September 30, 2010

Now with subtitles

I spent today developing a new skill, which is yet another that isn't going to earn me any money, but is nevertheless something worth doing - and has been an eye-opener into the bargain. Or rather an ear-opener.

One of the things that I have let myself in for by being the Vice-chair of a heritage society that is putting on a scary festival ( is I volunteered to be the captioner when The Hammerman musical, which is the centrepiece of the festival, is performed.

It's a big show in the big Great Western Hall at STEAM in Swindon, features an eight- or nine-piece orchestra, and because it is heavily subsidised by the Heritage Lottery Fund, needs to be accessible to all. So we are having an audio description (a kind of running commentary) for blind people, and captioning for the hard of hearing, with the latter being down to me. We originally expected to be hiring a signer to translate it into British Sign Language, but the captioning makes it accessible to more.

It simply involves subtitles that scroll on a screen that will be installed alongside the stage, and I get the job of writing them from the script and operating the machine, which mostly means pressing a button whenever there is a new line.

It sounds dead easy, but actually requires two full days of training to be able to do, plus a lot of preparation and practice. The people who are doing the training and providing the equipment are called Stagetext and usually caption for West End and other big professional shows, but we are being used as a bit of a pilot scheme for their idea of rolling the service out to amateur productions.

You could be excused for thinking this has limited use, but when you understand the nature of deafness - especially in older people - you get a bit of an education. Until last week, I thought that people who used hearing aids mainly just heard things quieter than those of us who are lucky to be able to hear pins drop.

But it turns out that most hearing problems are not about the volume being turned down, but rather the inability to hear higher frequencies. So it doesn't matter how much you amplify the sound, because it will still be muffled. When hard-of-hearing people read subtitles, though, something magic happens - as we discovered with a simulation of what they are hearing.

If you watch subtitles over a TV programme with the sound turned down, you can still follow it, but the only voice you hear is your own, inside your head. On the other hand, if you watch subtitles over muffled words, when the brain reads the words, it fills in the gaps in the sound, so you start to think you can actually make out the words of the speaker clearly. This is obviously much better because it is like actually hearing the words; not just reading them.

The Stagetext people call this The Pickwick Effect. Sadly, this is because the example of simulated muffled speech they often use is somebody reading from The Pickwick Papers, and not the reason I thought - that most of the words are so muffled, they sound like 'pickwick'.

Anyway, the morals of this story, as I see it, are: there is no end to the wonders of the human brain; nor the useless skills I possess; and especially not the useless knowledge that lives inside my brain.

September 24, 2010

Design brief

Today I achieved an ambition - although it was one of those ambitions I never knew I had until I fulfilled it.

I have designed a beer label.

I usually try to stay clear of designing anything, unless it is for myself, because it has always brought me more grief than pleasure before, and also because my colourblindness means I don't design with any confidence. The only thing I am really comfortable with is newspaper pages.

This is mainly on account of the fact that nobody - quite literally - has ever told me how any newspaper page I've ever designed could have been improved. I'm not saying there was never any room for improvement, but everybody I've worked with has either told me how pleased they were with the result or else let it go.

This is partly because everybody in the newspaper industry understands that things have to be done quickly, and once they're done, they're done. There is no point in tinkering and tampering or having a meeting about it when the press is waiting, and this is probably the most satisfying thing about the industry. That's not to say there is not an art or a skill to it, but probably the greatest art and skill is in taking decisions, seeing them through and - like all good artists - knowing when to take a step back and say it's finished.

The problem with designing anything else is that the people who ask you to design it are usually the kind of people who, if faced with a blank canvas themselves, wouldn't have the first clue about where to start. Yet as soon as you come up with your design, they suddenly become experts and can see a thousand ways to improve it.

These always break the most fundamental golden rules of design and go against the original concept so radically that it's akin to coming up with a design for shepherd's pie to which they think it is a good idea to add ice cream.

Again, I'm not saying any design I've ever done has been perfect (although sometimes you just know from experience that you're pretty damned close), but the people who are most keen to tamper are usually the ones who have never designed anything from scratch in their lives.

As you can tell, I have become quite bitter and twisted about this over the years, but the beer label project has been a big consolation - and it came hot on the heels of another pleasing little project.

Almost inevitably, the label is connected with the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, which has decided to produce a special commemorative beer for our festival in November. We are getting The Old Forge Brewery at the Radnor Arms, Coleshill, to do it for us because they offered a very competitive price and it's appropriate because Alfred wrote about Coleshill in one of his books (Round About the Upper Thames).

I came up with the idea of commissioning a special beer in a committee meeting, and I'm also pretty sure I came up with its name too, although this is disputed. I was actually quite torn about calling it 'Hammered', because it seemed a bit irreverent, but as Alfred was a hammerman in Swindon Railway Works and was known as 'The Hammerman Poet' in his day, and it is being bottled by the Old Forge Brewery, and all their other beers have names derived from metalworking, and - let's face it - it's a great name for a beer, it would have been silly to call it anything else.

In the end, I found a great quote from one of Alfred's books (A Wiltshire Village, which is about South Marston), which seemed to justify the whole project, so that's on the label. As a former member of CAMRA (in the old days when it was still a pressure group) and as somebody who considers himself a connoisseur of real ale, the whole thing has a nice synchronicity about it, and is something I never thought I would ever get to do.

There will be a limited edition of 500 bottles of Hammered, which will go on sale at the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival in November.

Last weekend I also completed a little design project for John Cullimore, who, as well as being the chair of our society, is a consultant surgeon and a singer-songwriter. He has written a CD called The Hammerman - about guess who? - but has also published several others, including The Other Side of the Knife, which he is reissuing.

And he asked me to do the artwork for the reissue. The idea for the cover was only partly mine (having musical notation in the background), and, sadly, the beautiful photo inside wasn't by me either. But I put the whole thing together for the box and the CD label, and my name is on it.

I'll probably never get to do either a CD or a beer label again, and I'm still quite keen never to design anything professionally again, but these were not only quite satisfying but - if I say so myself - pretty cool things to have on your CV.

September 23, 2010

From the horse's mouth

Alfred Williams seems to have taken over my life at the moment, which can be a bit of a worry as I am the Vice-chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, and large bits of the organisation of the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival (on November 12/13) is down to me.

It was inevitable that this would bring periods when I was worried that only one man and his dog will turn up for the festival, but we've had a few boosts this week and the signs are that we are getting a bit of a bandwagon rolling. And then I have a day like I had today when it even starts to feel like a privilege.

I visited an old lady called Betty Reynolds who actually knew Alfred Williams when she was a young girl, and could even remember the day he died. She's now 89, although her mind and her memory are so clear, it's like she is 29.

She was only at junior school in South Marston when she knew him, but confirmed several things about his character and gave some fascinating insights, which I will shortly be writing up. For example, he was renowned for being quite aloof and shy, but was also an intensely proud man who suffered from a total inability to accept anything from anybody if it could be construed as being charity. This was so extreme that he and his devoted wife Mary might have starved to death if he hadn't prematurely died of a heart attack and she became terminally ill with cancer.

In fact, Betty said there was a rumour in the village that Alfred committed suicide. He knew his wife was dying - she died six weeks after him - and if you like to believe in conspiracy theories, it is possible to see the timing of his 'heart attack' as convenient. Although I don't generally believe conspiracy theories, it is easy to add two and two together and see suicide as a possibility.

Whatever really happened, Betty's memories complete the tragic story of the end of Alfred's life and also underlined that you can read as many books as you like about an historical subject, but none of it is a substitute for hearing it from the horse's mouth.

I think I am pretty good at listening to old people talking about the old days - a gift that some people don't have - so as well as hearing about Alfred, I also spent a long time hearing about Betty's own life.

The most remarkable thing about that was, despite being 89, she was less concerned with the past than the present, and she was less concerned with the present than the future. She has a natural, genuine verve and vigour for the future, and was obvioiusly excited about the preparations she was making for her 90th birthday party, next April, which she is already getting excited about.


September 21, 2010

Window shopping

It's all very well having a fitness regime of long walks in the evening, but unless you live within spitting distance of Sydney Opera House (are you reading this, Steve Hall?) the scenery isn't very inspiring.

We have some wonderful countryside round these parts, but not literally on our doorstep and not worth driving to when it's dark, so the usual highlight of our walks is getting to look into other people's windows as we pound the streets. If they want to live their lives without curtains, what do they expect?

So we weren't expecting much tonight, despite trying a new route and a new road - Cheney Manor Road - but we did discover a curious shop window display. You don't expect to see a coffin in a window - not even in an undertaker's - but that's what Blackwell's had in theirs.

It's one of those eco-coffins that are supposed to be greener, somehow, than the traditional pine. I am tempted to report it is made of wicker, but I'm not sure if that is strictly accurate, and it doesn't really matter anyway.

Personally, I can't see that the material that coffins are made of makes much difference to the environment. After all, there is only ever one per person, which represents only the tiniest proportion of the total impact they have on the environment during their life. It hardly seems worth worrying about.

The bizarre thing about the one on show is I can't imagine any undertaker putting a traditional pine coffin in his window, but somehow or other, this one is acceptable - in terms of it being not quite as morbid.

On a related note, I have just started reading At Home, by Bill Bryson, which has the most amazing fact in the preface. He points out that the average parish church in an average English village often looks like it has sunk into the ground - like something heavy resting on a pillow, as he described it. You might think this is because the foundations have sunk, but it's actually because the ground has risen.

And why has it risen? Because the mass of the churchyard has been swelled by human remains.

If asked to estimate how many people are buried in a little churchyard, most would say maybe 200, based on the number of headstones. But if you take the average population of a village to be about 250, you can expect about a thousand adult deaths per century, plus, say, another thousand children, because of very high infant mortality rates in the past.

If you then multiply that by the number of centuries the church has been there - and eight is not unusual - there are not 200 people in the ground, but approaching 20,000. And that is why the ground is higher than when the church was built. But still no reason to consider a wicker coffin.

Another fact to consider is this: If Bill Bryson is capable of turning up gems like this in the preface, just imagine how good the rest of the book is going to be.

OK, so these are morbid things to think about when you're out walking, but at least it takes your mind off the torture of being on a diet and having to pass half-a-dozen chip shops, three or four pubs and more places selling takeaways than you could throw a Ryvita at.

September 20, 2010

Lost and found, but with nowhere to go

There has been a bit of a clear out of old photos in Julie's family, but I have intercepted a few of them, sending them into a kind of purgatory.

Julie's sister-in-law, Lynne, is the keeper of the family history, having done a fantastic job of getting it all under control - and she's not even related by blood to any of the people she has researched.

But not even Lynne can put names to all the pictures, and she recently had one last attempt at identifying a batch of them, by asking older relatives. The pictures here are the ones that were earmarked for the bin - either because nobody could say who they were or because they seemed to have no relevance to the family history.

Obviously, we can say who at least two of the people are, in the top picture, below, and the street scene, according to the inscription on the back, is the Tour de France. Beyond that, we don't have much clue, and not even about the Set-'Em-Alight Committee, who would have a tale or two to tell if they could.

I rescued them because they all have some interest, although quite what I am going to do with them now I've scanned them, I don't know. There really should be a website this type of thing - lost photos, stuck in limbo and waiting for somebody to give them a home.

September 18, 2010

The Good Life

This is a bit of a cliche, I know, but we - all four of us - got a little taste of The Good Life today with a visit to our friends Pete and Julie.

They moved to Worcestershire about a year ago, having chosen to buy a kind of smallholding and opt for a big lifestyle change. They've planted all kinds of fruit and vegetables, got themselves some chickens, looked after goats and even bought lambs to kill as food. Three of the original nine are still the right side of the mint sauce, but maybe because of the mysterious disappearance of their friends, they didn't trust the geyser with the camera who turned up in their field, trying to get close-ups, so ran about or stood near the hedge, looking sheepish.

Since our last visit there, nearly a year ago, Pete and Julie have put in a lot of hard work, and now have freezers and stores full of produce to show for it, even though a disastrous bout of tomato blight ruined some of their crops, literally overnight.

So we had a thoroughly enjoyable day checking out the Lucas Estate, came home with a bagful of produce like benefactors from the Harvest Festival, and were completely won over by their four chickens, as anybody would be - especially their tendency for following people around like dogs, apparently to be sociable, but seemingly in the expectation of getting food. They are all named after an older generation of Pete's relatives - Florrie, Maud, Eileen and Audrey - which is as perfect a set of names for chickens as it's possible to get.

The chickens are blissfully unaware of what an idyllic free-range life they are leading compared with their battery cousins - and, in a way, that's not unlike Pete and Julie's lifestyle, except they are obviously more aware of how lucky they are than the chickens. Their set-up would make any visitors jealous; even people like me who have only a very limited appetite for the things that grow in the dirt and are then cooked, such as butternut squash, cauliflower and marrow.

However, we were treated to a feast of bangers and mash, which is not only my number one favourite dinner, but was - bearing in mind that I was taking an evening off from my godalmighty diet - one of the most satisfying meals of the millennium so far.

One of the reasons for visiting them this weekend was their nearest Football League club is Walsall, who Town were playing today. So I went along (with Sean, Brian, James and Pete) to the funny, tinny but cosy little Banks's Stadium for my first match of the season.

Town played some nice football in the first half, but only went in 1-0 up, then missed a sitter in the second half, so it was no surprise when Walsall, who had never really looked like scoring, equalised. Then they hit the post and had a big appeal for a penalty turned down in the space of two seconds, before Town went down the other end of the field and scored the winner, right in front of us.

September 17, 2010

Game on

I have now officially applied to be a volunteer at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics - a job they are calling a gamesmaker.

There are plenty of reasons not to be a gamesmaker - not getting paid; having to do a minimum of 10 full days; having to wear a uniform (and probably a baseball cap); having to go for an interview; having to find and pay for your own accommodation, and pay for your travel; potentially missing out on events you have tickets for, if they clash with your shift; and getting no priority when it comes to the dishing out of tickets.

There are only three benefits, as far as I can tell. You get your meals free; you get to keep your uniform as a souvenir... oh, and you also get to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the greatest show on earth.

Apparently, you have a one in ten chance of being selected, even though there are 70,000 jobs going - so it's fingers crossed until we find out, sometime next year. But just watching the promotional video featuring the great Eddie Izzard is getting me all excited.

September 11-14, 2010

Labours of love

Not much of the following has done anything to improve my bank balance, but the last few days have been really busy. In fact, they've been so full that even updating a little blog has only been made possible by resorting to a botched batch update like this, spanning a few days.

I spent most of Saturday's daylight hours at Coleshill Food Festival, which is not really the first place you think of heading to when you are on the mother of all diets. And I spent it next to the tearooms, where I had to endure the sight of other people - but never me - eating huge slices of cake.

I was there with my fellow geeks (as Holly calls us) from the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, where we were leaping on anybody who showed interest in our little stand. When we did this before, at the Children's Fete in Swindon, it was hard to engage people, but there must have been something in the food at this event because lots of people were interested in Alfred, including several from his home village, South Marston, who were pleased that somebody was doing something to promote their famous son.

But if I felt bouyed up by their reaction, hours spent working on ways of getting schools involved in promoting Alfred's memory has had the opposite effect. The plan is to get schoolchildren interested in him as a local hero because we really feel his life and work can teach them about a lot of things. It's the main reason why we thought it was worth getting all geeky and forming a society in the first place - or, at least, it was why I thought it was worth the effort of sticking our necks out and going for the Lottery grant we were given. I was prepared - and was even looking forward to - talking to kids in school assemblies or something, when I should be looking for a proper job.

But it sometimes seems that the word 'education' brings out the worst in people, and rather than being able to just do it and let my geeky enthusiasm loose on youthful enthusiasm and see where it takes us, the clouds of red tape and doing-it-by-the-book and ticking boxes are gathering. And that's one thing that is guaranteed to darken my blue skies.

The older I get, the more my experience tells me the only way forward is to adopt a "Let's do it anyway" mentality, which would be great if, every time I wanted to just do it anyway, it wasn't mistaken for "Let's do it any old way". The worst of it is I have literally never actually done anything any old way in my life. I can't.

At least it works with drumming, which I can say without any false modesty is an activity I was not put on this earth to do, but I do it anyway. So it can be really satisfying, even though I am not the best drummer in the world; nor, indeed, anywhere near the best drummer in the house.

After all day at the food festival on Saturday, it was asking a lot to then thrust myself into the spotlight, even if the venue was the relatively modest Chiseldon British Legion. The surprisingly sparse audience didn't help with the fact that I was having one of those nights when, despite not dropping any real clangers, I was struggling to get into any kind of groove - literally and figuratively. So the satisfaction I got was not from doing it but getting through it.

Just as challenging is combining my sodding diet (which is how it will be referred to, until further notice) with lots of healthy but tiring walking. On some days it is just not possible to fit a walk in, but on the days that I/we do, at least an hour of brisk walking has become the norm, and sometimes more. A sure sign that it is doing you good - which reminded me of my long-distance running days - is you feel inclined to increase the pace as you get nearer home. Most importantly, it is actually making me look forward to getting back to running, which should happen sometime around Christmas.

The only real respite from all this self-inflicted, virtually unpaid pressure was an invitation to Julie's Auntie Jean's for her 85th birthday tea, which was heart-warming enough to get me through the tradtional temptation of heaps of sausage rolls and all the cakes you can eat that is the hallmark of any visit there.

September 6, 2010

Oh L

News just in: Sean took his driving test today and... roll of the drums... failed.

Not only did he come extremely close to passing, but managed to fail in the most infuriating way possible - with just one major fault and not even in driving, but parking, which wasn't even in the test when I took it.

Maybe now he'll understand that perfect drivers like us just don't touch the kerb with our back wheels. Ever.

September 4, 2010

Alex and Amelie

Another thoroughly enjoyable wedding today, keeping up the tradition of family weddings with individual themes that we have enjoyed in recent years.

This one was the marquee-in-the-parents'-garden variety, Julie's nephew Alex marrying Amelie at the magnificent 16th century Shaw House register office in Newbury. And whereas one of our weddings last year was Anglo-German, this one was Anglo-French as Amelie's mother is French.

People often go to weddings and say the couple are well matched, but that has never been more true than with Alex and Amelie. Not only are they both laid back, intelligent young people who don't stand on ceremony and don't take themselves too seriously, but they even look like each other. And they got the lovely informal wedding they wanted.

I would say that Alex's mum Lynne (who was helped by a few willing ladies) produced a miracle of catering and organisation, but anybody who knows her will realise that it was no miracle at all, but rather something that we all knew she would pull off without a single hitch or a detail overlooked.

I had no option but to suspend my crash diet for one day because I may have developed an iron will, but I'm not made of stone. However, I did somehow manage to resist the temptation of the impressive stack of chocolate brownies that replaced the traditional cake, which I think deserves some kind of medal.

There are more photos here.