Domestic motivation

By the time the kids are in bed, I am really not in the mood to start tidying up their mess. I inevitably end up pottering about on the internet for a ‘few minutes’ which usually turns into most of the evening. I need a solution, before the house descends into utter chaos. If only cleaning up was more fun…

Well, let me tell you, it can be – when you put Real XS radio on, loud. Perfect domestic motivation.

48 hours in London – with a 5 year-old

A whistle-stop tour of some of London’s tourist hotspots may not be everyone’s idea of fun, particularly with a 5 year-old in tow. But then again, my eldest son is no ordinairy 5 year-old. Yes, I am biassed.

I first took him to London last year, when he had started school nursery and so had primary school holidays, whereas his brother was still at private nursery. The Whit holidays for primary schools in our area last two weeks, whereas those for secondary schools last one week; hence his Dad (sixth-form Maths teacher and provider of school holiday childcare) was still teaching. Myself and my boy ended up at a loose end for three days, and decided to do something exciting – to go to London, stay with a good friend of mine (even if it was on a sofa and mattress in the lounge/dining room), and see the sights.

Growing up in the north-east (Hull, to be exact), I always thought of London as a mystical ‘far away land’ detached from everyday experience. I never visited as a child, and my contemporaries either viewed it with sentimental reverence or barbed distain. I don’t want either for my children; the museums, art galleries and architecture in London are amongst the finest in the country, and are part of their heritage. They should grow up knowing and loving them, regarding them with a light-hearted affection.

My son did very well on that first visit, although the travelling about took it out of him and he got very tired at times. This year, he had more stamina and was more interested in the detail of what I had to show him. We had a brilliant time and crammed an awful lot into just over 48 hours.

We got the train down, which takes about two hours from Manchester and works surprisingly well, providing you are armed with an activity book or two. I packed a large handbag for the daytime and managed to get the rest of our stuff into a 25l rucksack, which is small enough to be accepted into the cloakrooms at most museums and light enough to carry up and down the steps at Tube stations and not cause too much consernation in crowded carriages. Unfortunately, I left it too late to book into first class, which is a shame as we got free sausage sandwiches (i.e. breakfast) last time… plus, I got to savour the look of sheer horror on the faces of fellow grown-ups when I placed a small child in the expensive seats… and their relief when they realised he is actually a pretty well-behaved small child. Yes, I take full credit for that.

We arrived around lunchtime on Monday. I strapped on his ‘busy place wristband’ (carrying my mobile number), then we picked up some lunch at M&S at Euston Station, and walked to Gordon Square for a picnic. It was a beautiful sunny day, and many staff and students of nearby UCL were out in the garden too, sitting in small groups on benches, walls, lawns, and under trees. We were also joined by some over-friendly pigeons and squirrels, but if you’re 5, this is positively delightful. I was intrigued to discover that the Bloomsbury Group had picnicked there just over a century before; illustrious company indeed.

After that, it was on to the British Museum. I absolutely love the eclectic collection here, and the museum shop will happily provide (for a small fee) a children’s guidebook which lists 10 things to spot in various galleries, as well as collections of objects on particular themes. We did the 10 objects ‘treasure hunt’ last time, which went down well, and this time the boy selected animals to hunt for – which was going ok until the tortoise and the peacock turned out to be in the Islamic World gallery, which was closed. We were somewhat over-charged for a Diet Coke in the café and for icecream outside, but it was a hot day, and considering entrance to the museum itself is free – as is usual in the UK – I didn’t feel too aggrieved.

I charged up my Oyster Card at Russell Square and we descended the 175 steps to the Tube (there is a lift, but the spiral staircase is more fun) and made our way to Charing Cross and from there to St Martin in the Fields, which has a brilliant cafetiera-style cafe in the crypt. It’s fabulous value for money, with good quality eats and free iced water, and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere; the cool, subterranean air was also welcome after such a hot day. It’s not well-known, but I always eat there if I have a couple of hours to kill in the early evening in London, waiting for the more affordable trains. Strangely, it’s particularly welcoming if I’m on my own; it seems to attract single men and women who are content to sit and read through dinner, so I have never felt vulnerable or conspicuous becoming one of them – a rare thing indeed.

After that, we made our way to Wallington via Victoria, where I tucked a very tired boy up into his bed on the sofa before drinking wine and talking late into the night with my friend.

The next morning, we got the 9:48 into Victoria (to avoid the commuter rail fares) and on from there to Embankment. We strolled across London Bridge in the sunshine, pausing to take in views of Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and The Shard. We walked on past Southwark Cathedral to The Golden Hinde, which my son instantly classified as a ‘pirate ship’ before spending a happy couple of hours exploring all four decks (particularly the one with cannon) and the captain’s quarters. He couldn’t quite decide whether he wanted to be the captain (particularly after trying out the ship’s wheel) or ‘the one who fires his cannon furthest and fastest’. It was surprisingly hands-on and accessible, and we were fortunate enough to get there and have it to ourselves before a school group arrived, at which point it was somewhat overrun – it is not a large ship, despite being designed to carry 60 crew!

We paused for lunch at Southwark Cathedral, which was excellent, decent value, and surrounded by a striking exhibition from the City Lights series by John Duffin. Afterwards we strolled down the south bank in the early afternoon sun, hand-in-hand, wearing our shades and summer clothes… it doesn’t get much better than that.

Our destination was HMS Belfast, which was vast by comparison to the Golden Hinde (not surprisingly, as it was designed for 1000 crew!) but similarly hands-on and accessible. We explored the decks, guns, shell room, and exhibitions describing the ship’s development and major battles, and what it was like to live on board. I felt a lot more comfortable talking about where people slept and what they ate, than the details of weaponry, sights, explosives and radar – warfare is something I really have no enthusiasm for. My eldest was in his element, though, so – mission accomplished.

After that, we had an hour or so left before it was time to travel back to Wallington again, so we jumped on a Thames Clipper to the London Eye, then back on the Underground to Queensway, for a quick play in what is possibly the best playground in the world: the Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. Next time, if the weather is good, we will spend the whole afternoon there – if not the whole day. As it was, my son had time to explore the pirate ship very well indeed, which was fitting considering the boat-related theme of the day. I just-about dragged him away in time.

The next morning we only really had time for one thing, and if you are 5 you cannot come to London and not see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. Last time, we visited to find they were being cleaned, so I was very glad to see the exhibition was open again – and so was my eldest. We must have spent over an hour looking at all the skeletons and having a play with many of the interactive elements. After an expectedly expensive trip to the shop, and an unexpectedly expensive tea and cake stop in the café (in retrospect, not too bad… perhaps I’d just had enough of ‘London prices’ by this stage), we did a quick tour of the mammals gallery – complete with lifesize blue whale – and found some hidden gems in the old-fashioned wood and glass cases of the minerals gallery, shown in the photo above. There is an area to the rear of this gallery called The Vault housing precious stones, including the Aurora Collection of 296 diamonds in myriad colours and shapes and sizes; beautiful.

Obviously there was much more to explore, including a visiting exhibition entitled Animal Inside Out from the team behind Body Worlds (my son was moderately intrigued by the plastinated and dissected camel from the exhibition in the Central Hall, but didn’t particularly wish to see more). I also missed visiting the adjacent Science Museum, which is also fascinating and very well presented, but has a more contemporary feel – we visited last time, and my son particularly enjoyed the engines in the entrance hall and Launchpad, a large area designed to help kids get ‘hands on with science’.  The Natural History Museum and Science Museum are a day out in themselves, but there is also the Victoria and Albert Museum just around the corner, for older kids (and parents) interested in art, craft and design.

But we were out of time. It was back to Euston again, via M&S for a late lunch, just in time to catch our train. A lot of wonderful things in a short period, which we will be talking about for weeks and months and maybe years to come.

Wonderful things in unexpected places

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is John 1v45-47, where Philip finds Nathaniel and invites him to meet Jesus, “the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel’s response is “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” He cannot comprehend that someone of cosmic significance would originate from somewhere that is, really, nowhere. Philip’s reply is “Come and see”.

You can almost see the twinkle in Philip’s eyes, the delight in the seeming impossibility of finding so great a thing in so humble a place. It is wonderful when that happens; it reminds us that excellence, originality and talent are not the preserve of the rich, well-connected or expensively-educated, but can be found in the most surprising places.

I’ve had two such experiences in the last three weeks. No, I haven’t found the Messiah (twice) – that happened a while ago (once) – but I did find some wonderful things in unexpected places. As a born and bred Northerner, I’m also very pleased to say that this happened on my home territory. With the London-centric perspective of government and media, you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing of note happens outside the M25. Let me assure you that that is most definately not the case.

At the beginning of May, I had to book a table for two in Sheffield. I was meeting a friend who travels a lot and gets wined and dined in superb eateries on a regular basis, so I was a bit nervous. On the recommendation of a colleague, I booked The Milestone in Kelham Green. My nervousness increased as the taxi wove deeper into Sheffield’s former industrial heartland to an inobtrusive place amongst old warehouses. I needn’t have worried. As soon as we walked in, the warm welcome, bare wood tables and sea-green walls set the tone for a cosy and relaxed evening. My friend settled into a chair, stroked the table-top and said – half-surprised, half-impressed – “This is nice.” The food (all three courses – heritage tomato salad, belly pork, and petit fours for me) was excellent if not outstanding, and the drinks (G&T, Chablis, coffee, whisky) to wash them down were spot-on. Even though we hogged a table for 4 hours on a Friday night, we never felt rushed. My friend was very impressed, personally thanked the chef, and wanted to return again the same weekend with colleagues. I think that counts as a minor triumph.

Last night, I travelled to Bar 1:22 in Huddersfield, another inobtrusive place, this time at the end of a characterless concrete shopping arcade, next to the ring road. The ambience was somewhat undermined by the occasional ambulance or police car flying past the open windows, sirens blaring. It was packed to the rafters with a sell-out audience of around 100 people, gathered to see the headline act’s only UK gig of the summer.

We arrived about 30 minutes after the doors opened to cold beer and more-than-competent support from Sam Prowse and Isaac Grinsdale (frontman of The Great Argument, and also on sound for the evening!)… but we were really there to see Jon Gomm, shown above, the guitarist and singer who has come from relative obscurity to modest fame due to the popularity of his versions of Aint Nobody and Message in a Bottle on youtube. Check out his own compositions too – Topeka, Passionflower, GloriaHey Child and Loveproof.

He was passionate, confident, articulate, and above all technically awe-inspiring… whilst being refreshingly accessible, good-natured and unpretentious. And even better – he is well and truly Northern, born in Blackpool (to a music critic father who brought him into contact with a long list of blues guitar legends) and now lives in a not-particularly-salubrious corner of Leeds.

I have been looking for a musician to get excited about for some time, and I have found that in Jon. I bought everything he’s ever recorded and yes, I’ll be back for seconds.

Steampunk

A few months ago, this delightful creature turned up on my facebook feed, courtesy of Boing Boing. He announced himself as ‘steampunk Lego’. I have loved Lego, as I’m sure most of us have, since a young and tender age… but what on earth was steampunk? I’d heard the term used a few times but thought it was time to investigate.

I almost lost the will to pursue my enquiries when the first webpage I turned up informed me that steampunk was difficult to define. It was broadly a literary and film genre in which the 19th-century-style heroes face malevolent technology, as exemplified by The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (books) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sherlock Holmes (films). I’ve never been massively into this – or any other – strand of sci-fi, so this didn’t help me much.

Steampunk literature and film has given birth to a design aesthetic which is easier to get a handle on through the wonders of Google images, and which I would describe as techno-Victoriana. Think polished wood, brown leather, glass and brass; exposed clockwork and other cogs, wheels and levers; engraving; fretwork; ornate keys and dials. This can be applied to a whole range of objects, and the result is normally quite ornate, tactile and at once magical and industrial.

For example, consider this variation on the skeleton clock, the computer workstation, or even Star Wars’ R2D2. I find them all rather beautiful to look at, and the skillful and creative use of  ‘period’ materials certainly contributes to the appeal, but am somewhat deterred by the thought of having to keep such ornate objects clean. It’s worth remembering that the rich Victorians who filled their houses with similar clutter also had staff to dust and polish it.

The features of steampunk design have also been carried through to fantastic personal style. This, says Jess Nevins, is ‘what happens when goths discover brown’. Steampunks look like missing characters from League Of Extraordinairy Gentlemen, appearing as brave adventurers carrying weird and wonderful anti-evil contraptions. I wouldn’t mind dressing up like that, it’d certainly be more my style than the funereal black usually associated with goths… but I’m really not that outlandish in my dress and can’t see that I would ever be able to justify the time and money required to introduce my inner steampunk to the world. I have enough trouble finding the time and opportunity to engage with the real world without disappearing into an alternative reality for prolonged periods.

But, back to the Lego. I don’t think it can be really be classified as steampunk as so much of this aesthetic originates from the choice of materials; perhaps ‘steampunk-inspired’ would be better. It’s still pretty cool, though.