(Newest entries first)

Footnote

There is a nice footnote (pun not intended but gratefully received) to Sean's drumming yesterday.

At school today he was given a card from his music teachers which read: "Thank you so much for representing the school so well in the Swindon Young Musician of the Year competition. You gave an excellent performance and made us all proud." He was also stopped in the corridor by the headmistress, who said much the same.

Anybody who knows about our long, expensive and bitter campaign to get him into the school in the first place - under the previous head - will understand how much such things mean to us, but it's also very nice that his efforts were appreciated. Last year, the school got first and second in the Swindon Young Musician of the Year, and they effectively 'wasted' a chance to win it again this year by entering a drummer.

When schools are under so much (often unfair) pressure to perform, it's a relief to know there are still people around who think the taking part is more important than the winning.

The cat who entered Crufts

More parental pride - and this time it was Sean's turn to inspire it.

He was one of two people chosen by his school to take part in the Swindon Young Musician of the Year competition, which was held tonight at the Blunsdon House Hotel.

Now, the only way to describe the appearance of a drummer amongst all those pianists, singers and violinists is to say it was a bit like a cat entering Crufts. The competition is really for a certain type of musician - which I'm not knocking - and there was no way a drummer playing rock music was ever going to trouble the scorers (realistically, only the bassoon player had less of a chance). Apparently, it's only the second time in the 12 years that the competition has been going that a drummer has entered. It probably didn't help his cause, either, that he was playing our zebra skin-shelled kit, which hardly fitted the sometimes solemn occasion. Mind you, he was under orders from his music teacher to be "very smart", so looked the part.

He had the added pressure of playing last out of 15 - and last out of 26 if you count the junior section, so had a long wait with his hands getting sweaty - the last thing you need if you're wielding drumsticks at 100mph. By the time his turn finally came round, even I was close to shaking - firstly nervous for Sean but also because I was in charge of setting the backing track going, which was a disaster waiting to happen (but didn't).

So we told him to just go out there and entertain the crowd and give them some light relief, which is exactly what he did. The piece he played is one that was especially written to accompany drums - powerful rock but not too heavy. It was actually one of the pieces he played for his Grade 8, only this time he had a chance to do a lot more improvisation, including playing on the rims instead of the heads of the drums, which is a cheeky trick that goes down well, and the sort of thing that Buddy Rich - probably the greatest ever drummer - would do.

The adjudicator went through each competitor in turn, generally balancing praise with suggestions on how to improve in each case. But apart from the eventual winners, Sean was one of the few (possibly only) competitors not to get any of these negative comments.

His official assessment reads: "Plenty of rhythmic interest here, with the complete rhythm exciting and under control. A definite sense of a driving rhythm and nicely synchronized with the backing track - especially calculating the gaps. Buddy Rich and Jon Hiseman watch out!"

Well, he didn't make the top three. They were all excellent, especially trumpeter Matthew Harris who took top prize and impressed everybody with his jazz piece, and I for one was really glad he won. But Sean managed to entertain, impress and make his parents really proud, all at the same time.

Holly's first number one

Huge doses of parental pride are the theme of this weekend, with Holly first up for recognition.

Julie took her off to Cardiff today for a chess tournament - the annual 'jamboree' which is a five-cornered challenge between the under-9, under-11 and under-14 county teams of Wiltshire, Dorset, Berkshire and Somerset, plus Wales.

As can be seen from last week's blog entry, she is really board three (the third highest) in the under-14 team, but as the two players above her couldn't make it today, she moved up to board one - effectively becoming the captain of the county team. This is probably the greatest milestone she has achieved in chess so far, and if that wasn't achievement enough, it's not as if the odds have been stacked in her favour - and not just because she's an under-13 leading the under-14 team.

She's also a girl (obviously) and girls are generally not as good at chess as boys. That's not me being sexist; it's just a fact - partly due to the fact that girls are not as aggressive as boys, which can be an important attribute in high level chess. She also doesn't go to a private school or a grammar school. Some of these have dedicated chess coaches on the staff, giving those kids who do go to posh schools - and we've met a few of those - a massive advantage. And another downer is she is in our family. Not only does she not have an older brother or sister who plays chess - which is always a big help to younger players - but I'm not much good at chess myself. Other dads we meet are sometimes very advanced players and can pass on their knowledge to their kids, which becomes even more important, the higher you get. The point where I could teach Holly anything about chess passed years ago. So, all these things considered, we think we have plenty of reason to feel proud today.

As with last week, the honour of being high up the board order means you play the top players from the other counties, so being board one means you get to play only very good players, including internationals, and one of her games was against the Wales number one.

So we weren't expecting her to win any of her three games - and she didn't, but she did get a draw in one, which was excellent. And, in all three rounds, hers was the last game playing at the end - in a room of about 30 matches. So even though she didn't win, she did make some extremely good players work extremely hard for their points.

The fact that Holly takes all this in her stride is obviously to her credit, and the fact that she still enjoys playing, despite this pressure - at least, I would feel pressurised - is even better.

Take three

I didn't go to Cardiff for the chess because it was time for more band practice.

I've been too busy to do much drumming this week, and when I did some last night, it was one of those nights when nothing would go right and I was glad that nobody else could hear it - especially the other guys in the band who would have been sacked me on the spot.

Unfortunately, this carried over to today and it became one of those days when I was struggling just to keep time. The other members of the band said it sounded OK to them - and even if it hadn't, they said, it didn't matter because everybody is entitled to one of those days. That's the great thing about our band. We try to do it properly but if it goes wrong in rehearsal, nobody's died and it doesn't spoil our fun.

Even on a bad day, you can usually get away with it as a drummer because you could play a really simple beat or rhythm* and it might not be what's on the original recording but it wouldn't sound wrong - at least not to 99 per cent of your audience. The challenge is in trying to do it as it was written or at least add some fancier stuff than a basic beat, but you can only do this if you're confident. The better you play, the more confident you get, so the better you play and the more confident you get - but the same is true in reverse. On a day like today, you stick to the basics and hope you get away with it. I did.

At least I can look on the bright side and say that's the second consecutive week - now adding up to five or six hours of playing - without dropping a stick.

*Techinically, this is called a groove, although I'm still having trouble calling it that because it sounds a bit prententious and/or poncey.

Picture this

My brother, Brian, has belatedly uploaded some of his photographs to his website, which include some holidays that we also went on.

There are some stunning pictures from our canal holiday in 2006 (including some nice arty canal scenes) and last year's near-washout nostalgia trip to Great Yarmouth (including the Pleasure Beach) and Southwold. There are even some pictures (worth seeing for the menu alone) for anybody who is interested in Florida (as we are, having booked to go there in the summer).

Monbiot hits the spot

There aren't that many websites that I visit on a regular basis, but Monbiot is one of them.

George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist who can often be found talking about climate change and other related subjects, but sometimes he strays into other areas - and this week's topic is private education.

His trademark is to write extremely well-researched stories which counteract what you could call less well-researched ones (or blatant propaganda, depending on how you look at it). And this week's is probably his best effort so far - a real if-you-thought-you-knew-everything-about-that-you've-got-another-think-coming type of feature.

Be warned that Monbiot is what Daily Mail readers would call a 'leftie' - and he is, indeed, their worst nightmare: a leftie with evidence.

Burping for free

I'm on national telly on Saturday. Well, me and about 300 others. And not actually on screen. Just our laughs.

This is thanks to our long-awaited family outing - all my three brothers and their wives also came - to see a recording of Harry Hill's TV Burp, his weekly comedy programme featuring TV clips from the previous week, and his wacky comments on them.

It's one of the very few ITV programmes I ever watch, and when we found out that it's easy to get tickets for it, and that it's not so difficult to get to the studios in Teddington either, we decided to book some. And, of course, it's free. You still have to get there fairly early and queue up. This is because they over-issue tickets because some people don't bother to turn up. So latecomers were on standby, but we arrived in plenty of time, despite coming through the rush hour London traffic.

We were given a free beer and were eventually shown through to the studio where we waited for about half an hour for the entertainment to begin. We sat about ten rows from the front, and above us hung ten microphones and about ten TV screens.

There was a warm-up comedian called Bobby Bragg who was really good - very dry and with plenty of good jokes - and we would have paid just to see him. But he eventually introduced the star of the show who did five or ten minutes of his own act before settling down to do the programme. This was recorded in a similar fashion to the way it is presented, with the clips playing live, while Harry got himself ready to add his bits in-between - with virtually no joins.

We were all impressed with just how slick Harry was with his presentation. He made only one mistake that required stopping and going back. The most surprising thing was that although it's a half hour programme, they recorded about an hour of material. So, not only did we get to see it in the making and before the rest of the country, but we also saw stuff that will end up on the cutting room floor.

When it was all recorded, we thought it would be time to go, but there was a break of 15 minutes, during which the warm-up man came back on while Harry and the production team worked out which 'pick-ups' were needed. These are the bits that weren't recorded perfectly, for some reason, and needed to be re-done. This time we didn't see the clips, just Harry's bits, and this was the most impressive bit of all. They needed there to be laughter at the beginning of each section, when he began speaking, so he told jokes, and then immediately launched into his script, as soon as we started laughing. As they went through this process twice - once for each half - we ended up seeing a sort of highlights of his act.

So a great night of entertainment from one of my favourite comedians - and totally free. Brilliant.

It's a small world after all

I like coincidences. And so I should, being married to somebody who was born on the very same day as my twin brother's wife. And the internet is especially good at throwing them up (coincidences, not wives).

Quite by chance the other night, I came across a site called Worderella Writes, which, to cut a long story short, is a blog written by a young woman called Belinda Kroll, who lilves in America and is writing a novel. This novel is based on - of all places - the real life village of Compton Beauchamp, near Ashbury, Wilts, and is set in 1887.

She was trying to find out what kind of weather they would have been having in February 1887 in particular, but admitted that she wasn't quite sure what kind of weather we might have in any February in Britain. She had eventually worked out that records for Swindon and/or Wantage would give her the information she needed, but wanted to find out more.

Because I have local knowledge (despite not actually having ever been to Compton Beauchamp itself); because I've done big-time local history research; because I admire Belinda for taking on a really ambitious project; because I am a helpful sort of person; but also because I'm always keen to help a fellow writer, I offered my help and looked up February 1887 in the Swindon Advertiser archives (which are not online).

Then a spooky coincidence happened. I discovered that Belinda's book is going to be an historical romance, so is the same genre as the works of Sergeanne (real name Anne) Golon.

Who? Well, she was (still is) a French writer who was huge in the 1950s and 1960s because of a series of novels she wrote, featuring a heroine called Angelique. As I don't read much fiction and would never have thought to read historical romantic fiction, I'd never heard of this until my friend Steve Hall (the one who lives in Sydney) started telling me how good the Angelique books were. Because they are very nicely written but mainly because of the amazing historical research that Anne Golon put into them, they're an interesting read (including for men). I eventually ended up meeting Anne Golon in Paris a few years back, thanks to Steve, and as a favour to him, designed and partly wrote the official Angelique website.

Now, the funny thing is that although Steve has lived in Sydney ever since I first knew him, he was brought up... wait for it... just down the road from Compton Beauchamp (in Wantage, actually).

Belinda's blog/website is interesting because you get to see the inner workings of a novelist's mind but also because at the moment it's about an American trying to understand British things, which is always fascinating.

Hey, guess what...
In Britain, the Royal Mail delivers the post, but in America the Postal Service delivers the mail.
Source: Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Popish plots

You know your kids are getting old when they badger you to help them buy something off eBay. Holly has just successfully bid for an electronic money bank, which I paid for through PayPal.

I was quite happy to do this because the seller made it clear that there was "NO EXTRA PAPAL CHARGE", which is just as well, really, as I'm not Catholic.

Old mates

We saw a fairly rare event today that was just like old times - Holly playing chess for Wiltshire.

These days she's a bit of a veteran (at 13), but Berkshire challenged Wiltshire to an under-14 friendly, in tandem with an annual traditional under-11 and under-9 match, which this year was at Cricklade. In the end there were teams of 11 and Holly played board 3 - that is, the third highest player in the team.

This proved a bit of a poisoned chalice as Berkshire are quite strong, always beat Wiltshire and, indeed, thrashed us again this year in all three age groups. You get to play your opposite number or thereabouts, so Holly's two games were against their numbers three and four.

The number three turned out to be Rachel Davey, a girl whom she has played many times in the past as their paths always seem to cross. They've played each other so many times, in fact, that a little friendship has formed between them and they are occasional teammates. Holly guested for a Berkshire team that won the under-12 title in the National Girls' Team Championships last year - and Rachel previously guested in Holly's winning Wiltshire team. The games between them are always quite close and Holly has won a few of the encounters over the years, but has lost the last few, including today's.

Then, in her second game, she got to play one of junior chess's whizzkids. Apparently, he played in the England (under-11) team when he was eight and is now an under-10 (Holly is under-13) - and note that he plays for Berkshire's under-14 team because he's got too good for the under-11s. So Holly did well to get a draw, even though he told her, afterwards, that he thought that if she had stuck at it and not taken the draw he offered her, she could have won.

Most important of all is that Holly said she enjoyed it, and is keen to play more chess this summer.

Napoleon update

Our stray cat, Napoleon, is suffering more than most creatures in the relentless, dreadful rain we are having, but seems programmed to just put up with it.

Last night he didn't come in until midnight, by which time he was not only soaked through but muddy. But he still wouldn't stay. He comes in at least once a day for food now - usually twice - and is always friendly, but after he's eaten, he soon goes back out into the rain rather than shelter in our porch.

It's as if he has become hard-wired to be an outdoor cat, despite the opportunity of a more comfortable existence. It's a relief, really. Our two proper cats put up with his visits with varying levels of protest, depending on their mood, and it would get really awkward if he wanted to come in and sit by the radiator. Poor Napoleon possibly doesn't even realise there are such things as radiators.

Drumming bummer

Major disappointment in the Carter household today as we hear the result of Sean's Grade 8 drumming exam. He failed by three marks, which would have been a really good effort - particularly as it's not so long since he took Grade 6 - apart from the fact that we thought passing was almost a formality.

Paul, his drum teacher, phoned up, and was absolutely dumbfounded that he had failed, and said he was going to appeal. Just before he took the exam, Sean went for an extra lesson with another teacher because Paul was in hospital, having an operation, and he also expected Sean to sail through. As Sean said he could only remember making one significant mistake in the five pieces he had to play, and nowhere near enough to cause a fail on its own, it's all the more baffling.

To make things worse, he's now missed the deadline for the next round of exams so can't retake it until May or June - when he will be right in the middle of his GCSEs.

It's at times like this that you sometimes have to tell your kids that they didn't work hard enough or they should try harder, but the opposite is true here. He practised really hard, even though he was ready (according to Paul) to take it weeks earlier. It's very difficult for me to be objective, being his father, but as I told him, even though he doesn't yet have a certificate to prove it, there are at least two experienced, honest drum teachers who consider him Grade 8.

That's life, I suppose, and to Sean's credit, his main reaction to the news was a determination to set the record straight.

Take two

In the circumstances, drumming was probably the last thing I felt like doing today, but our band - still provisionally called Roy and the Rovers, which is looking increasingly likely that it's stuck - had our second three-hour session.

We spent the time improving on some of the songs we did last week - most of which have become 'definites' in our set list, including The Last Time (Rolling Stones), Summer of '69 (Bryan Adams), Knocking on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan), Get It On (T Rex), Chasing Cars (Snow Patrol), Brown Eyed Girl (Van Morrison), All Right Now (Free) and my least favourite of all the ones we've tried, Achy Breaky Heart, which has been done by everybody who's nobody.

And we finished off with a first run through of Dire Straits' Money for Nothing and Sultans of Swing.

We were all quite pleased with our progress at the end, and I'm growing in confidence that I can take the pace. I wonder what Sean's examiner would have thought of it.

Hey, guess what...
As you read this, the follicle mite Demodex folliculorum is using its needle-shaped jaws to feast on the oil from the sebaceous glands at the base of your eyelashes.
Source: The QI Book of Animal Ignorance

Stalking celebrities

There is a footnote to my previous blog entry (see below) about Dom Hyams. He was the guy who featured in the documentary, Crip on a Trip, which I watched on Tuesday (Julie and Sean also watched it, on my advice, and were similarly impressed).

After Googling Dom, I discovered he has his own website, and I decided to drop him a quick email to say how impressive the film was, and I also wrote to Channel 4 and the production company who made it, to say how good it was, and suggested they put it on in a primetime slot.

I suppose this sounds like exactly the kind of thing a deranged celebrity stalker might do, but I'm not in the habit of doing it, and credit where it's due and all that, so it was worth doing, just for its own sake. I certainly wasn't expecting a reply, but I got a really nice one from the man himself, saying thank-you, and that he was glad the film achieved its aim.

By reading his website, I've also discovered that Dom's a drummer. In fact, there are a few seconds of him drumming in the film, on a single drum, which was enough for anybody with a trained ear (and even a partially trained one, like mine) to realise that he's actually quite an accomplished one.

Now, discovering that somebody is a drummer instantly makes them go up even more in my estimation because, in my experience, they are almost always extremely decent people, and Dom's story is obviously interesting - not just for the obvious human interest but also because of the technical bits about shell sizes, manufacturers and even what type of boxes they are stored in - all of which drummers often have a morbid fascination with.

So I emailed Dom back and asked him if he'd ever been featured in any of the big drum magazines - and surprisingly he hasn't, so I'm hoping to write something myself.

With a lot of work coming in that's not the most exciting - business-oriented stuff - I am starting to think that it's time to start doing more satisfying and interesting stuff, and if this comes off, it would be a good place to start.

Hey, guess what...
The NHS buys 15,000 leeches every year, to use in treatment.
Source: The QI Book of Animal Ignorance

Quote of the day

According to the BBC News website, when Alan Shearer was asked if he would consider becoming Kevin Keegan's assistant at Newcastle United, he said: "I don't know whether, one, he wants a number two, or two, I would like to be one."

Daytime telly shock

Some people say daytime telly is the pits, but when you compare it with what passes for entertainment at peak times - especially on Saturday evenings - I suppose it's not so bad.

My usual experience of it is at lunchtimes when I'm working at home, and I end up watching something while I'm eating my lunch. If I'm not feeling particularly inspired with what I'm working on, this sometimes involves staying downstairs to watch one more programme than I should, but as this is likely to be either something entertaining (such as MASH) or informative (such as How It's Made), then there's not much harm done.

But it's not often - never, probably - that you get to see a programme that's so good that you really can't work out why it was on in the daytime and not given a peak slot. So it was virtually by accident that I watched Crip on a Trip on Channel 4.

I only saw half of it, actually, because I missed the start and had to go out before the end, but made sure I caught up with the bits I'd missed, thanks to the wonder of On Demand (which isn't always that wonderful).

Anyway, Crip on a Trip was a documentary about an 18-year-old bloke called Dom Hyams who went on an Inter Rail holiday across Europe with his six mates. It doesn't sound much of a basis for a programme except Dom is severely physically disabled with brittle bones disease, and it was quite a challenge - in different ways - for his mates to take him with them.

Far from being a let's-see-what-happens-if-we-take-along-somebody-in-a-wheelchair type of exercise, which you might expect, it soon became obvious that the whole point of the programme was that there was no way that the six able-bodied mates would have even considered going on holiday without Dom, so it was all about their friendship.

They were a real bunch of lads doing some really laddish things, yet ultimately they had to take responsibility for somebody with specific needs and who would have been in serious trouble if he'd had a fall. But all the lads were totally comfortable with having Dom as their mate - and Dom was very philosophical and matter-of-fact about it all. He talked about what it's like to be stared at, and said he can understand people wanting to look at something they don't see very often, and in that respect he was like the Eiffel Tower.

I have to admit that I watched some of it with tears in my eyes because it was so touching - not because it was sad or over-sentimental but because it was, well, really touching (you have to see it for yourself).

I expect Channel 4 had something better and more worthwhile to show at peak time, like Big Brother or something. But I hope they show it again sometime, in a more deserving slot.

Hey, guess what...
Film critic Barry Norman has launched his own brand of pickled onions, based on an old family recipe.
Source: Radio 4

Rare find

I stumbled on a nice blog about Swindon tonight. It's called Hidden Swindon and is full of nice pictures of places in the town. This is a rarity because people are usually only interested in telling the world that Swindon is the armpit of the universe. These are almost always people who don't have the imagination or the drive to move away to somewhere more befitting their high personal standards. Or could it be that the grass is always greener and Swindon's not so bad after all?

Ba-ba-ba-ba baby, you just ain't seen nothing yet...

My band (still provisionally called Roy and the Rovers) reached a milestone today as we had our first all-hands-on-deck 'rehearsal'. This involved hiring Hook Village Hall for three hours and thrashing out about eight songs, three or four times each - all of which went as well as certainly I could have hoped.

This is completely new territory me for - playing the drums as part of a full band. Although we've had a few informal sessions together at our house, this was the first full-scale get-together, also involving our new bass player, Allan. It was also the first time I'd played with them using a 'proper' kit rather than the Roland electronic kit (it has been in storage since last summer because of our new extension).

Playing with real people is so much different to playing along to recordings, but for the other three it was no big thing as both Roy and Dave are guitar teachers so are obviously accomplished and confident, while Allan is also very experienced on the bass. Most importantly, all three have played in bands loads of times before, so they know the ropes and know what to expect.

Then there's me, not really knowing what's expected or how it all works, but trying to learn fast. What I do know is the drummer has a responsibility to help to hold it all together, which is pretty daunting. Although he often only provides the background, he's also what the others ultimately have to latch on to and fall back on. You have to be reliable and stay alert - even when you are playing an easy rhythm and it's possible to go into automatic pilot.

I am now beginning to understand why being able to keep a steady beat and not playing anything too fancy were the main qualifications for the job, as less is often more when it comes to drumming. Drummers who get carried away with endless fills (the bits between verses and choruses when the rhythm is broken) and, worse still, want to do long solos, soon become a nuisance. I think the key is keeping it steady for 99 per cent of the time, and then rising to the occasion when you have to do something more difficult.

All these things considered - and more besides - and especially being the rookie, I mostly felt relief that it went well. But I was also feeling quite chuffed because I am managing to latch on to the essence of songs - even ones that I don't know - which is an important skill for drummers. For example, we played Knocking on Heaven's Door, which I've never really listened to, so I had to make up the rhythm as I went along - and my interpretation of what it should be - which is a lot different to all the other stuff we played today - was more or less perfect, and even managed to impress the others.

We played to an empty hall except for five minutes, halfway through, when a walker and his wife tapped the window and asked if they could have a quick nose round - probably because they were thinking of hiring the hall and not, as Dave joked, because he was Brian Epstein's brother.

Little did they know that they were witnessing history in the making.

Hey, guess what...
Eagles can spot a rabbit from two miles away.
Source: The QI Book of Animal Ignorance

Cosmo small piece

Tonight was the night of the annual combined Lads' Night Out (LNO) and Girls' Night Out (GNO) to celebrate Christmas, which our gang always arranges for January, so as to beat the crowds.

This year we went to a fairly new restaurant called Cosmo that, on the face of it, reminded me of feeding time at Butlin's. It's a value-for-money (11.80 each) all-you-can-eat restaurant that's busy and noisy, and you have to serve yourself. Unfortunately, there were plenty of people in front of us who either thought they had entered a national dithering competition or just couldn't manage the difficult task of lifting a few spoonfuls of food and putting them on their plates before my food got stone cold.

However, it was worth the wait. You get a choice of countless (thanks, Shakespeare - see below) dishes that are described as 'pan Asian' - that is, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, etc. There are loads of starters, dozens of main courses and then plenty of desserts, assuming you are still mobile by then.

The food was not only unlimited but interesting, tasty and cheap, so more or less perfect, and, better still, everything was done in a completely unfussy, informal, no-nonsense way, which is the way I like it. So, all in all, it was excellent.

We even got into the spirit of it by having Christmas crackers, wearing paper hats and giving each other 'secret Santa' presents, with a budget of 5. I got a pair of socks with pictures of drums on, which is quite appropriate as I have discovered I can drum better and more accurately without shoes. We decide who buys for whom by drawing lots, but by chance tonight, everybody ended up buying for the same person who had bought for them. This has a probability of one in 120, which is significant because it's this sort of thing that turns out to be the main thing us five lads have in common - our ability to be interested in things that other people wouldn't even give a second thought to. We disagree on food, cars, politics, religion, the merits of disco music, the sexiness and talents of Kylie Minogue and many other things, but when it comes to useless information and pointless statistics, it is guaranteed to keep us fascinated for whole evenings and send us home smiling.

Long may it continue.

Hey, guess what...
All American and European eels come from the Sargasso Sea (actually part of the Atlantic, near Bermuda) - and the larvae travel 3,000 miles or more to freshwater rivers such as the Severn, where they live for up to 40 years before undergoing a transformation and then returning to the Sargasso Sea to die.
Source: The QI Book of Animal Ignorance

Your Bard

I have just finished reading Bill Bryson's latest book, which now leaves me in no doubt whatsoever that he must be the most readable writer currently walking the planet.

It's about Shakespeare, who, in contrast, may not be considered the most readable writer in our modern eyes, but makes up for it by having far and away the greatest command of the English language of anybody who has so far put pen to paper.

Bryson's book is not only extremely well written but is also packed with fascinating facts about Shakespeare, even though the main theme is that very little is actually known about his life. The little bits that are known, however, are so brilliantly brought to life in the book that it makes you want to go out and read his plays, and I probably will.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the book is that nobody has done anywhere near as much as Shakespeare to transform English, and since English has now become a 'product' that's as successful, in global terms, as any other you can think of, with the possible exception of Microsoft and Coca-Cola, then that's a pretty good thing to have on your CV.

In 1605, the Bodleian Library in Oxford held 6,000 books but only 36 were in English because most were in Latin. Shakespeare's birth was registered in Latin but his death was in English, and in the meantime, he had almost re-invented the language, coining 2,035 new words, of which 800 are still in use today. As Bryson says: "Among the words first found in Shakespeare are... antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary... assassination, lonely, leapfrog... well-read, zany and countless others (including countless)."

And as the book points out, that's not his greatest legacy because he was even better at coining phrases - including vanish into thin air, the milk of human kindness, beggar all description, cold comfort, flesh and blood, bated breath, foregone conclusion and many others that we now take for granted but which wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for Shakespeare.

The book is full of little nuggets of information, such as the fact that he hardly ever used the word 'also', even though it was very fashionable at the time. For some reason, he obviously didn't like it. There is also the prospect that one day a 'lost' Shakespeare play will be re-discovered. There are two - Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won. Cardenio is probably lost forever because it was only ever a manuscript, but it's likely that up to 1,500 copies of Love's Labour's Won were published, so there could well be one lying around somewhere, waiting to be discovered, like the Holy Grail.

The book ends by considering some of the many conspiracy theories which suggest Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays - an idea that Bryson completely demolishes. He points out that there is not a single scrap of evidence that makes this in any way likely, and he has great fun talking about some of the theories - one of the most popular being one published in 1918 by somebody appropriately called J Thomas Looney. Bryson concludes that Looney wasn't the only loony as 5,000 books have been published in the same vein, and he points out that there is actually plenty of hard evidence that proves Shakespeare did write all his plays and all his poetry.

Bill Bryson and William Shakespeare - what a combination.

Florida, here we come

Well, we've been and gone and booked our summer holiday - and after years of promising the kids, we're going to Florida.

Julie and I have been before - in 1990 - but we've never got around to going back, so we missed out on the chance of seeing the kids' faces light up through meeting Mickey Mouse, although they are probably now even more excited at the prospect of the white-knuckle rides.

Even with the help of my sister-in-law's sister, Rachel, who is a travel agent, it took us three whole hours to choose and book it - what with the flights, car hire, accommodation, insurance, parking, park tickets, reserved window seats on the plane, etc. And it is costing an absolute fortune.

However, it is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, probably being the last major holiday the four of us will have together, which is our justification for spending so much on it.

We've even bought a super-duper ticket for the Kennedy Space Center that includes lunch with an astronaut and an 'Up Close' tour, which includes a view of the launch pads from a 60-foot-high gantry. The Space Center is easily the number one Florida attraction for me, and I am constantly amazed at the number of people who seem unimpressed with the prospect of walking in the footsteps of people who have walked on the moon. To me, this isn't just living history, but the most historic site on earth, being the place where man's finest technological achievements became reality. Yet I'm having real trouble drumming up interest in the kids, for whom space travel has presumably become ordinary.

The scary thing is that if we had left it for just one more year, we would have been there on the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. Can it really be four whole decades since Neil Armstong's giant leap?

Hey, guess what...
You can have your ashes (or a 'symbolic portion of cremated remains') launched into space with a firm called Memorial Space Flights. Prices start at $495 for a flight that returns to earth or $1,295 for one that doesn't. People who have been 'buried' in space in this way include Gene Roddenbery, the creator of Star Trek, and astronomer Dr Eugene Shoemaker whose ashes are (partly) 'buried' on the moon.
Source: Memorial Space Flights/Wikipedia

Their cups overfloweth

Football just doesn't get me going like it used to, and today did as much as any other to turn me off it.

It was supposed to be the most exciting day in the football calendar - FA Cup third round day - but whereas the tiniest possibility that your team might ever get to the cup final would once be enough to make an self-respecting football fan's heart miss a beat, now they are having trouble finding clubs who want to win it.

Both Blackburn and Bolton - who otherwise have no chance of any glory this season - put out understrength teams and lost, along with Everton. I used to have a lot of respect for them and their manager, David Moyes, but they let themselves lose to Oldham when I thought they had a realistic chance of even going on to win the cup this season.

Even Crystal Palace, whose hopes of glory this year rest on getting into the Championship play-offs, put out a team of youngsters rather than risk beating Watford.

And just to make matters worse, I watched part of Aston Villa v Manchester United live - in which Villa seemed like they could hardly be bothered to mount an attack before lamely letting an uninspiring United get two goals at the end. And of course United are the club that shamefully dropped out of the FA Cup a few years back, essentially because they thought they were too big to take part.

Still, it could have been a worse day. I could have paid good money to watch Swindon not beat Barnet.

New year, new look

After a whole year of the old-look blog, I've given this page (but not the whole site, because that would take too long) a spruce-up for the New Year, which mostly amounts to a new colour scheme.

I've also decided to create a new occasional feature with the catchy title 'Hey, guess what...' where I intend to record some of the fascinating but usually useless facts that I pick up as I go about my business. These little nuggets are usually greeted with much rolling of eyes when I pass them on to the family, but since I find them interesting, I thought it would be worth writing them down somewhere.

Hey, guess what...
There are no moles in Ireland.
Source: The QI Book of Animal Ignorance

End of Empire

It's taken me weeks to read it - partly because I was busy at the back end of last year and also because there's a lot to take in - but I've just finished reading the best history book I've ever read.

Empire, by Niall Ferguson, is subtitled How Britain Made the Modern World, and was a Channel 4 TV series three or four years ago, which I missed. I started reading it because I knew next to nothing about the British Empire, and since it is the biggest empire the world has ever (and probably will ever) see, and because I'm British, I thought I ought to find out a bit more, especially as I instinctively assumed that the Empire was bad and even inherently evil, but didn't know any solid facts.

Well, the book is packed with information, including some things about the Empire that you could never have dreamed of.

Ferguson starts by hinting that he is going to somehow excuse the Empire but then spends more than 200 pages cataloguing why it was so bad, including how we invented concentration camps (in South Africa at the end of the 19th century) and the role of hypocritical Brits in the slave trade, such as John Newton. He became a born-again Christian and a captain of slave ships - in that order. He is best remembered today as the composer of Amazing Grace, the words of which take on a whole new meaning when you know who wrote it (I once was lost but now am found/Was blind but now I see).

Another interesting fact is that British people are the world's all-time champion emigrators. Between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles for a new life somewhere else, and only a small minority came home. This puts today's fears about immigration into Britain into its proper perspective.

The book also points out - and this is ironic whenever there is talk of British people needing to 'apologise' for the Empire - that while it was undoubtedly a bad thing for certain native peoples who were exploited, millions of working class people in Britain also suffered terribly. This is because taxes were raised to finance the Empire, but only a tiny proportion of British people saw any of the benefits.

Slowly, however, the book comes round to some of the good things that came out of all this. Britain's management of India, for example, was a wonder of efficiency as it was done with only a small army of civil servants, and it was all made possible by an amazingly liberal approach to religious tolerance. The main blip - the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which was brutal on both sides - was caused by Victorian evangelists selfishly trying to convert Indian Hindus and Muslims. But once the error was realised, they reverted to their tolerant policy and it returned to normal. Even with the slave trade there is something to be proud of because once British slave traders decided it was immoral and inhuman, we used our all-powerful navy to police other countries who were still carrying on the trade.

The book ends by pointing out that the British Empire virtually saved the world in the Second World War because until the Americans arrived in 1941, the Empire was the only thing that stood between the Germans/Japanese and victory. If it wasn't for us holding the fort, the Americans would have been too late. And the point is that it wasn't the British that saved the day, it was the British Empire. We wouldn't have done it without troops from India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere - and, in fact, for 200 years our army had been propped up by soldiers from these (either actual or former) colonies. The Americans were former colonists too, of course. In the end, the Empire was more or less sacrificed as the Americans virtually entered on the understanding that the Empire would be dismantled after the war, if there was anything left of it. Another benefit of the Empire is that because India was British, it - and probably the rest of Asia - was saved from being easily overrun by the Japanese Empire. And the book makes the important point that the empires that the German and Japanese were building were infinitely more ruthless and terrible than the British Empire.

It ends by saying that the British Empire has been replaced by an American version that is an empire in all but name, and also argues that many former British colonies are well off now - although I'm not sure that the evidence backs this up.

So, not only is the book enlightening about many aspects of the British Empire, but also shows how it is relevant to today. As if to underline this, this morning I caught something on the Today programme on Radio 4 about Afghanistan which suggested that some of the British diplomats over there still see our role as more or less the same as it was when the Empire still existed.