Friday, 31 August 2012

Paralympics 2012: An Evening With Channel 4

The first day of Paralympic competition being a Thursday, I was at work. This, despite what the more cynical among you might suggest, meant that I was unable to follow events live on Channel 4. Instead, I put my faith in Sky+ and recorded the whole blooming lot, intending to fish through the dregs to get to the good bits with the aid of the fast-forward button.

It all sounds so simple. It was, though I never expected to be able to get through over five hours of programming and still be in bed before midnight, bearing in mind that I also used the hours between 7.00 and 9.00 to watch Great Britain Men's first match in the wheelchair basketball tournament against Germany. Which was a thriller, but more about that later.

Trying to take things chronologically I put the morning session on first. I had been hearing some whispers of discontent from some people, who complained that there was too much chat from the presenters and not enough action. Their complaints were justified it has to be said. In just around three hours of air-time Channel 4 managed to broadcast eight swimming heats and a cycling heat on their main stream. The rest of the time was taken up by the man fast becoming the scourge of the Paralympic Games, Jonathan Edwards, chatting to his fellow presenters. Add in the endless commercial breaks and the exhaustive flogging of Giles Long's LEXI system explaining the various classification systems in Paralympic sport, and there wasn't actually that much air time left. Some of the swimming heats looked suspiciously less than live also, with the very first heat of the very first event being screened, but then the remaining heats dispensed with in favour of more chat from Edwards and Long. We did manage to see Jonathan Fox break the world record in his heat of the men's S7 100m backstroke. I'm almost sure I hear the commentator say that this is the second world record broken in the pool that morning, the other being broken by Ellie Simmonds, but if that did happen it is a piece of footage conspicious by it's absence. I think I might have imagined it, to be fair.

What I did not imagine was the lack of actual commentary in a heat of the men's men's S8 100m Butterfly featuring Great Britain's Sean Fraser. As he raced his way to the final, we get more of Edwards and Long, with the former in particular sounding like a man who has never left the desert trying to describe a snowstorm. I didn't get to see Fraser's final at all, in which he finished sixth, because the recording stopped seconds before he entered the pool as Channel 4 chose that moment to switch from one broadcasting slot to another. Before that, I did at least manage to see Hannah Russell pick up a silver medal in the women's S12 400m Freestyle and also Nyree Kindred earning the same accolade in the women's S6 100m backstroke.

Away from the pool and in fact away from that first morning session things were much improved, but not before a little more disappointment came my way. I was a little frustrated at not being able to see Scott Robertson or Sara Head's table tennis matches against the brilliantly named Ningning Cao of China and Hyun Ja Choi respectively. I have a greater interest in these two, having been on a sporting trip to Australia with Scott many years ago, and played basketball against Sara on several occasions. I couldn't get their matches online, and I couldn't find them on any of Channel 4's broadcasts. Scott lost 3-1 unfortunately, but this is something I found out via his Facebook page rather than any official media outlet. Thankfully, the table tennis competition is operating a league format for the early rounds so Scott will live to fight another day. Better news for Sara, who won her match 3-2.

Yet the lack of table tennis coverage was the last negative I'm going to bore you with today. Maybe. On condition that someone can explain to me how the GB women's basketball team's 62-35 defeat to Holland could be so heavily butchered? We see the last few minutes of the third quarter in which they slip behind by around 10-12 points, only to then be told in an instant that they were actually well beaten and we're all off to the Equestrian now if that's ok. Well no, it isn't. Not really.

Coverage of Great Britain's first gold medal, won by cyclist Sarah Storey in the women's C5 individual pursuit, is excellent, as is that for Mark Colbourne's silver medal in the men's C1-3 1km individual time trial. Interestingly, times in that event are factored down, so that the more severe the disability of the athlete, the more time is lopped off their time at the end to give them their overall placing. It can be complicated to follow, especially when you have Phil Liggett trying to explain it to you, but it was every bit as exciting to watch as the exploits of Hoy, Pendleton, Kenny and Trott in the Olympics.

So too was the men's basketball I mentioned earlier. Great Britain make a slow start against Germany, with Jan Haller shooting the proverbial lights out in the first half. At one point GB trail by 16 points in the second quarter, but fight back brilliantly to force the game into overtime at 66-66. However, they run out of steam in the extra five minutes and go down 77-72. Our former team-mate Dan Highcock is unused until the game is up well inside the last minute, which maybe due to the fact that he has had an injury recently, but is nevertheless a disappointment for people who like pointing at the telly and saying 'I know him'. Like the table tennis, the basketball competition has a league phase early on and so there is plenty of time for both the men's and the women's teams to make up for their opening day slip-ups.

I'm hoping Channel 4 do the same, but I must just leave you with one word of credit for them. The extra channels they have created to cover the main sports such as swimming, basketball and athletics are superb. None of this red button stuff you got from the BBC, but actual recorder-friendly channels which make it easier to avoid missing the best of the action. If only I had known about them a little earlier, I could have saved myself the bother of having to put up with Edwards and the main stream. I'd receommend this as the preferred method for following the Paralympic Games from now on.

Friday's action is already in the planner.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Paralympics 2012 - Opening Night

After the massive success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Olympic Stadium saw the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games last night (August 29).

I could just start and end this piece by telling you that it was utterly phenomenal. It really was inspiring, moving, spectacular, all of the things that you would hope for but dare not expect from an opening ceremony charged with the daunting responsibility of following on from Danny Boyle's superb extravaganza a month ago. It was well after midnight by the time it finished and I got to bed, but when it finally came to an end it left you in no doubt that the Paralympic Games were here, and that they were huge.

I have to say that at the start of Channel 4's live broadcast of the ceremony I wasn't expecting to feel quite so enthused and excited about the event by the end. I just didn't trust Channel 4 to be able to convey the magnitude of the thing to our living rooms. The previous evening's edition of Jon Snow's Paralympic Show had been a bit of a write-off. Jonathan Edwards missing his cue and then looking rudely over the shoulder of the person he was meant to be interviewing did not inspire condfidence. Nor did Snow's apparent lack of knowledge of all things sport, never mind Paralympic sport. He's a newsreader, and it showed.

Snow and Edwards are in attendance again for the grand opening, and they are joined by Paralympic wheelchair basketball bronze medallist and television presenter Ade Adepitan. He's a much safer pair of hands. I'm loathe to pepper this piece with clanging examples of name-dropping, but he is the first of several faces familiar to me throughout the night. Being around the same age, I played against Ade at junior levels and in the league on countless occasions.

The junior matches were particularly intense. It seemed like almost every year the national junior title would be between his London-based Tigers and our North West-based Meteors team. We won some, we lost some but they were all great battles. There is an old cover of the Great Britain Wheelchair Basketball Association Handbook which has a photograph of Ade and I contesting a ball. It is not a word of a lie that a split second after this photograph was taken I lobbed the ball over his head as he over-stretched to try and take it away from me, and then I had the whole court open to drive straight in for an easy lay-up. Well, as easy as lay-ups ever got for me. Which wasn't very. I can't remember whether we won or lost that game but I'm doing aeroplanes around the room just thinking about that moment. It doesn't get any better. Unlike Ade, who got an awful lot better than me and most other players very quickly.

Back to the plot. There's a countdown to the start of the ceremony appearing intermittently in the bottom corner of the screen. We only have about 18 minutes at this point, but this is time enough for a truly humbling and inspiring film about one of the athletes competing in the games. Martine Wright is part of the women's sitting volleyball team, and her back story is of her experience of the 7/7 London bombings of 2005. Just a day after it was announced that London would be hosting the games, Martine lost both of her legs when a device was detonated on the tube train near Aldgate Station. Her journey to this point has been a remarkable one. She feels lucky, she says, which is a stark reminder to all of us that as difficult as things get from time to time, there is always something to be grateful for, to be positive about.

And then it starts. Snow hands over almost seamlessly (almost) to Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Jeff Adams. Adams is a former Paralympic athlete from Canada, six times a world champion on the track. The relationship between the two should work. The vastly experienced broadcaster and news man and the sporting expert, but they have their moments. When the Canadian team enters the parade Guru-Murthy instructs his co-commentator to stop talking about his country. He's only half joking and there is a troubling silence for a couple of moments afterwards.

The parade has several moments of uncertainty and intrigue, moments when you wonder whether what you have just seen was really meant to happen and when you wonder what might happen next. An Australian athlete stumbles on the track and nearly incapacitates himself before competition has even begun. An Algerian waves a two-fingered salute to the camera. There's a Danish athlete propelling his wheelchair around the track using only his legs and feet, and to help him do so more quickly he is doing it backwards. A Brazilian enters fully into the spirit by painting his face entirely in the colours of his national flag. There are Irish and Belgian athletes accompanied by helper dogs. All this aswell as Ghanaians dancing, Mexicans decked out in faboulously colourful ponchos and sombreros, and German ladies in striking pink outfits.

But there's a gripe. There's always a gripe, unfortunately. In the Beijing Paralympics of 2008 China topped the medal table by the proverbial country mile. Their Paralympic team is vast, almost epic. They are expected to lord it over everyone once again here in the UK. Nobody has told the producers at Channel 4 however, who within a few moments of the emergence of the Chinese team into the stadium, choose to go to a commercial break. Now, we all understand the need for commercial channels to raise the funds to be able to afford to broadcast events of this importance, but really, does the timing of ad breaks have to be so well......untimely? Undeniably it takes something away from the event. The Chinese athletes are set to become some of the biggest stars of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. I'm sure the audience would have benefitted from a little introduction.

It's not that Channel 4 haven't considered the need for their audience to get to know the athletes. They have taken certain steps to do so which would never have been taken for the Olympic Games. Several athletes (including the Australian who later stumbles during the parade and our very own Martine Wright) are interviewed by Claire Balding as they wait to enter the stadium. This just would not happen during the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Not a second of Boyle's show was sacrificed to add in interviews with athletes outside the stadium. It's hard to say whether Channel 4's alternative approach helps or hinders the viewing experience. It's a debate we could have I suppose. But alternative is exactly what Channel 4 are. It's always been pretty much their raison d'etre.

So what are we potentially missing during these sometimes unwanted interludes? In short...Englightenment. This is the title of the ceremony which, introduced by theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking, has just about everything. There's Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero from Shakespeare's The Tempest, an unrecognisable Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (among many others and yes I did meet her once) suspended from a wire above the stadium, hundreds of dancers (including one double amputee ballet dancer), Birdy, Beverley Knight, a model of the statue of Alison Lapper - a double amputee as pregnant as one of the pauses during a conversation between Snow and Edwards - and finally Margaret Maughan, the first Brit to win a Paralympic gold medal all the way back in 1960. Maughan lights the flame, but not before it is brought into the stadium on a zip-wire by another double amputee and aspiring Paralympian Joe Townsend. Swimmer Liz Johnson takes the athletes oath and then there are the speeches, plenty of speeches.

Following Lord Coe is Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee. Clang, there goes another name-drop but the paths of Sir Phil and myself have crossed many times. He was involved in wheelchair basketball long before I was born and, from what I have heard of that time, was among the very best players in the world in his day. When I played against him he was a little way past that, but he was still outstanding. He had this metronomic, almost faultless shooting technique and was just deadly from anywhere inside the three-point line, particularly from either baseline. I remember him trying to pass on some of this wisdom to me at the many junior international training camps I attended years ago. Before the beer and women. Before Haj and Nigel. That's a whole other blog. Suffice to say that not even Sir Phil Craven could have drummed the requisite attributes into me. does bring me nicely onto what for me was the spine-tinglingly bitter-sweet highlight (and lowlight) of the whole shebang. Just after the parade, and just before Maughan lit the flame, the Olympic flag was carried into the stadium by members of the Great Britain Men's under-22 wheelchair basketball team. You can probably fill in the rest yourselves by now but just for the avoidance of any confusion...I used to be in that! I can't explain to you what it would have been like to be a part of the opening ceremony, carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium with my team-mates. No really I can't explain to you because it never happened. I was 15 years too late, as I explained immediately and somewhat impulsively on my Facebook page. One man who does know now is Billy Bridge, a member of my former side the Vikings and one of the lucky ones able to take part with his under-22 team-mates. We also have a former Viking in the men's squad competing in London in Dan Highcock. Another former Viking, Dave Heaton, will be competing in his sixth Games in the sport of wheelchair fencing. It's a proud time to be associated with the club.

But this not about me and the Vikings. Much. So we'll move to the finale. It was well past my bedtime but I wasn't missing Beverley Knight's jaw-droppingly rousing rendition of 'I Am What I Am'. If it didn't move you then the bad news is that you're dead. Choosing a Gloria Gaynor number might ordinarily be considered a little cliched, but somehow it just seemed to fit. The brilliance of Knight helped win me over here, I have to admit. The cynic in me might normally have argued that we want to focus on the sport itself and not the overcoming of adversity or the ongoing fight for acceptance in society. Sometimes as a disabled person you feel like there is no in between. You're either a hero and an inspiration or you're an embarrassment. I don't want to be either and I don't feel like either. I'm just a bloke from Thatto Heath.

As I finish this I have just started my lunch break and I'm into the action. Spain are making short work of Italy in the men's wheelchair basketball (yes, for the umpteenth time, the place I maybe could have been if I hadn't been railroaded by my alcoholism and my lack of ability). It's really here.

Enjoy it.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Pushed Too Far

You can let something go once, but when it happens twice it becomes a trend. Or if not a trend, then at the very least it becomes blog-worthy.

Actually I didn't let it go last time. I wrote it on my Facebook. But there didn't seem any way that it would stretch to an entire blog entry. Until now. Until it has happened again. A few months ago I was getting off the train at Thatto Heath station. This is something I do around 100-150 times a year (when I am in one of my sporadic gym phases in any event). It is important to remember just how routine this is for me. As I pushed up the admittedly large and fairly steep ramp towards the main road leading home, I felt a hand on my back. Then another. I actually took a push up the ramp with two as yet unidentified mits upon my personage. A little startled, I turned around to find a middle-aged man nodding at me and continuing to push his hands into my back in a hopeful attempt to propel me up the ramp;

"No thanks, mate. I'm alright." I said.

His hands did not move. I took another push, still with his hands upon me. I turned around again, only this time I didn't say anything. I just gave him a look. A look that said everything I needed to convey. A look that said 'take your frigging hands off me now, you moron. Do you really imagine that I only make this journey home from work this way in the hope that someone like you will kindly offer to push me up this fucking ramp?'. He got the message and shot me back a look that said 'I was only trying to help, God, chip on your shoulder or what?

Yeah mate, deep fat fryer, now fuck off.

And so to today. I have had an appointment at the doctors. I have been having regular appointments at my surgery for reasons which, while they would make hysterical blog material I am sure, are too personal to discuss here. It went well anyway, thanks for asking, but just as there is a large ramp between me and the exit to my local train station, so there is a similarly whopping great hill on the road between the surgery and my house.

I had almost reached the top of said hill when I heard a car engine behind me. This hapens a lot because I tend to forget that I am not in possession of an engine, and only take into account the fact that it is easier to push on the road than it is to push on the pavement, which is often uneven, sloped or, horror of all horrors, cobbled. So I moved sideways wearily, further towards the unfavoured terrain of the pavement to allow the car to pass me. Only it didn't. Instead the driver, another ageing man who looked no more capable of running up a hill than I, actually got out of his car and asked whether I might like a push up the hill. Now I know he might mean well, but again I must enquire as to whether people really believe that a person who needs a push up a bloody great hill would be out on his own trying to conquer a bloody great hill?

I have already commented elsewhere that the man offering me a push today is likely to need a push up a hill himself before I do. He was not exactly young and not exactly in the peak of his physical fitness. Yet he took one look at my wheelchair and decided that he was the best man for the job of lugging my arse up to the top of the hill. That there were only around ten yards remaining to the summit at that point in any case seems a moot point now.

The Paralympics start next week. You will see disabled people performing physical and mental acts which make pushing up a steep hill near a local park look like rolling over in bed. I just hope that the man I encountered today, and his predecessor from the train station a few months ago, actually witness some of Channel 4's coverage and adapt their perceptions of what disabled people can and can't do for themselves.

My hope is very probably a forlorn one.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Lord Morris - What's Changed?

Before yesterday I had never heard of Lord Alf Morris, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 84. Most disabled people will, if they are honest, tell you the same thing. But those of us now in education, employment, involved in sport, indeed who are integrating into society in all sorts of different ways owe Lord Alf a great debt of gratitude.

The perception of members of the House of Lords is one of old farts nodding off during readings of legislatory bills which have already been passed elsewhere. While that may be true of many, Lord Morris is one whose political career has seen him make a real difference to the lives of a great many people, myself included. It was Lord Morris who was at the forefront of the very first UK disability rights legislation back in 1970. It was a model which has been copied throughout the world and it laid the foundations for all of the greater freedoms we now enjoy.

You might not believe me if you have been trawling through my photographs on Facebook (which you have, admit it), but I wasn't around in 1970. I can only imagine what it must have been like for disabled people in Britain at that time. Regular visitors to this page will probably have been persuaded that it is not exactly shits and giggles even now, but it must have been far worse back then. Many disabled people were institutionalised, denied education and employment, locked away from the rest of society lest they bring about embarrassing attention. Sport was mostly off the agenda too, yet millions will tune into Channel 4 to see the best disabled athletes in the world compete at the London 2012 Paralympic Games in a couple of weeks. That we have come so far is due in no small part to Lord Alf and that first piece of legislation.

It has been a slow process. Improvements did not happen overnight. Where now we take disabled toilets, ramps, lifts etc for granted in many places, this was not always the case even after 1970. I started school in 1979 (at the age of three!) and was straight away unable to attend the same school as my sister, my cousins and all of the other children who grew up in the same area. None of the mainstream schools had the structures in place to provide access for a child with a phsyical disability back then. By the time I was 11 and ready to enter secondary school it was probably possible for me to attend a mainstream school but I never really considered it or even looked any further into it. There was still a social barrier which I feared could not be overcome. It was too much of a wrench to leave the familiar environment that had been created for me over the previous eight years. I was too comfortable, but I was contributing to my own social exclusion. I'm still paying for that.

Instead I was sent out to local mainstream schools to get myself a more rounded education. The special school I attended, as wonderful as all the staff there were, could not provide teaching to the standard that we were now showing that we required. Because we were able, because we could progress academically just as well as the able bodied children. This was somehow not thought possible before, or at least not important. We weren't going to be able to go out and work, so they thought, so why bother educating us? People like Lord Morris changed all that, but it hasn't been an easy transition.

During the time I spent at mainstream school I got a taste of what it might have been like had I attended full time. At Sutton High School my friend Phil and I studied French, Media Studies and Science to GCSE level. The vagaries of the timetable had it that on one day of the week we would have a session in all three of these subjects, so we spent the whole day there and just tried as best we could to fill in the gaps between lessons. That proved far more difficult than it should have been. It was the early 1990's but still our segregation from the others was plainly obvious. The school had social areas for the pupils to use during breaks and at lunchtime. Yet some pupils had damaged some of the seating, meaning that no students were allowed in from then on. Fine, we will all go outside then, right? Not you two. We can't have you going out in the rain or rolling over that dangerous concrete. We were told to stay in the social areas, indoors. We couldn't go outside, the other pupils couldn't come inside. It's too strong to compare it to Apartheid, but it was clearly segregation through lack of trust, through fear of what might happen. To us, to the other children. To society.

Even today we still have an awful long way to go in my view with regards to social attitudes and genuine integration and that is a two-way street. For every person who devalues you and thinks that you can't do your job or play sport or contribute to a debate because of your disability, there is a disabled person sat on his or her fat arse asking him or herself why they should bother and therefore doing nothing.

The government don't help, regardless of which party is in power. As much as I would relish the opportunity to call David Cameron a twat again, this is not a party political issue. I didn't start working until I was 31 years old, simply because they were paying me too much money to sit at home. There is still a perception among many disabled people that they are better off not bothering, and this extends to sport, education, socialising, everything. It's a miserable, sad state of affairs in many cases but then when you consider how poorly some of the older generation of disabled people were educated it is hard to argue with the notion that they have become too far disadvantaged to be employable now. Positive discrimination will get you an interview if you know what they are looking for in the job spec and you can communicate that effectively in writing, but after that you are on your own. The treatment they have had has made many disabled people set in their ways and lacking in belief. In themselves and in others.

I think in many ways, the younger you are as a disabled person now, the better chance you have of fully integrating. I have friends who are 5-8 years younger than me and it is noticable how much better they communicate with able bodied people their own age than even I do. I know able-bodied people who, if you asked them, would tell you they are my friends but whom I know are distinctly uncomfortable in my company, particularly if it is my company alone. Yeah it's cool to knock about with a disabled person, it shows you have an open mind and you're not shallow, heaven forbid. But don't take a disabled person out on the pull with you, is very much the philosophy. More and more, the young just don't think this way because they have dealt with it at an earlier age. Like learning a foreign language from the age of five instead of trying to learn it when you are 11. I'm sure if you took a camera into a school now you would find it hard to notice any difference between the treatment of disabled kids and any of the other kids. Maybe in 20 years from now people won't even acknowledge or notice disability in any meaningful way at all.

If that happens it will be largely down to the efforts of Lord Alf Morris.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The South West - Part One

Perhaps he won't thank me for telling you this but Emma's Dad celebrated (if that is the word) his 60th birthday recently. To mark the occasion we spent the weekend in a cottage in a place called Keinton Mandeville near Yeovil. That's Somerset for those of you who get lost once you turn off the East Lancashire Road.

Since Emma and I had the whole of that following week off from work the plan was to spend a few nights in Bath also. As ever when I am involved, what followed was a heady mixture of chaos, farce and shouty Scottish men.

It starts in Bristol. It's quite a long drive to Keinton Mandeville so Emma wants to break it up by staying somewhere along the way. So we check into the Arnos Manor Forestdale Hotel. This isn't a bad little place, but it has to be one of the colder places I have been to in mid-July. An apalling summer isn't helping, but someone somewhere has clearly decided that air conditioning in the restaurant is a good idea. But it's not. It's freezing cold and it feels even colder for the fact that it is all but empty.

There is just one other couple in the restaurant tonight and while I am tucking into my fish and chips I can hear the gentleman complaining to the waiter about immigrants. It's real Daily Mail stuff about how those rotten foreigners have taken all the jobs but the man has managed to miss two superb ironies. Firstly, that the basis of his story centres around a son of his who lives in Australia. Immigration? You bet. Secondly, the waiter unfortunate enough to be listening to the man's archaic ramblings happens to be from South Africa. It's unfathomable how he hasn't realised this since the waiter is chatting away in the kind of accent which makes Kevin Pietersen sound like Boris Johnson. Regardless, the man ploughs on, bemoaning the invasion of foreigners and no doubt the demise of capital punishment. I don't know, I've stopped listening by now.

We return the following morning for breakfast. We are greeted by an incredibly smiley young woman. She looks around the room with a puzzled look on her face as if she doesn't quite know where to place this strange individual who has insisted on bringing a wheelchair to breakfast. Finally she hits upon the brilliant idea of putting us at a table next to the wall, just in behind one that is already occupied by two men. One of the men is decidedly portly, and you can see the crack of his arse from Leeds. He is wearing trousers, but only in the same way that Rihanna wears trousers when she wants to promote a new album. But the man is no Rihanna in visual terms. Not unless Rihanna has put ten stones of weight on and developed a serious problem with body hair since her last performance. Mercifully, I take the seat facing away from butt-crack man, and Emma can't see it either because I am now blocking it out.

There is considerably less meat on a woman sitting just across the room from us. Excess skin puts you off your sausage and egg. The woman is, shall we say, mature, and is as bony as it is possible to be without being in an Indiana Jones or a Sinbad film. I'm finding it hard to look at her, but I'm also finding it hard to look away. I start to feel like Austin Powers looking at Fred Savage's mole. These really are the major issues concerning me from our otherwise uneventful trip to Bristol.

Skipping the journey down to Keinton Mandeville almost completely (we took quite a while to find the cottage itself once we had found the right street because they all look the same) we arrive at the grandly named Coombe Hill Cottage. The path outside is covered entirely in gravel, and the woman we are renting from happens to be at the house and advises us that it will be ready in a couple of hours once they have finished cleaning. She also tells us that the entrance we need to use is around the back of the cottage, which is great news for anyone who thinks pushing a wheelchair on gravel might be fun.

With the car parked and a couple of hours to kill we hobble back down the path out on to the main road and head up the street to find a pub. We stop at a small local shop for local people for reasons I cannot and care not to remember, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that it is only a further minute or two to the pub. The Quarry is a very nice little establishment and it helps that finally, after what seems like three months of solid rain day after day, the sun is beating down. We order a drink and spend a very agreeable hour in the beer garden. The couple of beers I down when we get back to the cottage have an effect, and I'm still asleep when the rest of Emma's family get to there at around tea-time. I had been watching golf also, which might not have been the best way to keep my mind occupied and stave off the lethargy which inevitably results from afternoon drinking. And normally I like golf.

We're not going to elaborate on the evenings in Keinton Mandeville. Principally this is because I find forced fun quite traumatic. I can summarise thus; There were barbecues, quizzes and beer and it was unseasonably cold especially given the warm temperatures in daylight hours. If there was a highlight then for me it was the sight of Emma's one-year-old neice smashing the pinata with a stick and shouting 'whack' with every swing. Then her mother, Emma's sister-in-law, took a turn and knocked the donkey's head clean off with one swing. The head then found it's way around the dinner table and it was all a bit like something out of a Godfather movie. Whack.

So anyway we will stick mostly to the daytime activities because that is when we travelled around and experienced a little of the local south west culture. On Saturday morning, after an interminable wait for everyone to get ready, we venture towards the city of Wells. Test Match Special is on the radio in the car and England are taking a fearful pasting from South Africa. They have been bowled out for 385 and the South Africans are something like 4,384 for no wicket. Or something. Prospects for the team are so bad that the commentators have already started ignoring the action and instead playing word games or making up lists of the best left-handed South Africans and so forth.

Wells is one of the smallest cities in England and is best known for it's cathedral and other religiously associated architecture. Again I must re-iterate my utter disdain for religion, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested. We go into St.Andrew's Cathedral and end up on a short guided tour. The guide is called Elizabeth something or other, and she's informative enough but you get the feeling she wishes she was elsewhere. There are only myself, Emma, her mum and another couple on the tour which, considering it is free, is a pretty poor return. Religion might be crap, but what about history and architecture? It seems that they are not enough to interest the public of Wells today and so we press on in our uncomfortably small group.

Wells Cathedral of St.Andrew is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells who, on the balance of probabilities, does not eat babies. It dates back to the 10th century but now, by far it's most pleasing attribute is it's clock. Alongside the large 24-hour clock face sits a model of a man called Jack. When Jack kicks his legs a series of wooden soldiers on wooden horseback appear from the top of the clock like demented cuckoos. They play out a brief battle in which one soldier is killed, only for him to re-emerge patched up to go through the whole thing again five or six times. It's a kind of mini-purgatory for the poor wooden soldier, but given that he is wooden and therefore devoid of any feelings it is all good, harmless entertainment.

Our guide gives up after around half an hour of shining her torch at the 'monsters' she finds carved into the architecture and speculating on what they may have originally represented. She seems very unsure of herself throughout and is particularly befuddled when one man asks whether Wells Cathedral is the final burial place of King Ethelred or some such. She doesn't seem to know, but she doubts it. Shortly after she is gone, wishing us a nice day and convincing us that half an hour touring Wells Cathedral of St.Andrew is probably enough. To be fair, she might just be right.

We find a cafe by the riverside and meet up with the others who had chosen not to take the cathedral tour. Maisie the cathedral cat is patrolling the area very protectively. Several small children try to pull her tail but she remains unphased by their gropings. She merely trotts off to a grassy area away from the cathedral and takes a nap. While we are enjoying a drink a man dressed like a member of the committee at Lords Cricket Ground strolls by. He is delivering some sort of message to a newlywed couple, and in doing so he is making quite a scene. I have absolutely no recall of what he actually says, but the bride is impossibly polite to him and thanks him for his efforts, calling it 'lovely'. The man turns to Emma's dad and asks;

"Care for a poem?"

"No thanks. I'm trying to give them up." he replies.

A little wounded, the man moves along the river to bother his next victim. We would be seeing him again later in the week.