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.

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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).

The Acid House Gynaecologist

Despite trying to write about other topics, I’ve just checked the stats for the Emu, and realised that my readership* is interested in:

  1. Dogs
  2. Running
  3. The joys of family life
  4. Nothing much else

With this in mind, here is a blog about 1 & 2, partly in a desperate bid for attention, and partly because, well, this just happened.

Several years ago, we finally agreed to start having our lives pulled apart by becoming dog owners. About the only stipulation I had in the debate was that I needed to have a dog I could run with, and I spent many happy hours poring over websites telling me which were the best dogs for me, the family, and as running companions. There was a pretty significant flaw in my selection process – I naturally chose the dog breed that was best suited to my running ability at the time, with no consideration that I might conceivably get slower over the next few years. Which is exactly what happened.

Mrs E is nothing if not possessive about the dogs, and allowed me to run with them only after I’d fulfilled all H&S criteria, and critically when the dog in question was at least fourteen months old. Otherwise, apparently, I could cause irreparable damage to fragile knees and paws (the dog’s, not mine). So it was that a couple of years ago, I was able to start running with Luna, first on a lead, then a harness (her not me), and then, when Solomon was deemed fit to do so, I ran with him as well, eventually ending up with a harness around my waist and both dogs pulling me along, often in the same direction.

I can’t describe how much fun this is. Part of the fun element is the very real chance that it could go horribly wrong at any moment, what with traffic, pedestrians and squirrels to contend with, but there is a point on every run, where everything just comes together, and we’re all running together at roughly the same place, where it’s just brilliant. If I had a tail, then three of us would be wagging at the same time.

I run with the dogs at least twice a week, and always when Mrs E is working late. This means I need to pedal home from work at breakneck speed to get changed and out the door by 5:30, which is about the latest their schedule will allow. Any later, and unfortunately at least one of them will start doing laps of the furniture. Now, in this neck of the woods and in winter, 5:30 also means complete darkness. Rather than waiting for the nights to draw out and take my two charges for a relaxing walk around one of a number of excellent well lit and dog friendly parks nearby, I decided it would be much more sensible to buy a head torch and run with them on some of the more enjoyable off-road routes that combine a few muddy hills, some woods, a bit of river footpath, and marginal cellphone signal. I’d light up the path ahead, and the dogs would run along to the light, and we’d all wag our tails. I nipped onto Amazon and bought a bargain headtorch for £7.99. It arrived, I tried it on, I felt like a bit of a knob (particularly after Mrs E called me ‘The Acid House Gynaecologist’ after coming back from my first run, with headtorch shining and too much fluorescent lycra), but no matter, this was to enable fun night-time running with my four-legged chums, with the trail lit up like a spotlight for the three of us:

running n the darkWhat could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you could imagine, quite a bit. But first, a little diversion. In March, 1972, my Dad took me to my first proper football match. We were visiting family on the South coast and Southampton were playing Liverpool, who, under Bill Shankly, were already the stuff of legend. For a wide eyed nine year old boy obsessed with football, it was a pretty good way to break my duck. As far as the game was concerned, I remember very little except for perhaps a 30 second video in my head that I’ve been able to replay precisely ever since. Attacking from my right, one of the Liverpool midfielders stroked the ball onto the far touchline to Steve Heighway, who took off like a train down the right wing. Just before he got to the goal line, he crossed the ball very hard and very low, about a foot off the ground, towards the penalty spot. At this point. the ball met the head of John Toshack, who had started his dive from some distance outside the penalty box, and had travelled, parallel with the ground for a number of yards, like some sort of guided missile, and didn’t actually land until after the ball had whizzed past the helpless Southampton keeper. I’d never witnessed anything so athletic and so powerful in my life, and, looking back, I’m still not sure I have since. I spent quite a bit of the following few months trying to perfect my own technique of flying like a torpedo to meet an imaginary cross, but without any real success – I just seemed to land a bit early – sometimes before my feet had actually left the ground. I think I concluded that there were people in the world who were John Toshack, and there were people who weren’t, and I was definitely in the second group.

Diversion over, on a darkened run, I was being pulled along at a fairly brisk pace, down a muddy hill towards the river, when my right foot met a rabbit hole. What followed was an almost exact replica of the dive that John Toshack made at The Dell in March 1972. I took off, partly fuelled by the momentum of being pulled along by the dogs, and partly by the hill. I travelled parallel to the ground for a number of yards. I landed, painfully, in the mud, and continued my journey for some time, until the dogs realised that pulling a dead weight wasn’t nearly so much fun as one that was trying to keep up with them. I reckon the initial dive was at least the length of Toshack’s, but the subsequent slide would have taken me well past the goalkeeper and crashing into the net.

The dogs were fairly bemused. They actually made a point of coming back and licking my wounds, which was both sweet and disgusting. Having ascertained that I was still breathing, they both sat down and waited for me to get up. They weren’t actually tapping their toes on the ground, but they weren’t far off. So I got up, gingerly broke into a jog, and resolved on the way home to keep this whole mishap a secret between the three of us.

‘How was the run’? said Mrs E as I followed two excited dogs into the house.

‘Fine’, I said, stepping into the kitchen, and realising in the light that I’d managed to bring most of the muddy hill home with me, and that I’d need to fess up.

‘Well, I did fall over quite badly’

‘Oh no! Are the dogs alright?’, she asked, rather predictably.

I tried the next couple of runs around the park, but it wasn’t the same, So, a couple of weeks later,  I decided to run very slowly and very carefully around the off road route. The dogs seemed much keener on this, and we trotted along happily (and safely) together. Past the muddy hill (watching my step), on the river path (making sure they kept to the left), through the grass track (keeping an eye out for the rabbits), into the first little wood (keeping feet away from tree roots), across the path (watching for cyclists), into the second wood (where I forgot the bit about tree roots).

Never forget about tree roots when you’re running through a forest, particularly at night.

What happens is that you hit the root with your leading foot, curse with pain, then catapult forward and down, often onto another tree root. It can be really painful.

‘Can be really’ as in ‘was horribly’; I landed with the force of a WWF wrestler, and managed to hit leg, elbow, shoulder and head all in one ugly movement. Worse; my head torch went flying off my head. Worse than worse, it managed to switch itself off in the process.

So I’m lying face down on the ground (again), with the dogs coming back to have a look (again) but this time we’re all completely disoriented, and in the pitch black. After a bit, the dogs get a bit bored of the ‘pained hound with quizzical look sitting mournfully by their master’ look, and decide to wander off. Unfortunately they’re still attached to my waist, and deciding to go off on separate directions. Luna probably said something like ‘I’ll go down to the river, you see if there’s anything in the woods, and we’ll meet back when he’s found that ridiculous searchlight’, but obviously I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I find a way to release them, and am left to fend for myself. Fending for myself takes the form of crawling around aimlessly, sweeping my palm ahead of me in the vain hope that I’ll find the torch before I find the river. I continue this exercise for about 5 minutes, and it’s no small relief that there’s no one there to witness it.

I give up at this point, and go for plan b, which involves finding my phone, which is handily strapped to my arm, under three layers of clothing. Retrieving my phone therefore means getting undressed in the middle of the forest, and that’s what I do, until I’m down to my tights and bare chest. A sentence I never thought I’d write, and a look I never thought I’d get away with. Fortunately again, I’m the only one able to see this new fashionable low. I thank the genius who decided to integrate a flashlight on my phone, and almost immediately find my head torch, which had landed exactly where I hadn’t been crawling. i put the torch back on my head, switched it on, and to my grey relief, lit up my little part of the trail with a reluctant yellow beam.

Incidentally, the reason for all of his nonsense was in buying a £7.99 headtorch in the first place. If you’re ever tempted to buy one, look for something with a strap that is vaguely tight, a battery pack that pulls the torch back rather than forwards, and a switch that you have to get your finger in to work. Mine possessed precisely none of these features, although the replacement one, which, so far has stayed both on and on at all times, does.

Anyway, I called the dogs, and, remarkably, they attended the scene almost immediately. We ran home, very slowly, and with and improved leg lift and, remarkably, without further incident. We got home and in the back door, where, like a 5 year old coming home from the park, I told my wife that I’d fallen over again, and was in some degree of pain.

‘Are the dogs alright?’, she asked, unremarkably.

 

 

*You know who you are x

 

They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Mainwaring

2017 was always going to be designated as a ‘milestone birthday year’, albeit not in the way that other birthdays had happened. Quite a long time ago, I remember going out for drinks on my 21st, drinking and smoking my way into a terrific hangover, and thinking that life was unable to get much better than this (I was completely wrong). When I was thirty, I sent out invitations to celebrate, or commiserate, passing into middle age, and we had a huge party, reforming the bands we’d been in a few years before, in the realisation that we were all headed for some sort of rock & roll decline (which we were). Another party for my fortieth, but this time with a more expensive suit, and a further band reunion, but, worryingly, sitting down to play. And then, a few years ago, 50, which, unnervingly, is least clear of all, lost in a haze of extreme running, ice baths and ill advised tequila competitions with kids who were young enough to be my children. Which, of course, they were.

Being 55 was different, but notable in its own special way. Firstly, there were a series of letters reminding me that years ago, I’d suggested that May 2017 would be an excellent time to retire, and I would save every last penny I had to make that happen. I kept my promise on the savings front, but unfortunately others in my life didn’t*, and I found myself woefully short of the sunset retiree lifestyle that Michael Aspel and Gloria Hunniford seem to witter on about, given half a chance.

Then came more letters, the first one the day after my birthday, inviting me to take out insurance for my declining years (with free Parker pen, but only if I reply now!), then offering holidays, to be taken with other over-55’s, probably so we could have long chats about Brexit and the youth of today. A horrible prospect indeed, a bit like an 18-30 holiday but with less energy, less tolerance, and less wet T-shirt competitions (I’d hope).

And then, the letter I’d been looking forward to least. Because, at 55, you get put on a special health screening list. The first letter is fairly innocuous, welcoming you to the world of the NHS, and giving you assurance that early screening of bowel cancer is a fabulous way of getting old gracefully. Or, I suppose, at all. The letter is beautifully put together, with soft words around screening and images and prevention, and makes very little reference to the main point of the exercise, which is to put a smallish camera up your backside, with a longer lead than you might imagine possible.

So what you do is fill in the form, because you figure that you do really really really want to know if you have the other c-word in your life. And you put the appointment in your diary and try not to think for a few weeks, and, largely, you don’t. And then, a couple of weeks before you need to start remembering about the appointment that you’re trying not to remember, a parcel arrives.

I still love getting parcels, especially unexpected ones. A few years ago, I got a book posted to me about great naval battles of the Second World War. Inside, it said ‘To Kevin’. Nothing else, and no clue who’d sent it, other than a Manchester postmark. It remains one of the most brilliant moments of my life. Last week I got a parcel from my parents, just as unexpected, which had two packets of smoked mackerel in it. Not as weird as it sounds, but just as delightful. So when this parcel arrived, I pounced on it like Michael Fallon at a Young Conservatives rally.

I tore the parcel open, and (you might be ahead of me here) was disappointed to see nothing about great naval battles and no sign of smoked mackerel. Instead, there was a tube, a plastic container full of clear fluid, and a set of instructions on how to use your enema.

I’ve never had an enema before, but my wife, a woman with the patience and black sense of humour shared by many in the nursing profession, told me that there was nothing to worry about. In fact (and I should have smelt a rat here), she offered to help administer the enema, to make sure that it was ‘working properly’.

When the diary date finally arrived, I knocked off work a bit early, got home and reread the enema instructions for about the 50th time, and Mrs E kindly suggested that she could help with what she charmingly called the ‘introduction’. For a while, I wasn’t absolutely sure what she meant, and then suddenly I very much was. There was a definite imbalance on the enthusiasm of the two of us taking part. I don’t think she actually shouted out ‘Geronimo’, as she ‘introduced’, but she might as well have done.

If you’ve had one of these enemas, you’ll be fairly aware of what happens next. Not very much for the first 10 minutes and then, fairly suddenly, something that feels like a small volcano in your lower intestine. Fortunately in our house there are only a couple of dozen buttock-clenching strides between the sofa and the toilet, where I realised the true sensation of what I understand is called an evacuation. When, as Lionel Ritchie once said, there was ‘nothing left to give’, it was time to go to the hospital. In a plan that was either macho, naive or stupid, I’d planned to cycle there, but agreed with Mrs E that it might be, after all, worth taking her up on her offer of a lift.

Mrs E dropped me off at the hospital, arranged to pick me up at some vague point in the future, and I distinctly heard her cackling away to herself as she drove off. Found my way to the gastro ward without asking for directions (always a win), and opened the door to the waiting room. My appointment was for 18:15, and I suppose I expected a small room with 3-4 people awaiting their evening appointment with a sigmoidoscope. Much to my surprise, the door opened to a really large waiting room, with maybe 50 chairs, and almost each one occupied. I sat down at one of the chairs, and looked around. I noticed that everyone else was looking around surreptitiously as well; I wasn’t really sure why until it suddenly struck me – I’d not been in this situation since I was about 15.

Just to be clear, no-one shoved a camera up my backside when I was 15, but that was probably the last time that I’d walked into a room of people of exactly the same age. And then, like now, everyone was looking round, while trying not to catch anyone else’s eye, to see, well, how the last 40 years had gone for everyone else. Slightly different thoughts to the ones when I was 15, perhaps a bit more ‘looks like he had a good Christmas’, and a bit less ‘crikey, where did he get those shoes/trousers/haircut?’, and some new thoughts too, like ‘I wonder why he brought his wife along, particularly if she’s going to look so bloody miserable’, and ‘ there’s an odd place for a tattoo’. And we were probably all having these thoughts as the receptionist kindly matched called out names to match faces. I seemed to get called about 10 minutes after checking in, which did make me wonder how I’d jumped the queue. Maybe this was just somewhere that a selection of 55 year old men go on Wednesday evenings for their own entertainment. Perhaps some of them had enjoyed the process so much in the past that they’d turn up hoping for a cancellation.

Then you’re shown into a small room and asked to undress, put one gown on backwards, another one on forwards, and keep your shoes and socks on, and put your clothes in the shopping basket provided. You emerge from the little room, carrying your basket, and sit down next to the other men who have just been through the same process. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a supermarket scene in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, but if there is, we were reenacting it, sitting there with gowns and modesty barely intact, still wearing unlaced boots and socks, and each clutching on to a shopping basket. It’s not a look I’ll be planning to replicate, but it’s definitely one to remember for a while.

Another call, and this time into a room with a proper door, and serious equipment and people inside. There were four of them, and I was introduced to each one in turn. One was going to make me feel comfortable from the front, the next was to keep an eye on things from the back, the lead role was to be taken by a kindly soul who would be wielding the camera, leaving Steve in the corner who was going to be doing the ‘impressive stuff with the computer’. Well, they all looked very relaxed about the whole situation, especially Steve, who had an especially comfortable looking office chair. I asked if they normally heard or told jokes during this sort of procedure. They didn’t, but would be very happy to hear any material from me. I said I’d not really prepared anything specifically for this event, so I told them a bit about the enema and how it reminded me of a John Cooper Clarke line:

‘Like a recently disinfected shithouse
You’re clean round the bend’

Steve pitched in with his favourite joke, which wasn’t necessarily a gag as you or I might know it, but ended with some sort of a punchline from Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones ; ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’.

With all parties sufficiently relaxed, a nervy silence crept into the room, only to be broken by the lead role:

‘What you’re going to feel next is my finger’

Which I did.

If you’re lucky enough to have the over-55 invite still to turn up in your post, rest assured, because the rest of the exercise is relatively pain free. In common with teenage sex, watching Norwich City at home and the final couple of Clash albums, the excitement of anticipation isn’t really matched by the following reality. There’s a bit of discomfort; a really disconcerting video stream in front of you showing your healthy pink insides and a phenomenal feeling that you’re going to poo yourself in front of four people. There were a few encouraging ‘please relax’ shoves from behind, and a few calming words from the front, telling me that all would be well, and admiring my resting pulse. ‘Are you a runner?’ said the voice in front, and, naturally enough, the next few minutes passed by in a very convivial fashion, with me talking about my favourite subject to a captive audience.

And in no time at all ‘All clear’ was announced, with everyone in the room aware of the double meaning. I started to move off the table, and was met with firm holds on three sides.

‘We’ll just give that a bit of a wipe’

And I think I would have last heard those words, in that context, about 50 years ago.

Sometimes I guess we all feel a bit nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have to bother about self-dignity. I guess that might be something else to look forward to as we get old.

 

 

* In no particular order, the others in my life who stopped me from retiring were : Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, and Fred Goodwin, along with the hilariously well-rewarded 2007-8 Risk Committee of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

A short guide to blasphemy

It seems a long time ago, but I guess it was when my parents were about the age I am now, that they spent a fair bit of time trying out new stuff. One of their adventures was into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, which is where our story of blasphemy begins, in a very very roundabout way.

They were pretty good at what they did, which was mainly old chairs – my Dad had enough patience to painstakingly strip away layers from the wooden bits, and my Mum learnt how to weave the canework onto the seats. She got so good that she started advertising her services in the local paper, and was quite taken aback when the responses to ‘Caning by Annette’ seemed to be after, well, a specialism that she couldn’t offer.

To get a ready supply old furniture, they started to visit auction houses, and would return with all manner of knackered wooden chairs, plus anything else that took their fancy. And, unfortunately for one of their three offspring, one week, what they fancied was a painting called ‘The Watercart’.

‘The Watercart’ is a painting that pretty much defies description – you really need to witness it for yourself to understand just how awful it is. It manages to combine all of the saccharine aspects of Constable’s early work with the brushwork of a deranged Broadmoor patient. It’s about 2 feet wide, meaning that it would stand out on any wall, and is complemented by an ugly frame that is probably worth slightly more than the painting itself. Around 50p, at last estimate.

I think they realised their mistake fairly early on, and my sister, who recently described their marriage as ’60 years of bickering and jokes’, was particularly vociferous in her criticism. We could tell that matters were not going to end well when my Mum starting blaming my Dad for buying the painting in the first place, then, slightly more quietly, my Dad would suggest it was all her fault. Matters went from bad to worse, and the painting was removed from public view, and then my Mum came up with her ingenious scheme to use the situation to punish her own children.

I was probably about 30 when The Watercart entered my life, and I think I’d hoped by then that parental punishments might have become a thing of the past. Just goes to show that you should never underestimate your parents; a lesson that I’m very keen on passing on to my own kids.

Basically, the punishment would go like this:

  • Child offends parent in some way (possibly not turning up for a party, buying a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, mentioning that gardening is essentially a boring activity etc)
  • Parent consults with other parent for some time, usually out of earshot
  • Declaration is made that the child is to be punished by receiving ‘The Watercart’ in parent’s will

It is an unwritten rule that the painting will need to be displayed prominently when it is passed on, to make it a real and constant punishment, and I like to think that it will be used extensively to penalise future generations. I am very much hoping that neither I nor any of my children (rules have recently been amended to allow the punishment to skip a generation direct to a least-favoured grandchild) will be in the firing line.

Most recently the will has been pointed at my sister, for some imagined slight, possibly letting slip that the taste of this year’s chutney wasn’t quite as good as the year before. However, it may now be heading in the direction of my brother, who I believe was the force behind an official letter from Buckingham Palace congratulating my parents on their 60 years of marriage. My father, who has been a die-hard republican all of his life, is a little perturbed that HM has been writing to him and my mum personally, and would probably see any individual responsible as deserving a bit of a Watercart discussion.

There’s a reason for telling you all of this, and it’s really as a warning to my own family that I may well be about repoint The Watercart in my own general direction. Because this blog is about swearing, and my Mum’s views on swearing are very traditional. She will not approve.

One of the first times I can remember my Mum getting cross with me was when I was about eight, in the garden, I dropped something on my foot and exclaimed ‘Bloody Hell’. She went absolutely bananas, not just because I’d cursed in front of her, but also in front of my grandmother, who was actually looking on with what I thought was quiet approval.

In those days, ‘Bloody Hell’ was pretty serious stuff. On a one to ten scale, it was probably only a five or six, at about the same level as ‘’Cor Blimey’, but it was as far as any right thinking child would go. Just below would be ‘Flipping Heck’ or ‘Flaming Hell’. Just above was ‘Bastard’, ‘Bugger’ and ‘Shit’, and  beyond that were the words that you knew, but would never use, except perhaps to look up in dictionaries or to whisper to yourself at night, just to understand what they sounded like.   

Remember I’m talking about the late 1960’s here, this was a fair while before the Sex Pistols upset Bill Grundy, and across the land people kicked in the front of their TV sets after Steve Jones used the F word (#9 on our 1-10 list). Next morning, my paper round took much longer than usual, as, wide-eyed, I read and re-read the headlines:

pistols
Well, this was forty years ago, and the world seems to have relaxed a bit around the whole blasphemy malarkey. I would struggle these days to upset anyone, even my mother, by saying ‘bloody hell’ while, for example, hammering my own thumb. But at number 9 & 10 on our profanity index, there’s still an opportunity to offend.

Unless you’ve spent the last five months working on a building site which, as it happens, I have.

And on a building site, there’s a whole different way of talking, where F&C words are just thrown about like confetti, and, as a result, they don’t really mean anything. It’s a bit like wearing your winter coat in September, when you know it’s going to get colder; there’s nowhere really to go. Where you do need the equivalent of another layer of clothing in November, the F&C gets repeated and repeated, and used in innovative ways, just to get the point across.

To illustrate how it works, to avoid any undue distress, and to allow this blog to creep through some security filters, let’s carry on with a bit of word substitution. For the F word, we need a word that works as a noun, a verb and an exclamation, and describes something fairly old and knackered, with sexual overtones. So we’re going to use the word Stringfellow. For the C word, we need to substitute a word that means something deeply unpleasant and incredibly distasteful. So we’re going to use the word Trump.

As an example, when I got to work last Monday morning, these are the words that greeted me:

‘Morning, you old trump, you look completely stringfellowed.’

Hopefully you get the gist. To illustrate how to use our words on site, the Emu will now be submitting the following definition to the Oxford English Dictionary (Stringfellowing Builder’s Edition)

 

Stringfellow

vulgar slang

Origin – early 16th/20th century: of Germanic/Northern English origin

Verb

Vulgar slang

verb: stringfellow; 3rd person present: stringfellows; past tense: stringfellowed; past participle: stringfellowed; gerund or present participle: stringfellowing

  1. have sexual intercourse with (someone) or (of two people) have sexual intercourse.
  2. damage or ruin (something).

Examples:

  • That digger is totally stringfellowed since Fred’s been driving it.
  • <insert name of supplier> have been stringfellowing us about since Christmas

noun

noun: fuck; plural noun: fucks

  1. an act of sexual intercourse;a sexual partner of a specified ability.

Example:

  • I hope you’re a better stringfellow than a bricklayer, mate, cos otherwise you’re no stringfellowing use to no one.

exclamation

exclamation: stringfellow

  1. used alone or as a noun or verb in various phrases to express annoyance, contempt, or impatience.

Example:

  • Stringfellow! Stringfellow! Stringfellow! Who put that stringfellowing scaffold pole there? It just stringfellowed me in the stringfellowing head!

 

Trump

Noun

Vulgar slang

Origin: Middle English/Scottish/American/Lunar

noun

vulgar slang

noun: trump; plural noun: trumps

  1. a woman’s genitals.
  2. an unpleasant or stupid person.

Examples:

  • He’s a total stringfellowing trump. I mean, I’m a trump, you’re a trump, but he’s a complete trump.
  • That mortar’s as dry as a nun’s trump

For extra emphasis, trump can be used as a verb, for example:

  • He’s as nutty as a trumping fruitcake

If you want further examples, just give me a call. I’ll put you on speakerphone and just carry on about my business.

And mother, if you’ve read this far, I’m really really sorry. I’m putting a hook in the wall this evening.

Now We Are Three

Well, we’ve been here before.

Four years ago, we saw #1 off to Uni, and it broke our hearts, not in a clingy or mawkish way but because we knew we’d miss him being such a big part of our lives all the time. Then, two years ago, #2 went off 200 miles in the opposite direction, and another little piece of our heart dropped away. #2 had eased our emotional passage by taking a few months off to explore the drug cartels of South America, which he might have felt would soften the blow of living in the more cosmopolitan parts of Bristol. He was right, up to a point; he told me the day before he left for year three that his new flat was next door to a brothel that smelt mysteriously of gravy, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the least, so I guess we’ve all come to terms with managing without each other. And we now have a huge stock (geddit?) of broth-el jokes to while away the winter evenings.

And now it’s time for number three.

I don’t even know where to start telling you about him. One day he’s going to get married, and there will be a queue of people at the wedding trying to grab the microphone and tell the story about the time when Felix said this, tried that, travelled there, made up that song, told that joke, forgot the really important thing and remembered the stupid one, and so on. And we probably ought to leave most of those stories for now, but just as a taster, in case you’re thinking about whether to RSVP to his wedding invite in 2028:

  • This is the boy who, age 3, almost drowned, jumping into a swimming pool to retrieve his toy polar bear. I asked him about this recently and he said he had a very clear memory of jumping in, and realising before he hit the water that he’d no idea how to swim.
  • This is the boy who would wander about so aimlessly (he once went walkabout with a friend when we were walking in the country, and got returned to us by a guy holding a shotgun, whose shoot he’d interrupted) that we started dressing him in a bright red duffle coat so we could spot him in the crowd. He spent most of years 4-8 looking like a still from Schindler’s List.
  • This is the boy who saw a friend walking past the house, and knocked on the window in his bedroom so enthusiastically that he put his arm through the glass, cutting a artery in the process, and spent the rest of the day in A&E, having generously decorated the bathroom red beforehand. All of this was on Mother’s day, which we will celebrate forever more at Emu Towers by watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • This is the boy, who, on a school cycling trip to Holland, managed, within 24 hours, to badly damage his bike within the first mile using only a lunch box and a bungee, get stuck up a tree, and burn his armpits with some dodgy deodorant.
  • This is the boy who can learn every song lyric on a single listen, and who can then sing it back, pitch perfect. Who can gatecrash his father’s gig and belt out the songs far better than his old man. Who can steal the show in front of pretty much any size audience, even if he does choose musical theatre as his preferred medium (I’ve still to come to terms with that).
  • This is the boy whose life was pulled apart when some toerag stole his facebook id, and posted really abusive messages to all of his friends. And because we all assumed that said toerag was one of his ‘friends’, he was the boy who walked to school on his own for the next year, who stopped going out in the evening, who changed schools so that he could distance himself from the scene of the crime, who made a whole new bunch of friends who he knew he could trust, and who did so with far more maturity that we could have ever expected.
  • This is the boy who took £20 into town to buy some stationary for school, got £18 change, and, on the way back gave it all to a homeless man who needed it more than he did.

He’s just a lovely, smart, funny, awkward, charming, beautiful kid. Obviously he’s our kid, so he’s lovelier, smarter, funnier and more awkward, charming and beautiful than any other child that’s ever been born, so it’s always going to be hard work to say goodbye. But we’re old hands at this now, we give him a note that tells him how much we love him, say goodbye and touch his face for the last time before Christmas, then step away before anyone sees any actual tears.

 

Then, like all the other parents dropping their kids off this weekend, we spend the journey home talking about all the things that make them special, and all the differences that there’ll be now that there’s an extra bed in the house, less noise to contend with, and a weekly shop that actually lasts past Tuesday.

 

And in a few days time we’ll see him on a screen on Skype and we’ll talk about little things until the screen freezes and you know it’s not going to come back but you still have the image of his face and you just put your hand out to touch the glass. And, several hundred miles away you know he’s probably doing the same thing.

 

In our case, we trundle home to two lively dogs, and a 15 year old who is extremely nervous about being repurposed as an only child, with all the direct parenting that that entails. We haven’t had a three person family for twenty odd years now, but I’m sure we can remember how to do it. Well, at least until Christmas.

 

 

The (Hi-viz) Cloak of Invisibility

A long time ago, I found myself working in an office with a go-getter of a manager, the sort of person who had a clear plan of how his life needed to work out in order for him to feel successful. It was so well planned, in fact, that he actually had a piece of paper that personal development coaches would drool over: degree from first class university, management trainee role, directorship role by age 30, partnership/owner of agency by 35, etc etc. It was so ambitious, that I think by the time he was 50 he was planning to be leader of the free world. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t got there yet (I just checked on Linkedin), but then again I don’t think he’s hit 50 yet either, so who knows.

I mention this because in the context of such an organised plan for life, the rest of us might have a bit more of a haphazard approach to where we end up spending our working time. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I ever looked at a job, and applied for it, thinking it would help me along a particular axis of achievement. What’s happened in my life so far has been a process of take on a job, do it for a while, and just as I’m getting bored, or incompetent, or both, someone kindly comes along and offers me something more interesting.

Which is what happened about a year ago. After spending most of my working days in a corporate office environment, it was time for a break, and I left, with no particular plans for the future. Pretty much as the door was closing behind me, I got a call from my (soon to be ex) boss, who was thinking about writing an autobiography, and was after some assistance with fact checking, editing, proofing and all the sorts of things that you need to do in order to get a book published. Which, incidentally, neither of us had a clue about. Seventy shades of fun ensued, getting familiar with all manner of new ways of working, getting a reader ticket to the British Library, spending hours looking through microfiche in dusty basements, speaking to incredibly bright and interesting people who thought little of talking to me between celebrity cookery shoots and the lost archives of PG Wodehouse, and finally holding a finished product in my hot and sweaty hand. Hot and sweaty, largely because I collected it directly off the press, which was a thirty mile cycle ride away.

Then, only a few hours after the hangover of the launch party had cleared, I got a phone call – a friend of a friend was running a construction project, and needed a bit of assistance organising stuff, making sure documentation hung together, and generally to keep him on the straight and narrow. (This, incidentally, is a more detailed job description than anything I’ve received since taking the job on. The benchmark for my continued employment is in line with the only two questions actually asked at my interview – ‘Are you reasonably organised?’ – ‘Yes’ and ‘Are you going to wind everyone up because you’re a complete arsehole?’ – ‘No’). So I said yes, on the condition that at any point (possibly when yes and no above got reversed), we could shake hands, I could walk off the site without having my lunchbox filled with mortar, and go back to wearing a suit and going to meetings for a living.

Anyway, the first couple of weeks went pretty well, so did the first couple of months and before I know it, I’m actually really enjoying myself, learning a ton of new stuff, meeting completely brilliant people, and being part of something that builds something really tangible, that people will enjoy living and working in. And there are bucketloads of lessons to be learnt in both directions between the people who put buildings in the air and people who (say) run projects in corporate environments. There’s stuff about governance, control, project management, people management, partners and suppliers that’s just itching to be written down…but that’s for a future blog. Because this one is about something really specific about working on a building site, that hit me in the face within hours of starting.

When you work on a site, you’re issued with, according to your health and safety rules, personal protective equipment, or PPE. This means you are supposed to wear, at all times, steel toecap boots, a high visibility vest, and a hard hat, plus all sorts of other exciting stuff like ear defenders, gloves, goggles, masks and harnesses, depending on the work you’re supposed to be carrying out, or if you’re headed for the Thursday Fetish night at the Loft (handily positioned just round the corner from our site).

And because you put this stuff on in the morning, if you leave the site, to get some milk or get some plans printed, or top up the unnerving amount of loo roll that seems to be being used up on a daily basis, you keep it on. So as you’re wandering along a street, humming gently to yourself, saying hello to someone you vaguely know, smiling benignly at young parents with difficult toddlers, holding the door open for somebody coming out of a shop, and…. Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.  You wear boots and a high viz jacket, and the world will summarily ignore you. The security experts of the world call this ‘hiding in clear site’, and apparently it’s all the rage if you want to bypass checks at festivals, nick equipment from offices or get up to any other sort of activity where no-one will look at you. Which is all very well, but a bit odd when you’re not used to it happening.

A couple of weeks after I started on the site, I was buying a coffee from the cafe nearby, actually in the process of handing over the money and getting my change, when a woman pushed right in front of me and ordered a ‘skinny soy latte to go and could you please hurry as I’ve got a terribly important meeting’. I genuinely had to reach around her to get my change; I can’t believe she didn’t see me there, but clearly I didn’t matter in the great skinny soy latte scheme of things. A few days later, I had to go to a meeting, and was wearing a suit – I went to the same cafe, got the same coffee, had a similar pleasant chat, and turned to see an orderly queue formed behind me.

A month or so later, I was walking into town, and saw a friend I’d not seen for about a year. We were walking towards each other, I threw my arms out, and this is what happened:

  • she saw a bloke in a high viz jacket heading towards her with his arms outstretched
  • she noticeably flinched, and swerved slightly to her left to avoid contact
  • noticing that this hadn’t deterred the bloke, she forced herself to look up at his face
  • thankfully she recognised bloke and swerved back into position

And I think that’s pretty much what happens all the time. People see the high viz jacket (it is, after all, doing a fairly good job in drawing the eye). As soon as they do, there’s a negative reaction that, at best, might be ‘this person doesn’t matter to me’. So they look straight past, possibly scanning the horizon for stuff that does actually matter.

All of which is a bit of a shame. Hiding in clear sight may be quite the thing for today’s modern criminal, but it’s very disappointing when it interferes with the morning coffee run.

Next time – why everything you’ve ever learnt about project management is wrong. Or something like that.

I’m just popping out to get coffee.

If you see me, don’t forget to wave.

Like that’s going to happen.