Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Uncle Drew

Today, 9 September 2015, the Queen became the longest serving monarch. She's 89, the same age as my uncle Drew, who passed away on Monday. He was something of a monarchist, so I reckon he'd have raised a large mug of tea - the bigger the better - to her (he didn't really drink).

Here's looking at you kid - Drew and Alex
I last saw him at the start of the summer holidays when we took our two boys on their first trip to Scotland. It was very exciting for them as they were flying for the first time as well, which made it a great adventure.

The news from Scotland over the past few months hadn't been good. Drew had been in hospital for an operation which he was struggling to recover from. My mum went up to see him when went to the funeral of one of her sisters and expressed her shock at how he looked. He hadn't been well enough to attend himself and was upset about that.

Since then, he'd been in hospital and had recently been moved to a smaller, convalescent facility in his home town of Lanark. I knew that if we didn't get up to see him soon there might not be another chance.

He's always been something of a favourite uncle Drew. In some respects he could come across a bit like the boy that never grew up - always joking, creating mischief, and looking to lighten the atmosphere. His entrance into a room would quickly provoke a response, usually from one of the women in there who would inevitably call him an "auld devil" after some cheeky comment or other, provoking a howl of laughter from him.

However he was also a serious man who had seen things in life that I hope I never see. As a teenager, he was in the army in the latter days of the push into Germany. His unit helped liberate the concentration camps. A few years ago he was showing me some pictures from the Eighties of him and his deceased, and much loved wife, my auntie Nancy. They were standing in front of a small mound which it turned out was a mass grave. He volunteered this information in a sombre tone, and I was taken aback by it. I'd never known this, and wish now I'd asked him more about it, but I didn't quite know what to say. Besides which my two young sons were there, and they would quickly have intervened to get his attention.
Drew in the army
To them, he was uncle Drew, and he was very generous to them as I know he was to other children of his nephews and nieces - he didn't have children of his own, having married later in life.

His interest in trains gave him a mainline straight to the interests of small lads. His father, my grandfather had driven steam trains, and had fired up an interest. As soon as he knew my eldest was obsessed with trains, we started to receive pictures of obscure locomotives that he'd snapped on his travels with his steam locomotive enthusiast buddies. Then came the DVDs of G-Scale model railways - another huge enthusiasm. Finally, on a trip to visit my mum, he somehow managed to pack a train set for the boys into his bag and cart it all the way to Buckingham. This thing wasn't at all small, and at this stage he was already well into his eighties with recently diagnosed back problems - not that it seemed to slow him up much.

After that visit a few years ago he was always promising a return, but due to his failing health, it never came about, hence the visit from us.

Despite being warned that he was frail, it was a shock to see him. He seemed much smaller and suddenly a lot older. He'd lost weight and moved slowly as he emerged into the room to meet me. Strangely, when I hugged him, he still seemed to have retained enough upper body strength to return a hearty embrace. Although he was quieter, he also kept up his cheeky rapport with the nurses, who affected to be at their wits end with this old goat, but who seemed to have a great affection for him. He cackled as they replied in kind to his quips. I'm glad that he was there at the end - he felt safe there and was able to see the many friends and family who were concerned about him.

We took him to lunch that day, although he struggled to eat much. Other members of the family arrived too. I got the impression that he was never short of visitors. Apparently it was the first time that he had been out in months. I think he enjoyed it. He reminisced and told some stories about his time as a scout leader, and his brother Joe and nephew John had him cackling with their gags.

As we left, he gave me another great hug and said something to me. I didn't quite catch the words in the car park outside the restaurant, but I got the gist of it. There probably wouldn't be another meeting and he was saying his goodbyes.

When I heard that he'd passed I felt sad of course, but it was a fleeting emotion. I was glad that he was now free of pain and started thinking of the happy times that we'd shared with him, and of a life well lived. He was a soldier, a husband, a postie, a scout master, a train enthusiast, a mischief maker, and much more, and he was my uncle. And now he's at peace.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Results day

I'm reminded that it's A-level results day by a flurry of excited tweets, retweeted by my old college QMU in London.
"Anyone studying English/Drama at Queen Mary's? #qmul" asks @pipson_
Crikey, she's looking for friends already! No need to hang around until Freshers Week these days to 'FAF' - apparently it means Find a Friend. Who knew!
It's yet another sign of how things have changed - cue Hovis theme - since I was a student. Although with the Corbynites in the ascendancy, there's a feeling of deja vu all over again.
When I got my results back in the day, sexy A-levels weren't even a thing. Quite a few of my mates did really badly to the extent that one of them was so distracted by the thought of a future flipping burgers that he crashed his car on the way back from school. He had three other school friends as passengers at the time, and luckily they were all okay, although there was a bit of explaining to do to his mum whose car it was.
I think that they all spent the rest of the afternoon phoning round clearing to see what was on offer - plus ca change. They were recovered enough later to be at our local watering hole to drink away their sorrows.
It was a funny old day, and an odd summer because it marked the start of the end of a lot of school friendships. By September, people had drifted off to their respective universities, colleges and polys (remember them?) and although the bonds of friendship reformed when we regathered in our home town for holidays, they were never quite the same. New friends, new experiences and new horizons ensured that.
As I sit here typing, it's actually closer in time to my own kids possibly picking up their A-level results, or whatever may replace them, than it is to when I picked up mine. That's quite a scary thought - don't start me on grants, housing benefit and student politics of the 80s. It seems a long time ago, and yet still so fresh.
Incidentally, the car crasher went on to study marine biology and works in a highly paid oil industry job I believe. By contrast I did alright in my A-levels, and am churning out copy for chump change.
There's a lesson there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Election 2015

This time next week it will all be kicking off. I'll have dropped my kids off at school and gone to another junior school to cast my vote - walking past the elderly party workers bonded in their duty of checking who has voted and who hasn't over a flask of tea.
In 2010 I lived in Hackney which was a very safe Labour seat and consequently one of those constituencies where you would hardly know an election was taking place. There were few flyers through the door, not many posters in windows, and not a lot of fuss about the event. Not until election night + 1 when footage of one local Hackney polling office was constantly replayed to show how some people weren't able to vote due to poor management/people arriving too late, or whatever.
It's not like that in Colchester where the election campaign has been a lot more noticeable with huge numbers of flyers (especially from Tory challenger Will Quince), letters from the parties (again mainly from Team Quince), flying visits from party (and at least two from the PM), multiple hustings, extensive local media coverage and a flurry of social media activity.
It's actually been quite exciting, not least because the outcome is so uncertain. That's not to gamify the election - I realise that there is more at stake than my entertainment - but with a clear result unlikely come Friday morning, that's when the real power struggle will start, and when the masks will slip.
Where will our next coalition of chaos come from?
I don't believe that the SNP will have the clean sweep that pollsters predict in Scotland. I just can't see Scots wanting to live in a one party state. They will do well though and they will exert an influence on whoever is in power. Given the way that they are already being demonised by the right wing press, the next five years could be very turbulent as British parliament struggles to learn to operate with a minority government. Whoever walks through the door of 10 Downing Street in a few weeks will need to do so with a great deal of humility because they will have won little more than a grudging admission that they are the worst of a bad bunch.
It will be fascinating to see how the next election - whether in 2020, or a lot sooner - will be fought. In the medium term, perhaps the door will start to shift to let in an alternative to first past the post (FPTP). Although it still serves the big parties disproportionately, it looks unlikely to give them a mandate this time. Maybe it is time to try something fairer and more representative.
It is ironic given the kicking the the Lib Dems have had that FPTP, which they have long opposed, may yet save the party due to it localised strengths, not least in Colchester, an island of yellow in a sea of blue.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A black day for retail

Sign up to receiving a few emails from retailers, and the Black Friday deals on offer today won’t seem anything out of the ordinary. Barely a day goes by without receiving seemingly unrepeatable discount offers… until another arrives tomorrow.
Given this background noise it’s amazing that Black Friday has gained any traction at all. However scenes of shoppers fighting to get 50% at best off an inflated RRP that you’d be a fool to buy at, seems to indicate that you can sell any old tat if you slap a sale sticker on it the enduring appeal of a discount.
Retailers are certainly giving it a go. Black Friday has definitely entered the common parlance this year, and will probably only get bigger over the next few years. So retailers have two options: stand aloof and hold their noses, or get down among the frenzy and start cutting prices. It looks like option two is the winner at the moment.
Or maybe not. Given the unsavoury images from today, I’m predicting that Black Friday will be about as welcome as a looter’s convention in a few years. Weigh up the advantage of a few extra sales, at deep discount, against the additional costs of opening at stupid o’clock to catch the buzz, Fort Knox security to satisfy the local plod that they’re not going to spend all night separating swivel-eyed bargain fans, and the cost of general wear and tear from thousands of shoppers rampaging through the aisles trampling over stock as they go, and it suddenly doesn’t look like such a great idea. I'm not even mentioning the first cases of store staff suing for PTSD.
I may be completely wrong, but I’ve stayed well away from the high street today.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Mornings are the worst

6.00 am. Hmm, lie in today is it?
Boys, can you keep your voices down please, it's still quite early. No that's not really a morning voice, is it. A little bit quieter. A bit more. A little bit more. I know it doesn't sound like shouting to you, but it does to mummy and me, and I don't think our neighbours really want to hear you.
Why not? Well, they don't have children in the house. They're retired and they don't have to get up this early.
They can hear you. Our staircase shares a wall with their's so they can hear you jumping and shouting on them. Okay, not shouting, talking. Actually, that is shouting now.
Look, just stay in your room for now and shut the door. Don't slam it! Don't....
Okay, daddy will get up now and make breakfast. Who wants porridge. One for porridge and one for Cheerios. We don't have any Cheerios. You don't want porridge. Cornflakes?
Look, this isn't a cafe, and I'm not going out to get anything else from the shop. You'll have to have porridge.
Oh, we don't have any milk. I will have to go the shop. No I'm not getting Cheerios. Because I'm not, that's why.
Can you both behave until I get back. Leave mummy alone - she's still asleep. Because it's early and she's tired. She got up with you yesterday.
Okay, I'm going to the shop. I'll only be five minutes.
Why did he hit you? Why did you hit your brother? Okay, so what did he do to you to start it? He did, did he? What do have to say to that? Oh, he took your book. Look, it doesn't matter who started it. It stops now!
Right what happened there? I didn't even get out the door. If you can't behave then one of you will have to come with me. Yes, I know it's raining. I'm not exactly thrilled about going out myself.
Well, you're the oldest, so you should know better. Put your clothes on and come with me.
Stop shouting. I know it doesn't seem fair. Life often isn't.
Okay, last chance. Do you think you can not kill each other in the time it takes me to go to the shop and back. Promise?
Now, who wants a drink?
Water, milk, squash or orange juice. We don't have pineapple juice. I do not put too much water in it. I'm only thinking of your teeth. You have lovely teeth and I'd like them to stay like that.
What would you like on your porridge? Actually we don't have any banana, or raisins. Okay, you can have syrup today. No it isn't very good for you. It's a treat.
Where are your school clothes. I've got your trousers, but not your sweatshirt. Can you go and find it. Well I don't know where it is. If you took it off and put it where you ought to then we wouldn't have to go on a treasure hunt every morning.
No, we're not doing a treasure hunt. There isn't a prize, because there isn't a game. Maybe mummy will do one when you get home from school.
Well you have to go to school. Because it's fun. Okay, because you will learn things. It will help you get a job and earn money.
No you're not. You're not staying here forever because children don't do that. Well he's different. You wouldn't want to stay with us when you're older anyway. You'll want your own house.
Of course we don't want you to go away sweetheart. You can stay here as long as you like, now get your shoes on and go to school.
Toast? I don't think you've got time. Okay, you find your shoes and put your coat on and I'll make some, but only if you help me.
You can't have peanut butter because some of the children at school are allergic to it. It means they'll get ill if you touch them. Yes, or kiss them.
Did you? I'm sure she didn't mind, but the school doesn't like it. I don't know why.
Look, your lift to school is here. I'll pick you up in the afternoon this week.
Why didn't you tell me earlier that you need to take in a shoe box today. There might be one upstairs, hang on a minute. There you go, now go!
Have a lovely day at school.
Yes, I love you too.

Silence falls...

Thursday, September 18, 2014


There have been a lot of wise words written from both sides of the Referendum debate in Scotland. I don't have anything particularly profound to add, just a few jumbled thoughts of my own.

It was 1979 when I left Scotland. It was the year of Margaret Thatcher coming to power and also the year of the referendum on Scottish devolution.

Our local village hall was the polling booth and I recall a megaphone car outside with SNP posters on it. Nobody ever came to our village, so it was an odd sight. The Scottish Nationalist Party - how good did that sound?

Even at an early age I was introduced to the idea that we were different to our neighbours to the South. I knew this already as we had relatives in the Midlands who had moved to England in the late Sixties and early Seventies to take jobs in the mines down there. We would visit them most years usually en route to our annual week in the sun - Clacton, Great Yarmouth or somewhere.

So I knew that England was different. It seemed more affluent for one thing. The weather was better - hence the holidays there. And they didnae half talk funny, and yet they thought we were the ones with accents!

We did think we were different. As I grew up I was always led to believe that the Scottish education system was superior to that down South, that we were a more generous people in many ways (despite the stereotype of the stingy Scot), and that we were hard working and inventive (TV, penicillin, tarmac, the telephone, deep fried pizza etc). I guess many of us have these kinds of assumptions about the sort of people we are and also what our neighbours are like, whether they're next door or in the next state.

The referendum came and went. Scotland was denied its chance of an assembly despite a majority Yes vote. I moved to Bedfordshire with my family and started to become a wee Englishman.

Looking on 35 years later at the independence debate has been fascinating and tortuous. I don't have a vote, and I don't have a problem with that. I believe in localising democracy, so the people who live in the country should have the say in how its governed.

Although it may sound heretical to say it, I'm almost glad I don't have a vote as it feels like it would be one of the hardest decisions I'd ever have to make.

Like many people I'm an emotional nationalist. I love the idea of Scotland and belonging to somewhere even if I don't always know what that means, and don't always like what it can mean. It's hard not to be in love with the idea of your country, especially when you're an expat like me. Scotland has so much going for it: great resources, beautiful landscape, fascinating history, whisky, intelligent, warm and funny people, and a vibrant cultural life.

There's a side of me that naturally bristles when I sense my tribe is being put down, patronised or treated unfairly. In some senses I am a typically chippy Jock. I can see how Alex Salmond has been able to use this in his campaigning. Like I said, we think we're different and he knows the levers to pull.

Although he's one Britain's canniest politicians, he's barely had to break sweat because of the incompetence of those ranged against him. From Cameron's haughty decision to deny a devo-max option, through Alistair Darling's dry and hectoring tone, to the overall patronising and negative tone of the No campaign, Salmond probably can't believe that the fight of his political life has been so easy.

I've been really impressed by the seriousness of the debate. It's not just about oil revenue. Many nationalists wouldn't care if the only oil in Scotland was that in the chip pan awaiting a battered Mars bar. It's about the future of the country and it may be the only chance many will get to see their country independent.

It's so close - who knows how the vote today will go. In the past week the kitchen sink has been thrown at the Yes campaign with businessmen and economists weighing in to claim that Scotland could be voting for a future of austerity, higher taxes and poorer services. Of course, this is what the country could end up with by sticking with the Union.

I'm not denying that their predictions sound ominous, but the problem is that they may be too late, and that after a couple of years of nay saying, it's just white noise. There's also the attitude of Scots as put to me by a friend of my mum's, a very genteel lady (and Unionist) in her 70s. She said: "You know what we're like! The danger is that with so many people lecturing us about what we can't do, we'll just turn round and say, 'Oh we can't can we, well let's see!'"

I really don't know how it will go, but I will make one prediction. In the event of a Yes vote for independence, the sky won't come in on the house, despite what some say. There will be tough times ahead. Anybody who thinks an independent Scotland will be a land of milk and honey is kidding themselves. Even if there was untold oil wealth, is that the sort of unearned inheritance that hard working Scots would want for their kids - I don't think it is. They want them to be well educated and healthy living in a country that looks after those who are least able to look after themselves.

To me, that doesn't sound like a lot to ask for. The real question is which side is going to provide it? Choose well Scotland.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Bank holiday bands

I have just spent the bank holiday Monday afternoon drinking in the pub. Post-kids, this is something of a rarity, but once upon a time it was almost the preferred option for wiling away the long bank holiday hours.
Today I wanted to see a local band that I'm quite partial to and having spent the past couple of days on family friendly activities (Southwold and Colchester's Big Sunday street festival), and given that the weather was rubbish, I had a green card to get down to the Kings Arms.
It did make me think back to the halcyon days of bank holiday weekends at South Bedfordshire's premiere pub venue, the Wheatsheaf in Leighton Buzzard.
This was my local in a way that I've never had since. It was the pub I started drinking in (underage, sorry Geoff), where all of my friends would end up at some point over the weekend, and where people really did know your name.
A special mention at this point for the main man behind the bar for much of this time, Roy who was one of the coolest guys we all knew. He was more likely to strike up a conversation about free form jazz, beat poets, indie rock or contemporary literature than how the football had gone this weekend. I think I've still got a copy of a Richard Brautigan volume he loaned me.

Anyway, the Wheatie was the centre of my universe for a number of years. I still remember fondly the pub trip to Glastonbury '90 in the back of one local's van - no planning, just turn up and get in. We were treated to an endless supply of home made vegetable wine from a regular named Les: "This is a rather pokey little beetroot noir. Goes very well with cheese." Roy was on that trip too - passing round the hash cakes probably.
The Wheatsheaf was, and is, a mainstay of the local gig scene in the region, so bank holidays were always a big deal - an opportunity to drink all day and groove down to local bands. I recall bombing back from the Stone Roses Spike Island gig in 1990, just to see a Northampton soul band called Moses who specialised in War covers (Low Rider and World is a Ghetto stick in the memory.) I must have cut a particular dash in my Levi's parallel flares and gig T-shirt.
I was still living at home at the time, having moved back there after university when no career presented itself on a plate - how very inconsiderate.
It was quite a depressing time in some ways. Three years at university had been one great big laugh - gigs, parties, laughs... but not much sex - and ending up living at home seemed a real let down.
Then I discovered a new, pub centred, group of mates. Many of them were just ordinary blokes and lasses. That's not meant to sound condescending. What I mean is that after three years in university surrounded mainly by privileged, middle class kids (this was the mid 80s before the great expansion of higher education), I was hanging with people who I probably felt more at home with. It was a community based around alcohol mainly, but a community nonetheless.
So, that was my bank holidays sorted.
Today was a bit different. I indulged in drink, but not so much in chat. The band were good but it lacked the shared experience of yore.
I felt a bit old to be honest, especially after one guy spoke to me about how it now took him two days to get over hangovers. "Still, I expect it's about four for you," he courteously pointed out.
It's a good job the next bank holiday is not for a few months.