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May 30, 2009

It's a Knockout


Julie did the family proud today, taking part in an It's a Knockout competition at Lydiard Park - part of the Swindon Festival of Sport.

She was in a works team - called Capitallstars, who surprisingly nearly lived up to their name, qualifying for the semi-finals out of about 20 teams.

In scorching weather, all the competitors seemed to be having a whale of a time - though some, like Julie, will regret getting too much sun tomorrow, while every bone in their bodies will be aching.













There are more, Capita-oriented pictures on Flickr.


Daisy among the daisies


Time for another cute cat pic. Well, we do love cats in our house, and they do cost us a fortune, so we might as well make the most of them.

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May 28, 2009

Time out


I can't explain how weird it feels to go to a retirement do when the person celebrating is not some old duffer you work with, or some old bloke who lives down the road and moved into his house in 1957, or even an older brother (one of whom has retired) - but somebody you went to school with, and is only 48 years old.

Our friend Lukey (pictured, above, with his wife, Julie) is taking early retirement from being a director of a busy printing company, having decided that a couple of health scares in the last couple of years should be heeded.

I've always thought of him as an incurable workaholic, but if there is any doubt that he is doing the right thing, you only have to look at his hobbies to see that they are eminently suited to the lifestyle he is switching to. It's not just a case of removing stress from his life, but rather of spending more time on things that actively and positively promote relaxation and wellbeing, such as gardening, walking and watching cricket on telly.

Given the chance, I'd do the same thing tomorrow. Or rather: today. Except the gardening. Hopefully, he won't find too much time to practise tennis, as we play mixed doubles against him and Julie every week, and we're hoping to extend our winning streak.

His do was at The Victoria, Swindon, where we joined with lots of current and former workmates - some of whom I knew - and we were treated to some custom-made entertainment. Firstly, his two sons, John and Frank, along with Frank's girlfriend, played three songs, starting with a slick interpretation of Al Stewart's Year of the Cat - all of which was excellent. Then what I believe is the Vic's house band, including Frank and his girlfriend, came on. They were also very good, especially lead guitarist Frank, who looks so much like a rock star, you think he can't possibly live up to expectations, but does.

I'm saying this much sooner than I ever imagined, but: happy retirement, my old school chum.








I want one of those


This art deco computer keyboard has just moved to the top of my Christmas list, assuming it is Mac-compatible. It also goes to the top of the Things I Can't Believe Nobody Thought of Before list. There is more information and more pictures here.

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May 27, 2009

United they fall

Being a football supporter is a kind of curse, bringing much more pain than pleasure, especially when you are stuck with pinning your hopes on Swindon Town and England - two teams that seem to have a pathological ability to disappoint.

So any pleasure you can derive from watching a match is welcome, and I certainly took great pleasure in watching Manchester United lose 2-0 against Barcelona in tonight's European Cup final. In fact, I can't remember when I last enjoyed a match quite so much.

Some people have suggested there is some kind of disloyalty in wanting the British team to lose, but I counter this by asking what Manchester United have ever done for us.

They are the biggest single reason why British football has become a money-grabbing business, not a sport. They have the players most likely to crowd round the ref and shout in his face following those rare moments when decisions go against them. They are a club that is mostly supported by people who don't live in Manchester and should be supporting their local team instead (so don't talk to me about loyalty). They are also the team that shows disdain for the FA Cup by putting out weakened sides, and in 2000/1 virtually proclaimed themselves bigger than the competition by pulling out of it altogether. So what have they ever done for us?

On the other hand, tonight's opponents, Barcelona, are the biggest local team in the world, being the embodiment of Catalan (not Spanish) identity (and they were partly founded by Englishmen).

Like United, Barcelona are a very very rich club, but whereas United just seem to get richer and richer while little clubs get poorer and poorer, Barcelona give something back by wearing the Unicef logo on their shirts, not the name of any sponsors. They give £1million a year to the charity, which doesn't sound like a large proportion of their budget, but it has been estimated that shirt sponsorship would cost £15million if you could buy it (you can't).

The match also vindicated my long-held belief that Ronaldo is the most over-rated player in the world, as he once again proved himself to be incapable of doing what defines truly great players - turning a match when the chips are down and your teammates aren't responding.

All these things considered, it was indeed a pleasure to see United not only beaten, but thoroughly outclassed by a much better team.


Hot Property

I finished reading Property today, a book by Valerie Martin.

It's another of the books that Sean has been reading for A Level English, but unlike The Kite Runner, the other one on the curriculum that I've (partly) read, this one has something going for it.

It's about the wife of a cotton plantation owner in a southern US state in the 1820s, and her relationship with her husband and the family slaves. She's a thoroughly misearable character who deserves her brute of a husband and her miserable plight, so I'm not sure how the author manages to make the story so compelling or elicit any kind of sympathy in the reader.

But she does. We should be well and truly on the side of the slaves, whom the husband deals with through senseless violence, and the heroine treats with complete disdain. Yet there are times when you are rooting for things to be all right for her in the end, even though she deserves everything she gets.

It's not the best-written book I've ever read, often lapsing into a breathless, almost juvenile style. And the story is sometimes a bit thin, especially at the end, when it fizzles out, but it is quite an interesting look at attitudes to slavery. The most interesting point it seems to be making is the owners didn't care about the slaves - not out of inhumanity, but simply because their privileged lifestyles meant the possibility that they might be morally wrong simply never occurred to them.

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May 24, 2009

Happy birthdays

Not one but two birthday parties (of a kind) today - Julie's Uncle Fred's 80th, and our nextdoor neighbour Kevin's 40th.

Uncle Fred's celebration family dinner at the Kembrey Inn was supposed to have happened around his birthday in November, but you can't rush an 80-year-old - and having it in May meant it coincided with a couple of other family birthdays. After the meal, the family made the most of the surprisingly glorious Bank Holiday weekend weather by lounging about in our garden.

It also gave us another chance to see my brother/sister-in-law's new puppy, Millie, which duly produced a cat-meets-puppy picture (by Steve) of almost unbearable cuteness (below).

Kevin's evening party - at the County Ground - reminded us of how lucky we are to have good neighbours all around us. We even enjoy that old-fashioned neighbourly spirit which is supposed to be rare these days, and the party gave us the chance to get to know each other a little more. It's only in those situations that you appreciate that you don't know each other as well as you thought.

I discovered that Don, the old guy across the street, who is 79, was orginally from the East End of London, and he told me how he survived a Doodlebug attack in 1944, when he was 14.

He was working in a shop that was next door to one that took a direct hit. Of eight employees in his shop, only three survived - including him and a man who told him to dive under a hefty table when he realised the Doodlebug was very close. They were buried under the rubble for five hours. The other man had a broken arm, but Don only had a black eye.

He said about 35 people were killed by that single bomb, and remembers looking back at Burton's, the shop that took the direct hit, which was reduced to a single wall. A dead body was hanging out of one of the windows and couldn't be retrieved because the wall was unsafe.

Curiously, he said he didn't hear the blast, only the sound of the building coming down around him. He reckoned they were too close to hear it, being consumed by the blast instead.

He never actually saw the Doodlebug arriving, but on other occasions, he watched others flying across the sky. Londoners often recalled dreading the sound of the engines suddenly cutting out, because that meant they were ready to fall to their targets, but Don said it was the sight of the flames at the back suddenly stopping that he remembers, rather than the sound stopping.

It's amazing what stories people have to tell, if only the opportunities to tell them come up, and you can get them to tell you.


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May 23, 2009

The final frontier

I am going to have to stop going to the pictures.

I've just sat through two hours of Star Trek - the new movie that borrows the original characters and the Enterprise, but otherwise has virtually nothing to do with Star Trek.

Everybody else seems to love the film, but for me it was nothing more than a space-themed action movie, and my problem is: I hate action movies. I've never watched a whole James Bond film, nor a Terminator, Die Hard or anything else of that genre. That sort of thing leaves me stone cold.

Unfortunately, you always get an action movie, these days, whether you like it or not, no matter what you go to see. I think I was the only person on the planet who didn't like Slumdog Millionaire - because that degenerated into a silly gangster movie, after a promising beginning.

Well, Star Trek doesn't degenerate. It is an action movie, from the outset, and apart from the fact that it's set in space, it has virtually nothing to do with science fiction as I understand it. I'm no expert, but surely the point of science fiction is to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before, rather than being another excuse for more fist fights, explosions and cliffhangers every ten minutes.

When Kirk is hanging by his fingertips from a precipice for the third time, I'm sat there hoping he falls. He spends the rest of his time doing un-Kirklike things, such as picking fights in bars. All of the fights are unnecessarily bloody and violent.

Sure, there were often fisticuffs in the original Star Trek, but it was always over in seconds, and it was always a last resort or portrayed as futile. In this film, Kirk is beaten nearly to a pulp no less than three times - the last time by Spock, who used to be the last person in the whole of the universe who would resort to unnessary violence. He also used to be the last person in the universe who would think about having a secret affair with Uhura.

Even the Enterprise is out of character. The orginal, brilliant design was minimalist, but now it's filled with bright lights, shiny consoles and over-elaborate computer graphics - but that's in keeping with the film as a whole, the Enterprise being just one more element in a glorified shoot-em-up video game of a film.

Surely the point of Star Trek - its absolute, over-riding, unshakable essence - was that all the problems they ever came across could be solved with varying quantities of Kirk's wisdom, Spock's logic and Scotty's ingenuity. That's why it was so great.

Before the film, we were treated to subjected to two trailers for yet more action films. One was the latest Terminator garbage, and the other was something about some renegade saving the world from aliens, which I can't remember the name of. Thank goodness I'm not here to watch crap like that, I thought.

But I was.

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May 22, 2009

Boldly going

Well, it's official. I am going back to school - not as a pupil, but as a teacher.

I'm going to be running a course (probably) called The Secrets of Impressive Writing. It's a six-week, two-hours-per-week evening class at New College, Swindon, due to start in October.

I have my band colleague Dave to thank for this. He runs beginner guitar courses there, and suggested I got involved. That was months ago, but I've only just got around to/got up the courage to do something about it.

I got to thinking that, just lately, I've been doing stuff that I'm not especially good at and find really challenging - drumming, tennis, even singing - and thought it was about time I did something that I find easy, just for once.

I've always found writing easy, and really enjoy it - hence this blog - but have noticed most other people find it really difficult or, if they think they find it easy, don't realise they are doing it all wrong. The world is full of people who can't even punctuate properly, even though it's the next easiest thing after breathing.

When I phoned the college to suggest a course, I was told they already had people doing vocational feature writing courses and creative writing, thank you very much - but my idea is for something different. Basically, it's all about teaching people to write to impress, which is achieved, firstly, by being correct in grammar, punctuation and spelling, then by applying some easy-to-understand rules and tips, which, I think, can easily elevate anybody to the top five per cent of writers. So, whether they want to write letters of complaint, job applications or novels, they can make their pens mightier than the sword.

Well, that's the plan, anyway. It only goes ahead if at least eight people enrol, so we'll see what happens when it goes in the autumn prospectus.

In the meantime, I've started pulling together material, and came across an interesting web page about split infinitives in general, and the opening words of Star Trek in particular. It's well worth reading - if only to realise that those few words have to be some of the greatest ever written. Not only would William Shakespeare have been chuffed to have written them, but they include several of the very devices I am going to be explaining if I get my eight students to prey upon.


So cool, Frank Lloyd Wright


I'm starting my Christmas list today, and right at the top of it is a new range of architectural Lego, based on the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I'm not quite sure why it's entirely fitting that his buildings should be made into Lego sets, but it is. As Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "Architects may come and architects may go and never change your point of view", by which they meant that Frank Lloyd Wright did change points of view. He's the only major architect I know much or care much about, and his most famous buildings, The Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater, are the first two to be made into Lego sets.

Just in case anybody reading this is wondering what to buy me for Christmas, I'd prefer Fallingwater*, but I'll settle for the Guggenheim.

*There's a nice computer graphic video of Fallingwater on YouTube.

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May 17, 2009

Return of the Monkey Dolls


The shoe was on the other foot today as we (me, Julie and Holly) went to see my drum teacher, Paul Ashman, play in his band, The Monkey Dolls.

He's usually the one listening to me, in my drumming lessons, but today was all about how to do it right, rather than being mostly about what I'm doing wrong.

The Monkey Dolls have been going for a few years and I'd seen them before, but today they had a brand new bass player, and Paul took on some of the singing, as well as drumming. So the gig, at the Fox and Hounds in Wroughton, was a bit of a relaunch.

As I've said in this blog before, drumming and singing at the same time is hard enough if you're playing simple rhythms and no fills, but almost impossible if they are complex rhythms and fancy fills, like Paul's. But he coped well with the challenge, and the band not only have a nice, strong sound, but also good taste. Some of it was newer stuff - Muse, Coldplay, Green Day, etc - but they included some classics by The Police, The Jam and The Undertones. If you like that sort of music, you can't go wrong with The Monkey Dolls.

One of the consolations of my own drumming efforts is that while I may not be great myself, what I have learned about the art means I can appreciate it more when other people are playing well. It always helps to know why something is good, even if you can't do it yourself. The same goes for watching live bands. Having seen it from the other side of the fence, I can get more out of watching other people play live. If nothing else, I can appreciate and understand the challenges they are overcoming.

As in many walks of life, the trick is to be inspired by quality. In other fields, I am often inspired by excellence, but when it comes to drumming, for some reason I am much more likely to feel dejected by the realisation that "I'll never be able to do that". For a while now I've had the sneaking suspicion that the solution is to go out of my way to watch bad drummers, not good ones, so I can come away buoyed up with a sense that "I can do better than them."

The same may also be true of tennis.


The kiss of death

I've felt like doing a bit of a Nineteen Eighty Four and re-writing history, after a couple of incidents in the last couple of days seemed to make a nonsense of a previous blog entry.

Ever since putting down the BNP and saying positive things about the community spirit of the Broad Street/Manchester Road area of Swindon, you could be excused for thinking the place has descended into anarchy, and on the face of it, my sentiments look ridiculous. First there was this firebomb trial. Then, last night, this stabbing.

I was thinking I had maybe given the place the kiss of death, but wait. On second thoughts, I'm sticking by what I said. People always fall into the trap of judging things on insufficient information or on random incidents which might seem to tell the whole story, but nothing is ever proof of anything if taken in isolation. It's a bit like the idea that was going around a few years ago, that all football supporters are hooligans. That sort of thing is best left to the Daily Mail and its readers.

Who's to say that this report isn't a more accurate representation of the community?

Perhaps most revealing about the way news is presented and the way people receive it are the readers' comments below this good-news story, which generally seem to be saying that no matter how many good vibes comes out of the area, they are only going to acknowledge the bad ones. They seem really disappointed by the Adver's admirably balanced and responsible approach to reporting what goes on in the area. The exception is a reader who calls himself (or herself) Tiger13, who is by far the most qualified to comment and is by far the most positive. Tiger13 is also the most fluent and accurate in his/her argument, while few of the others seem to have mastered the basics of punctuation, spelling, grammar or vocabulary. This is one of the best reasons I can think of for disregarding what they say.

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May 16, 2009

Knowing me, knowing you - aha!

Imagine going to a wedding when you know virtually nobody else who's going - not even the bride and groom.

Well, that was my fate tonight as we went along to the wedding of one of Julie's former school friends, whom she's got in contact with again in the last couple of years. Five or six of them meet up, occasionally, to go out for posh meals.

Apart from one of the group who, coincidentally, also used to work with Julie, I'd never met any of them, except to give them a lift, so they'd never really met me either, apart from the back of my head.

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, and for an agonising night of feeling like a right prune - so how come it turned out to be a really enjoyable night?

For a start, the bride, Kay, and the groom, Kevin, were both the kind of people who you needed to spend no more than one second with to be able to make the judgement that they were both nice people and very welcoming.

Then it turns out that out of about 100 guests, whom you could say were more or less a random selection of people from Swindon, from my viewpoint, several weren't strangers after all. My cousin Nicola and her husband were also there, plus the parents of one of Sean's school friends, along with a lady who used to live opposite my brother, who remembered also seeing us at a concert in Marlborough. And one of Julie's gang of friends turned out to be the niece of a late friend of mind. We'd both been to his funeral. Julie's friends and their partners were also so friendly that it was easy to forget that we hardly knew each other.

Another interesting thing about wedding guests: at nearly every wedding I go to these days, there's a man wearing a kilt.

The wedding coincidences are just some of a whole series that have sprung up lately. For instance, our mum's new friend at her care home has talked to us about her two sons on several occasions, and I've just realised that I not only used to work with one of them, but for about a year, I sat opposite him.

Most people would say "Small world!" to all this, but that's the wrong way to look at it. It's more about probabilities being generally more likely than people imagine, and about the vast number of people you connect with during your life - especially by the time you get to my age. I should be more surprised about the days I walk through town and don't see anybody I recognise.


Australian odyssey

Most definitely under the 'small world' heading (see above), is the family history stuff that is coming through about a branch of the family that emigrated to Australia, starting in 1882. It turns out that of all the places in all the world, my great grandmother's brother decided to settle was Rozelle, which is a small suburb of Sydney. The street where he lived is just around the corner from Balmain (in fact, their street joins on to Balmain Road), which is where our friends Steve and Susan used to own a flat. We visited them there when we went to Australia in 2001.

I was going to speculate on whether this ancestor could have had a distant view of Sydney Opera House from his house, as Rozelle isn't so far from where it stands, but it's easy to forget that it was completed nearly a century after he arrived - in 1973.

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May 15, 2009

When computers ruled the earth

I should have mentioned that last weekend we bought something really cool, but the significance of it in terms of how technology has transformed our lives didn't occur to me at first.

We became the proud owners of a wonderful new Mac - this time a super-duper MacBook. We hadn't intended to get one, but Sean needed something fast and powerful to run some music software he uses at college, and which he will continue to need in further/higher education. And since our existing G4 Mac laptop is now more than three years old, we decided to invest in the new model.

That brings to the total of Macs we now own to four, including an ageing back-up I have in my office plus my main work/leisure machine. And when you add Sean's PC that he bought for college/internet/games/music, we now have five computers in the house (if you don't count Julie's work laptop that she sometimes brings home).

That means we have more personal computers in the house than people.


Love that Shuttle


I have to confess that I spent more than half an hour, yesterday, watching NASA TV - when I should have been working or doing something more constructive. I just happened to visit the site when an EVA (spacewalk) was beginning, and couldn't tear myself away from watching two blokes floating around, pulling levers, opening things and pushing them about - much of it from cameras mounted on the astronauts' helmets, and all of it live. They were also at it today.

I'm perfectly serious when I say I could have watched it for hours.

Then, today, I discover this amazing picture (above) on the NASA website, apparently taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, showing the Space Shuttle Atlantis passing in front of the sun before coming around again to dock with the telescope.

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May 11, 2009

The trouble with Hubble


There was an unexpected treat, today, for those of us with hundreds of useless TV channels to choose from and only a handful of good ones: a live Shuttle launch.

Thanks to Discovery, we were able to watch Atlantis lift off at teatime, carrying equipment to beef up the Hubble Space Telescope. If I live to be 500, I'll never tire of seeing what NASA is up to, and it's our privilege to live in an age that has pushed the boundaries so far.

Not that those self-appointed miserable gainsayers over at the BBC were impressed as they took time out from being the (again self-appointed) official opposition to the government to tell us what a useless piece of junk Hubble is, with the ever-present suggestion that those gormless duffers at NASA don't know their Uranuses from their elbows.

The rapidly deteriorating BBC News Website carried a report that is a strange mixture of sensationalised dumbing down and proper scientific reporting, which suggests that either a sub-editor or the editor himself got at its author, science reporter Paul Rincon. Or else they have brainwashed their scientific experts into succumbing to the BBC's glass-three-quarters-empty mentality.

According to their report, "Hubble has been hit by failures to its science instruments and to the onboard gyroscopes that are used to point the observatory at targets in the sky", and they were also keen to point out that the "risky mission" was to "fix" Hubble. As the astronaut brought in to help commentate on the launch on Discovery said to the host: "I wish you wouldn't call it 'fixing'. We call it 'servicing'."

Something else the BBC is at pains to omit is the fact that Hubble was designed to last 15 years but has already lasted 19, and the refit will, according to NASA, "improve the telescope's discovery capabilities by up to 70 times while extending its lifetime through at least 2014".

This is the kind of dross the report includes:

"At a news conference after lift-off, NASA's Michael Moses said the Shuttle had experienced two minor malfunctions during the climb to orbit: a circuit-breaker problem and a 'flaky' transducer which had set off alarms. Neither had much effect on the launch."

Wait a minute. If they were "minor malfunctions" and "neither had much effect on the launch", why are we being told about them? They're irrelevant. The first rule of journalism is: put the interesting and relevant stuff at the top of your report and the not so important/irrelevant stuff later. Yet this crap is near the top, and we have to wait until near the end before the BBC admits: "Launched in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope is now regarded as one of the most important instruments in the history of astronomy. It has made a remarkable contribution to our understanding of the origin and evolution of the Universe."

I wish the BBC would not treat all its viewers like it treats those who watch EastEnders, that unremitting bad example to young viewers of which it is so proud. We don't all want to be presented with wall-to-wall conflict, pointless accusations and terminal negativity every time we switch on the BBC. Just once in a while, when the human race pulls off something truly magnificent like the Shuttle and Hubble, it would be nice for somebody in the media - and especially the BBC - to celebrate it, instead of trying to find some way to knock it.

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May 9, 2009

Lowlife

The Swindon branch of the BNP (British National Party) were out in force today.

Well, when I say "out in force", that's relative. I counted half a dozen of them, loitering with intent behind a wallpaper pasting table that was pressed into service as some kind of stall. Actually, there were seven if you count the hefty bloke nearby, who was sat against a tree, reading the Daily Express. But he looked as if he might only have been there in case trouble kicked off. Hopefully, that is the extent of their membership in town.

They were giving away newspapers and trying, in vain, to hand out leaflets about pulling out of the European Union, but for some reason, they had set up outside the old Clarence Street School, on some waste land, behind a bus shelter. I think their idea must have been something to do with recruiting new members from the streams of people walking from the Spring Gardens car park to the bus station, from where buses were ferrying people to the Radio One Big Weekend, which is in Swindon this weekend. Sadly for them (but not for Swindon's reputation), they were 300 yards away from the prime location, and probably would have encountered no festivalgoers whatsoever, where they stood. Obviously, thinking things through is not their strong point.

I passed them on my way to the barber's, and again on the way back, by which time their membership was depleted by another one, to five. I expect the other guy had gone off to pick up some medication or something. I had a good look at them this time, but without making eye contact, trying to work out what sort of people they were. For some reason, something that one of Rowan Atkinson's characters once said popped into my head: I wouldn't trust any of them to sit the right way on a lavatory.

Two minutes further down the road, I entered the Broad Street/Manchester Road area of Swindon, which has by far the highest concentration of the town's Asians, who are probably the people the BNP would most prefer to see driven out of their homes. It's not the richest part of town, but it's not an intimidating place to walk through, either. There always seem to be lots of people about, just getting on with their lives, and in the last couple of years, a lot of little shops, selling groceries and fresh fruit and vegetables, have sprung up, creating a nice community feel.

I know who's side I'm on.

Later on, it occurred to me that the BNP crowd had exactly the right number of people to be able to make up a team to enter in Eggheads.

Then again: perhaps not.


Drivel

It's not often that I read any fiction, and it's very rare for me not to finish a novel I've started, but I've made an exception for The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

This is possibly the worst book I've ever (partly) read, having only managed 75 pages before I threw it down in dismay. It's certainly the most miserable book I've ever had the misfortune to own, being a kind of fictional equivalent to 'misery-lit' - those true stories of child abuse and other depressing subjects that are popular these days, especially with women.

For a start, The Kite Runner is badly written. The author's biggest sin is continually hinting at impending doom and melancholy in an attempt to whet the reader's appetite for even more misery. Rather than doing this with symbolism, like a good author might, it's blatant. For instance, the narrator, Amir, has a friend called Hassan who has a hair lip, and when he has that fixed, any feelings of joy or even relief for him are obliterated, even as he is beaming after the operation, as the author tells us "that was the last time I saw Hassan smile".

Charming. So we know he's in for a bad time, and it's no surprise when something bad happens to him: he gets raped by the local yobbo. Why raped and not beaten up? We don't find out, except the whole thing seems to be an excuse for the author to bang on about his friend Amir's regret that he didn't step in and prevent it when he had the opportunity. Thus, any sympathy for Amir becomes impossible, and there seems to be no point in reading the rest of the book, apart from wanting Amir to get his comeuppance.

The only good thing I can say about the book is you do get to learn something about how people live in Afghanistan, which is quite enlightening.

I decided to read the book because Sean is studying it for his A Level English, but unless they are studying it too, I have some useful advice for anybody thinking about reading this book: don't.

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May 7, 2009

Sting singing

I've been on this planet for nearly 48 years now and, until tonight, something I'd never done before was sing. Not a single note. At least, not outside the shower, not in public.

But you're only young old once, and I always say you should try (nearly) anything at least once, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

Last week, our band decided we didn't have enough slow, smoochie songs in our repertoire, so we started kicking around ideas about what to include. I've never liked any of the songs bands and discos always play for people to slow dance to, so we inevitably ended up suggesting and even choosing some that are, quite frankly, dismal - no other word for them.

But we also came up with two that I like a lot - Elton John's I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues and Sting's Fields of Gold - both of which I'm really keen to have in the set because a) they're good, and b) they make up for the boring ones. The former has an excellent bluesy drum groove that's a pleasure to play, and the latter is a simply beautiful and beautifully simple song which has always been in my Top 100.

Well, the Elton John one is just too difficult to do without a lot of preparation, so we're working on that, but we immediately tried Fields of Gold, with guitarist Dave trying the vocals. But he's more used to the Eva Cassidy version, and his voice just didn't fit the song. All the time he was trying to sing it, I was humming it and thinking I could reach all the notes. That was last week, and after a week of deliberation and advice from my drum teacher (Paul Ashman), I decided to volunteer to give it a try.

There are many drawbacks to this. Firstly, not having sung before, I didn't have a clue whether I could get away with it, or even how to do it. Even if I could, I wasn't sure I could drum at the same time. Even if you're a great drummer - and I'm not - it's incredibly difficult to drum and sing at the same time. Just drumming on its own is much harder than most watchers ever realise, and for most drummers, it's only remotely possible to sing, too, if you keep the drumming ultra-simple.

Unfortunately, I have no intention of doing it without the psychological 'protection' of a full drum kit between me and the audience, so, if I can't sit behind it while I'm singing, I won't be doing it in public. But as I first needed to find out whether I could get away with it at all, before trying it with drums, my first few attempts were sans drums. And boy, was that a weird experience.

The scariest thing about singing is not other people listening to you - which is scary enough - but hearing your own voice coming back at you. I was amazed to be singing into the microphone with one voice and hearing a completely different one coming out of the amp, compared with how it sounds in my head. It's much less mellow than I thought, and higher, which was disappointing.

However, it wasn't too bad. I did reach all the notes, stayed in tune (apparently - I couldn't really tell) and the other guys were encouraging. But there was no doubt there was something missing. What I'd discovered is: it's not enough just to sing along. You have to project, rather than (as lead guitarist Roy accurately puts it) sing into your chest. And since Fields of Gold is a gentle, restrained song, if you try too hard to project, you'll end up spoiling it. If I doubted the power of Sting's voice before, I certainly take my hat off to him now.

After about four attempts, I think I was making progress, so then tried it with the drums. The song has a very nice off-beat bass, but that would have to be sacrificed, which is a shame. Putting it in would call for extra thinking, and what little scraps of conscious thought I could muster after concentrating on singing were swallowed up with all the other things I needed to process - counting to make sure I come in at the right spot, trying to remember the words, trying to remember to keep my mouth near the mic, trying not to look terrified and wondering what the hell I am doing putting myself through such torture. I couldn't even tell if I had kept in time, but was told I had.

So the only way to do it was with the simplest of beats, which I can play more or less automatically, and this worked fairly well. The only problem is it was possibly too overpowering for the song - especially as I had even less control than usual over how hard I was hitting everything. We tried it with no drums except a rim click (the drumstick brought down flat on the rim of the snare drum with my left hand), which was OK, then just a tambourine, which didn't fit. Finally, I did it with just a jam block - which sounds like it's made of hardwood - and that worked best of all, especially as I could play it with my right hand instead of my left.

For the last attempt, I even had my first audience - of one. The lady who runs the club where we practise came down to have a listen, and seemed to really like it, although I'm not sure whether she applauded the choice of song or the performance. Probably the former.

Whether or not I ever get to play it outside rehearsal is another thing. The band haven't ruled it out, but I will need a lot more practise before I can do it for real. Or have the nerve to.

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May 5, 2009

On the buses


For the first time in ages - probably about 25 years - tonight I got on a bus in Swindon. It was like stepping into a parallel world.

The reason for my bus trip today was it was our monthly lads' night out (LNO). We try to do something different every month, and this month's organiser, Pete, had the idea of a trip to Wootton Bassett for a couple of drinks and an all-you-can-eat Chinese meal. Partly for practical reasons but also to add some spice to it, instead of going by car, we went by bus - me and James on the number 6 to the bus station (pictured below) and then all five of us on the number 55 from the bus station to Bassett.

It's a parallel world because the bus-riding people who ive in it have a significantly different lifestyle to me. They visit streets and places I never go to, sit next to characters and personality types I don't meet, and - here's the bad bit - become slaves to the great bus inspector in the sky.

Buses are supposed to give people a kind of freedom - to travel where they want - and this would appeal to my nature if it were true. But, far from feeling liberated, buses make me feel like a slave who is bound by routes, timetables, bus stops and tickets. I just can't be bothered with all that working out of routes, trying to decipher timetables, finding the exact location of bus stops, calculating which ticket is most economical and scratching around for the right fare because they don't give change. It just seems so much bother. It's not just that cars are so much more convenient, because I'd also rather walk or cycle than try to make my way by bus.

Some people don't like buses just because they're snobs. They don't like rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed, and I once heard it said that you are a failure if you travel by bus. That's the sort of thing that is put about by people with an unnatural obsession with car ownership (not just with cars), especially those people who drive big, ugly ones to match their egos and their faces. So don't give me that. If anything, resorting to driving is a kind of failure, particularly in these green-conscious days, and it sometimes makes me feel guilty.

I'm also pretty sure that the nature of bus journeys has changed since the dim and distant days when I used to ride the 485 into town - at least if tonight's experience is anything to go by. Riding the number 55 is like taking a mystery tour of Swindon town centre, West Swindon and Wootton Bassett, via a convoluted and sometimes bizarre route. I seem to remember buses were invented to take you from A to B, but this one took in lots of places along the way - more like an A to B via C, D, E, F, G, H and I. Even at the best of times, they never seem to take people from A to B any more, and unless you are really lucky, the best you can hope for is A to B via C. All these roundabout routes seem to enslave bus travellers even more.

Yet buses are surely the transport of the future - especially mine. Not only are they the green alternative, but bus travel being free for the over-60s means that the only sensible thing to do from 2021, when I will qualify, is going to be to hop on the bus much more often than once every 25 years.

There is an entertaining blog based on Swindon buses, called Swindon Centric, although the best bit - Top Ten Things Overheard on Swindon's Buses Last Week - is an idea borrowed from another site.



Clouding the issue


Unless I'm very much mistaken, there were some cirrocumulus clouds around this morning. Or were they altocumulus?

No, I'm 95 per cent sure they were cirrocumulus. That's my educated guess after watching a strangely impelling programme on BBC4 last night (first broadcast the day before, I think), called Cloudspotting, and based on a book of the same name.

It was an hour and a half of stuff about the different types of clouds, and packed with interesting information. I can honestly say that those 90 minutes went by like five, it was so interesting, even though Julie and the kids were dumbfounded that anybody would want to watch a programme about clouds. And they were ready to dial 999 when I said I was considering recreating one of the experiments from the programme - making a cloud in a bottle.

There is only one problem with cloudspotting: you can't be sure you've identified cloud types correctly. You can visit websites like the official Cloud Appreciation Society's, which featured heavily in the programme, and Wikipedia, which define the different types, but it's hard for a novice. In fact, sometimes clouds can be gone before you make up your mind.

This uncertainty goes against my sometimes obsessional need to find out the exact details of things, and having 95 per cent confidence in getting your facts right is not enough - by five per cent. As very few things in the world are more ethereal and temporary than clouds, it's always going to be that way.

However, there is a certain sick satisfaction to be had in knowing that the best clouds of all are called crepuscular. These are the ones with holes in, so the sun can stream through in beams - a sight which makes some people think God might appear at any moment, while others can't help imaginging the coming of a white-haired, bearded cartoon bloke, as seen in Monty Python, depending on their grip on reality.

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May 3, 2009

King Al


What a great Bank Holiday weekend this is turning out to be. After returning home from the wedding (see below), I went with my friend Pete to see Al Stewart perform at The Brook, Southampton.

Seeing Al is not exactly a new experience for me as this is at least the 19th time I've seen him in concert (I've lost count), but the first time since November 2006, when he was appearing at the Albert Hall. In that one he was backed by a large band, but this time it was back to the usual format of the last 10-20 years - just Al with a guitar, accompanied by a great guitarist. Not that Al is a bad guitarist himself, but this time he played with Laurence Juber, a very highly respected fingerstyle guitarist whose main claim to fame is that for a while he was the lead guitarist with Wings, and has collaborated on several of Al's more recent albums.

Al, whose biggest hit, Year of the Cat, is now 33 years old, is now 63 himself, but looked fit, well and very happy to be playing tonight. He was in excellent form and was also happy to talk about each song before playing them - always a big part of the entertainment, because the subject matter of his songs is always interesting.

The atmosphere was good, too. The venue - I saw him there before, a few years ago - doesn't look very promising from the outside, being a converted old estate pub, but it holds about 300, and was full, including a surprising number of younger people, so it's nice to know he is being discovered by a younger audience. We stood right down by the stage, almost as close to Al as it was possible to get.

I haven't listened to much Al stuff recently, because I've been busy trying to drum to various other songs our band plays, and because I've been trying to broaden my horizons with contemporary stuff - Fleet Foxes, Elbow and Seasick Steve, especially - so it was nice to be reminded of what a great songwriter Al was and is.

He played the best tracks from his latest album, Sparks of Ancient Light, and included some gold-plated Al classics - Lord Grenville, Carol, Night Train to Munich and Soho (Needless To Say) plus The Coldest Winter in Memory, which is almost certainly the only song to be written about King Charles XII of Sweden in the last 300 years.

I've listened to these songs so much over the years, to hear them played live again is like meeting old friends.




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May 1-3, 2009

Gary and Natalie


A few years ago I would never have imagined myself saying this, but I like a good wedding.

Today it was the turn of my sister Carol's younger son, Gary, who married Natalie - one of those people it's easy to take an instant liking to. If it wasn't already a great weekend, Holly was also one of the bridesmaids - for the second time in her life - which naturally made us proud parents too.

You'll never go to a wedding and see a couple more obviously suited than Gary and Natalie, and as they have already been living together for a while, they are also living proof of a little theory I have formulated to explain why weddings are more enjoyable than they used to be. Nobody gets married these days without first finding out whether they actually get along together first, so these days you're not just celebrating a wedding based on hope. You're celebrating a successful marriage.

The wedding was in Exeter and the reception in Cullompton, Devon, where they live, and we travelled down and stayed two night's at my sister's in Wiveliscombe, Somerset. There was a wedding eve gettogether with skittles on Friday, and we popped back to the reception venue on Sunday morning, for a wedding breakfast with the happy couple and half the guests.

As far as we could tell, absolutely everything ran perfectly to plan, except the choice of honeymoon - their intended destination of Mexico being ruled out because of swine flu. The poor souls have to make do with Barbados instead!

As ever, I ran around like a mad thing during the day, taking 300 pictures, knowing from experience that if I took loads, I was sure to end up with enough decent ones to fill a separate page. They're here.

Here's to the next family wedding - another nephew, Trevor, who's marrying his partner, Conny, in August.

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May 1, 2009

Permission to speak, Captain Mainwaring

Not much to say today, except I want everybody to know that I am alive and well, and haven't died of swine flu. Not yet, anyway. Mind you, I've been on NHS Direct and I haven't ruled out swine fever.

I may be wrong about this, but I think the current media frenzy over a flu outbreak on the other side of the world may be going over the top slightly.

You could tell, straightaway, that the BBC were determined to report mountains, not molehills, when they started talking about it becoming a 'pandemic'. According to my dictionary, this is something that is "widespread over a whole country or a large part of the world", which swine flu clearly isn't. Even the lesser 'epidemic', which they would have talked about in the old days, is too strong, because it means "a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time", which I don't think even applies to Mexico, given the fact that the number of deaths there is a tiny fraction of the population - Mexico City being one of the largest and most overcrowded places on earth.

The correct word would have been the one I've already used - 'outbreak' - although as that would not have sounded nearly as melodramatic, you won't find many news reports calling it that, not until the hysteria starts to subside. Those of us who remember the last would-be plague - bird flu - will need more convincing.

Of course, things may change, but hundreds of thousands of people die, every year, from flu, and it doesn't become a true pandemic until the deaths reach the millions, not a couple of hundred. The mere threat of it becoming a pandemic, which is surely true of many other strains of flu, doesn't make it news, and doesn't justify playing on the insecurities of readers/listeners/viewers who are prone to panic.

If you want a good example of the Corporal Jones effect, there was one in yesterday's Swindon Advertiser. In contrast to the silliness displayed by most of the media, however, this nice little story was brilliantly reported, being one of the best examples you will ever see of getting a point across by carefully under-writing it. Read it here.

Two final thoughts: is the way the media have reported the threat of swine flu the same as the way they report the threat of terrorism? And notice the way they don't report what many people, including me, consider more pressing threats, such as climate change.

Oink, oink.


Gotcha, Potter

I have never been a fan of Star Wars or Harry Potter, both of which I think are grossly over-rated, so maybe I will get more pleasure from this than most people, but you have to admit it's clever:


(From www.web-l.com/free-pics/Harry-Potter-is-Star-Wars/)