November 30, 2009

Hooper man

I am feeling pretty embroiled at the moment, having become wrapped up in the story of Alfred Williams, on account of recently becoming a co-founder and now Vice-Chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society.

Alfred has taken over my spare time, but it all becomes worth it when you come across a treasure trove of stuff like I did tonight.

I've recently been to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre at Chippenham, where they have six and a half big boxes of absorbing Alfred Williams stuff, and tonight I met Paul Williams, the Chairman of The Swindon Society, who also happens to be descended from Alfred Williams's sister.

Paul has not only probably the largest private collection of Williams-related documents and photographs, but also a vast collection of photographs by William Hooper.

Hooper was a photographer who, from the late 19th century, made his living by going around, taking pictures and turning them into postcards - and inadvertently becoming arguably Swindon's most important local historian in the process, because he left us hundreds of unique views of the town.

Paul's collection is also great news for anybody, like us, who is tracing their family history. I saw three pictures of Upper Stratton, tonight, that I never knew existed (including the one above).

Paul not only has hundreds of Hooper's postcards, but also owns the copyright (Hooper died in 1955, at the age of 91, so his photos aren't out of copyright until 2025). And the really good thing about Paul is he is eager for people to see his collection, so is very generous about allowing use of the postcards, if people ask. Sometimes, when you are researching history, you come across people who don't really want other people to see their stuff, for one reason or another, but even on our first meeting, Paul has been really forthcoming.

As ever, there is a little twist in the story for me - because William Hooper, like me, used to live in Upper Stratton. He lived at Fairhaven, a house that is set back about 100m from Beechcroft Road, near St Philip's Church. In 1976/7, I used to deliver papers around there, and Fairhaven was on my round every day. I remember it clearly because it is reached by a curving track which was pretty creepy because I used to start very early in the mornings and had to walk down it in the dark. I even took a torch along with me, just to deliver this one paper to the house. Even scarier than the track was the house, which was always in darkness, and I would shove the paper through the letterbox quickly before turning to walk back down the path, slightly faster than I had come up it. Of course, Hooper had been dead 20 years by then, and I didn't realised he'd owned the house until many years later.

November 29, 2009

Bus stop

My anorak has been out recently to research the history of - of all things - a cafe in Swindon.

Building work at an old shop in Rodbourne Road, Swindon, revealed an old sign from the shop's previous existence as the Terminus Cafe, so SwindonWeb asked me to go down, take some pictures and write a story (read it here). The terminus referred to was for trams and later buses.

Talking of buses, I should mention a blog called Swindon Centric, which I visit regularly - mainly because of a clever feature called The Top Ten Things Heard on Swindon Buses Last Week, but also because it makes buses interesting and includes some nice incidental pictures of Swindon (admittedly often with a bus theme).

Must get off now. This is my stop.

November 26, 2009


This must be some kind of record.

Today was the day in the year when Holly had to give a significant amount of blood so they could do her annual tests to do with her diabetes.

The nurse took the samples, then said that, while we were there, Holly might as well have her annual flu jab as that was due. And - oh, she ought to have the swine flu injection, too, because diabetics have priority. "What about pneumonia?" I pipe up. "She's never had that." Mine and the nurse's verdict: you might as well get them all over with at the same time.

So that's three big injections, with big needles, to go with the big needle to take the blood, all on top of her usual four (admittedly much smaller) insulin injections during the day.

That's eight needles for the day, but even that's not the whole story because it's only two days since she had the second of her cervical cancer innoculations at school, which had left her left arm painful (half of her friends who had it used it as an excuse to take the rest of the day off).

By this evening, her other arm was giving her so much pain and had made her hand go so cold that Julie phoned the doctor, who said it was probably due to the swine flu injection - even though the nurse said the worst side effect would be "a bit of a headache". In fact, she went to bed with a temperature, in pain and with more holes in her arms than the Wigan defence who let in nine goals against Tottenham last week.

Speaking as somebody whose tolerance of anything even remotely surgical or medical (including injections) is the tiniest fraction above zero, I have to say that I feel pretty sorry for her tonight.

The wall to end all walls

I did something overdue today. I stopped and had a good look at a newly repainted mural.

Swindon used to have loads of murals, the main reason being: it's home to Ken White, who is probably the world's greatest mural artist (show me a better one).

Ken used to work for Richard Branson and was the man who designed the 'scarlet lady' on Virgin airliners, along with various pop music stuff in the Seventies and Eighties, including the backdrop on the cover of Black Sea, an album by Swindon's own XTC. Coincidentally, he was also a fellow student of not one but two world famous Swindon pop stars - Gilbert O'Sullivan and Rick Davies, a co-founder of Supertramp.

I interviewed Ken White once, for the Swindon Advertiser, and found him to be an genuinely nice man and, considering he is a truly great artist, extremely modest. He gave me a signed print of one of his paintings of Swindon Railway Works, which proudly hangs on our wall, and as soon as we win the Lottery I'm going to buy a dozen of his originals.

Anyway - back to the mural at Whalebridge, Swindon, which was the first he painted in Swindon, and has a special interest for me as it was originally done in 1976, to mark the centenary of Alfred Williams's birth in 1877. Anybody who's been following this blog will know that Alfred Williams is the guy who is taking up lots of my spare time at the moment as I've co-founded a heritage society dedicated to him (see

There's also another connection in that Ken's first job in Swindon Railway Works was as a rivet hotter - the very same job that Alfred Williams did when he first worked there, although obviously not at the same time, and Alfred went on to work in the stamping shop while Ken became a signwriter in the carriage and wagon works.

Alfred is reputedly in the mural. He's the guy on the right, near the dog. But even if the painter and painting had had no Alfred Williams connections or wasn't in Swindon or by a Swindon artist, it would still worth visiting and having a good look at, on account of it's a really beautiful painting, by any standards (look at the shadows, the water and the three girls). And it's even better than it used to be, having been repainted in brighter, more pastelly colours, which therefore appeal more to my colourblind eyes.

Now, if all this didn't have enough spooky coincidences and connections, the subject of the mural is the old Golden Lion Bridge over the canal that used to stand next to the Golden Lion pub in Swindon, and we've recently discovered one of our (admittedly distant) relatives used to live in the Golden Lion in 1911, as he married the landlord's daughter, Clara Mansfield. His name was Ernest Simpkins and he was a second cousin, twice removed (work that one out). The scene is of the bridge in 1908, when Ernest was almost certainly living there, as he married Clara in 1906. Interestingly, in the 1911 census, Ernest gave his occupation as 'billiard marker' at the Mechanics' Institute in Swindon.

Swindon once had a reputation for the quantity and quality of its murals, which has sadly lapsed over the years, because nobody with any influence has had the vision to realise that not only would having an official mural artist in the borough be the cheapest, quickest and easiest way to make the town the envy of the rest of the country, but in Ken White we already have the perfect man for the job.

November 20, 2009


I can't explain exactly why this is the best new work of art I've seen this year, but it is.

It's something to do with great artistic talent being obvious, even when the person doing it is drawing something very, very simple. There are two things that clinch it for me: the tiny line that is the shadow underneath the floating skull, and the nudist's willy.

November 16, 2009

Hale and hearty

There has been a flurry of family history activity lately, and my brother Brian has been busy wrestling with the complexities of the newly updated family tree.

This is a mammoth task, and while he collects and checks dates, he has produced a simplified family tree which helps understand who is who (and lets members of the family know where they fit into the grander scheme).

The tree shows all the known (to us) descendants of William Hale and Annie Staples, who were two of my great grandparents. In other words, this is only a quarter of the descendants from that generation, there being three other great grandparents. Note that people from each generation appear on the same level of the tree as each other (so if somebody is on the same level as you and he or she is not a sibling, he/she is some kind of cousin or his/her spouse).

The tree shows how quickly a single union of two people can mushroom into a massive family. But notice that family trees branch sideways more than anything.

When people first start tracing their tree, they like to think they are going to find out they are descended from a distant king or William Shakespeare, but even if they do, it's all pretty pointless once you go past six or seven generations. The reason: you have two parents, four great grandparents, eight great great grandparents, 16 great great great grandparents... and so on - so whatever you've inherited from your great great great great great great great grandfather or beyond is so watered down, and so many other people are descended from the same bloke, it hardly matters.

So beware of anybody who tells you they are descended from somebody from way back in history. It may well be true, but it's pretty irrelevant.

Besides, sideways can be just as interesting. Just in this section of the tree we have people marrying Spaniards, Germans (this year), people from Jersey and one cousin who met a Jamaican, said goodbye to him and then, in 1947, decided to sail over, not knowing his address, and track him down, eventually marrying (he was called Walter 'Woody' Fletcher) - not to mention countless other interesting characters who could tell you some amazing stories.

There's even - as future generations might discover one day, if they stumble across this - that bloke who first published it on his blog. Wonder what he was like.

The tree is among the Family History pages.

November 15, 2009

Time of their lives

By far the most difficult thing about a blog - actually, it's the only difficult thing - is deciding just how personal you are going to get.

After all, it's a bit like one of those diaries with a lock on in, except everybody in the world has a key. I wish I could be as open as my nephew, Stuart. His blog continues to be required reading, partly because he isn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve as he tells, with sometimes breathtaking skill, the story of his daughters Millie and Amber growing up.

He's also mentioned my mum in there, who is currently in the mid-stages of Alzheimer's and has been in a home for about eight months (and was in hospital for a while before that), but I've hardly mentioned her in this blog before.

We visit her every week and saw her today, which can be a difficult hour, but surprisingly comforting in hindsight. She repeats herself more than ever; is struggling to understand who is who in the extended family; is liable to forget, by tomorrow, that we saw her today (but might not); and is surrounded by other people who are more or less the same.

But it's a surprisingly happy place. Here are people who mostly don't have a care in the world, and my mum, a born worrier, seems to have run out of things to worry about. She's not very aware of the world outside, apart from the handful of shops my brother takes her to, every week or two, but lives in a cosy, cosseted world where the worst thing that can happen is she might run out of sugar. The home naturally provides her with all the sugar she needs, which is a lot as she will complain that cups of tea with four or five spoonfuls aren't sweet enough. But for some reason, she will only ever use her own sugar, which she carries in her bag. There is no accounting for some behaviour in Alzheimer's patients as the disease is about much more than memory loss.

Various other minor peculiarities are now part of her everyday life and it is the same for all the people around her. Nearly all of them seem happy with life, as simple as it is, and some of them are as happy as proverbial Larry - apart from one lady, called Ivy, I especially feel sorry for. Ivy is a lovely little old lady but she always looks scared by the jumble she sees in front of her, and has been the same for the last eight months that I've known her.

I suspect all Alzheimer's patients need to pass through a scary period where they aren't quite sure what's happening to them, but still have enough about them to realise it's serious. It's hard to know how long that lasts and how long some sufferers try to cover it up, but once over it, at least the world looks bright to them, especially as they don't have any real measure of how distressing the disease can be for families.

The big consolation for them is the end of their life is one of the happiest they have known, because, mercifully, as well as all the other things Alzheimer's robs people of, it also seems to remove most of the ability to remember what unhappiness used to be like.

November 11, 2009

The King and I

Well, I've finally finished it - Last Train to Memphis, a biography of Elvis Presley's early life, by Peter Guralnick. In the process I have set a new record for the longest time it's ever taken me to read a book. You might think that it's because it's a difficult book to read, but Last Train to Memphis is the opposite - an absolutely riveting book, beautifully written.

It goes into so much intricate detail about Elvis's day-to-day life - sometimes including what he had for tea - that you have to take it slowly and set time aside to read it properly, in case you miss anything. I really feel that I know what Elvis was really like - and there is plenty of evidence that he was a genuinely nice, thoughtful person, who really deserved to make it big.

Even when he had become the biggest celebrity in the world, he always genuinely recognised the debt he owed his fans, and would often come out of his house to sign autographs if they waited at his gate, and when groups of girls set up stalls on a road they knew he would be travelling on, with signs saying 'Elvis, please stop!' he did.

But the best evidence of his good nature (and my favourite anecdote out of thousands in the book) is the story of how, when he was recording, he would deliberately sing off-key if one of the other musicians made a mistake, so nobody else would feel bad or get the blame.

Last Train to Memphis is easily the best biography I've read - and the only one anybody would ever need to read to learn about the early life of Elvis. It only deals with the period up to 1958, when he went to Germany for National Service, although by then he had had a string of huge hits, made three or four movies and bought Graceland. So why would you want to read about something that happened more than half a century ago (and before I was born) when it was only a celebrity who later went badly downhill and even became a bit of a comical figure?

Well, it's because no matter what happened to him later, Elvis was, like they say, The King. I've never been much of a fan before and even now I can't deny that what he did wasn't very sophisticated, but without Elvis there would have been no Beatles, and without The Beatles there would have been no decent music to escape to when The X Factor is on.

Something else that the book puts right is any notion that anybody might have that Elvis was just lucky or that his success was a result of the way his manager, 'Colonel' Tom Parker, hyped him up. It wasn't. It would have been fantastic to see him live, especially in those early days, because - probably more than anybody else in the 20th century - Elvis undoubtedly had charisma. He had so much natural charisma, in fact, that it's difficult for us to comprehend what charisma is, exactly, in an age when any natural appeal anybody might possess is soon smothered by simple-minded hype.

He had no airs and graces off stage, but even before anybody knew his name or what he was all about, he only had to get up on stage and sing one note to get people, well... all shook up. And it wasn't just the screaming teenage girls, either. Everybody realised his act was just electric - even the small-minded Christians who thought he was obscene. Colonel Parker may have been an expert at cashing in, but he didn't need to do anything to bolster Elvis's star quality. If anything, he struggled to keep a lid on it.

Another thing about Elvis: like The Beatles, he worked extremely hard, before he was famous, to perfect his craft. Whereas The Beatles did The Cavern and Hamburg, Elvis joined and then dominated a show called The Louisiana Hayride, which, apart from having a lovely name, demonstrated the surprisingly country-oriented origins of his music (he also played at the Grand Ole Opry, before he was famous).

Elvis eventually made it big by playing the music of black Americans, and if I was a black American he would be my hero because of the instinct he had that black people were his equal, despite the racism of the southern states at the time. But it was by uniting black music with his own country roots - and not even the more refined brands, either, because he was a hillbilly - that did the trick.

If ever there was a book to make you reassess and understand why something massive happened, this is it, and anybody who says they love popular music should read it. I hadn't finished the first chapter before a trip to Memphis appeared on my list of places to visit before I die, and by the end of the book it was very near the top.

Hacking it

Today I came face to face with about a dozen wannabe journalists, all aged 16 or 17, which was an interesting experience (for all of us, I think).

I had been invited along to New College, Swindon, by the lady who teaches the journalism course (and taught English to Sean last year), to give them the, um... benefit of my experience.

So what do you tell a bunch of people who are thinking of making it a career? Well, it's only fair to tell them that it will never make them rich (probably the opposite), but I didn't go into the long and unsociable hours, nor some of the other downers for poor hacks like me, such as the majority of people lumping you in with the worst tabloid journalists. This is inevitable, even though, in my experience of the dozens I've worked with, journalists on local newspapers are exactly the kind of interesting and creative characters a 16-year-old should aspire to emulate - especially as, under their sometimes harsh exteriors, most of them genuinely care about the people they are writing about.

But I did tell them about the other benefits: doing different things every day, meeting loads of interesting people and getting the occasional freebie, which help to balance out the poor wages, the low opinion people have of you and the fact that you have to work for ruthless newspaper owners who have an even lower opinion of you than other people.

I talked to them about the job in general and interviewing in particular, because that's their current topic, although when I was preparing for it, I suddenly thought: "What do I know about interviewing?" It's the kind of thing you just sort of do, without thinking too much about it, but when I analysed it, I was able to write down and pass on some actual tips.

I was impressed with the kids' maturity. Afterwards, I was chatting with one who was writing something about dispersal orders (for his blog, I think) and had not only got himself an interview with the county's Chief Constable, but was approaching it in a really sensible, mature way. I enjoyed talking to the rest of the class so much that I found myself rabbitting on much longer than I intended.

What they hadn't realised is they were let off lightly. I'm going back in a couple of weeks to talk to them again - this time about newspaper design, and they won't know what's hit them when I get all excited about widows and orphans, kerning and fonts.

The course is exactly the kind I would have liked to have been on when I was their age, although, at that age, I considered myself far too meek and mild to be a reporter - which is why I came to it a few years later. Today's kids seem much less backward at coming forward, which can, of course, only be a good thing.

November 7, 2009

Bonfire of the Lucases

You know you've had a great day when you get home and find your clothes smell like a bonfire.

Along with the rest of our gang of old school friends, we were invited to deepest Worcestershire - so that we could see our friends Pete and Julie's superb new 'estate' for the first time - actually, it's what you would probably call a smallholding - and also to have a firework party.

This has become a bit of a tradition in the last few years, as Pete and Julie's former home had commanding views over the whole of Swindon, but their new place is even better, because we can now add the missing ingredient: a bonfire.

It was better than the fireworks and even better than the excellent food and drink, as the building of it became a collective pleasure and team-building exercise in the daylight, and it was a source of endless fascination for us all in the dark.

We also decided to all make guys this year, which turned out to be great fun because of the wide variety we came up with, and added some historical appeal for sad anoraks like me. Nobody else seemed to be bothered about it, but another historical element was introduced by the fact that the venue is not much more than ten miles from Huddington Court, where most of the Gunpowder Plotters escaped to, and where the plot had been hatched; while many were arrested at Stourbridge, which is even closer; and others, including ringleaders Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy, were killed at Holbeche House, which is also just down the road.

Although the guys were obviously a comical element, we were all slightly taken aback by the sight of one of them appearing strangely human as the flames licked up his back, just before he was consumed by the bonfire.

November 6, 2009

Familiy history revisited

Yesterday's discovery of a long-lost cousin has led to a flurry of activity in the family history department, and my brother Brian, the keeper of the family tree, has duly uploaded some stuff to the web to help tie down the Hale branch.

It can be seen here, where it will also be seen that: a) all this genealogy stuff can get damned complicated but priceless; and b) I was a really cute kid when I was little (as will be seen from the picture of me with my granddad, Albert Jack Carter).

I hardly remember my granddad at all, and maybe only met him about ten times, to my knowledge. He died when I was about 12. I remembered him as an almost stereotypical granddad of the era, who drove a Morris Minor, brought us jelly babies and lived in a tiny, dark terraced house in Jennings Street, Swindon, which, even in the Sixties, had a tin bath hanging on the wall (if I remember correctly).

It later transpired that he was far from being a model husband or father, which only goes to show that things are never what they seem, especially when you're young.

November 5, 2009

New cousin

It's not every day that you get a new cousin - especially at my age - but today I did.

Actually, she's a second cousin (which means we share a great grandparent, and our grandparents were brother and sister). The grandparents in question were my paternal grandmother, Lucy Hale, who died in 1933, and George Hale.

One of George's granddaughters, Alison Hale, who lives in south Wales, contacted me after Googling a common ancestor and coming across this site. She has some nice information to share, and has a 90-year-old aunt who actually knew my grandmother (remember she died in 1933).

In fact, she can remember visiting her in hospital with another niece, and the day when the hospital staff told her she couldn't see her aunt this time, but told them to fetch their father. It was because she had died. Interestingly, her brothers couldn't visit their sick aunt because it wasn't the done thing, in those days, for boys to visit ladies in hospital.

I've had to pass the responsibility for the swapping of the information on to my twin brother, Brian, who is the keeper of the family tree, having done much more research than me and got himself organised, but one little snippet of information is that George (if you haven't been paying attention, he's Alison's grandfather and my great uncle) set up his wife and daughter with a grocery shop at 72 Kingshill Road, Swindon - something that we had never been aware of before. And Alison kindly sent a picture of it, from about 1927.

All this is further proof that the internet is the greatest means of communication ever invented (just in case anybody was in any doubt about that).

As well as collating all the new Hale family info, Brian is also working on a massive website about another branch of the family - the Adamses - which he is going to upload soon, so there is a wealth of family history stuff in the pipeline.

That's all, Fawkes

Note for future reference: if you see kids asking for a penny for the guy, give them at least a pound.

We've spent most of the evening putting together a guy for a firework party we've been invited to on Saturday - and had forgotten how long it takes, and also how much paper you need. In these recycling days, we didn't have enough in the house, so had to go out and import some from other sources to give him enough stuffing.

All of the families going to the party have been told to make one, so we couldn't not join in the fun, but Holly and Sean, being teenagers, showed absolutely no interest whatsoever in helping. That's a shame because Holly informed us she'd never made one before.

I'm ashamed to admit it because any British parent who doesn't sit down and make a guy with his or her kids when they are little are bad parents in my book.

We can't think how we managed to not do it. And now it's too late.

November 4, 2009


There must be a vicious rumour going round the cat population around our manor, about us being pushovers who will hand out food to any old 'stray'.

It was no doubt started by Napoleon (as we called him), a stray we took a shine to more than a year ago, who eventually ended up moving into a house around the corner and getting himself christened as Billy.

Now we have another visitor, who we are calling Wellington (pictured), who sneaks in at night and steals food. He also turns up in broad daylight and, finding we don't chase him out, hangs around, meowing, asking to be fed. But he's not fooling us.

He looks a lot like Napoleon, but whereas Napoleon was once a genuine stray who was obviously sleeping rough, you couldn't wish to see a fitter, healthier or better fed cat than Wellington, so we're not feeding him, regardless of how tempting it is to do it, all of us being complete softies when it comes to cats, after all.