The most stationary of all stationery items, scissors hate to be hurried. I learned this as a child. You did too, probably. Don't run with scissors. A clear and simple instruction. Pencils, glue, staples... no problem. For them, like us, it's a finite existence. Time is short so don't dilly dally. But don't run with scissors.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

let love be genuine. abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good

The build-up to the royal wedding, all the hype and expectation, left me fairly cold.

I don’t have a problem with the institution of marriage, nor with the monarchy per se. But the fuss that takes place on the periphery is, for me, a massive disincentive to pay much attention.

So it was that, after weeks or even months of taking little or no notice, I found myself instinctively sitting in front of the TV on the morning of Friday 29 April to watch the proceedings.

I know I am not the only person who reminisced about the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, as she was known back then in 1981. Similarly, I’m not the only person who reflected upon their own wedding day while watching the spectacle of two young people full of love and hope becoming husband and wife.

The 1981 royal wedding was the point at which my mother decided we were through with watching the world in black and white, and we got our first colour TV. For us, it was a pretty big deal. Although I don’t recall watching very much – if anything – of that royal wedding.

I guess it’s fairer to say it was a big deal for my mum.

Roughly mid-way between that royal wedding and the one that just took place, I got married.

My mother didn’t get to see it. She had died just less than a year prior to the occasion.

So it was that, as I sat listening to the readings and homilies at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I thought about love, and hope and expectation. I thought about life and it’s uncanny knack of paying no attention to the plans we make. The people we become as we grow older are not the people we once were. We are changed by the lives we lead, the highs and the lows, the cards we are dealt by fate.

The joys and the disappointments.

If you have never found yourself wondering, in the face of a mountainous set-back, what the point of it all is, whether you have the strength to carry on, or why you foolishly made the decisions that led to the point you’re at, well you simply haven’t lived.

When children are very young they fall over – a lot. Parents watch anxiously to see if they are hurt, or if they will start crying, and there is always lots of encouragement not to cry, not to dwell on what just happened.

As we get older we forget how easy it is to fall over.

Failure, I read very recently, is a better teacher than success.

But it’s up to us to pay attention and learn from the lessons it delivers.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

the revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be televised. That’s what Gil Scott-Heron told us in 1970. And if that’s news to you, if that’s a piece of music you are not familiar with, then take a few minutes to click on this link and listen.

Then come back.

No, the revolution will not – in all likelihood – be televised.

Not that I am someone who blindly supports insurrection or feels that “the people” (whoever they may be) are somehow owed something by someone. I don’t condone violence, nor do I believe that simply rejecting the status quo will deliver a better future.

But I can’t be the only person in the UK who feels that something somewhere has gone wrong with the country I live in and call home.

This startling/not-so-startling insight came to me recently (last week to be more precise) in the most unlikely of settings…. while watching MasterChef – the UK flavour.

In the episode I watched four contestants were making tea for Henrietta the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, her son and his wife – the current Duke and Duchess.

According to the Sunday Times, the Duke was worth almost £500 million in 2005, making him the 102nd richest man in the country.

So, there I sat watching a show on a TV channel which is – by and large – funded by the TV-watching licence-paying public along with government subsidies, where one of the most privileged families in the country in their fabulous, inherited, stately home sampled a succession of High Tea offerings.

The same episode of MasterChef featured ex-service men and women from the Royal Air Force who served in World War Two. And as I wrote this, on ANZAC Day – when the sacrifices of the failed Gallipoli campaign of April/May 1915 are remembered – my thoughts turned to those generations that gave so much. In too many cases, they gave everything they possibly could; around 22,000 British servicemen died during that campaign.

Lloyd George promised the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the First World War a country fit for heroes. The post World War Two government set about building a network of social structures designed to bring about a greater degree of equality.

Those hopes, those dreams, the sacrifices of the fallen feel to me to be horribly at odds with the increasing inequalities of UK society that I see in 2011. According to a presentation given just a few weeks ago at the University of Cambridge, the rate of social mobility in Britain is slower now than it was in the Middle Ages.

If this is true, and far be it from me to pick a fight with the University of Cambridge, where is the incentive to work hard, do well and try to progress in a country where you are less likely to improve your lot than your ancestors 600 years ago?

Whether it's law, medicine or politics, the most influential and prestigious professions in the UK remain dominated by the tiny proportion of the population that received an expensive private education. 
Access to the top professions is probably as good an indicator of social mobility as anything else. 

I don’t want to live in a country where ne’er-do-wells get by comfortably thanks to state handouts. But nor do I want to live in a country where the descendents of a feudal elite continue to enjoy a super-rich lifestyle not because of their efforts, endeavours or enterprise, but because of a quirk of fate.  Where the sons & daughters of top professionals automatically follow in their parents' footsteps, first to fee-paying prep school, then to top-flight public school (if you're reading this from outside the UK 'public' in this context actually means private and fee-paying), then to a good university and so the cycle repeats.

The current generation of young Britons, graduates entering the workplace, could be – according to some estimates – the first that will not, en masse, enjoy a higher standard of living than the generation before it.

These are the same graduates that are leaving university with debts of as much as £30,000, at a time when unemployment is as high as it’s been for 15 years and when stringent government cutbacks have seen some towns and cities slash their spending on public services by 50 per cent or more. Public libraries are closing, museum opening hours are being restricted, and the provision of social care to “at risk” families and children is more precarious now than it has been since 1945.

Meanwhile, the cost of policing and security for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April is estimated to be in the region of £20 million.

No, the revolution will not be televised.

But that’s ok, the Royal Wedding will be

Friday, 22 April 2011

of statues, castles and spooky apparitions

I took this photo on 8 April 2011. It shows the statue of Queen Victoria, with Windsor Castle in the background.

It's a popular choice for tourists taking photos of their visit to Windsor. I was on my lunchbreak and - struck by how blue the sky was, and the lack of people in the vicinity - I decided to take some pics.

It was some hours later when I looked at them again, and when I looked I saw something that quite literally made the hairs on my arms stand on end and my scalp tingle.

And not in a good way.

I was standing partly in the road to take that shot.

In the next one you can see how close I am to the statue - right next to it.

I decided to move close up to the statue, as I'd been standing in the road to take the two previous pics and a car was coming toward me. I stood next to the statue looking at it from a few different angles before taking this shot. When the car had gone I walked back across the road, pausing to take one final shot.

In the final pic you can see the figure of a woman standing next to the statue.

She is dressed in a rather unusual, striking manner. The kind of figure I think most people would agree you would notice. Especially if they were stood right in front of you.

I can't make you believe what I'm about to write. But when I looked at that pic, a few hours after I had taken it, one thought - and only one thought - ran through my mind... she wasn't there when I took that photo.

I would have noticed.

One of the reasons I took those pics is that it is rare to see the statue without people milling around it. The time that elapsed between the close-up and the final shot is literally seconds. Seconds after I had been standing next to the statue examining different angles for an interesting shot.

Surely I would have noticed if there had been someone there.

And how could I have failed to notice someone dressed like that?

Did it freak me out? Yes.

Spook me, put the wind up, give me the heebeegeebees? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Perhaps because I still feel sure she wasn't there when I took the photo. And perhaps because the figure in the photo bears more than a passing resemblance to my mother.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

my mother springs to mind


The season of renewal – life, love and happiness.

What does it mean to you? Warm weather for the first time in months. Blossom on the trees. Lambs. Flowers. Easter. Mother’s Day.

A few years ago, while sorting through a box of papers and family memorabilia, I found two cards I had made for my mother when I was perhaps six or seven years old. One was a Mother’s Day card, the other an Easter card.

Both hand-drawn with bits of coloured paper stuck on them, and containing messages written in a small boy’s scrawly handwriting.

My mother died in late spring 1997 and it was a few years after that event that I found these cards – I had no idea she had kept anything from my childhood.

It was, unsurprisingly, an emotional moment for me.

This time of year has been tinged with sadness since my mother’s death.

I think about her a lot. But more so at this time of year, as the anniversary of her death approaches. Typically I get a withdrawn and introspective. Things that shouldn’t bother me do. Things that should interest me don’t.

It’s been the same every year since 1998. But it took me a while to realise what was happening. To spot the pattern.

This year will be no different. Is no different, in truth.

With one not-so-small exception. I haven’t typically acknowledged it, nor mentioned it to anyone. Instead I’ve just kind of bumbled through until the feeling has left me, snapping at and alienating people along the way.

Not this year.

If you’ve read this far you’ll know what’s eating me next time you find yourself thinking “what’s eating him?

And I’ll know it’ll be a lot easier on everyone if I face up to it and deal with it, rather than let it dictate how I feel for a couple of difficult weeks.

Life, love and happiness might be a bit of a stretch. But a season of renewal..? I’ll give that a go.

Monday, 11 April 2011

do we have the press we deserve?

Updated 5 July 2011

On 4 July it emerged that the News of the World had done far worse than hack into the voicemail inboxes of celebrities and politicians. Someone working for the paper had accessed the inbox of the then missing teenager Milly Dowler. At some point between Milly's disappearance and the discovery of her dead body, voicemails from her phone were deleted. This act, we are told, caused her parents - who had no doubt been franticly calling her but unable to leave further messages at a full inbox, to believe she was still alive.

This depraved act has, thankfully, been taken seriously by Parliament - the whole sordid affair will be debated by the House of Commons on 6 July.

There has already been a considerable public backlash against the News of the World, with calls for advertisers to pull out their commercial support for the paper. Some have already indicated they will indeed take such action.

I am sure I speak for most people when I say I sincerely hope the perpetrators of this criminal and morally bankrupt behaviour are subject to the full weight of the law.

I can't help but wonder, however, when similar scrutiny will fall upon the role of the Metropolitan Police and the widespread speculation concerning their collusion in the mobile phone hacking scandal.

The British press has a fearsome reputation both at home and abroad. It’s one of the reasons so many former UK journalists find high-powered jobs as corporate communications advisers to some of the biggest names worldwide.

Investigative journalism at its best has brought down tyrants, exposed fraudsters, and highlighted miscarriages of justice. It is no coincidence that in some of the most locked-down regimes there are more constraints upon what the press can effectively get away with. Indeed, the freedom of the press is one of those concepts clung to fiercely by many in this country.

Rightly so, in my opinion.

But – as anyone who has read the British press widely in the last 15 years will know – the excesses of the tabloid media have caused many a raised eyebrow.

From Fake Sheikhs to allegations of Nazi-themed sex parties there has been an unending stream of sensational stories to titillate and tantalise. Many seem to blur the lines between that which is in the public interest and those things that are deemed to be of interest to members of the newspaper-buying public.

As a former journalist, I have enjoyed the freedom to ask challenging questions and to protect my sources. I’ve had libel writs served on me, and even death threats. OK, just one death threat – but one is enough. I never felt I had to curtail my journalistic instincts in order to kowtow to the whims of publishers, advertisers, the police, the subjects of the pieces I wrote, anyone in fact.

When I hear people complain about the “rubbish that gets printed in the papers” my standard response has usually been to say we get the press we deserve and to make the point that the so-called rubbish only gets published because people flock to read it.

Shady goings on behind the scenes at some of the UK biggest newspapers have now begun to be dragged into the light in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal (not a word I use lightly, but one which I think fits here).

The ins and outs of who knew what, and who sanctioned the illegal actions – namely hacking into voicemail messages on the mobile phones of a string of celebrities, politicians, civil servants and other public figures – is still the subject of debate and investigation. But some of the details to emerge are as damning of the culture of the UK media as they are downright shocking.

Top of my list of things to be concerned about is the link between News of the World reporters and the Metropolitan Police. I offer here only my opinion, but having heard that Metropolitan Police officers were paid sources for some News of the World reporters (how many news reporters wouldn’t like to be tipped off about high profile arrests, so they could be on hand to cover them) I start to feel a growing sense of unease.

You don’t need to be a genius to figure out the incredible potential for a conflict of interests when a newspaper allegedly encouraging its reporters to break the law is also regularly paying serving police officers for news leads. Throw into the mix the claim by a former senior officer in the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick, that his phone had been hacked into by the News of the World and the whole thing starts to feel very grubby indeed.

It’s unpleasantly reminiscent of the script of a movie, where the mob has paid off the police to ensure a blind eye is always turned to their criminal activity.

Now that the lid has been blown off this miserable affair, I’m left asking myself do we get the press we deserve?

I worry this is more than an isolated case of a newspaper’s ethics being trampled in the rush to boost sales in the midsts of a highly competitive media landscape.

This is, I fear, as much a wider dereliction of societal morality - an attitude of if I can get away with it, then I’m going to do it.

In October 1987, in an interview with one of the least combative publications imaginable, Woman’s Own, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “... who is society? There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Clearly this is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense though, which set the tone for the next two decades and beyond.

The promotion of the individual, and their so-called rights, that took place in this country and in others (yes America I am looking at you) has spawned a generation of individuals who simply don’t care about the implications, or even the legality, of their actions.

That there were journalists working for the most widely-read British Sunday newspaper who felt breaking the law was an acceptable route to scoops and stories is, for me, an indication that the UK's moral compass may be broken.

Do we have the press we deserve?

Yes, we do.

And that is a reputation to be feared.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, 2 April 2011

coming of age: if the shoe fits

For most of us there are particular points in life that seem to mark the passing of time. It could be turning 18, or 21. Or maybe 25 felt like a more significant age for you. For many, 30 is the point at which you begin to realise you’ve come a long way since school, college or university.

Beyond that there’s that old chestnut… the Big Four O, where – allegedly – life begins.

There are more subtle (and some not so subtle) ways in which the ageing process starts to hit home. Grey hairs, wrinkles, unexplained aches and pains, and so on.

However, if you haven’t got to it yet, you may find the day you start to remind yourself of your parents is actually the point at which you say to yourself, “shit, I’m getting old!

I think it’s especially common once you become a parent yourself. That’s certainly been the case for me.

It’s rare that I do something that reminds me of my late mother. But there are occasional reactions I’ll have to situations that make me think “that’s exactly what she would have said.”

Sadly, that’s almost never happened in a way that’s made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Like most men, though, it’s the war against turning into my father that keeps me busiest.

He would have been 86 years old today, but he died in January.  He left Ireland in the 1940s, volunteered for the RAF, fought in WWII, settled in Britain, raised a family, and was a manual worker all his life. He wasn’t very well-educated, but he was sharp and had a quick sense of humour. He had a very tough childhood and was one of the hardest men I’ve ever met.

In the last five or six years of his life, I didn’t see much of him. I would get reports on his health and well-being from my siblings, who often lamented that he was losing his grip a little.

It brought to mind something that happened when I was a young boy – my dad would have been in his early 50s I guess.

We lived in Birmingham and despite the fact that during the war he was a driver (among other things) my dad never bought a car – we went everywhere by bus and train.

And so it was one Saturday morning that he, my mother and I set off for Birmingham city centre on some shopping excursion or other.

We walked the 10 minutes or so to the bus stop and waited. We hadn’t been there long when, in that heavy Dublin accent that he had somehow steadfastly held onto, my dad declared, “oh Christ, would you look at that.

We followed his gaze and looked down at the ground. He’d left home wearing one black shoe and one brown one. “I wondered why one foot was going tap and the other was going shuffle,” he said.

He made his way back home to sort himself out, while my mother and I were consumed by uproarious laughter.

So, upon hearing my brother or my sister say they thought dad was losing his marbles, my reaction (which I accept to the outside world may seem unfeeling) was to say “he’s been like that for at least 35 years – it’s nothing new.

Sometimes when I catch sight of myself in a full-length mirror I see my father for a split second out of the corner of my eye. For some reason it happens more if I’m wearing a suit – which I do frequently in my line of work, but he only ever did for weddings, christenings and funerals.

If I stare at my reflection in the shaving mirror long enough and then slowly squint, he appears there too.

And there have been times when I’ve raised my voice in anger only to hear his words coming out of my mouth rather than my own.

The black shoe / brown shoe incident came back to me only a couple of months ago and I started joining some of the dots around all of this and attempting to make sense of the picture that was forming – my relationship with my father, his influence over the man I have grown into, the way I relate to people and the world around me, the way I conduct myself.

For some reason – and this really has been going on for several months now – I’ve had a nagging doubt every now and again that I might, just maybe, have put odd shoes on.

I find myself staring at my feet (it tends to happen mostly when I’m in the car) to see if I’ve actually got a matching pair of shoes on.

I hadn’t connected it with anything. It doesn’t feel like deep in my subconscious there sits a latent fear that I will wear odd shoes just because my dad once did. In much the same way I’ve never thought it was likely I’d wake up one day to find I’d got a job as a scaffolder.

If it’s done anything, maybe it’s made me consider that I’m more like him than I realise 
 or am prepared to admit. I can accept that I’m like him in many externalised ways: short-fuse, gregarious in the right company, sentimental, musical.

But I’ve never given much thought to what life must have been like inside his head.

Perhaps it was much the same for him as it is for me.

If I’m one step away from anything as a result of all this, perhaps it’s not a footwear faux pas, but an appreciation of the man I spent so many years utterly convinced I would never understand.