Saturday, May 02, 2020

Goodbye

Like many people at the minute, my sister and I had to arrange a funeral in very strained circumstances. It's never an easy thing, I guess - I've never had to do it before. When my dad died, we were both quite young - I had just turned 15 and my sister was 12 - and it was out of our hands.
I've been to enough funerals though to know the form, and currently there are many restrictions in place. We couldn't use the chapel. It was a graveside service, with a limit to the number of people in attendance, which meant my sister and me, plus immediate family. We couldn't even have floral tributes as florists aren't open. No hugging to comfort each other, and at the end we would head off back to our own lockdowns again.
It doesn't sound like much of a send off, does it?
Be that as it may, the stripped down affair on the day was quite touching.
If there can be such a thing as lovely weather for a funeral, then this was it. Sunlit blue skies untroubled by anything but a few fluffy clouds.
I drove to the funeral with my eldest son, who is 12. During the drive we chatted about what to expect. The only funerals he has been to before were when he was a baby. I said that I'd probably be upset, as would his aunt, and that he might be too, and that was alright. But it was alright if he didn't feel like crying - there's no one way to feel at a funeral.
I'd asked if he would read something on the day, and he agreed. We chose a poem suggested by the celebrant - She is Gone, by David Harkins. I asked him because I thought he could do it. He's very composed for his age. I hope he didn't feel pressured to do it, and I told him that if it came to it, and he didn't feel able, then he didn't have to read it.
With little traffic on the road we arrived in the town of Leighton Buzzard with about half an hour to spare, so we sat in a lay by for a bit. No cafes for a cuppa. The we drove to the cemetery where mum was to join dad.
My sister was already there with her partner and youngest son. So was the celebrant, who I had previously spoken to on the phone. We spoke briefly and anxiously to each other, but there was little time to say much to each other before the hearse arrived carrying mum's small coffin.
We followed the car into the cemetery to the strains of The Corries' Loch Lomond playing gently in the background. James, the celebrant, was a very comforting presence and led us gently through a simple service to remember mum. I said some words, getting through it relatively well until near the end when I choked. My son was next to do his reading and I'm immensely proud that was able to carry it out - he grew that day. It was also great to have him as my support - I don't know how I would have got through it without having someone to hug.
At the end of the service, my sister distributed some floral tributes that she had made, with pictures of mum with various family members and friends, and we dropped them into the grave on her coffin.
It was over relatively quickly, and with no hugs beyond the bounds of our two little groups, we went home.
It was simple, and that's what my mum liked, so it was a fitting service for her, even if it wasn't what we'd have chosen ordinarily. In some ways, the simplicity helped us deal with the day better. I think I'd have struggled to face all the family and friends on the day - it's such an emotional tidal wave. People want to pay their respects and offer their condolences, of course they do, and as someone who is grieving, you have to accept their wishes, but every one revives the upset you feel. It's a long and trying day.
This was more manageable for both me and my sister I suspect. We've spoken to family and friends before the day, and had lots of very touching messages, and that was plenty, to be honest. We'll see these people again at some point, and we'll probably cry with some of them individually.
We'll all remember her.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mum

My mum, Jane, passed away on Friday 20th March. It's convention at times like this to say of the deceased something like, "They would do anything for anybody," or, "They never had a bad word to say about anyone."
Anybody who says this about my mum obviously never knew her very well.
She was fiercely loyal to family and friends, but woe betide anyone who got on her wrong side. She would never forget and could harbour an Olympic sized grudge, something she's passed on to me. Thanks mum.
She was a fierce woman, and a fighter. She had to be.
The youngest daughter in a family of 12, she had to battle for attention and a place at the dining table from when she was wee.
She had to share a bedroom with her five sisters when she was young, gradually getting more room as they left to get married one by one.
As a working woman she also had to raise two children while her husband, John, had to work ever changing shift patterns that left the burden of the care on her.
When my dad died, she had to raise two troublesome and troubled teenagers who didn't appreciate how hard it was for her. They say that you don't know how challenging it is to be a parent, let alone a single parent, until you have to do it yourself. Her lessons in tough love came back to me when I became a dad, albeit tempered by my wife's more relaxed approach to parenting.
The grandchildren were her payback and the best thing my sister and I were ever able to do for her. After probably despairing that either of us would ever start a family, she had a rapid fire introduction to grandparenting with four boisterous boys in the space of six years. Be careful what you wish for.
Did she spoil them? What do you think?
Becoming a grandparent softened her a bit and gave her a new purpose. She moved to Buckingham to be nearer my sister and consequently my nephews saw a lot more of her than my two. I know that my sister is eternally grateful for her help with the boys.
She was a regular feature in their lives with presents, going on holiday with us, and knitting some beautiful items for all of them. Love in every stitch.
Two years ago everything changed when she had a cancer diagnosis. This was a big shock for us all, and the treatment was hard on her. She was incredibly brave in going through the rounds of chemotherapy that she did, but it was brutal. She withstood it with a grimace and a grin, never wanting to make a fuss about it. That was her motto - "Don't make a fuss."
The treatment gave us an extra two years with her, and I'll always be grateful for that, but they were hard won years. She was more frail and less inclined to venture outside. The woman who had always been proudly self reliant spent more and more time perched in front of the telly, her once neat and tidy little house becoming slowly more dusty. She still always looked immaculate in her personal appearance. I guess that was as much as she could manage towards the end.
We talked about getting help for her, but apart from a brief period when she was undergoing chemo, she was stubbornly resistant to the idea of anyone - apart from my wonderful sister - coming in to help her. Even at the end, when she was incredibly weak, she knew what she didn't want, and made the case forcefully.
And in the end, she was in hospital where she was looked after with great kindness by staff who were facing an overwhelming demand as the Covid 19 crisis mounted. They took the time to cajole her to try to eat, and would get a smile out of Jane.
That's my abiding memory of her - smiling and chuckling at a joke she made the last time I saw her. Inevitably it was at somebody else's expense. Oh well. you can't break the habit of a lifetime.
I suppose we have to count ourselves lucky that she passed in her sleep and without great pain. We're not so lucky that her funeral will have to take place in such a trying period. Over the past few days I've heard from lots of friends and family who would be with us on the day, in normal circumstances. But these are nothing like normal circumstances, and it will be a very small gathering at her graveside, where she will finally join my dad, the love of her life.
It's sometimes hard to think of your parents as loving things as we do. My mum was quite an emotionally guarded person, but I know that she loved life. She loved her family, she loved her friends, she loved to knit, she loved to chat, and she loved a scurrilous piece of gossip.
I read once that as your parents get older, the best thing that you can do is tell them you love them as often as you can. I hope that message got through to mum, because we loved her very much and we will all miss her enormously.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Lie in it

"Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in..."
I suspect that bookies will soon be paying out on Liverpool's first Premiership win and first top flight league win in 29 years. The Reds are currently eight points clear of their nearest contenders, Leicester, and 14 ahead of the next team, Man City.
The figures of how far the Tories are in front of Labour in election polls are less definitive - anything from a generous 6% up to a embarrassing 15% or more. For some time, there has been no talk of a Labour victory as the largest party, let alone a majority. That prize seems the Tories to lose. Having cocked up so spectacularly in 2017, it seems unlikely that they won't emerge without a majority on Friday morning.
I'd love to be proved wrong, but I'm sticking to my inkling that 2017 will prove to be the high water mark for Corbyn, if not Corbyism. The magic has been noticeably missing this time round, despite a manifesto chock full of goodies. Nobody can complain that they're not being given a meaningful choice this time round with full-fat socialism versus an anemic Tory promise of jam tomorrow if they can just finish the Brexit thingy. 
I don't know much about how things will play out over the next few years, but I will predict that this will be a Sisyphean task. We'll be stuck in a seemingly never-ending round of discussions, treaties, detail, and our two old friends dither and delay. If we ever push the boulder to the vaunted uplands they'll not be as sun-drenched as we'd imagined them, if we can actually remember what we imagined this very heaven would be like.
Of course, that's not what the Tories will say. The mop-headed lying machine will strain his 2:1 classic degree to sugarcoat this turd of a future as the best thing since sliced cake - had and eaten by him and his chums. British people will shrug and try to forget that this glorious independence day resulted in such meagre fare for them.
Brexit will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory I expect, and will still never be enough for Farage (remember him?) and his ilk. However, his guns will finally be spiked. Exhausted and confused Brits (English really) will no longer care if "they're not doing Brexit right!" Like getting to Marbella and finding the glorious brochure images of the hotel don't match the building site they encounter, they'll moan a bit and then go off to get pissed, and sing songs about the wars, World Cup, and Brexit they won. There will be a football song linking this trilogy of achievements soon enough. 
Bitter? Of course I am. I still don't see a believable upside to all of this for me and mine. There will be winners, but probably not among the 99%. It's all been so unnecessary... but, we are where we are.
And what of Labour? 
It seems inevitable that Corbyn will step down after Friday - possibly more quickly than some anticipate. He'll have presided over two electoral defeats, and while 2017 gave supporters reasons to be cheerful, this time will feel like a monstrous kick in the balls, no less so for being anticipated, unlike Cameron's surprise majority in 2015. Doesn't that seem like a lifetime ago?
It's not hard to see that Labour could spend the next two or three years being completely ineffective as a political force - insert your own joke here. There will have to be soul searching, although with the NEC and shadow cabinet stuffed full of Corbyn allies, it's hard to imagine a return to a more broad-based Labour offering. 
Maybe Corbyn was just the wrong frontman all along. His monstering has been appalling, but it goes with the territory for Labour leaders and he hasn't helped himself at times. Could someone else have done a better job? We'll never know, but someone else will have to do a better job in future. I hold no high hopes for a revival in 2024 if that's as long as we have to wait for the next election. Until then, Neil Kinnock's 'I warn you...' speech comes to mind again. 
To Johnson will fall the massive task of uniting this fractured nation. No surprise that I doubt the chilled out entertainer will be up to the task. I'm not even thinking of the precious, precious Union. He doesn't care much about that. I'm thinking of the deep, post-war France fractures that will exist in our society for a long time. 
"What side were you on daddy?"
"The right one... and don't speak to those bastards across the road!"
Five more years to think about it.
"We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that's all we've got..."


Thursday, November 08, 2018

Infirm

A strange thought popped into my head a few days ago - I wish I had started cycling 10 years earlier.
It's not that I think that extra ten years would have helped me to become a better/faster/stronger cyclist, although it probably would. It's just that when you find something you enjoy at my age, there's a mental date at which you can already see when you won't be able to do it any more. I'm mourning something that hopefully is a long way off yet - that's a bit mad isn't it?
This pessimism has been exacerbated no doubt by a recurrence of a knee problem that seems to flair up every now and then. It's a swelling that prevents my leg from having its full range of flexibility, strength or stability.
Particularly galling this time is the fact that it has just popped up with no apparent reason. In the past, it has been traced to overdoing exercise, or doing exercise badly, or a twist of some sort. This time, I could feel a slight swelling and knew it was coming on, but couldn't think what the cause was.
For the past week this has resulted in me hobbling about in various states of discomfort and pain just wishing it would go away. It has trashed my bike riding plans, including one off road event last Sunday that I was really looking forward to.
At roughly the same time, I've developed an ache in my right arm which makes it feel weaker when called on to lift something. At this age, we tend to joke all the time about 'falling to bits', but it's starting to feel like that to me.
But should it?
At the weekend, I bumped into an old neighbour who I haven't seen for a couple of years since he moved from our street. During the usual exchange of pleasantries, I mentioned my leg and he spoke about problems he had before going on to reveal that he was in remission from cancer. He actually looked very well, and was incredibly positive about things, telling me he was planning a walk across Scotland as a fundraiser and celebration of his health.
Another friend has been beset with health problems recently, yet seems to take things in his stride. He is remarkably upbeat about his various ailments and impending procedures. Why can't I be more like that, rather that being so catastrophic about things?
When I was younger and dafter, I used to make declarative statements about how I would give a year of my life to be able to play guitar like folk-rock guitar hero Richard Thompson. (Obviously, if I was that bothered, I could have practised harder, got some lessons, or applied myself a bit more. However, that wouldn't have had the same grandstanding effect for my attention-seeking younger self.)
That seems fairly asinine now (In my 20s, I also used to claim that by the time I was 30 I'd have stopped drinking. I'll let you guess how well that's going.) If I was prepared to give up any portion of my life now - and I'd rather not thanks - then it would be for a slightly nobler, although in some ways, equally selfish end, such as for my family, especially my children.
Of course, even in these troubled times we live in a reasonably safe and stable society where we're not required to make heroic sacrifices. We're better placed to help those we love by doing the dull and predictable - bringing home the bacon, helping children with their homework, teaching them to be decent human beings.
That's the more important stuff, and something that my growing array of minor inconveniences hopefully won't stop me from achieving. I hope to be around for a while yet, even if it's in a less functional capacity. I'm off to the physio this afternoon.
A better bike would definitely help though.

Friday, June 15, 2018

'78 and all that

With World Cup 2018 underway, thoughts of Scots turn to other years ending in 8. France 1998 was the last time we qualified for a major tournament, and 1978 was the year of the Argentina tournament.
Champions: it could have happened!
BBC has just broadcast a documentary, Scotland 78: A Love Story, looking back at the year Scotland was the sole team to qualify from the British Isles, and when the whole country became convinced that we were all set to win the tournament. The past is indeed a different country.
As a nostalgic, you'd expect me to be delighted to return to that interesting time in our history. However, like many Scots, I still bear the scars, and I was only 11 at the time. I've been putting off watching it, until the first day of the World Cup when I cracked.
The story goes that the Scottish team came under the spell of a charismatic manager Ally MacLeod, who led the team to qualification, and then seemed to preside over a period of national hysteria where expectation built to such an extent that many were convinced that Scotland simply had to turn up in Buenos Aires on 25 June 1978 to collect the trophy.
King Kenny: celebrates scoring in 1977
Maybe I'm trying to exculpate myself from that delusion, but I can't remember being so convinced that it would be so simple. My first memory of Scotland playing was the 5-1 drubbing by England in the Home Nations championships in 1975. The elders in my village thought that would be 'Easy!' too. These were the same guys who would save their money to make the bi-annual pilgrimage to Wembley for the match against England, to routinely swamp the stadium with Lions Rampant, Saltires and tartan to the extent that we used to call it Spot the Englishman.
Practically every village in Western Scotland used to send a bus down, terrifying the locals with their numbers, their incomprehensible language and drunken antics. They'd return a few days after the game finished, skint and ruddy faced, already planning the next trip.
These jolly boys outings were obviously only partly about the football. They were largely about getting away from the everyday with your mates and getting pished... in England.
Fan-tastic: even Rod got in on the Wembley mischief
So maybe the idea of going to Argentina didn't seem as daft as it was presented in the documentary. Yes, it was over the other side of the world, but Scottish fans were used to travelling overseas - Lisbon in 1967, and the rioting Rangers fans in Barcelona in 1972 to name just two examples of Scottish cultural exchange.
One idea that wasn't really explored in the documentary was how the Scots led themselves to be hypnotised by MacLeod, because that's the narrative. I suspect that his cardinal sin was to tell people what they wanted to hear. Scots bought into that storyline wholeheartedly, as did the whole of Britain actually. There didn't seem to be a lot of critical thinking.
Of course, money was a big part of it. Although the endorsement ads look cheesy now, it was early days for that sort of thing, and both the FA and the players were probably filling their boots to an unexpected degree. Who would want to rain on the parade and say "Of course, we might not win."
I had a piece of merchandise that my dad got for me. It was a pint jug - the perfect gift for a Scottish 11 year old - which had the team badge and the signatures of all of the players on it. I was so naive that for ages I thought they had actually signed it, not realising the wonders of promotional printing.
And what a team that was. In some ways Ally MacLeod did have reason to have a level of confidence - Buchan, McQueen, Rioch. Dalglish, Jordan, Souness, Macari, Rough, Hartford, Gemmill... That wasn't a bad selection.
I watched the first match against Peru at a Scout camp in Hamilton. The leaders had set up a telly in a marquee. It must have be tiny - there were no projection screens in those days. Truth be told I can't remember much about the game apart from the overwhelming level of disappointment at the 3-1 result. Did I watch the Iran game? I doubt it.
Ditto the Holland match, although we all remember Gemmill's wonder goal, which, in convincing the most one-eyed fans that we could have won the tournament, is up there with the 1967 'real world champions' myth of Scottish football.
Super Gemmill: lest we forget (chance!)
One particularly unedifying aspect of the tournament was the treatment of Willie Johnston, who was sent home for failing a drugs test. In these days of TUEs and the number of top athletes who seem to be asthmatic, his expulsion for an over the counter hay fever remedy seems harsh, but not as harsh as the way the blazers of the FA threw him under the bus. It seems crazy that the team doctors didn't know what players were taking or have processes in place, but was in line with the general amateur nature of the overall affair - not so much different from my village's bus trips to Wembley in truth.
Scotland '78 makes the point that the whole affair, with its echoes of the Darien expedition, dented the national psyche to such an extent that the country didn't vote in sufficient numbers for independence in 1979. The fact is that there was a majority who voted yes, but the government of the day dictated that it was such an important vote that there should be a threshold - something that sticks in the craw of nationalists to this day.
Would but there have been such a threshold for Brexit - an equally important vote.
As it is Argentina in 1978 probably gave Scots a sharp lesson in the dangers of national exceptionalism - something that England has still to learn given Brexit. Scotland was changing fast, as the pictures of dreary, graffitied tenements indicate. Twelve years later, Glasgow was the Smiles Better European City of Culture. I remember visiting it around that time, years after I'd last been as a child, on one of the occasional trips to the Barras, when the tenements were being pulled down and the sight of poor people selling their belongings on the pavement made it seem like another world to an impressionable child. At this later date, the cleaned up sandstone buildings seemed magnificent, the museums were engaging and exciting, and people had a swagger.
By the Nineties Scottish pride and confidence was based on things other than our football team: history, art, architecture, the landscape, the education system, and the people. And it wasn't an unquestioning pride, as the most recent independence referendum result shows. I'd venture that people realise that as a small nation, Scotland's place in the world will be tied to other larger entities. They just can't decide which they will be.
Beside the online sledging, the level of debate about the country's future was genuinely soul searching because of that. People realised that there are no easy solutions and choices have consequences, something that again seems lost on the Brexiteers.
Maybe that's something we should thank Ally McLeod for.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Snow days

Sledging: traditional British winter activity
It's day three in the ice bound house. The snow started on Tuesday and schools across Essex, and the country, were closed the following morning. It's been like that since then. There have been the usual moans that we're a country that falls apart at the first sign of a bit of snow, and why can't we be more like Switzerland/Norway/Germany... anywhere but here.
To be fair to the school first of all, this is the first time in more than six years that bad weather has closed it. I'm sure things will be back to normal on Monday - we're expecting a bit of a thaw from tomorrow. Then this little break will be filed under cultural enrichment.
So, what have we been up to?

What we've done

Tattie soup: with sprouts
  • Went sledging, obviously. That's twice in one winter my £10 purchase has been used - more than we've managed in the past five years, and we're heading out again today I hope.
  • Made cakes and biscuits.
  • Composed a space opera. Number one son took the opportunity to work out a rather dystopian sounding piece on his keyboard. The weather made it seem even more ominous.
  • Made potato heads for World Book Day. Sadly these haven't been taken to school - don't know if Harry Potato-er and Dumbledore will make it through the weekend.
  • Fed the birds.
  • Made soup.
  • Cleared snow from my the neighbour's steps (polishing my halo as we speak).
  • Rearranged the office slightly - CDs now in the next room.
  • Read books.
  • Worried about global warming, but less about Trump.
  • Got new cyclocross wheels on my new (to me) cross bike.

Snow tree: actually from earlier in 2018
What we haven't done

  • Ridden our bikes.
  • Panic bought anything.
  • Made a snow man - it's the wrong kind of snow. Too powdery.
  • Seen many people.
  • Driven the car?
  • Thought as much about Brexit.
  • I haven't done much work, as I haven't had any, so I should probably add 'Worried about lack of work' to the first list.
  • Been proactive.

What we could have done

  • Been proactive.
  • More craft activities.
  • Played board games - not sure why we haven't done more of this. The kids have actually been very good at entertaining themselves (that's my get out clause anyway). Their games tend to be mind-bogglingly complex, especially if the eldest is in charge (i.e. all the time), and being a bear of little brain, it's probably best that I excuse myself.
  • The 1,000-piece Minion jigsaw puzzle that the younger one won in a story writing competition last year (I'll just drop that humblebrag in there as a bit of catch up on what's been happening of late).
  • Demanded that school reopens, or started up some home schooling activities :)
  • We could have been out more. I gladly cleared the neighbour's steps yesterday as I was getting cabin fever.

Winterval: Abbey Fields Colchester
What have we learned


  • Snow days pass very slowly.
  • Being freelancers, we're lucky we didn't have to go anywhere.
  • After initial mad forays into the snow, the kids are quite apathetic about it. Yesterday they didn't get out of their pyjamas.
  • Not all snow is equal. The powdery stuff won't even hold a snowball. It is very beautiful however.
  • That it doesn't really matter. This little three-day event will soon be a memory - hopefully a pleasant one.
  • Local Budgens doesn't sell logs beyond about late February. We could have done with some of late - there's nothing like a real fire when it's cold outside.
  • The house is a lot warmer than the first couple of winters we were in here, thanks to better insulation. Back then we were wearing hats in bed and waking up with cold noses.
Are we really rubbish at doing winter? Were we better at it in the past? I don't know really. Generally we have better cars, better clothing and better communications. People are by and large kind and help each other out at times like this. We sort of know what we should do, although we don't always do it - much like life generally. 
It's starting to melt.




Tracks: cat I think


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The finer point

Television: on the turntable
After the initial excitement of repatriating my record collection to my house and wiring up the turntable, there was a bit of an anticlimax. Listening to a selection of discs it became apparent that they didn't sound that great. Never mind what Neil Young says, it wasn't a patch on CD quality. It sounded fuzzy, muted and just rubbish really.
The Feelies: they've reformed
I put this down to a few things: the crap quality of the vinyl that a lot of the discs were made of (the Eighties/Nineties was the end of days for vinyl and some albums and 12 inches were practically flexidiscs); the decrepitude of my equipment (sorry dad, but the Sansui and B&W speakers are past pensionable), and the ancient stylus on the turntable.
The last one was the thing that I could do something about. The stylus had never been changed - shrugs shoulders - but who changes them anyway? I can't remember any of my mates thinking it was a big deal back in the day, despite the fact that record shops and chains like Woollies and Boots usually had a cabinet of them. Most of us had crap music systems that we assumed we'd better one day, so styluses were fairly far down our priority list. I didn't even know how to change one.
However, with my little trip into the musical past, I was prepared to give it a go, otherwise there didn't seem much point having the vinyl if it couldn't be played. Can you even still buy them?
Fugazi: turned me upside down
Well, yes you can and it wasn't very hard to track down a replacement for the Sansui FR-D25 turntable. The new stylus was £18 and turned up within two days with an anti static cloth that I added to my order.
After consulting Dr YouTube to find out how to change a stylus, I was in business, and my oh my, what a difference it makes. The old stylus must have been as blunt as a very blunt thing.
Drake: mellow classic
Suddenly I get it. I'm hearing stuff on records like Surfer Rosa, Marquee Moon and Five Leaves Left that I can't remember hearing before. Perhaps there's an element of overcompensation and I'm hearing what I want to hear, but I can't deny that it's great to listen to these discs anew on the format they were recorded for. Even the crackle and blips are endearing - I've got a fair few pre-loved albums, including the aforementioned Television and Nick Drake disc, and they still sound great.
Whether there is really a sound difference, or I'm just enjoying a trip down memory lane, I don't know, and frankly I don't care. I'm not going to repurchase a lot of this stuff on CD, and listening on streaming services like Spotify or even YouTube starts to get a bit like the musical equivalent of fast food. It is flat and invariably you're listening through less that optimum equipment.
UFO: Schenker's on fire
There's also the appreciation of the album sleeves, which I'm posting to Instagram as I work my way through the collection. That £18 could be one of the best investments I've made.