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.