My first experience of VR was in 2014, when I donned a bulky Oculus Rift headset and rode a virtual rollercoaster in the middle of Katie Schuering’s apartment. It was pretty fun, in a “this is a novelty now but I’m sure this will be huge in a few years” kinda way, so I’m actually surprised that it’s taken until 2021 for my second VR experience at a team offsite event this week.
The technology’s gotten better in all of the obvious ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed blasting zombies to death with my team. It’s still a long way from photorealism, but I felt suitably nervous when walking around virtual ‘corners’ and jumped when a member of the undead snuck up behind me. As demonstrated by the virtual ‘walking the plank’ experience (pictured) it really doesn’t take much for the human brain to feel itself to be in mortal danger despite obviously ‘knowing’ that you’re a mere 1cm off the ground rather than walking off the top of a very tall building.
There’s an irony in meeting your colleagues again after nearly two years and then jumping straight into virtual reality, but it was incredibly lovely to see everyone in person. Special thanks to Tomas for staying up late in the hotel bar for an impromptu session on system architecture and/or Russian geopolitics.
And now, as I write this, there’s only one more sleep to go before Randi and I finally make it back to the States! This is a trip which we’ve planned, cancelled, re-planned and re-cancelled so many times that I won’t believe it’s happening until my feet are planted firmly on Californian ground. Yesterday morning, however, we cleared the pre-flight negative Covid test hurdle so we are almost there.
Forgive me, then, if the rest of this post has a bit of a helter-skelter vibe as I race through the last few weeks. Way back on Halloween we welcomed Andy and Bonnie for their long-delayed introduction to our flat, and just as they were leaving the first in a pleasing flurry of trick-or-treaters started to arrive. One group was so large I think we’ve now met an entire cohort from the local primary school, and there were some impressive costumes to boot. Of course, I withdrew all trick-or-treating services later that evening to focus on the start of the new, serialised season of Doctor Who, which in general is working really well with this more old-school format.
I’ve also enjoyed a night at the Captain Kidd pub with Eric, a Zoom pub with Simon, Ellie, Oliver, Robert and Steve at which we argued about who was responsible for us not being at a real pub (I tried!) and an impromptu evening of takeaway Nando’s and long-overdue catching up in Chelmsford with my honorary big sister Abbi. Meanwhile, Randi and I practised our patented two-step North West London hop from my mum’s to Josh and Anna’s to celebrate Cora’s first birthday. Key discoveries: (a) Cora has entered a talkative phase, albeit not yet in a language which any of us are able to understand, and (b) Cora seems to have picked up a disturbing NIMBY attitude towards tower blocks and will smash them all down at the earliest opportunity. A worrying personality trait.
A week later, just when she thought she’d gotten rid of us, we turned up at the North London Tavern in Kilburn for Anna’s surprise birthday party. Randi led the charge to buy helium balloons for the occasion with infectious enthusiasm for a giant floating caterpillar – money well spent – and I accidentally ordered way too much food. So, obviously, we had a great time. Happy birthday Anna!
Finally – in a quick break between packing and panicking about something going wrong – we popped over to Tash and Cormac’s tonight for a delicious (and finessed!) Friday night family dinner. We’ll see you all on the other side!
Last Saturday we held a memorial party for my dad on his birthday. I say ‘we’, but it was my aunt Carolyn who generously threw open her house and garden for the afternoon. This was a fitting venue because we spent so much time here as a family growing up – from Easter egg hunts to Guy Fawkes night fireworks – and dad would have been as thrilled as I was to be able to catch up with so many people there. Special thanks to those who spoke and shared memories of dad from different periods in his life, including Daryl who sent a wonderful video from Santa Barbara which was much appreciated.
Appropriately, given how often drinking in pubs came up in everyone’s speeches, we all decamped to The Island afterwards for the rest of the evening. This was actually one of the last pubs I went to with dad, so I’m very fond of it. Still drank lager, though, so not quite at his level yet… 😉
In other news, we have (another) new favourite local restaurant and were very excited to have an excuse to go back – about a week after our first visit – to celebrate Randi’s successful visa renewal. (We did it! All by ourselves!) As if I needed any more reasons to love London, it’s also heartwarming that the phrase “we’re out to celebrate a visa renewal” will immediately win you knowing smiles and a round of free drinks to celebrate.
We also hosted Tash, Cormac and mum for dinner at our place, plus enjoyed a very happy walkabout and long-awaited catch-up with Amy, Adam and baby Benji in Dulwich Park. But perhaps our most exciting recent outing was the result of Randi’s impulsive decision to buy tickets to one of the NFL’s annual games in London. So two weeks ago we travelled to Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium – the percentage of Victoria line passengers wearing NFL jerseys rising every stop – to watch the New York Jets get comprehensively demolished by the Atlanta Falcons. (I’m no expert on American football, but even I can tell that passing the ball works better if there’s somebody at the other end to catch it.)
Apart from the fact that every successful first down was accompanied by a piercing falcon ‘screech’ noise – and there were quite a lot of them – the atmosphere was really fun and, just like the pre-season Bears game I saw in Chicago, I found the sport a lot more fast-flowing and enjoyable to watch when it’s not being cut up by commercials on television. Our seats were also fantastic, although we were not aware that the singing of the American national anthem would conclude with a military flypast and for a brief moment we both thought the planes were heading right at us.
Over the weekend, Randi and I had a really lovely time in… spins the UK minibreak wheel of fortune… Chester! This was actually our second eviivo-sponsored stay following Box Hill in August, and here we were hosted by Dave and Kirsty at the faultless Stone Villa guest house. As anyone working in software will attest – especially in the era of working from home – talking to actual customers is incredibly rewarding and I’m very grateful for all of the time they volunteered to show me how they use the product. Plus, the breakfasts were delicious!
We also really, really liked Chester itself – starting with the picturesque walk into town along the canal. (This walk was also memorable for us being stopped while crossing a bridge by an elderly driver, who wound down her window and asked plaintively if we knew of any petrol stations with fuel. But this doesn’t feel like a Chester-specific anecdote.) Once we reached the centre, we were delighted to find that Wikipedia wasn’t exaggerating when it describes Chester’s “extensive Roman walls”. You really can just go up and take a 2 mile circular self-guided tour around the whole city, which is a really awesome way to get to know somewhere and a terrific bonus from past generations attempting to keep out the Welsh / Danes / Normans (delete as applicable).
In fact, we were so enthused about the walls that when Randi’s friend Becca arrived on Saturday afternoon we made her walk around too just so we could do it all over again. Becca was in town to run the Chester marathon on Sunday – sadly without Randi as originally planned due to injuries, but I have a feeling we’ll be back. In the meantime, Becca ran an amazing race and after cheering her on at the finish line we spent the rest of the day relaxing in the pub. (I am so, so glad that pubs are back – and back properly – with bar service and that laid-back, unhurried feel which can’t be matched elsewhere.)
Other highlights of Chester included fancy cocktails, Northern friendliness (I think Randi might be looking to move already) and some very tasty pierogies. Honestly, if you haven’t been yet you should consider visiting for the pierogies alone.
Back in the cold, unfeeling South it’s been a busy but productive couple of weeks. I ventured back into the office for a single afternoon and confirmed to myself that I am quite astoundingly less useful to the company when the alternative to working from home is “wandering around people’s desks to catch-up and and popping out to Pret every so often for tea because there’s no milk here anymore”. (To be honest, this was mostly just a set-up to go to the pub afterwards with Steve, Lee, James and new-starter Kris.)
Randi and I also walked Capital Ring Section 6 – from Wimbledon Park to Richmond Bridge – which I’m pretty sure is universally regarded as ‘the prettiest one’. I was particularly pleased to encounter Beverley Brook at the very point explicitly referenced in the Rivers of London installment I’m currently reading. Hi, Beverley! After the walk we stumbled across German food at Stein’s by the river and celebrated the completion of the southern half of the Capital Ring with sausages and schnitzel and the first gluhwein of the season. Prost!
(Talking of German, a quick side-note into my current YouTube obsession: Prof. Dr. Frank Erik Pointner and his Historical Linguistics. Come for the history of how the English language became so messy and weird, stay for the calm German tones and occasional shade thrown in the direction of rival linguistic professors who don’t study enough German. I genuinely love it.)
Also in the last few weeks: we’re now less than a year away from the re-wedding (!) so naturally we celebrated our -1 year anniversary at an excellent local Italian. We’ve also made progress on planning for the wedding itself, although sadly I was forced to conclude that hiring a 90s disco tribute band would not be the correct decision to maximise the happiness of the majority. Still, please enjoy this cover of Doctor Jones and think about the alternative universe where you’d get to experience this live in 2022. Katie approved when I showed it to her, at least, before our regular Doctor Who Night session took us to 1988’s unsubtly political The Happiness Patrol. I wonder if a young Chris Chibnall was taking notes.
Oh, and Bake Off’s back!
After moving house, I felt some pressure to pick a ‘favourite local pub’ despite lockdown making it difficult to compare them in the traditional way. I ended up nominating The Honor Oak based mostly on the nice wall of plants which Randi and I saw through the window when walking past. But now, with everything open again and a brief spate of sunny late-summer evenings to enjoy, I can confirm that I do really like this pub. It’s even introduced Randi to the delights of mango-flavoured beer, which really takes me back. But, to share the pub-love around, we’ve also enjoyed after-work drinks on the terrace of The Chandos too. Come visit us – we have real favourites now!
Actually, we have been relatively successful at luring people to come see us recently. Two weekends ago we spent a wonderful afternoon with Laura, Matt and Cré at ours during which we got to witness Cré’s first successful crawl up some stairs in the middle of our hallway. Apologies if this unlocks a terrifying new vertical world for all concerned. That evening we hot-footed it over to my mum’s for dinner with Tash and Cormac, but didn’t drink so much wine to deter us from walking Capital Ring section 5 the next morning from Streatham Common to Wimbledon Park. It’s been a little while since we last walked the Capital Ring and I think we’ve both concluded that it lacks some of the far-flung adventurism of the London Loop. But it’s still very cool to see how different parts of the capital fit together as we slowly make our way around the rough border of Inner Loncon.
On the way home, we took advantage of 2021’s Open House Festival to drop in on two houses on nearby Walter’s Way. The street is named after the the architect Walter Segal, who in the late 1970s persuaded Lewisham council to run an experiment in self-built, timber-framed houses which were constructed entirely by the residents themselves. This was only possible because the council had slightly run away with itself in its enthusiasm to buy up land for housing, and ended up with a few parcels of very hilly land which weren’t suitable for traditional council flats. The result is a charming, self-contained rural village of a street with wooden houses jutting out at peculiar angles. Is this ‘anarchist architecture’ the solution to a housing crisis? No. Is it annoying when journalists headline their stories with the line “this isn’t at all like London” as a badge of pride? Yes. But the street is beautiful and it’s a cool experiment to have on our doorstep.
Another twentieth century housing experiment – Thamesmead – has a more chequered reputation and was famously used as the filming location for A Clockwork Orange, but it makes a much more loving backdrop in the 1996 film Beautiful Thing which Randi and I saw as part of an outdoor film festival in Beckenham Place Park. It’s a coming-of-age love story between two gay teenagers with an outrageously good soundtrack of Cass Elliot songs, and I really loved watching a film on a big screen again!
In the past few weeks we’ve also brunched with Erin, got angry at the Bush administration all over again after watching a 9/11 anniversary documentary, done some proper adulting by inviting our wonderful downstairs neighbour Angela over for dinner and celebrated after watching Emma Raducanu’s sensational victory in the US Open. (I was also impressed at myself for remembering how tennis scoring worked!) We also had a fancy dinner with Oliver and Abi at Mildred’s in Camden – a different vibe to the mango beer days, but still a weird thrill to walk around Camden on a Saturday night. And – as you might have guessed from the photo – we also redeemed my mum’s birthday present and visited the Olympic Park to ride the slide down the Orbit.
I have a sense that the Orbit has never been particularly successful as a tourist attraction, and I had completely forgotten that the slide was only added in 2016 in an attempt to boost visitor numbers. The original architect was not pleased, wanting to be “more highbrow” than “a fairground ride”. (Turns out there’s a lot of architecture in this post, which wasn’t intentional.) He is, obviously, quite wrong. Very few buildings in the world would not be improved by the addition of a giant curvy slide and the Orbit is no exception. Plus the views from the top while you wait are excellent. I would recommend it, if you’re not offended by slides, and while the lack of giant crowds might be bad news for the owners it also makes the queuing experience at the top much more relaxed than most London tourist attractions.
Finally – and I promise I didn’t plan this – I already had a random day scheduled off-work when I learned that today was also the first day of the new Northern line extension to Battersea. So it would have been rude not to go and see it, right? I wasn’t one of the cool kids on the inaugural 5.30am train, and I did contrive to have lunch with Leonard while I was in the area, but I can’t hide the fact that I was one of the 99% of people visiting in the morning as enthusiasts and/or TfL employees.
There was no 2020 office Christmas party, for obvious reasons, so instead my company generously paid for all of its employees to enjoy a night away at any of our customers’ hotels or B&Bs. Randi and I decided to use this opportunity to pick something a little different to where we might normally choose and enjoyed a weekend at Denbies Vineyard Hotel – a boutique hotel on the grounds of Denbies Wine Estate right next to Box Hill in Surrey.
There’s something charmingly British about Denbies. It might be the largest vineyard in the country but it’s still not that big, and is criss-crossed with public footpaths for local residents wanting to walk their dogs, run a ParkRun or simply get from Dorking to Westhumble. We opted for the ‘Secret Vineyard Trail’ walking tour to learn more and then had a brief moment of panic when we re-read the online description and realised it never actually mentioned any wine tasting.
Thankfully, our fears were quickly eased and plenty of wine of all varieties were provided by our friendly and super-knowledgeable tour guide, who (very 2021) recommended one bottle as the perfect pick-me-up to “a hard Zoom meeting at work”. The weather has made this a miserable year for wine production, apparently, although in the long run French winemakers continue to buy up land in England as climate change pushes optimum temperatures further north.
Away from all the wine, we did (of course!) also find time to walk up Box Hill, admire the views over the countryside and cross back over the River Mole via the well-advertised stepping stone crossing. (Weirdly, I don’t remember these at all from our many childhood trips to Box Hill… but perhaps we never came this way.) We also explored Dorking and its amusing over-provision of railway stations, plus potentially went accidentally trespassing through the secluded grounds of insurance company Unum and/or Hank Scorpio’s global HQ.
Back in London, we’ve also had the pleasure of hosting Sophie and Naomi for a Friday night dinner of Randi’s famous enchiladas, as well as virtual catch-ups with both Toggolyn and Catherine and AJ in the latter’s very shiny new apartment. We’ve now tried to plan a return trip to Chicago so many times that “not jinxing it” feels completely redundant, but nonetheless we are – in principle – very very excited about finally making it back there in November. Fingers crossed…!