Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Happy 82nd birthday

Table loaded with birthday feast

We'd been planning for ages, covering all eventualities and managing food, drink, venue, helpers, invitations, music and slide show. At last the day came, dad in his finery (suit) and ready for all comers.

The weather was beautiful, which was lucky because it really helped to use the garden as well as the house. Sister D brought wine and all the food from the caterer, we had a helper who offered drinks round and did lots of washing up, Lola II brought chairs, laptop, and created the slides for the presentation, I brought soft drinks and we all brought glasses, cutlery, dishes and tablecloths. Tablecloths were a good idea - we ended up having to disguise the ironing board because we didn't have enough tables.

This was dad's 82nd birthday party, which took place on Sunday. I came down to London ahead of the event and spent Friday night and Saturday with Lola II and Mr M - as usual, the food was among the highlights of the trip. My first meal with them was some of the best ramen I have ever had, Lola II took me to her new fitness club where we did an 'Aquafit' session in the pool then jacuzzi and sauna. After a coffee we went to Richmond on the bus (note to self - never go to Richmond on the bus at midday on Saturday because it will take an hour instead of 20 minutes) and ate at an open air Bavarian restaurant facing the river - luckily the weather was perfect. Two excellent meals - and then the party.

All the guests arrived, lunch was delicious, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, dad gave an illustrated talk mostly about his early life, we all had tea and went home. There was enough food left over for us all to take away lunches for the rest of the week. I think it went better than any of us had hoped.

Happy birthday dad!

The birthday boy

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Royal Mail apologises

This arrived on Thursday:

Torn envelope and letter headed 'Our Sincere Apologies'
Click on the images to enlarge them

The envelope was inside the plastic bag, and its flap was torn as shown in the picture. It was postmarked June 2014, and was a lovely thank-you card from Hugh (thank you, Hugh!) with an appliqué flower. There was also another letter:

It must have felt a bit like something was enclosed with the card because of the flower. You read about this sort of thing, but it's interesting to see the actual evidence of the crime.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Weekend in Rugby

So I went to Rugby for a weekend to mooch about and get to know the town. I had a surprisingly good time - I wasn't expecting to enjoy myself quite as much as I did. I put some of the enjoyment down to the fact that I planned in advance more than usual, checking out places of interest, food emporia and even booked a ticket to the theatre. The weather was cold but mostly sunny, and even when it wasn't sunny it didn't rain much.

Pub interior
The Merchant's Inn
On Friday night I started with some basic orientation and wandered about the town centre for a bit. There were a few places I was looking for, and I ended up eating chilli with a half pint of Doom Bar in The Bank. I wasn't intending to do much more, but on the way back I passed The Merchants Inn, which is renowned for its beer, and it was early so I went in for a cheeky one. They have a vast range of beers, including more than one type of mild! So I had a half of Moorhen Mild, which was very tasty. That's a very fine pub indeed.

I went into a supermarket that a patient had mentioned - it is amazing. It stocks all manner of Eastern European food, mainly from Poland but also from Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, and seemingly no UK brands at all unless they are sourced from these countries (so for example I think I saw a Polish version of a Kitkat). There was half a wall of different sausages in the self-service chilled cabinets down one side, and then another half a wall of more sausages on the other side ready to get sliced for you. There were many, many unfamiliar products and several that I couldn't identify at all.

Best of all, for the first time since our trip to Lincolnshire, I found the frozen curd cheese desserts we first tasted there. Lola II and Mr M have been into every Polish shop and supermarket in London and failed to find any; we have now found our source. What's more, I found the same desserts in a second, similar shop in town, and I reckon if I'd bothered to go into any others they'd have been there too.

Colourful fish-type creature
On Saturday I'd planned to go to the Visitor Centre, Art Gallery and Museum, which are all in the same building along with the town library. The Art Gallery wasn't bad, and along with its pictures it had quite an entertaining selection of papier mâché creatures. The Museum was just one room with stuff in cases as per any local museum, representing local industry. In Rugby this comprises engineering (various light and heavy engineering firms - Frank Whittle designed his first jet engine around here), telecommunications (including GEC), the railways, the cement works, and the game of Rugby including the manufacture of rugby balls.

Silver trophy in case
As might be expected, the game of Rugby features heavily in the tourist attractions of the town, including the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum and in the tour of Rugby School. The museum caters for the enthusiast, and I've never been particularly interested in the game, so the couple of rooms of memorabilia held little interest. I watched the film of how a rugby ball is constructed by hand - or perhaps how it used to be constructed by hand, it's probably all done by machine nowadays.

Chapel interior with pews and stained glass window
The guided tour of the school was much more interesting. Rugby School was founded much earlier than I realised (in 1567) in order to provide a free education for local boys in what was then not much more than a hamlet. It moved to its present site in 1750, which at the time was on the edge of the growing town, but is now very central as the town has expanded. The architecture is beautiful, much of its decorative brickwork designed by William Butterfield, but adorned with ivy and wisteria in a very attractive manner. I went on a tour of the main school site, although there are many other buildings belonging to the school scattered about the town. We went into the chapel, an (empty) assembly room with 19th century graffiti on the walls, a couple of courtyards, and one of the older classrooms which was a peculiar mixture of ancient books in bookcases, a blackboard, a jury-rigged data projector, a whiteboard, modern tables and a stained glass window featuring 18th and 19th century headmasters.

Statue of Webb Ellis carrying rugby ball
Obviously there is much emphasis on that cheating footballer William Webb Ellis who is supposed to have picked up the ball and run with it in 1823. In fact, he is probably unrelated to the development of the game, the attribution being made by another pupil long after both had left the school. Anyway, other notable alumni include Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's Schooldays), Rupert Brooke, Neville Chamberlain, Lewis Carroll and Salman Rushdie. I'm thinking of reading Tom Brown's Schooldays again, although the tour guide's opinion is that the first part of the book is pretty uninteresting.

The weather was cold enough that I was now looking for a warming lunch. I'd had a cooked breakfast in a generic cafe, but a late lunch was planned at a well-regarded vegetarian restaurant called Summersault. I had a big bowl of cauliflower and fennel soup with a delicious bread roll that had a seam of real olives inside it.

I'd done a whole lot of walking around by now, so nipped back to the hotel to change before going to the theatre to see 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. I thought I'd have a nap, but realised I'd better set an alarm, which woke me in good time to get ready. The trouble was that I didn't get up straight away, so woke with a start 20 minutes before the performance was due to start. I got there just in time, and the performance was very good, especially of the young actor playing Anne, but I knew the story wasn't going to end well. If I'd delayed my visit by a week or two I could have had a less depressing experience with 'Hairspray'.

Sculpture of horn player in the park
Sunday started with an impressive vegetarian breakfast at Bacco Lounge. What I'd planned for the day was to follow the 'Path of Fame', a walking tour through the town featuring a whole lot of brass plaques set in the pavement to celebrate rugby players over the years. In the Visitor Centre they updated me with the news that all the plaques had been removed, but I could have a booklet with the route in it if I wanted. In fact this was fine, because I wasn't particularly interested in the sportsmen but the booklet had interesting information about the town. It pointed out features of buildings and I saw a few nice sculptures and public art and a couple of little parks.

I tried to do a bit of shopping over the weekend, but my poor shopping skills meant I managed only food and socks. Back at the Eastern European supermarket I treated myself to a stock of curd cheese ice creams as well as a pack of ready-made pierogi, sausage, smoked cheese and pickled herrings. I tried shopping for household goods but made little progress. So it was time to come home.

The weekend was pretty good, and certainly more fun than I had expected. I put it down to planning ahead, while acknowledging also that it was very fortunate that most of the time it didn't rain.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Segway polo

Line up of all the players + Coach
Fully accredited members of UKSPA, May 2015
A while ago when I was entering my 50th year and feeling somewhat over-wrought, I decided to make a list of things I'd like to do. A bucket list. I didn't assign any timescales, and I don't feel any particular pressure to achieve them all, particularly if they turn out to be difficult or expensive or unrealistic.

There were only twelve things on the list, and I achieved the first one last year when I first ran 5 kilometres. As I said at the time, and have been saying ever since, that should have been the end of it, but somehow I've carried on running. In a strange way I've started to experience what might be called 'enjoyment' - not generally while I'm running, but for most of the day afterwards. I've even signed up to Run Forest Run in November, which is 10k plus an obstacle course - an account of last year's race is here.

Now I have been able to cross another item off the list. This one feels a lot like an event from my teens and twenties: those of a certain age may remember a TV programme called 'Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead' (usually abbreviated to 'Why Don't You'). I used to watch this occasionally, but I remember one episode in particular. It featured a group of kids on unicycles, and I think they were playing basketball or something similar. When I saw that, I instantly wanted to do it. By an astonishing coincidence, the college I attended years later had a unicycling club, so I was absolutely thrilled to be able to realise that long-held dream.

I had a similar feeling when I first encountered the Segway. Unlike the unicycle experience, I can't remember exactly where or when that was, but it must have been after 2001 because it seems that is when the Segway was launched. So having a go on a Segway was an item on my list of things I'd like to do.

The Segway is prohibited from public highways in the UK, but is used for guided tours in several European cities. I think Mr A and I first saw this opportunity when we visited Bruges, but unfortunately the cost was so high that I didn't feel able to justify it, especially as we would have to do as we were told and follow the guide at a sedate pace rather than, for example, seeing how fast we could go backwards...

I mentioned this recently to Lola II and she egged me on towards Google, which led to the utterly unexpected but fantastic discovery that a) there is a recognised sport of Segway polo, and b) the centre for Segway polo in the UK is... my home county of Warwickshire. This felt like finding out all those years ago that the place where I happened to be living had a unicycle club. So of course, I had to find out whether I could give this a try, or whether like city tours, it was beyond my reasonable budget. I emailed the UK Segway Polo Coach, who replied very promptly.

At the time, they were offering interested parties like myself the opportunity to join in a training session with more experienced players, for 2 hours and not that much money. At the same time they were up to their necks in organising an international tournament. I couldn't fit in with the dates on offer before the tournament, so I went along to the event to see how Segway polo was played.

Four players in purple and black strip riding Segways, followed by sound recordist also on Segway
The BBC Click team plus sound man
It was held in Rugby, about 30 minutes drive from home, on a fairly cold and blustery day in April. The UK Segway Polo Association did a great job of organising it, and there were two teams of TV cameras, one from the Gadget Show on Channel 5 and one from BBC Click, who even entered a team into the competition. Although I wrapped up pretty warm it was really too cold to stay for the full competition, but I certainly got a flavour of it, and in a tiny roped-off section of the car park I had my first go on a Segway. For a machine that appears to be inherently unstable, it was remarkably easy to ride and steer. I'd say that anyone able to stand could easily get the hang of it within a few minutes.

So I got in touch with the Coach again after the tournament, and asked when we might be able to have a go - but things had changed. Due perhaps to the publicity, or from understandable concern about health and safety, he now wanted new players to undertake a training course before going any further, and this would now cost a great deal more than he had quoted me when I first enquired. While I thought I could get a group together and have a go for £20 a head, this seemed most unlikely for £120 each. We negotiated, and reached a very acceptable compromise. I canvassed the people most likely to be up for this kind of nonsense - my badminton-playing friends - and they responded with enthusiasm. So off we all went to the all-weather pitch at a local sports centre on Bank Holiday Monday.

First we had to sign what we referred to subsequently as 'the death waiver' - a fairly strongly worded agreement that we understood the high risk of serious injury or even death and we weren't going to blame the organisers. Then we started - first some drills around markers to practise speed, turning and stopping, then we were given our mallets to practise dribbling and hitting the ball. And then - the first casualty, with player, Segway and mallet ending up some distance from one another, and the player seriously winded. It wasn't a collision (all our other mishaps involved more than one player), but it was actually the worst injury, with a suspected cracked rib. He still played on for the rest of the session, though...

Eventually we were deemed to be skilled enough to have a go at a real game. Segway polo is played with a series of chukkas lasting 8 minutes. There are five players including one in goal - we swapped about because the goalie doesn't have as much to do as the others on the field. I was in one of the first serious crashes on the pitch, and the best tactic (developed with practice) is not to try to hang on but to part company from the Segway as gracefully as possible. I still landed pretty hard, but I was only the first of many. We weren't supposed to crash into one another, but we weren't very good at anticipating what other players were going to do, or looking in the right direction, or turning and stopping as quickly as we needed to, so there were plenty of incidents.

It was pretty difficult to score a goal, not so much due to the skill of the goalies but because were were all a bit rubbish at hitting the ball with the mallets in a predictable direction. The two sides picked at random were evenly matched, so at the end of what seemed like a very long time the score stood at 2-2 and we finished with a penalty shoot-out at an undefended goal. By this time, I was really tired and fairly sore - my collection of bruises is quite impressive, but not as impressive as those acquired by the player with the cracked rib.

Overall I enjoyed it immensely. Would I do it again? We'll see...

Lola I on Segway with mallet

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Making plans

Skyscrapers towering over the water
Canary Wharf, March 2015
A significant event took place this week - Tech-boy over the road dealt with my PC! Mr A recommended him and made the arrangements, and he took my slower-than-a-snail laptop and reinvigorated it with a new hard disk and operating system. It now boots in real time rather than geological time and the little issues it had with launching various applications have mostly disappeared. My PC hero is the eldest son of one of our neighbours, keen on motorbikes, and Mr A has let him use the garage and helped with various matters relating to internal combustion engines and their associated motorcycles. He is also delightfully polite and helpful. I have given him more money than he strictly deserves (he was happy to do the job for nothing) on the basis that I will pester him at any time when I have technology-related problems.

The only slight impediment to boundless joy is the need to reinstall a few key applications and transfer a load of data over from the old hard disk. It's not going too badly, although I had forgotten how much I had tweaked and tailored the interface. Just when I need to do something (scan, print, edit photos etc) I realise that something is missing e.g. the printer needs installing or the software application isn't there. There will be many situations over the next few days and weeks that will catch me out. But on the whole it's a great improvement.

So two nights with no PC and then a sunny weekend meant quite a lot of work in the garden, filling rubble sacks with vegetation - one carload has gone to the dump already. The lawn is mowed and strimmed and further operations are planned, including the deforestation of the paved areas and possibly training the wisteria so that it doesn't take over the whole garden. I missed my opportunity to prune the rose, so it is forming a wall between our garden and the neighbour's that is now about 15 feet high. There's a lot of rose bush out there.

It has been raining quite hard on and off so I have put off the next stage of guerrilla gardening, and resolved to do a whole lot of the desk work that has been waiting along with further indoor spring cleaning. I have had a bit of a blitz and have cleaned many of the windows that have not seen soap and water since our house was painted, and that was a few years ago. It is still a novelty to be able to view the the scene of devastation that is the garden through clean windows.

Desk work included an assault on holiday plans, where dates and/or accommodation had not been finalised. Both are clearer now for holidays in May, June and July, there is already a firm plan for New Year and I'll look at a ski holiday for 2016 at a later date. Now I'm busy reading a travel guide book and websites with tourist information. I'm also spending next weekend in the town where I work, because I'm often talking to patients who assume I know all about the shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs in the area. So I'm going to have a good look around and get familiar with at least some of the local attractions.

It feels as though I have made a lot of positive progress on putting my life in order, which makes me feel pretty good.

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