A clear, bright day in Florida. Hurricane Dennis, which has been giving a fat chunk of the southwest a wedgie and stealing it’s lunch, passed by the Orlando area with zero fuss. A perfect day, therefore, for a helicopter ride and fun with gators.
It was Clare’s first time in a helicopter, and she was clearly nervous. However, we are talking about a five-minute flight in a little two seater, which should be small beer indeed for a girl, who’s crossed the Atlantic without a blink two days earlier. And indeed this was how it turned out to be. She was grinning madly throughout, and proclamed the whole experience to be extremely cool. Seeing Orlando from above renders the scary looking rollercoasters, and indeed the vast scale of the place, down to much more manageable levels.
A qiuck whiz round the model train museum attached to the helicopter hire place. Much cooler than it sounds, crammed with detail. Clearly a labour of love, and it’s worth doing these sorts of things with a train obsessed three-year-old. Cynicism is simply not allowed.
THen a whiz down the Orange Blossom Trail to Gatorland. The first trip highlight. This place is the absolute antethesis of polished corporate Florida tourism. It’s all wooden walkways and ramshackle charm. And of course, lots and lots of alligators. They’re everywhere (well, not serving at the concession stands or getting under your feet, but you get the picture.) Gatorland has a major breeding programme ongoing, a huge wild bird sanctuary and just a charming look and feel. Oh, and a train, so Ali’s happy. (I told you he was obsessed.) There’s something about being a few feet away from something that’s clearly thought “”This’ll do” when it came to evolution, and has not felt the need to go any further. Something ruthless and prehistoric, that’s looking right back at you.
Chills? What do you think?
Some retail therapy to follow at the Premium Outlets (God bless you, strong pound!) then back to the resort for lazing around the pool and soaking up the beer.
Which reminds me. Sandi and I both got carded for trying to buy alcohol with lunch. We’re still not sure whether to be flattered or not…

It’s late on Monday night in Orlando, Florida. The rain, which has been bruising the sky since late afternoon, has finally started dropping. The air is clean and sweet. I’m four beers into the night, my tension gone, my eyelids drooping. It’s been a busy week.

After the events of the last few days in London, it’s good to be a few thousand miles away. Getting some distance from it seems the best way to deal with the feelings and thoughts running through my head. I’m sick and tired of the Dunkirk spirit, of being stoic and brave in the face of adversity. Walking home on Thursday night, passing the cordons at Edgeware Road, trying not to think about what’s in the tunnels at poor luckless King’s Cross. These are the things that make you decide you need a holiday. And fortunately, that’s just what we had coming.

We flew out on Sunday. There’s five of us. Me and Clare, her brother Ian, his wife Sandi, their three-year-old son Alistair. We’re all ready for the break. It’s Ali’s first flight that he can properly remember, and he loves it. He makes friends, chatters excitedly to the stewardesses, and is, as ever, cute as a pink fluffy button.

American border security was fun. Blimey. Forget the fingerprints and digital photos, I’ve never had to take my shoes off and run them through an x-ray to get into a country before. I have to unpack my hand luggage at one point, and as the digital camera and the laptop and the iPod come out it becomes apparant that I have become the geek I always aspired towards. I will embrace this inner geek. I will allow him to define my actions. There is an Apple store in Orlando. A reckoning approaches.

I’ll keep this to broad strokes, as it’s late, the caffeine’s worn off and the beer’s kicked in. Moments so far:

Cruising down Florida boulevards in our Chrysler Town and Country, Big Bubba. The radio has been figured and is pumping, the seating arrangements sorted, the cup-holders cooed over. Ian in the driver’s seat can’t stop grinning.

Ali’s reaction to the booking of a helicopter ride: “But Daddy’s too big to get in one of those!” Cue collapse of all parties. The kid is a stand-up comedian, swear to God.

The International House of Pancakes. We are all so, so fat now. Note also our waiter’s reaction to our response to the innocent question as to whether we would like the vast amount of uneaten food on our plates bagged up for later contemplation: “Oh GOD no. I don’t ever want to see another pancake!” Sorry, William. Nothing personal. We still tipped. We’re just not used to American portions yet.
While at the IHOP, a family from New York commisurate with us about Thursday’s events. We commisurate back. They have 9/11. We now, apparantly, have 7/7. London and NY have always had a lot in common, but this?

Walmart. There’s choice and there’s choice. But why would anyone choose to purchase big slabs of (and this is on the packaging) Ham And Water Style Product.
Let me say that again. Ham And Water Style Product.
It looks even worse than it sounds. Imagine a pink gelid slab of goop about the size of a PC case.
Walmart sell that. That’s food apparantly.
Just when I thought I couldn’t get over the aisle of bagged grated cheese.

Free broadband. In the apartment. There is drool on the iBook’s keyboard. I am so happy.

Generally, it’s what I thought it would be here (ugh, grammatical pratfall, sorry, typing on empty now.) Everything’s big and friendly and a little bit too man-made. Fun of course, and I’m already grooving on being here with people I love even if they do insist on laughing at my new Star Wars t-shirt (it’s the skull and crossbones but with a Stormtrooper head! Remember, I’m feeding my inner geek. There may be a danger of giving him indigestion.)

Tomorrow: Gatorland. And pictures. Promise.

Normally, Clare works in Oxfordshire, but yesterday she had a training session, so she travelled into work with me. I work in central London.
The trip in was slow, but uneventful. On the tube, there were delays due to a defective train at Picadilly Circus, so we got off at Regent’s Park. Handy for Clare, but I had a long walk down Great Portland St. I arrived into work in Soho at 8:50, just as the first bomb went off.
An email from our MD at about 9:30 talked about power surges on the tube shutting the network down, and that we should not be surprised if collegues are late in. By then, I was already getting text alerts about a bomb going off on a bus in Tavistock Square, and the tone of the mail seemed suddenly absurd. Events were moving far too quickly.
The morning was a blur as I tried to carry on with some work, while being constantly drawn back to the TV in the kitchen for news updates. The reports were fluid, the situation ever-changing. At one point there were seven bombs. There were troops on the streets in Covent Garden. Luke in VT started talking about martial law and curfews.
The phones were up. The phones were down. The word got out to my family, Clare’s family, my friends. Everyone but Clare. But I dropped her off pretty much at the door. Surely, surely…
Finally, a text at about 11. Check your email. I did. Nothing. Then, with a flash of inspiration, I checked the .Mac account. Bingo. From one of her mates at work. I’m fine. Mail me back to let me know you’re OK. Come and get me later, and we’ll work out how to get home. LuvU.
The day blurred past, Lunch with Dom, where we hunkered in a Pret and tried and failed to talk about normal things. In and out of the kitchen, where the jokes were already forming. Man in blue and white striped jumper and beret seen leaving scene trailing onions. The news tickers described the bus in Tavistock Square as “formally a double decker.” The same footage, cycling on a loop. The death and injured toll, ever-rising.
I left at 5, giving up on work for the day. Soho was eerily quiet. Most of the shops and pubs were shut. Many of them had signs on the windows beginning “due to the current circumstances…” There were hardly any cars on the roads. But pedestrians were everywhere, marching intently towards train stations, or just resigning themselves to a long walk home.
I met Clare at Park Crescent, and we started our own long walk towards Paddington. At one point, she’d been offered a hotel room for the night, initially taken it, then turned it down when she’d heard the mainline stations were open. She just wanted to go home. Her and me both.
We held hands pretty much the whole way to the station.
Walking past Edgeware Road, there was no obvious signs of damage, but police cordons were everywhere. No traffic on Praed St, but the pubs were heaving. Punters fortifying themselves for the journey ahead.
At Paddington, against all reports, a normal service was running. We got my usual train back to Reading. We had no problems getting a seat.
Home by half seven. Me and Clare swap the phones, checking in on people, including my mate Chris in Norfolk, who’d caught the news late and left a worried answerphone message. Clare caught up on the news reports. Tony Blair in his earlier conference had looked grey-faced and shocked. Ken Livingstone had came across as positively Churchillian. Then we just crashed. In bed by half ten, and I have to do the whole journey again. Clare’s back in Harwell, lucky thing. There’s a normal train service running today into London. I wonder how busy it’ll be.

Hello. Been busy, but I will be blogging again soon, hopefully during our holiday to Florida. Hopefully with pics. Thusly, here’s a test. You know you’ve been watching too much Star Wars when…

So, it’s the New Year, and the media is on our backs to get off our arses and do something about the filthy disgusting slobs we’ve turned ourselves into over Christmas. The papers and mags are full of diets. “Drop a Jean Size In Two Weeks.” “The Ten-Day Detox Diet.” The All-Sprout and Lentil Fart Yourself Thin Plan. Carol Vorderman’s “Totally Realistic Eat Yourself Slim, Go Up A Bra Size And Shag Brad Pitt In A Week Diet.” Lot of swiss chard in that one. My personal favourite, the McDonald’s “Buy One Big Mac Get One Free Fuck Dieting Diet.”

And of course the anti-smoking lobby gets into full swing, rubbing in that New Years Resolution guilt trip. And yes, smoking is foul and disgusting and of course giving up is a good thing to do. But you’re at your weakest when you’re fighting an addiction, and you can be damn sure there’ll be some evil bastard ready to take advantage of your need for a crutch.

Take the nicotine gum people. They’re easy! They’re convenient! They come in vaguely palatable fruit-like flavours! They’ll give you the power to beat the crap out of the six-foot tall cigarettes that you’re now hallucinating in your weakened state!

But you read the small print and you get a different story. At the bottom of every pack, on every poster, at the end of every advert, there are the two magic words. “Requires Willpower.”

Hang on a minute. You need willpower to give up smoking, chewy or no chewy. All the gum’s doing is giving you the nicotine you’re craving at a slightly reduced dose to ease you away from the fags. Nicotine’s the last thing you need. Nicotine’s the problem in the first place! You’re telling me that I’m going to be spending as much on chewing gum as I was on the old coffin nails, and I’m still going to be gnawing my fingernails down to the knuckle to fight off the need for just one more lungful of that sweet sweet smoke? As far as I’m concerned, if you’re on the gum or the see-through plasters, you’re still smoking! You’re just making it more difficult to justify the fag breaks!

That’s a thing no-one talks about. You’re not just giving up the bad stuff about smoking. You’re giving up the good stuff as well. You’re giving up your fag break buddies. You’re giving up that excuse to slope off from your desk for fifteen minutes every oh, half-hour or so. There you are one day, puffing away with that skinny bloke from accounts with the twitch and the bad teeth, and that receptionist you wouldn’t get the time of day from if you weren’t puffing Lambert and Butler at her. Next thing they know, you’re missing in action.

“What happened to Rob?” “He’s no longer with us.” “You mean…?” “I’m afraid so. Patches.” “Why? Why is it always the pretty ones? Why did I not tell him I loved him when I had the chance?”

I think what smokers need isn’t gum with nicotine. I think smokers need gum with willpower in it. Pop a couple of those babies and you’d be able to face down a crack jones with a jaunty shrug. “I have a craving!” Poink. “No. I. Don’t. Graaaaaaahhhh! Eye of the tiger!”

Fantastic stuff! You wouldn’t just have to use it for addictions. You could use it for any tough decision. That problem with the boss. “I can’t stand that self-absorbed arsemonkey a nanosecond longer! Don’t hold me back! I’m marching into that fucking corner office right this minute, tear his head off and spit down the hollow end!” “Wow! How’d Rob get so assertive?” “Willpower gum.” “Oooohhh…”

Break-ups? “No, you can’t have the Barry Manilow records! I bought them, I’m keeping them!” An altercation at the checkout? “I said there’s 5p off this can of beans! Grraaaaahhhh! Eye of the Tiger!” It’s self-confidence in a blisterpak!

Only problem is, you could overshoot the mark a little, of course. “Yeah, I’m smoking. It’s hard and the blonde on reception likes it when I blow smoke at her. Wanna make something of it?”

I was never a great believer in astrology (in fact I view it as pseudo-science of the worst kind), but I was none the less amused to find that I am not (a member of?) the star sign I thought I was.

Apparently there are thirteen signs to the zodiac, not twelve. I am not the Sagittarian I beieved myself to be, but Ophiuchan.

How cool is that? I can ignore the horoscopes even more thoroughly now!

We had our first carol singer last night. A little lad, about 15, I guess. He nervously quavered his way through a couple of standards (not ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, thank Bob, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the street urchin population are trying it, claiming all proceeds are going to Live Aid, as opposed to the local Co-Ops cheap lager department), I gave him a couple of quid, full marks for nerve, all v. festive, cheers and lovely.

Half-an-hour later, he tries again. And it takes a full ten seconds of quzzical eyebrow raising from TLC before he realises and ‘Silent Night’ wavers to a halt. Christmas clearly does funny things to the head…

I turned 38 at the weekend. Much drink and food intake, a visit to the local flea pit (for The Incredibles, of course. How good is this film? TLC, who don’t got a geeky bone in her body, dug it almost as much as me. THAT’S how good.) Gifties? Money mostly, and a bottle of Glenlivet. Yummy. Oh, and one of these.

However, I’ve done something odd to my back now, and am hobbling around like an old man, feeling the weight of the world on my scrawny shoulders. Fate playing payback? Who said age ain’t nothing but a number?

Call it an early onset of mid-life crisis, but I’ve made the decision that my birthday/Crimbo present this year will be a proper, honest to goodness electric guitar. Probly one of these bad boys. I’m bored with my acoustic, it’s just stopped being fun to play.

Anyway, as part of the research procedure, I’ve started buying guitar mags again, which took me back to when I was young and stupid and used to buy them on a regualr basis, to drool over custom axes that I could never (and still can’t) afford. Imagine my amusement to see that some of the shredders who used to clog up the tutorial sections of these magazines are still there, teaching kids who should know better about two-hand tapping and sweep arpeggios. Imagine my surprise to read about this cowboy from hell and his untimely demise.

Metal just got itself a martyr. Rest easy, Dimebag.