Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Belfast Maritime Festival and Titanic Bus Tour

With just minutes to spare we made it to the Belfast Welcome Centre to pick up our free tickets for the Titanic Bus Tour. Running down the escalator, tickets in hand, we just made it in time and boarded the translink bus that was to take us around Queen's Island for the Titanic Bus Tour and drop us off at the 2011 Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival.

Tall Ships and the Titanic Belfast building

This was a rare spare Saturday for us where we hadn't anything planned. On the spur of the moment, Norngirl had booked us onto the trip the day before when our idea for trying to roller-blade was put off due to a lack of much required safety equipment. So there we were, on a trip to see if we could learn or see anything new. And learn and see new things we did. Even opening the leaflets we'd been handed when getting on the bus was full of information about the Titanic Belfast that is due to open next year.

Our bus set off from next to the Britannic signature lighting mast and slowly rolled past the lighting sculptures bearing the names of those other famous Olympic class White Star Line ships, The Olympic and Titanic.

Titanic Signature Lighting Mast Belfast

After the bus got under way, we were taken past the monuments at the city hall where the detail and symbolism of the Titanic Memorial statue were explained.

Our tour had the same structure as the Titanic Bus Tour experienced by Alan Meban in 2009 and was also given by the very same guide - local historian, author and Belfast Titanic Society secretary - Stephen Cameron. As we headed through the one way system past Clarenden dock and down to Queen's Island we were told some more nautical history of the local area we were passing.

The Maritime Festival was in full swing and the traffic was a little heavy. Luckily though, everything seemed to be happening outside the windows of the bus for us to see. It wasn't long before we were all rubbernecking from the top deck of the bus at the people zip lining over the River Lagan before passing by the Odyssey where we were checking out the scene to see if anything different was happening compared to the years before. It was then past the Odyssey where hundreds of far too dedicated teenage girls were queuing (several hours early) for the JLS concert later that evening.

Before we got to the old Harland and Wolff Drawing office, the bus stopped and we learned of the working conditions of the staff employed on the ship yard and what life was like back then. It sounds like it was a very tough life for the workers of the late 1800s ship yards. 60+ hour weeks and tough regulations and terrible working conditions - makes me very thankful for technology! Put it this way; if I was a riveter back then, pretty much deaf after a few years of poorly paid hard labour and even having to pay to replace any imperfect work from my own pocket - I'd have been well p*ssed off to hear that the ship had been allowed to run into an ice berg let alone for the loss of life. We were shown photos as well as being told the history and stories and being there and seeing the same scene in 2011 really helped bring it to life.

Our first stop off the bus was at the Drawing Office. We'd been by a few times before in the past but then it had been closed. For the tour, and in this case the festival too, the doors were open and we went inside.

Main room of the Harland and Wolff drawing office

Harland and Wolff drawing office

This is where the plans for the Titanic and it's sister ships were created.

Drawing office roof

After gathering in the main hall we were told more about the place and given a grasp of the scale of the operational logistics at the time using a scale model of the area. It was quite eye opening and gave us much more of an understanding of the site and the docks then I ever had before.

Because of the festival there were stalls and information stands all set up and we even got to try on some frilly hats. Sadly, the building looks to be in a poor state on the inside at least. Our guide told us that there had been plans at one point for it to be part of the redevelopment of the area and turned into a niche luxury hotel. It's easy to see how fine a building it must have been back in its day. The crumbling décor aside, like the images of the wrecked Titanic on the sea bed, you could just imagine looking at the likes of the main room and the stairway that it must have once been rather grand.

Titanic drawing office staircase

The next stop wasn't far and was quite a surprise. We were heading down to the actual slipways of the Olympic class ships. Before we even got to the site of the Titanic and Olympic slip way, we happened to see the back of the Paint Hall studios where these days the painting is only of movie sets. Out back was a bunch of Wild West themed props.

We'd seen the Titanic/Olympic slip way up close before on the boat tour but it was great to be on the site having just seen all the photos and models, it really gave a sense of scale. Contrary to the hoped development plans Alan mentioned, the economic downturn seems to have slowed things somewhat as the slip way still hasn't been excavated. The current site of the slipway was covered over to provide flat storage space a long time ago so one day the hope is that the surface shown here will eventually be dug up and once again slope down to the water.

Titanic Slipway Belfast

As you can see below in the photo, it's easy to imagine it'll be quite a sight looking up the slipway with the new Titanic Centre that is still being constructed sitting at the top of it all.

Titanic Slipway and Titanic Belfast Building

Plans on the Belfast City Council website say the development of the centre (at least of the visitor centre) should be completed for April 2012 to mark the 100th anniversary of the loss of the Titanic. The building has been called 'Titanic Belfast ' but I'm sure that like the rest of Belfast's landmarks, it won't be long until it has an apt nickname.

We were told about the construction of the ships and the feelings about the liners at the time and the accounts of how the rivets of the ship were put in really brought the setting to life and I really was riveted.

Eventually though we had to move on from the spot where all 3 Olympic class White Star Line vessels touched the ocean for the first time to allow a walking tour their turn. We were then taken to the Thompson dry dock where the ships had then been taken out of the water for the first time.

Thompson Dry Dock

It was intriguing to hear about how the ships were towed in, the water pumped out slowly by the red bricked pumping station and the workmen jumped into the shallow water to spear any trapped fish for their dinner and then to hear how the ships hung over the ends as only their keel was required to fit into the dock.

Thompson Dry Dock Pumping Station

Titanic ads by the Dry dock

It really was a very good tour. A game you might want to try is to count the amount of times 'Presbyterian' is said but other than that, it was very informative and set at just the right pace. Best of all it is free, as Norngirl put it - 'A Titanic Bargain' the tours operate during the months of April and May and also during the Maritime festival like this time. For up to date information and more details I'd recommend contacting the Belfast Welcome Centre site or checking out the Belfast city council website for this and other Titanic themed tours.

Kit at the ARC in BelfastThe bus driver kindly dropped people off at the Maritime Festival by the Odyssey on the way back. We got off and had a walk around, the now regular stalls from the continental market were there as well as other stalls and family entertainment such as a merry-go-round and lots of ice cream vans.

Along Queen's Quay were 3 of the tall ships and one royal navy ship then around the corner at the Abercorn Basin were another 3 tall ships and a lot of smaller vessels.

I hadn't actually walked down to the ARC before - this is the part of the dock behind the Odyssey arena in front of the new apartments and hotel of the Titanic Quarter. I quite liked it, it was bright and open and 'The Kit' another piece of art to add to Belfast's list was good fun to have a look at. As a kid my dad and I used to make lots of Airfix models and I can tell you for nothing we're a bit of kit missing from a fully complete Titanic there. If someone can find the box this came in, maybe it got stuck in there. Joking aside, it's pretty cool like!

Titanic Kit

Looking over to Titanic Belfast and the Harland and Wolff Drawing office you can also see the site where the SS Nomadic is being restored. The Nomadic Preservation Society site has a lot more information about the Nomadic, it's relationship with the Titanic and it's reunification with the site of it's own construction.

Belfast's Titanic Quarter Buildings

After taking a walk around the activities on offer, looking at the stalls and listening to the band who were on stage, we heard the bad news that the Yakovlevs Aerial Display had been grounded due to the murky weather. We had a nosey at the Exploris touch tank but decided then to make our way back into town.

Touch tank

We weren't the only ones there and it was pretty busy. Each year, the Maritime festival runs over a few days so it's pot luck with the changeable Belfast weather. Katie and her hubby over at Mere Frivolity headed down on the Sunday and got much better weather and by the looks more active pirates too!

Tall Ship Lamps

Instead, we took off and slowly strolled back along the boats, taking in the atmosphere as we headed back towards the other Boat in town and on past it, back to get the bus home.

Boats in Belfast

It was a fun afternoon out and about and I have to say that the area is looking very well indeed and I can't wait or everything to be finished and open. The Maritime festival was good and people were having fun. After quite a few years of the same ships and the same continental market stalls there is only so much excitement I could muster about the quayside festivities (the Belfast Maritime Festival in 2009 with the Tall Ships Atlantic Challenge was probably the height of these Maritime Festivals so far for me) but the Titanic tour and seeing the developments in the Titanic quarter up close was just the spicy twist needed for a great afternoon out.

As far as tourism and heritage go, it looks like our awesome wee city is finally onto a winner. I can't wait for next year now to hopefully see more and to visit Titanic Belfast for the first time. The leaflet we got on the bus tour states that there is going to be an interactive element to the glass frontage looking out over the slip way from Titanic Belfast that will show the Titanic being launched.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Please Sir - can we have Summer?

Yes, I am about to become grumpy old man at the age of 27 and proceed to complain about the weather and climate of the place I live - Belfast. Before this week this has been the usual pattern for our weather. To start the day it looks promising like in this photo of the Lagan one morning last week, you might even be convinced not to wear a coat:

A Bright Morning over the River Lagan

Then by evening time this (or worse) is the usual view:

A Dreary Evening over the River Lagan

You're just lucky if you're not getting a soaking on the way home.

Pretty much the last few months have been terrible, we had one week sometime at the start of history and since then it just rained or looked to be nice then something like a gale got in the way. The Sunday just gone was apparently only the second day this year where it has been a sunny day with a temperature over 21 degrees. That's just not a summer and it's June already, only a few months of hope left before it's the slippery slope into cold and more wet.

According to the met office graphs, sunlight hours by the International Airport peak in May... but May came and went, even the longest day of the year took place under a big grey sheet of cloud... all day! We're now having to hope for statistical anomalies to get a traditional summer. Average temperatures are meant to peak in Belfast next month so we'll see how that goes. If anything it'll be boiling hot but seeing the sun... well, that only happens when it's cold outside.

Norngirl cut the grass earlier in the year and since then there hasn't been 3 consecutive days (whilst we've been in anyway) when there hasn't been rain and we've not been able to cut it back a second time. There has even been a few times when our rented house's garden could have doubled as a boating lake for a Borrowers movie. Worse still, the bulbs I planted in the garden didn't grow. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

Luckily though, indoors we've had some success and thanks to my dads advice we have a cherry tomato plant growing nicely. Although it's still early days it's even looking like it might be quite fruitful.

Still, it would be nice if we didn't have to hide indoors all the time during the summer months. No wonder Northern Irish folks have that reputation for burning very easily when on holiday anywhere sunny. I'm well and truly joining that club as I'll probably end up being mistaken for a cave dweller soon. I'm just glad we made it to Mallorca in May, it's like a cup of tea to get me through the gym workout that is no summer.

I don't know about anyone else who lives here but I get jealous hearing about the fact there might need to be a hosepipe ban or the hot weather is causing disruption over in England. That would mean it's been warm and/or dry. This would be a unique scenario for the people of Belfast right now, unique I tells ya! When we do get a rare day of brightness, people go crazy and don't know what to do with themselves. I think some folks might even think the apocalypse is coming, because they seem to lose all sense of reason, get drunk and stagger about the streets before I've even got my bus home on an evening.

The weather is starting to get warm again and we even had decent sun yesterday. The stats have it that this is likely to come with some heavy rain and maybe the odd bolt of lightning but I really hope we might get at least a chance to cut the lawn one of these days. Just a few dry, sunny days in a row. Is it much to ask?
If the global weather system is taking orders, please have this happen on a weekend too and try to keep a nice warm breeze blowing but nothing too blustery mind! Not that I'm in anyway fussy. :-P

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Christmas in June? Gobble off.

It is looking suspiciously like it is restaurants who start this. *shake my fists at them* in a comedy "why I awd to" manner. Yep - selling Christmas in June, restaurants and bars appear to be first. Eateries around Belfast would like you to now start thinking about your festive preparations for in 6 months time.

Last week on the 21st of June - this date's significance being it is the longest day of the year... aka the summer solstice and I saw my first 'Book your Christmas Party here' banner of the year - a banner advertising the fact you can now book to celebrate a festival centred around the shortest day of the year... the winter solstice!

But why! I mean, if the planet Earth hasn't even made it half way around the sun or another spin around it's axis, you'd think a meal time booking could wait - it's not like anyone is getting married on a specific date at a specific time in one specific place.

I can understand being prepared and even making sure you get in early for limited places but surely the venues who fill up quickly could hold back and still be full? What happens if they're advertising steak at a set price now and food prices treble between now and then and they have to honour it? Is it really in a restaurants best interest to have reservations 6 months in advance? Is their star chef quitting next week and do they want people to book before they find out? Is it even in the customers best interest - who's to say the service isn't going to go down hill and they might get better for cheaper else where? After all 6 months is a long time - 1/157.7th of an average person's life expectancy in Northern Ireland in 2008 in fact!

For a second I suspected it might be to do with the Turkey farming process in that 6 months might be about the right time to hatch and fatten them up. However, surely since most people won't book now, the market won't know anyway. I just don't get it. All it does is make me worry about saving up for actual Christmas festivities when I should be worrying about enjoying the summer and the next 6 months.

Seriously, would it hurt to take Christmas off the menu for just a few months more and at least give us a full 6 months of the rest of the year? Sure, if they advertise Christmas too early, the Turkeys might find out and have time to hatch an escape plan... oh wait, most of this years stock probably haven't even been hatched yet.

Sorry, I just had to get that out - I feel much better now!

Monday, 27 June 2011

Avenue Q in Belfast - but does it travel well?

On the curtain up on the stage, the sun was hiding behind the hills of New Jersey, closer yet was the skyline of Manhattan but the Belfast Grand Opera House audience was in neither place. Yet closer, Brooklyn and Queens had their names in print but we were not even there. A big highlighted arrow gave away our location, a long island neighbourhood to the east of the city. A place where some monsters and people a little down on their luck lived. The theatre settled down, the TV screens descended, the curtain raised, we were gleefully immersed back into the world of Avenue Q.

You may have already read my experience of the comedy musical Avenue Q when Norngirl and I went to see it in it's native land and form last year. We were very impressed by it, had listened the the songs on repeat on our mp3 players at the gym ever since and were very eager to see the show again. This time we were sharing the fun with friends and family and we were all very happy that the show was visiting Belfast, giving us to chance to see it again so close to home.

This was the first UK tour of Avenue Q and I hadn't seen any of the performances from the likes of Youtube for the cast we were going to see. I'd heard there were a few changes between the New York and other versions of the show including the UK one and this was true, these were small changes but if you've spent a while listening to the original cast recording you might spot them. The changes were both good and bad, some bits made it funnier, other bits less so, it did seem the show was run at a faster pace but that could have just been our familiarity with the recording.

The biggest of these small changes was that some of the lyrics and words were changed or cut from the original. From an interview with Jeff Whitty back in 2006, he explained:

"For those who haven't memorized the cast album, there won't seem to be many changes at all. The experience of the show is almost exactly the same in London as in the United States. For me, knowing the show so well, it's peppered with changes, but usually it's a matter of two or three words changed, a few lyrics, a few changes in the orchestrations. And some cuts in the book and score that keep the show from eddying."

Norngirl and I admittedly qualify for 'memorized cast album' people. Most of the changes were indeed just subtle changes of words to make things more culturally specific and relevant to the audience in question - like 'Frat boy' changed to 'Drunk guy', 'Polak' changed to 'French', 'Long Island Iced Tea' changed to 'Absinthe Daiquiri'. For anyone who watches American TV shows (which would be hard not to do these days) these changes probably aren't really needed but it no doubt helps to ensure as many audiences as possible understand.

There were a few main differences between the New York - Off Broadway experience we had and my Belfast - Grand Opera House experience, and here they are:

Grand Opera House Belfast
> The song 'Schadenfreude' was better in it's original form (like we heard in New York) - the song really shouldn't have had so much cut out of it for a UK audience. Some of the best lines disappeared such as "Straight A students getting Bs, Exs getting STDs", in the words of a bad idea bear... 'that makes me sad!'

> The song 'Fantasise Come True' had better stage effects in Belfast - you wouldn't think it was a touring show at all. They really took you into Rod's dream and got the atmosphere just right, I dunno anything about stage production but I just know it was great visually.

> The character of Gary Coleman was played by a man in Belfast and a woman in New York. This is a tricky one. On one hand I think the songs seem to suit a female voice better, on the other hand the male Gary had more dance moves and was more a focal point in the scenes, but then on ermm, damn, I've run out of hands, OK, on the other metaphorical hand, the female Gary was able to get much bigger laughs from the playing on the juxtaposition of gender stereotypes. I think I'd personally opt for a female Gary but it is quite a trivial difference that doesn't effect the plot or the enjoyment of the show.

> I'll not spoil what they changed George Bush to in the the song "Only for Now" but it was just as funny.

The other little thing in comparing the two performances was that I did get the feeling of a little more authenticity about the show in New York but that's probably because we were watching actors pretending to be in New York when those very same actors lived and worked in the very same place, we were also in that place and the words were suited to that specific audience. There were some great individual performances by the cast we saw in Belfast but there were 3 or 4 moments where some of the cast's vocals at the ends of words didn't quite hit the accent they were speaking in - not that I could even do the accents they were pulling off for 2 hours for a second without sounding Indian, Jamaican or Welsh. Again this didn't effect the enjoyment of the show at all but it was why the New York show did suit the setting of the plot a smidgen more.

Other than that it was hard to pick out any other difference, it all just flowed along seamlessly and the plot is the same in both.

There was one other thing that was unexpected but pleasantly so; on the face of it the audience reaction was the same in that everyone was laughing and having a good time. The unexpected thing was that laughs didn't always materialise in the same place as they did the first time we saw the show. For the most part I was laughing at same time as the Belfast audience when in Belfast and the New York audience when we were there but a little bit of the New York memory was still in my head and there was one point where both Norngirl and I laughed but no one else did. The folks around us must have thought we had a supply of Nitrous Oxide under our seats or something. I think a big reason for this was just the subtle nuances on stage such as facial expressions and emphasis placed on the words in a different places by the cast. And it worked. Each cast played to their audience very well. I quite like the fact it wasn't identical for although we obviously knew the songs and plot, it was just the little bit of unpredictability needed to make it fresh and exciting.

The casts were fantastic in both and the puppets, well they were fantastic too. In the Belfast show my favourite cast member was Chris Thatcher who was operating Trekkie Monster and Nicky, he really brought those puppets to life. The best vocals undoubtedly came from Rachel Jerram who sang brilliantly as Kate Monster.

Overall, even with the differences in performers, audience, venue and the minor changes, the result was exactly the same. It was brilliant.

Avenue Q is a very funny, witty and engrossing musical that doesn't take itself seriously yet gets across messages of tolerance, perspective, hope & happiness that audiences (if they don't already hold) will keep with them forever and you know what, I don't think it matters where you see it, it's still a phenomenal show. Sadly the show finished at the Grand Opera House in Belfast on the 25th June but who knows... maybe it will return one day :)

Sunday, 26 June 2011

What I thought of New York

Our 1st Wedding anniversary trip to the big apple came to an end all too quickly last November.
Like most big cities I've visited, a week just isn't enough to do everything you would like to and New York was no exception but my time there was enough to get a bit of a feel for the place.

NYC street scene on 8th Avenue

As I wrote in my pad whilst on the plane flying across the Atlantic, this was my first ever visit to the USA and North America. Regardless of how much I could learn about the city before hand, I still wasn't too sure what to expect because after being lucky enough to visit a few big cities in Europe, I knew the only thing to expect is the unexpected. I just hoped it would be a positive experience and in anticipation of that I was really excited. Thankfully I wasn't disappointed, our overall experience was brilliant. .

Before I sing it's praises too much though, first of all I'll quickly run through the few negatives I found:
- Accommodation in Manhattan is very, very, very expensive.
- There seemed to be a lack of public toilets. There were some in Central Park and some down by the Chelsea Piers but other than that it was always a case of having to buy a drink in a cafe which just led to a vicious circle.
- Tipping. This is just a personal statement - I tip at home anyway so it was easy to get used to the increased value/occurrences of tipping in the US ('When in Rome') however, I don't like the fact that bad service is expected to be tipped too because it then seems like a some pseudo-tax that just keeps wages low instead of the minimum wage being increased. On the plus side of this point, we never actually got a very bad service so I didn't have to fight with my conscience.
- Queues. So many people in such a small space = lots of queues for popular things, including the immigration control queue at JFK.
- Drivers. Turning right at a Red might be allowed but this is only meant to be when proper caution is observed - Pedestrians crossing when it is their turn cannot be willed away by imagination, no matter how much the driver tries. Also, using a cell phone in the regular up to the head way is a $150 fine and 2 points - this is something our cab driver from the airport should have been given 3 times over. Bad driving did give us some highlights, Norngirl shouting "I'm walking here" to a driver trying their luck with a right at a red was excellent, P.S the car did stop.
- TV. A philosophical question for the TV stations: At what point does the advert become the show and the show become the advert?
- Fellow pedestrians on busy streets are quite likely to play chicken - I tried to be polite but I found that those who don't care will absorb any space you give them and a lot of the time bump into you anyway. I ended up finding a happy medium. I gave half way - room enough that if the other person also gave half way we would pass smoothly. I just made sure to brace. There was something satisfying about watching the rude ****s bounce. Muwhahahahahaha.
Hopefully there aren't too many New Yorkers now wanting to hurt me... I'll quickly move onto the positives:
- Food. New York has to be a foodies heaven, choice and quality is just astounding. Also the city that is home to the best BLT I've ever eaten.
- Culture. So many museums, theatres, attractions, gatherings and a very diverse mix of just about everything from people to shops, every day of the week.
- Availability. I just love that you could get decent quality food and drink for relatively cheap delivered to just about anywhere at just about any time. From our hotel room to the Brewery. Even our local liqour store had an on demand delivery service!
- Accessibility, New York might have streets full of cars but it's surprisingly easy to get around. Public transport is great. The subway was cheap, quick and easy, the bus was clean and contrary to what I'd heard about America, people in New York walk, cycle and run, we felt at home.
- Great atmosphere. Casting the pretentiousness of 5th Avenue and the ostentatious crazy wealth on display elsewhere aside, New York felt like 'my kind of city'. This may just be because there does seem to be something for everyone and we found our niche but I think there is maybe more to it, the feel of the place was mesmerizingly addictive.
- People sensibly jaywalk (this was the habit I didn't think I could leave at home so I was happy not to be alone and that native New Yorkers were as used to doing it as we are).
- Central Park. I don't think I would need to go to the gym if I lived within commuting distance of this place, I'd even rollerblade around it in the rain if I lived there.  
The Mall in Central Park
- Ice Hockey. Being played at it's highest level.
- Understanding. With so many news reports, movies, books and TV shows set in New York, visiting the place really brings an extra appreciation to anything set there.
- There is always something cheap or free to do like visiting Central Park, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, going for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry etc.
- Leaving Manhattan. Don't worry, I'm not being controversial. As brilliant a place to be as Manhattan is, Brooklyn and Hoboken were a nice change of pace + you get to see more of that skyline and then go back to it!
There really did seem to be something somewhere in the urban sprawl for everyone. Filling the days twice over would have been no problem, the issue would only have been our physical fitness and being able to keep up with everything we wanted to do. From our one week visit, the flavour or feel of New York was to me that the city can be pretty much the city of 'whatever you want it to be the city of'. Sure, people still get walked/cycled into on the side walk and the city undoubtedly ticks over by the constant and seemingly unquenchable drive to make profit (whether this is a good or bad thing is one for another day), but between all that there is a city that has the flexibility to mould to the visitor.

I loved the feel of the New York we found - my New York being quite a liberal New York, full of great entertainment that amazed me, left me intrigued and wanting to experience more.

Norngirl and I have already pencilled in plans to head back some day though next time we also want to explore beyond New York and out into the wider realm of the US and North America. I'll let my wife's words taken from her 'Dreaming of the City that Never Sleeps' post bring my recap of our trip to an end as I think it sums everything I've said up in one sentence -

"It might take some time to get back there but when we do it's going to be one helluva trip in one helluva town!"

Friday, 24 June 2011

Speed Dating.

My motorcycle and the neighbours' car went on a date last night but it didn't go too well.

They hadn't even finished their first course when the neighbours' car happened to bump into his ex-bike. By all accounts she was still fuming after he'd driven her around the bend for months and then one night just stood her up for no reason. Worse still, she hadn't been able to lower herself from her kickstand and it was a month before her rider found her. She'd rusted under her hood in places she didn't know existed. It turns out the neighbours' car was a jack addict and was getting his fix at an illegal garage in a nearby town. One night got so high that he just forgot all about her.

After hearing this, my motorcycle was not surprised when his ex, who was totally revved up at this stage, sped at him and knocked his lights out. His radiator malfunctioned and he was out cold.

My poor motorcycle fled there and then but unfortunately in her hurry, she ran over some of the debris on the floor and suffered a double puncture. Thankfully her friend who lived near by was on hand to escort her home.

The neighbours car did come over to the house in the early hours to try and patch things up, but by this point he was tanked up and talking out of his trunk. My motorcycle, bless her, she stood up for herself, shouted at him to "shove his tiny horn up his exhaust pipe" and threatened that she'd "run over his dipstick if he ever tried to park near her again". He kept on apologising but eventually, enough was enough, she turned and lowered the garage door.

Her last words to him before that door closed were " I'm just two tyred and feeling very let down.".

I know... I'll not be giving up my day job, my stand up comedy set will have to wait for another life.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Crusaders FC and Leeds United 2010/11 End of Season Review.

The 2010/11 football season is officially finished and although the silverware across most leagues and competitions was predictably acquired by the wealthiest clubs, there was still plenty for me to be happy about. As a supporter of 2 sides that don't currently have the luxury of access to the contents of Scrooge McDuck's vault, I'm still feeling surprising optimistic when looking forward to next season. On and off the pitch, 2010/11 was another year of development for both Crusaders FC and Leeds United, both sides improving and leaving me eager for 2011/12 to kick off.

Billy Bremner statue Elland Road

With Leeds, after only small improvements to the squad before the season began, I think it was the only realistic expectation to hope for a consolidation season. Just a season to stop the yo-yo'ing between leagues and to give our now confirmed owner the means to shore up the club's foundations.

I think with matters on the pitch, Simon Grayson did a great job in finishing 7th. The side, at one stage, even looked like they might even be able to beat the odds and give themselves a shot at promotion. Unfortunately the season fizzled out towards the end as the lack of strength in depth of the side began to show. There were some great games and plenty of entertainment and Leeds ended the season as one of the highest scoring teams in the league.

I actually do like that Leeds aren't spending a fortune on players any more - given the past financial disasters - and last season did exceed my expectations and for that I was very happy. The problem is, to progress on the pitch, Simon Grayson has to be given some help to improve the side - within the clubs' realistic financial safety limits of course - but from what I've heard in the general media, it seems more of a question of who do we get to replace the players leaving, if or when they do leave? I just think it's very unlikely that the players that Leeds need to add to the squad to improve it (let alone in order to make a push for promotion) will all be free agents or available for loan this summer, buying a player or two might be the only option but can we buy in better players without spending crazy money? For me, the possibility of a salary cap in the football league has been the best football related news of the summer so far and surely it can't come in soon enough, it should have been in place 10 years ago.

On the subject of money, ticket prices at Leeds have yet again increased for the season to come, so you'd hope there would be at least some re-investment on the pitch. Even a little investment could undoubtedly go a long way. Especially if the players brought in have plenty of potential to develop. I just hope that this summer, should a prospect arise within our reasonable means, Simon Grayson doesn't have to pass up that opportunity. As the squad hasn't yet fallen into place for Leeds it's hard to know what to expect next season to bring, but with plenty of time between then and now it'll no doubt fall into place before long.

With Crusaders in the Irish League, during the last half of the season, the side really started to live up to the potential that we saw glimpses of in pre season. Although there was no silverware, a 2nd place finish, 1 cup final and 2 cup semi finals was quite the achievement. After all, the only thing that prevented the Crues winning the biggest two competitions was a still pro (full time) Linfield side with a much higher wage bill.

Crusaders FC line up at the Irish Cup Final

A few players came to prominence this season, one player was Aidan Watson who made a bold statement in filling the void left by Ryan McCanns unfortunate leg break. A battling midfielder, his leap and tenacity became a key ingredient to the side. For the season to come, with both midfielders fit and healthy, it should be a great problem for manager Stephen Baxter to have.

The second was Stuart Dallas. Dallas joined the Crues pre season from Coagh United and he really has been a sensation. From a largely unknown player, by the end of pre season anyone who had seen him had him in their fantasy football side and by the end of the season he was earning his first international cap for the national side and receiving both the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Association Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards.

Stuart Dallas playing for Crusaders FC

What's special about Dallas? Well he's strong on the ball, has balance and composure, can pass, but most of all, he can run at defences with ball at feet and pull open defensive, plus he's not half bad at tracking back or crossing either. As I said during the season, it can't be long before he's signed up by a side across the Irish Sea. If he's not, it'll be a travesty as it's no secret that he's a great talent.

If he does start the 2011/12 season with the Crues however, quite pleasingly he'll not be our only prized attacking asset. Chris Morrow and Jordan Owens also continued to develop their game last season and at the very end of the season, Declan Caddel also started to add consistency to his A-game too.

In defence, things were beginning to look up after a rocky start. Personally I think this was because the balance of the side improved and we were not perpetually being caught on the counter attack all the time after pushing forward. Hopefully the balance to the side that was found during that long unbeaten run which got us 2nd place will continue into the new season and with the new addition of Paul Leeman there will be added depth of experience in the squad for those defensive positions.

Further to this strong core of Stephen Baxter's side, there has already been some strengthening. Martin Donnelly wished to see out his contract and has moved on, and some players were let go, but replacing them have been a few good players in key positions. Ciaran Gargan is welcomed back at Seaview after a couple of years away but the two players who will undoubtedly be most instrumental to how things pan out next season will be the two players on their way to Seaview from Dungannon Swifts. These two players are goalkeeper Sean O'Neil and striker Timmy Adamson.

As we've been missing a combination of both confident and experienced pair of hands in goal and Adamson has been on our managers wish list for years, hopefully they'll slot into the side like 2 final pieces of a jigsaw.

There have also been 2 further additions at Seaview, but not on the pitch... just at the ends of it. The Shore Road End and Railway End terracing are no more and construction is well under way.  This is what Seaview was looking like at the end of last season but it's being transformed right now as I type this.

Crusaders FC Seaview Panorama

Two new stands are being constructed along with brand new turnstiles and toilet facilities that will help to bring Seaview up to modern standards. For all football supporters who come to take in a game at the revamped ground, the new stands should also help keep the noise in and improve the atmosphere besides as keeping us all dry.

My expectations at Crusaders are still well grounded but I'd have to be blind to not notice that the team Stephen Baxter has built has the ability to, well, be awesome. Consistency is the issue and hopefully that can be remedied enough next season to have us bouncing in the new stands.

With my two clubs, there has been a similar trend over the last couple of years. The season before last, both made great strides and achieved some success. The season just gone was a year of re-finding their feet performing at a higher standard. This season will be a big test and I really can't wait to see how both get on. Currently I'd be more confident in the Crues doing the better of the two in their respective leagues, but who knows, Leeds could yet come in and sign Stuart Dallas!

By the way, this might be a long shot, but if anyone would like to join us in the new stands at Seaview next season. Season tickets are a phenomenal bargain in the Irish League and with the Crues, like a few other Irish League clubs, the club is voluntary run and owned by us, the supporters - just a cross community club brining sporting excellence and entertainment to it's support and the local area.

Crusaders FC ticket prices are as follows and more details can be found via the clubs twitter feed, Facebook page or the official Crusaders FC website:

Adult ticket £130 / OAP ticket £40 / Under 18's ticket £35

Or Family Ticket - Adult pays £130, with a £15 deduction for each subsequent family member's ticket purchased (ie spouse £115, U18 £20). This applies to families within the same household.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Hockey Morning in North Belfast

The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals came to a conclusion in the early hours of the 16th June (in Northern Ireland anyway) with game 7 of a memorable series. The pinacle of the playoffs saw the favourites, the Vancouver Canucks, face off against the Boston Bruins in Vancouver in a winner takes all showdown for the Stanley Cup.

It was another late night/early morning for Norngirl, my sister-in-law and me, the first drop of the puck was usually at around 1.20am and we were not getting to bed until well past 4am. We weren't alone though, on twitter two people I follow (@BelfastCrusader and also @BelfastGiants - the Belfast Giants' official twitter feed) were busy tweeting about the very same event. I'm pretty sure that this wasn't the sum total of the local interest. Afterall, the Boston Bruins had came over to Northern Ireland to play a friendly against a Giants' Elite League select team at the Odyssey Arena earlier in the year and won over many fans.

Sadly we were out of the country for the Bruins' visit to Belfast and we didn't get to see them here. Norngirl and I didn't have long to have an in person encounter with the Bruins though, for as anyone who reads my blog regularly will know, they were the away team when we went to see the New York Rangers play a regular season game for our first ever being there-live-in-person NHL game. We were supporting the New York Rangers that night (and they are still our Eastern Conference team) but it was hard not to notice the Bruins had something about them, they deserved their victory over NYR that night.

So when it came to the point that my Western Conference team the Dallas Stars didn't make the post season and NYR were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, it fell to Boston to be our back up soft spot team.

It proved to be a successful idea as they flew past the Philadelphia Flyers with a 4 games to 0 clean sweep. In the next round, the Bruins played another team we have a soft spot for, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The soft spot was a recent thing due to the Lightning helping the New York Rangers into the playoffs and then for getting revenge for the Rangers by knocking out the Washington Capitals (booo!). I have to admit I hoped the Bruins would do it but I didn't mind too much who did win. The Bruins' games against the Lightning were a lot closer and at times gripping. The series went to game 7 and was a 1-0 Boston win that was full of action contrary to the few.  That was the victory that sent them into the Final against the Canucks.

On paper and from the seasons stats, Vancouver were the favourites and it was no shock when after 2 games they had won both. The interesting thing though was how they won. The Bruins ran them to the wire on both occasions and the victories were both by only one goal. The first game saw the Canucks sneak a very late goal to see a 1-0 win. Game 2 left us annoyed after the Bruins gave up a 2-0 lead to be taken to overtime at 2-2. At 4am, the intermission of 17 or so minutes seems a lot longer than normal. So when the teams took back to the ice for the face off, we were in a state of bemused shock that the winning Canucks goal ended the game after just 11 seconds of play.

Action then moved to Boston and it wasn't just their location that swung, the entire narrative of this title deciding set of games was turned on it's head. We didn't get to see the 8-1 3rd game win live on TV but I did catch the highlights and it was quite a rout, everything was going in. Confidence knocked, the Canucks then couldn't stem the tide on the East Coast for game 4 when an aptly numbered 4 goals left the Canucks in need of a buoyancy aid.

Back to Vancouver and the big question was about goaltending, despite being in goal for the worst of the cresting waves of goals from games 3 and 4, Luongo was started again and rewarded this faith placed in him by pulling off a string of great saves to help the Canucks win yet another very tight 1-0 win on their home ice.

As we were cheering on Boston through all this, we kind of expected the worst on Monday night, at 3-2 in the series it left the Canucks a win away from the cup. It seemed as though the pivotal game had been edged by Vancouver and that Monday night could be the clincher.
Backs against the wall though the Bruins lived up to their name and in a first period mauling, the Canucks were left with a mountain to climb. It was a quick and vicious strike, the 4-0 lead inflicted in a 4 minute 14 second pounding of the goal. The game slowed in the 2nd period as both teams were left to ponder how much effort to expend and how to approach the rest of the game. Venting a lot of frustration appeared to be the answer for both teams. The game became peppered with penalties in the 3rd and with them a power play goal for each team followed by another late consolation from Vancouver.

That Boston win set up the reality of a no tomorrow - all or nothing game - with a guarantee of a winner being crowned.

As all of the games in Vancouver up to this point had been low scoring affairs with narrow margins of victory, that was the kind of game I was expecting but what we got was more akin to the games in Boston.

Maybe it was the sneaky addition of some Boston water to the ice by Nathan Horton that provided a psychological boost to the Bruin's players or maybe it was just that the Canucks burnt out at just the wrong time after a frantic attempt to put pressure on in the 1st period? Whatever the reason, Boston absorbed the early pressure and then hit on the counter, although being out shot, it was a Patrice Bergeron snap shot that seemed to just effortlessly glide into the bottom left hand corner of the home teams net.

In the 2nd period the game was all but over. A sneaky wrap around from Marchand made it 2-0 and then a rather peculiar 3rd somehow made its way past Luongo as the puck and two players slid into the net. It wasn't just how this short-handed goal was scored that was a bit odd, it's that we'd just asked for one on twitter as the Canucks powerplay began. I'd never posted that "   " before. Maybe it's just a co-incidence but I'd like to think we could claim an assist.

The Canucks never recovered from here on in and just couldn't get anything past the remarkable Tim Thomas.

The 4th Boston goal was scored into an empty net when with less than 3 minutes left, the Canucks pulled their goaltender to get an extra skater on the ice but they lost the puck and Marchand put the game to bed.

That was that, the game finished 0-4 and the awards were handed out. First was Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins goaltender who recieved the Conn Smythe Trophy for being awesome. Well that and making the most saves in playoff history and most in a series. I do mean awesome by the way and not just a throw away use of the word. At times throughout the playoffs, 'TimTom' as my sister-in-law affectionately dubbed him, defied belief in being able to keep the puck out of his net when the Bruins were under siege and his most valuable player accolade was so very much deserved.

The dauntless unpredictability of his style is something I would ordinarily expect to be a disadvantage for an NHL goaltender - something that would increase mistakes and be a wildly fanciful idea. The reality however is that it works for him. Up against a Canucks side in the finals, a team who were scoring for fun throughout the rest of the season, he seemingly bamboozled them into not knowing what to do to beat him.  He seemed to just get inside their heads. From his ability to reach a puck that looked out of anyone's grasp, to being able to slide on his side into exactly the right place to stop a puck creeping towards the line by using just a pincer movement of his feet. Not only that but he seems so calm and confident under pressure - making the bread and butter of his job look effortless and giving his side great confidence. It wasn't just a fluke either - as I noted in my post about the game we saw at Madison Square Garden last November, he was the stand out player that day, something which is hard to be when the equally ethereal Henrick Lundquist was stood in the other goal. There really is something remarkable about the best goal tenders in Ice Hockey, they're so pivotal in the outcome of games and their success is such a finite prospect that when they do manage to succeed, they're transcended to this awesome status (at least in my mind they are).

I'll remember these finals very well. Not only for the great hockey and the fun we had shouting and making random noises at the TV though. There were also some extraordinarily flinch worthy but memorable moments too. Some that stand out (mainly for all the wrong reasons mind you) were:

Simon Gagne being knocked unconscious playing for Tampa against the Caps:

Another unlucky Tampa player, Steven Stamkos, who literally took one for the team with a puck between the eyes against Boston.

And the bizarre check that put Mason Raymond into the boards leading to a spinal injury.

But the one I can't get out of my head is the amazingly hideous suit that Don Cherry was wearing yesterday on Hockey Night in Canada... sure, he always goes over the top with the suits, some are crazy and others just well 'out there', some even kinda work,  but this one was an extra special pink, green and white flowery number set off with a solitary red flower in the breast pocket. Norngirl has a photo sourced from a fan blog on her blog post about all this hockey stuff if you really want to see... I will remind you again though, you won't be able to unsee.

Credit where it's due too though, Gagne was back for game 1 of their conference final once it was deemed he'd not suffered brain injuries. Stamkos made it back in the same game with a big bloody patch and a head guard. And Raymond, well, just a couple of days later during game 7 of the finals, he made it to the arena to gingerly wave to the crowd in a hard cased full torso medical corset of some kind, I really hope he makes a speedy recovery. Like the song... we really were worried about Ray. Sadly Don didn't lose the suit. My eyes still hurt. I don't think Don will ever recover, in fact I suspect his suits could get worse... ominous!

Fingers crossed and hopefully not broken, we'll be able to watch more great Ice Hockey next season and who knows, maybe one day if the finances allow, we might be lucky enough to see a playoff game live and in person *dreams*. After all, the TV's great for watching sports when you can't be there but for me, nothing beats experiencing sports events first hand and Ice Hockey is no different. Luckily the new season for the Belfast Giants playing in the Elite League as well as all the frills of the NHL, will be upon us again before we know it - only a couple of months to wait.

It really was great fun watching, laughing, shouting and making squeaky noises at the TV during our little HNINBs (Hockey Night in North Belfast) and I'm really looking forward to more. And maybe, just maybe, since the luck of the Irish seemed to rub off on the Bruins, some more NHL sides will give their luck a boost with a visit to this part of the world in the future.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Our last night in New York was spent on Avenue Q.

It was the last evening of our last day in the awesome city of New York and it was the time that we first immersed ourselves into the wonderfully open and wacky world of Avenue Q.

In one of the New World Stages, well ermm, stages, we sat down on the front row not really knowing what to expect. We'd purposely avoided listening to the music from the show before hand for we had seen the adverts in London for the show when we were on our honeymoon a year before and it was our backup show on that occasion and we didn't want to spoil it.
This time it had been our first choice of show as we kinda knew we'd love it from the rave reviews from my sister-in-law and the briefest of explanations we'd allowed ourselves to hear.
Back in the theatre and it turned out that taking alcoholic drinks into the auditorium was positively encouraged. We didn't need much convincing and very soon we each found ourselves with a monster themed cocktail in hand.

Don't worry I won't spoil the show itself for anyone... especially since the UK version of the show is touring Belfast later this month (my tickets for the Grand Opera House sit alluringly on our mantel piece making me feel all happy when I glance at them).
However, there we were being introduced to some of the most memorable characters and songs of musical theatre.

As we were in the US, we were lucky enough to see the show (as it should be - like the original!) with a female Gary Coleman character. It wasn't the original cast but in retrospect it was hard to tell the difference between the CD version of the songs and the show we saw that night. The show was great, I won't say more though because I honestly can't think of a way to talk about it without dropping spoilers. What made the experience even better though was that instead of going to stand in a long queue, there were staff who came around to take orders from the bar and delivered it to your seat, well worth all that tipping!
After the performance had finished , our 1st Avenue Q experience still wasn't over.
As you may have read on Norngirl's blog, the cast of the show were fundraising for charity by selling signed playbills and posters and pictures with the cast.

How could you turn down an offer like that!? The only problem being, I didn't have enough cash left on my person and after asking one of the cast found out there was a cash point on the upper level of the building. It was a mad dash to find it, get some cash and make our way back.
Unfortunately, by the time we did all that, everyone had left. Luckily, there was still a guy closing up the merchandise stall. We asked if they still had any of the signed posters but they didn't have them out front any more. To our surprise, instead of hearing "sorry, go home now crazy theatre going tourists", we were advised to go through big doors and ask in the office about the posters. Perhaps a little timidly, we did indeed venture through the double doors and, after passing through a sort of holding room, something awesomely unexpected happened; we were backstage. In front of us in a small room were all the puppets hanging up and by them, the cast and staff were all cooling down and having a post show chat. As Norngirl said, we had a feeling like we really shouldn't be there but it was brilliant to see how it was all laid out behind the scenes. After looking a bit lost, we were found by a nice man who couldn't help us enough and managed to dig out a signed poster for us to buy and he even gave us a couple of badges with slogans on from the show.

I didn't take off my badge until we got back to the hotel so the whole of New York knew that 'It Sucks to be Me'... but it didn't suck to be me, I was having a great day!

The night didn't end there though... once we'd dropped off our bags and poster, we headed out for sustenance. First of all we brought back a bottle of wine to the hotel room from the local liquor store then headed out again for food. For a city that 'doesn't sleep', there are actually some limits and one of those is that not all restaurants have very late opening times.

We didn't find any of Norngirl's list of recommended restaurants open, or at least open for much longer.On our quest to locate the restaurants we didn't go to, we happened to witness (and almost took part in) a side-walk cycling accident. A dude on a bike flew down the pavement but had to dodge two delivery guys, a little unbalanced, he then had Norngirl and me to avoid; though we'd stood as far out of the way as we could having seen the near miss in front of us.
It wasn't long until the cyclist was on the floor anyway, behind us, a guy hadn't been so lucky as to have spotted the danger. Man Vs bike, we're not too sure who won, they both gingerly made it back onto their feet, so although it must have hurt, there didn't seem to be too many hard feelings or lasting injuries between the two. Maybe that sort of thing happens all the time but it was certainly noteworthy for us.

Feeling a hint of Schadenfreude related happiness (Avenue Q does that to you), we decided not to push our luck any further and so headed back to our 24 hour diner from earlier in the week.
We ordered what turned out to be the biggest meal I've seen outside an all you can eat buffet and it was delicious.

I had noodle soup for a starter followed by a gorgeous open pastrami sandwich with roast potatoes and cauliflower all doused in gravy - I was stuffed after only half of it.
The bread and gravy all soaked up together and this combined with as much free water, tea and coffee as you could get squeeze into yourself, it was probably the best meal I had during the whole trip.

We didn't have the wine in the end, that was put in the luggage to take home, instead we went to sleep very happy but very very sad that our last day was over and our New York trip all but at its end.

Monday, 13 June 2011

To Hoboken and Back

On the morning of our last full day in New York we ventured off the subway lines and took a bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal station to Hoboken in New Jersey. There we visited the site of a reality TV show (Cake Boss) and enjoyed the view of Manhattan from Pier A Park.

Carlos Bake Shop

It was a slightly overcast morning as we made our way up town to the Port Authority bus station. First stop inside the station was a quick visit to the information office where we found out not only that there were stupidly annoying 'the world owes me' type Brits in this part of the world at the same time as us (just can't avoid the afflicted) but also the stand where our bus was departing from. We didn't have to wait too long for our bus, buses world wide don't really change, the only difference between this bus and the ones in Belfast was seeming it being like a monster truck of the bus world. I wouldn't like to be trying to get a buggy or something on them anyway.

It was a short ride under the Hudson and into the State of New Jersey and it was soon after that we were keeping track of the streets in an attempt to find the one closest to our destination which was Carlos Bake shop, home to reality TV show, Cake Boss.

Carlos Bake Shop in Hoboken

Personally I preferred Ace of Cakes when it was on but Cake Boss was also one of our guilty pleasures for those dull moments on TV. It's not so much the cakes but the decorations but we thought we'd check it out anyway. Turns out it does exist.We got there quite early and there wasn't a queue outside as we'd heard could be a possibility. We headed in after some photos and saw Frankie and Madeline who both get a fair bit of airtime on the show.

We bought a few sugary treats which surprisingly to me, were not all that expensive, and peered at all the cakes and baked goods on display as well as all the Cake Boss merchandise and paraphernalia.

Goodies from Carlos Bake Shop

Once we had left the shop we took our photo in front of it then had a look around the back of the building too. Curiosity satisfied we made our way to find a drink to wash our sweet goodies down, Starbucks was on the way so it was a quick trip there before strolling along the streets of Hoboken on the way to Pier A Park.

A Street scene in Hoboken

The park was a bit of a surprise as it provided some great complimentary eye candy – namely the panoramic city scape of New York City.

New York Skyline and Empire State Building

Manhattan Skyline

The sun by this point was starting to take hold in the sky and it was quite tranquil out in the park considering how close to one of the largest cities on earth we were.

Pier A Park

NYC Financial District

We dug into our deserts. First of all we had our Lobster Tails and they were absolutely delicious! I did manage to get a photo in before I demolished it, in a Dougal type logic, they're the same size as those big buildings that are far away.

Lobster Tail alongside the Empire State Building

Afterwards, Norngirl had her cupcake whilst I had my Napoleon, they were ok, but nothing really to write home about.

Cupcake from Carlos Bake Shop

Napoleon and the Empire State Building

After sitting for a while and taking in the view, we headed to Hoboken terminal to catch the bus back into Manhattan.

Hoboken Terminal

We were heading to visit all the big stores and department stores like Bloomingdales (which was boring) and FAO Schwarz (which was awesome – and we had great fun playing the giant piano like in Big). More about all that on Norngirls blog.

Bloomingdales NYC

FAO Schwarz entrance NYC

Giant Piano

After the retail therapy we headed to the TKTS booth at Times Square again for the 2nd time of the trip.

TKTS Booth Time Square

This time the queue was crazily long and we were there for what seemed an age before getting to the front and obtaining ourselves some front row seats for Avenue Q that night.

In the time between buying the tickets and heading to the show, we did many things, one of them was heading back to the Nintendo store for me to buy a Bowser soft toy (I'll try and put a photo up in a later post) and some other souvenirs and another was heading out to see the Chrysler Building up close...

Chrysler Building at Night

...and another to wander around Grand Central Terminal...

 Grand Central Terminal

... before a mercy dash to see the front of the National History Museum that we'd visited but only saw from the back and the inside, sadly the place was being refurbished so was covered in a big sheet, but we did get to see the Theodore Roosevelt statue.

Theodore Roosevelt statue NYC

It was a busy but fun bucket-list-ticking hurry around the city but we made it to New World Stages to see Avenue Q with so much time to spare that we headed for a drink in a nearby café before heading in. It was our last night but like this trip over to Hoboken, we were still in for another awesomely sweet treat or two.


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