(Newest entries first)

The Night of the Living Dead

Tonight I had one the strangest, spookiest experiences of my life.

It was about 11.30pm and we were travelling back from Bristol (see below) - five of us in the car, with Brian driving, and me in the front passenger seat. We were just arriving back in Swindon via Junction 16 of the M4, then passed the Hilton Hotel, and had just gone through the next roundabout, passing the Volvo garage on our left.

We were just picking up speed again on the dual carriageway, so were going pretty slow, when four of us noticed a figure, lying on the ground on the grass to our left, about eight feet from the road. It was a man of uncertain age, fairly smartly dressed, with what seemed like a grey waistcoat. He was completely still, with his arms outstretched, and one knee up. My immediate impression - and the others who saw him thought the same - was that he was dead.

In fact, it looked so much like a dead body that the possibility that he might be alive was really only an afterthought, and what otherwise might have suggested itself as the likeliest scenario - that he was a drunk - didn't seem plausible because we couldn't think where he could have been to get drunk. Even the nearby hotel seemed too far away. And even more convincing was the unnatural way we was lying. My first thought was that he had been hit by a car, and it even crossed my mind that his body could have been dumped there. Another thought that went through my mind was that the first thing the police would need to do is confirm that we hadn't killed him. The whole thing was so disturbing that I remember feeling surprised that I felt fairly calm in the circumstances - which must have been the adrenalin working or something.

Brian stopped the car, about 100 metres down the carriageway, and we tried to think what to do. We were worried in case it was some kind of trap to hijack the car or something - you do hear about such things - and we decided against reversing the car back up, anyway, because it was just too dangerous on a dual carriageway at night. So we decided to dial 999 and call the police from there. I was particularly relieved at this because I didn't relish the thought of having to investigate a dead body that might have terrible injuries.

So Lukey, in the back of the car, got through to the police and started to explain. By now, I have had my door open two or three times, trying to see more and thinking about going back. Then another car drove down a slip road, close to where the man was lying - and surprisingly doesn't slow down. After watching this car, I looked back down the carriageway again - to see the figure of a man, staggering towards us.

I can't remember what I said but it was something like "He's up!" and it might even have been "He's alive!", but now it was obvious that the 'dead' body was actually a drunk. He was staggering along the edge of the road, sometimes wandering on to the carriageway, his arms out wide, like some kind of zombie which had just come back to life, which is more or less what he was to us - a man who'd come back to life.

Then he started running towards us, but with so little co-ordination that he was soon running down the middle of the carriageway, on the line between the two lanes. Fortunately, there was no traffic because otherwise he would have been killed after all - and would have known nothing about it. With this bizarre figure running towards us, we decided to make a quick exit, and with tyres screeching - at least in our imagination if not in real life - we just managed to get away in time. If Brian had stalled then, we would have had this strange figure either clutching the car or trying to get in it, and with Julie sitting behind the driver, she was the one closest to him. In fact, we'd all independently locked our doors out of instinct.

As we reached the next roundabout (Mannington), we saw a police car with its lights flashing and sirens going, heading towards where we'd just been, so decided to follow it - partly to help locate the man but also because we wanted to know what the outcome would be. But when we reached the roundabout where it had happened, the police car was nowhere to be seen - apparently gone to some other emergency and not ours at all.

Now we were faced with the dilemma of travelling along the same bit of road where the incident had occurred, knowing that a dark figure could wander into the road at any moment, without warning. But there seemed to be no sign of him - until Lukey spotted him walking along the grass, at a now safe distance from the road, trying to hitch a lift. As if anybody in their right mind would have stopped to pick him up. Besides, you could hardly see him in his black clothes, only the mud from his close encounter with the ground making him visible in the darkness.

In the end, we could see the funny side, but the cold blood that runs through your veins when you think you have discovered a dead body will remain with us, long after we stop laughing.

Electric

Tonight was a night for rewinding my life back about 29 years as we (me, Julie, my brother Brian and his wife Sarah plus my friend Pete 'Lukey' Lucas) went to Bristol to see Gary Numan in concert.

I've always thought that Gary was seriously underrated - and through no fault of his own. He arrived on the pop scene just as the post-punk New Wave was fizzling out and just at the start of the New Romantic episode featuring the likes of Spandau Ballet and a sanitised Ultravox. And he didn't quite belong to either factions. So the theme of nightmarish science fiction that ran through his songs never quite made it with most people, apart from his two massive number one singles - Are 'Friends' Electric? (actually credited to his band, Tubeway Army) and Cars.

We (me, Brian and Lukey, as this was pre-Julie) went to see him a couple of times in London back then, but to be honest it was a little bit of a guilty secret - not unlike my admiration for Barry Manilow. Pretty soon, it was seriously uncool to like Gary Numan, although that didn't make any difference to my taste, and I bought two or three of his next albums, which were all good as he stuck with his theme of writing songs about a futuristic world that was a cross between 1984 and Brave New World, only worse. (The badge, pictured above, is the one I bought at his Hammersmith Odeon concert in about 1980. It was virtually compulsory to buy a badge if you went to a concert in those days, although I never wore it today because I thought it would make me look a bit nerdy and we can't have that.)

Anyway, when we heard he was doing a new tour and that he was (apparently reluctantly) going to perform some old songs, and specifically from his best album, Replicas, we thought we'd leave the kids at home and go in for a spot of nostalgia.

We didn't quite know what to expect after a gap of 29 years since first buying the album, but were pleasantly surprised. He made the concert much more 'rocky' than the album, and the fact that the venue, the Carling Academy, was surprisingly packed to the rafters for it, added to the atmosphere.

Are 'Friends' Electric? and Cars were obvious highlights, though to seasoned Numan fans like us, You Are in My Vision and especially We Are So Fragile were the most memorable.

The funny thing is, we're now in the future that Gary Numan's songs were sort of predicting, and none of it has come true. In fact, technology, which he always seemed to think would go bad on us, has obviously made our lives much better, with iPods, Apple Macs and the internet - and no sign of sinister machines down in the park where the chant is 'Death! Death! Death!'

One thing that Gary Numan certainly didn't foresee was just how many people would be taking pictures of his concerts in the 21st century. Dozens of people were doing it, including me, although most of the others were using their phones.





Payback time

Today is a leap day - which has had some people thinking they have been working today without getting paid. If you're on an annual salary, you still only get paid the same in leap years as you do in others, so you're effectively working for free. To their immense credit, the National Trust, whose headquarters are in Swindon, realised this, so gave all their staff a day off - and suggested they did something for the environment in return.

I was thinking about this at work, realising what a swizz it was for the workers, when I suddenly realised that whereas everybody else around me was working for free, I was getting paid! This is because they are on annual salaries but I, being freelance, charge by the day. As Basil Fawlty once said, for the first time in my life I'm ahead!

Actually, I only did half a day because there was only half a day's work for me - but I still got paid half a day more than them.

Earth shattering

The earth moved today - but not for me.

Britain suffered - well, suffered is probably a bit strong - its worst earthquake since 1984, just before 1am. It made 5.2 on the Richter scale - and the headlines on all the news. This is typically British, making a fuss over next to nothing when there have been an average of three earthquakes measuring 5.0 or more, somewhere in the world, every day in 2008.

It was enough to make cupboards fly open and chimneys tumble in Lincolnshire, the epicentre, and further afield. Some people even felt it in Swindon, and if you were lucky enough to be awake, you couldn't have missed it, apparently.

I would really have liked to have experienced it, but sadly, I was asleep at the time, and didn't wake up. Worse still, I had gone to bed only half an hour earlier. Damn.

Hey, guess what...
Honda, Swindon's biggest employer (after Swindon Borough Council), has manufactured 2,000,000 cars at its Swindon plant, where the 5,000 workers have 58 different nationalities.
Source: Wiltshire Business News

Ageing process reversed - shock

Some surprising news was confirmed at the optician's today when I went to pick up my new contact lenses. Somehow, my eyes seem to have improved since I got my previous pair*, so the ones I was wearing were slightly too strong.

It was playing havoc with my near vision, and it was this, as much as my age, which was causing me to need glasses for reading. But now this over-compensation has been corrected, I can read again! Without glasses!

The optician told me not to get too excited because it's only a matter of time before I won't be able to read again, due to my age, but in the meantime, I'm looking forward to not having the terrible inconvenience of trying to remember where my glasses are. My cunning plan of having half a dozen or more pairs placed strategically in my life (bedbroom, bathroom, lounge, office, work, car, coat...) never really worked because sometimes they would all disappear at the same time.

More good news... When I do need reading glasses again, I'm going to try bifocal contact lenses instead, which I always doubted would work before, but which the optician assures me do work. They are cleverly weighted so the bifocal bit sinks to the bottom rather than spinning around. I've always thought contact lenses were one of the coolest inventions on the planet, and bifocal ones are surely even higher in the ranking than iPods.

*The (gas permeable) lenses I stopped wearing today were eight years old, which is probably enough to get me in the Guinness Book of Records. I'd never got round to renewing them, although there was an abortive attempt a year ago when the optician's I went to proved too incompetent to actually provide me with a decent pair. I won't say who they were, but the name rhymes with Hoots. Amazingly, when the optician examined my old lenses and my eyes a couple of weeks ago, there were no ill effects from eight years' wear - even though you're supposed to get new ones every year or two. It's funny to think that whereas I have a new pair every eight years, some people have disposables, so have a new pair every day.

All chessed out

We are all feeling all chessed out after a weekend of involvement in the Wilts and West of England tournament - a prestigious event that is held annually in Swindon.

Somewhere along the line I was volunteered to be a member of the organising committee and got the job of assembling all the kit - boards, clocks, sets and more - ready for the 250 kids taking part. A third of this belongs to Wiltshire Junior Chess (of which I am also on the committee), a third belongs to Thamesdown Junior Chess Club (of which I am also on the committee) and a third is borrowed from Hampshire Junior Chess (which I am not on the committee of but as I have to make three trips down there to organise the stuff, I might as well be).

To cut a long story short, our - Julie, Sean, Holly and my neice Lucy get roped in too - involvement also includes four hours of setting things up, four hours of taking it all down again and some gophering in-between. This year I was also the press officer for the event so ended up talking on BBC Radio Swindon, writing about it for the Swindon Advertiser, taking pictures and chatting with the mayor.

Holly was playing in the event, and now that she's 13, she moved up to a section called the Minor - for under-18s not yet able to compete with the future grandmasters in the Major section. As just about the youngest in it, we weren't expecting much, but she won two, drew one and lost three - and should have won another but ran out of time against an opponent who wasn't half as good as her long deliberations gave him credit for. Never mind.

Needless to say, we were as proud as ever.

Hey, guess what...
England is one of the world's top chess nations, with 34 grandmasters.
Source: Swindon chess experts

A new Carter

The world has a new Carter - you can't have too many - and I am a great uncle for the second time.

Amber Grace Carter (great name), the second daughter of my nephew Stuart and his wife Mel, arrived at 11.23am today - right on cue and without a hitch. Not only did they (we) know the sex of the baby well in advance, but because it was a planned caesarean, the baby's birthday was also known weeks ago, making it easily the most controlled, predictable birth I have ever heard of.

The irony of this is that the birth of Amber's big sister, Millie, was the exact opposite. She was due in October 2005 but she arrived in June (work it out). This made her survival a blessing, but that was only half the story as she has turned out to be a perfectly healthy toddler, thereby transforming it into something of a miracle.

I really didn't expect Stuart and Mel to have another baby after the trauma of Millie's first few weeks, so you can imagine how happy they must feel today. It brought back some memories of our kids being born, which seems further away than ever, today, as I've just been through Sean's English revision essay about John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (see below). Don't blink, Stuart and Mel, because they'll grow up before you know it.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, the pictures of Amber arrived almost as quickly as she did, although it wouldn't be right to publish them before they appear on Stuart's blog, which will, presumably, be updated just as soon as he picks himself up off the floor.

Of Mice and Men

There are so many books I'd like to read - some which I've bought and never got round to reading and others that I've already earmarked on the shelves of Borders - that I keep a kind of waiting list in my head. I usually have a couple of books on the go at once, as demonstrated by the 'Now reading' section under the menu, left, but just occasionally one unexpectedly jumps the queue.

And so it was with Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, which has become 'emergency' reading because it's one of the books on Sean's curriculum. 'Emergency' is probably an exaggeration, but he was in need of some help with his English literature, ahead of his GCSEs, which are rapidly approaching. So I decided to read it ASAP - and actually started and finished it while we were away at the weekend.

Fortunately, it's quite short - only half a book, really - but it was a really enjoyable read. Steinbeck manages to make a fairly powerful story out of simple characters - and in the case of one of them, namely the simple-minded Lennie - quite literally.

I've never read any Steinbeck before, but if this is typical of the quality of his work, then I'll certainly read some more, and probably The Grapes of Wrath. He paints very vivid pictures, especially of characters, yet mostly does this through very simple dialogue and the minimum of description.

Not only did I enjoy reading the book, but I'm also enjoying re-living my own schooldays by having to think about how to write English literature essays. So if anybody needs to know how Steinbeck uses his characters to portray prejudice, using examples from the text, I'm your man.

You're gonna hear me on your radio

I am going to be on BBC Radio Swindon and possibly BBC Radio Wiltshire on Saturday, in my capacity as press officer for the Wilts and West of England junior chess competition, which is happening in Swindon this weekend and which I somehow ended up on the committee for.

This involves lots of preparation and then a busy weekend, making sure that all the kit - boards, sets, clocks and more - are ready for a tournament that is prestigious enough that it was (very favourably) mentioned in the Daily Telegraph last year.

I put out a press release and got a call this afternoon to call in and do a short interview on the radio, which was recorded and will be broadcast with news bulletins - as if it is live - on Saturday. It only lasted a couple of minutes but seemed to go well, and the interviewer, Mark Jones, asked me if I'd done any interviews before, as if to say that it went well. So I took that as a compliment. I probably won't get to hear it as I will be too busy at the tournament, which is probably just as well. Mind you, I could get used to being a radio star.

Footballers' footnote

This just in from my brother, Brian...

It's the definitive group picture from the Forest game at the weekend, with the gang and two Forest legends - Steve Chettle and Kenny Burns.

Tibshelf adventures

Even though we added an extra day this year, our annual traditional 'February weekend' seemed to be over in a flash, which is proof of its success.

Every year since 1992, our group of friends have been going away for a short trip, usually around the half-term holidays. We go somewhere different every year (except for when we once returned to the same place) and we usually hire a cottage (although we have been known to commandeer whole youth hostels and even once went to Butlin's). This year our destination was a cottage in Tibshelf, Derbyshire. The cottage, called Raven House Farm, was a slight disappointment because it wasn't as luxurious as we'd hoped, but it did have plenty of character.

The personnel changes only slightly from year to year, and this year's was the same as last year's - us four (me, Julie, Sean and Holly), my brother Brian and his family (Sarah, Lucy and James), James and Julie, Pete (Lukey) and Julie, and Phil (Percy) and Liz.

The main themes of the weekend (not including Percy's underpants, which are best left untouched) were:

Walking: The greatest tradition of the weekend is probably the 'Seven O'Clock Club' where members drag themselves out of bed to convene at 7am for a walk around the vicinity - usually of about five miles. There were three official meetings plus an unofficial, ad-hoc one, with me maintaining my unique record of attending every one. Almost all the walks were on the Five Pits Trail, which traces Derbyshire's mining heritage and, for exactly a mile, commemorates Tibshelf's most famous son, the athlete Tom Hulatt. He came third in the historic race, in 1954, when Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile. For the 50th anniversary, somebody had the great idea of placing posts exactly one mile apart, with plaques in his honour. As well as the SOCC, we also had one extra walk, around nearby Ogston Reservoir. The main attraction of the walks was...

..the weather: It was lovely and frosty every morning, with the added interest of mist on the last day. And later on, on every day, there was bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. Perfect February weather, in fact - and great for taking photos of sunrises.

Football: We booked this trip long before the football fixtures were published, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that while we were due to be in Derbyshire, Swindon Town were due to be down the road at Nottingham Forest. So we not only decided to make the short trip to the City Ground for the match (while the girls went shopping) but did it in style by getting seats in the Castle Club - a kind of communal executive box. You also got the use of the restaurant, before the match, at half-time and afterwards, and, as an added bonus, Lukey, who organised it all, talked the club into giving us a bit of a guided tour of the ground. As Forest are, of course, two-times European Cup winners (1979 and 1980), the trophy cabinet included the official replica of the trophy as presented to them by FIFA. There should have been two, but they lost one. After seeing this, we had the good fortune to bump into Kenny Burns, who played in both European Cup-winning teams, and he stopped to chat with us. We met up with him again later, and he was more than happy to pose for pictures and sign autographs - a really nice bloke (not unlike just about everybody we met in Nottingham, in fact). I don't really approve of posh football, and watching the match from behind glass was weird (they have microphones outside, to pipe in the crowd noises), but it was an interesting experience. A thoroughly memorable afternoon should have been made perfect by at least a Town draw, but they undeservedly lost 1-0 despite playing well - only letting themselves down in the last third of the field. After the game, we went on to the city centre for a great meal at Nando's (Portuguese) - great, that is, except for the fact that I rested my coat near a spotlight and when it got moved accidentally, the light burned holes in it - as we discovered just as we were about to leave. Still, I needed a new one.

Trams: We took the park and ride into Nottingham and were surprised to find that it wasn't a bus but a tram. This was coincidental because we had planned to spend one afternoon of the weekend at the National Tramway Museum at Crich. We'd been before, more than ten years ago, but I still thoroughly enjoyed seeing their more than 50 trams and riding on one. It also provided two contrasting tram driver pictures. I got chatting to the conductor of the tram on the way back from Nottingham, who explained that conductors can also drive, so the two-man crews take it in turns. When they get bored with driving, they do some conducting "because it's nice to meet people and be sociable". He also said each tram has a button inside which controls traffic lights along the route. You can't help but like trams, especially as it is only a matter of time before we all realise they are the only long-term solution to congestion and their heyday is yet to come.

Food: It wouldn't be a February weekend without interesting food - most of which is governed by strict tradition, such as the Sunday roast (organised by Lukey and the kids) and the bangers and mash night (organised by Me and Percy). We also always have a tasting session, picking one type of food each year and sampling different brands. Tea, whisky, tomato soup and jam have all been done in previous years, and this year we picked apple pies, with Mr Kipling proving that he really does make exceedingly good cakes by coming top of the poll. This year had the added excitement of James and Julie (who returned home a day early) phoning in their results, like the Eurovision Song Contest.

Things that the area is famous for: Tibshelf has three claims to fame, apparently. As well as Tom Hulatt (see above), it is renowned for its motorway service station (the M1 goes right past the village), and it was also the site of Britain's first inland oil well. Down the road is Chesterfield, which we weren't overly impressed with, apart from the sight of its famous crooked spire (apparently, the twist is probably deliberate, but the lean was caused by using unseasoned timber).

The quiz: This is a revived tradition as we used to have one every year, and even have a trophy - The Cottage Cup, but it lapsed. Brian reminded us how much fun it can be (not to mention controversial) with a quiz based on naming, in turn, items from lists (such as countries which drive on the left, The Beatles' number ones and shipping forecast areas). I am glad to say that I came top, and I now become the proud holder of The Cottage Cup.

The pictures here are the edited highlights. People who like looking at other people's holiday pictures, and people who like to see nice sunrise pictures may get a kick at looking at some more pictures from the weekend, and bigger ones too.

Hey, guess what...
The European Cup seen on Sky Sports' programmes is one of the replicas that was presented to Nottingham Forest for winning the trophy in 1979 and 1980. They charge a fee every time it is used.
Source: Nottingham Forest FC

St Valentine's Day architecture

I really get quite bored with all the Valentine's Day hype, but I have to say there is one thing that everybody should love and that's modern architecture.

I remember watching a programme about architecture a couple of years ago which said that we are on the threshold of some amazing buildings because they now have the computer technology to model structures that you couldn't put up before, for fear that they would fall down.

Well, it's happening now. No sooner does the sensational new Olympic stadium in Beijing become a brand new entry in my hit parade of favourite buildings - right up there with Sydney Opera House and the Taj Mahal, in fact - than I get to hear (through my nephew Stuart's blog) of a website that suggests we ain't seen nothing yet. Actually, the whole of the site, called Deputy Dog, is worth a look (for example, the staircases).

In bed with Bleep and Booster

Nostalgic overload today as my latest eBay purchase arrived - a Bleep and Booster annual from 1967.

I was prepared to pay 12 for this, but got it for 7 (including postage), which is pretty cheap for something that instantly transports you back 40 years.

Bleep and Booster - an alien from the planet Minos and an Earthling kid with glasses - made occasional appearances on Blue Peter, but only as drawings, accompanied by a voiceover, telling the story of their escapades in space. So it was all pretty low-tech stuff really, but because it was the time of the Apollo programme, it all seemed thrilling and believable.

We (my twin brother, Brian, and I) loved Bleep and Booster, and especially loved the annual we got - probably as a Christmas present. It was lost over the years, so it's thanks to the magic of eBay that it's come back. The original cost was ten shillings and sixpence (52.5p), but at one stage this particular one was going for 20p - probably in a jumble sale or something - according to the writing on the inside front cover.

I can vividly recall looking at the book for hours on end, so the memory of many of the drawings is burned into my memory, and none more so than Bleep in his vertical bed - a concept that mesmerised our infant school brains. More bizarre now is the fact that Booster not only went to bed in his glasses, but also his space helmet.

They don't make them like that anymore.

Lucky football mascots

Our Australian friend, Steve Hall, was in town again today, so we had a pleasant half day of catching up on things and going to football.

A citizen of Sydney but currently working out of Paris, he was in Britain on business, his diary again showing a strange tendency to run parallel with the football fixtures - either of Swindon Town or his other team, Hartlepool. Every time he manages to get to Swindon, as if by magic, there is a match on, and we end up going together. These days, these matches are more or less the only games I get to see, my former love affair with Town having cooled over the years to the point where we are more like just old friends.

So tonight we saw Town easily beat Cheltenham Town 3-0, and as the only other game I've watched this season - again with Steve - was the 5-0 thrashing of Gillingham, we seem to be turning into lucky mascots.

Cheltenham were pretty poor opposition and Town seemed to have been dragged down to their level at first, but they were two up by half-time thanks to goals by the impressive Simon Cox and Billy Paynter, and capped it off with a late third by Christian Roberts. The scoreline covered up the fact that the midfield were all over the place and nobody showed much composure, but it does keep alive Town's outside chances of making the play-offs.

Ironically, I'll be watching the Town again this Saturday as we will be near Nottingham and they are playing away to Forest, which seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

A tribute to tribute bands

My column for tonight's Adver is about tribute bands - a piece I really enjoyed researching and writing.

I had the idea for it after discovering there was a Police tribute band on at the Wyvern Theatre, although I've always been impressed by the names bands come up with, so trawled the net for more. I haven't seen many of this type of act myself, although I have been impressed by Beatles acts before now, the best being the now defunct Ludwig Beatles, who were from Swindon and featured Steve Gobey on drums, who was in our year at school.

Anyway, I've added the column to the Words section of this site because the two little things that had been previously deposited there were looking a bit lonely.

Family history update

The fact that the family history section of this website has remained dormant for more than a year is enough to prove that the idea of filling it with long articles was not a very good one.

My brother Brian, who has been the main researcher of it over the last few years, reckons he could spend the next three months just collating the information he already has. So, rather than leave it idle, waiting for major projects to be completed, I've decided on a different tactic of uploading snippets of random information, as and when they become available.

To start this off, there is some brand new information about our splendidly named great great grandfather, Adolphus Adams, who has turned up in a souvenir of the opening of the Sunday school at the Baptist Church in Upper Stratton. It turns out that he was a deacon there, as was his son - the first known connection with any church in the whole of the family history. We also stumbled on a picture of a great great uncle.

Find out more here.

Animal magic

I finished reading The QI Book of Animal Ignorance - a Christmas present that proved the perfect bathroom book. It's an A to Z of fascinating facts about all kinds of animals, and is just great fun to read.

I did wonder whether it would live up to its QI billing - QI being one of the few must-see TV programmes in my life these days - but it does. It's full of information such as the digging power of moles, the toxicity of box jellyfish and why foxes never kill chickens "for fun".

I even realised, when I read it, why I don't read much science fiction. If you tried to invent an animal or imagine an alien that was really, really weird, you couldn't come up with anything half as bizarre as things already walking the earth or swimming in the oceans. Truth really is stranger than fiction, and this book proves it on every single page.

If I have one criticism of it, it's the book's preoccupation with mating. Every creature's method of reproduction and the equipment it needs is discussed in detail, and sometimes it's just too much information.

Hey, guess what...
There are a million worms per acre in good soil, and no matter how many cows you put in a field, they are always outweighed by the worms underneath.
Source: The QI Book of Animal Ignorance

The return of Napoleon

Relief all round in the Carter household today on the re-appearance of Napoleon.

We hadn't seen him for more than 24 hours and on his last visit he was nursing a poorly paw, so we were a bit worried, especially Holly, who already considers him one of the family.

But he turned up on the doorstep this morning, paw apparently healed - thankfully. He's a bit scary and we couldn't imagine how we'd ever get him into the basket to take him to the vet's.

Meanwhile, one of our proper cats, Elvis - who is the not the smartest cat in the world - has taken a liking to Holly's insulin. The smell of a single drop of it on tissue paper - which smells like antiseptic or mild disinfectant - is enough to send him into a frenzy. He also likes bleach. When Julie washes the kitchen floor with it, he rolls around in ecstacy, and it's all we can do to stop him licking it off the floor.

In short, we live in a madhouse.

Rev Keith Greenslade 1927-2008

It was the funeral today of Rev Keith Greenslade, retired vicar of St Philip's Church, Upper Stratton, and the father of my friend of nearly 40 years, James.

He also happens to have been the vicar who christened me, which wasn't long after the family first came to Swindon in 1968. I have the rare distinction of being able to remember my own baptism as I was about eight years old, although it's only a very dim memory. My cousin (once removed) Keith, who was an infant, was being christened, and I think our parents decided to get us (me and my twin brother, Brian) done at the same time, although it was out of character because they weren't the least bit religious.

I've always known Rev Greenslade as 'James's Dad' and actually didn't meet him very many times, although when I did he always struck me as a surprisingly shy, quiet and polite man. It's only since his death that I've found out the full details of his interesting life, as I had the honour of writing his obituary for the Adver, with James supplying the relevant facts.

He qualified as an architect before becoming a vicar, but before that he was a Bevan Boy in the South Wales coalfields. While he was there, he produced a kind of journal, with drawings, which James's brother-in-law is now publishing, and which I got to see a sneak preview of this week - real, priceless history.

Rev Greenslade also spent some time as a curate at Langley Burrell - thus treading in the footsteps of Francis Kilvert, whose book, Kilvert's Diary, is an account of his time in the same job.

So when the current vicar of St Philip's, Carol Stone, gave her excellent address at the funeral, I already knew almost all the details. But there was a surprise. It turned out that before James and his sister Clare were born, Rev and Mrs Greenslade had a son, John, who only lived for ten hours. Even though I've known James for 40 years this summer, this was news to me, which goes to show that whatever you think of funerals - and I have my own thoughts on them - they do have a tendency to tell you things you never knew.

I have never seen so many vicars together in one place as I did today, which you would expect for the funeral of a vicar, but it certainly seemed that he was genuinely very highly thought of by lots of people - or as the presiding vicar put it, "He was a vicar's vicar, just as he was a people's person."

Rev Greenslade's death is also significant among our 'gang' of five friends, because it means that we've now all lost our fathers.



A glimpse of heaven

I was at the Wyvern Theatre tonight, with my brother, Brian, for a concert by the kings of folk-rock, The Strawbs, who were appearing in their acoustic manifestation.

Considering they started off the show with two songs from my all-time top 100 (Benedictus and Simple Visions) and later played two more from it (Witchwood and Autumn), I think it's fair to say I had a good evening.

I've seen them several times before, and they never fail to impress with their playing, while the songs are like old friends. Annoyingly, The Strawbs are mostly remembered for a big hit they had in the 1970s, called Part of the Union, but that's so incidental to the real Strawbs story that it might as well have been done by somebody else. It's a completely untypical Strawbs song and was written by two members who had a relatively brief spell in the band (Rick Hudson and John Ford, who left to form Hudson-Ford). The constant face in the line-up over the last 40-odd years has been lead singer and main composer Dave Cousins, who possesses a kind of smoky whisky voice - the kind that you either love or hate.

I love it because it's so distinctive and because it fits the heartfelt lyrics of the songs. In other words, he always sings it with feeling. Unfortunately, only about 100 Swindon souls felt like bothering to come out to see them, but that was their loss.

Two other old-time Strawbs joined Dave on stage - Chas Cronk on bass and 12-string guitar, and inspired lead guitarist Dave Lambert, who provided one of the most sublime moments of the show when he managed to get his guitar to sound exactly like seagulls during the intro to the phenomenal Autumn. The show included some classic Strawbs tracks, including A Glimpse of Heaven, The Hangman and the Papist and even The Man Who Called Himself Jesus, which sounds like something that born-again Christians would clap their hands to but is really about a mentally disturbed character who thinks he's Jesus.

The definitive line-up of the band are re-forming for an electric (as opposed to acoustic) tour in the summer.

I'll be there.

The picture is from a previous gig on the tour, as seen on the official Strawbs website, StrawbsWeb.

The music that you can probably hear (as I haven't worked out how to get it to play on demand rather than automatically) is a live version of Benedictus, which is considered by us Strawbs fans as a kind of signature song.

A banjo on my knee

What's the definition of perfect pitch?

It's the sound you get when you throw a banjo in a skip and it hits an accordian. At least, that's according to the joke told by Dave Cousins of The Strawbs tonight. I suppose banjos are a bit comical. Billy Connolly, who is also a banjo player, makes jokes about them too.

Personally, I could sit and listen to banjo music all night, and I even bought a banjo once, many years ago. The idea was to learn to play the guitar by playing (a six-string) banjo, although I never did quite get around to it. I just love the sound it makes. So I was looking forward to the bit in the show where Dave Cousins picked up his banjo. I like the accordian too, when it's in the right hands and comes in fairly small doses - which reminds me of another accordian joke...

What is the definition of a perfect gentleman? It's a man who knows how to play the accordian... but doesn't.

All that jazz

A treat for Swindon's drummers tonight with a masterclass by Sebastian de Krom. He's Jamie Cullum's drummer (no less).

I went along with Sean to Kingsdown School to see it. We were trying to count up how many of these events we've been to - it must be about ten - and all of them have been co-organised by our drum teacher, Paul Ashman. Sadly, this may be the last he organises, but hopefully the success of tonight's will persuade him otherwise. What happens is there is at least one super-talented and highly renowned drummer who plays some music, gives some tips and answers questions from the audience.

My favourite one featured Dom Famularo, a truly inspirational drummer and speaker, but Sebastian was up there with the best. He came with his trio - sax and double bass - and played some no-nonsense jazz. Half was played with brushes instead of sticks, which gives a good idea of the sort of stuff he is renowned for. I know very little about jazz but I can give quite an accurate description of the main type he played by saying it's the sort that you can use as a backing track to a documentary about train journeys. Indeed, he explained that some of the sounds he was creating were meant to mimic train sounds. At one point he created the perfect impression of an express train slowly approaching and then thundering past.

I definitely like jazz in small doses and I definitely like this kind, but I'm still making up my mind whether I really like it enough to want to sit down and listen to it for long. In that respect, Sebastian was an excellent ambassador because he made it seem more accessible.

People almost always think drumming must be easy - though they soon find out the truth if you put them in front of a drum kit - and when you see people like Sebastian de Krom do it, there is no doubt that those rhythms are phenomenally complex and difficult, especially for an addled brain like mine. From a drummer's perspective, then, there's only one problem with this type of event - it's meant as an inspiration but it also confirms that gut feeling that you have that you're never going to be able to get close to reproducing that sort of complexity and quality.

Watching tonight, I got to thinking about the second major obstacle to learning an instrument later in life. The first I already knew about because I realised it from day one - that you can't pick it up even a tenth as quickly as kids can. The other one is harder to explain but is mainly about how you get over the discovery that you're not a natural. You soon learn that with a lot of hard work and dedication, it's still possible to get very good at being average - that is, good enough to play in a band and get away with it. If you're young, you have plenty of time to perfect this art, but if you're 46 like me, you never get over the feeling that you've missed the bus and you're running after it.

The scariest thing about the whole thing is that there are very few bad 46-year-old drummers around to keep me company. Most other drummers of my age usually started young - and they have since fallen into two categories. They're either good/great because of hard work/natural ability and therefore are now very experienced - or they've long since given it up as a bad job. This is why I feel the need to tell everybody that I'm relatively new to it - because there is only one thing worse than being crap, and that's being crap and not knowing it. And I'd hate people to think I think I'm good.

Despite all this, one of the common themes in the advice you get from great drummers at events such as tonight's is that if you put a lot of effort into doing the relatively easy things very well and more accurately, you will at least achieve something.