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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: 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.

Life and death

Most of us are conceived in the heat of the moment. The result of an impassioned tryst between our parents. And regardless of at what point you think life actually begins, it starts – as it ends – in a heartbeat.

For most of us living in the First World, the most likely cause of death will be age-related, or an ailment brought on by lifestyle choices.

But that’s not always the way.

I found myself reflecting on this just the other day. My morning commute to work is a drive of around 45 minutes which on this particular day involved driving past the scene of a road traffic accident.

Two police cars. One fire engine. A car. A woman sitting on the crash-barrier at the side of the road with the most desolate look on her face. Pools of blood covered hastily by absorbent cloths. And a body. Hidden beneath a dark tarpaulin.

The face of the woman, presumably the driver of the car that had collided with the now lifeless individual, stayed with me all day.

As did the thought of the friends and family of the person who lost their life in that scene. Who that person was I am unlikely to ever know.

But it is likely their day started like most people’s. A rush to get ready for work. Coffee perhaps. Maybe breakfast. A quick goodbye kiss for their husband or wife, and children perhaps… “see you later,” someone no doubt said.

As I sat at my desk just a short while after passing the accident site, I thought of those left behind. Their day had started, they would be on their way to work, to school, to wherever their morning was taking them. Blissfully unaware that life had changed irrevocably.

Few of us know when the end is coming and have the bitter-sweet opportunity to say our farewells, make our peace with the world.

Take nothing for granted.

It starts in a heartbeat.

It ends that way too.