It’s depressing when..

.. you read an article on BBC News about how middle-aged people should be walking faster, and realise that you’re included within the “middle-aged” category.  I’m a sprightly 41.

As it happens, I do walk faster than most folk regardless of age bracket.  I outpace a lot of youngsters who seem to have their faces stuck in their mobile phones all the time. What drives me mad, actually, are places like Wimbledon where people amble about aimlessly, getting in my way of where I want to go.

Middle-aged?  Pah.

The P&O Cruises Shore Excursions experience..

Marty Feldman foresaw the P&O Cruises shore excursion coach tours that I recently undertook.

We lost two passengers for a short time (they got on the wrong bus), and given the number of times we got off and on, plus overrunning some stops (including lunch) because of buffets and what not – this sketch sums up the experience pretty well:

In all seriousness, however, I did feel that the majority of the coach tours were far too tightly packed & rushed (though to be fair, we didn’t have a great deal of time at each port – only Reykjavik and Dublin had any useful time limits on them), along with either too many stops (which means having to get everybody off the coach, then back on again, then to the next stop, repeat) or there wasn’t any time for a lunch break (the worst case was in Akureyri, Iceland, where “lunch” consisted of an energy bar, Icelandic chocolate bar and a bottle of water).

Or if there was a lunch stop, it was a buffet and given the number of coaches/passengers plus different levels of walking ability, lunch was a horrific affair.  At one point, in Voss, Norway, I gave up and went to a small cafe in the centre of town which for £15 I got a sandwich and a diet coke, and wasn’t packed in line sardines in a hotel dining hall.  The other buffet lunch was outside of Reykjavik and it was only for 25 minutes.  Being the last one off the coach, and having had another coach party arrive at the same time as us, 35 minutes later I had finally managed to get something to eat.  We left around 20 minutes late.

That said, not all the tours were jam packed madness.  And I should also mention that the destinations far outweighed the overall experience. I got to see some truly remarkable landscapes.

Just beyond Flam, Norway, there is the village of Gudvangen:

The absolutely stunning Námafjall geothermal area in Iceland, just outside of Akureyri:

Here’s a geyser blowing at the Geothermal Park, Iceland.  The Sony RX100 V camera has a rather noisy zoom motor – but then again, it’s intended as a compact still camera than a fully fledged video camera:

and while I was on the remote island of Hesteyri (one of the better shore excursions, though there were so many flies it was difficult to pay attention to the tour leader because we were all swatting the buggers all the time), there were some Red Wing chicks in a nest right by the small cafe:

The Game of Thrones: Beyond the Wall tour wasn’t really Games of Thtone-sy enough, if I were to be honest.  But it didn’t matter to me – the alien landscape of Iceland was more than enough to make you appreciate why HBO came to Iceland (though as we found out, the producer was married to an Icelander and had worked there on previous projects).

I found that the best shore excursion is the one you put together yourself.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dublin by taking the P&O supplied shuttle bus into the city, then taking a City Sightseeing bus around (with at least two of the ticket sellers, both Danes, having worked as extras up at Ardmore Studios – which I paid a visit to back in my early days at MPC whilst working on Ella Enchanted – for the History Channel’s hugely popular Vikings TV series).  I just wished I had done this in Reykjavik.  But then again, I’m definitely planning on returning to Iceland, and I’ll set the agenda next time.

Dear P&O Cruises

On the 9th April this year, I paid for a variety of shore excursions for my trip on the Arcadia to Norway, Iceland and Ireland. One of them was for a tuk-tuk tour of Reykjavik. I’ve taken tuk-tuks before – I know they come in a variety of sizes and styles. But it wasn’t until I left the Arcadia and went shore side to see how cramped they were. One tuk-tuk looked as if people were crammed in there like sardines – one poor sod facing backwards looked very uncomfortable.

Then it was my turn.

Bloody hell, I’ve never known anything like it. I’m a big lad – both tall and, well, outwards (fat). There were two other people (presumably a husband and wife) who were sitting forwards, which left me, realistically, facing backwards in the middle seat. Given how high the floor was, it was physically painful to sit in that position for 90 minutes, so I left. I don’t pay £56 for 90 minutes of being super uncomfortable.

Or let me put it this way: you pay for a tour in a car, except you end up shoved in the boot.   Would you pay for something like that?  No, I didn’t think so.  Not unless you’re a bit kinky.

I went back on board the Arcadia and made my way to the Shore Excursion desk (since nobody from the tour company pointed out there was a tour manager or anybody managerial shore side – in fact, nobody from the tuk-tuk company offered to assist me with anything). I was then told I should have spoken to a man called Frasier, but it would be pointless to do it there and then because it was “rush” hour. So I left for the shore side again and took the City Sightseeing tour bus instead.

When I got back from that, I managed to find Frasier and told him the problem. “Sorry,” he said, “but we cannot issue a refund because you saw what the tuk-tuks were like on the website, that there are all sizes of tuk-tuks, and we buy all tickets up front”. I went on to explain that yes, I saw what was on the web site, but it gave no indication whatsoever about what they were really like – that it was only until I saw them up close and personal could I make an assessment. And I DID try to get in them. Frasier told me flat out that there would be no refund, and that if I made a complaint, it would be referred back to them, and he’d still decline any refund.

So I went and cancelled my Dublin city tour.

I reached out to P&O on Twitter who reached out to the Shore Excursion team and said that the manager would get hold of me. If that manager is Frasier, there is little point. Also whoever the team leader for the Shore Excursion team is, they haven’t reached out to me yet since I made the complaint.

While I have generally enjoyed this cruise so far, and I have been looking at cruises from 2018 onwards – I am thoroughly hacked off with P&O regarding a single £56 refund. In the 17+ years I’ve been travelling (and I was married to a travel agent who has worked for Lastminute.com, Wexas, Royal Caribbean and Cruise.co.uk amongst others – and let me tell you that we did a heck of a lot of travelling together to all manner of destinations far and wide), I have NEVER had to make a complaint about anything travel related. Then along comes P&O Cruises – my first P&O cruise, but my second overall (the first was with Azamara) and they managed to hack me off big time because apparently I have to care about their contracts with their vendors.

So this will be my first and last cruise with P&O unless they pull their fingers out and do something. If we still cannot resolve the issue when I write to P&O’s head office, then I’ll take them through the small claims court.  If I do end up buying another holiday from P&O again, I won’t be booking any of their shore excurions ever again.

The stupid thing is that I ended up not doing the Herdal Mountain Farm tour. I lost £52 for that. And I completely understand that – nobody needed to explain that to me. And because I am nice, I actually went down to the Shore Excursions desk as early as possible to apologise and say I wouldn’t be coming so that they didn’t have to wait around. So I did them a favour.

Oh, and the stupid thing about the tuk-tuk tour was they had to move the start time backwards from 9am to 8am. I could have had a refund then, apparently. I wish I took it. But I wouldn’t have known what these tuk-tuks are like until I got out there.

I’ll write more about my trips a bit later. Lots and lots of photos to come.

 

Harry Potter turns 20.. I reflect on my experiences on the movies..

There isn’t much to tell, to be honest.

I started working for The Moving Picture Company shortly after the first Harry Potter movie had finished.  The proceeds from that went into expanding the company’s offices through the appropriately named “Shower” entrance (since beforehand it really was a shower – the wall had just been knocked down to allow entry into the office beyond, and it would be used pretty extensively for all subsequent Harry Potter movies, until the great department reshuffle sometime around the 5 or 6th movie when rather than whole projects working together, the company was split up into departments based on disciplines).

It was all quite exciting of course, but WB was constantly throwing challenges my way as a production systems administrator, not least a VPN which initially was a PITA to get going again (our endpoint broke – the kit supplied was now obsolete and we didn’t have a decent VPN endpoint until I converted the Checkpoint Firewall to a Netscreen appliance).  Things improved immeasurably when Sohonet completely kitted out Leavesden Studios with a decent IT infrastructure (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had to make do with an ADSL line and motorcycle couriers for data transfer).

I did get to visit Leavesden Studios a few time to set-up new workstations and to firewall off our kit from other vendors.  It was lovely having a VFX editor there who knew the VLAN layout of the local switches, which made my knees and not-so-slim frame very happy.  Whilst out at Leavesden having finished work, my colleague and I got to enjoy a mushroom burger overlooking the Dursley’s home (and street) at one point.

Day to day stuff was the same old thing – nothing to report there.  You did get to see bits and bobs that were being worked on.  It was quite a thrill to see us working on the opening for one of the films – incorporating the famous WB shield – as well as an entire Quidditch match (that I believe we won from Sony Pictures Imageworks – quite a coup!).  Then there was the artwork – absolutely beautiful conceptual art that if you visit the Harry Potter Studios Tour, you’ll be able to see some of it.  The best things, however, were the life scale maquettes of the creatures – Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Scabbers the rat.  The werewolf’s head was detachable and was occasionally spotted being used as a hat in the production office.

I seem to recall that Voldemort’s rebirth was a difficult scene that caused quite a few arguments at one point.  It’s one of the highlights of the movies, in my opinion, but apparently getting there wasn’t so easy.  Computer imaging, in the eyes of the public, seems easy.  But it’s absolutely not.  It requires a HUGE amount of human labour to get what you see up on the screen.  People with mathematics degrees and physic degrees.  Artists.  Systems administrators.  Vendors.  It’s very labour intensive and costly.  So having to re-do stuff isn’t cheap (yet you’ll find in the VFX business that changes are expected within the bidding price, which ultimately knocks down the profit margin of the VFX company every time a client wants to make a change).

After leaving the VFX/film biz, I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It’s remarkable how much they’ve tidied the place up.  But it’s a definite recommendation of mine if you’ve loved the movies.  And I got to see the big castle “bigature” that I spotted whilst working on another movie – Wimbledon (starring Paul Bettany and Jon “Jungle Book/Iron Man” Favreau).  I was working at Shepperton Studios and spotted a sound stage with one of the doors open, and this massive big castle which looks suspiciously like Hogwarts.  Given I drove past two trailers for David Thewlis (Lupin, but can now be seen in the new Wonder Woman movie and the superb third season of Fargo) and the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), it had to be Hogwarts.  So being able to see Hogwarts castle up close at the Harry Potter Studio Tour was the highlight for me.

I’ve also been to Alnwick Castle back in April this year, which is where they shot the first broomstick flying lessons for the first Harry Potter movie (it also turns out, having seen the trailer, that it’s also where the new Transformers film was partly shot too).  And I’ve been inside the Elephant House where J. K. Rowling started writing the novels.  I also bumped into the Hogwarts Express at the Railway Museum at York Station (before they moved it down to Leavesden).

I’ve only ever been involved with Harry Potter in the tiniest way imaginable, but I am proud to have been part of it.  It helped pay my salary for a good few years (along with the other film productions, of course), so I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling for writing it, and for David Heyman for producing.

And I absolutely loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I sincerely look forward to seeing the next films in the series.