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Thirty years on

Tonight it was the long-awaited Kingsdown class of '77 reunion - marking 30 years since we took our O-Levels (although I stayed on for another couple of years). It was at the Premier Club in Ermin Street and it was a great night, although I had found the idea a bit daunting - partly because I am so hopeless at remembering faces and recognising people that it sometimes really worries me.

There was a good turn-out - which raised more than 400 for Prospect Hospice - and included some people I hadn't expected to turn up. I mostly spoke to Sean and Mandy Enright, Andy Midwinter, Jerry Marchant, Denise Fowler, Jehan Effat, Kim Brokenshire, Barry Lowe, Mike Roberts (who's been married to Jill Owen for 24 years), Alison Hearn, Ann Carter (no relation), Robert Taphouse, Graham Light and Crystal Butler, and of course James Greenslade - who stole the show by digging out his school blazer (and tie) and not only wearing it but being able to do up the buttons!

What really struck me about it all was how happy everyone seemed. Some of them had been through some crises - and quite a few were divorced and/or remarried - but seemed very philosophical about getting to our age, and keen to enjoy life.

I got a lift home with Mandy and Sean Enright - who had worked in lots of different places but had ended up living in Swindon again since 2001. Sean said that apart from James, I was the one there who had changed the least (in terms of being recognisable). I was surprisingly good at recognising people, although the men were difficult because hardly any of them had hair. In fact, as I was relatively early to arrive, for a time I was the man with the most hair - and I was still in the top three after everybody arrived.

To cap a really great night, my number was second out in the raffle - and whoever had first pick left the retro Bush radio, so I came home with that.

The only downside was that Lukey (Pete Lucas) pulled out at the last minute because he was having chest pains, which is apparently and hopefully not as serious as it sounds. He had been really looking forward to the reunion.

Everybody was putting their email addresses on a list at the end, so the often-heard phrase at the end of these things - "We should try to keep in touch" - is not an empty gesture as it might usually have been, thanks to the miracle of email.

Hopefully, it won't be another 30 years before the next reunion, by which time we shall all be 76.

Stag and kebab please

You wait ages for a stag night to come along, and then three come along, all at once. Tonight it was Mark's turn (ahead of his and Maxine's wedding in a couple of weeks) and next week I'm off to Dublin for Glyn's.

As with Richard's, Mark's was at the Globe, where the older generation sat in the corner supping while Mark stood around in his grass skirt and garlands. Not sure if this is what usually happens on Friday nights in Old Town.

We all stayed together until about an hour before closing when the youngsters went off to Rudi's - obviously unable to keep pace with us. Me, Brian, Ronald and Maurice eventually went off for a kebab - incredibly, the latter two's first ever takeaway kebab.


Worked out

Sean finished his work experience today - two weeks of going around with our drum teacher, Paul Ashman and helping in Rock 'n' Roll Music, a music shop in Rodbourne.

It's been a great fortnight which he has enjoyed, and he has been well looked-after. Best of all, it has shown him a nice lifestyle which he can aspire to. I almost feel like getting him to do two weeks somewhere less stimulating, such as on a till or stuck in a boring office, to show him the alternative - although that may not be necessary.

He seems keener than ever to practice and realises that it's now up to him. I think some kids get nothing from their work experience, but in this case it was mission accomplished.

Too many Kooks

After watching bits of Glastonbury - mainly to see if I could catch The Bees or a glimpse of my nephew, Glyn, who was one of the senior paramedics in charge (and I saw neither) - I have to say I wasn't too impressed. The Killers - whose single, Somebody Told Me, wasn't bad - weren't up to much, despite being hyped up, and I've never been a fan of Shirley Bassey.

However, I did see a tiny bit of The Kooks who are OK - and discovered Sean is a lookalike of lead singer Luke Pritchard, as the two pictures, below, prove. Apparently, other people have told him, "Hey - you look like Luke from The Kooks."

Essential street credibility information: Kooks rhymes with spooks, not books.

Sean the workie

You know you're getting old when you have to drop your son off at work on a Monday morning.

It wasn't a real job, of course, only the first day of being a 'workie' (ie on work experience), as Sean went off for two weeks at Rock 'n' Roll Music, a music shop in Rodbourne. It's a little shop that started out selling drums but now also sells guitars - and possibly a few other musical things, I think. He'll also be spending some time with his/my drum teacher, Paul Ashman.

There isn't much to report as it was a very quiet day, but Sean seemed to get on OK. He didn't even seem to mind the hours - 10am to 6pm.

Unlike some work experience things set up by schools, this one is quite relevant as at the time of going to press, Sean is looking to do some kind of work that involves music. Hopefully that will involve drum teaching.

Although as his father I'm obviously biased, I have to say that he's a really good drummer and capable of making at least some money out of it when he's older (and I do know what it takes to be a drummer, being one myself). By the time he leaves school (NEXT YEAR!) he will already have some qualifications to prove it. He's already decided which A-Levels he's going to do next year - music, music tech and English - and it's almost certain he will choose to go to New College.

Buzzwords

There was a fascinating sequel to the story of the bees that were swarming at our mum's house, which became a bit of a saga last weekend.

I got chatting to the beekeeper who came out to look at them, and he said there were some observation hives at Stanton Park, so I arranged to go out and see them today with a view to writing something for the Adver - which I will, next week.

I decided to take Holly along to help, and Julie wanted to come too. It turned out to be a really interesting visit - and when we finally left, we realised we had been there for more than three hours.

The chap in charge is called Ron Hoskins. He's 76 and has been keeping bees since he was 12, so knows just about everything there is to know about them - which is a lot - and is also involved in research into mites called varroa which have wiped out two thirds of British bees since the early 1990s. Therefore, the little site at Stanton has become a bit of a conservation project. Although it's fairly little, they have at least 10 million bees.

There's a little observation hive, set into the wall of a shed, where you can see them through glass, but anybody who wants to turn up can actually get up close to the proper hives, wearing the bee suits they provide. You only have to take along wellies or walking boots, dress sensibly - the suits only cover your top half - and pop into Tesco on the way, to pick up a pair of Marigold gloves.

Any apprehensiveness you might have about getting up really close to all those bees soon disappears, even when you ask Ron how often he gets stung and he says, "Oh, every day, more or less." In the end, it's not the least bit scary but totally absorbing as you realise just how clever bees are - and that they are living proof of evolution in action.

Ron was not only knowledgable but able to articulate his experience and love of beekeeping, which made it all the more enjoyable, and I also came away with a souvenir of a honey comb that he removed from one of the hives (the irregular shaped one in one of the pictures, below).

Definitely the best three hours of free entertainment I have had in a long time.






Sobering afterthought: if all the bees in the world were wiped out, the human race would also perish in four to six years.

Ray Godbeer 1930-2007

Today was the funeral of Ray Godbeer, my brother's father-in-law, whom I have only ever known as 'Jenny's Dad'. He succumbed to motor neurone disease, mercifully quickly in the end.

It was the first funeral I'd ever been to where there were no hymns, and I have to say it was much better for it. It left more time for the guy who was conducting it - who had no religious axe to grind - to tell the story of Ray's life. I think all the funerals I've been to lately have had an element of revealing something about the deceased that I never knew about them when they were alive - and this one more than any of them. It's so much better than singing the increasingly meaningless words of dreary tunes that nobody really likes while somebody forces you to pray. Today it was a case of "Remember him in your own way and pray if you wish."

One of the things we heard was that Ray, who grew up in Dorset, was attacked, along with his mates, by a lone German plane, one afternoon during the war, and had to dive behind a wall. They also walked through a minefield, following a route they had seen soldiers taking.

I've never been very keen on funerals for several reasons - I know there aren't many people who enjoy funerals, but what I mean is that I sometimes wonder if they actually serve any purpose in the 21st Century. One of the things I don't like is that if you aren't careful, you end up remembering people for a) the way they died and b) their funeral. These two things can completely mask any other memories of the person. But not today's.

I can't remember the last time I saw Ray, whom we only usually bumped into at Christmas, but my memory of him is of somebody who was easy going, wore long sideboards (sideburns) and grinned and laughed a lot - which is a pretty good image to leave us.

Come on, um... Berkshire!

Holly's latest chess success is to be part of the team which won the under-14 section in the National Girls Team Championship (in Surrey on Saturday).

It's a competition that invites entries from teams of four girls - and she has previously been in the team that won the Under-11 title. But that was a Wiltshire team. This year we couldn't raise one, so she was invited to guest for a Berkshire team instead.

Winning the title wasn't so hard as there were only two teams entered, but the games were tough as the under-14s had to play under-16s and under-18s - and Holly is actually an under-12. She did pretty well in her five games, winning two and drawing one, and losing only to an adult (not sure how she qualified as a girl) and a highly graded under-18.

Her problem now is that she really needs to be playing more adults, but there's only one club in the Swindon area for adults and they meet in the skittle alley at the Brown Jack pub on Monday nights - the night Holly goes to Guides. It's a bit daunting for an under-12 - especially a girl - to walk into an adult environment like that. As with many other things kids get involved in, there are going to be a few years when it's really difficult to keep her enthusiasm going, and it would be a shame if her interest in chess peters out in the next few years.


Graham Carter, friend of the stars

After getting to interview Hazel O'Connor last week, a bit of a theme is developing because I've also interviewed Marc Almond - the main man behind Soft Cell who had a gigantic hit with Tainted Love, and who's also famous for having a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2004.

I expected him to be a bit of a prima donna, somehow, but, just like Hazel O'Connor, he turned out to be really friendly. In fact, I was pretty pleased when he explained that he's made a remarkable recovery from his accident.

As part of the deal, his PR company also sent his new album and it turned out that one of the tracks was Bedsitter Images - a song written and recorded by Al Stewart, my all-time favourite artiste, so we had a bit of a chat about that. Marc Almond also shares my birthday and will be 50 next month - making him exactly four years older than me.

I'm making a list of celebrities who deserve their success and Marc Almond is officially a nice bloke in my book.

Read the Hazel O'Connor interview on the Adver website (Marc Almond is in on Thursday).

Eduardo Niebla

I'm really enjoying being back doing the entertainments stuff on the Adver.

I can more or less do a review whenever I want - as long as somebody doesn't get there first - so after writing a preview about the visit of Eduardo Niebla to the Arts Centre, I decided to go along and see him play tonight. Sean, who is a budding guitar player himself, came too.

No, I'd never heard of Eduardo before, either, but he's a big name in the Spanish guitar/flamenco/modern jazz world, apparently, so obviously a very, very good guitarist.

The clincher that got me there - apart from the fact that I got a free ticket - was the fact that (as well as another guitarist) he had an Indian tabla (drums) player with him, so we got not just Spanish guitar but "Indian rhythms" too.

In the end, it was still mainly guitar with drums in the background, but it was obviously pretty impressive stuff, and I came away with a CD and a poster (which I begged from the management).

Probably the most amazing thing about it all is that Eduardo's hands are really fat and big - and his little finger is longer than my middle finger. He should have been a baker or something, yet he could play that guitar like nobody's business. In contrast, the other guitarist had very small hands, like a woman.

All this goes to prove that it doesn't matter what hands you're born with. You've still got an equal chance of being able to play Spanish guitar like a Spaniard. Or not.


eBay drama

I never thought that selling on eBay could be half as good as buying - it really goes against my nature to get rid of things - but it's proved really exciting.

We had a few things that belonged to Julie's brother - 390 albums, 513 singles, 53 West Ham programmes and some Status Quo memorabilia - which sold the week before last. Then there's some model railway stuff that belonged to Julie's dad - a job lot of 12 engines, loads of coaches, 30m of track and much more.

Anyway, altogether it fetched more than we expected - I can't say how much as we are going to reveal it to the family as a bit of a surprise (it's for all of us to share). But suffice to say that whereas we thought we'd probably have enough for a meal out together, it will go a lot further.

It's been so exciting seeing the bids come in that I'm now looking around for more things to sell.

Semi-camping

The first consequence of deciding not to go camping this weekend was narrowly avoiding having to go to casualty with part of my thumb wrapped in a packet of frozen peas last night. When we should have been tucked up in our tent near Abergavenny, instead we were at home, and Holly asked me to unscrew something. Rather than go out to the car or garage to get a screwdriver, I decided to do it with a penknife instead. Not a good move.

While struggling to get the damned thing undone, the penknife suddenly snapped shut, slicing my thumb. There was blood everywhere but the saving grace was that it cut vertically instead of across the top of my thumb, which would have been really nasty. In the end, the worst thing about it was having to bandage it up so tightly - to make sure the two halves joined together properly - that it really hurt for an hour or so.

When it was too late to change our minds about not going camping, we checked the weather forecast and found that the critical day - Sunday - was now down to be only cloudy after all, instead of wet, so we could have gone for the whole weekend instead of just Saturday.

Still, it proved to be a really good day. We arrived at Brian and Sarah's tent in time to make breakfast - bacon rolls - and then spent three or four hours tramping up Skirrid Fawr - one of the highest peaks in the area. A fairly steep climb at the end was worth it - not least because there were some birds of prey - probably kestrels, but I'm no Bill Oddie - which gave us a real-life Springwatch-type experience like we've been watching on telly all week.

Then we went into Abergavenny itself and came tantalisingly close to some spectacular bargains in a junk shop, including an amazing art deco speaker that Julie refused to let me even find out the price of - because she said it was "horrible"!

After finding a nice pub to have supper in, Brian, Sarah, Lucy and James drove back to their tent and we drove home - all of us pretty exhausted by our day of going camping without a tent - or 'semi-camping' as we're now calling it.

Here are the pictures:






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Alan Johnston

I'm not usually one for jumping on anything that is media driven, especially this week. I'm having terrible difficulty trying to understand the handling of the tragic Madeleine McCann case and public reactions to it and feeling suitably gloomy about the new Big Brother that has erupted on the face of Britain like a half-exploded festering boil.

But the plight of Alan Johnston - superbly handled as it is by the BBC, I must say - is something that deserves maximum attention. As a journalist myself, I have to feel some kind of solidarity - though obviously I'm a very distant cousin of somebody who gets kidnapped while reporting from the Gaza Strip because the most difficult thing I've ever had to do at work is try to get some sense out of Steve McMahon.

But it all comes down to all that stuff about freedom of the press which is so important and which we take for granted at our peril. By taking somebody who has been trying to report the truth about the Middle East, they obviously took the wrong man. In fact, they could hardly have been more wrong - and it's depressing to think that his captors can't see that by holding on to him they can only damage their cause.

So, that's why the little banner, above, is on this blog - as requested and supplied by the BBC (if you click on it you get the background to the story).

I'm not sure what little gestures can achieve, but I really hope there's a happy ending.


An audience with the Queen of Punk

I'm back working at the Adver at the moment - helping to do the what's on pages, which is roughly what I did when I first worked there in 1989. So it's a bit of a case of going full circle, if only temporarily.

One of the perks of this is getting the chance to do interviews and reviews, if I want to. Today I got to do a phone interview with 1980s pop star and actress Hazel O'Connor, who's still performing and is coming to Swindon soon. These days she's more folkie than punk, apparently. Next week I'm probably going to be interviewing Marc Almond.

Hazel O'Connor had quite a scary image back then (somebody called her the 'Queen of Punk' but surely that was Siouxsie and the Banshees), but she turned out to be really nice - and very interesting to talk to.

I'm always fascinated by what people are really like, compared with their celebrity image, but my experience of the people I've met/interviewed has generally been good. Sure, they're trying to be nice so you'll say nice things about them, but I think you can still tell.

The genuinely nice ones include Henry Cooper (who was even nicer than you would imagine, even though you wouldn't think that was possible), Harry Rednapp, Paul Daniels (perhaps surprisingly), Matthew Kelly and Pete Best - the only former member of The Beatles I've interviewed. So far.


Washout

By all rights I shouldn't be hear tonight but should be sat out in a field somewhere in Abergavenny.

The camping season officially began today but our planned tripped to Wales with Brian and Sarah has been hastily re-arranged owing to an adverse weather forecast for Sunday, along with other things that have conspired against us.

As all campers will know, the last thing you want is to be putting your tent away wet or in the rain, so we're only going down for a long day on Saturday and not camping.

Camping, by the way, is now on its way to becoming seriously trendy as I noticed four different trendy books about it in Borders.

Where we lead, others follow.


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