Archive for the ‘Life Lessons’ Category

I’ve posted this before, but it seems appropriate to let it loose again at this time of year…


In a few days now it’ll be Christmas, a time of good cheer.  Well, that’s the propaganda anyway.  But, before you start comparing me to Scrooge, let me reassure you that I love Christmas.  Sometimes, though, expectations can get in the way of our enjoyment.  Fortunately, I had an experience quite early in life that helped me see things a little differently.

When I was 13, I spent Christmas with my dad for the first time in 4 years.  I should say that the flat my dad lived in was pretty grotty.  It was all on one level and had big rooms with high ceilings.  The flat’s layout meant it was very well spread out, and it was all heated by a single gas fire.  This wasn’t a great place to stay in the middle of winter.

But it didn’t matter because I got to spend Christmas with my dad.

In my lifetime, there’s always been a lot of store put on presents at Christmas.  Even so, when I look back at all the Christmases I’ve had over the years, any recollection of presents is pretty limited.  Oddly enough, the clearest memories are of Matchbox vintage cars in my stocking when I was around seven or eight.  I’m sure I got a bike one year as well.  (I did get another bike a few years later, but that might have been a birthday present.)

What that tells me, though, is that presents haven’t left me with any lasting memories.  And that’s certainly true of the Christmas in question.  I can’t even remember there being any decorations up, but I don’t feel cheated by that.  The point is, I had a brilliant day because I got to share it with someone I loved.

The most memorable thing, though, was when my dad asked me what I wanted for dinner.  That’s a strange thing to ask on Christmas Day, isn’t it?  And while people are more inclined to go off piste these days, back in the ‘70s Christmas Dinner pretty much meant a big bird and stuffing.

Fortunately, my dad realised the cause of my confusion and (without resorting to tacky innuendo) clarified things for me.

“You don’t understand, do you?  Christmas Dinner should be what you want to eat.”

Which is brilliant, isn’t it?  It’s a concept that’s stuck with me ever since, and I’ve reflected on it pretty much every year as I’ve observed people struggling to get all the component parts of a meal cooked and ready at exactly the right time.  Stress levels can go through the roof as they strive for a perfection that’s unlikely to materialise.  And then the meal is finished in a fraction of the time it took to plan and prepare it, and the cook is left wondering whether it was worth the effort.  (It’s worth noting as well that one of the most advertised products over the Christmas period is Rennie.)

Yes, when I reflect on it, I can’t help but look back with great fondness at the dinner I shared with my dad that day.  And I’m grateful to him for giving me that new perspective.  To be fair, I wouldn’t go out of my way now to recommend that meal to anyone.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve found it doesn’t have quite the same appeal.  But, very occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, and I want to recreate that happy memory, I do still make myself fried eggs and mashed potatoes.

Everyone reading this will have their own idea of what makes Christmas special, but I wrote this now because sometimes it’s very easy for us to fall into the trap of doing what everyone else does.

So, as you finalise your plans for Christmas, consider doing something different.  The real gift is creating happy memories, and if something simple but unusual happens, it will be memorable.

Have a terrific Christmas!


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Since my children became adults, my approach to parenting has been very much hands-off.  That might seem blindingly obvious, but there are parents out there who still “help” their children lead their lives well into their twenties and beyond. I’ve written before about the potential damage that can do.

To be fair, in my own case, I know I’d be given (have been, if the truth be known) short shrift if I offered my opinion anyway. And, frankly, I’m proud of the fact that my son and daughter have their own minds.  True, they’re going to make mistakes, but haven’t we all?  And don’t we learn more readily from those than from someone explaining something to us… as I was reminded only a few weeks ago.

A lot of you will know that I love being on (or in) the water.  My focus in recent years has been sailing, but in September I had my first holiday on a cabin cruiser on the Norfolk Broads.

It’s tempting to write a series of posts about my experiences that week but – like holiday snaps – they’d be of more interest to me than you, so I’ll restrict myself to the following story.

A couple of days into the trip, I was still feeling apprehensive when it came to mooring up. The instruction given at the start was largely theoretical, and the main thing I was having difficulty getting my head around was using the tide properly. So far, we’d been lucky in getting assistance from other boaters, but I was conscious I couldn’t rely on that all week.

Following a three-hour putter upriver from Beccles, we found a long stretch of almost empty moorings.  Plenty of space for manoeuvring and parking up (not sure I’ve got the jargon right yet).

In theory, I needed to approach the berth against the tide, the idea being that, as the prow angles in, the flow of the river pushes the stern in as well. We’d also already worked out that the tide should be going out. As Felixstowe was the nearest coastal town and it was behind us, it seemed logical that the tide must already be against us. So I reduced speed and headed in.

As the nose gently bumped against the side, my partner jumped ashore with the painter and tied up. This should have meant the stern would be gently drifting in for her to grab the line at the back. Instead, it eased back out into the river.  Conscious of the audience of much more experienced boaters nearby (when you’re being watched, you always assume they’re experts, don’t you?), I turned the wheel hard over, sure I’d seen this work before. It didn’t.  I tried using more power. Nothing.

Realising I must have misjudged something, I suggesting untying the rope so I could go out and try again. By this time, though, the boat was pretty much at a right angle to the mooring and the painter was now so tight against the mooring post, there wasn’t enough slack to undo it.

Panic was beginning to set in when the cavalry arrived – more accurately, three people from the nearby boats.  Over the next few minutes they strained and heaved, trying to pivot the boat around so one of them might be able to get the rear painter. As they did, my partner pointed out that the rope that was already secured was pulling against the railing on the front deck, the pressure starting to bend one of the uprights. Clearly, this resistance was the only thing preventing the boat from swinging all the way round.  When I took a closer look, I could see that the bracket where the upright was secured to the boat had also warped. If the pressure continued, there was a risk it might tear a hole in the deck. My stress levels were not easing.

Fortunately, one of our helpers had the presence of mind to point out the obvious. If we untied another rope and attached it to the stern painter, it’d be long enough to throw ashore, then they could use that to pull the boat around. And that, my friends, is what we did.

As we got ourselves settled afterwards, and with some kind and helpful advice from the others, my mistakes became clear.

First of all, although Felixstowe was closer, it transpired that the tide going out meant it was heading for Great Yarmouth, in the opposite direction. Secondly, the current wasn’t strong (strong enough, mind), so it hadn’t been obvious which way it was going just by looking at the water. Our new friends suggested some tricks of the trade to help us in the future.

This was a turning point. From that point on, when it came to reading the tide, I was on it – and mooring up got a whole lot easier. If I hadn’t had such a stressful situation following that mistake, I wouldn’t have become so focused on getting it right. More than that, I can’t wait to try it again – and maybe stretch myself a little more.

The thing is, if I still need to make mistakes to learn valuable lessons at 53, why should I deprive my twenty-something children of that gift?




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On A Serious Note

Today, Thursday 13th October, a debate is being held in the House of Commons about stillbirth and neonatal death.  I was made aware of it after listening to the radio yesterday morning, but then went on to read an article on the BBC News website that goes into more detail.

When I heard the reference to it on the radio, it mentioned that the debate had been arranged by two MPs who’d had experience of this.  I assumed that the two MPs were women, but as I read the article was pleased to realise that this wasn’t the case.  One was a dad.

I have to confess to a personal interest in this.  Although I haven’t had the horrendous experience of having a child of mine die either at birth or shortly after, I have been affected by a miscarriage.

This was a long time ago. My daughter is 23 now, but her mum and I spent a good part of her first birthday in a hospital, dealing with the aftermath of that miscarriage.  It does kind of take the edge off what should have been a major celebration.

Clearly, this was a very personal time for us as a family, and I don’t want to go into any more detail about that.  But there was something that struck me at the time.  My partner had undergone a serious trauma, both physical and emotional. Quite rightly, she was given a lot of attention, both professional and personal.  There were the inevitable (and gratefully received) offers of help. There was the emotional support provided by friends and family.  And, as a consequence of that, I think, she handled it really well and was able to recover from it and move on.

The thing that struck me, though, is that no one asked me how I was.  I know I hadn’t had that physical trauma, but I had lost what would have been my second daughter.

Now, it has to be said that I did get over it (if that phrase doesn’t sound too crass).  I don’t still dwell on it on a daily basis and, like my partner, I was able to move on and fairly quickly.  So I’m not saying this because I’m looking for sympathy. (Please do not be “sorry for my loss”, because it’s history now.)

But I am saying it because there are still a very high number of infant deaths, and even more miscarriages.  So the chances are that you will encounter this in your life – if not directly, through a relative or a friend.  If you do, please do what you feel is right in lending support to the mother.  She should be the centre of attention. But, while you’re doing it, just check that dad’s okay too. You don’t need to make a fuss, but he’ll probably appreciate being asked.

Finding out about the debate was interesting in itself, but the fact that a dad had been involved cheered me up no end.



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She won’t thank me for saying this (but she’s not online, so if you don’t tell her I won’t), but my mum is now in her 80th year.  Even so, her birthday is always an event.  Oh, the parties I could tell you about…  But I won’t, in the interests of decency and good taste. 

The last major party she had was when she was 60, though, and since then it’s become a tradition for her to have an open house on the day itself, when there’s pretty much a constant flow of visitors.

Most years my oldest sister is there to make sure all Mum’s guests are fed and watered.  I know she’s reached the end of these days feeling exhausted, but she does it because she wants Mum to enjoy the company she receives and not be distracted with the catering.

This year, Mum’s birthday fell on a Monday.  As my other two sisters live on the Isle of Wight and she lives in the Midlands, the most practical day for a family gathering was the Saturday beforehand.  After a pleasant afternoon with my mum (and the obligatory group photo), my sisters and I gradually took our leave.  Presents and cards had been left and there was only one thing left for me to do in relation to her birthday.

I was working on the Monday and, unusually for me, expected to put in a full day at the office.  Even so, I picked up the phone several times to call and wish her a Happy Birthday.  The line was busy.  A lot.  So it was late afternoon by the time I managed to speak to her.

“I’m knackered,” were pretty much her first words to me.  My sister, it seemed, had been unable to get out of a work commitment that morning and had only been able to assist for part of the day.  So Mum sounded relieved as she said she was glad the visits were pretty much over. 

She laughed at herself as she said that: we both knew she was well aware of how fortunate she was to have so many friends who looked forward to spending time with her on her birthday.  I could well imagine the array of cards and gifts scattered around her living room, some unopened because she wouldn’t have had time to get to them.

The reality for a lot of people her age is that friends are thinning out, and my mum is no exception.  Yet over the years she’s built up an extensive network with ages ranging from 40s to 90s – and those are just the ones I know. 

I’ve become very conscious in recent times that this is not the norm.  My partner’s mum, for example, lives a comparatively solitary existence.  As it happens, shortly before Mum’s birthday, Nora had a fall that led to her being hospitalised.  A card arrived from my mum soon after.  But, to Nora’s astonishment, more followed – a steady stream, in fact – all with the usual best wishes, but their presence sent the real message: my mum was thinking of her. 

To me, this is normal, because it’s what I was brought up with.  I don’t follow the practice and have often gently mocked it, but my mum is a great one for sending messages of support and love (the advent of texting means she can now do it promptly and more often!).  But, for Nora, this was alien.  She’d clearly never experienced it before.  Probably the odd card, but not a steady flow from one person.

Don’t get me wrong, sending cards is not the solution to growing a range of friends.  It’s the sentiment behind it that makes the difference.  Mum has a way of reaching out to people, has a genuine empathy for them, has been supportive to them when they’ve needed it.  They say you get back what you give out, and – although she is no saint and, like all of us, can display less than attractive traits at times – in the main she is a good, caring person. 

I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting Nora isn’t.  But her own background clearly hasn’t taught her to reach out in the same way, and that must be true of many others. 

And it’s making me think.  I need to work on getting friends, especially younger ones who’ll outlive me.  I just hope I’ve not left it too late to change my ways, otherwise I’ll end up sitting alone with a blanket around me for warmth, and daytime TV for company until my carer pops in to feed me. 




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The Power of a Parent

“Have you heard from Robert?”

It’s a question my mum asks me every time I speak to her.  To be fair, she asks about my daughter as well as my son, but the situation is a little different with the boy.

Well, I say “the boy”, but that description needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.  At 21, and an inch or two taller than me, he’s not a boy by any stretch of the imagination.  Obviously, he’ll always be my little boy, even when he’s visiting me in my nursing home.  But he’s a man now and needs to be treated as such.

The significance of my mum’s question is that he moved to Northern Ireland in June and, as I live in Robin Hood country, that means he’s not on my doorstep any more.

To be fair, even when he was on my doorstep, I didn’t see much of him.  I used to worry about that until I remembered how I was at his age (yes, my memory does go that far back – it’s what I had for breakfast I struggle with).

I left home when I was 19, and as my mum couldn’t drive and lived several miles from me, we didn’t see much of each other.  I treated her pretty shittily as well at the time, though I’ve talked about that elsewhere.  My dad lived much further away, but would pop in if he was working in the area.  In any event, my focus was on other things: spending time with my mates, travelling around the country to different concerts, going to the flicks, experimenting with alcohol (and I don’t mean Bunsen burners were involved), and enjoying female company.  With all that going on and trying to hold down a job, why the hell would I have time for my parents?

By the same token, why should I expect contact with me to be a high priority for my children?

But I’m a parent and, strangely enough, so’s my mum.  So we both wonder how he’s getting on, and we both miss having regular contact with him.

When he first went to Ireland, I wasn’t overly surprised to get a phone call from him within a couple of days.  To many people, surprise might not have even been a consideration, but on the basis that we had only actually seen each other about three times this year, it might have seemed out of character.

We talked for quite a while before hanging up.  Over the next week or so, more calls came and I’d get updates on how he was getting on with his new job, the football team he was training with and generally settling into his new home.  But, almost as quickly as this sudden upturn in contact began, it tailed off again.

I guess most parents go through this at times, most commonly when their child goes away to university.  It’s a natural and healthy experience.

Even now, when I’m going through an unsettled time, the first person I want to talk to is my mum.  She’s often not the best equipped to provide solutions, but that’s not what I’m looking for.  At the end of the day, any challenges I face are up to me to resolve, but knowing there’s someone there who loves me and wants the best for me gives me reassurance and inner strength.

If providing that touchstone of stability and assurance proves to be the only role I have left to play in the lives of my children, I’ll be satisfied.  I’ve been blessed to have that in my life and it’s a privilege to do the same for someone else.  I’m sure their mum’s the same.

My dad died a few years ago now, but I’ve learnt not to be disappointed when the urge comes to pick up the phone and call him.  I suspect (and hope) my mum will be with us for quite a while yet, but I do know how lucky I am to have had her support over the years.  One day, she’ll be gone too, though, and I can’t help but wonder what I’ll do when I face those moments of uncertainty in the future.  There are other people around me, but there’s no more powerful presence than that of a parent.

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According to reports, racist abuse is on the increase – I’m even aware of it happening to someone I know. Some say it’s an effect of the Referendum campaign, but I don’t feel informed enough to make that judgement.

Where the solution lies is far from clear, but it’s something that needs addressing.

Thinking about it reminded me of something that happened in 1990 when I was working in a direct sales team.  The mix of people was, for the time, pretty diverse.  We ranged in age from early twenties to sixtyish, there were two women, a bloke with a disability and the youngest was a British born Asian.

To this day, I have no idea whether his family was Indian, Pakistani, Ugandan Asian or “other”. Nor do I know his religion. It never came up and, frankly, I didn’t care. To me he was Shamir (or, more often, Sham) and he was a colleague and friend.

For the most part, the whole team got on well, socialising as well as working together, and whenever we met there was banter, innuendo, strong language and laughter.

During the 18 months I worked there, I even wrote a series of stories about us, creating alter-egos with a theme around drinks (don’t ask – it’s a long story).  No Justice League or Avengers for us – we were Captain Ribena and the Beverages Superheroes (CRABS).  These stories were shared and – as far as I can recall – enjoyed by pretty much everyone.

There was one bloke, Tony (The Ovaltony – I didn’t say it was Booker Prize winning stuff, did I?) who didn’t fit in.  His social skills were limited to trying to impress with tales of past exploits, both professional and otherwise – always a crowd-pleasing tactic…  (Did I say we did sarcasm as well?)

Shamir was 21 at the time and, at 27, I was the next youngest, so we naturally spent a lot of time together – even our desks faced each other.

The phone rang one morning and Sham answered.  It turned out to be Tony, who wanted to speak to our manager.  After transferring the call, Sham looked at me. “You won’t believe what he just said.”

Apparently, after hearing Sham’s greeting, Tony had responded: “D’you know, Shamir, over the phone you sound just like one of us.”

Take a moment for that to sink in.  I did.

Like a lot of people, when I’m confronted with something I don’t know how to handle, I resort to humour.  (To be fair, it is my default setting.)  So, after a long pause, I made a comment that doesn’t look good on paper.  All I will say is that it was intentionally racist, but the intention was to mock Tony’s attitude to my friend.  My facial expression and tone of voice made that clear at the time and, in the moment, it was funny.

But my success at breaking the tension led me to turn it into a running joke that went on for weeks.

As time’s passed, I’ve realised it was wrong.  Not because Sham at any point gave any indication that I’d offended him.  The thing is, I don’t know if I did.  I didn’t think so at the time, but now I’m not so sure. He may have been too polite to let me know I was upsetting him.

As a public speaker, one of the first rules I learnt was never to offend.  You want an audience on your side when you’re giving a speech, so why go looking for things to upset them.  Because you don’t always know what your audience will be offended by, the trick is to be as neutral as possible – without being bland (easy, then…).

I’m not saying you should apply that way of thinking to every aspect of your life, but there are certain areas where you really don’t need to go.  My comments to Sham fell into that category, regardless of their intention.

Sometimes political correctness can go too far but when we should be treating each other simply as fellow human beings, it makes no sense to use offensive remarks and language, regardless of the context. Because there really is no need to offend someone for the sake of a cheap joke.

I said earlier that the solution isn’t clear, but if people like me just think for an extra moment before we open our mouths, we certainly won’t make the situation worse.


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Like a lot of people, I occasionally wonder which songs I’d pick on Desert Island Discs.  Recently I decided that one I had to include was “Excerpt from “A Teenage Opera””, which most of you won’t have heard of.  A few of you may know it as: “Grocer Jack”.

The song itself isn’t especially inspiring, so I’m not recommending that you all rush to download a copy.  The chorus can stick in your head – cause alone to not take it to a desert island.

But it’d go on the list because it reminds me of my granddad.  I have a very clear memory of him on all fours singing it to me as I rode on his back as a toddler.  It’s one of only a very few times where he and I were physically close.  He was born in 1901 and was very much a man of his time.  I don’t mean he was stern and beat us, but he was generally occupied with other things – usually involving his pigeons, chickens or garden.

So, if I was visiting them, I spent more time with my grandma.  Even so, I was always conscious of a great fondness from him even if there weren’t loads of hugs and kisses.

I was still aware of a strong bond between us as I grew older, and would pop in and visit them regularly.  I remember calling unannounced one day in the mid ’80s and finding him at the top of a ladder whitewashing the back of the house.  Clearly his inability to sit still for long hadn’t diminished with age.

Around the same time, we had a conversation that’s stuck with me.  I can’t recall how it started.  Maybe he felt the time was right to share his wisdom.  It felt like the first grown-up conversation we’d ever had, and was probably the only one.

Like most young men, I had great dreams and ambitions for the life ahead of me, including a desire a travel.  I knew my granddad had never been abroad and I asked him if he’d ever wanted to.  He stopped and thought about that for a few moments, giving me time to wonder if I was about to learn of secret, unfulfilled desires.  Eventually, he said: “I would have quite liked to go to Holland.”

Holland?!  I could barely contain myself.  Holland!?!  Where was Paris or Egypt or Australia, or…well anywhere but Holland?

But I realised that, for him, Holland might be just about as much excitement as he could handle.  Tulip fields and windmills would probably be of more interest to him than the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids or the Great Barrier Reef.

Even so, there was a part of me that found his response amusing and I took great pleasure in retelling it – albeit with a degree of youthful derision.

During the same conversation, he said he hoped I’d be as lucky as him and find myself a good woman.  “I was very lucky with your granny,” he added.  Looking back I can’t remember seeing displays of affection between them, but you could tell he meant it, and I was touched by how grateful he was that she was in his life.

It’s only more recently that I’ve seen his apparent lack of ambition in a different light.  He was one of the most content men I’ve ever known.  He didn’t need big holidays, fancy cars and a string of women in his life.  He was very happy with what he had.  Of course, I may be romanticising some of this.  I’m sure he experienced hardship and frustration at times.  But it seems to me that if the nearest he got to a desire to travel was a vague notion that he might want to cross the North Sea, he wasn’t unfulfilled.  And that’s interesting, isn’t it?  Because, if we’re content with what we already have in life, there’s no need to feel unhappy.

So maybe he had it right, and as I grow older and realise I haven’t managed to achieve a lot of my ambitions, maybe I should let them go.  After all, Holland’s not a bad place.  And will I really feel any better if I’ve swum with dolphins than if I get to put a grandchild on my back and sing to him?

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