(Newest entries first)


'Surreal' is a word that gets over-used a lot these days, but it's the only one I can think of that comes close to describing the experience of watching a Channel 5 documentary tonight, called Lifesavers. If ever there was a case of too much to take in, this was it - and on several levels.

It was about organ transplants, and a large portion of the programme featured the story of my brother Ron's heart transplant in April.

If weird experiences are measured on a scale of one to 10, I suppose just watching close relatives on national TV, simultaneously with millions of people, must rank as about an eight - regardless of what they are doing. And as we watched, we had to agree, early on, that we would resist the temptation to say "Look, there's so-and-so..." every time somebody appeared whom we knew.

But the novelty soon wore off as I tried to get my head around some pretty weighty issues. By the time we got to the shot where the surgeon was holding a heart in each hand - one was Ron's by-then almost worn-out original heart, and the other the perfectly healthy donor heart - it was already seeming like fiction, and mostly science fiction.

When we were at home that day, waiting for news, most of the time was spent vaguely imagining Ron on the operating table with a very simplistic picture of what the surgeons were doing - fly over to Belfast and remove the donor heart, fly back, open him up, take out the old heart, put in the new one, connect up some tubes, zip him up again, give the good news to Jenny and whoever else was there (at the time, we weren't even sure of who else was there). The documentary really brought home the complexity of the job and how many things were liable - although not likely - to go wrong.

I had watched the filming of some of the documentary because I was there on the day Ron came home from Papworth, but even being able to partly say "I was there" didn't help much. By that point in the programme, I was already overloaded with trying to comprehend that: a) organ transplants are possible; b) especially hearts; c) they are usually successful; d) of all the people they chose to do a documentary on, it turns out to be my brother; e) oh, hundreds of other things, especially why not everybody carries a donor card.

So surreal was all this that the most emotional aspect of the programme, bizarrely, turned out to be the part, at the beginning, that focused on another case altogether. Because I couldn't get over the can-that-really-be-Ron? syndrome, this part actually seemed more real and easier to comprehend - and it was pretty awe-inspiring stuff as it featured two brave and noble people who had just been told their 17-year-old son was brain dead, four days after receiving head injuries in a road accident in the Midlands. While they were shown discussing which bits could be removed for transplant - in keeping with their donor card-carrying son's wishes - the doctors struggled to get his body in a stable condition, ready for the organ removal.

Although there were indirect pictures of Ron's donor's body, that side of the story wasn't featured in detail and we don't yet know much about him, so some of the gratitude to him and his next of kin was temporarily transferred to this other donor and his family. He/they ended up helping five different people, thanks to heart, lung, kidney and liver transplants, which makes them extra special heroes in our book, even after watching an hour-long film in which an extremely long line of heroes had formed.

It was a remarkable film, to say the least, and extremely well put together. Hopefully, it will convince a whole lot more people to become donors to tide us over until we get to the only sensible and civilised situation - which is where organs are automatically available for transplant unless the donor has expressly chosen to opt out. I wonder how many people will have to see their brother die before we get there.

For a few days, you can watch the programme here.

See Stuart's blog (my nephew, who is interviewed in the programme).

There is a follow-up on SwindonWeb.

Here are my exclusive behind-the-scenes never-before-published pictures of the documentary being made!...

Full head of steam

My job can be pretty dull and unrewarding at times, but then you get a day like today when somebody pays you money to spend more than an hour and a half interviewing an absolutely fascinating 88-year-old former engine driver (for something I'm writing about Steam, the railway museum in Swindon).

Gordon Shurmer was a fireman and then a driver during a 46-year career that involved working both steam and diesel engines, and I learned more about steam trains from talking to him than you could ever get from reading books - with the exception of his book.

Some things that I did not realise, or did not fully realise, about driving a steam engine, include:

1. They were loud. At full pelt, you could hardly hear yourself think.
2. Although firemen never got cold because they were close to the intense heat of the furnace, in an open cab in the winter, drivers would sometimes huddle on their seats in heavy overcoats, trying to keep warm.
3. Far from giving a smooth ride, and despite weighing up to 150 tons when fully laden with coal and water, steam locos would lurch and jump about on the track at high speed.
4. Drivers and firemen really did cook their breakfast on the shovel. It took less than a minute to do bacon, eggs, sausage and potato scallops. On a passenger service, there was plenty of time between trains, but when pulling freight you had to fit the cooking in when you could - for example, in a siding or waiting for a signal.
5. During the war, crews (which always consisted of a driver and a fireman) worked for up to 36 hours without a break. Their only source of food might be to grab a potato from a farmer's field and bake it on the front of the firebox.
6. Tenders did not hold enough water for a long journey, so water would be scooped up from a trough between the tracks. The scoop only skimmed the top couple of inches but could pick up 3,000 gallons in 15 seconds - and sprayed water everywhere at high speed.
7. Steam train drivers were not allowed to wear glasses, but diesel drivers could/can.
8. Great Western Railway engines, built in Swindon, were literally the best in the world (not that we're biased). Not only did they have greater performance, but also looked the part, even though they never really went in for streamlining, like lesser railways. Their elegant appearance was always a consideration during design.
9. All steam locos performed differently and had individual characters - even if they were from exactly the same class of engine. They also performed differently, according to the quality of the coal and the skill of the fireman and driver.
10. It takes nine hours to start a steam engine up from cold - except they were rarely cold as they were usually worked every day, and took hours to cool down. Men were employed to light fires and warm them up, then drivers and firemen usually had an hour to make the final preparations. Responsibilities included oiling 200 different points on the engine.

*The most important lesson of all, which I already knew, and which is rule one if you get a job on a newspaper in a railway town, is: you can call the engine an 'engine' or a 'locomotive' ('loco' for short) but it is definitely not 'a train'. A train is what the loco pulls.

I've got a five, Des - 'ghost'

Still no logical explanation about the ghost in the Countdown studio (see below). My nephew, Stuart, says he reckons the 'bonnet' is actually the result of the woman in question moving her head when the picture was taken, but I'm not so sure.

I'm now coming round to the idea that the figure is not a woman but a girl. Look at the evidence: smaller than everybody else/round-faced/flat-chested. And if that's the case, it's surely the ghost of a child.

The Ghost of Countdown

Stand by for a spine-chilling story, following an accidental discovery I made tonight...

For reasons that I will not bore you with, tonight I visited the Channel 4 website, where I decided to have a look at the Countdown section - one of my all-time favourite programmes and currently in the news because Carol Vorderman is resigning/being dumped.

This brought me to an interesting 360-degree picture of the studio. I was just marvelling at how tiny it is and how tiny the audience is, when I spotted something pretty creepy. There, in the corner of the studio, is a mystery figure that just doesn't seem to belong there. It's apparently a woman wearing a wedding dress and hat, who's smaller than the people around her, and seemingly unconnected with the things that are going on. Why would a figure such as this turn up in a gameshow studio wearing those clothes, especially a hat? And why is she out of proportion with everybody else? We've all had a look at it at home and the general consensus is it's spooky.

Look again at the picture above and see what you think. The mystery figure is near the middle of the picture. Ignore the other 'ghostly' people, who are obviously transparent because they were moving when the picture was taken. You can see the whole 360-degree picture here.

I am emailing the press office at Channel 4 to see if they have an explanation.

All in the family

A slightly strange annual Carter(/Weeks) family barbecue at Lydiard Park today, with not only a record turnout but also a sort of celebratory and celebrity atmosphere.

Not only was my leukaemia-beating brother Maurice there, but also Peter, my cousin, who has made a full recovery from a potential lethal blood clot during the last year, which put him in intensive care, plus my other (sort of) cousin, Jane, who is overcoming breast cancer.

But even they were upstaged by my oldest brother Ron, the one who had the heart transplant at the end of April and today took part in the barbecue's traditional football match. He reaches superstardom this Wednesday when he - or rather his hearts - become the main theme of a documentary on national telly (9pm on Channel Five).

Now that's what you call a barbecue.

Perfect six

Today was the day of the Swindon Mela - the sixth annual celebration of South Asia culture that remains the most unmissable local event in our calendar.

We've been to all six, and this year there seemed to be even bigger crowds than usual. Last year, apparently, it attracted 17,000, and today's attendance must have been 20,000, which got pretty cosy at times, as the Town Gardens is barely large enough to hold such crowds.

As usual, there was the usual 50-50 mix of Asian and 'white' people, producing the kind of friendly, laid-back atmosphere that always makes me think that the Mela is not only Swindon at its best but also Britain at its best.

As is our family tradition, we got there before the official opening time, had a curry before the queues got too big, checked out the stalls, bought some spicy nibbles and 'ethnic' stuff to bring home (this year, some colourful cushion covers) and watched some of the drumming and other entertainments (including a magician).

But the main feature of this year's Mela was that the place was packed with people I knew - so many, in fact, that much of our time was taken up with stopping and chatting to people.

Florida revisited

Having taken nearly 1,800 pictures in Florida, I am in the process of turning them into a kind of digital scrapbook, but as this is a long project and will take some time, I've decided to do a bit of a summary here, in the meantime, strictly limiting myself to two from each day we were there...

Day 1 - Flight/Old Town, Kissimmee

Our hire car (a Chrysler PT Cruiser, easily the coolest in the whole of Florida) and villa (at Highlands Reserve):

Day 2 (our first full day) - Epcot

Day 3 - Islands of Adventure/Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Day 4 - Universal Studios

Day 5 - Kennedy Space Center

Day 6 - Blizzard Beach

Day 7 - Disney's Hollywood Studios (at a stunt show and on the Tower of Terror)

Day 8 - Sea World

Day 9 - Wonderworks/shopping

Day 10 - Busch Gardens

Day 11 - Blizzard Beach again/Epcot again (Sean on Summit Plummet)*

Day 12 - Magic Kingdom

Day 13 - Epcot again

Day 14 - Animal Kingdom


Still the star of the show:

Julie in our cool car:

The cool pool in our cool villa:

Architecture, Florida-style:

Advertising, Florida-style:

Cracker Barrel - our favourite restaurant...

*Holly did it too

We're back

After two glorious weeks in Florida, we're back home.

We arrived back this morning, after flying overnight, so are suffering some kind of jetlag, as well as the effects of packing so much into two weeks. We experienced just about everything that central Florida and especially its theme parks has to offer - which is a lot - and could not have been more impressed with the way Florida is able to deliver relentless entertainment.

Although everything is on a large scale, it's the detail that's most impressive, with everything being meticulously designed and planned - especially at Disney. We had forgotten just how magical places such as the Magic Kingdom could be, but were also impressed with the non-Disney parks, such as SeaWorld, which provided us with a fantastic day.

The only drawback is there is too much to take in, and after two weeks of wall-to-wall fun, coming home seemed like returning from another planet. You can't quite believe that you were actually there.

I celebrated my 47th birthday during our stay - appropriately with my favourite day of the holiday, which we spent at Kennedy Space Center. Even in Florida, where there is something to impress you, everywhere you look, this was an especially stunning place to be.

We were even more struck by the American determination to satisfy customers than on our other visit to Florida, back in 1990. Then, everybody wanted you to "Have a nice day," but now nice isn't good enough, so everybody tells you to "Have a great day."

So we did - 14 of them.

On the fiddle

Holly came home with some good news from school - literally a couple of hours before we set off for Florida. She found out that she has passed her Grade 3 violin exam - and was only three marks off getting a merit.

The desire to practise doesn't come so readily to Holly as it does to Sean, but she does work hard at music when the time comes, so she's deserved it.

When kids first learn violin, you have to smile and say it sounds nice when really it sounds like somebody is strangling the cat, but Holly is well past that stage and can produce a nice tune. And another benefit of being at this stage is she doesn't just play classical stuff now - though that's nice enough - but has progressed to what I call 'fiddle' rather than 'violin' music, including folk music. And you can't have too much of that.


So let's get this straight... You all decide to have a night out, but instead of taking a car, you cycle?


In the rain?

It wasn't raining when we started.

And you left a nice, cosy pub - the Rat Trap, where you had a big meal - to cycle to a graveyard?

Not just any old graveyard. It was at Sevenhampton, where Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is buried. He lived in the village from 1960 until he died in 1964. For three years of that he was having his house renovated (there's a little avenue that leads to it from the church). We planned to do this trip a month ago, as our monthly Lads' Night Out (LNO), because that would have been closer to the centenary of Fleming's birth, but it was too wet then. By the way, the pictures make it look like it was dark, but it was still light.

You're a big fan of James Bond, then?

No, I hate the films. I've never actually watched one all the way through because the bits of them I've seen always seem to me like a load of far-fetched nonsense. I've watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, though, and seen it on stage in the West End. Come to think of it, that was a load of far-fetched nonsense, too.

And then, when you'd finished skulking around this grave of this author you don't like and you've never read, you - let me get this right - sat around in a bird hide, knocking back barley wine?

Well, we were cycling through Nightingale Wood and thought we'd stop and have a bit of refreshment, which Percy brought with him in his saddlebag. We had a look inside the hide and, just then, it belted down with rain, so we all went inside and stayed there for about half an hour.

So you were watcing the wildlife?

No, it was getting dark.

Just drinking, then, like a load of old winos who'd come in out of the rain?

We did see a bat.

Then what?

Well, it finally stopped raining, so we cycled to the Carriers' Arms in South Marston. We would have stopped and looked at the cottage that used to belong to a much better writer, Alfred Williams, but it was too dark and the owners might have got suspicious.

Did you stay in the pub until closing time?

Yes. They were playing The Wurzels. I think they were trying to get rid of us, but it was nearly midnight when I got home.

And you expect people to believe all this?

Here are the pictures to prove it...