January 31, 2009


What's the last thing you want to do when you've done your back in?...

..well, ski jumping, sumo wrestling or gymnastics, obviously, but in terms of non-sporting activities, surely drumming for more than two hours, in front of a lot of people, has to be pretty high on the list of bad things to do with a bad back. But the show must go on and all that.

Our band had a slightly unexpected gig tonight - in terms of being on, then off, then on again because of the availability of Des, our bass player. Fortunately, it was at the friendly Bourton Club, the venue for our very first gig, and where we rehearse every Thursday (but this time in the bar, not the larger hall).

I felt a sharp pain in my back while lifting bags of shopping out of the car in the afternoon, followed by a major ache in my leg - exactly as happened earlier in the week, which is worrying. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the settee with a hot water bottle, wondering how I was going to be able to sit on a stool all evening, but, once sat down, I hardly felt the ache (it was worse when I stood up again).

The gig went pretty well, especially the first section where we played the songs we've been playing for a long time now, which now sound really tight. Then we made the mistake of trying to do There She Goes (The Las), which we hadn't rehearsed enough, having only tried it this week. However, two other songs, which we'd also only played this Thursday (Wishing Well by Free and Lay Down Sally by Eric Clapton), went surprisingly well.

Given the circumstances and the fact that I still have trouble trying to remember everything I need to remember, I thought I did pretty well, except the seemingly simple but devilishly difficult Rockin' All Over the World, which I played far too fast in my blind panic.

That's six gigs under our belts now, and it's still hard to believe that it's me up there doing it.

January 30, 2009

Riverdance at last

That was a first - the first time in my life that I have paid money to see a load of people dancing.

Not just any people, but Riverdance, which we travelled to see at the Bristol Hippodrome - me, Julie, Holly, Julie's Auntie Jean and Uncle Fred, and we met up with our friends Percy and Liz and some of their relations, plus my sister-in-law Sarah. Liz organised it for us, so well done to her.

We've wanted to see Riverdance for years, and as this is billed as the 'farewell tour' (though I'm not convinced that means what it says), we thought it was about time.

A major attraction is the music - and music rarely gets better than when it's pulsating traditional Irish folk - but let's not deny the appeal of all those bonny Irish lasses with their long hair and their sexy swishing short skirts and their gorgeous stockinged legs (steady boy, steady). And yes, the dancing too, an artform which usually leaves me fairly cold but which, in this form, has a certain irresistible charm. The show's not all Irish dancing as it incorporates some flamenco (which is also fascinating), American-influenced tap and even Russian-style cossack-like whizzing and whirling about. Best of all, though, is when all the Irish lads and lasses get in a long line and do their stuff.

Our seats were very high up in the upper circle of the theatre, which would have been a let-down for most other shows, but for Riverdance is possibly better than being closer to the action, because you can see the whole spectacle in one view. We also had the advantage of being perfectly placed to see the drummer/percussionist in action, which was not only impressive but also technically interesting for me.

The only disappointment was that the show is not on the same grand scale that I have seen it portrayed on TV, which often features a very wide stage. The Hippodrome, despite being a large theatre, has a fairly compact stage. It also meant that the band was small - only four people, including the drummer, which took a little of the drama out of it.

The night was made even more enjoyable because we arrived early and found an O'Neill's pub serving Irish-style bangers and mash for the incredibly reasonable price of £2.89! It set the evening off on a suitably Irish theme before we had even reached the theatre.

All in all, it was a never-to-be-forgotten night that makes you proud to be Irish*.

*I'm not really Irish, but if I was, I'd be proud.

Here are some family album-type snaps to remind us of the evening (sadly no chance of taking pictures of the actual show)...

Local history on a plate

I have acquired an interesting piece of local history.

Julie's Auntie Jean's neighbour (whom I've never met, but she knows me through my columns in the Swindon Advertiser) had a melamine sandwich dish which she got from McIlroy's in 1975, and has kindly given me.

McIlroy's was a department store that was undoubtedly Swindon's best-loved shop, and caused great upset when it closed its doors on April 30, 1998 - and the building was subsequently demolished. As well as being a lovely old-fashioned department store with a grand staircase, it used to have a ballroom upstairs in which The Beatles (no less) performed on July 17, 1962 - before they were famous and exactly 30 days before Ringo became their drummer. The Rolling Stones also performed there, in 1964 (see here).

My own memories of the shop are dominated by the Santa's grotto that used to be set up there every Christmas.

So the dish is a major addition to my small collection of items associated with Swindon's history.

More about Swindon-Beatles connections here.

Best foot forward

Holly's art homework is always something worth a look at, and her latest task was to produce an oversized model of a shoe incorporating a famous painting (in this case one in the style of Jackson Pollock).

It's all her own work.

It is pictured with an unimpressed Daisy.

January 29, 2009

Life, the Universe and Alfred Williams

It's nice to know that this blog is being read by people and visited by search engines - because I've had two lots of interesting feedback from people whom I've never met before but came here through Google.

First I got a very polite email from Rev Paul Williams whose piece in the Swindon Advertiser, a couple of weeks ago, really got my goat, and I mentioned it here. Paul is the Senior Pastor of Swindon Evangelical Church and a creationist - which means he doesn't believe in evolution - and he used the Faith on Friday column in the Adver to put his case. Nothing wrong with that, obviously - it's a free country - but I objected to him resorting to the tactic of saying his belief was "common sense", as if anybody who might think otherwise - even eminent scientists such as Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins - are, by implication, a little bit silly and even naive.

There are other aspects about creationists' arguments that puzzle me, including their liking for meaningless statistics. The fact that a frighteningly high proportion of Americans, for instance, don't believe in evolution, proves nothing - except, possibly, the power of religious indoctrination and disinformation. And focusing on the manner or the context of the arguments, rather than what people are actually arguing about, is muddying of the waters at best, and always makes me think I am in a Monty Python sketch.

Not surprisingly, however, the pastor is not an unreasonable chap, and he emailed with a friendly invitation to go along to a talk that a scientist friend of his is planning, later in the year, in which he is going to talk about evolution, creationism and presumably the conflict between them. I will probably go, if I can. It sounds like a genuine attempt to address the real debate, and I'm genuinely interested to understand why some fundamental religious people choose to deny evolution rather than integrate it into their faith, or try to reconcile the two.

In the meantime, I thought I should try to learn more about Darwin and his theories, which, when I came to think about it, I had an imperfect grasp of.

Fortunately, it's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid Darwin at the moment as we head for the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. I haven't yet caught this week's BBC Four documentary What Darwin Didn't Know, which looks interesting, but the ever excellent National Geographic, which I've subscribed to for years, duly produced not one but two articles about him in this month's issue. Under the same banner (What Darwin Didn't Know), they first told the true (outline) story of his discoveries, which showed that he had some help, and then demonstrated how modern science has been able to prove what he only theorised, thanks to gigantic advances in our understanding of genetics. And species can evolve on a much shorter timescale than he thought. In other words, most of what Darwin didn't know, he couldn't have known.

Another aspect of Darwin's work that is also brought out by National Geographic is that evolution is not just about what most people think it is. Most people know about natural selection (the survival of the fittest) - but sexual selection (think peacocks) has a big part to play too: as they put it so eloquently, it's also about the survival of the sexiest.

National Geographic also published a brilliant article in 2004 (now online here) which dealt with another lame argument that is often cited by creationists, that Darwin's theory is just that - only a theory. Well, so is Einstein's Theory of Relativity also only a theory, but try telling that to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The article explains how Darwin produced so much solid evidence that it's absolutely overwhelming.

Darwin not only had lots of evidence, but had four different ways of proving his theory - and modern science has added even more weight, not just through genetics but also through such things as our knowledge of the way bacteria and viruses re-invent themselves - which is merely evolution by another name. When you look at them closely, Darwin's theories give us such a neat and elegant answer to a very, very big question that they are every bit as beautiful, in their way, as the animals that provided him with the evidence.

The ultimate dilemma for followers of most of the world's religions is that their beliefs and their faith stand and fall on whether man is God's favourite and therefore special, but Darwin proves beyond all doubt (to me at least) that we are mere beasts, and the only reason we have risen to the top of this antheap that we call Planet Earth is that we have evolved better.

I also received an email from John Cullimore on an altogether different matter: Alfred Williams.

John has just produced a musical biography/rock opera of Williams's life, and is getting together with the Friends of Alfred Williams to produce some kind of narrative/musical event, as a way of keeping alive the memory of Alfred Williams, and getting him to a wider audience.

This is a very noble cause indeed, and one which I will definitely be supporting. I've sampled some of John's CD (here), which is in a suitably folkie style and which I'm looking forward to hearing in full.

Sadly, I am beginning to think that the only way of making Alfred Williams more accessible is to divorce him from Richard Jefferies, with whom he is seemingly always associated, and divorce is never easy.

January 26, 2009

Homework night

One of the good things about having teenage kids is that when you get to help them with their homework, it's often pretty interesting; even the maths (I'm especially looking forward to helping Holly with Venn diagrams).

Tonight she was doing my favourite historical subject, the First World War. Last week it was trench warfare, but this week it was finishing off what must have been the first topic - the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which set off the chain of events that led to the outbreak of the war (although it was only a matter of time before it broke out).

It was while Googling the assassination that I discovered that not only the car in which the Archduke (and his wife) survives, but also his uniform, and they can be seen in a museum in Vienna (must go there one day). Furthermore, I discovered a really fascinating close-up picture (see above) on a stunning website by a professional and extremely widely travelled professional photographer, Philip Douglis.

The rips in the uniform are not from the bullet, but attempts to cut it off him, to give him treatment. He was shot in the neck. He lived a few minutes, and although his last words are often quoted as "Sophie, Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children!" (or something similar), according to Wikipedia, he then murmured "It is nothing," several times, when asked about his injuries.

Interesting point: every time you read or hear the word 'motorcade', the word 'assassination' is often never far behind, except in news reports, when 'motorcade' goes with 'tight security'.

Funny how I never enjoyed homework much when I was at school.

January 25, 2009

Chess clock ticking

We popped along the M4 today as Holly was playing chess for Wiltshire's under-14s against Berkshire.

The match was at a school in Compton, north of Newbury, and while Holly played, me and Julie drove into Newbury to do some shopping (though Newbury didn't seem to be expecting us as only a few shops were open).

Holly played two games as the team's number three (out of twelve), losing her first to a particularly good player and then grinding out a draw after more than an hour and three quarters of her second game. Some of us watching (as I did from a distance) were predicting a draw up to an hour before, although I knew Holly would never offer a draw to her opponent - for the simple fact that she never has. She will always see it through to the bitter end, which I suppose is a good thing as she never gives up if there is a chance of winning. Wiltshire nearly always lose to Berkshire - and the two younger teams lost heavily today - so to get anything is good, and her team only lost by a single point in the end.

Holly has another tournament to play in for Wiltshire next month, but that may well turn out to be her last for the county as they rarely organise games for players over 14. So we are witnessing the end of an era, although she will continue to play a few tournaments as an individual.

January 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I'll tell you when you don't want to go out for a Christmas meal: at Christmas.

I realised, years ago, that the way that most restaurants repay you for choosing them at Christmas is to serve you a couple of cold, badly cooked spuds, two dried up pieces of turkey and a pile of obnoxious green things, and then add on the cost of another bottle of wine at the end, assuming you'll be too pissed or too pissed off by then to notice or complain or both. I therefore vowed I would never pay for another meal in a restaurant at Christmas; not even if I lived to be as old as Father Christmas.

Fortunately, I am not the only one who thinks the same, so our gang of friends always organise our Christmas do for January, and have never regretted it. Oddly, we always seem to end up going to places where the Christmas fayre is the same as the rest of the year anyway, so the original principle seems to have been marginalised. This year (ie for last year's Christmas) we went to the Toby Cavery in North Swindon, which is where we were tonight.

The problem with carveries is I don't like them much, on account of I don't like vegetables. If you don't count potatoes as vegetables, then the only ones I actually like with a cooked meal is/are peas (strangely, I like most salad vegetables, including some, such as beetroot, that some people wouldn't touch with a bargepole).

Most people who actually like vegetables look down on me for this as if I am something that sticks to the bottom of other people's shoes, as if liking vegetables is some great character trait that only comes out in really great people. Boy, Isaac Newton must have liked his greens. (I've noticed the same tendency in people who like their meat rare, as if this is some kind of achievement, even though I point out that a preference for cooked food is one of the main things that divides man from the beasts).

Whether you like vegetables or not is absolutely, completely, totally, entirely, utterly a genetic matter, and even if you tried to train yourself to like boiled cabbage, you'll find it's not humanly possible.

Fortunately, despite disliking greens and having a serious aversion to some - mushrooms and swede, especially, which I classify as bordering on evil - the carvery turned out to be excellent because there was a choice of potatoes cooked three different ways and, as everybody knows, there aren't many things in life that are better than potatoes.

We had a great night, including our customary exchange of gifts - maximum cost £5. And just so me and Julie didn't feel too guilty about stuffing ourselves full of food, we walked the 45 minutes home, thereby also saving ourselves a taxi fare, which can only be good.

Flashback to sticky-back plastic

You have to have been a Blue Peter fan to fully appreciate it, but Dear Blue Peter is a book that I can heartily recommend.

I put it on my Christmas list and, sure enough, it turned up in my stocking. Well, it turned out to be as quirky and nostalgic as I'd hoped, but also, at times, even quite touching.

It's simply a selection of the letters that editor Biddy Baxter and her successor(s) received from viewers, and, in a few cases, the letters they sent back. It deals with all the classic Blue Peter ingredients in turn - the presenters, the pets, the 'makes', the competitions, the appeals and Blue Peter badges. Some are just kids writing pointless letters ("Dear Val, John & Peter, On Tuesday we found six salt water shrimps in the River Forth. We're not sure, but we think one of the shrimps has had twins.")

If I have a criticism, it's only a small one - that some of the letters say the same as some of the others, but there are plenty of gems included. There are a few in which parents of kids wrote in, after the kids had died, to say how it had been a strength and an inspiration to them during their terminal illness.

The book doesn't shirk at some insulting and complaining letters, but these only serve to provide humour from people's lack of respect for such an institution ("Dear Val, I think without doubt you are the ugliest girl on television - indeed, if they put a ring through your stupid nose, they could lead you along on a rope, like that stupid cow you are.")

Me and my twin brother Brian used to adore Blue Peter, never missing it, every Monday and Thursday. But then we were lucky enough to be there for the undisputed golden age of John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves. I'm quite sad that neither Sean nor Holly took to it. They now see it as a bit nerdy, which I suppose it was/is, but it always meant well, taught me a lot and became a great institution which deservedly clocked up 50 years last year.

We'll know when civilisation as we know it is about to end, because the BBC will announce they are pulling the plug on Blue Peter. Let's hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime.

Inspired by revisiting the programme through the book, I went on YouTube to re-watch the famous baby elephant incident from the Sixties. This is, without doubt, one of the funniest things that has ever happened - and the more times you watch it, the funnier it gets.

January 21, 2009

Searching for the Tour de France

I was in a bit of a downloading frenzy tonight, so decided to renew my quest for a long-lost tune.

Years ago - it could be the Eighties, but I'm finding it more and more difficult to pin down the past - I used to religiously follow the Tour de France on Channel 4. They had excellent daily coverage, which also had the advantage of featuring one of the greatest of all sports commentators - the passionate, knowledgeable and entirely non-smart alec Phil Liggett (who also has the distinction of having a face that exactly matches his voice).

Even better was the theme music to the programme, which I later found out was written by Pete Shelley, former leader of The Buzzcocks.

Well, the music, which didn't even seem to have a name, was never available commercially, and was lost when Channel 4 stopped doing their daily coverage. A few years later, when they started doing it again, they chose a different, vastly inferior theme. So all attempts to find the original on the net - complicated by the fact that Kraftwerk produced a completely different song called Tour de France which always comes up in searches - failed. Until today.

I'd been looking in the wrong place because when I Googled it this time, it told me to look on YouTube. Sure enough, somebody has got hold of some footage from the programme - apparently cheekily lifted from a Kraftwerk video - and put a long version of Pete Shelley's music with it, interspersed with commentaries. At first I thought the commentary spoiled the music, but now I'm thinking it adds to it because it puts it into context. I always thought the music fitted perfectly the driving, dramatic and often spectacular nature of the race.

Thanks to Sean, who is more abreast of such technological advances, I have also discovered there is something called a YouTube converter, which allows you to take the soundtrack from the video and turn it into an MP3 file that you can put on your iPod. So, at long last, I have a copy of this stirring piece of music, which is one of the tunes in my all-time Top 100.

This is what the fuss is about...

January 19, 2009

King Alfred

I think it's fair to say that Swindon is not one of the world's lliterary hotspots.

Its two most famous writers, Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams, were nationally known in their day and still have their followers today - Jefferies more than Alfred - but never really made it into the first division of literature.

Both were keen naturalists who wrote about the surrounding countryside, so are often spoken of together, even though they never met (Jefferies died when Alfred was 10) and Jefferies' writing didn't greatly influence Alfred.

I have to say that the (admittedly little) I have read of Jefferies' frankly dreary and clumsy work makes me wonder how he ever made a name for himself or why he still has a small band of followers even today. But Alfred Williams is a different matter. He deserves much more recognition because he had a nice style and is also more important than Jefferies in terms of local history.

I've just finished reading a comprehensive biography of Alfred's life by Leonard Clark, first published in 1955, when he was able to interview people who had actually known Alfred (who died in 1930). I didn't realise such a detailed book about him existed until I saw it on eBay recently, and it really does paint a vivid picture of his life.

Born in 1877 in the village of South Marston, five or six miles from Swindon, he was an old-fashioned country boy who eventually followed many agricultural workers from the villages who went to Swindon to work in the town's railway factory. He walked there every day to work in the stamping shop, and became known nationally as The Hammerman Poet as he wrote poetry in his spare time.

Sadly, his poetry was written in a classical style which was already considered archaic in his day, and he also spent much of his time teaching himself Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, plus classical and religious poetry and history. Considering his limited time and money and his often poor health, this would seem to have been misguided. When he eventually tried to write a novel later, purely for financial gain, he apparently failed miserably (and admitted that Thomas Hardy had perfected the art of the country-based novel anyway).

It wasn't until he turned to prose, relating real life in the South Marston area and beyond, that he started coming up with works that have stood the test of time as they are now historical records of a lost age. He wrote four books about the lifestyle, culture and characters of villages in the north Wiltshire area, and also produced an anthology of folk song lyrics which he meticulously collected by cycling around and interviewing elderly people in the area - an heroic conservation project. These books were all written with huge affection for the area and the people living in it.

But his most significant work is probably the one that's clearly the odd one out - Life in a Railway Factory, which is a warts-and-all account of what it was like to work in the GWR factory in Swindon, where he was employed for 23 years. He couldn't publish it until after he'd left (on medical grounds), as he knew it would be badly received by the Great Western Railway.

They accused him of being too romantic in his approach to the book, and it was easy to accuse him of bias when it is compared with his upbeat books dealing with life in the villages and countryside. They said he was a country boy who was never going to be able to write objectively about urban or industrial life, and there was certainly truth in that, but that did not detract from the fact that he wrote honestly about the conditions he saw and experienced for himself. Alfred was nothing if not honest.

So, regardless of how much he detested working there, Life in a Railway Factory is now a priceless historical document, detaling what it was really like to be an industrial worker before the First World War.

More surprisingly than the GWR's reaction, the people of Swindon didn't approve of Life in a Railway Factory either, and it hardly sold any copies in the town, probably because they felt bound to be loyal to what was by far the town's biggest employer. He was more or less ostracized because of it.

From all this, you might think that Alfred would have been a staunch socialist, but he never was and, if anything, was anti-socialist. Some (including me, up to a point) would even say this was a betrayal, but Alfred would have found it difficult to reconcile the fact that he had aristocratic and rich benefactors and even the Poet Laureate as a supporter, and they effectively prevented him and his wife from starving (although they still sometimes went hungry because he was too proud to accept charity).

There is much more to the Alfred Williams story, including the time he spent in India during the First World War and how he and his wife built their cottage with stones from an abandoned canal lock, using their bare hands, and despite poor health.

He will probably be rolling in his grave at the thought, but Alfred Williams is much more likely to turn up in history lessons than English because his importance will grow as the historical worth of his writing increases with age. But - his poetry aside - he was a very readable writer and worth reading.

As for the biography, it's the only book anybody interested in Alfred Williams needs to read (apart from his own works), and it is also essential reading for anybody with an interest in Swindon/Wiltshire history. It makes me want to go back and read Life in a Railway Factory again, which I will, when I have time. For the moment I'm restricted to re-reading small parts of it, like the following description of boilermakers (of whom my grandfather was one):

In point of real usefulness and importance, the boiler-makers stand second to none at the works. Though they may not be as highly skilled as are the fitters individually, collectively they form a much more imposing and vigorous body, and one that is far more essential to the absolute needs of the firm. To whatever extent the forger or fitter may be done without, or unskilled men put in place of them, that is not possible in the case of the boilersmith. His labour, as well as being very important, is distinct from that of all others at the factory; his is an exclusive profession...

The din of the frame shed and the unearthly noise of the pneumatic apparatus on the headstocks and plates is not to be compared with the tremendous uproar of the boiler shop. Here are no less than two hundred huge boilers, either new ones being made, or old ones undergoing repairs and engaging the attention of four or five hundred boilersmiths, to say nothing of tubers and labourers hammering and battering away on the shells and interiors... The workmen swarm like ants everywhere, crawling over the tops, inside and out, in the smoke-box and fire-box, and lying on their backs underneath. Hundreds of tools are in operation at once. Hundreds of hammers are falling, banging and clanging perpetually, with an indescribable noise and confusion. If you would be heard you must shout at the top of your voice and make yourself hoarse in the attempt. The boilersmiths, who are used to the conditions, do not try to address each other at their work; they have discovered an expedient. Instead of strainiing their throats and lungs in the vain effort to make themselves heard, they simply motion with the head or hands; their mates come to know what is required and obey the telegraphic intimation, and so the work proceeds.

The future is yellow (and pink)

After the success of 'internet cakes' (see below), I have been experimenting with ingredients, to come up with new versions.

I decided that if I used milkshake powder instead of drinking chocolate (which is much sweeter and better than cocoa, incidentally), then I should get a nice banana cake. And I did.

The ingredients are:

4tbsp flour
4tbsp milkshake powder
1tbsp sweetener (or sugar)
1 egg
4tbsp milk
1tbsp oil

The method is the same as before: mix it all thoroughly in a mug and stick it in the microwave for three minutes.

I also tried it with strawberry flavour, and that was good too.

Tony Hart RIP

Sad to hear the news about artist and TV presenter Tony Hart, who died yesterday.

Vision On, which he presented with Pat Keysell, was one of the programmes from my early childhood, followed by Take Hart, and together they were obviously one of the reasons I got interested in art.

Tony Hart also designed the Blue Peter logo, which is iconic enough, but he came up with one for Vision On which I think is possibly the best logo I've ever seen. It's a perfect example of lateral thinking, quite literally.

January 17, 2009

Happy birthday Claire

My neice, Claire, celebrated her 30th birthday (which is actually in two days' time) with a party at Broome Manor Golf Club tonight, which turned out to be another happy family occasion, also featuring some of the family of Claire's partner Ian.

The pictures tell the story. The last one is one of Claire that I took in Florida in 1990.

Anglo-German relations

Also present at Claire's party was my nephew Trevor and his now fiancee, Conny. I somehow neglected to mention their engagement here, before Christmas. Conny is not only German but comes from Saltzgitter, which is Swindon's twin town, and I am trying to find out whether this is the first instance of a Swindon-Saltzgitter marriage, which would be nice.

Even nicer would be if the wedding - currently planned for September - was going to take place in Germany. But it's not, although there are plans to include some German wedding traditions into the festivities, including, apparently, plate smashing.

January 16, 2009

Roll on February

In 1992, we had a great idea ('we' being our gang of friends, made up of me, my twin brother Brian and other school friends Pete, James and Percy, who all met at Beechcroft Infants' School in 1968). Our idea was to book a weekend away in February as a mid-winter break.

At this time of year, the weather is either not as bad as anticipated or at its most interesting because it's frosty; accommodation is cheap and - best of all - it's something to look forward to, in the depths of winter.

Our first trip was simply to a B&B in the Malverns, but we soon realised it was better to hire a whole cottage, and the February weekends became a bit of a tradition, with more traditions growing out of them. Every year, for instance, we have some kind of communal quiz or game or something, and we also have tastings, where we take an item of food or drink and rate different brands, just for fun. And there's the Seven O'Clock Club, when our group's hardy hikers head out into the surrounding countryside in the morning, armed only with sturdy boots and OS maps. It's a weekend of simple friendship and activities.

We've experimented with taking over whole youth hostels instead of cottages - and these hostels were my favourite destinations - and we even once ventured to Butlin's. We've been to various places around the country, but the basic idea of a cheapish winter (long) weekend remains.

With this year's trip (to Dorset) rapidly approaching, Brian has put together a website recording all our trips. It's a nice way for us to remember annual highlights of our lives, especially as the pictures show our kids growing up. Indeed, on that very first trip in 1992, Julie was pregnant with Sean, and gave birth a month later.

Waxing lyrical

There are plenty of very good things about the internet, but I've recently decided that what I once thought was a brilliant asset - lyrics websites - are rubbish.

It's a classic case of a good idea poorly executed.

As anybody who has read this blog or spoken to me since Christmas will know, I've been captivated by the stunning Fleet Foxes album, but the words are a bit of an enigma as they're not printed on the sleeve and are sometimes difficult to decipher. So I visited a couple of websites to find out a) what the words actually are, and b) what they mean. There is actually a site that's all about the meanings of lyrics, but when I visited it, it became obvious that it was really only a forum for people to argue about what they thought the lyrics were, not what they meant, or to say dumb things like: "This song is so coooool."

It seems to me that whatever lyrics website you go to - and there are hundreds - you end up with more or less the same thing you started with: somebody's best guess at the lyrics. None of them seem to have any authority at all. In other words, they are no more likely to be accurate than my own best guess. In fact, they are probably much less accurate. I know a lot of people look down on journalism as a profession, but having been a journalist for more than 20 years, one thing that I (and all my colleagues) try to do, above all else, is to be accurate. I could write a book about other people's inaccuracies - especially women, as it happens - and people who contribute to lyrics websites are as slapdash as anybody.

Even when dealing with albums that have the lyrics printed on them, you can't be sure they are right, because the transcription is liable to be sloppy. Worst of all, it seems most sites steal lyrics from each other, so the errors multiply like weeds.

One of my favourite songs (especially for lyrics) is Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, by XTC, which has some brilliant (and brilliantly simple) imagery - but the lyrics websites can be relied upon to get them wrong. The first verse begins:

It's raining on the beach
She's inches close but out of reach

I recently checked these on lyrics sites and found an error in the second line. Then I did a Google search and found all the others had the same error. In each case they had "She inches close", even though it's obvious, if you listen to it, that the lines is: "She's inches close." That's only an apostrophe and one letter different, but it changes the meaning of the line completely and makes a nonsense of the whole point of the song.

The funny thing about lyrics is they are nearly always reproduced inaccurately. Even many 'official' lyrics, printed on album sleeves, are wrong - maybe only a word or two, but that's crucial. No other artform would be reproduced so inaccuarately. If you bought a book of poetry, you would expect every single word and punctuation mark to be right, and if you bought a book about the paintings of Van Gogh, you'd expect every colour that is reproduced to be as faithful to the original as possible. Even the plays of Shakespeare, which may have been tampered with and ad-libbed on over the last 400 years, are worthless if, when reprinted, they aren't exactly as he wrote. But anything goes with lyrics.

This is a shame became I think the art of writing lyrics is a wonderful and noble one. In the last couple of years I've tried hard to get into poetry - and failed. But everywhere I look in my CD collection there are examples of true brilliance. I reckon I know why.

Whereas stories have to have a narrative and poems are governed by strict rules and the need to get across a specific point, song lyrics are much more like snapshots of life. They are like impressionist paintings: they don't have to tell the whole story, and are actually better because they give you some of the story and make you fill in the blanks. Shakespeare does the same, and it's no coincidence that he invented more than 2,000 words. What an incredible idea: if you can't find a word that sounds just right, invent one.

The best example of this at work in lyrics is my favourite album of all: Smile, with music by Brian Wilson and lyrics by Van Dyke Parks. None of the lyrics quite make sense, but they suggest enough about the subject matter to conjure up all kinds of complex and powerful images. This isn't a bad achievement when the general subject they are dealing with is something absolutely gigantic: American history, culture and lifestyle. To make the album truly great, Brian Wilson does exactly the same thing musically, with hundreds of carefully chosen musical phrases.

Parks's lyrics, for instance, paint a vivid picture of the farming states with just two lines (in Cabin Essence), which don't quite make sense but instantly transport me to the plains of Iowa - somewhere I've never set foot and couldn't describe to you:

Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield
Over and over, the thresher and hover the wheatfield

But perhaps best of all is a song called Wonderful, which tells its story - apparently of a girl having a fling with some unnamed boy and then returning home to live the rest of her life with her religious parents - without actually having any real narrative in it. In the space of two minutes, it conveys as much meaning as a whole novel could have done:

She belongs there, left with her liberty
Never known as a non-believer
She laughs and stays in her one one one wonderful

She knew how to gather the forest when
God reached softly and moved her body
One golden locket, quite young
And loving her mother and father

Farther down, the path was a mystery
Through the recess, the chalk and numbers
A boy bumped into her one one one wonderful

All fall down and lost in the mystery
Lost it all to a non-believer
And all that's left is a girl
Who's loved by her mother and father

She'll return, in love with her liberty
Just away from her non-believer
She'll sigh and thank God for one one one wonderful

Maybe not one
Maybe you too
Are wondering
Wondering who
Wonderful you
Are wondering

I got to thinking about all this when I read, on some website or other, about the words of a song called White Winter Hymnal, by Fleet Foxes. This is another one that doesn't quite make sense, and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes admitted the lyrics are 'mostly meaningless'. In other words, they were picked because they sounded good, not because they are meant tell a story, and it's up to the listener to decide for themselves what it's all about, if anything. Fleet Foxes lyrics are mostly like this - which I think explains why they didn't print them on the sleeve. It's up to us to make of them what we will, even if we're not sure we heard them correctly.

This is the secret of great art - leaving the person experiencing it to fill in the missing details. It's why often despised modern art can be so good; why anybody who has ever read Life of Pi loves the ending, and even why the coach dangling over the edge at the end confirms The Italian Job as one of the greatest films ever made.

Sometimes, you're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.

January 11, 2009

Mamma mia! Here I go again (not)

According to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was on Radio 2, Mamma Mia! is the most successful musical film of all time, but having seen the first half an hour of it recently, on DVD, I haven't a clue why.

In fact, if I was asked to review the film from an artistic (but not commercial) point of view, I reckon I could do it in one word: pointless.

It was while thinking about the film that I realised that - as far as I can recall - I went through the whole of 2008 without once going to the cinema. What's more, I can't imagine what is going to get me there in 2009. Like the pop industry, movies now seem completely reliant on re-makes, tired formulas and the dubious appeal of undeserving celebrities - with apparently very few exceptions. If I want to watch that sort of stuff, I'll stay in and watch ITV.

I heard on Radio 4 that the American film industry is struggling desperately because it relies on borrowed money to finance films, which is obviously more difficult to come by. So this credit crunch thing isn't all bad.

As if by magic

Now you can have your cake and eat it - and in just five minutes.

Thanks to StumbleUpon, which I've recently become a fan of, I discovered a great recipe for a cake that you can make in a mug in five minutes - two minutes to mix, three minutes to microwave. It comes out a bit stodgy, but I like stodgy cakes, so I'm not complaining. In our house it's already become known as 'internet cake'.

Points to note:
1. The recipe says four spoonfuls of sugar but three is plenty.
2. You need to mix it really well and make sure no flour is stuck to the bottom of the cup.
3. It's much better than it looks.

January 8, 2009

Liddington chill

I had to go over to Liddington today so decided to stop off and get some pictures of Liddington Hill in the snow, which I've been meaning to do for a couple of days.

The only problem was: the snow had almost gone. What the media insists on calling 'The Big Freeze' - ie, it's been below zero for three or four days - has turned into a thaw. So there wasn't much snow, which rather spoiled my pictures, but at least the hill looked suitably chilly and Januaryish.

Liddington Hill is a ridge that has Liddington Castle at one end and 'Liddington Clump' at the other. The castle is not what most people would think of as being a castle as it's late Bronze Age/early Iron Age (like its neighbour, Barbury Castle), so has steep earthworks, not ramparts and battlements.

The clump is a cluster of six or seven trees on the eastern edge of the ridge, which always looks lonely but is, ironically, a welcoming sight for anybody travelling home to Swindon, west along the M4. As soon as you see it, you know you're almost home (the Arkell's sign on the side of the Carpenter's Arms at South Marston serves the same purpose for train travellers).

The hill and the surrounding countryside has been revered by Swindon's two most famous naturalist/writers, Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams, and despite the massive and rapid expansion of Swindon over the years, it is (as if defiantly) still visible from many parts of the town, including our house!

Round About a Great Estate*

I was at Liddington because I needed to visit The Liddington Hotel for work. This is the former Allied Dunbar/Zurich training centre and, apart from the hotel, the estate has an old manor house that (according to local legend) was frequently visited by King Edward VII, and has a fascinating history. There are also stables and a stud, and acres of sports pitches, including two private ones used by Swindon Town as their main training ground.

I re-met up Richard Bradshaw, who is the estates manager and an interesting bloke with an interesting job. He and his staff look after the place and do it very sympathetically to the wildlife, which includes deer, rare bats, badgers... you name it. He's also an amateur photographer, and carries his camera with him while working, so has some impressive landscape, wildlife and macro pictures, taken on the estate. Some of these have ended up on his Flickr account. But amid all this beauty, probably the most striking one in his collection is a still life of cutlery in a sink (detail right), which is strangely compelling.

*The title of a book by Richard Jefferies (see above)

January 7, 2009

Fresh Koolaid

There is a new blog in the family, my nephew Rich(ard) (brother of Stuart, author of (Not to Be Confused With) The Truth), having taken the plunge and launched Koolaid for Beginners.

Rich is a paramedic, but sadly isn't allowed to write about his job because of confidentiality and all that. On second thoughts - and no disrespects to the other three members of the Ambulance Service in the family - all that blood and gore soon gets too much for a hopelessly squeamish soul like me.

I'm much less inclined to faint from hearing about the adventures of Lennon the dog (pictured).

The art of Supertramp

Now there's a bizarre thing, as I discovered today while researching and writing a potted biography about Rick Davies.

Rick who? Well, if I said Supertramp, you'd soon know what I was on about, on account of they sold about 80 million albums (18 million of one alone, Breakfast in America). Rick, who was the founder of the band and one of its two leading lights, was born in Swindon. To be more precise, he was born at 43 Eastcott Road, Swindon, a stone's throw from the Town Hall, and lived there until he left to become a rock star.

So what? I hear you ask. Well, years ago - I think it must have been about 1980 - I did a painting on canvas of the bottom of Eastcott Road (often known as Eastcott Hill). I think I was just walking past one day and thought the way the houses slowing rose up the hill was quite interesting, and would have painted it from a photograph. It was a kind of pop art affair (eat your heart out, Andy Warhol), and I used car paint and masking tape to do the sky. It was pretty simple but I liked it and still have it. And it's one of the few colour artworks I have ever done, on account of my colourblindness.

But it wasn't until today that I realised that it features number 43 - somewhere around the middle of the picture. Of all the houses in all the towns in all the world, I had to pick one in which a world-renowned rock star was born.

You may see it on eBay soon.

January 6, 2009

Family history update

I have now uploaded details (written by my brother Brian) of my great great grandmother Bethia Hale, who was born in 1831 or 1832, to the family history pages.

Darwin was a twit: official

Next month (February 12) sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin - if not actually the greatest ever Briton, then breathing down the necks of Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare, and no mistake.

At least, I thought that until I read last Saturday's Swindon Advertiser, in which Paul Williams, pastor of Swindon Evangelical Church demolished Darwin's world-changing book, On the Origin of Species, and the work of thousands of scientists since, all in the space of 352 words.

Apparently, it was a god (he doesn't say which one, but we can guess) who created the world because - wait for it - we designed cars and aeroplanes. Because of this, he says, a god must have designed everything in nature, especially the human knee!

Everybody is entitled to his opinion, even if he has the nerve to call it 'common sense' as Rev Williams does, thereby insulting those who disagree with him by implying their lack of common sense. In other words, we're all twits for not seeing something so obvious - especially that dunce Darwin.

By the way, whenever people try to justify their belief in creationism, they nearly always cite the human eye as 'evidence' of something too complex to have evolved, as if it is the most complex of all mechanisms. It's a dead giveaway.

And the big question creationists never face up to is: if everything had to be designed, who designed God? And who designed God's designer? And shouldn't we be missing out the middle men and worshipping these superior designers instead? (See The God Delusion for a more detailed examination of this issue).

You can't read the good pastor's little piece online, which is a shame, so I've religiously typed it all out here... (well, not that religiously)

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

It is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species. It's quite a year for those who believe in evolutionary theory.

But did you know that a MORI poll was carried out two years ago for the BBC's Horizon TV series which produced some surprising results?

Less than 50 per cent of the population believe in evolutionary theory, and 44 per cent feel that the Bible's teaching on creation should be included in school science lessons.

And this is not just the view of 'Joe Public'.

Many highly respected scientists and engineers also believe in the involvement of a supernatural creator to explain life on earth.

One main reason for believing in a creator is the simple fact that all design requires and reveals a designer.

People look at the amazing details of design in nature, such as the living cell, DNA, bird flight and the human eye.

And they cannot avoid the conclusion that there must be a designer. It is an irresistible conclusion. Cars and aeroplanes have designers, and so surely, the natural world must have a designer too?

Apart from being common sense, one of the main evidences for intelligent design is the existence of so many complex mechanisms in living things that could not have evolved.

For example, think of the human knee-joint.

It is made of bones and ligaments, muscles, nerves, etc. Darwin's theory of evolution cannot explain how the knee joint could have evolved in stages. All of the parts need to be present at exactly the same time for the knee-joint to function.

Let me put it like this. Are you sitting comfortably? Did your favourite armchair evolve from an explosion in an upholstery factory?

Or was it designed with a specific purpose? If there is no creator who designed you, the chair you are sitting on has more reason for existing than you do.

Is it any wonder that the Bible says: "The fool has said in his heart 'there is no God.'" (Psalm 14v1)

January 5, 2009


News, tonight, that our (still unnamed) band have no less than six new bookings - spread over the next eight months.

Five of these are at Bourton Club, where we practise every week and performed our first gig. The other is at Wroughton Club, where we played on December 27. This is significant because all our previous booking were pretty much on spec, but these are re-bookings from people who saw us play and therefore must have liked us enough to invite us back.

So we are feeling pretty chuffed about it.

Grave news

My brother Brian has made a family history discovery while rooting around in Worton, near Devizes.

This is the village that plays a big part in our ancestry, being the origins of my father's mother's family, the Hales, as well as the Staples family who inter-married.

In Worton churchyard he discovered the grave of Bethia Hale, the grandmother of my aforementioned grandmother, Lucy Caroline Hale, and therefore my great great grandmother. She died in 1906.

Apart from my great grandfather Albert Carter's grave (from 1960), this is - perhaps surprisingly - the only known marked grave of one of my direct ancestors. All others were presumably too poor to be able to afford a stone.

I will shortly be updating the family history pages with a brief summary of what we know about Bethia and her close relatives. In the meantime, the following pictures show the grave in context, and Grange Lodge at Worton, where Bethia Hale was living in 1901 (and possibly years earlier).

The blanket on the ground

I shouldn't really like snow so much at my age, but I do.

It's my favourite kind of weather. Yes, better even then a hot summer's day. Much better.

So it was nice to wake up this morning and find we had a liberal dusting of snow. Not quite enough really - not enough to make a snowman, for instance - but enough to make everything look different and change the atmosphere completely, which is the best thing about snow: the way it transforms the ordinary.

It's not going to last long, so I got out at 7.30am and took some pictures, with mixed results - the best being of the Sikh temple (which can be enlarged by clicking on it)...

January 4, 2009

Frozen tow

For the first time, today I was involved in the towing of a car - my nephew Richard's having broken down the wrong side of Aldbourne last night, where it had to be left in the frost for collection this morning.

He had to work, so his dad (my brother Ron) went out to fetch it, and I went along to help. I got the job of steering it back as it was towed. This turned out to be much more challenging than I expected, even though we only averaged 20mph. Because the rope was only about six feet long, I had to concentrate really hard on what the towing car was doing. Added to this is the problem that you can't see far ahead, so have to position yourself more to the centre of the road, to get a better look. More than once I was glad that Ron signalled to overtake parked cars, as I hadn't seen them.

Going downhill - and we had the eight per cent Liddington Hill to negotiate - was especially tricky as you have to brake carefully, and if the rope goes slack, you end up being jerked forward. When it tightens again it causes the rope to slacken again, then you have to brake again, and you get in a bit of a vicious circle.

Worst of all was the beginning. Because the car had lost all its power, the steering and the brakes were both heavy, and I wasn't convinced that the brakes were going to work at all, so drove the first two miles with my hand on the hand brake, just in case.

Who would have thought that it would be such good fun?

January 2, 2009

On yer bike

Robbie Madison's Amazing Record Jump - Watch more Sports Videos

Those of us old enough to remember the late great Evel Knievel jumping over buses and crashing at Wembley (in 1975!) should appreciate this even more impressive effort by some loony called Robbie Maddison - but what's the most impressive, the going up or the going down?

Last rites

Woolworths has been granted a one-day stay of execution in the 200 stores still open (including Swindon), so this picture I took, today, of the Swindon branch's last day, backfired a bit. Still, it is still the last rites of a British institution.

According to the news, the delay is because they are still selling off the last stuff and making "final arrangements". Sounds like a funeral.

January 1, 2009

Out with the old, in with the new - part II

We saw in the new year at my brother Brian's house, enjoying the evening with his family, including his mother-in-law and sister/brother-in-law plus Jools Holland's Hootenanny - possibly the only New Year's Eve custom I really approve of. It was one of the very few times in my life that I haven't been at home at midnight, and it was a nice change.

There are plenty of things to look forward to in 2009 - two nephews' weddings, weekends in Dorset and Dublin, a family holiday on the Llangollen Canal... to mention just some of what I know is coming. There are some not-so-pleasant inevitabilities coming too, but I don't work for the BBC, so I'm not going to spend all of my time being pessimistic.

I hate the idea of New Year's resolutions because most people start them with no intention of keeping them up, so mine is an unofficial one. It's to write more in 2009 - both professionally and casually.

This will no doubt lead to even more babbling than usual on this blog, but who cares?

Basket case

The slow, painful and slightly sad death of Woolworths has been a preoccupation for me over the Christmas holidays as the Swindon branch sells off stock cheap and - much more interesting to incurable hoarders and sentimentalists - fixtures and fittings.

I walked to town to see what was on offer. While I was there, I bumped into my brother Brian (another scavenger), plus an Adver photographer. He was there on a genuine news mission to record the last days of the Swindon shop, which is 70 or 80 years old, but was told by the management to leave the building.

This sort of summed up the problem of the shop for me - the management. People who have an instinctive but unthinking mistrust of the local press - which often bends over backwards to be positive and print good news - should never be trusted. The paper has run plenty of happy reminiscences about Woolworths since it became clear it was going under - including one I wrote - so there was no need to be so bloodyminded.

Having said that, if I was a current Woolworths manager, I would be touchy about what people were saying about me (the bastards).

It has proved very difficult to get hold of any souvenirs with Woolworths written on it, but it was obvious that today would be the day when they would start selling off shopping baskets. I wanted to be the proud owner of a genuine Woolworths basket that I could one day show my grandchildren, but as they were only £1 each and also have 1001 uses in the home and garage (shopping baskets, not grandchildren), I bought ten.

Well, you'd be mad not to.

Feeling foxy

At the last count, I had more than 2,300 songs on my iPod (I still haven't uploaded all my CDs) but there is only one thing being played on it at the moment - the stunning (and I choose the word carefully) Fleet Foxes album.

One review of it called it "an instant classic", and I can't remember hearing anything and so quickly elevating it to the status of the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and The Beach Boys. But this one is definitely up there.

The more I listen to it, the more goosepimples it gives me.

Out with the old, in with the new - part I

A new year and time for a new look...

This blog is two years old today, and I thought it was time the beast was given a name. All the best ones do, I've noticed (see (not to be confused with) The Truth and Hidden Swindon).

But what to call it? I wanted to retain the picture of the foghorn that has been part of the blog from the beginning - a truly weird and fascinating building I saw on the Isle of Man in 2005. So, on and off, I toyed with the idea of calling it The Foghorn. But that's a bit boring and predictable, so, in the end - and against the advice of my family - I decided to call it the Foghorn Bloghorn instead - just because the rhyme of 'fog' and 'blog' seemed irresistible.

It is also reminiscent of Foghorn Leghorn (pictured) - one of the characters from the Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes 'stable' whom I always liked and whom I always thought was underrated (I'm always a sucker for underdogs, especially when they are chickens). And nobody else would have come up with the name before, would they?

Wrong! When I googled it, I found that somebody else had already thought of it for their blog. This is proof that there's nothing new under the sun, but since the other Foghorn Bloghorn is a blog by an American woman that is entirely political in its outlook, there is no danger of the two getting confused. So I'm sticking with it, with apologies to her.

I'm also having a kind of 'picture of the day' affair at the top of the page - partly to brighten it up and partly as a showcase for interesting stuff I come across, including while sifting through the archive of the zillions of pictures I have taken myself, over the years, and especially the arty ones.

In the meantime, I have at last created my own Flickr account - mainly as a depository for the said arty pictures.

And in this way The Foghorn Bloghorn was born.