Sometimes You Meet Some Truly Inspiring People in the Most Unlikely Places

227496_427688747278264_1670056239_n-scaled500I have been working out in the community for the past week or so with a group of women that have decided to make a difference in the community they live in. Working with these women has restored my faith in the human race.

Three years ago they asked a very simple question “what can we do that would benefit the kids on the estate”. So they set about finding the answer to a question that has stumped many a regeneration expert for donkeys years.

They took the unprecedented step of asking them, which is a novel approach I know.  So they made arrangements with the Headmaster of the local school and canvased every child in the school (even if they didn’t live on the estate).

The answer that came back was surprising. The kids didn’t want 50 inch plasmas or Games consoles, what they wanted mostly was “a nice place to live, with trees and flowers and stuff”.

So three years ago armed with £350 and a lot of hard work and the children from the school these women transformed a dark and dismal corner in the school grounds into a community garden that the children have looked after and taken great pride in ever since.

Since that project they have been responsible for planning and delivering a large scale development project that would scare the living daylights out of many a seasoned project manager.

They with the help from various agencies they have planted an orchard, a wild flower meadow and are about to put planters on the grass verges around the estate. Now I know many people out there will be saying well thats ok but the kids will just destroy them in no time, but somehow I don’t think so, the kids have invested to much time and effort in helping out.

Kids are at the centre of this project, they have helped plant more that 500 bulbs around the estate and have watched eagerly as the trees have been planted. These women have worked tirelessly with great humor and what’s more they don’t realise exactly what they have achieved.

They have done what most large organisations cannot do and that is mobilise and empower young people to make a difference and take pride in were they live and all that with a modesty that is amazing.

So ladies next time someone has a go at people for not wanting to get involved because it won’t change a thing, You have changed a very big thing, you have almost moved a mountain and you don’t realise it. I have been exhausted just watching you. I take my hat off to you, your community don’t know how fortunate they are!

 

We Will Remember Them

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Remembrance Sunday always leaves me feeling  very proud and very angry in equal measure. Watching the coverage on the BBC was fantastic. David Dimbleby set the tone with a masterclass in how to give a  dignified commentary without becoming sentimental.

Its this expertise that makes the BBC a world leader in live television coverage. Great production values along with intelligent commentary make this event heart breaking and makes you remember the true cost of sacrifice.

But the real tragedy of this event is that many of the soldiers who paid the ultimate price, most are inbetween the ages of Eighteen and Twenty One, a criminal waste of a young life, cut down at the start of their lives, so much promise snuffed out in a second, a cruel waste of potential.

I was next to tears watching parents of one particular soldier fighting back the tears as they described with great pride their one and only son. How can you get over something so tragic, it must be a nightmare.

Many of the people in the parade are now elderly and wear the medals with great pride, and quite rightly so. My only hope is that we never get the opportunity to forget these individuals and spare a thought for friends and families who will miss them being in there lives everyday.

So one final thought on this day of reflection, someone said to me once that you should never look back, because you can’t change the past. I would like to add to that, it is only by looking at our past mistakes we learn and progress.

It should be a fairly simple exercise to try and prevent the huge loss of life that any conflict brings. I appreciate that negotiation is not always possible but surely it should be the starting point and not the final destination after thousands of people have died. 

 

Chicken Soup can Seriously Damage Your Wealth

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It was Half Term in our part of the world last week and every parent dreads this one, especially because the weather is often so bad that the little darlings are house bound for the biggest part of the week. By midweek they are suffering from cabin fever and are bored of anything that is suggested.

Now normally that has little effect on our house because our kids flew the coop several years ago leaving me to enjoy the break. I celebrate Half Terms because it gives me chance to recharge the batteries after being mauled for six weeks of teaching pubescent teenagers full of raging hormones who look for ways to mentally challenge you to the point of meltdown. Its not this behavior thats the issue its the mental anguish brought on by having to appear like a swan, calm in the face of adversity but paddling ferociously under the surface just so you don’t lose face.

You can imagine how delighted I was when it was suggested that the grandkids should stay with us whilst there house is being fitted with a new kitchen and bathroom. They arrived on Tuesday with a mass of phones, IPods and Hair Straighteners, apparently essentials that the average 10 year old see’s as survival gear.

Its not the fact that they hounded me for my broadband Key and tripled my data usage, or the fact that at any given moment in the day I was having to watch them dance around the lounge dancing to Nicki Minaj’s latest video (that looked like a promo for a leather fetishist club). It was the fact that they decided that my iMac was a far better proposition for watching Videos with subtitles so they could sing along, leaving me with my iPhone for company.To be honest they haven’t been that bad really, they are like any other kids trying to understand the world we live in and put there own stamp on it.

However Thursday brought disaster into our peaceful co-existence, Whilst searching for some Gangnam Style piece of music, they managed to spill a cup of chicken soup into my beautiful Apple wireless keyboard. The scenes of shock, horror, tears and tantrums that ensued were of biblical proportions (but I soon gathered my composure). Ann helped them clear up the mess and explained to them that Granddad didn’t mean to be nasty and that he was stood outside to calm down because thats what old people do. (Cheeky Sod). So once my blood pressure fell I surveyed the damage, which unfortunately for me has appeared to be terminal.

The prognosis from my brother who works in IT was take the batteries out and wash it in a bath of hot water and leave it in the airing cupboard for a week or two and it may work. I pointed out that I had work I needed to do today not next month at which point he stated the blindingly obvious, buy a new one.

Now that means that I have to go into the apple store. This is not easy for me because every time I go in for something I always come out with something better which costs twice the price. I have purposely not been anywhere near the store since the launch of the new iMac a couple of weeks ago because in my mind I know I don’t need it but in my heart I have to have one.

So I have done the next best thing, I went to PC World without my credit card and paid cash so I would not be tempted. So all is well that ends well. I can do my work again but more importantly our iMac babysitter is busy doing the do with the grandkids meaning that I can get on reading my emails on my phone with the aid of a big magnifying glass.

This was Definitely an Eleven Moment

 

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Every now and again someone does something so breathtakingly spectacular that it will be remembered as long as people tell stories to each other. In my world these moments are known as elevens.

Let me explain, if you take a picture of a black wall that would illicit a score of one. Take a picture of a white wall with someone stood in front of it then that arguably would be a two and so on. To get to an eleven it has to be an earth changing moment, for example the assassination of J F Kennedy, First man on the Moon, even 911.

So what happened today that changed the world. A young Skydiver named Felix Baumgartner completed a challenge that took him and his team five years to complete which was so breathtaking in its vision and complexity that it led me to sit spell bound looking at a small youtube screen for the best part of three hours.

The last time my generation saw anything this extraordinary was back in the early seventies watching Niel Armstrong step onto the Moon for the first time, watching on a grainy black and white TV stuck in the corner of the lounge with all the neighbors watching intently, I can’t believe that was more than Forty years ago.

Most of us would I am sure surrounded by the people who we try to impress do things we would not normally do, just look at any small airfield on any given weekend to see various everyday people jumping out of planes for some worthy cause or another.

This guy although surrounded by the very best engineers and designers who created the balloon, the suit and the procedures that would ensure success trusted them enough to put his life on the line. 

Watching the progress on my computer what I didn’t expect was the time it took to get to the altitude for the jump and the fact that this guy was sat on his own for two or more hours in a tiny capsule checking his equipment and rehearsing his exit. What type of bravery does it take to do that, far more than I have. 

To take that gigantic leap of faith this guy must have the biggest balls on earth, as he stepped out and started his decent my heart skipped more that a beat or two.

Was it the awful silence when at 833 mph he was tumbling head over heals through the atmosphere, or was it the fact that it seemed a very long time before his parachute opened or was it just the fear of the unknown. 

Live TV does that, it makes you wonder what the outcome will be, and you brain tries to compute the odds of success whilst its happening, this is what makes it gripping to watch, It was without doubt the longest five minutes of my life. Programmes like the X Factor talk about pressure and suspense, they don’t know the meaning of the word.

This mans photograph should be posted on every classroom wall in the country and we should tell our young people every day that anything is possible with hard work, teamwork and being brave enough to overcome fear so we can achieve great things.

Someone said to me once that if you wish to be famous make sure its for something you can be proud of, today this brave individual will go down in history as someone who did something unbelievable, something that will be remembered for years to come and for me it was a definitely eleven moment. 

 

 

Peace Events Can be Stressful

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I have had a quite stressful week with several projects all coming to completion and others at key stages in the process. By Wednesday I felt that my head was about to explode. But towards the end of the week things started to calm down that was until Friday. 

Friday was International Peace Day and here in Oldham they celebrate by getting all Primary Schools together in The Queen Elizabeth Hall to help celebrate such a noble cause.  Now my old Production Lecturer said (a long time ago now) working with children is always challenging and should you be in such a position always have a big plan B to fall back on. So armed with a pretty good plan B I was quietly confident.

I have been fortunate to have worked on a regular basis with New Image, a local events company who can work miracles on a regular basis and are just what you need when the going gets tough and this was going to be tough. 

So here is the scenario. 600 children and teachers presenting Six 15 minute performances all with music and PowerPoint and although this was stressful enough trying to follow written instructions and getting them all in the correct order ready for performance.

The show started and all was well with the world, now this is where it could have gone wrong on a colossal scale; we had to get 195 flags in the correct order to the stage in time to be announced and placed in holders. To say my heart was thumping in my chest is an understatement.

The whole process worked seamlessly without a single issue. The children were fantastic and carried out the duty of flag bearers with great pride the audience cheering when the Union Jack was carried across the stage. The rest of the ceremony was fantastic, 600 children singing a song written by all of the schools in the audience. 

This was education working at its best. Many of these children come from some of the poorest areas in the country and they behaved impeccably and performed with huge pride. Giving children the opportunity to take part in something of this magnitude you cannot put a price on. I saw dedicated teaching staff prompting them on their knees so the audience would not see. I saw huge smiles when the children heard the applause. This is an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.

So Mr Grove when your Ofsted Inspectors come to visit and criticise these dedicated hard working professionals, working in crumbling schools in hugely deprived areas, remember that not everyone in this world has had the opportunities that you have obviously had. Many of these will find it almost impossible to get into the positions you find yourself in. 

Also remember constructive criticism is far better
than box ticking in an audit trail, remember these children are being given opportunities at school to shine. They are also being shown that by working hard and as a team you can be a part of something special that you will remember for the rest of your life. 

This is a great message to give any young person.

 

Rubbing Shoulders With Famous Folk

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I have been rubbing shoulders with a few famous folk this week. Its been The Oldham Literary Festival and I have been interviewing guest authors for the festivals social media sites which should help promote next years event.

The first person to give me an interview was Paul Lake whose book “I’m Not Really Here” is a sensational read, a often harrowing account of a talented footballer who at the hight of his career was injured and unable to pursue his passion, playing football.

The person I interviewed rather than being a self assured sporting athlete was an articulate and incredibly modest man who has discovered the hard way that fame and fortune sometimes comes to an end just as unexpectedly as it arrives, and the road to were he is now is an inspirational story of how to pull yourself up from the depths of despair.

Together with his wife Joanne they have told the story beautifully and rather than being another football autobiography it is essentially a story of the aftermath of essentially being put out to grass at the age of twenty seven.

The other interview was with Tom Hingley the ex lead singer with the Inspiral Carpets. His book “Carpet Burns” is a great read. I was surprised to hear that he came from Oxford and only arrived in Manchester when he studied at MMU. But his time with the Inspirals has been documented in several books on the Madchester music scene, but his gives us an insight into what its like to be a part of a band, with all the highs and tensions that brings.

What these two people had in common is that they both have been in a position to be revered almost like gods in there respective fields and both have dealt with the resultant tensions since in ways that I was surprised by.

If you ask either of these people what do they treasure most in life, they both gave me the same answer. It wasn’t the money, the fame or the fantastic great times they had experienced but something far more simple. It was the families and close friends who had been with them through thick and thin. 

Perhaps a lesson to be learned the next time you decide to work an extra couple of hours instead of spending time with the people who should matter the most to you.

 

I Hope We Remember Lessons Learned

After the past six weeks of breathtaking feats of athleticism, and superhuman performances in the Olympics and Para Olympics it is back to earth with a bang. 

I have calculated that it took exactly seven hours before the news channels brought us down to earth with a bump with threats of mass industrial action and further financial gloom.

So what difference did the Olympics make to me? Not a great deal really apart from one glorious Saturday afternoon / evening watching Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah strut there stuff with three hundred other out of shape middle aged men with pints in there hands cheering with all there hearts. A wonderful moment to savor.

The Para Olympics on the other hand has had a profound effect. At the start of the event I felt uncomfortable watching these athletes with limbs missing and severe disabilities doing superhuman things. Things I wouldn’t even attempt with this crumbling body which isn’t in to bad a shape. 

What it did, it put these people in the spotlight, gave them a stage and made it acceptable  to look at someone with a less than perfect body and not feel uneasy. 

I have started to look past the disabilities and look at the individuals, heroes one and all. Not because of the superhuman effort that these feats must have taken but the fact that they show me that the human spirit can overcome almost anything. 

I only hope that just like the news it doesn’t take me seven hours to forget the lesson I have learned.

 

You Can’t Beat a Quiet Pint

I have often wondered how Doctors feel when trying to have a quiet drink after a hard day at the office and a patient comes up and starts the conversation about some symptom or another. Now I know.

Its been a long time since I felt annoyed enough to try and punch someones lights out,  but tonight I came really close and was ready to try. 

Why is it that everyone who went to school, have children who go to school or university seem to be experts in the education system and seem to think that every child in this country has the same opportunities that they had. This is a preposterous idea. 

Social mobility or what ever the latest government terminology is which purports to give everyone an even chance is as far away now as it was for my grandfather. Not every child in every school or college in the country has the same opportunities and that is a fact. When you look at the education system in this country there is a gulf between good schools and bad schools in every town let alone the north south divide.

So tonight while I was having a quiet pint as I do on a Friday night when I was led into a discussion that started with the following sentence. The Sixth Form College is were all the bright kids go and the Oldham College is for all the other kids who are not intelligent enough to try for university. 

I tried to explain that not everyone learns in the same way or has equal opportunities in this world and that the Oldham College suits people who learn by doing rather than learning academically and that it is possible to get to university from the college even though it might take twelve months longer, trying very hard to give a balanced response.

My annoyance came from the fact in five minutes this person undermined the hard work and dedication of the staff of an institution that probably at some point over the past hundred or so years has educated at least one member of his family. Has given thousands of students the opportunity to to go to university or get jobs in industry.

At this point the argument gathered momentum, then he introduced the argument that the Oldham College should not be allowed to sponsor the Waterhead Academy because it would profit them to suppress pupils attainment so they would have more students therefore making the college more sustainable. 

This as anyone who works under the rigorous inspection framework of OFSTED knows would be organisational suicide. He had totally chosen to overlook the fact that schools have by law a board of governors recruited not only from local government, local business and even the Sixth Form College but are responsible for the institution delivering the best possible opportunities and education possible.

He couldn’t understand why the college was forcing the two schools to merge which in his eyes would be a disaster, I pointed out that it was the local education authority under the building schools for the future scheme who had in fact made the decision and that the partnership of the two colleges and the council formulated the plan to deliver the project.

I sometimes despair that people always compare situations to there own lifestyle and make rash statements without any research and make wild accusations that are totally unsubstantiated. 

It seems strange to me that I went out to try and forget my working week and finished up embroiled in what can only be described as someone else’s misinformed rant. 

The beer still tasted good though.

 

 

Social Experiment Number One – Be Nice

 

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I had an epiphany the other night whilst I lay awake in the early hours, I thought i would conduct a social experiment using myself as the preverbal lab rat (some may say that I have been typecast).

What if for twenty four hours I was nice and thoughtful to the people I came into contact with, rather than being the cynical grumpy northern bloke that I am so proud to be. So Friday last week I got out of bed and started the experiment.

The first thing I did was make Ann a cup of tea in bed (that was not to difficult, I do that every morning) Kissed her on the cheek and said “good morning darling and how are you today”? The look on her face was that of someone who had woken up in a parallel universe, you know the sort of look that says “I know your up to something, what is it and will it cost me”?

Not to be deterred by this shall we say luke warm reception I had a shower got ready to go to the Hospital for a check up on my broken arm. I arrived at the hospital smiled nicely at the receptionist and said “good morning and how are you today”? I was greeted with a look that would stop a Rottweiler at fifty paces, she looked at my notes, I think she was checking to see if I had mental issues and interrogated me in a way that only an NHS receptionist can.

After a short wait I was summoned to see the doctor who informed me that my arm was broken (no shit Sherlock) I could have told him that, without any medical credentials and to go and get an Xray. I was still nice and smiled and dutifully made my way to the Xray department were the Radiologist started to torture me and made me cry. I again smiled in between the stifled sobbing and returned to the waiting room to see the doctor once more who informed me that my arm was still broken and there was nothing they could do but look at it again next month.

After this ordeal I thought I would try my experiment out on my colleagues at work. I thought I would treat them to a coffee and duly delivered it to there desks. Being cynical media types (they had already read my twitter message about my experiment) proceeded to remind me of all that weeks misdemeanors and one even suggested that I might have spiked her coffee and was very dubious about drinking it.

Throughout this ordeal I still was pleasant, wasn’t grumpy once although there was plenty of situations that warranted it, I just smiled and and tried to be positive.

It is strange though that most people when faced with someone who is smiling and being polite react in two ways the first one is that you are obviously a nutter and scuttle away as quick as possible or secondly join in and make the experience of human interaction a very pleasant experience.

We tend to blame technology and social media for the lack of communication skills in the young  but I think its just that we have become lazy and cannot be bothered with small talk anymore, it takes effort to be pleasant all the time. I really enjoyed this experience and I cannot promise not to be cynical in the future but I think I will make the effort to make small talk more often, and not only with blonde lithe young women. it is amazing the effect it has on you and your day.

Just one last point in the defense of technology, to celebrate my fifteen hours of being nice I tweeted that I was going for a celebratory pint to my local, to my surprise the pint was waiting for me on the bar as I walked in, now that is a useful piece of technology.

The End of the Age of Innocence

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I discovered an old family photograph stuck in a tin box that was in a chest at the back of our garage, things from my long deceased parents, belongings that somehow I couldn’t bring myself to look at.

It is almost thirty five years since they died but somedays it seems like only yesterday. In this faded photograph is me, my Mother holding my younger Brother and my Aunty. It was taken on a holiday in the summer of Nineteen Sixty Four at South Stack Lighthouse near Hollyhead, Angelsey.

I can remember like it was yesterday, not because of the endless sun filled summer’s that seem to propagate my early years but the terrifying journey that I endured getting to the lighthouse. It has been etched in my mind like a vivid nightmare even to this day. So one night as I lay in bed I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the spot and see if it was really as scary as I remembered all those years ago.

Last week we spent on a great time on the island, even the weather was kind and the bays and secluded coves were every bit as beautiful as my memory had painted them. 

We arrived at South Stack twice, the first time on Tuesday only to discover a rather swish looking visitors centre and coaches full of American and Eastern European tourists, something that I couldn’t remember from my previous visit but because of a extended stay on the glorious beach at Trearddur Bay it was too late to go onto the island therefore we made arrangements to try again on Thursday.

The day arrived but the weather was a little less kind but myself and Dave Wickham a friend who is always up for an adventure decided that we firstly needed to find the location were the photograph was taken. That was the easy bit, on the way up to the entrance to the steps down to the lighthouse I spotted a grassy area that when we checked must have been were I was sat some forty odd years ago.

I duly took a photograph and then decided that we would make a start down the 400 plus steps down to the footbridge that connects the island to the mainland. (Our respective partners had far more sense that to follow us, they decided that an afternoon tea would be far more enjoyable and left us to it). 

So off we started down the pathway to the location of my worst nightmares. We started out  down the gentle slope and rounded a bend and then down another gentle slope, reminiscent of the roads you see in the alps when traversing mountain sides. 

This didn’t seem anything like my memories and I thought all these years I had been a wimp. We then rounded the third corner which can only be likened to stepping out onto the ledge of a thirty story office block, even with the reassuring thick stone walls it still induced a feeling of vertigo that made my head spin, just like in my dreams. This time however because I didn’t want to appear a wimp in front of my friend I gritted my teeth  looked at the ever steepening steps and got on with it.

It is a spectacular environment, the roar of the large waves crashing agains the cliffs and the feeling of the wind on your face is fantastic, worth every step. After making it down the traditional stairs you are then met with a ladder some twenty feet almost vertical to get you to the footbridge across to the island. It was at this point we met with a slight problem, the footbridge had a gate on it which was locked and I was unable to finish what I had started. So I was left with the only option left to me, I did what every Japanese tourist would do I took a photograph to prove I had made it.

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We started to make our way back to the top of the cliffs.  All I can say it was a good job that some one of a similar age to myself had planned the pathway because every hundred yards or so was a bench, handy if you are as fit as myself. So I had completed my journey back into my childhood and discovered one instead of fear and dread was now memories full of sunny summer days, holidays on beaches and a feeling of freedom that somehow we seem to have lost.

Today I was again reminded of my childhood with the saddest of news that Winnie Johnson passed away tragically without knowing what happened to her son Keith Bennett at the hands of the Moor’s Murderers Ian Brady and Miora Hindley.

I seems coincidental the same time that my photograph was being taken these two monsters changed everyones childhood forever. The crimes they committed were so unimaginable they led to children everywhere being kept close to home and parents in case it could happen again.

It was drilled into children at school never talk to strangers and if you were approached by a stranger run to any door and knock for help. I personally was never let loose to explore and use my bicycle like before and always had to tell my parents were I was going and who with. Even with my own children I turned into Dads taxi, a service that my own daughter has taken over with her own children.

I am lucky in many respects, I am fairly heathy, I have a close family and I have never known what it is like to lose a child and I even remember long lost hot summers on my bicycle with some sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper so I didn’t need to return home for lunch enabling me and my mates to go to Hollingworth Lake for the day.

I think I am the type of person who tries to forgive and forget but some things I cannot forgive, I cannot forgive Ian Brady for what he did to those poor children and their families and for what he did to the subsequent generations he has robbed of the childhood I had for a short while.

The age of innocence in my eyes ended in nineteen sixty five at the hands of two cowardly murderers who changed everyone’s lives. I pray that Winnie Johnson finds the answers she was looking for and may she rest in peace

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