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.


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