Learning as I Go – Glasgow 2014

2014-07-21 07.36.00-1If I ever needed confirmation that training is all very well, but that you only really learn how to do something when you have to do it yourself, I received it yesterday.  I’d seen the demonstration of the satellite navigation system on the Ford cars which form the Commonwealth Games fleet twice, which involved sitting in the car while a person who knew how it worked pressed the buttons very quickly and then said ‘Of course this one already has all the main Games venues programmed in’.  Even when I had my turn at sitting in the driving seat, and gingerly touched a few of the controls, it didn’t mean much as I didn’t need to go anywhere in particular.

It was only when I was sitting in the car park yesterday afternoon in a brand new car with only 8 miles on the clock, not much fuel and a completely virgin sat-nav trying to programme in the postcode of a place in central Glasgow that I realised that this system had its own idiosyncrasies that make it different to all the others I have used in the past, and it resisted all my efforts to input what should have been the most straight forward of destinations.  And I had one of the team in the car with me.

It was not my finest hour.

Later on in the day, in a quiet moment on my own, with no-one sitting beside me, it took me 5 minutes of fiddling with it to bend it to my will.  Now its method of operation is etched on my brain forever.

It’s fun driving around the city in one of the Games cars.  With the right pass on the windscreen you can drive on roads and into compounds which are otherwise barred.  For a short while I’m allowed into an inner sanctum of sorts.  It’s just like the rest of the world really, but a little bit quieter and with more security checks.

I’m due to take part in the rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony at Celtic Park tonight so that for the Real Thing  I can show my team where they have to go and when, for the Athletes Parade.  I’m looking forward to it, but won’t be able to tell you anything about it, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for Wednesday(!).


Meeting the Chef – Glasgow 2014

2014-07-18 19.35.59-3I learnt something new yesterday.  Because, unlike the Olympics, there is no qualification required for athletes to compete in the Commonwealth Games, some countries arrive with more athletes than they said they would.  This, not surprisingly, creates pressure on the provision of accommodation at the Athletes Village.  Some of this has been built into the contingency planning, but until they know where the extra people will come from it’s hard to plan for their allocation.

So while I’d spent time on Thursday fixing the location of the rooms and the office space allocated to Mozambique in my memory so it would be easy to find when the Team Head arrived, by the time we met her, it had all changed.  Yesterday was not a good day to be walking round the Village with a paper map working out where the new allocations were.  We all ended up like drowned rats, to the extent, at least in my case, that drowned rats have heads of wild frizzy hair and wet feet.  There was one particular moment, when we were sitting in a near empty portacabin in a rutted car park, with the rain dripping out of our shoes, dealing with the paperwork for the cars to be used by the team, and O, the Team Manager, still had the hood up on the waterproof jacket I had lent her, that it seemed that all this Glasgow 2014 stuff wasn’t that glamorous after all.

We had met O, whom I’ve already grown accustomed to introducing as ‘Our Chef’ (as in Chef de Mission, the jargon for overall team manager) in the morning, and learnt something of the team who will be arriving later on Sunday.  The team is 29 in total including 16 athletes competing in four sports: athletics, swimming, judo and boxing.  Many of them are young, and coming for the international experience to prepare them for more competition in the future.

Yesterday there were two other volunteers like me with the team, and it was very satisfying to find out how easily we worked out sharing the tasks between us.  We expect two more to join, one on Monday and another on Wednesday to complete our complement of 5 volunteer assistants.

Today I expect to be driving O out and about around the city as she checks up on a few things prior to the rest of the team arriving.  I feel surprisingly apprehensive about it – mainly working out how to get out of the security cordon and onto the roads outside the Village bubble.  But I won’t know until I try!

Despite the rain yesterday, there were so many more people in the Village than there had been on Thursday.  Everything has the feel of ratcheting up towards the start on Wednesday.  The smiles might have been a little more strained in the face of the driving rain but they were still there most of the time.

One of the ‘core values’ of the Games is that they be sustainable.  One aspect of this is recycling all the waste.  There are 4 different coloured bins in the cafeteria.  On Thursday there were signs above them identifying what should go in each.  I’d like to think I’m not slow on the uptake, but I stood for way more time than should be devoted to deciding which bin rubbish should be put in, trying to work out how to sort the debris on my lunch tray.  There was a volunteer standing guard to help, but as there is no ‘paper’ bin, determining where to put the bunch of paper towel I had used to wipe up when I spilt half my cup of tea, foxed us both.  On Saturday as well as the descriptions, there are now photographs over the bins showing what can go in each; I could throw away without the preliminary dither.  And no volunteer on guard – I hope they’ve been redeployed to a more fun job!

Volunteering in Glasgow


It’s all been a very slow build up.  It started somewhere in the mists of time when, entirely on a whim, I sent off an online 2014-07-18 19.35.59-3application to be a volunteer at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.  It might have been on the back of the general feel good atmosphere in London after the 2012 Olympics, or it might not have been, I can’t really remember.  But when it came to the interview last August, I’m fairly sure I relied quite significantly on that concept in my answers.  I was told I was being considered for the Transport team, and I smiled and nodded, not entirely sure that I had applied for that, but happy enough to go along with the process to see what happened next.  In that respect it was vaguely reminiscent of my going for interviews with accounting firms in my final year at university, ‘for the experience’ and being recruited into a job which turned into 25 years of a career, while I tried to decide what I really wanted to do; or of my going for a look-see visit to Moscow for a prospective job, as I thought I’d never get such a great opportunity for a trip there.  It was only for a weekend, after all……which led to the over two years in the city.  So, you see, there’s a bit of a pattern.

Transport, they explained was a very broad category, including people armed with clipboards and hi-vis jackets at bus stations and airports checking people got on the right buses, to those charged with driving cars for dignitaries and others (‘games family’ in the plethora of jargon).  There was another mysterious role, of which I wasn’t aware until I was told I was going to be doing it: CGA Assistant.  In English, this means Commonwealth Games Association Assistant, and is a person who is directly affiliated with one of the Country teams.  It was only when I attended the training days in May and June that I learned that this might or might not include driving, but would definitely involve random administrative and organisational tasks depending on the needs of the Country Team Management.  There’s also a uniform to wear: red, white and grey with branding and logos…..  I’ve not worn a uniform since I left school, and even then I personalised it beyond the point when it might properly have been described as ‘uniform’.

They kept us waiting to find out the country to which we had been allocated long enough to really ratchet up the sense of anticipation and impatience, so it was only a couple of weeks ago that I learnt that I would be supporting the Mozambique team.  At this point I should probably admit that until the moment I read the notification email I didn’t know that Mozambique was a member of the Commonwealth, but since then, I have better educated myself.

I sent an email to the High Commission in London to introduce myself, and was surprised, but very pleased, to be invited to meet one of the diplomats who will be actively involved with the team during the Games.  He told me that he understood that the Chef de Mission, (another new phrase that now skips smoothly off my tongue, and means the person in charge of the management of the Country Team) would be arriving in Glasgow this Friday.  I had been told to report for my first shift at the Athletes Village on Thursday.  It was no surprise then, that when I clocked in for the first time, there was no Mozambique team for me to join yet; and it is interesting how strongly I feel that they are my team already, even though I’ve not met them.

Walking into Helensburgh railway station to board the train into the city I felt unbelievably self-conscious in my bright red uniform, adorned with the glowing Glasgow 2014 logo.  I imagined small children staring at me, and adults shaking their heads in disbelief, but by the time I arrived at Dalmarnock station I was part of a crowd.  Suddenly, it was compulsory to greet complete strangers because they were wearing the same uniform; the Friendly Games indeed.

It was an incredible thrill to discover that my accreditation pass really did give me instant access to the heart of the Athletes Village.  I was one of those people walking about among the flags of the ‘71 nations and territories’ participating in the Games, crossing the freshly laid paths and grass, my ID swinging across my polo shirt, offering cheery ‘hellos’ to athletic young people in shorts.  Surreal?  This? Ever so slightly.

Everyone is in a uniform of one sort or another; sports gear of varying hues, even on the least athletic frames.  Only the police are exempt from the sportsy look, having the foresight to already have a well-recognised uniform of their own.  It was the visitors in suits and ties who looked the odd ones out in this little capsule of athletics and training shoes.

Because my team hadn’t arrived yet, B, my new colleague and I spent a little while walking around the Village to familiarise ourselves with the geography, to find the car parks, the portacabin for the Mozambique team office, and to test ourselves on whether we could find our way back to the central office.  Bumping into people I had met on the training days, the conversations all went the same way:

‘How are you?  Which Country are you?’

‘How big is the team?  Have you done any driving? How many CGAAs?’ (we’re all fluent in the acronyms)

And then we nod and wave, because everyone is heading somewhere in a hurry ‘See you again, I’m sure.’

B and I were loaned to Team England for the afternoon, and helped them put greeting cards in some of the rooms for the athletes.  Many of the rooms had been decorated with posters made by primary school children in Scotland, and it was a funny coincidence to see that several of them were from children at Hermitage Primary in Helensburgh, the school I went to.  I do hope the athletes send them a thank you.

I was very happy to help with the Team England tasks, and although they could not have been more welcoming, I had a curious feeling that they weren’t my team in the way that Mozambique is.

So this morning I am going back and really hope they are safely arrived. I’ve been told to check in at 11, as they may well be jet lagged, to give them time to get up and have their breakfast.  A reminder that although this is a huge machine working towards a massive spectacular, it’s all made up of people, many of whom have come a very long way.


Britain’s Tallest Tree?

IMG_3739There’s a sign, facing you as you leave the car park at the Loch Fyne Oyster House pointing towards ‘Britain’s Tallest Tree’.  In the several times I’ve been to Loch Fyne over the last six months, this sign has been the subject of much discussion.  Surely, if there was such a remarkably tall tree just off the road beside the loch we would have noticed it before now?  We’ve been visiting the oyster house since its beginnings as a caravan in a lay-by; the tree must have been hiding all this time.  How could we have missed it?

On Friday we decided to make  special expedition to search out this tallest of specimens, with the promise of carrying on to the the restaurant for lunch, even if the tree thing turned out to be a bit disappointing.  And anyway, the drive from Helensburgh to Loch Fyne is beautiful, no matter what the weather, and there’s always the progress of the never ending construction works to mitigate the frequent landslides on the Rest and Be Thankful to review en route.

The turning off the main road to the Ardkinglas Estate is a sharp one, followed by a steep descent along a narrow lane, stone walls on either side, and finally, if you are approaching from the south, a sharp left turn, doubling back on yourself.  There’s a lot more land between the road and the edge of the loch, than I’d ever appreciated, and it slopes quite dramatically down towards the waters edge, leaving room and elevation for the mystery tree to have been flourishing for over a hundred years, unseen and unremarked, at least by me.

The Woodland Garden was established, like so many idiosyncratic things in this country by a wealthy Victorian who liked collecting stuff from around the world.  In this case trees, shrubs and bushes; collecting his own, and playing swapsies with his neighbours and sometime collecting rivals.  A folded pamphlet showed us a route around the garden pointing out the highlights.  The rhododendrons were in early flower, as well as the delightfully named skunk cabbage, and we could see where the blue bells would be coming in a couple of weeks.  The landscape is barely manicured – it’s a collection of trees that have been there a long time, and benign near neglect seems to be the presiding philosophy: where trees have fallen they have been left and the path has been rerouted around them.

And there is the tallest tree in Britain.  Or it was the tallest tree in Britain for a bit.  It’s not at the moment, although I am unclear if that makes it the second tallest tree in Britain, or if it has fallen down the rankings even further.  It’s been playing tag with another specimen just outside Inverness for the last few years, but at 64 metres you still have to bend your head quite far back to look up at it.

The biggest surprise for us was the extent and prettiness of the Woodland Garden, so when topped off with Scallops and chips at the Oyster House (and astonishing blue sky), the day out ranks as a success.


Drawing in Clissold Park

After such a dreary and wet winter, the Spring sunshine is very welcome.  Not only was it shining on Thursday, it had been out long 2014-04-10 14.11.48enough to dry the ground sufficiently for me to sit on it and only get slightly damp.

Clissold Park is one of those places in north London that I have driven past more times that I could count, yet have never actually set foot in, so having a drawing class outing there provided an opportunity to tick it off the list of ‘things I’m too ashamed to admit I’ve never done in London’.

We were remarkably lucky with the weather, and as the day progressed more and more people joined us in the park.  Stoke Newington is the land of the organic babycino and all terrain baby buggies, but dog walkers, cyclists and small boys playing football were also lured out  into the open by the sun.  People watching was compulsory and compelling; as well as eavesdropping on conversations.  Or is that just me?  (Fran, over at Sequins and Cherry Blossom recommended the cafe for the people watching, but was silent on the eavesdropping ……)  And our small sketching party drew our own share of attention, and comment, and even a couple of annoying little dogs which weren’t beyond jumping in the water and then shaking themselves over the sketchbooks of my classmates.  It’s all added texture to the al fresco experience.

IMG_3715From some angles it is possible to believe that you are not in London, but instead in a small English Market town, with a Green in front  of the church, beside The Big House, and we spent the day drawing trees and leaves as well as the reflections in the stream.

Later, when I met a friend for supper, she observed that I’d caught a little but of sun on my face.  Now, that’s a proper day out!

Coffee, Cake and Sunshine

IMG_3717I hadn’t planned to stop for refreshments.  Really, the plan was to walk around the town to see the changes since I’d been here last, but I’d already been waylaid by my friend’s boutique and a cotton jumper like the one I bought there last year and have worn and worn.  Furnished with my new acquisitions (yes, there were some trousers involved too), I thought I’d spend some time watching the sea in the sunshine.  It would have been rude not to have a coffee and a cake too, wouldn’t it?

Down with the Kids at the Horniman Museum

IMG_3714You know how much I enjoy visiting places in London that are new to me.  It’s even more fun when I didn’t know they existed before, and they turn out to be idiosyncratic and a bit bonkers.  Let me introduce you to The Horniman Museum.

If you live in south east London I expect you’ve heard of it already, but for those of us in the North, it was a mystery.  ‘South of the River’ represents a transport challenge we’re not always prepared to scale; south east in particular is one of those areas that, for me, is pretty much a blank on the map.  So when my Drawing in Museums class was due to take place there, I was torn: it was good to go somewhere new, but how on earth was I going to get there?  It turned out to be surprisingly easy, making use of the Overground lines, (which I have avoided since a particularly miserable journey from Richmond a couple of years ago.)  It turns out that some of their trains do actually go to where they say they will.

The Horniman Museum was established by Mr Horniman using the wealth his family had generated through tea trading in the 19th century.  His fancy for collecting ‘to bring the world to Forest Hill’ led to the building of a museum which he left to the people of London.  His main areas of interest seem to have been in zoological specimens, handicrafts from far flung cultures and musical instruments.

It’s an eccentric collection, but on the day of my visit it was undeniably popular, perhaps too popular, as a destination for the under 10s.  A brilliant place for a school trip, for crocodiles of small children to file past glass cases filled with stuffed animals, shells and animal bones before a visit to the aquarium.  The noise was astonishing.  The barrel ceiling and the wooden and glass cases threw back the squeals and chattering of scores of young voices and the tramp of school shoes on linoleum.

Sitting in front of a glass case of shells, I was the perfect height for the passers by to be able to peer at my sketch book and ask me IMG_3713questions.

‘Do you do this all the time?’

‘What is it?’

being my particular favourites.

It was quieter in the afternoon, and I spent the time in the Centenary Gallery where I started to sketch a little wooden figure apparently used to decorate the prow of a boat in the Samoan Islands, but my efforts were thwarted when the light that had been illuminating its display case went out.  I turned my attention to the chicken mask which is also from the Pacific Islands.

Some museum information shed light on the evolution of the curating philosophy of the Collection.  At the outset, much of its purpose was to illustrate ‘primitive’ arts from less advanced peoples to prove the superiority of the evolution of the western European.  In post Colonial times, the collection has been entirely reassessed and is now organised to show,  in the Centenary Gallery at least, the results of the same preoccupation with masks and the illustration of people in different communities around the world.

Part of the point of having our drawing classes in Museums is to look at entirely unfamiliar objects, and render them on paper.  Their unfamiliarity means that it is not possible to fall into the trap of assuming I know what they look like.  I find it a surprisingly relaxing and engaging thing to do.  I can sit quietly, and draw.  It doesn’t matter if I finish or not, it doesn’t matter if it’s any good or not.  It’s just a drawing; lines on a piece of paper.

As I’m writing this I realise that I have lost that feeling of freedom to experiment and to fail and it not matter, in my writing.  Somehow, if I take it seriously  it has to carry more weight and expectation, and it has become correspondingly more difficult.

Now what am I going to do with that realisation….?


Blue Skies Over Berlin

IMG_3703I’m still pondering many of the things I saw on my trip to Berlin; some of the monuments and memorials made a deep impression that I need a little time to think about before writing.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the weather.  My friend Jill commented on the greyness of the sky in the photo I posted yesterday, so as we were very lucky to see sunshine and blue sky on a couple of the subsequent days, here’s a shot of the bottom end of Unter den Linden.  I was standing with my back to the Brandenberg Gate looking east.   Unter den Linden is, historically, the main promenading boulevard of central Berlin, named for it’s shading by rows of lime trees.  At the moment it’s a building site, involving some sort of improvements to the Underground system.  Promenading is currently out of the question – indeed on one day the whole road was blocked by the police. On our enforced detour we did come across  places we hadn’t known we had wanted to see, but were glad that happenstance had put on our path.

I like this composition not only for the blue sky, and the fact that you can’t see the mess of construction, but for the cranes in the distance, the old East German TV tower, so familiar from Cold War iconography, the flags, with which were evident everywhere we went, and I simply can’t resist a bit of curvy ironwork on a street lamp.

And for good measure, here’s some more blue sky over Potsdamer Platz where all of the buildings date only from the 1990s and the construction boom that followed the fall of The Wall.


Noticing Things in Berlin

IMG_3656I first visited Berlin in 1990, not long after The Wall came down, when the scars of where it had stood were still unavoidable and prominent.  I was there for a work conference, but squeezed in as much of a tour of the city as I could.  The images of the derelict land in the centre of the city which featured in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire were still fresh in my mind, and I found their reality all around me.  At the Brandenberg Gate I watched people repeatedly walking backwards and forwards across the gap in the tarmac where the Wall had stood; a simple act so long prohibited.

The roads were filled with traffic, a chaotic combination of dumpy little Trabants and shining Mercedes monsters.  Every tan coloured Trabi filled to capacity with four people, their shoulders crushed together, the tops of their heads pressing on the inside of the car roof; every shining silver Merc occupied by a single driver, luxuriating in space, one hand on the wheel, the other stretched out over the passenger seat….or so it seemed.

These were the pictures that stayed with me, and provided the contrast for what I saw on my visit to Berlin last week.  A lot has changed in the intervening years.  All the cars on the streets are shiny, and the Trabant has been relegated to a historical curiosity, an artefact in a kitsch museum or the vehicle of choice for a novelty ‘safari’  tour of the city sights.  The path of The Wall is evident only in specially preserved areas, and Potsdamer Platz is filled with dramatic high buildings.  As we went from sight to sight we walked backwards and forwards across the old demarcation line without noticing it, only periodically pausing to reflect, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been prevented from crossing from one side of a street the other.

We had just visited the Topography of Terror Museum, built on the site of the Nazi Secret Police Headquarters, it was a chastening experience; reading documentary information about the perpetrators of Nazi terror, the banality of the individuals, and the horror of what they did.

Deep in our own thoughts, waiting at the lights to cross the road, on our way back towards Friedrichstrasse, there was some relief to see this jumble of tourist tat on the opposite corner.  Bear? Check. Trabant? Check. Curryworst? Check.  Big Balloon? Check. A sign using  a heart to replace a word? Check.  Graffiti? Check.

It’s still a city of huge contrasts.

And yes, I did try a curryworst, and would describe it as a cultural rather than gastronomic experince.

A Different Perspective

IMG_3563I’d not intended to be quiet for so long (again), but my technology has been letting me down a little bit, and denying me access to the WordPress sites, for some mysterious reason.  Not only have I been kept out of my own page, I’ve had only sporadic access to the blogs I read regularly.  I’ve missed you!

So here, in this possibly temporary window of opportunity is a little symphony of trumpets.  It’s the moss and lichen on the wall outside, and it fascinates me.  Are there little people under there spying on me?  Or are they playing music I’m not attuned to hear?  Or is it a Rogers-esque ventilation system a la Pompidou Centre?

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