Monday, 17 December 2012

Three gifts for the age of austerity

Last year I offered up my first Christmas blog on the idea of an alternative set of kings or wise men.  Those of you who took the time to read it (all three of you) have intimated that it wasn’t half bad, and that none of you took any offence, for which I am eternally relived.  Therefore, I have spent my idle moments of the last three or four weeks considering how this year’s blog-essay, or “blessy”, may shape up.

I enjoy my morning drive to work.  I never tire of the views of the effortless countryside that I have to ride through for the first part of my day.  Chris Evans on the radio is (just about) tolerable, and you get enough news to get you thinking, enough banter to get you smiling, and enough cheese to keep you regular.  However, the theme to which the news has rightly returned time and time again in recent months is the plight of the poor around the world; not necessarily, however, the economically poor.  Not a week goes by when a story does not tug at the heart strings: obviously, the situations in Greece and Portugal, but more than that, people ill and dying, that poor nurse and the radio hoax, and, this weekend, the events in Newtown, Connecticut.  It strikes me that the world is becoming scared of its own shadow, and that we are poor in ways beyond money.

However, at such a time of the year, when generosity abounds, surely we should be able in some small way to counteract the effects of these troubles?

So that is what I am seeking to use my Christmas message for this year.  My objective is to offer up three gifts for a world suffering through an age of austerity.  I am fully aware that, despite their low cost, it would take an Herculean effort to dispense them globally.   Equally, some people might feel I sit in my place of comfort (and joy) and don’t appreciate all that goes on.  However, three gifts I have to offer, and I hope that at least one of them will resonate with you each.

As with last year, my offerings come with the caveat that no offence is intended, and no harm sought: I seek merely to provide something to think about – this is, after all, although you would never believe it from my usual ramblings, and educational website – and to ponder, maybe even to discuss and debate.

Therefore, after much consideration (and I genuinely mean that – one of them changed only yesterday) I have chosen to offer as my Three Christmas gifts:

Something “done well”
A little humility
A good night’s sleep

Allow me to explain their significance, at this time of the year and at this point in our historical evolution for our race of beings.

I am a great fan of the radio presenter and broadcaster Marc Radcliffe.  I have followed him at various times of the day or night through various stations and incarnations as he has offered up an ongoing variety of music, or, as he humbly puts it himself, “playing some records with a bit of talking in between”.  During a holiday this year I had the great pleasure of reading the latest instalment of his various autobiographical grumblings, entitled Reeling in the Years.  In one of the later chapters, Marc recalls asking people what their favourite thing is in music.  Various celebs and mus-oes offer their own notions of this, but the one that struck me the most was from Lou Reed.

Let’s be honest, if you’re going to listen to someone when it comes to these issues, it’s Lou Reed.  His answer was technical, cool, eloquent, yet stunningly beautiful.  His answer to the best thing in music was “the change from and E chord to an A, but done well”. I think he’s got a major point here, and not just in the sense of major chords.  Yet his crucial point is simplistically faultless – perfection can be found in the smallest of movements and issues, but only if it is done well.

At this time of year, our ears are forced to near bleeding by some pieces that we hear every single twelvemonth.  As much as I love the Pogues, and the romanticism of the song and its own unique story, Shane McGowan’s voice is hardly a thing of beauty.  Equally, although I’ve nothing whatsoever against the bloke, Shakin’ Stevens could hardly be considered to have added immeasurably to the yuletide oeuvre.  Again, the story behind and the generosity surrounding Band Aid is something I always enjoy far more than the song itself.    

However, for every man from Wolverhampton ripping his voice box to shreds (and readers of last year’s Christmas blog will know I have ought but fondness for the great Nod) there are, within the latter end of the those CD box sets, two or three examples of Christmas cheer done, as Lou would say, well.

But you have to look for them.

Many may guess that I am about to mention Bing Crosby.  Only in passing; my mate Adrian Burns sang White Christmas in one of our school plays, and since then that is the only version I can reasonably tolerate.  Aled Jones? Not for me, although when it is doing its job, i.e., accompanying the wonderful cartoon, then the Snowman as a whole piece is indeed something done extremely well.

No, I would encourage you to seek things done well in other, less predictable places.  Listen to Chiqitita by ABBA, all of it, gone on, and then just when you’re saying “Phew, it’s finished” listen out for the amazing piece of piano playing.  Now that is done well.

Similarly, although the words “Cheesy synth pop” are normally enough to make me put my head in a bucket, I always feel festive when the opening bars of Wonderful Christmas Time kick in. 

Greg Lake’s guitar playing.  Say no more.

Although I said I wouldn’t mention Bing, the harmony between him and David Bowie in the middle of Peace on Earth is a bit awesome. 

But, let us go beyond music, where things are done well every day.  London, never my favourite place on the planet, must be given an enormous clap on the collective back for the Olympics – now they were done very well. 

The pomp and circumstance surrounding the jubilee, and, last year, the royal wedding – now that was all done extremely well.

Yet, how could I possibly offer up one of these as a present? 

I was actually thinking of something a little closer to home.  Something more tangible and do-able. 

The way I’d like you to look at this gift is like this: if there is a key event you are worried about, e.g., the cooking of a turkey, the presentation of a pudding, whatever it may be, I hope that you will feel that you did it well.  The satisfaction of a job well done / done well is immeasurable, and so I hope you earn and enjoy that feeling sometime during the next few weeks. 

Or, I hope that something is done well on your behalf – that surprise gift, that meal you’re going to, that visit to a relative.  Whatever it may be, I hope you will look back and think to yourself “Now that was pretty awesome!”  That is what I wish for you when I talk about something “done well”.  I wish that you get the chance to look back on something you did, or something that was done for you, and you get the chance to enjoy how wonderful it was.

So, first gift down, and, like a camembert or bottle of plonk, it may take a while before you feel the full benefit of it, but it is well meant and intended none-the-less.

And so, onto the next invisible parcel beneath our ethereal tree of austerity…

Recently I had the joy of taking my seat at Villa Park.  I have been lucky enough to visit some of the world’s greatest grounds, including the old Wembly, and the Nou Camp, but nostalgia and memory lane make Villa Park glow with special sparkle for me.  Cold wet Wednesdays of the 80s and 90s come flashing back as I walk along Trinity Road.  Sunny Saturdays of yesteryear, including my first, sleep inducing visit as a 4 year old, tumble into my mind.  After a League Cup Final victory in the early 90s, the players paraded the trophy at the front of the Holte end, which, for a full ten seconds, shone with electric white as fans took their photos of the momentous occasion. 

The game was, shall we say, dull.  Very much not done well.  However, one incident stuck out.  One minute to be precise.  The nineteenth. 

You may be forgiven for thinking that you have missed an essential law change to the game of Association Football that imbues the nineteenth minute with some kind of special status.  Fear not, the game as a whole remains largely unchanged.  However, at a Villa game, the nineteenth minute is special.

As the large red numbers on the digital clocks at either end of the ground changed from 18:59, every man, woman and child stood on their feet and loudly, loudly applauded.  Their joint motivation?  Every nineteenth minute of every Villa game sees this act as a mark of support and friendship for our club captain, Stiliyan Petrov, who is currently battling a rare form of leukaemia.  Of course (and I feel sure you have filled this blank in for yourselves already) Petrov, or Stan as he is affectionately known, wears number 19 on his shirt. 

I knew this was coming.  I have joined in with it myself whilst watching them on my own at home.  Yet I was struck dumb by the spectacle of fans from every section of the crowd, including the away fans, standing deferentially and applauding warmly to mark their own respect for an outstanding servant of the game and his club. 

That is humility.

Every summer, I smile as I watch the “Race for Life” posters adorn buses and billboards. A few summers ago my wife took part, taking both the running and charity sides very seriously.  The kids and I took our place next to the barrier towards the finish line, and watched and cheered.  I told the kids we had one rule: cheer everyone.  All the competitors had turned up with their own agendas, and who were we to question them? 

So we stood there and cheered.  I was, however, extremely glad I had taken my shades, as I was repeatedly left at a loss by the messages of hope, of remembrance and of love that adorned people’s pink t-shirts.  As they ran past, I could do little but read the heartfelt and tender messages on the back of the competitors jerseys; messages to those they had lost, but still loved.

And in memory of these departed loved ones, thousands of women turned up and ran.  In their often ill-fitting running gear, and their tutus, in their angels wings, cowboys hats, sequins, tiaras and regalia, they ran. They laughed.  They encouraged each other. And they remembered.

That is humility.

Like many of you, I woke on Saturday morning to the news of the shooting at an American elementary school.  Like many of you, my thoughts turned to “Not again!”, and “Why always in America?”, and my condolences to the parents and families who have lost loved ones so close to Christmas – indeed, at any time.  I forced myself to watch, with discomfort, as parents and teachers openly wept together, and comforted one another.

However, my abiding memory was of watching President Obama (forever in my mind President now, not Barak or plain old Obama)  almost unable to speak.  One of the leaders of the free world demonstrating what it is to care.  To stand in front of the assembled press of most of the globe in the knowledge that what you are about to say and do will carry gravitas, must carry gravitas, and to simply and beautifully show what it means to feel sad. 

The world often needs its men and women to stand up as leaders; yet, on rare but important occasions, which creep up on us without our knowledge, we need our leaders to be men. 

That is humility.

Although I do not wish your homes to be visited by tragedy this year, as my examples seem to point, I do wish you to be visited by some humility.  Whether that humility take the form of some compassion shown to you and yours, or by you and yours to another home, or in the act and deed of another, I wish you to be visited by a piece of humility that reminds you that, in this troubled world, decency still thrives.  If I could offer you anything, it would be this.

For tangible evidence, look no further than the words of In the Bleak Midwinter:

Question: What can I give him?                                 Answer: Give your heart.

Couldn’t put it better myself.  Therefore, whatever you receive this Christmas, with the bad news that will almost inevitably touch the world in the weeks to come, I hope it is given and received with a humble heart.

So that brings us to package number 3 from our Santa’s sack of imagination. 

I am all too aware that, in comparison to many, I lead an extremely cushy life.  There’s always enough in the account for a bottle of wine, or two, I’ve never missed a mortgage payment and I enjoy the odd holiday here and there.  My wife and Mum and Dad would instantly jump in shouting “You’ve earned it Chubs!”  Be that as it may, there’s no reason for me not to acknowledge the nice things I enjoy in life, for which I am grateful all the year round.

Furthermore, even when my job is most keenly brought into focus, for instance, during our recent OfSTED, even then I could enjoy what I had around me.  Everyone urged me to “get a good night’s sleep”.  But that adage for me has always been pointless – I always sleep.  The only two things that have every kept me awake are hayfever, or too much sleep during the day.

But I am fully aware that it is not the same for everyone.

Although I mentioned above that I did not want to linger on financial difficulties, I am all too keenly aware that people do lose sleep, and they lose sleep about money.  Never more will this have been keenly felt that in recent months.

Yet there are a million personal reasons why people lose sleep.  Although it doesn’t affect me, I am all too domestically aware what detrimental effect tired people can have on the mood of a household. Furthermore, I have seen a growth in an alarming number: the number of people who live with the fallout of relatives and loved ones with poor mental health.  Even worse, the thing that hurts me the most, if the number of invitations I keep receiving to MARACs are anything to go by, domestic violence is massively on the increase - not just in areas of low income. 

As I alluded to at the end of last year’s blessy, these presents are intended for people the world around – middle of a warzone, or silently living with an ever present fear of danger within your own home.  That sentiment remains.  I would wish for you a night’s sleep uninterrupted by the worries of money, violence, sadness, illness to a loved one, or the proximity of conflict – political or personal. 

I would wish for you to drift into, as PG Wodehouse used to say “a touch of the deep and dreamless” for the entirety of a night, then those few beautiful moments in the morning of blissful forgetfulness.  When reawakening brings realisation, I hope that your night of fortifying slumber will allow you to look upon your problems with refreshed resourcefulness, or give you some moments of respite, or find you resolved with greater strength to face your issues. 

This world holds precious little physical escape for those in need – but there is ample mental respite if we have courage and the wherewithal to take it. A good night's sleep, free from the shackles of the worries of this world, may be just what is needed to strengthen ourselves against the harshnesses we face daily. 

So, there you have it.  I hope, in this ghostly little essay to have raised the ghost of a question and the merest phantom or spectre of something you may find valuable.  The things I have presented (no pun intended) cost nothing, at least in earthly money, but could mean something invaluable and incalculable to someone near… or far.

Therefore, may I take this opportunity to wish you the merriest of Christmases, with the gifts I have humbly offered here.  Please take as many or as much as you would like; or, if not to your taste, just a small soupcon of the most useful one. 

Whatever you are doing this year, I hope your Christmas is enormously special.  In this austere world we face in 2013, let us work together to build something we are all proud of, and will keep us going until the boom times return, as they no doubt will.

Keep safe everyone.

For another year, that is all.