December 31, 2010

2011 under starter's orders

It seemed almost fated and wholly appropriate that I would end up sharing New Year's Eve with my three brothers (plus nephew Mark and his wife Maxine), and we consequently had a throroughly enjoyable and entertaining gathering round Maurice and Jacky's house.

The bizarre thing about Maurice and Jacky is they always seem to eat like kings, yet both have been on highly successful diets for the whole of 2010. So there was enough food to feed an army - still a wonderful and exciting sight for people like me who have been putting themselves through their own challenging diet. So a night off was not only deserved but made the most of.

Wii games and - still more fun than computer games - Escalado provided the entertainment, including photo finishes, until midnight when Mark set off the giant firework he had brought with him. Then, after we had wished each other a happy new year, what is obviously going to be a new trend revealed itself as quite a few people had lit and launched paper lanterns, which we watched float by. I had seen them in shops before but not actually seen any lit, so it was weird that so many people had decided, en masse and independently, that this is going to be the way to mark the new year in future.

So I'm off to see about buying a lantern factory and making my first million by this time next year.

That Leonard Cohen - he could go far

With almost the same enthusiasm with which I discovered that little known talent Stevie Wonder a few years ago, I have now discovered another musical genuis who, unless I am very much mistaken, has a great future and could be a major influence in popular music.

The fact that he is 76 years old and has been producing music for five decades shouldn't detract from my amazing ability to spot greatness when it is put in front of me.

Like Stevie Wonder, I've been aware of the existence of Leonard Cohen for years, but it was only very recently that I realised what I was missing. I was channel hopping late one night, about a month ago, and noticed there was a programme about his 2008/9 world tour, and although I only caught about four songs, thoroughly enjoyed them.

One of them was Hallelujah, a quasi-religious song that every Tom, Dick and Harry has recorded, including some who had no right to systematically destroy it (I was tempted to say 'crucify' then). But Cohen's live version has an uplifting quality which goes far beyond the assumed meaning of the lyrics (which some insist are more sexual than spiritual) and is sometimes only possible to achieve if you are the person who wrote the song - which he did.

The even more ironic thing about overlooking him all these years is the obvious connection with somebody I have appreciated for all my adult my life - Al Stewart. Cohen's The Partisan (see above) is so Al Stewart-like, it's more Al Stewart than Al Stewart. Not only that, but there are several direct links between The Partisan, which is about the French Resistance, and Al's trademark historical song, Roads To Moscow, which includes a reference to Russian partisans.

Cohen has a reputation for being dour and even depressing, which is understandable as his music is mostly what I would describe as thoughtful blues, but Songs From The Road, the CD/DVD I got for Christmas and which was the 'programme' I had caught the end of, actually turns out to be joyous.

They are live performances, taken from various concerts on a mammoth tour on which he was obviously enjoying performing the best songs from his career with the knowledge that what some people consider dour and depressing, other people find beautiful and sublime. One of the things I like about Cohen is he inspires tremendous enthusiasm and loyalty in his supporters, who are not fans in a sheep-like Take That sort of way, but true devotees in the best sense of the word.

To be honest, I'm sure his work can get a bit 'samey' and repetitive if you have too much of it, but Songs From The Road is exactly the right amount.

I'm trying desperately to like some of the new stuff that young people are turning out, but for every discovery of new things, I find there is still loads of old stuff that I haven't properly appreciated.

Delayed snow

I took these pictures of Liddington Hill in the snow before Christmas, but haven't been able to upload them as they were used on an exclusive Christmas card that a friend asked me to produce for another friend.

They can now be revealed as Christmas has gone, along with the snow, because I quite like them and because it would be a shame not to publish them when I got such cold hands taking them.

December 30, 2010

Christmas passed

No use pretending that wasn't the weirdest Christmas ever.

It's obviously been full of mixed emotions in our family, and the Christmas spirit I was trying to induce earlier in the month finally gave up and almost disappeared altogether - reluctantly for me as I've always thoroughly enjoyed Christmas and everything about it.

It was certainly the quietest Christmas on record too. The family gatherings were originally arranged for the week before and after the big day, while the few days either side of Christmas Day were comparatively free. In the event, we ended up getting together after all - twice - not to do what families normally do for Christmas, but to sort out funeral arrangements.

Even more ironically, these meetings turned out to be reminiscences of old times and old Christmases, which mixed up emotions even more. I therefore find myself anticipating the end of the new year and the arrival of the new one more than ever before.

World's ugliest Christmas decoration

As one of those people who cannot throw anything away, attaches undue emotional significance to inanimate objects and practically breathes tradition at Christmas, you can imagine that our box of old Christmas decorations is as big as it is tatty.

There are things in there of priceless sentimental value, such as the boot-shaped card thing that Sean made when he was at nursery. He was so young at the time, it was really created by the ladies at the nursery guiding his hand while he stamped round shapes, but it always hangs by the fireplace. Likewise the star that always tops the Christmas tree, which is another Sean creation.

There are several other things that come out every year and which we always like being reacquainted with, but amongst all these happy memories is a particularly ugly Father Christmas candle that has been hanging around for years. None of us could remember where it came from originally, and we came to the conclusion that the only reason we got it out this year was because it was there last year, and the same was probably true of last year and the year before.

That seems to be a definition of what tradition is, but when I think about it, I am actually strongly opposed to tradition for tradition's sake. Traditions are only valid if you can trace them back to a significant event in their history which, if recalled, provides a genuine positive reason for perpetuating them, not just the fact that we've always done it. Traditions that fail to pass this test include the royal family.

So the offending candle received a fate that is entirely appropriate for a candle but paradoxically the last thing we would ever think of doing with our other, more welcome candles in our box of Christmas stuff...

December 24-25, 2010

Merry Christmas after all

Nothing in the Book of Life teaches you how to handle Christmas when it comes three days after the death of your mother, and these last two days have - like the rest of the week - been overflowing with conflicting emotions.

After the family 'I suppose we'd better sort out the funeral arrangements' meeting the day before, we decided to do something that we wouldn't normally do on Christmas Eve and go down the pub at lunchtime and meet up with some of my close family.

One of those missing was my sister, who lives in Somerset, so it was nice to return home and discover she'd phoned in the meantime, and I phoned her back and had a long chat with her about the events of the last few days. Living away must have been difficult for her, especially when her last visit to see my mum, about three weeks ago, was forgotten within half an hour. We knew because we arrived half an hour later to be told: "I haven't seen Carol for ages."

We also received another welcome phone call - this time from the vet, who kindly called late in the afternoon with confirmation of Elvis's medical problems, having now received enough test results. The diagnosis is pancreatitis, which comes hand-in-hand with his bowel disorder and is good news simply because it isn't "something more sinister". Just as sad news has been slow at sinking in this week, so this good news was hard to take in. As I've said before, it's hard to explain how a skinny cat can have such a bearing on the whole family's mood, but it does - and just when you are starting to wonder whether you are in for a run of bad luck, this is just what we need. So the four of us settled down to the traditional family viewing of the The Muppet Christmas Carol with our emotions more mixed than ever.

And so on to Christmas Day - my 50th and the first one when there has been proper snow on the ground and I have been old enough to appreciate it (the overnight dusting of c1970 which looked like nothing more than heavy frost in the morning doesn't count). OK, so it was week-old snow, but who cares? I am officially declaring it a white Christmas.

We are now not just past the age where people are keen to know what time we were up on Christmas morning - which they would phone us to ask when the kids were younger - but both Sean and Holly had to be woken up, although they didn't need so much persuading once they were conscious.

Present-wise, I did remarkably well this year, considering it is my 50th Christmas, receiving various books, book tokens, Laurel and Hardy DVDs (I've always been a fan), a whisky tasting set, two shirts, a digital photo frame and much more, including a Leonard Cohen CD/DVD which will no doubt be the subject of a future blog post as I have recently 'discovered' the 76-year-old who has been producing work for five decades.

Julie's brother John joined us for Julie's fantastic Christmas dinner - enjoyed more than ever by me this year after three or four months of miserable dieting - and we also popped out to see her Auntie Jean and Uncle Fred, which was especially nice as Uncle Fred is unwell at the moment. The original plan had been to visit my mum in the afternoon - which brings us back, inevitably, to where this post needs to end.

The most poignant moment of the day was when Sean and Holly opened their 'present' from their Nan. It had become tradition for my brother Ron to arrange Christmas presents for all her grandchildren and, indeed, she was still aware of things enough, very close to the end, to express a wish that somebody did this for her, and it was arranged before she died.

So they all got £10 from her savings, which were duly passed on today. This merely silenced our kids at first, but in the evening Holly had a few tears over Nan in general and probably this final Christmas gift in particular.

December 22, 2010


You see - that's the trouble with blogs. They're great for marking all the interesting, happy and even inspiring things that happen to you, but you cannot avoid also marking the darker days - of which today, being the day that my mum died, was obviously one of the darkest.

It's a day I'll never forget - assuming, of course, that I am spared Alzheimer's myself - and it has been full of massive and sometimes completely opposite emotions. The general consensus in the family is that the news is obviously sad - but more sad than bad.

When somebody has been suffering with Alzheimer's for three to four years - it's impossible to say when it began - and you've watched their true self fade away, then a peaceful and ultimately swift death is not just the best you could hope for, but actually what we did hope for.

We (Julie and I) visited Mum on Sunday and there were some ominous signs that she was going down with some kind of chest infection, and in the back of our minds we knew that her general frailty, reduced mental capacity and not having had much to eat over the last six months would probably mean that she wouldn't have much to fight it with.

Sure enough, the doctor saw her on Monday and put her on antibiotics, and this morning we received the first alarm bell from the care home where she has been living for about 20 months, to say she was not responding to treatment and had suddenly become "very poorly".

Fate left it to me and my brother Brian to go up and meet the emergency doctor, but first we were shown into our mum's room, where she was already semi-conscious (at best), struggling to talk and unable to form words, obviously slipping. The doctor quickly and very matter-of-factly laid the cards on the table, said she had bronchial pheumonia and had perhaps a few days to live, and that if we wanted to increase her chances she could be admitted to hospital.

He calculated her slim survival chances would be raised by perhaps one per cent, and the price could be the severe trauma of a hospital admission. It was a scenario we had discussed months earlier, and combined with bad memories of her last admission, we always thought it seemed too cruel an option to sanction. We thought it then, and we thought it today. We also made another decision, which was to agree to something I hadn't even realised existed - a DNAR (do not actively resuscitate) notice, which instructs medical, care and emergency staff that a potential traumatic attempt at resuscitation should be ruled out in favour of a peaceful exit.

A complete absence of any religious/spiritual context to the whole thing - on my part and on Mum's part too, as she had never been religious herself - would, you might think, leave us short of comfort in such a situation. Actually I felt exactly the opposite, because we could all look objectively, soberly and logically at the situation and see things clearly. I dread to think how difficult the situation would have been if we had tried to guess what scripture or theology was telling us or - worst of all - been labouring under the influence of a preacher's or somebody else's interpretation of scripture or theology to 'guide' us.

It was one of the most stressful hours of my life, but I am sure that taking a 21st century approach to it gave us clear heads with which to face it and make the right decisions.

The fact of the matter is that Alzheimer's robs its sufferers of so many different things, and if the time hadn't already come for Mum to leave it behind, it certainly came today. Her mind had all but left anyway, particularly in the last month, for which there were two pointers.

Knitting was one of Mum's greatest skills, and during her illness, her ability to knit was surprisingly durable compared with her ability to do other, seemingly less complex tasks. But in the last month she had not only lost the ability to knit but couldn't properly recognise what a ball of wool was.

On a personal level, another milestone was passed during our visit of ten days ago as it showed that her link with the family - which was not so much the cornerstone of her life but her whole life for the last three decades - had withered away to almost nothing. At one stage during the conversation, she turned to me and said: "So how's your mum getting on these days?"

Brian and I left Mum's home at about 1.30pm and she died six hours later.

It's a shock, now that it's happened, because even as you watch somebody fade away to a dot compared with their former self, the moment when the dot disappears from view completely is still hard to take. It is a death that ticks all the boxes that people want to tick when they look at the circumstances: she did have a good innings, the end was mercifully quick, and it certainly was a relief to everybody - especially her - in a very literal sense.

I've long since come to terms with death having nothing to do with going to a better place, meeting your maker or, indeed, giving my mum a reunion with my dad, who died 33 years ago, and I'm comfortable with it being an ending; nothing more.

She will, of course, live on in our memories - which are too numerous for me to contemplate yet - but one thing that definitely did come to an end today was one person's suffering from Alzheimer's, which is why even a dark day like today can also be a blessing.

December 19, 2010

Elvis home shock

We don't want to tempt fate, but four people in our house probably got the Christmas present they really wanted today - and six days early.

We got a call from the vet who suggested we drop in and visit Elvis at cat hospital - and make an appointment to see him (the vet) at the same time. Elvis has been in for tests, fluids and general nursing for suspected liver problems for four days and, to be quite frank, we were wondering whether the vet was gearing up to give us some bad news.

So the three of us (me, Julie and Holly) turned up to see the patient with mixed emotions, and were shown through to the room where the cats are caged, to find Elvis - one of only two feline inmates - busy demolishing a plate of chicken. There was more good news in that his weight has gone up from 3.6kg to 4kg, which doesn't sound much, but that's nearly 10 per cent. He is also looking less jaundiced and generally brighter.

The vet came in with a few words of caution - he does have a significant liver problem and they still aren't sure about all the bad and potentially bad things going on - but thought it would be a good idea if we took Elvis home. This was completely unexpected, but the vet said there was no longer any need to keep him in, at least until they get more results from tests, and gave us a bag full of medication to give him. He also has to return for another injection tomorrow.

Poor Elvis looks really scraggly, having had various parts of his neck and legs shaved to provide sites to take blood samples. Or as Julie put it, "He looks a bit like a cartoon cat."

He could hardly believe it when we got him home, where his first thoughts were to check his plate for food, reintroduce himself to his basket and - an even better sign of returning to normal - try his old trick of licking the dirty cutlery in the dishwasher.

He's not out of the woods yet as he needs to keep responding to treatment; we get the idea life is going to be a bit of a struggle for him from now on; and he is never going to be an old cat - but he's hopefully home for Christmas.

December 18, 2010

Funny old day

The world seems determined to deliver us happy news and worries in alternating bursts, with our little cat, Elvis, now having gone miles beyond being anything like "just a cat" (as non-animal lovers would describe him) during his ongoing illness.

Although bright, eating again and with a normal temperature, we still keep getting news of complications from the vets who have had him since Wednesday and will have him for at least another couple of days. We had planned to visit him at cat hospital today, but felt that seeing us and expecting to be taken home would actually unsettle him, so we postponed it. The vet's location at the highest point in Swindon was also a factor on account of the snow.

It had arrived by morning, followed by a fresh covering during the afternoon, as forecast, and in-between we sneaked in a visit to Asda, when it was quiet, for shopping that combined the weekly shop with the dreaded last shop before Christmas, but also brought that unique pleasure of being out in the snow before other people.

Back at home came the news that our band's gig at the Square One singles club's Christmas dinner tonight - our biggest of the year - was a victim of the weather, and for somebody who usually loves to see snow and the transformation it has on everything, I have to admit that I am viewing it with a kind of foreboding today.

Later on, though, came some much more heartening news - that Katie, Julie's niece, has announced her engagement to Matthew, a lifelong friend who, in more recent times, has become more than a friend. That's them at the top of this entry in one of my favourite photos of the year, which I took at Katie's brother Alex's wedding in September.

Funny how things sometimes turn up as if you had ordered them as an antidote, and we look forward to another family wedding.

The interesting thing about the photo below is the (lady) driver of the front car coming up the hill is concentrating so much on not skidding on the snow that she forgets about giving way (or even looking right) at the roundabout until we are alongside her, thankful that we are also travelling gingerly enough to avoid her. What is it about snow that turns people into numpties?

December 17, 2010

Party manifesto

Christmas is about nothing if it isn't about families, and our family had a great gettogether tonight at a private party at Swindon Supermarine FC.

We are not necessarily the closest family in Britain, but we get on better than most, and it says something that tonight we managed to have the kind of turnout that most families would probably only see at weddings and funerals.

This was despite it being a bit of a logistical challenge getting everybody together - and, indeed, my sister wasn't able to come up from Somerset - but my three brothers were there, along with all their families, and there was also a smattering of cousins, which was really nice to see.

Our three great nieces were all present. Millie and Amber, in their party dresses, started off with more energy than all the adults put together but had to be carried out, asleep - an outcome that (surprisingly, given their usual ability to fall asleep in the evenings) befell none of the adults. And sleeping through approximately half of it was Isabel, who was trying to steal the show by being not merely cute, like the others, but also two months old.

I must be getting old because I found myself slipping into grandparent mode, which is all about enjoying the presence of the little ones but realising that I (we) would really struggle to find the energy to look after them if they were our responsibility. Oddly enough, it was the looking after them once they had run out of energy themselves that made me think this.

It was so nice to talk to some of the people we don't see so often that the time flew by and put us all in the Christmas spirit, which had got off to a stuttering start because of our cat Elvis's illness. But the news about him is better. The vet has ruled out some especially nasty things and scenarios and found that while he has a liver condition (to add to his long-term bowel troubles) this is usually successfully treated in cats and his condition is now officially "promising".

December 15, 2010

Best laid plans

With our 'gang' of lifelong friends - ten of us - we headed for a nice curry and then a concert by folk band St Agnes Fountain in Marlborough, which would usually have guaranteed a major dose of Christmas spirit, but somehow it didn't work out.

The curry, at a restaurant called The Raj, was disappointing in terms of cost and quality, and then the concert didn't seem to get going quite as much as it has when we've seen them in previous years.

It's probably because our minds were elsewhere as one of our cats, Elvis, had to spend the night in cat hospital.

Elvis has a long-term bowel problem which means he struggles to get enough nutrients out of his food and is therefore on steroids, a strict diet and sometimes vitamin injections to keep him at a healthy weight. This is usually under control - even if our bank balance, as a result, isn't - but just lately he has been losing weight, and blood tests showed that he has some kind of liver problem. So just when we should have been looking forward to enjoying the year's first proper Christmas event with friends, the vet is phoning us to say Elvis needs to be admitted while they do more tests and find out exactly what's wrong.

Some of the things the vets are saying are reassuring, but when you a) love animals in general; b) are even more soppy about cats in particular; c) have a cat who needs more caring for than others; and d) have a houseful of people feeling the same, you are not exactly up for a party.

You have to be an animal lover yourself to understand why people can be so distracted by a skinny cat when there are so many other problems in the world, but in return for all the positives that come from having cats - and the world would be a far, far better place if everybody had one - I suppose it's a burden you have to carry.

December 13, 2010

Mushy peas, Bovril and the decline of football

It has been a struggle, but at last my strict diet is coming to an end. Thank God.

And it has worked. I deliberately haven't weighed myself during the whole of the campaign - because it can be so demoralising during those inevitable weeks when you hardly lose any weight. But I have certainly lost a couple of stones.

I haven't said much about my plan to anybody, because the last thing you need when you are suffering on a diet is experts telling you what you should be doing instead. Whenever they hear somebody is on a diet, everybody becomes an expert, even including the people with a weight problem themselves, and will tell you that not only will it not work, but you will probably die in the process (wrong and wrong).

My radical plan was basically to eat not very much from late summer to Christmas, apart from tinned tomatoes and six slices of toast a day (almost instantly reduced to a maximum of four), plus cereal, fat-free snacks and a single square of chocolate a day as a treat. I was allowed to fill myself up with as many fruit and vegetables as I could eat, but in the event, that wasn't many.

I like a good melon, for instance, but there is a limit to how many melons a man can eat before he starts to feel that his stomach - and sometimes the rest of him too - doesn't just contain melon but has actually become melon.

The same goes for salad vegetables. For the first couple of months of my diet I was quite happy to have a bowl of salad, two or three times a week, but about a month ago I developed a strong aversion to it through overfamiliarity, and haven't touched it since. And, I have never been able to eat the kind of vegetables that people like to have with cooked dinners, apart from one that has been a bit of a saviour: peas.

I now buy and eat packets of shelled peas like I used to eat packets of crisps, but the product that has made the diet possible and probably stopped me from going stark, staring, barking mad is (believe it or not) mushy peas. I've always loved mushy peas and although I have eaten at least one tin - and up to three - every day for at least the last two months, I haven't tired of them (which, indeed, is mostly true of the tinned tomatoes). I still find it hard to believe that anything as enjoyable and relatively filling as a good can of mushy peas can be so devoid of fat.

Another product that has kept me sane is Bovril, which was never in my grand plan to lose weight, but was a later brainwave and has been a staple these last few weeks. Also practically fat-free, it is a gift from God to dieters because it packs a lot of taste into tiny amounts and adds desperately needed flavour and interest to such things as packet soup, which I sometimes have to relieve the boredom.

That has been the biggest challenge to overcome in all this: boredom. Feeling hungry is not such a bad thing, but craving something really mouth-watering like curry when your food intake is completely predictable is the biggest obstacle. I never thought a couple of bits of Ryvita with Bovril on them could be such a lifesaver.

So it was with some irony that I spotted a series of advertisements in old programmes that I have had on loan from my guitarist friend, Dave. They were on the back of Wembley programmes from the late Fifties/early Sixties - and the one above is from England v Scotland in 1959.

The 'top teenage player' in question was the great Jimmy Greaves who said of Bovril: "Like many other professional footballers, I take Bovril regularly, all through the season. I thoroughly enjoy it - wouldn't be without it, in fact. Bovril is a big help in keeping you feeling at the top of your form." That's funny because Jimmy, actually, was infamous as a drinker, even while he was dancing round defenders and goalkeepers with the ball, and I reckon if you replaced 'Bovril' with 'beer' in the above, you'd be closer to reality. And I wonder what the chances are that today's millionaire teenage footballers in the Premier League partake of a cup of Bovril or two before the match. Or have even heard of it.

Bovril, however, is ingrained in football folklore, and one of my earliest memories of going to Swindon Town matches at the County Ground in the early Seventies was seeing supporters drinking Bovril. Wikipedia says they used to take it in flasks, but at the County Ground they had people selling Bovril from special units that were strapped to their backs and dispensed it from a pipe at the front, into paper cups. They carried this contraption - a Health and Safety disaster waiting to happen - around the perimeter of the pitch during the match, so people at the front, such as little kids like me, were always liable to have people leaning over them and have hot Bovril spilt on their precious bobble hats and anoraks.

The absence of human Bovril vendors is just one of the things I miss when I go to a match and am reminded that the whole experience of watching football has changed beyond all recognition - almost entirely for the worse.

Just how much world football has changed can be seen from the songsheet below, which was given away by the Daily Express so fans could have a singalong with the Band of the Coldstream Guards before the 1963 European Cup final. I cannot imagine modern British fans - let alone those of Benfica and AC Milan - getting together to sing Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, The Happy Wanderer, John Brown's Body or If You Were the Only Girl in the World, nor any of the other nine songs they had in store for them back then.

There isn't going to be a definitive end point to the diet, sadly. It will just fade away as the demand to be sociable and join in with Christmas meals grows. At the same time, I will soon need to start eating positively to give me energy for phase two of the plan - running, which is due to start soon after Christmas.

December 12, 2010

Christmas: official

The very excellent Phil Spector's Christmas Album has been on the car CD player for over a week, I cut down some holly from our garden and nailed it to the wall, and now the tree is up - all signs that it is officially Christmas in the Carter household.

Apart from being my favourite album by a convicted murderer, Phil Spector's album has been a family classic since 1972 when my brother Maurice brought home the newly re-released version, although it is actually nine years older than that, having been originally released (I only discovered tonight) on the day of John F Kennedy's assassination (also the day on which CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley died).

The album features Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes, which is my favourite Christmas song and even manages to outshine the rest of the album, which is packed full of happy, evocative songs and never grows tiresome, unlike nearly all other commercial Christmas music.

In contrast, Phil Spector will celebrate Christmas Day this year - which also happens to be his 70th birthday - in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran, where another of the inmates is Charles Manson. Which is all pretty sad for somebody who left us such a beautiful album.

Book 'em, Danno

For no other reason than I am a bit of a geek who can't resist a good list, I would like to add my twopenneth to a small debate that has broken out about books.

It started with an interesting post on my nephew Stuart's blog which referred to a list of 100 top books that the BBC came up with in 2003, along with the observation that the average British person will have read six of them.

This doesn't tell us much because most people would clock up six just by getting through English lessons at school, as many of them have been or still are on the syllabus. In fact, I suspect that the true average is therefore much higher than six.

Anyway, when Stuart added up how many he'd read, he scored an impressive 37, while I scored 19, which isn't bad for somebody who reads much more non-fiction than fiction, and considering the vast majority of the 100 books on the list are fiction. To this I can add six that I had partially read, such as Lord of the Rings, which I've read 90 per cent of but never quite finished, and the stupendously awful The Kite Runner, which I am pretty proud to have started and then had the good taste to decide I had much better things to do with my time.

Following Stuart's post, my other nephew, Rich (Stuart's brother) did a blog post in which he listed 10 books that everyone should read before they die. So here goes with my own version of the top ten books worth reading, in no particular order and coincidentally split down the middle between fiction and non-fiction.

  • Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martell
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • Life in a Railway Factory by Alfred Williams
  • A Wiltshire Village by Alfred Williams
I should also add that I was tempted to include At Home, the latest book by Bill Bryson, even though I haven't finished reading it yet, but which took me about ten pages to decide is going to be a classic.

December 9, 2010


Music has been the theme of the week, and tonight there was so much of it happening at once, it was impossible to keep up with it.

Firstly, to update yesterday's blog entry about Sean's Performance Diploma, the exam seemed to pass off as well as we could have hoped, with Sean reporting that he played all five pieces well. There was a bit of a question mark over the sixth one - the one he had to play with having very little preparation - but he gave it a good crack. He may or may not find out how he got on before Christmas, but is quietly confident.

I was drumming myself tonight as our band were asked to open a charity event in aid of Prospect Hospice at the King's Arms in Swindon, and played for 45 minutes, which went well.

Then I stayed and watched several young girls (apparently from a singing school) get up and sing, which emphasized the good and the bad effect of The X-Factor. If you turned the clock back to almost any time, there would have been few girls willing to get up and sing, but every one of tonight's hopefuls were female, no doubt thinking that if girls can get up and do it on TV talent shows and Lady Gaga can get away with it, why shouldn't they? As much as I loathe The X-Factor, I suppose getting girls to sing live is a good thing, but all of the singers chose X-Factor type forgettable dirges or manufactured pop pap, and I couldn't help wishing that at least one had taken a classic girl singer's song from the past and tried that instead. They would have stolen the show.

Sadly, I had to leave before the last act came on - a novelty skiffle band, complete with washboard and tea chest bass, called Ode and the BeBops. I also had to leave my kit there because there wasn't really time to move it out during the change-around between acts. I arranged with one of the guys from Ode and the BeBops to push it to the back of the stage and collect it later, and he said I could stop and play with them if I liked, as they (being a skiffle band) don't have a drummer.

There are two things to say about this: a) it's amazing how you can fool people into thinking you are better at drumming than you really are; and b) it would be nice to be good enough and confident enough to be able to take up an offer like that. As much as I feel satisfied by taking up drumming and giving it a go, the real beauty of live music is being able to do it at the drop of a hat. The reality is that although skiffle probably doesn't require anything too fancy from the drummer's point of view and I reckon I could do it, I still couldn't think of getting up there without practising with them first.

Anyway, I had to get away because I wanted to see my drum teacher Paul Ashman's band, Monkey Dolls, one of two bands playing at the Vic, around the corner.

Fortunately, I arrived a little early so was able to catch the end of impressive blues/soul band The Fraser Tilley Trio - actually a quartet.

The Monkey Dolls play an interesting mixture of modern classics like Sex on Fire and Chasing Cars, but also include the likes of Teenage Kicks, Ever Fallen in Love With Someone (You Shouldn't've Fallen In Love With?), Delilah and even Baggy Trousers, so there's plenty to enjoy for somebody like me who is the right age to have seen The Undertones perform Teenage Kicks live, and whatever they are playing I can stand there and marvel at the drumming.

I saw most of their set but had to return to the King's Arms to retrieve my kit, and when I got there, Ode and the BeBops hadn't quite finished, which was fortunate because although I once had the honour of seeing the king of skiffle, Lonnie Donegan, play in Swindon, he had a proper band with him that night, and tonight was the first time I had seen a proper skiffle band play live.

All this musical activity meant that I was forced to miss Holly playing violin in the orchestra at her school's Christmas Concert, but I will get to see it performed in church on Monday instead - and that's good news considering this will be the last time that one of my children will perform in a school Christmas Concert, of which I have many happy memories.

December 8, 2010

D (for Diploma) Day

Today is a big day for Sean as he sits his drumming Performance Diploma.

If successful, he will have a qualification equal to a first year Degree course, and will even have letters to put after his name (DipRSL).

It involves playing five pieces, of which one is a solo and the others are against backing tracks, plus a sixth piece that he is given the music to and must play, which he won't have seen before. The whole thing will take about 40 minutes.

A drummer of my ability could not begin to think about playing anything of the complexity of any of the six he has to play, especially as he needs to combine faithfulness to the original with improvisation.

My bit in all this, apart from being a roadie and a driver, has been to design and upload Sean's music website, which is required to promote his work in general, but is also part of the diploma. As it's a performance Diploma, bceause promoting your performance is now considered part of the job. That means I also had to put together a programme and poster (below).

After a very successful year of music, passing the exam would be the icing on the cake for Sean, and his drum teacher, Paul, is very confident he will pass, so it's fingers crossed that everything goes well on the day.

30 years ago today

I'm not sure whether it's a good omen for Sean's exam today or not, but today is the 30th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon.

I can, naturally, recall the day and how I heard the news. I got some seasonal work at Kays' mail order warehouse in Swindon, where my Uncle Ron worked, and arrived there in the morning oblivious to the news. My supervisor, an older lady who clearly felt no sadness about what had happened and didn't know he was one of my heroes, said something like: "Oh, haven't you heard? John Lennon's been shot."

Now, "shot" is not necessarily the same as "killed", so I had to ask before getting the crucial part of the story. The rest of the day was spent coming to terms with what was - aside from news about family and friends - the worst news I'd heard in my 19-year life up until then.

What I remember most clearly about the day, though, was that evening's Question Time, when a woman asked the panel whether the media were going over the top with their coverage and the grief about the murder. It reminded me - and I've never forgotten it - that no matter how much of a blessing and no matter how influential some people's impact on the world can be, there will always be plenty of people who cannot see them in any other terms than their own narrow view of the world and their own inabilities to recognise greatness when they see it.

Winter wonderland

Swindon may have been deprived of a proper snowfall during the recent cold snap, but, if anything, a light dusting and two days of spectacular frosts have made everything look even more picturesque. Every tree is stunning.

So I got out with my camera this morning at The Lawns and Queen's Park, to capture some of it before the imminent thaw brings us back into the real world.

December 6, 2010

Must do better

Once again this blog has been left to fester for too long without any updates - although the difference now is I don't really have any excuses for neglecting it.

I am now fully recovered from the stress of co-organising the Alfred Williams Heritage Festival, and apart from getting ready for Christmas, am not really gainfully employed in anything pressing.

Indeed, the ominious drying up of work for freelance journalists like me, which has been a feature of 2010, has now reached not so much a stage of drying up as a stage of dried up.

Local newspapers, which were already the subject of indecent cost-cutting, now face an even more testing time, and such is the pressure on poor journalists that even if there was much work around, the former appeal of working in an interesting industry has more or less disappeared.

I therefore find myself at a crossroads, wondering what to do next and, for the moment at least, seeing this as an opportunity to do something new - the proverbial opening doors instead of closing ones - which would be fine if I really knew what I wanted to be behind the doors. Fortunately, Christmas has arrived, providing an excuse to put off any career decisions until the New Year.

I have never grown out of loving Christmas, and we nearly had some proper Christmassy weather to go with it, except the heavy snowfalls that parts of the rest of the country got managed to bypass Swindon, as they often seem to do.

I have been more involved in the Christmas shopping this year, which has been surprisingly enjoyable, especially a return visit to the Christmas Market at Bath that we so enjoyed last year. We even took the unusual step of travelling by train - at £18 return for the two of us, which was uncharacteristically good value for train travel in Britain today. It is so long since we last took a trip on a scheduled train service like Swindon to Bath, that we literally couldn't remember when it was.

Once in Bath, the day gave us a strange feeling of deja-vu as the Christmas Market was almost exactly the same as last year, with the same stalls pitched in exactly the same places. The only real difference is this year it was much colder.

Other things to occupy my mind of late have included England's failed bid to host the World Cup in 2018, which, as a long-time football fan should have left me bitterly disappointed, but I could hardly muster up any. I really don't think the fat cats of the Premier League, who would probably be the main ones to benefit (they always are) deserve the honour of hosting the competition. It would be unlikely that I would get hold of any tickets for matches, so would be reduced to watching the whole thing on TV - and if that is the case, it might as well be in an exotic or far-flung country rather than on our doorsteps.

On a much more encouraging note, we (me, Sean and Julie) have enjoyed watching the England cricket team's progress in The Ashes, even if we have been forced to buy into Sky Sports - something that goes against all my instincts, for so many different reasons. Still, the team are everything the England football team isn't, and even if I only have enough stamina to see the first hour or two of play, which starts around midnight, it's worth it.

The kids are both busy, which means we are busy organising and chauffeuring them - Sean with his increasingly busy music tutoring work and Holly with various pursuits, including playing in the Mayor's Christmas charity concert at a freezing Wharf Green in Swindon Town Centre on Sunday. Unluckily, Swindon Young Musicians' Senior String Ensemble, which she plays violin in, got the opening slot of a day of performances, so played to a sparse audience, before she put in a worthy stint of bucket shaking to raise money for charities.

Holly has also been busy with mock exams ahead of next summer's GCSEs, and has been choosing her A-Level courses for next year after open days at New College, where she will study from September. Fine art and graphic art are two definites, with psychology, media studies and history vying to be her back-up courses. Unlike Sean, who never had any intention of going to university, that now seems Holly's most likely target, or at least some higher education course in some kind of art subject.

Art continues to be her strongest subject - although she is better at most of the others than she will admit - and her improving technique just needs a more dynamic, mature and off-beat approach to turn her into a really good artist, in my opinion.