Friday, 20 June 2014

Summer of Sport

It's hard to be a television blogger when you are in the middle of a football World Cup because there ain't a right lot on telly apart from what some term the beautiful game. Which this summer I just can't bring myself to care about, for some reason. The England team plane landed with an offer from the pilot to just keep the engines running (see Private Eye) so there's no point getting too hopeful about any great sporting achievement from our end of things. (Two matches lost as I write.)

It's possibly partly because in York, we are entirely focused on preparing for the Tour de France which will be cycling through our city (and right past the end of our street) on Sunday July 6th. There are yellow bikes, bunting, poor French puns and knitted jerseys all over town. I have even less knowledge of cycling than I do of football, and as far as I am concerned Lance Armstrong has left a pretty big scar slashed right across the sport, but it's hard not to get swept along by such a big event happening right on our doorstep.

Anyway, the fact remains that the television schedules are entirely clogged up with footie and football punditry (I'm sorry, Newcastle, but Alan Shearer in full drone is fairly close to what I imagine torture by THE WORLD'S MOST BORING MAN would be like) during the hours that I am free to view them. Alternatives on offer involve documentaries about missing planes, fostering and mobility scooters, none of which have really led me to much writing inspiration. The missing Malaysian Airways flight MH370 has of course a poignant right to a place on a blog about travel, but I cannot even begin to comprehend what torment and tragedy those passengers and their families have faced and I feel it would be inappropriate to make any comment here.

So in the evenings I've picked up my book and started going out for long walks instead. Hardly a bad thing.

And everything I ever had to say about football has already been said, when I went to see Brazil play New Zealand at the Olympics in 2012.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How The Wild West Was Won With Ray Mears

Ray Mears is that bloke who does survival things on telly who isn't Bear Grylls or the guy who got killed by a sting-ray. He is a lot posher than you might expect, or maybe I just muddled him up with Ray Winstone. I watched this interesting series on BBC4 as I have always had a fascination for the American pioneer spirit, and how it came into being. I spent a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains in my late teens and was always amazed by the hospitality offered to me by the families that I met. They were the sort of people that you would call in to see on an off-chance in the middle of the afternoon and suddenly find yourself invited for dinner, if not to stay the night. There was always food in their pantry to feed a wandering traveller. Or ten. And nothing was any trouble.
Going-To-The-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
I think my astonishment was partly because I was from a family who have always been terrible hosts. The first question my mother used to ask me whenever I went to visit home was "When are you leaving?". The second was "Can you peel some potatoes for dinner?" And the third thing she said was always a statement rather than a question, "You can wash up." My husband was not impressed when he discovered that in my family, guests are only welcome if they offer to help. And we have never offered a particularly comfortable environment to visitors, our houses being invariably messy and cold. My father is incapable of tidying up for anyone, least of all himself. The big giveaway that he had met someone new in his life after my mother died was that I could suddenly sit on his sofa without having to tip off a fortnight's worth of newspapers first. But I do still have to remind him that nowadays I am visiting with a three-year-old child and he therefore may wish to move the saw, hedgetrimmer and pile of carpet tacks that he has left in prime tripping position out in the hall. My father is a wonderful cook (though we won't mention the chaos that this unleashes), but how much he could make for someone arriving on his doorstep entirely unannounced and needing an evening meal out of what was in his cupboards, I am not sure. But then I suppose we Brits are used to having more corner shops than they do in the American wilderness.

And this was what Ray Mears was talking about. How thousands of people survived crossing from one side of America to the other on foot or by wagon, in completely inhospitable locations, facing seasonal extremes of temperature and dangerous animals and insects around every corner. To feed themselves, they had to either bring all their provisions with them, or kill something to eat en route.

The series began in the mountains. Three ranges need to be crossed by anyone traversing America from East to West: the Appalachians, Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Between the Appalachians and the Rockies are the great plains, with no trees on them at all. Whereas the Appalachians are so thickly forested that they once had sycamores with trunks wide enough to shelter 30 men inside them. Beyond the Rockies lie the deserts, where viciously spiky cacti hide the wood within, the terrain is surprisingly rugged and where most travellers were entirely unprepared for the temperature. Their water canteens were woefully small and the soles of their boots would fall off in the dry heat.

The Native Americans wore mocassins to protect their feet, stitched by needles and thread made from the spikes of the agave cactus. They had of course been surviving all of these harsh environmental forces for centuries. Some tribes, like the Cherokee, shared their knowlege with the invading settlers, but others, like the Apache, used it to fight them. And with good reason. Ray Mears skirted over the horrific treatment of Native Americans by the pioneers in the first two episodes of the series, but gave a more detailed account in the final programme. He described the brutal attempts to resettle the Navajo on to reservations hundreds of miles from where they lived, marching them across the desert, the exertion killing them in their thousands. (On the prairies, the Native Americans were nomadic, but in the desert they were farmers, living in mud dwellings called hogans.) Today, hundreds of people still die in the desert, many of them also migrants heading towards a new home, but this time running away from the one they had before.

Native American culture is matriarchal, with wisdom, stories and possessions being passed through the generations from mother to daughter. Too right. The invading settlers showed all too clearly just how stupid men could be, not just from their lack of preparation for the elements, but their ignorant treatment of what they found when they got there, whether it be person or animal. The animal that suffered the worst fate was the buffalo roaming the prairies. I once had an argument with a friend in a pub in Newcastle about just how many buffalo were killed in a tactical measure to starve the nomadic Native Americans on to reservations. I admit I may have got my numbers slightly skewed when it came to how many bison in total were left alive, but there is no doubt that millions were massacred. Thank goodness someone had the foresight to save the species from extinction. Just.

A bison could easily gore you to death if so minded. There were numerous other creatures across the American wilderness able and willing to kill or maim inattentive invading travellers - spiders, snakes, bears, and ticks carrying Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. These creatures suffered a less miserable fate than the buffalo and still thrive today. Being British and as clueless as the early pioneers must have been, I of course fell victim to them. In an earlier post, I mentioned the giardia parasite I picked up from splashing my face in a stream. Then I sat in some grass and got a spider bite the size of a tennis ball on my thigh. The proboscis of the mosquitoes in Glacier National Park could pierce clothing. And I stupidly asked when out on a hike in the Rockies why a river we were walking along was called Rattlesnake Creek.

There are warnings all over the National Parks telling people how to behave around bears, yet an extraordinary number of people ignore them completely, believing they are looking at a cuddly teddy called Yogi rather than a nine-foot tall slashing machine. I at least was paralysed with fear at the very thought of bears. Hiking along a path to Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park, I kept passing piles of steaming bear dung and spat-out shreds of bear grass, and I was a trembling wreck by the end of the trek. You're supposed to keep talking in a low voice as you walk so as not to startle any bear you come across - but what the hell can you think of to say when you're quaking in your boots? I resorted to singing a mantra - something along the lines of "Please don't kill me, please don't kill me, I don't think I'll remember to drop into a foetal position if you run at me, la la la la la". Thankfully the only Grizzly and Black Bears I saw were all from a safe distance or from a car.
Iceberg Lake
Transcontinental passages had to be timed so that the Sierra Nevada could be crossed before winter set in. But the gold found in their midst was what eventually spurred most of the pioneers on. Working conditions for the gold panners were appalling. Far better to be in a position where you could "mine the miners" - by setting up one of those corner shops the people were lacking, for example. Or to turn to lawlessness to get rich quick; shooting, stealing, smuggling and providing safe havens for bandits.

Eventually, the railroads were built, with the iron horse replacing the pioneers' wagons and the stagecoaches that had been bringing the mail across the country. The precious metal ran out, so the gold towns are now ghost towns. I have been to a couple of them in Montana - Garnet and Virginia City. The latter is quite touristy and has a two-storey outhouse as one of its main features. Still not quite sure how that worked. Garnet was more memorable, as it was accessed up a sheer scree track from the interstate; a road so rough, windy and steep it overheated the 1970s Volvo I was being driven in and somewhat stressed out the driver. I doubt there can be many other roads like it in the United States. Garnet was tucked away in a grassy dell in the hills, with abandoned wooden shacks and stores and rusting Ford Model Ts giving a sense of the community it had once housed. We had the place virtually to ourselves, which made it both eerie and magnificent. But we discovered to our annoyance when it was time to leave that there was, it turned out, another much safer and easier way home.

Virginia City

Two-storey outhouse

A Very British Airline

"It was a cold and wet December day
When we touched the ground at JFK..." (U2 - Angel of Harlem)
I started to watch this fly-on-the-wall documentary not really expecting much and planning an early night, but it was actually interesting enough to hold my attention for its full running time. Even if it did feel like a very long advert. The action, such as it was, alternated between JFK and Chengdu airports and a cabin crew training centre close to Heathrow.

BA flying over Clapham, London
The training centre quickly made it clear that I wouldn't last five minutes as an air stewardess. Aside from probably tipping someone's dinner into their lap, I just couldn't cut the mustard on the appearance stakes. I would find it physically impossible to apply that amount of make-up. My hair would refuse to be doughnuted. And I can't walk anywhere in heels, let alone a narrow aircraft aisle pushing a trolley through a bout of turbulence. Although here the role-playing scenarios and aeroplane mock-ups seemed to be in an ordinary classroom, without any special turbulence or cramped legroom effects. Nonetheless, someone still managed to be thrown off the training scheme for not wearing enough lipstick, which is so disgustingly sexist it leaves me speechless. (Can it even be legal?) To be fair, the girl in question had also been late on a few occasions and turned up to the exam having left her uniform hat and scarf in the car, but seemingly it was the lack of lipstick that did for her. Another girl was praised for her customer service skills, but told her language wasn't up to BA's gold standards when she offered a pretend passenger a choice of cola that was either "diet or full fat". Such wit is clearly Ryanair's domain. Although they no doubt charge their passengers for being told that they might be overweight.

Trying to educate these ladies and gentlemen about wine was another part of the training programme. All to get the cabin crew ready for that important Club World service. One girl said that she usually mixed red wine with Diet Coke and was that weird? Well, it might not help you distinguish between a Cab Sav and a Merlot too easily. And how can it in any way taste nice? Clearly a lot to learn.

Meanwhile, over in Chengdu, they were trying to sort out the in-flight menu. The BA employee in charge of organising, well, everything to do with this new route, held up samples of the airport snacks currently on offer at the Chinese end, which included "dried duck's tongue". So obviously, he said, their aim was to make things a little more accessible for British travellers. A top chef had been employed to design a Sichuan-influenced menu. But our BA man (of Chinese ethnicity but Essex bred) said he found Sichuan food far too spicy and craved bangers and mash.

The stereotypes were out in force. A crazed perfectionist choreographer was trying to lick a load of dancing pandas into shape in a Chengdu shopping mall, screaming at her charges in true Tiger Mother style. Two blokes at Heathrow boredly painted a panda face on to an aircraft. (This is all anyone at BA knows about Chengdu - it has pandas, and spicy food.) Cabin crew handed out fortune cookies in London's Chinatown in a bid to recruit Mandarin speakers into their midst. Then the dancing pandas had to dress up as British stereotypes - like footballers or princesses. One panda was told to behave more respectfully as it was carrying the royal baby. Once the first flight from Heathrow had finally landed (in terrible smog, with the Internet down) at Chengdu, the red carpet was laid out for boss Willie Walsh, with no royalty in sight. Then there was a lavish banquet, entertained by yet more stereotypes, like a grenadier in a bearskin and a very sweaty bagpiper. Who should have just been thankful that he hadn't been made to wear a bearskin.

The smog at Chengdu looked dire, and so did the snow on the other side of the world at JFK (definitely "a cold and wet December day"). BA at JFK has its own terminal, with plenty of Noo Yoikers with (a very refreshing) attitude on its staff. However, in charge is a very fastidious Brit, who liked wearing pink ties and removing scuffs from the floor with his highly polished shoes. A graduate trainee had been sent over from London to join him. The trainee law graduate quickly realised he would need to require more of that Noo Yoik attitude, especially when they laughed at him for calling everything "tip-top".

We flew into JFK once (the U2 lyric made us want to do it, much to the annoyance of the friend we were visiting, who had begged us to fly to the more passenger-friendly Newark). Needless to say, we got nowhere near the luxury first class passengers' exclusive Concorde lounge that we were shown round on this programme. I can't imagine what it would be like to fly first class on a long-haul flight. Is it really that amazing, and worth all that money and free champagne, when you're breathing the same shitty air as everyone at the back of World Traveller? I don't suppose I will ever find out.

But actually, the closest I have ever come to an upgrade was on that outward flight to JFK. At check-in, the airline had been unable to seat me and my boyfriend together. Now that I have been married to the same man for nearly ten years, we'd probably not be that bothered about spending five hours apart, but back then, given that we weren't even living in the same city as each other, it was a big deal to miss out on the start of our holiday together. We explained our plight to the lady taking boarding cards at the gate, and she did her best to help us. Briefly, she looked to see if an upgrade was possible. But the plane was so full (she claimed) that one wasn't. So instead she made us sit in the departure lounge watching everyone else going past getting an upgrade -"Ah, you will have a nice surprise on board, madam", "Turn left on entering the aircraft, sir". I think she had actually taken a brief look at us, rather than at her computer screen. I should definitely have dressed posher. Actually, I probably couldn't have dressed less posh; my aim when flying to be as cool and comfortable as possible. And my husband, with his thick stubble and Celtic colouring, has the sort of suspicious appearance that always seems to get him frisked at security. Thankfully, once we were on board, we managed to persuade a man who had been sat next to a family with a screaming baby to swap seats with us. Funny how little convincing he took.

I miss Concorde. The only one I got to go on was at the air museum at Duxford when I was a little girl. I was too young to have actually been on a normal aeroplane at the time, so couldn't really make any comparison. But I have seen Concorde fly over the skies of London many, many times. It used to go over, punctual to the second, at 20 past 5 every day when I was living under the Heathrow flightpath in Clapham. There was simply no missing it, even at speeds well below the breaking of the sound barrier. My aunt used to specialise in noise pollution and spent a lot of the time standing at the end of London runways with a decibel measuring gauge. She said Concorde sent it off the scale.

But this programme would be disappointed to hear that I once had a very bad experience flying British Airways. I was booked on a flight from London Gatwick to visit a friend in Baltimore, only to arrive at Gatwick to be told that the flight to BWI had "gone tech" (cynics might read "undersold so cancelled as not financially viable") and that I would have to fly from Heathrow to Washington Dulles that afternoon instead. Irritated that they had assumed everyone flying to BWI (Baltimore-Washington-International) was going to DC rather than Baltimore, I asked the grumpy check-in clerk if there would be any transfer arrangements to take me on to where I wanted to go once I had arrived Stateside. "No idea, but here's a coach ticket to take you round the M25 to Heathrow." When I said I urgently needed to contact my friend, who was planning on picking me up from BWI, she handed me a BT Phonecard. The Phonecard lasted for all of two minutes once I had managed to wake my poor friend by calling her at 5am her time. This was all before the days of Skype and Facebook and either of us owning mobile phones, you see. I was pretty narked, and the only compensation offered by the check-in clerk was a sandwich voucher to spend at Heathrow. Anyway, it all ended well - my lovely friend drove sixty miles in the wrong direction to pick me up from Dulles. And BA, after a stiffly worded letter from me, sent me a big enough travel voucher as an apology to get me a free flight to Montreal the following winter.

We ended up flying British Airways to Verona last September, the first time I had been on board with them for many years. Despite BA's current campaign to persuade people to spend more on flying with them rather than with Easyjet (and the premise of the television series is to show us how they are doing it), BA was actually our cheapest option to start with. Flying with "budget" airline Monarch from Manchester would have cost twice as much for the dates we needed to travel, even after adding on the extra petrol and hotel accommodation required to enable us to depart from Gatwick early in the morning. It was such a pleasant surprise, after years of travelling with Ryanair and Jet2, to remember how flying to Europe used to be in the good old days, when taking a suitcase was included in the price and you got something to eat for free on board. Members of staff were available and willing to help at every turn, which is so very much appreciated when you've just spent a sleepless night with a toddler who decided to throw up her dinner all over a Premier Travel Inn restaurant the evening before.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

BBC2’s(50th Anniversary) Big Bumper Comedy Weekend

This weekend celebrated 50 years of comedy on BBC2. Its starting programme, a documentary narrated by Joanna Lumley, meant I stayed up far too late on a Friday night for fear of missing some forgotten gem. But really, all I ended up staying up for was to see Ricky Gervais sniggering over the word "rape" (the least said about which the better) and Basil Fawlty hitting his car with that tree AGAIN. Why is this the only clip they ever show of Fawlty Towers? It’s probably my least favourite scene. It doesn’t even age well, since cars don’t regularly break down any more, and we just call the RAC out if they do. Or maybe I don't like it because it strikes a chord too close to the bone. At times of extreme exhaustion or grief I've felt that angry myself, and would gladly have decked a machine demonstrating similar technical imcompetence, like a Boots self-service till insisting there is an unauthorised item in its bagging area, had an appropriate pile of twigs been to hand.

Fawlty Towers is without doubt one of the funniest television programmes ever, but it has far better moments than a madman thrashing the bonnet of an Austin 1300. Such as Basil throwing the typewriter at the fire alarm button. Such as Basil picking up a piece of fluff from the floor and asking a particularly difficult guest if it’s a piece of her brain. Such as Manuel setting the kitchen on fire. Such as the rat in the biscuit tin. Such as Basil miming the name “Dragonfly” to Polly behind Sybil’s back. Such as Geoffrey Palmer wanting his sausages. Such as Basil trying to locate a duck a l’orange in a trifle. Such as Basil threatening to send Manuel to a vivisectionist. Such as Basil simultaneously dealing with a shifty Irish builder on the phone and a peer of the realm in reception. Such as the pointless three stairs up and three steps down on the landing. Such as Sybil on the phone to Audrey ( “Ooh, I know...”) Such as Basil answering the phone with “Fawlty Titties” when looking at one of Polly’s drawings. I could, obviously, go on and on.

I wrote a Fawlty Towers play while at school. By “wrote” I mean copied several chunks out of my brother’s script book and cobbled them together to make a new episode about a load of 11 year old girls from my school going on an architectural field trip to Torquay. Trust me, this was quite a good in-joke on which to base my storyline. Basil had bought a load of dodgy eggs from a back-of-a-lorry supplier so omelette, and only omelette, was on the lunch menu. Only then Basil found out that the eggs were potentially riddled with salmonella. This was, you see, the era of Edwina Currie. Which if Major Gowen had ever had his newspaper delivered, Basil may have been aware of. There were also a couple of travelling salesmen staying in the hotel - I forget why or what they were selling, only that it was some dire food product that the guests all had to eat instead of their omelettes at the end. I played Manuel, and foolishly wrote myself in a guitar solo at the end. In Spanish. Though as Manuel is from Barcelona, it should technically have been Catalan. Either way, I spoke neither language at the time. And I couldn't play the guitar. But with my friend Vicky’s brilliant Sybil impression and my friends Phil and Jane playing the opening theme on the school piano, we just about pulled the whole thing off. Watery Fowls.
Me (aged 16) as Manuel
This same weekend also brought the return of The Fast Show to our screens, albeit in the form of repeating some episodes previously shown online. Very different from Fawlty Towers of course, but equally, if not more, quotable, since it is a show based solely on catchphrases. But these new sketches struck me as anything but “fast”. They were rather lengthy. This was partially due to Mark Williams having refused to take part. It was his characters that contributed the “fast”er sketches: notably Jesse’s tips (“I ‘ave been mostly...”), “You ain’t seen me, right?” and “I’ll get me coat”. Mark Williams was also responsible for two of my favourites, Patrick Nice (“Which was nice” is one Fast Show catchphrase I regularly use), and the family forever frantically on the move with a jumble of luggage. So I was always going to feel his absence. Mark Williams lives in Brighton and was frequently spotted waiting for trains at Clapham Junction by my southwest London colleagues. Though Williams himself once recounted a train crawling past him on the platform, with the driver leaning out of his cab saying, “You ain’t seen me, right?”. Which was nice.
Clapham Junction
Nonetheless, it was great to see some of the other famous characters re-appearing, such as Rowley Birkin QC (“I was very, very drunk”), “Does my bum look big in this?” and Ted and Ralph. And cheesy peas! I had totally forgotten about cheesy peas. But Jazz Club just didn’t work with a nicotine patch replacing “Shmokin’...”- Mark Thompson appeared to have lost his previously immaculate comic timing. And Swiss Toni had just become crude.

I was always surprised to discover, when I got back from a term at university, that my parents had been watching The Fast Show. Our daughter is too young by at least a decade (if not two) to share our love of the programme, but she is obsessed with the colour black. She may not be as dark or over-reactive as Johnny Nice Painter, but it definitely makes us chuckle when she paints a lovely (in a somewhat loose sense of the word) picture, and then spots the final colour in the palette. She will then pick up her brush and shout “Black! Black!”, covering her work with smears of...Noir. Jet. Ebony. Raven. Onyx. Obsidian. Whatever.
Black! Black! Black!
Paul Whitehouse was also on our screens the following evening, this time with Harry Enfield, one of the University of York’s more famous graduates. Harry And Paul's Story Of The Twos did what it said on the tin and gave us their own potted history of BBC2, with Enfield's Simon Schama introducing us to various programmes as well as (largely fictional) bigwigs in the channel’s history, all of whom had a surname connected with Oxford, Cambridge or both.  The show had some very funny moments, but the only one that appears to have stuck in my mind is Enfield’s superb impression of Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You. There was also a good spoof of the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch, except that we had learned by staying up late on Friday night, that Monty Python's Flying Circus was actually broadcast on BBC1, not 2.