Friday, 12 December 2014

Like a hug at a festival; Christmas in all its glory

As we embark upon this 4th Christmas blog – or blessay as we dubbed it a few years past – you may be interested to know that its inspiration hailed from a very different source to that of its predecessors.  Usually, I start thinking about this piece roughly a week after completing my November blog, and then I scrabble around for fitting topics and subject matter, before trying to crowbar in some contemporary references alongside a few historical festive staples. Not so this year.

I’m sure many of you will know that the song “White Christmas” is from the film Holiday Inn, where Bing Crosby sings it longingly from a sun dripped Californian beach.  Similarly, readers of blessay number 1 ( will recall my pub quiz fact that Noddy Holder wrote Slade’s festive smash on John Lennon’s "Imagine" piano in the middle of a New York heatwave in July.  The inspiration for this blog hit me on a sunny Saturday in June, and I knew it the second it happened.

My family and I are devoted attendees of the 80s Let’s Rock Bristol festival.  I love a festival, especially one where I can take my kids and teach them something important (like the words to all of Go West’s hits).  We had arrived on the Friday, pitched camp and started rocking.  Then on the Saturday, after a bleary eyed start, we dragged our deck chairs and our illicit moonshine and set up our selves for the day as we always do – strategically placed at the start of the second bank so we’re easy for the kids to find and close to the amenities … by which I mean bar. 

The sun shone high in a sky of the deepest blue, and the atmosphere was electric with anticipation.  We were moments away from the arrival of the first act, and we couldn’t slap on the sun cream fast enough.  The place was abuzz with open hearted joy, and I for one couldn’t wait.

The first few acts came and went (Dr and the Medics, Jackie Graham and Sonia, since you asked) and although I sang along word perfect to “You’ll never stop me from loving you” I was gripped by something else happening.  Where we had chosen to make our festival pitch was right next to a thoroughfare that split the festival in two, and stretched from the entry points across the park to the amenities… by which I mean the bar.

This thoroughfare took on an entirely new meaning as people came in: it became a place of hugging.  I sat transfixed watching people running towards each other and hugging.  There seemed to be no rules, no plan, no holding back and no decorum whatsoever.  More than one couple did the whole “try to go to the side and headbutt each other” manoeuvre, but no-one cared.  There was no ill will, no animosity, and not a single person refused said hug. 

There was just joy.  A bloke behind me said “It’s just like Christmas!” and I thought to myself, there’s a blog in that…..

Because, you see, a hug at a festival is a strange but magnificent beast.  It transcends so many things that it is an irresistible force all of its own design.  I watched, open jawed, as I saw young and old, tall and short, goth and go-go (I’ll explain in a second) practically sprint up to one another, and envelope them in an embrace that could, in one or two cases, have broken ribs.

A festival hug transcends age.  It doesn’t matter how old or young you are; you can still participate in any way.

A festival hug transcends time.  Whether you were with that person this morning for breakfast or you haven’t seen them in an age, a hug at a festival confirms and reaffirms that deep felt friendship that has been there all along.

A festival hug transcends culture.  You don’t have to be trendy or cutting edge, and it isn’t just for the nerdy.  It’s about laying your feelings open and unashamedly on the line.

A festival hug, and here’s the real funny one, transcends musical tastes.  The apocryphal tale of the Brighton beach fight between mods and rockers was all well and good, but don’t the authorities normally take the brunt of festival go-ers combined ire?  I saw a bloke who was all of 6 foot 4, without his destroy platform heels, dressed head-to-toe in black leather, complete with make up, hugged by a lady of about 4’11’’ (in both directions) wearing a rara skirt, a glitter wig and a Frankie says t-shirt.  Did he shy away?  No, he reciprocated, and what a sight they made. 

The main thing, however, is what it conveys.  In those many hugs, I saw a thousand messages portrayed loud and clear.  They said things like:

·         I’ve missed you;
·         It’s great to see you;
·         It’s great to share this experience with you;
·         I can’t believe you’re here;
·         I can’t believe I’m here – in these shoes….and this hat….;
·         This place just got even better because you’re here;
·         You mean so much to me.

And it continued.  I saw unashamed tears of happiness, and deeds of kindness that were unembarrassed in their openness and sentiment.  It was as if, for a weekend in summer, the human race remembered that it is wired for good.  It was intrinsic engineering (where have I heard that before?).

As the year has progressed, I have seen a number of incidents and events, and indeed the individuals they concern, where I have concluded that what the situation really needed was a big festival hug.  Although I am not suggesting for a moment that such an act would rid the world of all its ills, it would certainly go a long way to make people, especially those who are in need, feel a whole lot better.  I think it also serves as an award for those who deserve it, but just don’t, for all sorts of invalid reasons, get the recognition.

I am one of a million Englishmen who have that deep seated hatred of the Aussie cricket team, based – I am convinced – on pure jealousy on our behalf.  My generation have seldom seen such world dominance of any sport, and they managed it for a decade and more.  I am, however, not too proud an Englishman to say that Ricky Pontin will for me, along with Joost Van Der Westhuizen, Jonty Rhodes and Franco Baresi, always be seen as a sporting colossus.

Whatever your sporting allegiance, you cannot be human and have been unmoved by the sad and tragic death of Philip Hughes.  A young man (and I am now of an age that I qualify to say that about others) who died doing something he loved, and in a complete accident.  Amazingly, my wife (never what you would call a sports pundit) made a fair point in the midst of all of this: how sad for the poor bloke who bowled the delivery?  Sean Abbott must have been subjected to a tsunami of unmanageable turmoil over the last few weeks, for doing little more than what his coach told him to.  It has been a number of saving graces that the cricketing world has managed this situation so well, especially its support of Abbott.  A massive festival hug to Sean Abbott please.

In addition to that, you must also raise a pair of clapping hands to the amazing dignity displayed at a funeral which never once asked for pity or sympathy, but instead celebrated the amazing gift that must have been Phil Hughes’ life and work.  I watched with a little awe the bravery of those who had to speak, including his sister.  Massive festival hug to her please.

Similarly, love him or hate him, the remarkable way in which Michael Clarke handled himself, his team and his nation can only be admired.  I once remarked, in a former blog, that the world needed its men to be leaders, but every so often it is even more important for its leaders to be men.  In the dictionary, dignity should have a picture of Michael Clarke next to it.  Huge festival hug to Mr Clarke please, followed by a highly deferential shake of his hand.

Operation Yewtree has loomed like a sad cloud not only over this year, but it feels like a larger number of years than it probably is.  I have taken no pleasure in reading the recounts in the paper, nor in hearing the news; only a reserved satisfaction that justice has, in some small but irretrievably late fashion, been served.  My feelings about this whole affair come into two categories really.

Firstly, I have nothing but the greatest sympathy for the victims of these unspeakably terrible acts, and the deepest admiration for the courage in stepping forward and speaking out.  Too little too late for them?  I rather suspect so, but I think that the passage of years and the public outing of Neanderthal – like attitudes will portray these women and girls in a very different light – an heroic one.  A polite, respectful and deserving hug to each of these people.

But I feel it goes deeper.  I can just about recall the radio on a Saturday morning hosted by certain people, and the TV programmes I came to know as a child.  Yet I was (I know you won’t believe it) too young to have joined in the mass adoration of the 1970s.  Some people may have had one of these people’s posters on their teenage bedroom wall, or maybe even more.  I feel bitterly sorry for people whose teenage years now bear a stain of doubt and betrayal, because I’m sure that’s how they must feel.  A mug bearing a “fix it” label that once graced our office has, quite rightly, disappeared for good.  To these people, a massive festival hug.

Previous blessay riders will know I’m not one to shy away from areas others may deem insensitive, but please consider for a moment the devastating news in Bristol in recent weeks of a mother and child who went missing from a hospital – the very hospital in which both my children entered this world – and were subsequently found dead.  I heard the news of the mother’s body being discovered as I arrived at school one morning; I had to stay in the car for a few more moments that day.  Later came the news we all hoped would not come, but somehow knew to be inevitable.  How many of us, given the chance, would go back and give them the hug they clearly so desperately needed?

But I don’t raise this with the rosey tint of hindsight.  My thoughts and festival hugs go out to the mother who is no longer a grandmother, and the boyfriend who is no longer a father.  I cannot for a second place myself in those shoes, but would do anything I could to erase the pain.

Furthermore, I have experienced at first hand, twice, the amazing care and dedication of the staff at that hospital, and will not for a second condone the discussions or accusations bouncing around face(idiot)book about “why did no-one stop them”.   I will not sanction for a second the idea that those wonderful professionals, who saw my wife through two difficult births, didn’t do what they could.  To the entire team, who I know will have – by the very nature of their outstanding professionalism – done an enormous amount of soul searching, an enormous group hug.

Indeed, I would also offer a future festival hug.  Not to a future festival go-er (although the two are not mutually exclusive) but to anyone who is, round about now, starting to worry.  Worry about ensuring that in two weeks’ time, or thereabouts, they will have managed to pull off a dinner that meets everyone’s not always realistic expectations, and which keeps the pre-supper / post-monopoly arguments that little more soft around the edges.  Look at it like this: that master of understatement Philip Larkin used the wonderful lines in “The Whitsun Weddings” (another summer reference) about the ladies watching the happy couple leaving on their train and had

Just time enough to settle hats and say
“I nearly died!”

Maybe your own version will read

Just time enough to steady paper crowns and say
“I nearly burst”

Yes, I agree, Larkin says it better.  However, let us not forget the sentiment, for that is what I would wish for yourselves.  As someone who is expected to cook for 11, you have my sympathies, and a big, warm sherry fuelled hug.

If you can bear to stay with me for a moment or two more, would you be so good as to indulge me in a personal moment?  There are some hugs that I want to give out in recognition of a more personal, Badock’s centred 12 months.

Firstly to the Buddies of Badock’s, our new PTA who have come from nowhere to smash it out of the ball park, thank you, and a massive, massive festival hug.  As there are so many of you (and you’re almost exclusively female) you can have Then Jericho, Alexander O’Neal and Nathan from Brother Beyond … except for Chris and Steve; Belinda Carlisle and Kim Wilde perhaps?

Next, to the parents who are helping push Badock’s even further.  Those who ensure their children are “always” children – always there, always in uniform, always with homework and always well supported.  You know who you are.  You are all due a huge hug; have level 42 and Bananarama.

To the children’s centre staff, who have at times this year had to endure the most unpleasant of all working environments – uncertainty.  Your work has been noticed and appreciated, and I know that, even though we’re not out of the woods by a very long stretch, we are on a journey towards great things.  Big, big hugs – for you all; you may have Nick Kershaw.

I have been slapped around the face this year with the realization I've now been at Badock’s almost 7 years.  I have seen a number of staff join, move on and, I’m pleased to say, stay with us for the journey.  Working in such close proximity brings about a certain camaraderie and we take an enormous interest in each other’s lives and welfare, even after they have left.  This year, with current staff and former colleagues, we have had 8 Badock’s babies.  Cause enough for celebration.  However, let’s throw in the fact that some of these babies have been ill, and we have all, as a group, waited on those phone calls and texts that no-one wants to make or receive.  Yet we have done it, and we’ve done it together.  The biggest hug to my school colleagues who never cease to amaze me in everything they do and put up with from me: you can have Boney M, and sing Christmas songs until you know I’m back in the building. 

Almost finally, I should point out that the one thing you never see in a festival hug is forgiveness.  It isn't needed.  Festivals are about spreading the joy and the love.  Therefore, as it’s Christmas, may I offer the biggest, sloppiest kiss of a hug to the people who have been writing derogatory comments about the school and yours truly on face(idiot)book.  You will all be pleased to know that you have not upset me, although I won’t be showing my mum, and can you please spell my name right?  To you, the amenities … by which I do not mean the bar.

Finally, to the wife.  Yes, you can hug Rick Astley.

So, kind people, a big gold star on top of the tree if you’ve made it this far.  As ever, I apologise humbly and profoundly for offence caused; none was ever intended.  I am far more hopeful that I have posed a question or raised an idea or two.  Whatever the festive seasons holds for you, I wish you the merriest of Christmases and the most successful of new years.  To you and yours, may this time be safe, special, and driven by the kind of hugs usually reserved for a balmy June day.

For an eventful 2014, that is all.

Except, may I offer one more hug?  It will not involve wrapping my arms around anyone, nor the offer of a faded popstar, but I would just like to prove that a good turn is never forgotten.

On the Sunday of the festival, it rained.  A lot.  My wife had “forgotten” to bring my coat from the car when she went to retrieve waterproofs and warm stuff for her and the kids.  So as the rain lashed down in the midst of Matt Bianco, I was left in tshirt, shorts and a hat borrowed to try and keep my shades clear.  The rain came crashing down on us for a good 20 minutes, and I was drenched, but my spirits undeterred.

Halfway through, whilst I was dancing with my son, a gentleman came to me in his coverall poncho.  I was expecting him to make rude comments about my lack of preparation.  Instead, he slapped me on the back and said “fair play to you, son”, then offered me his hip flask.  We then spent the rest of the rainstorm talking and sharing children-at-festival stories.  Never once, upon taking his own hit, did he not offer me the said flask, the contents of which was a hug in itself… and a bit of a smack in the jaw.  Once the sun was in the sky again and we had reached what felt like a natural conclusion, he said “Well, if it hadn’t rained, we’d never have got the chance to talk” another slap on my back “go steady, mind.”

With that, he blended back into the crowd.  It was a hug, of sorts, and I never got the chance to say thank you for the hip flask, or, more importantly, for the enormous hug of friendship that made me warm again on a cold day.  A hug feels like a hug, however it may be given.  Wherever you are sir, thank you.

That, with a wish of a merry Christmas, is all.