The Anniversary Waltz

THIS weekend my blog No Time to Think ( celebrates its first birthday.

During this first year I have written 173 posts, and the blog has enjoyed 16,000 hits, more than 200 Likes and 100 followers. Plus I have been nominated for two awards.

The blog was conceived as a therapy to help recovery from my nervous breakdown last year and emerge from the depression which had haunted me since I was 14 years-old.

My doctors advised me to talk or write about my problems and that catharsis would help me address the demons which led to the collapse. So I blogged on the sex abuse I suffered as a young teenager, my 30 year-old conviction, my battle with cancer, the loss of two of my children, my failed relationships, my alcoholism, my bankruptcy, bereavements and the assault which almost ended my own life prematurely.

The writing was on occasions deeply painful but it was also liberating. I looked back and addressed each issue and found amazing support along the way from my close family and many great friends. Plus a brilliant GP who has been there every inch of the way – thanks Dr Beverley.

I was also able to work out why I had been so depressed and so angry for so long.

My own depression, which was diagnosed after my breakdown, was classified as ‘reactive depression’. In other words, it was not a clinical illness but a reaction to what life had thrown at me.

The depression manifested itself in the more obvious feelings of deep lows or worthlessness – especially in a relationship or at work – but also in many other less obvious ways such as anger and irritability, frustration, OCD behavior, selective hearing, tiredness, insomnia, over-eating, forgetfulness, clumsiness and inability to concentrate on one thing for long periods. In my case, it was all of these, plus for many years, an over-dependence on alcohol.

You see, I learned from an early age to put on a mask of happiness, and even stupidity, to hide the pain inside to allow myself to function normally.

But, there is a limit to how long you can lock things inside while smiling on the outside. As I wrote in an earlier blog posting When You Gonna Wake Up And Strengthen The Things That Remain? my jaunty exterior collapsed in a complete nervous breakdown on 12 June last year… a day when I simply could not hold it all in any more.

The process of healing has been long and last November made the hard decision to leave my career in newspaper journalism behind after 28 years and dedicate the final years of my working life to writing, publishing and teaching.

I have resurrected my old name Time is an Ocean (thank you Bob!) as a vehicle for my writing and lecturing. And later, with the help of an amazing business advisor (and now close friend), launched my own company writeahead.

But all the while my blog was ticking away in the background allowing me to write and develop ideas.

The blog contains the aforementioned stories about my life, anecdotes from my years in newspaper journalism, chapters from my first children’s novel and opinion pieces on current events.

But is also contains a poetry section, which over the year has grown to Topsy like proportions. It has become the most commented and favourably reviewed section of my entire blog, with friends and relations urging me to publish the poetry.

So today on the eve of the anniversary of No Time To Think, I have finished my first book of poetry. It awaits pre-press subbing and I plan to publish the first edition by the end of November. It is called: The Hill – poems and songs of darkness and light.

I am unsure exactly where the future will take me – who does? But it is going to be an adventure and I’m not too old to begin new adventures

I genuinely feel happy, positive and excited about the future for the first time in my adult life.

‘Time is an ocean it ends at the shore’… my own boat has just set sail.

A Tight Connection to My Heart

I have been meaning to update this blog since March and a whole summer has passed before I caught up with my own tail.

As regular readers will know, 2013 was an awful year for me. But 15 months on from the breakdown I am back where I feel alive, loved and comfortable.

And the support of my lovely family has been an immense part of this journey.

But it is the friends who were there for me when my life was at its bleakest who also really helped sustain me.

Many years ago I helped an old friend who was facing a tough time. He has now sadly passed away, but he left me a letter with the immortal words: “A man is known by his friends and not his enemies, I am grateful to count you as a friend.” Today his words chime clearly in my conscience.

You see, it is easy to know who you love and who loves you, but is less easy to appreciate who are true friends.

The events in Palestine this summer and elsewhere made me realise how much evil exists in this world. Even last Friday after the Scottish Independence Referendum we witnessed other forms of anger, thuggery and man’s inhumanity to man.

But there is still so much goodness and good people.

I could not have survived without such people.

So thank you for being there during my darkest hours: Laura E and Jane CW, Karen B, my friend of 22 years Judith G, a friend of even longer Jane A, my warmest buddy Nicola B, the lovely Kay D, members of my extended Outterside family including Lorraine, Stuart, Nicky and Karen, the timeless Sue C (is that 9 year-old son of yours really now 36!), more recent friends Kate M and Andy, Janine and Pete J, Catheryn and Colin B, Adele, Nat and David, the wonderful musical pals Sandra, Carolyn and Fiona.

Jenny and Caryn plus former work colleagues Marcello, Stephen, Craig C (you are an amazing mate) Rachel R, Sarah B, Sophie C and Karen A and especially the two Hannahs (LT and B) who both have the capacity to reduce me to tears by the unexpected honesty and true warmth of their words. And there are Vonny and Sam H, two amazing friends. Another friend by chance Julia (who is coming to stay next weekend) and of course Angela and Alex, who over the past two years have become the closest of friends… the number of phone calls and emails from Bristol have really kept me going!

Then at the end of last week, Juliet, my business advisor for the past nine months and a simply lovely human being became a good friend too.

It has always puzzled me how human chemistry works and how some people become such great friends while some others torture our souls.

It is almost as if you know who will be a friend when you first meet them… or is that only me?

And it is a bit like meeting life partners, you don’t necessarily need to have similar personalities for it just to work!

Psychologists believe there are 16 distinct types of personality in human beings, which in a nutshell are:

The Duty Fulfiller

Serious and quiet, interested in security and peaceful living. Extremely thorough, responsible, and dependable. Usually interested in supporting and promoting traditions and establishments. Well-organized and hard-working, they work steadily towards identified goals.

The Mechanic

Quiet and reserved, interested in how and why things work. Excellent skills with mechanical things. Risk-takers who they live for the moment. Usually interested in and talented at extreme sports. Uncomplicated in their desires. Loyal to their peers and to their internal value systems.

The Nurturer

Quiet, kind, and conscientious. Can be depended on to follow through. Usually puts the needs of others above their own needs. Stable and practical, they value security and traditions. Extremely perceptive of other’s feelings. Interested in serving others.

The Artist

Quiet, serious, sensitive and kind. Do not like conflict, and not likely to do things which may generate conflict. Loyal and faithful. Not interested in leading or controlling others. Flexible and open-minded. Likely to be original and creative. Enjoy the present moment.

The Protector

Quietly forceful, original, and sensitive. Tend to stick to things until they are done. Extremely intuitive about people, and concerned for their feelings. Well-respected for their perseverance in doing the right thing. Likely to be individualistic, rather than leading or following.

The Idealist

Quiet, reflective, and idealistic. Interested in serving humanity. Extremely loyal. Adaptable and laid-back unless a strongly-held value is threatened. Usually talented writers. Mentally quick, and able to see possibilities. Interested in understanding and helping people.

The Scientist

Independent, original, analytical, and determined. Have an exceptional ability to turn theories into solid plans of action. Long-range thinkers. Have very high standards for their performance, and the performance of others. Natural leaders, but will follow if they trust existing leaders.

The Thinker

Logical, original, creative thinkers. Can become very excited about theories and ideas. Exceptionally capable and driven to turn theories into clear understandings. Quiet and reserved, hard to get to know well. Individualistic, having no interest in leading or following others.

The Doer

Friendly, adaptable, action-oriented. “Doers” who are focused on immediate results. Living in the here-and-now, they’re risk-takers who live fast-paced lifestyles. Extremely loyal to their peers, but not usually respectful of laws and rules if they get in the way of getting things done.

The Guardian

Practical, traditional, and organized. Not interested in theory or abstraction unless they see the practical application. Have clear visions of the way things should be. Loyal and hard-working. Like to be in charge. Exceptionally capable in organizing and running activities.

The Performer

People-oriented and fun-loving, they make things more fun for others by their enjoyment. Living for the moment, they love new experiences. Interested in serving others. Likely to be the centre of attention in social situations. Well-developed common sense and practical ability.

The Caregiver

Warm-hearted, popular, and conscientious. Tend to put the needs of others over their own needs. Feel strong sense of responsibility and duty. Value traditions and security. Need positive reinforcement to feel good about themselves. Well-developed sense of space and function.

The Inspirer

Enthusiastic, idealistic, and creative. Able to do almost anything that interests them. Great people skills. Need to live life in accordance with their inner values. Excited by new ideas, but bored with details. Open-minded and flexible, with a broad range of interests and abilities.

The Giver

Popular and sensitive, with outstanding people skills. Externally focused, with real concern for how others think and feel. Usually dislike being alone. They see everything from the human angle, and dislike impersonal analysis.

The Visionary

Creative, resourceful, and intellectually quick. Good at a broad range of things. Enjoy debating issues, and may be into “one-upmanship”. They get very excited about new ideas and projects, but may neglect the more routine aspects of life. Generally outspoken and assertive.

The Executive

Assertive and outspoken – they are driven to lead. Excellent ability to understand difficult organizational problems and create solid solutions. Intelligent and well-informed, they usually excel at public speaking. They value knowledge and competence, and usually have little patience with inefficiency or disorganization.

I guess we all fit into one of those categories… or do we?

I reckon the psychologists have missed two important personality types: the Psychotic and the Complete Bastard.

Because while we are loved and supported by our life partners, soul mates and good friends, there are others who seem hell bent on ruining the lives of other human beings either at work, at home or any given social situation.

Now the two things I have learned from my breakdown and recovery is: (a) Don’t let the antagonists be part of your life in any way at all… leave them behind and (b) Embrace your friends and those who love you.

Simple stuff really and I guess you don’t need to be a psychologist to find that out. But don’t let it get to a breakdown before you do!

As this blog turns full circle I finish with an embrace for Helen, my confidante and witness at my wedding to Gill. She is the daughter and sister I never had, and my true soul mate.

She tells things as she sees them: “Fuck the bastards Nic, you are beautiful!” A man is known by his friends and not his enemies and I am a very lucky man indeed.

Shedding off one more layer of skin

THE UK has a population of approximately 65 million people and with ever faster transport systems and micro second communication technology it is now just a large village.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me at what a very small world we really live in.
As regular readers of this blog may know, I was brought up near Brighton, on the rolling downs of Sussex – for world readers, this is the deep south of England.
Recently I received a small and quite pleasant shock. My best friend while growing up in the village of Mile Oak was my next door neighbour, Johnny. Please read There’s danger on the battlefield where the shells of bullets fly for further references. I lost complete touch with Johnny when I left school at 18 for university life in Yorkshire… that was 40 years ago!
Two weeks ago, while browsing updates about old class mates on the website Friends Reunited, I noticed Johnny’s name and the fact he was living and working as a boat builder in Argyll, in the north west of Scotland. I tracked his company email address and fired off a “how are you?” email. Ten minutes later came a surprised reply. He had moved to Argyll in 1990 – the same year I moved to Argyll – and has lived there ever since. He lives in a village some seven miles away from where I used to live for two years. But most surprisingly he used to read the newspaper I edited every week, never realising that I was the editor. He even remembered in detail one story I had published. We both laughed at the fact that we still remembered in detail the hand grenade incident in 1966!
One of the more bizarre examples of the village-like geography of my life reads like a Pete Frame “Rock Family” tree.
I studied for my degrees between 1974 and 1979 at Huddersfield Polytechnic and the nearby Bretton Hall College. My oldest and best friend from this time was an art student called Judith, while the best man at my wedding was a music student called Howard. In my second year at college I was gobsmacked to find that while I was at home for a reading week, the famous folk singer/comedian Mike Harding had slept in my bed following a gig at the college. I dined out on this simple story for many years.
As time went on I became a huge fan of the English folk rock group Fairport Convention and would often attend their annual Cropredy Convention festival in Oxfordshire each August. Over the years, I got to know a few members of the band, while sharing a beer at the festival bar – the most lugubrious of whom was multi-instrumentalist Maart Allcock.
In 2007 I discovered that Maart lived close to me in North Wales. I popped along to watch him perform in a local pub and briefly chatted to his wife Jan.
Roll on August 2008. My old friend from student days, Judith, said she would like to come to Cropredy with me. We made plans and packed our camping gear. A couple of days before the festival started, Judith told me that her sister in New Zealand had mentioned that an old best friend from their childhood in Coventry called Jan had married a member of Fairport Convention. There could be only one combination! So three days later I introduced Judith to Maart and Jan Allcock at the festival bar. There followed a mix of laughter and tears and a few pints of beer. We later bumped into Mike Harding, who was compering part of the festival!
But this, by chance, simple reunion didn’t end there.
Over the next couple of years, Maart and I began to swap matey emails and I discovered that (a) He studied at Huddersfield Polytechnic while I was studying there. (b) He played with my best man and fellow music student Howard. (c) After leaving Huddersfield he moved to Leeds and played with the aforementioned Mike Harding.
Meanwhile, on the back of my “look who’s been sleeping in my bed” story I became Facebook friends with Mike Harding and mutual friend Andy Kershaw – who happened to be the events secretary at Leeds University – a spit away from Huddersfield – in the mid 1970s.
And to take things to a natural conclusion, last year I found out that Andy Kershaw is currently a neighbour of a good friend Yvonne in Todmorden, near Huddersfield. That friend is in turn a mutual friend of Judith!
A silly and quite bizarre post script is that one Christmas Eve, 20 years ago, my wife’s parents received a knock on the door at their home near Coventry. My mother-in-law opened the door to be greeted by a man carrying a large turkey. “Oh my God, you’re that Mike Harding from the telly!” she exclaimed. It wasn’t… it was fellow comedian and local Brummie Jasper Carrott, whose sister lived next door. He had simply knocked on the wrong door!
Mike Harding was acquainted with this tale only last year!
Which all goes to prove the six degrees of separation theory!
And it is with my wife Gill that the next simple twist of fate takes place – and it really is a double whammy!
Long before we met, Gill lived and worked as an English teacher in the Greek city of Thessaloniki for 10 years. She returned permanently to the UK in 2002 and often tells me stories of the sun drenched café lifestyle, restaurants and architecture of this beautiful Greek city.
When Gill and I first got together we lived in small hamlet in the North Wales hills. My son Nathan attended a primary school in a nearby village. The school was tiny with just 10 pupils in his year group and 96 pupils at the school in total! One day, about 18 months ago, Nathan told me that a new Greek boy had joined his school. “And he does taekwondo too!” he enthused (his favourite sport). A few weeks later at a taekwondo training session, Nathan introduced me to the new boy Yanni and his Greek dad Dino and British mum Nicola. I, in turn, introduced them to my wife. The next 15 minutes stretched believability as we discovered: (a) Yanni’s family had moved from Thessaloniki. (b) They lived just one street away from where Gill had lived. (c) Dino and Nicola owned a restaurant which Gill dined at almost every week. (d) They were both friends with one of Gill’s closest friends from her time in Thessaloniki. (e) When Nicola first arrived in Greece she had gone to the British Council where Gill worked to ask for advice on learning Greek! Needless to say we are now all good friends!
But Gill and my life coincidences don’t end there.
Gill is nine years younger than me and the first coincidence is we share the same strange surname: Outterside. There are only about 240 Outterside households in the entire UK!
Both our families originally herald from the Newcastle and Sunderland areas in North East England.
In September 1984, my first wife Ann, our new born son Ben and I were staying with relations in the region. We took the opportunity to visit my elderly Great Aunt Nan Charlton (my grandfather’s sister) at her small villa at Bank Top in Throckley, a few miles west of Newcastle. Aunt Nan was aged about 94 at the time and I had not seen her since my grandfather died three years earlier. When we arrived at the house I was amazed to find this frail old lady picking blackberries at the end of her garden. She looked pleased to see us and chirped: “The blackberries are good this year. The young girl next door is picking a basket full too.” I looked through the hedge to see a pretty young woman of about 18 years of age picking the fruit.
Over a cup of tea, my great aunt explained that the new next door neighbours were also called Outterside, but had not realised her own maiden name for many months after they had moved in. She said she did not think we were related in any way, but the girl’s father Bruce had once worked with my father’s twin brother Geoff at Heathrow Airport!
I thought little more of it and was saddened a few years later when I had to miss Aunt Nan’s 100th birthday party, and a year later, her funeral.
Anyway, time and divorces passed by and sometime about 25 years later I befriended Gill via Facebook. The friendship was partly based on the fact we both lived quite close but mainly because we shared the same surname. The friendship blossomed into love two years ago and in February 2013 we became married.
Along the way we discovered that (a) we share the same great-great-great grandparents (b) I had worked with Gill’s brother on the Outterside family tree some 10 years earlier (c) Gill had attended my great aunt Nan’s 100th birthday, because (d) she was the young girl picking blackberries in the neighbour’s garden all those years ago.
It is a very small world!

Who’s Kidnapped Father Christmas?

MY younger son Nathan is almost 12-years-old and has already developed a number of real passions in life… rugby, taekwondo and his X-Box are among his favourites.

However, he also reads insatiably and like a lot of kids his age is transfixed by zombie and ghost stories.

In his last year at primary school his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He answered: “A writer like dad”, before naïvely adding “and I won’t need any exams for that!”

Recently he was asked to enter a story writing competition at his new high school, under the title Who’s Kidnapped Father Christmas?  This is his entry:

THE front door bell chimed.

Cal looked up from his X-Box, walked to his bedroom door and craned his head onto the landing to listen. Downstairs he could hear his dad open the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr Jones is it?” he could hear a voice ask.

“Yes, that’s me,” he heard his father reply.

“I am Police Constable Rogers,” continued the voice. “I am sorry to bother you sir, but we are conducting house to house enquiries about the disappearance of two young children in this neighbourhood. May I ask you to look at these photographs?”

Cal could hear a faint shuffle of paper as the police officer showed his father two pictures. There was a long pause, before his dad answered, “No, I am sorry I can’t say I recognise either of them. But my son Callum may know them.”

There was another pause before Cal heard his dad shout: “Callum, can you come down here for a moment.”

Cal dropped his X-Box controller by his door and gingerly made his way downstairs to join his dad at the front door. In front of him was a tall brown eyed policeman holding two A5 size photographs.

“Good afternoon young man,” said the policeman. “I wonder if you can help us… do you recognise either of these children?”

Cal looked at the photographs of a young boy and a girl and shook his head.

“Sorry they look like Year Five kids to me,” he said, “I am at high school.”

The police officer thanked Cal and his father and made a tick on a list on his clip board. As his dad shut the door, Cal could hear his X-Box messenger ping from his bedroom. He turned and scampered upstairs to see who was sending him a message.

It was from his best friend Ben. The message was simple, “How’s Chris getting on? Can I come over later?”

Cal put on his Turtle Beach headphones and called Ben instantly.

“Not been to see him since breakfast,” he said. “But he seems to be getting stronger by the day. He loves those Werther’s Originals sweets you brought him yesterday.”

“Does anyone suspect anything?” asked Ben.

“No, dad hasn’t been down to the old summer house since August and with the rugby I don’t think he will go back down there till after Christmas,” answered Cal. “But we had a copper at the door earlier. Have you heard about two missing primary school kids?”

“No,” said Ben. “Shall I bring some more bread and Pot Noodles over later?”

“Yeah that will be great,” said Cal, “But make sure you use the back gate.”

“Okay,” said Ben, “See you about five o’clock, should be dark by then.”

The afternoon passed slowly as 12-year-old Cal tried to reach a new level on the video game on his X-Box. He sat on his bed and took a sip of coke and thought about the strange events of the past two weeks. Chris still puzzled him. He seemed to have appeared from nowhere the day that he and Ben discovered him slumped on the park bench near the little kids’ play area. Cal remembered there was blood on his chin as if he had fallen over and bashed it. But other than that Chris was unremarkable. He was old, with a messy white beard and wore a dirty old coat and faded red trousers. And he did smell awful. It was a familiar smell like rotten meat from the back of the butcher’s shop. If Cal had to guess, Chris was at least 80.

So he and Ben had helped the old man to his feet and took him back to the old summer house at the end of Cal’s garden. On the 10 minute walk back the old man said very little except that he was hungry and very grateful.

That was two weeks ago and since then the two boys had found some new clothes from the bag his mum puts charity shop stuff in and had fed Chris on a diet of bread, soup, Pot Noodles and now Werther’s Originals sweets. They did manage to get him into the main house one afternoon while mum and dad were out and let him have a hot bath. Cal had to admit that Chris smelled a bit better after that bath. But the rotten meat smell soon came back.

Now the old man was getting stronger and although it was December and cold outside Cal knew they would soon have to ask him to leave.

At 4.45pm Cal heard his dad leave for rugby training.

Ten minutes later he crept downstairs and walked down the garden to the old summer house behind the beech hedge. He knocked on the door and told the not-so-bedraggled man that he would be back in a moment. Cal heard the back gate open and turned to see Ben appear with a Sainsbury’s bag full of Pot Noodles.

“Where the heck did you get the cash to buy that much,” asked Cal.

Ben winked and said: “Better not to know. Chris needs food and it’s not like it’s stolen or we have kidnapped Chris or anything.”

The two boys entered the summer house and handed the bag to Chris. The old man peered inside. At that moment Ben noticed that Chris had some blood on his hands and a cut to his wrist. He nudged Cal and pointed to the blood. Cal grabbed some tissue from his pocket and began to dab Chris’s wrist.

“How did that happen?” he asked.

“Dunno,” replied Chris gruffly.

Ben then noticed a large green sack in the corner of the summer house.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the sack.

“Just some of my stuff that I left in the park,” answered Chris. “Can you boys leave me be now, I need to go out for a bit.”

He seemed ungrateful but the boys left the summer house and disappeared to the main house to play on Cal’s X-Box. But as they began to climb the stairs they heard Cal’s mum gasp loudly from the living room.

“What is it mum?” Cal called.

“Come here,” his mum replied quickly.

The boys hurried into the living room where Cal’s mum watching the news channel on TV.

“Have you seen this,” said mum, “Another child has gone missing in our town. That’s three in less than two weeks,” she gasped. “You boys stay in tonight, something’s not quite right.”

“Okay, mum,” said Cal. “Is it okay if we stay in the garden and can dad give Ben a lift home when he gets back from rugby?”

“Sure, sure,” answered mum who was still transfixed to the TV. “It is saying here that at the site where each child was last seen, the police have found a small opened Christmas present. It is weird, weird, weird,” she added.

On the screen a policeman was showing the green and silver wrapping of an opened Christmas present.

Ben whispered to Cal: “Hey, do you think we had better go and tell old Chris to be careful out there, cos he was going out and who knows how dangerous it might be for an old man.”

“Yeah, good idea. Let’s go and tell him now,” answered Cal.

The boys hurried down the garden and knocked at the summer house door. There was no reply, so they knocked a bit louder. Still no answer. So Ben gently opened the wooden door and turned on the light. There was no sign of Chris.

Cal looked at the green sack that they had seen earlier.

“Hey, I wonder what is in here?” he asked.

Ben tugged at the sack and out tumbled a couple of small boxes wrapped in green and silver Christmas wrapping paper.

“Whaaaat!” exclaimed Cal, “That’s just like to ones the copper was showing on TV just now!”

“There are loads of them in this sack,” said Ben.

Cal pointed out another black sack hidden behind the green one.

“And what do you think might be in here?” he said.

“Oh man!” gasped Ben. “It is full of the Pot Noodles, stale bread and Cuppa Soups we have been giving Chris the past two weeks.”

“In that case,” said Cal, “What’s he been eating and how is he surviving. He’s just an old man, isn’t he!”

The boys were about to find out. Behind them the summer house door creaked open.

“Aha, so you thought you would do some busybody nosing around then,” said a gruff and quite menacing voice.

Cal and Ben turned to see Chris standing in the doorway wearing a dirty looking Santa Claus coat and trousers and muddy black boots. But what worried the boys was the black sack he was carrying which seemed to be moving about as if something was inside.

Chris saw the boys looking at his sack. He paused for a moment and said: “Just a little snack I picked up while I was out.”

“But you two boys are much bigger. Think I might save you both for my Christmas dinner. Although I usually eat well on Christmas Eve with all those kiddies I have to visit.

Cal and Ben tried to scream but Chris was too quick for them.

As they passed out both boys had a distinct feeling of being stuffed inside a very dark sack.