Man goes to Gran Can for five-day span after travel ban. The plan? Get tan, ride catamaran

Photo of three palm trees against a clear blue sky

Nearly six years after my previous visit, it was time to reacquaint myself with Gran Canaria. When my friend Andrew used his impressive travel booking skills to obtain cheap flights and a bargain self-catering apartment, I was only too happy to accompany him, and escape rainy Brexit UK for a few days.

And then, as the departure date approached, I felt a little twinge of fear. Omicron COVID was still very much a thing. Gran Canaria was at Alert Level 4 (the highest level in Spain). I did not want our holiday be spoiled by the faff and inconvenience of COVID restrictions, necessary as they may be. Matters weren’t helped when the Spain Travel Health website kept giving cryptic errors as I tried to upload my vaccination certificate.

Even as I packed my T-shirts and shorts the night before, I had to ask the question: was going at this time a good idea?

As it turns out… the answer was absolutely (I speak Spanish now).

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Fax the way (aha, aha) I like it

At the beginning of January, a story went around the news websites about a recreation of Ceefax. Nathan Dane, a broadcasting enthusiast and hero, has painstakingly recreated the erstwhile information service, using code that scrapes content from the BBC website and translates it into authentic, up-to-date teletext pages.

For the uninitiated, Ceefax was a teletext service, consisting of pages of information broadcast in the hidden parts of the TV signal on BBC1 and BBC2. A decoder in the TV set could convert this data into text and chunky graphics, selected by entering a three-digit page number on your TV remote.

NMS Ceefax page displaying a news story in teletext form: "Thousands of homes without power as Storm Corrie hits"

If you want to view Ceefax redux, a web teletext viewer will render the pages in all their 7-colour, 40×25 text resolution glory. For the truly dedicated, it’s possible to connect a Raspberry Pi to your TV and generate a teletext signal, allowing you to view the service as God intended.

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Minding the Gap, continued

Some of you may be surprised to hear that I did leave the house several times during 2021, and was even able to take in some live theatre – no mean feat, considering that for a big chunk of last year, gathering in a poorly-ventiliated auditorium was a no-no.

Y’MAM (Young Man’s Angry Movements) (Liverpool Everyman)
Former Hollyoaks cast member Luke Jerdy (or his real name, Majid Mehdizadeh) put on this brutally honest one-man show, talking about his life growing up as a half-Iranian teenager in Derby, and the pressures placed on him by toxic masculinity and the expectations of society. Tales from his life were punctuated by dance, rap and a hilarious segment where when he read out a pompous, self-important email that he sent to the manager of the Everyman theatre when the bar closed early and he couldn’t get a drink.

Our Lady of Blundellsands (Liverpool Everyman)
This new Jonathan Harvey play was running at the Everyman in March 2020, when the world got Rona’d, so it was great to see it return in the Autumn of 2021. The tale of a faded actress, whose brief burst of fame (an appearance in Z-Cars) is long behind her, and she now inhabits a fantasy world, supported by her long-suffering sister. Various family members return for a birthday party, and skeletons start tumbling out of closets. A fabulous cast led by the peerless Josie Lawrence brought this story of a dysfunctional Merseyside family to life. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments interspersed with genuinely affecting moments of pathos.

Rainbow Monologues (Liverpool Theatre Festival)
Sitting in a marquee in St Lukes (the Bombed-Out Church), surrounded by the noise of the city, was perhaps not the best way to enjoy some theatre. Nevertheless, this set of LGBTQ-themed monologues – 12 performed over the space of 70 minutes – was excellent. Taylor Illingworth in particular gave an affecting performance in his monologue “Blocking out the Sun”, the heartbreaking story of an HIV-positive man coming out to his family.

Swan Song (Unity Theatre)
It’s that man Jonathan Harvey again, this time with a one-man show about a middle-aged gay teacher who is struggling with life at an underfunded secondary school. Andrew Lancel played the teacher, with cynicism and world-weariness hanging off every line of dialogue, as he juggles office politics and the politics of the 1990s. Wonderful stuff.

Hold Me Close (Salford Arts Theatre)
A tale of a mother reunited with her son, who returns to the family home after an extended period away. The play follows them as they get to know one another again. Very entertaining, alternating between comedy and drama, although the twist at the end that perhaps wasn’t as big a surprise as the show thought it was. The real unexpected moment came when the seats in front of us collapsed beneath an unfortunate audience member, sending him crashing to the ground.

Rajesh and Naresh (Unity Theatre)
Presented as part of Liverpool’s annual Homotopia festival, this story is set against the background of India’s decriminilisation of homosexuality in 2018. Rajesh, a banker in London, travels to India where he meets Naresh in a nightclub. They quickly strike up a relationship but of course things don’t go smoothly, especially as Rajesh isn’t out to his mother. Brahmdeo Shannon Ramana and Madhav Vasantha not only play Rajesh and Naresh, but also take on all of the other roles in the play too, leading to a unique experience. This was an excellent show, and I felt like I should have paid more than £8 for the ticket.

Thanks to my friend Phillip who came to most of these shows with me, and without whom I would probably have stayed at home.

What I did during my gap year

What was I doing during 2021, apart from not-blogging? Well, because I’m a dynamic go-getter, I spent a fair amount of time slouched in front of the telly. In no particular order, here are some television events or products that I heartily endorse:

It’s a Sin (Channel 4)
Surely Russell T Davies’s finest output yet, probably because it is the most personal work he has ever done. An unflinching look at the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, told with humanity and heart. I laughed, I cried, I raged at the burning injustices – hospitals that locked up patients; the uncaring, ignorant press and the parents who abandoned their children.

There are bravura performances from Olly Alexander, Keeley Hawes, Lydia West, Callum Scott Howells, Omari Douglas, Nathaniel Curtis, David Carlyle and many more. A debate was sparked about whether LGBTQ characters should be played by LGBTQ actors. While I understand the arguments, I have to say that I don’t think straight actors could have brought the needed authenticity to these roles.

Also, there’s numerous opportunities to spot Liverpool doubling up as 1980s London. Watch it, but be warned: you’ll never be able to listen to Hooked on Classics the same way again. Available on All4.

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Still here

Hello.

It’s been – oh wow – nine months since I last blogged. Nine months. People have gotten pregnant and given birth in that time. I suppose you could say this was a pregnant pause (sorry).

The Robert of ten years ago would be horrified that he had left it this long without forcing an opinion on the world. Today’s Robert is more relaxed, and has realised that he doesn’t need to pour every single thought he has onto the Internet. Unfortunately, that seems to have translated into not pouring any thoughts out.

Without going into too many specifics, the last year or so has been tough. The effects of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, upheaval at work, general despair about the state of the country (nay, the world) have all taken their toll. Truth be told, getting through the day has been a struggle at times, and the last thing I’ve wanted to do when I get home in the evening is open up WordPress and start typing.

Are things better now? Not in the world generally – if anything, things are worse – but in my own life, I’m going to cautiously say… yes? I’m at the point where I actually feel like doing this again, at least for now.

I’m not going to make any promises on the blogging front, because history has proven time and again that I am rubbish at sticking to them. Also, frankly, it’s my website so the update schedule is my business and no-one else’s. I do have a plan of sorts in my head for what I want to do with the website in future, so you may see some changes.

Feel free to moan at me for not blogging more over on Twitter.

One Year

One year since the phone rang at 1am, just as we were going to bed.

One year since a nurse told me, with classic British understatement, that my mother had “taken a bit of a turn for the worse.”

One year since a 3am taxi ride through deserted Liverpool streets.

One year since I held my mother’s hand through latex gloves as she gasped for air.

One year since I told her that I loved her, despite not being entirely sure that she could understand me.

One year since that second phone call, after a couple of hours of dreamless sleep. The phone call that I didn’t want to answer, because I knew what news was waiting for me when I did.

One year.

If there is one thing above all else that still pains me, it’s that I never got to say a proper goodbye. I imagined one last heartfelt conversation, a chance to say what needed to be said. It never happened.

Say the things you need to say, to the people you need to say them to, and do it before it’s too late.

Flash! A-ah!

December 31st 2020 marks the end of an era. A massive upheaval, one which will affect all of our lives and change the way we look at the world.

I’m referring, of course, to the End of Life date for Adobe Flash Player. Not only is Adobe ceasing updates to the software, after nearly a quarter of a century, it will also actively prevent Flash content from being displayed in your browser.

The effect this will have on the average user is negligible. Most websites migrated away from Flash years ago in favour of newer technology. But for internet “old hands” like me, it is a significant moment, and one which stimulates the old nostalgia glands.

Flash burst onto the scene in 1996. At the time, the web was a text-only affair, primarily used for monitoring coffee pots. JavaScript existed but was mostly used for displaying annoying pop-ups and blocking users from right-clicking to copy and paste content (usually implemented on websites whose content you would never want to copy).

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Berlin’s station with no trains

Look into the history of Berlin’s railways and you will inevitably uncover a trove of information about the Geisterbahnhöfe or “Ghost Stations” that existed during the Cold War era. These stations were unfortunate victims of geography; situated in East Berlin, yet served by lines that mostly ran in West Berlin. After the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, these stations were closed; for the next 28 years, trains rattled through without stopping.

Thankfully such nonsense is in the past. However, for the past decade, Berlin’s transport network has had a ghost station of a different kind. This is the story of Waßmannsdorf station, whose first train arrived on 26 October 2020, a full nine years after it was built.

Waßmannsdorf Station Platforms
(Photo by Global Fish – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38739583)

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Charity begins at the home page

My birthday is approaching and, in lieu of any gifts, I am asking for donations to the Amyloidosis Research Fund.

In April 2020 my entire family was devastated by the loss of my mum, Dot Hampton. Her death has left a massive gap in all our lives, and the pain and grief are still very real, nearly five months later.

Robert with his Mum

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Love Shine a Light

On Saturday, the EBU presented Europe Shine a Light, a special show “honouring” the songs that would have appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest, had it not been cancelled.

I can’t stop thinking about the finale, where the would-be contestants all joined in singing Love Shine a Light, the UK’s winning song from 1997. Maybe it’s because recent events have left me feeling emotionally fragile, but the sight of a continent coming together like this moved me to tears. I’ve watched the video about 20 times in the past 48 hours.