Friday, 31 October 2014

The Letterfall UK Championship

Two of the things that we hot on in our house are reading and video games. Not necessarily in that order either, unfortunately. Fortunately for us however, Scottish Friendly have released an online game that as well as being fiendishly addictive, also encourages kids to build their vocabulary If your children like easy to pick up video games they will love and if you are anything like me, you'll get addicted to yourself. Considering our house has a gaming PC, a Wii U, two 3DS's, a PS3 and a Xbox 360, the amount of time I spend playing browser games is more than a little embarrassing.

Scottish Friendly have sponsored the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour for the past 15 years. In conjunction with the Scottish Book Trust they have brought top UK and international children’s authors to schools and libraries across the country. 

The Letterfall UK Championship is part of Scottish Friendly’s work to children’s literacy. Video games, even simplistic ones can trick kids into learning without realising it, which is something we can all applaud, especially as the boy (7) has realised he's got a long stretch left at school before it stops being something that's compulsory. He even told us he didn't fancy going in the other day.

The thing is actually a proper championship with a leaderboard and everything, so you are in competition with real life people, As the person who used to read an old 1950's dictionary for fun during my teenage years, I can't really see a reason why I shouldn't win at this. I just need to put the hours in...

The competition is open to UK residents and has cash prizes on offer. You can find the game online here.

Taking part is easy, all you need to do is select your country of residence, play the game and try for the highest score in your nations leaderboard. The top player from each country by noon on Monday 3rd November 2014 will win £100 each and be eligible to go forward into the grand final which is going to be held in Glasgow on the 28th November 2014 where they can compete in the play-off competition to win £500 and the coveted Letterfall National Champion Trophy.

Halloween- a short spooky story...

The cemetery was behaving itself. It was midnight, the witching hour, and precisely nothing was happening. There was no ethereal mist, no unearthly glows, no furtive scurrying figures and definitely no stirring from the dead who currently resided there. All in all it was a pretty normal state of affairs.

The cemetery was an old fashioned Northern affair, walled in dark red brick with a pair of heavy wrought iron gates at the front. One or two mausoleums dotted the ground, showing off outrageously amongst the more humble gravestones like a footballer down his local showing off his latest expensive watch.

The peacefulness of the night was interrupted by the noisy passage of three lads down the high road. The familiar outline of three semi-professional lager drinkers was just about visible in the soft glow of the sodium street lighting.

Lurching in a practised manner that kept too much pressure from being placed on his worn out left shoe, Harry eased the overfilled carrier bag from one hand to the other. The plastic was beginning to stretch alarmingly under the weight of inexpensive lager. The task completed without major catastrophe, Harry then proceeded to flex his cramped fingers mightily.

“There is indeed much money to be made from the invention of a carrier bag that has handles that don’t turn into cheese wire the second you put anything heavier than a tin of baked beans in them.” said the injured youth.

“I believe some chap at the NASA jet propulsion lab is working on just that issue, even as we speak. A PhD thesis on the subject, no less!” said Loz, not entirely addressing the issue but having a fairly good stab at it.

Alex’s brow wrinkled for a moment as he sought to work out the time difference between soggy England and sunny California in order to see if the chap was actually likely to be in the lab working on the problem at that precise moment and not, for example, asleep in bed. He then gave up, remembering that America was decidedly odd and students often worked hard and couldn’t drink until they were old enough to graduate.

“A pox on them and all their things!” exclaimed Alex, having had quite enough of the idea of an alcohol free university. He refused to elaborate further though, leading to a confused silence amongst the lads.

The silence continued unabated for a while and then subtly changed in nature. The cone of silence around Loz shifted from puzzlement, to contentment to deep thought. Thoughts of the cemetery, of spades, of shovels and arcane experiments raced through his head only to be interrupted by a post box.

“Ouch!” exclaimed the ginger lad, finding that man always comes out worse in a one on one with a large inanimate object. The moment was gone, the spell broken and insane and dangerous thoughts fled his mind to be replaced by ones involving lager, the need to go to the toilet and a strong desire to wreak dire vengeance on the postal service for this latest injustice.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Stonehenge: now and henge


...and then
Yesterday we popped down to Stonehenge on our way back from a short break in Dorset. I say "popped down", now days it has to be more organised than that because there are only limited tickets available to people who just turn up, you have to book online to be quite sure that you'll get to see the new visitors centre and the old stones. I actually sat in the car park of the Lyme Bay Winery and made the booking via my smartphone. It was 11am and they only had 17 tickets available for the 2:30pm timed access slot.

This is the first time we've been to the 'Henge with the kids; the last time we went there was BC (before children), with a Young Archaeologists Club group for a special access session. In these special access sessions, you get access between the stones out of hours if you make the necessary arrangements. It was a special day back then, and it's depressing how young I look in the photos really.

Fast forward to now though, and it was an overcast day when we trundled up the new access road to the brand spanking new visitors centre, located a 2 minute bus/8 minute land train ride away from the main attraction. The visitor centre itself is huge and looks like it was designed to reflect the fact it's situated at a World Heritage Centre site. Having said that, there were a few things that could have been improved on. Firstly the exhibition covered a lot of floor space but for some unfathomable reason the objects were crammed into display cases that took up perhaps a quarter of the floor space. The rest was given over to an impressive projected display of Stonehenge and some rather pointless boards with trendy text motifs on them. A missed opportunity, doubly so when you realise that all the cabinets were high enough that I had to lift my 5 year old up to see the objects, whilst being jostled by a coach load of German tourists.

Heading outside though, the neolithic huts that have been built are a lot better. I earned the eternal awe of my kids by producing a pocket torch to light the dingy interior of the first hut we went in but it was the third hut, the one that contained the authentically costumed neolithic lady with all the accoutrements of her time that was the best. Fifi loved blowing her horn. We also impressed ourselves on the "haul a Sarsen stone over a rolling platform" thingy they had, displaying the combined pulling power of around 20 neolithic people.

After the 8 minute land train ride (three motorised carriages pulled by a Landrover), we firstly got a great view of the old visitors centre being demolished, then, turning to our right, the actual main attraction itself: Stonehenge.

The Henge itself is roped off, as it has been for years and years. You get closer on one side of the walk way than the other and that's obviously the area where people congregate. In this instance the congregation was interrupted by a film crew who appeared to be filming an advertisement for some jewellery made, gasp, out of the same stone that Stonehenge is. We had free entry as we're English Heritage members but I must admit I would have been pretty pee'd off if we'd paid and come out of our way to visit only to have the best view hogged by a camera crew banging on about stone jewellery.

The kids made use of the excellent free audio guides, and the boy, 7, was keen to educate us on everything he heard. It was also great to have a chat with one of the English Heritage stewards, Simon, about when the concrete infill occurred on one of the damaged blocks. 1958 apparently, which was embarrassing as I hadn't noticed it ten years ago when I was up close.

All in all we spent a couple of hours at Stonehenge, and an addition three hours in traffic jams due to spending two hours at Stonehenge but on balance, it was definitely time well spent.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Oi, fat bloke

I was reading my friend Kat's blog post called Fat and Unapologetic earlier and to my shame, while feeling sympathy for her situation, instead of expressing said sympathy in the comments I did my usual monomaniacal thing and wrote a big piece all about me me me. Sorry about that Kat. Anyway, in case you haven't read Kat's post (even now that I've linked to it), I thought I'd take my monologue and expand it into something more awesome and slightly less unsuitable-as-a-comment-on-someone-else's-blog.

It’s funny. I've been trying to lose weight for quite a long time now. Since I'm tall, I hide it quite well but I've been anything up to 6 stone overweight over the last few years. That’s about the combined weight of two of my kids. Or both my legs or something. In practical terms I often feel heavy and lethargic, have the turning circle of a bus and sweat. I sweat a lot.

Well before Brad Pitt strolled on to the screen in Thelma & Louise with his well oiled six pack, men have had as unrealistic body images foisted on them as women have. Adverts only have the two extremes of portraying men- the rippling Adonis or the bumbling halfwitted moron who can't be trusted to chose a brand of kitchen cleaner. There really isn't anything in between and as a bloke the only Ripple I've ever had has been chocolate and individually wrapped.

If I were to be completely honest, I would say that deep down I want to be thin and fit in with everyone else who is thin and therefore successful (or at the worst thin and unsuccessful, which is better than fat and okayish) and I feel a bit of a failure for not doing so.

I want to be able to play with the kids, get the endorphins rush from exercise, enjoy playing 5 a side on a Wednesday night without the sad knowledge I’ll get lumped in goal as the fat kid- I'm 40 next year for goodness sake. Does the phrase normal active life sound sad because that’s sort of what I lust after? I worry that my kids will be fat kids because they've got a fat parent. In fact the boy already has an appetite that matches the wife’s and I know I can’t control my weight through diet, it just doesn't work and I have to do it through the simple expedient of burning more calories than I take in. Which is tricky at the best of times. I've had a series of colds recently that have left me feeling drained and I've ready put over half a stone back on which is so utterly depressing I couldn't begin to describe it.

None of which of course makes anybody else’s opinion and rudeness anything other than, well, rude. I used to suck my thumb when I was little which resulted in me having a overbite that druids could shelter under* by the time I was 7. I used to get random people shouting abuse at me in the street about it and I can still feel the hot tears of shame from that.

Petty small minded mean people make fun of people who are different and unfortunately that is one of societies constants isn't it? The problem is, food, especially food that's predictably bad for you, tastes really nice. What's the point of eating cardboard when you can have a nice fry up?

*Red Dwarf quote, bonus points if you spotted that one

Never mind the furniture

The children in our house only have a passing understanding of the concept of a sofa. What we see as something to sit on, they see as something to jump on, push off of, hide behind (or in). It's getting inherently more dangerous as the kids get older too, we have one sofa in the sitting room that isn't up against a wall and this now tilts alarming up on two legs when a child hurls themselves on to the sofa. They haven't even quite got the hang of sitting on a sofa either; pressing themselves right up tight against any available adult, despite the surfeit of seating space available. I'm often chased around the sofas as I move places to ensure I have some elbow room.
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