Friday, 26 June 2009

Rest in Peace, Michael

I'm going to be unoriginal today. I imagine that three quarters of the blogosphere - if not more - will be blogging today about Michael Jackson, and I am no different.

We heard the news that he had been taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack while we were on Twitter yesterday evening (UK time). That news alone was such a shock, but as we monitored the internet and flicked between CNN, the BBC and Sky News as the night wore on, the news just got worse and worse. It was literally unbelieveable. Not Michael Jackson, it CAN'T be true.

But as we all know, that terrible news was indeed true and we have lost an icon, a musical genius and a true pioneer. Dori and I have been very lucky to see some true greats in concert over the last few years - Prince, Madonna, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder to name a few - artists who have provided the soundtrack to our lives. But Michael Jackson probably did that better than any of them. From his time with the Jackson 5 to his amazingly successful solo career, MJ just churned out iconic song after iconic song. And there aren't many music videos that you can vividly remember seeing for the first time, but that was certainly true of Thriller - shown here late at night on Channel 4 amidst much ballyhoo. He was oft impersonated but never remotely equalled. We have lost a giant of music, of pop culture, who I cannot imagine will ever be equalled.

We hadn't mentioned it here before, but Dori and I had been wonderfully lucky earlier this year when the tickets went on sale for MJ's 50 concerts at the O2 in London, and we were able to get 2 tickets to see him perform on July 24th, just 4 weeks from today. Neither of us had ever seen him in concert before, and obviously now we never will get that chance. We had both been so excited at this too rare an opportnity and were counting down the days til we could be there watching him moonwalk. In a way, that just makes this sad news even more unbelievable. Every time the news programmes show a picture of MJ with the caption "1958 - 2009" it seems so unreal. It just cannot be true.

The music died again this day. Rest in Peace, Michael.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

From one extreme to another. A week ago we were rubbing shoulders with royalty at Trooping the Colour, and then this weekend we decided to take a trip over to Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice.

Record crowds were expected this year, due to the fact that the solstice fell on a weekend and because the weather hasn’t been too bad lately. So, we decided to try to avoid the worst of the traffic by leaving on Saturday evening and staying at Stonehenge overnight. The car park was opened at 7pm on Saturday, but we didn’t leave home until 9pm. The drive to Stonehenge was really pleasant. The roads were mainly empty, which made a lovely change in itself, and as we passed through the various villages on our way people were out enjoying their Saturday evenings. At this time of year the evenings stay light until well past 10pm, and people love to make the most of the longer days. We took a slightly different route than I normally would when I am working in the area, as I figured that the main road that goes past Stonehenge would be extremely busy (and I wasn’t wrong!!). It made an enjoyable change to see a few slightly less familiar places, at a time of day when we are rarely out driving.

We were a little surprised at how little traffic there was on the roads, but as it turned out that was mainly because we chose our route wisely. The main route to the Stones was gridlocked for much of the night, but we were able to drive right up to the entrance to the car park without having to queue up at all. The car park was, in fact, a field adjacent to the Stonehenge site that had been opened up just for this one event. We parked up quite quickly and decided to wait in the car for a few hours before heading over to the monument site itself. It was 11pm before the last of the sunlight disappeared, and we were far from alone as we waited out the night hours in the car park.

We had planned ahead for this wait and had brought with us some food and drink as well as a few other home comforts. As night fell so did the temperature! We were a little surprised at quite how cold it got overnight given that we were finally welcoming summer to the Northern hemisphere! :-) As we waited we played a few games, listened to the radio and did some people watching too. We also threw some envious glances over at a nearby camper van that looked the height of cosiness to us as we hunkered down in the chill of our little car. The warm light behind the curtains of the van and the thought of being able to lie down in a “proper bed” seemed like the idea of heaven to us as we struggled to get comfortable and warm! :-)

The hours ticked by and struggle as we might to get some sleep, it was impossible given the cold, cramped quarters and noise from all around us from the other people who also chose to wait in their vehicles. But soon enough we decided to head out towards the Stones and enjoy the atmosphere as everybody waited for the rising of the sun and the arrival of summer. It was supposed to be a half-mile walk over to the site, but it seemed at least twice that long in the dark and over rough ground. Once through the two sets of security checks, we were finally at the Stonehenge site amongst the thousands of other people of all different backgrounds and reasons for being there.

For the solstice, the owners of the site – English Heritage – allow everybody free access to the stones. This resulted in a mad crush around and within the stone circle itself. Of course we couldn’t let the occasion pass without going in the stone circle ourselves, so we braved the masses and pushed and manoeuvred our way through the crowds. Eventually we were right by the stones, and able to touch them – a rare privilege. We took a few photos and some video footage, but eventually the crush of people became just too much and we decided to make a retreat and watch the rising of the sun from a little further back!

Sadly, the weather didn’t cooperate fully, and whilst it stayed dry and eventually started to warm up again as the sun started to rise, the skies were clouded over as dawn finally broke. It was slightly disappointing, as was the behaviour of some of the people there who seemed to view the occasion as an excuse for an all-night drinking session! But, we were not down-hearted as we walked back to our car afterwards. This was an occasion that we have both wanted to experience for a long time, and we are pleased to have done so. We hope to return again in future years in hopefully less cloudy weather and with maybe a few less drunken yobs about.

Apparently there was a record 36,500 people at this year’s solstice and the car park was full up by 3am on Sunday morning. We timed our exit as well as our entrance though, and were able to get out without any problems at all. The drive home was almost as pleasant as the drive down, with even less cars on the roads – though there were plenty parked all over the place by people who weren’t able to get into the car park. We got home before 7 o’clock and went straight to bed to get some well-earned sleep!

Happy (belated) Solstice everybody, and welcome to summer!!

Monday, 15 June 2009

Pomp and Pageantry Plus!

Well, what a day we had on Saturday. As I mentioned a while back, we were going up to London to see the Queen’s Birthday Parade, or Trooping the Colour. We raised ourselves at (almost) the crack of dawn in order to catch an early train into London. The one good thing about travelling at that time of day is that there is much less traffic on the roads! Anyway, the train journey into London went by quite quickly, and before we knew it we were at Paddington Station.

Thankfully the tube strike earlier this week did not last until the weekend, so we hopped onto a tube train to take us to Westminster. It is a great tube station to exit from, because as you do so immediately in front of you is the Houses of Parliament – it is a magnificent scene. Turning right as we came out of Westminster Underground Station, we headed towards St James’s Park. The site of the parade ground is at one end of the park, alongside Horse Guards Road. We timed our arrival perfectly as we had to wait in line for only a few minutes before the barriers were pushed aside and we all went through the security checks and then headed towards the stands.

Our seat was right at the back of one of the stands that back onto the garden of 10 Downing Street. In fact, we were right beneath the TV cameras and just along from the BBC commentary box for the event. Here’s a pic of the cameras as seen from our seats.

We were in place by about 9:20, and the parade was not due to start until 10:30, with the Queen not due on Horse Guards Parade until 11 o’clock. So, we had some time to waste, but we didn’t have the opportunity to get bored. One of the fun games I played was watching the “upper classes” struggling like you wouldn’t believe to find their correct seats!! There were a good dozen or more people who had to move because they had incorrectly identified their seats – I mean, how hard can it be? ;-) They have clearly not been to many football (soccer) matches!

We watched the parade ground being watered, and various guards taking their place at points around the parade ground. Before we knew it we could hear the first musical notes from the Massed Bands of the Guards Division as they marched onto the parade ground. And the ground very quickly filled up with the seven Foot Guards companies that were taking part, as well as the King’s Troop, the Household Cavalry and the Mounted Bands who all lined up in front of the Guards Memorial.

We heard screams coming from the route between Buckingham Palace and Horse Guards Parade, and guessed it was either Princes William and Harry or the Jonas Brothers! The two princes arrived on the ground in a horse-drawn carriage, together with their step-mother Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. After they had taken their positions within the Horse Guards building to watch the ceremony, it was time for the arrival of The Queen and Prince Philip in another carriage, followed by Prince Charles, Princess Anne and the Duke of Kent who were all on horseback in fairly spectacular uniforms.

The Trooping the Colour ceremony takes about 75 minutes from the time of the sovereign’s arrival to her departure, and that time just flew by. The Colour is the name given to the standard of the regiment, used in times past as a rallying point during battle. The Colour is trooped in front of the Guards so that they could recognize it during any such battle. It is an even more amazing spectacle in real-life than it is on TV, and we were both marvelling at how well organized and directed it all was.

After the ceremony was completed, involving much marching back and forth, playing of regimental music and horses drawing artillery guns around the parade ground, the Royal party left to make their way back to Buckingham Palace. Before we knew it the parade ground was filled with people mingling as they discussed the wonderful display we had all just witnessed. Dori and I wandered on to the parade ground and took a few pictures and then decided to head over towards the Palace. The Mall is closed for the day of the Parade, and so we took the rare opportunity to stroll down the middle of the road heading to Buck House. It was a lovely, happy atmosphere and we were enjoying ourselves immensely.

As we neared the Palace, we expected the crowds to be too dense for us to progress but somehow they magically parted and we were able to make our way almost right up to the Palace gates. Just as we got there so the Royal Family emerged onto the balcony to watch the flypast by the Royal Air Force. Several aircraft flew directly down The Mall and over the Palace in salute to the Queen, including a Lancaster Bomber, a Spitfire and a Hurricane as well as more modern fighter jets such as Tornado GR4s and Eurofighter Typhoons. The flypast of 29 aircraft reached its crescendo with the Red Arrows, who trailed red, white and blue smoke as they roared over the crowds below. It was a superb finale to a wonderful day. We waved as the Royal Family moved back inside the Palace and then headed away to get something to eat before we returned home.

I mentioned to Dori while we were watching the ceremony that it all felt a little surreal – seeing something that I had grown up watching on TV and never once thought I’d ever get to see in the flesh. That surrealism was then surpassed by seeing the Royal Family waving from the Palace balcony, a scene that we have all seen many, many times before. I may have lived in England for over 40 years, but this was the first time that I have seen my monarch or many of the other members of the Royal Family (we had seen William and Harry before, at the Concert for Diana in 2007).

We got home in the evening, tired and weary from our day in London, but very happy that we had been witness to a centuries-old ceremony full of pomp and pageantry. It was a great day.

For even more pics, check out Dori's blog!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Sunday Snaps - 2

This is the second of my occasional Sunday Snaps series. Dori and I spent much of yesterday watching the D-Day commemorations over in Normandy. As always with these events, it was a very moving experience and showed us all that when times are tough we can all work together for the common good. If only that was the case for the rest of the time too!

Anyway, what with the D-Day events, and this weekend's finals of the French Open, it has reminded me of when we went to Paris to celebrate our first anniversary. We had a truly wonderful time there, and I would like to share a couple of photos with you.

This first picture was taken inside the Louvre museum, which is immense in size and so beautiful. There was way too much for us to see in just one day, so we have promised ourselves that we will just have to revisit there sometime in the future. The photo shows some of the sculptures in one of the main atria, with the light coming in from one of the glass pyramids above.

This second photo is of Notre Dame Cathedral, on the banks of the River Seine. It is a gorgeous building, both inside and out, and as you can see the weather was beautiful on that day too.

We have plenty more pictures of our time in Paris, so maybe I will share some more in future weeks. Enjoy the rest of your weekend everybody.

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