Monthly Archives: February 2017

Need a Double Lifetime

After yesterday’s gales, when nature reminds humanity just who the real boss is, it is now a lovely spring morning. Something that she also provides to prepare us for the summer and the bountiful harvest that will follow. At which lyrical point, I feel obliged to write about just how unique, as far as we know, this little planet is and the wonder of the universe in which it is situated.

Indeed, you only have to look at the photos from the Hubble telescope to make your jaw drop in sheer  awe. From string theory to black holes and more, we are starting to get a feel for the universe we live in. And, the more we learn, it seems that the more we have yet to discover. It now appears, for example that baryonic matter, that which makes up most of what we experience, constitutes a mere 5% of the total matter, with dark matter forming 20% and dark energy 70%. Holy cow! So, from strings, to quarks (4 types), subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, comets, asteroids and planetary debris, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, our universe, other universes and other dimensions, we still have much to learn.

Fascinatingly, we are now starting to identify exoplanets, ie, those outside our solar system; some of which may harbour life. As might some of those within our own system. When I look at artists’ impressions of these, as I did yesterday, with the Trappist 1 system, a mere 39 light years away, I truly am awestruck. It seems that three of its seven planets may be within the so called “Goldilocks Zone” of a star system that could support life. It is during these times that, to quote a Loudon Wainwright song, I “need a double lifetime”. You see, I want to be around long enough to pay a visit and for all the questions that I have to be answered. And for that, I really need much more than my allotted span. Ain’t life amazing.

If you’re interested, here’s a link.

A Little Bout of Depression

I actually wrote this some years ago but, on reading it again, thought that it might be of help to people who struggle.

He knew that he had achieved even though he had left proving it to himself until rather late in life. Three books that have been well received by those who read them has been immensely rewarding. As was the response from his wife and others in his family that he had a real writing style and a story to tell. The writing itself even more satisfying; the flow of the words from somewhere deep inside to the keyboard, both a revelation and a joy.  The physical feel  of the published book when it arrives a confirmation of his life and beliefs.  The need to believe as strong as the beliefs themselves.

These latter reflected in the projects that he had helped to create; what he called those “little bits of Wonderland”. Those same beliefs reinforced in the form of national recognition from his beloved “Guardian”.  Yet, despite all this, he can still be knocked off course and knows that he can be better than he allows himself to be. And in that latter phrase dwells a whole hidden set of beliefs; those created by the experiences of the small child who still lives within what is now an old man.

Recently, a set of circumstances have arisen that have aroused those fears again and these have left him with a disturbed night and waking to those well remembered feelings. The apprehension, the shaking (more a feeling than a reality) and the butterflies in the stomach. The mind that won’t let go of what’s happened and the fear of what it might lead to; the latter of which is the real problem. It’s like a tape running and rerunning in his head. Above all it’s the realisation that he has little control over his reactions. Emotion overrides reason every time.

Yet dig a little deeper and he knows that the emotions of that small child often controlled the adult’s behaviour. It’s just that he thought that he had left all that behind; only to find that he hasn’t. The lovely flat that has been his home for 20 years now feels less like a home. In fact, it feels somewhat unsafe. Bloodymindedness keeps him going although he knows that the subtle pathways that maintain the mind’s equilibrium are not as amenable to this as he would like them to be.

You see, it’s not like a physical illness with its more recognised symptoms and stages. Broken bones, for example, heal, allowing the relevant limb to be brought back into use. The mind has a more amorphous pattern of behaviour. Indeed, not even a pattern; just at present, the predominant and heavy weight of apprehension.  Feelings more determining than physical symptoms. It’s as if, no matter what he reaches out to hold onto, he is trying to grasp the fog. He also knows, from past experience, that it will pass although that doesn’t help much. Maybe this time it won’t. Here, though, the bloodymindedness does help!

Crucially, he has to earn a living and that takes little account of such circumstances. So, above all else, he still has to function in the real world and that provides the momentum to keep going.  Just as his eldest children did all those years ago when he really hit the wall. This is nothing like that, although it is uncomfortable and inhibiting.

Fortunately, he has a very supportive family and someone from whom he can get professional help. Lastly, he knows that there are people in this world whose problems put his in the shade. However,  he also remembers a friend who once told him that that may be so but that, “There’s no sore bottom like your own sore bottom”. Maybe there isn’t but he yearns to get his sense of perception back and soon. Interestingly, putting his feelings on paper helps much as it has always done which is just the reason that he’s done exactly that.

No Magic Wand?

For many years, especially when I was undergoing therapy, I just wanted someone with a magic wand to come along and solve my problems. After all, I hadn’t created most of them and yet I had to spend years sorting them out. Such, unfortunately, is life. One aspect of that life was that it was, often, a series of highs and lows along, of course, with the day to day. Once, however, I divorced and got through to the other side of the doors that I talk about, the mundane nature of my life became much less so. Indeed, it became one with goals, albeit limited ones, rather than the daily grind of earning a living.  It has been so ever since although the goals have gradually come to be set a little higher as I have started to realise the skills that I have. Those thoughts of a magic wand, however, still surface although now more as a nice thought than a need.

You see, that thought became a focal point that would, by its nature, help me to break through to where I needed to be. Of course, we all need help but sometimes we underestimate our own capabilities to make the changes that we want to. This despite all the evidence of those achievements; many of which may be small at the time but that, over the years, make up the jigsaw of our lives.

So, this morning, after the launch of my latest book last week, I am back to normal (or what passes for normal in our household) and moving on; alongside a young daughter who is studying for her MA in Writing and a wife who also has far more talent than she thinks that she does. Check out her photo diaries of our weekend walks in London.

So, my nose is to the grindstone heartened by a comment from an old friend who wrote that she was sorry to miss my book launch and that she wished me lots of luck in my future endeavours. She finished by say that, “In your case, of course, luck has little to do with it”. Perhaps, after all, I have my own magic wand and just didn’t realise it. Just like millions of others.

How Are You Measured?

As you get older, it is likely that you will, occasionally, look back on your life; especially when you meet people who you haven’t seen for many years. You see, they may look older to you although you don’t feel any older yourself.  Such times certainly provide food for thought about the sum of your life, which nicely leads me to today’s blog.

On Wednesday, I held a lunch for my latest book, “Lessons from a Chequered Life”, in Harrogate; a town where I first went to as a 15 year old when my father signed me into the army at the Army Apprentice School. I moved back, with my children, in 1976 when I got divorced and stayed for 10 years. It was, as I described at the launch, where I started that long journey to the life I now lead.

Now that journey has, for me, been about doing something useful with my life other than just raising a family and, without being too conceited, I’ve gone some way towards that. Not as much as I’d like to have, which may explain why I’m still trying. However, one thing has always been central to that journey and that is that family. It has been my bedrock and, yet, there are times when I didn’t behave as well as I should have done. Something that gives me cause for regret to this day. Not that my first two children say that they see it that way, it’s just that I do. I know that I could have done better.

Now, I’m a great one for life stories and read one, about the 12 men who walked on the moon, while I was away. I was struck by how dramatically that event changed their lives. Notably those who expressed regret at not spending enough time with their families because of their careers. Given the unique nature of what they achieved, they could certainly be described as successful, yet had those regrets. Something I have read in the life stories of other successful people. So much so that, with some of my children and grandchildren around me, I felt compelled to mention it. My point was that, no matter what success you have, the real judgement of your worth is via your family. If they judge you less well than you had hoped, then just how successful have you really been?

The Part that Luck Plays

Like most people, I have been both lucky and unlucky in my life. Indeed, many who have been successful will admit to the large part that luck had played in that success. I’m not saying that hard work doesn’t also play a part; just that luck is random and can make such a difference. The secret, if there is one, is recognising that luck and making the best of it when it turns up.

In my own case, that luck first arrived in my adult life when I was in the army and posted from Germany to the Ministry of Defence in London. That enabled me to take a day release course at Brixton School of Building alongside other students who worked in architectural practice. Five years down the line, when I left the forces, with both a home and a job to find, one of those students helped me to get that job in Stevenage which came with a house included. An enormous stroke of luck which was the launch pad for my civilian life. Another came along when I left Hull School of Architecture and someone pointed out a job advert for the City Farms Advisory Service in London; something that I hadn’t noticed. I applied and got the job. Similarly, when I was going through a very bad phase of my life, a friend informed me of the fact that there was a vacancy for the post of Director of The Walter Segal Trust. This allowed me to rebuild that chequered career that I write about. On a more personal note, walking into The King’s Head in Islington where I met the person who has now been my wife for nearly 28 years; something that has enabled me to live a much more contented life than I had in the previous 47 years. Every one of these a happenstance.

Mind you, there are some that passed me by; notably, that it was someone else who took drawings of the scheme that I was working on to the printers one morning to get copies. When he got there, there were a couple of men in front of him. At which point, the printer pointed to him and said, “Ask Ray, he’ll do the drawings for you”. It turned out that they wanted some kitchen extensions drawn up. Ray was busy but gave them his brother’s number. The brother was interested and did the drawings and the many more that followed. The company grew and he became a Director and, I understand, quite wealthy. I stayed at his mews flat one evening with a friend who was looking after it at the time. It would not have been inexpensive. By a real irony, during that bad time that I mentioned, I worked, again, in architectural practice and one of the jobs that I worked on was for the company. It was for a major bank.

Now, I’m not saying that those who had that luck didn’t work hard once it came knocking on their door. They probably did. However, Lady Luck did have to come knocking in the first place. Crucially, however, you have to notice that luck among all the garbage that can be thrown at you in life and grab it with both hands. At which point that combination of luck, perseverance and hard work can change everything; provided you keep your eyes peeled and arms open.



Good News Issue Number 3

Some years ago listening to Radio 4, I heard a journalist say that everyone at one of the newspapers that he’d worked for knew the editorial line. This was that “Someone, somewhere today out there is enjoying themselves and it’s our job to put a stop to it”.  From the tone of his voice, he didn’t sound as though he was joking. He didn’t mention the name of the paper although I guess it wouldn’t take much working out to realise which one it was.

Now, I mention this for a number of reasons, the main one of which is that, in my view, newspapers should be publishers of facts and opinions with the difference between the two being very clear. Give me the facts and I can make up my own mind, thank you very much. What they should not be is peddlers of propaganda and lies; now, of course, called “alternative facts”. After all, things are bad enough these days without the attitude displayed in that journalist’s statement. So, with that off my chest, I’ll continue with my good news stories.

Now Hull, where I did my architectural training, is a fairly unique place; as you would expect from a city that is somewhat isolated geographically. Also, as if to further emphasise this uniqueness, it even boasts a street called “The Land of Green Ginger”. Something I find really heartening for some reason. It also has a claim to something else unusual and which is the subject of today’s blog.

In the mid 1980’s, a group of students and unemployed people decided to solve their own housing problems. With no previous experience, they clubbed together using their giro cheques to buy a house, property being very cheap in the area at the time. This was renovated and used as collateral, along with loans from friends, to buy four more houses which were also renovated and let out to people on low incomes and benefits. You can probably see where this is going and you’d be correct. So successful was the model that “Giroscope” set up as a registered charity in 2007 and continues its work to this day. As a result, the organisation has over 50 properties and 9 community businesses, all funded privately.

Yet, despite this commercial success, the charity still retains that ethos of meeting a social need and involving the local community that were the driving forces in setting it up in the first place. It is, in every way, a success story. It is also one of my “Little pieces of Wonderland”.

Good News Issue Number 2

My second good news story of the week is about how, for a few months in 1991, to quote the title of a book by Christopher Hill, “The World Turned Upside Down”. Well, in a very small way in an equally small corner of north west London for that short space of time, it really was. At least in terms of the perception of the possible.

You see, the Camden Society, which supports people with special needs, required a new horticultural training centre for its clients. Having discovered the likely cost of having it built, they decided that they might be able to save money by doing it for themselves. So, with the help of a suitably experienced architect, Simon Yauner, they decided to use the Segal Method of timber frame building that I mentioned in my last blog, to do just that. So, a group of those with special needs, along with other volunteers went ahead and did so; under the supervision of Steve Backes, a skilled carpenter. What is more, the building was built within budget and on time.

Now, that might be considered somewhat unusual, and not just the budget and timescale bit. What, however, made is even more so was that John, one of those with special needs, ended up supervising some of the other volunteers. And none of them took any notice of that fact.  In fact, they didn’t even realise that he had special needs. What can’t be achieved if there is the will to do so?

It’s another of those “Little pieces of Wonderland” that I’ve had some involvement with and that help sustain me during trying times. In fact, its construction features on the front cover of my book, “The Real Big Society and my part in it” on my website. More good news soon.