Sunday, 19 February 2012

Killer Queen

I never thought that I would one day be found on my feet, doing the handclaps to We Will Rock You as Queen pounded out the music, before singing along to We Are The Champions.  No, Freddie Mercury hasn't miraculously been resurrected (although he is God in my eyes) and no, I haven't stooped so low as to go and watch the Ben Elton musical.  This was watching Queen tribute band Killer Queen in St David's Hall in Cardiff last night.

What a great night it was too.  They all look the part, dressed circa 1986 and the Magic Tour.  Brian's big hair, Roger's stripy t-shirt and John's grumpy demeanour.  Freddie had all the moves, although his white t-shirt couldn't hide a bit of a belly, something Freddie never had I'm sure.  They sounded very authentic, and while Freddie didn't have the greatest voice I doubt it's fair to do the comparison to a singer who had one of the most powerful voices in rock.

The sold out St David's Hall crowd of all ages were treated to all the big hits, from the opener One Vision to closer We Are The Champions, via Radio Ga Ga, Fat Bottomed Girls, Killer Queen, Now I'm Here, Show Must Go On and Somebody To Love to name just a few.  It was a shame they didn't do some of my favourites such as Spread Your Wings or Seven Seas Of Rhye but I can't really grumble.

All the other elements of a Queen gig were also there.  Brian did the guitar solo from Brighton Rock (very accurately it must be said and I'm wondering if there wasn't some technical assistance), and Freddie did a call and response section with the crowd.  People spent most of the gig on their feet singing and clapping along, and with me being just the right side of drunk, was joining in with the best of them.  I can't say there are many gigs I have been to where I knew absolutely every word of every song.

A great night was had and I urge any Queen fan who gets a chance to go along.  You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Book Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer's novel is a story of 9-year old Oskar Schel.  It is set 2 years after the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11 in which Oskar's father Thomas dies.

Already a complicated and precocious kid, Oskar's life was turned upside down on that day with the loss of his Dad.  But one day 2 years later he finds a key belonging to his father in an envelope with the word "Black" written on it.  So Oskar begins a journey to find the lock that this key belongs to by hunting down everyone in New York with the surname Black in the hope of getting closer to his father and help him finally come to terms with his death.  The journey takes him all over New York where he meets many people.  He also meets The Renter, who is staying with his Grandmother, a mysterious old man who cannot speak.

I won't give away anything as to what happens with the key, the many "Blacks" or The Renter.
What I will say though is that this book is very well written.  I was immediately drawn in by Oskar and his world.  A complicated, charming, funny and very sad little boy trying to come to terms with his father's death and life in general.  I thought I may tire of a narration by someone so young but never did.

The writing is very funny and inventive and Oskar himself is easy to like and sympathise with.  I may start using the term "heavy boots" myself if I'm ever sad.  "The events of today gave me heavy boots".
This isn't a book about 9/11 itself, more about how people and families cope with death and disaster and the loss of a father or a husband.

Apparently there has been some controversy around this book as parts of the ending does intimate that Thomas may have been one of the "jumpers" from the Twin Towers, a part of 9/11 that Americans are still finding it hard to come to terms with, although this is never revealed and only ever one possibility.

I really enjoyed this story and would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that you should be prepared to be upset at many points.  A good book should draw you in, make you believe and care about the characters, make you laugh, think and cry.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does this in abundance.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Skiing Trip - Soll, Austria, 2012

It was with great excitement that I set off on an early Saturday morning at the end of January 2012 to drive to Bristol Airport to be followed by a flight to Salzburg in Austria, to then take a bus to the Austrian ski resort of Soll.  I had not been skiing for 4 years, and the news that a ton of snow had dropped on the area over the previous few weeks, had now stopped and the sun was out only increased my anticipation.  I was accompanied by five other intrepid explorers and good friends and everyone had the same levels of excitement.  So yes, as we sat down for the traditional pre-flight premium lager at Bristol Airport there was the scene of 6 near to middle aged men acting like 12 year olds!

I'm a big fan of flying and have always enjoyed it.  What can be better than being taken to new and interesting destinations around the world whilst reading, watching films, or on this occasion, being served alcohol!  Yes, a few more beers were downed on the plane, only increasing the feelgood factor.  3 of the lads summed up the mood by ordering champagne!  This booze tinged beginning would have echoes later in the holiday.

It was a thankfully short transfer from Salzburg airport to Soll.  Only around an hour until we reached the resort.  For anyone who has been to various French Alps resorts will know this is indeed a blessing.  I hated the hours and hours of climbing, usually in the dark, up the side of a French Alp, round and round tight corners, usually in a bus far too big for the job, where every corner feels like you're gonna end up over the edge, rocking back and forth like the end of The Italian Job.  So this was great.  The only downer was soon realising that we were some of the last who would be dropped off so spent a good deal of time driving round what seemed like (and turned out to be) the same streets dropping various people off at hotels, chalets etc.

However we were soon being dropped off at Chalet Scherntanner, which was about a 15 minute walk from the main bit of town.  If you are a group of people going skiing and you are offered a room with what is called an "Austrian Double" then be prepared to get to know that person you share with a little better than you had anticipated.  They are a slightly modified double bed with very little gap.  Luckily there was an extra bed in mine and my brother's room so all was good.  My personal space issues could be put on hold for another day.  It was basic, but clean, the breakfasts nothing to write home about but it was warm and dry.  So no complaints.  It could have been closer to the town in an ideal world, as various taxi rides and chilly walks can testify to.  But generally all good.

We decided to immediately partake of Austrian hospitality and head in to the town.  We weren't getting our kit or skiing until the following morning, so what else were we going to do other than explore a bit and maybe have a few drinks?  And once again the schoolboy error was made of drinking far too heavily on the first night so as to feel rough as hell the next day when you try on your ski boots and do your first bit of skiing in 4 years?  The memory of various members of a night out throwing up at the side of a ski hire shop when we went to Andorra many years ago again failed to inspire sobriety.

Getting boots, skis and poles from a hire shop is always a pain.  Feeling hungover while a slightly disinterested Austrian fits you for uncomfortable and huge plastic boots that have had hundreds of pairs of other people's feet in was no fun and I was glad when we were out of there.

It was then a short walk and a 10 minute gondola ride before I was back on a ski slope, clipping my boots in to my VOLKL skis (no, I'd never heard of them either).  It was then a tiny slope down to the chair lift which would take us up to the slopes.  That first bit down felt a bit weird, but managing to do it without falling over or looking like a prat felt good.

For skiing novices out there, runs are graded by colour to show their difficulty.  Green are the nursery slopes for raw beginners and little kids.  Blue is easy, not too steep and usually wide.  Reds are intermediate and are steeper.  And Blacks are steep and only for the skilled, or foolhardy.  We did a Blue run off that first lift and I was really surprised.  I was good! I was out front of our group and loving it!  I knew that most of the group would soon get back in to it and be speeding ahead of me soon enough so I made the most of it!  So the first day carried on like that and was superb.  We then moved on to some Reds and even managed it down a Black run.  And yes, this was foolhardy rather than skilled, as it was pretty overcast on that day and we couldn't really see what we had let ourselves in for!

One of the real pleasures of skiing is being able to just ski to a slope-side bar, leave the skis and go for a drink or a bite to eat with those sensational views all around you.  We participated in this from day one, best illustrated by the final run back to Soll, a Blue road-like winding run, which had a bar 2/3rds of the way down.  We stopped and had a pint of very refreshing lager, Zipfer.  That then became the Zipfer Bar for the rest of the week and was a regular stop off at the end of the day.

The general routine for the week was on the skibus by 9.00, and skiing by about 9.30, stop for a coffee/tea at 11.00, lunch at 1.00 and finish skiing around 3.30, with a stop at The Zipfer near the end.  The Soll Skivelte area is huge and you never have to ski the same run more than a few times.  It covers more than just the village of Soll.  It links to other small areas such as Westendorf, Itter, Schefau and Ellmau, all accesible by our lift pass.  As a result we skiied for miles each day.  Now I am not the fittest right now (OK, not fit at all) so was shattered by the end of each day, with my technique deteriorating by the hour!  For a good indication of how I am as a skier, you need to see me in the morning!

Austria itself is stunning.  It's proper picture postcard stuff.  Towering mountains, small towns with wooden chalets and churches, tall fir trees everywhere.  Really lovely and always a pleasure.  The people are great too ( a far cry from the sullen hostility of the Bulgarians but that's another story), and as previously mentioned most speak English!  Soll was good.  We found a few decent bars but ended up, like the proper Brits we are, to a bar called The Red Horse, a sports bar with Sky Sports on all the TV's, live music, and a soundtrack at other times of early 90's Brit music.  I have to say, I might give listening to Happy Mondays a miss for a while!  It was great though, although we were all shocked at what it was like to be back in a country that doesn't have a smoking ban.

The drinking does need discussing.  We drank a lot.  All of the pre-holiday talk of taking it easy, making the most of the days, maybe going out only every other night went out of the window in the Zipfer Bar on that first afternoon!  It was every night and hard from then on!  Although I say night, we would usually start early straight from the slopes so were often on our way back by 10.00.  One night we were all back ib bed by 9.00!  Rock And Roll!  For some random reason, Jaeger Bombs became the drink of choice to go along with the lager and cider.  You can drink a lot of Jagermeister and Red Bull in a short space of time in case you didn't know. Fun!

The only thing I would not miss was the cold.  We had heard that the slopes on the Friday had been down to minus 28 with wind chill.  And I can believe it.  I had bever been as cold as I was the final day on the final run back to Soll.  Still, that was the only downside, and only because I hadn't worn all the appropriate headgear (tip: get a good balaclava, helmet and scarf before going skiing).

As you can probably imagine, this regime of skiing all day and then eating and drinking all night took its toll and we were all exhausted by the end of the week, but very satisfied.  Although physically tired, I was at the same time totally refreshed, having not once thought of work, or Britain, or normal life.  A real tonic.  So it was quite sad to have to leave Chalet Scherntanner (not the breakfasts), the slopes of Schefau and Westendorf, the Red Horse and the town of Soll, the following Saturday morning.

It was a great holiday, enjoyed by all of us.  No broken bones, only good memories and strengthened friendships.  And probably a few extra pounds from all that beer and Austrian food, even with that relentless exercise!  I salute you, Soll!

This slideshow is just from my phone, so only a limited amount of pictures, and only one of me (the one with six blokes in The Red Horse, unsurprisingly!  Enjoy!