Sunday, 28 September 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

"Christmas Time, Mistletoe and..." slipping over every sodding thing...

We're officially into Autumn now and that can mean only one thing. Winter fast approaches. Okay, it can mean a few things - Summer's gone, Cliff will release a new single, Slade will re-issue a certain ditty, the temperatures will fall (in this hemisphere, anyway), and the ever-elegant me will no doubt find himself nose down on a pavement somewhere. And that is not a reference to office parties.

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is one of those times of year when the only promise it brings is slippery slopes (and flats). For the vast majority of MS sufferers, the coming cold months bring relief from heat-induced pains but swap those for cold-induced ones. 

This is especially true when deep frosts and then ice and snow appear. I find it hard enough to walk in a straight line without tripping over things like dog hairs or fluff, but when those admittedly highly dangerous items are covered with a blanket of frozen water the troubles multiply madly.

I try so hard to avoid finding my former love of skiing in any way ironic. This is because I genuinely used to love skiing, but for the past couple of Winters I have spent more time picking myself up from level roads and greens than I ever did on a precipitous Alpine slope with two waxy tripping hazards clipped to my feet. Mind you, I can finally really appreciate how the ski sticks might come in handy these days.

Then there's the dogs to consider. Our pets adore water. At the first sight of a stream they're straining at the leash to leap into the wet stuff and will happily spend hours chasing each other into and out of water courses of all descriptions. But when it comes to baths... it'd be easier persuading certain female celebrities to keep their knickers on when confronted by a dozen male strippers. It's this canine bath-aversion that means that in Summer the dogs get bathed outdoors. One garden, one hosepipe, two leashes and some shampoo and they end up smelling if not of roses, then at least something much more pleasant than stale dog. But in Winter they have to be manhandled into the bath filled with water that they apparently loathe. Not easy.

At least in the UK we don't have to change the tyres on the car, though. I used to live in Luxembourg and every Autumn the Summer tyres in all vehicles are switched to grippier Winter ones. Back here, we just leave on the ones we used all Summer and skid off the road at the first sign of a heavy frost.

Another annual ritual for me used to be preparing for the last haircut for a few months - longer hair being equal to a warmer head in my admittedly small mind. This year though I'm not bothering. It's got to the point where I have names for each hair because there are so few of them. Damn, Bert just took a nose dive off my left ear. And talking of noses, I think that means I now officially have more nose hairs than those left on my scalp. Anyway, I was sheared by a daughter yesterday and now look a lot like a hedgehog with alopecia. Her cut is just fine, but there's only so much you can do with a couple of dozen hairs and a prayer.

Christmas is another dread of mine. These days it seems to last all year round and I recall the lack of a sense of humour in people come the start of January as being particularly annoying. Last year I remember mentioning to a pub landlord something about the decorations getting earlier every year - on New Years Eve - and he didn't even crack a smile. Okay, very few people ever smile at my tired joke, but there was no need for him to pour my whisky away.

It's no wonder Santa's got a red face - he's probably sunburnt from the all year-long holiday season.

I will raise a glass or two in celebration though - but I'll be the one wishing 'Roll on next Summer'. Cheers!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

United we stagger

This past week has seen one topic dominate the news and the coffee rooms throughout the UK, and most especially in the northernmost area of the region. And just for a change I'm not talking about football.

The debate has raged - and that's not to strong a word - about the Scottish Independence vote. Or in other words about how many countries will continue to comprise the United Kingdom.

It's temptation is to tell you I wrote this on Thursday morning and that my prediction is that the 'No' vote will triumph by somewhere around 400,000 but I have a feeling that an action like that would not be believed by even my most gullible followers. (By the way, the most gullible award goes to the person - you know who you are - who actually went and checked the new version of the Oxford English Dictionary to see if they really had missed out the word 'gullible' from the definitions...)

The whole topic of Scottish Independence is no joke of course – although a comment about a 'Yes' vote meaning that the average life expectancy of a smaller UK would increase might have been thought to fall into that category. And I'm sure I heard someone comment that the average IQ would rise as well - not nice, but vaguely amusing from an English point of view. Scotland has provided the UK with many great things (beyond deep-fried Mars bars - and not just deep-fried Curly Wurlys) and there have been any number og great Scots.

Writers like the late, lamented Iain Banks, with or without his M, and Chris Brookmyre spring to mind as among my personal favourites, although I do exclude a certain R. Burns from that list. There have been - and continue to be - great sporting personalities such as Andy Murray and Jackie Stewart (no matter that 'personality' is rather stretching the term). On the invention front there's whisky, road tyres, television and tarmac.

These days, though, the best whisky is Japanese, we can carry a thousand books by our favourite Scottish authors on our (very American) Kindles, watch a TV that might have been invented as a concept by a Scot but has spiraled through the American, European and now Far-Eastern cycles until the monstrously flat screens of today abound (we have three TVs in our house) – and even then the PC is talking over as a control device for images.

There are some things that we continue to credit the Scots with inventing but things like the haggis have been more recently claimed as English in origin. As an Englishman I'm really not sure whether we actually want that sort of accolade, but what else are we to do with those bits that normally reside a long way inside sheep?

Even the 'modern' kilt has been credited to a Quaker from Lancashire - and although us Londoners might say that's still very Northern, I have the strongest impression that calling a Lancastrian a 'near-Scot' might result in some highly Glaswegian reactions.

You might notice that I haven't mentioned bagpipes - to be fair, they might well be another non-Scottish invention that is always linked with the Scots but sound-wise... ouch.

Despite the danger of alienating 45% of my UK audience I must admit that I was very much in favour of the Scots remaining part of the whole. The United Kingdom without Scotland is akin to Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson - not nearly as successful and colourful. I even spent the last few weeks avoiding all mention of Gordon Brown in case that swayed English opinion towards the 'you can keep them all behind Hadrian's Wall' camp. Ditto Billy Connolly. And would Andy Murray's triumph at Wimbledon last year still count as a British victory?

Back in the  early nineties I lived in Scotland for the best part of a year and it was for the most part great fun. My then girlfriend and I worked in the Columba Hotel in Oban and believe me, an Englishman working a busy hotel bar on the West Coast of Scotland certainly allows said Englishman plenty of interaction with both true Scots and alcohol. Far from damning me as a foreigner I was made welcome (as long as the beer-pumps and the optics kept pouring) and although it was raucous at times, there was no violence or rancour directed towards me. I even gained some respect since, as an Englishman, I could convince the occasional American tourist that the haggis was a real animal and could be spotted among the steeper hills.

That's a true story, by the way. The tourists might have thought that a Scot would concoct a haggis-based tale but a fellow 'foreigner' like me surely wouldn't... I know that at least two couples hiked off in search of the 'small woolly creatures with one pair of legs shorter than the other pair so they can go round and round the steep hills without falling over'. I know I shouldn't be proud of that but...

Like a great many members of the English population there's some Scottish blood lurking about in my genes (my maternal grandmother's surname was originally Kilby, derived not that long before her generation from the Scottish region of Kilbride). Even though I thoroughly believe that the Rose is a much better national symbol than the Thistle I still like to think of myself as part of a multi-national nation that continues to include the Scots. They add colour, invention and art to the party, not to mention the white-on-blue Saltire that constitutes such an important part of the Union flag.

I think it's a great idea to allow a proud nation like the Scots to determine their own future through debate an vote - if only a few more countries would take note of the near-perfectly peaceful manner in which this was carried out - but independence?

I wouldn’t mind but the Union was their idea in the first place…


Saturday, 13 September 2014

A Constant Companion

After my piece about Kate Bush (and other geniuses) a couple of weeks ago I have been constantly asked whether music really is that important in the grand scheme of things. Okay, two people asked me something along those lines in passing.

The truth for me is that my answer would probably be 'yes'. Music has always been around me, from cradle (dad was a drum player in a jazz band and mum liked pretty much everyone on 45 from Bernard Cribbens to Adam Faith) to the fast approaching grave. It has comforted me through the 'occasional' relationship break-up, inspired a whole novel by me (no joke), joined me in various celebrations and generally provided a back-drop to more activities than I care to mention - including one or two that I daren't say anything about on grounds of decency and/or libel...

The prime subject of my blog led a few people to question whether I was musically living back on the ark, particularly as I referenced one of her contemporaries and two individuals who have been dead for around a quarter of a century (Jeff Lynne, Freddie Mercury and Roy Orbison respectively), but my tastes really haven't atrophied or been stuck in the last century.

Recent purchases - as in within the past couple of months - have seen me acquire music published by Leah McFall, Jessie J and Paloma Faith, none of whom I imagine even remember much about the last century. As well as the crystal clear and unusual female voices that all three of these young ladies possess, I've maintained my interest in the rockier, more masculine, part of the market and follow the likes of The Kings of Lyon, Kasabian and the Kaiser Chiefs - although the proliferation of 'K's' has started to make me wonder what Freud is up to.

Regardless of my tastes now or back then, music can be cathartic, can modify a mood in the most amazing ways, and one evening it showed me what mass hysteria is all about and the true power of music...

The 9th December 1980. It was the evening of the day we woke to learn of Mark Chapman's assassination of John Lennon the previous night, and I had tickets to see Queen perform at the Wembley Arena. Naturally, although there was a buzz of excitement in the air, there was a muted quality to it. Twelve thousand music lovers were together to share in the experience of hearing their heroes perform live, but they were also there to mourn a tragic loss.

The concert started an hour late and by then the excitement had mounted to an oddly muted fever pitch. As the first chords crashed through the speakers, the entire Arena seemed to roar; people flew from their seats cheering, whistling and clapping. The stage, dark until that point, suddenly lit up as bank upon bank of coloured lights burst into brilliant life.

The first few tracks were frenetic, upbeat numbers that had the entire crowd keeping time with their feet, hands and even the plastic seats. But after the fourth track every light in the Arena went out, leaving us all in total, inky darkness. As one, the crowd seemed to hold its breath and after a few moments, a single, piercingly bright white spotlight lit a small circle on the middle of the stage.

Freddie Mercury stood within its glow and looking up he started to sing very gently. “Imagine there’s no heaven….”

The audience, released now from those long moments where time had seemed suspended, let out a roar that must surely have been heard across the entire capital. Mercury’s voice went silent as the crowd cheered and cheered.

I could feel every single hair on my body stand erect, electricity coursing across my skin. I remember looking around and every face I saw held similar expressions; a cross between pure joy and the most terrible mental agony. Most people that I could see close by had tears coursing down their faces and I suddenly realised that I, too, was crying. I looked at the stage, where Freddie Mercury was standing motionless and saw the bright sparkle of the great singer’s tears. 

I'd heard the term “mass-hysteria”. I had now witnessed it first hand, and doubted - correctly - that I would ever be able to accurately describe that feeling to anyone else.

After two, five, maybe even ten minutes, Freddie Mercury’s voice rose once more, and the entire crowd joined him in a momentous tribute to one of the greatest musicians of his, or any other, era. Whatever had happened after Freddie had started the first line of Imagine, it seemed to act as some form of catharsis and the rest of concert became a joyous celebration. After their third encore, the strains of God Save The Queen announced that the entertainment was finally over. 

To be truthful, I scarcely remember the Queen tracks that they performed that night - but I will never, ever forget the power of that first line of Imagine, and the myriad emotions it brought out of me.

Other than sharing such a powerful experience, my point here is that for me, music is a desperately strong thread that has bound my life across the decades. I often hear people, young and old, debating the merits of one performer or another and it reassures me - reassures me that music is an important thing or so many, as I believe it should always be. I can't imagine life without it.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Charity Appeals. Or does it?

Times change and so do our social habits. That's mostly a good thing - a great thing, even. But....

There's always a but, isn't there?

The word 'mostly' should be the clue, but when I write the word 'charity' as being  a possible exception to the changing times rule I'm betting that more than one eyebrow is raised. So let me explain...

or else...

This past week at work I started to count the number of times that various individuals asked me for contributions to the charity that they are currently supporting. It wasn't an exercise that I completed once the number spilled into double-figures. By Tuesday afternoon.

I changed tactics when a certain young man approached me and asked me whether I wanted to take part in an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge event he was organising (you read that right - he asked me). I declined as politely as I could in the face of request number fourteen but asked him to explain what is was actually for. Guess what? He didn't even know which charitable cause he was 'supporting' through his efforts to get people wet.

For the record, in the UK it's all about Motor Neurone Disease - not a million miles away from MS, but light-years apart in terms of current levels of charitable support.

My refusal had nothing to do with the cause, however, but more to do with the fact that everyone seems to want to have me donate portions of my salary to one cause or another - and that some of these causes have descended to slightly farcical self-aggrandisement exercises. By all means ask, but please, please, ask because you truly support a cause, not because you want to pour a bucket of water over a giggling teenager while someone else takes pictures for the local newspaper.

That specific challenge has actually been trending on Twitter (although quite what the challenge is in getting wet - especially for a Brit - is beyond me), but so few people understand the cause let alone the condition itself.

More worrying still was the element of 'if you don't do this then that means you must be a nasty, selfish person who doesn't care about... them'. That smacks of peer pressure - bullying, even - and there's probably a charity or seven trying to raise funds to combat that...

It's not that I don't support charitable efforts - I give to a few causes and even feel very slightly guilty when it's an MS charity because that might be seen as looking after my own interests - but there really should be freedom of choice in who gets supported without the bully-boy tactics that seem to be creeping into the equation.

I fully understand that if causes are not thrust into many people's faces then those people simply ignore what is happening around them - the benefits of TV marathon appeals are both an entertainment and a salutary reminder of how we can help others. The trouble is, it seems that every cause now has its champions no matter how obscure it might be.

How long will it be before Bernie Ecclestone and Bill Gates co-host 'Multi-Billionaires in Need?'

Come to that, the proliferation of causes make me wonder how long it will be before everyone has their own personal charity (in my case it's rapidly becoming Help the Aged Idiot).

Charity used to mean giving of both your wallet and your self - time, effort, overcoming fear - not of organising an event simply because you fancy trying some go-karting or mountain-biking or whatever. Those sort of events - opportunities for the organiser and friends to try new things - strike me as the exact opposite of what charity is all about.

Back at the end of the eighties - 1987 to be precise- the funding that Great Ormond Street Hospital received through the rights to J M Barrie's Peter Pan royalties (a secret before then), came to an end and funding was threatened (it has since been reinstated). The GOSH charity was established to help raise funds for the children's hospital and I took on a couple of challenges - and please note that word. The most memorable was that I did something that petrified me.

Billions and billions of pounds, dollars, yen, Outer Mongolian yak beans and various other currencies have been poured into the research required to get heavier than air objects to buzz around many thousands of feet aloft. Those banknotes have ensured that you or I could climb aboard an aircraft almost 100% sure that we are safe to do so.

Which doesn't explain why, some twenty-odd years ago, I chose to step outside one of those aircraft at 20,000 feet wearing a parachute probably made by the cheapest bidder for the contract, a fourteen year-old Far Eastern girl having a bad hair day, while she tries to translate the assembly instructions from a language she's never read before...

Or in other words, I undertook a charitable parachute jump.

These days, of course, I find a tall curbstone just as intimidating, and I know that not everyone has the time or opportunity to do anything quite so extreme (and which I have never, ever, ever, ever repeated) - and that means that easy opportunities to make a difference are very welcome and very much needed.

But not as many times as we are currently seeing, surely?

We should all consider how we can help others and charities are a convenient way of doing that. But by 'helping others', I mean the recipients of the monies raised, not those raising it. 

And please remember - if you haven't got spare money to donate to charitable causes, and you haven't the time or fitness to participate in charitable events, then you can at least spare some thoughts for those less fortunate than you.