What sound looks like

It’s a strange and beautiful world we live in and anyone who tells you that science takes away some of the wonder of the universe by explaining it is both a liar and an idiot.

And you can tell any such lying idiot I said that.

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Time passes. Two weeks, to be specific, with no updates.

Yes, it’s the 30th already but you’ll get no apologies from me for not updating more recently, as I’ve been a very busy little bee indeed.

God, I don’t know where to start – ATP, birthday parties, meeting James Dean Bradfield (and his wife) from the Manic Street Preachers, the garden, Millie…
Well, let’s start with Millie, shall we? I know that’s why most people come here and read this stuff.

Millie is an absolute grade-A joy to be around at the moment.

It’s been another couple of weeks of very fast development, so that she’s a very different baby to the one we had in say, April.

First of all, despite being technically 11 months old today (!) Millie had her standard eight-month check-up at the doctor’s last week…and she’s absolutely 100% fine. Despite all the dire warnings we were given when she was born (three whole months premature, lest we forget) that even if she survived there was a very significant chance that there would be other problems later on – e.g. respiratory problems or developmental issues.

And there are none that they can detect.

Millie is a happy, smiling, clever nearly-one-year old. She passed all the tests with, quote, flying colours, unquote. We’re getting a bit blase about the whole thing now, but it’s worth remembering that this is quite remarkable – really, genuinely, beautifully, quite remarkable.

And Millie’s learnt to play peek-a-boo, too (well, kind of…) Which is obviously very sweet. And Saturday showed us just how far she’d come because we taught her to clap her hands, and it only took her a couple of minutes to figure it out – she watched us clap our hands slowly and obviously in front of her, looked a bit puzzled, then tried doing the same. And that was it! There were big smiles and giggles all round and Millie’s been clapping her hands ever since. She can’t actually make a round of applause on her own because she can’t yet clap hard enough to make the noise (and still tends to clap with one open hand and one fist at times) but the movement and the idea are both there.

And she responds to her own name now, too – before, saying “Millie!” to her made very little impression and certainly didn’t persuade her to look at you or pay attention, unless accompanied by a loud bang or similar surprising noise; but in the last week or so we’ve noticed that if you say “Millie” (or “Millay” as we’ve affectionately, if inexplicably, taken to calling her) then about eight times out of ten she’ll now look at you.

Oh, and she just does look at us a lot more, anyway, as if looking for approval or something – there’s a lot more eye contact (I think) than before, and I’ve noticed that she watches the Lovely Melanie a great deal when the Lovely Melanie often isn’t aware of it. Hopefully she does the same with me, too.

And so, yeah, it’s just an absolute joy to be with her at the moment – she still cries, still gets a bit stroppy for no apparent reason, still refuses to eat her food sometimes, and all the other things; now, though, it’s like falling in love with her all over again almost, since she’s become a proper little person now, who communicates with you in a more meaningful way and makes it clear that she likes us, her parents.

And just that bit of acknowledgement has made an enormous difference in the way we in turn relate to her. What can I say, it’s fantastic. We’re very much looking forward to her 1st birthday in exactly a month’s time. What a milestone that will be, eh?

And speaking of baby birthdays, we went to the second birthday of Mr Oscar Day at the weekend. A long way to travel for us (from south-east London to the extreme reaches of west London – almost two hours travel, door to door) but entirely worth it, as we all of us had a really nice time.

I’ve never ever been in the presence of quite so many babies and toddlers (and once-again-pregnant women!)

It was a bit unnerving to begin with, frankly; once you realise, however, that most of the children aren’t actually terribly interested in you or what you have to say, and that a Wildean wit is completely superfluous in their presence then it becomes a lot easier.

Very…not bizarre, but something like that…to realise how different all children’s personalities already are by the age of two though. Seeing them running about and yelling and god knows what else all together in a big “pack” it becomes immediately obvious that there are quiet ones, busy ones, cheeky ones, polite ones, very active ones, thoughtful ones.

Hard to tell which Millie is yet. She smiles at adults a lot and now deigns to acknowledge the existence of other children…but it’s hard to pick out any real immediate personality in such a crowd. She’s not definitely one thing or another yet.

I think she’s going to be quite thoughtful, judging by the way she’s already fascinated by tiny details on her toys. She’ll – for example – spend minutes very very carefully poking and pulling at a piece of string sticking out of the top of a toy wooden penguin; minutes that she’d never waste on a more colourful and obvious part of a toy.

And what about me? Well, I’m having a few weeks of not drinking alcohol. Not least because of the massive excesses of All Tomorrow’s Parties, and then a big night out at a solo gig by James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers. My old partner in crime Mr JimmyMac had some crew passes for the gig (he’s a big name in the “roadie” business) and is a friend of James, so we went along to see the gig. I got very drunk and made a (minor) fool of myself on at least two occasions, and felt so ill the next day that I decided to have a few weeks sans booze, which I haven’t done since I was about 18 – a l-o-n-g time ago.

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Me at ATP. No, I don’t know what’s happening here either.

To be honest, the main reason I felt so awful after that gig was because it was just a couple of days after I got back from ATP, and I was just barely beginning to get over that three days of sustained intoxicatory punishment. Drinking to excess so soon after set my body right back to the start again. 😦

So despite/because of having an absolutely fantastic time at ATP, probably the best time ever, I’m going temporarily teetotal. We’ll see how that goes over the next few weeks…

The garden. I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned the garden here before. I may be crap at DIY but I’m not nearly as crap at gardening, thanks largely to a childhood spent helping/hindering my dad in matters horticultural, picking and eating strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries straight off the plants.

So in the last few months I’ve been spending more and more time sorting out our garden. This is partly because the Lovely Melanie and I haven’t had a garden in London before, and partly because I want Millie to have similar memories of growing up with a garden, and eating fruit and veg from the garden, and not being scared of “dirt” or insects or anything silly like that.

It’s been a pretty steep learning curve, I have to say – fortunately some other friends have done the same and are a bit further along than I am; plus, my parents are up quite regularly and their knowledge of gardening knows almost no bounds.

Even so, starting a garden basically from scratch has been hard work at times.

The front garden wasn’t too bad – it had been covered with wood chippings, had a couple of scraggy flowers put in and then was just left to its own devices, so all I had to do was turn over all of the (very heavy clay) soil, leave it throughout winter to break down into a more conducive soil for plants, put some grass seed down, and – hey presto! – we now have rather a nice lawn and flower bed out front.

The back garden was rather a different story…

The people we bought our house from left the garden in pretty much the same state as they left the house, which is to say, it looked OK – not “great” but “OK”.

Then, if you looked a little closer, it obviously needed some proper and urgent attention. Then, if you took the time to actually investigate, you’d be left wondering what kind of complete ****ing moron would ever do something as stupid as this! I mean, really! Jesus! What were they thinking?!?!?

Those have consistently been our thoughts as we’ve gone through our property, and we weren’t to be disappointed by the back garden either.

I’ve dug up great slabs of concrete from our little strip of back lawn (honestly – slabs!), not to mention an awful lot of builder’s rubble. There’s a growing suspicion in my mind that our house used to be a bit bigger out the back, but the last occupants demolished a bit of it…and simply buried all the tiles, bricks, pipe, cement, et cetera, about an inch below the surface of the lawn.

That’s my theory.

Quite apart from all the rubble, the – ahem – “lawn” above it was a bit scrappy, too, and was actually a solid mass of roots and weeds that had to be removed and thrown away.

I’m glad I’ve managed to get all that off my chest.

Now we have some recovering lawn out the back, a flower bed that is struggling a little bit (to be honest) but which looks OK; but my pride and joy now are my fruit and vegetable patches. 🙂

Bear in mind that our back lawn is about 10 metres long by 2.5 wide. On one side of it is a flower bed, except for the far end (towards the shed and compost bin) where we’re successfully growing some rhubarb and some mint. The mint is a favourite of Millie’s – she loves to chew on a leaf from it (which surprised me, I can tell you) and the rhubarb is a favourite of the Lovely Melanie’s.

On the other side we’re growing potatoes, radishes, carrots, gooseberries, onions, raspberries and strawberries, all of which seem to be doing OK, despite the regular D-Day landings of slugs that I’m just barely holding at bay with very very liberal applications of slug pellets.

Right, that’s going to have to do for now. I’ll try and put up a couple of pictures of Millie in the next couple of days (she has more hair now, but basically looks the same) and, er…yes. I’ve got a few pieces of writing to do this week, plus I’m becoming addicted to City Of Heroes, but I’ll do my best.

Weymouth weekend

Well, what a lovely long weekend that was. Tee hee. I can’t tell you how refreshed I feel – no, honestly, I really needed a nice, relaxing holiday and that’s exactly what we had.

Don’t believe me? There’s plenty of evidence at the bottom of the page.

A bit more about Weymouth in a sec, but first, have I mentioned recently that Millie can now sit up (and, more importantly, stay sitting up) on her own? She’s even learnt to compensate for overreaching for toys/shiny things/litter/cups/string/hair/etc. by putting a hand down, or just by shifting her weight slightly.

So now we can sit her down on the floor or the bed and…walk away, and nine times out of ten she’ll still be sat up – as opposed to face-down, licking the carpet – a couple of minutes later.

Which unfortunately means our carpets are now not quite as clean as they were, but it’s all swings and roundabouts, eh?

In other big Millie news, the poor, poor girl was forced to experience, first-hand, the torturous and unending fiery hell of damnation that is “The Sea” over our long weekend in Weymouth. 

She’s a strange child sometimes. 

I mean, we had a bloody awful journey down to Weymouth from London: what should have been a sedate and civilised two hours and fifty minutes train ride direct from Waterloo to Weymouth was, in actual fact, nearer six hours of unreserved seats on late trains with no luggage space at all (really – zero space for our three large bags, pushchair and baby).

Then, power failures left us dragging pushchairs and large bags from trains onto replacement coaches then from replacement coaches onto more delayed trains, then from delayed trains onto the other end of delayed trains because nobody bothered to mention that the new delayed train was going to spilt in half and only one section would actually go to Weymouth.

But Millie took all of this in her stride and was as good as gold all the way there, thank heavens. The thought of all that with a screaming Millie makes me shudder just thinking about it…

It was only when she was taken to the beach that her easygoing demeanour cracked.

To your eyes or mine beaches are pleasant and enjoyable places, but in MillieWorld they’re the nightmarish brink of the pit of deepest hell, .

If you look at the photos below, some of them are of Millie at the edge of the sea. First of all being a bit nervous. Then being more nervous. Then having her toes dipped into about five millimetres (literally) of seawater…and crying. Very loudly. Indeed.

To be fair, the temperature of the Weymouth sea is more comparable with the Black Sea than the Mediterranean; even so, I thought Millie might have given it more of a chance.

My daughter is a lightweight. Sigh.

It took her a while to come to terms with “The Beach” too, even though it was a truly lovely day in Weymouth. But she did eventually manage to grasp that sitting on warm golden sand probably wasn’t going to kill her. Not yet, at any rate.

And it’s probably best we don’t mention the “taking Millie swimming in the camp site pool” experience at all.

She did quite enjoy Monkey World, but not especially because of the monkeys.

really enjoyed Monkey World. 🙂

Ah, this all sounds perhaps a bit less enjoyable than it was, but throughout most of the holiday Millie was an absolute star – she was made a fuss of by all of my family, and seemed to love almost every minute of it (that wasn’t spent in the sea or in a swimming pool).

She was so busy looking around and playing with people and giggling that it was hardly surprising that she slept as well as she did at night – despite being in the room next to the toilet (the walls of the caravan were very thin).

We had some good news as well – the Lovely Melanie’s work have agreed to let her go back part-time from the end of July. Her generous maternity package means that she’s had a year off (mostly paid) and only had to go back part-time for the first couple of months (but on full pay).

Now she’s going to be permanently part-time (but on part-time pay, sadly). Which means Millie will be going to nursery for three days a week and at home with her lovely mum for two days.

Plus, we get to eat and pay the mortgage, too! It’s a win-win situation!

So, that was Weymouth.

It’ll be interesting to see how the coming weekend goes – I’m going to the All Tomorrow’s Parties weekend at Pontins holiday camp in beautiful Camber Sands, as I do most years.

It’ll be interesting in a particular sense because neither the Lovely Melanie nor Millie are coming and it’ll be the longest time I will have spent away from them since Millie was born.

Not to mention the contrast between the relaxing, wholesome family weekend just gone, and the out-of-control immoral mayhem that is inevitably All Tomorrow’s Parties!

Traffic and nothing but

Cor, it’s busy on here these days, isn’t it?

Just thought I’d share with you a milestone that I reached yesterday – “My Longest Ever Journey Home From Work“.

Now, I love London, as you know; I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else; but there are times here when you just think “For *%$#@’s sake!!!”, and yesterday, when I finally arrived home after TWO HOURS AND FORTY GODDAMN MINUTES was one of them.

It would have taken even longer but for the fact that I finally got so fed up, and it was such a lovely afternoon/evening, that I decided to get off the bus and walk the last couple of miles down the Old Kent Road to where I could catch a different bus that wouldn’t be stuck in some of the worst traffic I’ve ever seen (the roundabout near the Elephant & Castle was quite a sight to behold – solid with red buses as far as the eye could see…)

This’ll be the last update for a few days because myself, the Lovely Melanie and Millie are going to Weymouth for a long weekend, to stay with my family in a caravan.

I could do with a holiday, frankly…

The joy of Freecycling

Let’s try and get away from the smell of…you know what…and try to move towards the smell of…patchouli!

What’s he on about?” you say. “That sewer gas has gone to his head.” you say.

But it hasn’t.

What I’m talking about is a remarkable little scheme called FreeCycle, which is website that helps people to give away stuff they no longer need or want to people who do need or want it. And, of course, it works the other way, too – you can look or ask for stuff (for free – no money ever changes hands) that you might want.

Sounds very hippy, doesn’t it? (hence the earlier patchouli reference) but unlike, say, a massive didgeridoo jam session, this is one hippy idea that works really well.

You have to sign up first, but unless you specifically ask to receive lots of junk mail you won’t get any (and do remember to sign up to your local FreeCycle – there are sites for most parts of the country). 

Then if you have something to get rid of you advertise it on the site: just about anything, provided it’s legal; from computer bits to fence posts to baby clothes to books – even cars! – you put it on the site and see if there’s somebody out there who wants it; and if they do you arrange a time for them to come and pick it up.

It’s the same if you want/need something – you put a message on the site saying that you’re looking for such-and-such, and with a little bit of luck someone will contact you to say they’ve been trying to get rid of such-and-such.

It’s a beautifully simple idea that works remarkably well. We just got a load of paving slabs for our back garden, but we’ve also gotten a few bits and bobs for Millie, and given away some fencing and all the strong removal boxes from when we moved house (which saved us a trip to the local dump, helped out a lady who was about to move house herself and made us feel virtuous for “recycling” all that cardboard).
But the best thing is that everyone on FreeCycle seems, without exception, to be absolutely lovely. Whether giving or taking, people are always really really nice. Honestly, it fair lifts my heart just thinking about it…

So the next time you’re thinking of burning those ugly old dining room chairs or going down the tip to get rid of those unused bathroom tiles – or perhaps you’re dreading going to B&Q to try and buy some paving slabs for the back garden – then why not give FreeCycle a try first? It don’t cost nothin’… 😉

Abbey Mills Pumping Station – that trip down the sewers in full

There’s been lots of interest in my sewer trip prior to it actually taking place so for all of you who’ve been fascinated by my plans (or simply by my desire to take such a trip!) here’s what happened…

Thames Water’s “Sewer Open Week” is a six day event (it was only five last year, but is clearly proving popular). We went to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station in east London for Thames Water’s Sewer Open Week.

That particular stretch of east London is not one of the prettiest parts of the capital, by any means, but when you head up the driveway into the grounds of the pumping station (which aren’t visible from the road) you might be slightly surprised to find a hodgepodge of widely-spaced buildings there which embrace most of the architectural styles of the last 100 years. This is because although the original station was built over a hundred years ago in the grand old Victorian style, it’s had to be added to since then, and newer buildings with more up-to-date pumping technologies have arrived to bolster the original.

One thing I was fascinated to find out was that all of the buildings do basically the same thing – pump sewage and excess rainwater – at about the same speed, but they’ve become smaller and smaller the more modern they are, until the latest pumping station is perhaps one-fifth the size of the original.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were welcomed into the original pumping station, which is the grand old ornamental building you can see in most of my my pictures; the kind of thing that would never ever get built today because accountants and bureaucrats would take one look at it and ask if the decorative features are strictly necessary for the building to pump water, and whether the grounds needed to be so pleasant, and why the doors needed to be so large and beautiful (“Couldn’t B&Q do something almost as good for a fraction of the price?“) etc. etc.

Because make no mistake, the original Abbey Mills Pumping Station is a lovely building both inside and out, both on a large scale and on a small scale. You can see in the pictures: all the walkways inside are some wonderful wrought iron work; there are little flourishes here, there and everywhere, outside has some nice patterns in the bricks, those very official-looking doors, not to mention some charming carvings around many of the edges which I didn’t photograph (they’re “The Plants of England”, apparently). In short, although not a big architecture buff myself, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

And that was before we got the tour by one of two archivists working at Abbey Mills.

There were three types of people on the tour; basically, (i) people who work directly for Thames Water, (ii) people who work for companies who work for Thames Water, and, er, (iii) myself, Jimmy and Si.

I think we were the only members of the public there, judging by the amount of times people asked us who we were “with” or where we were “from”; Jimmy’s answer, “Scotland“; mine, “south-east London“; or Simon’s, “New Zealand – originally” drew a few blank looks, until we realised people didn’t mean geographically, they meant what company were we from, and we had to rather sheepishly admit we were just part of the great unwashed, with no other reason for being there other than that we thought it would be “really cool”.

Another surprising thing was the number of ladies on the tour – there were all your usual suspects: older men with an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of the history of sewage, younger men aspiring to an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of the history of sewage…and some perfectly ordinary ladies and gents of all ages, which I personally found somewhat reassuring, given the questioning stares I’d gotten from some folk when I’d mentioned our prospective sewer trip in the past.

Yeah, so, anyway, around the pumping station, all very nice. Then…a free lunch! And a really really nice lunch, too! We couldn’t quite believe just how nice it actually was, especially since the entire day was completely free!

So we filled up on mini-burgers, tiny little pizzas, delicious sausage rolls, miniature strawberry tarts, criossants filled with cream cheese and spinach, onion bhajis, kofti kebabs and cranberry juice, all in the confines of a working sewage pumping plant. It was a strange (but delicious) meal, I can tell you; and the dining area was a sunken section in the middle of the pumping station that looked very very much like the canteen in one of H.M. Prisons. 

Except it was carpeted.

And the trip down the sewer itself…?

Myself, Jimmy and Si were in “Magenta Group”, which meant we were the last group in the afternoon to go down, after “Green Group”. There were about 16 of us in the group (and two groups in each of the three tours a day: in the morning, afternoon and evening). And it was about four o’clock we were taken by a mini-bus about a mile up the road to a Thames Water depot (the name of which temporarily and embarrassingly escapes me…). It took about five minutes to get into the protective gear you can see in the photos and then were taken outside to begin our tour.

After a very quick health and safety chat by one of the sewer maintenance guys who would be coming down with us I, as first in the line, was clipped to a line, handed an emergency pack and descended a ladder six metres into the actual sewer.

First thoughts were it was darker than I’d expected, which wasn’t helped by the sewer guy in front of me shining his helmet torch into my eyes. It was also wider – it took a few seconds before I could see the opposite wall about two metres away.

Second thought was that it didn’t smell particularly bad. It smelt like some dirty washing water, maybe from an old washing machine or something, but there was no smell of proper sewage. It wasn’t a nice smell, but it wasn’t a bad one either. Of course, we’d had a lot of rain that morning which had sluiced it a bit clear; plus, Thames Water had shut some of the gates leading to this particular sewer to make sure it was absolutely safe. Apparently, that morning, without the gates shut, the water had been running about eight feet deep!

The sewer was pretty much round, all made of brick, with sandy, stagnant water that reached about two feet at its deepest point. We had to shuffle along because it was fairly dark – although there was some daylight coming from drains above us – and you couldn’t see what was on the bottom through the water, and what was on the bottom was mostly grit. There was more of less of it (which is what made the depth vary) but it was basically grit; and although the odd item floated past us we didn’t actually see any poo either.

Once all 16 of us had climbed down into the sewer (plus four guides) which took about ten minutes, we set off along the tunnel. It was…something of an anti-climax, to be honest. I’d expected something like you’d see in the films, but here we were in a dark-ish tunnel, just shuffling along through muddy water and unseen gravel.

It took maybe five or six minutes to reach a kind of junction, where we could see over a wooden dam into another sewer where the water was a bit higher and flowing quite quickly. What looked like bits of manky old paper, cloth and (possibly) rubber were stuck to the dam, and this was probably the worst thing I smelt in my whole time down there.

We hung around in here for about ten minutes while the guides lowered and raised one of the big metal gates for our amusement, then we set off up a tunnel running parallel to the one we’d come down. Still no pooh, or especially unpleasant smells. No one even fell over! (the guides said no one ever had).

And then, about 35 minutes after I’d entered the sewer I found myself back up top in the sunlight. The guides told us to step into a bucket of disinfectant and then helped us take off our waders and safety harnesses. Then we walked back into the changing rooms to take off our disposable boiler suits and those big, beige socks you can see in the photos.

And that was pretty much it, to be honest, except to pick up our certificates. It was undoubtedly a fascinating experience, and one that I feel quite privileged (and way cool!) to have been in on, but it was a little bit tamer than what we’d expected.

Still, if you get a chance to do it – and we were very very lucky indeed, because even some of the Thames Water folk were saying they’d had to wait years to get on the tour! – then don’t turn it down!