Sunday, 11 January 2015

Harry Potter World

Admission time: I only read the first Harry Potter book and thought the movies dire.  I got up and walked out of the first one I was watching in the Barbican, I found it so boring; slept right through another one (no idea which one) in Lindau; and apparently I watched the very final one in the gorgeous Tuschinsky cinema in Amsterdam, though I can't really remember anything that happened in it.  Boom, fire, wands, wizards, things being blown up, baddies, goodies, owls and stuff.  Mmm, that's about all I can say on the subject.

Petey Potter and the Cheesy Grin of Fire

So having got that out of the way, what on earth was I thinking visiting Harry Potter World this week?  Well the boyfriend wanted to go and as I regularly make him do shit he's not interested in, it seemed fair enough.  Off we trundled.  And honestly?  It was amazing.

Practical Stuff

Let's get some practical info out of the way.  It's located at the Warner Brothers studios in Watford, north of London.  It's superbly well organised and part of that means it's never overcrowded, because you have to book your ticket in advance and they only let a certain number of people in for each tour.  In our case we had to wait a month to get a mid-week ticket in term time January, it's clearly so popular.

Teeby Potter outside, all excited

They've clearly spent a fortune on the place, but that's okay because they also clearly make a small fortune out of it.  Don't even think of going if you're on a tight budget.  Tickets were about £32 each; a veggie burger was £7.95.  Bars of chocolate in the shop were £3.95.  Cheap looking plastic wands were £25.  Two USB sticks and 2 photos of us riding broomsticks (more later) were £50.  Harry Potter sweaters were £79.  If you've got some Harry Potter mad kids, you could easily sink £300+ here in a day.

It might be best to go for an early afternoon visit, after you've eaten elsewhere, and also to feign a medical condition that requires hospitalisation just before the shop, which miraculously gets better after you've rushed your kids through and are safely on the other side.

You will need a full 3 hours for the visit by the way, so plan accordingly.   The staff are some of the nicest, best trained people I've come across in a public interface role.  They were absolutely lovely without exception, from the people keeping the (free) parking brilliantly organised, to the people doing the broomstick demos. 

Last thing: don't think it's all kids here.  I'd say the majority of people were actually 20 or 30 somethings.  I guess they're the age range who really grew up with both the books and the movies.  That's my way of saying, therefore if you're a little more mature, you won't feel a prat.

Pure Magic

Given how little I'm interested in Harry Potter, what amazed me was how interested I was in the actual film making details you learn.  There's a general introduction and couple of films, then you're free to wander through everything else at your own pace, which was appreciated.  And you do literally get to walk through several of the actual sets (the Hogwarts dining room is of course the most spectacular).

Inside the Hogwarts Dining Hall

What really struck me above anything else, was getting to appreciate the massive amount of creative work that goes into designing these things.  The sets are pure works of fantasy: taken from the descriptions of the book they've been transformed into "real life" using fibre glass and wood.  Everything is bespoke, everything is a product of a team's artistic creation.

As you visit the sets you also see some of the tricks of the movie trade, like "false perspective" that allows two people to sit in the front of a pub at a regular sized table, but the set behind them is far smaller and tapers off into the distance.  When filmed, it looks huge.

Some street set thing. Dunno what it's called.

There are sections on the various special effects, the creatures and their animation, the costumes, make up, props, the graphic design, and scaled models of various elements.  You realise that a small army of people is involved and literally millions go into these things (the total cost for all 8 films actually came to $1.155 billion.  However they took a total of $7.723 billion at the box office - meaning it wasn't a bad investment by any means).

If the above sounds in any way dry - it isn't.  It's magical (see what I did there!?), fascinating, beautifully presented and I was just captivated by it all.  I guess it doesn't matter what the movie is: if you don't have knowledge of how one is created, any one would do.  The thing with Harry Potter is the sets, costumes etc are all so incredibly beautiful, and the production budgets were so huge, it makes an excellent example to see.

Enormous Scale Model of Hogwarts. I think.


There's a café mid way through the tour, which is a fine idea and ideal opportunity to drop some more dosh of course.  It's one of two places in the world where they serve Butterbeer: Universal Studios in Orlando and here.   Apparently it's something that comes up in the Harry Potter movies, but if you were listening earlier, you'll remember I was either asleep or absent or in a trance so wouldn't remember.

Even Ste almost vommed

Looking on the net, it's basically sweetened condensed milk, whipped butter, ice-cream soda, and a butter scotch topping.  It's simply the most delicious thing you've ever tasted - for the first 5 seconds.  You then want to projectile vomit everywhere. 

Oh and it's £2.95 for a tiny little cup (still enough to make you sick though!), unless you want a souvenir tankard, in which case you have to hand over your mother, your house, and your first born child.  Rather cutely on the recycling bins in the café they put "Butterbeer" on the signs under "Liquids".  Nice touch.

Yup, ours went straight in here

Broom Flying

Everyone gets a chance to fly on a broom.   This is fabulous [-ly embarrassing].  Essentially the entire queue is standing there with nothing to do except watch you and your performance on a screen.  The queues aren't painfully long (remember, timed entries only, not overcrowded etc) but still, there are probably 50 people at a time watching you.

Ste and I of course both decided to go full out with as many little facial expressions and gestures as possible, to make it even more embarrassing still.  You are filmed with a plain green background, but get to see where you are flying on a screen.  A dude tells you things like "wave to your friend" or "shake your fist" and you over-act accordingly.

Here are our efforts - it's a scandal, frankly, that we weren't selected for a major role in the actual movies, all things considered.  If the embedded movies below don't work, click here for Ste; and here for Peter, which will take you to Youtube.



It was FUN - and of course there were no prices displayed anywhere for if you wanted to order a CD or USB stick with your performance on it.  £50 for our two, plus two printed pictures.  *Cough, splutter, collapse etc...* but of course we had to have them.  They may be the best thing you have ever seen in fact.  Come on, admit it.


So here's my recommendation.  Go.  It's that simple.  It's one of the best days out I've ever experienced and I've done a lot of days out in my time!  I absolutely loved it, and so, clearly do the reviewers on TripAdvisor.  As at the time of writing 11,514 of 13,910 people ranked it excellent (five owl eyes) which is a staggering achievement.  Yours truly is one of them.  Many of the reviews are absolutely gushing and quite rightly so. 

Amazing. I even managed to photo No 3, not No 4, Privet Drive.

Just imagine if I actually liked Harry Potter how even more positive this piece would be!  If you're a fan, just do it.  And make sure you post your broomstick video for us all to laugh at, of course :-)

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Happy Silvester

It's 31 December, a day called Silvester in Germany.  Apparently this is something to do with some dead bloke in a dress who lived in Rome, but I prefer the alternative explanation that it's named after a kick-ass cat who tried to do us all a service by dishing up that annoying little Tweety Bird thing for supper.

Happy Silvester!

Anyway,  I'm in Manchester with Ste for New Year, have eaten enough food the past couple of weeks to last me somewhere into April, have no intention of moving more than 1.5 metres in any direction today, and so thought I'd do a quick round up of events since my Iceland trip at the beginning of November.

Life Without Twitter

This is a bit of an odd thing to say, but I'm actually really enjoying life without Twitter.  I found it a bit hard at first, it having become so much part of my routine.  It was always the first thing I'd look at in the morning, and I hadn't realised quite how much time I was devoting to responding to mentions and trying (and generally failing) to come up with interesting or amusing things to photograph or tweet.  Not being on it left a bit of a void initially, but now I find it really quite liberating to wake up to a phone with no notifications showing.  It's quieter, calmer and I'm enjoying it.


Last year Ste was in China, so I decided not to bother with Christmas.  No tree, no presents, no stuffing myself, no mindless commercialisation.  I just wanted a year off from it all.  Ahhhh that was nice, and just as I hoped, that break meant I was genuinely in the mood for it this year.  Ste came to Suffolk in mid December and I'd gone the whole hog, getting the cottage ready.

Advent is always the nicest time I think: the lead up to Christmas when I like lots of candles in the house, it smells of tree, and its all very gemütlich.  I bought new decorations, ordered an advent ring from Germany, had a wreath on the front door, put lights in the window, and we did loads of baking and snuggly pre-Christmas things.

Advent rings remind me of Weihnachten from my Kindheit

Pride of place on the tree incidentally went to my ace ceramic collie decoration sent all the way from Kansas by Lisa (CrazyMom from Twitter) - thank you so much, I *love* it! If you look closely you'' see he's holding a string of Christmas baubles in his snout.  N'aww.

Germany Trip

The weekend before Christmas we drove off to Germany to visit my family.  It was Ste's first time meeting them and they all made him so amazingly welcome.  He was all nervous about not speaking German, but it's amazing how easy it is to simultaneously translate blocks of conversation.  We're well used to it, as my Dad's competence in the language stretched pretty much only to ordering beer.  I'll admit that's not a bad basic skill to have, all things considered though.

My great aunt, Tante Frieda, is 93 next year and is the only one of the relatives left who remembers anything of West Prussia, where the family is originally from.  She is in amazing shape, walks bolt upright, loves working in the garden, can still speak fluent Polish, and looks completely after herself.  She only gave up cycling when she was 86.  On 19 January 2015 it's the 70th anniversary of the day the family had to leave their farm and all their possessions behind and had to flee for their lives on a horse and cart, as the Red Army swept across Central Europe.  The story of her sister, my grandmother, is here, if you haven't read it before. 

Tante Frieda's 90th back in 2012

It meant so much to me that Ste has got to meet her - though truthfully if anyone in the family is going to reach 100 it will be her.  She even baked especially for Ste's arrival, which was just gorgeous.

As well as meeting the family, we visited the Christmas Market in Münster and our friend, the lovely @Amwii (Anne Marie) from Holland drove over for the night and we got suitably trashed on a mixture of schnapps, wine and beer.  Ste somehow managed to have a quite long conversation with the chef of the Chinese restaurant we ate in, which is impressive given he was speaking Mandarin and the other guy was speaking Cantonese.  It's amazing what five glasses of Schnapps can do really.

We had baked a collection of cinnamon and shortbread cookies for Amwii and brought them with us.  Our pride and joy was this Lederhosen wearing teddy, created especially for her.  She asked if he was wearing nappies and is therefore now officially dead to us.

A Lederhosen Bear. OBVIOUSLY.

Brick Farm

From Germany we came back to Suffolk for a Christmas party at Yaxley Hall for the 45 people we've been employing at our farm over the past year.  Things are moving on apace and they'd been working flat out to meet a deadline on 22 December for our last valuation before we begin sales from Easter onwards.  We're on time, on budget and on plan with our Grand Design to create our beautiful 43 bedroom luxury, organic, countryside, holiday spa retreat.  Take that, Kevin McCloud. 

Brick Farm

Our holding website has been updated with some images and text giving an outline of what we're doing if you're interested:  The solid oak framed Great Barn, which will house a double-height clubroom, spa wing with gym, sauna, hammam, dip pool, and a further wing with private cinema, private dining, billiard room, bar and kitchen, is now all watertight and ready for its interior fit-out.  2015 is going to be a big year for the farm and it's a great position for us to be kicking off from.

One of our barns inside. View from the bedroom.

Christmas 2014

Christmas was spent with Ste's family in Liverpool.  Momma Ste is an absolute star and produced the most delicious food throughout, including a special veggie roast for me on the 25th.  Given she has four foster children, as well as Ste and his brother to take care of, this was seriously no mean feat.  We played loads of board games, drank too much, ate too much, and it was all just wonderful.  Thank you so much all of the McCormick family for my first Christmas with you.  It was a delight.

Hmm. The raised wine glass is a bit of a theme.

Puppy Search

2014 was of course a sad year for me in terms of losing my beloved Oscar.  We have been looking pretty much non-stop since August for a new baby collie, but there are so few around it's been quite a task.  A couple of days ago we drove down to Lincolnshire and met this beauty.  He's distantly related to Oscar, both of the dad and mum's side, and his dad in fact looks the spitting image of Oscar. 

5 Week Old Fluff Ball
He's a blue merle rough collie, which is what we were looking for, and has absolutely beautiful markings.  Essentially think of a silver blue/grey version of Oscar, and that's him.  All of the dogs at the breeder were extremely friendly and happy, which obviously bodes well for his temperament.  Only his mum, Boo, was a bit grumpy, but given she had 9 puppies and is working overtime to be protective of them, I think that's fair enough.

Will he be ours...?
Before we get too attached to him though, the dad's owner has first option on either him or his sister and we don't know which one he's going for yet.  If he goes for the sister, this boy is ours at the end of January.  He will be called Hector. 

If he falls through, we may have the option of a puppy from Oscar's dad's breeder at the end of February.  We don't know the colours yet, but a Blue from there will also be called Hector; a Tricolour (like Oscar) will be called Leopold, and a Sable/white will be Florian.  As you can see we've gone for real working class hero names.  Kinda.  Either way, it looks as though our search is finally closing in.  Watch this space for updates...

New Year 2015

Despite enjoying my life being quieter without Twitter, I do miss contact with many of you.  I hope you have a fantastic time this evening, whatever you are up to, and wish you all the very best for 2015.  I'm looking forward hugely to the coming year, and hope it brings you everything you hope for. 

With love


Saturday, 29 November 2014


I've promised to keep some personal updates coming and it seems a nice idea to turn this blog into a kind of journal/ photo album to remind me of things in the future.  So here's a nice reminder of our Iceland trip a couple of weeks ago and some thoughts/ reflections on the place.

Iceland Trip 3/11/14 - 5/11/14

Flying Birthday Visit

I'd been to Iceland for 4 days once before, in July 2001.  I wasn't sure whether going in late autumn would be such a cunning idea, given the length of the days and what I assumed would be really bad weather.  Mind you, it had rained pretty much the whole time in July and hit a maximum of 13C AND it was Ste's birthday on 4 November and you can't really change when that falls.  He might be a queen, he's not the Queen, so doesn't get two birthdays.  So, off we went just for 2 nights, just literally to go somewhere cool (perhaps in both senses) to celebrate his 22nd.

I wanted everything to be really special, so we had valet parking (oooh get us) and then continued proceedings with free food and drink in the Manchester airport business lounge.  It was Ste's first visit to one, and one he made the most of.  I think he managed to pack away four bacon rolls, which is probably a good proportion of some poor pig's entire leg.  We flew Icelandair, which was really calm, classy and lovely.  I was surprised it was only a 2.5 hour flight, given we started a bit further north than London to start with.

Free food \o/ Free Food \o/

We arrived about 3pm to the most utterly brilliant blue skies and sunshine imaginable.  Iceland's landscape is like no other.  There are volcanoes, lava fields, the dramatic coast line, and miles and miles of unspoilt nothing.  It was spectacular to see it all so clearly.

I'd looked into packages with the various excursions I wanted to do included, but decided a hire car and doing it ourselves would be much more flexible, and more pleasant than hanging around for transfer buses etc.  So we picked up our little VW Polo and our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is between Keflavik airport and the capital Reykjavik, just under an hour away.  The first thing I checked was for the snowflake symbol on the tyres: yup, it has snow tyres and they were going to come in handy quite unexpectedly the following day.

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a dream location.  It's a large man-made pool with water from the neighbouring geothermal plant, and it's surrounded by blackened lava fields.  The water comes out of the ground at absurdly high temperatures and pressures, but by the time it reaches the pool it's "only" around 39C.  That is the most delightful temperature on a day where it's 2C, as it was for us.   There's a typically beautiful Nordic glass, wood and steel complex where you get changed, can shower and eat... and then step straight into the milky blue water of the lagoon.  You can see the sun going down behind Ste and the steam coming off the water.  Heaven.

Blue Lagoon Posterboy!

People advised me on Twitter that the "in water massage" couldn't be missed, so I thought what the heck, it's his birthday and we've come all this way.  So I booked us each one, not knowing what to expect.  It's pretty much what it says on the label: you lie on a table in the water for the first part, then they transfer you to a float while they massage your head, shoulders and face.  You're wrapped in a warm towel the whole time, and when you're on your back it feels like you're in amniotic fluid.  You finish up in some kind of trance: it's an amazing, amazing experience.

Ste back in the womb

The water at the lagoon is very rich in silica and other minerals: apparently it's extremely good for people with various skin conditions.  You can scoop it up off the bottom of the pool, or there are barrels of it where you can paste it all over your face.  We of course couldn't resist the opportunity of this and had to do a double-selfie.  Look at the colour of the sky behind us: during the 3 hours we spent there it went from brilliant sunshine, through sunset into the most perfect clear night with stars visible with zero light pollution.  The Lagoon stays open until 8pm off-season and up to 11pm in the summer.

SMILE: It's Halloween!

By the time we headed on to the hotel to check in the temperature was down to about -2C.   The roads are smooth, straight and easy to drive on and we checked in about 8.30pm.  We stayed at the Hilton Nordica, which I can't praise more highly.  Hiltons can be a bit [a lot] characterless and bland, but this one had some real Nordic design flair about it, including the stunning 11 storey central spiral staircase.  They upgraded us to a gorgeous junior suite too, which is always guaranteed to get me to write a nice review on Tripadvisor. Yes, I am that cheap/easy. 

Not often you feel the need to photo a hotel staircase

An added bonus for us of the Hilton for me was the unexpected surprise of finding that Reykjavik's best vegetarian restaurant is literally a minute away, across the road.  It's called Glo and serves huge, healthy, organic, delicious veggie meals in a really stylish environment.  I hate veggie restaurants that look like grotty student dives where a free helping of food poisoning comes with every meal, so this was bliss.

Even better there was a gaggle of chatty lesbians having supper, which added to the atmosphere.  Iceland is famously LGBT friendly (they had the first out lesbian PM, social democrat Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir back in 2009) and it's worth just noting that we didn't have a moment's awkwardness checking into the hotel or at any other time in the visit.  In fact, the only time we've had any awkwardness anywhere about being a same sex couple was in a supposed trendy urban hotel in Shoreditch (the Hoxton: yeah you deserve to be named and shamed, fuck you) and in a tea rooms in North Wales where presumably if my partner had been a sheep all would have been fine.

We pottled down to the centre of Reykjavik after supper for a walk round.  Almost 2/3 of the country's 325,000 inhabitants live in and around the capital, but it feels like a small, cosy, typically Nordic town.  The houses are brightly painted, often with metal or wooden sides, it's prosperous, tidy and safe.  90% of all buildings in Iceland are heated by free, endlessly renewable geothermal power, so the air is clean.  Although the country took a real battering during the 2008 economic crisis, GDP per capita is still $50,000 and unemployment is under 4.5%.

Hallgrímskirkja. Try saying that when you're drunk.

My favourite building here is the parliament building: the AlþingiIt's the world's oldest parliament, dating back to 930, but the building it's located in looks like a British provincial town hall.  It's so wonderfully understated.  I started boring Ste about the linguistic meaning ("All" means everything, or great in old Germanic, and a "thing" is a meeting) but the sub-zero temperatures were making his eyes glaze over.  I think it was the temperature, anyway.  The Hallgrímskirkja Church towers over the capital from every angle and is a futuristic 1930s art-deco design.  It's looks all very Gotham City.  Apart from that, Reykjavik is charming enough, but to be frank it's not a reason for visiting the country.


I woke Ste up at 6.30am, which is always guaranteed to go down well.  You can see how full of beans and the joys of life he is in the photo below.  The point of the card is that it contained his surprise: "This card entitles the lucky birthday boy to a 1.5 hour Husky Ride Experience with Dog Sledding Iceland.  Begins at 10.00am on 4 November 2014. Bring gloves, a coat and a camera!"  The cuddly husky that accompanied the card is the one I photographed for the front a few weeks before and ordered from Moonpig.  We later christened him "Grauman" after the cutest, naughtiest, husky in the pack that pulled our sleigh.  He had to wear a cone when he wasn't out working, to stop him from licking his balls, which is always endearing.

It's awake! Birthday Boy :-)

The husky ride was 1.5 hours drive from the hotel, in the south of Iceland.  It was still pitch black until well past 9am, which is interesting.  One of the main arguments against Britain going onto double-summer time (i.e. being in the same time zone as almost all the rest of the EU) is that the Scots don't want it to be dark in the morning in the winter.  Iceland is far further north than Scotland, and by rights should be an hour behind us because of their geographic position.  Instead they've chosen to be in the same time zone as Britain, so that it stays lighter later in the evening.  The flipside of that is it's dark in the mornings, and they're apparently happy with this.  Today, for example, sunrise was at 10.40am in Reykjavik and sunset was at 3.52pm.  If I had the choice I'd do just the same.  Sunrise in London today would be at 8.42am and sunset at 4.56pm, if we did the same thing Iceland does.

Husky Ride

So after a nice long hotel breakfast we drove off, in the dark, and arrived at the isolated farm where the huskies spend their time when they're not up on a glacier for the summer season, or on lower snow covered land in the winter.  This meant it was a ride on a sleigh with wheels, over dry land.  It was pretty much the same experience (particularly the "cold factor" given the 1C temperature and rain) and we had 8 dogs pulling us.  Working in those temperatures for them is apparently the equivalent of us running a half marathon in the tropics: they can't be pushed too hard as it really is warm for them.

Husky Ride!

They're technically Greenlandic Dogs, rather than Siberian Huskies.  Each can pull up to 200kg on their own, so they made light weight of us, even despite breakfast and Ste's bacon rolls the day before.  We were seated and the lovely musher stood behind us and talked to us throughout about the dogs.  Here's a short video of the part of the proceedings!  At the end we got to meet all the dogs in person, including one who had been the star of David Guetta/ Sia's mesmerising She Wolf video, filmed in Iceland. Apparently she's all full of herself now she's a movie star.  Below is real life Grauman back in his run.  Bless him: he was SO happy pulling the sleigh, and so miserable when he had his cone put back on his head.

Poor Licky Balls :(
Doing dog-related is bound to make Ste incredibly happy, and I think he thought the day's treats were over after we'd given the huskies cuddles.  Instead I told him to get in the car as we had more places to visit.


We left the south coast behind as the rain really set in late morning.  It was around 1.5 hours to our next stop, which was north and a lot higher geographically.  I hadn't really thought that it would snow, but all of a sudden the rain changed to sleet, then a few kilometres on to thick white snowflakes.  The roads are untreated, and this would cause utter chaos back home.

Winter Wonderland

Everyone is driving on winter tyres though (including us, remember?!) and I was amazed at how the little Volkswagen handled with them.  Going up hills or around roundabouts, all through fresh snow, proved to be no issue whatsoever. The scenery became beyond beautiful, especially with the snow.  It was even better than I'd remembered it from my trip before in 2001.

We stopped for lunch at Geysir, which gives its name to all geysers in English - it was the first hot water spring of this type known to Europeans.  I was really impressed there was no entry charge to pay: you just park and wander up freely.  It's actually a collection of springs and sulphorous pools bubbling out of the ground, with Strokkur doing all the money-shot work, as Geysir himself has temporarily stopped blowing water.  Apparently he will start up again after the next earthquake in the area. 

In the meantime Ste decided to play with his little geezer in the car park, which I thought made quite a charming pic.  The geysir "blows" about every 5-8 minutes and there's always a massive "ooooh" from the assembled crowd, followed by a "did you get it?".  The snowy sky doesn't do the scene justice: if you are here on a sunny day the photographs are absolutely stunning.  That said, do click here on this link to me videoing the whole thing with Ste's obligatory "did you get it?" at the end.

That guy is smoking!
Gullfoss Waterfall

From Geysir it's only around half an hour to Gullfoss, the next surprise on the trip: Iceland's Golden Waterfall.  It's the largest in Europe and apparently more impressive than Niagra.  It's a three-staged staircase that ends up in a 100 foot drop and was magnificent in summer.  In winter we just stood entranced for ages (well, between selfies anyway).  I feel this is worthy of several photos for the album, so here we go:

The main "Staircase". Look at the cold in my eyes!

To get an idea of scale, those are two people on the right

Double Selfie. No he isn't far taller than me. He's on a rock.

Our trusty little Volkswagen Polo hire car.

Afternoon Tea

It was now late afternoon, so we drove back through the Þingvellir National Park the 2.5 hours or so to Reykjavik for Ste's last birthday treat.  The whole way beautiful view after beautiful view greeted us.  It stopped snowing, the sun came out and then dusk arrived.  We got back, had a hot shower, and then it was time for Icelandic Afternoon Tea at the Hilton.

We do love a good afternoon tea!

I obviously had the veggie version, but we're not convinced that Ste didn't have both reindeer and puffin for his.  I particularly love the way Ste is mainly vegetarian when I'm not around, and then sensitively eats anything that breathes when I'm present. And SORRY KIDS, if Father Christmas doesn't make it this year with all your presents you'll know why.  Ste ate Rudolph.

Bye bye Rudolph, Donner and Blitzen

With that it was time to snuggle up in the world's most comfortable hotel bed, watching TV, and getting an early night for our 8am flight back to Manchester the following day.  Ste gave me the most incredibly perfect birthday in Beijing in April, so I did my best to return the favour.

Iceland, EEA and Schengen

After we returned the car and checked in at the airport, I mused how irritating it was that we had to go to a separate section of the airport reserved for US and UK flights.  Yes, Iceland is in Schengen and has signed up to the EU free movement of people as part of its membership of the EEA.  Anyone from within the EU can live and work here and claim its no doubt extremely generous social benefits if people were driven to do such things (they aren't). 

I thought about all those things you hear about Britain being a special case (We're an island! Our space is limited and our resources would be put under unbearable strain! They would all come pouring over to take advantage of our benefits!) would seem to apply far more so to a socially minded country like Iceland with just 325,000 inhabitants. Yet you can take a flight from Warsaw or Budapest to Reykjavik with no passport check and there's no equivalent of entering Fortress Britain.  In fact Iceland relies hugely on immigration to get the skills it requires and has no issue about the passportless European free travel zone that Schengen represents.

2014: A Year for Travel

This year was a phenomenal one for me with foreign travel.  I keep a little record of where I've been to each year and a grand total (currently 65 countries visited ever).  A "good year" averages about 14 countries a year for me.  Three times I've been to 17 countries in a single year.  2014 was a new record: from China to New Zealand to Iceland to Australia to all round Europe, I visited 22 countries this year.

World Domination Plans continue..  65 countries and counting!

It was the year in which I visited the land of the red earth, and the land of ice.  And on that note I'll leave these two beautiful images of similarly sized massive lumps of rock that sum up my 2014 travels for me.  The first photo was at Ayer's Rock (Uluru) in Australia in February.  It was 40C.  The second was at the Þingvellir National Park in Iceland in November.  It was -2C.  What a contrast.  The world holds so many treasures: here's to much more exploration in the coming years!



Tuesday, 18 November 2014

It's Been Fun

I deleted my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago to take a break and think about whether I still wanted to engage in social media.  The immediate trigger for that was someone I thought was an actual friend deliberately being a nasty jerk to me online (subtweeting about my search for a new puppy after losing my dog Oscar, no less...), but I've taken a step back and thought about the bigger picture.

I've had some wonderful times on Twitter and with blogging over the last five years or so.  I've seen Twitter grow from a tiny community where everyone seemed to know each other into a much broader and more popular way of communicating.  In some ways that's a great thing: it's supposed to be about the free flow of ideas, chatting to people in all fields of life that you might not ordinarily have access to, and broadening your horizons.  I've met up with about 200 people from Twitter in real life and developed some lovely friendships.  I've even met the boyfriend of my dreams on here, and in Spring we'll be celebrating three years together.  Somehow I've picked up just shy of 5000 followers, even though I really don't have that much of substance to tweet about.

However, I've noticed that Twitter has also lost much of its innocence over the years.  It's become a place where there's a lot of abuse and nastiness just because people "can".  I remember the shock of this type of thing happening the first time and how it sent ripples of upset through the community I knew online.  Now we've become numbed to it: people throw out threats, abuse, hatred, take it onto themselves to language/thought police strangers, and argue endlessly for absolutely no constructive purpose whatsoever.  It's only the very worst stuff that gets any attention.  The constant low-level criticism, judgmentalism and fractious abusive sniping doesn't even register any more.   It may be amplified for me because of the "curse of the 2000 followers" that people talk about: your tweets get retweeted outside your familiar circle much more widely above this level, and it invites people who don't know you to kick off aggressive arguments and attacks.  Whatever the reason, I'm experiencing it more and more.  I just don't come online to receive abuse from strangers; and even if you block them straight off, a bit of a bitter taste remains.

As an example of this, two weeks ago I had a serious of four anonymous trolling comments on this blog, apropos nothing, calling me a "fucking sodomite", an "anti-white bigoted cunt", a "Muslim lover", telling me to go back to my "London shit-hole and die of AIDS surrounded by my immigrant chums" and calling me "a Euro-loving, bum-banging, left-wing, immigrant-loving, shirt-lifting cunt".  It contained a number of threats and ended by wishing that a Muslim cut "my fucking head off".  This was from someone purporting to live in my sleepy little home village in Suffolk, which I seriously doubt.  The funny thing is of course I'm pretty middle of the road politically, and hardly a raving Marxist.  God knows what type of abuse those we tweet or blog regularly on political matters attract.  In one respect it's all completely laughable, but on another it's not exactly pleasant to receive on a Saturday morning, even if I know it shouldn't be taken seriously, and it's just a keyboard warrior wanking him or herself into a frenzy.  I'd like to say this was an isolated example, but it's not: it's happened before, and it will happen again. 

I am also capable of putting it into context and know that the nastiness online is less than 1% of all the interactions I have.  This blog has had over 640,000 views since I set it up in January 2011 with my first piece, which was a eulogy to my then recently deceased grandmother.  That's an average of about 5000 readers per post of my 135 articles, which is staggering.  So many people have commented kindly on my thoughts and writing, and I've loved the positive feedback.  It genuinely makes me happy that people want to read what I have to say, and that they want to share it with others. 

On the other hand, it is the 1% that sticks in your mind, even if it shouldn't.  I'm so blessed to have a pretty wonderful "real" life.   I have a beautiful home, travel huge amounts, have a lovely family, good friends, am materially well-off and in great health, our work project to build a gorgeous luxury farm spa retreat is progressing beautifully.  I have a boyfriend I adore and we're about to finally get a new collie puppy together, which just fills me with excitement and happiness.

All that being the case, I have to ask myself why I should let my "real life" be polluted by the online nastiness, the homophobic abuse, and the judgements of others, none of which I would otherwise ever experience offline.  I'd simply never put up with this to my face from friends, family, colleagues or strangers -  so I've started querying why I should voluntarily allow notifications to flash up on my phone with this thing.  Another aspect is that although I'm not the one sending this stuff, I do feel it is my responsibility if I allow it to continue.  If it's bothering me, I should move away from the harm.  And if I conduct a simple cost/benefit analysis of my whole online experience, I'm afraid the costs now outweigh the benefits for me. 

Therefore, it's time to close up shop and delete my account for good.  I'll let the minority of unpleasant people I've come across stew in their own unhappiness and unpleasantness.  I just don't want or need to be part of it.  I know others feel very differently about Twitter and I hope you go on enjoying it as much as I once did.  I really like and care about many of you who be reading this.  I'm sorry if you'll miss me, and I'm sure I'll miss you too.

As for my blog, there's little point in continuing to blog on a regular basis, as my posts won't ever get the readership they did before without a platform to promote them.  That said, I'd like this to be farewell, but not goodbye - so I will be writing the odd personal blog post from time to time if anyone is interested, with updates on the farm project, pictures of the puppy, and photos of our various adventures abroad (For a start, Ste is meeting my entire German family just before Christmas for the first time.  The only German he knows is what I taught him, namely: when you sneeze and someone says "Gesundheit", you answer "Kartoffelsalat".  That might not be entirely correct, so this could be interesting).   You're more than welcome to drop by here and have a look.  I've disabled anonymous comments though, as that's one thing I definitely won't miss. 

Thanks to anyone who's ever interacted with me pleasantly on Twitter, who's amused or cheered me up, taught me something new, or who I've got to know well enough to have considered an online friend.

And as ever, thanks for reading my blog.

Macht's gut!


[Insert suitably cheesy smiling pic]

Saturday, 25 October 2014

EU Budget

The right wing press is having a field day.  The papers are full of headlines such as "One Step Nearer to the EU Exit", "Britain closer to quitting EU", "Cameron defies wealth tax" etc.  The language of the press is one of war.  War against our closest neighbours and most important trading partners.  Our prime minister banged his hand down on the table, went red and puffy in the face and spoke of his anger and said "I'm not going to pay that bill!"  Certain backbench Tories screamed that the demand was "illegal" and he was told to ignore it.

Judging by Twitter, Europhiles are left wringing their hands in despair, almost giving up the fight.  This is a gift for the Eurosceptics, must be an inside job by a UKIPer at Brussels, total idiocy by the EU, makes it hard to defend them etc.  Certainly a chunk of Labour is seeking to out Tory the Tories, as they have done on immigration, by rushing to get behind the populist call to stop Brussels in its latest outrage.  Let's just turn the pan off boil for a moment and look at all this a bit more dispassionately.

PM "goes to war"

We're being Singled Out

The first general reaction yesterday seemed to be that Britain was being singled out by "Brussels" by arbitrarily having a bill slapped on it to pay a great deal of money in a completely unreasonable space of time.  People were asking if this was deliberate spite by Brussels, or whether it was designed to push us out.  In total it was, perhaps predictably, a typically UK centric reaction.  It is of course the one that's being carried through in the tabloids. 

I looked at the story and asked myself whether any one else had been given a similar demand.   It turns out that 11 of the 28 member states have in fact been asked to pay more.  So clearly it's not just us.

Our figure, €2.1 billion, is however far larger than any other country's.  Except the British economy and population is far larger than say the Netherlands': we have 64 million inhabitants, they have 16 million people.  So I took the figures that were being reported and did a 3 second calculation.  We are being asked for €2.1 billion extra; the Netherlands are being asked for €642 million (I had to go to the Dutch press for that as the reaction was so uniquely UK-centric at first).

So that's a demand of €32 per person for the year from every Briton and one of... oh, 20% more than that, or €38 per person, from every Dutch person.

Suddenly it's becoming a bit tricky to see this as a hate campaign directed solely at Perfidious Albion, masterminded by a garlic munching Frenchman and a beer-swilling German, over a waffle in a side street Belgian café, determined to get their revenge for our success at Empire and the War.

It's "Brussels' Fault"

Some people talk about Brussels as if it is some huge amorphous blob made up of foreigner bureaucrats that is designed solely to make our lives miserable.   It is all imposed on us from abroad, with no democratic input whatsoever.  They seem oblivious to the fact that all the important decision making, the really key stuff, is made by a body called the European Council.

Who is the European Council made up of?  It's the heads of state or government of the national states.  Yep: it's David Cameron for the United Kingdom.  It's a tiny body: 28 people for each one of the member states, plus the Council president and the Commission president.  This isn't thousands of foreign civil servants.  It's our democratically elected national leaders setting out the political agenda and workings of the EU. 

The Council determines how the EU works, by creating and amending treaties, and by making decisions.  One of those decisions was made back in 2007 and it was unanimously adopted.  It wasn't anything sexy or exciting: it concerned the method for calculating the annual EU budget, and in particular the dreary way statistics are calculated.  Once the rule is made, it's then over to the hordes of bureaucrats at the Commission, Eurostat and other EU bodies.  Remember every one of these bodies was set up as a result of the decisions of the democratically elected national leaders, to carry out their will.

Don't like the rules?  Blame our leaders, who created them.  It's not the fault of people whose job it is to carry the rules as they have been instructed to.  If they're doing their job poorly they deserve criticism, but if they are applying the rules as they are supposed to, it is hard to blame "Brussels".  Unless you're a complete idiot, of course.

(Picture in no way linked to preceding sentence)

Why the Demand?

Britain has been consistently reporting too low values for our Gross National Income over the last years.  Hence there has been a large adjustments upwards.  It's that simple.  We weren't happy with the way the statistics were calculated by everyone, wanted the system to be fairer, and have now found out we've been underpaying. 

The reason the story has hit the news is that the FT published a leaked draft report on the statistics.  You can read here in detail why the report says what it does, but here it is in essence:
  • In May of every year the EU Commission is required to meet with representatives of each state to estimate what their Gross National Income will be for the coming year.  
  • Every autumn they meet again to see if there are any revisions to the numbers.  This is a purely mathematical revision.
  • It enables the Commission to set the revised figures in stone on 1 December of each year, as it is required to do.
This year, the difference was that because Heads of Government insisted on it, the statistics provided in May were calculated on a different basis.  The aim was to make sure each country calculates its statistics in exactly the same way, to ensure what everyone pays is fair and above board.  It's not a bad principle.  The calculations used 1995 as a benchmark year.

Patrizio Fiorilli is the spokesman for the EU budget commissioner.  He commented "The timing is far from ideal, but there are rules we have to follow."   As for using 1995 as the benchmark year for calculating the impact of GNI figures: “Member states including Britain insisted on this. It is their decision,” he said.

This is a one-off large scale revision: in the UK's case it actually relates to 11 years of underpayment that works out to £155 million a year on average.  It is a historic correction, not an ongoing demand for massive new contributions as many no doubt think.  The Commission confirmed this yesterday: "With all these issues now cleared, future such corrections will again be rather minor, as they were in recent years."

Addendum: What hope is there when the national broadcaster wrongly claims as it did in this report, that it is an annual additional £1.7 billion that has to be paid?  (They've since corrected it):

The Financial Times by contrast described the £155 million figure as "a sum that would barely deserve a footnote in the annual UK national accounts.

The 1 December deadline

The Commission hasn't plucked this date from the air either.  It is the date that is set out in the rules that are followed every year, as described above.   Apparently the PM found out about the issue on Thursday.  The government admits the Chancellor knew on 21 October, but didn't tell the PM until 23 October.  If this is such a massive issue (more on that below) you'd think George would have texted Dave and warned him WW3 was about to break out.  Maybe he didn't have his mobile number.  In turn, the Commission confirmed member countries were told of the revisions on 17 October.  You'd assume someone would have sent an email off to the Chancellor a bit faster than all that.

Our representatives in all this, the people on the ground, are employees of the Treasury.  A good question was whether they realised that there would be a large revision, or whether it was sprung on them.  They are the ones who prepared the statistics for the meeting in May.  It seems a little unlikely that someone didn't notice the massive difference in the GNI figures that led to the €2bn recalculation.

HM Treasury.  George's patch
Labour’s new shadow Europe minister, Pat McFadden, said last night that he had found evidence that ministers must have been aware of the upcoming changes five months ago when they were sent an Office for National Statistics report which stated that growth figures would be used in a recalculation of Britain’s contribution to the EU budget.

Did the Government delay making news public about this expected revision to the UK’s EU contribution because of fears about how it would play out for the Conservative party?” he asked.  Never!  Our PM would never allow a paralysing fear of UKIP to affect something as important as this just because of his party interests.  Surely.

Turning the Tables

The Prime Minister has ruled out paying the €2.1 billion on 1 December.  He hasn't ruled out paying it entirely on a different date.  He really can't: he is part of the club that has agreed the way all this works.  It's not up for him to argue that rules should be bent: a constant criticism of others is that they don't stick to the agreed rules and should do so.  It is also interesting to imagine a situation where it transpired the UK had been overpaying, rather then underpaying.  I can't imagine we'd be throwing our toys out of the pram if that were the case. 

It's the exact position Germany and France are in, for example.  They have been overpaying for years and are entitled to a reduction on that basis.  I don't see why they should agree to give up that refund of money, in the same way we never would.  In terms of the bigger picture, Germany contributes more to the EU budget than the 19 smallest states do combined.  They contribute not that far off double what the UK does.

It might seem instinctively "cruel" or "perverse" that Greece is being included in the countries that is being required to make an increased payment this year given its economic situation.  But hold on one moment: it is being requested to pay an adjustment of €89.4 million.  That is, with respect, chicken-feed in terms of a national budget, even a country like Greece that has been ravaged by the inhuman policies of austerity.  The fact they are being asked for the payment reflects solely the fact that they have been underpaying previously and there is a fair, objective application of the rules across the board.

Another important thing to note is the stat contained in the bottom right hand of the above table.  This isn't the EU conducting a "cash-grab" as has been suggested.  The budget will actually be €419 million shorter on revenues than had been expected as a result of the application of the rules.  Was it the Prime Minister or was it Farage (I genuinely forget) who excitedly said "This isn't fair, they weren't expecting this extra money!" - the fact is they are going to be working off less money, not more next year. 

Sex and Drugs

Some people in my timeline got terribly excited about the fact that our "black economy" was being included in the statistical calculations for the first time, and that this could be responsible for the increased payment.

It is correct that our GDP was given a £10 billion boost after officials worked out that paid sex work represented £5.3 billion for the economy.  In other EU countries such as Germany and Netherlands such work is legal and taxed, and has therefore been included in the statistics for years.  It is therefore fair (as the national leaders agreed) that everything should be calculated on the same basis.  Another £4.4 billion was added from the sale of illegal drugs.  However, our economy is worth $2,900 billion.  These figures represent under 1% of GDP and are hardly responsible for most or all of the €2.1 billion repayment figure.

Still, a headline of "Sex work and drugs lift EU bill" gets the clicks, I guess.

Huge Numbers

It's so hard for us mere mortals to understand numbers involving multiple rows of zeros on the end.  What does a million anything look like?  A billion?  A trillion?  We can only go on the outrage that politicians express and if they sound terribly cross, assume this must be a massive thing.  €2.1 billion sounds like a huge deal anyhow.  Will we ever be able to afford it?

It is undoubtedly a lot of money.  Just three days ago, however, it became clear that government borrowing was 10% higher than a year ago.  Its spending last month was £11.8 billion.  That's in one month.  The overshoot in spending was - wait for it - £1.6 billion higher (€2.03 billion) in that single month than it had been in September 2013.  The Tories' careful management of the economy involved an overspend that was a full £1 billion over the expectations of the City.

This sparked ABSOLUTE OUTRAGE.  TALK OF WAR.  CAMERON BANGING TABLES.  RIOTS IN THE STREETS.  WITHDRAWAL FROM EVERYTHING.  Oh. Actually, there was a story in the Guardian and one in the economics section of the Telegraph and everyone just carried on.

It's clear that utter double standards apply, and people just aren't applying critical faculties to this.  The EU payment is a one-off, correcting possibly twenty years of underpayment by us, which was because of the statistics we supplied.  It is in accordance with the rules we insisted on.  The Government is slashing spending left right and centre, quite deliberately taking away payments from the long term disabled, and yet they are overspending to the tune of £1.6 billion in a single month.  Hardly an eye brow is raised.

Where are the howls of outrage on the front page of the Mail or the Express over this?  The simple fact is that the howls in the EU case come from the fact that Johnny Foreigner is seen as making the "unfair" demand, and nothing sells as well as xenophobia in today's toxic Britain.

EU Myths and Lies

Whilst we're on the subject of myths let's get something straight about EU spending.  It is not going on an army of fraudulent, lazy bureaucrats in Brussels, and it does not represent a mountain of gold.

The EU budget was €144 billion in total in 2013.  The member states' national budgets were €6,400 billion by contrast.  It stands at around 1% of the 28 EU countries' GDP, whereas the budgets of national governments represent 49% of their GDP on average.  The EU budget is always balanced, so there is no deficit or debt - unlike with national governments.

94% of what we pay into the EU comes back on expenditure in EU countries on policies and programmes that directly benefit people who live in the EU.  That includes to you and me on all sorts of programmes, regional spending etc - £5.2 billion in the United Kingdom every year.  6% goes on administration.  Less than 0.2% of EU spending goes on fraud.

On top of everything the UK still gets an annual rebate on its payments: a legacy of Mrs Thatcher that is worth over €3 billion a year to us.  That's pure special treatment for Britain.

The Commission estimates that in 2013 the average EU citizen paid only €0,89 a day (£0.70) towards the EU budget.  It points out that's less than half the price of a cup of coffee.  It genuinely is hardly very expensive given the benefits that the EU brings its citizens.  The CBI puts the value of UK membership of the EU at between £62bn and £78bn a year in extra trade and intangible benefits.  This means jobs and income for ordinary people.  €8.6 billion in and over £60 billion back out?  That seems a pretty darn good deal to me.

Final Word: over to Carl

So there we have it.  In summary, we asked for these rules.  We've been paying too little for years.   The chutzpah of David Cameron is amazing.  He truly is a showman: he's successfully convincing people in this country that the EU really is a conspiracy that has unfairly singled out Britain (and pretty much Britain alone) to stump up loads of cash unfairly.  This hasn't been known for months: oh no, it's just come to light.  And it's a massive, massive amount of money with loads and loads of zeros (unlike the amount his chancellor and best mate is overspending on literally a monthly basis) that we can't and won't pay.  And Europhiles and Labour supporters are falling hook line and sinker for this utter tosh.

I have no idea who Carl Hornsey is, but this was retweeted into my timeline.  He puts it all much more succinctly than I do.  I like his style.