A photo for June 2014

I know, I know … this is a terrible shot. But that’s not important. I took this from the balcony of The Brook, a live music venue in Southampton, last June. I’d managed to score two tickets to see Johnny Marr and his band at one of the two small-venue ‘warm up gigs’ they were doing before they embarked on the festival circuit.

I took my eldest son with me. It was his first ever gig. Johnny Marr has been a hero and an inspiration to me since 1983, so seeing him live was a really big deal. Taking my eldest son with me made it even more special.

At the gig, someone I’d never met before recognised me from Twitter and came up to say hello. The day after, this photo got Retweeted by Johnny’s drummer Jack Mitchell. It was a great night and produced some excellent memories.

Johnny Marr 6 June 2013

A photo for May 2014

I didn’t take this photo. It was taken decades before I was born, and shows my mother as a young woman. She’s seated on the far left of the picture. I don’t know who the other women in the photo are. I’ve chosen this as my photo for May, because 3 May would have been her birthday, and is also the anniversary of her death. I wrote this piece about her a couple of years ago.

Bella & work friends: 1940s

Atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down

It’s that time of year when people get struck down with colds and flu viruses. Well, here in the northern hemisphere anyway – to be honest I don’t know if the  same thing happens in the south or not.

In much the same way that we can predict wave after wave of low level illness in November, the same words and phrases come round too. One of my pet hates… man flu.

Used to refer to a man over-egging his illness, blowing a minor cold out of all proportion, man flu has become a two word put down, a latter-day four white feathers and a derisory way of comparing men’s frailty with women’s fortitude.

I don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s funny. Instead I think it stands in the way of sustainable, systemic gender equality. And while I can’t comment for you, I would rather live in a more equal society than continuing to enjoy a lot of unfunny banter.

Consider, if you will, a single male parent. A man bringing up his child or children alone, maybe because of the death, desertion or divorce of his female partner. Let’s assume that, like most single parents, he takes his responsibilities seriously.

If he gets a cold, do we think he succumbs to the stereotype of the man flu afflicted male, retiring to his sick bed and letting the world go on without his direct intervention..?

If there’s no one else around to help out with his familial duties the chances are he won’t. Unless he’s desperately ill.

So much for man flu. How could a man resist giving into man flu if he was ill?

I suspect I have just proved it doesn’t exist, thanks to the power of an anecdote.

Who does succumb then?

Single men? Men with no responsibilities? Men with partners who will look after them?

Well, if it’s the first two groups who cares? Whatever peace they make with their employers while off sick is their affair.

If the latter, maybe the fault (or do I mean cause) lies with the intervention of their – usually female – partner.

I find it hard to believe that in any household where the division of chores is more equal it is acceptable for one partner to flake out at the drop of a kleenex. More likely, surely, that there’s a desire not to let the side down, coupled with a recognition that everyone shoulders the burden that little bit more in the event of the other needing a bit of a breather for whatever reason.

We’ll never raise a more egalitarian male generation if we keep giving into lazy stereotypes and generalisations.

Equality, a bit like charity, begins at home.

Love and marriage

I don’t want to live in a society where discrimination is hard-wired into the institutions that surround us.
I don’t. It’s as simple as that.
I don’t want to be discriminated against, and I don’t want the people I share this island with to be discriminated against either.
As lovely and wishy-washy as those sentiments are, I am drawn to this topic, on this occasion, by the rumpus surrounding the UK government’s proposed changes to marriage.
The 2004 Civil Partnership Act gave same-sex couples the option to enter into a legally recognised and binding partnership with all the same rights and responsibilities afforded through marriage. But it’s not marriage, it’s a civil partnership.
Now the government wants to open out the scope of marriage, so that it is available to same sex couples. Not surprisingly there has been a lot of negative reaction from some quarters, the obvious ones being the Church and the right-wing moral majority lobby. But I’ve also heard criticism of it from gay men (ok, one gay man) claiming that this attempt at equality will just push people to more extreme oppositional points of view.
The Church – Catholic and Anglican – is against marriage being made available to same sex couples. This should not surprise anyone. Nor, frankly, should it concern anyone.
I respect anyone’s right to follow their religious beliefs right up to the point where they impinge on the dignity and freedom of other people. So, this is not an attack – even a mild one – on organised religion.
However, I think the Church needs to wind its neck in – as they say in Liverpool. It doesn’t own marriage. It didn’t invent it. It existed during the pre-Christian Roman Empire, and further back was evident in Ancient Greece.
Traditionalists… behold the wound-in neck of the Church and prepare to follow suit. Anyone in the “we shouldn’t tinker with important societal traditions” camp needs to consider the changes to their precious tradition in the past. For example, women no longer lose all property rights when they marry. This is a good thing. It is also a good example of why things like marriage need to keep changing over time.
Marriage exists today as a legally binding state of personal affairs between two people, and has been modified over the years to ensure it is – broadly – in step with wider social and economic concerns. And when, as some people do, you’ve had enough and you want out, you don’t get divorced in a church, you get divorced in a court of law.
Arguments about marriage being about a natural state of affairs between a man and a woman, or that the best environment for raising children is in a happy, stable home with married parents – one of each gender – are all well and good.  But they start from a set of assumptions that are plainly unrealistic.  After all not every marriage is happy and not all children are raised by loving parents.
Whatever your vision of an ideal world, chances are we don’t live in it. But that’s no reason to do nothing, or to adopt an entrenched oppositional stance.
Replacing the current two-tier approach of marriage for straights and civil partnership for the gay and lesbian community is an indication that the UK is committed to eradicating discrimination.
To me, that can only be a good thing.

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.

Lost and found

I lost something recently. It doesn’t matter what. It doesn’t matter when. Not for the purposes of this post anyway.

At some point or other we all lose something that’s important to us – it’s one of those certainties of modern life… we have stuff and sometimes we lose it.

When I lost it (the thing I referred to above) my immediate reaction was one of mild shock and slight disbelief. Those feelings were quickly followed by a sense of outrage – who had taken it? Outrage is a cousin of accusation and they like to hang out together. And so it goes with me; one visits, they both show up.

Ruling out things like leaving mobile phones in taxis (which I’ve done twice and on both occasions got the phone back) most of us generally lose things in familiar settings, whether it’s around the house or in the workplace. This is a no-shit-Sherlock observation. People lose things most often in the places where they spend the most time.

Another truism is that the things we lose around the house, at work, or anywhere else we class as familiar, are frequently found again later. Fear not, I’m not about to go down the route of “why do you find things in the last place you end up looking?” OK, I can’t resist… Because 1) if you found them in the first place you looked then technically they weren’t ever lost, and 2) if you keep looking after you’ve found them (thereby making the place of discovery something other than the last place you looked) you probably need professional help.

Anyway, back to the finding bit. I hope I’m not the only person who goes through the cycle of outrage and accusatory thoughts upon finding something is lost. But if I am, this is the pattern I often follow. Thing is lost (or misplaced). I figure out it must be someone else’s fault – either some light-fingered ne’er-do-well half-inched it, or else someone moved it.

Eventually I’ll find whatever it is I’m looking for and realise that there’s no one else to blame but me. Who misplaced it/moved it? Usually me.

It’s not always as easy as it should be to accept that I’m the one guilty of a casual misplacing of something that time and circumstance will eventually make crucial.

I don’t suppose it’s something I’ll ever be able to stop doing – one is, after all, only flesh and blood.

But I’m trying to be more careful with the things I care about, the things I ought to know are crucial to my life. And I’m learning to look at myself first when I can’t find something I’m looking for.