Lockdown Challenge: 10 Travel Photos

I was nominated by Helen for this ten favourite travel images ‘challenge’ thing on Facebook. Unlike everyone else, I’ve decided not to string it out over 10 days – and I thought I’d compile all ten images on here.

Photo 1: Red Square, Moscow, (then in the Soviet Union) – March 1991.

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In the days when cameras were cameras, you either didn’t take photos or accepted that rubbish ones came along when they did. I managed to get this utterly terrible photo in one of the most amazing places on Earth and it’s my only photographic record that I was ever there. The resolution is shocking, the fashions are highly questionable and I offer no excuse at all for that bum bag. To the right of the picture is Lenin’s mausoleum (I didn’t bother viewing the body), behind me is The Kremlin, specifically the Spassky Tower and just perfectly out of shot to the left of the frame is St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most astounding sights in the world.

All things considered, this is a truly awful photo that just happens to remind me of an amazing, unique two-week coming-of-age experience. BTW, I’m stood next to Mike, my Russian exchange student host, whom I still haven’t managed to find on Facebook.

Photo 2: 107th Floor Observation Area, South Tower, World Trade Center, New York City, USA – January 1994

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That’s me with the hair, looking through the binoculars north to mid-town Manhattan, at 1,310 feet. Shockingly, the guy in the baseball cap behind me, who looks like he’s about to mug the lady in the headscarf, is Martin.

I’m not going to lie: it was 1994, still in the pre-digital, pre-social world so, in lieu of an actual photograph, this has been screen-grabbed from a very shonky home video recording, hence the stunningly poor quality (again) of *another* world-famous landmark.

Famously, just over seven and a half years later, the ‘Twin Towers‘ would be no more, making this an especially poignant memory. Hopefully, there are places in eternal Hell for all those involved in that atrocity. I’m tempted to wish for the same fate for all involved in developing the ludicrous ‘white balance’ setting on 1990s video cameras that just loved to reset to default and white out priceless experiences like this. Most of our NYC footage is next to useless because of it. If you thought John Lennon’s house in Berkshire looked eerily white in the video for ‘Imagine’, it’s nothing compared to our footage of his place at the Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park.

Kinda kicking myself that we did’t stop for a photo more. A quick pose on the helipad at the Manhattan helicopter tour would have been a great idea. Good times, though…

Photo 3: The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA – November 2002
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You may be tempted (again) to mock my sartorial style – who wears a fleece and a Bez hat to the desert? Before you do, you should know that, as a result of some unfortunately-chosen breakfast items in Las Vegas the day before, I’d contracted food poisoning and spent most of the preceding night wondering which way to point in the bathroom. As a result, my internal thermostat was all over the place.

Having cleared out the system, I’d taken nothing but water and Pepto-Bismol for the six hours before having to get into a light aircraft for the short flight over the Hoover Dam and on to the edge of the Canyon. Predictably, it didn’t go well and I can now claim to be one of a select number of people who have sprayed fluorescent pink liquid into 3 or 4 sick bags inside a small plane over the location once voted Number 1 in the list of ’50 Places To See Before You Die’.

I believe we were near Eagle Rock at this point but to be honest, I could just about stand up, let alone remember many details. Even in my highly diminished state, it was still one of the most magical experiences of my life.

Photo 4: The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France – August 2013

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Finally, a photo in which the photographer, the technology and the subject are all fully functional.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Paris but I’ll never forget my first visit there, on my 18th birthday, in the year of its 100th anniversaire.  This sojourn in 2013 (en route back to Calais from Bordeaux) was an opportunity to go to the top of the famous Parisian landmark for the first time since my very first visit, over twenty years previously.

Once we’d returned to ground level, we decided to take this picture to mark the occasion.  I have loads of pictures of the Eiffel Tower but this unusual angle of its familiar shape illuminated against the night sky is my absolute favourite.

 

Photo 5:  Villa del Balbianello, Lago di Como, Italy – May 2014

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I really can’t say what part of the world makes me happiest but Lake Como has to be in the Top 5.  The food, the pace of life, the scenery and the micro-climate make this such an enchanting place to be.  This picture was taken in our first visit there, in 2014.

We’ve been back twice since then and I can’t imagine ever not wanting to go back again.  It’s an achingly beautiful place and, if you like Italian food and wine, you’ll find it impossible to resist.

Star Wars nerds should recognise the location of this photo as being the place where Anakin and Padmé were married at the end of ‘Episode II: Attack of the Clones’.  The same location was also used in ‘Casino Royale’ for the scene where James Bond is convalescing after rolling his Aston Martin at speed.  In reality Villa del Balbianello is a former holiday home of the Rothschilds which is now a museum with the most manicured gardens you’ve ever seen.

Photo 6:  Slane Castle, Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland – May 2017

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Travel isn’t just about going somewhere, it’s also about what you do when you get there – or why you even go.  This was certainly true of our short 2017 trip to Ireland – to watch Guns ‘N Roses on their ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour.

I’m sure this might not be for everyone but the chance to combine a one-off experience like this while sampling/becoming re-acquainted with another culture (I mean, who doesn’t love Ireland?) is an intoxicating mix.  The Emerald Isle is doubly special to us as it’s the place where we got engaged, after another concert there.  Find someone or something you want to watch in a part of the world you want to visit and you’ll know just how rewarding it can be.

We also had time to nip in to Dublin, which, if you’ve ever been, you’ll agree is no hardship, either.

Photo 7:  Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Marina Bay, Singapore – December 2017

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We were only there for 36 hours and much of that was spent fighting off jet-lag but Singapore certainly left a lasting impression – not least because it gave us the chance to sample the famous roof-top swimming pool on the 57th floor of the city state’s most recognisable building.

We were also lucky enough to be able to meet some old friends there, to catch up and to gain an insight into this heady fusion of a place that many tourists never get to see.

Photo 8:  Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia – December/January 2017/8

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The most expensive night out I’ve ever had – but a pretty good one!  This was pure bucket-list stuff: to be in Sydney on New Year’s Eve and to be among the first in the world to welcome a new year.  With all the flights and hotels booked, there just remained the question of how we’d spend the evening.

Well, one thing led to another and we ended up booking ourselves onto one of the flotilla of boats that take in the famous light show from the middle of the harbour.  Five hours, three courses, lots of wine, twelve solid minutes of midnight fireworks and lasers and one fight later (not us), the whole thing was well and truly ticked off the list.  You know what?  Looking back, it all seems like an incredible bargain.

And then this: an important by-product of any travel experience is the chance to re-live it whenever you see the place on TV, thereafter.  I’m sure I’ll always tune in to the Sydney New Year display, covered in the UK at 1pm on New Year’s Eve.  With every passing year, I’ll continue to receive ever-greater value for money.  How many times can you truthfully say that a night out is really an investment?

Photo 9:  Monterey Bay, California, USA – August 2018

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Increasingly, the chance to see more of the natural world is a major motivation to travel.  For this, I could have chosen any number of birdwatching reserves we’ve been to, or the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island.  Or even the Great Barrier Reef.  In truth, nothing, I repeat, nothing will compare with – or prepare you for – whale-watching.

When in California, we got the chance to see a pod of humpback whales feeding on anchovies, less than a mile from the coast.  The sights, the sound, the smell, the size of these amazing creatures is something so awesome to behold, you’ll find it impossible to compare it to any other experience.  It’s nothing short of an epiphany.

We tend to compartmentalise our travel dreams into simple lists that can be simply chalked off and that’s largely true of mere places.  I’m not sure it’s just as easy to say the same of true experiences like this.  We could have seen blue whales, grey whales or orcas that day.  Given the chance, I’d go back there like a shot – and do it all again.

Photo 10:  San Francisco, California, USA – August 2018

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Travel teaches you the understanding that you will, at some stage, have to reconcile expectation with reality.  Once you’ve arrived, some places will surprise you and others will disappoint you.  Just occasionally, you find a place that is everything you always wanted it to be.  I’ve felt it in Amsterdam, in Melbourne and here, in San Francisco.  And then you’ll always love them and hope they never change.

As in most parts of life, timing is as important as any other factor: your own time of life, your motivations and aspirations – together with the point in the cycle of fortunes that affect the places you see.  I’m sure Moscow has changed hugely in the last 29 years – but then, so have I.  I could easily have listed a completely different list of 10 places I’ve loved to visit: Barcelona, Prague, Gothenburg, Hong Kong, Austin, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, Munich are all fascinating in their own right and no less worthy of a visit than the 10 I did choose.

Currently, with travel restricted, we should treat this time as a reminder not to take our world for granted – and never to stop feeling the need to explore beyond the horizon.  To continue to share the sights it holds and the people and the nature you can find there.  In the end, when your time on Earth is coming to a close, will you regret the amount of stuff you owned – or the number of places you got to see?

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics?

As a Wiganer, I don’t mind admitting I’m still getting over our 18-14 defeat to Hull in last weekend’s Challenge Cup Final.  I feel I probably shouldn’t be so affected by it, these days – I’ve been here enough times before: in 1984 (crushingly), in 1998 (inexplicably) and in 2004 (rather drunkenly).  I’d like to think that those experiences, plus of course the very many Cup-winning years (including the famous eight-in-a-row) would give me sufficient perspective to absorb the disappointment a little more adroitly.

Sadly, just like Tony Clubb’s doomed attempt for the line, it was not to be.  Now, four days on, the anguish at the outcome has dissipated slightly.  I know this because I’ve now come to believe that the scoreline was not, for once, the most significant statistic of the day.

Before I explain what I believe is, I should move to deny any stirring suspicions you may have that I’m displaying sour grapes or even revisionism.  Of course I wish we’d won but the day highlighted an issue much more concerning than merely the non-adornment of yet another trophy in cherry and white – it’s an issue that has implications on the future of the sport of rugby league itself.

You may or may not have picked up on the story that the attendance of 68,525 was the lowest at a Challenge Cup final since its return to the re-built Wembley in 2007.  There are a number of facets to this simple stat, together with a fair degree of context, to increase or reduce the level of alarm it elicits, depending upon your viewpoint.  If nothing else, this is very much a matter of interpretation and opinion, which rather thickens the plot but also fuels the conspiracy theories.  It all brings to mind the phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain who believed himself to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli (although no record of Disraeli saying it exists): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Before we go any further, is this story true and by how much is the figure lower than any before?  According the BBC match report, the figure was “by some distance the lowest” but what does the data say?  As ever, my friends at Wikipedia are a handy place to check:

2007  St. Helens 30–8  Catalans Dragons 84,241
2008  St. Helens 28–16  Hull 82,821
2009  Warrington 25–16  Huddersfield 76,560
2010  Warrington 30–6  Leeds 85,217
2011  Wigan 28–18  Leeds 78,482
2012  Warrington 35–18  Leeds 79,180
2013  Wigan 16–0  Hull 78,137
2014  Leeds 23-10  Castleford 77,914
2015  Leeds 50-0  Hull Kingston Rovers 80,140
2016  Hull 12–10  Warrington 76,235
2017  Hull 18–14  Wigan Warriors 68,525

So, there you have it: in headline terms, no different to last year (which was itself the lowest post-2007 figure) but almost eight thousand fewer again, quite a significant drop.

The chief reason for the sudden discrepancy appears to be the widely-quoted accounting change that for the first time this year, debenture-holders’ seats were not automatically counted as occupied, giving a more accurate figure.  This is basically a way of suggesting that every previous new Wembley figure was utterly fictitious and that in real terms, this year’s attendance figure was no different to any other year.  It all sounds incredibly convenient to spare any blushes the RFL may have – but can it be true?

At this point, most people would probably just shrug their shoulders and move on with their life but this requires a level of stadium geekery that I feel able to provide – and to some extent, corroborate.  When the current incarnation of Wembley Stadium was built, part of its funding came from a debenture scheme (“Club Wembley”) in which holders were given a middle-tier seat for use at any event held at the venue – a sort of super season ticket.  Inevitably, most of these were seen as justifiable investment by companies with an eye on the corporate hospitality opportunities they afforded and they signed up in their thousands.  I know someone who did, a print supplier with whom I used to spend a lot of money.  In 2011, as I was one of his biggest rugby league-following clients, he offered me his seats to watch that year’s Challenge Cup Final.

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“It’s who you know”: The 2011 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos, taken from the Club Wembley seating in the middle tier

You can most easily see the seats in question in the ten minutes after the re-start in any home England football match as the mostly corporate inhabitants struggle to down their half-time pints until about the 55th minute.  It was, I believe, at one such occasion that the seat-holders’ conspicuity by their absence provoked Adrian Chiles to give it its most scathing (and most apt) nickname: “the ring of indifference” – perhaps the most John Lennon thing he’s ever said.  Anyway, as their debenture holders were seen as ‘customers’, it seems every official attendance at the new Wembley has counted each and every one of them, whether or not they were represented on the day by anyone in person.

I can only presume that in 2017, ten years after the stadium’s opening, the debenture terms have elapsed and different rules now apply.  The good news is that 68-odd thousand is not really any lower than any other year so the “lowest attendance” story is (and I hasten to give this term the credence it ill-deserves) ‘fake news’.  The bad news, rugby fans, is that for a decade, we’ve been kind of kidding ourselves about the true numbers.  The case is perhaps most clearly made by this Getty Images picture, taken during the 2010 final between Warrington and Leeds.  The official attendance that day was 85,217, purportedly less than five thousand people shy of a 90,000 full house and yet, despite the tightly-packed crowds in the upper and lower tiers, the whole middle tier appears sparsely populated.

Does any of this bean-counting matter, then, if it’s all built on a farcically inaccurate trend?  Clearly, not as much as is being made of it – but it does beg the rather more fundamental question of why we’ve probably now had a decade of Challenge Cup final attendances that were ‘only’ c.70,000.  In the days before the old Wembley had its capacity reduced to 70-odd thousand, finals regularly attracted crowds in the 90,000s.

Looking at the pictures from this year’s final, it’s easy to see that this year, the RFL knew the problem was coming.  I’d already received increasingly urgent emails from them with various last-minute deals, including “£5 for under 16s”.  On the day, this tweet of Wigan legend Martin Offiah in the Royal Box clearly shows the upper tier opposite ‘blanked off’ by decorative red*-and-white/black-and-white sheeting over vast swathes of the seating area which were not expected to sell.

*by the way, RFL, Wigan’s colours are cherry and white, not red.

What’s most interesting about this development is where the empty seats where.  If you know Wembley, you’ll know the Royal Box is directly opposite the TV camera gantry.  To the viewers at home, it would, for most of the time, seem as though Wembley was full.  Depending upon your viewpoint, this is either a case of good PR or managed decline.  It’s also something in which the RFL have a fair degree of form.  Remember the 2013 World Cup?  The opening fixtures were a double-header in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.  My son Charlie happened to be a mascot that day and I took as many pictures as I could of him with the England and Australia teams as they lined up before the game.  The attendance was 45,052, the capacity in Cardiff is 73,000, leaving around 28,000 empty seats for the organisers to hope no-one sees.  From the picture below, would you care to take a wild guess which side the TV gantry is at the Millennium Stadium?

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England v Australia, the opening fixture of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

To be fair to the RFL, there are exceptions.  For six of the last ten years, the Grand Final has attracted a 70 thousand-plus crowd to Old Trafford (nominally with a 75,000 capacity but slightly reduced for such occasions to allow a stage to be built on the South West quadrant for the pre-show live act).  As a percentage of capacity, the Grand Final is now almost always in the upper 90s.

2007  Leeds 33–6  St. Helens  71,352
2008  Leeds 24–16  St. Helens  68,810
2009  Leeds 18–10  St. Helens  63,259
2010  Wigan 22–10  St. Helens  71,526
2011  Leeds 32–16  St. Helens  69,107
2012  Leeds 26–18  Warrington  70,676
2013  Wigan 30–16  Warrington  66,281
2014  St. Helens 14–6  Wigan  70,102
2015  Leeds 22–20  Wigan  73,512
2016  Wigan 12–6  Warrington  70,202

And then there was the success story that was the 2013 World Cup Final – a crowd of 74,468 which is still, I believe, the world record attendance for an international rugby league match.  Much as I’d prefer to gloss over the fact that this game didn’t include England (thanks to both a piece of sublime magic and a last-minute try from New Zealand in the semi-final), the absence of the home nation makes the subsequent sell-out for the final even more worthy of praise for the organisers.

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Not the best picture of the crowd at the 2013 World Cup Final but the filled stand to the left is where you’ll find the TV camera gantry at Old Trafford

The common denominator to both these successes is, it’s safe to argue, the fact that they both took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, set almost perfectly within the very heartland of rugby league.  Wembley and Cardiff, on the other hand, are not.

The point is, I would contend, strengthened further by the somewhat chequered achievements of the ‘Magic Weekend‘, the newest kid on the block of annual rugby league showpiece occasions in the UK.  The reliance on compound attendance figures for these two-day festivals has more than a whiff of an initiative seeking attention via the biggest number it can lay its hands on, which is why I prefer to look at average attendances over the two days.  Over the last ten years, the numbers have barely edged beyond plus-or-minus 10% of 30,000 per day.  That sounds great, compared to a regular fixture (in 2016, Super League fixtures averaged 9,134) but for three fixtures in a day (and sometimes, it’s four), 30k seems like a case of negligible uplift.  Add to that the fact that the fixtures for these events tend to be ‘marquee’ games like Wigan v Leeds or derbies like Hull v Hull KR which tend not to struggle for numbers when left to be played in their normal surroundings and the whole thing feels like it might just about be ‘washing its face’ and no more.

Of course, all of the above is not the be-all and end-all: the Magic Weekend adds a marvellous sense of occasion to those there, it helps to generate extra national press from a largely union-centric media and it ‘spreads the gospel’ further afield and all that but after all that effort, it’s difficult to claim that, empirically, it’s added even a single extra bum on a seat.  Throw in the fact that the venues (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Murrayfield, Edinburgh; Etihad Stadium, Manchester and, latterly, St. James’ Park, Newcastle) are all much larger than 30k and you’re back to the same game of ‘hide the empty seats from the cameras’ – average daily occupancy has ranged from 40% at Cardiff to 67% in Manchester.  Just how commercially successful is the whole enterprise, really?

It’s an important point to make because one theory I’ve read is that the existence of the Magic Weekend is the most likely cause of the trimming of Challenge Cup final crowds.  An alternative away-day at which your team is guaranteed to play does seem like a slightly more appealing alternative to the more traditional, relatively vicarious pursuit of turning up at Wembley in your team’s colours “for the day out” even though two other teams are actually contesting the final.  Having been part of the convivial, ‘rugby league family’ atmosphere, it would be a shame to see it lessened but equally, it takes a bit of fortitude to walk proudly down Wembley Way in a Saints shirt, for example, knowing you’re going to suffer a few hours of (mostly) light-hearted ribbing from the assembled hoards of Wigan and Leeds fans milling around outside the stadium when your team isn’t even there.  As someone who must admit to being part of that ‘friendly fire’, I can confirm I’d think twice about taking the time and expense of going all that way not to see my team, knowing I’d be on the receiving end of it.

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Spot the Saints fans, if you can.  And then mock them!

I think there are other factors.  Bank Holidays are divisive things: enabling grand days out for many but also providing prohibitive alternative attractions which aren’t always easy to avoid, like weddings, long weekends away or, in my case, family holidays (I was driving home, trying to avoid being drawn onto the Péripherique in Paris, last Saturday, while asking for regular updates from Wembley on the BBC Sport app).  Bank Holidays also seem to promise extra travel problems too.  A terrible crash on the M1 and the closure of Euston station, last Saturday seem to be further invitations not to bother again, in future.  I appreciate there were many finals held on the Saturday of the May Day weekend, years ago but was the Challenge Cup not equally well served by holding its final in the last weekend in April?  It seems so: 94,273 Wigan and Halifax fans attended the 1988 final on April 30th, that year.

The mood music is not great, wherever you point your ear, though.  Earlier this year, the RFL caused some consternation by raising the possibility that future Challenge Cup finals may not be played at Wembley, surely a red line-crosser for most fans of the sport.  Even in Australia, the home of the dominant Kangaroos and the all-conquering NRL, all is not rosy in the garden.  As in England, parochial imbalances afflict the sport there, with comparable constraints and similar initiatives to counter them.  In particular, the go-to remedy to address the suburban Sydney clubs’ willingness to exceed their local confines is to play selected regular season games at the 83,000-seat ANZ Stadium, the cavernous-when-empty home of the 2000 Olympics.  If you think the hastily-decorated bank of empty seats at Wembley signify problems in our game, wait ’til you’ve seen a round of NRL played before barely 10% occupancy and a veritable Southern ocean of blue seating blocks.

I’ll soon get over Wigan’s loss at Wembley, I’m sure – possibly as soon as Friday if we can bounce back and put one over on our bitter rivals from St. Helens.  I’m also sure that this year’s Grand Final will attract around 70,000 or more again this year (hopefully with around half of them wearing cherry and white, again).  The real litmus test will come the next time the game holds a showpiece away from the M62 corridor.  The location of the 2018 Magic Weekend is, as yet, unconfirmed.  The three most-attended incarnations have all come at Newcastle – albeit no single day there has ever left fewer than 12,000 empty seats – so it’s the most obvious choice.  An outside bet may be the Ricoh Arena in Coventry: desperate for the money, tried successfully for home internationals in recent years and offering an achievable capacity of over 32,000.  It would be a venue less likely to visually advertise any shortfall in ticket sales but its very selection could be seen as a tacit admission of the RFL’s desire to play safe and not over-extend.

As a fan, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned, either way, about the choice of venue for a round of Super League fixtures in late May.   I would however worry what the implications would be of anything that could be construed to be ‘damage-limitation thinking’ on the future of the game’s oldest and noblest occasion.  Wembley is a non-negotiable part of the Challenge Cup and more must be done to ensure it is filled on the one day a year our sport has it.

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