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Hi, I'm the community worker at Alnwick Baptist Church and...
'Can I read it' she said. 'No, I will read it to you and you must agree to everything and then tick the box' he said. 'OK' she said but I noted it was a somewhat guarded response; maybe she was sussing him out after all.
'So' he began 'it is your job to make sure all the passengers get on the train and take £1 from each of them for the ride. It is your job to say 'go' when everyone is on and no tricking me when passengers are still getting on'. 'Oh, and no moaning about your salary' he concluded. 'Please tick the box to say you agree'. There was a silence, at which point I thought she had indeed rumbled him. Regretably this was not the case and she was merely looking for a pen to sign the somewhat flawed contract.
From my listening point in the bathroom, I reflected (as I shaved) on this 'partnership' with the objective of building a road railway from Alnwick to Newcastle in 4 years time. The boy was indeed on a role having had the response he so desired from Duchess Jane and maybe it was this that was causing him to take control of the situation and put his mark firmly down in the area of 'who is wearing the trousers' in this particular project. Eventually, his sister will see through this rather biased and unfair arrangement; at which point he will no doubt wave the peice of paper at her and declare that she is bound by a tick to her contract. He may think he's the boss but he has much to learn about team!
Team has been very much at the forefront of my thinking of late. On Easter Monday, we stepped out into the bitter cold with what felt like a chill factor of -10 as the wind came from the Artic and headed for the Aln Valley Railway on the outskirts of Alnwick. Now, whilst it is fair to say that I had a vague awareness of a railway eventually happening between Alnwick and Alnmouth running close to the original line last used 50 years ago; in my own mind it was still on a peice of paper somewhere and a dim and distant pipedream for some enthusiastic trainspotters! How wrong was I? In the space of less than a year, a barley field on the edge of Alnwick has been transformed with an engine shed, museum, coffee shop, steam trains and over 400 metres of track already laid. I was amazed by how much had been achieved and said so to every volunteer that I came into contact with. I must have started to sound like a broken record because gradually Mrs F started to put a distance between the two of us so as not to be associated with a man who was rapidly becoming a raving anorak! Neverthless, this is what can be done with a willing, committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic team and I for one was impressed. Whether or not the dream of completing the line in 3 years time can be fulfilled only time will tell? I suspect it will have more to do with funding and approvals and less to do with this incredible team of people who would probably work day and night to get the job done. As we left, the 8 year old dictator turned to one of the volunteers and declared ' you do know that this is the exact spot that I was going to build my railway to Newcastle?' 'Is that right' the volunteer replied ' why dont you join us and cut your teeth on this project before going on to bigger and better things?' he said insightfully. The offer was declined but maybe something of this 'working together' thing might just have rubbed off on the boy. I'm not holding my breath!
Bedtime reading of late has been 'Team Sky' and has provided some escapism in the build up to the Passion. I'm fascinated by Dave Brailsford (now Sir Dave) and the success he has created in British Track Cycling over the last decade. Having dominated the velodrome, he turned his attention to creating a road team in 2009 with the hugely ambitious aim of winning the Tour de France. 'Undoubtedly in this sport, the greatest strength is in the team' he was quoted as saying and unquestionably the word 'team' runs through this cycling stick of rock. For Sir Dave does not plan alone and has built around him managers, coaches, psychiatrists, physios, mechanics, scientists and not forgetting the Secret Squirrel Society! All of these personnel are hugely important in making sure what happens on the track and the road gets the optimum - the language is 'marginal gains' I'm led to believe - from their extremely talented cyclists. Ultimately in 2012, after only 3 years in existence, Team Sky achieved their dream as Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. Wiggins was the first to acknowledge the team mates (domestiques) that got him on the podium. A group of riders who will never get their names in lights but without whom Brad would be nothing.
Having said all of that, my favourite team has to be those who brought Passion to Northumberland to Alnwick Market Place on Good Friday evening. Part of the vision as I've said before was to produce something for the community by the community. On Friday night, we did just that. A tech team who worked their socks off for 15 hours. A cast (without an equity card amongst them) whose sheer enthusiasm and dedication to their roles was a joy to see. A choir who linked up the scenes with some great contemporary music that helped to tell the story; and a planning team made up of some incredibly gifted people united in a common cause of putting Jesus back at the centre of easter. In total, 120 people made up that team and I'm immensely proud of each and every one of them!
I had the privilege of co-ordinating this project but be in no doubt, the one in charge of Passion for Northumberland and indeed the vision behind it, invisible in one sense and yet ever present throughout, deserves all the credit #divineinspired
I looked at the letter proudly presented to me and read it:
We would like permission to build a rail way from Alnwick to Newcastle. The stops will be Alnwick Warkworth Amble and Newcastle and everyone is welcome. The train will be blue with red stripes. It is going to be peddled powderde. people have to pay £1.00 a ride. please write back if you agrey. we were hoping to start work in 4 years.
I looked up at the 8 year old boy and 6 year old girl in front of me as all sorts of questions crammed for attention in my head. Questions such as ' whats wrong with the train that leaves from Alnmouth and just happens to go to Newcastle' or 'how many people do you need to operate a pedal powered train and how long will it take to get there' (I had visions of passengers carrying calenders rather than watches!) and what about planning permission or land purchase or for that matter the very small consideration regarding how this is financed.' All such conventional and in my mind perfectly reasonable questions were irrelevant however as I simply admired their breath taking audacity to go straight to the top and contact Northumberland's prime landowner direct! Well strictly speaking thats the Duke but lets not split hairs here.
So I went with the flow and told them how impressed I was with the letter and to wait and see what response (no chance!) they would get from Her Grace. 'Have you drawn a picture of how the train will look' I asked. This seemed an appropriate question to ask but the reply came back from the boy 'Dad, I know how this train will look and I just need wood and nails and your hammer please'. 'Hang on' I said 'It says in your letter that you intend starting work in 4 years time' to which he replied 'thats when it will start taking passengers but I want to build it now!' I pressed on with another question 'how many people will you need to do the peddling, because you do know they need to be paid?' I said. 'No need to worry' he said (not that I was worrying, but the re assurance was nice) 'the only people peddling are me and my sister, so all the money will come to me and nobody else' I did wonder at this point about that word 'me' and about having a quiet word with his sister to check if she had signed any contract regarding her role as I didnt believe for one minute that her sibling would be looking at equal partners or 50/50 splits! I see a little bit of the Boss Hogg's in No1 child. Those who've seen the Dukes Of Hazzard will know exactly what I mean when Boss Hogg cuts a deal with the rather dippy Police Officer Roscoe Picoe Train to get '20 percent of the 20 percent of the 20 percent' - in my mind, pure TV gold!
Having said all that, I found something quite refreshing and to an extent re assuring that my entreprenurial son and his sidekick saw the most obvious way of getting who and what they wanted and just went for it. They consulted no textbooks and made no contact with professionals and were innocent of 'the way things are always done' which only exists in adult world. All in all, a brilliantly liberating place to be.
Last week was Mrs F's birthday so we went out for a meal in town. It just so happens that her birthday falls on Valentines Day which is pretty useful given my alarming propensity to forget people's birthdays!! I glanced at the Gazette while we were waiting to be served and saw a full page advert which read..... 'Kelly...........will you marry me?.........love Bruce'....... Three thoughts went through my head 1) There's a man who thinks differently 2) That must have cost him a fortune and 3) What if she says no?! Of course depending on the answer to (3) tomorrow's Gazette may well carry an advert saying 'She said Yes!!' or 'I was just kidding' but overall I just admired the guy for dispensing with the safe option and going for a marriage proposal in a very public way.
38 days from now, Passion for Northumberland will be played out in Alnwick Marketplace on the evening of Good Friday at 6.30pm. Using Alnwick Market place as 'the stage' is unconventional, replacing Roman Soldiers with Army Officers is unconventional, Jesus and his disciples in hoodies is unconventional, having the Community Choir sing True Colours to help tell the story is unconventional, having the cast mingling with the crowd is unconventional. Sometimes, unconventional is good. You only need to look at the story of Jesus life to see someone who tore up the rule book in the name of compassion. People on the very edges of society that were frowned upon or shunned by the authorities were the very people Jesus reached out to - the down and outs, the pyshcopaths, the prostitutes. Convention spoke of exclusivity and Jesus smashed through it to reveal that God's Rescue Plan was for everyone - no strings attached. Ultimately that Rescue Plan culminated in what we know as Good Friday and Jesus death on a cross. An innocent man takes the punishment for the wrong doing of the whole world and dies the most agonising death while His Father turns away.......... so that you and I can have hope and forgiveness..................you tell me where convention plays its part here................no, me neither.
Dear children, it read.......
Thank you for your letter. What a wonderful idea you have of building a railway from Alnwick to Newcastle. Good luck!
With best wishes
The Duchess of Northumberland.
'Jack is as something as a pig' I read the question out loud from his homework book. The boy was doing similies and so far seemed to have a pretty good grasp of what was expected. 'I know' he said and then quickly set to work putting the appropriate word into the sentence. 'There you go' he said proudly before handing me the book for approval. 'Jack is as fat as a pig' I read. I looked at him with curiosity waiting to see if there was a flicker of a smile but no he was obviously deadly serious. 'Do you think' I began (well aware that I was about to try and steer my son to the 'right' answer rather than let him fill the page with his own creativity) 'that perhaps there might be another word that you could put into that sentence other than fat?' He looked at me a little perplexed before replying 'fat is the answer, Jack is as fat as a pig is definitely the answer'. At this point I backed off. He was enthusiastic about some literacy homework and believe me, this is about as rare as hen's teeth and I for one was not about to insist that he substituted the word 'greedy' for 'fat'. So we ploughed on. 'The final thing I have to do Dad is write two sentences with the words 'kind and loud' in them'. He pondered this with real intensity for about half a minute before raising his pencil to signal that the 'lightbulb moment' had arrived. This time he chose to read out his answers. 'My sister is as kind as Jesus' he said and then paused waiting for me to be impressed - I was very impressed if a little curious. 'What about the word 'loud' I said. 'This is even better' he said. 'My sister is as loud as a cockerel'. My initial thought was that the word 'foghorn' was probably the word his teacher was looking for (and dare I say more accurate!) but I thought better of it. I'm sure, given the choice that he may well have gone on to describe his sister in many more 'as like' ways but these two showed a real contrast and that struck me. It got me thinking about how his answers can reflect how we can all see the same people and situations from different angles.
Some will indeed look at the flame haired one and see a girl who can be incredibly caring and compassionate and yet that same girl can more often be heard before she is seen! The same person but seen in very contrasting ways.
The month of January can be a struggle for many people. The anticipation of Christmas is over and yes a new year has begun with all the potential for resolutions and turning over a new leaf, but short damp days and long cold nights can leave many people looking at situations in life and feeling that 'the glass is indeed half empty'. I bumped into someone the other day who said to me 'I dont enjoy January so much as endure it' and there are probably a few reading this who will agree with that sentiment, myself included. As I write, Andy Murray has lost his latest battle with Novak Djokovic and with it the Australian Grand Slam. If he had won, there might have been a feel good factor that lifted spirits for a few days but as it was he lost and the 'half full guys' will be looking for the positives in his performance whereas 'the half empties' will simply see defeat. Yet, there are situations when viewed through the eyes of children that can help to change the attitude of our adult minds and give us some perspective. Last weekend the snow came. For many it brought the anxiety of journeys to work or hastily arranged childcare on account of school closure. Most children however saw snow and immediately their creative minds went into overdrive as to all the possible adventures they could have in and with this white stuff falling from the skies. Many would sledge, throw snowballs, create snowmen, build igloos, make snow angels, catch snowflakes in their mouths and almost all of them at some point or another would fall over and get to their feet laughing. Of course as fast as snow comes it goes and the disappointment of our children as the snow melts is countered by the relief of many adults that we can once again have tarmac under our tyres and shoes rather than wellies on our feet. 'Roll on spring' is the daily uttered phrase at the minute.
At some point, in our very mixed up weather system, spring will come and for many, that will signal a change of mindset to seeing the glass half full as new life and colour emerge from the soil beneath us. For others, the dark places that they are in do not easily alter according to the seasons. For what they face is seemingly impossible or increasingly desperate or downright hopeless. At such times, the breakout of creation or the success of sportsmen and women are of little consequence - what they need is hope. In the early days of January I texted a lot of my friends wishing them a hopeful 2013. I did so because I believe in an intangible but very real hope. For me as a Christian, it does not promise wealth or health or fame but is rather based on faith. Faith in a creator God who is my Father, my Saviour and my Friend and who himself promises that He'll never leave me. #hopeforthehopeless
'When will my ear stop hurting Daddy?' she cried. It was 2am and the little titian one who would usually be fast asleep at this time (with her mouth open) was wide awake and obviously in a lot of pain. She's a toughie most of the time and picks herself up when she gets knocked or bangs her head, so we can usually tell when she's trying it on. Having dozed her up on calpol, brufen and 'banana medicine' (something cillin) there was little else I could offer than to stroke her mop of hair and try to re assure her that the pain would go - easier said than done with a 6 year old. A perforated ear drum was the cause of the problem or rather, a perforated ear drum would become a solution for a little girl whose ear drum was literally fit to burst and therefore the cause of the discomfort. It was a relief when that happened, even if the gunk that then made its way onto her pillow was less than pleasant! Lulled into the caring father role however, I was about to be done a few days later. Two nights ago, I arose to attend to my poorly daughter at 1 in the morning. 'Is it your ear' I asked with gentle compassion, 'not really Daddy' she responded through her tear filled eyes 'I'm just SO lonely, please can you stay with me' .....how would I respond? Well, if I tell you that the next morning Mrs F turned to me and said ' you do realise she's got you wrapped around her little finger' then that tells you all you need to know!
Her experience however was nothing compared to my getting felled with the winter sickness bug. As any man will tell you, when we get sick, no-one has experienced or will ever experience how bad we feel - I am one such case. It is very rare for me to be ill, I believe that I have a stomach which is made of cast iron and could wander into a less than salubrious take away in Mumbai and still want my breakfast the next morning. Sickness therefore is something that I do not endure with good grace. As the night of New Years Eve wore on, I convinced myself that I'd be fine, even when the trips to the loo became more frequent! I had after all agreed to go on Lionheart Radio at 10am that morning to talk about Passion for Northumberland and I couldnt possibly not be there. At 8.30am I finally gave in however and Mrs F made the call. Lionheart to their credit were very understanding ....'if he's sick we dont want him anywhere near the place'...... was the way they put it!
This winter, I have been the norm rather than the exception. Every where you looked, people were being stricken with at best a chesty cough which lingered for weeks and then the rest who came under the vicious grip of the noro virus. Christmas for many has been endured rather than enjoyed and I suspect there was a shed load of unused turkey being thrown out or consumed by a menagerie of pets.
The phrase, 'have you got the bug' however is usually used in a more positive sense. Those who go to the gym (of whom there are many at this time of year on account of New Year Resolutions) and find to their surprise that they actually like it will declare with glee that 'they've got the fitness bug'. Time will tell if this lasts of course. The first week in February will usually sort out those who still have the bug from those who are quite frankly.....pooped! It is worth mentioning at this point that Mrs F does not have the bug but nevertheless drags herself to the gym as she knows it is doing her some good, even if she feels the exact opposite when she's finished - for this alone she has my admiration. For others it may be a hobby. I knew someone who got the train spotting bug as a youngster and 50 years later would be ecstatic at the sight of 'diesel 4459' as being another engine to tick off the list and another photograph in the album. I'm interested to a point but in truth, I just dont get it.
Good Friday this year will see a contemporary retelling of the Easter story being played out in Alnwick Market Place. It is an ambitious and exciting project and obviously myself and the rest of the team 'get it' and very much want others to feel similarly. We want the local community to be part of something never done before and be able to say 'I was involved in the very first Passion for Northumberland'. We've advertised in the local media and produced fliers asking the question 'Are you ready for Passion....in 2013?' to stimulate some discussion and interest. Whether people want to be part of the production or simply turn up on the evening of Friday 29th March; the hope of the team is that by seeing and hearing the Easter story in a contemporary style, the incredible story of God's Rescue Plan for the world coming to fruition through the sacrifice of His own Son Jesus, will have fresh meaning for those watching. Perhaps even......... some will say ..........'now I get it'
'Dad, why is it a masterpeice having a wee on the train?' I had to think about this for a few seconds before I eventually worked out what he was on about. It was the word 'masterpiece' that threw and impressed me in equal measure. We were on a day trip to Edinburgh making good use of our family and friends railcard and this would be the first of many questions arising during the day. Then I remembered that the last time we had gone on a train, I had taken the boy for a call of nature which, as any bloke will tell you, is not the easiest thing to do between moving carriages! Part way through the 'process' I described having a wee on the train as being a work of art! Now I dont know what the word is to describe what he did there but I'm sure there is one.
It may be in the genes, in which case I hope he isn't afflicted with something that I fall foul of on a regular basis. Namely - malapropisms "the misuse of a word especially by confusion with one of a similar sound".
This has dogged me for most of my life and examples include: 'that boy is a sharp as a button'......or........the opposite 'that boy is as bright as a knife'.....or even....'he's not the keenest tool in the box'.
For long enough I even managed to get a particular cockney rhyming slang mixed up as well. I would be looking at something and say 'would you take a badgers at that!' (if you are wondering, 'look' is 'a butchers hook') I got away with this for a long time until an uncle caught me saying it one day and then couldn't explain my error for ten minutes on account of rolling round on the floor with tears streaming down his face in laughter!
In a similar vein, growing up I often wondered where Rly was. I knew it was somewhere near Alnmouth but I couldn't find it anywhwere. Eventually the penny dropped that Rly was short for Railway - as in the station!
Nevertheless, the American President George W Bush struggled equally in this area - his best two for me being: 'It will take time to restore chaos and order'.....and.....'they have miscalculated me as a leader'
I'm also guilty of digressing from the subject. So, where was I .........ah yes thats right, toilet on trains and trip to Edinburgh. There was great excitment about this trip. Early start as we were getting the 8.08 from the station which meant everyone had to be ready to walk out the door on time. Ordinarily, this would be a problem for our daughter who, shall we say, tends to 'digress from the subject' on a regular basis each morning (wonder where she gets that from?) but not today. True, we were only going to Edinburgh which would mean the journey would barely last an hour BUT we were going on the train! We did this last February when we went to York and it was fantastic - and so far the novelty hasn't worn off! Maybe in time, delays and cancellations will mean I'll 'get it' in the neck for suggesting this mode of transport but so far so good! The journey was uneventful. The mandatory sick bag for Biff was not required (although staring at the floor between her knees for minutes on end hardly does her any favours) and we had understanding passengers and a rather chipper ticket collector who referred to Mrs F as my daughter!
First stop was the National Museum. The research for this had been done by the self same complimented Mrs F who is quite good at the 'where can we go and what shall we do' sort of thing. It was also FREE entry and this in itself was appealing but, in the back of my mind I was thinking 'a museum? really?' How wrong was I? We stayed for 3 hours and had a brilliant time! The children loved it as it was very user friendly with loads of interactive stuff particularly in the science area but also in the huge expanse of natural world. Structured over three levels with viewing areas looking down onto animal life stretching back to prehistoric times. The boy was particularly made up to see his favourite dinosaur the Stegosaurus (See Harry and the Dinosaurs) his sister would happily draw and colour on every available sheet of paper going. We sat and watched a film about the earth and our firstborn sat transfixed hearing about and watching volcanoes erupting and concluded by asking 'what will happen to the earth?' Searching question number 1 of the day.
We had a well earned lunch of pizza and pasta before heading off towards Princess Street Gardens where we understood there was an outdoor ice rink as part of the festive activities. It was very busy as we headed down from the Royal Mile so we ended up walking very slowly. This suited the 'day dreamer' who had the world around her walking at her pace. We passed maybe three or four people sitting at the side of the pavement in silence with an old sleeping bag to keep out the increasing cold and a cup in hand hoping for some charity as people walked past. 'Dad' said the boy 'why is it that sometimes we give money to some of these people and sometimes we dont' Searching question number 2.
'Dad' he went on ' why are they so poor anyway?' Searching question number 3.
We had promised the children they could have a go on the Ice rink and after duly queueing (not as bad as Legoland you'll be pleased to hear) and then paying a lot of money (on a par with Legoland) me and the bairns stepped forth onto the ice while Mrs F watched from the sidelines with glass of gluvien! This was hilarious! They were all over the place to start with but eventually got the hang of it and gingerly made their way around the rink 7 times before the allocated time was up. In the chaos that is 'skate return' Mrs F did the honours of returning skates in place of shoes while I stayed put. On her return from the return (!) I could tell she was not happy. She informed me that the woman behind the counter had shouted at her for queue jumping. 'Why is it' she said 'that people are quite happy to take your money before your experience and then treat you like that after it?' Searching question number 4.
It got me thinking..... Earlier, when we left the museum, I said to Mrs F 'a place like that throws up more questions than answers' to which her reply had been....'just like life really' and I tend to agree with her. Like a lot of people, I thought at 21 years old that I knew all there was to know..........now at 42 I realise I know so little and struggle to give clear answers to some or indeed any of the questions above. Add to those another awkward question such as 'why do bad things happen to good people?' and I'm scratching my head.
Some would also ask 'where is God in the midst of this?'. I'm not one of those people. It's not that I'm stronger or better or richer or more righteous than anyone else - quite the opposite in fact. Life for all of us throws up good times and bad, success and failure, fully fit and very sick, achievement and despair, and God offers us a hand and says 'come on, how about you and I, walk this path called life together?' From my experience, the answer to that question becomes clearer and more certain with every passing day.
I'm off to look for bash knockers!
'Dad, please can you play big bear little bear?' I looked around somewhat surprised that the request had come from my firstborn and not the flame haired flamenco dancer. I guess I need to explain the concept of this game and its history.
I would describe myself as Mr Average in most areas of life, however, I excel (this is just my humble opinion which I greatly respect) in made up games. From when I was relatively young, I would go out into the back garden and invent games that needed no-one else but me. I came up with some idea about a tennis ball, a back door, the fence and the hedge; had an opposing team called 'Kings' and effectively it was all about hitting targets and scoring points. Some of you are thinking that it sounds very similar to that game called football but you would be so wrong! This required mind blowing tactics and precision skill and on the occasions when I lost (!) to 'Kings' I was determined to come back stronger and not make the same mistakes again. Added to this, I would provide my own commentary on events regardless of who was listening and would even 'interview' the Kings coach at the end of a match to ask how he saw it.........remarkably he had very little to say!
Anyhoo.........becoming a Daddy gave me further opportunities to indulge my passion for all that is meaningless but incredibly good fun anyway. It started with 'floor stories' where me and the boy would construct the track for Thomas, Percy, Edward, Clarabelle, Henry (the list is endless....) put the stations in place, build the odd bridge or two and then we were ready. The boy would look at me in eager anticipation of what tonight's adventure would be. If my creative juices were flowing then the story could last for 20 minutes with Thomas getting into all sorts of near scrapes including leaving the rails and rolling down embankments and, on another occasion, being prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his new friend Lightning McQueen (?) who'd got stuck on a crossing as Gordon thundered towards him applying the brakes and screeching to a halt just inches short of Thomas' fender. In the early days, the boy was eyes wide and mouth open as I told it and I came away from his room thinking I was storyteller of the century! It was during this time that 'Big bear Little bear' began....
The concept is simple enough. Big bear is very hungry and needs something to eat. Teatime is ages away and the only thing that will satisfy his hunger is............Little Bear! However, Little Bear is having none of it and wriggles away before Big Bear is able to bite off his foot! (At this point, it is wise to point out that I don't actually bite his foot in the same way that Michael McIntyre doesnt pull down the pants of his little boys in his made up game called Pants Down!) This could go on for a long long time until ' the bears' would eventually make their way to the kitchen where Mrs F was making tea and the game would be halted on account of the high risk of sausage casserole finding its way onto Little Bear's head rather than his mouth and for the equally important reason that I was by now very hungry indeed. In due course Baby Bear came along and in the fulness of time was integrated into the ways of Big Bear, Little Bear. For her part, she became the bait but because there wasnt much meat on her, Big Bear's attention invariably returned to Little Bear to satisfy his hunger......But....to return to the top, our last encounter had been some time ago on account of the fact that Baby Bear had become Biff Bear and chose to stand up for herself when Little Bear tried to 'protect' her from my advancing paws and inevitably this led to tears......
As I looked at my boy and his request, I thought back over the last 7 weeks of the course that Mrs F and I have been facilitating in school called '21st century parent'. Truth be told, I think we have learnt as much if not more about parenting than the other parents who came along which I hope will stand us in good stead as our children grow older. The excellent Rob Parsons has given sound advice mixed with good humour and we've all been encouraged by shared experiences and that we're not alone in this thing they call bringing up children.
'Do what you can' was the title of the last session. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect parent and we need to accept that, but if we can have a positive bearing on our children as they grow up then lets take the opportunities that present themselves that wont be there in a few years time. What we hope and pray for, is that as our children find their own way in life they will know that we're alwys there for them. In time, we'll look back on some things with fondness, other things with pain and still other things that we probably class as ' what was that all about?'
You know, as a child of God, you and I have a Heavenly Father who is not prone to our mistakes as parents but nevertheless says 'I'm here for you whenever you want to talk......or laugh....or cry....or listen'
.....which is why I grabbed my 8 year old boy and wrestled him to the floor and for the next few minutes laughed and tickled and talked nonsense all for the sake of this made up game that means nothing and yet......means everything.
'Chris, I've got 'Strictly' on the I-Player, are you coming down to join us'. It was Sunday night and ordinarily I would quite happily enjoy a bit of downtime with the family sometimes watching a DVD and if I'm given the choice then it's The Incredibles (we havent watched The Incredibles for about a year so I must be missing some turns!)sometimes over a game of 'pass the pigs' which is simple in its concept but fantastic to play, particularly if, like me, you're competitive and are constantly hoping for that elusive double snouter worth 60 points! Problem is I get greedy and more often than not 'pig-out' losing all my points in the process. Anyway......back to that evening's entertainment and the weekly catch up with Brucie and Tess. For those who dont know the format, it features would be dancing celebs taking to the floor with their professional partners who over the course of twelve weeks will take on every dance from the Cha cha cha to the American Smooth. Some of the celebs are very good and are potential winners come Christmas, some however are not and are prime turkeys by the end of October! Neverthless, it is quite entertaining stuff but.............not tonight.
I had put the computer on to catch up on what had happened with the sports action of the day AND to see if Paul Jewell still held the Manager's position at Ipswich Town, which he did and as I write still does but as they say these days 'if you're watching on Dave then the situation may well have changed'. As the BBC homepage came up, highlighted in the top left hand corner was the title 'sky diver attempt underway' with a still picture of a white capsule heading skyward with the aid of a helium balloon hoisting it high above the earth. I had been watching the build up to this all week. An Austrian daredevil who had done some crazy things in the past including jumping off the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil was now taking on his toughest challenge to date; to ascend to a height of 128,000 feet (approx 40 Kms) before jumping out of his capsule and reaching a speed of over 700 miles an hour before activating his chute and landing safely in New Mexico. Yes, the moment had arrived for one Felix Baumgartner and I for one did not want to miss it. I was not alone in this as another 8 million had decided that this moment in history was of far more consequence than watching Michael Vaughan (prime turkey) doing kicks instead of flicks and listening to the otherwise very good Darcey Bussell doing that really really annoying thing where she ends her sentances on the up. She's making a statement but it sounds like she's asking a question and quite frankly it does my head in! If you want to talk like that Darcey then go to Brisbane! So there I stayed rooted to my computer watching this fantastic event unfold live on the internet. Truth be told, I was fairly sure that the boy would be keen to watch it too but the element of risk - Felix might actually kill himself - meant that I would watch it alone and, assuming he lived, show my firstborn the replay - which I did.
So I sat there glued to this image of a man in a spacesuit ascending into the sky and beyond. Occasionally he would give the thumbs up when Mission Control asked how he was doing but most of the time you could just hear his breathing. With the fixed camera on the outside of the capsule, the earth began slowly but surely to take on the curvature which is usually only seen from space. As I looked at these pictures, the thought of a guy about to jump back to earth from a distance the equivalent of Alnwick to Gosforth was just ludicrous! But I was completely captivated. I could feel my own heart rate quicken and wondered why but then realised that this was live and I had no idea what would happen next! He started to run through his final checks before the moment of truth arrived and then he opened the capsule door and stepped out onto the ledge. 'Im coming home' were his last words before he jumped. Then four and a half minutes of freefall during which time he broke the sound barrier, hit over 800 miles an hour and went in to a spin that had everyone holding their breath until the tiny speck on the screen righted himself into a skydive position and a palpable sigh went up from a worldwide audience as his chute was deployed. Given all the crystal clear communication from the edge of space, it was perhaps a little ironic that Felix was getting contradictory information about the direction of the wind as he was coming in to land - 'the wind is from the ridge Felix...........no sorry......the wind is towards the ridge' I hoped at that point that he would ignore the radio contact and manage the easy part of the ride on his own which he duly did as he landed and then sank to his knees and raised his arms in celebration.
So, where (you are wondering) is the God Factor in all of this? Well, this one stood out the most. At the press conference that followed, a Brazilian journalist who had seen Felix jump from the arm of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil asked what he had thought as he prepared to jump. His answer.......'When you are standing in the arms of God's Son, at that moment, there is nothing that can go wrong. That is what I was thinking before I jumped'
'Chris, will you snap out of it!' I returned from my 'staring into the mid distance' look and turned to the other sofa (see older blog for context) where Mrs F was staring back at me in mock imitation. I do this a lot, this vacant look, especially at dinner time and I actually find it quite restful but apparently Mrs F finds it somewhat annoying and I find myself being hauled back to the real world all too quickly. Even Biff has taken to giving me grief about it. The answer therefore is to take to the car every now and again and will myself into this world of nothingness and wonder. By the way, talking of Miss 'can I tell you something', she told me last week that she is joining the music club at school where, she assures me, she will 'be using her voice as her instrument!' Best of luck with getting that played quietly Mrs L, I think finding top C will be the least of your problems!
'So what are you thinking about this time?' she eventually said. (Truth is, I was feeling frustrated because we didnt have Sky and the Ryder Cup had started and I wanted to watch it) but what I said to her was 'I want to watch the golf but I cant!' I knew this would happen. I can live without seeing Accrington Stanley playing Exeter City on a Friday night and whilst I miss some of the premier league games, well thats OK and I can always catch up on MOTD. There's always the three times a year when Ipswich Town play live but quite frankly at this moment in time its better to draw a veil over that one! But there are occasions when I want to see a sporting event live and the Ryder Cup is right up there. European golfers going head to head with their American counterparts over three days in a matchplay format - if you have no idea what I'm talking about then google golf, ryder cup and matchplay. This biennial event was being played over the pond in Chicago and made even more spicy for that. American golf fans are a breed apart and cannot help but cry 'its in the hole' as the guy drives off on a 600 yard par 5 with a lot of whooping and hollering thrown in. Believe you me Sir Alex, Manchester City fans are like church mice compared to our noisy neighbours over the water! (I have to say that I admire some of the US golfers not least Bubba who doesnt care what people think but just does it his way.) I'd also worked out that, given the time difference, the best of the action would be on once the bairns were in bed and, having converted the fair one to the merits of this wonderful game, even Gardener's World would get parked up for one week in favour of drive, chip and putt.
'Well you'll just have to make do with the highlights, like I will' she said. The problem with that was twofold. 1) Watching highlights at midnight for 2 hours aint much fun and 2) I lack the discipline to NOT find out what happened during the day before watching. It was for reason No 2 therefore that I chose only to watch a little bit on Friday (knowing that we - Europe - were 5-3 down) and not bother at all on Saturday (knowing that they - the great US of A yeehaa! - were 10-6 up) certain that we were staring down the barrell at a big defeat. Of the 12 singles to go out on Sunday, US needed only 4.5 points to win and Europe needed 8 points to retain it - dont ask why, just accept it! But.......as somebody famous once said.....'Its Friday but Sunday's coming!
What happened on Sunday will go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks ever. 'Miracle at Medinah' call it what you want, this was epic! As European golfers started winning their matches and clawing back the deficit they punched the air with clenched fists and as they left the green they had the name of one man on their lips - Seve. Yes the legend that was Severiano Ballesteros, one of the greatest golfers to ever play the game. His silouette emblazoned on the golf bags and jumpers of all the Europeans who were dressed in his favourite blue and white were paying tribute to a great who died last year but neverthless was inspiring the whole team to achieve the unthinkable and come back from certain defeat and snatch the Ryder Cup 14.5 - 13.5 points.
The Seve factor - not be confused with the X factor (which I now call the Y Factor as in why do they still bother with this rubbish - other opinions are available) but nevertheless something intangible that made a difference in the mindset of those players. 'I could feel his presence' said Sergio. I've heard others use the same words. Nothing to do with swinging a seven iron with precision fade and just enough back spin to stop inches from the flag. I've heard others use those words when they have felt alone and needed assurance, I've heard others use those words when they needed the courage to take a bold step of faith and I've heard others use those words when a situation was seemingly hopeless through tragic bereavement. It's not Seve they talk about - it's Jesus.
'Now before we start, lets make one thing clear, Chris and I are not perfect parents, we have not got this thing sussed on how to bring up children, we have our struggles in the same way that all parents do, so this is about shared experience and being in this together.
I smiled (wryly I think or maybe I was grimacing, I can't quite remember) and looked around at the other parents. I thought at that point, setting out together on 7 sessions of the 21st Century Parent, that should these parents care to look at one or two previous blog entries they would have all the evidence they need that, as Mrs F said so succinctly and yet so accurately, we do not have this parenting thing 'sussed'. Yes...us....leading a parenting course....who'd have thought it.........no, me neither!
I was more than grateful that Mrs F had decided to co-lead this course. She happens (and I know I'm biased) to be a very very good communicator and facilitator but equally, it seemed right that we shared in something that is very much a partnership at home - namely the joys and challenges of parenthood. We both have different takes on the same situation which will hopefully benefit not just the other parents who have chosen (we didn't force them honest, nor did we pay them!) to attend but may well help us in our parenting simply by talking in that environment. So it was then that we started on this journey with the excellent communicator who is Rob Parsons from Care for the Family - he of '60 minute father' fame which is also a cracking read.
'Being a parent can be hard and lonely' Rob introduced 'but it can be funny too. I reflected on that and thought back to when our boy came into the world at 1.15am on 1st October 2004. I decided then to keep what I call an occasional journal which records some of the brilliant comments that children come up with as they grow and learn. Here are some highlights.......
When he was about 2 and a half, I walked through the door to be greeted by 'I've done a good poo today Daddy!' A sense of achievement in a very bizarre way.
Returning from his first nursery trip in 2008 from Howick Gardens and Mummy asked him what he did, he replied 'we listened for bash knockers' which we eventually interpreted as woodpeckers!
Then in 2009 having been caught short on a trip to Ingram Valley, I hurriedly took him to the bushes, he 'dribbled' on his trousers and turned round to me and said 'oh well, it'll wash!'
and not to leave out our shy and retiring little girl who at the age of three, as the ASDA delivery man was about to leave ran out the door after him shouting 'kiss, kiss.....cuddle, cuddle!' Very funny at the time although the man from ASDA didnt see it that way!
I treasure that book and its comments and I suspect I will continue to feel that way as they get older. For whilst we do have trying times with our two, we also see their characters develop as they continue to explore and take in the world around them. I'm trying harder not to be distracted when my daughter for the umpteenth time says to me that 'I want to tell you something' only to find that it is something and nothing because she simply wants to communicate with me. Yesterday, there was a huge smile on the boy's face as he told me that he'd gone up a group in swimming. I was so proud of him, all the more because for so long when he was younger he was scared of water and there were tears on many occasions through fear of putting his head under water. Gradually over time he overcame that fear simply as a result of us as a family larking about at the Willowburn for an hour most Saturday mornings. Simple things that help to balance the scales when frustration creeps in. Last weekend, we went camping just a few miles from Alnwick to a small site near Doxford. I nipped out for a call of nature at 10pm and looked up to see a fantastic night sky made all the more brilliant because of the low light pollution where we were staying. I called to Mrs F to come and see and then without a moments hesitation woke first the boy (wide awake straight away 'I can see the bucket' interpretation 'plough)) and then the girl (very dozy but sort of interested 'lots of stars' ZZZzzz...) to see the night sky. That moment didnt cost anything and yet it was very special for that shared experience of the amazing wonder of God's creation.
One of the statistics that came out of our first session was that whilst 77% of parents would consider going on a parenting course only 5% actually do. Why is that? Maybe parents think to themselves that they are the only ones struggling with a particular problem when the reality is that we ALL struggle. Yet 21st Century Parent seeks to help us hold on to those moments when we can take pleasure in our children whilst recognising the challenges they bring.
I value the shared responsibility and privilege of parenting our children with Mrs F. I value the shared experiences we have with other parents and for their honesty. I thank God for our children and for the part He plays in family life that, whilst unseen, the ups and downs that we share as a couple we can also share with Him and have a sense of Him saying 'We're in this together'
'Listen' I said, 'can you hear that?' ........'hear what?' she said.........'exactly' I said.
Having deposited the children with grandparents, we were now heading 15 minutes down the road for a couple of days 'child free'. Don't get me wrong I love my children very much but the opportunity to have some time with Mrs F in peace and quiet was just fantastic. This summer holidays both offspring have been good....on the whole. The problems tend to hinge around one thing.........car journeys!
It usually starts with the flame haired one saying 'Dad, Dad, Dad in very quick succesion to the extent that I feel like the back of my head is being verbally shot at from very close range! For those of you who have seen the advert with an otter calling out to one of his mates 'Dave, Dave, Dave', you'll know exactly what I mean. By the time I get a chance to interject the 'mouth machine', she's forgotten what she wanted to say! However, its the unseen stuff that sends Mrs F and then me (or me and then Mrs F - we tend to take it in turns) over the edge. Usually a little body in the back starts flicking a slightly bigger body on the arm. The bigger body tries to do what he's been told and 'just ignore her' but gradually his patience is wearing thin and eventually the bigger body chooses to retaliate by giving a slightly harder 'flick' back to the little body - you can imagine the result! By way of assistance, my brother in law bought a portable DVD player and this will go on when we've reached crisis point (usually somewhere round Morpeth!) and then for the next two hours (for that is how long the battery life is) we either have to be subjected to Barbie and the Diamond Castle or Cars 2 - assuming of course that they can agree on what to watch first! Believe you me 370 miles can be a relatively short distance or it can feel like a month depending on how well our children get on.
So for two days, we replaced quarrels for quiet and it was bliss! Apart from anything else just the chance to have an adult conversation without time pressure and enjoy spending time as a couple - quality time.
All too soon it was over and we headed back to the inlaws. Given that 'Master I'm 7 nearly 8' had asked if he could go to Legoland for his birthday, we decided to do this trip while we were close by rather than make another trip south in a months time. We went on the Tuesday which happened to be a warm day and also happened to be the last week of the summer holidays. One of us thought it would be busy, the other one had a feeling that it would be very busy - neither of us were right - it was in fact very very very busy! So busy that I heard during the course of the day a number of staff saying that it was probably the busiest day of the holidays. Groan! This meant only one thing - queues and plenty of them. I was fairly keen to go on the water ride first up and this also appealed to Biff (clue- oxford reading books) so she and I piled into that queue - 30 minute wait! We'd practically sprinted there once the gates were open! By the end of the day I would have taken that 30 minute wait every time. No matter where we went, the queues were huge and 30 minutes rapidly turned into 60 then 90. The only place we could find space was beside the miniature village which ironically is the most authentic part of Legoland given that everything really is made out of lego. Here you simply look and don't ride - hence no queues! It has to be said at this point that the boy was loving it. He was having a whale of a time and I had to gently remind myself and Mrs F of this fact. Our patience in queueing was not helped by people with little yellow hand held machines called Q-Bots bypassing the queues and getting straight on rides. The fact that they'd spent £70 for the privilege did little to help the unpleasant thoughts I had towards them.
At 5pm we took a family vote for one more ride and opted for the log flume. The queueing system in these places sends you one way for 50 yards and then turns you back on yourself for another 50. It does this approx 5000 times! Entertaining children in such scenarios is difficult especially when one child finds that the barrier doubles up quite well as a high bar in gymnastics and chooses to swing around it knocking one poor old dear in the back and a toddler sent spawling into the bushes. Nevetheless we battled through adversity and made it to the log flume at 6.35pm! The ride lasted about 4 minutes and ended with our log boat being catapulted into water at such a rate of knots that everyone got soaked. We had the sense to bring a change of clothes for the children but not ourselves. The result was an immediate headache/ migraine for Mrs F and a very long soggy walk back to the car. Worth waiting for? Umm
As I thought about waiting for our turn. I wondered about the billions of people worldwide, all wanting an audience with God and how He handles that. No queues? How so? Its almost as if we've all got a Q-Bot (for free) which enables us to queue jump and speak to Him immediately - all 8 billion of us. What God offers us is pretty incredible on so many fronts but for the purposes of this blog, perhaps Q is for quality time.... if we give Him the opportunity.