Monday, 20 August 2018

Sheffield Bricktropolis

How does today look through the eyes of a five- or seven-year-old boy?  As a grandad, I find that out.  For sure Lego features in the top three worldviews.

The smart marketing people in Sheffield’s city centre businesses have been using the iconic plastic cube to leverage (or to try to) their summer trade.  Hence Bricktropolis, boasting a treasure trail of impressive and very recognisable models tucked in among the big stores, interactive sessions and other goodies.  And it seems to have worked - at least, I got sucked into the excitement. 

Mary and I were due to look after Zeb and Zane (herein after - the boyz) for the day.  “Grandad – can we go to Bricktropolis?”  Unheard-of to me, I confessed.  A hasty search online produced a two-week programme, registration for a ‘build a skyscape’ morning, and colourful map of where to find the aforesaid landmark models.  “Okay.  And Grandma can come along, too.”

The first snag was that the website wasn’t accepting bookings for the build-it-yourself sessions.  When I rang BID, the sponsors, I did get an apology.  But the sessions were all already taken up.  Some kids were obviously even smarter than our boyz.  The three informative emails BID did eventually sent in the following two weeks were all to late to arrange anything more.

I worked out a shortened itinerary, cunningly leaving some display sites for a possible further foray.  The boyz weren’t impressed.  In the end, they conceded it would have all been too tiring.

We found the first three models.  The information panel said 235 hours and 32,000 bricks had gone into one construction.  I pondered: grown up people do this for a living.  A quick snap-shot to WhatApp to Mummy, then on to the next site.

We quickly got to recognise other families on the same pursuit.

John Lewis’s had it planned the best.  Their display of London and Paris landmarks, somewhat overshadowed by the Eiffel Tower, was slap bang in the middle of the boxed toys section.  “Can we buy a set, not just look at them?” wailed voices.

The Chinese Bank in the Winter Gardens looked like a stack of supermarket baskets.
The Marks and Spencer models were classily all lit up from the inside.
In the Millennium Gallery, the monochrome cut-away of an Egyptian pyramid was imaginative, but – monochrome. 
By the time we got to the third telecommunications tower, the novelty had worn off.

As a consolation prize for being too late booking for a build-it-yourself session, the Scout shop was running a competition.  We called in and stood around, feet aching, while the boyz fiddled with a small selection of pieces.  But they were happy.  
If the show comes to your town – it’s worth a visit.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Discuss and Discus

The St James Church bulletin was promoting a regular Saturday men’s breakfast: ‘full English for a fiver’.  And, happily, this turned out to be the right slot in the month.  Mary seemed content that I should take myself off for the morning.  She was planning to be in the garden if the weather was cooler.  
In my lunch hour, I emailed Barry, whose contact details were added (something like champagnecharley@gmail).  I got three swift responses: from Barry himself, from Ian the organiser, and from Roger the cook.  They included tips on where to park, mentioning that over 30 guys were expected. 

I have a theory that it’s a mark of middle-classness if you’re motivated to invite yourself along without introduction to an unfamiliar social gathering or interest group.  Working-class people will only try something new if there’s a relational route in.  Like, for example, only going along if their neighbour or father-in-law is already involved.  It’s a point to remember when churches lay on events to attract new people.  Was I engaging in betrayal of my class roots? 

My experience of men’s breakfasts has been positive.  I’ve been to the monthly one in Bath, when visiting my brother-in-law Tony.  Last time, they had about a hundred guys along.  The pub was packed and the restaurant-served food was excellent.  They pull in some class speakers: top physicists from GCHQ, seasoned explorers and household-name footballers.  

The Sheffield equivalent I’ve sampled was memorable, too.  But for different reasons.  The menu choice was grilled bacon or sausage, or bacon and sausage; in a white or brown bread-cake; with red or brown sauce.  And a ‘proper’ mug of tea.  None of your low-fat, veggie or decaff nonsense.  Indeed.  The gritty Northern gospel.

I parked near the village hall behind an SUV sporting a fish badge (local angling club?).  Ian introduced himself and a couple of other guys, and I headed for the coffee.  There was one long table.  This limited the conversation to a person on either side, and two or maybe three opposite.  The familiar worst-case hearing-aid challenge.  And, looking around, I wasn’t the only contestant.  I found an accountant on my right, and a local councillor on my left.  Another new boy was opposite.  I could see a large HS2 planning chart over his shoulder.  

Brian, on my right had moved up from the Home Counties bible belt to retire.  He’d visited Sheffield a few times and we had some Anglican acquaintances in common.  My councillor friend had retired twice, but was fully busy on housing and HS2 committees.  He possessed a wealth of knowledge and solidly-formed opinions.  However, no-one could tell me where I may find an electric car charging point in the town. 

We had an illustrated talk on collecting cigarette cards.  Given the attendance, this took on the nostalgic air of a public schoolboys’ hobbies club meeting.  Afterwards, Brian and I exchanged email addresses, and he introduced me to Barry, too.

Back home, Mary had been hacking her way through a vigorous cotoneaster standing in the overgrown border.  I finished off the job with a pruning saw.  There, in the sunshine, liberated from its bushy confinement, was a statuette of a naked discus thrower.  True, his right shoulder will need some Polyfilla.  But at least that will leave him slightly more decorous than the garden’s other classical figure – a maiden who appears to have suffered an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction.  Maybe Mary will find her a tee-shirt.

Baking at Blenheim

It’s a matter of record that the summer’s been a scorcher.  The aircon unit in my workplace office hasn’t done its job properly since we had a move-around and it was rewired.  Neil takes the pragmatic approach and – with his laptop – he disappears off to a spare desk elsewhere.  Linda drops meaningful hints every time I glance in the direction of the window.  She’s tied to her desk by essential paperwork.  I survive, being a tropics veteran: minimum-energy movement and plenty of hydration.
 However, after two full working days’ around 30C, I couldn’t face clearing gutters or building a flat-pack chest of drawers at home.  “Let’s go to Blenheim for the day, tomorrow,” I suggested.  Mary was keen.  Our one-year free entry passes being still in date, meant it would be a guilt-free trip, too.  “I suppose,” I added slowly, “We could think of taking the Leaf.  I bet Ed would.”

So, the evening found Mary sorting out a cool-box and me standing up the Drive above our garage, desperate for a phone signal so I could check available charging points at Blenheim.  Zap-map said there were four Pod-Point units.  User comments said they were out of action.  I rang Ed.  “You’ll need to download the app, first.  Then you have to confirm with the operator once you’re connected up.  The good news is that some points are free.”  He went on to explain the equivalent arrangement with Ecotricity.  Later he texted details of Oxford’s nearest Nissan dealer.  It really wasn’t worth the risk.  I’m not sufficiently far along the learning curve.  

In a new home it’s amazing how many little things you have to learn.  The shower had kept stopping while Mary was using it.  So I had to step in (literally) to give an opinion.  Thus it was late morning by the time we reached Woodstock.  

It was indeed hot.  Last time, with Gav and Georgie and crew, we had Nate’s off-road pushchair.  I realised that my ambition to take two folding chairs, a cool-box and something to read, meant loading up like Donkey Daniel under an unforgiving sky. 

This has been a week of family school reports.  Mine were invariably dreadful and uncomplimentary.  After visiting the English History display, I found that Winston Churchill’s were, too.  

We got lost trying to find the Lakeside walk.  Again, last time, we’d used the restricted-access buggy-friendly path.  But instead we found a lovely (and probably illicit) shaded slope blessed by the breeze coming from the water.  I had a much-needed snooze.  The air-bed had deflated overnight.  I’d been left miserably counting the chimes from St James clock-tower for two hours.

We made it to the Cascade, with measured tread.  Back at the car, blobs of rain fell as I read for an hour and Mary took her turn to doze.  The radio teatime news announced that London was beset with thunderstorms, and the main East Coast rail line and Channel Tunnel were both out of action.  We suffered a mere couple of minutes traffic delay at Banbury Cross.  

At Blenheim we did spot the estate’s tarty zero-emission vans, but I never found the vehicle charging points. 

Run-in with Sir Ran

Georgie pitched a random question.  “Are you and Mary free down our way on 18 July or 31 July?”  Last year about this time, she and Gav had thoughtfully (and generously) arranged a day out at Blenheim Palace.  This time, I suspected a family evening meal invitation, probably courtesy of some coupon offer.  It happened that Mary and I were due to pick up new flat keys locally, and we could well be free.  Georgie didn’t elaborate.  Ten days or so later she texted a photo of some Derngate Theatre tickets for An evening with Ranulph Fiennes. 

There’s something of a history behind this.  I met the great man at a Heating and Plumbing trade exhibition in London’s Olympia, quite a few years ago.  In an effort to boost attendances, the event organisers arrange celebrities to drop in at some point, and they promote accordingly.  I’d got fed up with manning our Atmos stand, and repeatedly explaining why we offered 28kw and 32kw units but and not 35kw ones.  I sneaked off round the back of the exhibition displays, and found Sir Ran in the sparsely-attended seminar area.  He supplied entertaining anecdotes and we had a chat afterwards.

Then Jack bought me a copy of his (to my mind overpriced) Beyond the Limits book for a birthday present.  Soon after, Danny – who met Sir Ran in a similarly serendipitous way to my own – kindly bought me a second copy.  Finally, Dave bought me a CD set of after-dinner talks for Christmas.  

My 70th birthday was looming (2015).  Lizzie wished to get me something ‘a bit different’.  She’d already offered to sponsor me to climb Kilimanjaro.  It happened that I was due to be in Kenya with Multiply that year.  I was very tempted.  She sent a pair of Crucible Theatre tickets for An evening with...  After much umming and ahhing about other commitments, I passed them to Viv and Kat.  They had a great time.  Having mentioned Kilimanjaro at the merchandise table, they presented me with a third – autographed – copy of Beyond.
 Years have passed since our last visit to Derngate.  We had to park some distance away because of the roof-box fitted on the car.

Knowing some of the blokish references in the CDs, I wondered if the evening would leave Mary blushing.  But she enjoyed every minute of it.  Best was the, “Then he began to whinge,” story.  With slow deliberate movements across the stage, Sir Ran looked as though age was catching up with him.  Maybe it was the sum of skin grafts on his feet.  His achievements have been monumental.  He remains a remarkable once-in-a-generation figure.

Later, we had our own little adventure on the way to spend the night in Coventry.  I took the Nissan Leaf on from work, while Mary kept our Zafira.  The electric car charging point at Kings was inaccessibly blocked in by wheelie bins.  We all have our challenges. Thank you for the treat, Georgie.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Badgers and Foxes

Our speculations started three years ago.  For a long time, glimpsing a fox hurrying across our road had been fairly common.  It was the suspected sighting of badger that raised our interest.  Steven related that - taking the late evening air at the end of the drive – he often heard scuffling in the bushes.  But then the badgers would hastily nip across the road and disappear in the neighbour’s garden.

But it wasn’t just that we saw them in the undergrowth of our ‘nature reserve’ garden.  They were living in the rear far corner, burrowed under the high stone wall, throwing up a mound of mud and vegetation, where the foxes had earlier assumed residence.  Yes, foxes and badgers are known to hang around together.

Badgers adopt a wide territory.  It dawned on us that what we call ‘our’ badgers, several other neighbours also feel possessive about.  We do wonder if they’ve dug their sett right underneath the boundary wall and come up in the garden adjacent to ours.  We know that the residential home staff, two doors along the Crescent, put out food for them most nights.  In fact, just yesterday, Mary heard our other neighbour claim that the badger cubs had gone in through her cat-flap and helped themselves to the pet food.

Ah, the cubs.  In these past three years we’ve seen successions of little ones: usually three per annual litter.  They start with scuffling and squeaking in the bushes.  But before long they’re venturing across the front lawn and through to other gardens.  Mary woke up one night recently and watched them in our back garden wandering in and out of her flower pots, taking a drink from the water bowl.  And she's sure they ate all our strawberries.  In all this, we’ve never managed to get a decent photo.

The fox cubs have been just as engaging, and again usually three per spring.  Only, they’re yappy and boisterous.  They crash through the rhubarb; play flight noisily on the back lawn at night, and generally treat the place presumptuously.  

The foxes are more in evidence in the daytime, too.  That’s usual for ‘urban’ inhabitants.  The cubs appear in the evening twilight, and have a good scratch before trotting off.  We’ve noticed that our ‘family’ has a distinctive white tip on their tails.  They get about the district, too, like the badgers.  A neighbour about a quarter of a mile away agrees.

Poppy, our cat, remains disdainful.