John Owen Smith’s log for 2006

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Christmas Day, 2006

A Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Ars Gratis Artis

(with apologies to MGM)

Well, first things first – the bathroom was finished in time to welcome guests for Christmas – that is, finished except for little things that we still notice but they hopefully don't, like the gap at the top of the wall tiles waiting for me to apply a bead of silicone.

All the new stuff is in and the old stuff is out, but I couldn't resist the temptation to frame our lion in the front garden with the old loo seat – MGM's 'Ars Gratis Artis'?

So here we are, Dil and I, on Christmas Day returning from the local pub through woods leading to the bottom end of our garden.

They gave a free first drink to regulars at the pub, and I didn't know they had so many regulars! You could hardly slip a sheet of paper between the people crammed in there, as Dil put it.

Lunch was a little delayed, and began at 4pm – very civilised in my opinion – finishing just in time for an invasion soon after 6pm.

God rest you merry, gentlemen – and that seems to include the ladies too!

18th December 2006

We made the last of our pre-Christmas visits this weekend – and it was lovely weather in Suffolk, where the wind can come straight from Siberia on a bad day.

We walked round Orford.

Spent good money in a craft shop there, then had a stroll down by the river and back across fields to the castle.

Bought some smoked sausages and paté for Christmas from the Smokehouse.

Spent more money in Snape Maltings (as you do), and also did our annual stroll up the Thoroughfare and back in Woodbridge – a favourite town of ours.

Home by the only possible route, which is definitely not a favourite of ours: A12, M25 and A3 – three hours of purgatory if there are no hold-ups, but that's driving in southern England for you.

11th December 2006

Dil's doing the Christmas cards, so I've slunk off to write the log.

Is it a male thing, this not looking forward to writing Christmas cards? I mean, I love you all, but it's the concentration of effort into a couple of days that gets me – trying to find things to say that mean something, without having the room, time or (if I'm honest) inclination to write anything more than a few words on each.

We're into the season of weekend pre-Christmas visits, and this weekend was Bath. Have you tried driving through Bath recently? You can't. They've put in a system which takes you back to where you came in. Try coming in from the east and finding the way to the railway station – ho ho.

Actually, walking through wasn't much easier what with Christmas shoppers and tourists all vying for pavement space. I spent time (and money) in the jazz record shop and let the rest of our party elbow their way round the town. Found a couple of old recordings, now on CD but fondly remembered from scratchy LPs of a past life: Horace Silver playing Filthy McNasty and 'Mingus Ah Um'. Those were the days.

The next day Steve and I walked to town in the rain along the canal towpath from Batheaston – a couple of pints of Christmas ale in the Green Tree and life seemed very much worth living again.

5th December 2006

Regular readers may be biting their nails to the quick wondering why I'm a day late in posting this week's blog, for heaven's sake.

In a word, 'bathroom'. I had a race against time on Monday to finish tiling and grouting the walls before Mick could come in and get on with the rest of the plumbing. Done, but my hands feel like sandpaper and I've lost my grip (possibly on life, but certainly on bottles, etc).

Today (Tuesday) I was at Liphook library helping to celebrate Flora Thompson's 130th birthday. Organised by Anne Mallinson, we also had Gill Lindsay the biographer there along with two local readers.

The photo shows (from the left) Gill, yours truly, Brenda Adams, Flora's statue, Anne Silver (hidden), and Anne Mallinson.

Afterwards we went for lunch to the Deers Hut pub in Griggs Green, near to the house Woolmer Gate where Flora used to live.

Sadly, we have heard of a planning application which proposes to demolish this of all houses. We shall make our views known.

27th November 2006

This weekend found us in Mansfield Woodhouse. There is no good route from here to there, particularly on a Friday night – all ways involve some traffic knot-spot or other. We try to avoid the motorways where possible, and this time did a sort of slalom swerve up country – left of Oxford, right of Coventry, left of Leicester, right of Nottingham, and so on. I suppose the 5 hours it took us was about par for the course. On Monday it took the same to get back. Makes me look forward to driving in France again where things seem so less fraught – if you avoid Paris that is.

Anyway, having had the weekend away meant that we didn't get round to starting re-tiling the bathroom until late today – after checking the post and answering the e-mails and phone messages… How's it going, the tiling? So far so good, as the man said falling past the 64th floor window.

20th November 2006

Wot, no weblog this week? Well, almost.

I suppose if I were (note, please, the proper use of the subjunctive) a journalist having to make a living out of writing a column each week, I'd think of something – but I'm not, so I don't have to.

So what has brought on this lethargy? Having the bathroom ripped out and in the process of reorganisation for one thing. Luckily we've got Toulouse, or we wouldn't have a thing to go on! As it is, we're having to trot round to neighbours to beg a bath or steal a shower. Bring back the public baths!

Done no walks this week – all now finished for the book, so it's time to sit on my bottom and write wise words to go round maps. Instead of the feet hurting, the brain hurts instead.

I've also been finishing off the cover design and editing a series of six books for a friend – if you're waiting for intriguing tales of dragons and other imagined beings, these books are for you – available in the New Year.

Oh, and I'm having to start thinking about Christmas already – bah, humbug!

So, come again next week and see if I've got anything better to talk about. But for now, it's Roger (the cabin boy) and out.

13th November 2006

Once again, I've been on the trail of Flora Thompson.

If you've never heard of her, you're in good company – neither had I before I started researching the local history of our area in the mid-1990s. She wrote Lark Rise to Candleford which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1945 and has been on many exam boards' reading lists, though not any that I took – I seem to recall that my reading texts for 'O'-level English were Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Although Lark Rise to Candleford was about her childhood in Oxfordshire, she lived in Hampshire for about 30 years and learned her writing skills here. She didn't actually write her famous book until she was over 60 years old – so, as I keep telling the groups I talk to, there's still hope for most of us!

She was assistant postmistress in Grayshott from 1898 to 1900, at which time her customers here would have included Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw. She tells us about this in another book she wrote called Heatherley, which in reality is a continuation of Lark Rise to Candleford, and says that as a result of meeting these famous authors she 'destroyed her own scraps of writing, saying to herself as they smouldered to tinder that that was the end of a foolish idea.'

Next year is the 60th anniversary of her death, and among other celebrations across the country will be the unveiling of a blue plaque to her in Grayshott – sadly not on the post office where she worked, since this has been pulled down, but on the house where she lodged. And in this house there is still the room and the original fire-grate where she would have committed her work to ashes.

Fortunately she did start writing again and the rest, as they say, is history.

By the way —

As you enter Hampshire you will probably see by the roadside 'Welcome to Jane Austen Country'.

I would like to think that, in this part of Hampshire at least, it should say 'Welcome to Flora Thompson Country'.

Yes, why not?

For more information on her, see the website.

6th November 2006

The log seems very walks-oriented at the moment – never mind, I'm sure it's good for me!

In 'tidying up' for the new book, I made another visit to Gibbet Hill at the top of Hindhead on Saturday. You can't any longer get a car to the 'car park' (which is still marked on OS maps) near the summit, so I parked down in Haslemere and legged it to the top.

It was a lovely cloudless day and, although the air was cold when you were in shadow, I was comfortable walking in shirtsleeves. Being November, the sun was quite low and cast long shadows – so here's a picture of my shadow taking a picture of the view towards London. That say that on a clear day you can see Canary Wharf. Can you?

I was up there trying to relate the tracks marked on the OS map to the tracks I saw on the ground, and I'm still confused.

View towards London from Gibbet Hill, Hindhead – author's shadow included!

I'm told that the OS put deliberate errors on their maps in order to recognise unauthorised copies, but I'm less than impressed if they do this to the poor unfortunates toiling up public footpaths to Gibbet Hill. Anyway, I came away with enough information to write up directions for a route over the top – but don't expect to be able to follow it precisely on the map!

30th October 2006

The last walk is done! Dil and I took advantage of the hour 'going back' on Sunday to make an early start from Chiddingfold heading for The Sun Inn at Dunsfold.

Just as well, as the going was slower than we'd anticipated – mud to the ankles in places. We arrived three-quarters of an hour later than planned to meet friends there – luckily they hadn't left. A swift drink before we walked on, returning to Chiddingfold village green with its annual bonfire the size of a house.

The annual bonfire at Chiddingfold – ready for firing!

The Wey & Arun Canal near Dunsfold
– towpath restored and the cut is ready for water

The title of the walk is 'Cut and Glass' – the 'cut' referring to the old Wey & Arun Canal which is being restored, and the 'glass' to the glass industry which existed around those parts from medieval times.

Back home, I looked up references to glassmaking in Surrey and realised that we had walked past the very place where "the first glass-master known by name to have worked in England", Laurence Vitrearius, had established himself in 1226.

So, now the last walk is done, when can we expect the new book to be out? Sadly, I doubt if it will be before Christmas – I still have to check up on three or four location where previous walks 'went wrong', and then there's the history bit to research and write… and even if I got all that done, the printing houses are in a pre-Christmas rush now.

Still, it will make a good Easter present!

23rd October 2006

Well, I did my day on the South Downs Way and lived to tell the tale! In reality it didn't feel like too much of a trek, though perhaps that was because I'd been building up to it with local rambles – but the beer in the White Hart at South Harting at the end was very welcome. My son-in-law carried on, through wind and wet weather, for another three days – we finally picked him up in the car at Ditchling Beacon on Friday afternoon and took him home.

This weekend, we replaced all our old bedroom chests-of-drawers and cupboards. No big deal, you may say – but the big deal came when Dil decided we should 'go through' the clothes rather than just move them from old locations to new. That was a full day's work, with much negotiation on the fate of old (and I mean old) favourites. In the end there was one big black bag for the charity shop, and another for the dump – and the survivors of the cull are now neatly stacked on shelves and in drawers, in logical piles. And I think I know where everything is!

I recently bought myself a Wacom graphics tablet to use with the computer, because I have a load of work coming up for which I need to draw maps – and from my experience, using a mouse to draw directly to screen not only gives wobbly lines but also gives grief to my mouse-gripping hand. The thing seems to work reasonably well – the pen controls the cursor on the computer screen. I'm sure practice will help – but it's a weird experience having both pen and mouse contending for the same cursor! If any of you have useful tips on how to use it without going insane, please let me know.

16th October 2006

I've been taking advantage of the mild weather, and a lull in my work schedule, to do some walking and try to finish off the 'feet on ground' research for my new Walks book.

Nearly there! Just one more complete walk to do (the longest, naturally) and some 'tidying up' of other bits missed, and we're through.

On one of the walks I met a friend who was out walking her dog – we stopped to have a chat, and suddenly she looked at the ground by our feet – and there was a snake which had paused while crossing the path.

Anybody tell us what sort it was? I'm fairly certain it wasn't an adder – I'd have thought it was too long for a slow worm – it seems the wrong colour for a grass snake – and the smooth snake is a rarity. Whatever it was, it didn't seem too concerned about us and stood (or rather lay) its ground while I took pictures of it – the only movement was its flicking tongue. [Later general opinion is that it was a slow worm]

Shows what you miss seeing if you just walk around with your eyes focussed ahead of you.

I remember many years ago walking along the towpath of the Basingstoke Canal near to Odiham. My shoelace had come undone, so I stopped to retie it – and there at my feet was a four-leaved clover.

I looked around for others, but it seemed to be the only one – just where I'd stopped.

Talking of many-leaved clovers, I don't think I'm dreaming when I remember there often being four and five-leaved clovers on the village green in my youth at Chenies in Buckinghamshire – and I also remember being on holiday in south Brittany and walking by a field near the sea where clover was the crop, and noticing that there also were four, five and even six-leaved plants in abundance. Was it the fertiliser they used?

Somebody tell me I wasn't imagining it!

Tomorrow, back to reality – my son-in-law is walking the South Downs Way in a week, and I'm accompanying him for one of the days – a mere 15 miles, but it's ups and downs and I usually feel like I've had enough after 8 miles on the flat. I'll let you know how it goes!

9th October 2006

What year is it?

I don't know if you have to do a lot of forward planning, but I find myself frequently living in next year. When people ring up asking if you can speak to their organisation on such-and-such a date and it's more than a year away, you have to start planning holidays and other events that far ahead too, or else you end up with no spare time.

As a result, when the car tax renewal form came through the door saying that my car needed an MoT certificate as from March 2007, my mind immediately thought it meant this year. So I coughed up my £44.15p at the local garage and got it checked. Only when I went to the post office to get the disc did someone point out that actually it meant next March.

Heigh-ho! At least I'll be legal when next March does come round.

Interesting point though – what if it had failed the test it didn't need?

2nd October 2006

I don't know your experiences of being involved in amateur dramatics, but in my opinion rehearsals tend to be rather unproductive affairs – and particularly so when the date of performing is still many weeks away and the 'fear factor' hasn't yet kicked in.

I have a theory that almost any production could be achieved with no more than a month's rehearsing if everyone were to put their minds to it – but they don't. Absences due to work commitments and family holidays come first, of course – and as a director you find that what you thought you'd taught people one week has to be taught again later because critical cast members weren't there at the time. I've known occasions when the dress rehearsal has been the first at which the whole cast has been together.

But perhaps more irritating than absences is the reluctance of amateurs to actually act in rehearsals. They seem to be shy of performing in character when the only audience is the rest of the cast. So right up until the last week you get wooden repetitions of the words, and the director becomes hairless thinking the show will never be fit to run.

Then suddenly on the first night, when a live audience arrives and the joking has to stop, the acting happens and the show is transformed into a living thing.
When you've directed enough productions, you begin to know these things and stop worrying – but even so, you still resent the unnecessary hours spent in a gloomy hall leading up to it.

Anyway, all this is leading up to saying that our Pirates of Penzance was a great success despite our doubts about it only a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time we'd done a G&S, and singing is not Headley Theatre Club's strongest suite – but those who couldn't hold a note pulled out all the stops and acted their way through it, to the great delight of the audience.

I was that very model of a modern Major-General – and yes, I admit I did need a crib in my hat for the fast 'patter-song' – but it seemed to go down well, and the audience was even foolish enough to ask for an encore on the last night. For that I gave them, as tradition demanded, a verse I'd written myself:—

I am the very model of a resident of Head-i-ly,
They told me when I moved here it was dull and it was dead-i-ly,
But then I joined the Theatre Club and found it really pleasant here
to strut my stuff as anything from fairy queen to peasant here.
You might have seen me do a turn in music hall or pantomime,
One day I'll do my Hamlet, but right now I haven't got the time,
Instead I'm learning Gilbert's words which really aren't a lot of fun –
I've got a lot more time for his symphonic buddy Sullivan!

I pay my rates in Hampshire, but I really mustn't worry now,
It's much more cool to tell my friends I'm living near to Surrey now,
In fact I'm on the ladder and I'm climbing very steadily,
I am the very model of a resident of Head-i-ly.

25th September 2006

Saturday was warm and sunny, so while Dil got herself embroiled in sorting out costumes for next week's drama production I decided to take all the current health sages' advice and go for a good walk.

I even had an excuse – a walk with a purpose.

I'd received an order from Canada for a local book about Canadian soldiers in Bramshott during the First World War, but I was out of stock. Knowing that these books were on sale in Bramshott church, I decided on my mission – to walk there and buy one.

So I pulled on the walking boots and headed south across Ludshott Common, stopping to chat to two or three friends who I happened to meet on the way.

Target reached in an hour an a quarter. I entered the church, posed for the CCTV as I paid for the book, and started back for home along a different route. I'd only gone a hundred yards when the church bells started ringing, though I'd not seen anyone inside. It almost felt as if I'd set off some form of ecclesiastic burglar alarm. Mystic!

Another hour and a quarter and I was home. True walkers among you won't be much impressed to note that the whole round trip of less than 6 miles had taken me just over three hours. But I did stop occasionally to look at the scenery and take a few photos.

A typical sunken lane in Bramshott
Anyone know if you can eat this one?
Don't worry, I didn't
This friend was after me for food – I was glad it didn't have horns!

18th September 2006

We've just been to Canterbury. Not a pilgrimage, you understand – visiting friends – but while there we thought we'd visit the cathedral, until we saw the entry price.

I know these places need a lot of cash to maintain, but at £6 a head just to get into the precincts it did seem a bit steep to us and we decided to sit and have a drink at the pub across the road instead.

I don't know what you think, but I reckon the cathedral is losing money by it. At £3 a head we would have gone in and they would have got our money.

Home to disconsolate cats, as we were back later than we'd planned – that is, we arrived after their normal supper time.

This was a picture I took on another occasion, but it does illustrate rather well how they react to humans' misbehaviour.

Actually, I didn't want to do the ironing anyway!

2nd to 10th September 2006

This week we took our Citroën to meet its makers, or at least the land of its makers, or at least the land of its cousins – we went on the night ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and from there halfway down the west coast of France as far as Marennes where the oysters come from.

And how long does it take to eat a meal in France? The photos from La Rochelle tell it all – low tide when we started and high tide when we finished.

So, I cheated this time – we'd walked all round the town between taking these two shots – but I do remember another occasion in Normandy when a meal really did take that long, and we nearly missed our boat home. When they close the doors behind you as you drive on the ferry, you know you've cut it fine!

This time we made it to Caen in plenty of time for the return crossing – but will somebody tell Brittany Ferries about those relining seats? I've spent more comfortable nights flying economy class.

However, we did have the benefit of a calm crossing, and seeing the sun rise as we entered Portsmouth Harbour.

But, please, did I have to come home to 950 e-mails? Hope you're all patient waiting for an answer!

28th August 2006

How do you ever find the time to write? I'm often asked – and at the moment the answer is, I don't. It's the other side of self-publishing. If you make a success of it, then inevitably more of your time is taken up in the selling leaving less for the writing.

In my case it also involves doing publishing for other people – which keeps the bank manager happy, but does little in the way of giving me time to write.

But when I think back, life's always been like this – just as you get familiar with doing one job, you're promoted into doing something else. I remember being very happy as a competent computer programmer – then one day I discovered I was to be trained as a systems analyst, and I didn't like the idea at all, until I tried it. Once I'd got into it, I wouldn't have gone back to being a mere programmer. And so it often is with other shifts in life.

Fortunately, I'm not one of these people who feels unfulfilled unless they're writing – so publishing will do very nicely, thank you, with an occasional dipping of the quill into the ink-pot on my own behalf when circumstances permit.

For those of you wanting to know how the treasure hunt (see below) went on Sunday, it went very well. The sun shone on us, and Dil, Nick Erika and I (the intrepid organisers) sat outside the Still & West on Spice Island watching the world go by as the contesting teams walked up to Southsea and back collecting clues along the way. Then back from Portsmouth Harbour on the train for a barbecue and prize-giving – and the winning team has the joy or organising next year's event!

21st August 2006

George Bernard Shaw famously described Britain and America as 'two countries separated by the same language'.

This came to mind as I was reading a version of Cinderella sent to me by a colleague in New York who has for the past two years been taking my British pantomime scripts and re-working them for a NY audience – and this time he has them bonking on stage!

I suppose that we also use the word to mean 'hitting over the head', which is what he meant - but it wasn't what sprang to my sullied British mind. He assures me that it's not an 'adult' version, so I assume that the alternative meaning of the word hasn't yet reached NY. It should give any Britishers in the audience a good laugh though.

Those of you wanting to know more about his pantomime in NY, take a look at their website.

More mundanely, this week has been one of almost continual decorating inside our house – I have the paint in the hair to prove it – and since the weather hasn't been too wonderful, it was probably a good time to do it.

Here I show you, at absolutely no cost to yourselves, the patented Smith method of protecting books on shelves when decorating the rest of the room!

Books in bags

Now the lounge is habitable again, we look forward to ripping the bathroom apart later in the year. Ho hum!

14th August 2006

Didn't it rain! After weeks when we could have done with a soaking (preferably overnight) to cheer up the garden, we got it all in one day on Sunday – nearly a month's worth, I should think.

Plans for a 6-mile walk were abandoned and replaced by the opportunity to finish off decorating the lounge. Remember, there are never problems in life, only opportunities.

Luckily, we'd done our foray to Portsmouth the day before when the weather was dry if a little blustery. Nick, Erika, Dil and I were paying our second visit to compile the clues for the Headley Theatre Club treasure hunt. Normally it takes the form of a car rally but this year we decided to be different and do it on foot.

Spinnaker Tower, Portsmouth

So, starting from Portsmouth Harbour station, the idea is to follow the Millennium Walk along to Southsea finding clues on the way.

First problem: if you follow the chained-brick motif of the Millennium Walk (see left) from the station entrance, it goes west towards the naval dockyard but not (as far as we could see) east towards Southsea. After a bit of head-scratching, we discovered the start of the eastward section at the foot of the Spinnaker Tower – but only by deviating through the Gunwharf Quay shopping complex.

We thought we might need to blindfold Dil and Erika at this point, but in fact we got them through without visiting a shop!

The Millennium Walk emerged here from a door in a temporary-looking wooden wall. Can anyone tell me if there are plans to link it with the western section someday?

Anyway, the clues are now set – and we hope for another fine day on August Bank Holiday Sunday when the contest takes place. Watch this space!

7th August 2006

Going back to thoughts of my schooldays (see two weeks ago) it was at the RGS that I made my first appearance on stage – as a fairy in Iolanthe! That's what happens when an all-male school decides to put on a Gilbert & Sullivan, as they did every year at that time in the 1950s.

What brings me to think about it now is my next role on stage – the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance. I haven't done a G&S since the 50s, but it's all coming back – at least I thought it was until I tried to learn the words!

How is it that, over time, the words you think you remember turn out not to be the words actually written in the script? So now it's a matter of unlearning the words I thought I knew before relearning the right ones.

As a matter of fact, I find this a problem for me even when I get cast in one of my own productions – by that I mean in a play that I've written. Perhaps even especially so, as I can never remember which of the various versions of lines that were in my head when I wrote the play actually made it to paper. The rest of the cast, of course don't have that problem.

Anyway, there I was on yesterday's Sunday walk singing the Major-General's patter song as best I could remember it – and my apologies to anyone I may have startled. As it happened, only Dil and I turned up for this particular walk (it was the one with no pub on the route, so the rest of you probably made a wise decision!) so I only have her to apologise to.

There are five more walks to do now before we can put the new book together – well, five plus several bits and pieces missed out of previous walks.

The previous weekend we revisited Thursley Common to see how it had fared after the heathland fire which had taken some days to put out – some parts were worse than others but it looks as if the route of my Broomsquires' Walk will recover reasonably soon. And this time we discovered the Cricklestone which we'd missed before, so it was a worthwhile visit.

Thursley Common after the fire, July 2006

Thursley Common after the fire

Next Sunday we plan to 'do' the walk through Alice Holt Forest – but in the meantime, there's a lounge to be redecorated. Ho hum.

31 July 2006

"So, how did it all start?"

I'm often asked the question when I speak about local history, self-publishing, playwriting (or is it playwrighting?) and all the other things that I do now.
And I can actually tell them how and when it all started, almost to the minute.

It was the day after my birthday (aficionados can look that up) in 1991 and, after running the last day of a training course in London, I'd gone down to the Holly Bush in Headley for an evening drink.

These were the days when I had a 'proper job' as a self-employed IT consultant, and was rushing around the country, and sometimes the world, to earn myself an honest quid or two.

It wasn't normal for me to go to the Holly Bush on a mid-week evening, and I can't remember now what had prompted me to go there – but go there I did, and by chance met some friends of mine who introduced me to a friend of theirs who was Arts Manager for the local District Council.

I was introduced as 'Jo, who writes pantomimes' – which I did, and still do. Their daughter had been in some of our productions at the village am dram society.

Some weeks after the meeting, the Arts Manager rang me asking if I would like to write a community play for the District. She warned me that there would be no money in it, but I said I would anyway – after all, when you are the person selected out of all the possible people in the District…

The subject was chosen for me – the Swing Riots of 1830, and in particular how they affected the village of Selborne.

So I found myself in a situation where, in the space of about 12 months, I had to learn how to become a local historian, and a playwright of something a little more serious than pantomimes. Not only that – as I uncovered the facts of the riot I realised that here was a story which had never been told in full before, and only a fraction of what I'd found could be put into the confines of the play.

It seemed a pity to waste the rest, and I decided that as well as writing the play I'd publish the whole story in a book – and naturally I wanted this book to be ready and on sale when we ran the play in nine months' time! No regular publisher could react that fast, so out of necessity I published it myself.

Cover of One Monday in November

The cover of my first book

By some magic, and with a great deal of help and encouragement from others, it all happened on time and was declared a success. The book One Monday in November was published on 10th May 1993 and the play Riot – This Bloody Crew ran in October of that year in Selborne, Bordon and Headley.

I'd thought all this would be a one-off activity – but suddenly I found myself in demand locally to research more history, and at the same time my 'day job' had folded. At fifty-one years of age it seemed like an opportunity to change course. The rest, as they say, is history…

24 July 2006

I've never been one to subscribe to Friends United, or whatever the website's called for contacting old friends – but browsing through Wikipedia one night I happened upon a site for my old secondary school, and there I saw a school photo showing me and the rest of the pupils way back in 1956.

It also invited you to fill in the names of people you recognised – challenging stuff! The first problem was to find myself, and in doing so my cursor passed over faces I remembered. Faces, but not names – at least, not many.

I filled in what few names I could and sent them back to the webmaster – then realised that in some dusty drawer I had a similar photo taken two years earlier, my first year at the school. Amazingly, I found it – and even more amazingly I discovered that I'd pencilled in names of boys in the first row when I received the picture. This was the school's first-year intake 52 years ago. There's no way I would have remembered them all now, so it was quite a prescient move on my part at the time.

Here's me in May 1954, bottom row second from left. Butter wouldn't melt …

Two rows behind and third from the left is Ian Dury (he of the Blockheads) with two pens in his front pocket, and looking happier than you would guess he could from reading his biography!*

If you want to join me in my trip down memory lane, have a look at this site.

Me, Ian Dury and others, May 1954

* If you read the biography of Ian Dury by Richard Balls, I'm the one mentioned on p.48 as playing the tea-chest bass in his school skiffle group.

17 July 2006

About 25 years ago, when I worked for a British paper-making company, I was asked to give my thoughts on 'the future of paper'.

At the time, they were concerned about the threat of the much-heralded 'paperless office' – though most felt it was no more likely to arrive than the 'paperless toilet'!

I agreed, but said in my opinion this would change radically if someone ever came up with a truly portable reading device which was as convenient to use as a paperback book.

I also predicted that, come the day, suppliers would virtually give away the readers for free in order to reap the reward of selling content to the mass market of readers.

A quarter of a century later, I think that day may soon arrive. I gather the Japanese are working on such a device using 'electronic paper'. I believe the electronic book will catch on, not as an out-and-out replacement to paper but as something offering an experience that paper cannot.

I've written more about this and about self-publishing on my website.

Meanwhile, a group of us were sitting in the garden the other night while a batch of digital photographs were running as a 'slide show' on my office computer. Every now and then one of us would get up and go inside to watch it. Someone said, wait for the day when we all have our personal wireless gadgets here in the garden and can look at the photos while we sit here. I said, you're probably talking about the new electronic book reader.

See if I'm right when we look back in, say, five years time.

10 Jul 2007

More than ten years ago I wrote a series of sketches in response to a call for scripts suitable for a TV series from the BBC.

For years I'd been involved in running and hiring village halls and had a stack of silly stories about the things that can go wrong there, so I based my ideas on the life of a mythical caretaker of one such hall and the problems that surround him, giving it the working title Jobsworth.

After failing to get a reply from the BBC – no surprise there – the scripts lay dormant for some time until a friend who had contacts in local radio suggested I rework them into a radio format and he would get a cast together to record them for air.

Several years passed without anything happening.

Then one day, I decided 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' and added them to the list of playscripts available on my website. The other scripts were for the stage, but maybe there was someone out there who might be interested in radio…

To my surprise there was. A group in Hampshire contacted me with a view to doing a public recording on stage. This made good theatre for a live audience, as well as producing a recording to be distributed to places like homes for the elderly on a not-for-profit basis.

Once an idea has been proved to work somewhere, it becomes more acceptable elsewhere. Our own local drama group suddenly found themselves in need of a show to run at short notice last year, and I was able to persuade them that doing radio plays on the stage wasn't such a silly idea.

The cast loved it because they didn't have to learn the lines by heart! Very few rehearsals were needed and scenery was minimal. We did three of my six original sketches and fed the audience during the two intervals with a 2-course supper – and it was a great success. So much so that, a year on, we have just repeated the format – this weekend we performed the other three sketches.

This picture shows the sound effects team hard at work! See other pictures from the show.

The moral of the story is to keep thinking of different ways to use your material – and one day it may come good.

Sound effects crew in Jobsworth

My problem now is that they want three more sketches for next year! I'm not so sure – you know, I think you can have too much of a good thing …

3 Jul 2007

While doing a walk this weekend in preparation for my next book (provisional title, 'Walks through History at the West of the Weald') it struck me that my website hasn't changed much over the last few weeks – which is the case when you're preparing work rather than publishing it.

So rather than lose your interest, I thought I'd start a weekly weblog to share my thoughts with you, on work in progress as well as a variety of other subjects. Well, everyone else seems to be doing it, so why not?

I won't bore you with grand introductions now – if you want to find out more about me, keep reading the blogs. I'll try to make it one of my regular Monday morning jobs.

We had planned to do a 10-mile walk (we being me and my wife Dil) but as the temperature soared we quickly revised this and chose a shorter one which was mostly under trees. Starting at Frensham Little Pond (and why had the NT closed their car park there?) we crossed the southern River Wey and walked, mostly through pine woods, to cross the northern River Wey before turning right for Tilford where the two tributaries join, close to the Barley Mow inn.

A drink served by bar staff who still know their mental arithmetic and give you change from a wooden drawer – and a pint of Young's for me, dry white wine for Dil, in the garden by the river – bliss! Then back along a footpath by the river, towards the Little Pond where cars were by now parked all along the road next to an empty car park.

Barley Mow, Tilford, Surrey

You are very welcome to contact me about anything in the weblogs, or not in the weblogs – but be prepared for your words to appear on-line along with mine!