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Paying the penalty

The vultures were out in force in Woolworths today, sweeping up the last bargains as more than 800 stores prepare for closure.

We went into the Swindon branch, which has been there for about 80 years and is due to close on January 2. But the real bargains weren't the chocolate and pencil sharpeners that had at least 50 per cent off. There were gems to be had at the back of the store, where they have started selling off the fixtures and fittings.

There were shelves, chairs and point-of-sale displays, but sadly very few had 'Woolworths' on them, which I was seeking out as a souvenir - not just of a famous shop but also a different way of life. The best we could come up with was a box of pens advertising their online ordering service (a whole box of about a hundred for 1), but I'm going back to see if anything more interesting becomes available.

The pens are ironic because it's the chain's complete inability to move with the times that has been its downfall, and an online ordering service was too little too late. It was futile as surely the only appeal of Woolworths at all was that you could drop in and pick up the odd thing. I can't imagine anybody ever ordering anything from there.

Julie said she felt sad about the whole thing, but I'm more angry. That the management could sit idly by and let Woolworths go bust when the writing must have been on the wall for years is a crime when more than 20,000 jobs were at stake.

Fleeting moments of genius



Top of my Christmas list this year was the album by Fleet Foxes, an American band I've heard on the radio and saw on Later With Jools Holland.

I'm glad to say that Father Christmas obliged, and this is how I see it so far:

First hearing: amazing sound - really distinctive.
Second hearing: hey, some of the songs are great too.
Third hearing: change 'some' to 'most'.
Fourth hearing: ooh, I'm getting goosepimples. They're fantastic.

Fleet Foxes are one hell of a band, sounding like - to my ears - a cross between Simon & Garfunkel and The Beach Boys (imagine that). I'm sure I can hear some Mamas & Papas and Joni Mitchell in there, too, which can only be good. It's like they have taken the best elements of American popular music and blended them together in one studio.

And, as with the (still grossly underrated) Bees, whom I discovered last year, Fleet Foxes somehow manage to cultivate a distinct sound without churning out the same song, over and over again. Just what the X-Factor generation needs.

If only they knew it.

The view from seat R160: still the same

I took my camera along to the football today as it was a bit of an historic day in the increasingly sorry tale of Swindon Town FC, being the first game in which new manager Danny Wilson was in charge.

On a bitterly cold afternoon, in front of more than 8,000 poor souls, even he couldn't change the habits of a season in five minutes and Town inevitably sank to a tame 2-0 defeat at the hands of a poor Brighton side. My 'investment' in a season ticket looks more ridiculous every week, but as a football fan you must live in hope - and Danny Wilson is cause for real hope at last.

I know because I met him once, when I was reporting on a Town match at Barnsley, where he was manager. He apologised for keeping the press waiting - something few managers would think of doing - and struck me as a likeable, sensible and, above all, intelligent bloke, and he comes with a good track record. If anybody can pull off the miracle we need to avoid relegation, he can.

As well as Rockin' Robin, the pictures also feature (at half-time), fellow sufferers Brian (my twin brother), Ron (my oldest brother), Rich (his son), Holly and her cousin Lucy, plus the back of my nephew James's head. I also managed to get a picture of the only highlight of the entire match from Town's point of view - Timlin's free kick, just before it hit the post.



Band aid

Our band - still not properly named after all this time - performed our fifth gig tonight, which turned out to be a surprisingly subdued affair at Wroughton Club.

Although the audience never did work up much Christmas spirit, it went fairly well, particularly as it was the first time we had invited along friends and family. However, I played my worst in public. Those watching were kind with their comments and probably didn't realise what was going wrong, and, ironically, the bit that they thought I messed up - that irritating Slade Christmas song - I got right. It was the rest of the band who played two choruses when there should have been three.

There's a moral there somewhere, and it's mostly to do with how much you are able to get away with - or not - in life.

Still, who would have thought, 15 months ago, that I would have played around 150 songs in public, before 2008 was out?

The greatest headline that never was

Eartha Kitt died yesterday - and every mention of her name reminds me of the very early days of my journalistic career, in 1989, when I had just started at the Swindon Advertiser.

One of the young reporters, who was really bright and witty, got to interview Eartha Kitt, and was disgusted that this woman, who was famous for wearing furs, was actually clinging to a preference for real ones, even though it had become unacceptable and the anti-fur trade had silenced their opponents with the brilliant slogan "Furs are worn by beautiful animals and ugly people."

Reporters write the stories but not the headlines, but sometimes they suggest them to sub-editors, and his suggestion for his Eartha Kitt interview was "Pack it in, you old Kitt bag." Sadly, they were never going to use it.

These days they might.

A touch of the Leslie Crowthers

So that was it - my 48th Christmas on this planet. And the first one in which I have spent any time whatsoever in a place that wasn't my own home or that of friends or relatives.

In mid-afternoon, all four of us went to the Great Western Hospital, where my mum has been for a few weeks, and we found her in better spirits than recently.

Possibly my earliest memory of Christmas - it's hard to tell for sure - is seeing Leslie Crowther on telly on Christmas Day, visiting children's hospitals, where he would hand out presents. Noel Edmonds later cornered the market in this cheesy, sentimental but - I have to admit - very touching line in festive TV. As the seed was planted when I was so young, I have always found the idea that there are people in hospital on Christmas Day slightly surreal. I seem to remember, as a very young child, wondering why people just didn't pull out all the stops and somehow get out of there before the big day.

Added to this is the weird concept that some people have to work on December 25 too. There have been a few people in our family who have to do it, including our dad, who wasn't always there first thing on Christmas morning. Yet I never did get used to the idea, possibly because my job means it's unlikely - though not quite impossible - that I will ever be needed.

At the hospital, they were playing Christmas music feintly and the sister was wearing foam reindeer antlers, but otherwise there was very little to suggest the date. There was only a skeleton staff and no more visitors about than you would see on a normal day. Less, possibly. So, basically, it was much less of a big deal than I had imagined. And, of course, some of the old ladies on the ward weren't quite aware of the date anyway.

It was a quiet Christmas at home, and another milestone was achieved. For the first time since the kids were born, nobody was interested in what time we had got up. This is the first question people ask parents of young children, as soon as they catch up with them after Father Christmas's arrival. Both Sean and Holly thoroughly enjoyed the day, but, being teenagers, their lying in bed instincts have superseded the get-up-early-on-Christmas-Day ones. For the record, I got up first, at about 8am, Sean is rumoured to have been awake by 8.30am, but Holly had to be woken.

They are also too old to want to be photographed opening their presents, so we've got Elvis instead. Now on steroids to help increase his weight, he is so desperately hungry all the time that we spent most of the day trying to keep him off the table, and he spent most of it on guard, in case anything edible came within reach.

Again for the record, my Christmas presents were great - mostly consisting of books plus a book token, an iTunes download token, beer, cider and the latest album by The Fleet Foxes, which I am already impressed with after one hearing.

Christmas turkeys

I am not one of these people who think the tradition of sitting down and watching the Queen's Speech at 3pm is one that is in any way worthwhile. So I have to say I didn't actually catch what she was on about this year - except on the news. I believe you can get it as a podcast, but I have tried very hard and I can't imagine what sort of person would take the trouble to download it.

Apparently, she was banging on about the economic downturn and the threat of redundancy and so forth, and how it means we have some tough times ahead. As if she knows anything about that.

I'm not really that bitter, but I did have the misfortune of catching a few moments of EastEnders while waiting for Wallace & Gromit to start, and that obviously relieved me of a sliver of my humanity. God knows what it must do to the brains of people who actually sit and watch it.

Holly holly

It's not much, but I have had the satisfaction of indulging in some genuine Christmas decorating, rather than just pulling tinsel out of a box.

We have a holly bush at the bottom of our garden, so I decided to make - yes, actually make - a sort of... well, I don't know what you call it, exactly, but it's a load of holly nailed to MDF and stuck above our picture rails.

I'm quite pleased with it, and it also allows us to indulge our tradition of making a joke about Holly's name from time to time:

Me: "Holly!"

Holly: "What?"

Me: "Sorry. I was just saying about the holly up there."

Holly: "Not funny."

People often assume that Holly's birthday is around December, but it isn't, and our choice of name had nothing to do with Christmas.

Napoleon's happy Christmas

After a few weeks of not seeing Napoleon, the stray cat who's been visiting us, on and off, for about a year, we spotted him again today - and got to find out much more about his mystery life.

It turns out that an old man who lives about 150 metres away from our house started trying to tempt him to stay with them about a year ago, and when Napoleon got in too bad a state to continue living rough, took him in and arranged for treatment through Cats Protection. He'd seriously wounded his paw and needed two or three months to get over it. Since then he's become more domesticated, finally learning what it's like to have a proper home.

Me and Holly spotted him with his owner, coming out of the allotments at the back of our house, about 200 metres from his home. He was following his owner home, who told us Napoleon often goes down there with him while he's digging. We explained that he is well known down our street and still visits us from time to time.

And we found out what they call him - Billy, which, coincidentally, is the same as my brother's black-and-white cat. But we're still going to call him Napoleon as it probably pre-dates him being 'christened' Billy.

I find all cats likeable, but there's something about Napoleon that makes him even more attractive, so it was inevitable he would settle somewhere, and it was obvious from his condition that he was no longer living rough. But it's great to discover, on Christmas Eve of all days, that he's now got a nice home to go to.

Gypsy Lane Santa

Another Carter family 'tradition' that's lasted... oh, it must be the second year we've done it.

We decided to make time to have a walk down to see Gypsy Lane Santa. This is an ordinary guy who - like a lot of people these days - puts loads of lights on the outside of his house. But he stands outside, dressed as Father Christmas for three hours every evening, collecting money for Prospect Hospice.

Since he started in 2003, he's raised more than 19,000. He lives on a busy road, so relied on passing traffic stopping at first, but now people make special journeys to visit him, parking in the small industrial estate at the back of his house. He now even has sponsors and advertisers on his website.

As well as lights on the house, the whole of his garden has been turned into a kind of outdoor grotto, there is a shed with a model train in it and another where he is selling bric-a-brac to raise even more money.

It's all home-made, so it's not Disneyland, but in return for a donation, you get a blast of Christmas spirit that's big enough to blow you into next year. And not fake, either, but the genuine article.


Trad folk

I wonder how many times you have to do something before it becomes a proper tradition.

As soon as we discovered the joys of watching St Agnes Fountain in concert last year, we decided we would make a habit of seeing them every Christmas as it's the perfect way to get you in the Christmas spirit. So we duly returned to St Mary's Church in Marlborough for this year's show.

Made up of Julie Matthews, Chris While, David Hughes and Chris Leslie - who only reform for Christmas - they are folk musicians who do carols and other Christmas and winter songs in their own unique style and throw in some poems and chat. Even better than the high standard of musicianship - which is sky high - and better even than Chris While's stunning voice is the way the show is delivered - so warm and genuine and obviously a joy for them to perform.

As Christmas traditions in our house go, only watching The Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve comes close, and we're already planning to clear the calendar for the Aggies' return in 2009.

As we purposely got there early so we could get in the front row, I even have some pictures to show for it, including the encore when they put down the dozen instruments they had previously been playing, in favour of ukuleles.

Come in number 13

If this isn't proof that some people are basically dumb... no, not dumb, that's being too kind, how about thick? Yes, thick, that's better...

If this isn't proof that some people are basically thick, then I don't know what is. It's a story on the BBC website about people who live at number 13 struggling even more than everybody else in the property slump because of buyers' superstitions.

It's unbelievable to me that people who have lived in the 21st century can think that luck - whatever that is - could possibly be affected by which number they have on the outside of their house. Even more thick - some property developers and councils encourage this irrationality by missing out number 13 when numbering new roads.

And what qualifies me to spout on about this? Well, I've 'owned' three properties in my life. The first one was a number 13, and so is the third. I lived in the first one for about nine months and have lived at the current one for more than 18 years, and no matter how I look at my life, I can't find any evidence whatsoever of being 'unlucky'.

"Ah, but what about Apollo 13?" I hear some people ask. Yes, it was terrible how those three blokes got to be at the forefront of technology; got paid very well to do it, got to see the dark side of the moon with their own eyes; had already survived a very risky life as test pilots; and then got home onboard a crippled spacecraft after a potentially lethal accident caused by human error - and two of them are still alive, nearly four decades later. How unlucky can you get?

I'm so unlucky with football

Maybe this is something to do with living at number 13 after all, but I am having absolutely no luck as a football supporter this year.

Foolishly buying a season ticket to see Swindon Town because they were cheap, since August I have been forced to endure some of the dreariest, clueless, most embarrassing excuses for football matches ever seen on the hallowed turf of the County Ground.

So I decided to watch Swindon Supermarine for a change, as they have been having an amazing season (for a small club) in the Southern League Premier Division.

They were drawn at home to Eastbourne Borough in the first round of the FA Trophy - described as the biggest game in the club's history because Eastbourne play in the Blue Square Conference (effectively League Division Five), which is two tiers above Supermarine. I was ready to go to the match last Saturday when it was called off because of rain, and it was rescheduled for tonight.

Well, after a long day and a change of plans, I decided not to go along after all, especially as the odds were very much against them actually winning.

They won, of course - 1-0, causing a major upset. Especially in our house.

Long Live Father Christmas

Hmmm... an interesting but slightly sad experience today as I spent a couple of hours stalking Father Christmas.

This was in a professional capacity as I was hired to take some pictures of him with kids in The Brunel shopping centre in Swindon. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Derek Benfield, a former Mayor of Swindon, and was there as a 'reverse Santa' - an appeal in which you are supposed to take gifts to him, so he can distribute them to children's charities.

It was heart-warming to see some families make a beeline for him and have a chat - and those parents who did were obviously thrilled to see their kids' reaction, which reminded me of when our kids were little. But we also noticed that some parents were seemingly oblivious to Father Christmas's presence, even when their kids spotted him and started pulling their hands in his direction. Some ignored their children altogether, while others just didn't seem to realise what was going on. Either way, it's a bit sad that they are more interested in their own petty lives than opening their kids' eyes to the likes of Father Christmas and other gigantic pleasures.

Good old Father Christmas. Like God, if he wasn't real, we'd have to invent him. And have you noticed that I always try to call him Father Christmas, not Santa. It will be another sad day when everybody in Britain calls him Santa instead - and it's not going to be so far away, either.

Rock School rocks

On this, the 28th anniversary of the death of John Lennon - which seems like yesterday - we spent part of our evening finding out what Sean had learnt at Rock School, the Swindon Council-sponsored evening classes for teenagers which are an impressive and successful initiative on so many different levels.

The kids really rise to the challenge, and tonight their end of term show consisted of ten or twelve bands getting up on stage at a pub renowned for live music, called 12-Bar, to play two or three songs each. Sean's band, who are mostly made up of mates he went to school with, were on last, so we timed our arrival quite late, getting to see two impressive bands before it was his turn. One should have been a five-piece, but three of them lost their nerve at some point before the gig, and they had to borrow a drummer to make a trio - but did really well.

I can't pretend to like the brand of music played by Sean's band - who were apparently named Alfred the Butler for one night only - it being far too fast and including far too distorted guitar for my simple tastes, but they are accomplished enough and a few notches up from the ultra-heavy metal that is popular at the moment. Sean's playing was certainly very fast and impressive to a fellow (but much lesser) drummer like me, though I'm not sure that many in the audience would have appreciated the degree of difficulty involved.

As I watched it, it struck me that perhaps the most impressive thing about his drumming is that only last week he was playing in Bugsy Malone, he can play difficult jazz pieces brilliantly, with a really mature touch, and can also turn his hand to a completely style like progressive rock.

Missions accomplished

Well that was a pretty successful day.

I got up early to help run this year's Wiltshire Congress, a big junior chess competition at Ridgeway School. Although I have retired from the committee of Wiltshire Junior Chess and thus am excused from sitting in boring meetings, I still volunteer to help out at events.

It all started five or six years ago when I figured that while I was at tournaments in which Holly was playing, I might as well do something useful - especially as it got me out of one of the worst jobs imaginable: taking my turn serving in the canteen.

Holly doesn't play much chess these days, so today it was nice to help out at a tournament that she was actually playing in. And it was just like old times because won five out of six games and ended up being the joint under-14 champion. She actually won her game against her co-winner, but slipped up in one of the other games, against a player she normally beats.

At her age they give money as prizes, instead of cups, so she came home with 20. It was another great achievement because although she had the highest grade of the ten players in her age group, she's pretty rusty from not playing - and chess is one of those games where it helps to play regularly. It once again underlines that she has some kind of natural ability for the game and doesn't have to rely on intense study and the memorising of openings to be successful, all the time having nobody who's any good at chess in the family to help her.

I had to leave the chess early so I could spend another frustrating afternoon watching Swindon Town's unique brand of disorganised football, and then there wasn't much time before I had to load up the car for the latest leg of our band's world tour. First there was Bourton, then Gorse Hill, then Keynsham - and this fourth gig was our first in a pub: the Pilot in Melksham.

It turned out to be a very friendly, smart pub, but once again my overwhelming feeling, before it started, was "What the hell do I put myself through this for?" But I am becoming more determined to enjoy the experience and the challenge, and it all went pretty well, even if the experience of playing in a pub is different to playing in a club. Rather than providing music for dancing or at least watching, you find yourself being partly background music to some people who are only vaguely curious about what you're doing. But some people seemed to really like us, and said so. More than ever tonight, I was surprised how well songs that seem to fall apart in practice come together on the night, and just how much you can improve.

Despite not getting home and packing the drums away until 1.30am, I am already looking forward to our next gig, which will not only be closer to home but closer to Christmas.

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.