January 12, 2013
Busy new year
If I believed in New Year's resolutions, one of mine would be to update this blog more regularly because - let's face it - surely the point of a blog is to keep it regular.
My only excuse is that this update comes in the middle of an extremely busy and not unstressful time, in which I have been building up to a pretty important deadline.
As my previous entry explained, I have had my head down, editing a glossy magazine called Swindon Heritage, and if trying to finish and proof a quarterly magazine wasn't intense enough around the deadline, the pressure has been multiplied six fold by this issue being number one. And as well as the publishing side of things there are also plenty of other things to sort out, including the launch.
More about this in later blogs, but I have to say that apart from one or two unwelcome and - in one instance - unnecessary ripples, it has gone so smoothly that both me and the three people who are with me in the frontline of the project continue to suffer from terrible optimism on account of the response we've already got, even before the thing is on the presses.
Sometimes optimism can be as hard to handle as pessimism.
Another development in my life concerns our band, The Misfits, who are now one short on account of our rhythm guitarist, Alan (Simms) having decided to retire, which he revealed following what was actually a very successful and surprisingly enjoyable gig at Stratton British Legion to see in the new year.
Alan is a great guitarist, a nice man and easy to play with, but the good news is the others, including me, are keen to carry on. Once we find a new member we are also talking about rebranding ourselves. That basically just means picking a new name, which I'm pretty glad about as I never liked the old one much and we were probably only one of hundreds of bands who have or still call themselves The Misfits.
Now back to work.
December 31, 2012
Reasons to be cheerful in 2013
This time last year we were looking forward to something special in the following twelve months, and it's worth pointing out, as we sit here, wondering what 2013 will bring, just how right we were about 2012.
Although, in the end, the year had a couple of stings in the tail for us, especially on Julie's side of the family, I am looking forward to the new year again with optimism - some of it justified.
Britain will always remember the last twelve months as the year of London 2012, and if I said we had a wonderful summer, it would be an understatement. It was undoubtedly the best of our lives, and if 2013 is half as good, we'll be smiling. It was so good, in fact, that even our silver wedding anniversary seemed to pass us by and get overshadowed.
It must also be said that 2012 was also a landmark for being the year when our son became virtually fully employed (doing stuff he loves) and our daughter reached 18. We have a lot to be thankful for.
On a more personal note, I'm still busy with work, and although hardly any of it produces an income these days, my latest project, a new magazine called Swindon Heritage, which I am editing, has so far been incredibly well received, with potential for some exciting developments, further down the line. Best of all is I am getting to work with some people who are not only extremely able, but also very nice. And I'm also meeting and getting to know better lots of genuinely interesting and inspiring people again - just like old times.
The magazine and its companion website will be launched in late january. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter!
The Alfred Williams Heritage Society, of which I am still vice-chair, also made more headway in 2012, and has another good year ahead, with a couple of events planned and a project supported by a £5,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will take us into some very interesting territory.
I also have another nice project in the pipeline, which will see the light of day before 2013 is too old.
So the big change is that work, which has been a cause of frustration and even depression over the last few years, is now a source for optimism, and I am actually looking forward to the challenges of 2013.
The lesson for us from 2012 was undoubtedly about how good things are inevitably mixed with the bad, and if the passing of young relatives and neighbours teaches us only one thing it will be that you have to enjoy the good whenever you can. More importantly: we only put up with the bad things if we have no control over them.
The best thing about this New Year's Eve is it gives me another excuse to dig out our favourite London 2012 pictures - out of the 352 that are still here.
December 29, 2012
There was another family Christmas gathering today at the house where I was brought up, which now belongs to my brother Maurice and his wife Jacky.
Whereas a feature of our Christmas dinner there (see below) was me trying to relive my childhood in a born-again house, today it was time to hand over to a much younger generation as the house was now filled with various kids, all enjoying themselves and - even more importantly - entertaining the adults.
December 25, 2012
Home for Christmas
Lots of people go home for Christmas, but this year I went home home.
After popping out to visit elderly Auntie Jean and Uncle Fred late morning, we were kindly invited round for dinner with my brother Maurice and his wife Jacky (along with my twin brother Brian and his family) and since they now live in the house I was brought up in, it was an ultra-homecoming.
After my dad died in 1977, my mum never cooked a home Christmas dinner again, always being invited out, and when I tried to work out when I last would have been there on Christmas Day to eat, I could only guess at sometime in the mid-1970s.
The house has been completely transformed and is almost unrecognisable from those days, so it was difficult to match the memory with the location - especially as all had a chair to sit on! A favourite memory of Christmases all those years ago is our Auntie Hilda, who lived in London, coming to stay with her family, and there being so many people sitting down to dinner that there weren't enough chairs in the house, so a large plank was placed between two, to act as a bench. These days there are always garden chairs that can be commandeered.
Jacky's dinner was not only as good as any I ever ate in that house, but was miraculously ready at exactly the estimated time - 1.30pm - which is a feat never achieved in our house on any day, let alone Christmas Day.
It was really nice to all together for the big day, especially as it took our minds off the fact that until three and a half weeks ago, we would have hosted my brother-in-law John who, being single, it was our tradition to invite to our house. The complete change of routine distracted us from the theoretical empty chair we would have been staring at at home.
I can't imagine what kind of madness infects people who don't want to be with their relatives at Christmas because despite - and in some ways because of - the grief that has overshadowed our run-up to the big day this year, we enjoyed every minute of it.
December 24, 2012
Christmas is for families, and although for some people that is bad news, it never is for us. We are measuring the value of family Christmases together more than ever this year, so today it was nice to also include some extended family.
It was my cousin Barry (Wilson)'s 60th birthday, and his daughter Rachel organised an informal get-together at Morris Street Club, which was a great chance to catch up with a branch of the family we don't see too often but have been re-connected with in more recent times, thanks to Facebook.
Barry, his two brothers and sister are my dad's sister's children, and - whether it's in their blood or their upbringing - they share exactly the same values and outlook as us, so are easy to get on with.
The little party was sandwiched between an early afternoon visiting aunties and an evening round my brother Brian's, which all added up to the perfect start to my favourite week of the year.
I should relate the story of cousin Barry's first Christmas, as remembered by my mum, as it was one of those events from before my birth that I would love to have witnessed...
Barry's parents (Phil and Joyce) were lodging at my parents' house (not just for Christmas) when Joyce gave birth to Barry on Christmas Eve 1952, apparently late in the evening. This caused amazement from my brother, Ron, aged four, on Christmas morning. Our mum always delighted in recalling how he asked: "Where did that baby come from?"
In my memory of being told the story - although I've probably made this bit up - there is also some confusion in my brother's mind between Barry and the baby Jesus, probably arising from the fact that for some reason there wasn't a proper crib for him, although this time the baby was laid not in a manger but a drawer.
December 21, 2012
John Freeman, 1958-2012
The last three weeks have been lived in a kind of suspended animation as we prepared ourselves for the funeral of my brother-in-law John today.
It wasn't until today that we all realised just how proud we were of him.
As somebody with an acute sense of heritage and history, I have always been impressed by the fact that, being a foundryman working in brass and aluminium, John was part of - indeed, just about the closing chapter of - Swindon's railway heritage.
The closure of Swindon Works in 1986 is usually remembered in the town as the black day when a lot of old railwaymen lost their jobs, but even worse was the fact that young railwaymen had to go too, and while lots of the older guys received large redundancies or went into early retirement, people like John had to start again. Despite being highly skilled and qualified, there was never going to be any hope of finding similar work - either in Swindon or further afield.
So John did various short-term jobs before eventually joining the Royal Mail in 1994 and working at the sorting office. His conscientiousness, reliability and (we were told today) his attention to detail means it was their gain, but it was a shame for Swindon's heritage.
It was really nice to have a long chat with John's former railway workmate and best mate, Phil, after the funeral today. They worked together casting nameplates for locomotives, and plaques, including commemorative ones that you will find on the walls of many ex-railwaymen's houses in Swindon. If they had been born 100 years earlier, John and Phil would have cast lots of other items for the railway, including high-profile details for steam locos - and would have spent their whole working lives doing it.
As it was, John and a few others were kept on for (I think) about a year after the rest of the Works closed, thus being among the last of a long pedigree of Swindon craftsmen. It meant that when Steam needed some footage for video screens in the museum, John was featured - and I assume he is still looping there today.
But we have another reason to feel proud of John today, which was the impression he made on people, despite his introverted nature.
About 10 days ago we received the loveliest of letters from one of his workmates, called Lorraine, addressed to "All of John's family", which was read at the funeral. It explained that although she had never met any of us, Lorraine felt she knew us all, and gave an example of some of the things John had told her about us, which showed just how much we meant to him. And to show how much he meant to them, Lorraine had made a large collection in aid of Prospect Hospice, and lots of his workmates had come to the funeral. Some were very upset.
Today was doubly difficult for me - firstly simply because I've lost a brother-in-law I've always got on with, and because there will be an empty chair when the rest of the family gets together. But it's also difficult seeing your wife so upset at the passing of a brother she cared so much for.
John's brother Steve somehow - because I could no sooner do such a thing than fly - delivered a brilliant tribute, and Rob Rowe, the Humanist funeral celebrant we chose to conduct the ceremony, did it beautifully.
It's not for me to criticise other people's funeral wishes or their faith, but it was so much better focusing the funeral on celebrating John's real life rather than the fairytale afterlife that most people - almost certainly including John himself - didn't/don't believe in anymore.
But most heartening was the realisation that despite being so quiet and so unassuming, John had nevertheless made a lasting impression for the good, and made it impossible for us to forget him.
December 11, 2012
There was a little bonus on our monthly lads' night out (LNO) when we were invited by the new landlord of the Bell in Old Town, Swindon, to see the pub cellar.
The new management have only been there for three weeks, so they are still sorting out and clearing up, but the cellars have been cleared enough to reveal the main section where the barrels are kept and two other chambers which suggest the tantalising possibility that they are part of a network of tunnels.
All old buildings in Old Town come with the legend of tunnels running in all directions, which some people like to imagine is to do with smuggling and maybe even the moonraker legend.
With the Bell reputedly dating to 1515, making it one of the oldest buildings in the area, it is certainly easy to imagine the cellars being one of the access points to the tunnel network, if it exists.
December 2, 2012
The Fab Three
Our hearts weren't really in it in the end, to be honest, but there was what should have been a happy event today that needs to be recorded. If nothing else it shows that life goes on and we still have plenty to be grateful for.
It was the end-of-year concert at Riff's Bar for kids (and a couple of older people) learning drums or guitar (mostly drums) through Ultimate Tuition and Andy Wraight's teaching studios, where Sean does a bit of teaching.
We got in on the act by forming a three-piece group, which we called The Fab Three. 'We' being me on drums, our drum teacher Paul Ashman on bass, and Sean on lead guitar. It was really only a bit of fun, done after one hasty rehearsal, but it was the first time Sean and I had appeared together before a live audience, so fairly momentous in the history of Carter music.
We just about managed Spirit in the Sky before doing a pretty nice rendition of Hey Jude, and although it wasn't as much fun as anticipated, because of the circumstances, it's nice to play in a band with your son, especially when you can see, from close quarters, how effortlessly he can play his second best instrument.
The whole thing also raised money for Prospect Hospice, and I did my bit by designing the programme-cum-poster (below) which was based on a nostalgic liking I have for old record labels.
The picture, above, was taken by the parents of one of Sean's drum students, which not only captures the event, but thankfully manages to miss out the old drummer in the background, apart from a glimpse of his shirt, which is just the kind of picture of me that I like.
December 1, 2012
Our lives have been stopped in their tracks by the sudden and unexpected death of my brother-in-law, John (Julie's brother).
Aged only 54, John passed away sometime between 10pm on Wednesday (November 28) and 2pm on Thursday (November 29). He was discovered in his bed at about 5.30pm on Friday, after we asked the police to force entry into his flat.
We were told by his boss, who raised the alarm when John didn't turn up for work at the sorting office for two days running, that he had been suffering from what was thought to be a worsened chest infection, although for several months he had been fighting off chest and breathing problems. Under strict orders from his boss, John took the highly unusual step (for him) of going to the doctor's on Wednesday and was due to have blood tests on Thursday, but we are still waiting to find out more information, including whether he ever turned up for those tests.
Julie is heartbroken. As well as the obvious sadness at the loss of her brother, we are all having to come to terms with the shock and the trauma. And she is finding it especially sad that we hadn't seen him since October 14, even though it was perfectly normal for there to be a gap as long as that between meetings.
John was always happy to live his own life. Because he was intensely quiet and shy, and a man of few words, we only tended to see him at Christmas and Easter or any other excuse for a large family gathering - usually birthdays. Some people might have called him a loner, but really he just seemed to enjoy his own company, which is not the same.
The family are instinctively close, so this made John a bit of an enigma. Despite being happy with his own company, he did feel the same ties with the family and enjoyed getting together, but never felt the need to fill the gaps between meetings.
Those who judge other people's happiness by their own aspirations might have thought that he lived a lonely bachelor life, and because it was a fairly simple and routine life, it might also have seemed relatively empty by other people's measures. But if happiness and success is living the life and lifestyle you choose to lead, then John's was undoubtedly happy and sucessful. He never seemed to have many worries.
Unfortunately, when anybody dies, the thoughts of the people left behind always turn to what they could have done to prevent it. The doctor who saw him less than 24 hours before he died didn't, so it is illogical to think that we could have intervened either, even if John had shared any medical concerns with us - which he didn't. Unfortunately, grieving people rarely see things very logically.
Six years ago, Julie's father's last instruction to her, days before his own imminent death, was "Make sure John is OK", so she has always been the perfect sister. But even perfect sisters can't play God or change other people's character.
The picture of John, above, is probably the last one taken of him. He would usually go out of his way to avoid having his picture taken at all, but this one was different. It was taken last summer when the family got together to celebrate the arrival of Daniel, John's first great-nephew, and he surprised us all by being really keen to hold the baby and was unusually oblivious of the pictures being taken.
When we eventually get over the shock of the last couple of days, this will undoubtedly be the happy memory we will remember him by.
November 15, 2012
There is another cloud hanging over our street today with the news that our nextdoor neighbour, Kevin, has died. We knew he was terminally ill with bowel cancer, but we didn't expect it so soon.
Any death is a tragedy, but more so in this case as it is only three or four years since we went to Kevin's 40th birthday party. And even that doesn't tell the story because his wife Gill, who was about five years older than him, died in June 2010, also of cancer.
Kevin had found another partner since Gill's death - previously a mutual friend of them both - which we were really happy about. She, like Gill was, is a lovely person, and she brought with her some 'step children' whom Kevin really enjoyed being with; he didn't have children of his own. So his last couple of years were happy, even though they all spent much of their time helping him struggle through pain, illness and chemotherapy.
There isn't much more to say, except Kev was a perfect neighbour, infinitely likeable and very down-to-earth, which is, in my book, as big a compliment as it is possible to pay anybody.
November 14, 2012
A thousand deaths
There were a thousand ways to get yourself killed in the First World War, and I think we heard about most of them tonight.
But if that sounds like I had a miserable evening, it couldn't be further from the truth because for an hour we were thoroughly entertained by a guy called Steve Williams, who was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of The Swindon Society. He lives in Lancashire, but travels the country bringing to life the horrors of the trenches - and had a real knack for getting points across in an entertaining way.
He sets up a kind of mock trench and uses it to illustrate certain aspects of life on the front line, such as how they used fake heads to trick snipers into revealing their positions. Dressed in the full kit of a British tommy, he had a range of genuine artefacts, from different types of helmet to grenades and guns, corned beef tins and other rations; even a slopping-out bucket. No aspect of life in the trenches was left out.
I've read quite a bit about the First World War and visited the battlefields and cemeteries in France and Belgium, but sometimes it takes events like this to gets points across, and the best thing about this talk was it explained things you had probably otherwise somehow overlooked.
For instance, he explained that the sandbags that were on the lip of the trenches (and on his replica) were not there to stop bullets. I think most people would assume that's what they were for, but Steve pointed out that you actually need at least three rows of sandbags to prevent that. The bullets the Germans used would have pierced two bricks or 18 inches of oak. Sandbags do offer some protection against shelling, but generally they were just a screen to stop the enemy seeing what you were up to.
The strange thing about the First World War is the further we are distanced from it, the more interest in it that there seems to be, which will no doubt become even stronger as we head towards the centenary. I doubt anybody will put on a more entertaining and informative show about it than the one we saw tonight.
November 11, 2012
It was an absolutely beautiful day today - perfectly clear, still and warm. Just the day for going to Radnor Street Cemetery and attending my friend Mark Sutton's Remembrance service. As an official war cemetery with 104 war graves, there doesn't seem a better place to do it.
How fitting that the picture above, that I took after most people had gone home, should come out so well. Of the thousands of pictures I have taken, this is one of the best ever.
It's a shame we had to bite our lips over the bureaucracy of Swindon Borough Council, who have decided that despite several consecutive years of huddling inside the little chapel to show our respects, this year much more important people than me - including active servicemen, British Legion stalwarts and the many Scouts who came - had to stand outside.
It's something to do with Health and Safety - the most excellent of laws that were put together to protect innocent workers from being made to do unscrupulously dangerous things while earning a crust, but are nowadays perverted by bureaucracies who use it as an excuse to do their jobs particularly badly while maintaining the pretence that they are doing the opposite.
It wasn't the time or the place to get angry, but the fact that our council is far better at finding problems than it is at even trying to find solutions is making my blood boil, and if I thought anybody at the Civic Offices might actually care about permanently alienting well-meaning people and putting obstacles in their way when they just want to give up some time for their community and do something positive for both past and future generations, then I would write my councillors and maybe my MPs a long and stern letter.
And don't get me started on how disrespectful their jobsworth mentality looks when it is applied to an act of Remembrance.
When I've calmed down, I think I will write it after all.
November 10, 2012
Off to London to meet The Gentle Author
Life - especially my life - is never simple, so before I write about our visit to London today, I need to explain a few things, including some coincidences that are starting to seem a bit spooky.
A short while ago (as noted below) I discovered a brilliant blog called Spitalfields Life, which I have been following even though I wasn't sure where Spitalfields was and, until yesterday, had never been there. It is no exaggeration to say the blog is a genuine inspiration.
It seemed strange that this should have come into my life exactly when two other people, quite independently, brought my attention to Spitalfields and the shops in and around the nearby Brick Lane as a good venue for shopping of various kinds.
So when we decided on a trip to London to start our Christmas shopping, the Old Spitalfields Market and the eclectic collection of shops along Brick Lane seemed like the perfect venue. I also persuaded Julie that we needed to make a detour to Bloomsbury/Holborn where there is a shop selling Spitalfields merchandise (including a little map that we bought) and holding a tiny exhibition of artists featured on the website.
All this would have been topical enough, but I also discovered, by sheer chance, that on the very same day we were visiting London, there was a free event at a library in Whitechapel featuring the man himself - The Gentle Author, who writes the Spitalfields Life blog every day. There were some tickets left that were free and bookable online, so we quickly put that in our itinerary. If I believed in such a thing, I would have said that all this was fate.
Now, the identity of The Gentle Author is a secret, which adds a little mystique to it all, and although I am told you can find his name on Google, I've deliberately not done it, but I must confess I still sat in the front row at the event, in case it was possible to get a picture of him. Fortunately, we were next to a video cameraman whom I overheard telling somebody else that he was only going to film the first bit - three short story competition winners, reading their entries - and he wasn't allowed to film The Gentle Author; thereby saving me not only an embarrassing gaffe, but what would have been a hopelessly insensitive one.
The Gentle Author read four superb stories from the book of the blog, but disappointingly didn't hang around for the question-and-answer session that would have been so enlightening. He did, however, wait to sign copies of the book and, in my case, map*, and his talk gave plenty of insight into what he and the Spitalfields Life project is all about.
So it was another successful part of a good day as we got loads of our Christmas presents bought during the day, found the streets and shops of Spitalfields, Brick Lane (above) and Whitechapel intriguing (as pictured) and had a nice meal at the Giraffe bar and grill in the Old Spitalfields Market, where the waiters and waitresses were as happy and smiling as we have ever seen in any eating establishment, outside Florida.
We have unofficially set ourselves the target of doing Christmas this year without recourse to anything corporate, buying as much as possible from small traders and craftspeople, rather than big chains. Having very briefly actually met The Gentle Author, whose main message is so-called 'ordinary' people are always more interesting than celebrities, this policy seems even more like the right thing to do.
*My signed map (pictured below) now bears the inscription "To Graham, I am your loyal servant, TGA."
November 9, 2012
I can drive a tractor
I forget the exact words, but when I used to go to football, Swindon fans would sometimes retaliate against other fans' mockery of our proud West Country roots and our outrageous accents with something like: "I can't read and I can't write, but I can drive a tractor."
Today I finally got to prove it, thanks to an 81-year-old farmer called Eric Barnes, who kindly invited me, my Alfred Williams Heritage Society colleague Caroline Ockwell and her sister Christine to visit his farm, which is intriguingly named Catsbrain Farm*. I first met Eric a couple of weeks ago when he stole the show at an Alfred Williams event (see below), and I have been looking forward to taking up his invitation to visit him ever since.
I wasn't disappointed.
I'm not going to say too much about the visit because it will be published elsewhere in due course, but we were treated to a guided tour of his wonderful farm, which is now only nominally working as a farm, but frozen in time, as if the cows, pigs and ducks moved out in the 1960s; the chickens are still there. He gave us tea, told us about his fascinating life and completely changed my attitude to farmers who, hitherto, I must admit I had always been a little suspicious of as law-unto-themselves landowners. Whatever bad press they might have got over the years, honest, hard-working, thoughtful, life-loving Eric easily counteracted. You could not wish to meet a nicer or more interesting man.
We spent more than two and a half hours looking around, which was plenty to send me home happy, but my inner schoolboy joy was sent into even higher realms when we had a close look at his tractor, a 1979 Massey-Ferguson.
Eric gets around slowly, with a stick, but when he asked me if I'd like to drive the tractor and I instantly answered yes, I swear I saw him run to get the keys.
I didn't drive it far as the yard gates were all shut - only about 20 metres forward and then back, with Eric standing in the cab to make sure I didn't demolish any barns. He probably thought I was a bit wimpy, but I was aware that a tractor is going to have a lot of traction. I was most surprised how lightly the front wheels steered, as if they had power steering.
Eric was amazed that I'd never driven a tractor before but also - and this sums him up really - proud that he was the one who gave me the opportunity to fulfil a little ambition.
Eric was the second interesting old man I've visited this week in connection with various activities. The other, called Ted Browning, is a similarly entertaining and enlightening old man, and he was equally generous with his time and his sharing of information and stories.
Old people nearly always seem happy to talk about their experiences, and listening is nearly always a pleasure and a privilege.
*In case you were wondering, it's called Catsbrain Farm because that is the general term (undoubtedly deriving from the Middle English cattesbragen) for fields that have a mottled appearance, due to a mixture of different soils but mainly because they have a lot of stones. Sometimes (definitely in this case) it also is because the stones include 'coral rag' which is marine fossils. These look like brains, and because they are are usually pretty small, must bring to mind cats' brains. Over the years Eric has collected a few examples of these fossils. A 1773 map that Eric showed us includes an area called Catsbrain Common, just north of where the farm is now. He showed us the deeds that showed the farm dates from 1826, although the current farmhouse is turn-of-the-20th century.
Shakespeare's greatest hits
It seems we are slowly working our way through the best known Shakespeare plays that we have somehow previously missed seeing, because, after The Tempest recently (see below), our latest trip to the lovely Watermill Theatre was to see Othello.
Othello should be called Iago instead because it's more about his obsessive scheme to get revenge on Othello, his wife Desdemona and his friend Cassio. Othello is famously black, although it doesn't seem to have much significance to the plot, except that, through modern eyes, there is an underlying suspicion of racism. This production was brilliant cast, especially Tonderai Munyevu, who played Othello, who is excellent at doing insecurity and also getting pity at the end, even though he didn't really deserve it.
But the thing we will remember about this production is there were only three actors (also Elizabeth Crarer and James Phelips), so it was a bit experimental, and director Beth Flintoff's programme notes explained they were trying to make it more accessible, especially to young people.
If you spend at least half the journey home discussing what you've just seen, the play must be a success, and Julie and I disagreed over the minimum number of people needed to put on a complex Shakespeare play like Othello. I thought three was pushing it just a little too much, and a fourth actor, who could play most of the minor parts, would have been better, but she said three wasn't a problem to her.
In fact, it added to the fun because it started with a nice little scene where the actors explained (with actions, not words) what roles they would be playing and how we would be able to tell who they were by their clothes. There was also a bit of interaction with the audience - although not as much as I would have liked. The only problem with all this was it was a bit of fun, but Othello is a tragedy, not a comedy, so it was almost too much fun.
Anyway, the Watermill yet again proved that a visit there is always a treat and food for thought, and if anybody reading this hasn't been there to see a play, they should do the honourable thing and make it a New Year's resolution to go there in 2013.
November 8, 2012
Still here - and Twittering
OK, so my idea to keep this blog more up-to-date and do more than just log places we've visited isn't quite going to plan.
But I do have the excuse that I'm really busy - which hadn't been the case for a while. All I have to do now, in fact, is find a way to convert busy into paid busy and I've cracked it. But at least I have the advantage of doing interesting busy.
I have various interesting things on the go at the moment, but because some of them are waiting to be launched or are even embargoed, I can't reveal too much at this stage. Not that it is anything that is going to throw the world out of orbit, but definitely stuff that I'd rather be doing than not.
It also means I've met several new, impressive, inspiring and - the word of the day, obviously - interesting people just lately, and feel as if I'm actually achieving something, which is a very welcome feeling just at the moment. I've even had a few compliments from the kind of people that it's especially nice to get compliments from.
Another thing I've discovered in the last year and really enjoying is Twitter, and this has been responsible for opening up more interesting avenues, new contacts and even doors.
Unlike Stephen Fry, who has five million followers, I only have 160 at the last count, but I am making an effort to get more because my former Adver colleague Fiona Scott is now in four figures, which is something to aim for.
I was going to say that Twitter is a mystery to people who don't use it, but actually it is grossly mis-understood by such people. You often hear them say they don't want to be on Twitter because they aren't interested in hearing about what people are having for breakfast.
They couldn't be more wrong.
For a start, almost nobody tweets that sort of completely trivial stuff, although what they do say gives you an insight into what all kinds of different people are up to during the day.
I should also say that there is also the misconception that Twitter is like Facebook, but there are some huge differences, and in some respects they could hardly be more different. That's because whereas Facebook is generally for (and generally very good for) keeping up with what friends and family are up to, Twitter is more or less the opposite as it is for keeping up with what the rest of the world is doing. Most of the people I follow and/or are followed by on Twitter I will probably never meet (although I actually did have the pleasure of meeting one of those people this week, which was nice).
More importantly, Twitter keeps you right up-to-date - and nearly always ahead of such outlets as even the BBC News website. Out of the last 20 deaths of public people, for example, I've probably heard about 18 of them on Twitter first, and the same applies to other stories.
Not only that, but it also throws up stories that for one reason or another the rest of the media has missed, including nice, heart-warming human interest stories that they don't want to cover because they are more interested in peddling bad news. In that way Twitter is therefore taking over one of the roles of ailing local newspapers.
As a journalist who thinks about such things and even studies them, however, Twitter is not just innovative, but a revolution. Most people in Britain think in terms of the news being a fixed thing. If the BBC doesn't report it, it is almost as if it hasn't happened, while the gravity or popular interest of news items are also judged according to how much space national newspapers give them. Few people seem to give much consideration to the fact that somebody is deciding what is newsworthy and what gets thrown away. This is a big responsibility and gives people power, but it's shifting, thanks to Twitter.
What the public often don't stop to think is how subjective the news is. The Daily Mail, for instance, only chooses to run negative stories about the people its owners don't like (Muslims, anybody claiming benefits, immigrants, gays, ethnic minoritis, etc), ignoring any positives. And if they can't find stories to fit their twisted view, they'll twist the facts instead.
The great thing about Twitter is you choose who you want to filter the news for you. I don't follow Stephen Fry because I have a thing about celebrities; the opposite, in fact. I follow him because I know from experience that if he has spotted something and thinks it worthy of tweeting about and supplying a link to, then it's probably worth checking out. It's probably also worth me re-tweeting it, which means I am helping to broadcast it too, only on a much smaller scale.
And remember those facts that are twisted by the Daily Mail? Twitter untwists them again because mis-information, rumour, propaganda and attempts to pull the wool over our eyes are quickly flagged up on Twitter if you have chosen the right people to follow. So, far from spreading rumour and mis-information, which powerful people often accuse it of doing, Twitter does more than anything to get to the truth. Stephen Fry is just one of the people I trust to help do this.
The other people I follow - and by 'follow' that means you get to see all the tweets they make (in case you were wondering) - are a mix of local people, those with interests that match mine and other intelligent and interesting people I trust, including a few articulate celebrities (Clare Balding, Eddie Izzard, Tim Minchin). It's even useful to follow people on Twitter who you know you don't see eye to eye with on political issues, for instance, but you can trust them to provide some insight and be articulate. The fact that you probably wouldn't do that in 'real life' is another asset of Twitter.
It's also fun because some people have adopted alter egos based on real people, including the Queen and Stanley Unwin, and it is always entertaining to hear what they are saying. All human life is there.
But it's the way that we process, receive and transmit information in the 21st century that is the most significant thing about Twitter for me, so mark my words that it, or something very much like it, is the future of communication.
I would urge anybody who isn't on Twitter or isn't active to get on to it now. If you aren't yet, I guarantee you soon will be unless you are completely happy with what the rest of the media serves up. If nothing else, do it because this government, along with all other governments, hates it.
For plebs like us to have such a powerful tool, that they can't influence unless they change their attitudes and make a genuine effort to reach out to people - and which politicians could never regulate, is seriously bad news for them and seriously good news for democracy, if you ask me.
Which, of course, you aren't - unless you follow me on Twitter.
For the record, as far as the Twitterverse is concerned, I am @grahamrcarter. Who are you?
October 22-31, 2012
If anybody reads or stumbles upon this blog in the future, they will wonder why there is a black hole at the end of October 2012, especially as I have been trying to make an effort, just lately, to write more stuff. You could be excused for thinking that nothing has been happening in my life, but the opposite is true - and some of it even brings tiny buds of hope that it could lead to interesting career developments.
As well as having to cope with the trauma of replacing an old computer with a new one, October also included my daughter Holly's 18th birthday, and has seen not one but two major Alfred Williams events that I have been a part of. Our band has played three gigs in the space of eight days. Last week that meant playing together for three nights on the trot - rehearsal followed by two gigs.
Meanwhile, I have been designing a brand new glossy magazine that will be launched in the New Year, along with a new website, which is pretty exciting, and simultaneously working on various pet heritage projects.
My role as a trustee of the Mechanics' Institution Trust is taking up more of my time in a period that is crucial for the rescue of the building. I can't elaborate, but optimism for the future of the building is higher than at any time in the last 25 years - and not just optimistic but also realistic.
We've also had some good news on the Alfred Williams front, which will come out in due course.
I'm not going to say this too loudly, but I have a funny feeling that 2013, thank goodness, is going to turn out much more productive than 2012.
RIP iMac G4 (1998-2012)
I knew it would be tempting fate to talk about our house being a museum of working Macs (see below) because hardly was the hypothetical digital ink dry on my post than my oldest one was taken seriously ill.
It froze in the middle of some work I was doing, which isn't normally a big thing as when you restart it, it usually carries on as if nothing happened. But I got the dreaded flashing question mark and only succeeded in resuscitating it with the third re-start disc, after two or three hours of trying.
But it refused to work independently of this and reported "serious damage" to the hard disc, which is as bad as it sounds. Computers doing this kind of thing is usually a signal to start tearing your hair out and cussing, but considering it is 14 years old, which is a good age for a computer, and has never let me down before, I only felt sadness - and not just because we had to go out and replace it, along with the software, at great expense.
The new Mac is, as you would expect, a joy to work with, and the old one looks ridiculously old-fashioned next to it, but I can't tell you how guilty I felt turning it off for the last time, especially when it was actually still working and kindly giving up its data without a fight. It was several days before I could bring myself to shut it down, and I am currently keeping it on the desk as a mark of respect.
They have a word for this kind of thing. It's called euthanasia.
October 20-21, 2012
The stresses and strains of the weekend
Well that was a stressful weekend, and I'm glad it's behind me. But at the same time it was also strangely satisfying, fullfilling and even uplifting. Do you ever have a weekend when nothing makes much sense?
I have weekends like this because I am simultaneously blessed and cursed with an inquisitive nature that prevents me from sitting down and relaxing while there are still new things to find out, new things to experience and new places to go. I really should have been born on Mars instead of a planet with endless opportunities for discovery.
My curiosity is always whispering in my ear and telling me that if I don't get out, I'll regret missing something really good; but this is nothing compared with my natural and sometimes crippling shyness, which is always shouting at me to hide in the corner or, better still, stay at home. Every day I have to beat it down with a stick.
Worst of all - even though I hate organising things and putting myself forward - I always end up in the spotlight, thinking I would give anything if I could swap places with somebody, anybody, in the audience. And so it was with this weekend's events.
Before I first played the drums in public, my drum teacher said all performers have to get over that first performance, but once they do, the adrenalin kicks in and you get a liking for it, so you actually look forward to the next one. I didn't believe it at the time and now I know for sure that this will never be the case with me. Every time I am loading the drums in the car to go to a gig I'm wondering why the hell I am putting myself through this when I could be sat at home with my feet up.
This time I was also kicking myself because a double-booking error on my part meant I missed the chance to see my son Sean play his first gig as a drummer with Julesbury - the duo featuring my godson Frank Lucas which has temporarily upgraded to a four-piece band. So not only was I worried about surviving my own gig, but wondering how the other was going. Apparently and not surprisingly, there was no need to worry on that score. It didn't matter whether I was there or not.
I normally spend the day after a gig breathing huge sighs of relief, but this time I had to prepare and then help orchestrate another challenge, because this one just had to be done today. October 21 marked exactly one hundred years to the day since A Wiltshire Village, the first book of prose by my hero Alfred Williams was published.
Me and my colleagues in the Alfred Williams Heritage Society couldn't let this go by without marking it, so we dreamt up an event at the Carpenters Arms in South Marston, which is the Wiltshire village the book is all about. The format was simply about bringing together people who have connections with the book, including several who are descended from the real characters in it; selecting some interesting extracts to get them to read; adding a few relevant (and rather good) songs, written and performed by our chairman John Cullimore; and marrying it to a Powerpoint slideshow assembled by me.
So it was a relief when it passed off pretty successfully, with a good turnout of about 40 interested people and my colleague Caroline Ockwell, who had the main job of organising it, also proving an excellent host. I didn't have the pressure of actually speaking myself, apart from mumbling a few things about our plans for 2013 at the end. My main duty was setting up the equipment, then sitting in the background and doing relatively simple things at key moments (but which will have everybody leering at you if you cock them up) and generally relying on my sense of timing - so more or less the same challenges as drumming.
There was also a (sort of nominal) special draught beer for the occasion, and I had the pleasure of designing the pump clip. Having designed the labels for previous Alfred Williams bottled beers, this was fulfilling another small ambition, and I was quite pleased with the outcome.
Apart from marking an anniversary that would have made our hero Alfred rightfully proud, the good thing about events like these is they bring interesting and interested people together under one roof at one moment in time, which is always uplifting, therefore counteracting the stress and the trials we put ourselves through.
It's not rock 'n' roll, but it is nice to send intelligent people home, having helped to inform and entertain them for two and a half hours.
And the last word must go to the man who stole the show - Eric Barnes, who is 81 and has lived at the intriguingly named Catsbrain Farm near South Marston since 1938. We asked him to dress up and play the part of a shepherd in one extract (pictured), which made full use of his beautiful thick Wiltshire accent, and we also got him to do another reading about one of the farms where Alfred worked as a child.
In fact, Eric capped the evening off perfectly because if he had been born a century earlier, Alfred would have chosen him - and indeed his co-performer Chris Park - as one of the colourful characters featured in A Wiltshire Village.
It was certainly worth the stresses and strains of the weekend to meet him, and the bonus is I've had an invitation to visit him at his farm.
All kitted out
The drums are multiplying in our house. Double-booking two Carter drumming gigs on the same night forced us to buy a new set of cymbals, so we now have three full drum kits - an electronic one, for practising; my practising and gig kit; and Sean's teaching/gig kit.
This obviously causes storage and transport problems, but you'd be surprised how easily they can be packed into cupboards and how neatly they'll fit into small and a medium-sized cars and still leave room for passengers.
October 19, 2012
In search of Alfred's tree
Much of what follows in this blog entry will seem pretty weird if you don't already know of my fascination about the life and works of Alfred Williams.
Actually, it will still seem weird if you do know about that, because I spent most of the afternoon today searching for a tree. But not just any old tree; the tree.
There is a lovely story attached to Alfred that he used to spend a lot of his time sat in his favourite tree near South Marston, his home village, contemplating life and the countryside he loved, sometimes composing poems in his head before running home to get them down on paper.
He even wrote about it in A Wiltshire Village, a book that has a significance that will become clear shortly:
A large willow-tree, strong and three-forked, grows over the deep pool just below the hatch [a kind of weir used for irrigation]. The branching takes place about two feet or so from the base of the tree; one arm juts out over the water, and then grows upward, forming an ideal seat. Here in the sultry days of summer, when the sun's rays pour down from the cloudless sky like a furnace, and the whole earth is parched and withered with it, you may sit in luxury, cool and undiscovered, for scarcely anyone comes to disturb the solitude of the place. The express trains, from time to time, thunder along the embankment; far off you may dimly hear the wheels of traffic proceeding up the highway, but it does not interfere with your peace and reverie, for you are most completely concealed from all this, and are inured to the sound of it. The meadow-sweet and willow-herb blossom around you, high clumps of hawthorn, overhanging the stream, protect you on that side, abundant crane's bill and comfrey grow on the banks beyond, pretty cinquefoil blooms and hangs from the walls of the hatches in traces, large clusters of luxuriant forget-me-not thrive right under the walls themselves.
This was published precisely 99 years and 363 days ago - which gives you a clue about why I tried to track down this specific tree today, ahead of Sunday's centenary. In (I believe) the 1940s - so more than ten years after Alfred's death - his friend Henry Byett photographed himself in the same tree (see above), but I'd never seen it.
At least 82 years after Alfred last sat in the tree - because that's how long he's been dead - I doubted it would still be there, and even if it was, it would probably be unidentifiable, all this time later.
But when I recently did a talk about Alfred during the Swindon Festival of Poetry, somebody who I'd never met before came up to me and said he reckoned he had found the celebrated tree.
So I finally set off with his instructions to park by one of the little bridges under the railway line before you reach Acorn Bridge, find the bridge that takes the River Cole under the railway, and look for one of the old willows on the right.
I have to say that two other willows had me fairly convinced I had found the right one before I spotted another candidate - and instantly knew it was third time lucky.
So I took panoramic pictures (giving a false perspective, see below) of the tree and the spot, as well as standard ones, but was on the wrong side of the river, and wanted to get closer. This required walking back out the way I came, driving as close to Acorn Bridge as I could, walking under it and then climbing a gate and picking my way through half-flooded fields until I finally reached the tree.
It's hard to guess how trees might grow and differ over decades, and it had branched out in unpredictable ways. A large branch had seemingly grown out almost horizontally from the bit used as a seat, and if you tried to sit there now you would have a smaller branch across your chest. But there seemed no doubt from the description and the old picture that this was Alfred's tree, at least 82 years on. The old picture appears to show the tree more elevated above the ground than today, but it was clear there had been some build up of the ground due to flooding, and Alfred's description of the unusual forking from two feet above the ground seemed spot on. Other willows along the same stretch were noticeably different.
And getting up close gave me two more clues that confirmed it beyond all reasonable doubt.
For one thing, close by I found comfrey growing (as pictured), just as Alfred had written, although, because of my much inferior knowledge of these things, I needed to check it later on the internet to be sure.
The other - surely clinching - evidence was provided by the gamekeeper. I was just about to go home when he turned up in an all-terrain buggy of some kind, obviously suspicious of what I was up to. He said I was on private ground, but told me nicely because he realised I was harmless enough. Mind you, that was before I explained about Alfred and sitting in the tree and - now in steady drizzle, which made the quest seem even more bizarre - my mission to find and photograph this particular tree.
Despite being a gamekeeper on land not much more than a mile from the epicentre of Alfred's amazing life, he'd never even heard of him, but did provide me with the final piece in the puzzle because we got talking about the pool beside the tree, which is currently about the size of two or three tennis courts and gets bigger in even rainier periods.
I asked him if it was deep, hoping he would say yes, and he did. He said it is about 15 feet in the middle, which means it must be the "deep pool just below the hatch" as described by Alfred. He pointed out that it isn't fed by the river as the other side, which is fed through the hatches, yet it never dries, not even during a drought, and he said there must be a spring.
It was about this time that I noticed the gamekeeper had a rifle attached to the side of his buggy, which he probably uses for shooting dumb animals.
Fortunately he doesn't do the same for eccentric people who give themselves mad missions of tracking down historical evidence of their literary heroes on wet afternoons in October. Or, to put it another way, are out of their tree.
October 15, 2012
At least one person so far has assumed Carter Collectables is something to do with me.
In fact, it's the work of my twin brother, Brian, although I can see how the wallowing in nostalgia/memorabilia could suggest my own hand. And the website looks so good that if anybody asks me if the striking design and innovative ideas are my own work, I will probably lie and say yes.
The website, like the venture, is still very much in its infancy, but is already worth a look.
Storm in a teacup
Every time we go to The Watermill at Newbury, I say what a treat it is. That's partly because the stuff they put on is so damned good, but also because of the atmosphere and intimacy of the theatre. You are always close to the action - and tonight we were so close as to feel like we were in it.
We now see virtually everything at The Watermill that runs for a week or more; in fact, most run for about a month. The latest is The Tempest, a play that I had never seen before, nor knew much about.
During the drive there Julie struggled to remember anything about it either, even though she'd studied it for A-level, so we had a quick check on Wikipedia. Anybody who says Shakespeare is difficult to follow is speaking from inexperience. All you need is five minutes to get a quick synopsis and you have enough information to keep you up to speed with most of what's going on. That's even true of The Tempest, which has several sub-plots.
The Tempest would be great at any venue, but your enjoyment is doubled for being at The Watermill, and it was doubled again when we realised that our tickets for Row B were not, as we assumed, the second row from the front, but - because they had enlarged the stage slightly and taken out Row A - now the front row. And we were sat right in the centre, literally looking up Prospero's nose at one stage. In fact, he was stood so close for the scene pictured above, which is the entry of Ariel, the fairy - who looked more like Kate Bush, ready to sing Wuthering Heights - that I couldn't see her until he finished his speech.
As ever at The Watermill, the acting was excellent, including a close-up masterclass in how to act drunk. The direction was good too, although I was a bit disappointed they didn't do much to portray the tempest at the beginning.
They made up for it with the dreamy wedding scene, though, which includes the play's most famous line, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."
Which is a fitting place to end this little review.
Life in Spitalfields, wherever that is
I have to mention a great blog I've discovered, which is called Spitalfields Life.
I'm not even sure where Spitalfields is, exactly, except I know it's in London and I understand it is quite EastEnd-ish. Anyway, Spitalfields Life is published by somebody who calls himself The Gentle Author and has set himself (or maybe herself) the job of writing an entry every day, capturing everyday life in the aforesaid part of London.
I believe it has been running for three years, but having finally discovered it myself, I am now avidly following it as it does a brilliant job of turning ordinary things - shops, doors, ex-boxers, eccentric members of the public, local artists, etc - into something special.
This is what blogging is all about and I wish I had the time and the inspiration to do something similar about Swindon.
October 14, 2012
All grown up
It was big milestone day in our household today as my daughter Holly celebrated her 18th birthday.
Therefore - officially and legally - both our children have grown up, which is a pretty weird feeling, even if you have had time to anticipate it.
But if it's tough to accept just how old you are getting, and how quickly the last 18 years have flown by, it didn't stop us having a good day. Or, more accurately, a great day.
It started with Holly being thrilled that our main present to her was a Mac, which she had bargained on trying to buy later in the day through a combination of a contribution from us and her savings. We are also going to buy her Photoshop to go on it, which is all essential for her artwork.
During the daytime we had visits from various family members, including the three Swindon 'oldies', who, despite a combined age of over 250 and less than perfect health, we were delighted they came round for some cake.
It is traditional for birthdays in our house to be celebrated with a family meal, and Holly's choice was curry, so, in the evening, those who could and were willing joined in a 14-strong gettogether at Rushi's. It was nice that it included Holly's Uncle Steve and (the majority of) his family as he has spent most of the year working abroad, chiefly in the USA, so his homecoming was perfect timing. The food was excellent and the welcome as friendly as ever, which has led me to declare it Swindon's premier Indian restaurant.
The funny thing about our children's childhoods is most of it is a blur. Julie seems able to recall minute details, even from when they were very young, and can instantly recall such milestones as first words and first steps in their perfect chronological context, as well as other details that I have forgotten.
But today was such a nice one that I hope this milestone is remembered for many years to come.
Holly's new Mac means we now have six of them in our house, along with various other hand-held devices with the Apple logo on the back, and precisely nothing that bears the name Microsoft. This is notable for several reasons.
Firstly, it is easily the greatest example of brand loyalty you will find in our household. The only thing that even comes close is my refusal, under normal circumstances, to buy any brand of brown sauce (which I love) apart from Branston Fruity.
A couple of our Macs are now pretty old, and one of them could even be said to be ancient in computing terms; and the main reason we have so many is they never die. I think we have owned nine altogether, and of the three that are gone, I gave two away to schools in full working order, so they may well still be going. As far as we are aware, only one has gone to the great computer graveyard in the sky, and even that was probably easily fixable because it was the replaceable rechargeable battery pack that gave out, not the computer itself.
Even if you are one of those people clinging to the forlorn hope that PCs will, in some bizarre fashion, one day provide better value for money, you'd have to agree that all this is nothing if not a triumph for sustainability.
Most importantly, Apples keep the doctor away. Computers can be extremely stressful things, but to me the happy sight of the Apple logo brings a measure of calmness, contentment and reassurance seldom experienced in other aspects of life.