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Singing the praises of Sydney Opera House

Almost lost among the reports that somebody or other had been booted out of some silly dancing programme on telly was the news that Jorn Utzon has died.

Most people won't know the name, but everybody recognises his greatest achievement as he was the architect of the Sydney Opera House. In fact, it wasn't completed exactly to his design, especially the interior, as costs over-ran to ten times the estimate, so he walked out on the project and never visited it when it was completed.

Whatever the final cost was, they got it cheap because it's arguably the greatest building in the world. Probably the most incredible thing about it is it's only been there since 1973. Most other buildings have to wait much longer - sometimes centuries - to acquire such status.

I've been lucky enough to see the Opera House with my own eyes, in 2001 (see above and below), and we even saw a play there. The setting, including the equally mind-blowing bridge across the other side of the Circular Quay which creates a unique atmosphere, means it's even better when you see it in 'real life' rather than in pictures.

Voice over

I've now finished I'm Not Drunk, Honest, a book by Hal Lever, which I bought on a bit of a whim after meeting the author at a book signing at Borders.

It turned out to be a very readable book, especially considering it was his own work and not ghost-written - and possibly because of that. It tells the true story of a guy, now 60, who had a terrible car crash in his twenties, which very nearly killed him. Following some mostly temporary physical and mental disabilities, the most lasting legacy of the accident was that he was left with slurred speech, and the story is of his battle to be accepted by a society that generally pre-judged him - mostly because he sounded like he was drunk (as the title implies).

The book is, of course, inspiring, although some of his problems seemed to stem from his inability to focus on specific career goals and see them out - which may also have been an underlying legacy of the accident.

It's only now, that I've finished it, that I've realised that the story could easily have qualified for 'misery lit' which is probably the last kind of book on earth that I would read. Indeed, it would probably have sold very well if marketed as such, but it's not written as that sort of book - just an honest story of somebody overcoming adversity by trying to get on with his life.

Hal is a likeable bloke and you find yourself desperately wishing him the happy ending he deserves - which he surely achieves. It's ironic that somebody who had a lifetime struggle with communication had the means under his nose to get his message across, all the time - because he has a natural writing ability that ultimately 'speaks' very clearly indeed.

Rock on, Tommy

Yesterday marked a month since my mum was first admitted to hospital, and what with the emotional and logistically stress of it all, it was nice to escape to London for some light relief and the chance to see a TV programme being made - for the second time this year.

This time it was Not Going Out, a sitcom that I have to admit to never having seen before, even though they are now recording the third series. But encouraged by a fan of the programme (my brother Brian, who organised the trip), I was one of a group of ten family and friends (including Julie and Sean but not Holly as she doesn't qualify for the minimum age of 16) who turned up at Teddington Studiois in London to see it.

Despite having seen Harry Hill's TV Burp live, earlier in the year, the whole thing proved a fascinating experience, especially as a sitcom is obviously more involved than a sketch show.

Not Going Out is co-written by Lee Mack, who also stars (second from right in the picture). On top of being very cleverly written, it was also well performed by all the cast, even if it took them a surprising four hours to record the half hour programme.

There were two bonuses for us in the audience. Firstly - as is the case with every comedy programme - we were treated to a free show from a warm-up comedian. This time it was the impressive Alun Cochrane. Then there was seeing the guest star, Bobby Ball, who played Lee's father. This major star of 1980s Saturday night TV (as half of Cannon and Ball) doesn't have the most sophisticated style of comedy ("Rock on, Tommy" being their most famous catchphrase), but I've always been a fan of him because he doesn't actually need to do anything to make you laugh except be himself. He proved surprisingly professional on set, but still had the ability to produce off-the-cuff humour, and this was a gift that all the others also possessed - and is probably the reason why Not Going Out bucks the trend of generally disappointing current British comedy. I suppose stars are still playing to an audience, even between takes, when recording a programme, but this probably gives you more of a taste of what they are really like, and the whole cast came across as being as warm and likeable as they were talented.

In other words, rock on!

Bugsy Malone meets death metal

On Wednesday (November 26) we watched the first of Churchfields School's two presentations of Bugsy Malone, which was a milestone for Sean as it was his first official commission as a drummer.

He was part of a small band also made up of a pianist, trumpeter, saxophonist/flautist, guitarist and bass player, and although the music, by his standards, wasn't that challenging, it hopefully puts him on the road to making a name for himself as a reliable session drummer.

The show was good fun, particularly as I knew several of the cast through chess, and one turned out to be the son of a work colleague.

If playing in Bugsy Malone wasn't enough, as soon as the second show was over on Thursday, Sean rushed off to Furnace, where the band in which he plays guitar (Chasing Dreams) managed to come second (out of four) in a Battle of the Bands final. Final placings were fairly irrelevant as they were decided by ballot, with the band that could muster enough friends and family to turn up on the night winning the contest, but Sean said his band were very well received. They were never going to win when even his parents are not officially invited to go along and watch - partly on the grounds that we are never going to like the 'death metal' they play (rightly, as it turns out).

If you check out the Chasing Dreams MySpace pages, it turns out that Sean plays not guitar but 'strings', while Chris plays 'fat strings', Liam plays 'skins' and Connor's instrument is 'throat' - all of which sounds like a fair description of what death metal is all about. Nice design work, though. The picture of Sean, right, (by Alana and taken last month) is lifted from MySpace.

Come back Marvin: all is forgiven

Funny that. There we were thinking the International Space Station (ISS) was a miracle of human endeavour and technology, but the BBC set us right by pointing out that it's rubbish.

The corporation clearly sees its role now not as a public service but rather as an organ for making everybody thoroughly depressed about the miserable and hopeless world we live in. Not content with revelling - and I choose the word carefully, because that's what it is - in the 'credit crunch', they marked the tenth anniversary of the launch of the first bit of the ISS by inviting two experts on to BBC News 24, where they were both subjected to the same first question from the interviewer: "What are you most disappointed with about the International Space Station?"

According to the BBC, the ISS has virtually no scientific value and is hopelessly over-budget - as if that should worry us because a) these things are always overbudget; b) I don't think it costs me much; and c) even if it did, you can't put a price on the immeasurable advancement of the human race that such things always provide.

My nephew Stuart alerted me to a much better assessment of the value of the ISS with a link from his blog to a stunning set of photographs (including the one below). If anybody can look at them and not understand, instantly, the inspiring nature of the ISS, then they are doomed to live forever in a world so depressed that Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Gallery ("Life, don't talk to me about life") might as well become Director-General of what used to be the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world. If he hasn't already.

On the fiddle

Holly reminded us how good she is on the violin tonight, with an appearance in Kingsdown School's latest recital evening.

It was strange being there without Sean drumming, as he played in a recital in just about every term during his time at the school.

Holly hasn't been practising so much just lately, but still turned in a really nice performance of a catchy folky piece, and was even mentioned by the headmistress at the end - for playing well but looking terrified!

eBay revisited

I have been buying up various Swindon history-related things off eBay - a football programme, a book about Alfred Williams and even a banger racing badge, but the bargain of the year was three large, genuine old posters for 6.99 (including postage), of which the best is one from the Locarno, featuring the Johnnie Stiles Band, local stars of the dance band era who made a national name for themselves by winning prestigious competitions and were a major cultural icon of our parents' generation.

After a little detective work today, I discovered the poster dates from 1953, two months after the Queen's coronation.

London calling

Last night's gig (see below) was such a worry to me that I really didn't have much time to look forward to today, which turned out to be a very enjoyable one in London. It was our first proper visit for years, and we (me, Julie and Holly) decided we shouldn't leave it so long next time; there's so much to see and do.

We were there for an evening concert to mark the centenary of Barry Gray, the man who wrote and performed the music for Gerry Anderson's sublime TV series (see below), but we decided to make a day of it.

We decided to drive to Hillingdon and then Tube it to Waterloo, and because of a late night the night before and therefore a late start, it was well past midday by the time we got there. Even so, we decided to get some lunch before heading for our afternoon destination, Tate Modern, and stumbled on a nice cafe called Barbarella's (in Lower Marsh, just outside Waterloo station) which was amazingly good value.

As we ate lunch, however, it started to rain again and was still beating down when we began the 15-minute walk to Tate Modern, so we got a good soaking. But that was soon forgotten as you quickly become absorbed in the place. It took us about four hours to explore the two floors holding the permanent collection, visit the excellent shops and have a drink in the cafe, and we all enjoyed looking at the artworks - some of which are hugely famous and - possibly even better - infamous. Entry is free, but you have to pay extra for the special exhibitions, and we didn't bother - partly because there was so much else to see but also because Mark Rothko, the subject of the main exhibition, is not my favourite, particularly being colourblind.

I've been to Tate Modern before, but what really struck me this time was how busy it was. At times it was like being in a train station, and I noticed the Rothko exhibition was busy too, so it wasn't just because it was free and raining outside. Sometimes I think most people's lives revolve around watching EastEnders and Big Brother, but there are obviously plenty more for whom places like the Tate are a big draw too. And so it should be.

After leaving the Tate we timed it just perfectly to walk back along the South Bank to the Royal Festival Hall, past the London Eye, spotting a sand artist at the waterside (I didn't even know there was sand on the riverbank) and finally meeting up with my nephew, Stuart, who was also going to the concert.

When puppets ruled the earth

It was thanks to Stuart that we knew there was a show taking place at the Royal Festival Hall tonight called Thunderbirds are Go! and when he said he was interested in going, I couldn't resist it either, so we decided it was a good idea to meet up.

I was brought up on the puppet (and later live action) adventures created by Gerry Anderson, starting with Thunderbirds, then retrospectively with Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and on through Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, The Secret Service, UFO and Space 1999.

To say they represented the golden age of television is an understatement, and of all the nostalgia that it's possible for a child of Sixties Britain to muster, not much comes close to Anderson's series. Later generations, including Stuart's and our kids', have discovered them all over again, and because they were so well made, they never lose their appeal, even in the face of today's computer graphics - and especially in the face of today's all too glossy productions, as the embarrassing big screen Thunderbirds remake of 2004 proved.

A few years back I had the honour of interviewing Gerry Anderson on the phone, and he turned out to be a nice man to talk to. Tonight we arrived at the theatre at the same time as he did, and as I sort of held the door open for him, it became one of those moments when you wish you had said something - although you can never quite think what.

Gerry Anderson attracts a big cult following and, predictably, there were a few there who had come in costume, as well as one lady who was walking round with a Thunderbirds puppet (Virgil in 'civvies'). This was just the right amount of fan obsession necessary because no matter how much a master of his craft Gerry Anderson was, it wasn't about him.

One of the things that made all those programmes so good was the high quality of music that accompanied them, which was always left to the Barry Gray Orchestra. The concert celebrated his centenary (though he died in 1984), and it was a measure of how good it was that not only was the full Philharmonia Orchestra hired to perform it, but the great Brian Blessed was the compere.

Brian, actually, was a bit of a loose cannon - I suppose that's his appeal - and having a compere didn't really do much for the show's fluency. To be honest, the music was perfectly capable of speaking for itself. Whereas I expected plenty of projections of Anderson programmes, there weren't many. The show lasted about two and a half hours, so the theme tunes were a relatively small part, and it was mostly about the incidental music, which I enjoyed just as much. Divorced from the action, it stands up really well as atmospheric music on its own, and it was certainly easy to imagine the scenes that each piece was written to go with.

It was the first time I had ever been to a concert featuring a full orchestra, so that was an experience in itself, and I really can't think of any programme by any other composer I've ever heard that would have been as impressive to listen to. There were several hairs-standing-up-on- the-back-of-your-neck moments.

Best of all was the UFO Theme, which has always been in my Top 100...

..although it was also impossible not to be moved - and not only in the sense of being transported back 40 years - by the wonderful Thunderbirds theme.

On the journey home along the M4, there was plenty of time to reflect how much more motivated this country would be if, rather than the dismal one we have, we had the Thunderbirds theme as our national anthem.

Now there's a thought.

See also:

Royal Festival Hall panorama (from 2002)

Misfits on tour

Our band successfully negotiated our first out-of-town gig today - and actually did pretty well, even though I say so myself. That's three gigs now, and still nobody has thrown anything at us.

We were booked to play at Keynsham, the other side of Bath - at the Conservative Club, of all places. We did two one-hour sets in front of about 120 people, and although they didn't get up and dance as much as our previous audience, we seemed to go down well, and several people thanked us, afterwards, "for giving us a good night".

I even managed to start enjoying myself at one stage, having overcome my nerves. However, as soon as you start to relax, you frighten yourself because you don't want to get too casual and lose concentration. At one stage I remember thinking: "I'm actually doing this", which is a bit like Alan Bean once thought to himself when he was on the moon. I know it's not quite as much of an achievement, but this time last year, I thought I could no more get up and play in front of an audience than fly to the moon, so it's probably a good analogy all the same.

Lighting the blue touch paper

Being Bonfire Night, we enjoyed another (now traditional) firework party at our friends Pete and Julie's house, which has the benefit of overlooking half of Swindon, so we get to see more fireworks than anybody else in the town, as well as our own.

For some reason, there were distinctly less fireworks around this year, possibly because the day falls midweek, although to me it doesn't seem right to have them on any day except November 5.

The Gunpowder Plot continues to fascinate people, as the BBC News website proved by coming up with another new theory - this time about the supposed innocence of one of the plotters, Henry Garnet (who doesn't sound very innocent to me). Actually, the most interesting thing about Henry Garnet is that there is a 17th century book that describes his execution and its cover is reputedly made from his skin. For the life of me I can't think why nobody has tried to prove or disprove this through analysing the DNA.

You would think that after 403 years there wouldn't be much left to find out about the Gunpowder Plot, but a surprisingly good website run by the Gunpowder Plot Society, which I discovered today, proves otherwise. This could have been a repository for all kinds of silly conspiracy theories, but is better than that. It also includes an account of the conspirators' flight to Warwickshire where, finding their gunpowder soaked by the rain, they had the brilliant idea of spreading it out in front of the fire to dry. This blew the roof off the house and showed them up to be the hopeless bunch of utter loonies that we still fondly remember remember to this day.

Barack to the future

Life (and blogs, I suppose) goes on, even with my mother lying sick in hospital (since last Friday).

One thing that you learn in these situations is that the world stops for no man (or woman), although sometimes it manages to put itself in a better perspective, and it's nice to wake up to a world that's full of hope this morning, the United States finally living up to its name and electing a black president, Barack Obama.

Frankly, electing anybody whose name isn't George W Bush had to be an improvement, and the little I know about American politics makes me instinctively anti-Republican anyway. But what an improvement. Literally overnight, they've been transformed into a nation that the world can look up to for the right reasons. Coming from a country where people don't bother to go out and vote if they think they'll miss something good on the telly - and, worse still, thinking that EastEnders and Big Brother is something good - it was amazing to see people queueing for hours to cast their votes. And, of course, choosing an African American as their president has to be good.

I had time, this morning, to sit and watch CNN's coverage, which was interesting - partly because, unlike the BBC, which was going to great lengths to gauge international reaction, the Americans hadn't quite realised the worldwide impact the news was having. CNN did, however, come up with something that struck me as very funny (though it may lose something in translation). One of their reporters explained how, in one city, the traffic was stopped by the celebrations. "People were getting out of their cars and hugging complete strangers," he said, "and no doubt, somewhere, a sailor kissed a nurse."

On a more personal note, I realised for the first time today that I am the same age as Barack Obama and, indeed, I was less than a month old when he was born. One news report this morning made a lot of the fact that he is a young president, which cheered me up even more, but then a pundit spoiled it by saying "Actually, he's not so young. He's in his late forties."

One thing that Obama probably remembers but which I can't recall hearing about at the time (in 1968, before our seventh birthdays), is the assassination of Martin Luther King - an event that, surprisingly, hasn't been mentioned in the news reports that I've seen today. This is surely the best measure of how far the United States has come in 40 years - from a time when black people weren't even allowed to ride on the same buses as white people and were murdered in cold blood for suggesting otherwise, to the day when millions of white people were dancing in the streets because they had just elected a black man.

It's almost a revolution.

Grand larceny

I've just finished reading The Book Thief by the Australian Markus Zusak, an amazingly well written book that has instantly made it as one of the top ten I've ever read.

I started reading it only because Holly's English teacher had suggested she read it. She was struggling with its unusual style - "He just seems to write things at random" - so I thought I would read it to help her out. The narrator is Death, which is only one reason for its quirkiness. The narrative is constantly being stopped by the insertion of bullet points and asides, and there are already plenty of strange but effective turns of phrase to stop you in your tracks. His publishers call Zusak "innovative and poetic" and you certainly can't argue with it, but as well as the language, the characters are also strong.

It's the story of a young girl growing up in Germany, which has some parallels with Anne Frank, except the heroine, Leisel, comes from the other side of the fence and finds her foster parents shielding a Jew. One of the many clouds hanging over the story is the certain knowledge - which Death knows through hindsight and tells you early on - that Allied bombers are going to wreak disaster on Leisel's hometown. It's only a question of whom he's coming for.

If there is a drawback, it's that the plot seems to fizzle out at the end, despite coming to a big climax. By then, it's impossible not to be attracted to Death, who comes across as a sensitive and likeable character.

I don't have much time to read much fiction, but if I thought that many other stories were half as well written as this one, I would read more.