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July 28, 2012

Olympics at last

Tonight we can finally say we have been spectators at the Olympic Games, having spent a long day seeking out a few seconds of action in London 2012's men's cycle road race.

It was a day to remember, but sadly with a forgettable ending as the man it seemed half of Britain had turned out to see win gold - Mark Cavendish - didn't.

Which is a shame.

I was up at 5.45am as we had a 6.59am train to catch and, being thoughtful parents, decided to walk to the station rather than get Sean up to give us a lift. And all this after a late night, last night, enjoying the opening ceremony on telly.

Before 9am we were in Richmond, which we had chosen as our vantagepoint. You needed tickets to see the start and finish in The Mall or the nine laps of Box Hill, but the rest of the 250km course was free.

After a 10am start, the 150 riders passed us near the apex of Richmond Bridge, on their way out of London and into Surrey, shortly before 10.30am, returning at about 3.30pm and passing us in Richmond Park, 15 minutes from the finish.

We always knew the day would be about two things: soaking up the atmosphere, which was excellent because of the large and excited crowds; and how little we would actually get to see.

In the morning the pack were moving more slowly and were virtually all together, so took about 10 seconds to go past us. In the afternoon they were more spread out, but moving faster: about a minute. And when I say faster, I mean fast. They absolutely thundered by, as if the police motorcycle escort were pulling them along, and nothing the TV cameras do gives you any indication of just how fast they travel in the flesh.

At that speed it is impossible to pick out individual riders, although the Team GB kit was prominent enough at the head of the peleton (main pack), where they spent much of the race - too much - trying to chase down the leaders.

In the hours between the flashes of racing we strolled along the Thames; went back to Richmond and found a farmer's market offering the chance to sample (of all things) Algerian mint tea (very nice); lazed around in the sun on the riverside; called into a nice sidestreet pub; called into another pub and watched some of the cycling action on the telly; and finally headed towards the park to see the race again, along with thousands of other people.

Heading back out of the park when everybody had gone through, we heard Cavenish's bid for gold had failed, which put a dampener on everything, so we retired to a pub to drown our disappointment and have a meal to replace some of the energy we had used up. It also transpired that Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, who was in with a chance of winning the race, had crashed while leaving Richmond Park - perhaps 30 seconds after passing us.

It was a long day with an unhappy ending, but well worth the effort. More importantly, it has whetted our appetites for the other Olympic treats we have lined up for ourselves, including a possible extra treat of watching the time trials at Hampton Court in four days' time, which I am trying to organise. This time it's Bradley Wiggins who is favourite to bring home the gold. But we shall see.

I have started an Olympics Album blog, so the rest of the day's pictures (the sporty ones) are here.

July 27, 2012

Great Britain

I am not normally a very patriotic person (understatement). In fact, anything that remotely smacks of mindless nationalism turns my stomach.

The royal family? Ban them. The Last Night of the Proms? Childish. The British Empire? Mostly evil.

But I am proud of a lot of British things - not because they are British, particularly, but because they are good, and as I'm British too, I can pretend to be some kind of kindred spirit.

The National Health Service, Wiliam Shakespeare, our forces in two World Wars and everything they did for us, The Beatles, our genuine multi-culturalism, Magna Carta, David Hockney, the BBC, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, real ale... you get the idea.

But the way I feel tonight after watching the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is a new experience. While I have spent most of my life pointing out all the bad things about Britain - usually with justification because it's not perfect - there have been very few days in my life when I went to bed feeling proud and indeed privileged to be British.

I am also proud to have been a supporter of London 2012 since before we even got the gig, and as I have spent the last seven years certain of its massive benefits and determined to make the most of it, I reckon I deserve to feel how I do tonight.

Tomorrow we are off to see our first event, the men's cycle road race in London and Surrey - specifically for us in Richmond - and hoping to feel even more proud, with the prospect of seeing Mark Cavendish being led home to gold by his dream team of British teammates.

Even if we don't win a single gold in the next couple of weeks, I think it is already safe to say London 2012 is the best thing to happen to this country since The Beatles.

July 21, 2012

Having your cake and eating it

Phew. That was a l-o-n-g day. But worth it.

Despite being a trustee of the Mechanics' Institution Trust , I haven't been much help in organising its big event of the year, so needed to commit not just myself but also Julie to a day of volunteering for any job going at the Children's Fete in Faringdon Road Park, Swindon.

This turned out to be hard work, being on our feet all day, but well worth it because: a) the fete keeps up a wonderful tradition; and b) it is important that the Trust demonstrates how capable it is, given that its main aim is one day to get control of the Mechanics' Institute, which is easily Swindon's most historic building, oversee its preservation and turn it back into something the whole community can use.

For the best part of a century the Mechanics' Institute organised the annual children's fete, the highlight of every Swindon child's year until it was discontinued in 1939, and my mum, who was born in 1925, always remembered it with a lot of affection. A key element of the day was always the presentation of a free piece of cake to every child - in an age when some of them may not have tasted another slice of cake all year. As the fete was such a huge event back then, there was so much cake that the railway workers even invented a special machine to cut it.

I'm glad to say the tradition of the free cake continues, only the modern version is 800 cup cakes, which Julie and two or three other ladies distributed to the incredulous queue (if you want to know what makes good PR, giving away free cakes is priceless).

Our day also involved putting up a marquee, then being shown how to put up a marquee properly; directing traffic; distributing drinks to fellow volunteers; taping wheelie bins together to stop them being pinched; manning the Mechanics' table (one person told me his grandfather had died at the bar in the building); and supervising the distribution of raffle prizes.

I didn't even have time to see much of the fete, although I did catch enough of the 'dancing dogs' demonstration to provide me with my surrealism quota for the rest of the year.

After all that - and sadly, because I would have liked to have stayed to watch some live bands and the fireworks - I was ready to go home and lie down in a darkened room, which I did for a little while, before loading the drums and playing a gig at the Bakers Arms.

It isn't very often that I can say this, these days, but by the end of the day I felt as though I had actually achieved something today.

Unfortunately, getting some pictures of the event wasn't achieved. My little camera recently gave up the ghost, so I switched to Holly's little pocket Nikon, which probably works fine when the card isn't playing up. Swindon Viewpoint made a nice little film about it that is worth seeing.

July 14, 2012

Acts of defiance

Today was one of those days when I was pretty proud of Swindon.

It was the day of the third annual Big Arts Day at Lydiard Park, when - under normal circumstances - up to 25,000 people turn up for an event almost entirely about showcasing the talents of local amateurs, including lots of young people.

In fact, I wonder whether it has escaped the notice of those attending that although it is a huge event, with four or five live music stages and all kinds of outlets for artistic expression, that the Big Arts Day has no headline names. That's pretty amazing, if you think about it, because people can be so shallow these days, and the majority don't seem to be able to see past the cult of so-called celebrity.

The Big Arts Day is about popping your head into each marquee or standing in front of each stage and not really being sure what you are going to get, but going with the flow andbeing prepared to be pleasantly surprised. And in between the marquees/stages you run into all kinds of things, such as samba bands, stilt walkers and other random performers, a real-life dinosaur (well it looked and moved amazingly realistically), craft stalls and people generally enjoying themselves.

Sadly there was another factor this year: the weather. But if that meant the crowds were down, it didn't dampen our spirits - or, at least, not as much as it seemed it would when we arrived for the soggy start at 11am.

We got there early despite the weather playing havoc with our transport arrangements. As well as the rain on the day, we have had so much rain in the last few weeks that the car park fields were waterlogged so cars were banned. So instead of going by car and in an act of defiance, we walked to the bus station in the rain and then took a long and quite torturous bus trip to the park (and two buses home). We were almost the only people on the morning bus as it seemed that nearly everybody else was either staying at home or waiting for the rain to relent. Only a few hardy souls like us got to see the start.

At least the early acts we watched were indoors - the excellent Fraser Tilley (a trio on the day) and, while we waited for their slot, a folkie duo called Albion, who I really enjoyed (the day's first pleasant surprise).

We also watched an excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream, by a local am-dram outfit; a tiny bit of storytelling by our friend Chris Park; and various kids' rock bands, including my drum teacher's daughter singing in her band, We Hate Rhubarb (good name, nice band).

For the first time ever, we also had a look in the walled garden at Lydiard, which is impressive even in the middle of the wettest summer since Noah.

But possibly the highlight of the day was a small exhibition by Jill Carter (no relation) and a film produced by Gurchetan Singh of Create Studios, called A Portrait of Swindon.

As well as being beautifully photographed and brilliantly edited, the film is unusually upbeat and positive about Swindon - and rightly so. Swindon isn't perfect, obviously - what is? - but it is home, and I for one get fed up with people knocking it, especially when that's usually the people who don't get out and see what it has to offer.

Like most places, if you open your ears and your eyes, Swindon does have a lot of things going for it. The Big Arts Day is one of them.

You can currently only see an excerpt of A Portrait of Swindon online, but they have no plans to put the whole thing on YouTube until at least after the touring exhibition ends, which I think culminates with screenings at the Central Library in September.

July 7-9, 2012

Absent friends

Last summer we heard the brilliant news that our friends Carlo and Beverley were moving away.

Let me rephrase that...

They previously lived in Reading, which is (comparatively) down the road, and now we don't get to see much of them because they live a three-hour drive away. But the good news is they currently live in deepest rural Suffolk, so when they invited us round to their house it was for the weekend, and we got a really nice little break in one of Britain's loveliest counties.

The thing I like about Suffolk - apart from having friends who live there and are prepared to put you up and make you feel at home - is: most of the time you are there, you couldn't mistake it for any other county. In other words, wherever you go in Suffolk, you will find it is generally pretty Suffolky.

The mostly flat ground, with just a few low hills; the pretty towns; the sense that even the county metropolis, Ipswich, doesn't let the side down; the interesting coastline (although we didn't quite get that far); the wealth of ancient (especially Anglo-Saxon) history... all these things are trademarks of the county. And if that wasn't enough, Suffolk also has two of the best known and most celebrated quality real ale breweries, whose beers are available around every corner: Adnams and Greene King.

We were on the road at 5.45am on the Saturday, arriving in time for breakfast, and then darted off to an auction house to view the items we were to bid for on Monday (more of that later).

Then we went off to the Anglo-Saxon archaeological marvel that is Sutton Hoo, where, thanks to our brand new National Trust membership, we got a guided tour of the burial mounds. The guide broke it to us gently that nearly all the treasure was taken away to the British Museum, but followed it with the consolation that you can now visit the big art deco house that stands in the grounds. This dates from the early 20th century rather than the 7th century, but proved as good as the archaeology.

After a pub lunch and a home-cooked slap-up meal on the Saturday night, on Sunday we headed for Bury St Edmunds, which I had never visited before, but hope I visit again. Even by Suffolk standards, it's a handsome town, and has an interesting church to see - but only if you go there on the right day. Unfortunately, St Mary's doesn't open on Sundays unless you want to attend a service, which is a shame because it houses the tomb of Mary Tudor - not Bloody Mary (Mary I), the daughter of Henry VIII, but his sister, who married King Louis XII of France when she was 18 and he was 52. He lasted the pace for a couple of months before he became the late King, and there is probably a lesson there for old men in their fifties.

So we went to St Edmundsbury Cathedral instead, which was a bit of a surprise as I - and probably you - didn't even know they had a cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. Sure enough, it doesn't have the grandure of world's greatest cathedrals, but it does have the grace, and was a friendly kind of place and very nicely done out in light-coloured stone and cheerful stained glass. The modern additions were tastefully done, too.

From there we went to the abbey ruins and gardens, and when the rain finally came (and we got wet for the first and last time during the weekend, even though the forecast had said otherwise), we headed for a pub called The Nutshell.

This claims to be (although it is hotly disputed) the smallest pub in Britain, and as I had previously been to the oldest (even more hotly disputed) and the highest (not disputed), it would have been rude not to go in the Nutshell too, especially as they had gone to the trouble of shipping the beer in from the Greene King brewery, half a mile down the road.

The pub is a single room that measures seven feet by fifteen feet and has a sloping floor, so the bar, which was apparently made for just one barman, is at an angle. The room is decorated with a jumble of bank notes, coins and various other oddities, including an embalmed or mummified cat. The whole thing was just too compact for the 360-degree app on my iPad to be able to work properly, but I've included the flattened version of it here anyway, along with others taken with the same app (some of which open up bigger if you click on them).

We spent the rest of the afternoon back at base, watching Roger Federer overcome Andy Murray in the Wimbledon Men's Singles Final, and celebrated with yet another tasty meal - this time at a smart local pub, which naturally served Adnams.

Before setting off home on Monday, we spent a few hours at the auction. Carlo and Beverley are old hands at this, and although I like nothing better than buying up old stuff that I (and sometimes only I) see potential in, I hadn't really had the pleasure of bidding like this before, among professionals.

As it turned out, I didn't actually bid for any of the lots I was hoping to get cheap. Although you never know what you might pick up cheaply at an auction, the bidding quickly went past my maximums, but I did manage to be the only bidder on one lot, so got it for £5. It was a job lot of 70-80 little hardback books, which attracted me not because of their titles, but because their colourful spines will look nice on a shelf.

What I was really hoping to bring home was either of two old (1950s or 60s) one-arm bandits, but the news had obviously spread to some collectors and I decided my pockets weren't deep enough to compete. Besides, just going to an auction is half the fun; buying stuff is only a bonus.

So you can see why we are glad about Carlo and Beverley moving away - and there may be even better news to come because they may be moving even further away. Hurray! They are potentially going to southern Ireland, so unless we outstayed our welcome, there's a chance we will be joining them for a glass or two of Guinness in the not-too-distant future.

With friends like these, who needs travel agents?

51 not out

As well as being the last day of our little jaunt to Suffolk, Monday was also my birthday. So I spent a portion of it at an auction, the next bit on the road home, and then the evening opening my cards and presents, welcoming visitors and thinking how quickly the big milestone of 50 has faded away and given way to a decade in which I am heading towards old age at an ever more alarming rate.

You are never too old to enjoy birthdays, though, and I still love getting little things like this tin scooter (above) that Holly found in a shop somewhere, and which might not be as spectacular as a retro fruit machine I had hoped to have in the corner of the lounge, following the auction (see above), but is, in its own little way, more precious.

July 3, 2012

Educaton, education, education

A theme seems to be developling in my life, and it's all to do with unsung heroes.

There is always Alfred Williams, naturally, and only last Friday there was Raoul Wallenberg (see below). Then, today, I had an appointment at the Tom Brown's School Museum in Uffington.

We (me and fellow AWHS co-founder Caroline Ockwell) were there because the museum has kindly agreed to donate a little space - and it's only a small museum, so space is precious - so we can mount a small exhibition about Alfred Williams, who wrote about Uffington, starting next Easter.

We went along to have a look at the space, as I'd never been there before, and talk to the curator. I had to confess that I've never read Tom Brown's School Days, either, although I intend to put that right fairly soon.

But I did know that the author, Thomas Hughes, lived in Uffington, and Tom Brown's early school days, before he went to Rugby, are set in Uffington, in the one-room building that now houses the museum.

The first thing to say is that it is one of those lovely little British museums that is full of charm, interesting artefacts and hidden gems. And the second thing to say is the display headed 'Thomas Hughes - not just an author...' hits the nail on the head and basically sums up what I am trying to get around to saying here.

Until today I thought of him just as the author of Tom Brown's School Days, but on closer inspection he turns out to be an amazing man, with all the qualities and moral outlook I admire in people, as well as being - not unlike Alfred Williams - way ahead of his time.

Hughes used the profits from his book to become a social reformer, supporting the Co-operative Movement; the Workers' Educational Association (WEA); campaigns to reform weights and measures so ordinary people weren't diddled by traders; the Women's Movement (Suffragettes); educational reform based on teaching rather than fear; and even setting up a kind of co-operative/commune in Tennessee, which he visited several times. At one stage he was an MP.

What a hero! And when somebody once asked why he spent his money on that, his answer was, "Well, some people have golf, and I..."

It must have been in his blood because his daughter, May Hughes, who was an acquaintance of Alfred Williams, opened her house to sick children and London prostitutes in need of rest and recouperation.

So now I not only have Tom Brown's School Days on my list, but a biography of Hughes. And I must also get round to reading that biography about John Betjeman. Why? Because the tiny, picture-postcard village of Uffington has not one world-famous author in its history, but two as Betjeman lived there for ten years (and later lived in Wantage), so he features heavily in the museum too.

Sadly, the curator said although the museum gets a thousand visitors a year, including people from all over the world, local people generally have little interest, and the archive of stuff she keeps on both Hughes and Betjeman, which is freely available, seems to be of little interest to anybody living nearby.

And yet Hughes, especially, was a remarkable man whom anybody should be proud to have an association with.

For the record, this is what Alfred williams wrote about the schoolhouse when he visited, exactly a hundred years ago:

Near the church is a small building, used as a reading-room, but which was formerly a school, whereat the youthful Tom Brown, with others of his age, attended to learn the elements of education, and receive the severe attentions of the pedagogue. The little place stands high up above the road, and is entered by a low stone arched door round the corner at the back. The foundations are of large rough sarsens, which stand a couple of feet above the ground, and the walls are of native stone, gleaming white in the sunshine. Over the door is engraved the date 1617, and near by is another inscription, in bad Latin, which expressed the hope that “nothing troublesome or annoying would assail the walls within which the boys were having lessons,” which was flagrantly disregarded by young Tom and Jacob Doodle-calf, who wilfully invaded the school one afternoon, and brought the day’s lessons to an abrupt end with their brazen interruption. A copy of the original deed and constitution of the school, hanging upon the wall inside, expresses the opinion that it is not comely or decent for girls and boys to be taught together, but times have changed since then; there is not now the old objection to boys and girls commingling in the village school.

Especially note the use of the word commingling, which really doesn't get used often enough these days, in my opinion.

July 2, 2012

Chariots of dire

You can imagine how difficult it would be to do a stage version of Ben Hur even at a really big theatre - or maybe you can't - so imagine trying to do it in the tiny Watermill Theatre.

We didn't have to imagine because we were back at our favourite showbox-sized (or any sized) theatre tonight for a three-man and one-woman show that attempted to tell the epic story of the Hollywood film.

Of course, the scale of it all (or lack of) was the main joke, but even so, we weren't quite sure what to expect, and having seen the show, aren't really sure what we've just experienced, either, because it was quite a bizarre and surreal night.

The play ran dangerously close to being really bad on account of it was basically about four bad actors, including one who was thrown into it at the last moment, acting a range of parts. In this type of comedy everything rests on the actors being so professional and likable that they are able to pull off overacting, underacting, bad timing, woodenness and all the other things it would be hard to work out, if this were an amateur production, whether you were watching really bad acting or really good acting of bad acting.

I am relieved to say they pulled it off brilliantly, even if they did sail very close to the wind on some occasions by being as slapstick and as zany as anybody could ever get away with without being harangued as Chuckle Brothers impersonators. And even the Chuckle Brothers wouldn't have attempted some of the cheesey (but well done and funny) stage tricks and prop jokes that they got away with here.

I'm not sure this sort of thing should really appeal to me or the conservative Watermill audiences, but I didn't see anybody on the way out who wasn't smiling at whatever it was they had just experienced.

July 1, 2012

Generation game

We were at my brother-in-law Steve's (and Lynne's) today to celebrate the arrival of Daniel, who is my sixth great nephew/niece, but the first on Julie's (Freeman) side of the family.

He arrived a month ago, two days before his auntie's wedding, and as she then - not unreasonably - went off on her honeymoon, it wasn't until today that everybody could get together to mark the new arrival with a family gettogether.

Although this was the official reason for the barbecue, the females in attendance naturally took it as a cue to do what females love to do most of all, which is coo; take their turn in nursing the baby; make jokes about the poor mother not getting any sleep; discuss how things were done in their day and compare that with the silly ideas of the generation before that; repeat how sweet the baby looks and doesn't he look like his grandfather?; coo some more; check out the latest baby technology (a self-swinging cradle); and - most favourite of all - talk nappies.

The picture of the day was surely the one above - Auntie (or, to Daniel, great great Auntie) Jean, who will soon be 88, with Daniel.

The scary thing for me is the parenting of tiny babies is now a blur in my memory. I can barely remember either of our two being so small as to be unable to be nearly terminally embarrassed by their parents or ask for money. The whole time has almost been completely scratched from my memory, almost as if it didn't happen. But I suppose it must have.

On a similar theme: last night, after playing a gig at Stratton British Legion (which went remarkably well), I bumped into an old neighbour of ours. It was Angie Hawson, who was once given the (paid) task of walking me and my brother to infants' school. She is consequently a bit older than me (four years), so is now 55 - and came out with the information that she has a granddaughter aged 18.

As if I needed to be reminded of just how old I am getting, or the now vast stretches of time that have elapsed since what still seems like yesterday.