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August 30, 2010

Fair warning


We spent our Bank Holiday afternoon in Lacock, this time minus Holly who decided that a walk round the abbey, gardens and Fox Talbot Museum with a couple of "old people" (as she calls us) was just too dull.

But she missed out because we ended up doing nothing of what we planned, on account of we had inadvertently walked in on a village fair, with stalls selling bric-a-brac, secondhand books and excellent multi-flavoured lollipops. There was more besides, such as Chippenham Town Band, morris dancers and Scouts selling tea and cake. It was all happening.

I am a bit ashamed to say that it was the first time I've seen Lacock in daylight, even though it is overflowing with ancient buildings and is a favourite with film producers because it is a readymade backdrop for costume dramas of the unnecessary Jane Austen variety.

Like Coleshill, which I also visited recently (see below), the village is almost entirely owned by the National Trust, which is obviously good news in terms of conservation, but away from the high street fair the village had a strange air. A lot of the buildings are unoccupied, giving them a creepy half-neglected look with their dusty net curtains, making it as much semi-ghost town as sleepy picture-postcard village.

Another thing we noticed: whenever you see morris dancers, you know you are no more than a hop, skip and jump away from a pub.






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August 29, 2010

More walking on the wild side


I really don't want to keep going on about my diet too much on this blog, but now having completed three weeks of near starvation, I have to say that the next 'meal' is never very far from my thoughts (not that I have had more than one thing that qualifies as 'a meal' in those three weeks.

The main benefits still seem a very long way in the future, but I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the current benefit of getting out and doing a lot of walking in a desperate attempt to burn off more calories - although I am no fool and know that walking, compared with running, causes calories to quietly smoulder, rather than actually burning.

As part of our plan to find new and interesting places to walk, we have been Googling sites around Swindon, with some of those that come up making us feel ashamed about not having visited before.

Today's walk took us to Nightingale Wood, and had a dual purpose because, being at South Marston, it is firmly in Alfred Williams country, and, indeed, includes a walk along the River Cole, which Alfred had a particular affinity for.

There is a path through Nightingale Wood which, if anything, is too clinical, but you can branch off and go the long way round to Roves Farm, which skirts the Cole. Here the river is only about six to ten feet wide, although at one point there is a large pond (or tiny lake) which is presumably some kind of off-shoot of the river. It's a fairly modest river, although I suspect that is one of the reasons Alfred liked it so much.

Half way along we got caught in a shower (without coats) so had to shelter under a tree, but otherwise it turned out to be another successful walk. And Alfred would have been cheered by it too.

South Marston is under threat from giant warehouses on its doorstep (very bad), housing developers (nearly as bad) and giant wind turbines (actually, I'm in favour of those), but at least this part of it looks like staying as rural and unspoilt as anywhere.










National pride shock

The Daily Mail would probably have me put in the Tower for saying this, but I really don't go for all that jingoistic, nationalistic, Last Night of the Proms, flag-waving patriotic Rule Britannia claptrap.

But I am prepared to make an exception for our Paralympic team, who represent not just what's good about this country, but quite possibly what's best about it.

In the last Paralympics, Britain got more medals than everybody except China, which is a remarkable achievement for a small country which, in comparison with lots of countries, has very few disabled people to choose from.

Our teams achievements are obviously due to the skill, hard work and attitude of the athletes themselves, but it also says a lot about the way disabled sportsmen and women are supported here, when other countries might think it much more important to plough money into able-bodied elite sportsmen and sportswomen. You can see this in the organisation and marketing of London 2012 which goes out of its way to emphasize that the Olympics and the Paralympics are equal events, rather than the latter being the poor relation of the former.

I actually prefer the Paralympics to the Olympics because it's much less interesting to find out who the best in the world is - which is mostly about being born with an ultimate gift and possibly privilege - compared with who is best at overcoming the presonal challenges life has thrown at them.

Exactly two years from today sees the beginning of London's Paralympic Games when, hopefully, our team will be roared on to second place again (China being uncatchable). As I am aiming to be a volunteer for the Paralympics - as well as at the Olympics - hopefully I will one day be able to say "I was there."

I have a little extra motivation because I once met and interviewed the queen of British Paralympians (and, indeed, the first lady of British sport), Tanni Grey-Thompson - or as she now is, Baroness Grey-Thompson. You might think that somebody with 11 gold medals and that sort of esteem would be full of themselves and difficult to talk to, especially as she is obviously a very focused person, but she was a charming, intelligent, patient and genuinely friendly person.

And if nobody is going to rid us of the damned House of Lords, she is exactly the kind of people we should try to fill it with.

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August 28, 2010

Apostrophe abuse


Probably the worst thing about being a journalist (and especially a sub-editor) is you spend your entire life mentally correcting spelling and punctuation errors. Every one I see creates a sound in my head that is not unlike fingernails on a blackboard, and sometimes it is a curse.

If I was to point out every error I saw, I would have no time for anything else, but when you see one on a sign outside a school, you can't just pass it by.

I spotted the one above on our evening constitutional, outside Moredon Primary and Nursery School. To the untrained eye it looks right at first, except it would only be right if the parties they were organising were for one kid at a time (it should be Kids' parties).

A mis-placed apostrophe is even worse than no apostrophe at all because the person who put it there must have had some idea that one was needed, and must have thought about it - and then stuck it in the wrong place.

Nobody's perfect, and I dare say there are errors in this very blog from time to time, but if I'd ever made a banner-sized one that was put up outside a school, I would have pulled it down, sharpish, as soon the error was spotted.

I find it difficult not to be militant about these things, especially when people take the people in glass houses approach (which they often do) and point out that newspapers are not exactly immune from errors themselves. This misses two important points.

First of all, once an error is printed in a newspaper, there is no longer any chance to correct it as these days most first editions of a paper are also the final edition. It is regrettable, but you're stuck with it. All the other errors I see are correctable.

The main point, however, is journalists make errors not because they are sloppy or they didn't listen in class or they don't care, but because they are overworked and underpaid. Indeed, in my experience, you will never meet a bunch of people who are more keen about making sure our beautiful language is written as it was intended.

That's why errors like the one above are so difficult to stomach - and yet it's not the biggest crime you can commit with an apostrophe. Don't even ask me what tortures I suffer whenever I see people using them in plurals.

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August 27, 2010

Visitors


There has been no sign of our hedgehog family (see below) for a few days, so they have probably moved out - to be replaced by an impressive spider with a leg span of 9cm.

Considering it was dark, he was hiding in corners and I had to use the flash, the macro picture that came out was quite good.

Having an office up in the loft means visitors like this are inevitable, so it's just as well that spiders give me the willies much less than squirmy things, like the fist-sized knot of worms that dropped out of the compost bin the other day, when I lifted the lid off it.

So the next time I go near that it will be with welder's gloves.



Walkies


My don't-eat-much-but-get-more-exercise diet still has its fringe benefits, tonight's being a walk from Taw Hill to Moredon and then back along the (disused) Wilts and Berks Canal.

The partially restored canal was a bit of a disappointment as it has partly overgrown again and I thought that in the few years since we last walked along the tow path, the lock (one of three that existed at Moredon) had been fully restored. But it wasn't, although it allows geeky people like me a chance to see more of the workings - the culverts and sluices that you don't get to see on a working canal.

Another unexpected geeky pleasure was the discovery of an old pill box in one of the adjoining fields, and if I could have been sure whether the cattle in the distance were cows or bulls, I might have investigated more closely.




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August 24, 2010

O=B

Hot on the heels of Sean's A Level results come Holly's first GCSE - a grade B in science.

When I went to school, the only exams you ever had came at the end of two years' study, but these days, in a cunning ploy to confuse the hell out of dumb parents, the educational system now throws up all kinds of coursework, part-exams and modules.

Holly is taking double science, which means she should have two science GCSEs by the time she leaves school in a year's time, but one of them was taken this year. The half she has now completed was assessed through coursework, an interim exam (which was taken in January, I think) plus another one in June. This sort of thing now happens with most subjects.

Even when it's all over, confusion reigns because when she went to the school to find out how she had done, they only released the mark for the June exam and she had to phone home so we could consult a previous letter from school, add up all the marks and then work out her grade.

Science is probably Holly's weakest subject and for a while she pesimistically feared failing it altogether, so a B was a great result.


Slow lane


One of the benefits of being on a diet and trying to get more exercise through walking is we are seeing much more of the world.

But you don't have to go far to find a part of the world you haven't seen before.

If I ever knew Kingsdown Lane existed, I'd forgotten about it, yet it is less than a mile from where I grew up, went to school and have lived for the last 20 years.

But we only discovered, in the last couple of weeks, that it runs from Highworth Road to the old Blunsdon road (pictured above). It is a properly laid road at both ends, but becomes a track in the middle, and was obviously an ancient route, long before cars were invented.

Because it is two roads to nowhere, it is pretty sleepy, but has a large plant nursery, a cattery, a scrap yard, a mobile home estate, bed and breakfast bungalows and some nice old semi-detached houses from the mid-19th century. Nothing spectacular really, but amazing to stumble on it as if it just appeared overnight.

Inspired by this, we decided to try a longer walk, today, taking in Coate Water, a tramp through fields on a path that was sometimes barely traceable, and then back along Day House Lane.

Not much on this came as a surprise as we'd walked most of it before and the area - especially Coate - is a well known 'green lung' for Swindon folk, even if part of our walk literally took us alongside the motorway. It's also a treasured area made famous by Swindon's fairly famous naturalist/writer, Richard Jefferies, (not one of my favourite writers, I have to say) and was also popular with Alfred Williams (who is one of my favourite writers).

Day House Lane gives nice views of Liddington Hill and also cuts through an old stone circle. There are supposed to be five surviving sarsen stones in a rough semi-circle, although we only counted four - and they are difficult to see as they've all fallen.

But it did underline that there is always plenty of interest, wherever you go, and often not far from your doorstep.




Decking envy

My brother-in-law Steve has alerted me to this YouTube video, which is a bit American (if you know what I mean), but nicely done and very funny, especially for those of us who have completed major decking projects this year.

For the record, a lot of people have been very impressed with my decking, with most of them saying it looks much bigger in real life than it does in the pictures.


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August 20, 2010

Late kick-offs

Sean's A Level results are in - and I think they are pretty good.

To add to yesterday's C in music technology, he got a C in English (the same as me, 31 years ago), and a D in business studies.

Considering the last year's studies, and possibly more, were done knowing that passing was not crucial, that sounds like a good result, which we are pretty proud of. And if he had wanted to go to university, that would probably have got him a place.

So well done.


Unsung heroes: 2 - Edith New

I am a sucker for unsung heroes.

This includes nearly everybody who fought in the First World War, including on the other side - people who fight in other wars somehow don't seem quite so unsung - and, of course, Alfred Williams.

And my new unsung hero is somebody I'd never even heard of until sometime in the last year, even though she was born in Swindon and was one of the leaders of a famous cause.

She was brought to mind again today when I met with Swindon Advertiser writer Frances Bevan, who writes a regular local history page. I'd only met Frances briefly before, but it soon became apparent from talking to her today that her occasional appearances in print really don't do justice to her great knowledge, dedication, modesty and not just a passion for history, but the type that I prefer most - the history of people from humble origins.

Her unsung hero is Edith New, who most people, these days, won't have heard of, even though she was one of Britain's greatest Suffragettes. Indeed, she did something that should make all of us instantly warm to her: she broke a window at 10 Downing Street. She went to jail (more than once, I think) and also went on hunger strike. To make it even more interesting for me, Edith's story coincides, almost exactly, with the period when Alfred Williams was at his writing peak.

Frances has been researching Edith's story and has made contact with one of her descendants who owns all of Edith's memorabilia, including medals, and I look forward to the day when she puts the whole story together for public consumption.

In the meantime, there is a gallery relating to Edith on Flickr (where the photo, above, comes from, which is part of the stunning Swindon Collection Flickr pages).


Spikey update


The spikey folk, living under one of our plant pots, have been active again, including posing cutely while struggling up the steps to the decking.

The challenge now is to feed them (on cat food) without our cats (especially Elvis) stealing it from them.



4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

I never thought I'd ever go into town on a mission to buy a hole.

It's because the head on the front of our new bass drum has no hole in it, which is fine if you want a really booming sound. But I don't.

One way you can do it is to get a Stanley knife and cut round a saucer, which is asking for trouble, or you can buy a stick-on plastic hole reinforcer that also acts as a template.

At £7.95, it's probably the most expensive hole I'll ever buy, but they had another, made out of rigid plastic, for £15.95. Who would have thought holes would be so expensive? And it wasn't a completely successful purchase as I wanted a white hole but had to buy a black one.


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August 19, 2010

A Level results? What A Level results?

The media hype that always greets the publishing of the A Level results was not repeated in our house today, where we eventually discovered that Sean got a grade C in music technology.

He went out with his friends to celebrate their results tonight, still not knowing whether he was also celebrating his own achievements in business studies and English - because we still don't know.

He had to be woken up very late in the morning and instructed to go online for his music technology result, but as the other two were sat with different examining boards, he is happy to wait for them in tomorrow's post.

This state of affairs is understandable because, technically, the results don't matter too much. He's not intending to go to college and they probably won't affect his future. He's already taken steps to set himself up as a drumming teacher, will have enough work in September to call himself part-time and the result of the drumming diploma he is sitting in the autumn will be more important.

He had hoped for a better grade in music technology, but knew the exam hadn't gone so well, but feels that he learned plenty on the course which will be useful - which I believe is supposed to be the point of education.


A prickly subject



A few days ago we discovered a hedgehog has been spending some time under our decking, but today we found out we were wrong: we have four of the spikey blighters.

As well as the mother, we also have three little spikey babies who seem to have made their spikey nest under a large plantpot-on-legs in a corner of the garden.

Hedgehogs must be born come with complete confidence in their defences because even the little ones seemed unconcerned by both a human poking a camera in their faces and a fairly predatory tabby cat who was sniffing around. Daisy has been known to bring down large rats and eat mice, so could literally have had a baby hedgehog for breakfast. But cats, too, must be born with an inherent sense that it's really not worth messing with spikey creatures.

The spikey family therefore have no qualms about scampering about in broad daylight, much to the delight of Holly who is a sucker for all animals and is probably busy thinking up names for them as I write.

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August 18, 2010

Me and the Prime Minister


It's been a full and busy day, which ended with me being in the company of the Prime Minister. Not the current one, but almost certainly the next one.

The theme for the day has been involvement in various vaguely journalistic things but with no sign of being paid for them. The bottom (not to mention the fun) may have dropped out of the freelance journalism market to the extent that it's no longer a question of if I get a new career but rather what? And when? But it doesn't stop me keeping my finger on the pulse of the nation like all good journalists should.

The afternoon was spent in the company of a wise and esteemed fellow Alfred Williams supporter called John Forster, on a visit to the National Trust estate at Coleshill.

Coleshill is most famous for being the home of Sir George Martin, but is actually one of England's most unspoilt villages. Almost all of it is owned by the National Trust, including the pub (the excellent Radnor Arms, which incidentally now has an interesting microbrewery attached) and the former Coleshill House estate, although sadly not the manor house itself, which burned down in 1952.

We were there because we are going to have a stand at the forthcoming prestigious Coleshill Food Festival, when we will be handing out leaflets and generally informing people about the existence of Alfred Williams and the fact that he visited and wrote about Coleshill a century ago.

As well as talking to the National Trust's top man there, we had a look around the rest of the estate which included a little organic farm and shop, a nice tea room (run by volunteers who are mostly Japanese wives of Honda executives) and the site of the old house. A herb garden, enclosed in box hedges, marks out the original floor plan, with the only traces of what it used to look like being strategically placed photographs of the inside, dotted between the herbs.

A few yards from here you can see the vista of the house, which looks as though it is probably unchanged from when it was first laid out in the 17th century, apart from the house now being gone; the combine harvesters kicking up clouds of dust; and the five (in my view majestic and beautiful) wind turbines turning on the horizon at Watchfield.

The estate, by the way, held a secret during the Second World War as it was a training centre for auxiliary units (intelligence units).

Lucky I had my camera to capture some of it. The Alfred Williams website will feature a closer look at Coleshill as soon as I can write it.

I also came home with an interesting souvenir. I'm not sure why this sort of item fascinates me so much, but for 90p I purchased a recycled newspaper which had been turned into a carrier bag by children in India (see picture below). They are produced by an organisation called Karm Marg, which evidently helps homeless children in Delhi by, among other things, getting them to turn old newspapers into bags. So your 90p not only buys you an interesting item, but helps kids in India. I wish I'd bought two now.

After getting home for my meagre tea - the diet still very much in force - I then walked down to Swindon's Sikh Temple where Labour Party leadership frontrunner David Miliband was giving a speech.

He spoke for ten minutes before taking questions from the floor. There were a good 250-300 there. Otherwise I might have asked a question. He had to leave earlier than originally planned as he was due to drive to London to appear on Newsnight, but by then it was already obvious that he is as able in this sort of situation as he appears on telly.

It goes without saying that he already has much more of an air of Prime Minister about him than the Prime Minister.















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August 17, 2010

Goodbye Blackberry Way


For the third night running, tonight we went on a long evening walk, which is surprisingly hard work since the main part of this self-inflicted fitness campaign is a strict diet.

The problem with these walks is you soon get bored with seeing the same things and at least half of it needs to be through some uninspiring urban landscape. We may eventually have to resort to driving somewhere and walking around and back to the car, but that somehow seems like cheating.

In the meantime, tonight we made the effort to go a bit further from home, which happily took us past some of the familiar sights - and tastes - of my childhood. We made for the iron bridge over the main railway line (beyond Gipsy Lane), which took us past the old Swindon-Highworth branch line, which also ran literally along the bottom of our garden.

The very beginning of the line, which left the main line and went under the Gipsy Lane bridge, still exists - sort of. For years it has been the spur that leads to the sidings belonging to the old Pressed Steel (now BMW Mini) factory. This part, therefore, still looks like it might have done when the branch line was still open, except it seems that even this section, along with all those sidings, including the cutting close to our old house, have now fallen into disuse too, sadly.

So there were plenty of things to reminisce about, along the way, but the best and most evocative aspect was picking and eating the blackberries that still grow along the paths and still seem attracted to the railway line, which they always were a key feature of.

We later saw a woman picking them and putting them in a bag - no doubt to make a pie, which always seems, to me, like a lot of hard work wasted as blackberries never taste half as good in a pie as they do when eaten straight from the bush. As kids we couldn't wait for them to go black so would often eat the red ones, which is why I prefer them before they are black but not properly ripe, which is what most of them are like right now.

The blackberries are significant because there is no stopping change, and virtually nothing was untouched on this walk, compared with how it was when I first took it, 40 years ago. The only two exceptions were the sky and the taste of the blackberries.

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August 16, 2010

Alzheimer's explained

This afternoon I went along to a talk by Dr Manchip, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist and an expert on Alzheimer's disease.

The main reason for going was obviously that my mum has Alzheimer's - what I would now describe as moderate to severe - but while I was there I realised there were two other reasons for finding out more.

Regeardless of the personal connection, it's an interesting subject because seeing what happens when the brain fails probably tells you more about the way it works than if it's working properly. It really can be fascinating.

And the other reason for being there was selfish - because everybody would like to find out what chances they have of avoiding Alzheimer's and other dementia as they get older.

The first thing the doctor explained was that Alzheimer's is a disease that brings about dementia, so they are not the same thing, although the difference is very subtle. He also explained that Alzheimer's is a purely physical disease. Although it causes complex, mostly unpredictable symptoms and behaviour, is irreversible and incurable, the slow destruction of up to 15 per cent of brain cells is what is causing it, and nothing else.

One of his main themes was that diagnosis is very difficult. For a start, apparently Alzheimer-like symptoms can be temporary or caused by such things as Vitamin B12 deficiency. He said it is impossible to be 100 per cent sure of your diagnosis until a post mortem, when it becomes possible to actually see the damage to the brain. Another problem is no two cases are ever the same - which is something that has become all too apparent to us through visits to the home where my mum lives and meeting the other people there.

It is even possible to have Alzheimer's and show no symptoms. Because people - especially young people - have a certain number of 'spare' brain cells that the body keeps in reserve, they can overcome the loss of others for years. This could even continue into old age because it usually requires something else to be wrong for Alzheimer's to be devastating, like it is with my mum.

The doctor said 80 per cent of Alzheimer's sufferers have also suffered small stroke damage. Once again - as if it wasn't difficult enough to fathom - this is the kind of damage that isn't apparent otherwise, because we aren't talking about major stroke damage such as in people who have lost the use of their arms and/or legs.

Even if symptoms develop, they are difficult to spot. Only with hindsight do they all reveal themselves, and one of the main ones is apathy. The doctor described this as not being like him being asked to do jobs by his wife but watching the football instead, but a general lack of enthusiasm and listlessness. It's one of the things that, with hindsight, we can see in my mum's case. Symptoms can be masked by the victim compensating or, if they have a partner, by him or her either deliberately or subconsciously compensating - by such things as a husband doing more of the cooking as his wife becomes unable to do it. So you can see how easy it is for it to go unnoticed.

The doctor also underlined something that anybody who has experience of Alzheimer's patients soon works out for themselves - that the disease is by no means all about loss of memory. It may be the clearest symptom, but it's only part of the victim's inability to process information. People also often over-simplify it by saying it affects short-term memory more than long-term, but we have found this to be completely wrong. My mum's short-term memory is now very bad, but she has also forgotten very significant events from longer ago. And, anyway, memory capacity fluctuates from day to day and sometimes even minute to minute.

The doctor also pointed out that all Alzheimer's patients see things that aren't there, from time to time, and we also know that they don't always see things that are there, which is possibly the most distressing aspect of the illness, but also the one that underlines the complexity of thought processing and how dramatically this breaks down when your brain doesn't have all the information it needs.

You might think that listening to all this would be depressing, but there were some silver linings, as the doctor pointed out.

Alzheimer's is not inevitable. One in 20 people in their sixties will have Alzheimer's - and the older you get, the higher your chances of getting it become - and if you manage to get to your nineties, the odds are one in three. The doctor said that that may not sound great, but two thirds of people living that long can expect to have a sound mind, which isn't so bad.

Age is the biggest risk factor, not surprisingly, and it's also true that if you are going to get it, you are going to get it. But at least you can give yourself a better chance by: keeping your brain active, not having high cholesterol, not having high blood pressure, not smoking, not drinking a lot and staying fit - in other words: doing whatever you can to avoid having a stroke.

Another reassuring thing concerns memory. Normal healthy people, said the doctor, don't lose memory capacity. It's a myth that as we get older our memories become unreliable, so if you are older and you think you are getting a bit forgetful, it doesn't mean you are developing Alzheimer's. Coupled with what he said about the other symptoms and from my own experience, it's now clear that there are other symptoms - mainly to do with processing what you see and more subtle, like apathy.

This not only has positive implications for people growing older, but is also reassuring when I look at my elderly relatives, who may be slowing down and may have their funny ways, but certainly aren't suffering from apathy.

I should also say that the doctor pointed out that a moderate amount of alcohol, such as a pint of beer a day is good for you. Only in large quantities does it become too toxic, although it doesn't count if you save up your pint a day until the weekend!

I learned a lot more besides, but that's enough fretting about health for one day, except for the doctor's neat definition of depression - which is another, big aspect of Alzheimer's.

He said that depression is not about being sad, but about not being happy when you should be. He said if you are a Swindon Town supporter, it's normal to be miserable when they lose, but you should also be happy when they win. If you're not, you're depressed.

He didn't say what happens when you have to wait weeks and weeks for them to win, which happens regularly, and may be happening right now.

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August 15, 2010

Return of the prodigal son

Sean is back from his tour with his band, The Cold Harbour.

He arrived home early this afternoon, quite tired, a bit grubby and full of stories of great hospitality from the Poles and especially the Germans.

His band's gigs went down very well; they all got on with each other, including the other Swindon band; the food - much of which was vegan - was surprisingly good; and the accommodation comfortable (mattresses, sheets, pillows... you name it).

Apart from playing for 40 minutes each night, the main activities were lots of travelling - sometimes half a day at a time - and consuming beer. Apparently, the legal age is 16 in Germany, which must have made it seem like heaven for the 17-year-olds who were in the majority of the party, although the couple of days of illness Sean had were seemingly a knock-on from the bugs Julie and I have been battling, rather than alcoholic in origin.

It turns out to have been a really well-organised tour, with impressive venues, well-attended gigs and good transport. We briefly got to see their tour van when they arrived home, which was a newish big transit with nine seats up front and lots of space for gear in the back - a proper tour bus, rather than the make-do minibus that we assumed they were travelling in.

All in all, it seems to have been so successful and such an experience that there is already talk of another one in the future, which sounds like a really good idea to me.

I did feel a bit guilty about referring to it as "the return of the prodigal son" when I looked up 'prodigal', which is one of those words that a lot of people use without being sure of its meaning. Apparently, it means "spending money and resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant". But since Sean has revealed that he had spent all the money he went with, even though they didn't get to do any sightseeing, perhaps the return of the prodigal son is not so harsh.

Hopefully, there will be some photos to see, just as soon as I can persuade him to download them.


Happy anniversary

Today is our 23rd anniversary, and there's not much to say on account of we don't make too much of a fuss about it and don't buy each other cards or anything.

Except, of course, that if our wedding was tomorrow I wouldn't hesitate for a second to do it all over again.


Fat chance

Well, I am officially on a diet, and have decided that there are going to be no half measures.

The aim is to lose a serious amount of weight before Christmas, and hopefully much sooner. But one thing I am not going to do is reveal my plan, on account of what always happens when you do.

Even worse than being hungry all the time and being bored with what you have to eat to lose weight is being told by everybody you meet that your plan won't work, that it's unhealthy and that even if it does work, you'll put it all back on again. Then they'll tell you what you should be doing instead, which usually involves switching to eating things that you not only don't like but actually turns your stomach, like swede and other vegetables that are not fit for human consumption.

Just when you need encouragement because you are facing a big challenge, all you get is a lot of negative, demoralising stuff thrown at you and, in my experience, not a single positive word to help you. So I am only going to reveal my strategy after it is proved to work.

I'm already a week into it, and I've even survived having to help with the weekly shop at Asda, which is an organisation that has worked out a million and one ways to tempt people to eat their products. The way I feel at the moment, I'd even eat their soap.

An upside to all this, however, is we (me, Julie and Holly) are stepping up our attempts to get more exercise, starting with a long walk to Stratton Wood today, which included spotting this sign outside Stratton British Legion for an upcoming show by a popular local beat combo...


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August 9, 2010

Another gold star

For the second day running I am feeling particularly proud of one of our kids, Holly taking her turn this time.

She attended her regular (three-monthly) appointment with the diabetes consultant today - which I usually take her to, as Julie is normally at work. But as Julie is still on leave, she went this time, and came home with praise still ringing in her ears - for Holly and even for us.

The appointment always produces an overall blood sugar reading for the last three months, with anything below 7.5 being extremely good. Last time Holly's was 6.8 and this time it was 7.0, which so impressed the doctor that he even suggested Holly wrote a diary to chart how effective she is at controlling her levels.

Other females with diabetes are expected to have physical issues when they are teenagers - and, even worse, attitude problems - making control unusually difficult. But Holly just takes everything in her stride. Our two days in London (see below), for example, should have made life difficult because of changed routines, a different amount of exercise and not being able to weigh what she eats, but she still managed textbook levels.

The doctor even had praise for us, which is nice, except Julie had to admit that while we did point her in the right direction when she was first diagnosed, it's all down to her now, as we never have cause to intervene.

Teenage girls traditionally routinely find fault in most things around them and Holly is not slow at complaining, but she has never once complained about being diabetic or felt sorry for herself, always having the mature approach that there is no point in doing anything except just getting on with it, and never letting it stop her from doing anything.

In fact, I'm going to get into trouble for even bringing it up here, but credit where credit is due.

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August 8, 2010

Rock on


The stomach bug that has been plaguing me continues to be the most persistent I've ever known, keeping me up half the night and making it impossible to travel far from home.

This was really unfortunate timing as today we had planned to travel to south Wales and spend a day with my friend Dave, who is camping near Porthcawl. Even if we had made it down there, I wouldn't have had much energy as I have barely eaten, and what I have eaten hasn't stand inside me for long. I would be getting pretty worried about my inability to shake it off if Julie hadn't been fighting the same problem over the same timescale.

The only good thing about losing our day out is we got to officially wave off Sean, who is off with his band, The Cold Harbour, on a tour of Poland and Germany. They will play half an hour a night in Warsaw, Krakov, Zittau, Dobein and Coburg, with Sean on guitar.

I can't say I am a huge fan of the type of music they play, which is 'hardcore punk' and includes vocals that make The Sex Pistols sound like Gilbert and Sullivan. But I do like what they are doing, and I have to say I am feeling really proud.

I wrote about the tour in my column for Tuesday's Adver, because it suddenly struck me that they are doing it for a very noble cause: rock 'n' roll. Most people's first trip away from home is either to college or for work - I myself worked for a month at Butlin's in Bognor Regis - but they are doing it for the music. As the other Swindon band they are travelling and playing with, Staring at the Sun, put it on their Myspace page, "Playing is all we care about."

The tour is being organised and promoted by a young German guy - apparently not much older than the bands - who also seems to have a good attitude. On his Myspace page, his message to bands he is trying to attract to Germany - presumably mostly from Britain - says: "For me it's just important that you play good-sounding music, with reasonable lyrics and that you could identify yourself with values like anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, anti-nationalism and animalrights."

There is a striking contrast, here, to the Holocaust Exhibition we saw at the Imperial War Museum, yesterday (see below). Not only are those sentiments exactly opposite to Naziism, but the tour goes through the very area where many of the concentration camps were, Krakov being the nearest major city to Auschwitz, and the camp is only 15 miles away from where Sean will be playing.

The band have set up an account so we can follow their progress on Twitter. Although Sean has taken my old camera, we'll probably have to wait until he gets back to see any pictures, so will have to make do with the reluctantly posed one, above.

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August 6-7, 2010

My poor feet


I never used to like London that much. I always found it all a bit depressing, with people rushing everywhere and looking so unhappy on the Tube. But somehow or other I've grown to like it, so we (me, Julie and Holly) decided to head there for two days and do cheesy touristy things.

We booked some cheap Megabus seats (£24 return for the three of us) and a cheap hotel (£64 for one room and one night at a Travelodge in Battersea). The attractions we chose were also cheap, but that was a happy accident as the two main things we wanted to do turned out to be exceptional value for money.

After arriving at Victoria Coach Station at 11am on Friday, where we put our bags in left luggage and had plenty of time to get to The Globe Theatre, where we had tickets for a matinee performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. These were for standing in 'the yard', where patrons are called 'groundlings' on good days and used to be 'stinkards' on bad days - when the weather was hot or they were so tightly packed that they couldn't get out if they needed to go to the toilet.

This was at the back of our minds as both Julie and I were suffering from a stomach bug, but neither of us needed to go out, fortunately, during the three-hour performance. However, we had no option but to stand, our only relief coming from being able to rest a hand on the stage and sit down in the 15-minute interval. We were right at the front of the stage, on the front corner of a kind of catwalk, where we could have reached out and touched the actors. They also made various entrances and exits via the steps that were next to us, and another advantage of being stinkards is the actors sometimes interact with them (and did, but not us).

Aching legs and feet were a small price to pay for the fun of being so close to the action, and it really wouldn't have mattered which play we had seen, but the bonus was that not only was it superbly performed and simple to follow, but Henry VIII is, in my experience, Shakespeare's most under-rated play (and, in fact, he co-wrote it with John Fletcher).

Most people have never seen/read/studied it, yet it's a really enjoyable story of Henry's reign, from just before he meets Anne Boleyn to just after the birth of Ellizabeth I. Another big thing in its favour is it is done in full Elizabethan costume. So many Shakespeare productions these days set the plays in more modern times - either because the director thinks he is being clever, or to save on costumes, or both. We were so close to the actors, we could see that some of the details were wrong, such as the modern soles on the shoes.

Being a stinkard is as close as it's possible to get to being like an Elizabethan theatregoer, and because the centre of the arena - including the catwalk - are open to the elements, there is even the prospect of watching it in the rain. And, indeed, it did start raining, which I was pretty pleased about, especially as it was a not inconvenient light ten-minute shower.

I would thoroughly recommend the whole experience to anybody, even if the tickets had been £40 each, but the icing on the cake is they actually only cost £5 each. Amazing.

After the show we did nothing to help our aching feet except stop for drinks in a cafe, taking a long sight-seeing walk along the river, past the Golden Hinde replica and the striking Hay's Galleria to Tower Bridge, which obligingly opened - something I'd never see before - to allow a tall-masted boat pass underneath. We also walked past the Tower of London and into the City, under The Gherkin, in a vain attempt to find a family-friendly pub.

So we headed back to Victoria to pick up our bags, and had a pub meal near the coach station. Then we got the train to Clapham Junction and walked to our hotel, which took longer than we anticipated, so all three of us - but especially our feet - were glad to arrive.

The next morning I got up early with the idea of retracing some childhood visits to Putney High Street, where my Auntie Hilda used to live, but it turned out to be too far to walk. Instead, we got on a bus to Victoria, then a tube to Lambeth, where we had planned to visit the Imperial War Museum - now a suitable venue due to the horrendous conflicts brewing in both my stomach and Julie's.

First we stopped for breakfast at a friendly Italian cafe, where toast and black pudding was all I dared eat. Sitting outside in the warm but not quite sunny weather, we both agreed that while we've always loved seeing places like Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, etc, London has at least as many attractions and - if you look for it - just as nice an atmosphere.

With our feet already starting to ache again, we arrived at the Imperial War Museum at about 10.30am, and were to stay for seven hours, by which time we had seen most of what it had to offer. Apart from breaking for lunch, we were on our feet virtually the whole time, but the standard of the exhibits took our minds off our aching feet.

There are some truly priceless artefacts there, such as the piece of paper that Neville Chamberlain had in his hand when he came back from his peace mission to Hitler in 1938, carrying both their signatures.

Sometimes, museums can shock you by telling you things that you should have known already. For instance, I thought incendary bombs, like the ones dropped on London during the blitz, were about six feet long, but they had several there - and they were the size of cucumbers.

Something else that had never occured to me was how the Nazis removed bodies from concentration camp gas chambers. It turns out they had long hooks - which were inserted into the mouths of the victims.

This one detail underlines what the museum's stunning Holocaust Exhibition is all about. I'd briefly seen it on my previous visit, but this time had more time to read the information. No details are spared, and rightly so, but it's about more than the camps as the whole rise of prejudice in Germany is covered in detail, and it is at pains to point out that the Jews were by no means the only scapegoats.

As the very first notice, at the start of the exhibition, points out, "The Nazis enslaved and murdered millions of others as well. Gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, trade unionists, political opponents, prisoners of conscience, homosexuals and others were killed in vast numbers. This exhibition looks at how and why these things happened."

I couldn't help thinking that if you replaced Jews with Muslims, you weren't far off the list of potential scapegoats some people still compile in modern Britain, encouraged by papers such as the Daily Mail.

Neither could I help thinking that while the large exhibition is viewed with almost total silence by all visitors, who take more time to stop and read and digest the information than I've ever seen at any other museum, and by a large margin, almost all of them were already only too aware of the evil that drove the Nazis, and still infects people today. In effect, it is preaching to the converted, but should be compulsory viewing for anybody who doesn't understand how dangerous even a little prejudice can be.

It doesn't seem right to say I enjoyed the Holocaust Exhibition, but it was certainly very impressive.

I also enjoyed the museum's small art gallery of paintings by war artists. There is a small local connection here as one of the artists was Swindon-born Leslie Cole, who is actually most famous for being the artist who was at the official war artist who was at liberation of Belsen (although none of his holocaust paintings were on view). By far the best painting is John Singer Sargent's Gassed, a huge canvas showing First World War soldiers temporarily blinded in a gas attack.

After ice creams and more walking, past Lambeth Palace to the bank opposite the Houses of Parliament, the weather, which had been ideal so far, suddenly turned nasty. Storm clouds over Westminster - which may or may not have been an omen - turned into heavy rain and we got a bit wet from walking across Westminster Bridge to the dry of the Tube. Then it was back to Victoria for tea in a cafe before boarding the bus home at 8pm.

Bugs not withstanding, we'd had an excellent time in London and don't plan to leave it too long before going back for more.






Enlarge panoramic view of The Globe


















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August 4, 2010

Beyond infinity

Tonight, Julie and I went to the cinema, where I was profoundly moved over the fate of some toys that came to life when nobody was looking. In other words, I nearly blubbed over the ending of Toy Story 3.

I can't remember being so choked up about any film I've ever watched before; not even one involving real characters or a real story. So that should tell you all you need to know about the genius that went into the making of the film - and why it's so much more than just a movie for kids.

The third in the series is the best of the bunch, being funnier than even the brilliant original Toy Story. It's also - and here's the secret - even wittier than before. The introduction of Buzz's alter ego, towards the end, for example, was a masterstroke.

I didn't care much for the sequel, to be honest, and may not have bothered seeing the third if it hadn't been for the fact that I've heard nothing but praise for it, and all the good reviews were fully justified.

We saw the 3D version, but the film was so good, it really didn't need another dimension.

This is the only film I've seen at the cinema this year. I absolutely loathe all those pointless action films they churn out these days, and have to admit that the only thing that is liable to tempt me to return to the cinema in the foreseeable future is more CGI animations, even if they are mostly intended for children. They seem to be one of the few outlets for genuine creativity on the big screen these days.

So there can surely be absolutely no contest for the Oscars, next time around.

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August 3, 2010

Happy birthday, Uncle Gord


Every family should have an Uncle Gord.

Ours is 77 years old on Friday, and because Julie is off work this week, we took a trip to visit him today. On the way, we also dropped into a shop selling stained glass-making equipment - something I had a go at, a few years ago, and I now fancy having another try - but the highlight of the day was finding Uncle Gord in excellent spirits.

A couple of years ago he had a nasty fall (off a ladder) which put him in hospital and brought a couple of other health problems to a head, but it's now safe to say that he is fully recovered. After visiting him at his house in Pill, near Bristol (which hasn't changed a bit in the 25 years since I first went there and, according to Julie, didn't change in the 20 years before that), we took him out for a birthday lunch at a nearby pub. Then it was back to his house for tea, jam tarts with ice cream and a little go through some old photos.

Anybody who has ever met Uncle Gord will tell you his is one of life's true gems, particularly as his small stature, rosy face and cheeky smile are exactly in tune with his impish nature.

One thing is for sure: if every family had an Uncle Gord, the world would be a far, far better place.

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August 1, 2010

Jumpers for goals

Today was the day of the annual extended Carter family barbecue at Lydiard Park, although if you think you can just turn up and have fun, willy-nilly, let me tell you that Swindon Borough Council has other ideas.

It turned out to be fortunate indeed that we had all chosen to go the picnic route this year, instead of cooking food, because we were greeted by a park warden telling us the news that the council has banned barbecues from all but one of its parks (although I was actually under the impression they were our parks). There was some talk about less responsible revellers being untrustworthy with their disposable barbecues on the grass and dumping hot ones in the plastic bins, as if this was a valid excuse for a blanket ban that unfairly affects the 99 per cent of the population of the world who aren't intent on leaving death and destruction behind them, wherever they go.

But the real reason seemed to be that a ban can be a nice little earner for the council because if you cough up cash to use their hearths (for £25 or £35) that's OK. However, councillors had clearly not thought it through properly, because they had to employ a ranger to police the place all afternoon and hunt down firelighters, which couldn't have been cheap, and nobody seemed to have given much thought to our idea that his time would have been better spent, for example, in clearing up - or at least organising it - after a little girl had been sick all over the ladies' toilets.

Although none of us had brought barbecues, we were still miffed because we all fancied a cup of tea and had the means to make one, so were faced with the terrible moral dilemma of forgoing our cuppas or defying the law of the land by boiling a kettle on camping stoves. I am not at liberty to reveal whether we chose to flout the law or give in to fascism, but you may be able to guess.

All this nonsense didn't even begin to spoil our enjoyment and actually gave us a few laughs, especially as new branches of the family joined in with the barbecue picnic this year - my cousins Michael and Barry, who came along with some of their family, and more of the Maxim/Mead clans. And very welcome they were too.

To their credit, the newcomers got stuck into the crazy annual football match, which continues to get harder, year by year, for those of us who are techincally past it.

But we did at least prove that while football has not been the most inspiring thing over recent weeks, it is, nevertheless, still a beautiful game - and never more so when it's played with jumpers for goals.