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.

Books that reawakened my love of reading

I believe that books are like music, deeply personal artefacts, which makes them difficult to recommend to others.  Yes, there are metrics that make recommendation easier – the quality of the writing, the style and of course the topic itself, but that’s just a small part isn’t it? Don’t you also have to throw into the mix your mood at the time of reading, your personal circumstances, your age, your attitudes, the current economic climate, current trends, etc, etc?

I’m going to list some books here that I rediscovered recently in the loft whilst looking for something else. I hadn’t forgotten these books, but I had forgotten I still had them, and upon seeing them I received such an instant rush of delight, such strong flashbacks to a time in my life when I actually remember very little, yet the reawakened memories from seeing these books invoked a real sense of nostalgia.

These books were all read by me between 1987 and 1990 (+ 1993) (aged 22-25 (+ 28)). I started my first job in London in September ’86 and finally freed from academic study, plus a commute down the northern line, I suddenly had time to read, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

  • The Catcher in the Rye – J.D Salinger
    I bought this from a second-hand bookshop off Islington High Street in 1986. I can remember buying it, but I can’t remember why (probably because I thought it looked and sounded cool). I don’t remember that much about the book, but I do remember Holden Caulfield, and even though he was a 1950s kid growing up in America, I liked him, I identified with him. He found the world challenging and I guess as a young man living in a new city with few friends, starting my first job, I shared a few of Holden’s angsts. I look at the book now and I don’t think I could read it again, despite all those memories. I read it at exactly the right time, and that’s my point about books, you can’t recommend ‘feelings’.
  • The Cider House Rules/A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
    July ’87 (I used to write inside my books). This was my second Irving novel after reading The World According To Garp (a book I think I gave away). I loved Garp so much I searched more from Irving and this happened to be next. John Irving was so good at creating characters and Homer Wells was no exception. This is a big book, one of those ‘life’ books that follows Homer throughout his life. Weird and wonderful (often unreal) things happen to Homer but it doesn’t matter, this isn’t a book about story so much as it’s a book about people.  I loved Homer Wells and I devoured that book on my commute – 730 pages – in just a few short days. I read ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ whilst inter-railing in 1990 and I consider Garp, Homer and Owen to be good friends of mine.
  • Success/Dead Babies/Rachel Papers – Martin Amis
    I felt I had to try British authors and stumbled upon Martin Amis, possibly recommended by a friend. I don’t think these three books were a trilogy, but I read them that way – all between ’87 and ’88 – they’re all published in the same style and all based around young people (my age), living in London (my new town). Amis was (is?) a brilliant writer and I loved the Englishness (perhaps after reading American literature it felt fresh and more closer to home). These books are about lives of young people living loose and fast. Drugs, sex and booze are rife, morals are dubious, far removed from my life (except maybe for the booze) and perhaps it was the escapism and naughtiness I liked most.  Rachel Papers made the most impact on me. I think I fell in love with Rachel, it wasn’t always an easy read. That’s what I remember, not the plot, but the emotion.
  • A Kind of Loving – Stan Barstow
    Not content with just going English, I went full Yorkshire in Aug ’89, availing myself of Stan Barstow. I absolutely loved Stan Barstow. His books were set in Yorkshire, in the 60s, often around a young man starting out in life and struggling to make ends meet. Vic Brown was the main character. Vic became a trilogy with Watchers on the Shore and A Right True End. I read them back to back. Barstow’s books (I read 6 of them in total) made me realise you don’t have to hide your roots, you can be proud of them.
  • The Crow Road – Iain Banks
    I’ve included this, even though I read it a little later (4th May, 1993, Euston Station). I include this because it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read. Prentice McHoan is Scottish and had a very different upbringing to me, yet it feels wonderfully familiar, not so much the scenes or the situations, but the way Prentice thinks, the emotions he feels. But I didn’t just love the character of Prentice, I loved the way Banks described scenes and I think this was the first time I deeply appreciated how wonderful description could also be. The Crow Road remains one of the most beautiful books to combine character, story and description in my opinion, and there’s one scene in the book that remains my most favourite scene I’ve ever read. I probably will read this book again one day with a fine malt.
  • The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
    My other most favourite Iain Banks novel is The Wasp Factory (since lost and hence not pictured). I wanted my kids (my two boys in particular) to read that book as that also had a huge impact on me and I wanted them to feel some of what I felt. It failed badly, neither of them read it and I felt sad, but then realised what I said at the beginning – you can’t force books on others. The Wasp Factory wasn’t their book, it was mine. Hopefully they will make their own discoveries, and often it’s the discovery process that’s the most exciting.

As a final caveat I should add that I did successfully lend Amis’s Dead Babies to my daughter and she did read it in June 2013 – thanks for that Em, and thanks for also writing your name in the book and continuing the tradition 😉 x

Death in the times of Corona …

My mum was cremated today, and we didn’t even know.

She died in hospital on March 11th, 2020, not from Covid-19, but from cancer. I was there to hold her hand as her life finally slipped away – undoubtedly the most heart wrenching experience and simultaneously the most amazingly poignant experience, I have ever witnessed.

Mum wanted to be cremated and my brother and I started preparations to fulfil her wishes as best we could. We contacted a local funeral services company, we chose the type of ceremony, chose the coffin, discussed the flowers, wrote guest lists, planned the wake and everything else that goes into a funeral for a loved family member.

And we finally settled on a venue and a date, two week’s hence, Monday 30th March.  We placed an announcement in the local newspaper whilst also informing as many family and friends as we could think of.

This was, of course, in the midst of the rising Coronavirus pandemic here in the UK (and most of the rest of the world). It seems a distant memory now, but it was only two weeks ago, and in that short time everything has changed beyond recognition.

We quickly learned that most of mum’s friends, who, like her, were over 70yrs old, would have to self isolate due to the coronavirus, and would not be able to attend the funeral. We then saw the UK slide into full lockdown over the next few days and so we urgently sought advice from the funeral director on what to do. They couldn’t help, they knew as little as we did, and government guidance on funerals during the pandemic was still conspicuous by its absence.

Many frantic discussions ensued, emotions were high, and the guidance we finally received was that, at best, we might be able to have a close family funeral only. Guidance was no more than five people to attend and no more than three people in the hearse.  But we were warned even that might change, nobody knew, and with a large family made up of siblings, children, grandchildren, a great grandchild and a wide circle of friends, this wasn’t at all what we wanted or planned for mum.

We wanted her funeral to be a celebration of her life, an occasion for all, an occasion for crying, laughing, hugging and for telling stories which clearly wasn’t going to happen, and it was with many heavy hearts that we reluctantly decided to have a cremation-only. We would delay the ceremony until later in the year once the pandemic had blown over.

What we hadn’t appreciated was that this also meant a shift in venue and a change of date – cremations without ceremonies don’t take place at standard crematoriums. We therefore wrote to everyone to explain the change and everyone understood – these were difficult times which made for difficult decisions.

And so it felt strange yesterday – 30th March – as that was mum’s original funeral date. We received messages from family and friends sending their thoughts, prayers and love but we also had to explain that we still didn’t have a date for the rearranged cremation.  These were challenging times for getting anything done – switchboards were jammed, people were being furloughed and the funeral industry was facing the same challenges as everyone else. Nevertheless the silence was troubling, and frustrating, and so when I emailed the funeral company yesterday and still didn’t get a reply, I decided to call them today.

After holding for a while I got through to Sue, I gave her the reference number and was placed back on hold whilst she checked the status. When she came back, she explained there was still a small payment outstanding. I was unaware, nobody had informed me and so I offered to pay the balance immediately. Unfortunately the system was down and Sue couldn’t take my payment. She told me someone would call me back later …

“OK that’s fine”, I replied “but can you tell tell me what date mum will be cremated so I can inform family and friends?”

“Yes, it’s today” came Sue’s reply.

I was lost for words, Sue was very apologetic. Everything was ‘crazy’, she said.
As if having a cremation-only wasn’t sad enough, it felt like we had disrespected mum even further by missing the time of her funeral.  Sue couldn’t tell me if the cremation had already taken place, just that it was ‘some time today’.  We couldn’t even remotely send our love and thoughts, couldn’t pay our final respects, couldn’t have a two-minute silence from our distant, isolated homes.

I had to explain to family and friends that we had all missed mum’s cremation. I don’t blame Sue, I don’t blame her employer and I don’t blame the government, but I do feel heartbroken. This was a nightmare scenario that wasn’t even imaginable pre-Corona, and it certainly wasn’t what mum deserved.

We are now firmly focussed on planning mum’s remembrance ceremony sometime in the future (pencilled in for September) and making it the best event we can possibly muster. We will never forget mum and we will make sure we give her the send off she richly deserves as soon as we possibly can. This pandemic will end, life will eventually return to some kind of normality and we will remember mum, but for today, the day of her cremation, there is nothing at all that we can do.

I miss you mum, we all miss you, and tonight I’m going to raise a glass of your favourite wine in your honour, it’s the least and the most I can do.

xx

mum

Mum and I, meeting properly for the first time, 1965

 

A more considered life?

The new year has always meant the same thing for as long as I can remember – a new set of one-dimensional, ego driven resolutions. And over the last 30 years or so they have barely changed, always pivoting around the following:

  • lose weight
  • drink less
  • eat less
  • exercise more

Not only are these all vague, dull, unimaginative and boringly predictable, they’re also primarily selfish, vain and egotistical. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re also unattainable and therefore ultimately pointless.

Improving oneself shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself, it should only be a means to an end, which is why this year I’m going to do things differently.

2020 will see me, for the first time in a very long time, not doing Dry January, not doing Veganuary, not turning vegetarian (again), not setting another exercise timetable, not subscribing to more meditation apps, not buying new self-help books and not starting any new diets. 2020 will hopefully see me living a better life, a more considered one.

Andy’s two-part, 8-step manifesto to a more considered life (v.2020/01)

PART 1 – ME

  1. Everything goes (but in moderation) – what I learned in 2019 when I completely abstained from alcohol, was that deprivation of any kind makes me sad and ultimately leads to failure (and I have years of evidence to back this up). What drove me back to drink was not a craving for alcohol, but a yearning for the ‘occasion’ of drinking. I was sat in a pub in Cornwall with some good friends last year and I wanted to drink a proper drink alongside everyone else, instead of drinking my 0% beer. I know it makes no difference what’s in my glass, but it’s a statement of intent, of camaraderie. I don’t want to become a heavy drinker again and I fully realise the benefits of not drinking, but I do want to be able to have a choice to drink whenever I decide I want one. The pressure of not doing something can be draining and feels like life is being filtered or restricted. It’s like living in black and white.  Similar things happened when I tried veganism (briefly) and vegetarianism (for only a little longer). I fully get the 3D benefits of reduction in meat/dairy (health, moral, environmental) but saying no to meat/dairy altogether, forever, really brings out the gloomy rebel in me. So instead of abstinence, I want to leave all options on the table, but with that comes responsibility and so I must in conjunction …
  2. Be purposeful – do whatever I want, but do it for the right reasons. It needn’t necessarily be worthy, nor wholesome, it just needs to be ‘right’. If I fancy a biscuit, I’ll eat one if, and only if, it feels right to have one. If I’ve just eaten half a packet of biscuits, then eating another is not a right reason. If I am stressed and looking for a sugar distraction, that’s not a right reason either. And if I want a biscuit because I can’t be arsed to cook a nutritious meal, that’s out of bounds too. However, after a wholesome, nutritious meal, a single biscuit to round things off with a cup of tea would be fine. And that glass of red wine with my cheese on a week night? Well, that’s cheeky, but it’s perhaps OK too … if it’s my first and only glass that evening. Purposefulness needs to underpin the ‘everything goes’ mantra to provide a level of control. Furthermore, if that one glass of wine midweek stops me binge drinking at the weekend, then that’s an added benefit too.
  3. Be mindful – when I drink that beer (step 1), for the right reasons (step 2), I need to also try and think just about the beer, study the taste, fully experience the pleasure it’s giving me and think about the occasion that rests behind it (this is step 3). I won’t be distracted, I will be present, because if I do something but spend that moment thinking about the past, the future, or something else, then I may as well not be doing that thing at all. And that’s a waste of a good pint. Live in the now, savour the moments as they happen.
  4. Look after the mind and body – we know that exercise helps both the body and mind stay strong and it also feels really good too. I will do it when I can, but I won’t punish myself when I can’t and I won’t try and do too much, too soon. I know what happens when I do that. Exercise needs to evolve at my pace, not driven by others nor by Strava competitions and league tables.

PART 2 – THE WORLD

  1. Be kind & considerate – Think societally, think of others; think of friends and family, think of those who are struggling, of those less fortunate. But don’t just think about it, do something about it too. Online petitions actioned from your sofa through your smartphone really don’t matter Andy, so don’t hide behind them. Action, not inaction. There’s plenty of room for change here.
  2. Be honest – don’t lie. Lying kills, constant lying is death by a thousand cuts. You despise a lack of integrity in others, don’t be hypocritical. Look at UK/US politics, we need to start being better and it needs to start with us.
  3. Be sociable – engage with real people in the real world. Turn off the computer occasionally and disengage from the internet. Visit the local, talk-don’t-type on the phone, occasionally talk to a stranger (but don’t make a habit of it because that’s weird).
  4. And finally, be nice to animals. A world full of animals is a happier world, and animals need our help now more than ever as we continue to make their life increasingly miserable. A koala bear stopped a cyclist during the bushfires in Australia this week, so desperate was it for water, this is truly heartbreaking. It needn’t be a koala, it could be a hedgehog, for hedgehogs have feelings too.

Living a considered life is to live life well, to experience life to the full. A considered life is a connected life, a compassionate life, a thoughtful life, an outward looking life, one that’s full and rich, one that above all else brings happiness not just to yourself, but to others too. A considered life shines light into the world, a light that acts as a beacon for others, and so we should all be shining our lights in the bravest and brightest ways we can.

Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

 

Slade – How does it feel?

When I was 10 years old, I went to the ‘Pictures’ in Barnsley with my older brother to see ‘Slade in Flame’, a new film from the band Slade. It was 1975.
 
Everyone knows of Slade today because of that one Christmas hit, but they were more than that. The film had a depth to it that 70s Glam Rock didn’t. I wouldn’t have described the film as ‘poignant’ back then, but I would now, and on hearing this soundtrack of the film again today, it brought it all back.
 
So if you only know Slade for that one song, have a listen to this, written by a band who wanted to go in a different direction, but who were discouraged from doing so by a management who knew better.
 

Sunspots …

I woke up today, got out of bed, donned my running gear and went for a run.  I used to do this a lot when I was a kid, but these days it seems harder. There were a hundred excuses this morning, like every morning, as to why I shouldn’t run today, but I ignored them all.

I felt stiff and my back was sore – two of the aforementioned excuses now screaming ‘I told you so!’ as I struggled to find a rhythm – but I ran anyway. It was dark, cold and extremely muddy – November in Britain – but a mile in, around 7.15am, as I turned right to run up ‘the gallops’, the sun broke over the eastern horizon and in an instant washed away the greyness, bathing everything in a weak, but beautiful, sun streaked light. The sunrise changed everything, my mood lifted, the birds sang in appreciation and the world just felt like a much better place.

I now know why I ran today, it was precisely for that moment which I tried to capture on my phone. The image above is unfiltered and unprepped, a phone ‘photosnap’, nothing more. I’m sure a decent photographer could do much more with this image, but I love it just as it is.  I don’t understand why I seem to have 5 sunspots underneath my sun, but I like it.

My running is far from perfect, as is my photography, but both felt just perfectly imperfect today.

 

Pennies from Hell

I was outraged to read today that the UK Treasury has decided to retain 1p and 2p coins so that people “have a choice“. Have a choice of what exactly? The only choice consumers face is which medication they take to fight the bacterial disease they will inevitably contract from touching the wretched things.

1p and 2p coins are the bane of my life and have been for many years. They spread like fungus through a damp house, found in between sofa cushions, inside that rubber collar in washing machines and at the bottom of kitchen drawers, especially the knick-knack drawer (you know the one).

They’re filthy things too, ladened with germs after festering in dark, dank places for years after being handled and mauled by hygienically challenged consumers up and down the land.

And the most ridiculous thing of all is that you can’t actually use them for their sole intended purpose – to buy things. Nobody in their right mind would carry a handful of 1p and 2p coins because it’s so utterly impractical. This isn’t a matter of choice.

Furthermore, you only ever bring the damn things home and never take them out again purely because they’re so inanely impractical. Name one person over the age of three who carries coins? Nothing costs less than 99p anyway these days and nobody, absolutely nobody, not even 3 year olds, carries 99 x 1p coins with them to anywhere except the penny arcade in 1979.

But if you scrap them everything will cost more! Do me a favour. If I buy something using cash for 99p today, I inevitably hand over a £1 coin and receive a 1p coin back. That 1p coin, due to its inherent uselessness, will end up down the back of my sofa or the bottom of my knick-knack drawer within a week. That said item still cost me £1 but I now also have a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection picked up from the filthy 1p coin!

Simply scrap the damn things, round everything up to £1 and shops can then donate 1% to charity at the end of each week, with the donation costs more than outweighed by simplified cash handling and less staff sickness from fewer contracted bacterial infections.

And on a most serious note, let’s not forget the incredible waste of copper and zinc at a time when the planet is being raped, pillaged and plundered of all its natural resources. We have a life threatening ecological crisis on our hands and our Treasury decides it’s a good idea to continue producing 1p and 2p coins for many more years so that people ‘have a choice’.

Absolutely bloody ridiculous. I’m fuming.

1p and 2p coins are the bane of my life and have been for many years. They spread like fungus through the house, found in between sofa cushions, inside that rubber collar in washing machines, inside trouser pockets and at the bottom of kitchen drawers, especially the knick-knack drawer (you know the one).

They’re filthy things too, ladened with germs after festering in dark, dank places for years, after being handled and mauled by hygienically challenged consumers up and down the land.

And the most ridiculous thing of all is that you can’t actually use them for their sole intended purpose – to buy things. Nobody in their right mind would carry a handful of 1p and 2p coins because it’s so utterly impractical. This isn’t a matter of choice.

Furthermore, you only ever bring the damn things home and never take them out again purely because they’re so inanely impractical. Name one person over the age of three who carries coins? Nothing costs less than 99p anyway these days and nobody, absolutely nobody, not even 3 year olds, carries 99 x 1p coins with them.

But if you scrap them everything will cost more! Do me a favour. If I buy something using cash for 99p today, I inevitably hand over a £1 coin and receive a 1p coin back. That 1p coin, due to its inherent uselessness, will end up down the back of my sofa or the bottom of my knick-knack drawer within a week. That said item still cost me £1 but I now also have a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection picked up from the filthy 1p coin!

Simply scrap the damn things, round everything up to £1 and shops can then donate 1% to charity at the end of each week, with the donation costs more than outweighed by simplified cash handling and less staff sickness from fewer contracted bacterial infections.

And on a most serious note, let’s not forget the incredible waste of copper and zinc at a time when the planet is being raped, pillaged and plundered of all its natural resources. We have a life threatening ecological crisis on our hands and our Treasury decides it’s a good idea to continue producing 1p and 2p coins for many more years so that people ‘have a choice’.

Absolutely bloody ridiculous and I’m bloody fuming.

Total recall …

I don’t know how it all began. I’ve been told where it happened, and I can easily work out when, through a simple, cursory glance at my passport. But I remember none of it.

My earliest recollection is of me as a five year old, being lifted into my Uncle’s fire engine, sitting in the world’s biggest seat and grabbing the world’s largest, roundest steering wheel. I remember I was unable to see out of the windscreen and I remember wearing an oversized helmet (yellow). I also remember being lifted down. It all felt very special.

And that’s it, my first memory. What happened in those intervening five years between being born and being in the fire engine remain a complete mystery to me. I wonder if every one of those days are still logged and filed away somewhere in my brain? Am I just struggling to retrieve them, or have the actual memories themselves been lost or overwritten? Is it an access and retrieval issue, or a storage/capacity one?

And my second memory? I couldn’t tell you. I remember playing out a lot, I remember special occasions, I remember holidays, I remember mandarin oranges and carnation creme, I remember my schoolmates, I remember hot summers and snowy winters, but I can’t piece these together into any kind of coherent narrative.

And I’m not sure if that’s good or bad? To have perfect recall would be quite handy, but it also feels like hard work. It would be quite intensive too I’m sure, having some huge rolodex your brain has to rifle* through every time you want to recall something.

Imagine arguments:

“You said you didn’t like cheese?”
“I never did”
<rifles through my Rolodex memory to Saturday 14th May 1973, Philip Harrison’s party>
“Yes you did, at Philip Harrison’s party in 1973, Philip’s mum placed a cheese and onion cocktail stick on your plate and you screamed”

Hmmm, it could be quite annoying too, especially if you’re the only one. You’d probably have a nickname like ‘Rolodex Man’. And I imagine friends would get well annoyed. You’d win virtually every argument, but at what cost? Almost certainly at the cost of all friendships.

Admittedly it would be nice to remember nice things with more clarity – that family holiday to the south of France in 1972, I’d love to be able to sit back and rifle* through those pages, yeah that would be lovely. Although I wouldn’t want to recall that time I soiled myself at infant school. The fact I remember soiling myself is alarming enough without torturing myself with the detail. I can only imagine I must have been quite anxious at the time.

So yeah, no, yeah – recalling that ‘spin the bottle’ game at Susan’s party when I was 14, maybe, being sick on my shoes after downing a bottle of Pomagne in Majorca when I was 17 – probably best forgotten.

I do quite like the imperfections of memory. I quite like how a memory may pop up seemingly from nowhere, prompted perhaps by a song on the radio, or the memories evoked by the smell of freshly cut grass, or the aroma of cooking.

Meeting up with old friends and remembering days gone by together – that’s a lovely memory in itself isn’t it? That certainly feels much nicer than rifling* through a Rolodex.

Nah, total recall is not for me, I say let’s leave that to AI Robots.

Pub quizzes would be ace though …

* Rifle or Riffle?

Autumn Equinox

This is how I understand it.

Today is the autumn equinox. The sun hits the earth side on, pole to pole, and so rose exactly due east this morning and will set exactly due west tonight.

Day and night are equal, for today only, and after today, for us in the northern hemisphere, night outlives day and shall do so for the next six months.

The world we live in.

Slave or master?

On average, we spend three hours a day on our smartphones. That’s 21 hours a week, 1,000 hours a year or 60,000 hours over an adult’s (60 year) lifetime. And if my maths is correct, that equates to 6.8 years of constant phone use.

But, realistically, you’d need to sleep, let’s say eight hours a day, leaving just 16hrs a day to look at your phone and do nothing else, in which case that 6.8 years actually stretches over 10 years.

But, realistically, you’d also need to eat, say three meals a day, say 1hr per meal, so just 13 hrs a day means it would take 12.6 years to complete your phone usage quota (PUQ).

But hey, realistically, you need to work, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to afford a damn phone in the first place, so let’s take another 8 hrs a day out, which leaves 5 hrs a day, which will take around 33 years.

But hey, realistically, you have a life too, right? Of sorts. So let’s say 2hrs a day you actually chat to people, shower, shop, DIY, watch TV, do other jobs … which leaves just 3hrs a day … that’s … 60 years.

Oh yeah.

Smartphone addiction could be changing your brain

Being addicted to your smartphone can seriously fcuk with your mental health