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March 29, 2009

Here beginneth the first lesson


I gave Sean his first driving lesson today - the first time I have ever taught anybody to drive.

Mention to anybody that you are teaching your son to drive and you will inevitably be regaled with stories of other disastrous attempts to teach offspring to drive. Even Julie's father, who was the most reasonable, patient man you could ever wish to meet, refused to carry on with Julie's lessons after one Sunday afternoon bust-up in the car. So I'm determined not to fall into that trap, and the first lesson was suitably relaxed - and even enjoyable.

In the hour before dusk we headed for the nearest trading estate and found the quietest road, where we practised clutch control. Sean got the hang of it quite quickly - perhaps as the result of being a skilled drummer, because the delicate foot control and co-ordination necessary for drumming is not unlike driving. If you can play paradiddles with your feet, it should be a doddle to do hill starts.

I reckon I'm going to be a good instructor because I can still vividly remember trying to learn myself - first with my oldest brother, Ron, then with professional lessons, then (having failed my first test) with Julie sitting next to me while I drove around town. I've always tried to keep the good habits I was taught, which is why I think I'm a pretty good driver. It also helps that I don't enjoy driving much, so try to get more out of it by trying to make it a job well done when I'm driving myself, and I can sympathesize with somebody who is trying to learn.

I realise that the pressure and the potential conflict will increase when Sean gets out on the open road, but it's so far, so good. It has to be - having him on the insurance cost £1,000 a year, so we'd better get our money's worth.

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March 27, 2009

Come in Alfred - your time is up

If I believed in such things, I could convince myself that Alfred Williams has been looking down on me, most of this year.

As I've reported here before, I've made contact with John Cullimore, who shares my appreciation of Alfred, and has produced a nice musical CD as a tribute to his life. We both feel that Alfred is yet to have his day, and together we are hatching a plan to organise some kind of event to get more people interested in him, 79 years after his death. This is likely to take place at Swindon's Steam Museum - either in late autumn or next year.

I wrote features about John which appeared in the Adver and SwindonWeb, and it's helped to bring some Alfred-related things out of the woodwork, including a recording of a Radio 3 programme from 1981, all about him. It's very good, and even featured Timothy West as the voice of Alfred - and we're thinking that it would make a good basis for our event, which will also have some of John's music interspersed, which really lends itself to the format.

Neither of us have put together anything like this before, so it's a bit daunting, but exciting. I've always felt that Alfred was seriously under-rated, and having gone through some old archives of cuttings about him, it's clear that a few people have felt the same, have tried to raise his profile - and failed.

Whatever the world finally decides about Alfred, he must have been on to something because there has been no shortage of people who have felt compelled to try to get him some of the recognition he deserves - and we can't all be wrong.


Leg Logo Log

Sifting through the archives of the thousands of photographs I have taken over the years, I came across a set of pictures I took on a week's holiday in the Isle of Man in 2005 (which was also the source of the forhorn at the top of this page).

These are examples of the Triskelion which is the island's trademark. They kept on popping up in all kinds of places, so I took pictures of some of them. I wasn't sure why, but it makes a (fairly) interesting slideshow, which is now on my Flickr account.

Thinking about it, it's one of Britain's most successful logos, but makes a nonsense of the usual rules that are supposed to apply to logos, especially the way that owners of some logos jealously defend theirs. The Triskelion turns up in various forms, some of them amateurishly drawn, and it isn't even consistent because the legs are sometimes running clockwise and sometimes anti-clockwise. Worst of all, it's three quarters towards being a swastika! You have to admire the Manx people for being proud enough of their origins to want to plaster Triskelions everywhere.

I'll probably never go back to the Isle of Man, for the simple reason that - if you're not into motorbikes - it provides exactly enough interest to fill a week's holiday, and we've already been there, done that and got the T-shirt Triskelions.


Cute cats

I promised myself that I would refrain from putting cute cat pictures on this blog. I mean, it's so naff, isn't it?

Then again, it's not very often that you see both of our cuties enjoying the same thing together, so sod it...


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March 21, 2009

Result just in


And then two come along at once.


Great calculators of the world

It should be no surprise that somebody who has already confessed to being sad enough to have a favourite typeface and a favourite road sign should also have a favourite calculator.

Me and my twin brother Brian received it as a Christmas present, at least 35 years ago. Not only was it our main present of the year, but it it was shared. In other words, my main Christmas present was half a calculator.

I'm glad to say that Brian has kept it all these years, and I was recently reunited with it.

It seems impossible that a calculator which I could now replace for no more than £1 - and probably less - should be considered such a desirable item, but it was one of the first available commercially, and it cost £17.50, which was a lot of money then.

It's the size of a Filofax, was made in Japan, uses four batteries, and although it only displays six digits, you get to see up to another six by pressing a button - so it is a 12-digit calculator. There hasn't been a single instance in my entire life when I have needed 12 digits, but it's nice to know that should the need ever arise for ridiculously large, small or accurate numbers, I have the capacity.

It still works and - here's the saddest bit of all - I can still remember the first calculation I did on it. In the days leading up to Christmas, I used to fantasize about using it, and I decided that when the wrapping paper was off, I would find out what 789 squared was.

It wasn't the first calculator I used - the first being a kind of console that my brother-in-law and/or his workmates put together, with a display using neon-type numbers instead of LEDs. That was amazing, and if I could get my hands on it now, the naming of my favourite calculator would be much more difficult.

But as it stands there's no contest, although I am also fond of my next favourite - this time chosen for aesthetic not sentimental reasons. It's a 1990s Smarties promotional one, which was a gift to either Sean or Holly or both. I just love the design of it - and it still works.

Who ever thought calculators could be so fascinating?



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March 20, 2009

Home from home

When you start a blog, you aren't quite sure what you should and shouldn't include. Some people might fill it with news of nothing more than their hobby. That's fair enough.

But this blog tries to be a bit more than that, and although it's not going to include everything about me, I suppose it should feature significant milestones in my life as well as the trivial and day-to-day. After all, it's got to have some credibility in case I or anybody else reads it in the future.

Today was the day that my mum, who has been in hospital for nearly five months, was finally discharged. But going home would have meant living on her own, supported by an inevitably inadequate package of care in the community, and a life as lonely as it would be unsafe. So this afternoon we drove her from the hospital to a care home.

Of all the words in the English language, 'care' and 'home' are surely among the best, but put them next to each other and suddenly they are liable to create fear and loathing. This is especially true of my mum's generation, who might still think of care homes in terms of being akin to a workhouse or an asylum.

My experience of care homes may still be limited, but my early impressions are that they do care and they are homely. Which is more than we could have hoped for in the circumstances.


Light relief


Maybe it's because I'm a twin myself, but this made me smile, although it would have been better if these two twins had looked a little more alike. (From http://dorazsays.wordpress.com)


Panoramarama

Two more old 'panoramas' - of Yarmouth Stadium and Anne Frank's house - have found their way to the Arty page.

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March 18, 2009

Stay out of the water

A little known fact about me is I can't swim.

The opportunity to learn never really presented itself at school, and the older you get, the less likely you are inclined to learn. I can't say I enjoy being in water very much, and I certainly don't enjoy the palaver of getting ready to go into a pool and getting out of it. It seems like a lot of effort for a very small amount of fun in the middle, before the novelty wears off.

In the end, I decided there was no point in learning to swim unless you're going to do it for pleasure or you've landed a job as a trawlerman (and even then it probably wouldn't help), and the thing that finally convinced me was the discovery that the vast majority of people who drown are swimmers (us non-swimmers are wise enough not to go near the stuff). Apart from drowning, there are even more reasons not to go in the sea than a pool - most of them either sharp or slimy.

In complete contrast, my friend Steve Hall, who lives in Sydney and is old enough to know better, competes in Ocean Swims, which have the advantage of taking place at locations such as Bondi Beach and Sydney Harbour; but plenty more disadvantages, including the danger of death through sharks, jellyfish, currents, rips and all kinds of other things that I don't understand, on account of I do not have any gills on my person.

Anyway, I sent him an email breaking the various dangers to him, which he has copied to a blog and which I duly reproduce here. It's a bit of fun but ironic because it is essentially TRUE...

Dear Steve,

I am a bit concerned that nobody has taken the trouble to explain to you the risks involved in swimming. So - assuming you are still alive to read this - I have compiled a list of things that, if known to be present in the water, or even if there is the teensy-weensiest possibility of them being within 10km of you, YOU MUST NOT SWIM.

Jellyfish
Sharks
Crocodiles
Alligators
Things with claws
Things with teeth
Slimy things, especially leeches
Octopuses
Squids
Anything with gills
Any other animal that swims around in the hope of killing or maiming anything that comes near it
People wearing funny rubber hats
Jet skis
Jet skiers (even if they're not jet skiing)
Surf boards
Body boards
Boogie boards
Sideboards
Oil tankers
Container ships
Cruise liners
Large ferries
Small ferries
Trawlers and other fishing vessels
Whales
Whalers
People from Wales
Boats with outboard motors
Boats with oars
Boats
Severed limbs and other assorted body parts
Assorted bodily fluids issued by any of the animals above, especially people wearing funny rubber hats
Discarded tampons, condoms, plasters and any other personal/medical equipment
Food that floats
Flotsam
Jetsam
Photographers trying to photograph you when you are fighting off jellyfish
Jagged rocks
Smooth rocks
Swelts
Tides
Rips
Currents
Whirlpools
Weirs
Waves

and, now I come to think of it: water.

Hope this helps.

Elvis back to fighting weight


I should have mentioned this before because he's one of the family and has featured in this blog several times, but Elvis's health problems have been sorted out.

On his last visit to the vet, two or three weeks ago, he was back up to an acceptable weight - still a bit boney but nothing like the bag of bones he had become before his many and expensive string of visits to the vet's. And he is still at least maintaining his weight, if not putting more on. His problem - which the vet suspected from the outset but had to rule out all kind of very nasty things - has been inflammatory bowel disease (not to be confused with the irritable version).

Unfortunately, nothing has helped his brain, and it has to be said he's not the brightest cat in the world - which is one of many reasons why we love him so much.

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March 17, 2009

Result just in


You don't see that very often.
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March 15, 2009

It was forty years ago today...

It doesn't seem possible, but it was exactly FOUR DECADES ago today that I saw my first professional football match.

And it was no ordinary match, either, but the 1969 League Cup final at Wembley, when Swindon Town beat Arsenal 3-1 - surely the greatest day in the club's history, although the 1993 play-off final, also at Wembley (4-3 v Leicester) comes close.

I was only seven, so my memory of the day is cloudy and, bizarrely, in black-and-white. This is because the subsequent highlights on ITV the next day - when Brian Moore famously said "That is that" as Don Rogers scored his second and Town's third goal - were in black-and-white.

The film of the final (above) features Julie's late dad (circled), whose seat was close to the royal box. He can be seen patting the players on the back as they climb the famous steps before getting the trophy. Her Uncle Gord is also somewhere in the picture, though it's harder to say which one he is.

I most remember worrying about losing my red-and-white bobble hat during the match, which got knocked off in the jubilation of Roger Smart's opening goal, and I was worried about losing it altogether if we scored again. I also remember looking up to the scoreboard in the roof - then literally boards with numbers that had to be changed by men who, for some reason, wore white coats.

Because I was so small and therefore couldn't see much in front, and because we stood high up on the terracing, behind the goal, the stadium seemed vast. As if this wasn't bad enough, the terracing curved behind each goal, so supporters at the end of the stadium were a long way from the goal. Even taking these factors into account, my memory of it is a bit surreal because the pitch seems much further away than it actually was.

Also, because I was so young, and because I hadn't been to a match before, I didn't properly understand what was going on.

But even I could sense the amazing atmosphere, which lived up to the build-up, so the hereditary football bug I was prone to being bitten by got me, good and proper. It condemned me to a life of supporting a lower league hometown club, with all the stress and frustrations that comes with it, which has been especially painful this season, watching a team which can only be described as dismal.

Several souvenirs of the day have either survived or been bought from eBay over the years, but an original, now somewhat battered but simple reminder of it is this keyring, which was actually produced and bought before the match, if I remember correctly, like many souvenirs, because nobody really expected Town to win.

Quite apart from the nostalgia associated with today, it's scary to think that 40 years is one hell of a long time, and it's almost impossible to conceive where all those years went.


Seasick Steve on the crest of a wave

It's difficult not to like anybody who brings out an album and calls it I Started Out With Nothin' and I Still Got Most of It Left, but having finally bought his latest album - after enjoying various TV appearances - I like Seasick Steve a lot.

I reckon the world has been waiting a long time for him to come along, because it has needed somebody to make blues more accessible. Like jazz, I've always felt you couldn't properly appreciate blues or qualify as a real fan unless you'd learnt all about its roots, could reel off the name of at least 20 of its greatest exponents and could prove you've been to Nashville, Memphis or somewhere similarly important-sounding.

But, thanks to Seasick Steve, you can now go anywhere and pick up his album and start playing and enjoying it. I got mine from Morrisons.

He's pure, old-fashioned, riding-on-a-freight-train blues, and not much else, really. Musically, I don't suppose he's any better or worse than hundreds of similar blues singers who have come along in the last 70 or 80 years. So what's his appeal?

He does have a unique persona, inflated by the fact that he sometimes plays a three-string guitar and sometimes plays a one-string device that only roughly qualifies as a guitar. He's a genuine ex-hobo who made it good, and he's got the beard to prove it, and it probably helps that he seems genuinely bowled over and grateful to have become so big. Blues is notorious for being played by apparent depressives, but if you don't have a smile on your face listening to Seasick Steve, there's no hope for you.

Fleet Foxes - that's one. Elbow - that's two. Now Seasick Steve - that's three current, live and kicking acts that I've been hugely impressed with since Christmas, which can't be bad.

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March 13, 2009

Birthday girl

The second part of our annual birthday week was completed today, with Julie's turn.

She took a deserved day off work so we could go to Bristol - but not until after we had checked out a local care home, which is a topic which has taken up quite a bit of our time and even more of our thoughts just lately.

So we arrived at our destination - Ikea - just in time for a lunch of Swedish meatballs, before embarking on what turned out to be a fact-finding mission for the redecoration of our kitchen. As I've said here before, I love Ikea and everything about it, and everything I see there is so beautifully designed and thought through that I want to buy it all.

But we showed commendable strength of mind today and came home having spent less than £20 of stuff - easily a record.


Seeing red

The evening of Julie's birthday (see above) was quite low-key, and she was keen to stay in for some Comic Relief. I'm all for Red Nose Day, of course, but I do object to the way that the cult of celebrity has to infect all aspects of life these days, even charity.

Unlike the rest of Britain - or so it would seem - I'm not much interested in hearing about how assorted loudmouth DJs, former boy band members and footballers' wives stepped out of their comfort zones for five minutes to climb a mountain (or anything else, really) on the pretence that it was all about drawing attention to good causes.

Why did the climbers have to be celebrities? I'd be much more interested in finding out how a milkman, a teacher and a gravedigger would have coped in the same situation, and I'd also be much more interested in what personal battles they had to overcome, rather than the inevitable prime time telly focus on conflict. But I suppose that's the way of the world, where even pictures of diseased and starving African babies don't seem to register with the British public unless they alternate with pictures of so-called celebs.

At least it isn't as squalid as the coverage of Jade Goody's impending public death - a spectacle of unprecedented obscenity that it seems none of us are going to be allowed to be spared.

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March 10, 2009

L of a birthday

It still seems like yesterday that 'scrawny Seanie' was born, but it was exactly 17 years ago today, and he's turned into a strapping lad with ten GCSEs and a lovely girlfriend.

The theme of this year's birthday was definitely driving, which he became old enough to start learning today. Holly's present included some L-plates, and we paid for his provisional licence (now £50!), and are also going to pay for his first five lessons, while much of the money he received as gifts will probably also be used for driving lessons.

The licence hasn't actually come yet, but when it does, we'll be off to the trading estates of Swindon on Sundays to discover the mysteries of clutch control and gear changing. I am feeling pretty chuffed that, given the choice between me and Julie as driving instructors, I've got the job.

It's all a far cry from the Thomas the Tank Engine models and football kits of bygone years, but there is still one birthday tradition going strong - the shockingly sugary caterpillar birthday cake which Julie always insists on buying. Rather than jelly and ice cream to go with it, though, we had a superb takeaway curry*.

*We have recently rediscovered the Gandhi in Victoria Road, Swindon (opposite the old college), where the food and service are both excellent and reliable, and it is extremely good value for money. They even give us free poppadoms!

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March 9, 2009

Good science, bad science and very very good science

I don't know why I have become fascinated by science in middle age when all I had to show for science lessons at school was a CSE grade 4 in chemistry - something they used to give you if you could do anything more than spell your name correctly on the paper.

But 'popular science' books are often part of my literary diet, I subscribe to National Geographic and can often be found watching obscure programmes about science on Channel 4 or Discovery. And, after placing some heavy hints, I duly found Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks in my Christmas stocking, which combines another of my passions (music, not stockings).

The book looks at all kinds of ways that music is processed by and affects the brain, mainly by relating cases in which music appreciation/creation is either impaired or enhanced by rare conditions which are caused by strokes, accidents, dementia, rare diseases and genetic disorders. It's not the first Oliver Sacks book I've read, but it provoked the same response in me that the others - a slightly uncomfortable guilty feeling that his branch of popular science sometimes amounts to being a bit of a freak show.

It starts off with some profound issues, pointing out that music seems to serve no purpose in evolution yet is universal in all humans, and one of the few things that separates us from the beasts. So why? What's more, appreciation of it seems to depend on many different areas of the brain - unlike most other senses/emotions/experiences which are dominated by one particular region. That's why the book has so many different conditions to consider - because there are so many different ways that damage can blot out particular aspects of music, and so many different ways that the rest of the brain compensates for deficiencies in other parts of the brain. For instance, there are concert pianists who have lost the ability to get their fingers to do what they used to on the keyboard, and people with autism who can't count to five but can compose complex music to a standard that 99 per cent of us can only dream of.

Ironically, the most fascinating 'condition' covered in the book is not a medical one as such: absolute pitch. This ability to recognise every note and chord as clearly as you and I can recognise numbers - is a literally awesome ability that seems so incredible to me that it sounds like a kind of witchcraft.

With my mother having now been in hospital for more than four months, the very last chapter, which is about how people with Alzheimer's are affected by music, is also fascinating. Apparently, an appreciation of music and even the ability to remember it survives in dementia patients, long after other sensibilities and other memories have gone - although nobody really knows why.

Ultimately, that's the biggest disaappointment about the book. It poses big questions, comes up with a lot of evidence, but never really comes up with conclusions. It points out that music is so powerful and so magical, but is crying out for some kind of summary chapter at the end, which never comes, so we never find out why.

There are other irritations, including the fact that almost every case concerns classical music, as if other genres are frivilous and insignificant. Fair enough, pop and most of its off-shoots may not be so noble, but they're still music, and some types of popular music, such as folk and jazz, surely come as close as anything to touching our souls. This bias towards classical music is so noticeable that either Sacks should be accused of musical snobbery or else there really is something special about classical music that needs some kind of explanation. I was left wondering whether the brain sees it as more pure than other forms - but it's an issue the book totally ignores. Finally - call this a footnote if you like - Sacks also has an annoying habit of using too many footnotes, which break up the flow something rotten.

On the whole though, it's a book that is worth reading, and one that will definitely affect the way I look at/listen to music in a different light, even if it won't help me do what I hoped it might do: play the drums better.

On a similar theme - and for completeness - I should add here that I have now officially given up trying to read another popular science book, called The Origins of the British, by Stephen Oppenheimer.

I bought this because it promised an insight into who we really are, and how genetics has helped us understand this. But apart from two aspects, it was a hopelessly frustrating book to read. Far from being 'popular science', it's more of a text book which considers endless theories - including those that are ultimately rejected - in tedious detail, rather than cutting to the quick.

In the end - or rather the middle, because that's all I could wade through - it does come up with two interesting themes. Firstly, it has some very enlightening things to say about the Celts, who roughly make up half of the history of Britain, being the main origin of people from Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. But whereas we might think of them as being predominantly red-haired and fair-skinned, the Celts' ancient origins are shown to have been in Spain and parts of France. But I never quite grasped how the particular British Celtic identity developed.

The other thing that the book taught me is that there are many strong aspects which give people national identity - race, religion, genetics, language, culture - but the one that we put most store by these days, namely geography, is almost entirely irrelavant. You are what you are, regardless of what it says on your passport, which is a document that usually just confirms where your mother happened to be when you were born. Too many white Britons - especially those who take the Daily Mail - think that being divided from Europe by the English Channel has overwhelming significance, even though everything else about us strongly ties us to continental Europe.

The Origins of the British makes you think, then, but you have to wade through a lot of it to find the nuggets.

None of this is as significant as stem cell research, which is in the news today as President Obama is about to reverse George W Bush's mediaeval approach to science. Funding for American research into stem cells using human embryos was held back because of Bush's irrational religious bigotry, but now Obama is to allow American scientists to rejoin the rest of the world in the 21st century.

This is always called a 'controversial' subject, but it's only controversial because Christians conveniently ignore the fact that the so-called 'embryos' used are - far from being foetuses, as they like to imagine - about the size of a pixel or two. In the current atmosphere of enlightenment surrounding the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, it's also important to understand how human embryos, anyway, are still very similar to those of other species, long after the point at which they have become too mature for stem cell research, so can hardly be said to be an actual person.

As the father of a teenager who stands to gain so much from stem cell research - with diabetes being top of the list of conditions liable to be eradicated by stem cell technology - I also have a personal reason to object to somebody else's selfish religious obsessions being placed in front of the prevention of suffering of billions of innocent people.

Unless grade 4 chemistry counts after all, I'm no scientist, but it does seem to me, as a human being, that stem cell technology is mankind's greatest hope, and when selfish people say it is unethical, I not only disagree, but I say that standing in the way of stem cell research is something even worse than unethical.

It's immoral.

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March 8, 2009

Ali Bongo, RIP

One by one, and now at an alarming rate, stars of TV from my childhood are dying off - and today it was the turn of Ali Bongo.

He used to pop up on various programmes, and was one of several giants of magic who were constantly given air time (Tommy Cooper, David Nixon, Ali Bongo and Paul Daniels*). And they deserved it. I've always been a fan of magic, and there isn't enough of it on TV these days.

News of Ali Bongo's death brought a dilemma for reporters and editors, who weren't sure whether to call him by his stage name or his real name. The BBC News website plumped for his stage name, so ended up with sentences like this: "Bongo, who was born in India, also produced a number of books in which he illustrated how to perform magic tricks." But the Daily Telegraph went for his real name - William Wallace. Amazingly, it turns out that he is a direct descendant of the William Wallace (or at least, that was the claim).

*I interviewed Paul Daniels, once, on the phone, for the Swindon Advertiser. I always admired him as a magician - probably the best I've ever seen - and he was a thoroughly nice bloke. I've liked him even more since then.

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March 4, 2009

A dear old thing

A treat for cricket fans tonight with An Evening With Blowers at the Wyvern in Swindon. I went along with our friends Pete and Julie.

'Blowers' is how all listeners to Radio Four's Test Match Special know Henry Blofeld. I hesitate to call him the 'Voice of Cricket' because there are too many legendary commentators contending for that (Richie Benaud and the late John Arlot and Brian Johnston), but his voice is instantly recognisable for all cricket lovers, along with his catchphrase, 'my dear old thing'.

I would normally say that old Old Etonians like him are the sort of people that the game doesn't need because they are responsible for most of what is bad about cricket. But Blowers is an exception, being not only an entertaining and vastly knowledgable commentator but also a thoroughly interesting character.

He carried his bat with plenty of anecdotes about his life - many with cricketing connections, obviously, but by no means exclusively, and there were several stories about his encounters with all kinds of famous people, from Ian Fleming to Clive Dunn, the royal family and even Noel Coward.

It's difficult to believe that Blowers isn't sending himself up all the time, because his background is so privileged, his accent is posher than the Queen's and he's still outrageously conservative (and Conservative). He's almost a caricature of a dying breed and - in the nicest possible way - a dinosaur who is perfectly aware that he is a member of a declining species, but is more or less powerless to prevent it.

There were some laugh-out-loud stories, all brilliantly delivered and sometimes enhanced by surprisingly risque subjects and unexpected colourful language which, coming out of his mouth, sounded doubly cheeky.

The biggest disappointment was that it didn't follow the standard format of shows like this - stories followed by a chance for the audience to ask questions (not that I had thought of any to ask). He probably decided against that because it would have invited cricket bores to stand up and ask him about his favourite fourth wicket partnerships from West Indian tours of Australia in the 1950s.

But a nice innings, anyway.

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March 1, 2009

Film of the year

I went through the whole of 2008 without once going to the pictures, and both the films I saw on the big screen in 2007 were computer animations. Before today, I literally can't remember what the last film was that I saw which involved live actors.

And a few weeks ago I said I couldn't imagine what sort of film would tempt me to pay good money to see it on a big screen these days. Vehicles for tinpot celebrities, special effects to paper over the plot, sequels and remakes have absolutely no attraction for me.

Then there was Slumdog Millionaire.

This came recommended by family and friends, but I hasten to add that it was despite it sweeping the board at the Oscars, not because of it that we decided to see it this afternoon. I've never trusted that lot since they gave three Oscars to On Golden Pond in 1982.

Well, I did enjoy the first half, mainly because the kids were such good actors, it was so well photographed and the music was just right.

But then the plot got a bit silly. Then very silly. By the time we had had some unnecessary twists, unpredictable changes in character and gratuitous violence, we ended up with a completely different film than the first half had promised.

It's the film of the year for me only because it's the only one I've seen, and maybe the only one I will see.


Tonight in panoramas


I've added a couple of panoramas to the site - an overdue view of Epcot, Florida, from last year, and last month's 360-degree view of the strange village of Milton Abbas. (Go to the Arty page).


King Alfred revisited

Have you ever had one of those days when a word kept cropping up? I'm getting that at the moment, but it's not a word, it's a name: Alfred Williams.

Having recently read a great autobiography about him and wrote about it on this blog, I was contacted by a consultant surgeon called John Cullimore who also writes songs in his spare time and just happens to have recently produced a CD about Williams and his life (and I am now writing about for a feature in the Swindon Advertiser). In the meantime - and unconnected - Alfred Williams keeps getting mentions on my favourite Swindon blog, Hidden Swindon.

I visited John Cullimore a couple of weeks back, and he is hatching a plan to put on some kind of performance of his songs, probably interspersed with a narrative of some kind, which I am going to be involved in in some capacity - possibly writing the narrative, although that may be more about selecting passages.

We are also thinking about getting together a nucleus for some kind of appreciation society, and I may put together a website about Alfred (as nobody else has). This is all great because not only is his work nice to read, but it's also massively important from a local history perspective, and I've always thought he deserved a much higher profile than the one he gets, especially as he is often portrayed as the poor relation to the uninspiring Richard Jefferies. Hopefully, we can do something to bring his work to a wider audience.

Because of all this, I started delving into the Adver archives and found that somebody already produced a musical play about Alfred Williams, back in the 1990s, which was performed at Roves Farm in Sevenhampton. The shocking thing about this is that I had completely forgotten about this play, even though I went to see it and wrote the review of it in the paper - and I still can't remember much about it, even now that my memory has been jogged. The older you get, the more worried you get about your memory, and this is one of the biggest gaps in my memory that I know about. It's not as if it was a run-of-the-mill event because it was performed in a barn and in my review I wrote about lambs wandering in and out during the play. How can you forget things like that?

Anyway, John kindly gave me a copy of his CD, which I have had on my iPod lately. There are many reasons why it could hardly fail to touch a chord (so to speak) with me. It's predominantly in a traditional folk style, which obviously goes down well with somebody with a liking for that kind of music in general and The Strawbs and Al Stewart, in particular, who are both masters of songs with human and historical themes. Al would have been proud to have written some of those songs. Like Sgt Pepper, there is even one with an Indian theme - reflecting the time Williams spent in India - which satisfies my liking for the sound of the sitar and tabla drumming.

What's really pleasing about the CD is that you can imagine Alfred Williams himself enjoying listening to it. But best of all, it's one of those sincere, honest CDs with a point that is heart-warming just for that reason, even before you start listening to it.