141: more meetings than you can shake a stick at

Well, that was a week of highs and lows, it really was. One of those weeks (another one of those weeks) when you’re in so many meetings that you haven’t got time to do your job, but this week it got on top of me and sparked a meltdown panic attack on Wednesday which was definitely the low point.

The problem with not having a museum to do museum learning in is that every time you want to deliver a session – piloting new content – you need to take all the kit that in business-as-usual times would be in a handy cupboard, pack it in boxes and suitcases, seriously consider taking two 84 litre Really Useful Boxes and a massive wheelie suitcase on public transport to the school (in Ilford, in this case, on a train strike day) and then get real and book a cab. We had two sessions booked at a school where the DT department are up for almost anything, so we took the kit over on Monday – thanks to the aforementioned train strike and the seemingly interminable November weather, the journey took the best part of two hours to go 15 miles. Then, having delivered the kit to the school, I had another several hours in traffic to get home. Oh joy. What is described as ‘managed decline’ on the Central Line meant three out of four trains were terminating at Loughton, and there was an 18 minute wait for the first Epping train….which then waited five minutes at Loughton for the next terminating train as the changeover driver was on that one. I have decided every time I have to wait fifteen minutes for a train to Epping I am going to claim a refund. A faff, but the service is appalling at the moment: 42 minutes to do a 12 minute journey (four stops!) is unacceptable.

Tuesday – the day of the sessions – was amazing. I have been working with a designer called Lea Jagendorf to develop sessions which support two of the case studies in the new Design Gallery: ‘Design Can…’ is the starting point and these two sessions supported ‘Design makes things last longer’ and ‘Design responds to people’s needs’. It turned out Lea had been set as homework for the two classes, so she was confronted with 45 A3 posters all about herself…

We have built a learning collection of objects which will be in the new gallery, from the anti-hostile design DEFIANT by Hamzah Al Asadulloh to adaptive clothing by Tommy Hilfiger and Vans, alongside pieces by Petit Pli and Expandals. The sessions offer opportunities to brainstorm ideas, to try rapid prototyping with a variety of materials, and to collaborate on responding to briefs. Both classes had some amazing ideas and we’ll be seeing them again to do some co-curation for the same gallery in a couple of weeks. This week I am testing the final design session – ‘If the Shoe Fits’ – which explores user-centred design through our collection of historic and modern children’s shoes, with lots of practical making with a very varied set of materials. Support from my fabulous creative learning facilitator – who feels about materials the way I feel about shoes and books – has been invaluable.

The less said about Wednesday morning the better, but luckily the team around me are amazing and they got me through the rest of the day – which finished in Bethnal Green with a ‘sneak peek’ for local teachers. I overcatered, but the staffroom at the school benefited the next morning! It’s so good to be able to share what we’re doing behind the scenes and to ask teachers what they want from us. Miriam retrieved me from the station, fed me dinner and we played D&D which is always a high point of the week. Three of us brought lebkuchen as game snacks – it’s that time of year again!

Thursday was a day of actually achieving stuff (emails! work! planning!) which made me feel a lot better, and Friday was an adventure to Clerkenwell to meet the designer Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility who along with his partner Kim Colin made a collection of under-a-fiver objects from all over the world. They are loaning it to the new Design Gallery, and this is what we’ll be co-curating with the Ilford school the week after next. The collection is full of little oddities like magic potato peeling gloves and a terracotta foot scrubber: things designed for a specific purpose, some of which meet the need and others – like a combined craft knife and scissors – don’t. I’ve had fun tracking the objects down to create a handling collection, so my Amazon algorithms are a bit skewed at the moment. Clerkenwell is one of my favourite bits of London, all little courts and alleyways with a mix of new and ancient buildings. I also got to use the Elizabeth Line – the easiest change at Stratford and only three stops! It’s making my inner tube nerd very happy, that line, and I am looking forward to being able to hop onto it at Stratford and go all the way to Ealing to see London sister.

Other things making me happy this week…

  • Speaking of London sister – it was her birthday on Friday and despite postal strikes her present and card arrived, and she likes them.
  • The Christmas cake is baked and ready to be fed with rum for the next few weeks
  • Lots of crochet done in preparation for the Christmas Market next week
  • Dog walk with Miriam, Jill (who’s got up two days running!) and the house elves, followed by a mooch round the market, coffee, pastries and a good therapeutic giggle.
  • Tom Waits on Spotify
  • A glorious swim at 9 degrees with Jill this morning, with much swearing as we got in.

Now I must go and do the ironing, before spending some time with a glue gun and various other bits and bobs.

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Quite – Claudia Winkleman

Murder Before Evensong – Revd. Richard Coles

Don’t Need The Sunshine – John Osborne

140: so, when are we coming back then?

After being named and shamed twice in last week’s post, Jill would like me to point out that she not only made it down to breakfast at 8am yesterday, she arrived a whole five minutes before I did. And she absolutely did not have two naps on Friday afternoon in the Relaxation Lounge.

This weekend eleven of us have been away on an overnighter to Lifehouse, a spa and hotel in Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex as part of a ‘big birthday’ celebration. Booked last March, it’s been a long time coming and we have all been looking forward to it – and the wait was worthwhile. A few of us had booked Friday off work and arrived before lunchtime, while the others drifted up over the day. It’s just over an hour away from our bit of Essex, so not too far, but still far enough away for it to feel like a break.

Lifehouse, although set in some beautiful English Heritage gardens, is a contemporary hotel and the spa is very well-equipped: pool, hydropool (aka a bloody great jacuzzi thing), sauna and steam room, ‘salt inhalation experience’ and a plunge pool kept at 16 degrees, which after a sauna or steam feels a LOT colder. There are treatment rooms, a HUGE nail salon, and two lovely relaxation lounges – one dark with blankets, and the other light with views over the gardens. There’s a terrace balcony outside this one but it’s November so we admired it from within.

The pool was quite cool, so it was nice to hop out of there and into one of the hot rooms, and there were loungers around so you could relax and read (or crochet). It was quite busy when we arrived and when we left, but there were quieter periods in the day – it being Essex there was a terrifying amount of fake-tanned skin on display as well as our pale (but interesting) skin, and the friendly staff are excellent advertisements for the wide range of beauty treatments on offer. Various members of the gang indulged in massages, wraps, manicures and pedicures, facials, and two of us even did the guided meditation session. I always feel that a day in a dressing gown being terribly indulgent is a day well-spent, and we all made the most of it. Apparently there is also a gym, but I forgot my PE kit, honest. Somewhere there is a ‘hidden sanctuary’ for couples, but we didn’t see that! You can roam the hotel in your robes and slippers, but after 6pm you have to put your clothes on, bringing a whole new meaning to ‘dressing for dinner’. No wet bottoms are allowed in the bar or restaurant which caused much hilarity: maturity is not coming with age, it seems.

We made time in our hectic schedule for a few meals in the hotel restaurant: for lunch on Saturday I had cumin-roasted cauliflower which came with roasted kale, baba ghanoush, mint and pomegranate while others tried out various sandwiches and a risotto, and for dinner I tried the home made gnocchi with slow-cooked bolognese sauce. Chicken in a basket and scampi and chips were not featured on the menu, although I think a bar menu with more than peanuts would be a good addition. The menu is limited but done well, the staff are friendly and helpful, and it’s quite reasonably priced.

Breakfast (always a high point of any hotel stay) was excellent: hot and freshly cooked traditional ‘English’ selection (though it was missing black pudding, it did have good fresh mushrooms and tomatoes); fruits; porridge and overnight oats; cereal; continental meats and cheeses; pastries; toast and jams (Tiptree, of course) and juices. Coffee was generous and fresh, and they would probably have been horrified at the conversations the gang of 40 and 50 something ‘ladies’ were having over their bacon….

We’re already planning a return visit for some other significant birthdays that may be coming up next year…

Other things making me happy this week….

  1. A great night out with work colleagues at Draughts, where we played noisy board games and ate our way through the ‘Players Bundle’ menu. The Korean Fried Chicken bites were so good.
  2. Crochet, naturally. Still making tiny jumpers – now I am being asked to make them in football strips.
  3. Thing 1 is on the mend, and Thing 3 is in Wales with his aunty and our cousins enjoying his first rugby international.
  4. Working with Miriam on her social media posts. More writing!
  5. Sub-10 degrees swim in the lake this morning – still in skins, and according to Isla’s daughter we are ‘all maniacs!’.

This week I will be piloting new KS3 design sessions at a school in Ilford, making more stock for my stall, and dreaming of relaxation lounges.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

This Much is True – Miriam Margolyes

Don’t Need The Sunshine – John Osborne

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes – Rob Wilkins (Audible)

139: Definitely (still) a cat person

Right up until this morning this was going to be a blog about how – after decades as a dedicated cat person – I was coming round to the idea of dogs making quite good pets really.

Over lockdown, like manymanymany other people, some of my friends became dog owners. 3.2 million pets were purchased during lockdown (how? I am not sure even Amazon were delivering gerbils and so on). As you all know, I love a good walk so am usually up for a good wander and a putting-the-world-to-rights session with friends, and the advent of furry fiends makes these even more enjoyable.

Bella, belonging to my neighbours, was the first: an adorable miniature poodle puppy who is guaranteed to be pleased to see me and is not afraid to show it. She loves to run after tennis balls and bring them back, adores other dogs and was utterly bemused when a new kitten entered their household this year. Watching her try and encourage the kitten to play by bringing it cat toys was funny to watch, especially as Ziggy was really not convinced. This week we have been watching Ziggy attempt friendly overtures to my three furry idiots through the fence – Lulu is predictably outraged and spends ages staring through to a spot where she once spotted Zig, in case he returns. Ted and Bailey treat him more as a form of entertainment.

Ziggy remains aloof.

Dobby and Kreacher then joined the gang: rescue dogs from Europe, they moved in and have proved resistant to the idea of all other dogs. They live with Miriam and Roy, where I occasionally take refuge when working from home and there is building work happening next door. (OK, I take refuge there when I’m not working as well – this is where I play D&D and drink a lot of coffee). Dobby is the original Heinz 57 mixture and Kreacher is a miniature pinscher with enormous bat ears and a pathological hatred of pigeons. They like to sit on my lap during online meetings and stare intently into the camera. They have Mark, another of the D&D party, so well-trained that with just one look he now opens the door for them to go outside and gives them their biscuit afterwards.

On Saturday mornings Miriam, Jill (when she gets up) and I often go for an early walk through the local fields, come back via the market with pastries and drink coffee. They have now banned dogs from the market as it’s getting busy again but we still walk the hounds. Kreacher barks at all pigeons and other birds just in case, tries to stalk pheasants and both of them go demented when they see another dog. This morning Miriam and I took them out again and Dobby managed to get away from me and went to bounce at another small dog, racing round it in circles and until we caught her again. We had taken Dobby and Kreacher into the middle of the field to give the lady lots of space, but she meandered her way along s-l-o-w-l-y by which time D & K were thoroughly overexcited. I got my adrenalin from that this morning rather than a cold dip… and yes Dobby, you are the reason I am still a cat person this morning!

Other dogs in my life include Marshall and Luna, who belong to my timeshare teenagers; Loki, who is a recent arrival to the gang and the world’s biggest puppy; and Jax, who belongs to a friend in London and who I get to join on the odd walk round Shoreditch when she’s on holiday. Another rescue dog, this one hates drug dealers and has happy memories of that time he saw a squirrel in the dog park. He always greets new arrivals to his home by bringing them his teddy bear, which is very sweet. Honourable mentions to Kalie and Barney – the bruise on my leg from Kalie’s head has just about gone!

Crochet, crochet and more crochet

I finally had confirmation that I have a stall at Epping Christmas Market (3 Dec, 10am – 4pm) this year again, so have been making new stock in preparation – the trick is not letting Jill buy all of it before the day as every time I post something new she puts in an order!

There will also be the usual range of earrings (including felted puddings) and other jewellery, crocheted baubles, shawls, and so on. I am particularly enjoying these little jumpers and will be making a mini clothes rail later to hang them on. The jumper pattern is by Blue Star Crochet if you want to have a go yourself.

Other things making me happy this week

  1. My first outing as one of the external advisors to Eton College Collections this week – a meeting, a short tour of their Natural History Museum and an excellent dinner. The occasion was made even better by the discovery that an ex-colleague is another advisor, so we had a good catch up.
  2. A visit to the Young V&A site – it’s starting to come together! This was followed by cuddles with gorgeous baby Rudi.
  3. The start of a friend’s 50th birthday celebrations in the pub last night – building up to a night away at a spa next weekend.
  4. Coffee out this afternoon with another friend
  5. The Elizabeth Line. 20 minutes from Paddington to Stratford!)

Things making me less happy this week

  1. Three hours at A&E/Urgent Care GP dept with Thing 1 yesterday – severe tonsillitis (which we were told would have been considerably worse had we waited till Monday
  2. Tube strikes (though I fully support their position, obvs.)
  3. Train strikes (called off but still chaos)

Right, the ironing is looking at me (though I will be watching Bruce Springsteen on Graham Norton’s show on catch-up while I do it). Same time next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Ramble Book – Adam Buxton

Fairy Tale – Stephen King

Last Tango in Aberystwyth – Malcolm Pryce

138: back on the merry-go-round

This has been one of those weeks when – by the time Friday came around – I felt as if I’d been put through the washing machine on top spin and hung out to dry. At least I can never say my job is boring…

Monday was spent catching up with the hundreds of emails that had come in over half term, having what felt like about a dozen meetings. Taking a week off always seems to result in a lot of things that need doing, and not enough hours to do them in, as there is a whole new week of things to do when you get back. On Wednesday we were interviewing for a new role in the team, which meant another day of not getting things done (but meeting some interesting people, which is always a plus), and on Thursday we had a ‘Town Square’ event in Bethnal Green in partnership with St Margaret’s House. Friday was a day on trains: six hours, altogether, on public transport. I was speaking at Brunel University in the morning, then went back to South Kensington for a meeting and then headed home which took many hours thanks to train cancellations.

The Town Square event was a gathering of creative people held at the Tramshed, a converted (yes, you guessed it) tramshed whose architecture echoes that of our own Victorian pile – high ceilings, open space, big windows and no flipping insulation. It was cold, but we did get to hear from Maraid McEwan, our recent inclusive designer in residence and also Kazuko Hohki, who enchanted us with her tales of growing up in Japan believing in The Borrowers. We ate posh biscuits, drank a lot of coffee and brought some of the objects from our growing Learning Collection along with us – echoing the new galleries, we brought Froebel’s Gifts One and Two from the Play gallery; a maquette of Joey from the play War Horse made for us by Little Angel Theatre (Joey will be on display in the new museum, and he can currently be seen in the theatre and performance galleries at the V&A) from the Imagine gallery; and from the Design gallery we brought an outfit by Petit Pli, who feature in the case study ‘Design makes things last for longer’.

The sharp-eyed among you will be saying ‘but what about Tuesday?’. Ah, Tuesday. Tuesday was great. Despite swearing off ever getting on a coach with children again after the Spotlight trip to the V&A last February, with the mash and liquor and projectile travel sickness (amazingly, the two were not connected), I brought a class of Year 5s and their associated adults to the V&A for a very special visit.

The V&A and Penguin have published a book called Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, written by Emma Thompson (and yes mum, she did write it herself!). The star of the story is Jim, who was V&A founder Henry Cole’s dog and who is buried in the museum garden. Jim was immortalised by Henry Cole himself in a set of sketches made in Broadstairs in 1864 – a scruffy terrier type, he became the inspiration for the book. Emma Thompson met all the children, and read some of the book to them (and they all had copies to take home as well as a copy for the school).

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I had told the school that the children would be meeting Emma Thompson and would be having a ‘Jim experience’ as well as being in the photoshoot (all I can say is thank heavens for this school, as they are pretty much up for any mad schemes I suggest to them) but what I hadn’t told them is that the ‘Jim experience’ was going to be a drawing workshop with the – as it turned out – completely adorable Axel Scheffler. Probably most famous for his work with Julia Donaldson- The Gruffalo, Stick Man, Zog, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle, Tabby McTat and so many more – he’s an absolute legend with those of us who spend a lot of time reading bedtime stories or doing story time with small people.

The kids loved it – he showed them how he had drawn Henry Cole and Jim, and then they drew along with him. He signed the two large pictures he’d drawn to the school, and signed the school’s copy of the book, answered questions and – as far as the children were concerned – he was a much bigger celebrity than the actual author. Oliver the teacher was literally hopping with excitement at meeting Axel. I packed them all back onto their coach and apparently it was ‘the best school trip ever’. I do love my job! Organising the trip (I was just in charge of locating and transporting the participants) had taken several months of back-and-forth with Penguin, our comms team, the learning team and the school, but it was worth it…

Other things making me happy this week:

  • Fun at Fireworks night – helping behind the bar at a local event
  • A very rainy but glorious swim at 10 degrees c this morning
  • Lunch at the Japanese Canteen with the team
  • Catching up with The Power of the Doctor
  • The flock of parakeets in the garden this week

Not making me happy is the pile of ironing in my very near future….

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Fever of the World – Phil Rickman

Fairy Tale – Stephen King

Doctor Who: Twelfth Doctor Tales (Audible)

137: you’re making me climb mountains, Aunty Tan

Well, here I am again after a very relaxing week away with London sister (aka Aunty Tan, to the kids) and Things 2 and 3. Thing 1 declined the invitation as she was going to a drum & bass (drum’n’bass? I don’t know) thing at the Scala in King’s Cross midweek.

So, we drove down via the M40, as the M4 was in its traditional chaotic weekend state of delays and roadworks – there’s the most amazing view as the Chilterns open up in front of you at one point. This area was one of the reintroduction points for the birds, so there’s always quite a few about. Having dosed both kids with travel sickness stuff before we left (Thing 2 has form in this area – takes after her aunt) they alternated arguing with sleeping while we sang along with the traditional road trip playlist of classic rock, surf music, country and western and other songs we felt the kids needed to know. We hit Monmouth for lunchtime, couldn’t find a single space in any of the car parks and headed instead to the Red Door Deli & Diner at Millbrook Garden Centre. They do an excellent omelette, if you’re passing!

We then headed up through Abergavenny (much to the satnav’s disgust, as it was angling for the M4), through Llandovery and Lampeter and finally arrived in Llangrannog around five. Tan had booked Gerlan, over the road from the beach. The flat was lovely, with views over the beach to the caves – both kids had their own rooms, but after two nights Thing 2 decided my bed was more comfortable. I think she secretly missed her sister. The car had to be parked in the free car park up the hill, as despite advertising two spaces there weren’t any at all. ‘Up the hill’ is an understatement – Llangrannog is in the V of a very steep valley!

Thing 2 captured in pensive mode while I was swimming

The chippy was closed, so we ate pizza from Tafell a Tan, who make the best garlic bread, all sea salt and good cheese. Tan took the Things for a walk on the beach, where Thing 3 got water in his wellies and we discovered that our definition of paddling was somewhat different to theirs. Thing 2 thinks paddling means full immersion…

Sunday

I started the day with a solo dip, watched by Tan and Thing 2 from the window (always have a swimming buddy!). Three widths of the 100 metre bay was enough for me, and as I was getting out there were some other mad hardy souls getting in. The water temperature hovered around 14 degrees through the week.

What the hell am I doing?

After a quick trip to Tesco in Cardigan to get supplies (including a Curly the Caterpillar cake for Thing 2, as she hadn’t had a birthday cake the day before) we dragged the kids out on a circular walk via some woodland paths, the Urdd camp and the Wales Coastal Path. There was much whinging about being forced to ‘climb mountains’ until we hit the view after which they were practically skipping up the next slope. We had a family swim when we got back to cool off, and then I acted as sous chef while Tan made a roast dinner. I proved myself competent at cutting carrot batons and selecting potatoes, which was good as I have never managed to roast them properly!

Monday

We were so lucky with the weather all week – apart from a bit of drizzle and wind, we were able to get out and about every day. On Monday we headed up the coast to Aberystwyth, where I was allowed (briefly) to reminisce about my student days there. After lunch in Y Caban and a trip to Trespass to get Thing 3 some adventure pants we took the Cliff Railway up Constitution Hill to see the camera obscura. Thing 2 was sulking as we weren’t budging on our insistence that she would wear both long sleeves and a coat when we headed up Snowdon the following day. Afternoon snacks were indulged in at Ridiculously Rich By Alana, where they make some of the best brownies on the planet – they are available by post, and I promise you won’t regret it.

We took the kids wave jumping in the afternoon, and in the evening we stargazed at the Milky Way, saw a shooting star, and watched the tide come in.

Tuesday

It was three hours to Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and we were booked on the 10am train so we were up and on our way by 6am – as the dawn broke we were treated to some spectacular views coming through the mountain passes. It was Thing 3’s day to be stroppy, it turned out, especially when we realised he’d forgotten his coat (my fault apparently). Luckily we are Wales veterans so we were able to locate some layers in the car, and I bought him a new waterproof in the shop (in my size, and it’s very nice) to keep him dry. The wind was gusting at 54mph at Clogwyn, where the train was stopping, and there was some doubt whether it would run but it dropped to 48mph and we were able to go up. We shared our compartment with a French family, so poor Tan’s language skills were tested as as soon as they realised she spoke French they started a conversation about Brexit, politics, the monarchy and the difficulty they were having with the north Walian accent. Tan translated the driver’s commentary, but her brain was fried by the time we got to the bottom. The kids were suitably impressed.

We had a picnic lunch at Dolbadarn castle, a brief wander through Llanberis village and a walk along the lake, which I was not allowed to jump into. Dinner was at the Pentre Arms, as although Google told us the chippy was open, it lied…

Wednesday

The Things went on strike and demanded a doing-nothing day. No mountains, no walks, no driving, so that was what we did. I started the day with a dip in the sea and later we went back to the beach with the kids. We had ice cream from Caffi Patio and I sat with my crochet while the kids played in the water. Things 2 and 3 built a sand castle while Tan and I went and explored rock pools round the headland at Cilborth.

Before dinner, Tan and I walked up to the cliff path to watch the sunset with G&Ts which was peaceful and glorious, and was the source for this week’s cover photo. We started binge watching Ghosts again, and just before high tide we dragged the kids outside with their hot chocolates and watched the waves coming up.

Thursday

After another early dip, we headed to Aberaeron – Y Popty for pasties to eat overlooking the harbour followed by honey ice cream from The Hive. After lunch we headed up to Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian to see the red kite feeding. They do this daily throughout the year and it was truly spectacular. I’m not sure how the kites know what the time is but there were what looked like hundreds of them there by 3pm and the aerial display was spectacular.

We walked round the lake afterwards spotting toadstools, and had a sunset swim back in Llangrannog. Still no fish and chips though – thank heavens for pasta!

Friday

We headed to New Quay, and promised the kids they could have the afternoon back on the beach. No longer trusting Google, we had fish and chips on the quayside under the beady eyes of the local gulls, and spotted a seal bobbing about just outside the harbour walls along with a couple of cormorants dipping for their lunch. There were dolphins in the bay, according to the boat people, but we didn’t spot any.

Tan and I have been able to have whole conversations in Welsh in front of the children when we didn’t want them to hear what we were plotting, as well as practising in shops and cafes which we have enjoyed. People are very patient with us, and are happy to help when we struggle which has been very useful.

As promised we spent the afternoon on the beach, exploring rock pools, eating yet more ice cream, and finished with a last dip where Tan and Thing 3 were properly wiped out by a wave. I did some beach crochet, sheltered from the wind by the cliff.

We drive back via Raglan, avoided the M4 closures and appreciated the Chilterns from other direction. It’s always nice to drive back in the rain, it makes the end of the holiday so much easier!

This morning I have been swimming in the rain at the lake – it felt much colder than the sea, though there was apparently no difference!

Back to work tomorrow…see you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

The Magpie Key – Sarah Painter

Bleeding Heart Yard – Elly Griffiths

A Heart Full of Headstones – Ian Rankin

Straight Outta Crawley – Romesh Ranganathan

136: The out of office is ON

And that goes for this blog too…I’m typing this listening to the tide coming in over the beach at Llangrannog, West Wales, drinking a Tarquin’s Black Cherry gin and tonic. London sister, Things 2&3 and I are here for the week and my plan is to dip in the sea as much as I can, to sleep and not think about work (other than to think positive thoughts about the rest of the learning team in half term hell).

West Wales is my heart home, where I feel happiest in all the world. So I’m getting my fix!

Other things that have made me happy this week:

  • A day with a colleague at M-Shed in Bristol, where we spoke at the annual Dress and Textile Specialists conference
  • School assemblies with Really Big Pants Theatre, causing chaos with spacehoppers
  • Giving people handmade gifts
  • Trains. I like train journeys.

And now I’m signing off… Have a good week, all of you, and normal service will resume next Sunday.

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Tuesday Mooney Wore Black – Kate Racculia

Doctor Who: Tales of Trenzalore/Twelfth Doctor Tales (Audible)

Straight Outta Crawley – Romesh Ranganathan

135: don’t come dancing

On Saturday afternoon I joined my lovely neighbour at the London Gymnastics Festival in Brentwood, where her daughter was performing with our local gymnastic troupe. Taking in tumbling, acrobatics and dance, it was like all my favourite bits of Olympic gymnastics but without the boring medally bits. I took my crochet with me in case I felt the urge to channel my inner Tom Daley but I didn’t even look at it. Brilliant choreography, no one got dropped on their heads (it was close a couple of times) and more spangles than you can shake a stick at – themed performances covered Harry Potter, Bugsy Malone, the Wizard of Oz, Snow White and Mamma Mia, as well as straight dance sets with music from Katy Perry to Queen. We were slightly bemused by the Royal themed one, which appeared to begin with her Maj being carried off dead, but we suspect it was a Jubilee show that was scuppered by the whole shuffling-off-the-mortal-coil thing. The final performance was by a mixed ability group, with a Greatest Showman theme, and that was amazing. The Epping troupe, who we’d come to see, were excellent – synchronised and well rehearsed.

I have always loved gymnastics, despite being completely hopeless at it. I like dance, too, and dabbled in Flamenco (very good for stressed teachers) pre-children. I like yoga but I don’t bend in any direction. I liked Zumba, too, but then we managed to move to possibly the only village in the UK in the early 2010s that didn’t have a Zumba class. Clubbercise – aerobics in a darkened room – is pretty much my limit. I like running but my knees don’t. I am pretty good at walking though, possibly as it requires very little in the way of co-ordination. That, I think, is where the problem lies.

As soon as the instructor tries to make me do something requiring moving arms and legs in different directions things start to go wrong. It can take weeks to embed a routine in my head/arms/legs – with flamenco, particularly, I had to go home and practise for ages after every lesson otherwise I had no hope of remembering it. When we did maypole dancing in primary schools and other forms of country dancing, my most enduring memory is that of our horrible teacher calling us a useless shower when we tangled ourselves in knots.

These days I like kitchen dancing when I am cooking, and have been known to break into a few steps in an empty office. I was even caught dancing in a field (to Joan Armatrading’s Drop the Pilot) by Wicksy from Eastenders early one Sunday morning while I was on a training walk and he was walking his French bulldog. It’s a song that’s impossible not to dance to, quite honestly, especially in the summer sunshine with no one else in sight (got that wrong).

Other songs that have to be danced to include:

  • Come on Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners
  • Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
  • Just a Gigolo – David Lee Roth
  • Proud Mary/Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Waiting Room – Fugazi
  • Madison Blues – George Thorogood and the Destroyers
  • Add It Up – Violent Femmes
  • Dela – Johnny Clegg and Savuka (blame George of the Jungle)
  • Born This Way – Lady Gaga

There are more, and many of them feature on my walking/running playlist as they keep your feet going! The Things used to join in when they were smaller – Thing 3’s favourite car song was The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which he used to bob about too, and he used to get down to Uptown Funk at parties. They are less likely to dance with me in the kitchen now, but they do at least let me twirl them on occasion. One day they’ll have their own kitchens to dance in, and all I can hope for is that their taste in music improves.

Other things making me happy this week…

  • Last Sunday’s moonlight swim, with fairy lights on our heads. Winter swimming has started.
  • The new Rebus novel appearing on my Kindle
  • The autumn family day at Copped Hall, where I bought a bag of Adam’s Pearmain apples like the ones that grew in the orchard at Raglan Castle. They are sharp and crispy, and taste great even though we didn’t scrump them.
  • Catching up with an ex-colleague with a day in Eton, exploring their collections and seeing a session and having the world’s poshest school dinner. I could not manage the cheese course.
  • Crocheted Christmas decorations, including giant sprouts and big versions of the pigs in blankets

This week I am off to Bristol on Friday to present with a colleague at the Dress and Textiles Specialist conference; to the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Awards on Wednesday, and – bliss – have half term off and will be spending it in Wales.

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Believe Me! – Eddie Izzard

I Believe in Yesterday – Tim Moore

Elevation – Stephen King

134: What goes on in Cardiff in the dark

My left shin is currently sporting an impressive bruise, just at the height a medium sized dog’s head might reach if – say – they were overexcited by the the scent of a fox, it was dark, and raining, and the aforementioned shin was wearing dark jeans and boots. It’s an excellent bruise which is still changing colour and I do hope the poor hound in question – Kalie, who belongs to Jane, one of my Cardiff cousins – didn’t suffer concussion from the collision.

But why were you hanging about in the rainy dark in Cardiff, I hear you cry? Well, last Sunday London sister was running the Cardiff half marathon, so I went along for the ride and to give her a bit of support in the last couple of miles. My hound-owning cousin was also supporting, in several more places thanks to her speedy cycling, but it’s the thought that counts and I did see her at two places thanks to a bit of speedy lurching across Roath Park. The week before she had run the Ealing half marathon and today she is running the postponed (thanks to the Queen) Richmond half marathon. Mad but impressive. Anyway.

Apart from the extremely lengthy M4-avoiding detour through Newbury, Reading and other probably scenic bits of Berkshire on the way back, it was a lovely weekend. The detour on the way down, skirting Cirencester and Gloucester and through the Forest of Dean, was rather nice as we ended up in Monmouth without sitting in M4 traffic – which was where we were planning on stopping for lunch anyway. We had a bacon roll in Estero Lounge, which we felt we had to try as we’d seen it soooo many times on a local Facebook page. Usually asking when it was open, which luckily it was. It’s definitely a step up from Maureen’s caff and Buster’s the bus station caff, which were the options when we were younger at that end of town! We had a wander up Monnow Street, entertained the ladies in Salt & Pepper with our sisterly double act (but came away with a hat which didn’t make London Sister look like a) a mushroom or b)the Witchfinder General), and marvelled at Boots the chemist closing for lunch.

Dinner was in Cardiff at La Dolce Vita on Wellfield Road, where we had done a lot of shopping on weekends as children as we’d started life in Lakeside. Six of us met there for various pizzas, pastas, puddings and Prosecco-based cocktails* – representing most of the female cousins, apart from Irish sister who said Cardiff was too far for dinner and the other one. It was good to be reassured that the ability to carry on six different conversations at once is clearly a family thing (and going by the photos we are quite definitely family) – I was complimented the other week when I was running a registration desk at a forum on my ability to hold several conversations, remember a spelling and write at the same time, and this is clearly where it comes from. The restaurant runs ‘sittings’ in the evening, much like school lunches but with less custard, and they were very keen to get rid of us as we neared the end of our allotted time. They brought us the bill without being asked, and whipped all plates and glasses away as soon as they were empty. Cousin Sal took great delight in taking the longest time ever to eat a tiramisu… we then repaired to the pub to finish off conversations before walking back through Roath Park.

Roath Park was a very big part of my childhood: I remember walking through it on Sundays to ‘the Kiosk’ (now a coffee shop) to get the papers with Dad, and getting a Drumstick lolly to keep us going on the way back. It’s got a very nice lake, with plenty of bird life, pleasure gardens, rose gardens, a wild garden (that’s the dark one where Kalie ran into my leg) where the foxes live, a play area which was notable for having a massive metal slide when I was young, a cafe and various other things that any decent park wouldn’t be without.

After I’d raced across the park to see Tan at mile 12 (before ‘the Widowmaker’ as the final hill is as known) I rewarded myself with a rather nice ‘caramelised biscuit’ ice cream (Biscoff, by any other name) and wandered through the rose garden to the Conservatory which is a HUGE greenhouse type affair that we used to occasionally visit as children. I got bitten by a fish there once. Last time I went there were baby terrapins which I think had been retrieved from the main lake where they’d been released after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fever had worn off. The terrapins are still there but a LOT bigger now, and one of them was doing yoga on the edge of the pool while the rest were just lounging about on a rock. The plants are also a lot bigger, and there is a pair of whistling ducks. I wouldn’t like to get bitten by one of the fish now, they’re enormous.

I did a bit of crochet as I sat on a bench (because I can) and then wandered back to Jane’s for a most delicious lunch cooked by her husband Jason – Moroccan Lamb with Apricots, Almonds and Mint which I cooked for my beloved on Thursday as he’s partial to a bit of lamb too. I’m looking forward to heading a bit further into Wales for half term in a couple of weeks.

*Other cocktails were available and indeed drunk, but they ruined my alliterative streak.

Ooh, bees!

Yesterday one of my crafty friends and I made our annual pilgrimage to Ally Pally to the Knitting and Stitching Show where we squished yarn, stroked fabric, marvelled at gadgets and furniture and spotted Sewing Bee contestants wandering about the place. We got there about half an hour after opening and left just before they threw us out, and we had a great time – Heather and I are butterfly crafters who like to try all sorts of things and often have many things on the go at once, so we take our craft shows very seriously. Before we went in we hit the Toft Metamorphosis space where we crocheted a circle to add to the HUGE butterfly.

This year we started at the far end of the show and worked our way back which meant we avoided all the mad old ladies with shopping trolleys and pointy elbows and had the chance to actually get into stalls. Heather is a DT teacher so we started with the quilting guild show and the gallery spaces, before heading into the stalls for some inspiration.

We had a fish finger sandwich for lunch and cake at 3pm (so disciplined!) – there was much more choice of food this year. At the cake stop we sat with two elderly ladies and we all showed off our hauls, so at least Heather and I know what our future in craft shows looks like! I also ran into one of my favourite freelancers from my Museum of London Docklands days which was lovely!

I came home feeling crafty and made a couple of Christmas decorations using this pattern and Paintbox cotton yarn.

Today I think we are off to Copped Hall Autumn Family Day, with as many children as we can drag out of bed, and this evening it’s the Full Moon Swim at the lake. And I really must do the ironing…. See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

I Believe in Yesterday – Tim Moore

Believe Me! – Eddie Izzard

Twelfth Doctor Tales/Tales from Trenzalore (Audible)

133: Do I love you? Indeed I do.

Waaaaay back in the 1980s I fell for an American bloke in scruffy jeans, a white t-shirt and a penchant for bandanas on stage. Duran Duran were discarded in his wake – callow youths in their flouncy shirts and frankly ridiculous trousers! Enabled by a babysitter, I discovered the albums beyond Born in the USA. That check shirted, stubble-chinned, guitar-brandishing New Jersey boy remains my favourite nearly 40 odd years later. I even managed to write a couple of essays about him in uni, and he was probably one of the main reasons I chose to do American Studies in the first place.

You know you’ve made it when Sesame Street get in on the act

I am, of course, talking about the Boss, the one and only Bruce Springsteen. He of the E-Street Band. You know. Born to Run. Dancing in the dark with Courtney Cox. Cars and girls. Impassioned odes to blue collar America. Excellent counting skills.

Like all long-term relationships, it’s had its low points – his album, Western Stars, was definitely one of those. I listened once and then resolved never to speak of it again. Generally it’s been high points, though, and that seems to be what’s coming with his latest single ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ which is the harbinger of a new album of soul covers called Only The Strong Survive and which is a proper joyous romp in the manner of the Seeger Sessions album from 2006. I’m very much looking forward to hearing the rest of it.

Clarence and Bruce. Sigh.

Here are my favourite Bruce albums, mostly in no particular order. With 20 studio albums, seven live albums and a stack of compilations and archival releases there are a lot to choose from.

  1. Darkness on the Edge of Town. I prefer this to The River. It’s wonderfully dark in places, with lots of excellent guitars and the E-Street Band very much on form. Highlights: ‘Candy’s Room’, ‘Racing in the Streets’. Actually, all of it. It’s my favourite.
  2. Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. His first album. Completely different to his second, third and fourth albums. Practically jazzy in places. My favourites are ‘For You’ and ‘Lost in the Flood’
  3. Nebraska. Early solo effort. Recorded in his house – clearly a forerunner of the working at home thing. Highlights: ‘Highway Patrolman’, ‘Open All Night’
  4. Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75. The elegiac version of ‘For You’ is glorious, the rest of it is riotous. Especially ‘Rosalita’.
  5. Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band: Live in Dublin. Off the back of the Seeger sessions studio album (also worth a listen) this is someone having the MOST fun on stage with a bunch of his mates. Includes excellently bouncy versions of ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Open All Night’.
  6. Born to Run. Must be listened to as a whole for the full effect. If you only have time for a couple of tracks, go with ‘Backstreets’, ‘She’s the One’ and ‘Jungleland’.
  7. Apollo Theater 3/9/12 – the first full show for Bruce and the band after losing Clarence Clemons. So good, and a warm up for the Wrecking Ball tour.
  8. The Promise More of a compilation, but basically the sessions and demos for Darkness. Different versions of things, and a great version of ‘Because the Night’.
  9. Born in the USA. Peak 1980s Bruce, and never fails to cheer me up. I want ‘No Surrender’ played at my funeral.
  10. The Wild, The Innocent and The E-Street Shuffle. From the year I was born. ‘Incident on 57th Street’ and ‘Rosalita’ – completely different, completely brilliant.

I love Springsteen’s talent for bringing the characters in his songs to life: Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane, Bobby Jean, Crazy Janey and Hazy Davy, partner-in-crimes Terry, Wayne and Eddy, Frankie and Joe Roberts, Jimmy the Saint. No one is perfect, everyone is human and fallible. Springsteen may not really be a blue collar hero but he certainly grew up around them and is a born storyteller.

I’m quite sure my Springsteen-loving friends will have their own top tens, but these are mine – let’s see if the new album can edge its way on.

Things making me happy this week (apart from Bruce):

  1. Cunk on Earth. I can’t decide whether the poor academics know it’s satire or not. Either way, it’s hilarious.
  2. A great day on Thursday focused on careers – New City College in the morning helping with mock interviews and a junior school in the afternoon for ‘Aspirations Week’.
  3. Toast with Marmite and butter. The perfect food for any time of day.
  4. New haircut.
  5. Going to Wales to see my cousins tomorrow! (I am writing this on Friday night. The magic of WordPress).

Also, these finishes…

See you next week!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Michael Tolliver Lives – Armistead Maupin

Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy – David Mitchell

Woodston – John Lewis-Stempel

Doctor Who: Eleventh Doctor Tales (Audible)

132: last bastions of Englishness?

Last Sunday I had an urge for some proper Sunday night telly – the kind of telly you need when you’re full of roast dinner and want something that won’t tax your brain too much. In the 80s and 90s it would have been Last of the Summer Wine or Heartbeat, something gentle and Northern. Saturday nights had Bergerac or Casualty (aka ‘accidents waiting to happen’) once The Dukes of Hazzard, WonderWoman or The A-Team were out of the way.

In the early noughties I became hooked on Midsomer Murders: an increasingly bonkers range of suspicious deaths committed in picturesque English villages, allegedly based on Slough (of all places) and with varying body-counts-per-episode. My all-time favourite death was the one where a bloke was squished in a printing press, complete with the lettering on his chest. And possibly the one where Tiffany from Eastenders got squashed by a cheese, unless I was imagining that one.

In 2011 one of the producers claimed the show was the ‘last bastion’ of Englishness and that he intended it to stay that way: the murdered and the murderers (and the forces of law and order) were invariably white and usually firmly middle-class. In recent seasons there has been more diversity – in 2021, the production company said that 37% of guest roles in the last three series had been played by people of colour. So, a good thing, right? Definitely more reflective of British society. Right?

Hope no one reads anything into this

But is there such a thing as toxic diversity? The episode I watched on Sunday, The Scarecrow Murders, was an exercise in conscious bias: a trio of murderers, one of whom was Black, one Asian and the other homeless. The trio of victims were… white and middle-class. Another episode was set up to suggest a Black suspect from the start, though it turned out he wasn’t whodunnit in the end. For comfortable Sunday night viewing this did raise a few questions, and I hope someone starts to rectify this as I really do love this series. While I agree that, with its constant round of flower festivals, village fetes, bell-ringers and rose-covered cottages, Midsomer may well be the last bastion of Englishness…. English does not, these days, equal white. And for those of you who care, I prefer Dudgeon to Nettles. So there.

This week, however, the ‘last bastion of Englishness’ – well, Britishness – award must go to the Queen’s funeral with all its pomp and processions. My beloved hurled himself in from the garden at 11.05 as he was ‘missing it’, annexed the remote control and settled in to watch the Queen’s send off. And some send off it was too: we didn’t watch the funeral itself as gazing on people’s obvious grief felt wrong. I carried on watching the proceedings until the coverage moved to Windsor, when it all got a bit silly and they started interviewing Alan Titchmarsh.

Later in the week I found myself at another British institution – the Children’s Society, which was formed by a man outraged by children from his Sunday School begging for food on the streets. The occasion was the launch of The Good Childhood Report 2022, which shows that children’s happiness continues to decline (for a number of reasons, and social media is only one of them) and in the context of the cost of living crisis this will only get worse. They made the point that the UK is the sixth largest economy in the world and we have the highest number of children living in poverty in Europe. Mental health is in decline, and 80% of NHS funding for this is spent at point of crisis rather than in prevention; swingeing cuts to all youth services mean children are slipping through the net.

There was hope, though: a panel of young people from all over the UK spoke eloquently and bravely about their own experiences. They stressed the need to be genuinely heard and seen by the adults around them and consulted about how they can help. My own daughter’s experiences with CAMHS supports this: the automatic recourse to CBT rather than anything actually helpful; the immediate discharge if they’re ‘not engaging with’ a counsellor; the waiting lists and the lack of child centred approach.

We also heard from the amazing Bernadette Eugene-Charlery who is working with police forces in Haringey and Enfield to ensure police dealing with young people are seeing the child as separate from the crime and making what is going to be a frightening and traumatic process as understandable as possible. The police at these stations now let the team know as soon as a young person is in custody with three-hourly reports, and they are provided with a support person who will explain what’s happening and what will happen next, who will listen to them and help them. More to the point, they are also working within the system to identify children and families who are at risk of being exploited – county lines and so on – and work with them to try and prevent them ever getting to the custody stage. I didn’t expect to end up quite as emotional as I did!

What I’ve been reading:

A Promise of Ankles – Alexander McCall Smith

Dishonesty is the Second-best Policy – David Mitchell

Life in Pieces – Dawn O’Porter

Sure of You – Armistead Maupin

What Abigail Did That Summer – Ben Aaronovitch