Out of the 150+ posts on this blog across the past eleven years, I’d guess that around 50% of them reference things seen or experienced whilst out and about in rural Kent. That was never the intention, I never really warmed too much to the idea of keeping to a main theme, even though a lot of people suggested it was the best way to create an established blog. It’s just testament to the local area that so many of my outdoor rambles have managed to inspire the content for the monthly post.
It seemed to start about ten years agowith a trip to the beach, continued with a maybe slightly-cheesy-in-retrospect ‘life lesson’ from the maze at Leeds Castle in 2015, a fresh glut of writing upon moving to Faversham in 2018 and then an even bigger one in 2020/2021, because walking outdoors was essentially all we were able to do.
And though we can thankfully do a lot more again now, there are still few things that I enjoy more than being out exploring the pretty unique surroundings of Kent (or perhaps it’s just because I grew up in Watford, where postcards feature the ring road and you feel privileged just to see a tree.)
(That’s possibly being a little unfair, you’ll often see one. But only one.)
Nonetheless, in over ten years of living here I’m still not bored of Kent, and despite having walked round the countryside near to where my parents live in Canterbury countless times, it took until now to learn that we have our very own set of pyramids:
The photo above features what is known locally as the ‘Tetrahedra Field’. It can be found at the end of a private residential gravel-track road leading out of a village just outside of the city. With minimal footfall, it’s of little surprise that hardly anybody knows of it, and though it could be easy to assume (I certainly did) that these stones are probably nothing of note, the reality is much more intriguing.
It turns out that these triangular structures lie on what was once the site of a World War I aerodrome. Their purpose was to generally get in the way of the tanks that were used by the opposition, and if you look closely, you can still see the letters and numbers which identified them. When the airfield was closed down in the 1940’s, they were all moved into the random field above, next to the railway line.
At first glance it may only look like a graveyard for unwanted giant Toblerones circa Christmas 1972 (though that too would be exciting) but it’s also a classic example of the benefits of looking at some things twice. I will continue to be intrigued by what other hidden gems and pieces of secret history we may have lying around us here in the Garden of England, and I want to go and find and write about them all, ha!
Song of the Day: The Bad Plus – Silence is the Question
Eight minutes that’ll change your life (I exaggerate. But I promise you, it’ll do something). I don’t normally have the patience for long songs, particularly if they start off too slow, and nor do I really listen to jazz, but I somehow stumbled across this one and it sucked me in. I’ll say no more, you just have to listen to it all in one go. Just amazing.
One of the more harmful elements of works of fiction – be it book or film – is that they condition us to believe that in the space of a couple of hours, everything will suddenly make sense.
The recurring stranger who keeps appearing everywhere turns out to be a secret relative. Missing a bus and meeting a new lover on the next one. Feeling uneasy in a new home then finding out you live on the site of a former ancient burial ground. Everything gets explained in the end. Each of the details are tied together in a tidy bow for you to marvel at in an ultimate “Aha!” as you turn the final page and close the book.
And so there we go in our own lives, constantly seeking to replicate this tidiness by striving to establish the meaning of things that happen to us. Looking at life as a plot, and trying to work out how every feature will fit into that tidy ending, where suddenly, everything makes sense.
But the older I get, the more I realise that actually, some things don’t make sense, and may never make sense, and that’s not only useful but quite liberating to accept too.
Not every loose end will get tied up.
Not everything was meant to be.
I remember being shouted down by a friend in my early 20’s. We had been having a lovely chat until I naively mentioned that I believed everything in life happens for a reason. “No it does not!”, he snapped, with an argument so compelling I could find no way to respond to it. I have been careful about using that expression again because whilst I still believe a lot of things do I also realise it perhaps trivialises the fact that sometimes tragic, unfair and unavoidable things do happen in life and that’s the final full-stop for some particular tales. Sad endings, with no silver linings, wider purposes or hidden meanings. Some things are just… shit.
I don’t necessarily think life is a story. It does not subscribe to a specific genre and not all of its chapters or paragraphs will have any bearing on the summary. If life were to be any form of written literature, it would be more like a big poetry anthology. On the television, life would be a sketch or clip show. There may be themes, and there’ll be plenty of tales, but they may not always connect, or fall neatly like dominoes.
And once you learn to let go of any need for specific narratives, suddenly everything feels more free. Ideas abound. Opportunities abound. Tiresome rumination about historic events trickles away. A quest for answers that may never be fruitful, gives way for a quest for adventure.
Living becomes electrified from the freedom of replacing the need for everything to make sense or to fit into a particular jelly mould with the acceptance that it won’t always. Some bits just need to be put to the side. Letting go of particular things, and focusing instead on how to make the best of the day ahead, whatever that means to you, be it your favourite dinner, a rejuvenating 5k in the rain, eating a biscuit in the bath, or enrolling onto a course that will broaden your career prospects. Just being focused in the moment, the only time in which it is possible to do anything.
How you feel will always be worth a billion times more than what you’ve done, or what will end up happening in that plot that doesn’t need to exist. You could be sat looking over the Peyto Lake in Canada – said to be the most beautiful place in the world – but if your mind is too focused on a recent rejection or trying to make sense of a cruel comment, you’ll step away from the bank and return home having not even seen any water in a place most can only dream of going. Alternatively, you could be stuck in traffic on the motorway, singing along to your favourite song, rhythm and energy flowing through you.
Throw the script on the bonfire, and with it, throw anything else which reduces the panorama straight ahead of you with its distracting insistence to make sense of things that may never make sense, and don’t even need to make sense.
With everything that’s going on nationally and in the world at the moment, you have to celebrate every pleasure where you can at the moment, no matter how small it may seem.
Geocaching is one of my favourite things to do in my free time these days because it combines exercise with nature, and I like the challenge of trying to find things. It’s a hobby that many haven’t heard of, but with 35 million players all over the world, it’s actually hugely popular. ‘Caches’ are hidden pretty much all over the place, most often in points of interest, and people of all ages like to search for them whilst exploring the world.
With International Geocaching Day having taken place this month, I’ve been trying to get into the spirit of it by getting out and doing it as much as possible to make the most of the light Summer evenings. One of my favourite things about it is that the GPS map of the geocaches gives you reasons to take turns you’ve never taken before, explore new places, and find out new things about your surroundings. Geocaching has guided me to disused Underground stations, memorials for historic events I’d never heard of before, and seemingly random spots that offer some of the most stunning of views. All places I may well not have ventured if not for the game.
It was during one such occasion recently that a turn I probably wouldn’t have taken otherwise afforded me this beautiful panorama of golden fields and gorgeous horses:
It was a scene of pure peace against the external noise of current affairs, and during those moments of taking in the scenery around me, I felt I had discovered something very special and secret.
And these kind of moments make me wonder more generally, about what else is out there waiting to be found? What other beautiful views? What other contented creatures? Maybe sometimes we underestimate the potential for these things to be much closer than we think. Maybe it’s not always about going further, but simply going different. Not overlooking that plain old alleyway to our right, but wandering up it anyway and just seeing what’s on the other side.
Some years ago, I used to think that to see something really new and breathtaking you had to travel very far, but you don’t. You’ve never had to.
Not if you’re willing to look.
Song of the Day: Teenage Fanclub – Speed of Light
Classic Scottish indie. I borrowed this album from the library in 1999 and it doesn’t seem any less new now than it did then. Does this mean I’m officially old?
Actually, not sure I want to know the answer to that…
“RICKAYYYYYYYYYY!!!!” Harold & Madge “You are the weakest link, goodbye!” Beek-her Grerrrv – ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha. “Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder”
If, as reading the above, you either heard or visualised them within, then the chances are that you are a similar age or above to me and would have seen them on the television at some point. I feel confident that most people can identify all five and I feel that way because for many years the majority of us were all watching the same things, and I miss that.
During the 1990s there were several things I would religiously watch: Grange Hill / Byker Grove at 5:10pm, Neighbours at 5:35pm, The Simpsons at 6pm, Eastenders at 7:30pm (or 8pm on a Monday!) as well as all of the Saturday evening classics: Noel’s House Party (gutted I never received an invite),Blind Date, Casualty, Gladiators, and all the rest. Does this sound familiar to you? Chances are it does. Just the other week, among a small group of friends, we randomly established that half of us were still haunted by an episode of Michael Buerk’s 999 where the lady got her long hair stuck in a jacuzzi filter and almost drowned. It was probably only broadcast once or twice, in the mid-90s, yet several of us remembered it well. We think about it every time we affix our hairbands in the swimming pool changing rooms, yet I can’t tell you anything about what I watched last year.
Nowadays, even though my television gets turned on almost every evening in the hope of being mind-blown, there is nothing I regularly watch, and if I do get really stuck into something, chances are I’ll only chat to one or two others who watch it too.
It’s easy to understand why this is. In the halcyon days described above, there were far fewer channels, no such thing as Freeview, and only a fortunate minority of the population owned a satellite dish. The internet was still several years off being something the majority had access to, and barely anybody owned a mobile phone on which they could while away time sending yellow faces to friends. When the weather was a bit rubbish (and remember, this is England) there was only a choice of about four things to do of a typical evening, and they each had their own button on the remote.
There were no such things as spoilers, no world wide web to give away the plot, and you either watched a programme at the same time as everybody else or you didn’t watch it at all (okay, strictly speaking you could watch it back on a recordable VHS, but the success of that was always at the mercy of whoever was in charge of setting it up). Our interest in soaps, sitcoms and dramas was always about the characters, and not the cast’s messy personal lives. Those two things never intertwined, like the media manages to make them do today.
Whilst these days watching television would not be something I endorse people doing too much of, I do – in some ways – miss how it used to be. That’s not because I believe the standard of programming has decreased in quality, but that the way in which we watch it has.
As of December 2018, there were around 460 available television channels in the UK. Of course, not everybody will have access to all of these, but on Freeview alone there are at least 70, and that’s not inclusive of the fact that you can essentially watch any programme hosted by the main channels at any time if you have access to their free streaming hubs.
This magnitude of choice may have sounded very appealing back in the 1990’s – when the likes of the Antiques Roadshow being on would decrease the likelihood of an evening being fun by twenty five percent – but in my experience, it’s turned out to be anything but. In fact, it’s probably one of the key reasons why I don’t tend to watch much anymore.
Earlier this week, I returned from an evening walk feeling shattered and cold and in need of a nice Winter evening on the sofa. I liked the idea of being ensconced in a bit of escapism in the same way I was in the past, and after making myself that little bit more comfortable, took a look through the numerous channels to find something that I could get stuck into for an hour or so. Snacks were prepared for this event.
But it just didn’t happen.
By the time I’d found something I felt compelled to watch for longer than ten minutes, the snacks had long gone, but it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough on the listings to interest me – just the opposite – and I found it hard to settle on one. If I wasn’t fully absorbed by a programme within the first five minutes, my mind wandered to the other listings I’d seen and I’d change the channel and start watching something else. This wasn’t an isolated incident either; flitting between various channels and applications is often the rhythm of my television viewing, and maybe that’s why – in my mind – there isn’t a modern day equivalent of ’90’s soaps and game shows, even though some of those same ones still run.
But this post isn’t meant to sound as though I’m trying to make a first world problem of not finding anything mesmerising enough to watch on the telly. It’s about the identification that sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. More options to choose from – whether they’re television channels, music streaming apps, careers, profiles on online dating sites, travel destinations or varieties or McFlurry – are undoubtedly a product of the modern age for which we can only be thankful and I would not wish for this post to undermine my gratitude for that. But are they really making us happier, or have they diluted the joy we once took from these things when they were that little bit more rare: classmates bonding over their opinions of Who Shot Phil Mitchell because we’d all watched it (Google now tells you within an instant, it was gravel-voiced Lisa, IF you’d forgotten); Growing to love Track 9 on the New Kids cassette because there’s no quick option to skip and only three other cassettes to listen to; that place you kept going back to on holiday every year because you loved it so much; that one conversation you had time for on MSN Messenger because you couldn’t access the internet for more than fifteen minutes a day. It seems to me that we used to appreciate these things so much more.
My recent fiddle with the remote is just the latest manifestation of something that I have realised numerous times. It’s not always what you want, or even what you have, that makes you happy. It’s just as much about what you do and how it makes you feel. The programme can only be good if you’re watching it. You may never realise how much you love a song if you always skip it after the intro. Distance from home is unlikely to be the reason your favourite holiday was your favourite holiday, and just how memorable can a conversation be if you are having three others at the same time? Spreading things too thin is only a good idea if the jam is toxic. You’re less likely to die after one bite. But if it’s a really tasty, non-toxic jam, you’ll enjoy that bite so much more if you’ve more of it on the bread, even if it means eating a smaller piece.
One of my favourite things about the television is that I learn a lot from it; I didn’t always realise how much.
Something else many will recognise: The BBC testcard was in use from 1967 and 1998 and its predominant function was to freak the bejeezus out of anyone who turned the television on too early in the morning. And some other technical function apparently.
Video of the Day:The Simpsons – Your Putter’s Name is Charlene
What more fitting for this post than to break from tradition by including a video as opposed to a song, and this particular one is an example of how the internet can ruin classic tv. For years I’ve laughed at the scene when Homer vehemently suggests that Bart call his putter “Charlene”. It just seemed so random, why Charlene? Is the putter reminiscent of Kylie Minogue’s character in Neighbours circa 1989 or something? Would the wedge be called Scott and the green itself, Madge? I would chuckle internally at my own poor joke whenever I saw this clip. But I recently found out that it’s actually just a copy of a line from a war film. So it’s nothing at all to do with Neighbours, and there’s a logic to it afterall. Damn. But still. A classic scene.
There are three kinds of people in the world: those who see the appeal of Dungeness, those who don’t, and those who’ve never been.
“You either love it or you hate it!” chimes the well-known slogan of a popular brand of yeast extract. A very similar slogan would look perfectly at home on a poster advertising Dungeness. I have already written about it once, almost ten years ago to the day in fact, and though this post isn’t intended to be a repeat of that one, it’s relevant to the context.
In summary, there is so much which is undeniably beautiful about the place – the bold light typical of a peninsular, the gently rippling sea surrounding it, the whispering marshland, and knowing that a third of all plant species in the UK are there around you. Yet there are lot of other features overwhelming on the eyes which are not so traditionally beautiful – rusted corrugated iron in every direction, weathered bungalows, angry handwritten scrawls in windows telling people not to look inside, a silence which is as deathly as it is otherwise comforting and – the biggest blot on the horizon of all – the Dungeness Power Station.
To understand the appeal of Dungeness you have to see how this fusion of polar opposites is – in itself – a thing of beauty and awe. But why?
I am currently reading a book over which I am already lamenting the fact that I will one day reach the end of the final chapter. Gareth E Rees’ Unofficial Britain was a recent random purchase which I started reading over a couple of cups of coffee in town one lovely Saturday afternoon. The topics of each chapter – which include pylons, ring roads and roundabouts – may sound somewhat unappealing, but just like the power station’s relationship with Dungeness (which unsurprisingly features within the book) Rees demonstrates how the brightest of colours can sometimes be found behind the most grey of facades. The stories he tells about some of our landscape’s “ugliest” features are all based on fact, and succeed in convincing the reader to view them in a different way. He inspires us to appreciate the fact that a building need not be medieval, timber-beamed or smell of cloves in order to have a history or magical qualities. I won’t say any more than that, but anybody who sits in the “I like Dungeness” camp needs to read this book. You’ll love it.
Since I started reading the book it’s fair to say I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my surroundings, and trying to see “the Dungeness effect” in more places. Near my parents’ home in Canterbury there’s a section of the North Down Ways which is a cluster of rapeseed fields and orchards which during Winter is just one large beigey-brown patchwork quilt. Stitched across it is a row of electricity pylons, which traditionally evoke a sense of danger and caution. Earlier in the week I took a walk around the area to get some steps in and found myself besotted with how it all looked and felt in the late October sunset: the colours, the hums of power lines, the coolness:
Towards the end of my walk, the cloud emerging from the left in photo three had cloaked over the whole sky with a watery navy cloak, and I felt the Dungeness effect wash all over me again, in the same spine-tingling way. The music I was listening to at the time intensified this. It was from a label called Ghost Box Records, which describes itself as “a record label for a group of artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.” Think electronic music. Think production music. Think scary ’70s public information films. The music was recommended in my beloved book and was consequently swiftly Spotify-ed up and enjoyed. And it really complements all of this.
I have often asked myself what it is about the likes of Dungeness, or these kind of grey views, or Ghost Box music, that makes them so captivating and unconventionally beautiful, and the only conclusion I can really muster is that it’s something to do with the way in which they somehow serve as dynamite to the imagination. They get right in to your senses and they might frighten you a bit, but they’re also blank canvasses upon which you can let creativity and imagination run wild without the presence of the wider public to distract it with loud conversations which hook you back into a reality which – with its pandemic and rising fuel prices – can ironically sometimes look more grim than any pylon or sheet of corroded iron. It’s no surprise that numerous artists descend upon – and rave about – Dungeness, the most famous example being the late film director Derek Jarman, who even owned a cottage on the peninsular which can still be visited today.
Sometimes it’s not so much about what you see right in front of you but their invisible companions. The stories. The memories. The feelings. The character. The inspiration those things provide.
That’s the beauty: tudor beams, immaculate topiary, or not.
If this post resonates with you – buy that book! And if it doesn’t, if you’re really not sure what any of this is about, let me know and we’ll arrange a trip to New Romney to look at a bunch of nothing. I assure you, it’ll be mesmerising.
It’s an often recurring realisation of mine that the more I find out the less I feel like I really know. The older I get and the more I experience, the more I question things. It makes sense I suppose. Until you find a reason to question something, then why would you do so. It’s that classic, Socrates-inspired adage again: You don’t know what you don’t know, because you don’t know it. Each and every one of us have our own set of a billion things which we don’t know yet, and it’s both a little scary yet also achingly exciting to know (or do we? ha!) it. Astonishing lessons we’ve yet to learn, impactful experiences we’ve yet to have, and people we’ve yet to meet are floating around us like rubber ducks with hooks on their heads, waiting to be caught, and if we can manage to do so, we stand to win a prize. Hopefully a good one, perhaps a rubbish one, but either way, we get to keep it forever.
I still believe and stand by everything I wrote in the post, but in the same way that turning thirty taught me a lot, so too have the following five years. I continue to be mesmerised by the ways in which humans grow and develop, and how our experiences shape the people we become and the dreams we dream. I continue to believe in keeping well away from that high speed train and laying your own tracks instead, even if they do take you to somewhere that feels quite remote once in a while. If there’s one thing I’ve never had any reason to question it’s that you just have to be yourself and follow your instinct no matter how challenging and/or lonely it can sometimes feel. You can go to as many fairgrounds as you want but there’s no rubber duck out there that will tell you anything different to that, and if there is it’s the sort that’ll win you a really shit prize: think a counterfeit fiver, or a Dip Dab without the lolly.
But I suppose what I didn’t bank on discovering was how much more conscious of my age – and critical of my choices – that I would become, the closer I got to my mid-thirties. How much I would start to think a bit more about those numbers, and how historic “1985” would increasingly sound. I couldn’t have predicted how unsettled I would sometimes be by the connotations of the additional seconds it would take to scroll a drop-down menu when entering a year of birth, combined with the notable prevalence of grey hairs and frequent need to apply the Nice’n’Easy.
I had never wanted to engage my biological clock in a race, and I still don’t – and won’t – but I do have to concede that the prospect of old Clocky bothers me now much more than it used to. Mainly because it’s ticking louder, and the increased volume of that is just generally annoying. I’d really like to just take the batteries out of the blasted thing and bury it for a decade, in all honesty, so that I can unearth it in the future and look at it in the same way I look at a trouser-skirt, a clunky cassette walkman, or a glittery green jelly shoe now. Throw in a pandemic at the same time, and that’s a lot of reflection opportunity, and reflection, whilst important to do, isn’t always an easy experience.
When you’re reflecting in your twenties, all you have to really look back on is your childhood self, and so it’s easy to feel like you’re growing, but your mid-thirties is the first opportunity you really get to look back over a time in your adult life, when you thought you knew everything (or at least, a fair bit). And that can be a tougher match. We all felt “old” when we turned thirty, and that we had life and the world all figured out. Nowadays, we have the ability to both laugh at that idea but also know that our future forty year old selves are laughing at both of us from 2031. The eighty year olds have even more to say; and hopefully they’ve got a massive glass of sherry and a huge piece of cake in their hands as they say it, because I can imagine this calorie-counting-to-keep-healthy game will get really boring after a while.
As I approach my thirty sixth birthday, which will officially herald in my “late thirties” (urgh), I find myself wishing I could write to the girl who wrote “The Truth About Turning 30” and tell her that there have been lots of things she’s been right about, but also lots of things she hasn’t been right about, so to go out and embrace the new knowledge that’s out there for the taking, and never just assume that “this is it“. Explore the other carriages on the train. Look out of the windows a bit longer. Get out at one of the random stations and linger there for a bit. Understand that you won’t always get it right, and that there are a number of things you’ve got pretty wrong despite feeling confident in the ideas at the time. Own those mistakes. Accept reality: Be prepared for the fact that life gets indelibly more expensive and you’ll often feel like you have both your head and your heart clamped within a financial vice, no matter how much you vehemently believed that money shouldn’t matter. Be prepared for the fact that there will be certain stages coming up where the tracks you have laid – and continue to lay – feel very far apart from the main line, and it won’t always feel as easy as you think it should, so be sure to have a destination to focus on. Be prepared to acknowledge that your youth is gone and so too have some of the opportunities that come with it. In other words, be prepared for challenge, and the fact it gets harder, and have a response to that.
And with this in mind, it’s very hard to approach thirty six and feel excited about it in the same way one might an 18th, a 21st or a 30th birthday. These days I feel knackered after two beers and don’t have quite the same energy that youth enables. Yet, there is somehow a lot of comfort and security to be taken from this realism. To be prepared, to be ready, to make time count, and to know that the final passage from a particular chapter does not give away the plot of the whole book.
So, mid-’30’s peers, let’s take a look and see which ducks are floating around this particular ‘ground.
Song of the Day: Sufjan Stevens & Angelo de Augustine – It’s Your Own Body and Mind
This is just exceptionally lovely. Sufjan nails it again in this brand new release which Spotify has completed my Sunday with.
“One hand holds the candle The other onе holds the flame Infinite with it’s guiding light Illuminating all things thе same”
In the 1990’s, when I chose to support Aston Villa, I certainly wasn’t choosing to make my life any easier. At that time, and probably still now, Villa were an unfashionable club to support if you lived in the South of England, and I would often experience ridicule for it in school. “So what if you beat Nottingham Forest!” retorted a classmate during one year 8 Maths class in 1999, “Your shirts are still really ugly and your team is still shit.” That was the typical high-brow way in which the debates went. I responded by using my Aston Villa-branded biro with pride for the remainder of the day. Take that. My pen is better than yours.
Villa certainly weren’t about to win the Premiership any decade soon, but still, I really liked them. They were different. Understated. Interesting. To support a team which won when it wasn’t expected to, felt more special than supporting a team that just expected winning and trophies and took those things for granted when they got them. I came from a family of Spurs fans and whilst I liked them too, they just didn’t pull me in like Aston Villa did. I suppose in some ways, I also just wanted to be different, and instigate lively discussions around the dinner table about whether John Gregory was a better manager than George Graham (he was, by the way).
Anyway. Once you pick your team you’ve picked your team. I’ve followed Villa throughout, though I would never class myself as a die-hard football fan. Sometimes I even withhold from telling people, simply because in that moment I’m not up for the inevitable arduous football chat once I do. It’s fun to follow but it’s just a game, and if I took it as anything more than that then, well, I’d probably be pretty depressed. In over twenty years I’ve yet to see my team lift a trophy, and apart from an exceptional few years in the late ’00’s they’ve pretty much constantly been linked with relegation, and even became victim to it in 2016, taking two years longer than expected to gain promotion to the top tier again. They’re the sort of team who concede a late equaliser just as you start getting a bit excited, and if it weren’t for a huge financial injection from a couple of billionaires in 2018, they’d possibly not even exist anymore. Magpie-eyed supporters of either of the two Manchester sides, or Chelsea, Liverpool etc.. probably don’t realise how easy they’ve had it by comparison.
But once you pick your team you’ve picked your team.
In the past couple of years, Villa have progressively improved and these days are a team that others genuinely fear playing. In an era when the game is dominated by greed and money, there’s been something hugely romantic about supporting a team both managed and captained by boyhood fans of the club, Dean Smith and Jack Grealish respectively. It’s just not something you really see anymore, and it’s something every Villa fan takes / took (spoiler alert) a lot of pride in. You can be paid to do a job and you can do your best at it in return for picking up a wage, but if it’s for a cause or company you always believed in, you’ll not only do your best but you’ll excel, without even trying. That’s what Jack Grealish did for us. He wasn’t just “a really good player”, he was an excellent player and as a fan of the club, he was also “one of us”. Every time he scored a goal, you just knew it meant as much to him as it did to the fans.
This month, 11 months after supposedly committing his future to Aston Villa (“My City, My Club, My Home!” he waffled on at the time, as he put pen to paper on a bumper new contract), Jack chose to leave his club for the Premier League champions, a team who win things all the time. He chose to move because he too wanted to win things all the time, and whether us Villa fans like it or not we can’t argue with the fact that he’s more likely to win things with his new team sooner than he would with us.
But for myself and many others this situation prompted an ethical debate which transcends the footballing context within which it’s placed. Somebody who professed to love the club, had been a part of it for twenty years, and played an integral part in its progress, was ultimately swayed by the promise of immediate riches with a team that his historic Tweets had suggested he disliked. Grealish choosing to leave Aston Villa is not just bad news for football and any other football club trying to improve, it’s a harrowing indictment of society: victory and prestige obsessed. Willing to jump ship at the thought of personal promise, no matter how much the remainder of those on board supposedly mean to you. There’s this fixation with winning and the mistaken assumption that if you didn’t win a medal you didn’t succeed, so do whatever you need to in order to make sure you take it home. Verruca Salt’s worn out father frantically instructing hundreds of workers to spend all the hours under the sun opening up chocolate bars to find a golden ticket.
Whatever happened to choosing to stand by those you love no matter what personal gain you might miss out on? Is it better to lose with those you love, than win with those you feel nothing for? Somebody on Twitter put it very well (I know, I hate myself for saying that too), but what’s the point in showing off that you’ve reached the peak of Mount Everest if you took a helicopter up most of the way?
Putting football, Jack Grealish and Twitter to one side, this is a really important question, and given the nature of the responses on social media it seems that many are divided on it. “But he plays so well, he deserves his chance to win medals!” reads a very reasonable argument. “But he promised his boyhood team – the one he professed to love – that he supported their project to progress and wanted to be a part of it. The team that supported his talents and nurtured him to grow. The fans who loved him” reads a very reasonable retort. So… which is the right answer? Is there even one at all? Perhaps not, but I know which angle I sway towards.
Jack Grealish, had he stayed with Villa, would have become a club legend no matter how many trophies we won (or didn’t). Us fans had thought he was loyal and loyalty is what really pays. Loyalty is what makes one really stand out and be remembered for years to come. Instead, he’s off to win medals but become a forgettable part of Manchester City’s history, and if you don’t believe me on that, have a read-up on Fabian Delph. A few years back, he made what was virtually an identical choice, but is now still renowned more by neutrals for his time at Villa than City, regardless of the medals he won at the latter. Delph barely contributed to that success, but he still got the medals. Is that really something to be proud of?
Ultimately it’ll always be hard work and loyalty that makes you a winner no matter what jangly things you do or don’t have to show for it at the end. Taking shortcuts to the top doesn’t make you a winner, whether you’re a professional footballer or a person who cheats or buys their way to any form of success in life.
Ultimately, it’s not about what you achieve, it’s about how you achieve it. It’s how you achieve it which determines whether you are a true winner.
Song of the Day: The Delgados – Child Killers
Scotland has produced so many excellent indie bands over the years. Teenage Fanclub, Trashcan Sinatras, Belle & Sebastian, my guilty pleasure Bis, and we can add the Delgados to that list too. Their existence was relatively short-lived from the mid-90’s before disbanding in 2005, but they produced so many excellent songs during that time.
Child Killers is a classic example of, “songs you listen to over and over then forget about for fifteen years, before Spotify chucks it back at you”. It’s also a classic example of a song which has such unhappy-sounding lyrics yet remains such a beautiful and uplifting piece of music. I have loved being re-acquainted with this song. People need to hear it.
The sun is shining, the birds are probably singing (a car outside has been revving its engine for ten minutes and so I can’t actually tell) and the lockdown restrictions are easing and easing. After a year of misery for all, it’s finally a more exciting time, an upbeat time, a time for happy reunions with everything: friends, family, indoor seating, even the dead plant in the office. There are so many reasons to feel positive right now and among those reasons, I am feeling positive that I have absolutely no intention of approaching life in the same way I did before this thing came along.
I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d ever find myself saying that sort of thing during the difficult Spring of 2020, but that was because there’d been no reason until then to have to review what “normality” really was. It was just: normal, something we were accustomed to, a sequence of unchallenged processes repeated day after day, month after month, year after year. Now if you were to try applying that same practice in the workplace, your organisation would quickly begin to fall behind and fade away, hence why every year we spend time reviewing every policy, procedure and strategy. We routinely embrace change in our professional lives, but when it comes to how we live there has rarely been such dramatic annual review like the one imposed upon us by COVID. There may have been the odd personal reflection here and there, whilst sat under a tree or looking out to an ocean or something, but there was nothing in the way of an overhaul to our “procedures” like the one we’ve just experienced.
When we were first told that we were pretty much barred from seeing anybody we care about, or going anywhere we like, it really hurt. For most people it was a real struggle, a lonely time surrounded by incessant quiet, incessant bad news, and incessant efforts to try and replicate every real life activity through Zoom. We craved “normality” and we felt so very distant from everything when we knew we couldn’t have it.
As the weeks went by we believed lockdown was well and truly isolating us, and by the very nature of it of course it was, but as we now sit shoulder to shoulder with “normality” again, the realisation I’ve come to is that maybe we’d been spending decades doing that to ourselves anyway. Pre-March 2020, we were desperate to live in our own separate homes in separate towns, so that we could be held financial hostage by separate bills for separate cars and separate mortgages, whilst using separate lawnmowers and cooking biannual meals in separate slow-cookers that spent most of the rest of the year gathering dust. We were consumed, mostly, by what was going on within our own four walls, mentally and physically: Home-life, work-life, social-life. Lockdown came and put fences all around us then suddenly we were each living in a fortress. On separate islands. How different could it have been if we’d chosen to live in the same fortress, though?
Pre-March 2020, it often felt like there was barely any time to really think, or any time to really reflect. Daily life often felt like a tampered-with Waltzer ride: you’d pay a silly fee without question then rush to get on and belt-up in time, then rush to clamber off once it finished, before it started going berserk again and risk tripping you up. Round and round, and round and round, the colorful structure would go. Eat, sleep, work, repeat.
Lockdown forced us to take a break from the ride. Along break. A reallylong break. Not just a, “Aow I’m back from mah two weeks of bliss in Mauritius” type break, when the holiday glow would fade within only a week of returning to one of the wettest Mays on record. It was a distressing time for so many nasty reasons, and given the choice we’d all rather it had never happened in the first place, but it did, and you can either unequivocally lament that or you can choose to make something from the ingredients stuffed at the back of the cupboard. And I’m not just talking about all that pasta we stockpiled.
Pre-lockdown, it wasn’t very often that we’d set aside a day to really sit and stare out of the windows of the homes we slept in every night. We were too busy looking either internally, or dead ahead, at just the immediate surround: the bills we had to pay, the jobs we needed to keep and the fence panels we needed to paint. We lay heavy decisions on decaying foundations, guidance proffered through handwritten scrawls etched onto recycled paper bound together by treasury tags in beige ring-binders. Take one and pass the rest along. We set life goals around what we felt was the societal norm. We chose where to live on the basis of its proximity to our work. We chose where to work on the basis of its reward: salaries, satisfaction, prospects… but rarely would we choose it on the basis of how well the job and its associated conditions – like hours and paid Leave – tessellated with everything else we hold dear.
We let our job titles define us, which is perfectly fine (and in many ways admirable) if you want it to, but it’s not fine if there are other things you care about and want to be known for just as much.
I would say that life pre lockdown was often more solitary than life during it. Too busy stuck in traffic to take a call from somebody who obviously wanted to chat. Sorry I missed your call. Too tired to chat as much as we should do. A busy calendar consisting of things we maybe sometimes didn’t even want to do but felt obliged to, and just like that that, another weekend would go by.Sorry, it doesn’t look like we can find a day we can both do. Maybe we can meet next year instead?
I sometimes wonder about the things that never got to happen because we were too busy losing entire afternoons to pilgrimages round ring-roads to buy Ronseal and Windolene, or making up the guest numbers at some loose acquaintance’s 32 and 3.5 months birth-week party in bars where the cocktails cost the same amount as a week’s worth of groceries from Lidl. Mornings lost to hangovers. Weekends lost to sofas whilst fawning blankly at forgettable box-sets because we were too knackered from spending hours brushing Ronseal onto fence panels that were promptly shat on by birds to do anything else.
In tedious exchanges of small talk which we hoped would help expedite the socially-awkward queue at the printer, we’d frequently ask our colleagues where the year was going. It was one of those safe topics of conversation, a bit like the weather, that we’d know everyone could empathise with. Facebook newsfeeds would groan each August as somebody proudly became the year’s first to post a meme about the dwindling number of paydays left until Christmas. “At this rate, we’ll start putting our trees up in January!”, somebody else would comment, in an equally irritating honk of a response. Time would whizz by and we’d wonder how it managed to go so fast. Well, see the previous couple of paragraphs. Ronseal. Windolene. Sickeningly-priced stuff and fings funded by a perceived obligation to buy them.
We assumed that busy-ness was the antidote to loneliness when often it was actually the cause, because it was the kind of busy-ness manifested from all those procedures inked out in a beige ring-binder that, it turns out, had stopped aligning with our souls long ago but just never had the time to be re-written. Because we were too busy following it without question, just like how we paid that silly fee at the Waltzer.
It wasn’t lockdown that made us feel isolated. It was us, and all of the habits we had fallen in to over years and years, frantically treading water to keep afloat whilst the important things slowly sank to the ocean bed.
We might soon be able to return to a life without restrictions, but there’ll be some rides I’ll be keeping away from for good.
It’s a fluorescent new dawn.
Song of the Day: Weezer – Aloo Gobi (Guitar Version)
You think you have a favourite song. You listen to it all the time. Then you hear a cover of it. Then you have a new favourite song.
There’s something so rare about heavy snowfall that each time it happens, you recall vivid memories of the few occasions you’ve experienced it before:
A canal-side walk with my older brother one late Sunday afternoon in the early 1990’s, and watching him pound away at the ice with his heavy black Doc Martens to show me how easily it could crack.
Careering down the steepest verge of a snowy hill on a sledge circa 2000 – in an awful effort to impress some boys – and whacking straight into a tree, before limply falling out of the side of the flimsy plastic transportation and groaning on the ground for ten minutes whilst said boys crowded around in an embarrassing concern.
Meeting a friend at her house during a lunch-break from my temp-ing job – and her revision-break for her Law exams – and making a snowman with blueberries for eyes, in 2009.
Sliding down the grassy verges of the Dane John Gardens with some friends one Friday evening in January 2018, after several beers in a cosey pub
The older you get, the more wary you become of snow. It’s dangerous to drive in. It’s perilous to walk on. It wreaks havoc with public transport and it makes everything wet. At thirty five, the thought of heavy rain washing all of the snow away fills me with some relief when as a child it could make me cry. That’s exactly what happened this week; a Winter Wonderland flushed away overnight, the snowman over the street now a beheaded ball of black ice alone on a bright green lawn, and no more fretting about the need to walk anywhere.
But, my word, did it look beautiful during its short stay, making the town look like a Christmas cake with Viennetta footpaths and glacier mint waterways. At a time when we’re tethered to our homes, the snow was a welcome distraction from the reasons behind that, which have dominated our lives for the past year.
The snow was a reminder of a few things, really. How an alluring appearance can sometimes conceal danger. How different things can suddenly look after a few conditions collide, and then how quickly the things we like can melt away.
The Pandemic Snowfall 2021. One which won’t be forgotten in a hurry…