Monthly Archives: October 2015

Creating a Better World

It probably goes without saying that being happy is better than being unhappy. I also know from personal experience that, central to this, is feeling easy in your own skin. Moreover that this rubs off on others in very positive ways. If you don’t believe me try smiling at people and see the response that you get; beware though, it can be contagious. The same applies to groups and can spread to whole regions, possibly even countries. It’s well known, for example, that productivity used to rise in manufacturing centres when the local football club won the FA Cup.

Now, one of the reasons that I’m writing this today is that, although my personal circumstances get better as I get older, I feel that the country as a whole is not as happy a place as I’ve known it to be in the past. Given the austere times we’re living through, you would hardly expect otherwise. Add to this the further and more drastic cuts we’re promised and you would also hardly expect people to feel optimistic about the future. Could it be any different? Well, as the future hasn’t yet happened, of course it could.  So how can we start this process?

Well, by trying to release and build on that vast amount of untapped talent that Jesse Norman, MP, wrote of in his book “The Big Society”, for a start. You could then delve into my own book, “The Real Big Society” for some very practical examples of how to do this, along with the results. You could also tackle some of the institutionalised barriers that stand in the way. Among which are, according to a recent report, that there are no women on the boards of the top 15 companies in the FTSE 100 list of the top such organisations. Could they really not have found just one? Really? You could also add to that the fact, again according to recent reports, 45 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, on average women are paid 20% less than men for similar work. On what basis, one is tempted to ask; other that the fact that the former have internal reproductive organs whereas the latter have external ones? You will note here, how polite my language can be when I’m actually quite angry. Finally, I would refer you to an article by George Monbiot, in which he writes that, those with a private education are likely to receive more in pay than those from state schools for doing the same work. I write this, of course, on the day that the House of Lords votes on the scandal that are the cuts to Tax Credits.

In all of these pleadings, I hope that you will discern the common factors. These are building to people’s strengths, supporting them through bad times and creating a more level playing field. Hardly too much to ask, you would think, in the 21st century? Yet it could all be so different in that happier and better world.

Knowing and Believing Aren’t the Same Thing

I have long known that I’m not a bad person. In fact, I have friends who tell me that I’m a great bloke, which is nice. So I know that that’s so. However, believing it has long been another matter. Fortunately, even that is starting to change, albeit somewhat late in life. It remains, however, a work in progress as I can feel even as I write this blog. It’s as if  accepting it makes me a hostage to fortune. It’s like that childhood game where you avoid walking on the cracks in the pavement because you fear what will happen if you do.

So, how do I know that this change is actually taking place. Well, not easily, I have to say. Yet, I cannot but help acknowledge that it is. It was evident to me when I travelled back from Cardiff on Tuesday evening with a fellow speaker. In the past, I would have done my best to avoid this and found some excuse so that I could travel back on my own. This time I didn’t. Mark was good company and we talked for the whole journey; about public speaking and how to get more gigs but also about our lives and families. I was surprised at how easy it was. When we parted, Mark said how much he’d enjoyed our conversation and I really heard him in a way that I hadn’t heard before. The feeling has stuck with me since and it feels good, if a little unsettling. The boat that I’d always kept under control feels like it’s sailing away under its own steam, with me in it, and that’s a bit scary. There is, though, no turning back. After all, it’s far better to tackle that big ocean that is life than to stay in control of your own small world. If, though, you hear a male voice shouting in the darkness, please shout encouragingly back at him. He’d like to know that you’re out there too.

Perhaps knowing and believing can be the same thing after all.

Understanding  Families

Those who know me will also know that, although I have half brothers and lived a few years of my live with cousins who are important to me, I have little real experience of living in a family with brothers and sisters. Siblings are a blank slate. So when I see them, as adults, together behaving towards one another as they have done for their whole lives based on the closeness that they experienced as children, I am both amused and enamoured. Amused because it’s quite funny to see adults behaving towards one another in their time honoured and child centred emotional ways and enamoured because of its demonstration of our humanity.

I see it when my wife meets her brothers and they interact occupying a physical space together that is a manifestation of their emotional closeness. I also have that with Gaynor and my children but with no other adults and it’s the “other adults” bit here that we are talking about. My children, after all, just like other children, have no choice as to who their parents are. My wife and I, however, have chosen to be together and I love that bond between us. As I keep telling people, we’re both happy with the thought that we’ve found someone else with whom we will stride into the future. As someone who has never before had that feeling towards another, biologically unrelated, adult, you can’t imagine how good that feels. I do have to admit, though, that my wife and my eldest daughter do have conversations as to who in the family will be lumbered with me when I really am senile. It seems that my son, Matt, has drawn the short straw.

Well, this weekend, Claire, one of Gaynor’s cousins, had her 60th birthday party in a lovely house in the Lake District. Claire is one of five, three of them her other sisters, and they were all there, apart from their brother who lives in the US. What was fascinating was to see the interaction between them.  Gillian is Willie, Claire is Pie. They finish one another’s sentences. They laugh at shared jokes and circumstances that none of the rest of us are privy to, although we, too, laugh at the humour of the situation. The boyfriend that they can all now acknowledge was a walking disaster.

I hope that she won’t mind me mentioning this, but these childhood circumstances and the roles were highlighted for me when we went out for a long Sunday morning walk together. Very near the end someone pointed out to Willie that we could get home quicker by a slightly different route. The response was “Sorry, your leader has taken a wrong turn”. To my ear it sounded as though that was being said by a fifteen year old to her sisters. It was a lovely moment that encapsulated what I can never experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like being a loner, it’s what I am. I love my family deeply but also like to plough my own furrow. That ploughing, however, tends to exclude anyone else in its application. I also feel that I don’t need brothers and sisters. I do know, however, how important my relationship to Mike and Rosemary, my cousins, is. Yet it can never be as close as their own relationship is to one another. Fully understanding these relationships is something I don’t think that I can ever do. Witnessing them is joyous.

Sing it Loud and Sing it Clear

Every so often you read something that really gladdens your heart. Yesterday was one of those days when that happened. You see like, I suspect, the great majority, I see people as decent, honest and caring. Moreover, I think that those qualities should form the basis for the society we live in. Yet, I hear those in power preaching almost the opposite or, at least, acting as if that’s what they believe. In their view enough people are selfish, feckless, lazy or demonstrate sufficient other such negative qualities that they need to be the subject of punitive measures. However, what if most people aren’t selfish and greedy but actually unselfish, caring and honest? Where would that leave a political class that seems to believe the opposite? Well, probably with all its beliefs intact, unfortunately; which tells you more about them than anything else. So, you have to keep reminding yourself that less than 1 in 4 people actually voted for them. To put it another way, 76% didn’t.

So why the glad heart? Well, because some recently reported research reveals two important findings. Of a thousand people surveyed, 74% of them identified more strongly with unselfish values than selfish one. That would appear to support the contention that they are more interested in helpfulness, honesty and justice than in money, status and power. Furthermore that a similar proportion, 78%, believed others to be more selfish than they really are.  In other words that we misjudge others to a negative degree. You may have noted the, possibly purely coincidental, similarity between the numbers who didn’t vote for the present government and those of us who hold such positive views of our fellow human beings.

In addition, a review in a recent psychology magazine makes the point that human behaviour towards unrelated members of our species is “spectacularly unusual” in the animal kingdom; that we are, in fact, ultra social. This “humanity” of humans will come as no surprise to most of us. It also appears that these positive traits emerge sufficiently early in our lives as to, likely, be innate. One last thing, the journal also revealed that three to five year olds were less likely to help a second time if they were rewarded for doing so the first time. In other words, extrinsic rewards appear to undermine the desire to help.

So, how do I explain the fact that those in power appear to almost all be in the other 22/26%? Well, almost by definition, many people who strive for and achieve dominance are likely to be more interested in power, status, fame and money than those who don’t. Yet they represent a tiny minority. Unfortunately, those they mix with in the upper reaches of the stratosphere are likely to have similar views to themselves and will, thus, only reinforce their own. What you have to keep remembering is that they’re not representative of the rest of us; but, then, you knew that anyway.

One last thought, how many people do you know personally who are greedy, selfish and uncaring? I thought not. Neither do I.

Working Hard

Our flat In Camden has increased in value by 800% since my wife and I bought it in 1995. Admittedly we have done a great deal of work on it but that is largely an increase in our wealth that has been created by circumstance. The irony in this is that, having spent much of my life working in the voluntary sector and married to someone who has done something similar before becoming a teacher for not particularly high wages, we have now created a capital asset worth 32 years of the average wage. Something we’re unlikely to have done in other circumstances and, largely, because of the location of our property. Thankfully so as it represents our pension when we eventually retire.

Now neither Gaynor or I are afraid of hard work; it’s what we were brought up to do. The nature of our work gave us self respect and a sense of purpose; unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly well paid. Hence the importance of the value of the flat.

So when I read reports of the enormous intellect that is Jeremy Hunt pontificating recently on self respect, I take note. What I find interesting is his idea that we British need to have the self respect that the Chinese and Americans have. These qualities, evidently, are reflected in the fact that we should value work, not for the money it brings, but for the dignity, purpose and self reliance it provides. Hence, it appears, removing tax credits will make people work harder by increasing these, latter, qualities. What I find particularly interesting, from a member of a political party that espouses patriotism, is that they value all things British except, of course, the people themselves. If only they were the government of China or America; something I would wish for as fervently as they seem to.

So, where am I going with this? Well to an interesting personal anecdote from some years ago. A friend of mine went to work in Germany on a building site. After a while he found himself supervising others and was asked if he could get friends to come over to work. It seems that the boss thought that the British worked harder than their German equivalents. I rest my case.

Dealing with Demons

I return today to a familiar theme, that of facing and up to your demons. Well, yesterday saw one of my biggest rendered impotent and, as a result, the caged bird sang. Perhaps I should explain.

As those who’ve seem me speak, I’m not too bad at it. Phrases like ”inspirational, kept me captivated, honest and authentic, hypnotic and self effacing humour” have been used; words that have been extremely heartening. Yet speaking in front of my peers has always been problematic for me as has not having slides or a few prompt cards. Not important issues in themselves but the causes and results were.  Just having the cards in my hand was like a comfort blanket; yet I knew that that same blanket hindered me and kept me to a script which itself held me back. I also knew that, when I did rise above that script, I was a better speaker.

Well, yesterday I gave talks to three groups of 16 year olds, probably 300 in all, on their career choices. It seems that my, rather chequered, career is likely to be more relevant to today’s young generation than the 16/65, one job careers of the past. The day didn’t start well. Up at 5.45 to get away for 6.40 so as to be their nice and early and relax before the start. I won’t go into detail but the journey on public transport from Camden to Hillingdon took an hour and three quarters and I got there just ten minutes before the off.

I did my two morning talks only to discover, at lunchtime, that I’d lost my glasses. In case you’re wondering, the prompt cards are printed in a large font so that I don’t need them.  I don’t have a spare pair and need these for work so, not good. That only increased my anxiety. After lunch, I stood up to do my afternoon talk in a strange déjà vu mood. It was, however, a feeling whose roots I understand. So, what happened? Well I never looked at my notes once and performed as I’d long hoped that I might.

Who says that you can’t change? You can when you face up to your demons.

PS When I got to the tube station, some nice person had handed the specs in.

Man Flu

Over the past few days, I’ve had a dose of the dreaded man flu. I know that its man flu as I’m an adult male and I have a sore throat, steaming nose and feel lousy. Yet, when it was passed on to me by my youngest daughter, I suspect that it was the less virulent version that is just flu. In fact Ellie described it as a “cold”. Somehow the illness seems to mutate when it crosses the gender barrier. In that way, it’s like many other things that seem to hit the male of the species harder, like hangovers. Could this really be so?

Well, I’ve witnessed birth and, yes, it did look extremely painful, especially as it took 36 hours. Yet, for millions of years, women have put up with it. Indeed, for many, it is the defining moment of their lives. So, it can’t be so bad because, if it is, it could mean that women have a higher pain threshold than men. How could this be so in the so called “weaker” sex? It would be, in fact, an oxymoron.

At which point, I feel obliged to add a couple of pertinent facts. In the USA, the longest race for women, sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union, was a mile and a half. That is until April 1966 when Roberta Gibb, having been refused admission, took part in the Boston Marathon. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, she hid in the crowd until about half the contestants had started; at which point, she joined in.  In response to the support from the other competitors and the cheers from those watching, she took off her hoodie and continued to run. She finished in a little over 3 hours and 20 minutes, ahead of two thirds of the other, male, runners.  The winner finished in just over 2 hours and 17 minutes. The women’s record for the same event today is just over 2 hours and 15 minutes, held by the amazing Paula Radcliffe, with the men’s at just over 2 hours and 3 minutes. It seems that they’re catching us up, guys.

Even more remarkable is someone I’ve met in my speaking work; Shelly Taylor Smith. Despite the fact that, as a child, she suffered from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, she won national swimming competitions in her native Australia. On a scholarship in the USA, she suffered from paralysis of the lower body and, during her recovery, her coach noticed that her performance improved the greater the distance she swam. At which, he encouraged her to take up marathon swimming. I won’t go on about all the medals she won and records she broke, you can Google this for yourself. What is important, however, is that, in 1995, she broke the record for swimming the Manhattan Island Marathon, a mere 48 km, in an event featuring both men and woman. Amend that statement above, guys, to read “leaving us behind!”

I really mustn’t let this man flu get to me so much.

Walking into the Future

I return today, if you will indulge me, to therapy. Now it has taken quite a few years to sort out the tangled ball of string that was my life but, at long last, I think that I’m nearly there. More correctly, I’m there sufficiently for me to live the rest of it without too much baggage. I have to say that it feels very good.

The last few months have been especially fruitful in one area that was important to me. That was, what it was like in those early years, what had happened and when. In these, it was the detail that I needed. It wasn’t something that I expected to have much joy with. Boy, was I wrong. Well much of the detail and the feelings I had at specific times did come to mind and, in doing so, it has helped me to create the picture that I wanted. Coming on top of the other changes over the past few years, it has helped me to become a more rounded person. Speak to my wife and it’s something that she will confirm.

That’s not to say that I can’t be bloody minded if I want to, it’s just that my actions are based on the reality of what is happening in my life today and not the echoes of my childhood. The result is that I don’t have certain in built worries that have plagued me for years. And, even if they occur, I understand them for what they are and, to quote Stevie Nicks, “take on the situation, not the torment”. How do I know this? Well, not only do I feel that things are starting to click into place, but that I have more of a positive feeling that they actually will. I am also not afraid to ask for help anymore. Even if a little tentatively.

There is, however, a strange side to this process which is that, with the emotional baggage being removed, has come, not quite an uncertainty, but more an “unsureness”. What is interesting about this is that someone I value highly recently said that I looked a bit lost. Well, I probably was, as the certainty that I created to deal my childhood experiences is no longer there. As, I suspect, it isn’t for most people. This may take a little getting used to as I  leave behind a past that was created for me and walk into a future of my own making. I’m quite looking forward to it.