Monthly Archives: November 2016

Evidence and a Sense of Perspective, Please

On the only occasion in my life that I bought a new car, there were a number of criteria that determined my choice; in addition to my wife and youngest daughter’s wishes, that is. These were price, type of car, mileage and upkeep, specification, reliability and make. The colour of the car, its external skin, if you like, didn’t really figure too much, apart from the fact that I didn’t want a white one (shows the dirt too much).

So, when I hear of people judging others, largely, on the basis of the colour of that external “paint job”, I don’t get it. After all, unlike cars, human beings have no choice about the colour they were created with. At which point, I’d like to relate an incident from my own life. It concerns one of my children who came home from school one day upset because of the racist comments another pupil had made. “How do I answer that?” was, I think, the question. My suggestion was to counter by asking, “When we last came out of Africa some 70,000 years ago, did only the white ones leave?” It seems, in fact, that a white pigment is the initial mutation to accommodate the lack of sunlight in the northern hemisphere. That’s not to say that only white people are capable of racism just that I react from that perspective.

Lastly, recent research seems to show that, at one time, those that set out on that journey, may have been down to between a couple of hundred and a couple of thousand individuals. That is, they (we) nearly didn’t make it! Moreover, they didn’t set out to populate the world but just to get to somewhere with a plentiful supply of food and water or to the next source of those once they’d outgrown what was available.

So, in these trying times with, what appears to be, a rising level of concern about immigrants, consider, please, a number of things; namely, where we all, originally, came from, how few of us there may have been and just how thin is that layer of pigmentation that gives us our skin colour. Also that there isn’t another home that we know of anywhere in the vast and inhospitable reach of the interplanetary space, and beyond, that surrounds us.

So, evidence and a sense of perspective, please.

Don’t Give Up!

For many years, I have thought that mine was the lucky generation; something that  was confirmed  on Radio 4 recently when a commentator described my  youthful period as a golden age that we were unlikely to see again. Unfortunately, at present, this is also confirmed to me every day with a political situation that I never quite envisaged.

Growing up in the aftermath of World War II, we were witness to massive change, much of it, it seems, due to the fact that those who lived through that period were determined that things would be different afterwards. The seeds of hope and optimism were planted; ones that were to flower a decade and a half later with the cultural and social explosion that was the 1960’s. Deference, stoicism, uniformity and a certain drabness were replaced by challenge, expectation, individuality and colour; these reflected in the music, art and social attitudes of the times. To me, these were the springboard to the future, a springboard that I never expected to see removed. Indeed, with the discovery of large oil fields in the North Sea, the means were there, or so we thought, to create the country that many of us dreamt of. Yet, while Norway seems to have made good social use of its, “once in a lifetime”, windfall, we failed to do so.

Now people, like myself, of a certain generation hold Thatcherism to some account for our current situation. After all, much of that windfall surely went on the large scale unemployment that was created during those years. Interestingly, a recent report by the government’s Social Mobility Commission, concludes that the children that grew up under Mrs Thatcher were the first to start with lower incomes than their parents. They are also, it seems, having to endure an increasingly divided Britain.

Well, I went on to forge a career in the voluntary sector where an ethos of sharing and caring are part of the fabric. As a result, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to make a living out of what I enjoy doing within that culture. So, what Brexit has unleashed in this country is alien to me as is Trump and what might now also be happening in France. However, I still believe that things can be different. Furthermore the finite world that is Planet Earth is likely to have the last word. The need for greater sustainability, after all, requires a little more co-operation and a little less competition than we have been used to of late.

So, do I intend to pull the duvet over my head and hope that all will be well? No I don’t. That generation that is having to settle for less deserves more from those who were the lucky ones. So, I’m going ahead with a project that I’ve developed for schools to help pupils to develop their latent talent. Something that is central to their own fulfilment and the betterment of the country that we live in. If, therefore, you’re feeling somewhat deflated by what is currently happening, take a deep breath and keep going. If nothing else, it beats the alternative.

What Mantras Do You Live By?

It was October 1951 and I was nine years old when hope entered my life in the form of my Aunt Doreen and Uncle Bill. They took me into their family and became my bedrock for five years. For someone who doesn’t do role models, without my realising it, they became mine; their marriage the template for my own family much later in life.

Uncle Bill was a quiet man with a very dry sense of humour. He was also a rock and utterly dependable; always there for you even though he worked 6½ days a week.  Doreen, the youngest child of the ten who survived among her brothers and sisters, was protective and caring, even if a little scatty at times. She was a lioness when it came to her family and you messed with them at your peril. I was one of those who was the beneficiary of that quality and it has helped form me. And my point in all this is?

Well Doreen had little sayings that she used, some of which have stuck with me without my realising it. Among these were “Courtesy doesn’t cost you anything” and “Smiling doesn’t cost you anything”. Once, when she was busy and I asked her if she knew where a clean shirt was, she said “Michael, if you stick a broom handle up my bum, I’ll sweep the kitchen floor at the same time”. Although I can’t quite imagine her using the word “bum”.

The one that really sticks in my mind though is “Do what you think is right and you’ll get your rewards”. On the surface this is, obviously, not so as there must be millions of examples everyday where that simply doesn’t happen. Conversely, there are many, well publicised, examples of the exact opposite. However, what,  I think, Aunt Doreen meant was that the reward would be in the satisfaction you would get when , sometimes against the odds, you did, what you thought was, the right thing.

I may not have always succeeded, but I’ve tried to live according to that mantra (and the others) and, do you know what, she was right. So, what are your mantras and do you try to live by them?

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

Like many other sayings, this is one that is meant to convey an idea more in line with what those using it wish to portray than with reality. Meaning to show that, often “bad”, people can’t change their ways, the reality of course is that we are all quite capable of changing. Indeed, even the leopard’s spots are the product of evolution; a process itself that actually describes change.  After all, you don’t evolve by not doing so.

The important issue here is whether people actually want to change, with a little added ingredient. This is  whether they can work out why they do whatever it is that causes them to behave in ways that are often detrimental to their well being.

Now I’ve been doing rather a lot of this of late and have been quite amazed at what these small, subtle changes have led to; which has been quite significant. Moreover, ones that are having quite an impact on the way I behave.  Without labouring the point too much, a child who never felt welcomed took that into adulthood. Not that I haven’t been welcomed in my later life, just that I felt that I wasn’t.

Well, much less so now. The result has been that I now feel at home in situations that I never previously did. Feeling welcome has meant that I respond differently. Responding differently has had an effect on the reaction of others and so on and so on. Put simply, someone who always prepared for the worst and then some more is learning that this need not always be the case. He also learning that, if you do ask for help, it may actually be provided. I think it’s what’s called a “win win” situation.

So, the next time someone tells you that a leopard can’t change its spots, tell them that the spots were actually the result of the animal’s need to adapt to its environment. Hence they are the product of just the change that they deny.

The Dreams That Won’t Die

What a week it has been, culminating in the announcement of the death of Leonard Cohen. The other issue I won’t dwell on other than to say that I am filled with foreboding and disappointment. The former at the thought that, if his public utterances are any indication, the president elect represents just about everything that can be bad about human beings and little that is good. The latter because a sizeable proportion of the population seems to agree with him. It has not been an edifying spectacle and one that is a real concern compounded, as it is, by what has been happening in our own country. Both countries, by the way, ones that regard themselves as among the beacons of civilised society. I will say no more than don’t you just love irony?

It has also, however, been quite a year, both for me personally and for the dreams that I have. This has been replicated in the wider world with the death of some of the icons of my younger days and others that I valued. And it isn’t about the passing of the years but the fact that, those I still saw as young, are no longer here. Not that they were, necessarily young, rather that, in my mind they remain so. This is especially so when those who die before their time include some  who brought joy to so many. It’s as if something of importance has gone along with their, somewhat, unique qualities, the like of which it will be difficult to replace. In this I think especially of David Bowie and Victoria Wood; people whose public persona seemed to match very likeable personal qualities.

As for the dreams that I’ve always had, well that belief in what a better world needs to be won’t go away, thankfully. Caring and sharing not “Sod you, Jack”. Highest common factor not lowest common denominator. A social engine that is driven by humanity’s virtues and not its vices. One is which contributing is elevated above taking. Is it really that difficult? Well, in this, I am reminded of a quote I read somewhere to the effect that wars will only cease when all those who don’t believe in having them refuse to fight.

So, is there an antidote to these trying times? Well, I believe that there is and it’s about helping others and treating people as you, yourself, like to be treated. Rocket science, it isn’t. So, the next time you see someone living on the streets, just dig into your pocket for some loose change and say hello.  The latter being as important as the former. After all, they too have dreams and you can help them to come true with so little effort.

Sweet dreams.

Were You Born to Run?

I’m prompted to write this this morning having just started to read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run”. In this, he describes his early life from which some of the things that drive him can be gauged. Such books form a large part of my reading matter as I’m fascinated by what makes people tick; why they are as they are and do what they do. Things that are central, I think, to their being. I also, as anyone who has ever read any of my witterings will know, am convinced that most people never realise the full extent of their talents. That is a shame for them and for the country they live in.

As an example, I am an older, middle class, white male yet cannot believe that my age group, gender and ethnic background especially equip me for being within a group that, not only has its hands on most of the instruments of power, but also get very well paid for the privilege. As I read somewhere, talent is spread evenly throughout society whereas the resources to develop it aren’t.

If you should consider that I am talking though my hat, I would point out the fact that I’ve had a number of incarnations in this life and only really started to tread that “Road not Taken” when as an unemployed single parent on benefits, I got as place on a job creation scheme in the voluntary sector. The rest, as they say, is history. Here I am now, an award winning charity Director, author and public speaker. How many more are there out there who didn’t get the second chance that I did? Yes, I grabbed it but the opportunity was actually there for me to do so.

So, what makes you tick? What unrealised talents do you have and what is stopping you from taking that first small step towards where you’d like to be? After all, when they nail the coffin lid down, it really is too late!

The Help of Others

For most of my life, I’ve done things in my own way. In fact, when I joined the voluntary sector and, without thinking about it too much, managed charities for which there was little precedent, I did just that. They were challenges I relished and I took to it like a duck to water.

Yet, despite this, part of me worried that I would be able to earn a living doing it. So much so that I can remember one late night conversation in which a friend and I were discussing just this in relation to, what were then, the emerging city farms. His response was that, not only were we walking the road but that we were designing and building it as we went. Well, we didn’t do a bad job as such projects are now a normal part of the landscape. It seems that I needn’t have worried after all. Unfortunately for me, this only served to confirm to me that this was the way to do things; something that was even further reinforced with my next charity and others along the way.  Yet, on a personal basis, I do know the value of having someone to help you to see the wood for the trees. Indeed, I’ve had someone to do that for me for many years.

Recently, however, I’ve extended that to the professional side of my life; a real first for me. What I’ve discovered is that just the help and advice I give to others is also available to me. All I had to do was ask. It’s rather like that schmaltzy film “Field of Dreams” in which Kevin Costner is determined to build a baseball pitch miles from anywhere. His response to the naysayers is “Build it and they will come”. Seems like that applies to help and support. Perhaps that should read, “Ask and they will help”.

So this is a thank you to those who help me to keep my faith in the inherent goodness of others; something that is in even greater need in these very trying times.