Saturday, May 06, 2017

Be kind

Having lived in England for more than 30 years, I still remember how cold the winters could get in Scotland. There was onein the Seventies where our little council estate on the moors was effectively ice bound. The roads were hard packed snow, which made driving on them impossible in today's terms.
The village had a lot of elderly people who couldn't venture out beyond their doorstep. Even the bus that connected the village with the nearest town, Lanark, was not able to get to us.
I was young at the time, but I have a very clear memory of that particular winter. My dad, who worked shifts in a factory in another village, obviously had a sense that something had to be done. He knew that the old folk of the village needed a bit of looking after. He drove his Vauxhall Viva to the local shops and filled the boot with bread, driving round the village and looking in on the auld yins to see if they were alright and if they'd prefer a loaf of pan or plain.
It popped into my mind this evening.
It has not been a particularly good day for progressive parties with the Tories rampant in the local elections and looking to be similarly so in next month's general election.
I don't think there's much I can do about that. The die is cast. From my perspective it will be an awful result, but as a good democrat, I can do nothing more than accept the will of the people... the bastards!
To me, it doesn't seem like we're heading to a good place. Brexit doesn't look like a sunny uplands to me. As a country, I reckon that we'll end up a diminished, more insular, and more insignificant entity. We'll probably not even notice, like the frog being boiled.
But it doesn't matter what I think. The people have spoken and, knowing the pig-headed nature of the Brits, people aren't going to back down now and say that they've made a mistake. We're on a railroad that leads over a cliff/heading for
a prosperous future as a globally facing, strong and stable country (delete as appropriate).
I think we're on a road that will see a lot of people hurting, and there's no quick turnaround. The May Queen will have five years to do pretty much what she likes. Who will stop her? Ironically, the EU may yet be a partial saviour as the energy required to Brexit will distract the Tories from pulling the roof in (spoiler alert - the UK won't be able to do exactly as it wishes in globally connected economy. This isn't the 17th century. The future may not be so glorious).
I think that the May years will be seen as a time when many will feel that their dreams have been thwarted, when we all retrench a bit, and the world starts to feel a bit more scary.
I hope I'm wrong, but the past few years have seen people electing to go down roads that seems further and further away from an idea of community, whatever that means - all in it together, or pulling up the drawbridge.
My idea of community is quite old fashioned and simple. It's my dad with his boot of bread going round, knocking on doors and seeing if people are okay. Community minded action like that wasn't unusual, but it wasn't the be all and end all. The council provided our houses, the kids all went to the local school, and there was one NHS doctor in the village. People valued those services because their parents remembered the time when they didn't exist.
Maybe I'm catastrophising and all will be well. But I have no faith in Tess May's Tories, and I don't think that an alternative is around the corner. I think that Britain, England really, will stew in its juice for a good long time, and people will suffer.
We could agitate, educate, organise... and we must. But we must also be kind. That's what I'll be trying to do over the next five years. I would anyway. It's how I was brought up. Now it seems more essential than ever.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Anyone can write a children's book

I suppose there are worse people to write a book for children than George Galloway. As far as I know Margaret Thatcher never troubled the world with her thinly disguised views on how children should behave. She was too busy explicitly telling grown adults how they should follow the upright path trodden by Alderman Roberts. Of course, there is a revisionist view...

The one time Labour and Respect MP is to write a series of books about an ethical pirate described as a sort of Robin Hood of the high seas. No rum swigging or libidinous behaviour it seems - well, it is for children. Maybe I'm being unfair on Galloway. The old goat has four children under ten, so he's probably already tried out some of his material on them and may be on to a winner.

Mind you, they're not always the best audience. My eldest son used to inveigle me to repeatedly tell a story I made up about a jobsworth parking warden trying to ticket a Martian's flying saucer. He thought it was brilliant. I doubt the rest of the world would have agreed.

Then again, if I had a higher profile, it wouldn't really matter. Do children's publishers fall for the amazingly creative stories that celebrity writers bring to their doors, or simply see them as a more marketable commodity? Whatever else they have, these writers have a level of awareness with the public that will open doors when the book comes out, no matter the quality.

There seems to be a feeling that anybody can write a children's book. Sarah Ferguson, David Walliams, Ricky Gervaise, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard, Katie Price, Madonna, Keith Richards...
actually there are loads of them.

We're all supposed to have a book in us. What convinces so many that it's one for kids? Not all celebrity writers have children of their own and not all of them need the money, although the well off never seem happy with their financial lot. Could it be that it's just a bit easier than writing other books?

I think it is. There are fewer words and more of the heavy lifting is done by talented illustrators who probably don't get a 50:50 split. Thematically and stylistically, it's usually not to difficult to spot an inspiration - a Dahl here, a Dr Seuss there. It's all a bit cosy and obvious. There isn't too much evidence of taking on tough themes or of being especially creative.

"Where's your book, you hater?" I hear you ask. Good question. I have written books, but none for children. I don't think I'm imaginative enough. I could hack out a genre kids' book I'm sure - tales of derring do for boys, whimsical escapism for younger children - but would it be any good? Good enough for home consumption, but for a wider market? Probably not.

Not that it stops the new celeb literati. Do they actually even write them? We know from the examples of Zoella and Naomi Campbell that it ain't necessarily so. It's all about the brand. Never mind the quality, buy the lunch box, T-shirt or action figurine.

Great children's books inevitably achieve an enviable merchandising afterlife these days, but that wasn't the original inspiration for Roald Dahl or Judith Kerr or Eric Carle or Lauren Child. They wrote because they had to - to get something out of themselves or to make a living. It wasn't a nice little extra to add to their portfolio of interests, and they probably didn't expect that they would command an audience by right. That's a difference.

Anyway, good luck with that George!

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Sporting life

I was listening to Katherine Grainger on Desert Island Discs this week. She probably weighs her Olympic and World medals rather than counts them. Not many of us will ever reach those sorts of heights in sport.
However, we all have our own little golden moments. Today, my son had his first when he entered a cyclocross event organised through his school. Cyclocross is a bit like cross country on bikes. I wasn't even aware it was a thing until last summer when I was doing my homework on road bikes and nearly ended up buying one because it looked so lovely, not realising it was configured for a particular kind of cycling.
Mud, sweat and gears
For the uninitiated, like me, the bikes have off road tyres for better grip, wider forks to accommodate these tyres, more clearance for the pedals, and often disc brakes for better braking.
Anyway, the school wanted to put in a team and I volunteered the lad, who has been on a couple of training session over the past couple of weekends. It was just enough to give him an idea of what it would be like racing over rough terrain and to be a bit more prepared.
Today we headed to Haverhill where the event was held at a local school. The venue led me to believe it would be a few laps round a fairly flat field, but it was quite a bit more challenging than that - rather hilly, windy and muddy. A lot more muddy than we'd practised in.
Jamie had a couple of familiarisation laps, which got him blowing hard, especially as he was pedalling a heavy old mountain bike compared to the sleek cyclocross beasts that a lot of the kids had - complete with cleats (gulp).
His year group was first off. It was only 10 minutes, but it was high impact stuff and the kids were really going for it. I thought he'd manage a couple of laps in that time - the course was probably about a kilometre I guess, but a sneaky little km it was - but he managed three, which was a great effort. All of the kids did really well, and looked thoroughly puffed at the end, and pretty filthy.
I was really proud of him because he gave it a good go and never gave up. That's all you can ask really. Of course, I was quite chuffed that he did reasonably well too - not as well as the more experienced kids on better bikes, but probably better than he thought he would do. It was definitely outside of his comfort zone, and according to his mum he was a bit nervous about it beforehand.
I think I'd freaked him out by trying to give him tactical advice over the past few days - like I know anything! He can be a bit of a worrier when it comes to new experiences, and I obviously hadn't helped. This morning I told him that it was no big deal, not to worry and to just enjoy it.
Retire the 12!
He did enjoy it. I think he really enjoyed it, and that was enough for me, to be honest.
We hung around to watch the other races and see who had won, not really expecting anything. His age group was up first, and the announcer went through the medals in reverse order. They didn't get bronze, which I thought might have been as well as they'd do, and obviously didn't get silver. Hey ho.
They only bloody won it! GOLD!
I didn't see that coming. Cue lots of applause, cheesy grins, hugging and celebratory pictures.
Afterwards he said: "That's the first time I've won anything."
That's not strictly true. He's won competitions, school sports races, and has earned badges at Beavers and Cubs. That's not a brag. At this age, there are lots of things that kids can enter and lots of opportunities to earn and win things.
"But this is the first time I've won a medal," he said.
I don't know why that should have surprise me. I've never been especially competitive myself, but remember clearly a couple of times that I had a little success in sport as a child. I was part of our primary school's 4 x 100m relay team that won a regional competition at Carluke Sports Stadium when I was about 12. It was the first time I'd ever run on a proper track. I was the second leg of a team that included John Hamilton, William Whitelaw and somebody else, lost in the annals of South Lanarkshire athletics history
He medalled
We were a very small school, and that was probably my first medal - presented on a podium beside the track. I think the school may have won the overall cup too. I've got a vague memory of our janitor, come trainer Archie McKellar, holding a cup aloft at the end of the day.
Does anybody else remember this? I doubt it. And as for the unexpected inaugural Rigside gala day five a side competition (real Roy of the Rovers stuff from a team stuffed with the 13-year-old equivalents of journeymen, against the village fancy Dans), I doubt anybody else recalls that. I wish I still had the trophy to be sure that my memory isn't playing tricks.

My son has his shiny piece of metal on a ribbon, but he'll also have pictures to remember it, and a Facebook trail of congratulations that is lengthening as I write this.
He'll remember this. I'm sure he will.