Modern Life is Rubbish

Or the Great Plumbing Scam as I was going to name this post! Who was it who first coined the phrase “Modern Life is Rubbish”? I’ve tried googling it to find the derivation of the phrase, but I couldn’t find the answer and instead found all manner of uses of the phrase, such as its use by Blur as an album title.

Life was much simpler when I was growing up – or so it seemed. I grew up in a small village in Wales. When my parents needed a tradesman, like a plumber or a carpenter, they could find one through the village grapevine – either someone living in the village or nearby. If they couldn’t find someone through word of mouth, they would just look up in the Yellow Pages and book a local tradesman. This was one of the great advantages of living in a small community. Of course, there wasn’t as much choice and therefore the tradesmen operating in that community had a bit of a monopoly, but the system worked.

It’s said that London is a collection of villages, and with the rise of social media a whole virtual community is opened up to us. There are facebook groups and other social media sites for local recommendations that take the place of the village grapevine, such as this one.  In fact, the internet itself has opened up numerous other ways in which tradesmen can advertise, including comparison sites and ratings sites like Trusted Trader or Rated People. However, more is not necessarily better.  When I needed a builder for a small job last year I went onto a number of these sites and entered my details, but many of the sites needed me to tell them how much I was prepared to pay for the job to be done, and I simply had no idea what the going rate was. Other sites didn’t need this, just the details of the job, but having entered my details no-one contacted me. People told me that many builders and tradesmen didn’t want to take on small jobs, and there was so much work to go round that they waited for the big jobs like building a conservatory that obviously paid more.

So when my bathroom loo was leaking recently resulting in a soaked bathroom carpet, I needed a plumber and fast. I turned to social media for recommendations but came up blank. So I resorted to the trusted method of my parents and opened up the Yellow Pages. I had the naïve idea that in there I might be able to find a small, reliable, family-run local firm, called something like Pete the Plumber, that had been operating in Walthamstow for years! Yet although there were numerous adverts in the plumbing section, there was nothing that fitted the bill. Having no idea which firm to choose amongst the plethora of adverts, I decided to opt for one that had a local Walthamstow number, rather than a huge firm that might be based miles away.

Many of the adverts stated that they were “local” plumbers, or East London plumbers. Looking back I realise my mistake – I thought the titles “East London Plumbers” or “East London Local Plumbers” were the names of the firms. I chose one that advertised different numbers for the different areas, Walthamstow being one of them, and thought that I was ringing through to a Walthamstow firm if I rang the Walthamstow number.

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I rang to ask for a quote. I should have been wary when they quoted me a price of nearly £150 +VAT to come out the same day, and nearly £130 +VAT to come out the next day, but when I said I was going to ring round to get other quotes they then quoted £94 +VAT. So I booked them, and the plumber duly turned up the next day. After 20 minutes he stated that it needed a part which he would have to buy and come back on another day. The invoice he wrote out was from a firm called “RIGHTIO LIMITED” which were based in Birmingham. Hardly the local Walthamstow firm I thought I was booking. Looking back at the advert I see that at the bottom of the advert it states “Powered by Rightio”. I had not noticed this initially and had no idea what it meant.

The Rightio plumber came back two days later to fit the new part. As I was unable to get a day off work I had to arrange for a kind friend to hang around and let the plumber in. When I came back from work I found that rather than the problem being fixed, it was actually worse than before. So I rang up to get them back out. I had to arrange to take a day off work (which was no mean feat at short notice) and use up a valuable Annual Leave day for their 9-12 slot. Mid-morning I got a call saying that the plumber had been “delayed” and now would not turn up until the afternoon. Mid-afternoon I got another call stating that the plumber was further delayed, in fact so delayed that he now would not make it at all and couldn’t attend until next week. Being unable to take another day off work easily this was not acceptable to me, but the person in the call centre – because that’s what it was rather than a family-run local firm – didn’t seem to appreciate that this was a problem. She told me that there was only one “engineer” in “my area” working today, and that person had been held up all day on an emergency call. So I asked if she could get someone out from a nearby area – as the advert listed Hackney, Chingford, and East Ham, all of which are nearby to Walthamstow. She stated again that there was only one person working in my area. So I asked her what she thought my area was – and she said “Enfield”! She also told me that when I booked a date and time, they were only “advising” me of the available time slot and they had no contractual agreement that meant that they had to turn up on that date and time. And if I didn’t like it, I could write to their Customer Relations department. Great.

I do feel like I’ve been conned; where I thought I was booking a local firm I was in fact calling a national call centre that just employs people to work for them on a contract basis. I suspected that they pay them on a zero-hour contract basis and probably give them nothing in the way of employee benefits, and the plumbers they use may be on the books of many of these call-centre plumbing firms and can pick and choose what work they accept. If this is the arrangement, the call-centres have no control over what hours the plumbers work, and it’s cheaper to fob the customer off and tell them that there is no-one available rather than pay the plumber overtime.  Looking into it, I found a term for this system: a “gig economy” and found this article about a landmark ruling against Pimlico Plumbers from a couple of months ago.

In the meantime, I still have a leaking loo, a soaked carpet and am waiting a call-back to see if they can find someone to come out on Sunday, but I’m not holding out much hope. Speaking to friends about this, many have similar tales of woe. Is the problem just that we are in London? Is it much simpler and easier to arrange tradesmen if you live in a village in Devon or a city like Leeds? Or is this a symptom of modern life? If the latter, then modern life certainly is rubbish!

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A little bit of cinematic history

When I first moved to Walthamstow I was pleased to see that the area had a cinema. And not a soulless multi-screen complex built in an out-of-town retail park surrounded by fast food chains and pizza restaurants, but a real old-fashioned cinema in the town centre. I remember going to see ‘All About My Mother’ by Pedro Almodovar there, and although the cinema itself seemed a bit down at heel you could still see that once it had been very grand indeed with a foyer and decoration inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. In fact, the cinema was once called the Grenada, and the original owners who turned the building from a music hall into a cinema went on to found the Grenada television company. I have a vague memory of the original Christie organ being played before the film, although I’m not sure if this is a false memory, and I was aware that this was the only cinema left in the country with the original Christie organ still in place and still playable. I also knew that Alfred Hitchcock had lived in nearby Leytonstone, but I had no idea whether he had visited the cinema (he had) and no idea of the history of the building. I was just glad that the cinema was there and still providing entertainment.

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The phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” proved apt as in 2003 the cinema closed its doors for the last time and shut down. After it shut, in order to go and see a film you had to either go into central London and pay outrageous prices for a ticket, or get in the car to go to the Odeon in South Woodford, or one of those out-of-town retail complexes in Enfield or the Lea Valley. The building itself had been bought by a controversial Evangelical religious group called the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) who had bought up various other theatres and buildings in London and who wanted to turn the building into a church. For over ten years I read articles in the local newspapers about the building, as the church failed to gain planning permission to alter the site, which had been listed by English Heritage, and various protests were held, often organised by the McGuffin Film Society who campaigned and fundraised to save the building and try to restore the site as a place of entertainment. I joined the McGuffins and went to a few protests but in my heart of hearts I didn’t really think the building would be saved. In the meantime the cinema building, neglected and deserted, seemed to be crumbling away before our very eyes, and started to look very down-at-heel. I finally remember reading that, after another failed planning permission bid, the church were going to sell the building, and although I was glad, I hoped that it wouldn’t go the way of the local – and also historic – Walthamstow Dog track, and be turned into ‘luxury’ flats, keeping only the façade in place.

Then in 2015 I heard that a pop-up pub was opening up in the foyer space, called “Mirth, Marvel and Maud”. I had the impression that this was only a temporary ‘pop-up’ and was not sure how it would work; I’d heard it was in the foyer only and that the inside huge theatre space needed a lot of restoration work. I had no idea if the Christie organ was still in situ, having been damaged during one of the illegal raves that occurred in the building during the Church’s ownership. But Mirth, Marvel and Maud opened, and I heard nothing but good things about it from local friends who had been for a drink there.

In recent years I had, however, been enjoying independent cinema in Walthamstow when the Stow Film Lounge started up. Created by a couple of local film buffs, they put on screenings of films in Orford House Social Club complete with the Pearl & Dean advertising jingle, and often including innovations like joint pizza and film tickets, or following the film with Cabaraoke (a mix of cabaret and karaoke) to make it a proper night out. They also created a kids film club, and a baby film club, where parents of young babies could come and watch a film safe in the knowledge that no-one would object if their baby cried and where the babies could crawl around on play mats whilst the film was on. However, seemingly almost as soon as it had been established, the Stow Film Lounge lost its home at the Orford House Social Club, and although it appeared occasionally at other venues in the locality, none were quite so convenient for me.

So I was thrilled to see the Stow Film Lounge advertising that they were showing films in Mirth, Marvel and Maud, bringing cinema back to the old building, with films on a weeknight and also old classics on a Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t wait to go back into the old cinema, and so a couple of Sundays ago I went to see the classic Bogart and Bacall film, ‘The Big Sleep’. And I was not disappointed at all – far from it. The films are shown in a small cinema space, called “Maud”, and they were even giving free bags of Maud popcorn – all for the remarkably good value price of £6 for the ticket.

Inside the building, the foyer area was spacious and grand and MM&M have done a really good job of restoring the foyer and turning it into a lovely social place. It seemed both cosy and relaxing as well as grand, with the chandeliers still in place and the walls painted a warm yellow colour. I noticed from posters that they do quiz nights and also host various other entertainments, like stand-up comedy and theatre performances, thus restoring the building back to its original purpose as a place of entertainment.

The bar was also serving coffee, and I was able to take my coffee into the cinema space, where I settled down to watch the film. Before the main film started, they showed a five-minute short film all about the history of the cinema, during which I learnt that the building was originally the Victoria Music Hall which opened in 1887, and the first film shown there was in 1896, before it was turned into a dedicated cinema in 1907. The original cinema had seated nearly 3,000 people, and as well as films was also a music venue, with such legends as The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison all performing there.

And then in the middle of the film there was an old-fashioned intermission, where I was able to order an espresso martini to take in for the second half, having been enviously eyeing up the espresso martinis which some of my fellow cinema goers had been drinking in the first half!. I can’t think of a nicer way of spending a Sunday afternoon than sipping a cocktail whilst watching a classic film in such a historic venue, and I hope that this initiative is supported by local people so that it continues and goes from strength to strength. I shall certainly be back, hopefully on a regular basis!

 

 

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Parkrun Tourism

Over the last couple of weekends I have indulged in a bit of parkrun tourism, at Exeter and Rosliston in Derbyshire. Until recently I had not really come across the concept of parkrun tourism, despite having taken part in parkruns at more than one venue in the UK. But I have come to realise that there are hosts of parkrun tourists (or PTs as they shall now be known), some taking it very seriously indeed!

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The volunteer team setting up at Rosliston

 

My parkrun habit crept up on me slowly and has developed over the past couple of years; I first wrote about it in April last year: #loveparkrun.  My “home” parkrun is Walthamstow; this was where I started volunteering and with the encouragement of the lovely Walthamstow parkrun family I moved on to being able to run it myself. However, my third parkrun was at Oakwell Hall in Yorkshire. I was staying with family in Leeds, and having just started to run I didn’t want to lose the momentum and miss out on my Saturday morning parkrun fix. The same thing happened a few weeks later when I was staying for the weekend in Salisbury; again I looked up on the website and found that there was a parkrun a mere 20 minutes’ walk from where I was staying. But it was not until a few months later, when I tried out another Yorkshire parkrun at Cross Flatts, that I first heard the term “parkrun tourist”. During the Run Director’s briefing at the start they asked if there were any PTs present. Those that put their hands up were asked where they were from. I thought I would have come the furthest, being there from London, but was amazed to find some PTs from abroad taking part. This has gone on to be a feature of my tourism – I often think I’ll have come the furthest, only to find someone there from Melbourne, or Cape Town, showing just how far parkrun has developed to become a global phenomenon.

So what qualifies you to become a PT – and how is the term parkrun tourism defined? Again, I have only recently become aware of a number of different social media groups that are devoted to all things parkrun, such as this facebook group: parkrun discussion group. The subject of what defines parkrun tourism has been much debated in these groups, with various differing opinions being held. One view is that you are a PT if you are simply running at any parkrun other than your home run; another is that you have your home parkrun, then your “local” parkruns (any other run in the geographically based section of the parkrun website that also features your home run, e.g. Greater London, Wales or Yorkshire and the Humber) and anything further than that makes you a PT. There are some who favour the idea that if you have to stay overnight to attend a particular parkrun you are a PT – everything else is ‘local’. And other more hard-core people who insist that you are only a PT if you make a special effort to go somewhere different to run parkrun, rather than merely attending a different parkrun to your home run because you happen to be away for the weekend.

Through social media, I was also introduced to the wonderful analogue tracker designed by Hannah Perrin – and yes, there is even a parkrun analogue trackers group!

Hannah’s tracker allows you to keep track of your parkruns in a fun yet organised way, colouring in a different block for each run in different colours to represent your ‘home’, ‘local’ and ‘tourist’ runs. And this also introduced another concept to me – the alphabet challenge! The idea is that you try to run a parkrun that begins with each letter of the alphabet, colouring them off on the tracker as you go. And no, there are no parkruns beginning with the letters X and Z (unless you count eXeter for X, and until Zennor starts up a new parkrun!). If you’re at all like me and you like lists, bullet journals and collecting things, this opens up parkrun tourism to a whole new ballgame. Suddenly I was starting to look at where I was away for the weekend and seeing if I could ‘bag’ a new letter. So when staying in Devon, should I do Exeter Riverside, or save the “E” for when I’m in Edinburgh in May and do Killerton instead? Planning a weekend away in Lulworth, Dorset, in May, so I look for nearby parkruns and find… oh no… the nearest is Seaton which begins with an ‘S’ and I already have Salisbury – d’oh! And another weekend in Lyme Regis gives the possibility of running at Weymouth – but I don’t need another ‘W’ as I have my home run at Walthamstow! I seriously need to get a grip before this thing takes over my life…

As I embraced the idea of parkrun tourism, a bit of guilt started to creep in though. Was I abandoning my home parkrun, or being disloyal to them? I am lucky in that there are a number of parkruns near to where I live, so I am spoilt for choice. My home run of Walthamstow is run entirely on grass which gets very, very muddy in winter, so as winter set in I started running at nearby Hackney Marshes, which is run entirely on tarmac paths. And yet I felt incredible guilt at running there, as Walthamstow struggled for runners during the inclement weather and even in midsummer rarely gets above 100 runners. Of course, the fewer runners, the fewer people there are to volunteer and I didn’t want the lovely Walthamstow parkrun family to think I had deserted them. I don’t feel quite the same guilt if running a lot further away though; if I’m away for the weekend in Devon, or Yorkshire I can’t get to Walthamstow, so the least I can do is fly the flag for the ‘Stow by wearing my Walthamstow-branded apricot parkrun t-shirt at the different course. This, of course, also marks me out to be a PT and opens up many conversations, such as one I had with a marshal at Rosliston who had noted the t-shirt and came up to talk to me as his family came from nearby Leytonstone! And I can encourage anyone I talk to as a tourist to come and do a bit of tourism and run at Walthamstow!

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Loyalty to your ‘home’ parkrun used to be encouraged by the awarding of ‘points’ – you collected points by running or volunteering at a particular parkrun, and the more times you ran/volunteered there, the more points you got. At Walthamstow we have had a points ceremony at the anniversary celebration, with trophies being awarded for those with the most points. Whilst this encouraged loyalty to a particular parkrun, I understand that parkrun HQ have now scrapped the points system – perhaps because so many people are now doing parkrun tourism, which makes the points system defunct.

So having decided to do a bit of parkrun tourism, how do you do it? Well, first you need to decide which parkrun to go to. You can use the event finder on the official parkrun website which shows all the events in geographical sections, and then on each parkrun home page there is a section which shows other parkruns nearby. But even easier is the unofficial tourist tool which shows the nearest 10 parkruns to any location in the UK. Once you’ve decided on a parkrun, check out the course details on the official website which tells you everything you need to know about the type of course, how to get there, and often even which café they go to after the run. And then just turn up – but don’t forget your barcode of course! #dfyb

Turning up as a tourist at different parkrun to your home run is, for me, both anxiety-inducing and oddly comforting! Anxiety-inducing as I find I worry a bit about whether I’ll be able to find it ok, will I be there on time, will there be toilets that I can use pre-run etc. But as soon as I get there, the familiar parkrun branding is like a comforting blanket – the distinctive branding means that the event is instantly recognisable as a parkrun and familiar, no matter how far from home you are. And ALL parkruns are friendly and welcoming – we are parkrun family. However familiar and recognisable each parkrun is though, they are also all slightly different, as different parkruns introduce innovations and different ideas unique to that parkrun, such as the different ways that people sort the parkrun finish tokens. Sometimes the scanners stand just by the finish line, sometimes they have the benefit of a table – and in Exeter they even sit at a table in a café upstairs in the nearby climbing centre which is some way from the finish line. But they had a great idea for sorting the finish tokens – by using a marked-up ice-cube tray! At Oakwell Hall I noticed they had a blackboard for people to sign up to volunteer in future weeks, and ideas of different ways of doing the briefings – and being heard and seen – can all be taken back to your own home parkrun, so your home run can benefit from your tourism!

So having embraced the idea of parkrun tourism, I feel like I’ve joined a secret club; a new parkrun family – that of the parkrun tourist family! Over a post-parkrun coffee at Rosliston I was chatting with a woman who was also a tourist – she was only on her 7th run but she had a little camper van and she had started using that to become a parkrun tourist. She would drive somewhere on the Friday night, park up and sleep in the van near the parkrun of her choice and then after the run would spend the day exploring the locality of the parkrun. So parkrun tourism had introduced a whole new hobby to her, and the excuse to get out and about and to see more of the country. At Rosliston there was also a group of women on a hen party – all sporting “Runaway Bride” t-shirts! I’m not sure if they were PTs or at their home run, but often when you get hen/stag parties running at parkrun you inevitably get a few PTs as the bride’s/groom’s friends won’t necessarily be local.

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So far I have only completed 7 different parkruns including my home parkrun, so I have a long way to go before I complete 20 runs and get onto the official Most events list. But I’ve just discovered today that when you get onto this list you are entitled to wear the unofficial PT “cow cowl”! I haven’t noticed these being worn, but having only just found out about them today I’m sure I’m suddenly going to start seeing them everywhere!

I started this post by saying that I had indulged in a bit of parkrun tourism over the last two weekends, at Exeter and Rosliston, and you couldn’t get two more different parkruns. Exeter Riverside was entirely flat being run alongside the riverbank – as the name says on the tin – and started at Exeter Quay which is quite built-up but with a number of handy coffee-shops for a post-run coffee. Whereas Rosliston was a complicated course but excellently marshalled so there was no chance of getting lost, set in part of the National Forest, hilly and muddy and scenic! Out of the two, I much preferred Rosliston as a parkrun experience; on arrival I was greeted by friendly marshals who called out a cheery ‘hello’, all the marshalls on the course were really encouraging, the course was varied and ran through a bluebell wood (sadly no bluebells were out!) and fields with sculptures, and afterwards there was a superb bright and airy café right next to the finish for a post-parkrun coffee and breakfast. And they even have a gate made of logs that looks like the parkrun logo – the perfect parkrun course!

I’m already eagerly planning the places I can visit over the rest of the year – keeping in mind the letters I need for the alphabet challenge! But then I read this blog post by Paul Jeffrey, which has raised the game to even new heights!  On the parkrun website you can look up your most recent runs which are displayed in a table. Paul has worked out that by running certain runs his table will show the word ‘cornetto’ if you read the first letter of each parkrun he has done vertically – cornetto being his post-parkrun treat of choice! This opens up a whole new avenue of parkrun tourism challenges – to spell out words by the careful selection of venue! Perhaps I’d better stick to the alphabet challenge for now – I’m reliably informed that currently there is only one option for ‘J’ – Jersey. I’d better get planning…

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Beautiful Equations

“There is no black and white, only many shades of grey.” These were the words of Dr Kevin Fong who was speaking about medical certainties – or rather uncertainties – at a recent Guardian Members event called “Beautiful Equations”. I received an email advertising the event which said: “We bring together some of the greatest thinkers in the UK for a unique event as part of our Brainwaves project. Mathematician and author Professor Marcus du Sautoy, physicist and oceanographer Helen Czerski, biologist and filmmaker Gillian Burke and Dr Kevin Fong, medical doctor and expert in extreme environments, give a series of inspiring talks, ranging from prime numbers to human exploration. Their talks will be brought to life through specially commissioned illustrations live projected around them as they speak.”

Now I’m not a mathematician, and in fact was terrible at Maths at school, and suffer a bit from number blindness, but I have heard Marcus du Sautoy speak a couple of times before and he is absolutely fascinating, even if I don’t understand everything says, so I was intrigued enough to buy a ticket. I was slightly worried that it would be way above my head, and all about mathematical equations, yet in fact, Marcus du Sautoy was the only mathematician and he didn’t mention any equations! If I had to come up with a word to encompass the subject matter of these four fascinating and diverse talks, I would say they all spoke of “exploration” – whether that was exploration of the natural world, prime numbers,  space, oceans (and in particular the bubbles that are just below the surface of the ocean, Antarctica, or exploration of the human body.

All four speakers were extremely articulate and spoke seemingly without notes and without the stumbles and the ums and errs that I tend to suffer from when I have to speak in public. And as they spoke, behind them on a giant screen, specially commissioned animations played out to illustrate their talks. I thought that this would be off-putting at first, and worried that I would become so consumed in watching the cartoons behind the speakers that I would not concentrate on what they were saying, but in fact the illustrations were very well done and enhanced what they were saying. I guess many of us respond better to visual rather than auditory stimuli, which certainly seemed to be true in this case.

After each talk the speaker sat down for a Q&A session with the Guardian’s science writer, followed by questions from the audience. The evening was at BAFTA on Piccadilly, which was not a building I had been in before, so that was another draw. Altogether it was an interesting and thought-provoking evening – I will certainly keep an eye out for other events in the Brainwaves series.

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Magic Lantern Festival – London

Last year I was delighted to be able to banish the winter blues, albeit temporarily, with a visit to Lumiere London. This light festival saw buildings in Central London used as a canvas for enormous illuminated projections that lit up the cold night skies. I wrote about it in my blog here: lumiere London. The festival proved hugely popular, with thousands of people taking to the streets to see the illuminations; however this popularity was also its downfall, as the hoards of people thronging the streets caused huge traffic and pedestrian chaos, showing that Central London was not really the ideal venue for such a festival.

I hoped that Lumiere London would return to the city again this year, although I feared it would not due to the problems mentioned above. So I was thrilled to see that another light festival was taking place in 2017, this time in the spacious grounds of Chiswick House where there was room for large crowds to visit the festival. This Magical Lantern Festival had already been held before Christmas in Birmingham and Leeds, at the same time, before coming to London to mark the celebration of the Chinese New Year. The scale of the London festival was huge, I wondered if it was an amalgamation of the Birmingham and Leeds festivals or if they had two of each installation. I found out from their website that the festival was actually conceived in October 2015, and shown for the first time last year in Chiswick House, where it was visited by 110,000 people.

I also learned from their website that “Chinese Lantern Festivals span a rich 2000-year heritage. As early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), it had become a festival of great significance. During the Lantern Festival, children go out at night to temples carrying paper lanterns and solve riddles on the lanterns. During the Tang Dynasty (618 AD), the tradition grew, lanterns were not only put up everywhere in the palace and along the streets, but were also used to build big festival lantern wheels, buildings and even trees.

In ancient times, the lanterns were fairly simple, only the emperor and noblemen had large ornate ones. In modern times, lanterns have developed greatly and have become works of art embellished with many complex designs. Lanterns symbolize people letting go of their past selves and entering new ones, which they will let go of the following year. The lanterns were almost always red to symbolize good fortune.”

I visited the Magical Lantern Festival on Saturday 4 February, and it certainly was magical! It was also extremely popular, perhaps because it was a Saturday night and maybe on week nights it is not so busy. On arrival, there is a grand entrance and then illuminations all along a walkway before you get to the point at which you have to show your ticket. At this point my heart sank as there was an enormous queue to get past the ticket checkpoint. However, although there was a long queue here, and for the café and bar immediately through the entrance, once you actually got into the festival although it was busy it was not so packed that you couldn’t enjoy it. The installations were also so huge that you could always get a good view and find the space to get a clear sightline to take photos.

The lanterns are displayed in tableaux, with different themes that were quite abstract. There were some illuminated display boards that explained the themes although with some quite interesting translations from the Chinese language that appeared first on the boards! The themes ranged from the story of Aladdin, depictions of Paris, London and the ‘Mediterranean’, through to Chinese temples and a celebration of Chinese cookery with a giant noodle bowl and bottle of soy sauce – although this display also featured a chef making pizza which seemed a little incongruous!  There is only one way around the festival, the route snaking around so that you pass every display. At the end of the route is an ‘entertainment area’ where there is a fairground wheel, skating, an ice bar and various concession stands where you can buy food and drink.

No words do the festival justice though, and even the photos do not really convey the sheer size and scale of the lanterns. I would thoroughly recommend going to see it if you get the chance; and I hope it returns next year for a third year running.

 

 

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Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Having booked to walk the Inca Trail with a friend later in the year, I was looking to spend a few weekends training for the uneven steps and long periods of uphill that I’m going to experience in Peru. Yes, I could spend hours on the stairmaster at the gym, but where’s the fun in that? I mentioned this to my brother who lives in Yorkshire, and he suggested walking the Yorkshire 3 Peaks as a good training session. I put google to good use and found out the Y3P are Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, which are all situated in the Yorkshire Dales near the picturesque village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

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There is a challenge – which many people undertake, sometimes for charity – of tackling all three peaks in one go in less than 12 hours. As this challenge involves just slightly short of a marathon distance (24 miles) and a lot more up and down, this seemed a bit tough for a novice walker without doing a lot of training first. But I thought that doing one peak a day over a bank holiday weekend would surely be possible. I took to twitter for advice, and initially regretted it as the first response I got was from someone asking me why I wasn’t doing them all in one go, making me think that I would be spending a weekend surrounded by hardened yompers who would pour scorn on me for doing a measly one peak a day. But then I got a response from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority who suggested that I bought their official Y3P app. This app turned out to be a godsend; it had the routes clearly laid out for each of the three peaks, with maps frontloaded so that they were available even when there was no phone signal (which turned out to be virtually the whole area!), and lots of practical tips and advice. And money from the sale of the app goes towards maintaining the paths on the 3 peaks so I was happy to contribute.

Horton-in-Ribblesdale seemed the obvious place to stay with options ranging from camping and bunk houses through to boutique B&Bs.  We chose Horton Villa B&B and am very glad that we did as not only was it supremely comfortable with a top-notch breakfast, but it also had a hot tub which proved to be a godsend! We hadn’t realised this when I booked so hadn’t brought swimming things, but after the first day of walking I was so grateful for the hot tub to ease my aching muscles that we went in wearing t-shirt and shorts and it was absolute bliss! Amos who runs the B&B is a keen walker and what he didn’t know about the Y3P you could write on a pinhead. He lent us walking poles, made us up a packed lunch to take with us each day, photocopied the route map for us and correctly anticipated the time it would take us to walk each peak.

Most people do the Y3P in an anticlockwise direction starting with Pen-y-ghent, which many feel is the easiest although it is more straight-up-straight down than the others. Because we were getting the train back to London in the afternoon of day 3 we decided to save this one for last in the hope we could do it in a morning, and on the advice of Amos who assured us that we could! We decided to tackle Ingleborough first; many people rate this as the hardest so we thought we’d get it out of the way first.

Ingleborough (723 m or 2,372 ft)

Refreshed after a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast to set us up for the day, we were all ready to tackle our first peak of Ingleborough. The app had a circular 10-mile route that started and finished from the car park in nearby Clapham, but as we had no car we took the route that leads from behind Horton station and goes in a virtually straight line all the way to the summit and back. I followed Amos’ advice to “be bold, start cold” and set off in a t-shirt, but the weather was really nice and I didn’t need to put on warmer layer until stopping on the summit to have lunch. Because most people doing the challenge do Ingleborough last there were relatively few people doing this route, so it came as a surprise when we got to the summit to find there were many people on the summit who had arrived from other routes. The route we took is relatively gentle with just a short very steep bit at the end that requires a bit of scrambling. It took us about 6 hours in total – we took it easy with various breaks when needed – but I have to admit I had very achy muscles as we came back and was extremely glad of a long soak in the hot tub to ease the aches and pains!

 

Whernside (736 m or 2,415 ft)

Day 2, and with aching muscles we set off to tackle Whernside. Anne from the B&B kindly gave us a lift over to the start at Ribblehead, and we did the 7.5 mile circular walk described on the app.  This route starts near the impressive Ribblehead viaduct and runs alongside the railway line before crossing the railway and starting the long gradual climb up the peak. At the top there is a lovely long ridge with spectacular views of Ingleborough and the Ribble valley. After a short lunch stop at the summit there is a steep descent followed by a final flat section to finish underneath the Ribblehead viaduct again. As we were descending we saw the train cross the viaduct and wondered if the next train would be in an hour’s time, having not looked up the train times in advance but thinking that it would be perfect if it was. The train times are displayed in the Station Inn; with the pub itself being a sight for the sore eyes of walkers with sore legs, but it was only then that we found out there were only 4 trains on a Sunday and the next one was not due for several hours. Normally I would have been happy to stay in the pub and have a few drinks to aid recovery, but I had some friends who I had not seen for ages turning up at Horton only an hour later and I had no way of getting in touch with them. So the pub kindly rang for a taxi and we found a couple in the pub who also needed to get back to Horton who were willing to share the extortionate cost with us. With hindsight it would have been better doing Whernside on the Saturday when there were more trains, or at the very least looking up the train times beforehand!  However, we were blessed with gorgeous weather on the Sunday – the nicest of the weekend – that resulted in me getting sun-burnt ears despite liberally applying the Factor 50!

 

Pen-y-ghent (694 m or 2,277 ft)

We saved the supposed “easiest” peak ’til last – Pen-y-ghent. Pen-y-ghent is right behind the village but there is a circular walk that was pretty much straight up once side and down the other side with a short ridge at the top. Unlike the day before the day was misty and cloudy, so when we reached the summit we saw absolutely nothing of the view! There is a steep scrambling section just before the summit so in some respects it was a good job we couldn’t see over the edge or our nerve may have left us! It took us 2 hours to get up to the summit – as opposed to the 40 minutes it took a runner who asked me to take his photo at the top!

We celebrated having successfully completed all 3 peaks with a well-earned drink and Sunday lunch in the pub before getting the train back to London. It was tough and certainly was a challenge even though we did them spread over 3 days – I don’t know how people manage to do them in one day! But they are certainly achievable and enjoyable, even as a novice walker, and it was so refreshing to get out of London and up into the Dales – brilliant stress-release – and I would recommend them to any keen or even novice walker.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorkshire_Three_Peaks

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The Driver’s Seat

The chosen book for June’s meeting of the Walthamstow Waterstones monthly Book Group was The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. I hadn’t read any books by Muriel Spark before, but saw the film of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” many years ago and enjoyed it. The book is published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and David Lodge on the back cover described it as “an extraordinary tour de force, a crime story turned inside out”, so I settled down to read it in anticipation of a good read. And sometimes it doesn’t pay to read the blurb on the back first as it just increases expectation. I honestly think David Lodge must have been reading a different book to the one I read, as I even doubt that it would have been published at all if it had been written before the Prime!

The Driver’s Seat is a thin novel, at just over 100 pages long, so it suited the book group which doesn’t like to choose hefty tomes in case people don’t finish the book and then don’t attend as a result. The story is of a woman in her 30s, called Lise, who has worked in an accountants’ office for 16 years and who takes a trip overseas that ends in her death. We find out very little about her life apart from this, but the implication is that she is fairly mousy and non-descript, and the journey on which she embarks is massively out of character. It’s not giving anything much away by saying that her overseas trip ends in her death, as chapter 3 starts: “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.” Repeatedly throughout the novel Spark reminds us that Lise will be found dead, bringing us back to her grisly future whenever the narrative focusses on her rather strange present and whenever a new character is introduced. It seems a rather clunky way of overly-signposting that this is a sort of whodunit, and leading the reader to question if each new character Lise meets will turn out to be the murderer.

The book was chosen for the June meeting by Simon, who runs the group, and he started the discussion by declaring that it was possibly the strangest book he had ever read. It turned out that he had read the book before selecting it as a book group choice, which I found interesting. When I suggest a book for the group I try to choose books that I think everyone will enjoy, enjoyment being my sole criterion for book group selection. But The Driver’s Seat was such a strange book that it prompted much discussion as well as widely varying opinions, so I guess that this did make it a good book choice (as well as being short!). At the end of the discussion we always rate the book out of 10, and the ratings for TDS ranged from 3 (my score!) to 8, with an average score of 6/10.

The reason I gave it such a low score was that I thought it was incredibly badly written and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I only continued reading it partly because I was going to the book group meeting and partly to find out ‘whodunit’, and then in the end it was such a disappointment with such a bad ending that I wished I hadn’t bothered. There are a number of clunky narrative devices, like the incredibly obvious signposting that goes on throughout the book. But the main reason I didn’t enjoy it is that I didn’t find any of the characters at all believable. I could accept it if it was just Lise who acts in an extraordinarily bizarre manner, and whose language and conversation is extremely unnatural, as I would put it down to the psychological makeup and/or mental health of the character. However, when ALL the characters are bizarre in both speech and actions, it just seems unbelievable. One of the people in the group thought that the whole book was like a dream sequence with characters doing unexplained things and appearing and disappearing without explanation. I have also previously pondered on the fact that I seem to have to like – or at least  empathise – with the main character in order for me to enjoy the book, and in this book I found Lise not only unbelievable but also extremely objectionable.

The title of the book prompts you to ponder just who is in the driver’s seat? The phrase only appears once in the book, in one of the many ridiculous episodes and where Lise is in a taxi sitting behind the driver’s seat. This led to a discussion about whether the book was trying to make a feminist point about the position and role of women in society. Was Lise in the driver’s seat of life, and the author of her own destiny? Was it a supposed to make you question whether women should behave as Lise did? There is a huge emphasis on the garish clothing that Lise chooses to wear, with clashing colours that leads to her being described as a ‘clown’ by one character, and this clothing combined with the disparity in Lise’s character when she is at work – where she is subservient and bursts into tears – and her character abroad where she seems confident and takes charge, perhaps is intended to make you think that Lise is “up for it” and question whether this is appropriate behaviour. Does her behaviour lead to her death? The book seemed very dated to me, and I was surprised to find that it was published in 1970, but maybe she wrote it far earlier than it was published, at the height of the swinging sixties. The blurb on the back cover describes Lise as a “garishly dressed temptress” and also states that she is in search of “adventure, sex and new experiences”.  Yet despite Lise seeking a man that she repeatedly refers to as her “boyfriend” and the phrase “not my type” being almost hammered home, Lise actually rejects all offers of sex and is anything but the promiscuous temptress that the back cover would have you believe – Lise is seeking something else altogether.

I was astonished to find out that in 2008 Muriel Spark took 8th place in a Times list of the greatest writers since 1945 and in 2010 the Driver’s Seat was short listed for the ‘Lost’ Booker Prize (a selection of books that might have won the award in 1970 but were excluded because of a change in the rules). To me, the only thing that it had going for it was that it was an easy read, and you did want to find out who killed Lise and how. The Driver’s Seat seemed like really poor quality student writing, that a teacher like Miss Jean Brodie would return with “could do better” written firmly across it. My copy is going into one of the Little Free Libraries that are dotted around Walthamstow, so if you find it, you have been warned!

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