Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas is coming...the aardvark's getting fat!

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  Or so they say.  Welcome to my Christmas blog, I'd like to thank you for the year.  I'm feeling particularly festive this year and there is a very simple reason why.  For the first time since my uni days  (seven years, if I must spell it out) I'll be on holiday for the whole Christmas period.  My old job would be horrendously busy over Christmas, so just at the point when everyone else was slowing down and chilling out, we'd be busier than at any point churning out the schedules for the festive period at a rate that would ensure we could all take the weekends and Bank Holidays off. 

Typically I'd then race up north to see family, hurtle back down again as soon as the trains started up again and then the whole process would start again, we could get ahead enough to have the New Year days off.  I don't want to go OTT - after all, we never had to work on the big days themselves - but when you involved the travelling too you'd end up starting January feeling absolutely exhausted just as everyone came back into the office, asking you if you'd had a nice holiday.  So this year I've been enjoying the lunches, drinks and parties that little bit more than usual.
Christmas work drinks at the London Transport Museum!

As my new role involves working in advance, our busy period was at the end of November, involving the finalising of the content inside the double-issue behemoth that you all started using on Saturday.  This does somewhat take the shine off reading the Christmas Radio Times when it's published at the start of December, which for me as a young telegeek was always the "cue" to start feeling festive.  The same can be said of the debut of Christmas idents on television - as with the magazine, earlier than it used to be and less of a mysery than it once was.  This year's it's fair to say that the big boys have disappointed somewhat - what with lack of effort on one side and possibly the most irritating promo of all time on the other (who on earth thought that would be endearing?).  Who would have thought BBC Two and ITV2 would come out top?

All of which got me thinking.  You probably wondered what the smell of smoke was.  What's the best Christmas ident of all time?  It was a close-run thing, but this is my winner. 

I think this is not only the best Christmas ident of all time, but quite possibly the best Christmas-related thing to ever be committed to film. A bold assertion, but here's why:

  • A complete story is told in fifteen seconds.
  • That story is wonderfully ridiculous.  Why on earth can't the TARDIS get out of snow without the help of reindeers?  But somehow it seems right for this much-missed era of the show.
  • It's perfectly executed.  You know exactly what's going on and why.  You can almost see the storyboard.
  • It's amazingly Christmassy.
  • The composer has seemingly done the impossible and managed to cram some Christmassy twinkles, the BBC One sting and the Doctor Who theme coherently into fifteen seconds.
  • It captures David Tennant at the height of his pomp as the tenth Doctor.
  • It's quite possible the final words Tennant recorded in character were "daaaa! wohhhh...woo hoo!" which can only be a good thing.
  • To anyone who remembers the years when the series was off air, the idea of this sequence being shown before every programme on BBC One for three weeks is....insane.
  • In a clever bit of planning, the ident was switched for the Tennant-less "news edit" after his regeneration has been screened on New Year's Day 2010.  Obvious when you think about it.
  • I can honestly say those fifteen seconds are better plotted than most of series six.
I'll leave it there or I may be here all night.  Let me know if you agree or disagree.  Come Friday I'll be off for eleven whole days, and will be cramming in visits to my wonderful in-laws to be for Christmas, Kate's birthday, then over to my family and finally back down to London to host our annual festive bash for uni friends, this time on New Year's Eve.  Bring it on!

As a final thought I'll leave you with this incredibly random clip from Children's BBC at Christmas nineteen (nineteen!) years ago.

"Shall we have a bit of a rave?" Kids won't get that with Iain and Hacker.

Whatever you're up to this Christmas, make sure it's a bloody good one. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Covering Campus Completely...

I don't often do "here's what I've been doing this week" blogs but thought I'd do one about this weekend as it ties in with one of the first ones I wrote back in April.  Inspired by a nostalgic perhaps-not-entirely-sober Facebook status update a few weeks ago Tom, Kate and I decided to make our more-or-less annual trip back to York last weekend.  I admit it doesn't normally take much to send us on the two hour trip up the east coast mainline but for some reason we were really in the mood for a trip north.  East Coast trains were even running a £25 flat fare first class offer - what more encouragement did we need? 
Living it up, student-style (not)
It ended up being quite a different trip to most of our other ones too.  In response to a random tweet from me musing that it was probably ten years since I'd first visited YSTV (on a University of York open day in October 2001) I'd been told I was welcome to pop back in at some point, and this seemed like a good opportunity to do so.  The three of us have been back there a number of times since we graduated (doing the big events for a couple of years, bowing out after the YSTV 40 broadcast), but after all of our friends and friends-of-friends graduated we've not been back to the station at all.  So it was really rather lovely to go back inside the place again.  It holds so many happy memories, especially so in light of Kate and I getting engaged.  We owe a big thank you to Mike and Sam for showing us round, telling us about how the place works now and generally putting up with us in the station and afterwards in Langwith Bar - sorry, The Courtyard (old habits die hard).  YSTV is in good hands!
We're back!

It's really interesting to see what's changed and what hasn't.  Technology is the major thing.  When I arrived it was taking us 15 minutes to render a caption on YSTV's (admittedly ageing) Mac.  Now we can record and edit HD video on our iPhones.  Suddenly everyone is a TV producer - and not only that but there's a Film and TV department on the new campus.  Thankfully so far the effect on YSTV seems to be positive - when it was announced during my time we'd fearer it would result in us losing members and ultimately the studio.  However your eyes are naturally drawn to the things that haven't changed at all.  Although a few of our old sets have been junked recently the "coffee bar" is still going strong nearly nine years on, and Kate might just have got a little bit excited at finding a surviving splash of YSTV Week purple on the back of one board.  They have done some quite impressive work with their sets recently too.  Our early days of "dreaded black drape" seem light years away.
"So when's my next Eurovision live link?"

After we'd all had a couple of drinks we wandered up towards URY and (again thanks to Mike and Sam) ended up being shown around by a couple of current members there.  The changes there are even more dramatic than over the other side of the lake at YSTV.  Earlier this year Studio 1 and 2 were completely refitted for the first time since 1997 and now look completely and totally different from our time there.  Gone are the CDs and Mini Discs - it's all hard drives and touch screens now.  I honestly would not have a clue where to start.  However - it still smells EXACTLY the same.  Yep that's right - the smell instantly took me back to walking through the doors nearly nine years ago for my first show and feeling more than a bit nervous!
The all-new URY Studio 1

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I hadn't returned to URY since I left in 2005 so it was really nice to be back - thanks to the current members who gave us a quick tour and let us have a play with the new kit.  I spent more hours than I care to remember in that orange studio (which is no longer orange, fact fans), often at the crack of dawn with only my own voice for company.  After writing earlier this year about how it was a shame I had completely left that part of my uni life behind, it's funny that in the past six weeks I've met up with a load of fellow ex-URYers (and had such a good time that I couldn't remember getting home) and revisited the studio itself.
Is this one SBN?

So what else is new?

Central Hall goes "undercover"
  • Goodricke Bar/McQ's is a completely gutted concrete shell.  That weird wooden building next to YUSU is gone and apparently the whole area is being re-jigged to provide a more impressive "campus south" entrance.  But most importantly - the bar has moved to a new location: a Starbucks/cafe-style area in the Roger Kirk Centre called...The Studio.  Which is a bit of an insult to good old Pauline.
  • Central Hall is completely covered in white plastic...something to do with asbestos apparently.  The plan is to take advantage of this for projections should it still be there come Woodstock!  My theory is that once uncovered it will finally be an actual spaceship, just to satisfy the campus humourists who have claimed this since the year dot.
  • Campus is covered in brand new widescreen plasma TVs.  The YSTV network up to date?  Nope, that's now history after the uni finally bulldozed all the old Rediffusion network.  It's YUSU's own initiative, and all they seem to show is a single static caption advertising the union's activities.  Now, Inform used to get criticised but congrats to YUSU for putting these all over the place, not screening any YSTV on them at all, and being even less use than ours were.  Trebles all round.
  • Heslington East, erm, exists.  It seems to have taken Halfax's role of the place you could quite easily go your entire degree without visiting.
  • The Courtyard is rather good, in fact it's rather bizarre to see Langwith Bar so busy, or in fact any campus bar so busy at the weekend.  But as expected it does seem to have had a detrimental effect on the other bars around campus.  JJ's is long gone and B Henry's is said to be pretty much out of us as a regular bar.    
  • York's nightlife is much changed.  The change in licensing laws has meant that now anywhere can stay open late, install a dancefloor the size of a beermat and pretend to be a club.  Two of YUSU's official student nights are in "pretend" clubs - Vodka Revolution and Salvation (the old Nexus on the row of hell that is Rougier Street).  Meanwhile of the old "big four" (well, the only four), Ikon and Diva closed in our final year; Toffs became Tru and then was sold on becoming Tokyo on which the verdict is still out; Ziggy's is apparently only called Ziggy's on Wednesday's student night and hosts all kinds of dubious fare the rest of the week; and Gallery is faced with closure as Luminar are in financial trouble. 
The sad state of Goodricke Bar

All in all we had a great afternoon hurtling down memory lane.  Then it was off to Toto's, an old favourite, with Rick and Sarah, another two old favourites, followed by Henry J Bean's, whose DJ once uttered the immortal words "big shout out to YTSTV" a few years back.  I used to find that place really expensive - funnily enough after six years in London it's a bit of a bargain now!

Finally as inevitable as day turning to night was the Sunday morning 9.30am hungover check-out from Alcuin.  We always stay on campus as, apart from being nice to go back, the prices are unlikely to be beaten anywhere else in York on a Saturday night (around £40 for a single, £70 for a double and 10% off if you manage to use the elusive alumni discount which never seems applicable when you're there).  However the sting in the tail is the stupidly early 9.30am checkout which, as far as we can gather, is so one poor cleaner can work their way around the entire block in time for check-in at 2pm.  

Since most of our friends left York we've settled into a pattern of going back about once a year, which is more than most but we do have a real soft spot for the place, and especially YSTV.  It gave me friends for life, a career and the best bit of all...who I'm sure you already know about.  Next year will be ten (TEN!) years since we started there so surely is reason enough for another (perhaps slightly longer) return!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

"This is the BBC Television Service"

Those words will be instantly recognisable to anyone from my age up to around 40 as the start of the title sequence of Going Live! (don't forget the exclamation mark - very important).  Those black-and-white clips of men in white coats waving their hands about and turning knobs form some of my earliest TV memories, but it was only many years later I discovered that it was footage of the very first television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace.  Last weekend Kate and I visited the very studios where it all began as part of the 75th anniversary of those first broadcasts.

I've always had a soft spot for Ally Pally.  I love the way it towers over north London, the way you see it from the train when heading north and the fact it seems to keep catching fire or being threatened with closure only to survive (in fact the pub at the side of the palace was until recently called "The Phoenix").  One of my first visits to London - for some MHP drinks - was at the palace, coinciding with the traditional Guy Fawkes Night firework display (we'd been due to to the same thing the previous year but after Miss World was moved to Ally Pally at short notice we went to a Wetherspoons in Wood Green instead.  And there are few more depressing phrases than "Wetherspoons in Wood Green").  Three years later and Kate and I were back at the fireworks after moving into nearby Highgate, and the following year saw more MHP drinks there. Finally in 2008 we moved into our current flat from which you can see the mast from our balcony.  I swear the place is following us around.

Naturally we jumped at the chance to have a look around the original studio.  Despite continuing attempts to turn it into a kind of "museum of television" it is closed to the public most of the time, with only occasional tours available to small groups.  This weekend's tours were booked up within a day or two of being advertised online but being locals we decided to head up to Ally Pally anyway to see the exhibition part of the event.  When we got there we were surprised to hear there were spaces on a tour the following afternoon, which we duly snapped up.

So come the following day we were taken through the "BBC Tower Reception" entrance, up some windy, narrow stairs (obviously no health and safety in those days) and into Studio A - where it all began.  The BBC stopped making programmes there in 1981 (yes, that late!) so it's just a shell today, but it's impossible not to be slightly humbled at the weight of history that the place contains when you walk in.  The Alexandra Palace Television Society have done a good job of displaying a few items to look at when you're there.  There's a mock-set for "Picture Page" at one end, lots of information on the walls about the history of the place, a couple of period cameras and a presentation area (surrounded by TVs from over the years) at the other end of the studio.

I have to admit it was bigger than I was expecting - apparently the rooms were originally banquet halls.  Certainly it's tiny by the standards of much that can be found at White City, Waterloo and Wembley but I guess what you have to remember is that, in conjunction with Studio B next door, this was where everything happened - production, transmission, and everything in between - for the formative years of the BBC Television Service.  When considering the amount of meetings, committees, working parties, consultants and general faffing about it takes to put anything on air in TV today, it's a sobering and humbling thought that these studios and the handful of offices nearby were responsible for a few hours of mostly live television a day, every day, for many years. You can read memories of these pioneering days from someone who was there at the time on Arthur Dungate's website, and the broader picture over at Transdiffusion.

Following BBC TV's expansion into other buildings, Ally Pally's studios became the home first of BBC Television News and then to the Open University, before finally closing in 1981.  You can see a picture of Studio A when it closed here.  It actually looks quite respectable on the final day of operation so has clearly been stripped of anything of any worth in the intervening thirty years.  It's a real shame that the studios sit, if not unloved, then unappreciated and hidden away from view.  They deserve better than that.

You can see a panorama of Studio A that I took on my Generic Mobile Phone Device here.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Generic iPhone 4S blog

Another blog about a bloody phone.  Why can't I think of something interesting to write about?  Well to be truthful I did start one about how disappointing the most recent series of Doctor Who was, but I chickened out.  It's still sitting in my drafts, I just can't be bothered as it seems that anyone who doesn't like the show this year is apparently just incorrect.  Probably no great loss though.  My piece was incoherent and didn't explain itself properly, but it was quite pleased with itself throughout.  Insert your own joke here.

So following on from my previous piece our new iPhones arrived last weekend.  Because we had the temerity to wait until the evening of the first day of pre-order, we had to wait a whole week after release date until they arrived.  Shocking I know, but somehow we survived.  In order to future-proof myself I was tempted to buy the 64GB version but went for 32GB in the end, as Kate did too.  £699 just seemed a stupid price to pay for a phone.  £599 on the other hand - not a problem...!

So, thoughts - in bullet point form as it's not worth the effort to write a proper article.  There are plenty of them out there, just google the words "awesome" and "shiny" (probably).

  • Camera - rather good.  I may start leaving my actual camera at home.  Although from the iPhone 3G you'd expect to see a bit of a jump.  You do however learn quickly to turn the thing on it's side when shooting video unless you want your videos to look like those curious narrow-vision clips of people's kids you see all the time on Facebook
  • WiFi.  Probably my favourite new feature, Apple dropped support around July 2010 for this particular user (see my previous blog if you don't get the "joke")
  • The general speed of the phone is incredible.  The 3G model had slowed down considerably over the years (probably due to the software upgrades that it couldn't really support) so the general zippiness of the new phone is pretty impressive. 
  • Equally I'm not sure if this is just the 4S's new features or if it was like this on the 4, but the speed of 3G internet is amazing.
  • iCloud is a mess.  Although I personally understand the concept there is precious little attempt to explain what it actually is to the uninitiated, instead featuring general "USE THIS" vibes all over the phone.  I'm now getting prompts to turn on automatic downloads on my phone every time I buy something on my computer.  Again, why?  If I want to, I will!  The same kind of assumption about the audience can be seen in the top headline of the new phone's features.  "Dual-core A5 chip".  Huh?  Oh, one of them.  Mum's always said she'd get an iPhone if they put a dual-core A5 chip in it...
  • Random observation - the new "silent" switch as introduced on the iPhone 4 is much less easy to switch by accident.  This is a good thing.
  • Multi-tasking is great.  Finally you can press a link without having to abandon what you were doing in the original programme.
  • Siri...oh dear.  We got off on a bad start when I said my name and it replied "I don't understand 'I'm jealous' ".  Some people seem convinced this is the future.  Me, I feel like a dick shouting at my phone at home and look like one barking instructions out on the street.  It'd be easier if the thing worked - I seem to spent half of my time trying to get it to understand what I've said, and then it would have been quicker to do it myself.  It's also a faux pas to launch it in the UK with the message below popping up with alarming regularity.  Tsk at us all using "English English", we're so awkward...
  • Retina display is pretty "wow".
  • Although truth be told I'm not a big fan of notifications, the new notifications centre is great and long overdue, as is the ability to choose whether they pop up in the centre of the screen, subtley at the top or not at all.  One thing they could do with sorting though is the pay-as-you-go balance alert, which has remain the same screen-grey-out since launch three years ago and seems to have been forgotten about.  It looks particularly bad in landscape mode:

  • iMessage is another good innovation, especially with regards to saving money on sending an MMS.  There is a bit of a bug though in that if you're on a rubbishy public wifi connection, and try to send a text to an iMessage phone, it just won't send as it can't get it through the wifi.  It would be good to have a quick way of reverting to classic SMS functionality (other than turning off wifi).
  • The battery isn't great.  Looking at the forums it seems to be this year's antenna - the bit everyone complains about.  You can tell there's something up from this spec comparison chart - 100 hours less standby time than previous models.  As a former 3G owner I'm seeing an improvement but not as much as I'd liked. 

So what's the verdict?  Apple have clearly settled into a pattern of launching an upgrade of the previous phone one year and a newer model the next, and this isn't a bad thing in itself.  It was however bad timing for this year to be the year with a longer wait as they shifted the release pattern to the Christmas-friendly spot that the iPods used to occupy, as expectations were understandably high.  For the most-hyped aspect to be one that was previously available as an app on all models is a bit of a disappointment.  To me, Siri is this year's FaceTime.  Nice feature, but can't see myself using it much.   Although I hope the battery situation improves either through use or a software upgrade, it's still a superb phone.  Despite the gripes I wouldn't use anything else, something I'm pretty sure of after being given a Blackberry for work a few weeks back and it being a completely bloody nightmare to use!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Room 101.3

I've always loved Room 101.  The Nick Hancock series on BBC2 in the mid-90s was often hysterically funny - I remember one edition in particular with Alan Davies that I must have re-watched the VHS of dozens of times. I don't remember the radio series that spawned it on the original Radio 5, mainly because I was only 7 when it first aired but partly because no-one listened to the original Radio 5 (there's a whole book in why the format for that station didn't work.  Sport, children's, school's, youth, comedy, World Service and Radio 3 simulcasts - WTF?).

After three series Hancock moved on and his replacement was Paul Merton.  Although his take on the show was consistently entertaining, I found it rather less so than the Hancock years, although perhaps that's only because of the high expectations that Merton encourages.  He seemed a lot less discerning on Room 101 than he does on Have I Got News For You, with a more laid-back style than Hancock had displayed.  The title sequence seemed to be assembled by someone who had no idea what the format of the show was about (a bucket and spade? some grapes? ice cream? really?) and Merton was far too easily swayed when deciding whether items would be let into the titular room, all too often changing his mind for no particular reason when his hand was on the lever.

That said the show seemed to be popular enough and somewhat incredibly lasted another eight series under Merton.  When he moved on in 2007, rather than return with a new host, the show simply disappeared.  Which was a shame.  It always seemed to have a lot of mileage in it for such a simple formula.  So I was quite excited to hear in the summer that it was coming back, this time presented by Frank Skinner, who is a very good choice indeed.  Less exciting was the news that the format had been changed to a (whisper) panel show, with (shudder) audience interaction, so with some trepidation last night the wife-to-be and I went to the recording of the first episode of the third incarnation of Room 101.  Surprisingly the show has been commissioned for BBC One, which is a bit of a risk considering the changes to the format and the fact it has been off-air for five years.

As we were sternly told not to take photographs at any point before we went in, I didn't, although that didn't stop other people, meaning I can link you to this picture of the new set.  Frank sits on the right of the set at a desk with three levers.  The three panellists, for want of a better word, sit opposite each next to a small cabinet out of which rises their choice for Room 101 when Frank pulls the appropriate lever.  When an item is chosen for entry to the room, Frank pulls their lever again, the item descends back into their cabinet and, er, that's it.  There's a slight contradiction in this set-up as it implies that the items were all inside Room 101 in the first place.  It's also a lot less satisfying conclusion that the Hancock years' conveyor belt and Merton's trapdoor.

In the new format, Frank kicks off the show with a couple of example choices of his own, and one will almost certainly be dropped or heavily re-edited from our session as it was captioned "The Seven Dwarfs" on-screen, to which Frank commented he would have used a "v" himself.  This was bad timing as a later choice, tattoos, was illustrated with a misspelt example.  Pot, kettle anyone?  There are then three rounds, in which each guest tries to get an item inducted into Room 101.  The first two are themed ("people" and "going out" were our two examples).  Each panellist has an item they'd like to put into the room, and makes their case to Frank (often with interaction from the other guests), and at the end of the sequence Frank decides which one he will put in.  Then there's some audience choices, which were solicited via email beforehand.  I'll be surprised if these make it in the final cut as Frank seemed too keen to banter with nervous audience members who clearly weren't expecting to have to say much.  Then there's a wildcard round where the guests can choose anything, and finally Frank chooses an overall winner who gets to put in an additional bonus item of their own choice.

Presumably it's only a new format as no-one wanted to commission the old one any more, so let's not be too harsh.  It certainly wasn't a disaster and it brought back elements of the original Hancock series, with more of a structure and a competitive element put into the reasoning because the guests were competing against others.  The part where Frank decides also allows him to make jokes about why items stay out and why they will go in, which wasn't possible before.  Also, having three guests means that there will normally be someone the viewer likes, and hopefully not making them switch off if the guest was someone who simply wasn't very funny as before (Ron Atkinson anyone?).  The title sequence is also reminiscent of the Hancock series, whizzing around a vault with lot of items already in Room 101 - including, which amused us greatly, a tweet containing the words "om nom nom".  The theme music, whilst new, is similar to that used in the Merton opening.

Although I can see the format working, the edition we saw being recorded wasn't vintage.  The panellists were Alistair McGowan (admittedly dropping too many impressions in but as they're so good and that's what he does, fine), singer Josh Groban (who as anyone who saw him on Buzzcocks will know is very good value) and Someone From Dragon's Den.  I'm reliable informed it's the new, plasticy looking one who looks like she should be stealing dalmatians, but I really can't be arsed looking her up because to be honest she was the problem with the whole show.  She didn't know when to shut up (interrupting a McGowan anecdote about not liking beer with the revelation "I grew up in a pub and didn't like the smell of beer"), crashed people's punchlines and came across as completely unlikeable.  At one point she managed to crow-bar a  random reference to her many homes into a segment about pets, and when Groban referred back to this later on ticked him off saying she'd worked very hard for her property.  Kudos to Skinner for commenting, when her weighty bracelet dropped off loudly mid-segment, said "thank god it was your bracelet, that could have been anything".

Hopefully they were just getting used to the new format because there were also a couple of blunders where Skinner forgot to introduce a guest standing backstage and moved straight onto the next item.  There was no reference to it being the first show so I expect they'll launch with a really good episode and put this one out later on, as there were clearly nerves.  There were also some unexplained elements - both Frank and the guests sat in front of giant safe/vault doors.  Frank's was naturally labelled "101" but the guests' door was labelled "104" - eh?  Full marks to our warm-up man Chris Martin (not that one) who effortlessly kept us entertained all night.  We often find that the quality of the warm-up is inverse proportion to how funny the show is.  We had a dire warm-up for Harry Hill's TV Burp, but a superb up-and coming comedian for BBC3's Grownups back in 2005.  His name was Jason Manford!

I really hope it works ultimately.  After all, for all that it is derivative of Orwell, Room 101's origin is at the BBC, bringing us full circle.  The series is due for transmission in January.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Generic iPhone blog

With the launch of the new iPhone just a week away I thought I'd give Apple a hand at generating publicity (they need the leg-up) and share some of my experiences of the device.  Caution: contains uninformed opinions and personal experiences you may find tedious.

By the time I get hold of the new iPhone it's likely my current one will have reached it's third anniversary.  Given a) Apple clearly want us to buy a new one every year and b) the tendency of the things to pack in or stop functioning in order to make you considering fulfilling a) it's somewhat of a miracle it's lasted this long.

I have a love/hate relationship with my iPhone.  It's clearly an amazing device, and it's transformed how I do many things.  The biggest of these is probably getting around - no more does the pocket London A-Z sit in my bag, and our 2009 holiday travelling from Land's End to John O'Groats would have been a great deal tougher without access to local maps that the phone provides.  That said, it's infuriated me more than any other phone I've owned in the 11 years I've had a mobile, and maybe this is because it promises so much (and indeed delivers when it works).

I bought my iPhone in October 2008 soon after they became available for pay-as-you-go.  Since you ask, I've never considered going contract - my £10 per month top up gives me 500MB of data, public wifi, 300 texts and then the £10 credit itself which goes on two £5 bolt-ons giving me plenty of O2 and landline minutes.  Given most of my calls are to Kate and my family, this arrangement pretty much covers my fairly dull existence (SIM-only deals allow those with better social lives than mine to do a similar thing).  I'd rather buy the thing outright as contracts are just a form of hire puchase but still with a big one-off cost at the start - over £200 for most of O2's affordable monthy tariffs for the iPhone 4.  This is a particularly good option if, like me, you're not planning to upgrade for some time. 

Kate followed me in January 2009 and got hers rather cheaply through some oddball BBC/O2 deal (yes, I'm jealous).  And for a while, we were happy iPhone users.  Then came the iPhone 3GS (aka the £500 3 megapixel camera).  Neither of us were particularly tempted as it didn't represent a massive change, at least not to simpletons like ourselves.  The following year was a different matter.  The iPhone 4 was a massive change and boasted (so it seemed) an impressive set of changes to the device.  My 3G was starting to show it's age and I did consider upgrading, but weirdly I think the uber-hype and (surely partly planned) supply issues actually put me off.  The "death-grip" signal issue didn't help matters, but the icing on the cake was the software update that accompanied the phone which once again was retrospectively applied to iPhone 3Gs.

I don't think there has been a worst "update" than iOS 4 for 3G owners.  Unlike previous updates the process seemed to involve completely wiping the phone and then restoring it from backup as if a new device.  The process of updating took hours and hours for some reason, so I left it going overnight.  When I woke I found a phone that could have just been bought in the shop - pretty much back to factory settings.  What had happened is it had failed to restore from the backup it created in that very session, and I couldn't get it to do so no matter how hard I tried.  Looking online I wasn't the only one, and in the end I gave up, synced as if it were new and had to get all my phone numbers again from scratch.  It turned out I was one of the lucky ones - when Kate updated her phone it did restore but turned it into the infamous "treacle" version of the interface which made daily operation a nightmare.  To add insult to injury the software update didn't even change much for 3G owners apart from folders.  Whoop.

Unfortuntately Apple weren't interested.  One 3G user on a forum I read who took their phone into a Genius Bar was told by a lanyarded-pillock that the second iPhone was "old technology" and problems should be expected.  Unfortunately for them it was "old technology" that they were still happily selling as new in their stores until a few weeks previously.  Apple were preoccupied with their new phone, which as we all know had problems of it's own.  A software update later sneaked out without fanfare correcting the 3G issues they'd denied all along.  But then my phone started having trouble connecting to wifi: in fact the wifi bar in Settings displayed "no wifi".  A quick Google revealed that this was a problem rather a lot of 3G users had had in response to iOS 4 but had also happened to orignal iPhone owners after the previous year's update.  Basically, my wifi chip had been "fried" (for want of a better word) by the latest update as it couldn't handle the demands placed on it. 

I decided to go to a Genius Bar anyway despite knowing it was probably terminal to see what their response was, as Apple were known to be quite cagey about the problem, but I wondered if I'd get some of that legendary Genius Bar generosity.  Well, not quite - I was told the wifi chip was indeed fried (thanks) but although I was out of warrantt I could buy a new iPhone 3G for £160.  That's the iPhone that was no longer on sale to the public.  I could have one of the dusty unwanted boxes hidden in the back, and presumably wait for the same thing to happen again.  No thanks.

So I decided I'd put the money I would have spent towards a shiny new Sony Vaio laptop instead, which I'm typing this on now.  I rather hope the wifi capability on this lasts a little longer than on my iPhone - there'd probably be a bit of a scandal if Microsoft sent a Windows Update out that stopped a key bit of functionality from working.  My 3G is really showing it's age now and the battery can't get through an average day with 3G networks switched on.  I don't even receive the software updates anymore as the phone is so "prehistoric" (probably no bad thing given what happened last time).  We've both been looking forward to getting the new iPhone after not upgrading for two years, but it would have to be this year that the thing gets delayed until the Autumn!  Finally with today's announcement it would seem to be very near, and I think we deserve to be front of the queue after waiting for so long.  (I'm not actually going to queue, I do have some pride.  And a job.  Which ironically has conspired to present me with a Blackberry at around the same time).  But, to look at the other side of the equation, I can't think of any other mobile that has lasted me three years.  I just hope that they're getting better at lasting, as I don't plan to replace the one I'll buy next month for another two or maybe even three years.

Hello?  Anyone still there?


Sunday, 4 September 2011

End of Part 1

Friday was essentially the last day for me in my old job, which as I've alluded to in the past on here has been moved to Leeds (where there is a sister dept already).  I've spent nearly two months handing over our duties to the new team, and although the half of the department that takes the schedules to the point they go to press is still in the process of being transferred, Friday was quite symbolic as it was the last day that we will send the final schedules from London (at least on a regular basis) so in a way was the end of an era.  Although there have been many, many changes along the way in how we do the role at the core it's still the job I got six years ago and moved down to London for.
The final London team of schedulers

In a twist that you could never plan, the person who is effectively taking on my old job is my brother-in-law-to-be Lee.  Talk about keeping it in the family!  I spent nearly two weeks at Kirkstall Road in July training the new team.  YTV has undergone something of a renaissance since I was last there around the time network production was being wound down - Emmerdale has moved into the main building, Shiver is doing pretty well, the Northern Transmission Centre has had a re-fit AND they've got free Starbucks-style coffee on tap, the lucky gits.  They're also a great team who were lovely to me while I was staying up there and I'm very jealous they get to do that job AND live in a cool city like Leeds.
At the end of my two weeks in Leeds.  Corporate-signage-tastic

Thankfully all of us in the old team in London have been offered new roles which we've all been gradually moving into over the past month.  I'm going to be managing a new "advance scheduling" mini-department aiming to prepare for the more complicated schedules much further out than we do currently.  Certainly it will be a very different pace, as one of the old team put it "getting off the hamster wheel".  I won't miss having to deliver a plan for twenty-four hours of TV at the end of every day, the stressful Fridays where everyone else is down the pub and you're still stuck in the office for hours trying to get the weekend's schedules done, and most of all Christmas and New Year where you're busier than ever  (especially when you try and incorporate trips home to see family) while everyone else is at home eating chocolate.  Although we worked office hours it was a curious elongated version of them that meant you just had to stick around until everything was all done, and could never really plan much for Friday nights (although more recently we have had some quite generous "time-back" initiatives).  And that's before you even consider everything else that has been thrown at us in the last few years so it's a credit to the team that that the show has been kept on the road.  But at the end of the day I've always found it very rewarding to have had such a close hand in what's gone out.
Half-arsed celebrations

So although there's still much to transfer oop north, I was keen to mark Friday because, just to be a little melodramatic for a moment, there has been an equivalent of our deparment in London (in many, many guises over the years) since the launch of our channel 56 years ago.  And what better way to celebrate than with Krispy Kremes and not-quite-champagne in plastic glasses?  Thanks to the final scheduling team - we couldn't have had a better one and it's been a pleasure working with them - and good luck to the new guys.  Now Kate and I are off to the Scottish highlands for a few days.  See you after the break.

The end

Monday, 22 August 2011

Flat Roulette

My good friend Jamie wrote an entertaining blog post a while back using Google Street View to revisit all the places he has lived in his life to date.  And, if you follow the link, you'll see he has had quite a few.  I can't claim to have had quite so many - just two throughout my entire childhood - but there's a bit more to look at once I headed to uni and bloody loads when I moved to London.  It might not be that interesting, in fact it's probably bloody dull to be honest, but it passes the time on a day off.  And it's worth it for the title of this blog entry alone.

When I was born my parents lived in the sleepy village of Langford in Bedfordshire.  My parents were born and bred notherners who had both moved south for work (sound familiar?) and so the first few years of my life were spent here.  Unfortunately Google have not deemed it sufficiently interesting enough to send their Street View car down our old road, so you're going to have to make do with Google Earth.

We lived just to the right of the "A" at the end of Cambridge Close (just off Cambridge Way, which is a turn-off Cambridge Gardens, which itself is just off Cambridge Road.  Original).  As we moved when I was four I have few memories of this house but we do have a home video which has boosted what I can remember over the years.  I'm somewhat surprised there has been no building work on the farming fields off the back of our garden, although this probably has something to do with the East Coast Main Line going right through the middle of them.  I can remember watching the trains going past, obviously having no idea much I would use that line in the future.  My parents decided to move north in time for me to start my education (well not quite - I started in January 1989 a few months after everyone else, which probably explains a lot) so in October 1988 we moved to Upton in the Wirral.

Unfortunately due to Google trundling around in the summer months with trees in full bloom this is as good a shot as you get.  I spent my formative years here and my parents are still here today nearly 23 years later.  Legend has it there are still boxes of books in the loft that haven't been unpacked from the move....

The next place I lived wasn't until I went to university in York, age 18, in October 2002.  The university located me in Edens Court, house F, room 21:
Ours was the second house along, and my room was around the back, but you get the idea.  Although I got on well with all my housemates and it was a nice enough room (certainly nicer than the famed Goodricke C Block) I can't say I loved living here.  The eight houses that made up Edens Court were a short walk from campus but sat entirely on their own, rather than amongst a college (apparently they were the uni's first experiment in building accomodation off the main campus).  Offically we were Derwent, but all of our administration was handled by Halifax (also off-campus), and to top it off our nearest college was actually Goodricke.  Unlike virtually all other halls we had no facilities of our own - no laundry (that was a walk up to Halifax - so doing your washing took up about a morning as you had to keep going back and forth), no computer rooms and definitely no catering.  There weren't even sinks in the rooms which even C Block were afforded.  We were also the final year to have to put up with 3p-per-min dialup internet. I was also put in a house of 10 boys, which after spending seven years in an all-boys' school was a bit annoying.  Naturally, my next move was to move into an all-male shared house.

Carlton Avenue in York was home for two years from summer 2003, and this is probably one of my favourite places I lived in.  As well as some great friends as housemates it was so nice to have a bit of personal space again (and to be able to do my bloody laundry in my own house).  Our landlord and his wife were lovely and nothing but helpful, but certainly enterprising.  The semi-detatched you see above housed seven people, and if you look carefully not only is the garage an extension, so is my old room on top of it.  The garage itself was only a shallow cupboard for bikes - the rest of the space was yet another bedroom.  With all the rents combined they were bringing in about £1500 per month, which it's fair to say probably covered the mortgage.  Despite the efforts of some powerful force on high trying to turn me gay by surrounding me by men for much of the previous decade, it was while I was living here that Kate and I started seeing each other, so it holds happy memories for both of us.  I was one of the last to leave on 22nd July 2005.  The reason that date sticks in my mind is that it was two weeks and a day after this happened, the day after this happened, and as we were leaving news was coming through on the radio that this was happening.

Kate had got a job in London starting a few weeks after graduation, so although I didn't properly live in these next two places they are worth mentioning for completion's sake.  Kate had managed to find a place to live on short visits to the capital - no mean feat - and the place she'd found wasn't available until September 2005, so for her first few weeks she lived in a shared flat in Islington:

It's one of these anyway.  They all look so samey but I think it's the middle, downstairs flat.  When she moved down I spent a few nights here to ease the transition.  I remember quite naively being amazed at how many flats were crammed into such a small space, and really liking nearby Angel, but not a lot else sticks in my mind about this period.  Kate really enjoyed living here but it was only ever meant to be temporary, moving at the end of the month to her long-term (she thought) shared house in Muswell Hill.
Well not really Muswell Hill - the long road out of Muswell Hill that all the estate agents call Muswell Hill because it's not as nice as Muswell Hill.  Again it's hard to place this one but I think it's above the newsagent, next to the curry house (and what a lovely smell that used to make!).  This place was an absolute bargain - £250pcm!  Which in case you're wondering was still a bargain in 2005.  Sadly Kate didn't enjoy living here as much but I had by now started looking for work in London to join her.  While living here I came down to be interviewed by ITV, and once I'd got the job we spent a week living together in her tiny room before the new home we'd found was available.
We moved into Chalk Farm on 1st October 2005 - having a new home was becoming a monthly event for Kate by this point.  Both of us were being paid absolute peanuts at this point so didn't really consider looking for our own place, instead sharing with another couple in their flat.  The flat itself was nice, and as it was on the top floor it came with stunning views out across London.  Perhaps naively we'd considered that after uni we could share with anyone, but naturally both couples wanted their own space, and as we didn't own it we often found ourselves spending most of our time in our fairly small room.  So by the following April we were looking to move on.
We found a generously proportioned studio flat in Highgate that we liked and could afford (it's the basement flat in the curious looking white entrance) and moved into in May 2006 (whilst this was happening which dates it well). Although it doesn't look much, it was our first place together, and we loved living here for the year that we did.  It was in a great location - the shitty bit of Highgate, so you could tell people that you lived in Highgate and they looked impressed.  There was obviously the tube, but also two great bus routes into central London - the 134 and the 43 - which meant you didn't have to actually use the tube much which helped as we were still being paid peanuts.  Sadly the landlord was absolutely useless.  He promised to install a TV aerial - with us both working in TV, living in a basement with no reception wasn't an option.  When we moved in, we discovered a tiny caravan-style aerial installed just about our window - i.e. ground level.  Don't think I'll forget the experience of trying to watch that week's Doctor Who through the snow.  There was also a cracked window pane that was supposed to be fixed before we moved in, which after months of excuses they admitted they weren't going to do and told us to stick some tape over it.  Living in a basement also made the flat quite damp - although you did get the reassuring distant sound of the tube making it's way up to Highgate.

We were eventually told to move out by this tosser on "instructions from our superior landlord", which we thought was bollocks, and months later were proved right when we spotted a bailiff's letter stuffed through the door.  It was a blow though - despite the problems we'd been quite happy there and had planned to stay for at least another year.  Our plans to move to a "proper flat" were therefore brought forward.  We were both earning a bit more money by now so were able to up our ambitions to look for a place with a whole one bedroom.  Although we'd discovered the delights of Crouch End while living in Highgate Kate had just got a job at the Beeb and so wanted to live near a tube station so her commute wasn't too long.  We couldn't have got much closer to the tube in our next place. 
Archway was to be our next home from June 2007 (the middle flat with the curious blue splash wall, as if they started painting and then realised how crap it looked).  We generally liked the area of north London we'd been living in and so didn't want to move far, but shot ourselves in the foot a bit by choosing Archway, a shit-hole by anyone's standards.  The flat itself was study enough (and had a bath! amazing!) but we failed to judge what our neighbours might be like.  We found out the answer pretty quickly was noisy, from just the generally noisy famillies (who curiously never seemed to go to work) to the dickhead next door to us who used to practice the same riffs from songs by The Police (or as they're now known, Sting) over and over again, only getting louder when you banged on the wall.  We also experienced the water being cut off for nearly a week - although the flat itself was privately owned you had to go through the inept Islington Council to get anything done, who clearly didn't care that as a result of one of their workers drilling in the wrong place we couldn't flush our toilet.  Depressingly by September that year we had already decided to move on as soon as our contract allowed..
This time we weren't going to be swayed and moved to lovely Crouch End in March 2008, and we're still here today.  We're the top flat with the little balcony.  We love it here in our quirky little attic flat which is why we haven't moved, although with five flats between us in a little over two-and-a-half-years we weren't really in any hurry to.  Despite our worries neither of us have missed the tube.  Crouch End's shuttle buses mean we now choose between Finsbury Park and Archway, and alongside the upgraded London Overground from Crouch Hill actually feel a bit better connected than before.  We've now been here for well over three years and could quite easily make four - although we've now started to look at potential flats we might be able to buy, so our time may be coming to an end.  Will we be able to do it before the wedding?  Will we finally leave north London (as is looking fairly likely in order to actually be able to afford anywhere)?  Watch this space...

Friday, 5 August 2011

A misspent youth

I'm currently in the process of copying all my VHS tapes over to DVD, not just as a means to preserve what I have to be playable in the future but also so I can catalogue what's on these many, many tapes as I go along, with the best bits heading onto You Tube (well, until my new laptop took issue with my capture device, but there you go).  It's also a way of making the things take up much less space - and yes I'm aware there are longevity issues with recordable DVDs, so I'm hanging onto the original VHS of anything that is irreplacable.

Speaking of which. From time to time you'll come across something that stops you in your tracks, either a programme you'd completely forgotten about or a particularly embarrassing camcorder recording.  But I think the latest thing I've found takes the biscuit entirely.  The recording, almost exactly ten years ago, from 15th July 2001, when my letter was on Points of View.

Yes, that's the kind of groovy, happening 17 year-old I was.  To be fair it was the first time I had ever written to them and kind of got lucky.  I was mid-way through studying A Level Politics at this point, and already decided I wanted to carry that on at university, so was very into all things political at this point.  This included (don't laugh) Westminster Live, which was the pre-Brillo Pad answer to The Daily Politics.  The programme was set in the BBC's Westminster newsroom and I had noticed that, in the background of shot on one edition, you could see one of the journalist engrossed in what must have been a particularly thrilling game of Solitaire on his PC.  I emailed Points of View thinking I might be able to get on with this observation if I added the line "perhaps they find the Commons as uninspiring as we do".  This was actually a complete lie, as at the time I was rather obsessed with all things Westminster, but I thought it might do the trick.

I was right.  Imagine my surprise when, one lazy Sunday afternoon ten years ago, my email and name flashed up on the screen!  Me, on Points of View!  My email!  My name!  Someone else's voice!

Yep...somewhat naughtily I thought, they had got someone else who sounded vaguely young to read my email out.  Points of View had made a great noise a few years previously of ditching the sarcastic actors reading out people's correspondence in favour of the people who had actually written in, recorded down the phone line.  They also said you had to include your telephone number so they could arrange just that.  This I did, but to my knowledge they didn't attempt to get in touch.  If they did, they didn't leave a message or speak to anyone else who might have picked up the phone, or even send me a quick note to say they hadn't been able to get hold of me and would be using someone else's voice.  They even got the imposter to do it down the phone!  I wasn't the only one as someone on the Digital Spy forums admitted recently that this happened to them too.  I'm exaggerating my annoyance, but you get the feeling had this happened five years later it would have a front page scandal in the Daily Mail. In light of this it's perhaps no surprise that they've now gone back to using actors' voices.

Anyway - at least I got to have Terry Wogan say I was "no man's fool", and that at 17 I was "so astute about politics".  To give Points of View some credit they managed to find a genius clip where, with Solitairegate going on in the background, Zeinab Badawi and Michael Brown suddenly start discussing the public being fed up with politics.   I now feel some sympathy with the employee I outed - we've all had those moments where we want to do anything else but work, and at least these days we have all manner of social media and video-sharing website to distract us.  Back then, if you got bored of Solitaire, you had to make do with Minesweeper.

Due to the aforementioned problems with the capture device we've uploaded the video to You Tube in the style of the Transdiffusion children - pointing the camera at the television - although despite our vastly superior technology I get the feeling they would have made a better job of it.  The audio is somewhat faint so it might be clearer here on Audio Boo.  I'll be hanging onto the VHS of this one - so when I'm older, and my kids get to the age when they want to know what crazy things I got up to when I was 17...I can tell them I wrote into Points of View about Westminster Live.  And then their mother can tell them about the email she got read out on Despatch Box...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Work Experience

Thank you for all the kind comments about the last blog - apparently I made a few people cry.  Maybe I should aim to do that with every one I write?  You'll be lucky with this one...

Recently I was assigned someone to look after for an afternoon during their work experience.  Now I can't remember a great deal about my work experience when I was 15 but I don't remember sitting there fidgeting and yawning.  I'm pretty sure I wasn't checking my mobile the moment my mentor spoke to someone else (I'd have had a job - I didn't get a mobile till the following year).  And I'm absolutely certain I didn't announce midway through a chat that I would be leaving at 4pm so there probably wasn't much point carrying on.

Equally, I didn't get to spend my work experience at a broadcaster.  By year 10 I was fairly sure that was the direction I wanted to move in but the stock work experience opportunities offered by my school didn't stretch to anything that, well, interesting.  I wrote directly to my local BBC radio station but they, understandably, said they couldn't offer anything to those as young as I was at the time, and restricted this sort of thing to college and degree students.  So I ended up doing a week at my Mum's employer, the Energy Saving Trust.  I'd already done casual holiday work there so knew a lot of the staff too, which made for a good week.

Five years later and I was advised by my university supervisor that if I was wanting to get into broadcasting then in addition to my student TV and radio work it would be a good idea to try and get some unpaid experience at a broadcaster in my holidays.  So I wrote back to the same person at the BBC who had told me to come back when I was older, and to his credit he invited me in for a chat.  After a quick conversation where we didn't talk about much, but presumably enabled him to decide I wasn't a complete nutter (phew!), I was offered a four week placement working on the station's afternoon show starting in July 2004.  I didn't expect it to be as easy as that and I certainly didn't expect it to be for a whole month!

The afternoon show was, and still is, presented by a self-styled "cheeky chappy" who has broadcast in the area for 30 years, and is well-known for his quick-fire wit and earthy scouse humour.  Naturally, in person he was miserable as sin and he barely spoke to me when I was there, even avoiding eye-contact as I sat opposite him in the cafe next door to the studios where I was introduced.  Now I'm well aware I was just the latest in a long line of work experience kids, no doubt some of which were not much to write home about, but he could have made a bit more of an effort, especially given the way at BBC Local Radio at that point was to basically use work placements as unpaid broadcast assistants, as there wasn't the budget to employ one of those in addition to a producer (hence the lengthy four-week placement).  Once the show got underway I enjoyed myself a bit more - sitting behind the glass in the control room, watching it all go out, made me more certain than ever that broadcasting was where I wanted to be.

As I sat there I remember feeling a bit chilly, but thought that it must have just been over-enthusiastic air-con.  On the way home the coldness continued, turning into full-on shivering on the bus and resulting in almost being unable to talk to my (then new) girlfriend on the phone once I got home.  The next morning I woke up with a chin the size of Desperate Dan, and after being sent to the doctor's by my sister I was diagnosed with mumps.  She's a nurse now.  I like to think I was her first patient!  I was "signed off" for a week (if you can be signed off when working for free), so they must have got a funny impression of me - there for one day and then falling ill.

When I returned the following week I continued for a short while with the Chuckle Brother in the afternoons.  One cringe-worthy moment was when I was invited through to the studio to announce the result of a phone-in competition.  I looked down at the scrawled hand-writing of the producer in front of me and said into the microphone that the winner was so-and-so from "Widerby".  As soon as I said it I knew that "Widerby" was not an actual place in the local area and there was an awkward moment as we tried to work out, live on air, what it actually said.  As the next record played it became clear that what was written was W/Derby, i.e. West Derby...  

Other than the chance to embarrass myself to the region I wasn't being given much to do, so I got chatting to the producer of the morning show - a young, charasmatic guy who had clearly spotted that I didn't have much to keep me busy.  He diplomatically offered to my afternoons producer to take me on to help with the morning show, which I naturally jumped at, so started coming in at 9am instead.  What a difference!  The morning presenter was a former commercial local radio breakfast show jock who had moved to the BBC a few years previously, so was a celebrity of sorts to people of my age, and he was a breath of fresh air - a genuinely lovely guy to work with.  He was enjoying the lie-ins his new slot allowed and said he would never return to breakfast hours.  Of course, today he presents the breakfast show on the station.

Being still in his thirties he was easily one of the youngest people on air at the station, so his show was therefore a much more interesting one to work on.  I had a good time helping out editing trails, answering the phones and sorting out competitions (I'm rather glad this was a few years before the scandals as we didn't put much science behind picking the winners, but then when the prize was a cheap recipe book did it really matter?).  I even presented on air at one point when visiting a "Maize Maze" in the Wirral.  They seemed to like me (apparently "the best placement we've had" - although that was probably what they said to everyone) so I starting to wonder whether I perhaps had a future at the station.  I was asked back the following Easter and again in the summer of 2005 following graduation.  By this point their enthusiasm had cooled slightly and I was told I'd done as much unpaid as I was allowed to do and should now start looking for positions to apply for.  This was a blessing in disguise really, as I started to research positions in London to join my girlfriend who had just moved down there, and quickly found myself applying to ITV - and I'm still there now.

So that was the end of my time doing work experience.  It is something that demands a fair bit of understanding on either side: that the employer does not offer placements where it is difficult to do anything constructive, and that the person on the placement realises that they are quite lucky, and are not being taken on because their mentor needs someone to keep them busy.  This week I'm in Leeds training the lovely YTV guys, as the role I got back in 2005 is being relocated.  Obviously there's a lot of nodding and listening involved but thankfully none of them have yet started yawning or checking their texts yet...

Monday, 20 June 2011

Start spreading the news...

Well - where to start?!  At the end, logically.

It's been a few days now since Kate and I announced our engagement.  To say it's been a whirlwind is a bit of an understatement!  We've had a lot of questions about how, where and when (but thankfully not "why") and while we're going to try and see as many friends in person as we can in the near future hopefully this blog should fill in the gaps for now.

Neither of us had been to the United States before, the closest I'd got being a school trip to Canada when I was 15, so we were both quite excited about the trip.  I'd been looking for a good time to propose for around a year, thinking about going for it at the Edinburgh Fringe and during our New Year in a posh hotel together, but decided neither would really be the right occasion for a proposal.  I'd bought Kate tickets to see Pulp for her birthday, at the Wireless Festival on 3rd July, which is also our anniversary, so I was thinking about doing it then after the concert finished somewhere special in London, but then realised that Pulp would be last on and it'd finish pretty late (obviously) - so that option was out.  That left New York - why on earth didn't I think of it before?

Our journey there was relatively uneventful.  We caught the Picadilly Line to Heathrow, which was handy as a direct train but I don't think either of us have ever spent as long on one single tube train before (it's just over an hour).  We flew with America Airlines who had a rubbish selection of films and TV programmes to watch and a pretty poor "veggie" option (a catch-all veggie/vegan/gluten-free option as opposed to the main option which may itself be meat-free! bizarre).  Then the Airtrain and New York subway and finally checking in at our hotel.  The subway has two things only going for it - air conditioning and cheap prices - in all other ways, the tube is superior.  The quality of the trains, sign-posting, announcements, countdown timers - it's like taking a limo in comparison.  Also, can someone exhume Harry Beck and ask him to have a go at redesigning their map?
# after the party it's the hotel lobby #

We stayed at the Distrikt Hotel, a lovely hotel not far from Times Square that Kate had booked based on it's Trip Advisor ratings alone.  The decor was not dissimilar to the Malmaison chain that we often treat ourselves to in the UK - sumptuous and indulgent, with the feel of a much more expensive hotel (although the trump card was the free iced tea in reception, a must in the hot weather!).  On geekwatch as ever I was very impressed with the TV in the room - not only a great selection of channels but the vast majority in HD too.  Making that work in a hotel distribution system is to be applauded, if you've ever tried to watch the grainy stretched images in most UK chains.
NBC's forecast - check out Thursday!!
Our first full day was incredibly hot - 98F in old money.  New York is quite well prepared for this sort of weather with air conditioning in abundance, so as long as you go indoors every so often you'll be fine.  However it's pretty rare in June, and the TV networks were talking about records being broken and children being sent home from school early.  Given this we naturally we chose today to go to the top of one the tallest buildings in New York, the Rockefeller Centre, but not before a trip to the outside of NBC's Today studio in the same complex.  Every morning crowds gather to try and get on TV, and we think we managed it! (later in the week we watched Saturday Night Live on the same network, which was actually pretty good - there was a brilliant sketch featuring the "other two" from the Black Eyed Peas - and one of the stars was none other than Kenan from Kenan and Kel!)
NBC's OB outside of their studios

The views from the Top of the Rock were, as expected, incredible, but somewhat hazy due to the high temperatures.  The amount of time we could spend up there was also limited by this - we were pretty much melting up there.  Kate had suggested we go up this building rather than the Empire State Building as from this vantage we'd be able to actually see the highest building in New York, rather than be positioned on top of it.  Smart thinking! After lunch at a cool fast food-style Falafel chain a quick look round Bloomingdales we headed back to the hotel to recover from the heat and some mild jetlag.
On Top of the Rock! (I'm not King Kong...)

That evening we went to a great restaurant called The Meatball Shop.  If it was in London then it'd be full of hipsters, but despite this it sells brilliant meatballs (including veggie ones!) at a great price with a fantastic atmosphere.  While we were there the promised sequel to the heat arrived - a severe thunderstorm.  I've seldom seen so much water but the queue carried on out outside this place, such is the attraction.  Then we went to a bar which, amusingly, was showing an Arsenal v Tottenham match from last November.  Our two nearest football clubs - thousands of miles away and still can't get away from them!
View of Central Park from on Top of the Rock - the boating lake is the smaller one on the left

I'd always planned to propose on the Friday - giving us a day before to settle in and a couple of days after to enjoy ourselves.  Luckily for me the weather for the Friday was forecast to be (slightly) cooler than the highs of the day before.  I had done a bit of research on places to propose in New York (it all seeming real for the first time as I typed those words into Google!) and seen a variety of fairly rubbish options.  The classic cheesy option was on top of the Empire State Building, but there was no way I was doing this.  I'd always known Kate wanted it to be private and I completely agreed - there was no way I wanted an audience of tourists.  The only problem was, New York is a very busy city - there are precious few quiet, secluded spots where I could pop the question and know it was only between us two.  One option jumped out at me.
Kate walks towards the boating lake in Central Park

We arrived at Central Park on the Friday morning, with me feeling quite nervous and clutching a phone full of research of where to go and what to do!  However upon arriving at the Loeb Boathouse disaster struck - the boat hire booth was shut, despite apparently opening at 10am.  Kate later said that I seemed unaturally concerned at this!  I thought about finding somewhere secluded in the park instead, but luckily before we set off the booth opened and all was well.  As I rowed out into the lake I suddenly remembered that the last time I'd tried to row was in a rubber dinghy as a teenager, so spent an undignified few minutes thrashing around with the oars trying to work out how to actually do it.  So far, so romantic.
Me looking more diginified than was deserved

We had an hour in the boat which set a rather daunting time limit on when to pop the question, so half an hour in, when I'd reached the centre of the lake, I began my "speech", as it were.  I'd prepared an album of photos on my phone of the past seven years - some of just us two, others of us in a group, some of in-jokes that only mean anything to us two.  Kate later told me she could tell something was up as my hands were shaking as I got my phone out!  As I got to the end of the album I said that if that's what we'd done in seven years then imagine how amazing seventy would be - and, after a few more words that I'll keep private to us, I got on one knee and popped the question.  Luckily it was quite a deep boat - I had worried that this would be difficult with us both being sat down! 
We're engaged!

I wasn't so much worried about Kate saying no (although does anyone proposing ever have no doubts in their mind at all about this?!), though she did later say I was a "massive tool" for wanting to marry her.  I was more concerned about making the proposal itself special.  We only plan to do this once in our lives (!) and I wanted it to be perfect for us - and, amazingly, it was.  The weather was gorgeous, the surroundings were spectacular, the lake was secluded and with only a handful of other boats on it largely empty.  There was also a lovely symmetry about the whole thing - we'd met at university in York, so proposing in New York felt almost like coming full circle.  Also, as any Wirral resident will tell you (usually without prompting), Birkenhead Park was the inspiration for Central Park, and walking around the larger cousin you can certainly see a number of features carried over.  So it couldn't really have worked out much better for us!
The earliest picture of us together - presenting YSTV Week in May 2004

Kate and I met in January 2004 - well I tell a lie - Kate met me in January 2004 (bear with me).  I met her in the first week of university in October 2002 at the politics department meet-and-greet event.  I was there with my housemate Simon, both of us trying and largely failing to mingle and meet our fellow students.  Eventually we managed to get talking to a friendly blonde girl and her housemate, and stayed talking to them rather too long as we all relaxed a little having finally got a conversation going.  Sadly the dept divided us up into largely seperate seminar and lecture groups so I only saw her in passing in that first year (often walking from Halifax College onto the main campus, past our houses in Edens Court), kicking myself that I hadn't managed to stay in touch with her. 
At Kat's Disney Party, early 2005.  Kate is Cinders and I'm a Dalmation!

Fast forward to January 2004 and the blonde girl - Kate, who became brunette shortly afterwards - joined YSTV, which I'd been a member of since the start of my first year.  She was a budding journalist at this point, and used to be in the station every Thursday afternoon preparing our news programme YSTV Week.  We started to hit it off and I'd look forward to those Thursday afternoons, eventually persuading her to go in front of the cameras and present.  By the summer we were an item and became "official" during a trip to Dublin in July 2004.  OK, perhaps it wasn't quite as straightforward as that - call that the "abridged" version!  But Kate claims to not remember that first meeting in the old Derwent library, so clearly I made a great first impression.  Love at first sight it wasn't - second, perhaps! 

After a fantastic final year at uni spent living in each other's pockets we graduated in July 2005, and within a few months we were living together in London, somewhere neither of us really were expecting to be, with Kate on a production trainee course and me working as an assistant scheduler at ITV.  The rest is history - so back to New York.
Waiting for the Staten Island Ferry

Once we'd reached dry land again, we ended up sitting on a bench, watching the squirrels and talking for about an hour, both trying to take it all in.  Then we had a wander around the park before jumping on the subway back to the hotel.  We'd lost our appetites after the excitement of the morning so didn't bother with much for lunch, and headed down to the Staten Island Ferry, a free commuter trip which is mainly used by tourists in order to get a good view of the Statue of Liberty. 

That evening we had a gorgeous seven-course Indian tasting meal at Amma before heading back up The Rock to use the second half of our ticket, seeing New York at night, an even more incredible view than during the day.  All in all an incredible day - I can honestly say it couldn't have gone better for us.  If I can just turn on the cheese for a moment (and I think I've done pretty well so far in avoiding it!) it was almost like someone was looking down on us, making it so...  
New York by night from the Top of the Rock

I'd already asked Kate's parents for their blessing the night before we flew out (note: not just her Dad and not his permission - we're both on the same page on that particular custom) which was pretty nerve-wracking, although of course they were both delighted and over the moon.  It also marked the point of no return as it went from something in my head to something that was out there and I actually needed to do!  But the first person we told after we got engaged was the barman in our hotel, who was absolutely lovely and made up some special cocktails to celebrate with us.  The aforementioned Amma restaurant also brought out a special dessert with "congratulations" written on the plate above it.  Less good was one of the hotel porters, in an exchange that went something like this:

Kate (walking out of hotel, to porter): Hello!
Porter: Hello, how are you?
Kate: I'm great thanks - I got engaged today!
Porter: You're welcome.

The only response you can really do to that without causing embarrassment to both parties is to smile and carry on walking...
Scott on his Pizza Tour

The following day we were booked to go on Scott's Pizza Tour, a walking tour around some of New York's most notable pizza restaurants.  A quick Google and glance at Trip Advisor will tell you everything you need to know about how superb these tours are - and Scott's enthusiasm is without limits.  Upon telling him about our news at the start of the tour, he shouted to the rest of the group "OH MY GOD! GUYS, THESE GUYS GOT ENGAGED YESTERDAY!".  Lot of pizza talk and most importantly lots of pizza followed.  I'm easily pleased! 

The start of the High Line

Sunday was our last day and after checking out we met up for lunch with the lovely Beth, who worked with Kate at BBC Worldwide and has just moved to New York to join BBC America.  We decided to walk The High Line together, which is a stretch of disused elevated railway (comparable to the DLR in London) which has recently been re-opened as a public park.  As Kate and I do part of our daily journey to work on North London's Parkland Walk we were interested to see it's New York counterpart (thoughts - seems to have a lot more money behind it, a lot more landscaped, shorter in length and cyclists are banned - brilliant!).  After this we did a bit of shopping, with Kate scratching her J-Crew itch and me snapping up some trainers that were the same price in dollars that they are in pounds in the UK - result!
Kate in Times Square

The flight home was with British Airways, and the plane was much busier than the previous flight.  The facilities, food and general service was much better - despite having a huge bottle of sparkling water knocked all over me from the trolley at one point (accidentally - at least, I hope so!).  The stewardess fetched me a pair of first class pyjamas to say sorry, so if you want to play "BA First roleplay" then I'm your man.  Unfortunately we were sat next to a couple of oddballs who spent the entire six hours ripping up bits of plastic and paper and throwing them onto the heads of their friends in the row in front.  This never stopped being funny to them.  It was an overnight flight, and Kate managed to get a couple of hours sleep (as she's quite talented at doing anywhere, anytime) but I didn't get any at all really, so we eventually arrived back in Crouch End at about midday feeling pretty zonked.
Heading north to Liverpool on Monday evening

We weren't due back in work until Wednesday but were quite keen to tell our famillies face-to-face before announcing it to the wider world, so in New York we'd booked a late train to Liverpool on the Monday night to see my family, then over to Halifax to see Kate's Grandma on Tuesday, followed by her brothers in Leeds and then the last train back down to London that night.  So after a couple of hours sleep at home we found ourselves heading back out again to Euston station to head up north.  Feeling like we did, boy was the extra £16 for the first class advance ticket worth it!  We hadn't told my parents and my Gran that we were coming at such short notice after our flight (thinking they'd suss it, losing the point of the trip), so we got a taxi from Lime Street station to Upton in the Wirral (having to guide the taxi driver all the way from the Mersey tunnel exit - classic).  They were pretty surprised when we turned up just before 11pm that night!

By lunchtime on Tuesday we were heading across the Pennines to Yorkshire, on the same journey I used to do when returning from home to university in York.  There's some spectacular scenery that I really wish I hadn't taken for granted at the time, now I'm stuck with the tedium of the West and East Coast Main Lines on most of my rail journeys.  I also love the route it takes when winding through Manchester - it really shows off what an amazing city it is.  After revealing the news to Kate's Grandma it was off to Leeds for a quick meal with Kate's brothers and parents before heading back to London.  We finally reached home just before midnight - shattered and running on adrenaline, but thankfully all the exertion had completely wiped out any trace of jetlag, as funnily enough we could fall asleep overnight just fine! 
Celebrating with Kate's brother Lee

On Wednesday morning we told our work colleagues before finally taking a deep breath and announcing our news to the world the modern way - changing your Facebook relationship status.  It was so lovely to keep checking back throughout the day and finding umpteen notifications of people congratulating, so thank you if you were part of that, it really made the day fly by when we were both surviving on very little sleep!  Thanks also for the tweets, messages, emails and cards we have received - they really mean a lot.  I think there was a little part of both of us that half expected the response of "what - seriously?!" when we announced it.  This weekend we're off to the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter (yep, more travelling) to look for a ring.  I had known for a very long time that I wasn't going to buy a ring before proposing - apart from anything else, I wouldn't have a clue, but for something so important I wanted the person who'd be wearing it to choose it.  Later in July we'll be having some engagement drinks which, should you be able to make, we'd love to see you at.  We're both very, very happy and more than a bit excited - and that's about as much as you can ask for.  I'm a very lucky man.