Back To The Backs

It has been a busy old couple of weeks with Cardiff and most recently Birmingham to explore on the back of a concert. I do not think I had ever been to Birmingham before other than to change trains at Birmingham New Street. I found it a pleasant experience. Not only was the cheap hotel we were staying in next to a canal – whose towpath proved a very pleasant way of walking, albeit briskly considering it was dark, too and from the gig, but also I had managed to completely forget about the cities connections with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and especially Edward Burne-Jones. In addition to the fine collection of work in city art gallery the stained glass Burne-Jones designed for the cathedral was, for me at least, breathtakingly beautiful. Do pop in to see it if you have the chance.

The other thing that I found to be a good use of time was a tour of the last remaining set of Back to Backs in the city. For those who do not know, and I confess that I didn’t, Back to Backs were one room wide houses built back to back so one faces out into the street while the other, separate  dwelling faces onto a courtyard. Put bluntly they were thrown up as the cheapest possible housing and would have been pretty overcrowded, dirty and at least in the nineteenth century little more than hovels. Things improved as time went on, one of the themes of the National Trust’s presentation of the site, with improvements in availability of clean water first outside and then inside the homes and technology advances from candle to gas to electric lighting. But disease was always a problem and the sanitation always pretty basic even into the 1970s.

Listening to the stories of the people who lived and worked here was a sobering experience. These were talented, skilled people in many cases – the families who lived in these remaining houses were clockmakers, glass blowers and locksmiths – the last resident was a master tailor who made britches for the Queen’s Horse guards. Sometimes they made enough money to get out and – and this seemed a bit like a running joke akin to the phenomenon in Neighbours that everyone leaving Ramsey Street ends up in Brisbane – they moved to the posh district of Edgbaston. But in other cases they lived and died in these tiny little houses and got on with life as best they could.

The shop on the corner of this little time capsule of how people used to live is a sweet shop selling pretty much everything I can remember as a kid, bless them in ¼ pound bags. I have not asked for a quarter of Cola Cubes or Sweet Peanuts for a very long time. It is also very busy so I was not the only one it seems feeling nostalgic. Visiting a place like the Birmingham Back to Backs does remind you of how much nicer life can be these days compared to what it might have been back then, but there is a danger of forgetting that people were touch and proud of what they did have, even if it was not a lot. The lady who was our guide had grown up in a similar kind of property and to my mind seemed to be proud of that fact and not at all looking back with a shudder. These were communities that made the best of what they had; in a time when the highest level of ‘community’ in the street that I live in is perhaps a nod and smile of recognition, I do not think everything has improved.


A Present From Lucy

As is pretty obvious from my social media activity recently a large part of my birthday celebrations this year involved subjecting the Lovely Wife to the Doctor Who Experience currently located in Cardiff Bay; I say currently as it is due to close this year as the lease on the land it is built on is up after five years, although I am sure that the BBC will have something else put together soon – Doctor Who is a considerable cash cow for them and this is probably part behind the move to create some noise, together with imminent change of showrunner and star.

So this is partly why I went; I had meant to go before but had not gotten around to it, and the closure forced my hand. The fact it turned out that my birthday was the most convenient day to go was largely coincidental. As readers of this blog will be aware I am a massive fan – my first memory is not of something happening to me but rather the dead Wirrn queen collapsing onto the hapless Harry Sullivan in the cliff hanger to episode 1 of the Ark in Space (January 25th 1975 to be precise). But I have found the massive amount of merchandise and ‘stuff’ generated since the show returned in 2005 a bit overwhelming. In the old days merchandise was largely limited to the odd dodgy jigsaw, the novelizations and the Annual. Now you can get pretty much anything with a Dalek or the Tardis on it. I have kind of given up on buying stuff and that kind of indifference sort of spread to the Experience.

But Sunday was a special couple of hours. I was surprised at how excited I could actually get even as an adult and thoroughly enjoyed both the interactive and exhibition parts and excitement shared by many of my fellow attendees, the teenagers in particular resplendent in Tardis hoodies and dresses (Cardiff is the only place I have been to that feels as though a Doctor Who convention has somehow taken over large parts of the city, based on the amount of Who based attire being worn).

Back to the experience, for those that do not know the first half is a kind of mini adventure that you participate in – nothing particularly taxing – it is largely aimed at the younger end of the fan base – but some nice touches for longer in the tooth fans if you knew where to look. I think what particularly delighted me though was the reaction of the kids that were in the same group as the Lovely Wife and I to the action. Unlike most of the adults, they are much happier to suspend disbelief and get fully involved and the squeals and gasps at appropriate moments I think helped even the most cynical of the adults to get a little more involved. At various points the young ones need to get involved and are given roles which they take entirely seriously. I was particularly amused by one girl, let’s call her Lucy (because that is her name). Lucy is about ten I would guess, possibly eleven. Lucy was entranced by the whole affair and when the Curator (don’t ask) asked for a volunteer for a particular task you could see just how much she wanted to step forward. Her mum encouraged her and so did I… Well, it was better that than shoving her out of the way and grabbing the [Redacted as a spoiler] myself. Lucy never stopped grinning even when we were trying to escape the [Redacted] and the [Redacted].  Lucy is exactly the kind of fellow fan I wish I had known when I was ten. Maybe they did exist in 1981 but not anywhere me. I bet she is boring/creating envy in her friends back at school as I write this. I hope so. She does not know it, but her delight and joy in something I love so much made the whole experience better for me. Thank you, Lucy for the birthday present.

Diversionary Tactics

Oh dear. I seem to have gotten myself involved in an act of theft – at least as an accessory. You see this morning I caused a diversion that allowed a theft to take place. I had not intended to; but rather bumbled into a situation where a cunning and daring thief was able to use me as a diversion to commit his crime. Perhaps worse, the victim was a visiting tourist, while the criminal was one of the local St Albans bad boys.

Obviously this was not a real crime, but otherwise the facts of the case are as described, Your Honour.

It may surprise some people who live in St Albans that despite the amount of algal bloom and various acts of bread feeding the lake in Verulamium Park has a fair amount of life in it, including some impressively large freshwater mussels (but they are detritus feeders so maybe we should not be surprised). If you walk down in the park fairly early at this time of year there is often a lot of shell debris from some of the more unfortunate of these molluscs. They have been devoured by some of the larger winter visiting gulls, particularly Herring Gulls and Lesser Black Backed Gulls, who seem to have the knack of fishing them out of the water and are strong enough to break into the shells. For them, this is a good meal.

Well, one gull was happily tucking into its prize yesterday morning as I ran by. However, it had an audience, of one of the parks resident crows. The crow was standing as close to the gull as it could get while remaining out of pecking range and was completely focused on the other bird feasting in front of it.

The seagull on the other hand was suddenly more concerned with the bulky human trundling towards it. Of course I would have happily ran round the bird – I like gulls – bit it did not know that and made the mistake of fluttering a couple of feet away, at a safe distance from my clattering trainers.

The crow of course, giving out a caw of delight and triumph (OK, I made that bit up) hoped directly into my path, anthropomorphically slipped me a wink and picking up what was left of the mussel and was off.

I felt a little guilty and sorry for the gull, but you had to admire the wiliness of the crow in stealing a substantial breakfast. They are tremendous opportunists and extremely bright birds, and I think they are quite beautiful. No, really. When you see a crow in the next few days – especially at this time of year when they are in breeding plumage – give it a second look. Assuming it is a healthy one you’ll get the full effect of that glossy, multi toned dark plumage. The same with most of the other crow species at this time of year; the magpies are feeding each other as part of their courtship (very sweet to watch), the jackdaws are paired and fighting over nesting holes (or, more likely in towns, a convenient chimney pot which does just as well). And if, as we are, you are lucky enough to have Jays come into your garden – well, I am always amazed that a bird with such bright pink, blue and white plumage does not get the attention it deserves among all the dull brown stuff. Yes they can be annoying – I have an ongoing battle with a pair of crows over their attempts to ransack the bird feeder, long after I was able to defeat the squirrels, because, to be frank, I’ll take the clever bird over the stupid mammal any day. Love our crows, don’t stone them.

Mind you… Rooks are pretty ugly. But then there is always one that was at the back of the line…


The Trap Of The Emperor’s New Clothes

Maybe it is just me, but every so often I have moments of potential revelation when someone about myself or the world around me suddenly seems to become clear in a way that perhaps it had not done previously. This includes insights into what makes me tick, which I think about because it helps me to better handle when things do not go according to plan and/or how I react to things that bit more positively, in other words if you understand what can make yourself a bit difficult to be with then perhaps you can avoid situations that bring out the worst in you or at least deal with them without being quite so much of an arse.

I have already rambled I think about my inability to deal with grace over last minute changes of plan (any plan, but especially one that I had hatched), but an incident before Christmas has struck me as indicative of another thing I find very difficult.

It was simple enough; the Lovely Wife and I were having a day out in London and we were just getting on the Underground. However, my ticket stuck in the machine for reasons that were not obviously apparent. As I stood there like a lemon wondering what to do and trying not to be crushed in the tsunami of humanity that is London St Pancras on a Saturday in December (come to think of it, at any time) the clearly malfunctioning barrier switched its display scheme from cards/Oyster to ‘Oyster only’ (for non-Londoners reading this, Oyster is the preloaded card system that the London Underground uses).

Thanks to the Lovely Wife, I was attended on by staff member who rescued my ticket. Then he ruined it by pointing out that the barrier said ‘Oyster only’.

Not when I put my ticket in, I raged internally. And I failed to thank him as much as I should of.

Thinking back, I know why. Whether he meant it or not, the ‘Oyster only’ comment was taken by me as ‘you’re an idiot and it is your fault’. Now, I am not so bothered by the second part, there are lots of thing through my life where miss steps, big and small are completely or largely due to my own damn self. That’s not a problem for me. On the other hand, feeling I have been made or have made myself look stupid is an entirely different thing, even in front of people I do not know, will never meet again and probably could not give a monkey’s anyway. Also, it is not being seen as silly or playing the fool, or being a laughing stock – that’s me most of the time anyway. No, it is being seen as being stupid is what I cannot stand. I can read, thank you very much. I have plenty of nice qualifications I actually worked for (albeit only as hard as I had to, I’ll admit that anything I’m not completely engaged with becomes and exercise is ‘what is the minimum I can get away with?’) and actually I think I can be pretty practical and pragmatic (just do not ask me to translate that into actually using my hands to deliver a solution; something seems to go wrong between the idea and the physical resolution usually).

I have the same problem as the Emperor and his people have in the Emperor’s New Clothes – they don’t want to appear stupid by pointing out the bleeding obvious that their leader has been done over by con men and is completely starkers.

I had not really thought of this before but once the lightbulb went on it was clear that, for whatever reason, this is something that really gets to me – being seen as stupid when I am not and I have not done – in my opinion of course – anything to deserve that image. If I want to parade naked around the streets of Hull painted in blue for three hours with a freezing wind off the North Sea trying to make me go even bluer I’ll admit that in a lot of people’s books that’s a bit dumb.

But I am capable of following simple instructions.

(If I bother to read them)