royal Victoria Docks (near to the ExCeL Docklands conference centre) on a clear day.

Goodness... I just heard an advert on the radio - you can buy a personal CD player for ?13 now! It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't buy a personal cassette player for much less than that...
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Posted by james at 10:37 AM

Thursday, 27 November 2003

Royal Victoria Docks

The Sound Broadcasting Equipment Show was held on Wednesday and Thursday this week, at ExCeL - the exhibition and conference centre at Docklands in East London. Ed and I had planned to attend on Thursday, meeting up at the entrance to the exhibition. While waiting for Ed to arrive, I went for a wander, and found a tall bridge spanning the Royal Victoria Dock. The dock was a striking landmark that just invited photographs to be taken of it, and the surrounding area, especially from the extra height afforded by the bridge.

Over the past few days, the rain has been persistent - the skies dark and threatening; it soon struck me that morning that the sun was out, and in the absence of any breeze, it was beginning to warm up. Here are the photos that I took - please drop me a note if you'd like me to send you larger versions of them.


view of the front of ExCeL
A view of the front of ExCeL from the bridge. The entrance hall is the triangular glass area to the right of the picture - you can see the 'ExCeL' logo almost in profile at the top of the building


side view of ExCeL
The exhibition centre stretches along the dockside. At the end, there appears to be a large white cruise ship, which I believe is a floating hotel. It's difficult to make out, but about two thirds of the way across the picture is the runway for London City Airport.


royal victoria dock smooth waters
The water on the docks was so calm, reflecting the sky and skyscrapers. This photo was taken on the waterline - a little less scary than the rickety lift up the side of the bridge.


Dome, Canary Wharf and Cranes
The Millennium Dome was close by - this photo includes the Dome and Canary Wharf (or One Canada Place) tucked behind the dockside buildings.


Sky over London
The sky may have been blue, but a pervading smog covers London - this photo (hopefully) shows that up. The cloud in the centre was there all afternoon. Most unusual!

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Posted by james at 10:00 PM

Sunday, 16 November 2003

Theatre of Dreams

I'd never been to a proper professional-type football match before, so it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to join my brother-in-law and a couple of his friends to watch England play Denmark at Old Trafford. What better introduction to the 'live' game than to watch an international at possibly the most famous football ground in the UK, if not the world?

The match started at 4pm, but we needed to go up the M1 and M6 to get to it, setting off not long after 10am to make it there on time. We found somewhere to park, about 15 minutes walk from the ground (it was the side carpark of a pub - I'm sure they make a fortune on a Saturday afternoon!)

Here, then, is the story in pictures...

Old Trafford is an amazing venue - it certainly dominates the skyline, although it doesn't have the trademark floodlights that normally identify a football ground. As you approach the main entrance, you know immediately where you are. The glass, the red sign and the metal superstructure make it look really modern; although I don't know the history of the ground, I'm sure it's been there for tens of years and has probably had a huge amount of work done to it over the years.Manchester United sign

Two Robs and a JonHere are the guys I went with - Rob, my brother-in-law is on the left; Jonny, who lives just down the road from Rob's parents is in the middle, and Charch, who was kind enough to drive us all the way up there. Note that England tops are predominantly being worn - I felt a little out-of-place in my jumper and coat, although it came in handy as evening came and the temperatures dropped!

As has been discussed in previous blog entries, there are specific - often obscure - protocols to be followed in specific situations, and football matches are no exception. Take, for example, the tight squeeze through the unfeasibly small turnstiles - the process of handing over the ticket with a muffled grunt, followed by a sharp push of the predominantly red metal gate is de facto at almost every ground.

The only other tradition I know of is the pie at half-time. To avoid the rush, I bought one (I especially liked the way it was called "Meat and Potato Pie" so as not to limit themselves to any particular animal) before the match, and will have to confess to having finished it well before kick-off.Pie

flagsOnce I'd settled in, and the requisite moving out of the way so that people could fill to the end of the row had taken place, I took a look around. We were in an excellent seating position, at the corner of the ground. I've never been very good at large numbers, so it was almost impossible to gauge exactly how many people there were in the stadium, but they were almost all there to support England, with a most amazing show of flags and general red and white-ness.

Somewhat ironically, the Danish flag was the inverse of the English; the visiting fans took up a fairly small segment of the stands almost directly opposite us.

There was a fair amount of waiting around to do once we'd made it to our seats, although it wasn't long before the players came out to have a bit of a warm up. This was when I realised that I had forgotten probably the most important thing I could have brought with me - a radio. I could hardly make out who any of the players were (with the fairly obvious exception of David Beckham) so I'd really miss the lack of commentary during the match itself. players warming up

As we were much closer to one goal than the other, I hoped that the first half would be dull - perhaps a goal each, with England playing towards the goal on the far side, so that they could score another four at our end in the second half, and we'd see all the decent action, and perhaps I'd recognise some of the players up close[r].

the big ol' England flagOnce the warm-up had finished, a parade of the two countries' flags took place, before the national anthems and the resultant kickabout. Apparently it's something of a tradition for the spectators at either end of the stands to hold up coloured pieces of plastic, to form the flag of their country - when it happened it was most impressive; again, I couldn't get my head around the sheer number of people who were all contributing to the displays; I'll admit it was rather moving in a mildly patriotic kind of way.

Finally, the time came to start the match. As I'd hoped, England started playing away from us, and the game kicked off in some style, with the first goal flying in within the first ten minutes. It was almost like a Playstation game, in fact - any fear of a dull nil-nil draw was quickly dispelled with cheers and shouts of "Roonneeehh!" (My camera has a handy 'record' function - not particularly high quality, but hopefully gives an idea of the sheer volume of the crowd)the kick-off

England were doing fairly magnificently, having gone 2-1 up in less than twenty minutes, after a fairly swift equaliser by Denmark. How we enjoyed the rousing chorus of "You're not singing, you're not singing, you're not singing any more..." and other fine chants. Our seats were a block and a few rows away from the Sheffield-based(I believe) brass band that often accompanies the England team; fortunately they weren't close enough to ruin our enjoyment of the match.

penalty scarinessWhat did have an effect, however, was the lack of decent goalkeeper action - David James (who doesn't have the style, flair or facial hair of the mightly David Seaman) decided to widen his sporting horizons by performing a fairly impressive rugby tackle on an approaching striker. I'm not going to go into a rant about England's weak defence, or irresponsible goalkeeping, so I'll just say that the upshot of this was a penalty. I couldn't watch. But I did. Two-all.

The game lost its shine somewhat - even to the point where the crowd started to do Mexican Waves, and the wholesale substitution of the teams commenced. This was a bad thing; as the better-known names departed, and players turned up on the pitch who I'd not heard of before, it all became a little more frustating to watch. In spite of a few England efforts - one of which hit the outside of the net, and another, in the second half, bounced tantalisingly off the goalpost, it started to get both cold and nervewracking.

David Beckham and his unique hairAs something of an aside, Charch brought his mighty fine new modern digital camera along, and afterwards showed me the photos he'd taken. Here, for example, is one of David Beckham just about to take a free kick which, considering we were sitting at the other end of the ground to him, is amazing quality (the photo, not the free kick. I don't think that one scored a goal...)

The Danish number 7 player stayed on throughout the match - an excellent strategy, as by the last twenty minutes, almost everyone in the England team had been substituted, Denmark had scored another, and he was running rings around the less experienced members of the now completely unfocussed England headless chickens. I mean team.

All in all, then, at the end of the day the match ended somewhat disappointingly, but I was very glad it was a friendly, as it lightened the mood somewhat, and the defeat was a little easier to accept. The boys done good. Everyone left fairly quickly and quietly, with a vacuum of exuberance that would have accompanied a win.empty seats

lots of peopleIt took us over an hour to get back to the car - the crowds were immense, with pavements jammed with people diverging from the football ground. In spite of this, there were memorabilia sellers peddling badges, pennants and the like to 'remember the event'. I don't suppose they make much money when England lose...


We eventually found our vehicle, and started on the long slow journey out of Manchester. It was after half-past eleven when I arrived home - thirteen hours for a ninety minute match! It was a rare treat, though, and apart from the fact that people are allowed to smoke in the seating area (which made it rather unpleasant at times) I would definitely consider taking Christopher to see an England international when he's older - if he wants to come!

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Posted by james at 11:55 PM

Saturday, 15 November 2003

House names

House numbers are boring. In fact, some house names are, too. Now don't for a moment think that I'm one of those individuals who insists on buying a personalized number-plate for their car. "Personalized" can simply mean a few initials, which is a little pretentious, but not unacceptable. However, the temptation to resort to desperate measures involving screw heads, bizarre lettering and sometimes more imagination than most people can muster to extend their clearly inflated personality onto the front and rear of a car* is too much for some deluded individuals, and in a way I pity them.

That, however, is merely a long-winded and opinionated aside. Back to house names. According to the Halifax bank, the most popular names to call home are:

Position House Name
1st The Cottage (1st)
2nd Rose Cottage (3rd)
3rd The Bungalow (2nd)
4th The Coach House (5th)
5th Orchard House (12th)

These names seemed to me to be predictable and uninspiring. In a fit of rebellion, I unofficially (and ironically) dubbed our previous house "Shania Twain Mansions" (it was a tiny two bedroom modern dwelling seemingly made entirely out of Weetabix) and our latest house is known - to friends, suppliers of junk mail and whimsical competition entries - as "Geri Halliwell Towers."

How, I found myself asking, would I make the name permanent? Once again, the Halifax banking shop has the answer:

If you do want to name your home for the first time - or change its name - and it already has a number it is important to contact your local Royal Mail delivery office. If the name clashes with a very similar one nearby you may be asked to choose an alternative. You should also inform all those who need to contact you by post including the local authority, household utilities such as gas, electric and telephone as well financial organisations such as your bank, building society and insurance company. The Land Registry also welcomes details of new names and name changes.

So now I know. All I need to do now is persuade Beth that it's a fantastic (or at least not unbelievably stupid) idea, register the name and then, of course, buy a plaque.



*I am a founder member of the "It's only a car" campaign. I'm sure there'll be a blog entry about it sooner or later...
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Posted by james at 8:10 PM

Thursday, 13 November 2003

Pret am Anger.

I visited "Pret a Manger" for the first time today; I had a pound or so burning a hole in my pocket, Beth - accountant in chief - had reported that the bank balance was looking fairly healthy, and I had the urge for a croissant.

I ought to make it clear that "middle-class commuter culture" holds little attraction to me - more on that later - it was simply the desire for warm, unhealthy French breakfast product, a curiosity about the quality of the cappuccino (I like to compare the quality of coffee when I'm out with what I can make at home for a fraction of the cost) and the fact that the bus arrived earlier than usual that inspired me to pop in as I wandered down Baker Street.

From the moment I approached the counter I was out of my depth; the woman in front of me asked for a "Tall skinny latte" - whatever one of those happens to be.

The woman who served me greeted me with an unnerving, vacant smile, and a strong accent: "Yes, please?"

WHAT? "Yes, please?" It's not as if I've just asked her if she'd like a custard cream. Why are they saying those words to me? "Yes, please?" It's meaningless. "Can I help you?" is far preferable. Even "What do you want?" makes some sense. I haven't yet formulated the correct response to the phrase "Yes, please?" - I'm undecided between a quizzical look, replying with "No, thank you" and walking away, or, erm, something else. Suggestions are always welcome.

It went downhill from there; another lady piped up with "can I take your order? You pay the other lady." (slightly better than "yes please", anyway.) "OK", I replied - "May I have a cappuccino and a warm croissant, please?"

Her response: "No, I only take the coffee order, you pay the other lady."

"Er, OK. May I have a normal cappuccino, please." She went away to prepare my drink, and I asked the lady to whom I'd first spoken "May I have a warm croissant, plaese?"

Employee: "Pardon?"
Me: "A warm croissant please." Surely that wasn't beyond her abilities?
Employee: "They all are warm." she gesticulated to the perspex display cabinet on the counter, which seemed to have no form of heating associated with it. I didn't want to make a fuss, but I could feel my frustration growing.
Me: "I'm sorry - this is my first time in this shop."
Employee: - (I was treated to a blank, uncomprehending expression.)

I have discovered, having ventured occasionally into a Starbucks for their expensive but enjoyably sticky caramel cappuccino, that making any kind of small-talk is beyond most employees' capabilities. They are probably used to dealing with the self-centred middle class oaf who starts their order with the completely incongruous "Can I get...?" and who has no interest in the human being behind the counter, so conversational English beyond this is probably something they simply don't do very often.

I received my drink - which was uninspiring and fast approaching lukewarm - and the food, which was fresh, but stretched the definition of "warm" to mean "not chilled". Maybe I should have asked for a hot croissant, but that carries its own risks and, I daresay, collection of uncomprehending stares.

If I'm honest, I was prepared to be disappointed with Pret A Manger, but, considering all the propaganda ("We're environmentally conscious, we believe in fair trade, we make all our food on-site and we love our customers") that covers the bags and napkins, and by the time I'd consumed their products, I felt more empty than before I'd entered the shop.

Never again.
(Am I a grumpy old man already?)

Posted by james at 10:25 AM

Friday, 7 November 2003

Bluejacking...

Yet another techy trend has emerged - and I like it.

Bluejacking is the act of 'hacking' into a bluetooth connection between two devices and leaving anonymous messages for the unwitting bluetooth user.

Some time last I had an idea of beaming messages using infra-red from my mobile phone to PDA users in railway stations, but this is so much more subtle. There is much fun and student-type shenanigans to be had with technology.

It's just a bit of a shame I don't have bluetooth on my iPAQ...
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Posted by james at 10:15 AM

towns

I really ought to take more opportunity to add bits to this blog when the mood takes me - especially since I can do it practically anywhere.

Still, here I am again - this time to write of my mild surprise at a book. I was in ASDA a couple of days ago, and was looking amongst the shelves of what seem mainly to be autobiographies (Beckham, Burrell... are they releasing them in alphabetical order these days?) for possible Christmas present ideas.

Crap Towns - The 50 Worst places to live in Britain attracted my attention, as it's fairly obviously a comedy book. So, what would anyone do in this situation? I had a good browse through to see if I could find Luton - or even Dunstable (which I consider to be even worse) - and neither was featured. However, I was further outraged to see that the little seaside town where I spent my later childhood (Bexhill-on-Sea - an unassuming [OK... a bit dull] but pretty south-coast old-people's home) was at number 8!.

Time, I think, to make a "Delight or Dump?" game (identify Luton or Bexhill from photos - although I've been warned by Beth not to be too biased!) ... more on this travesty, no doubt, later.

Posted by james at 8:44 AM

Sunday, 2 November 2003

TAHAT

(From alt.usage.english, where I was looking on the off-chance for a post about the 'taking' and 'making' of decisions - see here for a discussion on the subject):

Apparently, in Czech and Slovak, the word for "push" is TAHAT.
Imagine the problems that result when it's written in block capitals on glass doors (that only open one way)...
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Posted by james at 12:38 AM

Decisions: "make" or "take" ?

Speaking of BBC Radio: why, according to the newsreaders, reporters and interviewees I hear nowadays, do people no longer make decisions like they always used to - instead preferring to take decisions?

Surely to take a decision simply means becoming the person who chooses to make the decision. Then they make the decision. That was always my understanding, but if anyone knows different, please add a comment or email me at the usual address. I think I'll write to Feedback. That'll learn 'em. Or the Daily Mail. Or the Luton On Sunday.

Ahh the catharsis of a blog moan...
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Posted by james at 12:23 AM

Saturday, 1 November 2003

Listen again...

While I remember, I thought I'd mention the Listen Again service that BBC Radio offers. It's amazing - when there's nothing of interest on the radio, it's possible to hear programmes that I'd not heard about, or couldn't listen to because I was working, sleeping or doing family things. Unsurprisingly, Radio 4 has the greatest interest for me, as there are regular broadcasts (such as Feedback) and comedy programmes (such as the moderately hilarious Marcus Brigstocke's Giles Wemmbley Hogg Goes Off) available on the web which I would otherwise miss.

Radio 4's programme list can be found here.
Radio 2's programme list is on their 'listen live' page.


What's even better, though, is the variety of niche, whimsical and science-type programmes that I would make arrangements to switch on, but never get round to it. A great example of this, that I would recommend to anyone with an enquiring mind, is the ten programme set of Five Numbers and Another Five Numbers". These are light-hearted, but content-rich quarter-hour expos?s of 'interesting' mathematics. My favourite episode was the one about pi.

If I have any slight niggle about the collection of programmes available to hear again, it's that not all of the creators give BBC Radio the right to publish them on the internet, so there's a chance that something will only ever be available when it's actually on air. For example, I couldn't listen to The Pet Shop Boys documentary on Radio 2 over the past couple of weekends because other things were - as usual - going on.

But all-in-all, it's yet another example of the BBC's massive on-line resource (something which several members of the government believe encroaches on other commercial companies' interests, and probably should be banned... or something) of which I and at least a number of other people make use every day.

I'll also admit that it enables my iPAQ to masquerade as a rather impressive (although probably overpriced) personal radio- yet another handy thing to do with a PDA, a pair of headphones and, where necessary, a mains adaptor(!)

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Posted by james at 11:55 PM


 
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