Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Explorers

Until the news of his death, a few days ago, Henry Worsley was not a name I knew. I had no idea who he was, much less that he was attempting to cross the Antarctic, solo and unaided. And if I’d have known, it would probably be because I had skim-read a short piece about him in the papers, or caught a snippet on the news. To be honest, my immediate thoughts would have moved between what a hero and what kind of fool undertakes such an expedition? I know for sure that I would have been left with some niggling questions; all of which would distil down neatly to why?

The truth is, explorers themselves might struggle to come up with a definitive answer as to why they risk life and limb to test the limits of their own endurance. People will tell you they are a breed apart from the rest of us, but I don’t buy that. Yes, they are generally well prepared individuals, drilled in key survival techniques and equipped to face all known contingencies. They are super fit and conditioned to the environment where they will literally place their existence on the line. But they are human beings like you and me, and no matter how high one’s confidence and self-belief might be, an explorer is still prone to injury, disease, fear and exhaustion. Someone like Henry Worsley remains tied to his fallibility, and part of the thrill exploration has given us over the years is that human connection, the mapping of our comfortable selves onto someone who wears their courage on the outside.

In the year before I was born, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. My grandfather spoke of the triumph, with all the excitement of a schoolboy. He even went to the cinema to watch ‘The Conquest of Everest’. There he savoured the event, as it played back in shaky black and white, complete with deafening soundtrack. In his mind, although he never said as much, he could have been a contender.


Sixteen years later I watched, enthralled, as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, where he famously announced the feat as "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." For days I was filled with recurring thoughts of weightlessness, of how it might feel to be so far from home, and what might it be like if the return journey didn't happen.

The planet has now been so meticulously observed, measured, monitored and mapped, that it’s difficult nowadays, for me to see a reason why a person would deliberately place themselves in peril without the prospect of making history, rather than a variation of history already made.

One thing about Worsley, I suppose, is the fact that he dared to go where most of us wouldn’t consider going. And in so doing, he paid the ultimate price, and has now gone to where we must all eventually go, some will say, too soon. Apparently, polar explorer Robert Swan, upon hearing that Worsley had called to be rescued, paraphrased Sir Ernest Shackleton with: “It’s best to be a live donkey than a dead lion.” Even he couldn't have foreseen how the adventure would finally play out.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

We get the lot

As a spotty teen, I once worked in a supermarket. It was a job, like so many, that was hard to take seriously. At least, only a handful of employees had an eye on career progression. Most of us spent our days stacking shelves and wishing for a speedy end to the working day. But although the job was boring, the customers were entertaining. From couples who regularly entered the store two minutes before closing, every week without fail, to browse casually and deliberately for a full trolley load, to serial complainers and incompetent shoplifters, we had the lot.

Yesterday, as we stood in the queue at a checkout in our local food store, it occurred to me how little had changed. The cashier looked as though she was wishing for a speedy end to her day, the way I used to. Many of the shoppers surrounding us wouldn’t have looked out of place in a supermarket, circa 1970.

As we waited, our goods piled up between two “next customer please” dividers, the young woman immediately in front of us asked the cashier to tell her when the bill reached £50. That was her limit. After a while things came to a halt. “Forty nine and fifteen pence,” advised the woman seated at the till.

The cut-off point came just after a pack of bottled spring water, and just before several jars of various ‘cook-in’ sauces.

We were next. In my head I’d been limbering up like an Olympic athlete in preparation for the high speed packing process. This cashier was in no mood to take prisoners. Then, as I was blowing on my blistered fingertips and fumbling for a debit card, my ears tuned into a conversation the woman behind us was having on her phone. I paid up, and took the receipt just as the woman finished her call. She then shoved her basket of groceries at the cashier (who was in the middle of ‘warming down’). “Can you look after this please? I’ve got to go home. The police are at my house!”

I glanced at the cashier. She lowered the basket to a point somewhere near her feet, before bracing herself for the next customer. Without a trace of a smile she announced, coldly, “We get ‘em all in here.”

Monday, 18 January 2016

Winter Wonderland

There must be something in the cold, damp grey at this time of year, that draws out the oddest thoughts, the most vivid dreams from our innermost being. Once at the forefront of our consciousness, they sit there among the mundane and the familiar, bejewelling our routines and disturbing our concentration, so it even becomes an effort to complain about the weather.


The other night I dreamt I was in a desperate hurry to visit someone in hospital. I didn't know who it was, just that I had to get there. En route, I tried to cash a cheque in a pub, but was informed by the barmaid that it was a toy cheque. When I held it up to the light, there was a clear watermark, the word 'toy' clearly visible.

I then passed a former neighbour who was knocking on doors up and down the street. When I said hi, she let fly at me with a tirade of expletive-laden abuse. "Can't you see I'm f**king debt collecting?" she screamed. I never got to the hospital and I knew it was too late to try.

Back in the real world, whilst sitting in bed drinking my first cuppa of the day, two thoughts struck me. The first was related to the incomprehensible vastness of a star-filled sky. I know, that’s a thought not necessarily exclusive to winter, but it was overwhelming. The outer edge of night seemed to be pressing hard against the window. Perhaps it was a post-Bowie phenomenon.

I turned to Twitter (yes, my relationship with tweeting is more ‘on/off’ than Mr. Miyagi’s waxing technique – currently on), and posted a pun on an article about Cher donating drinking water to the people of Flint, Michigan. “I Got Eau Babe”. I turned my gaze back to the stars, and within seconds I received a Twitter alert. My pun had been ‘liked’ and retweeted by a woman in Texas. I dwelt on that for a while. What time of the year, other than winter, encourages such indulgences? I ask you.      

Monday, 11 January 2016

Star and Man Combined

Whatever I write here, about Bowie's death, will not be nearly enough. So I offer this short tribute. By the way, the album "Blackstar" is quite extraordinary. But then it would be, wouldn't it?

I think of what Bowie has given us: art that inspires, comforts, connects, offers reason and hope, demonstrates love in all its forms. Then I think of the politicians and the warmongers who offer nothing beyond sorrow and suffering. Their indelible grubbiness heightened and illuminated by pure starlight.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

It's a kind of magic!

Ah, the magic of Christmas! The build-up, the expectation, the anticipation, and suddenly a wall of wrapping paper is torn down to reveal little more than an empty space. It’s the most predictable vanishing act in town, and it never fails to deliver.

 SW subjects her sister to a touch of magic on New Year's Day

After the festivities, the disintegrating days of the old year reach out to the new with half-formed resolutions and a wishful sense of closure.

When I was a kid, I was largely oblivious to the New Year. There were no celebrations in our house, just a resigned return to the routine of school and/or work. After finishing my education (early), the paltry two or three days off from the ‘grind’ were fleeting. The wonder of brightly wrapped gifts gave way to uninspired choices such as aftershave and handkerchieves. Oh, and when I became a driver, car cleaning materials. Hurrah!

Now we’re cushioned and comforted through the bumpy, unmade road that carries us from tinseled celebrations and the “star of wonder”, to the new dawn of a fresh calendar. Tightly packed TV schedules help absorb the shock. And for many, interminable obsessing about having enough food in, kills time until Auld Lang Syne.

So, at last, albeit a few days late, let me wish you extended magical periods throughout 2016. Good health, happiness and peace.



Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Brink

Anyone who has me in their newsfeed, at that other place (Facebook) will have probably read this. It isn't an erudite appraisal of the current political situation facing the UK. It isn't a clever analysis of the history of the Middle East, and our role in it. It isn't a well informed, speculative statement about all that might go wrong when bombs are dropped in our name. It's just what was on my mind, late yesterday evening. It's what occurred to me, as a human being; a confused, fearful individual who just wants the cycle of killing to end. As a husband, father and grandfather, I just want all other husbands, fathers and grandfathers to have some peace in their lives.

After the rolling news stories, the shouting from the sidelines, the self-appointed experts that seek to steer opinion on social media, the only thing I really know, is this: in a distant land there are families just like mine. They cry, they laugh, they hope, and many of them pray for a better world. They long to prosper and grow old in the place they know and love, with those they know and love. Right now they live in unimaginable fear and anxiety, while I am confused and not a little ashamed that our elected politicians, of all persuasions, can't get a grip and come up with something other than bombs.

Surely those seated at the top table have a responsibility to pursue every other conceivable route to a peaceful solution, before voting to take more innocent lives? I'm sure someone will tell me how politically naïve this is, but it's how I feel right now.

Friday, 6 November 2015

School pick-up and "university walk"

Our daughter has returned to work, 28 hours a week, term-time only. She gets to boost her income, we get to do the school pick-up. But that’s what we’ve always done, mucked in and helped out where we can, come rain or shine. Yesterday, the shine was on ‘hold’, and we all got drenched. Actually the twins were double-drenched, having been trudging around the countryside on an autumn walk, and kicking their way back to school through piles of soggy leaves.

So, home for a quick snack, a cuppa, and a half-finished account of a friend’s wonky penguin, from Iris, before setting out again.

In the car, en route to SW’s piano lesson. The rain is incessant, the windows are just about holding their own, against steaming up, although a corner on the passenger side has presented itself as a space where a smiley face can grow. Some fingertip doodling takes place as our conversation swings easily between her latest jokes (invariably made up on the spot, and sometimes landing with all the humour of a cryptic crossword clue) and getting briefed on the days events at school. I listen intently, of course. Who would want to miss delicious tales of a chaotic Spanish lesson, or the scarily accurate impressions of the dinner lady from hell? Not me.

But her attention shifts, as it invariably does, to my schooldays. Did I have teachers I didn’t like? Did I have teachers I did like, and why? Was I naughty? Did I get told off?

Fortunately, the journey is a relatively short one, but I did have time to put my case and explain that most teachers in my day possessed little by way of a personality you could admit to liking. In fact, we went to school to learn, not like. If we did like, it was fortuitous, and the hands of the classroom clock moved a tad faster.

She shook her head in disbelief at ‘hands on heads’, ‘fingers on lips’, ‘go and stand in the corner’. She winced at the thought of corporal punishment being administered to naughty children, in front of the entire class. Thank goodness, kids don’t have to endure the threat of a size ten plimsoll these days. Yet, in the news, this article, about the ‘university walk’, recently introduced in St George the Martyr primary school in central London. Apparently, “It was introduced to strengthen pupil safety, further raise the aspirations of pupils and to maximise learning time.”

I have to say, in my opinion, the idea is totally bonkers, and I’m prepared to stand on my chair for the remainder of the lesson for saying so!