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October 22-31, 2012

Not idle

If anybody reads or stumbles upon this blog in the future, they will wonder why there is a black hole at the end of October 2012, especially as I have been trying to make an effort, just lately, to write more stuff. You could be excused for thinking that nothing has been happening in my life, but the opposite is true - and some of it even brings tiny buds of hope that it could lead to interesting career developments.

As well as having to cope with the trauma of replacing an old computer with a new one, October also included my daughter Holly's 18th birthday, and has seen not one but two major Alfred Williams events that I have been a part of. Our band has played three gigs in the space of eight days. Last week that meant playing together for three nights on the trot - rehearsal followed by two gigs.

Meanwhile, I have been designing a brand new glossy magazine that will be launched in the New Year, along with a new website, which is pretty exciting, and simultaneously working on various pet heritage projects.

My role as a trustee of the Mechanics' Institution Trust is taking up more of my time in a period that is crucial for the rescue of the building. I can't elaborate, but optimism for the future of the building is higher than at any time in the last 25 years - and not just optimistic but also realistic.

We've also had some good news on the Alfred Williams front, which will come out in due course.

I'm not going to say this too loudly, but I have a funny feeling that 2013, thank goodness, is going to turn out much more productive than 2012.

RIP iMac G4 (1998-2012)

I knew it would be tempting fate to talk about our house being a museum of working Macs (see below) because hardly was the hypothetical digital ink dry on my post than my oldest one was taken seriously ill.

It froze in the middle of some work I was doing, which isn't normally a big thing as when you restart it, it usually carries on as if nothing happened. But I got the dreaded flashing question mark and only succeeded in resuscitating it with the third re-start disc, after two or three hours of trying.

But it refused to work independently of this and reported "serious damage" to the hard disc, which is as bad as it sounds. Computers doing this kind of thing is usually a signal to start tearing your hair out and cussing, but considering it is 14 years old, which is a good age for a computer, and has never let me down before, I only felt sadness - and not just because we had to go out and replace it, along with the software, at great expense.

The new Mac is, as you would expect, a joy to work with, and the old one looks ridiculously old-fashioned next to it, but I can't tell you how guilty I felt turning it off for the last time, especially when it was actually still working and kindly giving up its data without a fight. It was several days before I could bring myself to shut it down, and I am currently keeping it on the desk as a mark of respect.

They have a word for this kind of thing. It's called euthanasia.

October 20-21, 2012

The stresses and strains of the weekend

Well that was a stressful weekend, and I'm glad it's behind me. But at the same time it was also strangely satisfying, fullfilling and even uplifting. Do you ever have a weekend when nothing makes much sense?

I have weekends like this because I am simultaneously blessed and cursed with an inquisitive nature that prevents me from sitting down and relaxing while there are still new things to find out, new things to experience and new places to go. I really should have been born on Mars instead of a planet with endless opportunities for discovery.

My curiosity is always whispering in my ear and telling me that if I don't get out, I'll regret missing something really good; but this is nothing compared with my natural and sometimes crippling shyness, which is always shouting at me to hide in the corner or, better still, stay at home. Every day I have to beat it down with a stick.

Worst of all - even though I hate organising things and putting myself forward - I always end up in the spotlight, thinking I would give anything if I could swap places with somebody, anybody, in the audience. And so it was with this weekend's events.

Before I first played the drums in public, my drum teacher said all performers have to get over that first performance, but once they do, the adrenalin kicks in and you get a liking for it, so you actually look forward to the next one. I didn't believe it at the time and now I know for sure that this will never be the case with me. Every time I am loading the drums in the car to go to a gig I'm wondering why the hell I am putting myself through this when I could be sat at home with my feet up.

This time I was also kicking myself because a double-booking error on my part meant I missed the chance to see my son Sean play his first gig as a drummer with Julesbury - the duo featuring my godson Frank Lucas which has temporarily upgraded to a four-piece band. So not only was I worried about surviving my own gig, but wondering how the other was going. Apparently and not surprisingly, there was no need to worry on that score. It didn't matter whether I was there or not.

I normally spend the day after a gig breathing huge sighs of relief, but this time I had to prepare and then help orchestrate another challenge, because this one just had to be done today. October 21 marked exactly one hundred years to the day since A Wiltshire Village, the first book of prose by my hero Alfred Williams was published.

Me and my colleagues in the Alfred Williams Heritage Society couldn't let this go by without marking it, so we dreamt up an event at the Carpenters Arms in South Marston, which is the Wiltshire village the book is all about. The format was simply about bringing together people who have connections with the book, including several who are descended from the real characters in it; selecting some interesting extracts to get them to read; adding a few relevant (and rather good) songs, written and performed by our chairman John Cullimore; and marrying it to a Powerpoint slideshow assembled by me.

So it was a relief when it passed off pretty successfully, with a good turnout of about 40 interested people and my colleague Caroline Ockwell, who had the main job of organising it, also proving an excellent host. I didn't have the pressure of actually speaking myself, apart from mumbling a few things about our plans for 2013 at the end. My main duty was setting up the equipment, then sitting in the background and doing relatively simple things at key moments (but which will have everybody leering at you if you cock them up) and generally relying on my sense of timing - so more or less the same challenges as drumming.

There was also a (sort of nominal) special draught beer for the occasion, and I had the pleasure of designing the pump clip. Having designed the labels for previous Alfred Williams bottled beers, this was fulfilling another small ambition, and I was quite pleased with the outcome.

Apart from marking an anniversary that would have made our hero Alfred rightfully proud, the good thing about events like these is they bring interesting and interested people together under one roof at one moment in time, which is always uplifting, therefore counteracting the stress and the trials we put ourselves through.

It's not rock 'n' roll, but it is nice to send intelligent people home, having helped to inform and entertain them for two and a half hours.

And the last word must go to the man who stole the show - Eric Barnes, who is 81 and has lived at the intriguingly named Catsbrain Farm near South Marston since 1938. We asked him to dress up and play the part of a shepherd in one extract (pictured), which made full use of his beautiful thick Wiltshire accent, and we also got him to do another reading about one of the farms where Alfred worked as a child.

In fact, Eric capped the evening off perfectly because if he had been born a century earlier, Alfred would have chosen him - and indeed his co-performer Chris Park - as one of the colourful characters featured in A Wiltshire Village.

It was certainly worth the stresses and strains of the weekend to meet him, and the bonus is I've had an invitation to visit him at his farm.

All kitted out

The drums are multiplying in our house. Double-booking two Carter drumming gigs on the same night forced us to buy a new set of cymbals, so we now have three full drum kits - an electronic one, for practising; my practising and gig kit; and Sean's teaching/gig kit.

This obviously causes storage and transport problems, but you'd be surprised how easily they can be packed into cupboards and how neatly they'll fit into small and a medium-sized cars and still leave room for passengers.

October 19, 2012

In search of Alfred's tree

Much of what follows in this blog entry will seem pretty weird if you don't already know of my fascination about the life and works of Alfred Williams.

Actually, it will still seem weird if you do know about that, because I spent most of the afternoon today searching for a tree. But not just any old tree; the tree.

There is a lovely story attached to Alfred that he used to spend a lot of his time sat in his favourite tree near South Marston, his home village, contemplating life and the countryside he loved, sometimes composing poems in his head before running home to get them down on paper.

He even wrote about it in A Wiltshire Village, a book that has a significance that will become clear shortly:

A large willow-tree, strong and three-forked, grows over the deep pool just below the hatch [a kind of weir used for irrigation]. The branching takes place about two feet or so from the base of the tree; one arm juts out over the water, and then grows upward, forming an ideal seat. Here in the sultry days of summer, when the sun's rays pour down from the cloudless sky like a furnace, and the whole earth is parched and withered with it, you may sit in luxury, cool and undiscovered, for scarcely anyone comes to disturb the solitude of the place. The express trains, from time to time, thunder along the embankment; far off you may dimly hear the wheels of traffic proceeding up the highway, but it does not interfere with your peace and reverie, for you are most completely concealed from all this, and are inured to the sound of it. The meadow-sweet and willow-herb blossom around you, high clumps of hawthorn, overhanging the stream, protect you on that side, abundant crane's bill and comfrey grow on the banks beyond, pretty cinquefoil blooms and hangs from the walls of the hatches in traces, large clusters of luxuriant forget-me-not thrive right under the walls themselves.

This was published precisely 99 years and 363 days ago - which gives you a clue about why I tried to track down this specific tree today, ahead of Sunday's centenary. In (I believe) the 1940s - so more than ten years after Alfred's death - his friend Henry Byett photographed himself in the same tree (see above), but I'd never seen it.

At least 82 years after Alfred last sat in the tree - because that's how long he's been dead - I doubted it would still be there, and even if it was, it would probably be unidentifiable, all this time later.

But when I recently did a talk about Alfred during the Swindon Festival of Poetry, somebody who I'd never met before came up to me and said he reckoned he had found the celebrated tree.

So I finally set off with his instructions to park by one of the little bridges under the railway line before you reach Acorn Bridge, find the bridge that takes the River Cole under the railway, and look for one of the old willows on the right.

I have to say that two other willows had me fairly convinced I had found the right one before I spotted another candidate - and instantly knew it was third time lucky.

So I took panoramic pictures (giving a false perspective, see below) of the tree and the spot, as well as standard ones, but was on the wrong side of the river, and wanted to get closer. This required walking back out the way I came, driving as close to Acorn Bridge as I could, walking under it and then climbing a gate and picking my way through half-flooded fields until I finally reached the tree.

It's hard to guess how trees might grow and differ over decades, and it had branched out in unpredictable ways. A large branch had seemingly grown out almost horizontally from the bit used as a seat, and if you tried to sit there now you would have a smaller branch across your chest. But there seemed no doubt from the description and the old picture that this was Alfred's tree, at least 82 years on. The old picture appears to show the tree more elevated above the ground than today, but it was clear there had been some build up of the ground due to flooding, and Alfred's description of the unusual forking from two feet above the ground seemed spot on. Other willows along the same stretch were noticeably different.

And getting up close gave me two more clues that confirmed it beyond all reasonable doubt.

For one thing, close by I found comfrey growing (as pictured), just as Alfred had written, although, because of my much inferior knowledge of these things, I needed to check it later on the internet to be sure.

The other - surely clinching - evidence was provided by the gamekeeper. I was just about to go home when he turned up in an all-terrain buggy of some kind, obviously suspicious of what I was up to. He said I was on private ground, but told me nicely because he realised I was harmless enough. Mind you, that was before I explained about Alfred and sitting in the tree and - now in steady drizzle, which made the quest seem even more bizarre - my mission to find and photograph this particular tree.

Despite being a gamekeeper on land not much more than a mile from the epicentre of Alfred's amazing life, he'd never even heard of him, but did provide me with the final piece in the puzzle because we got talking about the pool beside the tree, which is currently about the size of two or three tennis courts and gets bigger in even rainier periods.

I asked him if it was deep, hoping he would say yes, and he did. He said it is about 15 feet in the middle, which means it must be the "deep pool just below the hatch" as described by Alfred. He pointed out that it isn't fed by the river as the other side, which is fed through the hatches, yet it never dries, not even during a drought, and he said there must be a spring.

It was about this time that I noticed the gamekeeper had a rifle attached to the side of his buggy, which he probably uses for shooting dumb animals.

Fortunately he doesn't do the same for eccentric people who give themselves mad missions of tracking down historical evidence of their literary heroes on wet afternoons in October. Or, to put it another way, are out of their tree.

October 15, 2012

Wrong Carter

At least one person so far has assumed Carter Collectables is something to do with me.

In fact, it's the work of my twin brother, Brian, although I can see how the wallowing in nostalgia/memorabilia could suggest my own hand. And the website looks so good that if anybody asks me if the striking design and innovative ideas are my own work, I will probably lie and say yes.

The website, like the venture, is still very much in its infancy, but is already worth a look.

Storm in a teacup

Every time we go to The Watermill at Newbury, I say what a treat it is. That's partly because the stuff they put on is so damned good, but also because of the atmosphere and intimacy of the theatre. You are always close to the action - and tonight we were so close as to feel like we were in it.

We now see virtually everything at The Watermill that runs for a week or more; in fact, most run for about a month. The latest is The Tempest, a play that I had never seen before, nor knew much about.

During the drive there Julie struggled to remember anything about it either, even though she'd studied it for A-level, so we had a quick check on Wikipedia. Anybody who says Shakespeare is difficult to follow is speaking from inexperience. All you need is five minutes to get a quick synopsis and you have enough information to keep you up to speed with most of what's going on. That's even true of The Tempest, which has several sub-plots.

The Tempest would be great at any venue, but your enjoyment is doubled for being at The Watermill, and it was doubled again when we realised that our tickets for Row B were not, as we assumed, the second row from the front, but - because they had enlarged the stage slightly and taken out Row A - now the front row. And we were sat right in the centre, literally looking up Prospero's nose at one stage. In fact, he was stood so close for the scene pictured above, which is the entry of Ariel, the fairy - who looked more like Kate Bush, ready to sing Wuthering Heights - that I couldn't see her until he finished his speech.

As ever at The Watermill, the acting was excellent, including a close-up masterclass in how to act drunk. The direction was good too, although I was a bit disappointed they didn't do much to portray the tempest at the beginning.

They made up for it with the dreamy wedding scene, though, which includes the play's most famous line, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."

Which is a fitting place to end this little review.

Life in Spitalfields, wherever that is

I have to mention a great blog I've discovered, which is called Spitalfields Life.

I'm not even sure where Spitalfields is, exactly, except I know it's in London and I understand it is quite EastEnd-ish. Anyway, Spitalfields Life is published by somebody who calls himself The Gentle Author and has set himself (or maybe herself) the job of writing an entry every day, capturing everyday life in the aforesaid part of London.

I believe it has been running for three years, but having finally discovered it myself, I am now avidly following it as it does a brilliant job of turning ordinary things - shops, doors, ex-boxers, eccentric members of the public, local artists, etc - into something special.

This is what blogging is all about and I wish I had the time and the inspiration to do something similar about Swindon.

October 14, 2012

All grown up

It was big milestone day in our household today as my daughter Holly celebrated her 18th birthday.

Therefore - officially and legally - both our children have grown up, which is a pretty weird feeling, even if you have had time to anticipate it.

But if it's tough to accept just how old you are getting, and how quickly the last 18 years have flown by, it didn't stop us having a good day. Or, more accurately, a great day.

It started with Holly being thrilled that our main present to her was a Mac, which she had bargained on trying to buy later in the day through a combination of a contribution from us and her savings. We are also going to buy her Photoshop to go on it, which is all essential for her artwork.

During the daytime we had visits from various family members, including the three Swindon 'oldies', who, despite a combined age of over 250 and less than perfect health, we were delighted they came round for some cake.

It is traditional for birthdays in our house to be celebrated with a family meal, and Holly's choice was curry, so, in the evening, those who could and were willing joined in a 14-strong gettogether at Rushi's. It was nice that it included Holly's Uncle Steve and (the majority of) his family as he has spent most of the year working abroad, chiefly in the USA, so his homecoming was perfect timing. The food was excellent and the welcome as friendly as ever, which has led me to declare it Swindon's premier Indian restaurant.

The funny thing about our children's childhoods is most of it is a blur. Julie seems able to recall minute details, even from when they were very young, and can instantly recall such milestones as first words and first steps in their perfect chronological context, as well as other details that I have forgotten.

But today was such a nice one that I hope this milestone is remembered for many years to come.

Mac 6

Holly's new Mac means we now have six of them in our house, along with various other hand-held devices with the Apple logo on the back, and precisely nothing that bears the name Microsoft. This is notable for several reasons.

Firstly, it is easily the greatest example of brand loyalty you will find in our household. The only thing that even comes close is my refusal, under normal circumstances, to buy any brand of brown sauce (which I love) apart from Branston Fruity.

A couple of our Macs are now pretty old, and one of them could even be said to be ancient in computing terms; and the main reason we have so many is they never die. I think we have owned nine altogether, and of the three that are gone, I gave two away to schools in full working order, so they may well still be going. As far as we are aware, only one has gone to the great computer graveyard in the sky, and even that was probably easily fixable because it was the replaceable rechargeable battery pack that gave out, not the computer itself.

Even if you are one of those people clinging to the forlorn hope that PCs will, in some bizarre fashion, one day provide better value for money, you'd have to agree that all this is nothing if not a triumph for sustainability.

Most importantly, Apples keep the doctor away. Computers can be extremely stressful things, but to me the happy sight of the Apple logo brings a measure of calmness, contentment and reassurance seldom experienced in other aspects of life.

October 11, 2012

Celebrities and me

I expect people are sick to death of hearing about our London 2012 adventures over the summer, but we are still slowly coming down from all the highs.

There is also a personal Games legacy for me as I am still following most of the athletes on Twitter that I was during the Olympics and Paralympics. This includes Ade Adepitan, the former wheelchair basketball bronze medallist who was one of Channel 4's presenters during their excellent coverage of the Paralympics.

One of the things I like about Twitter - and there are many - is you get a proper insight into what's going on and what people think, rather than the media's sometimes ridiculous and often jaundiced slant, so I already knew that the experience of London 2012 from the Paralympians' own viewpoint was as good as it was for us.

This week Twitter also alerted me to the latest entry in Ade Adepitan's blog, which was a bit overdue, but gave us his take on the Paralympics. Hardly surprisingly, he was also very positive. So I left a comment, basically saying what a good job he and Channel 4 did, what a ball it had been for us, and explaining that seeing Canadian wheelchair basketball star Patrick Anderson in the flesh was such a privilege. I pointed out that having seen George Best play football live and Viv Richards hit a century at Lord's, the Patrick Anderson experience came into the same category of witnessing an absolute master of a sport from close range.

I should say here that I am not usually one for all that 'celebrity' stuff. I only follow people on Twitter who are interesting because of what they do and say, not because they are famous. And I wouldn't normally go leaving comments on celebrities' blogs as if they are personal friends. In fact, don't get me started on celebrity culture at all if you know what's good for you.

But I was pretty chuffed when Ade took the trouble to personally reply, via his blog, to me and the other people who left comments.

"Hey Graham, thanks for the kind words" it began, before explaining his own experiences of playing against Anderson. You can read it all here.

This is the second best response I've ever had from a celebrity. Years ago, when I was writing reviews for the Swindon Advertiser, I wrote one about a touring show called The Fantasticks, which starred the great Roy Hudd. I basically said it was a fun show and what a shame it wasn't as well attended as something starring Roy Hudd deserved. The next day I received a handwritten letter from the man himself, thanking me for the review and my positive comments.

I always think that sort of thing shows real class - when public figures who are probably badgered by all kinds of people, including stalkers and other cranks, take time to reply personally to somebody they've never met and probably never will. In other words, these people are true celebrities.

The Ade Adepitan episode also underlines how much goodwill and optimism was generated by London 2012, and how it is still continuing, now weeks after it ended. And long may it continue.

October 6, 2012

Of poems: knitted and otherwise

Poetry has never really been my thing. I once read a book called The Ode Less Travelled, which was supposed to demystify all the technical bits like meters and rhyming schemes, but even though it was written by Stephen Fry, I finished up thinking that poetry will never be a lot of fun as long as it's such hard work.

Still, you might think that co-founding and vice-chairing the Alfred Williams Heritage Society might qualify me as some kind of poetry expert in view of the fact that he was nicknamed 'The Hammerman Poet', but even that's mis-leading. There is no shortage of other aspects of his life and work that I found more interesting, including his gift for effortless prose, so the poetry was way down the list of things that appealed, and mostly qualifies as a bonus.

That's not to say I haven't come to admire Alfred's poetry and even love some of it. It's a century old - in the case of his third book of Poetry, called Nature and Other Poems, it was published exactly 100 years ago this week - yet a lot of it doesn't seem dated at all and is surprisingly easy on modern eyes, thanks to its rhyming couplets. So even non-poetry types like me can get into it.

But still you wouldn't have expected to bump into me at a poetry festival, let alone see me take part in one. But that's what has been happening this week.

I even like to think I helped to make history as it was the very first Swindon Festival of Poetry. It has been mostly organised by my friend Michael Scott and his friend, Hilda Sheehan. Their interest in all things poetic not only improved infectious enough for me to go along to the first event on the first day of this first festival, but even to be persuaded to recite (not from memory) my favourite Alfred Williams poem.

I read the same poem again in today's event, called Alfred Williams, 100 Years On, but otherwise handed the recital stuff over to 'professionals' from the Friends of Alfred Williams* - Kaye Franklin MBE (no less) and her husband Graeme. My part was an illustrated talk that I adapted from the one I've now done quite a few times about Alfred's life and works, except, like the one we did for the Swindon Festival of Literature, earlier this year, it also included readings.

I'm still surprised at how unfazed I am about talking to a roomful of people, which by all rights should scare the pants off me, but Alfred's life is so amazing that there is no shortage of interesting things to say, and I have a good memory for the facts, so can even bluff my knowledge of the poetry.

The talk went off without a hitch, which was a relief, and the festival seems to have gone very well, despite the challenge of starting from nothing. So it was nice to be a part of it, including providing a real talking point in the form of The Knitted Poem.

This was the result of National Poetry Day 2010, when the local branch of the trade union Unison decided to create a patchwork of individually knitted and crocheted letters that formed into a poem, which they decided would be Alfred Williams's 1912 poem, The Cottager's Evening. Unison later donated it to our society, so now it lives in my loft, and it was really nice to see it on display and even appearing in the Swindon Advertiser with festival organisers Michael and Hilda (above).

The jury is still out on whether I will ever be able to get into poetry properly, but I have had my eyes opened in the last few days, having seen, at close hand, how much other people get out of it and even how much fun they find it. And it is always good to try something new.

*There are not one but two Alfred Williams societies - our new upstart one, which is concerned with spreading the word to people who have never heard of him (which is most people, even in Swindon) and the 42-year-old Friends of Alfred Williams, who are mainly a literary appreciation society.

Live and kicking

For somebody who actually plays live music in a band, I am pretty ashamed of how rarely I get to see other bands play live these days. Watching others should be a big part of your own development.

So I (we) were pleased to be invited by our friends John and Dorothy to their local, the King and Queen at Longcot, which was having a bit of a jam session featuring locals, including a good rock 'n' roll band called Wild Dogs.

John and Dorothy have led fascinating lives - Dorothy was telling us how she once played tennis against Virginia Wade and lost 10-8 in the third set! - and they seem to have an interest and often even a wonder in everything the world can offer, which is pretty inspiring considering they are in their late seventies. They have a boundless enthusiasm for things, love nothing more than seeing children inspired and have an incredible resilience when they come up against apathy in others.

So it was a lovely evening, and the music went down well, even though, since taking up drumming, I can't enjoy watching bands like I used to. Enjoying the music comes second to scrutinising the drummer and calculating whether, if he was taken ill and they needed an emergency replacement, I could step in and get away with it.