Trying, failing, sometimes succeeding

(I am going to be away from the blog for a few days, probably until next Monday. Nothing dramatic, just to let you all know I will be doing my best to catch up on everything when I get back.)

I must be in a reflective mood today, as I got to thinking about how many times we try things, in a long life. I remember my Dad telling me, “If you never try, you won’t know if you can do it”. He was talking about swimming at the time, but as he had just let go of me in a sea-pool, and I had almost choked on the water, I didn’t get his point at that moment.

The next thing he wanted me to try was to be good at sport. He was the sort of Dad who wanted his son to be the winner, and the sporting prowess of his own youth drove him on. I tried playing football, even though I obviously lacked the natural talent that marks the gifted player. I finally settled for being the goalkeeper, at the age of eight. In my first Sunday morning match, I let in (or failed to save) seven goals, and the team lost 7-0. After that, they chose a different goalkeeper.

I did manage to do quite well at running, at least over short distances. I was chosen to run in the 100 yards for my primary school, and very excited. However, when the day came, my Dad was unable to attend the sports event, so never saw me come first, just that once. When I was older, I tried Hockey, something of an unusual sport for boys at the time. My Dad got me a professional hockey stick, but never managed to find the time to watch me play in a match. And I did OK too.

As I got older, he decided it was time for me to learn to try ‘manly’ tasks. Things like digging up the garden, using power tools, and servicing car engines. Although I had little or no interest in such things, I had to try. My skill with carpentry was non-existent, and that seemed to infuriate him. Perhaps because he was a trained carpenter, and assumed that skill would be inherited. The workings of car engines were also a mystery to me, and I had a tendency to drop important tiny parts as I fumbled in the depths of the mechanism. Digging was easy enough, so I was set to hard labour, re-modelling the large garden under his tutelage.

Next, I had to try to learn about hanging wallpaper, and painting doors with gloss paint. Once again, I tried, but had no apparent skill in these areas either. My brush left bristles in the fresh paint, and the folded wallpaper stuck to itself, before tearing. Dad concluded that I wasn’t trying hard enough, and preferred to do it on his own. When I stated “At least I tried”, he shook his head in disdain.

Once I was grown, married, and living in a place of my own, I had many new things to try. After much effort, I did manage to plumb in a washing machine, but a friend was giving me instructions over the phone, I confess. I bought an electric drill, and was so proud when I managed to put up a series of curtain poles, and a whole wall of shelving. Admittedly, the poles may not have been completely level, but at least one side of the curtains closed easily. Facing facts that I was never going to be a useful house painter or wallpaper-hanger, I paid a professional to do those jobs. I reasoned that I was providing much needed employment for the tradesmen concerned.

I even tried my hand at electrics. Changing plugs was easy, but that lulled me into a false sense of security. I rewired a fan heater, and very pleased with myself, I plugged it in, only to blow everything in the house. At least I then had to learn a new skill, replacing a fuse wire. When we bought a new central light, I decided that I would try to attach it to the fixture in the ceiling. But as I hadn’t thought to isolate the live connection first, I managed to blow myself off of the step ladder, and received a nasty electric shock into the bargain. After that, I employed electricians.

Cars were still a mystery, though I could manage to change a wheel, replace oil and air filters, and even once repaired a carburettor. For anything else, it was a trip to the car dealer, and an expensive bill. The time came when I despaired of trying anything, as I was convinced I would fail by default. Even house plants died in my care, rarely lasting a week. Trying to trim decorative bushes in the small garden resulted in lots of dead shrubbery, as I had presumably cut too deep, and at the wrong time. My wife at the time began to despair of me ever being able to do anything, and made her opinions known to all.

When I applied to join the Ambulance Service, she counselled against it. “You hate blood, you are not a practical person, and you cannot even watch an operation on television. How are you going to be able to do that job?”. “I won’t know, until I try”. Was my reply. So I tried, and for once, I succeeded. Not only did I manage to learn the necessary skills, I was very good at the job too. At the age of 28, I had finally found something that I could do, something that not everyone else could do too.

I can’t tell you just how good that felt.

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When I stopped worrying

I couldn’t name the day, and I am not even sure what year it was. But it definitely happened. I stopped worrying. Not about important things, those things that we actually need to concern ourselves about. Just those social things, the acquired worries, all those unnecessary ones.

I stopped worrying about how I was dressed. After all, I was walking a dog in rain and mud. Why should I care what people thought about the clothes I was wearing?

I once worried about what my hair looked like. But then most of it disappeared, and I just cut what was left myself, into a short crop that looks like I have no hair at all. Why worry about hairstyles, when there’s nothing left to style?

I stopped worrying about looking old, and became interested in the change instead. I couldn’t do anything about it, and I certainly wasn’t about to endure a lot of painful surgical procedures to restore my youthful look. Better to just stop worrying. And it worked.

Having strong opinions is not always acceptable in polite company. But I got to that time when I realised I had been keeping them to myself when meeting new people for far too long. So, I became true to myself, and stopped worrying about what they thought.

I used to actually worry about all the places I had never seen, and the countries that I had wanted to visit, but never had. It dawned on me that save for a lottery win, that was never going to happen. So I stopped worrying about that too.

I worried about losing touch with people, especially after moving away to a place that few would ever visit. I tried my best to maintain contact with everyone, but it wasn’t easy. They had their lives to live, and it wasn’t their fault that I had moved 130 miles away. So I stopped worrying about that.

As my list of things not to worry about became longer, it got easier to accept more additions.

For a long time, I worried about upsetting people with blog comments, or alienating them by writing about things that they didn’t agree with. But one day I realised that a lot of those bloggers were no longer around, and new ones had replaced them. I decided that such things have a way of sorting themselves out, and stopped worrying about them.

Then I stopped worrying about doing things. So what if I said I would go to the post office today, and didn’t? It will keep until tomorrow, and there is no point worrying about something I didn’t do, when it is too late to do it. The lawn wasn’t cut on the day I said I would do it. No matter, let the grass grow.

There is real freedom in not worrying, I assure you. Everyone should try it.

Blizzards in Beetley

After two days of almost constant rain and sleet, I awoke this morning to heavy snow falling. The weather forecasters had got their predictions right. But they normally do, when the weather is bad. Snow was arriving from the north, sweeping down the east coast of England driven by strong winds.

The flakes were impressively large, and they were not fluttering down in a picturesque fashion. Instead, they dived earthward at a forty-five degree angle, blotting out what little daylight still existed, and replacing it with their swirling formations. Yet it did not appear to be settling. Perhaps the ground was too wet, still sodden with the previous icy rain. A quick inspection of our cars parked in the driveway showed that it was also not settling on them, nor on the roofs of nearby houses.

After around an hour, it suddenly stopped. A watery sun emerged, and we had some brightness for a while. But the blizzard was only resting somewhere, and soon returned with a vengeance. When the time for Ollie’s walk arrived, I wrapped up well, put on my heaviest boots and waterproof coat, and reluctantly headed over to Beetley Meadows. The icy wind accompanying the snow soon had me raising the hood on my coat, and even though I was sensibly wearing good gloves, I could feel the cold in my hands instantly.

As is his habit, Ollie was unconcerned. Despite a reasonable amount of snow sticking to his back and making him appear to be wearing a small white coat, he was running around as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. Forty minutes later, it stopped snowing again. There were few other dog walkers braving the elements today, but Ollie was able to check out an excitable young Labrador. He looked disappointed at the absence of his regular doggy pals, so I took him into the small woodland area, in search of squirrels.

Then the blizzard returned once again. In the woods, it was less bothersome, as the trees kept the worst off of us. Ollie was frustrated by one squirrel that had climbed just out of reach onto a low branch, but was soon diverted by a plump pheasant that he found hiding under some thick brambles. As our excursion reached the two-hour mark, I decided enough was enough, and we returned home to the warmth of the house. The snow persisted for some time, before turning back into torrential icy rain, that carried on until midnight.

More snow is forecast for tomorrow.
In case you hadn’t realised, I really don’t like snow.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Racism and Bigotry

No idea why, but I woke up thinking about this today.

When I was young, I had never met a black person. I had seen them singing on TV, and by the age of 11, I owned many records recorded by black artists. Outside of some day trips to France, I had never been out of the UK, and my family circle did not include anyone who was not from a working-class, white English background. I took my lead from my parents, and believed what they told me, using the same terms they used, and holding the same opinions they did. I didn’t know any different. It was very common back then for black people to be called ‘Darkies’, though sometimes, the Yiddish/German name ‘Schwartzers’ would be used instead. Their well-dressed children would be admired, but referred to as ‘Piccaninnies’. There were few children of mixed race at the time, but those that were seen around the area would be known as ‘Half-Chats’. Until I was in my early teens, I had no idea that these terms were derogatory. In fact, I considered them to be affectionate, strange as that may seem now.

Then there were the people of Asian origin. Most Chinese people in London at the time seemed to only be involved in the restaurant trade, so unless we went for a Chinese meal, we never came into contact with them. They were always referred to as ‘Chinks’, sometimes as ‘Chinky-Chonks’. The Asiatic races were never separated by nation, either. There was no difference, as far as we were concerned, in someone from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, or any other Asian country. They were all happily known as ‘Chinks’.

This wasn’t just about people of a different appearance and colour though. Irish people were also looked down upon, and often mistrusted too. They were called ‘Micks’ and ‘Paddies’, and everyone believed that they were all ignorant and uneducated. Of course, I had never heard of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, or many others at the time. People from the country districts far from London were called ‘carrot-crunchers’. They were also considered to be unintelligent, with indecipherable accents, and a bad taste in clothes. Scottish people were known as ‘Jocks’, and thought to be always drunk, and ready to fight anyone. Then there were the Welsh, known as ‘Taffs’, also considered to be little more than primitive sheep-herders or miners, with nothing in common with us at all.

Because of the area where we lived perhaps, there was no religious or racial bigotry towards Jewish people in my youth. They were admired for their business acumen, and the fact that they used to own many of the shops we used, especially for tailoring. They also lived in very clearly defined parts of the city, so you would rarely see a Jewish person unless you went to those districts. Despite our good relationship with those people, it was still considered to be perfectly acceptable to refer to them as ‘Yids’ though. Once again, I believed it to be an affectionate name, and would never have known it was insulting.

By the time I started secondary school at the age of 11, I had spent those formative years totally immersed in prejudice and bigotry. It was never violent or aggressive, and had no hatred attached. But it was no less tangible, and no less offensive to those on the receiving end. My attitude to other races and religions was already moulded, and my belief that I was somehow better than all of them was entrenched.

Luckily, I went to a mixed school. Not only mixed in terms of gender, but taking in a large catchment area around the boroughs immediately south of The Thames. Within days, I was mixing with children from Nigeria, The West Indies, and also India and Pakistan. Not that many of them mind you; they still stood out enough to be noticed, often pointed out, and sometimes ignored or avoided. There were kids from Irish backgrounds too, and one or two Chinese who came from Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. There were some from Cyprus, of Greek origin. We called them ‘Bubbles’, from the rhyming slang ‘Bubble and Squeak’. Also Turkish Cypriots, feared as the children of men we thought of as gangsters. They were called ‘Johnnies’, from the WW1 nickname for Turkish soldiers, ‘Johnny Turk’.

No longer in that white working-class isolation, I soon got to know many of these other children. Despite some cultural and religious differences, I quickly realised that they were just like me. They supported local football teams, watched the same programmes on the television, and liked the same film stars as I did. They bought the same pop records, and mostly ate the same food. Like me, they wanted to do well at school, and many had firm expectations of jobs or careers to follow their schooldays. In most cases, they worked harder than the rest of us. They handed in their homework on time, and often studied in their own time too, when we would be playing out on our bikes. As my teens arrived, it started to dawn on me that I was not ‘better’ than any of them. In fact, I could learn a great deal by following their example.

Once I became friendly with some of them, I also discovered that those supposedly affectionate terms and names were considered to be insulting. Those things categorised them unfairly, held them back in ways I couldn’t even imagine, and affected their well-being in ways I could never understand, coming from the dominant race and class in that area. I started to feel guilty, to challenge my parents and their uninformed perceptions of people. Perhaps they were too old to change by then, but I was determined not to follow in their footsteps. I discovered something else too. You can change. You do not have to be a prisoner of your upbringing, or the attitudes of others.

I lived the rest of my life as free of bigotry as I could. Because I chose to.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Children In Need.

For those of you who do not live in the UK, Children In Need is an annual BBC fundraiser, designed to raise money for local charities who would not otherwise get funding. The whole programming of BBC One, on a specific Friday evening, is given over to a telethon fundraiser, a night of varied entertainment, charity appeals, and live fundraising. It is presented by a group of popular celebrities, and traditionally features a host of well-known entertainers appearing in situations you would not usually associate them with. Like the stars of a drama series performing a dance routine, and so on.

During the build-up to this event, the UK is consumed with fund-raising events. Most of these are personal efforts, though many are corporate, involving well-known businesses and shops supporting the cause all over the country. Over the years it has been running, Children In Need has become an established part of the year here in Britain, and the money raised increases every time, without fail.

Yes, it’s a great event, in aid of many wonderful causes, and it has captured the heart of the majority of the people of this country. I woke up thinking about this year’s total. So far, it has raised just over £50,000,000 and the money is still coming in, as people continue to donate. That’s a lot of money, and will benefit thousands of people, in every part of the UK. Well done to everyone who took part, and raised money. Those charitable causes could never have been funded, without all that hard work.

Or could they?

The UK government is currently funding the upgrading of the Trident Nuclear missile system. Just ONE of the many new missiles being manufactured costs this country £53,000,000, which is enough to cover the whole amount raised by Children In Need, and have an extra £2,000,000 to do even more good.
So, do our children need more good things in life, or another nuclear missile?
Just one extra, remember.

A Challenger 2 main battle tank costs £5,000,000 to buy, and can be disabled by a cheap hand-held rocket grenade. Is the cost of ten of these tanks a better way to spend government money, rather than helping tens of thousands of disadvantaged or disabled children?

The UK Royal Air Force is replacing its existing fighter-bombers with the new Eurofighter. I’m not sure how many they are buying, but they cost £81,000,000 EACH. Could we continue to exist as a nation, with one less Eurofighter? I think we could. Just one less fighter, and all the problems of those children are solved, for at least two years.

And last but not least, the mighty new warship, HMS Queen Elizabeth. This cost a staggering £1 BILLION, or around 20 times the money raised in the charity appeal. As long as we have a smart new flagship, who cares about those poor children?

So, next year, we can expect to see the country getting together to raise even more money for Children In Need. People everywhere are already planning events, and the TV company is arranging schedules and presenters to cover the 2018 extravaganza. At least we will have that one extra nuclear missile, the additional Eurofighter, those ten extra tanks, and the shiny new warship.

Those children can sleep safe in their beds, realising that.

Slow Puncture

Last week, I left a friend’s house to discover that I had a flat tyre on my car. This is one of those 7-seat people carrier vehicles that does not come equipped with a spare. Instead, they supply a tube of goo that is supposed to seal it, and a mini-compressor designed to inflate it enough to get you home. They may not have considered being in the pitch dark on a country lane in Norfolk, when they came up with that idea, I’m guessing. Nothing for it, but to call the car recovery club, and have the car, and us, taken home on the back of their truck.

The next day, I called a well-known national tyre company, and arranged for them to come out on Monday, and replace the flat tyre at home. I wasn’t about to consider filling it full of black goo, and attempting to drive down a fast main road into town, I assure you. They arrived as arranged, and the efficient mechanic soon told me that there was nothing wrong with the tyre at all. He had noticed a crack in the alloy wheel, that was letting out the air. He replaced the tyre, pumped it up enough to get me to the local dealership to buy a new wheel, and refunded all costs, save the small home attendance fee. It was excellent service, and I have since given that company a five-star review.

As he left, he also told me that it was not especially urgent to get the wheel replaced, as long as I was prepared to keep adding air to the tyre. “Think of it as a slow puncture”, he said.

But I did get the wheel replaced the next day. I didn’t want to chance it. Driving home, I thought about what he said, and it made me smile, as I considered I had something in common with my car. A flat tyre in a country lane had delivered a life lesson, and made everything crystal clear.

My life has been something of a slow puncture. The vitality slowly seeping out over the years, suddenly realising the need to pump myself up, after discovering just how flat I had become. Re-inflated, things go well for a while, and I don’t notice that small amount of air escaping from the unseen crack in my well-being. I often left it too late, and allowed things to become fully deflated, flat and immovable.

Other times, I just added a temporary repair; a patch, a plug. Knowing it couldn’t possibly last, but still unaware of that insidious crack, leaking away out of sight and out of mind. On occasion, I replaced the metaphorical tyre, convinced that something new would make all the difference. But of course it didn’t, and the slow puncture continued to leak the air out of me.
From that ‘cracked wheel’, that I was unaware of.

It took me most of my life, far too much of my life, to finally realise that it wasn’t the tyre, but the wheel itself.

Dull days in Beetley

Mid-November, and the dull days are here. Not just the weather, though that is dull enough, but also that time of year. The build-up to Christmas, the frantic preparations for something that lasts for two days, before the return to more dullness.

Lacking inspiration to write anything on the blog is indicative of the pervading mood. No desire to take photos of the gloom and damp, and little enthusiasm for much else, to be honest. Even Ollie’s dog-walks are getting shorter, as my heart is not in trudging around in mud during yet another dull autumn.

Lights on just after lunch, and completely dark by 4 pm. Short days with little light, long nights with none at all. Even the glory of the night sky is denied to us, with cloud and fog providing a blanket that obscures all. Leaves cascade down from the oak trees, carpeting the lawn and paths around the house. Another job to face, clearing those. Stuck to shoes and doormats, irritatingly traipsed into the house, the once lush foliage reduced to a constant bind.

As you might have guessed. It is not my favourite time of year.