Tuesday, 30 September 2014

List Entry - Records That Have Touched Me

There's loads of tush on Facebook that I don't bother with, but today I was challenged by fellow guitarist, Joe Peden of The Persuaders, to come up with a list of ten songs that have touched me. Not the Top ten songs, because I would find that impossible and there are many more x10 that I could have chosen...

The quick list went on FB but in case anyone is interested to know why I chose these... Here we go!

1 Ella Fitzgerald - Manhattan

This is just such a classic. I own it on a 10 inch 78 rpm record and it has another classic, Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye on the other side. I chose this one for the warm warm timbre of Ella's voice and for that classic backing with glockenspiel teamed with strings and woodwind. And of course for the writers' sheer audacity in introducing a Bronx accent so they could rhyme "Foil" with "Girl"!

2 John Leyton - Johnny Remember Me

I was only seven when this came out, but the strummed guitar to a tango rhythm stood out amongst all the other records on the wireless (never called "radio" in 1961). At the time we were watching him playing the part of Ginger in the TV series Biggles. I met him a few years ago and he very kindly pretended to be amazed I was old enough to remember that!

3 The Carpenters - Goodbye To Love

Probably my favourite guitar solo ever. Perhaps not the hardest to play - but not a pushover either, but that guitar just soared and took my heart with it.

4 Bert Weedon - Red Guitar

This was actually a B side to China Doll which failed to bother the charts. However this was a much better track and was certainly featured in the background several times during a recent BBC radio documentary about Bert. I have been known to play it on stage myself once in a while.

5 The Eagles - One Of These Nights

I'm not particularly an Eagles fan and like some of their other tracks at least as much as this now, but at the time it came out I just couldn't stop playing it for that first appearance of the guitar power chord sliding up a note. Had a real shiver effect on me!

6 Magna Carta - Seasons

This could be a cheat really, because this was a montage of songs and poetry lasting around 20 minutes - an entire side of their second LP album. There was a brilliant combination of steel acoustic guitar from one speaker and nylon-strung guitar from the other speaker with a booming double bass by Danny Thompson and an occasional burst of zero-effect electric guitar from Davy Johnstone, who would join the band as replacement for Lyell Tranter just after this release. I saw him with them on the tour that went round to promote this album and just sat mesmerised. Meanwhile my mates all moaned that I had an unfair advantage at pulling girlfriends because I was able to play this to them!

7 The Moody Blues - The Story In Your Eyes

The very first time I heard The Moody Blues was the very first time I listened to music on stereo headphones. I was in the third form at school and it must have been 1969. The chap whose albums and equipment they were, chose those tracks with spectacular stereo effects whizzing round inside my head, but I heard enough to go and buy all of their albums from Days of Future Past to To Our Childrens' Childrens' Children. Four albums at once - must have cost me a fortune! Anyway this track is the first musical one on the 1971 album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and again as a guitarist I loved the way that this track simply explodes into the sound of the prolonged sound effects, instrumental motifs and chanting of the first track. Oogh! Going to have to listen to it again...

8 Kate Bush - Symphony In Blue

Wuthering Heights turned me into an instant Kate Bush fan. I bought the first three albums as they came out and this is the opening track on the second album, Lionheart. Such a pure voice and a plaintiff simple song with a beautiful melody.

9 Barclay James Harvest - For No One

In the early seventies I was playing lead guitar in a band called Spiral who were based in Failsworth between Manchester and Oldham. BJH were one of several "hero" bands and were relatively local to us, as they came from a village on the other side of Oldham. We made several trips to Manchester's Free Trade Hall to see them and they came to be referred to as "The Poor Man's Moody Blues". They were a very different band as far as songs went, but the combination of mellotron, guitar bass and drums and a knack for storytelling through their music was enough for this nickname to start. This is the final track from the album Everyone Is Everybody Else and is one of their dramatic ballads, with heavy atmosphere from the mellotron and some cutting guitar from John Lees. "Poor man's...?" To me they were a great alternative and I loved both bands. I never saw the Moodies on stage, but saw BJH several times and was never disappointed with a show!

10 Fleetwood Mac - Need Your Love So Bad

A guitarist's dream of a song. This was the first song I played solo whilst with Creeping Bentgrass, first unveiling it at my 50th birthday party. Must be at least a week ago... alright, alright, shut up! We do one gig year on year where the organiser warns me we won't be paid unless I play it...

Add your own lists via the comments if you wish - they will not appear though until I have seen and approved them. I won't ban anything because of song content, but adverts, swearing and abuse will not get through! Adverts includes links to your website or blog if you sell stuff on it.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Postcard Time - Drop Me A Line!

Today we had a run out to a local antiques warehouse - one of those where you can spend a couple of hours rummaging through lots of different stalls. I seem to spend ages thumbing through books, postcards and old records and today came home without any books...

I'll show you the records another time, but for now here's a couple of the postcards that took my fancy.

The first one is a rather pointed message, sent from Manchester on 4 August 1915, to a couple in Whitley Bay over on the north east coast. The sender says simply: "Love from Marjorie". Do I sense a slight rebuke?

The other one for today is a painted view of a rather tiny Keswick in Cumberland, as it was then - Cumbria now. I think there's a couple more buildings these days...

The written message is in keeping with the printed message on the front, but with not many more words written on the reverse than the last postcard had. This was sent on 31 December 1907 from Weymouth to a Miss E Crabb in the same town - ah, a romance? The message says simply: "A Happy New Year to you, Joe"

Thursday, 25 September 2014

On The Thomson Majesty

I've now covered all of the days and ports from our Italian Flavours cruise on the Thomson Majesty. So I'm going to finish off with a look at the ship itself.

Thomson's own page about the Thomson Majesty. It is a nice looking ship and in keeping with the rest of the Thomson fleet is not so huge as to look like a skyscraper on its side.

She dates from 1992, when she was built for the Birka Line, but due to rising costs they refused delivery and she entered service as Royal Majesty with Majesty Cruise Lines. At the time she was 32,396 tonnes. She was built with the highest grade of ice-breaking capabilities. Following her 1999 refit she now weighs 40,876 tonnes. Currently owned by Louis Cruise Lines, she was chartered to Thomson, becoming Thomson Majesty in 2012.

Anyway, let's have a look at her as she looked on our cruise. This is the Promenade deck which is on Deck 7 and goes round the entire ship so that you can just carry on walking round and round. Four times round is a mile. In common with many other ships, the lifeboats hang overhead here.

At the front of the ship there is plenty of room for sightseers on the Promenade deck. This is a popular spot when coming into a port. At sea, it can be a very windy spot!

From the front of the ship you walk under the side extensions of the bridge. Seen just behind the staircase on the next deck are several cabins with balconies.

Seen from a lounge window, the bow of the ship. Notice anything? No, me neither! A complete lack of all the winches, ropes and chains that usually occupy this space. They are covered and occupy the deck below. Even so, there is no public access to this area so anyone thinking they would like to do the flying bit from the film Titanic, should remember what that led to...

"I'll never let go..." immediately followed by her letting go and Leo blowing bubbles all the way down...

Rendezvous, a quiet lounge with a coffee and alcohol bar on Deck 5, forward.

Behind the bar and at the very front of the ship is a show lounge called Royal Fireworks. At night this is where the quiz and game shows are and also cabaret spots.

The Crossing, Deck 5 midships is an open space with seating in the centre around which are ranged the counters of Reception and Destinations Services. The latter is where you can book excursion tours for ports of call. A talk about the tours on offer will be given on the first morning which is normally the day at sea. It pays to do a bit of research before you get on the ship. Find out where tours go and what you want to see and also find out which ports allow the ship to dock so close to town that you can spend a day on foot by just walking off the ship independently. The first time you do this can feel like a big step into the unknown, but once you've done it and your confidence grows, you'll find it both exciting and relaxing at the same time.

Also in this area is the future cruises desk where you can book your next cruise, normally at a discount and the guide for the bike tours (the ship carries a whole fleet of mountain bikes which you can ride on a group tour). There are some sofas set down the side of the ship at this point also and we sat next to the side windows many days in the early evenings, watching people coming and going and reading our books or just getting into a conversation with other passengers.

The Jubilee Lounge is at the rear of Deck 6 and this is where the show team put on their extravaganzas every evening. It also hosts cabaret and dancing.

In front of the Jubilee Lounge on the starboard side (on the right when facing the front of the ship) is the Photo Gallery. Whilst you are allowed to duck out and whilst many squeal and squirm as though they were the ugliest beings on Earth, the ship's photographers will spare no effort in trying to capture your image several times a day. The crew will dress up in costume and be waiting as you walk off the ship, they will accompany some of the tours, they will be in particularly manic mode for the Captain's Gala Night, and you may find them in restaurants as well. Every night you can volunteer to have formal photographs taken against various backdrops and they all get displayed here, either printed and out on boards, or (we hadn't seen this before) on touch-screen VDUs which allow you to find yourself and order "online".

Incidentally, the ugliest beings on Earth may have been on the cruise... and are part of the fun of any cruise... Just be discreet ok? No shrieking with laughter and pointing... Especially if it's me that's caught your eye...

Apart from Deck 5 and the open air decks, there are some cabins on every other deck. This is the corridor along Deck 8 which is entirely given to cabins apart from the very front of the ship where the Bridge is. This isn't a narrow humpty-back thing leading from one area of the ship to another, but is the control room where the Captain sits getting sloshed on rum and saying "Blimey it's getting rough isn't it...?" to his Mr Mates and engineers.

Cabin 954 on Deck 9 is where we called home for the week. Smaller than the cabins on the other Thomson ships, but unless you are in the habit of inviting friends and holding parties, we've never found this to be much of a problem.

Full length wardrobe space is quite limited however. Just something to be aware of. There is only the one formal night during the week, though many people like to look smart during the evening. Women certainly generally make an effort and the majority of us chaps. There are always a few slobs embarrassing their wives and with some you can just tell they are enjoying a bit of reverse snobbery and sneering at the conformists. People watching - a wonderful sport...

If the cabins are small, it follows that the bathroom facilities are going to be a touch on the cosy side. We had no bath, just a walk - in shower separated from the rest of the bathroom by a curtain. Toilets onboard use a vacuum system rather than flushing with water. Putting normal flushing toilets onboard a ship can turn them into giant siphons leading to the ship getting very very wet inside before it hits the ocean floor.

During the week you may find your room occupied by swans, chimpanzees, elephants... If you're anything like us you tend to put them somewhere "safe" and then wonder why you can't find a towel when you're wet through...

The entrance to the Seven Seas Restaurant at the rear of Deck 5. We ate breakfast in there every day. Whilst breakfast is available from a buffet, a section of the restaurant is reserved for waiter service and I always enjoy a bit of pampering when on holiday. As you enter, waiters will wave you towards a table, so if you want waiter service, just say "Waiter service?" and they will point you towards that area.

There are some very clever people amongst the crew on any cruise ship! Meal times can be a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach!

As well as the Seven Seas restaurant, which at night features waiter-service throughout, there is a second restaurant on Deck 5 which is open at night only and called the Four Seasons. This features exactly the same menus as the Seven Seas restaurant, but it is a little smaller. It copes with the fact that more people like waiter service at night than do at breakfast. On Deck 10 there are self-service buffet-style restaurants at either end of the ship, Piazza San Marco at the rear and the Cafe Royal at the front. We used them for lunch and for the odd coffee or tea during the day, but they also serve full meals at night and breakfast in the mornings.

The above photos show the Four Seasons restaurant and the Parade of the Baked Alaska, a highlight of every cruise week. Some of the waiters will also play guitar and almost every night someone will be serenaded - you can almost guarantee it by mentioning any birthdays or anniversaries to your waiter. Nearby waiters will all join in as their duties allow.

When the ship is at sea, the shops open. There are several shops located on Deck 5 forward and at night promotional items occupy tables near the Crossing. This particular night was handbag night. Fragrances, watches and jewellery will all get their own night's promotion.

If you climb high enough on any ship, you inevitably come to the open air. On the Majesty, this is reached on Deck 10 and then there is another deck running around like a balcony from where I took this photo on Deck 11. This was our day in Sorrento when we could take things easy before getting off the ship due to Sorrento requiring tender boats to get to shore.

We went up on deck before breakfast for an early morning coffee and whilst it cooled I trotted round the ship with the camera. Miss Franny is sitting at the table just to the left of the chap in blue in the shadowed area. One side of the ship on this deck is a designated smoking area. Smoking is not allowed inside the ship. Incidentally butt ends and matches must never be thrown over the side as, apart from any environmental considerations, the wind at sea can easily draw such items into any open window on a lower deck with disastrous results. At sea there is no congregating on the other side of the car park...

There are two swimming pools, one an adults only pool, two jacuzzi pools and a bar servicing the open air areas. At lunch times there is a grill with pizzas, hot dogs and burgers and baked potatoes.

Thomson Majesty sitting off Sorrento in the Bay of Naples.

We will be back onboard Thomson Majesty with David and Miss Jeannie next year in June but for now this is the last entry in this series about our cruise, Italian Flavours.

Italian Flavours Cruise Index

Friday, 19 September 2014

A Brief Sojourn in Messina

Thursday 4 September 2014. We are in Messina this morning. Due to the long distance to travel to get back to Corfu for our flight home tomorrow, we will leave Messina at lunchtime and spend the afternoon sailing around the foot of Italy.

We have booked to do a panoramic tour, which will be mainly by coach. The first stop really is panoramic as we have a view of the Straits of Messina and the town below us from a high viewpoint.

With the sun in our faces, it makes for some dramatic lighting. Messina is on the North East corner of Sicily and the famous strait separates the island from Italy, just three miles away at its nearest point.

The coach is parked at the foot of the Votive Temple of Christ The King, a modern baroque church of 1900. It has a bell tower that sits below the church on the hillside with a bell that looks far too big to sit inside so instead it sits on the top. It is the third largest bell in Italy.

Miss Franny on the viewpoint before the church. It would be much improved if they cleaned up all the graffiti...

We had only been going around ten minutes after this when someone came down to request a toilet stop. This necessitated a 15 minute stop to use a cafe toilet, so some folks went for a drink and we had a look at where we happened to have stopped. This is a saltwater lake, Lake Ganzirri. The chap standing in the lake has a rake with a net attached to the end of it and is raking the gravel on the lake bed for mussels.

Unplanned though the stop was, the beauty of the place made me think that this was the highlight of the tour stops. With dark dramatic skies looking one way, but bright sunshine looking the other we couldn't have arrived at a more propitious time.

The next stop was on the shore of the Strait, looking back in this shot along the Sicilian coast towards Messina. There were a couple of cafes on the shore and this was taken from their ground. One was completely derelict, the other perhaps just not yet open, but they were both deserted. The guide promised us several times during the morning with much enthusiasm that we would "enjoy" an included refreshment stop. Boy, was she wrong...

The coach dropped us off near the main piazza in front of the cathedral, with small tour buses touting for custom near us. "Ride on the tour bus?" suggested one hopeful.
"We're on that one..." I said, pointing.
"This is better!" he laughed.
"You're probably right..." I admitted.

We arrived at the restaurant-cum-bar that was providing our refreshment. This wasn't yet ready and we were shown to tables and sofas set out on the pavement. After quite a wait some plastic cups - they may have been bigger than those you get on the top of a bottle of cough medicine, but I wouldn't swear to it... No matter, as they weren't going to be filled... There was a choice of about 5mm of limoncello or there was an alternative - beer - in which case you got about 5mm of beer... There were also some small pastries. No soft drinks, not even water.

Complaints started to rise on every side. We just got up and walked. We already had the time and place of our meeting and complaining, whether to each other or to the guide or to the restaurant, would do no good and would just ruin your day. A lot of travellers seem very keen to do this to themselves, I always think. Besides, it was pretty much what "included refreshments" tends to mean on these tours. So we found instead a nice little cafe and had a latte macchiota and walked out with a small tub of "cream" flavoured ice cream which was absolutely delicious.

We eventually made our way back to the square in good time to watch the animated clock tower at the side at twelve noon. The ship had been intending to leave at twelve thirty which would have meant missing this, but they extended the "all aboard" deadline to allow tours and independent passengers to see the show.

We had time before the show to have a quick look inside the cathedral. It contains the 13th century tomb of Conrad IV, a king of Germany and Sicily, but repeated earthquakes (the last in 1908) and the bombing of WWII means most of the church is reconstructed.

At twelve noon the souvenir sellers stop their incessant peddling of their tea towels, magnets, wooden fold-up fruit bowls etc. and the clock chimes the hour. Following this, the lion in the top window waves his flag, wags his tail and tilts his head back to roar.

Then the giant cockerel wags his wings and crows and then, as the loudspeakers play the Ave Maria, other windows come to life. A golden church appears from behind a cloud as a dove flies overhead; robed figures turn and bow to a throne as they pass before it. I totally missed any movement in some of the windows, perhaps they are waiting to be fixed. No matter how clever and intricate something is, these days it generally has to be judged against the latest Hollywood CGI and, against such wonders, the clock seems to be very slow and intermittent. Feedback and ratings on websites seem to show mixed reception. In 1933 when it was first installed, it must have knocked everyone's socks off. Even today, the first time the lion's head is thrown back and the loud roar comes from the tower, it is a brilliant moment.

At the end of the show, a few people clapped, a few cheered, the tour guides waved impatient flags, the peddlers pounced and the independent travellers from the ship shot off to dash down the hill and onto the ship before it sailed!

Italian Flavours Cruise Index

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Return to Sorrento

We spent a week in Sorrento in 2005, but this morning, Wednesday 3 September, 2014, we awake aboard the Thomson Majesty, look out of our cabin window and breathe a sigh of contentment at one of the most majestic panoramas of the world.

I took the photo from the Promenade Deck once we were up, showered and dressed. We had an early morning coffee on the top deck before breakfast. Whilst the coffee cooled, I trotted up to the very top deck and took several photos of the ship - the next but one article will be all about Thomson Majesty itself. Tomorrow will be, in fact, our last day before returning to Corfu for our flight home.

The evening before had been a trifle rough as we went through a storm force 7, combined with rough seas. Even Miss Franny succumbed and we spent much of the evening sliding down the bunk or up onto the pillows and reading. The captain had expressed some doubt about Sorrento, which has no harbour large enough for a cruise ship and therefore requires a tender boat operation. The alternative would have been to moor up (sorry! "park") at Naples across the bay. But here we are with a magnificent view of...

"It looks a bit like a volcano, doesn't it...?" a fellow passenger remarked to me as we gazed across the water.
"It's Vesuvius!" I spluttered, a little incredulous that someone could come to Sorrento and not know what the huge mountain with a crater just across the bay could be.

The view from the other side of the ship. Sorrento sits on a cliff face that enters the sea in a vertical drop with no beaches. The locals have made up for this lack of sunbathing opportunity with wooden jetties on top of piles of rocks that they call "beaches" and these come complete with sunbeds for hire. One of the ship's tender boats is returning to the ship from the harbour at the foot of the cliff.

All ships tend to prioritise their excursion customers in any tender operation and solo or independent travellers are asked to wait until the waiting coaches have been filled with their passengers. Knowing this we left it a couple of hours before joining the queue, which still climbed the stairwells for a couple or three decks. People were going down to the gangway deck via a lift only to have to climb back up to join the end of the queue.

Eventually though we step off the tender boat and arrive at Sorrento.

We spent a full week here, laboriously trekking up and down the cliff in zig-zags. Now they tell us there's a lift... It's signposted "Acensore" and to reach it you have to follow a very narrow trail of wooden gangways at the foot of the cliff. No wonder we hadn't found it on our own...

At the top we have a great view of Thomson Majesty sitting at anchor in the bay. Vesuvius is on the extreme left. The ruins of Roman Pompeii are on its right hand side as we look towards it.

Near the top of the cliff, just where we come out of the lift are several small narrow streets, lined with cafe bars and tourist shops as well as food and clothing shops by the score. It is picturesque, busy, exciting and tempting all at the same time. We made our way up and down, stopped for a while for a morning coffee, watching as two teenagers on a scooter were given a lecture by a patrolling policeman.

We called in at one of many shops selling the delicious lemon-flavoured liqueur, limoncello. Smiling, the old lady who was shopkeeper poured us a sample and pointed out some bottles aimed at the tourist industry, small and medium novelty-shaped bottles. She smiled even more when I picked up a larger more traditionally shaped bottle that I could be more certain of how much it held. We paid and said our goodbyes and came out into the main street running along the coast.

This is the Piazza Tasso where the coast road, the Corso Italia, is joined by what seems like three streets from inland. In reality the Viale Enrico Caruso is split into two lanes, each a one-way street for traffic. The confusion comes because the Via Fuorimura runs between the two lanes of Viale Enrico Caruso, taking bus traffic... Incidentally Caruso, the famed opera singer, came from Naples rather than Sorrento, but was obviously well thought of!

Walking up Via Fuorimura, you come to a great cleft in the land. There's a huge ravine here, where two rivers meet. It is around 150 feet deep and contains its own micro-climate. There are a couple of factories at the bottom, a sawmill and a flour mill, the latter of which remained in use into the last century. The ravine itself was created by massive volcanic action between 35,000 and 37,000 years ago, give or take a week. The ravine is known as The Valley of the Mills. Romantic, picturesque and so deep that taking photos is extremely difficult because of the huge difference in light levels between street level and the gorge interior.

You just come on this out of the blue. The depth takes you by surprise the first time you see it. It needs treating with respect. A young British tourist lost his life after falling down it at 3:00am one morning in 2011.

Back at Piazza Tasso we are now looking down on the zig-zagging road down to the harbour. We climbed this several times during our week here in 2005. It's easier to go down but the don't underestimate the effect on your knees! There's also a shorter route...

Yes... we really were that stupid... Mind you we did come down, not up, the staircases. Even going down you end up out of breath...

We did a bit of admiring the view (an activity also known as getting your breath back) before getting onto the tender boat. This waited until its space was needed by another tender boat coming in and then the boat captain (driver) pressed the starter and chug---chug---chug-----------chug.... nothing...

Several crew members opened a hatch and looked at the battery, but they weren't looking hard enough because even after all that staring, it refused to start the engine. We swapped to the incoming boat once its passengers had got off...

Just down the coast a little is Sant'Agnello, bordering onto Sorrento. It is where we stayed in 2005 and is a quieter place than Sorrento itself. Mind you, the entertainer chap in the next hotel was awful!!!

We had our usual cruising afternoon, snug in a comfortable chair with a drink to hand and our noses in our books. Then a shower and change of clothes before our next meal and we went up onto the Promenade Deck once again for a last look at Sorrento, Vesuvius et al. The last tender boats were still ferrying passengers from Sorrento. We watched as they were winched aboard. Er... that's the boats, not the passengers...

One of the things I best remember about the week we spent here was the beauty and tranquillity of the Bay of Naples in the late afternoon, right through to some spectacular late evening sunsets. We wouldn't see the sunset here tonight, but this view across the mouth of the bay towards the islands of Capri and Ischia gives some idea of what I mean. This is a view for the souls of poets...

We waited until we had started to move and then went back inside the ship and down to our favourite eatery, the Four Seasons restaurant. The day had one more view to show us. As we tucked into our starters, I looked up and saw the unmistakeable silhouettes of Capri's Faglieri Rocks through the window. If you look carefully you can just make out a small opening at the bottom of the middle rock just to the left of the darker fold of the net curtain. In 2005 we sailed through that hole on a launch!

Italian Flavours Cruise Index