May 29, 2011

Junk: Heaven

If there is such a thing as Heaven (which I am certain there isn't), then it won't have perfectly manicured lawns, glistening waterfalls and beautiful women playing soothing music on flutes.

Well, maybe the beautiful women will be there, but the thing that would make it Heaven for me would be junk. On every street corner there will be junk shops and scrapyards and gift shops selling little bits of rubbish, all of which will call out to me as they have done throughout my mortal life and beg me to give them a good home.

Being Heaven, I will have the home the size of Wiltshire in which to store all the worthless and pointless things I get a kick out of owning.

This is what I was thinking of today when we visited one of my favourite places. It's called Haynes of Challow and it has a long history of being a scrapyard and junk Mecca, although it also deals in new hardware and all kinds of other bits and pieces, including the more interesting things that you can buy in garden centres (ie, not the plants). Only everything there is around half the price (or less) that they charge in DIY shops and garden centres - and twice as interesting.

We came home with a shed door that, at £54, was cheaper than it was in Wickes and - even more importantly - was in stock, which it wasn't in Wickes; four secondhand wooden folding chairs at a giveaway £5 each; two glass chopping boards; and an old book on typography (£1).

But even better value was getting to have a look at all the random old stuff they have for sale and walk around the motor scrapyard section - though I had absolutely no need to buy anything in there.

It had been a few years since we last went to Haynes, but we hadn't been there five minutes before we were saying we should go more often. The whole place is like a theme park for people like me who are as happy as a pig in the sticky stuff as long as we are surrounded by junk and scrap and rubbish.

Band substance

I haven't mentioned this before because the actual timing of it was a bit up in the air...

Our band (The Misfits) has undergone a change in personnel on account of guitarist Dave leaving and being replaced by Alan. Although there had been some confusion over whether we would need him to play in our next gig, Dave has now officially played his last one.

This is a real shame for me as Dave is a really nice guy with a great sense of humour - and, musically, I always saw him as an ally. I think he plays really well and with real heart and affection for songs, but he's not the best guitarist in the band so - not unlike me - ended up in a supporting (but important) role, usually providing the rhythm.

Because he is thinking of retiring and moving to the coast before the end of next year, but also because I think he feels he's taken his 'career' in our band as far as it can go, he's decided to step aside and make way for somebody else. We'll still keep in contact with Dave, but it will be a shame to turn up to gigs and not be met by his smiling (if slightly worried-looking) face.

Ironically, my drumming in the band is better than ever. At least, it is in terms of how infrequently I completely cock-up a song and how rarely I drop my sticks - which, touch wood, hasn't happened for a long time now. I have even made advances in that trickiest of skills required for drumming in a band: ending songs.

It's going comparatively well in the band, but I have been having a long, hard think about drumming recently. I've gone back to learning grades because I thought it would help me to have the discipline of learning things by the book, but it has had a terrible negative effect on account of I am struggling to do some very basic things.

You might say how come I am struggling if I am able to play in a band and provide the drums for proper musicians, especially our lead guitarist Roy, who is truly gifted? It's because I have invented a kind of pseudo-drumming which gets me through gigs by playing basic, unambitious stuff which does the job and is perfectly acceptable to anybody in the audience who doesn't really know about music in general and drumming in particular.

I am not saying I don't have a talent for keeping good time and a reliable rhythm, and I try hard, but when it comes to the bits that call for a natural touch and a bit of flair, I have nothing to offer. I just dodge the issue. Nobody in the band seems to mind because I fit perfectly the original spec which was for somebody "who is not to flash and not too good-looking".

You could say that being able to pull off something that requires skill without actually having all the necessary skills to do it and having no instinctive talent for the craft is something to admire; an achievement. But I am increasingly feeling like a fraud - because whereas before I started studying for grades I was under no illusions about my ability to ever do the kind of fancy stuff that Sean and other natural drummers can do, at least I thought I could do all the basics.

I drum much better now than when I first started, by simple virtue of the fact that I have more experience and I have worked out exactly how much it is possible to get away with, and I'm sure I look more relaxed and therefore natural because of it. It's amazing how you can even fake naturalness and get away with it to a certain extent, but there is a limit.

Hardly anybody would spot anything wrong in what I do - they are usually too mesmerized by the guitars anyway - but I spend a lot of every gig looking around at the audience and hoping there aren't any other drummers watching, because then I will be found out. You can fool most of the people, most of the time.

I thought about this a lot tonight as I was pounding the streets in my running shoes. I had had to give up on my drum practice because I was feeling so utterly frustrated by my limitations that I was within two minutes of quitting for good, and the comparison with running couldn't have sharper.

I've never won a race in my life and have never been much more than average as a runner, but I do feel like I am a natural. I look at some people trying to run and their running action is enough to tell me they will never be able to do it fluently and efficiently, but even when I'm struggling and puffing, it still feels like sometime in the future and perhaps even very soon I will go through a patch when I will be running more or less perfectly and fluidly. Even more importantly - I feel as if I can improve.

That natural feeling is something I have never felt when I have been drumming, and now I have reached the critical point where I cannot see how I can improve.

But this isn't just about drumming. It is one of life's great questions. I have already far exceeded the goals I set myself when I started drumming, about ten years ago, but having taken it as far as I possibly can, what happens now? What should you do when you reach your limit and can't get any better?

I always knew it was a comparatively little hill I was climbing, but having reached the top of it, is it time to take the road down and try something else, or take it easy and enjoy the (albeit limited) view?

May 26, 2011

School's out for ever

As of today, we have no more schoolchildren in our house. It's a sobering thought.

Holly attended her last day at Kingsdown today, and although she will be going back for more exams and her prom, then on to New College in September, our days of being parents of schoolkids are effectively over.

I can vividly remember taking Holly's picture as she went off for her first day at school, and the most telling change that has happened in the intervening years is there is no way she would consider posing for the corresponding picture at the end.

She's already well into her exams, having already taken the one most important to her (Art) and some of those that it is most important to pass (English).

We are not the kind of parents who think exams are the be all and end all of education, so we (me especially) are pretty cool about what sort of grades she gets, except she has worked hard enough to deserve good ones.

That may sound like we are gearing up for disappointing results and consolations, but actually we are expecting them to be very good. We just don't think exams are as important as politicians and pushy parents build them up to be. Life is about a lot of things and one of things it isn't about is learning to pass exams.

Like me, both our kids went to Beechcroft Infants, Ruskin Junior and Kingsdown Comprehensive, all of which had plenty to admire and teachers to be grateful to, and which mostly delivered under mostly difficult circumstances. But every highlight of their school years concerned stuff that was extra-curricular, which should tell us something about the poor job we have done with education in this country and the mindless obsession with doing everything by the book which stifles kids' creativity.

People don't really enjoy learning about new things until they leave school - and only then if they haven't had it knocked out of them by the system.

And that is a very sad and dangerous thing.

May 23, 2011

Another 50 up

Four down, two to go...

This is the year of the big 50th birthdays for my old school friends Phil (Percy), Pete (Lukey), Simon and James who (in that order) have already reached the scary milestone. And me and my twin brother Brian are now within a couple of months of entering our fifties too.

At least a couple of years ago we all got together and decided that rather than wring our hands at being so ancient, we would actively celebrate living to such a ripe old age, and we are doing that collectively in October with a trip to Barcelona, when we will be dangerously wife-free for a long weekend.

In the meantime, the others have been celebrating in individual ways - and tonight it was the turn of James who chose to put on a modest Monday night party at home for friends and family. As you can see from the new and old (1972) pictures of him, James hasn't changed a bit.

The party had excellent food and drinks, plus an even more important ingredient: good company. James was obviously the main man, but the star of the show was undoubtedly his mum, who isn't very mobile these days but still has a very active mind and is just one of those old ladies who is full of love and kindness for everybody and their families.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and I think everybody must have gone home thinking the same.

Grow up!

Time for another book review as I have just finished How Not To Grow Up! by Richard Herring.

This one was a bit of a whim because although it was strongly recommended by my nephew Rich (who generally has reliable taste, especially in books), I'd never even heard of Richard Herring before I read it.

It turns out he is a stand-up comedian - who pops up only occasionally on telly - and the book was all about him reaching 40, and all the issues and emotions that brings. This made the book partly significant for me as I am fast approaching my own, more serious milestone, but really it is about somebody whose life has been completely different to my own as he reached 40 single, childless and thinking it was maybe high time he settled down.

I spent the first ten or 20 pages thinking this was just going to be a lads' book about getting drunk, eating junk food and - as it actually turned out - also a catalogue of the author's romantic and sexual exploits. And it is always liable to break into schoolboy or - even worse - adolescent humour. Basically, I should have hated it.

It has all the makings of one of those irritating books where you are either tearing your hair out, wishing the author would pull themselves together or - more likely in this case - grow up. But for some strange reason you soon find yourself endeared to him because you can tell he's intelligent, well meaning and - as he finally reveals, late on - actually has a heart of gold.

And although it's not a laugh-out-loud book, it is witty and well written, and therefore very easy reading, and you just can't help liking the author a lot when you get to the end. And that really is quite a compliment for any writer.

May 21/22, 2011

Grave new world

I have spent most of this weekend in a cemetery.

The Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery, of which I am one, organised some guided walks of some of the historically interesting graves today, but also opened up the chapel for a small exhibition by local history groups.

So I took along some stuff from the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, but also ended up talking to a lot of people who were interested in tracing their ancestors through cemetery records. I am currently working on the group's website, which will eventually put all the burial records online.

The event turned out to be a great success - well done to Mark Sutton and Frances Bevan who are the brains and the energy behind it - as there was a steady trickle of people to the chapel and the walks were both heavily subscribed and very well received.

One thing I have learned since becoming a crusader for local history at various events, is your success is measured by the quality of interest shown by visitors, not the quantity, and there were plenty of very nice people who were really fascinated and inspired by the work of the groups represented there, not least the brand new cemetery group.

It's a strange feeling belonging to a group that is concerned with the history and future of a cemetery, but it is not at all morbid. There are more than 33,000 people buried there, including notable people such as former mayors, footballers, soldiers and murder victims, plus a very high proportion of infant deaths. But the journalist in me tells me there are more than 33,000 human interest stories that deserve remembering, because the more illustrious residents are only the tip of the iceberg.

In the pink

Julie, Holly and my cousin's wife Jayne (plus a few thousand others) took part in the Race For Life at Lydiard Park today, which is an annual event for women only, raising money for Cancer Research UK.

It is only a 5K walk, which doesn't sound much, but because Julie has been suffering with a painful bad back, that was a bit of an ordeal.

Not that I was there to see it (because I was tied up at the cemetery - see above), but I have scanned Juie's running number and medal because I think it is a pretty cool thing to have done.

May 20, 2011


If I believed synchronicity was a genuine force in the world, today would have been quite spooky.

While Swindon Town were pinning their colours to the mast of fascism and hatred (see below), I spent three hours having my say about what I suppose boils down to civic pride.

I was representing the Alfred Williams Heritage Society at a meeting convened by Swindon Borough Council to look at their draft Heritage Strategy for Swindon. Ours was one of about a dozen local organisations asked to have an input into policy concerning the town's historic buildings and collections.

It was just the beginning of a consultation exercise that will hopefully not be like all other consultation exercises embarked on by political bodies I've looked into in the past, which doesn't amount to consultation at all but exercises in rubber stamping and box ticking. But I am keeping an open mind on this because I detect a genuine desire in people to do the right thing and also because - as the lady from English Heritage who spoke to us kept coming back to in her talk - volunteers have never been in a stronger position to make the policy makers and budget spenders sit up and listen. This is because of the economic climate and the need for volunteers to take the initiative (I am purposely avoiding referring to this as 'the Big Society').

For the record, my standpoint - which is broadly shared by my colleagues in the Alfred Williams group - is that Swindon's railway history should be the beacon of its heritage strategy, which for me starts with preserving and then turning back to community use the building that is historically more important than all the others put together, which is obviously the Mechanics' Institute.

Not unconnected with this - because I heard about it at another heritage groups meeting, earlier in the week - was a free event being organised by the Purton Historical Society.

Purton was once home to Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811), who was Astronomer Royal, and the local history group got some Lottery funding to run some events based on him - including an inflatable travelling planetarium (the Explorer Dome) which spent today at Purton Village Hall.

There were sessions for school classes all day, but the history group had also allocated the three hours after 3pm for allcomers of all ages to go along. We felt a bit silly having to crawl into the entrance after the local Beavers had been let in, and sat cross-legged with them for the 45-minute show, but inside, two young guys put on an entertaining and educational show. It was primarily aimed at children, but was still fascinating for fully grown children - even if, like me, you are interested in space in general, and either knew or had forgotten you knew virtually everything they told us.

The climax involved the stars and the constellations being projected on to the inside of the dome, but both Julie and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.

I think everybody needs to ponder the universe every now and then, to remind themselves that their little worries and the small-minded people around them are ultimately nothing more than a wayward piece of stardust left over from the Big Bang, and there are always bigger things to concern us.

Why I am now a former supporter of Swindon Town Football Club

I could write another long entry here about the appointment of Paolo di Canio as the new manager of Swindon Town.

But the photograph above is just about all you need to see to understand why I will no longer have my name associated with a football club of which I am a shareholder, which I have supported all my life - until today - and which is supposed to represent the community of which my family has been a part for at least seven generations.

However, you also need to understand that di Canio originally tried to claim he was not giving a Nazi salute, only later admitting he is a fascist (see the BBC's report). So he is a liar too.

There is a cancer running through football that will ultimately be more destructive than the hooliganism of the Seventies and Eighties, and judging by the mindless comments of many twisted fans today, not only is the County Ground terminally infected with it, but so are a high proportion of those who go there.

And I am both happy and relieved to wash my hands of it.

May 11, 2011

Cats know things

I don't very often say much here about my weekly (Monday) column in the Swindon Advertiser, or very often reproduce it in this blog (the whole point of the thing is you should buy the paper if you want to read it!). But I am going to do it this time - for the simple reason that I liked this week's.

That's not always the case, particularly if it proves a bit of a struggle to write, but sometimes these things virtually write themselves - which is a sure sign that it will read pretty well, too. In this case, I had the opening three words in my head and it grew from there, even though I didn't have much of a plan about what I was going to write about.

I hope I haven't built it up too much, but a nice lady did send me an email to say she found it "very moving" so it may strike a chord or two with other fellow cat lovers.

The picture above is of Daisy, taken a couple of years ago.

Cats know things.
  I don't just mean they know that mice are edible or that dogs are stupid. They know things that we don't.
  For a start, they can tell which of the visitors to their home possess the cat-loving gene and will therefore be putty in their paws.
  Our cat, Daisy, knew this about everybody in our house as soon as we turned up at the cat sanctuary, looking for a new pet, about ten years ago.
  She sidled up to us, knowing that exactly one second later we would all be desperate to take her home.
  And she knew, when our other cat got ill and went off to the vet's last month, that he wasn't coming home again.
  It was by no means the first time her brother Elvis had been carted off in his basket. In the last few years we had spent a king's ransom on vet's fees and special diets, trying to help him overcome a chronic digestion problem, and he had spent 10 days at cat hospital last Christmas.
  But that time Daisy had carried on as normal. This time she knew something was up.
  All this happened a few weeks ago, but it's only now that I or anybody under our roof has been able to say much about it, because we have all been under a cloud.
  You have to be a cat lover yourself to understand how we all felt when we had to admit defeat on Elvis's struggle for life.
  The decision to have the vet put him down fell to me in the end, and although we know it is the ultimate gift to deliver an animal from suffering, nothing you experience in nearly 50 years on this planet can prepare you for having that decision on your shoulders.
  If you don't know what it's like to carry that gene, then not only is the death of a dumb animal no tragedy, but it can even be considered a source of humour.
  But Elvis was as much a part of our family as each other, and a death in the family is never a laughing matter.
  We don't know how Daisy knows all this, but she does.
  She never liked Elvis herself, thinking herself vastly superior, but she certainly recognised that something was missing from our lives, not just the house, and we swear she has spent the last few weeks trying to fill the gap.
  From an aloof, supercilious, sometimes moody cat, she has become an affectionate, attentive softie.
  And then, earlier this week, something amazing happened: she was lying in the windowsill, waiting for us to come home.
  It's something that Elvis always did, but never Daisy.
  I know what you're thinking: that a cat sitting in the window is not evidence of supernatural powers, ESP, a sixth sense or whatever strange force might be at play here, but she's changed.
  We get so attached to cats and so wrapped up in their welfare that sometimes the cat-loving gene feels more like a curse than a blessing, but it may just be the salvation the human race is looking for.
  If they isolated the cat-loving gene and injected it into those who don't have it, I'm sure people would discover new priorities and settle all their differences.
  The world would be a better place.
  Because if you put a stethoscope to the chest of a person with the cat-loving gene, you will hear a funny noise.
  It's our hearts, ever so gently purring.

May 10, 2011

We wear red shirts, not black

I try not to let politics seep into this blog too much, nor in stuff I write professionally - and believe me I have to bite my lip so hard sometimes.

However, I am making an exception for Swindon Town.

I have supported this football club all my life, on and off - mostly on - and it has been downhill all the way because arguably the greatest match in the club's history (its 3-1 win over Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup final) also happened to be the first match I saw live.

During those 42 years I have had countless season tickets at the County Ground, have followed them to away games all over the country and, for a brief time, got to report on some of their matches for the Swindon Advertiser. I once wrote a series of features for the paper about their recent ups and downs, called The Rollercoaster Years. To be honest, it's always a rollercoaster. By the way, I am also a shareholder.

You suffer a lot as the supporter of a generally unsuccessful lower league club, but there are compensations. For a start, there is the pleasure of cheering the underdog when so many glory-chasers pin their colours on the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United and then have the nerve to call that loyalty. I believe that once you are a Swindon Town fan (or whichever team it is your fortune or misfortune to have in your blood) then you can never be anything else. But there are limits, and I may not associate myself with Swindon Town for much longer.

Why? Because, according to the Swindon Advertiser, Paolo Di Canio is the favourite to be appointed as the club's new team manager.

On the surface, this looks like a great idea. Most of the rare successes the club has enjoyed in the past have come after they appointed some highly experienced international players and gave them their first break in management. It's a winning formula. And not only was Di Canio talented enough as a player to rival the skills of previous Town managers Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Lou Macari, but there is also no denying that as a footballer he had great charisma.

But there is one towering, gigantic, sickening downside to Paolo Di Canio: he is a self-confessed fascist. This old BBC news website story tells you all you need to know about him, including the ridiculous defence he puts up against charges of racism, which is that he is a fascist, not a racist. That's like saying you are a rottweiler, not a dog (with my apologies to dogs everywhere for making the analogy).

On top of all the things I mentioned about supporting a lower league club - and you have to have experienced supporting a rubbish team to really understand how much loyalty is wrapped up in it - possibly the most important aspect of little local clubs like Swindon Town is their standing in the community. The football club is as much a part of the community's heartbeat as its schools, its places of worship and its factories. I am not saying the club has been much good at recognising this over the years, seemingly going out of its way to alienate its fan base, and apparently seeing them as an unfortunate but sadly necessary nuisance rather than valued customers. But even if the club doesn't often recognise its key role in connecting Swindon Town with the people, the fans feel it profoundly.

And me as much as anybody. I am a seventh generation (at least) Swindonian, I am a keen student of local history and I am also somebody who has genuine civic pride in his home town and all it stands for. But to have my hometown associated with somebody who is proud to call himself a fascist would fill me with utter shame.

Swindon Town have made some enormous howlers in the past. Even when they come with the regularity that they have over the club's history in general and the last few years in particular, mistakes on the field are excusable; mistakes in the boardroom less so. If Paolo Di Canio becomes manager of Swindon Town, all previous boardroom errors will look like hiccups by comparison.

Fans are all too quick to call for boards to resign these days, but I would urge all members of the current board to consider their positions very carefully today - not to mention their responsibilities to the community - just for thinking that Paolo Di Canio could be the next manager.

To be fair to them, this is all speculation at the moment, based on the fact that some bookmakers make Di Canio favourite, but as bookies are more often right than wrong, there is likely to be something in it. The club haven't even confirmed he has applied, but PR is about what you don't say, as much as what you do, and despite being given the opportunity by the press to distance themselves from Di Canio, they have not done it.

If they should actually move to appoint him, then I would urge all Swindon Town fans to unite in their opposition and tell the people making the decisions that they are getting it terribly, shamefully, spectacularly WRONG. I even urge local people who feel little or nothing for the club to also make themselves heard - because this is about much, much more than football.

I for one will launch a personal lifelong boycott of the club if necessary - because if there are people at the County Ground who are really prepared to put a fascist on the payroll, I swear I will never set foot in there again.

We wear red shirts, not black.

May 9, 2011

Reinventing the meal

Ever since last autumn, when I could see that I had come to a crossroads in my life, I have been trying to reinvent myself.

I was (and still am) virtually unemployed, the bottom having dropped out of the freelance journalism market, and the industry that I once loved and was proud to be part of has become tiresome and uninviting - which is even more reason to think there is no future in it for me.

As I rapidly approach my 50th birthday, I can't say I have made much progress in deciding what happens from now on, and I still really only have ideas about what I don't want to do. My only idea about what I do want to do is that it needs to be something a bit off the wall and/or worthy.

But when I started pondering the future, last year, I thought a good place to start would be with myself. I finally decided that I was too fat and - because I could still remember those far-off days when I could run marathons and pretty fast - I was also nowhere near as fit as I should be. Fatness and fitness are two sides of the same coin, but they need different approaches, so I came up with a two-phase plan.

Firstly I set out to lose a significant amount of weight with a radical new diet that hardly anybody has thought of before - not eating much. It was pretty revolutionary because apart from the odd treat, I more or less banned actual meals, and although some people thought the whole plan was madness, it turned out to be logical, practical and successful. Actually, it worked a treat, and by the New Year, I had lost enough weight to implement the second phase, which was to set myself ambitious targets about the amount of exercise I do. Despite all kinds of things trying to stop me achieving that, I am meeting that challenge too.

It has not been the ideal time for reinvention. As well as the small matter of needing to find a new career, we have had some major family tragedies in the last few months that would have knocked the stuffing out of anybody, plus a few other setbacks that would have been demoralising at the best of times.

Running has become the bright light amid all the gloom. It's the sport I have been best at in my life, and sometimes I say it is the only one I've been any good at. But the encouraging thing about it is: whereas I don't always feel as inspired by things, these days, as I used to be, when I put my running shoes on, for some reason I am.

As well as the demoralising aspects of the year mentioned above, my return to running has been dogged by untimely colds and - presumably because I am now a veteran runner and starting to fall apart - I have suffered from seemingly random muscle pulls that have decimated my schedule for a few days or even over a week at a time. The golden rule is: if you feel actual pain instead of mere discomfort, stop - but I have been so determined to carry on that I have recently come to ignore it sometimes, with surprisingly few adverse effects.

I am self-impressed by my willingness to get up early in the morning or run when I really don't feel great, and puzzled that I find enough determination not just to keep me going when the going gets hard, but to actually push myself even harder. I am still only doing a couple of miles at a time, which is 18 minutes a day, always on the same route, except for odd days when I run for about 33-34 minutes. This is nothing remarkable to somebody who has run marathons, but it is pretty steady progress. I don't intend to ever run another marathon because they are such an ordeal, but will eventually set myself the goal of entering a half marathon.

The bad news is my idea that if I am running a lot I can go back to eating whatever I like may not turn out to correct. The evidence seems to suggest that I will never be able to go back to eating anything like the quantity of food I used to, and will now always have to be careful. It has become a bit of a balancing act between keeping food intake down but giving myself enough energy to get round the course.

But I am rediscovering the unique feeling of satisfaction when I turn the corner into our street at the end of each run, and although I may not actually be any thinner in the few hours after I have been out for a run, I feel thinner.

May 4, 2011

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking

I am feeling a little more inpsired today, thanks to having to do a talk about Alfred Williams to a Mother's Union in Swindon.

I don't mean that Alfred Williams doesn't inspire me; after all, it's why I co-founded the Alfred Williams Heritage Society in the first place. It's just that a feature of this year so far is: the inspiration I always feel about the world and some of the things human beings are able to achieve isn't translating itself into actions on my own part just lately.

Self-confidence and faith in my own abilities is as much an issue as it always has been (and always will be), so I have to say I was approaching tonight's talk with some dread. As ever, on the way there, I was wondering why I put myself through these things. I have the same feelings about drumming in front of other people, although that's different because I know enough gifted drummers - and I live with one - to understand my drumming is all about the challenge of using dedication, hard work and a williness to learn in order to overcome a shortage of actual skill.

Although I'd done similar talks in schools - which provide different challenges again - tonight was my first experience of talking to an adult group about Alfred.

It was called Alfred Who? - Swindon's Forgotten Local Hero, and once I got started on it, I soon realised that, actually, I was enjoying myself. There were only about a dozen people there, although it's not the number that is the key, because sometimes it can be more of an ordeal talking to a few, close up, than to a large audience.

But they were very friendly, intelligent and interested, and because I not only knew my stuff but really believed in it (or him), I thought it went really well.

That's just as well because we are planning to do more things like this to achieve the aim of our society, which is to spread the word about an inspirational character who is a key part of our heritage. So if anybody reading this wants a speaker to give a talk, please ask.

I was also quite pleased that I resisted the temptation to crack the joke about the Mother's Union - the one about the vicar who says if there are any young ladies in the audience who want to be in the Mother's Union, they should see him in the vicarage afterwards.

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.