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Bang on the Road: Southend

Updated Wednesday, 2nd June 2010

Ian Johnston finds that once the grey skies clear, Southend has an appetite for science.

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Day 1: Saturday

As my train speeds - well, lurches - out of Fenchurch Street on the journey to deepest Essex, I can't help feeling a bit glum about this whole business. It's grey, it's raining and I'm heading into a strange land of white stilettos and jellied eels. Things don't improve when the train reaches the seaside, as the weather is now foul.

I reach Southend Central and head downhill for the sea, confirming en route with BBC staff that I should turn left at the esplanade. Which I do, and soon see the familiar shape of the Bang! tent ahead. I begin to relax. It's familiar and I'm home.

Southend at night [Image: Arturo Smokeo under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon Arturo Smokeo under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Southend at night

Sue and Andy are cheerfully running the OU stall in a very quiet interactive zone, and no wonder. Down here by the sea it's wet, cold and miserable. The residents of Essex clearly are not as alien as I feared - they have the sound common sense to stay well away from the seaside on a day like this.

My Q&A appearance on stage is cancelled - the presenters' shows have been playing to audiences of 5 - 10% capacity. We pack up, rather glumly, and depart. Southend is not, at the moment, my favourite place.

Day 2 - Sunday

What a change, and what a relief. Still a wee bit windy, but the sun is shining and the crowds are gathering. The BBC have given us a Great Big Screen to show the Devolve Me results on, and the activity is transformed, drawing big crowds. We are kept very busy indeed running two Devolution systems simultaneously all morning - there is no rest at all.

Things become at little calmer at 2pm when the air show starts. I was afraid that we'd lose everybody now, but it's not a serious problem - there are clearly a lot of families accompanying keen plane spotters. I have a megaphone thrust into my hand and thoroughly enjoy myself as show barker, luring members of the public into the show tent. I'm told that I have "natural talent" at this, which is nice until I realize they mean "no sense of embarrassment".

Which isn't the case, as today sees me thoroughly disconcerted for the first time. Having devolved a young woman, I ask if she would like a link to her photograph emailed to her. "Yes", she says, and asks me to send it email address "BustyBabe".

A surreptitious and rather startled glance sideways suggests that this is not an inaccurate description, though I am rather disconcerted when she explains "I was only thirteen at the time." Still, it's not for me to pass judgement, so I start typing it in. "NOOO" she shrieks. "BUSTEDBabe". The group. Busted the group. I attempt to sink through the floor and resolve to ask people to type their own email addresses in future.

Day 3 - Monday

The Rage rollercoaster at Southend [Image: Arturo Smokeo under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]
The Rage rollercoaster at Southend [Image: Arturo Smokeo under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

The day starts early as we all assemble at the funfair next door for 9.30. We've been promised free rides on the "Rage" rollercoaster ... it's not big but it looks pretty exciting. It is pretty exciting. I give up after three rides in a row, but others stay on board in what seems to be an unofficial competition with the BBC Dig In crew who are down in Southend to film.

The indefatigable Dr Yan goes round five times and still, to my enormous surprise, is capable of walking and coherent speech afterwards. This sessions is not wholly pleasure, as we notice that the coaster uses electromagnetic eddy current braking.

That's one of the experiments on the Street Science stand, so we've added a nice local example for the demonstration.

The weather is not quite as nice as Sunday - it's rather overcast - but there are loads of people down for the airshow and our attendance is pretty good. As it often is, things are cyclical in the interactive area: deserted as a show starts and then getting steadily busier over the next hour.

Luckily we have a very useful display of devolution in action (David Beckham, Lady Gaga and Gordon Brown amongst others taking the trip back in time) and looping it on one of the big screens stops things looking too abandoned, even when we are short of customers.

Once again I am easily cajoled into acting as fairground barker and take pride in getting the shows as full as possible. It's easy to be distracted, though. There's a particularly spectacular solo aerobatics display in a CAP232 by a pilot who must have a stomach of steel.

Rival attraction - Southend Festival Of The Air 2010 [Image: Destiny's Agent under CC-BY-NC  licence] Creative commons image Icon Destiny's Agent under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Rival attraction - Southend Festival Of The Air 2010

As on Sunday we delay the Q&A session until after the airshow ends at 5.30 and get a good audience. an had to leave early so it's just Liz, Jem and myself. There are a lot of questions for Jem, whose easy going and wry accounts of his spectacular inventing past always fascinate the audience - and me.

Plenty more for Liz and me though, and some nice twists on old themes - we're asked not "Why does the water always go the same way round down the plughole?" (it doesn't) but "Why does it go round at all?" which is far more interesting.

As with Edinburgh and Nottingham, though, my overwhelming impression is of huge numbers of children who are fascinated by science and the world around them. It's a pleasure and an honour to be able to encourage them.

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