(Newest entries first)

The four tenners

Sean and his three mates (Connor, Bob and Macca) got a nice surprise tonight after their band, The Dead Stand Guard, played at The Furnace (formerly Level 3 and The Rolleston before that).

They were third on the bill (out of three) which was headlined by an American band called Across Five Aprils. In our day we would have said 'top of the bill' instead of 'headlined', although we obviously wouldn't be so uncool as to say that now.

Sean was playing guitar, even though drums is his first instrument, and the drummer was Macca who does a lot of heavy metal drumming, which involves some really fast footwork, with both feet working the bass.

Being old and embarrassing - especially to 15-year-olds - we were naturally banned from going along and watching, even though we are avid fans of heavy metal (not).

They played five songs and he said they went down quite well and they also got on well with the top of the... I mean the headliners, who seemed like they were a decent lot.

Then, to top it off, they got paid for performing - 10 each! Apparently, it hadn't occurred to any of them that they might get paid, and they would have been happy to do it for free, just for the experience.

I suggested to Sean that they should now be called The Grateful Dead Stand Guard, but it was lost on him as he had never heard of The Grateful Dead.

Holly flies the flag

Chess has once again consumed virtually my whole weekend - but it was certainly worth it.

Not only do I have a daughter who has something of a gift for playing chess, but I also have an annoying tendency to volunteer to help other kids who want to play it (as a member of the committee of Wiltshire Junior Chess).

These two things combined to take me to West Lavington all day on Saturday for something called the Megafinal. This is the Wessex (Wiltshire and Dorset) final of a national competition called the UK Chess Challenge which claims to be the biggest junior chess tournament in the world. There were 73,000 entries this year, with the preliminary rounds being played at schools.

Holly won the title of Suprema (girls' winner) for her age group - for the fifth year running. That, in itself, is not as hard as it might seem as there was only one other under-12 girl in it - and she scored three - but Holly's four wins and a draw out of six (all against boys) meant that she would also have qualified if she was a boy because they needed four points to make it through to the next round. She also beat the Supremo (boys' winner) who otherwise won five out of six. This isn't even her strongest type of chess as each player only had 25 minutes per game, which is called 'rapidplay'. She's much happier with three times as long on the clock, and you could say it's like one-day cricket compared with proper Test matches.

Despite being a bit miffed at losing her last match - against a boy she usually beats, and although the pressure was off because she had already qualified - it was a good day for her, and also for me, who ended up running the competition for the under-8s and under-7s, the two youngest groups. A few of these are already pretty good, but most are almost novices and some had to be stopped from taking their opponent's king (for those who don't play chess, this is a move that is not only illegal but misses the whole point of the game). Still, they were all nice kids and I was pretty pleased to spot one kid who is new to this sort of competition but obviously has the potential to play for Wiltshire - and was asked to join the under-9 team by the end of the day, even though he's an under-8.

The next round of the UK Chess Challenge is the national Gigafinal - although it is actually split into northern and southern heats. For three years out of the previous four she has entered, Holly has actually qualified for the round beyond that - a kind of gala weekend called the Terafinal, featuring the top 120 kids from the original 73,000.

My duties, yesterday, also included helping to set up the tournament and sweeping the hall afterwards, which added up to getting home more than 12 hours after leaving at 7.15am.

As if that wasn't enough chess, we also had to get up early on Sunday to drive Holly to Monmouth, where she had been asked to play for Wiltshire in a special invitation match. A group of chess-playing schoolchildren are visiting from the Ukraine, and Monmouthshire had invited Wiltshire along to make up a triangular match with teams of 10.

There were rumours that the Ukrainians were very strong, even though they were only 11-year-olds, so it was decided to send a team of under-18s from Wiltshire. This included Holly, who is 12, and she played at number six in the team - higher than normal as some Wiltshire players were unavailable.

In the event, it turned out that the Ukrainians were all from one school in Kiev, so hardly the national team, although chess is obviously huge in that part of the world and in the Ukraine it's on the national curriculum. And they were accompanied by their mentor, who is a grandmaster. They were apparently very surprised to find that chess isn't on the curriculum over here.

It was decided that the top two players in the Wiltshire team would play the Ukrainian grandmaster (two games simultaneously), which meant that the rest of the team had to shift two places up - so now Holly was number four. Coincidentally, this put her up against the only girl in the Ukrainian team, who was called Vika. Although the Ukrainians turned out to be much weaker than expected, Wiltshire still did well to beat them 8-2, and Holly won her game very quickly, in 16 moves.

The team had earlier beaten Monmouthshire 5-3 (though Holly lost her game against an older boy) - and this was a surprising win considering they are strong, although they apparently also had a weakened team.

This is the second (sort of) international competition Holly has played in - Wiltshire having been invited to a competition against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a couple of years ago (when she also won one and lost one).

The nicest thing about this latest one is that the kids were given goody bags which included some information about the school (in Kiev), a little flag and a bar of Ukrainian chocolate.

I am busy trying to convince Holly that the chocolate is not for eating but rather to keep as a souvenir of her weekend.

The pictures, below, are from just before the start of the games and afterwards (the Wiltshire team, including boys holding flags, are on the righthand side). The picture above is Holly with her trophy and rosette from Saturday and her mementoes from Sunday.

Thunderbirds are not go

I have to wait a bit longer before I make my first eBay sale - on account of nobody bidding for the Thunderbirds wallpaper (see below).

eBay virginity lost

After 59 purchases on eBay, I've finally done something that is entirely against my nature and put something up for auction.

Over the last couple of months we have been going through Julie's dad's effects and have kept all the important family heirloom stuff and let loads go to charity shops, but we were left with various bits and pieces which were crying out to be sold on eBay.

I am about to put a massive record collection that belongs to Julie's brother, John, up for auction, plus some other bits and pieces, but I thought I would get myself acquainted with the strange process of selling by putting a roll of Thunderbirds wallpaper on eBay.

It's been up there for a few days but nobody's bid for it yet. I'm secretly pleased because as a natural-born hoarder, I hate to see anything go.

Come on you... um, blues!

It was a day for celebrating promotion today - but if that seems premature (considering Town still aren't definitely promoted), it wasn't too early at all as I was supporting Hartlepool!

I was at Adams Park, Wycombe, where an 80th minute goal gave Hartlepool a 1-0 win and two points more than they needed to confirm promotion.

I went with Steve Hall, my friend from Australia, who has somehow wangled a business trip over here which miraculously coincides with his number one team (Swindon Town) and his number two team (Hartlepool) achieving their respective goals of promotion and the League Two championship (we hope).

Both me and Sean went along with him after meeting up for lunch, and sat amongst the strange speaking Hartlepool fans, feeling like gatecrashers and trying to look as excited as they were. In fact, it was really nice to go along to support a team and not really worry so much about the outcome. But it made the friendly congratulations we got from the fans from Wycombe - which is a really friendly little club - a bit embarrassing.

This is not the first time I've travelled to see Hartlepool, by the way. They were in a play-off semi-final at Cheltenham three or four years ago and I went with Steve again. That time they undeservedly lost on penalties. It's not the first time I've been to Wycombe's ground, either, as I saw Town win 3-0 there, almost exactly three years ago.

Yesterday was a lovely sunny day, there was a great atmosphere and Hartlepool fully deserved to win, but it was nevertheless pretty strange to be paying to support a team wearing blue. Actually, they were in their changed strip of yellow, but you know what I mean.

Below are some pictures, including the suitably pleased genuine fan next to us, who had come all the way from Sydney for the match. Well, sort of. He is on the phone to his brother in Madrid who is, coincidentally, also a Hartlepool fan.





Panoramas and other pictures

I've been sorting though some of my digital pictures from the last seven years - and have uploaded another batch of arty pictures, including 20 panoramas. See the Pictures section.



Diabetes, stem cells and George W Bush

It's strange that no sooner is Holly diagnosed with diabetes than news of a kind of 'wonder cure' hits the headlines (click here to see yesterday's BBC News website report).

Basically, some researchers believe they have made a big step forward by transplanting stem cells into patients via bone marrow - although it is early days yet and Diabetes UK, the charity/support group (which we've just joined) are very cautious (this is what they have to say).

Generally, though, I get the impression that it's not a question of if they can find a cure but when - and my money is certainly on stem cells, judging by what I've read about them.

In fact, I wrote a column for the Adver about it in July 2005. When I read it back now, it is as if I had a crystal ball - although I never foresaw that George W Bush would take the crazy (not to mention undemocratic) step, in July 2006, of vetoing federal funding for stem cell research on some sick-minded religious pretext (see the BBC report of this).

It's ironic that while we are supposed to think that fundamentalist Muslim terrorism is the biggest threat we face, our real worries should be over the dangerous mental state of the leader of the Free World who clearly presents the true enemy of all decent and right-thinking people in the world (there, that's told him).

Here's what I wrote:


I don't know if you think about nasal hair much, but I think about it alot these days.
I can't help thinking about how efficient the human body is at protecting itself from any kind of threat, so all this extra hair that has been sprouting out of my nose since I reached my forties must be there for a reason.
I dread to think what I'm going to need it for, and I wonder whether I should stop cutting it off, just in case.
Of course, this is just one symptom of reaching your forties and noticing how you are slowly losing control of your body.
You also notice that people around you who have been in good health all these years start to fall foul to various ailments, illnesses and conditions.
And you can't help wondering which one has your name on it.
But my spirits were raised sky high at the weekend when I read a highly objective article - in National Geographic, of all places - about stem cell research.
As soon as you start to learn about stem cells you realise we are standing not just on the threshold of a medical milestone but one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of any kind.
In 20 years' time we might even be talking in terms of it being man's greatest achievement.
Certainly, if doctors achieve half of what they are hoping for with stem cells, it will make discoveries such as electricity look like cheap conjuring trips.
To give just one of many possible examples, scientists are developing stem cells which can be grown into insulin-producing cells that will one day produce a cure for diabetes.
But there is a moral dilemma in that the start of the process sometimes needs cells from embryos as building blocks for the stem cells.
And this hasn't gone down well with the so-called 'pro-life' lobby, led by President Bush, the Catholic Church and other powerful conservative Christians.
They object on the grounds that doctors create embryos for the sole purpose of turning them into stem cells.
Some say this is like 'playing God' and therefore wrong, regardless of the gigantic opportunity to prevent death and relieve suffering that it brings within our grasp.
While Bush banned the creation of new embryos for stem cell research back in August 2001, our own government has been busy pouring money into it - to the extent where we are now among the world leaders.
The basics of stem cell science is surprisingly easy to understand - even if, like me, you failed to get a single O Level in science.
And, as I see it, the moral controversy is really over one issue - the emotion caused by the word 'embryo'.
The embryos used to kick-start stem cell production are created in labs and allowed to develop for just five days - by which time they are perfect for the next step.
Far from having any human form whatsoever, at this stage they are smaller than the full stop at the end of this sentence.
And they are made up of bogstandard, one-size-fits-all cells which haven't yet had the chance to develop into any of the 200 different types of specialist cells that make up a human being.
This immaturity is precisely the reason why they are useful.
The irony is that, in the long term, the argument will inevitably be decided by something even more powerful than the United States and the Catholic Church put together - namely money.
We are talking about the United States, after all.
While other nations, such as us, Korea and Singapore, pour billions into a field with the potential to make trillions of dollars, sooner or later economics will win the day on the other side of the Atlantic too.
The only real question to be answered is which generation will be first to reap this medical jackpot - mine or my children's.

Lydiard Park

We had a little trip to Lydiard Park for a bit of a walkabout over Easter. They've done a lot of work there - all part of a massive Lottery grant which is being used to restore some of the estate's old features like landscaped gardens and things.

I can't say I fully approve of spending lots of money on former stately homes - especially minor ones like Lydiard - when it could be better spent on heritage more fitting to Swindon's industrial history and its ordinary people (ie me). Still, it will be interesting to see what comes of it and so far it's quite an improvement - especially the opening up of the lake and a Geneva-like fountain.

We met a bloke who latched on to us and told us all about the work they were doing, giving us a bit of a tour. He wasn't in any official capacity or anything, just somebody who wanted to chat. So we did.

While I was there I spotted a woman who looked like a film star who didn't want to be recognised. She was with her daughter and, as the pictures shows, they weren't very happy about being photographed. But it was a good job I had my camera with me.

Killer Bees

There I was, in Borders, minding my own business, looking at the books, when I notice they are playing music.

"Hmmm, I really like that," I think, "and the drumming's great." Then I try to concentrate on the books but find that the more I listen to the music, the more I like it.

It's difficult to categorise because it's rock/pop with an unmistakable 1960s feel but it also sounds a bit South American, and because it includes trumpets, it has a bit of Cuban blues/jazz about it. At times it sounds to me like Kula Shaker and even The Dukes of Stratosphear (ie XTC).

"Hey, I really like this," I think, and decide to investigate. I look round for an assistant who might know what it is but there's nobody about. I eventually spot somebody but he's busy with another customer and is taking ages, searching for some book or other on the computer.

Meanwhile, the music has moved on to another track, and now I envisage having to go through the painful process of trying to find out what music had just been played and making a complete fool of myself, but it soon becomes apparent that the next song is by the same band and they are playing through the whole CD.

In the end, the bloke sees me waiting and puts out a call for somebody else to come and see me. When he arrives I ask him what the music is and he points to a large plastic thing, right in front of me, bearing the words "NOW PLAYING", which has the CD in it.

What a prat. Still, I discover that the CD is called Octopus and is by a group called The Bees who are no doubt well known to everybody under 30 but I've never heard of them. I'd already decided to buy the album on the strength of the two songs I'd heard.

When we go to pay for it, another assistant enthuses about it being a great album, and we have to go through the whole story of why I bought it - and I add that it's only the second time in my life that I'd bought a record/CD after hearing it played in the shop. The first time was the single, I Don't Like Mondays, by The Boomtown Rats, which I heard in a shop in Bournemouth. It had then only just been released and turned out to be a massive hit.

I reckon this is going to be just as big a 'discovery' because The Bees didn't disappoint when I got them home - and not only that but Sean, Julie and even Holly all liked it, which is possibly a family first. And it sounds even better on the iPod.

The player, below, plays the song I first heard in the shop, called Left Foot Stepdown.


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