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December 31, 2011-January 1, 2012

New year at last

So 2011 has finally ended. It's fair to say that it was a challenging year, and mostly one that I wouldn't like to live through again.

I've never been one for the artificial transition from one second to midnight on New Year's Eve, to one second after, but this year I did feel as if putting 2011 behind us might offer some kind of renewed hope.

As it was, I missed the moment completely and suspect it happened sometime towards the end of Hi-Ho Silver Lining, which I was playing at our gig at Stratton British Legion. Our hosts weren't very well organised with synchronising us with Big Ben.

By then we had already been playing for over two hours altogether, with about half an hour still left. Drumming in the band is still an ordeal as it requires maximum concentration and sometimes immense stamina because I am nearly always playing at the outer reaches of my ability. Sometimes I'm actually playing beyond my abillity because it gets so difficult I have to rely on luck for everything to come together.

Last night, for instance, we played Queen's Fat-Bottomed Girls in public for the first time, which is extremely difficult for me - even the simplified version I play. It's a really complex song and whether I get back in time for the second chorus is almost entirely down to hope and good fortune.

So, apart from the one per cent of time when I can relax sufficiently to actually enjoy it, the main benefit of playing gigs is the sense of achievement that comes from pushing myself to the limit. The question is how much I want to put myself through the mill in 2012.

The day after the night before, the new year proper began with a family gathering as the Freeman clan descended on our house. Ukuleles and various guitars were brought out and iPads compared during a really enjoyable evening, and when everybody had gone home, we realised we hadn't turned the telly on all day, which must be a good thing, considering that 99 per cent of the stuff on there is such drivel.

Life without telly is more desirable and more viable because of the arrival of our iPad, a device which I think and hope is going to be lifestyle-changing. We already live in a world where technology and information is at our fingertips, but I am quite excited by the prospect of the iPad almost literally being available 24 hours a day, wherever we are.

No doubt 2012 will bring its own challenges, but there are also things to look forward to. It's a year when we will no longer have children in the house (as Holly turns 18 in October) and when we will celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. And, of course, we are now officially and finally in London Olympics year.

Hurray!

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December 24-27, 2011

Wonderful Christmastime

There it was: gone - my 51st Christmas on the planet, and I am happy to say I still haven't even begun to tire of this time of year and everything that comes with it.

What is different about Christmas now, however, is although our kids still like it, we miss out on the magic of them being young and really excited about everything. A really terrifying aspect of this is we are starting to anticipate and look forward to the time - not in the foreseeable future, but not so far off, either - when we are grandparents! That's right - we are already thinking that we will, one day, get to enjoy it all over again!

In the meantime, meeting up with four of our five great nephews/nieces, including brand new one Oscar, reminded us of how nice it is to have kids around, and how limited our contact with kids is these days.

We spent Christmas Eve visiting and meeting up with family, including my great nieces Millie and Amber, who were in town and kept us entertained for a little while, while Holly entertained them by helping them make an edible decoration. It was lovely to see their excitement over the impending arrival of Father Christmas bubbling up.

We spent the evening at my brother Brian's, where we all had curry. They don't have young kids any more, so it was left to their cats, Eddie and Ringo, to entertain us, which they (especially Ringo) did by demonstrating their obsession with watching Frozen Planet. Ringo likes to sit and watch it for hours, occasionally attacking the screen when he gets excited about the animals.

Our Christmas Day day was spent in the traditional way - at home; just the four of us, plus Julie's bachelor brother John, but we also popped out to see our elderly auntie and uncle (Jean and Fred).

On Boxing Day we travelled to Julie's brother's in rural Berkshire for a gathering of the Rew/Royle/Freeman clans - another brilliant day, which ended with us dropping off Holly and her boyfriend Jack at his home, where they celebrated Jack's 18th birthday on Tuesday (27th).

On Tuesday morning we headed off to Somerset to visit my sister Carol and her husband Dave, which had the added incentive of meeting five-day-old Oscar and his suitably proud parents Gary and Natalie at their home in Exeter. Oscar reminded us of just how perfect new-born babies can look, and also what a daunting (but rewarding) thing parenthood can be.

The day also demonstrated how quickly they can grow up as all day we were entertained by Oscar's cool cousin Henry, another great nephew. He was seriously premature when he was born, just over two years ago, but is now as bright as a button and obviously a really happy little kid.

Even though Carol and Dave are retired now, it is almost impossible to see the whole Somerset/Devon branch of the family when we visit, because not only are my nephews Glyn and Gary in the Ambulance Service, but Gary's wife Natalie is too, and Glyn's wife Laura is an A&E nurse. Their shifts rarely coincide. So as we set off for home this time, we said we had been luckier than normal, having seen all but Laura, who was working. But Glyn left something at his mum's and as we were passing the turning to his house on the way home, we arranged to meet him on the roadside and hand it over. By the time we got there, though, Laura had finished her shift at the hospital, so she came out to meet us instead, which meant we completed the full set after all.

Looking back to Christmas Day, I got arguably the best set of presents I've had this century, although when I thought about it I realised most of them are not much different to what I liked getting about 40 years ago, as they included a toy car (actually an ice cream van), books and a wooden box, full of sweets. The sweets were a bonus. As a fully paid-up, middle-aged geek, nobody should be surprised to find I can take infinite pleasure from simply owning a nice box. And it is a very, very nice box.

For their main presents this year, we gave both our kids a ukulele. Holly is keen to learn a second instrument, while Sean is always keen to play anything that you have to strum or hit with sticks. He's hardly played a ukulele before, but by the end of Boxing Day he was already getting nice tunes out of it, even though the shapes for the chords and the tuning are different to guitar. My ukulele-based pleasure came from wrapping them up (see below).

Julie's and my main present was a joint one to each other - shares in an iPad. So far it's mainly a toy, but I can feel myself getting really excited about how the new technology is going to change the world and us in particular, which I will no doubt be spouting on about here in due course...






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December 22, 2011

An Oscar for perfect timing

I am a great uncle - for the fifth time.

Oscar David Tennet, the first born of my nephew Gary and his wife Natalie, arrived early this morning.

He was originally something to look forward to in 2012, but the doctors decided to bring him into the world a couple of weeks early, which is nothing by the standards of our family. I hear that everything went to plan and Oscar weighed in at just over 7lb - again, postively huge compared with other members of the family when they were born, including his father.

When I first heard that Natalie was going to be induced this week, I was hoping it wouldn't happen today, which is the first anniversary of my mum's death. But the more I thought about it, the more I was willing for it to happen.

Dates and anniversaries and things are a big part of my life, being both a bit of an anorak and interested in history, and they do tend to take on an undue significance in my head. And although I don't usually believe in hocus pocus, it could have been easy to see the coincidence of a birthday and an anniversary of a death as a bad omen.

In fact, it's the exact opposite. We now have the best possible reason to remember December 22, and it is the nature of the world that new generations arrive to take over from old ones, so Oscar's timing was absolutely perfect. My mum, who loved kids and was always proud of her grandchildren, would have been thrilled at the arrival of her fifth great grandchild, had she lived to see it.

I am resisting the temptation to make any link between Oscar and the baby Jesus and the rest of the nativity fairytale, but at the end of a testing year for the Carter family, we couldn't have asked for a better Christmas present than a baby.

He is not actually a Carter in name, but he does have Carter blood in him, which is good enough for me.

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December 21, 2011

Under the knife

Next year is already guaranteed to bring new and... um... interesting experiences after my hospital appointment today.

I am going under the knife for a routine and fairly unnecessary operation to have a scary-sounding but almost certainly totally harmless fatty tumour (lipoma) removed. The reasons are almost entirely cosmetic, if I am honest.

I've actually had it for five or six years, but since losing weight last year it has become more prominent as it is sitting on top of a rib. Most people wouldn't know I have it as it's hardly noticeable under my clothes, and even if I take my shirt off, it's conveniently under my elbow when I have my arms by my side. But, ironically, after losing an estimated three stones last year, my reward for being much trimmer and healthier is the lump became more prominent and I became more self-conscious of it.

This gave me a big dilemma - whether to take steps to have it removed, which can only be achieved with surgery, or to give in to my terrible dread of medical procedures of any kind and let it be.

To cut a long story short, I decided to be brave, even though it seemed odds-on that it would have to be done with local anaesthetic, multiplying stress levels by a factor of at least six. However, I was pretty relieved to be told, today, that the doctor would rather do it under general anaesthetic - partly because there is a small chance that it will not be entirely straightforward, but also, I think, that I took the opportunity, on the forms I had to fill in, of pointing out that I am liable to faint at the merest mention of the world scalpel.

The real irony is that my phobia is mostly based on my lurid imagination as I do not actually have any experience of surgery using a blade. I've suffered at the dentist, obviously, and I've had laser eye surgery, but never the dreaded knife. My other lucky record - of never having spent a night in a hospital bed - should, however, stay intact as I will be admitted as a day patient. I have every chance of being in and out inside five or six hours.

In a funny kind of way, I'm actually quite curious to experience a general anaesthetic for the fist time, although February 27 is not exactly a date I am looking forward to.

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December 20, 2011

He passed!

Just when you thought you had got over the stress of waiting for your kids' music exam results...

Today we heard that a 14/15-year-old lad called Sam passed his drumming exam, which is great news for us, even though we've never actually met him.

He is a student of Sean's and found out today that he not only passed Grade 6, but did so 'with merit'. Grade 6 is seriously good - far better than I would ever be able to achieve, even if I live to be 100 - and actually requires you to do some things that seem almost impossibly intricate to my trained ear.

It is one thing to get to this level yourself and even beyond it, as Sean has, but to be able to teach somebody to that level is something else again, so in many ways this was the biggest result of Sean's musical career so far, because it bridges the gap between talented player and able teacher; you can be one without the other. Sam is undoubtedly gifted to have got to Grade 6 at his age, but talent alone doesn't get you through the various disciplines of exams.

Incidentally, Sean also teaches Sam's father, Kevin.

Another feather in his cap is he came home with a tin of sweets as a Christmas present from two brothers who are, I think, his youngest students, along with a very appreciative card from their parents.

Link to Sean's website.

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December 17, 2011

Christmas: it's official

There is no better way to get in the Christmas spirit, if you ask me, than to attend a Christmas concert, which is exactly what we did tonight.

It was the annual concert by Cirencester singer and singing teacher Maria Jagusz, featuring her students, but the first we've ever attended. I've only just got to know Maria through her being the director of the new production of The Hammerman (see below).

The show featured three songs from the musical as a kind of preview of next March's production, including an excellent new version of the opening song, sung by an infectiously enthusiastic Ben Maggs, which he will be singing in the musical. There were also several members of the new cast of The Hammerman in this show, including Paul Bradley, who again plays the lead. There was also a sequence of songs in the show from my all-time favourite musical and possibly my all-time favourite film, Oliver!

All this was a bonus on top of a night of entertainment by mostly young people, all seemingly out to disprove the rumour that is going round that today's kids are all drug-frenzied, knife-wielding wasters, which is patently not the case and obvious to everybody who actually engages with the younger generation and doesn't read the Daily Mail. It also restores your confidence in the world when people who are so talented are also obviously so nice.

Our reaction to each song in turn was: "Cor, she's got a good voice," followed by "Cor, he's got a good voice," pretty much repeated from the start of the show to the finish. If I had one criticism it was I was hoping for more Christmassy songs, and none of my favourites* were selected, but paradoxically, the inclusion of quite a few classical numbers did the trick.

This was because it was all performed at the Bingham Hall, in Cirencester, which despite my time of full-on theatre reviewing for the Swindon Advertiser in days gone by, I had somehow never been to before. The date written above the procenium arch is 1908, and it was easy to imagine a whole century of similar Christmas concerts going before it, featuring some of the exact same songs, which gave it a certain provenance.

We also got a lesson in how small the world is as although we were expecting to know hardly anybody there, we bumped into a former colleague of Julie's, Philippa, and her son, Dominic, who was the show's drummer. I can hardly go anywhere without knowing the drummer, and, more to the point, as I know a lot of very good drummers, I never get to see one who isn't better than me. Dominic is actually studying percussion, which gave an extra interesting slant to it for me (nice cymbals).

Philippa, who we hadn't seen for a while, greeted us with the news that she has unfortunately been diagnosed with breast cancer, but, as we commented on the way home, she is probably the last person we know who would take it lying down or stand any nonsense, so the cancer has almost certainly chosen the wrong adversary to pick on.

Anyway, as of tonight, Christmas 2011 has officially begun.

*For the record, my top three Christmas songs are Good King Wenceslas (listen to the words, they're great), Sleigh Ride and Greg Lake singing I Believe in Father Christmas.

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December 16, 2011

Catching up

Dear Blog, I am sorry I have been neglecting you in 2011, and again just lately, and sorry that this is another round-up of events during the last couple of weeks, which really isn't serving the purposes of a blog as I understand it. Must do better.

Before I update what has been happening just lately, I should bring your attention to , which is the review of the year we send out with some of our Christmas cards, now available as a PDF. None of it will come as news to anybody who has been reading this blog all year.

Since I was last here I have had an interview for a job, which wasn't successful, so there's not much point going into details, except to say it would have been an interesting job in a significant and quite prestigious organisation.

I never really expected to get the job because it was actually to cover maternity leave, which tells you what sort of person is currently doing it, and it was asking a bit much for them to swap a young woman for an old man, even temporarily. However, I did have plenty of relevant experience in both web and paper publishing, which is what it was all about.

I got an interview, which went as well as can be expected, bearing in mind that of all the things I relish in the world, talking myself up in front of three people for three quarters of an hour comes only slightly higher than beating myself with a stick.

The only way to take these things is to imagine what would have happened if I'd got the job, which would have a huge culture shock to somebody who has been self-employed for more than 13 years - yes, that long - and has got used to the semblance of control that this brings. It would also have meant that while I don't have much work on, what I have got planned for the first quarter of 2012 would have been severely disrupted.

There is one particular project that I am getting quite excited about as it involves working for the BBC and getting paid for it. I'm not at liberty to say what it is until they are ready to publicise it, but it's a short film based on one of my main interests, and is going to be (and already is) fun to do. I'm also going to observe parts of the process in an unpaid capactity, and if I had got the job I was interviewed for, I would almost certainly have missed out on that. So maybe things are for the best.

Meanwhile, my Alfred Williams activities are increasing again as the Chairman of our society, John Cullimore, is re-staging The Hammerman, the musical he wrote about Alfred's life - this time at New College in March. This involves me in various behind-the-scenes capacities, and I have to say that I am really looking forward to seeing it come to fruition again.

It's a great musical, with some lovely songs, and again features Paul Bradley as Alfred. He's the same professional who starred in the original production at STEAM in November 2010 - and who, apart from being a great singer and actor, is also a thoroughly nice guy, and he really believes in the character he is playing.

Last time we had a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to fall back on, but this time it is a private venture by John, and a big challenge to sell 660 tickets (over the three performances) at £15 each. That means a big effort to get the word around, so please pass it on to anybody you think might be interested (www.alfredwilliams.org.uk/tickets).

Bearing in mind that the original two performances were seen by over 1,000 people and it was very well received, we have high hopes that when we say early booking is essential, we mean it! Tickets can be bought online here.

I have included the poster, below, partly for advertising purposes, but also because, like everything connected with the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, I designed it.


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December 6, 2011

A smelly Christmas


Christmas 2011 officially began for us today as Julie took the day off and we headed for the Christmas market in Winchester.

For the previous two years we'd been to Bath, but last year's was a carbon copy of the year before, so we tried Winchester instead. It had good reviews and seemed one of the biggest - up to 400,000 visitors expected over 28 days this year - but it was really just a slightly scaled-down version of Bath, with an inferior atmosphere, even though it is in the shadow of the cathedral and has a skating rink.

Still, we had a great day, just the two of us, including an excellent value lunchtime meal at O'Neill's and shopping in Winchester in general, and we crossed a few more names off our presents list. But we'd run out of things to do there, soon after dinner time, so dropped in at Newbury on the way home.

The surprisingly poor turnout at the Christmas market and then Newbury town centre being eerily quiet at 4pm (including more assistants than customers in Debenhams) suggested retailers are going to have a tough time of it this year. However, I've always loved Christmas and we are more determined than ever to make the most of it this year.

It will certainly be our smelliest Christmas as we couldn't resist buying a couple of clove-drenched fruit decorations/wreaths to hang in the kitchen and on the fireplace.


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December 4, 2011

Jam today


If I said that today I went to Bristol to see some Harlots whizzing around on rollerskates wearing hot pants, you would probably get completely the wrong idea about how I usually spend my Sunday afternoons.

In fact, we were experiencing the new sport of roller derby and supporting my nephew Trevor's widow, Conny, who is one of the last people you would expect to find playing what, on the surface of it, appears a rough and gratuitously violent sport.

It was a bit of a family outing as two of my brothers and their wives joined us (me, Julie and Holly) and we were all attempting to get to grips with not just the rules and the tactics, but keeping up with what was going on on the oval track, which was, by the way, inside a large sports hall-cum-indoor stadium.

Basically, the game is all about one girl from each side, who are called jammers, trying to get past as many of the opposing team as possible during each race, called a jam, while two sets of blockers (four on each team) try to stop them by foul means and fair.

Like ice hockey, it was sometimes difficult to work out what was foul and what was fair as various ways of shoving your opponent out of the way seemed to be greeted alternatively with either points or relegation to the sinbin.

But it quickly became apparent that what, on the surface, appeared to be an excuse for organised violence was, in fact, a test of agility, organisation and cunning.

As far as we could tell, Conny was one of the best players on 'our' team, Bristol Harbour Harlots, but the competition was really all over in the first five minutes as the opposition, South West Angels of Terror (SWAT), who were from Exeter and Taunton, built up a huge lead as Bristol just didn't get their blocking tactics together. One of their players, in particular, was incredibly nippy on her skates and seemed to be able to get through the smallest of gaps on the tight turns - either without being toppled or with an amazing ability to bounce back up again, as fast as she was knocked down.

Bristol eventually lost 167-107, but such was the fun had by teams and audience alike that everybody in the place was smiling at the end and the crowd of a few hundred rushed down to the rink to line up for a high-five with every player and the army of umpires. Far from being a lot of bruisers, like you might expect, all the girls seemed like a really nice bunch, on both sides, as well as everybody else involved in a very well-organised event.

Most of the girls have special nicknames, but Conny probably has the best. Being German, she is called Frau POW!

Even though we only understood about three quarters of what was happening, it was an afternoon well spent, particularly as it fits with my new policy of not taking sport as seriously as I have in the past, and enjoying it for what it is, instead.

The speed of the action meant it was impossible to capture any of it on my little camera that didn't include blurs, but I did at least get a few pictures on the rink at the end.