Monday, 30 July 2007

Routine ahoy

Being on a train on Sunday morning just about 24 hours after stepping off a plane was a joy. I could see the ground and look up to the clouds rather than peer down from on high.

The journey to London also gave me time to reflect on the trip to America especially the last few days which took in a trip to a spectacular country club, a tour of Bristol, my mum's birthday, a supper party with some of her friends and the mother of all traffic jams on the way into Boston to catch the flight home.

I told Frances that I'd only go to see her in Denver so long as she was still a member of her club Skyline where tennis courts and a swimming pool are all within skipping distance.

My trip to the Carnegie Abbey club near Portsmouth in Rhode Island gave me another take on the leisure entertainment complex. It is as spectacular as Skyline is simple. Around 350 acres housing a golf course, a couple of tennis courts, a spa as well as a 41 slip marina. There were even a grass and sand rings to keep the horses happy.

Golf is not my game, it's not even the favoured sport of Wayne who invited me - we're both more into tennis. But even I'd be tempted to pick up some clubs and walk around the links on a lazy summer's day before reclining - cocktail in hand - in one of the chairs in the clubhouse bar to watch the sunset over Narragansett Bay.

I never quite managed to live out that part of the fantasy. To do so on a regular basis costs $175,000 joining fee and dues of around $10,000 a year,

And I have to admit I don't have that kind of spare change. It's rare that I have an 'I wonder if' moment. I'm for the most part content with the choices I've made and the path I'm treading.

But to see a lifestyle a million miles and dollars from my existence made me ask myself what would be — or would have been — needed to be at that point.

Luck? More ambition? Talent? Ruthlessness? It probably takes an amalgam of those components to see a salary rise to the position where you can afford such fees.

Maybe I might circumvent it all by winning the lottery.

Which is what appears to have happened to the people on a mass scale in Bristol. We went there after the tour of Carnegie and the whole place seemed to close down after lunch.

I walked into a bagel cum sandwich shop and the assistant told me it was closed. It was 2.30pm. I wandered along a well manicured street and found a cafe/deli. But the waitress was clearing up for the 3pm shutdown.

I asked why everything closed so early. She said it was just one of those Bristol things.

How quaint.

Next time I'll get there earlier and make more of a day of it. Take in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and the Blithewold Mansion and arboretum for starters.

But that's not going to be in the run up to July 4. For Bristol - bless it's shiny leather bootstraps - is deemed America's most patriotic town.

That's because it has had an Independence Day celebration there every year since 1785. The centre lines along the main road are red, white and blue and the buildings are dubbed historic.

It makes me want to hear Doris Day belt out some numbers from Calamity Jane.

I can't see the Deadwood Stage being too welcome at the Carnegie though.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Denver booty

The line at Dunkin' Donuts was longer than at security at Providence airport. Since the United States was on alert level orange — the second highest rung — this was a good sign.

To pass through hand luggage checks there were three lanes and an array of chunky men overseeing our passage.

My moisturising cream fell foul of the detectors. I was called back, given a friendly tip on procedures and was offered a transparent plastic bag so the cream and I could continue our journey.

Since the trip to Denver was child free— it all seemed so quick, so easy, so quiet.

The other side of the checks was a different story though. As United flight 1103 to Chicago O'Hare was only going to proffer a beverage, we had to store up from before.

The last time we went from Providence to Denver in August 2005, I seem to remember a similar queue for Dunkin' Donuts. Perhaps because it's good solid all American fayre. Perhaps it's because it's so much cheaper than the other shops.

We queued and about 15 minutes later came our prize.

Ann had the scrambled eggs, cheese and bacon on an English muffin.

I went for the old fashioned donut. We shared a small coffee which at 400 gallons seemed just about right for our underdeveloped Euro palates.

We got seats together which was a huge advance from our American Airlines experience on the flight from Paris to Boston.

But they were in Exit Row 11.

This might as well have been Death Row 11 from the way I fretted after being told I might have to work the door in an emergency.

The steward asked me if I was comfortable with the responsibility, I pointed at my partner and said she was capable.

He warned she might be out of the equation in an emergency. I digested the doom scenario and said that I would carefully study the instruction manuals.

That I did was a good thing as we were also placed in a Death Row on the way from Chicago to Denver.

When the steward on that flight appeared to ask whether I was competent, he was met with a confident, testerone driven nod.

How travel improves the mind.

The last time we went to the Mile High City to visit my old university friend Frances and her family, we spent a day in Denver before going up into the Rocky Mountains where they had rented a cabin in the national park.

Obviously giddy by the lack of air at 200 million feet, I joined the locals for a game of tennis, further exerting myself by swimming.

Rounding the day off with steak and red wine seemed like a good idea until the next morning.

Poor unacclimatised fool; going outside for fresh air only exacerbated the throbbing.

This time there was no such bravado. I played tennis and I swam but this was at their club.

Skyline is my dream venue. There are half a dozen tennis courts separated from a 20 metre open air pool.

I borrowed a racquet and knocked up with Frances's eldest, Zach, my godson and then while he and his father played a set — I wasn't ready for competition — I went for a dip in the pool.

The perfect introduction to a getaway weekend. Contained, low-level activity.

But I still got a taste of the great open spaces. But this time it was inside at Outdoor World.

This vast space houses everything you could ever want for a huntin, shootin' and fishin' trip. Tents, bags, rods.

Fun and guns for all the family for there was a tank between floors with assorted big fish. While on high there was the arms zone.

I shied away from that.

While I probably wouldn't have had too many problems picking up a high powered rifle, Frances's husband, Rusty, couldn't find what he wanted.

So we consoled ourselves with drinks and snacks at the restaurant attached to the predators' paradise.

Back at home It was steak for supper that night — a meaty link to our last stay. But this time I wasn't so bovine and embraced moderation.

How travel improves the mind.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Terror in the skies

I'm not the best of travellers when it comes to flying. I'm a terra firma kind of guy. Which is why living in Paris and working a couple of days in London has been a plausible project thanks to Eurostar.

I couldn't have had this lifestyle before it. The prospect of heading out to Gatwick or Heathrow and then into central Paris from Orly or Charles de Gaulle on a weekly basis would have been too much.

As we all wended our way through baggage checks at Waterloo on Tuesday morning, there seemed to be more of a security presence. Maybe there were just more staff because there are more people travelling.

It seemed as if there was more vigilance following the failed car bomb attacks in central London and at Glasgow airport.

In response the security services are on alert level critical - the highest. Terminal forecourts across Britain have been sealed off from vehicles. And everyone's more tense. Modern Life Is Rubbish, as Blur once bellowed on an album cover.

And yes it is. All the trappings of our sophistication are being rendered unattainable.

To have the chance of travel and the opportunity to expand one's mind, you have to endure miles of traffic jams on the approach roads to airports. The brave who do come in by road then have to drop off passengers at the airport car parks.

Once inside there are going to be even more stringent checks than before. I foresee a world where checks get so exhaustive that no one's allowed to travel.

Oh that's a totalitarian regime. Let's get back to modern life.

There's going to be chaos for the rest of the summer. But this is acceptable pandemonium because it keeps us safe.

Arrests have been made and so far all the hallmarks in Britain are of al-Qaeda . It won't be long before the eco-terorrists follow fashion. With all the worries, people are going to think twice about taking a plane and thus carbon footprints are going to be reduced.

It will then be a greener, cleaner world for the suicide bombers.

It doesn't take much to steer me away from an aircraft. Sadly there are no trains from Paris to Rhode Island. So I'll have to take the strain of the plane.

The girls absolutely adored the last time we went to America as there were individual TV screens for them and they were encouraged to watch the myriad offerings on the children's channel.

In fact the screens are a godsend for me too. It helps keep my mind off the reality of being up in the air.

I always hated it when the pilot announced: "Welcome on board ladies and gentleman, this is your captain. We'll be flying at a height of 30,000 feet. I do hope you enjoy your flight."

Terror - for I am talking about the good old days before military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq - gripped me and that announcement pretty much ruined the flight for me.

Must admit the last time we went to the States I didn't hear the announcement - had probably already entered the vortex of fear.

But there was a panel showing the plane and its progress across the Atlantic. I wondered if — in the case of multiple engine failure — whether it would show the craft diving to its watery doom.

So not quite the usual Eurostar experience. The train was just a bit part player in the psycho drama that was my journey to the States.

It was back to Paris without any problems. The 0534 left on time from Waterloo and got into Paris on schedule at 9.30am

I'd arranged to meet the family up at Charles de Gaulle at 10.30am and as I waited for the RER to take me up to the airport, the mobile phone went.

It was the family still back at the apartment. The taxi driver hadn't been as reliable as the Eurostar.

Apparantly he had been booked for 9am. But hadn't turned up.

I was told to wait at the Gare du Nord.

When they arrived I heard the full story.

The family went down onto the street to wait for the driver. By 9.30 he hadn't arrived so Ann went back to the flat to call the taxi firm.

That's when she heard the driver's message saying that he was going to be late.

The taxi firm then told Ann that the driver had gone on to his next appointment — because there'd been no answer from the landline.

Quite how a driver takes that kind of responsibility beats me. The controller said the firm wouldn't be using him again. Doesn't bother me really as we won't be using that firm again.

We all got to Charles de Gaulle on time and through the various bits of security without any problems.

Once on board the plane we discovered our mistake. We hadn't checked the tickets to make sure we were all sitting together. In fact we were dotted about.

The steward was reluctant to intervene and it was left to me to cut a deal so my two daughters of 8 and 5 could sit together about 20 rows in front of us - that's after organising another swap so I could be next to Ann and the boy.

After take off and a few screams I suggested to the couple in front of us that their flight might be altogether more wondrous if they swapped with our daughters. And they agreed.

So there we were a block party on board American Airlines from Charles de Gaulle into Boston Logan.

I must say that having a 15-month-old child on a trans-Atlantic flight completely took my mind off the fact that I was flying at a height of 40 million feet. I was just too busy keeping him quiet.

Three or so hours into the flight I went to stand at the back of the plane to try and cradle the boy to sleep. Once he was slumbering I laid him out on three free seats. Like a doting dad I snuggled up next to him and we must have been a picture of drooling joy.

There we were bonding in dreamland when a stewardess woke me up to tell me that we were in seats reserved for airline personnel and we'd have to move when they wanted to sit down.

I mumbled that was cool and said she should wake me up when they wanted to sit down.

She came back a couple of times to repeat her message. And each time I said fine.

When the moment came for the staff to return, I was woken up and I moved the boy. As he was still sleeping I squeezed him onto a seat with one of his sisters who had also nodded off. They were a picture of tranquility. I went off to ask for some water.

It was then that the stewardess started screaming at me in French that the seat was wet.

I just looked at her. She was in full air rage mode. She was apoplectic that we, passengers, had despoiled the seats and worse one of the uniform tunics was soggy.

I didn't realise it but I must have looked glazed and confused. She said: "Vous comprenez fran├žais?"

"Yes I understand French," I replied in English. "But I refuse to be spoken to like that in any language."

That seemed to startle her.

I apologised that the baby had wet the seat. I said I would clean up the stain if they could provide me with a sponge and some soap. And as for the tunic, I said I would leave my address and telephone number and pay for it to be cleaned.

Then after kicking up a stink, she bristled: "C'est pas grave."

I thought about taking her name immediately so that I could complain to the customer services department. But since there were another two hours left of the flight and we had another meal service to go I thought it prudent to let it lie.

I didn't want to invoke any group solidarity and end up with some lethal toxin in my marshmallow happy bag.

I just thought I won't be using this firm again. So as I waited for tea to be served 40 million feet up, I looked around in my black haversack for a pen. There in one of the front pockets was my Swiss army knife.

I went cold. This kind of thing should be in the suitcase in the hold. This is the sort of thing that hijackers try to get on board to commandeer planes.

I put the bag down slowly and told Ann of my discovery.

It's the kind of prank journalists do to try to expose airport security. Well I can exclusively reveal that airport security at Charles de Gaulle was lax enough on Tuesday, July 3, 2007, to allow me - a national newspaper journalist - to get on board a flight for America with a Swiss army knife. A potentially lethal weapon.

But all I can say is any terrorist on American Airlines flight 147 would probably have been neutralised by the "stewardess".


Sunday, 1 July 2007

Speaking in tongues

Tony Blair's departure after 10 years as prime minister was a lodestar for my week. I was in the office in London on Monday afternoon when it broke that he was going to reinvent himself as a Middle East peace envoy.

The Quartet of powers comprising Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the EU, felt he was the man for the job.

One reaction piece from Palestine suggested the very opposite. Well I'm going to be upbeat because the people who ought to have succeeded have so far failed. So there might be an inverse logic at work in those lands.

Blair's reinvention as a dove was one of the best meteorological metaphors I've witnessed for years. It coincided with a deluge in Britain. A month's worth of rain fell in a few June days, leaving six people dead and up to £1bn in damage.

In the good old days we would have all thought instantly about divine wrath. But these aren't those times. This here is the modern world when dissolute behaviour and rampant lust rule the roost.

So it was refreshing to read in the Sunday Telegraph on the train from Paris that the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Reverend James Jones, was harking back to a time when we were in thrall to belligerence from above.

He proclaimed that the floods were an act of God, adding: "We are now reaping what we have sown."

Ooh la, as my Parisian friend Sebastian, would say.

"If we live in a profligate way then there are going to be consequences," raged the bishop. "God is exposing us to the truth of what we have done."

Bishop Jones is, says the paper, being seen as a future Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ooh la.

And with outpourings like that he fits into the fire and pestilance brigade of God squadders whom I thought had been cast into the wilderness.

Sundays of my youth were spent at Sunday school during the 11am church service and then a session in the afternoon between 3pm and 4pm because my mum was a Sunday school teacher.

There was no choice for me to stay home and watch The Big Match with Brian Moore. I missed a slew of games in the 1970s because I was at Sunday school. And that was something you couldn't bunk off.

So while I missed the elegant midfield play of Trevor Brooking for West Ham, I did get multiple lessons in religious ethics.

At that time in the late 60s Mitcham Lane Baptist Church was run by the Reverend William Oram. We had solid, bum numbing wooden pews and he went up into the pulpit each Sunday to impart the word.

One sermon in December, as the lunch simmered in the oven back home, was how Christmas had become a licentious orgy.

I liked that turn of phrase and have taken it to heart. And ever since then I have done my utmost to ensure that there's no enjoyment in my house.

Presents? What presents? Here, have some more soap child.

And with the amount of rain they've been having in Britain, there could be a whole lot of cleansing going on.

The showers are certainly playing havoc with the Wimbledon schedules. Who does God not want to win?

Is it Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Amelie Mauresmo? Is it the Israelis? Surely not.

Blair dribbles out of being British prime minister into a high-profile position. Some people are God's gift.

And it was a bit of Blairite smarm that came to my rescue on Wednesday while I was chairing a workshop on inter cultural dialogue at the Council of Europe in Paris.

The mission was to see if around 50 journalists from around Europe could come up with ideas as to how to promote communication between the communities so that the mainstream media stopped belching out the usual cliches about ethnic minorities, their menace and the crimes they heap upon all decent thinking people.

After an opening few minutes I felt I was floundering to take control of the workshop because the ideas were flooding in on the need for more awareness and more training, but then the phrase: education, education, education, came out.

There ought, our workshop proposed, to be education in schools of journalism on the various ethnic minority communities. And for the big organisations, there ought to be classes so that journalists can learn - if they don't already know - about what words and phrases are permissible and what comments ought to be met with retribution.

On the day of the handover to Gordon Brown, my comment appeared to show an awareness of both the macro and microcosm.

I surveyed the firmament and was pleased.

It was pure Blairite showmanship when I later issued the decree: regulation, regulation, regulation.

The workshop concluded that the national media had to be independently monitored to make sure newspapers and TV stations were operating within universally accepted guidelines on how stories were covered and also to see if there were people from diverse backgrounds in positions of power.

Here we came in for division.

One French journalist said that there had to be an element of coercion because in France there'd hardly been any movement on getting ethnic minority journalists through to the positions of shaping the news agenda.

Though not everyone agreed with quotias, his line was that we're nowhere without them. And though it's a risk, he claims it's a measure that's worth taking in France.

That kind of action didn't happen in British media organisations. There the problem always seemed to be that once you got the ethnic minority journalists in, the assumption was that they somehow embodied their communities and could be spokesmen or women for them.

It took years in Britain for the industry chiefs and the newsroom bosses to understand that though someone might be black, they might have more interest in the films of the Taviani Brothers than the music of Bob Marley.

Ethnic minority journalists in France seem to be reaching a point which has been experienced in Britain.

But then British-born ethnic minorities have a completely different relationship with the mainstream than their French-born counterparts.

My trip to the ICA in London to see the Battle Of Algiers showed me that in no uncertain terms.