October 28-November 13, 2010

Coming up for air

Phew. That's a relief.

This blog has been sadly neglected over the last two or three weeks but can now resume - now that I have got one of the biggest projects of my life out of the way.

The Alfred Williams Heritage Festival turned out to be a huge task, and it was lucky - sort of - that the bottom dropped out of the freelance sub-editing market in the weeks leading up to it, because otherwise I would never have had time to do all I had to do.

The preparation involved writing, editing and arranging to have printed both the programme for The Hammerman musical and one for the Local Heritage Festival - the two main parts of the festival.

The Local History Fair was my baby, and at one time it threatened to self-destruct over an issue involving public liability insurance, but eventually came together very nicely. I persuaded more than 20 local history groups to come along and have a stand, and the event was very well received.

As for The Hammerman: I wasn't supposed to be much involved with that, apart from generating the publcity (which was a big job in itself), but somehow got dragged into operating the captioning (sub-titling) which made the performance as accessible as we had promised the Heritage Lottery Fund it would be. They were paying for the whole festival and sent along a lady to check we had spent our money wisely. From her arrival, just before a special afternoon event we put on for schools, until she left the following day, she seemed to be impressed with everything.

We also provided comprehensive facilities for blind people to enjoy the show too, and we were undoubtedly the most accessible show in Swindon this year. In fact, we even went beyond that because captioning was a benefit for everybody with hearing problems, such as the elderly, not just severely or profoundly deaf people.

To cut a long story short, The Hammerman ran like a dream and was extremely well received, and the captioning went smoothly too, which was no mean feat as even with two full days of training, it required a lot of hard work and a lot of nerve to do it properly.

By midnight on Saturday, when it was all over (save for a day of van deliveries on Monday), I felt as physically and mentally exhausted as at any other time in my life, but quite proud to have highlighted the story of a forgotten hero and pulled off an ambitious festival. Considering none of the three founders of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society - me, John Cullimore (who composed The Hammerman) and Caroline Ockwell - really had much idea how to organise a festival when we first started, we did a pretty good job.

Personally, I felt quite proud to see things that I have designed, such as the beer label and the main logo for The Hammerman, which was up on a big screen, become reality.

In the lead-up to the event I also found time to spend a day at Alfred's old school at South Marston and help them produce a newspaper; appear live on Swindon 105.5; write various promotional features for the Advertiser; plus 1,001 other things that are needed to put on a festival, and which visitors to it have no idea of the extent of.

In the end, things went so smoothly that even unspiritual people like started to wonder about divine intervention, especially as Paul Bradley, the actor who eventually played Alfred in the musical, appeared from nowhere to take up the gauntlet at a late stage, deliver a stunning performance and - most impressive of all - turned out to be the nicest guy you could ever wish to meet, despite his vast talent. It wouldn't really surprise me to discover he was an angel who had been sent on a mission to help out a bunch of geeks and prove their faith in the story of Alfred Williams to inspire was justified.

Not only are we chuffed to think that Alfred is, at last, getting some of the recognition he deserved - and a shame it has to be 80 years after he died - but the whole experience has been most remarkable, for me, for providing opportunities to meet and work with lots of people with special qualities but who also nearly all turned out to be genuinely nice people.

Now that it's all over, I can re-introduce myself to my family, especially Julie, who has become a bit of an Alfred Williams widow in the last month, and yet still turned up for some sheer graft to help make sure the festival went smoothly on Friday and Saturday.

To remember the event I have a first edition of one of Alfred's books, which was a surprise present from my co-conspirators, which I had to go up on stage to receive at the end of Saturday's show. It was one of the things that made all the stress and the hard work worth it in the end.

During my absence from blogging, a few things still went on that are worth recording, including some things that I somehow managed to squeeze into the schedule, which receive a hasty overview now....

Sean failed his second driving test on a very small error, which confirms what I've always felt, which is that the whole business is such a lottery they might as well sell tickets instead of run tests. Any disappointment he might have felt over that, however, pales into insignificance because his fledgling career as a drum/guitar teacher continues to expand with the addition of one or two little jobs and now a second regular drum student. He now even has a class of about 20 kids that he teaches guitar to at a junior school, and comes home having thoroughly enjoyed it. "They actually pay me to do this!" he says, which makes us feel that the encouragement we have given him to go down this career path rather than chase exam results is entirely justified.

Julie and I enjoyed an excellent production of Alan Bennett's two-plays-for-the-price-of-one spy production, Single Spies, at the Watermill, Newbury, our favourite theatre

Sean and I went along to see football history being made when Swindon Supermarine not only excelled themselves by playing their first ever first round proper match in the FA Cup, but actually won it - 2-1, at home to Eastwood Town. It was great to see the club punch so far above their weight and earn an away tie against Colchester United in the second round, but the non-League experience also reminded me of the old days of going to football, with the opportunity to stand anywhere in the ground, and watching players who were more interested in getting on and playing football than diving, play-acting and thinking up new methods of gamesmanship. The only blot on the proceedings was somehow deleting the photos from my camera, before I downloaded them.

I finished reading Michael Palin's second book of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood. This has been my bathroom book for months - which is the only way I've had time to read anything not Alfred Williams related. It covers the 1980s and is as charming and readable as the previous volume, this time giving an insight into the life of an ex-Python who was writing and acting in major films at the time. It also relates the story of his sister who committed suicide. Palin is such an intelligent, interesting and likeable man and has a lovely attitude to life that I can't wait to read the third volume when it comes out.

Our band had not one but two successful gigs - at the Bakers Arms, Upper Stratton and Stratton British Legion. Drumming has been neglected a bit, and I am looking forward to devoting more time to it in a bid to improve.

We enjoyed a memorable Bonfire Night, hosted by our friends Percy (Phil) and Liz. They have recently had a large rectangular extension built, which Percy calls their 'gospel hall', and it certainly provided us with the best fun we've ever had in a gospel hall, especially a hotly-contested game about throwing ping-pong balls into beer glasses (winning team pictured). The heavy rain failed to spoil the fireworks and with good food and good drinks - which is always guaranteed at Percy's - it made it a great night, espeically as I took a night off from my diet.

Talking of my diet, I'm still on it and still losing weight. I guess I must have lost two stones by now, but haven't weighed myself, so the new notch on my belt is providing the only real proof of progress, along with the clothes I have rediscovered in my wardrobe and which I can now fit into.

On the day after the festival I managed to get to a small remembrance ceremony at Radnor Street Cemetery, organised by Swindon World War I historian Mark Sutton. He was very helpful during our festival, and it was nice to support his event in turn. I used to live opposite the gates of the cemetery, and it was good to hear that Mark and a fellow historian/journalist, Frances Bevan, are thinking of forming an organisation to restore the cemetery chapel and some of the graves. Sounds like another historical project to get involved in.

October 25-27, 2010

The five seasons

I am still tied up with doing my bit for the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival. Actually, tied up is a bit of an understatement. Bound and gagged would be more accurate. It has now become so all-consuming that if I wake up in a cold sweat one night, having dreamed that I am Alfred Williams, I won't be surprised.

But it's nice to know that the rest of the family still have a life that isn't directly connected to somebody who has been dead for 80 years, including Holly who, along with a handful of Ranger friends, took herself off to a camp at Wroughton for two nights of frosty, rainy, bonfirey activities. Fortunately, the camp had a solid brick-built building with a fireplace that they could retreat to, but they did go through with their intention to sleep under canvas.

We realised, too late, that Holly didn't have the recommended three-season sleeping bag, only a two-season one, but she managed to borrow a three-season one and ended up putting her two season-one inside it, so actually ended up with a five-season sleeping bag in total (and possibly a six-season one, depending on whether sleeping bags should be added together or multiplied).

This was good news because we were getting really confused about what the difference was. If you think about it, there should be three types of sleeping bag - one, three and four seasons, but never two-season. They must all be suitable for the summer, some are suitable for anything, but the other type can only be for three seasons, not two, because surely spring and autumn temperatures are the same.

Rangers - in case you don't know - are girls who have stuck together after Girl Guides. Most of the appeal, as far as I can tell, is in organising things for themselves. I think all 16-year-old girls (but never boys) suffer from a growing tendency to organise things, and Holly certainly likes to be organised, so their activities also include helping out with the Brownies.

I'm not sure where the outdoor pursuits fit into the grand scheme. I would never have had Holly down as a candidate for wanting to do them, but with the Rangers and her Duke of Edinburgh activities, she now seems to take it all in her stride. Whether camping is part of the fun for her or a necessary evil that allows her to do all the other, possibly more enjoyable things with her friends, I wouldn't like to say.

October 21, 2010

Less engines, more penguins

One good thing about being consumed by the task of helping to organise the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival is this sort of thing inevitably brings you into contact with interesting people, and sometimes people who are so interesting that 'interesting' doesn't begin to do them justice.

One such person is Chris Park, who lives a wonderful life in a corner of a farm at Watchfield, a stone's throw from a wind farm.

I had the privilege of visiting Chris today - the first person I've met who has built their own home, echoing what Alfred Williams did - although he built his out of stone.

He is such a person of such generous spirit that I not only got to go inside his amazing home, but was allowed to photograph it (some of which are a bit blurry but worth including below). He even gave me and my fellow visitor, John Forster (a fellow Alfred Williams fan, who is the older chap in the pictures) a bottle of homemade elderberry wine each, to bring home.

Chris makes his living through his business Acorn Education, which involves all kinds of things to do with ancient crafts. He visits schools and holds classes in a roundhouse that is a replica of an Iron Age one (except it has a canvas roof instead of thatch, for financial reasons). However, he does have a smaller, proper replica roundhouse that is used for meetings and which he used to live in. He sometimes constructs these for clients, having recently built one in Cheshire.

His current home is a kind of modernised roundhouse - more waterproof and surprisingly warm and welcoming inside.

As if all this wasn't interesting enough, he keeps bees in modern hives, but is also experimenting with ancient methods - from before bee hives were even called bee hives. They are called skeps and there are basically three types - one made of straw, woven into a kind of basket; another that is like a miniature roundhouse, only more cone-shaped; and one that he is going to carve from a tree trunk.

He also showed me his experimental chicken coops, made out of only natural materials, and two bread ovens, made out of mud and sand.

For me, though, possibly the highlight of a fantastic morning was getting to have a go on a lathe. This is a first as I've never used any kind of lathe before, and - even better - it was a traditonal pole lathe, powered by a treadle, with a hazel branch acting as the spring. It was surprisingly efficient and easy to pick up, and I could easily have stayed there all day to complete the table leg I was 'helping' with.

Chris is probably the kind of person most people would call a hippy, and maybe even mean it to be derogatory, but considering he is one of the most warm-hearted, intelligent and practical people you could ever wish to meet, I have nothing but admiration for him. Some would call his lifestyle simple, but five minutes with him is more than enough to convince you that it is actually incredibly rich and insightful. There were a couple of volunteers there, too, helping him, and they also turned out to be interesting characters.

The only machines he uses, as far as I am aware, are a van and a mobile phone, which are necessary for him to run his business, but otherwise he uses hand tools and other simple solutions to everyday needs. He gave us tea with goat's milk and homemade honey, and pictured below are the dirty cups that he later boiled up on the fire inside the roundhouse classroom/workshop - obviously his version of a dishwasher.

All this isn't done to try to prove any points or maybe try to get us to go back to ancient methods, because he isn't under any illusions. But the crafts he practises are practical, and he clearly feels enriched by putting his many skills to use. People are quick to call any mildly pleasurable thing 'therapeutic' these days, but anybody who gets to work Chris's pole lathe would probably say it literally is therapeutic, and they would certainly understand a lot about his philosophy just by doing that.

Who knows? His experiments in bee keeping might end up being of immense value, one day, in view of the problems that bee keepers are currently having.

Chris told me that his daughter's definition of his philosophy is: 'Less engines, more penguins,' which is a far better way of summing up his lifestyle than I can think of.

I am tempted to call it an alternative lifestyle, but it is based on skills and ideas that are so ancient, natural, practical and proven that anybody would come away from a visit to Chris's kingdom wondering if it isn't we who are living the alternative.

October 19, 2010

A new Carter

It's always a good day when a new Carter arrives in the world, and today was one of those days, thanks to the birth of my nephew Richard's (and Carla's, of course) first child, Isabel.

No need for me to say any more (except congratulations) as there is a beautiful, touching account on Richard's blog and the promise of more to come on there.

Just two footnotes: my brother Brian, the keeper of the family history, has already checked to see whether there have been any other Isabel Carters in the family tree, and the answer is no. In fact, there were no Isabel Anythings in the family - until today.

It is also worth marking the fact that this is the first Facebook birth I've experienced, the site efficiently keeping us up to date with what was going on during the 30-hours-plus labour... and all quite painlessly.

October 18, 2010

A good job

Holly's determination to get a Saturday job, which included attending a recruiting evening on her birthday (see below), has paid off.

She has been offered some work from now until Christmas (and probably beyond - who knows?) at a computer games shop, and starts on Saturday.

So well done Holly.

We now have two kids in the house bringing in money, and if I can only get back to regular employment, we're laughing.

October 16, 2010

Guitar heroes

I still only seem to get time to make flying visits to this blog these days, but have to mention tonight's visit to the King and Queen at Longcot, to see a guitarist who came highly recommended, but whom I'd never heard of before.

So Juile and I weren't quite sure what to expect. In the end, though, Matt Marriott turned out to be just my cup of tea, because he is not only a talented guitarist with an unusual style, but some of his tunes sounded a lot like songs by my musical hero, Al Stewart.

The YouTube video, below, is an example of the kind of stuff Matt does, which is not only great to listen to, but fascinating to watch.

He was also joined, in the second half of the show, by a bass player called Dave Tryner, who looked for all the world like one of those guys who hangs around bands a lot, but can't actually play anything. In fact, he was the genuine article and more, being not only a cool bass player but apparently multi-talented. At one stage the two of them did a duet on the same guitar - Matt playing while Dave stood behind him, reached over his shoulder and played the bass notes.

The only disappointing thing about the evening was that when I asked Matt if he ever plays any Al Stewart, he knew nothing about him, which is surprising because they are clearly kindred spirits. One of Matt's tunes was a kind of tribute to Django Reinhart, and Al wrote one too.

October 14, 2010

Sweet sixteen

Holly reached 16 today - and immediately got a taste of the realities of growing up.

One of the main reasons she has been looking forward to her birthday is she can now get a job, and has already pre-empted this by distributing her CV to shops, hoping for a Saturday job, and even looking into such things as posting leaflets.

Ironically, she got a call from a computer games shop to say they were having a recruitment evening tonight, for Christmas staff. So she spent half of the evening of her birthday attending that, only to find that the current economic climate is such that jobs like that are no longer the preserve of young people, and she is in competition with about 50 people - all of them significantly older than her and including one woman of about 50.

Worse still - she had to go on her own as none of her friends are 16 until later in the school year. But they are looking for 14 people, so she might just get lucky. She said most of the other people seemed to be hardcore computer games nerds, so the shop may feel they will need some people better suited to talking to mothers and grandmothers who are looking for Christmas presents and don't want to be bamboozled.

Otherwise her birthday was a roaring success. We gave her some money and bought her a pair of boots* and as she is at the age when presents often come in hard cash, her bank balance has swelled by over £200.

This helped to alleviate the pain of having to pose for the official birthday picture before going to school in the morning.

*Please note that if anybody reading this intends to buy me a present, footwear is the last thing I would consider a treat.

October 13, 2010

More Alfred and more good news for Sean

Another ten days slip by without an update to this blog.

Anybody would think I am grossly overworked, rather than being effectively unemployed, but I will probably look back on 2010 as a kind of 'gap year' where more and more of my time was taken up with helping to organise the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival which is at least helping me decide where my future lies.

To be more accurate, Alfred - who most of Swindon still hasn't heard of - has now virtually taken over my life or, as Holly puts it: "If he was still alive today, he would be your boyfriend."

There are countless things for a founder and Vice-chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society to do, including reporting on one of Alfred's poems being knitted - yes, you read that right - which made page three of the Swindon Advertiser and made me quite chuffed. This was not because they used my story (nothing new in that) but because they used my picture - large.

All this is not helping our bank balance (rather the opposite), but I am learning some valuable lessons, of which one of the most useful is how much goes into organising an event, especially if you are trying to juggle the upkeep of the official website at the same time. I promise I will never moan about anybody's attempts to organise anything again, with the possible exception of Swindon Borough Council.

However, I am learning new skills, meeting new people and... well, looking forward to laying down in a darkened room, come November 14.

So that's what has been taking up most of my time in the last week or more, while the rest of the family continue with their lives and try to ignore the geek in their midst.

Sean's gradual arrival in the world of the employed is quickening pace, and he took another big step today when he became an approved teacher with the Swindon Music Service, which is no mean feat at his age (18). He had to pass an interview which included a demonstration of his guitar playing and drumming - all of which he approached apparently fearlessly.

He has been getting valuable experience of teaching - both one-to-one and as a kind of mentor for school rock bands, and all this is steadily increasing. He is also working towards his diploma in drum performance, which he will sit in early December. More will be revealed to the worldwide web soon, when we finish creating his website.

He's also still busy with his band, The Cold Harbour (see their Myspace page but please note it is unsuitable for pregnant women and people of a nervous disposition). Tonight they are gigging in Newport.

All these things now make the likelihood of him carving out a full-time (and enjoyable) career out of music a strong probability, which makes us proud. However, the credit goes to Sean for his talent, determination and hard work, and also to our drum teacher, Paul Ashman who, as well as being a great teacher, has helped in countless other ways.

On a similar subject, we are hoping to another arts student, because a long-term aim of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society is to create a bursary or scholarship to help a student to study - hopefully an underprivileged one. The key thing about Alfred Williams is he was poor but had a thirst for education and had to teach himself, so a bursary would be very fitting, and in the week when the government shamelessly lifted the cap on university fees, it suddenly becomes very relevant and necessary.

That's enough. Back to more Alfred Willams duties...

October 3, 2010

A dog's life

As if to underline the fact that you can't win when you have teenagers in the house, I have received a complaint from Holly that I have not been updating this blog often enough.

This is the same Holly who periodically moans that pictures of her appear on here, and also the same Holly who is still giving my ears a bashing for volunteering her to appear in the Swindon Advertiser in a recent feature about diabetes.

It's not as if I haven't been up to interesting things, but the forthcoming Alfred Williams Heritage Festival is taking up so much of my time that I don't have much time to write about the other things I am up to.

The most unusual thing that I have been involved in happened today and was something that I never envisaged doing: judging a dog show. It was at Janet's Puppy Skool, where they were having an open day and raising money for charity. I was asked to do it because I sub-edit The Animal Advertiser, a quarterly supplement for pet owners that goes free in the Swindon Advertiser. And as you don't often get asked to do something completely new, why not?

Not only have I never judged a dog show before, but I've never even been to a dog show before - and, in fact, never owned a dog, either (being from a family of cat owners). So I didn't feel very well qualified. Luckily, it wasn't intended to rival Crufts, but was a fun event with not-to-serious competitions.

I was one of three judges, and had first choice of category, rashly deciding to take Best Trick rather than Waggiest Tail or Best Dog To Take To a Pub Garden (effectively the best behaved). I say 'rashly' because I hadn't bargained for the fact that I didn't know which of the tricks was hardest to perform, so my winner was a golden retriever that could dance on its hind legs - because I guessed it was the hardest, and the dog also looked like the most eager to please his owner.

I ended up feeling pretty jealous of all the dog owners because they all looked so comfortable and happy with their dogs (and vice versa). I also had to help out with adjudication of the Fastest Sit competition, in which the slowest dog to sit on command was elimated in each round. The last one left was a beautiful labrador who was always bound to win because I don't think I saw him take his adoring eyes off his owner for a second all afternoon, and did everything she said.

All this was a real endorsement of Janet's methods at her skool. I always say that you hardly ever get problems with dogs, only their owners, and all the owners who had enrolled for classes seemed to be getting their reward for taking the responsibility of ownership so seriously.

I've already been invited back next year, when I am planning to make a bid for a transfer to Waggiest Tail.