Thursday, 28 May 2009

House of Cards

The news here in the UK has been dominated for the last two or three weeks by just one story – MPs' expenses. Thanks to a whistleblower, it has been revealed by the media exactly how much our Parliamentary representatives are claiming in expenses, and what for.

Some of the things being claimed by various MPs – and if you haven’t heard any of this before I promise you that I’m not making it up! - include : £119 for a trouser press, £380 for horse manure, £600 to trim the hedge around a helipad, £1645 for a “duck island”, and over £2000 for the cleaning of a moat!! Add to this a number of MPs still claiming the payments for their mortgages some 18 months or more after the mortgages had been paid off, some others using dubious rules on second homes to make large profits when they are sold and avoiding paying tax on those profits, some claiming for work done at a house which is neither in London (ie near Parliament) nor in their constituency, and yet some more using taxpayers money to pay various members of their families for an assortment of jobs – whether or not those jobs were carried out.

The scandal, and for once “scandal” is the right word, has already seen a number of casualties in the House of Commons, the most notable of which was Michael Martin, who is the Speaker of the House. He is the first Speaker to be forced out of office for more than three hundred years. The abuse of the system has not been limited to just one political party, it has crossed all political lines from members of the Labour Government’s Cabinet, to “backbenchers” from Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Sinn Fein and other minor parties.

The uproar across the country has been immense, and is worrying the larger parties as European Parliamentary elections are just a week away, and the mood is very much for some kind of change. Although a number of MPs have said they will stand down at the next General Election, which is due sometime in the next year, they still maintain that they have “done nothing wrong” and that everything was “within the rules”. What they don’t seem to realize is that the point isn’t whether they followed the rules – incidentally rules written by MPs themselves – but that what they have been up to is morally reprehensible, and that whilst they are spending literally thousands of taxpayers money on items such as plasma TVs, imported rugs and custom-made bookcases there are millions of people in the country who no longer have a job and are having to survive on a fraction of these amounts.

The attitude of entitlement is alive and well, and living in Westminster.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

On The Run

So, what would you do?

In New Zealand this week a couple who had requested a $10,000 overdraft were mistakenly credited with $10million by their bank instead. Finding that this error had been made, the couple then apparently withdrew a large amount of this in cash and promptly did a runner! Interpol are now chasing them and believe that they have left New Zealand.

So, I repeat – what would YOU do? Would you do like these two and keep quiet and go on a huge spending spree, leaving behind the life you knew and hoping never to get caught? Or would you be honest and tell the bank straight away about their mistake? Or, would you take the middle path and keep quiet and just wait and see if the bank notice, maybe hoping that you might still get to go on that big spending spree?!

I must admit that I am way too much of a coward to go on the run like the couple from New Zealand. I would be forever looking over my shoulder, sure that somebody was about to recognize me and report me to the police! I would be tempted to just wait and see what happens, but again I would be too worried that I would get some grief from the authorities – even though it was the bank’s mistake :-/ So, I guess I would tell the bank that they had messed up – and hope they gave me a nice reward for being honest!! But, would you?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Sunday Snaps - 1

This is the first of an occasional series, where I will post photos that Dori or I have taken on our travels. As today is also the day when the first match is played under the new roof at Wimbledon's Centre Court, where better place to start than with a couple of snaps that we took when we were lucky enough to get tickets for last year's Championships.

This is a view of the Centre Court, taken from what is colloquially known as 'Henman Hill', named after Britain's former top tennis player Tim Henman. The picture quality isn't brilliant as it was taken towards the sun on my mobile (cell) phone!

And this is a shot taken from our seats in Centre Court before the play began.

As it happened, we were able to see both the eventual men's and women's champions on that day - Rafa Nadal and Venus Williams, as well as current British No.1 Andy Murray. It was a fantastic day and we hope to experience the Wimbledon atmosphere again in the next few years.
Check out Dori's take on the whole day over at her blog.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

To Boldly Go Back to the Beginning

Today has been a lovely day weather-wise down here in Wiltshire. I had to go see a client this morning, and it was a joy to be driving through the rolling countryside as I made my way towards Salisbury. I started out especially early, so that I could clock-off a little earlier once I had finished work. Flexible working hours are a wonderful thing sometimes!

I wanted to finish early today because Dori and I were going to the movies this afternoon to see the new Star Trek film. We prefer to go in the afternoons if we can, because it avoids all of the crowds and happens to be cheaper too, which is a bonus! :-) As it happened, even though we got there in the early PM, there was still almost a full house to see this movie – no wonder it is at the top of the Box Office lists!

I am sure that most of you have already heard about this movie being a “re-imagining” of the Star Trek universe, and that JJ Abrams has “rebooted” the franchise. Well, all of that is true – and more! The casting of the film is superb, with Zachary Quinto in particular looking almost identical to the Spock we remember from the original series. But, the other main characters are also very well cast, with Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr “Bones” McCoy very reminiscent of that of DeForest Kelly. Simon Pegg does a comic turn as Scotty, without it grating against the action-packed main storyline. And Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin all do excellent jobs at recreating the roles of Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.

The film tells the story of how Kirk, Spock et al all came together before their famous 5-year mission began. There is plenty within the script to delight any Trek geek (like me!), as well as those totally new to this cosmos (if such a person exists). There are plenty of references that Trek-savvy movie-goers will pick up on, but you really don’t need to be a full-on Trekkie to enjoy this film. There is plenty of action, humour and pathos to go around, and JJ Abrams directs with a light touch to breathe new life back into the 43 year old franchise.

9 stars out of 10 from me. Go see it – Boldly or otherwise!

Monday, 11 May 2009

(Almost) This Day in History

It was 15 years ago yesterday that Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, and so ended three centuries of white rule in the country. It was an historic day, not just for South Africa, but also for the whole world. The injustices of the hateful apartheid regime were torn away and finally all the people of South Africa were allowed the opportunity to give voice to their hopes and dreams for the future. It was a symbolic day to show the world that we are all one and that nobody should be judged on how they look, or what colour their skin may be.

Dori and I were very privileged last year to be able to see Mr Mandela in the flesh. We had managed to get tickets to the concert in Hyde Park last June to celebrate his 90th birthday. Naturally, we were both extremely excited to get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When Mr Mandela came out onto the stage to give his speech, there was a wave of love and awe that flowed from all over the concert ground towards the stage. It was a remarkable moment, and it is one that I know neither Dori nor I will ever forget. Nelson Mandela is truly a man of our time, and his name will live long in the history books as a man of great courage, humanity and rare compassion.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

From the Yellow House to ...the Palace?

As Dori mentioned in her blog post yesterday, I have now returned to work after our wonderful anniversary celebrations last week. I never find it easy getting back into the swing of work-life again – who does?! I have heard that going back to work is a little like suffering from jetlag – your body clock has gotten used to a different timetable for a week or two, and now has to readjust to the old routine. Whether that is true or not, I do know that the first day back always seems to last twice as long as any other normal day!

Well, that was yesterday. Today I was able to escape from the office as I had a client to see in Salisbury. It is by far the best part of my job – being able to escape the confines of the office to drive amongst the glorious Wiltshire countryside. :-) I also had to deliver a new printer to a colleague who lives in a small village near to Salisbury. He works from home and asked if I could drop the printer off (not literally!) when I was in the area. It was interesting to see how he had arranged his workspace separate from his living area. Dori and I hope to be working from home ourselves in the future, so I was keen to pick up some tips from somebody who is already treading that path. My colleague said that he didn’t miss the commute at all, and that he saved hundreds on fuel alone. Less time dealing with crazy traffic, and environmentally friendly to boot!

When I returned home, Dori greeted me excitedly with some great news. You may remember that I mentioned in my post on April 19th, that we sent off an item of post that I would elaborate on once we had received the reply. Well, today we did receive that reply – tickets for next month’s Trooping the Colour. For those that don’t know, Trooping the Colour is the Queen’s official birthday parade and takes place every year on one Saturday in June. Her Maj is one of the few people who get to celebrate two birthdays, her real one (in April) and an official one in June. Trooping the Colour is a military ceremony, performed by soldiers of the Household Division in their famous red and black uniforms and bearskin helmets. The troops are inspected by the Queen, and other members of the Royal Family either take part in the parade, or watch the ceremony along with other dignitaries and members of the public. And this year, those members of the public will include Dori & Brit Boy!!

You can watch the procession from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade by turning up on the day and securing a position along The Mall. But, in order to be in the stands on Horse Guards Parade and to get to watch the ceremony itself, you must have tickets. We did some research a few months ago and found that these tickets are partly allocated by means of a public ballot, and so we gave it a go and were amazed when we got the letter to say we had been successful. There is a dress code for those of us that are in the stands, so I will have to root around in the wardrobe to see where I left my suit! Dori is also making plans for what she will wear. We are both very excited by this opportunity and I am sure that we will both be sharing many memories and pictures with you all after the event.

This year’s Trooping the Colour takes place on June 13th.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Markets and Meals

As I mentioned on Monday, I have this week away from the office to spend with Dori. The reason I chose this week is because it is our anniversary. We have spent previous anniversaries in Paris and London, but with the credit crunch ‘n all, times are a little more frugal at the Yellow House :-) So we have spent the week here at home, and have had a few days out to celebrate being together.

On Wednesday we went to the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, just over the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire border. It is a wonderful place for just hanging out and enjoying getting close to nature. We both said that it must have done wonders in lowering our blood pressure! It is good to get back to nature sometimes. For more info on the Arboretum, and some wonderful pictures of the trees and plants there, see Dori’s blog entry for today.

Yesterday we ventured out again. This time we stayed in Wiltshire and started the day off in Devizes. Devizes, apart from famously being part of a limerick – “his ears were of different sizes...”, is a small market town in the centre of Wiltshire. And it was the market that we were heading towards Devizes to see. The main part of the market is in the central Market Place in the town – the largest in the West of England - and has a lot of stalls selling fruit & veg, fresh bread, cheese, clothing and other household items. Right next to the Market Place is The Shambles, which was originally built in 1835 as home to a butter and poultry market. Nowadays it acts as an extension to the main market and there was a good variety of different stalls in there too. We walked around both the outdoor and indoor parts of the market for a while – making our way into The Shambles when the rain got a bit too heavy!

Having not found anything that really grabbed our attention, we crossed the street to the Corn Exchange, which holds its own flea market on Thursdays. This was much more of a treasure trove of fascinating knickknacks. There were stalls selling jewellery, paintings, postcards, toy cars (oh, how I wish I had kept the CASES full of toy cars I had when I was little!), old music sheets, old board games, painting sets and lots and lots of other bric-a-brac. We picked up a few items for ourselves, including this wonderful little jug and teacup set.

...and this mug celebrating the silver jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.

Some of the items we bought may well end up on eBay, but some will definitely have a home here in the Yellow House.

After we had spent the morning in Devizes we decided to head over to Swindon. We were going to see a film, but first we went to the restaurant next door – Frankie and Benny’s. This is a New York style restaurant and bar, which we had never visited before. We were in for a treat. We had spotted the Frankie & Benny’s restaurant at the O2 on a number of our visits up there, but had never had the time to try it there. So, when we were trying to think of a place to have our anniversary meal, we came up with the idea of the F&B outlet in Swindon. The interior of the restaurant reminded both of us of many restaurants that we have visited in the States and the atmosphere is enhanced by a constant soundtrack from people such as Dean Martin, Billie Holiday, The Drifters, Bobby Darin, etc. And when we found out that they refill your drinks for free, in the American style, we were sold!

We enjoyed a wonderfully delicious meal - I really would recommend an F&B restaurant if there is one near you – and then headed next door to see “The Uninvited”. This is a horror/mystery type thriller of a young girl who has been disturbed by the death of her mother. It was quite enjoyable, with the requisite twist at the end. As you will see on the right hand side here, I gave it 5 stars out of 10, though maybe 5½ would be more accurate. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it was certainly an agreeable way to while away a wet Thursday afternoon. :-)

So, that has been our anniversary week travels. Today we have just chilled out around the house, and did a few odd jobs here and there. Luckily, Monday is a Bank Holiday here in the UK, so I still have three more days until I have to return to normality. Here’s to a great weekend for all of us!
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