March 31, 2010

Not the Young Musician of the Year

Holly didn't win her school's Young Musician of the Year title tonight, but she did play beautifully, and reaching the final was no mean achievement.

In all, 18 kids from her year entered, but there were only seven places in the final - and I thought she easily held her own among the finalists. In the end, of all people, our nextdoor neighbour won the title, and rightly so. Of all things, he played the ukulele, and showed that you can get an incredible variety of sounds out of it.

Holly has got a lot more confident with the violin, which is surprising considering she doesn't practise nearly as much as Sean practises drums and guitar. That's not to say that she's lazy, but she always has a stack of homework to do, and takes more upon herself by doing extra in art, which is her best and favourite subject. She really has trouble finding the time.

She's also too young to appreciate the violin, either for its classical appeal or the reason I love it - because it's at the core of Irish jigs and reels. You wouldn't expect either classical or folk to really appeal to a teenager, but you need to love what you play if you are going to produce top notch music.

So that's our task between now and this time next year, when Holly gets a final crack at the title Sean won, two years ago - to get her into Irish folk music, instead of the modern rubbish* she mostly listens to now.

Wish me luck.

*To be fair, she also likes Queen, and I once caught her listening to The Kinks, so there is hope.

Dream on

I was going to write something here about my recurring dream, but that has been superseded by last night's dream, which was probably the most vivid I've ever had.

Both Julie and I have been having more dreams, and in greater detail, since we got a new, much more comfortable mattress, a few months ago. So I've been having my recurring dream more often, which is about being on holiday, getting to the last day and realising I hadn't seen or done half the things I had planned to.

This is a bit of a nonsense because I've never had a holiday like that, being the kind of person who crams as much as possible into time away, rather than lounging around. So I never come home feeling like we've missed out on something.

Of course, it could be caused by some kind of deep-seated thought in the back of my mind that I am getting old and running out of time to do things in life, and the dream has increased in frequency over the years. But I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure anybody knows anything about dreams - and the people who think they have some kind of gift for interpreting them probably know even less than the rest of us.

A few years ago I watched a documentary that all about scientists researching dreams. It mostly consisted of blokes in white coats and holding clipboards who were watching people sleep, waiting until they are obviously dreaming - and then waking them up and asking them what they were dreaming about. Which isn't exactly cutting edge science.

I woke myself up last night after a dream so real that I could sense every blade of grass on the surreal football pitch I was playing on. It was a game of two players per side and my teammate started off as Bobby Charlton but seemed to turn into Frank Bough soon after. But that was by no means the weirdest part of the dream, which was mostly concerned with a seemingly innocuous minor collision by a blue American car with our car, which I witnessed and which somehow ripped the roof off the car and caused the death of its occupants. The driver was unharmed, though, and pretty unconcerned about what had happened, and left the scene, leaving me to phone and explain it all to the police, once I'd found out the number of the police station.

It was so vivid, colourful and believable that I couldn't get to sleep again for another half an hour, but laid there wondering what dreams were really for. I once subscribed to the idea that they were just the your mind emptying itself of random thoughts, but now think they must be something more significant. For something we all experience and which is so ingrained in our brains, and because they show your brain at its imaginative best, you would have thought somebody somewhere would have come up with some plausible explanation for it all by now, or at least some answers.

The moral of the story is if you get a thick mattress you'll get far more entertainment out of your sleep than you possibly could from watching telly or all those pointless plotless action movies that fill the cinema these days.

March 28, 2010

The sound of optimism

Here's the usual deal when your kids get involved in music...

You fork out for endless lessons and cough up for expensive instruments and music (£22 for Holly's latest grade book), get out the family taxi at least once a week to take them to practice, and in the early days nod encouragingly as they try their best to capture the grace and co-ordination necessary to make music a pleasure. Let us not deny that an untamed musical instrument can be a pretty unpleasant sound, especially a violin.

Every now and then a concert or recital comes along, which parents like us feel compelled to go to, even though you sometimes feel so nervous and worried that everything will go right for them, that you really don't enjoy it much. And while your pride and joy's time in the spotlight is often limited to a couple of minutes, you have to sit through a whole evening of other people's kids battling with their instruments.

Some parents hate the whole thing, but personally I love it, especially when nights like tonight remind you why it's worth all the effort. Holly played two pieces (Bach's Air and Paul McCartney's Yesterday) with the String Ensemble, which was part of a big show by Swindon Young Musicians (SYM) on the big stage of the Wyvern Theatre.

Not only was it a genuine pleasure to watch, but the audience was also given plenty of reasons to feel good about education in general and music in particular.

I'm not saying it's been perfect - what is? - but ever since our kids entered the education system in 1997 it has been impressing us, whether on the curriculum or extra to it. And music is probably the best example of what can be achieved when you invest in giving kids opportunities.

Sean is trying to carve out a career in music, but almost certainly wouldn't be in that position if he had been born five years earlier, and definitely not if he had been born in my era. In my day, you only took up music if your parents were musical themselves and went out of their way to get you lessons, whereas today there are loads of opportunities for kids to learn.

Although Holly is modest about her own musical ability, she plays her violin so naturally now that those early, screechy days are a distant memory, and I know I would feel really proud if I could play violin for SYM, which is part of the Swindon Music Service.

Their concert tonight - just like the last one I saw, at Christmas - was stunning, and if you had closed your eyes, you literally would have thought you were listening to professionals. Even better was the wide variety of styles and instruments it featured. Yet it was the kind of concert that not many people would pay to watch unless their kids were in it, which is a shame because the standard was so high, and they deserve a bigger audience. I don't suppose you can blame people for thinking that kids playing music isn't going to be easy on the ear.

What I really can't understand, though, is that there were a few empty seats, and given that there were well over a hundred kids performing, I'm amazed that some parents decided not to go. I feel really sorry for the kids who weren't supported by their parents beyond the fact that they dropped them at the stage door - presumably before going home to watch crap on the telly.

Fortunately, apathy is not a characteristic shared by teachers these days, and SYM's tutors have an enthusiasm and even a joy that was plain to see. The leader of the sensational Jazz Orchestra, for example, is a older chap called Laurie Parkinson, who made his living as a professional trumpeter with big bands and is now presumably retired, but clearly gets as much pleasure from leading this band of youngsters as he ever did from performing with top professionals.

And it's not just the quality of music that is so pleasing; it's the quantity too. In Swindon in 2003, only eight per cent of junior school kids were learning an instrument, but in 2009 the percentage had soared to 34 per cent. That's amazing.

Sorry to sound so impressed and optimistic about the way young people in this country are responding to opportunity. I'm sure a couple of minutes of despondency on BBC News 24 will get us back on the straight and narrow.

The handyman can

It has been a weekend for rediscovering the satisfaction of working with your hands, thanks to my continuing back garden decking project.

Just lately I have been thinking that nobody has ever paid me a penny for doing anything with my hands, which is a shame because as much as I like putting together things on a computer, there is no substitute for a job that leaves you with blisters.

And there are bonuses to building decking. Not only does it give you a chance to use impressive (and pleasantly scary) power tools such as a chop saw, but it doesn't call for any particularly challenging woodworking skills. It even appeals to macho people like me beause it's so much more beefy than fixing skirting boards or - worst of all - painting.

Then again, bringing the decking project close to completion is as much a triumph over the weather as anything else. I will always remember last summer as the one when the long process of getting all my tools ready for the job seemed to be the trigger to start the rain, and putting them away again was the trigger for the sun to come out again.

So while the framework was complete, no decking boards were in place before the winter set in, and bad weather has also been the winner during the spring - or at least the threat of it. Two or three times in the last two weeks I put off getting out there - and when I had the offer of help, too - either because the forecast wrongly said we were in for rain or because the rain had been incessant on the day before, and it's not practical to cut or screw into sopping wet wood.

Even this weekend, the forecast was for much more rain, but my determination to beat it paid off as we had two days of relatively dry weather. So I'm in the home straight, and another couple of days like that will see us all decked out.

March 26, 2010

Aerial manager

Hot on the heels of my ruminating about space travel (see below) comes a lovely story about an ordinary bloke who has taken some pictures from "the edge of space" using a cheap digital camera in a home-made box under a weather balloon (see his pictures on Flickr).

Did I call him an ordinary bloke? I meant genius.

Must go now. Just off to the weather balloon shop.

March 24, 2010

Rocket science

That's weird. On the same day that I finish reading Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin, Swindon is named as the headquarters of the new UK Space Agency.

One of the themes of Buzz's book is his relentless efforts to push the boundaries of space exploration, and as I was reading the last chapter, the news came through that my home town was to become the HQ of the UK's equivalent of NASA.

Of course, everybody - even Chris Evans, disappointingly - were quick to poke fun at the idea that an unglamorous town like Swindon could have anything to do with cutting edge technology when it is (according to the Times) "better known for its roundabouts and car factories".

Which is, of course, ignorant in the extreme, because Swindon is the obvious location for it. It was where the first engine of any kind to propel man at 100mph was designed and built (the loco City of Truro); the town where another holder of the world speed record was developed and built (the Swift, built by Vickers-Armstrong); and where the first commercial passenger-carrying hovercraft was produced (the VA3). And it goes without saying that Swindon folk produced the best steam locomotives the world has ever seen.

So not much of a pedigree for producing internationally important, ground-breaking transport technology there, then.

I find it quite amazing - and Buzz Aldrin does too - that most people seem totally underwhelmed by anything to do with space - and the more ambitious the ideas put forward, the more inclined they are to knock it, when the opposite should be true. To me, space travel is man's greatest achievement and something that should be an inspiration to everybody. And even if Swindon's version of NASA is a pale comparison, it's still a reason for national pride that a little country like Britain should dare to want to be involved.

Buzz spends much of his book bemoaning the fact that space exploration is due to enter a lull when the Shuttle is retired, later this year. Now in his eighties, he will certainly not live to see his dream of a manned mission to Mars. To his credit, his main concern, though, is getting ordinary people into space, starting with space tourism, which is already starting to happen. Whereas America has become quite conservative about space travel, Buzz is still dreaming of a time when interplanetary travel is commonplace, and all credit to him for that.

One interesting point that he makes is the Shuttles have room for seven or eight people on each trip, but often go with empty seats, and there would have been room to take up another hundred people. Either they should have sold the seats to wealthy space tourists (the going rate on Russian Soyuzes is $30million) or seats should have been given to ordinary Americans. That may well have happened if Challenger had not exploded with a teacher on board, after which NASA lost its nerve.

Ever since he came back from the moon, Buzz has been looking forward to the next giant leaps, designing rocket systems with a pencil on graph paper and setting up rocket development companies. He is well known as probably the most technically minded astronaut, having actually helped in the development of rocket systems and spaceships rather than just flying them. And he's still doing it, as this recent article shows, while also demonstrates that, even at his age, he is up-to-date and well-informed.

The most intriguing thing about the book is that, considering the complexity of his field, the scale of his achievements and his brilliance (possibly genius) as a scientist-cum-explorer, the central theme is very simple - exactly how do you come down to earth after achieving not only your own but also man's greatest ambition (to set foot on another world). He makes an interesting point that the Apollo astronauts were subjected to physical tests that went into the tiniest detail when they came back from the moon, but NASA never did anything to assess their psychological condition.

Even more simplistic is how he coped with being the second man on the moon. Sadly, it's not properly explained in the book exactly how it affected him, but that also caused him psychological problems.

These pressures were an extra burden, on top of a much more profound problem: depression and suicide run in his family. His mother (whose maiden name, bizarrely, was Moon), killed herself in May 1968 - partly because, as Buzz was later told by his sister, "our mother had great difficulty dealing with the fame that came along with my successful 1966 Gemini 12 space mission." So he was genetically prone to depression, which also led to alcoholism, even before having the pressure of being a former moonwalker. His decline after landing on the moon in 1969 was virtually inevitable.

Just eight years after coming home, Buzz found himself working as a car salesman - and not even successfully. Imagine how depressing that must have been for an Apollo 11 astronaut. So the book is ultimately heart-warming as it charts his climb back up to his current status.

If you ask me, today Buzz Aldrin is spaceflight's greatest ambassador. That should have been Neil Armstrong's role, but he has become a virtual recluse, which seems a bit ungrateful. Having been lucky enough to have been selected to be mankind's first representative on another world, he could have made more of an effort to promote space travel in the future.

Thankfully, Buzz has taken the responsibility instead - originally at some cost to himself but eventually to his advantage, which he deserves.

I'm not sure how viable (given financial constraints) his ideas for future space travel are at present, but I have a funny feeling that in 50 years' time, people will be looking back and saying "Buzz was right."

In a way, whether he's right or not almost doesn't matter. We need superheroes like him to come up with dreams in realms such as space travel. We certainly have no shortage of the opposite - those whose only contribution is to jump up at the first opportunity and poke fun at the ambitions and even the achievements of others.

March 17, 2010

A dog's life

As an animal lover, I can't make up my mind whether I should approve of greyhound racing or not.

But I suppose I voted with my feet tonight when our monthly Lad's Night Out (LNO) took us back to the Abbey Stadium in Swindon for another greyhound meeting. I've been greyhound racing maybe ten times in my lifetime, and for this latest visit we decided to go upmarket slightly and take advantage of an all-in deal costing £8.95. For this you get entry, a table with a two-course meal, and you can bet without getting up from the table.

I always place £1 win bets, and did this on about nine of the 14 races, winning only once - which is par for the course for me, but still way below what I should get if the laws of probability are working correctly. I don't bet on rank outsiders but sometimes back the favourite, and by my reckoning that should mean I'll win every fourth or fifth race at least.

More worrying than the deficit I always show from the gambling is the issue of the welfare of the dogs. The sport has a bit of a reputation, but that doesn't mean it's deserved.

One thing is for sure - the dogs love taking part, which you can tell from their excitement after the race, and as they surely wouldn't run very well if they weren't well looked after, they must have a fairly good standard of living too, like racehorses.

The problem is what happens to them if they don't make the grade or when they get too old to run, when they then become dependent on the compassion of their owners. I'm sure many owners give their dogs the retirement they deserve - because you have to be interested in dogs and something of a dog lover to want to get into it in the first place, so it follows that they will care about the dog even after it's stopped running. But there are also unscrupulous owners who dump their dogs.

Then again, there are uncaring, unscrupulous people in every sphere of life, and it's what other people do to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused by others that is the real issue for me.

The Retired Greyhound Trust is the charity that cares for the dogs. Their website doesn't have much to say about the issue of welfare, which is surprising, although after having some professional dealings with them myself, this fits with what I've noticed about the way it conducts its affairs.

I have no doubt that the welfare of greyhounds isn't perfect, and the Trust can't be very happy about the way some owners dump their dogs, but instead of bleating on about something they probably can't stop (unless the sport was banned), they spend their time more productively by working hard to find homes for unwanted dogs.

An important factor here is that greyhounds are the best possible breed for nearly anybody who wants a dog as a pet (although they are the seventh fastest land animal, they need no more exercise than other breeds but are clean, docile, loyal and intelligent). The Trust pick up on this to encourage more people to have them, and this positive approach gives the dogs the best possible chance of finding a good home. I'd certainly have a greyhound if we weren't even softer about cats in our house than we are about dogs.

The Greyhound Board of Great Britain, the sport's governing body, also seem to care. They spend £4m a yet on welfare - or more than a third of their budget - which included £1.7m given to the Trust in 2008.

However, out of the £4m supposedly spent on 'welfare', a quarter went towards veterinary attendance at meetings, which is surely less to do with welfare and more to do with being a moral obligation and probably a legal requirement. Indeed,tonight's meeting started nearly an hour later, apparently because they couldn't start until after the vet's inspection, and I guess he or she turned up late.

So, in summary: I think it is possible to enjoy a night at the dogs and come home with a clear conscience. Although probably not any money.

March 14, 2010

Boldly going where man has already been

I'm still not quite sure what to make of President Obama's decision to cancel NASA's Constellation project to go back to the Moon, despite criticism from astronauts who have been there.

The moon landings are still something that fills me with such awe that I still have to pinch myself every time I look up and see the moon, and I have no doubt that it was not only the biggest leap that mankind has ever made, but easily the most inspiring.

That's why I'm currently reading Buzz Aldrin's book, Magnificent Desolation, and even though I've read a lot about Apollo before, I am finding it absolutely gripping.

I'm not really sure why NASA were so keen to go back to the moon when there are new challenges they could take up. I'd hate to think that the main motive behind it was PR, but I can't help thinking they were hoping it might recapture the (paying American) public's imagination again. In that sense it would have been a soft option, and contrary to everything NASA should stand for. As Kennedy said, they chose to do what they did not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

The Apollo missions were real voyages of discovery, and the astronauts were genuine pioneers and proper explorers, whereas anybody else returning to the moon would be going over old ground, half a century after it was first conquered. So Obama's decision may turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it forces NASA to come up with something more ambitious.

NASA should lead and not follow. Or, as Captain Kirk put it, their purpose is to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.

March 12, 2010

Off the road

That's another one ticked off my list of classic books to read before I die...

I had several reasons for reading On the Road. Its author, Jack Kerouac, is mentioned in an Al Stewart song (Modern Times), for a start, which is always a good indicator of how interesting the subject matter is.

And it is interesting. On the Road was groundbreaking and a book of its time - a bit like the literary equivalent of rock 'n' roll, only a few years earlier. It's also interesting because it was completed after 20 days of continuous typing on a single roll of paper - a fact that was brought to my attention by my nephew, Rich Carter, on his blog (see also here).

Unfortunately (sorry, Rich), the actual writing doesn't live up to any of the book's billing, and I found it a frustrating, even irritating book.

Yes, I know it isn't really supposed to have any structure, but I hadn't bargained for something quite so aimless. The plot - such as it is - concerns the narrator, Sal Paradise, travelling across America, virtually at random, and scrounging accommodation off various friends, often accompanied by the book's hero, Dean Moriarty. I think Kerouac sensed the problem with this lack of plot as he neared the end, and tried to make some kind of climax out of their ultimate wandering, over the border in Mexico.

But it doesn't work. No matter what happens, it is impossible to feel any empathy with or care anything about the paper-thin characters, whose main defining characteristic is they lack character. Even worse: the female characters are so utterly lacking in any substance that I found myself feeling radical feminist disgust for the shameful, completely disparaging way that Kerouac portrays every one of them.

Sal clearly looks up to Dean as some kind of urban prophet, but it took me about three pages of this hero-worship to realise that Dean is, actually, just another of life's bullshitters. Pardon my French and all that, but that really is the only word in the dictionary that describes him. His only redeeming quality is the child-like awe he has for the everyday things he comes across on his travels, but you quickly become suspicious of that. The longer the book grinds on, the more shallow Dean becomes, and by the time he reaches Mexico he has finally revealed himself to be the gibbering psychotic waster we all knew he was by page three.

I've always liked the thought of driving across America - probably from east to west - and I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to do that, but On the Road reveals very little of what that would actually be like. Whereas you or I might embark on such a journey as a genuine adventure, Kerouac's characters are doing it for a completely different reason: they are all running away from responsibility.

So they take drugs, drink, steal, con, get carried away by the new wave of bebop jazz and seek out conveniently vulnerable women to seduce along the way, but they never really get to see real life nor meet real people.

There's nothing so dull as hearing about other people's so-called exploits, and in On the Road we get to read about them, over and over again.

Kerouac sometimes shows a good turn of phrase, but the gems are encased in so much baggage that not only are they scant consolation for the rest of the book, but you even begin to wonder whether they are accidental. He says so many vaguely philosophical but potentially pretentious things that he can't help but hit the target every now and again.

The only good thing I can say about On the Road is Kerouac's timing was perfect. Such a book really hadn't been done before, and it reflected a particular moment in time. In other words, he was in the right place at the right time to get away with something that, for me, has virtually no value when taken out of its original context.

March 10, 2010

The rise and rise of Scrawny Seanie

It's milestone day in the Carter household today - on account of the fact that Sean is 18 today. For me that means that although I still have two children, suddenly one of them isn't a child any more.

I say suddenly because - fairly obviously to anybody of my age - those 18 years have flashed by in the blink of an eye, and it hardly seems like yesterday since we were preparing for birthdays by making Thunderbirds cakes and watching his face light up because we'd bought him a football shirt and a little goal.

The night he was born is mostly a blur now, although, to be honest, it seemed to be blurring at the edges even as it was happening. Julie had had high blood pressure for a couple of weeks and was eventually induced, but once it started to happen, it didn't take long and he was born at 2.36am. He was a couple of weeks premature (which is nothing by Carter gene standards) and only 6lbs 1oz (massive by Carter gene standards), so one of the midwives or nurses later called him 'Scrawny Seanie'.

Until minutes before the birth we were undecided between Adam and Sean for a name, and if he had been a girl he would have been called Rebecca - which is ironic because his girlfriend (of now 18 months) is called Rebecca (although we know her as Becka).

What I remember most about the whole birth episode is sitting outside the hospital (the now demolished Princess Margaret Hospital) in the spring air, once all the fuss had died down, sometime between 4am and 5am. It was one of those moments in your life where you force yourself to take a deep breath and try to remember it, but although the picture is clear to me now, by far the strongest detail was the feeling that the world had been turned upsidedown in the night. But whereas everybody else would soon wake up to just another day, we were the only ones who would notice the radical change that had taken place.

It goes without saying that we have always been proud of Sean - not just for what he can do and what he has already achieved - such as his rare talent for drumming in particular and music in general. Such things are bonuses. Even more satisfying is how all those things that we decided, exactly 18 years ago, that we were going to teach him about growing up in a difficult world - every one of them to do with respect in some form - all managed to stick.

In other words: our 18-year project is now complete and we reckon we haven't done a bad job.

So happy birthday, Sean.

The picture, above, is baby Seanie aged about one hour. The official 18th birthday picture (with Becka) is below.

March 6, 2010

Al fans of the world unite

One of the great things about having a musical hero like Al Stewart is it's such a pleasure when you meet somebody who also thinks Al is a genius, and find you have an instant rapport with them. It's like being in a secret society, and maybe there should be a secret Al Stewart handshake or something.

Several of my friends are also Al fans*, including my friend Steve whom I 'met' on the internet (and they say these things never last). We got in touch primarily through our common interest in Al's work, and pretty soon we were visiting Steve and his wife in Australia, and he's stayed with us a few times over the years.

I met another fellow Al fan tonight, who turns out to have a little bit of a claim to fame. He was in The Cure, before they were famous. Actually, to people of the wrong generation or with less adventurous musical tastes, The Cure probably never were famous, but they were a bit of a cult band, especially in the late 1970s and 80s. His name is Rory Gear - and amazingly, that's his real name.

Rory was in the band when they were still at school and called Easy Cure, but left at about the time they were offered the chance to tour with a little known band called The Sex Pistols. He had had much better offers, he told me, to play guitar with a folk-rock band, which brought us round to my leanings towards folk-rock. He was impressed by my liking of The Strawbs (who wouldn't be?) but his face lit up when I said my real hero is Al Stewart. It turns out that we both have all of Al's stuff, have both seen him in concert around 20 times each, and agree that his music and especially his lyrics and the interesting subject matter of his songs marks him out as an undoubted genius.

It goes without saying that Al is under-rated, having never enjoyed the commercial success he deserves, but all Al fans are secretly glad about this. We're glad he's no megastar because then it would be no big deal to bump into somebody you've never met before and discover that you have such a mutual interest.

Rory also turns out to be a writer, having turned his back on an apparently successful career as a management consultant last year, after feeling a kind of calling to become a full-time author.

And another good thing about conversations like this is it wouldn't have happened to me a couple of years ago. I was speaking to Rory during a break in a gig we were playing at a private party. When you're in a band, strangers come up to you and talk to you. This is especially good because I'm still an inherently shy person who hardly ever starts conversations with other people, so I usually miss out on meeting interesting people who have interesting lives and interesting things to say.

Altogether, though, it's yet another thing to thank Al for.

*I've just received a Twitter-like email from my friend Simon, who lives in America, to say that he's just attended an Al concert over there. The first thing to say about this is Simon probably wouldn't have emailed me (especially so rapidly) about any other kind of event, but when Al is involved, it's different. And there is also something spooky to report. The concert was happening almost simultaneously with the events I've described, above. And I've also received an email from another Al fan and friend, Pete, to say that around the same time, he he was checking out an iTunes library for Al - in the Apple Shop in Melbourne, where he is currently on holiday.

March 4, 2010

Always makes me laugh

It was our very great pleasure to be in the audience for Tim Vine's Joke-amotive tonight.

Owing to being indisposed for the comedian's visit to Swindon earlier in the tour, we (all four of us and my brother Brian and their four) had to travel to the Corn Exchange at Newbury, but it was well worth the trip.

The whole show consists of a string of puns - some absolutely terrible (and funny because of it) and some extremely clever. These are all delivered so quickly that you sometimes miss one because you're still rocking from the one before. His comedy is very Tommy Cooperish, only the jokes come much quicker.

I can hardly remember any of them (which is, paradoxically, always a good measure of quality, I find). There was something about him going to a jazz playground but they only had a slide and a see-saw - and it don't mean a thing if it ain't got swings. There was also something about the man with a helium balloon for a head, who was up on the ceiling (he's let himself go).

Then he reaches into his bag and pulls out a handwritten card saying "BNAG". That's bang out of order.

The warm-up act was great too - comedian/magician John Archer, who pulled off an amazing trick in which he predicts the number on a die shaken in a cardboard cup. And a fantastic evening was topped off with Lucy (my niece), Holly and Julie posing for a picture with Tim himself, complete with his pen behind his ear. The pen behind the ear is a part of the act that's a bit hard to explain - though not as hard as the appearance of Flag Hippo towards the end.

Tim Vine is either somebody you love or hate. We love him - and I for one hummed the words of his best song, all the way home ("Ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha. Always makes me laugh").

March 3, 2010

Dumb and dumber

There doesn't seem much going on on this blog lately. I'm just going through one of those periods when there isn't much to write about.

I've been quite busy in my role as Vice-Chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society - not only helping to complete an application for a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but organising a fundraising event and putting together literature to spread the word about the man himself - which is really the main point of the society, on account of it seems hardly anybody in Swindon has heard of this genuinely inspiring and intriguing character.

All this makes me a candidate to be the King of Geekland in the eyes of the teenagers in our house, but I'd rather that than be thought of a some sad old geyser who does nothing more than sit in front of the telly.

So if I start going on about the telly, I hope nobody thinks I am one of those faceless British hordes who don't seem to have realised that somebody has invented an off button for the damned things.

I have been fuming ever since the weekend, when we sat down to catch up (thanks to the magic of on-demand TV) with a series that, on the surface of it, was just up my street. It's called Mastercrafts and features Monty Don, apparently plucking Joe Public off the streets to have a go at interesting old crafts such as thatching or, in the case of the programme I watched, green woodworking.

The programme was supposed to find out whether modern people could learn the necessary skills in a relatively short space of time, although the BBC, in their wisdom, decided to turn it into an exercise in dumbing down.

The most blatant example of this was the inclusion of a minor disagreement between two of the three participants - which was completely at odds with the rest of the programme, where it was difficult to hide the fact that the three were helping each other and getting on well during the whole six weeks that they spent together.

I can only assume that the director had decided that - just in case there were any EastEnders fans watching - it was necessary to inject some kind of conflict into the proceedings, in case they came over all disorientated and flicked over. This seems to be an essential ingredient of most programmes these days.

But just to be absolutely sure that the programme appealed to people with the attention span of a goldfish, the director also saw to it that the camera never lingered on any one scene for more than four seconds - literally, and often much less. Either that or they could only get the same director they use for the mystery personality on A Question of Sport. As a result of this, we barely got a glimpse of the actual craftwork - either while it was being made or even when they had completed their alloted task of designing and making a chair.

The director was intent on mostly showing the faces of the people - presumably hoping to show negative signs of their struggle.

The really stupid thing about this is the people with short attention spans who needed to have the programme dumbed were never going to watch it anyway. It was obvious that only geeks like me who already has an interest in stuff like that had chosen to watch it instead of Dancing on Ice.

I don't mind them dumbing down programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing, but when it comes to what should have been a serious documentary, I object. And I especially object this week, when the BBC has revealed how it intends to save money or (as it laughingly puts it) to free up more money to make "quality programmes".

If any of those programmes are going to get the Mastercrafts treatment, "quality" is one word they are going to have to look up in the dictionary, but the point here is that the BBC seems to think that its remit is to dumb down programmes until any kind of pondlife can watch all its programmes, and try to turn everything into gameshow-type light entertainment. It seems to be losing sight of the fact that not all of us tune in, all the time, to be entertained, but sometimes we also like to be informed and even educated, once in a while.

So today's idea of doing away with 6Music and the Asian Network, which I never tune into but clearly exist to provide the opposite of dumbing down, is no way of getting people like me behind them when they come to trying to defend themselves against the growing efforts of Rupert Murdoch and other parts of the media with a vested interest in doing away with the BBC altogether.

If bosses at the BBC think that the best way of safeguarding its future is to carry on dumbing it down until it is like ITV, they are very much mistaken.

That David Dimbleby - he could go far

A beacon of hope amid the dumbing down that is endemic at the BBC at the moment is David Dimbleby's stunning documentary series, Seven Ages of Britain. This is not only full of what I consider to be fascinating stuff, but is put together with the brilliance that used to be the BBC's international trademark when it came to documentaries.

It is written and presented by Dimbleby, and the fact that it includes none of the dumbing down devices of programmes like Mastercrafts (see above) must be due to: a) Dimbleby having become a master of the art of television over the years, and b) he would have told anybody who suggested or insisted on dumbing down it down where to go and stick his clipboard.

There is just one thing bothering me about the programme, which is all about highlighting some of Britain's most priceless historical treasures. This week, arguably one of the most compelling relics in this country - the tunic that Charles I reputedly wore at his execution (complete with blood stains) - was featured, and we saw Dimbleby going into the bowels of the Museum of London to retrieve it from a vault.

This is a common occurrence in the programme - massive national treasures being kept under lock and key instead of being on show to the public.

But nobody needs a long essay from me about the decline of heritage in 21st century Britain.