Words for Friends #10

This is part of a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough.

These living epitaphs to my true and lovely friends are published in a random order as fancy takes me.

#10 Ian

My friendship with Ian comes home on so many levels.

We were both brought up in the same part of Sussex – albeit three years apart in age – and the same pubs, gigs, record stores and venues were our playground as older teenagers. We are also both lifelong obsessive fans of Brighton and Hove Albion. Our first Albion games were exactly one year apart!

Yet our shared passion did not bring us together until an Albion away game with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, in March 2004! Then through football, Fans United for Wrexham, music and conversation our friendship grew.

But, it was not until I suffered my breakdown in 2013, that I discovered the true measure of Ian’s friendship and concern. As two family men, who both love our children dearly, we have shared many heart wrenching moments and confessions – the sort that blokes don’t normally chat about in a pub!

And those confessions and conversations continue now.

As the last full measure, I know Ian is always there as a true friend, an open ear, a confidante and a great mate… thank you. UTA!

 

Words for Friends #5

This is part of a new series of blogs entitled Words for Friends, in which I will try to acknowledge some people in my life for whom words of thanks are not nearly enough.

These living epitaphs to my true and lovely friends are published in a random order as fancy takes me.

#5 Louise

Louise is a fairly new friend who I met through social media, but someone I already regard as a close and kindred spirit.

Emotionally we are similar souls, and we also tick all the boxes that makes someone a close friend.

She comes from my home area of Sussex, supports my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion, lives for music and books, is a former English teacher and now an editor, an ardent socialist and activist for Jeremy Corbyn, and a campaigner for Palestine.

And like me, for a lifetime she has battled deep anxiety and depression and the curve balls that life throws our way. She expresses those struggles with refreshing honesty.

But of all the qualities of friendship I admire the most, is her care for fellow human beings.

More than once she has been the first to ask how I am feeling, and more than once volunteered practical support. Thank you.

I am so glad we met Louise, I can see this friendship lasting a long time.

Sussex – My Home

Who would the rolling Downs exchange

For mountains of a greater height?

The sweeping hills and fertile combe

For summits that obscure your sight?

Who would the ancient earthworks change

For hostile castles, gaunt and grey?

That stand out black against the sun

Nor gladly greet the coming day?

Who would our cool blue sea exchange

For inland lakes and muddy sands?

We English to the seas are bound

By unseen, unrelenting bands.

Who would our chalk white cliffs exchange

For others that are red or brown?

And those who would wish our peaceful Weald

The chaos of a busy town?

(1974)

Shedding off one more layer of skin

fernhillvilla
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!

No Direction Home

“I was born very far from where I was meant to be, so I am on my way home” (Bob Dylan)

YEARS which end with number Four seem to have unwittingly become major watersheds in my life as I too quickly approach my 60th year on this planet.

Forty years ago in 1974, I left the sanctuary of my parents’ home in the rolling downland of Sussex to begin studying for a history and geography degree in the cold, grey Yorkshire mill town of Huddersfield.

I was just 18 and the move was at the same time both terrifying and exciting, a time of discovery, rebellion, revelry, reality and education.

The locals spoke with an odd accent I had only heard on a few BBC2 dramas or Emmerdale Farm. Nowt, owt, rintin, snap, spice and eh lad, quickly entered my everyday vocabulary.

At first the people seemed abrupt and cold, but also welcoming and warm. They were different to those I had grown up with but I quickly learned to love them.

I also quickly learned the wonders of Tetley’s and Sam and John Smith’s beer, a pie floater on mushy peas, fish wibbits, Wednesday nights at the seedy Coach House nightclub and cheap second-hand LPs in a record shop secreted on the top floor of a decaying Victorian arcade.

Huddersfield Polytechnic (now University) was truly far from home – 260 miles to be precise – and at times may well have been Mars or Jupiter, such were the rudimentary means of communication with friends and family back home.

Those were indeed different times.

In 1974 the UK was fresh from the miners’ strike and the three day week. It took two general elections that year to re-establish a Labour Government, initially under Huddersfield born Harold Wilson and later (from 1976) under Jim Callaghan. It was a time of increasing industrial unrest and the beginning of the shift to high inflation and unemployment. Strikes were commonplace and the whole country appeared to be in political flux – none of us foresaw Thatcher or the 1980s! It was also the time of rising unrest in Northern Ireland and ever increasing acts of terrorism.

Oh, and finally the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe was still at large – one of his victims Helen Rytka was picked up near Johnnies’ Nightclub – a favourite haunt of Poly students.

At the Poly, life mirrored the world around us. Most of us had the luxury of full maintenance grants and thereby disposable cash which was often spent at the Student Union bar or Trinity Hall bar, nights out at the aforementioned Coach House nightclub or Johnnies’ and at loads of diverse and fabulous music gigs.

During that time we had rent strikes, a sit-in/lock-in in the Admin block, put up Workers Rights marchers in the Union building and two students were arrested and held in police cells for two nights under Terrorism charges – they were later released!

Revolution was in the air, smoke was in the lungs and beer on the carpet.

Twice I was almost sent down, once for failing two first year exams and a second time for being a reckless drunk playing tag on the flat roof of a four storey student hall of residence.

Oh and I also stood for election as president of the student union, but as Leeds United manager Don Revie famously said: “You get nowt for coming second”.

Somehow, between all this, I graduated in 1977 with a good honours degree in my two favourite subjects: geography and medieval history.

I was now 21 years old and for the first time I learned the difference between a vocational degree and a non-vocational degree. I had studied for the latter! What career options were open for a young graduate in two academic humanities subjects? The answer was simple: teach or lecture the self-same subjects. To lecture I needed a second degree and was luckily accepted onto an MSc course at Edinburgh University. I had a new focus, but three weeks before the academic year was due to begin the funding body wrote to me to say they had run out of cash and I would have to wait another year.

I flirted with psychiatric nursing during that ‘year out’ and settled for a second best option and enrolled on a post graduate teaching training course at Bretton Hall College – ironically just 12 miles from Huddersfield.

I qualified in 1979 and proved to be a good teacher. I enjoyed five full years teaching in two high schools in Barnsley and later in a small town on the Welsh Marches.

But Four was about to strike…

George Orwell foretold 1984 as a year of doom for mankind; for me it is a year that will be forever Orwellian. As a 27-year-old ‘highly gifted’ teacher I made a monumental blunder that was to end my teaching career and change my life forever.

I won’t bore with the full story as it can be read in detail in a piece titled Regret on my blog.

Thankfully, or rather selfishly, I had started dabbling with early personal computers and had even run a lunchtime computer club at my last school. I had bought myself an Acorn Electron home computer – at just 32k memory it was the little brother of the BBC B computers which were finding their way into most British schools at the time.

My new nerdy hobby soon became a passion and I began writing letters and games solutions to two monthly computer magazines: BBC User and Electron User. In what seemed like no time I was given new software to review and a few months later a regular monthly column in one of the mags, for which I was paid a handsome £120 a month.

Two years of freelance writing, private tutoring and teaching English to YTS trainees followed. Then in the summer of 1988 I was offered a staff job as assistant editor of a new magazine Atari ST User. Somehow this directionless history and geography graduate had become a journalist.

My rise through magazine and later (1990) newspaper journalism was meteoric and reached its zenith when the next Four came around: 1994.

In a nutshell it was an amazing year: a succession of major exclusives unravelling a link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells (the same ones used in both Gulf Wars) and childhood cancer drew international attention. I scooped two major press awards for my work and to cap it all I was informed that 41 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my investigation. Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour.

Later that year I was head-hunted by Scotland’s premier daily broadsheet The Scotsman and elevated to the position of Chief Investigative Reporter.

The next 10 years passed too quickly. The long awaited Millennium was here and gone in the blink of an eye and my hair was turning grey as I made my way into middle age.

In 2004 I had moved away from newspapers and plied my trade in PR and publishing. They were treading water years, but in hindsight I learned and honed new skills of writing precise and detailed copy for demanding clients, including county council and national sporting bodies. I also became a publisher, writing, designing, editing and printing brochures, annual reports and newspapers.

In 2006, due to an unforeseen change in domestic circumstances, I returned to my passion of newspaper journalism and became editor of a thriving county weekly tabloid in North Wales. But life is always a rollercoaster and my demons caught up with me – catalogued in detail in my blog – exactly a year ago. On 12 June 2013, I suffered a nervous breakdown and as I recovered knew I had to change my direction home. Last November I signed off for the last time almost 28 years in employed journalism.

A rocky road to freedom followed. Supported by my gorgeous wife and son I began writing for real. I found escape, refuge, solace, excitement and therapy in my blog, my poetry and my most recent teen novel: Poison (The Adventures of Nathan Sunnybank and Joe Greenfield). I was writing for myself and learning more about who I really am than I had glimpsed during the previous 56 years.

Autumn leaves fell, winter came and went and the spring of 2014 heralded a new tomorrow.

This week I am launching my company writeahead, from its base here in North Shropshire. For my US and Australian friends, Shropshire is a long county bordering Wales in what is known as the English West Midlands.

My company promises a new way forward in marketing and publishing for small and medium sized businesses and for individual clients. Drawing on my years in journalism, I aim to provide a one-stop tailor-made service to research, write, design, print and publish, everything from simple business cards to brochures, magazines and books.

I will also offer a unique service to interview, research, write and publish memorial and celebratory publications for individual clients. Whether it is a one-off eulogy in the local press for a departed loved one, a fuller memorial for a funeral service, a This is Your Life type magazine for a 40th, 65th or 80th birthday or a full bound biography, there lies my new tomorrow.

I am home.

Or as John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

NOTE: You can check out my new company at: http://www.writeahead.co.uk

Brief Encounter #1

Leo Sayer

THIS was my first encounter with anyone recognised as widely famous.

I was brought up in the Sussex coastal towns of Shoreham by Sea and Hove. They were years of endless summers and wide-eyed innocence.

At the time of meeting the as-yet undiscovered talent of Leo Sayer I was in sixth form in nearby Lancing and occasionally (and illegally) attended music nights at the Swiss Cottage public house in Shoreham. Often on stage for a few songs was the talented Mr Sayer – long curly hair above a T shirt and blue denim jeans and except for his unique voice unrecognisable from the Leo everyone later came to know.

The following summer I worked the vacation before going up to university at our local general infirmary: Southlands Hospital. It was hard graft but an enjoyable student job, full of lasting memories.

No memory is sharper than in the week I started, when walking past me in a corridor outside Ward E and pushing a patient in a wheelchair was Mr Sayer!

On returning to the ward, and full of curiosity, I immediately asked after him. After all, what was a pub singer doing working in my local hospital?

“Oh that will be Gerry,” the staff nurse Cherry volunteered with a dismissive shrug.

“He sings a bit and I hear he is quite good,” she added.

“I know,” I replied, “I’ve heard him!”

Back home, my mum, who was a nurse at the same hospital, confirmed that Gerry had worked alongside her as a porter for quite some time.

A few months later Leo (real name Gerard) Sayer premiered two of his songs on my favourite TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test and soon after enjoyed a huge chart hit with the single The Show Must Go On.

I and many other teenagers from our local town bought his first album Silverbird. The rest as they say is history… but I can genuinely say I knew someone BEFORE they were famous!