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8 Jan

It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!



27 Dec

I’ve had some pretty strange New year celebrations over the past couple of decades. However, easily the most unusual one is just about to happen. On New Year’s Eve, 2011, my son, Ian, and his fiancee Nanayaa will be getting married in Ghana, West Africa and I’ll be there, along with almost all of the 2 families. On December 31st the Ghanaian cultural traditions will be enacted and then 2 days later will be the formal ceremony at a church in Accra. It will be a joyous occasion — a joining together of 2 people, 2 whole families, 2 countries and 2 continents. It’s certainly going to be a New Year that will leave an indelible memory in the minds of all those involved. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when my Grand-daughters, Esme and Nina, report their news to their classes  when they return to school. New Years don’t come any more unusual or more exotic than this! ( at least for our family.)

Here though are a few of the more unusual New Years that I have experienced in the past. I “enjoyed” them all in a wierd sort of way!

1. FORGOTTEN FIRST FOOTER  —  It was the second New Year since my marriage break-up and I was still in a bit of an emotionally vulnerable state. The first “Hogmanay” had been pretty desperate. I had spent much of the day trying to persuade my commitment- shy “girlfriend” to agree to get together for this special evening. But she either ignored my phone calls or gave non-commital answers, so around 5pm I gave up and started to review my scanty alternative options. I eventually went to a party I had heard about on the grape-vine. ( yes — Marvin Gaye doesn’t have the monopoly of this sort of thing.) Thus I spent the evening alone amidst a bunch of noisy slight- aquaintances. You’re never so lonely as when you’re in a crowd. At midnight, we sang the usual song, then I kissed a few people I didn’t really know and we wished each other well. Finally, I slipped quietly away. The jolly crowd had emphasised my “alone-ness” instead of alleviating it. One year on I was determined to avoid a repeat of this desolate experience!

Thus it was that I engaged friends and aquaintances in conversations about New Year and eventually received the invitation I was fishing for. The kind friend who issued it explained that her “gathering” would be quiet and fairly boring. She had assumed that I would have something more exciting lined up. However I was more than happy to go along to a “boring” do because at  least I would be amongst people I knew ( some of them anyway) and I had received a personal invite. As the day approached I had a warm, secure feeling about New Year’s Eve because I had somewhere to go and was to be an invited part of something.

Well, the party, in a big house on a headland overlooking the sea, was indeed low-key and unexciting. It was 3 to 4 hours of fairly mind-numbing small talk, whilst sipping wine and nibbling finger foods. I wasn’t complaining though. Everyone was nice and pleasant and I was relieved not to be alone. I was very insecure in those days and tended to define my worth through who I was with. I was a bit low in the self-esteem department.

As midnight approached I was chosen to be the “official” first-footer as I was tall, dark and supposedly handsome.( at least in some people’s eyes.) I was pleased at this development as it made me feel even more included. So out I went, into the cold dark street. Church bells announced midnight and other people in the street shouted: “Happy New Year.” There may have been a few fireworks ( this was 1989) but I cannot remember. What I do remember however, is trying to get back into the house and finding the door still locked. I looked through the window and tried to attract someone’s attention, but they were all busy forming a circle to sing Auld Lang Syne. I watched forlornly as the circle of part-goers swept in and out at the climax of the song and then continued to watch as they kissed and hugged each other and cracked open the bubbly. It seemed that their tall, dark stranger who was desperate to come back in and bring them all luck, had been forgotten about!

I turned back into the street to discover it was full of celebrating people. They were all milling around wishing each other well. Someone shouted greetings to me and so I joined them, receiving and giving New Year good wishes, exchanging smiles and hand-shakes and even a few embraces. We were all out in a cold, dark street but were being kept warm by a soothing blanket of communal good-will. It was great.

I eventually got back into my “official” party and drank some slightly flat champagne, but I’ll never forget that spontaneous, impromptu party out in the street.

2. THE FLAME OF PEACE.   —  At one point in my post-divorce life, I spent quite a lot of time with a yoga teacher, L. The relationship didn’t work out in the long term but it had it’s interesting moments. One was on the New Year’s Eve of 1999 which almost everyone regarded as the end of the millenium even though it technically still had a year to go.( You start counting at 1 not 0.) Many people were worried that there would be mass chaos as it had been widely predicted that the computers would all crash, being unable to cope with going back to zero. Some even thought the World was going to end and there was quite a bit of tension in the air as December 31st approached.

L taught and practised Dru Yoga, a gentle version of the discipline which usually ended up with a calming guided meditation. L’s yoga stemmed from her membership of the Life Foundation, an Hindu style spiritual organisation based in North Wales. Later I grew to regard it as a slightly suspicious- sounding sect, ( just my opinion),but for a while I bought into its simple philosophy of Peace and Love. One could hardly argue with that .The Foundation even had its own guru, a spiritual gentleman of Indian descent, whose parents had known Mahatma Gandhi. He led a mass yoga and meditation session at Newcastle University which I attended. I had to admit he had a certain magnetic quality. For the first 5 to 10 minutes he sat cross-legged in front of us and just sounded the word OM. It was strangely soothing and relaxing and helped to clear our minds. When the “Guru” left the stage after giving an uplifting address, the yoga mats parted like the Red Sea upon the arrival of Moses. I was right on the edge of the avenue thus created and as the Guru passed, he looked straight into my eyes, put his hands together as if in prayer and bowed his head. For a moment it was if he had looked right into my soul! I returned his spiritual greeting. For a magical moment, I felt like one of the disciples being chosen to follow the Messiah.

At their HQ in Wales the Life Foundation had (have) an ever- burning flame called the World Peace Flame. It is the same idea as the Olympic torch as it has a powerful symbolic significance. L had lit a large candle from it. So long as she snuffed the candle out rather than blowing out the flame, she believed it still retained the power of the original flame. This World Peace Flame has travelled round the world and has apparently been witnessed by over 10 million people.

Later on during that  Millenium Eve we would be dancing to Shania Twain (” Come on Over”) at a loud party and watching a spectacular firework display over Newcastle-upon- Tyne, along with thousands of others. But before all that noisy partying, L and I sat peacefully in front of the candle flame in the quiet of her house. The flame of peace flickered and L sang a spiritual song in Sanskrit. Then we meditated. Finally we shared our sincere wishes for the year ( and millenium) to come. Peace and love for the World were top of both our agendas. Alas, this was to be the decade of the September 11th atrocities and the terrible Iraq and Afghanistan wars. However just for those precious moments around the candle we experienced complete calm and peace. The War on Terror and Shania Twain were still to come.

3. CONSOLING A CRYING STRANGER   —   I initially contacted X ( sorry I’ve forgotten her name) through the classified ads. Those were the days when I was a so-called “Lonely Heart” looking for love ( or at least a bit of female company.) She was a History teacher from Washington New Town. I was a History teacher from Wallsend, North Tyneside. It sounded promising. Our conversations on the phone went very well. Could this be a match made in heaven or at least over “1066 and All That”? We got on so well that we decided to meet for a “blind date ” — daunting or exciting depending on your attitude. The time we chose just happened to be the lunchtime of New Year’s Eve.

The 31st came and I was lying in the luxury of a bubble bath and preparing to beautify myself ( if that was possible), when the phone went. I stood dripping in the hall listening to X’s voice cancelling our meeting. Previously she had explained at length about her break-up from her ex-partner C and how she wanted to start a new chapter in her life. Now she was telling me that C had contacted her and was coming round for the big reconciliation chat. So she couldn’t see me and was calling off our “date.” I had wasted that bubble mixture and ironed that shirt for nothing! Obviously I was nice and understanding on the phone especially as I had no choice anyway. You win some, you lose some! Afterall, we hadn’t even met yet so it wasn’t much of a loss. Apart from a few phone calls we were complete strangers.

I replaced the receiver after accepting her apologies and re-assessed my day. In a way it was a relief as I could now relax instead of having to put myself on show. I had nothing planned for the evening. I was now past the stage when I thought I was a failure if I had nowhere to go on New Year’s Eve. I was quite looking forward to it actually. The Rolling Stones were on the telly later on and I was looking forward to curling up on the sofa in my flat, listening to the music and enjoying my own company. I didn’t have to make small chat, dance to dodgy disco music or be relentlessly jolly.

As darkness fell I relaxed, pleased that I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. The Stones’s 60’s extravaganza: ” Rock ‘n Roll Circus” came on the TV screen and I started to lose myself in the music and the warm nostalga. Then, around 10-15ish, I was jolted out of my reverie by the sudden, sharp ringing of the telephone. Who on earth could that be at this time of night? I picked up, feeling slightly irritated that my enjoyable evening had been invaded. The caller did not say anything for at least 15 minutes! All I heard was a female voice crying. She was sobbing so hard that she was unable to speak. I didn’t have the heart to put the phone down. The person at the other end was in great distress and needed patience and help. The least I could do was listen.

It was X from Washington. After calming down a little, she tried to explain what had happened. She spoke in short bursts interspersed with more floods of tears. C had been and at first things had gone well. But then old problems had re-surfaced and an increasingly acrimonious argument had developed. He had now just stormed out, slamming the door behind him. The big, romantic New Year reconciliation had turned sour and now C had vowed never to see X again!  X had experienced the full heartache of the break-up all over again. She had sat in her newly silent house feeling distraught and desperate to talk to someone. She knew her friends and family were out at parties so she ended up phoning me — the cancelled, blind-date man!  I listened to the whole sorry tale and very gradually, managed to calm her down. Her feelings were raw so it was a slow process, but eventually she ceased sobbing and the quivering and quaking in her voice disappeared. We talked until after midnight. I missed the whole of the Rolling Stones concert and celebrated the coming of the New Year with a stranger on the phone. X eventually rang off after numerous apologies and thank-yous.In the end we felt very close to each other even though we had still to meet in the flesh. Her intense emotions and the intimacies she shared, had somehow bonded us. I  suppose it’s easier to pour your heart out to a sympathetic stranger than to someone you know.

X and I rearranged our date but when we eventually met we found we weren’t actually attracted to each other at all. We had a drink in a pub in South Tyneside and the conversation soon drifted into safe subjects such as holidays and work. Gone was all the intensity and naked emotion that we had shared over the phone a few days earlier. In fact, it was as if we were both a bit embarrassed about what had taken place! I made an excuse after a respectable amount of time had passed. We parted, never to see or talk to each other again. It didn’t work out but my encounter with X  made for a memorable and totally unexpected New Year’s Eve.

4.  I AM THE MURDERER  —  One New Year I found myself in a large, old house, set in its own grounds above Kendall, in the southern Lake District. My friend, V, came from Cumbria and this house party was being hosted by her best friend’s wealthy and generous partner, O. He was a retired CEO and he kindly threw open his house to a group of about 12 friends for the entire New Year period. This took place several years running. A lavish meal was followed by parlour games, fireworks in the garden and finally the popping of champagne corks and the usual midnight traditions. However, this particular year we were given Victorian costumes to wear and randomly dealt character cards. The whole of New Year’s Eve would be an enactment of a murder mystery drama!

The cards outlined our characters’ names, occupations and personality traits. They outlined scenes and situations, and guided us about how our characters were to behave. I liked it at first. It was an amusing novelty. I did a lot of this role-play stuff with my pupils at school and so was not really phased. However, my mood suddenly changed when I found out that I was the murderer!

I spent the rest of the evening squirming uncomfortably in my seat, trying to look nonchalent and innocent. I remembered all those Agatha Christie’s novels when a person has been murdered at a house party and all the suspects are gathered together in the parlour hoping that Miss Marple would not find them out. I also recalled Peter Falk’s shappy Detective Columbo on TV and the way his relentless questioning gnawed away at the suspect, like a dog with a bone, until he finally caught the murderer out. Would I be found out prematurely? I experienced the pressure of being responsible for everyone else’s enjoyment for the rest of the evening. If I blushed, looked shifty or made a clumsy gaffe, then I would be found out early and the communal “fun” would come to a premature, anti-climatic end.

Hence, I bluffed my way uncomfortably through a series of complicated scenarios, trying to put the others off the scent and last out to close to midnight. It was a bit like being a character from the board game Cluedo. I was Colonal Mustard and I had done the deed in the library with the lead piping after a secret assignation with Miss Scarlet. ( I always fancied her!) It was an awkward New Year’s Eve and the delicious food seemed to get stuck in my throat!

When , at last, I was found out, it was such a relief! I had lasted until about 11-15pm. So now I could enjoy the fireworks in the grounds and the champagne with the rest of the guests. I no longer felt like a criminal. I was also able to appreciate the spectacular fireworks in the dark skies above Kendall as the town exploded colourfully into life at midnight. It had been a fun New Year’s Eve in a tortuous sort of way, but I was mightily relieved when it was over and I could become a “normal” person again.

New Year — Used To Think It was Just a Scottish Thing.

20 Dec

We never celebrated New Year much when I was a kid growing up in Chesterfield, in England’s East Midlands. For my family, it was just a Scottish thing. Afterall, “Hogmanay” doesn’t sound very English does it? On flickering black and white television we watched shows beamed into our living room from Glasgow or Edinburgh presented by men in kilts. First of all I had to put up with  a kilted Kenneth McKellor, who my mum loved, singing earnest but tedious songs such as ” Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond” in his rich, tenor voice. Things livened up a bit when boring Kenneth was replaced by cheeky Andy Stewart, who my mum hated. She would sit there with a sour expression on her face, enduring his naughty rendition of “Donald Where’s Yer Troosers?” while I sniggered in the background. These shows invariably featured marching bagpipers, Highland dancing and much talk of Haggis eating. Live pictures came in of a massive open-air party in Princes Street, Edinburgh. Finally, after the striking of the midnight hour, came the traditional singing of ” Auld Lang Syne”, a mysterious song full of incomprehensible Scottish slang, which was originally published by Robbie Burns in the late 18th century. You cannot get much more Scottish than that!

Of course, I conveniently forgot the massed throngs in Trafalgur Square, London, plus all the people listening in reverence to the 12 chimes of Big Ben, before exploding into celebration. No doubt, even in provincial Chesterfield, people were celebrating at parties and gatherings, but in our house nothing much happened, apart from me speculating what lay under Andy Stewart’s kilt and what on earth he stored in his sporran. ( I still don’t know.) We had spent most of our money and energy on Christmas. Afterall, that was a “proper” festival because it was religious. The church, or I should say the chapel, ruled in our household. My cousin Avril, who also grew up in Chesterfield, told me that her father, my Uncle Leslie, was often chosen to be a “first-footer” as he was ” tall, dark and handsome.” Apparently, his task was to visit neighbour’s houses in the first hour of the New Year and poke their fires. This was supposed to bring them good luck. I’ve read about tall, dark first-footers arriving with a piece of coal to put on the open fire, again to bring good fortune. It must have been a pretty dirty job being a temporary coalman. Presumably this tradition died out with the coming of gas fires and central heating. ( Santa must also now have a big problem, trying to climb down non-existent chimneys.) So Chesterfield did acknowledge the turning of the year, even though it was largely ignored in our house.

Much later, in 1979, I moved up to Whitley Bay near Newcastle upon Tyne with my first wife and young family. New Year seemed to be much bigger in the North-east, maybe because of the proximity of the Scottish border. ( Yes, I’m still clinging to this Scottish theory!) We ended up going to New Year’s Eve parties and joining in all the traditions. We didn’t eat haggis however as we were vegetarians. We had some good times but not all our attempts to be jolly New Year revellers  were a 100% success. Our one try at first-footing was a disaster as the people we called on pretended to be asleep and didn’t open the door! So they were warm and snug in bed while we shivered on their path outside, frustrated that we weren’t being allowed to be festive!  Then there was the time in the 80’s when we decided to have an “at home” on New Year’s Day. We issued plenty of invites, got in all the food and drink, re-arranged the furniture, sorted out the background music, and waited. We waited and waited but not one person knocked on the door. So our New Year started with an embarrasing anti-climax! Instead of feeling popular and wanted, we felt neglected and rejected. We also had a hell of a lot of food to consume!

Despite these set-backs I have usually taken part in New Year celebrations since leaving home. As time has marched on, the festival has inexorably grown. Its definitely no longer a merely Scottich phenomenum. The closeness of Christmas and New Year on the calender has led to the 2 festivals virtually merging into one big one with most of the country closing down for the duration. However, the turning of the year did not always have totally positive connotations for me. For much of my life, it has signified that the holiday was almost over with the unwelcome reality of the return to work getting uncomfortably close. January 1st always felt colder and bleaker to me than December 31st.

The New year also means resolutions. How could I not mention that? This was one tradition that even my family embraced. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve vowed to stop biting my poor nails. I was usually gnawing them to a quick again shortly after returning to school. In more recent times, my resolutions have been about getting more exercise, eating a heathier diet or embracing a greener life-style. The results have been mixed but at least I’m trying. ( Some people say — very trying!) However, I think it’s good to set oneself targets for self-improvement even though they may not be 100% met.

The two-faced Roman god Janus, as well as giving his name to January, is very suited for the turn of the year. One face looks back, reflecting on the past year. The other face looks expectantly forward full of hope for the future. This is the time when nostalgic memories are stirred but in the same swirl of thoughts, new plans are made and aspirations launched. As soon as the reviews of the past year have finished, our esteemed leaders announce their plans and hopes for the new year. Unfortunately, just like my nail-preservation wishes, our politicians’ hopes for peace and harmony are usually quickly dashed by a new round of: arguments, disputes, outrages and wars. I sometimes think of January 1st as being like a lawn covered with a carpet of fresh, pristine snow. Just for a moment it is beautiful. But then everyday life walks all over it, soils it and its fragile beauty and the hope it symbolises is destroyed.

As with Christmas, I’ve had a strange and changing relationship with New Year as the years have passed. It has long since ceased being an amusing Scottish side-show. It has gradually inched towards centre stage. At times I have found the festival to be more and more emotionally -laden. The increasing hype surrounding it has sometimes made me feel a miserable failure if I didn’t have anything special to do on the evening of December 31st. I was like a teenager stuck at home on a Saturday night! Subsequently though, as I have grown more secure within myself, I have actually looked forward to a peaceful evening in on my own or with my partner, thankful that I didn’t have to be in the midst of a “jolly” crowd. I didn’t have to pretend to know the words of Auld Lang Syne and didn’t have to kiss a load of people I only half knew. Then at the end, one can still watch the free firework show provided by all the neighbours.

Over the decades, New Year has proved to be something of an emotional roller-coaster ride for me. It has acted as an annual barometer of my self-esteem and a measure of my self-development. It has led me through a whole gamut of emotions which I have somehow survived. But having said all that, I still don’t know what a Scotsman keeps in his furry sporran! I must Google it!