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).

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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.

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.

 

 

Ever seen an Alien? No, me neither.

Mrs E, by her own admission, is something of an obsessive, particularly where music is concerned. When we first met, she was well into her Talking Heads phase, and, this being 1987, was suitably impressed by my life-size ‘True Stories’ poster that my friend Kevin B had kindly liberated for me from HMV. From there she went to an unparalleled devotion to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, and from there onto what I consider to be a slightly unhealthy obsession with Stuart Murdoch and the twee/tweed Belle & Sebastian.

But before any of that, and weaving a course in amongst it, there was Bowie. Always Bowie, and everything he ever did, with the possible exception of Tin Machine, to which she gave a sensibly wide berth. Before we met, she’d made a pilgrimage to Schöneberg in Berlin, where he’d stayed when he was recording Low, Heroes and Lodger, crossing Checkpoint Charlie to get there. Rather disappointingly, she reported it as reminding her very much of Catford.

When Bowie died, around this time last year, she was understandably devastated. Honestly, when I shuffle off this mortal c., I’d be happy with half the amount of tears and hand-wringing that defined Emu Towers in the weeks after he died. In that time, the stereo pumped out a fairly rigid playlist that was basically the Blackstar album, with anything else interrupted by ‘I’m not really in the mood for this’ or ‘This is nonsense’.

There were a few crumbs of comfort. Listening to Bowie, Bowie, Bowie wasn’t actually that much of a hardship, even though it was pretty much every day of 2016. And Christmas present buying had never been so easy.

Present #1 – ‘The Complete David Bowie” – a completely brilliant book by Nicholas Pegg that charts Bowie’s every song, recording session, gig and very possibly each evening meal from 1958 to 2016.

Present #2 – Two tickets to see ‘Lazarus’, in London’s glittering West End (cf a temporary theatre outside King’s Cross station). If you’re not familiar with Lazarus, it’s a stage show that sort of completes Bowie’s creative career, insofar as it was the very last thing that he worked on – and he got to see it too, in production off Broadway in his last public appearance, a month before he died. It’s the continuation of the story of Thomas Jerome Newton, the anti-hero alien from ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ – Bowie’s best (and some would say only decent) film appearance. Because it’s Bowie, it borders into performance art, and because it’s Bowie, there are reinterpretations of his songs, and some new stuff. And (bonus), it stars Michael C Hall, star of the wonderful Dexter series, who is the subject of a minor crush from Mrs E.

Partly as a result of #1 and #2, Mrs E was the happiest of bunnies all over Christmas, and much of our relaxation time in the evenings since has been spent preparing the ground for present #2, listening to the cast recording, tutting quietly over #1 (which she’s reading like a novel, rather than an encyclopaedia), and watching back to back episodes of Dexter. The book runs to 794 pages, and there are eight seasons of Dexter, so this is a pretty big undertaking, for anyone but the most hardened of Bowie fans. And her husband.

When I bought the tickets, it was already a sell-out, but I hunted around and got, at no small expense, two tickets (seats 17 & 18) in row Z, about two thirds of the way back from the stage. When she’d calmed down from opening the tickets, Mrs E did further research on the theatre layout, pronounced the tickets ‘excellent’ but then went onto Amazon and bought a pair of military-grade binoculars, ‘just to be on the safe side’.

The great day came, and we mooched around London, with Mrs E getting steadily more and more excited, and got to the theatre an hour and a quarter before show time. Because you never know when they might call an emergency tube strike, after all.

A cheeky snifter before the show, and we took our places, looking down onto the stage, which already had Michael C Hall on it, laying on his back, playing dead before the first scene.

“Excellent”, pronounced Mrs E, adjusting her binoculars, and checking MCH out for freckles.

The stage was set up with the band set back and up, with a big screen in the centre of the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it for your edification:
alien-5
With about ten minutes to show time, Seat W 17 was occupied by a large bloke wearing a parka coat with the hood up. Eventually the hood came down, but left a bit of a static halo around his head.

Before I’d adjusted my neck to compensate for the next two hours, the occupant of Seat X 18 arrived. To my surprise, he was sporting a magnificent Afro cut, the sort of thing that you might have seen on Jermaine Jackson, around 1978. Unfortunately there was no equivalent to the ‘removing the parka hood’ option for X 18, but with a readjustment of the neck, I could still just about see Michael C Hall’s feet.

A real bonus, however, was that seats Y 17 and 18, immediately in front me, were empty, and, as the houselights went down, I happily remembered the ticket instructions about no latecomers being admitted.

Unfortunately, someone in the theatre hadn’t read their own rules, because, just as MCH’s feet start moving out of view, some hushed excuses were whispered, and I was presented with the backs of what appears to be two Canadian lumberjacks, just in from felling redwoods, or working out at the gym, or possibly back from the steroid shop. I’m generalising terribly, but these guys were huge, with bull necks, checked shirts and hipster beards, so big that they could barely sit down without being on each other’s laps. As a result, my view suddenly became really quite limited. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching it:
alien-4

Unfortunately, my view stayed pretty much like that for the rest of the show, so I can report very little about MCH’s acting skills, particularly as an awful lot of the play seemed to involve lying down on the stage. There were a few exceptions. At one point, a load of colourful clothes are thrown into the air, and they sailed into view for me just above the first Canadian prop forward’s buzz cut. I felt a bit like a midget watching the hats go into the air on VE Day.

And during ‘Absolute Beginners’, MCH manages to hold his negligee-clad fellow singer up, like a gymnast, flat against the big screen, legs and arms spread out like a star. This was delightfully framed by two bushy beards, but slightly spoiled by the singer’s open mouth and posture looking a bit too much like an inflatable sex toy, which I’m sure wasn’t the look they were going for.

By far the best part of the show however, was in ‘All the Young Dudes’, in which I managed to get an almost unimpeded view of the stage for over a minute and a half. ‘All The Young Dudes’ obviously has a place deep in the heart of your average Shoreditch/Canadian gym-bunny/lumberjack hipster type, as it was the cue for the occupants of Y 17 and 18 to engage in some really enthusiastic necking. No apologies for that rather dated phrase, which you might have last seen on a swimming pool poster, prohibiting necking, petting, smoking and bombing, because Y 17 & 18 were, delightfully for all parties in row Z, neck to neck, kissing and nibbling all through the second and third verse. (Incidentally, I’m going to form a company called Necking, Petting, Smoking and Bombing. It’s going to replace Sue, Grabbit and Run as my ideal Solicitor’s firm. Any lawyers wanting to join my startup, form an orderly queue.)

Anyway, at about the time in the song that Ian Hunter would have cried “I Wanna Hear Ya”, they separated necks, resumed their positions, and, I’m embarrassed to say, both heard me loudly sigh with disappointment.

So, all in all, I may be the wrong person to review this show. There was plenty of reinterpretation being flung about, as you’d expect from anything that Bowie had a hand in, and they stayed more or less true to the lyrics of the songs, which, because no-one really understands them, didn’t really help with the overall narrative.

But the musicianship was great, and a few moments (Life on Mars, being sung by the astonishing Sophie Anne Caruso; Valentine’s Day, sung by Michael Esper, and MCH’s Absolute Beginners for example), were sublime.

And Mrs E wouldn’t have missed it for the world. She’s an addict, after all, and she needed to know that she’d seen it. And she had the distinct advantage of sitting behind a very small and very old man wearing an anorak and a flat cap. (Him, not her, you understand. She’d taken her anorak off by then, tee hee). And she really enjoyed the whole thing, which kind of made her Christmas present worthwhile.

I asked her about what she thought of Michael C Hall on the way home.

“He must have got really tired”, she said, “he was on stage for pretty much the whole show”.

“Was he?” I asked.

The mutt’s nuts (part two)

In our last exciting instalment, we left Solomon, a sweet adolescent dog (regarded by Mrs E very much as her fifth son, and treated with more devotion than any of the previous four), nervously anticipating a trip to the vets to remove any opportunities to create little Solomons in the future.

As we could easily have predicted, he wasn’t keen on the exercise at all, and started whimpering softly as the car pulled in to the vets, the scene of previous anti-emetics and painful injections. Mournfully he looked up at Mrs E, as if to say “Why Me?”. Mrs E, however, was probably thinking that if the exercise went well, she might investigate a similar exercise on certain of Solomon’s four predecessors.

We picked him up later that day, and he was more pleased to see us than, say, a dog with two tails. There was also a soldierly air about him that said ‘Oh this old scar, don’t worry, it’s not bothering me at all’. He was a bit like my friend M, who is a carrot farmer, and had a vasectomy scheduled one morning during harvest, so made it very clear that he needed to be right back on the tractor in the afternoon. Which he was.

However, Norfolk dogs need to be treated with a certain more care than Norfolk farmers, it would appear, and so Solomon was restricted to lead walks for a week so as to avoid pulling his stitches out, something which he found slightly irritating. And even more irritating when, after a couple of these, Luna found that she could wind him up by running full pelt at him from behind, bumping into him. then sprinting off into the distance. It reminded me very much of David Gower in a biplane at a test match, or, if early 1990’s cricket references aren’t your kind of thing, Dawn French in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Dawn’ (specifically around 4:50 on this clip, but if you’ve not seen this before, do watch the whole thing, at least three times) :

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2ndp6c

After a week of this, Solomon and Mrs E had had quite enough (although I think Luna could have kept going happily for a couple more months), and he was let off the lead, with no negative issues for either scars or stitches. At which point, on pretty much every walk, Luna spent a lot of time barking at him to calm down.

Some months ago, Mrs E told me that she would definitely need a final celebration of her special birthday year, which I dutifully booked. I opted for a romantic weekend, a mere skip and a jump from the Peak District hotel where we spent our wedding night (an evening, that, for reasons I’ll tell you about another time, was spent with Emlyn Hughes, and which, as a consequence, is marred in my memory by a ridiculously voice calling out “3:1! 3:1 we won that day” at a pitch that Solomon would have heard even more acutely than we did). However, the romance of the birthday break was soon to dissipate, as it became clear that this was primarily a weekend for Solomon to recuperate, and start his genital-free life anew.

Fortunately, the romantic cottage we’d booked was declared ‘dog friendly’ on the web, we quickly ordered a book called something like ‘Suitable Walks for Freshly Neutered Dogs in Derbyshire’, and set off for a gentle adventure.

A couple of weeks earlier, I’d spent some time in the company of an estate agent, with a challenging taste in business wear and a generous weekly allowance for hair product, who told me that the estate agent’s best friend was the wide angle lens. I was reminded of this conversation as we walked into the cottage, and soon found the ground floor fully occupied simply by closing the front door. There were quite a few sideways and backwards moves required in order to navigate the process of preparing a meal, not entirely helped by the dogs not having a reverse gear. This picture will give you an idea of the starting position.

puzzle-image

Anyway, we were met by the very friendly, and fortunately, quite thin, cottage owner, who wedged her way into the porch to give us some advice, which included the news that the dogs would not be allowed upstairs, despite the stairs being completely open. With a nimbleness afforded only by many years of yoga and aerobics classes, Mrs E manoeuvred her way from position 3 to 12, with very little injury to either dog, and made it clear to our hostess (now resident at position 14), that there was no way that her little darlings were going to be kept downstairs in a strange house, no matter how cosy. Fortunately, a major diplomatic incident was avoided, as our hostess squeezed across to position 15, inspected the dogs, and declared (seriously) that they had short enough hair for this not to be an issue.

Having scored the first moral victory of the day, we all trooped upstairs, to investigate the ‘compact and bijou’ bedroom with some interest, finding just about enough room for two carefully folded dogs on my side of the bed.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was to spell the end of romance and very much the start of pampered recuperation. Solomon’s recent operation had, for some reason, altered his body clock to be wide awake at odd hours of the night. It had also given him a healthy appetite, and interestingly, an enthusiasm for all sorts of excrement littered across the Derbyshire countryside. He had a particular penchant for Sheep shit, but was also partial to a bit of Cow and Horse. As a result, his breath absolutely stank. He is probably oblivious to a combination of halitosis, farm animal excrement and gingivitis, but it’s hard to ignore when it’s delivered at 2 in the morning directly onto your mouth. Telling him to lay down and turning your back doesn’t really work either, unless your idea of a wake-up call is being rimmed by an enthusiastic puppy five minutes later. I mentioned this to Mrs E, who made it clear that her empathies were all with the dog. Anyway, all things considered, I prefer a snooze button.

Anyway, Solomon certainly seemed to have received the message that this holiday was for him, and him alone, and subsequently lorded it over all and sundry. I suspect he’s over compensating, as, if anything, his chest is puffed up even higher than ever, but at least he’s stopped humping animate and inanimate objects without warning. He seems pretty relaxed, if his sleeping position is anything to go by:


And if he winds me up, I just whisper ‘Jaffa’ in his ear. He doesn’t necessarily understand, as, being Hungarian, the finer points of British slang can be lost on him, but it makes me feel much better.

 

 

Commuting for Dummies

Firstly, gentle reader*, apologies. I promised that I’d be writing blogs pretty much non-stop in 2016, and I seem to have missed that target fairly dramatically since April. In the spirit of ‘plan, say what you’re going to do, then do it’, which is the sort of anodyne nonsense that I might lay down in front of my children, I’ve managed to completely miss the mark.

And it’s not that there hasn’t been much to write home about. In the past, The Emu has brought you news on a) The state of dogs in the Emu household, b) being a parent, c) the joys of spending as much as possible of your life in France, d) the joys of running e) the not quite matching joys of cycling, f) the state of the music industry g) the world of employment, h) the state of the glorious car crash of Norwich City’s footballing existence, and i) the state of the world as we know it. And pretty much all points from a) through i) have needed some sort of commentary in the last six months.

To save me and you the bother of a really long update, however, this is the very quick summary from Emu towers:

  • a) Teenage angst continues against a backdrop of loveliness and barking
  • b) Teenage angst continues against a backdrop of loveliness and mortality
  • c) Not currently relevant
  • d) Completely knackered
  • e) Hills in June were fun and scary; Velodrome in August, more fun & more scary
  • f) Beginning to think that anything produced after 1979 was a bit of a waste of effort
  • g) Not currently relevant
  • h) Surprisingly positive, although currently holding my breath until Newcastle away on Wednesday
  • i) Completely knackered

That’s us all up to date then, eh. Maybe some more on those later if you’re interested.

Or if I am. Because there’s been so much chopping and changing of late that it’s meant a bit of what analysts might call self-reflection. You get to a point in your life when a)-i) (or their equivalents) are the things that define you, then they all change, or fall away, and you kind of wonder what definition to your life is actually left. Which is far too deep and self-absorbed for this blog, but just so as you know, it’s currently all kicking off on the reflection front.

Meanwhile, and in a fairly convoluted way, I’m going to spend a few words on g), if you’ll humour me. At the end of July, I left my job. I didn’t have anything to go to, it just felt the right thing to do, and there wasn’t really a role where I thought I could make a difference any more. So off I went, waving goodbye to some quite wonderful people whose company I really enjoyed, and who it’s unlikely I’ll see again much in the future, if at all.  I’ve worked with some of these people for over twenty years, and we got to my last Friday, and at 3pm, lots of smiling faces surrounded my desk (and blocked any potential exit path). A short, kind and embarrassing speech was made. A long, rambling and embarrassing response was made. Hands were shaken, promises made, and lots of us went off to the pub, where drinks were bought, and I tried (and failed) to tell people that working together had made a brilliant difference to me. Which it had. And by 11pm, having reached a state which Private Eye used to call ‘tired and emotional’, it was pretty much time to call it a night. And in an unusual reversal of roles, and one which I just know is going to rebound on me very soon, I was accompanied home by my 18 year-old son who, sober as a judge, watched on benignly as his father pedalled furiously home. And I woke up the next day, without too much of a morning head, and started wondering what to do next, and thinking about the people and the conversations I was going to miss the most.

It’s all a bit weird, and I need to sort out, bit by bit, what to do next on the working for a living front, and how best to do it.

One thing that really is important to the future is the degree to which I travel to, from and for work. In the past, my criteria was that any job I took on needed to be at a place that I could run, or, at a stretch, cycle to, each morning. When my main office moved from an office two miles from my home in Norwich, up to Newcastle, this made the challenge a stretch too far. Being injured (see d) above), means that the commuting radius is dragging inwards, but as it happens I’m currently doing some work that necessitates sitting at a table for several hours at a time; this specific table being in my shed at the top of the garden. So, currently, my morning commute takes about 60 seconds in good weather, assuming the dog isn’t planning to ambush me en route.

And if anything, as far as a commute goes, that’s a little bit too short. I know, I know, some people just can’t be satisfied can they? After all, I’ve spent much of the last thirty (and practically all of the last five) years complaining about business travel, and now I’m whining on about not having enough of it. But, in my defence, all I’m trying to flag is that sometimes that routine, and gap between home and work, can be a great time to set yourself up for the day, or evening, depending on which way you’re travelling.

I spent a brilliant weekend last month with my parents; two of the kindest, smartest and funniest people I know. I’m not just saying that because they’re my parents, they just really are all of those things at once – I reckon I can do, at a push, two out of three of kind, funny and smart at any given time, but never all three at once. Like all families, we tell stories, and my mum was telling me about her morning commute with my dad in the 1950’s. They both had jobs that meant driving to the railway station each morning, and to do this, my dad had bought a Morris 8 ‘Tourer’. I think the word Tourer, meant ‘without roof’, so my mum had to borrow (and break) her landlady’s sewing machine to make a roof for it. The car also featured a battery that discharged itself overnight, so had to be bump started each morning. This all sounds a bit of a nightmare, but I’ve seen a picture of the car and, despite all of the above, the rusting running boards and the sheer impracticality of owning it, I still can’t believe they sold a thing of such great beauty. Apparently they had to do so in order to buy a pram to transport my elder sister about in, so I’ve mentally laid the blame at her door ever since.

Anyway, back to their morning commute. My dad, apparently, as the one who knew how the car worked (and who knew how to drive), would sit in the driver’s seat, and my mum would start pushing, an exercise which wasn’t really helped by her office shoes having a fashion-conscious 3” heel. Slow progress would be made, until around the corner would walk a smart middle aged man in city clothes, wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella. Without a word, he’d place his hat and umbrella on top of the car, push along with my mum until the motor engaged, retrieve his hat and umbrella, and continue his walk to work. This would have been odd in itself, but apparently it happened every day, without a word being exchanged, for a number of weeks, until my dad finally got the starter motor fixed (or bought a pram, I’m not sure which happened first).

I was reminded of this story earlier this week, when I had the first commute for over a month, down to London for the day. To start with, I wasn’t quite sure what to wear. I had a half day conference with some IT Director types in the morning, followed by an afternoon where I had to be approved for a British Library reader’s pass, followed by a few hours where I needed to look and behave like a serious researcher. To add to the sartorial dilemma, I had to cycle to the station and back. I’d had a similar problem the week before, when I’d done some work up in York for the day, returning back just in time to get to see the mighty Canaries just about hang on to a 2:1 win mid-week against a very average Wigan side. I was still wearing suit and tie in the stands, and at half time got a load of abuse from a complete stranger – “what, are you f’ing selling f’ing stocks and f’ing shares” he snorted at me as he pushed by to the pie stand, giving an excellent example of what passes for wit in Norfolk. Anyway, I opted this morning for a linen suit, to compromise the cycle/seminar/library dilemma, with a lively blue and white checked shirt to appeal to the IT Directors. I teamed (as Trinny and Susannah would no doubt say) this outfit with some brown DM shoes, partly because I knew that most of the IT directors were from the public sector. Honestly, you might not think it, but a lot of thought goes into looking an uncoordinated mess for the modern man, and even more impressive when you think that this was all put together at 0530, in the dark, as I’d managed to get a cheap ticket to London on the 0624 train.

Anyway, these are all the social interactions I had on the journey: Said hello to the ticket collector at Norwich. A nod to the train guard when I got on the train. An ‘excuse me’ to my fellow commuter as I got up to get a cup of tea. A cheery hello to the lady who makes the tea on the buffet car, and several good mornings to the group of people who make it their business to treat the buffet car as a non-alcoholic standing room only pub at 0700 in the morning. A quiet chat with an old friend who I used to work with. A thank you to the ticket collector in London, as the new ‘ticket free’ mobile ticket isn’t recognised by any of the automatic barriers. A resigned smile to the owner of the armpit I was pressed up against on the Northern line. A good morning to the receptionist at the hotel where the conference was.

In most cases, I got a bit of a good morning back. Which was nice, but, on reflection, not really enough, because as I walked down the stairs to the conference room, I looked down and noticed that my flies had been undone since I’d left the house that morning. Worse, there was a lively piece of blue and white checked shirt, literally flagging the fact that they were open.

I mentioned earlier about the conversations that I was going to miss, now that I was no longer at work. As it goes, ‘Your flies are undone’, seems like an odd one to miss, but, I thought, as I made the necessary adjustments before walking in to the meeting, quite important.

 

 

* I’m in the shed. Will be down in 5 minutes, ok?