Thursday, 11 September 2014

Of Wise Words and Lyrics

Recently, at a Black Tie Dinner at the Waterfront I sat next to a very wise man who was great company for the evening. He noted that my wife was pregnant soon parenthood so came into the conversation. When I asked him for one piece of parenting advice for a novice like me he thought for a while and then replied "Love them unconditionally". It was great advice which I've reflected upon many times afterwards.

At the end of the evening we swapped business cards. Last week I popped him an email with news about Alicia. He replied as follows :

I like the singer Marc Cohn's words

"The Things We've Handed Down" (Marc Cohn) Don't know much about you Don't know who you are ...
We've been doing fine without you
But, we could only go so far
Don't know why you chose us
Were you watching from above
Is there someone there that knows us
Said we'd give you all our love

Will you laugh just like your mother
Will you sigh like your old man
Will some things skip a generation
Like I've heard they often can
Are you a poet or a dancer
A devil or a clown
Or a strange new combination of
The things we've handed down

I wonder who you'll look like
Will your hair fall down and curl
Will you be a mama's pet
Or daddy's little girl
Will you be a sad reminder
Of what's been lost along the way
Maybe you can help me find her
In the things you do and say

And these things that we have given you
They are not so easily found
But you can thank us later
For the things we've handed down

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Of Russian and the ABC of Learning a Language

Hey! I've just found out I've got a grade B in GCSE "O" level Russian!

What follows is a brief account of how I managed it and what I've learnt in doing so aside from an awful lot of Russian.

First of all, it's perhaps worth noting 16 months ago that I was advised against entering for a GCSE Russian exam so quickly. Students who do Russian at school do a four year course I was informed by one language teacher and only the most academic of pupils do it to start with. They are the kind that do Mandarin and Greek as extra curricula "fun" topics she assured me.

When contemplating the challenge of a Russian GCSE there was a lot to put me off straight away. My track record learning foreign languages is not good. In truth, it's really lousy. I was chucked out of my O' Level French class at school as a no hope prospect and the school refused to enter me for the exam unless I paid for it which received a firm Non merci from me. But since my school days I've realised that what happened then is largely irrelevant to what you're capable of now and that one of the first and most important things is to keep reminding yourself of this.

So 16 months ago I drew up a quick plus/delta analysis of the pros and cons of me getting Russian GCSE in little over 12 months and it went far more in my favour than I was expecting.
It looked like this :

AGAINST ME :

# My track record in learning a language
# My limited amount of time for study
# My lack of knowledge of a language close to Russian
# The language itself. It's a tough one. Many experts seem to rate it in the top three languages in the world hardest to crack

FOR ME

# I understand now that what happened at school is irrelevant to my chances of learning and succeeding now
# I know myself really well in terms of how I best learn, when to study and how etc
# I'm brutally self disciplined. Tell myself that I have an hour of study to do every day and I'll do 80 minutes at least. This is a key factor in my favour.
# It's much easier to learn a language nowadays. Thanks to my Iphone I can plug in and do vocab work whilst travelling by train, jogging or shopping in Tesco.

What was critical for me was belief. If you believe you can do something you've a much better chance of succeeding than if you head into it convinced you'll fail. It's an obvious truth but one that you may have to work on before your mind is working for you and not against you. What convinced me was seeing Turkish and Egyptian traders also speaking good Russian within two years of Russian tourists arriving in any great numbers to their respective countries. Meaning no disrespect to these traders but their formal education at school was most likely a lot shorter than mine. Surely if that could do it so could I?

Of all the language lessons available and there are many good ones the star performer for me was Michele Thomas's Russian language course. This beats everything else in terms of getting a complete novice into a language and chucking out useful phrases in a very short space of time.

Finally, it's worth putting on record that however good the lessons are and however easy they are to access learning a language requires a lot of hard work. Russian GCSE had me out of bed most week day mornings at 5a.m. studying for an hour before getting ready for the working day.

What is Russian for "No Pain. No Gain" I wonder? I guess I might learn that for the A level...

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Of Decisions Good and Bad



Someone once said it will prove to be the worse decision I have ever made buying an MG. But he was wrong. It was one of the best.
I loved my MG. Granted too, I hated it sometimes as well, when I jumped in it and it refused to move or even make a sound until I got some serious mechanics to it (and there have been many of those).
There's something added to a journey in terms of the unknown and the excitement when you're not completely sure you're going to get to where you are going. This is a sensation you rarely get nowadays with modern, reliable cars.
Yes it did pass it last MOT on first asking and yes it did breakdown on the way back from the MOT centre. Yes it leaked. But in the summer with the hood down and the music up burning through the country lanes of Donegal it made you feel alive and so grateful for it too.

Yesterday, I said good bye to my fine friend and a whole lot of memories wondering whether it was the worst decision of my life to sell it. But I reckoned it's time for her to find a new master and someone perhaps, with a little more patience and time on his hands than me right now.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Of Glenarm Round II

I ran the Glenarm Triathlon last week. It's full of any awful lot of really fit athletes. And me. It was my second go and I committed a number of school boy errors and I really should have known better.
In transition from sea to bike I forgot to take a gulp of  water to rinse my mouth out which meant I had a throat rasping with sea salt all through the bike ride. And as for the bike ride the saddle for some reason was far too high which meant hopping off to make adjustments as everyone zipped by. I was more ready for the bike ride this year that much is true and the damn hill that seems to start not far from the sea and carries on and on and on. I threw everything I had at it. Blood, tears, toil and sweat and an awful lot of swear words but the hill just seemed to give it all back and some...
The run was better this year although I did go wrong twice as some volunteer officials seemed to prefer to clap and cheer me on rather than indicate which direction I should be running.

My finishing time was 1hour 45 minutes total for all three disciplines. As I said,an awful lot of fit athletes. And me!

Monday, 2 June 2014

Of A Letter to Alicia

Dearest Alicia,

Welcome to this mad, beautiful world that is planet earth. You were long awaited.

It was 3a.m. yesterday when we got the first clue that you may be on your way. Your mother was in the early stages of contractions but the hospital thought them not advanced enough to justify keeping us there and sent us home again with a recommendation that we get as much sleep as we can. By 9a.m. we had returned and both of us jumped straight into the birthing pool which is where we stayed until you arrived and popped up to the surface, cork like, some four hours later. We promptly introduced ourselves, dried off and your mother was ready to leave an hour later. Looking back now it was all quite surreal.

Your mother was brilliant yesterday and made child birth look kind of easy. I guessed she would because underneath the beautiful exterior is a tough lady with her fair share of mettle. You see she's from a nation of peoples that in the last 100 years have experienced and survived revolution, two great wars, at least one crazed despot leader and the misery of communism. These are events that shape a nation, its people and their very character. They gave your mother some of her stoicism, her steely grit and determination in life - qualities she has passed to you I'm sure.

Your mother is a special lady and will be a great mum I know. She started taking good care of you long before yesterday. She exercised everyday and attended Yoga for pregnant women weekly. She ate really good food and walked the beaches of the North Antrim coast every weekend to get you the best slugs of air possible. Many mornings at 6a.m. as I served her freshly squeezed organic carrot juice I caught her playing you some Prokovief, Shoshtakovich or Rachmaninov on her Iphone. She's also taken you to so much live music in the past nine months that if you turn out to have no rhythm at all you have only your father to blame.

Your mother and I make a great team. She is one of just a few people on planet earth who truly gets me. She knows exactly when to give me space and when to give me a good handbagging. The fact that I've had little of the latter may be more to do with the expense of her designer handbags than my good behaviour. But let me tell you she'll soon sus you too. So no tricks hey? Already I've noticed that she looks different.It's like your coming into this world has somehow fulfilled or completed her as a woman. She was happy before but now I see in her eyes a level of contentment that I have never seen before.

When I first held you yesterday I wanted to explain to you everything about my almost 50 years on planet earth, how you came to be in my arms and how your mother came to be with me. I wanted to tell you how we found each and fell in love or how I proposed to your mum on the top of a mountain in a howling winter blizzard in the dead of night. But there will be time for that later. Lots of time.

For now let me tell you that you'll soon realise we're not what you may describe as conventional parents. We're both a good bit older than most parents of young babies. But we hope this is your good news for it should mean we wont make the glaring mistakes we both would have made as parents in our 20s. We will make mistakes, be sure of this. But we can only hope they will be few enough and small enough for you to forgive us later on.

If lady luck has been good to you that you have come to us now and not twenty years ago she has also been kind to you in other ways too. Statistically you're still more likely than not to arrive in a part of the world which has a high infant mortality rate, or a really poor health service or where you can't afford to go to school or where you have every chance of regularly going to bed hungry. But you didn't. You landed here in Northern Ireland in a great hospital with fabulous schools and with well, so much food that stats also tell us that a third of it is wasted annually.

Gradually, as you get older you'll learn about our families Alicia. You find out that your great grandmother in Moscow died just last year aged 96 and that she was deaf and signed for most of her life. You'll work out soon enough that your babushka is a clever lady and worked until just last month on Sputnik Satellites. She's a distant descendant of the great Russian scientist Lomonosov did you know which means you are also.You'll love your dedushka too. He'll introduce you to simple living in his dacha and give you your best chance of understanding the importance of keeping yourself grounded, living off the land and appreciating everything nature has to offer. He'll show you just how many dishes you can do with wild mushrooms and teach you that there aint much in life you can't pickle.

On your dad's side you'll learn about how your great grandpa built almost all the roads worth talking about in the county of Cheshire, how your grandpa went to sea at just 16 and sailed the globe many times and how your gran has clairvoyant qualities. She's detected ghosts in many houses including one we once lived in in Devon. Spooky hey?

When your dad was just a few years older than you are now he and his family used to travel from that same spooky house in Devon to Chester or Guernsey to see our grandparents during the holidays. These were big journeys in those days which required either a long trip up a series of new motorways in a Ford Cortina or a flight in a noisy Viscount propeller airplane to the Channel Islands. Your dad's excitement was almost beyond containment. Your aunty's too. For you there'll be trips to Devon, but also to Anglesey and to Moscow. Yes Moscow. You can expect lots of trips to stay with your babuska and dedushka in their summer dacha in your early years. Lucky you.

Since you arrived both your mother and I have become aware of an almost primordial need to care for you, protect you and keep you from harm. This comes from your complete helplessness and vulnerability I'm sure. But I think it is also because your parents have traveled a lot and seen a lot too. Perhaps even too much. Whilst we've been lucky enough to grace such wonderful and luxurious places as Lake Como, Sri Lanka and the Maldives between us we've also seen the grinding poverty that exists in this world in Africa, Latin America and many places in between. A few years ago I was with your oldest cousin David in Malawi. We visited a family just outside our local village. They had lost their only bread winner the father. He hadn't died. He had just walked off and abandoned his wife and four children leaving them feeling unwanted, unloved and very hungry. They told us they had last had something to eat three days before. When their mother was asked when she expected to eat again her only reply was a shrug of her shoulders.Sometimes I try to forget memories like this because they feel like a burden that's too heavy to carry at times. Often though, I chastise myself for even countenancing the idea and think it better to go to bed hungry sometimes as a form of self counselling and dealing with the guilt of never really knowing what it's like to have nothing; absolutely nothing. On the TV we hear all sorts of reports about the abuse of children by their elders, about wars and the pain and suffering they cause to the most innocent of all people : children. You've dropped onto this planet into a marvelous place amongst great people. But as a race Alicia you should know that we are deeply deeply flawed and capable of all sorts of bad things. Hidden among our wonderful achievements in technology, health care and transport is an underworld of greed, hate and speciesism that causes terrible pain suffering, death and war. May be its this that gives your mother and I this overwhelming desire to protect you.

Also since you arrived I've spent a good while wondering what the world will be like for your in say ten years time or twenty or thirty. I can't help but do it because when I was not much older than you the world was so different to how it is today. When I was 12 I tried so hard to find a pen friend in your mother's old country the Soviet Union. But contact with anyone the other side of the Iron Curtain was next to impossible, travel there was difficult and at all times restricted and monitored. When just 17 I did make it behind the Iron Curtain to Leningrad. I was followed in and who knows followed out too. When I tried to strike up conversation with a man I met at the ballet in the Marinsky theatre my potential friend apologised but explained that he couldn't speak to me because he feared we were being watched.

Today Alicia, I speak to your grandparents in Moscow by Skype from the kitchen whilst preparing dinner every week and subject to the grant of a visa, which is almost automatic, we're free to jump on a plane and visit Russia any time we want. This is just one example of the many changes that have happened in my lifetime so who knows what will happen in yours....

Finally, we have a fluffy friend we need to tell you about Alicia. Soon we plan to introduce you to Remmi a friend's beautiful dog who lives in the neighbourhood. He's a gorgeous labrador retriever. He's become a great friend of ours, almost part of our family your might say as he's shared many of our walks with us over the past nine months on the Antrim coast or in the hills of Donegal. Remmi shows us unbounded affection, loyalty and unconditional love. These are qualities that we aim to show you for the rest of your life.Your Mum and I have already committed to love you unconditionally. We plan to tell you we love you every day.That's our promise and much more too.

Alicia welcome to this mad, beautiful world that is planet earth.




Thursday, 24 April 2014

Of Forecasting the Great Arrival

My wife is due to give birth in less than five weeks' time. I said, my wife is due to give birth in less than five weeks' time. Yes we've got all the gear but I still don't think either of us have quite got our heads around the fact that soon there will be three of us and not two. So many people have warned us that Sebastian's arrival will turn our world upside down but in a positive way. And I suppose we're taking heart by this. Perhaps it's a bit like going to university. I've never met anyone yet who regretted going to uni (though a few perhaps like me regret having stayed there for so long) and I've yet to meet a parent who admits to regretting ever having been one.

The gear we have for the long awaited arrival is just astonishing. Our main pram (for we have two - one for standard duties and the other for off road work apparently) is the most extraordinary contraption I've seen in a long time. It reminds me very much of Professor Pat Pending's vehicle from the Wacky Races which could transform itself into just about any shape or size for what ever task was needed next.

We both think the wee fella could well pop out quite musical. For he along with his Mum and Dad have attended more live music gigs in the past 8 months than most people would experience in a life time. His Mum plays him Shostakovitch every morning whilst his Da subjects him to the BBC World Service most nights. The poor fella probably thinks he's better staying put if the recent shipping forecasts are anything to go by...

Onwards! To the finish and the maternity ward up the road but not just yet Sebastian if you please. Be on time by all means but not like your Pa and your Grandpa by arriving so early its almost rude...May 26th will do just fine

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Of Russian to the Finish Line

I had a go at an old GCSE Russian paper over the weekend. The results were not encouraging. I've realised that my vocab is far too light. Whilst I can now get my tongue around many of the Russian letters that for so long I guessed at, there seems to be little point if I don't know what they mean. Also, I get the complicated grammar and how tenses are structured etc but could I reproduce it to prove it in an exam at the moment? No.
On Sunday I hastily checked the date of the first exam paper and worked out I have just 13 weeks to turn this all around. I may even have less for inside 11 weeks a baby is due and I'm assured that such events can have a somewhat disruptive effect on schedules and routines.
The next few weeks I expect to be nothing but painful. To borrow from Churchill "I have nothing to offer myself except blood tears and sweat". To get over the line here I'm going to have to throw everything I have at it.
Suddenly it's become all or nothing and very personal....