January 30, 2012


Today marks the first anniversary of the death of my nephew, Trevor, who died suddenly at the age of just 37.

A year on, Trev's elder brother, Stuart, has published a frank and sober account of the day from his perspective on his blog, which recalls the shock of the news and gives some idea of how it affected the Carter family.

The anniversary fell on a Monday, but because Trev actually died on a Sunday, that seemed like the anniversary. A year ago, the most ordinary Sunday night at home was transformed completely by a totally unexpected very bad news phone call, and this year it was exactly the same - just another standard Sunday night, only this time everything stayed normal as there was no call.

The actual day of the anniversary was marked by friends and family meeting up at the Beehive to raise a glass to Trev, which was a brilliant idea and will hopefully become a tradition. There is also a memorial concert planned at Easter, featuring some of the musicians Trev played with, which is another thing to look forward to.

The good thing about first anniversaries is they end all those 'firsts' that you have to get through in the first year, and all the 'this time last year' thoughts. I'm also hoping that it means everybody's memory of Trev changes, so he isn't defined by tragedy - dying so young - but rather triumph, which is: he was a nice guy who enjoyed life, and nobody seems to have had a bad word for him.

Anyway, it's definitely time for another blast of his song, Couldn't Be Better...

January 24, 2012


Keep it under your hat, but I have been shooting a short film with the BBC all day. In fact, I was doing the same last Friday (20th), but can't say much about it yet.

I can say that I was involved in a professional capacity, having picked up a week's work as a researcher, so when I say I was 'shooting' the film, I obviously didn't operate the camera. But I was assisting in various capacities, including as an adviser on the background and content, and 'researcher' is a bit of a misnomer as I already knew quite a lot about the subject from previous research.

I am not at liberty to divulge - online at least - exactly what it's all about, but it's not hard to guess the subject matter if you know my interests, and it's nothing controversial. The hush-hush is purely because the BBC like to do things properly when it comes to PR, so the publicity will happen much closer to the date of broadcast. That will almost certainly be in the last week of February or the first week of March.

I've had a brilliant couple of days, for which I have to thank the (freelance) producer, Fiona Scott, an old colleague who I've crossed paths with again recently. She gave me the job, and she was a real pleasure to work with. So were the 'crew' - that is, the presenter and cameraman. It's ironic that despite the image of media people in general and through the Leveson Inquiry in particular, the overwhelming majority of the many I've met have not only been highly professional, creative and intelligent, but decent people too.

I'm also going to be an observer during the editing process, and I am already confident it is going to turn out to be a nice little film. And if we can come up with some ideas for more, there is also a good chance that it won't be the last.

It is great to have some significant paid work again, and to be paid to do something that is really enjoyable is a massive bonus and a much-needed boost.

January 23, 2012

Reviews reviewed

Time to catch up on some 'reviews' of stuff I have been reading and listening to, some of which have slipped the net, and most of which I have some personal connection with. I am making an effort to read more books this year and listen to more new music, so there is going to be more of this...

The first is a biography of Gaudi by Gijs Van Hensbergen, kindly loaned to me by my cousin (thanks, David), which thoroughly enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of Barcelona when I was there in October.

I actually finished the last few pages of the book while I was over there, but have been thinking a lot about Gaudi ever since. According to Simon and Garfunkel (in a song about another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright), "Architects may come and architects may go, and never change your point of view", but the trip to Barcelona fired my interest in him before I went, and reading up on him made me appreciate the trip even more.

Actually seeing some of his buildings in the flesh was even better than anticipated, so I am currently of the mind that no matter what the song says, architects probably have a bigger impact and leave a greater legacy than perhaps any other kind of artist.

I was expecting to be impressed by Gaudi's architecture - and elements of Park Guell and especially La Pedrera did go beyond my expectations. But the stunning Sagrada Familia took Gaudi and architecture to a whole new level.

Ironically, the building is supposed to be some kind of homage to the glory of God, being a church, but if anything it underlines what man can achieve when he puts his mind to it, without the help of God. Ironically, Gaudi became very pious and perhaps even obsessed with religion as he got older, so I wonder whether he really appreciated his own genius.

Sadly, Van Hensbergen's biography doesn't really address this. In fact, while the book is useful for charting his career and provides some background detail that makes you see more in the architecture when you get there, it generally fails to get inside Gaudi's mind and help us understand what drove him.

The author virtually admits this himself, blaming a shortage of source material, so this book may well be as good as it will ever get. That might not be a bad thing. It helps Gaudi remain something of an enigma, which ultimately means his buildings speak for themselves.

I also have an album that I need to review, although I hesitate to do it for two reasons.

Firstly, Southview was written and recorded by a friend, John Cullimore, who is a fellow founder of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society (AWHS), and it's difficult to review the work of a friend objectively. It would be far better for people to listen to it and make up their own minds rather than risk being swayed by my biased view (sample it here).

Also, I mostly designed and did the artwork for the sleeve, which makes me even closer to the action. The front cover is remarkably similar to the AWHS artwork and logo, but that's because John wanted to use the same theme for the album, so I just adapted it slightly to fit.

The pedigree of John's music is very close to my own tastes as it is only a short hop from Southview to, say, Al Stewart, The Strawbs and some of the other folk-rock material I have always liked listening to, so it's not difficult for me to like it. It's similar in style to his original CD about Alfred Williams, called The Hammerman, before the songs were successfully converted to the stage as a musical.

In the case of Southview, simplicity is its appeal. In an age when absolutely everything is heavily processed and over-produced, from football coverage to packaging, it is refreshing to find Southview is an honest, stripped down folk-rock album of acoustic music in the best traditions of singer-songwriters. They are now a rare breed in commercial music.

I also find myself drawn to songs that actually have meaning, and some of John's songs have local meaning, including, in Southview, yet another about Alfred Williams, called Cor Cordium.

My favourite is 21st Century Now, which actually sounds very 20th century. If I said it would have made a good theme song to a 1970s TV programme, that might not sound much of a compliment - unless you are old enough to think back to that era and realise how accomplished music was in that field.

Another CD by a person I know well - along with a person I don't know so well - is Julesbury. This is an EP by Frank Lucas, the son of my lifelong friend Pete, and Frank's partner, Jules Hill - a duo who also call themselves Julesbury (so it's Julesbury by Julesbury).

I've long known about Frank's gift for playing the guitar, which he teaches, and although I knew that Jules teaches singing, I hadn't quite realised what a beautiful, crystal-clear voice she has. It's also 100 per cent natural, unlike the affected voices of the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse, which seem to be prevalent at the moment.

The Julesbury EP is Frank and Jules' first release and I hope it launches them as artists. If anything, the songs underplay Frank's abilities as a guitarist, and the style comes as a surprise. He also plays in a Black Sabbath tribute band, but this is much, much closer to Joni Mitchell - and, indeed, the only one of the five tracks on the CD that isn't their own composition is a cover of Woodstock, which Joni Mitchell wrote and sang.

Dare I say that I detect some Al Stewart influence here too? It's no secret that Al is my big hero, but I know that Frank is an admirer too. Some of the guitar work sounds like early Al, and I'd like to see what happens when they go for a bigger sound, which Al did for part of his career. It will certainly be interesting to see how Julesbury's sound develops.

The best song is Hide and Seek Play, which you can sample here. You can sample the other songs too, which are best reached through their Facebook page.

Disco Mao is a book written by a friend of a friend, whom I've never met - and possibly never will, because he lives in China.

Greg Baines, in fact, is an Australian who teaches (or at least taught) English to the Chinese, and this book, which he published himself, is an account of his experiences, but partly fictionalised.

For me, that was the main sticking point of the book. It is a genuinely fascinating reveal of what modern China is like, including the country's view of foreigners. The most interesting aspect of all are the bizarre customs, way of life and social attitudes that make the place unique - and how the traditional sometimes clashes with the modern.

Sadly, it is never clear where facts end and fiction begins, so somebody like me, who is not a great reader of fiction but is fascinated by foreign cultures such as Chinese can't help but wish it had been a straightforward account. It probably doesn't need dressing up as a story.

The book also suffers from not being professionally published, including some glaring grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. But even for somebody like me, for whom these errors leap out and rattle my brain, making it hard work, it doesn't spoil it, because Baines certainly has a knack for tight descriptions of people, places and atmospheres.

Because the author lived side-by-side with everyday Chinese folk in an average urban setting, Disco Mao is especially good at getting down to the nitty-gritty of Chinese attitudes, and has taught me more about the country than anything else I've ever read or watched on the subject.

The measure of how successful a literary project becomes is ultimately how much it leaves you wanting to find out more - and in that respect Disco Mao scores highly and is worth the effort of reading.

As I said, I am making an effort to read more this year, including re-reading some past favourites, but mostly concentrating on some 'classics' that I have somehow missed out on during my life, starting with Moby Dick... (to be continued)

January 22, 2012

Long-lost cousin, lost again

We had some shocking news tonight that a long-lost cousin, who I briefly met for the first time last year, has passed away.

Alison Hale died on January 7, aged just 42, but the news has only just filtered through via her sister, Sarah. The funeral is taking place tomorrow in Newport, South Wales, and sadly we aren't going to be able to get there at short notice.

For a couple of years I've been copied in on emails from Alison to my brother Brian, who is the main family history researcher in the family. Then, out of the blue on September 24, we both met her face-to-face at Radnor Street Cemetery, where she had come from her home in Newport, for the day, on the train. Knowing we would be there, helping out with an event by the Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery, she came on a whim.

We were so busy looking up entries in the cemetery registers for visitors that we only had a few minutes to talk to her, so arranged to meet a couple of weeks later, when the plan was for her to come to Swindon so we could give her a tour of places linked with the family history.

But she contacted us just before the day to say she had hurt her back and wouldn't be able to make it - and then put off the next meeting because it was still painful. This, it turned out, was a cover story for the fact that the cancer she had overcome in 2005 had returned, and she apparently kept the secret from everyone, including her mother and sister, right to the end.

I don't think I've ever met anybody quite so proud of her family and her roots, and she was quite thrilled to have made contact with our branch of the Hales. Her grandfather and our paternal grandmother - Lucy Caroline Hale - were brother and sister. Lucy, whose grave we finally located last year, herself died tragically young - aged 41, in 1933.

There was a bizarre coincidence associated with Alison as I had unknowingly become 'friends' with her alter-ego on Facebook. For years I have been a fan of Mike Leigh's 1976 TV film, Nuts in May, and was glad to discover that somebody was pretending to be one of the two main characters, Candice-Marie, on Facebook, posting comical status updates in character. Amazingly, of all the people in the country who took it upon themselves to do it, that person was Alison - and completely unknown to me. When someone subsequently did the same for another Mike Leigh character (Beverley, from Abigail's Party), I assumed that was Alison too. So it was even more shocking to discover that, in fact, she has been dead for two weeks.

This comes at the end of a week when there was another shocking death concerning somebody I'd met briefly. In fact, I hadn't formally met him face-to-face, but Chris Tregown was a member of the cast of the forthcoming production of The Hammerman, which I am involved with in my capacity of Vice-chair of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society. Chris, who was only 23, tragically died after a car accident last Sunday. I had attended a rehearsal in which he had sung, but not actually spoken to him yet. Even so, it still left me with a really cold feeling all day. All those in the cast I discussed him with were shocked that a young man with an apparently fantastic voice and massive potential was there one minute and gone the next.

It's all an echo of my nephew Trevor's death, now almost exactly a year ago, at the age of 37.

News of the death of comparatively young people is always shocking, becomes doubly so when it comes out of the blue, and doubles again when it happens to genuinely nice people who made a good impression on the world - and people with a lot still left to give.

Reading some tributes to Alison I found on the internet, my first impressions of her as a caring, genuinely nice person, seem to have been spot on. Although you have to go back a couple of generations to find our blood connection, I'm proud to say that I detected some characteristics in her that I think run rich in our family's veins, especially an intense and instinctive sense of family.

January 21, 2012

For women only

This is just a short post to say that we attended a Health and Well-Being Fair at Swindon Central Library today - the brainchild of Christine, who does our regular Indian head massage - which was excellent.

Perhaps most interesting was a chat with a local lady who had a stall promoting eating raw food. On the face of it this doesn't sound like much fun, but all of the stuff she had to sample was really tasty - which is not something you would normally associate with healthy and unfattening food. She wasn't actually selling anything, just promoting her passion for a radical lifestyle change that, she said, had shed four stones and given her a brighter outlook and much more energy. It certainly gave us... um, food for thought.

Julie also took advantage of the free health checks that the fair was giving to discover she only needs to drink more water and take a little more exercise to be a shining beacon of healthy living. But while I was waiting for her to be checked, I picked up a leaflet to discover that the 90kg I made a massive effort to slim down to in 2010 and have more or less kept to for more than a year actually still makes me overweight by about 10kg, according to the NHS chart.

I confess I have put on about 3kg since Christmas, which I have decided to make an effort to shift, but now the mushy peas diet is back with a vengeance, all over again, just so I can achieve what I thought I had achieved already.

Apart from this, the main observation/outcome of the fair was that I noticed that I was one of the very few men who were visiting it, and nearly all the people on the stalls were ladies too. From this you could conclude that the male population of Swindon lead perfectly healthy lifestyles founded on perfectly healthy diets - although I somehow think this is not actually the case.

January 13-16, 2012

Rock, curry and Brighton rocks

I suppose one day we will get to an age when enjoying ourselves means sitting down and doing very little, rather than what happens now, which is filling up the time as fully as possible.

On Friday night we (The Misfits) had an unexpected gig, owing to the White Lion, Cricklade, being let down at the last minute by their planned band, so we stepped in and, despite the dubious (in more ways than one) drummer, seemed to make a good replacement.

Then on Saturday our LNO (Lads' Night Out) gang got together with the GNO (Girls' Night Out) gang for our annual joint post-Christmas nosh, which this year was at the very impressive and very friendly Ruchi Indian restaurant in Old Town, Swindon, and was an excellent evening.

We had planned to walk home in the sub-zero temperatures, but gladly accepted a lift, which is just as well because we had to be up fairly early on Sunday so we could revisit Brighton.

Last summer's trip there had been planned as a weekend, but ended up being only a day trip, so to make up for it we took advantage of a very generous Travelodge offer of a room for just £10, to make it a two-day trip after all (Sunday and Monday).

Unfortunately, fate was against us again as after we had booked it (and Julie booked a day off work) we got word that Holly's quarterly appointment with the diabetic consultant was for 2.30pm on Monday, which meant we had to leave Brighton much earlier than planned.

But we did make the most of our time and the perfect weather - nicely chilly but sunny - with another walk round The Lanes and, best of all, a visit to the Royal Pavilion. We'd nearly gone in during the summer, but decided against it because it was late in the day and because the outside of the building is a bit shabby up close, which didn't make us inclined to want to spend £9.80 each to see the inside.

It's really fortunate that we had a rethink, this time, and went back, because the inside is really spectacular and well worth seeing. In fact, I'm regretting the fact that although this was about my sixth trip to Brighton, I hadn't got round to seeing its most famous attraction before.

Strangely, although the outside is Indian in style, most of the inside is Chinese or at least oriental. It was built by King George IV who lived in it first as Prince, then as the Prince Regent, then as King, and I have to say that although he was notorious for being ridiculously extravagant, even by royal standards, you have to say the man had style.

It is undoubtedly over-the-top in places, but beautifully designed and decorated. And Brighton and Hove Council, who bought it off Queen Victoria in the 19th century, have done a great job of restoring and preserving it. There was also an audio guide (free with admission) which gave just about the right amount of information.

There were some downers, including the exterior, which really could do with a lick of paint. It's in the middle of a public park that isn't very well maintained at the best of times and currently also houses a hideous plastic-looking ice rink, virtually up against the walls of the building. It was also disappointing that they didn't allow any photography inside the building, which is apparently due to the fact that most rooms contain stuff that is on loan from the Queen, and the likes of us don't have permission to photograph it.

Despite these minor faults, we were left bemoaning, more than ever, Swindon Borough Council's 20-year neglect of our town's under-rated historic gem, the Mechanics' Institute, which no doubt would never have fallen into disrepair if it had had the word 'royal' in front of it.

We really like Brighton. It's got a lot of life and plenty of things to discover, like the blue plaque (pictured below) that we found by accident. Thanks to our iPad - itself a big success over the weekend - we were able to stop and discover, through the magic of Wikipedia, that Max Miller was actually born in Brighton, a few streets from the plaque.

The pictures below are also a Flickr slideshow. Go here and click on 'Slideshow'.

January 3-4, 2012

So far, so good...

Don't say it too loudly, but 2012 has started pretty well, and it's mainly thanks to: 1) Alfred Williams and 2) my geekiness.

Being a geek can be really rewarding sometimes.

On Tuesday night I co-presented an illustrated talk about Alfred to Chiseldon WI, me doing most of the talking and the chairman of our society, John Cullimore, singing songs from The Hammerman musical. This went very well and seemed to achieve the prime objective of the society we co-founded (with Caroline Ockwell, who was also there), which is simply to make more people aware of Alfred's works and inspiring life story.

I am also involved with (and being temporarily employed in connection with) a nice but currently fairly secret project to do with Alfred, so Wednesday was spent working on that with my former Adver colleague, Fiona Scott, who is now a colleague all over again.

This involved visiting Rose Cottage at South Marston, where we were delighted to be invited in by the owner, who very kindly gave us a guided tour of her surprisingly extended but beautifully preserved cottage. This was the first time I have set foot inside any of the four cottages at South Marston where Alfred lived during his life, so I was overdosing on the pleasure of standing in the place where history was made, which always gives me a kick.

This, combined with actually having a full day of worthwhile work to do made for a really positive day, especially as it was interesting, creative and successful, with the promise of a real end product still to come. And what a pleasure it is to work with professional journalists, who in my experience are almost invariably (despite how they are portrayed or assumed to be) smart, genuine and decent people.

So that was two good Alfred-related things, and when I got home I completed the hat-trick, having got a message that I am being asked to co-present a little (hour-long lunchtime) talk about his life in May as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature.

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.