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Bankers, the lot of them

Some of the things I write are better than others, but occasionally I think I hit the nail on the head.

I reckon I did it last week, with my weekly column for the Swindon Advertiser, which was all about the current global financial crisis. What's more, I think I was ahead of the game as I was saying it on Tuesday (having written it on the previous Sunday) and I read a couple of other people who said virtually the same thing, only later.

As my column is - for some reason - no longer featured on the Adver website, and because the Words section of this website is still looking pretty sparse, I've bunged a copy of it in there.

Box of delight

It takes a special kind of person to get all excited about a metal box, but I am one of those people...

The BBC has come up with the idea of highlighting globalisation by following a container - the kind that goes on the back of lorries and container ships - for a whole year. The Box has already been up to Scotland to pick up some whisky and, as I write, is in the Mediterranean, on a slow boat to China.

The BBC have set up a special page where you can read about globalisation in general and The Box in particular, by tracking its position and contents, and you can even download a scale drawing that you can use to make a cardboard model of it - which I am, of course, intending to do.

Quite why I find this sort of thing so fascinating is beyond me, but I'm not the only one who thinks so. It's obviously dangerously addictive and the whole idea is bound to be a cult hit.

Not so interesting

I've finally finished reading Barry Davies's autobiography, called Interesting, Very Interesting, and have to say that it wasn't quite as interesting as I'd hoped.

Barry, who has effectively retired from football but still does other sports, was always my favourite football commentator because he kept it simple, never tried to be a clever dick (unlike most of today's commentators, especially Clive Tyldesley) and wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade (unlike John Motson, who I've never heard express his own opinion about anything properly).

It's fair to say that Barry is a better commentator than he is a writer because there were times in the book when I had to go back and re-read a sentence because it was either too convoluted or assumed the reader had greater knowledge or a clearer memory than was reasonable. There was also too much about sports such as badminton, rowing and ice skating, which he also commentates on, but which don't deserve equal billing with football.

But what was most disappointing was that you don't really get the feeling that you are being let in on many secrets. There are occasional insights into what was going on behind big stories, but I didn't get the feeling that I had learned as much as I would have liked about what a top football commentator actually does. It didn't need to be very profound; just an idea of his routine before matches would have been priceless.

Not drunk in Borders

I got an unexpected visit to Borders today - while Julie popped into Asda - which is always welcome as it's just about my favourite shop in the world.

And it was very fortuitous because we came across an author doing an in-store signing. His name is Hal Lever and he has written a book called I'm Not Drunk, Honest. Listening to him talking to another shopper when I arrived, I soon worked out that he was disabled in some way and that the book was his life story.

Well, I'm all for supporting minor writers - being one myself - and I was pretty sure he was going to have an interesting story to tell, so I wandered over to his table. It was clear enough from the cover that he was a self-published author, so I struck up a conversation to find out more. Of course, when you do this, you have very little option but to buy the book, unless you want to make an embarrassing exit, so I was taking a bit of a gamble. But it was worth it.

It turned out that he is disabled through having had a serious road accident in 1970 which put him in a coma for three weeks. Although he had had a long battle back to fitness and recovered the use of his legs and restored his memory, his main problem is that his voice is permanently slurred - apparently because his tongue was paralysed. It was uncanny just how much like a drunk his speech was, and we laughed about the fact that it didn't mean he'd lost his Liverpudlian accent.

I got him to sign a copy of the book and shook his hand. Even if the book turned out to be rubbish, I thought, he was worth supporting - because he was a poor author; because he had got off his, um, bottom and not only wrote the book but was going round, working hard to sell it; but most of all because he was a jolly, pleasant, friendly bloke who just left you with a warm feeling that he would somehow inspire you.

I wasn't the only one who thought so because while I went off to explore the rest of the shop, and unknown to me, Julie arrived and struck up a conversation too. She was on the point of buying a copy of the book for herself when she said she ought to check that I hadn't already bought one - and they worked out, between them, that I already had. It turned out that he had sold 31 copies of the book during the day (at 10.99 each), which one of the shop assistants said was very good going.

I read about 30 pages of the book when I got home - and was delighted to find that it is written in a very readable style and quite gripping so far, starting from the moment when he wakes up in hospital and tracking his rehabilitation to a shocking transfer to a psychiatric hospital.

One of the great things about the internet is you can look up people like this, when their path crosses yours, and I see from Hal's website that he also fancies himself as an animator and a screenwriter/playwright. Judging by the book so far, he should find more time for more books.

Ahead of the Games

Well, that's a poke in the eye for all those people who can only think of London 2012 as a bad thing that's going to cost them money...

The Organising Committee are looking for 70,000 volunteers to run the Games and the Paralympics, but they've already had more than 100,000 people register an interest (including me). And recruiting doesn't even start until 2010!

In fact, they are already hinting that preference will be given to people who can show they have a background of volunteering. In other words, they are going to be able to pick and choose the best candidates.

The Olympics and Paralympics, like space programmes, architecture and works of art, are easy to knock as being too expensive - but only if you are one of those people who only measure the value of things in pounds and pence.

So it's great that there are already plenty of us who are in the right spirit, with 1,402 days to spare.

Come in number 17

It has been a momentous week this week for the small band of people who consider Al Stewart a musical hero. He's released a new album (which happens about every three to five years).

Sparks of Ancient Light is his seventeenth studio album, and when you add in semi-official albums and a live one, it adds up to about 24 - all of which I have.

Al's music has been so much of a backdrop to my life that, paradoxically, I don't really enjoy getting his new albums. I always think I am going to be terribly disappointed that he will have lost the knack of producing catchy but thoughtful songs.

This time I was quite disappointed after the first hearing. And after a few more listenings, there's no doubt that Sparks of Ancient Light is one of his weaker efforts in terms of consistency. But it is redeemed by some very lofty highlights.

The main problem with the album is that some of the songs are pretty predictable and wouldn't have looked out of place on earlier albums, whereas one of the joys of being an Al fan is he usually moves on from previous successes to produce something different each time. That's not always true here.

One song is actually a re-working of an earlier one (Another Face in the Crowd, from an unofficial album) where he's taken an old tune and added new lyrics. However, there's nothing wrong with that as it was never officially released and I always liked the tune anyway. Reborn as (A Child's View of) the Eisenhower Years, it is one of the best on the album. The Loneliest Place on the Map is even better and Sleepwalking is also good.

These three apart, the best two tracks stand out as head and shoulders above the rest, and already compare with some of the best stuff that Al has previously recorded. They are Elvis at the Wheel and Silver Kettle, which, ironically, aren't historically inspired, as Al's trademark is songs with historical or even classical themes.

So, all in all, a patchy offering by Al's standards. I was thinking that you could sum up the album as being one that's strictly for hardcore Al fans, but then it occurred to me that that's probably true of every album he's ever produced, except Year of the Cat which somehow managed to capture people's imagination, way back in 1976, and give him some of the credit and commercial success he deserves.

Pennies from Heaven

I don't normally get excited over two pence pieces, but today we got one of the new designs of coin in our change for the first time.

They've been out a few months, but this is the first time I've seen one in the flesh. I loved the designs as soon as I first saw them because they give you hope in an otherwise staid and predictable world.

The idea - that each coin in the set forms part of the Shield of the Royal Arms, while the pound coin shows the complete shield - is radical by the normally conservative standards of the Royal Mint. Or, as they put it, it has been "given a contemporary treatment". The idea is so simple and innovative that it would never have come about if somebody hadn't had the idea of putting it out to a competition. So, instead of being the soulless vomit of some useless committee or other, it's the work of a single 26-year-old designer from Bangor.

I don't remember seeing anything so beautifully and effectively designed for years that doesn't have the word 'Apple' on it.

Live on air, dead on their feet

I had 30 seconds of fame today, though I'm not sure how many people will have noticed.

Along with 14,000 others this afternoon, I was on my way to entering the County Ground for Town's match against Leeds when I spotted one of Sean's and Holly's former teachers brandishing a microphone, and he grabbed me for a live interview.

He was doing some voluntary presenting for new radio station Swindon 105.5 and asked me about the match. I said it was impossible to predict as we could win 3-0 or they could win 3-0. In the end, I was nearly right, Leeds winning 3-1, despite having a player sent off after ten minutes.

I'm glad I wasn't interviewed after the match. Having hastily bought a season ticket because they were cheap, it now looks like a serious waste of money as I am lumbered with the prospect of 20 more matches watching a side with no midfield, and a very long season ahead of them (us).

Here comes the sun

I think 2008 is going to be remembered for the year when Britain didn't have a summer. It's like a whole season was missed out. Early summer was like late spring, and late summer is like early autumn. In a word, it's miserable.

..which is why Brian Wilson's timing was perfect in releasing his new album, That Lucky Old Sun, last week. It's the perfect album for raising your spirits.

Now, you could fill a book or two with the story of Brian Wilson, but you can also get enough into a paragraph to give a sense of why a brand new album by him, at this stage in his life, is significant. So this is my take on it...

The Beach Boys are the best-selling American band of all time, but, more importantly, progressed from irresistibly catchy pop songs to groundbreaking music, thanks to Brian Wilson's genius as not just a composer, but also an arranger and producer. Released in 1966, Pet Sounds, which is often cited as one of the best and most influential albums of all time (and the inspiration behind The Beatles' Sgt Pepper), should have been followed by the even more groundbreaking Smile, but mental problems and addictions too complex for the rest of the world to fathom meant Brian didn't release the album for 37 years. But it was worth the wait (it's a masterpiece from start to finish and my favourite album of all time) and was obviously completed following a monumental effort by Brian to overcome his demons. How do you follow that? Well, when I saw him live for the second time in my life, almost exactly a year ago, part of the show featured his all-new work, That Lucky Old Sun, which has now been released as an album.

Having exorcised Smile from his head, the fact that Brian was then prepared to put his head on the block and try to recapture previous successes was impressive in itself. In a sense, it's the third big Brian Wilson album, trying to emulate Smile and Pet Sounds, when, at the age of 66 and with nothing to prove, he had every reason to settle for a quiet retirement.

Well, I thought That Lucky Old Sun was good when I first heard it, and every hearing reinforces my view that it's even better than any Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fan could ever hope. This is mainly because he's taken elements of Pet Sounds and elements of Smile, and found an original middle ground. The songs sound like updated, more sophisticated Beach Boys songs (like Pet Sounds) and almost all stand comparison to Brian's greatest songs in their own right. Some are simple and even simplistic on the surface, but are very carefully and cleverly constructed. As you listen to them, you realise that nothing Brian Wilson does is ever by accident. Every squeak, bell and whistle is planned. Probably the best song on the album is Midnight's Another Day, which, ironically, sounds the least like Beach Boys hits and is the one on which Brian's voice - which is sometimes still slightly slurred because of what he's been through - is at its weakest. But it's a beautiful hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck song.

The songs are even greater than the sum of their parts because they have been put together in the same way as Smile, Brian having blended them into a single entity, as if they are a musical or an opera. This is partly achieved with 30-45-second narratives, between some of the songs - a brave idea that would have fallen flat on its face and seemed pretentious in almost anybody else's hands, but turns out be yet another stroke of Brian Wilson genius. Whereas Smile's theme was the history and development of America, That Lucky Old Sun is all about Brian's native California, so it's a homecoming album, but also features lots of biographical references - some of them deep and profound and painfully honest.

There are dozens of little musical tricks that hold it all together, some humour (especially in a tongue-in-cheek Latin-style song called Mexican Girl) and ironic references to Beach Boys hits (right down to glockenspiels, which were distinctive on Pet Sounds). And the lyrics are absolutely top drawer again.

This is not down to Brian, the words having been shared between the sometimes maligned but brilliant Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the words to Smile, and Scott Bennett. Van Dyke Parks has a Shakespeare-like gift for capturing moods and ideas in single lines that fit the music perfectly ("Blue Pacific as azure as the sky" and "Salsa rumbles rafters in a chop shop filled with cars"). As well as being the other lyricist, Scott Bennett is also the main musical callaborator and one of the members of the band, whom Paul McCartney described as the best touring band in the world, but whose real gift is the almost telepathic way they interpret and recreate the essence of Brian Wilson's music.

So it's all tremendously uplifting - on the one hand because they are just great catchy, happy songs, and the other because Brian Wilson is writing catchy, happy songs again, after all he's been through.

I always say that whereas The Beatles' genius was a combination of the extraordinary talents of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Martin and (to a lesser extent) George Harrison, there's only one Brian Wilson, yet he produced stuff that was not just as influential as The Beatles but which influenced and inspired The Beatles.

Best of all, as I sit here listening to yet more rain and That Lucky Old Sun at the same time, there's no doubt that he's still got it.

Band of hope

Now it's getting serious. Our band is nearly ready to rock, and we finally have our first booking!

We are due to play at a club outside Swindon in November, but are not releasing any further details, nor even letting on what we are (probably temporarily) calling ourselves, just in case somebody turns up whom we know. We're quite keen to play semi-anonymously at first, while we find our feet.

However, we're feeling pretty confident that things will go well after a very good practice tonight, and with our new bass player, Des, not only seeming very capable but also - more significantly - being very committed. We've now made a list of about 30 songs that will now be our definitive set list for the first gig, when we will be playing for two hours.

Sadly, this will include Wonderful Tonight, a song that does nothing for me and which I wouldn't choose to play. But after deciding we needed to include some slow songs that people would definitely get up to dance to, we gave it a try. Before it had finished, a couple come in from the bar next door to where we were practising, started dancing and then asked us to play it again. This proved a point and would seem like a good omen.

Personally, I'm terrified by the prospect of having to play in front of an audience, with my performing career so far having lasted about three minutes (drumming along to Drive My Car, a couple of years ago, in a charity concert). Fortunately, the rest of the band are not only old hands but excellent musicians, and know they what they are capable of.

As for me, having taken up drumming with absolutely no intention or expectation of ever performing, the crazy challenge of being in a band is now almost a reality, and I find myself looking forward to the first gig - but only because I'll be glad when it's behind me.

Potty mouth

If there's one thing that space exploration enthusiasts like me don't like, it's people who go on and on about how astronauts go to the toilet - as if that's the only interesting thing about it.

A couple of years ago, we went to the National Space Centre at Leicester, where they have some extremely interesting exhibits, such as a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but most visitors' favourite seemed to be a toilet from a spacecraft. If you want to see it, you first have to fight your way past schoolkids, who are drawn to it like a magnet.

How Do You Go To the Bathroom in Space? came about because astronaut Bill Pogue, who commanded a SkyLab mission in the 1970s, said it was the question people always asked. So he decided he might as well write a book about it, along with all the other questions he gets asked.

Well, I've met Bill Pogue because when we paid to have Lunch With an Astronaut at the Kennedy Space Center, he was that astronaut. It wasn't just us having lunch with him, of course - it was with about a couple of hundred others, and the only reason that nobody stuck their hand up to ask him about toilets was because he'd already pre-empted it and told us all about it in his talk, while we ate lunch.

I was much more interested in all the other various things that fascinate me about space travel, which have nothing to do with waste material of any kind, so I asked him a question about how scared he was when he was sat on the launchpad ('not very', in a nutshell, but then he was a former test pilot). A couple of hours later - but having foolishly missed the opportunity to get a signed copy - I bought his book, to discover that not only is it about much more than toilets but is packed with some very interesting stuff about everyday things in space, and much bigger issues too.

The book covers such things as what they would do if an astronaut died on the Space Shuttle (they don't have a procedure, but they might well decide to keep the body outside the spacecraft, somehow tethered to it) and what you can see from space (the Great Wall of China with binoculars, the Grand Canyon and the Aswan Dam in Egypt with the naked eye).

It needs updating slightly as it was talking about the International Space Station in the future tense, but the book is a great read for people who have an interest in space beyond toilets, and Bill not only speaks from personal experience but is also well up on space travel - past, present and future.

It's especially good as a book to dip into, being in a simple Q&A format - which makes it perfect for keeping in, um... the bathroom.

See Toilet Talk in the Words section.

Chuffed

I watched an historic homecoming today - the return of the Swindon-built loco, Evening Star, to the town.

She (steam engines are always female) arrived by road at STEAM, Swindon's Museum of the Great Western Railway, where they then set about a 16-hour operation to shuffle her with a tank engine, a buffet car, King George V and its tender. 'The King' is going to the National Railway Museum in York as the other half of the swap that brought Evening Star to Swindon.

I couldn't resist going along to get some pictures (which I'm pretty pleased with). Having done some of the official PR for the event, I was able to get better access than most of the railway enthusiasts who were there. The most esteemed of these was Steve Wakefield, Mayor of Swindon, whom I had a brief chat with, as I will be interviewing him shortly as part of the STEAM PR project.

Evening Star was the last steam locomotive built by British Railways, and was officially named in a ceremony at Swindon Railway Works in March 1960. But, as of last month, she is not the last steam loco built in Britain (see here). She will be on display at STEAM for the next couple of years.












Blackpool Lite

OK, we give up. This weekend we finally surrendered to the worst summer of weather ever known. Cold, rain, wind and - worst of all - unpredictability, have been the hallmark of the last three months, and this weekend was the perfect example.

We intended to stay for three nights of camping at Clitheroe in Lancashire, including a day trip from there to Blackpool - mainly because the kids in our party (which ultimately didn't include Sean anyway) could go to the Pleasure Beach.

Well, the signs weren't even good before we went because the people at the campsite phoned to warn us that the ground was very soggy. Maurice and Jacky therefore decided, rightly, not to bother, but as we had promises to fulfil to the kids, we decided to go ahead and travel, although we also started to have second thoughts during the journey up on Sunday morning. With grey skies and drizzle, we still went to the campsite, but only to check that it was as sodden as they said, and with the updated forecast promising heavy showers for days, we checked into a Travelodge for one night instead, cutting short the trip. Blackpool was fully booked, so we stayed in Preston on Sunday night - which wouldn't be top of many people's places to spend any kind of holiday.

The weather never did turn out as bad as forecast (if there's been one thing worse than the weather this year it's been the accuracy of the forecast). In fact, Monday, which we spent at Blackpool, was pleasant enough, but, later, the conditions were certainly not camping-friendly, so we had made the right decision.

All this meant we ended up spending a day and a half in Blackpool, whereas the original plan was a day there and a couple of days relaxing by the tent. This changed the character of the trip completely, plunging us into the bizarre world of British seaside holidays that you might have thought had disappeared forever. But the 'Kiss me quick' hat mentality is still thriving up there, with the only thing missing being hats that actually say 'Kiss me quick'. Otherwise, all that stuff is still bringing the crowds in - chips, doughnuts, rock, shows with old-fashioned stand-up comedians, ice shows, even gypsy women telling fortunes in booths on the prom. And the old-fashioned Pleasure Beach is still going strong too, I'm glad to say.

When we went to Blackpool last, about 15 years ago, we were taken aback by how scruffy the Pleasure Beach was, but it's been modernised a bit since then and has a handful of modern rides to go with The Big One, which was then brand new. It's still a long way from Florida in slickness, mind - a very, very long way indeed, but it does have a certain appeal.

In fact, the rides are excellent, especially the three wooden rollercoasters, which I had never ridden before. They all looked like they might fall down at any moment and all drastically needed several coats of paint. One didn't get working all day and another finally came to life late in the afternoon. This turned out to be the treat of the weekend - a famous rollercoaster called The Grand National, which has two cars, running side by side, as if racing, while whizzing round a very up-and-down course. Built in 1935, it's rattly, rickety and fast, and makes you feel as if the car is going to jump off the rails. I am sad enough to keep a mental league table of favourite rollercoasters in my head, and instantly installed it as my number three - behind the sublime one at Great Yarmouth and the massive Gwazi at Busch Gardens in Florida. Almost impressive but different in character is The Big One, the tallest, steepest and fastest in Europe, which is a superb ride by any standards.

There were several other rides that impressed too, including the 104-year-old Sir Hiram Maxim Flying Machines*, the Steeplechase - carousel-style horses that travel along a track at a surprisingly scary speed, and Avalanche, a rollercoaster that leaves the rails to travel down a banking bobsleigh track.

I enjoyed Blackpool more than I expected. The Illuminations are worth seeing, the Tower - even though you can't go up it in the evening unless you've forked out for show tickets - is impressive, the trams are quaint (we rode in one) and the Pleasure Beach has its charm, but I have to say that the strongest memory of Blackpool will be the litter that seemed to be everywhere - especially having seen how they do tourism in Florida, which is spotless. From the hordes of people who still flock to Blackpool, I can only assume that visitors are happy to put up with the squalor.

Actually, our abiding memory of the trip will be the scene when we got back to Preston, where we had left our trailer full of redundant camping stuff at the hotel, ready to collect on the way home. Somebody had selfishly parked their car in front of it, blocking it in. With the comical duty manager no help, it took us an hour to track down the owner, and when he finally came to move the offending car, he offered no apology whatsoever for the inconvenience he'd caused. By now it was 10.30pm and we faced a three-and-a-half hour drive home... through torrential rain, naturally.

*Sir Hiram Maxim built the Flying Machines to raise money for his attempt to be the first man to fly a measured mile.

Some of the pictures are only suitable for people who like trams and wear anoraks...






















Great ashtrays of the World II

One thing that is very noticeable if you walk around Blackpool is the large proportion of visitors who still smoke.

We reckoned that you would see at least twice as many - possibly as many as three times - smokers on the prom as compared with, say, Swindon town centre. Since the ban on smoking in public places, 14 months ago, everywhere else has seen a sharp drop in smokers, but in Blackpool it seems to go hand-in-hand with its old-fashioned image.

Indeed, far from shunning them, like elsewhere, Blackpool goes out of its way to accommodate smokers, as this tempting offering in the Pleasure Beach souvenir shop proves. I'm not sure whether you are supposed to carry it around with you or stick it in the ground when you're at the beach or outside the pub, in the cold and rain.

See Great Ashtrays of the World, part one from September 2007.