Paddington’s Bench

There are a ton of colourful new benches all over London right now. Fifty of them in all. Each one decorated in the theme of a book. A specific book. There was only one that I really wanted to see. I didn’t look for it, but life is full of funny coincidences an surprises. The first book bench we saw was the book bench. Paddington Bear. The original Latin American illegal immigrant in the UK. A trendsetter. Years ahead of his time, with Mrs P following, legally, in his pawsteps. His TV series is decades old, but every bit as enchanting today as it ever was.

We are big fans of Paddington Bear. He’s a true English icon and worthy of his bench. We’re pleased to have sat on it. I’d like to buy it. Once the display is done, the benches are all being auctioned off. I suspect my bid will fall short. I would have liked to have seen a John Le Carre bench too. He has been my favourite British author of the last 20 years. Alas, he has none. Or if he does, one needs the help of the great masterspy Smiley to find it. And you? Is there a deserving author that has entertained you that is worthy of a bench?

What’s In A Wallet?

In short, not as much cash as I’d like. But the reality is, I rarely have any cash any more. This isn’t a poverty issue. This is a plastic issue. All my wonga is held in the two debit cards in my wallet. And in an emergency I have two MasterCards and a Visa credit card to spend the money I don’t (yet) have. But this isn’t a post about cash or credit cards. It’s about all the rest of the stuff that pads my wallet into a pocket bursting brick of plastic.

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So let’s see what we got here. A Tastecard for 2for1 dining. A PayPal MasterCard that I’ve never used, but might do one day. A House of Fraser loyalty card, used once. But it has some points on it now, so I’m reluctant to chuck it, even though I know the points probably barely add up to a pack of Polos. My Odeon cinema loyalty card does get used. There’s a Waitrose, Tesco and Nectar card. My National Trust membership card. My Next store card. My driving license. A Subway points card, my Oyster card to use the London Underground and a Costa Coffee loyalty card for those essential caffeine breaks.

Oh, and a Gala casino members card in case I want to gamble away all the money I don’t have. There’s a Carnaby Street card with a map of the Underground on it. And a crisp £1 note. Yes, a note. Really. I still have one. I’m that tight. There’s a packet of six second class stamps in there to reinforce that point.  A pair of vouchers for discount Subways and cinema tickets. This is my lightweight wallet. It just about fits all 20 cards (plus a couple of pics of Mrs P) uncomfortably in my back jeans pocket. In my drawer at home is my grown up wallet with another multitude of cards.

For the love of <your chosen deity>, will someone please invent a single card that one can load all these other cards on to. Pretty please. Sitting on a solid wedge of plastic is a right pain in the bum.

I bought a Fuji X-M1

I have a new camera. I’ve been looking for a while, I’ve been tormented and teased but I have finally taken the plunge. And it’s not one of the cameras I was directly looking at. But it was the sensible choice. I’m sure I’ll be uploading a ton of photos soon and will have more to write about my new purchase. But for today, I’ll just explain why I bought the X-M1, which becomes the 10th digital camera I’ve ever owned after an unknown Sanyo, a Nikon Coolpix 880 and 8800, a Fuji V10, a Panasonic TZ5 and FZ35, a Fuji HS10, an Olympus E-PL1 and a Fuji X-S1.

The Check List

Any new camera I bought had to meet a few essential requirements. It was going to be a Compact System Camera. I don’t want the bulk of a DSLR, or a bridge camera for that matter. I want my camera to do more than a compact is capable of. It also had to have an APS sized sensor. The Micros Four Thirds cameras are very good. Some argue there’s little between them. But bigger is better in this case, and that narrowed my choices down to Fuji, Sony and Samsung. I’m not a Samsung camera fan. So, really, it was down to Fuji and Sony.

I want a small body. This time, it’s the smaller the better. No one does small as well as Sony. But the X-M1 is pretty diminutive. I wanted GPS geo tagging. The X-M1 does this. Sort of. You need to do it with a smartphone, via a special Fuji app. It’s not the perfect solution, and I’d prefer a built in GPS unit. But it works. I also wanted an electronic viewfinder. Alas, this is where the Fuji fails. But sometimes you have to compromise, and this is where I do just that. I can live with the pretty decent tilt-able LCD monitor. Finally – image quality. It has to be fantastic at taking photos.

Social Media

I do my research before I buy I camera. I know what I want it to do, how much I have to spend and what models are in the market place. I use Flickr’s camera finder (see the X-M1 by clicking here) and photography review sites. Not every photography blog ‘gets’ the X-M1. Most bemoan its missing viewfinder. But some harp on about filters, features and fancy bits and pieces as deal breakers.They are not. Not for me. Camera Labs is an example. Others, such as Photography Blog focuses more on the image quality. Many will point out that it offers a noise free experience comparable to, if not better than, some full frame DSLR models.

The X-M1 delivers the same excellent image quality as its big and more expensive brothers. Noise is noticeable only by its almost complete absence throughout the ISO range of 100-25,600, while the Dynamic Range function helps to boost contrast and detail. The new 16-50mm lens is also worthy of mention, as although it has a cheaper build quality, it still offers sharp results throughout the focal range. The X-M1 is certainly right up there with the best APS-C sensor cameras on the market, and some full-frame models too, so if image quality at an affordable price is paramount, the X-M1 certainly fits the bill.

 

Brand Loyalty

I’ve owned nine camera previously, and enjoyed them all. But some, of course, more than others. There is that hard to measure sense of satisfaction that things can give you. Truth be told, the Fuji HS10 and the Fuji X-s1 are the two most satisfying cameras I’ve ever owned. They were a joy to use, both of them. The features, the image quality, the ease of use. It counts. A lot. They’ve both played a big part in my plumping for another Fuji.

I also like how this Fuji looks. It is, on paper, the least important specification of them all. But the design of the camera is hugely important. If it looks good, you’re pleased to be seen with it, to take it out and to get shooting. Fuji has also got a good track record in putting out software updates to fix older models and get them working properly, rather than simply replacing them with new models. Again, that counts.As does the fact that Fuji now has a fairly mature and high quality range of lenses available.

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The Deal

There’s one more key factor in any purchase. The deal. Not necessarily the price. Most of us would pay more for the right package. Value for money is key. This is where I would answer the question, why not a Sony a6000? The Sony has a better feature set, for sure. It’s also a couple of hundred pounds more. Why not the XE-2? It’s beautiful camera and if I was a little richer, that’s the one I’d have gone for. But then, for a two lens deal I’d have shelled out a stonking £1,200. Albeit for two really top quality lenses. There’s the older Fuji XE-1 too. If you could actually buy that model anymore from the dealers I’d buy from, it would have been a candidate. But stocks are running out.

The Fuji X-M1’s price has tumbled. I picked it up for a paltry £386. And to sweeten the deal, I get a free zoom lens too, that would normally set you back about £300 plus.  How does one say no to that? Well…I didn’t. I said yes please.

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I will tell you more about my shiny new Fuji over the next few weeks, months and years. I’ll let you know what my first impressions of the camera are, and compare it to my outgoing friend the Olympus E-PL1. And there’s be plenty of photos. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. Hopefully. Till then, I’ll leave you with Photo Number One. The first shot taken with the X-M1 and uploaded to Flickr. It’s a very appropriate welcoming shot for my new friend…

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London Parks

London is the world’s largest urban forest. True fact. Apparently. I can believe it. There are parks and woodlands everywhere, and the account for about 20% of the total area of Greater London. They are there for the residents more than for the tourists, although the famous London parks will see plenty of foreign footfall. They are a respite from the traffic, the fumes and noise and bustle of everyday city life. I worked for a while in Gloucester Road, South Kensington, and liked to go up to Kensington Gardens after work on a sunny weekday afternoon. I sat underneath a tree and read my way through John Le Carre’s ‘The Russia House‘. I don;t remember which summer it was, but it was a long, hot one. I know this because the book was a long, long read and I did finish it, eventually, under that tree. I have a few photos of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park – click here.

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Riches to Rags

Some properties have some very fanciful addresses. But most are based around the often pretentious naming of the property itself. The White House. Buckingham Palace. Windsor Castle. But these grand names often hide more mundane postal addresses. Such as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With Apseley House, this is quite the other way round. This rather grand property can be mailed at Number 1, London. Is there a more pompous address anywhere else in the world? I don’t know. If you do, let me know,

Number 1, London was home to Arthur Wellesley. More familiarly known as the Duke of Wellington, oft referred to as the Iron Duke. He was a general, a Prime Minister and a national hero. Never defeated on the battlefield, his exploits combined with his naval contemporary, Nelson, put Britain on the path to Imperial riches. Number 1, London is home to some of the looted riches he took and was awarded.

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They do say that the bigger you are, the harder you fall. The British Empire expanded into a vast global enterprise in the second half of the 1800s. It was always bound to end badly. A tiny island cannot forever maintain control of a third of the world’s population while fighting off the imperial ambitions of rival European powers. The French and Spanish were done for. The new Germanic state was another matter entirely. There was no great need for Britain to enter World War 1, other than to try and see off the Hun and maintain the UK’s dominance of the seas, of trade and of wealth production.

It turned out that that was reason enough, and the final consequences of Wellington’s triumphs can been seen at the Tower of London. An altogether older, more famous and grander property just down the Thames, the Tower is currently home to a growing exhibition. Ceramic red poppies are being planted in the moat. By the time they have completed the job, in November, there will be 800,000 odd poppies. In memory of the 800,000 odd Brits who perished in WW1, trying to keep the Iron Dukes ill gotten gains.

It’s already an impressive site. Click here to see the full photo set of Number 1 London and the poppies at the Tower of London. Sadly, interior photography in Apseley House is not permitted.

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The Royal Navy Submarine Museum

Once upon a time I wanted to be a palaeontologist.  I must have been 11 or 12. I liked dinosaurs, I liked digging holes in the ground and I liked puzzles. I also felt that having any sort of career with ‘ologist’ at the end could only be a good thing. There was also the sadist in me, looking forward to taunting people who couldn’t spell the word palaeontologist.  I never did become a palaeontologist. It turned out that one needed to study for more years than I was prepared to do and that I only liked digging holes so deep. I’ve also discovered that some ologists, some as scientologists, are not such a great thing. And computers came along with their dastardly auto correct spelling feature dashed my hopes of faulting my friends spelling.

I moved on to a new dream. I wanted to join the Royal Navy. It was more realistic, offered the chance to see the four corners of the world and is traditionally a very sound career choice for a 17 year old Brit. I sent off for my application pack, filled it out, stuffed it in the envelope and per chance went on a sea fishing trip before I got to post them. I was very sea sick. Not a little, but very. I didn’t feel right for two weeks and couldn’t fish on a canal without getting nauseous for two years. I didn’t step on another boat for about fifteen years, until a trip in Nicaragua. Most people get their sea legs after a few days or weeks. Some, like Charles Darwin, are simply ill for the full duration. Which boat would I be in? I didn’t want to find out. I never did join the Royal Navy.

But I still have a fascination for the Royal Navy. I recently went to see the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Portsmouth. There are a lot of naval museums and ships in Portsmouth. I’d already seen HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. But not the Submarine museum, and seeing as they’ve just recently opened their all new, prize exhibit – well, it seemed worth the trip. The exhibit is HMS Alliance, the last remaining British submarine from World War Two.

The museum is also home to Britain’s first ever submarine, a diminutive and rather rusted little undersea demon. You can venture inside both subs. HMS Alliance is an impressively complicated beast, with pipes, handles, dials and switches from floor to ceiling along its entire length. You’re welcomed aboard by a uniformed and suitably bearded old sailor who once called the boat home. It’s nice to have a short introduction and explanation of life aboard a boat by someone who actually served on it.

Submarines are notoriously cramped creatures of the deep. It wasn’t quite as cramped as I had assumed. Sure, there were plenty of opportunities for me to whack my skull on metal, but I could stand up straight with a few inches to spare. But life as a submariner was never my cup of tea. In the end I switched allegiances to the RAF, and did actually manage to get in. Although that was not a long lived career choice either. I have plenty more photos on Flickr of the submarine and Portsmouth, of course. Just click here.

If ever you have the chance to visit the Submarine Museum, you’ll need to catch a boat across the harbour. There is a free waterboat on offer to ticket holders, but you must have a ticket for the entire Historic Dockyard. A simple Submarine museum ticket will not do. The boat runs hourly and is often full. My suggestion, regardless as to whether or not you have the full ticket,  would be to catch the Gosport Ferry that is near the train station. It isn’t free, but for £3.10 you get a return ticket on a more spacious vessel that runs every 7 and a half minutes at peak times, every 15 minutes off peak.

My dreams of being a palaeontologist, Royal Navy seaman and RAF air traffic controller were never fully realised. I did fulfil one dream though, and lived abroad teaching English for a few years. Some dreams do come true. But reality is what it is. I never dreamt of a career selling home insurance to the over 50’s.

A Century of Remembering

Already this year there have been several important dates commemorating the centenary of World War I. Today is the special date for Britain. A hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. Arguably, it was today in 1914 that a potentially localised European war turned into a full scale global conflict. There are lots of events taking place across the country and on the battlefields in France and Belgium. Lest we forget.

There’s little chance anyone will forget. Every town, village and hamlet has a war memorial with the names of the dead of 1914 to 1918 engraved upon them. Other institutions like train stations and Royal Mail offices have their own plaques. Bournemouth has a rather grand memorial in the gardens, which I cycle past on most days. I cycled past this evening and took a photo.

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In the gardens today there were youngsters from all over Europe playing football. On the grass, not across trenches. After school or work, not during a ceasefire. The airship in the background is a balloon to provide tourists with a view, not a Zeppelin dropping bombs on civilians. I came home from the gardens to find a letter from the government. It was about my right to vote, not conscription papers.

I’m glad to be alive in 2014 rather than 1914. The young men of 1914 would probably disagree. Adventure was in the air. The survivors of 1918 would probably come round to my point of view. They were just glad to be alive at all, I’m sure. To be able to join in the annual rituals of remembrance. Alas, around the world today in Ukraine, Israel, great swathes of Africa and elsewhere, the futility of war is forgotten and ignored. But we will be able to remember them next year.

 

 

 

Year of Mexico in the UK

And simultaneously, it will be the Year of the UK in Mexico. It’s a plan, and everyone’s invited. It’s one of those wishy washy government level type cultural exchanges that are all jolly well and good, but fairly limited in scope beyond getting a few big wigs together for a bit of a pow-wow over a drop of tequila or pint of beer. To be fair, this is bigger and grander than most of these sorts of affairs.

Mexico is even going to be graced by a flying visit from Prince Charles. This will be his fourth trip, believe it or not. Dear old Carlos, he’s a misunderstood soul. He’s inherited so much and will continue to do so, right up to the point when he inherits the whole of the UK. But there’s a flip side to this. He’s also got his mother’s nasal drawl and his father’s sense of humour. Worse still, he’s got the family crown. Not the shiny jewelled gold one you wear. The balding one that you don’t.

One does hope that he manages to keep some of his thoughts to himself though. His last visit was included in a documentary. One probably shouldn’t refer to a family prepared dish as ‘a plate of decomposed sheep‘. And suggesting to the little girl if the Mexican postal service is ‘not very good, is it‘ probably wasn’t tactful either. Maybe she had the last laugh. Mexicans are entrepreneurs, and those envelopes were probably stuffed full of cocaine. She had discovered the world’s most secure drug distribution model. Maybe.

This did have me thinking though. Has the Queen herself ever visited Mexico. Indeed she has, it turns out. In 1975, exactly thirty years before I began my own Mexico-UK cultural exchange programme. It seems it was quite a big event over in Mexico, and it still exists on video. Good ole YouTube, eh? It was the first ever visit to Mexico by a British monarch, and it was repeated in 1981. Given the Queen’s age, I suspect there will be no more trips. But why do they insist on calling her Isabel? I mean seriously, I know plenty of ladies in Mexico called Elizabeth. It’s not an unknown name there.

Mexican relations with the UK have mostly been good. Sure, there was a little testiness when Mexico nationalised their oil industry. There was the time that a few British warships turned up in Veracruz to collect some unpaid debts.  There was also a small argument over who got to govern British Honduras, aka Belize. Top Gear appears to have caused some friction too, in more recent years.

But we were the first of Europe’s powers to recognise Mexico’s Independence. We also supported them in the Pastry War. To be fair, this was probably done more out of spite to Spain and France rather than any real goodwill toward Mexico. But still, you take what you can get. In return, Mexico supported the UK, albeit secretly, during the Falklands War. Again, probably out of spite towards Argentina. All is fair in love and war. Enjoy the video.

 

 

The Vyne House

Sunny summer Sundays. You’ve gotta love them. And there’s nothing better than slipping off into the countryside to find a new National Trust estate to explore. This week? The Vyne, near Basingstoke. Which is home to a fantasy story within a fantasy world of yore. The Vyne is one of the best estates we’ve visited. That the weather was so fine always helps. There’s a fabulous lake, manicured lawns, a walled kitchen garden, a summer house with a refreshingly cool interior and the obligatory flower beds.

Of course, there’s also a grand old piece of architecture – the centrepiece of the whole estate. This particular example of Tudor bricks and mortar dates back to the 16th century and has seen many famous folk plant their footsteps down its hallowed halls. Even Henry VIII, god bless his rather twisted soul.

But the Vyne has more than the normal batch of tales of treachery, lust and loot. In one corner of the home is a glass display cabinet, slowly rotating. Inside the twirling case sits a ring. It’s an old ring, but that isn’t what makes it famous. It’s a Roman ring, but that’s still secondary to this ring’s importance. That it is solid gold makes it worth something, but adds naught to the story.

Once upon a long ago, when the ring was found, it had a story. It had a curse placed on it. But that it had a story is still not why the ring has such a prominent place in the public eye. It was the story it would inspire that is the key to its fame. Well, allegedly. What we do know is that a young chap by the name of JRR Tolkein, at the time a professor at Oxford University, studied this very ring and the story of the curse. Two years later he published a book. the Lord of the Rings.

Was the Vyne’s Roman ring the inspiration for Tolkeins ring? Who can say for sure. Mr Tolkein kept it to himself. So it’s a nice story that may or may not be true. I like to think that there’s at least an element of truth to the tale. There’s some photos of our day out at the Vyne below. But there’s plenty more on Flickr – click here. Did you notice how I didn’t use any filters? I thought I’d give them a miss for once. Then a few minutes later, I changed my mind and knocked up a few filters shots in a different set.

 

What Would You Do? #awkward

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Dear Israel,

I’m so glad you asked. And you’ve certainly come to the right people. After all, we’ve been in the business of colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and disproportionate retaliation for ten times longer than your nation has been recorded on the world map. We are, no doubts about it, the experts. So what would we do if someone fired a barrage of rockets that whizzed harmlessly over Big Ben and landed in a field several miles outside of London? Ok, I’ll bite. Some people will suggest I’m not taking this seriously. There’s Hamas launching thousands of munitions into empty desert. And there’s Israel bombing the world’s biggest, most densely populated bomb crater with everything it’s got. You’re both nuts. I may need some convincing  to take either of you seriously.

There’s a part of me that wants to take the moral high ground. But that’s a tough position to take. To be fair, we have only just got our armed forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the former of which we invaded just in case they had some sort of rocket with a dodgy warhead. We didn’t even wait for one to be fired. Heck, we didn’t even check that they had built one. Given that we completely trashed both countries and left countless people dead…well, I won’t take the moral high ground.

So surely there are some examples from our long and illustrious history that will give you the answer you’re looking for. Perhaps World War II? The Germans launched a ton of bombs and rockets at London and other cities, and we completely annihilated them for it. I mean, we properly smashed Germany up. Gaza City looks like paradise compared to how we left Dresden. But, to be fair, we did at least make some sort of effort to make peace before it all went tits up. We did offer them the land that they wanted. Admittedly, it wasn’t technically our land we gave them. It was Czechoslovakia. But still, the effort was there. Good intentions and all that. So this isn’t the best example you might have been hoping for.

Well, there was the Boer War. A bunch of rag tag guerillas popping out of nowhere and shooting at us! Varmits. We sorted them out pretty quick. We rounded the bloody lot of them up, every woman and child, and stuck them in this new invention of ours, the concentration camp. Before you knew it…wait, I can see this one might not go down so good. Let’s move on…

How about this old country we knocked about in the aftermath of WW2? It was called Palestine, although it doesn’t exist any more. We just strolled on in, took it over and changed its name to Transjordan. We had a fine old time till the natives got too unruly and some recently arrived terrorists turned up and started committing atrocities. We did the sensible thing and went back where we came from and let some other bunch of mugs have a go. Good luck to them, we said! I wonder how that worked out. It…what…it was you? Oops…let’s move swiftly on…

Ok, I know! Northern Ireland. Perfect example! We marched in there hundreds of years ago, divided and conquered. Planted a ton of our own people. We operated a system akin to apartheid, denied them basics such as food and let the whole situation fester for generations. Then when it kicked off, we hunted the bad guys down, shot them or locked them up and built big fat walls to keep them out. Although, I guess, when all was said and done, the situation just went from bad to worse until we sat down and talked and worked out a compromise which gave the Catholics decent representation, opportunity and a share of the wealth. So…er…you don’t want to go this route I guess.

I give up. A thousand years of bombing, torturing, baby killing, ethnic cleansing and we really can’t give you a single example where it truly worked out over the long term. In fact, Jesus, why the hell are you asking us?!? Why do you want to know what we would do? If you do find out, do the bloody opposite. Have you not looked at a world map and seen how screwed up it is wherever we went? I mean, we even actually kinda invented you….

Don’t do what we would do. Everyone hates us, Mr Israel. The EU won’t let us choose the next European president. FIFA won’t give us a World Cup and the only reason we got the Olympics a couple of years ago is because our main rival was France, who are crap. So for the love of God, or whoever it is that you’re a fan of, don’t ask what we would do.

Grammar School

I have a not-so-secret compulsive disorder. I admit it. I can’t help myself. If you hand me a piece of paper with writing on it, I will automatically check it for spelling errors, grammatical issues and general literary coherency.  And then I will mark it and return it. I may also correct pronunciation or suggest better vocabulary options during conversations.  I have been told that this is annoying. Very annoying. And that I should stop it. But I can’t help myself. It is a disorder, you see. A condition that I picked up in Mexico. After all, for six years, that was all I did. Day in, day out. Correcting people in their use of the English language.

It’s not that I am perfect. I’m not. I could be, perhaps. Well, almost perfect. If I tried a little harder. I do know the rules of English grammar, mas o menos. But still, I’m not perfect. My blog posts would frequently benefit from a little proofreading, for example. I regularly refuse to use the possessive apostrophe correctly. I often start sentences with ‘and’, which is technically a no-no. And I am as prone to the odd typo as anyone. That my keyboard is getting a bit sticky, especially the letter ‘d’, doesn’t help.

I also waffle. This is clearly in evidence with my blog posts. I should just leave them unpublished for 24 hours, come back to them, re-read them and then make further corrections. They would end up half the length, twice as informative and free from any linguistic faux pas. I understand that this is how a real author would work. First draft, second draft etc etc. But I don’t do that. I don’t have the time or patience. Perhaps I just don’t care. I go tappity tappity tap on the keyboard, hit the publish button and then face palm myself, quite vigorously, later in the day when I spot the glaring mistake.

Some grammatical errors do get my goat though. I will never let someone get away with writing ‘should of‘ instead of ‘should have‘. Or at the very least, ‘should’ve‘. I mastered this at the age of seven. My English teacher would throw a stick of chalk at the head of an offender. A teaching method that was effective. I was never on the receiving end of the chalk, but it looked painful enough when it hit someone else. It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s even better to learn from someone else’s. I understand that throwing chalk is these days considered assault, rather than a teaching aid.

I must confess that, as much as I approve the throwing of chalk, I did not do so during my time as an English teacher. I preferred sarcasm. In a nice way. I still utilise sarcasm, sometimes borderline mockery, when correcting errors. As I mentioned earlier,  I’m told that this is annoying. That I should stop. Maybe I should. Or maybe my friends and colleagues should brush up on their language skills. There’s the solution! If they stop making mistakes, I’ll stop correcting them. Everyone will be happy. Alternatively, perhaps I should simply start charging for my linguistic services again…

 

Buying Money

Money goes to money, so the saying goes. It’s a key feature of capitalism, both its biggest driver and drawback. London is built on the principle of buying money. Some call it investing. Others refer to it as gambling. It’s a bit of both, I’m sure. I’m not much of a gambler. I am risk averse. I play life safe, perhaps too safe. But I do like buying money when it’s on offer. Londoners with lots of money gamble on the stock exchange. Those with more limited means chase bigger odds with the bookies.

Over the last couple of years, the amount of money Britons have been gambling online has soared. It’s really, really noticeable. Gambling was once the domain of the high street bookmakers, punters wagering on the outcome of horse or greyhound racing. Or the football pools, largely run by Littlewoods. Now friends and colleagues in far greater numbers have the latest apps on their phones ready to put a pound or two on football matches. During the World Cup, everyone went a bit crazy. It’s not entirely surprising, given the bombardment of TV ads. Poor Ray Winstone. He used to be a half decent actor before he sold his soul to the devil.

I don’t like to gamble. I tell friends that if they want to get into gambling and win, then open a bookmakers. But I do like to buy money. Who doesn’t. The competition between bookmakers has been so fierce that they’ve been giving away crazy odds as introductory offers. Download their app, deposit some cash and they’ll give you a one time gift of enhanced odds and or a free bet.

Here’s the trick. Don’t bet money you can’t afford to lose. Take the bookies offer. Withdraw the cash. Delete the app. Move on to the next introductory offer. It’s not that there’s no risk at all. But the deals were good. Argentina to beat Bosnia at 4/1? I’ll have some of that. So did Mrs P. We put down the maximum of £10 each. Of course Argentina won. So did we. Thank you Mr Coral for the £80. And goodbye.

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Another bookmaker later gave me some free money for Germany overcoming Algeria. That added £30 to my bank account. Yet another gave me odds of Brazil beating Colombia at 4/1. Thank you again. I lost only one intro offer, and that was a bet I couldn’t technically lose anyway. You see, I had also bet on Colombia to beat Brazil. I was going to be a winner either way. I left the tournament £80 up. Hardly a fortune. But nice anyway. Alas, most of my friends got carried away. At best, they broke even. That’s because none of them took my tip and opened up a bookmakers. They did very nicely indeed.

Anyway, that’s enough of the betting scourge. Who else were winners this World Cup? Germany, obviously. Colombia too, who have an awful lot more fans now. Their star player, James Rodriguez, was a winner and his bank account will soon reflect that. I spent the run up to the World Cup telling everyone he’s the best kid since Ronaldo or Messi hit the scene. They are believers now.

Finally there’s me. Again. Do you remember my pre-tournament prediction? I didn’t do so bad. I went for Germany beating Argentina in the final by one goal. I picked three of the four semi finalists. Although admittedly I did get a lot of the group results wrong. I was disappointed by the Ivory Coast. I really hoped they’d finally do something that reflects the talent in their squad. Russia and Croatia both disappointed to, although in my defence the Croatians lost one of their key players to injury just before the competition started. Still. I’m just left to wonder what the odds were on Germany beating Argentina before the whole thing kicked off….

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Bat Man of Mexico

Once upon a time, back in very early 2003, I took a look at Mexico. I knew little about the country. Desert, sombreros, tequila, two World Cups and a crime wave. I was looking for a TEFL course, and there was one in Guadalajara that was cheap. So I took a look at Mexico. There was, of course, an awful lot more to the country than I knew of. That’s not my fault. Mexico wasn’t (and Cancun apart, still isn’t) on the British radar.

One thing in particular caught my attention. A factoid, stating that Mexico was one of a small number of countries that contain a majority of the world’s flora and fauna. What the hell – in a desert?! It turns out that there’s plenty of jungle about too. I was intrigued. I carried on looking. The rest, as they say, is history.

The BBC had a fascinating documentary a couple of nights ago, all about one of the heroes who is trying to save Mexico’s incredible biodiversity. Specifically, bats. And by default, also tequila. It was a really enjoyable and informative programme. Mrs P was once one of those with a negative view of bats. Not any more. Rodrigo Medellin is a modern day, real life superhero. Truly the Bat Man of Mexico.

The show is on BBC iPlayer for the next five days at the time of writing. Click the link in the paragraph above. If you life outside the UK, you will probably need to know how to work a proxy server.  If not, then watch this completely unrelated documentary on the most insane animal on this planet, the Honey Badger. I’d like one as a pet.  Mrs P wouldn’t. Nor would my neighbours. Nor any other animal within a 25 mile radius.

The Definition of Football

Latin America is not a happy hunting ground for Germany. The last grand battle they faced in these waters finished when the sailors aboard the Graf Spee scuttled their own ship, rather than face defeat. But this time round, they came out all guns blazing, and it was their opponents who self destructed. Not since the French in 1940 has the world seen such a complete capitulation in the face of a German attack. And like the French, the humiliation was complete when the Brazilians decided to collaborate, providing standing ovations and oles as the Germans scored, teased and tormented their hapless opponents.

The totally unnecessary war references are there purely because, as a Brit, I am culturally obliged to relate any German success, or failure for that matter, to World War Two. And to mock the French. It’s what we do. On Tuesday we watched something special. Something for the ages. The Germans lived up to their stereotype in 90 minutes of slick, ruthless, even brutal efficiency. They truly blitzed the enemy, leaving them dazed and confused. And thoroughly beaten. To their credit, and unlike the French, the Brazilians didn’t surrender.

I am, of course, referring to the Germans 7 to 1 trouncing of Brazil in the first World Cup 2014 semi final. How does this game rank in the history of the sport? Football is a game with many facets, and for each facet that is game that is held as the prime example. A game that embodies a virtue, for good or bad, and that is remembered forever. A game that sets the standard by which all other games of that nature will be compared to. A game that is embedded into the global consciousness of the sport. Never to be forgotten. There are ten games which have shaped this sport. Here they are…

The Battle of Santiago

Sport is a competitive cauldron of testosterone fuelled men, determined to emerge triumphant. Sometimes competitors snap and lash out. Swing an elbow. A discreet headbutt. Or have a little nibble of someone’s shoulder. But the finest example of on-field physical combat came in Santiago during a game between Chile an Italy. Neither side left the field with their dignity intact. But the Italians departed with their reputation in tatters. The first foul occured after just twelve seconds. The first sending off, for a punch, after 12 minutes. Technically he was sent off. In reality he was dragged off the pitch by police, having refused to go for an early shower. The police were forced to intervene several more times as fists continued to fly. The referee, an Englishman, did little to intervene. He did go on to invent the yellow and red card though.

 

The Russian Linesman

Dodgy offside calls, missed fouls, wrongly given or ruled out goals – the poor referee and his linesmen have long been getting it in the neck for getting things wrong. But the grand daddy of dubious decision belongs to a Russian. Actually, he wasn’t Russian. He was from Azerbaijan. But everyone thinks he was Russian. In 1966 at Wembley, in extra time of a thrilling final between England and Germany, Geoff Hurst thundered a shot against the underside of the bar and over the line. Or not over the line. No one really knows. It will never be settled one way or the other. The referee wasn’t sure. But the Russian linesman, he was sure. He waved his flag, had a chat to the ref and the goal was given. England went on to score another, Geoff Hurst netting his third, the only hat-trick ever scored in a final.

 

The Shock

A David versus Goliath battle always catches the imagination. When David wins…well, you’d write a chapter for a book about it, wouldn’t you. At the very least. There are plenty of candidates for shock results. England’s defeat by the USA in Brazil 1950 sent shock waves through the world of football. But perhaps the honour of the greatest shocks belongs to North Korea. The communists out east played a starring role in the World Cup in England. But before the Russian linesman got to take to the stage, a team of North Korean no-hopers took on the might of Italy.  A beat them.

The Match of the Century

The 1970 tournament in Mexico was the the tournament that just kept on giving. Early on, the two giants of the game at the time played a fabulous match. England were the reigning champions, taking on the favourites Brazil. The game is famous for the greatest save ever made, one of the finest tackles and an iconic photo of two true champions embracing in an era when sport was still sport.

But this was not the Match of the Century. That came in the semi final. To be fair, the first 90 minutes were very ordinary. Dull, even. But with extra time under way, the two giants of European football slugged it out, trading blow for blow. Video fails to catch the drama, tension and fear that enveloped the game as it headed towards a goal fest climax. Italy triumphed over the Germans and went through to the final.

Perhaps in hindsight they’d wish they hadn’t. Because…

The Beautiful Game

It is said that the English invented the game. And Brazil made it beautiful. Both statements are correct. The latter sentiment was etched into history in the final of the 1970 World Cup. A magnificent Brazil played the game how it should be played. The way you’d play in your dreams. With flair, daring, genius. The defensive fortress of Italy was put to the test by the finest attacking team in history. An immoveable object against an irresistible force. One had to give, and it was the Italians, swept aside by a relentless tide of green and yellow sporting gods. The fourth goal trascended normal sport. It was poetry in motion. Moving art. Pele, the conductor of a footballing orchestra of unsurpassed quality defined what football is, was and forever should be.

 

German Blitzkrieg

In American football, a blitz is a defined as an attack on a player as soon as the ball is snapped. He is charged and taken out of the game. This isn’t a move that is technically permitted in normal football. Not within the rules. Normally. How apt that it was a German who imported the move. There have been many moments of brutality on the football field, but no single incident springs so readily to mind that that inflicted on the French player Patrick Battiston by the German keeper Harald Schumacher.

Astonishingly, the referee failed to even so much as award a foul. How he felt that Battiston ended up on the floor unconscious with smashed up teeth and vertebrae – well, only he knows. The game itself was also a classic, decided on penalties after the sides had drawn 3-3 after the end of extra time.

 

Death of Football

Brazil made football beautiful. Their great teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970 have gone down in footballing folklore. They played with a sense of flair, panache and imagination that every other team in the world aspires to. They set the bar for footballing excellence. But it’s been a while since the Brazilians themselves have managed to field a team that comes close to reaching that bar.

The last time? That would be Spain in 1982. Zico, Socrates, Junior, Eder and Falcao provided an attacking force that lived up to all expectations. True, their defence was known to be a little suspect. But that shouldn’t have mattered. They sent ten goals flying past their three opponents in the first group stage.  In the second round group of three the comfortably despatched fierce rivals and reigning champions Argentina 3 to 1. Which left them needing just a single point from their second game in order to proceed to the semi finals.

It was to be another battle of traditional flair, wrapped in a Brazilian flag, against a functional, defensive Italian team spearheaded by Paolo Rossi – a player who should have been serving the final year of a three year ban for match fixing. What transpired was a game for the ages, but a horror show for the purist. And the death of football as it should be played. At least from a Brazilian perspective.

 

Hand of God

There is a fine line between madness and genius. And plenty of examples to prove the point. Diego Maradona being football’s prime example. When he wasn’t shooting up drugs or shooting at journalists, he was scoring the most sublime goals the game has seen. He was famed for single handedly dragging inferior teams to ultimate glory. Yet, he could also express the darker side of his nature of the pitch too.

In less that five minutes of mayhem and magic in the Estadio Azteca in 1986, he demonstrated both facets of his character. In a quarter final against England, fuelled into a fervently hostile clash thanks to the recent Falklands War, Maradona first cheated his way to a goal – the infamous Hand of God – and then scored the finest individual goal the tournament has ever seen. The rest, as they say, is history. And the World Cup was won a week or so later, and on a plane back to Buenos Airies.

 

The Comeback

Every game so far has been a World Cup games, featuring national teams. Not this one. But this one is special. It captured the imagination of football fans across the world. It is the very definition of a comeback. Sure, there have been games where a team has pulled back a greater deficit. But never on a stage this big. Never against a team of the likes of AC Milan. Never in the style of this Liverpool team.

What do you want from your game of football? Forty thousand screaming red fans? A giant and the underdog? A first half crushing that would demoralise your opponents and cast them into despair? A rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone as the teams return to the field for the second half. Seven minutes of insanity as the scores are brought level? Two ridiculously improbable saves? And to finish, the drama of a penalty shoot out. Check, check, check, check, check, check and check.

 

The Crying Game

And we come full circle, ending the post where I started it. With Brazil’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany. Yes, most other teams have suffered a humiliation from time to time. The Germans are still trying to forget being thumped 5-1 by England in their own Olympic stadium in 2002. In turn England are trying to forget about their German thumping four years ago. Or at least, we will remind you of the scandalously disallowed Lampard goal.

But this was a World Cup semi final. In Brazil’s own World Cup. With so much Brazilian hype prior to this game. To be fair, many people saw it coming. More than a month ago, when Brazil manager picked Jo and Fred over Ronaldinho, Kaka or Coutinho, the signs were there. Tactically they’ve been off. Going forward they were toothless. They were fortunate to get a result against Croatia, were held easily by Mexico, and were lucky to get past Chile. They played better against Colombia but also showed their nasty side and were fortunate to get past them as well.

But still. No matter how you word it. No matter what excuses you make. From this point forward, any team can suffer any result and still say, ‘well things could be worse – we could be Brazil’.

 

Fangs For The Memories

Oh such a cliche, predictable and tabloid-esque headline.  But someone has to say it, so I might as well get in there first. Luis Suarez has been sold to Barcelona for a whopping £75,000,000. Most Liverpool fans feared at the end of last season that this might happen, but hoped it wouldn’t come to pass. That he has since gotten himself a long ban for biting, again, made it an easier deal for Liverpool to swallow.

I will miss seeing his genius on the field at Anfield in a red shirt. He was something very special. Over the last twelve months he has been the best player in the world. Only Messi and Ronaldo can do the things he does with the ball. He is the finest, most talented player I have ever seen at Liverpool. And there have been some mighty talented players at that club. Sure, he could be a bit temperamental, a bit emotional and most of all a little bit bitey. Is he the greatest red ever? No, of course not. The King will always been Kenny.

As much as we will miss him, we will go on without him. The guy is as much a liability as he is a genius. Had we kept him, he would have missed another thirteen games at the beginning of next season. By the time he is fully back in the swing of things, half the season will have gone.

But the biggest question of all, had Liverpool kept him – what happens when he goes in for a fourth chomp of a bit of shoulder, calf or neck at some point in the future? What will the ban be then? I suspect it would be enormous. We will miss you Luis and every Liverpool fan will wish you well. We’d have been happy had you stayed. But every story must come to an end eventually. Thanks for the £75 million.