I wish it could be Easter everyday…

…When the birds are breeding and the bunnies come out to play.

Or be squashed under car wheels

Yes. I’m weirdly channelling Wizzard deliberately at the wrong time of year (and yes, the baby bunnies are suicidal at the moment).

This is a fascinating time of the year, not least because of the dichotomy of hope and horror that it refers too. The Easter number one is, however, not so much of an event as its Christmas colleague.

Easter has come around again anyway and we’re in the appropriately named British Summer Time (appropriate because summer in Britain is not quite like summer anywhere else in the world, largely defined not by long sunny days and rather an even greater consumption of ice cream than in the winter months). I like Easter as a period as it is one of the prettiest periods of the church year – if you never go into churches this is the best time, if only for the wonderful flower displays – and considering it is a festival that starts with possibly the most unpleasant death created by man (and we are good at finding unpleasant ways of killing each other, as though the simple act of homicide was not enough) it does resolve itself in a cheerful triumphalism that for many people means overindulging in chocolate. Personally, I’m not a chocolate gorger, not out of any pious abstinence but simply because I am just not that into the stuff. But the lovely wife can happily make up for that and after all these years still struggles with why there is still part of my chocolate egg being nibbled away at some months later.

As a practising Christian, Easter for me is a renewal of hope and promises and an opportunity to look at the year to come freshly, unrestrained by the past – or at least not dragged down by my personal history. In theory, it is a time for forgiveness and celebration and it is still amazing to me how relatively low key even the church here treats it in comparison to Christmas. A Holy baby is probably just easier to sell than a executed and then resurrected Holy thirty year-old man. The Easter story is not easy to deal with – not only is the basic concept hard for people to grasp – the idea that a man, who is God, but also man – can take on the sins of the world with his death and then pop back up three days later – it is impossible to have the good bits without the horror of the Crucifixion. With Christmas, you can quite easily breeze over the concept of the virgin birth and conveniently stop the story with the visit of the Magi. The subsequent slaughter of hundreds of innocent babies by Herod does not normally feature on even the more religiously themed Christmas cards, but it is an important feature to understand what the Gospel story is about (and how much Herod understands just how important this child might be). But for Easter, you simply cannot have a triumphant resurrection without the terrible death. For me as a Christian, it’s a reminder that life is not a free ride, and that the assurance of the cross for those who believe is not that it is going to be all sweetness and light and rather might be brutish and painful (at least at times) but, in the end, it will all be wonderful. So it is harder to ‘sell’ Easter. Then again, I may be over thinking this and actually it is just that with the increasing amount of sunlight, flowers and calories people don’t need something as much to keep them cheerful as they do in the depths of December.

Easter is sometimes a public joyous celebration, especially beyond these shores. One year we spent our anniversary in Cyprus which also happened to be during the Orthodox Easter period. The place pretty much ground to a halt on the Saturday night but then erupted on the Sunday – giving us the first and possibly last time we’ll be sitting in packed seaside bar at eleven at night as small children run around your feet and an Orthodox priest holds court with a large glass of wine in his hand. It was more like New Year’s Eve than Easter Sunday, though thankfully no one tried to sing Auld Lang Syne. It would be lovely to see here, although I am less sure about taking on the ubiquitous huge multi-coloured plaster eggs that seemed to litter the country for the season.

So happy Easter to those who celebrate it, and to those of you that think I am off my head just enjoy the much needed couple of holidays. That side of it I think we can all agree with.

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I like music, it doesn’t like me

One of my biggest frustrations in life is how much I love music, and how difficult I find it to make music of my own. I’ve never been any good at it. It has been a history of personal humiliation.

Generally, I enjoyed school, but I even preferred PE to music lessons. The only time I was ever thrown out of class, for coughing too much. The teacher was the kind of man who probably thought that he should have been composing some new classic choral piece but instead had to teach the recorder to year after year of twelve year old boys instead and looking back that probably explains why he was a total git. I was of course useless with the recorder. I could never seem to get the hang of the whole finger movement thing, and found it hard to retain any kind of plan for how the music should go. It, like music notation, would just not stick. I guess if I had the option for one-on-one remedial schooling I might have gotten somewhere, but my parents could barely afford to send me to school in the first place let alone pay for anything extra. When it came down to it though, those early moments of shame and defeat meant I wanted to spend as little time in the music school as possible.

But I could still sing, right?

I can usually hold a tune. When I arrived at university, I noticed that they were having a try out for the college choir. Flushed with enthusiasm I duly attended.

Of course, all the choral scholars out there are shaking their heads sadly. Of course you need to be able to read music. Yet again, I was humiliated. I never went to College chapel as a result.

So it is all bad news?

Not completely. In the last decade or so, I seem to be surrounded by people who can play virtually anything and play well, so I kind of sometimes feel slightly more special because I cannot play anything. Plus, I think it has helped me develop and I don’t care attitude regarding my singing, as anyone unfortunate enough to be in my presence when karaoke is around. I know it does not work for everyone but knowing I don’t really know what I am doing – and not caring – is quite liberating. I say this because I see some supremely talented musicians who just cannot seem to improvise because they know it will sound ‘wrong’. I think it is what has attracted me recently more towards folk music, as this is mean to be sung by everyone, banging whatever comes to hand, as a communal exercise in sharing music. I had a little of that last week at a Duke Special concert, where he asked everyone (as much as would fit) up on stage around the piano and continued playing in an atmosphere that suggested he could have kept going all night if he’d been allowed and most of us would happily have stayed, singing along when we knew the words.

I apologise to everyone when I hit the wrong notes. Unlike Maria and the Von Trapps I do not know the notes to sing. Put it down to enthusiastic, joyful noise. But mostly you’ll be safe, like most things in life, I’ll settle back and leave it to the experts.

I couldn’t think of a clever enough title: My personal ode to Sir Terry

One of the things forgotten about the human spirit is that while it is, in the right conditions, noble and brave and wonderful, it is also, when you get right down to it, only human.”
Terry Pratchett Guards! Guards!

 

Like a lot of people I know I was upset to hear of the passing of the (note the deliberate absence of unnecessary epithet ‘fantasy’) author Sir Terry Pratchett. It seems a little strange to get emotional over the death of someone you do not relay know, but there are people who have made a major impact on me through my life and as with many friends and family you only really appreciate them when they are gone.

I cried a little when I heard the news, in the same way that I found it hard to unemotionally take the death of Elizabeth Sladen a few years back and I know I will again when the various other heroes of my childhood eventually pass over – David Attenborough had better have a State funeral (hopefully in many years to come) to my mind, I’d certainly turn up to pay my respects to a man who gave me a true wonder and diversity of the natural world.

But going back to Terry Prachett, for me he had just always been there. I was always a voracious reader as a child but a bit one track and Pratchett’s work appeared in the shops at just about the time I was widening my net. The first two Discworld novels are, in my opinion, not great, but fun enough (and taught me about scrofula). Then suddenly with the third book ‘Equal Rites’, which is just as relevant sadly nowadays then it was back in the 1980s when talking about sexual equality suddenly appeared and he was off, and I was hooked. I met him the first time at a signing in Newcastle and a few times later on (most notably being a signing of the wonderful Good Omens in Oxford, I wore the promotional T Shirt with ‘My other T shirt has a crocodile on it’ emblazoned on the back until it literally fell apart many years later…) and brushed near at a number of conventions in the 90s where the presence of a floating black hat among the masses was always a sign he was about. There is no doubt he enjoyed what he did and that always came over in both the writing and at signings and the like. From his friend Neil Gaiman’s insightful article a short while back in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/24/terry-pratchett-angry-not-jolly-neil-gaiman ) it is clear that like any other human being Pratchett could be difficult and angry, but he also knew the importance of not letting that get in the way of those who loved his books and loved him.

So I started my love affair with his work in my teens; I’ve just put down the last book published to date this weekend, although I guess there might be something posthumous. Once or twice a year a new book would come out so I’d drop whatever I had been reading and devour the new bit of thoughtful silliness. A new Terry Pratchett was less of a book, more of an annual event to be looked forward too. But no more and I find it especially sad as some really interesting books were starting to emerge, maybe precisely because he knew time was limited. In particular the non Discworld novels such as ‘Nation’ and ‘Dodger’; books you can enjoy as adults and give to teenagers that cover serious issues without pulling their punches whether that be asking questions about death, life, belief or the human condition. They are a good place to start for someone who is not ready to engage with the entire Discworld marathon from ‘The Colour of Magic’.

So I will look at my sagging shelves of hardbacks, some signed, some not (at one point we had a running joke that there were fewer unsigned Terry Pratchett books then signed ones) and look forward to rereading them and reflect on a remarkable publishing life and a wise man who has made both think and laugh for thirty years, which is no mean feat. I doff my cap, Sir Terry and Gaspode and I are off for a sausage in a bun.

Whoosh!

Do you think this year is going fast? I certainly do. The blossom is starting to open and I’m starting to get clogged up sinuses as the tree pollen does its important (for the tree, and for those of us with plum trees that want plums from them – apparently) yet in my mind partly evil work. Near us is a primary school that has a massive carpet – the only way to describe it – of gorgeous crocuses under trees near the road; not only are they are all fully out, now they are starting to go over. The Black headed gulls in the park now have their black heads back (as opposed to a head marking that looks suspiciously like a pair of headphones). I’m not going to be surprised to see ducklings soon.

But it cannot be time actually passing any faster, can it? Or maybe it can. I’m a relativity open minded kind of person (groan). Or is it the just the perception of time rushing past like one of Douglas Adams’ famous deadlines? And if it is only the perception of passing time is that enough to make it real, if everyone seems to agree the year is flying past. And it does seem for a lot of people this is the perception for some reason, after usual generic comments on the weather the next topic of general agreement seems to be ‘the year seems to be flying by, don’t it?’ with sage nods of the head and scratching of heads (maybe starting to exaggerate the image a little there).

I was trying to work out why it feels that way and for me, and if it mattered. I do think that perception of time does matter. How we perceive the world impacts how we respond to the world both consciously and unconsciously. So if we feel we are running to keep still, we run a bit faster. A mouse ‘sees’ time and life in a very different way from either ourselves or an oak tree and the biology of all is related to that perception, perhaps partly driven by that. So it makes me wonder that if we perceive that life for many of us seems to be speeding up that we will be feeling the biological impacts of that on our bodies and the way we behave.

It is not the same for everyone. We have good friends who live very different lives from ours and their pace is not the same. When we visit, briefly, things calm down. Possibly that is why it is something we like to do because even a weekend can feel like a mini holiday. I sometimes feel positively envious and then realise that one of the reasons I feel time is passing me by is that my time is full of ‘stuff’, and an awful lot of that stuff can be blamed not on work (which I would love to lay all my troubles on of course) but things that I am doing because I want to. So it is entirely my fault (albeit sharing the schedule with the Lovely Wife). But the diary (as opposed to the dairy, which seems to appear too much in my writing thanks to the vagaries of my typing and the inadequacy of spell checkers,  suggesting I am partly obsessed by lactose containing products) being so full does make it feel that we should be ‘taking bookings’ for 2017! And I think this is where the perception is being warped for us in a way I suspect not dissimilar to those with children having look several years ahead to plan and manage their future. This focus on the future is not a bad thing, any more than having a life full of incident is necessarily a bad thing; but it is tiring, and it does mean that perhaps things are flying past so fast that I am not enjoying them as much as I could. Sometimes when I go into work in the early mornings the relative quiet of the hour is rewarded with birdsong or a surprised rabbit and stopping for a moment to listen can be one of the nicest and memorable moments of the day, and if I want to make the most of my time I might need to alter my perception and take in the uniqueness of what my personal version of life looks like. That, I think, would be a good thing.

Authentic Ponderings

One of the things on my mind this week has been authenticity. I’m not talking about the providence of Grand Masters, which is the proper use of the word. I’m thinking more of the way it is often used now in language as a synonym for honesty. Except, and this is what I’ve been idly musing about, is that they are not really interchangeable. Related, yes, but there is more to being authentic then being honest.

Let me explain.

When someone tells me something and is authentic in the telling, there is something more than just telling me the truth. The truth – let us assume such thing exists, which is another discussion entirely – should be a matter of fact. In some cases it clearly is. If I have a broken leg, the truth is my mobility is going to be restricted for a while until it heals. The doctor telling me that can be honest, and that is probably all you would normally ask. But I think authenticity adds a different layer.

So let us assume I have a broken leg. I’ll confess up front that I don’t actually know what that feels like so apologise for any broken leg sufferers past and present. I’ve been incredibly lucky in that department, as the only piece of me I know I have broken was my nose, at 18, in my lest ever school rugby game when – unusually for me – I went rather too enthusiastically into a ruck and came out looking like I’d done a round with Tyson. Actually this is memorable in two ways – broken noses do not really hurt for long. What makes this memorable was on, the current physical evidence – by the time the nurse at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle got around to me the nose had already healed and, when he offered to re-break it in order to straighten it out my teenage cowardly teenage self quickly declined the generous offer, hence it is wonky to this day. Secondly is the experience of sitting for ages in A&E in what was a white shirt and shorts, covered in dried blood. Not a pretty sight and needless to say I had plenty of space to sit by myself on those hard plastic chairs beloved of all institutions.

Back to the broken leg scenario, and the doctor can tell me in a number of ways that my hopes to compete in the Winter Olympics (hey, fantasising) in a month’s time are now over. He can tell me honestly, because the facts are clear. I will feel awful. The fact I know he is right does not – at this point at least – help me at all. Surely, I think, there must be some new stem cell treatment that can allow me to keep a hold on my dreams of international stardom?

I suspect the pain in my heart might be more than any in my leg.

Or, he can tell me the facts and pitch it differently and say ‘I’ve racked my brains for anything we can do to make it heal faster, but we just can’t. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you won’t be able to compete.’

Let us assume he looks me in the eye and I’m convinced he’s not the biggest liar since the two robots tried to convince me that ‘Smash’ tasted better than real mashed potatoes.

I am going to feel better about the bad stuff because as well as being honest, there is some emotion in there. That is where I personally feely authenticity wins. When you give bad news and there is no way of avoiding it you need to recognise how the receiver feels, and if possible show how you too are emotionally affected by whatever it is. In a recent work presentation a difficult message was made much more palatable by the deliverer showing how passionate he was about what had to happen, how he understood how we felt and how he felt it too. Being open to the emotional aspect is very hard, and some people are going to hate you whatever you say. But they are going to hate you anyway, so take the hit and recognise that by putting yourself on the line you are going to take a fair number of them with you, who would not have done so if you had just been ‘honest’.