May 29, 2010

Wembley way

For once I will let the pictures do most of the talking after a strangely enjoyable play-off final at Wembley, even though Town lost 1-0 to Millwall.

Despite what happened - or rather didn't happen - on the pitch, it was a great family day out, with all four us of - me, Julie, Sean and Holly - setting off from a soggy Moonrakers car park at 9.30am on a coach organised by my sister-in-law Sarah, on which everybody was either called Carter, related to one or a friend/colleague of one.

We had a Swindon Town quiz and plenty of laughs on the way up - and surprisingly also on the way back.

Wembley lived up to its reputation for providing a great atmosphere and the perfect stage. I'd seen Town win three times at the old stadium, and this was my first visit to the new one, the vast height of which is truly impressive.

Sponsors Coca-Cola also did well to try to turn the match into a real occasion, with sausage-shaped helium balloons holding up giant club badges, fireworks, vertical flame-throwers and more. And there was no doubt who was the man of the match: Town mascot Rocking Robin.

But the less said about the team's performance on the day, the better.

I've also added this panorama.

May 27, 2010

Library ticket

There's nothing like getting your hands on some real history, which was the big treat for me today.

In my capacity as the Vice-chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society (AWHS), I was able to wangle an invitation to inspect the local author's collection of books, held under lock and key at Wroughton.

This is a big chunk of the 500 books he owned, rather than the ones he wrote, although two books of poetry and a copy of his most important book, Life in a Railway Factory, are among the collection.

I tend to use the word 'fascinating' too much, but the hour and a bit I spent poring over the books and searching for personal touches was, indeed, fascinating. But rather than go into any detail about it, I'll just link to the article I wrote for the AWHS website.

The collection is not open to the public and requires a special invitation to view it, which is really sad because the one sure way to engage geeks like me in their heritage is to allow them to get their grubby little hands on the real stuff.

May 25, 2010

Mmmm... Arkell's

Don't you just hate it when people knock things, just because they are local?

It's almost as if nothing could ever be any good if it comes from around our manor, no matter what the evidence is to the contrary.

I say this after our lads' night out (LNO) tonight, which was a shorter than expected bike ride and closer to home than planned, on account of logistical problems that I won't go into detail about (the van was too small).

It involved sampling a pint of Arkell's 3Bs at the Sun Inn, Coate. Bizarrely, it was my second visit to the pub in two years, but also the second in two days - and if Town beat Millwall on Saturday there is talk of going there again.

Anyway, the thing to say about the 3Bs is it was absolutely lovely - and lovely to drink on a late spring evening where the temperature was perfect.

I can vouch for the quality of Arkell's ales with some degree of authority, being a former member of CAMRA and somebody who only drinks real ale (which is not to say it's 100 per cent of my liquid intake, but if I drink beer, its only ever real ale).

This qualifies me as a discerning drinker, and although I generally like most real ales, the Arkell's was far and away superior to the Abbot Ale and the Greene King IPA I also supped, even though they are mighty fine ales in themselves.

Most of the people who criticise Arkell's beer are doing it for no other reason than it's local and therefore rubbish, or they aren't proper bitter drinkers or simply because they don't know what they are talking about. And 3Bs - which stands for Best Bitter Beer* - is not even literally Arkell's best. That accolade belongs to either Kingsdown Ale, Moonlight or Noel.

I still can't quite decide which is the overall best, but it's great fun trying.

* Although 3Bs is 'Best Bitter Beer', I used to know a landlord who liked to say it stands for 'Big Boys' Beer'.

May 23, 2010

Out in the Sun

What have rock music and beer got in common?

They change completely when you consume them out of doors. Not better or worse; just different.

We popped in to see my drum teacher, Paul Ashman, perform with his band, The Monkey Dolls, at the Sun Inn, Coate - ironically the venue where we celebrated Town's victory over Leicester City on the night of the 1993 play-off victory at Wembley (see below).

I have seen remarkably few open-air rock performances in my life, with the only ones I can remember, outside Florida, being The Ludwig Beatles at the Old Town Bowl and Elton John at the County Ground - which is a bit of a letdown when some people's main musical experience comes from open-air festivals such as Glastonbury.

Just the ticket

That's a shame.

I just noticed our Wembley tickets for next Saturday don't actually say who's playing. The reference to Charlton/Swindon on it is all about the possible winners of the semi-final, and there's no mention of Millwall.

All 36,000 available tickets were, apparently, taken to the second leg at Charlton, and the winning team got to take them home on the team bus.

This one will eventually be added to my large collection of used tickets - not just for football but for all kinds of events and visits to places I've been to - which I keep in a drawer and which sort of define my life.

This one isn't going to make sense when, in years' time, somebody starts going through them and tries to work out why this one seems to say we played Charlton, not Millwall.

This is just one of the incongruities of life that some people would never give a second thought to, whereas I am cursed by being bothered by such loose ends and the need to go round, tying them all up.

May 22, 2010

Hippy Holly

One thing you have to say about teenage girls: for all of their extremely difficult moods and attitude mongering, they do know how to entertain themselves.

Holly and her friends have been planning what they were going to do for their other friend Debbie's birthday for what seems like weeks, and decided on a hippy theme for their birthday meal that included making their own tie-dye T-shirts and other impressive fancy dress.

Here's Holly after returning from what I understand was a very successful celebration...

May 19, 2010

Eye eye

A full two years before the London Olympic Games and the Paralympics begin, their mascots have been unveiled - to a surprisingly unbeat reception from somebody in the BBC - surely he won't stay on the payroll long - and a predictably grim reaction from the Great British public, who just don't get it.

To be fair, they probably don't get the point of the Games at all - not just in London but anywhere - and they probably couldn't see the point of going to the Moon, either. They are the same people who don't get the logo, and they are probably moaning into their lager about how much all this is going to cost. They probably couldn't even spell Paralympics, and the complex thought processes that went into the design of the mascots were a couple of light years above their heads because, apparently, they wanted a lion.

No doubt the Daily Mail wanted a lion too.

I repeat: they just don't get it.

They didn't get that these mascots need to appeal to little Japanese kids and little Mexican kids and little Egyptian kids, not just the child victims of our national narrowmindedness, and they didn't get how significant it was for the two mascots, representing the Olympics and the Paralympics, to come as a pair for the first time.

For the record, I absolutely didn't want a lion, but I did want the Games to be radical, innovative and bold, and I wasn't too bothered exactly what the mascots looked like, as long as they fitted these criteria. And they do.

Roger Mosey, who has the strange title of the BBC's Director of London 2012, does get it, and I take my hat off to his blog. Sadly, tacked on to the end of it are the customary kneejerk reactions from the public, one of whom greeted the mascots in no doubt the same way he has greeted everything new since we lost India, which was to say they are "too clever by half". Which is another way of saying he is too stupid by half.

Actually, I was heartened that more people than I expected did get it, but any random selection of comments expressed produces a long list of what they like to think are "ideas" for alternative mascots but are actually nothing more than gormless reflex twitches of their tiny brains. These included: a mini Nelson, Churchill, Shakespeare, a "cheeky bulldog" and anything fluffy.

My favourite comment was a lovely tongue-in-cheek one: "These look like poor people's mascots. At my private school we not only attend chapel on a regular basis but also have the money this country does not have to make some bloody good, damn impressive, toffing spiffing mascots. I am outraged. This is a disgrace to the country. My peasants could have designed better mascots. My father will have something to say about this..."

But the whole affair is summed up by some self-appointed expert on design who certainly didn't realise he was inadvertently hitting the nail on the head when he said the mascots are: "One-eyed, like the organisers."

Obviously, nobody told him that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

May 17, 2010

Season cycle

I'm not sure whether it's my imagination or just because we had a proper winter, but everything seems much more colourful this year. This is from somebody who's colourblind and doesn't usually notice such things. There certainly seemed to be a lot more blossom around than usual.

Anyway, looking out of my loft (office) window on this fine spring day, I decided to compare the view with a winter scene (actually from 2009 rather than this year's much longer colder snap), which is quite interesting, I think.

Note to self: about time you sorted out that moss in the gutter.

May 16, 2010

Tonight on Panorama

Three more panoramas have been added to this site: Llangollen Canal, Silbury Hill and bluebells at Hagbourne Copse. Or click here for more panoramas than you can shake a stick at.

May 15, 2010

No longer a Facebook virgin, and tweeting

Over the last couple of days I have taken steps to overcome an embarrassing social stigma: I was a Facebook virgin.

I decided it was finally time to succumb to the phenomenon, even though I could never quite work out what Facebook had that a combination of other things on the net didn't.

You want to send messages to people? You use email. You want to tell the world what's on your mind? You write a blog. You want to get in touch with people who don't talk to or meet as often as you'd like? Email again. Like text messages (which I still don't get), Facebook didn't seem to offer anything new.

I also didn't get into Facebook before because I have no wish to eavesdrop on the secret world it has created for teenagers. Holly was absolutely horrified when she found out I had signed up (which didn't take her very long), but she needn't have worried because if I want to know what she's up to, there is a more reliable method that us grown-ups use: talking.

Having said all that, I am enjoying being on Facebook, even though I am surprised at just how user-unfriendly it is for newcomers, and even by the usual standard of so-called help centers, theirs incredibly little help if you are trying to find your way around.

It's clear to me that Facebook is too different things to two different generations. For the younger generations it's Gossip and Trivia Control, while I can see that for the older folk it has a nice potential for keeping in touch with people you don't get to see as much as you'd like to.

In other words, I'm a fan.

I've also discovered the fun of Twitter, although you can't help feeling like you are the world's saddest person when you first joing and start writing tweets knowing nobody is following you.

It's also a shame that it seems to have much more value for following the lives of famous people than so-called 'ordinary' people, which is a disappointment for people like me who generally has far more interest in the latter than the former, with only a few exceptions (Stephen Fry being the obvious one).

May 14, 2010

Still waiting for inspiration

I was glad to see that Town won their big play-off semi-final against Charlton tonight.

It's possibly the biggest match at the County Ground in the last 40 years that I haven't attended.

That's because my leap of faith in buying a season ticket last year was rewarded with some of the worst performances I've ever seen from any professional team, let alone one wearing the red shirts. I came away from most games actually feeling insulted by the lack of skill and especially the lack of effort, and couldn't wait for the season to end.

Not since the dark days of Steve McMahon as manager have I felt such a lack of enthusiasm for actually going out there again to watch them.

Sadly, even the amazing transformation of this season has not cured me of the nasty taste left in my mouth. I have been persuaded to go to a couple of games this season, and discovered the new team play some good stuff, and they now stand a good chance of getting to Wembley. And if they do make it to the final, I'll go, though not necessarily for the right reasons.

It will be because it's Wembley, because I've seen all the team's three previous appearances there (all victories), and because I know a lot of people who are going to be happy if Town get promoted. I'd like to see them win for their sake more than anything, rather than the feeling of deep allegiance and excitement I always used to get from supporting my hometown club.

As if that wasn't bad enough, I am feeling almost exactly the same about England's participation in the forthcoming World Cup. They've let us down so badly and so often that nobody could ever blame an Englishman for expecting anything more than dismal disappointment in South Africa. It's the hope that gets you.

Some people call all this defeatist, which is an easy accusation to make if you ignore the facts. My following of football in six different decades (!) has been characterized by brief moments of pleasure and seemingly endless disappointments.

I suppose that's what football supporting is all about, and the only cure is latching on to teams like Manchester United, in the knowledge that it's only a matter of time before they win something. That's like getting hooked on drugs that guarantee you a high, and solves nothing in the end.

For the moment, I'm not only fairly happy to watch it all from afar, but I'm sadly finding it surprisingly easy.

May 13, 2010

A job for Bob

I hesitate to tell the following story because it would be so easy to read it as though we are touting for recognition as some kind of great charity supporters and laudable benefactors (which we're not).

But it's been on all of our minds (mine, Julie's, Sean's and Holly's) and there's no doubt that it has given us all more pleasure than anything else this week (yes, even more pleasure than seeing Manchester United not win the Premier League).

It started at the end of last week when there was a ring on the bell while I was at home during the daytime. I can get a lot of these interruptions.

I opened the door to be greeted by a dungeree-wearing man of about my age who was selling products for houses that are unique (as far as I know), but for us only represented minor practical and cosmetic value. They are chimney cowls, which stop birds perching on your chimney pots, prevent rubbish falling down and look interesting if anybody happens to look up to your roof. Birds dropping things down have been a small problem in the past. The cowl that interested me cost £50, including fitting and a sweep of the chimney, which wasn't all that necessary as we have only a gas fire.

In previous times we might have been able to say yes without really bothering about it, but with cashflow a problem at the moment, it seemed an extravagance - and certainly not something I would decide without consulting the family bank manager (that's Julie).

But here's the first dilemma: the guy selling it was disabled. While explaining the product and the service, he spoke in a continuous stream of words as if neither commas nor full stops had been invented, and I assume he suffers from some kind of mental disability, possibly autism (I'm no expert). But this was only part of the problem for somebody stood on a doorstep and trying to think of a way to tell him that we couldn't really justify the expense at the moment.

The real problem was he was just about the most likeable sort of chap you could ever wish to meet. Whether it was a symptom of his disability or not, he just oozed friendliness and couldn't stop himself from smiling. And, of course, it's infectious. Faced with this dilemma, I took an advertising leaflet off him and told Bob (as I had discovered his name to me) that I would "check with my wife", and he went off happy to have made this progress.

A couple of days later, Julie and I were both out, and when we got home, the first thing Holly told us was that a man had called asking if we had made a decision about the chimney cowl. "I think he was disabled or something," she said, and added that when she had explained that we weren't at home, he had gone off "looking really disappointed". This was said with such sympathy that we could hardly believe, given our experience, that it had come from the mouth of a teenage girl.

So that's when I have to explain the story to Julie, and admit that I am so soft that I am thinking about getting Bob to do it. By now I at least have a staunch backer of my illogical policy in Holly.

Two days later, the door rings and Bob is back. "Do we want to go ahead?" he asks, hopefully. Luckily, Julie is around too, so comes out to the door to meet Bob - and apparently takes about two seconds to agree we should go ahead. A delighted Bob goes off happy, having arranged to come back and do it at a later date - and as soon as the door is closed, both Holly and Sean, who have been trying to hear the conversation, instantly appear to find out our verdict, and there are smiles all round.

Well, there are plenty of things that you can feel proud of your family for, but I was genuinely touched to discover that all four of us felt the same about Bob, which was it was going to be the best £50 we've spent in ages.

He came along to do the job today, as promised, but that's not the end of the story.

He arrived in a van driven by a man who was obviously his dad, who supervised the work and - I was busy, so didn't get to see - was probably the one who went up on the roof and did it, while Bob held the ladder and generally helped out.

You don't often get a good feeling about people who knock the door and then want to do a job for you - in fact, we have a policy of never buying anything that way - but Bob and his dad did it in a completely old-fashioned way: smiling, being polite, taking time for some friendly chat and just doing an honest job, like you hear people always used to, years ago, before profit became more important than anything else.

Bob, for his part, is probably the best salesman I've ever met in my life - because he really believed in his product/service, knew all about it, and was completely unaware of all those excruciating salesmanship methods that the worst slimy salesmen try, as if you haven't heard them all a thousand times. Bob's secret weapon is simply being himself.

And there's more. Because Bob promised to do it in the afternoon but actually arrived at lunchtime, we hadn't withdrawn the cash we were intending to pay with, so I had to apologise that I couldn't pay them. But was this a problem? Not at all. Bob's dad said Bob would be back for the money in a couple of days, as if it had never occurred to him that there was anybody in the world you couldn't trust - even though I'm sure they've both encountered plenty.

His parting words were a request to pass on their details if we knew of anybody else who wants the job done. Nothing would give me more pleasure.

May 12, 2010

Lest we forget

Let me see if I've remembered this right.

During the recent election campaign, party leaders said they were keen to make voters MORE trusting of politicians?...

I'm an apeman

I can report the discovery of an amazing book.

Unfortunately, the book in question is already nearly as old as I am, and has so far been translated into 23 languages, so I don't want anybody to think that I want any credit for spotting it.

It's The Naked Ape, and I've finally got round to reading because a friend recommended it, but it was already on my long list of books to read before I die. Sadly, that list has just got longer instead of shorter, because if The Naked Ape is anything to go by, then I'll also have to spend time checking out some of the other dozens of books written by Desmond Morris.

His brilliant idea for The Naked Ape was to use his skills as an eminent zoologist to write a study of the human race in biological terms. The result is he is able to show that the way we act and react to the world around us has very little to do with modern life and nearly everything to do with evolution. It's not that straightforward, though, because, as the book explains, our evolution is complicated by the fact that we are sort of half-way between being proper carnivorous mammals and being paid-up members of the primate club.

Morris shows how we came to evolve so successfully, once that first ape decided to come down off the trees and walk upright into the open. The journey he started is not only ongoing but will keep on going until the point - now not so far off, obviously - when the species becomes the ultimate victim of its own success and brings about its own extinction.

In the best traditions of science, not everything that Morris says is totally convincing, but most of it is, and he offers either obvious answers or interesting proposals for such questions as why humans, above all other species, like strong pair-bonds; why girls (but not boys) hate spiders, but love horses; why we like warm food; and the main reason why we are so much more intelligent than all the other animals put together.

The real beauty of the book is the long string of commonsense observations it makes, which seem so obvious, once he points them out, that all readers must wonder why they don't already know them.

Written in 1967, it is occasionally dated - towards the end he talks about why people act like they do at cocktail parties, whatever they are - but otherwise it's a timeless book, a real page-turner that's full of fascinating stuff.

And I wish I'd read it years ago.

May 8, 2010

Family fortune

Some people are fortunate enough to have a really nice family, but I am twice as lucky because I have two.

There's my own flesh and blood, who are not in each other's pockets but closer than most families, and definitely the sort you'd choose, given the choice, as we would undoubtedly stick together in a storm - and have.

Then there's Julie's family, who are very much the same, only smaller - in quantity and generally in height. In fact, there was exactly the right quantity for all of them (us) to be invited to a triple celebration tonight. Only Julie's brother Steve was absent. He couldn't make it because he's working in America, and he missed a really sweet do.

It was a sit-down meal at a golf club at Streatley, in darkest Berkshire, to celebrate Auntie Joan's 80th birthday, her daughter Ann's silver wedding anniversary, and her husband Dave's 50th birthday. All these milestones occur in the space of two days, next week.

We all enjoyed it, obviously, but there was something else about it, that we couldn't quite put our fingers on, which meant we enjoyed it even more than you'd expect. Somehow, the whole affair suited the three people who were celebrating perfectly, and everybody seemed to go home uplifted.

The only cloud on the horizon was the damned rechargable batteries in my damned camera let me down, which is why there aren't any damned photos of it.

May 3, 2010

Taxi for Carter

As a lover of all kinds of curios (and the proud owner of a red telephone box), I am feeling like I struck gold again today, during an unplanned visit to the car boot sale at the Link Centre, Swindon. I even chalked up a first, of a kind: haggling!

I was amazed to discover that one of the stallholders was selling a light that sits on the top of a tax. It turned out he was an ex-taxi driver, and was looking for £20 for it. Keeping my nerve, I said: "You wouldn't take a tenner, then?" And he immediately said: "Go on then."


Apart from being an interesting exhibit in its own right, it's also full of irony as we are the proverbial parental taxi service for our kids, so we can have a bit of fun with it.

The seller said he had removed the phone number from the back of it, so it just says 'TAXI' on the front now, but if I see some stick-on numbers I may be tempted to stick them on, and obviously (for anybody brought up in Swindon, like me) the optimum number will be 6666, the phone number of all taxis in the town during my childhood.

The purchase also answered a question I'd always wondered about the lights, which is: what holds them on? The answer is two extremely powerful magnets on the base, although I haven't worked out what powers the lights yet, unless it's batteries. I told the seller I was thinking about getting the light to work, so I could use it as a lamp, and he said he knew somebody who had turned one into a bedside lamp, but I'll probably not bother with that.

I do intend to put it on top of the car and drive round with it on, at some stage - an idea that horrified Sean and Julie, who said that I couldn't do it without a licence, and something about me being arrested for impersonating a taxi, which they seemed to think was a very serious offence.

I think they are confusing it with a police light.

But, of course, if anybody knows where I can get hold of a police light...

Out of the blue

The annual flowering of the bluebells is something I'd so far managed to miss every year, but having spotted a handful of them during my visit to Lydiard last week (see below), I decided I was going to make the effort to see them, once and for all, this year.

There are various local places where they can be seen, including Savernake Forest, but one of our fellow Ridgeway walkers on Saturday (see below) told me about Hagbourne Copse.

Even more amazing that the sight of a carpet of bluebells is discovering them here, which is surely the unlikeliest place you will find the phenomenon in Britain. Although part of an ancient woodland and, apparently, once a part of the Lydiard estate, this little copse is an unexpected green - or rather green and blue - corner of Blagrove, which, even by the standard of Swindon's other industrial estates, is otherwise charmless.

Bordered on two sides by industrial units, the Holiday Inn Express hotel on another, and a thundering dual carriageway on the fourth, it's also a stone's throw from the motorway.

Possibly even more of a surprise was that, even on a bright (if chilly) May Bank Holiday, Julie and I had the place to ourselves for most of the time we were there.

Hagbourne Copse on Google Maps

May 1, 2010

Over a barrow

One of Julie's work colleagues had the great idea of getting colleagues together for a bit of a walk with their families along the Ridgeway today, so three of us joined the other dozen people on an eight-mile trek, while Sean did his own thing on a trip to Thorpe Park.

I don't suppose we matched Sean's rollercoasters for excitement, but the pleasure of walking along one of Europe's oldest highways and the even greater pleasure of taking off our boots at the end made it well worth the effort.

We walked from Foxhill with the intention of at least reaching Wayland's Smithy, which we did achieve, but we abandoned the option of walking the other mile or so to Uffington White Horse, apparently because the half dozen kids with us "would have found it too tiring".

This sounded a bit like the adults concocting a cop-out as, actually, the lively but well-behaved kids spent the whole afternoon reminding us how much energy we used to have when ours were younger. In the end, though, there were two reasons why it turned out to be the right decision. Firstly, it seemed a lot further coming back than it was going, and by the time we got back to the cars, the showers the weatherman had promised us turned to all-out rain.

It's years since I've been to Wayland's Smithy, and this time I noticed the ancient trees surrounding it, which added even more timelessness to the scene. Over the years, lots of people have carved their initials into their trunks, but now you'd need a chisel to do the same, because the bark has gone so hard it is more like stone than wood. And the old initials have been stretched and started to become illegible, and may disappear in a few more years' time.

It has to be said that the Ridgeway is nice enough but isn't the most spectacular landscape in the world, there being very little variety in the four miles we saw today. The exception to this, these days, is the lurid yellow of rapeseed fields, which some people dislike because this crop has completely transformed the Wiltshire landscape, and dominates the scenery.

If anybody asks me - and I don't suppose anybody will - I'll tell them the rapeseed fields are not unlike wind farms (see a previous entry, below), in that some people argue they are not a natural part of the landscape and therefore are a blot on it. I don't agree.

As with wind turbines, they may have been put there by man, but in that respect they are no different to almost everything else on the horizon. Besides, the countryside has been about farming for hundreds of years, and bright yellow fields are a fact of life in 21st century farming. But the best reason I can think of for them being there is that mass of yellow never fails to strike me as a spectacular and compelling sight.

We found a fitting way to round off our Ridgewaying activities by dropping in at the recently re-opened Black Horse, Wanborough, for drinks and a meal, and by getting active before the Bank Holiday weekend was even half over, nobody could say we didn't deserve it.