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July 2012

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Why on earth would an Oscar winning movie director – who can pretty much pick and choose his projects these days – wish to take on the impossible challenge of directing the London Olympics opening ceremony?

Any way you size it up this really was the poisoned chalice – the hopeless cause – the no-win situation.

Consider…

  • It would be impossible to top the massively funded, meticulously choreographed (some might say ‘regimented’) show that the Chinese put on in Beijing four years ago.
  • Given a potential world-wide audience running into the billions it would be completely impossible to please all – or even the majority – of them, let alone to entertain everyone whilst contriving to offend no-one.
  • From the director’s point of view devising such a show would surely be – in any case – an impossible task. How could one create a show that was at once local and global – embodying some essence of this sceptred isle whilst not being so parochial than no-one else would get it? How could one reconcile the demands of the TV close up with the requirement for a spectacle that would fill a stadium? How could the show be at once personal and universal?

As you may have deduced – I spend Friday evening watching Danny Boyle’s bizarre, amateurish (in the best sense), messy, insanely brilliant opening ceremony. I fell off the sofa laughing. I howled like a baby – at some points so hard that I could scarce catch my breath. In the kaleidoscopic whirl of layered references (oh what delight – an Olympic opening ceremony incorporating subtlety and ambiguity, whilst at the same time displaying complete self-confidence!) I repeatedly heard and saw images and ideas in the magical musical and visual smorgasbord that made me cry out, “Yes – that’s us… and that… and that…”

From the exquisitely intimate (the tribute to the dead of 7/7) to the breathtakingly spectacular (the dark satanic mills rising Bosch-like from the stadium floor, the newly forged Olympic rings coming together in the sky above the crowd) Boyle nailed each potentially difficult shift in tone with complete assurance. The collective gasp when it appeared as though Her Majesty herself was going to take part in Daniel Craig’s granite-faced Bond spoof (she couldn’t be – she was!!), and smirk of pleasure at the wonderful tongue in cheek arrival of the Olympic flame carried on a powerboat skippered by David Beckham, in exactly the image of himself that we all believe he holds – merely confirmed a sureness of touch that the rest of us can only dream of.

That touch extended right through to the Olympic cauldron itself. Assembled unseen throughout the parade of athletes as each team carried in one of the ‘petals’ that formed the organic heart of the sculpture, and lit – not by any of the luminaries that had been the subject of pre-Olympic speculation, but by seven young athletes nominated by seven existing Olympic heroes – the individual flaming branches each representing one of the competing nations slowly rose toward the night sky, coming together to form a single, united blossom of fire. As Tim Berners-Lee had previously texted to the stadium – and to the world – “This is for everyone!”

Did everyone ‘get it’? Well – the correspondent of Le Figaro observed – with a generosity not always apparent in the relationship between our ancient races:

“The display reminded a billion viewers of the best contributions that Britain has given to the world for over a century: its sense of humour, its music, and of course sport”.

My view? Danny Boyle is nothing short of a genius. Give that man a knighthood!

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“I’d rather trust a man who doesn’t shout what he’s found,
There’s no need to sell if you’re homeward bound.”

Peter Gabriel

Shortly before the end of last term – and my subsequent trip to BC – I was visited by the account manager for the School’s telecom provider. I am responsible for all of the School’s telephony and external data connections and the meeting was really just a routine catch-up, to see how things were going.

A day or so later – immediately before I left for Canada – I had an email from the account manager advising me that she could offer some significant savings if we signed a new three-year deal. As our existing three-year contract was about to expire this made good sense, but I was sufficiently tired and befuddled that I thought it best to take more time and to work through the implications when my head was clearer.

In the jet-lagged period following my return from Victoria our account manager again approached me, enquiring as to whether I had made any progress. Feeling somewhat guilty I admitted that I was still not entirely clear as to any possible ramifications of taking the offer, and asked for further clarification. The account manager offered to visit me again to explain further – an invitation that I gladly accepted.

When she duly arrived – on a glorious and rare 30°C morning – it took her a mere ten minutes or so to dispel any lingering doubts. This left me feeling guilty again, as I had forgotten that she had to drive all the way up to London from the south coast, which journey – given the heat and the traffic restrictions arising from the fast-approaching Olympics – had proved long and arduous. I spun the meeting out to an acceptable length on the entirely unreasonable premise that this might somehow make it seem to have been more worthwhile. She was – it has to be said – entirely equitable about the whole affair.

I walked her back to her car, passing on the way the three-quarters complete Science Building that is the first stage of the School’s major redevelopment programme. I explained that we would need to move all of our external connections – phone and data – to this new building once it had been handed over, and we discussed what would be involved in doing so.

I also mentioned that we had a small number of direct analogue phone circuits – provided by British Telecom rather than our own provider – which service fire alarm panels, security systems and the like. These would also need to be moved. She suggested that we simply install new lines – cancelling the old ones when the transition was complete.

Standing next to her car, a thought occurred to me. I asked her if her company could provide such circuits.

“Yes”, she replied.

I asked what would be the difference between them providing the lines and my ordering them from BT.

“Ours would be cheaper.”

I asked what I would need to do to set things in motion.

“I’ll send you the forms.”

Job done – a potentially tricky problem solved – everything integrated into one contract, and – without my prompting – she wouldn’t have said a word. Now – given that really don’t like being sold to, my question is – is she actually a brilliant sales-person, or just a very lucky one!

I know which my money is on…

 

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As a counterpart to my previous post on cricket in Victoria

On Sunday I visited my old village cricket club in Buckinghamshire in the UK. It was the occasion of the annual President’s Match – always the highlight of the season. Perhaps for this week only the weather had turned glorious and the day was – as a result – really rather splendid.

Until he retired a couple of years ago when well into his 80s (to be replaced by his son in law!) the post of club President was held for many years by one of the scions of the Guinness family. A long-time resident of the village and a tireless worker for charities and local causes he is a great supporter of the club and can still be seen regularly at the ground on a Sunday, sipping a cold Guinness and enjoying the cricket.

The Guinnesses famously provided Vancouver with the Lion’s Gate bridge (as our ex President takes delight in reminding me). They did not, naturally, do so for altruistic reasons, but because they had purchased more than 4,000 acres in what is now West Vancouver and were busy developing it.

It has become a tradition over the last decade or so for the team fielded on behalf of the President to comprise, in the main, members of the extended Guinness family, with – on occasion – three generations represented in the same team. A number of them played cricket to a decent level at the sort of schools with which I am very familiar and in some cases well beyond. As a result it has also been a tradition of recent years for the President’s side to win the fixture – often handsomely. Two years ago saw the first ever tie between the two sides and then last year – for the first time in many years – the village finally came out on top.

This year – in a very close game – the the club finally scraped across the line with three balls to spare and with the final pair at the crease. Nail-biting stuff!

Here are some (remarkably) random images from the day.

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One of the attractions – for the ex-pat Englishman in particular – of living in Victoria is that there is a healthy interest there in that greatest of all games – cricket! Should this latter assertion cause hackles to rise, passions to become inflamed and throats to be cleared in preparation for argument – let me refer you to this article by Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo.com, from the latest edition of Intelligent Life magazine. He makes the case more eloquently than I ever could.

I have, thus far, spared the gentle reader my fondness for philosophising on the subject of the great game and in particular on its purest form  – village cricket! That joy is yet to come – quite possibly over an extended series of posts. For now let us content ourselves with discussion on the game as it is extant on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island.

Cricket in Victoria is organised by the Victoria and District Cricket Association. There are two leagues – a weekend league which plays 45 over matches on Saturdays or Sundays – and a midweek league which plays 16 over matches, mostly on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. There is also a Twenty20 competition, and the well known – and internationally so – Victoria Six a Side competition.

The weekend league features 8 teams, whilst there are 15 in the midweek league. It will come as no surprise that many of the players in either league have their origins outside Canada, coming primarily from the subcontinent. The midweek league teams are – in the main – sponsored by various pubs and other such establishments around Victoria and the stated aim is for inclusivity whilst still being competitive. That appeals for LBW are frowned upon in this league should give an indication of the spirit in which games are intended to be played.

There are really only 6 cricket grounds in the Victoria district and – sadly but inevitably – they all feature matting or other artificial tracks. This does enable them to be used heavily with a minimum of maintenance, but it does alter the nature of the game. Two of the prettiest grounds are those in Beacon Hill Park – which dates back to the 1850s and possibly even earlier – and in Windsor Park in Oak Bay.

This is Beacon Hill Park:

And this is Windsor Park, with its splendid new clubhouse:

On my recent visit to BC I watched one midweek game – between the Prairie Inn and a youth side called the Colts – at Stelly’s School in Saanich (nowhere near as pretty as either of the above grounds). As the school was out for the summer the outfield had been allowed to grow rather longer than is normally acceptable and the style of play could – as a consequence – best be described as ‘agricultural’!

The Prairie Inn side were pretty well organised and had some big hitters, scoring an even 100 in their 16 overs. They then ran through the Colts’ top order in the first few overs and effectively killed the match as a competition. The Colts came back well near the end, however, with their star player being a 14 year old – on his first outing for the side – who played with an admirably straight bat. The boy’s father was watching and I engaged him in conversation, remarking on his son’s obvious talent and enquiring as to whether he had been coached. The father informed me that they had only recently returned to Canada having lived in England for a number of years, and that the boy had not only played cricket at his school there but had also done well in the Surrey under 14s.

It showed…

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Well – I am back in the UK. A chance to draw breath, to stand back and to try to get a little perspective on how things stand…

The journey was relatively uneventful – if one discounts Air Canada’s now familiar round-trip performance… starting well but tailing off quite badly towards the end (not a good modus operandi for an airline!). The flight from Victoria to Vancouver was on time, but that from YVR to Heathrow began at 75 minutes and ended up nearer 2 hours late. Not a good start for the Canadian Olympic hopefuls with whom I was sharing the flight (though sharing only in the sense that they were sitting up in Executive First and I wasn’t! Still, they doubtless deserve it; let’s hope they are still in First Class for the return trip). My deputy was supposed to pick me up from the airport but the A4 was closed as a result of an accident so I had to take the tube and then walk instead. Doesn’t exactly look good, does it?

Naturally it was raining when I arrived back at Heathrow. Kickass Canada Girl and I had got into conversation with one of the Canadian Olympic administrators at Victoria International before the flight. We were watching the pictures of the sodden Olympic preparations on the TV news in the lounge. “That’s where I’m going”, she enthused. “I have to live there all the time”, I grumbled.

Talking of the weather (yes, I’m a Brit!) the graph at the top of this post shows what England has been going through so far this year. “Bah!”, I say – and “Bah!” again… I can’t immediately find any comparable statistics for Victoria, but during my stay over the last couple of weeks there was a good clear stretch of about 10 gloriously sunny days. I can’t remember the last time that could be said for the UK – and yet, there are suggestions that the weather is finally about to turn and that next week – just in time for the Olympics – the summer will finally arrive. I am an incurable optimist, but even I will not be putting money on this one.

 

I am aware that I have said nothing in recent weeks concerning the putative sale of our apartment in Buckinghamshire. There is good reason for this – nothing has happened! We have again had viewings, but no offers. We are at the stage of considering a possible further price reduction, but as the ‘summer’ is upon us – traditionally a dead time for house sales – I am not sure that such a move would make a difference. It is really quite depressing that this lack of progress simply brings everything else to a complete halt, and that nothing can be done about it. We have stopped looking at houses in Victoria because the trauma of seeing desirable properties – often great bargains to boot – slip by us is just too painful to bear.

The irony is, of course, that all gloom could be dissipated in a moment – if we could just find a buyer. We are – naturally – praying fervently to the real estate gods. Trouble is, I rather get the feeling that they might just be laughing at us…

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An assortment of images from Victoria and its environs…

Late afternoon on Island View beach:

An evening with a Glaswegian friend in Cadboro Bay. He rents a suite in a very fancy waterfront property. The owners – for reasons best known to themselves – spend half the year elsewhere:

On Clover Point after the storm:

Nighty night!

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Staying – as we have been – in Oak Bay this week (for reasons outlined in this previous post) is a most interesting and illuminating experience. When Kickass Canada Girl described Victoria to me – shortly after her first visit home subsequent to our having met – it was one of the places in which she informed me she felt she could happily live. Now that I know it a little I can see why.

As the Brits amongst you will immediately recognise from the accompanying photographs, Oak Bay is a pleasant ‘village like’ community that has – visually at least – a great deal in common with the English Home Counties. For one thing, the ubiquitous evergreens give way to the deciduous, and in particular – as the name suggests – to the stout English oak… well, to the Garry oak, anyway! It speaks volumes that any damage caused to one of these splendid trees – in Oak Bay itself – results in a $10,000 fine.

In the light of all this it comes as no surprise to find that a certain breed of English ex-pat has made this enclave their home.

There is certainly money in Oak Bay – and it smells like old money. This villa is – by all accounts – merely a summer residence!

The village itself is well equipped with coffee houses, bistros, beauty salons, a plethora (for some bizarre reason) of dental hygienists and – as you can see – a pretty decent salumeria and butcher.

There is – in Windsor Park – a rather lovely cricket and rugby ground – but cricket in Victoria will feature in a future post, so I will say no more at present.

There is also one of the nicest marinas in Victoria which, I am told, boasts a pretty decent restaurant. The yacht basin itself is home to some of the tamest ‘wild’ harbour seals I have ever seen. A local lady told me that they are the former inhabitants of a marine park released into the wild when the park closed. They certainly know how to put on a show for visitors and – of course – to earn their supper in the process.

Could we live in Oak Bay now?

Cute – and faux-British – as it undoubtedly is the answer has to be ‘no’. However serene and well kept the neighbourhood is, it still feels busy – rather too full of (very proper) people and (admittedly slowly driven) cars. These days we yearn for the more open spaces of the peninsular – with little passing trade, a decent deck and views of the ocean and mountains…

…and, of course, closer to our dear and lovely friends!

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Safe to say when I arrived in BC just over a week ago, looking forward to a good rest, I did not expect a week such as the one we have just experienced.

I have already made reference to the redecoration of Kickass Canada Girl’s son’s apartment. Naturally the actual painting and associated works were only a part of the endeavor. There was also much running around picking up shower curtains, light fittings and other electrical bits and bobs – not to mention waiting for plumbers and electricians and so forth.

The fact that the Girl’s son was staying with her at our dear friends’ farm in Saanichton also added a certain frisson. Quite apart from needing to move him and his belongings back into his apartment once all was ready, there was also the heightened tension resulting from the difficulty of finding space and time to oneself. Of course, those with children will shrug their shoulders and say – ‘So what? That’s how it is…’ Not having had children myself I am perhaps simply not familiar with the rigours thereof.

And speaking of which – the week was further complicated by the not unwelcome demands for attention of our dear friends’ young sons. These entailed trips to the iMax and to the cinema to see the latest Pixar – ‘Brave’ – and much playing of trains and so forth. All a total joy in any other week of course…

Finally – but by no means least – all of this coincided with a crisis at the Girl’s charity, as a result of which she endured a highly stressful week of long hours, culminating in a very long day in Vancouver on the Saturday. She was in need of a very large Martini when she finally returned from that particular jaunt.

There were points at which I really did begin to wonder just how much of a holiday this trip was going to turn out to be, but when I finally got some time to myself on the Saturday afternoon I did find the opportunity for some useful reflection. I have visited Victoria quite a number of times now, but thus far all bar one of the visits have been holidays for us both, and have been marked by the relaxed and carefree nature of our time here.

This has – therefore – been a most valuable experience, giving me as it does a glimpse of the life that I will lead here once I am no longer just a casual visitor but a permanent resident. Naturally though, I hope that – in future – any further such crises do not all occur simultaneously!

This week we are house-sitting for one of the Girl’s colleagues in Oak Bay, which will provide another new experience. The Girl also has Thursday and Friday off

‘For this relief, much thanks!’.

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One of my favourite places on the planet!

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“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”

There is considerable debate as to the exact origin of this quote – before it became a John Lennon lyric… so let’s just stick with Lennon.

I really didn’t get a chance to plan ahead in much detail for this trip to BC, though some vague ideas had been floated before I left the UK. As it turns out this is just as well. Thus far we have pretty much had to make it up as we go along.

Having left School on the last day of term (making my exit – as detailed in a previous post – just as soon as the boys had made their own break for freedom) I was blessed with a reasonably trouble-free flight via Calgary to Victoria.

The only incident worthy of note – and then only for reasons of personal embarrassment (and thus amusement!) – occurred whilst I was standing by the emergency exit doing some leg stretches at 35,000 feet over the Northwest Territories. The emergency exit on the Airbus A330 features a large curved aluminium handle, nearly 2 foot wide and standing proud of the door by about another foot. Facing away from the door I had stretched my leg up behind me. When I brought it down again I contrived to catch it forcibly on said handle. I had a momentary vision of the exit door flying off into the void and of all of us travelers being sucked out into the upper atmosphere – before coming to my senses and recognising that, if such a thing were possible, they would not have built a huge protruding handle onto the door just where any idiot might accidentally catch his foot on it.

As it turned out the only casualties were my big toe – which is now a very fetching shade of black and blue – and my pride, as I almost fell into the laps of my sleeping neighbours. Attempts to pass the maneuver off as the latest in calisthenics did not – frankly – convince.

Diverting attention for a moment from my own clown-like behaviour I must take a second to grumble about the antics of some of my fellow passengers. Three examples of extraordinary (to my mind at any rate) behaviour:

  • The passenger who – when the seatbelt sign was illuminated during some mid-Atlantic turbulence – refused to fasten his belt. The stewardess told him that she would remain standing over him until he had done so, but he continued to argue for some considerable time.
  • Another passenger who – when asked during a bumpy descent into Calgary to stow his bag in the overhead locker – held up the Stewardess by arguing that it might get crushed. He seemed not to care that the plane was on its final approach and that his truculence was preventing the Stewardess from strapping herself in.
  • Finally, the gaudily attired ‘woman of a certain age’ who – as we waited for our baggage at Calgary, on observing that I was already standing on the precise spot behind the blue line that she clearly wanted to be in occupation of when the belt started – simply stepped directly in front of me and blocked my path. She did, however, receive her just reward. My bag appeared first and – as I swung it from the carousel – I inadvertently (honest!) clipped her with it. For once in my life I did not apologise!

Having arrived in Victoria somewhat weary and jet-lagged, I was hoping for something of a break. Events conspired against me and I spend two of the next three days – with a much needed break for Canada Day – helping to redecorate Kickass Canada Girl’s son’s apartment. Yes – I know that I have not until now mentioned that the Girl has a grown-up son who lives on his own in Victoria… Consider it mentioned!

Anywho – there is still plumbing and electrical work to be done on the apartment, and the Girl herself not only has to work this week but also finds that she has to attend an event in Vancouver on Saturday. Hey ho! I have booked some serious spa treatments for next Sunday, so let’s hope that the relaxation can finally start in earnest then.

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