A concept piece in separating the self …

In truth, there’s only ever us, and then there’s life outside of us.

There’s me – my painful knee, my anxiety, my fear of spiders, my dreams, my guilt, my aspirations – and then there’s life out there – the dripping tap, the thunderstorm, Brexit, a spider under the sofa, a garden full of leaves.

These are two very distinct things. I am me, and those things over there are just, well, those things over there.

I control me – I determine my emotional state, my level of well-being, my industriousness, my laziness – and all that is within my control, but I don’t control all the things happening out there – the rain, the wars, the politics, the insects, the plumbing.

And yet, whilst I don’t control any of ‘that’, only ‘this’, I seem to be often held hostage by ‘that’.

Let me give an example …

I see a spider, I feel frightened. Before seeing the spider I might have been quite content with life, but the moment the spider does an 8-legged trot out from beneath the sofa into my line of vision, I become a pissing, gibbering wreck.

Yet I am still me, still the exact same person I was pre-spider – same body, same genes, same blood, same brain, same thought processes.

So what happened? I am now frightened and scared, whereas before I was happy, before that damned spider appeared. Except the spider didn’t appear, the spider was always there, it’s just that I couldn’t see it. What really happened was the spider had a thought, made a decision to walk left, out from beneath the sofa. Had it chosen to stay put, or turn right, I would have remained happy.

Think about that, a neuron fired randomly in a spider’s brain and it spoiled my day. Go figure.

I spill my tea, I cross the road and a car beeps its horn, it’s raining out, the news on the radio is all bad … and yet, in none of these cases could I have affected the outcome. Other people will always piss me off, whatever I do, rain will always fall when it’s ready, earthquakes will always happen, Brexit is Brexit.

Far better surely to live a life where a spider neuron firing doesn’t make or break your day? Far better to live a life where one feels good or bad because of ones own actions?

If, on my way to work, I call in on my elderly neighbour to check if they’re OK and perhaps make them a cup of tea, then surely I deserve to feel good, because there is a genuine cause and a genuine effect, instigated by me.

And more broadly speaking, through such actions can society not be incrementally improved? Whereas when the spider turns left, well, society doesn’t change one iota …

Nor does society change when the lorry driver angrily waves the wanker sign at me as I cross the road and I do the dickhead sign back. What happens is two people become angry, two people’s health suffers and that part of the world becomes a little bleaker, a little angrier.

Let the spider turn left, let the lorry driver wave his chubby, fat, porky, gammon fingers a certain way, let the rain fall. Throughout I can still be me, only ever me, exactly me, before and after.

I think happiness needs to be earned, dictated by the ‘self’, not commandeered by others (such as a spider). Happiness shouldn’t come from pride, but from action – by making a brew for the elderly lady next door, mending that fence, writing that poem, unblocking that drain. These actions make society better and are in turn worthy of happiness.

In a similar vein, nor should we be defined by our jobs or careers. We weren’t born as Accountants, Shopkeepers or Teachers, we became them. But we didn’t change into them, we didn’t switch from being a human being to suddenly being an angry lorry driver – the two things co-exist.  And whilst one is permanent, the other is only ever temporary.

I happen to be a Yorkshireman and I work in Sales. I will always be a Yorkshireman, but I won’t always be working in Sales. At least I fucking hope not.

Our occupations are simply cloaks we wear, uniforms if you like, but the mistake many of us make is that we rarely take them off. Many of us might have been working for so long that we feel like we’ve become someone else, like we’ve shed our original skin and grafted a new one, that of an Accountant, for example.

Think how we often greet strangers:

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”
Me: “Hi, I’m an Accountant”

Time to stop, perhaps. Time for a different tack …

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”

Me: “Hi, I do life”

Them: “Oh. You’re weird, a bit of a dickhead in fact.”

Me: “Look! A spider!”

Hmm, perhaps this ‘concept’ piece needs more work …

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What a difference six years makes …

We were on a family holiday in Spain for the London 2012 opening ceremony on 27th July. I’d never been a fan of such ‘spectaculars’ in the past, but we watched this one, gathered round a small TV in the sticky heat of a Spanish summer evening, and right there, right then, I was bitten by the London 2012 bug which ignited the most beautiful two weeks I can remember.

Not only was the sport breathtaking, the organisation fantastic, the drama unending, but much more than that was the feel-good factor that permeated the entire fabric of Great Britain.

There were the volunteers of course, the games makers, who were heroic. Visitors (guests) were welcomed at airports and guided across London, nay, across the whole country, to their sporting event of choice. Cultures mixed, laughed and cried together.

It might have only been two weeks but it felt like an entire summer. TeamGB exceeded all expectations, but the real heroes were the men and women who made it all possible, the Great British public and the millions of overseas visitors. During those two weeks Britain was a truly magical place to be. People smiled, helped, supported, cared, cried and celebrated together. We were a truly united nation and pride dripped from our shores.

Six years on from that opening ceremony and look at Britain now – a broken, dispirited nation divided and fractured by Brexit. Politicians on all sides placing personal interests before their country, and all sense of community, one-nation pulling together, has evaporated in the dry, oppressive heat of the summer of 2018.

Chris Hoy, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins and Jessica Ennis-Hill have been replaced in the headlines by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Theresa May and a disappointingly recalcitrant Jeremy Corbyn.

Community seems to have been replaced by disunity, pride by shame. Hatred is the new currency.

Bar-room talk these days isn’t of success and gold-medals, but about stockpiling medicines and food, of mile long queues at Dover, and instead of reaching out to visitors, welcoming them, helping them, our 2018 games makers are closing our doors not opening them. Visitors are no longer welcome and they’re beginning to understand – ‘they’ being the rest of the world, bar Donald Trump.

I want the spirit of 2012 back. Perhaps football didn’t manage to come home this summer, but maybe the pride in our nation can. Not the ugly pride of fascism, but rather pride borne from openness and collaboration.

The European Union is a coming together of countries which share common interests – a continent first and foremost, but also a union that strives to work together, to solve problems collaboratively, not to create more of them.

Six years on and I want my country back. I want to feel like this again.

Ken and Katerina Brexit – a tragic love story

Ken and Katerina Brexit had been together more than 45 years, having wed on 1st January 1973, but over recent years their relationship had become rather tumultuous and rocky.

Friends and family always thought it was a rather odd marriage in the first place. Ken Brexit, quintessentially British, happiest when at home watching TV and eating simple, British food – bangers and mash was his favourite – whereas Katerina Lautenschlager was always looking outwards and upwards, looking for new experiences and new horizons to explore. Katerina loved nothing more than to socialise, meet friends and to holiday on the continent where she truly felt at home. She loved to party, loved to meet new people, experience new cultures, try different foods – exotic, exciting foods like snails, frogs legs, calamari, paella – all things that quite frankly kept Ken awake at night, the stuff of nightmares.

And so when they tied the knot on Jan 1st 1973, there were a few raised eyebrows, but to their credit, Ken and Katerina were adamant they could make their marriage work, and work it did, for many years. For sure they argued, doesn’t everyone, but they found a way. Katerina admired and respected Ken’s traditional lifestyle, his love of home cooking, his yearning for routine and familiarity. Ken was Katerina’s anchor, always there for him, reliable and dependable, and in return Ken let Katerina do her own thing. She planned all their holidays to places like France, Spain, Italy, Greece and her homeland Germany, and Ken became a little more adventurous and definitely was a richer person as a result.

It was a relationship that worked and life was good, but then in 2016, this all started to change. After 43 years of marriage, Ken started to feel somewhat ill at ease, slightly unhappy in their relationship. He became rather mawkish over his bachelor days and he began to question whether his marriage was actually giving him all that he wanted from life. He started to become a little distant and somewhat awkward with Katerina, and so after some thinking, admittedly muddled thinking, and without much of a plan at all in fact, he sat Katerina down and reeled off a list of demands he wanted from their marriage going forward.

Basically he wanted more say and more control over matters. He wanted more holidays at home, on British shores, and whilst he was OK with a few foreign holidays, he insisted they be to British themed resorts where you could still get fish and chips and a decent pint. Of course Katerina rather baulked at this, but in the spirit of true partnership and compromise, she tried her best to accommodate at least some of his needs. She respected Ken’s desire to retain a strong sense of Britishness within his identity, but in return she wanted to also continue to enjoy her more cosmopolitan life too. She tried to meet him in the middle, but he flatly refused, and for more than a year they fought and bickered back and forth, trying hard to reach a compromise solution, but sadly it was all to no avail, and in the summer of that year – 23 June 2016 in fact – they formally agreed to separate.

When friends and family woke the following morning, no-one could believe the news. This came as a huge shock to everyone, a bolt from the blue. The very foundations of their long relationship had been torn asunder, and there was no going back. Ken was adamant this was what he wanted and there was nothing Katerina or anyone else could do or say (although everyone tried).

They agreed on an official divorce date – 29 March 2019 – and throughout the intervening two years as they approached D-day, they continued to live together whilst working out the details of their separation. But after more than 40 years where everything had been shared, this was proving very difficult indeed, and finances in particular became hugely contentious.

Katerina had always been the bread-winner, earning the big salary from her global marketing role which took her all over Europe. Ken, meanwhile, brought in a more modest but steady income from his civil service job in London. He’d been there forever, man and boy, his father worked there before him.

There were many details to be sorted, things they just hadn’t thought about. For example, Katerina had already booked their June 2019 summer cruise out of her salary, and as they would now have to cancel, she insisted Ken pay for his share. Ken refused.

And then there was the much thornier issue of the house and the mortgage which was in joint names. But again Ken refused to pay anything, for he had little money. He felt it was unfair that he should have to pay anything, after all he earned less, whereas Katerina earned shit loads.

‘But you have to pay your share, these are commitments you already made, and you want the divorce!’ Katerina kept insisting, but Ken steadfastly refused. Gradually things got worse, to the point where Ken was prepared to just walk away from the marriage, a ‘no-deal divorce’ as he coined it, thinking himself rather clever.

Nevertheless, in the end, he realised he was being unfair and with his back to the wall, even his friends were disagreeing with him, and with nothing else to negotiate, he finally agreed to pay all his outstanding financial debts.

‘Good’ Katerina said. ‘We’re making progress finally’.

But when Ken actually did the sums he realised his debts were rather large, much larger then he had expected. And when he looked at his income, he started to realise he had absolutely no way of paying these debts back. This was getting very messy, this wasn’t how it was meant to be.

Katerina insisted they only pragmatic thing to do was to sell their house. She would buy her own place out of her share of the proceeds, and suggested Ken do the same. But Ken couldn’t afford a house, not even a small one. In fact all he could afford was a rather small, damp looking bedsit on the high street, and so he came up with a cunning fallback plan – his plan B.

Ken suggested they continue to live in the same house, but sleep in separate rooms. And as Katerina earned the most, he said she should pay most of the bills because that was only fair. And as she was the better cook, it would be jolly decent of her if she continued to make Ken’s dinner each evening, but nothing too fancy and foreign, obviously.

Katerina listened to this and was gobsmacked, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

‘So let me get this right. You want a divorce, but you want us to continue living in the same house, under the same arrangements as we do currently, the only difference being that we sleep in different rooms, and I pay for everything?’ She added.

‘Yeah … and you cook tea as well’, he said. Katerina glowered at him. ‘And in return I’ll put the bins out on Monday morning’ he added, sheepishly.

‘You’re not taking this seriously Ken, you’re an idiot. You’re making this up as you go along. You have no plan at all. You want your independence yet you don’t want to leave, you want to do things your way yet you want me to do them for you, this is a fucking joke, you do realise that don’t you?’

‘Divorce, is Divorce’ he replied, crossing his arms crossly, wondering what the fuck that actually meant.

But Katerina had had enough. ‘Fine, if that’s how you want to play it.  But you need to know I have found someone else’

‘What?’ Ken said, looking rather wide-eyed and panicked.

‘I’ve found someone else. He’s called Luigi and it’s serious, he wants me to move in with him’

‘What the actual fuck?’ Ken stuttered.

‘Ken, this was your idea you insisted on the divorce! I have a life to live too you know. There are two sides to this and two sets of consequences’ she continued.

‘Are you and Luigi having sex?’

‘Oh grow up Ken. Anyway, haven’t you met anyone else yet?’ Katerina enquired.

‘No I bloody haven’t, believe me I’ve tried but I can’t find anyone. I did meet a girl at Tesco’s but she said I was too small-minded, what a cheek! It’s difficult, harder than I thought if I’m honest. Oh and I don’t want that bloody Luigi staying here!’

Katerina bit her tongue and remained calm. ‘OK so we have no choice. We will have to sell up and we will have to get our own places’, she insisted.

But this stark realisation panicked Ken. Suddenly reality smacked him across the face like a piece of his most favourite wet Grimsby cod …

‘But … I can’t afford my own place! … Oh Katerina what have we done’ he said forlornly. ‘I will miss you so much … I think … I love you Katerina … please don’t do this .. can’t we try and talk this through? Let’s not be too hasty, what do you say we give it another try?’ Ken was now coming across rather pathetically.

But Katerina had had enough, and true to her word, and their agreement, on 29th March, 2019, she walked out of their house and their relationship for the last time and drove into town to meet Luigi for a coffee. Afterwards they visited an art exhibition and then enjoyed a walk through the park before returning to Luigi’s apartment where they celebrated D-day by making love  to each other for the first time.

‘Happy Divorce Day’ said Luigi, stroking back Katerina’s hair and kissing her softly on her cheek.

Meanwhile, across town, at the same time as Katerina and Luigi were making love, Ken was finishing off a packet of Cheesy Wotsits for his tea, and with stained orange fingers, he watched low grade porn on his phone and wanked into a dirty sock as tears rolled down his lonely, British, gammon cheeks. As he sobbed and wanked simultaneously, he wondered what the fuck he had done with his life.

Ken Brexit was a fucking disaster of epic proportions, you really couldn’t make this shit up.

 

 

 

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

In July 2004, London was sitting in 4th place out of the 5 contenders to host the 2012 Olympic games, but just a year later, on 6th July, 2005, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London.  I know exactly where I was at that moment. My eldest son was off school sick, he was tucked up in bed watching TV and I was in the room when a live news bulletin interrupted our viewing to announce the 2012 Olympics decision …

The London 2012 bid team had played an absolute blinder, and set in motion a series of events lasting more than seven years, culminating in one of the greatest Olympics ever held. It didn’t end with the campaigning, it was also in the planning, the preparation and the execution. Historically, olympic projects have always been beset with financial problems and delays, but somehow London 2012 was delivered on time (if not quite to budget), regenerating a part of London long forgotten to many, even those that lived in the UK and even those of us that worked in London.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Team GB athletes delivered the greatest athletic performance the country has ever seen.  For GB (~60 million population) to finish third in the medal table behind USA (>300 million) and China (>1.3 billion) was just staggering. It was as if the momentum of the successful bid and the enthusiasm the nation wore like an overcoat, somehow fuelled the athletes to also overachieve.

We had government funding and we had a willing public, not just the fans that filled every nook and cranny at every event, but also the army of volunteers who helped, supported and advised, from Heathrow in the west, all the way across town to Salford in the east.

Being British, national pride has often been tinged with guilt for me, as it often brings out an ugliness that seems to have its roots in our imperialistic past when Britannia was arrogant enough to believe she truly ruled the waves. The Union Jack has long been associated with extremism and thuggery, yet somehow at London 2012, the flag was reclaimed as simply the colours of a very proud nation.

London 2012 was a great example of humanity at its best and Britons at their finest. It wasn’t just about the medals, it was also about collaboration, about community, about belief and passion, about friendships, and most importantly about pride.

Fast forward four and a half years to 2016, the same people, but now divided, tangled up in a messy divorce from the EU. Much of that national pride has turned to anger and discord, and politics once again feels dirty and corrupt, no longer a lottery funded cause for the greater good. And unlike 2012, where we opened our borders and outstretched our arms to the world, post-Brexit, we seem to be once again pulling up the drawbridges and closing our doors, not just to outsiders, but to our neighbours too.

We seem to consume our daily news these days through gritted teeth and half closed eyes, wondering what on earth will happen next. We have a government which appears incompetent and ill prepared for Brexit and the challenges that lay ahead. Brexit seems to have beaten us down and created a disharmony that feels a world away from London 2012, and our 2012 passion seems lost in a difficult and uncertain 2016.

But it needn’t be this way.  National pride can, and should, be a force for good, free from any strain of politics, government or economic circumstance. And pride should never be about superiority. French people should be just as proud to be French, Americans to be American, Germans to be German, as I am to be British. London 2012 just reminded us British that we have a lot to be proud of, in the same way other nations should rightly be proud of their own achievements – achievements that should be openly shared and celebrated across a unified world, not envied in a divisive one.

Whatever happens in the coming months, post-Brexit, I’d like to think we in the UK can all regain our own sense of national pride, in whatever way seems fitting for us. Pride can be misplaced and misinterpreted, but it can also be a good thing when kept in context.

The following video encapsulates perfectly what pride meant around London 2012. It’s as funny and quirky as it is beautiful, and it’s joyously optimistic too. It portrays a better time perhaps, but one that can be reclaimed, even in today’s turbulent times.

And we don’t need our governments to do that for us, we can start doing that for ourselves, in whatever way feels right for us.

What have you done to make yourself proud today?