February 20-22, 2009

Chess, chess and more chess

We're all chessed out again after our annual labour of love - helping to organise the two-day Wilts and West of England chess tournament at New College, Swindon.

Easily the best organised tournament in the junior chess calendar - which I say without any trace of bias but lots of experience of some shabbily organised events - it also attracts by far the strongest entry of players outside the London or British Championships (being an open tournament as well as the county/regional championship). In fact, it's now so prestigious that all but one of last summer's British Champions were there - ie, all age groups, boys and girls. And as well as quality there was also quantity - more than 300 kids, making it a record entry.

As ever, the tournament was opened by the Mayor of Swindon.

All this is a headache for us poor sods who have to organise getting about a dozen rooms and a theatre re-arranged and ready for chess, and making sure all the necessary equipment is there - tables, chairs, sets, boards, clocks and other paraphernalia.

We spend four or five hours of hard labour, getting it ready on the Friday evening, various hours during the weekend making sure everything is running smoothly, then another four hours taking it all down, putting classrooms back together and loading everything in the car. Then it sits in our living room for another week or two, awaiting storage (the photo, below, shows about a third of it).

Such is the attitude of some people, however, that there are always some complaints, including the snotty lady who thought that it was "ridiculous" that the beginners' section started late, even though we were swamped by entries, including two or three who entered literally a few minutes before the start. Thankfully, that sort of person is surprisingly untypical of chess people.

In the meantime, Holly was playing in the tournament and actually came home with a small trophy and a cheque for £10 for being the best girl in her section. This wasn't as hard as it might seem as she was the only girl in her section, so is the Wilts and West of England Champion by virtue of turning up. Actually, she didn't do so well by her standards, winning only two games out of six. As she rarely has time for chess these days, even two points is still an achievement as she is at an age when the natural talent she has for the game is not enough because most of the other players of her age who are still playing are in tournaments most weekends and seem to spend most of the rest of their time studying the game. They even do this in-between games, when Holly is off chatting to her friends.

With Holly's chess career petering out, then, we can now reflect on what she has achieved - which is a lot. She was unlucky that she came along when there were one or two very strong players in Wiltshire - all with older brothers who played, which is a massive advantage. If she had been born a couple of years later, she probably would have been county champion rather than just the girls' champion.

However, she has been in the top ten girls in the country for her age; has captained the Wiltshire Under-14 team; qualified for every national final of the UK Chess Challenge that she has entered (and three times did well enough to make it through to that competition's grand finals which featured those who scored very highly at the national final); was twice in teams that won a National Girls' Team title; and was picked to represent the South of England girls in three annual matches against the North.

She is still going to play, very occasionally, but I am hoping to persuade her to get more involved in helping to run chess tournaments and coach kids - starting with a Scouts and Cubs tournament next weekend. Being a teenager, though, she can't even begin to imagine that there could ever be any point or any benefit for her from getting involved in anything like that.

February 13-16, 2009

Dewlish 2009

No sooner did it arrive than it was gone - a sure sign that the latest of our annual February trips was a huge success, and I think all 14 attending enjoyed it. For a start, the weather was glorious, as so often is the case when we go away in February.

This year - our 17th annual trip - was to a luxurious cottage at Dewlish (not to be confused with Dawlish), a tiny Dorset hamlet in the middle of some pretty interesting places. It's only three miles from Tolpuddle, although as we'd been there before, we didn't go back.

It's the activities we get up to during the weekend that give it its special character - visiting the local pub (The Oak at Dewlish); the Seven O'Clock Club (walking at 7am); special communal meals (a Valentine's Day feast, served up by Pete and the kids); a tasting (this year, sausages); watching an hilarious DVD of Tim Vine; rewatching the Tim Vine DVD because it was so funny; a clever visual quiz devised by Brian; watching James's unnatural interest in firelighting to make sure it doesn't develop into arson.

The most energetic thing we did was a long walk. This was about seven miles, virtually around the whole coast of Portland, which included stunning views over Chesil Beach and the venue for the 2012 Olympics sailing. Along the route we were invited inside the Portland Bill watchtower, manned by the National Coastwatch Institution (a kind of voluntary Coastguard), which included the biggest pair of binoculars in Christendom. Then it was on to the Portland Bill lighthouse. Other interesting things to look at included a large borstal, a prison and, of course, what Portland is most famous for - quarries.

Another trip took in the strange planned village of Milton Abbas and the naughty Cerne Abbas Giant, where your eyes are always strangely brought back to his most famous attribute. On the way home we also called in at Dorchester, where, despite howls of protest, I was granted limited permission to visit certain sites that influenced Thomas Hardy, especially when he was writing a particular favourite book of mine, The Mayor of Casterbridge (Casterbridge being Dorchester).

These were the Corn Exchange (Town Hall), the Kings Arms Hotel (which is mentioned by name and described according to its actual architecture and layout), Henchard's house (actually Barclay's Bank) and the Neolithic earthwork Maumbury Rings which, as The Ring, has three key scenes in the book.

The pictures below are a small selection. There are plenty more on my Flickr account.

February 8, 2009

Hot and cold panoramas

I've added two new panoramas to the site - a view of the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, from our holiday, last July, and a wintry scene from last Friday at The Lawns, Swindon. They are featured on the reconstructed Arty page.

February 7, 2009

Getting the Elbow

I think we can now proclaim the popular music industry in the Western World officially born again.

I know we're still stuck with rap, Ronan Keating and all the assorted dross that get washed up by The X-Factor, but there are signs that good, honest artists who make music for grown-ups are not bashing their heads against brick walls after all.

Since Christmas I have marvelled at the brilliance of Fleet Foxes, can feel an admiration for Seasick Steve coming on, and my inclings that a band called Elbow were much better than their silly name has also proved correct.

I first heard them on Radio 2 in the car, singing a clever, witty and catchy song about horseracing corruption called The Fix (which features guest vocalist Richard Hawley). On the strength of this song alone, I decided to find out more about them - and discovered something that everybody else already knew about them: that they had won the Mercury Prize for their album, The Seldom Seen Kid.

So when I saw the album for sale for just £5, I snapped it up. I have to say that my heart sank when I first put it on my iPod. Lead singer Guy Garvey's Mancunian drawl instantly made me think of The Smiths, although, to be honest, I couldn't tell you much about what The Smiths sound like on account of every time I've heard them my self-protective instincts take over and I rush from the room with my hands over my ears.

Some of Elbow's lyrics are not completely convincing, either (I know a man who grows his very own brambles and I'm working on a cocktail called grounds for divorce). But having said that now, I've run out of bad things to say about them.

Some of the songs are as beautiful as they are clever - The Bones of You, Mirrorball, The Fix, One Day Like This... They just keep coming and coming - and even when you've filled yourself up with the sheer quality of the album, there's more pleasure to be had from listening to Elbow.

What's really nice about them is they aren't new at all, but have been around since 1990, and it's only now that they've suddenly hit massive success after giving up trying to write hits, deciding, instead, to write songs they'd like to hear. And they're British. And Guy Garvey, who writes the lyrics - many much better than the examples above - is such a genuine guy, as I discovered from watching some interviews on YouTube. And they're really enjoying their success. And they're always at pains to point out that the album is dedicated to a friend of the band who died during its making.

A really nice album from a proper band.

February 6, 2009


You know how it is - you go round somebody's house to pick something up, and four hours later you're still talking.

Along with my brother Brian, we visited Mark Sutton who, in yesterday's blog I did the disservice of calling "the foremost authority on the First World War in Swindon". He's much more than that because not only does he know so much about the tactics and technicalities of the war, but understands the human aspects too, so we had a truly fascinating evening.

I have always been impressed with Mark's book, Tell Them of Us, a labour of love that tried to trace all the men with Swindon connections who fought in the war. But even that will be dwarfed by the updated version, which will include some details - in some cases much detail - about more than 6,000 men with Swindon connections who fought in the war. No other town in Britain is being researched in this way, and because it's a microcosm of the rest of the country, it's no exaggeration to say that it will be a major work when it's finished.

Although we ended up seeing Mark's impressive collection of medals with Swindon connections, documents, pictures and things he had picked up on the battlefields (an fragment of exploded shell, a rifle, a tunic button and a duck board from the bottom of a trench), our main aim was to find out more about our ancestor, Jabez Staples, who was killed in September 1918.

Mark gave us a picture of Jabez's grave which he had taken on one of his many trips to the battlefields (he never walks past one with a Swindon connection), and showed us the edition of a railway news magazine that explained why he received the Military Medal and also included the mugshot (above). We are trying to piece together as much as possible of Jabez's story, which I will write up soon.

The family wedding picture that he also features on (which we were given recently by Glenys Staples, a distant relation, still living in Upper Stratton), is below. We were told that he was the one on the far right of the back row - and this new picture confirms that. We are pretty sure that that's his parents in front of him.

The more I hear about Jabez, the more pleased I am that his story is coming to light. As my paternal grandmother's cousin, he's slightly off the main line of descent, but then he never had any descendants himself, having been killed when he was only 20.

You can never have enough snow pictures

Despite taking more than 200 snow pictures this morning, I still couldn't resist getting out and capturing the snowy sunset over Pinehurst.

OK, so it's not Niagara Falls or the Great Wall of China, but those colours... Being colourblind, I have no idea what they are, but they're pretty dramatic. In a lot of the pictures I take, I enhance the colour to make up for the fact that I only have a cheap camera, but this time I didn't change the colours at all.

More snow

We had plenty more snow overnight - enough to half bury yesterday's snowmen. I had to deliver a CD to Old Town and because it would have been madness to try to take the car, I walked there and back, and spent nearly a couple of hours around The Lawns and the Town Gardens, proving that it's not as easy to get good snow pictures as you might think.

February 5, 2009

Real-life hero

Last October, my brother Brian discovered, through his family history researches, that we had an ancestor who was killed in the First World War. As I have a particular interest in the war and have visited the battlefields in Belgium and France, this was interesting news - but only half the story, as I discovered today.

We already knew that Jabez (pronounced 'Jaybus') Staples was my paternal grandmother's cousin and died at or near Anneux, France, on September 29, 1918, aged 20. Sadly, this was just eight days after he was awarded the Military Medal. And we'd found out a little more about Jabez since the initial discovery - which I've neglected to record here - but if we needed an incentive to redouble our efforts and find out more, it came in a phone call today from Mark Sutton.

I met Mark in 2006 (I think), when I attended a talk he was giving about a book he had published called Tell Them Of Us. Since 2003 he has taken it upon himself to trace as much information as possible about the men from Swindon who fought in the First World War, and the book was the result of this researches up until then. It's a massive project and one that I think he deserves a lot of credit for, especially as his only motivation is to honour the people who died in the war. It's probably a never ending project and, since publishing the book, he has been inundated with information from people from all over the world.

I'd mentioned Jabez's story in my column in the Swindon Advertiser, and this prompted Mark to do some research on my behalf, unbeknown to me - and he phoned me to tell me what he'd found out, which I think is pretty exciting.

He has traced a photo of Jabez. Actually, we've unearthed one too, through the widow of a common descendant. He appears in a wedding picture which was probably taken shortly before he signed up, but Mark's new picture is a head and shoulders (what newspaper people always call a mugshot) which is of Jabez in uniform.

This alone is excellent news, but Mark has also found out something that we'd drawn a blank on - the reason Jabez was given the Military Medal. It turns out - wait for this - that he knocked out a German machinegun post. And that's not all. Mark, who is certainly the foremost authority on the First World War in Swindon and knows what he's talking about, said that if that had been witnessed by two officers, he almost certainly would have received the Victoria Cross for it. By rights, he should have been given the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), not the Military Medal, because the DCM is considered a "near miss for the VC". But they stopped giving them out in the latter stages of the war - not because they hadn't been earned, but because they came with a pension.

Anybody who spent more than three seconds in a trench on the Western Front and didn't go instantly mad never fails to inspire awe in me*, so I can't say how proud I am to be in the same family tree as somebody who probably missed out on a VC or at least a DCM on a technicality.

I can't wait for tomorrow when I've arranged to visit Mark to pick up copies of the documentation and get all the details.

*Everybody knows about the stresses and strains that all First World War soldiers were put through, but for me this is always best exemplified by Robert Graves who wrote about his experiences in the trenches in his book called Goodbye To All That. The first body that Graves saw in the trenches belonged to a soldier who had shot himself. And so was the last one.

Now that's what you call a proper snowfall

The snow we had been promised started at about 9.45pm last night, and although it turned out to be less than expected - about 7-8cm, I would guess - this meant that all the local schools and colleges were shut. This is obviously doubly great news for kids - a day off school and snow to play with - and before 8am a beaming Holly had invited two of her friends (Rachael and Amber) to come round. When we were kids we hardly ever got decent snowfalls, and even then we nearly always had to go to school.

I had some work to finish at home and send off first thing, but once that was done I had time for a two-hour walk through Upper Stratton (stopping off to take a picture of my favourite tree* in St Philip's Road) to Kingsdown (where I took a picture of my favourite road sign**), on to Stratton Wood, and then back. There were about a dozen snowmen in various states of construction and destruction on Meadowcroft Rec, and some teenagers were trying to build an igloo. I passed one house where some kids had built a whole family of snowmen, which was nice (but try taking pictures of that and you are liable to get arrested).

I also saw plenty of people wasting energy by clearing their paths and drives. I've never been able to work out why anybody would do this. It'll soon thaw, and until it does, surely it's no big deal to have to walk or drive on snow, unless you live on a slope. It's not only pointless but dangerous, because it might freeze over again if it's left wet, whereas nobody slips on deep snow. Some people's brains seem to be programmed to grab a shovel at the first sign of snow, as if somebody will die or they'll be cut off from the outside world if they don't. The are probably all at Asda as I write, panic-buying food and toilet rolls.

*I suppose you have to be pretty sad to have a favourite tree, but this one always fascinates me, and it looks fantastic in the summer.

**There is virtually no hope for people who have favourite road signs.

One downside of the snow is that a planned night at Swindon Arts Centre watching The Strawbs has been postponed.

February 3, 2009

More good news on the transplant front

What with two of my older brothers having had major transplants (a heart and bone marrow) in the last two and a half years, there was a touch of deja-vu tonight as we went to a talk by Richard Lane OBE, who told us about his transplant.

In 2004 he was the first person in Britain to have a transplant of insulin-making islet cells, which means that although he is a type 1 diabetic, he no longer needs insulin injections. Actually, he needed three transplants to get the required 1.25 million cells, which couldn't be transplanted all at once.

The talk was organised by the Swindon branch of Diabetes UK. We've never been involved with the charity before, mainly because Holly (who was diagnosed as type 1 nearly two years ago now) has always been able to keep her diabetes under control and she's always received excellent healthcare. Richard agreed to have the pioneering (and therefore risky) transplant because he couldn't get his diabetes under control since diagnosis in 1976. He told us the fascinating and captivating story of his life, and was the kind of speaker whom I could have listened to for hours.

Holly couldn't come because she had a lot of homework to do, but she would have been inspired by Richard, who - although we didn't realise it before we went along - has recently been appointed President of Diabetes UK.

As well as talking about his transplant and the implications for future treatment of diabetes, including the role that stem cell treatments will have, he talked about other aspects, including using an automatic insulin pump, which he said works very well. And he said one of the things he would be championing was getting this offered to more children. After all the success of his transplant, it turns out that he still uses the insulin pump himself because it helps to regenerate the islet cells (which may not be necessary in future), so was able to show us his.

We made a point of speaking to him personally afterwards, and he said if Holly's blood sugar levels are under control, then it's best to stick with injections, but to raise the issue of using a pump if the situation changed. This can be a 'postcode lottery', he said, because of cost, and told us to contact him personally if we ran into opposition. He even gave us his card.

It was an inspiring and enlightening evening, if fairly frightening because his diabetes was almost out of control before the transplant, and otherwise he probably wouldn't be around now. But it was ultimately uplifting because much of what was said confirmed what we've always told Holly - that recent advances in medical science mean that diabetes is quite near the top of the list of serious illnesses due to be beaten, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Not so cheerful was the story of one of the false alarms that Richard experienced while waiting for his transplants. The cells have to be removed from a dead donor, so the transplant is subject to all the same ethics, procedures and personal choices that, say, a heart transplant is, and only goes ahead after certain tests.

In one case his transplant was cancelled because the donor was found to be suffering from an (undisclosed) serious illness, another donor was found to be diabetic herself (but hadn't known it) and the third was stopped after the parents of the donor over-ruled the wishes of their daughter. This was even though the person in the bed next to Richard was waiting to receive one of her kidneys in what would have been a life-saving transplant.

It's difficult to find the words to follow that, except here's another reminder of how to register to donate your organs.

Making tracks

I don't know whether I feel like Ray Mears or Sherlock Holmes after an interesting sequel to yesterday's discovery of a mystery beaten track in our back garden (see below).

When I went out, this morning, to see if there were any tracks in the snow which fell during yesterday - sure enough, there were some, right along the beaten track.

I followed them up the garden only a few yards, where they took a sharp turn, across some bags of tree bark chips and through a hole under the fence, into nextdoor's garden.

Well, the size of the hole was small enough for me to think that we had a badger (it seemed like there was just one), so I went round outside the back of the garden, to see if I could trace any more tracks. Eventually, using my Mears-like tracking skills and my Holmes-like powers of deduction, I traced them to the gates of the allotment, where two separate tracks went under some gates.

As this was also pretty low, a badger still seemed most likely, especially as it seemed more logical to me that badgers would be creatures of habit and follow the same route every night, whereas I thought foxes might roam more randomly.

But when I got back in and got on the net, this drawing of foxes' tracks seemed to put it beyond reasonable doubt that it sadly wasn't a badger (which has a much different footprint) but a fox. It's still nice to have a fox around, but not as exciting as a badger, obviously.

Dogs' and foxes' tracks are almost identical and the differences would be impossible to distinguish in the snow, but it's impossible that there is a stray dog following the same route repeatedly, rather than a fox. Unless it's the Hound of Baskervilles.

February 2, 2009

Snow, damn you, snow!

I'm feeling a bit hard done by tonight because although we had the second separate snowfall of the year today, it was nowhere near on the scale that some other parts of the country got.

I had planned to get up early and trek into town to get some wintry pictures of nice places like the Town Gardens, but it didn't even start snowing until it was nearly light, then only gave us a dusting rather than a blanket.

Still, it did lead me to an interesting discovery from this view of our back garden...

That white line, just to the left of the washing line pole, is not of our making. I hadn't noticed it under normal weather conditions, but the snow suggests it is a path, worn down over a period of time by some animal. It's a bit like the crop marks that show up in the summer on Time Team.

Because we have a small grassed area (a former playground) and then extensive allotments behind our house, it's quite likely that some wildlife is coming from there, and my guess - probably just wishful thinking - is that it might just be an urban badger, which would be fantastic. I'm going to check to see if there are any pawprints tomorrow.

Sadly, there is only one other snow picture...