We’ve reached the halfway point in the year, and summer is finally blessing us with decent weather. And I’ve had a very busy month!
Firstly, there have been some disability related developments, most of them positive. In particular, I’ve spoken at a conference, been a guest on a podcast, and I was filmed for another documentary. So my visual impairment led to a few great opportunities in quick succession, I’m happy to say.
On the downside, I’ve finally received the call-up letter to switch from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payments (PIP). This basically means I have to fill out a huge form about how my disability affects me, and then have a face-to-face assessment with a health professional, so the government can decide if I’m entitled to benefit payments. It sounds relatively simple when worded like that, but most disabled people will tell you it’s anything but. So that’s going to be on my mind a lot over the next couple of months at least, and I’m not looking forward to the process. But I’ll let you know how it goes at a later date. I’m not going to bore you with a rant about it in this post!
Thankfully, apart from that, I’ve been able to enjoy the month in many other ways. I went on a lovely weekend break with my girlfriend, I’ve been out in London for more exhibitions and walks, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a new film at the cinema, and I’ve enjoyed new TV shows and music releases at home. So there’s plenty to get through. As always, I’m not sponsored by anyone mentioned here, I’m just sharing these things because I enjoyed them. And I hope you enjoy this month’s post and video!
The indisputable highlight of the month was my first trip away with my girlfriend Claire, when we spent a weekend in Liverpool. I had never been to the city before. so I was very excited about going. And we had a really lovely time. From our hotel in the Royal Albert Dock, we explored The Beatles Story museum, had nice long walks alongside the River Mersey, took a boat tour on the Dazzle Ferry with a stop off at the U-Boat Story, and enjoyed a Liverpool Sights Bus Tour. It was a delightfully memorable weekend in wonderful company, and I’d gladly go back there to explore further in the future.
I don’t need to go into much detail here, because I’ve already written a separate post about our weekend called Liverpool – My Magical Mystery Tour, including lots of photos. So do be sure to check it out.
Aniridia Network Conference
I’ve been able to raise awareness of my visual impairment and share my experiences with other people in various ways this month. And in particular, Aniridia has taken centre stage, because of the Aniridia Network Conference in Birmingham.
This was my second time going, having attended for the first time last year. Again I was helping out with social media posts for their Facebook and Twitter pages. Plus I helped to record the various presentations, which I’m now in the very gradual process of editing and captioning for the charity’s Youtube channel.
Our speakers covered topics including child development, education, assistive technology and living with aniridia. And one of them was me! I spoke for about 15 minutes, giving an overview of my life with the condition. And it seemed to go down well with everybody there, because I got good feedback afterwards.
It’s not the first time I’ve done a public speech, but it is the first time I’ve been recorded doing it, so it’s been interesting and a little bit embarrassing to watch it back! I’m not a professional speaker by any means – for instance, I know I talk a bit too quickly and don’t project myself as well as I should – but I still did well, and I’m very happy with how it went.
The video of my speech is now available on the Aniridia Network Youtube channel, entitled Growing In Confidence With Aniridia. I hope you enjoy it, and do check out the conference playlist for other presentations from the day as well.
As well as the various presentations, there were also workshop sessions to help people get to know one another, a patient discussion group, and an evening social with a lovely dinner at a nearby hotel. So, like others, I enjoyed making the most of the opportunity to chat to various people. For many, these conferences are the very first time they meet anybody else with aniridia, which is why it’s such a special and important event.
I came away with 2 gifts as well – a box of M&S Swiss Chocolate Truffles that I won in the raffle, and one of the bottles of hand wash that were donated to all the charity’s volunteers by Clarity, whose employees are blind and visually impaired.
We also celebrated Aniridia Day on 21 June with various activities, including a social media campaign to show what people with aniridia are capable of, and special meetups in London and Dublin. I went to the London meetup and had a lovely chat with the other people there.
Next year is going to be particularly big for us here in the UK though, because we’re hosting the European Aniridia Conference. It’s a massive event, bringing doctors, researchers and patients together at an international level. So preparations are well underway for that. But it’s not easy or cheap to run, as you can imagine. So if you’re able to volunteer your services, or do some fundraising, or make donations, to help with the setting up and running of the conference, the Aniridia Network would greatly appreciate it.
I’ve also spoken about my visual impairment in a couple of interviews for 2 major projects this month.
The first is a podcast by the charity Leonard Cheshire. To mark London Tech Week, they invited myself and some other contributors to talk about assistive technology. So I was asked about how it has impacted my life, and some of the aids that I use, including my trusty iPhone of course. So please do give it a listen and share it around!
I’ve also been filmed by student Yiwen Feng from the University of Westminster, for a documentary about visual impairment, in which there are other contributors too. She recorded me over a couple of days. First I had a studio interview, where I gave her plenty to work with thanks to my detailed answers. And then she accompanied me to the Science Museum to record me looking at an exhibition, including the use of my iPhone and monocular to help me read and look closely at things.
And I’m very happy with how it’s turned out. It’s got a good mix of contributors, and it’s nicely edited together, putting across a very positive message about how visually impaired people use technology and live their lives. And I like the clips she’s used of me too. So I hope you enjoy watching it, and thank you to Yiwen for inviting me to take part!
Van Gogh Exhibition Tour
The best exhibition I went to in June was Van Gogh And Britain at Tate Britain. I took part in an audio described tour, which was hosted by Marcus Dickey Horley and described by Gill Cutbull. It took place after the museum had closed to the public, so we had the place to ourselves, which was great. And we even had free drinks, including wine, before and after the tour. So they looked after us really well.
The exhibition was very interesting, with lots of wonderful artworks by Van Gogh or people he inspired, including his own Sunflowers painting of course. And Gill’s great descriptions of each artwork helped me to pick out details that I wouldn’t otherwise have spotted. There were also colour photocopies and tactile representations of the paintings being passed around, which further helped us to understand what was being described. And learning about Van Gogh’s life helped to put everything into perspective. So it was really engaging and fascinating.
It was also the most popular tour I’ve ever been on, as there were about 120 people there, made up of disabled people and their companions. That’s probably a bit too many really, as it was hard to get close to the paintings for a closer look sometimes. But it did mean it was a great social occasion, being able to chat to so many people, some of whom I already knew. And the museum staff coped with the large group very well, without any obvious problems. There were enough people around for us to ask for help if we needed it, and nobody was left out from the audio description, because there were headphones available for those who needed hearing assistance.
It’s also wonderful that there was such a high level of interest, much more than the museum had expected. They’ve done audio described tours before, but this one was particularly well publicised it seems. I’d never been aware of their tours in the past, and this was my first ever visit to Tate Britain. But based on this experience I’d happily go back again. You can see more photos in my Instagram post.
At the Science Museum, where I was filmed for the student documentary mentioned above, I went to the exhibition Driverless: Who Is In Control?. This is all about the many uses of driverless technology, showcasing cars, boats, drones and more. It’s not a huge exhibition, but it’s very interesting. There are lots of great applications for the technology, including the vital transportation of medical supplies, as well as things like driverless cars. There are also some interesting videos to watch, with audio narration and interviews that I was able to listen to.
In terms of accessibility it’s not particularly great, as the dim lighting made the exhibition difficult to find to begin with, and it’s hard to see some of the objects and their labels clearly. But I was able to use my phone to take photos and run the Seeing AI app, and also use my monocular, to help me read and see things better.
So overall it is a good exhibition that I can recommend going to, because it’s an important topic that’s worth learning more about. It will certainly be interesting to see how driverless technology develops in the future.
Sculpture In The City
As we enjoyed heatwave conditions during the latter half of the month, I had to take advantage by going out for some nice walks. I like to stroll through areas that I haven’t explored before, as I always get to see interesting new things that way.
My most interesting walk this month was the Sculpture In The City trail. This is a collection of 19 sculptures and 1 video artwork spread across the Square Mile (with one more sculpture coming in the autumn), which will be on display until April 2020. So I spent a few hours using the map on the website, in conjunction with Google Maps, to find my way around them. And, although it wasn’t always easy, I did manage to find them all.
There’s a wide variety of artworks, which include a reclining nude figure, a house precariously balanced on a footbridge, 2 stone armchairs, text made of lights or displayed on street signs, and the video artwork is of a colourful range of flowers that come together and break apart in a looping sequence. The sculptures range from minimalist to complex designs, in many different materials, textures and colours, and there’s a short explanation of each on the Artworks page of the website. So it’s really interesting to find them all, because there’s such a mixture.
What’s more, because the trail spans a wide area, you get to enjoy many other sights as well, which you might never have noticed or considered visiting otherwise. These include other sculptures that I never knew existed, along with buildings like the historic and beautiful Leadenhall Market, the iconic Gherkin, and the churches of St Botolph without Bishopsgate and St Botolph without Aldgate.
So ultimately you’re getting to see a lot more than 20 works of art, as there’s so much more to discover on your journey. It’s therefore a great initiative to encourage people to explore the city in a new way. You can see many more of my photos from the trail on Instagram here, here, here and here.
Thames Path Walk
I also had a nice stroll by the River Thames. As I’ve walked along the south bank many times, I decided to check out the Thames Path along the north bank for a change, going from Albert Bridge to Westminster Bridge. In fact, I did briefly go over Albert Bridge to the south side to look at Battersea Park, but after that I came back over to the north side for my main walk.
Albert Bridge itself is an interesting sight, but so are all of the other bridges along the river, because they all have a unique history, design and construction. And they’re going to get even more interesting soon, because of the Illuminated River project. This is a huge long-term art commission that will see the 15 bridges across the Thames in Central London lit up in various ways. The first 4 bridges were lit up just a few days ago. Channel 4 have been showing a documentary series about the project.
But what makes this particularly interesting for me is that VocalEyes are recording audio descriptions for all of the installations, so visually impaired people can enjoy them too. I think that’s a great idea, and I’ll have to try out those audio descriptions at some point.
As for my walk in June, other sights along the way included the SIS Building (formerly known as the MI6 Building), Tate Britain, the Buxton Memorial Fountain, and a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, among other things. See my Instagram post for more photos.
Park & Pizza
There isn’t much to say about my final walk of the month, but I did have a nice little wander around Finsbury Park, having never been there before, and it does have a pretty lake in there. Then afterwards I had a meal with Claire and a couple of our friends at Pizza Pilgrims, in an area called Exmouth Market (which feels confusing to me, as I originally come from Devon, where there’s a town called Exmouth!). I’ve never been to one of their restaurants before, but I enjoyed their Nduja pizza, which has spicy sausage as its main ingredient. So it was a very pleasant afternoon. You can see my photos from Finsbury Park in my Instagram post.
Toy Story 4
Claire and I went to see Toy Story 4 at the cinema in June, both being fans of the franchise. And it’s safe to say Pixar had a lot to live up to after the huge success of the first 3 films. Indeed, I rewatched the trilogy on Blu-ray in advance of my cinema visit, the first time I’ve seen them in that format since upgrading from my DVDs. As you’d expect, they look and sound absolutely stunning in HD, and I still love the stories and characters as much as I always did. I’m delighted that pretty much all of the extra features from the Ultimate Toy Box DVD set of films 1 & 2 were carried over as well, with only a few minor omissions. It’s great to get such a deeply comprehensive insight into how the films were made, it’s a colossal treasure trove of material.
But what about Toy Story 4? Well, we loved it, I’m happy to say, because it’s a great mixture of fun, laughter, action and emotion, as we’ve come to expect from these films. I’m not going to give much away, as I don’t want to spoil things, but the story focuses heavily on Woody and the return of Bo Beep, along with a very unusual new character created by Bonnie that I initially thought might get irritating, but actually proved to be rather inspired and weirdly cute in its own way. And there are many other new toys we get to meet, all of whom are enjoyable and serve an important purpose during the adventure.
The older characters we know and love are also still present, of course, although they don’t get to do an awful lot this time around, which is a shame. Buzz gets a fair amount of action, but the others only get to make their most significant contribution in the latter stages of the film. Which is great when it happens, it’s just a pity we don’t get to see more of them otherwise. They feel a bit underused compared to the previous films.
But in any case, all of the toys, old and new, end up exploring new environments and overcoming new dangers. And their lives are changed by the end of it, as things take another significant step forward. It’s not as satisfying as the Toy Story 3 conclusion, because there is a greater element of sadness in Toy Story 4’s ending. But I did feel happy for Woody and a few of the other characters on this occasion, who got what they desired and deserved.
Visually the film is as incredible as you’d expect. Even with my dodgy vision I can tell that the animation has taken another big leap forward in terms of detail. There is one particular location in the film that’s quite dark, so it wasn’t always easy to see everything there. But I saw enough to enjoy the film on the cinema screen, and I’ll be able to spot a lot more detail when I get the Blu-ray and can sit close to the TV.
Randy Newman’s music is also wonderful as usual, creating the perfect atmosphere and emphasising the emotions throughout. I have of course bought the soundtrack for the film, as I already own the albums for the previous 3 (including the special Legacy Collection edition for the first film). You’ve Got A Friend In Me naturally gets another airing in Toy Story 4, being the big theme song of the series, but there are a couple of nice new songs too – I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away and The Ballad Of The Lonesome Cowboy. The whole score perhaps isn’t quite as memorable as for the earlier films, but it still works very well as a continuation from the previous trilogy.
Overall, it isn’t a film that needed to be made, and it’s not quite as good as the previous 3 – but I’m delighted they made it anyway, because it is still a great deal of fun and a welcome addition to the series. So it is well worth going to see it if you’re a Toy Story fan. There currently aren’t any plans for a Toy Story 5, and again they don’t need to make one. But who knows what’ll happen in the future? After all, we never expected this one.
Season 5 of Black Mirror came out on Netflix in June, much to my delight. This series of independent stories is set in a darker ‘mirrored’ equivalent of our own universe, exploring what can happen when the use of technology is taken to certain extremes. It is often uncomfortably close to reality, and later events in real life have had parallels with older Black Mirror episodes. It’s that thought-provoking aspect of the show that makes it fascinatingly disconcerting.
There are only 3 episodes in season 5, because the interactive episode Bandersnatch, which I reviewed last Christmas, took a lot of development time as you’d expect. But these 3 new stories are all good, and are all very different.
Striking Vipers is about 2 guys who play an online virtual reality fighting game together, with one playing a male character and one playing a female character. However, they get so absorbed in the game, and the attractiveness of each other’s virtual character, that they get very close and end up doing rather more than fighting in the game. And this significantly impacts their real lives outside the game. The story takes a little while to get going, but it’s quite fascinating once it does, as you see them trying to come to terms with it, with one very keen to continue while the other is distinctly uncomfortable.
Smithereens is a story that could very much be a present day scenario, as opposed to a futuristic one. It focuses on a taxi driver who encounters a lady desperate to access the social media account of her dead daughter, to try and establish why she committed suicide. Angry at the way she’s been treated, the driver kidnaps an employee of the social media company and holds him hostage, demanding that the lady be given her daughter’s password.
It’s a slow-moving story that is perhaps dragged out a little bit too long, but there is a lot of tension throughout. It’s also a big commentary on social media in this day and age. But it’s most notable for the fact that the driver is played by Andrew Scott, perhaps best known for playing Moriarty in Sherlock opposite Benedict Cumberbatch. He gives a great performance here.
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is the final story. Miley Cyrus plays pop star Ashley O, whose key item of merchandise is an artificially intelligent robot version of herself, called Ashley Too. It’s the smash hit amongst all her young fans, including Rachel, who becomes addicted to interacting with it. It’s like Alexa, only a lot more more conversational and clever. The real Ashley O, meanwhile, ends up in a coma after confronting her manager over the way she’s being manipulated. When Rachel’s Ashley Too sees a news report about this, it malfunctions, breaking free of the normal restrictions in its software, and convinces Rachel and her sister Jack to go on a rescue mission to save the real Ashley. It feels a little bit silly and far-fetched, but it is still quite a good episode.
The other new series I watched this month was Good Omens on Amazon Prime. It’s been co-produced by Amazon and BBC Studios, and will air on BBC2 later this year. It’s had a huge amount of publicity, including posters that I kept seeing everywhere on the London Underground, plus it had good reviews. So I was very intrigued and gave it a go.
It’s very weird, and very good. It’s based on a novel from 1990 by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s about a demon (played by David Tennant) and an angel (Michael Sheen), who have lived on earth since its creation. They accidentally lose the Antichrist, a young boy who has no idea of his purpose and destiny as he grows up, and have to work together to find him in order to prevent Armageddon, the final war between Heaven and Hell.
Both of the lead actors are brilliant, as you’d expect, and they have a great chemistry together. And there are various story strands involving other characters as well, which all come together nicely by the end. And those characters are played by an impressive cast list. Comedian Jack Whitehall surprised me in particular by having a major part, which he plays really well. I almost didn’t recognise him at first, as he looks and sounds so different to his live comedy persona. And there are other interesting guest appearances too, it’s fun to see who you recognise.
The show is also very stylishly filmed, and has a great soundtrack that includes a lot of Queen songs (because of a running gag in the original novel), as well as original music by renowned TV and film composer David Arnold. And the title sequence itself, with David Arnold’s brilliant theme tune, is a wonderfully elaborate and surreal work of art, which they had a lot of fun creating by all accounts. If you have the vision to pick everything out, you’ll want to watch it with every episode. In one episode it feels like they’re breaking convention by not having a title sequence at all, but it eventually pups up when you least expect it.
So I enjoyed it overall. It’s surreal and funny and doesn’t take itself seriously,, and it just felt refreshingly different and original. And it had audio description as well, so additional kudos to Amazon for that. If you’re a Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman fan, you’ll love it for sure. But if, like me, you’ve never read any of their books, and the description still intrigues you, then it is well worth a look.
My big music purchase this month was Def Leppard’s CD Collection Volume 2, which gathers together more of their studio albums (Adrenalize, Retro-Active, Slang & Euphoria), plus 3 CDs of B-sides, rarities and live tracks relating to those albums. They’re a fantastic band, and I love the fact that they’re releasing such comprehensive sets like this, especially as I’ve never owned their albums before, and because you get so much rare bonus material. And there are 2 more volumes to come, which I’m really looking forward to.
I also bought the Blu-ray of Bridges To Bremen by The Rolling Stones, a live show from Germany in 1998. As usual, the band are on top form, playing a wonderful variety of songs over 2 and a half hours. You get all the big hits of course, plus a few tracks that you don’t hear so often live, and this was their first tour where people were invited to vote online for a track they wanted to hear in each show. It’s also the first tour where they had a permanent B-stage, accessed here by a walkway that lowers from above in dramatic fashion, and that smaller stage allows for a lovely intimate set midway through the gig. So it’s a fantastic show, and you also get 4 bonus songs from a concert they did in Chicago, taking the total running time to nearly 3 hours. That’s quite a bargain if you enjoy their music like I do.
And lastly on the music front, we were treated to a brand new release by Freddie Mercury, who can still astound and entertain from beyond the grave. sure, it’s not a new song as such, because Time is one of his best solo tracks. But this is a previously unreleased alternative version recorded by Freddie in 1986, consisting of just vocals and piano, using the song’s full title of Time Waits For No One. And it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s one of those tracks that really shows what an incredible singer he was.
And on those beautifully sung notes of Freddie’s, I’ll leave it there for this month. That’s been quite the mid-year bonanza of a post! July won’t be quite so epic, but there are still some very exciting things going on, including an exciting theatre trip, more exhibition tours, and more nice walks. But for now, as always, thank you for reading my latest monthly recap!