(Newest entries first)

Special guest

This humble blog is honoured to present its first guest writer.

Not only that, but it's a published author from the United States, called Belinda Kroll.

I bumped into Belinda on the net, a few months back, when I accidentally picked up an appeal for help with her research into her latest book. It's a novel set in the tiny village of Compton Beauchamp in the Vale of the White Horse, in Victorian times, and I was impressed to find that she's writing it without even ever visited this country.

We've kept in touch, I've helped out with some little snippets of background on the setting for her book, and been a guest writer on her blog, called Worderella Writes, which doubles as a forum for other budding writers and a monitor of how her own work in progress is progressing. I asked her to write something for this blog, suggesting something along the lines of how the Americans see the British. The outcome - which, just in case you don't realise, is tongue-in-cheek - is very interesting.

When you've read it, you'll understand why I had to quickly point out to her that most of the people I know have outrageous West Country accents, although we really are all as cultured and educated as the Americans think we are. Honest.

I've put Belinda's article in the Words section of this site, which is still pitifully bare of my own stuff and - all visitors take note - in need of more guest writers.

So don't wait to be asked. You don't need to be a professional like Belinda to contribute.

The Oddie one out

It's not often that I get very excited about TV programmes. Only the stunning Life on Mars, which we finally got round to seeing a re-run of, recently, has been worth making a special point of seeing this year, if you ask me. But I am making an exception for Springwatch, which is at the end of its first week of a three-week series (Monday to Thursday, 8pm, BBC2).

Apart from the fascinating (and often live) wildlife footage, it also has loads more going for it, including the enthusiasm of presenters Bill Oddie, Kate Humble and Simon King, and the way they seem to be making it up as they go along but it doesn't matter.

I found out, today, from visiting the excellent Springwatch website, that there is a crew of 120 working on it. I can't think of any better way of spending our licence fees, except in updating the equally excellent BBC News website.

Belinda (see above) may not agree that there are very few things that we Brits can be proud of these days, but the BBC (or, at least, most of what it does) is certainly one.

Dripping

It's the camping season at last - as you can tell from the weather.

Our first outing under canvas this year coincided with the windiest, wettest, greyest, most miserable, sodden sodding Bank Holiday since the last windy, wet, grey, miserable, sodden, sodding Bank Holiday.

Along with two of my brothers (Maurice and Brian), our wives and an assortment of offspring (not including Sean, who has decided he's really too old for camping), we headed for Slimbridge. However, rather than visit the famous bird sanctuary on the site's doorstep, we generally had a relaxing time, sheltering from the wind and enjoying the sound of Bristol City losing their play-off final on the radio, and made the best of the more favourable Saturday weather. This included a quick look at the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, which runs just a few metres from the site, a visit to the excellent Tudor Arms, next door, and chips.

What was originally intended as a three-night stay had the first night lopped off for logistical family reasons and the third night abandoned because of the weather and the threat of even worse rain on the fourth day - which the forecasters got spot-on.

Still, the camping bug isn't quite drowned as we made not one but two visits to a camping shop with a view to buying a new tent.

Some people never learn.





Just the ticket

That's strange. I never had any intention of going to many football matches next season, so how come I've ended up, today, buying a Swindon Town season ticket?

I can hardly believe it. It's probably about the tenth or twelfth I've bought in my lifetime, but the first for more than ten years. The Town have put together such a good deal, you'd almost be mad not to buy one. It's 229 for me and 69 for Holly - and even though she isn't that keen on football, but is interested in going along as a kind of social event, it's still economical to buy one for her. In fact, those prices are a standard rate, but we got them for even less, as part of a family ticket package, having clubbed together with my brothers. Sean misses out because he will almost certainly be working on Saturdays - possibly at the County Ground itself, where he was serving burgers last season.

The Town are only doing what we've been saying they should do for years - arguing that by halving the prices, they would double the crowd, which would have loads of different benefits.

Before they could do that, they needed to stop trying to pretend they are a scaled down version of a Premiership club. There is now such a gulf between the top clubs and the rest that they are essentially completely different products. And I've got so bored with the domination of the top four that I'd much rather pay to watch proper football, played by proper teams, just like the old days.

Last night at the prom

Even though we were forbidden to go within a mile of the place, we have acquired some pictures of Sean at last night's prom, thanks to his friend, Shaun, whose parents weren't barred...



Harry's game

Harry Rednapp is the talk of the day after managing Portsmouth to their FA Cup final victory today.

Having spent a year at college in Portsmouth (although I lived in Southsea) I sort of have a soft spot for them, and more so since Harry became their manager. I met him, a few years ago, when he was manager of West Ham, and he is as nice and genuine as he comes across on the telly. So it's good to see the nice guy win something for a change.

Tiddly-om-pom-pom

Not one but two more milestones in Sean's life today as he sat his first two GCSEs ("PE was easy but music was hard") and, this evening, went to his school prom.

I was hoping to have some pictures of him arriving in the open top double-decker bus that he and about 14 friends had hired, but we were expressly forbidden from even standing outside the hotel where it was taking place.

This was a shame and we were a bit sad about it, but he really wasn't looking forward to the prom with its showy-offy and formal approach - something which just isn't Sean. As I wrote in my column in the Adver this week, he's a jeans and T-shirt boy at heart, and I'm the same, never having got any pleasure whatsoever out of dressing up for dressing up's sake. So I could really sympathise with his predicament today, and thank god we never had anything like that in our day.

I certainly can't say I'm in favour of the fad for proms, which has grown up in Britain over the last few years. It's tempting to say that's because it's another American tradition that - like Trick or Treat - has got out of hand, but my main gripes are: a) that it forces shy people into situations where they have no option but to be gawked at; and b) some parents use it as an excuse for frivolous competition.

When I heard that the parents of one of Sean's (female) schoolmates had spent 800 on her appearance at the prom, including 46 just to practise putting her hair up, in the week before, any lingering doubts that I had about being a fuddy-duddy stick-in-the-mud went flying out the window.

Sean still managed to have a good time, apparently, even though he was obliged to wear his suit.

Drummer on a roll

It has become a bit of a habit over the last five years - Sean going up the school, playing his drums, wowing the audience and causing us to nearly overdose on parental pride.

But his performance at school tonight, in the annual Summer Concert, was his last. He sits his first GCSE tomorrow, and signed off his musical 'career' at the school with a repeat of the performance that won him the Young Musician of the Year title a couple of weeks ago. An impressive show - which also featured Holly in the orchestra (on violin) and in the choir - underlined how high Sean has risen to become the school's top musician.

The icing on the cake was discussions with the headmistress in the interval - she had some very complimentary things to say - and a teacher's take on the situation, five years ago, which originally denied him a place at the school.

To cut a long story short, we had to fight to overcome a ludicrous situation whereby being a few yards outside the catchment area was going to send him to a different school to all his friends, even though he had spent four years at the school's closest feeder school. It seemed that his reward for an excellent record up until then was going to be getting booted out. We had a long, bitter and expensive fight, which we won in the end, but it was always going to put pressure on Sean. We felt as though he needed to have an exemplary five years at school if we were to be vindicated. To his great credit, he never let us down. Far from it.

On top of his hard work and good behaviour, his musical achievements have been a real bonus, but the sweetest thing of all was to be told, tonight, that the word in the staff room was that they were horrified that they nearly let a star student slip through their grasp.

And with that, we can rest our case.

Ron's home run

My brother, Ron, is now home after his heart transplant.

He was discharged from Papworth at noon - 14 days, to the minute - since he was on the operating table. And I was there for the historic homecoming. I went up as company for Jenny, his wife, and got to do some bag carrying and photographing of a Channel Five film crew as they got send-off shots and interviews to finish off their documentary about the transplant, which should be on TV in "early summer".

They also interviewed Mr John Dunning, the surgeon who actually did the operation, who told them it was all fairly routine, but still looked pretty chuffed with the happy ending. And so he and his team should be. I shook his hand.

After several days out of the media spotlight, I'm happy to report that Ron is back on the front of the Adver. And page 2. And page 3.

He's now looking forward to the rest of his life as a media celebrity.




Barry interesting

The annual Swindon Festival of Literature is in full swing, and although it always draws interesting people to take part, I somehow manage to miss out on it every year because I'm busy with other things.

Fortunately, that was not the case tonight when, as part of our monthly LNO (Lads' Night Out), I went along to the County Ground to see a little presentation featuring sports commentator Barry Davies, who was being interviewed by Adver editor Dave King, and also answered questions from the floor.

Barry, who retired a couple of years back, was always my favourite commentator because his style was very straightforward, he wasn't scared to call a spade a spade, and he always gave the impression of being one of us, the fans. I can't understand why the most exciting and interesting sport in the world needs the children's TV-style hype and the floss it gets these days, which ITV are especially good at over-doing.

So, despite a disappointingly small crowd and a fairly short show, I thoroughly enjoyed it, bought his autobiography afterwards and got it signed. I found myself agreeing with every single word he said about football - especially about the modern style of commentating and the coverage of football these days. We even agree on what was the best goal ever scored (Maradona for Argentina against England in 1986).

His comment on that at the time was: "You have to say that's magnificent," and it was nice to be in the company of a magnificent commentator for a short time tonight.

Just like that

I must have missed something because it seems like only yesterday that Sean was going to secondary school for the first time... and today he left!

He's still got to go back to play in the traditional summer concert (this week) and then for the small matter of taking his GCSEs, but as of lunchtime today he is technically no longer a schoolboy. Amazing. I'm now so old that I've got a son who's left school!

Seriously, though, me and Julie were saying, tonight, how proud we are of him. He did everything we asked of him at school, and more - never a chance of a detention or any other trouble whatsoever, hard work, a sensible approach to the whole business of school and efforts that were above and beyond the call of duty in terms of the musical life of the school. And today the headmistress summoned him to his office... so that she could tell him that she's passed his name to a local junior school who need a drummer to help with a school production. They are hiring professionals for the other instruments.

It's odds-on that he won't be available, which is a shame, but it's nice to know that we aren't the only ones who have been impressed.

Who'd have guest?

That's a first - me guesting on somebody else's blog.

I've had the honour of appearing on Wordella Writes, the blog of a young female American writer (of romantic historical fiction) called Belinda Kroll, which also serves as a kind of forum for other (mostly young American, I think) writers.

I've been really impressed by Belinda and her friends' commitment to their talent, so wrote a (probably over-long) article about being a writer, even though the kind of writing I get paid to do is much different to what they do.

I really like the idea of having guest writers on blogs, so if anybody is reading this and fancies the idea of writing for this one, get in touch...

Hidden Swindon out of sight

One of the best websites I have come across lately has sadly come to an end.

Hidden Swindon is a blog by a lady called June Jackson which is based on the simple but clever idea of going round town, taking pictures of off-the-beaten-track things and writing a commentary - sometimes on a daily basis, making it quite addictive.

The bad news is that June has decided to end Hidden Swindon, but the good news is that she is planning another, similar project. In the meantime, the archive of Hidden Swindon is still online and well worth looking at.

Papworth latest

I drove up to Papworth again today - taking Jenny (Ron's wife) back up after she had come home for a couple of days, and getting a chance to find out how the patient (my brother, Ron) is doing, eight days after his heart transplant.

The answer is: perfectly well. In fact, there is now talk that he might be allowed home next Wednesday - just two weeks after the operation - and he looked so bright and well today that he seemed able to come home today. Only managing the medication and undergoing necessary biopsies to control anti-rejection will cause any delay, as he seems incredibly fit and raring to go. One of the blessings of the operation is he is now able to sleep horizontally. Before the operation, problems with his breathing had meant that he had needed four pillows to prop him up in bed.

When we arrived, he had his shirt undone so that you could see the scar, which runs exactly down the centre of his chest, from just under his collarbone to just above his navel, but is surprisingly neat. This is really the only outward clue that he has undergone a major operation.

There will still be some restrictions for the next year - for example, no flying - as the hospital keeps the possibility of rejection of the new heart under control. While I was there, a nurse explained that even if his body starts to reject, there are plenty of drugs they can give him to suppress it.

The whole thing still seems miraculous to me, and you need to see it with your own eyes to even begin to appreciate it.

Practice making perfect

Our band - still not officially named and now probably not to be called Roy and the Rovers after all, sadly - had another practice tonight, which went extremely well. We ran through some of the songs we had practised previously, which went well, and even threw in some that we hadn't done before - Johnny B Goode and Mony Mony - which are great to play and always go down well with audiences.

I was amazed at how easily the others could play these, and quite pleased that I could drum along too - mostly correctly, if not quite as accurately as if I had time to learn them.

The hardest thing is the end of songs. Whereas lots of recorded songs end with a fade-out, you can't do this live, so the big challenge of playing in a band is coming up with an appropriate ending - and then all stopping in the right place. This is especially challenging for the poor drummer, who is almost always the key to the ending. I also have big moments in songs such as All Right Now, which has a crucial drum lick at the end of the guitar solo. This seems easy enough, but I've spent weeks trying to get it in the right place. In the first run through of it tonight I got it dead right - but then got over-confident in the second run through and blew it.

Time seems to have moved on quickly, and whereas we had originally hoped to have been playing in front of audiences by now, it seems that it will be August or September before we get to play our dreaded first gig - partly because of problems with getting the right halls to practise in, on the right days.

Still, we are in no hurry and it's going pretty well. Not only are we making quite a nice sound already, but we're all enjoying it.

Miracles

I drove up to Papworth today, to visit my brother Ron, and was speaking to him, just 26 hours after he came out of the operating theatre, following his heart transplant.

He was actually awake and talking last night - only six hours after the operation, but could remember nothing of that today, because of the drugs. So, when he woke up this morning, it was with the realisation, all over again, that he had a new heart. Although he was obviously pleased, he wasn't as excited as I expected, and I don't think the implications of this have properly sunk in just yet, nor the relief.

According to the doctor, they found his old heart was "a bit of a mess", three times larger than a normal heart and very close to failing completely.

He looked only slightly shaky but bright-eyed and also the right colour (or so I am told, not being able to see colours properly myself), as he told me that he now felt "like I could go for a run", whereas walking short distances recently left him breathless. He said he had literally forgotten what it was like to feel so fit during the three-and-a-half years that he's had heart problems. While I was there, a nurse removed the last significant tube from his body, and he was sitting up in the chair before I left the hospital. Tomorrow he will almost certainly be moved from 'critical care' (intensive care), back to the ward, because he was the fittest of the five people in his mini-ward (all the others had had bypasses).

And if all this didn't already seem like science fiction, I found out other things that I wouldn't have believed were possible. Ron has become notorious for volunteering and signing up for things during his treatment, and the main thing that he has been helping to trial has been a pioneering 'beating heart in a box' system whereby a donor heart is literally kept beating inside a special box while it awaits transplanting. This was first carried out at Papworth in 2006 and will eventually replace the old-fashioned method of packing it in ice, which is only good for four to six hours. The advantage of the new method is the heart lasts for much longer - probably 24 hours - so when this eventually becomes the routine way of doing it, it will be possible to transplant hearts internationally. The recovery period is also shorter. One of the doctors had a video of one of these beating hearts in a box - not Ron's donor heart - on his mobile phone. It looked like something out of a B horror movie, but is the kind of cutting edge technology that Papworth is famous for.

Another thing that Ron signed up for was to be part of a Channel 5 documentary, which filmed the operation and such things as the surgeon advising family members of progress, and one striking image that has apparently come out of this - which hasn't been made available yet - is the surgeon holding the old heart in one hand and the new one in his other hand. I'm embarrassingly squeamish about such things, but even I should be persuaded to peep out from behind a cushion to see that.

Just to show that even surgeons are human, though, it turns out that the one who performed the operation yesterday didn't take out Ron's pacemaker, which was fitted a couple of years ago. He apologised and said he simply forgot, but said that by the end of the operation he had been feeling pretty tired. It can be easily removed by local anaesthetic as it's close to the skin and the wires are obviously no longer connected to anything.

Another thing that has emerged is that the new heart hadn't arrived at the hospital when the operation began.

Ron is expected to stay in hospital for about two weeks but will need to stay close by for another two weeks after that, so he can go in for regular (presumably daily) check-ups. In the meantime, he is also on anti-rejection drugs, but the main drawback to his recovery seems to be with his ribs which had to be broken during the operation, so the surgeon could get access to the heart. For some reason, because he had had this done before, during previous open heart surgery, his recovery will be slower. They are saying it will be six months until he can play tennis, for instance, instead of the usual three.

I also learned that when patients are given a new heart, it is impossible to transplant the nerves that are normally attached to it, and the problem with this is that the heart cannot 'sense' changes properly. Therefore, standing up too quickly can lead to a blackout, for instance, because the heart doesn't automatically know that it needs to pump quicker. So heart transplant patients have to be taught to do things slower and, for example, warm up thoroughly before playing sports.

Our family seems to have had a lot thrown at it in the last two or three years, but has come out smiling once again. As well as Ron, there was also my other brother, Maurice, who had a successful bone marrow transplant to cure leukaemia, 19 months ago. Then there's my great neice, Millie, who is a perfectly normal, healthy toddler, despite being born absurdly premature; my cousin Pete is back at work after surviving a near fatal blood clot in his stomach; and my cousin's wife, Jane, who was diagnosed with breast cancer, also seems to be well on the way to recovery. When you add in Holly and my nephew Stuart, who are diabetic but lead virtually normal lives, that's a minibus load of people who are still around but wouldn't have been here but for incredible advances in various branches of medical science and care.

I find myself increasingly awed by this with each passing day. Or, as was the case today, with each passing minute.

See Ron's son (my nephew) Stuart's excellent blog for more.