International Men’s Day

Today has been International Men’s Day. The company I work for has decided to celebrate this, as represented by a wodge of papers being handed out as late as 5.30pm, including one sheet on which we are invited to design a moustache (this is also Movember) and a Word Search featuring inspirational male figures, including Walt Disney.

Quite apart from having had the lifelong impression that Men’s Day occurs 365 days a year, I’m also a little pissed off at the serious stuff at the back. I quote:

“Crime – Men are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime and are more likely to be killed by strangers and killed by someone they know accounting for more than 71% of all murders.”

Now that doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless I am overlooking some obvious category in addition to people you know and people you don’t know. As for the twice as likely and 71% bits, these presumably indicate that men make up the majority of murder victims.

These statistics may well be completely correct, but what they don’t do is take into account the commonplace fact that in order to reduce murders, you have to concentrate upon reducing murderers. And I would be interested in knowing what percentage of murderers in general are men, and even more interested in what percentage of murderers of women are men. I suspect that 71% would be left in the shade on both scores.

I have an aversion to slanted information, even when – especially when – it’s slanted in my favour.


Not always Crap Journalism (again)

Sometimes, I link to articles in the Guardian, a paper currently towing far more of the Government’s slimy line than it has ever done whilst congratulating itself on how different it is. Usually it’s to rant against Crap Journalism, most but by no means all of it coming from Stuart Heritage (that I haven’t done so lately is not down to his standards improving but the skill with which I avoid reading him at all).

But I also like to credit Not Crap Journalism and today it’s Hadley Freeman’s Saturday Column. I don’t always agree with her, but more often than not her thinking is along good lines, both good and Good.

I quote the end of today’s column. I hope it inspires you to follow the link and read the rest of it yourself. This, I believe, is writing of the simplest and highest sanity:

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect my sons to know they can’t assault women, or support a political infrastructure that benefits only them, or be compulsive horndogs like Bill Clinton. I’m good with them growing up knowing that if they are sexually or physically aggressive they will pay for it, and that voting only for their own rights drags everyone backwards.

Boys may well be boys, but one day they will be men. And being a man is not an excuse – it’s a responsibility.”

One Hundred Years: They Shall Not Grow Old

On the centenary of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 
England mourns for her dead across the sea. 
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 
There is music in the midst of desolation 
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 
They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 
To the end, to the end, they remain.
For The Fallen
Laurence Binyon

The Matter of Asia Biba

There’s a headline in the Guardian today, reporting that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has quashed the death sentence imposed in 2010 upon Asia Biba, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in that she allegedly insulted or disparaged the Prophet Mohammed. The decision is likely to cause deep trouble in Pakistan, where blasphemy is taken ultra-seriously, carries an automatic death sentence and, whilst no-one convicted has actually been executed, the death sentence frequently gets carried out by lynch mobs.

I’m not going to start making caustic comments in my usual manner, because I don’t think anybody needs telling what to think here. This is too serious a subject for levity: the lady herself has been in solitary confinement for eight years – eight years – under the threat of this sentence and there are political parties demanding her death, and the death of the Judges who have taken this situation. You don’t have to be an atheist to find all this horrific. At least, I hope you don’t.

The return of Asia Bibi to the headlines awoke a memory of a short piece I offered to the Guardian at the time her story was in the news. It was considered but rejected by implication (i.e., it never got printed and I didn’t make any money off it). Given what’s happened today, and the piece’s transition from the micro to the macro, I’m giving it here:

“I’m not a stranger to insecurity: that undermining sensation that whatever you say or do, you’ll reveal your ignorance, your inadequacy, your lack of… well, whatever seems important at the time.

But, years ago, I first noticed a form of insecurity that only seems to be growing, despite the fact that it’s based on massive, unalloyed success.

I’d moved to a new branch, done the usual ‘what do you do/what do you watch/what’s your music?’ questions, and slightly flummoxed my new manager by mentioning Shawn Colvin. Her reaction – as soon as she actually heard her first Colvin song – was to start having a dig at me every opportunity, over how Colvin was ‘bloody rubbish’. Then came the fatal moment.

Diana Ross was in town, and my manager was going. What did I think of Diana Ross, then? With some care, I avoided giving her a true but unflattering response and settled for the ameliatory, “She’s not my kind of music, really.” “She’s better than Shawn Colvin!”

After that, it got bad. I endured endless snide remarks, all aimed at one end: getting me to admit Diana Ross was the better artist.

What I couldn’t understand, then or now, was why my manager was so vehement in her efforts. Diana Ross was, and for decades had been, an international star, beloved by millions. She sold out concerts world-wide. Every album she released probably sold more than Shawn Colvin’s entire career. Even at the height of her commercial success, Colvin was, and would stay, a cult artist. And an enthralling one to this day, needless to say.

If you saw it as some kind of contest, Diana Ross had already won. My manager had backed the victor, agreed with the majority. So why did it matter so much to her that one person preferred a nobody? Make no mistake, this wasn’t fanaticism, which we more often see in the young, defending their choices against the most fleeting criticism. I knew insecurity when I saw it.

So, when you follow a mainstream, majorly successful artist, where does the insecurity that keeps you from just enjoying your favourite, that compels you to howl down even the slightest criticism, come from?

Multiple examples of this were seen in response to Alex Petrides’ review of the posthumous Michael Jackson CD. Collectively, it can seem hilarious, but when you read fans proclaiming ‘My life is better for having lived during his era’, the laughter starts to sound hollow. The same fan, asked why no MJ fan seemed able to accept any criticism, replied that he ‘would defend MJ in the same manner (he) would defend a family member, such was (MJ’s) impact on (his) life.’ (He also claimed that MJ made Quincey Jones, which is equally worrying.)

It was the same as the cries of pain from Take That fans responding to Johnny Sharp’s article about Deep And Meaningless Pop Epics. We can all cite similar examples (is life actually worth living when you cross a Robbie Williams fan?)

But whilst it can be amusing to watch fans of the biggest acts clamber over themselves to get a lonely non-believer to take back what he said, that still leaves the question of why they can’t accept less than 100% approval. The religious parallel is immediate, especially given some of the comments of the Michael Jackson fans.

Worrying as it is to think of today’s Pop Idols – even the dead ones – becoming the fount for someone’s spiritual needs, it is equally worrying to recognise the even greater depths of insecurity underpinning religions themselves. The women of Asia Bibi’s village claim that “She is Christian, we are Muslim, and there is a vast difference between the two. We are a superior religion.” Yet they also demand, “Why hasn’t she been killed yet?” If their religion is superior as they state, why are they afraid of the ‘damage’ one woman can do?

The East is not the only part of the world where superiority hasn’t managed to convince the superior that they are actually so superior after all.

Can we think of a country, not further than an ocean away, which has enjoyed unparalleled military, economic and cultural dominance over the whole planet, for more than half a century, yet acts with childish bafflement and complete incomprehension – shortly followed with anger, outrage and rank bullying – whenever someone so much as smiles, nods and says, ‘very nice, but I think we’d prefer to keep doing it the way we’re used to, thank you.’

And given that this country is going to lose it’s economic supremacy in the foreseeable future, are we entirely comfortable at how it’s going to react?

Would you find Take That fans quite as risible if you knew they were armed, and really, really wanted you to take back what you just said about Gary Barlow?”


Why I Am

I try not to make this blog a version of therapy. It’s supposed to be about me only in respect of my opinions of various things that interest me, or my experiences of fellwalking or other expeditions. My ‘issues’ stay in the background for the most part.

Sometimes, things break through, like my post this week about attending my oldest mate’s father’s funeral, and going on to a new counselling session in which my own experience of losing my father, almost half a century ago, was one of the major issues we discussed. The blowback from that carried over into Friday and a day’s work, for which I was not best fitted.

Sometimes I wonder why losing Dad, even at such a significant point in my life, still has the power to crush me. I feel weak for letting it affect me so, but then I look back to the things that shaped me in the years before that happened, and it’s all too clear how I had already become an isolated child. There was a whole long line of things that, coming within a relatively short period, combined with an effect that could not have been bettered by any calculation.

It begins with my birthday being in mid-November, 1955. I started at the local school, which was literally at the end of the street, in the nursery year when I turned 4. This meant starting school in January 1960, when everybody else had started in September. This is, as far as I can recollect, one of the few things not to have any negative effect on me: I met my oldest mate in the nursery and we have been friends for almost 59 years.

My birthday didn’t become relevant until my final year at Elysian Street Mixed Infants and Juniors, in Junior 4, the year in which we would all sit the Eleven-Plus Exam. I was a bright, academic boy, obvious material for a Grammar School, and my Headmaster wanted me to get that chance. However, to enter this Eleven-Plus, you had to be eleven on or before August 31 1966. Three of us were excluded from the mock exam because of our birth dates. The other two would almost certainly be ok: one girl born September 1, one boy no more than 4 to 5 days over. I was ten weeks outside the line.

My Headmaster, Mr Phillipson, went in to bat for me. I can only thank his insistence that I get my chance. The immediate consequence of his failure would have been repeating Junior 4. It would have been disastrous.I’d have fallen back into a year of class-mates I didn’t know, who I thought of as children in comparison to myself, and I would have been repeating an entire year of work I had not only done but in many instances had gone past already.

But that was not all. Harold Wilson’s first Government had been elected in 1964, and re-elected in 1966. The Comprehensive System was coming in, where selection for schools was based more on geography than ability: in 1967 there would be no Eleven Plus for me to sit, nor Grammar School to attend.

And there was even more to it than that. My parents had lived in Brigham Street since they were married, in 1950. By the mid-Sixties, they wanted to move up. A bigger house (there were two children), a garden, a nicer area. All they were waiting for was the school I would go to, to give them an area to focus upon.

There was another, much more important factor. East Manchester in general, and Openshaw in particular, was being redeveloped. Hundreds and thousands of terraced streets were being torn down. My mother’s parents and her sister’s family had already been moved out, to Hulme and Hattersley respectively. Brigham Street was coming down in 1970. House-owners – of whom there were only three in our street, my Dad one of them – would be re-housed, but only if they had owned their property for three years. That set an inflexible deadline. If the house didn’t sell before 31 December 1966, that was it. It would be blighted. There would be no buyers.

So there was a lot resting on my sitting, and passing, the Eleven Plus. No pressure, then.

How much of of this I was aware of, I can’t recall. I do know Mam and Dad wanted to move, but when I don’t know. I passed the Eleven Plus, one of only two boys to be offered a choice of four Grammar Schools. The two North Manchester Schools were rejected out of hand, the nearest was in Gorton, which wasn’t much of a step up from Openshaw, if any, and my parents chose Burnage Grammar, away in leafy South Manchester suburbia.

My exact age meant I had to have an interview with the Headmaster to check just how mature I was, but I got in and started in September 1966. Mam and Dad had identified a house about a mile away from the school, and were negotiating with a buyer, who I’m pretty sure knew how strong a position they were in given our circumstances.

But I was still living in Openshaw when the First Year started.We wouldn’t actually move to Burnage until a fortnight before Xmas, a week before end of term. To get to School for 9.00am, I had to walk ten minutes to the main road, catch a bus to Fairfield Road and change to the 169/170 route to Burnage, an hour’s travelling, and an hour back.

Given the distance, I got a Free Bus pass from the Education Committee, but the distance I had to travel meant no hanging around getting to know my new class-mates, let alone the rest of the First Year. With only one other exception that I was aware of, they were all local to the School, coming from a limited number of Primary Schools, all of them arriving at Burnage knowing anything from a handful to a dozen of new boys already. Understandably, I was the only boy from Elysian Street.

I was taken out of a close-knit class of local boys and girls, who had been together as an unchanging group for seven years, and thrust into a group of strangers who knew each other but not me, and who were all boys. With my travelling and homework, I wasn’t seeing even my best mates, our little game of six, two Steves, two Alans, a Dave and me. Not even at weekends: on Saturdays we always when to Granny’s in Droylsden and Sundays in mid-Sixties East Manchester were not days where you could go and play out, with or without your mates.

So by the time I’d moved to Burnage, it was too late to make those initial connections and friendships. I was already finding myself slipping into a kind of isolation, the worst kind, when you’re on your own in the middle of a crowd. I don’t even remember getting myself accepted into any of the groups of lunchtime football in the yard until the Second Year.

And I’d arrived in Burnage in the winter, of cold days and early dark. At home, my first home, there was a park at the end of the street too, with a playground, where every kid played, and my house was a terraced house in a dead-end street, with a croft and a lock-up garage wilderland outside. My new home was on a four car-widths wide long, straight suburban road with cars flashing back and forth. Nowhere to play out, not until spring. The nearest Park was nearly twenty minutes walk away and didn’t have a visible playground, and the only other kid who played in our garden was my sister, six and a half years younger than me.

And this is before I relate the Maths Class Incident.

This was in October 1966. Mr Adams was teaching us averages. He was going to do this by calculating the average age of the class in years and months. In alphabetical order, when called upon, we would give our age in this format. Straightaway, I knew this was going to be a disaster. My surname placed me about three-quarters of the way down the list. Age after age was chalked onto the board: 11 years 4 months, 11 Years 9 months, 11 years 1 month, etc, etc. Until me: 10 years 11 months.

You could all but hear the neckbones crack as every single head in the room swivelled to look at me, a ten year old in a class of eleven years old. Mr Adams did not help by asking me to confirm I’d got that right, I hadn’t totally misunderstood and I was really 11 years 10 months. No, I was ten years old alright.

It was the penultimate lesson of the day: by four o’clock, the whole First Year knew I was the only ten year old in a year of eleven year olds. I was publicly identified as the youngest boy in the school.

Remember my saying there was no Eleven Plus in 1967? The Comprehensive system came in that summer. Burnage Grammar School reverted to being Burnage High School. It also put into operation a long-negotiated plan, to merge with the nearby Ladybarn Secondary Modern School, fifteen minutes walk away, the other side of Kingsway. The amalgamated High School would have the Lower School (Years 1 – 3) at the Ladybarn Road site, and its Upper school (Tears 4 – 6) at the Burnage Lane site.

Those who, like me, had entered in the Grammar School years would continue to get a Grammar School education and stay in the Upper School throughout. So, when I returned for my Second Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Third Year, I was still the youngest boy in the school. And in my Fourth Year…

I was in my Fifth Year, and my Dad three weeks dead, before there was a boy in the school younger than me. Four years of being conscious of my status.

I had gone from being surrounded by both friends and classmates who I saw all the time, both in and out of school, to knowing almost no-one, and even fewer of them put of School (and if it hadn’t been for Subbuteo…). I knew no girls except my sister and her friends, which was no use when it came to working out how you talked to them as a preliminary to other things you might want to start to do. I didn’t even know anyone with sisters…

Any my Dad died. He’d been ill for over a year and a half, unable to take any part in helping me begin to face how you changed from a boy into a man. I had already learned a certain resilience which has stood me in good stead, has had to stand me in good stead all my life. I had already learned enough cynicism and self-protection to teach myself self-deprecation, leading people into laughing with me at least as often as at me, tempting them with things they could have permission to laugh at, and keeping them from those areas where laughter would have killed, and still, for all my efforts, sometimes did. But my Dad died, and it was a very very longtime before I had anyone who was on my side the way I know he would have been. I learned to live with myself alone, to manage alone.

So many different things. Each of them innocuous in themselves, reasonable, natural, unexceptionable. Each of them nothing for which anyone could be blamed. But it was like being inside the magician’s chest when the swords are being thrust into it. Instead of having a secret compartment I could slip into until the swords are pulled out, emerging whole and intact, I had to contort myself into a tiny, awkward space to avoid being sliced over and over, and when the swords dissolve, the wind has changed and I’m stuck like that forever.

I’m sorry for once again intruding on you with things too personal. I’ve wavered over whether to publish this, or rely only on the effect of writing it, but I’ve come down on the side of being honest. There’ll be other things alone in due course, the stuff you can rely on, but today this is what wanted writing. Thank you for your infinite patience.

Suit and Tie

I’ve spent most of today in a suit and tie, the longest time I’ve spent dressed this way in probably a decade, when I was still a Solicitor and working for the Council.

Nor have I at any time unloosened the top button of my shirt, and tugged at the knot of the tie, as I always used to do the moment I reached my desk, because in the years since I used to regularly wear ties, my neck has shrunk enough for my collars to become non-restricting and loose to start with.

The occasion of this dressing up has been a funeral. My oldest mate’s father died recently after four years of treatment for cancer. I went to support my mate and his family, and to pay respects to someone who I still remembering teaching me the Bible at Sunday School, not that I was ever an enthusiastic pupil.

This was the same church where my Dad was a sidesman. I don’t remember them ever having conversations, but they were contemporaries, my Dad something like eleven months older than him just as my mate is eleven months older than me. Names came up in conversation of those already gone, Tom Penketh, Frank Hyde, Marjory Bullock, that resound in my memory as people my Mam and Dad spoke of oh so long ago.

There was a service at a nearby Church, the Commitment at Dukinfield Crematorium, of which I am all too familiar, and sandwiches at Fairfield Golf Club.

As an atheist, I felt not merely divorced from but resistant to the religious aspects of the Service. As far too often seems to be the case, the whole thing felt less like a commemoration of my mate’s Dad, and more an advert for God, and how good he’d been by taking my mate’s Dad away from him.

But I politely sang the hymns in a low voice (no-one wants to hear me sing in a loud voice), and stayed silent during the prayers (reciting the Lord’s Prayer placed me right back in Elysian Street Mixed Infants and Juniors where first I learned it), because this was not about me, it was about my mate, his family, his Mum. Though in my head I argued which much of what was said, and was angry with it, I would choke before intruding on their grief.

But I was also fighting, in waves that I mastered only temporarily but which swept back again and again, the urge to cry. Because this was all too close to home. My mate’s Dad was 88. My Dad would have been 42 if he’d lived another five months. I don’t begrudge my friend a second of those extra years he enjoyed and I didn’t get, but here in the Church, and at Duki Crem, I was closer than I like to be to that day when the coffin that was the last physical sign of my Dad in this world rolled away.

Outside, after the Commitment, I slipped away for a few moments. Plot C was very close by, screened off from eyes and ears by that mini-plant built here several years ago. It was a moment to pay my private respects, and to be able to allow a few of those tears to flow freely.

Later, I had a pre-Counselling session at Stepping Hill Hospital to which, even via a diversion to Forbidden Planet in Manchester City Centre, I arrived nearly an hour early, still with the knotted tie, and full of the emotions of the morning that overwhelmed the first part of the session, through which I gabbled.  It set a pattern that the Counsellor was quick to see, of loss, loss, loss and loss.

But that’s not for here. Home via Tescos, some food and then it’ll be the blanking and blurring of feelings that I can’t handle still. As always, when I do this, thank you for listening and I apologise.

Spitfires in Albert Square

Courtesy of word being passed on by my mate, John, I paid an unscheduled visit to Manchester City Centre today, for an open-air exhibition in Albert Square, outside our closed-for-refurbishment-until-2024 Town Hall, to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the RAF.

I’m not usually into military things but just as the E-type Jaguar is the sexiest car ever made, so too is the Spitfire the sexiest fighter plane there ever will be and the chance to see an actual one, up close, was irresistible.

It wasn’t the the only plane on show: there was part of a Lancaster Bomber:

A World War 1 biplane:

A Hawker Jet:

Something else modern, where you could see into the cockpit if you had the stamina to queue:

And the Spitfire.

Pure beauty.