Friday, December 31, 2010

A rare film review post

I don't much care for film. Sad but true. Most movies could easily be packed into one hour, and so they should be. And it would be cheaper if they were on tv. So they should be. I mostly find films too long.

But Christmas is the season for watching movies, I guess. So this year I've relented and watched a few on DVD.

1. The Toy Story set:

I bought Buddy a box set of the Toy Story movies. I watched the first one. Meh. Napped through the second. And watched the third. Brilliant. Dang if that wasn't one of the most well-constructed, sentimental, and perfectly paced films I've seen in a long time. Funny, too.

This broke our one-family Disney boycott (for their support of more restrictive copyright laws).

2. In Bruges

After we went to Bruges (that's in Belgium), people kept telling me I should see In Bruges - a tale of two hit men hanging out in (yeah, you guessed it Bruges). Even people who know I don't like films told me to see this. When I saw the DVD going for cheap in a supermarket, I bought it and just finally got around to watching it. It finishes up pretty gory and there is certainly some silliness in props and plots, but boy does it capture Bruges. It was like a video memory of our little trip to Bruges - if we'd gone as Mr Pink and the rest of the Reservoir Dogs crew.

And it was well worth it for just for the Belgian joke (I won't spoil it) and a hilarious case of mistaken identity. If you've ever been to Bruges, I highly recommend this film - it'll remind you of all the precious moments you spent in the old town. Like - oh look - a gun fight where we had lunch or awww a suicide/murder moment where we stopped and let Buddy play. He had such a lovely time on that slide.

Down the chute

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Things to do in London with time on your hands

The writing has been on the wall for some time. It was in red, in parentheses and had minus signs out in front. The public sector purse has run dry. The money's all gone. It was fun while it lasted, but like a sailor on shore leave we blew through it all on fripperies and whores (i.e. consultants)*.

Of course, it's not actually as bad as all that. Projected spending cuts are only taking us back a few years in terms of public sector spending. And let's face it, when certain regions of the UK have over 70% of their GDP as public sector spending something is seriously unbalanced. It isn't sustainable.

But where I work, and I work on the public pound, they are taking an axe to the payroll. I haven't had my P45 (pink slip) yet, but let's just say I don't see where I fit in the new organisation. Which is a shame, as I'm doing some really good work and I am excellent value for money (I would say that, wouldn't I). That doesn't mean things can't change or that there maybe still isn't a place for me where I work, but it does mean that I'm not there for just any job. No individual is indispensable, but staying on the same path isn't the only way to achieve what you want.

So what will I do with time on my hands:

1. I will take a step back from public life to concentrate on spending more time with my family. And I mean that with depth of sincerity of any politician...

2. I will become a kitten farmer**. When we were in the market for a new cat, I couldn't believe how much a regular old cat went for in London. Or how hard it is to get a cat from a shelter. We had to go through a RIGOROUS interview process and pay for the privilege before we got our (excellent) cat from Battersea. All I have to do is drive to the regions and pick up a breeding pair and in a matter of a couple of months, I'll be raking in the cash. Plus, there will be an infinite array of cute kittens which I shall capture on video and post to my blog for advertising revenue. I hear that the Internet loves kittehs.

Otis as a kitten

3. I will become a reality tv star. With more and more channels all the time, there's more and more need for reality tv. And I'm more than ready. The Vol-in-Law thinks we may be a bit boring for a reality show, but I don't think so. I'm sure we'll learn to play up for the camera. And we have a cute kid who I can teach some cute catch phrases - he's already saying "Watchyou talkin' bout?" and "Go on, go on" - two catch phrases that have worked well in sit-coms. Plus, all those kittens!

4. I will finally take the plunge and pursue my dream career of country music star. I will not let my lack of musical talent hold me back. I will be wearing a lot of fringe and beaded shirts and exotic skin cowboy boots. Oh yeah.

5. I will market my skills elsewhere. My passion for better governance is unabated. And since I love what I do and love working with a lot of the people that I work with - the passionate and inspired ones anyway - both inside and outside my current organisation, I want to keep on doing that. And I'll find a way.

* actually that isn't entirely true - there was some genuine improvement as measured by the targets and PIs which were determined centrally as well as some good local stuff, too. But this performance was often bought at a high price without much in the way of sustainability if the money's all gone.

** an ethical kitten farmer, not a news-at-6 type kitten farmer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

He wants to be bad

I used to be a performance management guru. No. Really. Anyway, one of the things that I really stressed was communicating performance expectations. You can't expect people to perform to a certain standard unless you tell them what that standard is. Too often there's an un-communicated ideal, and it's really no surprise when people fail to live up to that.

But I'm not saying that it's easy to articulate that, as managers or teachers or team members we often don't know exactly what we want. Or as parents. For the boy, on a day to day basis, it's hard for me to remember to spell out exactly what kind of behavior I want. But yesterday, I did and I was rewarded with a good boy.

The boy had been begging to see Peppa Pig's Party, a play for children staged in a central London theatre. Peppa Pig is a popular cartoon in the UK, featuring a precocious little piggie and her little brother George, Mommy Pig, Daddy Pig and a array of friends (Suzie Sheep, Pedro Pony, Danny Dog). If you haven't seen it, here's a nice bootleg clip from YouTube.

It was heavily advertised on buses and even a flier on the door to his nursery. I made some vague promises about going to see it, but the boy knows our track record on such things and continued to make a fuss. I finally caved in and bought tickets for the 28th of December (and just as well I did, as only seats with 'limited view' were still available). I showed him the ticket receipt. I marked it on the calendar. I think he was almost as excited about Peppa Pig as he was about Christmas in general.

The night before, I was set out my expectations. That we had to get out on time so we could pick up our tickets at the box office. And that this meant he had to get dressed without argument (a common problem). He had to be very good and not run off while we were in town. And that during the performance he had to stay seated and be quiet.

The next morning he begged to get dressed. He stuck with me through complicated Underground line changes. He stayed seated on the train. We arrived slightly ahead of schedule and picked up our ticket. He didn't run off when we got to Piccadilly Circus, although he did check out the map (his latest obsession). He did ask for a light up toy they were selling at a concession stand, but since he'd behaved so well through our labrynthian travels through the many stairs of the grand old subterranean Criterion Theatre.

We got to our seats so early, I thought there might be trouble, but the Peppa Pig spinner I bought for him kept him occupied for the half hour we waited for the show to start. Ridiculous amount of money well spent.

spinner we bought at Peppa Pig's Party

He sat quietly throughout the performance. A little too quietly perhaps, as there were many calls for audience participation and when I was singing and clapping he told me to stop. "Shhh, mommy quiet," and he held a finger over his mouth. And "Stop singing,".

Afterwards he asked for a Krispy Kreme donut when I stopped into a local store for some ibuprofen. (The performance was good but it was loud.) He was good in the bookstore and good on the long-ish walk to Green Park (a station from which we could travel without complicated underground changes). He had a tiny melt-down in Fortnum and Mason's (a luxury food and hamper store) which meant we didn't buy any over-priced fruit candy or Turkish delight which I'd had my eye on. But we had a lovely time opening all the sample pots of select teas and smelling the darjeeling.

We had a brief little wander through Green Park, feeding the pigeons with the leftover from my donut (too sweet and icky). And when the donut was all gone, we turned on the spinner and they took off with a woosh. It turns out that pigeons are very scared indeed of small boys wielding Peppa Pig light up spinners.

feeding the pigeons in Green Park

For a three and half year old boy on a big day out in town on the busy streets of London he behaved incredibly well. And I told him so. And later on that night, I told his dad, too in his hearing about how impressed I was. But that's when his conduct took a turn for the worse. He was clearly upset by this. It's as if he doesn't mind being good when it suits him, but he'd rather have the reputation of a bad boy. Can't imagine where he gets that.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas lies


I was never sure how I was going to handle the whole Santa Claus thing with a child. I like Santa as a concept in "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus" kindness in people's hearts kind of way. But I don't like Santa in the "We must all tip toe around this great fiction and go to great lengths to preserve this collective lie or else it will ruin Christmas" kind of way.

It's clear that the nursery the boy attends has gone to some great lengths to fill their heads with tales. The boy has come back talking of "Father Christmas" and if he's coming and when he's coming and nothing at all of Santa. I have indulged in a little bit of "maybe Santa will bring it" when he pesters me over some longed-for toy.

Of course, I did issue some big whoppers this Christmas. One in particular over the Fisher Price Imaginext Space Shuttle that's been heavily advertised over the past several months. I did buy him the space shuttle, but unfortunately the boy spotted it and wanted it straight away. "Sorry," I said. "That's a present for another boy, but maybe you'll get one. Maybe Santa will bring it." There were a lot of tears, but eventually the boy gave up. "That's for another boy," he said a bit forlornly and eventually stopped mentioning it at all.

Except when I asked him what he was getting for me. "What do you think Mommy wants?" I asked. "A white space rocket," he replied confidently.

On Christmas morning the Space Shuttle was opened and I snapped the moment of reveal. I may be reading too much into it, but I think something on his face isn't just the joy of receiving the longed for toy. I think there's a bit of "I knew it! This was for me all along."

Christmas morning

The biggest lie of all
I did tell another Santa related lie at Christmas. This was on a trip into town. We were riding the Underground. The boy loves to sit on the flip down seats on the Northern Line. And near the flip down seats by the sliding doors is the passenger alarm. It's red, it has a pull down handle and it must be down right near irresistible to a little lad.

Here's what happens if you pull the passenger alarm. The train stops. The driver must leave the driving box at the front and traverse the length of the train to investigate and re-set the alarm. And then he/she must weave back through all the cars and people and their luggage to get the train moving again. It causes delay. It makes the driver grumpy. It makes the passengers grumpy. You may be fined, and you might well be subject to some kind of withering announcement over the train loud speakers. And you will definitely be the subject of some under-breath mutterings of a most unpleasant nature.

But the boy didn't know all that. All the boy knew was that it was an interesting looking contraption which begged tactile exploration.

"Hey, Buddy - don't touch that!" I lurched forward and covered it with my hands. As he was trying to pry my fingers away, we were attracting the horrified stares of our fellow passengers who all wished to get to their destinations without any further delay.


"Well, uh - because..." and I faltered. If I told him that it would make the train stop would that just make it a more attractive proposition? Would he just long to pull it even more? All that power, making the train stop. I could see the worried looks around me as fellow Londoners understood my predicament.

Improper Use

"Because if you pull that, Santa will DIE."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ice to the eskimos

ice lit up, originally uploaded by London looks.

This morning I accepted a package from a failed delivery to a neighbour's house. Normally I'm happy to do this, but today it was against my better judgment given that package was HUGE and took up a substantial portion of my tiny house's entrance way. I had fears of it lingering in our house over Christmas.

The box said it was an 'air cooler' a little portable air conditioner, but obviously what was inside the box had to be different. After all, we've had record cold lately and although today was the first in a while that it's been above freezing for a bit, I'd hardly say it was tropical. I relented because it was probably somebody's Christmas present or a whole bunch of Christmas presents and I'd have hated for it to go back to depot turning me into the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Thankfully my good deed was rewarded when a few hours later my neighbour (who, this being London I would not have been able to pick out of a line up) arrived to pick up his giant parcel. He was surprised by the size and told me "I ordered this one because our house is very hot."

I must have looked at him strangely. "It's hot in our house," he explained "it's not good for me."

OK. Merry Christmas, I said.

It really was an air conditioner. Ordered in December and apparently to be used in December in the snowiest coldest December in London in living memory.

I was imagining that they're running some kind of marijuana/cannabis farm inside their terraced house to produce such heat. Otherwise, just open a window, my friend.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and its most visible champion, is under house arrest on a beautiful country estate in the east of England. He's wanted for questioning in Sweden in relation to complaints of sexual assault.

In my day to day work life, I'm a proponent of open government. More open data, more open governance, more open, more open, more open. But clearly there are limits*. But where those limits are is not clear. People like Julian Assange and other open government activists are playing an important role in campaigning for more openness. They are muck-rakers and there can't be significant change without stirring up a little muck.

But how much muck is too much? And oughtn't there be a little discrimination in the muck that's stirred? When millions of cables are released, there's no way either the leakers or the publishers of leaks can have read them all or made a decision about the value, importance or rightness of releasing the information. My natural instinct, even as a proponent of openness, was that this was wrong because it lacked thought. And wikileaks has a history of publishing data without sensitivity, failing to redact individual names, even in cases where being identified might mean death.

Having listened to an interview with Julian Assange this morning on BBC Radio 4, I can see how the organisation is, as ever, a reflection of its leadership. Mr Assange apparently lacks discretion or sensitivity.

I don't know the details or the truth of the allegations of sexual assault. But I do know this: Julian Assange is a prick. A prick either without much sense of irony or a supreme sense of irony (my organisations does not encourage leaks, he says - and that organisation is called, ummm - WikiLeaks). When Mr Assange and his legal representatives complained of his personal information being leaked by the Swedish prosecutors, I had to do a double take.

But his claims this morning that having to be electronically tagged as part of his bail conditions was 'emasculating', really took my breath away. Yes, that's right - the primary concern here is his healthy sense of masculinity. And he seems to dismiss the seriousness of the allegations by suggesting this is all just a big misunderstanding - that his alleged victims were in a 'tizzy'. Silly women. Clearly, they must be confused, don't they know what a privilege it is to be assanged? After all, many other women have been very 'generous' to him. How many we don't know, as a "gentleman doesn't tell." As one Tweeter observed, a gentleman may not tell or count, but a gentleman DOES wear a condom when requested.

All heroes, perhaps especially revolutionary heroes, are necessarily flawed characters. It does take an enormous sense of self to take audacious risks like those Mr Assange has taken. I still believe that openness is important and work to support it every day, but I can't help but think that the more the founder of WikiLeaks exposes himself, the less helpful he is to the cause of openness.

*and yes I do recognise the irony of preaching openness from a pseudonymous blog. But this isn't a secret blog, it's just an approach I take to help me keep my work and personal lives a little separate.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Frosty's on his way

We went out in the garden today with grand aspirations of snow man. It was pretty cold out there, so we settled for a squat, evil snow robot instead.

But even though freezing conditions and more snow are predicted for the coming week meaning that Frosty the evil robot snowman might have lasted til Christmas or beyond - his life, as well as his stature was short. "Let's kick him!" the boy said. But I held off the tide of destruction just long enough to grab the camera to give our creation some digital posterity.

tearing down the snowman

Then we (well, mostly the boy) threw snowballs.

This one didn't get me:

didn't get me

But this one did:

This one did get me

Saturday, December 18, 2010

snowy walk

snowy walk, originally uploaded by London looks.

The heavens opened and dumped a truck load of snow on London. Again. The perfect day for staying home or perhaps only venturing as far as the local cafe. But we had agreed to meet the boy's grandparents at the Imperial War Museum. Since they'd come down all the way from Scotland* it seemed churlish to cancel.

Actually the Underground was running ok and the boy was a little trooper through the snow. And he loved seeing the rockets and planes and tanks and stuff.

*not sure how they're going to dig their way back into Scotland


The boy has a natural sense of curiosity that we wish to foster and nurture. But there are limits to what we will encourage. These are experiments where we've had to draw the line. Although sadly, lines were drawn too late.

1. Plastic forks AND crayons in printers
2. CDs jammed into a PC drive
3. Two DVDs at once into a combi TV-DVD player*
4. Milk on a laptop keyboard
...and the latest...
5. Poker chips in a wii disc drive**

fixing the wii

*when we finally bought a new and multi-region DVD on the cheap and hooked it up to the tv-dvd combi machine it took great offense at being supplanted and coughed up both the jammed DVDs - a minor tech miracle.
** UPDATE: After one failed attempt to fix the wii - I gave it one last try and it seems to be working. Turns out there are about 8 screws in a wii console that you really don't need at all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Cowboy Knight

The Cowboy Knight, originally uploaded by London looks.

It's the nursery's Christmas party today, and they demanded that the children arrive in 'fancy dress' (American translation: costume). I knew I had two costumes I could pull together at short notice - cowboy and knight. I could have done pirate,too - but that would have taken ironing - so that was immediately ruled out.

I asked the boy "Do you want to be a cowboy or a knight?"

His response: A cowboy knight.

Well, of course.

Never mind that he looks a bit like he's headed to a costume ball of a white supremacy group raising money for 2nd Amendment rights protection, I'm sure it will be a lovely Christmas party.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

As you are not

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I caught the story about the little boy who dressed as Daphne before it made the headlines. When there were 20 comments on the blog, not 15,000. And they were all supportive.

My initial response was to be positive, too. If the kid wants to be Daphne - then what do I care? But then I thought, hey - wait a minute. The boy was having second thoughts and the mom was pushing him to go ahead and do it. She's thinking tolerance and "accept me as I am"- but part of a parent's job, too is helping children to traverse the minefield of cultural expectations. To know when it's worth going with the flow and when it's worth saying 'screw you'. Or whichever choice of vocabulary you want your five your old to use on such occasions.

And my next thoughts were since when does Daphne wear a pink dress? And pink boots? Eh? Since when? And since when is Daphne's hair the color of a traffic cone? Only through
the wonders of Google image search did I realise that this woman had dressed her child in the live action film version of Daphne, not the purple frocked, cuban heel wearing Daphne (sexy, yet deceptively practical). Tsk, tsk. What kind of message is that to give to a five year old? That old school Scooby is to be disregarded, passed over? Where is this woman's respect for the classics? I asked my boy whether that was a boy or a girl - and he instantly identified
the child in the picture as a boy - but though he's watched far, far, far too much Scooby for a middle class parent to admit comfortably - he did not recognise this as a Daphne costume. He said 'pumpkin hair' - when I asked what the boy was wearing.

But more disturbing than all of that is the sexualisation of the whole debate. A little boy wants to be Daphne and people are worried that he'll be gay or people are worried that people will be worried that he's gay. Hello, he's five. I don't care whether sexual preferences are innate, partly innate or partly acculturated or if you can turn gay by wearing a pink dress, five is too young to be even thinking about stuff like that. Why are we sexualising kids so young? My son sometimes wears my shoes and says "I'm mommy." It means nothing. At least nothing sexual anyway. And if it did, it's likely that he'd become a lesbian - as I wear nothing but flats and shoes with plenty of toe room. Comfort is everything.

Like the boy in the blog post, my boy also loves Scooby. Sometimes he pretends to be Scooby, sometimes Fred - and yes, sometimes Daphne. I don't make a big deal out of it. It's just pretend. But I have noted that he never pretends to be Velma or Shaggy, the two characters I've always closely identified with. Kids may not pick up on the sex thing, but they sure as heck can start picking out status stuff early. He's an Alpha type, I reckon. And the sweetest thing is that he doesn't realise yet what his mom and dad are really like. If my husband wants to be Shaggy or I want to be Velma as we play along with the boy - we're reassigned as Fred or Daphne. The well-groomed, well-dressed, popular types. We're gonna come a long way down in his eyes one day - and it may be soon.

But I also thought about my own son and his costume preferences. He likes being a pirate or a knight. Really anything that carries a weapon. Is this an indication of what he'll be when he grows up? Probably. He's clearly headed for a life of crime or maybe a brilliant career as a corporate raider.

Pirate's last stand
Stand and deliver...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Time out

The clocks went back last night in the UK, so perhaps I did get to sleep in just a little bit before the three year old stomped into our bedroom and threw himself into our bed, and said "Wakey, wakey". He twitched the curtains above our head to let in a smidgeon of damp, gray light.

Daylight savings have been controversial for a number of years and the rhetoric is ramping up. A growing lobby is urging that the UK should go to double summer time in the summer and GMT +1 in the winter. A permanent shift of an hour. Folks are even saying a change would combat global warming. (I'm unconvinced).

right twice a day
Euro-sceptics will have noticed this would put us on exactly the same time as Brussels. A conspiracy of closer alignment by fiat rather than treaty.

The Scottish contingency and farmers have been vociferously protesting against the double summer time idea. Let's dismiss the farmers first and out of hand, because farmers raise more complaints than heads of cattle or bushels of wheat.

But the Scots may have a point. It's darker up there in the winter and in the summer is stays light quite late enough already. A +1 shift would mean it would be dark til mid-morning in the winter. Which you don't need a policy review to know would suck.

Personally, I'm against the change. I hate, hate, hate getting up in the dark and this would mean more days of getting up in the dark. And since, I - you know - work. I still wouldn't get to take advantage of more daylight in the winter as I'd be - you know - working. But most people I know here in London are in favor of the change.

A modest proposal

If folks in London want to change so much, let 'em. Let northerly parts of the UK like Scotland or Northern Ireland or westerly bits like Wales stay on GMT or BST in the summer. You see, that would work. Devolution of the clock. An overthrow of the tyranny of time.

I grew up in a state with roughly 10-15% of the population of the UK. And we had two time zones - Eastern in East Tennessee and Central and Middle and West Tennessee. It didn't result in perpetual confusion. It was fine.

You know it makes sense.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A heart of enormous proportions

Since I've decided to publish a book (self-publish, don't get excited) about the floral tributes of Lambeth Cemetery in June 2011 (in time for the annual cemetery open day). I've been a bit more rigorous about getting to the graveyard once a week to photograph any interesting floral tributes.

Today, there wasn't much of interest. But there was a heart of enormous proportions. I'd never seen one quite so big. My three year old could have easily placed himself in the center and made chrysanthemum angels. (Not that I'd have ever allowed such a thing).

It was truly giant. But from a photographers perspective, not so visually interesting - especially since I failed to actually place my three year old next to it for scale. But the roses on it are normal sized. So the arrangement would have actually made a good sized table center piece.

A heart of enormous proportions

But what did catch my eye was the lettered inscription.

In Are Hearts forever

I'm not a grammar nazi by any means. My own work is littered with such homophonic mistakes. But these things are expensive. Each of those mums has to be hand inserted into the oasis foam. (At least I think it does - correct me if I'm wrong). And presumably that thing was on show to quite a few people. And the mistake would have been easily fixed. Those letters are relatively cheap. But no one caught it. Not the commissioner, not the mourners and not the funeral director. Or maybe they did and the person who bought it insisted on keeping it like that. Maybe it was an inside joke. I don't know. But I can't help thinking it was just a terrible and visible spelling mistake.

Bless there hearts.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

double rainbow

This video made the viral rounds of the Internet not so long ago. If you haven't seen it, well - it's interesting to see someone get so excited about natural phenomena. Probably not without the aid of some herbal enhancements I'm guessing.

I reserved judgement, though - as I've never seen a double rainbow before.

But today I did. We left the playground slightly early as someone ran off and out of my eyesight (any excuse really, I was ready to go and given that he didn't put up much of a fuss, probably so was he). I was thanking my good fortune as it started to sprinkle after we were in the car for just a couple of minutes - and then the skies opened and the winds blew in a sudden squall. But the sky was still clear elsewhere and the sun shining - so I looked around for a rainbow - and then I saw it. A double rainbow. Pretty darn cool. One rainbow is much more distinct and perfect and then there was a slightly more elusive twin. Yes, very cool.

But not as amazing as the guy in the video makes out.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A history according to cabbies of the north west

I've been away for work. Up to a gritty northern town, it didn't really seem that gritty though I suppose they wouldn't thank me for saying so. A work colleague and I arrived at the train station after dark, greeted by the shining steel industrial tanks of some kind of factory. It was a small station, one of those that's basically a few platform linked by grim cinder block subterranean passageways and a minimal station entrance. No cash machine. But there was a giant queue of taxis and we duly made our way to the first cabbie in the rank.

We gave them the name of our hotel and he told us that it was too close for a taxi ride, that we should just walk. The hotel was just around the corner and gave us a garbled set of directions in which there was a right and a left and probably another one of those.

We were game enough and set off. The first right we saw was a road with an unappealing name - something like Scumshaw, but it might as well have been called Serial Killer Lane as dark and uninviting as it was. We consulted our map and saw that there was a probably another way - one that led through inhabited areas. But what the map didn't show was that the obvious route had been blocked by steel fences and the only path ahead of was an mossy, overgrown route through Ax Murderer Underpass.

But we made it alright to the hotel, which was on a retail park, the kind where no one ever arrives on foot.

The reason we'd stayed overnight was so I could arrive nice and early to the venue where I was one of the morning speakers. We duly ordered our taxi to a Fire Control Centre for a nice and early time. But the taxi was late, very late. And then we our cabbie negotiated heavy traffic through the town to our destination. We noticed an historical plaque on some beamed cottages from the car and managed to read only the words Oliver Cromwell. The cabbie noticed us craning and informed us that his great-great grandmother had owned that cottage or had a shop there or something. Oooh, we said. Awaiting a tidbit of interesting local history - though he said nothing more. Prompting him - my colleague asked if Oliver Cromwell had lived there. "Nearby," said the cabbie - in a building that had since been torn down. "So was there a big battle here?" I asked.

Cromwell plaque on the Cottage, Church Street

Oh, there was a war, said the cabbie. A civil war. And proceeded to give us a potted history of the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians wanted rule by the people and King Charles I had disagreed and it had led to his execution. But nary a word of what had happened locally. Oh really? You don't say. Thing is, most of that happened where I live. In London. Today, depending on my route, I may well walk in front of Parliament and the statue of Oliver Cromwell.

And then he dropped us off at our destination. In we came, to a receptionist who had never heard of our event. And we surmised, just as the cabbie was beyond site, that we were in completely the wrong place - although it was a place that did have the name Fire in it. But it was a commercial fire research centre. And yet the cabbie had seemed so certain.

Another taxi ordered, another cabbie - this one covered in tattoos from professionals and amateurs alike. Armed with an address, the cabbie seemed a bit uncertain - as we were being taken to an industrial/office park that was apparently huge. I told him I'd seen a picture of the building and his tone was as scathing as I'd ever heard "A picture? That won't help. Every building there looks exactly the same."

We arrived late. Quite late. Introductions to the day were being made. I slotted in to a seat in the back. But it was all ok. I came up and did my bit. And in a break I ordered a taxi to take us back to the station.

We waited. And waited. Taxi was late and we had a specific ticket for a specific train. But then another taxi turned up. He had a different name, but didn't seem fussed. No one else was there. He seemed to say "You're here. I'm here. Let's make beautiful taxi music together," and we hopped in. We worried about our travel karma for stealing someone's taxi, but we figured we'd had enough bad luck so far it would probably come out in the wash.

On the way to the station, he asked us what we thought of the town and we admitted we hadn't seemed much of it. "It's very small," he said. "Oliver Cromwell seems big here," my colleague prompted. "Yeah," he said. Apparently that kind of thing didn't interest him at all.

I was blessedly reassured by the site of the factory by the station. I asked him what it was.

Lever Brothers and Crossfield Chemicals - Warrington

"They make washing powder there. It's very historical." Historical, we reflected, as we gazed the corrugated cladding and the chemical tanks and pipes from the station platform. I guess the 70s is another century.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Warm life

A couple of weeks ago our refrigerator seemed not to be cooling so well. And by the following morning, it was clear it wasn't working. The light was on, but no one was home. Disappointing, given that it wasn't that old - but old enough to be out of warranty. It certainly lived up to its brand name. Hotpoint.

Since we'd ordered that fridge, the cooling market has moved on. You can either buy really short 'under the counter' fridges or tall 'American' style fridges. But nothing that fit into the space we had. Or not much. Only a premium brand German fridge - Liebherr - a company which seems to have entered the domestic market only recently from the industrial market and a scarily cheap one.

We decided to go for the German one, but were told that we'd have to wait for while as it had to be special ordered from the manufacturer. Disappointing. I could have probably lived without a refrigeration as I can happily live without milk, but the husband and the boy need their milk. So we bought a tiny little student fridge and waited patiently.

We bought our fridge from the Co-op and they said they had it in much quicker than we expected and we'd be informed of our delivery slot on Friday evening for a Saturday delivery. Normally, I'd expect to pay extra for a weekend delivery, but it was free. On Friday evening, the Vol-in-Law received a text that the fridge would arrive between 9:45 and 11:45, but that was 'just a guess'. I thought this was an interesting way of managing customer expectations. But there was a knock on the door a few minutes before 10. The old fridge was gone and the new one in place by 10 past.

The boy was excited by the new fridge, especially after a trip to the grocery store.

New fridge

New fridge

Monday, September 27, 2010

Other people's weddings

If you have a camera in hand and there's a wedding nearby, it's hard not to take a snap. They're just so darn photogenic, the folks in their finery.

At the weekend, we were in Richmond Park and parked at Pembroke Lodge which now hosts many a wedding. In fact, there are often two weddings at the same time, and as lovely a venue as it is - I'm not sure I would choose it, given that you could easily find yourself mixing with hikers in muddy boots or a small messy child who does not follow directions (like mine). When we were there, a wedding party was taking up the picnic area. It was a beautiful day, but a bit chilly. Standing around doing the chit chat may have been uncomfortably cool.

On our way back to car, the wedding party seemed to have broken up and we caught the tail end of a photo shoot with one of the nuptual couples. Richmond Park is beautiful and it looked like the photographer was getting some good shots. As they were reviewing the thumbnails on the back of his digital camera, the bride must have shivered or complained of cold. The groom shrugged off his coat and gave it to her. How wonderful. What a lovely touch.

Finishing the photo shoot

If you ask me, I think that photographer missed a trick but not turning around and shooting that. On the bad days, for all marriages have them, it would have been a lovely reminder to consider each other in the small things that make a big difference.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Checking the score: Tennessee and the Labour leadership contest

Cos where else do you get Tennessee football and British politics in the same post?

I meant to do two things yesterday when I came back from the park. Check up on the Tennessee v. UAB game and find out who won the Labour leadership. I did neither til late in the evening, when I checked the score.

Tennessee squeaked through - against a team that we really shouldn't have had to squeak against. If you're of a mind, go and check out what a squeaker it was at this animated drive chart. UAB missed an astonishing number of field goals and with a score of 32-29 and two overtimes - it was only by the slimmest of margins and perhaps a shift of the wind that made the difference. I think I'm kinda glad I didn't see it, especially through the long (and what must have been miserable) second half.

As Vol blogger Will writes:

Any Kool-Aid that was left in the orange solo cup was spilled on the floor in disbelief today. And while it's exponentially less painful to see in victory than in defeat, today was a stunning and very real picture of where Tennessee Football is right now.
Still, nothin' like a nail biter.

Go Vols

Labour leadership

I didn't even manage to check the Labour leadership scores until this morning. But I don' t really have a dog in that fight. I've maintained only a dim interest in contest over the summer - and it seemed David Miliband was a dead cert, until - well, yesterday. When his younger (shorter, dimmer?, less attractive) brother became the bookies' favourite and then finally won it after four elimination rounds.

The voting process itself - somewhat reminiscent of X-Factor or American Idol - see the votes tallied on first preferences first. David wins. Diane Abbot (perhaps the most entertaining of the lot) was eliminated. All of her 2nd, 3rd and 4th preferences are re-distributed and then... wait a minute. That doesn't sound right. Eee gads that must have been a headache counting all that up after each elimination round - what a complicated system. Anything that crazy surely would never be foisted upon the British public. Anyway, David came out the 'winner' of each round, right up until the end. He musta felt just about like UAB, if not but for one missed field goal - i.e. glad handing with union reps or lurching just slightly to the left. I shouldn't like to be at the Miliband house for Hanukkah dinner.

Anyway, brilliant news for the rest of us. Ed Miliband won't be as spectacularly bad as some of his opponents would have been for the Labour party. But y'all just keep drinking the Kool-Aid from your red solo cup. I suspect he'll have a lovely honeymoon period and then his true colours - whatever they may be - will shine through.

Photo credits: Valerie Everett and Arvind Grover

Sunday, September 19, 2010

And bombs bursting in air

Last week, the boy and I went to the Wimbledon Stables Open Day expecting to get into the windmill museum for free. A commenter set me straight and informed me that the 18th of September would be the Windmill open day. And chided me for my cheapness. So, we headed on down to the Windmill for our free entry after many years of standing outside and wondering whether it was worth the price of entry.

Wimbledon Common windmill
(Photo credit Adrian Short)

And now that we've been in...

Anyway, there was a lot more to the windmill museum than I imagined. I didn't get to poke around all the exhibits as I spent most of my time chasing the boy around the upper level above the treacherous stairway to the workings of the mill. But there were working windmill models of all types and diaromas featuring threshing men and moth-eaten cats.


The boy had a wonderful time. He enjoyed the hands on opportunity to grind some wheat using two handy-sized millstones and he loved the pully. Pullies are fantastic for kids - demonstrating how a small machine can turn you into a weight lifting super hero.


And, of course, he loved climbing up into the workings of the windmill.


I think there was probably a lot more to see than I managed. But I will remember one thing - writ large was the fact No one ever built a windmill if they could have a water mill. Surely, these are words to live by.

And the Vol-in-Law spotted another bit of history. You know the bombs bursting in air from the Star Spangled Banner? Well, apparently back during the War of 1812 (the last time we were at war with the Brits) those particular munitions were a bit of an advance and those bombs were developed by a Wimbledon resident and were tested right there on Wimbledon Common in the shadow or future shadow of the windmill. (Not sure when the windmill was built - the model above shows it was in operation in 1825).

They had a pretty good turnout for the open day, but I'm quite sure it would have been better had the visiting Pope not been staying across the street with the attendant police presence and full parking lot of Pope well-wishers.

So all in all, I'd recommend stumping up the cash for a visit to the Windmill Museum. I've certainly paid a lot more to see a lot worse.


It's International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Pirate Bill

Avast ye mateys. The Good Ship Vol Abroad has been taken over by pirates.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Florida time

Oh, dear. It's Florida time. I'm not holding out much hope. But for me, this is when football season truly begins - and not just because it's the first SEC game but mainly because a 3:30 kickoff means that I can actually watch the game (by hook or by crook) or at least listen to it. I love my Vols, but I'm already working on a sleep deficit so when a game starts at midnight my time. - I'm just dreaming of a win.

At least Buddy seems happy enough about the prospects.

I'll show you what we do to Gators

Let's hope we're smiling on Sunday morning - if not over a win - at least over a decent performance.

Not being on the ground, it's difficult to tell what folks are thinking of Derek Dooley. Vols fans are notorious for the grumble-grumble. But for me, I want to be behind him. I like what I've seen of his style. I want him to be a legendary coach for Tennessee and I'm willing to wait for that to happen.

Former coach Phil Fulmer has given an interesting (ahem) interview about the current state of things. Didn't really expect a giant mea culpa, he says he supports Dooley, but he's working like heck to lay the blame at the feet of 'the other one'.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


I've been collecting images of floral tributes - sculptural floral displays at funerals for several years. These range from simple hearts and stars to complex constructions depicting Royal Mail vans or football shirts or crests. When the boy was very small, we took daily walks in the nearby cemetery and this period is from when most of the images I have originate.

I've been in a bit of dry spell regarding floral tributes. I haven't had a good image in ages. This is partly because I'm haunting the graveyard with much less frequency and partly because summer isn't a good season for floral tributes. Probably fewer people are dying, but also when they do the floral tributes aren't lasting as long and so even really good one may not be worth photographing after it's wilted in the heat of the sun. And the really complex floral tributes seem to be fading out of fashion. It may be the recession - these things are apparently very expensive.

But when I checked Sunday - jackpot - I spotted this one.

Meerkat floral tribute

Meerkat floral tribute

A meerkat.

Meerkats are always quite popular and are the symbol of many a neighbourhood watch. Including ours.

Wandsworth Neighbourhood Watch stickers

But they also feature in a long-running and quite amusing series of tv ads in the UK where the meerkats are used to peddle insurance with the catch phrase "Simples" which has insinuated itself into everyday language. And this has made them even more popular. Anyway, first time I've seen a meerkat depicted in chrysanthemums.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Pope is coming to town

I noticed police presence on Wimbledon Park Road the other day. And could see they were standing in front of some big swanky house (not that most of the houses on Wimbledon Park Road aren't super swanky). And when I passed by there again today they had blocked off the sidewalk in front of the house, closed the road, and there were cops galore. With guns. Very, very big guns. And bored expressions.

I had noticed there was a sign on the entrance pillar, but couldn't manage to read it. Today I slowed down just enough to read it...or sort of...I thought it said "Apostolic Nunciate" which basically made me none the wiser. But then I put 2 and 2 together and realised the Pontiff was comin' to town tomorrow for the first Papal state visit to the UK in over 500 years and that the sign probably said Apostolic Nunciature which probably means Pope Hotel.

the pope and coca cola


One of the Pope's pals won't be coming with him. Apparently he said that Britain is like a 3rd World Country. In darker moments, I may have occasionally said the same thing. Don't kick me out.

According to The Telegraph, Cardinal Kasper Walter made some disparaging remarks about the UK including that it was an aggressive new atheism was rife (which I think may also be true). In an article headlined “A Third World country” he was quoted as saying: “When you arrive at Heathrow you think at times that you’ve landed in a Third World country.”

Well, exactly. Heathrow is skank. It's better now. But used to be you'd think "Look, I bought a ticket, I told you I was coming - along with the tens of thousands of other people who are arriving today - the least you could have done was tidy up a bit. Run the vacuum, maybe? But really, it's ok, don't put yourself out on my account." I've been in genuine 3rd World airports that were cleaner and classier.

But in order to clarify his comments, it's apparently because of Britain's "multi-cultural diversity". Really? Yes, don't let the UK think you're just a snobby German neat-freak, make a comment that could be interpreted as just a teensy bit racist.

Who's handing the Vatican's PR these days? 'Cos I want me some of that media goodness.

But it's not because he's so 'plain spoken' that he's not coming, but rather because Cardinal Walter has gout.


All this puts the dodgy memo about possible activities for the Pontiff by a junior member of Foreign and Commonwealth office staff in a new light. This young fellow 'brainstormed' that an ideal papal visit* could include a special edition brand of condoms, sacking of dodgy bishops, ordination of a female priest and apologising to the British people for Spanish Armada (which received both papal blessing and Vatican cash). Then he was foolish enough to actually distribute that as a memo. And even though the then Foreign Secretary David Milliband made a 'grovelling apology' apparently that was not enough:

A well-placed aide in the Vatican said: 'This could have very severe repercussions and is embarrassing for the British Government - one has to question whether the action taken is enough. It is disgusting.'

Oh really? Like a Cardinal making some seriously off colour remarks just days before showing up (and then not). One has to question whether the action taken is enough.


*OK, all the other ones are clearly a no-go and trashy. But I always thought the Armada apology was inspired.

(Photo credit filip1)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wimbledon Common Open Day

We were a bit lame yesterday, but suddenly, and after an embarrasingly large number of Sponge Bob episodes, I remembered that it was open day at Wimbledon Common. Hurrah. For years, I've wondered what it looks like on the inside of the windmill at Wimbledon Common and this was my chance. A daunting entry fee prohibited me from entering all these years and when last year - the price doubled to £2 (about $3) I knew paying entry was not likely. But on an open day, I'd have free entry, free to gambol in the 20 square feet of history of the windmill display.

Imagine the shock and horror I felt when I saw a sign which dashed my hopes of free entry. I was pissed. But then, much to my amazement, the wide field on the left hand side of the long drive normally full of kite flyers and dog walkers was I couldn't imagine why that many people could have made the same mistake I did about the windmill, so there must have been something else going on.

And indeed there was! It was a village fete, with tents and stalls and masses of people and what looked like pony rides. I couldn't believe I hadn't realised. And then I had a sinking feeling, fetes mean lots of spending small amounts of money at stalls. And I had very little money in my pocket (I thought we were going to have a free look-see at the windmill and leave, remember) - and there were two young soldiers guarding the parking lot and they were holding a bucket. For the wounded. Of Afghanistan. Really, you can't say no to that. And thus went a good proportion of my cash.

Danger boy

The first thing the boy wanted to see was some tractors parked up. A whole gaggle of children were climbing on one of those extendable platform utility vehicles - something I would call a cherry picker. It looked quite unsafe. I even saw a boy about the same size of my three year old climbing on the extendable arm.


Which I think made me allowing him up onto the platform which was at least 6 feet off the ground look quite reasonable by comparison.

We made our way to a recruiting stand for the Household Cavalry. Now, let me tell you something, I am no longer a young lady in the first blush of youth, but I nearly felt a swoon coming in the proximity of these fine young men in their dress uniforms and their high boots with a deep shine. The boy was impressed and told me he wanted to be a soldier, too. I wanted to tell him that those who administrate also serve. But given the chance to try on the regalia, I doubt if it would have carried much weight.

Household Cavalry Helmet

And the sword.


I could not believe it when the man handed my 3 yrd old a sword. Since the boy had the hilt I figured he had more chance of endangering others than himself. I stood well away.

More fun and frolics

The Wimbledon and Putney Common Open Day had loads more to see. Birds of prey. Endless tug of war. An ambulance you could go in and poke around. Intubation and choking dummies. Waggiest tail on a dog competitions. Horse grooming demonstrations. The boy went mad for horse named Chance and demanded riding lessons. I was very pleased to discover that he was still a year too young for that. Among children's hobbies, I'm not sure if you can find one that costs more.

Choking training dummy

The boy demanded a horseshoe (£1), a piece of ginger cake raising money for wounded soldiers (£1) - which made me think of the old saying:

It'll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers. ~Author unknown, quoted in You Said a Mouthful edited by Ronald D. Fuchs

But I'm not sure if bake sales in support for returning soldiers quite qualifies.

And then he wanted a donkey ride (£3), which lasted about 45 seconds and made the riding lessons or paid entry to the windmill museum seem a really good deal. And that was the end of my cash.

It really was a fantastic day out and I imagined that it was quite like attending a village fete, but without having to leave the comforting embrace of the M25.

Of all the things we saw though, I think I liked this best:

Lost keys

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sarah Palin talks smarts

I've never been one of the people who were tempted to slam on Sarah Palin for being an idiot or denigrate her achievement at becoming Governor of Alaska (oh, it's only a small state population wise), which seems a bit ridiculous unless you yourself have served as the governor of a larger state, and if you have it's still not classy.

But it's fair to say that I agree with her on practically nada. But today I do: In the Daily Mail, she was reported as saying about the proposed burn-a-koran day at a Florida church.

Book burning is antithetical to American ideals,' she wrote.

'People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation - much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.'

She finished by saying: 'We don't need to agree with each other on theological matters, but tolerating each other without unnecessarily provoking strife is how we ensure a civil society.

'In this as in all things, we should remember the Golden Rule. Isn't that what the Ground Zero mosque debate has been about?'

And on this I tend to agree. Burning Korans, deliberately insensitive and provocative. Building a mosque near Ground Zero, probably not deliberately insensitive - just in the fact that I bet suitable properties in Manhattan aren't super easy to source and that's where that happened to be - but it strikes me as a touch inappropriate all the same.

That's one dead duck

Here's a lovely image of canard a l'orange from Flickr user franziskas garten. That is for sure one dead duck. Let's hope the resurgent UT can cook up a similar dish on Saturday against Oregon, with some extra zingy orange flavor on top. Chef Dooley (fingers crossed) can provide the instructions for gutting and roasting.

Turnover here is key and notice that in this recipe, you don't.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Citizenship criteria and starting off on the right foot

Although I've lived in the UK for a long time, I'm not a citizen. I've never quite taken the plunge. I've been meaning to, but just never got around to it. The previous Labour government had made it harder to become a citizen - introducing a test on life in the UK and a citizenship ceremony. In essence that can only be a good thing. Citizenship is a big deal and should be treated as such. There should be a moment of celebration where the mutual duties and obligations of state and citizen are marked publicly, rather than just a letter in the post.

And they were about to make it harder still, introducing a kind of 'good citizen' requirement - a probationary period of volunteering. I was against this. Not so much in theory - it's a good thing. And not so much because of personal impact, as I've been serving as a School Governor for almost four years (for American readers, it's kinda like a school board, but without any real power and every school has one) and I've volunteered for a political party which also counts. But I was iffy about it because of the bureaucratic nature of it. How would you prove that you'd done work? Would there be spot checks to make sure there wasn't some kind of weird black market in the volunteering certificates? But these requirements may be scrapped by the new Coalition government (Telegraph)

And apparently there's going to be a shakeup in the quiz, too. Good. Although the Life in the UK was as a big a phone book in a medium sized city and packed full of Battle of Britain and parliamentary procedure and Magna Carta and so forth, the quiz emphasis was on quirky etiquette - What does one do if one spills someone's pint on them in the pub? Offer to duke it out the car park or buy them a new drink? - and navigating the benefits system. Really. Navigating the benefits system. Now, it's good to know that sort of thing I guess, but that's a bit like setting down rules for your matrimonial partner to be on just how much cheating you'll tolerate before you call it a day. I'd like to think that at the beginning of a relationship, there's a slightly rosier view of the role of the productive citizen rather than assuming that they'll be taking more than they'll be contributing.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Privateer Lad

Alright, so we promised to take the boy to the beach - and we'd already chickened out from finding and driving down to a real beach and decided to take him down to some pollution blackened sands on the south bank of the Thames and let him play amongst the rubble.

The boy was so excited. He made me round up a bucket and spade and found a beach shirt and some shorts and some 'beach shoes' and got dressed almost on his own. He was literally skipping down the pavement and asking at every stop on the Northern line if this was where we got off for the beach.

Before we arrived at the sand, we soaked in some of the festival atmosphere of the South Bank. There were Morris dancers and we stopped to watch some acrobat cum magicians doing a bartending based routine complete with flying ice and glasses performing for free in front of the National Theatre.

But when we arrived at the beach I'd spotted from the boat the other day, the gate down to the sand was locked. Sure there was an artist down there building sand sculptures, but he'd successfully blocked access to the beach with his demand for money literally written in the sands and his clearly hungover girlfriend was lying on the top steps sleeping off last night's gin. The boy was grievously disappointed and cried and moaned and raised a racket. We promised to move on down the Southbank to see if we could find access to the shore some other way, but I inwardly assured myself that if we couldn't get down there, I'd push past that booze-soaked floozy and the access hogging sand artist and let my boy frolic in whatever the Thames had coughed up onto the shore.

Fortunately, we found an open gate at Gabriel's Wharf - and though it looked like civilians weren't allowed - for there was a collection of sand sculptors at work and not very good busker, there was no way we weren't going down there. The boy took off down the treacherous stairs to the sands below. And he had a blast!

On the Thames beach, Gabriel's Wharf

After we'd had enough sand play, we had lunch at Gourmet Pizza which was only just up the steps to the Southbank. We hadn't been in ages - in fact, I'm not sure we'd ever been there with the boy. But it was still as good and they have very reasonably price, nice pizzas for children.

We walked on down the Southbank to the Tate Modern, housed in an old power station, where we had a bit of wander and like every child of a certain age, the boy had to roll around on the turbine hall floor like a work of performance art. The Tate was crowded and the boy was in his finest crowd dodging, 'do not enter' sign ignoring best. In fact, he wandered through one room singing. "Bad art. Bad art. This is bad art." And although Tate Modern has its share of really bad art, he was singing his disparaging verse in a room Rothkos and Calders.


So we decided to head out, but not before stopping in at the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) peregrine falcon observing station just outside. Some falcons have taken roost on the towers of the museum. The RSPB volunteers were very enthusiastic, but apparently the falcons were out for the day. We still thought it was worth looking through the scope which was trained on where the birds normally hang out - and sure enough no birds, but you could see the smear of falcon poo.

Looking for falcons

On the way to our departing station, London Bridge, we came across the Golden Hinde. Sir Francis Drake's privateer galleon. They boy demanded that we go on the ship, but it had been hired out for a wedding reception. And no matter how much he screamed and cried, the wedding party did not soften and let him aboard. Imagine! In order to placate him, we took him to the pirate shop nearby and bribed him into quiet with some pirate swords and a hat.

Pirate at the Golden Hinde

He was so excited he forgot about the ship and continued pointing his enormous pirate pistol at passers by and duelling with his father in front of Southwark Cathedral.

I'm sure the bishop would not approve..