(Newest entries first)

Uninspired

What's this? Well over a week since the last blog entry and nothing new to report?

This is because most of the things I've had to do lately have been pretty uninspiring - both professionally and in the DIY department. The fact that this was during a time when we had originally planned to have a long weekend in Paris - but changed our minds to save money after our recent heavy expenditure - has made for a grim couple of weeks.

I have discovered the most physically exhausting and most demoralising job imaginable - scrambling about under the eaves of the new loft, trying to put down floorboards when every single action, such as reaching for the screwdriver, becomes an ordeal. What I hate about DIY is the fact that no matter how easy a job seems before you start, it ends up taking ten times longer than you expected - and that's no exaggeration.

And I never learn that it's even worse if you don't have the right tools and equipment. I waited until the job was half done before I decided it would be a good idea to buy some knee pads. They are the best 5 I've spent this year.

So even if I haven't achieved much in the last couple of weeks and feel demotivated, at least I have learned that if you have some knee pads, you have some friends.

150 years ago today

Exactly 150 years ago today - on October 22, 1857 - my great grandmother, Annie Hopkins, was born. She was my mother's father's mother. That's her in the photo, which was left to me by my late uncle (her grandson) John Weeks, who could remember her. Apparently, she was as stern as she looks.

She is quite a rarity amid all the family history research we've done - somebody whom we have a photo of and know quite a bit about. Here's a screenshot of a computer file compiled by my brother, Brian, which is Annie Hopkins' life in a nutshell.


Fun at the hanging


Well that's a first - an invitation to a "hanging" (as the file attached to the email was called).

More accurately, it was an exhibition which started tonight, mounted by the Haydon Artists' Society, which my brother, Ron, belongs to. I'm writing something to go in the paper and took some pictures.

The stuff on show - mostly paintings but including collages and some really nice decorated wooden vases and plates - varied a lot but was generally surprisingly good, and Ron's painting of Tower Bridge, which used to hang in his lounge, was one of the best.

There were quite a few paintings that I would have gladly bought, including the one that was technically the best - a vase of flowers by Maria Castello (above). If it hadn't been too large, just a little too old-fashioned for our house, and the second most expensive at 150, I would have tried to talk Julie into us buying it. The others were priced at about 30-40 on average, which is very reasonable for original pieces of art.

I've included a few more which caught my eye (by Bez Suter, Gill Everett, Marjorie Rogers and Andy Gillies, respectively), even though I don't have any copyright permissions or anything. I'll cover myself by saying that if anybody looking at this likes what they see, they should go along to the exhibition before November 4 or go to the society's website and invest in one.




Chess mates

A bit of a landmark tonight as Holly officially made the progression from chess junior to playing adults.

She's at a funny in-between age for chess players really - being too old for junior chess, which is most competitive at junior school age. That's right - you're past it when you're over 11. But she still enjoys chess - something we've always been at pains to ensure, even when it got really competitive and pressurised - so accepted an invitation to go with a former Wiltshire teammate (Andrew Ferris) to the Brown Jack Chess Club in Wroughton. Officially only a pub team, it is effectively Swindon Chess Club as all the good local players go there.

She ended up playing a lady who's coached the Wiltshire kids - and who said of Holly, after beating her, that she was one of the strongest juniors she's played in a long time.

The only problem is that the club is always on Mondays - the night Holly usually goes to Guides, which she also enjoys and doesn't want to give up just yet.

Getting a head

Life can be a headache, but it's not so much of a headache for me as it used to be. Tonight I had an Indian head massage, which is nothing unusual as I have one at least once a month - and have done for more than five years.

My main reason for going the first time was that in those days I was getting what I described as migraines, although they weren't ever diagnosed. I only got them about twice a year, but when I did it completely knocked me sideways. Symptoms vary from person to person, but I would have a skull-cracking headache, come over feeling really sick (but never was) and felt so utterly unable to do anything that the only cure was to go to bed, try to get to sleep, and stay there until the next morning.

Since having my first Indian head massage, I haven't had a single migraine. I still get headaches but they are always relatively minor and have a known cause - such as going to bed too late, getting up too early, going to bed too late and getting up too early, having one too many pints of Arkell's Kingsdown Ale, etc. Last week, I heard an appeal on the radio by the Migraine Action Association which said that migraines affect up to 15 per cent of the population and there's no cure. Mine were pretty few and far between compared with what some people experience, but I reckon I have found a cure.

The IHM is obviously doing something, and it's up to you to decide how and why it's working. Christine Gray, who does mine, really has a gift for it, but she is also into various other alternative treatments, which I keep an open mind on. Unlike religion, where I think you can come to a final decision if you don't believe in it, alternative therapies are harder to rule out because they work on different levels.

That's why I was disappointed by Derren Brown who, in his latest book, Tricks of the Mind, ridicules alternative therapies as being a waste of time. One of the reasons why going to have an IHM every month seems to work is the psychological aspect of putting aside more than an hour of your time to concentrate on it in a kind of stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off kind of way that has benefits just because you make a point of doing it. You could say it's a monthly pampering session - at least until somebody invents a better word than 'pampering', which is a fluffy, middle class housewife sort of word that I refuse to have in my vocabulary.

Whether you believe there are such things as chakras and other energy forces at work in your body is another matter, but it obviously works for some people. In the end, it doesn't matter what you believe in if it works. Julie also has an IHM regularly, also at Christine's, and she also swears by it. Last week she was feeling so tired she even used the word "exhausted" - which she wouldn't usually - and seemed on the point of having to have time off work because of it. But she went for an IHM and suddenly felt much better again. With the kind of logic that only a woman could have, she had been on the point of cancelling her appointment because she was feeling ill.

There are several problems with IHMs. The first is that some people are naturally nervous about going into personal situations like that, although they needn't worry because it's done while you're sat in a chair and you don't even have to take your shirt off if you don't want to. Even if you get past your initial doubts, most people never have a second one because it doesn't do them much good. That's because it's either a very quick 'taster' or they go to somebody who's not very thorough.

It really has to last at least an hour for you to get the full benefit. In a proper IHM, it's not just your head that gets the attention. Christine does your back, shoulders and neck before she gets to your head.

It only costs 20 which is much better value than Sky TV or going out for a posh meal once a month, not just because it seems to have cured my migraines, but because you feel really rejuvenated after it, and I'd have one every day if I could afford it.

All this may or may not lead you to buy yourself some sandals and head for Glastonbury High Street - actually, we went there in February and I thoroughly enjoyed going in all those funny little shops - but I would thoroughly recommend an IHM to anybody.


Education supplement

It's only available in selected outlets - well, one, actually - but the new edition of the Ruskin Express is out today.

This is the newspaper that is produced by kids at Ruskin School, with help from me. It started about two and a half years ago when Holly's teacher asked me to go into school and help them produce the first edition, and although Holly has long since left the school, I'm still going there. I go in for a couple of hours a week, plus at least a whole day in deadline week.

We try to get one edition out every half term - which we don't always achieve because, irritatingly, I have to try to earn a living in-between - and today's is issue number 12.

It all seems worthwhile when it's all printed up and the kids get really excited about selling it. And it gives me a real insight into education, which most people - including the vast majority of parents - have a very limited knowledge of, so usually have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to getting on a soapbox and spouting on about schools and teachers.

In a nutshell, being a teacher is much, much harder than it looks, and schools like Ruskin are doing a good job, regardless of what the BBC will have you believe (this week they managed to gloss over the fact that 90 per cent of schools are now classed as 'satisfactory' or higher, and 14 per cent are 'outstanding', representing it as a bad news story).

Ruskin doesn't score the highest in league tables, but gets through an incredible amount of extra-curricular stuff that is much more valuable than they will ever get credit for. They also have many children with learning difficulties, so can never be top of the league, even though those kids get fantastic one-to-one attention in their dedicated unit (called The Beehive) and are also seamlessly integrated into the life of the school. This literally benefits the other kids as much as it does them.

In my experience, however, the greatest challenge facing people who work in education is stopping ten-year-olds all talking at once.

Rewriting rock history

Apparently, there is a national shortage of drummers - which may be the ultimate reason why I've been asked to join a band. That's right. A band. Not a rubber band or a brass band or anything but a rock band. Playing rock and pop.

It started a couple of weeks ago when Paul, my drum teacher, passed on the name of "somebody about your age" who was asking around if anybody knew of anybody who wanted to play drums in their band. To cut a long story short, I called this guy called Dave who has a mate called Roy, who want to get together and not only form a band but actually play some gigs - in pubs, retirement does, weddings, that sort of thing - and they wanted a drummer "who's not too flash but can keep a steady beat".

Meeting the first part of this qualification perfectly and hopefully being up to the second part, I'm also the right age, so after giving it some serious thought, I volunteered. So tonight we met up for the first time. It turns out that they are superb guitar players (both being teachers) with loads of experience, all the equipment - and they can sing.

They haven't heard me play yet, but I was treated to a taste of some of the things they are capable of, and was pretty impressed - firstly by their ability, secondly by their taste (they only intend to play decent stuff) and thirdly by their senses of humour. They said fun is the main aim, and we instantly seemed to be on the same wavelength.

The main problem with taking up any instrument later in life is the people of your own age whom you might want to form a band with have stacks of experience and you can never hope to catch them up. But Dave and Roy seem happy enough to have me on board so far, and we are going to set up our first rehearsal in a couple of weeks' time. And I'm really looking forward to it, even if the whole thing is going to be a massive challenge.

They both asked whether I've ever done any singing and I told them it was pretty irrelevant as I can only just about manage to do two things simultaneously when I'm on the drums - drumming and breathing. And I'm not even sure about the breathing if it actually reaches the point where I have to play in public.

Kids growing up shock


The fateful day has arrived: we now have TWO teenagers in the house as today is Holly's 13th birthday. I think she had a good day, which started with the opening of the presents - including an iPod from us - each of which was accompanied by "Cool!"

Sean and I were both quite jealous that she has a 4gb iPod while we have 2gb each - and she can store more songs on hers than she's ever heard of.

Various visitors arrived during the day and were forced to undergo guided tours of the new north wing of the house - and there was a surprise visitor in the form of Simon McDonnell, an old school friend who now lives in New Jersey and whom we only see about once a year and sometimes less often.

We spent an enjoyable few hours catching up on things, including the surprising discovery that while Simon and his wife Juliet have been over there, their children, Sophie and James, have been growing up. Amazingly, they are now at junior school. Why is it that despite the phenomenal capacity of the human brain, nobody can quite imagine other people's children as anything but the age when they last saw them?

We naturally went through the ritual of saying how funny it is that Sophie and James are not only American but speak with American accents - which we always do when we see Simon.

One of the things we discussed was the forthcoming LNO50 trip in 2011, with the good news that Simon is keen to come along too. One current proposal is that we go to New York anyway, near where he lives, although he'll probably end up joining us in Amsterdam, the bookies' favourite venue.

Getting your facts right

Today I went to the funeral of my friend Richard Clarke (see below), so had plenty of time to think about things.

One of the things that I liked about Richard was that he was the kind of person who always got his facts right. This is an extremely rare quality - although not so rare if you have Carter blood in your veins, I've noticed. Richard was a very knowledgeable person, and if he said something happened in 1896 (or whatever date it was), you knew you didn't have to check it.

Being a journalist, and despite what most people think about journalists, accuracy is almost an obsession. Because people see mistakes in the paper, they think it's a slapdash profession, but this couldn't be further from the truth. The mistakes are there not because journalists don't care (they do) or haven't checked their facts (they do) but because nobody hits the right key every time and they have very little time to get things done (partly because people waste their time by feeding them duff information). In other words, they are human.

Most people don't realise that, in fact, newspaper reports - on reputable papers, anyway - are usually extremely accurate. A court report, for instance, will not only be meticulously accurate but also has to be compiled under very strict guidelines - much more stringent than people realise - and the editor is ultimately responsible for accuracy to the extent that reporting a court case wrongly can land him in jail.

And when did you last see a wrong football result printed in a paper? I don't think I've ever seen or even heard of one. This brings me neatly to the degree of accuracy in the world at large. Since I started thinking about it a few years ago, I've come to realise that people live in a world that is far removed from reality. I'll give the example of Julie and football results, although she's not the only culprit - far from it - and there are many other examples...

If I've been out and I haven't heard the football results, I'll ask her if she knows how the Town got on. She will often says things like, "I think it was 2-1." I have to point out that this tells me literally nothing about the reality of what's happened, simply because it starts with "I think..." Sometimes she will leave off the "I think...", but even if she says she's "sure" it was 2-1, it's still a useless answer. That's because her "It was 2-1" only means that it was 2-1 at some stage during the match - not necessarily at the end. In other words, that was the score when she last heard it. So it could have ended 9-8. Worst of all is the fact that it hasn't even occurred to her that she hasn't told me whether they were winning 2-1 or losing 2-1. I could go on for hours about this, but the point is that it doesn't seem to matter to her that she is potentially wildly inaccurate (ie wrong) in what she says.*

If this isn't bad enough, she is also presenting her version of things as fact. But this is what most people do. They rarely know more than half of the salient points about what they are talking about, but - and this is the real crux - they still present it as fact, not conjecture or hearsay.

To return to Richard Clarke - he was the kind of person who only presented facts as facts, taking great care to stress the point if he wasn't in full possession of the facts. So that made it doubly difficult when I volunteered to write his obituary for the Adver. It's a terrible burden because, even more than every other word I write for publication, which I have to be certain is accurate, you especially don't want to get a single word of an obituary wrong.

I even took the unprecedented step of getting his widow's approval before publication - something that journalists would never ever do in any other situation. As it turned out, she was very pleased with it, as were many other people who made a point of telling me so at the funeral. There were several copies on display at the post-funeral reception (which some would call the wake, although I don't - because I think it is inaccurate if you're not Catholic).

One day I may even write a book about the way people live what I call "approximate lives", but for now I'm just relieved that I managed to get it right this time. Having been a journalist for nigh on 20 years and a Carter for more than double that, it now matters so much to me that I get things right that I rarely look at things in the paper anymore, after I've written or edited them, in case I notice a mistake that's too late to put right.

It's a curse - and I haven't even touched on spellings, grammar, punctuation and especially apostrophes and the indiscriminate use of capital letters, which matter not one jot to most people but cause me so much stress when I see them used wrongly that they will undoubtedly end up taking years off my life.

*Another crucial point here is that there is a big difference - not recognised by most people - between "scores" and "results". The score is how many goals have been scored so far, whereas the result is the final score which will never change. Similarly - and I heard this in an advert today - whilst football matches are often postponed, it is almost unheard of for one to be cancelled (things that are cancelled never happen, whereas postponed things are, by definition, always rescheduled). See how the accuracy of these things seriously affects the minds of journalists and Carters?


And another thing

This was pointed out by my friend Steve Hall (the one who lives in Australia), who corrected somebody, last week, when they used the term "PIN number". PIN stands for "personal identification number", so "PIN number" means "personal identification number number" which is ridiculous.

If you don't care about this inaccuracy, damn you. If you do, join the club and get used to the fact that we cannot be cured.

Boiled over


Eight weeks, one day and many thousands of pounds after it began, our building project is finally officially over - although in some ways it's only just beginning.

Des the builder moved out last week - at times it did feel like he was living with us - and the plumber finished installing the new boiler and replacing the rest of the central heating system today. We also had the first new carpet fitted tonight (actually Ronald & Jenny's nearly new old lounge carpet), so Sean officially moved into his new room.

Our trusty old boiler, which had kept us warm for the 17 years we have lived here but was probably about 15 years old or more when we moved in, is now gone. We put it out of its misery because a) our gas bills have been sky high for the past ten years, and b) we got fed up with various plumbers coming to our house, pointing at the boiler and laughing.

The latest plumber, Gary, says we would have been lucky to get 50 per cent efficiency out of it (ie more than half of the heating we were paying for was going through the flue) whereas the new one is 95 per cent efficient on a bad day. The old boiler should have gone to a museum and maybe did, although Mick, the bloke who took all the scrap away (and gave us 40 for it) is probably not a curator of anything.

A major benefit of having a new boiler is the extra space we gain. The old one was the size of a washing machine and took up valuable space in the kitchen (the new one's on the wall in the garage). We've also got rid of a water tank in the loft (my office) and an immersion heater in the bathroom (bizarrely, the airing cupboard will now house the loft ladder).

All this, of course, means more work for me. Anybody who comes to our house and listens quietly will hear each room whispering, "Decorate me, decorate me," while various other things that suddenly look old and worn in comparison - like carpets and the kitchen - whisper "Replace me, replace me."

It literally does look like a bomb has hit the place because as well as all the stuff being everywhere, like it has for two months, there are now also holes in the wall where the old flue was, and new, smaller radiators have been fitted. This was something we hadn't banked on - every new radiator being smaller than the old ones - and it means we can now enjoy a nostalgic trip down memory lane in every room, remembering not just old wallpaper that we used to have up, but other people's.

So there is a long list of jobs to do, but at least we've started putting stuff away. For two months it's been like we were going to move house but instead of moving all our possessions, we compressed them all into half the house. At last we can go to bed without having to climb over another mattress first.

Possibly the greatest relief is our new shower, which replaces the freaky thing we have put up with for the last few years, which required a knack - perfected over the years - to turn it off. Several quick turns on the knob, a half second delay and then a really quick turn would often do it, although there were days when it refused to be turned off after five minutes of swearing, and had to be left running for ten minutes. Timing was everything because the difference in the water pressure early in the morning gave you a much better chance of turning it off then than at, say, 8.30am.

You have to be thankful for small mercies in this life - and you can't imagine what a luxury it is for us now that our shower goes off when we turn it off.

G'day

It's been quite a full day.

In the morning I collected Sean's new bed from town and finished off fitting bookshelves to our new library/study while a huge lorry arrived outside our house to take away our neighbour's garage. It's the start of the work on their new extension and affected us because we have a large ivy growing up some trellis that was attached to the garage. Even other people's extensions keep us on our toes but fortunately the garage removal went without a hitch and we've managed to save the ivy.

Then, at 2pm, Steve, our friend from Australia (currently living in Paris), arrived to watch the first half of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between England and Australia, before we hopped in the car to go to see Town v Gillingham. With England in with a chance of a shock win, Steve couldn't resist watching some more rugby at the County Ground hotel, while I went on into the football, not wanting to miss the kick-off - and was proved right as the Town amazingly went 2-0 up in the first six minutes.

I could tell England were doing well as it was almost half-time in the football before Steve finally reappeared - by which time the crowd were singling Swing Low, Sweet Charity and there was a rumour going round that they had actually won (they had - 12-10). But this was by no means the most cheerful sporting news of the day. I can't put my hand on my heart and say I've ever really taken much interest in rugby - which I find almost impossible to follow because of the ridiculously technical rules they have come up with - supposedly for making it more interesting, although they do precisely the opposite.

The real sporting spectacle was Swindon Town totally outclassing Gillingham and being extremely unlucky to only win 5-0 (see the SwindonWeb report and pictures). A more appropriate result would have been 10-0 because they won almost every tackle and every header. It's the first time I've seen them this season and wouldn't have gone if my friend Steve wasn't going - so he really did me a favour. It was just like the old days, when Town used to really turn it on at home.

After the football, Julie and Me met up with Steve and his (Australian) wife Susan at the Three Crowns at Brinkworth, where we not only caught up on the story of their temporary stay in Paris but enjoyed a really good meal. I had crocodile - which I had only previously had once before - in the same company, in the shadow of Sydney Opera House. The only downer on a memorable day (apart from France also qualifying for the rugby semi-finals) was that I didn't go up to order - so this time missed out on saying I wanted crocodile and make it snappy.

Richard Clarke

I'm under a cloud today because I've just found out that a friend of mine, Richard Clarke, died on Tuesday (October 2).

When I started to compile the Chronicle of Swindon last year (a history of the town which eventually ran to 200 (tabloid) pages), we put an appeal in the Adver for people to come forward to provide material.

He phoned me up and although he didn't know me from Adam, invited me round to look at his fantastic collection of documents and historical memorabilia - some of it unique. I was expecting to stay for about an hour, but I was made so welcome that I eventually phoned Julie to come and pick me up after being there for about five hours. I've never met anybody who had a greater passion for anything - and his was history and memorabilia (he was also a well known piano and organ teacher).

I went back to visit several times after that - first for work and then socially, after the Chronicle was finished.

He was admitted to hospital because he was diabetic and his blood sugar levels were going haywire. It turned out that this was being caused by throat cancer and there was nothing they could do for him. He died a week later, aged only 67.

He was such a nice bloke that I feel like I've known him all my life, even though I only met him for the first time, less than two years ago.


Archives

September 2007
August 2007
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June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007

Glyn and Laura's wedding
Mark and Maxine's wedding
Richard and Carla's wedding