There's no getting away from the fact that New Year's Eve can never live up to its billing, so it was with some relief that we got to spend a quiet night in tonight, especially as Julie is still under the weather with some kind of cold.
Maybe we're just too old for that sort of thing or maybe a 47th dose of the same medicine is taking its toll, but the thought of doing anything more than walking to the Crossroads to get some kebabs would have given me a headache tonight. For once, it was worth watching telly, particularly as BBC2 seems to have done away with the ridiculously cliched Scottish themes of years gone by and replaced it with Jools Holland's Hootenanny which featured Paul McCartney, Lulu, Madness and a few other interesting acts including Ruby Turner, Eddie Floyd and some scruffy American blues singer called Seasick Steve, as well as the significantly less impressive Kylie, Kaiser Chiefs and Kate Nash.
I stood on our doorstep at midnight to see the now traditional fireworks - which reminded me that, incredibly, it was eight whole years since we did the same for the new millennium - but then came inside to see that the BBC were showing a display over London. Even given that TV is not very good at capturing fireworks, this was absolutely stunning.
The best thing about the New Year is it gives you a chance to draw a line under the old one, and as I'm the kind of person who can't resist a review of the year, here comes mine (actually, it's one I made earlier because it's more or less the same as a brief review we sent out to people whom we don't see as often as we'd like, with our Christmas cards)...
The main event of the year, unfortunately, was Holly being diagnosed as diabetic in March, which we immediately told her was not so much a disaster as a huge challenge. Fortunately, she instantly rose to the challenge of four injections a day for the foreseeable future (until they find a cure) as well as anybody of her age possibly could, making us all extremely proud of her, and she continues to be impressively in control of it.
It doesn't stop her leading an otherwise normal life, doesn't mean she can't eat chocolate, and hasn't stopped her winning at chess. Despite not playing so much this year - as she's now a veteran of the junior chess scene - she was still a member of a winning team in the National Girls Team Championship for the second time (guesting for Berkshire this time), qualified for the national finals of the UK Chess Challenge (the world's biggest junior chess competition) for the umpteenth time, and even won £20 for being the runner-up in the Under-14 Wiltshire Schools Chess Congress. And she played in an invitation match for older Wiltshire kids against schoolchildren visiting from the Ukraine.
Sean, meanwhile, continues to show up his dad with his drumming, passing his Grade 6 exam With Distinction and taking his Grade 8 this month - hopefully to become what we believe will be the first drummer at Kingsdown to pass Grade 8 before leaving school (we're still waiting for the result). He's leaving school next summer and seems on course to pass plenty of exams to allow him to do A Levels in music and music technology at New College, plus (probably) English and business studies. He's also making progress as a guitarist and plays in various bands with his mates. And this year he even got a little job - serving chips and burgers at Swindon Town's home matches.
At home, our main project was to organise the building of an extension, plus the installation of a whole new central heating system. This proved a huge organisational nightmare and only left us time for a couple of camping trips as our summer holidays - most notably a nostalgic (not to mention wet and windy) trip down memory lane to Great Yarmouth with my three brothers.
At least the weather wasn't as bad as the storm that hit Swindon in July, which I was out in, and - as I was predicting by lunchtime - would be remembered as the wettest day in the town's history.
Julie and I did have a brilliant long weekend in Amsterdam in September to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary (on August 15) - our first holiday without the kids since they were born (and since October they have both been teenagers).
We also celebrated an unusual first birthday (my brother Maurice's first anniversary of his successful bone marrow transplant to cure leukaemia), helped Julie's Auntie Jean and Uncle Fred mark their golden wedding, saw our friends' daughter, Sarah, come of age, and were invited to not one but three superb summer weddings involving nephews - one of which I had the honour of drawing the invitations/orders of service for, and another that saw Holly be a bridesmaid for the first time and gave me a great excuse to go to Dublin for a memorable (but fairly sober) stag weekend.
We also got away for our annual February weekend with our gang of friends - this year a great trip to Somerset - and still found time for some other memorable events, including concerts featuring Seth Lakeman (at Salisbury), Gilbert O'Sullivan (at Bristol) and St Agnes Fountain (at Marlborough), while I (but not Julie) was also in the audience when legendary Beach Boy Brian Wilson was on stage in Bristol.
I managed to succeed with my NewYear's resolution to lose some weight and we both took up playing tennis regularly with our friends Pete and Julie - quite successfully, we think.
I was busier at work than I'd hoped - therefore failing to complete the book I'd half-written by the spring - while Julie had a good year despite difficult circumstances at work, becoming a successful team leader amid the upheavel of the firm coming under new management (she now works for Capita).
Next year promises to be at least as exciting, as the year ended with an invitation to join a proper rock band - provisionally called Roy and the Rovers - as the drummer, with the prospect of actually playing in front of live audiences in 2008. Another highlight is sure to be a family trip to Florida that we are planning to celebrate Sean leaving school.
I should also mark some of the cultural highlights of the year. As well as those performances mentioned above - of which Brian Wilson's concert was the peak - I was also delighted to discover The Bees and their amazing 2007 album, Octopus, and it was also the year in which I realised that Stevie Wonder (!) and Bruce Sprinsteen (!) have more than just a little to offer the world of popular music. I only watched two movies at the cinema in 2007 - Shrek the Third (6/10) and Ratatouille (10/10) - which says a lot about the current sorry state of cinema. The best book I read in 2007 was The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, closely followed by Michael Palin's diaries and Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, though the book I am currently reading, Empire by Niall Ferguson, will go down as the best history book I've ever read, when I finally finish it in the next couple of weeks.
If nothing else, 2007 has taught me that you never stop learning, and as I seem to attract (mostly useless) information like a magnet, the main challenge is - not unlike Homer Simpson - trying to make more room inside my now overstretched little brain. Compared with a year ago, I know much more than I did about diabetes, drumming, making music with other people, the British Empire, atheism and religion, horses (thanks to editing the Advertiser's monthly Saddle Up supplement), bees, Dublin, Amsterdam, the history of herring fishing (especially in East Anglia) and countless other things, including the subject of the (non-fiction) book I half wrote in 2007 and must finish in 2008, which remains secret from the world in general in the meantime.
The challenge for the new year is to make better use of all that useless information.
December 26-30, 2007
I can't remember having such a low-key Christmas as this one, and neither am I quite sure why it never quite got off the ground. It's probably something to do with the fact that the kids are getting older, but also the cold I had and which Julie is now suffering with.
Also, I've only watched one whole new TV programme in the last week (Extras) and didn't really think much of that. I started to watch Dr Who and To The Manor Born on Christmas Day, but gave them both up as a bad job after about 20 minutes. Before Christmas I wrote a column for the Adver about how Christmas traditions were dying out - and it now seems incredible that TV used to play such an important part in it all. When the BBC puts out an even more depressing episode of EastEnders - or so I am reliably informed - than usual and looks upon this as the jewel in its Christmas night schedule, it's obvious that they've given up trying and abdicated their role as entertainers. It's not enough for the BBC that the programme should be a national disgrace for the other 364 days of the year. They have to try to depress us on Christmas Day too.
At the other end of the scale is Phoenix Nights, Peter Kay's sit-com - of which I have watched two whole series (12 episodes plus outtakes and other extras) since getting the DVD for Christmas. It features a string of classic comedy moments and brilliant off-the-wall ideas and is relatively undiscovered, it seems. Most of the people I have spoken to about it haven't really watched it, although some can recall the inferior spin off, Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere.
I like Peter Kay as a comedian but he's also a great ad-libber and co-wrote and directed Phoenix nights. But as a character actor (playing Brian Potter and bouncer Max in Phoenix Nights), he is currently in a league of his own.
December 25, 2007
Sweet baby Jesus and the orphans!
I thought I should make a note of what we got for Christmas, for posterity, although the main thing I got arrived a day early - a cold.
The germs inside me did their best (but failed) to spoil the most traditional part of our Christmas - the official watching of the Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. Easily the best Christmas film ever made, undoubtedly one of my top ten films and possibly even my number one favourite, we've now seen it a dozen times, know every word of the script and try to spot the clever little bits in the background that we missed the first ten times we watched it (the fighting toy soldiers being our current favourite).
I had difficulty sleeping on Christmas Eve, like millions of kids, although it was thanks to my cold, and had to go to bed for an hour after Christmas dinner because I was feeling light-headed, but still managed to enjoy the day.
Some of the magic of having small kids around has obviously faded because Sean and Holly are now teenagers, but a nice feature this year was them starting to get pleasure from giving - Sean buying me the excellent DVD of the first two series of Phoenix Nights (sweet baby Jesus and the orphans!) and Holly buying me a really attractive 3D puzzle in a tin, a cute little VW van keyring and some giant Toblerones. I also got a couple of pairs of drum sticks, a wooden mechanical model of a drummer to make, CDs, some books and the now traditional beer and vintage cider, and more besides, so I was pretty chuffed.
Our main present to Holly was an iPod docking station, while we gave Sean a collection of things including a Swindon Town shirt. Holly's other presents included a large polystyrene-filled pig from Sean plus lots of arty things, while Sean got DVDs, computer games and, from Holly, a football-shaped bean bag. They each had a smart remote-controlled helicopter, cash and much more (the pictures show a theme developing with some of Holly's presents and Sean using his cool new lighty-up drumsticks).
We stayed at home (with Julie's brother, John), until late afternoon, when we dropped in on Maurice and Jacky, also seeing our mum plus Brian, Sarah, James and Lucy, who had all been there for lunch.
I've never tired of Christmas and hopefully never will, and this year has been no exception, so merry Christmas to anybody who is reading this.
December 21, 2007
Better get a bucket
Today I dropped into Ruskin School with the latest edition of the Ruskin Express, where it was nice to see all the kids excited on the last day before Christmas...
..except for the one who was sat in the library with a bucket, looking sorry for himself. Then it occurred to me that every day I go there, there is at least one kid sat in the library with a bucket, looking sorry for him/herself. The funny thing is, I've never seen any of them actually be sick in the bucket.
Nevertheless, when they collect their 20ps for the Ruskin Express, it's always wise to remind them that the buckets they need for collecting the money should be the ones the choir uses when they collect money at carol concerts, and not any other.
December 18, 2007
Now we are four
Today is a day that will one day go down in rock history because the band I am in - still provisionally called Roy and the Rovers - is now complete.
We've now been joined by a bass player called Allan. He lives near Bristol but responded to an ad we placed on a website called Partysounds which is a kind of dating agency for musicians and bands, putting them in touch with each other. In fact, we had five enquiries but we asked Allan because he can not only play bass but seems like an easy going chap, which is the main qualification for being in the band. He decided to join despite an embarrassing incident during his first meeting with us, last week, when his car was broken into, right outside our house. So, after playing just a couple of songs, he gets to join one of the best up-and-coming bands in the whole of our street.
In the meantime, I've been asked to join another band! In what is becoming a familiar scenario, they said they couldn't get another drummer and only want somebody who can keep a steady beat and nothing fancy. It's a teachers' band being organised by my cousin, Michael Wilson, who teaches at Kingsdown, and the idea is only to play the odd gig, so it won't impinge on my Roy and the Rovers career.
I did point out that it was the second time I'd been asked to join a band by somebody who had never heard me play, at the same time noticing a distinct whiff of beggars can't be choosers in the air.
I forgot to mention that last Saturday I got to see the Swindon and District Animal Haven (SDAH) at first hand when we went to pick up Holly and Lucy who had gone there for a couple of hours of voluntary work.
We also got to meet the owner, John Warwick, and saw a caravan where they keep the cats that are waiting to be re-homed. Everything was exactly as I'd imagined - and completely different to the impression that some 'animal rights protestors' had tried to create with a 'secret video' (see below).
Although the caravan is not an ideal place for cats, it was clean - Holly and Lucy had been busy - and each cat had a reasonable space. It was obvious to anybody who knows anything about cats that the ten or so that were there were calm and felt safe. It's rare for any of them to stay longer than a fortnight before being re-homed.
After chatting with John, who came across as exactly the well-meaning, kind-hearted bloke I'd imagined him to be, we were about to go when a man and his young son came walking down the drive.
"Is it OK if he stays and helps out for an hour?" asked the man. "Of course, it is," said John, recognising the boy who had helped out previously. It more or less said it all.
Ironically, despite what looked like terrible publicity, it's all turned in the SDAH's favour, with the story creating interest and sympathy, and hopefully they will attract more donations so they can carry on the good work.
December 16, 2007
We got to see the culmination of Sean's time at Rockschool this afternoon, in the end-of-term gig at 12-Bar (formerly The Ship) in Westcott Place.
Rockschool is a great weekly club that gives 30 or 40 youngsters the chance to be taught to play properly and perform in front of live audiences - all managed by our drum teacher, Paul Ashman. It would be wrong to say Rockschool keeps them off the streets and therefore stops them beating up old ladies - they are not the type - but it certainly makes a mockery of the nonsense you hear these days about kids having nothing to do.
Being teenagers in an age when heavy rock rules, their idea of how it is supposed to sound didn't exactly match up with my taste, but there was no doubting the quality and the guts of the three bands we saw - including Liquid Lead, which featured Sean on drums.
They were the heaviest of the bands we saw and came complete with vocals known as 'pig squealing' - so called because it sounds like a pig, squealing (think of an animal that's in the process of becoming black pudding and you've got the idea). Despite this, and despite the fact that I'm biased, I have to say that Sean again showed the skill and composure of an accomplished drummer, and also proved that you don't have to thrash drums hard to make them sound impressive.
Not all drummers I've seen recently have quite appreciated this, and it's a message to lesser ones - me included - to watch and learn.
December 14, 2007
Nowt so dear as folk
We (me, Julie and Holly) had a real treat tonight - and yet it was something that we had been umming and ahhing about, all week, only finally sorting out the tickets yesterday.
We went with our friends Christine and Danny to see a folk band called St Agnes Fountain for the first time. They are made up of Chris While, Julie Matthews, David Hughes and Chris Leslie - all highly respected folksingers in their own right - who form St Agnes Fountain to do a series of Christmas concerts every year. These always include one in Marlborough, and this year's was at St Mary's Church.
Half of the show is carols done in a folkie or offbeat way, and they also do other Christmas songs, and you get some stories/jokes/poems/chat thrown in for free - and these were worth seeing on their own.*
Well, it turned out to be an absolutely brilliant concert, and anybody who actually likes Christmas, like me, couldn't fail to be impressed by the Christmassyness of it but also the extremely high quality of the players and everything they did. They could all play several instruments and had the voices to match. I'm already looking forward to seeing them again next year.
I bought the CD, of course, even though it can't recreate the brilliant atmosphere. I've embedded my favourite in this page - a version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with a Middle Eastern feel which is extremely simple (so doesn't really demonstrate their capabilities) but I think is very effective.
You can't beat a bit of live entertainment - and folk music is live entertainment in its purest and finest form, in my humble opinion, being everything that The X-Factor isn't.
*One song they did was Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which isn't one of my favourite Christmas songs, but gets more interesting when you find out (as they explained) that it was written in 1944, so the lines have extra meaning - ie "Next year all our troubles will be out of sight."
Asda by night
I can't quite work out whether we're very smart or off our rockers to go straight from the St Agnes Fountain concert to shopping at Asda - arriving at nearly midnight and getting home at 1am.
Stories of horrendous crowds at Swindon's supermarkets on the last couple of weekends, including queueing to get out of car parks - which can only get worse as we get closer to Christmas - made us decide that we really didn't want to bother with all that, so we drove into an empty car park, did our shopping with about 20 other people and had to wait for ten seconds for our turn at the checkout. The staff smiled at us, nobody got in the way (although you had to dodge pallet-loads of stuff they were restocking), we got some bread rolls for 2.5p each and parked right by the door. And we can spend Saturday afternoon doing something useful instead.
I am seriously thinking about making midnight shopping a habit.
December 13, 2007
Today was the day of Sean's big drum exam - his Grade 8.*
I took him down to Churchfields School at 9.20am and as I sat outside the room, I was more nervous than he was. As it's drums, even with a partially soundproofed room, you can hear every note that's played - and it sounded very good to me. Whether he was playing every note on the sheet music correctly is way beyond my drumming knowledge to be a judge, but it certainly sounded very fluid and professional to my partially trained ear. Sean thinks he has done enough to pass, but was a bit disappointed that it hadn't gone perfectly. As it's unlikely that we'll know the result before the New Year, we can only keep our fingers crossed.
As I've said before, the sheer complexity of drumming at this level is mind-boggling, and anybody who is prepared to aim that high and has worked hard for it - as he has - deserves to succeed, whether it happens sooner or later.
As if that wasn't enough musical aspiration and inspiration for one day, tonight was the night of the annual Kingsdown Christmas concert. Sean featured relatively little for once, playing just one easy (for him) piece in the Jazz Band and helping out with the sound system, while Holly had a much bigger workload, playing several pieces in the orchestra (on violin) and singing in the choir. The whole concert was a real pleasure and the orchestra and choir both sounded better than ever, so we were oozing pride again.
Over the last few years, this concert has marked the start of Christmas for us, and it's sad to think that it is Sean's last.
*He had to play five pieces (and chose four rock tracks and a samba), and because it's a performance exam, he is expected to organise the printing of a programme - which is my job (see picture).
Animal lovers' backlash
It's nice to see people queueing up to defend the Swindon and District Animal Haven (SDAH) in tonight's Adver.
Most of what I said (below) has been echoed by people with firsthand experience of the place - and credit to the Adver for balancing the argument after yesterday's shocking headlines.
December 12, 2007
Napoleon in exile
We are in serious danger of acquiring a third cat.
For about a year we've been having occasional visits from a cat who must be a stray because we see him wandering about the streets alot, over a wide area. Every now and then he'd come in the cat flap and try to steal some food.
At first we chased him off on behalf of Daisy and Elvis, but we've slowly started to feel sorry for him and when he started coming in more often, a couple of weeks ago, we started giving him food. You can see that he's now thinking of adopting us - and now, when we look back, this seems like an inevitability ever since we decided to give him a name. We call him Napoleon.
He seems a bit of a bruiser, but the strange thing is - now that he's become tame enough for us to get up close to him - he's a heavy, solid cat, who seems in good condition, even if he may have to sleep rough and get his food when and where he can. He's obviously pretty good at it. Then again, he could be a very convincing conmerchant who is pulling the wool over other cat lovers in the area, and may not even be a stray.
Although it's far too complicated for us to have a third cat indoors, he seems to be only too aware that the house has four hopeless cat lovers in it who will one day give him an easy (or at least easier) life, one way or another. The fact that he has such an appealing expression on his face and his markings are very similar to my old cat, Murphy, who I had for 17 years, makes him just about impossible to resist.
As animal lovers, we were pretty disappointed to see the front page of today's Adver which is about the so-called 'hell-hole' that is the Swindon and District Animal Haven (SDAH).
This has become the subject of a secret video by 'animal rights protestors' - three words which, when put together, are guaranteed to make the blood of genuine animal lovers run cold. The video is reported to show the smelly, reputedly cruel conditions at this animal sanctuary.
The reality seems to be very different - and I have this on good authority because Holly and her cousin, Lucy, have been there several times as volunteers, helping to look after the cats and other animals.
I haven't been there myself, but my impression of the place is of a poorly-funded, fairly ramshackle sanctuary that isn't the best organised but is run by a chap who is well-meaning and does genuine good, finding homes for the animals. If there was any suggestion that the cats weren't well cared for, Holly, for one, wouldn't dream of setting foot in the place.
My gut feeling is that there are too many people prepared to criticise such things rather than help out - if they are that concerned about animal welfare - and there are very few things more disgusting than a video camera in the hands of an unscrupulous editor.
December 10, 2007
Down the pan
Yet another week of not being able to update this blog - which is especially annoying as I had a few slack days coming up and had hoped to catch up on that and quite a few other things that have been neglected.
But there I was, at the dentist's with Sean on Thursday afternoon, admiring a really effective flu jab poster - and unaware that three hours later I would be under vicious attack myself, from possibly the nastiest virus I've ever come up against. It wasn't flu actually, and will probably not last a couple of weeks like flu has been known to with me, but it was bad enough for me to wonder at one stage whether I had somehow got food poisoning.
Severe sickness and diarrhoea kept me up all night, stopped me from working and eating on Friday, and generally left me a gibbering wreck for a wasted weekend. As I write this on Monday, it still feels like my stomach is partly filled with sulphuric acid.
It's a shame because it has been an otherwise encouraging week which included Sean modestly winning his school's Battle of the Bands competition. It was jointly decided by a panel of teachers and votes from the audience - which didn't include us. We weren't exactly invited as he thinks we don't get anything out of watching him play heavy rock, and besides, we had to have the engine running to ferry him to his next gig - Rockschool, where he is practising for the end-of-term gig (which we're also not invited to but will probably go to anyway, even though that will probably also be dominated by heavy rock).
Once again, the most amazing thing about Sean's drumming is not how good he is, but how casual he is about it. After getting back from Rockschool he got on the net to find out how the Battle of the Bands had gone in his absence, and had been 'talking' to them for a few minutes before telling us, "By the way, we won."
On Thursday evening, we attended what will probably be our last parents' evening with Sean at school. By then I was on the brink of having to dash out to be ill, but survived long enough to discover that he is well on course to get enough grades to get him into New College next September, on the courses he wants. GCSEs are much different to how they were when I was at school, coursework accounting for up to 60 per cent of marks in some subjects, compared with the zero it was for us. This means the pressure starts to rise about now because of coursework deadlines and mock exams, but at least it won't be so intense when it comes to sitting the exams in the summer.
Last Tuesday I was at Ruskin School as usual, helping them with the Ruskin Express, where it is increasingly difficult to keep up with all the things that are going on at the school. The half-term edition of the Express that will be out in a couple of weeks will be 12 pages, but we could easily have filled 24 if we'd had more time. I was only there for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but in that short space of time I got to join in with African drumming and African food tasting, and also met the bloke who runs Jonathan's Jungle Roadshow, who had been there all day.
As soon as I arrived, I was invited to meet Jonathan in the staff room, but on entering I was greeted by the sight of him showing his four-foot python to some of the teachers. So, not comfortable with being on the same planet as any animals that slither, let alone in the same room (worms are bad enough), I waited until the snake was back in its box before getting a close encounter with two of the other animals. There was a lizard that I still wasn't happy about touching, but didn't mind being close to, and a tarantula called Fluffy who, sadly, nobody was allowed to hold, on account of her being poisonous (even if you only get the equivalent of a bee sting). I wouldn't have minded holding her but had to settle for a very close-up picture.
The really surprising thing was that from what the kids were saying, all of them were more than happy to not only touch the snake but have it on them. It didn't freak them out at all. Maybe I wouldn't have minded so much if we had been given the chance of this sort of thing when we were at school, but the only reptiles we ever had at school were teachers.
December 1, 2007
Rat was the week that was
Another busy week doing plenty of things I'd rather not have been doing plus a few worries about friends and family thrown in for good measure. Still, you have to take the positives from things and there were a few this week, including an excellent mid-year school report for both Sean and Holly.
They have a 'tutoring day' when the kids get the day off except for ten minutes when they go to school with their parents - in this case just Julie because I was snowed under - and their tutors tell you how they are getting on. You get a mini report which, at Kingsdown, tells you their academic progress and marks them on their behaviour, effort and reliability. Instead of getting A, B or C, they aim for P (for praiseworthy) in each subject, and both had plenty of them. Sean's excellent report was especially pleasing considering it's his GCSE year.
Holly followed it up by finishing second in the Wiltshire Congress Under-14 chess tournament today, despite only being an under-13 and not having played much competitive chess this year. Because it's a qualifier for the London Championships, it also attracts players from outside the county. And just to make it even more difficult, some under-14s ended up playing under-18s (even though they had separate competitions). Holly only dropped points to under-18s and was unlucky to be drawn against the under-18 winner in one game, but gave him a good, long game. One of the players she did beat (Luke Burroughs, from Swindon) has played for England, so she had a good day. Perhaps best of all for her was that it won her £20 - only the second time she has won cash from playing chess.
The week also included a Carter brothers quiz team (supplemented by nephew Richard this year) finishing just outside the medals at the annual Moredon Netball Club quiz. We were fourth out of 22 teams (with the sister-in-laws a lowly 11th) and reckon we should have come third owing to a miscalculation of the scores.
Finally, tonight we all went to the pictures to see Ratatouille which I thought was a thoroughly charming and lovely film with stunning animation, brilliant characters, superb scenery and clever jokes that if I am not very much mistaken has leapt straight into my top ten favourite films of all time - a really, really good film.
It's only the second film I've seen at the cinema this year (the other being Shrek 3).