April 28, 2010

Sticking to it

I am a little aware that I haven't updated this blog with much about what our kids are doing these days, and as Sean is coming up to a big milestone in his life, an update is overdue.

He is approaching the end of his A-levels, and while some kids are thinking about and aiming for university, Sean isn't - which makes perfect sense to us.

Long ago - probably before they were born - we decided that we would support our kids in whatever they wanted to do, try not to put too much pressure on them to succeed and, above all else, help them get a career they enjoy.

So far, so good.

One of the good things about taking up drumming is I may not be very good myself, but I recognise enough about it to know a good drummer when I see one, and it soon became apparent to me that Sean was plenty good enough to be able to make a living out of being a drummer - and at least be a drum teacher. I don't think he's ever really thought of doing anything else.

Having passed his Grade 8 while still at school, which takes some doing, he is now studying for a diploma, which involves playing some intricate pieces that not only would I never be able to play if I live to be a thousand, but I literally find it hard to comprehend that drumming of that difficulty is even humanly possible.

If he passes when he takes the exam later this year, it will be a useful paper qualification, but he has already taken the first few practical steps to a career in music, thanks in no small measure to his (and my) drum teacher, Paul Ashman - not just for teaching him so effectively, but also by going out of his way to open doors for him and being a role model.

For a while now, Sean has been helping out at the innovative and highly successful Rock School, which Paul heads up for the Swindon Music Service, where his job is to supervise kids who have been formed into a band. He has the advantage of being able to play guitar, as well as drums, and has a lot of experience of playing in his own band, called The Cold Harbour, on guitar. He also writes all the songs for the band. I can't pretend their type of music is anything I'd ever want to sit down and listen to, but it's good experience for him, and he is also in the process of forming another band with some talented mates, in which he will play drums.

Meanwhile, he's recently started doing more mentoring work, actually going into two senior schools where they have their own Rock School to complement the centralised one. He's also picking up some good experience meeting and greeting students who attend Swindon Music Service to take exams. He seems to get on well with the kids - some of whom are only two or three years younger than him - who always seem to be in awe of what he can do, especially on the drums.

It's going to be a long haul to build up this sort of work into a full-time career, but he's made a good start and already has enough maturity to suggest he will make a go of it. And the good thing about him not going to university is the money we had earmarked to finance that can go into paying for other things.

For now, the priority is to get his name around, and I am just about to start putting together a website for him, and have started getting some pictures together, as you can see.


Until he passes his driving test, I get the job of taxiing Sean to his Rock School work around town, including at Greendown School, which is not only the other side of town from us, but also the sessions are right in the middle of the rush hour.

It's not worth making four journeys, so every Wednesday afternoon I have to spend an hour in the car, while he works. At least this means I can catch up on some reading, but as Greendown is a stone's throw from Lydiard Park, this week I decided to spend my hour-long wait walking around the grounds and the outside of the house, plus the little old church (built in 1633).

Lydiard House was a minor stately home that was saved from ruin in 1947 by Swindon Corporation so is now publicly owned. Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, £5million has been spent on it in the last five years, the main outcome of which is that everything seems more neat and majestic than before. The lake, for instance, which always seemed like it was hiding from visitors in the woods, is now the centrepiece of the estate and presents quite a striking, pleasant vista.

Lydiard Park is a good place for barbecues, picnics and kite-flying, but otherwise I can't help thinking that not quite enough is made of the place. The visitor centre, for instance, which is a pleasant looking building and quite large, mostly seems to exist to sell you tea and ice cream, and I felt it didn't really give me much reason to go inside.

The house is interesting in its own small way, but having taken the tour - and even though it was years ago - I wasn't struck by the need to do it again today or for a while yet.

The incidental bits are more interesting. An information board told me something I'd never heard before - that Elizabeth I visited Lydiard in 1592, which is worth finding out more about - and there is also an interesting example of an ice house to look at. Otherwise, there always seems to be something missing from Lydiard, even if I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

Then again, that could be a good thing. Maybe the best thing about Lydiard Park is it's always going to be for people like me to drop in and walk around every now and then, just for the sake of it, and not needing any other reason.

April 27, 2010

A short history of slagging things off in Swindon

It's started already.

They haven't even finished plumbing in the new water feature in Swindon town centre yet, and already at least one outraged citizen has written to the Advertiser about it.

This caused me to abandon my usual witty, light-hearted approach to my Adver column this week and make the case for public art - something that will no doubt make me very unpopular with a certain section of the readership.

To be fair, there is some previous when it comes to water features being installed in The Parade. I still vividly remember the furore about a concrete effort that used to stand there in the Sixties, which people came to hate with a vengeance. But that one was ugly and particularly ill-conceived, and the council were eventually forced to dismantle it. At one stage, somebody put soap powder in it, so it ended up frothing over.

So the frothing at the mouth about the new one, which is at the other end of The Parade, and saying it is a "monstrous waste of metal and money" is predictable and even understandable - but only up to a point.

Oscar Wilde talked about people who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, and there is certainly going to be no shortage of them in the next couple of years, especially considering the pessimistic mood set by all three of the main political parties in the forthcoming election, who are falling over each other to tell us how many cuts they are planning to make in public services. We had a little conversation with a member of the committee of the Watermill Theatre tonight (see below) and he said everybody in the theatre world is already dreading where the axe will fall on Arts Council and other grants.

But it's not the "what a waste of money" reaction that most bugs me about public art, it's the ridiculous reference to vandalism that people who are anti-public art always resort to when trying to convince us why we shouldn't have such things. In fact, their main reason for not putting up such things as a water feature always seems to be that they will be targetted by vandals. If we thought like that all the time, surely we'd never build anything, and surely that's giving in to vandals, isn't it?

Neither do they stop to think that the kind of soulless wastelands they want us to live in might actually be a breeding ground for vandals. It hasn't occured to them that the kind of person who feels the need to go out and put his boot into something or graffiti it might be slightly less inclined to do it if the urban landscape was improved with artworks. Surely more water features mean less vandalism?

It's almost as if they see the vandals as art critics who are going to be so enraged by what the anti- brigade see as failed art, that they will want to destroy it. This is probably because they see it as failed art because it's modern. As they are no doubt fond of reading in the Daily Mail, all modern art is bad. And maybe even evil.

And here's the real point of this little rant: there is a word for people who go round saying they hate things, demanding they are torn down and saying they are looking forward to see it carted away, in pieces, on the back of a lorry. They're vandals.

The new water feature is not the greatest work of art I've ever seen, and it's certainly not the Angel of the North, which I love, but it's good enough, and it's not so important what it looks like compared with the principle that somebody is taking the trouble to try to improve the landscape.

There is an irony to all this in that as part of the redevelopment of the area, the Golden Lion sculpture has been given an impressive new plinth and moved close to the new water feature. This will no doubt be fine with the anti-public art brigade because it cannot be classed as nasty 'modern' art and although it partly commemorates the Golden Lion pub that used to stand nearby, it also marked the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. And they wouldn't dream of saying a word against anything with royal connections.

Grim up north

Any trip to the Watermill at Newbury is a treat, but sometimes you have to work harder to get the full benefit.

That's how it was tonight when Julie and I went along to see Bronte by Polly Teale. Not surprisingly, it was a drama about the Bronte sisters - and very interesting it was too, if a little heavy and, at two and a half hours, quite long.

I don't think I've ever seen a play with so much hand-wringing intensity, and the claustrophobic set didn't help relieve the impression that it was perpetually grim up north for the three Bronte sisters and their long-suffering brother.

There was hardly a light moment in the whole play - so even when all three sisters got their books published and overcame the even greater challenge of being accepted as female writers, it was all terribly joyless.

It was all very well acted, however, and it was clever how Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Cathy (from Wuthering Heights) were woven into the story. And despite feeling like we had worked hard, both Julie and I came away wanting to find out more about the Brontes and either read Jane Eyre or re-read Wuthering Heights, which has to mean it was an overall success.

April 26, 2010

Back to school

There was real pleasure for me today as I took the Alfred Williams crusade (which it sometimes feels like) to South Marston School.

Part of the brief for the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, which I co-founded and am Vice-chair of, is to spend some of the Heritage Lottery Fund money we've been awarded on educational initiatives. So I duly stood up in morning assembly at the school and told about a hundred kids why their school is special.

It was, of course, Alfred's own school. He went there from about 1882 until 1887, when, at the age of ten years, he left for full-time employment. He'd already been a 'half-timer' for the previous two years, going to school in the morning and working on local farms in the afternoon. This was directly relevant to the South Marston kids as they are up to ten years old, but rather than thinking about finding work locally, they obviously still have years of education before them, followed by work far beyond the village boundaries.

In Alfred's day there were 80 pupils, so there are only a few more these days, but the school has doubled in size, physically, and will soon have a brand new block, which is being beautifully blended in with the original 1873 building.

It seems to have lost none of that lovely old village school atmosphere. All the kids were remarkably well behaved, very polite, extremely cute and apparently interested in the old guy out the front who was trying hard not to let everything go above their heads - and at least partially succeeded, judging by their questions at the end. These suggested they had been paying attention and could not only understand just a little bit more about their heritage but hopefully sense why adults think it is important.

We are planning more things with this school and others, which I am really rather glad about.

When not bad goes bad

As you tumble, head first, towards your 49th birthday, one of life's consolations is you can still depend on it throwing up new experiences - even if they are things that you swore you'd never ever do. Ever.

For the first time in my life, tonight I ended up playing a match in a tennis league. Lack of availability of good players and a lot of barrel scraping at the tennis club (CS Nalgo) suddenly jettisoned me into the men's team to play against Chiseldon B, partnering my brother Ron, who himself hasn't played in the team for years on account of his heart problems and subsequent transplant.

I am the worst possible thing that anybody can be in sport, which is: not bad. This is infinitely worse than having two left feet and therefore no hope or expectations, and I could write at length and with much self-sympathy about what it is like to be permanently in awe of how good (and seemingly effortlessly) some people are at sport. But I will probably save that for my next column in the Adver.

All anybody really needs to know about the ritual humilation that comes from an average tennis player being pitted against natural sportsmen is we lost our games 0-6, 2-6 and 0-6, 1-6 - yet I came home relieved that it hadn't been as one-sided as I feared.

April 23, 2010

Party pooper

There is plenty I could say here about the election, and nobody who knows me personally will, I hope, be in any doubt about what I want the outcome to be. Indeed, they are probably wondering why this blog has so far been election-free.

Although national newspapers are overtly party political, local ones - an industry I am nominally still a part of - are strictly non-partisan. And even though I'm freelance, I feel obliged to stay non-party political in public, even if I am a pretty fervent party animal in private.

There is one exception to this. I am free to say whatever I like about the BNP, on account of they barely qualify as human beings, let alone a proper party. Sadly, Nick Griffin and all the other half-wits that hang around with him don't need me to tell you not to vote for them; everything they say or do is enough to reveal their true colours or - in the case of this bizarre story - their stupidity.

I hope Unilever sue the pants off them for associating themselves with Marmite. We all know that they are readily associated with something else that's brown and sticky, but it's not Marmite.

The best thing I have heard about the election so far is a comment that somebody made about the presidential-style leaders' debates - the second of which took place last night. It was, he said, the worst Kraftwerk concert ever.

By George

It's St George's Day today and I have to say this makes me totally unmoved in the patriotic department. In fact, I am struggling not to be very cynical about the whole thing.

It's always struck me as a bit silly to have a day in which we remember somebody who wasn't English and I'm not sure ever existed and is supposed to have slayed an animal that certainly didn't. Besides, in an essentially secular country, do we really need to have patron saints any more?

But a worrying tendency I've noticed this year is for people to fly or even wear the St George's cross in exactly the same way they do for the England football team. Today I've seen flags fluttering out of the windows of cars, hung up in front room windows and even painted on the face of a yobbish-looking lad who was also wearing one like a cape.

I have been very suspicious of any kind of nationalism ever since my school days, when my history lessons explained how it kept European wars going for the whole of the 19th and half of the 20th century. And what really bothers me now is the kind of people who get all excited and start flying flags on St George's Day are exactly the same ones who would start getting all patriotic over things that don't make me proud to be British at all, such as the Empire, the jolly old pound and the royal family.

April 20, 2010

Nowt so interesting as folk (and folk)

Phew! Glad that's over.

Tonight I was at the first Alfred Williams Folksong Evening, at the King and Queen, Longcot - which would have been great fun if I hadn't had the responsibility of co-organising it for the Alfred Williams Heritage Society.

Anybody who has ever organised an event will tell you about the nightmares it throws up, with a thousand and one things that could go wrong, including the possibility that you are going to end up sitting there with your helpers, looking at each other and wondering why nobody came.

Well, not only was it not like that, but keeping tomorrow morning clear so I could lie down in a darkened room is not necessary, either. We didn't get as many people as we hoped, but we did get far more than we feared. And those who did come seemed to have had a good time.

In all, about 40 people were there, and in the best traditions of folk music gatherings, by the end of the night it was impossible to separate the watchers from the doers.

Much more significant than quantity is quality, and I spent the evening in the company of various people who shared the qualities of Alfred Williams himself - multi-talented, a profound interest in everything that moves - and expert understanding of and empathy with the things that interest them most.

There was a man with a hurdy-gurdy who has been teaching himself to play it for three years, but sounded like he was born with one in his hands; a folksinger in his eighties who brought along (and wore) a replica agricultural labourer's smock (he has a genuine one that is too old and valuable to take to a pub); an incurably amiable man and his charming wife who have been running the Chippenham Folk Festival for 39 years and are walking encyclopaedias of folk music; a bloke I first met in 1993 when he wrote and staged a play about Alfred Williams and is now an expert on folk dancing, and a great squeezebox player; an old guy (whose idea the whole thing was) who is one of the nicest, gentlest, friendliest people you could meet but is a master of martial arts; a guy who runs an old-fashioned bookshop and is an expert on poetry; the Chairman of The Swindon Society, whose vast collection of historic postcards is matched only by the information about them that he carries around in his head; the guy who lives with his wife and kids in a replica Saxon roundhouse he built himself on a windfarm, having dropped out of the rat race, and can not only turn his hand to probably any craft, but can apparently pick up and play, beautifully, any musical instrument yet invented.

This last chap (Chris Park of Acorn Education) did a fantastic workshop with local schoolchildren, showing them various folk instruments and getting them to have a go. I was busy doing organisers' stuff so could only hear it, but I really wished I could have been one of the wide-eyed kids involved.

Chris is one of those people who seem so wise that, even though he speaks very slowly and quietly, has your rapt attention. You just know that whatever he says is going to be worth hearing. He's immensely talented and obviously massively in tune with organic things, has wild cartoon hair and a goatie beard, and can only be described as more hippyish than a hippy. Yet he carries a mobile phone, is contactable by email and his attitude to the modern world is not to wish he had been born in a different century, but be thrilled that the circle seems to be turning and more people are seeing the value of organic, environmentally friendly things.

Give me a whole day with any of the people I've met tonight and I could write you a whole book about them, because some folk were just born interesting.

The event has also inspired me to try to get back into listening to more folk music. I've always been interested in it, even if the enormity of the subject - not unlike classical and jazz - has always been a barrier. Either you don't know where to start or - as in my case - you don't know where to go next. I have a few folkie things on my iPod, including the sublime Singing the Fishing, but tonight I am feeling I need to get to know more. So far, my solution to my folkie tendencies has mostly been to go overboard on folk-rock, which is, after all, the artetypal marriage made in heaven.

Even if the strain of co-organising it meant I couldn't look forward to it or enjoy it so much while it was happening as I can now in hindsight, it was well worth the effort.

Wilde thing

I am beginning to wonder about the point of filing reviews of books, more than a century after they are published, but here goes with another that has been ticked off my list of classic books to read before I die...

Actually, a 21st century review is relevant, because The Picture of Dorian Gray is now read from a completely different perspective than when it first came out in 1890.

This change is not unlike the subject of the story, actually, as it is famously about a portrait that ages while the real Dorian Gray retains his youthfulness. In fact, it's not that simple because the portrait doesn't just age with time, but rather seems to change according to the 'sins' that Dorian Gray commits during his lifetime. Those sins aren't related in any detail, and it's not clear whether Wilde is referring to Gray's homosexuality - which is the central theme of the book - or just promiscuity.

Like everything that Oscar Wilde touched, The Picture of Dorian Gray was controversial, and I'm amazed it ever got past the censor at the time. We can be much more grown-up about these things these days - apart from the Daily Mail - but it's still shocking to find that the first half of the story is all about the attraction of two other male characters to Dorian, whom you think that most Victorians might have called handsome, but who is constantly referred to as "beautiful" by the men.

The shocking part has nothing to do with the fact that it's about gay men, but rather the way that gay relationships were acted out at the time. It's mostly a story about people living double lives, as symbolised by the magical qualities of the painting compared with Dorian Gray's ageless face. These double lives make it sordid, and it is made even more sordid by the reaction of the other (slightly older) men to Dorian, which, in the 21st century, we call grooming.

Another aspect - which may or may not have been Wilde's intention to highlight - is this state of affairs is clearly only possible if you are a member of the upper class and you have the means to live a double life. Although it was no doubt frowned upon among the rich, it was accepted, while for the poor people, homosexuality was criminalised. So there is a big class thing going on in the novel, too.

It was Oscar Wilde's only novel, and it shows. There is far too much of people flinging themselves on to sofas for my liking - if I want that sort of nonsense, I'll read Jane Austen, thank you very much - and he's not much good at dialogue, either, which is a bit of a drawback for a playwright. Neither was his famous wit quite so much in evidence, except for when he is handing out put-downs.

So I'm not wild about it, although it is interesting enough, and it does improve in the second half when it takes on an unexpectedly dark turn.

April 18, 2010

Let's hear it for the hurdy-gurdy

Being involved with a heritage society that has just been given a grant of thousands of pounds is a pretty scary business.

There are budgets to keep, targets to meet and people to recruit. Although I have interviewed thousands of people as part of my work before, for the first time, earlier this week, I experienced the pressure of co-conducting a job interview. Fortunately, I wasn't alone, and the other two founder members of the society had to suffer the same fate.

It was surprisingly hard work - maybe even harder than being interviewed for a job yourself - especially when you want to give all four candidates the job.

But probably the scariest part of being Vice-chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society is what is going to happen on Tuesday. We have organised a Folksong Evening as a bit of a fundraiser, but mainly to recognise the fact that while Alfred Williams is an unsung literary hero, he is a full-blown national superstar to English folk music enthusiasts.

That's because he took it upon himself to cycle round the area he called the Upper Thames, interviewing old people who could remember old folk songs, and faithfully writing down the lyrics (but not the music) for posterity. Mention his name to anybody interested in the history of British folk music and their face lights up.

If nothing else, the evening should bring together people who are interested in Alfred Williams the writer and those who are interested in Alfred Williams the folk song collector, who wouldn't normally meet, and this should cause some useful crossover.

But the whole thing is giving me the willies because we don't know how successful it is going to be - and we don't really know if many people are going to turn up. We are assured that the folksong enthusiasts will be beating a path to it, but we've also been told they are notorious for not buying tickets in advance.

In such scary circumstances, it is surprising what helps to put your mind at rest, and news that somebody who is attending will be bringing a hurdy-gurdy with them makes me think the worry will be worth it in the end.

I had to look it up on Wikipedia to be sure exactly what a hurdy-gurdy is (and it wasn't quite what I thought), but I do know this: anything with a fantastic name like that has to be something to look forward to getting your hands on.

Fuel's paradise

If I had a pound for every time an email landed in my inbox trying to get me to join the campaign to force petrol prices down by reducing duty on petrol - which is spam by any other name - I would now have enough money to... well, drive from here to John O'Groats.

I really wish they wouldn't.

For a start, it's not so much about tax as it is about oil companies keeping prices high to line their own pockets. And anybody who expects to be able to make any difference to taxation is, frankly, a bit naive. If any government wants to tax us, they will, and if they took the duty off petrol, you can bet your bottom that they'd put it on something else to make up for it.

But has nobody stopped to consider the fact that, whether we like it or not, we have to pay taxes - and you can't have it both ways? It doesn't seem to occur to most people that it boils down to a very simple choice between low taxation with lesser services - or higher taxation with better services. Personally, I'm for the latter.

And what about the environmental aspect? If we are going to pick on one sector of the global markets to slap high taxation on, surely it makes sense to choose something that we should be cutting back on. Surely, if high costs makes us buy less petrol (which is surely the only thing that will), that has to be a good thing. If you don't want to spend so much money on petrol, buy less.

And here's the craziest thing of all - the notion that a petition, a half-baked boycott and especially sending me emails is going to make the slightest bit of difference to whoever is in 10 Downing Street this time next month.

April 15, 2010

A touch of wind

Here's an interesting story about wind turbines, although it is annoying that whenever they get coverage, it is always on the back of a negative story.

Personally, I am all for wind farms. The most obvious reason for this is they are good for the environment. Although there are people who like to put it about that they are somehow inefficient, the fact that Honda has worked out it can generate 13 per cent of its energy needs from the turbines - the story doesn't say how many - is impressive. The anti- brigade always like to point out how wind farms don't solve all our energy problems, but surely every watt that doesn't have to be generated from old-fashioned means has to be good. And remember the Honda factory is big; they are Swindon's biggest private sector employer. So that's a lot of energy.

In this case I am torn because the proposal is to put them at South Marston, home of Alfred Williams, whose Heritage Society I am Vice-chair of. It's a nice village that is about to be swallowed up by housing development, and to the residents it must seem like they are under attack from the outside world. They seem to have genuine concerns about the impact of living almost underneath them, so that needs ironing out.

But my main reason for being in favour of wind turbines is I think they often add to the scenery. They are majestic and fascinating, and It's almost impossible not to look at them, even when you are driving past one on the motorway.

Some people say they have a detrimental effect on the countryside, being a large man-made structure in the middle of a natural area. But anybody who believes that couldn't have noticed that virtually the whole of the British countryside is man-made. Not only was virtually every hedgerow put there by man, but there are also artificial field boundaries, fences, walls, roads, tracks, paths, vehicles, signs, pylons, vapour trails, buildings, light (at night), waterways, livestock, crops and plants. In other words: everything you see has been designed. In South Marston's case, the landscape also already includes a dirty great car factory.

A wind farm has the same impact that, say, a cathedral does, but I've never heard of anybody complaining because one of those dominates the landscape. Unlike power stations - and especially nuclear ones - which give off negative vibes, I am uplifted by the sight of wind turbines, so I'm for them.

I've even looking into the possibility of getting one at home. You can store energy from them and even sell it to the National Grid, and you can get a grant for up to £2,500 towards the cost, so it can pay for itself in a few years. There seems to be a long wait for enquiries, which must be a good sign.

You can find out more here. But hold on... not so quick. There's a queue here, you know.

April 13, 2010

Pub crawl

If there was an award for creative pub crawling, I think our little gang of long-time friends would win it hands down.

Among most other alpha males, monthly Lads' Nights Out (LNOs) would surely degenerate into aimless drinking sessions which it would be difficult to tell, one from another, after a few years.

But not us. We try to do something different every month, and it's whoever's turn it is to drive to come up with the itinerary. This month's driver, James, took us to two pubs we've been to before - we've been to most of them in the area, so duplicates are hard to avoid - but he did come up with a twist.

This was parking at the quaint Spotted Cow, Marston Maisey, then walking a footpath the couple of miles to the beautiful Red Lion at Castle Eaton for beer and a curry, then back to the Spotted Cow (now in the dark) by road for our nightcap.

The expected uneventful first leg took us down a footpath that is barely clinging to existence. Not only is the entrance from the road through somebody's garden, literally, but after that the route goes through a gravel pit, which is apparently soon to be flooded, and made it look a bit like an alien landscape.

The contractors had gone to a lot of trouble to make a pedestrian-friendly causeway through the middle for now, complete with temporary bridges, proving that there are few things in England more indestructible than a public footpath. And rightly so. Hopefully, there will be some plan to redirect it so that we can walk it again, in about ten years' time.

April 11, 2010

Alfred who

I haven't been able to say much here because a) we hadn't had the go-ahead to go 'public' and b) it had to go in the press first, but I have been involved in a little Lottery success - not winning anything (as that would be a bit difficult when I haven't bought a ticket for years) but getting a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In a way, this blog is responsible for it because it was after mentioning South Marston author Alfred Williams (1877-1930) here that I was contacted by a fellow fan (John Cullimore) who suggested forming an appreciation society. Before we knew it we had also got a third founding member (Caroline Ockwell) who suggested applying for a Lottery grant so that we could a) organise a festival; b) set up a permanent exhibit dedicated to Alfred Williams; c) do some educational stuff including a link between local schoolchildren and some in India; and d) various other stuff - all related to spreading the word about Alfred.

Having had no previous experience of applying for a grant, I thought getting one was a bit of a long shot, but we recently heard that we were getting the £35,000 we applied for - half of which is going to employ a part-time project co-ordinator for a year.

So almost out of nothing we have not only formed the Alfred Williams Heritage Society (see the website I designed, here), but we've created a job, and the festival is going ahead on November 12-13 at the STEAM Museum in Swindon.

I'm feeling pretty proud of being involved in this, and it has also opened up lots of new horizons, such as interviewing somebody for a job for the first time in my life (tomorrow), getting involved in interesting projects such as with an art group for disabled people, and getting to work with some pretty smart people along the way. It's filling up my spare time, but it's interesting and challenging - and hopefully we will achieve our goal of making more people aware of Alfred Williams, Swindon's forgotten local hero.

If nothing else, anybody who reads this blog is going to be hearing plenty more about him over the next year and beyond.

Above is my favourite picture of Alfred (courtesy of Paul Williams and Bob Townsend) - for many reasons, but mostly because Alfred famously wrote in his spare time while holding down a tough job at Swindon Railway Works, and if you look at the picture closely, you can see the grime on his shirt, which speaks volumes about his struggle. To me he is a bona fide working class hero, even if he never appreciated it.

Pencil behind the ear

You know you've been doing too much DIY when the pencil behind your ear was there so long that you can't tell whether it's still there or not.

My major project of a large area of decking is now complete - and actually has been for a few days, only I haven't got around to writing up this blog before now.

I have to confess that I really enjoyed the challenge and the end result, especially as I was hampered so much by unpredictable weather that it became a bit of a joke in the end. I bought a thousand screws just for fixing the decking boards (which was the easy bit after building the hefty frame to support it) - and only have about 20 left.

The torn fingernails, saw wounds on my hand and the phantom pencil behind my ear are all the sort of battlescars that are nice to have. Like the aching bones you have after training for a marathon, they are a reminder that you did it, and therefore quite welcome. I'd even go so far as to say I'd wouldn't mind building decking for a living, except such projects take me at least six times as long as they would a professional.

I'm now looking around for the next macho project to get my teeth into, but don't need to look far. Fortunately, behind every successful DIYer is a wife who is lining up the next three jobs on the list - usually before the first one is finished.

Book stuff

My bright idea of including a 'Now reading' section isn't working out as planned because I now always have two books on the go. There's always a book that is read in longer stretches - currently The Picture of Dorian Gray - and another that lives in the bathroom, which needs to be one that you can dip into, and strictly non-fiction.

Such books are sometimes comical, so I suppose they qualify as toilet humour. I recently finished an entertaining book by Jeff Stelling about his excellent football programme on Sky Sports News, called Jelleyman's Thrown a Wobbly, and this has been replaced by the latest installment of Michael Palin's diaries, which are, of course, brilliant.

A book that I definitely won't be wasting time on is one I spotted in Smith's about Cheryl Cole who is a judge on The X-Factor (or something). Everybody seems to know everything about her, but I know almost nothing (and want to know less) apart from the fact that judging by the record I heard her singing on the radio the other day, she needs to be filed under T for talentless tart. Harsh but true.

Anyway, this pointless biography about her had a strapline, above the title, which was apparently designed to get more people to read it, which went something like this: "Including the story behind her marriage breakup." Pity the poor souls whose own lives are so empty that they were persuaded to buy it on the strength of such a promise.

April 10, 2010

Confidence trick

"Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You might remember me from such self-help videos as Smoke Yourself Thin and Get Confident, Stupid."

So goes my favourite non-Homer quote from The Simpsons, and I have been trying to take a leaf out of Troy's book, having come to the conclusion that drumming in front of people is one per cent technique, one per cent practice and 98 per cent confidence.

The best drummers are not just good because they are good - but because they know they are good. Confidence breeds confidence, and if you can go into a gig with the confidence to get yourself in and out of any situation, you've cracked it. My trick is to try to focus on the easy things I know I can do, rather than the hard things I know I can't.

Our latest gig was tonight - at the Conservative Club, of all places - and after an almost faultless first half, I suddenly felt a surge of confidence, which was just as well as I had the confidence to cope with a potential humiliating disaster in the second half.

We started playing Brown Sugar by The Rolling Stones, but I messed up the beginning and found I was somehow either half a bar ahead of the rest of the band or half a bar behind (depending on how you look at it). We all realised this, but as I'm not a good enough drummer to throw in an odd half a bar and get myself back in synch, we did the whole song out of kilter, effectively doing an unintentional reggae version of a Rolling Stones rock classic.

The audience sort of noticed something was wrong but didn't really know what was going on, so we not only got away with it, but could laugh about it afterwards.

The irony is that my drum teacher, who would have been able to get himself back in synch in the unlikely event that he'd got himself half a bar out in the first place, once told me that he would have been unable to play a whole song like that if he tried. More than once he has told me he is amazed by my ability to stay in time while not actually playing on the beat!

Either you've got it or you haven't.

April 3, 2010

History by degrees

Holly is off Ranger camping near Oxford this weekend - which gave us the perfect excuse to spend a day in the city of dreaming spires after dropping her off this morning.

Considering we only live a hop, skip and jump away from a place that tourists flock to from thousands of miles away, we really should go there more often. Oxford is full of history, has a nice atmosphere and has interesting little shops selling interesting little things.

Like marbles. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before on this blog, but I find marbles (as in the round glass variety, not the Elgin kind) absolutely fascinating. So I couldn't resist buying ten tiny coloured ones, about the size of mint imperials. I'm not sure what I am going to do with them, except what I do with my other marbles, which is to get them out, every now and then, and look at them.

But the real highlight of our day in Oxford was a guided tour of the Bodleian Library.

It is Britain's second biggest library, with nine million books, and although it has roots in the 14th Century, what you see today is comparatively recent, being only 400 years old.

Our guide was a young Oxford graduate who was originally from Helsinki, and whose enthusiasm for our heritage was matched only by her charming Finnish accent. Some of the stuff she told us about the library is what you might expect. They have an original Gutenberg Bible and a First Folio, although these are safely under lock and key, out of the way of the prying eyes of riff-raff like us.

More interesting - and much more hands-on - was the fact that Charles I presided over a 'parliament' at Oxford during the Civil War, which sat in the Convocation House in the Bodleian. On being told that Charles I actually sat in what is now the Chancellor's 'throne', I couldn't resist sitting there too, for a few seconds, although all the other people who did the same were posing for pictures and wondering what I was doing, just sitting there. OK, so it's more of a bum-on experience than hands-on, but I do get a kick out of occupying the same spaces that historical characters once did.

That's the Convocation House and the seat in these pictures...

The parliament that sat there wasn't a proper one - on account of it contained only Royalists, since the King was fighting the real Parliamentarians at the time - but it was the last time that any British king would preside over any kind of 'parliament'.

There is another Civil War connection in that the Chancellor of Oxford University from 1630 - who therefore would also have sat on the said 'throne' - was William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who eventually paid the price of his close association with King Charles by being beheaded in 1645. He was a major figure in the build-up to Civil War because he was a symbol of the King's sympathy towards Catholicism and a focus of Parliamentary hatred.

The tour also took in the Divinity School (pictured below), where the headless statue of St Peter (the first pope) among all the other decorations is a beautifully simple example of what happened during the Reformation. No doubt most visitors are more impressed by the fact that some scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot here, as well as upstairs in the stunning (but not photographable) Duke Humphrey's Library.

All in all, it was yet another example of heritage on our doorsteps that we just don't make enough of, and we will certainly got back to Oxford soon, to see more of it - especially as opportunities to get out on our own and do things that would cause teenagers to roll their eyes and mutter things about us being geeks or nerds seem to be increasing.