Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Losing a parent

Prince Harry recently spoke about how he wishes that he'd spoken about the death of his mother, Princess Diana, sooner. 
I was a year older than him when I lost my dad and can empathise with the inability, for a whole host of reasons, not to speak about it. We're really rubbish at it in this country, aren't we?
Anyway, The Guardian had a survey on its website today asking for people's experiences for an article. I suspect that they'll get a lot of responses so doubt they'll be able to use mine. 
Here it is anyway - I found it a useful exercise.

When did you lose a parent and what impact did it have?
I was 13 when my father died. It was relatively sudden - I was away on a Scout camp and when I came back he was in hospital. I managed to see him once before he died, which may have made things worse. Although he looked weak and diminished I didn't doubt he'd pull through - he told me he was fine. What parent wouldn't?
After the initial grief, things got back to normal relatively quickly. My mum wasn't really equipped to deal with the emotional issues, and she was now a single parent with two children reliant on her. As the eldest I think I saw it as my duty to be 'good' and to make things easier for her. She had enough on her plate. I suspect I was a fairly subdued teenager after that. My rebellion, such as it was, probably came in later years when I was at university and didn't feel I had to walk on egg shells around my mum.
After dad died I lost guidance on where my life should go. Although he was from a working class background and had left school at a young age, as you did then, he was more focused on what I could achieve. He was my champion in that respect and somebody I wanted to make proud. It's not that my mum didn't care, but by then she was taking care of day to day issues and her own grief. She never got over losing him and never remarried.
For years I'd think of him every day. I would have loved to have had his assistance and guidance on growing up to become a man - I had to work that out for myself. And of course, I'd have loved him to meet my sons, who I know he'd have absolutely doted on.
What memories do you have of the parent you lost?
Because I was 13, I have very vivid memories of my dad, and count myself lucky in that respect.
All of the usual stuff - holidays, Christmas, visiting relatives, him playing with me and my sister, silly jokes, his spaghetti bolognaise.
I have really good recall of the way he looked, the way he spoke and the things he said, which is also a great comfort. In this respect, there is an element of seeing him as a bit of a guide for adult life - what would he have done in this situation, what would he have said?
We did a lot as a family and they're good memories, which is probably why I've never doubted that I wanted a family, and if possible, would start one.
I sometimes wonder if I romanticise him as my memories are largely good, but I think he just was a decent man who lots of people loved and still miss. More than 30 years later I expect to be buttonholed at any family gathering and brought to tears by somebody telling me a story about him.
He was the eldest son in the family and he left a big hole.
How did you deal with your grief and do you have any regrets?
Neither me, nor my sister, who was 10, had any counselling. I don't think my mum did - she probably just had a chat with her doctor and was given some sleeping pills.
I think we all just buried our grief and we didn't really talk much about dad as it was just too upsetting. That doesn't mean we didn't think about him - we probably thought about him too much.
I don't know much about grief counselling, so don't know how much it would have helped. The fact that we are still processing it so many years later makes me think that it would have been handy. It's easier to talk to strangers, so maybe some sort of help would have been useful.
Years later we do talk about him a lot more. It's not so raw but it is still difficult.
How has it impacted you as an adult?
One impact probably relates to where I am in my working life. I always feel like I sort of frittered away my potential through lack of a guiding hand. Maybe that's an excuse for my perceived lack of progress. I was academically fairly bright, but coasted and could have benefited from a bit more vocational guidance and somebody cracking the whip.
Emotionally it has probably made me more guarded with a tendency to be rather pessimistic. I think I was a lot more outgoing as a younger child than I was thereafter. Maybe I would have ended up where I am now anyway - who knows? I do sometimes feel as if I'm still playing at being an adult, but I think this is fairly common.
I'm probably quite protective as a parent and a bit overly prescriptive at times. I worry about my health - I'm about the same age now as when my dad died - and I worry about how the kids would be if anything happened to me.
What advice would you offer your younger self?
Try and find someone who you can talk to about how you are feeling, but do it in a way and at a pace that is right for you. Don't submerge all of this stuff.
Don't feel embarrassed about what has happened to you - I did and it made me shut things away.

It's okay to feel sad, but try to find things that make you happy and make time for those too.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


It was a gloriously sunny day yesterday - 23 June 2016. Today, at just before noon, it has started hosing it down again, which seems more appropriate to my mood.
On the night of the referendum vote I went to bed at about 11.30, fairly certain that we'd dodged a bullet. There was no exit poll from the Beeb, but signs seemed to be that at the last minute the electorate had swerved towards voting to remain in the EU.
I won't say that they belatedly saw sense, because that would be insulting to those who voted leave - I'll get on to that.
Anyway, ragged reports were coming in that Farage had already conceded defeat and that a poll taken during the day had remain ahead by 52:48. Well, at least the figures were right this time, albeit the wrong way round.
Ian Duncan Smith was being interviewed by Dimbleby and had the look of a man who had given it his best shot but suspected that the gig was up. At least that's how I read his Cheshire cat grin. To me, he appeared demob happy, preparing to return to the Tory fold with a sense of "Yikes, that was a jolly jape. What larks!" to share battle stories with those on the In side with whom he had previously violently disagreed. It was quite unseemly actually.
There was even a story that Boris Johnson had confessed to a fellow Tube traveller on Thursday night that the leavers had lost.
So, I went to bed ready to sleep a good night's sleep, untroubled by my fears of what could lie ahead.
What a chump!
I'm glad I got that night's sleep in though. I'm not sure it will come so easily over the next few weeks and months.
Hearing that the leavers had won the next morning was stunning. I can only compare it to the feeling I had a few seconds after 10pm on election night last year, when Dimbleby announced the scale of Labour's defeat and predicted a Tory majority.
Nobody saw that coming. A defeat yes, but not on that crushing scale. Cameron, fearing another coalition at best, had his resignation speech ready to deliver on the morning of 8 May 2015, so he probably only had to make a few amends for yesterday's announcement. It was dignified and polished as you expect from him, but didn't really hide the fact that he had put a gun in his own mouth and dared people "don't make me do it".
If that election result made me reassess the area where I live, then yesterday made me feel like I'd woken up in a different country.
Last May, like many on the left I was angry at the Labour leadership for being so timid and presenting nothing - they hoped the Tories would simply keel over and gift them a hung parliament which they'd control with SNP and possibly Lid Dem allies.
But I was angry at the electorate too who were happy to vote for austerity, and happy to be re-fed the pat "if it's not hurting, it's not working" philosophies of the Thatcher years. However, I sort of understand that attitude. Thatcher's homespun tactics continue to serve the Tories well more than 30 years later. It's easy to blame fecklessness and laziness for more complex socio-economic issues. Work hard, save more, obey the rules, and everything will be okay.
Except things aren't always okay. The world keeps crashing in on us and ruining our sturdy attempts to do the right thing.
This referendum was different. I couldn't really accept any of the three main arguments to leave:
- economically, we'll be better off. Oh, grow up! We're hindering access to our main market. If Britain has great products that the world wants, they're already buying them. There will be no revival of the UK car or steel industry. We won't produce a rival to Apple overnight.
- sovereignty and bringing back control. Frankly, I don't want to give any more control to a bunch of ideological right wing coneheads who are are already hell bent on wrecking our health and education systems, and who have little regard for more local democracy or electoral reform. This is a smokescreen - it's not the 17th century.
- migration will be controlled. Will it really? Half of our migrants come from outside the EU - I suppose we'll get to them later. We will have to allow freedom of movement to remain in the single market. Illegal immigration will probably continue at similar levels, unless the UK economy starts to tank. Most illegals come here to work in the black economy. By definition they can't claim benefits.
So, I don't buy it, but many people do. It's hard for me not to walk around mentally labelling people who I suspect voted to leave. Does that mean we can't get along? In many cases, absolutely!
For my sins, I'm of the never forgive, never forget school. It will always be a way for me to define you, just as I mentally register people's politics. It doesn't always affect my behaviour, but it probably does affect how I think of you and how I analyse what you say and do. I'm not particularly proud of that, but I'm trying to be honest.
And I think it's how the rest of the world is looking at Britain, or more accurately England, now. It's not a country full of small-minded, insular, xenophobes, but it has definite traits in those areas, and those are what we showed yesterday. More than one person I know has remarked on their 'shame' at the vote to leave and even of being British.
Last night, I went to see Essex play 20:20 cricket in Chelmsford. It's an annual outing with the guys from my book group - how wishy-washy liberal does that sound - but I wasn't looking forward to it this year. From past experience, when T20 Essex comes out to play it is a bit like Brexit on tour - white, male, lager-fuelled, shaven-headed (and that's just me). Having read of the chants of England football fans in Marseilles recently, I wouldn't have been surprised to have heard enthusiastic cheers for Farage, Brexit and Boris.
As it was, people seemed as stunned as I felt. Was I imagining slightly embarrassed looks on the faces of people from a county that voted strongly for leave? The kind of look after a party where things got a bit out of hand and you want to keep a low profile for a while.
It probably was just me projecting, although the term Regrexit has already been termed for just those people. I've also heard the more scatalogical Brexshit and Brexcrement to describe the merde we may soon be in.
Or will we?
The fact is, as was spelled out regularly during the campaign, not least by those damned experts so loathed by Gove, nobody really knows what happens now. We have a good idea of what would have happened had we stayed - not quite business as usual, and possibly the start of a new, tweaked relationship with the EU that Europhobes would have hated, but that would have been reassuring to Joe Public, business, and the rest of the world.
But that didn't happen. Things are more uncertain, and more scary than they were two days ago, and they'll probably stay that way for some time. I didn't see much bunting being strung up yesterday.
On a day of high emotion yesterday, the thing that got me most was an instant message from a friend in Scotland. In an exchange about what was happening I joked about strapping a mattress to the car and heading up the M74.
Her reply, "Come home," just about broke me.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Damn you Colin

I was in Glasgow at the weekend for a wedding. On Sunday we had a few hours to kill before heading to the airport for the flight home. Walking down the street we were handed a flyer for a craft market in a nearby venue. After looking at some shops, my wife and I decided to go there as she was on the lookout for some Christmas gifts for friends.
The entrance to the venue, a restaurant/bar, had some stalls that she was attracted by. After a quick look, I decided to check out the inside.
As I entered the building it was quite dark and an unusual venue at that. Prior to entering I did not realise that it was a bar - it looked like an old hall of some sort. Inside, it had a high vaulted ceiling and lots of banquette tables. It was not entirely clear where the craft stalls were.
I was looking around and getting my bearings when a lady at a table looked at me hopefully and asked: "Are you Colin?"
Rather too hastily I said that I wasn't and walked past her. Almost immediately it struck me that she was waiting for some sort of date, and that my response could be taken for the brush off. I'd arrived like a sneaky snake, caught a glimpse of her and thought she wasn't to my taste - too old, not pretty enough, boring looking. These weren't my thoughts about her, but they were now what I was thinking she was thinking.
I suppose I could have gone back and explained that I really wasn't Colin and that I was here with my wife (to my shame, I did actually make a bit of a show of her being with me when she eventually came into the building), but that would have been about making myself feel better.
I could have started talking to her and gave a better impression of myself. Even if I wasn't Colin, I was the sort of person who would speak to somebody on their own, nursing a coffee on a grey, rainy Sunday in Glasgow.
Instead, I probably made her feel worse about being on her own.
As we went to the balcony area where the craft stalls were, I noticed that she was shuttling out of the building on her own.
I don't know why I'm feeling guilty about this. It was Colin who was the no show.

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.