June 29, 2010

Daisy Pulls It Off pulls it off

We all need something to cheer us up - me more than most at the moment, it seems to me - and as I've said here before, any trip to the Watermill Theatre can usually be relied on to do the trick.

So Daisy Pulls It Off was very welcome indeed, even though I've seen it performed twice before.

This time we took Holly - her first visit to the Watermill since we took her and Sean to a kiddies' show, many years ago, and too many for her to remember much about it - and I think it's fair to say we can put her down as a convert.

It almost goes without saying that the acting - like the atmosphere - is always brilliant at the Watermill, so the cast performed it with all the enthusiasm necessary. The whole play relies almost entirely on one joke, being a parody of all those jolly hockey stick stories from public schools, where the pupils get up to all kinds of stunts, such as midnight feasts and searching for hidden treasure.

Whenever books, plays, films or anything else starts sending up things that are almost send-ups of themselves, I get suspicious (unless it's The Simpsons), but the sending-up is so cleverly done here, it works really well. It's all frightfully over the top, and just when you thought it couldn't go over the top any more, the cast turned the melodrama up a notch to produce the funniest bits of all.

So, as probably the best character, Trixie, liked to put it: "Jubilate!"

Faking the law

There's hardly any need to say much about the value and validity of manifestos, either so soon after a general election or in the present circumstances, but The People's Manifesto seems particularly relevant, just at the moment.

I was given this book for Father's Day, at my own request, and decided to let it jump the queue of books I'm trying to read because it is really only a little humourous pocket book and very easily read.

The idea is simple: stand-up comedian Mark Thomas recently did a tour, and before each show asked the audience to suggest things that they wanted to become law. Then they voted on the ideas during the show, and the best ones have been condensed into this little book.

Some of the 'laws' in the manifesto are brilliantly surreal, such as "Goats are to be released on to the floor of the House of Commons (no more than four); MPs are forbidden from referring to them, ever."

But most of the others could and probably should be considered as genuine laws, except people with vested interests would make damned sure they never were. These include:

  • To introduce 'None of the above' on ballot papers
  • Politicians should have to wear tabards displaying the names and logos of the companies with whom they have a financial relationship, like a racing driver
  • MPs should not be paid wages but loans, like students, because they get highly paid jobs after they graduate from Westminster as a result of attending parliament. They should therefore pay back the loan they received while in office
These examples provide a clue to one of the bad things about the book - that it is dominated by 'laws' aimed at improving parliament and politics, and there aren't enough more general ones, like the ones I would introduce, such as people who are caught driving in the middle lane of a motorway while not overtaking should be made to re-take their tests, on the grounds that they can't be trusted with a car when they haven't grasped the first rule of driving in the UK, which is: drive on the left.

The People's Manifesto would also have been better as a bigger book, because I would have liked to have heard a few more suggestions. Then again, I suppose the trick is to always leave the audience wanting more.

June 20, 2010

And a happy Father's Day to me

Model cars, comedy books, sweets, chocolate, a make-it-yourself cardboard VW camper van desk tidy (which I did straightaway)... our kids must have come to the conclusion I am going through my second childhood when they bought this year's Father's Day presents. Except for the beer.

They're right, of course. Yesterday, I bought a bag of marbles at the Old Town Yard Sale - not for playing with, you understand, but - have I mentioned this before? - I have a kind of obsessionable fascination for marbles, which I consider the most beautiful thing on the planet (save for naked ladies).

So I absolutely love little brightly coloured presents like the ones I get on Father's Day, especially as Holly always goes to such lengths to personalise them.

And do you know what the best thing is about Father's Day? It's that my birthday is always hot on its heels, less than a month later.

June 19, 2010

Oh look: there's a car going up the B3351

If the above line means anything to you, then Nuts in May will need no introduction. If not, then I'll explain, although this is as much about a pretty spooky coincidence as it is about Nuts in May itself.

Nuts in May was a feature-length TV Play For Today, written by Mike Leigh in 1976, and starring Alison Steadman. It was the play Leigh wrote before the much better remembered Abigail's Party, which made stars of him and Steadman. Both Nuts in May and Abigail's Party were partly scripted and partly ad-libbed, and were therefore forerunners of The Office.

Like Abigail's Party (and indeed, The Office), Nuts in May is all about excruciatingly narrow-minded people who don't realise they're dull. Steadman's character is Candice-Marie, a hippie with all sorts of green/vegetarian/new age ideas, except most of them are the result of brainwashing by her husband Keith, who is even duller than she is. He is played by Roger Sloman, an actor whose career never really went much further, even though he is quite brilliant in the role.

The story is about Candice-Marie and Keith going on a seemingly idyllic camping holiday where they befriend a Welsh rugby player called Ray, and which turns into a disaster. The characterisation is excellent and there are some great lines, the best one being when the nerdy Keith surveys the landscape and says: "Oh look: there's a car going up the B3351."

This may lose something in translation, but trust me - it's comic genius, and so well acted.

I haven't seen Nuts in May for a few years because although I've watched it many times on video, we never got around to getting the DVD version, and now our video player has virtually been consigned to history.

But I did put Nuts in May as a 'like' on my Facebook profile, which meant that I was invited to become a friend of Candice-Marie - obviously somebody pretending to be her. I thought it would be a bit of fun, so I accepted and posted a message about spotting a car going up the B3351, which is probably a fairly standard first message to Candice-Marie, who has about 700 friends.

It was only later that I discovered that of all the people in all the world, the person who is Candice-Marie turns out to be somebody I'm related to, and I had no idea she had even heard of Nuts in May. This is either an amazing coincidence or shows that there must be something in our genes that makes both of us have a similar liking for a fairly obscure Play For Today from 1976. Or maybe both. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to divulge the real identity of the Facebook Candice-Marie.

Now, I hesitate to do this last bit, because you need to get into the characters for it to have the full comic effect and I would have preferred it to have been the car going up the B3351, but here's a YouTube clip...

At least it proves that ad-libbed cringeworthy character comedy was invented long before Ricky Gervais thought of it.

June 18, 2010

The Ball of Shame

You don't need me to tell you how bad England's latest barrel-scraping, surrendering, whingeing, wimpering let-down of a rock-bottom World Cup performance (0-0 against the mighty Algeria) was - and that's putting it mildly.

As I've been saying for years, the only issue here is why otherwise brilliant players - Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard - are incapable of doing, in a white shirt, what they do so effortlessly in a red or a blue one. Any manager who can find an answer to that conundrum is assured of immortality.

At the start of the World Cup, we resisted the temptation of buying naff St George's flags from Poundland and sticking them on our car, but bought a football-shaped cushion instead, which we put in the back window of the car. I told the family - who still haven't been cured of that terrible thing that grips England fans, every time we play in a major tournament: namely hope - that the ball would remain there until England were knocked out.

If you bear in mind that England were drawn in the World Cup's easiest group, it was reasonable to expect it to stay there for at least a couple of weeks. I'm not talking about the easiest group in this World Cup, but the easiest group ever.

Well, I have to report that the ball has been removed - not today, but last Sunday morning, the day after we failed to beat the USA, when, although people said I was being too critical, the writing was already clearly on the wall for all to see.

The ball will not be placed back in the car again until such time as England put in a performance they can be proud of, and until that happens, it shall be called The Ball of Shame.

June 17, 2010

A little help from my friends

It seems frivilous to write about anything today when the only thing on our (mine and Julie's) minds is the very poor health of a neighbour - an extremely likeable lady who is younger than us.

So, driving off to band practice tonight, I was thinking I really didn't want to put my mind to anything. And anyway, how dare the world go on with its trivial business when there are much bigger things to think about?

But the good thing about being an average drummer is this: to make any kind of acceptable effort at being in a band requires your undivided attention, so for about three hours I had no option but to focus on what my hands and feet were doing, not the clouds on the horizon.

Of all nights, this turned out to be the one when a bit of an ambition started to come true. When I first took up drumming, about seven or eight years ago, I told Paul, my drum teacher, that I really only wanted to drum along (in private) to The Beatles. But although I've played lots of other things, including much that I never imagined I would, I've hardly played any Beatles at all.

Roy, our lead guitarist, is not a big fan, and it's not easy to find a Beatles song that goes well. The trouble is their songs are so familiar and the sound so distinctive that covers of them sound like pale imitations at best, and butchery at worst. When I was a teenager, I used to think that any cover of a Beatles song was sacrilege. At one stage we nearly added Get back to our regular repertoire, but I found that really difficult to play, so I was happy to see it given up as a bad job.

Now it turns out that one of our upcoming gigs is a birthday party, and the birthday girl's teenage daughter is a big Beatles fan - and "could we play some Beatles at the party?"

So we decided on - and quickly became good enough at - I Saw Her Standing There, and had a reasonable stab at the difficult Here Comes The Sun. Then I suggested Birthday - with some irony as it will be my own birthday when we play the gig.

Although he barely knew it, and with only a single play-through of the original off my iPod, Roy soon had the lead part and, to my amazement, my making-it-up-as-you-go-along effort on the drums fitted nicely, which is really gratifying as the drum pattern on the song is like nothing you'll hear anywhere else. After three or four run-throughs, I thought it soundly really good, and as a big Beatles fan myself, I know it will go down well with other fans.

Our fourth offering is going to be Back in the USSR, which again came together in remarkably quick time. The complex process of putting a song together somehow just clicked, and things were going so well that I had a bit of a brainstorm and volunteered to sing it. What the hell?

Apart from having real trouble starting in the right key - which is much harder than you think - it went quite well, and as long as I could remember the first two or three words of each verse, the rest just popped into my head. So, still thinking what the hell? we agreed that it was already good enough to put on the list.

Paradoxically, singing the song is a bit of a cop-out for the drummer. The drum part is not straightforward, so the only way I can sing and drum at the same time is to keep it simple and forget about the fancy bits. So I played little more than the simplest, basic pop-beat, which is so automatic, even for me, that my hands and feet can get on and do their job without any interference from my brain, which needs all its energy to concentrate on getting the words out of my mouth in the right order, and not looking too much of a prat while I'm doing it.

Then it was back to reality on the drive home, where even the endless joy that The Beatles give to me and the rest of the world seemed dimmed in comparison with some things.

Then I made the mistake of listening to the news on the radio, which told me that the Government have come up with more ideas for saving money and reducing Britain's trade deficit - something that we are told is essential, and which the whole country seems to have blindly accepted as the number one priority in our lives, even though the people telling us to do it are bankers and financiers and people with vested interests, and even though these are the very same people who, in the last couple of years, have re-written the dictionary definitions of selfish and callous and corrupt.

They had chosen today of all days to reveal that the previous Government's plans to build a brand new hospital are - if we let them - going to be scrapped.

June 13, 2010

Walking it off

We found the perfect antidote to the torture of watching England in the World Cup - the latest inept effort being last night's embarrassing 1-1 draw with the USA.

Last month's walk along the Ridgeway, organised by Stuart (a colleague of Julie's) was pleasant enough for another to be arranged today, and although there was a lot of crying off at the last moment, we turned up - and were very glad that we did.

Despite aggravating my back - and here's an irony - while doing up my walking boots, I was able to enjoy the walk from Great Bedwyn, down the canal to Crofton, then across to Wilton and its windmill and back to Great Bedwyn through the fringes of Savernake Forest.

We - me, mainly - decided to see Crofton Beam Engines properly first, which is the second time I have been there, but the first for about 40 years. The last time was a school trip, of which I can remember very little, apart from eating soggy cheese and tomato sandwiches from our packed lunches in roughly the spot where the above photograph was taken.

The pumping station is almost exactly 200 years old, and was built to pump water from a well to the top of the Kennet and Avon Canal, and the steam-powered beam engines (built in 1812 and 1846) have large rockers (the beams) on top. The original beams were wooden, but were replaced by cast iron ones, soon after, which had to be brought in through a hole in the brickwork, which you can still trace.

There is a Swindon connection because the GWR eventually took over the K&A Canal and stepped in, about a century ago, to firstly provide a locomotive as a makeshift boiler and then supply boilers built at Swindon Works, which are still worked on certain days of the year - though sadly not today.

Still, we did get to have a wander around the whole building, which has walkways and steps that are so arranged that you really get to feel as though you are getting right into the body of the thing, seeing it from every conceivable internal angle.

As ever with machinery of this age, its creators went to an amazing amount of trouble when making very functional things, and the elegant levers in one of the pictures below is as good an example of this as you'll find anywhere. There was an elegance in a lot of the details that are so unexpected in what should be just a big, lumbering beast.

Just as impressive, in its way, is Wilton Windmill, which I've also visited before - in this case about 20 years ago. We decided not to go inside this time, which I started to regret, until I realised that staring up at it with a cup of tea can be just as inspiring as seeing and hearing about all its internal workings.

It was built in 1821, which was quite late as far as windmills are concerned, and the reason for building it was, surprisingly, the canal, which caused all the local watermills to go out of business. It brought a kind of synchronicity to the walk.

I had hoped the walk, which was about eight miles (I guess) might put paid to my bad back (probably sciatica), but didn't, and I am typing this with Julie's monkey-shaped warmer in the small of my back, and trying not to make any sudden movements.

June 8, 2010

Well I'll be juxtaposed!

A strange, unexpected sight greeted me when I picked the Swindon Advertiser off the mat this morning: me!

After more than 20 years as a journalist, I have become used to the unwelcome sight of my face inside the paper, but somehow, today I ended up on the front page.

There in the 'puff' - the promotional blurb that tells you what's in the paper - was my cheery face, along with a suggestion that readers turned to page 8 first, where they would find my column (this week about my involvement with the Alfred Williams Heritage Society and how we have lost the knack of finding heroes).

To be honest, I'm quite chuffed, because the column has now been running for four or five years - so long that I can't recall exactly how long - and is therefore quite a survivor. These things either last a year or two or threaten to go on forever. In fact, if it goes on for just over another year, its title will need changing from Roaring Forties - being about life in your forties - to reflect that I am now almost within sight of my fifties.

The column rarely produces any reaction from readers, but somebody must like it, and I'm surprised by the number of people I meet who say: "Aren't you that bloke who writes in the Adver?" or even "I read your column every week."

Mind you, I had to laugh when I noticed that my face is juxtaposed with the headline, "Sicknote", which is over the front page lead story about the level of long-term sick leave at the Great Western Hospital. Actually, this is quite ironic as I've been struggling with what I assume is sciatica for three or four days, which has made it difficult for me to do any work. Not that freelancers have the luxury of sicknotes.

Juxtaposition can be a dangerous thing in newspapers. There are cases where people have won damages for deformation of character because they have appeared next to unsavoury stories. There was one famous one where a politician's picture appeared too close to a headline about a rapist or some other pervert, and although I forget the details (it may have been Neil Kinnock), I've always remembered to avoid doing it by accident because you may be accused of doing it on purpose.

Not that there was any intention or damage done here. Far from it. It has perked me up a bit to think that I am slightly more famous than I was when I went to bed last night.

June 5, 2010

Here beginneth the first lesson

We reached a bit of a milestone in our household today - although Sean took it so much in his stride that it made it seem like not such a big deal after all.

Today he gave his first drumming lesson to his first student - and not only that; his 'pupil' was a chap not much younger than myself.

He's a guy who has done some very rudimentary drumming before, but has just enrolled at Swindon's Adult Rockschool, so wants to get more of a grounding in what it takes to play in a band.

The hour-long lesson took place in the 'drum room' I built which takes up half of our garage, and apparently it went very well. There is even talk of Sean teaching the guy's two sons.

I'm not sure whether we should be surprised that Sean wasn't nervous about it, because when you really know your stuff and you have so much trust in your own ability, I should imagine teaching comes easy. Whatever challenge he saw in it, he seemed to be relishing it, and said he enjoyed it.

So how are we feeling about this? Proud, obviously, but only partly because Sean has fulfilled his promise as a drummer. That's down to him, not us, and also luck that he had the talent in the first place.

What we are allowing ourselves to feel genuinely proud about is we've encouraged him to try to make a career of it, while less open-minded parents might have discouraged such a thing in favour of getting a 'proper job'.

It also helps that while other kids of his age only have plans to make money from music by becomoing rock stars, which is pretty unlikely, Sean's feet have never left the ground, and he's also worked hard at teaching himself guitar and learning about music production - again, not in case he gets lucky and becomes a star, but to supplement his drumming talent.

He still has a long way to go, of course, but we think he has a good chance of being able to make a decent living out of music, which is very important to us because we've always told our kids that doing something you enjoy is more important than all the other reasons for taking a job put together.

Oh deer

It's been a funny day. The weather has been warm and was made unbearable by being muggy to the point of oppressiveness.

We had a few chores to do in town, including me finally spending my Christmas book tokens on Bill Bryson's new book, At Home. I'm still only a third of the way through two other books I'm trying to read, so I am going to have to put off reading Bill for now, which is a shame because he is now undoubtedly my favourite author. But I couldn't resist reading the introduction, which was typically eye-opening and justified spending £10 on its own (it's in hardback but half price in Waterstone's).

While we were in town we stopped by to watch some (presumably genuine) Maassai tribespeople who were singing, dancing and selling wares on a stall, which was all very colourful but somehow a little bit low-key - mainly because it would have been better if done somewhere more central than the upper floor of the Brunel Plaza.

Next on our list of cultural things to do, after lunch, was a visit to a BBC Springwatch spin-off event at Stanton Park. But we were slow in getting going and then found we had to be bussed in on a park & ride from a nearby industrial estate, so by the time we finally arrived we weren't sure whether we had time to take part in the main point of it all - guided walks by wildlife experts.

So we settled for looking around the handful of stalls, and a little peep inside one of the buildings where they have a nice little children's room with information on fungi, including giant illuminated mushrooms and toadstools. We especially enjoyed talking to the borough dog warden who also has a personal interest in deer. He told us more about them in five minutes than we previously had learned in the whole of our lives.

He said there are six species of deer in Britain, but only two are native - the red deer and roe deer. Incredibly, considering how little you actually see them, there are more than 800,000 roe deer in Britain. You might think that most of them are in Scotland, but only half are, so there are hundreds of thousands in England. I can only think that most of them are hiding behind trees or have evolved some way of making themselves invisible.

I'm now on a roll with the random deer facts, so I need to say that of the four species that are not truly native to Britain, muntjacs are the most intriguing. They were only introduced here a hundred years ago - and specifically to captivity at Woburn. But now there are more than 150,000 of them running wild - every one descended from animals that escaped from Woburn over the years (more amazing deer facts here).

So our badly planned trip wasn't such a flop after all, and we also got to have a stroll around the park and lake, and I managed to satisfy my uncontrollable urge to point my camera at everything to see if it makes a decent picture.