Plane stupid

First up, let me say that anybody who asserts that they would react entirely calmly if their aircraft was on fire, is a liar.

Of course there would be confusion and panic, as there was when BA Flight 2276 caught fire on the runway at Las Vegas this week.

But what struck me — and others — was the fact that so many of the passengers ignored the basic safety instructions that are drilled into them each time they fly via the pre-flight video.

The evidence for this is the pictures of passengers on the tarmac with their carry-on luggage.

Now I don’t care how valuable that thing in your bag is, I don’t want it creating an obstacle for me or my loved ones while I’m trying to get off a burning plane.

The challenge for all airlines in the wake of this is obvious. People are not paying attention to the videos, or they are simply ignoring them.

What’s the solution? Is it time to get a little graphic, I say, as they have in many countries with road safety commercials — show a bit of carnage on the screen to demonstrate how serious such an incident could be?

Or is it worth insisting that airlines change their videos more frequently, and make them more entertaining, so people don’t switch off. Air New Zealand has certainly won a lot of awards and gained some internet fame with its humorous videos. It’s hard to tell if they would be any more effective in the case of emergency, though.

The other option would be to scrap them altogether. Let’s face it, accidents are very rare and, sadly, when they happen, people often don’t have much of a chance at survival anyway.

A simple announcement that in case of emergency, it’s everyone for themselves, might just suffice.



Fabulous Falmouth

I’ll be honest, the only Falmouth I knew about was in England, until I saw the name included on my itinerary for a Caribbean cruise.

This one is the capital of Trelawny parish in Jamaica, and it’s a popular excursion point for visitors who like charming colonial architecture and wonderfully friendly people — and those who want to zip around to nearby Montego Bay for some seaside fun.

Here are a few pictures to give you a taste of the place:

Hills hosts


Adam Hills is one of Australian entertainment’s greatest success stories. His current show The Last Leg is a huge hit on British television, but his breakthrough on TV came in Australia with the music trivia show Spicks and Specks.

A few years ago, I asked Hills how it all came about:


Beguiling Belarus

While it’s hardly off the beaten track — it’s slap, dab in the middle of the continent — Belarus  is one of the least-visited countries in Europe.

On my three visits, flying into Minsk, I had no trouble getting a visa on arrival with my Australian passport — although on one occasion the price increased on the spot from 70 USD to 70 euro when I said I didn’t have greenbacks. As always, it’s wise to check in advance if you need a visa before booking flights.

Minsk was almost completely flattened in World War II — the small old quarter includes a church and just a few other buildings — and it was rebuilt in the late 1940s and 50s as Stalin’s model Soviet city. Some find it austere; I think it’s quite beautiful in many ways.

Don’t expect anybody to speak English, although most people will be friendly — and somewhat intrigued by your presence. I was lucky enough to have a local friend who took care of all the talking. When I had to catch a taxi on my own, I was lucky enough to know where I was going and get a driver who knew some German, so I could give basic directions. I will learn Russian one day.

Hotels were few and expensive last time I was there; but I understand that this is changing as more people discover Belarus. Rooms in private houses are available, but again you need to speak Russian (and read it on websites) to work through the maze.

While you shouldn’t need to worry too much about your own safety (unless you go to dodgy places late at night), be aware that you may be being watched by state security operatives. For your own protection, of course.

Here are some photos taken in 2009-2010.



Stan’s still the Man

Stan Lee may well be indestructible like one of the superheroes he created for Marvel Comics. I spoke to him almost 10 years ago when he was a sprightly octogenarian. He’s now 92 and still going strong.

Well before Raj on The Big Bang Theory made a big deal about the fact that many of Stan’s characters had alliterative names — Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards and so on — I got the scoop right from the source.

Bless you, Ma’am

When I went to school in Australia in the late 1960s and 70s, they played God Save the Queen every morning. In fact, in later primary school, I played God Save the Queen, as a drummer in the band.

A portrait of Elizabeth II was hung in every classroom, and in history classes we were frequently reminded about how great our ties to the “motherland” were.

The first time I began questioning this, I suppose, was in 1975, when the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, sacked prime minister Gough Whitlam and the elected government of Australia, and installed the opposition leader in his place in a caretaker role.

That can’t be right, I thought, the Queen will probably step in and overturn this. But the Queen did not step in, she let the unprecedented decision by her representative in Canberra stand.

Of course, my understanding of the events of the Dismissal is more nuanced now, but it was then and there that I began to think about the complexities of having a head of state who was so remote — by distance and, increasingly, culturally.

Things became a little more complicated for me when I sought, and obtained, a British passport. That document declares me to be a British citizen, and I have taken advantage of that fact over the years to live and work in the United Kingdom, and the get in and out of the European Union much more efficiently than my Australian passport would allow.

In the UK, I understand the affection for the monarchy, and I understand that the royal family, while controversial at times, plays an important role. It attracts tourism dollars, and, in many ways, it defines a certain type of “Britishness” with its pomp and ceremony. But it’s also expensive to maintain and represents a class system that no longer applies.

When asked if I’m a republican, I usually say: “In Britain, no. In Australia, yes.”

While I’d hesitate to call myself a monarchist, I think the system in Britain ain’t yet broke, so there’s no point in fixing it.

So, as the Queen celebrates the milestone of being Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, I remember the song we sang as children, and wish her many more years of health.

The discussion about what comes next can wait.

Beautiful Barcelona

I was late to the party when it came to Barcelona. My first visit was just two years ago, and I immediately wondered why it had taken so long for me to get there.

As advised, I spent a lot of time wandering up and down the main street, La Rambla, and its fascinating side alleys. Tapas and a cooling libation while people watching .. it doesn’t get any better than that.

Oh, and one of the stag-do Brits in the final pic is a ring-in.

The real Billy Bragg


I’ve interviewed a lot of big showbiz names over my career, but there are a few favourites who stick out, not because of their huge star power, but because they are smart, lucid and engaging. The English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg is one of them.

I’ve spoken to Billy four times over 20 years – from a hastily convened chat in the the green room at St David’s Hall in Cardiff in 1988 (while Michelle Shocked was on stage) to a telephone chat in 2008 to promote his then-latest album, Mr Love & Justice.

In this extract from that chat, Billy talks about the songs his fans want to hear, his voice and the way he’s become more relaxed over the years.

Ancient places

I’ve never been to Syria, so I shall never see the great ruins of Palmyra.

But their senseless loss, at the hands of extremists who don’t value human life or human achievement, has reminded me of some of the ancient or very old wonders that I have visited.

These sites are, thankfully, still there and continue to inspire us. I’ll post more pictures of these and other places that I care about — and we should all care about — in the days, weeks and months to come.



Phone home … but not now

I’ve already had a rant here about the poor standards of driving in the UAE.

One of the worst behaviours, around the world, is drivers talking on mobile phones, or sending text messages, while behind the wheel.

Some studies say this more dangerous than drunk driving. I hate it when I’m at the mercy of somebody who is on the phone — but I recently, almost, made an exception for one cab driver who was talking to his young child in another country.

That piece — which also includes some of my family history, in case you’re curious — is here.

People make the place

I’m always suspicious of lists.* For example, who is actually qualified to name the top 100 movies of all time? Surely the starting point would be to have seen every movie ever made – which, of course, is impossible.

So I approached the Travel + Leisure magazine list of World’s Unfriendliest Cities with my usual caution. To be fair to T+L, they make it clear that it’s based on a poll in which readers were asked to rank 266 cities. (This also resulted in a World’s Friendliest Cities list, but how much fun is that?)

I assume that none of the respondents had been to all 266 cities, but I guess if the sample of respondents was large enough (again I don’t know if it was), then some sort of reliable pattern would have emerged. Or at least a snapshot of what constitutes a warm welcome to the readers of T+L.

What worried me was that the losers included some places that I like a lot — Moscow, St Petersburg, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Frankfurt.

It took a while, but then I realised why I liked those places — in each case I was travelling with someone who was a local, or was able to introduce me to locals. So, rather than the hit-and-run approach  tourists often take, I was at least a little immersed in these places.

In Philadelphia, I was staying with an old university friend and his wife, and we went together to New York.  In Cambridge, near Boston, I was staying with friends of those friends, and we went to some out-of-the-way places (along with the compulsory “Cheers” bar, the Bull & Finch).

I visited Moscow and St Petersburg with a friend from Belarus, who not only spoke Russian, but was able to secure us cheap, cheerful, apartment-style accommodation in residential areas away from (but close to) the tourist traps.

Some of my worst travel experiences have been when I’ve stayed at those hotels where there’s a kind of false welcome from people who know they are never going to see you again.

My point here is that your perception of how “friendly” a city is very much depends on the people you meet. And that’s always a lottery – especially when you’re travelling solo or on a package deal.

*Apart from this one, which calls me an “influential journalist”.

Safety first

When I was a child, my grandfather used to come and visit our family every Sunday morning.

He and my father would catch up over a root beer (actually it was Horehound, a then-popular non-alcoholic beverage) and, when he left, Grandpop would let us — my brother and me and the Campbell kids from across the road —  jump into the back of his old ute (what Americans would call a pick-up) and travel to the bottom of the street. We’d then  jump off and run back home.

It was all good fun, but I wouldn’t have dreamt of allowing any child under my care to do something as risky as that that 20 years later, and I certainly would not approve of it happening now.

For me, the defining moment in understanding the importance of road safety was when I was 11 and one of my school friends died in a car accident. He was not wearing a seatbelt, and his body was propelled through the windscreen of his parents’ car. A whole community mourned his death and, I hope, learned a lesson.

I will never drive with children in the car unless they are restrained. If the seatbelt comes off, the car stops.

But it’s not just me. In the 40-something years since I was a child, the common understanding of what is safe, and what is not, has changed in Australia, and across most of the developed world.It has not, sadly, changed where I know live — in the United Arab Emirates.

Normal, safe, sensible ways of driving simply do not apply here. I know that’s a blunt statement to make, but it is true.

Almost nobody uses their indicator lights — a fact so well recognised that it’s become fodder for satire — speeding is endemic, almost every driver tailgates, mobile phones are commonly used while driging and, as a consequence, the road toll in the UAE is unacceptably high.

A World Health Organisation report reveals that the road-fatality rate in the UAE is more than twice that of Australia and almost four times that of the United Kingdom.

That is unacceptable in a country that aspires to — and had achieved — a very high standard of living.

Even casual observers will witness extreme speeding, drivers talking on their  phones and children who are unrestrained within vehicles — and sometimes even hanging out of vehicles, via the windows or the sunroof.

The authorities need to drill down into the reasons why people do not obey simple road rules. Are they not aware of the potential consequences, or do they simply not care?

The question that needs to be answered — and quickly — is how we can drive the message home? I just hope that it won’t take until everyone suffers the pain of a friend dying unnecessarily.


Write and wrong

I guess it must be a great relief to many in the self-promoting business that death is no longer a barrier to building your fame and fortune.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, the long-term manager of Elvis Presley, famously said on his star property’s demise that it “didn’t change anything”. Indeed, Elvis still regularly tops the list of the richest dead celebs. Thankfully, Col Parker has also passed into the next world and is no longer benefitting from that fact.

My attitude that money ain’t worth having if you’re not around to enjoy it is, apparently, not widely shared. There are still plenty of people who want to cash in on the work of people who no longer have a say in how their intellectual property is handled.

In the past few days, it’s been announced that there will be a new installment in the Millennium trilogy of books by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. This is despite the fact that there are already three books in the series — generally the limit for a trilogy, unless the author’s name is Douglas Adams — and Mr Larsson has been dead for many years, and will remain in that state for the foreseeable future.

Not so long ago, we saw a “new” novel by the very elderly and unwell Harper Lee, who never saw fit to publish the work during her 50 or 60 lucid years since writing it.

For goodness’ sake, can’t we just let sleeping authors be?


You say tomato

When is tomato ketchup not tomato ketchup? Or should the question be: where is tomato ketchup not tomato ketchup?

The answer to the second question is: in Israel, where the health ministry has ruled that Heinz Tomato Ketchup must now be referred to as “Tomato Seasoning”.

This comes as a result of a complaint by Osem, manufacturers of a rival product. Apparently the Heinz product, which is known and used worldwide, has only 21 per cent tomato concentrate, while Israel’s law requires ketchup to have 41 per cent. Exactly what’s in the other 59 to 79 per cent, I do not know (or care to ask).

This storm in a sauce bottle is not unique. In Queensland, Australia, where I grew up, peanut butter was long known as peanut paste because the dairy lobby convinced the government of the time that the use of the word “butter” was misleading since the product did not contain butter. (This notwithstanding, peanut butter with butter is a taste sensation.)

For some reason Oil of Olay used to known in Australia as Oil of Ulan; and chocolate lovers in Britain long resisted the renaming of the Marathon bar to Snickers, even though it was an identical product.

The Brits also objected to having to refer to the cleaning product they knew as Jif (which made sense in English) as Cif (which didn’t), because that was the name used across Europe.

Does a name make a difference? I’d like to think it does — especially when it evokes a memory or other sensory experience.

But maybe I’m just old fashioned in that way.