Monthly Archives: March 2018

What is it About 3.30 am?

When my son, Matt, was born, he was delivered at home with the help of a midwife, one amazing older lady; and I use to word “lady’ because that’s what she represented to me at that time. An extremely considerate person who knew that her job was about more than just ticking boxes and who used all her years of experience to make sure that baby and parents received the physical and emotional support that they needed during a time of great stress. She arrived at about 9 pm and left, job done, at about 3 am. I won’t say that they don’t make them like that anymore although I do know that she seemed to be very much a product of her generation and I was extremely grateful that she was.

Now this blog isn’t a homage to those times, rather it’s the fact that we called her as it got dark; something I mentioned to her at the time. Her reply was to the effect that it was often that way in her job as people start to worry more when it got dark and they felt more on their own.

So what is all this about, you might ask? Well, I currently have a toothache and an appointment for it to be dealt with in the next 48 hours. So, I’m taking painkillers and antibiotics in the meantime. These have dulled the pain and seem to be helping with the infection. Toothache, however, is a particular worry to me as I know that, whatever else happens, it will likely get worse until it’s dealt with. I also know that, whenever I have something that worries me a great deal, I always seem to wake at about the same time. So, what is it about 3.30 am?

How Are We To Be Judged?

Life can, at times, deal you a pretty bad hand and the people I admire most are those who get with their lives and make the best of whatever cards they’ve actually been dealt; the vast majority, in fact. People like Doreen and Bill, my dad’s youngest sister and her husband who rescued me as a nine year old and, for five years gave me some semblance of family live. So much so that, nearly 70 years later, their values are still the template for my life and, as such, ones I try to live by.

Now the beauty of such a template is that is that it provides something against which I am able to judge things on a day to day basis. Like others, I don’t always make the best job of it but I do try. My wife, Gaynor, is very similar and that may be one of the reasons why our relationship is such a strong one. So, perhaps, in an effort to be not too self aggrandising, I can spell out what it is that I like about the people I’ve mentioned and why their actions are important.

Well, like others that I know, they did (or do) the right thing without too much consideration of the personal cost. In Bill and Doreen’s case, despite not having a great deal of money, they took in someone else’s child because they couldn’t sit back and not do that. A reflection of Doreen’s view that you should “Do what you think is right and you’ll get your rewards”. Now my wife isn’t as blunt as Doreen could be, however, she certainly lives by Doreen’s maxim as well as being honest to a fault and loyal, while doing more than her bit in acting as the magnet that brings people together. All qualities that are demonstrated by their practical application in her working and personal life.

Which, in my usual round about way, brings me to my point, which is that, like Barack Obama and millions of others, I believe that you should be judged, not by how much wealth you have, but by how much you help others, how much you contribute. More caring and sharing, in fact, and less “Sod you, Jack”. It seems to me that using humanity’s virtues as the oil in its engine will make for a considerably better society than one which uses it vices of greed and avarice. At which point, I will cease pontificating and get back to work. Although not before saying a thank you to all those who try to do the right thing, and, in doing so, make the world a better place. Your reward, of course, is in doing just that.

Thought for the Day

No sooner do I blog about a giant of comedy dying than another giant, this time in the field of cosmology, follows him. The former, Ken Dodd, at the age of 90 and the latter, Stephen Hawking aged 76; both, it should be noted, still working in their chosen fields of endeavour. Given that these were things that they thoroughly enjoyed doing, perhaps that wasn’t surprising. Now you could argue that 76 isn’t that old by today’s standards, except for the fact that Stephen Hawking suffered from a type of motor neuron disease and was given just two years to live when he was diagnosed over 50 years ago.  So the least you could argue was that he’d defied the odds by some considerable margin. And my point is?

Well, you may have noticed that some of these blogs are a little like “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4. In this programme, the presenter introduces their talk with something topical before giving it its religious spin by saying something like, “So what would Jesus have done in those circumstances? ”  So here goes with, what I’ll call, my “Jesus moment”.

You see yesterday I had a speaking gig and among the things I mentioned was that, like Barack Obama and, I suspect, millions of others, I believe that the measure of a life shouldn’t be your wealth and how much you earn, rather it should be how much you contribute and help others. Judging from the reaction of the audience, I don’t think anyone present disagreed with me. That contribution I should add needs to be as much a physical as a financial one. One that is demonstrated by the individual’s social action.

Now here’s the link. You see I recently received a Facebook post which showed, what professional speakers know as, a TED talk; this one on the factors that contribute to a long life. Top of this list, it seems, is the strength of your social network; not, you will notice, how much you earn. It’s worth a look.


Making the World a Happier Place

If there’s one thing that children appear to have more than adults, it’s imagination; that ability to conjure something up in your mind in a way that no one else does. Often it’s an imaginary friend, something that many children have. However, the demands of everyday life seem to inhibit that imagination and, certainly, not allow for its further development as you get older. So blessed are those that retain that inner child and, in that respect, at least, I consider myself to be so blessed. Indeed, although my books are works of nonfiction, they rely on imagination to paint pictures, using the facts that are their basis.

I’m also an avid reader and am always struck by books, the reading of which leaves me with the thought “where the hell did that come from?” Similarly those from which I, almost physically, have to have to get myself out of when I put them down, as well as those which conjure up different, but coherent, other worlds. The works of Ursula Le Guinn, Angela Carter and the real, but surreal, sitcom that was “Dinner Ladies” from the inestimable Victoria Wood. So why am I writing this today?

Well, it to say farewell to the legend that was Ken Dodd, who died yesterday at the age of 90, still living in the house in which he’d been born. I was lucky enough to see him live in the early 1970’s for a works outing that my, then wife, got invites to. Now works do’s aren’t really for me and I was reluctant to go. However, I was persuaded and it was one of the funniest four hours of my life. The man’s imagination took flight on journeys that most of us couldn’t even envisage let alone take other people on. In a recollection today, Paul O’Grady describes his act as “spellbinding” and that it was. Yet it was also the result of incredibly detailed study and preparation. A lesson to us all as to how that effort, in combination with an imagination that wasn’t only undiminished by age, but actually grew, could hold an audience; uniting them in the common act of laughter. So, farewell then, Doddy, and thanks for making us smile. At least for those hours when you were in your element, on stage in front of an audience, making the world a happier place. Not a bad epitaph that.

Merely an Accident of Birth

It’s a lovely feeling when you’re talking to friends about your writing and how your books come out of your head straight onto the page. At which point, they call you “gifted”. I will have to consider that comment although, coming from people whose judgment I value, it was quite a compliment.

You see, I’ve never seen myself as particularly creative. Yes, I’m a good wordsmith and, yes, I have a vivid imagination. However, I’d never seen it as other than that, much less their description of my talents. Which brings me to my point which is that I consider that everyone is talented in some way; it’s just that it’s, largely, undiscovered and/or not nurtured sufficiently. The issue is the subject of my second book, “The Real Big Society and my part in it” (, a response to David Cameron’s “Big Society” and the subject of a book by Jesse Norman, MP. In this, he talked of the vast amount of untapped talent in this country; something that is dear to my heart.

So why is it “untapped” in the first place? Well, for any number of reasons, many of which are to do with “life getting in the way”. It is, after all, difficult to think about what you might do if you’re a single parent on benefits living in rundown accommodation. The sheer relentlessness of life is bad enough as it is without politicians castigating you for your “lifestyle choice”. Any, rant over and back to my point. Which is?

Well, there was an interesting article in The Guardian this week (don’t you just love that newspaper?) describing recent research at the University of Catania in Sicily. The was about the part that luck played in scientific innovation and understanding how research funding was best distributed. Luck, it seems plays a large part with science being full of accidental inventions and discoveries; notably, if memory serves me well, that of penicillin. This would appear to back up other publications that have written of the great part that luck plays in life generally. Indeed, according to many, it is the single biggest determinant of your future.  So, how is that to be dealt with?

Well a decently funded education system which helps people to flourish, as well as decent support in early life for children and their families for a start. Then we can help people to realise all that untapped talent. In the process, of course, ensuring that everyone gets a fair crack of the whip and that the mediocrities (you know who I mean) don’t always rise to the top through, what is, after all, merely an accident of birth.

The Joys of Compromise

Now, anyone who knew me years ago would have seen, I think, that that title contained two words that were, in my case, mutually incompatible. I did (and still do on occasion) find compromise not easy to accommodate. So, friends knew me as someone who enjoyed an argument, something that I would continue with long after the point under discussion was lost in the heat of the exchange. In reality of course, I would often consider what others had said and, where necessary, change my mind (in private). However, much of the joy was in the actual argument itself. And my point is?

Well, that “win at all costs” mentality may actually win you the argument. It is, however, just as likely to be counterproductive and lose you a great deal more. Happily for me, much of my time in the voluntary sector was about discussion and persuading people, which I did to good effect. Even there, however, I could be somewhat abrasive. Indeed a good friend introduced me at the launch of one of my books by saying “In working with Mike, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that, if you’re a bit worried about the answer, it’s probably best not to ask him the question”. He meant it as a compliment and I took it as such. It did, though, relate to that abrasiveness. So, what’s new?

Well, it’s that those years of therapy have had an effect in this area of my life as with the others and, although I can still hold a good argument, in personal situations, I find that I’m able to bite my tongue. What that means in practice is that I don’t have to have the last word and do take note of what others have to say. In sharp contrast, it has to be said, to interrupting with yet another ace.

I noticed it first in talking to Gaynor, my wife. She has always had strong beliefs which she puts into practice. She is, though, of a quieter disposition to me and I find that, if I bite that “ever ready” tongue, what she has to say is of, at least, equal import to me and makes me think. It has also, to my mind, been crucial to the strength and duration of our relationship as one of the, previously unconsidered, “joys of compromise”. So, here’s a thank you and the anticipation that it may continue for many years to come.

Do You Accept The World As It Is Or Believe In One That Could be?

When I left the City Farm in Leeds in August 1986, I went to see a couple of people who’d helped along the way; one of whom was Sally Bucknall, then with the Countryside Commission. Her support demonstrated by the provision of our first grant. This latter was important as I’d never done any fundraising before and that grant made me realise that I could actually do it. When I asked her why she’d done what she did, her response was that, six years previously, she’d listened to this man explaining what was planned for these empty fields and thought that he was either mad or that he had  something and that it was worth a small grant to see which it was.

Well, if we go back to that first visit, it came soon after I took up the job, when I had no idea that the local authority was coming to inspect the project, at the end of the following week, with a view to closing it down. I also had no idea as to whether or not I could do this job. Rather, it was just that the idea of failure never entered my head. So, on that Monday morning we worked as a team and started removing rubbish. We went on to tidy up, clean, repair, paint, polish and whatever else we had to do to get the Council to change its mind; which, impressed with our efforts and cups of tea and biscuits, it did.

Over, the next six years, while running the project, we transformed that vacant site into one of the best examples of its kind in the country. This, on a project on which we were all unemployed on job creation schemes; one that had no permanent building (it operated from two old caravans with iron bedsteads for fencing for its animals), no decent access road, no gas, electricity, toilet (we used a bucket) or water supply. This latter was solved by laying a plank across Meanwood Beck to get to the derelict buildings, that we would later renovate, and connect up to an extremely long hose.



The project is still there today while I’ve gone on to others things. However, I have great memories of those times and the local people who managed it and all the other volunteers who helped out. Importantly, for me personally, it confirmed the view I’ve always had and retain to this day. That is that it is far better to believe in a world that could be than to accept the one that is.