Oct 102019

I was crying in the basement of a hotel in Eastbourne. Through some intense emotions, I thought; I’m overweight, I’m in my thirties, and I’m crying. I must look ridiculous.

It was definitely not part of the plan for my life or this weekend.

There were thirty or forty of us gathered in the hotel basement. Some other people were crying as well but most weren’t. A small number where engaged in, what is called, speaking-in-tongues. At least one person was lying on the floor, vigorously shaking, apparently at the behest of a supernatural force. The remaining people were either standing solemnly or they were members of staff or volunteers supervising the day’s activities; praying, assisting and talking to the participants. In a sense, we were all praying. The purpose of this gathering was to ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with its presence and to make everything okay.

I definitely wasn’t okay.

Stood there, sobbing with my head in my hands, dimly aware of the strangeness of this situation, a lot of things were running through my my mind, chiefly this: ‘How did I end up here?’

Welcome to the Life Course run by St. Mary’s Church, Marylebone.

Let’s go back a few months. I had finally moved to London. I had always wanted to live here but various things had kept me in various other places. However I was here at last in the big bad capital city and I was loving it. I had always felt the pull to move to London and wondered if it would work. It had. Life was exciting and I felt great.

I had been living in Cambridge and going to church there that I liked. The sermons were thoughtful and reflected that the world and life are complicated, as are the people in it. Faith may give us insight but it doesn’t make things simple. I met some incredibly tolerant, thoughtful and open-minded people.

I hadn’t been a Christian for very long. In some ways I wasn’t sure if I was a Christian but I was definitely on the spectrum. Once I was onboard with the idea that there might be a God, the challenges really started – Christianity and going to church. If God does exist, I think he’s a loving God who doesn’t share the sexual norms, mores and priorities of 21st century social conservatives. Aside from believing in a God, I wasn’t sure what else myself and other Christians had in common.

But the stereotype I had of Christians was, to a good extent, wrong. As I said, I met some incredibly compassion and tolerant people. It was a good church. My nebulous cloud of faith was slowly starting to take form and change my view of life and, well, change me.

So I had moved to London but just didn’t quite get round to finding a church. After a few months of having my Sunday mornings to myself, I thought it’s time to go to church again. It can be difficult to keep God in your life without having other people who also believe in God in your life. You drift, bit-by-bit and you can drift a great distance.

To some extant, I had taken a leap of faith about the existence of God. I had been waiting for the day when I would decide whether I believed that God did or did not exist, but I realised that that day was never going to come. I believed, on balance, more in God than I didn’t and at some point you’re in or you’re out. I was in, with all the doubt and problems that come along with that. I honestly don’t understand people who either completely believe or completely don’t believe in God – how can anyone be so sure? I would be a terrible fundamentalist. Very occasionally, people tell me why they don’t believe in God and why I shouldn’t too. I have to say to them, ‘Yeah. You seem to have pretty good reasons to not believe in God. I think about those kind of things everyday.’

But because I choose to believe that God exists doesn’t mean I believe everything people say about God, including from the people who claim to have no doubt whatsoever. Life is hard and I’m unsure as to how much God interferes in our lives on a day to day basis. Why would God look after people who believe in him more than people who don’t? Does he answer prayers – if so, when bad things happen to people is that because people didn’t pray hard enough? I can’t believe that. I don’t claim to have most, certainly not all of the answers and I’m highly sceptical of those that do.

Anyway, I needed to find a church. I did a bit of research (googled ‘London churches’) and looked at various church websites. I wanted an inclusive, modern church. St. Mary, Marylebone’s website caught my eye. There was nothing about people going to hell and the whole site seemed bright, modern and like… they got ‘it’. I wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was, but they seemed to have something. I’ll give it a go, I thought, and to St. Mary’s I went. What’s the worst that could happen?

St. Mary’s is located in a large, beautiful building not far from Baker Street. I walked in and I couldn’t believe how packed the room was. There were hundreds of people there and young people at that. Rows and rows of people in their late teens, twenties and thirties. We hear that the number of people going to church is declining and how young people aren’t interested in religion. Well that didn’t square with what I was seeing at St. Mary’s. The pews were packed and people looked distinctly normal.

I got a cup of tea and sat down at the back. There was a lot of singing and I mean a lot. Even for Church – we’re talking about 45 minutes. People weren’t overly friendly but I put that down to it being a big church, and a church in London still having that London thing of people being more stand-offish than in other places.

So I went to St. Mary’s for a few weeks. The sermons were okay, a little unchallenging I thought, but they didn’t mention how some people with certain lifestyles were going to hell and they did talk about forgiveness and how God is a loving God. Over those weeks, I heard many, many times, about the upcoming Life Course.

St. Mary’s’ Life Course has been adapted from the famous Alpha Course. The Alpha Course started in 1977 but it really took off in the 1990s when Nicky Gumble took it over. Since then it’s been active in dozens of countries and thousands of Churches. The Alpha Course is there to discuss the big questions of life and give people their first taste of Christianity.

The Life Course is run by St. Mary’s a few times a year and it lasts for 8 weeks. I turned up on the first Wednesday and I was assigned to a group. I met the group leaders, two very nice and friendly people who had been on the Life Course before and who been going to the Church for some time. I also met the other members of our group. Over the next two months I would really get to know some of these people well. We had something very nice to eat and a bit of small talk before all gathering to hear a talk by St. Mary’s vicar, John Peters. After the talk, we would all gather in our groups and chat about that week’s talk.

This continued for around six weeks, each Wednesday, we’d chat about our week, ours lives and our thoughts about about God, spirituality and almost everything else. We had some incredibly deep, thoughtful and honest conversations.

Over the weeks, the numbers attending slowly dwindled downwards. Not so much in our group. I’m not saying that’s because of me – but you have to wonder. Anyway, they were a good group of people, I thought that then and I still think that now.

It was only looking back that I realised at some point, the conversation went from ‘What’s out there – hey, maybe there’s something?’ to ‘There definitely is a God and He’s like this’. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this; St. Mary’s believe in certain things and they are free to tell people all about it. But it is disingenuous to tell people we are all here exploring the big issues, I wonder where we’ll end up?, when we are listening to a Christian theory of existence and a particular type of Christianity at that in a planned, laid-out structure. It’s not a big conversation – it’s just designed to seem like one.

The groups serve a particular purpose. Within the groups, debate and discussion is freewheeling and can go all over the place but that’s where it ends. All the dissent is contained within the groups. Next week we turn up and hear the next instalment of the church’s belief system. No matter what is said or asked by attendees, the Life Course carries on its trajectory and you can sign up to it or leave. And the majority of people do leave. But I didn’t. I love a good debate and a good meal, and I enjoyed the group discussion if not the weekly talks. I also overestimated my mental toughness and how sure I was of my own beliefs. But the process of people leaving week by week, leaves behind a rump of people who… are more pliable, even if they don’t think they are. People who to a greater degree, accept what’s being said and people who may be inclined that way but now see an awful lot of people agree with what’s being said. Each week, the people left are closer to each other in their beliefs and the median opinion shifts in the direction of St. Mary’s. The Life Course is a master piece in how to manage dissent.

All through the first six weeks of the Life Course we were frequently told about the weekend away in Eastbourne. “It’s going to be amazing folks”. The weekend away is described as like the Wednesday evening catch-ups but spread out over a whole weekend away from the hustle and bustle of London. It’s also a chance for us to really get to know each other. It was that.

What I really heard, over and over again, was how awful the hotel was and how funny it was. A really kitschy type of place. And the Saturday evening event was always really fun. Fun, fun, fun, awaited. John Peters told us, the volunteers on Wednesday told us, people at the Sunday service told us and they had all been to Life Course before, some more than once. A weekend of theology, philosophy, discussion about the big stuff of life, plus food and drink. What could possibly go wrong?

We left from Victoria and got to Eastbourne and the hotel. The hotel seemed kind of okay really and not that funny. Over the next couple of days a lot of things occurred to me and one of them was how snobby people can be.

On the first night some of us went out for a drink. I spoke to people from my group and some new people. All was well. There were a couple of talks on Saturday and then people started talking about a session in which we could receive the Holy Spirit. Now this is where it gets a bit tricky and a bit hazy as well. I can’t remember the point where it was formally discussed or even brought that we would all gather in a basement and ask God to enter us and transform us. We just kind of drifted into it.

The session was as voluntary as the whole weekend away was and as the whole Life Course is, but all the language used made it very difficult to not do it. Over and over again, the language used was about how all powerful God was and how we need to open up to him. What would God want you to do? Why not take a risk? What’s the worst that could happen? And it was all so gradual until it wasn’t. We were suddenly all in a room and we were asking for the Holy Spirit to fill us and make everything okay.

John Peters talked about how some people have reacted in the past when the Holy Spirit has entered them. A range of things apparently happened from visions or messages from God to speaking-in-tongues to breaking down and crying. You could say he was preparing people for how they should act.

Now no one goes to church because everything in their life is going well. No one thinks, ‘Hey, my life is pretty good. Let’s make it even better! Let’s get myself some religion!’ People go to church because they always have, from being children, or because they are searching for something – because they are broken, and they are want to be fixed. I think everyone on that course that made it to week 6 were, to some degree, desperate to be fixed.

I thought about whether to take part. It’s like you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Everyone’s telling you to jump and God will catch you. God is great. He’s all powerful. He’s all loving. He wants you to jump. He has caught people before. He can do anything. He can take away all the pain and the hurt and the past. That’s what St. Mary’s is offering. You just have to believe enough.

It is only when you are at the bottom of the cliff, battered and bruised with a couple of spiritual broken legs, that you think, maybe jumping off cliffs is a bad idea. Maybe God doesn’t want you to jump off the cliff and that the people who said ‘jump’ are, well, wrong.

So I jumped or at least I tried to. I asked the Holy Spirit to transform me. I put it all before God, all the pain, all my doubt, all my short comings and mistakes. All my hurt. I asked God to take it all away. It was pretty powerful. I stood there and I cried. I didn’t encounter the Holy Spirit. I just felt very upset. A childhood and a lifetime of pain poured out.

The rest of the Saturday was a bit of a blur. There was the evening entertainment. A slightly surreal event in which there was a quiz and challenges and seemed to be centred around how hilarious John Peters was. A few people were dazed and everyone was pretending a few hours ago we all hadn’t been through this very odd exercise.

On Sunday another similar session took place. I tried again but I felt pretty dead. Then we all went home. There was a service that evening. I didn’t go. I was exhausted and I didn’t have the energy to put together all my thoughts, much less express those doubts an entire congregation though I was tempted. I was told that at the evening service, some people who went to the Life Course stood up and told everyone about what an amazing, transformative weekend they had just had. None of the considerable doubts people had had over the weekend, and were talked about as the weekend went on, were expressed. No one spoke about how they thought they had wasted their weekend. No one talked about the incredibly traumatising experience they had just had. Yet again the congregation was given an uncritical testimony about how amazing the Life Course was. I wonder how many new people thought that evening, ‘this Life Course sounds interesting. What’s the worse that could happen?’ Meanwhile many of the weekend’s participants are scattered across London, bruised and battered.

It was some of the keenest people that got up to speak at Church. Reaffirming to the congregation what they already believed. Literally, preaching to the converted. For any newcomers, the seeds were planted – maybe they should go to the next Life Course. I thought about all the people who had had an experience of the Holy Spirit on the weekend away. It was all of the keenest people and frankly the easily impressed and the most gullible. If before the weekend began, I had had to guess who would have claimed to have had a vision or a message from God or even have the Holy Spirit make them speak in tongues, I would have been spot on. It was none of the sceptical people, it was the ones that already believed.

Over the next few days, I thought about what had just happened. It occurred to me that those painful issues, that came up over the weekend, I had pretty much dealt with. Not completely but pretty much. But they had all came out again. Perhaps I had not really dealt with them but I don’t think so. I think the Life Course brings all the deep stuff out, whether it has been dealt with or not. It occurred to me, how even more devastating the weekend could have been if I had been dealing with unresolved issues. For many people over the weekend, this was the case.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit or its ability to transform people but I don’t think it’s magic that comes when anyone at St. Mary’s clicks their fingers, instantaneously transforming people. It’s tempting to believe that, but change and peace don’t come so easily. But many at St. Mary’s do believe it. Every week, people have visions and messages from God. The Holy Spirit shows up and gets people to speak-in-tongues or gives people words or image that they pass onto the congregation. Maybe it is God. Or maybe people believe it so much, that they are fooling themselves. Someone once said, how convenient it is that God shows up every week in buildings were everyone believes in him. Where’s God in the train carriage of non-believers.

Before the weekend and away and the basement, I was pretty sceptical about the people at the Sunday service with their visions and words from God but I just went with it. Who was I to tell people what was true or not, and I think a part of me wanted it to be true. At the week 7 meeting people were asked if they wanted to say anything. This was the only time that this happened. So I spoke and said I thought it was… not true. The Holy Spirit hadn’t entered people. I was the only one who was anything other than enthusiastic. A good few people came up to me to tell me I was brave for saying that. I think for some people I had broken the spell. It was all crap. God isn’t sending visions to people. At the weekend away, people may have spoken-in-tongues but that wasn’t God.

But it was only after the Life Course ended, the deviousness of it all had occurred to me, this just isn’t true. The problem with the Life Course, is that it uses peoples’ innermost fears to hoodwink them to believe a certain set of ideas. Of course, people get to believe whatever they want but to try to convince other people but the Life Course is simply deceptive.

There were two more weeks of the course, less well attended than the earlier ones. And that was it. People were cut off. You could go to the church for all the use that was, but no-one really cared, St. Mary’s is a place were people are interested in their connection with God and how to save themselves.

I tried to talk to Pete about it, more than once, but literally wouldn’t speak to me. I could say a few things ago but there’s probably little point to that. All I’ll say he doesn’t seem to be interested in other people’s views. Which would be fine, but when you subject people to this kind of experience, the least you could is listen to some feedback. The only interaction he seems to be okay with his the fawning reverence he receives from people decades younger than him.

But the Life Course is successful. It runs a few times a year at St. Mary’s and while most people either aren’t interested or are scared off, it snares enough people every time to add some extra backsides to fill those pews – course by course, year by year. And when some newcomer comes in, they look at all the people in the room and think there must be something to this place – look how many people are here.

But I wonder how many participants in the Life Course never come back to St. Mary’s, perhaps never come back to God at all. How many people have been put off God because of their experience? Some people I had seen for the first six weeks didn’t come back after the weekend away. I hope they were and are okay but I will never know.

It is absolutely reprehensible for St. Mary’s to pretend the weekend away is a bit of a fun jaunt. Jon Peters said that they don’t tell people about what will actually occur on the weekend away, because then no-one would come. Perhaps they wouldn’t but the people attending have the right to make that decision and they would be more mentally prepared for the weekend that lay ahead.

It’s even more reprehensible to bring up these deeply traumatic issues in people, with no kind of support afterwards.

At some point it occurred me to that the whole thing, is a bit, and I can’t quite think of a better word, but cultish. A new way of thinking is gradually introduced, so gradually you don’t really notice it. It all seemed so normal and reasonable and from such shiney happy people. At the beginning you’re just asked to accept the possibility that perhaps, maybe, the Holy Spirit interacts with people in this way. What have you got to lose?

I met some of the people from my group a few months later. They seem to have changed. The free-wheeling debates that we had had on the Life Course were no more. They had signed up what St. Mary’s was offering and they were believers. I remember challenging one of the people about something they had said and they looked nervously at a more established figure who had been at the church for sometime, who just had an impassive look. Week 1 of the Life Course seemed long ago.

I remember talking to someone a few months after I first started going to church, back in Cambridge. I’m selfish, I said, I’m just doing this for myself. Of course you are, the person replied. No one goes to church because of other people. You go for yourself. You go because of the pain and because of the hurt. You go because you want to be saved. You’re afraid of dying or you’re afraid of not living. You’re selfish and that’s okay, we all are. You ask God for forgiveness, you come to accept it – that you’ll always be a bit selfish. But over time you realise it’s all about other people. That a life given to God, is a life given to other people. By giving away your life, you get your life back. I’m not there yet, perhaps I never will be. But I can see a glimpse of it and that’s where a life of faith is lived.

I think people at St. Mary’s are there for themselves. St. Mary’s may have hundreds of people in their congregation but for a church of that size, how much work do they do in the local community? What service do they offer people? What are these people doing for anyone else? St. Mary’s is self-help dressed up as faith. Maybe it will last for people, but I wonder how what St. Mary’s offers will stand up to what life inevitably throws at people?

At my last Sunday service at St. Mary’s I looked around the room. Just like my first service, it was full of people, bright and shiny, in their twenties and thirties. I had never felt so alone.

After the Life Course, I thought long and hard about whether I could live a life with God as part of it or as a part of a church. I eventually found another church. Someone described it as ‘Church for grown-ups’. I like that. I got baptised and I am dealing with the challenges of life and of faith.

May 142012
Bolton Wanderers 1920s

“I’m Bolton till I die,

I’m Bolton till I die,

I know I am,

I’m sure I am,

I’m Bolton till I die!”

A rather dramatic title perhaps but I suppose that is the point and I do not think a more gentle way to describe my feelings regarding Bolton Wanderers Football Club would be appropriate.

There are two kinds of football. There is the football you play and then there is the football you watch. This second kind of football really makes very little sense and it is the sort of football that I am writing about.

I am not sure that I like football. In many, many ways I don’t understand football but I love Bolton Wanderers with all my heart and I think always will.

What is Bolton Wanderers or any club for that matter? A name? 11 players? A stadium and some supporters? Well it really isn’t any of those things, although they are all requirements. Perhaps it is simply – history. The celebration of every goal and every fan who ever dreamed that this day may be our day.

Some people laugh when they find out that I am a Bolton fan or think that it is somewhat strange – why not support another team, a more successful team? I find this a bewildering attitude.

You don’t choose a football team to support! Your football team chooses you! It’s not a calculation or a decision. One day, you realise that you support a team and that is that. I can think of few deeds worse than that of changing which football team you support (with a possible exemption for children).

I admire and respect the dedication and heart that people put into supporting their football team. I never think, ‘really?’ I take my hat off to them and wish them well, unless they are playing Bolton Wanderers that week.

My first memory of supporting Bolton Wanderers is from January 1993. We were in the third tier of English Football. We hadn’t been in the top flight since before I was born. We were to play the FA Cup champions, Liverpool, the most successful club of recent years, certainly before the soon to take place rise of Manchester United.

We were written off. No chance, no hope, the result a mere formality.

I listened to the match on the radio. We were 2-0 nil up at half time! I can recall the unbelievable feeling of exhilaration as the goals went in. I think, and could well be wrong, that it was John McGinley and Jason McAteer who scored. In the second half Liverpool got two back and the game finished 2-2. We went to Anfield for the replay and miraculously, won. This would set the bar for my expectations rather too high for the years that followed. But we did have the odd few moments of glory in the FA Cup over the next few years. We would rise to the dizzy heights of the Premier League in 1997 after coming down from 3-0 in the Play Off final to win 4-3.

I think the hardest day for me as a Bolton fan was losing to Aston Villa in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. It was the last final to take place at the old Wembley Stadium before it was demolished. Bolton won the first FA Cup final that ever took place at Wembley, way back in 1923, and what an idea, that we might be in the final of the last FA Cup final to be held there. And who knows – we might even win…

But it was not to be. Bolton came desperately, heartbreakingly close to winning. The ‘golden goal’ system was in operation (the next team to score would win). But no-one did and it went to penalties and Villa won. Bolton weren’t in the premier league at the time and I remember the commentator saying how great it was that the final would have two premier league teams in it and he added that it would be a final, ‘worthy of the occasion’.

It wasn’t so much that we lost that bothered me (though it did, enormously), it was the idea that we didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. We weren’t just defeated. We were dismissed from the right of even competing.

To those people that laugh at the idea that someone would support Bolton Wanderers, I have a rather simple message: go fuck yourselves! To hell with your ridicule and your mocking.

It’s not just about winning! It’s about your team winning! If it was just about winning everyone would support Manchester United and in many, many ways that would not be a world worth living in.

Bolton Wanderers got relegated yesterday after 11 years in the premier league. I remember when we got promoted back in 2000, there was no sense of entitlement, we had earned it and we knew that we would have to earn it each and every year. We half expected to get relegated the very next season as we had done just a couple of years previously.

Some people support what they consider ‘big clubs’. Some club’s supporters believe that they have a right to a place in the premier league, even a right to success. If there is such a thing as a ‘big club’, you earn it, one tackle, one goal and one match at a time. No football club has a right to anything.

As a Bolton fan, I will never complain that we are not where we deserve to be (though of course, I reserve the right to complain about horrendous refereeing decisions). For better or for worse, we are exactly where we deserve to be, and I am right there with them. There is only one kind of victory in football that means anything to me and that’s a victory for Bolton Wanderers.

Bolton Wanderers is my football club and it always will be. God forbid that it should cease to exist one day, but if it did, well then I would have no team.

So here’s to next season, to the heartache and disappointment of defeat and to the ecstasy of victory and to the sometimes too cruel hope that this year may be our year.

To those of you that do not understand why I support Bolton Wanderers – I pity you. To quote Thomas Paine, ”What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” That it so hard is what make it worth doing. Though sometimes I wish it wasn’t quite so hard.

Aug 242011

There are a number of different epiphanies or moments of realisation that you go through as a smoker. You think things are one way and then you realise in a blinding moment of understanding that they are not and everything is suddenly changed and the world may even look like a slightly different place. For example there is the first time that you realise that you can’t simply just stop smoking, that it’s no longer a habit but an addiction and that you’re hooked.

Perhaps the scariest realisation I had was that even if I stopped smoking perhaps the damage had already been done. I had always thought that as long as I eventually stopped smoking I would be okay, the damaging effects of smoking would be reversible. After all, I had only been smoking for a little while. Then all of a sudden, I woke up one day and I’d been a smoker for 10 years. Maybe the damage had already been done.

After starting smoking again, after my longest period of nicotine abstinence (57 days), the thought occurred to me, what if I can never stop smoking?

I had known for some time it would be difficult, then I thought maybe it would be the most difficult thing that I would ever have to do but I always thought, one day, I would manage to stop smoking. No matter how long it took, no matter how many times I failed and lit up again, I always thought that one day, eventually I would look back, a happy ex-smoker, free and contented. But now I have to face the fact that I may smoke to end of my days, and that that end could come a fair bit sooner and be a lot more painful.

I started smoking when I was 17. I don’t know why, maybe it was boredom, maybe I liked going out with everyone at break-times. I would often have to choose between spending my money either on getting the bus to college or to buy a packet of cigarettes. I walked an awful lot back then.

After two or three years of smoking, going for a run became a bit more difficult and I would cough up the most vile, despicable substances you can imagine.

I first tried to quit a few months around then. I managed nine days. In the maybe hundred attempts to quit since then, I’ve managed to surpass that nine days perhaps half a dozen times. I must have thought about quitting every day for at least the last five years.

Everyone knows that smoking is dangerous, that it’s a huge financial burden and that it makes you, quite frankly, stink. But less talked about, is the coughing and hacking and the phlegm and the fact that it gets harder to breath. I hate it. And I can’t seem to stop. For the last couple of months, I’ve gone about a week maybe two before I break and light up again.

Some people say that stopping smoking is like quitting any addiction – you just have to stop – and there is something to that. But saying that you just have to stop smoking is just repeating saying what you have to do – stop smoking. The problem is when you stop smoking you no longer want to not smoke, you want a cigarette and as soon as you light up, you want to be not smoking. I had to learn to tell myself that when I crave a cigarette, I really don’t, it’s just the addiction speaking. But sometimes it’s not enough.

Nothing great happens when you stop smoking. In fact things can get worse, you cough a lot more as your lungs start working again, and that little crutch that gets you out of office, that is your reward, is gone. You stop smoking and you take a look around and your life is pretty shit. It gets better, but it takes a while.

Some smokers say that they enjoy smoking, and I can’t disagree that on occasion having a smoke is great. Say after a meal or in the pub with a few beers but most of the time we puff away wishing nothing more than being free from this soul-crippling addiction. Even as we bring the cigarette to our lips we wish we could stub it out for the last time. Some people say they have no wish to quit smoking but I think most of the time that’s ego talking. Who wants to admit to being a junkie? So people tell themselves that it’s a choice that they happily pick.

As you go through a period of smoking less as you repeatedly try to quit, it is tempting to think you can just cut down a bit, that you don’t have to completely give up. You can smoke one or two a day or once or twice a week, but keeping yourself to that is a difficult task. It requires a huge amount of effort that I think it is unsustainable. Eventually you become a full-time smoker again. You’re a smoker or you’re not – there are no half-measures.

Quitting smoking is hard, I think it might be the hardest thing that I ever do. Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. ” And that’s it. You quit smoking and you get the world or least your life back.

Normally when I write a piece about the news or my life there is a natural end to the story. If it’s not there when I start, something usually turns up as I’m writing. But not this time. This story doesn’t finish, it just goes on and on and on. That’s the thing about quitting something. There is no day where you win, were you can stand up and declare victory and move on with your life. You just carry on, a day at a time, not doing something.

Anyway, I’m off. Writing all this has really made me want a cigarette.

Jul 252011
It's a bird.

This little tale isn’t really going to go anywhere; there’s no twist at the end nor a thought provoking moral lesson. But what took place this morning was somewhat unusual, so I thought I’d write it down in the hope that it may turn to be interesting or even funny. I’ve also not posted in a little while and this is all that I’ve got.

I’d just got out the shower to hear the front door bell ring and so answered dressed just with a towel wrapped around my nether regions. On the way to the door I heard a very loud thud but I thought no more about it preoccupied as I was with answering the door somewhat exposed. At the front door there was a delivery man who informed me that the loud thump had been a bird flying into my kitchen window. And that I had a delivery. Well the delivery wasn’t for me, it was for my housemate. This would not be the biggest disappointment of the day. After signing for the package and putting on some clothes, I went to investigate.

There was indeed a bird in the garden, lying on the plants below the kitchen window. It was not in a good way. Now I had always imagined that if a bird or other animal was in distress I would do whatever needed to be done do to aid the injured animal and ensure it’s recovery back to full health. There would almost certainly be a cardboard box, a blanket and a call to the RSPCA involved. Perhaps a few weeks of tender care involving some feeding with a pipette before the animal was released back to roam the wild or more likely it choose to stay with me, a friend for life. But it didn’t really turn out like that.

The bird wasn’t moving. I had no idea if it was dead or just unconscious. I went in for a closer look and there were mites or similar such insects crawling through its feathers. Seeing if it had a heartbeat much less any form of resuscitation was off the agenda. So what to do? My main concern was the fact that I was late for work. Terrible I know. Why didn’t I care more? I could only think, well, it’s just a dead bird.

Now, I couldn’t leave it there on the ground so I got an old towel and very carefully lifted it off the ground and with the towel for a blanket I left it on top of the bin. Now I considered throwing some water on it to wake it up but then I thought how that would be slightly ridiculous. It had smashed into a window and was probably dead. My only knowledge of rousing someone (or thing) from an unconscious state was from TV and films. But neither water, smelling salts or a slap seemed appropriate. I wonder how many more situations I will face in my life where I release that I know absolutely nothing about what to do because TV had fooled me in to thinking I knew something but in fact it was all merely ridiculous lies. Reality eh?

So I left the bird on the top of the bin (with the towel as a blanket) and went to work. I didn’t really think there was anything I could do or even wanted to do. I didn’t think I could justify coming in to work late and quite frankly I didn’t want to go to work late. When I was younger there was no way I would have left that bird and I wonder when it came to be that I didn’t really care. Although if it had been a cat or dog I would have rang the RSPCA. But if you’d asked me yesterday about whether I would have rang the RSPCA for an injured bird, I would have said yes.

Now I think a key factor here is that the bird was probably dead. If it had been obviously alive and injured I couldn’t have let it suffer. But I didn’t know, definitely, that it was dead, I just guessed it was. But what kind of a call would that have been? Hello, is that the RSPCA? I have a bird that I think is dead but it might just be suffering from massive brain trauma. Could you send round your top bird neurologist? Cheers.

So all day at work I wondered what would await me when I got home. Would it be there dead, would it have flown away or would it be in the jaws of a cat looking at me, blinking (do birds blink?) and just before it passed on it would say “Andy, you could have saved me. You bastard.” Great, I’ve just let the world’s first talking bird die.

Anyway, to cut it short, when I got home, it was lying there, dead. So I put it in the bin.

True story.

Jun 282011
An old bike against a wall

There’s not many good things about learning to ride a bike when you’re 30. It’s not only hard learning to ride itself but there’s a whole load of complications that come along with doing so when you’re 30. People look at you and aren’t really sure what’s going on. You have to get on your bike, fall off and ignore all the people looking at you and then do it again. And again.

It doesn’t even ease up when you’re finally on the road. Pedestrians and other road users assume you can ride the bike, after all you look like someone who can ride a bike: ie you’re a grown man and you’re on a bike.

Except that you can’t ride the bike or at least ride it very well. Long, straight bits of riding are mastered pretty quickly but as far as anything else is concerned you don’t really know what the hell is going on. Turning left is fine but I can’t put out my arm and indicate or I might fall over and as for turning right, forget it. As a friend pointed out, I’m the Zoolander of bicycles. Yes, I have the same comedy attribute as a fictional character. Bugger.

Small children wonder why you’ve not overtaken them. Why? Because uou’re afraid you might be killed by the car behind you at any moment if you try to take to overtake. The fear of death is not the ideal way to start your day but what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. But for a while it is genuinely terrifying to not be in full control of some peddle-powered contraption while 2-tonnes of metal races past you about 20 centimetres away. People will say ‘you just need some confidence’, well yes, but confidence isn’t a switch you can just flick on, it’s some you have to work at.

When you arrive at your destination, people don’t seem very impressed when you announced that you got there by bicycle, by bicycle! Can you believe that! They look at you look like they are not really sure what’s so impressive about that or they notice that you appeared to have briefly assumed the characteristics of a 5-year-old. Which you have. You’ve learnt to do something most people managed when they were a kid.

I’m not really sure why I didn’t learn to ride a bike when I was younger, it just never really happened and then you get past the point where you want to be seen learning a bike. Then you get to 20 and then you get to 30. I’d almost given up hope but public transport can be an awful, dispiriting experience especially when you have no other choice. You have to get on the bus, you have to pay for the privilege and you have to an hour for the bus, frequently.

Margaret Thatcher said a man should consider himself a failure if he doesn’t own his own car by the age of 25. But then Thatcher was a mad women who when not destroying the fabric and economy of society, hated working class people and thought a person should value themselves based on whether they own a motor vehicle.

Spend thousands of pounds on a vehicle so I can drive to and from work and never go any where because I have no money? No thanks. Also I don’t really want to help pollute the planet. It would be nice to be able to get in to a car on the odd occasion – road trip! – but to go to work everyday? I have a number of other ways to be part of the machine and generally kowtow to the Man.

So the cars out, walking sucks and you start to hate public transport. But you can’t cycle and then there’s the niggle. That awkward feeling that you’re not doing something because, well you a big fat coward. And cycling would help with the fat. Sometimes a man has gotta do what a man has a gotta do and sometimes that’s getting on a bike and falling off.

But there are a couple of great things about learning to ride a bike when you’re 30. I’ve learnt it’s never too late to do something. That the more difficult it is to do something the greater the reward. And that humiliation and fear aren’t really the obstacles that they may sometimes appear to be. All clichés but all true. I learnt to ride a bike, finally, in about a minute. All it took was an empty car park, some encouragement and a bit of courage to look like a complete and utter fool every now and again.

The best thing about learning to ride a bike is that you can bloody ride a bike! It’s amazing! It’s fun and it gets even more fun when you turn right – you can go almost anywhere! And it’s fast, really fast, places become a lot nearer all of a sudden.

You can also give your bike a really cool name. A lot of people give their bike or car a name like Bob or Geoff. How ironic. Forget it. Give it an awesome name. Call it Phantom or Speed Demon. Sir Bike-a-lot is taken.

Jun 272011

In the next few days I will move into what will be the fifteenth house that I call home. This includes one residence that I can’t remember at all as I was very young at the time but I have no reason to doubt those that tell me that I definitely lived there.

When you have lived in that many houses it gets to the point where a new place is not really a new home, it’s just a place in which you are currently based. But what is a home and is it important?

Homes should have some kind of permanence about them and privacy. It should be a place you can come back to, not matter how far and how long you’ve been away. It should also be a place where you can close the door and take respite from the outside world. There may be at various stages in your life be one, two or three places that you call home but any number higher than that and it can become a little difficult to really call it a home.

There’s a whole generation of people now who permanently share with other adults and move every year or two and for more and more of us, a home to call our own seems unlikely to ever happen.

It would be nice to have a place of mine because I want a place where I can do what I want. It would be nice to sit around in my underwear and play computer games. I’m not saying I would (though I definitely would) but it would nice to have the option. Oh sure, I can put on some shorts BUT WHY SHOULD I!? I’m 30 years old and it has become increasingly likely that I may never have a place of my own.

It seems a wrong that we expect people to not have a home, it’s like a family and job; it’s a right. Maybe it’s impossible to guarantee it for everybody but we should make it available to as many as a possible.
When you think about it, it’s a little weird that so many people these days have to share a house with strangers. I’ve lived with some great housemates and some not so great housemates (and I know that I would be in the latter category for many of the people that I’ve lived with) but I want a place that isn’t a house but a home because it’s just right that everyone, everywhere has one place in this often complete-bastard-of- a-world that they can call their own.

We may share to choose with a loved one or with our offspring (not that they mutually exclusive) but that’s not really the same as having to share with people because of financial necessity.

I used to love my bedrooms) when I was a kid. I thought it was the greatest place in the world. I had my books, toys and eventually computer games and I could engage in all these activities from my bed! But it was also a place of refugee, somewhere safe for when growing up and life got a little too difficult.
Now I move from place to place usually every 12 months although my current abode got into semi-permanent status with me being there for 23 months.

It’s not that not owning a place bothers, it would be nice but hey, a lot of things would be nice. The thought of spending all my money on a mortgage so I can own it in 40 years time doesn’t really appeal to me. I also don’t really see the point of scraping and struggling to get my own home only to finally relax and look about my own place only to realise that I can’t go out because I’ve got no money.

I’ve worked out that I’ve now lived with just over 50 people. That’s loads and now I can’t even remember a lot of their names and am certainly not in contact with more than 10 of them and half of those I’m related to.
Why has a society have we not made cheap affordable housing a major priority? Instead we now have a situation where people think they are rich because they have an expensive house. Great, sell it and you can have loads of money and no home. We have a housing marker which is about keeping people off the housing ladder, and it has to keep people off the housing ladder if it’s all about making those who are on the ladder even richer.

I’ve learnt a lot through living in so many places and with so many people. I’ve learnt to wash-up and to not mind other people not washing-up – there are more important things in life. I’ve learnt to get along with people and that I would really like a place of my own.

I’ve also learnt that this generation is becoming increasingly shafted.

Jun 182011

It’s that time of year again, to make sure you get the card in the last post or to give him a call on Sunday to say sorry for forgetting to send a card – again; it’s Father’s Day.

But for some of us Father’s Day isn’t something that we’re ever part of, it’s for other people. I hear people talk about it and while all the words make sense, it just doesn’t really register. I imagine this is what it is like for people who don’t celebrate Christmas, once a year the whole world goes mad and you’re not really sure why. Of course Father’s Day is on a scale a whole lot smaller than Christmas, it’s even possible that you could fail to notice the whole day – if you don’t really have a father.

My father split when I was very young. I saw him a few times until I was about 10 but I haven’t seen him since then. I guess I’m more fortunate than people who never got to meet their father or don’t even know who he is. But I never had a dad and to be honest I’m not really sure what it is a dad is or does. Sure, I could write about what a father does in terms of raising a kid, but most of it would be guess work, probably right, but guess work still, because I have absolutely no personal experience of it.

There was no dad on birthdays or even in the morning at breakfast. There was no dad at sports day or Christmas Day. No football games or talks about girls. I was raised by mum along with my two sisters and I can’t identify with any other way of growing up.

When people talk about Father’s Day, I realise it’s not only a day that I will never be able to identify with but also a big part of growing up – having a dad around.

It won’t be sadness that I feel this Sunday but rather an awareness that something that most other people experience (some of whom will take it for granted – I guess that’s the point of the day) is something that you will never, ever be part of.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have children of my own and be on the receiving end of Father’s Day but I think even then there will be a shadow, and while I only notice it two or three times a year, I suppose the shadow is always there.

So this Sunday there will be some of us thinking about the dads that we never knew and I suppose there will be plenty of dads thinking about where did it all go wrong – but I don’t think that is what Father’s Day is about. It’s about a card through the door or quick phone call to make sure he’s alright, and a smile and a “thanks”.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. But then some things that are supposed to be never happen.

Happy Father’s Day everyone.