(Newest entries first)

Rock on


Yet more drumming today because it was the Rock School end-of-term concert.

Sean goes to Rock School for two hours every Tuesday evening - a kind of club for schoolchildren to go to, to learn the fine art of being in a rock band. They are taught by professional teachers and get access to all the equipment they need.

Then, at the end of term, they put on a concert - mostly for their parents. This time it was at the brand new Isambard School in Swindon. Some parents only go along to watch their little Johnnys and then go home, but we decided to do the decent thing and watch nearly all of the 12 bands.

This was mostly a pleasure as they were all competent and some were very good and creative, although there were a couple who went in for hard core metal, including Sean's band (pictured). I'd be lying if I said I liked their style - Sean said we wouldn't - but they were technically good and Sean looked suitably assured as the drummer.

It's a shame that they don't realise the very narrow appeal of metal music, but the good news is that when playing it they get to learn the trade, so have the necessary skills to change over to more conventional music when they get older and wiser.

The whole Rock School thing, obviously, can only be good, and it's only one part of a general trend of encouraging children to take up music in this country, which is going to reap big rewards for us all, one day.


He's done it!

News finally came through, today, that Sean has passed his Grade 8 drumming exam. Not only that: he passed it with merit, scoring 83 per cent.

It's been a bit like somebody has been doing a drum roll in our ears since he sat the exam on March 11, and the tension rose to fever pitch when our drum teacher, Paul Ashman, phoned us at teatime with the news that the results were in - and we were out. And when we phoned back, he wasn't in, so we had to endure a few more nervous minutes while we located him.

My immediate reaction to the news was "Thank God for that!" and this was quickly followed by "You sound like you're going to cry, Julie" ("That's because I am").

We really did feel elated and proud that Sean has achieved Grade 8, especially because he completed it before leaving school, which has always been his self-inflicted target (we believe he is the first of Paul's pupils and the first Kingsdown pupil to achieve this). But, more than anything, we felt relief because this was a re-take, after he originally took it on December 13. We were all stunned that he failed by three marks that time, especially as he'd thought it had gone well, and the three top-rate drum teachers whom he independently performed the same pieces to - in one case over a long period - all said they couldn't find much wrong with his playing.

Of course, everybody has experience of not agreeing with the examiner's marking at least once in their life, but in this case we really felt as though Sean had been hard done by. There were factors like the examiner being assessed himself, on the day of the exam, which must have skewed the marks, and other things that seemed to conspire against him. So, even when, after the re-take, Sean said he was 98 per cent sure he'd passed and Paul said he was 99 per cent sure, we had our worries. It would have been a gross injustice if he hadn't passed, especially in the light of the hard work he has put into his drumming - not just for this exam, but during the whole six or seven years he's been doing it. We were even relieved for our teacher, Paul, who has always shown faith in Sean, has done a lot to get him this far and had been as shocked by the episode of the first exam as we were.

Failure would have been especially difficult to swallow today, after Sean stood in for me at our band's practice. Because I'm still under doctor's orders not to do any drumming (hopefully until I get the all-clear next Friday), I asked him to step in at short notice, which meant playing songs that he was either unfamiliar with or even hadn't ever heard before. So he had to switch to playing the kind of old-fogey music we do, and he also had to overcome the temptation to play fancy bits that he's capable of, which are not our (my) style. The fact that he rose to the challenge and worked patiently and hard for three hours was more than enough to prove to me that he has a greater feel for drumming than any exam paper could measure.

Grade 8, in fact, is the highest grade that musicians can reach in part-time studies. Anything higher - and there are all kinds of diplomas - requires college courses or independent study. More significantly, it's a grade that you don't get to, just by doing it for a long time. I, for instance, wouldn't attain it if I played drums for the next 500 years, although I do know more than enough about drumming to understand and appreciate the complexity and difficulty of Grade 8 pieces. As I always say, drumming looks easy until you try it, and the better the really talented players get, the easier they make it look.

We've never been anything but massively proud of Sean's achievements as a drummer, so today was never going to change our feelings about that, regardless of the verdict. But the certificate he will shortly be getting serves two purposes. It's for Sean to use as proof of how good he is, and it's for us. The world is full of doting parents who think their children have special talents - they wouldn't be very good parents if they didn't - but we finally have a certificate that we can put on the wall to prove that Sean's drumming abilities aren't just something that only we see through our rose-coloured spectacles.

Band of hope

There was a major advantage to going along to our band's practice, this afternoon, but not playing. It meant that I could stand back and listen while they went through about a dozen songs. It's really hard for me to take much in when I'm drumming, because I have to concentrate so much, but this time I could really appreciate what the band sounded like - and they sounded great. It's really coming together as a complete sound, which is exciting to be part of (even if I wasn't actually part of it today).

And it got better in the evening. For a while I've been coming to the conclusion that my drumming education, so far, has been missing something. I've worked out that since I took it up, five or six years ago, I've only really watched good drummers - Sean, Paul (our teacher), other drum teachers, the top-rated drummers on 'drum clinics' we've attended or on DVD and videos or in concerts, etc. Although this is inspiring in one way, in each case, my feeling has always been "I could never do that." So I'm determined to get out and see some more amateur drummers, in the hope that I will be able to say "I can do that". I really need to see some average drummers!

With this in mind, and also because we really should see what the 'opposition' is up to, I arranged with Dave, one of our guitarists, to go out tonight and see a band perform in a pub. They turned out to have a good, tight sound, but we soon realised that all their songs sounded the same, which made us realise just how varied and interesting our repertoire already is. I obviously spent most of the time watching the drummer, who could play really fast - he had no choice because all the songs were at the same fast tempo - but I could see weaknesses, especially the fact that he played the cymbals far too much. Just the fact that I can find some fault in somebody else's drumming and see how they could improve is a big confidence booster.

Kingdom come

Introducing the newest member of our family... Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

He's a life-size cardboard cut-out which I liberated from work today. He'd been gathering dust in the newsroom for more than a year, having been some kind of leaflet-dispensing display during the Brunel 200 celebrations. Then, this week, he got moved as part of a clean-up campaign (although it's obvious to me that newsrooms are meant to be untidy and should be left that way).

I have to admit that I've had my eye on him for ages, so when he ended up in the library and the librarian said she didn't want him because he gave her the creeps, I pounced.

It was only a matter of time before he ended up in the skip, so I decided to take him home. At the moment he gets pride of place in the lounge (where he was pictured with Elvis) but will eventually end up in my office in the loft, I expect.

Brunel, of course, is not just a national hero but a local one too, having been the man who put Swindon on the map in the 1840s, when he decided to build his works here for his Great Western Railway. So it would have been criminal not to give him a good home, even though some people would have put him straight on eBay.

Back to school

We (Julie and me) went back to school tonight, accompanying Sean on a GCSE 'revision evening'. For an hour and a half, the deputy head talked about revision schedules and techniques, all of which proved a really useful eye-opener - and in more ways than one.

I really thought it would be about taking notes and using nothing more sophisticated than a highlighter pen - because that's how I did it. But it soon became clear that there is much more to it than that. The idea was to take a more scientific approach, so we heard about studies in efficient revision methods, optimum times for studying and all kinds of things that we'd never really considered. For instance, it's much better to do more stimulating things in the afternoons, when we are naturally less receptive to working and learning, and this included going on to YouTube where there are lots of homemade study videos that often relate directly to the syllabus.

It was also pointed out that by far the best way to learn something thoroughly is to try to teach it to somebody else. This can help you absorb nearly 20 times as much as just listening to a teacher, and you can combine it with other efficient methods, such as discussion groups. I had spent most of the day helping kids at Ruskin to put together their school newspaper (the Ruskin Express), and I'm never quite sure why I do it, but I now see that I get to learn more about my job when I do (nine-year-olds sometimes have a habit of asking some very pertinent questions).

So it was pretty enlightening, but even more revealing was the fact that although there are 252 kids in Sean's year and the exams are now looming large, and although the school obviously went to a lot of trouble to organise the evening, only about 40 kids and their parents bothered to turn up - just one in six. We both found it incredible that most people would pass up a chance to give their kids a better chance, especially as we came away thinking Sean now had a significant advantage over his peers, just because of one hour-and-a-half session. We were feeling pretty sorry for the other kids who could put in a lot of effort and not really achieve their objective.

We still have contrasting approaches to the whole exam thing. Julie can still vividly recall the panic that set in when she sat her exams, so can't help worrying about Sean's, whereas I take the viewpoint that as long as he passes English and Maths and does well in Music, which is his strongest subject, GCSEs should have a relatively small impact on his life, compared with other milestones, especially A Levels. In other words, not getting too het up about it all is probably as valuable as any of the other useful things we learned tonight.

Eye, eye

I was at the centre of a little medical drama today - but one with a happy (not to mention relieved) ending.

On Tuesday evening (ie four days ago) I could see a few spots at the corner of my eye while playing tennis. This didn't worry me at all as I had also seen spots a few weeks ago, and they had cleared up after about 24 hours. I've been burning the candle at both ends this week, as I was when the spots appeared before, so I put it down to tiredness. This was still my verdict when, while walking to work on Wednesday, I began to see much more than spots, right in front of my left eye.

It was uncannily like a piece of dark red cotton (I could only assume it was red, being colourblind) which was frayed at one end and flapped about, exactly like cotton would, when I moved my eyes. It was permanently in front of me, although after a while of not concentrating on it and as the day wore on, it seemed to fade. In the evenings, going from a light room into the dark, I also saw a very narrow band of white light, right on the very left edge of my field of vision. But there was absolutely no pain or any other sensation involved, apart from the fact that I could see this piece of cotton clearly.

After a hard working week with late evenings and early mornings, it was still there on Friday evening when I had an Indian head massage. I hoped the massage would help to cure it but it made no difference, and after mentioning it to Christine, who does the massage, she insisted on looking up the symptoms in one of those family health books. I have to say I don't really believe in those books because you can convince yourself that you've got every illness under the sun after reading them (I reckon they could convince me I'm pregnant). However, the possibilities the book came up with were pretty frightening and I therefore decided I'd go to the doctor's in the morning, unless I woke up after a good night's sleep to find the cotton had gone. I was still clinging to the hope that it was just tiredness.

Well, it was still there this morning, and after two hours' wait at the walk-in centre - Easter Saturday is not a good time to get ill - the nurse there phoned the hospital, spoke to the eye doctor and arranged for me to go up to the hospital treatment centre within a couple of hours. This gave me time to come home and load the drums in the car, ready for band practice that was planned for this afternoon - which I never got to.

The first news from the hospital was that I wouldn't be able to drive home because they were going to dilate my pupils with drops, so I had to arrange for Brian (my brother) to drive me home, and I'd also forgotten to take a pot to put my contact lenses in, which caused more inconvenience. Then the 15-minute wait (with my eyes closed) for my pupils to dilate wasn't long enough and I had to have a second dose and another 15-minute wait with my eyes closed, by which time I was starting to feel more anxious about what the outcome of it all was going to be.

Eventually, after five minutes of the doctor - an extremely nice man called Mr Chaudhuri - staring into my eyes through a machine, he sat back and told me I had a torn retina, which he had no doubt expected to find all along. I said something stupid like "That sounds bad," to which he replied, "Well, it's not good. You are going to need laser treatment. Shall we do it now?"

At this point I need to explain that when it comes to anything vaguely surgical, I'm not exactly what you would call brave, so I had to explain my cowardice to the doctor, hoping he would offer some kind of sedative or something. But all he offered was an assurance that I wouldn't feel anything. This isn't much help because it's never the pain that worries me, just that my imagination always runs riot whenever faced with any situation like that.

"Well, you don't really have an option," said the doctor. "If it's not treated, it will inevitably lead to a detached retina, which leads to blindness." So, thankfully before I had much time to think about it, we had both transferred to the main part of the hospital, where he had to open up the laser room (this now being Saturday afternoon). By this time I was thankful for the fact that my contact lenses were still out because I couldn't see the instrument of torture properly, and as I also told him not to give me any running commentaries, I was fairly blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen.

I had to rest my chin on a little block in front of a small machine and push my forehead against a band, exactly as you do when you're having your eyes examined at the optician's (the machine looked virtually the same, as far as I could tell). First the doctor put some local anaesthetic in my eye, then some kind of lens which held it open and was somehow attached to the machine (I didn't actually get to see this device, whatever it was). Then he spent what seemed like ages but must have been only a couple of minutes, looking at my eyes with a bright light, presumably homing in on the target. I was hoping that somehow this bright light was the laser already working, but then he said he was about to turn on the laser and told me to keep my eyes fixed on a point to the extreme left. So I gripped the handlebars of the machine tighter.

When the laser was turned on, I saw (probably) orange lights which flashed on and off quickly, while making a clicking noise. You get about 20 or 30 of these flashes at a time. Then there is a gap of a few seconds while the doctor does some re-positioning, before you get another dose of laser flashes. You get about 10 or 12 doses in the end, which started slightly uncomfortable but was painful a couple of times - similar to the kind of headache you get that seems to be at the back of your eyes. He turned the power down slightly when I winced, but it still stung a bit. All the time I was getting more and more anxious and gripping the bars of the machine ever more tightly, and my mouth went bone dry.

I was desperately trying to concentrate on keeping my eye and my head still, which is a real effort when your instincts are to look away and back away. Finally, the doctor leaned back and said it was finished - the whole thing having taken about ten minutes. It was only then, as the relief swept over me, that I felt a hot flush coming over me and I felt like I might faint (I often feel like this during any kind of treatment, but haven't fainted yet). Once the device on my eye was taken out, I could see, though everything was red and it was still out of focus because my contact lenses were out. Within a couple of minutes, the redness was gone.

The doctor explained that the laser burns "a circle of fire" on to the retina, and this scar tissue prevents the tear getting any bigger. If left, the tear would continue to grow until the retina becomes detached - and then you're talking about surgery to save the sight of your eye, if you're lucky. This detachment can occur within days, so I had a lucky escape and can spend the rest of my life telling people to go straight to the hospital if they ever see things in front of their eyes that shouldn't be there (although little dots are normal and harmless). Certainly, if you see bits of cotton, don't delay.

I've been ordered not to do anything strenuous until they see me again in two weeks' time, which means no long walks, no sport and not even drumming. Even driving is out. As long as I don't do anything that causes my head to shake about, it's OK and I should make a full recovery. I was even able to put my contact lenses straight back in again afterwards.

I asked the doctor what I'd done for this to happen and he said nothing. The two main causes are short-sightedness - and I'm very short-sighted - and what he called 'anno domini'. I picked up some leaflets on the way out which pointed out that a tear in the retina is rare - affecting only one in 10,000 people and then mostly short-sighted, middle aged people like me and Mr Magoo. The leaflet also provided the diagram, below, which demonstrates - thankfully not too graphically - both what I have and what it would have developed into. It's thanks to Christine that I went to the doctor's when I did, and although I probably would have gone on Monday, that may have been too late to avert a disaster.

The red cotton should start to fade and disappear over the next two or three weeks, as if it were a bruise, which it is, sort of. It's blood, floating around in the vitreous (jelly-like) stuff that fills your eyeball, which the retina encases.

So I'm feeling pretty relieved about the whole thing, as well as impressed by the technology and the care I got, and also pretty smug to have been proved right, so quickly, after what I said in my previous post to this blog, which I now cut and paste: The NHS is still this country's greatest peacetime achievement by a very, very long way, and long may it continue to be in safe hands.

One year on

Exactly a year ago today we endured by far the most stressful day in our careers as parents - the day that Holly was diagnosed as a diabetic.

I will never forget the first thing I said to her when she got home from school and I had to break the news the doctor had given me on the phone - I told her it was not a disaster but it was a challenge.

Well, 366 days and well over a thousand injections later, I can report that Holly - and me and Julie too, come to think of it - have risen to the challenge. We are now so up on the diabetic thing that even the current complications caused by Holly being 13 and going through all the changes that 13-year-old girls do, which can cause havoc with blood sugar levels, is but a minor obstacle for us to negotiate. Actually, we had cause to phone the diabetic nurse today, to check on doses, and she advised exactly what we all predicted she would.

This was the first time in months that we needed to contact the nurse. Even more ironically, and as if to underline, still further, Holly's achievement in mastering the art of being a diabetic, a work colleague today suffered a hypo that eventually led to a paramedic being called. A hypo, for anybody who doesn't know, is what happens when you have too much insulin, and is usually and easily corrected by eating three Lucozade tablets. But if the person doesn't get some kind of sugar/glucose, they eventually get to the point where they do an extremely good impression of being drunk and refuse to co-operate, even with pleas to eat or drink something sugary. In fact, calling out a paramedic was way too drastic but necessary because of some health and safety nonsense that prevented even the first aider from administering a very simple remedy (you don't really need to call for medical support for a diabetic having a hypo, unless the person is unconscious).

The point I'm getting to is that Holly has never been anywhere near this state, always being in full control of the situation. As Julie said tonight, when you first find out, you can't dream that you'll ever get used to it or that it won't completely dominate your own life, let alone Holly's. But you do.

Holly has well and truly cracked it, which makes us proud of her every day - and that's still only half the story, because what she/we also have is a philosophy of always respecting diabetes for the dangerous condition it is if not kept in check. In other words, we didn't get where we are today by being complacent.

The only thing that impresses us half as much as Holly's fantastic response to diabetes is the National Health Service's faultless - and I use the word literally - care for Holly so far. The NHS is still this country's greatest peacetime achievement by a very, very long way, and long may it continue to be in safe hands.

Second skin

Drum practice with a difference today. Saturday afternoon has become our time for our band getting together to practice our art, but because one of us couldn't make it today, we get a week off.

So I decided to do some African drumming instead. This was partly because I needed to meet up with a guy called Geoff Miles as I may be doing some work for him. He is the managing director of an organisation called Kaya, which runs workshops, school clubs, team-building events and various other things connected with African djembe drumming.

It turned out that the best time to meet Geoff was during a 'drumming circle' he was holding at Alton Barnes, but as I'd also wanted to have another go at djembe drumming, anyway, a drive down there killed two birds with one stone. I'd played a djembe before, but that had been fairly unsatisfactory as I'd overdone it and ended up with a throbbing hand, but also because that session - run by somebody else - had been quite intense and the rhythms difficult to learn, so it wasn't much fun. And fun is more or less the point of djembe.

This time it was much better, and helped towards my main objective of the exercise - getting more confident as a drummer. I sometimes find drumming quite daunting and even stressful, and I thought that a session of laid-back, fun-filled freestyle drumming would help - and it did. When there are about 20 people sat in a circle, doing the same thing, and some of them really don't have much natural rhythm and a couple of them are even severely mentally disabled and obviously there as some kind of therapy, it's surprisingly liberating, so you are inclined to go for complex rhythms without really caring whether you get them right or not. When you can do this at a drum kit, you've more or less cracked it.

So, all in all, an enjoyable and useful couple of hours. One of the surprising things about drummers - as in those who play drum kits - is that they don't seem to be much interested in other kinds of drumming, but I am. I'm even becoming increasingly convinced that, as good as some drummers are (and much better than me), they may have missed a trick in not trying other kinds.

Carter media star, number three

The Carter family's hogging of the media spotlight continued today in style as my brother, Ron (or Ronald as he's known to senior members of the family) got himself splashed across the front page of the Adver.

It's all about his wait for a heart transplant, but they also used it to launch a general campaign to get people to register for donor cards. Ron has been waiting eight months since going on the register for a new heart with Papworth Hospital - probably the world's foremost heart transplant specialists.

The really ludicrous situation we find ourselves in is that while we have the technology, know-how, experience and money to make heart transplants relatively 'routine', it is always a struggle to get donors. This is because we live in a society that finds it much easier to think of silly reasons not to do things than good reasons to do them, and the government has never taken a lead on the donor situation. However, there are hints that all that is going to change, and hopefully a reversal of the current system could be just around the corner. Then you will have to take steps to opt out of donating organs when you've got no more use for them. Until that happens, you either have to carry a donor card or 'give the Gift of Life' online.

Happy birthday to... um, Julie

It's Julie's birthday today. I'm far too much of a gentleman to reveal a lady's age online, but she was born in the year that JFK was assassinated and The Beatles conquered the world - so you can work it out for yourself (1963).

She seemed to enjoy her birthday and did very well with presents and cards - though not quite as well as I did. She said she wanted an iPod like mine for her birthday and since I didn't want mine anymore because I had filled it up and needed a bigger one, she came up with the brilliant idea of having mine, while I get a brand new one. This sounds terribly like it was my idea, but it was all hers and a sensible, logical solution, I reckon, even if it was agreed on the understanding that it's an early birthday present for me.

So I've got a super new 80gb iPod Classic that takes far more tracks than I'll ever own and opens up a whole new world of podcasts, while she's got a little iPod Nano that's more than adequate for her humble, meagre and frankly unambitious musical tastes (the first CD she uploaded to it was Take That).

I've never enjoyed anybody else's birthday so much.

Hey, guess what...
As of January this year, there were 34,700 people in the UK with a licence for black and white television. There has been a sharp decline since 2000, when 212,000 were issued.
Source: BBC News website

Grade eight, take two

After the excitement of his birthday yesterday, today Sean faced the tribulation of his hastily arranged retaken Grade 8 drumming exam.

After narrowly failing in December, he's since played in front of three different drumming teachers to prepare for it - all of whom are experts in their field, and all of whom said they couldn't work out why he didn't pass last time. To Sean's credit, quite apart from the hard work he's put in over several years to get this far, he's been especially determined to get through this time. It's probably his last chance to pass it before leaving school, which was always going to be a tall order and would be a fantastic achievement. The exam consists of performing five complex and difficult pieces - four rock and one samba - playing along to backing tracks.

Well, it seems to have gone well. He came out saying he played even better than last time, and is confident of getting a good pass. He made some very minor mistakes, which is natural, but nothing major, and didn't do anything silly (I'd have dropped my sticks). So it's fingers crossed - not least because he thoroughly deserves to pass.

In another drumming development, Sean - along with about 14 other kids who attend the Swindon Music Service's Rockschool - is set to take a part-time diploma course, a kind of pilot, which we heard all about this evening. The government is pumping millions of pounds into providing music education for youngsters, and this is one (completely free) scheme to teach them about music technology. It's another proper music qualification that Sean is going to have, to go with this talent and enthusiasm.

Off (with) their heads

The latest barmy scheme from politicians with nothing better to do, and for the Daily Mail to get all excited about, is the idea that teenagers should swear some kind of oath of allegiance to the Queen. No doubt this is something to do with our culture being under attack from immigrants or that it is somehow being diluted beyond repair by multi-culturalism and must therefore be stopped (when, of course, the reverse is true).

Unless we've suddenly slipped back 400 years in time and nobody's told me, I don't for one minute think that this will ever actually happen or even that anybody will remember it by this time next week, but being the parent of two teenagers myself and therefore responsible for them until they are 18, I think I should have some say in it.

If anybody ever suggests that my kids swear such an oath, then only four words will be needed to make my position clear: over my dead body.

Birthday boy

Can it really be sixteen years ago today that our little baby boy came into the world?

Yes, Sean celebrated his sixteenth birthday today. God knows what that makes him legally able to do, but whatever it is, it's a long way from the little kid who was brilliantly resurrected in the card, above, received from his uncle and aunt and family (Steve, Lynne, Chris, Katie and Alex). The picture on the right was taken in Italy and he's wearing the Inter Milan shirt we'd just bought him.

Having been a teenager for three years now, he's obviously not of this world at the moment, but still the same Sean, underneath that long hair, funny clothes and a tendency to like heavy rock music.

Birthdays have changed a lot since those days. This year he was mostly given money because he's been saving up for a laptop; these days a lot of his cards are homemade, as is the trend (five and counting and very nice too); and we only sing Happy Birthday to embarrass him. However, some things never change as Julie insisted on buying the traditional caterpillar-shaped birthday cake that both he and Holly have been having for years and will no doubt still be having when he's 36. And then there's the traditional celebratory trip to the Indian restaurant that we are planning for later in the week.

Stephen Fry for prime minister

I've just read Stephen Fry's latest blog entry, which finally does away with any last, lingering doubt that anybody could possibly retain about his fitness to be the next prime minister.

How anybody can have such a bright, imaginative, able-to-think-of-several-things-at-once type of brain and not already be in Number Ten is beyond me. I can't say I agree with him about popular music - there's much, much more to the best of it than just the beat - but I agree with every single word he has to say about dancing (especially about people who try to drag you to the dance floor). Give that man a cabinet.

Going to the dogs

As an animal lover, greyhound racing is a bit of a moral dilemma for me, but as a form of occasional entertainment, there's no doubt that it's a good night out - especially if you go in a group, like we did.

You hear talk of the greyhound racing industry being left with lots of retired runners who don't get cared for, so you're not sure what to think about it. But I should imagine most people who keep racing dogs do it because they like dogs more than racing, and the dogs seem to enjoy themselves when they run - even when it's in pouring rain. Hopefully, things balance out in the end.

I hardly ever gamble. In fact, apart from buying a few raffle tickets, I don't think I've gambled at all since the last time I went dog racing, a few years ago, so putting 1 on each race isn't going to do anybody any harm. There is even the chance - a very, very slim one, admittedly - that you could come home with more money than you went out with. I reckoned that by avoiding the outright no-hopers and sometimes going with the favourite, the law of averages would have ensured I should have won three or four times out of 13 races, but I only had one winner - and at very short odds - so did spectacularly badly. The good thing about dog racing is it doesn't matter.

Even if you lose it all, it's not an expensive night as Swindon Stadium do various deals. Our 8 entry tickets included one free bet, one free jackpot bet, a 3 drinks voucher, a 3.75 food voucher - enough to buy cheeseburger and chips - and free entry next time, which all adds up to a very reasonable deal on a Saturday night.

There's also the excitement of going trackside and getting the sand kicked in your face by the dogs, and the fascination of the proper bookies dealing with the serious gamblers. There were five bookies, taking minimum bets of 5, handling wads of cash and all the time requiring expertise and quick-thinking that probably goes well beyond what we understand. It's also great to see them sticking to their traditions, including having leather briefcases to dump all the money in, though sadly their tic-tac sign skills aren't required on such a small scale.

Some of the pictures below demonstrate how hard it is to get a decent picture of the dogs running with a fairly basic camera and not being able to use the flash, but I like the grotesque shapes the dogs come out as when they're running too fast to be captured properly (and if you look very closely at the picture, in the distance, you can just make out the dog that had my money riding on him).




A band on hope

After an enforced break of a few weeks, our band got together again today for what turned out to be a really successful practice. We've now virtually mastered about ten songs and have others we are making progress on. But most important of all, we're all really enjoying it, which is the main reason for doing it.

It is with no little relief that I still find I can usually keep up with the others, who are all accomplished guitarists and rarely make a mistake. But now the pressure's on. Even before the punters have heard us, we already have our first tentative booking, for Christmas!

For the record, if we were forced to do a gig next week, our set list would be: Get It On, The Last Time, Brown-Eyed Girl, When I'm Dead and Gone, All Right Now, 500 Miles, The Summer of '69, Chasing Cars and Knocking on Heaven's Door. We'd also do Achy Breaky Heart because the punters like it, although I hate it myself. Also in the pipeline are: I Saw Her Standing There, Get Back, Money For Nothing, Sultans of Swing, Living Next Door to Alice, Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile), You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet and Caroline.

Another Carter media star

My nephew's wife, Carla, is the latest Mrs Carter to hit the headlines, after appearing on tonight's Richard & Judy Show (no less).

They did a feature about some French chef who went to her house and did some fancy French cooking for her. And when they went back to the studio, both the French bloke and Richard Madeley said what a nice girl she is. Of course she is - she's a Carter!

You wait ages for a Carter to become a media star, then two come along at once...

Nothing to see, nothing to see...

I came over all Tony Robinsonish today, marching around the countryside in search of remains from an historical site.

My cunning plan was to find the former Chiseldon Camp which I've been researching for a potted history. It was a major training camp and hospital in both the First and Second World Wars - the latter as mostly an American base. It was where the very first American troops were posted after landing in Britain.

I found more or less what I expected to find - virtually nothing. In fact, probably the most striking thing about the couple of hours the visit took was realising just how easily and completely even a large, important army camp with permanent buildings can be reclaimed by nature and agriculture. It was demolished in the 1970s but there are so few signs of it ever being there that if you visited it and didn't know, you would assume it had always just been fields.

Still, it was worth it because, with the aid of old maps and especially an aerial picture from 1943, it was easy to work out where the main parts of the camp had been, and the scale of it. The best find was the First World War railway platform which was mainly built to accommodate motor ambulances so that wounded troops could be unloaded. Fittingly, they would have arrived on coaches converted in Swindon Railway Works (and I have an original postcard showing the interior of one of these coaches).

Not exactly Time Team - and just a load of fields and some old concrete to some people, but real history to me.

The pictures below show an entrance to the camp, the commemorative plaque and the platform.






You can see the extent of the camp from this aerial picture, taken in 1943.

That's our mum - on telly!

It's not every day that you see your 82-year-old mother on telly.

It all started yesterday when she phoned me up and I said I was going to call round later. Well, I meant in the evening, but when she got a knock on the door soon afterwards, she opened it without checking first, thinking it was me.

It turned out to be a bogus caller with some cock and bull story about a problem with the water, and wanting to know the name of the pensioners who live opposite. Well, she wasn't having any of that, so when he asked her if he could come in and check her water, she said no and shut the door in his face.

After a visit from the police yesterday, she was visited by another copper today - only this time with the BBC Points West cameras in tow. They were doing a piece that was mainly about a drop in burglaries in Swindon, but which they also briefly used to warn people about the dangers of bogus callers. It didn't really emphasize the fact that she had been very sensible in dealing with it, almost portraying her as somebody who might have been taken in by it instead, and being given a lecture by the police.

She deserved to be treated a bit more as a heroine, but the finished product never turns out the way people imagine in any kind of media. Still, it's something to be proud of, and the whole incident will have done some good if it makes one other old person think twice when that sort of lowlife comes to call.

My brother, Brian, has uploaded some screenshots from the BBC website. By the way, that's the policeman at the door, not the bogus caller!

Sitar so good

I suppose the sitar isn't everybody's cup of tea, but I have to say the sound it makes is my favourite musical sound - which is the main reason why we (me, Julie and Holly) found ourselves in Marlborough, with our shoes off, sat on cushions on the floor, listening to Craig Pruess.

He is an internationally renowned musician and film score composer (credits include Bend It Like Beckham) but was helping to launch a new venue at Marlborough called Akasha Yoga Space, by giving a concert.

Well, you could call it a concert, but as Craig explained, it wasn't one in the conventional sense because the idea was that if you wanted to try to meditate while he played - which he encouraged, telling us to close our eyes - you could.

I had my eyes closed some of the time, but sneaked a look for a while because I wanted to see somebody playing the sitar from close up. I later got to talk to him and discovered there are two sets of strings, one on top of the other - six or seven for playing the melody and the drone, then more than 20 'sympathetic' strings which run underneath, which he plays occasionally but they also resonate because of the strings above them.

He played a fairly long sitar piece, then a Buddhist chant on the harmonium, then a folk song he had written, also on the harmonium. In-between he did some meditation-type exercises and also gave a fascinating insight into his work and some of the principles behind the music. Since ancient times, the sitar has had a mystical quality because the music was used as therapy and background music for meditation, although Craig also does his bit by fusing various Western and Eastern musical styles.

So, all very interesting stuff, and I could have listened to the music all day - which I probably will, having bought a CD.



Houston, we have a problem...

Here's some useful advice for anybody who's got a computer: 1) Try to archive regularly. 2) Don't fill your hard disk to the brim. 3) When it gives you a sign that it's bursting at the seams, heed it.

Tonight the ultimate computing disaster happened - there was an almighty crash that was so catastrophic that I lost EVERYTHING on my hard disk. Gone. Forever. And I only have myself to blame because I had a partial failure about a month ago but, because Macs are fantastic at recovering from near disasters, I carried on as normal, carrying on filling up my hard disk until you could virtually see the ones and noughts coming out of the ventilation holes, and only getting round to doing some of the archiving that has been long overdue. It probably didn't help that I had about half a dozen programs and some image files open, all at the same time. In hindsight, not even a Mac - especially one that's now six or seven years old - could cope with the stress I was putting it under.

So, as I made the fateful decision to click on 'format', I was faced with having lost some things forever and having to go to a lot of trouble to get other stuff back. In the circumstances, I am remarkably calm. Nothing thrown or smashed or anything. And I still love my Mac. It is, after all, still working, even if it can't even remember anything that happened yesterday.

If anybody out there reading this would like to send me their email address, I can start reconstructing my address book.

Rolling again

Our band - still not officially named - has been a little bit dormant of late because of various problems in getting together. But we had a bit of a session today - just the three of us and me just there, not drumming - and are now back on course for our first gig, probably early in the summer. We identified a couple of new songs we are going to do, including one - When I'm Dead and Gone, by McGuinness Flint - which utilises Roy's ability to play mandolin and already sounds great. We've also penciled in our first Beatles songs - I Saw Her Standing There and Get Back.

The other members of the band are still incredibly encouraging and supportive of the rookie drummer in their midst, and it's still great fun.