Our friend Dave

Dave and I grew up together, we were part of a group that hung around in playground huddles – me (Rammo), Westy, Youngy, Hossy and Sykesy (Dave).  We went through infants, junior school  and then secondary school, and from the ages of around 6 to about 16 we were a fairly tight knit team.

I remember fondly going to Dave’s house one schoolday lunchtime when we were around 14, to listen to his Monty Python records – yes we were the kind of brats on the school bus that would recite the Election Night Special sketch with Tarquin Ptang Ptang Ole Biscuit Barrel. We also had a collective love for rock music and attended many concerts together in our teenage years at glamorous venues such as Sheffield City Hall and Leeds Queens Hall to see bands like Rainbow, Whitesnake, The Scorpions, UFO. We all wore wrangler jackets, we all had band names embroidered on the back. But Dave preferred a leather jacket.

We borrowed albums off each other, we talked about girls, we drank, and we did all the things lads do growing up together, but after O-levels things started to change.  Some of us went on to further education, some of us didn’t, some moved away and went to university, some stayed at home, getting jobs locally. Dave, despite having the intelligence to continue his education as far as he wanted, for he was as bright as any of us, stayed in/around Barnsley.

Fast forward to 2015, we were all 50, and we had a school reunion borne out of Facebook. Many of us hadn’t met for around 35 years and it was scary as shit, but it was also a beautiful moment, not least because most of us had appalling memories of our secondary school days at Kendray Oaks. It was a rough school by anyone’s standards, there was horrendous bullying and violent beatings dotted through our school years and many of us carried that baggage with us well into adulthood.

We all had people we were scared of, our own personal enemies, and there were always groups, ‘us’ and ‘them’ factions throughout. Most of us lads got into scrapes at some point or other, and many of the girls too. All of us in fact, except Dave. Dave was neither Ardsley or Kendray, Dave was Dave. At the reunion we all regaled tales of who we liked and didn’t like, and to a man (and woman) I think I’m right in saying everybody liked Dave.

Some people had forgotten me, some remembered me fondly, some remembered me then ignored me and this was probably true for everyone one on reunion night. Except Dave. Everyone knew Dave and everyone liked Dave.  I honestly can’t remember him ever having a bad word for anyone, or ever getting into any kind of scrape.  Whilst we hid in our cliques, Dave could walk freely between Ardsley and Kendray, knowing he had friends in both camps.  Dave was our bridge, he was our rock, he was what held us together 35 years on.

Despite some fairly serious health issues Dave was pivotal in organising the reunion. He helped sort the venue, he sorted the DJ equipment, he was also the DJ and he was the liaison between Kendray and Ardsley. I remember helping him set up the sound system for the big evening – he was clearly in a lot of pain but never grumbled. He could have easily let others organise things and everyone would have understood perfectly, but he didn’t. When it came to saying a few words, Dave threw the microphone to me, although I helped behind the scenes, Dave was the catalyst that brought us all together, but in true Dave style, he didn’t want any of the glory or praise.

In the photo below, that’s Dave and me at Scout Dyke circa 1981. I’m the gobby twat singing lead vocals and hogging the limelight, Dave is the cool dude playing bass with a snooker cue at the side. That was Dave – always there, always contributing quietly but essentially, keeping the music playing, but never, ever seeking the limelight for himself.

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We all knew he was ill. I called in to see him on a trip up north earlier this year and he was clearly struggling but managed to wear his trademark smile and brave face. He told me he was fine, we chatted, reminisced, hugged briefly and I went on my way.

Dave passed away two days ago, aged just 51. He lived a private life, often alone, yet he had a warmth and compassion that connected and united many of us. It’s ironic that someone could live alone yet touch so many others at the same time.  Without Dave we had no reunion, without Dave I may never have become such a Monty Python fan, but I have so much more to thank him for – his warmth, his humour, his humility, his friendship.

I know I speak on behalf of everyone in the class of ’81 when I say this – we miss you Dave, you were all our best friend and no-one’s enemy and we miss you terribly.

Take care big man.

From all the class of ’81
xx

 

A letter to my 17yr old self …

In response to A letter from my 17yr old self.

2016

Dear 17yr old Andy,

Thanks for your letter. Well, here we are. We survived, we are still alive and kicking! The good news is we generally did pretty well. I’m not going to tell you the details as it will spoil it for you, but we get through, so keep on keeping on young man.

What I will say, is that those guilty pleasures of yours – singing in the band, making people laugh – they’re not just lusty and pointless, so don’t keep dismissing them. Those are beacons in the dark, sirens in the quiet still of night. Despite what you might think, they are your soul speaking to you.

I just realised that last sentence might freak you out. Sorry, let me rephrase. Those are the things that make you what you are. Reading your letter brought back many memories for me, how we believed and trusted unerringly in our elders, and by consequence, how we felt anything we experienced that didn’t align with them was somehow incongruous, somewhat deviant and unhealthy.

I remember now, thanks to your letter, how we lived our life by a set of rules devised purely by teachers, parents, lawmakers, guidelines always laid down in tablets of stone. Our success was measured not by happiness, but by how well we stayed on that path of righteousness as prescribed by ‘them’.

If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to stop always looking to others for guidance – instead start to look inwardly at your self, at our self. You know that ‘gut feel’ you get, but always push back if it doesn’t conform to The Book? Well, stop doing that. Stop it now. Immediately. Listen to the voices inside – I bet that spooks you too? Don’t worry, I am sane of mind, I just see life differently, through a less filtered lens.

I don’t mean to suggest you ignore The Book altogether – there’s a lot of great and sound advice out there, advice that’s built on thousands of years of hard earned experience – but complement it with your own thoughts and beliefs. Believe it or not you (we) are unique, and we do have talents that would horrify you if I were to tell you them now.

And so I won’t tell you, for you must find them on your own, because the journey is the biggest part of any experience, not the destination. That obsession of getting somewhere, stop that too. Retune your beliefs, redefine your passions and act accordingly. Most importantly, stop obsessing with trying to define the end point all the time. Instead set the rules (your rules), and let your own moral compass navigate.

By the way – I still don’t get electricity, it just works, and the sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t need to understand everything, the better it will be.

Forget destinations and just enjoy the journey, young man, just make sure it’s your journey and not anyone elses.

Love,

Me (2016)
x

 

The driest of Januarys …

Edit: I only just realised by re-reading some of my old blogs that I did dry January 3 years ago! I have no recollection of that, so apologies, this wasn’t in fact the driest of Januarys, but certainly one of them.

As I’ve blogged previously, the new year is always an important time for me, a time to start afresh and right the wrongs from the year just gone. And in recent years I have been following other people’s Dry January with interest – a challenge where folk try go the first month of the year without any alcohol.

Unfortunately for me, my birthday is on 2nd January which makes Dry January extremely challenging. Of course my wife who has a healthy outlook on such things, just suggests I start Dry January on the 3rd day of the month and continue through to 2nd February. As always she is being hyper logical, but to my OCD mind that’s a horrific nonsense and a complete non-starter. That would make Dry January not at all Dry January but Dry-for-most-of-January-and-a-little-bit-of-February which is just plain silliness.

For some reason this year I really wanted to do Dry January and through December it was all I could think about. I was bored and tired of boozing, having reached the point where I was drinking out of habit. I was drinking good stuff too, quality wines, not cheap plonk, yet I was still feeling indifferent, somewhat ‘meh’ about the whole thing, like what was the point?

And so, at midnight on New Years Eve, I toasted in 2016 and put down my Prosecco glass. It was actually 12:07am which made me feel slightly sick, but I managed to convince myself that’s OK, it was a drink that I began in 2015 and it was New Year’s Eve, so I cut myself some slack and started the clock, managing to navigate a dry birthday on day 2.

By way of background, let me add that my previous alcohol-free, all-time-since-I-have-been-an-adult record was 17 days achieved in January 2011. I know that because I record these things and have done since I was 22 when I started to jot ‘AFD’ on the corner of my pocket diary on each day I had no booze (alcohol free day). What happened in January 2011, after 17 consecutive AFDs, was that my wife and I were invited next door for dinner and I couldn’t say no to some wine. My journal entry for the following day was littered with self loathing to levels even extreme for me.

January 2016 felt different, and it was. I remained dedicated to the cause, I remained full of resolve and breezed through to Feb 1st with only the slightest wobble on a business trip to Athens on 25th Jan when I was offered a glass of Ouzo to toast a new business relationship. I surprised myself by politely declining it and toasted instead with my glass of Athenian sparkling water.

Apart from the challenge in and of itself, I found the 31 day journey quite enlightening. My sleep was definitely of a higher quality, and I noticed early on how my mental state of mind had improved. I felt less paranoid if that makes sense? Maybe it only makes sense to paranoid folk, but I definitely felt it, and I felt much calmer, more relaxed, less on edge. I was also eating better, resisting the urge to snack on crisps and other snacks which always went hand in hand with a pint or a crisp glass of wine.

I also lost weight, around 11lbs (~5Kg). I wanted to lose weight, I needed to lose weight and so that was a great bonus and incentive for me. I know the caloric reduction from no booze wasn’t the only factor, but not drinking made me eat better, exercise more and sleep better, all factors which contributed to the weight loss.

So what now? I panicked on February 1st, imagining my first drink undoing all the good from January. I actually dreamt waking up on Feb 2nd at 4am in a prison cell with no pants on, I was clearly 5kg fatter with popcorn stuck to my gob and curry sauce on my chin. As you may recall, dear bloggers, I don’t do moderation very well and so I knew it wouldn’t just be one drink, it would be a bottle and possibly more.

Drinking would of course also mean breaking my AFD run, I would be back at square 1, I would have ruined everything so what would be the point in doing anything after that other than drinking more? Awful scenario. My mind works in mysterious ways.

So here I am, Tuesday 2nd February 2016, still 2016 clean and very much enjoying it. I have decided however not to set any more targets, no more goals (for now), instead I will just take it one day at a time.

If I want a drink, I shall have one. The thought of never drinking again makes me feel sad, perversely the thought of having a drink also makes me feel sad, and so I am taking it one day at a time, each day on it’s own merit, and perhaps one day in the near future I will decide the time is right to have that drink.

And I sincerely hope that when I do, I don’t wake up naked in a prison cell.

Woe betide the squirrels …

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George became part of our family in September 2001. We bought him as a young puppy from a farm in Dorset whilst visiting Donna’s parents, and we all remember excitedly driving him home, George sitting in the footwell between Donna’s feet.

He had a tricky arrival due to him contracting a nasty dose of campylobacter down on the farm, but once that cleared up, and once we had cleared up(!), he very quickly became the family dog, from thereon in inextricably linked with the 3 young kids (partners in crime) and mum and dad.

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As a young dog he came everywhere with us in our 7-seater people carrier, his preferred position being centre of middle row, in between two kids and resting his chin on the armrest between driver and passenger – prime spot.

Like most dogs he loved the outdoors. When he was young he often came running with me, although when he hit middle age he got wise to recognising the running gear, and took to hiding under the table whenever I put my running shoes on. From that point on we stuck to walks, often long ones where he loved sniffing in the undergrowth, chasing sticks and swimming in the river whenever possible.

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For the last year or so he hasn’t been able to walk due to a steady decline in his legs/hips – a common affliction in ageing labradors, and in George’s case this was exacerbated by rather bad arthritis along his spine. Nevertheless he continued to enjoy life, albeit a much more sedentary existence which stretched no further than the back garden.

Recently even the garden became difficult. He was struggling to stand up unaided and we often had to wait for a hoarse bark to signal a request for us to lift him so he could stagger outside, but often we were too late …

The best thing about George was his personality – he had an unrelenting warmth and a 100% good soul. From day 1 he had kids climbing on him, sleeping alongside him, pulling him, pushing him, waking him, chasing him, brushing him – yet he never once got cross. He did growl, but only when he had a bone, and only ever as a gentle warning, but never, ever, did he growl or bite or frighten a child in all those 14 years.

He did however have a pathological and irrational hatred of squirrels. He could spot a squirrel on a garden fence from 100 paces, and would always raise his hackles, bark fiercely and run out into the garden to chase them away. He had no problem with pigeons or any other animal for that matter, but squirrels were definitely persona-non-grata, perhaps it was the bushy tail. Even recently, with failing eyesight, he managed to spot a squirrel through the window and his genetically coded vitriol sparked into life – he tried desperately to get up from his cushion, but he just couldn’t manage it. The soul was willing but the body wasn’t.

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Over the last couple of months we have had several family chats about what to do with George – a horrifically difficult family subject to discuss at the best of times, but nevertheless a very important and necessary one, and we finally all agreed that George had reached the point where he no longer seemed happy. He had lost that sparkle, that mischievous charm, that spirit that made him George. Life had become a struggle with very little, if any, upside for him, and so as a family we decided to call the vet to the house, George’s home, to release him from his pain. He was 14, around 98 in human years, and during that time he had lived a perfectly wonderful, happy family life. He had given so much love, pleasure and happiness to our family, and in return he had food, shelter and as much love and attention as a family of 5 could throw his way.

George was as perfect a family dog as you could ever wish for and we will all miss him terribly, but we have to be thankful for the 14 brilliant years he shared with us. We have a huge memory bank of experiences and happy times to fall back on and enjoy recollecting, a treasure trove of George stories that I am certain will continue to be regaled by the family, and by friends, for many years to come.

His favourite ever spot was sitting in the garden where he would follow the sun, keeping watch for bushy tailed rodents. And whilst local Sherington wildlife might now be breathing a sigh of relief, if there are squirrels in dog heaven they had better watch out.

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A letter to my 16 yr old self …

Summer, 1981

Dear Andy,

Hi, it’s you from 2015. Don’t get up off the settee, stay where you are and enjoy the cricket because things are about to change. Let’s cut to the chase – you know that nagging sense of guilt you have right now watching the test match? That sense of guilt you carry around with you and wear like a cloak? Well, it doesn’t ever go away, it continues to follow you around, so try and get used to it. Stop searching for answers as to why it’s there, because you won’t find any, it’s part of your DNA, sorry.

Also, whilst we’re being honest, you’re not that bright. Ouch, sorry, what am I like! How can I put this … you know how you’ve never really worked hard at anything at all whatsoever, but somehow you’ve always got by and done quite well? Well, that changes from hereon in too I’m afraid. You can’t just turn up any more, instead you have to plan and prepare things in advance, you have to invest time and effort in seemingly unpleasant tasks to get the desired outcome, weird as that must sound to you. Fundamentally, you have to earn any merit from now on. I know it’s a difficult concept for you to grasp aged 16, and I know you are struggling with it, so let me explain it a different way.

You know how you want to be a singer like David Coverdale? Well, David had singing lessons as a child when all his mates just wanted to play football.  He started singing in pubs and clubs when he was about your age and he had to lie about his age to sing in bands in clubs in the north of England.  He was booed off stage, had bottles of piss thrown at him, he was chased off stage and was skint for years travelling in a beaten up old transit van up and down and up and down the M1 for what seemed like eternity, long before he ever joined Deep Purple/Whitesnake and sang to thousands of adoring fans and made his fortune. Shocking as it may seem, he didn’t just practice singing in the mirror for a couple of weeks, using his mum’s hairbrush as a microphone, waiting for the phone to ring. Like you he had a dream, but unlike you, he worked hard to get that dream.

You know Kenny Dalglish? When he was your age he didn’t just want to be a footballer who asked his mum and dad for a football kit for Christmas so he could become one. He didn’t score a goal against St Dominics U-11s and decide he was ready to play at Wembley, no, he went outside every day in the wind and the pissing rain and he practiced his skills, kicking a ball up against a wall time after time after time until his toes bled.  He drove his parents and neighbours mad.  He played football against everyone and anyone he could. He played against older blokes who tried to kick seven shades of shit out of him, so he could get stronger and better. He played football at every possible opportunity, often sacrificing lots of other, more enjoyable things in the process.

You see Ian Botham at Headingley on your TV in the 3rd test match of the Ashes? He’s not there, playing the match that incidentally will go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks of all time by accident. He didn’t just arrive on the international cricket scene because he thought it might be cool, he did it because he was driven, he had ambition, had desire and bags of endeavour, as did Coverdale, as did Dalglish.

I know it’s shit 16 yr old Andy, but you can’t dream your way to success, sorry. It won’t just ‘happen’. Nor will you live forever. You’re mortal, dare I say it, and you’ll like this least of all … you’re pretty average. Ouch!

But hey, don’t be maudlin’ young fella mi lad, for there’s some good news! You see, you can actually be anything you want! You can be Coverdale, or Dalglish, or Botham, but, and it’s a big but, you will have to earn the right. You might not appreciate this, and I know you feel like this is a shitty stupid thing only old people say, but you really do have all your life ahead of you. Look at you, you healthy stick insect!

I’m not going to tell you what 50yr old Andy without this letter aged 16 turns out like, but it’s not at all bad, so imagine what 16yr old Andy can do armed with this advice? Get out there and make life happen, don’t let life happen to you. Life really is amazing, but only if you allow it to be. Make tough decisions and seize opportunities when they come your way. Don’t be afraid to stand up and fight for everything you believe in. Above all, and this is the hardest thing for you I know, but don’t worry what others think of you. You have an inherently good soul, so trust in it and wonderful things can and will happen.

Oh and finally, and there’s no easy way to say this, but you never did marry Steph Middleton, that snog at the Xmas disco last year, that was it I’m afraid.  But don’t worry, because someone even better comes along, so just hold tight and hang on in there and amazing things can and will happen, just so long as you work hard.

Yours,

Me, aged 50

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Progress, what progress?

My Grandma had it tough.  She told me stories about her life as a small child with something like 9, 10, 11 siblings.  I’m afraid I don’t remember the exact number, but she often told me the story of how her dad would tell them that it was time for bed, and they all raced in unison upstairs with all the energy they could muster. Why? How odd! If I ever tried to get my kids to bed they resisted, rebelled, had tantrums, so why was my Gran and her brothers and sisters so conformist?  Turns out they raced to secure the middle part of the bed where you were warm, and safe.  On the edges of the bed, 9 children wide, the latecomer faced being exposed to the brutal elements, often pushed out in the middle of the night onto the stark cold, cockroach infested floor.  In the morning, when the light was turned on, there was a scuttling noise as the cockroaches headed for the dark recesses of the room.  You bet your fcuking ass they ran to bed. And let’s face it, listening to Winston Churchill on the World Service wireless ain’t no Beyonce concert on YouTube.

I can’t imagine that life my Gran had.  It fills me with dread and horror.  And yet I remember walking to school in deep winter, for miles.  I remember PE in the freezing cold, so cold I couldn’t do up my shirt buttons as my fingers were too numb. The PE teacher marched you into the communal showers and flicked your bare arse with his towel if he felt you hadn’t showered properly. He stood at the exit of the shower, watching, barking orders.  Sometimes he got the table tennis bat and smacked you so hard you had DUNLOP emblazoned on your cheeks for several days after.

When I tell my kids that, their reaction is similar to my reaction when I heard my Gran’s stories about cockroaches under the bed.  A reaction of incredulous horror.  How could life have been so stark?  My kids didn’t even shower after sports at school, it wasn’t seen as socially acceptable.  Life progresses, and life becomes more protected, softer, more cushioned, more safe, more predictable, more sterile.  This is progress after all. Studies have been commissioned that say hitting kids with table tennis bats is cruel, just like sleeping 9 to a bed is inhumane and is now more or less outlawed, consigned to the middle pages of the Daily Mail pouring scorn on the working class or foreign immigrants.  Progress.  How lucky we are these days.

And yet, sometimes I wonder if we are now really living. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss those showers, and I would never advocate smacking with ping-pong bats, but it was a life full of living, whereas life these days sometimes feels so sanitised, so protected. We seem, these days, to wander around in a kind of haze, a fug, conforming to an expected ideal, the modern ideal of modern living. We have all the trappings. I have a satellite feed, I have a broadband feed, I have unlimited, plumbed, sanitised water, I have electricity and gas, heat, as much as I can ever muster and more. I have a car and can afford to put petrol in the tank whenever I want. I have a large wall mounted TV, I have smartphones, tablets (prescription and electronic variants), I holiday in the sun, I occasionally ski, I have all that. I have become comfortable. And comfortableness brings freedom, freedom to choose from all these rich pickings at my table, all within arms reach. Progress. And if I as much as see another of God’s creatures in my house I whip out my credit card and call Rentokil who come out to destroy them with the latest man made toxins. Awesome.

But really, am I any happier, any better off, than my Gran was? Had my Gran been asked to predict what would life be like if it had been full of heat, light, cleanliness, more than you could ever imagine, she would of course have grabbed it with both hands. She would have probably imagined a life of unimaginable pleasures, a life filled with joy – parties, feasts, mass rallies of people, social gatherings, debates, more parties, unlimited travel, and yet here we are – with all these comforts, and what do we do? We choose to watch others through the medium of our televisions, our modern drug of choice. We surf the web looking for wheatgrass juicers or frictionless drawers for our kitchen. We watch, ostracised from others, viewing reality TV and becoming angry by the behaviour of the ‘celebrities’ within. We crave the life of our heroes – footballers that earn £200k a week, movie stars that have had surgery to keep them beautiful.  We desire the renovated house, we watch with green envy as the TV chef cooks a feast to astound and amaze their friends. We go to bed mentally exhausted, yet physically moribund, corpulent and unfulfilled.

My Gran went to bed exhausted, and if she wasn’t on the edge of the bed she grinned herself into a deep slumber, wiped out from a day of stark but real living.  She lived to a ripe old age too, and I remember seeing her on her death bed and I thought to myself, now that was a character, that was a life well lived, a life full of stories, of experience, of interaction.

And I wonder if we will feel the same.  Progress, what progress?

The Downton Way – a lesson in life

My wife and I have recently got into Downton Abbey.  Whilst the rest of you were watching it over the last couple of years it somehow passed us by, and so we are now watching the DVD box set, kindly loaned to us by a friend.

I love the history, but especially the characters and the interplay within the social classes (the upstairs ‘Toffs’, and the Downstairs ‘Oiks’).

There’s a whole society there in the house, an entire ecosystem built on hierarchy from the scullery maid right up to the Lord and Lady. And within each strata there are rules and strict protocols, taboos and principles that run high and deep. The roles are defined, limits are set and boundaries are drawn, and everyone knows their place.

The cook and her underlings are not allowed upstairs and don’t even get to eat with the downstairs elite – the valets, footmen, maids and butler. The housekeeper is boss of the women – maids, cooks, cleaners. The valet looks down on the footmen, junior valet aspires to become senior valet, senior valet aspires to be butler, and in fact everyone looks up to the butler, the CEO of Downstairs.

Upstairs life is more comfortable. A place where Downstairs people do everything for you, they fetch and carry, they hang on your every word, why they even dress you. And yet upstairs there is much more sadness, loneliness and isolation. Many of the Upstairs folk have very little to do, it’s all done for them. In fact the daughters seem to have one task which is to marry a rich man to carry on the heritage, extend the bloodline and pass the wealth onto the next generation and safeguard the family name. The happiest, kindest spirit Upstairs was the youngest daughter Sybil, and it’s no coincidence that she was the one to break from convention, someone who married for love, who worked out of passion and lived her life out of desire.

Upstairs people all drink like bloody fishes too. Wine with every meal, whisky after every meal, and when I say meal I really mean feast. Feast upon feast.  Cooked breakfasts and banquet supper seem to be a daily occurrence, washed down with several bottles of fine wine, book ended either side by copious whiskies and brandies.

Nevertheless it’s life Downstairs that leaves me feeling nostalgic. I don’t care too much for the elitism above, I don’t want to be lord of any manor, if for no other reason than I could never, ever, have another man dress me. We always see the cufflinks being fastened, but we all know, moments earlier, the Valet was politely asking the Lord to ‘raise ones right leg’ so the underpants could be dressed.

Sir seems to be hanging a little too far to the right today, Downstairs, if you see what I mean?”
“Downstairs? What, in the kitchen?”
“No m’Lord, *cough*, I mean in the old trouser department, please, allow me …

What a truly horrendous prospect.  But it’s not just the thought of having a man valet that puts me off, it just seems a lot more fun Downstairs, for that’s where the real community exists.

Downstairs you do an honest days work, you get paid, you eat to refuel, you go to bed to rest, you get yourself undressed because you still have your pride and integrity intact. OK there’s some bitchiness down there, and politics, and back stabbing and the like, but everyone has a role to play, everyone Downstairs is an important cog in the machine, whereas Upstairs that isn’t the case. Lord Grantham became depressed during The Great War as he had no role to play – he was too posh to serve and roamed his estate like a lost soul, at one point crossing the rubicon by snogging one of the maids.

The modern equivalent of Upstairs is celebrity stardom.  In 2013 most 14yr old kids are dreaming of winning X-Factor. There’s very little hierarchy left in modern society, anyone can be anyone and we all aspire to be celebrities. We watch people move Upstairs before our very eyes, be it X-factor, Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent, … and then we watch as they lose all grip on reality, watching them crash and burn.  Car crash TV.  Modern living.

If I had a choice I would wish to be Downstairs. I couldn’t be a Footman as I would spill the wine, and I couldn’t be a Valet as I couldn’t ever, never, not ever, dress/undress another man. I would like to be a Ladies Maid but I would never get past the CV stage, so I would instead aspire to be the Butler although that would take years, and so in the meantime I would want to be the Chauffeur with his clearly defined job description and a shiny classic car. And a hat.  And gloves.

We don’t necessarily need a staircase. All anyone ever needs in life is purpose.

Dad

The first, draftiest of drafty drafts of this blog was actually written around the first anniversary of my father’s death in July 2007.  I have taken that draft and tidied it up, updated it and polished it. I decided it needs a permanent home, like a photo on the wall.

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Dad had rarely ever been ill, and had never spent a day in hospital as far as I know. Aged 64 he should have been starting out on the last few chapters of his life rather than finishing up his final sentence. Retirement beckoned and both he and Mum had plans. Aged 63 3/4 he was the epitome of good health, so why wouldn’t he?
 
I look back on my childhood with incredible affection. We weren’t rich, but we were safe and we were happy. Earliest memories are of me aged about 3 or 4.  Dad was the car. I sat on his tummy (the seat), his upright arms were for steering, his nose was the horn, his ears were the indicators. We screeched around corners and I screamed and giggled as I fell from side to side. Always safe.  
 
I remember we also played a game of cowboys and when he was shot, lying on the floor taking his last breaths, he would whisper to me that he had left me all his chewing gum (we loved Wrigleys back then, the white packet, and to receive his Bootee was the best thing I could imagine), and he would start to tell me where the his secret stash of chewing was stored.
 
“it’s in … the … in … the …”
“Quick! Tell me!” I would scream excitedly. But he would always die before I found out.
 
He was frustrating too.
“Do you know, if your legs were an inch shorter, they wouldn’t touch the ground?  Isn’t it amazing how everyone’s legs JUST touch the floor?”
“Daaaad that’s not riiiight! If my legs were shorter I would drop down!”
“No you wouldn’t, your legs wouldn’t reach.  Think about it.  They only JUST reach the floor”
 
And I did think about it, rather too much than was good for me.
 
“Aren’t French people clever, they can speak French aged 3 or 4, whereas we can’t speak it until we are grown up?”
“Daaad, that’s because they are French!”
“But they couldn’t speak it when they were born, just like you, yet by your age they are fluent.  Very clever they are”.
 
I thought about that a lot too.


And as I grew older I remembered his work ethic. As a young man finding my way in the world, I was always aware I had privileges he never had. I had opportunities he never knew, and I often felt guilty, drinking away my university education, acting the joker, doing as little as possible to get by, yet he had none of those trappings.  

Finally, I left university with a crappy maths degree yet still fell into a decent job in London. Dad had spent his entire life in Barnsley leaving school to find much needed work aged 16, working in the day and studying in the evenings, but he was still infinitely wiser than I would ever be with my university education handed to me on a government plate. Materially, aged 30 I already had a bigger house than he had, yet he was always “better” than I would ever become.  Not superior, he was never that, just more genuine.

I now realise why he was, and always will be, a better man than me, and that’s because he lived a genuinely noble and honest life. He believed in endeavour, first and foremost. His Conservatism annoyed me, but I came to realise it was the work ethic he most admired. I felt like a fraud in many ways because I tended to coast through life. I always got by in the end, somehow. I achieved, but never in the way Dad achieved things. It was like he worked hard and earned everything. He was never lucky, he was just deserving. In my dad’s world you invested to make gains. In my world you took the piss as much as you could, and hoped against hope that you would never get found out.

As an adult, returning home was always a treat – whether it was from University, from London, with girlfriends, with Donna, or with Donna and the kids – Dad was always the perfect host. He was always interested, with an innate ability to connect to anyone, and everyone, at all levels – students, male, female, young, old – he was able to tune in to people.  

That was his second greatest quality, his greatest undoubtedly being his approach to dying. He had every right to be bitter and angry – just four months from beginning to end, the world pulled from under his feet. I often wonder how I would (will) react? Badly, angrilly, self pityingly no doubt, yet Dad showed none of this. 

I’m never sure if he did that just for us, his family, but he never faltered. Right until the end we talked football, talked about the minutiae of life like nothing was different, although he knew it was different, he knew he was dying long before we ever really understood how bad things had become.  

When I saw him for the last time in hospital before we left for a family holiday to America, I’ll never forget the moment. Everyone else had left the hospital room and we were alone. And we shook hands. Father and son and all we could do was shake hands, that’s the closest we ever got to physical affection and it remains my biggest regret to this day, but shook hands we did, northern stylee, and he looked at me knowingly, like he knew he wouldn’t see me again, and yet he managed to remain completely noble, suggesting I remind Mum to give the kids, their grandchildren, some pocket money to spend in America.  

He had a look in his eye as he nodded his farewell and raised his arm as I left, and in that moment I remembered everything. I remembered playing cars and cowboys. I remembered playing football with him on the beach, I remembered him taking me to Oakwell in 1972, I remembered his last game at Oakwell earlier that year and I like to think he was having similar thoughts too.  

The difference was I thought I would see him again. The consultant was confident he had some time left but Dad had insisted we still go on our planned holiday, like there was nothing to worry about. But when we shook hands I think he knew, he just wouldn’t let on. He didn’t want to spoil the holiday for the kids.  

He died a week later.

It’s been over five years and I’m no longer sad. I still think of him most days, and always think of him when I go home and whenever I visit Oakwell, but it doesn’t hurt any more. Of course I miss him, we all do, but as the pain fades, the good memories remain and for that I’m very thankful.

And I never found his secret stash of chewing gum either.

Halloween and dangerous bridges

I realised I haven’t written in my blog for the whole month of October, and it’s now 31st October, so if I don’t write one today, I will have missed a whole calendar month and that’s like stepping on the cracks or walking under ladders or something.

So here I am writing my October blog.  I am feeling quite gloomy today.  Not sure if it’s the weather or because it’s Halloween, or because it’s half term, perhaps it’s all three.

I’m not very good at dealing with half term.  Part of the problem is I work from home.  That is when I’m not travelling, and I have to say that working from home is pretty good most of the time.  A bad daily commute usually amounts to me tripping over the dog who has taken to laying outside the bedroom door.  It’s a dark corridor at the best of times and he’s a black dog, so you can probably imagine the potential hazards I have to face, but I’m really not complaining.  My previous commute was to Slough.

It took 2hrs to Slough, 2hrs each way, a 2 hr white knuckle drive through the back roads of SE England, trying to avoid traffic jams, but regularly bumping into other commuters using the same SatNav program as I.  I feel sorry for villages like Weston Turville that must have been quiet Hamlets back in the day, long before SatNavs told all and sundry that the quickest way from Leighton Buzzard to High Wycombe was to miss out Aylesbury and cut along Broughton Lane, past the inviting Dog House Pub http://www.doghouseinn.co.uk/, and over the narrow humped back bridge, so narrow in fact that there is only room for one car, and on account of the hump you can’t see what’s coming towards you.

I always used to shout “Wooooooahhhhhhhh!!” as I went over that bridge, using my finest rollercoaster voice.  It was an adrenalin fuelled shout if I’m honest.  Dangerous isn’t the word.  Actually dangerous is a very good word for that bridge on Broughton Lane nr the Dog House Pub nr Aylesbury, because you simply can’t see what’s coming towards you on account of the hump.  That wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t single lane.

The best tactic, therefore, one adopted by many seasoned SatNav commuters, is to try and get behind another car along Broughton Lane.  You have to be right up their arse by the time you reach the pub, so that they led the charge over the top and acted like a shield, taking all the impacts from any oncoming collision.

It was akin to Wacky races some days, with a snake of 7 or 8 cars all adopting the same tactic, less than 10mm between each other, all racing towards the bridge, and of course if the first one went for it you simply had to follow.  If you delayed, you risked an oncoming waiting car starting to sneak through and ruining all the good work the car in front had created.  You also incurred the wrath of the cars on your tail for failing to take the charge.  It wasn’t uncommon for commuters who had suffered such a humiliation, to sell their car and get a new one, different colour, different model, on account of the shame and loss of honour from breaking the code.  Woe betide the driver who broke the chain and dared return to Broughton Lane bridge.

The Ying and Yang in all of this though, is that it was rubbish if you were coming the other way and the Wacky Races entourage was coming towards you and had beaten you to the bridge, as you then had to wait ages whilst Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, Professor Pat Pending and the entire Ant Hill Mob snaked their way over the brow, smugly smiling at you as they passed, leaving you helplessly drumming your fingers on the steering wheel, wondering, always wondering, if that was the end of the snake, or whether there was one more to come.  That’s it .. here we go … Wooooooahhhhhhhh!!!!!

I don’t like Halloween either and my family knows it.  They’re quite good, they say I don’t have to go trick-or-treating, but that means I get to stay at home and answer the bloody door all night, having to act all surprised when local kids ring the bell, demanding sweets or they’ll kick the shit out of our house and slash the car tyres.

Of course the house is all decked out as my family like the spectacle of Halloween, so word gets out that No.4 is worth a visit. They think we’re “up for it”, what with all the decorations and all that, and they also expect to be greeted by a jolly ghoul.  Instead they get me, a rather grumpy, middle aged bloke on a Skype call to the USA, answering the door.

“Trick or treeeeaaaat!”
“Oh.  You look nice.  Very scary.  Is that an MK council recycling bin bag you’re wearing? Here, have a sweet.  Just take one FFS!!!!”

Kids grabbing handfuls of bloody sweets that undoubtedly cost me a small fortune.  But the worst kind are the teenagers  – the 15/16/17yrs old in torn clothes.

“Hi, we’re trick or treating”
“Oh. Right.  Here, have a sweetie”

And there I am, all alone, handing sweets to a bunch of 16yr old girls on my own bloody doorstep, girls wearing make-up and a skimpy skirt with torn black stockings and I’m trying to entice them with a Haribo chew from my pumpkin container of condiments.

Now then now then boys and girls, goodness gracious.  As it happens …

 

Berlin

Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Berlin.  Initially I didn’t want to go, particularly not for an outside-of-my-comfort-zone corporate event held at 7-10pm on a Friday night surrounded by ‘luvvies’ and other press/media types.

Nevertheless, I went, and due to the flight timings and late finish of the meeting, I had no choice but to stay overnight.  Luckily, my meeting was in the heart of the city and so I booked a cheap hotel walking distance from the event and within striking distance of historic, downtown Berlin.

Why didn’t I just stay the weekend, I hear you cry?  Well, I’m a married man with kids.  If I were single I almost certainly would have stayed longer, but the trip was short notice and we had things planned and I needed to get back.  We had considered my wife flying out to join me, but cripplingly high last minute, (summer holiday), air fares put a dampener on that idea, and so I flew alone and was due to return back just after lunch on the Saturday.

I should point out that my default setting when travelling alone is ‘recluse’.  I hate eating out on my own.  I feel desperately self conscious and tend to wolf down my food just to get out of the place as soon as I can, which I feel is a terrible waste of money and a real wasted opportunity, as eating out is one of the best bits of travelling, but I do need company.

Ergo, my initial plan for Berlin was to get back to my hotel at midnight, and use the late start to sleep in and catch up on some much needed rest before heading to the airport.

Thankfully, I didn’t sleep well and was up and about by 9am.  The sun was shining and I had three hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport, so I set off on foot to explore. I should perhaps explain at this point that I have only been to Berlin twice before in my life:

1989
I first went there in 1989 when I was inter-railing with my then girlfriend, now wife.  Donna and I stayed a few days in Berlin during a very special part of its history.  I remember there was a real buzz about the place.  I had heard people talk about the “Berliner Luft”, which literally means “Berlin air”, but is a reference to the special atmosphere that seemingly permeates everything in Berlin.  In the summer of ’89 there was a lot of political unrest in Eastern Europe, especially the Eastern Bloc.

I’m no historian and I won’t waste my time googling events but it was around the time the Soviet Union unravelled and geographical and political boundaries were being redrawn.  Berlin was politically tense, there were suggestions of reunification and although that didn’t happen until the following year, the “Berliner Luft” was in overdrive, pumping a heady aroma of anarchy, freedom and electricity throughout the streets of the old city.

We visited Potzdamer Platz and stared at the wall.  Like many others during that time, we anarchically chipped some pieces off the crumbling relic, so maybe the transition was already underway, I’m slightly ashamed I don’t quite remember.  But I do remember the atmosphere.  I remember visiting Checkpoint Charlie and reading about the heroic attempts at escape.  I remember the stunning black and white photographs of men, women, children and even soldiers like Conrad Schumann trying to break through the barbed wire to escape to the west.  Amazing stories of people hiding in car seats and suitcases to try and cross the border.

1998
The second time I went to Berlin was around 1998.  I was living in Munich at the time and went to Berlin for someone’s birthday or stag do, I forget which, but I will never forget the weekend as it was quite possibly one of the best weekends of my life. There were around eight of us.  We did the sights again by day – museums, buildings, parks.  In the evening we visited bars and drank a lot.  We were seven English and one Austrian.  I’m not sure why I mention that but it might help explain the drinking part.

On the main night, probably the Saturday, we went to a huge nightclub where I seemingly danced all night.  Yes you read that right family and friends, I danced all night.  The night club was like a vast aircraft hanger, there was lots of acidy house, trance, dance, I-have-no-clue-what-I’m-talking-about kind of music, great lightshows and what seemed like thousands of people all dancing their own dances.  And there I was, dancing.  I hate night clubs.  I detest night clubs.  I hated them as a kid growing up, they blighted my teenage and university years, those godforsaken places that always left me feeling miserable, alone and skint.  Expensive, low quality booze, pretentious poseurs, the whiff of violence as the night wore on as testosterone mixed with sweat, I hated them then and I hate them now, but I loved that night in Berlin.  The “Luft” was everywhere.  It crept under my skin.  I don’t know what it was.  I wasn’t overly drunk, in fact I recall I drank water that night as I wanted to keep dancing, I wanted my senses to remain alive, my receptors on full alert.  I wanted to savour everything.  This was nothing to do with romance, but everything to do with deep friendships, the few of us who stayed there until the early hours didn’t need to talk, we remained connected by the ‘Luft’, that made Berlin feel so very special.

It also felt safe, full of people that just wanted to have a good time.  There wasn’t that sense of violence that I usually associated with nightclubs.  No packs of lads on the prowl looking for a fight or a vulnerable bit of skirt.  This evening felt like humanity stripped bare, love reigned supreme, a love for life, love for humanity, love for the world.

2012
Back to last week, and within 30 minutes of leaving my hotel I had reached Potzdamer Platz for the 3rd time in my life, 14 years on from my last trip.  There were pieces of wall still, kept as tourist memorabilia, watched over by a fake touristy guard who would put fake touristy stamps in your passport (for a tourist fee).  Kind of tacky, but still very poignant.  To see the 12ft high segments of wall plastered in graffiti really did bring back memories.  To think I was now stood on the border, literally with one leg either side of what was the wall.  It still felt bizarre.  To see the buildings on that side of the street that now looked identical to the ones on the other side of the street, yet just 20 years ago they would have looked so architecturally different, the wealthy side – the poor side, the capitalist side – the socialist side, the open side – the closed side, a street separated by feet and inches, yet impossibly kept apart by a 12ft high, 96 mile wide concrete wall.

I then walked on to Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate, probably the most well known landmark of Berlin.  During the partition access through the gate was blocked for this was where the wall went.  I took a photo.  I had to.  Ever had that feeling?

I continued my walk to the Reichstag.  The very word sounds scary, immediately bringing to mind thoughts of Hitler, the Nazis, WWII.  In fact it’s been there since the 19th century and is now once again home to the German Parliament.  It’s so fcuking historical you can only stop, look up and stare in credulity.  It’s a truly incredible building.  You try and soak up all that history but you can’t, you just can’t, it’s too vast.  So I took another photo.

At this point I had timed out and needed to head to the airport so I hunted down a taxi and was gone, but I vowed to come back again soon.

I love Berlin in a way that I also love Munich, but for very different reasons.  I lived two years in Munich with my young family and it will always hold a special fondness and affinity for my wife and I.  I think we could easily live in Munich again, but I love Berlin for very different reasons that I have found hard to communicate in this blog.  I love its historical significance, I love the stories, I love the atmosphere.  It really does feel special and unique.  I know you can make that case for any city in the world, they all have their own stories, but Berlin’s history is so far reaching, so dramatic, so close in time, and that seems to make it something truly unique.

At the weekend I told my mum about my trip to Berlin and she said my Dad had always felt the same.  Apparently he had been several times on business trips and had always promised to take Mum one day.  Dad must have bloody loved the place, all those museums and history.  He never did take Mum before he passed away, but I like to think that, somehow, accidentally, I have stumbled across the same city, unknowingly falling in love with the same places he did.

I want to go back again one day.  Perhaps I’ll take my family next time, and maybe Mum might even come too.