50 not out — why I’m perfectly happy about getting older

Today – 29 January – is my birthday. My 50th birthday.

Fifty. The big five oh.

This isn’t one of those help I’m getting old, my hair’s falling out blog posts full of self-pity that hopes to make you smile; apart from anything else, I’ve still got plenty of hair on my head. It’s also not one of those pathetic blog posts, where the author is clearly bitter about getting older.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said hitting 50 hasn’t felt momentous. It’s a big number and a bit of a totem for many; I think you’re expected to feel old when you turn 50 – that’s the way it seems to me, at least. There’s an expectation – from people in a specific sense and society in a more general one – that at 50 one should feel aged, past it, sorry for yourself, and maybe even a little apologetic about it.

Well, balls to that.

As my 50th birthday was getting closer I did, I admit, start to think a lot more about age and about one’s inescapable mortality, and what turning 50 might actually mean to me – if it has any meaning. It was something I reflected on even more during that strange week when David Bowie and Alan Rickman died, and a lot of people (on social media at any rate) seemed to have been caught out by the inevitability of death and its indiscriminate nature.

And so it was that I got to thinking about all the people I’ve known who never made it to 50. Most of them died because of illness, accidents or suicide. And thinking about them made the big five oh feel well… different – this is nothing to be gloomy about. It’s something to be thankful for.

There was the kid in the year above me at primary school who I sometimes played football with – hit and killed by a motorcycle when he was 11 years old. It happened during the long school summer holiday. I can still remember the look on his little brother’s face on the first day back to school that year.

There was the woman I worked with many years ago who went on holiday and never came back. She died when the car she was travelling in was hit by a lorry. She was just 24.

There was the guy I played in a band with, one of the loveliest guys I’ve ever known – dead at 43 thanks to a brain tumour.

There are more, many more. I remember their names and I can recall their faces.

Do I feel sad and sorry for myself because I’m 50, because I’m getting old? Nah, I feel thankful.

birthday balloons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A photo for August 2014

This cross stands on a hillside in rural France. I walked past it late one evening in August 2013. I couldn’t make out, or understand, enough of the text to be able to learn who it was put there for, or by. But its presence there, quite literally in the middle of French nowhere, was touching. Whoever put it there was driven to do something in lasting memory of someone important to them. French roadside cross

Fake authenticity: the compassion lie

I may lose friends. I may attract abuse. But this is one of those moments when I feel like I can no longer resist the urge to point and shout “the king is in the altogether.”

What am I talking about?

Fake authenticity.

Never heard of it? There’s a lot of it about, and you’d do worse than read this piece by Jonathan MacDonald – The Fallacy of Social Media.

In it he touches upon the fake approach taken to telling stories and building relationships online, particularly in the realm of social media.

Someone once said to me that to use expressions like “telling stories” in the context of PR was to admit that it was all spin, lies and bullshit.

The more I reflect on that the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most ignorant things anyone’s ever said to me and I should have said as much at the time.

Whether you are an individual, a brand marketer, a politician, a social media coordinator, when you are telling people something about who you are, what you do, how you behave, or what you believe in, you are telling them your story.

If you bullshit them you’ll get found out eventually.

Something Jonathan MacDonald picks up on is a piece of advice mooted by someone that says: “Act like you’re a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow.”

It’s a liars charter in tl;dr form. And I find it quite distasteful.

As I’ve already said, there’s a lot of it about. And it’s not just brands that are doing it. I see a lot of people in my stream doing it constantly.

Recently jazz musician Terry Callier died. But for his work with the likes of Massive Attack he would only have been known to a fraction of the people in my stream – those who are serious-minded fans of music, or seek out interesting non-mainstream things to listen to. I don’t fall into either of those categories, just to be clear.

I remain unconvinced that a great many people who own something he worked on had ever heard of him either. In fact, I got a bit nauseated by the wave of “oh that’s terrible. #rip” tweets I saw from people who spend most Saturday evenings are watching X-Factor.

Oh, yes you are a very serious and dedicated follower of interesting musical collaborations, aren’t you?

No, you’re not. You’re a bullshit merchant trying to make yourself look cool, or – worse – desperately hoping to connect with something real, something meaningful to fill that foetid hole you drag round with you everywhere you are.

It was also evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the US. “It’s awful,” read one tweet I saw, “13 people have been killed. #sandy”

Yes, of course it’s awful. Truly awful. Particularly for those directly involved. But do you know what else is awful…? The fact that the person whose tweet I saw – and the dozens more like them – had expressed no concern or compassion whatsoever for those left dead, displaced and traumatized by Sandy in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and probably other parts of the Caribbean too. Haiti hasn’t recovered from the earthquake it was hit by in 2010, and was in the midst of a cholera outbreak when Sandy passed close by. So fucking what, eh..?

The death toll in the Caribbean is around 70. Probably more. It’s possible no one will ever know.

The only time I saw anyone on twitter referring to that was as a counterpoint to the many, many, “I hope everyone in New York stays safe” type tweets.

Why is it that so many people, here in the UK, were so eager to express such concern?

Dislocated empathy. Not misplaced. Dislocated.

Of course we all hoped that everyone was going to be ok in New York and elsewhere in the US. The same ought to apply to everywhere that was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. No..?

Yet it would appear to be ok, desirable even, to carry on ignoring the plight of poor black countries hit by disaster, when latte-sipping, iPhone-using, GAP-shopping people, wherever they may be, have also been affected by something bad.

I know it’s easier to identify with people who have similar lives, but that’s no excuse, in my opinion, for not giving enough of a damn about the rest of the world to pause your lazy thinking and cast off your me-opia.

It made me rather cross. Still does. You might have noticed.

But more than that, it was telling to see the stories people tell about themselves.

Who do I indentify with..? Who can I identify with..? What kind of person shall I be today…

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person, and care about what happens to others, you can see further than those that wear the same clothes as you, or even the countries where you have personal contacts.

And you aren’t compelled to bleat about it in public in an attempt to define yourself.

Fake authenticity.

Nice work people.

 

RIP Isabel Joyce Fleming: b. 3 May 1924, d. 3 May 1997

Today would have been my mother’s 90th birthday.  It’s also the 17th anniversary of her death. (updated 2014)

Born in the 1920s in Newcastle upon Tyne, my mother moved south with her parents and some of her siblings during the war years of the 1940s – she was the youngest of seven children.

Although she left school aged just 14, my mother always seemed intellectually very accomplished and was a big believer in education. Some of my earliest memories are of her teaching me to read.  She had cut out small squares of card and hand-written letters on them; we would sit and make words by putting them together.

1966: yes, that’s me. And yes, I still like ice cream.

I can remember many happy times spent with her. Lots of warmth and laughter. But my memories of her also include the sense of disappointment she seemed to carry with her wherever she went.

I suspect she felt she could have achieved more … had a bigger life, had circumstances been a little different.

When the end came for my mother, it came in the guise of cancer of the oesophagus, which over the course of many, many months whittled away at her until there was almost nothing left. It was an ugly and unpleasant end.

She died before my sons were born. But I know she would have adored them.

She’d have been far less impressed by the life my father went on to carve out for himself in the years after her death. I think she would have considered him to have been an embarrassment. She’d have been right too. But that’s another story.

No place like home

The view from my childhood bedroom window is still there. A tower block, an open green space, gasometers in the middle distance.
The bedroom window itself, much like my childhood, is no longer there; the street I grew up on was demolished in the 1980s. The rows of low-rise blocks of flats, packed in densely so they resembled something like the layout of a series of prison blocks, has been replaced by a smaller number of smaller dwellings. They look like houses, but in reality they are two-up-one-down maisonettes.
Me and my dad, when I was just a few months old

 

I haven’t set foot on that street for almost 30 years, although I drove along it once about 15 years ago. But thanks to the wonders of Google Streetview, last night I went for a stroll through my old neighbourhood. It’s a lot greener now than it used to be, and there are many more cars, despite there being fewer people.
I stared at the space where my bedroom window once was – easy enough to find as there was a lamppost outside it. That’s the kind of thing that tends to remain in situ, so finding the last lamppost was all it took.
After that, I crossed the road to the tower block where my cousins lived, then walked down the street to the library, built in the early 1900s. I visited my schools, and walked past the renamed pub, outside which there was almost always a trail of blood after closing time. The row of shops at the end of the street is still there. There’s a chicken/pizza/kebab place where the haberdashery used to be, but William Hill is still there. 
I know I’m far from unique in this regard, but it felt odd looking at the places I knew as a boy, knowing that the one place I knew as ‘home’ no longer existed.
I left the city I grew up in, Birmingham, when the first opportunity presented itself and I’ve rarely gone back in the years that followed my mother’s death.  This week I am set to return, for the inquest into my father’s death, which will be heard at Birmingham Coroner’s Court.
It’s something that has led to a little more reflection than usual, of late.  On the role of fathers, on childhood memories, on family and on what it means to have roots.

In praise of the front page corpse shot

The Roman poet Horace said: “pale death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.”

And so it goes today, as it did more than 2,000 years ago when those words were written.

I was reminded of those words yesterday, upon hearing of the death of Muammar “Colonel” Gaddafi. A man who’s lowly start in life belied what was to come in later years – as he installed himself as the self-styled brother leader of Libya; autocratic king in all but name.

Like most tyrants, he got the end he probably deserved. Found cowering in a drainage tunnel, he was dragged out, beaten and shot. His corpse was dragged through the street for all to see. But not, from what I’ve read, hung upside down outside a petrol station, as the Italians did when they fell out of love with Mussolini in 1945.

It is said that it’s not enough for justice to be done. It must be seen to be done. That’s a viewpoint I have a great deal of sympathy with. But while I’m not a proponent of censorship per se, I do think that there needs to be some judgement exercised when it comes to broadcasting the image of a blood-stained corpse across the world via the mass media.

My colleague Julian Moore summed up one of the things that bothers me about the image of the dead Gaddafi, which currently adorns many of the UK national papers’ front pages: “Kids need to be brought up not thinking that violence is an acceptable part of everyday life. This doesn’t help do that.”

Lunching with the dead, baying for the rope and the wisdom of the crowd

When I was a young man death was my living.

Determined, as I was back then, to eschew a traditional career and focus instead on becoming a professional musician, I took a seemingly endless array of dead-end jobs to pay my way and fund my musical endeavours.

And so it was that I ended up in the late 1980s with one of the most dead-end of dead-end jobs… working in a funeral parlour in Manchester’s Moss Side district.

Unlike some of my colleagues there, I could never bring myself to eat my lunchtime sandwich in the mortician’s workshop, with the recently-departed in various stages of preparation for company. No, I am not exaggerating – that really is how some people spent their break, lunching with the dead.

The business of other people’s loss and grief paid for my leisure time.

Despite what may sound like a disrespectful lunchtime ritual, the people I worked with back then never showed anything other than a complete duty of care to the bereaved and the departed, and they had a highly-tuned sense of the importance of life.

Last week the BBC and many other UK news outlets reported on a website set up by the government designed to give citizens an opportunity to influence future legislation.

It’s a very laudable aim, to attempt to engage the public with politics – let them feel their views will be listened to. But as someone much wiser than me once said, be careful what you wish for.

The site isn’t especially new. But the headline writers’ interest was piqued by the prevalence of pro death penalty petitions on the site. As many as 40 different petitions in total, all worded slightly differently but all asking for the restoration of capital punishment.

I shan’t argue that a truly civilised society doesn’t have the death penalty. For me, this is a personal viewpoint.

From those that want all crimes of murder to be met with a death sentence, to those who only want it applied to child murderers and those who kill police officers. Some call for parliament to conduct a thorough investigation into the possible restoration of the death penalty (it was revoked as the punishment for murder in 1965 and for all other offences in 1998) and others simply said hanging should be brought back.

Hanging.

Small word when said in passing. But stop and think about what it actually involves.

It’s quite grotesque.

Certain acts of murder do seem to cry out at us as being particularly brutal and unforgiving, whether it’s tortured rape victims, children or scores of innocents caught up in an act of unspeakable barbarity.

It’s not easy to argue against a certain kind of logic that says someone like Anders Breivik, who murdered almost 80 people in Norway on 22 July this year, should be put to death. He is beyond doubt the perpetrator of a terrible act. His guilt or innocence cannot be open to debate, although there are – of course – arguments about his state of mind. Although, from a purely personal perspective, anyone who does what that man did is clearly not in their right mind but I’m not at all sure that ought to be much of a defence.

Whether it’s the gas chamber, a lethal injection or at the end of a rope, the job of administering the death penalty is hardly likely fall to those who clamour for its return. Which, of course, makes it so much easier to adopt a black and white view of these things.

The overwhelming majority of those of us who live in the West don’t have to deal with life and death in a very hands-on way. Thankfully violence, and murder in particular, are statistically rare – long may it stay that way.

That you are here (wherever that may be), reading these words that I wrote one Friday evening in England is a remarkable mix of fate and factors beyond the ken of this simple man. As truly awful as some people’s acts may be I do not feel I have the right to decide who lives and who dies, and frankly I don’t feel you do either.


Coming of age: if the shoe fits

For most of us there are particular points in life that seem to mark the passing of time. It could be turning 18, or 21. Or maybe 25 felt like a more significant age for you. For many, 30 is the point at which you begin to realise you’ve come a long way since school, college or university.

Beyond that there’s that old chestnut… the Big Four O, where – allegedly – life begins.

There are more subtle (and some not so subtle) ways in which the ageing process starts to hit home. Grey hairs, wrinkles, unexplained aches and pains, and so on.

However, if you haven’t got to it yet, you may find the day you start to remind yourself of your parents is actually the point at which you say to yourself, “shit, I’m getting old!”

I think it’s especially common once you become a parent yourself. That’s certainly been the case for me.

It’s rare that I do something that reminds me of my late mother. But there are occasional reactions I’ll have to situations that make me think “that’s exactly what she would have said.”

Sadly, it’s almost never happened in a way that’s made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Like most men, though, it’s the war against turning into my father that keeps me busiest.

He would have been 86 years old today, but he died in January.  He left Ireland in the 1940s, volunteered for the RAF, fought in WWII, settled in Britain, raised a family, and was a manual worker all his life. He wasn’t very well-educated, but he was sharp and had a quick sense of humour. He had a very tough childhood and was one of the hardest men I’ve ever met.

In the last five or six years of his life, I didn’t see much of him. I would get reports on his health and well-being from my siblings, who often lamented that he was losing his grip a little.

It brought to mind something that happened when I was a young boy – my dad would have been in his early 50s I guess.

We lived in Birmingham and despite the fact that during the war he was a driver (among other things) my dad never bought a car – we went everywhere by bus and train.

And so it was one Saturday morning that he, my mother and I set off for Birmingham city centre on some shopping excursion or other.

We walked the 10 minutes or so to the bus stop and waited. We hadn’t been there long when, in that heavy Dublin accent that he had somehow steadfastly held onto, my dad declared, “Christ, would you look at that.”

We followed his gaze and looked down at the ground. He’d left home wearing one black shoe and one brown one. “I wondered why one foot was going tap and the other was going shuffle,” he said.

He made his way back home to sort himself out, while my mother and I were consumed by uproarious laughter.

So, upon hearing my brother or my sister say they thought dad was losing his marbles, my reaction (which I accept to the outside world may seem unfeeling) was to say “he’s been like that for at least 35 years – it’s nothing new.”

Sometimes when I catch sight of myself in a full-length mirror I see my father for a split second out of the corner of my eye. For some reason it happens more if I’m wearing a suit – which I do frequently in my line of work, but he only ever did for weddings, christenings and funerals.

If I stare at my reflection in the shaving mirror long enough and then slowly squint, he appears there too.

And there have been times when I’ve raised my voice in anger only to hear his words coming out of my mouth rather than my own.

The black shoe / brown shoe incident came back to me only a couple of months ago and I started joining some of the dots around all of this and attempting to make sense of the picture that was forming – my relationship with my father, his influence over the man I have grown into, the way I relate to people and the world around me, the way I conduct myself.

For some reason – and this really has been going on for several months now – I’ve had a nagging doubt every now and again that I might, just maybe, have put odd shoes on.

I find myself staring at my feet (it tends to happen mostly when I’m in the car) to see if I’ve actually got a matching pair of shoes on.

I hadn’t connected it with anything. It doesn’t feel like deep in my subconscious there sits a latent fear that I will wear odd shoes just because my dad once did. In much the same way I’ve never thought it was likely I’d wake up one day to find I’d got a job as a scaffolder.

If it’s done anything, maybe it’s made me consider that I’m more like him than I realise – or am prepared to admit. I can accept that I’m like him in many externalised ways: short-fuse, gregarious in the right company, sentimental, musical.

But I’ve never given much thought to what life must have been like inside his head.

Perhaps it was much the same for him as it is for me.

If I’m one step away from anything as a result of all this, perhaps it’s not a footwear faux pas, but an appreciation of the man I spent so many years utterly convinced I would never understand.

 

 

RIP: Con Fleming, 2 Apr 1925 – 13 Jan 2011

Life is a journey.

The detours it takes you on are many and varied, and not always within your power to control.

The death of my father two weeks ago has provided ample opportunity for me to reflect on this and – not surprisingly – where that journey ultimately ends.

His was an inauspicious start in life. Born in Dublin in the 1920s, he grew up in what by today’s standards would be regarded as poverty.

He was denied educational opportunities, faced many hardships, and never knew his father.

At the age of 17 he got on a boat to England, lied about his age and volunteered to fight in the war, joining the RAF.

Like many of the 10,000 or so Irishmen who decided their country’s neutral stance in the fight against Hitler was at odds with their own sense of right and wrong, he struggled to settle in Ireland after the war.

And so it was he settled in England and embarked on a long career as a manual worker.

At the time I was born, he was working in a car factory, liked a drink and the craic, and was still battling with hardship – from workplace racism in the era of IRA terror attacks, to working unsociable shift patterns that kept him permanently exhausted.


We had just one family holiday, when I was three or four years old. I was young enough to be blind to the stresses and tensions that accompanied that vacation. But I’ve heard about them since. For me it was an exciting car journey, a week in a little metal house, beaches, the sea, and playing.

My earliest memories are of that holiday. Yet it was a never-to-be-repeated event.

Perhaps it’s better that way.

After working hard to provide for his family, and (much as it pains me to say it) living in a marriage that didn’t always make him or my late mother happy, he retired as a fit and physically robust man looking forward to a long retirement. Which is what he got – around 20 years of it.

After my mother’s death in the late 1990s, he sold the family home and eventually found the love and companionship of a woman who made him truly happy.

He had money (although not lots of it), love, and a new large extended step-family network. He took holidays, visited interesting places, rediscovered his faith, did the things that made him happy. Truly happy.

My own relationship with him had been strained – practically non-existent in fact – for years.

Thankfully, I saw him not long before he died.

After years of having nothing to do with him, of effectively denying his presence in my life and that of my sons, I felt it was time I took a detour of my own.  So in late December I went to see him during one of his increasingly frequent stays in hospital.

In many ways he was not a complicated man. Seeing me turn up at his bedside made him delighted – he was overjoyed and seeing that uncomplicated sense of joy moved me.

We didn’t make our peace. We didn’t need to. It was unspoken and that was entirely appropriate.

Two weeks later, he was gone.

I didn’t get there in time to say my final goodbye.

The journey was too long. The time, too short.