August 29, 2011

A folly good day

We (Julie and I) worked all day yesterday on altering a new sofa, which now fits exactly in our bay window, as if it was tailor-made - the moral of the story being make sure you measure it (and your house) properly, next time you buy furniture.

To reward ourselves for redeeming ourselves, we decided on an unspectacular August Bank Holiday Monday, enjoying some simple pleasures.

First we drove to Avebury for a car boot sale, and I came away with a lovely old wooden two-yard-long folding ruler (purpose: none); a couple of old books; an old bound exercise book, unused; and an old game called Spot A Lott, which I bought for £1 - and for no other reason than we used to have one when we were kids.

Ironically, after these follies, we decided to visit a folly.

I've known about the existence of Faringdon Folly for years, but never visited it or even seen it, so when we heard it was open to the public today, we decided to go up it.

I'd always assumed that the tower would be Victorian, but it turns out that it was built as recently as 1935 and is therefore - or so it is claimed - the latest to be built. Actually, as the definition of a folly is any building that serves no other purpose than to add interest to the landscape, there must be plenty more buildings that have come into existence for the same reason since then.

Faringdon Folly has been recently refurbished and is well worth the trip and the £2 entrance fee (it's open on the first Sunday of each month plus Bank Holidays). The superb view from the top takes in, at 90-degree intervals, Didcot Power Station, Uffington White Horse, Westmill Wind Farm with Swindon beyond, plus RAF Brize Norton, and the keepers of the tower - ie, the volunteers - thoughtfully hand out binoculars for viewers to borrow so they can get a good look. The strangest sight is a cottage, close to the tower, which seems to have a missile (hopefully unarmed) as a garden feature, and it is pointing threateningly towards the RAF base.

The tower itself is every bit as interesting as the view, and inside its story is well told by display boards. It stands on Folly Hill, which ironically got its name at least a thousand years before anybody thought to bulid a folly on it. A plaque on the wall about not feeding the giraffes, placed at giraffe height, sums up the wackiness of the whole place and the man who built it.

After returning home and doing not very much, we capped a really nice day by taking Holly for a meal out (at the Harvester, North Swindon) which was a kind of celebration of her GCSE results.

Our realisation that today marks exactly two years since we attended my nephew Trevor's wedding (to Conny) made us all the more thankful for a nice day and simple pleasures, given that Trev died in January.

August 27, 2011

Add to cart

I did my duty as the Vice-chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society today and manned a stall at a festvial organised in the name of Swindon's 'other author', Richard Jefferies, at the aptly named Richard Jefferies Museum at Coate.

It's not the first time I've been to the museum, which is the house where Jefferies grew up, but the first time I have been round the back, where there is a lovely garden. The house's close proximity to Coate Water gives it huge potential for attracting visitors - either for similar festivals or just for somewhere to drop in and have a cup of tea while visiting Coate, whether or not you are interested in Jefferies the writer.

Sadly, Swindon Borough Council don't see it that way as they have never been very keen on promoting it as much as they should, and it is only recently that anybody even had the foresight to put in a path between the lake and the house. Today, the Swindon public didn't seem to see the potential either, as they weren't exactly falling over each other to get there, which was a shame.

There is also an agricultural museum between Jefferies' old house and the lake, which has been in mothballs for years and which hardly anybody in Swindon even realises exists any more - which is another waste. I'm not saying an agricultural museum nor even the beautiful Richard Jefferies Museum are ever going to have the pulling power of Alton Towers, but they are worth preserving and worth developing. They are also worth subsidising.

Anyway, I did get to meet some interesting people while I was there, including a juggler (whose name I've sadly forgotten). It's not often you get time to stop and talk to jugglers, but he gave an interesting insight into his trade (especially as I can actually juggle myself, if only with three balls). He even offered me the chance to have a go on his unicycle, which also doesn't happen every day. I was sorely tempted, but declined when he told me it is even harder than it looks.

The organisers of the festival had a nice idea, based on a similar festival that took place nearly a hundred years ago, when they staged readings from the back of a hay cart (as per the photo below). So they dragged a cart (actually a milk float) out of the agricultural museum and effectively turned the clock back a century. This was especially fitting for me as the man on the far right of the photo, seated in the cart, is Alfred Williams himself.

There is something in my character that gives me a lot of comfort when things come full circle like that. I'm not sure why, and I'm pretty sure that most people don't have the same feelings, but it does help to console me that there is some order and reason in the world after all.

Finding a Tanner

Another reason for being glad I went to the Richard Jefferies Festival today is I stumbled on and bought a secondhand copy of a book called Wiltshire Village, featuring beautifully crafted pen drawings by Robin Tanner.

Robin who? You might well ask. Somehow, I'd never heard of Robin Tanner before, either, even though he was a Wiltshire artist. The book is about an imaginary Wiltshire village called Kington Borel and was first published in 1939 by Tanner and his wife Heather. They must have been at least partly inspired by Alfred Williams, who wrote a book with nearly the same title, and the two main themes of Tanner's work (as far as I can tell) are plant life and scenes of rural life, which are also themes of Alfred's books. I've scanned in two pictures from the book, below. There are more here.

If anybody reading this (perhaps brought here by Google) has more information about Robin Tanner, I'd love to find out more as there doesn't seem to be a proper website dedicated to this brilliant artist.

August 25, 2011

Ten out of ten

Something for us to celebrate today as we got news that Holly passed 10 GCSEs (two more than I got when I took my O-Levels), including A in both art and graphics, which will be her two main A-Level subjects when she goes to New College next month.

That's my girl!

To be honest - and I can say this without being accused of sour grapes, because she did so well - I am not a great fan of GCSEs. Like most testing at school, I think they put too much pressure on kids who are still young, even though, in my experience, employers are not interested in GCSEs, especially if you go on to do A Levels.

That's not to say they aren't a stepping stone, though, and if they have a redeeming feature, it is that they are a reward for hard slog. That is certainly true in Holly's case as she put in a hell of a lot of hard work, especially in her art coursework.

So well done Holly.

August 24, 2011

Napoleon meets his Waterloo

Sad news for our household tonight, with confirmation that the stray cat that we nearly adopted back in 2007 has died.

We had suspected as much as we hadn't seen him around for months, which was most unusual, especially as he hadn't made one of his regular appearances outside the house of the people who did adopt him, who live just around the corner.

Those people just happen to be the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Swindon (the mayor being female (Cllr Ray Ballman)), and I couldn't resist asking them about their cat when I and they attended the same event tonight - the combined opening of an art exhibition and the launch of a festival dedicated to Swindon writer Richard Jefferies in Swindon this weekend.

We called the cat Napoleon and half hoped that we would adopt us when he kept turning up on our doorstep and sneaking in to steal our cats' food, but he eventually settled at the Ballmans, another cat-loving family who brought him back from very poor health and gave him two and a half great years before a long-standing illness finally put paid to him in March. He was probably pretty old too. One thing about Napoleon - he could tell cat lovers when he saw them.

We thought we had spotted him a couple of months ago, but unless it was his ghost, turning up on their doorstep one last time, it obvioulsy couldn't have been him. The interesting thing about him is apart from his real owners giving him a different name, we all latched on to Billy's/Napoleon's character. He was a bruiser and a bit unpredictable - I picked him up for a cuddle once and realised it was a mistake - but he had something about him that was irresistible. No two cats are the same - it's why we are so fascinated by them - but Napoleon was a true one-off.

The Mayor's story of how Napoleon once stood up to a boxer dog that was straining at its leash to get at him, and without flinching, makes a nice epitaph. That's his picture, above, in our garden, from when we still had hopes that he would choose to live with us instead of the fututre mayor.

The exhibition, by the way, featured works by Dorset/Somerset artist David Brackston, based on the writings of Richard Jefferies, but could so easily have been based on my hero, Alfred Williams, and were impressive enough for me to wish I had the money to buy one for our wall. They can be seen at the Post Modern Gallery in Theatre Square, Swindon.

Machine code

I hesitate to write the following after hearing somebody say on the radio that "Talking about music is a bit like dancing about architecture."

I know what he means, but that won't stop me reviewing the latest 'new' album I've been listening to. When I say 'new', it's actually a couple of years old, but that's new by my normal standards.

Just lately, however, I've been trying to make an effort to listen to some contemporary stuff because I don't want to be an old duffer all my life nor die under the misapprehension that everything really was better in my day. But the problem is there is so much... um... let's not put too fine a point on this... crap about.

I'm not just talking about the tuneless rap and mindless dance music that pollutes Radio 1. Some new stuff also finds its way on to Radio 2, which is easily its best chance of reaching my ears, and I have to say that most of it seems to be made by average people whose only way of making a name for themselves is to sing in a distinctive but really quite silly voice or accent - presumably in the hope it will cover up their almost total lack of talent. Paolo Nutini, if you've heard him, is obviously the best example of this.

So it was nice to not only be recommended a serious album by somebody whose taste overlaps mine in certain areas, but to receive the said album in the post as a birthday gift - Lungs by Florence and the Machine, courtesy of Steve, our friend who lives in Sydney. Ironically, he's even older than me, but appears to be more in tune with what the young people are listening to.

Rather than dancing about architecture, my musical reviews are mostly based on who the artistes in question resemble in my opinion, and in this case Florence and the Machine seem to me to be three parts Siouxsie and the Banshees, two parts The Pretenders and one part Kate Bush - which is a pretty good recipe in my book.

It's a nice album and rises to impressive heights with two songs in particular. Dog Days Are Over is the best recreation of the true spirit of late-Seventies new wave I've heard, while Between Two Lungs has something that eludes so much of what passes for music these days, namely: a beautiful tune.

What I like best about Florence and the Machine - and this links them with my favourite contemporary bands, Fleet Foxes and Elbow - is how they are not scared to change tempo and divide songs up into unexpected segments, including false endings, refusing to conform to the convention and predictability of most of the pop music we have to suffer, which fits to a pre-determined formula. Somebody summed all this us much better than me with one word that describes Florence and the Machine perfectly. They called them 'fearless'.

Anybody who breaks the mould in music these days is worth seeking out, as long as they don't resort to singing in a silly voice to do it.

August 18, 2011

A-Level results: must try harder

I try not to get too stressed out these days, but if you live in the UK and turn on BBC News 24 at any time during the day, you can't help it any more.

I could give you a long list of things that really bug me about the way the BBC does news these days, like their obsession with how the markets are doing. When I go downstairs of a lunchtime and peer out over my tomatoes on toast, all I seem to get is some earnest, sometimes doom-laden report on how 'the markets' are doing or whether the Bank of England is thinking of raising its something or other by 0.025 per cent.

If you ask me, this is all a plot to make us think that these things have a day-to-day bearing on our lives or that we are something more than pawns in the game they are playing, which is gambling with our economy and often our tax. And the BBC falls for the lie by reporting on it every half hour.

At least my next pet hate only happens once a year - and unfortunately today was the day. It's when the A-Level results come out and the BBC and the rest of the media make the same excruiating errors in report it as they have for the last few years.

I was unfortunate enough to catch sight of BBC Breakfast this morning, when I was recovering from my early morning run, and this meant I had to watch the pathetic spectacle of a broadcast from a college where three students were opening their results envelopes live on air.

Not surprisingly - as any fool could see the college and the BBC had got together and rigged it and picked three whom they knew had good results - all three not only got at least one A each, but exactly what they needed to get into university. The BBC, after all, had not picked just any old college but the one with the very best record in the whole country for A-Level passes.

After chatting to some official of the college about how successful they had been, it was back to the studio - where the presenters muttered something from their couch about kids who didn't get the grades they wanted, while a helpline number was flashed up for three seconds.

A different BBC bulletin during the day (and no doubt virtually everything you will read about A-Levels in the papers tomorrow), all focused on those who had got A grades, except for a poor girl they featured who got three Cs and was therefore used as the token 'failure' in the report, after the happy, smiling faces of the A-graders were finished with. This was even though she had done far better than I ever did (a C and three Es back in 1978/9) and far better than most of the people I know, including some people I consider to be extremely smart and valuable members of society.

The reporting is disgraceful on two counts. Firstly it gives the impression that A grades are common, and this has therefore given rise to the suggestion - which may be true but probably isn't - that passing exams these days is much easier than it was in our day. So even the ones who do get A grades and are paraded through the media don't get their true recognition.

Secondly, it also furthers the idea that the vast majority of kids who fell short of getting A-grades are little more than a bunch of duffers who didn't work hard enough or weren't very bright in the first place, and probably belong on a scrapheap somewhere.

If it wasn't for the fact that A-Level results have been presented by the media in this way for years, I would say that the idea that most of our kids are failures and not worthy of further/higher education is just the kind of propaganda that suits Tory and Liberal Democrat policies (and in the long-term perhaps Labour policies too) which are aimed at making education for the over-18s available to a small elite of students who either get exceptional results or have parents who are rich enough to effectively buy them a place at university.

And another thing about exam results: when we were at school, we were told that you are marked according to the general standard of other entrants in your year, which is surely the only logical way of ensuring fairness, so any talk of results improving year-on-year can only be a nonsense.

Having been through the whole exams thing with Sean, and with Holly a week away from finding out her GCSE results, I think we (as a country) should have much better ways of judging people than a system that actually discourages them from coming out of it as rounded individuals rather than young people who have learned the knack of passing tests.

We actually expect Holly to have done very well, but one of our philosophies as parents is to put far less store by exams than the thousand and one other ways of judging a person's worth.

My hero

As somebody who decided a long time ago that there could be no social/political justification for a British royal family in the 20th century, let alone the 21st (although I'm sure it will survive long into the 22nd and beyond), I have to say how much I have been impressed by Prince Charles in the last 24 hours.

Yesterday he visited 'riot spots' in London, in the wake of last week's looting - and it was immediately clear from the television coverage that he wasn't there just to shake hands and try to look interested, as the Windsors normally do on royal visits, but because he was genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of why the riots happened.

Contrast this with the attitude of politicians who have spent the time since it all died down not trying to find out why, but blaming the police, falling into the trap of thinking harsh punishments are a panacea for all social problems and trying to reduce the issue to fit the single new word they have invented to over-simplify it - 'criminality' - rather than bothering themselves with trying to find real explanations and solutions.

So full marks to Charles for coming down from his ivory tower and trying to fathom it out by talking to the peasants on the ground and the community leaders who had obviously worked damned hard to try to help themselves but had otherwise been ignored by anybody in power.

Even better: while most politicians' so-called solutions seem to include giving these people even less money to plough into their communities (by taking away their social benefits), Charles has already started doing the opposite - by doubling the amount of money his charity, The Prince's Trust, gives to young people in the areas hardest hit by the riots.

I never thought I would ever say this, but he's suddenly become one of my heroes.

The Guardian's report on Charles's visit

August 15, 2011

Happy anniversary to us

Right - let's not get too sloppy about this, but today is my (our) 24th wedding anniversary.

Julie's at work and we haven't got anything special planned for the evening. We don't even buy each other cards because: a) we have better things to save our money for, and b) you don't need a card to say what you feel about each other.

In the last few years I've got to going round boasting about how long we've been married, as if it is some kind of achievement. I suppose in this day and age it is far from guaranteed that people will stick together for so long, but it's not as if it has been hard to make it this far.

It's still the best thing I ever did or ever will.

August 14, 2011

Brighton rocks

We celebrated our wedding anniversary a day early today, with a long-planned trip to Brighton, just the two of us, while Holly is away with Rangers in Belgium.

Brighton turned out to be an easy two-hour drive away on a Sunday morning (better than it looks on a map), which helped to make the day a roaring success.

This was despite an eleventh hour change of plans. The original idea was to spend a whole weekend in Brighton/Sussex, but we soon down-scaled to a day trip instead - partly to save money and partly because we wondered whether there really was that much to do down there (verdict: there is). But what we only recently realised was the day we had picked (which was yesterday (Saturday)) was the climax of the annual Pride Festival for gay/lesbian people.

This caused us to hastily shift the day of our visit from Saturday to Sunday, though not out of any prejudice, I hasten to add. Indeed, the festival didn't actually end until today, so there were still plenty of gay/lesbian people milling about, and anyway: if anybody is homophobic, they wouldn't go to Brighton in the first place as it is the the gay capital of Britain. We shifted to Sunday simply because Saturday was obvioulsy going to be packed.

It was still busy - not just with festivalgoers, but with all kinds of people who obviously hadn't heard that Britain's seaside towns are in terminal decline. Brighton, in fact, seemed to be buzzing, and we really liked the happy, friendly atmosphere of the place.

Over the last ten or twenty years, we've noticed that the closer you get to the sea in Britain, the more things cost, and seaside towns - if I am allowed a generalisation here - are not staffed by the most welcoming of people. Few of these towns are able or willing to even try to capture long-lost heydays, and instead seem intent on ripping off anybody who ventures near. But Brighton seems to have worked hard to recapture past glories rather than just feeling sorry for itself.

In the end, it was lucky that we did shift from Saturday to Sunday as that allowed us to go to a one-day Art Deco Fair at Hove. This was more or less a standard antiques fair, except all the stalls were selling fantastic Art Deco stuff - some of which was reasonably cheap. Although we didn't come away with anything that is bona fide art deco, it was still interesting looking at it all.

We also briefly visited Brighton Art Gallery and Museum (which has an excellent little shop) and saw the Royal Pavilion - but only from the outside. This was one of the casualties of our down-scaling from two days to one, but we also dipped out because admission seemed a bit steep and because the outside of the building and especially the grounds looked surprisingly unloved. However, we will return to both the museum and the Pavilion at a later date, when we have more time.

These more cultural pursuits had to give way to some unashamed people watching; having a lazy fried breakfast; strolling along the prom between the Marina and the city centre; checking out the tacky (but in a nice way) pier; riding the cute Volks Electric Railway; shopping, eating and drinking in The Lanes; briefly watching the busking sitar player outside the Pavilion before he was rudely upstaged by a brass band; and craning our necks as we went past the bizarre naturist beach, but not seeing anything to write home about (except to notice that somebody had written on the bottom of the sign that marked the boundary: "Where you can hang out with your wang out").

Of course, we are far too refined and mature to giggle at that kind of thing, but it did sum up Brighton's general chirpiness.

Long live the lido

During our day trip to Brighton, we made an unscheduled trip to the splendid Saltdean Lido.

Because we met some campaigners who had a stall at the Art Deco Fair (see above) and because we remembered seeing it featured on David Dimbleby's excellent documentary series, How We Built Britain, we decided to drive along the cost to see it for ourselves.

An art deco icon itself, there is currently a furore over the lido's leaseholder and his plans to pull down this beautiful building and put up some flats instead. This is, actually, very unlikely to happen because firstly it is owned by Brighton and Hove Council and secondly: as a Grade II* Listed building, it has been recognised as far too valuable a piece of not just Brighton/Saltdean's heritage, but also of special national importance.

Sound familiar? We were immediately struck by the similarities between the threat to the lido and the threat to Swindon's own Mechanics' Institute - another Grade II* Listed building. Most people make the mistake of thinking all Listed buildings are the same, but that little * after the Grade II bit lifts any building that gets it into a higher class, only one step down from cathedrals and world famous icons like The Houses of Parliament. The Grade II* cateogry is reserved for "particulary important buildings of more than special interest". That's not just of interest or even plain old special interest, but of more than special interest. (For the real facts behind the Mechanics', see the feature I wrote about it for SwindonWeb in 2010).

The golden age of people being brave/hardly/silly enough to go swimming outdoors during a British summer has long since gone, which was plain for us to see as despite it being a fairly warm August Sunday afternoon and the lido being open for business, literally nobody was swimming there.

We could see for ourselves because you get a great view of the whole of the lido from a handy flyover in front of it. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any close-ups because the swimming instructor, who seemed to have the say-so whether interested amateur photographers like me could be let in for two minutes to get some snaps and waive the £4 you have to pay if you want to swim, decided he wasn't feeling very generous.

Turning away people who had obviously made a special journey to see it hardly seems the way to garner support for a campaign to save a building and thus keep the said instructor in a job. These buildings need all the exposure and all the help they can get, simply because when we decide which British buildings should be left standing beyond their normal working life, we have a funny way of judging them. This isn't generally according to whether they are of more than special interest, or how local communities benefit by having slices of national heritage on their doorsteps, or how they remind us of the importance of past achievements, but rather according to a hard-nosed captitalist idea that even national treasures have to pay their own way.

It is difficult to imagine how the Saltdean Lido can possibly finance itself as a lido, or how anybody could come up with a new use but keep the framework and the spirit of the building intact. Basically, they are left with an historic lido in a world that no longer has a use for lidos - and in my book that's not a good reason for pulling it down, but a good reason for finding money to keep it up forever.

Actually, Swindon's priceless Mechanics' Institute could yet prove to be self-financing by re-opening to serve the needs of the local community, making it financially more viable than the lido, but otherwise the Saltdean Lido and the Mechanics' go hand-in-hand as symptoms of all of Britain's social problems: our so-called leaders knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This immediately turned us into supporters of the campaign to protect the lido, and made us really glad we took the trouble to see it in the flesh.

I hope the campaign continues to go swimmingly.

August 12, 2011

The view from Spaghetti Junction

My recent posts to this blog are evidence of a bit of a philosophical phase that my (our) life has been going through in recent months. And there's more...

Just lately I have been describing the situation I find myself in as one of life's 'crossroads', but the more I think about it, the more that sounds like an understatement.

Here I am, having now turned 50. It's an artificial threshold, I know, but you can't avoid them, and there are plenty of other situations and circumstances converging that are only too real. I currently find that I'm technically unemployed and my chosen profession, local newspapers, is terminally ill, so there's no going back; the mortgage is effectively paid; this time next year I will have been (very happily) married for a quarter of a century; my older brothers and sister and most of their partners are either retired, about to retire or preparing for it; both my parents and both my in-laws are dead; both our kids have left school and one has finished college.

As if all that wasn't enough, certain events in our family in recent times - both miraculous and tragic - have called for us to re-evaluate our lives and decide what's worth pursuing and what isn't.

Finally, in the last 12 months I have undergone a bit of a reinvention, working really hard on shedding two or three stones and slowly getting myself to as high a level of fitness as any time in the last ten years.

Not so much a crossroads, then, as Spaghetti Junction - and it all seems like it's building up to something. I can't help feeling that I am standing on the threshold of something - and maybe something big. But what?

After a year of wondering what to do next and only really coming up with a list of things I don't want to do, and mostly failing to find the inspiration I have been looking for, we (me and Julie) sat down (we were driving in the car, actually) and within about 15 minutes came up with the answer.

So I have a new job - albeit an unpaid one that relies on Julie's hard work and salary plus some of our savings to make sure we have food on the table while I do it. It's not a nine-to-five job (thank goodness) nor a conventional one (too old for that), and I don't have a boss, mainly because at 50 I suspect (and have some evidence to prove it) I am at too funny an age to pass any worthwhile selection and interview process.

So the new 'job' is to finish writing the book that I started years ago. It has been at the back of the shelf (with about 25,000 words in the can) and in the back of my mind for too long now - and everything is now telling me to get on with it.

Because I don't read enough fiction to have the skills to write one, it's not a novel, but wholly non-fiction. I'm not able to reveal to the wider world what it's about, just because I think it's a good idea for a book and I don't want anybody to steal it, but friends and family are welcome to be on the secret if they aren't already. But it's worth pointing out it has very little to do with history.

They say everybody has a book in them, and that is especially true of journalists or - as I now am - an ex-journalist. Writing a book can be a bit of a pipedream for some people, especially those who mean well and no real idea about how to go about it, but I figure the experience I have of professional writing gives me some justification for sitting up here with my trusty Mac and imagining I am Bill Bryson.

It's now or never. I am finally going to find out if there is any money in my idea, or whether I will have to think again in a few months' time. Either way, I'll have the satisfaction of giving it a try.

August 6, 2011

Football RIP

Today was the first day of the football season, and the first time since about 1968 that this hasn't had me metaphorically wetting myself in anticipation. In fact, I have probably literally wetted myself in anticipation of football in the past.

Not any more - and possibly never again.

When Swindon Town appointed unashamed fascist Paolo Di Canio as their new manager, earlier in the summer, it was the final straw. Today I am thinking they may have done me a favour, and I would even say I am quite relieved not to be a part of it all.

I am not just talking about the relief of worrying about how well my team is doing, which is always a kind of masochism for supporters of hometown clubs.

More significant is this: I have become a bit concerned about exactly what pleasure I was getting out of football over the last few years. There is no pretending that the game has not changed for the worse in terms of the importance of money and the declining attitudes of players, who, for instance, now instinctively confront the referee, even when they know he has made the right decision. But that's only half the story.

Just recently I have realised that the majority of the pleasure or pain I was getting from it had little to do with whether my team was winning, but dominated by whether other teams were losing.

It's natural to have healthy rivalries and especially local rivalries, so a certain amount of pleasure can be enjoyed by Swindon Town fans seeing neighbours Oxford United and Bristol City have a bad day. But I was noticing how much their victories were spoiling days even when Town won, and they were also just the top the top of an ever-growing iceberg of teams I was hoping to see lose, compared with a very short list of teams I liked to see win.

I gave myself loads of different reasons for wanting to see teams fail: Milton Keynes Dons (it's a long story, but you only need to ask any true fan for that reason); Liverpool (for impatiently sacking their manager, Roy Hodgson, too soon, despite the fact he is the nicest man in the game and a great manager); Manchester City (for being the worst of the big spenders); Manchester United (for being Manchester United); Chelsea (for letting Manchester United beat them to the Premiership); Millwall and Leeds (for having the worst hoolligans). And plenty more besides.

It was really starting to bother me that my whole approach was getting so negative, and after Di Canio came to Swindon, I found a double reason not to want to be associated with them too.

Far from rejecting somebody with such loathsome ideals, most Town fans welcomed him - yet it seemed to be mainly because he offered the prospect of victory over closest neighbours Oxford United. It shocked me that a comparatively big club (compared with others in their division), which had a right to expect to play in a higher division, seemed to be supported by a hardcore of fans who, rather than showing any ambition for greater things, actually seemed pleased to be in the same division as Oxford. They are pleased to be so low in the League because it provides the prospect of coming face-to-face with their rivals on the pitch - and some, no doubt, are looking forward to coming face-to-face with their fans in the streets outside the ground.

But what has really done it for me is this: over the years, our healthy rivalry has always been with 'Oxford'. That's what we called them. That's what I still call them. But it seems that Swindon Town fans no longer refer to them as this, but rather as 'The Scum'.

This really bothers me a lot. I can't think that football fans who just happen to be born in Oxford and therefore have a natural allegiance to Oxford United can ever do anything to me that could ever merit them being routinely called 'The Scum'. It just sounds horrible - and it seems to be symptomatic of what football has become, where money is everything, loyalty counts for nothing and where a new kind of hooliganism, which is even darker than the testosterone-fired battles of the Seventies, seems to be taking over. There is something quite chiling about the way confrontation with another team now over-rides all else, with no sign of conscience or compassion, and I think that sort of thing is an easy bedfellow of fascists and those who appease them.

The Swindon Town board are sickeningly proud of themselves for appointing Di Canio, having been seduced by his apparent 'passion' and having sold it to some of the fans, and I find myself in a small minority of people in the town who cannot and will not come to terms with the monster that has been created by bringing such a monster to town.

What I could once instinctively understand was 'the beautiful game', even through the darkest days of the old-style hooliganism of my youth, has become so ugly that I checked today's result not out of passion but simply to keep myself informed of local events. And for the first Saturday in over 40 years, I could not tell you the result of any of the other matches that were played today, because for the first time in over 40 years, I don't care.

August 5-6, 2011

With a little help from our friends

Be warned that this entry is going to get quite philosophical and maybe even a bit soppy, but there is no avoiding it because we are having one of those weekends when we feel like sitting back and taking stock of things.

What we are thinking about, above all else, is that old adage that a man should be judged by the company he keeps - and how this applies to us.

To start with, there is our little 'gang' of friends whose origins are in infants' school, and we have all been brought even closer together this year after celebrating our 50th birthdays, deciding to go heavy on marking this milestone, and looking forward to popping over for a lads-only trip to Barcelona in October.

We had them over tonight (Saturday) with their better halves for some curry, although the party sadly lacked our friends James and Julie who had family commitments. The gang is a bit of a mixed bag really, and we sometimes have quite different outlooks on life, but what all our friends have in common is they are interesting. They are so interesting that I have even ended up writing features about them, as with this one on SwindonWeb about Pete and Julie, which I wrote a couple of months ago.

We already can't get over the fact that both of us have great families with whom we have an ideal relationship, so we are trebley lucky to have long-term friends who are like family too.

As if this doesn't make us rich enough, as our life is changing, with the kids growing up, other changes and getting involved in different things, we also seem to be a bit of a magnet for new and rediscovered friends too.

For instance, my involvement with the Alfred Williams Heritage Society has brought us into contact with a whole new sphere of quality people who we are literally proud to call friends. In the same way, years ago I 'met' our friend Steve (and ultimately his Australian wife Susan) - initially through a common interest in Al Stewart on the internet. They say internet relationships don't last (!) but we are still in touch with them and trying to work out when we can get back to Sydney to re-visit them.

Possibly even more exotic than having friends in Australia are our friends Mike and Zeta. A few years ago they upped sticks and have worked in Peru and Kenya, but currently live and work in China - as if the fact that Zeta is Peruvian wasn't exotic enough. They came back to the UK for Mike's daughter's wedding, so suggested meeting up, which we did, and during a nice afternoon we were invited to pop out to China to visit them. Imagine that!

What all these friends have in common is they are decent, honest, interesting and - surprisingly often - inspiring people. Britain today seems teeming with mean-spiritied, bigotted, selfish (and let's be frank, pretty thick) people, and you only have to venture out on to the roads for five minutes to get a taste of this, so how come we find ourselves surrounded on all sides by such nice human beings? Can it really be down to luck?

In what has been a difficult year, we have done a lot of deep thinking about this and loads of other things. Friendship has been a theme running right through it all, including coming to terms with my nephew Trevor's premature death, now six months ago. The immediate aftermath of that will always be a blur, but what we couldn't miss was the obvious fact that during his life Trev had made some amazing friends, as demonstrated by their really moving and united response to it.

When these good people's paths are crossed by those with the opposite approach to life and they are govened by greed and selfishness, it's easy to come to the conclusion that most bad people never quite get their comeuppance.

Christians bet all their savings on the idea that the meek will inherit the earth some day through an unlikely intervention by an unlikely god, while the rest of us are probably just hoping we will all get our just desserts, in the end, through the throw of the dice. In our house, however, are coming to the conclusion that most of the justice is already being meted out.

The bad guys may seem undeservedly happy and the good guys undeservedly unhappy, but what sort of lives do they all lead, really? What if it's not about getting the life you deserve, but rather about getting the friends you deserve?

If you think about it, it's inevitable - and I mean an absolute certainty - that selfish people will end up with selfish friends; boring people end up with boring friends; and nice people end up with nice friends (you can see the theme developing).

So that's all this entry is saying, really: we have some pretty cool friends, and let's not be too modest about the reason why.

August 4, 2011

Sim sala bim

Now, most people who are interested in music and have let it influence their life - rather than those who just listen to it on the radio or jump up to dance to it at discos - will tell about the strange phenomenon of how the really really good albums need to grow on you.

Some bands' work - XTC spring to mind - never sounds great on first hearing, but the more you listen, the more you hear; and the more you hear, the more you like it. It only seems to work with genuine innovative, creative people like XTC.

And Fleet Foxes.

About a year and a half ago I was quite proud of myself to have 'spotted' this band from Seattle, who had recently brought out their debut album. They didn't need me to spot them because they had already wowed most people who heard their first album (which was also called Fleet Foxes), but as a new young group producing a debut album, I did think it was pretty cool of me to have heard them at all, not being exposed to nearly as much new music as I ought to.

That first album was stunning by any standards you want to measure it by. Fleet Foxes have a totally unique sound, but you have to try to describe them somehow, so I point to elements of The Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, The Seekers and The Beach Boys that I can hear in them. In short: elements of some of the best music ever to come out of American (OK, I know The Seekers were Australian, but stick with it). And they also sound like, and say they are influenced by, Bob Dylan.

Not only that. They seem to take the best bits out of these great acts to produce an amazing sound, and it's obvious that they have gone to meticulous lengths to get the production absolutely spot on (there is a cymbal, played once on their new album, that I just know they would have taken ages to get just right). But best of all are the vocals, which are so colourful and precise that I suggest their harmonies are something that the master, Brian Wilson, would be proud of.

So was I looking forward to hearing this new album?

Never. I always listen with trepidation to new albums by acts I like, fearing that they are not going to live up to their earlier stuff, even though my fear is often unfounded.

So was I disappointed by Fleet Foxes' second album?

Yes, terribly. I thought it was awful - a pale shadow of the first and a classic example, I thought, of that tricky second album.

The second hearing was even worse. Now I was praying it wasn't really as bad as I thought it was, and desperately searching for any nuggets in the dust. Sure enough, I started to hear a few glimmers of the brilliance of album number one in there, and every time I replayed it, it got better. And better. Until some of the songs just can't get much better. Until I am tempted to call the whole thing a masterpiece. It's now officially the album that has grown on me most, out of all those that have crossed my 50-year-old ears.

I have a theory that the better music is, the more you have to listen to it to appreciate just how good it is. You can like some songs straightaway, especially if they are catchy, but sometimes you just have to wait for what's in there to mature inside your brain.

Hopelessness Blues isn't perfect. There are some songs in there that just don't work for me, no matter how many times I hear them, but there are also half a dozen or more that send shivers down my spine because a) this band have bent over backwards to try to come up with something totally, utterly original; and b) they achieve it.

In the face of so much manufactured music, these days, which spews out and into the ears of kids who don't know any better but deserve better, it is so refreshing for a new group to have made such an effort to do something different and get it right. And it's even more pleasing that it's the vocals that do it.

Have you noticed the tendency for some talentless new acts to make a name for themselves solely by singing in silly voices and/or ridiculous accents in a perverted attempt to sound distinctive (yes, that's your cue to look embarrassed, Paolo Nutini and Scouting For Girls, among many others).

Fleet Foxes are the antithesis of this sickening trend - and frankly I love them for it. Sim sala bim, to quote an obscure Danish magician and one of the songs on the album.

Time to choose one of the tracks and embed the YouTube link. It's one of the catchiest but still one that needs and deserves at least two or three listens, right the way through, before you can really judge it.