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The Weeping Window

I went to a dinner recently at the Imperial War Museum. I don’t think I’ve been there before, but it looked to be very interesting and I think I’ll have to go back there when the galleries are open to the public and have a proper look around. One exhibit though I couldn’t miss, even though it was dark outside and not looking it’s best:

The Weeping Window

The Weeping Window cascade of ceramic poppies falling from a window in the cupola is part of the massive art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red that was temporarily installed at the Tower of London in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. After Remembrance Day that year the installation was broken up and most of the poppies were sold for charity (in fact, I’ve got one of them in the fireplace in my living room). But two of the “set pieces” have been on tour around the UK so that more people could get to see them.

The tour ends this month, marking the centenary of the end of WWI. I was very pleased to finally get to see at least part of the artwork, even though I was definitely cutting it fine with only 10 days left before it is dismantled! I don’t usually get on with modern art, but this was really quite impressive. It looked quite spectacular floodlit in the evening, and my iPhone snap really doesn’t do it justice.

A rainy day in Glasgow

I was invited to give a talk last Friday at a conference held at Glasgow University. I’ve been working quite closely with the university for a few years now, and have previously tried to go there-and-back in a day. It’s doable, flying from Birmingham, but it makes for a very long day and I find it absolutely exhausting. So I was quite pleased when the conference organisers insisted that I join them for the conference dinner on Friday night, meaning that there was no way I could catch the evening flight home. I’d have to stay overnight, and fly home on Saturday. Which, if I timed the flights right, would give me most of a day free to explore Glasgow.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the weather. There was a “Yellow weather warning” for rain overnight on Friday and into Saturday, due to the remnants of one of the Atlantic storms wringing itself out over the city. Which meant that any outdoor activities / sightseeing were definitely off the menu. The hotel I was staying in was near the University, in Glasgow’s West End, so I decided not to venture into the city centre, but to find something indoors nearby to keep me out of the rain. The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery was only just over a mile away, but by the time I had walked there I was soaked through.

It was one of those  High Victorian buildings that look really gothic and imposing. Inside was a really eclectic mixture of “stuff” – ranging from a very good, if small, Ancient Egyptian collection (much of it on long-term loan from the British Museum) to “Sir Roger”, a stuffed elephant. There was also apparently a good art gallery, but I’m really not interested in paintings so I gave that wing a stiff ignoring. I spent ages in the Egyptian gallery, gradually drying out, and then wandered into the central hall, with a vague idea of getting a coffee from the museum cafeteria. I  found that the hall was being set up with rows of chairs, and people were gathering – clearly something was about to happen.

I took a seat out of idle curiosity; I had several hours to go before my flight home, and didn’t want to get wet again, so I thought I may as well wait and see what was going on. It turned out to be a free organ recital. They had even set up some CCTV screens so that the audience could get a good view of the organist’s hands and feet, as otherwise he was just a tiny figure up in the organ loft. It was actually pretty fascinating to watch, particularly when he opened the recital with the first bit of Bach’s Toccata in D Minor, when you really could see him “pulling out all the stops”. The entire building shook with the force of the sound!

So if you happen to find yourself in Glasgow  in the pouring rain with time to kill, you could do a lot worse than pop in to the Kelvingrove Museum for their free organ recitals, daily at 1pm.

First snow of winter

I was so glad that HMS managed to fix my boiler last week, as it’s turned cold. Really cold. It would have been utterly miserable without central heating!

It even snowed heavily on Saturday for several hours. Big, fat, “proper” snowflakes. Fortunately it didn’t stick, but it was still heavy enough for me to cancel my plans to go out – I hate driving in snow! I must remember to stock up on salt / grit again soon. Last winter was so harsh that I completely ran out, and if last weekend is anything to go by, I’m going to need more!

Condemned Boiler

It’s that time of year again when I get a series of emails from Christopher’s gmail calendar, reminding me to do a load of admin chores. “Get septic tank emptied” (done), “renew house insurance” (done), and most recently “Get boiler serviced”.

I had to wait a few weeks for the boiler servicing company I use, HMS, to have a free slot – they’re always busy at this time of year doing annual servicing of gas and oil boilers. As the weather closes in, and the heating comes on for the first time since the summer, all of Malvern simultaneously decides to call them in. But yesterday was the appointed day and the boilerman turned up promptly at 08:30.

I wasn’t expecting any significant issues. I knew he’d moan that the oil tank was too overgrown with vegetation- much of which is actually deliberately there to screen it from the kitchen window, as it’s rather ugly. But although that’s a violation of the regulations, it’s not actually particularly dangerous so I ignore their moans every year.

So I was shocked to be told that my boiler installation was so unsafe that it really shouldn’t be used at all until a major fault was remedied. Apparently, the over-pressure-release pipe had become blocked and there was nowhere for it to vent to. It sounded very serious, but I was reassured to be told that it was unlikely to be catastrophic or fatal. There are apparently no recorded deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning from an oil boiler. Unlike gas, by the time an oil boiler is coked up badly enough to emit dangerous levels of CO, it smells so badly of oil that you would know there was a major problem. The most likely impact if I kept using the boiler was a burst pipe – annoying and messy, but not life-threatening.

Oil service personnel don’t have the same powers the equivalent gas engineers – the latter have the power to condemn in unsafe appliance and put it out of service. Oil is apparently going in that direction (Nanny state or what?) but all they can do for now is strongly recommend. Nevertheless, the boiler was formally deemed Dangerous, with a label stuck to the front saying that it really shouldn’t be used until the problem was fixed.

That was unfortunate to say the least. It’s suddenly turned cold, and I would be without heating until it got fixed. Fortunately I have an immersion heater for emergencies so I wasn’t left without hot water. And I have a couple of electric heaters which I pressed into service. But I really hoped I wouldn’t have to go without a boiler for very long – the weather forecast looks pretty chilly for next week, and this house can get very cold without the central heating.

However, HMS, really pulled out the stops and ordered the parts to arrive urgently. They then shuffled around their order book to make a free slot, and sent someone around this afternoon to fix the problem and un-condemn the boiler. The heating is back on, the house is gradually warming up, and I have a full tank of hot water again. I was really impressed with how quickly HMS turned the repair around and fitted me in. The back-office staff kept me informed by email and phone of what was going on, and they squeezed me in to an already-busy work schedule. It’s service like that which keeps me going back to them every year – even if they do always moan about the climbing rose scrambling over my oil tank to disguise it!

Banana Cake

I had some very elderly bananas left from my packed lunches, that were far too brown to eat but not yet so far gone to be binned. So I thought I’d be brave and try cooking a banana cake to use them up. It’s not a recipe I’ve done before, as baking is really not something I normally ever do. But I looked on line and found a recipe for Easy Banana Cake which made it sound very simple. So I thought I’d give it a go.

The trouble is that I’m not used to baking, and I really don’t like the short hand that is used in recipes. Delia Smith is pretty good – she gives exact weights and times, and basically treats her readers like idiots, leaving nothing to chance or left unspoken between the lines. If I’ve got a set of scales and a kitchen timer then I can generally cope with one of her recipes. But too many cook books and recipes assume a basic level of knowledge and indeed competence in their readers, and I find that difficult.

It didn’t start well. “Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin”. Hmm. I have a loaf tin, but I’ve no idea what size it is. It certainly doesn’t weigh 2lb empty. And line it with what? I’ve got very old rolls of both greasproof paper and baking parchment, but I don’t know what the difference is. And how tidy do you have to be lining it? I bunged in some greasproof paper and hoped for the best.

The next step was to melt the butter, caster sugar and vanilla extract in a pan. Butter isn’t a problem, and I had half a pack of caster sugar in the cupboard. I was sure I had some vanilla extract somewhere, and after a search I found it. It had a Best Before date of 2008. I think Christopher must have been the last person to use it! But it still smelled ok so I put it in the saucepan with the butter and sugar.

Once that was melted, I had to stir in two mashed very ripe bananas. I wasn’t sure how ripe was acceptable. What about the black bits where it’s really gone extremely ripe? And how big a banana anyway? And mashed to what level of consistency? I decided to use the not-black bits of three medium sized bananas and reckoned that was roughly equivalent to two whole ones.

The next step was to add in a beaten egg and mix well. It didn’t specify the size of egg, but I decided I could live with that. Then I had to stir in self raising flour and milk. I clearly don’t use self raising flour very often, as the packet had a Best Before of 2016! Not as far out of date as the vanilla extract, but not good. But there were no weevils or similar in it, so I thought it should be ok. I did think that perhaps the self raising aspects might have lost their potency on the shelf, so I found some baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and decided to add a bit of each. They both expired in 2015, but I was beyond caring at that point. I poured it into the loaf tin and bunged it in the oven for the stated time.

The final instruction was “Leave to cool and enjoy”. But should you turn it out of the tin while it was still hot? Or leave it to cool in the tin? And when should I remove the greasproof paper? When it was hot or after it had cooled? And I had a vague feeling that wire racks might be involved.

After all that angst and stress, I can report that the banana cake rose very well (perhaps the additional raising agents were still potent!) and tastes good. But I’m not sure it’ll be something I’ll be repeating very often!

The UK Pink Floyd Experience

I had a very interesting and different evening last Saturday. There was a Pink Floyd tribute band in town, for one night only, visiting the Malvern Theatres as part of a UK tour. They got some very good reviews online, the tickets were very reasonably priced, and there were still a few seats left, so even though psychedelic rock is not really my type of music, I thought I’d give it a go.

I went with a hard-core Pink Floyd fan, who had seen the real band live in concert many years ago, and who was extremely impressed with the musicianship of the tribute band. Apparently, they were note perfect. I couldn’t comment about that on much of the programme – they played the entirety of the Animals album, which I’d never heard before, so I had no idea how it is meant to sound. But they also played all of Dark Side of the Moon, which I’m more familiar with, as well as bigger Pink Floyd hits like Shine on you Crazy Diamond and Comfortably Numb. And on the songs I knew, if you shut your eyes you really couldn’t tell it wasn’t the original band playing.

The bass player was clearly channeling Roger Waters, the lead guitarist sounded exactly like David Gilmour, and even the round screen showing somewhat surrealist projections was apparently very authentic. The band got a standing ovation during the encore (which was Another Brick in the Wall), and it was very well deserved. It was a really enjoyable show.

Malvern Festival of Innovation

The Malvern Festival of Innovation has been running all week, with events ranging from outreach to families and schools, to themed symposiums and networking for professionals. I went to one of those latter sessions yesterday, as it was on a technical topic I’m interested in.

I was surprised by the number of people there whom I knew – or more accurately, who clearly knew me. I kept being accosted by identikit late-middle-aged men in business suits saying “Gillian! How are you getting on?” I’m very bad at remembering faces, and though we were all meant to be wearing name badges, those always seemed to be covered up by their jackets. Some of people I could recognise, but often I was left racking my brains as to who I was talking to…. I worked out that one was my ex-boss from twenty years ago, another was a friend of Christopher’s, yet another had chaired a conference I sometimes attend, and the rest were ex-colleagues. It’s so much easier for them to remember me – there’s really not that many women in my technical field, so I stand out rather.

There was also a black-tie dinner last night held at Malvern College, and I was invited to attend by one of the lead sponsors. It’s not normally the sort of thing I go to – I hate dressing up for formal dinners! But I’ve just bought a new Little Black Dress in the sales, so I didn’t really have an excuse not to go. In the event, I enjoyed myself far more than I thought I would. I knew most of the people on my table – they were all either ex-colleagues or people I’ve collaborated with. They were an interesting bunch to talk to, and we had a very animated discussion triggered by the after dinner speaker, who was talking about “Responsible Innovation”, or why you should think first, before foisting a new piece of technology on the public.

A trip to Brooklands

Last week, there was a “technical away-day” where 50 or so of us were summoned to our Hampshire headquarters for a day of briefings and workshops, followed by dinner with yet more networking. It was a long day, but as a bonus our bosses had organised a private, evening tour of Brooklands, the motorcar and airplane museum.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the museum tour – I have at best a less than tepid interest in motor history, and I thought I’d be bored rigid. But I am happy to admit that I was completely wrong. Our guide was extremely good, and told us lots of stories about the people behind the exhibits, so I got a lot more out of the visit than if I’d simply walked around it looking at yet another old car or motor bike.

Way back in the early days of the motor car, there weren’t any dedicated race tracks for them, so motor races happened on the public roads. At least, that was what happened on the Continent – cars raced on dodgy roads through small villages, and the inevitable happened and members of the public got killed. So of course it was banned in Britain. As an unintended side effect, French, German and Italian cars all improved massively due to the amount of high-speed testing they got, but British-built cars lagged behind. So a wealthy land-owner with an interest in motor racing decided to build a dedicated race track, complete with banked curves. That was in 1907, at Brooklands, and it was the first in the world.

Our guide also told us the story of Barbara Cartland’s involvement with Brooklands. The “Ladies Reading Room” there is named after her, which seemed an odd tribute to a prolific romantic novelist. It turns out that Barbara Cartland wasn’t always such a caricature of pinkness – back in the 1930s she had been involved in organising women’s motor-racing at Brooklands, and had also been the motivating factor behind air-towed gliders. Previously, so our guide said, gliders had been launched by towing them behind cars, but the length of the tow-rope limited the height they could get and therefore the endurance. But if you launched it from an airplane instead, you could start off much higher – and Barbara Cartland stumped up the money and was a passenger in the first long-distance cross country glider flight. Subsequent developments led to the troop-carrying gliders that were used as part of the D-Day assault, so there was more to Barbara Cartland than perhaps met the eye!

As an aside, Barbara Cartland grew up in Malvern, and went to the same school as me. When I was a very young girl, her mother still lived here, just around the corner from us. She used to open her house and gardens to the local community. The story in the family is that I met Mary Cartland and sat on her knee – she must have been in her eighties or even nineties then. But if family legend is true, then I have sat on the knee of the step-great-great-grandmother of the future king! How is that for a claim to fame?….

Downtown Montreal

My first impressions of Montréal were of a modern, high-rise, somewhat identikit Northern American city. And of roadworks. Lots of roadworks. The city authorities seemed intent on replacing the sewers all over the downtown, there was a lot of redevelopment going on with new skyscrapers and new bridges being built, several major road junctions were undergoing complete remodelling, and much of the rest of the road network was being resurfaced. The locals said that Montréal has two seasons: Winter, and Cone Season. And we were there firmly in the middle of Cone Season.

This meant that sat-navs were almost completely useless, as every other main road seemed to be completely blocked. Even the local taxi drivers couldn’t keep up with the road closures and diversions. I took several taxis across town which got horribly lost – one driver did two three-point turns when he realised his way was blocked, and at one point even reversed at speed the wrong way down a one way road!

The most inconvenient section of the roadworks, at least as far as I was concerned, was the one directly outside my hotel. Indeed, directly outside my window. I was due to be working the late afternoon/evening shifts of the equipment trial over the second weekend, so I badly wanted to have a bit of a lie-in. Fat chance when a pneumatic drill started up directly outside my bedroom window well before 8am on the Saturday! You’d never find British workmen so keen at the weekend! Fortunately, the workmen seemed to take the Sunday off, so I was finally able to have a bit of a lazy start to the day before heading off to work.

Québécois specialities

I didn’t get much time to explore Montréal; I was there to work, not go sightseeing. And whilst some of the younger lads in my team had the energy to go out sampling the nightlife after a full day’s work, I simply didn’t. But there’s little point in travelling all that way and not making at least an effort to engage with the local culture, particularly when it comes to food.

Of course, being North America, much of the food – including the huge portion sizes – was clearly influenced by the USA. There were lots of burgers, nachos and pizzas on offer. But there were some distinctively Canadian and Québécois offerings too.

I was buying a sandwich lunch in a supermarket when I saw and simply had to sample a Maple Mars Bar. That’s right – it’s a standard Mars Bar but with the caramel flavoured with maple syrup. It was extremely sweet, and really quite sickly. Not as nice as I had hoped, but definitely worth trying.

Then there was poutine, which was available on the menu in all the local bars and cafes near my hotel. It is a major regional specialty of Québec, and I thought I’d better try it at least once. This is poutine:

Poutine

It’s basically chips, topped with curd cheese and covered in gravy. It tastes exactly as you might expect it to taste, and I have to say that one serving of it was quite enough to satisfy my curiosity!