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July 30-31, 2011

Indian summer


Returning home from a perfect holiday in Florida could have been a bit depressing, except a combination of lucky timing and clever planning provided us with a really busy weekend and a lot to look forward to on our return - and it turned out to exceed expectations.

Finally, after a really difficult first half of the year, we have reasons to smile.

Saturday saw Swindon's ninth annual - and our ninth - Mela, the festival of south Asian culture that attracts huge crowds to the Town Gardens. I really think it's something that the town (and the country) should be proud of, showing multi-culturalism in action and disproving all the bigoted propaganda peddled by papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, which like to discredit the idea of a multi-cultural Britain.

To be honest, every year's Mela is very similar in content to last year's, although this year's finally provided something which has been overdue - a performance by a sitar player.

In the end, the best thing about the Mela is simply the lovely atmosphere it generates, in which everybody is relaxed and smiling, and there's no hint of trouble or animosity of any description. And the sun always shines on the Mela.

Rising temperatures meant that the gig I had to play in the evening, at the Swiss Chalet, Swindon, was quite challenging, but it mostly went well and we were well received by a pub renowned for its live music. The only problem was getting to bed late and having to be up very early to travel to Nottingham to see the third day of the second Test between England and India at Trent Bridge...

Back in the winter, when I booked the tickets for this family trip - me, Julie and Sean plus all my brothers and selected members of their families plus my cousin Keith and his wife and son, making up a party of 12 in the end - I couldn't have imagined that I was picking what would be one of the most memorable days of cricket in recent years.

On the day, England recovered from an aparently losing situation to hit 417 runs for the loss of five wickets (from 24 for 1 to 441 for 6), which I believe is a record for Tests at Trent Bridge. That, combined with the general atmosphere and buzz of being at a Test, would have been excitement enough, but we also got to watch a big talking point live and as it unfolded, which will probably turn up in future editions of A Question of Sport.

To cut a long story short, when Eoin Morgan apparently hit a four off the last ball before tea, we were ready to applaud fellow batsman Ian Bell off the field for his unbeaten 137 - and he was already on his way. Everybody in the ground assumed the ball was dead, including the fielder who threw it back to the middle, but it hadn't crossed the boundary and wasn't dead, so Bell was run out.

The Indians were perfectly within their rights to do this, but even before Bell was officially given out, I and the rest of the crowd understood that it was grossly unsporting to get anybody out like that, let alone somebody who had turned the game with a brilliant innings. So I and the rest of the crowd found ourselves doing something we wouldn't normally dream of doing at a cricket match, which was booing.

After a lot of confusion during the tea interval, the Indians returned to the pitch to even louder boos, but then Bell also appeared - signifying the Indians had had a change of heart.

History will show that Bell got the blame for "naively" walking off too soon, while India have been praised - and were later applauded by us - for withdrawing their appeal and re-instating Bell in the true spirit of the game (he added another 22 before being dismissed legitimately for 159).

However, if they hadn't unsportingly removed the bails in the first place, while Bell was on the way to the pavilion with the bat under his arm, then the situation would never have arisen. But it is great that India saw sense and it is great that the spirit of the game always prevails in cricket in the end.

I can't think of any other sport where the decision of the umpires, operating within the letter of the law, would ever be over-ruled by the players getting together and agreeing that fair comes before right.

It all added an 'I was there' element to an already fantastic day for us. Far from dragging, a day at the Test match whizzes by and is altogether a more enjoyable experience, now, than watching football, and if it hadn't become it already over the last few weeks, cricket is now officially my favourite sport.

The photos below include an historic moment - when the scoreboard showed Bell as being out and England 254 for 4. They are in the process of removing his name against 'last man' after his reinstatement. The final picture is of the human fish, the fancy dress hero of the day.

There are some infinitely better pictures of the day on my brother Brian's Flickr account.

























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July 11-26, 2011

Stateside


There has been a heck of a long time between posts on what is supposed to be a daily blog, but I do have an excuse: we've been on holiday in Florida.

It was mine and Julie's third trip there (the first being in 1990), and we also went in 2008 (the four of us) for what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to celebrate Sean leaving school. But with Holly leaving school this year and not unreasonably expecting the same treatment, plus my 50th birthday giving us another excuse, we decided to have another once-in-a-lifetime trip again this year.

It turned out to be a massively successful holiday - fittingly, as it will probably be the last time the four of us go away together like that. The days when our kids will want to go on holiday with their elderly parents are surely coming to an end.

I did my best to act young by going on all the many Florida rollercoasters with Sean and Holly - Julie could only be tempted on to a couple - but in reality I've always been a bit of a big kid when it comes to rollercoasters, and never tire of them. And there is not a better place on earth to be if you like rollercoasters.

Florida offers much, much more, of course, as anybody who has been there will tell you, while those who haven't still wonder what the attraction is, especially when there are huge crowds at the theme parks and temperatures were so high that I am pretty sure our last dull day there was the hottest of my entire life. It's hard to describe, but nothing beats its for non-stop amusement and entertainment, and the feeling that for two weeks you've entered a different world.

As much as I acknowledge that other people's holiday pictures are never quite as interesting as you might imagine them to be yourself, I will be uploading more pictures here in due course, plus a bit of a journal, but with just over a thousand pictures taken, it will take some time to sort through them. Lucky that I decided not to take as many, this time, as before!

This time we also decided to pack in even more to the holiday than last time. We had a gruelling schedule of eight major theme parks to visit, a trip to Kennedy Space Center (always my favourite day of a Florida holiday) and two Disney water parks, but also added some travelling so that we can claim to have seen something of 'real America' as well as the one conjured up by Disney and their competitors. When we returned the hire car at the airport, we were congratulated by the woman checking us in as we had driven 1,540 miles.

One disappointment was not getting to see anything of the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which launched three days before we left (although we did see a launch on our 1990 trip).

So we planned to try to see the landing instead - the last few seconds of a 30-year programme of 135 flights. It was originally due to arrive home early one morning, but when it was put back 23 hours and therefore landed in the dark, we had to admit defeat. However, although we didn't see it, we did hear it because the sonic boom was so loud, even from 40 miles away, that it woke us up.

If asked to name our highlight of the trip, I think all four of us would be hard-pressed to decide, but the new Harry Potter section of the Islands of Adventure theme park would be a major contender, even for me - the one non-Harry Potter fan in our party (and seemingly in the world as Florida is in the grip of a kind of Pottermania). Just when you thought the tourist/entertainment industry of Florida couldn't surprise you, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter proved to be a real stunner, with breathtaking scenery and theming plus surely the best ride in Florida, even though it isn't a rollercoaster.

But perhaps making even more of an impression on all four of us than the Harry Potter stuff was a restaurant chain called Cracker Barrel. We'd discovered it on our last trip and kept going back this time, despite the competition of 101 other impressive (and excellent value) places to eat.

Cracker Barrel serves up simple, traditional 'homestyle' American food, which it is easy to imagine The Waltons eating. Yes, they will happily do you burgers, but the menu also overflows with things like meatloaf, dumplings, hashbrown casserole, potato salad, the best coleslaw we've ever tasted, old-fashioned lemonade, etc, plus a tart including blackberries that took me right back to the ones our mum used to make when we were kids. On top of all that, it's amazingly good value and they bend over backwards to make sure the customer is totally satisfied (not to mention full and carrying tomorrow's breakfast in a doggybag).

As if that wasn't enough, every Cracker Barrel restaurant is attached to a 'country store' which sells all kinds of interesting stuff and was certainly my favourite shop out of the many we visited. Our nearest branch was a two-minute drive from our villa, which was perfect.

It seemed to sum up the holiday, which we always make hard work of because we pack so much in. By the end of the fortnight we probably couldn't have faced another theme park, even if we'd had the energy, but it won't be long before we start wishing we were back there.

I doubt whether that will be in the foreseeable future, though. I can't see us returning until the as-yet unforeseeable time when we have the excuse of going back there with grandchlldren.


On the fiddle

We got back from Florida to find two honours for Holly in the post.

She received her certificate for achieving the Bronze standard in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, and - even better - received notification of her Grade 5 violin, which she took in the week before our holiday.

Despite being absolutely certain she had failed, it turns out that she passed - which sort of sums up her attitude to her violin playing. She's always been much better than she realises, and would make a really good violinist if she stuck at it. At the moment she doesn't show any signs of wanting to carry on playing, except weekly at Swindon Young Musicians, which is a shame.

Like her chess, which she now never plays, hopefully it is something she will pick up again when she's older.

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July 10, 2011

Man finds hole, investigators looking into it...


Now here's a curious thing.

A week ago our friend John Marshall, who lives in Upper Stratton, was removing a large bush from the middle of his back garden when the ground started opening up beneath him.

Only about a foot from the surface he found what he first thought might have been the remains of a wartime shelter, but turned out to be what seems to be some kind of old well.

John invited us to go round and have a look today, and when we arrived he was standing in the hole up to his armpits, out of which he was pumping water. Earlier this morning the water was up to where his feet were, but was now three or four feet lower.

At one stage he tested the depth by putting a 15-foot pole down (as seen below). At some stage rubble has been thrown in to try to fill it up, but haphazardly, and it was possible to poke the pole through between some of the fill, which showed the water was at least eight feet deep - and is possibly much deeper.

I didn't need asking twice if I wanted to go down, have a look and take some photos, wearing a climbing harness that John had rigged up.

The bizarre thing about the well is that until John's bungalow was built in the 1960s, the area was just farmland, as seen in the 1948 aerial picture, below*.

The head brewer of Arkell's, whose brewery is just down the road, has speculated it could have been one of half a dozen holes sunk by the brewery in the middle of the 19th century when they were searching for a suitable water source, but there are two question marks over that. Firstly, the well seems to be bottle-shaped, getting slightly narrower towards the top. Also, it's a proper brick-built well, not simply a borehole.

The builders of the bungalow, incidentally, seemed to have made a half-hearted attempt to cover up the well by putting in what looked like a thin iron and concrete shelf, shown in one of the pictures below (looking upwards).

As if all this wasn't enough like an episode of Time Team, John had fished a bottle out of the water that had some liquid in - and as his sister Liz and her husband Phil (Percy) were there by now, John uncorked it in front of us. The bottle had surely been in there for at least 50 years, probably longer and possibly much longer.

Straightaway we could smell it was whisky inside - and the fact that a whisky bottle was corked (rather than with a screw cap) is probably some clue to its old age. When he poured it out we were amazed how clear it was, and there was no way I was going to pass on the chance of tasting it.

Not only did it taste good, but Percy and I agreed it was so smooth that it was almost certainly a single malt. It's definitely the longest-aged whisky I've ever had.

Despite Julie's predictable alarm that we should drink it, I am writing this four hours after it and so far have no ill effects.

We await further investigations, including from someone who has taken a brick away to try to get it dated. We're also keen to find out what John is going to do with his well, my feeling being that if it was in my garden, I would try to make a feature of it, especially as it could provide him with an unlimited supply of free water.

Who would have thought a hole in the ground could be such a treat?

* The well is where the yellow lines intersect, close to Ermin Street. Kingsdown crossroads is in the top lefthand corner, with Arkell's Brewery and Kingsdown School close by.














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July 9, 2011

Half century


Just about the most anticipated birthday of my life finally arrived - and was then gone in the blink of an eye.

Some time ago we - me, my twin brother Brian and old school friends Pete (Lukey), Phil (Percy) and James (still just James) - decided we were going to turn our big five-Os into a bit of a milestone, so we have had a long build-up, various celebrations and the climax that is still to come - a lads' only trip to Barcelona in October.

That means I have had plenty of time to get used to being this old. Even so - and joking aside - it is quite scary to realise you are into your sixth decade.

After opening my cards and presents this morning, we spent the afternoon at the Big Arts Day at Lydiard Park, which was, if anything, too big an event - because there was so much going on, it was hard to keep up and see everything you fancied.

There were dozens of bands and acts performing across a range of different stages and marquees, plus a comedy tent, various other side stalls, including an arts and crafts tent. And there were plenty of strange sights to be seen around the park, including a beached whale-cum-children's theatre.

But the sum of the parts was even better because there were large crowds and a good atmosphere and - like last year's event - it underlined that Swindon has much more life and creativity in it than the moaners would give it credit for.

We came home earlier than we would have liked because I had to prepare for my own performance as our band played for an hour in a post-fete entertainment at St Augustine's Church, which is where we practise. The very mixed audience didn't quite know what to make of us at first, but seemed to like us, and it was a shame we couldn't stop to see the headline act - a comedian.

Instead we went out for a low-key birthday meal, just at a Harvester - me, Julie and Holly.

A good day to set me up for the next 50 years.







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July 8, 2011

Tiddly-om-pom-pom


It was a big night for Holly tonight as it was her school prom.

I have never been in favour of proms before, which I've always seen as an unnecessary Americanism, and because they give parents too much encouragement to go over the top with expensive dresses, hairdoes and suchlike to get one up on their kids' friends' parents.

But I've changed my mind.

For a start, Holly managed to get a dress that suited her perfectly, thanks to our friend Liz who made it - and did a fantastic job. Not that I am an expert on dresses or anything - apparently it was purple - but sometimes you don't need to be an expert on something to realise it's just right.

Liz came round while Holly got ready and we cracked open some bubbly, then Holly went off to meet seven friends and pose for pictures at the NALGO Club where they were being picked up by a stretched limo.

I've always said I would have hated having to go to a prom if we'd had that sort of thing when we were at school, but when they finally arrived in the limo at the Four Pillars Hotel at the Cotswold Water Park, there was a lovely atmosphere, and it was just nice to see all the other kids turning up in various extravagant and eccentric transport - from a Rolls Royce to a London bus, setting off a photo-taking frenzy (see below).

The sun even came out at the right time on a terribly showery evening, so none of the girls' dresses got rained on.

We never got to see Sean's prom - we were banned from attending - but there was obviously no way the proud parents were going to miss this one.



























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July 1, 2011

You can have your cake and eat it


A day to remember.

We (me and my twin brother Brian) officially celebrated our 50th birthdays, eight days early, with family and old friends. It started with a meal at the White Hart (Stratton), followed by pudding at Brian's house, masterminded by his wife Sarah, and Julie.

The official cake (above) featured a copy of one of the oldest surviving pictures of the two of us, taken at Beechcroft Infants' School when we were about seven years old. I have a clear memory of posing for that photograph because I recall hating the fact that the photographer thought it would be a good idea for the little twinners to hold hands, even though we thought it was quite probably the worst idea anybody had ever had up until then. As if having a joint photo, when all of our friends had individual ones, wasn't bad enough. Mercifully, the hand-holding evidence had been cropped out of the cake picture.

The more I think about it, the more amazing our family is, being so large and yet so harmonious. And not just harmonious but demonstrating a loyalty and regard for each other that, if you saw it on The Waltons, you would say was too good to be true. It has only slowly dawned on us that not all families are the same and that, in fact, few are. And even if they are, there are usually less of them. We also have plenty of cousins and in-laws who come out of the same mould.

The family has run the gamut of emotions this year, with some milestones, like our 50th and my sister's 60th, following on from the tragedy of my nephew Trevor's death, five months ago. Today came the news that his death is now officially unexplained because the specialists who have carried out an extensive autopsy just haven't been able to come up with an explanation for why his heart stopped beating. This is a double-edged sword which will now always leave us wondering, but also brings the relief that, no matter what, there was nothing any living soul could have done to prevent it.

I doubt the news will have much effect on the course that the grief about Trev is taking, but when we get together like we did tonight, it occurs to me that our family ought to be called Planet Carter. Like Jupiter, whether it is going through ups or downs or both at the same time, it carries on rolling through space, like an irresistible force.

Part of the grief process - especially for those closest to the epicentre - is trying to come to terms with the fact that the world and Planet Carter carries on, seemingly regardless, almost as if it is leaving behind Trev, along with all the others who we are never going to see again, and forgetting him/them. In fact, it seems like it does the opposite, exerting a gravitational force that means everything it encounters sticks to it and gets carried along, whether still visible or not, so nothing can be left behind, and nothing forgotten.

That's a bit profound, I know, but it's the way I see it.

The party was planned as an exclusively close family celebration, simply because of numbers and fitting everybody in, but we realised you can't have an official 50th birthday celebration without inviting people who have been around almost as long as the family, especially when they are also clocking up their own half centuries this year. So old school friends Pete (Lukey), Phil (Percy) and James were also there with their wives.

They say you can't choose your family but you can choose your friends - but that's only half true. Some friends are thrust upon you, like the ones you live near or get to sit next to at school, so they are not much different to family in that respect. You need to be lucky again with the ones you get. And we are.

I think we are all proud of the fact that we have stuck together since school days, and we get on better than ever. Some of the party was spent discussing two different trips we have already booked to share with our friends before we reach our 51st birthdays.

Great family, great in-laws (I was also lucky enough to marry into a thoroughly nice family), great old friends, great news friends (we've made a few of these in the last couple of years)... Can you see a theme developing here?

I hope my luck holds out as I enter my second half century. But is it all down to luck?

I have to mention my birthday presents, which I hadn't been expecting to receive, let alone more than a week ahead of the day - no account of I'm too old for birthday presents. They included a Chad Valley projector to replace the one that we used to own as kids, which we never could get to work properly and which we wrongly referred to as a Flashy Flicker. Brian also made a framed diarama-type picture of a Monopoly game in progress - an idea I actually had a few years ago but never got round to doing.

There were also always-welcome gifts such as beer, chocolate, books and dollars (for our forthcoming holiday), lovely cards including a handmade one, and my niece Claire and her fiance Ian gave me a Swindon Town shirt signed by Paul Bodin. He's the man whose cool Wembley penalty put them in the Premiership for the first and last time in their history in 1993, which, in keeping with our theme, is always remembered as a great family and friends day. Bodin was briefly caretaker manager of the club, earlier this year, and may yet be set to be a future permanent manager.

Subsequent and (I have no doubt) future events will prove that he was/will be the sensible choice for permanent manager because surely the best way out of the club's current crisis would have been stability, experience, a cool head, intelligence and a local solution. Above all else - and bringing me neatly back to where I started - it would also have created a proper family atmosphere at the County Ground, which is surely the only kind that is capable of turning Swindon Town into anything remotely resembling an irresistible force.