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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Saturday, 30 May 2009

Start of summer (and seaside).

We took a drive north last Saturday morning, stopping for a short time in West Yorkshire to see our friend Trev, before finishing our journey near Houghton-Le-Spring in County Durham, where we'd been kindly invited to stay by the parents of Beth's second and third surrogate children.

Despite it being a bank holiday weekend - and save for a little rain on Saturday - the weather was spectacular. The children took every opportunity to play outside, and we spent a happy Sunday morning on the beach at South Shields. We really were spoiled for choice with the outdoor spaces to walk and play; after lunch, we ambled to the park on the other side of the prom, which had a large collection of play equipment and a boating lake.

On Bank Holiday Monday, we couldn't resist the opportunity to visit one of my favourite follies (and there are plenty of those in the UK, if you keep your eyes open!) I was rather amused that, on the way into the operations office at Radio 1 there is a print of a rather beautiful photo of Penshaw Monument, and it always reminds me of the fun times I've had there. Since Beth's mobility isn't so good and the littlest of the children isn't quite agile enough to scale the steps we didn't go up the hill on this occasion, but we spent a happy hour or so in the park nearby. Unfortunately there wasn't any shade, so I ended up quite warm.. they don't do parasols for blokes, do they?

We stopped off again at Trev's - Chris and Lenni get on so well with his daughters, who are each just a little younger - and, after an overnight stay, finished our journey home on Tuesday morning.

Although I had to go back to work on Wednesday (and unfortunately, I was a little unwell, so ended up going home half-way through Thursday; I put it down to the amount of sun I had at the weekend) I think I can safely say we participated in National Family Week in our own unique way. It'd been a little bit non-stop travelling for me, too, since I had a work trip to Manchester on Thursday and Friday last week (which I'm still sorting out!) so I must have journeyed a couple of thousand miles over the past fortnight. It's good to be home, now.

Another weekend has arrived, and we've already made the most of it by going swimming and, on arriving home, opened all the windows and doors to let the mercifully cool breeze in, since it's still sunny. Once again, I've not really put much effort into maintaining the garden; although we planted out some vegetables, either the seeds were eaten or the growing conditions just weren't right. At the moment, the nasturtiums are taking over!

Chris has an extremely busy week ahead - his class is going to Dell Farm - an educational residential centre where schoolchildren learn about the environment and countryside. It's a complete contrast from the inner-city life of Luton, so will hopefully be a fun place to be. It's amazing to think that Beth did the same trip when she was at primary school, so it's clearly very well-established. It doesn't stop us feeling a little apprehensive, since this is Christopher's first week away from home; it's only a few miles west of here, though, and as long as he has plenty of sunscreen on, I'm sure he'll be fine.

I'll close this 'catch-up' blog post with some photos from our visit to the seaside - as always, the gallery has bigger versions, which can be seen by clicking on the pictures.

Have a good weekend!

Lenni and Lucy on the beachLucy, Lenni and Chris playing on the sand dunes
Beth and Emily, enjoying the sunshine

Posted by james at 4:38 PM

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The UK Centre for Carnival Arts, Luton : the ugliest building in Bedfordshire?

I would not consider myself to be someone who appreciates fine art, but I was taken aback, during a visit to the National Gallery last year, by the sheer power that a carefully created visual work can possess.

Many buildings, too, can leave me staring with admiration; there is, I believe, a construction that are is cherished as an artwork that even publishing a photograph of it has been prohibited - the Atomium in Belgium.

The Galaxy Centre, LutonAnd then there's Luton. Many towns and cities I have visited that have been under development (including Birmingham, Manchester, even Swindon), and given the benefit of the doubt: "I'm sure it'll look nice when it's finished."

I honestly cannot say that about Luton. It will not look nice; moreover it probably won't ever be finished. I try to enthuse about the stalled Power Court development (stalled such that even the domain has expired) and Napier Park on the old Vauxhall site - I tolerate the decimation of the green space at the Library end of Luton to make "St George's Square" which is currently surrounded by building sites, and, until recently, the worst blight on the town's landscape has been the Galaxy Centre - known by friends and family as 'The Monstrosity.'

Until now, I have kept my opinions - about the wanton destruction of many of Luton's historic buildings over the years (see Hitchin as a fine example of careful preservation), and the shabby state of the place in general - to myself. That was, however, until the ugliest building I have ever seen was erected, just to the east of Luton's town centre. It is called the UK Centre for Carnival Arts, and it looks like this:

The UK Centre for Carnival Arts, Luton.
The UK Centre for Carnival Arts, Luton

I believe this transcends the artistic numbness that begat the Galaxy Centre by cleverly combining every element of hideousness in its design; it's assymetric, it already looks worn out, it has no consistency of colours, edges or materials (concrete, wood, brick, glass and metal) and it would appear an amount of effort has been made to create a discordant environment around it of unburied cables, ill-considered atria and mismatched monuments and ornaments.

If I didn't know any better, I would have believed that someone had the temerity to allow it to be designed by a class of five-year-olds. If that was the case, I'd put money on it having been a special needs school.

The worst part about it is that it occupies a highly visible space, that greets any visitor to the town, coming off the main flyover (which is bad enough!) for which even the unusual - yet still charming in its way - "chequered church" (St Mary's Parish Church) nearby cannot compensate. Unfortunately, I was unable to take the 'long view' photo of it, because of the parking restrictions, but as soon as I do, I shall add it to the gallery, which has more photos of this deeply unattractive building.

I will close with a curious observation: my photos seem to be the first of the road-facing exterior of the building on the internet. There are a few pictures of the design and artist's impression. Is it just me who thinks this is the ugliest building in Bedfordshire, or do people dare not publish photographs of it because it is so unattractive?

Either way, I'm glad I've got this out of my system. Thank you for your patience.

UK Centre for Carnival Arts, Luton - closer viewUK Centre for Carnival Arts, Luton - side view

Posted by james at 3:31 PM

Friday, 8 May 2009

Lots of podcasts...

Prompted by a request on the Vobes podcast - he wanted to know what other podcasts his listeners enjoy - I thought I'd make a ilst.

Having written it, I'm rather taken aback by the sheer quantity - especially since it's rare that I'll miss an episode of any of them! Most are weekly, some are occasional, and there are a couple of daily ones, too - the mainstays of my commute. I suppose, though, since I'm travelling for three and a quarter hours a day, it's not too much of a surprise that I listen to so much!

Podcasts I currently enjoy (and yes, I do listen to almost all of these regularly!)

Vobeswww.vobes.comOne man and his daily entertainments
The Emma and Pete Showwww.emmaandpete.com/showThe only 'couplecast' I listen to - friendly & geeky!
Stuff You Should Knowwww.howstuffworks.com/stuff-you-should-know-podcast.htmI have learned so much from this!
The ILPwww.theilp.comMusic and chat. Much of it is quite rude.
Total Podcastrophewww.totalpodcastrophe.comUS & UK Comedy collides. In an amusing way
Friday Night Comedy (BBC Radio 4)www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fricomedyRadio 4's 6.30pm show on Fridays - without the music
Max Buffer's Media Museumwww.mediamuseum.co.ukAmusing reminiscences of TV programmes that could well have been made..
The Colonel's Radio Showwww.colonelradioshow.co.ukA mad (and obscene) old colonel and his hapless interviewer. It's not going to end well.
The Onion Radio Newswww.theonion.com/content/radionewsShort implausible news reports.
Clever Little Podwww.cleverlittlepod.comExcellent sketch comedy from a bloke in Birmingham.
The North South Dividewww.thenorthsouthdivideA occasional venture into internet comedy from two ends of the M1
Tech & Science
Material World (BBC Radio 4)www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/materialRadio 4's science & technology programme
Digital Planet www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/digitalpGlobal Tech from the World Service.
Guardian Tech Weeklywww.guardian.co.uk/technology/technology+content/audioThe Guardian's take on technology
Guardian Science Weeklywww.guardian.co.uk/science/science+content/audioThe Guardian's science in audio format
British Macwww.britishmac.comA quirky, very British Apple Mac podcast
TWiT (This Week In Tech)www.twit.tv/twitLeo Laporte's flagship tech show
MacBreak Weekly (TWiT)www.twit.tv/mbwThe Apple Mac show from TWiT
Windows Weekly (TWiT)www.twit.tv/wwThe Microsoft show from TWiT
The Daily Giz Wiz (TWiT)www.twit.tv/DGWA daily gadget - some silly, some ingenious
Engadgetwww.engadget.com/category/podcastsAn audio digest of all that's going on in theworld of gadgets
Guardian Media Talkwww.guardian.co.uk/media/media+content/audioA weekly media show from the Guardian
The Media Show (BBC Radio 4)www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/mediaRadio 4's media programme
Pete Cooper's Bleepshowwww.bleepshow.comSplendid electronica from the internet.
MashupTownwww.mashuptown.comThe latest mashups & bootlegs
The Home Made Hit Showwww.homemadehitshow.comA showcase & discussion for home made music
Prime Minister's Questionswww.number10.gov.uk/Page306The weekly circus from the Houses of Parliament
Thinking Allowedwww.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/taRadio 4's sociology programme
The Alternative Kitchen Gardenerwww.coopette.com/akgEmma Cooper's inspiring kitchen garden podcast
PodQuizwww.podquiz.comA weekly 20 question quiz - often challenging!
The Naked Engilshmanwww.nakedenglishman.co.ukThe regular audio journal of Richard Vobes.

Having written this list, I'm quite surprised about how little music I actually listen to - almost all of these are speech-based. While I'm at home, though, there's music radio on most of the time, and my MP3 player always has a collection of tunes for when I'm not in the mood for talking, or I'm in a rush and need something a little more motivating.

Posted by james at 9:54 AM

Monday, 4 May 2009

Lots of weekends...

It's been the perfect time of year to get out and about - on my own, as the previous blog entry has illustrated, and with the family.

Despite Luton being very much a town (it could possibly even be described as 'inner city'?) plenty of effort and expense has recently been put into making places for people of all ages to exercise and walk. Quite near to us, in Stopsley, there's a park behind the fire station which offers a really new outdoor 'assault course' to which we went on one of the sunny days during the Easter holidays.

The children and I enjoyed running and jumping around it, especially since there was hardly anyone else around; I think it was quite early when we took to the equipment!

Christopher on the rope bridge at Stopsley Recreation ParkChristopher on the rope bridge at Stopsley Recreation Park

While the sun's been shining (although, delightfully, it's not been too hot!) we have made the most of some visits to our favourite 'bit' of countryside - Ashridge Estate. Now Eleanor has a bicycle, I'm really looking forward to taking the children (and maybe Beth as well!) cycling around the flat bridle paths that snake between the trees. For the time being, though, playing with sticks and climbing on logs is a perfectly adequate pastime for the children, while Beth and I photograph the glorious nature (there are some pictures in the gallery).

Christopher and Eleanor at AshridgeThe children hiding in a makeshift tent frame

This weekend, though, was the grand opening of the UK Centre for Carnival Arts, to celebrate which they held a large street party, starting in the afternoon with some live music at the recently redesigned (or 'concreted') St George's Square.

We took the children down for a look, and were treated to some music from 'Zambezi Band Tower' - a modern Southern African music band from Zimbabwe, while they were able to have a go at some circus street equipment such as juggling balls, ribbons and diablo.

It was amazing to see the cultural mix of folk all assembled in one place to enjoy the music and culture - that's one of the most striking things about Luton, how (in general) harmoniously all the communities live together in this small, functional airport town.

Chris and Lenni with Diablos at St George's SquareLenni with a ribbon on a stick

The children go back to school tomorrow; I'm back in the office on Wednesday (although I had a call over the weekend about a problem with a server at work, so i'll probably take a look at that tomorrow), and business returns to usual... until next weekend, at least!

While I remember, though, Beth has - finally - a follow-up appointment after her MRI scan at the Royal London Hospital on Thursday. I'll be sure keep you posted on the outcome, and I'm optimistic that we'll get (or at least intent on getting!) something useful out of this visit. Another busy week ahead...

Posted by james at 10:15 PM

Off on my own (a bit)... and how to find my way about.

It's a bit of a shame I've not updated my blog of late - there's been plenty going on, just not enough time (or perhaps energy/inclination) to write about it!

I've getting out and about on my own, for example - up to the training centre in Worcestershire to assist with another VCS course just after Easter, and down to Worthing and East Sussex to visit some friends last weekend. I met up with with Richard Vobes - the UK's (if not the world's?) most prolific podcaster and recorded a show with him on Sunday evening. We had a splendid time, rambling on for an hour about beer, chocolate and radio - the results can be heard here (27MB MP3).

Me and Richard Vobes with BEER!Worthing Pier
Me and the great Richard Vobes with beer; Worthing Pier on a sunny Sunday afternoon

Worthing TravelodgeI stayed overnight in the recently opened Travelodge on Worthing seafront - they combined a small collection of run-down hotels that were going to ruin, and I believe they've done a good job of renovating them. The timing of the trip coincided with the £19 room promotion that Travelodge occasionally do, so it was quite a bargain, even though my room didn't look out over the sea! There was a lovely view of the downs in the distance, though, and the weather on the Sunday was wonderful.

Not so, unfortunately, on the Monday, which was spectacularly rainy. I had arranged to meet up with Sally, one of my housemates at University, whom I hadn't seen in over 15 years. It was fantastic to catch up, and although the dampness tempered a wander through the East Sussex countryside, the day zoomed by and it was a wonderful opportunity to see her again.

While I'm at work, I've been trying to get out for a walk at lunchtime, although it tends to be closer to half-past two when I can take a natural break, since things tend to happen over lunchtime. It's May already and I've not found any geocaches yet in 2009; I'm definitely going to have to remedy this!

Efficasoft GPS UtilitiesWhat will definitely help is a piece of GPS software for my i600 (or other Windows Smartphone) called GPS Utilities by Efficasoft. One of the really excellent functions it can perform is, when presented with a digital image of a map, it can overlay the position of the phone and waypoints onto it, and - after entering a couple of reference points - can be used as a navigation tool like that. I think I mentioned in an early blog entry that Ordnance Survey offer a 'get-a-map' free downloadable map, and with Google Earth installed, setting the reference points wasn't too hard, so I've managed to get them to work rather well on my phone.

Since the screen's quite small, it can't really be used for turn-by-turn directions but, with a 4km x 4km 1:50,000 zoomable map on the screen, it's perfect for finding footpaths, roadways - and, of course, the car to get home! I would say that GPSUtilities is definitely worth the £16 ($25) I paid for it.

That's about it for my gallivanting, I think - there's plenty to write about what we've been getting up to as a family... another blog entry will be on its way soon! In the meantime (while I'm feeling lazy) my tweets (www.twitter.com/syzygy) have all the news and photos.. with much fewer characters!

Posted by james at 9:18 AM

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