September 29, 2009

Radio Ga Ga

Both me and Sean were live on the radio today - as guests of Paul Ashman, on his periodic hour-long show for the local community radio station, Swindon 105.5.

As well as being our drum teacher, Paul is one of the managers of the Swindon Music Service, which runs music education in the town, and his programme is mostly about what musicians - and especially young musicians - are up to.

So we went in the studio and talked about our drumming, and chose some favourite and relevant songs to fill up the bits between the chit-chat. I naturally had to choose an Al Stewart song (Night Train to Munich) along with Dire Straits' Sultans of Swing (because our band plays it) plus The Beach Boys' God Only Knows, although we couldn't play that because there wasn't time. It was amazing how quickly the time went.

But we did manage to squeeze in all three of Sean's choices - Message in a Bottle, by The Police; Time is Running Out, by Muse; and I am the Walrus, which confirms Sean's recognition of the quality of The Beatles - something which, I am reliably informed, is becoming increasingly common among discerning people of his age.

Those who were unlucky enough to miss it at 3pm today will be delighted to discover that it is being repeated on Saturday morning at 8am, and you can listen online. We can listen, too, to see whether we sounded as cool under pressure as we thought we did.

Not that there weren't comedy moments, including the bit where I'm trying to refer to Sting, and somehow the name Steve comes out.

Tragic coincidence

The news, today, that a 14-year-old girl has died after being given a vaccination against cervical cancer, caused a shiver in our household - because Holly was due to have the same vaccination today. Not only that, but we were double-checking, only last night, that the vaccine was unlikely to cause any complications with Holly's diabetes.

Holly came home puzzled why neither she nor any of her friends had had the injections they'd anticipated - a precaution that seemed sensible enough to those of us who had heard the news, even though it is likely the biggest factor in all this will turn out to be coincidence.

But there's no doubt that we will soon hear the familiar sound of the sensationalist media's scaremongering and thousands of dim-witted parents jumping to conclusions, because if there's one thing the Great British public enjoys even more than crap Saturday night telly, it's a good medical panic - and the more unjustified, the better.

Bless 'em.

September 25, 2009

Getting tanked up

Quite a few years ago, I read a book by Richard D Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, which was a rambling life, the universe and everything kind of book (called Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!). The thing I remember most about it was his experiences as a guinea pig for research into sensory deprivation tanks. These are now generally known as floatation tanks, and are merely big baths with a fairly shallow amount of water, which contains enough epsom salts to make the water denser than the human body.

Therefore, you float, and the idea is this feeling of apparent weightlessness combines with the removal of almost all outside stimuli to put you into a little world of your own. This is supposed to have all kinds of health benefits, mainly due to it being very relaxing, but can also play various tricks on your mind.

Feynman would spend three or four hours at a time in one, trying to achieve altered states of mind, which he vaguely referred to as 'hallucinations'. As these were all positive and interesting, I've always thought I'd like to give it a try.

A few years passed and I discovered somebody had set up a commercial floatation tank in Swindon, and another few years passed when I watched an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer and Lisa go into flotation tanks. Then a few more years passed before I finally decided I ought to give it a try. So, for my birthday, I got a voucher to go along to the Swindon Chiropractic Clinic - which I finally redeemed today.

Most people are put off floatation tanks because they think it will be claustrophobic. This is probably because the early ones weren't that far removed from water-filled coffins, but the one I went in was like a little room, with the base dimensions of a large skip and a ceiling more than high enough to stand up in. You can have a dim light on, but I decided to spend my time in complete darkness. Not much ever makes me feel claustrophobic, so it's hard for me to judge, but I would say that most people wouldn't find claustrophobia an issue in a floatation tank.

What I did have a problem with was trusting the epsom salts to keep my head above water - especially as I can't swim, and putting my head underwater gives me the heebie-geebies. You can smell the salts, but the water doesn't look any different, and when you put your foot in it, there's no resistance. Sitting down in it feels only slightly wobbly, so when you finally lie back, you still haven't had any assurance that you're going to float.

So I spent the first ten minutes scared to move much, in case I drowned, and there's absolutely no chance of relaxing when you are tensing your neck muscles to stop your head from going under. It never does, of course, but it was a while before I got confident enough to settle into a comfortable position, and even then my nose and mouth were only an inch above the waterline, which is bit too close for comfort and still required some overcoming.

I also found that when you lie back properly - without the aid of a blow-up pillow, which I had wrongly decided not to take in with me - your ears go underwater, which I find unpleasant.

When all this irrational stuff was finally overcome, the whole thing then became too fascinating to be relaxing. Most fascinating of all was that every couple of minutes, my toe, elbow, finger or head bumped into the side, and it took the tiniest effort to push off and float you away from it. The amazing thing is, you have no sense of movement, apart from the fact that you're no longer touching the sides, so you don't know how far you are travelling. You expect to bump into the other side almost straightaway, but don't, and often never reach the other side. In fact, there's no way of knowing which part of you will bump into the side next.

I have to say that I never got close to anything like Feynman's hallucinatory experiences, nor even came close to sleep, or anything between waking and sleeping, which was a shame, but the feeling of so-called weightlessness is intriguing. You don't get the full effect because you can sense the surface of the water on the upper part of your body, although you can't tell how much of your lower body is sticking out of the water. The most amazing thing is there are parts of yourself that you can't feel. For instance, I had no sense of having a back, which would seem to have potential benefits for people who suffer back pain.

Towards the end, I tried to see if I could imagine myself facing down instead of up, which would have been a step towards 'losing myself' in the tank, but couldn't.

When the music came on to tell me my 45 minutes was up (which cost £25), I felt slightly disappointed that the whole experience was less profound than I had hoped, which I partly put down to all the problems of trying to accustomise myself to the environment, but I was pleasantly surprised that when I got outside into the fresh air again, I felt a bit of a spring in my step - not unlike I feel after an Indian head massage.

I'd already decided that I will give it at least another try, and would recommend anybody else to give it a go, too.

The picture, below, appears to be the exactly same design as the tank I was in.

September 22, 2009

Alfred who?

As of today - at least I think it's today - I am the vice-chairman of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society.

The what? Who?

Well, Alfred Williams may not be that well known now, but by the time we've finished with him...

For the moment, his Wikipedia entry gives a good outline, and on that page there is a link to a more in-depth SwindonWeb feature about him, which I can vouch for as I wrote it!

But that is nothing compared with the detailed website I'm working on, all about our Alfred. And that will be nothing compared with the vast wealth of information that we are planning to unleash on an unsuspecting Swindon public shortly - we being myself, our chair, John Cullimore, and Caroline Ockwell, who is our secretary/treasurer and the architect of an ambitious Lottery grant bid that we are proposing for our new society.

If successful, it will culminate in a festival and all kinds of other things, this time next year, which is a big challenge considering the overwhelming majority of people I talk to about Alfred Williams come over all blank and say "Alfred who?"

No point in going on about what an interesting and impressive chap he was, how he produced the single most important historical work in the history of Swindon, or even how interesting his life story is, when there will be plenty of that nearer the time.

Watch this space.

Seldom seen genius

Not very often in my life have I been so impressed by an album that it has led me to want to seek out the artist's back catalogue, but it happened with Elbow and their phenomenal 2008 album, The Seldom Seen Kid.

So I recently bought their previous offering, Leaders of the Free World, expecting much, but realising it was unlikely to be as good as The Seldom Seen Kid. A bit like hearing Sgt Pepper and expecting Revolver to match it.

Well, Revolver nearly does, of course, and also gives a fascinating insight into what was brewing. In other words, there are lots of bits on Revolver where you can hear Sgt Pepper coming. Sadly, the same is true only in a very limited number of places in Leaders of the Free World - perhaps only a few seconds where you can recognise greatness in embryo form.

So the album is ultimately quite disappointing and even baffling. The Seldom Seen Kid following it is a bit like a Sunday morning runner suddenly producing an Olympic gold medal winning performance - an improvement that would lead most people to assume there must have been some steroids involved.

A couple of the songs on Leaders of the Free World are pretty good, but I don't think any of them are good enough to stand beside those on The Seldom Seen Kid. At least it makes you want to go back and listen to Elbow again. And that's good because The Seldom Seen Kid gets better and better with every listening - and this even though I decided, months ago, that it was nothing short of a masterpiece.

It's absolutely overflowing with ideas, but the biggest quality is the restraint the band show at the times when they could easily have latched on to a catchy tune and milked it, or built everything up into a predictable crescendo. There is hardly a second on the album where you don't think 'Wow, they must have worked for ages on getting that drum or that chord or that pause just right.'

It's a stunning album, but what I like best about Elbow is that, for all the genius that is in The Seldom Seen Kid, it's obvious they are nice, down-to-earth, modest, honest, working class blokes, and you wouldn't begrudge them an ounce of their new fame and fortune.

Funny. That started out as a review of one album and ended up as a re-review of another.

September 20, 2009

A woman's place

Julie's back - from four days in Brittany, where she went to stay at the cottage belonging to a lady from work, along with two other ladies she used to work with, thereby recklessly abandoning the three of us to the elements when it's obvious none of us could cope with the task of feeding ourselves during the three miserable days of her absence.

Well, that's how it seemed, as we were not only left with cooked meals, but also instructions on when to remove them from the freezer and when to eat them, along with enough money to fill in the gaps in our rations with the offerings of emergency fast food outlets. She was even offering to make us dinner as she sat, waiting to be picked up, on Thursday.

She needn't have worried because we aren't so incapable of looking after ourselves, but also because something strange happened as soon as she went out the door. Holly, although only nearly 15 and otherwise a fully paid-up member of the Awkward Teenagers' Club, effortlessly assumed the old-fashioned role of the female in the house.

When I was very late home from work on Friday, I came in to find that she had made enough pasta for all three of the refugees, and pie for herself. Then she took it upon herself to do a major tidy-up in the lounge and kitchen, and even do dusting and vacuuming on Saturday/Sunday.

If Germaine Greer had got wind of it, we'd have been hauled up on national television as a shameful example of old-fashioned male bigotry and the enslavement of women, when all we did was sit there, eat the food and wonder why Holly had also come to the conclusion that without some kind of female intervention, we would now be dead from starvation or because we had contracted e-coli from spending so long in such a filthy house.

We honestly had absolutely nothing to do with this state of affairs. It just happened. But that's not to say that it wasn't nice. So well done Holly.

Almost as nice was the stunning selection of Continental beers and ciders that Julie brought back with her for me, and the megalollies she bought for Sean and Holly...

September 19, 2009

Sign of the times

I suppose it had to happen, what with being a rock star and everything...

Tonight The Misfits were at Stratton British Legion, which is kind of home ground, so I knew a couple of the people there, as well as eight assorted Carters in the audience - some of whom had never seen us before.

All this put extra pressure on me, but for technical reasons I wasn't called upon to sing - we need to practise my song more - so that was a relief. Besides, I have now generally reached the stage where I am confident I can play all the songs we do.

So it was a good night, I naturally also won a bottle of wine in the raffle - I nearly always win something in raffles - and for the first time in my life, somebody even asked for my autograph! It was a little old lady, who, for some reason best known to herself, got all the band members to sign her little book.

No doubt it's on eBay by now. You can probably find it by searching for 'ageing rock legends'.

September 14, 2009

Hot stuff

We were back to the Watermill in Newbury tonight for an unexpected pleasure - Hot Mikado.

We'd heard this massively modernised version of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta - with swing, jazz, gospel and more - was sold out, but our friend Shanti did us a big favour by getting us a couple of tickets. Not only that, but we got seats in the most interesting part of this old watermill-cum-theatre.

The balcony extends the whole length of the auditorium, with the most forward seats actually overhanging the stage. And that's where we were, looking down on the heads of the dozen or more singers/dancers/musicians and brilliant actors who put on a fantastic show.

It's a bit like watching it from the wings, so as well as the entertainment value, it's also a bit of an education, because you're so close to the action - so close that you're actually sort of in it.

We also had the best two seats in the theatre for seeing the drummer, who was squashed into the wing opposite. This obviously had a special fascination for me, but it was also interesting because three or four members of the cast took their turn drumming, but only one of them is a regular drummer, and he was easy to spot. Some drummers look like they were born with sticks in their hands, but the rest of us have to work hard at it, and you can tell when somebody is completely at home behind a kit, because they look so relaxed.

The Watermill never disappoints, and quite often even exceeds our high expectations, and I'm delighted we're back in the habit of going there, now that the kids are old enough to be left alone.

September 12-13, 2009

Confessions of a shedhead

Of all the fetishes that are catered for on cable TV - and there are plenty, obviously - the one that gives me most pleasure is Shedheads.

This is possibly the simplest idea for a programme that ever got past the "But will anybody actually watch it?" meeting. Basically, all that happens is you get to watch two blokes putting up sheds and other, um... erections.

They are mostly pre-fab potting sheds, gazebos and play houses, but they also do things like simple tree houses. Needless to say that a man of my age finds such activities not just fascinating but gripping, and as it also comes with plenty of those indispensable adult toys called power tools, Shedheads is more or less irresistible. Much the same goes for programmes such as The Salvager and the king of all documentaries, How It's Made.

I've watched enough of these programmes to develop a liking for building things myself, and I have even taken some pleasure out of my latest project - the biggest for years - decking, which is a bit like building a shed in two dimensions.

It's coming along nicely and has lots of satisfying elements such as the coach bolts I'm using to hold it all together, which might be overkill but give me a little thrill every time I do the last turn and you hear the wood creaking under the strain.

And the pleasure has been more than doubled since I borrowed a chop saw from my brother. How I ever lived without one of these I'll never know, because even measured by the high pleasure ratings of other power tools, the satisfaction it gives is immense. Not only is it incredibly quick and accurate (you can cut off a millimetre at a time if you like), but it also has the ability to cut your arm off in less than a second, giving it the appeal of a dangerous sport. If anybody needs things sawing up, I'm your man.

I've uploaded the above picture of the decking in its current state of undress, in case there are other people reading this who also get a kick out of that sort of thing.

I should add that there is not just a programme but a whole channel devoted to sheds, but I have to report that Discovery Shed doesn't deliver everything it promises, many of the programmes being about things that have potential appeal to shed fans in general, such as fishing and fast cars, but don't do much for me.

I'd rather be shedding.

September 10, 2009

Here comes Snowy

Firstly, I would like to assure anybody reading this that we are not normally the kind of people who give cars pet names, that being only slightly less sad than people who dress up dogs.

In our defence, we are pretty excited because, for the first time in our lives, today we've got a new car - as in not just new to us, but as in we're the first people to own it. Julie's had brand new company cars before now, but this one is all ours.

It's white, and we chose white mainly to be a bit different (you don't see that many white cars, apart from police cars), so we started joking that we should call it Snowy, especially as we need some way of differentiating it from our other car. This used to be easy when they were different sizes - we just called them 'Big Car' and 'Little Car' - but the arrival of the new one means we now have two little cars. Of course, we could just call it 'the Nissan' or 'the Micra', but he - sorry, it - is too cute and too cool for that, so Snowy it is.

Like all people who get new cars, we wanted to drive it around town, but Julie had to go out, so we brought it straight home. Besides, you soon realise that it's a bit pointless when you're the only people who realise you've only just picked it up. The garage should supply you with a big sign to put on the roof saying: "Look at our new car."

Even worse - when we got it home, the kids were singularly unimpressed with having a brand new car in the family, taking no more than 30 seconds to have a look. I can remember when our dad used to get a new car (as in only new for us) and we would all get in, go for drive and stay sitting in it when we got home. But not today's kids.

Anyway. Look at our new car...

September 8, 2009

Keyboard skills

It was the day of our monthly lads' night out (LNO) tonight, and, as ever, we got into some interesting conversations about various things.

My friend Percy (not his real name) revealed that he has bought a PC and intends to use it. This is a revelation indeed when you consider that he is such a technophobe that he makes me - who refuses to carry a mobile phone and doesn't know or care how to send a text message - look like the Head of Propulsion Systems at NASA. He wanted some advice on how to go about learning to use a PC.

I said that, frankly, the best thing you can do with a PC is send it back and get a Mac, but given that he's lumbered with Windows and all the crap that comes with it, we started talking about how to approach it.

Another friend, James, had the most relevant advice as he had been in the same position, a few years back, and actually paid to go on a course to learn the basics. It then transpired exactly what Percy and James were specifically talking about when they said 'basics'. By basics, they mean basics in its absolute, literal form. We are talking about such skills as learning how to type capital letters!

Now, of course, they shouldn't have left it until their late forties to pick up such essential skills for living in the 21st century, but nobody is in any position to mock them - least of all me - when you take into account their other skills. This proves that we are all ducks and we all take to water, but we're all living in our own individual ponds.

Both Percy and James play the piano - and very well, too - so, ironically, they have vast experience of keyboard skills of a sort.

"So, James," asks Percy, "what's harder - learning to play the piano or learning to use a computer?"

"Oh, definitely the computer," says James, without hesitation.

September 7, 2009

First day at school

We've had more than our fair share of back-from-the-brink stories in our family in the last few years, but my great neice's compares with even the most epic of Carter survival stories.

Millie was born nearly three months - that's three months - premature, and started life at one pound, seven ounces (if I remember right). I'm no expert in baby weights, but even I know that's tinier than tiny.

Millie not only survived but flourished, and reaches a milestone today, with her first day at school.

Luckily, the whole story is on my nephew's (her father's) excellent blog, including a picture of Millie in her uniform, on her big day, that is probably the cutest - and definitely one of the most heart-warming - that anybody's taken so far this century.

September 5, 2009

Sticking with it

I was in uncharted territory as I prepared for our band's latest gig tonight: I started to look forward to it.

Things have improved since our first performance, when I spent the whole day and most of the week before dreading getting up there and drumming in front of other people, but I never really believed I would ever get to the point where I actually enjoyed it. It was at the Baker's Arms in Upper Stratton and there was a bit of a do on as two of the regulars were celebrating an anniversary, which was great because the place was packed, which helps.

I'm not saying enjoyment is quite the right word yet, because it's still hard, psychologically, to make the things that are going right outweigh the things that can go wrong or already have. But it's much less daunting than it was, and as enjoying it really is the object of the exercise, it's just as well.

It was also the first time I had played in front of certain friends, which put the pressure on. They even got to hear me sing, which is only the second time I've done that. That bit didn't seem to go so well, but the drumming was pretty good. We even played an impromptu song when a former colleague of our lead guitarist, who happened to be there, got up to sing. I was chuffed to be able to jam along without anybody realising that not only had I never practised the song, but had never even heard it before.

Even when I dropped a stick during Sultans of Swing - which I haven't done for a long time - it seemed that fate was on my side because I caught it and carried on without anybody noticing, and don't think I even missed a beat. I doubt anybody has ever dropped a stick so impressively.

September 2, 2009

Fiddling... with merit

Good news for Holly today when she got back to school. She found she passed the Grade 4 violin exam that she took way back last term. In fact, she not only passed, but passed with merit, which I think is really impressive.

The violin is a funny instrument because, for ages when people play it, it can sound pretty... um, difficult... but then it starts to sound good, and ends up sounding fantastic in the right hands. And, given my liking for folk music, including Irish folk music, I reckon a violin sounds best of all when the music you are playing is such that it's not right to call it a violin and you have to call it a fiddle instead.

Holly practises enough to play really well and pass difficult exams, but she doesn't seem to love the instrument, like Sean loves the drums, so she ultimately doesn't practise enough.

You can't make a kid practise and instrument, but perhaps her continuing success will encourage her to practise more.

September 1, 2009

Groundhog Back to the Future Day

A really funny thing happened when I got up today: it was 1998 again.

I've been asked to do a few days on the Advertiser Sports Desk, which is where I had been working for five years when I decided to go freelance, an amazing 11 years ago.

Although I had been back to do some work for Sport since, as far as I can remember it was always on supplements, and today was the first time I had been back to sub-edit live (ie daily) pages for them.

I'm not sure what's the scariest - the feeling of things going full circle, or trying to come to terms with how quickly those 11 years have gone. None of the people I used to work with on Sport are still there, which is a shame.

My old sports editor, Alan Johnson, retired about a year ago, but I will never forget his motto, which is one of the wisest things I've ever heard, and which I try to remember because it so often sums up situations you find yourself in: You can't educate pork.