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September 30, 2011

Send-off


This is the time of year when some families have a lump in their throats as they wave their children goodbye as they head off to college or university.

Politicians have decided that so-called 'ordinary' people aren't really going to have this option in the future unless they happen to be born into rich families, but my niece, Lucy, has got in under the net and is off to Reading University the day after tomorrow.

So we (me, Julie, Sean and Holly) had a bit of a send-off meal out with Lucy (above), her parents (my brother Brian and his wife, Sarah) and James (her brother). She is one of those millions of girls who decided, a long way back, that they wanted to "work with animals", but whereas most of them never make it and end up working in a bank instead, or somewhere equally devoid of animals, Lucy has kept her eyes on the prize all this time, which we are full of admiration for - especially being pushover animal lovers ourselves.

While other kids of her age ended up doing general A Levels, she took vocational qualifications in animal management and came out with some very impressive grades, which means that she not only retains the desire to work with animals but has the aptitude for it too. So good luck to Lucy, even though I don't think luck is going to have much to do with it.

For the send-off we went to Chiquito's, which is a Mexican restaurant in Swindon, and a novelty for me because although I love spicy food, I had somehow managed to avoid going out to a Mexican restaurant for the first 50 years of my life.

Thanks to one of those weird coincidences of life (as revealed by Facebook), at almost the same time that we were out having a Mexican, my old friend Pete's son, John, was going one better - well, about ten better, probably - by visiting Mexico for the first time and going for a Mexican there (well you would, wouldn't you?). Even more weird was that both of us came across the same option, on the menu, of having a tequila drink with a worm in it - which he went for and which I ducked. I'm not quite sure what the worm is all about and too squeamish to Google it at the moment, but it's funny that we both came up against it at the same time.

John, by the way, who is my godson, has recently got a dream of a job managing bars on a cruise liner that is taking him all round the world, so is another young person, like Lucy, who is giving a lot of pleasure to the people who are left back home, just because it is nice to see them following their noses and either doing or working towards interesting jobs.


Situation: normal

I wouldn't normally use this blog to bore the rest of the world with my medical history, but I had an appointment at the doctor's today and was reassured to find that I am almost completely normal.

It was the follow up to my annual appointment about my prescription for cholesterol-reducing statins, and included the 'scores on the doors' for my current cholesterol level.

Ten years ago, after discovering I had very high cholesterol, I paid for a very intense series of tests with a consultant cardiologist which included scans of my heart and arteries that were so clear, you could actually see 'plaques' forming - the beginnings of my arteries clogging up.

"Is that bad?" (or words to that efffect), I asked the doctor, who was German and as to-the-point as you would expect a German to be.

"Yes," he said. "If you don't start taking statins, you will have a heart attack within ten years."

"That doesn't sound too good," I said, or words to that effect again.

"You don't understand. If you do not take statins, I guarantee that you will have a heart attack within ten years - if you are lucky. If you are unlucky you will have a stroke instead, which is often much worse because at least if you have a heart attack you will be gone and your family won't have to nurse you through terrible disability."

Gulp. "And if I do take statins?"

"You will never have a heart attack or a stroke. That's a guarantee too."

At the time, statins were quite new and controversial, but he left me in no doubt that he recognised them as a wonder drug and told me to ignore the silly attitude some people had already adopted towards them simply because they sometimes cause side effects. All drugs, he said, have the potential to cause side effects. In the event, I did suffer some side effects, mostly to do with aching legs, but the problem was permanently solved, strangely, by just switching brands.

Some people are still swayed in their judgement on statins by these either real or anticipated side effects, but I always say that in my case there is another side effect to take into account if people with high cholesterol don't take statins, and that side effect is called death. So, anyway, I urge anybody who is reading this and doesn't have a completely normal cholesterol level to sort it out before it sorts them out.

From the first time my cholesterol was measured it was clear that it would never be at a safe level without some kind of medical intervention. If it is a little too high it is possible to bring it down with a change of lifestyle, but mine was so sky high that it was obviously a genetic and not a lifestyle issue, and there was never a hope of me lowering it enough without resort to statins.

What all this is finally coming to is today's reading, which was 5.2. Anything between four and five is, technically, normal, and I am not going to argue about the other 0.2 as the record score on my medical history is 6.6.

Most of the reason it is down to a normal level now is obviously because of the statins, but I also like to think (and may be right) that at least a small part of the success is because I am now much trimmer and fitter than at almost any other time since I first had those heart scans, which makes me feel pretty chuffed.

Today I also found that - contrary to my last test, a month ago - my blood pressure is normal too, so I was right to put the previous slightly high reading down to three things - turning up for my appointment after a long, brisk walk; my natural anxiety at having to do anything remotely medical; and unexpectedly finding the (lady) doctor was rather attractive.

There is life in the old boy yet.

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September 29, 2011

Today

Today was never going to be the easiest.

It would have been my nephew Trevor's 38th birthday, but after his sudden and unexplained death in January, today was always going to be another tough day to get over in the long grieving process.

I think the whole family has been anticipating the arrival of September 29 this year, and his two brothers, Stuart and Richard (Stu and Rich), had the brilliant idea of getting all his friends together for a weekend away, last weekend, to mark it, which was, it seems, a huge success and fitting tribute. I've probably said this before, but I think people are best measured by the company they keep, and Trev's friends are a credit to him and his memory.

So are his brothers, who often write very frankly about him in their blogs (see Stuart's here). His younger brother Rich wrote an entry today that I defy anybody to read without tears in their eyes, especially if they knew Trev.

How did I spend the day? Ironically, at the funeral of another comparatively young person. In fact, it struck me, as I was getting my suit and my black tie out of the wardrobe, that three of the last four funerals I have been to have been for people younger than me (and I'm not exactly old at 50).

Today's funeral was for Karen, Julie's second cousin, who lived in Pill, near Bristol, and died last week at the age of 43. Karen was very severely mentally disabled from birth, but had an almost permanent smile on her face, as several people pointed out at the funeral. I met her only a couple of times and both times managed to wipe the smile off her face because, I think, she was naturally wary of a stranger in the house, and wore an expression of mild suspicion while I was there.

Some might say Karen's life was tragic, but it actually seemed full of happiness today. After all, her mother, Geraldine, utterly devoted her life to not just looking after Karen, but really loving her - perhaps as only a mother could. She was supported by Karen's younger brother, Peter, who also seemed to rise to the very particular challenge of having a special sister like Karen. So, apart from when ugly strangers like me turned up, she spent her whole life completely surrounded by love. And no wonder she smiled.

Death affects all families and changes the lives of everybody who is left behind, but just how much Geraldine's life will be changed, now that Karen is gone, is not something any of us could anticipate, nor probably even Geraldine.

In 43 years, I believe Karen never went anywhere without Geraldine - until today.

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September 24-25, 2011

No bull


If anybody reading this is looking for somebody to judge a waggiest tail competition, I'm your man. I now have personal experience.

For the second year running, I was asked to be a judge at Janet's Puppy Skool's annual open day, and this year I got the waggiest tail brief.

Apart from the pressure of standing up there in front of all those people and having to make yourself unpopular by not picking lots of people's dogs for the four top prizes, it's a lot of fun - and the one day in the year when I get closest to being a dog owner myself.

The only thing stopping us from being dog owners is being cat owners, and there were plenty of beautiful dogs there that we would gladly have taken home but for the fact that it would be the ultimate insult to our cat Daisy.

It's always a pleasure to be around animal lovers, and I was even more buoyed up, soon after getting home, to turn on the news and find that today is an historic day for those like me who hate cruelty to animals. It is the last time the sickening spectacle of bull-fighting will be seen in Catalonia.

With absolutely perfect timing, my first ever trip to Spain takes place next week, and we are heading for Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, so I am already taking my hat off to the place, even though bull-fighting is likely to continue for years to come in other parts of Spain.

Heritage normally counts for a lot in my life and there is no denying that bull-fighting is obviously ingrained in Spanish heritage, but that is no excuse - and there can be no excuse - for bull-fighting in the 21st century. Or any other, come to think of it.

Talking of heritage, it has been a busy weekend for me as for six uninterrupted hours on Saturday I helped visitors to Radnor Street Cemetery look up their ancestors and loved ones in the burial registers - part of another highly successful event organised by The Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery, which I am on the committee of.

It was nice to see the pleasure that some people got from tracing ancestors or finding out exactly where they are buried, and there was an added bonus for me and my fellow researcher, my twin brother Brian, as we finally got to meet a long-lost cousin, Alison Hale (my grandmother was also a Hale). We have been swapping family history information with Alison for a while, and she decided to come up from Newport for the day and go to the cemetery - where, indeed, many of our shared ancestors lie. As we were too tied up with burial registers to spend much time with her, we decided to get together next month to overdose on family history at our leisure.

So, all in all, a great weekend for getting out and doing nice stuff - and I haven't even mentioned being able to satisfy my appetite for old stuff by visiting a big car boot sale and fascinating junk yard at Dauntsey early on Sunday morning.


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September 21, 2011

Touch wood

I hate to say this, but things seem to be going quite well at the moment. All I need now is for somebody to ask me to do stuff for real money and we're laughing.

Tonight I successfully negotiated another talk-cum-slideshow I had agreed to give about Alfred Williams, this time for the Chiseldon Local History Group.

When I was younger, I would have had nightmares about this sort of thing, but I can honestly say I had absolutely no fears and no nerves about this one, even though there was the added pressure of knowing there were several people in the audience who know at least as much and probably much more about the subject than me.

The only real concern I had was over the technology working, but miraculously - because to me it seemed about as likely as putting a man on the moon - the new projector I bought for the Alfred Williams Heritage Society actually did its job.

Right at the end of the evening I got the boost that made it all worthwhile. I'd previously met one of the ladies in the audience and apparently I had inspired her to read Alfred Williams's book, Villages of the White Horse, which she really enjoyed, and was now reading Life in a Railway Factory too.

Coincidentally, I've also re-read Villages of the White Horse in the last week, for a new project I am involved in, so I know exactly what she means. One of the reasons Alfred Williams is such a hero of mine is his writing style is not only timeless in the sense that it is at least as readable now as when it was written, a century ago, but it is just about the most attractive style of any writer I know - beautiful in its simplicity.

This project of which I speak is to do with Alfred Williams and quite exciting, with the potential to be very exciting, but partly because it's a work in progress and partly because it may come to nothing, I'm keeping fairly shtum about it for now.

I'm also feeling upbeat because my fitness campaign is going remarkably well. It really started at the beginning of the year, but has stuttered at times, because I've been unlucky with injuries - or are niggly injuries a symptom of my age?

I run about four or five times a week, and nearly always the same route, which is approximately four miles and includes some mild but long hills. To begin with I didn't time myself because just making it to the end was an achievement, but a few weeks ago it was regularly taking me about 33 minutes to complete. On my latest run I got it down to 31:20, which doesn't sound huge but as it is an improvement of about five per cent, I think that's pretty impressive. I'm actually feeling fit, too, so when I finish the run I am feeling fit enough that I would be able to continue (and sometimes do) for another 20 minutes or so without too much trouble.

The days when I am comfortably able to complete a half marathon are still months off, but - touch wood - I'm getting there.

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September 17-18, 2011

What am I doing here?


Do you ever think to yourself something like: "What am I doing here when I could be sat at home with a cup of tea, watching something rubbish on the telly?"

You do? And me! This weekend, for instance.

It started with another gig with The Misfits on Saturday night. As I heard one or other of the Spice Girls saying on the radio the other day - don't ask me which one - the smaller the venue and the closer the audience, the scarier performing is. Well, they don't come much smaller or closer than Stratton British Legion, so I can vouch for at least half of her argument.

The funny thing is: the feeling I get before we start can't be described as nerves as it doesn't include the classic symptoms such as butterflies, and I actually feel quite calm. It's just a weird feeling of being out of my depth, as if somebody is going to spring out of the audience, half way through a song, grab a microphone and point out to everybody that the drummer really isn't doing things quite the way he should.

So far, this hasn't actually happened, and sometimes I even get to the end and think: "Hold on - I didn't do too badly there, after all." But most of the time the only thing in my head on the way home is: "Phew. I seemed to get away with that OK."

So then the feeling is not "What am I doing here...?" but "What was I doing there...?"

The answer, of course, is it's nearly all about overcoming a challenge, with the added benefit that if I wasn't playing drums, I might end up doing something really terrible like sitting down and watching The X-Factor, and finding I enjoy it, which is a very scary thought indeed, and every justification anybody should ever need to encourage them to get out and do something else - anything else - on a Saturday night.

The gig finished at 11.45pm and, for various reasons, including having to load and then unload the drums after the gig, then having to allow the last of the adrenalin to trickle out of my brain, it was past 1.30am before I got to sleep. This was bad news because I had to be up at 6.30am for the next round of going somewhere and wondering what I was doing there when I could have... (you get the picture).

This time it was a one-off as we (Julie and I) had somehow volunteered to be stewards at a roadshow being staged by the BBC at Lydiard Park, called a Deadly Days Out. This was to do with a CBBC programme called Live 'n' Deadly, and the event featured various activities for children involving dangerous animals, the climax of which was a show in a marquee, presented by the star of the programme, Steve Backshall.

Nearly 6,000 people turned up for the event, which wouldn't have been a surprise to anybody who has young children, on account of the programme being one of the BBC's "biggest brands" and Steve apparently being a superstar among kids.

When we arrived at 8am, neither of us could work why we had volunteered to get up so early on a Sunday morning, and after collecting our hi-vis jackets and having our briefing, we were - if we were honest - not over-excited to be given jobs that involved engaging with the Great British Public, rather than what we had anticipated and - at that time in the morning - wished for, which was nothing more challenging than pointing people towards the car park.

Yet we still enjoyed it, even if the jobs were neither mundane nor exciting. All day, Julie gave out free activity books and postcards picturing Steve and his co-presenter, plus CBBC/Live 'n' Deadly pencils to grateful kids - a job I muscled in on for the last hour of the day.

For the rest of the time I was concerned with queue control, which was surprisingly easy for me as the little tent I was assigned to, which was being run by the impressive Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, was the only one that didn't actually have a queue. But as they were sited close to the entrance, I made myself useful, instead, by answering queries, pointing out a key error on the site map to confused parents and being on hand when, for instance, people were puzzled why they weren't being allowed out (it was because a child had temporarily gone missing).

It might sound like a recipe for a very dull day, but was anything but - and we were both glad that we put ourselves through it. Probably the best bit was the attitude and reaction of the hordes of visitors. No matter how mean-spirited and ungrateful most people can seem in Britain these days, Live 'n' Deadly fans in Swindon and their parents turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant crowd.

It was the second date of ten on a nationwide tour, and all the staff - some local like us but most of them signed up for the whole tour - seemed taken aback by this. Watching the kids enjoy themselves at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust stand was also an eye-opener because most of the amusement came from making pictures out of sunflower heads, pine cones, conkers and bits of twig, but I'm certain none of them would have swapped it for computer games or skateboards or anything else for the time they were there. Somebody else pointed out how little litter had been left behind, considering the size of the event.

But most spectacular was the politeness of the kids, who rarely forgot their pleases and thank-yous - and if they did, it was probably only because they were so excited by the prospect of meeting Steve and the dangerous or creepy-crawly animals on site, or because they had enjoyed themselves so much that they had long since been lost to Planet Wow. And when they did forget, there was always - and literally always, I think - a mum or a dad on hand, or both, to insist on please and thank-you.

My conclusion was that parents generally fall into two categories: the kind who put themselves out to give their kids opportunities and are grateful for them - and the other kind. Fortunately, the other kind had obviously found something else to occupy their day, and it was probably very similar to the rest of their lives. In short: there was never going to be much riff-raff on site, so we were always on a winner.

The day also underlined what an asset the BBC is to Britain. I think it is second only to the NHS as a great institution, and I think anybody who even thinks about cutting its services or altering it in almost any way is not to be trusted. The whole day was free and the policy is that nothing can be sold on site, so the fast food trailers had to retreat behind the perimeter fence. That was another bonus: as staff, we got to use the official BBC catering van, like extras on a TV or film shoot, which was not only fun but tasty.

Yet another bonus for me was chatting with the people from the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, which included a very intelligent Swedish man of boundless enthusiasm and perfect spoken English who told me he had recently written a book (in Swedish) about unusual edible plants; that the Swedes are surprisingly similar to the British except we have a much greater regard for our heritage; and his girlfriend's father is a carpenter for Ikea - an institution that we both have great regard for (possibly a Swedish rival to the effectiveness of the BBC).

The day finished with us having to pose for a team photo for the approximately 50 BBC staff, in which Julie and I somehow ended up sitting where the captain would sit in a football team picture - except the captain was missing. Sure enough, Steve Backshall himself appeared from behind the curtain, asking for everybody to make way so he could sit in the prime spot - that is, right next to us. This might have been fun if he hadn't been wearing a boa constrictor around his neck, so I made a quick escape and sat near the man with a rat on his shoulder, while Julie toughed it out, literally side-by-side with Steve and his friend. I'd happily sleep with rats on my pillow, but don't relish being in the same county as any kind of snake.

As far as stewarding goes - if there was another Deadly Day Out in Swindon, I'd definitely say yes.

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September 12, 2011

She was only an alderman's daughter...


..but she let the borough surveyor.

This and other brilliantly awful jokes* were what greeted us as we had our regular shot in the arm that is a visit to the Watermill Theatre at Newbury.

The latest production is a comedy/musical called Radio Times. Based on an imaginary wartime radio programme and starring Gary Wilmot, it certainly kept up the theatre's reputation of being able to put on any sort of play and make it a success. I defy anybody to watch it without a smile on their face and go home without a spring in their step.

The show relies on mostly unkown (to me) wartime songs and dance routines and those awful and mostly smutty jokes to carry it, with a soppy, predictable plot woven through some fairly random sketches. Not exactly Shakespeare, but so professionally staged and a real privilege to see, as ever.

Gary Wilmot was a big TV star before finding success in the West End, his trade mark being a certain cheeky chappie charm. He has lost none of his natural chirpiness, but because he now looks a bit older and more distinguished, he comes with an air of authority and maturity. You cannot fail to like him.

In some ways, I suspect it is more difficult to command the stage and win over the audience in a tiny place like the Watermill than it is on a big West End stage, but Wilmot and the rest of the cast manage it brilliantly.

Part of the fascination for the audience is being close enough to see every tiny thing the cast do and every trick they play during their performance. Thanks to some seat shifting during the interval, for the second half we managed to get the seats in the side balcony above the stage (called 'The Slips'), so were only a few feet from the action. This is the closest you can come to being in a professional play without being a member of Equity, and it's a real treat.

The following is probably true of anything staged at the Watermill, but if anybody reading this has never been there, then it's time you did, and Radio Times would be the perfect one to start with.

*She was only a policeman's daughter, but she let the chief inspector.

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September 10, 2011

A day in the life of a junk junkie


The National Motor Museum, Beaulieu: an estimated 20,000 people roll up for their famous autojumble, including, for the first time, me.

What bliss to be surrounded on all sides by the greatest collection of junk I've ever seen - and to realise that even though I consider myself a serious junk junkie, I have absolutely nothing on some of the hardcore fanatics there.

I went with my brother Brian and his two brothers-in-law, and although he had tried to explain what it was going to be like, having gone last year, nothing can prepare you for an event that is really quite mind-boggling. They say there are a thousand stalls - so many that, by the time you leave, after six solid hours of browsing up and down the rolls, you are certain you haven't seen every stall, but not quite sure you didn't miss out a whole extra field, filled with even more junk.

Everything you can think of that you would want to buy for a car or on a car theme is there, from whole cars for sale or auction, costing tens of thousands and probably over £100,000, down to individual nuts and bolts. Some stalls specialize in a very narrow field - say Saab parts or key fobs with car badges - while others are just a collection of assorted items they have seemingly gathered together at random. Some specialize and generalise at the same time, like those selling a range of toy cars from rare collectors' items to throwaway plastic ones. And some stalls have entirely new stuff for sale, such as car polish or custom-made brake discs.

The car theme isn't always adhered to, so other treasures turn up too, including pinball machines, bikes, radios, toys, bus stop signs (which Brian has a bizarre fascination with, and bought one) and on one stall I saw some kind of nautical perescope.

The motives of the buyers seemed to be summed up by the guy we saw, right at the end, dragging his trophies to the car park. In one hand he had the engine cover (boot lid) for a Volkswagen Beetle and in the other he had a porthole. His mate had one too. Some go to buy something specific; others, like me, something random, but all are prone to come home with something they couldn't have imagined they would be buying when they set off in the morning.

Me? I had to resist the temptation to buy a parking meter. I saw two different ones (£35 without a pole, £55 with), and I was later told there was a third on one of the stands I didn't see. It's possible, actually, that it was on one of the stands I had seen, but I just didn't see it. By closing time, your brain becomes weary from scanning each stall and having to make instant decisions on what to stop and look at, whether you are interested in it and, ultimately, whether you fancied buying it.

A few things passed all these tests and I came away with a few oddities. I bought four little plastic aeroplanes (£2) for no other reason than they were each a different colour and they looked interesting as a set. Then Brian and I went halves on a job lot of 30 cardboard Dunlop roadsigns for a knockdown £8.

This was a real bargain on account of the premium you usually have to pay for anything that is branded with a famous motor trade name. There were thousands of motor trade-branded metal signs, and these commanded prices often in the hundreds of pounds. Anything with Michelin on it seemed especially sellable. Even an old tyre pressure chart, so rusted that the only thing you could really make out was the Michelin logo, was priced at £10. I would dearly love to own a plastic Michelin Man, as seen on the front of lorries, but this is arguably the ultimate autojumble buy, and I couldn't have justified (to Julie) spending the bargain price of £110 I saw on one I saw for sale.

In the end, my star buy wasn't automotive-themed at all, really. It's a ticket machine (below) that apparently is ex-London Transport, but I can't yet fathom whether it's for dispensing bus tickets or train tickets. The rolls of unprinted tickets it comes with all have a bus theme, although a timetable on the inside of the case appears to be for trains. It was originally on sale for £45, but fortunately Brian has got quite skilled at haggling at car boot sales, so we knocked it down to £35. As with most of the junk I buy, I don't really have a plan about where to keep it, although I have a vague idea of putting it on display because it's too interested to keep in a box.

Whatever I do with it, it will be a souvenir of a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable day which has given me a taste of what my heaven is like, if it exists and if I get to go there. Imagine eternity surrounded by interesting junk - a perpetual museum of interesting artefacts, only an autojumble is better than a museum because it isn't left to a curator to decide for you what is interesting and what isn't. I saw dozens of different pedal cars, for instance, on dozens of different stalls, which together constituted a kind of pedal car museum. Ironically, the £14 entrance fee included admission to the excellent National Motor Museum, next door, but there was never going to be time to take a look inside.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure I would really like to share eternity with my fellow junk junkies. For a start, they were overwhelmingly male, with less than ten per cent being women, and although there was surely plenty of interesting things for children to look at, there were hardly any kids there, either, which struck me as a bit odd. Otherwise, there was some pleasure to be had simply from being with like-minded people who understand the joy of junk and the pleasure of clutter.

The hardcore junkies had come prepared with rucksacks, pullalong shopping baskets and even little four-wheeled carts to haul away their buys, and had obviously decided to come in their best clothes rather than the oily overalls they would probably feel most comfortable in. Sadly, for some, that meant finding out their anorak and getting into those ill-fitting jeans (with turn-ups) they keep for special occasions like this.

At least their ranks were given a continental flavour as a surprisingly high number of visitors and even stallholders were Europeans. Autojumbling must be popular in France, Holland and Germany, as I would estimate that a couple of thousand people had made it across the channel to be there.

When it comes to junk, even I am a mere amateur in the face of such seasoned professionals, but I am already looking forward to joining them again next year.
















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September 9, 2011

New at New College

Yet another milestone was reached in our house today as Holly went off for her first day at college - the appropriately named New College.

She's beginning A Levels in fine art, graphics, psychology and media studies - the first two being her main subjects and the two others brought in to make up the numbers as they wouldn't allow her to do a third art subject. For reasons that I don't understand, most kids these days are encouraged to start four A Levels, but probably only complete three, so either psychology or media studies will not go the distance, and probably media studies, which is a shame as that's the one I not only could most help with, but would enjoy helping with.

I say "could help with" because it's not very likely that a teenage girl (and this one in particular) is going to ask for help from her dad, even on a subject that he might know something about.

It only seems like yesterday that I was taking first day at school and first day at senior school pictures, but in one way they seem like a long way off because I daren't even ask if I could take a first day at college picture - just in case looks can kill after all.

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September 8, 2011

9/11 + 10


There is something really compelling about 9/11. In the last week I have felt compelled to watch a few of the many programmes being aired to mark the 10th anniversary.

For obvious reasons, one progamme about twins who lost their 'other half' in the Twin Towers was personally especially interesting, and I hope less of my interest in 9/11 is morbid curiosity than fascination with a world event that felt, as much as anything I have ever experienced, like history as it happened.

My former colleague Fiona Scott has written thoughtfully about her 9/11 memories on her blog, which she has linked to a recent family tragedy. We have had our own family tragedy this year, which helps to understand how 2,974 deaths at Ground Zero alone was not just the single tragedy of one person passing away, but obviously something that needs to be multiplied by the number of friends and relations each victim had.

I was working at the Swindon Advertiser on that day, at the other end of the newsroom from the news desk, on sport. I vividly remember one of the news sub-editors coming down to tell us that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, so we switched our TV from Sky Sports to Sky News. And it was while watching the live coverage that I had to scratch my head and ask myself: did I really just see a second plane fly into the other tower? I watched with Alan Johnson, the sports editor at the time, who was predicting the collapse of the towers at least half an hour before it happened.

There is nothing - well, not much - to get your adrenalin flowing more than being in a newsroom when a really big event has happened or is even actually happening. And it was obvious that history was being written before our very eyes.

The worst thing about the day is it was obvious that more bloodshed would inevitably follow, and along with our own servicemen, hundreds of gallons of innocent blood would be spilt too, in Iraq and long-suffering Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001, however, I could easily see a scenario where the attacks could escalate into something much worse. In my head, the worst-case scenario saw Pakistan, a nuclear power, being held at least partly responsible, and another nuclear power, Israel, getting dragged into it (and Israel, as everybody knows but few will admit, is obviously at the core of the problem).

One second after the second plane hit the tower, it was obvious that these had been no accidents, and the attacks were a declaration of war that would inevitably be answered. My impression of the terrorists and what they had done took only a few more minutes to ferment, but hadn't changed.

I couldn't (and still can't) think of a more cowardly act in the whole of history. Obviously, history is littered with cowards, but no coward is bigger than the one who isn't around to face the consequencies of what he's done. It's blind, evil selfishness, and there is no greater dishonour than believing yourself a martyr when, actually, you don't have enough courage and not enough faith in what you say you believe in to stand up and argue for it.

I doubt there are many people left who consider them martyrs, and especially not in Britain, where 9/11 has given the bigots just the excuse they needed to step up their prejudice against Islam and, indeed, anybody else whose roots are in the East instead of the West.

In that case it was a declaration of war on their own people as much as on the West.


Just a theory

I have to be careful here because I have at least one friend who likes to believe in conspiracy theories (hi Dave), but I have just watched a BBC programme which dismantled the main conspiracy theories about 9/11, one by one.

I have yet to find a single conspiracy theory that I believe in, but I suppose the closest I have come actually concerns one of the 9/11 theories. The possibility that the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11 - Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania - might have been shot down by USAF jets is not inconceivable, given that they may well have intercepted it to minimise deaths. The evidence produced by the programme, however, left me in no doubt that it really was brought down by the heroic actions of the passengers in overcoming the hijackers, and not intercepted.

One of the points the programme made was that conspiracy theories tap into an understandable need we all have to try to make sense of a world that offers very little answers. It made me realise that even though we think we have explanations for most of what happens in the world and some of the universe, in reality we only have a very few answers to anything. And when something comes along that is as historically and politically complex and difficult to understand as why 9/11 happened, some people fall for the lure of the conspiracy theory - not just because it's a simple answer, but because it's any answer. We get so few answers in life, any one that comes along all packaged and complete, is tempting.

But not that tempting. The first conspiracy theory I ever heard was the one about the Gunpowder Plot being a hoax perpetrated to stoke up bad feeling about Catholics. It was an interesting concept, but when I later came to read a definitive 400-page history on the plot, and the conspiracy theory was brushed aside at the end, in less than half a page, I realised how much of an imbalance there is between the mass of evidence on one side and the scraps of misinformation, masquerading as theory, on the other.

The really telling element of the 9/11 programme, though, was how it kept on returning to the same conspiracy theorists for their views. These people never had just a pet theory they especially believed in, but believed in all of them. It seems that nobody believes in just one theory. Either you are the kind of person who believes all of them or the kind of person who believes none - and the ultimate truth is determined not by the evidence but the kind of person you are. As much as I would like solutions to more of the world's riddles, I have come to accept that I will die with far more questions than answers.

I used to find all this conspiracy theory stuff not only harmless but even entertaining, until somebody made a telling point in the programme about 9/11 conspiracy theories in general and especially the ludicrous one that the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon was not an airliner but either a light plane or a missile, filed by the US Government, the CIA or - you wouldn't put it past them - people abducted and reprogrammed by aliens. The point made was that if it wasn't bad enough that these innocent people were murdered, their families now also have to contend with more and more people believing that they didn't actually exist.

Basically, a conspiracy theory had reduced the lives of those poor people to absolutely nothing, along with the memories of their loved ones.


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September 5, 2011

A bit of Fry

Anybody reading this blog who takes any notice of the 'Now reading' entry above will probably be wondering why it has taken me so long to read not just the latest book, but every one I read.

I know people who can read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare on the 485 bus and still have time to do the crossword before they reach their destination, but I have always been a terribly slow reader. At school, I was literally the slowest in the class.

I always maintain - and I am sticking to this - that it's because I read every word, digest it and think about it before moving to the next one, in no way employing any kind of speed-reading techniques whatsoever. This is really the only way to absorb everything the book is saying, which is important if, like me, you are predominantly reading non-fiction.

Because I am a writer myself, I also tend to analyse the way every sentence is written - mostly sub-consciously, although sometimes actively, so that I may even go back and read the sentence again to: a) check it said exactly what I thought it said, and maybe b) because it was written either more or less effectively than I would have written it myself.

I should also add that I rarely have only one book on the go at once, so the 'Now reading' book is only the main one I am looking at. As I read a lot of non-fiction, it's not as if I have to read whole books at a time, anyway, from start to finish, like you do with fiction.

All this preamble is to explain that although it has taken me a long time to read The Fry Chronicles, it is by no means because it has been difficult read, a chore or because it's not a proverbial page-turner. It is, in fact, a fine book that I would recommend to anybody who, like me, will watch, read or follow on Twitter anything that has the name Stephen Fry attached to it.

This is the second installment of his autobiography, following on from Moab Is My Washpot, which was a fairly sordid account of his homosexual school days and his arrest and imprisonment for credit card fraud (he was arrested in Swindon, actually, as this feature on SwindonWeb, written by me, explains).

The second installment is much better, picking up the story when Stephen gets to university, falls in with a very good crowd of talented actors and comics, and becomes rich and famous.

As the person in this country who is least impressed with so-called celebrity, it goes against the grain for me to idolise many people in the public eye, but for Stephen Fry I've always made an exception.

As everybody knows, he's a massively intelligent chap - not just because he retains a vast amount of knowledge in his head, but because he clearly thinks about things, therefore having the rare gift of being able to turn knowledge into wisdom. I would also say that his humanity gives him an even greater insight into what makes the world tick.

If that was the extent of his appeal, that would be great enough, but on top of all that, he's also humble. And that's the real beauty of this book. He comes across as a fairly fragile person, with much less confidence than you might think, and when he says he thinks he's lucky and appreciates just how lucky he is, he isn't saying it as a celebrity who secretly has a high opinion of himself. He means it. He is genuinely humble, for all his many qualities.

Did I also mention that he also writes beautifully? Every bit as beautifully as you would expect.

By all rights, I shouldn't like Stephen Fry for what he stands for. He is so English-establishment that he is almost a caricature - public school, posh university, luvvie, archaic London club member, pipe-smoker - but somehow he's the kind of person you would forgive anything of, especially as that seems to be a central feature of his character: seeking forgiveness for something or other, although he's not sure what.

The single paragraph on the book jacket (below) sums him up, but I would recommend to anybody that they read the whole of the book to get a measure of this rare kind of celebrity - one who is actually deserving of celebration.

And don't rush when you read it.

I am English. Tweedy. Pukka. Confident. Establishment. Self-assured. In charge. That is how people like to see me, be the truth never so at variance... In fact, I am chronically overmastered by a sense of failure, underachievement and a terrible knowledge that I have betrayed, abused or neglected the talents that nature bestowed upon me... Are you not prey to all those things also? I do hope so... I am surely describing nothing more than the fears, dreads and neuroses we all share? No? More or less? Mutatis mutandis? All things being equal? Oh, please say yes.