Wanna Be Your (Action) Man

A few years ago, I convinced Mrs E that the way to enjoy her mid-forties was to hop on a bike constructed by her husband in his spare time, and pedal round as much of the Scottish western isles as we could manage in a week. Never one to scorn a challenge, she duly agreed, and we set off for a number of days of knackering hills, scary descents, mechanical challenges (make that really scary descents), more than our share of rain, and a certain amount of fun. 

Towards the end of our holiday/challenge, Mrs E started to complain of unbearable shooting pains in both her wrists and her ankles, both of which were quite important to completing the trip in one piece. There is another blog to be written some time on what happened next, but the quick version is that shortly after we got back she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a really crappy auto-immune disorder that doesn’t really have much to do with what most people think about either rheumatism or arthritis. What it does seem to do is stop people doing anything particularly active. Fortunately, there are some pretty good drugs that allow patients to muddle through and some brilliant people in the NHS who seem to be able to pull the right levers to manage pain relief against side effects. And there’s Mrs E herself, who completely refuses to be defined by her illness, which I guess is both a blessing and a curse if you’re trying to treat or live with her. 

So as a result of all that, we didn’t do any more cycling holidays. 

But one evening in February this year, we started talking about getting away. Mrs E declared that she would need some proper sun, but not the sort of sun that you enjoy by the side of a pool. 

We started looking at walking holidays, on the premis that they wouldn’t be too challenging because (and I quote) ‘I manage to walk the dogs for a couple of hours a day’. 

We signed up for 4 days walking in the south of France, travelling to Nice, taking a train north for a couple of hours, then making our way down from La Brigue to Menton. We got a load of information about walking terrain, essential equipment and navigating, all of which we completely ignored, and waited impatiently for the end of June. 

If you’ve been in Europe this June, you may well have noticed that the temperature has been a little bit on the warm side. We landed in 35 degrees and the temperature kept rising, so that our first day of walking took place in around 37 degrees, most of which was in direct sunlight. We walked for about 5.5 hours, generally feeling that we were not only inside an oven, but one where the grill had been left on as well. Worse, temperature-wise, on the next two days (6.5 hours each) and a nightmare on the last day, where, after 7.5 hours, Mrs E said she was truly cooked and starting to hallucinate, and I had to remind her that we still had an hour left to go. 

All of which we put to one side when we look back on the trip, which was more fun than we had any right to expect. We saw parts of the French Alps that were jawdroppingly beautiful; huge green mountain passes, beautiful streams and gorges, and, as we got to the end, fabulous sea views. We lived inside these picture postcards almost on our own – in the four days we were walking we saw one runner and three walkers travelling in the opposite direction. Parts of the walk had so much sunny butterfly action that it was like being on the set of a Disney film. And, without getting unduly soppy about it, we had a good time just being with each other. There is no-one I would rather have long discussion with than Mrs E. And no-one I’d rather play silly games with (eg day 2 – name a herb or spice in popular culture – a clear winner in Ike & Tina Turmeric).

So it was wonderful. But, as I said, really really hot, and that did have a bit of an impact on our tanning plans. I spend quite a bit of the summer wishing I had a healthy tan about me. I normally manage a reasonable glow about the face, but my chosen leisure activities rather get in the way of anything that you might want to see on a beach. To illustrate this, I’ve taken the wise decision of using a stock photo rather than any actual pictures of myself, which would need to carry a public health warning. So this is what I’m going to go with as a base:

action-man-1966

Firstly, let us consider the cyclist tan. You’ll see this quite a bit around this time of year, and it’s defined by the very clear lines of the bib shorts and short-sleeved shirt. In very keen and accessorised cyclists, you’ll also see tanlines around the cycling goggles, which make for a bit of a startled panda look:

A less forgiving tan is worn by the keen summer runner. Summer is a time for short shorts and vests in the running world. It is not an excuse for anyone to take their shirt off and run – there are certain male runners (mainly triathletes) who ignore this rule and look ridiculous, especially if they choose to keep their chest straps on. Although they would claim that they’ve avoided the even more ridiculous summer running tan:

Unfortunately, some of us have both of these tans working, as it were, in tandem. Even more unfortunately, those of us who have spent some time hiking of late have discovered a third tan type, which you get when you wear walking boots, socks, long shorts and no shirt, but still carry your double strapped rucksack.

So, I’m the proud owner of three competing and ridiculous tans, none of which work particularly well as a badge of honour. Unfortunately, also I’ve decided to try to learn to swim over the next couple of months. If anyone has a wetsuit I can borrow, I’d be very interested.

 

 

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Hirsute you, Sir

In fashion news this month, #4 has started to wear a woollen hat at all times, indoors, outside, and in all weathers. Under close parental questioning, he tells us that he is planning to ‘grow his hair out’. This concerns me, not least as the thought of long hair brings back associations of hippies and prog-rock, neither of which are to be trusted, in my humble, and vocal parental, opinion.

Given that #4 is the last remaining bubba in the house, he is being treated as single child, and we’ve had to adjust parenting accordingly. Sometimes we even try and reason with him. Irritatingly, he reasons back:

Mrs E ‘You’d look so much better if you had a haircut’

#4 ‘Mmm, that’s just your opinion, and mine’s different’

Mrs E ‘But what will happen when you need to apply for your driving licence?’

#4 ‘I’ll take my hat off’

Incidentally, not the first time we’ve run into legislative challenges with him and hats. We had to go over to France in the summer of 2002, and had arranged rather optimistically to take all the family, with #4 having arrived only a month before. This meant that I had to take him to get a passport sorted out when he was 3 days old. Knowing that he would struggle to remain upright in a photo booth (not to mention operating it), I laid him on the bed in a babygro and fetching beanie cap, took his picture, had it printed, got it witnessed, and hightailed it down to the post office to have all the papers approved.

‘Sorry Sir, we can’t use this one, your son is wearing a hat’

‘But he’s only 3 days old’

‘Sorry, but the only way we can allow it is if he’s wearing the hat for religious purposes…’

‘Ok, so let’s say he is then’

‘…and in that case he’ll have to wear the same hat every time he goes through passport control’

I seriously gave that consideration, but then thought about the slight disagreements we might have if we lost his hat on holiday and had to leave him in Dover. Not to mention whether the hat would really suit him in ten years time. Although reflecting on it now, we could have saved a fortune over the years in headgear.

Back to the conversation then, and we all agree that this interim process of growing the hair out may well be the worst bit, hence the hat. The problem with this stage is that it kind of goes through a wild bedhead/mullet/fluffball stage, managing to be several unpleasant styles all at once. I can’t quite put my finger on it, until #2 pops round one evening, and surveys the situation.

‘He looks a bit of a hillbilly’

Which is pretty spot on. I mention to Mrs E that I half expect him to be wearing dungarees and playing guitar next, and to my surprise a couple of days later, wander up the garden to find him doing both of those things.

The other slight discomfort I have around this whole growing thing goes back to the very idea that men should have anything approaching a ‘style’ in relation to their hair. I appreciate that there’s a danger that I slip into the middle aged outrage that I’ve been trying to avoid for most of my life (although I found myself enthusiastically singing along to George Thorogood’s ‘Get a haircut and a proper job’ the other day), but while men’s hair is concerned, I reserve the right to be a bit Kim Jong Il. Which means it’s all a bit awkward at Emu Towers at the moment.

Kim Jong Il famously only allowed 15 haircuts on his watch (well, 16 if you included his own, which no one else could have), and there wasn’t actually a great deal to choose between any of them:

Most of my hair cuts ever since I can remember, have been in either style 2 or 5 from the poster above.

I’ve stepped away from the North Korea barber book only a couple of times. Before austerity was all the rage round these parts, and early in our marriage, Mrs E decided to save the £3 that I frittered away every month on haircuts by buying some clippers which would ‘literally pay for themselves in a year’. The cutting normally took place on a Friday night, and she had to have a couple of drinks to steady her nerves. As a result, I had a good couple of years of the worst haircuts imaginable, while she tried, and failed, to master the art of fading from a number 1 to a number 4. Had I travelled to North Korea around 1985, I would almost certainly been convicted of crimes against the state.

The other time was in the early eighties, when I mistakenly assumed that the ideal cut for a wannabe blues singer was a flat top. A flat top is very much like a crew cut, but with the top bit, well, flat. Draw a line on top of #15 above if you want to get the general idea. In order to maintain the cut, it needs to be trimmed once a week, otherwise it will start getting a bit messy, so it’s important to find a barber who a) can cut an accurate flat top and is b) cheap.

Fortunately, round the corner from where I lived at the time was Ted (known, unsurprisingly, as ‘Ted the Head’), who ran a barbers shop from the front room of his house. There was one chair, next to which was normally a assortment of kids bikes, lawn mowers and hifi components that he would offer to sell you as part of the barbering transaction. Ted had a range of two cuts – short back and sides, and flat top, which he’d learnt by cutting the hair of US airman during the war. To cut a flat top, you need a client who could keep his head completely still, a flat top comb, which laid on top of the hair, a set of clippers, and two very steady hands. Ted was getting on a bit when I met him, and he couldn’t really manage even one steady hand, so the cuts were a bit hit and miss, but we got there in the end.

A well cut flat top is a thing of wonder though, and quite the style for a rock and roll weekend. I decided to move on partly for maintenance reasons, and partly as during a particularly cold and rainy walk to work on winter morning, I found that a small sheet of ice had formed on top of my head. The next haircut would have to be able to accommodate some sort of hat.

Which brings us neatly back to #4. I guess things will work out in the end. He’ll do his own thing, with or without a hat. And things could be worse; he could have been born 40 years earlier and be trying to fit in with the fashion then….

Taking a punth

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the trend for renaming perfectly good months to repurpose them. My extensive research for this blog tells me that this practice has a name all of its own – these new months are called ‘punths’ – which is actually vaguely clever – it’s a word describing a pun, which is actually a pun. Sadly, that’s about as impressed as I get.

It started off with Movember, where men were encouraged to grow ridiculous moustaches in order to show their support for male health issues, but which gradually morphed into a competitive exercise when the vainest of the vain would place pictures of Terry Thomas, Jimmy Edwards or Windsor Davies on their mirrors, and groom themselves accordingly for a month. I’m all for increased conscious of health issues, although I do struggle with how my next door neighbour trying to look like Nigel Mansell for four weeks is going to heighten my awareness. About the only great thing about Movember is the first week of December, where we all collectively laugh up our sleeves because the comedy moustaches that we’ve been pointing at for weeks weren’t, after all, being grown as a joke.

Movember is preceded by Stoptober, when lots of people who don’t really smoke very much stop smoking. It’s followed by December, when all bets are off on doing anything worthy, unless you want to take part in Decembeard, in which case you can throw away your razor entirely and thus magically increase awareness of bowel cancer by looking like Brian Blessed. Then comes both Dry January, when people who don’t really need a drink make a big fuss about not having one, and Veganuary, when you get your ear bent by some twit in the pub drinking orange juice telling you how much he really misses cheese. We’ve just enjoyed Februhairy, when, possibly inspired by Movember and Decembeard, women have thrown away their razors in order to raise awareness of gender-based violence. You can insert your own comment about cause and activity here as you see fit. 

So, with the world of the punth in mind, I would like to suggest an alternative alternative approach to the calendar. I appreciate that these things will take a little bit to organise, and that you’ll all have to set up your crowdfunding and charity donation sites, so I’ll start the year in April….

Which will be re-named Staypril. As I write, 1st April is only a couple of weeks away, and marks the point at which we should (depending on your point of view) break free of the schackles of the EU or dramatically shoot ourselves in the foot and overtake the USA as the laughing stock of the rest of the world. Staypril will allow everyone who is keen on the whole EU thing to pretend that none of this actually happened. Expect an influx of artisan German sausage makers and French cheesemongers in your local market place, EU flags flown proudly from the windows of Renaults and Citroens and BMWs, and an unseasonal enthusiasm for bistros serving mange-tout, bouillabaisse and crepes.

Staypril will be followed by Brian May. I’ve resisted the temptation to celebrate Theresa May, as May is my favourite sunny month, and every time I look at a picture of our PM at the moment I’m chilled to the bone. Instead, Brian May will be celebrated by loose perms for all, and re-runs of The Sky at Night for astronomy enthusiasts. If you have a partner, make sure they have a matching perm and don’t mind answering to the name Anita for a few weeks. If you want to really celebrate, make a high profile biopic of your life, describing your career as a series of events in which you were almost too lovely to be true.      

Flaming June will encourage awareness of the word flaming as a substitute swearword. There’s a bit more opportunity here than you might think, if you consider the word ‘flaming’ to be an entry point to the lost art of cursing. We seem to have sadly settled on very few swear words in our vocabulary, and you very rarely hear the more imaginative words that we used to use, largely to avoid going straight to four letters. So, during June, we can have flaming, pillock, flipping, knob, blimey, bellend, bint etc. And for every nostalgic swearword used, a pound in the jar for the plain English campaign.

After all that blasphemy, it’s time for Julielo, in which the entire populations, both criminal and non-criminal can spend the whole month staying indoors, keeping a low profile. Staying below the radar in the way will allow the police force to all take the month off as holiday, returning refreshed in August to start hitting their arrest targets.

And what a series of arrests they’ll be making, as the nation celebrates the sizzling summer with the month of Orgyust, when normally straight-laced couples throw their car keys onto the coffee table, and nurture the pampas grass in their front gardens (apparently). I’m quite excited about Orgyust, because, in the past, I’ve only ever found out about orgies after they happen. Apparently there was a thriving swingers scene conducted from the touchline of one of my boy’s sports teams a few years ago, and I didn’t even notice. So it will be nice to have this on the calendar.

Sepptember will announce not only the start of the new football season, but by honouring Sepp Blatter, an opportunity to cram all the season’s financial irregularities and blatant cheating into a single month. This will allow the rest of the season to concentrate on actually playing football, but Sepptember will be a feast of stories of cash handed over at motorway service stations, Far East syndicates linked with huge bets on the number of corners in the second half of non-league competitions, drug cover-ups and exposes on the business activities of pretty much every premiership chairman. Expect to spent most of this month tuned into TalkSport for the incisive wit of Alan Brazil and Ian Abrahams. 

 

Doctober is very much a month to honour the poor sods who choose to train for years to be good at making people better, just so they can be worked to breaking point, trying to fix the unworthy, the ungrateful and the unhygienic. For just a month, patients will be prohibited for taking their internet printouts of their ailments to their GP appointments, and to limit themselves to no more than 3 ailments at a time. All patients should bathe or shower before asking a Doctor to examine them. Patients will be encouraged to keep a small supply of paracetamol in the house in case this is the prescribed cure for their illness. Also a selection of plasters for the little cuts that otherwise seem to find their way to A&E. If you have an urge to celebrate Doctober with me, you can borrow my soapbox.

Lowvember. When David Bowie passed away in 2016, Mrs E wore black for a full year, and the (very) many albums that made up Bowie’s body of work were on strict rotation in the kitchen. There was the odd exception, eg she’d be out on a dog walk and return to me listening to some early Elmore James, and without even asking ‘what’s this nonsense?’, she’d pop on the first Tin Machine album before she’d even fed the dogs. Partly to stir things up a bit, Lowvember will aim to celebrate the Dame in a more measured way, by playing a different album each day of the month. I have to be a bit careful here, and make sure I’m not in the same room as Mrs E when she’s reading this, but I don’t quite go along with the idea the DB was a creative genius for every single minute of his life (Mrs E, incidentally, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of each of these minutes, so I know I’m on shaky ground). In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Bowie was pretty good until 1970, utterly brilliant until 1977, then, with a couple of exceptions, fairly average afterwards. And the 1977 demise happened towards the end of the first side of the Low album (which, in Lowvember will be played around the 11th of the month). It’s just my opinion, and as I said to Mrs E only last night, opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one and they all stink.

Kiki Deecember follows, and we can enjoy the runup to Christmas dancing along not just to ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ but also to every other Elton John duet. Sing along with EJ and Josh Stone on ‘Calling It Christmas’. Wipe a tear as George Michael croons his way through ‘Don’t Let The Sun’.  Ask yourself what planet you’re on, as Ru Paul reprises Kiki Dee’s role on ‘Don’t Go Breaking’.

And it’s into the new year, with even more retro-enthusiasm. I’ve been around for long enough now to see some interesting fashions that lose their appeal with age. I don’t mean the age of the fashion, more the age of the wearer. When I was a kid, some of the funniest people I saw were Teds in their 50s, still wearing drape jackets but with really thin quiffs. A few years ago I ended up at a skate-punk gig next to a guy who was spilling out of his anarchy t-shirt and trying desperately to coax his male pattern baldness into a mohican. All very sad. So expect more of the same in The Jamuary, where mods of all shapes and sizes will pour themselves into their tonic suits, sta-press trousers and mohair sweaters, and bounce along to Woking’s finest.

And from Woking to the World Wide Webuary. WWW, as it will confusingly be known, will be an opportunity to enjoy life as it used to be without the world wide web, and thereby appreciating it all the more afterwards. So, assuming we can get the necessary permits in place, we’ll be switching off the internet for a month, and thereby also allowing some upgrades to take place. Let’s face it, the internet hasn’t been powered down for ages now and it must be getting ever so tired. For four short weeks we’ll celebrate by going shopping in shops, talking to people without feeling the need to copy in the world or shouting, and by reading books. We’ll not stop people taking pictures of interesting cats or every single meal they’ve ever consumed, but they just won’t be able to share them for a month.

And so, into our last month. For those of us of as certain age, enjoying the music of the Smiths has been a bit of a roller coaster exercise of late. Chronologically, the story goes 

  • The Smiths burst onto the scene playing music that was unparalleled
  • Step above the copyists and write some more fantastic songs
  • Morrissey becomes spokesman for generation
  • Generation largely responds by going vegetarian and hanging on his every word
  • Band splits up a bit
  • Band splits up a bit more
  • Morrissey continues ‘spokesman for generation’ role
  • Generation still tolerates Morrissey despite some awkward moments
  • Morrissey produces several wonderful solo albums
  • Generation confidence is restored
  • Morrissey produces ‘Autobiography’, to ‘polarised’ reviews      
  • Generation is confused
  • Morrissey starts spouting on about race, rights, politics, immigration and anything else that he seems to find entertaining
  • Generation says enough is enough, please please please can you stop sounding off at us

So, my suggestion is that we all enjoy listening to the music of the Smiths for a month in the full knowledge that we’d feel guilty if we tried to align ourselves with Morrissey. Instead, we’ll just say that we’re enjoying Johnny Marrch. 

 

Tune in next month for more Puntastic fun x

The Curse of the Numskulls

I like my dentist. He’s a friendly man who seems to take very little delight in exerting the sort of pain that only dentists can deliver. He’s kind of the opposite to the Steve Martin character in Little Shop of Horrors. And if you’re not familiar with this, or just need a reminder, here you go….

If you watch the clip, take note at c1:30. We’ll be coming back to that later.

Despite his friendly persona, my dentist does have alarmingly strong forearms, which hove into view just after one of his glamorous assistants puts on the strange safety sun-goggles that are all the rage in dentists these days. On me, not him or her, you understand. In the good old days, I don’t think we had these glasses, and ostensibly they’re to stop odd bits of drilling debris flying into your eyes, and also to protect you from the full size  5000 watt follow-spot that is pointed towards you. I think in years gone by I must have kept my eyes closed. Or maybe previous dentists just used a bit of natural light and the odd Ever Ready torch. Who knows. Anyway, I always find the sight of these forearms slightly concerning, particularly if they’re holding a needle, a drill, or one of those spikes that dentists use to punish you for not flossing. They’re the sort of arms that, if they were attached to a fist in a busy pub and travelling in your general direction, you’d not fancy your chances of slowing them down by, say, offering a replacement pint.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I pitched up for an appointment and after a certain amount of probing about from said forearms, was told that I needed some root canal work. I’d had this sort of work done in the past, and had spent a lot of time worrying about it. ‘Don’t worry’, said people who were in the know, or not really interested, like Mrs E. ‘You’ll be fine, ‘cos you’ll have loads of anaesthetic’. And come the day, I did have loads of anaesthetic, but possibly in the wrong part of my mouth, because I can remember a jaw-jangling pain part way through the procedure which neither me nor my dentist were expecting.

So I can be forgiven, I hope, for feeling a bit nervous when I pitched up for the next appointment.

‘How are you?’, said the owner of the big forearms.

‘A bit nervous’, I said, staying true to the narrative of this blog.

‘It’ll be fine’, he reassured me, ‘we’ll get you nice and numb before we go right into the tooth’. Words which managed to jar with his calming intentions.

He introduced me not only to his assistant, but the assistant’s assistant, who’d come to see the procedure for herself. Maybe they were selling tickets, I don’t know. I was surprised to see that by the time I sat back in the chair, all four of us were wearing safety goggles. A large needle came into view, attached to a long syringe, held by that trusty right arm. Conservatively speaking, I think there was about two pints of anaesthetic in the tube; it took at least a couple of minutes to get rid of it into my mouth, so he’d obviously taken the nice and numb bit to heart.  After poking about a bit with a bit more metal, and being assured that I couldn’t feel a thing, he fired up the drill, and started work. The first couple of minutes sailed by. Radio 2 was playing some saccharine country and we were all (at least mentally) whistling along. And then it happened.

Before I describe what ‘it’ was, I need to to cast your mind back to days when you read the Topper, the Beezer and the Beano. In the unlikely event that you didn’t read them (what on earth were you doing in your youth?), then you should know that you missed one of the great cartoons ever – the Numskulls. The Numskulls story revolved around a boy, and the five Numskulls inside his head that controlled him.  As you can see from the picture, Brainy took care of the brain, and was chief Numskull. Blinky controlled the eyes, Radar was in charge of hearing, Snitch controlled the nose, and Cruncher was in charge of the mouth department.

I’ve been surrounded by medical professionals all of my life, but despite their patient efforts to explain to me how the human body actually works, I still think this is almost exactly what goes on inside my head.

Where me and the medical profession do join up, however, is on the points of communication between the different departments. I think it’s something to do with nerve synapses, and they happen very very quickly. And for the purpose of this blog, it’s necessary to expand something that happened into a very short space of time into the rapid inter-departmental messages that went on after my couple of minutes of pain free dentistry.

Brainy: How are things in the mouth, Cruncher?’

Cruncher: ‘A bit awkward, but nothing too bad to report’

Brainy: ‘Roger that’

Cruncher: ‘Oh, hang on, that’s….ow ow ow’

Brainy: ‘Sorry, lost you there for a moment, are you in some kind of trouble?’

Cruncher: ‘This Is The Worst Pain I Have Ever Experienced. I Am Capitalising My Comments Accordingly. It Feels Like Several Thousand Volts Are Going Through Lower Left Seven. Repeat, Lower Left Seven.’

Brainy: “Do You Have a preferred response?’

Cruncher: ‘Well, what options have I got on the blasphemy front?’

Brainy: ‘It all depends. On a scale of 1-10, how serious is your pain?’

Cruncher: ‘It’s off the bloody scale’

Brainy: ‘Hmmm, let’s have a look. If it was 9, I’d suggest the F word, which you used when you put your back out, and when Norwich missed a penalty against Preston last week. If it was 10, then you could go to the C word. You last used that in November 2005, during the Orleans marathon.’

Cruncher: ‘I’m sorry, Brainy, it’s worse than that. Do you have anything for 11?’

Brainy: ‘I’ll have to look it up. We’ve not really been here before, we’ve spent the last 56 years trying to create an aura of pleasant calm and common decency. Ah, here we are. It starts with the word Mother. Ready to go?’

And so it was, that the Radio 2 infused calm of the dentist’s room, and that of the waiting room next door, and the delicate ears of the dentist, the dentists assistant, and the dentist’s assistant’s assistant was disturbed. I’m not especially proud of the expletive that came out, but came out it did, together with an instruction from Brainy to my right arm knock Mr Muscle and his drill out of my mouth and some way towards reception.

A still calm came over the room. I was embarrassed, and possibly not the most embarrassed one there.

‘That didn’t go as planned’, said the dentist, recovering his composure, together with his balance. ‘I think we need to take a different approach’

The different approach was to send me to another dentist on the other side of town, who specialised in difficult root fillings. Also, putting a good three miles between us might mean that he’d not hear me next time the drill went in. All was fairly well in the end, and years of working as a business consultant meant that I could fairly easily read my own patient notes at the new dentist, upside down on a screen across the room.

‘Mr Revell is a lovely man’, the notes said, ‘but rather apprehensive of dentistry’.

As Cruncher might say: ‘No Shit, Sherlock’…

 

Oranges and Bananas

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. The second half of 2018 was dreadful for a couple of reasons, and I guess I’ve not wanted to be bending your eyes with either triviality or darker thoughts. Now that the year is out of the way, there’s a bit more perspective on things, so I’m hoping to post some vaguely measured stuff fairly soon.

In the meantime, here are some words about Seville, which Mrs E and I came back from a couple of days ago. But before we get to Seville, a bit of background on Mrs E’s relationship with Christmas.

Christmas is one of those areas where we don’t entirely see eye to eye. Given my way, December would kick off with an elaborate advent calendar, door bells playing sleigh bell music, heavy pudding construction, impractical candlelit card-writing sessions, and generally work its way into a frenzy of cheese, port, frozen cold dog walks, and close harmony carols at the end of the month. Then a quick wind down to a debauched New Year, a series of light regrets and promises, then pack all the decorations away for another year. 

Mrs E’s take on the festival is rather different. It’s not that she actually hates Christmas, it’s more that she wants to spend as little time on it as possible, and then get it out of the way really sharpish. To be fair, some of this humbuggery (very much like normal buggery, but when you don’t know the words) dates back to the time when there were four small children with stockings to prepare. This meant there’d be around 80 presents all needing to be wrapped late on Christmas Eve, which was often the time I’d arrive home a little bit too full of festive cheer, enthusiastically slurring my season’s greetings. As a result, we’ve always played a game of ‘decoration chicken’, which involves choosing the right moment to put up any decorations to finally admit that Christmas has arrived. Mrs E’s starting point in the game is that she’d accept decorations going up on 23rd December, and down on 26th. Given that I’d probably prefer a full month, any minor extension of her window tends to be a bit of a hollow victory, but it’s celebrated nonetheless: ‘Mum’s let us put the tree up with a week to go’ broadcasts the family WhatsApp message.

Well, this year, the decs were all packed away on the 28th, we had a very mildly debauched New Years Eve, which was largely spent wondering where our children were, and then took ourselves off to Seville on the 4th for a few days. 

And found ourselves in the run up to Christmas, which, given the above, was a bit of a disappointment to Mrs E. 

Our preparation for the break was woeful, extending only to flicking through the guidebook (welcome to Seville, home of bullfighting) and learning a couple of phrases (‘Yo no halo espanol’; ‘peudo tomar una cerveza’), and didn’t take into account checking local customs and festivals, which in Spain, means we missed the whole point of Christmas in January. 

As far as I understand it (now), the Christmas festival in Spain goes something like this: 

  • start getting excited and a bit of light carol singing in mid-December
  • Big celebration and lots of food on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight mass
  • Wander the streets playing guitars and shining torches after midnight
  • Lots more rich food on Christmas Day
  • Wait until 28th, when the ‘Dia de los Santos innocentes’ (a bit like April Fool’s Day) gives you permission to play hilarious tricks on innocent victims (I’m really glad Mrs E missed that)
  • Go mad on New Year’s Eve, including eating 12 grapes within the 12 strokes of midnight for a year of good luck (ditto)
  • Then start ramping up for the really big bit of celebrating Epiphany, which is the big event, lots of nativity scenes, loads of models of wise men in shop windows, children getting excited about the 6th January, when they get all their presents, and parades like you wouldn’t believe…

I’ve not seen a decent parade for a few years, and it seemed like most of Seville had turned out to see what was going on, on both Friday and Saturday night. The general theme seemed to be to get anyone who could play a brass instrument or ride a horse, find some uniforms or costumes, and send them through the streets of the city throwing out sweets to the spectators. Writing it down like that underplays it a bit, because the crowd was so enthusiastic, cheering, shouting and being pretty athletic whenever a shower of sweets came their way, that it had a carnival atmosphere that you don’t get at too many religious events. 

Slightly disturbing was the several hundred people following the procession in blackface – something that we weren’t prepared for at all. There’s quite a bit of reaction to this on the web at the moment, so have a look some time and see for yourself. I can’t imagine the sort of reception that this would get at home, and there seemed to be a complete ambivalence to it as a ‘tradition’. A couple of days later, I managed to blag a ticket to Sevilla FC, who were at home to Atletico Madrid, at a stadium that was beyond awesome.

I had my bag searched on entry, and had to go through three levels of security before I was allowed to take in a banana, which I thought was a little odd. I tried to explain that it was my lunch, rather than a weapon, which got no response at all. I understood a bit more about twenty minutes into the game, when little sections of the crowd started making monkey noises every time Thomas Partey got the ball. I thought that we’d said goodbye to that sort of behaviour at football about twenty years ago, but apparently it was still ok in that neck of the woods.

Anyway, aside from that, and the other odd tradition of ritually killing dumb animals in front of thousands of baying spectators, Seville seemed nicely civilised and full of reasonably jolly people. Lots of medieval streets, big old catholic statements, lots of water and bridges, and seriously fruit-filled orange trees everywhere you looked. 

We stayed on for a couple of says after all the Epiphany fuss had died down, and the city felt like it was starting to settle down to a sunny normality. Even the sugar had been washed off the roads and paths, meaning that you could walk along without your feet sticking to the ground – we’d seen people be separated from their shoes after the parades as their heels stuck to the sugary mess of several thousand trampled sweets.

We stepped onto our flight home out of an unwashed blue sky, and a couple of hours later, stepped into the grey drizzle of Stansted, and drove home talking about how we could wish away the rest of the winter, and when we’d next see a decent sunny day. 

The next day, metrosexual man that I seem to have become, I tracked down some Seville oranges and made some marmalade. Well, every little helps.

Town in a Box

Greetings from Majorca, where Mrs E and I have spent a relaxing time not worrying about marathon running.

The initial plan was to come over and run the marathon, which took place a couple of days ago in blazing hot sunshine, and with a ‘what could possibly go wrong’ approach, we booked travel and hotel about six months ago, just as I started yet another athletic comeback. 

Naturally enough, I got injured with about 8 weeks to go, and so concluded that it would be a bit daft to try and run the race at all, and after seeing the poor souls who hadn’t got injured plodding the roads around Palma on Sunday, I was secretly happy to have pulled out.

Waking up on Monday morning without any of those normal post-marathon, not-able-to-walk-down the-stairs-and-feeling-horribly-sick feelings, I decided to go for a run, looked out of the hotel window, and saw, about two miles away, the biggest boat I’d ever seen. Actually, calling it a boat feels a bit reductive. It  was more like a small town had suddenly plonked itself on the side of the island. Naturally I ran towards it, to see if my eyes had been playing up again. It was a windy morning, and the breeze was coming off the sea, and as I got about a quarter of a mile away, the wind just stopped, which was a bit odd, until I realised that the MS Symphony of the Seas (for it was she) was acting as a bloody enormous windbreak.

Anyhow, the MS Symphony Of The Seas is, according to my sources (that’ll be the internet then) the largest and most ambitious cruise ship ever built. I’ve already mentioned that it casts quite a shadow, but here’s some other stuff of note:

  • it’s 362m long
  • it has 18 decks
  • it can carry 9,000 people
  • it has a crew of 2,200
  • It has 40 restaurants and bars
  • it has 23 pools
  • it has two west-end sized theatres
  • it has a full size basketball court
  • it has two 43 foot climbing walls
  • it has a ‘central park’ with 20,000 tropical plants
  • it has an ice skating rink

and it cost $1.35 billion to build. 

Let’s just dwell on a couple of those for a moment. A 43 ft climbing wall? Sorry, my mistake, two 43 ft climbing walls? Is one more challenging than the other, or do they worry about double bookings?  I’ve not done that much climbing in my life, but when I have, the one constant that you could be fairly sure of was the rock face. That, an appreciation of gravity and a rough rule that you need to keep three limbs on the rock as much possible, is pretty much all you need to know in order to go climbing. Then along comes the MS Symphony of the Seas, and chucks in another variable, ie a rock face that moves every time you hit a big wave. 

Then there’s the ice rink.  I’ll fess up at this point and say that I never understood ice skating as a recreation. I find it quite hard to balance on ice at the best of times, without being strapped into ankle breaking pixie boots with knives attached to the soles, and being asked to stand upright. It’s not as if getting good at it will achieve much either, you either go down the route of sequinned jumpsuits or into the world of mental Canadian sport, where every player seems to be hell bent on beating up members of the opposition at any given opportunity. Anyway, my previous point still stands. All of that would be bad enough if the ice stayed in one place, but crashing around on the ocean wave? Well, that seems like you’re asking for trouble. 

Later that afternoon, and me and Mrs E are walking down to the town, and headed for the cathedral – probably the most jaw-droppingly beautiful bit of architecture you’ll see on these islands, made yet more so by being surrounded on three sides by some pretty brutal hotel towers. On the other side of the road were parked up a fleet of coaches, all marked as pick up points for the MS Symphony of the Seas passengers, so we were able witness first hand a good cross section of those 9,000 people who’d come aboard to sample the wonders of Majorca for a few precious hours. And we did, because we’re nosy like that.

I guess the first thing that I’d comment on would be that the ratio of restaurants and bars to climbing walls seemed a bit generous. Perhaps because the passengers were contrasted against a population who seemed to be cycling, jogging or recovering (remember this was the day after the marathon) along the beachside, they just seemed so, well, unfit. Not just in a corpulent ‘elasticated-waists-have-never-gone-out-of-fashion’ sense, but in genuinely seeming to have a problem with the concept of moving their own bodies without motorised assistance.  There’s a danger of getting a bit fat-cist here, and I don’t really mean to, because the main observation I’d make was much more important – everyone looked so incredibly miserable. Without exception, everyone, puffing away towards those air conditioned bus steps, was grimacing like their cat had just been put down. Which seems perverse, given that they’d been whisked from their floating palace to see the most amazing building on the Balearic Islands, before sauntering down past lush gardens and fountains and up to bright blue water and glittering beaches. What’s more, this, was supposed to be their jolly holidays. 

It costs about £7,500 for a 12 night cruise for 2 from Barcelona to Miami on the MS Symphony of the Seas. This is the equivalent of 3 months salary for the average UK family (which would include anything that said family would put away for their own holidays). Just thought I’d wrap a bit of context there, before I sign off with an inevitable ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ line. It can, however, buy you a go on a 43ft climbing wall. And if you ever find yourself aboard the MS Symphony of the Seas, I reckon that’s free most days.

Judgement Days

As I write, my youngest child has just gone into an exam hall, scraped his uncomfortable chair noisily into position, put a few pens and pencils out in front of him, and, in common with thousands of kids across the country, prepared to do battle with a brand new GCSE exam.

This afternoon’s challenge is Physics. In common with most of his cohort, he’ll not have a lot of use for  F = k x e or a = F/m in later life, and if he does, he’ll be able to look it up, rather than try desperately to remember as he walks into the exam hall. So we should probably forgive him if his mind wanders occasionally into the realms of ‘is this really worth it?’

At almost exactly the same time, several hundred miles north, his eldest brother is walking into a similar hall, but this time in a group of twenty-somethings, to take his final written exam, after five years of pretty serious academic and practical study. Months and months of revision have gone into just this one 3 hour event; 8 in the morning until 10 at night, day after day, seven days a week, just to put himself through a series of strenuous mental hoops, to qualify for a specific job. In which, incidentally, he will suffer astonishing levels of stress and anxiety for an entire career.

Just up the road, #3 will be sitting an exam to mark the end of his first year at Uni, and hopefully allowing him entry to the second, where, assuming there isn’t a repeat of the university strike action this year, he might actually get some tuition.

And finally, another few hundred miles to the west, at 9am, #2 has been handed a topic on which to write a 24 hour assignment; his final assessment of his degree. He’ll work on it all day, get some sort of finished paper this evening, get it proof read, and then work through the night fretting and finishing and fining until he hands it in tomorrow morning.

As a parent, this combination of events delivers a level of stress that has to take second place behind what the boys are feeling, but is nonetheless, very real. At 1330 this afternoon, when #4 hears the words ‘Turn over your papers’, I’ll be feeling physically sick. That’s not because it recalls any horrible past experience particularly, although like many people, one of my recurring nightmares is being put in an exam hall, hearing those words, and not being able to function. No, this nausea is about the consequence of success or failure, and what it means for the future of the ones I hold dear. All over the country, I imagine parents are all feeling this way, feeling awful for the ones whose hands we stopped holding years ago, but, who for a few hours at a time, really are completely and utterly on their own.

The point of writing this down is not particularly for any empathy, certainly not to justify any vicarious living through our kids. It’s to challenge why we go through all of this as either parents or young adults, as an accepted way of measurement. And to do that, we need to look at what’s at stake. For our family, the consequence of #1 screwing up this morning’s exam would be a re-run of year 5, on the assumption he fancies a sixth year of expensive study and pressure, and a bid goodbye to the job he’s already accepted. For #2, there’s about a 2% tolerance in his marking of this exam to distinguish between a very good and a very very good degree; something that will matter enormously in the daunting challenge of career prospects for arts graduates these days. And for #4, he’ll either get the qualifications to get to his college course, or he won’t. And if he doesn’t, then his plan B isn’t especially palatable.

And all of this is hanging on a couple of hours of assessment, when you might not be on your game, when you’re entirely at the whim of the examining board in which part of the syllabus they want to quiz you on, and, most importantly, when you might not be able to remember stuff.

Because pretty much every exam that my kids are currently sitting through still requires them to remember things that they’re unlikely to need either now or in the future. And the tests are a bit light on proving their abilities at (say) reasoning, or logic, or any other measure of what we might call intelligence for later life. That’s important because we just don’t need a lot of that stuff in our heads any more. I’m not saying that facts aren’t useful, but they’re all available, at the touch of a button, through that thing called the internet. Which is a much better reference point in most cases than the half remembered facts in your brain. For example, the last time I went to my GP, we had a quick conversation about why I’d come in, a bit of a poke about in the relevant area, then he went straight onto Google to confirm his thinking and choose the right medication. And rightly so; at a guess, the last time he’d been fully tested on his memory for medical facts was over twenty years ago.

I can’t help thinking that life would be a bit more sensible for everyone taking these exams these days if the focus was on reasoning, analysis and the ability to seek out relevant information rather than the regurgitation of facts and figures. The most intelligent people I’ve ever met have these sort of skills in spades; and they don’t necessarily have a detailed knowledge of stuff to make them any more functional in their lives. They also tend to have a high level of what them psychologists call ‘emotional intelligence’, which allows them to interact by recognising their and other people’s feelings.

For one reason or another, I reckon my kids score fairly highly when it comes to things that matter, like emotional intelligence. But I’m really fed up that they’ll continue to be measured on stuff that matters less, and in a way that tests something altogether different. Anyway, good luck to them, and good luck to everyone in similar boats. (Although I don’t know why you’re reading this, you should be revising, for goodness sake).