Friday, March 28, 2014

I see a sadness



He stands in a crowd of friends, outwardly happy, confident and fulfilled. He’s talented, handsome and going places, but there’s something not quite right, and nobody else seems to be able to see it.
I catch him glancing at me. He knows that I know. I look away, embarrassed at being caught catching him out. When I look up again, he has turned his back on me but I know that he’s thinking about what just happened.
What did just happen?

Friday, February 07, 2014

Picture this

Eighties style: it's in there somewhere
We live in a world where images have lost some of their power or allure. The fact that most of us carry a camera around with at all times means there are not many things that remain undocumented or shared.

Of course it wasn't always like this (cue Hovis theme tune). When I was younger, cameras were not generally carried around. Unless you saw yourself as a photographer and were always on the lookout for a shot, people only took cameras out on certain occasions: holidays, parties, school trips, weddings, Christmas...

The list is not exhaustive, but the point is that we only tended to document things that we thought were special and required recording for posterity. You can see it in the studied grins and stiffness in many old pictures. You really did pose for pictures. There were only 24 or 36 shots in a reel and you didn't want to waste them by not being camera ready. When the film was eventually finished, which could take months, or even years in some cases, you then had to send off the film and wait for Truprint or whoever to return it 28 days later.

As a result, I find that there are large parts of my life where there aren't many pictures of me. My university years for example. It really wasn't like today were we can shoot off that many pictures of one scene, choose the best one and delete the rest. The few pictures I have are a bit stagy with me and my peers trying to look cool, or wacky, or a combination of the two.

That's why I like this picture, which until last night I didn't know existed. I was browsing Facebook where a band I saw quite a lot in the Eighties, The Very Things, had posted some pictures from back in the day. I was scrolling through them when this one jumped out. That's me in the middle with the rather wavy, Charles I do (I thought I looked like Bono at the time). It was taken from the stage at one of their gigs at ULU in London. I think I must have been about 19 or 20. Standing next to me with his hand making a fin in front of his face, is my friend Andrew.

There are several reasons I like the picture. It captures a time an a place that I remember very fondly. It was my first real taste of independence, living away from home and left to my own devices. I thought I was kind of out there, but looking back on it, I probably had, as David Cameron would put it a normal student experience. There were some high jinks, but in some ways we were fairly innocent, and I think that it comes through in the picture. We weren't particularly cool, although we thought we were. Our pleasures were fairly simple and we had a good time.

In some ways we had it a lot easier than students today. I can't remember there being a whole lot of pressure on me to achieve highly at university. In some ways I wish there had been. College was seen as a bit of a lesson in life, certainly that was a message I carried from my very liberal social studies lecturer at school, but it was a fairly common thought. You could live reasonably well on a student grant (just starting to become means tested as I went to college although I got a full grant for three years), tuition fees were paid, banks were happy to indulge an overdraft if required (some things never change), but you could get housing benefit and claim dole in the summer.

I wonder how many of the people in that picture ended up working in the City or in corporate law or accountancy. Not very many I guess, although most of them are students. Did many of them have a plan? I certainly didn't, and I didn't really have much of a clue either. But by the look of my face in that picture, I was happy enough that night.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Yoga time

My pre-Christmas running binge turned out to be a bit of a folly. After 24 days of running my right knee swelled up like a balloon and I've had to opt for something a bit less high impact.
Just before Christmas I took in a yoga class run by one of the parents from my son's school. I've been meaning to give it a try for a while, mainly on the testimony of a colleague who swears by it. Despite the fact that his wife was a qualified yoga practitioner, he'd never shown interest until she dragged him along after he'd been moaning about his back. It turned out to be a revelation and he's now turned into the most flexible Fifty-something in West London.
If it could work for my friend, then why not me? I've at least a decade on him.
After the pre-Christmas class, today saw me back on the mat in a packed class in the centre of Colchester. From the informed position of having taken two classes in my life it seems as if there are a few things going on here.
It's a mix of the mental and the physical. Yoga seems to help with flexibility, but there is a lot of emphasis on breathing, relaxation and visualisation. This leads to some odd instructions like being asked to try and envisage breathing out of your back or from behind your knees. Perhaps you need to reach the next level of enlightenment for this to work.
It's gentle, but intense. The class was full of a real mix of ages and the teacher Ceri offers a number of options for each exercise to ensure that people work to their level. You can take it easy, or you can really go for the stretch, although given the overall philosophy, I expect it's not encouraged to go crazy in the first few lessons - see my running experience for further details.
It's a different type of work out. I'm used to exertion and being physically wrung out as an indicator of how worthwhile a session has been, but yoga isn't like that. You can feel you are using muscles, but it's not a cardiovascular burn. For me, it's probably something I will do in conjunction with more intense activities such as running, cycling and swimming.
Having said that, I definitely feel like I have done something that exerts me. I think I'll sleep well tonight.
Flexibility is a good thing for all of these CV heavy activities anyway, and you're less likely to do yourself harm if your body is a bit more elastic.
Another observation is that because your body is being twisted around in ways it is not quite use to, there can be occasional involuntary releases of gas.
I don't think it is yoga etiquette to ruin the moment by guffaw at these, and look round for the culprit.
It wasn't me anyway.

Monday, December 09, 2013

First week of Advent Streak

Alf Tupper: my running inspiration
Well, this has been interesting. As detailed in my last post, I'm doing an advent streak this year, which is committing to running every day up to Christmas. I'm not sure whether this includes Christmas Day, or is that a day off for good behaviour?
My goals, such as they are, are very low. As long as I run a mile a day, then I'm ticking off the runs. However I've actually done a bit better than that. Two miles is my low benchmark and I haven't failed to hit it yet. Some days I've done a bit better. Overall I'm gradually increasing the distance, but slowly so I don't put myself off.
The first week wasn't as bad as I thought as I seem to have a better underlying level of fitness than I thought. The cycling I have been doing over the past year or so has obviously helped, as does the overall body workout of having two young sons.
I've been progressively less out of breath as the week has gone on, and less stiff. Days three and four were a bit hard as I was seizing up a bit, but I think I've got through it. My right knee remains slightly sore, but once I get going it's okay.
Even though it's only been a relatively short period of time, I've been really surprised what's happened to my body. With just a small amount of exercise and no real change to my diet, it's been very noticeable to me that everything has tightened up quite quickly. I feel quite toned - like!
I have even invested in my first ever pair of running tights and high vis top for night runs. I'm used to running in any old gear I have around, so for me this marks quite a commitment to professionalism. I'm sure Alf Tupper will never forgive me though and I might have to trade in my Green Flash next.
Apart from that it's just one man in tights plodding round the park - no Nike+, no GPS apps, no split times. I don't know how fast I'm running - not very is my guess, but probably getting a little bit faster each time. I was set to do a Parkrun last Saturday, but bottled it at the thought of running with people who were a bit more race ready than me. I did my own 5.5K later that day just to see that I could, but don't think I'll be in a state to go against the clock in the next couple of weeks - see below.
Will I keep going? I don't see why not. Apart from the very windy day last week, I've been lucky with the weather, which can be off putting. A big challenge will be running through a hangover. I haven't had one of those yet, but there are a couple of Christmas bashes coming up which I can't see being lemonade shandy affairs, and I'm not a shandy kind of guy.
There are some limits to the pursuit of fitness.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Can a month of running change your life?

I am a one for obsessive behavior, so when I heard about the advent streak it sounded like a great challenge.
The idea is that in the month leading up to Christmas Day, you undertake to run every day. For someone like me who is constantly looking back wistfully on the carefree, pre-children days when I was in superb physical shape (time does play tricks on the mind I know), it seems an opportunity to kickstart a bit of a fitness regime.
This is a theme that has emerged throughout my life. The first time I can remember getting serious about fitness was when I was about 12 or 13 when school sport started to get more competitive. Although I took part in school sports and played for school and club football and rugby teams, there was always a feeling that in order to get to the next level I needed to be doing something more off my own bat. I think I'd seen too many Rocky films.
I had a friend Paul who was forever talking about "getting superfit" and who would take himself off on evening runs to this effect. Before long I was trying to do the same. Throughout my life it has always been running that seemed to hold the key to mythical superfit status. Maybe it's because it allows you to push yourself to a point where you really feel you have nothing more to give. It must be doing some good!
The problem for me is that I've never been that good at running distances. I'm the wrong shape really - short legs, bulky, more of a sprinter I used to think until Usain Bolt came along and blew that myth out of the water.
I have tried over the years to push on through the burn, but it's never come easy to me, even back in my peak running days - pre-kids and pre-marriage, natch - when I could push out a 5 mile run round the parks and canals of Hackney with relative ease. However I never felt there was much else in the tank - certainly no marathon on my bucket list.
In recent years I've gone completely off running due to (perceived?) lack of time and foot problems which the rare bout of running did no favours. But since number one son went to school I've been doing cycling, initially pulling him by trailer, and that was a pretty good daily work out. Now that he can ride himself, that's gone, since he doesn't want to cycle all the time. We do the school run by car most days.
So, advent streak!
Basically you commit to running a minimum distance every day. I've set the bar very low at one mile. I've worked out the point in our local park that I have to get to before I can quit. I'm happy to say that so far I've exceeded it - only by another mile, and I'm only on day three, so let's not get carried away.
But it feels good! My legs have been a bit stiff, but nothing I can't handle, and I anticipate this will ease. I also anticipate that I'll build my mileage to get in a longer run or two during the week or at the weekend. Again, I'm taking it easy because I want this to be the start of something longer lasting.
Which brings me back to the question posed in the blog title. Can a month of obsession change your behaviour?
My personal experience here comes from repeated no booze Januaries, something that I've done for so long that I can generally, and fairly smugly breeze through it. There's something about the process of denying yourself that I find quite gratifying, but at the end of the day it has not tempered my taste for alcohol. Nothing tastes so sweet as that first pint in February, unless its the subsequent three or four in the same session.
In some ways, the fact that I usually have a month off at the beginning of the year allows me to ignore how much I drink for the rest of the year. My behaviour becomes ingrained.
So, we'll see with this running thing. I'm keen that it will help me become more active generally, and perhaps lead to more social running. I've always viewed running as quite a solitary affair - no partner, no earphones, just man and his creaking bones against the march of time - but I know some guys in Colchester who run together. Perhaps I'll get to a stage where I'm good enough to join them. If not I'll be happy to keep plodding my weary mile until my knees really do give out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Where now for the all day drinker?

When I first lived in Hackney, my mates and I used to have a little game of dare where we would pick a pub that we considered a bit rough and see if we would risk having a pint in there.
Now, none of us were G&T drinkers, just ordinary lads who liked a pint, but there were some pubs that you would thing twice about before going in. Some of them had dodgy reputations for being bars where you would get a doing if you looked out of place. Some of them were just dirty and horrible, where the beer tasted as if it had been watered down with Fairy Liquid. At any rate, they were 'rough'.
It seems quite a nostalgic thing now as I see that yet another of these hell holes has turned over a new leaf, or gone over to new management, and in the process has set its sights on new customers.
I'm doing some research on beer at the moment and noticed that The Cock Tavern on Mare Street is now a brewpub.

The Cock!

This pub, once home to the most pungently over-deodorised loos in Hackney - the smell of lemon toilet blocks would hit you as soon as you walked in, and stayed lodged in your throat throughout the course of your pint of Fosters - is now home to the Howling Hops Brewery. Here you can sup a Pacific light ale, a chocolate stout or the obligatory new take on porter (smoked, natch).
Don't get me wrong, it sounds like a great pub and one that I wish Colchester had. It's just slightly comical to see how Hackney has gone from being the home of artisan baking to the home of craft beer so quickly.
As well as having an almost unfair share of microbreweries such as the London Fields Brewery (which has its own tap), Hackney Brewery and the new Truman's brewery, it has some great pubs, hardly any of them rough.
And that's my slight (first world) problem. There's a shattering lack of variety in the pub stock of the area, particularly for the old punters who used to be the lifeblood of many of these boozers. Where do they go to drink now?
Looking at the list of pubs I remember from my not so distant Hackney past, it's amazing how many of them have changed:

The Cock - see above
The Ship - previously a basic boozer which has gradually upped its game to a more leather sofa-ed vibe
The Spurstowe - on my old street. This used to be the lock in pub - just tap on the door. The last time I was in, it was a suis generis gastropub with overpriced food, snooty bar staff and unbearable customers. (Yes, I know that makes me sounds as old as I really am)
The Prince Arthur - this used to be an almost underground phenomenon where ageing single gentlemen would meet to compare 78s and listen to Radio 2 (I'm not making this up). Now, it's another gastropub of good quality if limited appeal for just drinking
The Cat & Mutton - rough pub that previously had football shirts hanging from the ceiling - probably torn from the lifeless bodies of those who'd come in wearing the wrong colours. Now a gastropub for the Broadway Market set
The Pembury Tavern - I have to admit that I don't remember this place under former management and it's actually got a great set of ales. However it takes Bitcoin payment so must be labelled 'achingly hip'
The London Fields - I once spent a frightening St Patrick's Day in here being assailed by drunk and threatening regulars wanting to know where I was from - England was the wrong answer, luckily for me. Now, it seems to be a DJ-infested drinking joint. Sigh!

I'm sure there are still boozers where I would take my life in my hands if I asked for a tasting stick, but they're increasingly few and far between.
Maybe it's better that pubs are saved by appealing to a new and hipper audience rather than becoming bookies as so many have, especially in East London. 
However, it's also another example of how quickly Hackney is changing and I'm sure it's not something that everybody is comfortable with.
Wake me up when Wetherspoons rings last orders.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Will you just behave...


My latest column from the Colchester NCT magazine, by the miracle of cut and paste.

No respect: this is what I'm talking about
As all parents know, children don’t come with a manual. Despite the number of ‘experts’ who try and convince you otherwise, you are largely on your own when it comes to working out what works for your own set up. Everyone is different, and everyone finds their own way.
That isn’t to say that we don’t all face common issues, such as how to bond with our children, how to get them to sleep when they should, how to potty train them, and how to get them to listen to what we tell them at least some of the time.
Behaviour can be one of the toughest areas to get right in parenting. If you’re too tough, you can stifle your children and damage your relationship with them. If you’re too lenient, then you’re not doing them any favours in the long run. I know that there is a belief among some parents that saying ‘no’ to children is unnecessarily negative and that you should find more imaginative ways of diverting their attention.
My attitude is that there is a whole world of ‘no’ out there, and that the sooner they learn about it, the better prepared they will be.
Whoops! I’ve outed myself as tough, inflexible dad already. Except I’m not really. At least not all of the time. Like most parents I suspect I’m a mix of good cop and bad cop, sometimes inconsistently so. I love my children, but I want them to be well behaved, whatever that means.

Feet up: an example of bad behaviour
Because when it comes to behaviour, it’s not always clear what is ‘good’. What you classify as high spiritedness, might be completely unacceptable to another parent, and vice versa. We also tend to change from one day to the next. Jumping on the bed is fine when it’s the weekend, but not when you’re looking forward to that last 15 minutes of kip before sloping off to work.
There are times when my two are driving me insane that I definitely snap into bad cop mode and start issuing summary justice – no TV today… or tomorrow, that toy is confiscated, and go to your room!
Then when my wife asks what the problem was I’m forced to admit that it was something fairly trivial – they were shouting or being annoyingly boisterous when I was trying to read the paper. “They are five and three,” she will patiently explain, putting me firmly in my place.
As a parent, you have to ask what it is that you expect of your children and why. Some basics are fairly universal: don’t hit other children, don’t tell lies, be polite, and so on. Others are more mixed up with our own attitudes and beliefs. Twenty or 30 years ago, children were probably expected to be a bit more ‘seen and not heard’, but do many people subscribe to that now? We may have different expectations of our children than our parents did of us, and that includes behaviour.
One of the challenges for many dads is that they may work during the day, so they aren’t around when behavioural issues arise. As such, they can feel out of the loop on decisions that have been made. There is also the danger that dad is cast in the ‘wait ‘til your father gets home’ role. No dad really wants to get in after a day at work to find themselves as the moral arbiter when they just want some family time, however that can be the nature of the parenting team.
Where there are two parents, instilling good behaviour and tackling behavioural problems is a question of teamwork. Both of you need to be consistent in your approach because it can take time to change behaviour, if that is what you are trying to do. Small children forget things. They’ve got a lot going on in their lives, so constant and gentle reminding is important, if a little wearing for parents.
As can the continual refrain of “Why?” Although the temptation to yell, “Because I say so,” can be overbearing at times, you should always explain why you want children to do something. Children can have a strong sense of what’s fair and unfair, so you need to make sure that they know why they are being asked to do something, or told off.
You also need to be sure why you are doing it. Is a child’s behaviour an issue because it is dangerous, selfish or discourteous, or is it just annoying or embarrassing you at this particular moment. What’s to be gained from making it a big issue? Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
Similarly, parents can’t be hypocrites as this is soon picked up by their offspring. There is no point telling your children that something is wrong if you do it yourself. From reading at the table to shouting and bawling around the house. If it’s a house rule, it should apply to all. Dads should be role models.
When behaviour is becoming unacceptable, don’t suddenly snap. Let the children know that what they are doing is not acceptable and that if they continue to do it then something – spell out what – is going to happen. Be proportionate with your punishments. There are only so many times you can cancel Christmas, especially if you start in February.
If you do bring in a penalty, then be prepared to use it. There’s no point backtracking as it will only leave issues to be dealt with later.
Of course behaviour is as much about the carrot as the stick, probably more so. Praising good behaviour and letting your children know that you have noticed them doing a good or thoughtful thing is the most powerful tool in your box. And it’s a lot more fun than having to be ‘bad dad’.