Adam Bird

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Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Secret Testers

Secret Testers

As a child was it just me who used to devise imaginary play areas and build the world longest slide and the highest swing ever known to man? Did others dream as I did about being offered a job as a toy tester like Tom Hanks’s character did in the movie Big? No, you did too? Oh good, I’m glad about that, as that is exactly what happened to us last week!

When an old friend sent me a message via Facebook wanting to know if I was interested in taking the kids to Greenwich to test elements of a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum I jumped at the chance. As a family we love spending time in Greenwich, there is so much to do -  we didn’t need asking twice! Besides the park, which is a global treat, you have the iconic Cutty Sark and masses of Maritime History. The Old Royal Naval College is a must see, particular for us as my Grandfather used to school there.

Also, as it was Saturday and with the wife working I invited my mother along, her foster child and for good measure my niece and nephew for company!

The mission was a simple one. The National Maritime Museum have drawn up plans for a new exhibit aimed at children under seven. They wish to spend their money wisely and so needed a group of volunteers to see some of the ideas, have a play with some prototypes and be observed on how they used them and to provide feedback as and when necessary.

For a family that like to get out and about this was very new territory for us, none of us knew what to expect. The kids, being kids and no older than seven were none the wiser and went with the moment, whilst I sat wide mouthed as the realisation that people are living out my childhood fantasy on a daily basis - and getting paid for the pleasure!

We were directed to a side room off of the main entrance to the museum and met by a lovely group of people who kindly thanked us for our time and participation. They explained to the children (and the grown-ups) the order of the day and invited us all to watch a digital fly-through of the plans for the new exhibit. Think big boats, huge shipping containers, naval history and pirates, (shiver me timbers!). Even the big kid in me couldn’t help but get excited about the ideas that have been lovingly put into place.

The video presentation was deliberately brief, young children want to play and off we went to do just that! In the next room an assortment of contraptions, presentations and tables were laid out. The girls went straight to the cooking pots and pans whilst the boys also reverted to type and headed for the cannon! The idea in mind is that part of the centerpiece of the exhibition is a pirate ship where children can fire foam balls at other pirates (not real ones of course!) and the test was to see how children managed the mechanism and how they used it. Maybe not like our children, who stuffed as many balls into the cannon as they possibly could and fired them at each others head - glady not all children are as viciously minded as ours were!

From time to time I found myself on tenterhooks as the children did childreny things. Slowly dissecting each of the exhibits into their component pieces and devising weird and wonderful alternatives of their own choosing. I found myself quietly apologising on the children’s behalf but found myself being rebuked in turn “You should be proud of having children with such wonderful imaginations” they said, which I’m certainly no stranger to myself. But I didn't have time to feel guilty, after an action packed hour it was time to walk the plank!

A sure fire test for measuring any success or failure is telling children that it is home time. If you are greeted with tears and tantrums you know you are on to a winner and with the National Maritime Museum that is exactly what it would seem.

In fact we are all desperately looking forward to returning next spring regardless and the promise of changes we might have affected is an additional draw. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see some complimentary face protectors next the cannon, or warning signs to the contrary. But whatever happens the plans that are currently under development promise to surprise and delight and as it has been tried and tested by the experts it can't fail to live up to expectations.

In the mean time, I’m off to update my CV “Attraction tester” - looks so much fun!


Monday, 10 March 2014

The Town that Time Forgot

Margate

A work colleague of mine shared her account of a weekend spent by the sea in celebration of her birthday. Whilst she recounted her various stops around East Kent the hopeless romantic in me dreamt up visions of walking along a wintry seafront with a brisk chill in the air, before warming up inside a cafe on the beach with steamed up windows and drinking hot chocolate with sticky marshmallows floating on the top. Which is exactly what we did last weekend except I left with an even bigger romantic desire than the one that lead me there in the first place.

Margate, a seaside town that evokes memories of hot summer days, childhood, sunburn and laughter. Memories of my dearly departed grandmother and my great-grandmother too, ladies who loved Margate and everything it used to stand for, namely good old-fashioned fun. I have fond recollections of riding the Scenic Railway, the Mary Rose and the Looping Star as both ladies watched on by with smiles just as big as mine.

But as time passed merrily on by, Margate for one reason or another has since fallen into disrepair. Dreamland is now nothing more than a collection of nightmares. The Scenic Railway nothing more than a charred remnant of yesteryear in the town that time seems to have totally forgotten.

Why then, of all the places available to a Kentish family looking for an afternoon out did I decide to drag us all the way to Margate? Seaside cafes are plentiful everywhere, as is this time of year the availability of a brisk chill in the air. Hot chocolate and marshmallows might be a little harder to find but the beverage doesn’t make the moment it purely enhances it. But for the very reasons above, the voyeur in me wanted to see how far the past had fallen.

And in all honesty, it has fallen horribly far, but to leave it at that would be doing a terrible disservice.

Margate hasn’t been totally forgotten, at least not entirely. It is instead very much a town of two halves. On one side of the esplanade you have the old quarter, with the imposing Turner Contemporary which has given the town a new heartbeat. And on the other, where Dreamland lies in tatters and Arlington House stands decaying as a monument to architecture gone bad is a whole swath of wasted land and opportunity.

It certainly isn’t for the want of trying. Campaigners and developers have for years been trying to resurrect Dreamland in some shape or form. Permission has been granted to breath new life into the park by restoring it to some of its former glory in the shape of a ‘retro’ theme park with other forgotten rides from obsolete parks around the UK. Plans are also in place for Arlington House, which sadly aren’t as optimistic, although as yet gratefully unfulfilled. Tesco’s want to move in, remove the tower block and concrete hub at the bottom and replace it with a seafront superstore. Arlington House may be the ugliest, misplaced building in the UK, but it is still a damn sight better than another soulless supermarket.

That promise of regeneration, the breathing of new life into old dreams is exactly where my new romantic desire lies. So saddened by what I witnessed over the weekend has made that need for an elusive EuroMillions win even more important. Imagine having a huge pot of money and a vision of something better. It’s exactly what the people behind the Dreamland project have, a vision, but the money remains desperately out of reach.

There is so much potential in Margate to make something remarkable. The old buildings that lay in gradual decay, like the Cliftonville Lido, how great could they be again with investment and a bit of love and care? They might not be used as they were originally intended, but what’s the alternative, a place that resembles the apocalypse and left to rot?

Nostalgia, dangerous in that it obscures the reality of what once was. Margate a town now in decay? The paint wasn’t exactly fresh when we went as children. It certainly wasn’t all shiny and new. But what nostalgia does do, is it fuels impetus to make change. The likelihood is, I’ll never be a EuroMillionaire and therefore I’ll never build anything that sits cloudlike in my mind. But what people like me can do, is support the right proposals and visit the places from our past. By taking small actions like buying a hot chocolate in a cafĂ© on the beach, providing valuable custom which helps keep businesses afloat. All the while there are people making a living, the town will keep on breathing. And where there is breath, there is life and when there is life, anything is possible.
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