P is for Parallel Parking

The Lovely Wife and I are in alignment with many things but there is one thing that we differ in considerable terms and that is cars and driving them. It is a source of huge amusement to me that the one of us that has a sports car that is ‘fun’ to drive is her. For me, the solid workhorse does perfectly fine thank you. It needs to get us from A to B as comfortably as possible; I ask no more of it.

I have never been keen on driving and long years of commuting on the M25 has not endeared me to it any more. When treated to the offer ‘would you like me to drive?’ the answer is almost always a firm ‘yes, thank you’.

I have never been that fussed when it came to cars, and came to driving late. This is partly due to the disaster that was my first driving lesson, where my father, in a fit of enthusiasm that his newly turned seventeen-year-old son wanted to learn to drive, took me for a lesson in his beige Ford Cortina estate in an empty car park in the Team Valley in Gateshead. It did not go well. I did not actually hit anything but my natural lack of coordination combined with the fact that – faced with the reality – my Dad could not cope with anyone else behind the wheel of his car, meant that patience was quickly worn thin and that was the end of any attempt to teach me. Since my mother had never learned to drive and we could not afford driving lessons that put paid to any attempt to learning in my teens. Then university came along, and the last thing you want in Oxford is a car, so it had to wait until I had started work for me to finally work up the enthusiasm to learn. So, for many months that followed I would have lessons at lunchtime, picked up at work. Needless to say, I had many, many lessons with two different driving instructors – although I deny any responsibility for the retirement of the first one. I just was a bit of a slow learner.

My first test was a failure because I was too hesitant. The second test, on a swelteringly hot day, I failed because I overcompensated and was too aggressive. I have seen in my life what I like to refer to as Goldilocks syndrome, and driving tests were no exception so, thankfully, as with my relationship history, third time was just right.

At the time that I was learning to drive the skill of parallel parking was being introduced as one of the manoeuvres that you might be called upon to perform. I was, and still am, awful at parallel parking. It was my main weak spot and I was dreading it coming up in my test and I was sure that if it did it would be the cause of failure. As it turned out I did not need it to come up to fail, but in none of my three tests was the skill tested. In retrospect, I need not have worried. No one is particularly comfortable with change or the introduction of something new, and that includes the test examiners as well as those taking the test. Or maybe they just saw the fear in my eyes and took pity on me. I don’t care, I was just glad to finally pass. Although I think unleashing me onto the roads of Britain was a mixed blessing. Certainly, a friend of mine saw his life flash before him as a passenger as my little white mini careered onto my first dual carriageway. But I was lucky and I have enough miles under my belt know to decree myself vaguely competent. But I don’t have to enjoy it, so if you offer me a lift I’ll accept, with honest gratitude.


O is for Order

One of the main disruptions for the Lovely Wife and I at this time is the lack of any real ability to plan. There are many, some of my very best friends among them, who are quite happy to ‘wing it’ a lot of the time and see what happens. I am not one of those people. I like to know what I am doing, when I am doing it and whether I am doing it right (and not in retrospect, I like to know before so I don’t make a massive fool of myself).  I see double booking myself as a major gaffe on my part and one to be avoided at all costs. So even though there is only two of us to manage, one of the most important documents in our household is The Schedule.

The Schedule is king. It is a simple, day to day account of what we are doing each day, in the day and in the evening. For the next few years. Yes, there are entries that are several years ahead, where things are set in stone and/or are important enough to secure the dates this far in advance. It even is colour coded so I can see if the entry is to do with personal or work commitments.

This is all well and good if we are able to control events. Normally this is the case, even with work trips to some extent. But with my Dad’s situation dominating pretty much everything we do at the moment I am suffering Schedule crash. Things booked six months ago, when life seemed a bit different, are now having to be managed in a way I never foresaw. Do we abandon them, chalked down to the fact that this situation will never really happen again for us? Do we come up with a Plan B, inevitably involving travel and expense and a nagging sense of completely inappropriate guilt that we might want to take a few days off visiting duty, at least while he is stable and able to entertain himself with TV, DVDs and now internet… Order has been lost and now I have to ‘wing it’. It also means that things which form a set of touchstones that are regular in the schedule – platelet donations, my volunteering at Wrest Park, attendance at church and our favourite pub (although to be fair, the latter two are happening, just it is now my old church I went to as a child, and the massively improved Newfield Inn, Newfield rather than The Mermaid, St Albans) – all are more or less on hold, and that is surprisingly annoying.

However, however… It is not that simple, is it? A new order has been put into place, one that involves stopping at Pelton COOP to pick up a copy of the Evening Chronicle on the way to the nursing home. Sitting for a couple of hours with some light conversation as CBS Action burbles on in the background – NCIS: Los Angeles if we are lucky, interminable repeats of Bonanza if we are not (i.e. at the weekend).  Drawing his curtains before wandering back to a bungalow which is so familiar – the first 18 years of my life – but also strange because my parents are not there, nor will my Dad ever be there again. Maybe a short walk to the Inn for a pint of Double Maxim (it’s rather good) for the miraculous price of £2.75 a pint. A short term order, to be realistic, but one that is also comforting in a way while it lasts. And actually, I have found I am rather good at executing Plan B’s.

N is for Never Giving Up

At the moment, life for us is pretty much take each day at a time. My father is still currently with us and obviously we are hoping this continues for as long as possible, providing he is still getting something out of life. We have been very blessed in recent days and weeks that when we have been in to see him pretty much every day there has been something to laugh about, and/or he has enjoyed and ice cream or been happy watching a DVD (he liked ‘Dunkirk’ a lot, and I’m very happy he has been able to see it, albeit on the tiny screen of the portable DVD player that he bought himself after his stay in hospital in 2011 and had entirely forgotten about until I came across it while looking for something entirely different; it has been a definite Godsend). When we left him today he was in the midst of binging on ‘Sharpe’, engrossed in the antics of a youthful Sean Bean as the dodgy eponymous anti-hero. We had thought that the entire box set would keep him happy for quite a while but we’re now looking for more of the same to keep him from getting bored.

What is happening is terribly sad, and we are just about manging to juggle other commitments -both to work and where we can to ourselves. But ultimately, we know this is for a season only, and likely not a long one, so we are taking every positive and building on those as preparation for the times that are inevitable and coming. We all have many things to be thankful for. As well as the joy of seeing him smile, and the opportunity to say what needs to be said – most which we have now ticked the boxes both ways so I won’t ever be hit by the ‘I wish I had told him…’ scenario, we have been blessed by sharing some special moments; he had an oasis of feeling well over Christmas, a final time at home; we have shared both his birthday and mine, with cake. Outside of visiting we have had time to walk around parts of the North East that have brought back memories of my childhood for me and introduced the Lovely Wife to some of the things that I have talked about in the past or have had impact on my development and thus given her valuable insights I think into certain aspects of weirdness in my character. In particular it was interesting for me to visit old holiday haunts such as the windswept coast at Blyth, where my grandmother had a caravan and therefore I was packed off for several October half terms. The caravan site is gone now; as have the bookshops I used to delight in, and the newsagent where I found to my surprise and delight a copy of issue 3 of Doctor Who Weekly (my eight-year-old self – this was 1979 – had no idea such a thing existed, and I’ve still got a subscription to the magazine in its current form) has at some point become a hairdressing salon. And when trying to find the Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men sculpture in nearby Ridley Park (no one knows why, they were just there) I was downhearted to not find them anywhere. But I was not giving up and when I noticed someone in the Friends of Ridley Park building, a polite knock and inquiry delivered the desired result. The rather grotesque ‘sculptures’ that I remembered as a child were in fact safe and well inside the very building for safe keeping and brought out for charity events. So not all of my childhood is entirely limited to my own head it seems. And, another justification for never giving up

M is for Mother

My mother passed away in 2009, and as my family health issues continue I found myself thinking of her again and the part that she played in my upbringing. My mother was a woman of some resolve and tough as old boots, but managed to hide it most of the time – and thus avoid familial conflicts which otherwise might have made the inevitable family get togethers at the very least, edgy affairs. Many times it is clear to me looking back that she bit her tongue and acquiesced, especially in relation to elder members of the family, as frankly she could see it was not worth making a point about it.

Most of the time she was spot on about that.

Mum and Dad were inseparable and they meant the world to one another. My Mum could always get what she wanted out of my Dad but had the most graceful way of doing it. Normally, anything out the ordinary routine would normally be met with a flat ‘no’ from Dad. There would be no argument; but the question would be raised again a bit later, in a slightly different way, at a different type of time. By now the answer would be more of the ‘I’ll think about it’ kind of space. A little later we would progress through subsequent stages of ‘maybe’, ‘yes’ before becoming his idea in the first place. Of course, my Dad was certainly aware of this process and I suspect they both enjoyed the game. After all they were both used to my Mum’s favourite comment on the statement of who was in charge in relation to household – she was clear that this was my Dad. He was the ‘Head of the House’, clearly. However, my Mum was clear that if Dad was the Head, then she was the Neck. And, as she went on, the Neck turns the head whichever way it wants.

Mum was practical and sensible through my childhood (except where fizzy wine was concerned, which in the day was at best a bottle of Lambrusco or if we were lucky, Asti Spumante, on Christmas or on holiday, and thus a rare occurrence – my Mum never really got a handle on alcohol and treated it much as she would lemonade, with rapid and hilarious results). Once they were no longer having to pay for my education and as her health began to fail she took the opportunity to travel a little to see me and to destinations such as the Channel Islands, leaving my Dad to fend for himself (the family joke as to what he ate in those periods being mostly pork pie and cold beans out of the tin was, unfortunately, quite accurate). She was a huge present giver – not big, expensive things, but large numbers of small things, often bought via catalogue after she became housebound. So many things in fact that she managed to forget what she had bought everyone for Christmas and random things would reappear during the year, hidden and forgotten about in draws and cupboards.

She never complained, and yet was the perfect complainant – if anything was ever wrong or needed fixed both Dad and I would hand the phone to her and she would work her magic, with such opening gambits as ‘I’m sure this is my mistake, but…’ which inevitably would end in the desired result.

Mum was a superb judge of character and often made scarily accurate predictions about people she had just met. For this reason, I was delighted when she took to the, as then, Lovely Girlfriend straight away. I think for me that approval was very important but I need not have worried. It came without coaxing and heartfelt.

Through the difficult times that we are living through now, memories of my Mum are the kind of support that I need, as I try to be for my Dad what he was for her, a loving support to end of her life.

L is for Lamb

In the course of my father’s illness and the multiple trips North to see him and try and manage what needs to be managed we have gotten to know the road rather too well, and various parts of it have reached landmark status for us, including my all time favourite Industrial Estate – yes, I have one – which goes by the marvelously twee and inappropriate (considering what it actually looks like) name of Honeypot Lane Industrial Estate. We have also had the thrill of watching the gradual progress of various sets of roadworks and the impact of the changing season.

One of these signs is when we start to see lambs starting to appear. I think it must be one of the foremost signs that winter is coming towards its end when little blobs of white gambling fluff start appearing. That said, off the A1 this year the eagle eyes of the Lovely Wife noted a single field with lambs before Christmas – early indeed. They are getting fat already so it looks like what might be a bit of a gamble on the weather has appeared to have paid off for this farm. However so far it just seems this one field in 250 miles of motorway, the other fields are still only full of fat sheep waiting to drop.

It is not doubt that lambs are cute, and it never fails to amaze me that these curious and active young animals turn into the plodding denseness of the adults before ending up in the pot. Because in the end that is where most of them are destined for. I have never flirted seriously with giving up meat, although there are some definitive positives to doing so if done well. I do not have any conflict with liking and animal and then eating them. Where I do have issues is with how well an animal is treated during its short life. It is horrifying to think of how animals have been treated, in some places and cases still treated, so badly. Thankfully the situation has improved and there are many places I have been to where the meat was local and could be seen still in animal form out the field at the back (as was the case with some particularly nice Durham lamb from a farm shop off the A66). They animals look healthy and well, and the meat was appropriately delicious – I don’t care whether there is actually a connect there or it is all in my head, and frankly I don’t care. Coming from a reasonably rural area when growing up it was always a bit matter of fact regarding livestock and where our meat came from which I know was not everyone’s experience. Sometimes it was more in my face then others – in particular the time we were on holiday on a farm and my parents were asked if they wanted some game. They said yes, and were a little taken aback when the farmer appeared with a couple of freshly shot rabbits and (an entirely illegally shot, as I now know) wild goose. My mother, never a shrinking violet, got stuck in while my Dad hid, and although she did not have a problem with the blood and guts she was heartily sick of plucking the bird, although the results were delicious.

Ethics are an individual thing and everyone needs to choose what fits their conscience and that includes campaigning for better conditions as this can always be improved. I am still eating meat and do not see myself going vegetarian any time soon. I’m going to be passing the lambs again this week, I hope they are enjoying themselves, shame they do not know the smile their antics bring to me.

K is for Kissing

One of the joys of what I get to do for a living is spending a lot of time in Brussels working at a trade level in Industry technical working groups (the topics are not always that interesting but at least I get to wave my science background around a bit sometimes). The real pleasure though is not so much debating the minutiae of global product regulations as much as meeting a lot of very interesting people from all over Europe and indeed globally. Mostly this is a wonderful opportunity to understand other ways of looking at things and realising my own narrow minded little views might need some tweaking. However, there is one issue. The greetings.

Everyone seems to do it differently and clichés aside there is not even consistency within people from the same country. Is it a handshake? Is there kissing involved, air or otherwise. On one side, on both sides? Which side first? Does it matter? I’ve been doing this for the best part of two decades and I confess that I still not understand it. Quite often the only defense is to smile broadly and hold out my hand in that ‘I’m British, I’m being friendly but still… keep your distance, please.’ Not that this always works. There are some colleagues who I would best describe as ‘Forces of Nature’ and if they have mind to envelop you in an effusive greeting then, well, you have to just go with the flow.

Some of my friends might find this apparent reticence of mine as being a bit odd. I’m a person who likes to hug and be hugged; I confess. I grew up in a family that did things that way and married into one that also shows love through physical contact. I’m aware that this is not the case with everyone, and some of my best friends are included in that category but I think I have at least learned with most of them where they are comfortable and some more recent friends have been on the receiving end of a blunt ‘are you are hug or no hug person?’ which has gone down surprisingly well – I think people appreciate you taking the time to think of their comfort before learning through potentially painful trial and error. I wish I had learned that lesson much earlier.

But for me kissing and a good bear hug are different things. One is more intimate than the other and it left me wondering why that is (obviously I’m talking about ‘chaste’ kissing not the full on ‘behind the bike sheds’ sort of stuff). Possibly in my case it is that while I grew up protected, warmed and comforted by my mother’s hugs, it was my late 20s before I really kissed anyone properly and that was in a romantic (as it turned out, only for me) context. So I guess that the association in my head is that one is a far more intimate act than the other and therefore leads to the discomfort when the lips approaching are not those of my Lovely Wife.

But I cope. After all, the important thing is showing respect – and liking – for people we know, spend fun time with or work with.

My worry, and why we should all show some caution, is to keep whatever contact with our fellow human beings appropriate and comfortable with the other person concerned, something that has and is often ignored in all areas of society. Ask them if it is alright. After all, as a Brit, shaking hands is a matter of relatively little intimacy (though sometimes of much weight depending on the situation) but in some cultures is not at all the way to proceed.

At least asking shows sensitivity and respect, and there is not enough of that about.

Oh, and I am always open for a hug. If appropriate.


J is for January

Poor old January. No one likes you. Unless perhaps just maybe you have a birthday in the month, and even then the problem is that everyone is hungover – in terms of energy and financial cost if not also literally – from Christmas and New Year that no one really is in the mood for celebration. My birthday is in late February, and by that point most people are back on the party track, especially if it gives them (and me) and excuse not to give up alcohol for Lent (again). My Father’s birthday is in early January and we were up again to see him and to ‘celebrate’, as much as is possible when he still in hospital and his condition becomes increasingly complicated, and not in a good way. But for a while he enjoyed opening presents and looking forward to reading the massive pile of books I have bought him – we all have to stay positive. He also insisted that the box of Walnut Whips go home –  or else the nurses would snaffle them (he does like them, but to be honest it is more of a family joke, my revenge for the many years that he threatened me that the only thing I would get for Christmas was a ‘Matchbox with Smarties’. He always delivered too, although of course in addition to the proper presents). It was good to give him something to smile about, and then get told off by the potential Walnut Whip snaffling nurses for not telling them it was his birthday. He loves that. He’s a cheeky old sausage, and I love him massively and wish I could do more to help at this juncture. We’ll be up again soon.

But getting back to this month, I quite like January. It is a time for new beginnings, the turn of the year. We are finally freed of the wall to wall Christmas marketing circus (albeit in return for ‘look at this nice holiday in the sun you can have’ replacement, and the Valentines stuff is already wall to wall, Easter eggs starting to creep through). People are making efforts to be more healthy, do more exercise and a handful will even continue to try into February. The bird feeders have never been busier – we went to the Wildfowl Trust (WWT)  at Washington and sat in amazement in a hide watching pretty much any woodland bird you might imagine, including Goldcrests, Tree Creepers and Nuthatches as well as more tits and finches than you can shake a stick at come to visit a set of feeding stations – if you ever want to feed the birds, this is the month to start (on the same subject, our inability to clear  up wind fall apples again produces the delight of a garden full of thrushes, mostly blackbirds (who put aside their territorial leanings briefly and studiously ignore each other as they feast on Bramley) but with a Field Fare that thinks everything is only there for it). With the leaves still off the trees – but the buds starting to appear – it is never easier to see a Kingfisher on the river, a flash of azure and orange that, possibly the Jay aside, must be our most attractive bird. These are the things I hold onto in January. These are the things keeping me smiling, when mostly I want to cry at the moment. I’m all for ‘Dry January’ but for me I’d like the welling of tears to be something I would have the opportunity to lay aside for a while, but I’m suspecting that’s a bit of a forlorn hope. We soldier on.


Soundtrack: ‘January, February’ by Barbara Dickson, beloved by both my parents and the least cool thing in my CD collection (OK, that’s a lie; that probably is the best of Val Doonican, but his cover of ‘Elusive Butterfly of Love’ is still a lovely thing).