It's not rational...

Sunday, May 25, 2014

It feels like a hundred yeas ago, and it's hard to believe that I've only been back in the UK full time for about a month.  I’m busily at work on a new show, and my diet actually includes fruits and vegetables at most meals, and I’m running or cycling every day and everything kind of feels… normal.  It’s delicious.  On the other hand, there are a few anecdotes I just have to tell you about Russia, so here goes:

On the fickle nature of hotel laundry:

I've said it before, but that gig was HARD.  The hours were long, we were way behind schedule, and, as I mentioned before, the living conditions were not ideal.  There was one good thing about our hotel though - they did laundry, and they did it cheaply.  The fantastic posh hotel in Moscow also did laundry, but given that it cost about £6 to get a pair of running shorts washed I didn't use that service often.  At the good old Ekodom Hotel in Adler, getting a normal load of laundry washed, dried and folded cost about 70 roubles (£1.25). This was a godsend. Except, of course, there was a catch.  In Russia it seems there's ALWAYS a catch, though this one applied only to women.  I noticed it after I got my first batch of laundry back.

Ekodom Hotel
The Ekodom...

Everything seemed normal, but for one small oddity.  All of my underpants had been separated from the rest of the laundry, secured in their own plastic bag (knotted shut) and tucked in with the rest of the load.  I thought this was a bit odd, but at that stage I’d been in Russia long enough that this quirk was barely enough to register on the Russian Weird-o-Meter, so I took them out of the bag, shoved them in the closet, and got on with life.

Later that week I pulled out a pair of underwear and noticed that it wasn't clean.  “Odd," I thought.  "That one must not have made it into the laundry bag."  The next week I sent another bag of laundry in, including underwear.  Again, it came back with all underwear neatly sequestered, and this time I confirmed that NONE of it had, in fact, been laundered.  I marched down to the front desk with my bag of dirty underwear and asked them to please send it back because when I sent my clothes in to be cleaned I naively assumed that the people I was paying for the service would actually clean ALL of them.

The next night I stopped back to pick up my clean underwear.  And it's worth noting here that this was probably at about one o'clock in the morning, after a fourteen-ish hour day, so my nerves were slightly raw.  And then... then the truth came out.  Once again my underwear was not clean, but now there was an explanation (or what passes for an explanation in Russia). They simply didn't do women's underpants.  At all.  No exceptions.  Men's underwear was no problem.  Other women's undergarments were ok too.  But women's underpants?  No way.

As I stood at the front desk, mouth gaping, trying to think of something to say, a female colleague who was also staying at the hotel said something to the effect of, "Oh yeah. The No Underwear Thing.  Didn't anyone tell you?"  Well, no.  No they didn't.  And what kind of a ridiculous freaking rule is that?  I trudged back up to my little orange shoebox of a room clutching my plastic bag full of dirty underwear and sat on the edge of my bed and tried hard not to cry.  "Typical," I thought.  "I'm working on the biggest show on earth, under huge time pressure in bizarre circumstances, and the thing that almost pushes me over the edge is the fact that they won't wash my knickers."  And then I snapped myself out of it, probably with the help of a drink.  And the next morning I filled the bathroom sink with hot water and dish soap and I hand-washed my underwear and hung it to dry in the shower.  And I did that every three days for the next ten weeks.

The bathroom sink and shower in question

I can't remember whether we were talking about this exact little quirk of life, or some other equally odd happening, but I was having a conversation with a colleague about this sort of thing and he said one of his suppliers had coined a term for when he was confronted by the sheer bloody-minded, unbelievable frustration of it all.  "It's not rational," he'd say.  "It's Russian-al".

Truer words were never spoken.

On overcoming obstacles:

I've already mentioned the problems we had with food on the Olympic Park site. (But I didn’t mention this… one day in the canteen one of the dinner options included LIVER FRITTERS. Seriously?  How is that even a thing?)  And I mentioned my successful method for smuggling in food stuffs to help me survive.  It also happens that I had a reasonable stash of that most Canadian soul food imaginable - Kraft Dinner.  At some point along the way I realised that there were microwave instructions on the KD box, which was a revelation.  While I didn't have a microwave in the hotel room (they were forbidden, of course) we did have them in the office.  So I decided that I'd risk trying to smuggle in a box of Kraft Dinner.  I had enough boxes that if I lost one it wouldn’t be an unmitigated tragedy, and the idea that I might be able to stop for a few minutes and have a bowl of KD in the middle of the maelstrom was a powerful draw.  So I opened up the box and poured the macaroni into a ziploc bag (also imported from Canada) and shoved it into the toe of one of my big fuzzy socks.  The envelope of cheese powder went into the other sock, and both got twisted and turned inside out so that it looked like I was simply carrying two pairs of big fuzzy socks through the security checkpoint.  Perfectly normal, or at least normal-ish.

One of a number of exceptionally long queues to get through security.  We're heading for the small square white building.  The wacky castle is... well, we just called it Wacky Castle.  It seemed to be associated with an amusement park right outside the Olympics Park gates.

No matter, I got in.  (As I've mentioned before, the Big Fuzzy Sock Method was one hundred percent successful.  The only time I had food confiscated was when I forgot I had a Snickers bar in my jacket pocket, which really doesn’t count.)  Later that day, after a really tough afternoon, I finally found time to sit down and contemplate how to assemble my contraband KD.  I had a fairly large plastic tupperware sort of bowl (but a Russian one, so the lid didn’t actually stay on).  And we had water coolers that dispensed really hot water, so I was able to fill the bowl with the right amount of water and then pour in the macaroni in preparation for the microwave.

Of course this was the point of not return.  Once the macaroni hits the water there’s no going back.  No chance that I could change my mind and postpone.  It was now or never for that Kraft Dinner.  So I turned around to put my plastic bowl of happiness in the microwave. Except… the microwave was GONE.  Both machines that had been sitting on the table next to my desk for weeks had vanished.  I stood there, stricken.  A colleague noticed my expression and asked what was wrong.  (Or perhaps I just might have attracted some attention by exclaiming, rather more loudly than might have been appropriate, “Are you fucking KIDDING ME????”)  Whatever it was, I soon found out that the Russian catering department had decided to start feeding the cast hot meals and to that end had commandeered every microwave in the building and taken them to the rehearsal site to heat up food.  Of course.

So let's review:  I’d managed to get this Kraft Dinner all the way from Canada.  I’d smuggled it in my socks to get it on site.  I had the time, the bowl, the hot water… and yet still Russia had managed to thwart this tiny bit of homey happiness.  Once again, just like with UnderwearGate, I almost cried.  It really is the little things that kill you sometimes.

But wait!  This story has a happy ending.  It turned out that one lone microwave had survived the cull.  So I carried my precious bowl across the compound to the canteen, where I found the skankiest microwave I’ve ever encountered.  And I put that bowl in and watched it boil over.  And I cleaned up the boiled over sticky pasta water with a thousand paper napkins. And it boiled over again.  And I cleaned it up again.  And then I carried the burning hot bowl back to my desk and mixed in the cheese stuff and a bit of milk and mayonnaise (because I didn’t have butter) and damn, it was GOOD.

And actually, that’s kind of what it was like a lot of the time.  You’d expend a massive, ridiculous, disproportionate amount of effort to make something happen.  And then just when you thought it was sorted out, six other things would get in the way.  And you’d just have to put your head down and keep plugging, and eventually something pretty ok happened.

Like this.  These light-up spinning head-dress things were props, and despite numerous ridiculous obstacles, they ended up looking really cool.

A Day Out: Bekonscot Model Village

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I'm pretty sure I've still got things to say about Russia, but for now it's a Bank Holiday weekend and the weather is uncharacteristically warm and dry (locals will understand that a entire Bank Holiday Weekend that is NOT punctuated by untimely rain showers is a rare and precious thing) and I had the cutest, bloggiest thing drop into my lap, so today it’s all aboard for Bekonscot Model Village.

Bekonscot Model Village.  It does exactly what it says on the tin - it's a model of a village.  
A tiny little world of the most exquisite Englishness imaginable.

It was a kind of charmed day.  As I said, the weather was perfect.  And the train to Beaconsfield (BECKons-field), the real town in which tiny Bekonscot is located, leaves from Marylebone Station, which is a pleasant journey on one bus from Brixton.  And then when I arrived at the station, just as I was taking in the unpleasantly long queue for the ticket machines, a railway agent approached and siphoned off a few of us, allowing me to skip the queue and make it to the train that was leaving, fortuitously, in 5 minutes.  Then I found a front-facing window seat in the Quiet Car and opened up a fresh crossword and watched as the English countryside rolled past the window and was really, really content.

There’s a short walk from the station to the model village, which is set, oddly, on a residential street.  This is because the village is the work of one Roland Callingham, and the whole thing is set on the grounds of his former home.  A model railroad enthusiast, Callingham was apparently forced to move his extensive layout (For Grampy and Ted: Gauge 1) out of the house and into the garden when his wife declared, “Either the railroad goes outside or you do!” Working alongside his staff (the gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur… rough life!) they began to create a setting for the trains, which gradually grew into such an attraction for guests of the house that the swimming pool was turned into a lake and the surrounding rockery into undulating hills.  The village continued to expand to its present 1.5 acre size, though surrounding properties on all size prevent any increase in the overall area.  Though originally conceived as a private folly for Callingham and his friends, word of Bekonscot soon got around and they began taking donations from visitors in 1930.  It continues to donate all proceeds to various charities and to date it has collected about 5.5 millions pounds (At £9.50 per head for adults, that's not such a stretch).  And it remains to this day, the oldest model village in the world.

The aforementioned lake, now transformed into the seafront town of Southpool, complete with lighthouse, Yacht Club and of course, the RNLI.

Built at 1:12 scale, the detail and charm of the place is impressive.  It now comprises six individual towns linked by an impressive amount of rail track, all set in a 1930s time warp that makes it even more appealing.  Vintage bi-planes sit on the grass outside the airport, steam engines chug along the rails, and the dairyman still delivers in a hand-drawn cart.  It's hopelessly engrossing.

Naturally Bekonscot is hugely popular with kids, mostly the under-6 set it seems.  I was a bit nervous, expecting that on a Bank Holiday Sunday it would be a screaming nightmare of over-excited, cranky, screaming children, 10-15% of whom might be in full melt-down at any time. In fact, there were a lot of kids with parents and grandparents (I think I may have been the only person there alone, which made me feel slightly creepy).  Luckily, there was almost none of the screamy horribleness that make one want to cringe and flee.  It seems the tiny village is beguiling enough that most everyone - kids and adults alike - was just content to wander and look and point out new little discoveries and watch for the next train to trundle past and be pleasant and happy.  I left when it was starting to get a bit too crowded on the loop of narrow paths that meanders past each part of the village, but even then people were polite and patient and it was all just... nice.

People being... just nice.

The railway - the original reason for Bekonscot's existence - really is extensive.  Apparently covering 10 scale miles, the trains run constantly - through tunnels, over bridges, and into and out of stations.  It's the trains that the kids seem to love to most.  There's even a video taken from the "driver's eye view" of a train making the rounds of the whole site, which gives you a really nice look at the scale of the place.  (And for those interested in more details about the railroad in particular - Grampy and Ted, this is for you - here's the track layout and more details about signal boxes and relay cabinets and such.)

The industry of the tiny people of Bekonscot is absorbing.  There's a furniture plant, coal mine, dairy farm, oast house, cement works, hospital, nunnery with garden, and several schools, hotels, churches, markets and pubs.  There are fishermen, farmers, removals men, estate agents, and builders at work on a partly finished house.  The village has a windmill and a watermill.  And the members of the Bekonscot Fire Brigade have been battling a fire in the thatched roof of a cottage more or less forever.  There are even three castles (one pleasingly ruined and crumbly, open to visitors for 2d (Adults) and 1d (Children) according to the sign).

The roof of the burning building periodically emits puffs of smoke!

Neither do the Lilliputians lack for recreational activities; the place is positively bursting with wholesome diversions of every sort.  A game of cricket is underway, along with football, rugby, field hockey and net ball.  There's tennis, croquet, and bowls at the Country Club. There are sheepdog trials, horse racing, equestrian, canoeing, rowing, yachting and sailing, fox hunting, golf, polo, archery, and netball.  The smallest of the residents take part in scout camps and dance around maypoles.  And Bekonscotians of all sizes are depicted relaxing on the beach, camping out in miniature caravans, attending concerts at the pavillion on the pier, strolling through a remarkably well-stocked zoo, going to the circus, riding in cable cars, floating narrowboats through a set of locks in a canal, and picnicing alongside oddly outsized bluebells and shrubbery. They can even get lost in a hedge maze.

And there's an extensive country fair with spinning ferris wheels

And of course, inevitably... Morris Dancing

My very favourite discovery at Bekonscot was the depiction of an industrious group of archeologists camped out across the path from the coal mine, busily excavating what looked like a Roman villa, complete with mosaic floor and the remains of the caldarium.  They're also just down the hill from a giant (well, relatively speaking) prehistoric chalk outline of a horse on a hillside.  It's just really clever.


There's a very whimsical nature to the whole thing, reinforced by the propensity to plaster the place with the worst possible puns.  The grocer is Chris P. Lettis and the baker is Ivan Huven.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 10.48.53 pm
It really pays to look closely

It's clear why many people come back again and again; first as children, then bringing children of their own.  The place is supremely nostalgic.  Apparently during the 80 year evolution of the village more modern buildings began to be created, including some concrete monstrosity sort of things.  Happily, good sense prevailed and a strict 1930s time frame was applied, which is a large part of the charm of the place.

Of course there are the usual other attractions - a tea room, a gift shop, an adventure playground, and a larger gauge railway you can ride for £1 a head.  You can also wander past the workshops where models are built and maintained, which I thought was great.  They should have those open on the weekends so you can see the staff and volunteers building whatever new thing is coming.  I even caught a glimpse of the Spring 2014 To Do List, which was mostly crossed off (well done gang) and included such tasks as "Hardware Shop - secure window-box" and "Flamingo Pool - paint perimeter".  Great.

When I'd had my fill, I left and decided to walk into the Old Town of Beaconsfield for a nice cup of coffee and lunch, which promised to be only a 20 minute walk.  Sadly, though much of the old town has a look eerily similar to that of Bekonscot, it's all Carphone Warehouses and Pizza Express and charity shops and high-end kitchen decor places, with a large round-about and 4 lanes of traffic cutting right down the main road.  I was hoping to find a nice local place (perhaps called T.N. Kayks) where I could relax and recharge before seeking the train home. Alas, I had to settle for a ham and cheese toastie at Costa Coffee.  But by then my mood was good enough that even that was pleasant, and I spent the 20-minute wait for the train back to London relaxing on a bench on the platform in the bright sun reading a new book.  All in all, an excellently bloggy day and the kind of thing I've missed very very much.

P.S.  There are a ton more photos over at Flickr - Bekonscot is a magnificently photogenic place, especially on a sunny day, and I taxed my camera to the point where both batteries died.  Check it out.