Thursday, 3 July 2008

Loving Marconi and Hating BT Goonhilly

We are learning a lot about communications in Cornwall. It's quite the place to be, this end foot of England, kicking the ocean waves of the Atlantic. If you want to do a home education project on communications, I can recommend it.

I can recommend the whiskery chaps, members of the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club, tipped up at the top of the Lizard peninsula, in the shed there now, at Poldhu. In this place, Marconi sent his first wireless dot dot dot to Newfoundland, across all those waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and in doing so scared the knickers off the cable company down the road who'd just spent the economy of England dropping cable lines on the sea floor, to be chewed at by sharks and sat on by barnacles.

In these days, the radio amateurs hang around in a rebuilt version of Marconi's shed. They seem a decent lot of eccentrics in their coastal sweaters and breezy sea salt faces. Admittedly, one or two of them look like they might've been living in Marconi's shed since 1901, and are as likely to be enticed out of it, blinking into today's bright world, as they are to be enticed to sit inside a burning car, but no matter to us. After all, we home educators actually seek out people like this. These are the lost and best of British eccentrics. In this world of pin numbers, bar codes and steam rollering normality, we actually think these wonderfully mad people have something to teach us. And, we tell the children, there is mad talking to trees, and there is mad blowing each other up, so let's get in contact with the former before we are scattered around by the latter.

So I can recommend a pleasant hour in Marconi's shed with some old amateur radio codgers, enthusing over dots and dashes.

But I cannot recommend to home educators BT's Goonhilly. Oh dear. Not at all.

We thought that the BT Goonhilly site and their trillion-billion pound enterprise science station, 'Future World', would be a fine educational contrast to place alongside Marconi.

But what we did not appreciate is that Marconi's shed is staffed by informed, enthusiastic, engaged people who genuinely are inspired to communicate a slice of life that they find of life long fascination. But Goonhilly is staffed by corporate clones with no interest whatsoever in engagement, nor with communicating any subject with passion, possibly apart from BT rules and regulations. But why should they? They are staffing a site which is unimaginative and, by our book, anti-educational.

At Goonhilly we pay a whopping wodge of money for a list full of horrors. A preachy animation about how we must look after the planet. A room of computer games like a down market arcade. A bus tour of the site. (Sorry about the satellite dishes! They've been dismantled!) A ten minute stop off at 'Future world', which is actually two rooms, where we are not invited to linger for more than five minutes each before a prison warder barks 'One minute more because the bus is waiting!'

By the end of ten minutes, Shark is in a temper tantrum, while Squirrel and Tiger are in tears. Dig is snorting, which in Dig's way is the equivalent of nailing someone's testicles to the floor, and I feel like taking a swinging punch at the smug young face of the 'tour guide'. I cannot explain to this man with the flippant attitude that I have three children who can spend five hours in a museum before they are dragged kicking and screaming out by the security guard with the keys. They simply are not accustomed to five minutes engaging with a drawing screen before it flickers off because their time is up.

In BT's bleak, corporate, time-limited future, there'll be nothing for us. Apart from the pleasure of physical violence from Grit, possibly. But at the end of the day, while we are ushered out of the Goonhilly site at 5.27pm, and while I see if I can muster up a contemptuous wee on BT property, we suggest that Shark, Squirrel and Tiger go play on the playsite. In ten seconds flat, Tiger slams her head into a stray iron bar on the play equipment and draws blood. Now I do not approve of those members of our public who sue the local council because a paving stone is wonky and thereby make all our lives more miserable at a stroke, but right now I feel as litigious as a wronged, broke woman, cheated from knowledge and withheld from power. And is that ever a dangerous combination.


sharon said...

Write and complain to BT, if you can get your letter published somewhere this would be even better, you might be lucky and get your money refunded. Whilst that won't make up for the myriad disappointments at least you won't have paid for them! What a crappy experience although this is typical of the faceless conglomerates unfortunately. I hope they offered the use of their First Aid facilities after Tiger's accident. Good thing you had the Old Boys at Marconi's Shed to off-set the high-tech morons.

Potty Mummy said...

Litigious - what a word. And I loved the previous post too, Grit. One thing - have you taken your medieval armour off yet?

Grit said...

hi sharon, writing a letter would get it out of my system (although the blog helps!) but i don't fancy my chances of getting my money back. then what if they did the most terrible thing they could think of - offer us another visit for free??!

hi potty mummy - i am slowly climbing out of piles of most things, some of them not as pretty as medieval armour ...

sharon said...

Point taken :-)

MaVeRiCK said...

Smug-young-tour-guide / prison-warder here.

You'll be happy to hear that the whole attraction has closed down. I would never have described anyone below upper management as a corporate clone - most hated BT and were just grateful to just have a job. Apart from that, you were pretty much spot on.

While I find what you wrote really funny, and wouldn't want you to change it one bit, I would just like to say that the staff *wanted* you to have a good time, but there was really *nothing* we could individually do to drastically improve the visitor experience.

I would like to think that I would have talked about the Earth Station with interest, engagement and passion, but then I was in the minority as someone at least partially qualified to talk about these things. Most staff are just students working through the holidays like myself.

It's pretty hard to find permanent staff prepared to work £5.40 an hour with a relevant qualification in radio engineering/satcoms/physics.

Grit said...

hi MaVerRICK, i appreciate what you're saying.

from an educational pov i also think what you say is crucial: how much control do individuals have to bring something new, inspirational, creative (or bizarrely fresh) to any structure?

the people who feel able to do so (or challenge even the system they work within) can make the difference to us as to the value of the experience. but for management to let go, and hire these types of people is pretty dangerous. to eliminate the risk of them and retain as much control as possible over all the scripts makes for a sterile experience.

i also apprecaiet what you say about the knowledge and pay issue.

i think there's plenty more about these subjects, and i could rattle on, so thanks for the prompt.

MaVeRiCK said...

As far as the bus tours themselves went, once you passed the test, you could do pretty much what you wanted. An interested tour guide could pick up interesting information from engineers when the opportunity presented itself and from other sources - but that information was not *given* to us, we had to look.
One tour guide I know altered his to look from a historical perspective whilst others went for a scientific approach. Having said that, those without the interest or knowledge obviously have little choice but to follow the script word for word.

The real trouble came when "Futureworld" was constructed, and you appear to have attended just after it opened (the worst possible time). Nobody really wanted it, but we were stuck with it. You see, for years, we had been told that the satellite antennas would be removed and there would be no reason for visitors to come. Futureworld was born out of the idea of creating something new and separate to continue to attract visitors with the closure of the main site. Without such a plan, it is likely that BT would have closed everything down right away. So in a way, visitor centre management's hands were tied into just doing *something* to keep us going, on a very limited budget. The quoted figure was something like £500k (insiders say £300k) which is *not enough* to create a whole new experience.

Futureworld changed the focus completely away from the satellite antennas because the antennas were no longer supposed to be there according to plan. In a way it was unfortunate that they were still there after the changeover. This led to many visitors complaining about the irrelevant bus tour and I think within the season we switched back to using tour guides with a script, talking more about the antennas.

Within a few months we had gone from being a 4/5 rated attraction to 2/5. I think a lot of people would have liked to switched back to the old style tours, but we couldn't as the rooms and equipment used had been cannibalised to create futureworld and the Segway experience.

Despite that, many of those who were truly interested and wanted an educational experience would do the Arthur tour which was probably more what you were after. Unfortunately many people were put off of this by the additional cost and the quality of the main bus tour.

Grit said...

hi MaVeRICK; an interesting history, thanks.

it seems like BT looked at futureworld primarily as a strategy to handle their site closure, rather than to make a genuine attempt to build up a visitor attraction that would cater on a permanent basis for the visitor.

to my way of thinking that sounds like a large waste of corporate cash.

but if they had no long term commitment to the visitor attraction, the charging structure and, as you say, additional charges from the visitor for yet another tour, would only account for a small amount to recoup the investment in the short term.

which makes me wonder if some other dynamic behind futureworld was happening, like they could set the outlay against tax as some sort of educational enterprise, and thus allow them to handle the transition of the facilies in a more cost effective manner.

i could be just cynical!