Over for another year. Well mostly.

Hopefully you had a good Christmas. For us it was a bit more complicated than expected due to a family crisis, but everyone pulled together in the way families ideally should and in the end it was a good Christmas day with lots of food, laughter and a few presents. Also a lot of glitter… Lots of glitter in fact that was largely unintentional and down to the fact that Christmas wrapping paper from a certain supermarket chain seemed especially designed to shed glitter everywhere and over everything, which eventually turns into adding a special festive glisten to everyone. I like to think that thanks to us everyone in the family was left with an additional sparkle this year.

I find it personally strange this year that this year the festive season has not gone to plan. First it felt it was coming on too early, then I was struggling to get into Christmas cheer mode (though significant progress was made via by a big screen helping of Die Hard – and yes it is a proper Christmas movie, not a just  a running joke. The Lovely Wife fully agrees and she had not seen it before this year). Then suddenly crisis point and before you knew it I was making Turkey Thai curry on Boxing Day. Where did it all go? Once more the Christmas Duck can see the approaching release from the top of the tree (only to be consigned once more to 12 months of solitary confinement in the collector’s edition golden syrup tin (I am a cruel man sometimes, but I manage somehow to live with the guilt).

Still, it is over once more, and while New Year is quite a big thing for the Lovely Wife and I and a second Christmas/birthday bash at my Dad’s is something we can still look forward two I think this might be the first year where I am looking at the calendar and thinking ‘actually I think this might be a long year’. Still, there is no point in moaning and a lot of things to look forward too, including significant birthdays to celebrate so that will have to be the fix of present giving until we can start again to execute the rituals. And who knows, maybe it might actually feel like winter next Christmas and not like a dank March day as it did in our neck of the woods.

Safe journeys to all that have to travel, better health to those that need it and sustained good health to those that have it, and I wish you all happiness as 2016 draws to a close.

Reflections and Resilience

Resilience is a good thing to develop. Not stubbornness, or inflexibility and a reluctance to change. Not even an overdeveloped sense of determination. No, I’m thinking here about standing up in a gale and still moving forward, albeit slowly. Or finding another way to get to the destination on time when the road is blocked, or rather constantly adapting, without panic, as every alternative route is blocked in turn. Someone does not want you to get home but rather than despair and give up, or panic and be paralysed you just keep chipping at the problem until it gives.

Sometimes it just seems as though everything that can go wrong is going wrong. The reality is that it is often not the case, it just seems that way as the things that are not going well (or slapping you in the face like a wet fish) are the things you are focusing on at the time or particularly important to you, and you therefore do not see the things that are bubbling along nicely according to plan in the background.

Anyway, this is on my heart at the moment as the family is having a more complicated Christmas than expected due to unforeseen hospital related activities. That’s all that needs to be said on the negative side because I would rather think about the positives in the situations. The resilience and forthrightness of a dear relative who hardly has paused since a fall to get back up on their feet and the strength of a family I have had the pleasure of marrying into yet again rallying around to do what needs to be done at a time of year where busyness is already endemic. From a moment last week where things were not looking good for the festive season, with a little jigging we are getting back on a slightly changed plan that might go down as a more memorable Christmas celebration than perhaps anyone expected.

It has also reminded me, and finally I am getting to the point, of the people working at this time of year, and working long and hard hours. After many hours spent waiting with our relative and the Lovely Wife in A & E it was impossible not to see just how busy both the hospital and ambulance staff were, and this was not the busiest time of the year – that is yet to come. I was impressed in particular by the ambulance staffs who were the most organised and practical people I have had the pleasure to meet in some time. They have to stay with the people they have brought in until they can formally hand them over to the hospital staff, a process that for non-life threatening cases at least seems to take considerable time. What I did see was some impatience – but it was fuelled by wanting to get back on the road, and an urge to be out there helping people rather than stuck in a hotel corridor waiting for someone from the over stretched hospital staff to take over responsibility for the patient. I’m not knocking the hospital staff either. My grandad used to work in A&E in Newcastle after he left the navy and he was always clear about how difficult it was trying to manage everyone, especially on the Friday and Saturday evening with the drink related injuries (and sometimes having to stop the fights that caused those injuries continuing in the hospital – my grandad was a hard man when he needed to be). Being able to professionally deal with people in pain or anguish and/or their relatives and friends who have brought them in and might be even more of a problem, knowing that most people will have the frustration of waiting hours before being seen properly – because you just cannot rush this kind of thing and you are always going to have less resources than you would like – it is not a job I would have the backbone for I fear. So I when we are enjoying our makeshift Christmas this year I will try and take some time to think and pray for those in the emergency services – all of them – for whom this time of the year can be so busy and testing.  Plus the GPs, vets, clergy, truck drivers, pub and restaurant workers and shop staff and all the rest that still have to work and/or be on call. I salute their resilience and hope they can catch up with some festive cheer when eventually they can get the time off to do so.

Christmas Past

I have struggled to get into Christmas mode this year for some reason. Not sure why, normally I love this time of year and do not need much encouragement to get out the tinsel. Like a lot of people I do like Christmas and the whole atmosphere of temporary insanity that seems to grip the country for a few weeks even if many of the people celebrating don’t really think that they are engaging in what is nominally a religious festival. A lot of it is self- perpetuating and not just by people selling something but also because people like tradition. Many of us moan about having to buy and send cards and covering our houses with decorations of various degrees of tackiness. The Lovely Wife and I are no different. I love buying presents and hate wrapping them, as anyone who has ever received a present from me will probably be able to tell from the lack of care in the wrapping.

We’ve just gone through let another ritual and put the tree up: the boxes of decorations – some of great antiquity – have come down from the loft; the Christmas Duck is once more strapped, helpless, to the top of the tree having spent the rest of the year quashed in a Lyle’s Golden syrup tin (no life that really, I would admit). There is the moment of excitement every year when I put the batteries back in the farting Santa and a moment of intense disappointment from the Lovely Wife when he still works (although I do understand why she would like to see him consigned to landfill and over the years the dye has leached from his costume onto his white beard transforming him more into a zombie Santa on the rampage). Decorations made by God daughters and son when they were very much tinier than they are now come out and are greeted like long lost friends. Unicorns, pandas and elephants hang on various limbs of the tree reminding me of exhibitions attended, places visited and people missed.

Ah, people missed. My late mother adored Christmas. She would buy presents – nothing big, things she saw in catalogues mostly, especially when she became largely housebound – but she would buy them all year round, squirreling them away from my Dad and I in draws and cupboards, sometimes so effectively that she forgot entirely about some of them herself; after she passed away and we helped Dad go through everything we found a few things that obviously had been intended as future gifts. Christmas morning was one of her favourite times I think; she had always cooked the turkey on Christmas Eve and stripped the carcass, so she was not under any cooking pressure, so the morning could be dedicated to an orgy of ripping paper off a host of low value presents. Initially this would be mostly presents for me, but as I lurched into adulthood it became for a while something of a competition between my Mother and I as to how could buy the most presents. Meanwhile my Dad would look on bemused and worry about whether his relatives coming later for Christmas dinner would be in a argumentative mode this year (not with him or my Mum – she always kept a low profile – it was with each other there might be trouble). So much was this a special time for my parents that when I came home from university one year they got me out of bed to open their presents, something of a reversal of my adolescent years where 6am was just about what I could get away with.

Christmas is not the same for me without Mum; Dad does not really celebrate it now, preferring to celebrate with us in early January when he has his birthday. I can enjoy the season with my Lovely Wife and her family; I have carried on some of my Mother’s traditions. Maybe if I think a little more about here this year the Christmas spirit might begin to flow a bit more markedly.

Watch Out

We were walking through the park here in St Albans a few days ago at the onset of dusk (which at this time of year always seems ridiculously early in the day, but there you are) chatting away as is our wont, when the Lovely Wife stopped and pointed at the bushes.

‘Kingfisher,’ she whispered.

And indeed, it was a kingfisher, calmly sitting on a branch above the river Ver, not more than a very short stone’s throw. It did not seem particularly concerned that it was now under close supervision. Neither was this tiny, gorgeous little bird that much into fishing to be honest but then that was to our viewing pleasure.

So we stood there for a few minutes taking in one of the prettiest birds we have here in the UK, as people wandered past us, totally oblivious to what they were missing. I despair sometimes how unobservant people can be. I mean, it was pretty obvious we were looking at something and you would have thought that at least some people should just be plain nosey about that. But no, no one seemed remotely interested. Eventually a small group of people walked by and started pointing – at the fish swimming along in the river. At that point I could stand it no longer and quietly pointed out what they should be looking at, and was rewarded with the appropriate amount of ooh noises that indicated that I had made at least one person’s day.

This lack of awareness seems to be a creeping disease. What I do not know is whether it is an individual thing or something of a trend. Certainly the Lovely Wife and I are on the lookout most of the time for things to interest us, whether this is something wild or something in the architecture. We are the kind of people that Blue Plaques were created for I guess. It forms part of the pleasure of walking, in the country and the town, beyond the exercise and the fresh air. It may just be that some people will always notice and others will not. But there seems to be a heavy majority on the people with more focused vision (or if I flip things, people who are not as easily distracted as I!).

Alternatively, what I could be seeing is a side effect of the huge amount of busyness that we all seem to have these days. Life seems to be busier, time seems shorter and the amount of data of all sorts being thrown at us just seems to increase. Our brains are wonderful things but conscious processing takes resources and those do have limitations. So maybe there is a ‘deliberate’ action going on to cut out input that might be seen as extraneous. Putting blinkers on a horse is usually to stop it being distracted on the race. Maybe we put ourselves in blinkers to achieve what we see as the important task. In this context of course our choice to ‘waste’ ten minutes of that precious time we have gawping at a tiny azure and orange bird represents a good sense of where our priorities lie; for me at least there is no point in the day without some time at least being able to appreciate the beauty and/or complexity of our surroundings. And there is so much to enjoy if we just keep our eyes (and indeed ears open).  But as I say, I understand the other point of view too, but do bear with me and in this case I feel confident that no one cannot be a metre away from a kingfisher and not smile, just a little bit, at having seen something special which, as they say in the vernacular, never gets ‘old’.

 

The End Is In Sight

The end of 2016 is in sight now and I do not think I am entirely alone at looking forward to a better year in 2017. Certainly 2016 has been a bit fuller of incident than perhaps I expected and a lot of it not that good. The loss of far too many people whose work I enjoyed and/or respected and various votes (I’m not using the B word) going – in my opinion – disastrously wrong excepted, I think that the main thing that will stay with me was the rather surreal experience of being close to the terrorist attacks in Brussels back in March. It seems a lot longer ago in a way; but it is still pretty vivid in my mind.

People are affected by things like this in different ways. Personally, I tend to not change my behaviour as I have, in the nature of my work, read a lot about the nature of risk, or in particular, perception of risk. It is this latter facet that is the unhelpful one much of the time, leading us to make decisions that if looked at carefully in the light of the actual facts do not make much sense. One of the quoted statistics in the area is the huge increase in road fatalities in the US after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City; people suddenly saw flying as too risky and instead started to drive everywhere. And have accidents. Meanwhile, at least from a security perspective, flying was safer than ever precisely because of the high alert. But the decision was not a rational one.

I will be using the Brussels Metro in the next few days quite a lot, just as I intended to on the day of the attacks and through the same station. Having lived through the attacks on London by the IRA, you sometimes get into what you could call a bloody minded state where part of you is almost daring terrorists to disrupt you going about your normal life. But the reality is that you are changing your behaviour in some ways, even if they turn out to be subtle. Small things; I definitely pay more attention to my fellow passengers more than I did before March. Sometimes I even can feel a little nervous, especially on the parts of the line close to the various EU Institutions. I think I have also gotten used to the soldiers on platforms throughout the city – before that would have jarred I think, now it just seems normal. How effective they would be to protect me is another question, but that is not really why they are so visible – it’s a deterrent probably to all but the committed nutter out there and meant to be a reassurance to the ordinary punter that whatever happened back then the situation now is under control.

I think the good news for Brussels is that being the centre of the EU institution and being established as a city famous for chocolate, strong beer and a tiny statue of a boy peeing most people will find the memory slipping of what happened earlier this year. People need to go there, as I do for work or go through it to reach a lot of other European cities. Cities are resilient.

Those involved in any way, even in the minor way I was, however, will not forget and will have to decide, individually, how much they want to be impacted by it as we all move forward into a world that seems far less easy to predict at the end of 2016 compared to the world we started this seriously odd year with.

Lead Me On

I’m definitely becoming addicted to technology. And like any addict, when I am deprived of it things just seem to get a bit stressful. Part of my job involves traveling back and forth to Brussels and a fair amount of hotel stays, and the way I usually deal with that is a few cans of Belgium beer and technology. The iPhone for a FaceTime session with the Lovely Wife and streaming UK radio, DVD drive and computer for catching up with stuff either I do not think the Lovely Wife would want to see or in some cases I think have just sat in the massive to be watched pile(s) at home and I am taking it upon myself to see if it really is worth it at some point us both watching it. For the record, current entertainment is 2006/7s Life on Mars, and the answer appears to be ‘yes’ – I had managed to avoid spoilers for 10 whole years in the case of this show but felt leaving it any longer was really pushing my luck. The Lovely Wife is safer – she doesn’t read SF press so is less in danger of someone blowing the joke.

Anyway, rely on the technology and so my laptop bag is a mess of power USB leads that all look the same superficially but are all – and here is the annoying bit – completely different and incompatible with each other. Usually I am quite careful to make sure that the most important ones are in there – notably the iPhone – but there has been a lot of moving stuff between bags recently and departure on Sunday was somewhat flustered and needless to say the only important power lead that has made it is the laptop one.

Once I had finished uttering the ineffectual words of annoyance – whose only power is to make you feel a little better in your state of frustration at your own carelessness and stupidity, you start running through the various permutations of problems that will now arise and how to combat them. While the phone has battery now, it will be gone by the time I have to travel home. So that’s going to have to be switched off until then, and/or maybe hope the Eurostar lounge has a charger. Luckily I have the work phone – and the lead for that – so no problem getting emergency calls and sadly informing the Lovely Wife that she only gets me in audio now. No access to my podcasts and music when passing the time on the Brussels Metro. But, hey, I have brought a good old fashioned book to read, and that doesn’t need to be charged to be of use. It does not help with shutting out the excruciatingly bad fiddle playing of the buskers on the Metro (I thought nothing could be worse than the accordion players; I was wrong) but at the same time I suppose some suffering is required in order to stop this happening again. I’m off to get some extra replacement leads thanks to the wonders of the internet for a start.

Of course none of this is actually important and I’m streaming now the radio through the laptop of course. But it does worry me just a little bit how much I enjoy my computer comforts and how many more people are even further under their spell.

No Going Back

I had to smile this morning when Facebook threw a video at me on my newsfeed of my nephew and niece banging away at toy drums and keyboards respectively some seven years ago when they were both tiny poppets. I forgot how much it made me laugh at the time and for once I was not annoyed to be reminded of something that lies in the past – generally I would rather look forward, given the choice.

Looking back can be dangerous I feel. Revisiting past glories, going back to places you have loved in the past or have important connections for you can be a powerful drug but also risks damaging the memory that made it so special in the first place. The Lovely Wife and I have agreed that we will never try and replicate what we did for our first wedding anniversary, where we stayed in the Eisenhower suite at Culzean castle on the Ayrshire coast, as it turned out having the top floor of a Robert Adam designed castle (clinging majestically to the cliff edge and looking out to sea) all to ourselves. Everything – the weather, the lack of any other guests and the firemen who were in attendance when we arrived (do not tell the Lovely Wife but I did not actually arrange them, but I’m claiming their presence as an additional bonus). Put bluntly, trying to recreate it would not work. In this case the memory is the thing. I think that the nature of memory is that positive elements just continue to improve and mature like a good bottle of port, well kept.

There can be sadness in happy memories too, however.

One of our other fondest memories was of our honeymoon in New Zealand. This has been on my thoughts a lot this week due to the earthquakes there, as it was in the previous bout of disturbances that devastated Christchurch a few years ago. New Zealand is the only place outside the UK where I honestly felt I could make a home, and the people and places were so nice to experience that my heart goes out to them in the wake of such trouble.

Now, here is where it gets a bit selfish. The world is hit by a constant series of disasters – it seems very much the way of things – and many of them are worse than what is currently afflicting New Zealand. They all need support and aid from the world community (oh how much I wish such a thing existed in truth) and Haiti – as an example – is more desperately in need. But in your own thoughts, no matter how much you might rationally weigh such things, damage to your own memories and experiences seems to cut deeper.

The tsunami that hit the Indian ocean on Boxing Day 2004 (was it really that long ago?) swept away the hotel we stayed in on the Sri Lanka coast and it was hard not to think of the staff there, or the young Buddhist monk we met at the tiny temple just inland of it – which almost certainly was destroyed as well. Or the local people who worked at the turtle hatchery further up the coast. I do not know if they were spared, but certainly they would have known people killed and the place we enjoyed a lovely and fascinating holiday in no longer exists outside of our memory.

The same for many of the places we visited on New Zealand’s South Island, especially in Christchurch. The very first place we visited when we arrived, terribly jet lagged but determined to make the most of every moment was the time ball station at Lyttleton, a lovely and interesting building. The station was reduced to rubble in 2011, beyond repair. More important buildings have been lost to the world and one could argue that there are a also lot more important things in the world – people, notably – than a Victorian aid to shipping. But for me there is always a sadness that something part of a time so personally special does not exist anymore, and whether I wanted to or not, there is no going back.