April 30, 2009

No time like the present

It's exactly a year ago today that my brother Ron had his heart transplant. So he's back in the media - and as I am typing this, I am waiting to hear him come back on the radio. On BBC Radio Swindon they are playing records to fill in time before going back to interviewing him, live in the studio.

At precisely this time last year he was on the operating table, while his wife (Jenny) and sons (Stuart, Trevor and Richard) were in the family room at Papworth Hospital, waiting to hear the outcome, and the rest of the family were mostly back in Swindon, waiting for phone calls and wondering what was happening.

Things are a lot different these days. Last Saturday, I was playing tennis with him, and it all seems like a surreal dream for us, so goodness knows what it's like for him. But you can get a good idea what it means to the family from the latest excellent entry on his son Richard's blog. I defy anybody to read that and still not register to be a donor. And there is never a better time than right now.

What the Dickens....

We have more information about our ancestor Thomas Adams and his family (see below).

It seems that when they first moved to Portsmouth, they lived at Sultan Road, which isn't quite as close to the Naval docks as we first thought. The road still exists, although drastically altered - probably as a result of Second World War bombing. Ironically, giving all the literary connections of their later home in Southsea, the end of Sultan Road is literally a stone's throw from Charles Dickens's birthplace in Old Commercial Road as this view shows.

We now also know that the family missed bumping into Arthur Conan Doyle by the smallest of margins. Conan Doyle left Southsea in 1890, and we now know the Adamses moved there between April 1891 and March 1892.

April 29, 2009

Southsea bubbles

As a lot of infamously unforgettable puppets once said in Walt Disney World, it's a small world - which the latest family history discovery shows.

This is another instalment of my brother Brian's continuing uncovering of information about the Adams branch of the family tree. Our interest in this is through Kate Adams, who married my great grandfather, Albert John Carter. Kate, who died of TB in 1914, aged just 39, had a brother (John Miflin Adams) and two sisters who all emigrated to Australia (see below), but she also had another brother, called Thomas.

It turns out that this Thomas moved to Portsmouth between 1881 and 1888 - presumably to find work. He was a 'steam engine fitter' - and almost certainly GWR-trained. In 1888, he married a Beatrice Mary Wheeler, who, despite her name, was born in Bermuda. In 1891, they were living in Portsea, the part of Portsmouth which includes the Naval docks, where the Spinnaker Tower now stands (which we visited only last year). In another little twist of the family history, Portsea - specifically the Naval Museum there - is the final resting place of the Military Medal won by my grandmother's uncle, Jabez Staples, in the First World War.

By 1901, Thomas, his wife and four children (Winifred, Annie, Kate and Maude) - who are all pictured, except Maude - had moved to Playfair Road, Southsea (effectively another part of Portsmouth). This is significant for various reasons - some personal, others on a world-famous level.

Firstly, when I was at college in Portsmouth in 1979/80, I lived in St Andrew's Road, Southsea, and Playfair Road is one of the roads off this, although I lived at the other end of the road, close to its junction with Elm Grove. OK, I admit this isn't so interesting for anybody else, but Elm Grove and a very small area around it has, for no apparent reason, other than coincidence, not one but three major places in literary history.

It was on Elm Grove itself that Arthur Conan Doyle first practised as a GP. He lived there from 1882 to 1890, and it was while living there that he wrote the first two Sherlock Holmes novels - A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890). So Thomas Adams narrowly missed living a stone's throw from Conan Doyle, who left Southsea in 1890 - Thomas having moved there between 1891 and 1901. However, as Thomas was living in Portsea before moving to Southsea, he might still have seen Conan Doyle, who was not only a GP but also active in politics and sport (he played in goal for Portsmouth, although the team is apparently not connected with the same Portsmouth FC that exists today). Although he was yet to be famous, he must have been fairly well known in the area.

Incidentally, I am a bit of a fan of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike most people, who have only seen the films/TV adapatations, I have actually read some of the stories, which are very nicely written, and was particularly pleased to find some first editions on display on my recent visit to Trinity College in Dublin.

Anyway - back to the literary connections... HG Wells worked as an assistant in the Southsea Drapery Emporium, at the junction of St Paul's Road and Kings Road (which Elm Grove becomes at its western end). This was between 1881 and 1883 - again tantalisingly close to the time the Adamses lived in Southsea. Wells's bad experiences in the shop inspired a novel called Kipps. It's strange to think that in 1882 and 1883, and entirely through chance, HG Wells and Conan Doyle lived about 200 metres from one another, when neither were famous.

As if all that isn't enough, between 1871 and 1877, Rudyard Kipling lived at Lorne Lodge, Campbell Road, Southsea, which joins Elm Grove at its eastern end. He suffered mental and physical abuse there as a child, in what he later called the House of Desolation, but said it was here that he first read a story that made him think about an outcast child being accepted by the animals in the jungle. In other words, it's where he came up with the idea for The Jungle Book.

Who knows - one day it may be written that that other celebrated writer, called Graham Carter, lived round the corner, a century later! None of these giants compare with Portsmouth's greatest literary figure, as Charles Dickens was born there in 1812 (died 1870).

Here are some links for Sherlock Holmes geeks and anybody else who is sad enough to care about Conan Doyle's Southsea connections:

Info about where Conan Doyle's practice was in Elm Grove, Southsea

Aerial view of Southsea. Conan Doyle lived near the junction of Elm Grove, Kings Road and Castle Road (bottom left of picture); I lived in St Andrew's Road, between St Ursula Grove and Cottage Grove (bottom right); Thomas Adams lived in Playfair Road (near the top); Portsmouth FC live at Fratton Park (just out of the picture, to the north-west). HG Wells worked at the junction of Kings Road and St Pauls Road (just out of picture, to the west). Rudyard Kipling lived at Campbell Road (just out of the picture, to the east). This is how it looks today. Much of Portsea and the part of Elm Grove where Conan Doyle lived, including his home, Bush Villas, were destroyed by heavy bombing in the Second World War, and redeveloped.

More about Conan Doyle and Portsmouth/Southsea

The first time

A perhaps less earth-shattering (but personally gratifying) connection with Elm Grove, Southsea (see above) is that it was in this very road that I bought my first Indian takeaway - an event from which, I am glad to say, I have never really recovered. I even know the exact date because it was after I had returned to Southsea after watching Swindon Town beat Wimbledon away, in the League Cup - the early hours of October 31, 1979.

I bought it because I was hungry after the long trip back from London, and decided it was worth celebrating (the win meant Town reached the quarter-finals, where they met and beat Arsenal, only to controversially lose out to Wolves in the semi-finals). It didn't occur to me until after I got it back to my digs that I didn't have any cutlery to eat the curry with - and I can't quite recall what I used instead (you can't expect me to remember everything!) What did I order? I hear people ask. It was a prawn curry, and very nice (I can see, smell and taste it now).

Now bent on spewing out useless trivia ad nauseum, I should point out that just east of Elm Grove there is a road called Fawcett Road, in which there is a pub called the Fawcett Inn, which I used to think was terribly amusing, even though the local pronunciation is 'Fosset'. It was also in the nearby Albert Road that I once saw Tony Blackburn in a chip shop (he was appearing in panto at the Kings Theatre, next door) - but as that's more than enough useless trivia for one sitting, I'll save that for another day.

April 27, 2009

The quality of mercy

It was just like old times.

Me and Julie used to go to the theatre a hell of a lot, a few years back, before we had kids, on account of I volunteered to do loads of reviews for the Swindon Advertiser. Not only would we get free tickets, but could even claim expenses, which was a pretty good deal as we got to see some really impressive stuff.

Undoubtedly our favourite place to go to was always The Watermill near Newbury, a little theatre of just 220 seats, made out of an old watermill, which put on professional productions of a consistently very high standard. Being so close to the actors - either at eye level, peering down on their heads from the balconies or, as sometimes happens, watching from behind the stage - the atmosphere is always electric (see the virtual tour of the auditorium).

So, the other day, when we were offered some leftover group tickets for the Watermill, at short notice, we jumped at the chance to turn the clock back. It hardly matters what you see there - almost everything is a treat - but as it turned out to be some Shakespeare, then we were doubly happy. The Watermill may lend itself to everything, but it gets even better when it does Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice wouldn't have been my first choice of his plays, but this production managed to get every last bit of action out of it, and showed what a good play it really is - even if the approach to it was quirky for two reasons.

Firstly, the company - Propellor, which is based at the Watermill (picture, right, borrowed from their website) - is all-male, so there were men playing the female parts. And, rather than Venice, this production is set in a prison.

What you could say about having an all-male cast is that's the way it would have been in Shakespeare's day, so I suppose it was authentic. But that's a bit like saying that because it would have originally been performed in a theatre that was open to the elements, then they should have taken the Watermill's roof off. In the end, the all-male cast at least gave it some novelty, and apart from one or two moments, they generally managed to avoid it becoming too camp, which would have spoiled everything. However, I think one of the main points of the play is that the heroine, Portia, is cleverer and more sensible than all the men put together, and having a man play her part meant that some of this was lost.

I've never been quite sure whether I approve of messing around with the context of Shakespeare, but the prison idea did help to focus the action, and made it more gritty and manacing, which is perfectly in keeping with the main theme of the play. The prison theme was incongruous at times, but the bottom line is Shakespeare's writing is so universal that the setting doesn't really matter as much as everything else. As long as you don't mess with the language, you can get away with most other tinkering.

The quirks eventually turned out to be only minor distractions because the acting was so good. I think being so close to the audience gives the actors something extra, so you get to see the veins pulsing in their temples, the tears in their eyes and the sweat rolling down their faces. The courtroom scene, near the end, certainly was especially memorable - and much more so than the other previous time I'd seen the play performed, many years ago.

We spent the whole journey home saying how much we enjoyed it, and planning to return for another night at the Watermill, sooner rather than later.

I've never been much of a moviegoer, I'm totally bored with TV drama and I don't very often read fiction. None of these things even begin to compare with the thrill of live entertainment - especially when it is done as professionally and as beautifully as it was tonight.

April 25, 2009

Marching orders

Today was effectively the end of the football season for me as Swindon Town played their last home game of the season.

There was plenty of jubilation around the ground as a 2-1 victory over local rivals Bristol Rovers ensured we get to play in the First Division again next season. I rashly decided to buy a season ticket, last summer, because they were cheap, but I can't say I've enjoyed the season much.

Today's match seemed to sum up the whole season, being filled with dozens of unforced errors and very little creative football. At least the players seemed more bothered today, which was surprisingly as some of them effectively did themselves out of a job by maintaining the club's League One status. Over the season, many have showed themselves to be patently unable to play football to that standard, and since many are out of contract at the end of the season, they'll probably be shown the door.

The exceptions are Simon Cox, whose two goals today made his total for the season 30, and he is surely destined for much greater things, with a move to a bigger and better club. Then there's central defender Gordon Greer, who is on loan from Doncaster and didn't put a single foot wrong today, nor hasn't since he arrived. The only other player of real class, central defender Sean Morrison, wasn't playing today. He's still very young and will soon mature into a player who is too good for us.

On the way to today's match, me and Holly ran into a heavy police escort for Bristol Rovers fans walking to the ground, but, inside the ground, there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere in the near-11,000 crowd, including a military band who played at half-time, which went down very well.

But it was too little, too late. The (in my experience) unprecedented poor standard of football all season - usually from Town but also often from the opposition - means I don't have any plans to set foot inside the County Ground again in the foreseeable future.

April 23, 2009

Minding my own business

Interesting times. I suppose you could say I am a victim of the recession because my bread and butter work has mostly dried up. But silver linings and all that...

When I went freelance in 1998 - yes, 11 years ago, but it seems like the blink of an eye sometimes - it was mainly because I wanted to get back to why I went into journalism in the first place: writing. I find it easy, it's satisfying and, most importantly, I enjoy it, but in many ways you have less control over your life if you work for yourself than if you are an employee.

When you are offered work, you're often not in a position to pick and choose, and most of the work I've been offered in the last 11 years has been as a sub-editor. It's better than stacking shelves, and people seem to think I'm good at it, but it's never really been where my heart is.

But now my main client has abandoned using freelancers for anything during the recession - not just sub-editing (it's nothing personal against me) - and although I'm not fully employed at the moment, I am getting more offers to write than before.

I've even been asked to do some business reporting. I have to say that I would sooner starve than write the sort of tosh that most business publications and business pages are filled with - 'Company A has merged with Company B' or - even worse - 'Company C has won a regional award after the success of their training scheme'. Fortunately, I have been given a free rein to come up with more interesting tales.

That's quite challenging because literally 99 per cent of businesses wouldn't know what an interesting story felt like if it fell on them from a great height. For instance, some of the companies I have been researching this week - and proper ones, with employees - don't even have a website, which tells you how little they know about basic PR. Every business, like everybody, has an interesting story to tell; they just don't know it.

Anyway, the point of all this is: this week I uncovered a story that still qualifies as business, but which I think is a really good tale and even a scoop. Even better: I had a lot of fun interviewing the nice man who runs the business, when I went to see him, a couple of days ago. I can't say what the story is yet because it hasn't been published yet. If nothing else, it shows that there are still pearls as well as oysters.

Now, where did I put my Financial Times?...

Van out

I'm suffering today because I did my longest stint of exercise for probably 10 years last night, at our tennis club (previously known as Nalgo but shortly to be relaunched as North Swindon Tennis Club).

My brother Ron is chairman of the club, and although we have been members before, we are more serious about playing regularly now. For more than the last year we've played a single hour of mixed doubles a week, which is obviously not enough to get fit and lose weight, so we are trying to make time to play two or three times a week, and hopefully a couple of hours at a time.

Last night it was more than a couple of hours, including one set of men's doubles which I was pretty chuffed to come out of without disgracing myself. Actually, we (me and Ron) lost 6-1, but twice I was 40-0 up on my service, only to be pegged back, so we weren't as bad as the score suggested, and one of the guys we were playing was pretty damned good.

As a spectator, I've never been a lover of tennis, which I find almost as tedious as basketball and show jumping, but compared with nearly every other means of getting fit I can think of, it's good fun and sociable.

There is just one thing I can't get on with at the tennis club - the terminology. When it's 40-15, I say it's 40-15, but the experienced players at the club say "40-5". Worse still, instead of "advantage us" or "advantage you", it's "van in" which means "advantage server" (I'm not sure what you say if the advantage is against the serve - van out?). Speaking as somebody who is still not quite comfortable with saying "love" instead of "nil", I will be sticking to my own terminology for the foreseeable future.

Where there's a will

Some more interesting family history information is coming through the ether - thanks to my brother Brian, who is the keeper of the family tree and a subscriber to Ancestry UK.

We are still trying to get some of this information down in a readable format, but for now I can reveal that in the last couple of days we have made two nice new discoveries.

Firstly, it turns out that we have distant relations in Australia - and one of the descendants of that branch of the tree has been in touch from Sydney. She has pointed out that my great great grandfather's eldest son, John Miflin Adams, emigrated in 1882 (on a ship called the Nerbudda, pictured) and married an Irishwoman. Two of his younger sisters also emigrated, but not his sister Kate, who stayed in England and married my great grandfather, Albert John Carter. We understand a family Bible exists which was given to John Miflin Adams (the one who emigrated) by his father - my great great grandfather - Adolphus Adams, in 1891 (which we are dying to see as they were often inscribed with key family history information). There has always seemed something compelling about Adolphus - partly because of his unusual name, but also because we've always felt that we were on the verge of finding out something really interesting about him - and this gives us more possibilities.

Meanwhile, switching to another branch of the family, a will has come to light that was made by Thomas Mulcock. He's even further back - my great great great great grandfather, who wrote his will in February 1843 - just over a month after the official opening of Swindon's GWR Works. He died in 1849 or 1850.

Click here for a large view of the will.

Note that he has £40 in cash to leave - quite a lot of money then - but otherwise his worldly goods are mostly beds and bedding. Not surprisingly for the time, he is unable to sign his name, so signs with an X.

How did we get from Mulcocks to Carters? Well, working backwards, my great great grandfather, Albert Edward Carter (known as Abner), married Eliza Ann Mulcock, the granddaughter of Thomas Mulcock and the daughter of David Mulcock, who is mentioned in the will. Below is a picture of Albert and Eliza (my great great grandparents). Don't be fooled by the book in her hand; documents on which she should have signed were marked with an X, so she was probably illiterate all her life.

April 18, 2009

Seven up

After a bit of a break since the last time, our band played our seventh gig tonight, at Bourton Club, where we rehearse, so it was a bit of a home match. We now also have a name - sort of - having resurrected The Misfits. Getting a name that we all liked and was suitable for four old duffers proved surprisingly difficult, and The Misfits was the one we disliked least, collectively. Then we discovered there was another band going around callling themselves the same thing, so dropped it, but as we haven't heard of them since, it looks like we're going back to it.

I still spend the last five minutes before going 'on stage' wondering what the hell I am doing there, but the experience is slowly changing for the better. I was surprisingly un-nervous on the way there and might even have enjoyed it - if that isn't too strong a word to use in this situation - but for the fact that I didn't play as well as I did in rehearsal on Thursday.

One thing I've discovered about playing music live is it's all about confidence. The problem tonight was our warm-up/soundcheck, which is usually the very straightforward and appropriately named Take It Easy (by The Eagles), somehow got replaced by Bed of Roses (Bon Jovi). That's not particularly hard, either, but there are lots of opportunities to add some 'light and shade', and I was struggling to get in the swing of it. So, when it came to the actual show, I was feeling less confident, and botching the intro to the second song, Get It On (T Rex), didn't help. Suddenly, intros are getting harder than endings, which always worried me most before.

I have made some progress in that even if I can't remember how a song ends or miss my cues, I now have enough experience to do some ad-libbing and make it seem to the uninitiated that that was how we meant to end it all along. It's a shame that the intros are less easy to fake when you get them wrong.

I am at a stage in my musical development that is both encouraging and scary. Just as a driver who suddenly finds himself able to change gear without even knowing he's doing it, I can now do some complex things virtually automatically. I sometimes find myself doing something that I simply wouldn't be able to do if I thought about it too much. And that's the scary bit. It's very similar to walking downstairs - you can do the whole process without thinking about it, but if you get half way down the stairs and suddenly think about where you are, and concentrate on taking the next step, you break your rhythm and fall. It's when your confidence is low that you are most likely to think too much about what you're doing, and trip yourself up.

Something else I've learned is that unless there is another drummer in the audience, nobody really knows whether you're doing it right or not. This is comforting and annoying at the same time. They don't notice if you get some minor things wrong (and sometimes not even major things), but they also don't notice when you play something that seems simple but is actually quite hard - and you get it right. Fortunately, there were several incidences of difficult things going well, tonight, to cancel out the incidences of easy things going badly. Bed of Roses, which I was really disappointed with in the soundcheck, for example, turned out to be pretty good when we did it 'for real'.

So, overall, the gig went pretty well. There were even cries of "More!" at the end, and some people came up to us and thanked us for a good night, so it must have been OK.

There was also a little bonus in that, during the interval, Roy, our lead guitarist, had arranged for one of his 16-year-old guitar pupils, called Michael, to play half a dozen songs, and he went down well. It was nice to help him in a small way, and it was my idea to get him to sing the lead for our last song, 500 Miles (The Proclaimers), which proved to be an excellent move.

I feel compelled to record our set list for posterity, so here it is: Set 1 - Take It Easy (The Eagles), Get It On (T Rex), There She Goes (The Las), Brown-Eyed Girl (Van Morrison), Heartbeat (Buddy Holly), Honky Tonk Women (Rolling Stones), Knocking on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan), Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits), Dancing in the Moonlight (Thin Lizzy), Brown Sugar (Rolling Stones), Proud Mary (Credence Clearwater Revival), Summer of '69 (Bryan Adams), Money For Nothing (Dire Straits), Rockin' All Over the World (Status Quo). Set 2 - Bed of Roses (Bon Jovi), I Hear You Knocking (Dave Edmunds), Marie Marie (Shakin' Stevens), I'm a Believer (The Monkees), When You Say Nothing At All (Ronan Keating), Peaceful Easy Feeling (The Eagles), All Right Now (Free), You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet (Bachman Turner Overdrive), Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Wishing Well (Free), Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton), 500 Miles (The Proclaimers).

We also planned to play (but never got around to) Johnny B Goode and Hi-Ho Silver Lining, and as there were about half a dozen others we know well enough to do in public, the sheer size of the list is getting impressive, especially when I think how much there is to remember, let alone having to actually play them.

Minor success

I'm not sure why it is taking me so long to read books for pleasure these days, but finishing Morris Minor: The Biography has been done at a pace that even Morris Minor owners would find slow.

The book, by Martin Wainwright, is an unpredictable pootle through the history of one of Britain's most classic classic cars, often by way of stories about specific cars owned by various people. It somehow manages to avoid coming across as hopelessly geeky, and is written in a style that I like because I recognise it. Wainwright is a journalist who once worked for the Bath Chronicle and has moved up to be the Northern Editor of The Guardian, so he writes with an eye for detail and a quirky fluency that only a former local newspaperman would know how.

Probably the biggest problem with the book is that it portrays the Minor as the most lovable, successful and iconic British car ever produced - which it isn't. In fact, it isn't even the most lovable, successful and iconic car produced by Sir Alec Issigonis, its inventor, as he was also responsible for designing the Mini. So, even though it's impossible not to have a soft spot for Morris Minors, you sometimes feel as if the book was written about the wrong car.

And as well as it is written, it is also crying out for more pictures of cute Minors. For instance, it sings the praises of a photographer who produced a book of pictures of Minors abandoned in Ireland, which sounds really nice, but there isn't a single example of any of the pictures.

Something that the book points out is that whereas, a few years ago, you'd still see quite a few Minors around, now you can go for weeks without seeing one. Since reading the book, I've only seen two - and one of them was only because I was with my brother and he said: "Look! There's a Morris Minor Traveller."

The ultimate message in the book is that there is/may be/should be a place in the car market for a model that is fairly reliable, and easily fixed by owners when they go wrong - like in the old days. Personally, I can't think of anything worse than a car that you have to go to the trouble of maintaining and fixing yourself.

April 13-15, 2009

My goodness, my Guinness!

There has been a strong sense of deja-vu about the last three days, and they came with a thick, creamy, white frothy head on them, as I took part in my nephew Gary's stag trip to Dublin.

Less than a couple of years ago, we did something similiar for his older brother Glyn, and we even stayed in the same apartments. These are on top of a pub called Oliver St John Gogarty in Temple Bar, which was created using the blueprint that God would have used for all pubs, if he existed.

On the ground floor is a stunning bar. Above that is another bar, where the best of the pub's traditional Irish music - which begins at least by 2.30pm every day and continues until 2.30am - is played. The next level up is a restaurant, selling posh but tasty traditional Irish food, and above that is the accommodation, with our 'penthouse apartments' on the roof. If you wanted to, you could spend three happy days without leaving the premises, although that would be to miss out on a city that has plenty to offer any visitor.

This time around, there were 15 hardy souls flying out of Bristol at 8am on a Monday morning, and apart from the groom-to-be, his brother and father, I knew precisely nobody else on the trip, whereas the majority knew everybody except me. I was also one of the oldest and the only one not employed by an ambulance service, so I think it is fair to say I was a bit of an odd one out. Not that the rest of the gang were the kind to make you feel like the odd one out. They soon realised that there were two or three people on the trip who had set out with no illusions of their Guinness consumption abilities, and I was one of them.

Gary, on the other hand, had no such handicap, and apparently thoroughly enjoyed every one of the many pints of the stuff placed in front of him, and seemed to stay sober enough for them to be committed to permanent memory.

Even on a stag trip, there is much more to Dublin than Guinness, but with a group of 15 there were obviously different notions of what we should do with our time, especially as most had been to Dublin before and had previously sampled different attractions. So we split into smaller groups at times, which worked well, and we even managed to do three things en masse - breakfast on the first day, dinner on the second day and a guided tour around Kilmainham Gaol.

This needed a tram journey out of the centre of the city, and was something I was keen to do because it was highly recommended on TripAdvisor. I anticipated possibly having to do this on my own. Amazingly, however, all of the other 14 not only decided to tag along, but actually seemed to enjoy it, which was a relief to me because, as the 'sponsor' of the event and the only one who had thought to bring a map and do any pre-trip research, the pressure was on. The gaol was built in 1796, closed in 1924 and, in-between, mostly held poor souls who were harshly treated for trivial offences, including stealing food and things to keep them warm. However, it also had some 'celebrity' political prisoners as it held most of the key pre-independence rebels, and many of them were executed there - either outside, publicly, or in the stone-breakers' yard. The most famous of these were the leaders of the 1916 Rising.

The goal is also where a memorable scene from the excellent The Italian Job was filmed - Noel Coward walking down the steps.

Other highlights included an informative trip round the site of the original Jameson whiskey distillery (although it is no longer made there); return trips to art deco cafe Bewley's (once frequented by The Boomtown Rats) for breakfasts; a traditional Irish boxty (savoury pancake) meal; and, probably the greatest highlight for me: two consecutive evenings soaking up the jigs, reels and ballads of Gogarty's music room. Apart from the music, Gogarty's is a also must for people-watching. We were struck by the banjo player's striking resemblance to my cousing John, and enjoyed a local character who was trying, against all the odds, to chat up some young ladies. Not realising that he could have at least played on the fact that he looked and sounded like he could have been a famous jockey, he instead resorted to the not overly successful line that he had had two jobs in his life and that "the first one was in the Jacobs biscuit factory."

The weather was pretty good throughout, except on the last morning, when I decided to fight my way through the pouring rain to visit Trinity College and see The Book of Kells, plus the college's impressive old library (nice picture here) and the oldest harp in Ireland - presumably the model for the Guinness logo and other manifestations of harps in post-medieval Irish culture. The gaol certainly whetted some people's appetites for history, but ninth century illuminated gospels is probably stretching it a bit far, so I stepped out for a couple of hours on my own. Despite an excellent display explaining what the exhibition is all about, it eventually came down to four books in a glass case, of which two were sections of the Book of Kells. This was in amazingly good condition, considering it is about 1,200 years old.

Generally, I was as impressed with Dublin as I was on the last trip. I am rapidly forming the opinion that it's impossible not to be wowed by a visit to any European capital, although Dublin is at a bit of a disadvantage in not being that much different, in feel, to English cities, so lacks that continental flavour. But it is still charming, as you might expect of anything Irish.

Sadly, the word that best describes Dublin at the moment is 'expensive'. Mostly due to the exchange rate being so bad from a British point of view, but also because (according to the taxi driver, who should know) prices have been bumped up too much for tourists, absolutely nothing is cheap.

They probably have a method or a formula for calculating relative prices across Europe, but the most foolproof is surely the cost of a pint - and a pint of Guinness is soured by the fact that it costs 5.5 euros. As this comes out at more or less £5.50, it is expensive by any standards, so it is very lucky indeed that Guinness tastes surprisingly heavenly compared with the unattractive version we get on this side of the Irish Sea. At that price I felt more or less forced to do what I think you are supposed to do with Guinness: savour it.

I still haven't seen everything I wanted to see in Dublin, and I hope I one day go back, but it's a shame that it should be slowly pricing itself out of the market - and giving me a reason not to go back in the foreseeable future.

The statutory photo gallery is fairly self-explanatory, I think...

April 11, 2009


We got a nice reminder of the joys of being in the company of young children - so much different to the joys of being in the company of teenagers - today, with not one but two encounters with my great niece, Millie.

I don't suppose we'll ever think of Millie without remembering her as the family's miracle baby, who was outrageously premature but has grown into a perfectly normal three-and-a-half-year-old (an ongoing story, admirably recorded on my nephew Stuart's blog, (not to be conufused with) The Truth).

She thoroughly entertained us during a workday at the Nalgo Tennis Club, when she was busy making birds' nests and daisy chains, and later around my brother's (her grampy's) house. Her sister Amber (just over a year old) was also at the latter gathering, but I didn't take my camera (fortunately there are plenty of smiley pictures of her on Stuart's blog).

It seems like a lifetime ago that we had whirlwinds of our own.

A euro for my thoughts

I am shortly off to Dublin for my nephew Gary's stag trip, so this morning had to make an inconvenient trip to pick up some euros.

Whereas, before my previous trip to Dublin, two years ago, I came out of the travel agents' with significantly more euros than the number of pounds I went in with, this time it was almost exactly the same number.

Apart from the fact that I had £1.52 change out of the deal - not even enough to buy me a pint of Guinness - I simply swapped an amount of pounds for the same amount of euros. How pointless was that exercise?

In an age when computers laugh in the face of geography, and everybody else in Europe understands that clinging to currency is, quite frankly, embarrassing, there are still plenty of people over here who think that pounds are worth the palaver and the cost (it cost me time, commission and petrol - none of which come cheap).

They aren't really sure why pounds are worth it, except "they just are", but even worse are those people who think Sterling somehow preserves our national identity or independence, or is a source of some kind of national pride.

But it's not difficult to come up with a list of things that do these jobs much better than pounds. Off the top of my head, I can think of: William Shakespeare, what our forefathers did in the Second World War, Morris Minors, 1966, Charles Darwin, The Beatles, real ale, The Angel of the North, Magna Carta... You get my drift.

I could give you the whole list, but I only have a few dozen gigabytes of disc space left, and I'm not expecting to live to be 200.

I thought this before, but now I am absolutely certain: it is a very poor nation indeed that has to rely on its currency to make it feel good about itself.

April 10, 2009


As The Hood, TV's greatest ever baddie and a character with a suitably shaped head was given to saying, "Egg-cellent, egg-cellent..."

I have discovered something that gives me real hope that not only environmentally friendly products will win out in the end, but so will great design - and it all comes about after coming over all anti-Easter egg this year.

Just lately we've decided to do something about the scandal of our weekly supermarket bill far outweighing our mortgage repayments. Every Friday we'd religiously go to Morrisons, and even though it appears to be significantly cheaper than Tesco, for the last few months we have been unable to walk out of there and be less than £100 poorer.

So we're on a mission to slash the cost, and as I'm also working on writing some stuff (for money) about saving money, I've been taking a long, hard look at absolutely everything in supermarkets before I'll hand over any money - a necessary process that is slowly driving the rest of the family stark, staring mad.

This week we switched to Asda so I could carry out some more research, and it was there that I discovered, among other things, that they currently have a prominently displayed special offer that allows you to buy three bags of sweets for £2. Bearing in mind that if you bought them singly you'd pay 67p each, this massive saving of 1p for the whole deal, 0.33p per bag or about 0.01p per sweet is probably not one that you'd make a special journey to take advantage of.

This type of thing is by no means the preserve of Asda. There were plenty of what the supermarkets might concede were 'marketing ploys' afoot ('deceitful cons', I'd call them) in Morrisons too, where their own-brand tuna steaks, for instance, were double the price of the branded version. I have spotted several other examples where the shop is working a kind of double bluff on the assumption that plenty of people will pick up what looks like the cheapest option, without actually checking the price, and never even suspecting the opposite is true.

For instance, you might assume it's cheaper to buy in bulk, but sometimes they'll charge you proportionately more for bigger packages; 'Smart Price' and other apparently budget lines can sometimes work out more expensive; and other more expensive options are deliberately dressed up to look like they are cheaper, when the price tag says differently.

Worst of all, they muddy the waters by creating endless offers that can be turned into an excuse if they are caught out. If the 'Smart Price' option does turns out to be more expensive, it's easy to say the alternative just happened to be on offer that week and it was some kind of freak situation. As if anything unplanned happens under the roof of companies that rack up millions of pounds of profits every day.

Some supermarket ploys are well known but still successful because of the inherent gullibility of the great British public, such as putting the sweeties near the checkout to tempt the kids, and putting the most expensive options at eye level, but I suspect there are countless others they are getting away with. Whether people are interested enough to read about it - or, more to the point, somebody thinks it is worth paying somebody to write about - is another matter.

So, having turned myself into what you could call a very suspicious and careful consumer, you can imagine how the sight of Easter eggs caused a kind of grinding noise to start up in my head and flashing lights to accompany me down the Asda aisles. I eventually had to leave the shop and seek solace in Borders after failing to persuade Julie to buy significant blocks of chocolate as presents for the kids in the family instead, rather than brightly coloured pieces of cardboard containing mostly air but with a Scrooge-sized egg-shaped piece of inferior chocolate thrown in.

To add insult to injury, I have noticed that some manufacturers are lording the fact that they have marginally reduced Easter egg packaging this year, and suggesting (deceitfully again) that this in some perverse way qualifies them as environmentally friendly.

But enough of this bleating. The BBC News website looked into the whole Easter egg packaging scandal and got a company called Design Reality to rethink the whole concept. The result, which is greener on more than half a dozen counts, is not only one of the cleverest and most practical designs you'll ever see for any product, but also one of the most elegant.

April 7, 2009

Walking the walk

Time for another Lads' Nights Out (LNO) tonight, and as it was my month to organise it and drive, I came up with something original for us all to do - a trip to Bath to see the Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk, which turned out to be a real treat.

It starts from the Huntsman pub, and over the next hour and a half, comedian Noel Britten goes through his clever routine on the streets of Bath, complete with put-downs, running gags and entertaining ways of putting off people who try to tag along without paying. There are also some magic tricks thrown in, including a bizarre one with a rabbit in the river that also produced (for me) a moment of almost uncontrollable laughter, even though I couldn't quite put my finger on what was so funny about it (hence the weird picture, below, which I am giggling at now).

The only downer was that one of our party, Pete, literally had to sit it out because he twisted his ankle yesterday. Meanwhile, my brother Brian, who always manages to be picked at random to help with acts, was - sure enough - one of the first 'volunteers'.

The cost is £8 each, which is great value, and with about 50 people in our party, Noel was doing a very lucrative trade. But with such an original idea, dry delivery and genuinely funny material, nobody was complaining. Indeed, although the walk came very highly recommended from sites such as TripAdvisor (where it is Bath's number one attraction), it easily lived up to its billing.

I don't want to reveal too much of the content on account of I am going to advise everybody I know in Swindon to take the short drive to Bath and try it for themselves.

In keeping with the 'something different' theme, we ended up in a Turkish restaurant after the walk - a first for me - which rounded off the evening nicely. As we headed for the car, the rain was lashing down, making us grateful that it hadn't arrived earlier - although it would have needed to be pretty heavy to dampen our enthusiasm for the Comedy Walk.

Lucky accidents?

It's amazing what you can pick up on eBay - like my latest purchase.

Actually, I went halves with my twin brother Brian, on an accident book from the GWR Works in Swindon, dating back to the 1920s. It cost us £24 in the end - quite a bit more than we hoped - but you can't put a price on history.

I admit that it probably isn't what everybody wants to get in their Christmas stocking this year, but we were hoping it would provide some family history leads. It didn't, sadly, and isn't as interesting as we hoped, but we have an historical curiosity, a small piece of local history and something worth saving.

And you never know what else these things might lead to. No sooner had the 'You've won' email arrived from eBay than we got another, from somebody from Reading University who had been watching the bidding and asked if we could scan the book and send him copies.

It turns out that he is researching safety and working conditions on the railways, and we may end up swapping useful information. This is a subject that I have personal interest in for several reasons - a near fatal accident that my boilermaker grandfather had in Swindon Works in the 1920s; the death of my father-in-law from a disease contracted while working there, a generation later; and the fact that my dad worked in the Works fire station, which also had ambulance responsibilities.

I've also become interested in reports of accidents to railway workers which I have come across while researching other things. I've long thought that there were some interesting stories to be told on that score, but haven't done anything about it before. Maybe I will now.

The book may not have been that much of a catch, but it may have set off a train (no pun intended) of events and thoughts that could lead to something concrete in the future.

April 4, 2009

Game over

You know it is time to stop supporting a team when the players want to win less than their fans.

It can be a rollercoaster ride, being the supporter of a professional team, especially one in the lower divisions, but there are days when it all becomes too much. Today was that day.

I can't remember leaving a football stadium before and feeling insulted - literally - by what I had watched. But Swindon Town's 0-0 draw with Crewe was one match too far. We didn't even lose, but the disappointment I felt at not winning a match that we really needed to win didn't seem to be evident on the pitch.

By chance of where I sit in the ground, I am often nearly the last one out, and as I tramped out with my head down, I looked up to see the unused substitutes coming out for a spot of exercise, after the match. These are players with even less to feel content about than the eleven who failed so badly - they can't even get in a bad team - but one of them was laughing and joking as he jogged out. It said everything about the attitude of certain professionals.

More than 7,000 people watched that match, and most of them would have sold their grandmothers for five minutes on the pitch in a red shirt, yet people who get paid for that privilege can't be bothered to find space at a throw-in or run back to defend, and don't have the guts to try something different, apart from the same useless tactic they were trying time and time again against Crewe - namely pumping high balls towards a defence recruited from The Land of the Giants.

It's not really their fault that they have no ability, no intelligence and no imagination, but when they also have no will to even try to improve, then there's no more point in them being there.

Me neither.

April 3, 2009

Gore in the genes

Just a little thought for a Friday morning: the ability to stomach gory things - is this linked to a particular gene?

I wonder because there is a serious and amazing discrepancy among people walking around with Carter genes in their DNA.

I am the most squeamish person I know. I've only actually fainted once - last year, when I found out I had some more tears on my retina and would have to undergo more (conscious) laser treatment on my eye - but I would have fainted more often if it hadn't been for my instinct to look away and detach myself whenever confronted by anything slightly medical. When surgery comes on the telly, I hide behind cushions or just leave the room, I have to have blood tests lying down, and I even have to look away when the vet injects one of our cats.

The only exception is Holly's insulin injections, which I realised I needed to be able to withstand (and even do one if necessary, which I did), but they are only slightly invasive anyway.

All this is in stark contrast to my relatives, who - it has to be said - exhibit a seriously creepy ability to put up with gory things happening, right in front of their eyes, at their fingertips and even to themselves.

My brother-in-law is a senior paramedic, but as he's not a blood relation, he doesn't count. But both his sons (Glyn and Gary) are in the same business, and their mother (my sister, Carol) works in a doctors' surgery. Then there's my other nephew, Richard, who also picks up damaged, dying and dead people for a living - and loves it. The latest entry on his blog explains, with relish, that his current studies/training involves actually taking part in an autopsy. My dad was also partly in that trade - as a fireman/ambulanceman for the Swindon Railway Works, and would come home with stories about removing dead people - or at least bits of them - from the line.

Then there are my two older brothers, who have both undergone major transplants with hardly a blink of the eye. My oldest brother, Ron (who also worked in the pharmaceutical industry, surrounded by all kinds of devices for giving people like me nightmares) requested an uncut version of the TV documentary featuring the gorier bits of his heart transplant. I, on the other hand, have begun every conversation with medical staff with: "I'd really prefer it if you didn't give me any kind of running commentary."

I suppose it's a good thing that there are people around with these genes, but it would be far better if they were more evenly distributed.

April 1, 2009

Fiddling in the final

Fair play to Holly who tonight gave a brililant performance in the final of her school's Young Musician of the Year competition.

Three years ago, Sean was the Lower School winner, then won the overall school title a year ago, so Holly's music has always been in the shadows a bit, but she came into her own tonight.

It was the third time running she's reached the final, which is no mean feat, and this year there were (apparently a record) 14 entries in her year, with only five making it through. Not only that - she was the only violinist to qualify from her year. Indeed, she was one of only two violinists in the final, and since the other was younger, you could say she is the champion violinist. Actually, there's an especially talented violinist in her year, but he isn't keen to perform, didn't make the effort to enter and - as we said at the concert - it's no good being the best if you stay at home.

Tonight Holly played better than I've ever heard her before, but was beaten by a really talented clarinetist from her year and another girl who played - of all things, and surprisingly beautifully - a euphonium.

Holly's problem is that although she worked hard for this competition, she is not as keen to practise and move on as Sean, who never had to be reminded. At the moment, she has the excuse that she gets a lot of homework, so doesn't get much time, but we're hoping she realises how good she is and puts more into it.


One of tonight's World Cup qualifying results: Bolivia 6 Argentina 1.

Possibly the most unbelievable football result I've ever heard. But it turns out that it was played on a bumpy pitch, and the more convincing mitigating factor is that it was played at very high altitude.

Still, pretty amazing, all the same.