This one’s for the dads

An eventful week, which offered time to reflect – and update – at the end of it.

Since last we met, the country has been plunged into chaos: more political pandemonium, a horrific fire evoking memories of 1970s disaster movies whose aftermath is still being dealt with, and a couple of pupils happening upon my blog – meaning I’ll have to be be more careful than ever with what I write.

Teaching took a funny turn this week. Not just because of the discovery, but also, I announced to my classes my intention to write a book about my career so far – inspired by some of the funny questions I got asked this week (“Sir, why did Macbeth write a book about himself?” “Is a Banquo what you get from a chippy?” and “Did Macbeth write Blood Brothers?”) which made me laugh and in this dark time, shone a light on what I do daily… But also because I said goodbye to my form of five years.

It’s been emotional… particularly as this week I was given a couple of gifts and more importantly, cards, which were heartfelt and sincere and justified why we go to work everyday under such stresses and pressures. What was given – and written – remains personal to me and the students plus their families, but will stay on my mind and in my heart for a long time. Equally, a thank you and handshake from one troubled young man, meant just as much – an acknowledgement that gives hope for the future.

I wish all of them the very best, in all they do.

But this blog shouldn’t be about teaching, especially if it’s being read by young impressionables!

It’s quite refreshing that they see a teacher having another life outside the class room; certainly, I want them to be widely read, to check my posts for spelling and grammar errors, and to realise that I am a real person.

Not just a suit (with funny coloured socks) who dictates to them every day, but a man, a fan, an artist…

Talking of which, I am about to embark on another project to celebrate my involvement in this year’s Hannah directory.

I will be spending the summer drawing each and every one of Antony Gormley’s Another Place statues, to acknowledge my locale and how honoured I am to be living and loving, here in our north west – the home of bingo, black pudding, Billy Fury and Brookside.

But this particular weekend, I am also – and very proud to be so – a husband, a son and a dad.

Before I go on about that, though, let’s discuss the dead mice I discovered the same evening.

Yes, you read that right – I found out who I’d seen scuttling across the shed floor, who I’d noticed had nibbled at my bird seed, whom next door’s cat had been sniffing around after – Mickey and Minnie, who unfortunately drowned rehearsing their new film.

Lighter news now, and England won the World Cup. Everton even spent lots of money on new heroes for the little guy. The future is bright, and orange…

Plus it’s Father’s Day.

I’ve written enough about my joy at parenthood.

The early nights and mornings, the worries and anxieties, the carefully planned routines… the smiles and bites, the lovely moments and the tantrums, the bottles and the nappies… everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts.

The pride I feel on a daily basis, make it so:

Father’s Day is every day, for me.

My first ‘proper’ one, I was hungover after an England World Cup game at which I stole a glass, but each has been enjoyable and lovely and rewarding, and for that I thank WW and SG… and this year, the elephant, whose baptism we celebrate next weekend with (hopefully) lots of contributions to thanks to their care and expertise when he was poorly.

Naturally, I’ll spend part of the day down the pub with fellow fathers, maybe afterwards drink some of the wine and eat the chocolates I so gratefully received… but I’ll also honour my own Dad in the process.

Cook his favourite lunch, let him know how grateful we are for everything he does for us.

Let him know that he’s Sylvester Stallone, Pat Nevin, Dirk Benedict, Duncan Ferguson, Damien Hirst, Neville Southall, Sir Peter Blake, Liam Fray, David Hockney, Lionel Messi, Morrissey, Tony Cottee and Vincent van Gogh all rolled into one, and more… and that, since becoming a father, I’ve appreciated him and all he stands for, more than ever.

In a recent conversation with our vicar, I explained how becoming a parent has changed my thought process and perspective for the better, not just being a father but also a son.

School taster days start soon, Leavers’ prom takes place, a wonderful day spent in the sun: the stars turn, etc.

The world is a funny old place right now… but let us not forget that the things that divide us make us stronger: similarly, we have more in common than we think, so please, let people know how grateful you are… and how much you love them.

Happy Father’s Day.

The Fundamentals of Caring

AKA Cosy Apologia (for Fray), Back to the Future or “The stars turn and a time presents itself” all of which alternative titles, will soon be explained…

Always start and end with a positive; that’s what we get told.

The month began on a high: a chance meeting with Leighton Baines in a supermarket aisle, and a look of awe and wonder on my son’s face as he met one of his dad’s heroes for the first (and I’m sure not last) time. He was a true gent – I too was star-struck – and even made it to a match this month, after something of an eventful season on and off the pitch.

Football has gone down in my list of priorities over the last few years, for obvious reasons, and might come back… but for now remains an occasional habit.

Indeed, according to my calculations, the last time I only went to one ‘proper’ game in a season was 91-92, and as if by magic, the stars aligned perfectly to coincide with two other big events this month.

On the very day Twin Peaks returned to our TV screens, for the first time since that same era -I’m three episodes in and quite enjoying the conundra – we had a lovely time at a christening and, lo and behold, there was another family also celebrating that day, who had picked for their godfather, someone I instantly recognised. Somewhat serendipitously, his ‘new’ (married) family live nearby; he has a son the same age as my B, and we reminisced about our time at school, as friends and as football team mates also in 91-92, the year our team won the league (losing only one game all season, our leading scorer with 127 goals) and went on to play together in a tournament in Holland.

I’ve still got the VHS.

It was a lovely moment; a nice reminder that, as David Lynch’s series taught us, ‘the stars turn and a time presents itself’ – however, the next day, our times took a turn for the worse.

It’s taken a couple of weeks to put into words, my feelings about the attack in Manchester.

Part of that is because, in these times we now live, it’s easy to pour out your emotions in 140 characters or changing your profile picture immediately, and let the world (well, your followers and friends) know that you care. It’s easy to put aside football rivalries, or the fact that you have no affinity with the place, or the knowledge you have a difficult decision to make… and that’s when life isn’t already getting in the way.

But if you wake up several times through the night with the feeling that something’s wrong and, when you finally check Twitter in the morning, feel a strange mixture of sickness, anxiety, worry, panic and grief, it’s more complicated.

I’m still not sure what to write; becoming ever more confused and horrified, as other events have taken place since then. London, Paris – places I know and love – but also further afield, and it doesn’t seem like stopping any time soon.

Our reactions to the atrocity were what many others will have felt, of course, but focused not just on the families involved but the immediate and distant future, when our kids might want to attend concerts and we’d want to meet them in the same spot.

And also, a massive gig the following weekend we’d been excited about for months.

It took a second or two to know there was no way we could go the biggest Courteeners concert ever.

Yes, I’m all for defiance, for carrying on as normal, for sticking two fingers up at those ‘losers’ and letting life go on… but something just didn’t feel right.

For me, it just felt too soon.

Too early to be having a good time.

Certainly, too early to be relaxed there or lost in the moment – as a Courteeners gig should be.

The guilt was too much – not just for the victims, but for our parents, worrying as they would, and our kids, who might never understand – and although I’m glad the show of solidarity went ahead without a problem and looked an amazing evening, I had to accept that had I been a young man I would have been there having the time of my life but – then, now, maybe forever, a quiet night in with the family was more important and rewarding.

I really hope something happens that this doesn’t become the norm but right now, I’m pretty despondent.

The horror of the news on a weekly basis make it so: events in London make that clear. It was good that Ariana Grande made such a statement with her admirable efforts to celebrate the city but I’ll be honest: it was another gig I’m happy not to have gone to: but again, I am of course glad people had such a good time, and those around the globe, got to see such togetherness…. Raising such an amount for an incredibly good cause.

Again, I’ll be honest – 24 hours after the London attack seemed somewhat inappropriate, but at times like this, we need a hero, and for me – albeit selfishly – the highlight of the MCR gig was the return of Liam Gallagher.

Regardless of the arguments which followed, about the absence of Noel and their stupid, ignorant family wibbling rivalry, he remains a hero of mine and meeting him outside FACT ten years ago is still another stellar moment of my life. “You’re f***ing cool”

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

To me!

And he was pretty cool, last Sunday night at Old Trafford. It all reminds me of the early 90s, again – as did Twin Peaks, Ciaran, my attendance at Everton… even my new haircut.

The 90s are definitely back, then; anyone who’s seen this season’s collection at Pretty Green, would agree.

Whether this nostalgia allows itself to replicate a seminal election result of the 90s, remains to be seen. Politics has been high on the non cognoscenti’s agendae for a couple of weeks; fair play to those who showed an interest.

Me, I generally keep mine hidden, but was pleased to share the positivity and, after two bad injuries to the little ‘uns this past month I’d just like to say SAVE THE NHS and that is all.

Talking of the 90s, the same decade brought us the return of some classic comic book heroes, which is why it was good that we were able to enjoy an eventful and fun half term of quality family time, including a ‘Superheroes and Princesses’ day at the local farm.

My little wonder woman actually wanted a Supergirl outfit and I was made up to find one for her – even more proud that she was the only one there. For the first time, she showed an interest in something other than the Disney heroines who admittedly have their place – but can be dangerous.

We had a great day, as did Mummy’s Little Ninja Turtle… Me and him also lay together on the bed and watched Rogue One recently; both loved it. Meanwhile, I’ve been watching Great British Menu and the climax of Masterchef, the eponymous film, reading War of the Worlds and The Artist: Being Iniesta (both great) too – finding time to revisit my creative wells, despite the changes in routine.

Half term was filled with good times, then: family get togethers; laughs down the pub; a romantic lunch for WW Sr’s birthday; cooking on the Champions league final evening… those few days were the perfect antidote to this exam season which feels more fraught than ever as I say goodbye to my form group after five years together.

I read a good thing recently (I won’t say where, in these times of political hot potatoes) by India Knight about the failure of our ‘horrid’ exam system, “what ‘failing’ does to a young person’s self esteem” and how “it’s soul destroying to teach children this way”  which all offered some solace because she reminded us that “it’s important not to be replaced by a robot” and that “creativity is the future” which is good because I’ve got a little something planned for the summer.

All will be revealed…

The stars will turn; a time will present itself.

Easter Writing

(Or… ‘Let’s all read up on the words: 2000’ as it refers to not just the length but also 90s indie music, an integral part of what you’re about to read.)

Last time around, I discussed the highs and lows of a turbulent few weeks and hoped things would settle down.

To an extent, the opposite happened, because – in the week Europe’s highest rollercoaster opened – the heights got higher (and not just because because I spent the large part of the end of term thinking about Everest, reading extracts, watching the excellent film and somehow in between marking numerous responses) and further depths were plumbed as the ignoring the ignorami who celebrated not the derby victory but instead the defeat, thinking perhaps it somehow matters when the world is rapidly unravelling.

Class and dignity, class and dignity.

It’s lovely to think the eternal optimism might one day come true; that the good / deserving / morally superior underdog will have its day, but I gave up on that notion a long time ago and now just take solace in expectations not being dampened. I hadn’t even watched the most part of the game, because we had to go and pick up B’s new football kit – a Scotland one, shocking pink and she loves it – and as many of you know, time is irrelevant where children are involved, hence why it’s taken me so long to write this rubbish.

Talking of Trolls, and the colour pink, we’ve watched a lot of that recently, and I like the moral of the story… Be positive, you influence people more than you know, that sort of thing. Plus, extra time off resulted in some accessing of new series such as The Trip to Spain (brings back wonderful memories, if only we could have managed a similar trip this holiday) Inside No.9 (deliciously dark and macabre) and Iron Fist (enjoyable enough alternative fare from Marvel) and some actual art work in the form of the Sefton Open at Atkinson in Southport.

I’ll be honest, it was a mixed bag of chocolate box art and quality stuff with some real gems hidden within. The highlight was probably a set of sculptures which linked nicely to some other art I accessed (more of which later) and gave me food for thought in terms of future projects I may or may not have time to produce.

I’ll aim to get involved next year.

In terms of years, we were in Southport to celebrate our five year wedding anniversary; well, the day before it anyway. Going back to our venue of choice, with regular returns in between, was magical, and allowed for a period of deep reflection – introspection – which was enhanced further by an unforgettable day out which I have to now document.

“Throw those curtains wide… One day like this a year’ll see me right” sang the lyrics of one of our wedding songs, and we concur completely, making it an annual resolution to devote one day on or around our anniversary every year to go and eat and drink somewhere special and reminisce… whilst savouring every mouthful.

In previous years, this has involved trips to Nice, L’Enclume, Manchester House and Northcote.

This year’s wood be the best so far, for a plethora of reasons.

I knew to expect great things of Adam Reid’s food, at the French inside the Midland Hotel in Manchester.

Not just because he had impressed during last year’s Great British Menu series, winning one of the course, but because I’d liked the cut of his jib during a fascinating documentary from a couple of years ago which featured the restaurant and its rival – Aiden Byrne’s similarly impressive local rival – and Adam’s dedication and professionalism shone through.

A couple of years later he represented the chefs of the North West, and If you didn’t see him wow the critics with his wonderful apple dessert last year, you can of course watch it here:

It being a Wednesday lunchtime, I didn’t even expect the chef to be present, but saw him arranging the playlist halfway through our meal and then had a great conversation before we left.

Ah, the playlist – perhaps what set this meal apart from the others.

Apparently chosen by the chef himself, and a recent introduction to the restaurant during a rebrand, the music was a welcome oddity which somehow enhanced our eating experience. Initially, I’d not noticed the music but on receiving our sparkling English wines (a nice nod to the L’Enclume family tree) Hand In Glove started playing and there felt a strange synchronicity in choosing here to celebrate our half a decade of wedded bliss (and the last, most difficult year) and all felt right in the world.

Service being impeccable, we proceeded to devour the six course tasting menu with aplomb and fervor at a nice pace, enjoying the music meanwhile. Gems such as an acoustic ‘How Good It Was’ and ‘Five Years’ Time’ (the lyrics of which I had sent to WW on the train there) seemed perfectly picked, then sixties classics, Hacienda anthems… the music really made the meal.

The food? Very special.

It started with a cod’s roe dip – connoting WW’s heritage and taramasolata  -with deep black squid ink wafers which were like the most intense prawn crackers going, just black.

Then came the wonderful ‘Crispy Trotter, Pickled Onion’ which doesn’t do justice to the first starter, because the meaty filling oozed of pig and the little – spherifications? – of pickled onions, reminiscent of the finest snacks of childhood, Monster Munch or Space Raiders or even just Sarsons’ finest.

Before I go on, be prepared for some photos of our food.

I’ve been reading a lot about food and its appearance, largely due to the release of a book on so-called ‘gastroporn’ and the importance of how food looks. It’s called Gastrophysics, with a foreword by Heston Blumenthal, and apparently discusses how a meal’s appearance can affect its taste. As someone who regularly photographs his own meals, and tries hard to make his little girl’s tea look interesting and enticing, I’d concur, though, when this month’s Waitrose magazine has features on how to Instagram meals effectively, I’ll take it all with a pinch of salt (literally) because it also features illustrators and stylists who make a living out of faking it.

Some people, though, do make food both aesthetically pleasing and sublimely tasting and this takes us swiftly back to the French and our six courses.

Not only were they equally beautifully presented, but, like Ricky Fitts in American Beauty, I needed to remember them, so without a sketchbook, wanted to document this incredible experience.

I was also drinking a lot of wine, because, having opted for the wine flight, our excellent and knowledgeable Sicilian sommelier (he grew up in a winery, what a life) plied me with the usual and unusual accompaniments plus an outstanding alternative add-on which was like nothing I’ve ever tasted; a Sicilian orange wine, flatter but punchy and well worth the consideration.

It went nicely with the second starter, though the red wine offered, was a wonderful surprise given the broccoli and cheese & truffle mousse we were encouraged to dip it into. I’d say this was the next sign that things were going to be somewhat alternative today, which nicely supported the quote that ‘Manchester, they do things differently there’: an adage which I’ve always stuck to, despite ignorant colleagues’ protestations otherwise.

Next came the bread, sourdough and Manchester Ale, with two butters and a beef and onion broth which had to be tasted to be believed.

Manchester was my heaven (and here’s a cute picture of E as a Stone Roses fan, as if to prove it)

Similarly, the course which arguably stood out the most, was the Steak Blue with the great white (Le Grand Blanc) which was another nod to the L’Enclume what with the charcoal oil, the nastursiums, the beautifully sliced mushrooms and their tasty catsup.

Next came the disc of pure white Cornish cod, with delightful shrimps and butter and green and white asparagus that melted in the mouth, all accompanied by a Portuguese rose, then a perfectly cooked slab of duck with an incredible beetroot sauce, crispy kale and a saucepan of thick, intense confit duck leg which I could have happily eaten forever. I didn’t, because there were still two courses to go – and they were even more special.

Through the beauty of Instagram, I had clocked our dessert on the train that morning, and was taken by its lush greenness. I wasn’t expecting the Kalamansi to taste as it did, however – of the eponymous citrus fruit I’d never heard of before – plus sorbet and white chocolate, when it looked like a lime Starburst.

We simply had to order the Golden Empire, too.

We were then called up to the service bar to witness Adam’s signature dessert being prepared by his wonderful protégé, who was only twenty but so enthusiastic and already experienced and clearly enjoying his experience immensely. As he filled the blown sugar apple, the theatre of the occasion came to the fore, and the idea that we were being made to feel very special, and were about to taste something equally so – arguably the best dessert in the country – in amazingly decadent golden bowls with handpainted maps inside and perhaps the appliest things we’d ever tasted.

There followed a twenty minute conversation with the main man himself, a terrific insight into his ideas and careers, our views on certain critics and food trends, the choice of music on the playlist…

I can’t recommend this place enough.

It was the perfect place to celebrate our five years of marriage, although the beauty of having a babysitter – and it still only being 4pm when we left – was that the night was yet young and Cottonopolis was our oyster. After a tour of the hotel by the generous and hospitable doorman, we walked out into the sunlight and stopped by The Temple bar (made famous by being ‘the hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I cannot help but fall’ in an Elbow song) then beers and new pound coins in Albert’s Schloss, a classic beer hall. We also stumbled upon a pop-up Peroni bar for beer cocktails, tapas and a taste of our mini-moon in Madrid at El Gato Negro, before something more familiar at the MCR branch of excellent Catalan deli Lunya before a tipsy train home.

All in all, then, the perfect day – with an event the following morning to further cement this concrete love.

Tattooing has long fascinated me; long before my 21st first effort, shamelessly influenced by the work of Douglas Gordon and Peter Blake (and a tattoo of Johnny Depp’s, fact fans) I then waited until marriage and kids before my second and then, three more years ‘til my third. I can see how people get ‘the bug’ and want more, and I do too, although they will need to have similar personal meaning and symbolism and I kind of want a few years without major life events, thank you very much.

Having been inspired this time by – wait for it – a tattoo on my tattooist’s arm last time around, that his son had drawn, I kept that idea in my head and, wanting to preserve this precious time of development as B begins her artistic career – plus, to document their lives so far, incorporating his strength in adversity and her name and buzzing personality (including my interest in the worker bee and all it stands for, including being the symbol of the People’s Republic of Mancunia) but all of this is irrelevant because I’m sure, hearing about people’ reasons for their tattoos is nearly as bad as their dreams and you just want to see it now that it’s healed (the coconut oil worked wonders.)

It was most exciting for B to see her artwork etched on my skin, and despite being pretty painful, I hope one day she will realise that this love will last forever… even if her drawing style won’t.

Happy Easter.