Wednesday 30 December 2015

The Book of Strange New Things - book review

The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber
December 2015

I am struggling to categorise this rather excellent book. On the face of it is sci fi with the main action taking place on a distant outpost called Oasis but in reality its a hauntingly evocative book about faith and love.

The tale is set in the near future with Peter, the central character, transported billions of miles to Oasis to serve as a missionary to the indigenous population. He leaves behind him Bea, his wife with whom he corresponds by "shoot" which is a basic form of word only e-mail.

The imagery offered by Faber is exquisite and whilst the plot is slow the description is compelling and its as hard not to engage with this strange new planet as it is to put the book down. All the way through you are wondering what its all about and what lies behind the motivation of the shadowy organisation who manages the operation.

But in some ways the story line isn't about life on Oasis, or the strange inhabitants who are so hungry to hear the Gospel of Jesus, or indeed why satisfying this desire is so crucial to the non believing human colonists. In fact the real story is about the love between Peter and Bea which is stretched to the limits as the world at home falls to bits and the limits of their written communications cause their relationship to start to crack. There are times when you can hardly bear to read another of their missives as as everything comes unglued.

I always find it hard to read / watch stories of relationships failing, and the limitations of their written communication remind me of the stresses of maintaining our own long distance relationship before we married all those years ago. 

Whilst one party is set in sci fi land,  the tensions between the two central characters is very down to earth and reflects the pressures which exist where one party is removed for long periods of time - the armed forces come to mind.

Don't be put off by the Sci Fi veneer - thats just geography which allows Faber to explore faith set in different contexts. 

This is a "thinking" book with depth and gravitas - intensely gripping and good fodder for the book group.

Monday 28 December 2015

Wand'ring Bark refit

Wand'ring Bark refit
December 2015

There have been no boat movements to report for the last couple of months for the simple reason that both boats have been moored up at Longwood Boat Club undergoing a serious refit before we set off on out six month cruise next year.

During that time there have been some coming and goings at the club which has meant that the butty has ended up moored immediately behind the motor, just as it should be.

The last two months have focused on the motor with the galley being stripped out along with the saloon, leaving just the fire I installed last winter and a couple of drawers opposite. 

It was rather sad seeing the entire main cabin stripped back to the paneling, which has grown old and dark, a sharp contrast to the light airy feel it had when we bought it 10 years ago. The panels above the gunnels were sanded back and then painted an off white with new oak strip added to give it renewed freshness.

Then the work started in earnest with a new kitchen from Ikea being installed. Of course, there were not many actual units, just the base for the sink and a thin one on the other side. All the rest was bespoke made out of end panels and other odds and ends which fitted the space available. One significant change has been to raise the work surfaces by about 4 inches, which make them just the right height for us - a real novelty!

All the pipes were a challenge as standard fittings had to be adapted to fit the boat plumbing. The greatest challenge was to reduce a huge waste outlet from the sink to a 1 inch pipe through the skin fitting. With a bit of help from a plumber friend involving a bung, some 22mm pipe, some silicone and some jubilee clips I managed to achieve a water tight fit.

The project includes a 36 litre 12 v freezer from Webasto which fits under the new L shaped settee. Its all in place sitting on the base plate but as yet its not wired in. That will have to wait till I have added two more batteries to give us greater power reserves and a couple of solar panels to keep them charged up.

The next task is to fit an oak floor and then we will be ready to order the cushions and blinds.

All this haste is necessary because we have an extension being started on our house in a few weeks and we need somewhere to go when the kitchen is taken out of service.

The countdown to next season is well underway with just 50 working days to go before I leave on 12th April.

More photos as things progress.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Complete Muppetry IPA - Beer Review

Complete Mupperty
by Two Towers Brewery of Birmingham
December 2015

During the Christmas trading period we attended an event at Curborough and among the stall holders was one selling specialty beer. As you can imagine, all the jewelry and trinkets hold little appeal but beer, well now you are talking my language. 

I decided to buy half a dozen beers for Christmas, six light and six dark and to record my findings. Sadly I weakened 10 days ago and drank one and have forgotten which one it was!

Tonight, after a walk over Essex Bridge at Great Haywood we returned home and decided to crack open a bottle or two, starting with Two Towers Complete Muppetry, a 4.3% IPA.

This is an outstanding craft beer brewed in the Jewelry Quarter. It has a strong hop flavour, quite citrusy and tangy, a perfect compliment for turkey curry. 

Fortunately, I have bought several beers from Two Towers and am looking forward to sampling their range. I think this may be the start of a long friendship.

Friday 18 December 2015

A big thanks to all those who voted for me

C&RT National Council Elections
December 2015

I would like to say a big thank you to all the Business Boaters that voted for me in the recent C&RT elections.

I am pleased to announce that I was successful on this, my second attempt to win a seat on the Council.

The first meeting is in March 2016 and I will do all I can to ensure that the needs of the Business Boating community are fully represented.

With the elections over I will start to post my blog entries again.

Thanks again for all your support.

Friday 13 November 2015

C&RT Council Elections

C&RT Council Elections 2015
November 2015

Those of you with long(ish) memories will recall that I stood for the CRT Council during the last election and may have wondered why I am not on the list of boating candidates this time round.

Well, if fact I am standing for election to the Council, but as a representative of the Business Boating constituency! 

Since I last stood we have developed the preserve business (The Jam Butty) and this has resulted in both boats having business licenses - hence my switch to the business boating side.

The elections opened on line today and when you have received your security numbers (by e-mail or post) you will be able to vote till 11th December using the single transferable vote system.

If you go the the election website you will see some buttons on the right which provides access to all the candidates manifestos and some have provided short videos to give you more insight into why they are standing.

So, if you hold a business boating licence do pay the site a visit and select your order of preference for the candidates.

I would love to represent the boating businesses on the Council and would ask you to cast your vote for me please.

Thanks on advance - Andy

The Martian - book and film review

The Martian
By Andy Weir

This debut novel has just been released a a major film starring Matt Damon and the book is everywhere. That is usually a reason to avoid it but I have always been fascinated by space so it's bang on the money for holiday reading.

It's no deep literature but it is an engaging, if somewhat predictable, tale of disaster, endurance and ultimately survival against the odds in the same vein as Apollo 13, but based on a theoretical manned mission to Mars in the near future.

The plot is that a crew member gets left behind on Mars and has to adapt his surroundings, initially to survive till a rescue mission is possible but then in a desperate escape plan in which his crew return to pick him up.

There is just enough real science to keep the plot plausible in the make do and mend sense seen in Apollo 13, inspired by the authors lifelong fascination for space exploration. It's a real page turner if you are keen on the subject and it's easy to see it becoming a massive film.

As I said, no literary classic, little character development but heaps of plot. I liked it!

Continuing this theme, I went to see the film version with Dan the other day and having just read the book it made me super sensitive to and fast and loose with the plot line.

As it turned out the bulk of the film stays very true to the book, which is something of a novelty. Where bits were cut they were non essential which was ok.

However, and you know there had to be a however, the script writers did tinker with the end but not in a manner which spoiled the film.  In the book there is a somewhat outlandish plan conceived by our "just been rescued" hero to claw the final yards he needed to get to safety. In the book this was discounted but in the film the opportunity to show Watkins flying like a super hero was too much to resist, so in it went. 

Finally, and perhaps more interestingly, the book closes inside the space craft with the crew recoiling from the stink of their comrade who hadn't washed for about three months. In American blockbusters your hero is fresh faced and clean so we saw him having a good shave just before he blasts off. I can see why they did this but it did amuse us somewhat.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Entry Island - book review

Entry Island
by Peter May.

This is a book borrowed from the QM 2 Library, picked out on the basis that I really enjoyed the Lewis trilogy by the same author.

I reviewed the other books by Peter May and selected this because 1. It is a stand alone tale and 2. It has a Hebridean link which I so enjoyed in his previous publications. 

The author has something of a formulae in his book structure, which involved jaded detectives investigating current murders with a personal back story with both strands coming together at the end. Providing you don't overdose on them this predictable pattern is ok.

In this case you have a murder on a remote island in the Gulf of St Lawrence linked to the clearances in the highlands which accompanied the ten year potato famine. Both stories rattle along at a good pace, sucking me in and saw me completing its 500 pages in just over a day - not that I did a lot else! Both locations are wild and windswept and it seemed fitting that as I was crossing the same stretch of ocean albeit 150 years later and in the luxury of a state of the art ocean liner rather that steamship steerage in which 10 percent died in the three week crossing.

All in all a good page turner and an author I will no doubt return to again.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Having a ball (6)

Having a ball
Friday 16th October

Whitecaps abound and a great nights sleep! We awake late and miss the formal breakfast, but that's not a problem. As well as the formal meals there it's always the Kings Court, an all day buffet of magnificent proportions which ensures we never go hungry. At first glance I worked out that food was available from 4.00 am till 2.00am each day, and was a bit worried about the two countries hour "famine gap" in between. But fear not, the 24 hour room service exists for all such gastronomic emergencies!

As on most holidays, as time passes we get lazier and lazier, getting up later and later. We had a gentle morning shortened by the loss of another hour at noon so a late breakfast nearly did a rear shunt with lunch and a trip to the theater to see an abridged version on Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare's plays I am familiar with and an engaging version it was too. This was followed by Helen attending a not so successful book group as I chilled out in the Commodore Lounge with its panoramic view of the seascape ahead.

The evening was the formal highlight if the trip, the Masquerade Ball. Everyone donned their finery, many including masks pausing for the obligatory photo sessions which are a feature of the voyage. For us this was preceded by a visit to the Commodore's Lounge for cocktails with two of our table companions, setting the tone for the night.

Photos. I need to mention the photos. The official photographers are ever present and clearly offer Cunard a lucrative money making opportunity, and the guests with professional standard momentous of the occasion. You can buy individual images for about thirty five dollars each or, as we did, buy one of the basic sets which includes five images taken from the seven nights afloat. This costs about 140 dollars, but does offer some enduring images for the wall. In some ways they don't really cost anything because the voyage includes spending money on the ships payment system, which is enough if you limit your alcohol intake. 

The masked ball is based in the ballroom which was heaving, with guests there to be seen as much as to dance. It's fair to say it was a bit of a preening experience and whilst we attended with our masks, we cried off joining the masquerade parade which felt more than a bit over the top! Watching from the wings was enough....

Thursday 5 November 2015

Boating at the top of the World (5)

Boating at the top of the World
Thursday 15th October 2015

Bad day today. I picked up Helen's, cold which of course has evolved into man flu. I spent and uncomfortable and restless night and a day roller coasting between hot and cold. Not good. That said, it's only. Cold and I won't be making use of the mortuary service I mentioned previously!

Because I felt so rubbish we engaged with few formal activities, preferring to chill out in our state room, read, watch a film on TV and sleep.

The cold and grey North Atlantic continues to sweep past our balcony as we move over the eastern Atlantic tectonic plate with the better part  of two miles of water beneath us. This voyage is really bringing home to me just how big the ocean really is, and how empty. Just sky and sea stretching out to the horizon with no other boats or even wildlife, just at one point a flock of birds on a feeding frenzy. 

The QM2 is a huge and stable craft, but even with all its bulk it soon adopts distinct patterns of pitch, roll and yaw which are dictated by the size, direction and frequency of the underlying swell. Previously it had been a slow and very slight rock from side to side but today that changed to a slow screwing action, adding a steady pitch as the swell ran under the length of the ship. I find this a very sleep inducing rhythm

We had a late breakfast today and so skipped lunch, waiting instead for afternoon tea in the Queens Room, which is the ballroom low down in the back of the boat. This was very genteel affair with tea in China cups, sandwiches with the crusts removed, little cakes and some of the best scones I have tasted. This does introduce the subject of jam! Given its Cunard I figured they would be seeking only the best so it was interesting that they exclusively use Tiptree of Essex, who are probably the most exclusive non artisan manufacturers in the country. Each jar comes with a jammy slogan inside the lid, which have been duly noted for possible use!

Dinner was an optional formal / informal affair so we opted for the informal which, for me, was a quality tieless shirt with jacket but there were plenty of black ties in evidence. The dress code is both quaint and rather lovely. It makes the evening an experience to be anticipated and enjoyed. Dress up, enjoy a cocktail in The Chartroom and then into one of the dining rooms. Ours is the standard service but above us the Queens and Princess Grill classes which carry even better services and add ons but from my perspective even the standard level is superior to even the best hotels I have stayed on for business.

We dine with the same two other couples each evening which means you get to know them very well, and start to uncover all sorts of interesting facts about them. One couple we shared with were celebrating their 50th wedding and even after all that time we unearthed a fact from Kit's past that Gillian was unarmed of!  

We rounded off the evening with a trip to the ballroom where their usual contingent of lounge lizards hang out, strutting their funky stuff.

We discovered that there are a hardcore of maybe 50 die hard dancers, who come on the boat specifically to dance, and to be honest they are more than a bit intimidating for the rest of us. They sweep about and one notable couple rig up a video camera and film each and every performance, which gives the rest of us a good laugh. The lack of space and our limited experience made the dance floor an unattractive option fur us, but at least we can say we did it. Not only did we brave the formal dance floor we also made use of a nice flat area just outside the ballroom to run through our jive routine which was a lot of fun. We thought that we were on our own but it's a small ship and of course we attracted an audience who appreciated our "off Broadway" performance. Richard, our dance teacher, would be proud!

Tuesday 3 November 2015

The Great Northern Circle (4)

The Great Northern Circle
Wednesday 14th October.

Overnight we entered the zone where the cold Labrador current meets the northern strand of the warm Gulf Stream and the result is fog. We entered the foggy area in the middle of the night and it gradually permeated my consciousness that the foghorn was letting off its mournful drone at two minute intervals. Not that we have seen any other craft for the last two days and if I am honest I am not sure I would fancy venturing this far out into the cold North Atlantic in a small craft, and if I did and I heard a foghorn of a liner approaching at over 20 knots from an uncertain direction I am not sure I would know what to do about it.

Our stateroom

Anyway, we are cosy and warm up in out 11th floor room watching the swell surge past with the boat now developing is distinct pitch and roll.  Today we picked up the grand Circle route and are about 1200 miles out from New York, and over 1000 miles north. In spite of the size of the ship it still feels more run a little lonely way out her, far beyond the scope of a quick rescue.

You fall into all sorts of odd conversations with fellow travellers and today the subject of average ages cropped up. I think it's fair to say that  silver surfers dominate, and mature ones at that. But give them their due, they are a game bunch our for a bit of an adventure to the limits of their capabilities. The sobering fact was the discovery of a well used mortuary, one which contained no less than eight bodies at the end of the last trip! I assume that this crossing will be no different, bringing a mix of happiness and sadness in equal measure. There is also the mystery sounding of the horn at unexpected moments. We made enquiries about the reasons for this but the ship's officers would not elaborate leading us to suppose they are sounded as a mark of respect for the fallen. Either that or they're sounded in Hunger Games fashion ...!

Annoyingly I have picked up Helen's cold so while she assures me that it's not terminal I'm not at the top of my game and this is limiting my enthusiasm to do anything much more than read, sleep and eat. However, we were enticed to extend our opera experience with a 3D screening of Carmen filmed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. This was a fabulous 2.5 hour unabridged version with a series of well known songs following each other but I have to conclude that anyone daft enough to follow a floosie like Carmen should realise that her affections will always be fleeting at best.

I like Carmen.

Tonight we move back to smart casual after two nights in black tie (not that I actually own a black tie) with the dining room bucking up and down, offering a real "at sea" experience for the first time. 

Overnight we will cross the mid Atlantic ridge and will mark the half way point in this epic journey. It's hard not to think of all the people who made this journey before air flight came to pass, or the wartime supply convoys which inched their way across these remote waters. These days this is the only liner which undertakes a scheduled and rather lonely crossing and whilst it has lots of life boats, I really wouldn't fancy making use of them

Sunday 1 November 2015

The Grand Banks (3)

The Grand Banks
Tuesday 13th Oct

Another calm clear day with blue sky and calm seas and warm late summer airs. I know that today we head north to Newfoundland, passing just north of the wreck of the Titanic, to the southern limit of ice berg territory and given the warmth of both the  air and the sea It's hard to imagine we will see one, let alone collide.

A typical North Atlantic view

The state rooms don't come with a kettle or anything but why worry when there is complimentary room service? This is. Little slice of Art Deco paradise where there is one staff member to every two guests and every one of them is focused on our happiness and well being, particularly Larry, our porter who always calls me "sir Andrew", watches for our coming and going and sorts our room whilst we are away. He even spied Helen in her finery last night exclaiming "ooh, lovely lady in red". Give the man a house point!

Hmm, did I say clear and calm? As I type this at 11.30pm it's blowing a hooley out there and the boat it starting to pitch about in a distinct cross swell. 

 Lady in red

We managed a one mile promenade around the deck this morning (three laps) and Helen's pedometer indicates three miles overall which isn't bad, but short of visiting the gym it's tricky to get much exercise. Instead we attended a lecture about managing cold cases from a retired policeman which was fairly interesting followed by a slow waltz dance class  let by the inimitable Sergey and Olga which was very full and which we dipped out of after 40 mins. The afternoon was mostly spent reading, which is a rare luxury in a normally hectic life, followed by dressing up for some formal photos. We did have some taken last night but as they were only head and shoulders shots Helen donned her posh red ballgown again just for the shoot, then changed into a cocktail outfit and had a whole load more taken - the sacrifices we make for a few decent images!

We had another formal dinner after the Captains cocktail reception and paid the ballroom another visit later on, but the crush on the dance floor was intimidating and we gave it up as a bad job.

Friday 30 October 2015

Life on the ocean wave (2)

Life on the ocean wave
Monday 12th Oct

Today sees us heading north along, but out of sight of, Boston. I guess the shore is out there somewhere over the horizon I can see as I type this in our state room, but all I can see is a calm sea stretching out to infinity. From what I can gather we go north to the edge of the ice line and then turn East following the old trade route which tracks the Gulf Stream all the way to Europe 2500 miles away.

Life on board is punctuated by mealtimes, each one marking the passage of time. In between there is as much or as little you like to take part in, which this morning is not a lot! 

Helen is a bit of a research freak, a habit which can pay dividends. As we boarded she insisted that we seek out the launderette and wash the stuff we had worn in New York, as the facilities are usually very busy. Sure enough to there was no one there so we loaded up and went to the explore. 45 mins later we returned to find a queue - good call Mrs T!

Helen is loaded with Cunard paper and has embarked on an epic letter writing spree ( I think Bones is the first beneficiary)  and devoid of acceptably priced Internet access am writing up the blog off line for publication on our return.

After a genteel breakfast in the Britannia Restaurant we explored some of the ship, taking in the library and bookshop where additional reading matter was sourced. Ship board routine includes a one hour time change every day at noon so suddenly 12.00 became 1.00 and time for lunch - our waistlines are going to suffer!

After the hustle of New York, the sedate pace of life on the boat takes a bit of adjustment. There is little we have to do except amuse ourselves and be ready for the next main event, which usually involves food. Tonight it was the 175 Ball preceded by the first formal dinner but disaster struck in the shape of a chipped toenail! Oh no.... Who you gonna call? That's right, nail busters or to be more accurate the health spa who soon diagnosed a full pedicure before reaching for the nail varnish match pots and repairing the damage! Let's not even mention the fee they charged but I understand that there was a 5 percent uptick on the Cunard share price....

Whilst Helen was being pampered I took myself off to the cinema located in the bows, killing a couple of hours watching the new Jurassic Park film (complete re run of the original) before returning to find Helen fully decked out in her glorious red ball gown. She looked stunning, more beautiful than I had ever seen her before so I jumped into my dinner jacket and looking like aristocracy, we made our way to Deck 2 where the social action happens. We imbibed in cocktails, taking in the ballroom which is set into the stern before joining our allotted table at 8.30pm for another great meal which stretched out for a leisurely two hours before Helen's cold caught up with her and it was time to retire for the night.

It's a tough life, innit?

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Manhattan transfer

Manhattan Transfer
Sunday 11th Oct 2015

We crawled back to the apartment at gone 1.00am having imbibed several G&T's at the production company's expense and were treated to the cacophony of Times Square on a Saturday night. New York is not the place for quiet!

Our home in New York

Today is the big day when we transfer from Midtown to the Queen Mary 2 in Brooklyn, a journey which took us over the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge from which we achieved a first view of the ship which will carry us home to England. The sight from the bridge cried out for a photo but this was hampered by the speed of the taxi and the metalwork of the structure. I resorted to simply lining up the shot and taking lots of images till I got one clear view!

QM2 from the Brooklyn Bridge

Embarkation was quick and easy and within about 40 mins we found ourselves entering the central stairway on one of the world's most impressive liners. She may be 10 years old but QM2 is one stylish lady, carrying over 2,400 passengers and 1,200 crew is sumptuous style. Well, maybe the crew don't get the full style treatment but from a guest perspective its attentive service all the way with nothing being too much trouble.

 Our home for the next week

Our balcony state room mid ships on deck 11 and a half bottle of champagne awaited our arrival which was soon quaffed and followed by a buffet in the Kings Court.

It's important to appreciate that this isn't really a cruise. This is a trans Atlantic crossing and is used by many who have the time (and money) to undertake the passage in the style of years gone bye. There is something very timeless about an ocean crossing, leisurely movement across a vast ocean at a very human pace. 

New York Harbour at dusk

As we will be out of sight of land for the next six days it seemed important to witness our departure from New York Harbour from the observation deck, just in from of the huge red funnel. The problem were the missing passengers who became stranded on a broken down tour bus which delayed our departure for over an hour. But this had an upside in that the Statue of Liberty was illuminated as we passed by and there was a great view of Manhattan just after sunset. I did see us pass under the suspension bridge, but only in the darkness from our balcony as we prepared for our 8.30 pm dinner.

And so we end our first day aboard with six more stretching out ahead. Cunard put on lots of entertainment but I am not sure how much we will engage with but there is a fine library and I can see me devouring several books in the next few days.

The sun sets on our New York experience

Monday 26 October 2015

Of Cabbages and Kings

Of Cabbages and Kings
October 2015

I have to admit that I like this title which I dreamed up in a theatre waiting for the aptly titled King Charles 3rd to start, but more of that later.

We had unfinished business with MoMA so we picked up breakfast from a street vendor and were there at 10.30. Helen is more the one for modern art, so rather than interfere in her musings we separated and I wandered around alone. Some of the art is interesting but some of the stuff is barking mad and the artists must have been on wacky backy to come up with their odd ball canvases. 

Whilst I still think Mark Rothco had a weird fixation with sash windows, it was interesting to see a couple of his works in the flesh and I was interested to see examples of Picasso, Monet and Dali's works in reality.

I was more interested in the pop art of Hockney et al, but seeing about 50 images of Campbell's soup all together made me wonder if he had been at the weed as well!

With several attractions still on our pass we went up the Empire State, an Art Deco masterpiece which offered a really good sight of the Chrysler Building and, more excitingly, a first glimpse of the Cunard berth in Brooklyn Terminal.

We wandered back to the apartment via Broadway and discovered that it had been given over to a huge street market selling loads of street food, cheap tee shirts and trinkets - a perfect souvenir hunting ground. Oddly, all the planters in the area are full of vegetables, particularly cabbages. There are carefully tended and completely left alone by the public - and I attracted some odd stares when I started to sample the types on offer! Clearly the concept of Gorilla Gardening hasn't caught on here yet!

But the day kept its best for last. We had tickets for the 1st premier of King Charles 3rd and made sure we were there in good time to bag our seats in a sell out house. The show has recently transferred from London and it was both engaging and funny, looking at what could happen if Charles came to the throne and then decided to use his position to interfere in Government. The scenario unfolds within a script  with realisticly portrayals of the royals, led on by Tim Piggott Smith as Charles. Let's just say that the audience left the theatre buzzing so it bodes well for a good run on Broadway.

But that's not all. Miles Richardson invited us along to the first night drinks reception, so we hob nobbed with the luvvies, Helen being a complete theatrical tart and getting introduced to Tim  P S. The cast were a really interesting bunch and the event really rounded off a fascinating five days in New York. 

In reality we barely scratched the city, never seeing Greenwich village, SoHo or TriBeCa, but it's good to leave something for another day. Tomorrow we board the Queen Mary 2 and start a long and elegant trip home across the Atlantic. It's boating Jim, but not as we know it!