Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Big Swifty unlikely to make GB Olympics cycling team in 2012

GB top athlete distracted by real life in 2011

Followers will be disappointed to know I am unlikely to be selected for the GB cycling team at the Olympics, just down the road in six months time. There are several reasons for this, what with me being untalented, unfit, overweight and too old; but my training hasn't kept with the programme. I've been busy with real life; indeed I've been so busy I haven't even Big Swifty blogged for a few months. So here's a summary of 2011, for anyone else who's in danger of Olympic selection, and would like to follow my training programme, thereby getting a ticket to watch the sport from the sofa:

Familiar readers of Big Swifty will know that diabetes dominates our life, as we have a five year old who is a Type 1 diabetic. The disease does not define us, but it has to be our priority, and takes up a large chunk of our time, energy and brain power. Our 2011 began with a trip to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, to make the acquaintance of the new member of our little family: Lucky, the insulin pump.  After some training, we were let loose with the real thing, live and pumping insulin, and within a day our spirits felt lighter. It was Frank that was convinced that he wanted a pump and he has never once wavered from this.  We are very proud of our brave boy, who deals with the constant invasive world of the Type 1 Diabetic with a huge amount of grace and courage.

Homeschooling continues well for us and we are looking forward to more fun times ahead.  Our style of homeschooling comes under the “unschooling” umbrella, which means we follow Frank’s interests and thus the world is our classroom!  We can find ourselves drawing dinosaurs and reading about them one day, and then rowing on the river pretending to be Ratty and Mole from “The Wind in the Willows” the next.  We meet up regularly with other homeschooling families and have been enjoying a variety of activities this year, at people’s homes, in village halls, museums, forest schools, and at Colchester’s magnificent new gallery “Firstsite”. Next year will see more crafting, science, dinosaurs, Lego, art and music, plus anything else that takes our fancy.

Travel this year for Big Swifty included a very damp and windy time in NW Scotland solo poetry tour/ cycle camping, and a week in Denmark with Tom.  As a family we spent a fairly disastrous, wet and windy few days in the Cotswolds (with Families with Diabetes), followed later in the spring by a cold, wet and windy week on our own, camping in Devon, which at least ended well as we managed to catch some relatives on the way home.   We fully banished the damp cold ghosts of the far west in September, with a fantastic trip to the east, to the warm and sunny Netherlands. We stayed with friends in the historic town of Alkmaar, and shared a fabulous central apartment above a toy shop and children’s bookshop, next to a Flemish chip shop, and just round the corner from a chocolate cafe!

Big Swifty's been working for Colchester Travel Plan Club, with enough subscriptions coming in, and funding awards won, to keep the show on the road. And the spoken-word stand-up “Fred Slattern, Colchester’s Slum Poet”, has gone well with a wide range of gigs, including one in the Scottish highlands, where Fred claims that “I’m a legend in Gairloch”.

Our voluntary work continues with leading a local support group for parents of children with Type 1 Diabetes “Colchester Circle-D”.   We now have about 60 members, including adults with Type 1 in the group as well. A highlight was our appearance in the Colchester Carnival, where about 10,000 people saw our message. Our fundraising for JDRF, through Planet Frank , has gone well. We were also played a small part in Walk Colchester’s “Jane’s Walk” festival, appearing at some events at Colchester Slack Space arts venue, taking part in Colchester Street Festival (where Fred read a mercifully short poem to the Mayor), and in the Kidstival at Colchester Free Festival.

So, between all this lovely fun, education, caring, work and homemaking, and the number of hours there are in a year, there has been little training for the Olympics. I've cycled only 1400 miles this year, 1300 of them into a headwind and uphill, I believe.

And next year?  We have plans for the house and garden to help us be more self-sufficient; we made a good start this autumn, with a chainsaw, new shed and wood burning stove. All limbs still present, but eyebrows burnt off. And now we're thinking about what else we'll do next year, as I haven't had the call from the Olympics selectors. Whatever we do, and wherever we go, we try to enjoy the ride.

at Facebook      “andrew stanley budd”     “fred slattern”   "colchester circle d”

Monday, 5 September 2011

Holland not coming our way, any day soon.

“There are two possibilities – either to change the way we build our cities, which is a very far-reaching kind of project, or else we make up for their deficiencies by looking at them in a different way.”
August Endell was a painter and architect, who wrote “The Beauty of the Big City”, about Berlin in the 1920s. And here we are, Colchester awarded "Cycle Town" status and funding by the Department for Transport from 2008. And what are we doing? We're planning for Colchester in 2020.

Cycle Colchester project is a partnership between the local authorities (Essex and Colchester Councils) and the voluntary sector (such as the local Cycle Campaign, Sustrans, CTC). The Colchester project continues, even though the current government decided not to continue their financial support for the cycle town concept. Maybe this is because the govenment thinks the idea doesn't work, maybe because the idea is associated with the labour government, or maybe it's just a money saver.
There have recently been some observations in the local paper, that, following all this investment,  we have not yet created Dutch infrastructure in Colchester. Ah yes, Holland, that heaven on earth where people can cycle from everywhere to everywhere else, in complete safety, happy and smiling all the time. Here’s an inspirational link from Copenhagen http://youtu.be/RCDV-7QWt6Q showing it is entirely possible to create places where many people choose to cycle.

There are some people in Colchester who will say that Colchester is too hilly, too wet, too hot or too cold for cycling, despite there being plenty of places that have much more adverse conditions, and much more cycling. There are others who say “it’s too dangerous, and I won’t cycle until I can get from my home to —– (insert your destination here), until there is a dedicated off-road cyclepath from door to door”. Well the path ain’t going to happen sometime soon, and probably never will.

It’s back to Wendell, and how we respond to our city as it is; lovely but imperfect. I suggest that very many journeys in Colchester (and many other UK towns) can NOW be made by bike, with relatively good ease and safety, if we are prepared to give it a go. If people want to make that change from HABITUAL car use, and use their bike for SOME of the journeys, for many of us, we CAN do it. There is plenty of information out there about equipment and training, and lots of information about cycle routes.

When we look at the Danes in the video link, remember that the Danes have HIGHER car ownership than we do, it’s just that they don’t choose to use the car for ALL trips. (I have cycled in their smaller, Colchester scale, cities – Aarhus, Aalborg and Odense – and it’s not just a Copenhagen thing.)

OK, we don’t have a full network in Colchester of dedicated cycle routes for all possible trips, but we do have hundreds of miles of quiet roads that are safe to use by bike, and some very useful links through green spaces. We can wait until the perfect path is provided, but I suggest we, as a community, should be getting the benefits of cycling now.

We need more people, using bikes for more kinds of journeys, more of the time. Cycle Colchester isn’t just about “them”, the authorities; it’s also about “us”, the members of our community, and what WE do.

So will we be wagging our fingers at the authorities for not providing heaven on earth? Or will we look at ourselves, and what we can do to help increase cycling levels?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Today, we lied to our five-year old

Today, we lied to our five-year old boy. He said to Julie "can I die from being diabetes?", and she said "no".

We love his incessant questions, as he tries to figure out the world around him; and we always try to give him straightforward truthful answers. So why did we lie to him?

Frankly, Frank has enough on his plate, dealing with the disease, receiving dozens of pin pricks every day in our pursuit of blood samples for testing. Having new plumbing every two or three days, to link his insulin pump to the fat in his buttocks. Hearing endless discussion every day about his meter numbers, and what we do next in our attempt to keep his blood sugars close to the normal range. Listening to us going on about carb contents of his next meal, and having it all again as we decide how much to take off for the bits he hasn't eaten. Pulling him up, and holding him still, to try to assess how he's feeling, and allowing us to pump insulin into his body.

He needs to grow, and to sleep, like any other kid. He doesn't need to lay awake at night, worrying about how good is the quality of his care, and wondering if it may all be in vain. He should be able to enjoy the sleep of the innocent; tired from the day's physical activities.

Concern about his sudden or long-term death shouldn't be necessary for a little kid, that's the parents' job. A job we'd rather not have, but that's what we've been dealt. Our task isn't just his physical health, we need to consider his mental development too, and we try hard to get the psychology right. (But of course we sometimes slip up....) So we focus on the great life we have together, and try to be matter of fact about the many episodes in the day that are dictated by diabetes management.

So, yes, we're happy to be liars on top of carers, if it shelters young Frank from the harsh realities of his condition. And when he's older we'll review our stance on the "will I die of diabetes?" question.

PS: WE ARE very grateful for the opportunity we have to look after him, and for the medical care that's available. Best wishes to anyone who is dealing with a chronic condition - we know quite a few of our followers are, and not just diabetics.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The pleasures and sorrows of work

"I like work, I can sit and watch it all day" said Jerome K Jerome. Yeah, but somebody's got to do it.

I was paying attention at school in a physics lesson when I learned that  "work = force x distance", and the careers advice I had was that if you can avoid real work, you'll earn more and have a comfier life.  Vincent Van Gogh may have celebrated the labouring classes, but he didn't actually do the physical work that he so admired in others, however splendidly he recorded it.

So what's all this got to do with Big Swifty? It has all been a bit frantic recently, hence my relative silence on here. My best paid job is very busy, and so is my second best paid job. But I've had a week's holiday in Denmark with my older son, so work got even further behind. Plus at home we've taken on far too much in the house and garden with our urban homesteading, and all the activities we have with the diabetes support group, stand-up spoken word, carnival float, fundraising and food and drink. Oh yes, "work is the curse of the drinking classes" said Oscar Wilde.

My second biggest earning job is working, on piece work, for the local authority, delivering information to households about the electoral register and about waste collection and re-cycling. A basic delivery job, with some admin and intelligence gathering on the round. A job that is useful, and that I understand, and is "task and finish", unlike many aspects of modern life. I find it satisfying, doing the job during the different seasons, observing the changes in nature. Most of the task is in suburbia, but I also cover a couple of sprawling rural parishes, with villages, hamlets and isolated houses.

At one of the latter I was greeted by the middle-aged resident with the suggestion "So they force you to deliver these cards on a bicycle?". "No", I explained, "I choose to use a bicycle; I like the fresh air and the exercise, and it's the most efficient way to do the job", me sounding like the pompous bicycle nerd that I am. He responded with "What's on these cards anyway?" I explained about the new rubbish collection arrangements, and was given a look that suggested he felt that my job was the most degrading and demeaning task imaginable. "Well that's a waste of time and effort, sending you out here to do this" he said. Clearly he didn't value the task.

It got me thinking about "the pleasures and sorrows of work", which is also the title of a recent volume of the philosophy of Alain de Botton. It makes me laugh, to think of skinny pasty Alain, being an authority on work; I imagine his delicate hands would be ripped to shreds by a day on a shovel. I love my delivery job, and feel sorry that some people are unable to acknowledge the pleasure in such a task. Most other people I met seemed to enjoy my quick visit, as I gave service with a smile and a happy heart.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Bike Racing Part 2 - some new heroes, Phil Southerland and Tony Cervati

For information about my fabulous career as a racing cyclist, see my previous blog. As an update, I had walked away from the sport, feigning no interest, but still keeping an eye on what's happening. And slowly, the riders that were doping were getting caught, and in the case of one of my favourites, Bjarne Riis, (Tour de France "TdF" winner in 1996) he decided to confess his many years of EPO use. So when the likes of Lance Armstrong give us the "most tested athletes in history and never failed a test " spiel, forgive me when I cough.

And along came our then two-years old son's diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes, and our personal introduction to the world of shooting up with hormones just to keep him alive, the cyclists disgusted me even more with their doping choices. On the other hand, our handiness with the needles gave me an insight into how humans can quickly get used to abhorrent practices with a bit of practice.

Yet, despite it all, I still loved the traditions of the TdF, the supreme efforts and achievements of the riders, the beauty of the scenery and of the peloton. And even if they were doping, they were still incredibly fit strong people, wrestling with machines that don't ride themselves round the two thousand mile course, climbing over many thousands of feet in the Alps and Pyrenees.

Some of the bike riders have now broken the omerta (an agreement not to talk about drug taking), and the authorities seem more keen to act, and the sport is pulling me back. The TdF starts tomorrow, and I'm keener than I have been for many years.

Plus there are some very positive forces out there, and I'm going to mention just two. First up, Phil Southerland, the leader of the "Type 1" cycle racing team, who have steadily risen up the pro rankings, with some splendid results in the wake of Phil's leadership. The team are not all T1D, but they wave the flag for the condition, and show that it is possible to exert yourself to the extreme as a pro bike rider, and succesfully manage T1D, at the same time.

And there's Tony Cervati, from http://www.type1rider.org/, who had the ambitious plan of the extreme Tour Divide ride, riding for himself as a T1D, and all the diabetes community. Unfortunately he met a bear on the road fairly early in his mammoth ride, shot into a ravine, got flushed downstream by icy water, dragged himself out, hitched a lift, and got taken to the hospital.

Guys like these, and the clean riders speaking out in the peloton, have given me back my love of the sport. And no, despite their inspirational stories, you won't catch me back in my lycra gear, it's a wonderful material, but it can only stretch so far.......

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bike Racing Part 1 - the palmares of an also-ran, who fell out of love with the sport

Bike racing and I go back many years. As a 16 yr old schoolboy in the very early 70's I remember the excitement of visiting the Skol 6 Day indoor track racing at Wembley. The thrills and spills on the steeply banked boards. Blood, sweat and gears.

It wasn't until I reached my mid thirties that I thought about myself taking part in bike racing. I had always enjoyed bike rides, indeed one day when I was about 20 I cycled to my nan's house, from Colchester to Grayshott, over 100 miles. Approaching 40 I was aware that my fitness was poor, so I dusted-down and oiled-up my fabulous old lightweight racing bike, and put some miles in, and then some more miles, and then a bit more on top of that . Steadily I improved my fitness and lost weight. Compared with most people I met on the road I was fast and furious, so I paired up with my friend Paul Mason for chain-gang rides under the banner "Racing Team Last". I decided to join the local bike racing club Colchester Rovers to see how quick I had become.

First lesson from competitive sport. Not very fast at all. But I persevered, and eventually became barely adequate. Although I wasn't going to climb high in the club rankings, my efforts were recognised and I won an award for "most trying cyclist", which I think was a compliment. I became very fit, felt full of vitality, and developed a resting pulse in the low thirties. If I had gone to the Doctor with that, I would have been pronounced dead.

As a spectator I followed the sport, mainly at local and sometimes at national and international events. I didn't get much opportunity to travel at the time, but remember a trip where I cycled in the Alps, uphill for 13 consecutive miles, and I felt good as I crested the top. Coming down was good too, as dusk fell, and I got warmth from an old newspaper that I stuffed up my jumper, just like the pros!

I became obsessed with the Tour de France, overlooking the doping aspect of the sport as I swallowed the propaganda that these were highly tested and honourable athletes. Somewhere along the way I fell out of love with the sport. My private life was going through big changes and I realised I couldn't keep cycling off into the distance. Also, scandals like the Festina affair broke, suggesting that many of my heroes were doping cheats. I became involved with anti-doping organisations and individuals, and pursued some stories about doping as a freelance writer. I did a one-man demonstration against the cheats, when the Tour de France started in London. (pic above) I got some national media coverage, but I don't think the sport was listening to me.

I got to know a lot about the darker side of bicycle racing, and the sport and I went adrift. I despised many aspects of the drug takers, looking at the morals, ethics, and health issues. I felt great sympathy for the riders that were trying to ride clean.  It seemed that no one wanted to face up to the truth - the sport authorities, the riders, the sponsors, the media, and the fans. So I turned my back on the sport, and no one missed me, with my modest plamares of some mediocre time trials and "most trying loser" trophy. 

I was still riding mainly locally, but also for fun Land's End to John o'Groats, and another trip of 500 miles of Scotland coast to coast including the Corrieyairick Pass off road in the Scottish Highlands. Plus I was still using the bicycle for transport, but utility cycling is another story. So that's my glorious cycle sport career, an interest that had faded away ... but the embers never quite went out. For Bike racing Part 2  I'll cover what has changed, why it's back in my life, and some new heroes.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Fred Slattern's "Message from Essex" in haiku

Here's Fred's poster, to be found in bus shelters and cafes in the Scottish Highlands.

And here are Fred's experiences, in haiku.

rain wind rain wind rain
cape wrath inaccessible
gairloch inn haven

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Fred Slattern goes down a storm in Scotland.

So how did Fred Slattern's bid to become Britain's most north-west poet unfold? With visions of warm dry May days, the travel schedule for trains to the north, and cycle camping itineraries were planned. For Fred, a string of potential venues was identified, to coincide with the cycle camping trip. Train tickets were bought, and inns and cafes were approached, with a "too-good-to-miss" offer of a short set of Essex oddity.

For Fred realises he's not in the running for Britain's finest poet, but one attainable title he fancied was to become Britain's most north-west poet, by appearing at the Ozone Cafe in the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. It's the top left corner of Great Britain, a place that is a foot-ferry ride and a further eleven miles from a public road.

The journey started at 05:40 on the Peterborough train. Next change Edinburgh, then the third train, to Inverness in the Scottish highlands. The second day was spent travelling towards the west coast, where I get off the train at Achnasheen, and immediately needed my wet weather top and cycle boots, the latter working as sponges after five minutes. (I persisted for three more days, before abandoning the boots, but I suspect they may be walking home from their own efforts, as a new life-form could have developed in their warm damp shell.) The anticipated gentle 35 mile ride downhill to Plockton was a battle against the elements, with an intense head wind blasting up the valley from the coast, as well as heavy rain; I even had to pedal downhill.

At Plockton I met some old friends, and was looking forward to Fred's first gig of the tour. The Plockton Inn provided fine food and local real ale, adding weight to my theory that the best pubs have the worst views, but make up for it in other ways. It was very popular with the locals, who were well-oiled and raucous. Fred was to negotiate for a poetry slot with the traditional music band who arrived at 9pm, but the three-piece of unamplified traditional instruments struggled to be heard against the hubbub of the pub. Fred elected not to attempt his spoken word set, lacking a powerful enough voice of his own, or a microphone. Camping overnight, the rain lashed down on the dry-inside tent.

The next day was Friday the 13th, and I hoped that the wind would work more with me, and the rain would have blown over, following the buffeting overnight. Catching the midday train back to Achnasheen, I headed north, into another head wind and rainy day, getting to Gairloch, where Fred was booked for a slot that evening at The Old Inn. Unbeknown to me, the landlady had arranged for Fred to be interviewed by the local radio station, about his quest, and his "message from Essex", but they had gone ten minutes before I arrived. The Old Inn hosts treated him well, offering him hospitality, where he had the best meal of the trip, before slipping into the main bar where singer songwriter guitarist Dave Fleming was playing that evening. I much enjoyed Dave's material and playing style, but Fred took the opportunity to perform a set, which went very well.

The audience didn't know what to expect from this Slattern "poet" but seemed well entertained and enjoying it, as Fred snarled his various ditties about topics such as the highland clearances and his pal Steve Ball. A hearty round of applause was given, as Dave said, "well we've had some different talents call in here over the years, but we've never heard anything like that before" (in a good way, I think). A very memorable night for Fred, and his audience of around seventy Scots, English and assorted Dutch people from the Netherlands Volvo Owners' Club.

The late show meant that I didn't get enough miles in that day, eventually doing about forty by the time I put up the tent in the dark, wind and rain, in the hills north of Gairloch. No point blaming the weather; those damp heavy clouds had come a long way across the sea, and were desperate to dump their load on the first bit of high land on their journey east.

The next day had the longest mileage in the schedule, and I was several miles short already, so I got up and away by 06:15. Another morning of tough cycling over rough topography in bad weather, before I managed to hitch-bike to Ullapool, and catch up on my schedule. Many thanks are owed to the Australian couple who picked me up in their camper van and took me twenty miles. I had previously offered Fred for a slot at the Ceilidh Place at lunchtime, and spoke with the duty person, but it didn't happen, as people were quietly enjoying a very peaceful cafe. There's a time and place for poetry, and for tea and cake, and sometimes they don't coincide.

Leaving Ullapool in more wind and rain, I headed north to Lochinver by a side road. Still very blustery, but at last the sun came out some of the time, and the camera (picture above). This was an EXTREMELY hilly route, with warning signs to motorists. When back home I read about this route in Harry Henniker's book "101 bike routes in Scotland", saying "Loch Bad a Ghaill to Lochinver - there is barely a yeard of flat, you should allow at least two hours for the twelve miles". With my portly personage, loaded bike, and lack of fitness, it took me longer. Plus I had already cycled 50 miles that day. 

I arrived in Lochinver having ridden 62 miles  since leaving Gairloch twelve hours earlier that morning, and was too tired to go out and eat that evening. Watching TV in the B&B, the weather forecast for the next five days was continuous wind and rain. I was feeling a bit tired and emotional, and phoned home, where things had been difficult without me there to help manage Frank and his diabetes. So I decided to jack it in, as the schedule for the next few days was tough enough, without the extra effort against strong rain and headwind. I was here to enjoy myself, and the constant rain was cutting into the fun element of the trip, making me wet, and robbing me of the fine views that I had seen only on the internet before the visit.

I decided to hop on a train and go home, after all Fred had no more firm bookings, just some possibilities. Heading east, for the first time I had a backwind, and I as I left the far north-west the weather improved. Chatting to people I met on the road I found that Cape Wrath was inaccessible, as the foot ferry was not running, with the sea too choppy. It was mildly pleasing to know that I wouldn't have made it, even if I had kept going into the wind and the rain. I rode 42 miles on the last cycling day, from the west coast to the east coast, Lochinver to Ardgay near Bonar Bridge. Finding a B&B for the night, I caught the 06:15 Ardgay to Inverness, and then five more trains, changing at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Peterborough, getting back to Colchester at 21.45. It started to rain as I cycled home from the station........ Never mind - I had over 180 miles of cycling under my waterlogged belt, and many thousands of feet climbing up hills, in a spectacular and very empty corner of Britain.

I record these cycling and camping efforts, but am certainly not seeking any sympathy; I am, after all, a voluntary patient. Compared with my normal life looking after a young child with diabetes, the cycling trip was easy. I slept well, exercised in the fresh air, and away from the 24/7 caring job we usually have. Plus I was warm and dry in my tent. The Cape Wrath "I hate diabetes" escape ride was a super break. And I'll be back, but next time with the family, in our van.

And Fred's a legend in Gairloch, only possibly Britain's most north-west live poet that evening.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Fred Slattern getting ready to be Britain's most north-west poet

Fred Slattern/ Big Swifty set off for the far north-west on Wednesday's 05:40 to Plockton on the west coast of Scotland, from Colchester, changing at Peterborough, Edinburgh and Inverness. It's a "poetry and escape from diabetes tour", by bicycle and camping in my tiny tent, pedalling about 300 miles to the top left corner of Great Britain, at Cape Wrath. It's for entertainment, and hopefully a bit of awareness and fund raising for Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF).

I'm sure Fred will be very popular in the Ross and Cromarty area, and that his Essex and USA fans will be gutted to miss his "message from essex" set, in person at various pubs, cafes and music venues in n/w Scotland. For those Colchester peeps that can't be bothered to travel 736 miles to see Fred at Cape Wrath Ozone Cafe, I suggest you go to www.justgiving.com/planetfrank and donate some of the money you saved by not supporting me.

For the many Fred fans that are travelling to the far north, here's the link to the gigs: http://andrewbudd.blogspot.com/p/fred-slattern-colchesters-slum-poet.html 

So how is the preparation going? Now this is a bit worrying, as I've been a bit busy and haven't ridden much, excpet the usual short local trips. The 300 mile cycle ride may look like an idyllic journey along the Scottish coast through a beautiful romantic landscape, but I reckon only about twenty miles will be flat. There will also be 140 miles slogging uphill, and 140 rolling downhill. The coast road does not follow the coast; indeed at one point I'm 1200 feet up. And with a heavily loaded bike, and an overweight rider.....

I have had a preparatory ride to test my newly kitted out, old-junk bike. I rode home from a work trip at Chelmsford to Colchester, twenty-five miles with a headwind, and it took nearly forever. And don't give me that "Essex is flat" rubbish.The route included Wickham Bishops hill, from 8 metres above sea level, to the top at 89 metres. The randomly passing ambulance had oxygen on board.

So this is my last posting for a few days, adventure beckons for Colchester's slum poet.
(Set list includes: "Had James Dean lived, would he have shopped in Waitrose?", "House clearances", "I love the smell of insulin in the morning", and "Steve Ball - a love affair through Facebook".)

Bear baiting, Jane's Walking and Colchester

You think you know where you live? Think again! I've lived in Colchester for over forty years, yet last Saturday I went down a town centre street that I had never before visited. And what a story it has to tell.

So what has been happening? Walk Colchester http://www.walkcolchester.org.uk/ is a local organisation promoting the cause of pedestrianism. The group has been around for about a year, and their first big task was the development of a community mapping site. The next big project was to place itself amongst the international community of "walking as transport" advocates. And later this year Walk Colchester are promoting a series of practical projects to make the town more walking friendly.

Last weekend was Jane's Walk weekend, where there have been a series of local walks led by local people, celebrating the legacy of Jane Jacobs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Jacobs . Colchester was the first town in the UK to take part in this international festival. Eleven exciting walks and events were set up, the publicity machine was set rolling, the sun shone, and the crowds turned up.

Frank and I attended "Professor Charles Young's Quest to Unlock the Secrets of Colchester", for young urban detectives. Frank loved it, wearing his binoculars and following the clues. Well done Neil Jones and Jo Coldwell, acting out the Professor's and Inspector's roles, and to the kids too, for following all the clues round town, and cracking the secret code.

And what's the story behind the uninspiring looking place, in the photo at the top of the page? It's Arthur Street (a road, not a person), and Dorian Kelly, standing on a red stool, is getting near the end of a fascinating tour of the "Theatres and Lost Theatres of Colchester". Now I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Colchester and its history, and I thought Dorian might have  maybe a dozen places to show us or talk about. And he came up with over thirty locations, varying from Roman amphitheatres, to halls used for AmDram, to old music halls, to flea-pit cinemas, to professional theatres.

The photo is the location of Colchester's Bear and Bull-Baiting Ring, identified from a medieval map of Colchester. Looking back eight hundred years, not many bears were baited, as they were rare expensive items, but plenty of cattle had suffered on this spot. The tradition continued for centuries, with a slaughterhouse very nearby. Indeed this was the last surviving abattoir in the town centre, until closure a few years ago. However the meat tradition continues to this day, with the long established butchers "Allen's" in adjacent St Botolph's Street.

And from these facts, we move into speculation. Why were animals baited at this location? Maybe this was where the Romans had their amphitheatre (Camulodonum must have had one somewhere, but where exactly?), and the medieval people took over the ruined oval shape for their activities? And what happened after it was a bull ring? The town must have had an Elizabethan theatre, but no site has been identified. Think of Shakespeare's "The Rose" or "The Globe" theatres on London's southbank. Maybe a theatre became the next tenants of the circular arena of the killing floor, on waste land just outside the town walls?

What we see now are the remnants of some Victorian housing, and a big shed now being used by Emmaus, the charity that helps tackle poverty and homelessness, and helps recycle old furniture. All trace above ground of the bull ring has gone, but the disused slaughterhouse remains, and Allen's trade on, with 800 years of meat history under the fingernails of this corner of town.

And you thought walking was just about putting one foot in front of the other? Love your neighbourhood, join Walk Colchester now, and strut out for Jane's Walk next year.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Politicians rubbing our noses in their dirty work.

"I think our councillors are good people doing a good job". There, I've said it. But what is the public's opinion?

Chatting with people, and eavesdropping on private conversations, (don't get all moral high ground with me - I'm not Jonathon Ross leaving obscene messages on Andrew Sachs' answerphone) it is clear that many have a much lower opinion than I do, of the efforts of our local politicians.

Partly it's caused by expenses scandals, partly it's our media, partly it's a national malaise that we'd rather see bad in people. And partly it's down to the bickering between politicians, particularly now, in the silly season leading up to elections.

A good principle in life is to under-promise and over-deliver; then people are usually quite satisfied with one's performance. But of course the politician is put in an awkward position. Who will stand on a ticket of "my influence will be limited, as the authority's powers are weak, and their funds meagre"? And if they stood as an "honest appraisal of the situation, but I'll do what I can" candidate, would they get elected? (Even under an AV system?)

Over many years I have got to know dozens of local politicians, some quite well, and I would say that most of them are good people who want to do their best to serve their community. They work hard with the local people and businesses, showing tact and patience, have barrow loads of case work, put in endless hours at public and private meetings, and are rewarded with reasonable expenses, some allowances, and very little glory. Yet so many people have nothing but contempt for the councillors' efforts.

And now it's the run-in to the local elections. And what do we receive from the political parties? A load of messages from new people seeking election, describing what the current incumbents have failed to achieve, even if the issue is not the responsibility of that authority, out of their control or influence, and regardless of central government regulations and any budgetary restraints. And to counter that, those currently elected are claiming the glory for things that have been provided by others, and would have happened anyway. And the current and prospective candidates are making promises to the electorate that they cannot possibly keep.

No wonder the public has so little faith in politicians to deliver. And I find it all very sad, as I am very fond of our democratic system, I admire those who dedicate their efforts to serve the public, and I appreciate all they are trying to do on our behalf. So why, why, why do you all make the elections such a turn-off, with all that silly posturing?

Monday, 18 April 2011

a letter to Great Britain's furthest address

In the days of the Royal Mail monopoly, in response to a challenge from alternative service providers, the RM always pointed out that they would deliver a letter anywhere in the UK for a single price. And today I have posted a letter to the most distant address from home, to Cape Wrath lighthouse. That's some kind of milestone in my life, as well as being a brown envelope with a stamp on it.

The lighthouse is at the extreme north west corner of the island of Great Britain. It is eleven miles from the nearest public road, and my letter will have to travel on a foot ferry to get onto their access track. There's no road name, or any houses, but the area is called "the Parph", a happy coincidence in that it is Essex language for "path".

I have written to the owners, the Ures, who also run a cafe at this remote spot, and explained to them about my quest for Fred Slattern to become Britain's most north-west poet. I sent them a Fred Slattern poster, as I'm sure the people of Sutherland will love to hear Fred's "message from essex". Their "Ozone Cafe" at the lighthouse never closes, not that they get much passing trade, being at the end of an isolated cul-de-sac with a 600 foot drop to the sea, ten yards further on.

Fred will be there for lunch and a recital at lunchtime on 16 May. I'm sure his many followers will drop in to say hi. And I'll give the Post Office a bit more time than the usual next-day delivery for first class letters.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Wilderness in the Essex countryside

What makes a wilderness? I have had the privilege last week to deliver poll cards for the 5 May elections, to all the properties in the Birch and Layer Breton polling district. It's an area I know well, only a few miles from home, and all the lanes and rights of way are familiar, from years nerdily poring over maps and exploring on foot and by bike. Some gently rolling countryside, mainly farmland, but some woodland and heath, and cut through by the beautiful Roman River valley. There are hundreds of homes in the area, mainly at the conjoined villages of Birch and Layer Breton, but also the smaller hamlets like Hardy's Green, and even smaller settlements like Craxe's Green, Porter's Green and Birch Park, places probably unknown to most Colcestrians living only five miles away.

The picture above is on a route between Glenelg and Kinlochhourn,(on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands) taken from a point four miles from the nearest road. Yet anyone sitting down on that route would sooner or later meet another person passing by, maybe in twenty minutes, maybe in an hour or more. However, in the Essex countryside one often meets - nobody.

The weather has been fabulous, warm and sunny, a bit breezy, but lovely for early April. Surely there would be lots of people about? On my serpentine path through the countryside around the main village I rarely saw another human being, and certainly no one to speak with. Most of the remote houses and farms appeared uninhabited, and there was no one else walking or cycling along the minor roads. There would be the occasional passing car, but no acknowledgment of a fellow human-being sharing a beautiful day, surrounded by nature.

In the distance I observed some tractors, working the soil on their own, and I remembered reading about the isolation and high suicide rate of farm workers. I saw a few postvans, but again it's all terribly rushed, as the miles have to be eaten up so quickly. There's no time for bicycle delivery; it's only efficient if, like me, you are only delivering cards, and to almost every house in every lane. (A few villagers had chosen not to register to vote.)

Of course I didn't expect to see a French Breton onion seller (with stripy jumper and strings of onions over the handlebars) in Layer Breton. But I did expect to see a bit more rural life, people living the dream/fantasy of self-sufficiency, simple lives outdoors, physically working the land by their own efforts. Trying to convert the natural wilderness of Essex heathlands into a vegetable garden.

I did my bit for the democratic process out in the sticks, and returned to suburbia, to the roar of the first grasscutting of spring. At last, a sign of life, even if the end product is manicured lawns rather than a basket of vegetables.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

I've been to Jimmy Page's house

It has been my pleasure, for the last few days, to be paid to do my hobby. Usually it's part of my job to talk about walking, but this time I was paid to actually do it. Not only do I get some exercise, but it's also something useful - I am delivering poll cards for the local elections on May 5th. I have been working on a large housing estate in the suburbs, and in some rural villages and hamlets in the countryside, both pleasant places to crunch the gravel on their drives. OK, it's only around minimum wage, but the compensation is lots of movement, sun and fresh air, plus I get to see the homes of famous people.

Yes, I've been delivering to dozens of well known names, including Oliver Read (needs no introduction), Paul Lambert (Celtic and Scotland footballer, and now Norwich manager), Shirley Williams and Margaret Hodge (politicians), Ian Brown, Mark Smith and Jimmy Page (musicians), Lynne Davies (Welsh athlete), Steve Ball (ex-Colchester United footballer), Russell Grant (TV personality and astrologer), and many more famous names I can't remember. (Yes, I know the spellings aren't all quite like we would expect, but I guess they are trying to preserve their privacy.)

As far as I know, the poll cards I've delivered are to "Not Famous" people, just people with famous names. I remember a guy I worked with around 1980; he was a Site Engineer called Simon le Bon. It was an unusual name, that I'm sure he had to spell out for others several times a week. Then along come Duran Duran, and Simon didn't have to spell it out any more, but he had to suffer the same old "not the actual Simon le Bon" conversations every time he met someone new. 

Sorry that this post is a bit of a celebration of celebrity culture, even if it's the "Not Famous" people that I'm celebrating.

But one of these "Not Famous" people really was the famous one, and here's the evidence. Peeping through Jimmy Page's letter box, I could see a "whole lotta gloves".

Sunday, 20 March 2011

"Doing the right thing" - what now for nuclear power?

I like David Cameron's adopted phrase "doing the right thing". And as we think about our country's energy demands, and how we should provide power in the next 30 years, how does nuclear power fit in?

I attended a very moving event yesterday at Slackspace, where the local arts community had put on a day long event to raise cash for the Red Cross in Japan, and awareness about events beyond the clips on "You Tube". The Japanese Society from the University of Essex were there, sharing reports from their homeland, and their leader made a very moving speech about how the Japanese retain hope amidst all the destruction, and that the support from all round the world has helped.

As he spoke he became more impassioned, with talk about "we will never surrender" and "never give up", the overload of images and cultural references frazzled my brain, and the multi-connected synapses sought something more familiar, with a hybrid of Ian Paisley and Galaxy Quest popping up in my mind.

Fred Slattern did a bit of spoken word busking in town, and a set at Slackspace to a mainly rock and roll audience of about 150, which went OK. I think the one about Caravan Man Steve Ball was the best received...

Anyway, back to nuclear power. My first reaction to the failure of the power station at Fukushima was "how could this happen?". Yes, it was a very big earthquake and tsunami, but surely foreseeable within the life of the power station, and to be designed for. It looked like major contamination was inevitable, but at the time of writing this, it looks like the worst case scenario has been avoided.

So how do we respond in the UK to this latest example of the nuclear power industry to appear unable to deal with the monster under its guard? After all, this was a Japanese plant, with the benefit of their wealth, advanced technology, attention to detail and manufacturing skills, and surely designed to deal with the conditions expected in their country? And talking about "doing the right thing", our thoughts were with the devoted nuclear industry employees and retired workers  who were battling with the reactors, in their attempts to regain stability at  the plant. My view is that if the Japanese can't manage nuclear power, then nobody can.

So we need to produce more energy in the UK? Will it be coal fired, or nuclear, or "green"? If the government is to make a tough decision and "do the right thing", can we countenance more nuclear power? Or do we accept the environmental downside and expense of coal fired or green schemes? Looking at the legacy we pass on to the next generations, I've never been happy with nuclear power.

But it's too easy for us, the public, to leave the decision to the government, expecting "them" to "do the right thing". What will WE do? And there's the rub - we don't need the extra power stations, if we, the public, were prepared to reduce our demand. It's not just about us having to live in cooler homes, and wear more baggy pullovers (like wot I do). Our lifestyles and consumerism are built around excessive energy demands (yes, including mine), and our society does not seem prepared to rein it in.

Back to last night's event. After the report from the Japanese Society, we were all invited to step forward and join in a sing-along led by the Japanese. It was "sukiyaki", a tune I recognised; and to help us with the singing they had the Japanese words, in anglicised spelling, rolling through on a screen. Very moving, and a rather bizarre taste of Japan for someone whose only direct experience of Japan was a few meals at the Tokyo Diner round the back of Leicester Square. I may never have been further east than Helsinki, but I have watched Leyton Orient a few times.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Fred Slattern, Colchester's slum poet, gives us an exclusive interview.

Fred Slattern's interludes at the Colchester Big Book Bang were a Triumph. And not in a broken-down rust-bucket 1960s-British-car kind of way. Big Swifty caught up with Fred this morning to hear about where Fred has come from, and places to avoid if we never want to hear him again. Here's what he had to say for himself:

Big Swifty: Why did you take up live poetry?

Fred Slattern: Well I can't play an instrument, or sing, and I can't act. Besides I'd be worried about letting the others down if I was in a group activity. With live poetry it's just you, on your own, exposed.

BS: Are you a bit of an exhibitionist then?

FS: Far from it. I just set myself the challenge coming up to Colchester Free festival last September. I was happy to be a litter-picker, but I thought I'd like to do something creative too. And as "I can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin" (BS note - it's a quote from "Oh Well", a Peter Green/ Fleetwood Mac song) nobody would have me on their stage, so I decided to create my own. So Fred Slattern was born from a sort of bet with myself regarding the least likely thing I'd ever do, and it was delivered at a busk stop by Colchester Castle at the Free Festival.

BS: How did it go, were you nervous?

FS: I had no idea what to expect. I put together about 15 minutes of material, and half expected just to be ranting at myself, with people walking by, trying to avoid me. But, to my surprise a small crowd gathered, and they were quite encouraging. And, no I wasn't nervous, I had nothing to lose, and I had won my bet with myself that I would actually do it. Besides, doing stand up poetry in the park is easy, compared with the task that occupies a large proportion of my life, looking after a child with Type 1 Diabetes.

BS: What's your stuff about?

FS: The act is from the point of view of a regular guy from the suburbs, commenting on what he sees. I am entirely self-taught, as anyone can tell that has seen me, and I would say I am the leader of my own "I saw this, and I saw that" school of poetry.  Terms like "untutored", "naive", "primitive" and "self-educated" are sometimes used in a derogatory sense, but I don't accept that viewpoint. People can have something to say, without having studied classics at Oxbridge. As for content, I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in absolutely everything, so ideas for pieces of writing are always cropping up.

BS: What about influences?

FS: I try not to follow any particular people, as I don't want my pieces to consciously be derivative. But I have read lots of things over the years, and you can't help absorbing something from them at some level. One of my earliest memories of live poetry was attending a gig by Grimms at Essex Uni around 1972, and Brian Patten was with them. It made me realise there is such a thing as contemporary poetry, and that poetry didn't stop with posh people reading poets like Wordsworth and Shelley. People have permission to shoot me if I ever use words like "thee, thou art or thine" in my material.

I like popular poets like Betjeman, Larkin and Owen. And people like Alan Bennett, Ivor Cutler and Victoria Wood with their observations of ordinary life are very appealing. And of course song  lyrics have been a big interest; I particularly admire Chuck Berry's lyrics, Bob Dylan, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the wordplay of Captain Beefheart. I adore accents and dialects! I listen to and read some contemporary poetry, in amongst many other interests.

BS: So we're not likely to improve our vocabulary from your show?

FS: That's right! I'm not here to educate, it's just entertainment. And if I have a particular niche it would to celebrate Colchester's people and the town, generally in a positive way, with maybe a little dig at ourselves now and then. I am fascinated by local history and the landscape we have inherited. I love the fact that my own little patch of suburbia was walked over by the Celts and the Romans two thousand years ago. So many stories from the past and the present, are there to be told.

BS: What about publication?

FS: The pieces are not intended to be read by others. They are merely the script for a live reading. If I was asking you round for a meal, I wouldn't give you the recipe, I'd give you the food. Much as I enjoy going to the theatre, I generally wouldn't get far with reading the script of a play. So, for me, it's Fred live, or nothing!

BS: What are your plans?

FS: The way my readings have been received has given me the confidence to try something outrageously ambitious. I am going to north west Scotland in May, catching a train to the west coast at Plockton, and cycle camping 300 miles to Lairg, via Cape Wrath, Great Britain's very remote north west corner. At stops along the way I am giving short shows, mainly for fun, but also to raise awareness of Type 1 Diabetes. It's an event as part of a fundraising year for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund). The poetry tour will be titled "message from essex".

BS: I look forward to hearing about the "message from essex" tour, and hope it goes well. Can I give you a plug for your fundraising?

FS: Thank you very much. Here it is - http://andrewbudd.blogspot.com/p/planetfrank-fundraising-for-jdrf.html and that includes a link to www.justgiving.com/planetfrank And please join me on facebook "fred slattern", the person!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

If we're a nation of shopkeepers, how come I've ended up as a pharmacist?

When people chat with me about diabetes, usually those who have about 45 minutes to spare, they are drawn to the blood and gore end of the diabetes management spectrum. My friends, or anyone prepared to listen, are fascinated by the concept that we administer thousands of injections and finger-prick blood tests. But what they don't realise is that the Chief Executive of Frank's Pancreas's job includes a heck of a lot of supplies, logistics and paperwork.

Anyone who has young kids knows that feeling when you set off for a shopping trip fully loaded with nappies, wipes, spare clothes in the event of "accidents", a buggy, rain covers, warmer coats, waterproofs, colouring book and pens, cuddly toy..... rendering one unable to get through shop doors or past displays, let alone buy anything else. And local shops wonder why we might consider shopping on line?

Add diabetes in the mix, and we have snacks, plus spare snacks and emergency supplies of high carb gel. And there's bottles of water to carry as they often have a strong thirst. Plus the blood testing kit, with spare testing strips and spare batteries, and two types of insulin, and the chunky log book, carbs guide pocket book, plus a stash of prickers and needles.

Of course, now Frank's got an insulin pump, this stuff is superfluous, right? No, wrong. We still need all that kit, to test his blood, and the old kit in the event of the new kit failing. So when we leave home, we have a full daypack rucksack for "justin case". And there's Frank above, travelling light with his insulin pump held in a Detroit Tigers pack.

If I sound grumpy, I should make it very clear that we are extremely grateful that Frank has access to all this treatment for his Type 1 Diabetes, although it's all a journey we hadn't planned taking. But if Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, how come I've ended up as a pharmacist? Now I know plenty of nerds to run music shops, games centres and sci-fi emporia, but I always assumed I would run a bookshop or a bakery if becoming a shopkeeper was made compulsory.

So welcome to Big Swifty's Pharmacy. We have prescriptions every couple of months for insulin, blood testing supplies and spare paraphernalia in case we need to revert to multiple daily injections. Then we have pump related supplies which are made in Mexico and China, from a California firm, distributed through Denmark and the Netherlands, but I speak to a man with a southern English accent, based who knows where? They get delivered by TNT, and we have to be in to receive them, or we have to go to Mexico to pick them up?

Add in the time ordering the "expendables" kit, follow up phone calls, picking up the prescription from the surgery, going to the pharmacy, going back 30 minutes later to pick up part of the order, and inevitably going back a couple of days later for another 45 minutes.

The online diabetes community has revealed to me one of the rules of the universe, alongside those of Newton and Einstein. It is this. There has never yet been a single case on planet earth that a diabetes patient has obtained a completely successful supply of essential materials in one smooth process. There is always something wrong, be it an incomplete prescription, insufficient stock at the chemist, or a hundred other potential pitfalls.

Plus there's the regular appointments and check-ups at Colchester Hospital with our fabulous paediatrics team, and the sessions at Addenbrooke's Cambridge with the regional diabetes specialists. Very many thanks to them all.

You can now see that having a condition is a full time job, and that's without the time actually dealing with the lovely little boy! So welcome to the life of a family in the diabetes community. Come and see our shelves stashed with supplies, and our fridge with insulin. And if you fancy a blood test or injection I have the experience to help you out. Form an orderly queue please. Tick this, and sign here, here, and here.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Not very "stormy monday blues"

All is peace at Budd Towers, but we're maybe sitting at the eye of a storm. It has been a Big Month for us all.

Foremost in our minds has been Frank's insulin pump. We have now had two training sessions at Addenbrooke's Hospital at Cambridge. During the first week we all took turns wearing the pump, pumping saline into ourselves, making me even more of a salty old dog. Last week we started pumping insulin into Frank, and it's going well, but we have lots to learn about the kit, and how to use it. The main reason for getting the pump is to help the three of us better manage Frank's blood sugar, thereby (we hope) avoiding complications later in life. From Frank's immediate point of view, he is so happy not to have four injections a day, especially the morning stinger (the slow acting Lantus insulin), although he has more fingerprick blood tests than before, has to wear the pump 24/7 and has to have a "site change" (new plumbing into his body) every three days. Right now we are "tweaking his basals", which means we are trying to establish what are the best background insulin levels to suit his body. We should be testing him every two hours, round the clock, to get more data on how his body is reacting. Hence we feel like a couple of knackered rusty old cars.

And another thing. I've been given a redundancy notice from my employer in respect of my main earner job. The money runs out on 31 March, unless some more comes in before then. At the Colchester2020 Travel Plan Club, we have a couple of bids for external funding, and some unpaid subs from the past, so the job might continue.........

Otherwise it's basking in the sun, sitting on the bench in Castle Park, supping Special Brew, which sounds a good option too. And if it's raining, I can sleep in T-Bone Walker's car.

Despite it all, we are calm. We will get by OK whatever happens. And there's always stuff on the horizon. There haven't been many blogs here recently, as we've been busy fundraising for the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund). There are several new pages on this blog - just click onto the tabs above.

And I'm very excited about my new adventure as a stand-up poet. My Fred Slattern act is hitting the road in May, touring the north-west Scottish Highlands by bicycle, and giving short recitals en route. Regular visitors to Big Swifty will be getting updates over the next few weeks. And join me on Facebook "Andrew Stanley Budd" and "Fred Slattern".

Sunday, 6 February 2011

"blues boy budd" sings "stones in my passway" on broom guitar

We're all a bit tired and emotional this week, at the Prettygate delta home of the blues. There's a big task coming up and we're anxious. The Blues Boy Budd is taking his parents to Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, next week, so they can learn how to install, use and maintain an insulin pump, which he will be wearing 24/7 for the forseeable future. It should help us achieve better blood sugar control, and maybe help us avoid the more extreme hypos and hypers that keep us awake at night............

Lots to learn, and new skills needed, but it will be worth it. And it's out of our current comfort zone of four injections a day. Sometimes the task seems so difficult, but we know we can do it. Right now we've got the stomach gripes, with apprehension. Sing up Blues Boy Budd:

"I got stones in my passway 
and my road seem dark as night
I have pains in my hearts
they have taken my appetite"
(Robert Johnson, "Stones in my Passway", recorded in the 1930s.)

Thanks everyone for supporting our planetfrank appeal for 2011, looking for a cure for this shitty disease.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Andrew is thinking about homosexuality

In autumn 2009 I visited Berlin with some friends. People asked what we were going to see and I mentioned Schwules Museum, partly because it was true, and partly because I liked to see their reaction. Schwules Museum is the world's first gay museum, opened in 1985, and the main display is "Self-Awareness and Endurance: 200 Years of Gay History". It depicts "the strategies, options and problems of homosexuals in seeking to live a self-determined life, find others and organise networks in the period from 1790 to 1990", and absolutely fascinating it is too.

People's reactions to the visit were interesting. Most people know me well enough, and are aware that the topic is one of my very many interests. Some looked very perplexed about why anyone would want to see that, and one said "I didn't know you are gay". Ho hum. All my adult life I've been quite interested in gay culture, noticing that many gay icons were in my own taste in art and music. Also, I've despised much of the macho straight culture, with those people fired up on booze, fast cars, violence and sexist attitudes.

So, for anyone out there sniggering at the topic of this post, get your "backs against the walls" comments off your chest, and don't flatter yourself that the gay man fancies you just because you're male.

And why have I brought up this topic today? A hero of mine, Graeme Obree, a world record holding cyclist, has today gone public that he's gay. I've followed his career, read his honest open autobiography "Flying Scotsman", and seen the film (and pretty good it was too). He has had a harrowing life, with problems of bullying as a child, enduring weak parenting, low self-esteem, bi-polarism, being an outcast of the cycle sport establishment, cheated by the dopers, close family bereavement, poverty, and attempted suicides.

I find the whole Obree gay story astonishing, and I hope he can now find some contentment in his life. He first admitted to himself that he was gay in 2005, aged 40. He blamed the repression on his upbringing in Ayrshire, where, Obree says, “I was brought up thinking you'd be better dead than gay. I must have known I was gay and it was so unacceptable. I was brought up by a war generation - they grew up when gay people were put in jail. Being homosexual was so unthinkable that you just wouldn't be gay. I'd no inkling about anything, I just closed down."

I look back on my own upbringing, and the attitudes of those around me, as Obree's comments didn't stack up at first. Obree's ten years younger than me, yet he's describing situations that I thought had passed ten or twenty years ago. But then not everyone is like me -  a Guardian reader fortunate to be surrounded by relatively tolerant people, for whom being gay is no big deal. And, for example, I have the sensibilities to be able to enjoy and be informed by Ricky Gervais challenging people's attitudes to homosexuality through his humour in "The Office" and "Extras". Many more much prefer the same old homophobic jokes.

Why am I cool about homosexuality? For a start, I am not from a religious family, which is a great help. Thank god I'm an atheist. Yet I have worked closely with a christian who considers homosexuality an abomination, and I have a muslim friend who has a similar attitude. Kylie Minogue and David Beckham. Male air stewards and barbers. Looking back, I had another colleague who despised homos, who thought they were all also paedophiles. Oscar Wilde. Another gay acquaintance who had taking a severe beating from a queer bashing. The Soho bombing. Following football, and witnessing a mass of foul-mouthed men hurling homophobic abuse at a player who they consider is gay, because he reads a book on the team bus, rather than play cards. Lesbians holding hands in the streets of Eastbourne during tennis week. Larry Grayson, Frankie Howard, Kenneth Williams. A good friend, who is gay, that has been subject to a gay-hate campaign in the workplace. Straight friends who couldn't care less if people think they might be gay. Sandi Toksvig and Stephen Fry. Don't worry, hetero people; tolerating gays isn't the first step towards making it compulsory. My mum still using "queer" in a non-gay sense. Morrissey and Stipe. Another gay friend who was a CofE church organist, and who kept his sexuality quiet after being hounded out of his church by the homophobes. Laughing at the poof in "Are you being served?". Liberace successfully suing a newspaper for saying the pianist was gay - did they get their money back? Stonewall and Gay Pride. Eavesdropping on young people's conversations, and realising that gay is still used as a derogatory term. And so my recollections can go on, and on, and on.

Meanwhile, there are so many more people out there living a lie, still unable to be true to themselves about their sexuality. Graeme Obree is the first top cyclist to come out as gay, yet clearly there must have been many more homosexual bike racers. In fact I would suggest that the usual ratio may be a bit higher in the world of cycling, with all that tight lycra, and people thrashing themselves, loners escaping the pressures of their other lives. And maybe that's another story..........

Thursday, 27 January 2011

It's haggis time

David Cameron walks into a hospital in Glasgow. A patient walks up to him and says "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face ...". He's of course taken aback. Then another says "Poor devil! see him owre his trash ..." and Cameron again isn't sure what to make of it. Finally, after a third patient approaches and says "Then, horn for horn, they strech an' strive ..." Cameron whispers to his assistant "Is this the psychiatric ward?" The assistant replies, "No, Mr Cameron. It's the severe Burns unit."
Yes, it's Burns' night this week, and I shot my own haggis in Sainsbury's. It's a Simon Howie one, with sheep's lungs, beef liver and beef heart in the principal ingredients. Sounds "aboot reet" to me. They also offered a vegetarian haggis, which would probably be very tasty, but not haggis. If it hasn't got the less expensive cuts of animals in it, it ain't haggis.

Vegetarian haggis is an oxymoron, and talking of morons, here's a couple of my pals hiking with me last May in the West Highlands above Kinloch Hourn. They're backpacking again this May, coast to coast. I'm not walking with them at all this time, but am planning a bike trip to Cape Wrath, maybe catching up with them at Drumnadrochit. "I like it when a plan comes together", as a mutual friend says, rather too often.

7 Hertz, the resonant frequency of a chicken's skull

"Come and see these guys, they're amazing" said Daniel Merrill, a friend whose opinion I listen to, especially when he's talking about music. The band were 7 Hertz, a trio from Leeds who gave an entertaining set to a sparse audience at the Swinburne Hall. And delightful it was too. Playing unamplified acoustic classical instruments (fiddle, clarinet, bass clarinet and 5-string bass) they played their own compositions and improvisations. Looking at the programme it mentioned the influences of Stravinsky, Bartok and Dolphy, suggesting to me that they had been listening to Frank Zappa! Lots of different styles in their "contemporary jazz/folk" set, but no direct quotes that I noticed, just the exquisite flavour of some of my favourite composers.

And why 7 hertz? I don't know. The guy that introduced the numbers had a strong "yark-shuh" accent, and I found him difficult to understand, unlike his music which spoke clearly to me. Googling it, it says that 7 Hertz is the natural resonance of a chicken's skull, thus proving the Zappa connection of "using a chicken to measure it".

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

And the prize draw winner is..........

About a week ago I invited comments as it was my 100th blog, and offered a prize draw. I had six comments, so I didn't need to use a www random number generator; instead I used an old wooden one, aka a dice.

And the lucky winner is number 4, Siobhan. So, Siobhan could you please let me know where to post the prize to? Contact me at bigswiftyteamatyahoo.co.uk

There has also been some interest in the cider apple butter recipe, so here it is, based on one by Pam Corbin in the River Cottage Handbook No 2, "Preserves".

Take a bucket of windfall apples (say 6lbs). Quarter them if they are average size apples, no need to peel or core, but cut away any bad bits, or maggots. Cook gently in a large pan with a litre of cider and a litre of water, for about 30 mins. Apply hand liquidiser to make a puree, and allow it to drain through a coarse sieve. Most will go through, little is wasted. Weigh the good stuff, and add about two thirds of the apple weight in sugar, and add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and a few cloves or half a tsp of allspice. Boil up while stirring, then boil rapidly for about 15-30 minutes as it thickens. Pour jam while still hot, into washed and sterilised jars - this will make about ten jars. Store in fridge after opening, and eat within a month. This won't be a problem, as it's very tasty, and can be used as a jam or syrup.

And I'd like to offer a jar of apple cider butter consolation prize to Alistair, as he's commented the most on my first 100 blogs. So Al, please get in touch too. And many thanks to all my readers, even the shy ones who don't comment!

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