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January 30, 2011

Trevor

I just needed to put something here to say we are experiencing a new kind of family tragedy today following the sudden death of my nephew, Trevor Carter, aged 37.

Everybody in our house has been turned completely numb as we try to come to terms with the unbelievable and what it means to our family.

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January 29, 2011

The Year of the Cat

If there's one thing that I don't believe in* it's superstition, and especially astrology. So why should I care two hoots that 2011 is the Year of the Cat?

Well, as you will see, the ultimate answer to that is I am cursed with a need to have all loose ends tied up, and when an impossibly complex world starts to form patterns and even seems as if it is putting the pieces of the puzzle together itself, then I breathe easier.

I will be 50 in 2011 and as there are five people (including my twin brother) from my school year that I am still good friends with, we have plans to celebrate our half centuries. The main event will be a trip to Barcelona in October; just the lads. And as it's the same lads who meet for our monthly lads' nights out (LNO), plus Simon (who lives in the USA, so usually has to be excused for missing the monthly meetings), the trip is being called LNO50.

One of the lads, my friend Pete, realised this week that 2011 is the Year of the Cat in the Vietnamese calendar, and it struck us as pretty spooky that LNO50 falls in a Year of the Cat.

All six of us, to varying degrees (most of all me), are fans of Al Stewart. His biggest - for most people his only - hit (single and album) was called Year of the Cat. To be honest, although it's very difficult not to like Year of the Cat because it is a lovely song, Al fans have a slight aversion to it because the majority of people wrongly assume that's all he ever did, when, in fact, he has written dozens of songs that were just as good.

We always believed that as the cat is not one of the animals that are on the Chinese new year rota, Al had made the phrase up. But it turns out that the Vietnamese use different animals to their neighbours for new years, each of which come round every 12 years, and if Al didn't know that the cat was one of them, then his choice of Year of the Cat is a big coincidence - because not only was the song written in a Year of the Cat (1975) but it is ostensibly about one (1939).

If that was the end of the story, then it wouldn't really be a big deal that we are celebrating our birthday milestones in a Year of the Cat, except I looked at other Years of the Cat and found a bit of a pattern relative to my life. Not only did I marry somebody who was born in a Year of the Cat (1963) but we were married in one (1987).

Those who share my concern with loose ends, connections and synchronicity (if that's the right word) will have noted that this means Julie is rapidly approaching the point where she has been married for exactly half of her life and that this ought to occur in the Year of the Cat.

Now, I was going to prove that I am not completely obsessed with tying up this loose end by not calculating the exact date when this falls, but I was left with no option because it needs doing in order to discover whether it will fall in the Year of the Cat.

I've worked it out and the date is January 17, 2011, which is in Year of the Cat - but only by a... um... whisker. Although the Year of the Cat begins on February 2, 2011, not all Vietnamese years are the same length, and the next one, the Year of the Dragon, begins on January 23, 2012.

So that's cleared that up.

You would think I could find better things to do with my time.

*There is obviously more than one thing I don't believe in, although I was right to lump astrology with superstition, which are different branches of the same insanity.

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January 28, 2011

Flashback

Julie's brother Steve (currently working in the US) turned the clock back nearly five years and stopped the family in its tracks this week, thanks to some housekeeping he's been doing on his computer.

During a clear out of old files, he came across the tribute he wrote about his father (my father-in-law) Keith Freeman, after his death on May 1, 2006, from mesothelioma.

He read it at the funeral, which was obviously very poignant at the time, and five years on you might think that it would have lost some of its power. Somehow, though, it's more moving now - perhaps because our memories aren't so fresh and we need reminding.

Steve admitted it brought a smile to his face and tears to his eyes, and I must admit the same - and I was almost reluctant to pass it on to Julie because I knew she'd feel the same too.

What's most touching about it is it's completely accurate and sums him up beautifully. People often describe him as being a true gentleman, but that doesn't really go far enough to explain what a nice person he was to know. If you did know him, Steve's words really hit the nail on the head, which is why I'm pasting all of it here:

It's difficult at this time for any of us to think about our dad in any terms other than the sorrow and grief we are all feeling that we have lost him. We found out three and a half years ago that dad had mesothelioma, this terrible illness which has shortened the lives of so many people in this town. So perhaps we could have prepared ourselves but in fact we were not prepared at all and it was a shock to us all when he passed away on May the first.

This was because dad bravely fought his illness and was so good at keeping from us just how difficult it was for him, and just how much pain he was in, that he kept the hope alive in us that he would keep going for a while longer yet.

In fact he was such a fighter that he kept on doing the things he always had until very recently when most things did become too difficult for him. This included still mowing the lawns and doing things around the house - he still insisted on jumping up and making tea or coffee the minute anyone arrived to visit - and of course continuing to play table tennis.

Playing table tennis was a big thing in dad's life, and he was very good at it. He played for more than 60 years and only gave up playing finally at the beginning of this year. As recently as the 2003/2004 season he won a shield for being the runners up in his league - Julie remembers when he won it he came down to their house to show Holly that he could win one as well ! (Holly has a lot of trophies for her chess tournaments). His friend Tony remembers when they were on holiday in the Dominican Republic and he beat all the youngsters there in a tournament.

Dad retired early in 1986 when the Swindon railway works closed and we were all grateful for the fact that he was able to have ten years with mum after that before she died so early. They had good holidays together, they went up in a hot air balloon, they accidentally climbed a huge mountain in Austria - they just went for a walk and got lost, with mum carrying a shopping bag all the way. They got stopped by the police in Florida for driving too slow (Tony was driving).

In February this year dad went to Bristol with his friend Roy Nash and had the chance to go on a simulator on which train drivers learn to drive trains which he loved.

There are so many times we can all look back on and remember dad with pride and with pleasure. There was the day when we were all in his garden helping to finish off his new summer house, with dad up the ladder putting on the roofing felt and all of us helping.

There was the day when dad helped me to knock down a bathroom ceiling in our first house and when we finished we were completely covered from head to foot in black slate dust and looked like chimney sweeps - only the whites of our eyes showing.

Dad's sister Jean remembers that when he was a boy whenever he and Jean had sweets he saved his while his sister could never resist eating hers straight away. He would then ask her what she would give him for them... but he never would let her have any. Auntie Jean remembers when he was an office boy at the age of 15 in the railways and would go out to buy her buns - seven for thruppence - he would bring them into the room with all the office girls through one door, put the buns on her desk and quickly rush out through the other door which made them all laugh.

There was the day when dad, Uncle Fred and myself plumbed in an automatic washing machine. I had drawn some rough plans of where the pipes should be cut and joints put in, dad then drew his plans - he had an ability to draw exactly straight lines without using a ruler which we always envied. As dad and I were discussing the merits of our plans we heard a sawing sound and Uncle Fred saying "You'd better find the stopcock" as he cut through the pipes. Uncle Fred in fact knew exactly what he was doing and had the job finished in 10 minutes flat.

Last year Eileen's family held a surprise garden party for her. It was a wonderful day and they had a table tennis table set up in the garden. Young and old, dad took on all comers and of course beat them all. Eileen was a wonderful friend and companion to dad since mum died and made the last years of his life so much richer than they otherwise would have been. He loved the times he spent with Eileen and her family, especially the two barge holidays they went on.

This last Easter was the last family party with dad - his grandson Alex had bought a chocolate fountain and dad along with everyone enjoyed dipping marshmallows and strawberries into the flowing chocolate - we all got chocolate everywhere.

I've mentioned happy times we can all look back on, I also want to say some things about what dad was like as a person.

He was a real family man who was always there to lend a helping hand - for instance taking his grandchildren to school, he would always go out of his way to help. He was always the DIY expert of the family and had the answers to the difficult questions. He ALWAYS worked in inches, never in centimetres.

He never talked about himself, he was always interested in other people and what they had to say.

Many people have said over the last two weeks that dad was an honest man, straightforward, a man of integrity. This was true in everything he said and in everything he did.

Dad was a smart man - all his life he always wore a collar and tie, even just around the house - and he never changed from this even when he was very ill.

Dad was a quiet man. He was easy going and was always happy to go along with whatever plans we had. He was always polite - my daughter Katie remembers that when he couldn't hear very well (and he did get pretty deaf) he would just smile knowingly and nod - I think we all can probably remember that smile and nod.

Dad was a generous man. He was generous in many ways - his grandchildren always left from a visit with sweets, chocolates and some pocket money. He was also generous with his time - he spent an enormous amount of his free time helping us all - whether it was helping with DIY or driving 50 miles to pick Christopher up from boarding school every time he had a weekend break, come rain wind or snow.

Dad was a meticulous man - neat and tidy in everything he did. He could do painting in his best clothes and never get a spot of paint on himself or anything else.

Dad was an intelligent man - he was still able to help Sean with his maths homework where the rest of us would struggle.

Dad was an excellent craftsman - I could never understand how he could make joints in pieces of wood which, when he put them together, always fitted perfectly and you couldn't see daylight between them. Even recently he made a new side garage door which was absolutely perfect. Katie and Alex remember the dolls house and castle which he made for them. The dolls house had working lights, window boxes and a built in toilet ! All the rooms had different wallpaper and the design was very clever - the whole front came off.

He was not proud in the sense of self importance but he was proud of all his family, and most recently of all his grand children's' achievements.

He was a sociable man - he loved going out with his mates for a drink on Friday nights which was a lifelong pleasure for him.

He was a loving and caring man - he dearly loved all of us and we dearly loved him.

He will always stay with us in our hearts and in our minds and if we all try to be just a little bit like him the world will be a better place for it.

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January 26, 2011

King Bill

It may have taken me ages to read it, but At Home is, from my point of view at least, another Bill Bryson masterpiece. Not only is he my favourite author by miles, but I also think he represents absolutely everything that is good about journalism.

Journalism? Yes. He learned his trade as a journalist and he now writes journalism of the highest order, only in book form, clearly approaching every book he writes in the way that all good journalists approach a story. What's more - he comes across as a nice, affable guy whose heart is in the right place - and in my experience, the overwhelming majority of journalists, despite what some people may think, are like that.

If you've read any of his books, you'll know that it goes without saying that Bill Bryson writes nothing until he has thoroughly researched his subject. It's why, when he wants to, he can go into the minutest detail on a subject or take the broadest of views on the matter (or both) and always sound like he is the foremost authority on the subject. This calls for sheer slog, but sorting out how much detail each topic requires is also an immense skill that very few writers - even professional ones - have.

But probably his greatest skill is his journalistic nose for what makes an interesting tale in the first place. Like all good journalists, he knows there's usually a story in there somewhere, and it's just a case of turning over enough stones to find the truffles beneath. And he is an absolute master at discovering something quirky in every story - even the stories we think we know quite well. In At Home, for instance, he takes someone who we assume to be a hero, Dr Barnardo, and explains why he was far from an angel and not even a doctor.

The book sets out to trace the history of everyday items in average homes, so Bryson goes round, room by room, explaining why things are as they are. Hence the title At Home, although the sub-title, A Short History of Private Life, is much more accurate. Some of the links to the home are quite tenuous, such as his potted history of wigs, which he brings up in the chapter on the dressing room.

Conversely, some of the things you expect to be covered aren't - probably because even he couldn't find anything interesting enough in the tale. The cover of the book features some ironing stacked up in the shape of a house, for instance, but nowhere does he say anything about the history of irons or ironing.

But who cares? The book runs to well over 400 pages and is stuffed full of interesting stories, anecdotes, quotes, coincidences and colourful characters - and the more bizarre the better. Most of all, he obviously delights in telling us about horrific diseases, dubious sexuality and everything to do with toilets, yet somehow all are treated by sailing as close as possible to the dirtiest details without ever succumbing to the temptation to be vulgar. His writing always comes up smelling of roses.

The book would be a triumph if it was for its subject matter alone, but even that is overshadowed by Bryson's genius as a writer. His work always oozes that most obvious but elusive of qualities: readability. He has a truly amazing gift for writing in the most engaging style and yet somehow manages to keep it fresh.

Even if another writer could obtain the same readability, I doubt whether he could keep it up for long before it got over-familiar. By all rights, he should be like somebody you meet at a party who knows his stuff and can talk interestingly about it, but soon starts to grate and, before long, you just want him to shut up. But the opposite is true; the more he says, the more you are saying 'Tell me more.'

As somebody who claims to be a writer himself, reading Bill Bryson is both a pleasure and an education as I try to work out just what it is about his style that is so engaging. I've identified some of his tricks - and especially admire his incredible ability to bring the subject back to where it started off - but half the time it is like watching an expert magician at work and you just wonder how he does it. Even more impressive: he never seems to use the same trick twice.

I've picked one passage, virtually at random, to illustrate how he is able to cash in on a humorous situation just by applying his engaging style, which is in the section about 18th and early 19th century fashion:

Some of the fashion was dictated by the ever-increasing stoutness of the Prince of Wales (or 'Prince of Whales', as he was snickeringly known behind his back). By the time he reached his thirties, the prince had taken on such a fleshy sprawl that he had to be forcibly strapped into a corset - a 'Bastille of Whalebone', in the words of one who was allowed to see it - which his attendants tactfully referred to as his 'belt'. All this pushed his upper body fat upwards through the neck hole, like toothpaste coming out of a tube, so the very high collars fashionable in his day were a kind of additional mini-corset, designed to hide an abundance of chins and the floppy wattle of his neck.

I'd love to know how long it took him to write that paragraph. It may be that he just dashed it off because he has an instinct for putting words together, but there are so many clever devices in it that it's equally possible that he agonised over every word. In its way, it's as effective and as carefully and beautifully crafted as Shakespeare.

Yet the whole book is like it. On the following page, he finds the perfect way to round off his look at the rise and fall of court dandy Beau Brummell:

Shortly afterwards Brummell's debts caught up with him and he fled to France. He spent the last two and a half decades of his life living in poverty, mostly in Calais, growing slowly demented but always looking, in his restrained and careful way, sensational.

In a word: brilliant.

Sadly, journalism like this is a dying art. I try not to be too cynical about it, but if there are any budding Bill Brysons, I fear they are slowly having all their journalistic skills surgically removed in the face of the world's apparently growing appetite not for unashamed PR.

Most of the stuff that is written for publication these days is dictated, at best, by what unqualified, inexperienced and unskilled PR and marketing people have identified as worth reading when really it is the most turgid nonsense. Worse still, it's often written lilke that because it matches what they have brainwashed the client or the market into thinking they want to read. Worst of all, it gets published because editors just don't have enough resources so are more worried about filling the space than what fills it, so churn stuff out on a never mind the quality, feel the width basis - and the client doesn't understand the difference.

I can only hope there is a backlash coming and future Brysons are encouraged instead of patted down. Our best hope is the reading public will take the law into their own hands and reject the rubbish they are given. Either way, let's not hold our breaths.

The rise of blogs and Twitter (which I think will continue to mushroom in influence) are evidence, I think, that if publishers aren't focused on producing interesting, succinct, properly crafted copy, then people will damned well write it for themselves.

So, to sum up: any book with the words 'Bill' and 'Bryson' on the cover, in that order, is not just a great pleasure but also hope for the future.

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January 24, 2011

£#$%@&/!

Sometimes it can be fun researching what you are going write about, and something quite juvenile within me has enjoyed learning about symbolia.

You know - symbolia, the names for all those little devices that cartoonists use to convey certain feelings and events.

It all started when I decided to write my column for tomorrow's Swindon Advertiser about swearing, following some comments my nephew Rich made on his blog, Koolaid For Beginners, and having seen The King's Speech (see below) which has a sequence featuring random swearing (bizarrely, most of the audience seemed to think was the best bit of the film).

Anyway, I wanted to talk about the random sequence of characters that can be used to represent swearing (as seen above) and thought there must be a name for them. Sure enough, they are a grawlix.

But grawlix is only one of a whole glossary of terms that are collectively known as symbolia - and all the terms have been invented by the same man - American cartoonist Mort Walker, who wrote a book about it called The Lexicon of Comicana.

Grawlix turns out to be one of the more disappointing words because some of the others really fit what they describe. For instance, agitrons are the wiggly lines around people or objects that denote that it or they are shaking; dites are the diagonal lines on window panes; and wafterons are the wavy lines above hot things such as Desperate Dan's cow pies. But my favourites are the lines that radiate out from the heads of surprised people, which are called emanata (as demonstrated by Tintin).

There is more on Wikipedia, and I also discovered a great web page about the physics of cartoons which is good for a laugh.

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January 23, 2011

Kings and I

As far as I remember, I only went to the cinema once in 2010, and that was to see a kids' film (Toy Story 3). It takes a lot to get me there these days as I really don't go for those silly action films or predictable formats which seem to account for 99 per cent of output these days.

So it was nice to hear so many good reports of The King's Speech, which had none of the hallmarks of those pointless action films, even if it had the disadvantage of being about Britain's favourite pointless family, the royals.

But Julie was keen to see it, and of all the kings in all of history (with the exception of Good King Wenceslas if he's half as good as he is cracked up to be in the song), then George VI is the one who comes out with the most - that is, the only - credit.

Half of the story is about how he was thrust into the role by his selfish and nasty Nazi-sympathising elder brother, Edward VIII, who I had feared would come out of the film with some credit but was fortunately portrayed as every bit the complete arse that he was in real life (and arse is not a word that I use lightly).

At the end you are also left with a real sense of George VI's other quality, which was the way he stuck to his duty in the Second World War (the Queen Mother was right when she said they could look the East End in the face after deciding to stay in London and getting bombed).

So the film generally did live up to its billing and I enjoyed it. It was funny and surprisingly touching at times, and mostly resisted the temptation to pander to American audiences too much, which would have turned it from a triumph into a complete disaster.

Not that anybody needs me to tell them all this as most people I know have already seen it.

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January 22, 2011

More stick


Continuing on from yesterday's entry about man-with-a-stick pictures taken in the mid-Fifties, here are the others I quickly copied during my visit to the library. In most cases I didn't stop to note the map co-ordinates, although their locations are easy to work out, given local knowledge.

The theme here is they all have some significance in my life, with most of them having special interest for people born and/or brought up in Upper Stratton, such as the one above, which shows the original Wheatsheaf in Dores Road, and also happens to have our friends James and Julie's house in the background.

A stone's throw away from the Wheatsheaf was Bendell's corner shop, seen here in the month before the Queen's coronation (notice the patriotic display with Union Jacks in the window). Not only did we go into the shop sometimes, on the way to school, but I once got to go behind the scenes as my school friend Trevor Barratt's family either owned or ran the shop, about 12 years after this picture was taken. As a young child I was quite excited about the prospect of being behind the counter in a shop.


The next few pictures are all in Meadowcroft, starting with 32 Meadowcroft. Sadly, the random popping-up of the man with a stick brought him to the house of our nextdoor neighbour, Mr Scott, and it's a shame he didn't end up ten yards to the left, which would have given us a nice picture of home.


He also popped up in one of the bungalows opposite home, which wouldn't have been so interesting if the photo didn't also show 'The Garages' behind - or rather where they would later be built. The Garages provided hours of fun for youngsters like us, especially when (as often happened) somebody dumped an old car there, almost as if they knew that it would be the ultimate playground for little boys. Our Dad had one of the garages, which were rented from the council, and I remember him desperately trying to lower the floor so his Bedford Dormobile van would fit in, but it never did. The garages were demolished a few years ago to make way for housing.


The next two views show an embryonic Meadowcroft Rec and surrounding streets, with what seems to be open countryside behind. I didn't note the exact co-ordinates of these in my haste to go through all the pictures in the short time I had at the library, but the Addison Crescent sign is a dead giveaway, as well as the fact that they were captioned 'Meadowcroft'.



These are two Upper Stratton scenes taken from virtually the same place (the junction of St Philips Road and Beechcroft Road) but looking in different directions - one towards the Baker's Arms.



This photo shows the approach to Stratton Station, taken close to where Ruskin Junior School now is. This area is now an industrial unit. Notice the bridge in the background, which I can remember being demolished - in about 1970. Our friends Percy and Liz live just beyond where the bridge stood, in Kingsdown Park.


Following on from the theme of bridges we used to play on, this one is of the iron bridge over the main line by Gypsy Lane, which actually hasn't changed all that much since then. There is another one looking in another direction, but I didn't get a very good copy it, which is a shame because it looks like it's in the middle of the countryside, with the trading estate just fields.


This one obviously shows the County Ground, although I haven't quite worked out why the entrance is so close to houses in what must be Shrivenham Road. For the record, the first time I went to a first team game there was on March 29, 1969, when Town played Watford and we watched from one of the benches they used to have in front of the boards at the front of the terrace. Town goalie Peter Downsborough saved a penalty but we still lost 1-0 to a goal by Barry Endean.


This photo of an almost unrecgonisable Clifton Hotel is interesting for me as when I lived in Radnor Street it was not only my local but I actually worked behind the bar for a while in the early Eighties, along with my friend Pete Lucas. It's also the pub where I had my stag night. Around about that time I did a drawing of the pub which shows just how much it changed between the Fifties and Eighties.


All 800 of the man with a stick pictures can be seen at Swindon Central Library, and they are working on putting them online. In the meantime, they have an excellent Flickr photostream for their Swindon Collection, but be warned: it's addictive and you can easily spend hours looking at them.

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How the man with the stick pointed the way to the Bunky Bridge


Last week I reported that I had attended a fascinating Swindon Society talk about The Man With a Stick. Well, I've now had a chance to go through the pictures in the library, and they have turned up some family/local history gems.

The talk was all about a set of about 800 little pictures - each about 5cm wide - which were compiled by the Ordnance Survey in the mid-50s (before I was born) as a record of specific locations in Swindon. It was an exercise in charting and recording, but inadvertently provided historic photos of locations that might otherwise have been unrecorded. Because they were interested in photographing co-ordinates on the map, you get a random set of pictures. For example, they photographed the front of 32 Meadowcroft, Upper Stratton, which was a bit unlucky for me as it was at 34 Meadowcroft that I grew up.

This disappointment, however, was soon overshadowed when I discovered that the back of the house appears in another picture (see above), taken from the railway line (the old Highworth branch line) that used to run at the bottom of our garden and which is only a dim memory for me. Indeed, I only really remember them coming to rip it up, when I was at infants or junior school.

Our house is the lefthand semi of the block on the far right. The photo doesn't show much, but is the only picture I have seen of the line near the house, let alone with the house in the background. It's also notable because few of the pictures feature people other than the man with a stick himself, but - as you can see from this blow-up - there are two children on the righthand side of the picture, in a neighbour's garden (who I hope to identify).


Another dim memory is the 'Bunky Bridge' (so called because the line was nicknamed 'The Bunk'). The bridge was about 300 yards along the line, towards Swindon, and was replaced by a level crossing at about the same time the track was removed.

The Bunky Bridge has sentimental appeal because we used to play on it as kids - and also because Julie did too, even though she is nearly two years younger than me and must have been very young at the time. So it is possible we were actually playing on it at the same time, with no idea of who each other were or how our lives would one day be entwined.

As I've been doing family and local history research over the years I've always been on the lookout for pictures of the Bunky Bridge. Last year I met an expert on the line and asked him if he had ever seen one, but got the same answer. Most people confuse the bridge with a nearby one that was sometimes also called the Bunky Bridge and which still stands in Gypsy Lane (and is actually a 20th century replacement for an earlier one). Once I've got people to understand the location of my Bunky Bridge, they have always said they've never seen a picture of it. So you can guess what's coming...

The man with the stick has provided us with not one but two pictures of the bridge - one from each side. The first one, below, is looking north towards Meadowcroft, and the second in the opposite direction.

It just goes to show how your memory can play tricks on you - especially when they are very early memories - because I remember the bridge being more substantial and more modern than it really was.

But I am absolutely sure of my information and that this is, indeed, the Bunky Bridge. The photos come with precise grid references, which I have plotted on the map below.

I took these copies quickly, so they are not as sharp as they could be, but I am hoping to get hold of some hi-resolution scans shortly, which will be better quality. And I also have some other pictures of interest which I will post tomorrow, when I have more time.

At least some of pictures will shortly appear on the superb Swindon Collection Flickr photostream.





Merry Christmas

I just had to make a quick mention here of an excellent Christmas do that we had at Ruchi's (an excellent Indian restaurant in Old Town) tonight, followed drinks at the (disappointingly loud-and-trashy-music-polluted) Goddard Arms.

This was our 'gang' Christmas party in which Julie and I join up with Brian and Sarah, James and Julie, Pete and Julie, and Percy and Liz. We always do it in January, when you are less likely to get caught up in the crowds and other disadvantages of Christmas, and it gives us something to look forward to after Christmas.

We do silly 'secret Santa' presents, generally have a great time and look forward to meeting up with the same people on our now traditional 'February weekend' winter break - this year due to take place in Ilfracombe.

The moral of the story is you can organise all kinds of lavish entertainment, but there is very little that ever matches sitting down with priceless old friends.

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January 18, 2011

Well versed

One thing you can say as you rush headlong towards your 50th birthday: you don't run out of new things to do. My latest first was going to a poetry reading event.

After attending a committee meeting of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, it seemed that everything about the event was telling me I should be there. I knew it was going to feature a poet who has been helping us with the society, plus another friend, and it was being held in the Carriers' Arms, South Marston, literally a stone's throw from Alfred Williams's birthplace. And it was free. I couldn't not go, really.

Poetry and me have not had a smooth relationship, it must be said. A couple of years ago I made a big effort to find out what it was all about by reading The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry, which is a long, technical explanation of the guts of poetry, and left me pretty cold.

Then I became more engrossed by Alfred Williams and discovered that while his poetry is not what first attracted me to his story, it really is good stuff and varied. For what it's worth, this one and this one are my favourites.

Tonight's event, organised by Pulsar Poetry, featured about a dozen local poets reading their own work, and as the idea of it was really to read your own poetry too, I felt a little bit underdressed for the occasion as I didn't have any to read (and wouldn't have been keen to read it if I did).

Most of it was modern poetry which, I cannot deny, I find difficult to fathom - mainly because I haven't quite worked out the answer to the fundamental questions it raises: why is it arranged as poetry if it has no rhythm? And what's so bad about rhyme? It isn't just a case of this type of poetry not rhyming, but the people who write it seem to go out of their way to ensure it doesn't, as if rhyming is a sin. I also have a very deep mistrust of anything or anybody not using proper punctuation. Worse still:

I'm suspicious
of writing
that,
rather than informing you, doesn't
quite
tell you what it is about, as if its meaning is
some kind
of puzzle
that has to be worked out.
In my philosphy,
writers
are there to open your eyes, not make you
squint
and wonder
what the bloody hell they're on about.

Having said that, some of the poetry I heard tonight was excellent, and most of the material did lend itself to the idea that some poetry is not designed to rest on a page but should be performed. Which is a good point.

There is a local poetry competition coming up and I feel strangely moved to enter it, even though I have written precisely one poem since leaving school (which can be read here on an old archive of this blog). If nothing else it will be interesting to find out if I have any chance of winning if I do what I feel compelled to do, which is to write one that rhymes.


The Mystic Sweet Jar of Time


What do you do when you get a jar full of sweets for Christmas?

It was one of the things that Holly bought me, but rather than scoffing them all by New Year's Eve, I decided that I would make the pleasure last well into 2011 by eating just one a day, starting on Christmas Day.

This was partly inspired by a curiosity about how many sweets were in a jar and the prospect of this satisfying my inate desire for synchronicity if it turned out that I got down to the last one on July 9, which will be my 50th birthday. As you can tell, I have become especially aware of the passing of time just lately.

Sadly, there are probably far fewer in there than I first thought, and my current estimate is I will fall well short and finish them in May. However, the larger ones were at the top and there are some smaller ones, like dolly mixtures, at the bottom, so you never know.

Forrest Gump was right. Or very nearly.

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January 14, 2011

Employee of the Year

This is something that technically happened yesterday, but sort of spilled over into today, so I'm putting it here.

While I and the rest of the family was recovering from the funeral, late yesterday afternoon, Julie was on a train to London where she was invited to a big do put on by her employers, Capita.

This wasn't just any old do, but the finals of a national Employee of the Year Award which she had been nominated for by her boss. On paper it sounds like it was no big deal to get to the final, but when you consider that Capita employ 36,000 people, you can see that it was actually a very prestigious thing to get to the final.

Not that you'd guess from Julie's modest attitude to it. She was more than a bit embarrassed to be going, felt a bit of trepidation about the event and really didn't want to go on her own, especially as a large proportion of people were there with colleagues as they were up for team awards.

I have to be honest and say I was secretly glad that partners weren't invited because I always feel terribly out of my death in anything that involves networking with superconfident people; wearing black tie is completely against my principles; and the timing would have been the worst ever.

Besides, she didn't need me there and, as she reported back after midnight from her hotel room, she soon got chatting with some nice ladies and a young lad who was the same age as Sean and had all the same interests, and discovered that she had the boss of the firm on her table ("And a really nice man he was, too").

Sadly, we weren't choosing the winners; otherwise she would have come home with the gold, silver and bronze medals, all rolled into one.

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January 13, 2011

Funeral


Today was a day that I had been looking forward to getting over with - because it was the day of my mum's funeral. In the event, it passed off quite successfully.

Now is not the time to write a long essay about why I am not generally in favour of funeral ceremonies, but I cannot deny that I struggle to see what real purpose they serve, especially now that any shred of spiritual or religious meaning that they might once have had has disappeared for the vast majority of the population. I have already gone on record to say I do not want to have a funeral ceremony of my own.

All this is no reflection whatsoever on Robert Rowe, the civil funeral celebrant we asked to conduct Mum's on the grounds that she barely had a word to say about religion in the whole of her life and wouldn't have appreciated anything religious or - as she liked to put it, "mournful". Robert did an excellent job and we certainly made a good choice.

At least funerals have the benefit of bringing families together, and not for the first time in recent years, meeting up with them all again reminded me that, given the choice, this is the family I would have chosen. We get on remarkably well, without being in each other's pockets, and this also goes for extended family who I was glad to be able to catch up with again today.

This was never more appropriate than today, because family was not merely a major part of my mum's life. It was her life. When my dad died, 33 years ago, she was only a couple of year older than I am now, but seemed to decide that, for the rest of her life, the only thing in it, from that day onwards, would be family. She made no new friends who didn't have direct connections with members of the family, only went places when family members took her and didn't really take any interest in anything that was happening in the world unless there was some family connection.

If she had been there today, though, it would have been far from an ideal situation. Such was the extent of the Alzheimer's in the last few months of her life that she would probably have struggled to put a single name to any of the faces among all of the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and in-laws present. Nor, indeed, her children.

It was the final reminder, if we needed it, that death can be a blessing and, in certain cases, probably very timely - because however sad and reflective we all were today, there is no doubt that the time had come.

The picture above is the one I chose to put on the 'order of service' card that we gave away at the funeral, which I got the job of putting together. It was probably a bit of an unconventional choice of picture and not particularly great quality, but somehow the right one. The card included a long obituary of my mum's life. Much as I would like to claim the glory (as it did its job perfectly), it was written by my brother Brian and not, as some people assumed, by me. I think everybody should have such an obituary published about them, after their death - which is why I've included it in the Family History section of this website (click here).

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January 12, 2011

Things looking up

We may find ourselves on the eve of a funeral, but our family has had a timely good day today.

The main news is that Sean has found out that he has passed the drumming diploma that he took in early December.

He said on the day that it had gone well, but we have been patiently waiting for confirmation ever since, with some trepidation. We had experienced a similar wait for his Grade 8 exam, nearly three years ago, only to discover that he had inexplicably failed, to the complete disbelief of his teacher, so had to retake it, a few weeks later - when he passed with merit.

So we haven't been counting our chickens, but now we can celebrate and he can put letters after his name. He is now Sean Carter DipRSL, and the diploma, which he did in his spare time and practised very hard for, is equivalent to a first-year degree course.

Needless to say that we are pretty proud of him, once again. Success like this doesn't come without hard work, and he has obviously put in the work to pass what - as I know, being a drummer myself - is a very, very tough exam. Some bits were so intricate and complex that if I hadn't seen them performed with my own eyes, I literally would have wondered whether it was humanly possible to play them.

To people who have never tried it, drumming looks like just a lot of thrashing and banging that you could probably train a monkey to do, but at a high level, it is incredibly challenging. I would go so far as to say that the most satisfying thing about my own drumming, which I took up in my forties, is that I have learned enough about it to appreciate just how skillful drummers of Sean's quality are.

We are claiming some of the glory for ourselves, having always encouraged him to take drumming seriously when other parents might have urged him to follow a more conventional career, and I suppose he must also have inherited some kind of musical and co-ordination genes from us. The only problem is we have absolutely idea where they are in our DNA or why they chose to jump our generation.

Furthermore, it took my brother Brian, on Facebook, to point out something that we had overlooked in all this, which is that Sean's achievement makes him "the most musically-accomplished person in the family since... well... ever!" Many of Julie's family and ancestors were brought up to play in Salvation Army bands, but on my side of the family there is not the merest scrap of evidence that any of us were capable of producing anything musical at all before Sean's generation came along.

Some of the credit for Sean's achievement must do to somebody who is unrelated to us, however, as we owe a big debt to Sean's (and my) drum teacher, Paul Ashman. He has not only taken Sean under his wing and helped him start a career in music, but been a great encouragement generally and a good role model. And - this bit is easy to forget in all this - nobody really learns anything unless they have a damned good teacher.


Hello, hello, hello...

His diploma was not the only good Sean-related news of the day as we also received a phone call from the police to say they had made progress in their investigation of last week's attack on him (see below).

My journalistic instincts tell me that I shouldn't reveal too much information here... not now that two people have been charged (as we understand), in connection with the incident.

There is some confusion over whether they have been charged for the assault on him or something else, or whether they have enough evidence for this particular crime, but they took samples of his DNA for comparison purposes today and seemed hopeful, so it's fingers crossed.

Good news has also been saving itself up in other branches of the family as my niece Lucy passed her driving test today to complete a good few days for her after she also received an offer of a place at Reading University in the autumn.

So lots of rays of sunshine for the Carters as the clouds gather for tomorrow.


Stick man pictures

I enjoyed an evening out tonight which has got my local historical juices going again, having been guilty of neglecting my usual researches in the last few weeks.

It was an illustrated talk called The Man With a Stick, put on by the Swindon Society, which turned out to be not only interesting but also entertaining, delivered by a guy called Andy Binks.

I was determined to see it because - unlike most of the audience - I had been let into the secret and had an explanation for the cryptic title. It was all about 800 photographs that have come to light at Swindon Central Library and which throw new light on Swindon as it was in the 1950s. They were all taken by the Ordnance Survey and all include an enigmatic man with a numbered board and a large painted arrow, which he is pictured pointing at specific items in various locations - part of his survey of the town in 1953 and 1954.

It doesn't sound very interesting, but every photo includes an interesting scene in the background, especially as many of the locations are places that otherwise wouldn't have been photographed and don't appear in other historic photos. Even better: some of the scenes in the set, including some which were displayed tonight, are of Upper Stratton, so have family history interest, so I am looking forward to making my way to the library as soon as I can, to go through the archive myself.

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January 6, 2011

Attacked

The family got two very different impressions of the state of Britain's youth today after Sean was attacked by would-be muggers.

He escaped with a black eye and a bump on the head, but if three young white males who tried to rob him represent the worst dredges of society, then I have to say that I am immensely proud of the way Sean reacted to it.

He was obviously a bit shocked but was very philosophical about it and coolly called the police and gave a very sober statement to them when they drove him home.

It happened in an underpass of a cycle track connecting town and the Oasis, which he was walking along en route to some teaching he was going to do in Rodbourne. He said he had a bad feeling about the three youths up ahead before he reached them, and after passing them, he was attacked from behind. Cowards, obviously, even when hunting in threes, wouldn't attack from any other angle.

Sean was thrown against a wall and while his two accomplices grabbed an arm each, the ringleader grabbed him round the neck, punched him in the face half a dozen times and kneed him in the face too. During this 15 seconds or so, the main attacker amazingly told Sean to "Stay calm". Probably something that he had heard somebody say on EastEnders or something.

He also asked: "What have you got on you, mate?" and a measure of just how much brains were an issue for him, when Sean answered "nothing", it didn't occur to them to check his pockets, where he had an iPhone and a wallet.

Fortunately, a cyclist came along and challenged the attackers, which caused them to stop, throw one last punch and some mindless swear words and run off.

It was encouraging that the police arrived quickly and in numbers, and Sean said they were excellent in their handling of it. Apparently, there were plenty of officers available as it was 4pm and still daylight, if not actually broad daylight. The bad thing was there were so many people about that the dog they brought to try to pick up scents found too many fresh trails confusing the scene.

Back at home, the police took swabs in the hope that the thugs had left behind some DNA, which may improve the slim chances of them being caught for this offence. Either way, they said assaults take high priority and were obviously treating it very seriously.

Our natural reaction was "I know what I'd do if I could get hold of them" and Sean's was virtually the same. If there had been any less than three, he said, he would have been able to fight back. But if you think about it, even if they don't get caught for this offence, it's only a matter of time before they get caught for something. Anybody capable of savage attacks like that will undoubtedly do it again and, hardly being criminal masterminds, they'll trip themselves up, soon enough.

The only fear is the nature of their next attack and whether they will carry weapons when they do it. Our over-riding emotion about the whole thing is relief that they weren't carrying knives and the fact that it could have been much, much worse.

Sean has lost money from the incident as he missed two teaching sessions; I had to drive to Highworth to tell students their class was cancelled; and Julie had to take Sean for a precautionary examination at the hospital; and tomorrow Sean has to go to the police station to have his injuries photographed - all inconveniences which add insult to injury. But his iPhone, wallets and even glasses - which he was wearing - survived intact. The safety of his iPhone was apparently his biggest concern (even though it's insured) so the fact that it was unscathed was a relief.

By late evening, the three cricket fans in the family (me, Sean and Julie) could forget about it and settle down to enjoy England's final victory in The Ashes, which Sean, at least, considered ample compensation for the violent events of the day. It has been a real pleasure to watch the cricket and on a few occasions Sean has stayed up most of the night watching it.

Tonight there was no need to stay up for more than two hours as England finished the job in Sydney and won the series 3-1, providing us with a timely happy ending to a stressful day we could have done without.

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January 1, 2011

Perfect start

Good news is welcome at any time in any family, but my niece Claire showed perfect timing today in announcing her engagement to her long-time partner, Ian. It's exactly what we need.

They've been a couple for so long and Ian already seems like family, so it has long since been a question of when, not if, but it's fair to say everybody in the family is especially delighted that it has happened now - and what better omen for the rest of the year?

We can now also officially welcome genuine sporting talent to the family, rather than sporting intent. There is plenty of that in the Carter genes, but none of us have ever made it to great heights. Good at finishing marathons, that's us, but never with any hope of winning one.

Ian is not only been an accomplished footballer himself but is also a professional coach, being in charge of one of Chelsea's schoolboy teams, thereby giving us a more personal reason to support Chelsea beyond the obvious one that they are the team most likely to stop Manchester United winning things. You can imagine who's first to be picked when we are organising teams for the football match for the annual family barbecue.

If that wasn't enough, Ian's brother is David Howell who is a bit of a golfer. How much of a golfer? Let's just say that when Claire and Ian tie the knot, David will be the first member of the family to have been a member of two Ryder Cup-winning teams (2004 and 2006). I will need to check the records, but I'm also pretty sure he is the first to make it to the top ten of the world rankings of golf.

There has been some dispute in our house today over how what constitutes being related to somebody, with Julie, who (it has to be said) comes from a significantly less sporting family than us, trying to play down the Carter's impending alliance with another well known local sporting dynasty. Not everybody can say that their niece's husband is a coach with a top European football club and their niece's brother-in-law is a double Ryder Cup winner, and as far as I'm concerned that is family. No doubt Ian and David will be also be pleased to discover they will soon be related to the bloke who came 20th in the Sport Aid 10K at Purton in 1984, which they are probably unaware of as I've previously been too modest to mention it on this blog.


Weight for it

Even before the news of the alliance of two of Swindon's greatest sporting families (see above), this morning I began Phase Two of my fitness campaign, following on from my sodding diet at the back end of 2010.

I dug in the back of the cupboard and got out my old running shoes, which haven't seen the light of day for eight or nine years, and went out for a run.

I had no idea how far I would be able to run, but eventually managed about two miles without too much agony, which I was extremely pleased with. By the evening, my legs had stiffened up and felt like they were made of solid rock, but even that is encouraging because of the no pain, no gain priniciple.

The run began at 9am and lasted about 20 minutes, during which time the only pedestrians I saw were dog walkers. I was glad to avoid most people and make the whole thing fairly anonymous - though not for the reasons you might think. I wasn't too bothered about looking like an old bloke who couldn't run very fast, but I really hate the idea that people could be looking at me and thinking I was somebody going through the motions as the result of some half-hearted new year's resolution from the night before. I always intended to follow up my diet with running, and the fact that it started on January 1 is just coincidence.

When I said I ran about two miles I should have said it was about three kilometres because I have taken another step towards being completely metric. We already use metric on the satnav because it is easier to judge metres than feet, so kilometres have replaced miles there, and I have now also dispensed with pounds and ounces (I've long since used centimetres and celsius too).

Grams and kilograms effectively took over when Holly was diagnosed as diabetic because her insulin intake is calculated according to the weight of carbohydrates she has eaten and it would obviously be completely impractical to try to do that in pounds and ounces. But I had still been thinking in terms of body weight in stones.

However, I have bought a new set of bathroom scales which were set to kilograms and I couldn't think of any earthly reason why I should bother to find out how to change it to stones.

Some people have been surprised that I've bought scales at the end of the diet phase of my fitness programme, rather than using them during it. I always maintained that ideal weights are measured not by numbers but how you feel, and as nearly starving yourself is inevitably going to bring weight loss, there is no point in risking demoralisation and weighing yourself during the diet, especially as it never happens as quickly as you would like. But it does make sense to weigh yourself to make sure you aren't gaining weight as the scales will tell you if you start to put on a few extra grams. For the record, my start weight is 91.1kg.

To complete an excellent first day of the year, all four of us travelled to Steve and Lynne's (Julie's brother and his wife) for the now traditional New Year's Day family gettogether and had another great time, and it was good to catch up with Steve before he returns to work in America.

So far, then, 2011 is exceeding all expectations. I wonder if it is going to last.