See–it’s not just me…

This via Orbiting Frog rang very reminiscent of my own departure from academia…

Goodbye academia, I get a life. – blog.devicerandom

Posted in Academia, Higher Education, PhD, Science, university | Leave a comment

2010: A Year in Review (Death and Taxes)

There is no question that 2010 has been the most transformative, shocking and world-shaking year of my life for a very long time.  The situation I find myself in as 2010 draws to a close is so very different from the situation I was in this time last year that it is almost hard to believe I am the same person, living the same life, yet the facts are immutable: I am still me, this is still my life, it’s just that the me of 2010 has been through some shit that the me of 2009 would never have imagined.

That my father would die this year is nothing I would have anticipated as I celebrated Christmas with him last December and called him up on New Year’s Day to wish him a happy 2010.  It was not even something that I would have anticipated the last time that I saw him, in July, as he came round, proudly wearing the “Librarian” anarchist t-shirt I had got him that Christmas, and dropped off an anniversary present for my wife and I: some lovely Portmerion teacups and saucers bearing the July flower on them.  We sat and talked that day (over, of course, a cup of tea) and looked forward into the future at what he would be doing following his retirement in October, and what I would be doing if this whole teaching lark I was embarking on worked out.  Dad reminisced on his own humble beginnings in Birmingham schools – working as a school librarian – and we talked about teaching, politics, libraries and family.

Nor could I ever have anticipated that, just later that week, I would receiving a phone-call from Sweden informing me that my father was dead when, in August, my wife and I spent a day in Kenilworth planning for his upcoming 60th birthday.  We bought him a senior citizen membership to English Heritage as we strolled through Kenilworth Castle, planned to collect as many bus maps of Britain as we could, bought some nice blue wool so that Lucy could knit him an “old man” scarf, ordered a “Britain by Bus” book online, and even stopped by his house to check amongst his framed photographs and make sure that the photo of him and me sticking our tongues out at a Rolling Stones concert in 2004 wasn’t something we had already given him the previous year.  When the phone-call came that Sunday morning, a table was already booked at the Birmingham Thai restaurant dad had chosen, the scarf was three-quarters knit, the bus book had arrived and the bus maps had been collected.  It had never been in question that these gifts might never be given; that the retirement dad had looked forward to for so long might never be his to enjoy.  Yet with one single phone-call that morning everything changed and dad was dead.  He would not become the old man we had planned on celebrating for.  He would not ever get his free bus pass and take ridiculous bus trips across Britain to visit English Heritage sites for free, wearing his knitted old man scarf and calling himself “Bert”, the name we had all decided would mark the next phase of his life having been called Robert, Robin, Mak and Bob at various other points along his life’s all-too-short journey.  Instead of eating Thai food with him and ordering him a pint of real ale at the pub he chose across the street, we would be arranging his funeral, and spending his birthday bringing comfort to his grieving 92 year old mother. 

You haven’t felt the true madness of grief until you find yourself wandering around an airport multi-story car-park on a balmy Sunday night, looking for your dead father’s car before it is impounded, with no clue as to its colour or licence number because it just wasn’t something you ever thought about, and crying over the “Good Beer Guide” when you finally find it poking out of the back seat-pocket of a car you think is his, and crying even more when your key works in the door and you spot a Kit-Kat “Chunky” wrapper inside.

So 2010 will always be remembered by me as the year my father died, as well as the year I finally had to take part in the “real world” and grudgingly enter the workforce.

Up until now – I have either been a highly successful student or a failed self-employed artist – both roles that I have relished and loved every minute of.  But in 2010, the money ran out to keep on trying my hand at writing novels with no income; it became clear that I needed a job.  With a recession on and an over-qualified CV with zero real work experience on it besides teaching, it seemed obvious that teaching might be the way forward.  Teaching would also – I thought – provide me the time needed to write, with long, sprawling holidays and a work-day that ended fairly early. 

It feels stupid writing that now, knowing what I know, but back in March, when the idea first germinated, it seemed like a plan, and somehow I went from the idea of getting some shitty, part-time job and writing in my free-time to the ridiculous idea of embarking on a full-time and life-consuming career in secondary education and also trying to write a new novel in my spare time. 

It was a series of weird and (seemingly) fortunate circumstances that led to where I am now: not really knowing how  I could parlay an advanced Philosophy degree into something teachable at secondary level then seeing a job for Head of Religious Education come up at my wife’s school “with a view to starting up a Sixth Form Philosophy course in the future”.  I knew that independent schools could employ a person without a teaching qualification and had already been intrigued by a part-time RE job at a local Sixth Form college after enjoying my return to Cardiff University in February to give my bi-annual lecture on Steve Biko, only to be disheartened when they failed to reply to my email of enquiry.  People had been telling me for a while that contemporary RE had become a lot more philosophy-based than it was in my day, and that being an atheist was no obstacle to a satisfying and philosophical career talking about religion with 11-18 year olds, so I bit the bullet and emailed my wife’s school a ridiculously ballsy email, explaining that I had no teaching qualification, no RE background to speak of and absolutely no experience at teaching secondary students, but that I had a Ph.D. in philosophy and ethics, experience at teaching and lecturing at university, and was keen to learn.  I asked if it would be crazy to apply for the Head of RE job and, surprisingly, was told “no”, and was then invited in for an informal talk about applying for the job.

The talk went very well: over two hours chat about philosophy, religion, politics and teaching, and I was told to apply for the job and not be disheartened if I didn’t get it: I should apply for teacher training at the soonest opportunity.

I didn’t get that job, but the school’s advice stuck with me, and having looked at the GCSE and A-Level syllabus for RE I realized it was something I could teach.  As I began looking into routes for teacher training though, it seemed clear that all PGCE courses for the year had been filled up last September.  Also: did I want to become a student again after so many years at university?  More to the point: could I afford to be a student again?  The aim of the game after all – and reason I was going to have to sadly put my writing on the backburner for a bit – was getting an income after two years writing novels and not making a penny from them. 

I’d heard of a thing called the Graduate Teaching Programme, but had no idea how a GTP position worked.  It seemed very complicated: you had to find a school willing to employ you without qualifications and then work towards Qualified Teacher Status alongside working, and being paid, as a teacher.  I didn’t know where to begin.

Luckily, my old friend and Sixth Form philosophy teacher, Dermot, did.  His daughter had just done a GTP with a consortium in Hereford who did all the complicated stuff for her and he simply suggested seeing if there was a similar consortium here in Birmingham.

I did check, and – lo and behold – there was.  I applied the next day and, two weeks later, some school experience hastily arranged, I had an interview.  A week after that, I was accepted onto the course and had an interview at a potential employing school.  I got the job at the school the next week and, within less than a month from applying, I was suddenly all set up to be a teacher in September on a very demanding GTP course.  In one month I went from having no job at all to starting out on a career that I still wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted: I enjoyed teaching at university level, but had never taught a single lesson of RE in my life and still had deep philosophical reservations about teaching religion to school children at all.  I was attracted to RE teaching because it was as near to philosophy as secondary teaching got and could get me my teaching qualification – but was it really what I wanted to do with my life?  Who knew – but you can only find out by doing it, so I did.  I needed to do something to pay the bills, after all, so it may as well be something I was actually interested in!  And as I observed some excellent RE teaching on my school experiences and began reading up on world religions over the summer I began to get excited about the prospect.  If done right, RE teaching could possibly be very cool indeed…

Of course, dad dying put a mild spanner in the works of preparation, and instead of starting the new school year in September all researched up and full of knowledge and enthusiasm, I felt very unprepared and scared as I’d had to replace my RE reading with grieving, getting dad’s body back from Sweden, sorting out a funeral, helping my grandmother and sister deal with their own grief, organizing dad’s things and his will, etc – all tasks that weren’t even near completed by the time term began (the funeral didn’t take place until my second week on the job!), and some of which aren’t even completed now!

The world of work was just as awful and soul-destroying as I had anticipated it would be.  Teaching remained fun, and it was nice to finally contribute some taxes to the country and pay back some of my student loan, but the bullshit that surrounded the bell-to-bell 70 minutes of actual teaching was, unsurprisingly, nothing but a chore and pretty soon my life no longer felt like my own as I found myself up until the wee small hours writing ridiculous lesson plan pro-formas to tick necessary but ludicrous QTS boxes and working out new and ingenious ways to spoon feed dumbed down information into pupils who, quite frankly, deserved better – not from me as a teacher, but from education itself.

And did I have all that wonderful time to write that I had anticipated?  Quite frankly – no.  Which rather defeats the point of the whole venture, doesn’t it?  The tiny crumbs of free-time that I did have were spent sorting out dad stuff or simply trying to pry a little bit of relaxation out of a life that was suddenly 24/7 work – exactly the kind of job I have spent my whole life preaching against; exactly the kind of job that I believe ultimately killed my father!

Don’t get me wrong: novel #3 has been started, and I believe that, when it is finished, it will be my best yet.  Hell, it might even get published!  But so far only about five pages have been written since October, when I began, and that, to me, is an unacceptable way to spend a life.

Now, some might say that another event of 2010 – the failure to get my second novel published – might lead me to say: “wake up and smell the coffee: writing should be the least of your priorities as you are clearly no good at it.  No one wants to read your work and this teaching gig, though time-consuming, is actually providing you with a real income and job security for the rest of your life”…but for better or worse, it hasn’t.  In fact, the experience of writing my second novel throughout 2010 has made me only more determined in my belief that one day I will be a published writer.

What I realized in 2010 was this: writing, like anything, is something which you get better at the more you do, and the more time you dedicate to your craft, the more that craft improves.

When I wrote Novel #1 between 2008 and 2009, I thought, at the time, that I had written the best thing that I could write, and I had.  But looking back on it a year later I began to see holes, problems, sloppiness, clunkers, etc that a new year of experience had allowed me to see.  I re-edited Novel #1 and made it a much better read for sometime in the future, when I might re-introduce it to agents who rejected it before, and in the meantime I wrote a whole new novel which benefitted from the lessons learnt in the failings of Novel #1.  Novel #2 was sleeker, faster-paced, better written, and when I finished it, it showed: the rejection notes I got from agents this time were much more interested and full of encouraging words – not just “no” but “I liked this but…”  Like last time, I got an agent to read the whole thing.  Also like last time, they ultimately rejected it.  But importantly this was an agent who, with Novel #1, had simply sent me a form rejection letter.  While they still didn’t want to represent me in the end, that there had been an improvement in the writing between novels was evident, and I believe that Novel #3 will also improve my writing further, hopefully to a level at which an agent will choose to take the next step.  Again, a few months down the line and I can see a few problems with Novel #2 that distance and experience have highlighted.  The odd line of unbelievable dialogue, a better choice for the second half of the book that would have changed the novel’s perspective and made it a richer read…  All things that can be fixed, but instead I am taking those lessons and moving on to something new.

The point though, is this: having learnt so much about my writing over the last two years, I cannot afford to waste that great experience and let my writing muscles grow atrophied because of a job which was meant to help support and supplement my writing, not devour it.  Teaching is all good and well, but it is only part of the puzzle of true life fulfilment for me, and if it continues to dominate so much of my time in 2011 that everything else I want to do is rendered impossible then expect to see it no longer a part of my life in 2012.

But it’s not all bad news.  There have been other creative resurgences in 2010 in contrast to the creative quagmire my fiction writing has momentarily found itself in as I learn to juggle the demands of the classroom with the demands of my art and regain a happy work/life balance: namely, the return of my old punk band, Academy Morticians and my return to the live stage to play music.

Bizarrely, we have the second most horrific news of 2010 next to my dad dying to thank for the return of the Academy Morticians – the return of the Conservative Party to power! 

As the dust settled on the 2010 General Election and the true awfulness of what was happening to the country began to sink in, Tom, Simon and I, communicating via Facebook chat, felt angry and frustrated.  Before we had even seen the massive Liberal Democrat betrayal of the next few months that showed Nick Clegg’s true colours, we wanted to shout to the world about how fucking awful David Cameron would be and how we were about to enter a new dark ages here in Britain if we let him into Number 10. 

Suddenly it dawned on us that we could do that – because we had a band which played political punk rock and had a ready-made backlist of songs that described exactly what was happening to the country and what was wrong with UK politics, right wing ideology, and the British media.  Although Tom now lived in Sweden, we decided to give it a whirl anyway and arranged for a summer reunion jam to see how we sounded after seven years apart.  The reunion went amazingly well, and in a mad moment of hubris, we arranged to do a proper gig over Christmas.  As I sit here writing this, that gig is tomorrow night.  We will not have played together since our one day of rehearsal in late July, but we all feel confident that – though it may be not as tight as we’d like – we’ll be able to pull it off without rehearsal, and I certainly have been practicing like a crazy person for the last month or so to get the twelve song set down.

We also have some new songs written – which we hope to do something with in 2011.  There is talk of an EP, or maybe even an album… 

The re-igniting of Academy Morticians in July lit a fire under me that made me seek out an opportunity to perform solo again and, in August, in the shadow of my father’s passing, I hit the stage at Scruffy Murphy’s in Birmingham and performed a solo set that included one of the brand new Academy Morticians songs I have written – Vote For Change – alongside some solo favourites and another Morticians song, This Is What Democracy Looks Like.  After not really touching my bass guitar since July 2009, where I played a few songs at my wedding, not a week has gone by now since late June 2010 when I haven’t picked it up and played at least one song.  I am incredibly happy about this, and happy to be playing in a band again after my attempts earlier in the year to start up a new band – The Future Endeavours – met only with rousing apathy and silence as I realized I didn’t know any musicians anymore except for my old band members from Academy Morticians and Bullet of Diplomacy.  What’s more, it was playing my guitar that first made me feel human again following my father’s death, and I will never forget that.  It might not be my dream to be a musician as a job anymore, and spend my whole life on the road playing the same ten songs every night at shitty bars around the world, but there is no denying the fact that I am, indelibly, a musician, and forever will be.  More than that: I am a punk rock musician who, this year, with the help of his wonderful wife and an incredibly thoughtful birthday present, reclaimed that part of my life – punk rock – which had, for too long, been suffocating a bit under the strain and banality of academia.

And lest we forget that 2010 was also the year that I briefly tried my hand at stand up comedy again for the first time since 1999’s ill-fated improvised “stand up” set at an Amnesty International benefit gig at Solihull Sixth Form College.  Sure – in the end the spot I had managed to acquire was taken away because the person putting the gig on demanded to see a script of what I would say and decided it was unfunny rubbish, and so ultimately I didn’t actually do any stand-up – but it was worth a punt, and I still maintain that the jokes were good (they just weren’t “one-liners” and some had to be performed to bring out funny stuff which couldn’t be easily seen on paper).  I couldn’t be bothered to go through all the hassle of finding a spot again after all that and the whole teacher/need a job thing came up, so I put it back on the backburner…but the ten minute set I came up with that no one will ever hear was something I was pretty proud of, if only as a personal accomplishment: I wrote ten minutes of stand up, and know I could do it again if I chose to.  What’s more, it’s a written testament to where my mind was at in February of this year, and quite possibly might explain why I wound up so randomly becoming an RE teacher for no good reason in a bleary fit of unemployed desperation.  To quote:

“Having a Ph.D. is one of the weirdest albatrosses an unemployed person can have if they’re not looking for a job in academia. You can’t get a normal nine to five job, because people see the letters after your name and assume you’re overqualified – and, ok, maybe I shouldn’t have worn the graduation gown to all the interviews, and handing out a reading list along with my CV was probably, with hindsight, a bad idea – but you feel nervous and self-conscious because you know you’ve got no practical skills of any use in a regular workplace, and you’re not just perceived as someone who likes to waste their time sitting around and daydreaming, you actually have a hundred thousand word thesis to prove it.  In these tough economic times, when it comes down to a choice between giving the job to someone who actually has some real-life work experience at that job, or someone who has never worked a day in his life but can discuss with you the finer points of socio-political theory, ethical philosophy, and the historical and intellectual case for federated anarchism – guess what: no one gives a fuck about the historical and intellectual case for federated anarchism, they just want to know if you can use Excel.”

Of course, the irony is now that I’m a teacher I use Excel adeptly and often – I even passed an ICT QTS Standards Test in it.  However, even in teaching, still no one gives a fuck about the historical and intellectual case for federated anarchism.

So, yeah: finished my second novel, failed to get it published, dabbled in stand up comedy, watched an awful new government seize power and spit in the face of what the electorate actually voted for, reformed my old punk band, played a few gigs, started writing another novel, my dad died and, I, a school-hating atheist punk rocker, somehow very quickly became an RE teacher for reasons that still remain uncertain.  All in all a pretty eventful 2010, and one which I am sure I will still be feeling the ramifications of for many more years to come.  I can’t say that I’ve entirely enjoyed the past twelve months, but I can’t say that I’ve entirely hated them either – they’ve been weird, and they’ve certainly been character building, at times they’ve been hellish and at other times they’ve merely been like a never-ending nightmare from which I fear I will never awake, but ultimately all the bullshit and tragedy has been paired with the constant joy I get from what’s important: an amazing and supportive wife and a home-life that never fails to make me happy; great friends and a fantastic sister who never fail to make me smile; an inherent sense of who I am and what I want that never fails to bring me comfort, even when it is what I want in which I am failing.  2010 has been, and forever will be, a year in which a lot of shit happened which I could have done without, but at the same time it has been a year that I have nevertheless survived, and really, at the end of the day, what more could you ask for than that?   

Posted in 2010, Academy Morticians, Bullet of Diplomacy, David Cameron, Journal, Life, RE, teaching, Writing, Year in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Top 20 Songs of 2010

Here are the 20 songs (according to my iPod) that I have listened to most in 2010.  (NOTE: Where an artist was represented twice in rank order – or a whole album shared the same play number for each song – I have just taken the most listened to track by that band or from that album).

I’m very surprised to see an ancient song by the Vandals has made it into the top 20- I guess it must have come up a lot when shuffling the iPod or something?  I’m happy to see that a song by my good friends The Woe Betides managed to make it into the top 20 – high praise indeed!

1.  Kids of the Black Hole by The Copyrights

2.  Forbidden Planet by Teenage Bottlerocket

3.  Ain’t no Grave by Johnny Cash

4.  Because of the Shame by Against Me!

5.  Ready to Start by Arcade Fire

6.  Impulse Shopping by Academy Morticians

7.  The Resist Stance by Bad Religion

8.  Don’t Stand Down by Classics of Love

9.  The Beauty Underneath by Andrew Lloyd Webber

10.  Idiots are Taking Over by NOFX

11.  Old by NOMEANSNO

12.  Wild and Young by American Bang

13.  Keep Falling Down by Off With Their Heads

14.  Wake Up! by Shooter Jennings and Hierophant

15.  Join us for Pong by Vandals

16.  Know Your Enemy by Green Day

17.  Clean as a Thistle by Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine

18.  Proposition Hate by Max and the Marginalized

19.  Judy is a Punk by The Ramones

20.  Bone on Bone by The Woe Betides

Posted in 21st Century Breakdown, Academy Morticians, Green Day, Jello Biafra, Lists, Music, NOFX, Nomeansno, Ramones, The Woe Betides, Top Twenty Lists | Leave a comment

Books Read 2010

As is now a blogging tradition here on Profitganda, I give to you a list of all the books I’ve read this year:

 

  1. John Irving – The Imaginary Girlfriend
  2. Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez – Locke and Key #1
  3. Janet Evanovich – Eleven on Top
  4. Cormac McCarthy – The Road
  5. The Stern Brothers – Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records
  6. Henry Rollins – A Dull Roar
  7. Henry Rollins – A Preffered Blur
  8. Clarence Clemons and Don Reo – Big Man
  9. Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor – Gimmie Something Better
  10. Frank Miller et al – Batman: Year One
  11. Mark Steel – It’s Not A Runner Bean
  12. Armando Iannucci – The Audacity of Hype
  13. Peter Straub – Mystery
  14. Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States
  15. Dick King Smith – The Mouse Butcher
  16. Mark Thomas – The People’s Manifesto
  17. Gary Greenberg – Manufacturing Depression
  18. Charles Burns – Black Hole
  19. Joe Hill – Horns
  20. Ben Goldacre – Bad Science
  21. Joe Hill et al – Locke and Key #2
  22. Jo Nesbø – The Redbreast
  23. Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World
  24. Conservative/Labour/Liberal Democrat Manifestos 2010
  25. Philip Pullman – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
  26. Richard Herring – How Not to Grow Up
  27. Peter Straub – The Throat
  28. Stephen King – Blockade Billy
  29. Noam Chomsky – Hopes and Prospects
  30. H. D. Lewis – Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion
  31. Mark Kermode – It’s Only A Movie
  32. Studs Terkel – Hope Dies Last
  33. James Rachels – The Elements of Moral Philosophy
  34. Philip Roth – American Pastoral
  35. Justin Cronin – The Passage
  36. John Irving – My Movie Business
  37. Stewart Lee – How I Escaped my Uncertain Fate
  38. Nick Cave – The Death of Bunny Munroe
  39. Steig Larsson – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  40. Scott Snyder & Stephen King – American Vampire
  41. John Connolly – The Killing Kind
  42. Stephen King – Full Dark, No Stars
  43. Greg Graffin – Anarchy Evolution
  44. Steig Larsson – The Girl Who Played With Fire
  45. Michael Connolly – The Reversal
  46. Peter Bagge – Hey Buddy
  47. Joe Hill et al – Locke and Key #3
  48. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell – From Hell
Posted in 2010, Books, Janet Evanovitch, Joe Hill, Lists, Stephen King | Leave a comment

Explaining My Absence

Those of you who once read this Blog avidly will have noticed something terrible has occurred since September: I have stopped blogging regularly.

Let me assure you, this is not a situation I am happy with, and it has not happened because I have fallen out of love with blogging or decided it isn’t worth doing anymore.  Nor, I hope, will it continue forever.  Simply put, it has happened because I need to be careful for the time being what is and isn’t aired in public regarding my life.  There is no sinister reason for this, it is just that right now – as you know – I am training to be a teacher.  For one thing, this is an all-consuming task, and I have suddenly gone from working leisurely at home my whole life, and being my own boss, to not only having to be in school each day between 8 and 4 teaching, but working every free hour that I have each evening and weekend when I’m not physically at work to plan lessons and prepare for the next day/week/month’s teaching in a never-ending treadmill of work, work, work.  This being the sole extent of my life’s activities right now, any blogging that I might find the time to do amidst all the planning, teaching, planning, teaching routine would, inevitably, be for the most part about that very planning and teaching.  Not only would this often be quite boring blogging fayre (“dear diary…today I made yet another worksheet about Noah’s Ark…”) but this can also be a problem because it turns out teaching – at least at the school I am currently working in – is a very political place, and quite frankly I don’t necessarily feel able to speak openly and freely about my thoughts regarding my experiences.

Those who know me will know that this is something that would greatly piss me off, and you’d be right in thinking that I am not happy about feeling so censored – even if the censorship is merely implied and not specifically overt.  No one has explicitly told me that I can’t speak my mind about what I am going through, but they have certainly shown me what happens when I do within the school environment itself, and I just feel it wouldn’t behove me to keep a ticking time-bomb up here of observations, thoughts and feelings that some current or future employer might read and get the wrong idea about.

The basic problem is that while I am surrounded by people who have made a firm decision that teaching is for them, and that they are willing to do anything and everything they need to do to succeed, I did not get into teaching myself because I knew it was my calling – I got into teaching because I think it might be and wanted to find out for sure.  That, of course, is a reflective and critical process.  It means that sometimes I am not just thinking what can I do to be a better teacher, but also is this the sort of thing I actually want to do?  Is being a teacher really for me?  Not only that, but sometimes, when I feel sure that I do want to be a teacher but find myself not enjoying the job as much as I think I should, I am thinking: is it really teaching itself that I might be doubting right now, or just teaching at this particular school?  Is it the job itself or just this specific situation I’m in, and if it’s the situation, what exactly is it about it that I am not enjoying? 

These are the sorts of questions I am wrestling with as I go through the training process.  The hows of teaching, though interesting and necessary, are not actually my major concern as I step into the classroom and learn on the job.  It has never worried me that I wouldn’t be able to actually do the teaching itself – most of that stuff is just common sense and comes with experience and time.  What I am interested in learning this year is whether or not the secondary school classroom is the place for me.  Whether I like working with kids.  Whether teaching is a job that will make me happy and fulfilled.  What kind of school I might want to teach in.  What sort of department I would like to work in.  What my philosophy of teaching might be.  What my ethos is as an educator.

Understandably though, these sorts of questions can piss off people for whom the answers to all of them are self-evident.  Furthermore, if those same people are taking the time to train you, then they want to know that they are not wasting their time and energy with this task: if you’re still weighing up the pros and cons of teaching itself in your mind then it doesn’t impress them – what’s to say you won’t quit the profession and make all of their effort be for nothing?  And if you question their school, their methods, their philosophy…well, quite frankly how dare you!  How FUCKING DARE YOU!

Yet for me, such questioning is an essential part of the training process.  I don’t want to waste anybody’s time – least of all my own!  But this leads to an inherent conflict of purpose and a problematic tension in the trainee/mentor relationship: they want to train me to be the best teacher I can be, and I want to learn not only how to be a teacher, but also the full scope and extent of what being a teacher actually means.  Not just the 70 minutes bell to bell when I am having fun teaching kids interesting stuff, but the hours and hours of planning and preparation in between, the long nights of marking, the petty disciplinary stuff that can make basic tasks feel like a chore, the faddish trends and strategies followed blindly by senior management to tick arbitrary Ofsted boxes whether they work or not, the unnecessary dumbing down of information because of misguided labelling of pupils and depressingly routine self-fulfilling prophecies that condemn certain children to a “low ability” rut forever.  To me, knowing the full scope of what being a teacher means, thinking about it, analysing it, is a vital part of the training process because, ultimately, this is my life and the decision of how I am going to live it is the most important one I am ever going to make.  I’m not going to check my critical thinking skills at the door just because I might offend someone’s fragile ego by asking a question or stating an opinion that could mean the difference between my having a career that I love and my simply having a job.

Now that’s not to say I’m not enjoying teaching – actually, I am.  But guess what – this is a whole new direction for my life, and it is a job that literally demands 16 hour days at least six days a week: a huge commitment, and something that, quite frankly, you have to feel is fully worth it to do it.  The only way you can meaningful know that is if you question it, and that is what I am trying to do – but in the political environment I’m in right now, questioning it so openly on a blog that could be read by anyone would likely be an unwise move: hence, no blogging.

But now it is Christmas – I have some time to blog and I felt you guys deserved an explanation.  In 2011, I hope to get back to some much more regular blogging, and hopefully, once I’ve secured my first proper teaching job on my own terms, will be in an environment where I feel much more able to express myself.  Apart from the “political” concerns at my current placement, I have been enjoying the teaching itself. Despite the data of AfL and summative assessments, I’m still not sure how much my students are learning as I make various rookie mistakes and find my feet in the classroom, but I’m certainly learning a lot each week, and have come on a long way since September 1st.  There have been some dark days amongst the sunshine, sure, and some classes that made me want to pack it all in and run away as soon as the final bell rang (not to mention dealing with the grief of my dad’s death every day too, as well as funerals, lawyers and other assorted bereavement bullshit), but all in all I’ve come through a whole term relatively unscathed, a much better teacher than I was when I went in, and very much looking forward to my five week second placement in January.

I will write again over Christmas and fill you in on some other stuff that’s gone on since October Half Term, but in the meantime, that’s why the blog’s been so empty these past few months, and for those in the Birmingham area, make a note: ACADEMY MORTICIANS REUNION GIG – December 30th at the Adam and Eve, Digbeth (supported by G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S and Mother Trucker).  Be there, or be square!

Posted in 2010, Academy Morticians, Blogging, Education, Life, personal, School, teaching | Leave a comment

Teaching? No. Holidays? Yes!

I’d love to be able to say that the past two months of teaching have been an amazing and fulfilling experience and that I truly feel that I have finally found my calling, but to be honest – the jury’s still out on that one. So far it has just been one headache after another, with very little positive to say about it, but I’m still trying to work out how much of this is still just grief making the world seem grey and tedious, and how much is simply the hateful but unavoidable revelation of exactly how bad work is after a lifetime of the blissful freedom in intentional unemployment.

So I guess I’ll talk about teaching another day. In the meantime though, in between bouts of wretched introspection and attempted educating, last week came my favourite thing about the job so far: Half Term!

This year, Half Term began for us on the Friday instead of the Saturday, as Lucy and I had both secured the day off school in order to make our 4pm flight to New Jersey. Long before I had my new job, we had made plans to go to America this half term in order to celebrate our friend Robin’s wedding. It was one of the conditions I asked for during my interview: I needed the 22nd off so I could fly. For some reason though, flights out of Birmingham were about three hundred pounds more expensive than flights out of London, so we ended up paying for petrol and long-stay parking and driving all the way down to Heathrow and still getting a cheaper fare than we would have if we’d have flown from home.

I always like airports. Despite them usually being the closest thing to a Kafkaesque hell that human civilization has ever come up with, I find them comforting and familiar, and like going through my weird little rituals at them: buying a pre-flight meal or coffee, making sure I have enough water to keep hydrated on the flight, browsing duty free and technology shops that I have never once bought anything from but consistently feel that I might, doing the same with bookshops, where for some reason the idea of paying £12.99 for a book I know I could buy online for £5 seems like a good idea because it is a quirky “airport edition”… Heathrow is great for all this, and Lucy and I had a very fun pre-flight browse through Harrods, Dixons, WH Smiths and various high-end clothes shops that had no business being at what is essentially just a glorified waiting room. Stocked up on water, mints and – for some reason – cherry drops, we boarded the plane and then had the pleasure of waiting on the tarmac for an extra forty-five minutes as the plane waited for US customs computers to reboot after an unexpected technical snafu.

Despite the initial customs complication (and the fact that we had to fight for two seats together, despite booking the flight months ago, because – in an oblivious homage to Seinfeld – Virgin Atlantic now only book your ability to fly, not an actual seat on the plane) the flight over was pretty cool, with some good reading material (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and some ok (Grown Ups) and good (Good Hair, and Oliver Stone’s South of the Border) movies to keep us entertained.

I say “us” – Lucy actually watched Sex and the City 2 while I watched my Chris Rock and Oliver Stone documentaries because of a deal we’d made when it first came out (“I will only watch that film if it’s on a plane one day. “) We have this thing about bad films somehow being really enjoyable on a plane (hence Grown Ups). It’s like the lack of oxygen to the brain makes stupid seem smart at 100,000 feet? (Though even at 100,000 feet, Sex in the City 2 remained terrible).

When we landed at Newark, we were met by Robin, who was understandably excited about her impending nuptials. It was great to see her, as we haven’t seen her since she did our own wedding back in July 2009. Robin is actually the first ever friend of mine I’ve seen get married (I’ve either missed other friends’ weddings due to clashing commitments in the past, or lost them entirely as friends a few months before the big day and been disinvited from their service before I could go). It really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, and Lucy and I were so happy when she told us she was engaged last November. We both loved Evan when we met him at our wedding (how could I not – he’s a huge Bad Religion fan) and were excited to see the two of them make things official.

The hotel we were staying at in West Orange was beautiful and hugely luxurious. One of the perks of going to a wedding is the insane belief that, as everything is so inherently expensive anyway, you may as well do as you are told and book in at the “wedding hotel” everyone is supposed to be staying in, whatever the price. Our room was a suite, with a sofa, a desk and its own fully-functioning kitchen. With an excellent selection of chocolates and other treats to keep us going from Robin and Evan’s well thought out gift bags upon arrival, it was a lovely place to crash out after eight hours of sitting numb-assed on a plane watching bad movies. We caught up with Robin, unpacked our bags, and then – after scouring our hotel TV for some classic US TV and settling on Roseanne – snuggled up in bed, nearly twenty-four hours since we had first woke up, and fell deeply asleep as the heating fan whirred and whirred.

The next day, after scoping out the amazing complimentary breakfast and taking only a muffin, we met up with Robin, Evan, Leah and Matt and drove over to a place called Toast for a wedding-day-eve brunch with Robin and Evan’s family and friends. As we caught up with Robin’s sister and met her cousins (one of whom was married to an indie wrestling manager who I had great conversations with over eggs and French Toast about the time he managed a pre-WWE Darren Young and my own love of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan) we worked out what was going on over the wedding weekend and planned our lives accordingly. The bride and bridesmaids were spending the afternoon getting their nails done, which left Lucy and I with some glorious free time after a chaotic and stressful half-term of work, work, work, to chill back at the hotel and read.

After the much needed R and R (which hooked me even further into The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and made me very aware I had no choice but to buy the rest of the Millennium trilogy the moment I got back to the UK!), we got a lift from Leah and Matt to the rehearsal dinner at Harold’s Deli – home of the “world’s largest pickle bar” – in another part of New Jersey, forty-five minutes away from the hotel. As far as vegetarian food goes we got a surprisingly good meal out of a place famous for its enormous meat sandwiches. Of course the pickle bar was veggie-friendly, but some classic Jewish knish and kasha, combined with potato salad and coleslaw, turned mere pickles into a fantastic and filling meal.

At the rehearsal dinner we met Evan’s parents and more friends and family coming to the wedding the next day. A few attempts at speeches were made, but the noisy deli was inherently inhospitable to the conveyance of sincere words, so we just ate, made merry, and went back to the hotel sated and satisfied and ready for some severely jet-lagged banter down in the hotel lounge afterwards. When the conversation eventually turned to Matt and I heatedly debating the existence of Girls Aloud branded fake eyelashes in the airplane Skymall catalogue, we knew it was time to go to bed.

Sunday itself – finally well-rested, and fed magnificently by the hotel breakfast buffet – was the wedding day. Held at the beautiful “The Manor” right next door to the hotel in perfect seventy degree weather, it was hard to believe that it was nearly the end of October. Although the vibrant colours of the trees convinced me that it really was Autumn, the heat and glaring sunshine reminded us more of our own July wedding than of pumpkins and creeping winter.

It was a lovely ceremony – really honest and personal and full of some very sweet stories and readings, including the story of how Robin and Evan met, which was a really nice touch. Both Robin’s and Evan’s parents looked so proud and I couldn’t help thinking about my own proud father on my own wedding day. Lucy felt it too, but the occasion was far too happy to feel sad about the recently departed. The vows were made, rings were exchanged, and with a kiss our good friends were made man and wife. Soon we were walking inside to the grand and spacious reception area where drinks and fine food flowed like…well, like the massive water-feature fountain that bubbled and gushed impressively outside The Manor’s sweeping windows, forming a memorable and elegant backdrop to the proceedings.

After the champagne reception (or water reception in my non-drinking case) came the speeches, Robin and Evan’s first dance (to a Tony Sly solo song no less!) and dinner – some of the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten in my entire life! It was great catching up with people like Lauren and Andrew, who I hadn’t seen for six years, and the James Brown-a-like waitress provided repeated comic relief throughout the enjoyable afternoon…at least until we were leaving and bumped into a legitimate Michael Jackson impersonator, there to provide entertainment for another wedding later that evening, who showed us all that the James Brown-a-like was purely bush-league.

Following the wedding we all went back to the hotel and, after a few hour’s recuperation back in our rooms (or, in Lucy and my case, after watching the first hour of the movie Invictus) we reconvened downstairs in the hotel lounge for some pizza and more good times.

The next morning we joined the newlyweds for a goodbye wedding brunch (seriously – the breakfasts at this hotel were exquisite and included the joys of an individual waffle maker and potato pancakes that I would kill for) before checking out and getting a final lift from Leah and Matt to the bus that would take us to New York.

Despite having exciting things planned for the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, we arrived in Manhattan on Monday afternoon with nothing particularly planned. Once we had checked into the hotel and eaten some lunch at good old Mama Sbarros, we caught the Subway down to Union Square and mooched around Barnes and Nobel, skimming through the New Yorker and Time Out over coffee in search of something fun to do that evening.

Fun came in the form of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, playing a 7.30pm show at Jazz Standard. We both like Charles Mingus, and had wanted to see some jazz in the city for a long time, so despite knowing nothing about the band, headed over to the Flatiron area to find the venue and see what the deal was.

As it happened, the deal was pretty sweet: an hour long set in a venue that served amazing smoked barbecue food which surprisingly included some nice sounding vegetarian options. As we ordered some butternut squash soup and smoked vegetable burgers I did some quick maths in my head and realized we could probably make a 9.30pm show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre too! I opened up the internet on my phone and booked us some tickets to see the Citizen Radio podcast later that night, feeling like I was doing something amazingly futuristic in the process.

At Jazz Standard the food was delicious and the jazz was first-rate. The Mingus Orchestra were phenomenal, and it was hard to believe it wasn’t even nine o’clock when we stumbled out into the street and worked our way down to the UCB. We had no idea what Citizen Radio was, only that Todd Barry was going to be a guest on the show and I liked Todd Barry.

The show didn’t disappoint. Reggie Watts and Todd Barry were both hilarious, and the serious political guest (whose name escapes me) was absolutely right on in her appraisal of life in 2010 America. I knew I would download the podcast when I got home already, but when I found out that past shows include interviews with Noam Chomsky, Bad Religion and Janeane Garofolo I realized I had found not only a good night out, but a possible future favourite. So after having absolutely nothing planned, Monday night turned out to be pretty amazing in the end and we collapsed into our hotel bed exhausted and thoroughly entertained.

Tuesday we went for a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge – which neither of us had ever done before. The views were thrilling as we passed out of the city, but Brooklyn was pretty dull after a few blocks of walking around, so we hopped back on the Subway and haunted the Village for the rest of the afternoon, checking out as many cool shops as we could find.

I say “as we could find” because, for me, the majority of the cool shops I used to go to in the Village are now all mysteriously gone – victims of the digital age. Indeed, our entire visit to New York made it perfectly clear that there was no longer much of a market for CDs or DVDs in the city anymore. Pretty much every cool music or video shop that I used to go to had closed down or moved out.

After several hours spent book-hunting at The Strand (I came out of there with nothing, but had an amazing browse all the same), we returned to the Theatre District, grabbed some quick pizza for dinner, and made our way to the St James’ Theatre where we had tickets for the Green Day musical, American Idiot.

Now in many ways I was biased from the start. Green Day were quite simply a band that changed my life. Without Green Day, I would likely have never picked up a guitar, gotten into punk rock, and might have missed out on every defining moment in my life. I not only loved Green Day, but specifically loved the album American Idiot (and the follow-up album, 21st Century Breakdown), so I was always going to love the Broadway show of American Idiot. I’ve been a fan of musical theatre ever since I was an eleven year old kid first watching Little Shop of Horrors, and the idea of these two great loves of mine – musical theatre and punk rock – combining seemed almost too good to be true.

The show didn’t disappoint.

At first I was a little dubious about a show whose triumphant two Tony Awards were in scene design and lighting (I mean – doesn’t that sound a bit like the booby prize…like the technical awards at the Oscars?), but as the show began it was clear why these Tony Awards were so important. The music for American Idiot has already had it plaudits in the form of Grammy Awards and the like, and with such a stellar ensemble cast, there was no one actor among the American Idiot crew who deserved a “best acting” award more than anyone else. The tremendous set design and lighting illusions, however, transformed songs I’d heard a million times before into an unforgettable experience and an incredibly moving story. On their own, the Green Day songs had power and passion, but combined with an awesome cast and unforgettable staging, the stories of love and rage came alive before my very eyes into a fantastic theatre piece.

Following the show we did a little late night shopping and scavenged for ice cream in a city that, for some reason (global warming) in the dying embers of October, was 72 degrees and humid as a day in July. Alas, we found no ice cream. But ice cold drinks from a Duane Reade near to the hotel provided comfort from the heat, and back in our room we cranked up the air conditioning before collapsing into bed.

Wednesday we spent the morning avoiding the muggy rain storms that felt like a tropical storm in Florida rather than a rainy day in New York, and got some shopping in around the mid-town area (stopping off at Central Park along the way to finally – after all these years – see the little stone bridge from When Harry Met Sally that we had been looking for for years, but which Lucy found over the summer while on a school trip to the city). Conceding there were no more cool DVD, music and book shops, I opted for an amalgamation of Barnes and Noble and Borders and picked up some cool graphic novels (Locke and Key book 3 and American Vampire) as well as some novels by American authors hard to find in the UK.

As we picked up some Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” soup bowls from the NBC Experience store at Rockefeller Plaza, a woman from NBC stopped us.

“Do you guys know who Jimmy Fallon is?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said – wondering what all this was in aid of.

“Would you like to see him try out his monologue for tonight’s show?”

We had nothing else to do that afternoon, and I’d been a fan of Fallon’s ever since I first saw him corpse his way through a sketch on Saturday Night Live.

“Absolutely!” I replied, and so at 3pm, neon pink tickets in our hands, we queued up for fifty minutes and shuffled through security to assemble in the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon studio and watch Jimmy run through an extended version of that night’s monologue, checking our reactions to the jokes (alongside his writers, including the awesome A.D. Miles) and judging from how we laughed what to keep and what to cut.

The monologue was actually pretty perfect – only one joke in the whole ten minutes that didn’t really make me laugh – and it was fun watching the show back later that evening and seeing which ones they decided to use.

Following that unique New York moment, we rushed back to our hotel, changed out of our rain-sodden clothes, showered, and made our way uptown to have dinner with my “Uncles” Archer and Ed and “Aunts” Vivian and Beth. (The titles are in scare-quotes because, though they feel like family, they are not my real Uncles and Aunts – just close family friends who were given those titles as kids and it’s kind of stuck).

It was so lovely to see them all. I can’t remember the last time we got together like that, but when I was younger that was the foundation of every perfect summer: long holidays at Archer and Vivian’s beautiful house out on the Hamptons alongside Beth and Ed, mom, dad and Jess… We caught up with what we were all doing, talked about the movie business with Archer, ate some amazing butternut squash lasagne that Beth made, had some even more amazing pumpkin and cinnamon sponge cake, talked some more and then went home – wishing we could stay and talk for longer but knowing that it was late.

The next day was filled with the maudlin sadness that ends all great vacations. You are filled to the brim with good times and great memories, but only far too aware that in a few short hours it will be over, and you will be on the plane back home and – worse – will soon be back to work and real life. We woke up early and – after a quick breakfast of Dunkin Donuts coffee and bagels – made our way to Central Park via Bloomingdales and a final Barnes and Noble.

There was only one sane way to spend the last few hours before we had to catch our bus to the airport: the Central Park Zoo. Happily filled up on polar bears, monkeys, penguins and snow leopards, we ambled back to the hotel to pick up our bags (eating a final slice of pizza along the way) and rushed to Port Authority to catch the bus to Newark.

Luckily we seemed to have missed out on all the Yemen cargo plane bomb panic, flying a day before increased security and terror threats. But we still had our own terror-based fun to deal with: Newark had just that day introduced full body scanners into one of its terminals and as we lined up to check in, we were briefly interviewed for a local New Jersey radio station looking to depict scared passengers worried about radiation.

“I don’t travel all that much,” I told the eager reporter, “so I’m not all that worried about the radiation. There’s radiation in everything these days – probably even in your microphone.” I told him that my only fear about the full body scanners (which weren’t even being used at our terminal) was if I ended up being involved in some “weird kind of X-Ray porn”.

I’m not sure if the listeners of New Jersey ever got to hear it.

With no terrorism to stop us, we flew home after only the regular two hour delay for late arriving planes and post-arrival cleaning. For the first time in my life I managed to sleep for most of the flight, and before I knew it, we were home, and Half Term seemed like a mad and zany blur.

Half Term is over now. Today it was back to school and back to making up my mind about teaching.

I’m still not sure yet how much I want to spend the rest of my days in the classroom doing this questionable job – but I certainly know that I am a fan of school holidays, and this one is right up there with the best.

Posted in 2010, America, Comedy, family, Father, Friends, Green Day, half term, Holiday, Life, New York, teaching, Theatre, Travels, wedding | Leave a comment

Eulogy for my dad: 09/09/10

 

It was my father’s funeral last Thursday and what follows is the full text of my eulogy to him.  If any good can be said to have come out of this whole horrible thing, perhaps it is this: the amount of troubled fathers who came up to me afterwards at the wake and told me that my speech about dad had made them reassess their own relationships with their sons.  A lot of grateful faces telling me that they would be making some phone-calls later that evening and re-connecting; setting their priorities straight… 

This speech was from the heart: written out of honesty and love:

 

“It is impossible to express in words here today how shocked I am to be making a eulogy to my father at just 28 years of age. We always know that one day our parents will die, but I always imagined that I would be an old man myself before I had to deal with anything like this.

Taken in the prime of his life, just three days before his sixtieth birthday and two months before the retirement he had been looking forward to for so long, dad was not only taken long before his time, but he was taken at a time when I was only now, after twenty-eight years, really beginning to feel like I was starting to know him.

That may sound strange, because I knew dad all of my life, but dad and I always had a fairly complicated relationship. Growing up, he tried his best, and so did I, but we didn’t exactly make it all that easy for each other. The great love of his life was football – specifically: Bury FC – and from a very early age he tried to get me to share in that passion. But while you can bring a horse to water, you can’t always make it drink, and despite the many Saturdays spent at Gigg Lane and other cold and dreary club grounds around the country, watching his beloved Shakers win and lose in equal measure, there came a point in our relationship where I had to break his heart.

“Dad”, I told him one morning, when the new application forms for our Bury season tickets came through the door. “This year, maybe you don’t get one for me…”

Without a shared love of football over which we could easily bond, and with dad’s dedication to his work meaning that he wasn’t around as much as I would have liked in those early years, from childhood until the time I went to university, dad and I did the best we could with each other, but we both knew our best was far from perfect. That’s not to say he wasn’t a good father – he was. When I needed someone to teach me how to ride a bike, it was dad who took me to the empty school playground and followed me around as I slipped and wobbled my way to balance. When I needed encouragement – or sometimes even bribes – to do well at school, it was dad who usually gave me the stern lectures, or crisp ten pound notes, that made me do better. When I was ill, long before I’d read my first Stephen King novel, it was dad who used to bring me home piles of the teenage “Point Horror” books that I used to love reading from Solihull library each day, and when I started up my teenage punk band, and we finally became really serious about recording something, it was dad who gave us the finances to release our first proper album, “Shallow Permanence”.

But like many fathers and sons, ours was a relationship that – although warm enough – was often fraught with awkward stiffness: not quite knowing each other well enough to find more common ground for conversation than the obligatory parent/children topics of school, homework, the trouble I had been in that week, and pocket money. Specifically – how much the trouble I had been in that week would effect my pocket-money.

We loved each other – but it was a very British, very undemonstrative and repressed kind of love. No hugs and kisses for dad and me – just the occasional knowing high-five and well-nodded slap on the shoulder. For the most part, we just kept out of each other’s way – each of us in our own respective corners of the house, tucked away behind closed doors, blaring music out loudly to ourselves as we got on with our lives: for dad, Springsteen, Bowie or the Rolling Stones, for me Green Day, Bad Religion and the ever-present cacophony of my own bass guitar.

When I got older and moved away to university though, dad’s and my relationship finally began to change. Something about moving away from home and starting my own life in Cardiff allowed dad and I to forge a brand new dynamic together as adults. As the miles meant that we now had to make a special effort to see each other, and couldn’t just continue our previous laissez-faire arrangement of occasional banter at home, we both began to make much more of an effort, making the most of the sporadic moments in the year when I would venture back to Balsall Common – or he to Cardiff – and we would drink tea together and catch up. Soon, those catch-up sessions became one of the highlights of my trips home, and the more we talked, the more the conversation came easy. We would sit and talk for hours – about life, about university, about music, about politics, about libraries – and as our relationship matured into this comfortable new phase, after years of not really feeling like we had much in common, suddenly we could barely shut each other up.

I know that Jess felt a similar shift too when she went to university and began her own weekly catch-up sessions with dad. For whatever reason, it was like he was making up for lost time. He knew he hadn’t been there for us as much as he should have been when we were growing up, and now he was making amends. Starting again and getting it right.

A few years ago he added a new string to his fatherly bow and began calling us too if the time between visits got too great. Long Sunday conversations that made me wonder why we hadn’t done it before. And when I moved back to Birmingham in 2008, and our visits became much more frequent, those phone-calls continued anyway – excuses no longer needed: we just knew it was nice to talk.

After so many years of awkwardness and perfunctory parenting, over the past few years dad not only became the father I had always wanted him to be, he became a friend. But just as that friendship was really starting to blossom – just as we had finally found our groove together as father and son – it was all suddenly taken away.

The last conversation I had with dad was on August 1st, two weeks before he died. We were making plans for his birthday and talking about his retirement, and about how much he was looking forward to going to Sweden. Like all phone-calls with dad – as anyone who has ever spoken to him at length on his aging house phone would know – after about ten minutes, our conversation started to be interrupted by these annoying little beeps.

The phone is old and its battery is dying, but we’d all gotten used to just ignoring the beeps over the years and carrying on talking with the understanding that, at any second, our conversation could abruptly cut out mid-sentence.

Dad and I talked about my new job that was starting in September. We talked about the coalition government and their destruction of public services. We talked about Jess and how proud we both were of her dedication to becoming an actor. And we talked about the film Born on the Fourth of July, which Lucy and I were in the process of watching when he called, and which he had randomly watched himself just the night before.

And then, just as always, right in the middle of the conversation, the phone suddenly went dead in my hand.

That day, of course, seconds later dad called me back on his mobile to say a proper goodbye. My phone rang again, he apologised for his rubbish landline, and we signed off the call with the telephone equivalent of a knowing high-five and a well-nodded slap on the shoulder.

Little did we know though, that, as we said goodbye, there were other beeps we were ignoring in the background. Not a broken phone battery this time, but the inaudible beeps of something wrong inside his heart. And the next time our conversation would be cut abruptly short, there would be no other line on which to say a proper goodbye, just a thousand conversations left forever uncompleted, and a million unsaid things we’d always wish that we could say.

Dad may not have been perfect, but he was the only dad we had.  And though he was taken from us all far too early, I thank him today for all the good years that we did have together, and all that he did to make me the man I am today, and Jess the woman that she is. Our time together in this life may have cut out all too suddenly, but the memories that we have of him, and the way he shaped our lives, will live on in us both forever.

I don’t think I said it enough to dad when he was alive. Then again, I don’t think I needed to: it was so obvious that it didn’t need speaking out loud. But now the time for knowing high-fives and well-nodded shoulder slaps is over, and there’s no other way I can say it.  I love you Dad. You will be sorely missed, and I can’t believe you’re gone.”

Posted in Death, eulogy, Father, funeral, Life | Leave a comment

DaD: 16/08/1950 – 13/08/2010

Just after 11am on Sunday the 15th of August, 2010, I was upstairs in my office working on a submission to Penguin Books for my first novel, Why Did Charlie Faber Kill?, when the phone rang. The number was familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time, and the voice on the other end was unrecognizable. A local accent. Sort of Brummie. Very Midlands. He asked me what my name was, and asked me if I was the son of my father. I was confused – the synopsis I’d just been writing for Penguin was all about fathers, so mine was already at the top of my mind. In the novel, however, the central character’s father turns out to be a serial killer, and Charlie Faber – the son – is orphaned in one terrible night, at the age of ten years old, when the truth about his father is revealed, his dad is arrested, and his mother kills herself in shame. From the start of this phone-call there was something about it that felt bad – I could see the police officers in Charlie Faber’s living room, the kindly Officer Kennedy telling the boy what had happened to his father as his mother sat crumpled and weeping on the floor – but I put that down to the weirdness of having been writing and reading about the death of one’s parents just seconds before this strange man called up and started asking me about my father.

Then my mind moved to a happier terrain: one of the publishing houses I had sent my second novel to, months ago – and who I still hadn’t yet heard back from – was co-founded by an old friend of my father’s. The publisher was locally based – like the man’s accent – and I thought that maybe, just as I was dusting off Novel #1, the fates had conspired to bring me good news about Novel #2 all at the same time? This man with the Birmingham accent would ask me about my father, then introduce himself to me as my dad’s old friend. We’d reminisce a bit about their old days together and then he’d tell me he loved the sample chapters I’d sent him and could he see the complete manuscript?

Somewhere amongst this flurry of speculation, deep worry crawled up my spine.

“As you may know, your father was attending a conference in Sweden this week…”

“Yes…” I muttered. Shit. Maybe it was Gran? Last time she had had a fall and broken her wrist the hospital had to call me because they couldn’t get through to my father. With him being in Sweden and all, maybe something similar had happened and…

…did he just say “was” attending a conference? And hadn’t he introduced himself as a Police Officer? P.C. something or other?

“…well I’m afraid he…he passed away. He died. And I’m calling you now to…”

The world began to slip away.

Surely this wasn’t real? Some kind of sick joke from someone? It wasn’t too much of a secret that my dad was going to this conference – he’d spent every August for years going to this annual international conference for his profession and the information was easily available for anyone who wanted to play this sort of insensitive prank. He’d survived the suicide bombers of Jerusalem, the crime threats of South Africa, the tensions of Korea…and this year it was in Sweden – hardly the world’s most dangerous holiday destination. He couldn’t have died in Sweden. This wasn’t possible. He’s only fifty-nine years old. His birthday was tomorrow – his sixtieth! We were all going out for a Thai meal on Tuesday. Thai food and a pre-dinner drink in a pub across that street that served Real Ale. He’d told me it was called “The Wheatsheaf” and I had spent hours on Google Maps trying to find this bloody place called The Wheatsheaf that was supposedly across the street from the nice Thai place he had found in the centre of Birmingham only to finally go into town and investigate in person and discover that it was actually called “The Wellington”. I’d sent him a photo of the place from my phone onto his new Blackberry that he was so proud of and called him an idiot, and he’d congratulated me on my detective work and told me that “that was the one!”

He couldn’t be dead.

Not dad.

He was due to retire in October. He’d been looking forward to it for years. We had spent the last week preparing a “retirement kit” for his birthday. Had got him a senior citizen membership to English Heritage and bus maps for every local service to commemorate the arrival of his free pensioners bus pass. We’d got him a book about travelling all across Britain by bus, and Lucy was knitting him an “old man” scarf. We’d only been at his house four days ago, looking over all the photographs he had framed there to see if the one of me and him outside the Rolling Stones gig we went to at Wembley seven years ago was there. It had been some silly promotional thing by T-Mobile: they took your picture with your tongues stuck out like on the Rolling Stones logo, and then you could find the picture on the web by using a special code and scrolling through pages of advertisements. Dad hadn’t been able to find it, but I had found it and emailed him the link and instructions of what to do. He always liked the picture, but last year we had printed it off properly and framed it for him…only for some reason we didn’t remember if we gave it to him or not. Some other birthday present must have got in the way – or maybe the wedding gifts we gave him for all his help? Either way – we thought it would be perfect to go into the “retirement kit” (to remind him of his younger days) but wanted to check we hadn’t already given it to him the year before. We went to his house and looked around: there was no sign of the picture. He had, however, discovered a big box full of the old family photographs we hadn’t been able to find since his divorce, and we were looking forward to asking him about them on Tuesday at the meal. Ask him if we could go by one day and look at them, so I could show Lucy what my childhood was like.

The last text message I sent my dad: 08/08/2010 at 14:12: “Hey dad – random question but Luce and I are thinking of visiting Kenilworth Castle next week sometime and there’s a video I wanted to pick up from the house. You’ll be in Sweden but is it ok to pop in while you’re away?”

The last text message I received from him: 08/08/2010 at 16:15: “Yes of course it is. Just make sure to lock up when you leave! Cheers. DaD.”

Dad couldn’t be dead – and yet the policeman on the phone with the local accent kept on telling me things that only someone official would know: the name of my sister, of my dad’s address, of the conference dad was at and the hotel he had been staying in, the names of his colleagues, the phone number of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office… He told me that my dad had not yet put a “Next of Kin” down in his new passport and that his body had been found the day before – Saturday – in his hotel room, after he’d gone up to his room on Friday complaining of feeling ill and had never returned to the conference.  Without a Next of Kin listed, he’d had to break into dad’s house to find out how to contact me.

“There’s a smashed window” he told me. “You’ll have to pay for that to be fixed. And we have also referenced his car at the airport. You’ll have to go pick that up or it will be impounded…”

Surely not me though, I thought. Not me. Someone has to do all this. Someone has to fix the window and get the car back. An adult. But not me. I’m just a kid. I’m just… a twenty-eight year old man being told that his father is dead and, as a result of divorce and the advanced age of dad’s mother, the designated Next of Kin in charge of sorting it all out. Not just the car and the window: the body too. He died in Sweden. We need to get him back.

“Call the Foreign Office, sir. They’ll tell you what to do.”

The Officer explained to me that dad had all his contact information with him in Sweden somewhere, not on his passport. He’d only been able to locate me by luck – calling the last dialled number on my dad’s phone once he broke in and talking to a friend of dad’s who had my number. As well as having to deal with the window, the car, the funeral, the repatriation of the body… “You’ll have to tell the rest of the family too.”

I had to call my sister and tell her that our father was dead.

I had to call my mother and tell her that her ex-husband – who a part of her never stopped loving – had died.

And I had to call my 93 year old grandmother and tell her that her son had passed away.

But first I called the Foreign Office.

Please, I thought, this still could all just be some kind of joke…

But the official sounding voice on the phone told me that this was no joke. They had a file in my father’s name. They had been waiting for my call. They too knew facts no-one but the authorities could know, and they gave me phone numbers of other people I needed to call.

Somewhere as this was all happening, I began to realize that the planned visit of our friend, Rishi, simply wasn’t going to happen. Visiting us for the WWE’s big SUMMERSLAM pay-per-view has become an annual event in recent years, as much as is his visiting us for WRESTLEMANIA, and all summer long we had been looking forward to catching up with him. As the phone call first came, my initial – confused and shocked – thoughts were: wow, this is going to be really awkward for Rishi! And I imagined him sat in our lounge as we cried privately around him and tried to deal with our grief quickly and efficiently, so as to be ready to watch the SUMMERSLAM spectacular on Monday evening without any fuss. As the reality of the situation sunk in – as I understood the true gravity of what had happened and what was happening – I realized that there would be no visit. SUMMERSLAM fun – indeed, any fun – was cancelled. Rishi – just ten minutes away from our house – had to be called off.

I asked Lucy to call him, and when she told him why the visit was being cancelled – when she said that my father was dead out loud for the first time – she burst into tears.

My whole body was shivering and shutting down. I felt sick and ill and weak but I knew I had to call my sister and my mother and my Gran.

I called Jess first. Her tears were instant and could be heard by Lucy across the room. She said she was coming straight over. As I waited, I called my mother in America – waking her up to tell her the awful news. She too was devastated, and made me realize that I couldn’t call a 93 year old woman and tell her that her son was dead without first making sure that someone was there to be with her in case the shock of the news killed her too! We didn’t know the numbers of any of my grandmother’s friends but did know the number of my dad’s best friend who lived nearby. After finally getting through to him and telling him the news and dealing with his own shock, we arranged for him to drive to Gran’s – via her best friend’s house which we knew the location of, if not the exact address or phone number – so that people could be with her when we called. Dad’s friend called me back just as they were about to go in, and I phoned immediately and broke the old woman’s heart: the single worst phone-call I have ever had to make in my life.

Understandably – since that morning my life has been pretty insane. Dealing with the grief, the shock, the heartache and trauma as well as all the logistical concerns while trying to hold the family together as we all mourn in our individual ways. After getting the window sorted at the house and retrieving dad’s car, we spent the Monday – what was supposed to be his 60th birthday – driving up to Manchester to spend the day with Gran. As Lucy drove, I had to liaise with Foreign Office people, people from dad’s work, his travel insurance company, etc, and try to get through to the Swedish doctor who had found the body to give permission for an autopsy. Three different people gave me the same useless telephone number: an emergency out-of-hours line that just rang out, unanswered, until the phone company disconnected the call. I sat in my grandmother’s garden listening to the alien Swedish dial-tone – one long ring instead of the British two – as it rang out into nothingness, getting me no closer to finding out any information about what happened to my father (we still didn’t yet know how he died, or even the exact date!) and no closer to being able to give the much needed permission for a post-mortem which would start the first small step in the long chain of events needed to finally bring the body back home.

Finally, despairing of the useless doctor’s number, I called the hotel where he had been on duty to see if they had any better information about how to contact him. They didn’t, and the tragedy leapt into the absurd as the miscommunication of the language barrier led to three different people trying to offer me a room reservation instead.

Seeing Gran helped us all. There was a sense of family connection and almost a normality which made the visit soothing: we used to have visits like this with dad, and would still be able to have them without – all was not lost. We talked in equal measure about dad and about other things, trying not to spend what would have been his sixtieth birthday getting too maudlin. All of us, however, felt the pinch of those moments where something happened which, under normal circumstances, we would rush to share with him. In this instance, it was getting Gran to try houmous for the first time in her life. She liked it, and as we shared a simple meal together I thought about what pleasure dad would have got from hearing that his mother had, at ninety-three years old, began eating houmous.

Tuesday, we began in earnest trying to make funeral arrangements, only to discover that – until the body was back in the UK – we weren’t able to book anything to a guaranteed date. We also discovered that the autopsy (which I had finally managed to give permission for) was going to now be delayed until Thursday, meaning a delay on getting him back, meaning a delay on sorting out the funeral… However, despite all the delays, it was nice to know that an International Funeral Director had become involved and was on the case to bring dad back. I’d managed to get through to his travel insurance people that morning and had them confirm that they would cover the costs of repatriation “if the claim was accepted”. When I asked why the claim might not be accepted, I was told that it would be rejected if it turned out after the autopsy that my dad had died from a “pre-existing condition”.

Alarm bells immediately began ringing after years of reading horror stories from the American healthcare system about inhuman denials of coverage, but I had to put that worry behind me and just concentrate on what we knew: dad had died, we’d been told, of some sort of “natural causes”, and as there wasn’t any terminal pre-existing condition that we were aware of – his death was an absolute and untimely shock – it would hopefully be alright.

Wednesday was really a day about waiting: there was nothing more we could do. I had various conversations with people at the Foreign Office to see if there was any news and to work out how to acquire appropriate death certificates, etc…but other than that there was really nothing to be done except secure his house, change all the locks, etc, and continue calling people to inform them what had happened.

Jess – with her wealth of F & B experience in the hospitality industry started looking into possible wake venues for us.

The most significant thing about Wednesday though, for me, was the decision I made to still play a gig I was booked to play on Sunday night.

Obviously my initial gut reaction had been to cancel it immediately, but with everything else to do I hadn’t got around to it yet and with Wednesday’s hindsight I began to reconsider. The fact of the matter is: dad loved seeing me play music. As we’d been through his house and looked through his things, his enjoyment of my music was everywhere: every CD I’d ever made was right there in his current CD collection and in a drawer were all kinds of old band things, including the first ever set-list and poster from Academy Morticians’ first ever “proper” pub gig back in 1998. He’d kept them all these years despite the fact that they were graffitied with our childish swearing – “FUCK THE BOSS!” and “THE ‘PISSING ON GRANNY’ TOUR ‘98”.

When we’d got the band back together earlier in the summer, he had been extremely excited about it, and had been looking forward to seeing us play again this Christmas. When he sent Lucy and I our first anniversary card in July, it included a quote from one of my songs that I had sung at our wedding.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that quitting on a commitment was a very un-dad thing to do, and that, importantly, he would have wanted me to do the gig. Hell, he probably would have come to it had he still been alive – I was going to invite him on that Tuesday during dinner.

I went to my room and plugged in my amp. The deal was simple: if I could get through the four songs I had planned on playing without a) crying or b) forgetting the words, then I would do it.

Cathartically, I smashed through the first song and felt all that emotion and devastation inside me come roaring out into the music. The second song was even better – an ode to impending doom and misery – and by the end of the four songs I knew that I would be able to play the gig and dedicate it to my father without breaking down. It was the first piece of normal I had felt all week – playing that guitar – and that night, after finally sitting down to watch the SUMMERSLAM pay-per-view event we had put off since Monday, I was finally able to sleep. There was nothing more I could do but wait now and, freed from the stress of dealing with the practical ramifications of dad’s death, I was able to actually grieve and try to deal with it emotionally whilst clawing back some semblance of normality into my life.

Thursday the post-mortem was finally done and we learnt the cause of death: a rather complicated sounding heart failure. The International Funeral Director told me that they were just waiting on the insurance company now before they could proceed, but would let me know as soon as things were happening. Normally, they said, they would have been doing what they could to get everything in order while they waited for the green light from the insurance, but in this case they had been told specifically to DO NOTHING until they got the get-go. Frustrated, again, nothing much more could be done.

Friday afternoon we got the call from the insurance company: they were refusing to pay and rejecting the claim. The heart failure, they said, could have been caused by his high blood pressure, a pre-existing condition. By taking two days to come to this decision and forbidding the International Funeral Directors from doing anything until they spoke to them, they delayed dad’s repatriation a further two days. (Note To Self: do not EVER use Trailfinders for travel insurance – they are cunts). Luckily – thanks to many people’s generosity and the acknowledgement of the insurance company’s contemptuous disgrace by dad’s work, who had arranged it for him – we were able to keep everything in place that the International Funeral Directors had arranged and just pay for their service privately (albeit expensively). (Another Note To Self: try not to die in another country – it is the biggest headache in the world!)

This meant that, by the end of Friday evening, after a week of being messed around by Swedish doctors, bastard insurance people, incredibly slow-moving people at the UK Foreign Office and Swedish Embassy, and police insensitivity, we finally knew what had killed my dad and that he was coming home; we were thus one step closer to being able to arrange his UK funeral and try to move on in our grief.

Saturday and Sunday – with nothing to do but wait and twiddle our thumbs – we tried as much as possible to get on with life. We did a bit of shopping in Birmingham for various necessary things, I read up on Sikhism for some classroom preparation, we held each other close and spoke of good times with dad, we visited with his best friend, and, on Sunday night, I played my short solo set and dedicated it to his memory.

The new week will likely bring new challenges – we still do not yet know when dad’s funeral will be, though today I have been making headway regarding a date that will be confirmed hopefully by this evening. I still have to write a eulogy for the funeral, reclaim his possessions from Sweden, comfort mom, who returns from America tomorrow, and, in just nine days time, I am supposed to be starting my new job. Somewhere amongst all this chaos I must also make time to grieve. Not that I haven’t already been grieving – I have only stopped crying these past two days and know that tears are still never far from my eyes; I am reminded of him by the strangest of things. But the grieving I have done thus far has been tempered with a stressful sense of urgency: trying to sort out practical problems alongside the emotional ones – a headache alongside the heartache. I would just quite like to have a day where I can try to get on with life as normal, without having to think about people to phone, forms to fill in and things to arrange, and miss my dad in the way that I will miss him for the rest of my life: a constant, everyday absence that I can mourn for and then make peace with.

My relationship with dad was complicated. He always tried his best, but in the early years I just don’t think he was all that cut out to be a father. I didn’t exactly make it easy on him – the football that he loved and tried to get me to love too just didn’t do anything for me, which left us with little to share in common, and even at eighteen, the time when father and son traditionally share their first beers together, he had to deal with the disappointment of my decision not to drink alcohol. It was only as I grew older – university and beyond – that we really found our groove as father and son. Suddenly we found we had lots to talk about and that the talking now came easy. Something about appreciating what you were missing: as I now, living in Cardiff, had to make a special visit to see him, our relationship matured and made the most of those sporadic moments in the year when I would come to his house – or he to mine – and we would drink tea and catch up. Then, in recent years, when the dissolvement of my bands meant less trips from Cardiff to the Midlands, the phone calls started in lieu of visits – long and enjoyable phone calls that we still continued to have even after Lucy and I had moved back to Birmingham and visiting him again became easy. He was really happy and excited that we were moving closer to him, and he enjoyed coming to visit us at our house because he said it was always cosy there. When he found out Lucy and I were getting married, he was as proud as a father could be and did everything that he could to help out with the wedding, including choosing his own three readings – the only person we allowed to choose their own – which he delivered with aplomb on the day. The only concern he had about me, and for my future, was whether I would ever find a way of making a living. Though he always supported my music, and then later, my writing, there was a part of him that knew as well as I did that, sooner or later, I would need to get a real job to pay the bills, and he was worried for quite a long time about where my impressive academic qualifications but lack of real-world work experience would get me.

When he found out about my decision to teach RE, he was extremely happy and supportive, and was so looking forward to seeing me begin making an honest living in September.

My relationship with dad was complicated, but it was never confused. I always knew that he loved me and just wanted what was best for me, even if sometimes he was a little inept at communicating his feelings with words. Famously, we never signed off our phone calls or visits with “love you” or a hug – but it didn’t take a genius to work out what our goodbye high-fives or “ok then, see you soon”s meant. He always cared what I was up to and always remembered important dates. The last time that I saw him was the day before my wedding anniversary, when he stopped by to give Lucy and me our gift (some Portmerion Pottery tea-cups decorated with July flowers). He was proudly wearing the “LibrArian” t-shirt I had got him for Christmas (the middle “a” of “librarian” replaced with an Anarchy A sign, because I always told him that the concept of libraries was essentially anarchistic) and as we talked about his work, my work experience at schools and impending September start, friends, family, how much we hated the coalition government and plans for the future – for dad, his retirement; for me, seeing Tony Bennett that night and doing anniversary stuff with Lucy the next day – it felt more like hanging out with an old friend than like spending time with a dad.

And a month and a half later, he is dead.

I still can’t believe it.

I think it will be a long while before I can.

The morning that he died, he texted friends as normal, complaining about what he thought was just a very bad hangover; he ate breakfast at the hotel he was staying in and shared small-talk with colleagues; he wrote a blog looking forward to his post-retirement future, advocating libraries around the world, and then, we believe, went to bed to try and sleep off whatever it was that was ailing him.

He never woke up.

Now I am a semi-orphan and the world, never my favourite place to begin with, seems like a much darker and miserable place. Death – always a constant factor in human existence – has never seemed closer or more real. Not just that all of us will, one day, die, but that all of us could die at any second: one minute we’re eating breakfast in a busy hotel dining room and then, a few hours later, mere minutes after pressing the send button on a blog entry that gives no indication that anything is wrong, we’re gone. Game Over. The End.

Madness.

And a sobering warning to us all: make the most out of this crazy little thing called life because you never know when your time will be up.

Obviously the dealing with it will continue.  I’ll blog again next when I can.

Posted in 2010, Death, family, Father, Life, Medical Insurance, personal, repatriation, Sweden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Return of the Academy Morticians

Way back in May, during the General Election, I was on the computer, feverishly checking out as much election coverage as possible and hoping against hope that the Lib Dems would not form a coalition government with the Tories, when I started chatting to Tom on Facebook.  Over in Sweden, he was himself watching the UK election footage on the internet and feeling that same sinking sense of doom and despair that I was, and as we chatted about the imminent Tory hell that was sure to descend on the country, he mentioned that he would be back in the UK for a few weeks over the summer and that it would be cool to maybe get together with Simon and Steve and jam through some old Academy Morticians songs.

I thought the idea sounded cool.  For those who don’t know – Academy Morticians was my first punk band, formed by me and Simon back when we were teenagers at school.  It started life in about 1995 and we went through various drummers and guitarists until about 1999 when we settled on its final “classic” line-up – with Steve and Tom – and during its six years of life we released one CD EP, one 7” EP and two full length albums, as well as having a song or three appear on various compilations throughout the world.  By 2001 though, tensions were running high between me and Simon both personally and creatively.  We each wanted the band to go in different directions, and the friendship that had been the cornerstone of the whole Academy Morticians endeavour had become seriously eroded by a mixture of growing up, growing apart and generally growing to hate each other.  We broke up Academy Morticians and Tom, Steve and I started a new band, without Simon, out of the ashes of the old: Bullet of Diplomacy.  Bullet of Diplomacy kept going until we broke up in 2005, two well-received demos, an EP and a new drummer – Chaz, replacing Steve – under our belt.  In the meantime, Simon and I patched up our differences and Academy Morticians played one or two “reunion” shows around Birmingham and Cardiff, circa 2003-2004.  The shows were fun, and were an important part of the healing process between us all after the acrimonious split back in 2001, but none of our hearts were really in it.  Ultimately, with Bullet of Diplomacy now the priority for Steve, Tom and me, and Simon equally concentrating on his own post-Morticians solo stuff, the gigs we did back then were a nice way of remembering that we were still all friends, and that we had some great songs in our Academy Morticians back catalogue, but at the same time, we had all kind of moved on.  Three of the four of us were at university, we all lived in different parts of the country, and with the time and effort required to sort out a rehearsal under those circumstances, let alone a gig, it seemed a far more sensible idea to spend that time and effort working on our new concerns instead of treading water back in the old.  We weren’t writing new Academy Morticians songs, we were writing new Bullet of Diplomacy songs, and those were the songs we wanted to play.  Happy to lay it to rest, the Morticians reunion amicably fizzled out and we all got on with our lives.

Lives now sufficiently got on with, when Tom suggested getting together and playing some of those old songs again the day of the General Election, all of us were really excited.  The brief flirtation with the old material back in 2003/2004 aside, Academy Morticians hadn’t existed properly as a band for nearly ten years.  The thought of getting together again all these years later and going through some of the back catalogue – songs Simon and I had written during arguably the most important and formative years of our lives – was incredibly alluring, especially considering that Simon and I had been talking for at least the past three years about “one day” writing a new Academy Morticians album, and had spent a lot of time dissecting what we loved, hated and had learnt from the band.  Last year, at my wedding, he and I played Morticians song “Profitganda” together for the first time in years.  Before that, at my “stag night”, we’d rehearsed the song and taken a little trip down memory lane, playing a few other songs from the “Shallow Permanence” album too.  I even wrote a new Academy Morticians song around that time, entitled “Our Destiny”, which I imagined being the opening track to a new album, should one ever materialize… 

Tom and I played a Bullet of Diplomacy song at the wedding too.  While the rehearsed “Profitganda” was actually pretty lousy on the day due to tuning difficulties, the completely unrehearsed version of “We’re Not the Good Guys” that Tom and I did was exceptional.  Not only was it amazing remembering how good it was to play music together, but the wedding gig proved that it was quite possible to get together without any rehearsal time and still make magic on the stage.  All of which conspired to the inevitable: instead of one song at a wedding, how about we book out a rehearsal room and give ourselves a whole day to play music together once again?   

Once Simon heard the idea, it grew wings and flew: certainly we’d get together and jam through some songs in the summer, but if we enjoyed it, why not take it further?  Tom comes back from Sweden fairly regularly – at least one or two times a year.  Why don’t we try writing some new songs?  Maybe even book ourselves a gig or two?

Surprisingly, none of this seemed crazy.  We all missed Academy Morticians, and over the years since its end had all come to a variety of conclusions about what we did right and what we did wrong with the band – what songs we liked and what songs we didn’t; which albums worked, which recordings did not – and we all had an itch to try it again. While Steve and Si still played together in their other band, The Woe Betides, neither Tom nor I had done anything band-wise since Bullet of Diplomacy broke up five years ago and were eager to get back to playing music with people.  Importantly, with Tom unable to commit much time to anything due to living in another country, and me not particularly wanting to take any band stuff too seriously because I don’t see punk rock as anything more than a fun creative outlet these days (the days of my dreaming I could be a professional “rock star” have long passed), this works really well.  Simon and Steve are the people in the band who have always dedicated their lives to “making it” as musicians, and they can continue to do this with The Woe Betides while leaving Academy Morticians as a fun, no-pressure, punk rock side-project, not intended to help pay the bills, just intended to make good music.

The more we talked about what songs we wanted to play from our expansive back catalogue, the more exciting the thought of giving the rehearsal some purpose became.  With so many awesome songs being talked about – all unheard by our fans for nearly a decade, and some never even played with the current line-up – the idea of maybe doing a gig or two in the future seemed not only logical, but necessary.  Why keep this to ourselves?  And no sooner had Simon suggested writing new songs than both he and I were doing it.  His, “The First Casualty”, a complete return to punk rock form after his poppy and jingle-jangley post-Morticians indie career, and mine, “Vote For Change”, the best song I’ve written in years.

The Tories getting back into power simply gave us the final kick we needed: we’d all wanted to give Academy Morticians another go for years, but how could any political punk band resist the thought of rising from the dead now that the Conservatives were back to do battle with?

So, for the past few months – alongside my radical career change into teaching – I have been diligently learning the twenty Academy Morticians songs that we all collectively agreed were the ones we most wanted to play, and yesterday, at 2pm, we gathered together at Robannas Rehearsal Studios in Birmingham to have the first Academy Morticians band practice in six years.

These are the songs that we played:

1. What Are You Doing Now?

2. Read the Lyrics

3. There Must Be More Than This To Life

4. Acceptable

5. Local Neighbourhood Capitalist

6. Don’t Be Their Best

7. Profitganda

8. Junk Food News

9. The Suit

10. The Many Hidden Corollaries

11. The Forbidden Curriculum

12. Spin Cycle on Greenwash

13. Impulse Shopping

14. Welcome to England™

15. Our Friends (RIP)

16. Choose

17. Miserable Day

18. What Happened?

19. Paying For Air

20. Shallow Permanence

From the minute we hit our first chord it was like we had never been away.  At the same time though, it was clear that we were all ten years better as musicians than we had been when we’d last played together.  The songs sounded fresh and new at the same time as they sounded exactly right.  We each brought a decade of new experience to songs we already knew how to play inside and out and the results were astounding.  Then there were the songs that Tom – and in some cases, Steve – had never played before.  Songs written while we were still at school, before we knew who Tom and Steve were, which sounded like they had been made to be played by them, finding their truest expression in this final Academy Morticians line-up, former guitarists and drummers be damned.  In four hours at Robannas we did more than simply jam out a few old tunes, we performed a resurrection.

For me, it was crazy to be standing behind a microphone again, bass guitar in my hands and sweating buckets as we ran through song after song for hours.  Something that, just five years ago, was as natural a part of my life as making coffee in the morning was now almost alien to me.  I hadn’t sung that loud in years and wondered if I’d be able.  I hadn’t thought about hitting harmonies right and playing bass alongside pounding drums, but within seconds it was as if the five years I’d spent away from rehearsal rooms had never happened.  I sang, I played, I conquered.  All the worry and anxiety dripped away and there was nothing but the adrenaline of punk rock.  Even the lyrics, which I couldn’t quite seem to remember unaided as I drilled through the songs endlessly at home, in the heat of the moment came naturally.  It was like a fucking time machine

At half time I played the guys my two new songs – “Vote for Change” and “Our Destiny” – and they seemed to like them, which bodes well for future recording plans.  They felt right too, alongside the twenty other songs we’d just been playing.  Simon told us that he’d also written a second song, and we all agreed that if we did do a new recording, we’d have to re-record “Paying For Air” too – a song from our 1998 EP, “The Forbidden Curriculum” – which had never sounded right on record and had now been given new lease of life by the addition of Tom and Steve.

Afterwards, exhausted, every ounce of energy and passion left on the rehearsal room floor, we went out for a curry and a catch up and talked about the future.  A gig was discussed – maybe at Christmas?  Recording too – perhaps at Easter?  The specifics are still unclear, they will be hashed out over the next few weeks.  But what is crystal clear at this moment is that the Academy Morticians are, undeniably, back.

Posted in Academy Morticians, Journal, Life, Music, Politics, Punk, Punk Rock | Leave a comment

Glad To Miss You

So this week has been a weird one: Lucy has been away in New York on a school trip with her choir.  Forgetting the first nine ill-timed months of our first year together (which saw me fly off to America for three weeks just days after we started going out, Lucy visit New York for a week less than a month after I got back, and then her long-planned, six week trip to Peru and Bolivia) since we moved in with each other back in August of 2005 we have only rarely spent more than one consecutive night apart.  I had an unavoidable three day conference once, back in 2007, and, just last week, Lucy herself had a three night conference in London…  But even if we include alongside those five long nights all the rogue, one-off nights that we’ve spent apart over the past five years – our wedding night, our stag/hen night, visiting old friends, etc – the number is astonishingly small:  eleven.  We have only been apart from each other for a sum total of eleven nights out of the past 1826 days, so it has been incredibly strange to suddenly find myself rattling around our house for a whole week without Lucy around to share everything with.

As always, when the notion is first presented, the idea of spending time alone often seems quite attractive.  When you are in a long-term committed relationship your natural state of being becomes one of constant subsumation of your individual self to the whole: I, quite happily and willingly, becomes We.  You think in terms not of what movie will I watch, but in terms of what movie will We watch; not what will I have for dinner, but what will We have for dinner.  This is all to the good – two people trying to coexist with each other and refusing to compromise and adapt become bitter strangers to each other fairly soon – but it does mean that there are certain things – certain guilty pleasures, or even just particular tastes that your partner does not share – which you store up for those rare moments of solitude when you don’t have to take into account anyone else’s wishes but your own.

On the few occasions that Lucy has gone away – for instance – I usually indulge in some manner of food concoction that she isn’t too keen on: usually my infamous “Veggie Man’s Pasta” which, alas, she does not particularly like (she’d rather we make her delicious Veggie Bolognaise and, quite frankly, I agree…but that doesn’t stop me from occasionally still craving this old school meal I have been cooking up ever since I was a teenager).  I also think about all the films and TV I will be able to watch, briefly unburdened by the schedule-limiting time restraints usually imposed by engaging in human conversation with a person I love to talk to.  Lucy and I talk for hours, so, my fevered mind begins to calculate, that’s at least a film or two’s worth of time I’ll be saving without her being there?  And I think of all the odd movies or television series that I have bought or downloaded over the past five years that I still haven’t seen because there are better things we own that both of us like.

Yes!  I think. I will finally get to watch that DVD of Pig Hunt!  The terrible sounding film that I won in an ill-conceived competition from a horror magazine!

This sense of opportunity and possibility lasts for all of ten seconds – and then I remember the truth: that I had those same thoughts last time, and what actually happened was this:

I tried to watch that stupid film/television show that I haven’t had time for yet and either a) found that it was good, so stopped watching it in order that I could watch it properly with Lucy when she got back, or b) found that it was bad, which I kind of always knew it would be (hence why I hadn’t watched it), and so didn’t particularly feel liked I’d accomplished anything by watching it.

And regarding the “Veggie Man’s Pasta”…

I made it, and I made too much.  It made me feel kind of sick and wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be.  Worse – throughout all of this the house was just so quiet and still.  I kept on wanting to talk to you but you weren’t there, so I ended up talking to the cat.  But he just looked at me with mild disdain and carried on licking himself.  He did not laugh at my jokes.  He did not appreciate my observations.  Watching endless film and TV isn’t actually very pleasurable unless there’s someone there to share it with.  And I like Veggie Bolognaise – I prefer it!  This “freedom to do what I like” is a big crock of shit because what I like is doing stuff with you…

That’s me after one night, so you can imagine what a full week apart was going to do to me.  But like a rat who goes back to the buzzer even though it has electrocuted him in the past, I still tried to convince myself that it would be fun to have a week to myself, even if it would be lonely.  This time, I told myself, I really would watch Pig Hunt.  This time I’d get the “Veggie Man’s” portion right!

Luckily, my wife is much smarter than I, and knew that in reality I would fall apart pretty quickly after dropping her off at the school and seeing her get on the coach to the airport, and she had a plan to ease my pain…

It was a hellish start to the morning: a 2.45am wake-up call after only going to bed the night before at 11pm.  So when I got back home from the school just before 5am, I crawled straight back into bed and tried not to think about what I was actually going to do with this now-yawning week of emptiness stretching out grimly ahead of me.  There was lots to do, I knew.  I had an induction session at my teacher training place on the Tuesday and we were going to be given a written task for over the summer.  I could get that done in the week and not let it eat into our holidays (much the same way I did my entire MA thesis in the six weeks Lucy was away in Peru back in the day).  I also had to do an ICT audit, a QTS audit, a subject audit – not to mention the fact that my key responsibility this summer is to learn as much as I can about the nine religions specified on the Birmingham Agreed Syllabus…

…I would be fine.  There was loads to do to keep me occupied. 

But first I needed some sleep.

When I pulled back the covers I found a package waiting for me on Lucy’s side of the bed. 

Attached to the package was a card.  TUESDAY, it said.

A grin broke out on my face – even in my exhaustion – and as I carefully placed the package on the floor, I curled up next to the cat (who had been unimpressed by our waking him earlier without also feeding him breakfast) and managed to grab a few more hours sleep – enough to feel vaguely human.

Vaguely.

The important thing here to remember is that it was Monday.  The package, however, said TUESDAY, so I could not open it for a day.  Luckily, I am not an impatient man: I love surprises far more than I like to spoil them, and was happy to wait.  Eager to.  Monday I didn’t need any package from Lucy – I had seen her on Monday, had driven her to her coach.  Tuesday would be when I’d start hurting, and it was a nice feeling to know there’d be this little part of her to greet me in the morning, even if she was 3,000 miles away in New York.

The rest of Monday was a study in disillusionment at the whole “I’m free to do whatever I want for a week!” idea.  Within hours, despite all the “freedom” at my fingertips, I was miserable, missing Lucy, and generally feeling that gaping lack in everything that I was doing.  You will note that it is no coincidence that the day Lucy went away was the day I decided to move my Blog over to WordPress from its old home on Blogger.  What better way of trying to kill time than fiddling with new settings and widgets on a website?  Evening couldn’t come sooner, and messing about online, demoing a new Academy Morticians song. and getting on with some teacher-training stuff was a good way of immersing myself in something that wasn’t moping… 

My spirits were lifted, however, when I received a text from Lucy saying that she had arrived safe and sound in New York (we were worried before she left that the cheap new phone she’d downgraded to a year before might not work in America and thus we’d be completely out of contact for the whole week!) 

Happy to hear from her, and even happier that one of our days apart was already coming to a close, I made myself too much “Veggie Man’s Pasta” and settled down to watch Pig Hunt before deciding that, even with Lucy away, Pig Hunt was clearly too inherently shit to ever watch.

Opting for The IT Crowd instead, I watched TV and then went to bed.

Tuesday things felt a lot better.  For one thing, I had gotten some sleep!  For another, I had actual things to do that day that would sufficiently take my mind off Lucy’s absence: an induction session in the morning, and then drinks and dinner with Dermot and Simon that evening.  Most importantly though, it was TUESDAY, so I was able to open my present!

The present was great: the special edition DVD of Stephen King and George A Romero’s Creepshow.  But it was the card that gave the day its colour – not only a lovely message from Luce, but instructions on the back.  A clue for where tomorrow’s card and present would be too!

Lucy had left me a treasure hunt!

Like I said: the day was productive and fun.  The final pre-term session at the Training Centre was really useful and interesting (though it was a bit of a shame that a post-session drink and lunch at a nearby pub didn’t work out; it would have been nice to get the socializing out of the way before the chaos of term begins!) and seeing Dermot and Si was a pleasure.  On the journey down I played Si my new Morticians demo – “Vote for Change” – and he seemed to like it.  I’d played it a lot the day before in a bid to distract myself, and had played it a few times more before leaving the house to pick Si up.  I’m really happy with it and feel that it has unlocked my inner Mortician…

In Warwick we met up with Dermot and talked teaching, philosophy, life, books and general fun.  We ate pizza at ASK and put the world to rights.  On the way home Simon played me a few tracks from the new Woe Betides album – one of which has been stuck in my head all week! – and after a bit of persuasion when I dropped him off, he let me have an advance, un-mastered copy of the whole thing!  It’s really good, and hopefully this’ll be the album that sends them over the top and I’ll be able to sell the un-mastered advance years from now on eBay and call it my retirement plan!  (That’s cute: thinking there’ll still be eBay in the future…)

When I got home, I watched Creepshow in bed and fell asleep to Stephen King’s ludicrous-but-brilliant performance as Maine hick, Jordy Verill.

WEDNESDAY’s gift, craftily folded up in a pair of Lucy’s pyjamas and tucked away in her bedroom drawer, was season eight of Columbo!  And another card, this one even sweeter than the last.  On top of that, when the post came, I received yet another card from Lucy: a hilarious postcard of the Queen and Prince Philip that she’d bought and sent me from the airport.

The rest of the day after that is a blur: at some point I began to do the reading for my written assignment for my teacher training – 1,000 words on “What sort of learner am I?”.  Sometime around midnight the reading and the essay was done.  I fed Rupert and went to bed to watch a Columbo (the one where the big-shot special effects guy electrocutes his old friend and tries to make it look like lightning, but ‘bo is unimpressed).

THURSDAY’s gift was hidden downstairs – almost in plain sight, taped to the underneath of Lucy’s “dead Peruvian” jacket hanging up over one of the dining table chairs: hilariously, the movie “She Devil” starring Roseanne Barr, Meryl Streep and Ed Begley Jnr.  I have a thing for Ed Begley Jnr, in that, he is in everything and he is brilliant, and Luce had been teasing me about it just the other week so this gift made me laugh a lot.  After eating some breakfast I went back to the computer and checked that my essay was legible and, pleased to find that it was, submitted it in to the powers that be.  It’s ridiculously early to have finished it, but I’m pleased to get the monkey off my back.

After doing a bit of reading on Judaism (including more fun from the Torah – so much brutality; such an angry God) I drove over to my mom’s house after lunch to check the place was ok while she’s away.  It was, but the hour-long round trip there and back provided a nice, time-killing distraction.

Looking for more to distract when I got home, I decided to create a random Power Point presentation, just to remember if I could (this will be necessary and useful for my teaching come September.  We’d done a training course in Power Point at Cardiff before teaching seminars, but there was no chance to actually use it in the technophobic Philosophy classroom).  Happily, I still could Power Point with the best of them, and made a fun little slide-show to show Lucy when she gets back about my journey from Philosophy to RE.  As I was making it though – surprise of all surprises I got an email from an agent requesting to see the full manuscript for The Garage Bunch!  Needless to say, that just about made my day (I assume it was that which gave me that glow of success and excitement, not simply the achievement of creating a fairly impressive Power Point slide show?) and the good luck continued as my phone soon rang and I got to tell Lucy in person about the email instead of having to text her. 

She’d called me the night before too, and has called me every day since.  We miss each other enough now that the penny-pinching economic concerns of the price of calling over texting has been thrown out of the window – neither of us can wait until Monday…or indeed until October, when we’ll both be going to New York this time, after Robin’s wedding, and, in Lucy’s words, “we can do it properly”, without having to babysit school-kids or hang out with fun-stealing teachers.

Did I watch “She Devil”?  You bet I did!  And it didn’t even suck as much as I thought it would.  In fact, it was even quite good, and made me realize I still hadn’t bought the ninth season of Roseanne on DVD to complete my collection…

…It must have made Lucy think that too because when I woke up on FRIDAY, what was waiting for me, hidden in the spare room wardrobe, but Roseanne season nine!

My wife is amazing and crazy and wonderful all at once!

These little treats each morning have been such a great way of easing the loneliness and the missing, because every day I would get this lovely little card full of nice words from Lucy that would be almost like waking up to her.  The DVD-based presents also eased that grim burden of I-have-all-this-freedom-to-watch-whatever-I-want-to-watch-but-don’t-want-to-watch-anything-good-because-if-it’s-good-I’d-sooner-wait-and-watch-it-with-Lucy, because it gave me this really good stuff to watch completely guilt free.

The rest of Friday I simply spent reading.  Somehow over this busy past few weeks, a gigantic pile of magazines has grown in our lounge which I was always intending to “get around to” but never did.  Yesterday I sat my ass down (on the couch and in the garden at various points in the day) put on some blasting punk rock on the stereo and read three issues of the New Yorker, two issues of Private Eye, two issues of Dodgem Logic, an issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine and an issue of Philosophy Now.  Then – after a bit of novel reading too – I spent the evening watching Roseanne and The IT Crowd in equal measures, amazed that the week was almost over and Monday would be here oh-so soon. 

In a last minute moment of wife’s-away madness, I ordered a takeaway pizza all to myself – potato wedges and everything.  Predictably, I went to bed feeling sick and regretting every minute of it.

SATURDAY – being today – I woke up to a fifth card which had literally been in front of me the whole time (tucked in between my Wrestlemania DVDs in the lounge).  The presents have stopped now (so, as Lucy says, I can have time to actually enjoy them!) but I’m glad the cards are keeping on coming – they are what makes every day bearable (and treasure-hunting is fun!). 

After a shower and a food shop, I just spent the day boning up on the RE curriculum, non-statutory frameworks, agreed syllabi, national curriculum and whatnot, and finishing off my QTS audit.  Riveting stuff which ended with the decision to spit out all the boring mundane details of the past seven days that I haven’t been able to physically speak to anyone else about into this here Blog.  Hopefully this way I won’t feel compelled to bore Lucy with every dull detail when she gets back and make up for seven days of lost minutiae, and we can jump straight away into enjoying the rest if the summer holiday together – no more awful nights (or weeks!) apart!

That said – thanks to Lucy’s foresight and loveliness, this week hasn’t been so bad.  She’s certainly managed to make her presence felt, even without her actual presence, and if we could go another five years with only eighteen nights apart, that would be just fine with me.  It’s a pretty impressive record!  (Thought if we could do it with no nights apart, that would be even better!)

At the end of the day, I like sharing my life with my wife.  I like living being a joint venture where you always consider the needs of someone else and don’t just fill your time with me, me, me.

Too much time with me, me, me, and you end up doing something stupid: like writing a 3,200 word Blog entry about nothing!

Thanks for bearing with me though.  Just 43 hours to go now and then I can become We again and the me, me, me goes back to us, us, us.

Posted in America, Journal, Life, Love, personal, Peter Falk, Schmoopy | Leave a comment