Saturday, 27 December 2014

Shittin' by the docks and in pain.

Do you remember your best ever day?

Of course you do. It was, after all, your best ever day. Who'd forget a day like that?


Memory's a wonderful thing, as are the memories themselves. Some are sad, some are happy and some are useful. Remembering when your first pet died is sad. Remembering the bits that came before tend to be happy. Remembering to feed your pet is useful, especially if you want to put off obtaining the dead-pet memory for as long as possible.

We're nothing without our memories. As far as we're concerned we don't even exist until we have them. When we were newborn and swaddled, lay in our pram behind the television with the sound turned up to drown out our caterwauling, we were nothing more than a cute, gurgling drain upon the resources and good humour of our poor parents.

If you're as lucky as I am, then the memory of the first four or five years of your life will be chock-a-block with good memories. Little, distant glimpses of cowboy outfits, football in the back garden and black and white television shows watched with your father on a Saturday morning. Even the stuff that seemed bad at the time will probably, with the years, have had the pain dulled by distance and become nothing more than a funny anecdote to entertain your friends with. The bollockings for breaking windows, the smacked legs for cheeking the neighbours and the being sent to beds without tea for nicking your sister's jam butty and swearing blind it was the dog that ate it whilst being unaware of the sticky, red evidence surrounding your cheeky little chops, all were majorly upsetting at the time but now, who cares?

What's your favourite song?


I have many, depending on my mood. But one song comes to mind whenever I'm asked that, frankly puerile, question. It's not a song from my youth, it's a song from before my youth. A song that has been playing in the background during the most memorable events in my life since age eighteen. It's become a stalwart of my memory.

I'm sure it wasn't playing on the radio in the ambulance that took me to hospital after the unfortunate trampolining incident of '75, but when I think of that adventure there it is, playing in the background and soothing my tears.

The first time I'm aware of hearing it was in 1987 when a group of my friends and I found ourselves at the Willow's variety club in Salford. All now of age and keen to make use of our age confirming driving licences we decided to pay a visit to this most illustrious of venues, with it's cheap entrance fee, sticky carpets and multitude of middle aged divorcees all hungry for the flesh of the young.


We arrived, suitably suited and beautifully booted, with packets of cigarettes and wallets with condoms tucked behind the five pound notes (Only fivers, that way the wallets looked fatter). The wallets contained little, plastic windows to flash our I.D.s at the uninterested bouncers as we swept through the big, double doors in the mistaken belief we looked like something from a movie, rather than the truer picture. That being the Bash Street Kids from the Beano going to youth court.

Having been brought up in a pub, I had more experience of how to behave when in licenced establishments than my peers. We'd all experienced alcohol before, copious amounts of cheap cider swigged from two litre plastic bottles while attempting to breakdance on the pavement outside the Thresher off licence on a piece of vinyl one of the less intelligent members of our "crew" had provided.

The dimwit in question had taken a Stanley knife and had cut the large square of vinyl from the middle of the kitchen floor at his mother's house. His mother had hunted us down, which wasn't difficult. The crackle of the static from our track suits, the sound of UTFO and Roxanne booming from the ghetto blaster I had received for my fifteenth birthday and the fact that we rarely wandered far from the only off licence in Salford that would serve us alcohol made us sitting ducks. She made us return the piece, only to dump it on the wasteground that had once been a row of terraced houses between her house and the old Salford docks, allowing us to reclaim it the very next day.

That night, though, we had a wide variety of beers, wines and spirits at our disposal. Bitter, lager, whisky, brandy, even creme de menthe which, when dumped into a pint of Stella Artois, made a council house cocktail we named "dirty beer". All were imbibed, mixing in our bellies and creating a cocktail that should never have been.

One by one our party diminished. Brave companions falling by the wayside. Some vomiting, some picking fights they could never win and all cast out into the cold, dark air by the disinterested doorstaff that had probably known this was coming when allowing us to part with our entrance fee earlier.

The stage show was set to begin at nine p.m. and, by curtain up, our party had shrunk to just four.

We'd managed to get ourselves a table to the left, and with a good view, of the stage. We had, up until this point, been unaware that their would be a live band on. Our "playlists", had such things existed in the 1980's, was restricted to American hip hop music. And the Bangles, but that was mainly because Susanna Hoffs was the bathroom-buddy of choice to my generation. We were most disappointed to hear the band announced as :

"The one, the only, superstars of soul.... Mr Jimmy James and the Vagabonds".

The crowd, with the exception of our now sparsely populated table, went wild. Whooping, cheering, screaming and applauding. We headed for the bar as the group made their entrance. Then,

BOOM.

What followed was an epiphany. A revelation. A stage show like I had never before, and have never since, seen. There, in the middle of Salford in a nightclub with sticky carpets and twice-weekly bingo, real, bonafide, soul sensations. A non stop performance of songs that we'd all heard before but that we'd never taken the time to enjoy. A fat, black, epitome of the genre, dabbing away at this sweaty brow with a white handkerchief, dancing like a man half his age and a quarter of his size, backed by singers in velvet suits with dance moves like we'd never seen and belting out some of what have since become my favourite tunes.

We drank no more that evening. We danced. We cheered, we smiled, we laughed. We had the best night out I can ever remember having.

The end of the night came and the music slowed down. A melodic intro kicked in, the stage lights went out and a spotlight came on, illuminating only Jimmy as he sat on a tall stool near the front of the stage and finished his amazing show off with what has since become my favourite song. We began to file away from the dance floor, smiling and exhausted, but were ambushed by a table of middle aged women and dragged back toward the stage to round the night off with what we later learnt was the period colloquially known as the "grab-a-granny erection section".

At that age my self control wasn't great. The sensation of this well-upholstered, fifty-something's ample bosom against my tummy and her gnarled hands clawing at my arse was more that I could stand. I tried to control myself with a self-taught trick. I closed my eyes and imagined watching Man City play, but then David White scored and it all began to go wrong. So I concentrated on the lyrics and tried to wriggle sideways in her grasp.

"...watching the tide, roll away..."


Lovely words, a tune that matched, soulful crooning, it was, to my mind, the perfect song. "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay", originally by, I later discovered on my visit to the Vinyl Exchange in Manchester city centre, Otis Redding.

Once free of the grip of my cougar with a cough we departed the venue and four friends went four separate ways.

The mixture of minty liqueur and Belgian beer, with their different specific gravities, in my tummy, combined with the fresh air and the tray of chips and gravy I purchased en route home, began to have an unfortunate effect on me as I took a shortcut across the wasteground behind the house with the vinyl-less kitchen floor. I realised, for the first time since queuing to see Santa in Debenhams, aged four, I wasn't going to make it to the toilet and that, this time, it was going to be far worse. My stomach cramped and gurgled as I frantically tugged at my belt, dropping my trousers to reveal my novelty Donald Duck boxer shorts and looking around to see if I was in danger of being seen. It was pitch black, no streetlamps illuminating me and a good distance from the nearest house, so I squatted.

First came a hot explosion of brown water, then the warm ooze of something that felt, but didn't smell, like thick custard. It smelt like someone had taken a shit in a big bowl of polo mints.

The shame I felt was only diminished by the sweet relief at my solitude and the soothing sensation of my rapidly evacuating bowels.

Finally finished, I realised I had neglected to bring any toilet roll out with me that evening. I wished I was as cool and forward thinking as the soul sensation that I had just witnessed. If only I had a clean, white handkerchief.

In the gloom, just to my right, I spied a leaf. A large, wide and soft looking leaf. A dock leaf. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, farted one more time, snatched the leaf from it's stem and gave my burnt backside a vigorous and frantic wiping.

As I cleaned my undercarriage I remembered the first time I had learnt of the therapeutic properties of the dock leaf. My granddad had used one to wipe away the pain and discomfort caused by the rapidly spreading rash I had on my arm after falling off my bike into stinging nettles.

"Wherever there are nettles, son, you'll always find these."


The other side of this particular nugget of handy information is that wherever you find dock leaves, you also find stinging nettles.

In my haste to clean myself up I had inadvertently grabbed not only a lovely, soothing dock leaf but also a fistful of nettles. And wiped my fucking arse with them.

I sobbed like a baby and winced with every step of the remainder of my journey home, vowing never to tell a soul what had happened.

Many year later, while backpacking around France, I found myself sitting on the dock of the bay for real. I had nothing to do but watch the tide roll away and waste time. A perfect moment. I had with me a small, transistor radio and, quite coincidentally, Mr Redding's dulcet tones began emanating from it's little, crackly speaker. I was immediately transported from my place, basking in the sun on the old wall around the bay at St. Tropez, and back to that cold, dark night in Salford. A night of incredible highs and devastating, embarrassing lows. I laughed out loud and recounted the story, in all it's gory detail, to the young lady with whom I was travelling. It was the first time I had ever told anyone, and we laughed like loons.

You see, that's the thing with bad times. The moment they're finished they become memories. No matter how low you feel, at some point in the future, maybe a long way away, all that will remain of your misery and discomfort  is a funny, little story you can recount while waiting for the ferry to St. Raphael.



And an aversion to creme de menthe.

J2H.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Vive la difference.

I take after my father in so many ways, some good, some bad. My height and my jet black, lustrous locks come in on the good side, my big nose and miserable demeanor on the bad.

One way in which I differ from my father is my parenting abilities. He wasn't perfect, but was pretty close. I, on the other hand, am absolutely shit at it. I tried, I wanted to be good at it, but when push came to shove I was shit. My son's are both happy and healthy, but despite my input rather than because of it.

When they were young I spent a lot of time in the car with them. My ex-wife had moved over to the other side of the mountains a couple of years after our divorce and, when it was my turn to have the boys for the weekend, I would drive over and pick them up. Generally, it being a fortnight since the last time I'd had them, there was plenty of catching up to do. The journey back to Salford would fly by as I was regaled with tales of playground skirmishes, football matches and minor misdemeanors. My youngest lad would bring his favourite CD with him to play in the car. For a good chunk of this period it would be the same album every week, "The Eminem Show", but the more child-friendly version with all the swearing bleeped out that his mother had insisted I buy for him. Unfortunately, my ex-wife's attempt to censor the lyrics was rendered redundant since the highlight of our journey was my shouting out "...fuck you, Debbie..." when the edit kicked in on that particular part of Mr. Mathers' poetry. 

Shit dad.


During one of our journeys my youngest son was giving me directions from his place riding shotgun by my side. I noticed he kept holding his hands up just before telling me to turn left or right and, when he saw my quizzical look, he explained that his teacher had taught him how to tell left from right, a basic life skill that had never occurred to me to teach him.

Shit dad.


"If you look at the backs of your hands with your thumbs out, dad, one looks like a "L" so that's left. The other doesn't, so that's not left."

An ingenious, yet beautifully simple, technique, and one that no one had ever shown me. I'd been taught a far more convoluted method, aged six, by non other than 70s heartthrob Mr. Lee Majors.

Lee had been star of one of my most favourite television shows as a child. He was Steve Austin, AKA the Six Million Dollar Man. (This was back in the days when six million dollars was still considered a lot of money.) 

Steve was an astronaut who'd received devastating injuries crashing a test plane. A man barely alive. A secret government agency had the technology, and the capability, to rebuild him, to make the world's first bionic man. Better... stronger... faster and, most pertinently to this tale, with a new, man made left eye.

I wanted to be Steve Austin. 


My mother bought me the tee-shirt from a stall on Swinton market, my granddad bought me the annuals and then, on September the tenth, 1976, I got the holy grail of birthday gifts. The Steve Austin action figure from my parents, along with a Six Million Dollar man space rocket that doubled as an operating table and a Steve Austin action figure sized space suit.

The action figure had a button on his back to operate his bionic arm, capable of lifting the engine block that was included, and a rubber, foreskin like sheath on the right arm that could be rolled back to reveal the circuitry hidden beneath. The face of the doll was uncannily like that of Mr. Majors, except for the left eye, which was a lens. There was a hole in the back of Steve's head through which to look and the lens made everything look really far away. 

This was the only disappointment. What the fuck? That's not how it was supposed to work. 


Still, I was the first in my school to own such a toy and I was as happy as a proverbial pig in a pile of proverbial shit.

To look through the bionic eye, it being on the left hand side of his head, meant using my own right eye, et voila. From then on, whenever I needed to know which side was right I simply had to imagine holding my favourite toy. I knew right from left. No more making a twat of myself limping to school with the shoes on the wrong feet, no more going to the wrong drawer when my teacher sent me to get paper or pencils and now I knew what my dad meant when he said I was "cack handed".

Thank you, Mr. Majors.


I still rely on this method occasionally. As I've aged I've started to get confused far easier than I did when all I had to worry about was getting home in time for "Battle of the Planets" or finding enough broken pallets to build my next den. I struggle to remember words that I've used a million times before. Occasionally I refer to my children by the wrong name or, as is becoming more common, by the name of one of my dogs, but Mr. Majors' method of remembering left from right keeps me from getting lost or run over when crossing the road. Without Mr. Majors method I'd have been flattened by a speeding motorist years ago. The Tufty technique of looking right, then left then right again is less than useless without it.

At about the same time that I was learning left from right, a grocer's daughter from Grantham was making history. The country was "on it's arse" as my father so eloquently put it. The grocer's daughter had become leader of one of the two main political parties and some people were very excited about it. The other party, the party in charge, were in power and some people weren't happy. There were strikes, protests, riots and power cuts. I was too young to give a shit about most of the upset, but I did enjoy the power cuts. My dad bought a little, black and white, portable television and a spare car battery which he left, on a piece of newspaper to protect the carpet, in the front room and connected to a trickle charger. Whenever the power went off, the candles would come out and my father would wire the portable telly up to the fully charged battery, et voila. We were the most popular house on the street, our living room filled with neighbours all laughing and watching with us.

Eventually, it was time for a general election. The grocer's daughter won, becoming our first and, to date, only female Prime Minister. She wore a blue frock and spoke dead posh, like my Auntie Sheila who I imagined was a member of the aristocracy and not really the sister of my sweary, pub landlady grandmother. To my young mind, that was the difference between the two parties. The grocer's daughter's party wore blue and were posh, the power cut party wore red ties and were as common as dog shit. The two sides were poles apart, blue grocer's daughter on the right and red, pipe smoker lot on the left. Piece of piss. I didn't need any ingenious toy-based system to know who was who.

As I got older I became more sophisticated. I read newspapers, watched the news and listened to my schoolteachers. The red pipe smokers liked the working man, the blue grocer's daughter's chums liked the bosses of the workers. Their opinions and views were poles apart and, depending on the viewpoint of the voter, one lot was good and the other lot bad. For those that weren't sure which side they were on, there was another lot, a sort of orangey hue, slap-bang in the middle. It was all so easy. Chalk, cheese and a little bit of chalky-cheese (Let's call those chaps "cheek", or "chase", whichever you prefer.) in the middle.

Chalk, cheese and a cheeky chase, easy peasy.


Whichever you chose, you hated the others. If the others had a good idea, you hated that. You invested so much time and energy into backing your own side that you found you had to oppose every idea that came from Left field or Right out of the blue. Even when your own side were failing to perform you steadfastly stood strong and, like a sufferer of Stockholm syndrome, stayed loyal. You knew where you stood, and you stood behind what you knew. Men all over the country drank in Conservative clubs or Labour clubs, their allegiance sometimes for noble reasons and sometimes because they were ha'penny a pint cheaper. Whichever side you were on was good.

In recent years it's become harder to know which club to join. The cheeky chasers put on a bit of weight and the Left and Right rolled inwards toward them. Eventually they began to melt, slowly at first, into each other until now, as a result of this and of my rapidly rotting grey matter, I struggle to tell one from the other. They don't even try to be different anymore. Now, the other side's idea is no longer a bad idea, they dare not say that. Instead, the other side's good idea is so good that they take it and say it was theirs all along. 

Nowadays, should an individual be naive enough to say what he or she thinks, rather than be derided in a smoky bar in between hands of crib or frames of snooker by the other side, they are castigated, pilloried in public, spoken about globally in conversations that all can see, All, including themselves. They allow themselves to be bullied into submission until, now, none dare say what they actually believe. They say what they think will cause them the least upset. They chicken out, scared of the opinions of those that will hate their ideas however inspired and well-meaning they may be, the opinions that people already held, have always held and will always hold. Now, we have no real choice other than to choose the least bad. There is no Left or Right and no right or wrong. Just one, huge, amorphic blob of platitudes, excuses, name calling and derision.

I used to vote, my choice based on which side I believed would be better for the country I love. I would still vote, if there was something worth voting for. Or if they add another box at the bottom of the ballot paper. A box that indicated;

"NONE OF THE ABOVE".


Where's Steve Austin when you need him?

J2H.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Don't bank on it.

Are you happy?

I sincerely hope you are. I like to imagine, whilst I sit here tapping away at these keys and occasionally blowing the fag ash out of the gaps in between them, that those of you bored enough to read my inane ramblings are seated upon a leather couch, iPad in hand, sipping a glass of white Zinfandel and occasionally popping a malteaser in your gob as your children lie on a rug playing with their favourite toys and half-watching the adventures of an anthropomorphised sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

I'm happy.

It's a curious paradox, my happiness. Anyone that could see the damp riddled, rat infested house with the black mold decor in the bathroom and bedroom in which I am currently forced to dwell would struggle to understand how I could be anything other than miserable. Were they to see my bank balance, they would be further confused, and if they were to see me, on the coldest of nights, lay crying with the pain that, no matter what I do, won't subside enough to give me even the briefest respite until the painkillers kick in and send me loopy, they'd call me a filthy liar.

But I really am very happy indeed.

I'm not stupid. I can see that, from outside, my existence is generally a pitiful one. It hasn't always been the case. Once, I was successful. I had a family that loved me and that I adored. I still adore them, but I don't have them any longer. If I focus on that simple fact for long enough I get sad and so I never focus on that simple fact for very long.

Once, I had a social life that was the envy of most. I was popular and confident, I ate in fine restaurants, visited foreign lands, drove lovely cars and rode lovely motorcycles. But I was never truly happy until things went wrong.

I was made redundant from a job that paid a decent age and that I was good at, but it didn't matter. I'd never struggled to get a job and so I didn't worry. I was unemployed briefly and, during this period, I had an epiphany. I had never done a job that I wanted to do, only a succession of jobs that I was good at and that would pay me enough money to enjoy myself once my working day was over. "Why," I thought, "don't I try getting a job that I enjoy?" After all, as my father once said, if you enjoy what you do for a living you'll never work a day in your life.

As a teenager I had a friend named Mary. Mary lived with her mother in a damp riddled, rat infested house with black mold in the bathroom. Her father had left shortly after Mary's birth. Her mother was considerably older than my parents, well into her sixties when Mary and I were thirteen. Mary loved me and I loved Mary. Mary would hold me tightly whenever she saw me, kissing my cheek and giggling. I would wriggle free, embarrassed, as soon as I could, and then she would come to the park with me where we would meet our friends. Occasionally, en route to the park, someone would shout a nasty name at Mary and Mary would cry. I would take her hand and we'd continue on as bigger kids who should know better would shout the vilest things at us. Then, once in the park and among others that had known Mary all their lives, Mary would sit minding our coats whilst we played football.

Mary had Down's syndrome.

I lost touch with Mary once I'd left school. I have no idea what became of her. I do hope she's happy.

But back to my tale. I decided, after much deliberation, that I wanted to work with people suffering with learning disabilities. I applied for a job as a support worker, a very easy job to get since the pay is obscenely low and very few people want to do it, and I began working with autistic adults, supporting them to live in the community in their own homes.

For the first time in my life I was as happy whilst working as I was whilst not. I seldom stopped smiling and every day I would catch myself, whilst out walking my dog, muttering the words "I fucking love my life" and smiling like a lunatic. I was assaulted by my clients, I had poo thrown at me regularly, I dealt with things that would turn your stomach and I absolutely, wholeheartedly, loved it.

Nowadays, that work has dried up. Some people that work in banks did some bad things and we decided that those who needed help most should shoulder the blame, rather than the bankers, and do without. They can't complain, so fuck them. We dare not risk upsetting the bankers.

I mourn the loss of my career, but I remain grateful to those individuals that I supported for making me realise something that we all should realise. I'm a really nice bloke. Not everyone agrees with me, I'm sure many people think I'm a prick and, to be fair, I do have prickish tendencies. Just like you, him next door and the local vicar.

Life for the last three years has seen a steady decline in my standard of living but I never feared the future. I knew, just like in the past, everything would be okay. Yes, I was going through a bad patch, but it wouldn't last. Later this belief changed to "yes, okay, the bad patch got worse, but it'll be okay."

I made cut backs, refusing to claim benefits. After all, I thought, I'll be okay sooner or later.

Except now I was in my forties and I was competing for work with many younger than I and in the same position.

Eventually, I gave in and went cap in hand to the state. I filled in forms, attended meetings and was awarded JSA, but still I struggled. So I sold my possessions. My motorcycle, my cameras, my phone, my jewellery. I couldn't understand why I was still struggling so much. Others were in my position but weren't walking the streets in shoes with minimal sole coverage, they weren't eating beans on toast for every meal, skipping breakfast and freezing cold in a damp house. It must be my fault, I thought, and tightened my belt further.

I'd had several credit cards when times were good. I hated using them. Every month I would pay them off, in full, never having to pay a penny in interest. Once I wasn't working I'd stopped using them but now I was desperate. Just a tenner, that wouldn't hurt, would it? And anyway, I'd be able to pay it off soon.

But I couldn't. A tenner became two tenners, then three. Eventually I couldn't afford to pay anything off the balance and so I stopped opening the letters they sent.

Then, after walking the nine miles to the job centre to sign on one week in late October I was told that I could have no more. My contributions were depleted. But there was good news! They had made a mistake on my initial claim and I had only been receiving half the amount I should've been, the reason I'd been going hungry. They apologised and told me that the balance would be paid into my bank account.

"When?" I asked.

"Yesterday." They said.

I was saved. I dashed to the bank to draw out what I could. Except one of my credit cards was with my bank, so they'd taken it. It had appeared in my account and was immediately taken toward the debt I owed. Fair enough, I thought. I did owe it, after all.

I trudged home, thinking about the beans on toast I would be having for my tea. Everything was going to be alright, something would save me, I was sure.

DickFingers had been ill for quite a while and unable to work. She'd been attacked doing the same job as I had loved and, as a result, will never be able to work in that industry again. She wasn't eligible for benefits herself but had been receiving a small, monthly, statutory payment from her employer. She could've prosecuted her attacker and sued him, but she couldn't bring herself to do that. A letter had arrived whilst I'd been out. It informed her that this was to be the week her employer's obligation ceased. We now, literally, had zero income.

At this stage I began to worry a little, but I needn't have. DickFingers is considerably younger than I and she found a job. Not a great job, but a proper, full time job. It was minimum wage but, by that point in our lives, it was equivalent to winning the Lotto. We rejoiced. We were going to be alright. Well, next month we would, as her start date was mid November, but we'd make it. We had beans and bread, what more did we need?

(Butter would've been nice, but we're not greedy.)

She started work and we looked forward to payday, the last day of the month. It was going to be close, but we'd made it this far, all we had to do was hold on a little longer.

Payday approached and she came home one night in tears. There had been a problem processing her forms and she'd not be getting paid until the following month. As with so many things in this computer-age, there was nothing anyone could do to help her.

We were, I had to now admit, fucked. We would die of starvation in a cold house. There was nothing anyone could do to help.

We ate every other day for a week. The following week she ate every other day while I pretended I'd eaten whilst she was at work and I went two days between meals. I'd gone from fourteen stone to less than ten as we'd slipped into poverty and I was beginning to ache all over constantly. But I had a plan.

DickFingers has a family that love her but that knew nothing of our predicament. If, I explained, she went down south to stay with them for a while then I was sure I could sort things out up here and, as soon as there was food in the cupboards and I'd cleared the debts, she could come back. I smiled as I told her my plan, I acted as if it was ingenious, infallible, that I couldn't and wouldn't fail and that it would take a month, maybe two. Then she could come back and we'd live happily ever after.

Perfect.

I didn't tell her the whole plan though. I missed out the part where I would steal a bottle of whiskey, get pissed, walk up Winter Hill, throw my coat away and drink until I fell asleep in the snow never to wake up. I've never told her that part. The first time she learns of it will be if she bothers to read this blog.

She considered it. She didn't want to, but maybe it'd work. But first, she said, why didn't we try and find out if we could get some food from one of those foodbanks that she'd heard about?

So that's what we did. I walked nine miles to the nearest C.A.B. where a very nice doctor who was volunteering that day agreed we deserved a little help and gave me a voucher. He raged about how he hated our country, a rich nation, where he was spending his days dealing with people like me. "If I'd wanted to deal with starvation and poverty", he said, "I could've stayed in India."

We had to survive one more weekend before we could collect our parcel. Just one more. Then on Monday, having not eaten for four days, we walked a thirteen mile round trip to collect our food. I cried when I saw the vegetables. I actually cried, all because we had a fucking cauliflower to cook.

We carried the food home through the rain in several sports bags slung around us. At one point I honestly believed I wouldn't make it, so DickFingers took one of my bags and my hand and told me it was going to be okay.

We didn't eat much that night, we didn't know when we'd get any more.

The following Monday, still just half way through the parcel that was only supposed to last us a week, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to be greeted by an elderly couple, smiling and wearing Santa hats and Salvation Army uniforms. They had unexpectedly brought us another parcel because it was Christmas, and this one had a chicken in it. And fruit. And biscuits. I have never in my life been so grateful for a packet of bourbons and a tub of brandy sauce.

We survived through to Christmas and beyond. DickFingers got paid. I wrote some books. Between us, we now keep our heads above water. Paying off the consumer debt and the penalty charges that these unpaid debts have now accrued is still but a pipedream. We'll pay them eventually, if we don't die first. Either way, it's something we've long since ceased to allow to cause us sleepless nights. Some may say we should be ashamed of our poverty. In truth, we are, but one day we'll be dead. Why allow the time between this day and that to be filled with misery?

A bank caused our slide, another bank saved our lives. Not all bankers are bad.

Last month, for the first time in over a year, we treated ourselves to a chippy tea. TWICE.

This week we managed to put the heating on when we were cold.

I found thirty pence on the floor earlier.

And that, dear friend, is why I'm so fucking happy.

Enjoy the little things, folks. S'very important.

J2H.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A kind of magic.

Sometimes, I think I might as well be talking to myself, and a lot of the time I actually am.

Maybe I suffer with a form of Tourette's syndrome, I'm certainly prone to the occasional, neigh frequent, sweary outburst. Many an evening, while my train of thought meanders violently along it's zig-zagging track through my imagination I will blurt out a sentence of such randomness that the fragrant Ms. DickFingers, sitting beside me and picking at her toenails, shakes her head and momentarily graces me with an incredulous look.

Nowadays, thanks to the advent of the iPhone and it's symbiotic relationship with Twitter, these occasional outbursts of randomness find themselves sent into the ether and spread throughout the interweb like a dose of syphilis through a Frenchman. Generally, though, they go unnoticed, as they deserve to, but just occasionally they receive some attention in the form of retweets, favourites and replies.

This very afternoon I found myself thinking about one of my favourite tattoos. I have many, on my back, my chest, my arms and my legs. A snake, a dragon, a Geisha, tribal tattoos, Oriental scripts, phrases, flowers, birds, and a Koi among others. Some very ornate, some very striking, some very large and all, with the exception of my favourite, very easy to conceal should a situation (Job interview, court appearance, funeral, Bar Mitzvah, etc.) call for an air of respectability.

My favourite can only be concealed by wearing a polo neck, well starched shirt and tie or neck brace, it being situated on the right hand side of my throat. It's black, quite large and one of the more simple designs. Just two words, six letters, a short phrase. A reminder, whenever I look in the mirror or see a photograph of myself, never to forget one simple secret. The key to my almost infallibly happy existence.

"Be Kind".


Just two words, but words I found to be so important that I decided to have them carved into my throat. It's a secret I discovered many years ago. The secret to my happy, little life and outlook, to success in the one area of anyone's life where success really matters. Money wont make you miserable, nor will the love of money, but it can't make you happy. An impressive job title will only impress those that covet your job. A flash car may be nice to drive and look pretty on the driveway of the house your bank manager owns and allows you to live in, for the time being, but will age far quicker than you and one day, rusting and in the hands of a spotty teen, be long forgotten by all. Even you.

But kindness, that shit lives forever. 


A kind act can be over in an instant but the person to whom it is presented will carry it with them inside, though maybe too deep inside to be remembered, until the day they shuffle off this mortal coil and begin to moulder in a grave. But, while your car rusts and your home is converted into student flats once the area starts to deteriorate, it remains as shiny and undented as the day it was performed.

Glibness aside, once you realise how good it feels to perform an act of kindness, being kind becomes selfish. A good selfish, but selfish nonetheless. The spring in your step, the tune you whistle as you smile coming home, the smug self satisfaction, they're yours and yours alone to enjoy.

And it feels so good.


So I Tweeted this...


A throwaway comment that would once have been muttered and lost before my Twitter addiction took it's hold on me, but now noticed by a few people, favourited, retweeted and commented upon, resulting in a smugness equal to that which I feel when I help an old lady carry a bag, compliment a stranger or hand over a sausage roll and a meat and potato pie to the homeless lad and his dog I regularly pass in Bolton town centre.

The first time I performed the latter of these examples I'd just spent my last pound in the Pound Bakery, hadn't eaten all day and was faced with a not inconsiderable walk back to my home in Horwich. Moments after I'd handed over the goods I regretted it, my stomach admonishing me angrily, but once home and with a piece of toast in me I reaped the rewards. Maybe it was smug self-satisfaction, maybe it was happiness, either way it felt so good.

The greatest satisfaction comes when I do a random act of kindness that no one ever finds out about. Something that I know will make the recipient smile, scratch his or her head and wonder at their little bit of good fortune. Nothing creepy, I don't break into people's houses and do the washing up or arrange their knicker drawer in order of colour while they sleep, and to give you a particular example would undo the magic, but it's possible. Rare, but possible.

I am aware that very few people saw the original tweet, buried as it was in the middle of the day, and that most of those that saw it probably forgot all about it very soon afterwards, but maybe just one person tried it out. If they did, I am certain they'll have repeated the experiment again today and hopefully will continue to be kind. There will be days when kindness is unwarranted or impossible, I have many such days myself, but the day after sees me return to my glib ways. Like a dieter who sneaks a mars bar when no one's looking only to carry on munching salad instead of chips at meal times, to fail one day isn't to fail. 

We only fail when we cease to try.


So, in an effort to encourage people to try out my recipe for success I've designed a game for you all to play along.

  • Receive one point for every random act of kindness.
  • One additional point if the act of kindness benefited a stranger.
  • Two additional points if no one knows it was you that performed the act.
  • Lose three points if no one would've know but you told someone and screwed that up.
  • Tot those numbers up, multiply the total by ten, convert those points into pennies, put those pennies in a jar and wait until it's full.
  • Give the jar away.

And the winner is...


...all of us.

J2H.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The girl next door.


Time and tide wait for no man. Or woman. Or beast. (Not even for magical dogs.)

I love time. With the exception of pink wafer biscuits it's my all time favourite thing. A beautiful concept and a handy addition to this glorious universe through which we find ourselves hurtling, clinging on by the skin of our teeth to a tiny, little rock as it whizzes around an insignificant star. Without time, we'd have no history, and without history we'd be even more unimportant that we already are. But there is no time, it's not a "thing", it doesn't exist. It's nothing more than a human invention, a way of measuring our lives. It's a currency.

Time is cherished, coveted, given and shared. more valuable and fragile than any gemstone.


We cling to the past, scared to let it go for fear of being forgotten ourselves. We're here for the blink of a celestial eye, we achieve little of any significance to our fellow man, woman or beast and even less significance to the universe before returning to the Earth that accidentally spawned us without the Earth even noticing. The past reminds us that we've lived while the future reminds us this won't be the case for very long. We hope that our children will think fondly of us, keep our memory alive, and that in turn our grandchildren will do the same. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to leave our great-grandkids with fond memories too, but thats as far as history will take us. Do you know your great-great grandfather's name? Or his father's? Do you know anything about them?

As a small child, one rainy Sunday afternoon, I watched the film adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine". A lovely film, I sat engrossed in front of the flickering box in our front room with a packet of Salt 'N Shake and a glass of dandelion and burdock as Rod Taylor portrayed the time travelling hero, George. For any of you that have neither seen the film nor read the book, in a nutshell, George invents a fantastical machine in his basement, travels forwards in time, but not space, and has a fine old time for a while before things turn bad. It's really rather good.

At about the same time (That word comes in very handy, doesn't it?) I became a fan of Doctor Who. The Doctor's time machine had the added advantage of being able to travel through space as well as time.

There were rules to time travel, though. Rules fabricated by the writers. You can't kill your granddad, though why anyone would want to was beyond me, you can't change things that have already happened for fear of upsetting the future, you mustn't step on an insect in the Jurassic period and you shouldn't attempt to profit from your advantage.

Fair enough.

But you would though, wouldn't you? Nothing big, maybe just nipping back a couple of hundred years and putting a fiver in a post office account then going forward to collect the interest. Or putting your shirt on the winner of last years Grand National. Maybe even telling your past self to invest in IBM or Facebook. Surely that wouldn't hurt? Even if it did, no one would know that you'd done it. You could ensure you became the most powerful man on Earth, balls to all those that suffered hardship because of your actions, people suffer all the time. If not them, then someone else would. It's the way of the world.

I know what I'd change.


I would return to Saturday, July 31st, 1976. I would visit my grandmother's house in Ashton-upon-Mersey and, at about nine p.m., I would climb up to the small window on the left hand side of the rear of the property and tap on the window. I would awaken the little me sleeping soundly in the horse-hair stuffed mattress in the bedroom with the racing cars on the wall, making sure I'd disturbed the dream I was having, and then I'd leave. Then everything would be okay.

On the aforementioned night I had a dream. A beautiful, incredible dream. One like I've never had since and one I truly believe shaped both me and my future. My future that is now my past.

I dreamt I woke up the following morning and went out to play with the little girl that lived next door to my gran. In my dream we found a pair of plastic chairs in the little walk that ran behind the house. We discovered that if we sat on and wrapped our legs around the legs' of these chairs, grasped the seats and jumped, the chairs would float a few inches off the floor and forward a foot or two. By repeating the motion over and again we would float higher and further each time until, by the time we reached the street at the end. we were flying. The kind of flying that a Daddy Long Legs performs, bumbling and bouncing in the air.

By the time we reached the main road at the end of the street we no longer needed the chairs. We left them behind and, hand in hand, flew high above the houses. We followed the dual carriageway towards Manchester, soaring and swooping, seeing the buildings from above and remaining unnoticed by those people below. We laughed and we smiled and we fell in love. All in one night.

But it didn't end there.

We chose to land. We grew up. We finished school. got jobs, got married, had children and grew old. The dream seemed to last sixty years, it was incredibly detailed. I felt the passage of time. Our lives were idyllic, our children successful, our retirement home pretty and our love never faded. We had, in the space of one night, two fantastic lives. Then we died. Together, sat hand in hand in two small, plastic chairs watching a crimson sky as the sun dipped behind the hills, and I woke up.

I cried, lay in my bed, aged six. I cried at the loss of the life that I had led, the life I had worked so hard to build and to make a success of. Later, I saw the little girl, my future wife from the past I'd never had, through the privets that separated her back garden from my grandmothers, the little girl that I had loved and that had loved me back for decades, and I never spoke to her again.

I couldn't tell anyone, they'd think I was crazy, and so I mourned my missed life all alone.

Like the half arsed web a spider rebuilds after you've wiped away her initial, intricate creation so my life unfolded. I'd had it all, everything anyone could ever want. Love, happiness, wealth. It had been perfect. There had been low points, but without the lows we couldn't have had the highs Whatever lay ahead for me could never live up to what now lay behind and, even if it did, what if this new-old life is all a dream as well? Why bother building to have it snatched away? No, I'd learned my lesson, from then on in it was the easy life for me. When things went wrong I'd shrug and walk away.

This attitude has led to a life of drastically varied experiences. I have become many different people, had many different attitudes, throughout the years that have followed. I've enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, my life greatly. But sometimes I look at an old couple, holding hands on Blackpool front or smiling as they celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and I wish I'd spoken to the little girl next door.

Perhaps I'm a time traveler, my consciousness and memory full of holes caused by the side-effects of my trans-temporal adventures. Perhaps I'm in the afterlife. Perhaps this is hell. Perhaps I was reborn, that I was reincarnated. Perhaps everyone has had a similar dream and, like me, never dared tell anyone. Perhaps, one day, I'll wake up and, once again, be a small child in my grandmother's house. Would I take it as a third chance to right what went wrong in this life I'm living now? Or would I once again decide that I really can't be arsed?

"If you love something, let it go". So goes the old chestnut.

I still visit the dream from time to time. Less and less frequently as time has passed, it's now become a comforting, mental bolt hole. My own, personal time machine. Maybe, on those nights when I dream about the dream I had, about the moments in the life that never was that I cherished the most, that's when I'm really awake, jumping from age to age, revisiting the paradise I lost. Maybe, one day, during my visits to my old life that never was, this life that is will cease and I'll be there forever.

In all probability, though, I'm just crazy.


If you attain something worth keeping, don't let the morning sun take it away from you. Keep your eyes screwed shut, ignore your grandmother shouting you to come for your breakfast, it's a trap. Never lose the dream and, if it's taken from you...

...go and get it back.

J2H.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Merry elfing Christmas...

Click on the link at the end of this entry to hear 

the author (that's me, that is) read it to you 

in his, I mean my, soothing, Salfordian tone.



This year, as last, and the one before 
The big, fat man paused at the door
To kiss his wife a fond farewell
And leave for work as he rang his bell
Mrs Claus' smile faltered as she saw his rear
"Those pants don't fit him like they did last year"
"Never mind", she thought, "I've a needle and thread
"I can take them in when he goes to bed."
He climbed aboard his magical sleigh
And urged his reindeer on their way
With a jingle of bells and a "Ho-ho-ho"
They sped aloft through the driving snow
To spread joy and love and treats and gifts
To all the kids on the nice-kid list
And just because he loved them, too
A gift or two for those naughty, like you

All children asleep, for it was by now late
He touched down gently upon the slates
Of the roof of a family on the Isle of Wight
And so began his arduous night
The one night of the year that he had to work
The one night of the year that he couldn't shirk
The night that he loved, his reason to live
To receive no thanks, just to give, give and give
No longer so young, the ache in his back
Brought forth a wince as he picked up the sack
Then he climbed down the chimney, all covered in soot
And crept to the tree where he silently put
The toys and the games for the child of the house
Then crept back out slowly, as quiet as a mouse
He returned to his sleigh, climbed aboard and took off
That's when Donder and Blixem noticed the cough 

He tired far too quickly to finish his tasks
His once happy face was the colour of ash
Before he had gotten even half way around
His body went limp and he fell to the ground
From the magical sleigh that swept through the sky
He plummeted Earthward, no glint in his eye
He lay in an alley, all twisted and bloody
The snow settling gently and covering his body
He lay there all night 'til the wintry sun rose
No part of him visible except for his nose
The snow slowly thawed, his body did not
Icicles formed in his eyes and his snot
Until a man, down on his luck
Spotted him there and whispered "Oh fuck"
He looked left and right, he was all alone
Save for the dead man lying there prone

He'd only been looking for somewhere he could
Stick a needle in his arm and poison his blood
With his own special brand of Christmas cheer
The poison to cure his pain and his fear
He took the coat and boots and hat
From the broken body he'd found and that
He left in the slush for the rats to eat
And eat they did, at least his feet
Before being disturbed and running away
At the sound of the footsteps on that last Christmas day
That came from the man with the bags in his hands
Filled with paper and cardboard and empty beer cans
That he brought to place in the big, green skip
That served the flats in which he lived
The flats with no chimneys, where no children dwelt
And the lack of a gift wasn't noticed or felt

So forget about nice, there's no need to behave
Old Father Christmas now lies in a grave
Unmarked by a cross or a stone or some flowers
No lists does he write as he whiles away hours
Just killing the time until that special night
When he embarks once again on his magical flight
And he bends space and time in his mission to share
Joy with all, young and old, every year, everywhere
It comes to us all, just as night follows day
Enjoy what you've got 'fore it's taken away
'Twas the soot in your chimneys that killed him you know?
Think about that while you're watching the snow
Outside your window on your next Christmas morning
How he lies in a hole, no mourners there mourning
He's gone now, hard luck, he wont be bringing that
Toy that you asked for, you ungrateful twat.

Merry Fucking Christmas.

J2H.


Friday, 31 October 2014

Mahatma Gandhi, the heavyweight champion of the world, Wagon Wheels and me.

Once upon a time, a mighty long time ago, Ocada didn't do home deliveries and Amazon was a river. If we wanted to eat anything more substantial than a handful of nuts and berries we had to spend a day or three following a poorly looking mammoth or a sabre toothed tiger with a limp, accompanied by half a dozen or so of our closest friends all armed with pointed sticks, and we waited for our chance to pounce, en masse, on our prey, kicking it to death.

Then came the hard part.


Without a squeaky trolley to transport our game to our motor vehicle, and without a motor vehicle, we had to carry our shopping home. Having followed the poor creature for several days we generally had quite a slog ahead of us before we arrived home, exhausted, to be greeted by our womenfolk who had spent the time while we were away cleaning, chastising our children and spending our coloured pebbles on shite to make the cave look pretty.

Eventually, once there was no more room in our increasingly cluttered caves for scented candles, picture frames in the shape of love-hearts and little glass bowls that serve no function other than to piss me right off, we were forced to up sticks and find more suitable accommodation. We piled up stones and fallen branches, we used animal skins and mosses to make the interiors of our new, bespoke caves more comfortable and we were happy. For a while. Then our neighbours built extensions, so we had to, too. We needed increasingly large boulders and branches and we struggled to drag these from the caves and forests where they were handily placed out onto the plains where we had to build our homes because "ooh the views are so lovely, and it's really close to that good school".

The necessity to improve our homes in this way brought forth the necessity for invention. Clearing paths to make the dragging of the stone easier gave us tracks and pathways. We lay logs on these roads to drag the stones over, meaning we could drag even larger boulders back to our increasingly sprawling villages. Someone, somewhere, invented the wheel. The wheel, contrary to popular opinion, was a pointless invention.

It leant against the inventors garden wall, unused and forgotten, until some bright spark invented an axle, et voila, the wagon came into existence.


Now we could move more, and move more more easily, we began to pretty the place up a bit. A monolith here, a statue there, headstones to mark our final resting places and some of those enormous, stone dominoes balanced in a circle for no other reason that to confuse the archaeologists of the future. The wagon wheel brought the axle, the axle brought the wagon, the wagon brought the materials and the materials brought manufacturing. Manufacturing completed the circle many centuries later when Burton's biscuits brought forth the Wagon Wheel, a delicious, chocolate coated, mallow and jam topped biscuit that could be stripped apart and eaten in ingenious ways.

Personally, I break off and eat the biscuit base first, then strip the chocolate from the jam tinged mallow which I save until last. Nom nom.


As a child, I remember buying a Wagon Wheel every morning from the tuck shop at my school. My eating technique developed over the years. Initially I would hold the confectionery in two hands and eat it in the "normal", boring way. As I grew, the Wagon Wheel shrank. Now, rather than needing two, the biscuit fits comfortably in the palm of one of my hands. This happened so slowly that I didn't notice.

As an even smaller child, with a yet smaller child for a sibling, I can remember dragging a kitchen chair over to the larder and climbing upon it to steal the Farley's rusks that my sister loved and that I wasn't allowed to eat from the top shelf. Just like the Wagon Wheels that came later, I would hold the rusk in both hands and sit munching away, giggling at my guile and cunning as I feasted on forbidden fruit, occasionally suffering an almighty bollocking from my mother if she got off the phone in the hallway long enough to come and check what I was up to.

Eventually, my sister was too old for these most delicious of delicious treats and so my parents ceased purchasing them. In time, I forgot all about them until, years later, my then-wife brought home a box of them for our infant son. I spotted the box, up high in the larder, and frantically tore it open, eager to experience that delicious deliciousness again. I was so disappointed.

The rusk was every bit as tasty as I remembered but now, a couple of decades later, they'd shrunk significantly. A tiny, light, crumbly, dry treat, no more than two mouthfuls rather than the two handfuls I remembered. I had to eat the contents of the entire box to even begin to feel satisfied.

The bollocking I received from my wife was even more ferocious than those I'd received from my mother, although she drew the line at tanning my arse with a hairbrush.


The rusks seemed smaller because I'd grown. The disappointment at their tiny size was accentuated by the fact that it seemed to happen all of a sudden, rather than the glacial transition of the Wagon Wheel.

At some point between Farley's rusks and Wagon Wheels I lost a grandparent. My father's father died when I was two years old. Initially, every Sunday my father would take me to his grave to clean it up and to chat to him. I thought my grandfather must have been a very important man to have such a huge headstone, towering above me with an engraving of a cross and a stained glass window and the words that my grandmother had chosen carved into it's brilliant, white stone. Over the years our visits to the cemetery in which he rested became less and less frequent until they ceased altogether.

Once my father had joined his father and shuffled off this mortal coil we had to decide what to do with his ashes. It wasn't a difficult decision. We arranged to have his remains buried in the same plot, his name added beneath that of his father. On the day of this second funeral I arrived at the cemetery, early and alone, and began to weave my way along the little paths that criss-crossed between the immaculately manicured plots. I remembered the way from my visits there as a small child and I spotted the silver birch tree that grew next to the grave and under which I would sit whilst my father chatted to his father about Manchester City, the bloody kids and how much he missed him.

As I approached I began to feel a knot in my stomach. It was gone. The huge, grand, polished stone that I had helped clean with water from a nearby tap was missing. I began to jog, then to run, toward the tree, knowing my mother would be arriving soon and panicking.

In the place where once this grand monument to a great man had stood now stood a tiny, cheap looking, dirty headstone. I looked around frantically, hoping I was just mis-remembering the precise location, but no, it was gone.

Except it wasn't. The tatty, old stone that stood waist high before me was my grandfather's. Like the Wagon Wheel and the rusk before it, it had shrunk. The day was already an emotional one and this disappointment was the catalyst that sent forth a flood of tears. Tears that dried before my mother arrived with the little, wooden casket but that left me with eyes too red to hide my sadness.

Everything changes. Some things, like the rusk or the headstone, become less important in our absence. Others, like the Wagon Wheel, become less significant before our very eyes. But in all three examples the changes aren't caused by that which has changed, but by us. The world doesn't change, never has and never will. It's just our perspective.

Bad experiences become less harrowing with distance. They say "time is a great healer", and they're right. Sort of. Unfortunately, good experiences become less pleasing in the same way. The rusks that filled our tummies whilst we were sitting strapped into out high chairs becomes nothing more than a mouthful. The Wagon Wheel that once lasted right through play time would take no time to eat now were it not for the fact that we piss about peeling mallow from jammy biscuit and the headstone that was once so imposing and impressive becomes nothing more than a marker for a long forgotten ancestor.

The further we move from the things we love the smaller the things we love appear, and it's the same with the things we hate. We all change constantly, both physically and emotionally. A great man once said...

"The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years." 


We don't try to eat the tiny mallow filled disc with two hands, nibbling away at the edge so that it lasts longer, we peel and piss about. We don't eat a rusk and feel unsatisfied, we eat a whole box.

I once asked a chap I worked with, having found out he was pushing forty even though he looked and acted twenty-five, what his secret was. He explained that we don't start to age until we stop changing. You'll all know someone who, even though it went out of fashion many years ago, still wears the uniform of his golden years. The aging Mod in the Fred Perry tee-shirt and the Sta Prest trousers that listens to nothing but Paul Weller or the octogenarian Teddy boy with the slicked back hair who carries a comb. Their outmoded fashion and steadfast refusal to accept the validity of any new music marks them in time, thus emphasising their advancing years.

Some go the other way in a desperate attempt to cling on to their youth and try to keep up with the fashions of the day while the fashions of the day mock them. The middle aged man wearing shiny, black shoes and cheap, shapeless Jeans or the woman in the pub that gets a tiny tattoo on the tit that gravity is trying to claim, both steadfastly clinging on to what once was while what is yet to be beckons. They fear aging, they fear change and they try to fight it.

They never venture forth from the cave of youth into the hut of modernity. 


The world around their cave remains the same in every way but size. They watch as the log-lined tracks carry the future toward, and straight past, them. Eventually, tracks become rutted by the passage of the wagons and they complain that it's all so unnecessary and why didn't we just stick with the logs that they had previously disliked.

It's important that we never forget the past, whether it was good or bad. The bad stuff will get smaller as we view it from further away. The good stuff will do likewise, but we can do the good stuff again if we like.

We adapt, we change and we grow. As we grow, our perspective changes. The bad things, like the death of a loved one and the stone that reminds us they lived, become smaller. Some good things, like Wagon Wheels, we never leave behind and some, like Farley's rusks, we eventually revisit.

It's okay to change your opinion. It's okay to learn. Like the useless, wooden wheel that became a delicious, biscuit based snack it's okay to totally reinvent yourself.

When I was a child, in the 70s, it was okay to call our corner shop the "Paki shop", it's a phrase I used without once thinking about it. Later, once I'd thought about it. I stopped referring to it in such a way. This took a conscious effort, having been uttered so naturally for so long, and I slipped up now and again, but I think I've got the casual racism under control now.

In a similar way, I no longer call my mates "poofs" if they act anything less than macho or if they cry, but I have done, and worse. I have never been either homophobic or racist, but I behaved in the way that those around me, the older ones sat peering from the mouths of their caves, behaved. Eventually I climbed a hill and looked back at those caves, saw it was wrong and altered my behaviour. I changed, the world didn't.

An even greater man once said...

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." 


All very glib, I know, but you can't argue with the logic. It's the epitome of democracy. If enough people agree with you then it becomes the norm. If fewer people agree with you, maybe you're wrong.

Or maybe you're just one of the first to be right.

Don't fear change. Be suspicious, suspicion is good, but not fear. You don't have to BE something simply because you've BEEN something, nor do you need to do something just because you did it. Did you do it because you were it or because others did it? There's no shame in having been wrong, only in not realising you were.

As I mentioned, I left behind socially "acceptable" (to most, and at that time) racism and homophobia. To be fair, I didn't really know what either were at that age. Unfortunately, as some of you may have guessed from the opening few paragraphs, I still struggle with sexism. I'm trying to be a feminist though...

...You've got to if you want to get a shag these days.

J2H.

Monday, 27 October 2014

A shaggy dog story.

If you look hard enough, wherever you may find yourself, you'll find great beauty. Even a derelict mill, like the ones that surrounded my home for several years in the late 70's and early 80's, will contain an oasis of beauty somewhere. Moss growing on brickwork, weeds and wildflowers poking through broken concrete floors, beams of sunlight cutting through the gloom, all little things and all, if you take the time to take a good look, beautiful.

When I was very young I'd found myself, in the summer holidays, without my best friends. One was on a foreign holiday, one was away at his grandparent's house and one was grounded.

It didn't matter a jot.


Our family had a dog, a big, shaggy mongrel by the name of Toby. The neighbours were terrified of Toby, he was a fierce looking beast, but underneath the jet black fur and behind the wicked looking teeth lay one of the friendliest and most loyal dogs you could ever imagine.

Finding myself friendless for a day or two I decided that I was going to go for a little adventure. Just Toby, a satchel full of jam-butties and myself. We set off early to explore the expansive area of waste ground that lay behind my father's first pub in Rochdale. A seven year old boy and an overly protective canine companion on a whirlwind adventure is, in itself, a beautiful thing to behold.

Toby and I spent a little time on the run from the police. Then we had a gunfight with some red Indians, followed by a a flight in a spaceship that looked suspiciously like a burnt out Ford Cortina and finally an epic battle with gang of bigger boys that had thrown a brick at me before feeling the wrath of Toby. One of the bigger boys ended up cornered by my snarling best friend and didn't dare fight back as the sobbing, snotty, seven year old me punched and kicked and bit the bastard, and all before ten a.m.

There was a little stream that ran through the waste ground. A pipe jutted from the bank, allowing the bath water and waste from the kitchen sinks of the local residents to join this lazy trickle and be carried away toward the river Roch. In those days before automatic washing powder this meant that the air around the pipe was filled with greasy bubbles, a thousand globular, shimmering rainbows that drifted gently away on the breeze. I sat on this pipe to eat a butty, tearing off those evil crusts and sharing them with Toby, and I planned our next adventure as I enjoyed the little light show that the pollution had produced.

As I sat eating my pudding (that being the scab that I'd peeled from my knee) a creature approached. An alien creature, I was sure. Bigger than my hand, two pairs of wings, bulging eyes and six legs, it settled on the pipe between my knees and fixed me with an icy stare that chilled me to the bone.

I sat, transfixed, for a moment or two, part terrified and part mesmerised. The creatures body, bobbing gently on it's six, spindly legs, was long and shimmered like the bubbles that filled the air around me. Blues and greens that seemed to shine with a light of their own. Beautiful but scary all at the same time.

Toby didn't see it as beautiful, Toby saw it as prey. He launched himself at the creature, sending me slipping sideways from the concrete pipe and down the bank into the soapy water that flowed a few feet below. The creature took off, flying upwards like a helicopter and bobbing in the air a yard or so above the jaws of the beast before banking in the air and zooming away with Toby in hot pursuit.

I splashed along the stream behind Toby, soggy jam butty in hand, watching as the creature seemed to tease the dog, zooming and swooping, stopping dead in the air, darting left and right and occasionally skimming the water. Toby never stood a chance and, after a minute or two, lost interest. I didn't though.

As my dog sat in the shallow stream scratching his ear and licking his own testicles (the bloody show off) I slowly approached the creature, which had now settled on a stone. I knelt beside it and tried to take in as much detail as I could so I could describe it to my Grandfather later. He'd know what it was.

As I watched, and without warning, a bird swooped down. The creature had been faster than a dog but wasn't fast enough to escape this aerial assault. A flurry of feathers and it was over, the bird returning to the tree from which it had launched it's attack where it ate it's wriggly lunch.

On the stone on which the creature had taken it's last ever break, all that remained was a wing. Transparent and with a network of veins that looked a little like a spiders web, I picked it up and examined it closely, peering through it like a magnifying glass. I slipped it into my satchel and set off in search of a lion to hunt or villain to vanquish.

By the time I got home, exhausted and grubby, I'd forgotten all about the creature that had mesmerised me. When my Grandparents visited the following weekend I forgot to show it to my granddad. I remembered once he'd left. It didn't matter, I could ask him next weekend.

I never saw my Granddad again, he was by now dying of lung cancer and my parents had decided that my sister and I were too young to be involved. We weren't even allowed to go to the funeral. That was a mistake on the part of my parents but nothing more, just a mistake. I wish they'd let me say goodbye, but I can't blame them for making a poor decision during such a time.

I found the wing many months later. Still intact, it had lay in the little, leather pocket that I used to store my crayons and emergency fifty pence piece, forgotten and rotting. It crumbled in my fingers and blew away as I rushed home with it excitedly to ask my dad, who with the loss of his father-in-law had become my go-to guy, what it was. My father was big, strong, had street smarts and a wit as quick as the comedians we watched on the telly, but he was as thick as pig shit. I showed him the dust, attempting to rearrange it into the shape I remembered, and described the creature. By now, in my little head, it had been as big as a cat and had fangs that gnashed and eyes that swiveled on stalks.

"No idea, son. Why don't you ask your Gra...." He began. "Erm, I dunno, son. Sorry."

Next, I asked my teacher, Mr Winterbottom. 


Chilly-arse, as he was known, knew what it was from my description and showed me a picture in a big, colourful book on nature in the British Isles. It was a dragonfly. He was called away as he showed me the photographs, leaving me to read the book. There were a lot of big words that I had heard but never understood in the chapter, but I read it all anyway. I learned that a dragonfly has a very short life, sometimes measured in weeks and never lasting longer than six months. I wondered what was the point of a creature so magnificent being placed on this Earth to live such a short span. I wondered if the insect knew it was to die before ever seeing Christmas and I wondered if that made the creature sad.

As I grew older I saw dragonflies more and more often. They lost their mystery and wonder over the years and became, to me, something that could sting me and hurt me and was to be avoided. Then I took up fishing.

By now my mum and dad had been able to buy a much larger and more profitable pub in Weaste, Salford. There were no rivers or streams to fish in. The Manchester ship canal was, by then, a greasy, grey, poisonous stretch of unused infrastructure and so fishermen would use the well stocked ponds that were connected to some of the factories that still existed back then. There was one such pond that my friend Ralph used a lot and one day I went with him.

As I watched my float plop satisfyingly into the still water of the pond and I settled back into my deckchair a dragonfly appeared from the bushes to my right. Bright blue and green, just like the one Toby had chased through the suds and bubbles of that Rochdalian stream, I smiled and watched, transfixed, as it zipped and span, dived and twirled and skimmed the water around my line. I saw it climb high then whoosh back Earthward and feast upon the midges that swarmed around the reeds and bushes having a fine old time until, finally, it settled briefly on a sign that protruded from the water. The sign that bore the name of the business that inhabited the factory to which the pond belonged.

"Winterbottom's".

I immediately recalled the book Chilly-arse had shown me as a child. This coincidence brought with it a broader smile to my already happy face.


As I watched the creature moving with incredible speed and agility through the trees, reeds and bushes, feasting on the fauna, I imagined being able to fly in such a way, to perform those acrobatic aerial stunts and experience the world of the dragonfly from his perspective. I was disappointed that I'd never be able to do that. What fun they could have in the short window of existence they were blessed with. So much fun, constant fun, to enjoy before the day that, exhausted from teasing a savage dog, they settled on a stone and were swallowed by a swallow. A life spent rushing around eating, fornicating and flying. A few weeks, or maybe a few months, of fun. The dragonfly doesn't procrastinate. The dragonfly doesn't leave anything until tomorrow. It does as it wishes as soon as it wishes. A tiny lifespan into which it has to pack a lifetime's worth of enjoyment.

As epiphanies go, it was a belter. For the rest of that summer I lived my life like a dragonfly. I rose as early as I could and got myself out of my bedroom. If none of my friends were out and about it didn't matter. I'd jump on a bus and visit the city centre, walking back and smiling, stopping here and there to look at something interesting. I visited museums and art galleries, though I never told my friends for fear of being branded a "poof", and I learnt more in those few short weeks than I had throughout the whole of the previous school term.

My dragonfly attitude didn't last much beyond the start of my penultimate year of schooling. I soon found myself locked once again in my bedroom for hours on end chatting on my C.B. radio and banging away at the little, rubber keys on my Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It wouldn't matter though. In my teenage mind I had at least thirty years before I would be too old to have fun.

It's now thirty one years later. I've had fun, a lot of fun, but not the constant, frantic, real-life, living fun of the dragonfly. I really should've listened to myself. The only things I regret now are the things I never did.

I'd forgotten all about the epiphany that accompanied the fishing incident by the time I was in my late 20's. I'd slowed down and found myself recently divorced and working as a transport manager for a building firm in South Manchester. My routine consisted of working Monday to Saturday, picking up my sons for their overnight visit to my little house every other Saturday afternoon and getting pissed on the other weekends.

I drank a lot, but only to numb the pain of my worthless existence. 


Occasionally I would take my sons to visit their grandparents. They still ran pubs, though by now much nicer pubs than the backstreet locals I'd grown up in, and the boys loved it. My dad would spend most of the time we were there with the kids, taking them out and spoiling them rotten. He was a good man, as good at being a grandfather as he was at being a father, very good indeed. Finally, having worked every hour god sent to save enough money to buy a tatty, little boozer, then a tatty, big boozer which in turn was followed by a series of increasingly idyllic hostelries, he was offered what he described as his "dream". A lovely pub with low ceilings, a bowling green and beautiful surroundings.

He telephoned me the week before he was due to move in and, having not been able to get hold of me since getting his news, it was the first I'd heard. It was a lovely phone call and I was as happy for him as he was for himself. At last, still only fifty four years of age, he'd achieved everything he wanted and far more than he'd expected when he was my age. I had an overcoming urge to tell him how proud I was and how I loved him, that he was a bloody hero and a fantastic grandfather and his Ready Brek was always better than my mum's on those rare occasions as a child that he'd had to get my sister and I ready for school. (He always left little, dry, powdery lumps of oats in it because he couldn't be arsed stirring and he added so much sugar it was fucking crunchy. I still love it like that.)

But I couldn't get a word in.


I told him I'd be visiting him the weekend after he moved in, that I would bring the boys and that I was looking forward to it, then hung up. I hadn't said what I'd wanted to say, and now I realised that it was because I wanted to say it to his face. I thought I'd put my arm around his shoulder, because I never did that, tell him everything I wanted to tell him, kiss his bald head and then get pissed for free in his pub whilst my gran Kath, who was by now living with my parents, looked after my children upstairs. I rehearsed it in my head, smiling every time I did. I couldn't wait to see him.

He moved into his dream pub on the Friday and died on the Saturday.

I wish I'd been a dragonfly.

Whatever that thing is you just thought, do it and do it soon.

J2H.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Why did the chicken cross the road?

 A man should know his weaknesses.

Some of us have weaknesses that are hard to find. Fortunately for me, mine stick out like sore thumbs. In fact, I have Raynaud's disease which affects my fingers and toes, so for much of the year one of my weaknesses is, literally, sore thumbs. A particularly cruel weakness that brought a premature end to my dreams of being a homicidal hitchhiker.

There is a road running right through the town I live in. It's a busy road and ours is a small town. Someone decided it would be a great idea to build an enormous retail park that could only be accessed from one direction right next to a football stadium, train station and motorway slip road at the end of this road, a road that was already the main route into Bolton. This very morning, on my dog walk, I managed to get from the far end of town, walking along the aforementioned road, faster than the cars, vans and trucks containing red faced, panicky commuters that crawled and stalled along beside me.

Nothing calls for a smug strut quite like overtaking a frustrated ponce in a Mercedes, even if you did have to pause to pick up some dog-shit.


For those, like myself, that frequently have to cross this road, rush hour provides us with the carriageway equivalent of a ford, crawling traffic that we can pick out way through while struggling up hill with arms full of groceries. If events dictate that we miss one of these windows of opportunity then, rather than paddling through a relatively safe, tarmac ford we need to engage in a game of Frogger, our fear of being struck enabling us to unconsciously solve a number of ridiculously complex, mathematical equations in order to time our first step and angle our direction of travel in such a way that, if we rush, we might make it to the far side. I've yet to be knocked down, but I get to have some great arguments with drivers who choose to pull away from the kerb into the same narrow gap between vehicles that I've just stepped into.

This road wasn't designed for the amount of traffic, a lot of it very heavy, that it now has to contend with. As a result, the surface crumbles with unnerving regularity. Almost as soon as one section is fixed another needs work. The drivers hate the roadworks, having never entertained the concept of setting off a bit earlier, but, for the same reason we love rush hour, we wayfarers selfishly love the gridlock the cones bring with them.

In the eyes of some, our roads are there for the cars. Pedestrians can wait, "they pay no road tax" comes the cacophony of cries. True, but then neither do the motorists. They pay Vehicle Excise Duty, the proceeds of which go directly into the general Treasury fund and has done since the 1930's when road tax was abolished. That's how out of date that nugget of nonsense it. If the charge was for the upkeep of the roads that the car damages then ecologically friendlier cars couldn't be exempt.

We all pay for the roads.


Some drivers have argued that roads "...are built for cars". Really? How many Roman roads are there and how many Centurions drove cars? The car came along, closely followed by the tarmacking, much later than the roads.

There was a time, when cars were rarer, that horses, carriages, hand carts, children, shoppers and motor vehicles swarmed along the same stretches of cobbled streets. The car had to weave and honk and squeak and rattle along until free of the areas that we all live in, whereupon the driver could open up that throttle and career at breakneck speeds along the lanes until reaching the next populated area. In many places on the continent this is still the case, at least in heavily populated residential districts and shopping areas. I read, a few years ago, about a traffic calming plan that planted trees and positioned benches in the carriageway, replaced the surface with block paviers, did away with pavements and road markings and left the residents to reclaim control of road safety. There would have been some really quite horrific collisions if the cars had continued to race along the streets at thirty miles an hour, but they couldn't. And the fact that they were surrounded by people on foot that they couldn't stick two fingers up to as they cowardly sped away after nearly killing them brought with it a much more reasonable and courteous breed of driver. It cost a few bob though, perhaps all that was needed was some roadworks?

It sounds more dangerous, fleshy people and metally cars in such close proximity, the borders and safety barriers removed. But, as we've ascertained, the drivers aren't paying for the roads so why should they have been allowed to hijack them in such a way. To get places quicker? Remember I mentioned the concept of setting off a little bit earlier? Sorted.

So, could danger be the key to safety?


How much safer would it be if, rather than an enormous, cloud like pillow of airbag erupting from the centre of the steering wheel after a driver had gone up the arse of the car in front, a spike, coil of razor wire or pointed stick appeared? There'd certainly be a lot more careful drivers and everyone would wear a seat belt.

Every summer we hear of children who, whilst enjoying the lovely weather, drown in reservoirs when the icy waters bring on the cramps that they'd heard might happen but that they have no idea can be so paralysing. They sink to the bottom thinking "so that's what a cramp is, I had absolutely no idea it would be so debilitating". They've heard the warnings but, living in the relative safety of this modern age, they don't understand the danger. They can't imagine a cramp would cause them to become so helpless and so they drown. They've seen Jaws though. Pop a couple of great whites into every reservoir and pond in Britain. Sorted.

Smaller ponds could use piranha fish.


People get lost on the moors. People that have spent their lives in the city where there's always a doorway to shelter in or a cafe if they get hungry. They've heard the moors are desolate and bleak, but they got stuck for three hours in Stockport once, how much more desolate and bleak could it be? So they wander off the beaten track with their shiny, waxy waterproofs and stout walking boots on and experience the power of nature for the first time. The rain and the wind aren't covered by bylaws, they fear no health and safety executive and they care not a jot for us. The council hasn't ensured it won't get dark before the novice, and not so novice, hikers find their way back to the road that they left an hour ago and in the opposite direction to the one in which they are walking. Solution : Wolves. And bears. People don't always know how spiteful nature can be, but they know a pack of wolves could tear them apart. The reintroduction of these two once-native breeds would not only ensure people stick to the path (and beware the moon) but could also police the forests in which bad men bury bodies. Win win.

At Manchester City's magnificent Etihad Statium there are blue squares painted on the floor at every emergency exit. If you stand in one of these areas you will be asked to move along because you're "blocking the fire exit". Now, I don't know about you, but if a fire erupts and I'm stood by a fire exit I won't be blocking it for long, I'll be the first through. So, rather than barring people from standing there, encourage them. Just in case.

Knowing some of our weaknesses can be easy enough. We can't out-swim a shark, a bear will generally win in a fight with a man, fire burns and if we knock over a child while driving through a shared-street we'll be pulled from our carriages and kicked half to death.

Danger doesn't only make us safer either. It can be a lot of fun. Put a sprinkling of peril into your everyday life and you'll have a ball.


Fear can, in fact, prove rather productive. Need to get somewhere quickly on foot? Seek out that bloke that lives in that flat, you know the one, him with the facial tattoo and the Staffy. Now, make eye contact, lower your voice and ask him "What the fuck are you looking at?" before getting on your toes. Don't look back, that's when he'll catch you, just keep your head down and go for it. You'll be there before you know it.

(On a connected note, do you ever wonder if the people you meet from day to day think you're a twat? Get yourself a facial tattoo and you'll never need wonder again. You're welcome.)

Our nation has a record of waging illegal war, of going into a foreign land, all guns blazing, and securing vast wealth for those that are already vastly wealthy. If you want peace, find a way to reintroduce dinosaurs to the Earth. We'll be too busy shitting ourselves and battling those bitey bastards to bomb brown people in the pursuit of oil.

Oil, of course, was once a dinosaur itself, so the reintroduction of the long dead lizards would replenish the stock for whichever race evolves once we've finished killing each other.


If a dolphin gets injured he tells no one. He adapts his behaviour in such a way as to disguise his disability so that a passing shark won't cotton on and have him for dinner. In a similar fashion we too hide our weaknesses. We pretend we're not hurt when we are, that we don't care when we do or that it doesn't matter when it plainly does. We don't need worry about a shark since they're banned from the ponds and reservoirs in which we swim, we hide our weaknesses from those around us instead. Self preservation, tucking our metaphorical wound under our metaphorical flipper and whistling nonchalantly as we smile at the metaphorical shark passing by. But, like the dolphin knows that he picked up a nasty wound when he swam a bit too fast past a crowd of queuing cod and caught his cock on a coral reef, we know our own shortcomings are tucked away inside. 

Don't ignore them, embrace them, turn those negatives into positives.


We're scared of people knowing the real "we". We hate, we hold grudges, we bite our lips when we should be speaking and we back down when we should be more forthright. But think about it, yin needs yang, Tom needs Jerry and bravery needs fear. Without the other side of the coin we'd have no coin.

No potential for hatred leaves no potential for love. Being able to forgive is reliant on us having the need to do so. Biting your lip is sexy and backing down doesn't mean turning around, running away and losing out. A boxer backs off, sometimes because he's losing but more often to give him room to swing a haymaker. Tom would be fat if all he had to do was sleep and yin would be a quotation mark without yang. 

Fear is a strength in itself. We all need fear to keep us safe. Fear isn't a problem, it's cowardice that's a problem. As often as it reveals cowardice, fear reveals bravery.

There is a line that I used in one of the books in the Kissy Sizzle trilogy that I plagerised from my father. I had impressed my drama teacher with my performances in front of my friends and classmates in her lessons and had been chosen to play the lead in a short production she'd written. It was to be performed on the last day of term and in front of the whole school, the staff and a selection of elderly, local residents. At that stage in my life I still gave a shit what people thought of me and this led to an awkward shyness when the potential to make a bit of a fool of myself reared it's head. Shyness and that business we call show make an for an uneasy partnership and so, on the morning of the performance, I was terrified, so scared of what I was about to do that I was being sick. I didn't want to go to school and I told my dad why. I told him about my shaky hands, the panic inside and the churning in my stomach.

"Butterflies, son, just butterflies. They're there for a reason." he explained. "They're getting you ready. It's not fear, son, or you'd be shitting yourself instead of puking." He was never an overly eloquent man, unless it mattered. 

But when it mattered my father always had the right words.


"How do I get rid of them, dad?" 

"You don't, You can't. Just let the butterflies flutter by." He smiled. "Now brush your fucking teeth."

Incidentally, ignoring the praise of my drama teacher, who I was sure must be lying to save my feelings, and even though I absolutely loved it once I stepped into the spotlight, I never acted again. Recently a classmate got in touch via Facebook and one of the first things he mentioned as we reminisced was "That play you were in, you were brilliant". I reckon, if I'd had the confidence I have nowadays back when I was a spotty kid, I could've been the new James Bond. Especially with my dashing good looks.

We're not brave if there's nothing to fear and if there's no danger then we're not safe from anything. Being scared of the wolf not only keeps us from being torn apart amid a frenzy of tooth and claw, but also prevents us from dying of exposure on the side of a mountain as we frantically rub two sticks together because we saw it on a Bear Gryll's documentary once. Fearing the shark prevents losing a leg while also ensuring that we don't drown just because we ate a bag of chips on our way to the reservoir. 

And finally, to answer the question I posed in the title of this shambolic ramble;

I wasn't a chicken, I was just scared of being run over. And I needed to go to Asda.


J2H.