Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Secret World of Lego

Identity protection
So secret in fact that Lego don't really give anything away. They close doors in the film crew's faces and shutter up windows in the background of outside shots. They hold pretend meetings in front of the camera because they have already made all the real decisions behind it. Employees being interviewed politely refuse to answer questions about their work. 

But you do get to see what's for lunch in the canteen. Food is coded by big bricks in traffic light colours according to its nutritional value. 

High cholesterol lunch

There is a lot of talk about "family". They try not to sound too EastEnders about it though.

There is also the Lego archive, which looks just like a dusty books archive with those doors operated by a wheel that could squish you against the shelves, only inside are all the boxes of Lego you might have owned in the 1970s, if you were lucky.

We see some bricks being made. And someone measuring them under a microscope. If a brick is out of size by more than 4 one thousands of a millimetre, it is rejected by the scrutiny committee.

There is a very weird new office in London, called a Hub, where nobody has their own desk and if you sit at one you have to move on within 90 minutes or a lady gives you a "No Camping" notice which has a picture of a VW bus on it. But the Hub does have a Pub Club. A Hub Pub Club. Which is more London Binge Drinking than Danish Family Values.

Meanwhile, some hopeful new recruits are going through an interview and selection process for a job as a set designer. They have to build a lot of Lego, as you might expect. These are hard-core geeks. Someone asks what children enjoy and play with today and how they can bring that about in Lego. The potential recruits look blank. They clearly haven't got a clue about children today. They haven't seen one since they left school. They've been too busy sitting at home building models.

You don't get to see any kids on the programme either. Only the Adult Fans Of Lego, or AFOLs. The sort of people who stay up all night building complicated models of Georgian Town Houses or Aircraft Carriers. One is trying to start up a connoisseur's magazine called Bricks Culture, and the folks in Billund agree to endorse it. Another has got Lego to buy his bird models, which are rather lovely but sell for £51 a set in Hamleys. But his 1% royalty cheque is apparently enough to buy him a car or a nice holiday so more than a few people must think they are worth that.

He may spend his holiday at Legoland for all I know. I went to the original one in Billund when I was 17, a long time before I had my own child. It was great, needless to say. It put my own Lego building attempts to utter shame. My brother and I once wanted to open up our own Legoland attraction. But as we only had one box of the stuff plus a train set between us and would have had to open it in my brother's bedroom, we didn't get very far with our plan.

Copenhagen at Legoland
Now it's time to rediscover Lego with our daughter. How things have changed. Now it's all sets that resemble Playmobil and the bricks are tiny. Our girl just wants the finished product like it looks on the box (and immediately too), and hasn't yet understood the creative potential of it all. 

Daddy has his boyhood Lego in a big box retrieved from his parents' attic, but it's outfacingly jumbled up. Somewhere in there is a double decker bus, a train set, several lunar landing modules and a lot of bricks that his older brother has scrawled "Iron Maiden" all over from when he recreated one of their concerts in Lego. But we have so far never got beyond the top few inches of the box.

There is now a Legoland in the UK of course, on top of where Windsor Safari Park was when I was a girl. But our daughter hasn't found out about it yet. And I suspect that she won't for a while. A trip to the tiny Lego shop in Leeds usually sets us back financially far enough. We haven't saved up enough for the big guns yet.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

Another period drama I couldn't get into and only watched the first episode of. What is wrong with me? Am I simply tired out? (Well, yes. My health has been taking a total battering of late.) I realise it makes me come across like an ignorant chav: "Oh, historical TV. It's so boooooring." Not what I think at all. But I think I must be picking up the attention span of my four-year-old.

I haven't read the book. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for at least two years since I picked up a copy for 10p in the charity shop. There is always a copy of it in the charity shop, a bit like Fifty Shades Of Grey and The Da Vinci Code. Only a better book, by all accounts. I will read it one day, but it always seems so outfacingly long. And now, having seen the first episode, it seems similar in style to Erin Morganstern's fantastic (in more ways than one) The Night Circus, so this will further postpone my attempt. I read The Night Circus only very recently, and I don't want to end up confusing the plots. That's the sort of thing I do now that I am in my forties, you see.

I hadn't realised Mr Norrell's York connections. The York Society of Magicians don't do any magic. They just sit around a table arguing. But then Mr Norrell turns up (sort of) to answer a wager, and brings all the statues in the Minster to life. Only they kind of reminded me of the Purple Man who sits on his bike on Stonegate every day. But at least this scene was genuinely filmed in York Minster. And the Magicians were meeting in St William's College next door. St William's College does well out of period dramas - it was the backdrop to several scenes in Death Comes To Pemberley too.

And then they went off to London and I lost interest.

But I never tire of York Minster, at the heart of my city. This vast, glorious building, visible for miles across the Vale of York. The original twin towers. The Rose Window. The East Window, the size of a tennis court. The Blue Peter bosses high up on the ceiling destroyed by fire in 1984. The resonant echo. The giant Advent crown at Christmas. The sense of humour of John Sentanu. Its permanent chill. Its vertiginous Great Central Tower (once climbed, never to be repeated), and underpinned undercroft whose gallons of concrete stop the tower from collapsing.

I go for the music. The choir at Evensong, the opening solo to Once In Royal David's City during the Nine Lessons And Carols. The Early Music Festival concerts in The Chapter House and Nave - the Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars. The terrible university choir, with Peter Seymour wielding the baton. I was once among them, performing Verdi's Requiem, the ground shaking beneath our feet as the drum banged the opening to the Dies Irae. The boom, that echo. And Bach's Christmas Oratorio, singing with a sore throat in the cold that December leaving me hoarse for days.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Kevin McCloud's Escape To The Wild

I met a German lady on The Boat who put me to shame. She was travelling alone with her three beautiful children, all aged under five, from Inverness to Dresden. The ferry to Rotterdam and a visit to friends in Muenster were her only overnight stops. Her youngest child was strapped on her back by a complicated wrap, and all three were impeccably behaved. At home they apparently ate super healthy food and had no television. They were travelling in a tiny petrol-efficient car so had hardly any luggage. They were going to be away for three whole weeks without the dad, who had stayed home to work. The woman was utterly calm and taking the whole thing in her stride.

Whereas my daughter was racing uncontrollably between the TV area and the soft play, and ignoring my requests not to (1) throw things at people, (2) squeal or (3) trip up anyone carrying bottles of Duty Free.

And we only have one of her.

And I had my husband with me.

And we had a car rammed to the hilt with stuff. Including our tablet because the caravan we were going to be staying in had no television.

And I was already feeling shattered.

Now, it's perfectly possible that at the end of the three-week trip, the woman might have looked a little less fresh and the children might have been pulling each other's hair out. But I doubt it. She just oozed capability in a way that I never shall.

So she was impressive enough, but here was Kevin McCloud off to meet a family who were even more extreme. The von Engelbrechtens (German Boris, English Karyn and their three sons) jettisoned everything from their lives and went to live on an uninhabited island in Tonga, literally the other side of the world from the UK. You can't get further away from there without starting to come home again. So why had they done it? The mother said it was something to do with having been born in Swindon.

Their island had golden sands, turquoise seas and on the surface looked like paradise. The von Engelbrechtens had built their house while living under canvas. Boris wasn't a professional builder but was more than a tad skilled at this sort of thing. Whereas my husband and I can barely hang a picture on the wall. Boris used only materials available on the island - some slabs of coral rock and a whole load of palm trees. Though I suspect the solar panels might have been imported.

For they were "off grid", generating their own electricity by sunshine in the day. Kevin was roped in to help them to erect a wind turbine to keep their fridge running at night. It turns out paradise is rather windy. Windy to the point of them needing a concrete "hurricane bunker" on higher ground at certain times of the year. Which doubles up as a tsunami shelter at others - earthquakes are a regular occurrence. The family aim to be as self-sufficient as possible - they catch fish, and have a garden where they grow bananas, sweet potatoes and pineapples. They did try broccoli but it missed the English rain and wouldn't take in the blistering heat. Though it does rain in paradise - enough to store a couple of tankers of the stuff at a time.

And of course there is definitely no television. Or internet. Does this result in a prolonging of childhood innocence or is it denying the kids a chance to learn to function in the real world?

I am all for a family beach holiday. Especially one in guaranteed sunshine. But for the rest of my life? Having to catch my own sashimi? With only my husband and daughter for company? (Much as I love them.) Admittedly this family had three kids to keep each other entertained, but can that be enough? My daughter really needs her friends, and misses them terribly when we go away. And I am so reliant on my network of local mums to retain my sanity. That friendly smile at the school gates, the music groups and swimming lessons, the odd night out on gin. And hell, that 3-hour break when my daughter is at pre-school - I really struggle without it.

Yet here this family were living away from everybody, but still having to home-school their children according to the national curriculum. Which seemed rather pointless and bizarre. Shackled by British rules when you have intended to escape all convention.

I have no idea what they did for money, apart from running the occasional whale watching trip. Or what they did when they got ill. Maybe they have a ten-year supply of Calpol stashed in their hurricane bunker. I guess not ever seeing anybody else limits their exposure to viruses, but surely some of the island insect nasties must carry a few germs between them. Or one of the kids might fall out of the palm trees they climb all day. It did occur to me as they all sailed off to collect a haul of bat poo to fertilise their garden that they might be a little too blissfully ignorant on the health front. Like about the source of Ebola, for example.

Kevin McCloud on the other hand is my kind of traveller. His journey from the UK to Tonga takes him five days owing to a volcano erupting under the sea near Fiji. All flights are cancelled and Kevin is stuck sleeping on a bench in the airport for two nights. After one night on paradise island, he is covered in mosquito bites, which he can't stop scratching as he pontificates about the meaning of the von Engelbrechtens' life beside the campfire. He likes the view, but needs his home comforts. And he is all too aware of the bacteria that breed in bat shit.
I tried to go to paradise, but it rained.
Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand
But ultimately Escape To The Wild just show us parents that we can never win. The von Engelbrechtens have tried to create the perfect lifestyle at one with nature and the world for their children. But as soon as he can, the eldest boy buggers off to boarding school in New Zealand. "I have a need for friends", he explains. And I can't argue with that.

Auckland calling

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese

Waking up Chinese?
A woman did not wake up "Chinese", needless to say. It's just one of those headline grabbing documentary titles. A few years ago, Sarah Colwill suffered a severe migraine which left her with Foreign Accent Syndrome, a rare motor speech disorder which affects ability to control speech prosody in such a way that listeners perceive the speaker as foreign. Normally, when patients sustain neurological damage after a stroke or head trauma, their speech sounds obviously disordered. But the neurological effects of Foreign Accent Syndrome are more subtle, possibly because a smaller part of the brain has been affected.

In Sarah's case, no damage to the brain has been detected at all, even by state of the art scanners. This is why she was diagnosed with severe migraine rather than stroke. In fact, the boundary between the two is rather blurry, it would seem. Her migraines are hemiplegic and absolutely crippling. The poor woman has several a week, but only two have landed her in hospital. The first of these gave her the Foreign Accent Syndrome, and the second affected her mobility on her left side. It seems nothing can be done to prevent or help her with the migraines, and she is unable to work at the age of 38. Her husband is at his wits' end with worry.

Sarah's acquired pattern of speech makes her once Plymouth accent now come across as Chinese. She has a monotone, staccato rhythm and utterance final lengthening and inappropriate pitch rises. She simplifies consonant clusters ("hopital") or uses schwa epenthesis to help her articulate them, so "spider" becomes "s-e-pider". She drops plural [s] and has some mild agrammatisms and word-retrieval difficulties.

Goodness me, does it sound like I know what I am talking about? Well, I should, because I spent all of 1998 in Newcastle studying a lady with Foreign Accent Syndrome. She had a couple of minor strokes (TIAs) which replaced her mild Derbyshire accent with one that sounded distinctly French. She had been an accomplished singer, but now had difficulty controlling her breath and holding a note well. She was such a lovely person, and it was so sad how little we could do to help her. I say "all of 1998 studying a lady" - in fact, I only spent a couple of hours with her. The rest of the year was spent listening to recordings and staring at spectograms and pitch contours on phonetics laboratory software. No use to the patient at all.
The university bookbinder's line endings made me become a subtitler

Exaggerated pitch contours in Foreign Accent Syndrome

Anyway, lo and behold, off goes Sarah to see my former thesis supervisor, Professor Nick Miller, in the Department of Speech at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. So nice to see him again after all these years. It looks like he has a bigger and better office now. When I was working for him, he was in very cramped conditions in the King George VI building and used to have all his children's clothes drying on the radiators. Scary to think that those young toddlers are probably at university themselves now.
Glorious Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Foreign Accent Syndrome also has a profound social effect on the people who acquire it. Suddenly someone loses their whole identity and effectively becomes foreign in their own country. Sarah says others treat her like a tourist, or even an alien. They make at best unfunny jokes or at worst racist comments about her Chinese accent. No one believes she is who she says she is. Sarah barely feels she knows who she is. On request, her car insurers send her some recordings of her voice in calls to them made before her migraine. Sarah is crushed to hear her true accent again.

Sarah undergoes some intensive speech therapy with Martin Duckworth, which she finds exhausting and frustrating. She has to repeat words over and over, trying to retrain all the tiny muscles involved in speech articulation. She does eventually considerably improve her pronunciation of "chips" and "chopsticks", though these may not have been the best choice of words for someone people (unhilariously) think should be ordering a Chinese takeaway. And there are so many more words in our rich and complex language left to work on. (Ironically, if Sarah had actually woken up Chinese, she may have found that easier, since there are far fewer possible consonant-vowel combinations in Mandarin syllables.)
There may be help for her terrible migraines in the near future. But there is no magic pill or miracle cure for Sarah's Foreign Accent Syndrome, despite all the research done into the condition over the past 20 years, in which I played a very insignificant part. However, over time and the course of her speech therapy, Sarah finds a growing acceptance of her changed voice, and she starts to regain her confidence and be happier about who she is. Happier is all we can hope for. For now.