10 years ago…

… I was working in a betting shop in Romford. It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon, just a handful of regulars placing small bets on unremarkable races. I got a text message telling me to turn on the news as something extraordinary was happening in New York. I then went through the same process as I’m sure many others did – shock at the initial pictures, followed by trying to work out how air traffic control could have gone so terribly wrong. Perhaps naively it wasn’t until the second plane hit that I realised it was not an accident.

We put the news on one of the screens in the shop. At one point a customer came to the counter and quite irately demanded to know why we were showing a silly disaster film instead of the 3:10 from Kempton. It was a misunderstanding that sums of the surreal nature of that day.

This morning I was setting up my new TV, and since it was Sunday morning most of the channels were showing drivel, so I put it on BBC News which was showing one of dozens of documentaries that have been made about 9/11. Although I have seen those pictures hundreds of times and heard many moving stories of what people endured that day, it still brings a lump to the throat.

This was a story that unfolded on live TV, in all its shocking detail. I won’t just read about it history books and watch archive, like I have done so many events of the past. It’s odd to think there are people now in their teens who wouldn’t have been aware of what was happening on 9/11 and who now wonder what it was like to have lived through those times. Of course people older than me can say the same about many other historical moments.

This was undoubtedly the defining news event of my life so far. Here’s hoping it remains that way.

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Categories: News Tags:

Something unremittingly happy

Ashley and Ivanka's weddingI am often, and probably fairly, accused of being something of a grump. Well, we all need to be good at something. So just for a change, here’s something that is 100% positive, cheerful and uplifting.

Last weekend I had the joy of being part of Ashley and Ivanka’s big fat Ukranian wedding in Manchester, taking up the dubiously titled role of best man. As my good friend Matt has so eloquently blogged, weddings can be somewhat trying affairs, especially for us singletons, and all the more so when you have responsibilities including getting up in front of a room full of strangers and trying to be funny. Obviously one is always happy to see their friends celebrate their union, but let’s face it, weddings can be ten-a-penny when you’re in your late twenties and early thirties.

So here’s the thing… it was lovely. From start to finish. Even though I didn’t have a clue what was happening for a lot of the time (there was a lot in Ukranian). Starting with the rehearsal and dinner on Thursday, the quiet night in with Ash’s family on the Friday, to the big day itself. Having been so busy worrying about all the things that needed to be done and remembered, it suddenly hit me that actually what this was all about was my two friends getting married.

There was of course the added pressure of the speech – I think it went reasonably well, people seemed to laugh at the right places and nobody walked out. A few people who weren’t there have asked to read it, so I’ve reproduced it below. Apparently some of the stories turn out not to be 100% accurate, but why let the truth get in the way of a giggle.

With that out of the way, it was time to let the hair down. By which I mean get riotously drunk. I don’t think I disgraced myself, but it was great to spend an evening laughing, dancing and generally being daft with good friends. I finally got to bed at 4:30… which given I had to drive from Manchester to London the following day probably wasn’t sensible. But screw sensible for once… although if anyone has video of the midnight performance of the Macarena, I want all copies destroyed.

The hotel was stunning, and there’s nothing quite like staying in a hotel where you’re part of the wedding party – nothing is too much trouble. Pot of tea at 11:30pm? No problem. Although I was alarmed by how easy it was to get a key to the honeymoon suite at 1am! And I’m sure they judged us for the 3:30am room service call for more champagne: “No, we don’t want anything to eat with that!”.

There are some pictures on my (new) Flickr account, although I’m sure others will have many more that are far better – I can’t wait to see the official ones. And just down there is a little video I shot at the reception of the Ukranian dance troop that Ivanka was once part of, trying to teach Ash some moves. Note I was hiding behind a pillar, for fear of being roped in myself!

And surely, someone, somewhere must have been able to take one picture of me that I actually like. Well, not so far. Shit, this was meant to be unremittingly positive wasn’t it.

The speech

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m James, the questionably titled best man. 10 years ago in the corridors of Imperial College’s computer science department I met a shy, cantankerous, geeky young man with a receding hairline and for both our sins we’ve been friends and drinking partners ever since.

Before we get down to business, I must first reiterate the groom’s compliments to the bridesmaids who have done a wonderful job and look absolutely amazing, and on their behalf thanks to Ashley for his kind words. On any other day these bridesmaids would have stolen the show but of course that accolade belongs firmly to the beautiful bride – Ivanka you look stunning, and I think we can all agree that Ashley is a very lucky man.

Can I also say a big thank you to my fellow groomsmen Matt and JJ who haven’t scrubbed up too badly themselves and have proved invaluable in the run up and the course of today.

Finally on the list of thank yous, on behalf of I’m sure everyone here I would like to thank Ashley and Ivanka for inviting us to be part of their special day. It has been truly magical and it has been a pleasure for us all to share it with you, so thank you for having us.

It was an honour to be asked to be Ashley’s best man. Being the awkward modern man that most of us are, the invitation wasn’t exactly moving – I seem to remember Ash’s exact words were “Ivanka says I should ask you to be my best man”, which I think sets the scene quite nicely.

Of course the answer was yes and it is a pleasure to be here now, but I must admit to some anxieties as the day approached. Of course the main worry for any best man is the speech – what if they don’t laugh? Well I’ve sorted that, so if the dozen or so people I have bribed to find everything I say hysterical would like to come and find me at the end, you can collect your five pound notes. (Alright, I’ll make it a tenner).

The other big anxiety was the sheer complexity of the wedding ceremony and the proceedings surrounding it. Not being familiar with the Ukranian traditions I have been keen over the past year to get my head around all the customs that would form part of this special day, but to be honest it’s all been a bit of a blur. All I kept hearing about was lots of sacred cloths, lots of candles being passed back and forth and a fair amount of vodka. The whole thing sounded to me like something of a fire risk.

Of course a fire risk would be appropriate since our lovely couple met thanks to their involvement in the College Motor Club which maintains Jez, a 1916 Dennis Brothers N type London Fire Brigade appliance and now mascot of the Royal College of Science (is that right?) which you may have seen over the course of today. Many decades old, prone to regular breakdown and in need of constant care and attention, Ashley spent many an hour in the Jez garage, which is where he met Ivanka. Eventually Ashley summoned up the courage to ask Ivanka on their first proper date. As we’ve already heard, Ash is a master of the sincere and touching invitation, and I think us singletons could learn a thing or two about the art of enticing that special someone out for a romantic evening. So what were the words that Ivanka could not resist? What was it that finally melted her heart and persuaded her that Ashley was worth the time of day. Pens and paper at the ready gentlemen, here they were:

“I’ve got a 2 for 1 voucher for Bella Italia, fancy going dutch?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ivanka may not have recognised the significance of this invitation. Either that or some kind of automatic defence mechanism meant her brain refused to process the concept of a date with Ashley, so she perhaps thought this was just a friendly invite from a mate, and not a romantic gesture. As a result, her response was not quite what Ash had in mind:

“Sure. Let’s invite JJ along too.”

Ashley was, as you would expect, heartbroken. Because as all good spend-thrifts know, a 2 for 1 voucher with 3 people is not maximising the saving.

So with that in mind, I have a little something for our happy couple… a 2 for 1 voucher at Bella Italia! So you can recreate that special evening – with or without JJ, it’s up to you.

Despite this initial hiccup, eventually the seeds of love were sewn and 6 years later here we are. The fact that Ashley proposed shortly after finding a discount voucher for suit hire is, I’m assured, completely coincidental.

When I came to write this speech, I thought I should include something about why Ashley and I have been friends for so long. I thought long and hard about this…. but came up with nothing. Fortunately being a compulsive geek, I have kept almost every email I have ever sent and received so thought I would go back and see what Ashley and I used to talk about back when we first met, and there I found the answer as to why he has been such an invaluable friend. For what I found was dozens of emails of him answering my annoying questions about how to do various pieces of coursework and programming exercises – I knew there must have been some reason why I put up with him!

But what I also found was that Ashley tended to use email mainly to forward jokes to his friends. And one in particular caught my eye – in total honesty Ashley sent this to me on 16th December 2001, and I would like to share it with you now. It’s called “Romance Mathematics” (yes, we really were that cool). According to this formula, a dumb man plus a dumb woman equals a one night stand. A smart man plus a dumb woman equals an affair. But a smart man plus a smart woman equals romance. Is that what we have here today?

Of course there is one more combination left… a dumb man plan plus a smart woman. And that ladies and gentleman, equals marriage.

Another traditional element of the best man’s speech is of course the tales of drunkenness and depravity involving the groom. Unfortunately as Ash and I were both born middle-aged – although in my case only in mind-set and not hairline – there was not much to tell. I had hoped that the stag weekend would throw up something revelatory, but alas I made the mistake of appointing JJ the head of debauchery and the best he could come up with was a shaving foam pie in the face. I’m reliably informed that won’t happen today, though Ash if you’ve got the 2 for 1 voucher for the dry cleaning I’d keep it handy.

There were however some snippets of conversation that I think warrant sharing… obviously it would be indiscreet of me to disclose too much, so I shall remove all context and just give you with the following three quotes from the groom himself:

  • “A camel is much more useful than a woman.” (someone might be getting the hump)
  • Referring to Chris, his sister’s boyfriend: “I’d swap Ivanka for Chris”. Look out Stacey.
  • “If I’m going to wake up with face full of shaving foam then I want JJ’s sausage afterwards”.

I’d like to tell you that these were less disturbing with the benefit of context, but they really weren’t.

Stag night aside I did try to seek out embarrassing stories from Ashley’s past – I even asked his little sister for any stories of his younger years, but nothing was forthcoming. Which can only mean that he has a completely clear record and has led a life of purity, integrity and decency. Or, more believably, that he has had anyone with anything to tell sworn to silence through bribery, blackmail or, most likely, sinister threat. Nobody, it seems, dares mess with Dr Brown. In fact after the cheap shots about his hairline I’m half expecting to find a horse’s head in my bed tonight.

But enough of his Lordship here, what of our beautiful bride? We can all see how beautiful she is, but what you can’t see with your eyes is that she has a beautiful personality to match. Always with an infectious smile on her face, always up for a good chat, always interested in other people, even those she’s just met – she really is one of the friendliest people I know. And knowing Ashley’s exacting standards, she must be doing something right to have won him round.

It’s almost 10 years to the day that I’ve known Ashley, and I can honestly say that the 6 he has been with Ivanka have been his happiest. He’s gone from being that geeky boy that I met in a corridor in 2001 to being the charming, successful man who has achieved amazing things, albeit with less hair.  And I’m sure his success and happiness has been more than partly thanks to his other half.

Ivanka, all joking aside, you’ve got one of life’s good guys, and I’m sure he will spend the rest of his life loving and supporting you and doing his utmost to bring you every happiness, as I’m sure you will him.

And if all else fails, at least he can always fix the computer.

Ladies and gentlemen that’s me done, so all that remains is for me to ask you to be upstanding….

And raise your glasses to Ivanka and Ashley, the bride and groom.

Categories: Life Tags: ,

The riots hit home

It must be bad if I’m actually writing a blog.

I went to bed last night having spent an uncomfortable few hours watching the coverage on BBC News. The images such as those of the furniture store burning out of control were simply astonishing and tragically compulsive. Around 11pm I started to hear rumours that trouble was brewing in Ealing, my adopted home of the past 6 years. Initially I dismissed this as rumour and exaggeration of the (justified) extreme police precaution. Last night you could put virtually any place name into the Twitter search box and you would find tweets claiming the area was under attack and that its branch of Nando’s had burned down. By 11pm I could no longer bear to hear any more, switched off the radio and went to sleep.

At 6am I awoke to news that there had indeed been violence in Ealing. Turning on Sky News I was met with images of destruction not unlike or anywhere near as severe as the pictures I had seen from Tottenham, Enfield, Hackney or many other areas over the past few days. Except this time the windows that were smashed were those of coffee shops I had relaxed in, restaurants I had dined in, and retailers I had shopped in. Selfish though it sounds, it definitely hurts more when it’s your home.

In the office today the mood was subdued, and most people had a story to tell of what they witnessed last night. One colleague told of a troublemaker hiding under bins in her garden, meters from her bedroom window. I consider myself fortunate that in my temporary lodgings in a relatively sleepy village near Heathrow (long story) I am immune from the direct of impact of events.

As many of you will know, I’m something of a Guardian reading, granola munching, fairtrade drinking lefty liberal. And as us types so often do, I’ve found myself torn on my feelings around all of this. Seeing the images of youths running riot in the streets, especially streets that I know and love, like most people my instinct is that they should be punished with the full force of the law, with a tragic feeling that there is no hope of “fixing” such mindless animals.

And yet at the same time I am unable to shake the desire to understand and explain their behaviour. Many times over recent days attempts to analyse the situation have been shouted down by those saying that there is no justification for the appalling violence and theft that we have seen and that those responsible for the trouble over recent nights must be punished quickly and firmly.

And I wholeheartedly agree. But what about the kids that are going to cause trouble tomorrow? Or next week? Or in five years time? Many say that firm policing and punishment would be a deterrent, and perhaps this is true. But do we want to live in a society where the reason people don’t commit crime is just because they don’t want to go to prison? I don’t. So therefore I do need to understand what has driven these people to make the utterly incorrect conclusion that this behaviour is necessary or acceptable.

I could write about how the education system has failed people and how too many children do not have a stable and loving family to look after and guide them. I could speculate over how the current spending cuts may be disproportionately affecting the poorest, youngest and most vulnerable in our society while the bankers and the wealthy continue to occupy a different world. I could explain how it’s all the fault of the coalition. I could argue that the 13 year Labour government must be to blame. Plenty of people have and will continue to write on the subject with varying degrees of accuracy and sensitivity, but clearly I’m not best placed to work this out. I’m a white, middle class accountant who has been fortunate to have received a good education and to have been raised by loving and decent parents who somehow instilled in me an implicit sense of right and wrong. I have a good job paying a decent wage, have never had to go hungry or cold and my only worries in life are superficial in comparison to many others.

Obviously I have an opinion which I could and at some point may share on this blog, but that’s another post for another day, and you’re unlikely to have your view changed by little old me anyway.

Whatever the underlying cause, regardless of whether you’re a bleeding heart liberal or a member of the Daily Mail “hang ‘em and flog ’em” brigade, the immediate question is what the police should do to stop the trouble in our cities tonight, and dare I say over the next few nights. Should they use water cannons? Should the army be called in? Should Blackberry Messenger be closed down? Should there be curfews? Should there be a media blackout? My answer…

I don’t know.

Outrageously, given me zero years of experience and training in the area of public order policing, I cannot tell you what should be done. Pathetic isn’t it… everyone else with an equal and even lesser understanding of the subject have been able to come up with a view, be they callers to radio phone-ins, members of the public interviewed on TV, politicians, colleagues, friends, random people on Twitter or some bloke on the bus that some other bloke overheard. As Simon Mayo ever aptly and succinctly tweeted earlier – “I never knew I followed so many experts in urban riots”.

In hindsight I’m sure that the police will be able to learn lessons from this. Who amongst us when faced with a new and unprecedented challenge can guarantee that we would get it right first time. For now they are simply doing the best they can under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. When people rant that the police “weren’t there” to protect them, that wasn’t out of choice. They weren’t sat in the canteen sipping tea and eating doughnuts. And for whatever failings there have been in the past or inevitably there will be in the future, I still trust them to make the best choices about how to deal with the situation. Frankly if I didn’t, I should probably be moving.

To finish on a positive note, as is so often the case when our city comes under fire and we witness the worst of human nature, soon after we witness the best. By 7am this morning “#riotcleanup” was trending on Twitter and throughout the day we have seen pictures of the “broom armies” out in force and getting our communities back to normal. I would have loved to join them in Ealing today, and like the police and our other emergency services the images of them hard at work remind us of the overwhelming number of decent people that we pass and ignore every day of our lives. Thanks to them my faith in the people of this city is maintained at a time when it would be so easy to despair. Thank you all.

Categories: News Tags: ,

I’m back

25th July 2007.

That was the last time I wrote a blog entry. It was about hidden tracks on CDs and how I thought they were a terrible idea. It ended as follows:

Sorry for lack of posts in the past, eek, 2 months. You know what I’m like!

Oh the irony.

Flash forward three and a half years to a rainy Saturday afternoon in February 2011 and I’ve finally got around to doing what I’ve been meaning to do for, ooh, about three and a half years. And so this blog is (re-)born. I have no idea if I’ll stick at it, but I’ve given WordPress $12 to host the domain name so perhaps for a little while I’ll feel obliged to get something for my money.

As an extra incentive to actually stick with this, I’m going to throw-forward (hey, I still know the radio lingo) to some posts which should appear in the next couple of days. First, a brief update of what the hell I’ve been doing for the past few years for those that don’t know. Second, an almighty rant about the disastrous changes to higher education policy. Oh yeah, I can do politics.

You’re excited now aren’t you?

Categories: General