Friday, 31 July 2009

More than Most...

So today we went to Oddballs (est 25 years!) in Camden Market. This is a shop to visit and to spend a long time in. Not because it is very, very large (it isn't), nor because it carries a huge range of stock (it isn't bad, but that isn't the point).

No, the reason for staying a while is that the staff are exactly what you used to get from the BR International Booking staff at Victoria station when trying to book an open return railway ticket to Vienna via Cologne (pre-privatisation and pre-Tunnel).

In other words, knowledgeable, helpful specialists who are deeply interested in their subjects and in your wants. At Victoria in those Halcyon days, a somewhat portly man in his thirties carefully leafed through multiple International Railway timetables and complex fares manuals, (real books, not Web sites), making notes on a pad with a stub of pencil and occasionally looking up to ask me for detailed clarification on difficult points regarding my desired journey. He thoughtfully offered choices to help me reduce the overall ticket price, and advised me (from his personal knowledge) on the platform layout at Cologne station so that my changes would be easier. This is all true, it really happened, and not that long ago (1989/1990), and it was wonderful. Today, following the nasty Tory demolition of the railway system in the UK (which I think we can all agree has resulted in an unsightly, disorganised and loathsome mess of a service and inter-alia created a new, mean-spirited language that diminishes those who choose to use the railway, changing us from passengers to customers and promoting the cheap shoddy term 'train station') , the same travel problems have no easy solution (although to be honest, the Man in Seat 61 isn't a bad try at offering something a bit more limited on the InterWeb).

Deep breath.

What I was going to say is that a visit to Oddballs is joyful, because of the staff. Today we witnessed one of the chaps on duty spend about half an hour with a Dutch family whose son wanted a new yo-yo - and that, if you don't know about these things, is a complex and difficult decision. The boy showed what tricks he could do and there followed a complicated Dutch - English conversation (given the topic, let's say it was in Danglais), with illustrative tricks being demonstrated with the various different yo-yo technologies by the shop assistant. At the end, with the relevant yo-yos being selected for purchase, the conversation moved on to additional equipment and adaptations; when the assistant could not quite work out how the chuck worked on one machine, he took the trouble to ring up someone who knew more about it on his mobile. Meanwhile, the other assistant spent considerable time (well over 20 minutes) coaching on how to perform tricks using two diablos at a time (diablii?), on the same string. Both of these exemplars discussed different equipment with other customers as they continued, and the yo-yoist stopped briefly at one point to show me some nice Henry's Thuds - and just as a side illustration he performed a five-ball cascade. Marvellous. We must have spent an hour in there and I was entranced. Oh, and we did of course spend a fair amount of money in the shop as a result. Just don't tell the Tories about it.

There is a further point, of course. Both examples suggest that online shopping - e-commerce - is unlikely to be able to offer the full, fun experience of a physical visit to certain shops. Those quirky bookshops with (hopefully) serendipitous filing systems, and those markets where you can smell the carrots, cheeses or tomatoes before you buy. Not to mention those places where you can also smell the books... Oddballs has a very good Web site - with lots of demonstration videos and Flash movies - but it is nothing like the real visit.

But as the railways have proven, this doesn't mean that these wonders will survive. And they certainly won't if we don't get out and use them. So the message is: get out there and enjoy the show.

(The title of this post comes from the name of a now-defunct juggling shop that I used to frequent, called More Balls than Most. Like Oddballs, and BR International Enquiries, a visit was a real treat. But it is no longer there. Again - don't let this happen to a joy near you).

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Curse of Tom Lehrer

This is kind of hard to explain well, but here goes.
School opera. End of school year, so we went along to support them and enjoy ourselves. Eldest had some involvement.

The Mikado. Now, I have been a G&S fan for a long time, and The Mikado was one of the first of the Savoy operas I ever heard or saw. (I have a peculiar memory of seeing it on telly with Eric Idle in the role of Lord High Executioner?). Watching the school production (which was very good), lots of the libretto came flooding back, including famous phrases such as 'Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative'. Trips off the tongue, really.

Anyway, a few days later we started off on Summer Hols, and embarrassingly I began to sing the finale song (or one of them) - about how he's 'gone and married Yum Yum,' of course. I suddenly found myself going wildly off-piste (according to eldest, who stuck to the correct chorus). I'd announced in my weak, off-key way that: '...I love she and she loves I...'. What was this? My memory of the operetta from way back had failed me.

Anyway, eldest fiddled around in the back of the car and solved it for me. He produced his shiny i-Pod thing, which tinnily blurted out:

To end on a happy note, one can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying nothing.

That I missed her depressed her
young sister named Esther,
This mister to pester she tried.

Now her pestering sisters
a festering blister,
You're best to resist her, say I.

The mister resisted,
the sister persisted,
I kissed her, all loyalty slipped.

When she said I could have her,
her sisters cadaver
Must surely have turned in its crypt.

Yes, yes, yes, yes!

But I love she and she loves me.
Enraptured are the both of we.
Yes I love she and she loves I
And will through all eternity!

See what I mean?

So in my mind, I'd replaced the real lyrics from the finale of the Mikado with Tom Lehrer's (admittedly brilliant) pastiche. Which seemed to join perfectly with part of the real chorus.

I suspect the part that it superseded in my mind was:

- The threatened cloud has passed away,
- And brightly shines the dawning day;
- What though the night may come too soon,
- We've years and years of afternoon!

Sigh. What can you do about the man?

I think it's the combination of real musical skill and astonishing lyrical dexterity that gets me.

Some of the jokes may have dated slightly (who really remembers the 'Cool School'?) but so much of this is wonderfully fresh.

Friday, 10 July 2009

A complaint

It has just been drawn to my attention that not all of the underlined elements of my posts are hyperlinks, and not all of the linked elements are underlined. Apparently this is confusing.


Thursday, 9 July 2009


I was given this book (How to Fossilise your Hamster and other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist) for my birthday last year (thanks Garie). I kind of set it aside, and let others read it, because it had quite a lighthearted cover and sounded very shallow.

Finally, I read it. It is much better than it seemed. Lots of short simple experiments demonstrating bits and bobs of science. Some of them are quite clever (have a look at the one involving a bar of choclate and a microwave oven - I will have to try that myself). And the experiments have explanations that are mostly correct.

I say mostly, because sometimes I get the impression they have been written by someone who doesn't quite get it. They are seemingly strong on chemistry and biology, but some of the physics explanations feel a little awry. See for example the one about the candle on a revolving turntable. Still, it is mostly pretty good.

Is this a trend? The Clay Shirky book (Here Comes Everybody:The Power of Organizing without Organizations) has a similar problem. With an irritating title and a lighthearted cover, it comes across as the worst of popular science books, when actually its quite serious and interesting. Fun, even. But someone seems to have concluded it has to be packaged differently in order to sell.

Sigh. You can't judge a book by...

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The trees around Nunhead on Tour 16: Hadrian's Wall and Vindolanda

One of the greatest treasures in the British Museum are some dull-looking thin wooden tablets. These were found during an excavation of a fort on Hadrian's Wall, on the Scottish borders. Many of the tablets are on display in the Museum's Romano-British galleries (room 49, The Weston Galleries). However, to see where the people lived who wrote the tablets, you have to go to Vindolanda itself. So on the way back from the Lake of Menteith that is exactly what we did.
The fort in the picture above is not original....

In a rather neat way, the great Northern Tour was thus bookended by major archaeological sites. We began, pretty much, with Cresswell Crags and ended with Vindolanda. Both with strong links to the local landscape, and also with the Museum.

In between, we did an awful lot of history. York, Durham, Edinburgh and Stirling, of course - but also smaller locales such as Inchmahome and Doune. Well it's all over now; so time for another Tour, I think.

Now and Again

I'd never done this before.
It was eldest's idea to send off for the tickets. Ken and youngest came too. We met up at Broadcasting House around 6-ish, and queued in the baking sun for around thirty minutes. After several challenges about youngest's age, we went in to a waiting area (bar).

The Now Show is recorded on Thursday evenings, and broadcast on Friday. Most of the comedy is about what has been happening in the news over the last few days.

In the theatre (cold, really well airconditioned) it is prett basic - just five or six mikes, and a row of chairs at the back of the stage for the cast. They turn up with scripts and, well, read them to the audience. and Mitch plays some songs.

It works. Easily as well as on the radio.
Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis do the warm up themselves (a brief bout of HD physical body comedy ensues), and then off they go. On our night they did 75 minutes, plus a few corrections (fluffed lines and one re-recorded song). That gets edited down to the 28 minutes you hear the next evening. The show started a little after 7:45 and we were out around 9:20.

The high points for me were the extended Marcus Brigstocke rant and a song that was witty but not broadcast in the end. But what really surprised me was how relaxed and, well straightforward it all seemed. For example, as we the audience waited, we all got the chance to enter the 'audience answers' to the question of the week. Then, while on stage, during rants and songs, Punt and Dennis go through them and pick the ones they will use (some of which are eventually broadcast - but none of ours, alas).

Our audience seemed to include a fair few who had been there before - regulars who made requests in the warm up and knew what was coming next. And I can see the attraction. A regular (I assume) Friday night get-together with friends, some comedy, free entrance, and out in time for the pub. Marvellous. I could see how the cliquey clubability of it might put some people off, but to me it just seems another form of fandom. (And in point of fact, the middle-aged man in front of us in the queue was wearing a tee shirt that proclaimed him to be a Time Lord, and he said he had a sonic screwdriver in his carrier bag).

Finally, we listened to the broadcast show on Friday. Funny - perhaps not the best, but pretty good.

In conclusion: well worth doing. One regret: that I've never been before; it seems so obvious now. I would have loved - for example - to have seen ISIHAC in its prime. Oh well, pint half empty, me.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


I suppose I ought to be upfront about this post - it is going to be quite a lot about Victorian sewers and their contents, and the management of that content.

Even more frighteningly, it also contains pictures of restored steam engines, and those enthusiasts responsible for them. This can be quite scary. You may require safety equipment.

Anyway, grumpily we set out, heading for Crossness. (Joke)

The Crossness pumping station was part of the new system of London sewers built by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s. It contained four huge beam engines that pumped up the effluent from the sewers before they were discharged into the Thames. The beam engine house remains, and the four great machines all survive. (The equivalent building at Abbey Mills on the North of the Thames survives but contains no equivalent engineering contents - a further pumping station at Deptford no longer remains at all).

Crossness is a Grade I listed building. A lot of conservation work has already taken place, and more is planned. This brings together enthusiasts about industrial archaeology, engineers and of course steam engine enthusiasts (I did warn you).
And fans of other old engines.

Much of the interior of the beam engine house still needs a lot of conservation.

This is a photograph looking upwards at an old, rusty beam of one of the four engines.

This is one of the rusted compression chambers of the same engine.

Although much of the interior is unrestored, a significant proportion has been, and quite beautifully. This shows the gleam of colour the restored section gives off, as visible from the unrestored area.
There are lots of attempts, some more meaningful than others, to sho how all of the ironmongery works:
This side room, still with much work to do, gives some sense of the vastness of the whole space:

The London sewer was a huge, prestige project. This plaque records a visit (the opening?) by the Royal Consort.
And now on to the restored section. The lantern, polychromatic, bright and light, was built to allow natural light into the engine room floor. The paintwork is beautiful.

Similar decorative ironwork is wrapped around each of the engines:

The four engines were named after members of the Royal Family, such was the high profile and seriousness of the project. The great sewers were commissioned following the Great Stink and the cholera epidemics in London, and were a huge engineering undertaking.

Victoria is awaiting restoration work.
While the Prince Consort seems as good as new.

Although the engine moves, the great coaling staithes and boilers no longer exist; so the beam engine is powered by an oil-fired engine next door. Apparently it barely has the power to move the great weight of the beam and wheel. For this reason, the lifting pistons below the beam - which raised the effluent through a sequence of valves - are currently disconnected.

When originally built and opened, the project seems to have brough together an eclectic mix of Victorian engineers and artisans, and the Great and Good. Something of the flavour seems to be captured below.The details on the pillars are wonderful, pointles excresences.

You can also descend to the lower level. This shows the disconnected pistons below the engine.

Part of the restored engine is also operational at this level.

The restored areas show a serious attention to detail. This restored grill is based on written records of the time, apparently.
There is a higher level access as well - it is about two standard house floors high - and there is a terriffic view out across the Thames to the North.
As you can see, the upper level seems light and airy - however, the floor is grillwork and I have no head for heights - so I stayed below. The feared grill:

This really captures the size of one of the main beams - in this case the restored one:

From the upper to the lower level again. A spiral staircase leads down from the centre of the lantern area to further subterrannean workings. The view up from the bottom is quite special.

As a reminder, there is still considerable restoration and conservation work to do.
For the record, this is how it all worked...

Outside the main beam engine house, there is a small exhibition space, containing some smaller, more modern engines.

This one seems to involve teapots.
This wall suggests the range of trade names there were for toiletware in the 19th Century.
While this wall suggests some of the other alternative terms that have been used.

One final note. The old Crossness pumping station is situated inside a much larger Thames Water complex. Its awkward to drive there - you have to find exactly the right road - and it is not regularly open. If you are interested in visiting, you'll have to check the Web site to find out when it is open next.