A few words about Jacquie James

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“It was not that long ago it first occurred to me
That my mother was a person in her own right.
And now I realise how very lucky I have been
And there, but for the grace of God, go I, go I.”*

My Mum – Jacquie James – is 70 years old today. I could write thousands of words about her but the thirteen hundred or so that I’ve done will have to do and I’m well aware that it won’t even scratch the surface of Jacqueline Muriel Alexander James nee Walker.

You may not know this – though a select band of you will – but Jacquie James is amazing woman. Born in London just after the World War II she was brought up in Clifton in Bristol where her father Frank Walker was a professor of geography at Bristol University. One of my earliest memories is travelling to Bristol on the train with Mum to visit my grandparents at their home on Lansdowne Road in Clifton. I can remember falling asleep on the train and waking up in the enormous house where they lived during term times. We went to Bristol a lot when I was growing up – it’s my home town and though I’ve never felt like a Bristolian in any way, shape or form I used to love going there and some of the happiest memories from my childhood are of the times I spent in Bristol with my extended family.

Mum trained as an Occupational Therapist in the 1960s down in Devon and having moved over the Severn Bridge to the Vale of Glamorgan, before I began school and then during my school holidays she used to take me out with her on visits up into the South Wales Valleys and all across South Wales where I met children of my own age with profound disabilities and in doing so gave me insights that to this day I am grateful for. I’m not sure the occupational therapist of today would be allowed to do what Mum did but it and I have so many happy memories of travelling with her over the top of the valleys in her Renault 4 and then her weirdly coloured Ford Escort chatting away and listening to Radio Wales – Mum is a naturalised Welsh woman – it’s an old family joke but it’s a statement of truth.

“When I was a teenager I really did believe
That my parents had adopted me.
And the way I carried on they must have thought
They’d brought the wrong little baby home from maternity.

I’d like to say I’m sorry but my
Mother dear, she already knows.”*

Mum has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from an early age and I know that there have been times when she has really struggled with this but she never let this affect the way she was with me or my sister Cathy even when I was being a normal child and behaving in a horrible way towards her – she always let me know that she loved me and would always be there for me and she always was – save for that time when I got dumped by a girlfriend and she went off on holiday to Malta with Dad.**

Mum has a gift for anything craft related that she puts her hand to – in her time she amongst many, many things she’s had a go at, has knitted, made lace, made things out of glass that are beautiful and she does these all these things with seemingly no effort. She’s also done flower arranging and was a member of an arranging group over in Bristol which led to one of my favourite conversations that we had about popular culture.

What you need to know about my Mum is that she doesn’t really do popular culture – she was a teenager in the 60s as was my Dad and their record collection had one EP by The Beatles in it – one!?! Her and Dad were always more into classical music and jazz so for her to have heard of a pop group is a rare event – I reckon that when it comes to the bands I’ve liked over the years she’d be able to name New Order, Happy Mondays*** and Super Furry Animals. Anyway I digress, this is how the conversation went down:

Mum: “I was at flower arranging over in Bristol the other night.”

A disinterested me: “Oh yes.”

Mum: “One of the other members, her son is in a band.”

Me: “Oh right.”

Mum: “I think they’re quite famous, have you heard of Portishead?”

Me: “What?!?!? Portishead?!?! Mum, they’re only one of my most favourite bands!!! Who is her son?”

Mum: “I’m not sure, I don’t know her surname.”

And we never found out who the son was – but I love my Mum for being so blasé about such things.

One famous person she did meet was Jimmy Savile – she was a student at the time and he kissed her and whenever we sat down to watch Jim’ll Fix It back in the day she’d always comment that Savile was horrible person. Mum’s always know.

Mum is one of the most selfless people I have ever met – I’m always surprised when I ring home and actually get her on the phone. She is on the board of charities, helps people out with offers of support and amazing meals and travels the country to visit places she’s never been to before and places that she knows and loves such as North Yorkshire where her parents had their home and where we as a family spent our summers long before it became ‘Heartbeat Country’. This year she’s been to the Netherlands to visit a jazz festival and only last week she flew up to Edinburgh to meet her pen pal Susan from Seattle who she’s been writing to for over 50 years.

One of things that I’ve been really proud of Mum and Dad for doing is that they fight battles at their local church – they were always pro-women priests and in doing so they showed to me that despite their apparent conformity to middle class norms and standards they can be quite radical in their outlook on life and relationships and that’s something which has cost them friends at times and there are people who don’t talk to them anymore because of the things they’ve fought for. You might say well they are better off without those people and you’re right they are but sometimes it takes courage to take the stands that Mum has done over the years and I’ll say it again I’m proud of my Mum – she doesn’t take shit from anybody.

We’ve had our rows and silence over the years and they’ve been humdingers at times but as I grow older and my sons are turning into young men my appreciation of what she did for me when I was their age impresses me more and more. She didn’t say “No” just to annoy me or stop me having fun, she did it because she loved me, wanted me to be safe and wanted the best for me and surely that’s all you need from your Mum.

I still need my Mum every now and again.

“If I ever get arrested by the C.I.A.
Because they take me for a foreign spy.
They won’t need no lie-detector, all they’ll have to do
Is make me look into my mother’s eyes
And I’ll tell them anything they like.”*

*Taken from The Divine Comedy’s song ‘Mother Dear’ – written by Neil Hannon. See it here: 

** Okay so I was 20 at the time but I was still upset.

*** I still owe my Dad £25 for a trip to see the Happy Mondays up in Manchester back in 1990 – I know, £25 for the concert ticket and bus up there from Cardiff – those were the days!!!

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In which I talk to my son about girls and relationships…

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Next year my elder son will become a teenager. This is a fact and there is nothing that I nor my wife can do about it – this however isn’t going to be one of those blogs where I wail about “How can this have happened?!?!” or “Where does the time go?!?!” I know how time works and I’m also aware of the biological fact that we get older and that the children my wife and I created also get older but what I didn’t expect was that my firstborn would become a teenager before he actually turned thirteen.

Last night I got home from work and as I relaxed into my armchair and put Pointless on the telly – the calm before the boys arrived home from their grandparents’ house – my phone buzzed and I had a message from the aforementioned twelve year old:

“Have school rung? *******’s Mum saw our texts and was really angry and she’s contacted the school.”
“What did you say in these texts?!?”
“Just funny stuff.”
“Did it include swearing?”
“Yes but it was both of us.”
“Anything else?”
“No”
“We’ll talk about it when you get home.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“Well duh.”*

This was coming in the middle of me not only watching my favourite quiz show but I was also making a lovely tea for me and my wife who was on a late at work – for goodness sake I was even doing veg.

Anyway he arrived home with his brother and grandmother – aka my lovely mother in law Val and she didn’t know what was going on just that he was being sullen and let’s be frank here, that isn’t really anything usual at the moment. He looked miserable and a bit scared and when my wife arrived home and I updated her with the news of what our first born had been up to well it’s fair to say that our evening ruined.**

There were tears, apologies, I ended up repeating phrases my parents had said to me when I was younger and then sat in bed later reflecting on how it was true and that you do turn into your parents and tried not to get too depressed about that. We had further disclosures from him, he’d had his first kiss, some of the texts did mention saucy activities – he’s twelve, I can’t say sex – and that his friends didn’t like him at the moment as he’s spending all his time with this girl.

I listened to all this and I didn’t get angry with him but instead I felt a little bit sad for him. There’s a running joke in my family about how when I was younger I could never speak to girls and that I didn’t get my first girlfriend until I was 18 but last night I thought about it all and I thought that when I look back at things I really glad I didn’t. Maybe I am old fashioned but I feel really uncomfortable seeing and hearing little kids talking about their boyfriends and girlfriends and what’s worse seeing their parents talk about these relationships as though they are serious and a long term proposition – my son and his friends are eleven and twelve!!! I want him to be uncomfortable talking to girls, I want him to obsess about football and the untouchable impossibly perfect women that he sees incessantly in the media and not a girl he sees every day in school – that’s for later on in life.

One of the main things in my son’s life is technology. He has a tablet and a mobile phone and hits them hard every single day vanishing into his room as soon as he gets home, resurfacing for tea and heading back upstairs. We hear him chatting via whatever app to his friends and this goes on for hours and I know as I’m typing this that your saying “Well for God’s sake take some action over this!!!” well we have.

Last month there was an issue at school*** the end result of which was that we took my son’s devices off him for what in the end turned out to be two weeks and those two weeks were simply lovely. He played with his brother, he read, he sat downstairs and chatted with us and frankly he was a pleasure to be with. The mistake we made was not planning for what would happen when he got his things back and two weeks on here we are again.

When I was twelve and starting to disappear into my room like he does now it was for the following reasons:

i. To get away from everybody
ii. To read
iii. To eat crisps
iv. To listen to music
v. To masturbate****

When he goes upstairs he just seems to want to talk nonsense to his mates and post rude things on various apps and he tries way too hard to be cool – he’s lovely but he’s not cool. He’s ignoring his brother again, he gets cross when challenged and we feel that we’re failing as parents whilst simultaneously remembering that we too acted like twats at the same age.

Make no mistake, it is ace being a parent but by God it’s hard work and the worst thing is that I know it’s going to get harder before it gets better. We’ve taken the electronic devices away from him again but this time we’ve also hidden the obsolete ones that he tried to resurrect and use instead last time. He had to walk to school today with his Mum and brother and perhaps the worst punishment of all for him is that he’s had to listen to relationship advice from me.

I didn’t want to do that to him but if nothing else then surely the awfulness of having me sit on the end of his bed and talking to him about my experiences with girls will surely help him see the error of his ways and lead to him reuniting with his pals in school today. Or quite possibly it will scar him for life – I’m hoping for a combination of both.

Here’s the thing though, as sit here typing this, what I’ve failed to mention is that there was no call from the school last night. Either we wasted our evening berating our son or joy of joys this could be a parental nightmare rollover and when I get home this afternoon, slip into my armchair, take a sip of my cold drink, stick Pointless on and sigh out with a long “Ahh…” I know that the phone is going to ring and the voice at the other end of the line will say: “Hello is that Mr James?”

Either that or the school will have rung before I get home and as my wife is on an early finish today she’ll have to deal with it.

Follow me on Twitter to find out – follow me at @gruffsdad

*I know, I said “Duh.” – I let myself down there, don’t condemn me.

** Mrs Gruffsdad managed not to eat the tea I’d cooked as the chicken, despite being in the oven for ages and ages hadn’t cooked through properly even though I’d checked it with our meat thermometer and the needle hit the chicken on it and so it should have been okay but it wasn’t. Sausage sandwiches for tea this evening – surely I can’t screw them up.

*** This one involved a game of football and a boy with a clubbed foot. No wait, he really is lovely, honestly he is.

*** And so did you.

My Love Letter to South West Trains

This is the most boring blog entry I have ever written and probably not the best welcome back to blogging but I just needed to get the following out of my system – I am sorry and you really don’t have to read it.

My son Aneurin turns eight this week and to celebrate we’re off to London for the day to meet my Mum and go to the London Transport Museum, Nando’s, the British Museum and Krispy Kreme. Needless to say it is the final thing in this list which is exciting him the most.

The first thing we have to do of course is get to London and that’s been a bit of a hassle. I bought our train tickets three months ago to ensure that we got a good price and then at the weekend I thought I’d check to see what changes there might be as I knew we’d have to get a bus at one point on our trip. There were indeed some changes and it seemed that South West Trains had actually cancelled our train and we’d have to take a bus from Dorchester to Southampton Airport Parkway and this bus would take two and a half hours to get there oh and then we’d miss the train that we were booked on having to catch a later one throwing our plans for the day into disarray.

I talked it through with my wife and we thought that we’d just drive to Southampton to get our train, it takes an hour and we’d get to London as planned on the train we’d originally booked on. Just to reassure myself I emailed South West Trains to see if this would be okay, I wasn’t asking for a refund, or an upgrade nor was I complaining that the trains from and to Dorchester had been cancelled. I just wanted to check that I could drive and park at my own expense and get on a train in Southampton which I had bought four tickets for.

This was the response:

“Ideally, since the ticket is an Advance Single Ticket you will need to travel from the station you are booked from. Hence you will need to use the bus service arranged from Dorchester.”

“Hmm,” I thought, “I think that’s a bit rubbish.” So I wrote back:

“I realise that you can’t help it but ideally I wouldn’t choose to spend 2 and half hours on a bus leaving before 6am with my wife and two young boys to get a train that gets into London later than the one we booked on. We can drive to Southampton in an hour and get the train to London that we’re booked on – I can’t see why this should be an issue.”

To which I got this response:

“I completely understand the resentment towards the issue.

Our website is updated according to the latest information provided to us by the Train Operating Companies managing the route. Hence, you will be allowed to book tickets for that particular service. However, last minute changes and cancellation are beyond our control.

Please note, the terms and conditions are decided by the Association of Train Operating Companies, we are only retailers selling train tickets, abiding by the rules and regulations laid down by the Train Operating Companies.”

So now I’m resentful? I was hurt by this* but when I want to be I can be a stubborn little bastard and I can’t stand stupid rules that make little sense so I didn’t back down.

We got offered other route alternatives that took in a bus journey up to Yeovil Junction, and journeys that would get us into London even later than the already later train that we were being told to catch but all I wanted was to be able to drive over to Southampton and get on the 8.02 train to London we have tickets for and then travel back to Southampton on Saturday evening, get off the train there and drive home thereby cutting out a two and a half hour journey back to Dorchester on a packed bus after a long day out in London.

In the end I asked for our email chat to be passed to the South West Train employee’s line manager and within ten minutes I got this response from her manager:

“Dear Anthony,

Thank you for your response.

I have checked the details for you and I can confirm that you can use your tickets to directly board the train service from Southampton Parkway and there will be no problems, as this is a change in your journey.

Kind regards

*******”**
To reach this point took nearly four hours!!!

I’d just wanted reassurance that our plans were okay and wouldn’t lead to me getting hit with a big extra surcharge once we’d boarded the train on Saturday morning. What I got was the email equivalent of bashing my head against a brick wall with a South West Trains employee who could probably have done without me badgering her on a Saturday night.

In case I appear to look like a twat in all of the above can I just point out that apart from the use of the word “ideally” in my second email I was polite at all times and didn’t resort to sarcasm.

This was going to be a blog about London and various tales of my times there and what it means to me but maybe I’ll do that another time so story of my parents taking my sister and me into Soho on a Saturday night during the 1970s will have to wait for now.

*Not really.
** I have printed out the entire email conversation to stuff in my rucksack on Saturday so if we are challenged I will whip it out and say “Aha!”***

*** No really, I have.

Gruff and I take on Yellowham Hill

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Last weekend I went for an eleven mile bike ride with my son Gruff and it is one of the best things I have ever done with him. Last winter we drove home from a basketball game in Poole and there was a crash on the main road outside Dorchester so we got diverted and the diversion took us down a really long hill called Yellowham Hill and both of us thought that it would be quite a cool thing to cycle down this hill and after many a delay and fatherly bit of procrastination we finally did it yesterday. 

Now I am staggeringly unfit and let’s be brutally honest here considerably overweight and I think subconsciously the procrastination had been due to the fact that this was a longer and more difficult ride than the two of us had done before but God I wanted to ride down that hill and Gruff was starting to get a bit annoyed that I kept on finding reasons not to go so we agreed to do it on Sunday.

We set off just after lunch with a map and a bottle of squash and straight away Gruff hit a kerb side on and came off his bike cutting his knee open – he didn’t cry and insisted on carrying on and so off we went out of Dorchester into the countryside. We cycled past Thomas Hardy’s cottage, up into PuddletownForest and then cycled down a tremendous woodland path to get out of the forest and onto the road and down another excellent hill into Puddletown itself. From there we cycled back up to the A35 and through the hamlet of TroyTown and then we were there – the top of Yellowham Hill. 

I have to say that it was just incredible cycling down Yellowham Hill – the cycle to get there had been really hard but all that was worth it has we sped down the hill yelling at each other as the speed gathered pace. The cycling app on my phone later told me that we’d reached 55mph as we bombed down the hill – I reckon the app might have a fault on it – surely there’s no way we made it to that high a speed. We reached the bottom and the look of elation on Gruff’s face made it all worthwhile – we crossed over the A35 making a stop on the bridge to look at the cornflake vans driving down the road*, before heading up the hill and down into Lower Bockhampton before heading for home where a worried wife greeted us and told us that we’d been gone for ages. 

We checked the bike app and saw that we’d been cycling for 1hour 37 minutes and had done 11.27 miles – we could not believe it and much to my surprise I felt really proud that we’d made it. I ached, was covered in sweat and needed a cold pint of squash and a lie down but we’d done it and my son was really happy that I’d stopped the aforementioned procrastination and got on my bike to help him fulfil his aim of cycling down Yellowham Hill.  

Dad of the Year at least for one afternoon. 

* We didn’t really, we just stopped for a swig of orange and pineapple squash before heading for home. Truth is it’s a Gregory’s Girl reference and if you got that then you’re a friend for life.

Some views on parenting.

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It’s been a fair few weeks since I last blogged and in that time my eldest son Gruff (It’s pronounced Griff. No it is, really, so can you just accept that, move on and carry on reading my blog. Well actually it’s no weirder than the different ways of saying “ough” in various English words so get over it, stop being so parochial about language and read the blog.) turned 10. I’m not going to go down the route that many parents do by saying “How the hell did that happen?!?!?!” I know very well how it happened and it involved a very nice time with my wife on a wet afternoon in a tent whilst on holiday in the Vendee in 2002. My wife got pregnant and nine months later Gruff (Remember, it’s pronounced Griff.) was born and that was that.

So 10 years old?!?!? Seriously though how the hell did that happen?!?!? I look at my boy and he’s this blonde haired bundle of loveliness, he works hard at school, loves nothing better than to lie in bed listening to Test Match Special or go round the park and kick a ball about. He supports Swansea City, shouts for Wales in the rugby, is good at maths, likes reading, enjoys a fried egg, plays basketball for the Dorchester Tigers and goes swimming for the West Dorset Warriors twice a week – there’s loads more to him than that but those are the things that came to mind as sat and typed this out.

I love my Gruff (Come on now, how are you doing with that name?) but God alive he annoys the crap out of me sometimes. New parents out there it is okay to say this, social services will not come knocking on your door to take your children away, you won’t get struck down by a thunderbolt, your child won’t hate you – nothing bad will happened because you feel like this because it’s normal and okay to have such feelings and I know I annoyed my Mum and Dad throughout and beyond my childhood.

It would be wrong to make a list of things that Gruff does that annoy me – he wouldn’t thank me for it but I’m going to give some examples of things that some hypothetical ten year old boy might do that could possibly annoy me a hypothetical 41 year old father of two originally from Cardiff who now lives in Dorchester   with his wife of fourteen years called Emily:

No of course I’m not – what kind of father do you think I am?

Gruff (You know how to say it now don’t you?) is 10 and I what freaks me out quite a bit about that is that I’m older now than my Dad was when I was ten but my brain can’t quite compute that. I still wear jeans and t-shirts when not at work, I go to the occasional gig, shave my head whilst keeping a beard (A quick question; my wife thinks I look like a fundamentalist when I do this but I saw some bloke in London with the same look recently and he looked damn cool – what do you all think?), I still get excited about films, books and albums coming out – what is my point here? Er…um…not I’m not actually sure, and why exactly does this freak me out? I don’t know. Am I turning into my father? Not really, we’re alike in many ways but unalike to so many others: e.g. I never wear slacks.

What I am aware of is that the things I swore that I’d never say or do in my parental relationship with my sons I’ve ended up doing. The things my parents said to me when I was younger and that annoyed the crap out of me have poured forth from my mouth and I react inwardly with horror as I hear myself saying them – no actually that’s a big fat lie. I hear them and suddenly there is a realisation bursting through my brain and blinding me with a flash of acknowledgement: Oh my God, my parents were right!

Some examples follow:

  • I don’t care what some other kid does in his house, his parents must be idiots if they let their child do what Gruff is saying his friend is allowed to do.
  • Actually this is my house and my son will live by the rules that Emily and I lay down and no Gruff, there is no negotiation about this.
  • Who knew that an untidy bedroom could piss me off so much – my Mum used to get so stressed with my room being in a state and I get it now, I so do – sorry Mum.
  • You will go to bed at the prescribed times Gruff: 1) you need your sleep and 2) your Mum and I need time to ourselves.
  • “I hate swimming, I want to give it up, please don’t make me go.” “Gruff, you’re going.”

 There is no debate, I have turned into a dictator ruling over my children with an iron rod and I will be obeyed and I won’t feel guilty about this and the reason for my lack of guilt is this: my boys are lovely young men and when I see their fellow pupils in school with them, the ones who are just as nice and just as well behaved are the ones who have strict parents, ones who don’t let them get away with murder. The little shits in their class are the ones whose parents let them run wild like feral creatures, say that their son is their “best friend” – stop that right now, he isn’t, he’s your son and the rules of your relationship with him are different. Parents who can’t see that their little ray of sunshine has done anything wrong ever and who live in some mythical dreamworld where if anything bad happens involving their child then it is never – never I tell you – their child’s fault even if there is HD CCTV evidence backed up with a sworn signed affidavit from the 23 other children that saw their Devil’s spawn do what he did. Wishy washy, modern away with the fairies parents drive me mad and they park on the zig zags outside school too as their child for some reason can’t walk more than 50 yards to get in the car to get to their home which is well within walking distance from the school itself – walk for God’s sake, walk!!!

So Gruff is 10 years old and the truth is that I love him with every bone in my body and I am very proud to be his Dad.

A small bit about Orbital

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It is June 1994 and I am in a tenement flat in Edinburgh watching coverage of the Glastonbury Festival with my friend Aydin. Aydin and I had been to the Reading Festival some years previously and cheated by staying over in his grandparents’ house in London and driving in every day – that’s the way to do a festival. Anyway here we are in Edinburgh and this band called Orbital come on the telly – now up to this point in my life I’m very much a white boys with guitars kind of music lover and as for dance music – forget it, I hate it with a passion and don’t have any in my music collection save for some New Order, Happy Mondays and Primal Scream remixes – that kind of stuff was okay as it was on Factory and Creation.*

I sit and watch these two blokes and suddenly I get it, I understand what these men are doing and the tunes, oh the tunes are there, they are big, subtle but powerful and I love them – I bloody love this dance band and need them in my life. They play a tune which the caption on the screen tells me is called “Impact” and it is one of the greatest things I have ever heard in my life – Aydin turns to me and says “What a load of rubbish.” “No way – it’s fantastic, I love it.” I reply and that’s how my Orbital fandom began!

1994 was a pivotal year in my life and Orbital kind of became the soundtrack to the big events in my life – seeing my wife to be for the first time across the college canteen, getting married, having children, moving away from my childhood home, Orbital were always there and when they split up in 2004 my first born son Gruff and I sat in the car listening to them and reader, I cried as I saw him tapping his feet and nodding his head along to One Perfect Sunrise from their – at the time – final album – ten years had passed from that moment in Edinburgh and my life had changed in every possible way.

And then they reformed. As a rule I hate bands reforming but in 2009 off I went to the Brixton Academy and as part of one of the happiest audiences I’ve ever been in watched a reformed Orbital play a fantastic gig and they are as good as they ever were which breaks all my preconceptions about bands reforming. The subsequent album Wonky took nearly three years to arrive but it was worth it and it makes me smile when I listen to it – I still love them.

First up – Impact from that 1994 Glastonbury performance:

Next, the one that made me cry – One Perfect Sunrise:

*I did admit to being a music snob in an earlier post.