Adam Bird


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Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Help

A room at the end of the garden

Last week I wrote about a team of people who are on the cusp of fulfilling of a dream, to drive a fire engine around the world and how it reminded me of things that I’m still to do. Namely a road-trip across America, to see the sights, enjoy the tastes and smells whilst embracing a diversity of culture that is barely rivalled in any other country on the globe. Someone else once had a dream. He spoke about it in-front of millions and was ultimately murdered in cold blood because of it. His name was Martin Luther King.

Imagine then if you can, an alternative road-trip, one that’s taken in a DeLorean like Marty McFly, which allows you to drive across America whilst zigzagging through the great space-time continuum. How different would your story be? What would you have made of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, which you probably learnt about, like me - in school? Add to the learnt dates, names, facts and figures, an understanding of the depth of feeling and assess how large the stain on humanity it really was.

In the past few days I finished reading a book called “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, which is set in the deep south just as the civil rights movement was starting to gain momentum. A story of three women from opposite sides of the ‘divide’ living in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s, each telling their individual stories whilst collectively providing the reader a glimpse into how people lived their lives back then.

This is as a whole, a work of fiction, cleverly written so that it sounds authentic without adding romance or dramatising what is a delicate subject to many. Without sensationalising the narrative the reader gets a genuine glimpse of how people were treated as second class citizens, such as being made to urinate in special built toilets at the end of the garden despite having a perfectly good bathroom in the house that was never in use, or having suspicious looks thrown your way if something went missing, despite trusting you enough to look after and nurse their children.

Aibileen and Minny are the two maids whose narrative is told alongside Miss Skeeter, a white women who grows up alongside a generation of ‘society girls’ but begs to be different, wants to do something with her life, wants to write and have a job and not just marry someone suited to her by her parents and have elevenses at the local tennis club.

Through Miss Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny form a secret friendship as they tell her their stories of working as maids for white families either as bringing up white children, 17 in all for Aibileen and Minny who is better known for her cooking, which is descriptive and appetising despite the chronically unhealthy sounding recipes, with ingredients such as; okra, grits, fried chicken, baked hams and black eyed peas used religiously.

Despite the richness of flavours and masterful way in which the author has written three distinct voices to create three characters you miss long after the book has finished, you can’t help but ask yourself, is this how people were actually treated? Is this really the way in which people were led to behave, treat as “normal” and have such genuine lack of respect for another human being purely on the basis of colour?

A measure of a great book - in my mind, is if your left asking yourself poignant questions, despite laughing wholeheartedly at several places throughout the story, or cheering like a banshee as the underdog strikes back. But more than that, a great book evokes a time and a place where you feel that you want to visit, even if it is to right a wrong or educate someone on what they wrongly know to be true.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Follow that Fire Engine!

Road Trip

Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean sails a freight ship carrying its usual load of shipping containers heading for Europe, or Valencia in Spain to be exact. Within one is an extra special shipment, a Fire Engine affectionately known as ‘Martha’, who is on her way back to London after an epic nine month global journey which has seen her circumnavigate the globe in the name of charity.

I first heard about Follow that Fire Engine towards the end of 2009 as the first Facebook event invitations got issued from a friend of a friend. James Morrow, or Jimbo as he was introduced to me by my good friend Stuart, ironically a fire fighter himself.

These event invitations were fundraisers for an expedition of people, who were raising money and awareness for their pending trip. An ambitious journey which would see them driving a fire engine around the world aiming to raise money for three charities close to the hearts of all of them, whilst attempting to break a Guinness Book Record in the process.

The challenge was initiated by crew leader, a man named Steve Moore in memory of his father, a fire fighter from Dorset who passed away in 2009 after a brave battle with lung cancer. The expedition is a fundraiser for three related charities; Macmillan Cancer Support, The Firefighters Charity and The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.

An exceptional idea for three exceptional causes I am sure you’ll agree. But what makes Follow that Fire Engine stand out, if it doesn’t already for it’s poignant purpose, is that each of the crew that participated at any given point throughout the journey paid for it themselves. Shipping, fuel and living expenses paid for by money that they have personally invested ensuring that each and every penny raised goes to a good cause.

The aforementioned Jimbo, swapped his life as a golf tutor to be part of the crew, initially met up with the expedition for the second leg (Moscow to Beijing) before flying off and enjoying winter amidst the sunnier climes of Africa and South America as an independent traveller before reuniting with Martha and the crew for stages 7 and 8 (Grays Harbour to New York City).

Actually knowing someone that is personally involved in a project of this magnitude I felt obliged to watch, read and listen via the social networks and have since come to understand just what a monumental achievement that these guys are undertaking - and whilst I enjoyed reading about their travels across Europe and watched videos of them touring Asia and Australasia, it wasn’t until they ended their three week sail across the Pacific Ocean and hit the Western seaboard of continental USA that my feelings of admiration and respect became sprinkled with a light-hearted jealousy and squeeze of resentment!

For a long time, at the top of one of those never ending lists of things I need to get around to doing before I die is road-tripping across the USA. Flying into New York City, picking up a hire-car on one of those drop-off schemes and making my way to San Fransisco or Los Angeles on no particular schedule or eye on the clock - unlike these guys who have now done that, but in a reverse route and against a strict schedule.

America has an abundance of famed routes, along with Route 66, you have, just to name a few from many, the US Highway 1 and 101, or Pacific Coast Highway as it’s more commonly known,. There is also the Blue Ridge Parkway which winds through the Appalachians, the Mohawk Trail of New England and the iconic alien desert landscapes of Nevada and New Mexico, places that Jimbo has since claimed to be his particular highlight of the US route; a place where you are literally alone, man and machine amidst crumbling sandstone and a thousand ghosts of solitude.

There is something ideologically romantic about a quintessential road-trip wherever you are in the world, it probably stems from the excitement of childhood when you were taken to the seaside in the car with your parents and you’d catch the first glimpses of the sea. Hollywood has obviously helped and literature too, but mentally imagining globally famed and respective road-trips along the Great Ocean Road in Australia for example; the Italian Amalfi Coast Road or meandering through the Causeway Coast Drive in Ireland evokes scenic images of panoramic wonder which plays like a postcard out of the windows of your car, which morphs magically from your standard Ford Focus to a souped up soft-top with the roof down, wind in your hair, beneath deep blue skies and the soundtrack of a guitar rock-anthem blaring against the gentle wash of the nearby ocean.

And that is exactly what Martha and the Follow that Fire Engine crew have done on a day to day basis for the past nine months across 5 continents and 28 Countries racking up an awe inspiring 26,000 miles. But in watching as the tour reaches its conclusion it looks to me that, for each crew member that has taken part it’s not just the legacy of seeing the world in all it’s majesty that will be remembered. Camaraderie and companionship, teamwork and leadership and the music that will forever play as a soundtrack to their memories as they recall the light hearted moments, the tough times and those moments of shear oddity that will never be recreated or retold in the authenticity in which they happened - despite how often they look back through the immortalised medium of the internet.

Whatever you do, when you have a moment read through their blog, catch up with their video diary on You Tube or simply view the pictures on Facebook, nine months of stories such as coming to the rescue after a terrifying traffic accident on the Lithuanian border, which if you only read one article, make sure it’s that one, or playing nine holes of golf in Mongolia, endless rounds of cricket, including outside the White House in Washington DC, border crossing problems, shipping issues and having the destiny of the project held within the whimsical hands of a scrupulous customs officer.

As inspiring as the whole project may already be, for me personally there is nothing more inspiring than people who lead the way, showing that if you want to do something, do it. Feats of endurance, of human endeavour should be applauded, respected and celebrated - the reason for me writing this. I know nothing of Steve Moore other than what I have watched and read on the internet, but the world needs more people like him, encouraging others to believe in the greater good. Great people with great ideas saying “anything is possible” and having the balls to prove it.

Which is why I’ll be there, in Greenwich on 10th April to welcome Martha and the team home, with Stuart as he meets up with his returning friend Jimbo, listens to the stories and accounts of how during his time in America he managed to consume 56 burgers in an equal amount of days, whilst I stand along with the other mere mortals and applaud a special group of people and their one of kind leader in performing a spectacular job in the most life changing way possible.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Reading Books and Acts of Childish Vandalism

A life behind bars

Last week a friend suggested that I have a look to see what national day/week it was and write a blog post upon the subject. A great suggestion I thought, but the timing was slightly out. The only day in March that really appealed to me was World Book Day, but having already published my post for the week I thought I’d save that particular subject for the future. Since then, I’ve been assigned a task - to write an article about my local Library and so this week, I’ve concocted a blog post which is a mixture of all of that!

My article, which I have submitted as part of my writing class was to look at our local library and talk about it, as if writing for a newspaper perhaps. With it came a 500 word limit; meaning
I was up and over that long before I’d even made an introduction!

Within it, I spoke about our own central library in Gravesend, how Kent County Council are going against the current trend and are actually placing some much welcome investment in the form of a redevelopment of it’s Victorian Carnegie building and reconstructing the annexe block next door. The article goes onto explore the philanthropic background of it’s founding investor and the essence of what makes us human.

However, the personal experiences which I added as a form of habit were lost in the final editing process, but in doing so I felt that perhaps the anecdote was maybe too funny, if only for my sister Jessica’s benefit, not to retell at a later date.

A quick perusal through my bookshelves and you might come across Swallows and Amazons, written by Arthur Ransome. You will notice that it stands out against all the other books, not least because of the artwork decorating its spine looks as if it belongs within another era, but its the plastic dust-jacket which gives it away - immediately screams “library book”.

Although it’s lost that clinical, library type smell, open it up and you will see that within it’s yellowing pages, the ‘due back’ date stamp reads ‘10th April 1993’ - only a small matter of being 18 years overdue!

Its not the fear however of a monster fine that scared me into going back after all these years, nor is it the alleged ghost which haunts the bathroom, causing a mysterious lavatory to flush late into the night. It is instead of a juvenile accident and the fear of punishment which is the sole cause of my self-imposed exile.

Back in 1993, Jessica and I, enthusiastically encouraged by our mother to chose a selection of books from within the children’s section, whilst she went off and selected from the adult range.

Within the area marked ‘little ones’ was its focal point, a bright red train which doubled up as a book repository. There was even a little cabin which you could escape inside with a book and read for a while.

All around the outside, making up the rest of the train construction were shelves laden with books aimed at a much younger audience than my sister and I were at the time.

Dotted around the floor space were little plastic chairs varying from one bright shiny colour to the next, red, yellow - prime colours mainly. These chairs, little did I realise, were not built for growing teenage boys, but for tiny toddlers instead.

Finding a place to sit, with a nice Enid Blyton novel, the Secret Seven, or Famous Five for company I sat upon one of these flimsy thrones - only for the back two legs to give way and for me to fall squarely and firmly onto my back leaving my own two legs waving wildly into the air.Jessica burst into howls of laughter, which in the library is the equivalent as screaming blue murder in the street, whilst I struggled to get back up and survey the damage that I’d caused to this plastic chair.

We decided together that this was a grave crime and that our punishment would be severe and painful. As many a criminal before us has made a rash decision to cover up their crimes my sister and I did exactly the same thing. We put the broken pieces back together and placed the chair as if it was still one unit into the cabin of the train.

Making haste, we met up again with Mum and left with our newly acquired books attempting to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Neither of us said anything about my heinous act of vandalism and that was, I believe, the very last time that either Jessica or I ever stepped foot inside that building!

So then, when the newly refurbished library reopens its doors in June, it is a chance for me (and possibly Jessica) to start again from the beginning, bury the fearful memories thinking about a life of juvenile delinquency and save ourselves a few pound in the process.

Time has moved on quite considerably since 1993 and the library as well as modern society are quite different from back then. The truth is that generally speaking, for many reasons, the humble library book is no longer a means of entertainment for the masses, people are either too busy to invest in the time it takes too read a novel and would prefer watch the film instead, or are not reading in schools in the quantity and quality that we would come to expect.

People who read religiously are just as much to blame, and I use myself here as an example - as a person who finds it much easier and convenient to browse Amazon from my computer or phone and place an order which invariably arrives by courier the very next day. I can do this within the comfort of my lounge or whilst wedged between two fellow commuters on the train on my way home.

There are also a third set of people, the new crew, who read books, but in the form of an electronic copy on a Kindle or other handheld device. They buy books at a much cheaper price and have them delivered immediately via the airwaves from a retailer of their choice, which is just a more clinical, soulless exercise of convenience than my own method of sourcing reading material.

Which is why, keeping a thriving library and events such as, “World Book Day” are so important. We shouldn’t need an incentive, or a reminder to encourage children to read. We shouldn’t deny children free and easy access to a range of literature and the lands of fantasy dreamt from the depths of an authors imagination.

It’s not just make belief worlds of wizards and witchcraft which enable children to disappear into chasms of fiction. Literature teaches us about everyday things such as; history, humanity, general knowledge; geography and culture. But most importantly of all, it fuels our own creativity and fills our minds with ideas and inspiration, teaches us that anything is possible.

A friend of mine recently said that they’d never actually read a book in their life, which I actually found quite sad, like people who suffer through poverty or famine. You’ve got at your fingertips a window into which beyond lies infinite realms of fun, laughter, entertainment, comedy, sadness and much, much more besides.

Granted, it is a little bit of investment of your time, but that comes for free, the wealth of the end rewards though, are rich and plentiful.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

An Angry Bird turned Happy Bird

Angry Birds

In today’s modern society it seems that in general terms it has become very easy to moan about anyone and everyone, via either a Facebook status update or a tweet, but voicing gratitude sometimes gets forgotten or isn’t as widely recognised. In this, my latest #postaweek2011, I’d like to thank Apple for their excellent customer service and highlight the problem in which they resolved for me, just in case anyone reading this also has the same problem happen to them.

First of all, before I begin, I owe an apology to those kind Facebook friends and family of mine who openly offered me sources of inspiration to base this week’s blog post upon. I was perhaps a little hasty in sending out an SOS seeking a topic after what I falsely believed to be writers block.

Based upon the excellent suggestions made to me I was able to find out a little more about the crisis in Libya, this years Fair Trade Fortnight and that erm, coughs, Justin Bieber was actually born in Canada! But there was one suggestion, of researching which national day/week was forthcoming and writing a blog based upon it, which ultimately led me towards the path of enlightenment and a pending blog post.

However, not wanting to get back into coincidental occurrences (my brain still hurts from last week) it was one of those random events that happen from time to time which sparked a different thought in the mind and caused a minor eureka moment - so that’s what I’ll blog about instead. From not having anything to write about, I now have enough content for the next two weeks!

Anyhow, back to the topic at hand, and it begins this week with the little man, Oliver, aged just 4, who has steadily grown an obsession with my iPhone. It is fast becoming an actual pain rather than a source of amazement “Wow Oliver has beaten my highest score on Doodle Jump!” has since been replaced with “No Oliver you are NOT playing my iPhone. It’s 5.45am and I am FAST ASLEEP!”.

If Oliver isn’t working out how to blow up frogs with an array of assorted arsenal of avian weaponry, he will be solving the puzzle of how to cut a rope, whilst collecting pieces of candy and transporting all elements into another frog’s mouth, which by the way, begs the question, what is it with app manufacturers and frogs?

Not all apps test the logic of a developing brain, there are apps built specifically for children. Or at least I would hope so. Those that involve a character of some kind, which by speaking towards the phone whilst waiting patiently for the character to repeat it back to you in some annoying squeaky cartoony voice. I haven’t seen many commuters screaming into their phones on the train at night saying “you smell Mr Pooey Head” or whatever really funny things kids come up with these days.

But the app makers for the Talking Friends Collection franchise have been quite clever in monetizing their apps, the following account is what happened with Oliver, my message to Apple and the resulting message back.

Each of the Talking Friends Collection apps has a splash page which highlights which of the other apps you have installed. Oliver taking after me gets quite OCD if he is hasn’t got the full set, so I get repeatedly asked if he can have all of the new ones each time they appear. We have a rule, he can have any of them as long as they are free.

The other day, a new one appeared, Talking Gina, a giraffe, which like the Talking Tom (cat) was free. I downloaded it, put in my password and gave it back to him whilst keeping an eye on what he and the app were doing.

Around the screen real estate are a set of icons, which depending upon what you press takes you to different areas, or performs a different animation upon the character within the main frame. One of these buttons, a child enticing icon of an ice cream which when pressed allows you to feed Gina the Giraffe a delicious frozen treat. After just three more button presses Oliver had managed to purchase 20 virtual ice-creams in which to feed his new pet Giraffe.

Except, as I had been watching him, I didn’t think that he was doing anything wrong. It was only when the final “thank you for your purchase” message popped up that set the alarm bells ringing. After taking the phone off Oliver and checking my iTunes purchase history I realised that those three button presses had cost me £2.37!

Luckily I had been watching, goodness knows how much Oliver could have racked up had I left him to his own devices! It wasn’t the token amount that had been spent, it was the ease in which you could spend it that worried me. So I set off and hunted out an email address to the iTunes customer service desk.

I explained to them what happened, that I understood it was my responsibility as an adult and that I accepted all liability for the mistake. My point was, and still is, that the application developer is building tailor made content specifically for children and using cunning methods of in-app methodology to get children to buy virtual content easily and unknowingly.

Apple sent a rather nice apology email back, confirming that they would be refunding me the money back and gave the below steps to ensure that any in-app purchases are disabled.

The following steps outline the method for switching off in-app purchases for the iPhone. Below this I offer a bit more as way of an explanation why you might consider doing this. Five very easy steps, which might just save you a penny or two!

1 - Select settings
Step 1

2 - Select general
Step 2

3 - Select restrictions
Step 3

4 - Enter a password
Step 4

5 - Turn in-app purchases to off.
Step 5

It may well have only been £2.37, very small fry in the grand scheme of things. Had it been a lot more financially punishing I probably wouldn’t have been quite so passive, but I would have been equally responsible. But as parents we can be as careful and as responsible as we can, but still get outwitted by unscrupulous application developers.

And finally, thank you to Apple, who showed that huge mega corporations can still have a heart and use their common sense. It remains to be seen whether or not the app developer of the talking creature apps is asked to recall their product or at least amend it so that everyone is clear what charges are being incurred.
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