Last Weekend

Sunday, June 12, 2022

It really was the last weekend. Because rehearsals have officially started, so now my life consists of six-day weeks at a windy outdoor rehearsal site, and Mondays off filled with laundry, errands and other boring life admin. This meant that when Tom (he who so callously rejected the Needle Museum) mentioned the idea of slipping down to London for a visit, I was all for seizing that last opportunity for a proper weekend. Which is how I came to book an AirBnb in an unexplored part of London and hop a train for a few days of being a tourist in the city where I (nominally) live.

First up was perhaps the most exciting event on the agenda, at least for those of us who grew up in the 80's. Eight month ago, when the beloved supergroup ABBA announced that they were back and producing a new album and a revolutionary new "live" concert in London, I was pretty excited. Because... ABBA! 

(ABBA haters please leave now. Because, like raisin-hate, that attitude disqualifies you from reading my blog. I can't put it better than my friend Nathan, with whom I had this brief exchange on the topic:

So well put, Nathan.

I'd heard the hype when this new ABBA venture was all first announced, but then it faded into the background until Needle-Hater Tom mentioned that he was going down to London, and might be seeing the show with tickets from a mate who was working on the gig. And I might have had this reaction:

Sorry for shouting, Tom.

Fast forward a month or so and it turned out that Tom's mate was also someone that I'd worked with, and several other previous work colleagues were also involved, and yes, we did get tickets to see the very first time they did the show for an audience. This is definitely one of the perks of a life in show biz. And it really doesn't happen all that often. And I really try not to take advantage of any connections I might have. But dammit... ABBA!

Despite the fact that the press sometimes mention holograms when talking about the show, we knew it wasn't going to be that, but we really didn't know what to expect otherwise. I knew motion-capture was involved. I think I knew that the actual 70-year-old members of ABBA had gone into the studio to record the songs in the show. And we figured, cynically, that we were in for a sort of glorified music video. Keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed, that's my motto.

(Aside: In researching this post I watched several promotional videos about ABBA Voyage, both the album and the arena show. And I have to share a quote from Bjorn. When he was asked about the decades that have passed since their last album in 1982 and this new one he said, "It's a well known saying, in the music industry, that you shouldn't leave more than 40 years between albums." And I always thought Benny was my favourite...)

Tom and I Ubered to the ABBA Arena in east London and met up with a couple of the colleagues who were working on the show to get the lowdown. Naturally, we also got a couple drinks and took a mandatory selfie to send to Karen, who has to endure a lot of these kind of "look at this cool thing I'm doing" photos, often while she's shovelling herself out of a snow drift in Winnipeg. Sorry about that, Karen. Your time will come.

I can't remember what that drink was but it involved passionfruit and vanilla and several types of alcohol and it was utterly delicious. 

And the show? It was GREAT. It was also LOUD. The cynical side of me says that it is indeed a glorified music video, but it's also much more. You do spend the whole 90 minutes staring at an enormous, insanely high-definition video screen, but there's also a live band off to the side, and there are a lot of lighting and physical effects inside the auditorium that integrate seamlessly with images on the screen. And the digitally-produced de-aged avatars of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid dancing and playing on what looks like a normal concert stage in front of you work surprisingly well. They've been extremely clever with how the video is designed and the illusion of depth and "realness" is excellent. The moments when they break from that convention and get into music video style are less successful, and the avatars still have a touch of the Polar Express Effect, which is magnified when they're gigantic close-ups, instead of human-sized figures on stage.

Regardless, it was great fun, and the audience clearly loved it and people sang and danced along and I think it's going to be hugely popular and successful. And after the show we got to have drinks with our friends who were all a bit loopy from an impromptu party backstage with Benny himself (!) and universally relieved that the show worked, and people liked it, and they could now take a breath and maybe relax ever so slightly, and maybe stop hearing "Fernando" in their dreams, which was a nice vibe to share in. 

In summation: I give ABBA Voyage two thumbs up, but recommend ear plugs. (As the sound guy said, "When Benny tells you to turn it up, you turn it up.") And get a ticket on the floor, you Dancing Queens!

With one huge tick on our list, we met early the next morning for another of those things Karen gets annoyed about missing while she's busy in a snowbank. This one was also Tom's suggestion: an installation at an empty church in Mile End that an Australian artist turned into an enormous snow globe.

Note the telltale scattering of "snowflakes" on a warm May morning.

Knowing how popular an insta-firendly event like this was likely to be - especially on the last few days of its run - I pushed Tom to arrive well in advance of the 10am opening time. (Not my first rodeo...). He was sceptical but agreed, and we met at the church an hour before opening, where we were already about 30 deep in the queue. It was a sunny morning and we had a lot of ABBA to discuss, so the time passed pleasantly and we felt more and more smug as the queue snaked further down the street the closer it got to the opening time. We London-savvy folk were ushered into the church in the first batch of punters allowed to enter for our allotted fifteen minutes, right at 10am. 

And it was unexpectedly excellent.

Big blowers were mounted to a scaffolding structure on the roof outside and fed the confetti through several holes. The press photos I'd seen in advance did not do justice to the sheer volume of eco-friendly white confetti that blanketed the inside of the church. I suspect those photos were taken at the very beginning of the run, and we arrived at the very end, after the snow had been accumulating for at least nine days, and it was deep!

Deep enough for people (who were not me) to do this. And deep enough that we soon understood the warning we got on entering to hold tight to phones, glasses and wallets, because if they ended up in the snow the odds of getting them back were slim indeed.

Even without the confetti, the church itself would have been quite lovely on its own. It has an appealing rundown quality and though it's sad to see a beautiful building in a state of disrepair, at least it hadn't been torn down and was being used for something great.

And at least they haven't removed this.

Fifteen minutes may not seem like much, but it was enough. We had time to take lots of photos, and to watch other people interacting, and to get annoyed by the amount of time and attention given by other people to taking selfies. And yeah, we took a few fun pictures ourselves. 

Tom's Insta-friendly snow globe moment

Arty bit.

A quiet corner

Once we'd had our fifteen minutes of snow, we wandered back towards the tube station trailing eco-friendly confetti along the street with us, as many had clearly done before. I'm sure the local residents were getting a bit tired of the installation and will be grateful when the rain finally dissolves the last flakes. Though as anyone who's ever done a snow effect on stage before knows, they will surely still be finding flakes of the stuff in that church decades from now.

Since it was a decidedly East End-ish weekend, our next location was Spitalfields for a lovely late breakfast before the next site of the day. I'd given Tom a few suggestions of slightly quirky London things to do,  He picked Dennis Severs' House. It's a spot I've blogged about before, so I won't go into it here, but it was nice to revisit the place years later, especially while sharing it with someone new. (The other suggestions are ones you've already heard about here and here. Also, I admit to feeling a bit smug at being able to offer a menu of activities that might appeal. It's almost like I've been here a while.)

After Dennis Severs we wandered around Spitalfields for a while, enjoying how successfully we were spending our time that weekend. So for an encore, Tom checked out which West End shows might have matinees the next day, since an afternoon performance would still leave time to get back up to Birmingham by early evening and be rested and ready for work the next day. And yeah, "Life of Pi" had tickets. So Tom bought a pair on his phone as we were sitting in a pop-up food court outside Brick Lane Vintage Market, while I ate vegan cashew "ice cream". And lo, our self-satisfaction knew no bounds.

Tom had other plans for Saturday evening, so I took a long walk back to my AirBnb in Wapping. And rather than spending the whole journey with my nose stuck in Google Maps, which is my default state when navigating London (or anywhere, really) I decided to put my phone away and find my way home by instinct. And it worked! It may not have been the most direct route, but I found some streets I've never seen before in the City, and I walked a lot of the Thames path, and I got back to the AirBnb in time to pick up a few supplies for a picnic dinner at home and also rest my tired feet and enjoy a pint in one of several very nice neighbourhood pubs nearby. And then I binged three episodes of "Bridgerton" and went to bed early. Perfection.

Sunday went precisely as planned, and the show was very good, and the train journey back to Birmingham was fine. But you don't need to hear about that. What you need to hear is that yes, I know that was kind of a magic weekend. And I know I'm very very lucky to have been able to design my life in the last decade in a way that means I'm able to spend a few days seeing ABBA, and frolicking in a life-sized snow globe, and hitting a West End show on a whim. Very lucky indeed. But I also don't own a home, and my retirement savings are not what they could have been if I'd been sensible and stayed employed in Canada like a normal person. And I don't exactly have a solid plan for my fast-approaching golden years. Or even know what continent I'll spend them on. So I'm kind of hoping that Karen's garden shed might be available, because she is totally my backup plan. 

And she and are definitely going to the ABBA show together. With prosecco.

Because we are Dancing Queeeeeeeeens!

Forge Mill Needle Museum

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Welcome to the triumphant return of OG Go Stay Work Play Live! And by that I mean you’re about to read a normal post about a bloggy location here in the UK. There are now more than a decade of such posts, so Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers are very familiar with this classic formula: 

1. Take the train a modest distance on a sunny weekend morning, while doing the crossword.

2. Visit a diverting museum, gallery, castle, ancient ruin, park, village, trail, hill, barrow, stately home, bunker, etc. (Bonus for anything with Victorian machinery and exposed gears, most especially if powered by a steam engine that is actually running).

3. Take a lot of pictures and make notes while formulating bon mots in head for the blog.

4. Have coffee and cake in the tea room, preferably operated by smiling volunteers who are very friendly, if slightly harried, and maybe not entirely sure how the contactless payment thingy works. (Bonus if they have home-made flapjacks)

5. Poke around the gift shop. (Purchase optional.)

6. Go home and blog.

GSWPL is now coming to you from a temporary posting in Birmingham, working on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games (starting on July 28 for those who want to mark their calendars). In the Venn Diagram of my current schedule the overlapping area that includes both the Living-in-Birmingham circle and the Not-Too-Busy-To-Do-Bloggy-Things circle is exceedingly small. There are just three two-day weekends before we start rehearsals and the six-day work week starts. So on my first weekend in Brum I decided to check out a museum that Piran rated very very highly, despite its outwardly dry sounding name: the Forge Mill Needle Museum.

Located in Redditch, about half an hour from the central station in Birmingham, the Forge Mill Needle Museum is dedicated to the history and practice of needle manufacturing, commemorating a time when Redditch made 90% of the world’s needles. (Just in case you were thinking that it might not be what it sounds like. Oh no. It is EXACTLY what it sounds like.)

The restored(ish) Forge Mill. 

I did try to get someone to come with me for this adventure. But Piran is now based in the far south and I'm now in the middle north, so I turned to my friend Tom, who's an Aussie interloper also working on the Commonwealth Ceremonies. (We colonials need to stick together.) Sadly, Tom did not immediately leap at the opportunity to join me, even when he found out that it wasn't just ANY weekend at Forge Mill

Tom made little effort to disguise his lack of enthusiasm for the fascinating world of Victorian needle making. Clearly, he's not ready for this sort of varsity-level blogginess. Perhaps I needed to ease him in a bit.

So I set off on the train alone, which left more time for the crossword puzzle anyway (see above). It was a pleasant walk from the station to Forge Mill, and the evidence of 1940s weekend was apparent, with some jolly bunting up and a few folks wandering about in period dress. (Aside: I've done a lot of ceremonies now, and disappointingly small number of them have made use of a festive string on bunting here or there, which I think is a damned shame. It really cheers a place up.)

I mean come on! Who doesn't like a bit of bunting?

One of the things that excited me most was that the Forge Mill website promised "Much of the original Victorian water powered machinery remains and is working on Tuesday afternoons and weekends (March to October)" (Once again see above, including much-beloved working machinery!). Sadly, the waterwheel at Forge Mill is currently utterly immobile and covered by a tarp (despite the fact that it was a weekend between March and October) so I couldn't even get a nice photo. Major disappointment, and one which I may take up with the management at a later date, though in the moment I soldiered on. 

The museum is set up to take you through the whole process of needle making, which you are now going to hear about in excruciating detail. Because that's how we roll here at GSWPL. The signage in the museum claimed that there were 30 different processes involved, though I struggled to define precisely all 30. Nonetheless it was certainly painstaking, starting with a heavy coil of thick steel wire, which requires the first step: drawing. The heavy wire is drawn through a series of increasing smaller dies to bring its diameter down to that of whatever size needle is being made. Originally this was done by hand by winding the wire on a large drum turned by a handle to give some mechanical advantage. 

Step 2 is to cut the wire to the length of two needles, because when making needles you do them two at a time for the first bits, so you can stamp and cut the eyes for two needles from one die, saving time. Step 3 - rubbing - straightens out the lengths of wire, which retain a bit of curve from having been drawn and coiled. 

Rubbing is done by packing hundreds wires into the centre of rubbing ring - two flat iron donuts (not one of Tim Horton's more popular varieties) connected together at the bottom but left open at the top. Once packed with wires, the whole double donut is placed upright so it can roll left and right. Along the open top, the Rubber sets a long flat piece of curved metal called a rubbing iron between the flat donuts and on top of the wires so he can press down hard on the hot iron, rolling the ring and wires back and forth under the weight of the rubbing iron, thus straightening the wires. (And yes, that would have been easier to explain if I'd taken a photo, but the whole rubbing ring display was under a very glare-y bit of plexiglass and - shockingly - Google images returns nothing appropriate for the search term "Victorian needle making rubbing ring" so you'll just have to use your imagination, aided by my brilliant description.)

Next up, Step 4: Pointing, as demonstrated by this mannequin wearing a jaunty paper hat and some pretty inadequate PPE in the form of a kerchief tied over his face.

Pointing was a notably dangerous job (even by Victorian standards) therefore highly paid. Pointers sat at a spinning stone grinding wheel holding five or six wire blanks flat between their palms, rolling them back and forth while pressing them against the grinding wheel to create the sharpened needle point. This process naturally created a toxic cloud of stone dust and metal filings which the pointer breathed in constantly, causing a condition known as Pointer's Lung (a form of silicosis). Not only that, but the grinding wheel itself was known to break apart completely on occasion, which would have been at first surprising and then almost always lethal. Pointers rarely lived past 30. The display in the museum noted that hand-pointing is still used (with modern dust-extraction methods) for specialist surgical needles. Though judging by the sideburns on the gentleman in the accompanying photo I question whether that's still the case in the 21st century.

After pointing, the blanks needles must be skimmed (Step 5) to remove the scale created by heating and rubbing, leaving the middle of each wire clean for the next steps: stamping and eyeing (Steps 6 and 7). Stamping is accomplished with a kickstamper - a large press with a stationary bottom die and an upper die that drops on top of the blanks to create an impression where eyes of the needles will be. The Stamper raises and lowers the heavy upper die with a rope-and-pulley system operated by his right foot, and the best could process three blanks per second.

Skimming machine, with kickstamper and fly press in the background. Steps 5-6-7.

The stamped blanks are then passed on for eyeing. Usually done by women, eyes in each two-needle blank are punched with a fly press, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will remember from our visit to the Coffin Works, also in Birmingham.  

The next comes spitting, heading and cheeking (Step 8-9-10 for those keeping track), also usually done by women, often working at home. This sort of piecework was common and meant that women could remain at home and care for children (who might also be put to work) while also earning a wage. Stamping and eyeing leave sharp edges and flashing around the inside and outside of the eye which cut any thread thus rendering the needle largely non-functional. Spitting involved threading the two needle units onto metal spits which were placed in clamps to allow the flashing to be ground off by hand.

Needles - still stuck together, threaded onto spits.

After grinding the outside, the needles are (finally) broken apart and the area at the break filed clean. Then batches of needles could be threaded onto wires and spun around, cleaning out the inside of each eye. 

At this point, the needles go back to the mill. Because they're made of mild steel wire, they must to be laid out on heavy iron trays and put into a furnace to harden them and prevent them from bending (Step 11). Once the needles in each tray reach a temperature high enough to turn cherry red, the tray is carefully removed with heavy tongs and its contents quickly dumped into a barrel of oil to cool. (The best oil for hardening came from sperm whales. Obviously. Nowadays, nitrogen gas is used.) At first water was used for cooling, but this had a tendency to curve the needles, thus negating the hard work of the Rubber back in Step 3. 

Trays of needles ready for the furnace.

After the furnace the needles are hard but also incredibly brittle and fragile. This requires another trip into a cooler furnace for tempering (Step 12), and another oil bath. 

And at this point, gentle GSWPL Reader, I sense you may almost be fed up with the minutiae of Victorian needlemaking, but the fun is not over yet. Oh no! There are five more steps before we end up with a lovely packet of sharp and shiny needles. It's time to move into the next building where the water-powered machinery runs the scouring mill (or doesn't run, even if the website says it does. Boo.) Scouring is how the needles acquire their fine, shiny surface, and involves packing 50,000 needles and soft soap into a tightly bound sausage wrapped in burlap and called a sett.

A tray for packing setts with a completed sett in the background of what we're going to call an art-shot, as opposed to an over-exposed failure.

Creating these setts is Step 13, after which two packed setts are placed under a runner of the water-powered scouring mill where they are pressed and rolled back and forth (Step 14). This process could take a day for lower quality needles, or up to a week for the brightest and best quality needles. 

The scouring mill in action. Obviously this is not my photo, but that of the lucky Chris Allen who took it eleven years ago and posted it to Geograph (A seemingly-defunct bit of the internet that promises to be very useful for future blogs.)

Chris also posted this excellent description, which I see no need to edit: "The waterwheel drives a crankshaft via gearing and this drives scouring runners on two floors. The runner closest is moving while the two on the right are disconnected with their drive rods roped up. The white vertical wooden beams oscillate back and forth and pass up to the floor above to drive a further 8 sets of runners - the white beams have the onomatopoeic name of whee-whaws." Whee-whaws! Fantastic! (Chris also noted that this machinery was in commercial use until 1956!)

Following days of scouring, the setts are re-packed with a mixture of olive oil and tin oxide and put back in the scouring mill for 2-3 hours to glaze the needles for a final time. After glazing (Step 15), the needles are removed from the setts and washed (Step 16), then placed in rotating barrels of hot sawdust to dry. 

Barreling is Step 17. These barrels of sawdust were rotated with power from the waterwheel and could dry a load of needles in about 20 minutes.

In order to separate the dry needles from the sawdust, the mix is placed in a fanning out tray, which, when skilfully tossed in the air, separated the heavy needles from the lighter sawdust. (Step 18... it's the home stretch now!)

The fanning out process is similar to panning for gold or winnowing chaff from wheat. 

Finally, finally, finally, the finished needles are individually poked through a small sheet of carefully folded, black, acid-free paper and set into little books to be sent out to distributors. 

A collection of decorative needlebooks in an upstairs display at Forge Mill. Apparently these novelty books of needles were sometimes given as small change instead of coins when making a larger purchase. Which, given how elaborate the whole process of making them was, seems a bit sad.

I think that's 19 steps overall, though each of those steps could probably be broken down further. Regardless, I think we can agree that the whole business was incredibly painstaking and also pretty clever. I think it's great that there was a time when we where smart enough to make big heavy machines to manufacture things, but still needed dozens of highly skilled people to operate those machines. Yeah, those people worked in pretty awful conditions, and some got horrible diseases, and they were paid meagrely, and worked long hours. But at least they had work. 

Though really, those hours are shorter than some of the days in my upcoming schedule. 
Just sayin'.

Once I'd made sure I thoroughly understood the whole scope of needlemaking so that I could spend 2,000 words explaining it to you in unnecessary detail, I spent a bit of time poking in the upstairs displays. The mill wasn't confined to the manufacture of simple hand-sewing needles, they also made pins, knitting needles, surgical needles, fish hooks, hat pins, sewing machine needles, gramophone needles, bookbinding needles and gigantic mattress needles, used for stitching the two sides of a mattress together. There was even an example of what was claimed to be the longest needle in the world, at 6'1". These were made for attaching buttons longways through the sides of mattresses, and are definitely not something you want to encounter in a dark alleyway.

When I finally emerged into sunlight, I enjoyed a mandatory coffee and cake (carrot, though naturally Victoria Sponge was also available) and had another crack at the crossword puzzle. I also wandered around the 1940 Weekend displays of the Worcs 9th Batt. C Company Home Guard re-enactment group which was charming but fairly standard WWII fare. Lots of stuff about ration books, gas masks, and machine gun emplacements, with Glenn Miller on endless repeat in the background. 

Still, it was a warm, sunny day and there are worse ways to spend a day like that than watching an octogenarian try to explain the model Enigma Machine he'd made in his basement to an utterly baffled pair of under-ten-year-old boys.

I also bought a few needles in the gift shop, including some useful looking curved ones, and a pair of wicked mattress needles about a foot long. Because how great is it going to be when some weirdo task crops up that requires a foot-long needle, and I've got not one but two standing by? Very great. Then it was back to the train station for a quick trip home, aglow with the satisfaction of having ticked all the appropriate bloggy boxes for the first time in far too long.

Don't get me started

Sunday, February 27, 2022

I'm back in the desert. Did I tell you that? Probably not, since I haven't really said anything for ages. You knew I was in Dubai for the Expo Opening Ceremony because that's when I discovered the canoeing. And you knew I got back to the UK because that's when I had the Cheesey Fries Of The Gods. Well now it's Dubai again for (obviously) the Closing Ceremony. It's a shorter stint this time, and that's a good thing because everything just seems more annoying now. This is the case a lot of the time these days. Is it my advancing age? COVID Fatigue? Just my default state? Whatever it is, sometime during lockdown I started an actual list of annoying things.

Others of you may also have a list, but I suspect yours is a casual thing you keep in your head in a sort of "man, I hate it when..." kind of way. Mine is categorised in Evernote, because that's how I roll. I add to it whenever something excites my peevishness, which is often. And sometimes I share it. I recently shared it on a day when I had to be at a four-hour meeting that started at 7:00am on a Saturday (because it was coordinated with a gang of people in Los Angeles, where it was 7:00pm). The meeting was long and difficult and sometimes frustrating. So following that a few of us went for lunch on the Expo site.

(Aside: this is one of the good things about being back. Last time, the wider Expo site was still under construction so the hospitality options were thin on the ground. Now there is an embarrassment of riches just steps from my door. This means I sometimes share texts with friends like, "I'll meet you in Belgium." Or "We're at that place upstairs from Estonia." Or "Let's go to Denmark because the beer is cheaper." Which, incidentally, is definitely not true in actual Denmark. Nor is it really true at Expo Denmark. It's just that in comparison with everywhere else on site, the beer in Denmark is somewhat cheaper. For instance, I went for drinks recently at an outdoor beer garden on site where a pint of Heineken was £9.62. It was lovely: great company, good food, nice evening. But for that price, those pints of Heineken should come with my own private Dutch person to feed me hand-peeled mini Babybels.)

Anyway, it was a long meeting, so we went for lunch across from the UK and next to Solomon Islands. And then one beer with lunch turned into another round, as it does. And another round turned into a few more after that and then it was 9pm. And somewhere in there I shared my list with the table, which was the cause of some amusement (and some debate). So I thought perhaps I should share some with you, because I haven't blogged in a while and even though I literally live at a world-class tourist attraction, it hasn't occurred to me to blog about that, but it has seemed quite natural to rant at you about my pet peeves, which is an insight into my current state of mind. And oh yes, this is going to be rant-y.

Here we go.

Single Lever Faucets:
I know they are supposedly better for people with difficulty gripping, or with arthritis, or... I don't know. I don't care. I hate them. Partly because I sometimes find it difficult to tell which way to manipulate them to get either hot or cold water. Normal taps are fine - hot on the left, cold on the right.

Single Lever
But look at this. What the hell? So to get hot water I move that handle thing... back? Left? Out? All of the above at the same time? No. Just no.

Yes, some single levers are more intuitive than the one in the picture. The ones with the lever on top will pretty reliably give you hot if you move them left and cold to the right. But even those are still on the list. Why? Adjustment. Separate twisting taps give you much better fine adjustment of both temperature and volume. Threaded things are perfectly designed to translate long turning movement into small movements of the tiny valve inside them. Single level faucets... not so much. How hard is it to get a small volume of water at a specific temperature with a single lever? Hard. Like one of those McDonalds Happy Meal toys where you have to get three baby ball bearings into three different holes at the same time. You end up doing tiny semi-calibrated taps on the lever to try and get in juuuuust the right spot. And you fail. You know you do.

Single Lever Faucets, you are On The List.

Still on plumbing:

Automatic Faucets:
The ones that make you do intricate Tai Chi moves with your hands to try and figure out how to trigger the sensor. Then force you to hold your hands in an unnatural position to keep the thing triggered. Then turn off anyway. Those ones. They're on The List.

Faucets that are too short:
The ones that don't extend far enough into the sink so you have to bash your knuckles up against the back of the sink to get your hands under the water and then end up splashing most of it out of the sink. List. Them. On it.

Still in the bathroom:

Centre Pull Paper Towels:

Centre Pull
Thank you Google, for teaching me the name of this annoying variation on normal rolls of paper towel.

Obviously paper towel is supposed to come off the outside of the roll so that you end up with a wide flat sheet of material with maximum surface area, which then wraps conveniently over your wet hands and dries them efficiently.

Centre pull paper towels, by design, turn into a long, twisted ropey thing with much less useful surface area, so you use more paper and obtain poorer results. It's not better just because it's different people. Centre Pull Paper Towels, welcome to The List.

Open Concept Bathrooms:
This one requires no justification. Because any normal person knows at the very core of their being that this is wrong wrong wrong. I don't care how much you love the people you live with. I don't care if the door to your fancy modern open concept master suite is always closed to the rest of the world. I don't care if you often leave the bathroom door open anyway. Leaving the bathroom door open and not even having walls (let alone a door) are clearly very different things, which normal non-sociapathic people understand.

A flagrant example from my hotel room in Xi'an China. I ranted about it then and I maintain that stance today. And this one actually had walls, albeit glass ones. Still not good enough.

And before we leave the bathroom:

Wet Rooms:
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD whose idea was it to let water spray around all over a room that also contains things that really should not get wet like toilet roll and towels? And don't tell me it saves space. I live on a freaking BOAT. My shower can basically only be found with the aid of a scanning electron microscope and I still managed to fit in a shower curtain.

How did wet rooms become a trend? Is it also now trendy to walk around in wet socks because the floor of your bathroom is ALWAYS covered in water?

Wet Rooms you are soooooo on The List.

Speaking of socks:
Ok, I'm 53 now and I'm warming to the idea that sometimes you might wear socks with sandals. And I say this because I have a pair of sort of hybrid Birkenstock Croc kind of things are like walking on actual pillows and I wear them on the boat all the time - usually with socks - because it's cozy. (Also I never wear them out in public.) (Pause for cries of outrage. Yeah yeah, whatever. Go start your own blog and make your own list.) But my Crockenstocks are slides, where your whole foot is under a big strap that goes all the way across the top. Not the flip-flop kind with the bit that goes between your toes to hold the straps to the sole. Those ones are the problem, because some people wear socks with those by shoving the damned flip-flops onto their feet OVER their socks so the poor socks get stretched and shoved between your toes and you look like an idiot. Sorry, yes you do. (Also: not really sorry.)

Spotty Socks
Socks with flip flops. You + List = True

tabi socks
(Exception: Japanese tabi socks with the segregated compartment for the big toe which are specifically design to work with sandals. Note: this exception only applies when wearing traditional Japanese garb. While in Japan.)

Branching out into the kitchen:

Pedal Bins:
First, the leverage is all wrong, so the lid pops opening really abruptly and usually smacks against the wall. "So move it away from the wall", I hear you say? Ha! Then it will just slide around when you're trying to get foot on the pedal until it finds a wall it can smack into. On. The. List.

Drawers behind Cupboard Doors:

incarcerated drawers

Drawer, yes. I fully support drawers. Easy access. Fewer things get shoved into darkened corners never again to see the light of day. Yay drawers! 

Someone please tell me why we're now hiding the drawers behind doors. What is so offensive about drawer fronts that they need to be hidden? Did drawer fronts insult your grandmother? Are drawer fronts doing 5-10 years of hard time behind closed doors because the ladle that normally just barely fits shifted position again and now you can't get the drawer open? Get over it! Free the drawers! 

(#freethedrawers #drawerlove #drawersbehindcupboarddoorsareonthelist Donate now.)


Well I feel better getting that off my chest. And that's just the kitchen-and-bathroom part of the list. Wait until I get into the Vocabulary section! You'll be begging for the old two-month break between posts.

The brakes don't work backwards

Sunday, December 19, 2021

I’ve visited Brighton a few times before, though haven’t done some of the more classically touristy things there. Luckily, back before the Lord Mayor’s Show and before work got busy and before the winter weather arrived, I found a weekend to visit. This was mostly because Piran moved to Brighton during lockdown, which means I’ve lost a London-based friend, but gained one on the south coast, who now also boasts a very comfortable guest suite. 

I went down on the train Friday night, and we spent Saturday tromping around the South Downs, with stops at a couple ancient hill forts and a dew pond and, most notably, lunch at the Gunn Inn in Findon. Piran rhapsodised about a lamb dish he’d had there once, so it seemed a good bet. And indeed it was. The fact that I can’t remember what I ordered as my main course detracts not at all from the story because what I do remember, indeed what still fills my dreams at night, is that we started by splitting a portion of cheesy fries which were disturbingly, astonishingly, addictively delicious. They came dressed not just with melted cheese but with chunks of fried chorizo, garlic aioli (yes I know that’s a tautology) and a drizzle of spicy oil. (Probably the fat from the chorizo. With a liberal dusting of crack.) They were so good that we did not even pause to photograph the dish when it arrived but did manage to finish our mains and a pint or two and were even persuaded to order dessert.

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Dessert was this. Prompting the above expression for me, which clearly translates as “Are you kidding me?”

So that was Saturday in Brighton. Rambling, cheesy fries, and dinner with some of Piran’s Brighton gang at another pub. Good day, but just a warm-up for Sunday which started with a leisurely breakfast but had two very Brighton-y gems in store. First on the agenda was the 125th London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, the world’s longest-running motoring event and a perfectly quirky, perfectly photogenic, perfectly bloggy thing.

Established 1896, the first event was dubbed The Emancipation Run”, to celebrate the enacting of the Locomotives on Highways Act 1896. This legislation marked the end to some of the more restrictive limits to the use of horseless carriages on English roadways, including a speed limit of 4mph in the country and 2mph in towns. It’s commonly believed the 1896 legislation also repealed the infamous Red Flag Act, which “stipulated that self-propelled vehicles should be accompanied by a crew of three; if the vehicle was attached to two or more vehicles an additional person was to accompany the vehicles; a man with a red flag was to walk at least 60 yd (55 m) ahead of each vehicle, who was also required to assist with the passage of horses and carriages.” The Red Flag act had, in fact, already been repealed in 1878, but it’s an enduring myth of the Veteran Car Run commemorated by the ceremonial tearing in half of a red flag at the start of each year’s run.

Back in 1896, with a exhilarating new speed limit of 14mph, a group of 33 vehicles left from the Metropole Hotel in London (after a commemorative breakfast, of course). 17 of the 33 managed the entire 54 miles to Brighton, with the first finishing in 3 hours and 44 minutes, just squeaking in under the limit at an average speed of 13.9 mph. This rather dismal percentage of finishers is an enduring feature of the race, with vehicles regularly conking out, sometimes being revived by specially-trained mechanics from the Royal Automobile Club, and occasionally having to be pushed across the finish line hours after the leaders arrive. However one shouldn’t be too dismissive, as the central requirement to participate in the Veteran Car Run is that the vehicle entered must have been manufactured before 1905. The oldest car to participate this year was made in 1894.

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Harry Lawson, organiser of the 1896 Emancipation Run, and his wife, at the start of the inaugural event

So on a dazzlingly clear and unseasonably warm morning, Piran and I headed to the sea front to witness the arrival of the first cars, expected around 10:30am. The traditional route starts at Hyde Park and runs past Buckingham Palace, through Brixton and Croydon and down the A23, finishing on the Brighton sea front at Madeira Drive. However, at 10:30 there was nary a car to be seen. Nor at 11am or 11:30 or even 12. So we filled the time with a stroll down Brighton Pier and along the sea front and through Brighton’s famous Lanes. And since I’ve talked about sea fronts and piers before, let’s just skip over that and get to the part where the cars finally stared arriving.

Here’s the final stretch, viewed from above, where each car stopped and the driver was interviewed about their journey, their vehicle, and, especially notable, the general excellence of the weather that day, all of which was broadcast over speakers to the assembled throng.

We made our way down to street level and found a spot near the pedestrian barriers to watch the cars trundle past close up.

Like this one.

Finally we fetched up at the paddock where the cars were parked and where the drivers took a well-deserved break for refreshments in a nearby tent. Each car is also required to carry at least one passenger, and many people were wearing period dress, which definitely adds to the festive atmosphere. (Though I can imagine that in years when the weather does not cooperate one might fervently wish they had chosen Gore-Tex over tweed.) Some participants also carried picnics in special wicker baskets that were clearly part of the car’s design. Those were the days! Screw the satnav and the anti-lock brakes. Give me brass lanterns for headlights and a dedicated storage area for my stilton and champagne!

This fetching green-and-yellow beauty lurched into its spot with the aid of the his-vis-clad Royal Automobile Club Official, who helped stop it in place after the driver uttered the phrase of the day: “The brakes don’t work backwards!”

This paint job was particularly festive, though all the cars we saw were clearly well-loved and well-kept. Many have been in the same family for generations, and at least one was bought new by the current driver’s great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather or some such. Possibly in France. (Perhaps I should have been taking notes.)

The parking area was an ever-changing feast of antique motoring, because cars were constantly arriving, parking up, then leaving and being replaced by new arrivals. There were more than 300 cars entered, along with a smattering of vintage bicycles (including four penny-farthings) and one 1903 Minerva single cylinder motorcycle. After a suitable rest period, some cars were then loaded onto car-carriers to return from whence they came. However, other drivers proudly declared they’d driven their cars from home to the start line in London, then to Brighton, and would then drive straight back home to their garage in Little Snerglington-by-Snort or wherever it was they came from. 

Eventually we tired of the never-ending rows of polished brass and glossy black and wandered to the city centre to try and catch a few of the cars in traffic. This was, for me, the most surprising part of the whole event. For some reason I’d assumed that the Veteran Car Run had some sort of priority lane from London to Brighton to keep these precious vehicles and their startlingly-poorly-protected passengers out of the regular flow of 21st century traffic. Not so. 

All those cars were mixed in with everyone else on the road for the whole 54 miles! And some of them are so small. I mean look at those poor guys… that thing is basically a one hundred and twenty year old go-cart with a numberplate. Thankfully, participants in the Veteran Car Run and not allowed to exceed an average speed of 20mph.

By this time we'd had our fill of cars, however photogenic, and no one was offering US any stilton and champagne, so we wandered off. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will no doubt remember that I promised two very Brighton-y gems in the opening paragraphs of this post. However, it took me six weeks to get this written and posted, so I've decided to take my time and keep that in my back pocket for a future edition. In the mean time, I've opened a theatre show in London and done some work on another upcoming project, and continued battling with the boat engine, and put up the Christmas decorations and safely topped up my mince pie levels for another year. This post is shorter than some, but I'm taking the "done is better than perfect" view on this one. So, by the power vested in me as Supreme Leader of the Go Stay Work Play Live Global Consortium, I hereby declare this blog post DONE.

Doing something

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Maybe this happens to you too. It starts with a list of Things To Do pinging around your brain. Perhaps your list is something like this: go buy diesel injector cleaner, take out the garbage, book flights home for Christmas, go for a run, replace the starter battery, go to Lord Mayor’s Show, properly dispose of contaminated diesel fuel, write blog about your weekend, book a flu shot, just please for the love of God get off the damned couch, etc. Or perhaps you don’t live in London and also pretend to regularly write a blog and also qualify for free NHS flu jab and also own an aged narrowboat with an exceedingly temperamental diesel engine. Nevertheless, whatever is on your list, sometimes deciding what to do is a bit paralysing. You start one thing, but then bounce off that and towards something else that you can’t concentrate on, and then on to a third thing you don’t finish, then back to the first thing, and eventually it all just feels stuck.

Stuck like my boat is stuck… in the process of having a nasty bit of fuel contamination dealt with by way of a new fuel lift pump, fresh fuel filter, clean diesel, and, for good measure, a new starter battery, glow plugs, and ignition switch. Because it’s never just one thing.

While your list may not be the same as mine, I suspect you'll still understand how I felt one Saturday not long ago, when the sky was sort of clear but my brain was definitely not. Luckily, Piran plucked me out of the mire with a short phonecall and reminded me of something I knew already, but needed to be told again: Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. So I got off the couch (one thing done already!) and got properly dressed and headed to the City for The Lord Mayor’s Show.

So… there’s quite a bit to explain here. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers have certainly already internalised the concept of the City of London so I won’t beat that dead horse again. However, we haven’t yet covered the Lord Mayor of London yet, let alone his show, so settle in.

The Lord Mayor of the City of London is, naturally, the mayor of the City of London and also the head of the City of London Corporation (the municipal governing body of the City). The Lord Mayor of London has nothing to do with the directly elected Mayor of the Greater London Authority. Clear as mud? Good. Within the City, the Lord Mayor is accorded precedence over everyone other than the Queen and in modern times their role is about supporting and promoting local residents and businesses - especially the financial sector - by delivering lots of speeches, hosting visiting dignitaries, being driven around in a Rolls Royce Phantom, and looking good in ermine and tights.

The Lord Mayor of London is elected yearly on Michelmas, and in November the new Lord Mayor is sworn in. One of the ancient requirements of the office dates back to the reign of King John in 1215, when the King granted the City the right to elect its own mayor. (Prior to that the mayor had been appointed by the sovereign.) (Yes, prior to 1215. This is not a recent phenomenon.)

"Know ye that we have granted … to our barons of our city of London, that they may choose to themselves every year a mayor, who to us may be faithful, discreet and fit for government of the city, so as, when he shall be chosen, to be presented unto us, or our Justice if we shall not be present… and he shall swear to be faithful to us…” (from the 1215 London Charter)

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will note that this charter requires the Lord Mayor to be presented to the sovereign or his Justice and swear fealty, a requirement still observed today. In medieval times, this meant the newly minted Mayor sailed up the Thames from the City to the seat of royal power at Westminster. That trip gradually attracted more and more hangers on and eventually grew into a festive terrestrially-based parade now known as The Lord Mayor’s Show!

So the Lord Mayor’s Show is a parade! And who doesn’t love a parade?

Fun Fact: The term “float” used for parade vehicles originated with the decorated barges that made up the Lord Mayor’s procession along the Thames.

Actually, it’s not just one parade but two. First, the entire menagerie travels from Guildhall - the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London Corporation - to the Lord Mayor’s official residence at Mansion House and then to the the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. Whereupon everyone in the parade hangs about on the street for a bit while the new Lord Mayor swears an oath of allegiance to the Queens Bench. Following that, everything starts back up again for the triumphal return to Mansion House.

This is where I came in, because my busy morning of dithering meant I didn’t arrive on scene until the procession was already at the Royal Courts. The parade is now so extensive that it’s actually longer than the distance between Guildhall and the Royal Courts and has to budge up into side streets between the Strand and the river before the return journey.

Carriages waiting outside the Royal Courts

This meant that when I finally arrived, I was the one parading past the muddled floats, lounging marching bands, the odd tank surrounded by soldiers drinking cups of tea, and a lot of signs like the one on this excellent vintage horse-drawn double decker bus:

Presented by the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, a City of London livery company. Livery companies are a whole other rabbit hole we’re about to dive down, so I hope you have a fresh cup of coffee and are sitting comfortably.

Livery companies started life as medieval guilds and have evolved into modern trade organisations for various crafts, fields, and professions. Many show their medieval roots in their names, such as the Mercers (general merchants), Fishmongers, Haberdashers and Goldsmiths. Livery companies are normally styled as The Worshipful Company of Pewterers or, to cite a more modern addition, The Worshipful Company of Management Consultants (which really does not have the same ring). The term “livery" originally referred to the specific dress or uniform worn by the household servants of noblemen and by extension came to mean any special dress denoting a particular status or trade. 

There are currently 110 livery companies registered by the city of London, including the mellifluously named Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and the less romantic Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers. The list of livery companies is maintained in a strict order of precedence established in 1515 (when there were only 48), and is based on their economic power at that time. The remaining 62 companies are ranked according to seniority, which explains why the Launderers outrank the International Bankers. Go Launderers! 

Bonus Fun Fact*: The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors and the Worshipful Company of Skinners have long disputed their ranking in the order of precendence, so each year at Easter they swap places between six and seven on the list. This is thought to be the origin of the phrase “at sixes and sevens”. (*Note: not guaranteed to be a fact)

Extra Bonus Fun Fact**: Membership in a livery company conveys upon the liveryman the Freedom of the City of London. Now largely a formality, it once conveyed other privileges, including the right to drive sheep across London Bridge, as demonstrated by Stephen Fry in this diverting 45 minute dive into the City. (**Note: Actual fact!)

One of the other privileges of liverymen is the election of the Lord Mayor of London. Each year, the members of the City’s livery companies come together for the election in Common Hall, which is not a physical location but rather the name given to a gathering of liverymen. The physical location of the Common Hall is Guildhall, which is all appropriately medieval-sounding, given the Lord Mayor of London occupies one of the world's oldest continuously elected civic offices.

Back at the parade route, I was getting a bit peckish and decided to find a nice cafe to sit down, warm up, and possibly get a start on the blog while waiting for the parade to get going again. Sadly, even through the Lord Mayor’s Show attracts thousands of people to the area, very few of the local places were open. This is quite common in the City, which is utterly dependent on the 500,000 people who work there during the week (pre-COVID), as opposed to the mere 9,000 who actually live within the City’s boundary. On weekends the City is normally quite deserted and most shops, pubs and restaurants don’t bother opening up. 

Instead, I wandered into St. Bride’s, a lovely Christopher Wren church complete with a crypt that boasts a bit of Roman paving and spire that’s said to have inspired the design of traditional multi-tiered wedding cake. 

St. Bride’s is also known for its association with journalism and the printing trade, which is no surprise given its location just off Fleet Street. And the church enjoys a close relationship with the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. The City is like that - it’s just utterly packed with history and connections that fold back on themselves over and over. This is true all over England, but in the City it’s concentrated to an almost ludicrous degree. This is evidenced by the amount of time it took me to write this post. I normally spend a fair bit of time clicking around semi-purposefully soaking in information about whatever is the topic at hand. For this post that process was notably longer because there is just so much to soak in.

Anyway, St. Bride’s was open and, more importantly for me that day, they were serving tea and coffee and had a tempting array of packaged treats so I made a donation and settled into a seat in the quire to relax for a bit. By this point AGSWPLRs will note that we’re now 1,700 words in and there’s still no parade in sight. What can I say? It was that kind of day. But fear not, I finally made it out of St. Bride's and onto the parade route where I stood outside Blackfriar’s Station waiting for what seemed like ages. Luckily, there were Morris Dancers, so that was as bafflingly diverting as Morris Dancing always is.

I appreciate a bit of traditional folk dancing as much as the next blogger, but you don’t have to watch these guys for long to understand why people make fun of them.


And, finally, finally, the parade could be heard approaching, led by the Band of The Grenadier Guards and the Band of The Coldstream Guards. 

And then it was really was a proper parade

These look like they belong in an opening ceremony somewhere in my past.

The Guild of Young Freemen, with wicker representations of Gog and Magog, two legendary giants who are the traditional guardians of the City of London. Gog and Magog also famously appear as large wooden carvings at the Guildhall. (See previous note about everything connecting to everything else...)

The Bank of England, taking their gold out for a walk

And a pipe band!

Of course it’s not a proper parade without a skip covered in astroturf full of giant fuzzy green chickens...

Is it possible these guys also need a new fuel lift pump?
Or might they consider a houseboat call?

And finally, after the fancy dress and the soldiers and the liverymen (soooooo many liverymen) the man of the hour appeared.

The Right Honourable Vincent Keaveny, Lord Mayor of London. And the utterly Cinderellian Lord Mayor’s State Coach, the oldest ceremonial vehicle in regular use, which dates from 1757.

And then it was over, except for the cleaning up. As with any parade that includes livestock, street-cleaning is a necessary part of the aftermath. But because it's London, even that comes with a footnote. The phrase "after the Lord Mayor’s Show, comes the dust cart" has long meant a disappointing or mundane event occurring straight after an exciting or magnificent one. As in, "We were expecting a great game after last week's barn-burner, but it was all a bit after the Lord Mayor's Show." Which accorded perfectly with the next item on my agenda that Saturday: a trip to the Marble Arch Mound. The Marble Arch Mound was very, very after the Lord Mayor's Show. 

And eventually I booked flights for Christmas, and got my flu jab, and, obviously, I wrote a blog.

Don't ask about the boat.

Whatever Paddles Your Canoe

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hmmm… a solid six months since the last blog and I’ve definitely lost the habit. Then again, I did blog pretty consistently for eleven years, so I think I deserved a sabbatical. (Also everyone should really get a pass for pretty much anything that they were supposed to do but didn’t, or did do but weren’t supposed to for about the last eighteen months, right?) Now, though, I’m properly back in London and life has sort of calmed down again and I feel like I really should get back into it, partly because Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers deserve better (all twelve of you), and partly because it’s actually a good mental exercise and it's nice to flex those writing muscles and force myself to get out and do things and pay proper attention to them while I’m doing them.

When last we left out humble blogger it was May and she’d just got out of enforced quarantine at HMP Heathrow. I only had a very short amount of time back on the boat once I was paroled, much of which was taken up by all the life admin stuff that needs doing when I’ve been away for a while, with the added bonus that my phone was hacked AND my wallet stolen in the same two day period, which necessitated a whole lot more life admin and meant I didn’t really do or see much. I did manage a nice day out tromping across soggy fields with Piran, which included my first proper pint in a very very long time, and I got to a few hash runs, and failed to get the boat engine running (of course), and got my first jab, and then I packed my bags again and took another taxi to the airport. Considering how little travel most people have been able to do in the last year and a half, I feel like perhaps I may be overcompensating.

The destination this time was Dubai, once again. I returned to do the Opening Ceremony for the World Expo in Dubai, which was frustrating and time-consuming and not too COVID-y and eventually came off reasonably well. I didn’t have a ton of spare time while I was in Dubai, and even when I did, I didn’t have much motivation to get out and do things. For one thing, I was there from May to October, which is the hottest part of the year. And it really was hot. So hot. Ridiculously hot. AND humid. You probably think it’s dry and desert-like in the UAE right? Well Dubai is on the ocean so the humidity gets very high, which, coupled with the 45+ degree temperatures, and the UAE’s strict policy requiring masks one hundred percent of the time, even when outside, makes the whole business of being outdoors just insanely unpleasant. (Actually you’re allowed to take off the mask if you’re doing vigorous exercise outdoors. Which is good, as we shall see.) Also, I was in Dubai to do a job, and the more time I spent out mingling with the COVID-y random public, the greater the risk. So even when I had time off I often spent it in the comfort of apartment because leaving was just not worth the effort.

I did meet up with the local Dubai hashers when schedules permitted. And I took the metro to the nearby mall occasionally, and I had one boozy Friday brunch. So there really was not much to blog about. That is until I innocently messaged my local hasher friend Caleb about whether there was anything to do over the weekend and he replied "Saturday morning 6am Kite Beach - outrigger canoe paddling.” This is the exchange that followed:

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There were going to be pastries! And it’s not like I had anything else to do at 6am on a day off.

And that’s how I ended up hailing a taxi at 5:30 in the morning to get here.

So… outrigger canoes. They exist in lots of ocean-going cultures, but the ones used by the group in Dubai are Hawaiian/Polynesian style. (Outrigger canoeing is actually the state sport of Hawaii.) These six-seat canoes have a deep, narrow, very heavy fibreglass shell and the outrigger to the left. The outrigger is called the ama (“AHH-muh”) and the arms that attach it to the canoe are the iako (“YA-koo”). As with traditional North American canoes, you face forward and use a single paddle (often called a blade) and alternate paddling on either side of the boat. Normally half the occupants paddle on one side and half on the other side of the boat. Each paddler has a different focus, depending on their position in the boat. The front seat - one - is also called the “stroke”. They set the pace of the boat, with those behind them trying to exactly match their stroke rate. Two’s job is to match the rate of the stroke for the paddlers on their side. Three and four are mostly there for power, and Three usually also calls the changes so that everyone switches sides in unison. Seat six, at the back, steers. And five is where they put the newbies.

Of course seat five is where I ended up. I really didn’t know what to expect, except Caleb said it would be vigorous - two hours of hard paddling. He also sent me a YouTube video of a famous outrigger canoeist (who knew there was such thing?) outlining the precise details of the stroke, which all seemed a lot more intense than I’d imagined. My response after seeing the video: "This seems quite technical. How serious is this group? I was kind of relying on my innate Canadian canoe-sense and Girl Guide training to get me by…”

Here’s what the big canoes look like - this one’s rigging was being checked to make sure the ama and iako were securely fastened. Because without the ama, these canoes would be impossibly tippy. (Actually, even WITH the ama they are not the most stable… more on that later.)

It turns out I was right to be concerned. First of all, it was an exceptionally humid day, even by Dubai standards. And the guy at the front setting the pace took off with what seemed like an insanely high stroke rate. I hadn’t exactly been expecting a casual sight-seeing trip, but equally I was not expecting a gang who appeared to be planning to get to Bahrain by lunchtime. Nonetheless, my Girl Guide training did me proud and I sort of managed to keep up, though mostly I was just concentrating on keeping hold of my paddle when changing sides, which happened about every fifteen strokes. 

One of the many things I did not understand about outrigger canoeing is that it’s really an endurance sport. Races tend to last hours, not minutes. This was not Olympic canoe sprinting. This was cross-the-ocean-to-populate-a-new-continent kind of stuff. (One of the most famous races is the Molokaʻi Hoe between the islands of Molaki and Oahu - 41 miles.) And did I mention it was humid? Sooooo humid. And hot. Like the sun was trying to kill us. 

Of course we took breaks. But because it’s an endurance sport, the sessions between breaks tend to be fifteen or twenty minutes long which is approximately eleven lifetimes when it’s your first time in the boat and you can barely manage to hang on to your paddle. On the breaks you drink a lot of water, and if you’re lucky you also get frozen section of oranges which are the most delicious oranges IN THE UNIVERSE. And sometimes on a break you jump out of the canoe so you can cool off in the water. But the joke is on you because BWA HA HA HA the water is as warm as a bath because THERE IS NO ESCAPE FROM THE SUN and then there is another 14 years of paddling and then it’s only five kilometres back to the beach which is ok except one of your arms has literally fallen off and floated away and you’re hallucinating and losing feeling in your legs because your ass is actually three inches wider than the canoe that you’re wedged into.

And then it’s over and you’re lolling in the water at the beach and it’s all kind of ok.

I really can’t overstate how difficult that first paddle was. But after we’d regained consciousness and hauled the canoe back up the beach and rinsed it and swaddled it in its special canvas covers and put away the paddles and laid in a daze in the nearby hut for a while, we really did go for coffee and pastry. And I managed to dump half the beach on the floor in the Costa Coffee disabled toilets while changing into dry clothes, and it all seemed like it might have been kind of fun. So clearly at that point I was still hallucinating.

But the next week I went back anyway, much to the surprise of anyone who’d been there the week before. They’d been certain they’d never see me again because even the experienced paddlers admitted that the previous week had been insanely hot and difficult and not exactly the kind of introduction to the sport that would encourage a return visit. And yet there I was again. And I kept going back whenever my work schedule permitted. And I even bought a giant insulated water bottle to fill up with ice, and a beach towel, and a big droopy caftan to change clothes under, which I think the cleaning staff at the Costa Coffee must have appreciated.

Pam + goofy grin + really beat up hat + guys in the background tying off an ama.

I did get more comfortable and confident in the canoe, and the group was very friendly and welcoming, and it was really nice to be out on the water with a lovely bunch of people doing something physically challenging as a team. I even tried the single seater canoes a couple times, on days when there weren’t enough people to take the six-seater out. Which is when I discovered, as I mentioned earlier, that even WITH an outrigger, these canoes are still quite unstable. 

The term for when the canoe flips over is “huli” (“HOO-lee”), and I’d only been on the single seat canoe for about 90 seconds when I managed to huli for the first time. A slight shift of the weight too far to the right, the outrigger tips slightly too far up out of the water, and everything goes over much faster than you’d expect. It’s even more dramatic when one of the big six-seater canoes goes over. We spent an hour one morning on a Huli Drill, where we deliberately tipped the big canoe so we could all learn what happens and how to recover. It was weirdly fun.

(Tragically, I lost my sunglasses on that first single-seater huli, when they came off my head and went to a watery grave not far from the beach. This was sad, because I got those sunglasses for free when they’d been left in the rental car I had in Winnipeg for Christmas 2019. So they had history, those glasses. Miraculously, the incident was merely another chapter in the history of those sunglasses. Because the next morning I was out with the gang again, this time in the 6-seater (the only time I went two days in a row) and we actually located the sunken treasure where it had landed on the seabed the previous morning! Caleb dove in and retrieved them, and I’m pleased to say I still have those sunglasses, though they now sport a snazzy blue lanyard to keep them on my head. Those sunglasses have a real story to tell, and I don’t want to lose them again!)

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Thanks to Caleb for this shot, which shows a whole boat on the water.

Eventually though, work got busy and I had to stop going out to paddle. Because it turns out that you can’t be 52 years old and get up at 4:45am and paddle hard in hot weather for two hours and then go to work until 10pm without literally falling asleep at your desk at some point during the day. Or at least I can’t do that. But once the ceremony was over and the packing was done I found the time for a couple more early-morning runs. On my last outing, there were a lot of very new people and Caleb and I ended up being the two most experienced people in the boat (after our steerer and fearless leader Tina, of course). So Caleb sat stroke, setting the pace from the front and I sat in three calling the changes. Which was kind of a cool way to end things.

My other “last paddle” that week was in a single seater, when Caleb snapped this amazing shot which is totally going in my “Funeral Photos” file, along with the picture of me riding sidesaddle on the back of a scooter in Bali, and the picture of me standing in the water at the very edge of Victoria Falls.

Outrigger Canoes. Who could have predicted that would be the most satisfying and enjoyable part of my four months in Dubai? Luckily, I’m supposed to be heading back there in the New Year to work on the Closing Ceremony, and I’m definitely planning on setting the 4:45am alarm again.