All Quiet on the Western Front

I’ve just finished reading this book by Erich Maria Remarque, a German writer, writing about the experiences of seven very young German men (boys) who were sent to fight on the Western front line in the First World War.

It’s not just a beautifully written book, it’s also an insight and perspective I hadn’t seen or read about previously – a view of war from the other side.

I grew up and learned about the world wars but always from ‘our’ side. But when you read this, you realise there are no sides, not on the front line, there are just two groups of scared, frightened young men, fighting for something they didn’t understand.  They were all just kids who lived, loved, and laughed just like you and me … but who ultimately sacrificed their lives.

Today we are lucky, yet still we see inequality, unfairness and violence all around us. ‘Im Westen nicht Neues’, written in 1929, is timeless. It’s one of those books that isn’t just beautifully written, it also makes you stop and think just how precious and delicate life is, and how we all need to make the very most of the brief time we have.

If this book tells us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t be fighting anyone else’s wars but our own – to live our lives as honourably and as compassionately as we can.

When we were young …

This amazing photograph, titled “Kids jumping onto mattresses” was taken by Tish Murtha in 1980, and rather beautifully encapsulates life growing up in urban Britain in the 70s/80s.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick

image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

Notwithstanding the kid in the foreground holding the ventriloquist’s dummy (wtf?), the rest of the scene could have been from any summer in my early youth growing up in  an industrial corner of Yorkshire. We did that kind of thing to entertain ourselves – we climbed trees, rummaged through quarries for pram wheels (with which we would make and then race trolleys), and we played in and around abandoned, or semi-built, houses and burned out cars.


Elswick Kids, image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

How times have changed. No longer would such a derelict house or rusty old car be left so blatantly abandoned and accessible like that. And no responsible, modern day parent would ever dream of letting their children loose, especially unsupervised, in such dangerous environments.

Through modern eyes, and with seemingly ever increasing levels of paranoia, we can see nothing but danger and neglect in these scenes, but with our 70s outlook we can see only fun, excitement, camaraderie and danger.

Back then, we climbed and fell out of trees, we played football on fields laden with broken glass strewn with (white) dog shit. And we jumped out of abandoned or derelict houses onto filthy, disgusting mattresses, before returning home, scruffy, scratched and grazed, starving hungry and totally and completely knackered. If it was Saturday we may have had a bath, otherwise our mums reluctantly washed our faces with a flannel, fed us a jam sandwich and sent us to bed. The next morning we would wake up, hurriedly get dressed and repeat it all over again, for six glorious weeks throughout the summer.

Should we return to those days? Of course not, that’s a bygone age and we have moved on. But looking back, none of us died, yet we did have immense fun and learned ever such a lot about the harsh realities and dangers of life, something I wonder if kids today in their sanitised, indoor, digitised cocoons, will ever get to experience?


The best playlist of my life … and maybe yours too?

I’ve always enjoyed compiling music. In the old days it was recording from vinyl onto cassette tapes, or recording songs from the radio where you had to try and stop the recording just after the song ended, but before Tony Blackburn or Simon Bates spoke and spoiled everything.

I used to compile tapes for friends (for friends read girls). They took ages to compile, each track carefully chosen, sometimes with accompanying lyrics handwritten out of sheer love and desire.  I would sometimes have to post the tapes in the mail in the hope she would receive, listen and come running.

It never really worked but it was immense fun. These days it’s much easier with Spotify, Apple Music or any other streaming service where 30-million tracks are just a click away, in high fidelity, with no DJ interruptions. And so it is that old fashioned, analogue compilations have now given way to digital playlists.

I tend to build playlists these days principally for me rather than for girls, but it’s still a great way to gather together certain genres, or composers, or songs from a particular decade, songs for dinner parties, songs for house parties, songs for flying, songs to run along to, songs to cook with, songs to sing along to.

The options are endless, but my most recent playlist has undoubtedly been the most fun to compile, and I wanted share this with you because it’s something you might want to try.  Mine’s called ‘Andy’s life playlist’, but you might want to give yours a different name.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You must add a song to the playlist if, and only if, it was a significant thing for you, at some stage of your life. It might be something you fell in love with, obsessed over, or just something that is so significantly memorable that it transports you back to a very specific place/time/age. Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun was the first 45/single I ever bought from Casa Disco. I was 9yrs old and I fell in love with music. I was on the way to becoming me.  So that’s in.
  2. It MIGHT be a song you didn’t particularly like, but which is so strongly associated with a specific life event that it has to go in. When our first child was born, I remember returning to the car bleary eyed and emotionally punch drunk, turning on the radio when ‘Sleeping Satellites’ by Tasmin Archer came on the radio.  That song will forever be associated with my wife and our son, and whenever I hear it I am immediately transported back to Milton Keynes Hospital Car Park in the autumn of 1992. So that’s in too.
  3. You MUST NOT exclude a song because you now find it cheesy, facile, simplistic or juvenile. This is just your 2017 self filtering and tainting your thinking. You loved that song back then when (and because) you were pure, you were untainted by other opinions, politics, self awareness and snobbiness. You just reacted biologically to the words, the beat, the harmonies, the chord changes. It affected the real you, it was you. I remember singing with a hairbrush into my bedroom mirror miming and dancing to ‘I Can Do It’ by The Rubettes. I was Alan Williams, I even had similar hair. So that has to be in, whether I like it or not.
  4. You CANNOT add a song that you like now, but didn’t like at the time, just to try and make yourself look cool. Stop playing these games. Just because you should have liked The Jam doesn’t mean ‘Going Underground’ should be on the playlist.
  5. Certain songs evoke memories of life events like nothing else can, and that’s what you’re trying to capture here. On the first anniversary of my dad’s untimely death, I remember I felt miserable all day. I was working in London and can recall coming home on the train that evening. It was a hot summer’s evening as I stared out of the window feeling bluesy when ‘Warning Signs’ started to play through my headphones. And when Chris Martin said “... and the truth is, I miss you, yeah the truth is, I miss you … so“, I started to cry, and I cried all the way to my car. But I felt happy, I felt connected to Dad somehow. You could be forgiven for not hearing that ‘so’ at the end of that line, but I don’t, and I never will. I don’t understand how all this stuff works but it’s very powerful, and that song evokes memories of my Dad and specifically his loss, like nothing else ever can. I often cry when I hear it now, and whilst Chris probably wrote it about Gwyneth, or some other lover, to me it’s it’s about Dad. It’s between me and him. That’s the kind of stuff that has to go in.
  6. And it doesn’t have to just be old stuff, you CAN add new songs to the playlist. If a song affects you in 2017, it’s just as much a part of your life playlist as the song that affected you in 1973. You might discover a song from ’73 that you hear for the first time in 2017, so that’s fine to go in too, but you CANNOT add a ’73 song you didn’t ever like or have no connection to, but you now wish you had (see point 4 above) – that’s one for your fake public playlist.

Just remember, this playlist is designed to be a musical portfolio for your life, not for anyone else’s. Build it for you. You won’t be able to do it in one go, just keep it running in the background and add to it whenever and wherever you remember a song. There’s no limit, it can be as short or as long as you like.

Also, please note that your playlist must never be shared. Once you know you might share you will start to filter, and it will no longer be your pure playlist, but rather a modified playlist you’d like others to think was yours. This is very important.  I have some right shit on mine, stuff I’ll never admit to in public, but it’s part of me, no one will ever know, it’s my little secret, it’s my life playlist.

And finally, but just as importantly, you must edit the title and append a number to each song title, e.g, ‘Seasons in the sun’ becomes ‘9_Seasons In the Sun’, ‘Hold me now’ becomes ’18_Hold me now’, ‘Linger’ becomes ’28_Linger”, and so on. This number is the age you were (or as close as you can approximate) when you connected with the song.

And this is the special bit. When you now play your playlist where the songs are ordered alphabetically, you now get to listen to the soundtrack of your life.



A letter to my 17yr old self …

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


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.


Me (2016)


A letter from my 17yr old self …


Dear 51 yr old Andy,

I’m sitting here in the common room at Sixth Form college. You remember this place? Defender video machine in the corner, table football, comfy chairs, coffee shop – we even have a radio, pretty cool.

I feel so much more grown here compared to Kendray Oaks Comp. I feel a hell of a lot safer too – there’s no bullying, everyone is here because they want to be (by and large), everyone wants to learn (by and large) – you know what I mean, you remember that don’t you?

Yeah, it’s cool here, I like it, but the work is so hard. A-levels are like ten times harder than O-levels. I’m struggling with Physics – I can’t grasp ‘electricity’ no matter how hard I try – electrons moving along a wire make a bulb light up – are you serious?? Economics is kind of interesting, it’s different, but some of the concepts seem a bit alien and I’m not sure what the point of it is? And maths is maths, just maths, although it’s much harder, much more abstracted than O-level.

That’s the thing about A-levels, it feels all rather ‘disconnected’. At school, working out the price of apples and oranges knowing that John bought 2 apples and 3 oranges for 19p whilst Jenny bought 1 apple and 3 oranges for  17p seems like a worthwhile thing to do. It has practical meaning. However, working out the value of ξ in a Fourier Transform that ranges from minus infinity to plus infinity seems somewhat unnecessary and unimportant to me:

\hat{f}(\xi) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(x)\ e^{- 2\pi i x \xi}\,dx,   

Quite frankly, as much as I like Sixth Form (I have a girlfriend!), I’m gutted about my subject choices. Anyway I’ll plod on because Dad said it’s the right thing for me and he’s always right. Besides, what else would I have chosen? The Arts subjects aren’t going to get anyone a job, jobs come from engineering and mathematics. That’s how the world works. People that study the Arts are a bit … well deluded, and silly. How hard can Arts be anyway? Drawing pictures and writing stories – these people will never get a job!

I plan on going to university. I have no idea what subject I will study, but I will go. It’s the thing to do, the teachers said so, and besides what else would I do?

Some friends of mine have formed a band, they play stuff I love and it’s cool, but what about their homework? They practice on school nights! Such a waste, they’ll regret that in later life. Although I am a bit jealous deep down – I’d love to be the singer in the band but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

I also really love The Young Ones – its a new comedy series on TV and Rik Mayall is brilliant. I have all the episodes on VHS tape and I know every word, every joke, every line from every episode. Mum and dad think it’s a bit odd, older people don’t generally like it and so I feel bad about that as older people are almost always right. They call it Alternative Comedy. I watch it when they’ve gone to bed. I’d love to tell jokes like Rik but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

So how’s life at 51, older me? I feel a bit nervous writing that – how did we do? And do you understand electricity yet!?

Andy, 1982




Dear Friend …

When asked the “Beatles” question, the cool kids always answer Lennon because he was the anti-establishment one, the protestor, the rebel … oh and of course he was the genius. And his legendary status was further underlined, as so often happens, with his untimely demise in New York in 1980.

In 1980, Lennon was elevated even further, from the ranks of rebellious young man, to martyr, becoming even more of an icon, a James Dean, a JFK – where were you when Lennon got shot?

Meanwhile Paul, George and Ringo – John’s support band, faded even further into the background.

As a kid growing up I loved The Beatles, initially it was the records my parents played, but as I reached adolescence I started to make my own choices, and it was Paul’s songs I (unwittingly) gravitated towards. This was long before John’s death.

Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let It Be -> McCartney
Strawberry Fields, Lucy in the Sky, Revolution -> Lennon

Six great songs, six true, timeless classics – three make you want to cry, three make you want to rebel. As a kid I really was a lover, not a fighter.

When I was a teenager Macca went on to form Wings, whilst John did his Yoko sit-ins writing solo stuff. Macca wrote pop songs and toured big stadiums, John stayed in bed and smoked dope. Paul was in love, John was angry.

The ‘Lennonites’ despised Wings more than they despised McCartney, for everything it stood for. And don’t get them started on Linda. Admittedly Macca did himself no favours post Wings with his poppy collaborations and frog chorusses, but I do think much of the Wings material was just as brilliant as much of The Beatles stuff. Much of the Wings material probably was Beatles stuff, but repackaged under the less cool brand of McCartney, yet it barely saw the light of day and certainly seems to have been left behind, consigned to the annals of history.

One track that stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it, was ‘Dear Friend’, the closing track on the album ‘Wildlife’ which was recorded in 1971. I didn’t get to hear it until around 1978 when my brother brought the record home, but ‘Dear Friend’ had me on first hearing. I was only 13 yrs old and yet I was mesmerised by the simplistic beauty of this haunting song. I rarely listened to lyrics then, but ‘Dear Friend’ sounded really, really sad, beautifully sad.

“Dear friend, throw the wine,
I’m in love with a friend of mine.”

I was 13, I thought I knew what love was, but of course I didn’t. I did however know what unrequited love felt like, and this song was painting a picture for me, packaging it up and presenting back to me exactly what unrequited love felt like in musical form. It was perfect, and it made me want to cry in that nice way only beautiful songs can.

Years on, I now know this song was about Lennon, about Paul and John’s fractious relationship. It was Paul’s attempt at reconciliation and it remains as beautiful and poignant today as it did back then, over 35 years ago. Emotional lightweight? I think not.

I never was one of the cool kids, I shied away from rebellion, and I never ‘got’ John. Hey Jude is (in my opinion) one of the greatest songs ever written but Dear Friend isn’t far behind.

Nice work Greg …

This is a big shout out to Calendars everywhere.  We take them for granted, but without them life would be chaos. What a fuss I made of the new year in my last blog, this arbitrary turning axis of time, this bridge between years as dictated by something as random as the Gregorian calendar.  Pope Gregory XIII introduced it in 1582, hence the name. Gregory made a refinement on the Julian calendar, which was developed by Julius Caesar (hence the name, again). Pope Gregory added 0.002% to the year to count for the fact that a year is in fact 365 and a bit days long, not 365 days as Julius had suggested. Gregory invented leap years basically, and so if you were born on February 29th, you have him to thank.

Julius had introduced his calendar in 46BC, which is bizarre, as I very much doubt he knew about the impending birth of Christ at the time. Julius had refined the Roman calendar, of which there were many, the original dating back to Romulus in 753BC. Respect goes out to Romulus for such an initiative, but to be fair his calendar was a bit rubbish, with only 10 months in total, beginning the year in March which is so wrong it’s embarrassing. Even small children know the year starts in January. He actually just missed out the first two months and only had 304 days in his calendar, so there was an actual gap between the end of one year and the beginning of another. Romulus may have founded Rome but his calendar skills were sorely lacking.

I often wonder how calendars ever came about in the first place if no one had any concept of calendars, and so here’s how I think the whole calendar thing played out (in my head).

Thousands of years ago …

Someone amongst a crowd: What day is it?

Everyone else: What?  What do you mean? Are you mad? And what on earth is a ‘day’?

Someone: It’s just that, every time I wake up it feels and looks like a repeating pattern, that’s what I mean by a ‘day’, and yet every ‘day’ feels slightly different, but it seems to go full circle – a bunch of warm days, then it gets chilly, then really cold, then it warms up again, and then it starts all over.

Everyone else: Wow. So you’re saying there are repeating cycles within longer repeating cycles, so ‘days’ form part of a longer repeating cycle?

Someone: Hell yeah, I call that longer cycle a ‘year’.

Everyone else: What’s your name?

Romulus: Romulus

Everyone else: You’re a genius, you should write that stuff down

Some immeasurable period of time later…

Romulus: I’ve done it! here it is The Romulus Calendar!

Everyone else: You named it after yourself? That’s a little bit egotistical isn’t it?

Romulus: Well I’m not going to call it the Kevin calendar now am I?

Everyone else (looking at each other and nodding): Fair point.  So how does it work?

Romulus: The Romulus calendar consists of 304 days, with the winter days after the end of December and before the beginning of the following March not being assigned to any month.

Everyone else:  That’s a bit shit isn’t it?  Did you just get bored?

Romulus: It’s actually quite complicated.  I hate you lot.

Everyone else: Hahaha!! Boo! Rubbish! Gerroff!!

40 years later …

Numa Pompilius: Why are we still using the shitty Romulus calendar?  It’s really frustrating.  I was born in the dark days of winter for which the calendar has missing bits and so I can’t easily celebrate my birthday.  304 days is really rubbish.

Everyone else: It’s all we’ve got, Romulus was a moron.

Numa: I’m going to make another then

Everyone else: Hurray!!

A while later …

Numa: I’ve done it!

Everyone else: At last! show us!

Numa: OK, so there were 51 previously unallocated winter days, to which I’ve added the six days from the reductions in the days in the months, making a total of 57 days and put these into two brand new months, January and February, which I added  to the previous 10 months. January has 29 days, while February has 28 days, making a regular year (of 12 lunar months) 355 days long in place of the previous 304 days of the crappy Romulus calendar!

Everyone else: Wow, that seems much better, good work fella, presumably you named it after yourself?

Numa: I called it the Calendar of Numa

Everyone else: So you did then. Typical

A person in the crowd:  Hang on though Numa, it doesn’t quite match with the solar year does it? It’s still going to get out of sync over time. Better than Romulus did I grant you, but it’s still a bit short and therefore a bit shit isn’t it?

Numa: A bit short? A solar year? Wtf? I have to go, I’m a king and therefore very busy. I hate you.

Several years later …

Julius Caesar: I’ve done it!

Everyone else:  Done what?

Julius Caesar: Fixed that dodgy Numa calendar by adding in a few more days

Everyone else: Finally! It took you long enough, about 650 years in fact.

Joker: Or 700 years using Numa’s shitty calendar! (high fives all round)

Everyone else: Let’s guess, you called it the Julius calendar?

Julius Caesar: Errr no … actually … it’s the Julian calendar!

A person in the crowd: It still doesn’t quite work, there’s still a 0.002% inaccuracy that over time will really piss people off.

Julius Caesar: Wtf? I have to go, I’m busy, I have an Empire to rule and I fitted this into my spare time. I hate you all.

Several years later …

Pope Gregory XIII: Sorted!  I’ve fixed Julius Caesar’s bug-ridden calendar which was created in 46BC by ingeniously adding an extra day to February every fourth year.  I call this a leap year, a fine day for getting married methinks.

A person in the crowd: Hang on, how can a year be referred to as BC, Before Christ, when Christ hadn’t yet been born or even known about?  Or did they know when He was going to be born before it happened? Was His arrival pre ordained?

Gregory: Ah well, as the Pope I know this.  You see, the Anno Domini dating system was devised in 525 by Dionysius Exignus. His system replaced the Diocletian era that had been used previously.  The last year of the old table, Diocletian 247, was immediately followed by the first year of this table, AD 532. Thus, Dionysius implied that Jesus’ Incarnation occurred 525 years earlier, without stating the specific year during which his birth or conception occurred.  So in fact they didn’t refer to BC back then, but rather the Diocletian equivalent.

The person in the crowd (feeling rather sheepish): Blimey, thanks, I bet you’re a riot at parties Greg. But thanks for the calendar, it really works!

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.

Giddy Kippers and Cocks

I’m feeling a bit giddy as Christmas approaches, and that reminded me of the phrase “Giddy Kipper”.

My Gran used to call me a “giddy kipper” whenever I got, well, giddy.  Actually, the full saying is “Eeee by ‘eck yer giddy kipper!”, said in an exclamatory manner in a Yorkshire brogue. It’s always struck me as an odd saying as I’ve seen numerous kippers over the years and none of them have ever been remotely giddy.

Had I been acting like a statue and been called a “statuesque kipper” I could appreciate that, because kippers are the most lifeless things I have ever come across.  If I have seen one kipper I have seen at least 34, and none of them have ever moved.  Ever.  Not ever.  Never.

Intrigued, I looked it up online, here is what the first google entry says:

Wot does the saying giddy kipper mean and where does it come from? X

‘Giddykipper’- A very talkative and excitable person. No definite origin but likely from giddy being something tiring. Kippers are excitable male salmon.

Read more

Kippers are excitable male salmon apparently.  And there’s me thinking a kipper is nothing but a dried herring?  How do people get away with such stuff?  That definition is so outrageously inaccurate it defies belief.  Not only is a kipper not a salmon, but it isn’t anything remotely excitable.  Cut a herring in two, let it dry in the sun and tell me if it’s ‘excitable’.  See?

But hang on, search and ye shall find, for later on I saw this:

before 1000; Middle English kypre, Old English cypera  spawningsalmon, apparently derivative of cyperen  of copper, i.e., copper-colored

Now, I should imagine a salmon that’s just about to spawn might in truth be a little giddy, so maybe there is some truth in the saying after all?

But wait, there’s more:


2  [kip-er]  Show IPA

noun, Australian Informal.

a young male Aborigine, usually 14 to 16 years old, who has recently undergone his tribal initiation rite.
I could also hazard a guess that a male, 16 yr old boy who has just undergone his tribal initiation rite might also be a bit giddy.  I know I would be.  In fact aged 16 I was often giddy.  As a teenager I got giddy at the drop of a hat.  Once, a girl in my school dropped her hat in the playground and I picked it up for her, and I went so giddy I had to sit down:
1981, Barnsley
Girl: Damn I’ve dropped my hat
Me: Err, here … {hands over retrieved hat}
Girl: Ta cock, You alright?  By ‘eck you look as giddy as a kipper Ramsbottom!
Me: Hi, err, hi …. Christ.  Err … I mean I love you.
Girl: You what? What did you say, you geeky skinny freak?!!!!
Me: Err nothing (runs away … then sits down)
“Cock” was another popular saying in the old days.  As used by the 16yr old girl from my childhood playground played out in the scene above, it was often a kind of term of endearment. Nowadays it might be “mate” or “pal”, but back then in my part of the world it was “cock”.
“Cock” had another popular usage too, but unlike the one above, this wasn’t Yorkshire wide, but seemed much more local.  It was also the name of the best fighter in your school year.  It was as rough as a buzzard’s crutch where I grew up and there was a clearly defined pecking order, as discussed in an earlier blog entry, and my cousin Nige was cock of the year above me, which was nice.
“Eyup Cock!” first example
“Eyup sithy, that’s Nige, he’s cock o’t’school!” would be an oft used phrase encompassing the second example, and:
“By ‘eck cock, thar a reyt giddy kipper thee, thar wants to watch theesen else Nige’ll knock yer block off, he’s cock on’t school thar knows!” 
is a sentence that neatly encompasses all aforementoned phrases all in one. So there.  You’ve learned something today.
Of course, if you said “cock” to a kid today they’d just laugh in your face.  And then the Police would arrest you.


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.

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.