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.

The spring of hope (and misplaced apostrophe’s)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…’

And so begins the latest instalment of this thing we call a blog, which is really a confessional, and a catharsis of/from/to/probably for – I don’t even know, and I’m a literacy co-ordinator – my life events.

We start at the beginning of the end of the last post; a wonderful half term spent in La La Land; similarly self-indulgent, gratuitous and filled with love and romance.

The following morning – the twentieth, in fact – back in work I had to face the music and dance, though, as the evil demigorgon – or, more appropriately, demagogue – of Ofsted* reared its (very) ugly head and announced its visitation just like the ominous mothership of ‘V’.

*That’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump said, because social media and school DO NOT mix.

During a stressful and hectic period of observation and introspection, one kid spoke real sense and struck a chord.

“Sir, if you got such good GCSEs, why did you become a teacher?”

That throwaway comment really made me reflect on my life and current status, and in a way reflected on current views of teachers rather than my own successes but made me hark back to getting married in 2012 when things were every different, and our stag and hen dos… what fun we had.

Back then, I was merely a boy, and meeting my wedding suit tailor in town recently – for the first time since then, and the suit still fits – brought back memories of my innocence and experiences since.

Most recently, the anxiety, stress and mental health issues caused by five (count ‘em) observations within three weeks suggest I’m in the wrong job. However, I actually thrived on the intensity, and came to enjoy the calm which came after the storm.

“You are my density – I mean, my destiny,” said George McFly, which probably would’ve been one of my questions on my third and favourite chosen topic of choice, had I made it to the final of Mastermind which aired recently. He said this quote after an intervention by Marty, his son, who introduced himself as Darth Vader and, as if by magic, I also dressed as the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet for World Book Day in school.

We then enjoyed a 4th birthday party in the presence of Vader, Ren and Leia at a wonderful occasion which was a lovely escape from the trials and tribulations of Gove’s legacy (last mention, I promise) and spending such quality time with the kids made me so grateful and appreciative of what I have.

Especially after World Book Day inspired me to actually pick up a book and start reading it – one I’d been looking forward to opening for ages, the part-autobiographical Being Iniesta – the pale-faced ‘solutions man’ who has quietly developed into my favourite player, especially because he scored the first goal when I last frequented the Nou Camp, just before my wedding back in 2012 – and even more so, after reading the foreword to said book which was dedicated to his wife, his son and daughter and then Andres Jr who was stillborn in 2014.

Iniesta, of course, took part in – I don’t care what anyone says – the greatest football comeback ever. And here’s a wonderful picture – which I sadly didn’t take – that sums up the magnificence of the occasion perfectly.

Reading a book felt special, a bit like normal life, because it was an unusual occurrence and it happened during a train journey into Manchester, commuting like a regular Joe to a very useful day-long course which helped me forget everything else which was going on – ‘one day like this a year, would do me right’ – and despite the sardinesque train journeys, it was great to be back in Manchester, amongst like-minded people and the beautiful buildings I spotted on my way whilst walking to Salford.

The course finished early and, as luck would have it, I had already researched the distance to the Lads’ Club on Coronation Street – famous for being the location of a seminal Smiths photo and a dream of mine to visit for over fifteen years.

I braved the walk through a dodgy industrial estate, ignored the pyjama’d young mothers who crossed my paths on their way to the corner shop opposite, and proudly took selfies and filmed myself there, where Morrissey stood all those years ago, as if in a dream, dreamt by another.

Whilst walking away, content that an unexpected life ambition had been realised in surprising circumstances, a female voice shouted out, asking me to take her photo on the same steps. Kelsey, from Richmond, Virginia had travelled much further than I to see the lush green signage and the cobbled streets that the terraced houses which inspired a soap opera but more importantly, the confidence of millions of young people, exist on, and I felt a remarkable sense of contentment and achievement whilst walking away from the scene.

I even decided to start my own super band; The Misplaced Apostrophe’s, and I’m on vocals and ukulele. No other members as yet, but E enjoyed shaking his maracas at toddler church at the weekend and B has got into music videos recently so maybe we could do a ‘Von Trapp’ style project.

I had another hour or so in the musical city where they ‘do things differently’ and visited a lovely little exhibition curated by Martin Parr, including fascinating photos by Candida Hofer (example above: sublime) of a black and white Liverpool I recognised from things like The Golden Vision – who sadly passed away this month, and remains a hero in my head even though he was playing twenty years before I got into football myself; you can watch the whole thing, starting with the brilliant interview with his daughter on youtube – and fantastic scrapbooks of flotsam and jetsam by Shinro Ohtake.

How had I never seen these before? Only I had, in my dreams, and in the work of my foundation tutor which heavily influenced my own sketchbooks and scrapbooks. Matchbooks, surreal collages, pasted and painted Schwitters / Cornell hybrids which I’d love to make again… one day, one day. Talking of flotsam and jetsam, on my way back to the train station I then saw a transvestite street cleaner, an octogenarian queen in a hairdresser’s window and a toothless DJ making a joke about myxomatosis on the platform, and I looked forward to getting home to my wife and kids – normality.

But normality didn’t last long, because change was afoot.

The boy had started the transition into his own room; his first two teeth were proudly poking through, too. And, he had followed in daddy’s footsteps by loving his first, tentative tastes of Farley’s rusks. He slept through a couple of nights, and even began bouncing in the Tigger-themed door frame trampoline-without-a-base, which will hopefully help to develop his femoral head which a recent scan recognised that his surgery may have hampered.

Then: another challenging week due to new policies, nursery shocks, Lukaku’s contract renegement… none of which really matters, but all set against the backdrop of several friends having the time of their lives watching horses run a bit, during days spent indoors with generous celebrities who I secretly admire and deserve praise for their kindness, and centenarians who deserve even more. Yes, ol’ JC put five hundred quid behind the bar for people to enjoy themselves and so I enjoyed a couple of pints of Sam Smith on his behalf – after everything. The place gets much (often deserved) criticism but is full of kind, considerate gentlemen who are so tightly knit and supportive of each other that it feels a bit like the Cheers bar.

You wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came, and a room full of tipsy men are singing to one who’s just turned a hundred which can be quite a humbling and emotional experience. A couple of pints in the afternoon there rather than actually going the match, or even a night in watching a big fight (which I managed to get on a dodgy Russian stream) is much more convenient and fitting for the way things have changed over the last few years.

Still, we remain on the up and up, and Coca Cola adverts say it best: “Holidays are coming, holidays are coming” and the opportunity to reflect and rest after arguably the hardest half term of my ‘twelve years a slave’ – but also the most positive – is an enticing one. The good times are definitely calling, but it has been the best of times, and the worst of times, yet I remain optimistic that the good will out and, as Harvey Dent famously stated, ‘the night is darkest just before the dawn.’

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” said someone in a famous book which I admittedly have never read, but I don’t think I need to have, to understand that this rollercoastery feeling is but a temporary affectation which will improve in due course.

After a month of contradictions, all I can say is re-iterate that ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’ and hope that April offers consistency and the solidity which a ‘wood’ anniversary deservedly commemorates.

It’s all good, don’t get me wrong – just hard at times. Which is in itself a positive, because I think that’s the point of Lent.

I’ll write again at Easter, when it really becomes the spring of hope.