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Wimbledon - second service

Now in glorious panorama!





All 27 panoramas
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Wimbledon - and not so much of the common

Wimbledon: been there, done that - and in the best style possible. We didn't get the T-shirt, but we raided the rest of the shop for merchandise and, being a memorabilia junkie, I came home with plenty to help us remember a great day.

This was the VIP day for two that Julie's brother, Steve, had won, but couldn't go on because he is away with his wife, Lynne, on holiday - during which they have celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. I've never been that much of a fan of Wimbledon, to be honest, but the occasion, the atmosphere and the chance to see some great players up close - after all, I do play tennis myself, unlike most Wimbledon watchers - made it a big attraction.

We set off at 6.30am to try to beat the traffic, giving us four hours to arrive in time for the champagne reception at 10.30am, but, amazingly, we were late. This was because of roadworks at Sunbury, where massive tailbacks were caused because one guy with a pick axe was working on the path! It was his van that was blocking the carriageway. At least it meant we missed the tennis traffic, so when we arrived at Wimbledon, we soon found our reserved car park. We dropped the car off, right outside the Gatsby Club - a luxurious marquee, set up on the cricket ground across from the All England Club's grounds - while somebody came out and parked it for us. It was the first - and will probably be the last - time in our lives that somebody has parked the car for us.

Then it was inside for all the champagne and wine you could drink - which, in Julie's case, wasn't much before she started to become incoherent. We had tea, coffee and orange juice while listening to a trio of elegantly dressed lady jazz players, and were waited on, hand, foot and finger. Soon it was time for lunch - pate for starters, strawberry and cream cheese cake for pudding and, in between, cheeseburger and chips. That's right - cheeseburger and chips, which was a strange thing to find on the menu for possibly the poshest meal I've ever had. I had to read it three times before I could believe it. Obviously, it was like no burger you've ever tasted before and, like the whole thing in general, was excellent. If anything, it was better than I'd expected as I'm not usually one for fancy food, but everything was perfect.

When we'd finished dinner, it was time for the tennis, and we only had time for the five minute walk to the Centre Court rather than having a look around first. Going to the Centre Court for the first time is a strange experience because it's so familiar from about 40 years of seeing it on telly every year. But even stranger is that while all the other stadiums I've visited have seemed smaller in real life, the Centre Court seemed bigger than it appears on telly. Nevertheless, the court itself is, obviously, very small, so you still get the sense of being in somebody's back garden. We had excellent seats, being about half way back, on the corner where the players come onto and go off the court.

The first game on was the number three seed, Novak Djokovic, against Marat Safin, which turned out to be the best of the tournament so far as Safin upset the odds and won easily, in three sets. Djokovic served two consecutive double faults in the first game and never really seemed to be in the right frame of mind for it. Both players, though, had impressive serves that were regularly over 120mph. Watching professional tennis for the first time live, I was surprised that the serves didn't look as fast as the speed-o-meter in the corner of the court said they were. That's not to say they don't whizz around, but what surprised me most was players' ability to return some serves that looked unplayable. They just seem to throw their racquet at the ball and somehow it goes back. As with all live sport, you appreciate the game more when you're actually there and can see the bigger picture, such as the subtleties of the spin and flight that players are able to put on the ball. The telly can't get this across, but it does see the detail. For instance, when we got home, Sean said the camera kept on zooming in on a woman in the crowd during the Federer game (see below) who caught a ball and was holding on to it surreptiously, hoping nobody would notice, so she could take it home as a souvenir - all of which we were unaware of.

One thing that you are aware of - more than on telly - is the effeciency of the ball boys (and ball girls) who are sometimes so fascinating to watch that they distract you from the tennis.

After the match, we decided to pass on the next one, a ladies' singles, because we wanted to walk around the rest of the grounds and also had a date back at the Gatsby Club for tea. Just walking around is fascinating, and we couldn't resist buying some used championship balls which were played with yesterday, and will be used when we next play tennis. We also saw the referees' office, where some of the ball boys were hanging around, presumably waiting for their next match. After coming out of the shop, we went back for tea, where we passed on the champagne this time. They brought out plates of sandwiches, cakes and scones, orange juice, chilled water, tea/coffee and a bowl of traditional Wimbledon strawberries and cream, and the waitress asked if there was anything else we'd like. I said I couldn't think of anything else there was to have.

We then headed back to the tennis and, with impeccable timing, arrived back at our seats on the Centre Court as Roger Federer was warming up for his match against Robin Soderling. As he is bidding, this year, to win Wimbledon for a record-breaking sixth time in a row, he is obviously the master and easily beat Soderling, but as well as being effective, he also struck me as very cool and stylish in everything he did, so that was another treat.

By the time Federer won it was 6.45pm and we couldn't believe how quickly the time had gone, and as soon as it finished, the Centre Court began to empty, with around 90 per cent of people going out. We stayed to watch half a set of a ladies' doubles match. In theory, you are not allowed to change seats, but once past the steward, you can more or less sit in any empty seat in your section, so we took the chance to sit lower down and directly behind the umpire. We wanted to sit right down in the front row, to see what it was like, but they wouldn't let us.

We finally left the Centre Court to have another walk around the outside courts and I was surprised that even at 8pm it was difficult to see anything because all the courts were packed with people, and there was still tennis going on, everywhere you looked. We walked up to Henman Hill and I went round taking a few more pictures before we finally left for home, the journey taking less than half the time it had the other way.

There are loads of pictures here.

Elvis leaves the building

One way to make yourself unpopular with the vet is to phone him after midnight about a problem with your cat that actually doesn't turn out to be very serious.

Elvis had us a bit worried last night (Thursday) when he came flying through the cat flap, moments after we heard some horrendous squealing and squawking like only cats can make when they're fighting.

Elvis has so far spent his whole life trying to avoid trouble and running away from any conflict with any other cats, but this time it seemed that he was caught unawares when he was going to toilet - and there is definitely a case here for sparing any further details. As well as being shocked by the incident, he also started limping and refused to get up, and because he is such a nervous cat and seemed pretty traumatised, we decided we should call the vet, even though it was now gone midnight.

The absence of blood or broken bones led the vet to think that Elvis really only needed to calm down and there was no emergency, and we duly took him to the surgery tonight, where he was found to have an injured shoulder but nothing to worry about.

It never rains, but it paws.

The old school tie

Today was Sean's final day at school, and as he donned his school uniform for the last time and took his last GCSE exam (Graphics), he didn't seem to dwell on the fact that an era had ended, nor mind too much that he won't be going back to the school - at least not as a pupil.

So the pressure is off as far as the exams are concerned, although I'm not sure it was ever on, unless you include Julie's panicking! Firstly, he's probably already got most of the qualifications he needs to get into New College, because having chosen two music A Levels to study there - music and music technology - he would probably get in on the strength of his Grade 8 in drumming alone.

Secondly, most subjects these days also include coursework, which he generally did well in, especially music, so he would have had to have done especially badly in the sit-down exams to not pass. Thirdly, though it may not have seemed so at the time - and I wasn't going to tell him before he finished sitting the exams - GCSEs are not very significant in the long run, merely being a bridge to the next level, rather than affecting any major life decisions. In fact, our only main concern is for his sake - that he passes English and maths at the first attempt, because they really are two that you have to pass at some stage, and you might as well get them over with at the first attempt.

So he now begins a period of extended leisure, but after five very good years at school where he made an excellent impression through being the top musician in the school, never getting in any trouble and working hard, both at school and while revising for his exams, you can't say he doesn't deserve it.

The results are out towards the end of August.

Out of this world

It's Father's Day today. Hooray.

As usual, the kids came up with some weird and wonderful presents, including the now traditional beer - an interesting Eden Project ale. There was chocolate, two books on tricks and puzzles, a whole tub of Flying Saucers (my favourite sweets) and even astronaut food - strawberries and ice cream flavour. It's really just freeze-dried stuff, but very interesting and obviously in keeping with the space fest I'm undergoing in the countdown to going to the Kennedy Space Center soon.

Sign of the times

According to a roadside sign that I spotted in Wootton Bassett today, where residents are campaigning to stop the council opening a gypsy site, they are fast approaching the "dealine day" for objections. Did that really say what I thought it said? I'll check, I thought, and duly spotted a replica, on the other side of the road, when I was going back the other way.

Yep. Dealine day is definitely approaching. Hope they don't get landed with the gypsies - them being so uneducated and everything.

Race For Life

When Holly and her friend Rachael (and her other friend, Megan) said they wanted to do the Race For Life at Lydiard Park, they found out that they couldn't do it without an adult, so Julie bravely stepped in and volunteered. And today the big day dawned.

Of course, I would have done it, but it's a women-only walk/run to raise money for Cancer Research, in which people are encouraged to run in memory of or support of people they have known who died of or are fighting cancer - and they run with the names of the people pinned to their back, which is all very touching. Julie ran in memory of her mum and dad. I knew a few other people in the race, including my cousin's wife, Jayne, who is winning her own battle with cancer.

I don't know how many hundreds or thousands of women took part, but it was a lot - and there's another race tomorrow, which is supposed to be even more popular. As you'd expect, it was quite inspiring, even though most entrants walked most of the 5k course, including Julie and Holly. But it was a great atmosphere and will raise hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Here are the obligatory pictures, including pre-race aerobics, the start and the winner...







Stretching it


Imagine a stretched Hummer with a whole gaggle of giggly girls inside...

I'm not sure what the driver did to deserve that, but for Holly, Rachael and Megan it was a nice reward for running in the Race For Life, earlier in the day. Actually, Megan's mum had hired it to take about ten girls to Cosmo for Megan's birthday - but first they cruised around Swindon for an hour. Needless to say, they had a fantastic time.






Any advance on 1,000?

It seems that the information we got about the Wimbledon tickets costing 1,000 (see below) wasn't quite right. I checked the website and they're actually 925 plus VAT.

That's 1,086.88.

A sight better

Another unwanted trip to the hospital, today, with my eye - but fortunately I've been given the all-clear.

The symptoms I had with the torn retina that was repaired two or three months ago were supposed to fade, but have only done so very, very gradually. These were 'floaters' - streaks of blood, floating around inside my eyeball - and very thin flashes of light at the edge of my field of vision. The lights seem to be the key symptoms, judging by the doctors' interest in them, and since they've faded hardly at all, I went back to see the doctor. He referred me to the hospital, so that's where I ended up again today, in the damned Eye Clinic that I thought I had seen the back of.

However, the doctor could find nothing new, said the laser treatment I'd had done its job and there was no reason to think that I had or would have any more trouble. And rollercoasters, simulators and other Florida-like things are no problem.

Phew.

Nice Kid

A more interesting day at work today as I got to do a telephone interview with August Darnell for Saturday's Swindon Advertiser.

Who? Well, he's better known as Kid Creole, who, with his band, The Coconuts, had three big hits in the UK in the early 1980s - Stool Pigeon, I'm a Wonderful Thing Baby and Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy. And as Stool Pigeon, along with another of their songs, No Fish Today, are both in my all-time Top 100, you could say I'm a bit of a fan.

The funny thing is, I should hate them because they are basically disco, which I usually loathe - except they gave it a salsa/reggae/Latin American twist. As I told August himself, the difference is that whereas disco never went anywhere, he had something different to offer.

It's always unnerving, talking to people you admire, because you never know what they are going to turn out like, in real life. But in this case - and not for the first time in such a situation - he turned out to be interesting to talk to, friendly and happy. In fact, he was a really pleasant, genuine guy. He has a masters degree in English and is also a song composer, film score composer, bass player, producer and actor, but most of all a great lyricist. One of the lines from Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy is surely one of the greatest in pop history: "If I was in you blood, then you wouldn't be so ugly."

Second service

We've found out that the tickets we are getting for Wimbledon (see below) cost 1,000 each.

No wonder they're giving us cushions.

Over the moon

Having finally finished Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon, I can now proclaim it the best book on the history of space travel that I have ever had the privilege to read, and one of the best history books on any subject.

It was essential homework for me, in view of our forthcoming trip to Florida, and the Kennedy Space Center in particular, where I plan to soak up every last bit of information about NASA and especially the Apollo programme.

The book goes into intricate detail about all six lunar landings and the aborted Apollo 13, with technical information that some might find heavy going, but which never drags if you are into this sort of thing, like I am. What's more, it's great for getting an impression of just what it's like to walk on the moon from an everyday human perspective.

This is in stark contrast to the extremely disappointing Moondust, a book by Andrew Smith, which I've made two attempts at reading and both times ended up throwing down for being a wasted opportunity. It purports to be an in-depth study of the effect Apollo had on the 12 who walked on the moon, but is a short book fleshed out to ridiculous lengths by the author forcing his own self-centred experiences and irrelevant reminiscences on the reader, while also going into pointless and excruciating detail about the actual process of collecting information - of which there is surprisingly little.

But Andrew Chaikin gets it spot-on, packing his book with information and dealing with most of the psychological aspects - the same ones that Smith spent a whole book failing to convey - without sensationalising them. He points out that the experience of walking on the moon never actually blew anybody's mind, and explains it economically and without fuss, by talking about Alan Bean*, one of the 12:

"Bean has thought about his fellow moon voyagers and the paths they have taken, and he believes there is a common thread. 'I think that everyone who went to the moon came back more like they already were.' And on the whole, his theory seems to hold up. Jim Irwin was a religious man before he went. Ed Mitchell was already interested in psychic phenomena. Neil Armstrong's retreat from the media spotlight, and Gene Cernan's acceptance of it, are entirely consistent with the people they were before Apollo. From Borman to Schmitt, Bean says, going to the moon only magnified tendencies that were already present."

Indeed, Chaikin in as good at conveying the wow factor as the technical bits, brilliantly illustrating how several of the astronauts, despite being hard-nosed former fighter and test pilots or workaholic scientists, were sometimes simply excited by the prospect of actually being there, like you or I would be.

In 1961, John F Kennedy said: "We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things - not because they are easy, but because they are hard," which is as inspiring a message as I've ever heard. Andrew Chaikin's approach is the same. It's hard to try to catalogue Apollo and do it justice, but, like the astronauts themselves, he passes with flying colours.

*Alan Bean is one of the more interesting astronauts because, after leaving the space programme, he became a full-time artist - and a good one. See his official website.

Wimbledon here we come

Out of the blue, we have been served up tickets for this year's Wimbledon - and, what's more, we're going to be VIPs!

Julie's brother, Steve, won a VIP day at Wimbledon but can't go because he and his wife, Lynne, are off on holiday - and they've generously given us their tickets. I have to say that tennis is not my favourite spectator sport, but the occasion, the spectacle and the atmosphere of Wimbledon is something worth sampling, especially as it comes with champagne, centre court tickets, strawberries and cream and even cushions! That's right - cushions!

Anyway, as a genuine regular tennis player - unlike those who take it up for a fortnight every June/July - I'm also hoping to learn a thing or two, and experience, with my own eyes, just how much faster professionals are able to serve, compared with my own poncy efforts.

Our tickets are for the first week, so stand by for hundreds of pictures, coming to a blog near you, before the month is out...

Chequered career

It was just like old times for me and Holly today, as we went to a chess tournament in Warminster and she all but wiped the floor with the opposition.

But this was possibly her most satisfying chess success for me because - not for the first time in her playing career - the odds seemed stacked against her.

The competition in question was the Wessex (Dorset and Wiltshire) Megafinal of the UK Chess Challenge - the world's biggest junior chess tournament, which gets 70-odd thousand entries every year. The Megafinal is the stage where school and club winners from each county (or counties) compete for the right to play in the Gigafinal, which was originally the national final, but got so big that they had to divide it into northern and southern sections. Holly has made it through to the Gigafinal at every attempt - five or six in a row - and three times also qualified for the grand final, called the Terafinal, by which time you are down to the top 120 in the country.

Back at yesterday's Megafinal... she won the Under-13 Girls section even before making a move, because she was the only one who entered. But there was still a moral victory to be had. As well as the section winners, you also qualify for the next round by scoring four points out of six on the day (one point for a win, a half for a draw). She's always previously scored at least four - so that was her target again.

Because the peak age for junior chess players is about 11, there aren't so many secondary school-age boys playing (let alone girls), so rather than have a separate competition for each year group, under-13s to under-18s are all lumped together. Holly therefore found herself in the youngest group of players, and every game she played was against older players. Although there aren't so many older players around, those who are still playing are mostly doing so because they're good - and, in some cases, very good. The top seed of her section was an under-17 with a grade of 99, which is international standard (Holly's current grade is 70). Probably even more significantly, when you get to her age (13), chess is usually more about studying it and playing relentlessly than natural ability, and because she has never gone for that (frankly geeky) aspect, that was another reason why she was really up against it today.

If all that wasn't daunting enough, Holly has played very little competitive chess this year, so we expected her to be a bit rusty. How wrong you can be. She won her first three games, really efficiently. Then - as your next game is always against players with similar scores on the day - she beat her friend (an under-15 girl) who had also won three out of three.

So, with four out of four, this brought her up against a 16-year-old boy whose grade was only moderately high, but he had earlier sprung a surprise by beating the 99-grader. Well, Holly beat him fairly convincingly, to make it five out of five.

This brought her up against the 99-grader himself, in the final match, and she came really close to finishing unbeaten. He offered her a draw in the middle of the match when he realised he was running out of time - which is a big compliment for a 13-year-old girl, coming from a top 17-year-old boy. However, Holly declined because she had a chance to win and never accepts a draw if a win is possible. In the end, her opponent had less than a minute left on the clock when he beat her - and she, for once, had plenty. However, if there had been a prize for the best overall player in the under-13s to 18s, Holly would have won it according to the standard countback system, which was the ultimate moral victory.

I was able to see all this unfolding as I was running the under-12 section, alongside it in the hall. So, a thoroughly enjoyable day because Holly still seems to have it when it comes to chess, even though, these days, she's usually busy doing other things.

The only dampener is that we are physically unable to get to the Gigafinal this year.

Toilet talk

The column that I write every Tuesday for the Swindon Advertiser is, I've discovered, no longer being put on the paper's website - nor any of the other columnists' either, so it's nothing personal - so I thought I'd upload them here instead.

At least, I am going to upload the ones I'm more pleased with. This week's was, like most of them, tongue in cheek. It's all about people's fascination with the mechanics of going to the toilet in space, even though NASA does at least fifteen thousand more interesting things every day. In a week when we got some stunning pictures from the surface of Mars and there was a Shuttle launch, it seemed that the media was really only interested in the broken toilet on the International Space Station.

I am dumping my columns in the Words section.

Break out the Jammie Dodgers

Our monthly lads' night out (LNO) marked a milestone tonight as it is 40 years since our five members - me, my brother Brian, Pete 'Lukey' Lucas, Phil 'Percy' Mercer and James Greenslade - met for the first time. James was the new kid, having moved to Swindon from Chippenham for the last six weeks of our time at Beechcroft Infants School.

We marked the anniversary in the most appropriate way - with Jammie Dodgers, which they used to sell to the kids at break times for 1d (one old penny). James also gave us an old penny each, which were dated 1967 (there is no such thing as a 1968 penny as they weren't being minted in the run-up to decimalisation).

It cheered us up after the planned cycling LNO was scuppered by the weather. The Rat Trap was only supposed to be our rendezvous point, but we ended up staying there the whole evening as the drizzle turned into full-blown rain.