Back in Central London and heading up North

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Monday, 26 January 2015

Made my way from Sean’s to King’s Cross Station and then to the Crestfield Hotel where I checked in. The room was spacious, had an en suite, and was only on the second floor this time! (Though the British do not seem to believe in putting elevators in hotels apparently). Convenient location for the British Museum and King’s Cross/St Pancras International Stations.

After checking in, I headed out to grab a late breakfast/lunch/early dinner. The café I stumbled across was okay. Unsure of their hygiene standards though: the sign on the door said it was “generally satisfactory.” Slightly worrying, but I’m alive!

The British Museum is enormous! I managed to get through most of one level, but that took nearly two hours. I saw about a third of the Egyptian stuff (the rest is on higher levels) and maybe half the Greek stuff. You really need a full day or two to appreciate, say I decided I’d have to come back the next morning too.

I was impressed by the fact that the Assyrian carvings were in good condition and presented in the same style as an art gallery with slabs of rock hanging off the walls. The Egyptian artefacts are incredibly too: great stone monuments and sarcophagi. These are things I’ve really only read about, and to come so close is truly amazing. I was standing literally less than a foot from the Rosetta Stone.

I’ve always been interested in history — I took Modern, Ancient and Extension History at school — but it’s really something else to be this close. You can practically reach out and touch history! Afterwards, when it started to close, I left, got a little bit lost, found a pub (a recurring theme, right?) and then wandered back to my hotel.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Checked out, left my luggage at the hotel, had breakfast and raced back to the Museum. Looked through the rest of the Egyptian Collection, including mummies of course! They sure did loot a lot of stuff from Egypt. The European Collection was fascinating too — especially the Sutton Hoo Mask. Like the Rosetta Stone, this is something I’ve read a lot about, but never actually seen. To stare at it in its three dimensional glory is just unbelievable!

The Roman statues are interesting, including one of the Emperor Septimius Severus, described as “the last great Emperor before the crisis of the third century engulfed the empire.” Other areas I looked at were the Asian, African, Islamic and American Collections, but there are simply too many cool things that I can’t really describe them without failing to do them justice. It’s really something worth visiting if you’re in London.

I made my way back to King’s Cross to get the train to Leeds. I saw Platform 9 3/4, but I didn’t take pictures because (a) I had luggage that I didn’t want to leave unattended, (b) I had a train to catch, and (c) there were just too many tourists around it already! I got the train and was surprised at two things: again, how much the English countryside looks like rural New South Wales, and how quickly the trains go — 125 miles per hour (200 kph) was the top speed I saw. That’s insane.

Got the train from Leeds to Keighley and Levi picked me up from the station. We had dinner and then went to the pub. Keighley is pronounced “Keith-lee.” I’m sure there is a reason for this, but I’m equally sure the reason is not a particularly good one.

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Oxford and Hackney

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Oxford: Saturday, 24 January 2015

Got the bus with with Gefion from hers and Markus’ to the City Centre of Oxford (which was my first ride in a double-decker bus: they’re surprisingly tall and look too wide for the road). We had breakfast at a university cafeteria-like thing, which was quite good and free because Markus had to use up his food allowance (I didn’t really understand it, but hey). Markus left to return to work on his paper, so Gefion and I looked around the city at various buildings, all of which are enormous

Oxford is not what I expected. The town is dotted with college buildings and buildings owned by the colleges, such that there is no actual campus. Instead, it’s a town with a university embedded in it, or rather the other way around: a university with a town built into it. Something like that.

Unlike London, which would have expanded to meet civil needs, Oxford appears to have expanded to meet academic needs, and so there is always something to look at. In London there are a lot more buildings between landmarks, because obviously people need to live and work there. At Oxford, however, it is clear that the colleges are the important parts, and buildings get scattered between them as necessary in order to support the goings on in the colleges. We looked in at the Divinity School, which is very pretty inside and was built in the 15th Century.

Eventually we found our way to Keble College, apparently one of the newer colleges. Gefion told me about the Destroy Keble Society, a secret society whose members must steal a brick from Keble College in order to join. It seems to have been formed of students at the nearby St John’s College who considered the red brick Keble College to be an eyesore. However, Keble is not actually ugly in my opinion, and has a great big chapel with a high ceiling and pipe organ.

Eventually we headed back to Gefion and Markus’. I enjoyed their company immensely and am extremely grateful for their hospitality. This was my last night in Oxford before I return to London, and they have been incredibly generous in letting my stay in their spare room for two nights.

Hackney: Sunday, 25 January 2015

Not much on the agenda today. I got the bus from Oxford to Victoria Coach Station, and then the Tube to Bethnal Green, and walked to Sean’s place to stay the night with him in Hackney. Being around midday, the coach ride was pleasant and I got to see my first glimpse of the English countryside. It looks remarkably like Western New South Wales, once you get over the Blue Mountains: the similarity between it and the drive to Mudgee is uncanny! The bus had free wifi (at the rate I’m going I’ll have to do a review page for everything) which was handy for finishing my blog post for the first few days in London.

I got to Sean’s without difficulty. He looks well and seems to be enjoying living here. Sean and I studied music together, but he didn’t complete the degree, and instead went into graphic design. He’s been living in London for about 18 months and goes back at the end of this year.

I went out to get dinner and then went looking for a pub. I witnessed what was certainly a drug deal: a girl walked up to a guy in the park, they swapped something, and then headed in opposite directions. I haven’t even seen that back home, and I live in Western Sydney!

I found a pub, but decided against going inside because there was a guy outside it giving me a weird look and when I confronted him about it he just grinned and mumbled then laughed. So I went to the one just across the road and was accosted by a recently-made-homeless sound engineer who was rapping for loose change. I gave him a few pounds and bought him a drink.

While sitting outside, the guy from the first pub came by and sat next to me. Then he started rambling about war and the apocalypse and various other nutjobby things. After about ten or fifteen minutes of nonsensical banter he asked my quite brazenly “do you have anything, even a pound?” and suggested I buy him a drink. When I declined giving him either money or alcohol, he said I was boring, to which I replied “fine” and left, going back to Sean’s.

Three days in London

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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Despite waking up with a slight headache, I took some painkillers, snoozed for a bit, went for a shower and my head was much better by the time I headed out. Got the Tube (which was very quick) to St John’s Wood and visited Abbey Road. The crossing is smaller than it looks on the album cover! I managed to stand roughly where I’d assume the photographer was standing when they took the picture that became one of the world’s most iconic album covers.

From here I walked roughly south onto Baker Street and popped into the Sherlock Holmes Museum. The wax figures of various criminals were incredibly creepy, and the museum itself is quite a cool window into late-19th Century London. The head of the Hound of the Baskervilles is mounted on the wall. It was well worth the £10 admission. Another museum followed — the Wallace Collection. It’s an interesting assortment of things from different periods, and entry is free! Paintings from various eras, and rooms with massive mirrors from the 18th and 19th Centuries. There is also an impressive collection of arms and armour from the late-15th to 18th Centuries, including European, Middle Eastern and East Asian items.

On my way to get lunch at a recommended café I lost my bearings and wanted to get out of the cold. I’m a pretty good traveller, but I do get nervous when I am disoriented. I spotted the irresistibly-named Cock and Lion pub, and popped inside for a pint. Sitting down and having a drink and a think is a good way to keep calm. Worked out where I was and that I was in fact heading in the right direction. So after trying a pint of Landlord (which was enjoyable), I continued along Wigmore Street, and had lunch at the Little Portland Café on Little Portland Street, just south of the corner of Wigmore and Regent Streets. Got myself a full English breakfast for under £6 — bacon, sausage, hashbrown, two eggs (done just right), baked beans, mushrooms, two slices of toast and a cup of tea.

Afterwards I walked over to the British Library (quite a long walk) and poked around. They’ve got lots of neat stuff: early medieval music manuscripts, handwritten Beatles’ lyrics, the “original” Beowulf, religious texts from all religions (including the oldest-known New Testament, from 4th Century Palestine I believe). Couldn’t take any pics though, so I settled for buying a book on Magna Carta and a pen as mementos.

Got the Tube nearby to Baker Street because my legs hurt and I didn’t want to walk. Met three Pirates at the Metropolitan Bar — Stephen, Harley and Chris. They were good company, and I got some good ideas regarding project management that might help us realise a few projects and improve member engagement. It would work a bit like a wiki where each project gets its own page and mailing list and volunteers are funnelled towards projects. I parted ways with Stephen at Green Park, and Harley at Victoria.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

I took the short walk from my hotel to Buckingham Palace — I was staying a street or two over from Buckingham Palace Road. Buckingham Palace is enormous, and it was packed: every other place has had far fewer tourists. I think it’s interesting that they carry on doing what they do. It seems mostly for the benefit of tourists, a sort of “irrelevancy-as-spectactle” where tourists go because they continue to do the traditional things, and they only do the traditional things to attract tourists. However, it is definitely worth visiting.

Next I walked down to the Regency Café on Regency Street and had another full breakfast. I highly recommend it, though it is very busy, and the woman who took my order (you have to order before sitting) asked me quietly “What would you like dear?” before shouting “TWO SETS, ONE WITH BEANS!” and then resuming normal volume while asking if I wanted tea or coffee with that, and then again in her loud voice “TOAST TO GO WITH A SET.” Only one egg and no hashbrown or mushrooms (unlike the Little Portland Café of yesterday), but delicious nonetheless. Another breakfast for under £6. Oh, but don’t try the mustard. Trust me. Just don’t. I walked across the road to a pub called the Royal Oak and had a pint of London Pride. The drink was a bit bubblier and cheaper than the other pubs I’ve been to, and the barmaid let me sample a few beers so I could decide what to have.

I went to Middlesex Guildhall next — where the Supreme Court of England and Wales is housed. The building itself was completed in 1913, but it was renovated at a cost of £60 million (I was told) just before the court took up residence there in 2009. The security was a bit weird, much like getting on a plane. Metal detector and my bag had to be scanned. But I had a nice chat with one of the guards in what was courtroom two or three I think.

Right across the road is Westminster Abbey. The building is enormous and is literally the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Although expensive to get inside (£18), it’s well worth it and I spent over an hour in there, looking around. If I thought the outside was amazing, the interior is even more so. The ceilings are incredibly high and it just reeks of history. You’re not allowed to take photos inside unfortunately! I bought a book about Westminster Abbey to make up for this.

Across from the abbey and Supreme Court is the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament sit. I decided not to get up close because I was tired and too much in awe of Westminster Abbey. I did take lots of pictures of Elizabeth Tower (not Big Ben, as anyone with a basic knowledge of the history of London will know that Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the tower).

From here I walked up Whitehall, past Downing Street, and on to Trafalgar Square. Unintended innuendo ahead: Nelson’s Column is MASSIVE (hurr hurr). But seriously, I was not expecting it. Nelson himself is this tiny figure overlooking London atop a pillar that is easily the tallest thing in sight. Trafalgar Square itself is just as I remember it from playing the London level on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4! It’s uncanny, but they really did replicate the area well. Ironically, for all its reputation, I’ve only saw one pigeon in Trafalgar Square! My last stop for the day was the nearby Admiralty Arch. It’s enormous and beautiful also. I got there as the sun was setting behind it and took a few pics!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Woke up a bit earlier today and started sorting out my plans. Checked out of the hotel after making sure I had everything (I generally tend to unpack and repack when I’m done with something to save having my belongings scattered around the hotel room). Left my luggage at the hotel for a small fee so that I could collect it once I’d finished sightseeing.

My first destination was the Tower of London. It’s massive: a great old castle in the middle of London. It’s quite a sight! The tower inside is surrounded by a fairly large enclosure and what looks to be a moat. The enclosure comprises tall, thick stone walls. After that I went a little way west to the Monument to the Great Fire of London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and simply referred to as “the Monument” (it even has an underground station named after it!). It’s a pillar, but, unlike Nelson’s Column, it doesn’t clear the horizon. It still looks quite imposing, but I’m certain it’s not as tall.

From here I walked across London Bridge, crossing south over the Thames. There’s a great view from London Bridge of the iconic Tower Bridge and I took lots of pictures. I really need to get myself a better zoom lens for my next trip! Going west along the Thames, I saw the replica of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which appears to be a fairly faithful reconstruction. Bought a small trinket (a little ship in a globe bottle) for my little brother, because I’ll miss his birthday and want to bring him back a bunch of stuff — sadly I’ve not found much worth getting yet!

Stopped in at the Anchor, a nearby pub, for my routine lunchtime pint and to get out of the cold. One thing I’ve noticed about pubs is that the selection of beers is remarkably inconsistent. Back home, every pub has the same lowest common denominator beers: Carlton Draught, Victoria Bitter, Coopers, Tooheys New, and increasingly often I can find Matilda Bay Fat Yak on tap. Here it’s very hit and miss. Not everyone serves London Pride or 1730 or Landlord (which are the best three that I’ve tried so far). Usually though they offer you a small taste of everything if you ask them to recommend you an English ale.

After all this I crossed back over the Thames via the Millennium Bridge, which looks just like it does in Harry Potter — especially as it’s winter. St Paul’s Cathedral looms up as you cross the bridge. It’s iconic, and impressive outside, but inside is nowhere near as interesting from what I could see as Westminster Abbey was, so I decided against paying the £20 entrance fee.

Around the corner is the Central Criminal Court — better known as the Old Bailey. I couldn’t help but picture it blowing up as in V for Vendetta. After taking lots of snaps, I spotted a souvenir shop, and yet again was disappointed. Same old trinkets that you can pretty much get at home: clocks, pencil sharpeners, mugs, tins, etc. A bit old hat. However, a block down I did find something of interest: Hardy’s Original Sweetshop. The salesman was incredibly enthusiastic to all customers, and offered us samples of whatever we wanted. Decided to bring back a variety of sherberts (boiled sweets with sherbert in the middle), including sherbert lemons. Hopefully my sister gets the Harry Potter allusion. Only £5 for 400 grams!

I Popped into Temple Church next (if you’ve read or seen the Da Vinci Code you’ll know of it), and they offered me the student discount even after I said I wasn’t a student in the UK. It’s cheap anyway — £5 regular admission, £3 students/pensioners. Temple Church is very pleasant, despite being a Templar Den (Assassin’s Creed anyone?).

A short walk down Fleet Street and onto the Strand took me to the Royal Courts of Justice, an architectural masterpiece! Now I’m sitting in the Cheshire Cheese — an old pub just down a side street. From Wikipedia:

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is one of a number of pubs in London to have been rebuilt shortly after the Great Fire of 1666. There has been a pub at this location since 1538 … The literary figures Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Dr. Johnson are all said to have been ‘regulars’.

I’m sipping a pint of Tribute, staying warm until I can collect my luggage and get the train to Oxford where I’m staying with Gefion and Markus.

The long journey from Sydney to London

My blog is going to be a bit different for the next month as I chart my journey around Western Europe!

The first stretch

I’m leaving the continent of Australia behind for a month. I’m just beginning to cross the Indian Ocean, and the view out the plane window is very blue with patches of white cloud. Having travelled across Australia from Sydney I am now nine and a half hours from Dubai (according to the onboard flight tracker). We’re travelling at 33,002 feet and going 567 miles per hour. I honestly don’t know how people cope regularly making the flight from coast to coast. I suppose I understand the purpose of business class now! Although the economy seat I am occupying is not uncomfortable, it is more cramped than I like. The next land I see should be Sri Lanka, followed by the the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Otherwise, there’s nothing much to do but watch films and try to relax a bit.

Still over the Indian Ocean

Just eight and a half hours to go and there’s barely a cloud in sight. Although I don’t expect to see it, we are now currently coming roughly up the coast of Indonesia, running almost parallel to Java and Sumatra. Might pass over a few of the smaller islands that dot their coasts, but I doubt I’ll spot them. I’m listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and reading Stephen Fry’s More Fool Me, but I just can’t concentrate. I should have slept by now but I think the inactivity and nerves are working together to keep me awake. Already watched Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam (neither of which I had actually seen before, but had obviously heard a lot about). They were average. Rubber Soul, however, is a very comforting old friend.

Land in sight

Experiencing some turbulence just as we’re about to fly over Sri Lanka, with less than five hours to Dubai. Hopefully I get to see land out the window, but at 38,000 feet I’m probably being optimistic. Watching Mrs Doubtfire to pass the time (there is a disproportionate number of Robin Williams’ films on the in-flight entertainment system). It’s not entirely awful and should see me through the four-hours-to-go-to-Dubai mark. The in-flight tracker is not so great: it doesn’t let you choose different views or stay on particular views and it alternates between Arabic and English! The down-facing camera shows just clouds thus far. But, as I’m writing this, the coast of Sri Lanka has just come into view out the window! I’ve just seen a foreign country for the first time! They exist! Other countries exist! They’re not all made up!

Landing in Dubai

Well, I made it to Dubai! Some 8,000 miles or so. That’s 12,000 kilometres from Sydney, I think. I can’t believe how far I am from home and also how remarkably calm I am for being both a nervous traveler and being incredibly tired. Cleared Dubai security as quickly as possible given the line was quite long and made it to my gate after taking several escalators and a train. No troubles so far. From the plane I saw some of the Arabian Peninsula’s landscapes out the window. I tried to take photographs as possible, because it is amazingly beautiful. The rolling gold sand dunes are quite a sight. Despite the seemingly hostile environment, the cities seem to thrive and Dubai is both massive and impressive to look at from the air.

Landing in London

Solid ground now for a while I hope, having landed at Gatwick Airport. Arrived a bit earlier than expected, but the longest part of the ordeal was the walk to passport control. They’ve got an immigration officer who looks at your landing card and passport then asks a few harmless questions that, if you answer honestly and clearly, are fine. I think this is to try detect any kind of inconsistency in your story. If you’re clear about it, it’s not a problem. The officer asked me just a few questions. It went like this:

Officer: “Hello. Could I have your passport and landing card? What is the purpose of your visit?”
Me: “Tourism.”
Officer: “Who are you staying with?”
Me: “I’m staying in hotels in London for a week, and then will be staying with a friend near Leeds.”
Officer: “What does your friend do?”
Me: “IT support for a school.”
Officer: “How long do you intend to stay for?”
Me: “Up to 32 days. I am planning to visit parts of Europe, so it might be earlier, but I have to leave the UK on 20 February.”

The immigration officer checked my flight itinerary and stamped my passport with leave to enter for six months, even though I said it was only going to be about a month. Ostensibly I am low-risk because I’m an Australian. There was no customs inspection either. And now, after getting the train to Victoria, not getting lost, and checking into my hotel, I am enjoying my first pint of English ale: the barmaid recommended Taylor Walker 1730, and it is delicious!

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Handshakes and racism

The framers of the Constitution were mainly concerned with the financial and trade issues arising from Federation and how best to weight the interests of the small States against those of the more populous states in the new federal Parliament. In these and other areas they adapted provisions from the United States Constitution. However, they did not include a Bill of Rights.

— Tony Blackshield and George Williams, Australian Constitutional Law and Theory (Federation Press, 5th Edition, 2010) 125.

Australia’s Constitution is distinguished among those of modern democracies in several ways. Most obviously, it is one of the few examples of a Westminster Parliament operating within a federal system, modelling its Lower House of Parliament on the British House of Commons and the Upper House on the American Senate.

The drafters of the Constitution made the amendment process so complicated that proposals to amend it are more likely to fail than to pass. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Imp) has been modified only eight times since it came into force in 1901. As a result, they also managed to preserve two great traditions of the British Empire: handshakes and racism.

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Resolving Australia’s treaty-making ‘democratic deficit’

Australia’s treaty-making process completely bypassed the Commonwealth Parliament until the 1960s, when Prime Minister Menzies committed to tabling in both Houses of Parliament treaties that were signed but not yet ratified. Reforms in the 1990s attempted to involve Parliament more, but it has for the most part retained its lame duck status and Australia continues to suffer a democratic deficit.

Negotiating, entering into and ratifying treaties is the prerogative of the Australian Government. The signature of the Foreign Affairs or Trade Minister is a gesture that the Australian Government intends to commit Australia to obligations under international law. When the Government ratifies or accedes to an agreement, it becomes binding on Australia, confirming that Australia will comply with those obligations.

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2013 Election roundup

The counting for this year’s federal election is well under way, and although the results aren’t known yet, Pirate Party Australia did phenomenally well in its first federal election. Currently the polls indicate over 29,000 primary votes nationally (0.31% of the vote with 67% counted), and I predict we will finish at about 50,000 votes total.

Pirate Party Australia competed in four of six Australia states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania) fielding two candidates for the Senate in each. On a shoestring budget, we’ve done incredibly well in my opinion for a first election. For those wanting an explanation of Australia’s political system, I’ve included a summary at the end of this post.

I think the best thing to come out of this for Pirate Party Australia was that we proved founding a party on democracy and transparency works. You can have an open party where decisions are made through debate and consensus-building, where you don’t get trapped in vote-hungry deals and instead stick to your principles. I am confident we are in the perfect position to contest the next federal election and many elections to come.

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