November 25, 2010

Lion's share

Thanks to some impeccable and lucky timing, I got to see The Lion King tonight, at the Lyceum in London, which obviously made for a throroughly enjoyable evening - though not just because of the musical.

Along with Caroline (secretary of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society) I was a guest of Stagetext, the company who provided the equipment and the know-how for us to provide captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing during performances of The Hammerman in the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival. I also bought an extra ticket so that Julie - being one of our busiest volunteers - could come along too.

I did the captioning for our show and Caroline organised it, and as we were helping out with a pilot scheme to make Stagetext's services available to community and amateur groups as well as professionals, we got to go to their 10th anniversary bash, which was a reception at the theatre and then tickets for the show.

Not for the first time during my involvement with our festival, it provided us with an insight into the lives of some interesting - not to mention friendly - people, including fellow guests and the bosses and founders of Stagetext. Theirs is a real success story of deaf people creating a workable system which has now been accepted by major theatres, which now routinely have captioning provided at certain performances of major productions.

Before captioning, some deaf people would send away for the script, in advance of the show, as that was the only way it was possible to follow what was happening on stage - which really does seem to destroy half of the fun of a live performance and the beauty of the unexpected.

Many of the Stagetext people are deaf or hard of hearing themselves, and, like other deaf people I have met before, seemed quite militant about accessibility - but in a positive way. I really admire them for standing up for their right to be able to enjoy theatre like the rest of us, and for taking the situation into their own hands and forcing change.

They really deserve their success, and we were quite proud of our tiny part in it, which proved that it is perfectly possible for community and amateur productions (albeit that ours was very ambitious) to provide for the deaf and hard of hearing.

As for The Lion King - it is difficult not to like the show, even though it suffers so badly in two departments that, if it were any other show, it would be a disaster. Firstly, as anybody who has seen the cartoon will know, the storyline is unique in its weakness, and - even more serious for a musical - it has few or no memorable tunes, and certainly none that you are humming on the way home.

But all that can be excused because it is one of the most colourful - and possibly the most colourful - in the world, and because when it builds up into the big African numbers it looks and sounds a huge spectacle with stunning costumes. What I liked best about it was the way it wasn't afraid to be abstract - the best example of which is about 30 dancers wearing trays of grass on their heads to signify the African plains.

The Lyceum is close to Covent Garden, so we got to walk back through there to the tube afterwards, and they have installed a giant illuminated reindeer for Christmas.

The older I get, the more attracted I am becoming by London, which I previously mostly found depressing, and if I had the money, I would certainly make a point of going there more regularly, especially to see more shows.

November 21, 2010

Alex and Amelie's wedding

Finally got round to uploading the pictures from Alex and Amelie's wedding.

November 14-20, 2010

People power

I hate to hark back to the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival, which took over my life for a while and has now gone (get over it, I hear you cry), but in the last week I have been reflecting on all the interesting new people the project brought me into contact with over the last few months, with almost all of them sharing a common attribute: they're just plain nice.

They include people like Chris Park (see below) and many others, but during the past week I've spent time with three people in particular who seem to epitomise what it's all about. They underline the fact that everybody is different, everybody lives a fascinating life and everybody has challenges to overcome. And, although life seems to highlight the bad people, our species is, basically, overwhelming good.

I have even been wondering, just lately, about the phenomenon of 'There's always one', and I'm starting to think that the awkward devils are necessary to make us appreciate the rest, and may even have been planted here for that reason. I digress...

Of the trio of people I am thinking of, two may require a bit of anonymity, but one, John Forster, doesn't. A year ago I had never met him, but a mutual interest in the Alfred Williams story cast us together and throughout 2010 John has been helping us prepare for the festival, including by accosting innocent strangers in the hope of inspiring them with Alfred's story.

Most importantly, though, he has generated an infectious enthusiasm and fascination for everything he sees, hears or reads that can only be described as childlike. I don't mean that as any kind of insult, but rather the highest compliment. He has a passion and wonder for everything that moves, just like a child has, which is remarkable as he is 73 years old.

Only today, we spoke on the phone about a little project I am going to help him with at his local junior school, where he is a governor. "I've promised the children it will end with them producing a podcast," he said, "even though I don't have any idea what a podcast is."

And this despite having lived a full life that involved having his childhood home bombed in the war, becoming a martial arts expert - and probably loads of other untold stories. His wife is interesting too, being a triplet and once having played Virginia Wade (on an outer court) at Wimbledon. I really hope I'm still interested in finding out new things when I'm John's age.

Also recently, I got to meet a blind lady called Lisa who, by a strange trick of fate, is the first blind person I've ever had a conversation with. She was one of the cast of The Hammerman musical that was part of the AW festival, and despite attending a lot of the rehearsals, I was too busy to get to know her until the post-show Chinese meal.

Lisa is an artetypal I'm-not-going-to-let-my-disability-get-in-the-way-of-my-life sort of person, but rather than pandering to the idea that we must call people who are blind "visually impaired" she broke the ice by referring to herself as blind and was perfectly happy to indulge our natural interest in what life is like for her. Why shouldn't we be interested? Because nobody was pretending she didn't have a disability, we could soon move on and talk about the other things that defined her, of which there were many, obviously.

I was able, in fact, to find out something that's pretty interesting if you are colourblind, like me. Lisa can't see objects but can make out colours, and by looking very closely was able to see that Julie, who was sitting next to her, was wearing an orange jumper. I could guess at the colour but not confirm it and pointed out that even though she is blind, Lisa he can see things that I've never seen, such as purple.

The third of my interesting new friends is actually an old acquaintance who has reappeared, thanks to us attending, by chance, the same recent event. We eventually got round to meeting up for a lunchtime chat this week, and I found out why we hadn't bumped into each other before.

In the dozen years since I last saw him, M has spent six years in South America and come home with a new Peruvian wife, has become a poet in his spare time and - something that I think deserves a huge amount of respect - overcome alcoholism. At one stage this seems to have been very serious, yet if you were to meet him now, you would be impressed by what an interesting and interested person he is, and just a nice person to know.

Talking to him, it made me think what a tightrope we all walk, because, as we talked, we realised we had so much in common. The only real difference was he had been "good at drinking" from an early age and slowly allowed it to be a comfort from the pressures of life. I, despite being a great lover of real ale and even somebody who considers himself a connoisseur, have never been able to drink beer in anything but girls' quantities, so have never been in the same danger as him.

One thing he said really struck home - that people try to measure their success in life solely according to their work. He said it was one of the mistakes he had made, but had now realised that there were plenty of other things that were a better measure of people's qualities.

Enough philosophising. I hope none of the above sounds too patronising, but in a year that hasn't provided much material success, it is great to be ending it on a positive note, having connected with so many wise and interesting new people.

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.