What a Time to be Alive (For Ethan)

June 22nd, 2016

I had to take this opportunity to express my feelings in more than 140 characters, or an attention seeking FB status update, and outline in some detail my current situation.

This week has seen pleasure at the arrival of a new manager, naughty pleasures at a pile of stolen stickers to whittle the collection down further, enjoyment of a birthday party and several matches – and not just because some of my predictions came true – but then the really important stuff, the stuff that actually matters.

Like the lovely surprise of being asked to be a godfather, to a cute and cuddly, strong and strapping, very alert young man – ten years after the first time, a role I have continued to take so seriously and proudly.

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Then, my best father’s day yet – being spoilt rotten, having a great couple of hours in the ‘bat cave’ drinking den which I frequent, then being treated to an excellent tea of steak n chips and a couple more pints at a hipster joint with my two leading ladies and feeling very privileged indeed.

But the best moment came today when, preparing for a visit from the supreme commander, news came through of a magical arrival: a beautiful, richly deserved and long awaited bundle of immense joy and pride that makes it such a wonderful time to be alive.

Tomorrow is another day; if it’s tough, and voting or behavioural problems cloud my judgement, I just wanted to document this feeling, before it fades.

And after this past few days, I’ll need to remember – I have to remember – that, as Tim, and occasionally Liam, sing:

I’m just out of your range
Tomorrow
All your suffering’s in vain
Tomorrow

Now your grip’s too strong
You can’t catch love with a net or a gun
Gotta keep faith that your path will change
Gotta keep faith that your love will change tomorrow

Because this week has proved just that.

Spanish Eyes

June 12th, 2016

Ne’er cast a clout til May is out, said Adrian Mole’s Nan, played by Beryl Reid in the seminal TV adaptation, or it could have been Queenie, Bert’s lady friend… I don’t recall.

Either way, only when May had passed could I feel things were truly turning, and a summer of optimism was on its way. Generally, this was the case, with some obstacles met and overcome confidently, so much so that we arrive in June all smiles and ready for the exciting next instalments.

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The month began where it ended, with disappointment on the pitch but interesting developments off it, saying sorrowful goodbyes to a dreamer, and ultimately huge cause for positive thinking about the future. I also bought my first kids’ football kits, much to the wife’s chagrin but I really appreciate her indulging me and the opportunity was simply too good to be true.

Much of the month was spent preparing for, and then celebrating, Mrs G’s birthday; days spent at the Strand buying forty little gifts, trips into town negotiating the excellent Francis Bacon exhibition and a busy Pandora whilst the little one shouts POO! And wrapping, decorating, cleaning continuously.
All part of the domestic bliss, and the nesting process.

We had a wonderful weekend for the last of the ladies. Hopefully, it showed how much we all think of her and how special she is to us.

Then came the trip of a lifetime: four days in a Basque utopia of pintxos, sunshine and playgrounds, wandering through streets of old towns across sandy beaches wondering if it could ever be this way forever. Bringing up a little Pedro might be rather problematic but the notion is lovely: late nights, laidback lifestyles, laughter…

We stayed in Bilbao, on the same street as the fanatical Athletic Club fans worship at the San Mames, where Mister Kendall once plied his trade. There were few traces of his legacy: the bar I’d found, named after the great man, had gone, and only one waiter entered into a conversation about him. He waxed lyrical, despite initial reluctance, during our last lunch, and I must say in terms of the food there that was the best of a very good lot.

For many, the idea of going on holiday and only really eating on one street seems alien, but for us it was ideal, because it was five minutes away and there were at least ten good pintxos bars serving snacks on toast of various sea food, jamon serrano, goats’ cheese, chilli peppers, crab mayonnaise… even a slab of foie gras for three euros which will upset Morrissey but made me very happy. All, of course, were accompanied by a variety of wines, unusual beers, sherries, Punt Y Mes, incredible G & Ts and non alcoholic lagers for the missus, at incredibly cheap prices.

This way of life really benefitted B, too – or us – because we didn’t outstay our welcome anywhere and each offered novelty value and a change of scenery but more importantly, suited our intrepid and experimental palates as well as our budget and our two and a half year old!

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I guess the highlights of the trip were the people, the Guggenheim Museum and its outside exhibits, particularly Maman and El Poop; the sunshine, the scenery, the sculptures, incredible street signage, and the San Mames, an incredible stadium from the outside and my quick glimpses inside.

Plus, San Sebastian as a whole – we even frequented its number one pintxos place by accident – and of course, the food. Just touring the markets in both cities was enough, the delectable range of fresh produce, knowledgeable staff, customers arguing over beautifully butterflied sardines or expertly butchered cuts of meat. Stand out bites included bacon / G&T ice cream in the same cup, a soft shell crab, oysters with local wine, cider being poured from a great height and my first taste of percebes or goose barnacles, which you might have seen people risking their lives to collect off dangerous rocks… To be honest, they were actually a bit of an anticlimax but still a lifelong dream to savour. The walks on the beach, the being in a European city of Culture again – and of course, watching Spain win 6 1 with my daughter on the day I’d bought her her first – and only – red football shirt.

Thinking about that, the only slight on events was the scarcity of references to the civil war. Having read several sources on the topic, and considered my own epistemological standpoint, I was hoping to see statues and memorials and even hear references during our txikitos but there seemed an eerie absence, an omission almost, as if there remains a fear to discuss the events of eighty years ago. There has been a lot in the news, and Pan’s Labyrinth does not suffice to explain away the injustices, nor a Manics song, nor the paltry few street names or George Orwell’s book nor the lovely and poignant sculpture on the beach at SS / Donostia. We drove past Gernika, and I thought of this:

With a heavy heart we returned, but it was full of love for a place we wholly recommend and will return to, one day anyway. In the mean time, we will enjoy the improved weather, the recipes from the excellent Jose Pizarro BASQUE cook book and of course, the Euros.

Sticker book nearly completed, sweepstakes entered, still loads of work to do but a tournament always lifts the spirits temporarily at least – not that they needed it, after good news from the consistently excellent Alder Hey hospital.

In the week of the launch of this year’s Hannah Festival, I will now turn my attention to containerisation. Exactly six years since my eyes were lasered in the ultimate act of creativity – ‘playful yet sincere’ – I return to painting, what my eyes have been seeing over the past few weeks.

Including one on the road from San Sebastian to Bilbao. And another at the Guggenheim.

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For weeks, I have been documenting the shipping containers I’ve spotted on my journeys to and from work and can now share them with you.

As if in a dream, dreamt by another… (Everything was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt)

May 13th, 2016

The next – final – instalment of our alphabetical voyage from a ‘good place’ to – exactly where, I’m not entirely sure, but a better one definitely, and takes in Michelin starred restaurants, befriending ex Liverpool heroes, collecting Panini stickers and obsessing over shipping containers.

We begin with a trip to Knowsley Safari Park, and a chance encounter with an Everton number nine.

A day of sunshine and (April) showers, we gleefully spotted lots of creatures whilst touring the enclosures on a busy half term day, and I got an eerie feeling that this was more like Jurassic Park than I’d remembered. Thankfully, only a rhea and an antelope came close to the car, we took the baboon safety route for obvious reasons especially when we saw the couple openly mating for all to enjoy.

Come the end of the tour, we had a go on the rides and queued for an ice cream. I spotted a tall guy in a tracksuit in a flat cap and instantly thought, hello, wait a minute, IS IT?

Yes it was.

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I hovered as presumably his agent, explained how to buy tickets for said rides. I stood back as the rain fell and his four or five offspring ran to him for shelter. I thought me chance had gone, so took this picture of him and his unhappy looking wife watching on as their kids enjoyed themselves – wifey pushing a buggy crammed with Tesco juices and Everton carrier bags. I couldn’t resist the chance to ask for a selfie and do you know what, he was a true gent, took his cap off and everything. I wished him good luck for the upcoming games and he seemed made up to have been spotted and approached as nobody else seemed to have.

UNBELIEVABLY GOOD

few days later, we sat enjoying an anniversary lunch at Northcote Manor in Lancashire. The meal was fantastic and I plumped for scallops and skate before an indulgent cheese and port: Mrs G opting for wild mushroom soup, pork loin with wild garlic mash and a rhubarb compote. Unfortunately, my co-diner had to go outside to be sick because early pregnancy nausea had taken over and as she recovered, I was offered a tour of the kitchens, overwhelmed by the facilities, the chocolate room, the venison hanging in the meat room, the knowing nods of the busy staff wondering who I was (answer: a nobody just enjoying himself immensely with this glimpse of what might have been) and overall, the quality of the food and the hospitality we enjoyed.

Following the Kone incident, I’d had another star gazing moment or two, when seeing a certain Kopite hero in the locality and for a laugh – recognising his number plate as I see him A LOT – I gave him a wave, and laughed when I got one back. Two days later, the same situation: the same result, my new best friend.

V for VICTORY

Three days on, he was there again, at Marine’s last home game of the season. An impeccably observed 3-0 win, enjoyed in the sunshine with Ol’ JC and a beer festival in the clubhouse afterwards. The players sauntered in, munching their pizza, and said hello to us all. Never having enjoyed the experience of the players’ lounge at Goodison, I wondered if this was what it was like: getting let on to, over hearing conversation, feeling special, although this non-league version offered somewhat less salacious gossip… though, now I was a friend of a Premier League icon, it mattered little.

WHATEVER

Everton haven’t been doing too well recently, I’ll be honest.

Derby defeats, semi final suffering and overall antipathy is not much fun to endure and as I get excited about going the last game of the season and buying a child-sized kit for the first time, I have to comment on the pathetic nature of some folk who, online and in conversation, seem to get more pleasure out of belittling me and my team personally rather than focusing on their own life and team. It’s almost as if they get pleasure from upsetting others when we have nothing to do with the performances really, and don’t like any response they don’t understand.

Offended by everything, ashamed of nothing… and when you point this out, you’re bitter and it’s just harmless banter.

The worst are those who’ve never made it to a game in the time I’ve known them, and not because of the psychology of martyrdom: rather, other random reasons, or just nothingness.

One equals twenty, you do the math.

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It all makes me laugh, because everyone involved should know better: and concentrate on other things.

However, I have become much more bothered about starting collecting the Euro 2016 Panini album stickers and actually got two Baines stickers in one packet. We have a swap club in school on Friday lunchtimes and my daughter loves opening the packets, though rips the occasional sticker much to her Dad’s chagrin.

The first sticker we revealed together, was one of my favourite players:

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We collect things because of toilet training, because of childhood: an attempt to remain clinging to a youth slipping away.

Similarly, I have started drawing and documenting shipping containers which we see on the journey to and from school every day, thinking about what might be inside – a foreshadow of the near future.

I recently read about frequency illusion, a phrase coined by Arnold Zwicky ten years ago, relating to the notions of selective attention and confirmation bias which basically mean that once you notice something or get told about it, you start to notice it everywhere, and this has certainly been proven with lots of my collections over the years.

Passport photos, shopping lists, ghost signs… everything.

This idea of spotting things suddenly is also know as the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon, you may have heard of it – if not, you will be doing over the next couple of months!

As the annual Hannah Festival approaches, I will discuss in more detail my new love for shipping containers, being as they are the natural successor to the shopping lists and before them, the Chinese cockle pickers and other objects of desire… every morning and every afternoon, I document the weird and wonderful boxes spotted on the journey to and from work, for reasons which will become apparent.

YES

It all supports the themes running through my work before parenthood – as Carol Ann Duffy might write, Before You Were Mine – and links in to schadenfreude which resonates nicely to the football related nonsense I was discussing earlier, and has been proven again recently what with the magpies I am noticing everywhere. For months we were wondering, three or four, what might that mean, but now that we know, my superstitions mean I’m doing a lot of saluting because for every solo magpie I then when we see a couple, and feel relieved.

In the next month I visit Bilbao, celebrate a milestone and say good bye to some heroes, temporarily at least, with a pilgrimage to the old lady for old times’ sake. I consider how to further avoid conflict and frustration, and embrace new music and new managers…

In the mean time, I hope this blog stays healthy and you all do too as things start to change once again – for the better.

And dreams come true.

Zzzzzzz

I’ll get my sleep in now.

March (The Psychology of Martyrdom)

May 13th, 2016

It’s such a long time since I wrote to you and that’s largely because some charlatan tried to infiltrate this blog.

Russian internet fraudsters, creative industrial espionage or otherwise, I was disappointed that some malware potentially killed it only for a Lazarus like return to health thanks to the creator of the site. It seems easier to go through the last couple of months of my stupid little life using edited, alphabeticised highlights.

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We start eight months ago, over the water with Peppa Pig.

My little girl being obsessed with the porcine princess and her crazy friends and family, we ventured to New Brighton for an excellent stage performance of a summer day out courtesy of some comedy, some clever puppeteers and lots of excited fans seeing bubbles burst.

We were lucky enough to have complimentary seats due to a friend who works at the theatre and thoroughly enjoyed the likes of George and Mr Potato as much as the tots dancing in the aisle.
Mother’s Day was the next day and we had a special announcement to make.

Yes, the good news was out and we were proud to declare there’s another little G coming into the world at the start of next season. The best feeling in the world, but the reason why I’d reluctantly passed on the opportunity to attend Everton’s next match.

You see, things change, people grow up and that psychology of martyrdom – making sacrifices in the name of a cause – takes control.

Quarter final

Rewinding three years, it was the Wigan game which stands out most from the last time we were expecting.

I sat there shaking my head at the debacle from the stands, and thinking about what a waste of time and money it was when I had more important things to be buying in the near future. That game was something of a watershed for me, I suppose, and from that day on I vowed that if put in a similar position again, I’d have to give up what was once my first priority.

Three years on and the ever-increasing inconsistency meant that I couldn’t risk making the same mistake again, not with nursery fees and soon another mouth to feed, so I chose to watch the Chelsea game from the comfort of my – nesting well underway – half-papered back room.

With Peppa Pig on a loop in the front, the martyr in me thought that if I didn’t attend, maybe it would bring us luck, and if we did win, I could still enjoy it vicariously through those lucky enough to be able to be present.

Although I was quietly confident, even I wasn’t expecting such an excitingly explosive attack from Rom and then the electric atmosphere at the end. I was a bit gutted but after the mix of brilliance and laughing stockage, this year in particular, meant that Everton kept up their up, down, up and down, and I was for once glad to miss an epic quarter final win for a very good reason – so as not to let history repeat itself – though would be sad to forego a trip to Wembley, I know it might just be for the greater good.

However, that applied pragmatism and perspective putting was needed more than ever the following week.

Sadness

Things didn’t exactly look positive on the football front, then, before the international break came with a surprise victory for England – amid much excitement for those who care about such trivial matters. I was more bothered about the release of some nice new kits in time for Euro 2016. It wouldn’t be long until the stickers would be released, though I was yet to be swayed.

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Still, a severe dampener was put on things with the news just before Easter, that Johan Cruyff had passed away.

We seem to have never known a few months like the last, for celebrity deaths – every week brings with it contemplative tweets and RIP facebook posts. In the past week alone, the likes of Ronnie Corbett, Kes creator, Paul Daniels – now that’s tragic – have left us.

Still, celebrities aside, other stories in the news are even more upsetting. Events in Istanbul, Nigeria, Pakistan and most scarily, Brussels, make you wonder whether it is a good time to be bringing young people into the world. Still, as sad as those attacks have been, none touched me as much as the premature death of one of the greatest footballers ever.

Not just a great player, but an inspirational coach and a style icon who impacted upon a generation.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to see him play ‘live’ but have pored over documentaries and YouTube clips of his greatest moments; the ‘ghost goal’ is a classic but my favourite is an early goal for Ajax which hinted at the greatness which was to come. I did, though, experience the dream team he created at Barca and, after reading the rather excellent book on Dutch football theory Brilliant Orange, recognised his genius. Through WSAG I then realised his influence on fashion and style and as a personality, he became an icon.

I enjoyed the stories of his 1970s heyday, especially the one about when my father in law stood alongside him in the Holiday Inn the night before they played Liverpool, and couldn’t believe my luck in March 2012 when he stood checking in to the easyjet flight I too had booked for my stag weekend.

I was on my way to Barcelona, had a book about the club in my luggage, and just happened to bump into him on the way to departures and quickly scrambled for a pen. He signed the book, he shook my hand and was nonchalant when I said what I was doing but it didn’t matter. I had met one of my all time heroes and the rest of the airport seemed oblivious to the fact. That he was then sat on the same plane, and airport bus, made things a little uncomfortable, but it didn’t matter – that was one of the best moments of my life.

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My folks still have the excited voice message I left on their answer machine just after the meeting; I hope they will keep it forever – just as I will that book.

Up next, as Simon and Garfunkel might say – April, come she will…

A Taste of Honey

March 13th, 2016

To Bee or Not to Bee… That is the question.

Not people asked Father Christmas for a day’s introduction to beekeeping. Neither did I: it’s just that my wife buys the best presents, and knows me so well. Last year we stayed at a B & B in Wales, and I was very taken by the bee observatory that was in the breakfast room – so much so that I developed an interest in apiculture, from a distance anyway – more a curiosity in this new world I was entering into.

Hence the surprise gift. Somewhat naively, I presumed I’d be donning the suit and handling the queens straight away during the six hour taster day; not just I, but the nine others who had booked on to the same day long course.

How wrong we were – but for all the right reasons.

We set off early on a Sunday morning, heading for Claremont Farm on the Wirral. We’d been before, for the Wirral Food Festival a few years back, though hadn’t seen the new shop and café, which is clear very popular with those across the water and which I can heartily recommend for both a meal or a shopping spree, what with its delectable produce.

Back to the bees, and the first hour was spent learning the basics about bees and hives.

The first thing I learned was how those blokes with bee beards manage to do so successfully, and that blew me away. But there was so much more to discover.

The worker bee’s life cycle is fascinating in itself. So very specific: Bees grow for three weeks then, when hatched, spend their first couple of days cleaning the cells in which the queen will lay her eggs. For the next few days, it will help feed the queen, before building honeycombs , then storing nectar and pollen, before protecting the entrance. After that, it’s all about leaving the hive and collecting pollen and nectar from flowers; this can be for a week or a couple of months, depending on events.
They have, of course, been around for 30 million years. The only insect that produces food for us, it is said that they don’t like smoke because it reminds them of the meteor striking earth which killed off the dinosaurs. Their energy levels and metabolism mean that apparently, it would take one ounce of honey to fuel a bee’s flight around the world, and for those in fear of a sting, it would take 1100 stings to kill a man.

Talking of which, all these fascinating facts and more were explained to us by the course leader, a wonderful gentleman, Nigel Brierley, whose honey is the best I’ve ever tasted. He divulged the equipment he uses when visiting his thirty hives, gave lots of guidance and useful tips as well as stories from his years of beekeeping. What is remarkable about Nigel is that he promised his wife in 1972 when they married, and she announced her love of honey, that he would keep bees one day. It took him 37 years to do so, it might take me the same, but after a few hours in his company, I am committed to following in his footsteps when time and money allows.

We had a wonderful lunch together, further proof if it were needed that the Claremont Farm kitchen is one worth revisiting, and perused the guide books and catalogues alongside the costs involved, whilst discussing our epistemological standpoints where the idea of beekeeping was concerned.

Why were we so in love with the notion?

It was a bit like Ten Little Indians, strangers all explain their reasons for being in the same room that day. Various responses were issued, from a love of animals to lots of spare time, and being bored housewives to having a love of honey.

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Despite the freezing conditions, we ventured out to visit the hives, and although no bees were seen, it was still an incredible experience to see an expert in action, preparing as he did their feed – a bag of cake icing.

CAKE ICING! I know, how strange. You cut a little hole in the packet, place it over the feeding hole of the hive, and let the clever bees do their magic, they’re so intelligent it’s scary.
Anyway, on to the honey. The reason why many must take up the hobby, and Mr Brierley’s tasted like nothing I’d ever eaten before. Obviously, we don’t lavish loads of loot on the honey we consume, though from now on, won’t be buying cheap supermarket options given that I know now that only local honey is worth worrying about. Much of what we buy off the shelves, isn’t even from the EU, thus causing potential problems for British bees.

Similarly, don’t waste your money on Manuka – Nigel struggled to even say the name, given the antipathy many beekeepers show towards the apparently magical version of New Zealand produce, of which, I learned, most of which isn’t even ‘real’.

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The winner of the taste test, by the way, was the creamed honey: a pearly white revelation, like nothing I’d ever eaten before. I bought a jar, and a little squeezy honey bear for my own little bee. He also had candles, beeswax, soap, a plethora of honeyed beauty.

“The joy of keeping bees is that they never fail to surprise you” (Andrew Davies)

Whilst I didn’t really know what to expect, the experience just blew me away. I came home with a head literally buzzing with thoughts. I’d learnt so much, in the space of a few hours, and wanted to get started straight away yet realised it might take years, decades… It seems such a simple pastime, but can be very expensive, timekeeping and dangerous.

Since going on the course I also saw for the first time, the incredible episode of Tales of the Unexpected, in which Timothy West feeds his under-eating baby some royal jelly with some hideous consequences. I was actually on a course recently and got talking about short stories… the facilitator started raving over Roald Dahl’s finest and said she remembered the bees novella more than any other:

Also, it will take money. Since going on the course, one of my students has taught me that the Cockney rhyming slang for money is ‘bees and honey’ which seems somewhat serendipitous.
Still, the demands involved all appear minimal every time I taste that honey, and so my taste of a different life during an unforgettable day on the farm brought with it – that favourite saying of mine -a bundle of contradictions. I now want to keep bees more than ever, though realise the time needs to be right: whenever that may bee.

In the meantime, I’ll plan on getting another tattoo.

COMING UP: We think about what might be inside, as I start to prepare for containerisation.

Before then: If you are interested in beekeeping, you can find out more at www.bbka.org.uk and you can see the equipment needed, at www.thorne.co.uk