Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Kennedy Space Center

Yes, I know that Center is an incorrect spelling, but that's what it's called so that is how you spell it.

Regardless of correct spellings, there's a story to tell. Before I went on my anti-religion rant, and before I got all steamed up about being called 'Steve', I was telling you about my recent trip to Florida. Sadly for you I hadn't quite finished. Humour me.

The first thing to say is that Kennedy Space Center is not as easy to get to as the theme parks. It's almost two hours drive away from where we were staying and it is spread across three sites, none of which are within walking distance of each other. To get the full experience you have to take the bus tour, upon which you will be shown space travel-related DVD's and spoon-fed information about the USA's space programme by knowledgeable but worryingly distracted bus drivers. Our man somehow took a wrong turn by some important-looking launch-pads, and then spent the time it took to get back on track delighting in his mistake.

First port of call on the bus tour is the Apollo/Saturn V Center. Here's where you will find out more information than you can possibly digest about the numerous Apollo missions of the 1960's and 70's. Of course this includes the historical moon landings by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and that other bloke (Michael Collins), but it also covers the doomed Apollo 13 mission documented in the film with Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise. Interestingly, the background information on Apollo 13 is tucked away behind a dining area which makes it incredibly difficult to get to, as if it's failure is something that NASA would rather you didn't go into. I made a point of squeezing through the crowds to read the information anyway. All in the interests of balance, you understand.

Impressively, the enormous rocket used in one of those early missions is the centre-piece of the display. It stretches across the entire room and is an awe-inspiring, slightly intimidating presence.

Positivity is very important at KSC. As is paranoia. Listen to their tour guides and you will find out that the US space travel programme is all about exploration, discovery and the progression of the human race. By contrast, the Russian expeditions are the result of a sinister plan to attack from above. It still irks the Americans to note that the former Soviet Union managed to put a man into space before they did. To emphasise the point we were in a bar on International Drive a couple of days later, and were talking about our visit to the singer. He expressed his concern about what the Russians 'were doing up there', before lamenting President Obama's plan to get rid of Space Shuttles because of the expense.

Maybe even Barack doesn't believe that Armstrong ever walked on the moon.

Nevertheless, the moon landings are celebrated richly here, with an impressive video and stage presentation about the mission. I never realised that the crew came so close to being fried alive, but then I recall an episode of The Simpsons in which one scene was accompanied by the caption 'Dramatisation - May Not Have Happened'. I don't suppose we'll ever know, but your writer is a natural sceptic.

The International Space Station is truly underwhelming, so we will head back to the Visitors Centre at this point. We saw an excellent 3-D IMAX presentation about space travel and walking on the moon (narrated by the ubiquitous Hanks. It was very entertaining, and I only regret that we didn't have time to see the other film in which the Hanks role goes to Leonardo Di Caprio. I don't know what happened to Sinise, though I'm sure I heard his voice at Mission: Space at Epcot. Emma's mum and dad visited the launch simulator at KSC but their view was that it was nothing like as good as the aforementioned Sinise vehicle at Epcot, which I can assure you makes you feel quite ill and turns your brain to mush. By all means experience it, just don't eat before you do.

We were fortunate enough to visit on a day when a rocket launch was planned. Twice it was postponed because there was half a cloud in an otherwise brilliant blue sky, but eventually we witnessed the launching of an actual space rocket. There was nobody in it, but watching it shoot skywards and disappear out of the atmosphere was still quite an experience. Our singer friend grumpily informed us that the rocket is part of a series of tests to see if those rockets can be manned, and thus replace the pricey shuttles. Those darn Russians............

There was just time for a quick look around a shuttle, which from the outside looked magnificent but from the inside was a bit of a disappointment. There's a platform inside so the viewing area is around the size of my front drive. To distract you from this they have exhibited a model of an astronaut complete with authentic space-suit and shuttle control pad.

Before we left the coach for the final time the driver gave me what he claimed was an exclusive, commemorative NASA coin. I don't mean to be ungrateful, but it looked like one of those chocolate coins my mum used to put on the Christmas tree with the chocolate Santas. I'm afraid I have no idea where it is but if I find it I'll have to remember not to try to eat it.

Strictly speaking KSC is a two-dayer at least. There are numerous simulators and exhibitions we didn't get to see because of time contstraints. The tour itself takes three and a half hours, and that is before you factor in rocket launches and chocolate money. Yet I'd recommend a visit to anyone, if only so you can see for yourself just how paranoid NASA and the American public can be.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Holy Crap

Religion............  Shit it!

I've stolen those words, I confess.  They were Stephen Fry's response when asked about religion in a television interview.  They also happen to express my own views on religion almost precisely.  I was reminded of how much I detest religion only yesterday (Sunday, naturally) when I attended the first Holy Communion Service of my youngest nephew Patrick.

I'm wincing when I imagine what Patrick and his family have been through.  It is not just a simple case of turn up on the day and walk off with the spoils.  Oh no.  If you want to be accepted into Catholicism (actually they don't but they have to, more on which later), you have to prove your worth.  For about as long as I can remember now my brother-in-law has terrified me with tales of rehearsals, weekend church engagements and, worst of all, having to be nice to a priest!

And not just any old priest.  I fear a lawsuit should I mention his name.  You never know, there could be more than two of you reading this.  However, what I can tell you is that whoever I have spoken to, regardless of their religious views or denominations, they have universally condemned this man.  His faults seem to range from a staggeringly misplaced arrogance, to a religious fascism and an unnverving presence around small children.  And he sings badly too.  Jeez, does he sing badly.  And he's one of those priests who, the worse he sounds, the louder he sings in blissful ignorance.  Tell me Catholics, are your priests all like that?

So back to the plot.  Why do I object to religion so much?  Where to start? I'm mindful that some (one or maybe even both) of my readers may have religious sensibilities so I may have to tone this down a little.  In a nutshell my problem with your God is that he never shows up, except perhaps to start a war.  I can't weave my tender brain around the notion that he lets bad things happen as some kind of test.  That strikes me as being a bit like me coming round to your house with a few gallons of petrol and setting you alight to test the strength of our friendship.  I'm unlikely to be invited back.  At the very least you wouldn't be buying that brand of tea that you know I like again.

My natural cynicism can't help but remind me of the bad things that your God has done.  Where was your God when my best friend died at the age of 26?  Did he do that?  Did he have a hand in the death shortly after of another of my friends aged just 30?  No, make that two aged 30.  I prefer to think not.  Science did these things, because only science and nature could be so cruel.  Naturally then it follows that if God is not responsible for the horrific things I have seen happen, nor can he take the credit for the happiness and joy I have experienced.  He did not send me Emma.  He did not get me a job in the funniest barn yard in Britain.  He did not keep my family fit and well for so long.  Fate did all of these things.

What makes me especially queasy about religion is it's desperate attempts to hold on to power and influence in society.  It's awful beyond my comprehension that Patrick and the other children in his class have to go through this brainwashing facade so that their parents can get them into the school of their choice.  The government play a role in this of course, but in forcing children to belt out 'Our God Reigns' in a tuneless manner until they are old enough to know better, the church is desperately clinging on to it's relevance.  It's like a mad gunman taking hostages until it gets what it wants.  Except nobody dies.  Well, at least not until God decides to test their faith in him.  Tea anyone?

Eye-bulgingly, God even goes begging.  Blow me if a woman didn't come around with a velvet bag intended for the reception of our coins.  At one point I thought it was the FA Cup Third Round draw.  Number 52........Southend United..........will play number 13..............Tranmere Rovers.  Emma actually put money in.  Ok, so it was only 45p, but honestly I would rather donate my hard earned (ok earned) money to the IRA.  Amusingly, my Dad seperated all his copper coins from his golden nuggets and big silvers, only to drop the wrong pile into the bag.  The priest's flight to Las Vegas leaves just after last mass next Sunday.

In trying to find the root of all of this anti-religious hatred (for I hate God every bit as much as he loves me but don't worry, he's already forgiven me) I think it might hark back to a trip to Lourdes I took as a child.  Just because all of my mates had been I wanted in.  My abiding memory of the trip is of noticing not a single person emerge from the font of alleged miracles in possession of a miracle.  Not only that, but the statue of Mary steadfsastly refused to weep.  Recently, my Mum has been telling the story of how I told her that Sue, the person responsible for my care during the trip, kept coming back to the room drunk at 3 in the morning.  I have no idea whether this is true or whether it is just something that a nine-year-old might say just for the attention.  If it is not true, may I take this opportunity to apologise to Sue but if you are going to take me to France bothering non-existent Gods then there are going to be consequences!

Religion................Shit it!

Monday, 5 July 2010

My Name Is Not Steve

I've always considered myself the sort of person who would never worry about his name. I'm the son of a man called Donald after all, so who cares what people call me, right?

Well yes, but I can't help but get irritated by the use of the name 'Steve'. Maybe it is because I'm getting older and therefore grumpier about such a trivial matter, but I truly do detest it. I rarely pull anybody up for referring to me by this repugnant version of my name, but that is mostly because I can't be arsed and not, as you might think, because I think being called Steve is cool.

Coolness is not high on my list of life's priorities, but then there is no need to make such an uncool person even less cool by calling him Steve. I can't think of a single cool person called Steve. Go on, name me a cool person called Steve. Coogan? One great character and an array of embarrassing attempts to match it. The Richard Ashcroft of comedy, if you will.

Or how about Steve McClaren? The former England manager is hardly the epitome of cool. It doesn't matter how many titles he wins in Holland, Germany or any other league in which they spit in each other's mullets, for the English McClaren will be forever remembered as the man who failed to take us to Euro 2008. The enduring image of McClaren is of the Wally with the Brolly, standing there non-plussed in the rain while his England team were denied a ticket to Austria and Switzerland by a combination of the kind of ineptitude we have just seen from the class of 2010 in South Africa and the goalkeeping skills of Scott Carson.

I might be alone in this but Steve Carrell doesn't shout 'cool' at me either. In stark contrast to Coogan, Carrell has had a number of similarly successful comedy roles, but none reside in the same stratosphere as the genius of Partridge. Carrell's comic creations are mildly rib-tickling, causing the kind of laughter you might force out if someone you really fancied made a reasonably glib remark. You can apply all of that to Steve Martin too. Martin's comic career is such that the last time I saw him on television he was playing banjo with his hill-billy friends on Later With Jools Holland. Jools is a much cooler name all around.

Steve Davis, Steve Guttenburg, Steve O, The Adonis Steve Beaton, Steve Naive, Steve Strange, Steve (insert your own adjective that clearly is not a surname here). None of these people are to be admired or copied. For every world title won by Davis there is an insurance advert, just as for every scene in Police Academy 29 that made you laugh there is one which caused you to hide behind the sofa in fear of the bloody slaughter of comedy. Steve is not cool, ok, so bloody well stop calling it me this instant!

There aren't many Stes outside St.Helens, so consider instead the relative coolness of people called Stephen. Stephen Fry is perhaps the greatest living Englishman, able to act, write, present, run away from a job and dance the fandango with the best of them. Stephen Hawking is widely renowned for his brilliant scientific mind, proof indeed that you do not have to be able to feed yourself to be able to make a lasting contribution to mankind. Stephen King is among the best selling novelists in the world, while Stephen Hendry's prowess on the snooker table makes even that of Davis look modest. Steven Gerrard (ok, so we're haggling over spelling now) is a prat, but an immensely talented prat. A prat talented enough to be able to drag a bunch of relative pub players up to the level of European champions in 2005, and then to score two superhuman goals in the FA Cup final a year later, one of which came deep into injury time when he was walking at about the same pace as I do.

God forbid also that we forget Steven Spielberg, without who we wouldn't have Jaws, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future or middle aged men who think beards look good.

As I reach the end of my breathless ranting I have finally thought of one man called Steve who deserves all our respect and admiration. Steve Prescott MBE is without question one of the most inspirational figures around today, especially for folk like myself living in rugby league areas where his influence and astounding courage are most prominent. Yet without name dropping I have met him on several occasions, and can't help but get the feeling that it was the sports media who christened him Steve. His name is Ste. Or Precky, but unlike me he is far too classy an individual to rant and rave about being called Steve.

Too cool, for sure.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Baseball

Along with peanut butter and jelly, buttermilk pancakes and driving on the wrong side of the road, baseball is just something that you have to try while you are in America.

It's unlikley to ever be popular in the UK, but what I can say about it is that it is a good deal more accessible than Premier League football. And I'm not talking about wheelchairs here. A ticket for a game at Tropicana Field, St.Petersburg, home of the Tampa Bay Rays costs around $18 dollars. This is roughly £12, a quarter of the price you would have to stump up to see messrs Gerrard, Rooney and Drogba in league action.

And you can't say you are not getting your money's worth. A game of baseball takes around three hours to complete and, unlike other sports this has nothing to do with time-outs. While NBA basketball is hopelessly peppered with stoppages for tactical discussions, baseball has a rhythm more similar to T20 cricket. Nine innings, three outs per inning, and at the end of the ninth (or the bottom of the ninth as the locals would have it) the team with the most runs wins. It's rounders with razzamatazz, but what's so wrong with that?

Happily we visited Tropicana Field at a time when the Rays were going well. They have been pegged back a little since, but at the time of our visit to see them take on the Chicago White Sox they led their division and had the best win/loss record in MLB. They didn't let us down here either, winning 8-5 against an average looking White Sox outfit. Ok, so maybe the result should come at the end of the piece, but this is baseball. The result is not really the point.

Food on the other hand, is. One in three Rays fans seemed to turn up late, and carried with them a turkey leg the size of a baseball bat. Anyone with decent hand-eye co-ordination could easily have carried their turkey leg down to the plate and swished the White Sox pitcher out of the park. Well, they could on the kind of form he was in. I declined the turkey, but instead bought an infeasibly large tray of nachos, smothered with cheese aswell as the traditional baseball diet, a hot dog. The cheese was the thickest I have ever seen or tasted, and was more like sauce. You needed a spade to get to the nachos, but the hot dog went down every bit as well as I had expected.

Hot dogs have other uses at Tropicana Field. Between innings a man would walk around the stadium shooting free t-shirts out of a huge hot-dog shaped gun. What is it with Americans and guns? And hot dogs? And T-shirts. The crowd lapped it up anyway, but alas I have to report that the wheelchair area is too high above the field for any free merchandise to have headed my way. On the plus side, this meant that I was safe from the stray baseballs which regularly find their way into the crowd. Nobody in the history of baseball has ever hit a ball far enough to have been able to hit me on the head that night.

Not even Evan Longoria. The Rays third-base man is no relation to the similarly named actress apparently, but has a sufficiently amusing moniker to entertain the hecklers when he strikes out. On this night he was in terrific form, hitting the ball at least.........ooohhhh, four times, though he did misfield on 'defence' once or twice. Other Rays players who endure persistent name calling are BJ Upton and Reid Brignac. I'll leave the kind of abuse afforded to Upton to your own imagination.

Following the game was the alleged bonus of some live music. Unfortunately, it was provided by Hall and Oates, they of 'Maneater' and 'I Can't Go For That' infamy. Emma's dad, who is a man at the right sort of age to be enthused at this prospect, was the first among us to wilt under the strain of Darryl and John's incessant whailing. He needed to get out, which pretty much meant the rest of us did also. All of which meant leaving behind half a can of industrial strength Budweiser (why is it so much stronger over there?) and heading back towards Orlando. I fell asleep, possibly due to the Budweiser, and can only remember waking up outside the gates of the villa and wondering why it had only taken five minutes to drive 120 miles.