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Monday, 31 December 2012

#75: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Eight

The biggest issue I had upon first landing in Sydney was the 180-degree climate change. I’d gone from snow and the frost-biting heart of winter in eastern Canada, to the thumping heat and humidity of summer-time in Oz.

Minutes after touching down on Australian tarmac, I was stripping off layers like a champion layer-stripper-offer as I negotiated Customs, then headed into Sydney Airport’s International Arrivals lounge.

Staying with friends Martin and Sue, who very kindly put me up during my three-week stint in the state capital of New South Wales, I had a cool experience (to contrast with the heat) on my first full morning Down Under.

I went for a 5:45am run (as you do) through a neighbourhood in a village south of Sydney where Martin’s family had a holiday home.

As I headed up one street, I was greeted by a mob (troop or herd) of kangaroos. Perhaps 25 of the bouncing beauties. All apparently taking a break from doing some landscaping work on a resident’s garden.

We swapped nods of recognition and then went our merry ways. Well, they remained transfixed by this strange running guy – and I’m sure, in my peripheral vision, I spotted a couple of the mob (likely part of the local kangaroo mafia) practicing their Muhammad Ali shuffles, just in case I returned with backup.

Sydney is rightly recognized as Australia’s most spectacular city – and I enjoyed getting my fix of its famous sights during my time there; including, of course, the Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Taronga Zoo.

It was also fun taking the boat tours around the harbour, and becoming obsessed with trying to spot Great Whites. Or any kind of fin-tastic Jaws-a-likes. Shark Bay, Shark Beach… COME ON! WHERE ARE YOU? Nowhere to be seen, as it turned out.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

I flew down to Melbourne at the end of January, and prepared for my semester studying at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), the focus of course material again being centred on physiology, nutrition and sports psychology. I also had to do a Research Methods module, which was about as exciting as watching Big Brother on Nightvision. Or DAY-vision, for that matter.

It was interesting to get both the U.S. and Australia's unique takes on the mechanics of sports science and its various elements – both practically and academically.

While in Melbourne, I stayed in the trendy South Yarra area, just off Chapel Street. This was a fluke – it just happened to be where the converted convent-turned-long-stay youth hostel recommended to me was located.

The cool things about this place were that it was cheap – and that we had our own rooms. Also, that it was near a Borders bookstore. I spent most of my free time camped out in that place, devouring biographies and mentally quaffing a large quota of the Self-Help section.

I bought myself a second-hand bike and rode everywhere when I wasn't running. My daily route to the ACU campus took me through the heart of Melbourne Park (and Rod Laver Arena) – home of Australian Open tennis – and the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). For a sports fanatic, that was pretty cool.

My timing was also spot-on to take in the 2004 Australian Formula One (motor racing) Grand Prix. The hostel was a short spin on the bike away from Albert Park, which transforms itself into a formidable F1 street circuit every March.

I cycled a lap of the circuit pre-race one evening, videoing as I went. Great fun, though it was unlikely my time of 15 minutes and change was going to trouble Schumacher and Co.

Having got the taste for marathons again with Chicago, I decided to follow up with another (my fifth) the following spring, during my stay in Oz.

As Melbourne and Sydney both hosted their 26.2-milers in the autumn/fall, I had to opt for striding around Canberra – Australia's capital city – on April 18th, 2004; the day after my 31st birthday.

I trained for around 14 weeks along the River Yarra and around the multi-cutural Melbourne cityscape. I then chose to jump on a coach for a 10-hr overnight trip to Canberra; arriving in the early hours of Saturday morning – just over 24 hours before race-time.

Not the smartest idea I've ever had (flying up surely wouldn't have cost that much more).

My pre-race prep was also a little disrupted by some dodgy chicken I'd downed on the Tuesday of marathon week.

Accepting invites to dinner on race week is like playing Russian Roulette with your marathon hopes. And you'd have thought the blood which spurted out onto my chin with the first bite would have alerted me to the fact that this particular strip of poultry thigh may have been a little undercooked.

I roomed in a hostel close to the start with a Tasmanian guy called David Bone. Dave was in his early 40's and a marathon maestro. Tough as, well bone. He actually took up the race option of carrying on after 42.2k and racking up 50. His marathon time was 2:52 and his 50k clocking around 3:30.

My race went as I feared – about as well as a guy with mild food poisoning. I was through 10k at a fair clip, but faded from there.

The second half included a fair bit of walking; much grimacing/clutching of my stomach area; and likely a lot of strange noises emanating from my gastric region.

I was able to duck under 3:30 (3:27:58; I’m sure still sprinting for the line to break 3:28) – but I've definitely spent more enjoyable Sunday mornings before and since.

A couple of running breakthroughs were enjoyed during my stint Down Under – ensuring the marathon training didn't go to waste.

I lopped a fair chunk off my 10k PB during a race in North Melbourne – lowering it to 37:49 – and also bagged my first overall podium in a race; fending off both a cold and the fourth-place finisher to snag third.

Much diligent toil on the academic front during my time in Melbourne kept my GPA (or equivalent) on course for a First. And I once more befriended a cluster of top people, including Chris Hussey (a fellow British-born) and Sean ‘Okey Dog’ O’Keeffe – who put the 'laid' in laid-back.

Okey Dog very kindly gave me a ride to the airport for my flight back to England in the June of ’04 – and arrived wearing flip-flops. But not just any flip-flops; two different ones. Apparently he’d slipped on one of his housemates’ by mistake as he dangled his foot like a fishing rod into the murky shoe cupboard.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Back in England, I bagged some editing work at the Daily Mail during the summer, then got stuck into Year Three of my degree back at St. Mary’s, determined to do whatever it took to maintain my grade average and bag a First.

Some of the Final Year elements – not least researching around a million journal articles – were a little tedious. But I kept my head down and grinded it out. I also found a loophole which allowed me to do Creative Writing as an X(-tra) Module during my final semester (the winter/spring of 2005) and helped keep my spirits up.

And, when degree results were posted one fine, June morning that year – I happily (and with an outer space-sized sigh of relief) saw I’d achieved that First (70% or above); just one of eight people on my course to do so. My mark? 71%. It had to be.

The ghost of the lost Staffs Uni degree was well and truly exorcised.

Now it was time to turn my attention to a new focus. Sink my teeth into a new challenge.

Like say… a move to Canada, perhaps?


P.S. Thanks for reading – and helping me hit 75 posts before the end of 2012! (Vancouver, Canada time). It’s amazing what can be achieved when you put your mind to something… :o) Happy 2013!

#74: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Seven

I flew from London Heathrow to Chicago's O’Hare International Airport in late August 2003, then enjoyed a three-hour+ coach ride to the University of Wisconsin—Platteville (UWP), which would be my home for the next four months.

The coach driver was remarkable. The most jovial, energetic and positive guy I’d ever been driven by. He may have been on Speed, though I like to think just auditioning for a part in the next movie in the franchise of the same name.

His whistle-stop commentary en route was outstanding. If all Americans were like this I was in for a treat.

I met two Germans waiting for our shuttle bus to the halls that first night; Steffen and Chris from Darmstadt – just down the road from Frankfurt. Both friendly, outstanding guys. Particularly 6-ft 6-inch Steffen.

Steffen and Chris would later team-up with another German, Tomas, to become Team Johnny English – my support crew for October's Chicago Marathon (making TJE t-shirts and everything).

Thomas was the quirkiest of the three; in fact, a bit of a loose cannon at times.

He and I teamed up for a time management presentation one week and it went well. We were on time and didn’t overrun. In fact, I got an A. And Thomas an A-. Why the difference? It turned out to be UWP protocol NOT to swear while presenting. If only Thomas had cursed in German (scheisser) he may have got away with it!

The easiest class credit I’ve ever attained was during my UWP stay. Golf 101. Where we literally just hacked it round Platteville Golf & Country Club for an hour every Tuesday morning at 8.

Coach (Jim) Nickasch gave us a briefing before the first class, and then it was “Go hit some balls! And try not to slice any off the 6th tee (where Mrs. Maloney’s greenhouse lay in wait)."

My favourite classes were with the great Tom Antczak – the 1978 American Marathon champ – who taught me Physiology of Exercise and Fitness Evaluation. He was also (and still is) UWP’s head cross country coach and was a fountain of knowledge and great advice as I geared up for the Chicago Marathon.

When I’d seemingly shot myself in the foot by volunteering to lead a campus relay team FOUR days before the marathon and got caught up in the excitement and adrenaline of racing, it was Tom who reassured me – when I was unable to walk the next day – that things would be A-OK in Michigan come Sunday. And he was right.

UWP had become a training base for the Chicago Bears NFL squad a few years earlier, and the Bears had shelled out a crisp $1-million on a new state-of-the-art gym/training facility at the university.

I was lucky enough to reap the benefits of the facility during my time there, using the rowing machine and indoor track (when it was freeze-your-chestnuts-off cold out) during the winter months.

Running one of the famous big-city marathons in the Windy City (it’s now one of the six World Marathon Majors) was a major highlight of my term in the States.

Team Johnny English (Steffen, Chris & Thomas) very kindly drove me up to Chicago the day before, and we stayed overnight in some accommodation I’d booked at the University of Chicago’s International (student) House.

TJE, naturally, wanted to paint the Windy City at least a subtle shade of purple the night before; so I bunkered down early and left them to it.

I vaguely recall them arriving back – before I awoke at 5am on race-day (start-time was 8am) with an unidentifiable German male to my left in the King-sized bed we’d bagged as part of the suite. I thought I was hallucinating at first, but then realized it was one of the boys (Chris, I recall).

I’d trained with a Sub-3-hour time in mind – though hadn’t yet been part of a group or running club, and my best marathon time at that point (I’d only run three prior to Chicago) was 3:41 in the 2000 London.

And with my body still silently lambasting me for the crazy relay leg I’d run four days prior, my time goal was a little more modest going in. Sub-3:15 would be great, but I’d be happy with Sub-3:30, too.

In the event, I ran 3:19:42 (chip-time) to sneak inside the top 2500 (2494 – thanks!) and, all things considered, was very happy. It was also easy to hook up with the guys post-race, too – standing 6-feet six, Steffen stood out like a giraffe at a Hobbits convention.

Academically, I held my own in Platteville. They did a weird thing in some of the classes, skewing some of the exam results so that the guy (or gal) with the highest mark in the class would get 100% – even if they actually only scored 10% in the test (and everyone else had mainly doodled).

So, on several occasions I finished at or near the top (in the high 90s; once 100), when in reality I’d only scored in the 70s. I was hailed as some kind of genius, but did try to set people straight. On occasion.

Either way, the overall standards were lower in the States and my converted grade back in the UK was 71 (even though I'd averaged in the 90's). But 71 – again. I was Mr. Consistent, if nothing else.

I made some great friends during my time at UWP. Not only the German trio, and the coaching duo (Tom and Jim), but also standout athletes Andres (Young), Dana (Zimmerman) and Ryan Kleimenhagen; and Jamie Udelhofen, a UWP admin whiz by day, and Perfect Pint hostess by night.

My final night I hung out with a few friends – and downed a few Perfect Pints of Guinness (four beauties; had to replenish my iron levels). Then, the following morning, I enjoyed a memorable six-mile run with Dana in arctic conditions.

Great fun, but also memorable because the Black Stuff almost came back to say “Hi!” on several occasions. Thankfully the stunning scenery remained just white.

That night, I jumped on the Chicago-bound coach, then flew from O’Hare to Toronto Pearson (IA) for a Jardine family Christmas in Canada (London, Ontario).

Then it was off to Sydney (via Los Angeles) for Leg Two of my Year Two abroad.


Sunday, 30 December 2012

#73: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Six

Unfortunately, this was no 34th Street for me. I prepared as best I could for the six end-of-year exams – given I had no particular interest for any of them and had been going through the motions for about eight of the nine Year Two months.

However, the writing was on the wall. And not on the exam papers. At least not the right kind of writing. Miracles were apparently in short supply on this one, fine summer's day.

Out of those six exams, I passed just one. In Sociology. Largely because the abstract doodle I did in the answer booklet was immense. They couldn’t fail me with that in there.

But the rest were a write-off. And meant I’d be forced to take five re-sits in five days – a week before the scheduled start of the new term – to progress to Year Three and have a chance of completing my degree.

I embraced the challenge and stayed in student (campus) accommodation for five nights, while I re-sat. It’s amazing how focused you become when goals are so black and white.

The night before each re-sit I crammed in revision like never before, and felt like I had at least a cat-in-hell’s chance (whatever that actually means) of scraping through.

My quintet of exams went reasonably well – or so I thought – and I then had to sweat it out, waiting for the results.

Better. Three passes. But still not good enough. Two fails. I could re-sit the failed two again the following March, but my hopes of carrying on into Year Three on schedule and graduating the following June were toast.

I briefly considered just taking a year out; re-sitting in March, and then moving on to Year Three. But then I came to my senses. The university experience, overall, had been about as much fun as a bad case of diarrhea. It was time to move on.

From that point, I focused on golf for the next 18 months – living back with my parents (I was still only 20) and working evenings at a diesel injector factory to offer some housekeep. My swing was honed to an eight handicap – but that was as good as it got.

So I then pursued journalism, and ignited a career that married two of my great passions: English and sport. It was a blast, and for the next eight years I was in my element.

But then I started to get itchy feet again. And thoughts of revamping my career or taking it in a slightly different direction solidified. As did a yearning to exorcise the ghost of my failed degree.

And so, in September 2002 at the grand ‘old’ age of 29, I enrolled at St. Mary’s University College in Twickenham, on the outskirts of London, to become a Bachelor of Science in Sports Science/Health, Nutrition and Exercise.

This time there'd be no farting around. No going through the motions. This time I was serious. I’d been a runner almost five years at this point and craved to learn how to make myself a better, more efficient pavement-pounder. I wanted to devour every relevant morsel of information about physiology, nutrition and sports psychology.

While the lion's share of fresh nubile First Years were busy sowing their wild oats and engaging in groundbreaking activities reminiscent of the night I drank myself into oblivion before running backwards down a main road in Stafford; falling and bouncing my head on concrete; then waking up the next morning with mild concussion and proceeding to vomit 17 times (the #'s imprinted in my mind – I think literally), I was salivating over physiology textbooks, nutritional studies and sports psychology research.

That first year I was hung-go for learning and amassing knowledge. I was also able to showcase my journalistic skills in some areas (in one paper I have apparently gone down in SMUC folklore as being the only guy who scored 100% (and the old ego can never have enough of those experiences).

I whistled through the coursework and sailed through the exams – noting that the black-&-whiteness of science-based exams (particularly multiple choice options) seemed a better fit for me. The wishy-washyness and apparent pointlessness of a lot of essay-type questions was a bigger turnoff than the sound of my Staffs Uni housemate and his Magnum PI lady-friend almost coming through the ceiling in the name of lust.

My First Year average was 71% – the equivalent of a First or Grade A. No resits needed this time.

I'd also arranged to study my second year abroad; the first semester in the States (Platteville, Wisconsin); and the second in Australia (Melbourne). The latter was still to be confirmed, but the signs were good.

All-in-all, I was bang on course to exorcise (via exercise) the ghost of Staffs Uni and my ‘lost’ degree.

I'd also just turned 30, so was flying to Chicago (Platteville was a 3-hr coach ride from O'Hare International Airport) having just entered a new decade.

The future looked bright. Bl**dy cold, come November in Wisconsin. But bright nonetheless.


#72: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Five

When I reflect on spending eight-to-nine months at the slanted terraced house in Etruria, I marvel at the capacity of ourselves, as students, to live in virtual squalor.

Having the front room as my bedroom was fine on the face of it. However, the front door had a descending two-inch gap at its foot – meaning that, in the winter, the cold streamed in like a cluster of Harry Potter Dementors.

It was FREEZING at times. We had portable gas heaters for our rooms, but I trusted mine about as far as I could throw it. Weighing in at around 300lbs, this wasn't very far.

So I kept warm the traditional way; the way students have since the dawn of college education. I wore all 27 of the upper-body layers I owned at the same time – switching the order round now-&-again to keep things fresh.

I frequently had guests to stay. Though never invited ones. They just used to turn up unannounced, letting themselves in through the gaping gap in the door.

Slugs were quite prominent. The carpet temperature – ie. 30 degrees below zero – was a perfect slithering environment for them. I laid down some ground-rules, though. Like stay on the ground: my bed's out-of-bounds. And, to be fair, they did abide by that rule. Most of the time.

There were also wood lice, hundreds of those. Attracted by the traditional student digs furniture. Rotting pieces of various tree flesh that squeaked and rocked and looked like they’d collapse in a cloud of dust if forced to bear the weight of a jumbo-sized English-French dictionary (I kept that on ground level while I tried to find it a new home).

Centipedes, millipedes, all kinds of pedes made themselves at home. The odd spider, too, though they tended to hang out by the gas heater, on the occasions I decided not developing frostbite was more important than potentially blowing myself up.

The insects and creepy crawlies generally came to stay at weekends, and spent most of the time doing laps of the room. The millipedes invariably set the pace – aided by having 36 to 400 legs, depending on their particular species.

It meant I always had company in my room; though not quite the kind I’d dreamt about. For some reason, members of the fairer sex gave my chamber a wide berth.

Jon was the second West-Midlander I’d shared a living space with. Our First Year flat housed five – and I initially shared with a guy called Craig from Dudley who I nicknamed Ted Bundy. Not because he was a serial killer, but because he appeared to have great potential in that field. I always slept with one eye open and a 7-iron by my pillow.

Trying to have a conversation with Jon on his own was hard work. He and Mark were tight, and felt most comfortable when both in the same room. Jon looked like a young version of Billy Connolly. Shoulder-length wavy brown hair that bounced to the rhythm of his limp – and a Malcolm X chinny-beard.

If I caught him alone, I’d try to initiate some light banter. However, he’d limit his responses to a few words, shiftily looking left and right, before increasing the speed of his gait through the lounge and up the stairs to his room – directly above mine.

Having his room directly above mine became an issue later in the year – when Jon got a girlfriend. She wasn’t my cup of tea. Having a moustache bushier than Tom Selleck’s in his Magnum P.I. prime was a little off-putting.

But whatever floats your boat. When they kissed there must have been tangible electricity. Like, actual sparks flying with all that tangling stubble-hair. And, I’m sure, the potential for triggering a minor bush-fire.

Anyhow, when they first decided to head to Funky Town and engage in a little ‘horizontal horseplay’ I got an earful; being as the sound-proofing system between my ceiling and Jon’s floor needed a little work. So one actually existed.

I only endured that once, though. The Level 50 pneumatic-drill proof reinforced earplugs I blew half my Second Year food budget on saw me right after that.

Overall, though, the digs were endurable. I developed a thick skin to endure the daily walks through the lounge to the kitchen or bathroom, zombie-walking my way through the cyclone of tobacco smoke that regularly had to be negotiated.

It was pointless having a shower, unless I dashed out the back door and round to the front of the house (hopefully remembering the key) to avoid smelling the same as when I entered.

But I survived and lived to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for my academic ambitions.

In Year Two, we had to focus in on two of the four First Year subjects – and I opted for English Literature and Sociology. The tank-sized English-French dictionary finally had to be U-Hauled to a new home.

We had six courses – three in each – and I was interested in… none of the six, really. My heart was set on trying to make it as a golfer – and much of my time was spent either taking lessons in Newcastle-under-Lyme (not to be confused with its sister town: Newcastle-over-Lemon) or practicing my wedge-play on a nearby strip of park.

As a result, my academic work was seriously neglected – and by the time the crucial end-of-year exams arrived, I was going to need a minor miracle to make it through to Year Three.


Saturday, 29 December 2012

#71: It's a Wonderful (Dog's) Life — Part Two

At the West Vancouver home of Rosemary and Donald Pilkington, the family are relaxing in the lounge. There’s high school principal Rosemary, real estate lawyer husband Donald, children Michael (15), Sarah (12), and Cody (9) – plus faithful Golden Retriever Chester, who's lying on his side lapping up the heat from the crackling log fire.

Suddenly Chester starts whimpering in his sleep…

"Donald – do you think Chester is OK?”

“Yes, I’m sure he’s fine. Dreaming about that cocker spaniel again, no doubt. Just as long as he’s not passing gas. This room hasn’t been the same since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s almost as if he can understand English and mistook the movie title for a command."

“Oh, leave poor Chester alone,” said Rosemary, defending the Pilkingtons' pet pooch of seven years. “I think the Christmas turkey was a bit off. My stomach was a bit iffy afterwards, too."

“Mummy, Mummy! Look – Chester’s wearing a sombrero! He’s a Mexican Retriever!”

“Take that hat off him, Cody! Stop annoying Chester. Let him snooze in peace."

(“Yes, stop that Cody. Like that’s really going to make a difference. He doesn’t take a blind bit of notice of your directions, Rosemary. You’ve got to discipline him more. Well, period. Wait for it, here comes the handlebar moustache…)

“Look Mummy, Chester’s got a muss-dash!”

“Cody! Go and play with your new lego set. And don’t leave any pieces lying around, as Chester may eat them.”

(Eat lego? What do you take me for? How am I going to digest that? Perhaps more easily than the turkey, which was a bit undercooked, but still. Actually, us dogs have digestive systems of steel, what am I talking about. Lego, here I come!) 

Animal Planet comes on the TV, featuring Bactrian camels. British wildlife presenting legend Sir David Attenborough is the guest commentator…

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds. 

#70: It's a Wonderful (Dog's) Life — Part One

In a park, a few miles west of Vancouver, one short shadowy four-legged figure spots another engaging in a bit of business…

"Hey Chester! What you doin' over there?"

"None of your GODDAMN--oh HEY Buster, how's it going?" Chester replied, frantically pawing out a small hole in the earth to bury his transaction before trotting over to greet his buddy Buster.

"Not bad,” said Buster. “Just been kicking back with a Winalot Prime smoothie and cleaning my balls most of the afternoon. Golf balls. I got a new set for Christmas. It's nice to have time for some of life's more meaningful pleasures. How was your Christmas? Get up to anything much?”

“Oh, you know. The usual,” said Chester. “The kids dressing me up in a santa hat, ski goggles and tinsel, then taking photos and posting them on Facebook. Lots of family walks in the woods. Some good leftover turkey. And we also watched Chitty Chitty Bark Bark for the 59th time. I passed a lot of gas during that, which livened up proceedings.”

“Woof-woof! High-five! (they strike paws, but it’s more of a LOW-five. Balance is a bit of an issue with their horizontal statures). Yes, it’s a good movie ‘n’ all – but there’s only so much of Dick Van Dog’s over-the-top jovialty I can take, too.”

A couple of people appear on the trail, heading straight towards the Golden Retriever and Liver-spotted dalmation who, but for the fact they were canines, could have been mistaken for being engaged in conversation…

"Yeah, I know what you mean. Oh wait – here come some humans—BARK! BARK! BARK! WOOF! WOOF! BARK! BARK! WOOF! BARK! BARK! WOOF! GROWWWLLL... WOOF! BARK! BARK! HOWWWWWLLL! (whispering: “Sniff my ass! Sniff my ass! It'll keep them off the scent.")

"Have they gone now? Phew, that was a close one."

“So you’re telling me that humans still think we’re communicating to each other – or them – when we bark, woof or growl… incessantly?”

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds.

#69: Me Juan, Inspired by U2 — Part Four

Confident they’d now reached a level where going retro wouldn’t be a backward step, the band threw caution to the wind for their 2005/2006 Vertigo Tour – to promote How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb – including songs which hadn’t seen the light of day since the early ’80s.

The crowds lapped up the revamped show, featuring the most diverse range of U2 tracks so far – and at least one from each of their currently released albums. The VT was a massive commercial success. And soon, another four castles were owned by Irish rock stars.

HTDAAB and its singles also won Grammy Awards in all eight categories in which U2 were nominated.

It was arguably overdue, but in 2005 The Boss himself – Mr. Bruce Springsteen – inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also said the band were due another pay rise and vowed to get right on that.

A 3-D concert film, U2 3D, encompassing footage from nine concerts during the Latin American and Australian legs of the Vertigo Tour was released in January 2008, and proved another terrific moneyspinner. Even curing fans who had vertigo.

Minor controversy struck the band in August 2006 when it stamped the Inc. on its publishing business in Holland, after the Irish artists' tax exemption was capped at €250,000.

The move was criticized in the Irish Parliament, where politicians reportedly spat-sprayed mouthfuls of tea in disgust upon hearing the news, covering Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in Earl Grey.

U2 retorted that the criticism was unfair, stating roughly 95.9785% of their business took place outside of Ireland, that they were taxed globally as a result – and that they were all “personal investors and employers” in the Emerald Isle.

To which the Irish Parliament replied: “Boo! Hiss! Blah-blah-blah! Random incoherent noise! Blah-blah!”

In March 2008, U2 signed a 12-year deal with Live Nation, the American entertainment company, worth an estimated $100 million (£50 million). Live Nation took control of the band's merchandise, sponsoring, and their official website – leaving U2 to focus on cranking out more iconic rock anthems.

The band's 12th album, No Line on the Horizon, hit retail store shelves in February 2009. Early material crafted with producer Rick Rubin made way for new, fresher tunes created during sessions with Eno and Lanois – who’d expertly produced All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Eno and Lanois also joined forces with U2 as songwriters this time, and the band explored North African music – with some of the album’s recording taking place in Fez, Morocco, as well as the U.S., UK and Ireland. The Edge experimented by wearing a fez for a couple of gigs. Fans didn't notice the difference.

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds.

Friday, 28 December 2012

#68: Me Juan, Inspired by U2 — Part Three

U2’s PopMart Tour stage featured an enormous golden arch (a dead ringer for the McDonald’s logo), a 40-foot tall mirrorball lemon, and the largest LED screen in the world.

If laid flat, Martians would have been able to watch the concerts from outer space, while munching on their Mars bars.

The tour kicked off in April 1997, with the band now all in their mid-30’s and seemingly improving with age. As well as becoming ever-more fearless. No sign of creaking bones yet.

As with Zoo TV, the idea was to rib pop culture and send a sarcastic message to those accusing U2 of commercialism. However, it backfired somewhat.

Many were confused by the band's new kitsch image and elaborate sets, while the delay in Pop's release (to actually fill the album with enough songs) drastically reduced rehearsal time for the tour.

As such, performances in some of the early shows were reminiscent of the fledgling four banging pots in Larry’s family kitchen as teenagers.

However, the memorable Sarajevo concert saved the day. U2 became the first major band to perform there after the Bosnian War. Mullen described it as an “unforgettable experience”, while Bono called the show "one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life."

Another sweet U2 career moment followed hot on the heels of the PopMart Tour. A month after it wrapped, U2 featured on the 200th episode of The Simpsons, in an episode entitled: “Trash of the Titans”. The show saw its star Homer Simpson disrupt the band in mid-flow during a PopMart concert.

Overall, Pop went down about as well as a tonne of lead balloons, forcing the band to once again retreat to their castles in Ireland and southern France – and The Edge to purchase another 300 guitars – in a bid to reinvent themselves once more.

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

#67: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Four

I stuck it out for about a month. The landlord popped round to say hi and collect the next month's rent a few nights before it was officially due. He’d heard what had happened, but understood I was OK with it now.

“I’ll have my rent in a couple of days (on the due day),” I said, a little shiftily.

“You sure you’re alright – you’re not going to do a runner on me, are you?” replied El Landlordo, perhaps smelling a rat – though I think we had at least a couple living there with us (so it could have been a dropping of poop, rather than a hint). “You know you’ve got to give a month’s notice?”

“Yes, I know," I said. "And no. Absolutely not (re. the doing a runner thing). Furthest thing from my mind. Happy to stay here for the next 20 years. Well, perhaps not quite that long.”

El Landlordo then left, apparently swallowing my story. Though if he really did believe that, he’d surely believe anything.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Two days later (following much undercover work), a silver Volvo estate turned left into a quiet Stoke street around noon and parked by a house not a million miles from mine. A gentleman and lady emerged from the car and knocked on the door of a house. The door creaked open and the couple stepped inside.

In a blur of subsequent activity, the contents of a small box room (in this random Stoke city house) were whisked out and into the boot of the silver Volvo. Possibly in under an hour. The room was given a quick clean and the house key then slotted inside an envelope, which was placed on the Welcome mat.

Ten seconds later the sound of screeching tires reverberated around the Victoria Ground and its surrounding neighbourhood, as the Volvo wheelspan out of this quiet, secluded street and headed west towards Etruria.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

The landlord’s suspicions proved accurate. I was out of there a day before the next month’s rent was due – thanks to some expert help from my getaway team… AKA Ma & Pa.

As we headed west towards Etruria, there was no plan. In fact, it was pretty random that we were heading in the direction of Etruria at all. I think a one-way system may have played a part in our ‘choice’.

But I needed to find a new place to live – and fast. Mum & Dad were on their way to spend a weekend with friends in Derbyshire (I was also joining the party), so we were trying to squeeze this getaway/relocation AQAP (Q obviously standing for quickly).

Basically our strategy was to drive around a selection of Stoke-on-Trent suburbs, keeping our eyes peeled for any "Roommate Wanted" or "Room for Rent" signs/ads.

We tried a couple, with no response. Then found ourselves in Etruria, creeping round a few dodgy looking streets and trying hard not to look too much like curb-crawlers.

Suddenly, crawling down a steep side-street, we spotted a sign in a window: Room for Rent.

The neighbourhood appeared to have recently been involved in a nuclear war of some description. However, it was our best (read: only) option so far – and, as such, worth a shot.

A sign on the front door read: Accessed Round the Back. Meaning the front door likely opened into a room; used as a bedroom; and likely soon to be used by yours truly if the price (both financially and spiritually) wasn’t too high a one to pay.

We parked up and headed around the back of the house, walking up an alley which looked like it had a few stories to tell, and through a rickety wooden gate into a cramped back-yard.

I was worried knocking on the back door would cause it to collapse into dust. But thankfully it clung to its hinges, before a smiling chap with glasses answered our call and offered a shrill “Hello there!” in a broad Irish accent.

The chap was Mark, a 24-year-old economics student from Dublin (he'd later make no bones about the fact he was essentially just here – as in, at Staffs Uni – to drink; and the economics course was his vehicle/excuse/diversion to make that happen).

Mark lived there with his buddy Jon, a chemistry student from Dudley who had one leg shorter than the other – and thus a permanent limp. The two had shared a hall of residence in their Year One.

They were looking for a room-mate to round out the landlord’s desired quota – and, sure enough, the front room (featuring the front door) was the one on offer.

Mark gave me a quick tour of the house, which featured a living room/dining room downstairs (in addition to the front ‘bedroom’); leading into a narrow kitchen then bathroom at the back of the house.

It was clear Mark and Jon were both Olympic standard smokers as well as drinkers, and the chances of cigarette 'steam' seeping under the door into my room were high.

But I thought I could make it work. And considered all these ‘challenges’ part of the university experience. We’d also essentially run out of search-time.

So I took the room.

We unloaded all my belongings via the front door – and I agreed to go with Mark to see the landlord and sort out the paperwork the following Monday (this was a Friday).

I was now ready to start Year Two of university. At the new, improved Staffordshire University.

And this was where the fun really started.


#66: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Three

Just as becoming a member of the D.E.N. Club had not proved a dream-wrecker when it came to bagging a 'university' place, failing French in the First Year turned out to be ce n'est pas grave.

I studied hard for the resit, in-between checking out Eddie the Eagle's launching pad in Calgary, hanging out with my family in Edmonton and fostering an addiction to Pebble Beach Mini-(/Crazy) golf in West Ed Mall.

Man, that game was fun. I think my buddy Ant agreed after the first round. Perhaps not so much after the 19th.

On the flight home I (of course) did the lion's share of studying/revising for the French resit (98.7% or so) and felt ready-to-go when I travelled up to Stoke a couple of weeks before the start of the new term (the arts department had moved 30 minutes up the M6 to the Staffs city of Stoke-on-Trent).

Stoke, considered the home of the UK's pottery industry, is now perhaps more famous for being the home town of British pop star Robbie Williams – the on-off-on-off member of Take That.

I thought I did OK in the French resit which, as anyone who's ever taken an academic exam knows, meant I could just as easily have aced it, scraped a pass or emphatically flunked it.

As it turned out, I at the very least scraped a pass – woohoo! All that hard last-minute cramming—I mean, work flying over The Rockies had been worth it.

Within days we all met up for a Year Two orientation/briefing. Where I was promptly told we'd have been allowed 'back in' to take Year Two even if we'd set a new World Record for failing the French resit in the most spectacular fashion.

UNBELIEVABLE. I sacrificed watching Cruise & Nicholson go at each other hell-for-leather in A Few Good Men (four times in a row on the in-flight movie loop) for the sake of that French resit. What the hell!
~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Anyway, I was in for Year Two of my Modern Studies degree – at the newly named/‘upgraded’ Staffordshire University.

Moving to Stoke had meant leaving most of my Year One buddies behind in Stafford. I’d been placed in halls there with fellow computer science or tech degree geeks – and their department was staying put in Stafford.

Which meant I had to find new digs in the 'big' city.

The city of Stoke-on-Trent is essentially a cluster of six smaller towns: Stoke-upon-Trent (or just Stoke), Burslem, Tunstall, Longton, Fenton and the main commercial/city centre Hanley.

Staffs Uni (as it now was) had its Stoke-ON-Trent campus based in Stoke-UPON-Trent (Confused yet? I sure am) – the city’s namesake town and home to the city council. Needless to say, UPON wasn’t entertainment central.

However, rents were cheap – and it seemed the obvious place to set up camp for Year Two.

While finishing off Year One, I answered an ad for a house-share in Stoke (the town), sharing with a pair of female students.

I caught the train from Stafford one Saturday and was met by one of the girls (the one who’d drawn the short straw of finding a third house-mate for the upcoming school year).

She seemed pleasant enough (my Bunny Boiler Detection System wasn’t bleeping like a metal detector at any point) and the house was located near the Victoria Ground – Stoke City Football (/Soccer) Club’s former home (1878-1997) – which was enticing for a football lover.

The house was small – a terrace/two-up-two-down – but pretty standard fare for a terraced house in a UK city. The ‘two-down’ portion also featured a box room at the front of house. So-called, because you could fit a box in it. Just. Providing it was a shoe-box.

Anyhow, I was offered one of the two upstairs (decent-sized) rooms. And, after mulling it over for a day or two, decided to take the plunge. How big a risk/gamble could it possibly be?

Fast-forward to the week before Year Two commences. My parents drove me up from Gloucestershire and we arrived at the house. I’d had a key sent to me, so entered and briskly marched up the stairs to say hi to my new room. Only to find I had company.

I’m not sure if the Showgirl had promised both of us (her friend and I) the same room, or had got cold feet if ‘supposedly’ agreeing to take the box room herself. But she (Showgirl, I soon had confirmed) was now occupying the room I’d been promised – and her friend was in the one opposite.

Leaving me with the… box room, downstairs. Right.

Aside from the fact I’d been royally screwed in terms of room allocation, all my worldly possessions (or those I was carting along with me for Year Two of university) took up slightly more space than a shoebox.

As such, I needed a shoehorn to fit my bed, desk, chest of drawers and other student 'essentials' (or all that other crap, as they're also known) into the box room.

Holy Mamma. This predicament was definitely not in the script.

Perhaps Showgirl was a psychology major and her strategy involved believing I’d eventually come round to the idea of the box room? Providing I could actually get back out of it again once inside, presumably.

In two words: Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah. No.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

#65: Two Degrees of Separation — Part Two

There was method to my apparent rashness. I stumbled upon a loophole in the system.

A new friend – and fellow esteemed member of the D.E.N. club, as I recall – had learned it was possible to switch courses.

As in, abandon the science-based computer geeking which had us dozing off before we’d opened a textbook in earnest, and swim back across the River Sow to the hearty homeland of the arts dept. And choose a course which would… have us dozing off before we’d opened a textbook in earnest. But was at least a subject we were vaguely interested in.

Staffs Poly offered a degree course called Modern Studies. Or Mickey Mouse Studies, as my room-mate Ian christened it.

Modern Studies was essentially A Level subjects (or most of those offered at the latter level) in degree form. With a few quirky additional options thrown in for good measure.

The course was structured so you took four different subjects in Year One; then specialized in two from Year Two. I opted for International Relations; English Lit., Sociology and, so my wardrobe-sized English-French dictionary didn’t go to waste, French.

The college had no issue with us switching from one subject which potentially offered very real career prospects – to another which would turn out to be largely useless on the ‘other side’… unless you were shooting for a career as a lecturer teaching Modern Studies at a B Grade ‘university’.

I was extremely focused in Year One of my degree. On golf, football and trying to woo Vicky, a Latin-American/Indian beauty with amazing eyes. First time living away from home. Independence. Freedom. Time to go crazy. Well, sort of.

Just before heading 90 minutes north to Stafford, I shot my best round to date – 81 – and so my golf clubs got their own spot in my hall dorm.

My second day there, I ventured out to the nearby Stafford Castle Golf Club, dragging a buddy Paul (who I'd met at the Uni opening night get-together) along for the ride as my caddy.

The golf addiction would only gain momentum during my time at Staffs Poly.

On the football (/soccer) front, I met another John (Reber) early on, during trials for the university team (one of us made it; and he was called John – that's all I can say).

He was also studying Mickey Mouse—I mean, Modern Studies and helped launch a course team, which I managed to bag a place on. We did battle against rival subjects once a week, and the matches were a welcome escape from the drudgery of the academic stuff. At least from my perspective.

Our shirts were AC Milan colours – red and black vertical stripes – and I don’t recall exactly how we attained them (though the words “back”, “lorry”, “falling”, and “off” may have played a part in the answer).

We also got the letters “BMS” proudly printed on the front of our shirts. As in, “Bachelor (of) Modern Studies”. Or “Bare Minimum (of) Study”, which was what we actually had running underneath the bold acronym.

I’m not sure BMS won many trophies, but we famously took the honours in a grudge match against F.C. BS (Bachelor of Sociology). Those guys were full of it.

And then there was Vicky. The object of my affections for at least the first three weeks of Year One.

Vicky caught my eye the first time I saw her. She was shy but sultry, and an apparent blend of Latin-American and Indian genes.

Rich, penetrating brown eyes, that could melt a marsh mellow at 10 paces (I know this as I got her to try it, claiming it was part of an International Relations project).

Vicky was generally chaperoned by her 'agent' Susan, who I got on well with, but never foresaw as a potential partner in unrestrained jiggery-pokery.

After those three weeks, I finally plucked up the courage... to ask Susan to ask Vicky out for me. She politely declined – and slapped a metaphorical restraining order on me.

At which point I took some time out before planning my next romantic disaster.

The rest of the First Year whizzed by in a flash (for the purposes of wrapping up this column). I did, however, make great progress… on the pool table (famously thrashing a Tom Cruise lookalike 3-0 in my halls of residence) and on the golf course, where I swished wildly with a Des Lyman lookalike and friends, once a week.

Cramming the night (or perhaps week) before, I was able to secure grade C’s for International Relations, English Lit. and Sociology in the end-of-year exams. All I needed was something similar in French to move on to Year Two, and… D’oh! (French for D’oh!).

I failed French.

I recall my oral exam was pretty bad. My strategy of filling gaps where I didn’t know the words (there were a lot of these) with “Hon-hee-hon-hee-hon” in the style of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther cartoons seemed to backfire spectacularly.

Which meant I had to study/revise during my '92 summer trip to Canada (for a resit).

And take my sofa-sized (English-French) dictionary along for the ride.


#64: Two Degrees of Separation — Part One

Throughout high school, the Holy Grail – or so we were led to believe – was university.

Netting a place at either a university or polytechnic and then studying hard (the night before Finals) to gain a hallowed degree was faithfully endorsed as the key to securing a dream job; dream life and living happily ever after.

As I had no better plan, I put faith in this strategy, studying hard (mostly the night before) at St. Peter's High to get my GCSE's (the UK system's first tier of high school exams and the replacement for O Levels) aged 16 (plus maths a year earlier) – which secured entry into the SPHS Sixth Form Centre. And the right to tackle A Levels.

Unfortunately, right around this time – in fact, two months before my GCSE's – I discovered golf.

This was pretty bad. Not so much for my GCSE's – but for my A Levels. I'd obviously done most of the work for the former.

The A Levels were a virtual write-off. I was too busy grooming my back-swing when I should have been chaining myself to a desk and discussing why European leaders of the early 20th Century were all corrupt, follically-challenged dictator-types.

As such, I screwed my A Levels up. I was a member of the DEN club: D-E-N. D for English Literature (grades were A-to-E, BTW); E for history and N for Spanish.

Yes, that’s right: ‘N’ for Spanish. This supposedly stood for 'Near-miss'. As in, you Nearly claimed a barrel-scraper (grade E). Which just seemed like rubbing salt in the wound created by my golf addiction.

The argument behind awarding an 'N' was something like: "Well, you Nearly failed outright and got Ungraded. But Not quite. So if you’d like to pay 3000 British pounds and retake the exam next year with the vague hope of scraping an E (which, to all intents and purposes is just as hopeless), we’d be delighted."

I had a provisional place to do an English Language degree at the College of Ripon and York St. John (CRYSJ). CRYSJ had some vague, wiffly-waffly connection with Leeds University at the time, I recall.

It’s now known as York St. John University (most former polytechnics and colleges are now called ‘universities’ to make them sound more distinguished and less like the poor, long-lost hickster cousin of a reputable educational establishment).

However, scooping a DEN didn't quite cut the mustard at CRYSJ. I think I needed BCD to solidify my spot. Crap.

“And my other options? Do I have any? 'Clearing', you say? Tell me more.”

It turned out my university 'dream' wasn’t over (at least for the time-being), after all. A sliver of light pierced the end of the tunnel.

Even though I’d made a spectacular Horlicks of my A Levels, the UK education system featured an option called Clearing, where surplus degree spots were offered up as alternatives.

The system could be compared to the North American discount clothing store Winners, or the British equivalent Matalan, where items and sizes and colours that most of us wouldn’t be seen dead in are resold at knock-down prices. Of course, there was the odd ‘bargain’, though locating it was like searching for a needle in a haystack blindfolded.

I’m not exaggerating when I say there must have been about a million courses listed and places offered.

As such, it took a while to navigate through such gems as a Bachelor of Arts in Curtainology; a Bachelor of Science in 17th Century roof engineering or a Bachelor of Some Repute; perhaps the most eligible in the country, and possibly ripe to take the lead role in a reality TV show some 20 years later. Oh, wait a minute, the latter may have slipped onto the list by mistake.

Anyhow, it seemed like about 750,000 of the listings were offering computer science places. Often with a random language as a minor. Such as Hebrew, Schweizer-Deutsche or Kling-on.

I managed to find one that offered French – something I’d done at GCSE level (and gained a grade C in) – at Staffordshire Polytechnic.

Which I found was somewhere in the Midlands region of England (not a million miles from where I was born and spent my first 13 years), and was more of a quirky country town than a hustling-bustling big city – probably always more up my alley.

“What the hell, I’ll go for that.”

And so it was that I left the family home in Quarhouse (near Brimscombe, nr. Stroud), Gloucestershire to head to Stafford in late September, 1991. To do a BSc in Computer Science with French.

The fact that, even though I was addicted to computer gaming (on my Commodore 64; then Commodore Amiga), I had zero interest in computer science or pursuing a lifelong career in computer programming was neither here nor there.

This was all just about getting a PLACE and filling the next 3-4 years of my life with something at least vaguely worthwhile.

I invested in a few second-hand versions of the required computer course texts – and also a giant English-French dictionary that needed to be delivered by cargo van.

I was ready, willing and… able? That remained to be seen. But committed, definitely.

So I plunged head-first into a new life as a trainee computer geek soon-to-be fluent in French. Confident that this was really going to take me places. Somehow. Some way.

Then, two weeks later, I quit.


Tuesday, 25 December 2012

#63: Bite-sized Chunks of the Big Apple — Part Four

Saturday, or New York City Marathon Eve, was also International Friendship Run day. We collectively rose at just before 7, grabbed breakfast and then headed out for the party.

Walking down to the United Nations building at 1st Ave & 46th St., we passed the French, who were out in force, congregating 200-plus-strong at the New York Public Library.

I had no idea nations were gathering in such a way; all resplendent in their respective team shirts and tracksuits.  Probably just as well, though, as my loyalties would have been torn.

Our party of four zig-zagged through the Manhattan streets, following the flashing fluorescent green man – and making sure we stayed ahead of the French. Anything to get a competitive edge.

Everyone – 20,000-plus people – gathered outside the big UN building for the pre-race ceremony and presentation of the Abebe Bikila Award for outstanding contribution to distance running. Kenyan legend Paul Tergat – Geb’s former foe – was the 2010 recipient.

The run got going around 9am and took in a small slice of the downtown core, before winding its way round to Central Park, finishing just before the main marathon finish.

It was a great opportunity for nations to come together; to reinforce the spirit of the marathon (especially NYC’s) and for those that weren’t running the 26.2-miler to sample what the atmosphere would be like.

Charlotte & Tony had a blast.  It was also a nice little warm-up for the marathoners, even if we were essentially only jogging.

Mickey snapped plenty of photos en route and we got some shots with the Japanese, Finns and Dutch (well, I’m not sure we actually did with the latter, but it rounds out the story).

Mr. P. was keen to bag one of the Netherland squad’s (remarkably fetching) orange shirts and we tried to entice one member into surrendering, though he politely declined (claiming it was a collector’s item or something… which it was).

We waited for Charlotte & Tony to come through, but missed them, as they were only just behind us (32 mins to our 28 for 4k).

Jogging back down the course to search for them, we bumped into fellow Vancouverite and marathoner Brooke Spence and had a few shots taken with her at Columbus Circle.

Mickey and I then headed back to the hotel via the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble – any excuse to hang out at a book store – and the Ed Sullivan Theatre (EST), home of The Late Show With David Letterman. Now THAT was very cool… and, of course, I posed for a couple of shots. The EST took a little seeking out. But Mickey manfully sucked up my hero-worshipping, seeing that I was clearly a dog with a bone.

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds. 

#62: Bite-sized Chunks of the Big Apple — Part Three...

Friday morning we piled down for breakfast at around 8am – and I kept a look out for Mickey, who’d taken the Cathay Pacific redeye from Vancouver overnight and was due to touch down on JFK tarmac at 7am, before coming to share my room.

I anticipated he’d be at the Comfort Inn by about 9. He arrived, right on cue, then grabbed some extra zzzs, while I hit Times Square (jiving with Elmo and the Cookie Monster) and Sis and Tone headed to tourist-land to rack up the sights, courtesy of their golden New York Pass.

As I strode to Times Square, the sense of excitement and buzz upon approach was palpable. Even if you’re not really a big city guy, New York still has that inexplicable something. The old X (traordinary) Factor.

And, as I posed for a photo with one of the two Elmos – mine patrolled the West-side (we did three takes and it still came out blurry), I did a 360-scan of all the electronic billboards and thought about all the famous people that had been here – and historic moments that had taken place.

Then I got bored and headed back to the hotel, bumping into PRR legend Sukhi, and son Suchin, en route.

Back at the hotel, Mickey was up-&-about taking advantage of our free wireless internet to update his Facebook status. After I’d pried him away from his Powerbook, we headed out to the expo in early afternoon – to collect our race ‘packet’ (which makes it sound like a small parcel, though it’s usually bag-form) and stretch our legs with an extended wander round the winter wonderland of running-related stalls and booths.

While MP was governing the merchandise stands – I chugged down a few Odwalla (fruit smoothie) samples and made a beeline for the PowerBar booth.

I only needed half-a-dozen or so gels for the race, though they were offering a dozen free – if you bought a dozen first. Twenty four at $0.62 cents a gel… or eight (all I really needed) for 10 bucks? It was no contest. I couldn’t be arsed to carry the extra weight around. Plus, it might have gotten a little ugly trying to get those 16 puppies through airport security in Carry-On. Plus, I was skint.

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds.

#61: Bite-sized Chunks of the Big Apple — Part Two

This time I was pulled aside and asked if my backpack was my backpack?

“Yes,” I replied. They then asked me if I had a screwdriver in the bottom pocket? Oops. I’d clean forgotten I’d stashed it there to help remove my Shaw Cable black-box when I moved in September (even though I ended up just ripping the thing off the wall without too much of a fuss).

So I was forced to relinquish my $2 Canadian Tire (these guys are getting plugs galore) Philips special and smile nicely. After I finally got the green light to head to the Departures lounge, I removed about eight of my 15 layers of clothing (well, when you’re only Carrying-On and you have marathon kit to transport…) and headed to the gate.

We took off right on time around 9am from YVR. I shared a row with another New York marathoner, Jeff, and his wife, Christine. Jeff was frantically trying to complete his first First Half Half-Marathon registration attempt via i-Phone as we sat on the runway.

His luck was out then, but he received an e-mail while we waited for the connecting flight in Ottawa, saying he had first dibs on a spot, as his registration had been half-processed (before the system exploded due the number of people trying to enrol). So his luck was back in again.

I had KO & Rick doing the entry work on my behalf (thanks guys!) to avoid any extra franticness at the airport.  It was an Air Canada flight, so we had TV screens in the back of our seats.

Mine was on the blink, but Christine very kindly donated me hers, so I was able to kill time watching Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s comedy The Other Guys. An excellent flick and a smooth flight. Plus, blissfully, no screaming kids.

We were delayed in Ottawa a couple of hours, which was just as well as I got detained in immigration for not having an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) – part of the new US VWP (Visa Waiver Program) for foreign nationals (who aren’t Canadian Citizens).

The Air Canada guy at the YVR departure gate had said it probably wasn’t necessary, so I chose to ride my luck. Any mention of ESTA, just made me think of Esther… Rantzen (UK reference alert) – and, Sod’s Law, I did need one. That’s life, I guess... ;o)

I got released at just before 5:30pm – and raced...

To read the rest of this column, check out BC Johnny's upcoming book: Chilled Almonds.