Sunday, 10 November 2013

A voyage into the unknown..

I recently spent a lovely afternoon in a local independent cinema, in the company of Professor Stephen Hawking.  Him on screen and me in the audience. He is an intellectual giant and has been partly responsible for bringing the universe ever closer to lay people like me.  His book, A Brief History of Time, has sold a staggering 10 million copies.  On watching his autobiographical documentary, something struck me.  We were all too often reminded of the limitations of Professor Hawking's body, but never his mind or his spirit. Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at 21 and told he would likely live only a few more years, he went on to achieve true greatness in his field and still goes to work every day.  At 71, he enjoys nothing more than supervising the next generation of cosmologists, who carry on his work, hoping to find the answers to some of our biggest questions.  But what are the questions?
India's recent entry into the space programme is interesting.  There are convincing arguments for science and progress but I wonder how we feel about a country who receive international aid and spend money on space travel, when a huge percentage of their population have neither electricity nor a private toilet.  But wouldn't a country, poverty stricken or not, be doomed if it couldn't aspire to be part of humankind's journey of exploration?
Hawking has obviously tapped in to something - our fascination with space. Is it space we want to explore, or is space a means to an end? 
As we reach ever further into the cosmos, to boldy go where no-one else has been, I wonder what is at the heart of our search? Even Professor Hawking, revered by millions and never short of adoring fans hanging on his every word, admits to being lonely. 
And then I happened upon this wonderful story.  The story of the Voyager space project and the Golden Record.  I believe our search - individually and as a highly evolved people - is to connect with fellow travellers.  Nothing more and nothing less.



Sunday, 8 September 2013

From John Curry to Lou Reed - happy International Cassette Store Day.

The very first International Cassette Store Day has just been celebrated in Europe and the USA.  Some might see it as a cunning way to sell more music. And they'd probably be right.  But, for me, it's been a chance to reflect on how cassettes made a significant impact on my life and my happiness.  

My 10 year old self was in love with John Curry.  Curry was a figure skater. Not just any figure skater but arguably the finest that the United Kingdom has ever produced.  He was desperate to be a dancer but this was frowned upon by his father.  He took up figure skating instead.  Using choreography from his beloved dancing, he turned the ice skating world on its head with a new grace and beauty that, added to the usual athleticism, was quite breathtaking to behold. He won gold at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics, with a routine that was as popular and memorable, at the time, as Torville and Dean's Bolero.  I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch his gold medal winning performance and being mesmerised.  

Of course, now we would record the performance on our digital TV service and be able to rewind, watch in slow motion or see the performance when and how we chose.  Back then, the technology for recording moving pictures didn't even exist.  Well, not commercially anyway.  So I had to make do with just the music, recorded off the telly onto cassette, with my family sitting in complete silence in case they spoiled the one chance I had. 
It's great that technology probably means we don't have to work so hard to experience things over and over.  But I think we may have lost something very special in the process.  Without pictures to accompany my music, I had to commit John Curry's faultless, graceful routine to memory.  I used to listen in bed, every night, the music conjuring up every last medal winning twist and turn.  Our children are unlikely to have that experience but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.  It still makes me smile and makes me feel 10 again.

Here he is, in all his majestic glory.           

Fast forward 9 years and the boy I'm dating presents me with a mix tape.  As you do when you're trying to connect with someone.  And to impress them, I guess.  It was a compilation of his favourite songs from his musical hero, Lou Reed.  He'd titled the A side - "the rough getting smooth" and the B side - "the smooth getting smoother" with the track listing, squeezed, in his best handwriting, on the inner sleeve.  

It worked. I married him.  

Here's the exceptionally smooth Lou Reed, from side B of my mixtape.  

Happy International Cassette Store Day.  If, like me, you're old enough to remember the part they played in your life, I hope you too smile at the memories. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

It's not just cricket

6 years ago I moved into a flat that overlooked the local cricket club.  Having always been a sports fan, I watched with interest from my window, hoping to see some interesting games of cricket.  It turned out to be much more than that.  

I love how a view can come to represent one's take on the world.  I've found it a way to feel grounded, balanced and to belong, I think. I now look forward to opening my blinds in the morning and watching the seasons unfold on the beautiful and lovingly maintained green.  The groundsman is so happy at work he has often started by 07.30 in the morning.  It seems an honest and rewarding job and I'm sure it's as wonderful to do as it is to watch.  Word is, our ground is one of the best in the league and I like that his hard work doesn't go unnoticed.

It's easy to see why I fell in love with this view.  Let me explain why I fell in love with the club. 

Ofcourse, all sports clubs worth their salt will do what they can to encourage young participation. I'm sure this happens the length and breadth of the country, but every Wednesday night during the season, some 50 or so kids are introduced to the wonder of cricket, team sports, giving of their best and having fun.

You would think that waiting your turn to bat or bowl would be a drag but these kids jump up and down, do cartwheels and shriek with excitement  as they wait in line.  I work with children and I'm a parent so I recognise what's happening when these keen as mustard kids place themselves in the care of the club's players and coaches - pure unbridled happiness.

And that's before I've even watched any serious cricket.  The other week I invited chums to watch the first XI, whilst picnicking and enjoying the sun. Forgive the pun, but they were bowled over.  "I wish I'd know about this years ago" was the unified reply when I asked if they had enjoyed their day.

Gosh, aren't the Ashes and test cricket exciting, but there is much to recommend local cricket.  Indeed, there is much to recommend local sport of any kind.  Just the other night, I looked out of my window to see 50 or so kids throwing and catching with glee, two old athletes jogging around the perimeter, someone walking their dog, the first XI practising at the nets and a local band making their way to the clubhouse for a rehearsal.  It's not just about the cricket. I believe this club is the beating heart of my community and I feel extremely lucky to be part of it.  

If you're lucky enough to have a club like this on your doorstep - cricket or not - take my advice.  Nurture it, support it, spend your money on it.  I promise it will make you and your community very happy indeed. 

I have come to love cricket.  Simple and yet complicated, beautiful, graceful and full of tradition.  Just what a sport should be.

Cricket even has it's own band, whose complete repertoire is devoted to the love of the beautiful game.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Make it about something

Thanks to Twitter, I became aware of a movie that was creating a buzz on social media and in the news.  The documentary is called I Am Breathing and is the story of a 34 year old man and his immediate family as they come to terms with his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease.

All I knew about Motor Neurone Disease (MND) was that it was fatal, incurable and was the cruellest of conditions, rendering the sufferer unable to move, swallow, breathe and ultimately sustain life.  All the while being of sound mind.  It's the one that tops the list of conditions people in the medical profession would least like to have.

I wondered why this man chose to share his painful story with anyone outside of those closest to him. And I must admit the chance to get inside his head, coupled with my morbid curiosity, carried me along to the afternoon screening on its opening weekend.  

It's taken me a few weeks to make sense of what I think and how I feel about this incredible man.   

As the story unfolded, in the true, gritty and at times uncomfortable style of a good documentary, I was far less interested in the, what felt like,  voyeuristic aspect of watching someone live with MND and completely fascinated by Neil as a person. 

Neil Platt was an architect - an artist - someone who was defined, in large part, by what he created.   Neil was also, latterly,  a blogger.  As with many artists I know, my guess is Neil was driven to create.  
I think I am coming to understand this about artists.  The need to create, to give of themselves. 

I believe Neil's blog became the only way he was able to leave something of himself behind.   The only way he could share himself with others.   And this final and most brave sharing is how we came to know him. 

He said, on camera, that the freedom to communicate has to be the strongest and most powerful freedom.  To this end, he had an advanced medical directive which stated that his ventilator should be switched off when he could no longer swallow or speak.  This stopped me and I'm sure, the whole theatre, in our tracks. 

Is this why any of us blogs, to exercise this most powerful freedom?  I love how it allows those of us who share that drive with Neil, to give of ourselves, to have the platform - for the most part, freely - to leave something of ourselves behind. 

And this is my reflection on Neil Platt.  He showed incredible dignity in his fight with MND and  incredible courage to allow the world to see him, as he thought, at his worst.  And I'm sure he was so much more.

As he faced his own passing, he started to write a letter to his toddler son, Oscar, to give him a sense of who he was.    

If you watch I Am Breathing or read his blog, I believe you will see Neil Platt, not at his worst, but at his best.  And when his son Oscar reads his dad's blog and the unfinished letter and watches the documentary, I'm sure he will know exactly who his dad was.  

Even just for your next post, take inspiration from Neil Platt, the bravest of bloggers who shared the piece of work he knew would be his last and make it about something. 

Make it about you.

You can read his blog here:

I went to see the Who live in concert recently.  More on that next time.  For now, this seems appropriate.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

I think, it's art.

I visited Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art recently, to see an installation by world renowned American music artist, Bill Fontana.  He had placed cameras and sensitive microphones on the iconic Finnieston crane, which would then be beamed back to the Gallery, allowing us to "listen to Glasgow".  What a fascinating idea, I thought, as I excitedly contemplated my experience.  When I arrived to an empty foyer, where I knew the exhibit was installed, I was hugely disappointed to be told it had finished the day before. 
Even though my heart wasn't really in it, I decided to take a walk around the gallery anyway.  I'm so glad I did as I happened upon a video installation by two Swiss artists, Peter Fischli & David Weiss.  Described by the New York Times as a "masterpiece", the installation is a 30 minute film of a series of chain reactions, filmed over 3 days in their Zurich studio.  I found it mesmerising - you can see it for yourself here. 
It made me wonder, as I often do - what is art?  Who has the final say in whether something is art or not?  It's a subject I have discussed at length with people whose opinions I respect and value. And yet, we mostly never agree.  Tracey Emin is a perfect example.  I don't know anyone else who likes her work, but at times I find I really connect with what she produces.  For me, I believe it's how something makes you think and feel when you experience it that makes it art.  I realise that isn't a definition, but it's all I've got and I believe it gets to the heart of the matter.
I think art is something that enables us to celebrate being human.  Artists represent how they think about things and in doing so, they give us the opportunity to do the same.  I believe it's as simple as that.  I don't believe analysis and/or enjoyment of art requires huge intelligence; a window into the artist's soul or a knowledge of art per se.  I believe it merely requires us to experience and connect.  And anyone can do that.   For me, it's a wonderful platform that can help us to make sense of the world.  For artists, I'm sure it's an exciting, difficult and equally wonderful process of engaging with the outside world, mixing it all up in their heads and producing their version.  Sometimes for others to experience.
I have huge admiration for artists but what I admire most is their willingness to share their view of the world.  It's one thing to think differently, but it's quite another to have the guts to share that sometimes unpopular view with the rest of us.  Whether it's for money, gratification, or to fulfill some other need, I think it takes courage to court criticism. 

I believe, whether I like a particular piece of artistic endeavour or not is less important than my admiration for the brave artists who continue to inspire people like me and make me think about things differently.  Thank you Tracey Emin, Bill Fontana and every last one of you.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Within touching distance...

I was at a party last night and spoke with someone who will soon be on the silver screen, appearing in a movie with Brad Pitt.  The real Brad Pitt!  Gosh, was I excited.  I'm delighted to report that he is as nice a guy as he appears to be, a fine actor in the raw and just as beautiful as he looks on screen.  We'll soon be able to see the movie for ourselves.

Ofcourse I spent some time last night and this morning reflecting on what it must be like to speak to someone so impressive.  And then I realised - I have.  
The party was being thrown for a family member who is about to move hundreds of miles away to set up home with a man whom she has slowly but surely fallen in love with over the last three years.  He is older, has two children of his own and travels the country with work.  I've always found her a quiet, mature, independent young woman who smiled as she told me last night -  I can't wait to start my new life.  But, if it doesn't work, I'll come back and start again.  I knew, as I've always known - She will be just fine.  How I admire her sense of self and her willingness to take the giant leap of faith to grab her happiness.
Whilst watching BBC Breakfast yesterday morning, another young woman stopped me in my tracks.  With just £6 in her purse and a toddler on her arm, she made her way to her local supermarket, knowing she would have to do her most creative shop yet if she were to feed them both for a week.  The rest is history.  Now a journalist on her local newspaper, I'm pretty sure this incredible young woman, Jack Monroe,  is about to become very famous indeed.  Her blog is an interesting read. 

I've been a young, struggling, single parent.  It wasn't easy.  But it wasn't the end.   Just like Jack - for me, it was the beginning.  
Life is full of inspirational, courageous, people.  I find taking the time to listen to them has a wonderful effect.  If just some of that rubs off on me,  my life will be much richer for it.
But this one's for Brad... 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Would one like to swap places?

I've lived like royalty this week.  I spent two days at a destination spa hotel in Peebles, which was a functioning castle in its former life.  Sleeping in a sumptuous bed; being waited on hand and foot; having beautiful meals served to me by charming, attentive staff and lounging beside an infinity pool with a spectacular view of the magnificent Peebles countryside - it made me wonder what it must be like to live as one of the truly privileged.  This life is something I could get used to.  Or could I?
It's the Queen's birthday today.  Her actual birthday.  She is 87 years old.  As I watched her and Prince Philip arrive at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher earlier this week, a thought came to my mind.  Just how privileged does our Queen feel on a daily basis?  I wonder how often in her 60 year reign she's not gone into work because she had a terrible headache.  How often has she been able to take her children for a pizza and a movie on the spur of the moment?  How often has she had to entertain people she finds really rather disagreeable?
Infact, the Telegraph reports today that, since 1984, the Queen has performed some 15000 official engagements.

One of my favourite movies, the Prince and the Pauper, tells the story of a poor boy swapping places with the Prince by mistake and what happens to them both as a result.  Oliver Reed is swashbuckling as ever, Raquel Welch is heartstoppingly beautiful and the evil brother is beyond wicked.  But, as with many of my favourite movies, what I find myself reflecting on the most, is the moral of the story.  I won't give it away - it's a magnificent tale that I would highly recommend.

I wonder if the Queen would envy my life more than I envy hers.  I value my freedom - freedom that is, to do pretty much what I want, with whom I want, when I want.   That is something I value very much.  I enjoyed sampling a life of privilege and I would swap places with the Queen.  But only for a few days.  Happy birthday your majesty and thank you for doing such a wonderful job.
StoboCastle outof10? - 9.25
The Prince and the Pauper outof10? - 8.7
The Queen outof10? - 10..

As always, a great piece of music with a tenuous link....

Sunday, 14 April 2013

A View From....

I think I have a bit of a reputation as a fencesitter.  And I am rather happy with this as an assessment of where I and my head are at, on many important matters.  
I know I'm at least a week too late to say anything that hasn't already been said about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but I am alright with that too. 
I was born in the 60s and grew up on a council estate, with an older brother and a working mum and dad.  I guess we represented a typical working class family.  Apart from knowing, but not understanding, my dad's support of the unions, I had no clue about how our country was organised and governed.  My political consciousness wasn't formed until I saw, heard and felt the vitriol with which Margaret Thatcher's rise to power was played out amongst my teenage peers and others around me.
Carried along with the widely accepted view, I too hated Margaret Thatcher and everything she and the Tories stood for.  Yes, everything. 
Now that I am older, there is something I am absolutely clear on.  There are always two sides to every story.  I believe it's pretty much impossible for one ideaology or viewpoint to be completely right and another completely wrong.  Since having the confidence to climb onto the fence, I believe I've become more tolerant, more accepting and more open to the views of others.  Opening my eyes, my ears, my heart and my brain to the possibility that there is merit in much that I dismissed in my youth, has been one of the best things I have ever done.  I now have more questions than answers, but I find questioning what I instinctively believed as a result of my upbringing to be liberating. 

I admire some of what makes people believe passionately in one cause over another.  But what if some of what the other side is saying is actually quite sensible? 
I knew there was a reason I felt nothing but sadness at the passing of an elderly, frail woman who had stood for what she believed in and defended her beliefs admirably - whether I agreed with her or not. 
To quote the wonderful Louis from Admiral Fallow - "the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised."
I'm glad I'm a fencesitter - you can see everything from up here.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

When I grow up............

Last night I saw the Sensational David Bowie Tribute Band live.  They fulfilled their brief to the letter.  What the frontman lacked in Bowie looks, he more than made up for when he started singing.  With just enough humour to poke fun at himself in costume,  he paid charming tribute to the evening's collective hero whilst nailing every single song.   With my eyes closed, I could swear I was listening to Aladdin Sane himself and from the reaction of the four hundred strong crowd, I think they felt the same.
Afterwards in the bar, "Bowie" emerged, dressed as himself. He looked much more impressive and had a real star presence.  I wanted to ask him "Did you want to be David Bowie when you grew up?" but I didn't want to interrupt him engaging with his fans.
Earlier on in the day I'd chatted to a guy in the gym I'd never met before.  He couldn't wait to tell me he'd lost three stones in three months and share his simple strategy.  Eat less, drink less alcohol and exercise more.  He couldn't keep the smile off his face.  And rightly so.  Perhaps his happiness had something to do with him becoming closer to who he wanted to be. 
I've heard this often and I wonder if it's even true but I choose to believe it happened...
A primary teacher tasks her seven year old pupils with writing on their paper - When I grow up I want to be............  She asks them to complete the sentence and draw a picture too.  On walking round the class to see the children's work, she stops at Johnny's desk.  His sentence says - When I grow up I want to be happy - and he has drawn a picture of a man with a huge smile on his face.    The teacher says "Johnny, I don't think you understood the question."  Johnny replied "Miss, I don't think you understood the answer."
I've had a great week at work; I saw David Bowie live; the sun shone all weekend; the horse I picked in the Grand National led valiantly from the first to the fourth last fence and my football team won 5-1.
The emergence of Spring and the sun in the sky often makes me reflect on my life. I'm pretty sure I'm pretty close to who I wanted to be when I grew up.  I hope you are too. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Our beautiful game...?

I love sport.  It makes me happy.  Watching it, participating in it and reading about it.  Living in the West of Scotland, ofcourse its all about football.  Much is written about this beautiful game.  Much of it factual, much of it partisan and some of it heartfelt.  I'd like to add my recent observations.

I live in a rather large Scottish town, whose local football team has seen the usual highs and lows you would come to expect from over a hundred years plying their trade. They've almost made the top flight once or twice. They've also lanquished in the lower reaches of the league but, interestingly, they've always enjoyed a larger than average support - of which they are fiercely proud. As a life long emotional supporter but a fairweather actual supporter, I've dipped in and out of attending home games and have even been known to travel on occasion.   
I've been lucky enough to attend some football at the highest level - a Champions League final at Hampden, where I witnessed the beauty and majesty of Los Galacticos, and, what's widely cited as one of the greatest goals ever scored; a European match at Celtic Park - wined and dined and sitting in the posh seats; a Scotland v England match, where I saw actual David Beckham and a derby at St James' Park in Newcastle.   Whilst I can't deny they were experiences I will remember forever, there is something about watching my local team that beats this, hands down.
Sitting in the stand (as I do), just behind the dugout, hearing the manager directing the flow of play, watching the subs warming up (and trying to guess who's coming on, before it's announced) makes the game as exciting as almost anything.  For me, this is where football really comes to life.  What's happening on the pitch is inextricably linked to what's happening off the pitch.  The dugout behaviour, the mood of the fans - the 12th man, as they are rightly called and the cut and thrust of the two battling teams, all merge into a rollercoaster ride of emotion that I don't think you can experience as well in a huge stadium.  Ofcourse, the sheer noise of tens of thousands of fans chanting in unison, the level of football on display and the pomp and circumstance of a big match is impressive and can be breathtaking - but give me an up close and personal experience any day of the week.
My most recent visit to my home ground filled me with a bevy of emotion, some unexpected.  I took my seat amongst the diehard fans, mainly season ticket holders and was enjoying the banter, the spectacle and the usual noises and smells of matchday.  The nod I give to the 3 old gents who sit just in front of me, who now bring their grandsons; the 50/50 draw ticket;  reading the team sheet; glancing around, seeing the same faces and basking in the comfortable glow that familiarity and a common purpose gives.  This feeling of being part of something - a collective - is something that I really like.  It's replicated in many areas of our lives but, being a sports participant and enthusiast all my life,  this is one of my favourites.
I'd no sooner settled in for the 90 minutes when the visiting team scored.  After only 9 minutes.  The small but noisy away support erupted, as expected.  What I wasn't expecting was the loud cheering in my ear from 3 away supporters who were sitting  right beside me.  I was speechless.  Looking not in the slightest unusual, wrapped up with hats on, I hadn't even noticed their allegiance as I said hello to them on my arrival.   I know that people are entitled to support who they please and sit where they please but I thought there was some kind of protocol - an unwritten rule - that if you were amongst the opposing support and your team score, you sit on your hands.   Our familiar, happy, collective had been invaded and we were aghast.  I would consider myself balanced, grounded, realistic and fair but this just felt wrong.  The end result was a convincing win for my team.  I will confess I felt like leading a chant of the familiar "you're not singing any more" when we went 2 up...  15 years ago, I suspect it may have ended in violence.
To the drama on the pitch.   There was a player in the opposing team who for me, stood out from the off.  His demeanour and attitude looked menacing.  He was a decent enough player but I was drawn to his behaviour around the ball, as much as on it.  Following a relatively innocuous tackle and a word from the referee, this young player launched into a foul mouthed and aggressive attack on the official that left me shocked and blushing.  Given my proximity to the action, I could make out the important words in his tirade and clearly see the venom with which they were being delivered.  What happened next shocked me too.   Precisely nothing.   The referee ignored the player, turned on his heels and carried on with the match.  The manager, who was closer to the incident than I was and would have seen and heard it perfectly, also carried on as if nothing had happened.
Just as there is familiarity in my footballing experience, the things I have come to know and expect, was what I witnessed from the referee and the manager the same?  Were their reactions normal?  I am sure I am naive but it disappoints me to see that kind of behaviour tolerated.  I think the language was so offensive he should have been sent off.  No questions asked.  And if I was the manager I would subsequently have punished him in some way. Unless I am mistaken, there have been many incidences of severe consequences against people at football matches who have used offensive language.  Why should this be treated differently.   Is football practising zero tolerance for some types of offensive behaviour and language, but not others?  I believe footballers - all athletes for that matter - have a duty to behave impeccably, to set a good example and to always be mindful of  the very privileged postition they occupy, the influence they have and the responsibility that goes along with it.

As I said, I believe what happens on the pitch is inextricably linked to what happens off the pitch. There were a number of young boys sitting within earshot of this.  What are we teaching them?
I've competed in a sporting arena, I understand that being passionate and hungry for success and caring so much about it that it ignites a fire inside you is an admirable quality.  I know.  I've felt it.  But what I witnessed wasn't admirable in the least.  It's the kind of behaviour that is making our beautiful game rather ugly.
If the young man I'm talking about happens to read this blog, perhaps he will heed the very important advice I was given early in my sporting career.
"Learning how to lose is every bit as important as learning how to win".

For a time, this was a theme song at our happy home ground. It brings back many great memories:
And, just incase you've been on another planet since 2002, here's the goal Zidane scored at Hampden Park to secure a Champions League victory for Real Madrid: