A Corner Of A Foreign Field That Is Forever…Standish

With the centenary of the Armistice almost upon us, this year’s Remembrance Day will be especially poignant.  Anyone with strong family links to serving personnel, especially those who were killed in action, will be keen to participate in the many commemorative events that will be held.

I grew up believing that no-one from my family had served in either World War.  As far as I was aware, my forebears were farmers and thus likely to have been deemed more important to the war effort to remain at home than shipped to some foreign shore to fight for King and country.  I always observed Remembrance Day silences and the like from a sense of public duty rather than any personal connection.  Being generally disinterested in the ghosts of generations past, I barely gave the matter much more thought.

Then, last year, I spent a little time helping out with a family genealogy project.  I thought it was just a one-off, at first.  I told myself it would be a laugh and I only did it because others were encouraging me.  Do they sound like the reasons addicts give?  They should do because suddenly, the whole thing seemed to become very addictive.  I was spending more time discovering details about ancestors I didn’t know existed on ancestry.co.uk and when I wasn’t, I was thinking about the next time I’d be doing it.  

Before long, I’d discovered all sorts of priceless things.  One of the most surprising was that my paternal grandfather had had not just one but two older brothers who had died in their infancy – both called James – which explained a long-term curiosity of mine: why it was that the family tradition of including the name James had mysteriously seemed to skip his generation.  Ernest, my grandad, died in 2005 and I’ll never know how much he knew of the existence of his two tragic lost siblings.

I also looked deeper into one branch of the family tree that I did know something about.  My grandad’s mother was born Margaret Latham and an impressive sepia photograph of her wedding to my great-grandfather Ernie Bentham has hung on one wall or another for about as long as I can remember.  Decades ago, in moments where my apathy towards our family history must have seemed less apparent, I dimly remember being told that it was quite the social event of the year in Standish and that the place where the guests were assembled was in fact the lawn at The Beeches – the Latham family home.

Wedding of Ernest and Margaret
The Wedding of Ernie Bentham and Margaret Latham, 3rd September 1907. L-R: Thomas Latham, Martha Latham, Jane Latham, Rev. Charles Hutton, Catherine Latham, Ernie Bentham, Margaret Bentham (née Latham), unknown bridesmaid, James Bentham, unknown poss. Best Man, Alice Bentham.  Click image to enlarge.

Filled with a new-found fascination for the past, I decided to focus on this pivotal moment in our family’s history and find out more about that day and all the characters it brought forth.  First, the basic details.  The year was 1907.  Edward VII was on the throne, the Liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister and Britain was arguably at the peak of her imperial prowess.  Rather ironically for a period often romanticised for having endless golden summers, the country had spent much of the year with below-average temperatures, with June being a particularly dismal month.  The wedding took place on 3rd September and was conducted by the Reverend Charles Hutton, who would become one of the longest-serving rectors in the history of St. Wilfrid’s church.

Most people in Standish will have heard that The Beeches was the home of JB Almond, of the brewing family but it was actually built for Thomas Latham, a mining magnate from Orrell who had worked his way up from driving pit ponies to owning his own string of collieries from Ince to St. Helens.  He’d moved his wife, eight sons and three daughters from Gidlow Lane in Wigan to The Beeches on its completion in around 1903.  Margaret, his eldest daughter, had agreed to marry Ernie, the son of James Bentham, a cattle farmer who lived at another of Standish’s more desirable residences, Broomfield House on Bradley Lane.  It looked every inch the perfect union of two upstanding families – with all the conspicuous trimmings of industrial and agricultural wealth.

Bentham Latham wedding 1907
The Wedding Party on the lawn at The Beeches: Harold Latham is seated on the ground in the centre, between his mother Catherine Latham and his new brother-in-law Ernie Bentham.  The bell tower of St. Marie’s church can be seen in the background on the far right of the picture.  Click image to enlarge.

On another wedding photo, among all the starched collars and overflowing bouquets, sat rather awkwardly on the ground in front of the newlyweds, is 14 year-old Harold Latham, Margaret’s youngest brother.  Unlike many of his brothers, who joined their father in the mining industry, Harold was determined to enter the legal profession.  He’d been educated at Wigan Grammar School and was later to attend the highly-rated Kilgramol School for Boys in St. Annes. Three and a half years after his sister’s wedding, during the 1911 census, he was recorded as being a Law student, boarding at the home of the Reverend Henry John Ferrall at The Parsonage, Heckingham in Norfolk.

1911 was a terrible year for the Latham family.  Reportedly, a downturn in fortunes had forced Thomas to sell The Beeches to his friend, JB Almond some time after April – the 1911 census shows the Latham family were still living there on April 2nd.  There’s no record of whether or not the stress of his financial situation affected his health but on November 26th, Thomas Latham died, aged 60.  Just as the death of Edward VII the year before had done with the Royal family, the baton was passed to the next generation of the dynasty.  After the comforts and certainties of the Edwardian age, they were all about to face a very different, very difficult decade.

By the summer of 1914, Harold was aged 21 and in the process of pursuing his vocation.  Working under the Town Clerk of Wigan, he’d passed his intermediate exams and had only his final exams to pass in order to become a qualified solicitor.  Upto this point, his life had been filled with privilege and opportunity – at a time when living conditions were decidedly less comfortable for the vast majority of those around him.  He’d lost his father at 60, a brother aged 27 and at least two nephews in infancy so he was not untouched by tragedy – although life expectancy and child mortality in those days would have meant such experiences were far less remarkable then, than now.  Barely eleven weeks after coming of age, he was tantalisingly close to joining his chosen profession and making his mark on the world.

Unfortunately, in a distant country, a man called Gavrilo Princip was also about to make his own fateful mark on the world – by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  With Europe controlled by four huge colonial superpowers, each protective of their interests and mostly ruled by related monarchs, jealous and distrustful of one other, the ensuing diplomatic crisis created a chain reaction of measures, pushing the whole continent ever closer to the brink of war.  When German troops marched into Belgium, Britain was forced to honour her 1839 treaty with the Belgians and declared war on Germany at 11pm on 4th August 1914.

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Initially, Harold and his brothers were under no obligation to sign up to fight.  Patriotic fervour was such that almost half a million men enlisted within two months, added to whom were another quarter of a million underage boys, seeking either adventure or an escape from poverty, or both.  Lord Kitchener, War Secretary (he of the iconic recruitment poster) felt it vital to treble Britain’s army, expecting a long conflict, and pushed to sustain recruitment at 92,000 a month.  They were ambitious numbers and conscription was the obvious solution but the Liberal Government was uncomfortable with the idea and instead sanctioned a huge propaganda effort to compel more men to volunteer.

An unlikely ally in the recruitment drive was a section of the women’s Suffrage movement.  It became not uncommon for patriotic women to approach men of military age in the street and present them with a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, as a means to shame them to enlist.  There’s no evidence that any of the Latham brothers were approached in this way but knowledge of the practice was widespread and any man, particularly from affluent, influential families who had chosen not to volunteer did so in the knowledge that he was inviting public questioning of his honour.

Whatever their motivation, Harold and four of his six surviving brothers (Jack Latham had died in 1906) volunteered for service in early 1915.  Frustratingly, there’s no mention of which of his brothers joined up with him.  Logic would suggest it was the youngest four of the six: eldest brothers William (40) and Daniel (38) were possibly considered too old for service.  Furthermore, both were active in coal-mining, which meant they could have been included among one and a half million men who were “starred” – designated as working in an essential occupation.  If that supposition is correct, Harold would have enlisted along with Dick (24), Edward (25), Ernest (31) and Thomas Jr. (33).  Harold’s record shows he joined the Royal Engineers, was given the Service Number 72750 and was posted to the 25th Division Signals Company.  

In May 1915, Harold and his unit moved to Aldershot to begin final war training. They received their service rifles in August and early in September, the Division was inspected by King George V.  On 25th September 1915, they were deployed to France but the first mention of their engagement in battle was eight months later, holding ground captured weeks earlier at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Signals fulfilled a vital communications role between front line and command.  Attached to the Royal Engineers, it’s almost certain that they would have been conveying messages to and from the specialist and newly-expanded tunnelling units as they fought to repel the German offensive Operation Schleswig-Holstein.  A total of 2,475 British casualties were suffered over three days, including 637 from the 25th Division.

If that was a brutal introduction to the war, Harold’s next documented action, a few weeks later, was to become even more synonymous with carnage.  The 25th Signals are recorded as being deployed at the Battle of Albert at the beginning of the Somme battles on 3rd July 1916, two days after its commencement on 1st July, still the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army with over 57,000 casualties.  When Harold’s unit arrived, they were to spend the next two weeks in an environment in which a further 25,000 British casualties were suffered – and this was only the opening phase of one of the defining battles of the whole war.

The next three months were spent in a succession of battles around the Somme, supporting General Haig’s autumn offensive.  His Company was involved at Bazentin Ridge, Pozieres Ridge, Mouquet Farm, Ancre Heights, Thiepval Ridge and the capture of the Regina Trench.

It’s unclear if Harold and his comrades were then allowed any R&R in the months that followed The Somme or if the onset of winter merely ensured hostilities slowed while both sides dug in.  The Company’s record shows their next engagement was The Battle of Messines in Flanders in June 1917, a result of some gained ground over the winter and spring.  The battle was significant as it represented a successful British intervention after the failure of the French-led spring offensive, which had resulted in demoralisation and desertion in the French ranks.

What followed was another posting at a battle whose very name was to symbolise the carnage of the war – Passchendaele.  The 25th Signals’ record refers, more prosaically, to the Battle of Picklem Ridge, Ypres but the date – 31st July – leaves no doubt.  Harold’s company saw action again at the capture of Westhoek in August but seemed to remain absent from the rest of the battle, which ran until October that year.

Chateauwood
Soldiers of the Australian 4th Division on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge, Ypres, 29 October 1917.

Again, there is no record of the Company being involved in combat over the winter months but in March 1918, Harold’s comrades were engaged in the Battle of St. Quentin, thus described by the Forces War Records website: “German artillery launched the largest artillery bombardment of the war, swiftly followed by rapidly advancing shock troops, against the British Fifth Army, Third Army and units of the First Army stationed in and around St. Quentin”.  With the subsequent loss of ground to the German advance, fighting continued on to Baupame on 24th March.

Throughout April, the unit were engaged in various activities in the Battles of the Lys, towards the Belgian border.  In May, the unit travelled further south to Huit Voisins, just outside Reims to assist French efforts to repel Operation Blucher in the Battle of the Aisne.

A further gap appears in the record of the 25th Signals throughout the summer of 1918, implying R&R (troops were supposed to spend equal amounts of time rotating between front line roles, in support roles, in reserve or resting) with their next active service on 4th October 1918 at the assault on the Hindenburg Line, as part of the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, alongside the Australian 2nd Division.

With the Armistice only 38 days away, Harold Latham had now been stationed in France for over three years.  Records show his unit had been present at two of the most fearsome battles of the war – possibly of any war – and while the records only detail the Company’s movements, not that of each individual, it’s more than likely that Corporal H Latham was there to witness it all and survive.  From today’s perspective, it’s easy to look at this date and presume that after enduring so much, with so little time left in the war, he must surely have made it back to Blighty, to Standish and to a rewarding legal career.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.

On 6th October 1918, as the 25th Division were about to capture the town of Beaurevoir, Harold was severely wounded and taken to a casualty clearing station behind the front line, just one of 8,802 British casualties in the battle.  Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and died the next day, aged 25.  Sunday 7th October this year was the centenary of his death.

Cpl HL Report Scan

Harold Latham’s untimely passing occurred barely a month before the end of the war in a battle that historians have suggested was so pivotal to the campaign, it began to convince the German high command that there was now little hope of overall victory.  It seemed that, apart from the beginning of the Western Front conflict, Harold had been present at many of its most significant moments.  Cruelly, he would be denied the chance to see it to its very end.

On November 2nd 1918, following the official process of notification and with a mere nine days of the war left, the Wigan Observer posted notice of Harold’s death.  His mother, Catherine was by then 65 and living in Southport.  The report also mentions that one of his four serving brothers had been discharged while the other three were still in France.

Cpl. Latham was buried in the Tincourt New British Cemetery at Tincourt-Boucly, approximately 40 miles east of Amiens, 40 miles south of Lens.  He was one of 1,114,914 British soldiers to die in the “Great War” and one of seventy-eight from Standish.  When the Peace Gate was completed in October 1926, his name was duly included in the list of the local fallen.

It’s also fitting to mention that during the First World War, Harold’s adolescent home, The Beeches, was commandeered and converted to a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital, known as “Woodlands No.3”, administering aid and recuperation to returning injured personnel – including, perhaps, Harold’s discharged brother.  Last year, at the start of our genealogy project, I was fortunate to visit The Beeches and meet the new owners as their renovations began.  The plans for the restaurant look exciting and I’m looking forward to dining there when it opens. 

As a footnote, I now wonder if any aspect of this new use for the old building could be named after or inspired by Corporal Harold Latham, reflecting its proud wartime connections.  It would be a fitting tribute to a man whose life story deserves more recognition and a timely way to encourage the people of Standish to welcome the new venture.

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It’s Only Words (To Take Your Heart Away?)

Introduction

“The Impotence of Being Earnest”

I believe it was Søren Kierkegaard who once said “If you label me, you negate me”.  Already, I’m sensing you’re rolling your eyes at the audacity of my quoting a 19th-century Danish philosopher, without any warning.  “Oh no, here we go.  What an absolute [insert insult of choice]”.  Hold on a moment, though.  Wouldn’t your chosen term of abuse be a label, meaning you’ve rather spectacularly missed our Scandinavian friend’s point?

You’d also be falling into the trap I’ve laid for you.  It was a pretentious quote but not entirely in the way it seems.  I’m pretending to quote Kierkegaard but it’s actually a line from the 1992 film ‘Wayne’s World’, a far less academically significant (therefore a more socially acceptable) source.  If I’d said I was quoting “Wayne from ‘Wayne’s World’”, would that have made the label any more flattering?  Would it negate me any less if it was? 

In recent years, as the public discourse in the UK, the US and elsewhere seems to have grown more adversarial and unsophisticated, I’ve found myself reminded more and more of Wayne Campbell’s unsuccessful chat-up line.  Maybe I am a little over-sensitive to the choices of words used by anyone in power whose intentions are unclear – or conversely, as seems to be increasingly the case, perhaps most people aren’t sensitive enough.

The Scientific Case

“Of Course It’s In Your Head – Why Would That Mean It’s Not Real?”

For over a century, the disciplines of Psychology (the study of the mind) and Linguistics (the study of Language) have found themselves frequently intertwined.  The central argument that has always drawn these two distinct areas of study together is this:  Language determines Thought.  It’s important to say that I’m in no way posing as an expert in either field.  I did a little Cognitive and Social Psychology at University and for a year, I lived next door to a Linguist – and no, he wasn’t a cunning one.  I can google ‘psycholinguistics’, read about Piagetian cognitive determinism and name-drop the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but I won’t pretend to understand any of it fully and it won’t make much difference to my basic premise that you or I don’t.  It’s just important that you keep in mind the widely-supported proposition that the words we use and hear used go some way – perhaps a long way – to influencing the way we think.

I have, however, worked in Marketing for over twenty years so it’s fair to say that I’ve written enough copy to know how to use language to seek to gain acceptance and approval from the reader – the keys to being able to persuade them.  I’ve been to seminars in which eminently more experienced wordsmiths than I am have forensically deconstructed their craft as part science, part art – often a dark art.  We’re all consumers of products – which makes us all consumers of advertising.  It shouldn’t be hugely controversial to suggest we’re all to some extent aware of it when others are trying to change the way we think about something and yet the practice still works remarkably well for it to continue to exist.  If you don’t just love a McDonald’s meal but you’re “lovin’” the experience of going there, that word has influenced, possibly even determined, your thought.  Yes it’s a free country and you may have been free to make the choice to visit the ‘Golden Arches’ but how free were you to arrive at that thought?  Consequently, if 300 million people don’t hear the name ‘Hillary’ without it being prefixed by the word ‘crooked’, what is that going to do to the unconscious opinion of her with a large swathe of them?  It’s what psychologists (and marketers) call the ‘mere exposure’ hypothesis.

The Historical Case

“Time’s Arrow”

What about when the same techniques are applied even more nefariously?  Let’s not mess about here, I’m going to go all ‘Godwin’s Law’ at this point and use one of the most chilling, notorious, shameful examples of persuasive writing – just to prove that it actually happened: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.  It’s German and it translates as “Work Makes You Free”.  Have you remembered where you’ve seen it, yet?  It was (and still is) written above the gates at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, possibly the site of the very worst of humanity’s depravity.  The context is clear: those that were sent there, arriving in a state of fear, were met with a message of promise and a condition.  “You may feel trapped and persecuted right now but if you work hard here, you’ll actually be free”.  Even without knowing what happened next, it’s an incredibly shocking attempt at a strapline.  When you then consider that “Freedom” seems to be a deliberate euphemism for the reader’s impending death, it’s breathtaking in its soul-crushing brutality.  The real lesson that this example teaches us is not just that it’s a fairly crude attempt at thought control but that such a crude phrase was used so brazenly, so utterly cynically.  

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, where we all feel we know better and could never possibly return to those sick, twisted days, there’s a small, nagging suggestion that we may not be as wise as we think.  Arguably, we’re still happy to support those who would use our language against us, so have we really learned from our species’ mistakes – and is our complacent belief that we have aiding and abetting aspiring thought-controllers of the future?

The Literary Case

“The Right To Tell People What They Do Not Want To Hear”

At the forefront of the effort to ensure that the horrors of totalitarianism must never be revisited was, of course, George Orwell.  In his scathing critique of the subject ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, he shrewdly included the vital role that the distortion of language could play as a means to facilitate and perpetuate an all-powerful state.  “Newspeak”, the name given to the dangerously re-defined, state-approved form of language was the means by which concepts such as “doublethink” (a means by which one fact simultaneously demonstrates the opposite) could possibly exist.  Logically, it seems perverse to assert a patently self-contradictory statement such as “War is Peace” but the practice of doublethink, delivered in the approved guise of newspeak, would eventually compel Orwell’s oppressed inhabitants of “Airstrip One” to agree that it must be the case.  

You may think this is all a little extreme and scare-mongering but the context is vital.  It was written in 1948 and propaganda was a huge part of the war effort on all sides.  It had long been understood that to control what is believed to be “the truth” is to control a war effort and, by extension, a war – the famous quote about the truth being “the first casualty” of war was anecdotally attributed to Californian Governor, later Senator Hiram Johnson, in about 1916.  Orwell’s genius suggestion was that by maintaining a perpetual state of war, his totalitarian regime was able to maintain a permanent control of truth itself. 

Today, it’s a rather sad irony that, rather than his masterpiece and its darkest ideas being fully understood by all, they have, for many, become trite buzzwords from TV shows in which mildly perilous situations occur – an undesired form of newspeak, you might conclude.  Viewers of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ may know of the Orwellian connection but without having read the book, can have no grasp of the gulf that exists between the plight of Winston Smith and that of the guests of Frank Skinner or Davina McCall et al.

The Semantic Case

“Warning: Implicit Content”

As our friend Søren would no doubt agree, the problem with labels is that they are generally one of many ways to describe a person or a group which can be used wholly to define them, removing natural complexity and using a simplistic shorthand instead.  Too often, we don’t really identify it’s happening when others use labels and we rarely notice when we do it ourselves.  Labels allow unspoken connotation to fill in the gaps and strip out context and nuance.  It takes effort to realise that there’s more to the simplistic description than is being made explicit and it’s too easy to derive a wider, unsaid, implied meaning.  

The other problem is that we all have many applicable labels at all times; some of which present us positively, many of which don’t.  I’m a father, a husband, a dog-owner, a tax-payer, a voter and a graduate which I would hope all sound like good things to be.  I’m also an SUV-driver, a cyclist, a caravanner, a Libran and a football fan, descriptions which do not always meet with universal popularity and can be used, in isolation, to undermine.  Furthermore, depending on your particular perspective, my applicable geographic labels of Lancastrian, Northerner, Englishman and Briton may or may not derive positive acclaim.  Subjectiveness, relative to an audience hugely affects the positivity, or otherwise, of a label.  If someone wanted to create antipathy towards me from a Yorkshire audience, guess which label would be most useful in achieving that aim?  What if the audience was from London?  Or Wales?  Or Germany?  Labels make it easy to discredit and are too easily met with unquestioning acceptance.

The Pragmatic Case

“That’s No Way To Go, Does Your Mother Know?”

To a certain extent, none of the above should be that surprising.  Most parents will recognise the important distinction between the justifiable chastisement “you’ve behaved stupidly” and the altogether more dismissive “you’re stupid”.  We take care not to label children when they err because it’s unfair and it sets a poor example – yet we seem to forget all that when it comes to the behaviour of adults.  Anyone can behave idiotically.  It’s a complicated world – so we tend to simplify idiocy by distributing it at the individual rather than the event level.  

Social psychologists have observed from studies that people tend to attribute judgements of others due to “dispositional factors above situational factors”.  Mothers have long discouraged their children from taking such a disposition-centric view by encouraging the more situationalist “they can’t help it and probably didn’t mean it”.  When we grow out of childhood, such guidance shouldn’t need to change – but as we become more hard-bitten by life experience, it just seems as if it is advice more appropriate for children.

The Logical Case

“Therefore, My Dog Is A Cat”

There’s also the issue of flawed logic to consider.  Mathematicians have long known about something called the Conditional Probability Fallacy – a logical trap that suggests that if one thing is represented in another, the opposite must also be true.  As a species, we seem to be innately disposed to accept certain binary truths and it’s logical for us to attempt to apply that trusted model wherever we see two states in a relationship.  “Darkness equals night” so it’s obviously equally true that “night equals darkness”.  The fallacy exists when such a relationship between the two states is implied, hence: “All fathers are male – so all males are fathers”.  A simple logical ‘sense check’ is often enough to debunk the flawed conclusion here – our own experience tells us It’s obvious that the inverse cannot be true.  

What if there’s insufficient personal experience to undermine the proposition?  What if the intricacies of such logical traps are exploited to an audience largely unaware of their existence?  Can we be conned, en masse, merely by implication?  For example, it’s easy to imagine the suggestion raised by the logical relationship ‘All jihadists are Muslim” – so are we being invited by anyone who asserts this point to conclude that “all Muslims are jihadists”?  Why is their religion suddenly important in this context, anyway?  Where is the consistency with other descriptions of terrorists?  When the UK was beset by horrifying attacks by the IRA, a supposedly exclusively Catholic Irish Republican militia, they were never described as “Christian terrorists”.  Is it fair to surmise that there’s a reason for such inconsistency?  Is there a justification for it?  

The Legal Case

“You Can’t Handle The Truth!”

We trust our politicians and news outlets to deal in the truth but from a legal standpoint, that’s only a third of the requirement.  Any witness in a court of law – arguably the arena where words matter most –  must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  We’ve heard this seemingly quaint legalistic phrase so often that its incredibly profound meaning tends to be lost.  It’s of huge significance that there are three strands of truth in this well-worn saying and they absolutely do not mean the same thing repeated twice merely to add gravitas.  Logically speaking, there are three very distinct requirements to be met by this oath.  Firstly, there’s “the truth”:  Is X factually correct, yes or no?  In answering this point, is the requirement for the statement to be comprehensively true: does it explain all facets raised by the question truthfully or does it omit any elements that are also true and inconvenient to include?  Finally, the need to strip away misleading detail: does the answer include other, spurious information, implied by its inclusion to be equally true and relevant?

In law, circumstantial evidence is deemed to be be flimsy and generally inadmissible.  In the media and, far too often, in public debate, little distinction is drawn between material and immaterial fact.  One provides insight to a story, the other adds innuendo.  Guess which of the two additions tends to be most commercially attractive?

There’s a reason that physical representations of Justice are traditionally depicted as ‘blind’, her eyes generally obscured by a blindfold.  It’s precisely because the Law is expected to ignore such spurious details as may be supposed just by looking at a person (i.e. “nothing but the truth”).  A verdict must be based solely on the facts presented, in the expectation that they are exhaustive and untrammelled by concoction, regardless of wealth, power or any other supposedly irrelevant factor of those on either side.  No politician or news outlet is bound as strictly to these principles and, by extension, their ability to convey what might be termed ‘absolute truth’ is inevitably inferior.

The Digital Case

“A Binary Expression”

In an ever-more inter-connected world, words travel further and elicit more words of riposte from more respondents than ever before.  With such inordinate possibility and reach, has humanity used the adolescent phase of the internet principally to broaden its mind and further its understanding?  Sadly, the evidence suggests, in the main, that it hasn’t.  Indeed, we’ve tended to deal with the exploding plurality of opinion and viewpoint by most commonly retreating to the comfort and solace of people with whom we are most in agreement, like disparate prehistoric tribes retreating to their various, demarcated caves. 

In our ‘echo chambers’, our digital ghettos, we appear to be doing what social psychologists have always observed in group dynamics: emphasise intra-group similarities and highlight inter-group differences, like opposing sets of football fans.  Here again, language is a useful stick – striking a drum to emphasise unity and beating those to whom that unity does not apply.  With all the zealotry of the Spanish Inquisition, those who are judged to be heretical to the orthodoxy of one side or the other are denounced as ‘snowflakes’, ‘libtards’, ‘fascists’, ‘leftists’, ‘Blairites’ or ‘TERFs’ to name but a few epithets.  Similarly, the mere mention of these terms of heresy is sufficient to remove any further right of explanation or mitigation to be heard, like the man being branded a blasphemer in the always-relevant ‘Life of Brian’.  In short, the process of labelling doesn’t just negate individuals in these circumstances, it can defenestrate them of their credibility. 

A clear example of the ease with which negative labels can be proliferated in the digital age is the much-discussed ‘Centrist Dad’.  Aside from the fact that it is principally designed to trivialise and undermine a particular assumed set of views, like any other label, it would appear to take the principle a stage further.  To its proponents, the term generally represents a frustration at a perceived lack of radicalism that they would believe is necessary, a dismay at the supposed reliance on much of the status quo.  Aside from the implied sexism and ageism of the term, it is essentially a disapproval of ‘Centrism’.  The trouble with this term is that it is only really clearly defined by that which it is not – radical leftism or indeed rightism – rather than that which it can be said to be.  Centrism is therefore analogous to atheism, which is defined merely as the absence of a belief system rather than an ‘active’ position in and of itself.  So-called ‘centrists’ subsequently find themselves being thus defined more for a set of values that they don’t hold rather than any that they demonstrably do.  This appears to be clear with-us-or-against-us posturing – and history holds dark warnings for that kind of simplistic tribalism.

And then there’s the media in the digital age.  Like any other consumer product, media proliferation has led to a huge increase of news providers, each subsisting on ever-narrower niches of audience type.  Unlike things like breakfast cereal, which has also found itself in a market in which it must accommodate more choices, tailored more closely to a more specific clientèle, it seems questionable whether news should operate in this way.  British newspapers always represented a fairly diverse range of readers but reporting of facts generally superseded the in-house interpretation of their significance and so the Guardian and the Telegraph, while ideologically opposite, would report essentially the same stories, albeit differently paginated and analysed according to their (and their readers’) politics. 

When the world wide web was barely a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye and I was but a sixth-form student, I tended to spend my Monday mornings trying to avoid doing my Maths A-Level homework by reading each of the day’s newspapers in the library.  Today, I believe that the appreciation it gave me of the role of a broad yet largely responsible media landscape was the best education I received at that time, consistently far more meaningful than my questionable ability to perform differentiation from first principles or indeed identify a Poisson distribution.  As a result, I find myself suitably dismayed and alarmed at the willingness of a legitimised partisan press to use the language of their own tribal agenda, abandoning the media’s traditional role of observer and analyst, in order to become a willing participant.  Most depressingly, those outlets that attempt to retain a vestige of objective detachment are now being demeaned by the dismissive label “Mainstream Media”.  Somehow, this is what we seem to believe to be progress.

Words are also being used accordingly to reinforce another growing social trend: the rise of simplicity or – as it’s described by Stephen Fry – infantilism, of debate.  Nuance seems to beyond the grasp of many, brought up on oversimplified phone-in radio debates and most issues find themselves being reduced to saccharine Good/Bad questions.  Is this helpful when debating the most difficult questions we face?  Complexity is an inherent component – or should be – to any far-reaching question.  For that reason, the answer is not simple and anyone who claims otherwise is likely to be doing so for expeditious reasons.  BAD! – with a commensurate level of qualifiers…

The Evolving Case

“If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next”

There have always been ways for the unscrupulous in power to self-aggrandise or denigrate those with whom they would disagree and, as Orwell and many others have shown, attempts to distort the meaning of words to suit an agenda is a recurrent one.  Of course, they aren’t all as pernicious as newspeak.  Some methods are older and simpler than others but they’re all employed with the same aim in mind – to influence our perception.

The old favourite among politicians is to speak with such eloquence and articulacy, that most people won’t stop to wonder if they’ve been lied to.  It’s therefore no surprise that when everybody’s favourite Victorian throwback MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was invited to admit his investment company’s stance on the financial uncertainties of Brexit seemed at odds with his stated political position, he merely brushed off the matter by suggesting there was “terminological inexactitude” in the assertion (a phrase first adopted by Churchill in 1906 to circumvent the prohibited practice of using the term ‘lying’ in Parliament).  Just as he expected, the country sniggered at the archaic delivery and chose largely to overlook the suspicion that ‘Jaunty Jacob’ had been putting his money somewhere other than where his mouth was.   

I suspect you’ve been waiting for the next bit.  I hope you’ll agree I’ve tried to restrict myself from returning to the Trump well of lexical chicanery thus far but then I’d hate to disappoint you so here it is, probably his most egregious example.  When an earlier video emerged, during the 2016 US election, of Donald Trump’s startling boasts of what he felt his fame allowed him to do and say around women, the matter was then raised at the second televised Presidential debate.  Famously, his main defence was “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words”, an astounding attempt to discredit his accusation by simply dismissing the importance of words – the very currency with which he was attempting to ascend to the office he holds today.  Protectors of the power of language were horrified – notably JK Rowling who later tweeted that “If they [words] don’t matter, we’re all lost” – and then were further horrified to note that a wide section of the American public were happy to accept the explanation, uncritically.  Once again, the most shocking examples of the abuse of language are not the most sophisticated examples but the brazenness with which the most crude versions are employed. 

Finally, it’s important to note that the powerful do not have the monopoly on distorting language to further their own causes.  Recent years have seen those with less power adopting a similar technique – with concerning implications.  No-one should want to undermine the experience of minorities in their struggle to gain equal recognition and representation but to a language purist, it’s equally unedifying to see certain groups explaining their experiences and situations with the phrase “my truth”.  It’s understandable that the assertion is that their perspective on issues is different and needs to be more widely understood but can it be right that the word ‘truth’, which is supposed to be an absolute, can now be treated like any common noun and fall under the auspices of a possessive?  This isn’t merely a point of grammar but one of meaning itself.  Surely there can only be one truth, however many interpretations of it there may be.  If we complicitly downgrade the term ‘truth’ to mean little more than ‘opinion’, aren’t we devaluing the very concept of truth itself? 

Such concerns are brought into sharper relief when, inevitably, the language of the powerless is then appropriated by the powerful.  During the furore that surrounded Serena Williams’ conduct at the 2018 US Open Final, opinions swirled that she was both a powerful, millionaire athlete or the victim of sexism and racism, depending upon the level of support or condemnation being proclaimed.  Headlines such as “Serena Williams is being punished for speaking her truth” legitimise the concept in the vernacular and will offer those who seek to further themselves by factual obfuscation with another useful tool to achieving it.

No wonder we’re being described as living in a “Post-truth” world but the very existence of such a phrase is, to my mind, hardly a portent of promise.  If nothing is going to mean anything anymore, shouldn’t we be more worried that the most basic principles that anchor our hard-won rights are under the same threat of being erased?

 

Southgate, Redemption & Coming Home

Today, I went to Chorley. Nothing particularly noteworthy or even relevant in that, on this day of all days, you might think. In fairness, you’d be right – unless you’re aware of then significance it has to me.

What’s the tale? Okay, ‘long story short(er)’ version: It’s Euro ‘96. I’ve managed to get corporate tickets to Old Trafford for the first semi-final (France v Czech Republic) which went to penalties and even then ‘sudden death’ penalties. Eventually, the Czechs managed to win, which meant we had less than an hour to get in front of a TV to watch the other semi – England v Germany – from Wembley.

I decided to eschew my lift back to the nice Cheshire hotel which had been our earlier rendezvous, calculating that to get there would mean missing the first 20 minutes, and take my chances in getting a tram into Manchester. I joined the hordes thronging around Old Trafford (cricket ground) station and, soon enough found my way on the Metrolink into town.

Only days beforehand, Manchester city centre had been attacked by the IRA and all the way from Deansgate station there were boarded up windows and a sense of being in a war zone. I chose to get off at Piccadilly Gardens and find a pub showing the match.

It was still the mid-nineties so not every hostelry was equipped with a television, although it was easy to spot those that weren’t – they were empty. Conversely, the rest were jam-packed. After trying a few – and with kick-off approaching – I decided I’d have to cram myself into the next available bar, which I did in a place my failing memory tells me might have been called the Brunswick Tavern. As I squeezed my way in, the place erupted. Alan Shearer has scored in the first minute.

As you’ll almost certainly know, the next couple of hours consisted of a German equaliser, numerous agonisingly close chances for an England winner and a penalty shoot-out that was lost when a young centre-half called Gareth Southgate had his kick saved. It’s written deep into English footballing folklore.

As the game had worn on and tensions had increased, the dozens of random strangers had begun to forge a bond and, once poor Gareth had enshrined his place in Pizza Hut ad ignominy, the numbers had shrunk such that those that remained were now buying each other drinks and communally crying into them. I have no idea now who I was commiserating with but, more to the point, at that juncture, filled with numbness, I had no idea (or interest) what time it was.

Of course the important temporal issue was that of the last train home (to Wigan) and by the time I got to Piccadilly Station, it became apparent that I’d missed it. The only alternative to a night on Manchester’s streets or an embarrassing call to my parents was the last service to Blackpool, which stopped at Chorley.

Quickly sobering up, I caught the Blackpool train and managed to stay awake to alight at Chorley – where I realised I had nowhere near enough money to get a taxi home.

Filled with the fatalistic hubris of alcohol and existential angst, I decided to sod everything and walk the seven or so miles home. It took me three hours and I only got to bed at about four o’clock (in the daylight) with sore feet, a degree of dehydration and a heavy heart. Despite the years and the inebriation, I still remember much of walk home.

I remembered today, as I drove past Birkacre Garden Centre the (probably long-departed) guard dog that barked at me as I trudged haplessly past its domain 22 years ago. I remembered my frustration and empathy for Southgate, knowing he would be portrayed as a villain of the piece but, even then, knowing that he was one of football’s good guys and ill-deserving of his inevitable notoriety.

Today, en route to Chorley and, in particular, as I drove past Chorley Station, I reflected on Gareth’s redemption, his reassuring example that nice guys don’t always finish last and hoped that, this time, England’s semi-final would end in easy victory, not in unedifying dismay.

In the end, it was neither. Clearly, victory has eluded Gareth (and the rest of us) again but this time, abject desolation in defeat has been replaced by dignity and optimism. It may be another four years of ‘hurt’ but it’s an interlude that has given the nation a prevailing sense hope rather than scorn. Above all, it has vindicated Southgate, resurrected him from the grip of those dark days and left us wanting him to be the man to inherit the mantle of Alf Ramsey – as with Sir Alf, a knighthood has already been suggested.

England fans don’t expect to win tournaments – we just would rather not be significantly disappointed. We tend not to set our sights too high, usually settling for quarter-finals as our ‘par’ score. In reaching the semis, you could say we’ve gloriously over-achieved. That didn’t feel particularly true in our home tournament in 1996 but it is now. Above all, I hope we can find the stability to give these players – and the manager – the chance to do this again and perhaps fulfil the fleeting promise they gave to go even further.

It didn’t feel like much fun at the time but that long walk home is now a cherished memory – and I’d happily walk further, if it was as a consequence of winning a semi-final.

Notes On A Shrinking Planet

Travel.  It’s such a short, functional word which has come to represent something far more profound than its brevity implies, like ‘time’, ‘life’ and ‘politics’.  Too often, it’s a word associated only with the mechanics of moving around the world, rather than the effect of doing so.  Perhaps the term ‘transportation’ would better describe the simple relocation that is the very minimum requirement of ‘travel’ in its correct, widest sense.

Still, we’re in something of an etymological mess when it comes to finding the right words for this rather modern phenomenon.  Our default choice in Britain is ‘holiday’, derived from the Victorian practice of visiting a coastal town en masse on a “holy day” – hardly relevant to today’s more secular, less patriarchal society.  Even in America where adopted terms are simplified (‘sidewalk’?) and tend to concentrate on the benefit they provide, the best they can muster to describe the act of leaving home is the effect it has on the home itself – ‘vacation’ – rather than the effect on the person doing the vacating.  It all means that in little more than a few generations, the prevailing notion of travel has grown far beyond the capacity of any pre-existing word adequately to portray it.

Like most normal kids from a normal background, thirty years ago, my ideas of travel were shaped largely by the narrow band of TV shows dedicated to the subject.  While otherworldly figures like Alan Whicker bestrode the globe and sardonically described its most esteemed sights, regular, affordable travel tended to be defined by the more accessible, stereotype-laden clichés of ‘Duty Free’ and ‘Wish You Were Here?’ on millions of screens each week.  The average pre-teen of the early 1980s would have felt destined, almost consigned to a future of sangria-fuelled straw donkey collecting on a diet of burgers and chips while being careful not to order ice in the drinks.

It’s precisely this mindset that Peter Kay channels when he riffs on calling home and telling everyone there that ‘Les Fingres’ abroad taste exactly the same.  We laugh at that routine because we’ve lived it – and we sort of expected that always to be the case.  We knew we were unlikely to become smooth, debonair operators like the aforementioned Whicker, with his unlimited budget and James Bond-like ability to infiltrate the world in which ‘the other half’ lived.  And yet, Whicker was every bit as much a stereotype as the cheap-gag Spanish waiter, albeit a much more alluring one.  Our diet of travel-based entertainment seemed to consist only of hotel paella or QE2 caviar.  In the aspiring Eighties, it soon became clear that such a narrow menu would not be enough.

In the 1990s, various TV chefs became credited with creating a new genre of entertainment by breaking the mould of unnecessarily fussy and unattainable representation of cookery.  Ten years previously, the same thing happened to travel TV.  The year was 1988 and the person was Michael Palin.  It was the “former Python” who reprised Jules Verne’s fictional quest to travel around the world in eighty days – an assignement widely believed to have been previously turned down by Whicker himself.  In doing so, Palin carved a secondary career, arguably redefining the concept of travel for an entire generation.

It was travel television presented by a comedian who was famous for being in a show I didn’t remember, re-tracing the plot of a book I hadn’t read, in places I was sure I’d never visit.  In theory, it should have held no appeal to me at all.  And yet, Palin displayed his trademark avuncular silliness, laced with disarmingly profound observations in often gritty or unlikely surroundings.  He was the very antithesis of the emblazered Whicker or the perma-tanned Chalmers, a refreshing antidote to the established pomposity of most TV travel show presenters.  I was hooked – and found myself counting the hours until next week’s episode.

In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg’s eponymous challenge is perfect example of a ‘MacGuffin’, a classic literary device in which a character’s compulsion to do something provides the motivation for a story to develop.  Fogg’s desire to win a ridiculous bar-room bet is therefore little more than a thin excuse for him to visit lots of places and give Verne the makings of a plot.  From a writer’s eye, Fogg – and indeed Palin – seem to reinforce the sense that in travel (or indeed, depending upon your philosophy, in life itself), the destination is not as important as the journey.

Looking back, there was more than met the contemporary eye to commend Palin’s ’80 Days’ – it would take decades for us to realise it.  Before setting off from the Reform Club, Palin had already involved two other Pythons, Terrys Jones and Gilliam, discussing their thoughts on his epic quest, with each setting him a challenge to bring back a specific item (one being a Chinese roof tile).  I’m sure this was simply a blatant attempt to add another couple of ‘star’ names to the billing in an attempt to garner a few more viewers but their mutual regard, unforced humour and Pythonesque (can you use that word when it’s actually used to describe the Pythons themselves?) randomness showed that travel didn’t have to be so very serious and, given a little education and inquisitiveness, could become a source of entertainment in and of itself.

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The second revelation, an altogether more prescient one, came when Palin arrived in Hong Kong.  There, he was met by an old friend, Basil Pao, who showed him the sights of his home town.  Like most people watching, I didn’t imagine I was ever likely to meet an old friend anywhere overseas – any more than I ever thought I would visit Hong Kong.  This was simply something that only famous, jet-set people could ever do.  It seemed like a reminder that Michael, for all his accessible celebrity-next-door persona, was, after all, far more likely to be found in real life flying to New York on Concorde than on the Dover to Calais Townsend Thoresen service.  We still watched and forgave what seemed like a lapse into more conventional, idealised travel programming because we knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be standing frustratedly at another dockside, worrying about missing his next connection.

If you never saw the series or don’t remember the outcome, our Mike did eventually manage to succeed in his challenge.  While the twist in Fogg’s circumnavigation was the overlooked ‘extra’ day provided by eastward travel that Verne cleverly added, Palin’s last-minute complication was the more prosaic and altogether more dispiriting combination of rudeness from British Rail and intransigence from the Reform Club.  After a wonderful celebration of meeting people from many other countries, once back in Britain he could do no more than rather anti-climactically wrap up the story in front of the closed doors of the spectacularly out-of-touch establishment.  At least he managed to bring back that roof tile.

Fast forward almost thirty years and the whole concept of commercially-available travel has been largely transformed, thanks in no small part to the man upon whom John Cleese once bestowed the title The Nicest Man In England.  Palin then went on to travel from one Pole to the other, circumvent the Pacific, cross the Himalayas and do a plethora of other “boy’s own”-type voyages, building a career as a travelogue presenter that now almost eclipses his status as a member of one of the greatest comedy acts that ever drew laughter.  Looking back at ATWIED (as we must now abbreviate TV programme names), many viewers today may completely fail to understand the relevance of the whole ‘lumberjack’ segment he did in North America.  Philistines.

If Michael Palin opened the door to what travel might become, he didn’t exactly enable it.  Greater levels of aspiration, driven by steadily increasing levels of affordability have led, inevitably you might conclude, to an Experience economy.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to simply be somewhere else, you had to do something different and noteworthy while you were there.  As with TV channels, types of car, supermarkets and cuisine, travel options to the masses began to proliferate, with ever-smaller, more specific segments of the market being catered for.  It didn’t matter if you wanted to go wine-tasting, take in a safari, spend a week on the slopes or find an all-inclusive that specialised in entertaining small children, there was a holiday brochure for you.

Another ingredient in the changing face of travel has been the huge increase in interconnectedness we’ve seen in the new millennium.  In years gone by, people had the default and noble option of simply neglecting to stay in touch with their classmates or former colleagues.  There was of course a hand-written alternative to losing contct but it was generally too labour-intensive to sustain for all but the closest friends – and even then usually around Christmas when it was deemed worthwhile and socially acceptable.  I was fortunate to be on the cusp of this change: I discovered email before it became fashionable, while still at University and was therefore able to maintain a digital proto-social network with my friends from Uni after we left – almost a decade before anyone had heard of ‘The Facebook’.  Today, we friend request people we haven’t seen in the analogue world for over a quarter of a century and become, by extension, a small part of each other’s lives again.

In the same time, there’s been an increase in migrant working which means that if you have a hundred Facebook friends, the odds are that at least one of them will be living abroad – or may be someone you met while you were overseas.  Either way, if you ever visit that person’s country, you’re now much more likely to make the effort to meet up ‘IRL’.  What no-one saw, Michael Palin included, I’m sure, was that his rendezvous with an old friend in Hong Kong would in time become less the preserve of well-heeled journalists with impeccable connections but a much more commonplace occurrence in a more connected world.  We truly are a more global species today than we were  in 1988, a year before the end of the Cold War.  Even those of us who have never ventured beyond their own borders have become so, by proxy.

So where does all this cultural and societal progress leave the already ill-defined notion of what travel is, what travel should be?  And what will that word come to represent to the next generation of travellers?

Perhaps part of the reason for the ambiguity is that “travel” has come to mean whatever you want it to – a beach holiday on the Costas or a year’s back-packing around Asia.  The extent of our travels may always be limited by our funds but we will become less and less limited by the availability and therefore opportunity to choose how we travel.  For that reason, we’ve seen a rise in eco-tourism, pilgrimages, be they religious (Mecca), secular (Machu Picchu) or sporting (international tournaments) – as well as innumerable other niches in the market.

Then of course, there’s the effect of the good old internet.  Comparison sites for flights, accommodation, car hire etc. have flattened the many-tiered vertical model of agents, removing margin and lowering end user prices.  The removal of the heavily-formatted product via an intermediary has brought about the seemingly modern (but actually quite old-fashioned) concept of the independent traveller, a return to the days of real-life Phileas Foggs and Doctor Livingstones, you might presume.  Then, as now, travel did not have to be simply a pre-ordained itinerary of critical-mass conveyance and accommodation but, cliché aside, a true voyage of discovery.  Without the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional agent model, it’s now much easier to travel like a Victorian gentleman – with the assurances of today’s communications as our latter-day Passepartout.

The flexibility of options has also extended to the levels of communality we may prefer – travel with friends, extended family, other like-minded souls.  Nor do we all have to move around together; we may choose to overlap our schedules, make rendezvous plans, even choose to synchronistically exchange the use of our houses.  It’s all a far cry from the group-booked coach tours that communal travel implied in days gone by.

In a world where you can choose from thousands of possible combinations every time you order a coffee, it’s no surprise that travel too has metamorphosed from a curated and prescribed activity to an utterly personalised one.  It’s now not just about where you go or for how long, but with whom, for what reason and in order to take in which experiences.

We may well extend our physical travel horizons even further over the next decade or two, with sub-orbital or even inter-planetary options potentially on offer but it’s difficult to contend that the most profound revolution in travel isn’t already taking place, here on earth, right now.  Phileas Fogg may have become, by a Python’s extension, an inspiration for the travel aspirations of millions today but when he was created, his adventures were just as unlikely, just as much a part of the realm of science fiction as Verne’s other work, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.  That Fogg’s grand touring is so widely available today is travel’s ongoing legacy.  Anything else, intra- or extra-terrestrial, is simply a matter of geography.

Going the Extra Half Mile for Amelia

You may be familiar with my god-daughter, Amelia.  I’ve blogged about her before.  Here she is with my 12 year-old son, Charlie, whom she adores.

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Amelia with Charlie.

I’d love you to read the full post but click here if you just want to ‘cut to the chase’.

Two years on from my last blogpost about her, she’s now nine years old and is still severely autistic, non-verbal and has learning difficulties.  She’s still as friendly, with a smile and a hug to melt the hardest heart and, when she wants to be, she’s as mischievous and keen to get her own way as much as any other nine year-old.

As you can imagine, she has quite complex educational needs and thankfully, she is able to have them met by her amazing school, Astley Park in Chorley.  As you can also imagine, budgets are tight and so much more could be achieved with just a little more funding.  For that reason, they established a charity, ‘Friends of Astley Park School’ (FAPS) and over the past few years, so much of the money raised for this charity has directly benefitted Amelia.  If you’re familiar with my Facebook offerings, you may be well aware of the various weekends we’ve dedicated to supporting Warren, “Amelia’s Daddy”, in his various physical challenges to raise money for FAPS and for Amelia.  Only last month, we cheered him on as he completed two runs around the Asics Windermere Marathon course – each 26.2-mile run, a lap of England’s largest lake, with some huge inclines to run up, as you’d expect in the Lake District.  Here he is approaching the finish line – the second time around:

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‘Amelia’s Daddy’, a.k.a. Warren completes the Asics Windermere Marathon.  Again.

Last year, we also supported  Warren and another friend, Aaron, as they entered the Great North Swim (this time in Windermere), obviously for the same cause.  While we were there, something unexpected and unbelievably affirming happened.  Charlie, then aged 11 asked what the minimum age for the event was.  We told him it was 12.  Immediately, he vowed to come back next year and swim the half-mile event for Amelia.  Charlie has always been a strong swimmer in the pool but this is a tough assignment – many people have panic attacks once they get out into the open water – and we gave him every chance to pull out gracefully before we publicised his endeavours.

Since last summer he’s been preparing for the swim – and we’ve stepped up the training since April this year.  Even when we’ve been abroad in that time, there happen to have been lakes nearby and he’s kept up his training.

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Swimming in Lake Como, Italy during the Easter holidays

In that time, he’s tapered up from a couple of hundred metres at a time to around a kilometre – well over the half-mile he’s training for.  He’s trained in all weathers, in three different countries and at various times of day.  He’s even suffered the blight of open water swimmers, brought on my taking on too much unclean water.

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Swimmin’ In The Rain – at Pennington Flash, Leigh

All the while, he’s remained focused on his goal – and on raising as much money as possible.  When I set up his Justgiving page, I gave him a target of £500 – with no idea if it was a realistic figure for him to raise.  If I’m honest, I just hoped he’d get somewhere near that figure.

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We were in Ireland last month to watch a Guns ‘N Roses concert, staying at ‘The Lakeside Manor’ hotel in Virginia, Co. Cavan.  Obviously, the wetsuit had to come, too.

With a few days to go until the Windermere swim, I’m delighted to reveal he’s now passed that notional target of £500.  There are so many people who have already said some wonderful things about him and pledged their hard-earned money to support a cause that they may only be aware of because of Charlie’s efforts.  It really is humbling stuff to see and we’d like to thank everyone who has already donated.

The Chase…

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If you’d like to add your support to the dozens that have already given money to this wonderful cause, please visit Charlie’s Justgiving page and donate what you can.

Obviously, those closest to us have already added their support and naturally, they will tend to be more sizeable donations.  Please don’t look at the donations made and think we expect any particular level of support – anything you can offer would be massively appreciated.  We all know that even £3 barely covers the cost of a cup of coffee but if you are willing to pledge even that amount, that’s better than just leaving the page without adding your support.

Thanks for reading and for any amount you are able to pledge.  We all really appreciate it!

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Paul, Helen, Charlie, Jacquie, Warren – and, of course, Amelia!

Let It Go, Elsa!

First, thanks for all your expressions of sympathy after we lost Sam, last month.  He really was a once-in-a-lifetime dog and it amazed us how many others thought so too.

We were therefore thrust into the state of being a one-dog family for the first time in 8½ years – something which saw the household considerably, unbearably, quietened.  After a week of such torpor, we could stand it no longer and began the search for our next dog.

Having found both Marley and Sam to be wonderful examples of their breed, we naturally gravitated to searching for a labrador.  We also felt it was important that we tried to see if there were labs out there that we could re-home, rather than purchase commercially.  Both our dogs had come to us (via friends of friends) as a result of needing to be re-homed and in both cases, we firmly believed we were able to vastly improve their quality of life with the home we could offer them.

As in most instances these days, the next port of call was a google search to see where our nearest rescue centre was.  We were amazed to find that The Labrador Rescue (North West Area) was only a few miles up the road, in Eccleston, Chorley.  On their site was a 14-month old bitch called Elsa.  It wasn’t a straightforward process (I suspect deliberately so, to deter time-wasters or those people who aren’t sufficiently committed) but we registered our interest, filled in all the necessary details and waited while we were screened by the LR(NW).

A week later, we were invited to visit (the whole family, including Marley) to see if we would be a good match.  Nothing was guaranteed but if all went well, we would be able to bring her home with us.  We agreed to visit on Friday 16th September (Charlie’s 12th birthday) and spent the interim trying not to raise our hopes unduly.

It wasn’t the easiest place to find but we eventually arrived, full of anticipation.  We met Glenys, who introduced us to Elsa.  She ran towards us, a sleek, black ball of submission and curiosity.  I was reminded of our first encounter with Sam, back in 2005, and his similar nervousness.  Amid all the timidity, we could sense the same strength of character.

Naturally, we warmed to her immediately.  Marley was perfectly well-mannered towards her and she was keen to make friends with us.  We were invited to spend some time together in the adjacent field to see how we all got on.  In less than five minutes, we knew we couldn’t leave her behind.  With everyone satisfied with the arrangement, we paid the fee, bought the harness and lead and brought her home.

So now we’re at the beginning of the process of encouraging this very energetic, puppyish youngster into becoming a more responsible, mature adolescent.  As you’d expect, she’s very boisterous, wilful and prone to misbehaviour (with a penchant for running away with shoes) but she’s also affectionate, playful, engagingly startled by tiny things and quick to learn.  Needless to say the level of chaos in the household has increased exponentially since her arrival.

Here she is, already challenging the status quo by jumping on the couch.  Like I said when we got Marley, “if he proves to be half the dog that Sam is, he’ll be great”.  The same is true of Elsa and she’s already well on the way to that particular accolade.

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If you’d like to support the Labrador Rescue (North West), there are a number of fundraising initiatives for you to consider.  Follow the link to see how you can help.

Obituary: Sam

We never knew Sam’s real birthdate but as he joined our family on March 31st 2005 at the age of “10 months”, as far as we were concerned, he was born on May 31st 2004.  He died on August 31st 2016, aged 12 years and three months.

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Sam came into our lives in March 2005.  At the time, we were a household in flux – still working on converting the old barn into our new house, the three of us were living in one room in my parents’ house.  Charlie was only six months old and we were several weeks away from moving in.  I was spending every spare minute working on the house and one day Helen asked, out of the blue “Should we get a dog?”.  I remember pleading that there would be plenty of time for that once we’d moved in but could we just wait, hoping for a bit of pragmatism.  Then it turned out that it wasn’t really an idle question – you see, there was this black Labrador in Golborne that needed re-homing.

Sensing that the cards were stacked against me, I attempted to dampen down expectation by agreeing to go and have a look – “but that’s all”.  Obviously, my well-intentioned caution was futile – we might as well have bought a dog bed and bowl on the way there.  We’d decided to take Charlie with us to see how the two reacted to each other and things didn’t get off to a great start when we were told “he’s in the back room but you’ll have to take your hat off – it makes him nervous”.

Eventually, we coaxed the jet-black, gangly 10-month old youngster out of his cage and into a meeting, of sorts.  Nervous and awkward as he was, he still showed interest in and respect to our rather more confident 6-month old.  He had a tendency to bark at men he didn’t know but it was already clear that he had an affinity for children.  We said we’d go home and talk about it but before we’d even got on the M6, I’d abandoned all hope of a more sensibly-timed canine addition.  It was clear that this one would be the dog for us.

Within days, he’d arrived: another inhabitant in a shared house that was already accommodating upto seven people.  Still clinging steadfastly to the notion of being sensible, we decided that he should sleep downstairs but it was soon apparent that Sam had other ideas.  Minutes after being shut in the kitchen on his first night with us, he barked and whined at the top of his voice, unsustainable enough in any case but doubly so with a sleeping baby in the house.  I was dispatched downstairs to have a word with him.  It didn’t work and neither did the next few attempts.  This dog was not the scared puppy we’d been told about – he was headstrong enough to know what he wanted and intelligent enough to get his own way.  I knew I couldn’t give in to his demands to sleep upstairs with us but I had a disrupted household and work in the morning.  I did the only thing I could do to keep the peace without giving in – I let him sleep with me on a couch in the conservatory.  In doing so, it led us both to get the measure of the other and our bond was established.  Needless to say, the next day, it was suggested that we let him sleep upstairs after all.

As Sam settled into the family, we moved in the converted barn and the baby became a toddler, it was clear for all to see that wherever Charlie went, he had a black shadow, watching his every move.  Sam may have been ostensibly our dog but in his mind, he belonged to Charlie and he always would.  The obvious attachment between the two was the reason why, for Charlie’s first birthday and on the eve of our first foreign holiday together, I bought him a soft toy in the style of a black Labrador and christened it ‘Little Sam’, lest the bigger version be missed while we were away.

One unanticipated advantage to the awkward timing of his arrival was that we were able to match the carpet to the dog, which is why our upstairs rooms are carpeted in the darkest colour possible.  Sam would regularly station himself beside Charlie’s cot at bedtime but, possibly as a result of that shared first night in the conservatory, his preferred night-time spot was next to our bed, on my side.  He continued to observe this nocturnal endorsement to the week he died, perhaps his only concession to ‘belonging’ to anyone other than Charlie.

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In no time at all, it seemed, Charlie was older, more curious and keen to explore his surroundings.  This meant taking the time to play out with him on Saturday mornings, while juggling other household chores.  Later still, on his battery-powered tractor, once he was old enough to be trusted to adhere to some basic rules (stay away from the pond, don’t go past the end of the drive), I found I was able to leave him to play under Sam’s supervision.  For almost ten years, if I ever needed to know where Charlie was, I had only to find Sam because I knew he would be within ten metres of him.

Over Easter 2008, we made a decision that was to test Sam’s legendary temperament: we took on another Labrador in need of a new home, Marley.  Unsurprisingly, the older dog took to this new imposter with the good grace we expected of him and they soon became as close as brothers – as long as the pecking order was observed.  With a few well-timed subtle growls in the early days, Sam’s dominant personality ensured that would be the case – although Marley’s compliant nature helped too.

With the newcomer came a different problem – the two would frequently goad each other into more and more troublesome antics.  Many mornings were punctuated by shouts across fields, unacknowledged, before the two miscreants could be seen frolicking about, two fields away, covered in mud obtained from their interest in a boggy patch nearby.  Sam was always the more sensible one – only Marley was capable of eating a whole cake of rat poison and running upto Helen with a blue tongue, so proud of his ‘achievement’ – but make no mistake, they both had a penchant for mischief, which they regularly indulged.

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As Charlie grew bigger and braver, their adventures together became ever more ambitious.  The most unfortunate aspect of human and dog growing up together is that the dog’s physical prime coincides with much of the child’s early development – by the time the child can reach their level of energy, the dog’s peak years will invariably have passed.  For a few golden years, though, the ‘sweet spot’ of their joint activity, they were equals: Charlie’s favourite game was to suddenly slip from Sam’s view (which was easier said than done) and run away, behind trees and bushes, ducking into sheds and garages, compelling his bodyguard to hastily track him down.  Its fair to say that Sam enjoyed the game far less – although he was always hugely pleased when he inevitably managed to find his fugitive friend.

An accomplished swimmer (as you’d expect from a type of dog bred to assist 17th-Century Canadian fishermen), Sam was, as you can see, a reluctant sled dog on the one occasion he was offered the job.  He was, however, a keen participant in countless games of garden cricket, tennis, rugby and football.  Charlie and I even had a name for the act of kicking a football between his front and hind legs – the ‘mutt-meg’.  A keen retriever (as you’d also expect) in his younger day, he soon realised that when younger, more enthusiastic legs arrived on the scene that he could delegate much of the fetching duties to Marley.  In many respects, that simple distinction summed Sam up perfectly: clear-thinking to the extent that he was very often much more human-like than dog-like.

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His favourite days were the various barbecues and birthday parties we held on the field.  Yes, there was the constant stream of freely-available food, friendly people and various ball games being played but above everything else, he loved to be around the children, watching them, guarding them, revelling in their company and refusing simply to observe their enjoyment from afar.

A few years later, with the help of technology here and there, the pendulum had begun to swing – now it was Charlie who could outpace Sam and as a consequence, we had to start to give thought to managing the welfare of an ageing dog who would willingly run himself into the ground just to keep up.  Declining to chase balls was one thing but deliberately allowing his best friend to leave his side was never something that Sam would readily countenance.

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Throughout his life, he would divide his time between the houses he considered his: let out for a wee in the morning, spending the daytime at my parents’ (where it was more likely there would be people present between 9am and 4pm) and then sitting outside, looking at the gate in time for the returning school run.  In his younger days, he’d similarly sloped off next door on many evenings and laid out on the rug there, prompting late-night calls in which it was agreed he could have another ‘sleep-over’.  He monitored the gardening by day and the bedtime-book-reading by night.

As he entered his later years, Sam mostly understood his growing physical limitations.  Like many Labs, his shoulders and hips were susceptible to stiffness after overdoing things and, as a result, mealtimes often involved a number of supplements and the occasional dose of Metacam.  As much as it offended his own sense of duty, he generally knew that he had to slow down but for some reason he never allowed himself to extend that thinking when it came to chasing the quad bike – that particular piece of discipline would always remain our responsibility.  Whatever his age and condition, the job of looking out for Charlie at all times remained a non-negotiable constant.

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And so, in the twilight of his years, with the object of his protection now eleven years old and successfully guarded to the point where he’d become ready to explore beyond the childhood horizons of home, Sam’s mission was accomplished, his retirement well and truly earned.  Not that this would change anything; Labradors don’t simply ‘retire’ any more than they can be expected to stop caring.  I don’t expect that Sam ever felt he had completed his assignment but I hope he in some way realised that his role became more honorary than necessary.

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This is the last picture I took of Sam, on his last day, enjoying the sunshine in the field where he had compiled and contributed to so many happy memories.  As tired as he was that day, he was determined to follow us onto the field.  He’d stopped eating but the diuretic he was given was making him thirsty and it seemed appropriate that I secretly captured a moment where Charlie was looking after him after a lifetime of unflinching service.  When the time came to say goodbye, that evening, I looked into his calm eyes and thanked him for his loyalty and dedication.  He slipped away with Helen and me holding him, protecting him from fear, as he had protected us all for over eleven years.

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As in any obituary, it’s important to draw a distinction between the most recent and the most relevant.  In his final chapter, Sam may have become older, feebler, slower and shakier but for most of the book of his life, he was a vital force, a fearless ally and a faithful friend.  He embodied fun and service in equal measure and in fulfilling these two guiding principles, he touched the lives of so many people and prompted so many fulsome tributes at the news of his passing.

I’m so proud to be able to say he was a member of our our family, even if he was, in his heart, always, always Charlie’s dog.

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We loved you, Sam and we’ll always miss you.

An Open Letter to St. Wilfrid’s Primary Academy

To Mr Colothan, Mrs Kneale and all the staff and PTFA at St. Wilfrid’s,

Today was Charlie’s last day with you and I want to thank you all for everything you’ve done for him and the rest of the Class of 2016.

In 2008 (two minutes ago), I remember visiting the school’s open day to determine whether or not it was the school for him.  I went to St. Wilfrid’s between 1977 and 1985 and have many happy memories from my time there.  Being a responsible parent, I was very keen not to be swayed by nostalgia and, even though the smell of the paint in the Nursery that evening instantly whisked me back three decades, I was determined to be critical of anything I thought was not up to the standard I felt entitled to expect.

I needn’t have bothered.  The school was every bit as involving, varied, nurturing and exciting as I wanted it to be.  If I’m honest, it was more so than I remembered it being in my time.  We were shown around by a very impressive Year 6 student (I think his name was Tom).  I noticed he was the house captain of Leigh (which reminded me that I had once held that position) and I remember thinking that if our already bright and confident three year-old could one day turn out to be like Tom, this was the perfect environment for him to try.  The deal was sealed.  He was going to St. Wilfrid’s.

From the very beginning of his education, I knew we’d made the right choice.  I was impressed with the fact the head teacher knew him by name in the first month, by the way the Nursery coaxed the children from being playground-clinging screamers (mentioning no names) into a cohesive unit performing a dance together within months.  I was pleased to see the swimming pool not only retained in these cost-conscious times but also renovated.  I was pleased to see a school that values participation in sport but is not afraid to accept that sport creates winners and losers.

As he progressed from Key Stage 1 to 2, it was clear to me he was continually gaining respect from the school and his peers.  I was particularly happy to see that he was chosen to be in Leigh house – how could you have known?!

By now, it really was clear we’d chosen well.  The after-school clubs, the artistic and musical opportunities, the embracing of technology and incorporation of the internet.  They may all seem ancillary to the actual lessons and learning objectives but they’re all vital components of real life.  Partly because it suited our working hours but in no small part because of their intrinsic benefits, we were always very keen to include Charlie in whatever opportunities we could.

And then, almost a year ago, he was voted as House Captain by his classmates.  As thrilling as that was, selfishly, for me, I was even happier when he was asked to help show prospective parents around at last year’s Open Evening.  It seemed he’d fulfilled the destiny I’d ambitiously held for him.  I often wonder, in moments of unashamed pride if there are parents in next year’s school intake who will remember and be as impressed by him I as I was, by Tom, all those years ago.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story – there were still the SATs to contend with.  As with, I suspect, many parents, there were areas of attainment to work on as the full force of Year 6 took hold.  I saw the look of pressure in his teachers’ faces as we tried to guide him through the tests as best we could and I appreciated the fact that they were also trying their hardest not to let that pressure adversely affect their pupils’ performance.  If only every school could claim that.  I’m so grateful that, with their tireless help, he passed all his SATs  as well as he did and, once again, I have to wonder if that would have been the case at a different school.

Finally, I’ve been proud to see him exhibit the strong sense of responsibility that the school has nurtured.  He’s represented the school at netball, rugby and cricket, musically, dramatically, as part of the Camera Club and at the PGL adventure centre and he’s done it all with great maturity.  Perhaps I should have been more pleasantly surprised to see him win your Leadership Award at today’s Leavers’ Assembly but I should rather immodestly confess I didn’t find it that surprising at all.

People have told me he’s a credit to Helen and me but I hope you would agree that he’s just as much a credit to his school.  I can’t thank you enough for making it possible for me to write that sentence.

Keep doing what you do.  The world needs far more Toms and Charlies.

Paul and Helen Bentham

CJB Leadership Award

 

The Greatest Legacy?

Since Muhammad Ali’s death was announced yesterday, there’s been a flurry soundbites, platitudes and #RIPMuhammadAli hashtags floating about on social media – and I confess, I’m responsible for a number of them.  What can this blogpost possibly add to such a weight of collective emotion?

Well, this, I hope:  It’s an understandable reaction to the loss of an icon of our times but it strikes me that it’s easy for most people to make the mistake of mourning the legend rather than man behind it.  Only when you examine the context of Ali’s achievements do you understand how his sobriquet “The Greatest” was so deserved – and what we have really lost.

More than half of the world’s population would, like me, have to admit that Ali the fighter was before their time, his story having been built into a fable by the media and the generations who watched it unfold before them.  From our perspective, the narrative is that Cassius Clay simply took on the mantle of historical figure, as though it was pre-determined.  His own famous assertion of greatness at the age of 22 and his subsequent re-branding as Muhammad Ali only seeks to reinforce the scripture-like depiction.

Yes, if you know a little about the racial segregation of the Southern States in the 1960s, you’ll be aware of the infamous disopsal of his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river.  That should add some context but paradoxically, it seems to act merely as another parable in the book of Muhammad.  How must the reality of that felt, the institutional rejection of a man by the country he’d been proud to represent on that Tokyo podium?  Imagine the sense of injustice that would arise from the juxtaposition of national achievement and the racial division espoused by that same nation.

It would have required a fighter’s courage to uphold his anti-patriotism  in the face of pressure to support the war in Vietnam.  There really are only two fundamentals in life: deciding what’s right and wrong and deciding whether or not to stand up for your beliefs.  With his well-tested views of justice as his compass, he made a choice and he backed his choice.  Despite the resentment it caused in an America unwilling to accept the consequences of its tolerance of segregation, Ali stood firm, risking his livelihood and his liberty.  Being right and true was more important to him than being popular or even understood by mainstream opinion.  Humanity and single-mindedness are both admirable qualities but they are invariable mutually exclusive; one usually being shown at the expense of the other.  In making his lone stance, Ali exhibited both for all to see.

Received wisdom did eventually catch up with his views, decades later, when Ali had soaked up all of the punches that contemporary conventional opinion had to offer.  It makes you wonder who the next public figure will be to show such leadership of thought and act against an orthodoxy in a changing world.  Does such a person exist today?  Will one ever exist again?  It’s hard to say – although it’s easier to imagine that humanity will need someone like Ali again at some point – some might say the sooner the better.

Another context shift is the state of boxing itself.  Today, we expect the whole package of trash-talking, pay-per-view, the ever-present disappointment at the bloatedness of the various authorities and the cynical challenger-dodging of too many a title-holder.  I’m not claiming Ali exhibited a purely Queensberry ethos but without his part in boxing’s history, would it ever have become the spectacle that spawned the kind of Rocky exhibitionism that we later came to take for granted?  The fact that today, we’ve seen it all before (and better) remains one of boxing’s biggest challenges – aside from all its politics, posturing and pomposity – and it’s why the sport is now such a shadow of its former self, and so vulnerable to being usurped by WWE, UFC and other combat sports.

You may stake a claim for the days of Marciano and Dempsey – even Tyson but you’s struggle to deny that the early to mid-seventies was heavyweight boxing’s golden age.  There is simply nothing like the same cocktail of raw talent, matches and rematches and free-to-air coverage in boxing today.  In fact, it’s difficult to refute the suggestion that the day Sylvester Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa, the decline of the sport he honoured had already begun.

When we say that we won’t see another of Ali’s like, in or out of the ring, are we effectively condemning boxing,  and maybe even humanity to a future incapable of matching the achievements of the past?

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The iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing over the defeated Sonny Liston

Amazing Amelia’s Amazing Daddy

You may or may not know that I have a wonderful god-daughter called Amelia.

Amelia is seven and has a rare combination of learning difficulties and spectrum conditions which mean that she doesn’t speak and has a mental age well below her actual age.  You may think this defines her but it doesn’t.  She loves swimming, animals, dancing, watching films and running around – like any seven year-old.  She distrusts anything that’s not part of her routine but she learns and gets used to dealing with new things as well.

It’s well known that kids are likely tell things to you straight because they lack the social awareness to ‘dress up’ an unflattering observation and you can multiply that effect by about ten to get Amelia’s view of life.  There is absolutely no artifice with Amelia because in her world, there is only what matters to her and what doesn’t.  Why is that worthy of mention?  Because when you get an unprompted hug from Amelia, it’s the only thing in the world she wants to do at that time and it’s an amazing feeling.

Obviously, Amelia’s schooling is outside of the mainstream system.  She attends the Astley Park School in Chorley and they do wonderful work to allow her to overcome her disabilities as best she can.  As you can imagine, the school’s resources are stretched and there’s invariably a situation where more can be achieved if only it could be funded.

To help the school and to give Amelia the best education she can get, her dad (Warren) has taken on a variety of sponsored endurance challenges.  Last year, he did the Greater Manchester Marathon, the Brathay Windermere Marathon and the Great North Swim (in Lake Windermere) and raised thousands of pounds along the way.

This year, he decided to push himself further, doing a ‘Back2Back’ variant of the same three events.  This meant doing the ‘Born Survivor’ challenge at Lowther Castle the day before completing the Greater Manchester Marathon in 4:45, running the course of the Brathay Windermere Marathon the day before the event – and then doing the marathon proper the next day.

Finally, it’s back up to Cumbria on June 10th to do two swims (on Friday and Saturday) at this year’s Great North Swim.  Characteristically, his first swim is a 5km event, further than he’s ever swum before – even in training.  On Saturday, he’ll be doing the relatively straightforward (!) mile swim with our mate Aaron – who’ll be making his competitive outdoor swimming debut.  Aaron will also be raising money for Amelia’s school and ongoing care.

If any of this has impressed you (and it’s tired me out just typing all of this), I implore you to visit the links below and add your support – any amount, no matter how big or small will help make a difference (wow – how difficult is it to ask for money without sounding like you’re on Comic Relief?!)

Warren’s justgiving page can be found here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/amelias-daddy

And Aaron’s is here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Aaron-Finney

Of course, no-one expects you to sponsor both of them (although we did for reasons I’m still struggling to understand).  Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter which you support as it all gets pooled together at the end but if you pressed me, I’d suggest you sponsor Aaron – he’s about 500 quid behind Warren and we can’t have him feeling too inferior when he’s about to swim a mile in lake water for a mate’s daughter’s school, can we?  Also, there’s a small chance that Warren might get a bit big-headed about all this if it all just goes to his page…

Anyway, I digress.  “You can pledge your support at any time but do support” etc. etc.  In case I haven’t tugged hard enough at your emotions, here’s a picture of Amelia and her Daddy after last year’s swim.  I’m sure she’d thank you with a hug, if she knew how you were helping her and, trust me, you’d feel that was recognition beyond any price.  If not, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with all our heartfelt (and socially correct) thanks.

Thanks for reading and make sure you follow the links!!

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Marley the Diabetic Dog

Earlier this year, we weren’t happy with Marley‘s health.  He was becoming less active, drinking more water than before and just looked less happy with life.  He’s always been a ridiculously active dog and, with his 9th birthday not far off, we knew he’d have to slow down at some time but this…  …this seemed like something more than that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting the vet to say but way down the list of possibilities was that he had developed canine diabetes.  Instantly, this meant that we had to become conversant with all sorts of unfamiliar terms and processes – and it meant twice daily insulin injections for the rest of his life.

Of course, there could have been far worse outcomes and in the scheme of things, diabetes isn’t particularly life-changing – but it did act as a reminder of the famous Lennon quote about life being what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

As anyone would do, we found that it wasn’t a huge undertaking to reschedule his meals, manage his insulin and syringe stocks, train enough people to inject to provide cover for days when we’re away and make time for all of the ongoing veterinary appointments.  It just seemed like an insurmountable task at the start.

As I type, his glucose curve is under control at 23 units, twice daily – although the nadir is a couple of hours later than we’d like it – and his fructosamine readings are still a bit high.  If this is incomprehensible to you, bear in mind that it was to me too only a few weeks ago.  Basically, he’s doing fine and we’re managing it well – so far.

I should end by saying thank you to George at Gilmore’s Veterinary Surgery in Standish for his successful diagnosis and patience with me while explaining every step of the process post-diagnosis.  Thanks also to everyone who has (despite, I’m sure, every urge to say they can’t do it) stepped out of their comfort zone and deliberately stabbed a sharp piece of metal into a living animal.  You have all helped us to make his ongoing care as easy for us as possible.

Finally, thanks should go to Marley himself.  He’s always been the softest-natured dog you could ever meet and I was worried that the treatment might begin to harden his responses.  He’s never growled once and has barely shown any signs of his discomfort.  He’s still a happy dog and for as long as that remains the case, we’ll do what we have to do to prolong his happiness.

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Sorry lad, you’re on a strict diet these days…

What a Great Christmas – Let’s do it Again!

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Well, the decorations are down and the spare bed is about to be folded away for the last time in this Christmas and New Year break. The house has been full of fun and laughter more times than I can remember over the last two weeks or so and it’s been wonderful to see. If you’ve been one of the guests we’ve welcomed, thank you for your gifts and your company – and thanks also to all those who’ve hosted us or who we’ve seen over the same period. I won’t add a list of names – you know who you all are

Have a great 2015 and let’s look forward to doing it all again next Christmas & New Year!

It’s High Time I Blogged Direct From Word to WordPress!

Yes, it’s high time that I was able to blog directly from MS Word straight into WordPress.

I need to separate the title from the body, images to be transferred – all with the correct wrap settings and, of course, all hyperlinks and formatting changes to be transferred faithfully. I’d like all of this done automatically.

Is this going to be too much to ask? Let’s see…

And another thing…

England Should Expect Less and Understand More

There’s a lot of crap written and spoken about football, and more particularly the England team whenever a major tournament comes around so with the assurance that there is safety in numbers, it’s probably the safest time to venture my own opinions on the matter.

The problem, I believe, is that for a few weeks every two years (England’s qualification permitting, of course), the game is taken from the realms of the ‘proper’, habitual fan who has spent years watching the game, following the players, the teams and the tactics and building up their understanding.  Instantly, the game becomes thrust into the wider public domain.  On the plus side, we get more air-time of football-related programmes and all the visible accoutrements of a national mood being captured; flags of St. George flown from pubs, houses, white vans and other, less likely places. Of course, to some, sniffier parts of society, the proliferation of England-themed indicia is not seen as a good thing but there’s no reason to treat this view as anything other than naked, self-aggrindising snobbery, so that’s precisely how I’ll describe it.  Such overt displays of national support are by definition a positive act and whether it’s to your taste or not, we should be glad that so many people have something to be positive about at the moment.

The more objectionable side-effect is that it encourages those who would never normally venture a footballing opinion to begin to pontificate ad nauseum about the relative merits of a traditional 4-4-2 versus the deep-lying striker in the ‘hole’.  It’s all well and good for such fair-weather football ‘fans’ to be caught up in the national mood and I applaud that in general.  What I find irksome is that the same people who, for the rest of the tournament cycle, look rather pityingly at any fan who ‘admits’ to having watched an obscure game, or one at an unearthly hour, presume to have the same credibility in their observations.  Yes, that’s right, I did enjoy watching Manchester United Reserves playing Blackburn Reserves the other night and I will be up at 7am on Sunday to watch Barcelona playing  Flamengo in the FIFA World Club Championship, live from Japan.  If you ‘come out’ with such comments throughout the year (actually, the FIFA WCC is every December, if you know what you’re talking about), you invite a cheap shot from anyone who’s more motivated by the ‘mood of the room’ than the love of the game: “Bless you, you poor little sad-act”.  You become an easy source of comedy, which is fine, I suppose, as long as everyone remembers where they stand.

You see, when a tournament begins and suddenly, the airwaves fill with talk of England’s chances and with commentaries about their effect on the country at large, things begin to change.  The mood of the nation and with it, the ‘mood of the room’ (indeed most rooms in the country) now begins to embrace the beautiful game.  Those who play to the zeitgeist are now liable to forget their previous antipathy to football fan-dom and find themselves forced to join in.  This is not fine as it means that their half-cooked views are expressed unselfconsciously for all to hear without any disclaimer like: “…but then I did miss the Champions’ League Final because I was at a dinner party”.  I’m perfectly happy with the fact that not everyone wants to be as much of a football purist as I am (some of my best friends are not, as the justification goes) but I do take issue with being asked to take quite so seriously the considered views of those who are not.

If you don’t know who plays at St. James’ Park, I’m afraid it’s you I’m describing.  If you know it’s Newcastle United, while I applaud you for your effort and also for resisting the pernicious claims that it is now allegedly known as ‘The Sports Direct Arena’, I’m still talking about you.  If you know it’s both Newcastle and Exeter, you’re in the clear.

This isn’t just a tirade against footballing johnny-come-lately acquaintances.  The media can be just as bad with a sudden proliferation of ill-informed, pointless comments about Wayne Rooney’s hair or endless column inches about the daily antics of the WaGs.  In fact the very construct of the WaG emanated from the biennial silliness that surrounds football tournaments.  The media obsession with the England players’ wives and girlfriends at the 2006 World Cup in Germany was precipitated by Sven-Goran Erikkson’s lenient regime which tolerated their presence and by the the celebrity-hungry tabloid press who realised that this was the ‘fresh angle’ that they spend their waking lives searching for.  To the football purist curmudgeon, which I freely admit I am, this cycle of asinine media comment leading to asinine people’s comments is almost a perfect storm.

And finally, the most depressing symptom of tournament-itis and one that really shouldn’t be expected to happen is the change in the footballing press.  Even in these supposedly informed, experienced circles, it seems that viewpoints can change when the setting is changed from ‘normal’ to ‘tournament’.  Every detail of England matches is examined with an intensity that borders on the maniacal and a level of pessimism that borders on the paranoid.  Conclusions are drawn that I honestly do not believe would have been throughout the domestic season, indeed that appear to be the opposite.  For example, in the world of rational footballing comment, if Arsenal are drawn to play Dynamo Kiev away, much emphasis would be placed upon the importance of Arsenal ‘keeping it tight for the first twenty minutes’, largely, I’d say, based on the assumption that unless they ‘give themselves a mountain to climb’, they ‘have enough quality going forward to nick one’ and thus ‘get the result’.  I know we’re in a territory full of cliché here, but if you overlook the potential for parody, the face-value of these maxims illustrates perfectly the thinking behind the commentary.

In the case of England playing Ukraine in Donetsk last night, the use of the standard ‘first twenty minutes’ football truism was notably absent.  Why?  Are England expected to be impervious to the same pressures that are so often applied to all of our top club teams?  Should they be so busy steamrollering their opponents that they must decline to give a second’s thought to defensive effort?  Or is it because for some reason, there isn’t quite the same assurance that the goal will come and that when it does, it must be the winner not the equaliser?

The same is true of ball possession.  On the one hand, we’re invited to eulogise about Barcelona’s and Spain’s ability to hold the ball for 60% or even 70% of the game but on the other, when England hold the ball, they’re accused of being ‘directionless’ and ‘lacking a cutting edge’.  Yes, possession stats aren’t in themselves worth any goals but if we want England to be capable of controlling a game, it can’t all be from the traditional route of hoofing it forward to the big striker and ‘playing the percentages’, can it?  It strikes me that when reporters cover England they do so with greater levels of expectation and yet with lower levels of faith.  If that’s not a perfect recipe for disappointment and therefore negativity, I don’t know what is.

All I’m saying is that if reporters merely translated their usually level-headed, rational analysis of a game from our club matches to the England team, we’d probably all have a more satisfying experience whenever tournaments come around.  And if anyone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about could acknowledge that when they comment, that would also be great.

N-N-N-Nineteen

“All those who remember the war; They don’t forget what they’ve seen”

Okay, perhaps a little inappropriate to segue from Vietnam veterans’ PTSD to football, but then I am quoting a pop song, hardly the most solemn of matter.

My point being that I spent almost the whole of the 1980’s (from the point I discovered football and intuitively became a fan of Manchester United) in the unenviable position of sustained, demonstrable inferiority in the eyes of Liverpool fans.

For this reason, I make no apology for being thrilled this weekend to congratulate the team and the manager for breaking Liverpool’s record of ‘League Title’ victories. That is all.

Did I mention I got a waterproof camera?

Just looking back at my photostream on FB, it did tend to crop up a lot, like a catchphrase on ‘The Fast Show’. You know what? I don’t care. It’s worth the potential ridicule to get pictures like this:

cjb retrieving stuff underwater

Charlie picking stuff up off the bottom of the pool

PJB swimming under

Me swimming underneath Max

CJB twisting underwater

Charlie emulating Shamu

CJB nightswimming surfacing

Charlie resurfacing during a night-time swim

rays in the pool Sea World

In the Sting-Ray Encounter pool at Sea World

For the record, the camera in question is a FujiFilm Finepix XP10.  If you’re tempted, here’s the Amazon listing for it.

Welcome to my blog: The Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name…

In addition to extending you a frankly lame welcome to yet another blog space, I’m really putting up some trial content to help me format the page.  Sneaky, eh?

You are of course very welcome, though.  Just to clear up any confusion.  Oh yes.  100%.

I’ll, er, get me coat then…