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End of year overload

I’ve not posted much recently, because I’ve simply been too busy with work. Next Friday is the end of the Financial Year for both the company and our main customer, and the “end of year push” to complete projects and write them up is well underway. Each year we tell ourselves that it will be better next year, but it never is.

This year is particularly challenging because I’ve got two major projects on the go which both finish next Friday. This week I’ve been running a big equipment trial in Malvern, with five subcontractors, and about twenty techies, culminating in orchestrating a demo to our stakeholders. On my other project, I’ve been working closely with a number of universities, and have been witnessing and participating in their equipment trials in Oxford and Birmingham, and attending multiple meetings in London.

My “resource demand signal” (management new-speak for what the project managers cumulatively are expecting me to deliver) has been running at ~40 hours/week for the past month. That would be fine if I worked full time. But I don’t. It’s no wonder I’m tired!

I’m keeping going on a diet of caffeine, paracetamol and chocolate. Not the healthiest combination, admittedly, but the end of the Financial Year is in sight at last. Just one more week to go…..


Back at the pottery – at long last!

Its been far too long since I’ve spent a day throwing at Eastnor Pottery. I had to look back at my diary to remind myself when I was there last – it was last June, when I threw a selection of small bowls. I had another session booked for September to turn and decorate them, but I had to cancel that when I was sent out to Montreal on business. For one reason or another, I never got around to rebooking – I think I’ve just been too rushed off my feet at work, so I’ve been using the weekends to recover from exhaustion, rather than actively doing anything that I enjoy.

But that’s really not an acceptable situation, and I knew that I’d enjoy myself at the pottery if only I could summon the energy to book a session. So, despite the fact that the end of the Financial Year is fast approaching, and work is even more manic than ever, I got in touch with Eastnor Pottery and asked if they had any slots available on one of their throwing workshops. They did, and I spent all day yesterday there, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Jon the Potter had even kept the bowls I’d made last June, in the expectation that I would turn up at some point to finish them. Unfortunately, however, even though they were wrapped in plastic, nine months is rather too long to keep pots damp and malleable. They had dried out completely, and were far too brittle to work with. I broke them up and put them in the reclaim bin where they will get soaked in water until the clay breaks down and can be recycled into fresh clay for throwing. It was very reminiscent of breaking up Easter eggs – the dried terracotta bowls had just the same texture and much the same colour as a chocolate eggshell.

I then spent the rest of the morning throwing some small bowls. My mother has asked for some to replace one I threw 15 years ago that is now showing its age and getting a bit chipped around the rim. I threw 15 bowls in total, using up a whole bag of clay in the process. By about 2pm I was beginning to get tired and losing my concentration – my pots started getting wobbly, so I decided to call it a day and come home. I did make sure however to book into another workshop next month to turn and decorate them – I don’t want to leave another nine months between visits!

And Another Loud Evening

I can’t remember the last time I went out two evenings in one week, and certainly not to rock concerts! But the opportunity was too good to miss.

Fiona has been helping keep my recurrent migraines under some sort of control by giving me a back, neck and shoulder massage every three weeks for the past fifteen or more years. Although I’m technically her client, we’ve become friends over the years. As well as her massage and beauty business, she rents out a self-contained annex in her house on Airbnb, and often chats to me during my treatment session about the “interesting” characters she’s had staying there.

A few weeks ago, she told me about four talented musicians who had rented the apartment for a full week in the depths of low season. It appears that there is a Malvern-based music impresario who manages a number of “tribute bands”. He needs to get the band together for a week’s solid rehearsals before each of their tours of the UK, and hiring rehearsal space somewhere like London is very expensive. However, he’s worked out that he can hire West Malvern Village Hall for a week at a very reasonable price, put the band up in Fiona’s annex, and keep an eye on how rehearsals are going.

There was apparently a mix up over dates this time, and in order to compensate Fiona for the inconvenience he had put her to, he offered her a number of free tickets to the band’s show at the Malvern Theatres on Wednesday night. I expressed an interest, she had plenty of tickets spare, and so I got a complimentary seat to see Credence Clearwater Reimagined, the leading tribute band for the “roots rock” band Credence Clearwater Revival.

The band did a very good job, and sounded remarkably like CCR. I knew several of their classics – Bad Moon Rising, Proud Mary, Suzie Q – and as far as I could tell they were note perfect. They also did a little introduction before most of the numbers, giving a bit of history and context which was interesting, as I knew very little about CCR as a band.

I thought it was funny that, both on Wednesday and last Monday nights, the lead guitarists stood pretty much firmly on the spot, concentrating on their fingering and solos, while the bassists were the most animated and charismatic people on the stage, jumping around and strutting their stuff!

A Very Loud Evening

I had a very different and extremely loud evening earlier this week. I had noticed in the theatre listings that, for one night only, the UK tour of The Classic Rock Show was coming to Malvern. This is essentially a glorified tribute band, but rather than sticking to replicating the sound of just one group (like the UK Pink Floyd Experience I saw last year) they covered the whole genre. So they went from AC/DC to ZZ Top via David Bowie, Dire Straits, Jimmi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meatloaf, and just about everyone else you can think of.

I suppose I knew about 80% of the songs, and they all sounded extremely authentic to me. And if by any chance there was one you didn’t like, there would be something completely different in a few minutes time! The lead guitarist got through at least seven different guitars in an effort to replicate the sound of so many different guitarists – from Marc Knopfler to Eric Clapton via everyone in between. One of the female singers was also a member of a leading Fleetwood Mac tribute band, so she did a couple of Stevie Nicks tracks, and the resemblance was uncanny.

They saved the best to last, and did a stupendous, and entirely note-perfect rendition of Freebird for an encore. Overall, it was like having my iPod set to shuffle, but much, much louder! I was sitting in the cheap seats right at the back of the auditorium and I could feel the sound waves in my chest cavity as much as hear them! I was pretty glad I hadn’t shelled out on an expensive seat closer to the stage, as my ears were still ringing when I went to bed!

All change at the Pudding Club

After a busy day exercising our credit cards in Stratford, we all met up mid-afternoon at the car to drive the short distance to Mickleton, the honey-coloured Cotswold village that is the home of the Pudding Club.

There were a number of changes this year. The long-term owners of the hotel sold it last year to an investment company which specialises in small hotels. So far, according to the staff, the main changes have been some new frescoes in the Reception and Bar areas, rather than wholesale sweeping changes. It has always struck me as a well-run and very comfortable if somewhat idiosyncratic hotel, so I do hope that the new owners work with what’s already good about the place, rather than turning it into an identikit corporate clone.

The other major change was that Craig, the long-serving Hotel Manager who has been the compère of the Pudding Club for many many years, took the opportunity to move on. He has been replaced by Sarah as the new host and Master of Ceremonies. However, the woman organising the Pudding Club evening had the happy thought of inviting Craig back as our guest – he said that it was the first time he’d ever sat down and eaten the puddings, and only now realised just how hard it is to eat all seven!

Sarah had instigated some small but welcome changes of her own. There were now just two rules to the Pudding Club:

  1. You can only go up to get a portion of Pudding when your table is invited to.
  2. You can only have one Pudding in your bowl at a time, so you have to finish the previous one before you can go up for the next.

She seemed to have quietly dropped Craig’s very harsh rule 3: The table won’t be invited up for the next round if anyone on the table hasn’t finished their previous Pudding.

The puddings this year were:

  • sticky toffee and date pudding
  • Lord Randall’s Pudding (essentially, a marmalade sponge pudding)
  • pear and ginger crumble
  • lemon meringue tart
  • very chocolate pudding
  • bread and butter pudding
  • spotted dick

All served with custard / cream / toffee sauce / chocolate sauce as appropriate. Sarah’s other innovation this year was to offer slightly smaller portions. You could still pig out and eat vast quantities (and some on my table did just that!) but it meant that those of us with smaller appetites could try more of the puddings.

You have to think hard about tactics. Do you start heavy and go lighter? Start with the light ones and go heavier? Use the cold dessert as a palate-cleanser half way through? Or just start with your favourites so that if you get full too soon, you at least haven’t missed out? That’s the technique I favour, as I know full well I won’t manage everything, so I concentrate on the ones I think I’ll like the most.

This year I was very impressed with myself that I managed the first five puddings. My downfall, as last year, was the Very Chocolate Pudding. It is so rich that my stomach rebelled and refused to countenance anything further. At the end of the evening we all vote for our favourite Pudding – you can only vote for one Pudding, but you can vote for it as many times as you had portions of it. This year Sticky Toffee and Date Pudding was the clear winner, boosted by multiple votes by people who had five or more portions of it!

Recreational Shopping Trip

The year seems to have gone very quickly, as it was time again for my annual Girls’ Outing to the Pudding Club. I was horribly busy at work all last week, with a day at my customer’s site in Wiltshire and two nights in London manning the company’s stand at a major industry conference and exhibition. So the Pudding Club Trip really sneaked up on me unobserved.

The others have been going for so long (19 years I think for some of them!) that they really have the agenda perfected. I was picked up from home at 09:15, we rendezvoused with the rest of the Malvern contingent at 09:30, and drove to Stratford where we parked in the usual car park, and had the usual polite argument about who really wanted most to pay for the parking.

Then it was time for coffee and toast/croissant at the usual café, where we met up with one of the others from our party who used to work with us all but now lives elsewhere. The final member of our party always has to get her daughters’ various sports and social arrangements sorted out before she can get away, so she doesn’t meet us until lunch time.

After the reviving caffeine hit, it was time to hit the shops, right at the tail end of the January sales, with some final reductions on offer. I made a beeline to the Edinburgh Woollen Mill to see if they had any cashmere jumpers my size left in the sale. Most of what they had left was size XS, which I’ve not been able to fit into for years. But I did find a very snuggly round neck cashmere jumper in my size in a deep dusky pink at a heavily reduced price. It’ll do very nicely for work, and none of the engineers there will know or care that it’s last year’s colour!

I was surprised to find that the shop was holding a “closing down – everything must go” sale, as it’s always been busy when I’ve been there. I spoke to the staff, and apparently the lease is coming up for renewal and the landlord is being greedy. If they can come to acceptable terms with him, they’ll renew and stay. If not, I may struggle to find myself a decent cashmere jumper next year!

I hardly ever go in for recreational shopping, so this annual trip really is the only time I spend a whole day going round the shops. I stocked up on some hideously expensive hand cream (at my age the cheap stuff doesn’t do anything useful), a bulk load of new underwear from Marks and Spencers, and some useful storage bags from Lakeland. At that point my bank clearly noticed the unusual, indeed virtually unprecedented, pattern of spending on my credit card, as I got a text from them saying that they suspected fraud and had blocked my card! I had to take some time out over lunch (just a bowl of soup or a sandwich – no point in filling ourselves up before the Pudding Club) to contact the bank and reassure them that yes it was indeed me acting entirely out of character and not a fraudster! Annoying though it is to get one’s card blocked, I suppose it’s actually quite reassuring that their algorithms are on the alert for unusual patterns of behaviour to counter fraud.

Holidays in Bickenhill?

Now is the time of year when every time the postman calls he seems to be bringing loads of holiday brochures. And my email inbox is just as bad – the majority of my emails seem to be from companies trying to tempt me to go away somewhere based on what they (or their algorithms) think I might be interested in – ancient ruins around the Mediterranean, river cruises through Europe, cottage holidays in  rural England, and hotel breaks in Bickenhill. Bickenhill? I didn’t even know where that was!

It turns out that Bickenhill is the postal district of Birmingham Airport. I’ve done a number of trips to Glasgow University in the past year, and have usually decided to stay overnight beforehand at an airport hotel rather than trying to get from Malvern to the airport in time for a stupid o’clock flight. However, on a couple of those occasions I was travelling with a colleague who lives near me and would have been happy to pick me up from home and drive me to the airport at 5am. So since I was turning down a perfectly viable lift, I didn’t feel that I could charge work for the hotel and therefore booked and paid for it myself. Hence now apparently thinks that I have a yearning to go on holiday to the outskirts of Birmingham! No thanks!

Listed Building Consent

I had a really interesting chat with our neighbours over our New Year’s Day  lunch about the major renovation work they are doing on their cottage. It was originally an early 19th Century toll house on what would have been the old turnpike road, and is Grade II listed. That means that, although it requires a great deal of work to renovate it and turn it into a comfortable (albeit small) home, everything they do needs Listed Building Consent from the local council.

Fortunately, it seems that the local conservation officer is broadly sympathetic. The council do not want a derelict cottage causing an eyesore and crumbling into irreversible decline, and they realise that they have to allow some changes to make the building viable as a modern home. So they are allowing my neighbours to drag it at least into the 20th Century by adding a proper bathroom and some external lighting. Hopefully even double glazed windows, at least at the back of the property where it’s less visible from the road. But all the bureaucratic hoops add at least three months to everything they do, so the renovation is going to be a slow process.

Fortunately, my own cottage is not listed, so I don’t have those constraints. But before we moved here, Christopher and I lived in one of the big old Victorian mansions in the centre of Great Malvern that had been converted into flats. That was a Grade II listed, and leasehold to boot.

I used to really rather enjoy myself when I got cold called by companies trying to sell me a conservatory. I would say that I’d always wanted to have a conservatory, but didn’t think I’d be able to as there were some issues. At which point the caller would say that they had a range of conservatories and were sure that they could help – what was the issue? So I’d say that the house was Grade II Listed, and in a Conservation Area, so I didn’t think the planning authorities would allow me to have one. That stopped some of the less desperate companies, but I did occasionally get one saying that they had some “heritage” designs which had proved acceptable on occasion, and they would be happy to work with me on getting consent. In that case I said, I’d be very interested indeed – except that we lived on the side of a very steep hill. The flat was only first floor at the front, but was second floor at the back, with stunning views over the Severn Plain. it would be brilliant to have a conservatory to take advantage of the views, but what would they propose? A cantilevered construction perhaps? At that point they invariably hung up on me! How rude!

New Year’s Day lunch

For the last few years, I have hosted my immediate neighbours for lunch on New Years Day. We all seem to enjoy ourselves, and it’s fast becoming a tradition.  I’ve got the biggest dining room and the most chairs, so it makes sense for me to be the host. Each household brings a course, so that no one person has to do all the cooking, which seems to work well.

Yesterday I dusted off the “good” wineglasses, napkins and cutlery – all wedding presents which don’t get a lot of use, as I don’t in general host many dinner parties. I cooked some really creamy dauphinois potatoes, and Delia’s  braised red cabbage & apple, which is pretty much idiot-proof and tastes really good. We had a homemade cream of tomato soup, a baked ham (for the meat eaters) and a nut roast (provided by the vegetarian couple next door), followed by a really yummy lemon cheesecake from my neighbour over the road.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Thank goodness for dishwashers though – otherwise I think I’d still be doing the washing up!

Happy New Year.

A Room with a View

I had an interesting couple of days in London last week, taking a small team of our software engineers to a “hackathon”. For those who haven’t come across the term before, Wikipedia defines a hackathon as “a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.” I was definitely counted amongst the “others” in that definition – I’m not a softie, and the last programming language I was really proficient in was FORTRAN77.

The organisers of the event seemed to have somewhat stereotypical views about hackers, and fed us a diet of pizza, doughnuts, coffee and beer. The meeting timings were also unusual – starting mid-afternoon and continuing until 10pm. They obviously thought that hackers were nocturnal creatures by habit! But that did leave me with a bit of a dilemma. The hackathon was held in Docklands, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, and I really didn’t want to have to head across London late at night to one of the company’s preferred hotels closer to the centre.

I went into our corporate hotel booking system, without a lot of hope, and was astonished to find a hotel just five minutes walk from the event venue, that just squeezed in under the corporate price ceiling. Someone must have done some tough negotiating, as it was clearly Tourist Central. I was particularly impressed when I opened the curtains in my room and saw this:

Tower Bridge from my hotel window

And this:

Tower of London from my hotel window

It was just a pity that I was so busy working that I didn’t have much time to enjoy the views!