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.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

It's not number one, it's Top of the Pops

It's been a while since I last blogged - mainly due to a lot going on at work (and boy does the opening paragraph of my last blog seem ironic now) which I'll write about once it's all sorted, and a nasty bug that followed soon after putting me out of action for a while.  But there is something that I've wanted to write about for a while, so best get on with it!

BBC Four began repeating 1976 episodes of Top of the Pops on 1st April this year, and as I've always been a fan of the show it was a nice birthday present to be able to see old episodes in full.  For my generation "old" TOTP was only ever seen in the sanitised world of TOTP2, where individual performances would be shown (often the same ones over, and over, and over again) but any trace of what rooted the show to that era - the presenters, titles and graphics - would be excised.  Indeed it's something of a miracle that all twenty-somethings don't think that "I Got You Babe" was originally screened in 1965 with a set of slow rotating captions superimposed over the top telling you not-very-much, and a sarcastic voiceover pointing out Cher's pre-surgery appearance.  So to see the episodes as originally transmitted is something of a treat.
April 1976 was chosen as the starting point mainly because this is the point that most episodes exist in the archive, with only a few shows lost.  The most famous show with missing episode from the 1960s, Doctor Who, fares pretty well in comparison to TOTP: fan-written episode guides show that the earliest surviving footage isn't until show 8 in February 1964, and the first episode to exist in full, incredibly, isn't until Christmas 1967.  But whoever decided the point to stop junking most episodes was to be April 1976 clearly had a sense of humour, as we've been finding out over the last two months on Thursday nights.

As a place to start with a complete repeat run it's a pretty poor place musically.  Falling in the gap between glam rock and punk, the vast majority of the music in the show and therefore the charts at this point is pretty dreadful.  To be fair to BBC Four, this was flagged up in advance in an excellent documentary about 1976 - and the recurring comment from anyone who has seen the 1976 TOTP repeats is that their content is basically asking for punk to to rise up and stop this turd of a programme in its tracks.

The show seems to have given up any pretence of being either for young people, or to be showcasing an exciting new musical world as must have been the case in those lost shows in the 1960s.  Instead, it is pretty much a bog-standard light entertainment show, complete with gurning hosts, fancy-dress outfits and bad gags.  Even the audience seem to have given up, with exuberant dancing and exciting fashion giving way to a lot of beige and the sort of awkwardly shuffling around you'd do at a disco where you knew your parents were in attendance.  Compare and contrast - mostly contrast - the two clips below, the first from 1970 and the second from 1976 (with thanks to a poster on the Popscene forum who dug these gems out originally):

And we haven't even mentioned the music yet.  In the two months that the repeats have been running, I can honestly say that the number of tracks I've genuinely liked I can count on the fingers of one hand.  And that's not from the point of view of a muso (anyone who knows me will know I like a bit of crappy pop as much as the next person) - the music of 1976 was just so depressingly dire it's amazing they managed to fill 40 minutes every week without all ending up weeping in the corner of the studio.  So far we've had Brotherhood of Man at number 1 seemingly forever with their Eurovision winner (and its slightly disturbing twist in the last line), Paul Nicholas informing us whilst wearing a bowler hat that reggae isn't what it used to be, JJ Barrie and "No Charge" (which is less a song and more Mumsnet set to music), a gollywog drawn on a drum kit, a Dave Lee Travis "comedy" record and The Wurzels, who at least acknowledge that they are taking the piss.

The one big exception I've seen is "S-S-S Single Bed" by Fox - a great track that I can't believe I haven't heard before (apparently I haven't spent enough time in Flares).  Even the clip below has the spectre of Travis looming over it as he awkwardly grooves in the background at the start.  Interestingly it emerged as a result of these repeats that lead singer Noosha Fox is the mother of Bad Science writer Ben Goldacre - but not, surprisingly, Alison Goldfrapp.

It's not just the music that depresses.  It's hard to believe that the hosts are really the best the UK had to offer in 1976.  Despite their woeful attempts at humour Jimmy Saville and Tony Blackburn aren't too bad, but Dave Lee Travis seems to have styled himself the "wacky" one - opening one show in a gorilla costume, insisting on joining in during a Ruby Flipper dance routine and larking about with one of the Wurzels' tubas at the close of one show (oh how we laughed).  David Hamilton seemed flummoxed even by the act of presenting itself in one episode and instead made pervy comments in virtually every link towards any women featured.  So it's surprising to see Noel Edmonds come out of this as a beacon of restraint and gentle wit, but given the competition it isn't difficult.  All of which means the much derided 1991 relaunch hosts and Tim Kash probably deserve an apology from us all.

As a modern TOTP viewer some of the conventions of the show seem a little unusual although no doubt were standard at the time.  The top 30 countdown is at the start of the show, rather than the end, which seems the wrong way around (although this was apparently the case for many years).  There are no captions for the songs so unless you were taking notes in the opening minute or the presenter mentions it you can forgot knowing what position a song is at.  From today's branded world it's odd to see the TOTP logo only appears at the start of the end credits, and there is no title sequence at all.  Plus watching it week after week you are reminded of all the old "rules" that were dropped in the 90s - only songs going up the chart are featured, and even then not in consecutive weeks unless it's at number 1.  Most odd of all is the pointless opening link, where the presenter either simply says "hello and welcome to Top of the Pops" or attempts a dreadful gag.  David Hamilton opening one show claiming to be able to present the show standing on his head - followed by a predictable visual gag with the image being flipped.  I'd like to see him made to present the show actually standing on his head, with the audience waiting patiently as he tries to do handstands and balance himself upside down as the show's duration ticks away.

All of this leads you to a conclusion: there was no golden age of Top of the Pops, or if there was, those that banged on it about eventually leading to the show's death conveniently forgot about a huge chunk of the 1970s being dirge.  Apparently the show doesn't get a great deal better until the famous "party atmosphere" kicks in around 1981/2, so it's to be hoped BBC Four stick with these repeats long enough to get past this period.  On the subject of BBC Four, until 1985 TOTP regularly ran up to 40 minutes depending on the schedule that night, and slots of that length are quite rare in peak schedules today.  This resulted in a couple of performances per week being edited out of the first few repeats (surely an opportunity for a Stalinist re-writing or indeed improving of history), so the channel deserves credit for placing the full shows in the late night repeat slots where time is not so much of the essence.

We shouldn't overanalyse too much of course (he says, ten paragraphs later).  There is a danger in implying you can read some sort of social history from a light-hearted pop programme, so the events of 1976 can no more be reflected in these repeats than you can look at Tim Kash's episodes for the country's response to the Hutton Report in 2004.  But it's great to be able to watch it week in, week out, warts and all.  We've seen Pan's People "exit stage left" (in the words of Edmonds) and be replaced by Ruby Flipper, leading you to imagine the incredulity of Dads nationwide as their weekly perv is now tarnished with scantily-clad men dancing as well as women.  It's like a car crash - you can't not look.  I've got a series link setup on my PVR, and Kate and I spend 40 minutes every week decrying the fashions and music of 35 years ago.  Who knows, we might start exhibiting Stockholm syndrome if the run carries on for long enough...