June 25-26, 2011

All's fair

Our weekend suddenly filled up with festivals - and we got to see them from opposite sides of the table.

Saturday was the day for the annual Old Town Festival in Swindon, which we have somehow managed to miss over many years, so this year we made the effort.

It used to be a Victorian festival, so it was a bit sad to find that any nostalgic edge it used to have has been well and truly exorcised, although that's not to say it wasn't enjoyable. A lot of the stands were for charities, so we spent a lot of time pulling out raffle tickets and hoping to win bottles of cider (and did), and it's amazing what some people will spend their time campaigning and fundraising for.

Just one example is the Animals Asia Support Group which is run by a very dedicated and enthusiastic local lady who has taken it upon herself to try to help out bears in China who are kept in terrible conditions because their bile has medicinal properties. Here in the West we produce the same medicines synthetically.

It seems like a fairly random thing to pin your colours to, and there are some who would argue that such people's time would be better spent trying to relieve human suffering. I don't agree. I think anything that moves us away from being a species that tolerates cruelty to dumb, defenceless animals in any form is necessary if we aren't all going to end up being cruel to each other. I also think that some people were put on this earth to do specific things - and if saving bears in China is your role, then the least we can do to help is give them £1 for a badge to put on our coats.

I need to add here that I don't actually think that there is a god handing out the jobs. In fact, I think that even less after we were intercepted on our stall-visiting rounds by a group of Christians who were surrepticiously trying to convert festivalgoers.

We ended up sat down, drinking tea with an evangelist and going through the Ten Commandments to see whether we needed "saving".

It's not that we didn't see it coming, but the stall was sold as a "test of your spirtuality" or some such, and I was genuinely interested. I have a perpetual dilemma in that although I have precisely zero religious faith myself, I consider religion and the history associated with it endlessly fascinating. I mean - have you seen those cathedrals?

I was also secretly pleased when the Ten Commandments were mentioned because although I obviously don't score very highly on the one about honouring God and His name, otherwise we probably racked up more brownie points than anybody else they had plucked from the crowd that day. Thou shalt not commit adultery: A+ (honest). Thou shalt not steal: OK, a few paperclips maybe. Thou shalt not kill: not murdered anybody yet. And I can honestly say I have never coveted my neighbour's ox.

But then the twisting of the words of the Bible started. It turns out that they didn't mean adultery when they said adultery, and this now also includes looking at Felicity Kendall in a lustful way. And when they said murder, it's now also a sin, apparently if you say you could murder somebody.

Don't look at me. I don't make these rules. You can obviously make the Bible say whatever you want it to say, and this was a fairly transparent attempt to make even us saints feel like sinners.

I also got a little confused about whether, if you really did murder somebody, you would be forgiven at the Pearly Gates if you had also had the foresight to convert to Christianity before you died.

We kept our trump cards until the end. The first was to point out that our honest answers showed that not only are we moral, ethical, thoughtful and caring people, but we are more moral, ethical, thoughtful and caring than many (and perhaps most) Christians - and that Christianity could well be the excuse you are looking for if you want to be forgiven for not being moral, ethical, thoughtful and caring at all.

And of course all this buying your ticket to Heaven is a bit pointless if you are still waiting for a shred of evidence that Heaven exists in the first place. At one stage our soul-converting friend said I am proof of God's (and therefore Heaven's) existence, to which I countered that I am rather proof of Darwin's genius.

You have to be careful how you deal with these situations because you can soon find yourself on the receiving end - as I did, less than 24 hours later. My mission is only to convert people to Alfred Williams, in whose name I manned a small stand at a village fair in Longcot.

This was an appropriate thing to do as the showground was literally within sight of Uffington White Horse and Alfred wrote a book called Villages of the White Horse.

Unlike our Christian friend, I wasn't trying to save any souls, just bring the existence of good old Alfred and his inspiring story to their attention. True to form, most people had never heard of him, so at least I enlightened a few souls. It's actually not a very efficient way of 'converting' people, accosting them at shows when they are more interested in finding the beer tent, and certainly not as effective as standing up and giving them a slide show. I've now done three of these to ladies' afternoon clubs - the latest this week - and it has turned out to be quite enjoyable and also surprisingly raises money for the society's funds as you get paid a fee.

Manning a stall also requires Julie's help which is a bit unfair as for some reason she doesn't share my enthusiasm for Alfred Williams or anything else geeky, but still gives up her weekends when other wives are probably being taken shopping for shoes or something.

But having a stall at a fair has side benefits, including meeting interesting people in general, getting first pickings on the secondhand bookstall before they are officially open, and finding out things you didn't know before.

The stall next door was Stainswick Farm, which produces rapeseed oil at Shrivenham. It was manned by the farmer's wife, a charming young woman who had a really interesting product to sell. Until today I knew precisely nothing about rapeseed oil except it produces beautiful (but in some people's eyes controversially unorthodox) yellow fields, so I was intrigued to find out it is not only a viable British alternative to olive oil but also a healthy and green option, having only half the saturated fat. And on this local farm they have recently started producing different incarnations of it, as well as the pure oil, such as lemon and smoky flavoured, and used it in a lovely honey and mustard salad dressing.

More impressive than this was the fact that, even before we had really started to chat with the farmer's wife, we were dithering over how we were going to pay to buy some because Julie had forgotten her chequebook. "That's OK," said the farmer's wife. "Just send it in the post."

This is doubly satisfying because 1) We must have honest faces, and 2) There are still people around in these difficult, penny-pinching times whose first thoughts are towards trust, not the opposite, even when it comes to virtual strangers.

So that's one conversion that did take place on a stall this weekend after all.

I also got to have an interesting chat with the man running the bumper cars. He is a genuine Scarrott - a famous fairground name in these parts - and explained that the cars are at least 25 years old, made in Italy and much hardier than anything you can buy these days. Another few minutes and I might have fulfilled one of my ambitions, which is to ride on the back of a bumper car, holding the stick that connects with the ceiling.

June 23-24, 2011

9 to 5

Shock! Horror!

I've had two full consecutive days of work and had to go off and do it from nine to five (ish), just like regular people.

I was asked to put together an eight-page supplement for the Swindon Advertiser about this weekend's Armed Forces Day - part writing and part sub-editing. Just like old times.

Work has been tailing off so badly in the last year, I thought it had fizzled out completely, but this is not the start of a comeback in journalism, just a one-off and undoubtedly an exception, not the rule. Indeed, not only is business bad for freelancers, but permanent sub-editing staff are now also being laid off, left, right and centre, which shows just have bad it is.

Local newspapers are now one of the hardest industries to have to work in, and when times are hard, people show their true mettle. Journalists in general get a bad press (if you will excuse the pun), but they (or certainly the local variety) are some of the most honest, decent, genuine, caring, hard-working people you could wish to meet, and they deserve much better than they get.

June 22, 2011

Going for gold

The last time I was feeling like this, I was coming out of the maternity hospital in the middle of the night...

We've just heard that we've hit the jackpot with our application for London 2012 Olympics tickets. Not only do we have two (one for me, one for Julie) for athletics finals, but they are for the big one - the session that includes the men's 100m final. On the same night - August 5, 2012 - we'll also see the men's 3000m steeplechase final and the women's 400m final. We also have tickets for rowing (at Eton Dorney, Bucks, on August 2) which includes finals for events in which Great Britain are current Olympic and/or World Champions.

I think you could say we've hit the jackpot.

It was about half an hour because I was totally convinced this news was genuine, but having checked with my personal account on the official website, there's no doubt. Then I was struck by an almost uncontrollable desire to phone people up and tell them, even though I read the email at 8am.

We are feeling that our luck is finally changing after a crap year. What's more, justice is being done (for once). While other people have taken a "Bah, humbug" approach to London 2012, I have been a big supporter from the start, and we have both applied to volunteer to work at the Olympics and the Paralympics (which are heavily over-subscribed and we are still waiting to hear if we've got interviews).

So that's the news, hot off the press.

Only 407 days to go.

June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day to me

It suddenly occurred to me, earlier this week - not sure why - that today is the 35th consecutive Father's Day that I've had nobody to buy a present for, and the 20th time I've been on the receiving end.

Just as Mother's Day falls very close to (and sometimes on) Julie's birthday, so Father's Day is only three or four weeks before mine, which means there is a flurry of present-buying activity. But as both our kids are stay-in-bed teenagers, it was a long time before I was presented with my bag of goodies today. In fact, I got to see Sean for only about five minutes all day. It was late afternoon before he finally surfaced from a late night in Southampton, where he was playing in a gig until very late. Then he was off out again.

That's a shame because I got some really nice presents. For the record, they were the new Fleet Foxes album, a little book about Swindon history, a tube of flying saucers, some lollies, a tiny torch for my keyring, an enamel mug for tea (which I always maintain makes the drinking a different experience to plain old cups), some Turkish delight and some bottles of beer.

Today I was also out buying (by proxy) Sean and Holly's birthday present to me - a nice pair of Nike running shoes, which cost more than I would otherwise spend on footwear in three or four years - but you need to spend a lot of money to get a good pair, and getting a good pair of running shoes is essential.

I will try not to say this too loudly, but I am really pleased with the way my running is going at the moment. Not only did I get up early this morning and run for 50 minutes - my longest run for ten years - but I soon recovered. More impressively, while we were walking to the shoe shop this afternoon, unless I was very much mistaken, I actually felt quite fit, and for the first time since I took up running again this year, the fitness overshadowed the tiredness. Even more encouragingly, I (at least temporarily) have got over the problem of my poor old leg muscles not being able to stand the pace and periodically twanging and pulling without warning.

So fingers crossed. I am tentatively thinking of entering a half marathon before the end of the year, but I'm not counting my chickens.

June 15, 2011

Villages of the White Horse

It was our monthly lads' night out (LNO) tonight and it was my turn to be the designated driver. Dammit.

This is usually bad news because you get to drink four or five pints of Coke or orange and lemonade during the evening, which, let's face it, is not a lot of fun, instead of sampling a fascinating range of real ales, which, let's face it, is.

But being the driver means you get to choose where you go, and for my turn I decided we should go on an Alfred Williams-themed tour. Call me a geek if you like. Or even a nerd.

This month actually sees the centenary of Alfred starting the final draft of his most important book, Life in a Railway Factory (he noted the date (June 26, 1911) at the top of the manuscript). But a tour of the former Swindon Works wouldn't have been very productive, so instead we visited three pubs he wrote about in another book (published in 1913), called Villages of the White Horse.

These were the stunning White Horse at Woolstone, The Blowing Stone at Kingston Lisle (actually a different building to the one referred to in the book), and The Plough at Badbury.

Our jaunts around the countryside are sometimes referred to as pub crawls, but if that is so we have raised the art of pub crawling to new heights because not only are our LNOs filled with erudite conversation and loads of interesting (if usually useless) facts and Tim Vine jokes, but by calling on Alfred we were able to compare the pubs as they were described a century ago against how they are today.

The Plough went up a lot in my estimation, not just because of the good value food and excellent service, nor even the fact that it sells Arkell's beer (always to be applauded) but because their website recognises the pub's place in Villages of the White Horse, and because the rhyme that Alfred noted was inscribed on the old pub-sign all those years ago was also included on the modern one.

Such things may not figure very strongly in many people's lives, but I always find a comforting kind of synchronicity in such things which simultaneously soothes and boggles my obsessive mind, even on those LNOs, about twice every year, when I don't get to touch a single drop.

And now the news from 1966

One of the things I did on this month's LNO (see above) was to distribute some seeds as part of an experiment.

Before I explain that, I need to turn the clock back about five years when a bag of old papers came to light which had been stuffed down the back of a drawer at my mum's house. I brought them home and then they went missing again because our house is so full of stuff it is sometimes difficult to find things. But they have turned up again and I have been going through them.

They were a completely random collection of things which I have dated to the ten years starting in 1964. Some of these are the most mundane things imaginable; all are completely worthless and, in many cases, they show signs of having been partially eaten by some kind of vermin. But they all provide some little morsels of memory from my early childhood.

The most interesting thing (for me) in the papers was an exercise book from what must have been my first year at school in 1966. I remember how the teacher used to get us to write our 'news' every day, which was an effective way of teaching us to write.

For somebody who spent a large part of his life as a journalist, this little 'newspaper' is obviously not without its irony, but the little A5 landscape book also underlines something I didn't quite realise at the time - that I'm colourblind. The picture I drew of the house which (I am reliably informed) has a green roof, gives the game away.

One of the puzzles of being colourblind is why people who spot that you are having problems don't make you aware of your errors. Although my teacher (Miss Jones) made sure she corrected my writing blunders, she never did think to tell me that you don't actually see many green roofs around here - and that to colour a roof in green was therefore a big mistake.

Other pages show that on one day my 'news' was that I played cars with my brother Brian - which I also illustrated. Am I the one on the right or the left? It's impossible to tell - because we're twins.

And so to the seeds...

Among the papers was a packet containing what turned out to be 53 seeds, which may or may not be wild flower seeds. On the back somebody had written the name of a plant which is not a wild flower and it seems that the packet may therefore have been re-used. But what is almost certain is the seeds are about 40 years old - on account of everything else in the bag was from the same era.

So I have set a little experiment in motion, distributing eight seeds each (which are no bigger than sesame seeds) to the members of the LNO gang, including our friend Simon who lives in the USA. We are going to plant them and see if - after all these years - they come up.

Watch this space.

June 4, 2011

The Adams family

Some people have long-lost cousins, but we have newly found ones.

We (me and my twin brother Brian) spent most of today giving an extremely detailed and wide-ranging guided tour of family history hotspots to Tina and Paul Twigg, who are currently visiting Europe from Australia.

Tina is our third cousin, which means we share a great-great-grandfather: namely Adolphus Adams, who lived around these parts between 1830 and 1891. Adophus is a bit of a pivotal person in the whole Carter story, who seems to crop up in researches more often than other ancestors and was important in the Anglo-Australian split (to have any hope of understanding how we all fit together, it would be worth opening this simplified family tree in another window).

Adolphus had 16 children, and many of these did not survive to adulthood, typically for the time, but one who did was John Miflin Adams, who emigrated to Australia and founded a long line of descendants, including Tina and her aunt Thelma, whom Brian has been in contact with via email. When John Miflin Adams set sail in the 1870s or 1880s, he left behind a sister called Kate Augusta who went on to marry my great-grandfather Albert John Carter - and the rest is family history.

Tina, who is in her mid-fifties, and Paul, the son of an Australian farmer, are in the middle of a long and (no doubt) tiring tour, but that didn't stop us whisking them around various places with family connections, starting in Highworth, where Adophus was married, and taking in Sevenhampton, Stanton Fitzwarren, Lydiard Tregoze, Marlborough and finally Stratton.

Most of the places we went to were churches as they were the sites of key baptisms, marriages and burials, and there were hardly any other buildings to see, so we sadly ended up in a couple of places explaining: "This is where [such and such a building] used to be". Even one of the churches we visited came under this category, as we discovered while we were there, as Sevenhampton's current church is not the one where our common ancestors Thomas Humphreys and Betty Lawrence were married in 1751 (the oldest event in the tree), but rather the one that replaced the former Saxon church on the same spot.

However, there were still some evocative X-marks-the-spot locations, of which probably the best was the font in St Leonard's Church, Stanton, where our great-great-grandmother Ellen Lord (wife of Adophus) was baptized in 1834. There is no doubt it was the actual font in question because it dates from about 1170.

All this was probably a case of information overload for Tina and especially for Paul, who isn't related to us by blood at all, but either kept his interest up all day, was very polite or both. And it was also a bit of an education for me as I not only got reminded of some of the family history details, but also picked up some local history information, including getting to see some things that I knew about but had either half-forgotten or never got round to seeing with my own eyes.

These included the ancient chest, monk stools and the cannon ball that reputedly hit St Michael's, Highworth, in the Civil War; the intricate carving at Stanton Church; and a proper look at the various riches at St Mary's Church, Lydiard. Perhaps even capping all those was the tour of the tower of St Peter's Church, Marlborough (which is no longer a church), delivered by a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide (run every Saturday for just £2 but worth much more).

Our tour guide was the last of several well-informed people we kept bumping into during the day who could fill in useful and interesting details and underlined just how proud we all ought to be of our heritage - and we couldn't have produced friendlier and more enthusiastic experts if we had tried.

Tina and Paul were also great company. I suppose we should have expected that, knowing so much about Tina's faultless pedigree and therefore her genetic ability to find and choose a high quality spouse, but it meant that after the family history saturation stopped and we were joined by Julie and Sarah, we also enjoyed their company at the Rat Trap, where we had dinner.

There the conversation inevitably returned to it's-a-small-world themes. Tina is in charge of the boarding house of a posh school in Canberra where Paul, who previously had a career in educational psychology, also works. Called Canberra Girls' Grammar School, we discovered it is situated almost in the shadow of the Australian Parliament, which we visited on our Australian holiday in 2001. In fact, if you visit our house, one of the first things you will see when you come in (in our hall) is a picture of the tapestry that hangs in the Parliament building.

Captions (from top): the spot (top left) where the cannonball reputedly hit St Michael's Church, Highworth; the ancient font at St Leonard's Church, Stanton; St Leonard's Church; statues at St Mary's Church, Lydiard; the tower at St Peter's Church, Marlborough; access from the church tower; the view from the tower; Paul and Tina at the Rat Trap.

June 3, 2011

Appendix II

The latest medical episode is over as Holly was back home from hospital by 10.30am today, the doctors having decided it wasn't appendicitis after all.

Although the sharp pain she had late on Wednesday night suggested to two different doctors that appendicitis was probable, as it slowly subsided it became clear that if it was to do with the appendix at all, it was just a grumbling one. There may be some minor gynaecological issue instead, but we were given the impression it was likely to be something that will resolve itself.

There was certainly no need to operate in the end, nor even any justification for inserting a camera to have a look at the appendix, which we had expected when she was admitted.

Holly continues to make medical experts of us and at this rate we will eventually be able to sit exams. Not only are we well versed in the ins and outs of diabetes, but we have now also learned a lot about appendix problems, the main thing being they are much harder to diagnose and treat in girls than in boys.

So now it's fingers crossed that we don't get a third occurrence or, if we do, that it doesn't clash with or affect either her exams next week, nor our forthcoming holiday.

We are all feeling a bit jet-lagged, having lost a night's sleep this week, but happy there isn't anything to lose any more sleep over. And - this is something we should never tire of saying - our wonder and pride in the NHS as Britain's greatest ever achievement is as sharp as ever.

June 1-2, 2011

Appendix I

It is now Thursday evening and Julie and I (not to mention Holly) are feeling quite shattered after an expected night and day at the Great Western Hospital.

At teatime yesterday (Wednesday) Holly started complaining of pains in her abdomen, similar to those she was suffering a few weeks ago which brought about a visit to A&E. That time, they disappeared soon after we got to hospital, so this time we waited until late in the evening before we decided they had become persistent enough and painful enough to ring the out of hours service.

They told us to bring her in for an examination, which we did, and soon after midnight the doctor said she thought it was probably appendicitis. The A&E doctor said much the same and decided to admit her. By 2am she was in a lot of pain, although the pain relief they gave her got it under control by 4am, when we finally made it up to the ward.

It was almost light when Julie and I finally drove home to grab a couple of hours' sleep, but we had to be back at the hospital by 8am to see the consultant.

Diagnosis is more of a problem with girls than it is with boys, we discovered, because the symptoms of appendicitis are the same as for a cyst on ovaries, so half of today was spent thankfully uling that and other potential nasties out with a scan. Negative blood tests were also a relief, so we were all more or less resigned to Holly having to undergo surgery for appendicitis.

But when she was seen by another doctor, late in the afternoon, it was clear she wasn't showing all the symptoms of appendicitis - which should have been nausea, complete loss of appetite and more pain than the pain relief she was getting should have been able to cope with. Pressure on the area where the pain was coming from should also have caused a lot of pain but didn't, and when the doctor asked Holly if she would feel like running round the ward if the pain went away completely, the answer should have been no.

So we are not sure whether it is appendicitis or not, or what it might be, bearing in mind all the other tests she had were negative. Another night in the hospital and another appointment with the consultant in the morning may throw more light on it, but two opposite outcomes are equally likely - a complete discharge or surgery.

There are, of course, complications. Holly's diabetes is one, although that turned out to be very easy to control, but she is also now less than a week from a whole raft of GCSE exams, but had to spend most of today sleeping instead of much-needed revision.

Still, a night and a day in the hospital is always enough to underline that some people have much bigger problems and if all they had to worry about were a few exams, life would be very easy by comparison.

It also underlined what we already knew - that when the NHS is fantastic. Not for the first time, we could not fault anything about our treatment in the excellent Children's Ward, and came away eternally grateful to everybody who sees the protection of Britain's greatest asset from radical change as their number one political priority.