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Giggly Girl Day

Today is Giggly Girl Day, when we were invaded by no less than six giggly girls - Rachael, Debbie, Nicole, Megan, Amber and Sarah - so that's seven altogether, including Holly, who has been planning this birthday sleepover for weeks.

It happened today because it's half-term and Julie has taken some days off work. Fortunately, the giggly girls weren't under our roof all the time as the event included lunch at the excellent all-you-can-eat oriental Cosmo restaurant.

Another event occurred today involving another close relative, whom I'm not at liberty to name, and which I am expressly forbidden from talking about, let alone writing about, save for the following code words, from which family members may or may not draw their own conclusions (but you didn't hear it from me): girlfriend, introduced.

That was the week that was

One of the downsides of being freelance is it never rains but it pours - and this week it poured.

After a comparatively inactive few weeks in terms of incoming work, I suddenly found myself working five long days, and had other things to occupy me in the evenings - all of them good.

On Monday I was invited to the annual exhibition by the Haydon Artists' Society, which my brother Ron is a member of. As I did last year, I wrote a very short report for the Adver and took some pictures, which they should be using next week. Their exhibition last year was very good, but this year was even better, and as ever with these things, I really wanted to buy something. My two favourite paintings were in completely different styles, but turned out to be by the same artist (Amanda Caswell). There were several others that I would have liked on our wall and have decided that as soon as I'm rich I'm going to be a patron of the arts.

On Tuesday I went to football - not having much choice, having rashly bought a season ticket. This didn't seem quite as rash as before as Town managed to overcome a spectacularly inept Northampton team 2-1. The game, though, will be most memorable for being the one when I had most difficulty telling the difference between the two teams because of my colourblindness. For most people, Town's red shirts must have contrasted with Northampton's black, but as red is a dark colour in my eyes and floodlights make it worse, there was hardly any difference, so it was almost impossible for me to follow what was going on. It was the same for the two people sitting next to me (my twin brother Brian and cousin Keith) thanks to colourblindness being hereditary and in our family. We said we really ought to complain, and Keith emailed the Football League the next day, to point out what the problem was. He received a short, totally unsympathetic reply that has made me determined to pursue it, particularly as there is an anti-discrimination law that I have some knowledge of, which I am sure makes them legally bound to do something about it. It sounds like a trivial whine and it will be hard for some people to take it seriously, but there must have been dozens or even hundreds of people at the match whose enjoyment was spoiled by a problem with a very straightforward solution. This is the third time I have been unable to enjoy a football match properly because of colourblindness. Years ago, Aston Villa played in green and black stripes which clashed with our red, and I once watched the Republic of Ireland play Holland on telly, with both teams apparently wearing identical colours (one in green, the other in orange).

On Thursday the amount of money we have spent on Elvis (one of our cats) at the vet's in the last month reached a thousand pounds. But that's incidental as, all being incurable animal lovers and especially fond of Elvis, we have got quite worried about him. So we were glad to get some good news. His problem is he's got very thin over the course of the last couple of years, despite showing no other symptoms of having even the slightest thing wrong with him. So he has undergone just about every test going, and has three large shaved patches of fur to prove it. All the tests for the serious and life-threatening diseases have now come up negative and, by default (but as predicted) the vet says he must therefore have inflammatory bowel disease. This should be curable with drugs - steroids, vitamin supplements and antibiotics - and a strict diet, none of which is/will be cheap, but hey, it's only money. The most important thing is: Elvis lives.

Also on Thursday, our band (The Misfits) continued to go from strength to strength, successfully going through some of the songs we hadn't quite nailed down before, and even adding some new ones. Everything is coming together so well that, despite the continuing stress of trying not to look too far out of my depth compared with the others, I'm actually beginning to enjoy it in a funny I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this-and-getting-away-with-it sort of way.

Some of the precious little spare time I've had this week has been spent reading The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak. Holly's English teacher suggested she read it, so she got it out of the school library, but was struggling with it as it has a very quirky style. I said I would read it as well, to help her out, and took an instant liking to it. Actually, that's an understatement as it's full of clever literary tricks and amazing technique which, at times, is stunning. It is set in wartime Germany and the narrator is Death, so it's quite dark, to say the least, but hard to put down. The funny thing is, like Harry Potter, it is marketed as a children's book and an adult's book at the same time (sometimes with two different covers, like Harry Potter, although that's where the comparison ends because it's in a completely different league to Harry Potter, in which I have never been able to find anything that raises it above mediocrity). As far as I can tell, there is nothing in The Book Thief so far that marks it down as juvenile in any way, but I suppose this duality should be some kind of compliment, being an indication of its wide appeal. I've now read a quarter of it, and if it somehow manages to maintain anything like the quality of the first quarter, it's going to be one hell of a book.

Here are some of the best pictures from the Haydon Artists' Society exhibition (by, in order, Amanda Caswell, Amanda Caswell again, Malcolm Hosken and Maureen Kerner.




At last, a WWI hero

For the last few years, the First World War has been the historical event that has most interested me, but until today this was for no reason directly associated with our family.

As far as I was able to tell, there were no war heroes in the family, nor even any record of anybody being killed in action. But my brother Brian has discovered that a first cousin twice removed, called Jabez Hale Staples, was killed at or near Anneux, France, on September 29, 1918, aged 20.

What's more - he was awarded the Military Medal, eight days before he was killed. He was an able seaman from the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve - a sailor fighting on land alongside the Army and, I believe, the Canadian Army, as part of the Battle of the Canal du Nord.

Born in 1898, Jabez was the cousin of my paternal grandmother, Lucy Hale. Because of a double marrying of siblings of the Hale and Staples families a generation earlier, he was a nephew of both my great grandfather William Hale and my great grandmother Ann Staples. He lived with his parents in St Philip's Road, Upper Stratton.

He is buried at Anneux Cemetery, which is close to Cambrai, where the first tanks were used in the First Battle of Cambrai of 1917. Some of the casualties of that battle are buried at Anneux Cemetery, including Freddie Wheatcroft, the only Swindon Town footballer to be killed in the war.

We are trying to find out more, which will no doubt be posted on this website in due course.

Live and kicking

You can't beat a bit of live music, and we really should get some more often.

Tonight, the three of us (Sean was too busy practising guitar) went along (with our friends Christine and Danny) to a concert organised by Marlborough Folk-Roots at St Mary's Church Hall in Marlborough, featuring Chris While and Julie Matthews.

We've (sort of) seen them before as they are half of St Agnes Fountain, a band that gets together every Christmas for some seasonal folkie concerts. We've also booked to see St Agnes Fountain again this year, so to see Chris and Julie together was a bit like opening your presents before Christmas.

The pair have beautiful, crystal-clear voices, and produce powerful harmonies while playing a range of instruments (various guitars, banjo, keyboards, bodhran, percussion) and singing their own compostions - all of which is an irresistible recipe in my book. Some of their songs can sound a bit 'samey', but we'll let them off that because they deliver it all with such passion and humour. And all the songs mean something, so they make a point of telling the audience why they wrote each song and what they are all about.

At times, Chris sounded like Joni Mitchell, only even better, and with Julie in excellent support, it was impossible not to be uplifted and encouraged by the fact that honest, quality live entertainment does still have a place amid all the celebrity-driven crap the rest of the media doles out - as the sell-out audience proved.

Black power, 40 years on

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Black Power salutes by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics - something that I vaguely remember from when they actually happened (even though I was only seven). The BBC News website did an excellent feature about the other man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman - now the late Peter Norman - who turned out to be a bit of a hero, even though the Australians disowned him.

I would normally be dead against anything that uses the Olympics for political statements, but Black Power is different. The salutes probably saved the movement from a tipping point that could have turned completely to violence. Being a peaceful protest, it was ultimately much greater PR than acts of terrorism, which the movement could easily have resorted to. I'm not sure how much the supporters of Black Power would approve of Barack Obama personally, but the USA has surely come a long way in 40 years to be (hopefully) on the verge of electing its first black president - and maybe Black Power was an important part of a bigger process.

Who knows? But the Black Power salutes can be excused when you learn about the hypocrisy that followed - which the BBC feature, sadly, doesn't fully cover (but Wikipedia does). It turns out that the then IOC president, Avery Brundage, an American, forced the suspension of Smith and Carlos, even though, when he was president of the American Olympic Committee, Brundage had no objection to Nazi salutes made at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. You wouldn't expect him to, being a well known Nazi sympathesiser who is believed to have put pressure on the American team to withdraw the only two Jews in its 1936 track team from the 400m (with Jesse Owens ironically being selected instead).

In other words, Brundage was a complete bastard.

Happy birthday

Today is Holly's 14th birthday, and she would probably tell you it was a happy one.

She's been moaning for weeks that her three-monthly hospital appointment was set for this morning (of all mornings), but the consultant was kind enough to not take a blood test, which is the only thing Holly ever complains of about her diabetes - because she doesn't like injections! (They use a bigger one than the others she uses four times a day.) As usual, everything is fine and under control, reminding us how good she is at staying on top of the situation.

At least the hospital appointment meant she had a leisurely time opening cards and presents without having to rush off to school. These days, birthdays are a bit more sedate, and she gets more money than presents. She is threatening to buy a Swindon Town shirt with the cash. We bought her a DS game (Guitar Hero) and threw in some money.

To mark the occasion, I decided to record what a 14-year-old girl's bedroom looks like - an Aladdin's cave that is impossible to photograph in the conventional way.



Click here for the full-size version.

Carter takes his hat off to Magna Carta

Like most proper news in the last month or so, the (deserved) defeat for the Government in the Lords on the Counter-Terrorism Bill over detainment of suspects for 42 days without trial slipped almost unnoticed against the backdrop of the media's slavering hysteria over the banking crisis.

I like the fact that Magna Carta was cited as one good reason for not adopting it. I wouldn't normally say that something that is getting on for 800 years old should have any bearing on what we do, but obviously an exception is worth making here. I like the idea that a tatty old bit of paper can be so rock solid against anybody who - in more ways than one - try to take liberties. It says: "To none deny or delay, right or justice," the key word here being 'delay'.

Otherwise, we would have been quoting a Tony Hancock line that will surely prove just as immortal: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?"

I have seen not one but two copies of Magna Carta - one in Lincoln Castle, which dates from at least 1216 (the year after it was drawn up) and a 1297 copy at the Australian Parliament building in Canberra. There is another just down the road from us, in Salisbury Cathedral, which I must make a point of going to see.

Take two

You wait 47 years for a gig to come along, and then two come along at once.

A week after being thrown in at the deep end with an unexpected first gig for our band, on Thursday I also found out that we had another booking - and only two days to panic over it.

This time we were drafted in at short notice to play at New Century, a club in Gorse Hill, but having been thrust into the spotlight a week earlier, I approached this one with surprising calm. Mind you, that was until we arrived to find that the place was packed, calling for nerves of steal after all. There were well over 200 people there - and by my reckoning, if things go on improving at this rate, we'll be playing at Wembley Arena this time next year!

We must have gone down pretty well because people were soon up dancing and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Holly was going to be there, but the club said she was too young, so she missed out (although I don't think she was that disappointed). However, Julie was there, partly as my roadie, and she said she was surprised how good we sounded (not having heard us for months). I was surprised that we came through such a big test with flying colours.

We're still a bit rusty in places, but that's only to be expected, and we seem to be improving every time we play together. One of the bizarre things about being in a band is you're not actually sure how good you are - either in terms of the actual sound you are making, technically, which sounds different when you're on stage, or how well it is going down. Before Saturday, our best clue was a DVD that lead guitarist Roy's partner, Jane, made at Thursday night's practice. This could have turned out to be what people used to call a video nasty, but I was surprised how little it made me cringe.

One result of seeing the DVD was it was obvious the drums were still too loud, even though I'm using 'hot rods' rather than proper sticks. These are made up of about 20 much thinner pieces of dowel, bound together. If I had been a better drummer, I would have simply stuck with standard sticks and played with a lighter touch, but that calls for a subtlety I don't possess. Not yet, anyway. For tonight's gig I switched to even lighter hot rods, which worked well until my hands started getting sweaty and, during Sultans of Swing, one slipped out of my hand (at least I recovered well).

This meant that I spent the rest of the gig in fear of dropping another stick and was holding on for grim death, which doesn't do much for your drumming. I later switched back to the bigger ones anyway, because the lighter ones were breaking.

Because all but a handful of people stayed right until the end and were still dancing, that must be a good sign. We were so pleased with how well things had turned out in the circumstances that there is talk of now actively going out and looking for bookings, rather than waiting for people to come to us.

The best thing of all is we are well on the way to getting over our doubts and fears and reaching the point where we will be playing naturally, which is when we'll be able to relax and enjoy it more, and therefore play better still.

Final confirmation that things are really coming together is we have agreed on a name: The Misfits.

Your eye in the stand

Another Town home game, another defeat. That's four in a row in the league and 11 goals conceeded. At least the inevitability of losing 3-1 to Huddersfield was lightened by a temporary role I was given as a reporter.

A couple of games ago I bumped into one of Holly's former teachers outside the ground, who grabbed me for an intereview on the new community/voluntary radio station Swindon 105.5. This time he asked me to come into the studio for a longer pre-match interview, and then asked if I could be their 'eye in the stand' because their regular guy was on holiday. I did what I increasingly do in these circumstances, which is to say: why not?

The interview was easy, but phoning in every time something significant happened on the pitch and having a live conversation about how the match was going was much more challenging, especially as hearing and making yourself heard is not easy in the middle of a crowd of 7,000 people. In the end it mostly meant cataloguing the latest disasters on the pitch, which included watching Huddersfield score their second goal while I was on the phone, waiting to go live to tell listeners that we had just missed a penalty.

As for my recent return to serious football fandom, the frustration of the previous three matches has turned to near indifference at yet another crushing defeat, because they are so far from being a decent team. Despite nearly 40 years of suffering as a supporter, even I was shocked to find that when Huddersfield's third goal went in, a couple of hundred people stood up and walked out, even though there was still a quarter of the game left.

Most fans think that sacking manager Maurice Malpas is the quick-fix answer, but the team is so obviously devoid of creativity and ability that there seems no easy answer to all their problems, save for going back to square one, replacing those players who clearly aren't up to the challenge and working hard to avoid relegation, rather than looking for silver linings and finding excuses.

Sit-down comedy

Never let it be said that our Lads' Nights Out (LNOs) are predictable. This monthly tradition among me, my twin brother, Brian, and lifetime friends Pete, Percy and James could easily have degenerated into a pub crawl for old codgers, years ago, but we try to keep things fresh by seeking out new things to do each time.

This month's jaunt started with takeaway pizza - we also pride ourselves on finding deals, and got the pizza half price - and then took us to The Apartment in Swindon, which is the sort of place we'd usually avoid, it being a bar and definitely not to be dignified with the label of 'pub' (no real ale and everything else overpriced).

We made an exception because they put on monthly Chuckles Comedy Nights, and this month's coincided with the designated LNO night. It sounded like good fun and generally was, although the style of the three comedians turned out to be pretty tiresome. I am no prude and at 47 years old consider myself to be a man of the world, but you really need to work harder to be a good comedian than trying to shock an unshockable audience and seeing how far you can get away with the non-PC jokes. Suicide bombers, blind people and George W Bush were among the easy targets.

There were three comedians, starting with compere Mandy Knight and a grumpy American called Dave Fulton. We weren't too impressed with him, but he is much funnier on YouTube.

Finally there was Tony Gerrard who claims to be the only professional comedian in a wheelchair (he had polio). He's at least in his sixties and his material is largely based on the fact that, as he is disabled, he can get away with poking fun at anybody and everybody, including himself.

All three comedians had one thing in common: they all had slick, professional delivery - Tony Gerrard's being especially impressive - but their material was based on an endless stream of tedious bad language, schoolboy humour and shock tactics. Comedians should be made to apply for a licence to delivery such things, and if I was handing them out, only Billy Connolly would get one, because he's the only one who can do it and leave you wanting more.

Still, it was something different and worth seeing once.

The Gig

We did it. The Band With No Name finally got to perform in public tonight, for the first time. And I lived to tell the tale.

Just to put things into perspective: before today, I had performed in front of an audience for precisely two minutes and 30 seconds - the time it takes to drum along to The Beatles' Drive My Car (in a charity concert, a couple of years ago). I've now increased that by 2,900 per cent, and being thrown into the deep end doesn't even begin to describe it.

We have a booking for early November, but took this opportunity to give ourselves a more gentle initiation, thanks to Bourton Club, where we practise. They had booked our lead guitarist, Roy, to play solo, but had heard us practising, and somehow the idea was for the band to play the gig instead. There were about 30 people watching (and sometimes dancing), and we'd purposely not invited anybody we knew, so as to not put us under any more pressure than we were already under.

I went into it thinking that we would probably play for about 45 minutes and Roy would do the rest solo, which I thought I could just about cope with, but we ended up playing 29 songs. Actually, there were 26 different ones, but we ran out of songs we know how to play. But, from the back of the hall, we could hear: "More! More!" Our only option was to play three more that we'd already played.

Demands for an encore should be more than welcome for any performer, but it was just about the last thing I wanted to hear by that stage. It had all gone pretty well, but for at least a quarter of it I was running on adrenalin alone, and was so utterly shattered that I really wanted it to stop.

We finished off with Take It Easy (The Eagles) again, but I played it so fast that it made a nonsense of the title - and the band had no option but to try to keep up. Then we did Get It On (T Rex) which sounds simple but includes some accidents waiting to happen, and I was grateful to get through it. Then Roy suggested playing Brown-Eyed Girl, which is even more of an accident waiting to happen, and I had to tell him that I just couldn't. I suggested Heartbeat (Buddy Holly) instead, which was the only easy one I could imagine, at that stage, being able to do again. So we did that.

It's amazing how much you can sometimes learn in a short space of time. I've been playing drums for six or seven years now, but it wasn't until tonight that I realised how much you can get away with. If my drum teacher, Paul, had been there, he'd have been vomiting in the corner at some of the things I did when I was cutting corners and choosing cop-outs because I didn't have the confidence or the nerve to pull off the more complex and subtle bits. If there had been any other drummers in the audience they would have spotted some of this, but there weren't, because nobody who came up to us at the end to tell us how well we'd done - and there were a few - had anything to say about the drumming. I wasn't perfect, but it was good enough, in other words, and I left the real impressing to the others, who are all naturals and very committed.

What no non-drummer would have realised was that the biggest banana skin for any drummer is the ending of each song, for which he is ultimately responsible. Some songs have tricky openings, but when you are playing live, they all have tricky endings. Endings are easy on recordings, which usually fade out, but because we don't have that luxury or get a second shot at it, we have to come up with some way of stopping. Sometimes you get into a sort of revolving door situation, where you can't seem to find your way out. Some songs could go on indefinitely, waiting for the drummer to break out of the round of choruses you are going through. A couple of times we went round again before I could work out a way of escaping from it. There were a few times when we didn't all stop at the same time, but we managed to cover it up - and, I reckon, with no little skill.

Although drumming looks easy, it's all difficult, but probably the most difficult thing about tonight was having to do it three times, as the show was divided into thirds. After negotiating the first ten songs, we took a break, but it had gone so well and I was so relieved, I could happily have gone home then. But we had to do some more, and when that was done and had also gone pretty well, I wanted to go home more than ever. The third time around, I was mentally and physically shattered (it's hard work) but we were also down to the songs that I knew I would be struggling with because we hadn't practised them so much. So now we were really up against it.

Fortunately, by this time I had the only set list so was telling the others what we'd play next. On the list for the middle third was The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women, but as the Keeper of the List I had the luxury of missing it out - which I did because I couldn't remember how to play it. In fact, I was experiencing what must be the musician's darkest nightmare - having a complete blank. I couldn't even remember how the tune went, let alone what I was supposed to be doing. Consequently, when we'd almost run out of songs and I couldn't put it off any longer, I was praying that it would all snap back into my memory, once we started playing.

As if all that wasn't bad enough, the song has an unusual groove that drummers of my ability can only play from the start. We can't pick it up halfway through the bar. So when, as I did, you fluff the first bar, you not only have to ad-lib to fill up the gap - which is a difficult skill in itself - but you have to wait until the start of the next bar before you get another chance. So now it's a case of trying to get into the revolving door. It took me about five attempts, but I don't think anybody in the audience noticed - which more or less sums up the night.

I am writing this the next day because it was 12.45am before I got home and packed the drums away, by which time I was utterly drained. Then I had to suffer two hours of trying to get to sleep while all the songs we had played repeated themselves, ad nauseum, in my head. Thanks to Sod's Law, the ones that you don't really like but have to play because other people do, are the ones that plague you worst (Wonderful Tonight therefore being uppermost in my Swiss cheese of a brain). In the end, I had to listen to some other stuff on my iPod to exorcise it all.

At the end of the evening we took a picture to mark the occasion and, as an incurable keeper of things, I'm also making a souvenir of the set list (which features the actual order and a list of possibles that the second two thirds were drawn from). There is an irony in this list because, when I took up drumming, I told my teacher that I only really wanted to sit at home and play along to The Beatles. Notice that: a) I don't just play at home anymore; and b) we played no Beatles (unless you count Johnny B Goode, which they did record).

I almost forgot to say that we even got paid real money for the gig. And that is the difference between me yesterday and me today. Can you believe it? I do gigs.

King of his craft

The 'Now reading' panel of this page (see left) was a good idea when I thought of it. It's there because even if no-one else reads this blog, one day I will be able to dip into it and see what I was into at any given point in time.

But it's often an over-simplification of real life, as I often have a string of different things I am trying to read at the same time. Yesterday, for instance, I took it upon myself to re-read a book I'd first read a few years back, called On Writing, by Stephen King. I am thinking of running some courses or something, about writing, because I know a bit about it and have slowly come to realise that it's not as difficult as most people think it is, as long as you follow a few simple rules and take some tips onboard.

Stephen King's book is a writer's manual but also partly autobiographical. The main idea is it supposed to tell you how to write, but by far the most effective way it does this is by being absolutely brilliantly written itself. In a similar style to Bill Bryson, he has a sometimes breathtakingly sharp way of saying things. And as proof of just how good it is, I ended up reading all 300-odd pages inside 24 hours (and I was taking notes). I'm not a fast reader and the only other book I've read inside a day before was Animal Farm, which isn't very long. Further proof of how good it is is the fact that although I don't read much fiction and would never usually think of reading Stephen King's genre, I'm going to make a point of reading at least one of his books.

At one point, he says this: "The reader must always be your main concern; without Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void." I don't believe there could be a better way of making this point.

The book is full of such sharp insight, and he not only has some interesting stories to tell about his own life, but also tells them so well. At one stage (after becoming famous) he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. They say there are few things in life more boring than drunks, and the prospect of hearing one talk about his life doesn't sound very appetising, but he deals with it with a complete absence of fuss - which once again emphasizes what he is trying to teach the reader about writing.

He also had a near-fatal accident in 1999, when he was hit by a van driven by somebody who wasn't paying attention to his driving. King describes the driver but is so skilful at painting a picture of him, you are in no doubt what a gormless prat he was, even though he never insults him so directly. In fact, it's exactly because he never calls him a gormless prat or anything like it, that you get such a vivid picture of somebody who is a gormless prat.*

King is a master of his craft and the book really is a masterpiece - and it gets even better through comparison. I've also bought a book called How To Write, which is written by Alastair Fowler, who is some kind of Oxford scholar. Whereas Stephen King's book took me a day to read and I've now read it twice, I read How To Write in an hour. Of course, I didn't read it all. I only read the bits that pretended to interest, which I tracked down while flicking through the pages, desperately searching for any glimmer of light or genuine insight. It is, I can say without any exaggeration, the dullest book I have ever had the misfortune of having in my house. I guarantee that if you read a single page of it and then take any notice, you will wind up producing the worst kind of ditchwater drivel since... since... since the review of it that some guy called Frederic Woodbridge has written on Amazon (read the first line of this review and you will see that he can't spell diminutive, and if you read on, it will tell you a lot about the sort of person who might be impressed by the book). Read the book and this review is exactly the kind of nonsense you'll come up with. It's a book written by scholars for scholars, if ever there was one. Otherwise, it's the perfect example of quacking in the void.

*Al Stewart deals with the same subject in a different but equally effective way in his song, Accident on 3rd Street, singing: "They found the guy who did/He had the lobotomy and the chicken eyes/And he gazed around the courtroom with a kind of vague surprise/Reminded me of one of those Vikings with the long-handled swords/The kind that even Joan Baez would not feel non-violent towards."