April 30/May 1, 2011

Band on a run

Your wait for ages for a Misfits gig to come along, and then two come along at once.

We followed up Saturday's sparsely attended gig at the Bakers Arms, Upper Stratton with a much more lively Sunday one at the Harrow, Wanborough.

To tell the truth, I have been going through a big crisis of confidence in my drumming lately, which wasn't helped by the Bakers gig feeling pretty rusty, even though that was quite understandable. The irony is most people can't really tell how well or badly you are doing, unless they are drummers themselves or you drop your sticks. Even a couple of cock-ups which I thought were glaringly obvious seemed to go unnoticed.

So I decided to concentrate on what I do best for the second gig. In fact, it's the only thing I do well, which is to keep good time. This is really all the rest of the band want, rather than having to share the limelight with fancy drummers who want to do big fills, so it pays to try to keep things simple.

The result was I played better than normally, and there was a good atmosphere, so that should be an encouragement.

Our 'Enery

There was some sad news today - the death of Sir Henry Cooper.

Years ago, when I was working on the Swindon Advertiser sports desk, I actually got to meet him.

On telly he always came across as the perfect gentleman and almost too good to be true, but in real life he was... even nicer.

He was in the Swindon area to play in a golf day, and we managed to persuade him to spare some time with us, but when I got there, they seemed to be behind schedule, so the guy who was organising it was trying to rush him. Henry politely told him that we had a prior arrangement to talk to me, and I therefore had his undivided attention.

Considering he must have done thousands of little interviews like that, and featuring in the Swindon Advertiser made no impact on his already massive reputation, his attitude was so refreshing.

He was a real gentle giant and a true hero - and it was an honour to shake his hand.

April 29, 2011

Proud to be British, despite the royal wedding

I am told I should have been proud to be British today on account of the royal wedding that took place between Prince William and Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey.

The fact that I spent all day trying to avoid the blanket coverage that was on seemingly every television channel should tell you that of all the things I disapprove of in this country, the royal family come very very high on my list.

More than one person has told me not to be such a moaner or a whinger, as if this is enough to dismiss the carefully considered moral, historical, political and social reasons I have for my opinion and the fact that I could talk, at great length, about why any kind of monarchy is unjustifiable in the 21st century.

We should be grateful that this particular family has been turned (through no choice of their own) from a power-crazed to a powerless monarchy, but it has reduced the whole thing to a grotesque soap opera, 'starring' 'celebrities' who are celebrities in the true modern sense of not being any good at anything apart from being famous for being famous.

Far from being proud to be British, it actually makes me ashamed to think that of all the things we rightly have to be proud of in this country, people always seem to latch onto those aspects of our national identity that are actually the most shallow and superficial.

So there is, I think, a great irony in that, by the end of the day, I was feeling extremely proud to be British after all.

We happened to have tickets for the latest production by Propellor, a theatre company who are currently at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, as part of a big national tour, performing two plays. We'd recently seen them perform Richard III (see below) and, in complete contrast, now we got to see them do The Comedy of Errors.

I expect the same people who coo over the royal family are much the same as the ones who reject Shakespeare because they think it's high-brow and inaccessible, when the evidence couldn't be any more compelling. Propellor demonstrated this fallacy with Richard III, which is a bloodthirsty play featuring a murder every few minutes, and then again with The Comedy of Errors, which is the craziest farce ever written, being about two sets of twins and the endless possibilities for ludicrous situations when the story is so contrived that no matter what scrapes they all get into, it takes them just under two hours to come face to face. Doesn't sound very high-brow.

To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to seeing it so much - mainly because Propellor are an all-male cast (as, indeed, casts were in Shakespeare's time) and my memory of seeing the play before, years ago, was that it was a sex farce. This proved to be only partly the case (an error of comedy, if you like), so I needn't have worried too much about those scenes where the men dressed as women smooch and even kiss the men dressed as men, which even an extremely liberal-minded person like me feels uncomfortable with, even though the female characters are played as tarts and pantomime dames. I don't think it is unreasonable, when Shakespeare turns his hand to love, to expect to have some pretty actresses to look at for a couple of hours.

In the event, all that was forgotten. Not only was it a superb production, but the cast worked hard to guide the audience to the funniest bits, just in case the language shrouded the comedy. It rarely does, of course. What people who don't watch Shakespeare don't get is it's surprisingly easy to follow, even, as in the case of The Comedy of Errors, there are endless twists and turns.

This is a genuine reason for national pride - that a man who was born less than an hour's drive from where I am now was able to produce scripts and plots of earth-conquering genius that we are still laughing at, four centuries later. And not a dysfunctional family who are there because they are descended from various devils, including the one - also four centuries ago - who declared war on his own people (in a way not so dissimilar to what we revile Colonel Gaddafi for doing today). And that, of course, is only one of a millennium of grossly immoral misdemeanours in their shameful family tree.

We are back on the royal wedding again, but I still need to stay with the theatre because as well as the play itself being brilliant, it also gave us not one but two bonuses. During the interval - apparently as a way of raising money for Save The Children's work in Japan - most of the cast formed themselves into a mariachi band, in keeping with the theme of the play, and sang a couple of songs in the garden, which was a lot of fun.

Then, when the play ended, they announced that some of the cast were going to come out for a question and answer session with the audience, so we hung around for that. As ever at these things, there is always a posh person intent on asking a dumb question - in this case about the parallels between Richard III and The Comedy of Errors, which obviously turns out to be only that they were both written by the same bloke and, by coincidence, in the same year. And one of the actors revealed the dumb question asked by a member of the Sheffield audience was: who wrote this version of the play?

It takes all sorts.

April 22, 2011

Percy - 50 not out

The milestones will be coming thick and fast now as me, my twin brother and our old school friends clock up our 50th birthdays in the next few months. Although I still have more than two months to wait, our friend Phil (known to most of his friends as Percy) hit the big five-O today, and hosted a suitably excellent party at his house (along with his wife Liz).

One of the benefits of having a friend who works in a brewery is there was no shortage of excellent drinks on tap - a whole barrel of Arkell's 3Bs, some superb vintage cider and even draught Guinness (at any rate, tins of the black stuff frothed-up by a new ultrasound device).

I decided to alternate between the beer and the cider and then round it all off with Guinness, which was a dangerous strategy, but along with good food and, of course, excellent company, made for a great night that will be longed remembered, long after all of 2011's milestones have come and gone.

There was a bouncy castle with a slide, which some of us adults eventually couldn't resist trying, once we were suitably oiled, including Percy. There was also the now traditional beer pong, a really rather silly drinking game that involves trying to throw ping-pong balls into cups, which is surprisingly good fun, especially if, as in my case, your team wins and you manage to throw the winning ball.

I managed to avoid our other friend Pete's little disco session which reminded us how crap some of the popular music was in our day, and then all the actual or nearly 50-year-olds who hadn't gone home early lit some Chinese lanterns. The fuel cell of mine somehow managed to burn the strings that were holding it in place, so it never got off the ground, and this hopefully won't be any kind of omen.

Percy's, on the other hand, flew majestically off into the night, in keeping with the success of the evening.

As Percy would say, well done you.


I've just read a fascinating book about an amazing man - Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (by Donald Sturrock).

I'd heard about the book before, having caught the tail end of a discussion about it on the radio, but didn't get round to reading it until my cousin David recommended it and kindly sent it to me.

To say that Roald Dahl was a complex character would be to understate him, and the book goes into remarkable detail as it tries to pin him down. Sturrock not only interviewed dozens of people - who all seemed to have something forthright to say about him - but he also had the benefit of all kinds of paper records, including many letters.

Yet despite poring over all this and having met him at the end of his life, even Sturrock seems to admit defeat as he tries to define Dahl, presenting the contradictions so the reader can make up his own mind.

Dahl was capable of mean and sometimes even cruel treatment of people. At one stage he loses faith with his publishers, who are stalling over a book deal, so sends them an ultimatum. When the publishers receive his letter, they turn the tables on him and write back saying if he doesn't stop being rude to their staff, they will pull the plug on him. A measure of how much he must have got their backs up is he was at the peak of his writing at this time, and a bestselling author, so was a huge fish to lose, but Sturrock was told that when they sent the letter to him, the whole office stood up and cheered.

Yet he was also a genuinely caring and immensely charitable man at times - not just in financial terms, and not just when he was a bestseller and could afford to be generous, but also in terms of the time he was prepared to give people. Although he received thousands of letters from children, he often apparently took time not just to reply, but to write a proper humble letter back, which I really admire him for.

He genuinely loved children and always seemed able to communicate with them on their level - and the book suggests he got on much better with them than he did adults. He never really made it as a writer of adult books, but it occupied half his career, so it took him years to realise something that now seems obvious to us - that he was surely always destined to write children's books, on account of his sheer genius in that department.

I used to read Dahl to our kids. I especially remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Sean, while Matilda was always one of Holly's favourite films, so I've always appreciated his writing.

Sturrock's book recounts all of his eccentricities, which range from growing orchids to racing greyhounds and a liking for poaching. But more significant for me is how many major famous and successful figures he managed to rub shoulders with, even before he became famous and successful himself. These included Walt Disney, Gary Cooper and various other film stars, Francis Bacon, Guy Burgess, the Archibishop of Canterbury and Noel Coward. He even ended up marrying an Oscar-winning Hollywood actress, Pat Neal, whom he eventually divorced after 30 years. I've noticed this often occurs with people who are destined for greatness.

He suffered serious injury from a plane crash during the war, when he was an RAF pilot, and this led to a lifetime of back pain. And he had to suffer other tragedies - a serious accident that nearly killed his son, the sudden deaths of his seven-year-old daughter and a step-daughter, and the major stroke suffered by his first wife, Pat Neal. His son's accident led to him co-designing a surgical instrument that relieved the suffering of thousands of patients.

The book is extremely well put together, includes amazing detail and is one of the most comprehensive and insightful biographies I have ever read. But Dahl is such an enigma and a maverick, the more you read about him, the less you understand.

I don't think I've ever read about somebody and changed my mind about them so many times in the process. And now I've finished it, I'm still not sure whether I like him or not. His colleagues, friends and family couldn't really decide either, which makes me doubt whether it is possible for anybody to really know for sure.

April 18, 2011

Nostalgia times two

One of the good things about being a twin (which I am, in case you didn't know) is you get more than your share of nostalgia.

You see, my childhood was an almost completely shared experience, so if I ever forget anything that happened in my (our) young days, my brother Brian will remember it and recall it. And vice versa. And as we are both incurable hoarders and collectors, too, we also like to get our hands on physical manifestations of our memories. And he has come up trumps twice just lately.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered he had acquired some old copies of The Beezer from eBay, so I begged one, which I can now use to instantly transport me back to 1973, which is something that for various incurable psychological reasons I am wont to do.

We weren't overly keen on comics really, but for some reason we latched on to The Beezer - probably because it was not one of the mainstream ones like the Beano or the Dandy. It was a bit like supporting Swindon Town instead of Manchester United or Arsenal.

Among favourites such as Colonel Blink (the short-sighted gink) and Pop, Dick & Harry, The Beezer had what I still consider to be the most appealing characters of any comic, who were called The Numbskulls. They were little men who lived inside the head of a much bigger man - some working the eyes, some the nose, another who wore glasses and worked the brain, etc.

The Numbskulls are probably the reason I am like I am - because while other kids were busy reading the Beano or (if they were aware of The Numbskulls) were able to push them to the back of their adult minds, I still, from time to time, stop and wonder if the little numbskull men had even smaller numbskull men in their heads, and if so, did those smaller men have smaller numbskull men...

As if getting my hands on The Beezer again after all these years wasn't nostalgic enough, yesterday I got to see inside one of Brian's sheds - he has three - which is full of all kinds of junk and curios. It's an Aladdin's cave - and had a little treasure in it for me, as I was about to discover. "I've got something of yours here," said Brian, pulling a long-forgotten gadget from a tin (pictured above).

To be honest, I had forgotten it had ever existed, but as soon as he produced it I remembered what it was for. It was for removing the studs on my distinctive pair of football boots (pictured below) which were endorsed by Alan Ball, England's man of the match in the 1966 World Cup final and still a big star in the early 1970s - and now sadly the late Alan Ball.

These were no ordinary boots. Not only were they white, which made them unique in the 1970s, but they had revolutionary studs - literally. The back two studs were fixed, but the front four were moulded in a disc, which was supposed to allow you to swivel your foot quickly. I hoped this cunning innovation would give me the edge that would lead to a glittering professional career, but alas, no. It was pure gimmickery.

I must have lost the special tool for removing/replacing the studs because our dad made the replacement - probably on the night shift at work in the fire station of Swindon Railway Works. I was probably really chuffed that he also stamped my name on it.

But not nearly as chuffed as I am now to be reunited with this rusty bit of metal that nobody else on this earth would ever have guessed the purpose of and certainly never have appreciated its nostalgic value, unless their name is Brian Carter.

April 17, 2011

Great expectations

Time for not one CD review, but two.

I'm not sure why I think anybody should be interested in what I think about anything in general or music in particular, but I used to do this sort of thing for a living and can't get out of the habit of it, and I'm also doing it because music is one of those things that separates man from the beasts, and therefore deserves careful consideration.

Besides, in the last few years I have become a musician myself, so I like to think I have an insight into the way it's crafted that qualifies me to spout about it.

I don't buy many CDs these days, so when I do it is a bit of an event, and Build a Rocket Boys by Elbow is one that I had been looking forward to, ever since hearing their previous album, The Seldom Seen Kid.

Elbow have got a bit of a reputation for producing "dull" music, but the inventiveness, innovation and, above all, the sincerity of The Seldom Seen Kid meant it was certainly not dull but deep, drawing on all kinds of profound emotions, from the death of a friend to how it feels to be a towercrane driver. The Seldom Seen Kid was, to put things things in perspective, a stunning album that so impressed me that I have promoted it to my top 10 albums of all time. I not only played it to death after first hearing it, but find myself going back to it regularly.

But if I am kind to their new offering I will say it is disappointing. This is exactly the same reaction I had when I back-tracked and bought the album before The Seldom Seen Kid, so now I have two albums, either side of their masterpiece, which don't come close to its quality, and I dare say the same would be true if I bought their first two albums too. With the exception of two or three songs and two or three moments, Build a Rocket Boys - if you will excuse the pun - never really gets off the ground. The best moments, ironically, are when they sound like somebody else as you can hear bits of Peter Gabriel, XTC and Sting in there.

But even disappointment can be encouraging sometimes. I don't believe anything in this world is predetermined or under the control of any supreme being, but I do like the way things come together perfectly, sometimes, as if somebody was pulling the strings. The fact that a band can produce at least two fairly duff albums and yet, sandwiched between them, there is a real jewel, makes the jewel even more exciting than if it had been one of a string of jewels like, say, you get with all Beatles albums.

The amazing thing about The Seldom Seen Kid is it was a whole album-full of not just catchy tunes but clever ideas and perfect moments, all coming together. I've noticed this with other great albums. It's not just the songs that are impressive, but the fact that if the composers chose to put a triangle in there or pause for half a beat there or use some apparently random sound effect there, it somehow turns out to be the perfect choice. And so it was with virtually every moment of The Seldom Seen Kid.

Build a Rocket Boys suggests that not only will Elbow never recreate that, even if they make another hundred albums, but other perfect coming togethers of other things people create are equally unrepeatable.

Another album I have been listening to lately, by contrast, is The Other Side of the Knife, a re-release by 'singing surgeon' and fellow Alfred Williams fan, John Cullimore. I had some input to the CD in that I helped with the graphics for the CD cover.

The contrast here is in expectation, because (with all due respect), you wouldn't expect one of your friends' CDs to be able to compete with a Mercury Prize-winning, bestselling, highly acclaimed album by a band like Elbow. This is also true because John, who is a consultant surgeon, was clearly put on this earth to wield a scalpel, and it's just not fair that he should have a talent as a songwriter too.

But, as with The Hammerman, another of his CDs, which inspired the musical of the same name, its quality is pleasantly surprising. This type of music always appeals to me, being closely related to the honest, real life-observing folk-rock of my all-time musical hero, Al Stewart, and The Strawbs, with the added attraction, this time, of having local and - it turns out - personal connections.

There are some lovely, hummable songs amongst them, but for somebody with an incurable interest in local history, Railway Town stands out. And it stands out even more since John sang it at the recent Alfred Williams Folk Evening (see below) and revealed it is essentially about mesothelioma, which brought about the death of many Swindon railway workers, including my own father-in-law.

The album also 'proves' a rule I've noticed about albums and artists, which is their best work often turns out to be the song on the album that is the most untypical of their normal style. My favourite on The Other Side of the Knife is called Birdsong and isn't John singing at all, but his daughters, and it isn't a serious song for adults, like the rest, but for children.

I love its simplicity but think I also like it so much because it brings to mind the haunting middle section of Traffic's Hole In My Shoe, spoken by a young girl, which is such an evocative piece of poetry that I can't resist quoting it in full here - I climbed on the back of a giant albatross/That flew through a crook in the clouds/To a place where happiness reigned/All the year round/And music played ever so loudly. Ironically, as the Wikipedia entry about the song points out, Steve Winwood of Traffic didn't like the song because of the very thing I've just mentioned - the fact that it was not typical of their other stuff.

I may be the only person who will ever make the connection between Birdsong and Hole in My Shoe, but the very fact that music causes you to make such connections is, I think, an indication of its charm.

You can sample the song here and there is more info about the album here.

Anyway, I enjoyed The Other Side of the Knife far more than Build a Rocket Boys, so the moral of the story is expectations are not to be trusted.

April 14, 2011

Not based on a true story

You wait ages for some live theatre and then two come along at once...

Following right on from yesterday's Richard III was tonight's offering, Annie, performed by the Wootton Bassett Light Operatic Society (WBLOS) - and it would be almost impossible to find a greater contrast.

It has to be said that Annie is not my favourite musical, being far too sugary and having the most preposterously far-fetched storyline since Noah and the Ark. But it was a chance to catch up with some of the cast of The Hammerman (the centrepiece of our Alfred Williams Heritage Festival, last November) as several were also in this, and the two shows had the same director, Linda Worth, who made such a good job of both.

And it was fun. It had a huge cast, with many playing multiple parts, including loads of kids, but almost everything seemed to go to plan. Best of all was the 11-year-old girl playing Annie, Deanna Aspell, who was not only a little sweetie but a cool actress and an accomplished singer.

It all took place at Wootton Bassett Memorial Hall, where we last went for my nephew Trevor's funeral in February, so there was extra enjoyment from going back for happy reasons.

April 13, 2011

Now is the winter of our discontent

We (Julie and I) had an overdue treat tonight - and a timely reminder that the royal family come from a long line of bloodthirsty, power-crazed, in-bred child murderers (but they smile nicely).

As I always say, anything at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury is worth seeing by virtue of the stunning venue, but for our visit there tonight we not only had tickets for one of the best and bloodiest Shakespeare plays, Richard III, but also seats in the 'slips' which are the balconies that run down the length of the auditorium - and, in the case of our seats, actually over the stage.

This was a slightly obscured view because of the scaffolding that formed part of the set - which tells you it was another of those modern productions with industrial-type scenery and props. The play is really set in the 1480s, but I don't suppose many companies do it in traditional dress and setting any more. I have seen far more Shakespeare plays modernised, like this one, than anywhere near authentic, so what is supposed to be innovative can be mundane if they're not careful.

This time it worked, however, if only because it allowed a wide range of killing methods and the use of chilling body bags for all the murder victims. The play is a procession of assassinations, including the two princes in the Tower (Edward V and his brother), and you soon lose count of how many people cop it.

Not only was it an all-male cast - bringing the uneasy necessity for men to wear dresses - but it was all-adult too, so they had to come up with an ingenious solution to the problem of the two princes, who not only appear in several scenes but have a few lines. They got round it by having them as puppets which had just the right amount of creepiness about them and were worked by the very creepy physicians-cum-butchers, who turn up in most scenes (and even the interval) wearing white masks and looking really menacing.

The first and virtually last lines of the play are famiiar to most people and me ("Now is the winter of our discontent" and "My kingdom for a horse"), but this is the first time I've seen the play performed - and would thoroughly recommend this production for anybody in the same position.

The same company (Propellor) are performing The Comedy of Errors, and we are going to see that too - ironically on the forthcoming royal wedding day.

April 10, 2011

Keeping it live

I keep telling myself I don't get to hear enough live music, but at least we have been making up for it this week with the folk evening (see below) and, today, the first ever performance by The Raker Project.

This is my (and Sean's) drum teacher Paul Ashman's new band. We've seen his other band, The Monkey Dolls, many times, and they are still together, but now two of its three members, including Paul, have formed an acoustic band with DJ Harman, one of Sean's music-teaching colleagues.

So Julie and I had plenty of excuses to spend a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon at the Fox and Hounds, Wroughton, which turned out to be great fun and quite fortuitous as we also bumped into an old school friend of mine, Ron Headon, which was nice.

We shouldn't really wait until we have excuses to go out and do these things, though, but rather just do them anyway, especially as we have increased freedom to go and do different things, now that the kids are old enough to fend for themselves more.

Indeed, we spent Friday and Saturday evening catching up with some friends, much to Holly's continued astonishment that the two of us would ever want to go out anywhere without taking her, especially if it means treating ourselves to a curry.

April 6, 2011

Hardcore folk

I don't think it's possible (for me, at least) to actually enjoy something you've helped to organise, but the second Alfred Williams Folk Evening turned out to be fairly successful in the end.

It's the second one we've done at the King & Queen, Longcot (in view of Uffington White Horse), and this year, despite being let down at the last minute by one of the major performers, it passed off without too much incident and there was a reasonable turnout (organisers must always have a terrible feeling in the back of their heads that nobody will turn up).

Just to recap on why we did it: Alfred Williams was not only a poet and an author, but is also revered as a major collector of folk song lyrics after recording hundreds, about a century ago, so we put on an event to mark this - appropriately at Longcot, which is one of the places he visited during his search.

The chairman of our society, John Cullimore, and fellow singer-songwriter Nick Weaver played an excellent set that represented a kind of folk-rock element, and they were sandwiched in-between some pretty hardcore folk by Chris Park, the amazing Mervy Penny, who is 87, and Swindon Folksingers Club founders (in 1960) Ted and Ivy Poole - a lovely couple I first met a few years ago. They all have that incredible memory for lyrics and tunes that all traditional folksingers must have.

I say 'hardcore folk' because the singers were unaccompanied and it was all very authentic and traditional. Many of the songs were the genuine articles that Alfred put down on paper, all those years ago, and would have been lost forever if he hadn't made the effort to do it.

But while this sort of folk music can appear to be a serious business, ingrained in tradition, it usually turns out that most of the songs that get sung are, in fact, very saucy and a lot of fun.

I am going to make an effort to go to more events like this, including other folkie things, because it's something different, and something I would enjoy if made the effort - and especially if I didn't have a hand in organising it.

April 5, 2011

Have wheels, will travel

It has been a rocky road getting Sean driving, but today we finally managed it.

We've had a long-term plan to sort it so he has a car to drive for his work, which is essential as some of it involves travelling to different places during the day to teach.

He encountered a string of bad luck before he passed his test, and eventually did very well to pass in a car he had barely driven before (our Micra). There was also the fact that his driving instructor retiring between failing his test and passing it.

Then, of course, once he passed, there was no car to drive on account of the Fiat Punto intended for him was written off in a freak accident and we had to embark on the fairly stressful process of trying to find a decent one to replace what had been a perfectly good car.

Anyway, we now have a new car in the family that all three drivers can use, a nice six-year-old Citroen C3 with an amazingly low mileage which is the first French car we've owned and therefore makes us feel all continental (never a bad thing) and which has only one major thing against it: it's silver, so looks exactly like 90 per cent of Citroen C3s on the road.

Oh, and I nearly forgot the little matter of how much it costs to insure a young driver these days, which is £1,700pa - and you only get it that low if you shop around and have a second car to insure. To put that in perspective, that's half what the car cost to buy.

Today finally saw the milestone of Sean driving a car alone for the first time - an event I remember vividly when I did it myself because of the weird feeling of being alone in a moving car that learning cannot prepare you for. But he seemed to take it in his stride.

I managed to record this event for posterity by hiding behind a hedge and photographing him as he drove off (see above).

It was also a milestone for us. A major aspect of our lives over the last few years has been taxiing the kids around to various things, even including driving Sean to work and sometimes waiting in the car for on hour until he finished teaching his lesson, because it wasn't worth coming home in the meantime.

Now we have the prospect not just of somebody else taking up some of the taxi-driving for Holly, but also him picking us up sometimes, when we want to go out and have a drink.

Or, to put it another way: WE'RE FREE!