Archive for February, 2011

Blue sky thinking

Blue sky thinking, originally uploaded by Jane2020.

It’s been rainy – and sunny – then raining again today. A typical English winter’s day. It was therefore a promising day for catching up on The Killing (I’m three episodes behind), sorting out the office, playing games with the kids, and booking our annual Easter hols to our regular haunt; Woolacombe in north Devon.
Maybe when you were a child you and your family regularly visited the same seaside location, possibly in north Wales – Barmouth, anyone?
Well, this will be the place that my kids think of when asked about their own family holiday memories.
This year we nearly decided to give it a miss. We are trying to keep our finances in check, in readiness for my other half’s likely redundancy sometime in the next 12 months, and seem to have had a flurry of outgoings that were not predicted or planned, mostly house and motor related.
But as usual our hearts have ruled our heads, so we’ve gone ahead and booked the same little beachside apartment that we’ve visited for the last three years.
This level of routine and repetition is not like us at all. We make a point of never returning to the same holiday location when we go abroad, on the basis that there is so much of the world to explore, so why go back? But somehow Woolacombe has acquired a special place in our hearts.
We have never had a bad holiday experience here; the kids love it; the weather is invariably kind; it’s only 3 hours away; the pubs and cafes are ace; and most of all the beach is stunning, sandy and very long. The surrounding areas are equally beautiful.
We’ve also celebrated some landmark events here, including birthdays and my hen weekend, and know every street and nook and cranny (we think).
This photo was taken from the top of Potter’s Hill, which overlooks the town and beach. When I visit in April I will be just a few weeks away from taking part in The Moonwalk, a night walk marathon in London in aid of breast cancer, so I’ll undoubtedly be marching up and down here frequently in the final throes of training.
I will keep my fingers crossed for weather as glorious as it was on this day a year ago.


Triumph of Good over Evil

Words of a poet

“For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.”

Edmund Burke didn’t actually say this quote famously attributed to him. What he actually said was more profound:

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

But nevertheless he is quoted thus in the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. You would think they would know better. But I digress. This is not a blog about dodgy quotations.

Yesterday I visited London with my family, a half-term day return trip by train. It was a really lovely, if exhausting, day. We had nine hours clear in London, bookended by two 3-hour train rides.

We had hoped to take the kids to the new Dr Who Experience at Olympia but left it too late to book tickets. It was opening week after all, so not surprisingly there was no space to be had.

Instead we decided to head for the Science Museum, and booked an afternoon IMAX 3D movie all about space and the Hubble. That left us a couple of hours free for sight-seeing. On the way down, I think somewhere around Cradley Heath (home of Green Teeth Keith (long story)), my elder son asked if we could go to the Imperial War Museum.

“Why?” we asked, surprised mainly because of our son’s non-aggressive, confrontation-hating tendencies. “Well, I really like learning about war and I think it would be good.” So that’s where we agreed to head.

We looked at tanks, and guns, and planes, and more guns, and rockets. We climbed into a World War 1 trench (incredibly good; even smelled dirty and sweaty and stale and felt oppressive and scary) and followed an interactive trail about the causes of WWII. Then we saw a sign for the Holocaust Exhibition, on the top floor. “Not recommended for children under 14”, it said. Elder son, aged 10, asked if he could go anyway.

“It might be quite harrowing. It is about a period of history and events that are pretty shocking. Are you sure you want to go?” I asked. “Yeah – we’ve done Anne Frank at school, mum. I know all about it.”

The next half hour was fascinating, and horrifying, and informative, and gruesome. We saw the rise of Hitler; we saw footage of the Nuremberg Rally; we saw Hitler Youth uniforms and more swastikas than the BNP dream of. Elder son drank it all in.

We saw the beginning of Jewish persecution. We saw a simple yet fascinating film on the deeply held anti-Semitism of Christians through history.

We saw the slow but inevitable march towards Kristallnacht. It all starts innocuously, with silly insults, and exclusion, and book burning, and laws that can be dressed up as practical but which are truly hate-riven.

“Where one burns books one will, in the end, burn people.” Heinrich Heine, German-Jewish poet, 1797-1856.

We watched sad and yet heroic interviews with Jews who survived the onslaught. All of it in a hushed, whispering atmosphere, everywhere gently lit to ensure our focus was solely on the pictures and videos on the walls around us.

Next we found ourselves in a mock-up of a train carriage, just like the ones used to transport milllions of Jews to the concentration camps.

One of my abiding memories will be a simple graph, depicting how the “final solution” was an interwoven collaboration of transport, building companies, the utilities, nazi governors in nations across Eastern Europe, the SS and the German army. They were all in on it. This was no forced brutality by a strong minority; this was a majority collusion.

Then came the final, most intense assault on our senses. Auschwitz, in tiny model form. All white. No colour, in keeping with the sombre mood.

We imagined, and saw in miniature, the families departing the crowded trains into the cold air; the last heart-breaking separation of men and women and children; the final long walk. At the last the tiny figures head underground, into the gas chambers.

All the way through the exhibition I kept asking elder son: “Do you want to carry on?”

Around him were repeated images of naked body upon naked body in mass graves. An iconic image of a Jewish man, gun at his head, kneeling on the edge of a mass grave, drew a gasp from him. “That man’s about to be shot dead, isn’t he?”

But while I didn’t want him to be traumatised, there was something about me that willed him to see it through to the end.

Along the way we talked a little about what we saw and felt; about how horrendously cruel humans can be to each other; how easy it can be for people to go along with the herd out of fear of reprisal or out of a desire to fit in; how wrong it is to judge people on the colour of their skin, or their religion, or their background.

My son will undoubtedly grow up with prejudices, and beliefs that are based on things he has been told by the media, by his teachers, by his pals and by us, his parents. He will probably be mean to some people. He will almost certainly experience hatred, and anger, and envy, and every other negative emotion. He will experience bullying, either as a giver or receiver. It’s all part of human nature.

But I’m really glad he both wanted to, and seemed to understand and learn from, his exposure to the Holocaust, even the sanitised version he saw yesterday. I just hope it doesn’t give him too many nightmares.

Incidentally, I told one relative I had taken him to this exhibition, and was asked why I would want him to see that. “He’s too young for things like that. Why take away his innocence?” Was I right? I think I was – but maybe not? Perhaps at 10 he is too young to know the horrors man can inflict on fellow man.

If it helps, he spent the afternoon marvelling at the wonders of the natural world and the fantastic things man has done and is capable of doing for each other, courtesy of the wonderful Science Museum. He got to see the life of an astronaut, to travel through Space with Hubble, to fly an aeroplane and to gun down bad pollutants in the atmosphere to preserve our climate.

I hope it provided a nice balance – the inhumanity that man is capable of, contrasted with the incredible good man can do, and teh miracle of life and the universe.

Spotify your way to happiness

So, it’s another evening in for you and yours? There’s nothing on the TV worth watching; the kids are in bed (or you don’t have any); you like music but sometimes think you end up listening to the same old tunes over and over again; you haven’t had a proper natter with your other half or your mates for a while; and you’re skint.

Well, may I make a suggestion? It’ll probably sound a bit naff, but I promise you, if you’ve got some good music-related memories or you are game for a laugh, you will enjoy it.

“It” on this occasion is the Spotify “Chain Game” (said in deep booming voice, with accompanying homemade theme tune) Honestly, it’s good fun. Really. Do you trust me? You do? Then give it a whirl. What have you got to lose?

Before you know it you too could be discovering and marvelling at the likes of Richard Cheese (real name) and Catfish Keith; digging out a “before they were famous” track by Bros, or reliving school disco days with The Cult. I’m not selling it well am I? Bear with, bear with…

First, you will need the following: a laptop or iPad or other device on which you can call up Spotify (free version of course); a comfortable setting, probably your lounge; some speakers (inbuilt ones will do); at least two people for the chatting part, though I guess you could play solo; access to nice wine/beer/cocktails/drink of choice.

Next you need to pick a theme. It could, for example, be cities, or countries, or names of people you know or who are in your family, or vegetables, or animals. Most ideas seem to work well, but try more obscure ones if you like (detectives of the 1970s and 1980s is a tester…)

All you need to do now is start the “Chain Game” (don’t forget the booming voice and doodley doodley theme tune).

Now, the first player types in a word on the theme – for this example, I’ll pick vegetables, so I type in ‘aubergine’.

A list of song titles and artists containing the word ‘aubergine’ duly appear. It’s not a very long list, but still more than I’d expected. Another player picks a number (I’m playing with hubby and he picks five.) I scroll down that number and together we listen to whatever comes up – in this example it’s “Aubergine Walls” by Nick Lawson. It’s a chillout, ambient electronic thing (describing it as a tune would be a bit strong). It’s all right but I won’t be rushing out to buy Nick’s EP. We cut it short after 2 minutes.

Next hubby inputs “carrot”. Now that’s more like it – I can spy tunes from Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement and Captain Beefheart. But I go for track 20 – which turns out to be a racket by Bentley Rhythm Ace called A Lot of Stick (But Not Much Carrot). Turns out they are from Birmingham and feature the bassist out of Pop Will Eat Itself. They are truly dreadful, but it triggers a long rambling conversation about bands from Birmingham (Duran Duran, Steel Pulse, and err, that’s it…), nights out we have known in Birmingham (bizarrely involving strippers), and whether the Selfridges Bull Ring is an architectural gem or a load of silver hubcaps stuck on a round wall (it’s an architectural gem).

Which segues nicely into my next choice. “potato”. Now I had no idea there was a band called Potato. Their biggest hit is Jamaika Ska. They are located via the number six. They make a pleasant enough old school reggae noise, with lots of trumpets and skanking beats. We recall the holiday we once had to the Dominican Republic, when hubby got a dodgy tum. He ended up in bed for three days with raging diarrhoea. I, on the other hand, learned to windsurf after a fashion and enjoyed lots of cheap local rum.

Do you get the idea?

We did Chain Game recently, inputting our own first names. This led us to the discovery of the comically monikered lounge singer Richard Cheese. You have not lived until you have heard versions of the likes of Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2, Smack My Bitch Up by Prodigy and Nirvana’s Rape Me performed by a man called Richard. Cheese. (You’ve realised the rudeness potential by now I’m sure.)

So if you sometimes run out of things to say to the other half of an evening that don’t involve the kids, work, DIY or what’s on the telly, I’d urge you to give “Chain Game” a try. It won’t be long before you’re grabbing the laptop off each other to click on a song you’ve spied on the list, or shouting out how much you used to LOVE this song and you haven’t heard it for ages, or how this always reminds you of being in a caravan with your mum and dad in north Wales. Obviously getting slowly drunk together aids the process considerably.

You’ll almost certainly end up abandoning the game after a while, but hopefully that will be because you are chatting so much you end up just letting the music play on without your input. Or you realise it’s after midnight and the wine has all gone and you’ve got work in the morning.

Give it a go. I might be onto something.

Standing in the Sun

Boys at war

This photo just about sums up my two boys in an instant. They are play-fighting with sticks – but in this moment their personalities shine through.

Littlest boy is the fierce aggressor; leaping in, taking a gamble, leaving himself open to a clever cut-and-thrust, but daring to go for it all the same. This is the boy who likes karate, running fast and getting stickers; who laughs long, loud and openly; who has a tendency to laziness; who is the leader of his little gang of boys at school, pushing them to be different (and sometimes naughty).

Big brother steps back and out of the line of attack. He’s a natural defender; a strategic thinker, rather than impulsive actor; the one who has a distaste for violence and aggression generally. He likes solving puzzles, reading books, running fast and getting unconditional praise; he responds to the slightest slight or the most constructive criticism as if he has been felled by a brutal swordsman. He is caring and sensitive and funny; he is also animated about his pain, emotional or physical.

They are very different but adore each other; I adore them equally. They are my best work. Two different sides of the same coin.

I like how the sun shines on them both in this picture – littlest boy has his back to it but it still swathes him in light, while big bro turns away from it, towards the shadows, but is still caught in its rays. I’ve also included pictures of them taken separately, also yesterday (below). What a pair of beauties (though I appreciate I am hugely biased.)

I was discussing the other day why I blog. One of the reasons I mentioned was my desire to keep a diary of sorts of my life and innermost thoughts, as a kind of legacy for my kids. It’s also a way to let them know (as I do every day anyway) how amazingly proud of them both I am, of how much they are loved. Thanks boys, for being just the way you are.

Hit by Spring (and it felt like a kiss)

“I stuck my head out the window this morning and spring kissed me bang in the face.”

I know, I know, I’m two months early – but one day of sunshine and blue skies and I’ve convinced myself that spring has already sprung.

It was the sight of all those snowdrops. Low mood lifting, illness waning. More snowdrops, and reflections in the still water. It must be spring, surely?

It was the first time this year I’ve really enjoyed getting out and about with my camera. Out and about at all, to be honest. I hate January, and this particular one has been blighted by seemingly constant illness, rubbish weather, stresses and hassles. So hello February. Hello early Spring. It won’t last long of course. In fact, it’s been drizzling most of this morning. But it’s amazing how the odd blue sky day can have a positive effect that lasts way beyond 24 hours.

The moon was out for most of yesterday, hanging bright white in the blank blue sky. It followed us on our walk through the snowdrops at Dudmaston Hall. It was still there when we drove home three hours later. It’s not visible now. It’s still there though, hanging in the blue; we just can’t see it for the clouds.

Over before it really got started – my adventure in daily blogging

This is just not working for me. I’ve tried to embrace it and enjoy it, and I’m glad I gave it a go, but this daily blogging lark is just not making me smile. I’m only 10 days in and I’ve already had enough.

I started keeping a blog for five reasons:

  • The first was because I like writing, in all and any format, and blogging was something I wanted to try. It looked like fun.
  • The second was purely career-driven. I’ve been out of journalism for a few years (except occasional freelance work) so I felt it was important to demonstrate to any future employer or client that I was aware of and up to speed with “modern” methods of communication. In the same spirit I’ve also learned to tweet, v-blog, make Flip movies and speak teen. (eg “Yo blood, props, that cravat is sick.”)
  • Thirdly, I wanted to become better at writing. I’ve earned a pretty good living writing, and later editing, “hard news”. My job was to write or create fact-driven, short and snappy news articles that squeeze into as few words as possible the essence of a story, usually created after interviewing various people and attending scenes of incidents. This is an art form that is harder than it looks, but it is far removed from writing lengthy features, and different again to writing comment pieces about myself, my feelings and my opinions. Neither of these skills comes naturally or easily to me, and as I like a challenge I thought keeping a blog would be a good way to learn as I go along.
  • Fourthly, I thought it would be a nice way to share my life virtually with other people.
  • Finally, I decided to blog as a way of keeping a diary of my life and times, partly for myself in my dotage, and partly for my kids. I thought it would be cool for them to one day be able to access information about me and my thoughts, to see what makes me tick.

I am not abandoning blogging, because the reasons I like it and the reasons I started a blog are the same today as they were a year ago.

But the daily discipline of sitting down to write a blog, sometimes when I’m at my weariest, just doesn’t work for me. Even when I was a daily journalist I had a couple of days off a week!

I’m also a changeable beast. Some days, I like nothing more than sitting at a computer or laptop, typing away. The words flow and it makes me feel good and complete to write.

Other days, it is a chore. A monumental bore. And it’s impossible for me to hide this in my writing. My words are stilted, my phrasing is dull and cliched, my subject matter tedious. I would choose to delete anything I wrote in this state of mind, but by pledging to post a blog every day I’ve felt compelled to produce something, no matter how rubbish I’ve felt it was.

So for this reason I’m giving up the Postaday 2011 challenge. I’ve also decided, for now at least, to take the Twitter app off my phone – another activity that has been fun but has now become too much a part of my daily routine for my liking. I might even stop facebooking for a while (heaven forbid).

So to those of you who know me – expect me to phone and text you more in future. To those who don’t – I’ll be back. Just probably not tomorrow night.

“I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…”

My son, this morning, on his bike.

According to most recent figures, more than 20 children are killed every year in England & Wales while out cycling. While this represents untold tragedy and heartache for every family, this statistic has bizarrely cheered me up a bit. I reckon it means the chances of my little man joining them is pretty remote, right? Right?

This week my elder son, aged 10, has started cycling to school. We only live just over half a mile from school, so up to now we have made the journey on foot.

But since Monday my son and his classmates have been undergoing cycle proficiency training each morning; this clearly can’t be done without the aid of a bike, so it makes sense for him to cycle.

The first morning I made him wheel his bike the first 200 yards to the main road, where I tentatively saw him across to the central reservation and then on to the other side, before watching in horror as he wobbled on his way, pedalling furiously to get up some speed. High sided lorries whizzed by just feet away, making his wobble all the more pronounced.

He’s actually quite a competent cyclist. We regularly head off for family bike rides along the canal or along cycle trails, and he likes riding round and round the garden, leaving a muddy trail in  his wake.

But he rarely rides on the roads, so is somewhat lacking in street skills and seems blissfully unaware of possible hazards.

It’s hardly his fault.

When we were kids we would tear around the neighbourhood on our bikes in packs of up to 20, whizzing on and off pavements, riding no-handed or doing wheelies to our hearts’ content. Footwear of choice was trainers (winter) or flipflops (summer). Helmets were unheard of. Lights and reflectors were for show, not for safety.

No such fun for my son and his mates.

I’m really trying to give him more freedom; I truly believe that it’s only possible for anyone to know how to deal with risk and life’s ups and downs by experiencing them and learning how to negotiate them.

But it’s hard, isn’t it? I do understand why my fellow parents are so reluctant. Everywhere you look there are warnings, dire ones at that, about the risks facing kids today. It’s enough to make you want to wrap them up in cotton wool and never let them out of your sight.

Anyway, I’m braving it. I know he’s going to grow up sometime – I guess learning how to negotiate a quarter mile of A-road on two wheels is just going to be the start of his journey to manhood.

The picture above was taken on the field next to his school, as he messed around with his friends before the bell went this morning. I caught up with him after walking the same route with my younger son. It was a lovely frosty morning and it was good to see him having fun. But mostly it was good to know he’d made it in one piece. I could breath again. At least, until tomorrow…