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June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson

I feel strangely compelled to write something about Michael Jackson, this being one of those momentous days in history when the world seems to have stopped still.

Michael Jackson's was definitely not my kind of music, and I have never owned any of his records if you don't include the duet he did on one of Paul McCartney's albums. Neither do I think that he had quite the influence on music that people are saying he did. He was the king of pop in the Eighties, for sure, but perhaps only because, in terms of musical creativity and originality during that "MTV generation", he was more or less the only one who turned up. And if you analyse the time when he was at the top of his solo game, it was a relatively short period, with a handful of memorable hits, and a long time ago.

That's not to say that he wasn't a great showman, because he was, but it has to be said that the world's other great showmen have never stooped as low as he did to get publicity when they ran out of ideas.

A lot of the talk on the news channels has been about how we must try to remember him for his music, not his eccentricities, some going close to suggesting that because he sold so many records, we should even try to forget that he was almost certainly a paedophile ("Oh yes, he had unnatural relationships with children, but he didn't mean no harm...") Are we to think the same of Gary Glitter?

I also watched some preacher come out and say how Jackson was a hero and a great example to black people. This time we were being asked to turn a blind eye to the fact that if he taught anything to young black Americans, it was surely that they should aspire to spend a fortune on cosmetic surgery so they could turn your backs on their roots and have the face of a white man.

Mind you, the news coverage was compelling, especially during that time when the BBC was holding its breath, not totally convinced that we weren't witnessing one last grotesque publicity stunt. Then they started grabbing his friends for interviews and digging out archive footage, which only served to prove one thing: they are as nutty as he was.

Uri Geller, David Blaine, Liz Taylor, a chimpanzee: these are not people I'd like to have speaking up for me when I get to the pearly gates.

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June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day


I was showered with Father's Day gifts today - and received two cards, which I thoroughly enjoyed, in different ways.

There was Holly's usual homemade one (always the best kind) and Sean's laugh-out-loud one that is exactly my kind of humour.

The gifts included three bottles of real ale; a T-shirt; a travel journal for taking on holiday, plus pens to write it; chocolate; liquorice allsorts; a homemade paperweight; a 3D ruler with wobbling penguins; and a really cute little (2cm across) bookmark in the shape of a camera (pictured).

Perfect.

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June 20, 2009

Checkmate

More kudos to Holly today in what was probably her last appearance for the Wiltshire chess team. She was playing in the Under-14 team, but next year she won't be an under-14 any more, and as I can't see any under-16 or under-18 matches being arranged in the foreseeable future, that's probably it.

So we were really keen for her to go out in style, which she did, winning two of her three matches at a four-team contest in Tiverton, Devon, even though she was board 3, which means she was ranked third in the team, and therefore had to play the other boards 3s from the other counties. In fact, only two of the other three counties were actually counties - Berkshire and Devon - as the other was half a country (South Wales).

As is always the case, the game she lost was a long, drawn-out affair - nobody ever beats her quickly - and it was against the Berkshire board 3, whose team ended up winning the competition. Wiltshire finished third out of the four.

So it was a worthwhile trip that both me and Julie took, and it was made even more worthwhile by the fact that while Holly was slaving over chess boards, we sloped off to visit my sister Carol and her husband Dave, who live an easy, scenic (and today sunny) drive away from Tiverton.

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June 14, 2009

The vinyl frontier


Up, bright and early, this morning, to queue outside Aldi.

Their special offer seemed too good to be true - a USB turntable for £50.

My last record player broke down about 20 years ago, and there never seemed much incentive to get it fixed or replace it, what with CDs, and then that gift from the gods, the iPod. But I've slowly started to miss all those obscure albums and tracks that you can't get in digital form, or else would cost too much - such as a Joni Mitchell album (Shadows and Light) which I'd love to hear all over again, and a few one-hit wonders and B-sides still lurking in a big chestful of records that I keep in the loft.

We'd already decided to be the first in the queue when Aldi sold the turntable this morning, but if I needed proof that we were doing the right thing, I got it at the Strawbs concert on Friday. They produced a classic album called From the Witchwood, which I mostly own the tracks from in digital form, but there are a couple missing, and I don't own it as a complete entity, except as a record. It's expensive to buy on CD, but now I am able to get the vinyl out again and not only listen to it, but also digitise it, and put it on my iPod.

I don't subscribe to the silly view that vinyl sounds better than digital, even if you can get rid of the scratches. I've heard it said that vinyl sounds "warmer" or something, but if it does, I can't hear it. But there are plenty of other aspects of a record that are desirable - and which you only fully understand when you get the record out and play it again: actually handling it and caring for it; the labels, which were a kind of sub-culture with important themes and loyalties; the information on the label, such as the writer and year of creation, which you have to search for on the CD insert, but which are integral to the understanding and enjoyment of the recording; and the sleeve itself, of course, which was not only a great and noble artform, but part of the experience, and something that made the product great value for money (especially compared with the shameless overpricing of CDs by a morally corrupt industry).

When we got the turntable home, we also enjoyed the sight of Sean - somebody who is very 'up' on music technology - trying to come to terms with something that, to him, was like it just landed in a capsule dropped by a flying saucer.

He had to ask us how to properly place the stylus on the record, and wasn't quite sure what the evenly spaced lines were on the surface of record, until we confirmed they were the gaps in-between the tracks.

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June 13, 2009

Singing for my supper


Our band (The Misfits) played another interesting gig tonight - this time at the Bakers Arms, Upper Stratton. And, for the first time in my near-48 years of existence on this planet, I sang to an audience. For the record, it was Sting's Fields of Gold - a song that I used to think was beautiful, but now inevitably associate with the smell of fear and a deep sense of "Whatever possessed me to volunteer to sing?"

Funnily enough, it was by no means the scariest part of the evening. I still find the whole idea of playing drums in front of an audience a terribly challenging thing, which, if I thought too much about, would probably cause me to black out or something. I still approach it thinking that of all the things I could be doing with my Saturday night, setting myself up for something like that has to be the dumbest imaginable, and I'd rather be somewhere else instead.

So when it came to my turn to sing, half-way through the second set, I was still thinking that drumming in front of people is bad enough, and it couldn't become much more of an ordeal. At least there wasn't much of a crowd in.

In the end, the song passed off pretty well. I sang slowly, which is an achievement because your impulse is to rush it and get it over with, and, after all, it is a slow song. I also managed to keep the click going, using a single stick on a jam block (a kind of wood block sound), which is harder than it sounds, especially at the points where the melody goes outside the rhythm. I didn't feel as though I projected it as well as in rehearsals, however, but Julie, who was in the audience, said it sounded good, and didn't sound as if she was necessarily humouring me. I even managed to fool most of the audience, who maybe didn't realise that I had taped the words to one of the drums (above) - because singing without having the lyrics in front of you, to fall back on, is like tightrope walking without a net.

Like Fields of Gold, the rest of the gig went OK, and I thought we sounded pretty good at times. We even managed to play a request - a Gary Moore song that I had not only never practised, but didn't even recognise. I was told to play a swing beat and seemed to get away with it - until somebody hummed how the song actually goes, and I realised there is a distinctive drum part. Still, in the circumstances...

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June 12, 2009

Super Strawbs

The Strawbs were in town tonight, and, for about the eighth time in my life, I went to see them play. It's the concert that we (me, my twin brother Brian, Sean and friend Dave) should have seen in February, but it was snowed off.

I've been a fan of theirs for many years - about 37, I reckon - and it was really nice to see them playing some old favourites, several of which are in my all-time Top 100.

Whenever you explain the Strawbs to everybody you have to say that a) their huge hit, Part of the Union, was untypical of their work, b) you either love or hate the voice of lead singer Dave Cousins, which is very distinctive, and c) they are the finest embodiment of a proper folk-rock band you could ever wish to see.

These days they divide their appearances between a rock band style and the type I've seen three or four times in the last five years - the so-called 'Acoustic Strawbs', a trio.

There's not much more to say, except you can't beat a bit of live music, and I could happily sit and listen to the guitar of Dave Lambert and the voice of Dave Cousins every night.

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June 8, 2009

That's the spirit

We are really enjoying our newly re-found hobby of theatregoing, made possible by the fact that our kids are now old enough to leave at home (although we suspect that Holly, at least, is going to want to come on some of the trips we're planning).

The latest treat was a thoroughly enjoyable production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, at the Watermill near Newbury, a theatre we are trying to make a habit of going to regularly. They do a new production about once a month, and although certain plays in the programme don't appeal to me very much, the general rule is that most things are worth seeing, if only because the place ouses atmosphere.

For productions like Blithe Spirit, it is probably at its best because the set is a compact little sitting room, which makes the venue even more cosy than normal, and you really get a sense of being in the room with the actors, rather than watching from outside.

One thing about more or less any professional theatre production, these days, is the actors are almost always highly skilled at their craft. They wouldn't last five minutes in the profession if they didn't have genuine talent for it, unlike on TV, where any gormless prat can find himself in front of a camera. You hardly ever get any duff acting on the professional stage, but you often find yourself marvelling at just how good some actors are. This production had the added benefit of some clever ghostly effects - and we're still not quite sure how they managed to make the ghosts materialise and dematerialise.

Because tickets are only £12.50 each on Monday nights, which we think is an absolute giveaway, you can't go wrong.

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June 6, 2009

Mega-success

After a very early start - we had to be in Market Lavington, three-quarters of an hour away, before 8am - shifting tables and chairs and then spending all day organising and supervising 28 under-12s/13s, while Julie spent most of the day serving on a refreshments counter - Holly made it all worthwhile with her now customary brilliant showing in the UK Chess Challenge.

This is the biggest chess competition in the world, and today it was the regional (Wilts and Dorset) final (called the Megafinal), from which the qualifiers go on to the national Gigafinal - something that she has done every year for the last six or seven.

These days, on account of being the only under-14 girl competing in the two counties at this level, she only has to turn up to be the Wilts/Dorset 'Suprema' for her age, and would qualify even if she lost all six games on the day.

So it becomes a matter of pride or honour or something, and she always wants to do well in qualifying. Even though she now has to compete against kids who are sometimes much older than herself (as they combine the under-14-18s), and play mostly boys, she won her first four games. Then she came up against a wildcard under-17 in the fifth round, who had come down from Yorkshire because, for some reason or other, he couldn't compete in his regional final and needed to qualify for the Gigafinal as he has an astronomically high grade. She eventually lost that one, then settled for a draw in the last game - so four and a half points out of six on the day, and a well-deserved cup and rosette to add to her collection.


Posh nosh


I'm not normally one for posh food, but tonight found myself eating easily the most expensive meal of my life - along with Julie, Brian (my twin brother) and Sarah (his wife). We were at the Pear Tree in Purton (above), where a friend/colleague was picking up half the bill.

Some people like expensive restaurants because they are expensive, but there's no getting away from the fact that although it was gobsmackingly expensive, the Pear Tree is very creative with its food. Not only was it very tasty, but it somehow managed to be surprisingly filling, too. And speaking as somebody who is always hungry and could always eat a kebab on the way home, that's no mean feat.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, although even if I could afford it, I wouldn't go back to The Pear Tree in a hurry. It's too much of a special treat to make a habit of it.



Cor. Look at that body!


I have a new acquisition for my collection of Amazing Things That Other People Have Chucked Out.

She's one of those anatomical models, designed to show you the innards of the human body. I found her in a skip and instantly thought: "That's got to be worth something on eBay." Although she's made of plastic, she seems quite old, her hair being in a kind of 1940s style, so even as anatomical models go, she's unusual.

She's missing the whole of her front part, which was once held on by clips, and all of her removable organs have been removed, plus her nose is slightly bashed, but she's definitely a conversation piece and might be considered valuable by somebody who runs a pub or a cafe or a shop or something and is looking for an interesting ornament. Or even a film set dresser.

To eBay or not to eBay: that is the question.



Scoop

It's not often that any journalist or historian scores a genuine 'scoop', but I have.

I was asked to research some local D-Day stories (the 65th anniversary falling today), and came up with a nice one about Americans being billeted in Swindon in the run-up to D-Day, then looked into the death of Alan Fowler, a Swindon Town striker who was killed in Normandy, just over a month after D-Day. He is twelfth in the club's all-time goalscorers list.

After delving into his story, I discovered something that nobody else has realised before: he was killed by 'friendly fire'. You can read the whole story here.

It proves something that I've always believed: if you delve deep enough into anybody's story, you'll always find something more interesting than you thought.

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June 3, 2009

You're having a laugh

We're getting into this theatre lark - even amateur theatre, with the latest production by the Old Town Theatre Company, which me, Julie and Holly all went along to, with my twin brother, his wife and two kids (quite a family outing).

A while ago, we saw OTTC's production featuring three classic British TV comedy episodes (Dad's Army, Hancock's Half Hour and Fawlty Towers), and because it was so good, we decided to see the sequel - Best of British 2, this time featuring classic episodes from Yes Minister, Only Fools and Horses and Blackadder II.

Funnily enough, Yes Minister proved to be the best one, even though it's a programme I never watched when it was on telly. There were several very good performances, especially Bob Charman as Hacker.

Then it was Only Fools and Horses, with Bob Charman this time playing Boycie, and producing one of the best impressions I've ever heard by anybody, of anybody. It was spot-on. Stevie Nicholls was also good as Grandad, but they all made great attempts at capturing their characters.

Last and, in this case, least was Blackadder II. The performances were good enough and it was well done, but it's probably my least favourite episode, being the silly one about the drinking competition with comedy boobies, Puritans and a "turnip shaped like a thingy". I wish they'd chosen the one with Baldrick reciting his war poetry in the trenches, which is surely the best, or at least one with Captain Darling, darling.

Still, it was a really enjoyable night, as it invariably is at the theatre.

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June 2, 2009

High and Minety


LNO (Lads' Night Out) time again, and - never ones to do anything easy and sensible - we ended up doing a 25-mile bike ride to Minety, via Purton, which was all up-hill-and-down-dale, and even included cycling on grass and lifting them over stiles (above), as if we didn't have enough to do.

Still, it was a beautiful late spring evening, with great scenery and great pubs, and it provided some useful exercise. The only problem with that is: I am at the age where, instead of making me (and making me feel) fit, exercise just makes me tired.