Tag Archives: family


10 Mar

I said goodbye to my father a few weeks ago at the very end of January, 2015. He didn’t speak to me as he was concentrating so much on his breathing but after I had finished, he moved his hand which I took as a sign that he had heard me. My sister and I had just been told that our dad was dying, so it was a sad and sombre last meeting. The phone-call came in the middle of the night telling us that dad had passed away. He was a couple of months beyond 91. Up to the last 2 years he had been in pretty good health. He had a long, good life. I know he was ready for the end when it came. Dad was a lifelong chapel goer and as my cousin put it :”He died in Christian hope.”
Despite his Christian beliefs, dad was very blunt and matter- of- fact about death. “Once you’re gone, you’re gone” he used to say. He sometimes challenged the premise of grieving, almost suggesting that it was a waste of time and emotion. I sometimes thought he sounded a bit harsh but it was typical of his unsentimental, no-nonsense approach to life ( and death), and I respected him for it.
Now dad is the one who has gone. It’s funny that he’s not there anymore sitting with mum in their bungalow, waiting to greet me when I visited them and ready to put the kettle on at a moment’s notice. He’s been an ever- present in my life from birth to retirement and beyond. It seems strange that he is now absent. It’s difficult to realise that I’ll never hear his loud, booming voice again. There is a silence as well as a big gap in my life.
I’ve not always been close to my father. At times, when I became a teenage rebel and then wanted to assert my independence as a young adult, we were even semi-estranged. For many years, the generation-gap was actually a chasm that was difficult to bridge. But bridge it we did. Bit by bit we became closer again. The arrival of my 3 children helped. Dad always enjoyed being a granddad. I have photos of us all out on trips together with dad smiling happily at the camera. We spent some good family times together and the clashes of the past gradually melted away.
My dad was quite a private person and didn’t like talking about his emotions. He was typical of many men of his generation. One wasn’t supposed to cry or talk about one’s inner feelings. It wasn’t the masculine thing to do. I regret not ever having had a deep conversation with him. I tried at times but he usually clammed up or changed the subject. I think he thought that the emotional side of family life was mum’s area of expertise and he didn’t want to trespass on her territory. That’s fair enough – I respect that. It was dad’s prerogative to keep his inner world under wraps. Thus I only ever got to talk to him about everyday matters. We would chat away about the fortunes of the family, the news, sport, holidays, the weather or our jobs. Even after he had retired, dad used to love talking about his time as an engine driver on the railways. I don’t blame him — he did that difficult job, working anti-social hours, for a staggering 47 years! He knew the railways like the back of his hand.
So I’m really sad that dad is no longer in my life. He has been there at almost every significant moment, helping and supporting in his own quiet, unassuming way. As I said in my funeral oration, I have a myriad of memories of my father: whether it was pulling me out of a boating lake when I fell in and nearly drowned, teaching me how to ride a bike, telling me all about life in the Second World War, taking me to school, driving me to college, attending my wedding, helping me decorate the house, or helping me to set myself up in my post-divorce flat. Dad was the continuity man — always there. But now he’s not and I will really miss him, as I’m sure all the family will.
Life goes on as they say. A death always seems to stimulate a flurry of clichés. They are corny but also very useful, as they help to paper over the cracks of loss. People express their condolences and ask me how I feel. What can I say? It’s difficult to express my emotions at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I feel very sad. Sometimes I feel empty and unable to express myself. One of the most powerful feelings that the death of a loved one brings up is of one’s own inevitable mortality. We’re all going to die even though we don’t often want to think or talk about it. A death and the subsequent funeral, bring these submerged thoughts and emotions to the surface. The passing of my dad has made me feel suddenly a lot older and also, more vulnerable. I am now the eldest male in our direct family. I am the “Godfather” if you like. It’s a sobering thought.
No sooner had I started to come to terms a little bit with the sad loss of my father, than I was recently hit with another significant family event with its accompanying swirl of emotions. My son’s wife gave birth to their first child, a boy. So I am a granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters , the children of my eldest daughter and her partner. Now I am delighted to have a grandson. He made his first appearance in the world just 5 weeks after my dad passed out of it. It’s a pity they didn’t get to meet. I know my dad would have been thrilled to see his latest Great Grandchild. But it wasn’t to be. Time marches on, as does our family. A new addition has now been posted at the bottom of the tree. I hope he lives a long, happy and fulfilling life. Soon my wife and myself will travel down to say hello to the latest arrival. It’s a wonderful development for the family.
I remember when I met my first grandchild and held her in my arms at the hospital. I was thrilled of course but I distinctly recall saying to myself: “Blimey! — I’ve just moved up a generation!” That feeling is doubly reinforced today. The arrival of my grandson so soon after the departure of my father has made me contemplate my position in the family and my place on the family tree. That famous television programme is actually very well named — recent family developments have made me acutely aware of who I think I am. My current feelings about both of the recent events strongly remind me that I am a link in an endless chain of love that passes seamlessly from generation to generation. A loving “goodbye” has been swiftly succeeded by an equally loving “hello.”



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!

Ada Alice.

8 Jun

A surprising but wonderful thing has happened to me. My daughter, Joanna, has just given birth to her third child, a girl, and has named her Ada Alice. These were the Christian names of my paternal and maternal grandmothers. So, in a stroke, five generations of our family have been connected!
I find it very touching that Joanna and her partner Allan Towns, value the importance of family and of remembering those who have gone before. I think this might have arisen from the family history research I did as one of my first post- retirement projects. This led me to acquire, with the help of my parents and my sister, photographs of my two beautiful grandmas when they were in their late teens. They are from another era, the now lost world of Edwardian Britain, before the horrors of the Great War blasted it into oblivion. Now in a new century and a new millennium no less, the naming of my new granddaughter links me to my two departed grandmothers, reactivating the fond memories I have of them. Ada and Alice are gone but far from forgotten.
Ada Millthorpe, my dad’s mother, was just 18 when she had her photograph taken. This was around the time she married my grandfather: George Arthur Bates. Similarly, my mum’s mother, Alice was captured on film, with my other Grandfather: Thomas Robert Bottoms, on the occasion of their engagement in 1913. Both photos were professional portraits executed in studios. In those distant days, having one’s photograph taken was a big, important event. They were the early days of the camera. The resulting pictures were the equivalents of the painted portraits that the aristocracy had commissioned in previous pre-celluloid eras.
My grandparents dressed up in their best clothes, their “Sunday best”, for their visit to the photographer’s studio. The black and white photographs show them striking serious poses. This was not an occasion for frivolity. Ada stands in front of a painted pastoral scene, surrounded by props that make it seem she is out for a stroll in her country estate. Her curly hair is swept back and tied back in bouffant style. She wears a cotton and lace blouse and a long, dark skirt with 3 frills at the bottom. She wears a delicate watch on a chain. It goes round her neck like a necklace and is pinned to the front of her blouse along with a flower decoration. The picture was taken in the Rembrandt Studio in Marringham, Notts.
Alice, in her portrait, sits seriously by her fiancée. Alice is also wearing an attractive white blouse and a dark skirt down to her ankles. Her blouse has “mutton leg” sleeves and embroidered, fancy cuffs. Like Ada’s it is probably made from cotton and lace. Alice’s hair is also swept back. She has a broach at her neck and a long, dark necklace. Beside her stands my granddad, proud and erect. He wears a dark suit and waistcoat, a white shirt with a starched collar and a white tie. Into his waistcoat pocket he has tucked his watch and chain.
In sharp contrast, Allan’s and Jo’s photos of the newly arrived Ada Alice are colourful, bright and informal. They were snapped on instant cameras phones within hours of her birth. Social networking then quickly took over. On her very first day on earth, Ada Alice Towns was the undisputed star attraction on her parents’ Facebook pages.( and on mine.) Now little Ada, although only a few days old,is having a blog written about her! Allan and Jo were able to share their great news in rapid time with a wide variety of friends and family members, who responded with their delighted messages of congratulation. After my teenage grandmas had had their formal, photographic portraits taken, there would then have been a wait of numerous days if not weeks before the finished product could be viewed and shared. The film had to be developed in a dark room and then the photos printed from the negatives. Finally they had to be delivered or collected. A great sense of anticipation and excitement must have built up. Today’s excitement is just as intense, but the long wait has been dispensed with. We now live in the age of digital photography. Ada Alice has been born into an instant world where communication is achieved through the click of an I-pad or a laptop.
Ada Millthorpe, my paternal grandmother, was born in 1889 in Barrow Hill, Staveley near Chesterfield, in north-east Derbyshire. Her father, John Swann Millthorpe was a hewer in a coal mine and later worked as a general labourer in the Iron and Steel works that dominated Barrow Hill.( but now closed and pulled down.) He had moved there from Wadsley Bridge, Yorkshire, presumably to get work.
In contrast, little Ada Alice Towns’s father, Allan, is a probation officer. he couldn’t work down a pit even if he wanted to, as they have virtually all been closed down. Ada Alice’s mum is a social worker. The senior Ada’s mother ( my Great Grandmother) was Harriet from Leicestershire. Ada was the second youngest of 6 children — 4 girls and 2 boys. Many people had large families in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ada married another collieryman, George Arthur Bates in 1908 at the tender age of 17. He was 7 years her senior. George Arthur, my paternal Grandfather, was a filler, loading the tubs with the coal extracted by the hewers from the face. Later, he too switched to the steel works after the 1926 General Strike led to a savage cut in miners’ wages.
The 1911 census finds George Arthur and Ada living as boarders in the house of her father. Even though their marriage was barely 3 years old, they already had 2 children, my aunties Evelyn and Doris. They went on to have 4 more children, ending up with 3 boys and 3 girls in all. My dad, Maurice Reuben, born in 1923, was the youngest.
I remember Ada senior, my Grandma Bates, as a gentle, kind, loving woman. I always liked being with her. We used to visit her and granddad every Sunday, after going to Sunday school at the Methodist chapel down the road. Grandma always had the kettle on, boiling water on the open fire and within minutes of our arrival was “mashing” (brewing) the tea in the pot. Then out came a barrel of sweet biscuits for us to enjoy. Ada must had a hard-working life, looking after her husband and 6 children. This was before the days of washing machines, electric or gas cookers and vacuum cleaners. She and my other Grandma, Alice, would have been constantly: washing, drying, ironing, cleaning, sewing, shopping, cooking and baking. Washing was a case of getting out the poss tub and stick and laboriously heating up buckets of water, rather than just slinging the soiled clothes into an automatic machine as is the case today. For a time Ada was helped by my Auntie Harriet who came home after her marriage broke up. Harriet’s child was brought up by George and Ada as their own to avoid upsetting gossip. So they really reared 7 children.
In their later years, George and Ada also kept pigs, chickens, pigeons and a pony on a small-holding. Going to the toilet in their house was always a bit of an adventure, as the white-washed out-house where it was located, was full of pungently smelling sacks of animal and bird feed.
Alice, my maternal Grandmother, was born Alice Anne Barson in New Whittington, Chesterfield in August, 1892. Her father was Harry Barson, from Chesterfield, another hewer down a coal mine. Her mother, Alice Bloomfield hailed from Eye in Suffolk. The coal mines and steel works of north Derbyshire had lured her family away from their rural, agricultural life in East Anglia. So, it seems that the name Alice has been passed down through the generations. My tiny grand-daughter may not know it yet, but Ada Alice will grow up to discover that 2 Great, Great Grandmas and 1 Great, Great, Great Grandma all share her names
Alice Anne Barson married my Granddad: Thomas Robert Bottoms in 1915 in Chesterfeild. It was in the middle of the First World War but Thomas did not go away to fight in the trenches, as he worked in the iron and steel works, an essential industry in the war effort. Thomas was a furnace-man. This protection from conscription also applied to my other Granddad as coal mining was another vital war occupation. Thomas and Alice went on to have 3 children: Leslie, Victor and my mother Jessie, who was born in 1926. ( The same year as the Queen as she never gets tired of telling me!) This side of our family were very religious and active in the non-conformist Methodist movement. Granddad Thomas led the way — being a lay preacher, an organist and chapel choir leader.
Like Ada, Alice worked hard to bring up her family without the aid of modern, labour-saving devices. She too had an iron “range” which consisted of an open coal fire, a cast-iron oven and hot plates where she would place her irons to heat up. All other cooking was done on a little double gas ring on the small work surface near the sink. This was Grandma’s kitchen, tucked into a corner of the living room. They did have another ground floor room but this was kept for “best” just in case special visitors came. Alice loved baking. I remember her jam and curd tarts, delicious scones and large trays of sponge cake, spread with icing and sprinkled with desiccated coconut. For some strange reason she called this “buffalo cake.” Alice also baked the weirdly named “Az Baz” which was a bit of left over pastry ( after making her excellent pies) with a jam filling. It was a favourite treat of mine.
The original Ada and Alice grew up in a vastly different world from their newly arrived descendent. Edwardian England had few cars, no television, no computers, no Internet. Most people did not have music players and radios were rare in the early 20th century. Provisions were bought from a corner shop not a supermarket. Many people did not worry about their carbon footprints or food-miles because they grew much of their own fruit and veg . Most ordinary folk had no landline telephone and mobile phones were unimaginable, science fiction items of the distant future. People wrote letters using pen and paper rather than typing emails and entertainment consisted of singing round the piano or doing jigsaws. Both my grandmas knitted and sewed, making and mending clothes for their families. I wonder whether the new Ada Alice will become adept at darning socks like her namesakes? More like she will be successfully mastering the latest electronic gadgets and technologies and leaving me standing! She will be comfortable in a world that is increasingly leaving my generation behind.
I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Alice. We were very close. Even as a teenager, when you would have expected me to be listening to pop music or chasing girls, I spent most weekends with her. I would take the bus there straight from school on Fridays. Later I went on my motor scooter. She lived in a two-up two-down terraced house in a courtyard shared with 3 other households. It had a toilet block in the middle of the yard and an old concrete air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. Mum remembers going in there during the Luftwaffe bombing raids of the Second World War.
The newest addition to our family, Ada Alice Towns has triggered all these precious recollections. Even now only a few days old, she has already had a big impact on my life. I have my daughter and her partner to thank for this. Ada Alice’s arrival brings hope for the future and memories of the past. Looking at her pictures on the computer screen ( and in real life) with her curly, ginger hair and tiny, delicate features, I wonder what life has in store for her? She has been born into a constantly changing, kaleidoscopic world where exciting opportunities will come to her thick and fast. She is lucky to have the stability provided by the unconditional love of 2 families. With her big sisters, Esme and Nin, Ada Alice will carry our family forward into a new generation.
Their world is greatly different from that frequented by the original Ada and Alice in the previous centuries. However, one important thing has not changed in all that time. That is the continued importance of family, whose love and support sustains us throughout our lives. I hope to pass on some of the love that I received from Grandma Ada and Grandma Alice to the new Ada Alice and her sisters. In that way the gulf of time that separates them will simply evaporate and the generations will melt into one.

The Other Side of Football — Up The Spireites!

1 Feb

It’s difficult to write about football ( or soccer) with any objectivity. Thanks to saturation coverage in the media, its importance has been inflated to ridiculous levels. Hooliganism has been largely sorted in Britain ( though not completely) but other unsavoury developments constantly rear their ugly heads. Numerous Premier League clubs have become the playthings or part of the cooperate business- plan of foreign billionairres, be they Russian, American or Gulf Arab. Top level players are paid unbelievably high salaries that are an insult to every ordinary working person in the country. I heard of one highly paid footballer who regularly burnt £50 notes to impress his mates in the pub. Top players are now ranked alongside film and TV stars as A-List celebrities, their every move, utterance or tweet given the full glare of publicity. Then there are the armies of followers, dazzled by the hype, wealth, fame and success, who attach themselves to the biggest and richest clubs. Many of these so-called supporters don’t even come from or live in the place where their team is based. Many “fans” don’t actually come from the same country! The power of television has made football into a global force, and an important part of the show-business industry. Thus we get the strange, confusing situation of finding droves of Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona fans throughout Africa, Asia and all parts of Europe!

Famous players are mobbed and idolised when they visit these far-flung outposts of their club’s empire. Gullible fans may not even realise that the visit has only been organised in order to sell more replica shirts and club merchanise to generate yet more wealth for the “business.” How can a person support a team which he/she can never get to see live? I don’t understand. This blog isn’t about that side of football — the false, over-hyped worlds of the Premier league, La Liga or Serie A. It’s about the other side of football that doesn’t appear in the celebrity mags, the back pages of the tabloids or on Match of the Day. This is the football of the poorer, unfashionable clubs who struggle on despite: low attendances, financial hardship and perennial lack of real success.

Every Saturday, towns up and down the land witness a curious ritual. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, all start walking in the same direction at around the same time. A few women mingle in with them but it’s mostly men. Cars too, head for the same destination, starting to thicken and clog up the streets as the goal gets closer. Special buses deliver yet more people. Almost all are bedecked in scarves, hats or shirts of the same colour, as if they are in uniform. If this was a Sunday in days gone by, you might think that the throng was making its way dutifully to church. But this is a Saturday and the hallowed focus of the pilgrimage is the football ground or stadium. Its large stands and tall floodlight pylons rear up, dwarving the buildings around. The football ground is the modern equivalent of the cathedral or of Ancient Rome’s Colosseum or Circus Maximus. It is a place where people can go to forget their troubles, even if only for a couple of hours. Today it’s not bread, circuses or rousing sermons that are fed up to the “masses” but football and more football ( and perhaps “reality TV”). Football is in some ways the new religion. Loyal fans flock to worship their idols, pray for a win, take part in communal call- and- response chanting and exercise blind faith. The similarities between a football crowd and a church congregation are striking.

For many ordinary supporters, football is not the glamour of the Premiership or the Champions’ league (except on the telly.) It is shivering on a terrace on a freezing winter’s afternoon, watching a rubbish game littered with clumsy mistakes and supporting a side that’s not won anything for decades and probably never will. This is what I call “grass-roots football”, where supporters shout and cheer for their team irrespective of their position in the league. They would despise the pseudo- fans who only support sides that are at or near the top. These are dismissed as “fair-weather supporters” and awarded scant respect. Real, grass roots fans are always there, through rain and shine, cheering, moaning, screaming, groaning, often swearing, but always hoping. They root for artisans rather than artists. Constant failure and disappointment is hard to swallow but the genuine fan grins and bears it. There’s always next week or next season. Football at this level breeds stoicism, not a bad quality to have amongst the modern clamour for instant gratification. It also breeds incredible loyalty. I know a lifelong supporter of Chester City, a team that was relegated from the football league and thrown out of the next league down because it’s lack of finance meant it couldn’t pay the coach firm to take it to away fixtures. Chester City, a proud, historical club, was declared bankrupt and ceased to exist a couple of years ago. However, my friend Andy and thousands of other Chester supporters, refused to give up. Chester was reformed as a “phoenix club” on the basis of money proferred by loyal fans and resumed life in the “Evostick League North”, 2 or 3 levels below the actual Football league. One super rich Premiership player, Michael Owen, donated one of his race-horses to the Chester cause. That alone shows the  enormous disparity between the top and the bottom in football. The resurrection of Chester also illustrates the lengths that real grass-roots fans are willing to go to support their clubs. As I write, the same sort of thing is happening at unfashionable Darlington FC –” The Quakers”

This unstinting loyalty is a major characteristic of a genuine football fan, irrespective of whether he/she is following a “big club” or one of the many small ones. Unfortunately this does not often happen with the players, especially in the higher echelons of the game. It seems that, aided and abetted by agents, many will move clubs simply to get more money or easier success. They may kiss the badge upon scoring but then “desert” the club that has nurtured them and developed their talents in order to earn mega-bucks elsewhere. Manchester City’s team is stacked full of such “mercenaries” attracted by the high salaries on offer. Loyal fans, who do not switch clubs, regard these money-hungry players as “traitors” and they get roundly booed whenever they re-appear at their former home ground. My Uncle Victor has not switched clubs since he was 8 years old. He is now 93 and still is an avid supporter of his home town team. Loyalty may seem an old-fashioned concept in this modern age of every one for himself ( herself) but it is still an admirable and important quality to possess. It is present in bucketfuls amongst fans, especially in the lower leagues.

Football at this level is not always a happy experience. A lot of pain and frustration has to be endured. So why do thousands take part in this demonstration of masochism every week for 9 months of the year? Being a lower league follower is a bit like being a lemming constantly hovering near the edge of the cliff and flirting with “disaster.”  The question is quite difficult to sensibly answer.

I support one such unglamerous club — Chesterfield FC.  You won’t find many people in Ghana, Malaysia or Japan supporting Chesterfield! Yet it has a long, rich history. It’s the 4th oldest club in the Football League having been founded in 1867, when either Gladstone or Disraeli was Prime Minister and Victoria was just getting comfortable on her throne. Hence it is older than Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after the town’s famous landmark — the Crooked spire. The local church of St Mary’s had its 13th century spire built with unseasoned timbers such that they warped. The spire was twisted like a cork-screw and from some angles it looks crooked and about to fall down. It’s a bit like an English Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become the symbol of the town and its football club. The crooked spire logo appears on the players’ shirts and supporters’ scarves.

The Spireites have enjoyed little big-time success but still attract a faithful following of between 3000 and 7000 supporters. In the 1930’s we narrowly missed out on promotion to the top division on goal difference. More recently, in 1997, we just failed to get to the FA Cup Final at Wembley because of a referee’s mistake. ( At least we think so.) As in the World Cup Final of 1966, the ball crashed off the cross-bar and bounced behind the goalline, but Chesterfield didn’t have a friendly Russian linesman to award a goal . The referee didn’t allow the goal which would have put us 3-1 up against 10 men with only about 15 minutes to go. So we never made it to the final to face Chelsea. Middlesbrough, our top flight opponants, forced a draw then won the replay with the help of their expensively paid foreign stars. I have always ” hated” Middlesbrough ever since, even though I now live near their ground.

This irrational “hatred”, coming from a normally mild-mannered man, perhaps explains one of the magnetic attractions of the game. In everyday life we can be pleasant and polite as society demands. However at a football match we can be as loud, raucous and rude as we like and it is accepted as “normal” behaviour. A whole gamut of intense emotions can be released within the “safe” confines of the match. Just for that 90 minutes one can become a raving “maniac”, letting the adrenaline run freely, before hopefully going back to ” normal” at the end of the game. My son, Ian, once had to pull me away to safety as I was about to carry out a suicidal one-man pitch invasion at Bradford. The Chesterfield goalkeeper was being surrounded and jostled by a posse of Bradford players and I was so incensed that I would have been on the pitch, literally fighting for my team. Luckily for me, Ian intervened and calmed me down.

Supporters exhibit emotions in a whole variety of ways. Some cheer and sing; others chant and clap. When you do it at the same time as hundreds of other people it can be very exhilerating. Meanwhile, others never seem to stop moaning and complaining, be it about the opposition’s tactics, the perceived mistakes of the officials or the home team’s deficiencies. What is really happening is that the match is acting as a sort of safety valve, helping people to let off steam and release everyday tensions. Some supporters actually sit in silence for much of the match. They are apparently indifferent to what is happening on the pitch, but you can guarantee that on the inside they resemble a boiling volcano ready to blow! Last season I sat near to such a “silent supporter” at a Chesterfield home match. He said nothing for over an hour. Then, after a petty dispute over the award of a throw-in, he suddenly screamed at the linesperson:” Are you bloody blind?” After that solitary outburst, he went back to silent mode for the rest of the match!

It’s strange being a Spireite, an Owl ( Sheffield Wednesday), a Latic ( Oldham Athletic), a Hatter ( Luton Town), or a supporter of the countless other lower league clubs. Success is scarce, failure is common, yet we climb on to the emotional roller-coaster every season. Something in our DNA dictates that we cannot remain indifferent. One’s mood on a matchday or even for the whole subsequent week, depends on the success or failure of 11 men chasing a ball round a field. If they win, we supporters go into work with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces. If they lose we feel strangely depressed and out of sorts. But as I indicated above, this can be seen as a positive thing, for  supporting  a lower club provides excellent emotional training for the realities of life.

Another attraction of following a football team is the feeling of camaraderie that exists. It’s a human need to be with other people and to feel part of something. When thousands come together with the same objective and determined to all pull together, it can be very empowering. In smaller clubs such as Chesterfield FC it’s like belonging to one big, extended family. Being part of it gives one a lovely warm feeling inside. OK, it’s a vicarious world and not our real, everyday life, but it still makes us feel secure and accepted, if only for the duration of the match. Supporters of the same team watch out for each other, greet each other in the street and enjoy each others’ company in the stands. I recently went with my son, Ian, to see Chesterfield playing away at Wycombe Wanderers. Ian, for some incomprehensible reason, is a Newcastle United fan but sometimes helps me to support the little club of my birthplace. We took the train up from London to High Wycombe but just missed the bus that would have taken us out to the ground on the edge of town. The last taxi started to drive off as we approached. It looked as though we were in danger of missing the start of the match. Then I spotted a flash of blue and white in the back of the taxi. It belonged to a Chesterfield fan we had just followed out of the station. I stepped forward and waved frantically. He spotted me and stopped the car to let us in. We had never met before but we were automatically friends and allies because we had all travelled into “enemy” territory to support the “Spires”. The next 20 minutes were full of strange, excitable Spireite talk, incomprehensible to the taxi driver who had probably never even heard of the crooked spire. When we arrived at the ground, Adams Park, our new friend insisted on paying even though I had our half of the fare all ready. He said it was because we were all Spireites. He came from London but he still supported the Spires whenever they ventured south.

It was a cold but exciting day in Wycombe. Chesterfield twice led and I shouted and cheered myself hoarse. ( something I wouldn’t normally do in my “real” life.) Despite my advanced age ( 62) I jumped up and down like a young kid. Football is very good for helping you to shed the years. When we scored, I even found myself hugging complete strangers, the normal barriers of reserve having been swept away by the excitement and drama of the match. When we lost to virtually the last kick of the match, it was like a collective blow in the solar plexus. There was a long low moan then the Chesterfield fans closed ranks in adversity, grimly swallowed defeat and trudged out of the ground hoping that next week would bring better luck.

One season earlier I had had a similar communal experience in a fixture at Darlington. This feeling of togetherness and solidarity is even stronger in away matches. It was a bitter cold Boxing Day with a raw wind whipping into us. Several hundred of us shivered on the terrace behind one of the goals. For 80 minutes, it was an increasingly cold and miserable experience, the only consolation being that we got to practice our Derbyshire grit. The pain increased as Darlington, who we were expected to beat easily, took a two-nil lead. The chanting of the Chesterfield fans was more in defiance than celebration. Apparently, according to the drum- accompanied chants, I had been recruited into “Sheridon’s blue and white barmy-army” ( John Sheridon is the current manager of Chesterfield.) I had to agree that I must have been particularly barmy to leave my warm house to endure this bleak experince. Then, out of the blue, Chesterfield scored 3 goals in 10 crazy, ecstatic minutes! They were scored right in front of us and we all went berserk! As in the match above I found myself leaping up and down, embracing strangers and singing: “We’re Spireites ‘Till We Die!” Insane and inane I know but no-one can deny that for a few heady minutes I was transported on to a different plain. My emotions had surged from one extreme to another and the whole exhilerating experience was magnified because I was sharing it with hundreds of others.

I tell you all this to illustrate that being a football supporter is often about comradeship and togetherness. Being a fan increases one’s sense of identity. Sport, especially football, can give its participants a strong sense of who they are. We all belong to the football, and in my case the Spireite, family. What’s more, this family does not consist of only testosterone-filled, aggressive young men, as is the popular conception. I have sat near to : women and young children, old men with zimmer frames, handicapped people in wheel chairs and even a middle-aged blind woman. She listened to the match commentary on the local radio,assisted by her partially-sighted husband, not being able to see a thing but enjoying the “live” atmosphere.

The live experience is a crucial part of the attraction of a match. Unlike much of our pre-recorded, packaged entertainment industry, a live sports event is completely unpredictable. Literally, anything can happen and quite often does. Who would have thought that bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers would have beaten Manchester United near the top at fortress Old Trafford? Every match is a potentially thrilling journey into the unknown. This applies equally to a match in Chesterfield as it does in Barcelona.

Being a “Spireite” gives me excitement, a strong sense of identity and the ability to patiently cope with constant disappointment. It gives me strong links with the town of my birth, where my original roots were. It strengthens bonds between me and various friends and family who also look out for the team. Even my 85 year old mother mentions the latest score in our weekly telephone conversations. I have just got back in touch with one of my closest school friends after over 30 years of lost contact. We went to many Chesterfield  matches together in the 60’s standing on the “kop” at the old Saltergate ground. Guess what Vic and I talk about at least 50% of the time? He lives in Brighton, I live near Middlesbrough, but we both still support dear old Chesterfield.

I’m pleased that I have grown up with football in my blood. My dad passed it on to me and I have transferred it to my son. I actually know some men and many women who hate football. Some, including my wife, feel sorry for me thinking me immature and silly for caring deeply about the fortunes of 11 men in blue shirts chasing a ball. They may have a point! I share the criticisms of excessive salaries in the Premier league, the antics of some of the players and the often hysterical media coverage. I also share their condemnation of violence and over- the- top aggression, whether it be amongst the fans or out on the pitch. However, I have no intention of joining them in their empty world of indifference.( to football partisanship that is.) I’d rather be passionate about something, even if others think it silly. Why would I want to deny myself: all that excitement, drama, spectacle, skill, history, comradeship, solidarity and strong sense of identity? In some ways I feel sorry for those who don’t wish to involve themselves in this rich world of experience. ( Can shopping offer anything close to all this?) I know it’s like a drug or even a disease but it gives me huge pleasure and a special edge to my life.

These days, Chesterfield FC is so relatively poor that it has to borrow spare players from richer clubs. You might think we supporters would find it difficult to accept them, as they technically have given their allegiance to another team. But to me, it doesn’t matter whether they play for us for 10 years or 90 minutes — as soon as they pull on the blue shirt with its crooked spire logo, they instantly becoming “Spireites,” carrying the hopes and dreams of the thousands on the Chesterfield terraces. Each one has the potential to become part of the club’s history, as a hero or as a villain. Maybe, if he scores a hat-trick or saves a crucial penalty, he could become part of Chesterfield folk-lore. Come on you Spireites! Silly I know, but there you go!

Post-Separation Christmas : “Outside Looking In.”

29 Nov

Christmas is for families. That’s often said. It’s one of those seasonal cliches — the cosy image of the perfect family gathered round a glowing fire ( or at least near a radiator), cracking nuts, pulling crackers, munching chocolates, exchanging presents and generally feeling happy, loved and secure. Some families travel from all corners of the country, if not the Globe, simply to be together at Christmas. They bask in the warm glow of togetherness. Some even indulge in a bit of seasonal showing off.  “They’re all coming to ours this year and I’ll be cooking for 17” How many times have you heard that one? They pretend to be exasperated with all the extra work but are secretly pleased that so many relatives want to join them on the “special day.” It’s all part of the annual, not so subtle, game of family  one-up-manship. “That’s nothing, we’ve got 25 coming . I don’t know where we’re going to put everybody!”

All this sounds very nice. It’s a lovely tradition. There’s nothing wrong with people getting together at a special time of year. But what happens if you’ve not got a family? What happens if you’ve become estranged from your relatives? What if you are actually alone at Christmas? The so-called festive season then turns into negative. It becomes a whole different emotional ball-game.

Back in Christmas 1988 this happened to me in a small way. I had been excluded from day to day family life by a no-blame separation, which eventually led to a no-blame divorce. I had done the decent thing by agreeing to my wife staying in the house and thus to be with our 3 children on a daily basis. I got plenty of access and was kindly invited along for Christmas dinner, but for the first time I woke up alone on the morning of December 25th. ( I forgot to warn you that this post was going to be a bit of a “weepy”!) I was living as a lodger in the spare room of some friends. They had gone away to visit their extended family in Greater Manchester. My “girlfriend” turned out to be commitment-shy. She presumably thought that it would send out the wrong signal if she was to spend a special occasion like Christmas with me. Thus, after visiting me for a token hour over Christmas Eve lunchtime and giving me my present, she disappeared for the rest of the holiday to join her family. I wasn’t invited.

Work and its distractions had finished for a fortnight. I couldn’t bear to go back to my parents’ place 22 years after leaving home for good, even though they had kindly invited me. I knew I would spent some of Christmas Day with my close family but basically, for much of the holiday I was to be on my own. Unfortunately this led me to have too much time to think!

Marriage and relationship break-ups invariably lead to indulgent bouts of self-pity. I was no exception. My first post- separation Christmas led to a really big wallow. I now realized that our society’s family-friendly Christmas could also be a cold exclusion zone.

As it fell dark on that Christmas Eve, I went out for a walk and couldn’t help noticing all those closed doors and drawn curtains. ( except for a small gap so you could see the twinkling tree.) In my hyper-sensitive state I felt that the doors had actually been deliberately closed on me! Absurd I know but that’s how I felt. To quote one of my favourite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, it struck me that I was now: “Outside Looking In”.

Back at the house I got into a mini panic when I saw the whole evening stretching out before me, and I had nothing arranged. Friends weren’t available because they were all with their families or so I assumed. Dredging up some desperate courage, I went out again and knocked on the door of some new aquaintances of mine who lived nearby — C and N. They kindly invited me in and I ended up going to a party with them and, talking to lots of people I didn’t know. At midnight I helped N erect an indoor slide for his kids to play on next day. For a couple of hours I felt included, albeit in a proxy family, but eventually I had to return to the empty house. As I mentioned before, I had been invited to spend some of Christmas day with my family but for now I was alone. I had not been invited to the usual Christmas Eve gathering at our friends’ house. I was not frantically wrapping presents and I had not taken part in the dressing of the tree. In other words: I was out of the loop.

In forthcoming years I grew to value being alone for a while. The peace and the calm were precious commodities in a busy world. I would have a lie-in, go for a run while the day was still fresh, greet everyone I met with a special smile and have a quiet, relaxing breakfast before going to spend some quality time with my children. However, on that first post-separation Christmas, I did none of this. I struggled with my feelings and felt my “aloneness” very sharply. I felt excluded from the mainstream.

I experienced lots of kindness that Christmas  — from colleagues, friends, extended family and not least from my ex-wife and 3  children. However I still felt the pain of being alone for lengthy periods. In fact, perversely, this very kindness served to, at times, to actually emphasise my predicament. My mind worked overtime and I grew to irrationally resent others whose families had not been broken up . I even unfairly branded them as “smug”.

After a restless night I awoke on Christmas morning. All was quiet; eerily quiet in fact. No-one was opening presents; no children were screamimg with excitement. I had a small, peaceful breakfast, took a few deep breaths and tried to remain calm. My allotted visiting time was a couple of hours away so there was no rush. I thought I was OK and had got my turbulant emotions under some degree of control. I just had the 2 gifts with me in my adopted home. The rest were waiting for me at the family house a few miles away. There was my “girlfriend’s” Christmas Eve offering and a big colourful box from my kind hosts, S and C. I opened the latter and found it was a large hamper crammed full with delicious goodies. It was so thoughtful of them. For some reason I burst into tears. That act of kindness touched a raw nerve. It’s difficult to explain. It made me feel included but it simultaniously reminded me that I was excluded. It was a strange feeling.

Christmas Day with my family was really lovely in the end. It was nice having one of those closed doors opening just for me. The children were excited. It was as if I was delivering myself as a present to my own family! The rest of the presents were under the tree and we had a happy time opening them all. I felt loved and wanted. I knew this all along of course, but in my heightened state of sensibility brought on by Christmas, I needed these things verified. They were. My ex-wife and 3 children were all lovely and I had a wonderful day with them. We did all the usual Christmas family stuff. We ate a delicious meal, lit the candles, pulled the crackers, read the corny jokes and put on the funny paper hats. For a while it was almost as if the split had never happened, except of course it had.

As a very pleasant afternoon rolled on and it started getting dark outside, I started to become anxious .Awkward questions popped up into my mind. How long was I expected to stay? When was I expected to go? Had they arranged to do something later on? It was strange and difficult being a guest in what had until recently been my own home. I didn’t want to outstay my welcome and didn’t want my ex-wife to think that I was inviting myself for tea. I wasn’t joking when I said I was feeling sorry for myself. Self-pity seems to be threaded throughout this narrative. I’m sorry about this but I’m trying hard to capture my emotions at that time, and tell it as it was. I wasn’t really a pitiful figure, or at least I had little cause to be. I had lots of good friends and my family still loved and supported me. But it was still difficult getting used to my new circumstances and the raw emotions they generated. Those emotions seemed to coalesce around that first post-separation Christmas.

Since then I have re-built my life and pulled out of the dive. I have enjoyed subsequent Christmases with new friends, new partners and now my lovely new wife Chris. What’s more — at every single Christmas I have spent quality time with my children. In the early years we continued to play “happy families” at the old house which was very nice. Then there came a time when we outgrew this arrangement and they started to come and visit me over the festive period. Recently my 2 lovely grand-daughters have been included in the happy mix. Trips to the panto or a special Christmas production have now become a new family custom.

However, I will never forget the Christmas of 1988 and the swirling emotions that engulfed me. That’s why I still have mixed feelings when someone describes the festive season as “family get together time” and mentions :” There’ll be 26 of us sitting round the table this Christmas.” I still recall being alone for lengthy spells and being paranoically aware of the great conspiracy of the closed doors. I vividly remember the short stab of pain I felt when my own ” home’s” door clicked shut and I stood alone on the dark, garden path.

I’m sitting pretty now. I’m happy and contented and feel loved and wanted, but it’s hard to forget the time when I felt like the “outsider”. Maybe I should read that famous Albert Camus novel now, while I’m in the mood!

Dedicated to my children : Joanna, Catherine and Ian.

Teenage Christmas Angst — The Scales Drop Off.

26 Nov

On December 25th, 1967, I just walked the wintry streets all day. For company I had a small, close-knit group of friends. For sustenance I had a small Tupperware box of vegetables in cheese sauce, kindly donated by my sister and pushed into my hands as I left the house. So what on earth had happened? Had I been rejected by my parents? Why wasn’t I with my family, exchanging presents and pulling crackers in the warmth of the house? Why wasn’t I looking forward to the richest, tastiest meal of the year?

Well, I had not been disowned. It was MY decision to go out all day and brave the December weather. I was in my late teens and I had been doing a lot of hard thinking. Once I had realized that my parents’  lifestyle and opinons were not set in concrete, I hastened to develop my own independent ideas. This incredibly had led me to reject several key components of our traditional family Christmas which had previously given me so much enjoyment as a child. By 1967, aged 17, I was determined to boycott much of it. To the bemusement of my well-meaning but long-suffering parents, I swapped the cosy but claustrophobic Christmas at home for the cold freedom of the streets. My friends and I forsook our lavish Christmas dinners for a small snack in a damp park. We did this because we wanted to show that one didn’t have to follow the diktats of tradition. It was possible to wriggle out of the straight-jacket and do something different.

We pretentiously read poetry to each other, imagining we were Allan Ginsberg- like rebels. OK, we were nothing like the Beat Poets of 10 years earlier but we did empathise with them to a certain extent, as we too felt beaten down by the conventialities of society ( I believe that’s how the “Beat Movement” got its name.). Unlike James Dean however, we were rebels WITH a cause. We wanted to expose the less acceptable aspects of Christmas in our opinion.  We no longer viewed the festival through rose-coloured spectacles, but in a newer, harsher light. To use another analogy, the scales were dropping off. Here are the reasons why.

[Don’t get me wrong. My parents were ( and still are) loving and generous. They organised many wonderful Christmases for me as a child. ( see last blog: “Childhood Christmas.”) However, as I grew up, I came under different influences through school, friends and books. I came to realize that there were alternative ways of looking at things.]

The first scale to drop away was the beguiling but totally fictitious myth of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. To the youngster, the idea of a kind, jolly old man,  riding a reindeer- pulled sleigh across the sky and popping presents into the stockings of every child in the world, is one of the highlights, if not THE highlight of Christmas. To the young, the presents appear on Christmas morning as if by a miracle. However it is all based on a “white lie”. The untruth is told for the best possible reasons but once a child discovers the truth, then a lot of the “magic” of Christmas instantly evaporates. It’s such a disappointment and an anti-climax to find out that it is your own parents who are delivering the presents, drinking Santa’s sherry and eating Rudolph’s carrot. It’s still nice receiving gifts but the magical aura previously surrounding them has now largely disappeared. Later on, I was to discover that Father Christmas or St Nicholas actually came not from Lapland but from Turkey, a country that does not have reindeers or elves! In fact, much of the myth of Santa Claus was developed relatively recently in the United States and Santa’s mythical clothes were changed from grey to red to suit Coca Cola who thought the brighter colour would look better in their adverts. So much for the innocent “magic” of a young child’s Christmas!

The next “scale” to drop off was the religious one. Christmas has become increasingly secular in recent years anyway but in the 60’s the Christian story of Jesus’s birth was still widely promoted and accepted, especially in our family who were devout and regular church goers. However, as I went through my teens I became increasingly suspicious of several aspects of the Nativity story, which had always been sold to me as the “Gospel Truth”. Did I really believe that Mary was impregnated by Immaculate Conception? Did I accept that Joseph, when he found out that his fiancee was pregnant, just took it in his stride and went along with the incredible, unprecedented idea that she was having God’s child? Did I really believe in choirs of angels singing in the sky or that 3 Wise men or Kings would travel a great distance to give precious gifts to a poor baby born in an obscure stable in a provincial town? It all makes a cracking story because it is so unusual but once cynicism entered my thought- processes I began to doubt its veracity. The story, accepted without question by my chapel- going parents, was about as believable as your average fairy tale. Also, I thought, why did the 3rd “Wise man” give Myrrh to a new-born baby, when this sweet smelling incense was most commonly used on dead bodies? It’s hardly appropriate I think unless you are a Christian looking for a significant symbol of Christ’s premature death.

As I grew older I came to realize that many other people also did not believe in or ascribe any importance to the nativity story. What about all the Hindus, Muslims, Sihks, Buddhists and even the Jews? Why were they not celebrating the birth of the “Son of God”? What about the athiests who did not believe in God or the agnostics who were not sure? Were they all wrong and only the Christians right? My parents would say it is a question of faith and that a true believer does not require proof. However, my doubting mind couldn’t help noticing that many more people did not believe and had no faith in this “earth-shattering” event than actually did!

Thus, despite the romanticism of the story and the beauty of the carols, I came to reject the Christian aspect of Christmas. Later, my cynicism increased when I learnt that the Church had hi-jacked the pagan midwinter festival of light. [ where people appealed to their gods for the coming of Spring, of light, warmth and of re-birth when all seemed dead and and dark in the midst of winter]. The Christian church supplanted this and adapted it for their own ends, pretending it was their festival all along. Later still, through my research as an RE teacher, I found out that historical records point to Jesus actually being born in September! So by late adolescense I had lost my faith in the Bible’s Christmas story. I did not want to go to church and hear it all again, so I took to the streets.

Another issue that forced me out into the cold was my growing awareness of the amount of poverty, famine and inequality there was in the world. I know that Christmas in the West is supposed to be a time for thinking of others less fortunate than ourselves. I whole-heartedly agree with this. The idea is constantly repeated in school assemblies and church sermons throughout the land. Businesses and celebrities adopt certain charities. The media looks for heart- warming stories of people helping in soup kitchens and temporary hostels for the homeless being set up. All this is very good. As a child I enjoyed giving as well as receiving gifts at Christmas. But I came to realize that many, if not most, of peoples’ presents were being given, not to the poor, but to people who already had a lot. How many times have you heard the question: “What can you buy for the man/woman/child who has everything?” In fact older relatives in my experience, often get so exasperated about trying to think of something to give to a child who already owns lots of toys, books, clothes, games etc., that they admit defeat and simply hand over the money!

I became more aware of this as the 1960’s rolled on .It seemed to me that Christmas was mainly becoming an orgy of materialism. This has grown a lot worse since then. Slick advertising persuades people ( especially children) that they have to have certain things or they will be missing out. Imagine being the only person in your class or on your street who doesn’t own a Kindle or a Smartphone! Poorer parents often stack up their credit cards and push themselves into debt to buy the required items for their children. By 17 I was already aware of excessive consumerism in our society, with Christmas being the time when it reached its grand crescendo. The shops were packed throughout December and there was a frenzy of frantic buying. This is still the case today with the Internet also joining in the “fun”. Postmen and women exhaust themselves delivering constant parcels to people’s doors.

On top of all this, the thought of starving people in famine- struck Africa and elsewhere, started to put me off my massive Christmas dinner, not to mention all those mince pies, cake and chocolates. I realize that much of this hand-wringing and moralising must sound terribly pompous and boring after a while. I admit I was like that as a teenager, constantly angsting as I  set out my ethical “stall”. I can still be like that today. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful to my kind and generous parents and I am not advocating that everyone should have a serious and miserable time at Christmas. But ( yes — there’s always a “but”) I could not and cannot ignore poverty, inequality and starvation in the world. At the time this made me much less inclined to eat, drink and be merry. It was the extravagent excess of Christmas that brought this reaction out of me.

The final and probably the biggest factor that made me so disillutioned with Christmas was my conversion to vegetarianism. Don’t worry, I am not going to explain this in detail again as it is covered in previous blogs.( cf — “How My Grandfather Turned me Into a Vegetarian.”) Suffice to say that my” Saul on the Road to Damacus” moment was seeing my Grandad’s slaughtered chicken lying lifelessly on our work top, its broken neck hanging at an awkward angle away from its body. My father thought he was being kind when he asked me if I would like to help pluck the feathers off and remove the giblets. At 17 he probably thought I was old enough to be able to do this “man’s” work. To his surprise though, his offer had the exact opposite effect to that intended. Instead of stepping forward to assist in this important job, I shrank away in disgust! Inside my mind I heard a distinct click — it was the “penny” dropping. Or you could say it was another scale disappearing from my eyes. Previously I had thought of our Christmas bird as a delicious piece of food and a special treat. Now I saw it for what it really was — a creature that had had its life prematurely snuffed out so that we could consume its flesh. In a previous post I have noted the irony of celebrating a birth (of Jesus) through a death. ( of the chicken.) This has sadly got to be multiplied millions of times every December as enormous numbers of  birds — chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese — are slaughtered on an industrial scale so people can stuff themselves at Christmas. I suddenly felt this very strongly and refused to eat that poor creature and have never knowingly eaten meat since. It’s no surprise that I felt compelled to go out all day as I wanted to take no part in something that I strongly disagreed with. Christmas has been a difficult time for me ever since.

Those rebellious years of teenage tantrums and walk- outs have now long gone and I have calmed down a lot.( thank goodness!) I have allowed myself to enjoy the numerous aspects of the Christmas festival which are harmless and pleasurable. This was especially so when I had my own family  and my first wife and I recreated the magical Christmases we had both enjoyed as children. I hope our 2 daughters and son enjoyed them too. Yet, I have never been back to Christmas morning church services after all those years of being forced to go. The nearest I got to this was a candle-lit carol service in Hexham Abbey, Northumberland. It was beautiful and atmospheric but extremely cold!  What’s more –I have retained that uncomfortable feeling about the explosion of consurism and over- indulgence that Christmas always seems to trigger. It goes without saying that I remain repelled by the mass killing of animals and birds simply to fill peoples’ stomachs. Last but not least, I am still enough of a rebel to want to fight against the constrictions of tradition. Why should I be forced to do exactly the same things as everyone else at exactly the same time? I know its an important bonding mechanism for the family and for the nation as a whole, but the James Dean in me still finds it pretty oppressive and I want to break out! It’s enough to make me want to go for a very long walk, or read a book of pretentious poetry! Amen.

Childhood Christmas — Fond Memories of Innocence.

22 Nov

I used to love Christmas as a child, back in the 50’s and early 60’s. Our lounge was decorated with twisted, coloured streamers, the mirror and pictures sported sparkling fringes of tinsel, bunches of holly appeared above the door and a traditional tree festooned with baubles and flashing lights stood proudly in the corner. OK — it was an artificial tree, but to my sister and I, it was real enough and we looked forward to decorating it and plopping the fairy ( or was it an angel?) on the tip of the very top branch.

At school we missed lessons to have class parties with sandwiches, cakes and jellies, and then were rewarded with a whole fortnight off. Everywhere, a sense of excitement and expectation filled the air as the great day got closer and closer. Both at school and in church we sang the much-loved,” traditional” carols (actually, mostly written in Victorian times). They all had that warm, reassuring ring of familiarity about them. Soon we didn’t need the song sheets to tell us the words of “Away in a Manger”, “We Three Kings” or “Silent Night”, along with numerous others. I especially like ” Oh Come All Ye Faithful” as everyone seemed to belt it out in a rousing manner and my dad and grandad sang deep, rich bass parts. Similarly, the soaring soprano voices in “Hark the Herald…” were indeed, to my child’s ears, just like angels singing in heaven. When I got older, I wrapped up warm and went carol singing with friends. Our breath hanging in clouds before us in the cold air, we sang our hearts out, being rewarded with: opening doors, smiles, extra spending money and sometimes, warm mince pies. However, the real reward was the sheer joy of singing and of joining together to feel part of something that was bigger than any of us. That’s one of the real positives of Christmas. It’s a great coming together in a spirit of goodwill such that we all feel part of a warm, caring community.

Then there were the Nativity plays. Three boys in colourful dressing gowns and shiny cardboard hats would carry important looking boxes that represented the gifts of: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Nobody actually knew what frankincense or myrrh were but they sounded suitably exotic and rare. The gifts would be ceremoniously presented to a specially selected boy and girl, also in dressing gowns but this time with tea-towels on their heads. The girl would cradle a doll which she had taken from a wooden crib. Pretend shepherds with their pretend sheep were already there, so before us, that famous event in a Bethlehem stable was magically recreated. I think many of us were so transported by the occasion that we truly imagined a special, bright star was at that moment shining right above us and a trio of camels plus a small flock of sheep were parked just outside.

Christmas Eve was extra special as expectation had now reached fever pitch. Our tree was twinkling away as were many others in the neighbourhood. ( although we didn’t have the over-the top, Beverley Hills- style extravaganzas that we often witness today.) Special foods had mysteriously made their way into the house. Bags of Brazil Nuts and walnuts, complete with fiendish looking nut crackers suddenly made an appearance. The fruit bowl was overflowing with apples, bananas and tangerines. Sticky dates or fleshy figs arrived in boxes decorated with pictures of turbaned Arab gentlemen or a  long-shadowed camel standing by a palm tree.

The radio ( and in later years — the telly) featured carols at regular intervals and we sometimes listened to the carol service from Kings College, Cambridge. There were also lots of other seasonal songs usually involving snow and/or bells and usually sung by Bing Crosby. In our religious and classical music- orientated household, the Huddersfield Choral Society usually made its annual appearance at this stage, singing Handel’s Messiah and especially the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For Unto Us A Child Is Born.” My mum and dad had both performed that in their time. Once that lot got going and their magnificent music swelled to a stirring crescendo, even Bing and his fake Hollywood snow had to take a back seat.

As we got deeper into Christmas Eve, a stillness seemed to descend on our house, if not the whole world. ( in my child’s mind’s eye.) We sat around the bright flickering open fire and felt a warm glow of family togetherness and happiness. Eventually, my sister Glenys and I went up to our rooms, but were barely able to sleep because of the excitement that was now only hours away.

Now we come to the most memorable moment of the whole festival — Christmas morning. We emerged from our sleep early, usually about 5 or 6 am! And there, at the bottom of our beds, were big, bulging pillow-cases. We didn’t get piddly little stockings! This is the most intense moment of excitement in a child’s life — Christmas morning and the arrival of the presents! Father Christmas had been. He had actually parked his reindeer sleigh on the roof and come down our chimney! Yes, I believed it all ! It’s funny that today we lecture our children about stranger-danger, yet happily tell them that a wierd old man with a long, white beard is going to sneak into their bedrooms in the middle of the night. However it is through this myth, propagated by almost the entire adult population, that the true enchantment of Christmas is realised for our children. I may be cynical now but as a young child, I experienced that wonderful magic for myself. The fact that it was based on a lie and was giving me an early grounding in materialism, is by the by. It was still genuinely special.

In that bulging bag were: my Billy the Kid annual, my Rupert Annual, the latest additions to my fleet of Dinky Toys ( model cars), a toy train set, my sweets and my selection boxes. Each year it varied of course. I remember one year I was really pleased to get a magic set, another time I got a tricycle, to be followed by a bike a few years later. But the selection boxes were an ever present. Yes — there were whole boxes of chocolates, just for me! In that moment, Christmas was not a time for thinking of others as society likes to claim it is. At that specific time Christmas was extremely exciting but also extremely selfish. These were MY presents. These were MY chocolates. Mine, all MINE! I think younger children pay lip-service to the spirit of giving. Encouraged by adults they write cards to friends and family and present little gifts ( bought on their behalf) to others. However, basically for the under 10’s, Christmas is an aquisitive time. Selflessness only comes slowly as we get older and take a less ego-centric view of life.

So now it’s Christmas morning. My sister and I play with our presents and race around screaming with excitement. Everything is different on this special day. We have a carol service on the radio ( wireless) and unbelievably we consume pork pies and ketchup for breakfast! ( A strange family traditionlong since lost in the mists of time.) A church service now follows even though 6 years out of 7,  Christmas does not fall on a Sunday. I grew up in a Christian family, so the religious significance of Christmas was always emphasised. In the Methodist chapel service, we sing those familiar carols again, this time putting special stress on the final verse of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” — ” Yea Lord we greet Thee, on this happy morning!” The preacher talks about the baby Jesus as being God’s gift to the world and the well-worn bible passages are read — Isiaih’s prophecy, Mary’s Annunciation, the donkey trek to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn, the shepherds seeing the angels, the star and the journey of the Magi. Even at chapel where it’s usually pretty boring and serious ( in my child’s opinion), everyone is smiling and happy. Glenys and I receive shiny half-crowns from kind members of the congregation.

Then it’s back home for more playing with the presents and more stuffing of chocolate down my throat! One year I hid behind the settee and methodically gobbled the entire contents of a large selection box! I wasn’t much into sharing in those days. I only realized my terrible mistake when I went green about the gills, rushed upstairs and  wretched up half a toilet- bowl of brown sick! Lesson learnt I think.

That year I didn’t have much of my Christmas dinner, but usually, right up to age 17, the Christmas meal was one of the highlights of the day if not the year. For a family on a very moderate income ( my father was a railway engine driver), we normally ate conservatively. Sunday dinner was the biggest meal of the week. Well, Christmas dinner was like a Sunday dinner with knobs on! We had all the richest traditional fare and the stars of the plate were slices of tender pork accompanied by apple sauce and sage and onion stuffing. We couldn’t afford turkey or even chicken as the 50’s were before the days of factory farming and mass production of cheap poultry. Chicken and turkey were still luxury items to us. As I entered my teens we started to have a chicken on Christmas Day as my Grandfather had a small holding and gave us one of his birds as a treat. At the time I thought it was the tenderest, most delicious meat I had ever tasted. It literally melted in my mouth. This was truly an exceptional day I thought. Later, of course , I became a vegetarian because of that very same Christmas chicken from Grandad Bates, but that’s another story, already told in a previous blog.( “How My Grandfather Turned Me Into A Vegetarian.”)

Our dessert was also traditional — a rich, fruity Christmas pudding smothered in sweet white sauce.( even better than custard.) I loved it, even though being good tee-total Methodists, we never had brandy in it. The afternoon meandered pleasantly through to tea time with the bewitching atmosphere hanging on. It was a day I wanted to last for ever. My dad gave demonstrations of his skills with the nut-crackers and how to use a pin to prise out the bits of sweet nut from seemingly inaccessible nooks and crannies. I tried to copy him and spent many a happy hour trying to winkle out the tiniest of morsels. It’s much more fun than buying a packet of ready shelled nuts. How boring! We also tried to eat the dates ( or figs) with little wooden forks but were never quite sure whether we liked them or not.

Christmas afternoon was always arranged around The Queen’s speech which came at 3pm. This was on the radio and from the mid-50’s onwards also on the telly. Even at a very young age I found this incredibly stuffy and boring, but it was impressed upon me that it was important so I fell into line. For many years we had to listen to it in silence, an atmosphere of awe descending on our house as if she was some sort of Deity speaking to her humble disciples. For my parents and grandparents this Royal interlude was very special. I think it took them back to the dark days of the Second World War, when King George VI had addressed a beleagured nation, once he had got his stammer sorted out, and put fresh hope back into everyone’s hearts.

Christmas tea was light, a sensible idea considering all the rich food we had been consuming for most of the day. The highlight of tea was definitely the Christmas cake which my mum or grandma had probably baked back in September. Again we were traditional and, as a child, I fully concurred in this as it was reassuring to be like everyone else and to know exactly what was going to happen every step of the way. Surprises can be unwelcome and the very thought of them can breed insecurities. Our Christmas was certainly well within our family’s and our nation’s comfort-zone. Thus we got a rich, fruit cake topped by a layer of yellow marzipan, glistening white icing and lots of tiny, sweet balls arranged in decorative patterns. Little models of Santa, reindeer , fir trees or snowmen were stuck on the top for further decoration. It was delicious and so rich that one could only have a small slice at a time.

As I got older and reached puberty, Christmas tea posed a tricky dilemna. I wanted to eat it and get my teeth into the cake, but I also wanted to go and see the traditional pantomime that was always on the telly around that time. I like the gags, the songs, the dancing and the knock-about comedy, but most of all I liked the shapely, long legs of the leading man. No, this was not the beginning of homo-erotic stirrings, because the leading man, complete with seamed stockings and high-heeled shoes, was actually an attractive woman. It’s one of those panto traditions that I’ve never been able to fathom, but very welcome nevertheless! Thus I always fancied Prince Charming a lot more than boring Cinderella! And all the time my parents sat there, totally oblivious as to why I was so keen to see the panto.

I’m so sorry to have changed the tone of this piece now, as most of it has been devoted to my pre-pubertal age of innocence. Burgeoning sexuality, cynicism, vegetarianism, athieism, anti-consumerism and probable quite a few other “isms” had not stirred their worldly -wise heads yet. ( not until the later 60’s.)

It was all downhill after the pantomime. The presents had been opened and the wrapping paper thrown away. The special food had been eaten and we were feeling totally stuffed. The chapel was closed up, now that Jesus had been born yet again.( Maybe this is where “Born-again Christians get their inspiration from.) The Queen had disappeared back to Sandringham or possibly Balmoral. My Dinky cars were parked in their garage and my train track packed away. However, the tree still twinkled and the magic of Christmas still lingered on, only very slowly fading away into ordinariness. Boxing Day was officially designated as  special but it was a bit of an anti-climax really. It was a day for eating the left-overs and generally recovering from the excesses of the previous day. ( and we didn’t even drink alcohol. Raisin “wine” does not give you a hangover.) Maybe a special show would be on the radio or ( a little later) a blockbuster film on the telly. Boxing Day also had football matches which often ended in stodgy 0-0 draws because the players were still full of turkey and pudding. Certainly, by the end of December 26th it was all over and normality returned. People emerged from their annual seasonal trance, gave each other dazed looks and stoically prepared themselves for an endless procession of grey, ordinary days. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we didn’t celebrate New Year very much in England.

I enjoyed my innocent childhood and my enchanting Christmases. I loved the lights, the songs, the parties, the cards and the presents. However, on reflection, I think it was the comforting security of well-known routines that I loved the most. Also the fact that just about everyone took part (or so it seemed) made me happy to be part of a massive shared experience. This is something that tradition brings — togetherness, a sense of belonging ( and thus of identity) and the safety net of the familiar. It is what is so important in childhood but which makes growing-up so problematic and scary. Since my early childhood I have developed an increasingly ambivalent attitude to Christmas and to tradition in general. I resent being forced into a communal straight-jacket and being mocked or criticised if I don’t play along. However, as a child I was very happy to live the cliche and it led to some of the happiest days of my life. In some ways I wish I could travel back to those early Christmases and relive the joys of innocence, but unfortunately, that door has now closed for ever and I cannot pass back through it, except perhaps in my fond memories.

This blog is dedicated to my parents, Maurice and Jessie and to my sister Glenys. They all helped me to enjoy some wonderful childhood Christmases.