Engineering calm

A TV programme about reconstructing a lawnmower should make good TV for insomniacs, but the first episode of James May’s The Reassembler (BBC4, last night) managed to be simultaneously fascinating and calming.

ReassemblerBetter known as part of the presenting triumvirate on Top Gear, James May’s other programmes have always interested me more, revealing his deep interest in how things work and a quiet reverence for the remarkable people who created them.

With precisely zero technical skills myself, I can completely understand this awe of technology and engineering; which is why it was so interesting to see someone with a modicum of these skills work their way through the reconstruction of something as prosaic as a 1959 Suffolk Colt lawnmower.

How does the internal combustion in a lawnmower (or anything!) work? I sort of know the theory, but seeing all the component neatly laid out like a work of art on a table, then gathered up and reassembled, revealed more in 30 minutes than any amount of books would.

But it’s May’s subtly rambling commentary on the reassembly process, interspersed with the lawnmower’s history and development, that transformed this 30 minutes of nerdistry into a  little piece of TV nirvana: I could feel my body relax – heart rate slowing, muscles relaxing, mind clearing – as, piece by piece, a lawnmower took shape once more.

It was TV as meditation!

This, I suspect, is because it brought back memories of being small and watching as my dad performed miracles in the garage: welding iron gates, fixing broken electrical appliances, making his own bricks for a wall, affixing a fold-down workbench to the wall. He would pick his way through endless drawers full of ancient and mysterious tools (passed down from his dad) to to fix or create anything.

Sadly, I haven’t inherited his practical skills, but my innate curiosity about how things work is all his doing (which is why I’m quite good at fixing computers). And that curiosity is a real gift: it taught me you’ll never ever be bored if you can recognise the artistry and complexity of the world all around you.

So, thank you, James May; but thanks more to my Dad. 🙂

Saturdays

Saturdays when I was a lad mostly seemed to involve either hanging around leisure centres while my parents played netball and football, or staying round my Nan’s house while my parents played netball or football.

We were three brothers and it was just how Saturdays were. We explored and played and ran about the leisure centres of Swindon, running onto the pitch during half time and trying to cadge 8p for a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine.

At my Nan’s we’d have a bonfire, teach Nan how to play computer games on our ZX Spectrum, explore the railway sidings at the bottom of her garden and help her check the football pools when the results came in (an important job since we were all going to Disneyland if she won).

Saturdays for our girls are quite different.

The Lovely Melanie and I aren’t interested in either playing or watching sport; we don’t live in Swindon; grandparents are quite a distance away, and no modern parents would let their children have an unsupervised bonfire!

Yesterday I found myself marvelling just how different the girls’ Saturdays are to my memories, after we caught the train into the centre (of London) and had a great time at the Royal Society, for their annual open day.

Crazy shades at the Royal Society
At the Royal Society

There were demonstrations, robots, talks on how science gives us “superpowers”, stunning holograms, mind-blowing augmented reality, a display of (justifiably!) award-winning photographs, lots of hands-on science displays, and all presented by really smart and nice people.

We expected it to be fun, hoped it might be inspirational – and weren’t disappointed. It was great seeing the girls getting stuck into all the displays and chatting with the people running them. I got talking to those running the robotics and hologram displays, too – it’s nice to let your inner nerd out to play and get really in-depth and interesting answers to any questions you have.

Particularly well done to the lady giving the “superpowers” talk for keeping all ages attentive, but also for showing plenty of women talking about their careers in science and engineering. Millie and Amber probably didn’t notice the gender balance, but I did. 🙂

We stayed right to the very end (as did lots of other people) and then went to Chinatown, as promised, for Chinese food, which we all love. The girls loved the food and the place – especially the giant fluffy dragons by the door.

That’s where I looked around at my family, in a “proper” Chinese restaurant, eating Chinese food with chopsticks, and realised we would never have done this when I was growing up.

Not better, just different. 🙂

What if they laugh…?

Following a school visit from poet Rachel Rooney, Millie has become interested in writing poetry. She’s always had a bit of a poetic bent, being published in a poetry anthology back in 2012, but this visit from a bona fide poet inspired her to put pen to paper again.

OMarvellous Millie's Perfect Poemr rather, finger to keyboard: her poems are composed and illustrated in PowerPoint, and each is a re-telling of a fairy story.

As an English post-grad and writer myself this is just too perfect! So I’ve been there in the room with her as she wrote them, trying to advise and suggest without telling her what to do.

For example: a poem isn’t just a story that rhymes. Yes, rhyming can be quite a large part of poetry, but it’s not a normal prose story, with added line breaks and rhymes. Poetry means you can chop and change the story, use unusual words – or try out usual words in unusual ways.

Some of this advice was heeded, and we now have a seven page epic poem telling the story of Sleeping Beauty, as well as the opening stanzas of Rapunzel. It’s not exactly Beowulf, but it’s not bad, and I’m so glad to see her trying to do this – creating something, having a bit of faith in her abilities and enjoying writing so much (she spent a good two hours of her own time on Sleeping Beauty).

However, when I suggested printing out Sleeping Beauty, taking it to school and showing her teacher she stopped.

“But what if my friends laugh at it?” she asked.

Oh, boy, I thought, serious, inspirational Dad talk coming up.

“Why would they laugh, love? You should be proud of what you’ve written. Your friends – your real friends – won’t laugh. Friends are supposed to help and support you, not laugh or make you feel bad.

“And your teacher will be so pleased to see you’re listening and interested in what she’s saying. I’m sure Rachel Rooney would be excited, too, knowing she’s inspired someone else.”

Yesterday Millie came out of school with a big smile on her face, “My teacher read my poem out to the class – she said it was really good!”

“And did your friends like it, too?” I asked.

“They couldn’t believe I had written it!” she grinned.

And I gave her a big proud hug.


 

Sleeping Beauty

by Millie H. Carter, aged 10

Once upon a time there was a king and queen,
Whose love for each other had always been,
But they were not happy,
For they wanted a child,
To make them smile.
So when they finally had one,
It wasn’t a son,
It was the daughter they wished for!

So they opened their doors,
So the child could be seen
By people who were keen
And came from far and wide.
And so they made up their mind,
To always be kind,
And to call their daughter Aurora,
So they held a christening for her…

But at the christening,
An unwanted guest appeared.
And nastily she sneered,
“Your daughter is doomed
For she will live to 18
And then her finger shall prick and she will die!”
“In a coffin she shall lie!”
And with that she disappeared.

But a good fairy,
(whose name was Mary)
Came to the rescue.
She chanted a spell,
To save the princess from hell,
But prick her finger and sleep years in a bed,
With a pillow beneath her head.
Until her true love,
( who would be as sweet as a dove )
Would wake her up,
With true love’s kiss.

Aurora thought she was happy and safe,
Unaware of her dreadful fate.
But just in case,
The good fairy,
(whose name was Mary)
Took her to a safe house
Where she made friends with a mouse.
But when Aurora was 18,
And loved to preen,
The good fairy,
(whose name was Mary)
Took her back to her real home,
Where she stood in her bedroom alone,

She found a tunnel and down she went
Even though she wasn’t meant
And she met a woman who told her to sit
On a stool next her
With a spinning wheel

“But papa says not to talk to a stranger
He says it could mean danger”
“You think an old woman could hurt you?”
“Come you can try my spinning needle.”
So Aurora chose not to heed,
Her fathers warning,
Though she had great need.
And she pricked her finger,
The woman did not linger,
But away she ran.
And later Aurora was found,
And laid to sleep on a soft feather bed,
With a pillow beneath her head.

So for many year she slept,
And many people wept.
For the princess was gone,
And for 100 years long.

Along came a handsome prince,
He had heard of the legend,
Of a princess who slept,
On a feather bed,
With a pillow beneath her head,
And decided he would rescue her.

So he cut through the vines,
With his sword so very fine,
And when he got to the castle,
He found the princess,
that slept on a feather bed,
With a pillow beneath her head,
And gave her a kiss,
Which couldn’t go amiss.

The princess awoke
In the hands of…
The handsome prince!
Shortly after they got married and
They lived happily ever after
(Apart from the wicked witch
Who was ditched)

The Millie Gang

Having seen yesterday’s entry on The Amber Gang, Millie has asked for an entry on her gang members, too. “But,” I asked, “you don’t carry these everywhere you go round the house, do you?”

Well, Millie might not always carry them around the house, but when it’s time to get warm and cosy somewhere then you can guarantee this lot will be there…

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NAME: Nuffle

APPEARANCE: Old, faded, much-loved blue blanket.

OTHER ALIASES: Nuffle-snuffle.

NOTES: Still the original and the best gang member, everyone knows Nuffle. Has been at Millie’s side virtually all of her life.

Note – Nuffle is never ever used for keeping warm, such practical pursuits are beneath its dignity.

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NAME: Harley

APPEARANCE: Small chocolate labrador.

WHY?: Well, if we can’t visit Uncle JimmyMac’s labradors more than a couple of times a month then Harley and Monty will just have to suffice.

NOTES: Millie’s ongoing obsession with dogs generally and labradors in particular, Harley is the closest she’s going to get to having a dog while living at home, so his position is pretty secure.

 

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NAME: Monty

APPEARANCE: Small labrador.

WHY?: Well, if we can’t visit Uncle JimmyMac’s labradors more than a couple of times a month then Monty and Harley will just have to suffice.

NOTES: Inseparable from Harley, Monty is chiefly notable for making the Lovely Melanie and I repeat “My boys, my boys!” in a poor impression of Montague H. Withnail (Uncle Monty) in the 1987 film Withnail and I.

 

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NAME: Emoji

APPEARANCE: Yellow, smiling, heart-eyed emoji cushion.

OTHER GROUP AFFILIATIONS: Emojis.

WHY?: His fanatical, unseeing but ever-loving eyes are a metaphor for a child’s unquestioning love.

Probably.

NOTES: One of two impulse addition to the Carter household, Millie and Amber both formed an instant bond with these emoji cushions, bought for £5 each from a Bexleyheath tat-shop.

The Amber Gang

Just as Millie’s always loved her blanket (or nuffle) Amber has always had Dolly. These toys share the girls’ bed, join them when reading, watching TV, on any travels away – they’re constant companions. 🙂

But three new “associates” have suddenly joined the Amber Gang, making it, to be honest, a bit unwieldy. All four of them are now carried around together – always together! –  and I thought it was about time we got a handle on them all.

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NAME: Dolly

APPEARANCE: Belle from Disney’s Beauty And The Beast.

OTHER ALIASES: Dolly-Bolly, Beef/The Beef (due to her distinctive scent when she needs a session in the washing machine).

NOTES: The original gang member, Dolly has been Amber’s right-hand man doll for most of her life. A faithful companion and source of comfort through all of life’s hardships (not there are too many of those when you’re eight years old…)

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NAME: Delish Donut

APPEARANCE: Large pink fluffy doughnut with human features.

OTHER GROUP AFFILIATIONS: Shopkins.

OTHER ALIASES: None.

NOTES: As a part of Amber’s continuing Shopkins-mania, Delish’s long-term position within The Gang remains unclear.

 

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NAME: Emoji

APPEARANCE: Yellow, smiling, heart-eyed emoji cushion.

OTHER GROUP AFFILIATIONS: Emojis.

OTHER ALIASES: Smiley Love Heart

NOTES: One of two impulse addition to the Carter household, Millie and Amber both formed an instant bond with these emoji cushions, bought for £5 each from a Bexleyheath tat-shop.

 

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NAME: Blanket

APPEARANCE: Piece of teal-coloured knitting; practice for larger and more polished projects.

OTHER GROUP AFFILIATIONS: None.

OTHER ALIASES: Blanky.

NOTES: Most inscrutable of all the gang members because…well, because it’s just a bit of unfinished and slightly tatty knitting. However, Blanket goes everywhere with the other gang members.

 

 

Big school reality

Did you know Tuesday was a big day for Year 6 children (that’s those in the last year of primary school)?

No, neither did I. Well, not until quite recently.

You hear a lot about GCSE results and A-level results;not so much about the transition between primary and secondary school. But Tuesday was the day 10-11 year-olds across the country discovered where’d they’d spend the next five years of their life.

BlackfenFor Millie H. Carter it turned out to be Blackfen School for Girls, her first choice – and first choice for two of her best friends, as well. She’d been admirably cool about the whole waiting process, and insisted she wasn’t worried right up until the night before.

From an education point of view I wasn’t terribly worried either – all of the schools we saw and put as her choices seemed like perfectly fine and well-run institutions. Still, going to big school is a massive change, especially if you’ve been at comfortably ensconced in one school basically for as long as you can remember.

It’s nice to know at least some of your buddies will have your back at the new place.

And even Millie’s coolness began to crack a little – she asked us to tell her as soon as we knew, even if she was asleep (most places seem to announce places in the morning, Bexley’s would, it was announced, not be released until “sometime after five PM”!)

But “sometime after five PM” turned out to be pretty accurate – they were live online by two minutes past five. I cheered, the Lovely Melanie yelled; Millie ran in, grinned, squealed, jumped up and down on the bed, gave us both a hug and ran out again shouting “I got Blackfen! I got Blackfen!”

She was even more excited when social media told us her BFFs Emma and Ione were going to Blackfen. After that it was all smiles and repeating “I can’t believe I got Blackfen and all my friends are going there, too!”

wp-1457017893263.jpgNannies, grampies, granddads and grandmas were all texted, social media was updated and everyone was happy, not least the big school girl herself.

Even Amber got caught up in it, because if your older brother sister goes to a school then chances are you will, too (the only way Amber might not also become a Blackfen girl is if she enters and passes the 11-plus…)

Educating Millie

When I think back on my childhood, it went on for absolutely ages. At least, like, 30 years, and I was at school for what felt like half my life. At least, in my memory it seems that way.

When you’re a grown-up things move a lot faster, and barely six years after starting primary school Millie’s getting ready to move up to big school. Einstein’s theory of relativity says time goes more slowly the faster you’re moving. And since children move a lot faster than big clumsy adults time passes more slowly for them.

Or something.

schoolAnyway, Millie’s in her last year of primary school so we’re now attending open evenings at local schools to find the right one for her.

In my day we didn’t have a choice where to go: “You’re off to Hreod Parkway in September” I was told, and that was that. Everyone I knew was told the same thing: FYI, pack your things, you’ve done Haydon Wick, kthxbye!

Now, it’s much more complicated. We get to choose where Millie goes.

Personally, I’d rather not. I’d prefer every school was kept at a half-decent standard and Millie just went to the nearest one – less paperwork for everyone concerned, no splitting friends up, just one open evening to attend, job done. But that’s not how it’s done now.

Which is why last week we spent an evening at Blackfen School for Girls for one of their open days. We were shown round the school by two polite and helpful pupils, met the staff and headmaster, saw the facilities and asked questions such as, er, well, nothing, really – your first open evening is all a bit strange and we didn’t really know what to look for or ask about.

Blackfen, as you might have guessed is s single-sex school. Both the Lovely Melanie and I went to mixed-sex schools and are a bit suspicious of single-sex schools. Although Auntie Kristine, the Lovely Melanie’s sister, went to a single-sex school and, er, she seems fine.

Apparently. 😉

Millie asked about the point of single-sex schools, which was a good question. All I could muster was something about girls in the olden days often not being educated at all, or taught skills like deportment and sewing, while the boys went to learn rugby and Latin.

Before visiting Blackfen Millie was also sceptical about going somewhere with no boys at all, but it has a reputation as a good school, so we thought it worth a look.

Once you get over the single-sex thing (and it was weird to hear the headmaster only refer to “your daughters” and “the girls”) we were quite impressed – as was Millie. Her only reservations were about the sheer size of the place, but as we explained, it’s not called “big school” for nothing; Blackfen isn’t even particularly big, they’re all that size!

There are still four more schools to see in the area: only four, as Millie decided she didn’t want to sit the 11-plus exam. The Lovely Melanie didn’t want to pressure her and the headmaster explained children should only sit the 11-plus if they’re definitely grammar school material. Millie’s got the reading and writing chops for it, no question, but would struggle with the maths.

I was all for entering her for the exam – hell, why not? – but the headmaster specifically warned parents against this, saying it would be a lot of stress for nothing since there are so very few grammar school places available in Bexley.

When Millie told us she wasn’t interested in taking the exam either, we decided not to. She can go to a regular school just like both her parents did. 🙂