Brexit: the most profound decision of our age

I voted to stay in the EU and many of my friends did too. Some of you didn’t and that’s fine; it was your choice to vote whichever way you wanted. Politics is something I rarely discuss, let alone write about but I can’t simply ignore an event which will have a huge impact on all of us, so I’m trying to put my thoughts into words. Feel free to comment but please keep it civilized; I don’t want any of the vilification that has happened on social media to take place here.

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Going to bed last Thursday, I was complacent about the result of the Brexit vote. I knew it was going to be close but I still thought the Remain side would win. Stumbling downstairs to make a cup of tea the next morning, this quickly turned to shock when I looked at the news headlines: “What on earth have we done?” I thought.

Until now, I’ve never taken much notice of politics but the result of this vote has finally shaken me out of my middle-class bubble. Yes, I exercise my right to vote but being a Labour supporter in a Tory heartland, I genuinely feel that my voice doesn’t count for much; I just go and vote on principle. Last Thursday felt completely different though: this time my opinion would actually matter and after dropping my son at school, the first thing I did was walk across the park to the polling station.

Why did I vote to stay in the EU? Because although the institution is a bit of a lumbering behemoth, I thought the positives strongly outweighed the negatives and because staying in felt like a vote for co-operation, tolerance and diversity, all values I hold dear. The only way to change the EU for the better is to stay in it, went my reasoning. And as the Leave campaign had been totally hijacked by fears over immigration and nationalist slogans like “wanting our country back”, any sound economic, social or political reasons for leaving hadn’t reached me by the time I cast my vote and they probably wouldn’t have swayed me, such is my dislike of Nigel Farrage and Boris Johnson.

And what do I think nearly a week on? For the first time ever, I’m fearful for the future. The country may go into recession again, racist attacks have increased sharply, prices will probably rise, jobs will go and the surprise result has created political turmoil, the likes of which I have never seen before.

I didn’t vote for David Cameron but I didn’t expect him to resign immediately. Maybe I’m a bit naive, but to me this effectively says: “I’m not man enough to sort out the crisis I’ve plunged us into, someone else please do it.” And Labour? If ever there was a time to stand united and show what they can do in a time of turmoil it’s now. But what do they do instead? Turn on their leader, who was elected by an overwhelming majority of the party membership. Yes, I understand the argument that we’re heading for a General Election and the party don’t think Jeremy Corbyn will win, which is why Labour MPs are trying to force him out, but to me it feels like the country is leaderless just at the time when we need a firm and decisive hand.

And what kind of message does our decision to leave the EU send to the rest of the world? It must feel like a kick in the teeth. Sorry we’re just going to sweep 40 years of co-operation under the carpet because a small minority – 36.4% – have decided that it’s in the country’s interest. “Hang on a minute,” I hear you say, “that’s the wrong number, it was 52%!” No, the turn-out was 70% not 100%: do the maths. My feeling and it’s only a feeling, don’t shoot me down, is that most of the country didn’t want this result and yet to the outside world my opinion and my values don’t matter. “Democracy” has happened and we have to live with it. I think one of the reasons the Remain camp are so upset is because Brexit has been a PR disaster – British people now come across to the rest of the world as racist and inward-looking, and that includes those of you in the Leave camp who I know aren’t.

Thinking about what to write today, I came to two conclusions. The first of them is that many people didn’t understand the repercussions of what they were voting for. There aren’t many people I know who could give you a coherent and convincing argument as to why we should’ve stayed in or left, and I have friends who cover the whole spectrum of society, young and old, rich and poor.

Not many people seem to know how much we benefit from EU funding for example. I found it ironic that the areas where the Leave vote was the strongest, were the ones who have most benefited from regeneration funding given to them by the EU. Did you see that report in the paper about people in Cornwall worrying about losing their EU funding, when their county voted to leave? I think you’ll find the phrase is: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

In all honesty, I believe that we ordinary people shouldn’t have been allowed to vote on such a complex issue in such a simplistic way; just a simple yes or no majority, without a second or even third vote was foolhardy. Yes, really. “Oh but then you’re denying people their democratic rights,” I can hear you say. Maybe but if we’re going to have such a vote, surely it’s better that we really understand the issues before deciding what to do. I think the campaign on both sides failed to educate people properly, it just tried to scare them into doing what they wanted. And I suspect this vote had little to do with the EU really but was a protest against the failures of successive governments to tackle the serious problems our country has had for decades (like lack of housing and under-funding the NHS) and the gulf between rich and poor, which is widening again.

The second conclusion, which is a far deeper and more serious issue, is that what has happened is down to the repeated failure of politicians to listen to their electorate. Now lets keep things in perspective, EU immigrants make up a mere 5% of our population but because the amount of resources we have in terms of schools, doctors and housing etc hasn’t kept pace with this influx of people, these facilities are being stretched and people quite rightly are complaining.

I have myself, when I’ve rung the doctor 10 times on redial only to be told I can have an appointment in a month. Milton Keynes has one of the fastest growing populations in the country and the health service around here is on its knees because it cannot cope and many local schools are oversubscribed too. We need more resources for our growing population, but all the time funding for things I consider necessities continue to be cut. The complaints of ordinary people have become louder and louder over the last decade but they haven’t been listened to and of course people blame immigrants; they are an easy target. It feels like we’re just told by most politicians, “this is a time of austerity and we all have to tighten our belts”, and yet again the problem is swept under the carpet.

Like many of my friends, I have watched with alarm and not a little fear as Ukip has risen to prominence: they target people’s fears and fill them with false hope. And we aren’t the only country in Europe where the Far Right is gaining support – look at Poland, to take one example. Nationalist pride like that is what caused all of the wars of the last century: it is one of the reasons the EU was set up, to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of history and why I feel it is a tragedy that we have decided to leave.

 

 

 

Farewell Grandpa Joe

Fourteen years ago today, my father-in-law Joe suffered a painful and sudden death and left a hole in our lives that has never quite been filled. Kind and generous, with a wicked Liverpool sense of fun, he is still much missed. Dying before he was even old enough to get his OAP bus pass, he wasn’t there at the birth of his two grandsons. By the time I got pregnant with my eldest, we’d scattered his ashes three months previously. Every time they have a birthday, I feel a twinge of sadness that he isn’t there to celebrate with us.

The youngest of five children from a poor Irish Catholic family, Joe grew up in Cherry Tree Lane in Liverpool and followed his elder brothers into the Fire Brigade. A Union man and a Labour Party member all his adult life, Joe rose to become Assistant Deputy Chief of Merseyside Fire Brigade and was well liked among his colleagues. His natural intelligence and quick thinking more than made up for the poor education he’d received and there were many who appreciated his loyalty, straight talking and refusal to engage in underhand tactics to advance his career.

He welcomed me wholeheartedly into the Killoran family from the very first time I came over to his house for Sunday lunch nearly 25 years ago and we quickly became close. I spent most weekends at Joe and Betty’s house before I got married and we’d sit and talk for hours about all sorts of things. He rapidly became the person I asked first whenever I needed any advice.

In the beginning, I was bewildered by the Liverpool humour of my prospective parents-in-law and would just sit quietly listening to them banter with John, not knowing how to respond and often not appreciating being the target of their good-natured jokes. But after a while I began to enjoy their unique black humour and learned how to dish it out too. I spent many an evening laughing with them over a glass of wine; now those days are sadly long gone.

Joe was always generous with his time and really went out of his way to help people, a quality he demonstrated time and time again in the 11 years I knew him. After I’d finally finished my Masters course at Liverpool University in 1993, I started looking around for jobs and happened to apply for one in Nantwich. At the time I had an ancient red VW Beetle and decided to take myself to the interview along the M6, the first time I’d ever taken that route since passing my driving test. Dressed in a light green suit and thoroughly enjoying my independence, I set off one sunny spring morning, excited at the new direction my life might take.

The motorway was crowded with lorries as is often the case. Feeling impatient as two of them tried ineptly to overtake one another, slowing down all the traffic behind, I boldly moved out into the outside line, determined to get past the moving roadblock. Just as I was getting up speed, thick, black smoke began pouring out of the engine and the car sounded very sick.

Reacting quickly, I moved over into the inside lane and tried not to panic when I realised that the car wasn’t going to go much further. Looking at the road signs I saw that Sandbach Services at junction 17 was coming up.

“Good, if I can get there, I can phone for help” I thought relieved. The car came to a halt on the hard shoulder about 100 yards from the slip road and refused to move any more. I got out and walked the rest of the way.

I called Joe from a payphone at Sandbach and explained what had happened; he’d taken early retirement at 55 and I was counting on him being at home. “I’ll come and get you and take you to your interview,” he said without a moment’s hesitation “then we’ll work out what to do about the car.” He broke the speed limit all the way, even through the roadworks, as he was worried about me being stranded and alone.

I walked back to the Beetle thankful that it was a warm day and sat up high on the bank out of the way of the traffic, waiting for my rescuer. Lorry drivers beeped me and some made lewd gestures; I ignored them and hoped Joe was making good time, for it was a good hour’s drive from his home to Sandbach. When I told him later about the horn blowing he was incensed: “I bet some of them have daughters your age at home” he fumed.

Eventually he arrived and we managed to drive the Beetle very slowly up to the services. We left it in the car park, jumped into Joe’s Passat and set off for Nantwich. In the end, I didn’t get the job but it was the most relaxed interview I’ve ever done. After breaking down on my own on a busy M6, I felt that nothing else could possibly go wrong and talking to a few people seemed easy in comparison.

Joe was the person who helped me organise our wedding too. He drove me around to look at different venues and helped me choose flowers, stationery and dinner menus. Together we discussed the guest list and what John and I might like as presents. All of this took up a great deal of his time but he never once complained or asked if anyone else could step in.

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In April 2002, we received a phone call from Betty to say that Joe was ill and had been admitted to hospital. John immediately took the week off work and went to Whiston Hospital in Liverpool to see him. I’d started my first course of IVF treatment a couple of weeks previously, which meant frequent visits to London, so I didn’t go with him. Neither of us realised the seriousness of the situation, believing John would be back home in a couple of days.

A few days later John phoned me: “My Dad only has a short time to live, you better get up here quick” he said. Joe had been diagnosed with advanced pulmonary fibrosis, probably as a consequence of asbestos exposure when he was a fireman, and there was nothing they could do for him.

I was stunned by the news. You don’t expect to lose one of your parents-in-law in your mid-thirties just when your life is becoming successful and you have hopes of starting your own family. What on earth would I say to John? How would I comfort him and his mum? I had no idea.

I spent a painful two days with Joe in the hospital watching his life ebb away and making small talk with various relatives; all of us feeling helpless but wanting to be there. He was unable to breath on his own by that stage and had a machine to do it for him. It was hard to see a once strong, vibrant man reduced to such a state.

Eventually one of the doctors decided that Joe’s suffering had to end and came to speak to John and Betty about turning the machine off. They agreed with the doctor and followed him to Joe’s bed, both in tears. I sat in the waiting room listening to their distress, sad that I couldn’t be there at the end but understanding their need for privacy.

A short while later, needing to say goodbye to Joe, I told his relatives that I was going to his bedside. John’s Aunty Pat, said gently, “It’s not very nice you know Becky”.

“I’ll be OK”, I said and got up and walked down the ward nervously.

The ghostly white man that lay in the bed, his faced bruised where the mask had been, looked so unlike Joe that I was shocked. I think it’s important to say goodbye to people though, and although that sight cost me a lot of sleepless nights, I’m glad I had my private moment with him.

The funeral a few weeks later was very emotional. The crematorium was packed with family and friends and many of Joe’s work colleagues stood at the back when the seats ran out. The Fire Brigade become your family and Joe had earned the respect of everyone he worked with over his 40 year career and they all wanted to wish him farewell. John gave a warm tribute to his dad, making us laugh despite our sorrow and we sang a couple of hymns and listened to other people remembering him.

At the end of the service John, Betty and I filed out first, as is the custom, accepting the condolences of the guests as we walked down the aisle. As the doors opened an unexpected sight greeted us: parked outside was a fire engine and a full honour guard. This was the ultimate tribute to a man who’d given his life (and his health) to the service. Emotions that had carefully been kept in check ran over.

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It’s very easy to eulogize the dead; we are reluctant to say bad things about them because it seems disrespectful. Joe was a husband, a father, a friend and a fireman. He could be quick tempered and bloody minded and wasn’t always the easiest person to live with but he was also funny, very generous and straight as an arrow.

Looking back, I can see that in our early relationship he was also my mentor. I was only 22 when I met him; very young for my age and unsure what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t very street wise still, had far less self confidence than I do now and struggled with making decisions. As he was very easy to talk to and always had time to listen, we naturally fell into the role of teacher/student and we both enjoyed it and benefited from it. If he was alive now, I know that we’d still be close because we had a great deal of respect for one another, despite our very different backgrounds and experience.

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Not long ago we were sitting at the table having dinner and discussing what the boys were learning in maths class.

Daniel looked at Joe and asked “What’s 500 x 3?”

Without a second’s hesitation Joe quipped, “the limit to your intelligence.”

We all erupted into laughter and I smiled to myself and thought “Grandpa Joe, you live on”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joe’s Story

Many of you know that my children were born using IVF, I make no secret of it, but I’ve never put the whole story on paper before. As Joe turns 13 today, I thought it was about time…

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DCF 1.0

Me about to give birth!

As with many couples trying for a baby and failing to conceive, it took us a long time to realise that something was wrong. You may have a niggling doubt in the back of your mind but the tendency is to ignore it; infertility is something that happens to other people, not you.

After a year or two, I did eventually go to the doctor who referred me to the fertility clinic at the local hospital. We had to wait several months for an appointment and when we eventually got seen they decided to try stimulating my ovaries with Clomid over several months – nothing happened. A further test revealed that although my periods were as regular as clockwork, I wasn’t actually releasing an egg when I should have been. The only hope for me to get pregnant was to have IVF.

“We can put you on the waiting list for the John Radcliff Hospital in Oxford if you like but you won’t get seen for eighteen months,” the consultant told us. “Go home and think about it.”

Well we went home and I collapsed on the sofa and howled. The strain of wanting a baby but not being able to conceive for such a long time had finally overwhelmed me. You see, the worries and the doubts are always there in the background and no amount of work or socialising could dispel them fully. Sex could never be enjoyed simply for what it was and every time I had a period, it was another blow to our hopes. It didn’t help that many of my friends had successfully started a family during this time either; I was thrilled for them, of course, but inside I was sad. Why couldn’t I have a baby too?

John looked at me and came to a decision: “We’ll go private” he said. “We can afford it.” Luckily for us he was right, this was during the boom years for IT and his job prospects and earning power had improved enormously since returning from Japan in ‘97. He went upstairs, switched on the computer and started doing some research. Three weeks later we had an appointment at the ARGC in London; their results were far better than any other clinic, so the decision was easy.

Situated in a huge five-storey house off Harley Street, the clinic waiting room was furnished with oversized wooden furniture and artfully arranged flowers. It was filled with silent couples waiting anxiously. Looking into the eyes of the women was like opening a window into my own private thoughts; hope was mixed equally with fear. Fear that this last chance may not work.

Finally we got to meet the consultant, Mr Taranissi; a calm, confident Egyptian in his 40s, who was going bald. During a long conversation, we told him our story and of our hope that he could help us. He told us that he was certain he could give us the best chance of getting pregnant, especially as youth was on my side (by this time I was 32) and explained exactly how the procedure would be carried out. I think that is when I began to have hope; finally here was someone who could really help us.

Eager to begin, I returned to the clinic at a particular point in my next monthly cycle to collect some drugs. The first stage in the IVF process is to actually suppress your monthly cycle and this was done by injecting a hormone into myself once a day for a fortnight. This was followed by injecting a fertility hormone, this time for about 12 days, as it’s supposed to increase the number of eggs you produce.

All the time I was having the drug treatment, I had to go up to London every other day for a blood test, to monitor my progress. These were far worse than injecting myself. Unfortunately I have deep veins and unless I had an experienced nurse taking blood out of my arm, I ended up with a horrible bruise. By the end of three weeks, my veins were so worn out, the nurse couldn’t get another needle in and the last blood sample had to be taken out of my foot, not a process I want to go through again in a hurry.

Finally, the consultant decided my eggs were almost ready for collection and gave me another hormone to inject 30 hours before the procedure; this one was to help my eggs mature. They were collected under sedation, mixed with John’s sperm and left to develop into embryos. A few days later we both returned to the clinic for the embryo transfer; the most important moment had arrived.

Meeting the embryologist, we learnt that despite all the drugs I’d taken, they had only collected 6 eggs. I know now that 12 would’ve been a more normal number for a woman my age but at the time I was mercifully unaware how slim my chances of conceiving were, and the team were carefully positive all through the meeting. Of the six eggs, only four had developed into embryos and only two of these were any good. These two were the ones that would be put back into my womb in the hope that one of them would then develop into a healthy baby. The embryologist then got the petri dish out of storage and showed us the embryos through a powerful microscope. It’s odd looking back now, to know that one of those four-celled organisms is today a strapping lad who’s the same height as me.

The transfer was short but uncomfortable. You need a very full bladder, so that ultrasound can be used properly and I think I drank just a little too much. Never have I been so desperate for a wee!

After a fortnight, I went back for a blood test to confirm whether I was pregnant or not and then I had to wait for the results. Somehow I managed to put what was happening to the back of my mind and not dwell on the possibility that the procedure had failed.

The phone rang at about 9.30 am one morning and the lady from the clinic got straight to the point, “Congratulations Mrs Killoran, you’re pregnant. I’ll make you an appointment for a scan in a month so we can check you’re well and work out your due date”. I was ecstatic and John was emotional. It had been five years since we’d first started thinking about having a baby and now it was actually going to happen.

At our last visit to the clinic before my care was transferred to my GP we learnt that only one of the embryos had developed and that the baby was due on the 11th May. When Mr Taranissi told us that, John’s eyes filled with tears: his father had died on that day three months before and now he was faced with the possibility of a double anniversary, one that would be both bitter and sweet.

Death: I’ve left that out of the narrative so far. Very briefly, what happened was that I began my fertility treatment in the April only for John’s father, Joe, to die suddenly and painfully of pulmonary fibrosis the following month. Needing to support John and his mother with this wholly unexpected death, I rang the clinic to explain that I would need to delay my treatment for a few months. In fact we only waited three months to start again; having something positive to focus on helped us with our grief.

After Mr Taranissi told us when the baby was due, I knew with total clarity that I would give birth to a boy and we would call him Joe.

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My pregnancy passed by easily. As soon as we had a positive result I told everyone, I didn’t wait for the first three months to pass as many people do. Ever since we’d started the IVF treatment I knew that I would end up with a healthy baby, honestly, there was never any doubt in my mind. And that is probably why it worked, feeling stressed or doubtful would’ve hindered my chances.

On the 2nd May just as John returned from work, my waters broke. I’d been feeling unwell all day and spent most of it lying in bed, so I wasn’t surprised. My contractions however didn’t progress and I sent John to bed, despite his protests, knowing that I’d need him to be awake the next day. The next morning he found me sitting in the bath to ease the pain but I was still no further along.

A little worried I rang the midwife. “You need to get your labour started properly,” she said and instructed me to go for a walk. John had to come with me as we walked slowly up and down the street, stopping every time a contraction came.

By mid-afternoon, nearly 24 hours after my waters had broken, we decided to go to the hospital; I could still feel the baby moving but I wanted to be somewhere where I could get some help if need be. The doctor chastised me for not coming in sooner and I explained about my phone call to the midwife and how I’d followed her advice, emphasizing how no-one had rung to check on me since.

“You won’t be able to give birth here,” the doctor explained “we’re going to have to induce you and I’d rather you were at Wexham Park.” This is the big hospital some 20 miles away, north of Slough. My dream of having my baby in a small midwife-led unit abruptly evaporated.

Late in the night, as they were giving me the drug to induce my labour, one of the nurses said, “I’d have an epidural if I was you, I’ve been induced and it’s not nice because you don’t get a gap in between contractions.”

“I’d rather try something else first” I said, blithely ignorant of what was to come.

Sometime later, utterly spaced out on gas and air and with no ability to speak from the pain, I was given an epidural. Slowly the world came into focus again. My labour was progressing very slowly.

The following morning, 4th May, the midwife said to me, “You’re fully dilated now. You can begin to push your baby out.” John and I looked at one another with excitement, the fact that we were going to be parents still didn’t seem real.

Hours passed, I pushed when they told me to (an epidural masks the urge) but very little was happening and I was utterly exhausted. Suddenly, a senior doctor came into the room and said to me: “We’re taking you down to the operating theatre. We’ll have one more go at getting the baby out naturally and if that doesn’t work, you’ll need to have an emergency caesarean, the baby’s heart beat is dropping sharply.” I just nodded wearily; all I wanted was for this baby to be out one way or another. What I didn’t know was that I was bleeding and that my life and the baby’s life were in danger*…

The operating theatre was filled with people and there was a sense of urgency to everything they did. Although they hadn’t told me that my placenta had torn away I knew that something was wrong and fear began to creep into my mind. An Indian surgeon, so short she had to stand on steps to operate on me, performed the operation calmly and efficiently. Then I lay there waiting for the baby to cry, dimly aware that there were lots of people huddled round him. John held my hand and the room was silent except for the odd instruction; all we could do was wait nervously. After a very long five minutes, perhaps more, a little weak cry filled the room. After 45 hours of labour, the baby had arrived.

DCF 1.0

Joe at 4 days old

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The drama was over for Joe but not for me. I’d lost a great deal of blood and my sats (blood saturation levels) were dropping, so I ended up having a transfusion. It’s not how you expect your first experience of motherhood to be; stuck in a little room on your own with your arm attached to a needle. The desolation I felt must have shown in my face because John offered to stay. Knowing he’d been up for two days and needed sleep as much as I did, I refused and sent him home.

Three days later I was up and about, confidently breast feeding Joe and chatting to the other new mothers on the ward. Luckily for us, we both recovered from our ordeal quickly and were none the worse for it.

For a long time after, I could remember very few details of Joe’s birth, my body had just blocked out the trauma. I just didn’t want to think about what might have been. For John though, the only way he could recover from the ordeal of nearly losing us both was to talk about it, so painful as it’s been for me, I’ve had to sit and listen to him when he’s needed to discuss it.

Something compelled me to sit and write this story today; I guess enough time has passed for me to be able to tell it without getting too upset and perhaps it’s also time that I faced what I went through rather than shutting it out. Despite everything, I do feel like one of the lucky ones though; I’ve got the two children I so wanted, when many others are sadly deprived of the chance of being parents. I’m more grateful than you’ll ever know for the fact that I live in the 21st century when technological miracles are possible

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*During my second pregnancy, I saw Joe’s Apgar score at birth in my notes; it was only 3. He had a true knot in his umbilical cord (which is extremely rare) and he had managed to wrap it round his neck three times. As I tried to push him out I was effectively strangling him which is why he was nearly stillborn and it contributed to my placenta tearing away.

 

 

There was more to Ravel than Bolero

From 1994 to 2003 I played the cello for Windsor and Maidenhead Symphony Orchestra (WMSO). As with Rock Chorus, I’d initially gone along to meet people, because I didn’t know anyone when we moved down to Slough from Liverpool.

In 1998, my sister was living in London and wanted to do some orchestral playing, so I suggested she join me and play her violin in the WMSO. She did just that, coming down on the train every week for our rehearsals, before moving to live in France a couple of years later.

Most orchestras retire to the pub after rehearsing and we were no exception, patronising an ancient Tudor place, all low beams and rough wooden tables, tucked away down a narrow country lane. It was the antithesis of a chain pub and sold lovely beer.

One evening, my sister decided to come for a drink before catching the train home and I introduced her to a couple of people I vaguely knew who were our age, Andrew and Marcus. After some initial small talk, the conversation, as you might expect, turned to music and we all said how much we liked chamber music. Realising that there were two vioinists, a cellist and viola player seated round the table, the idea to form a quartet was born. We took it in turns to host our rehearsals once a week and cook dinner for the others, naturally providing some all important liquid refreshment too!

As with choir, those meetings became the highlight of my week, not least because at that time my husband’s job meant he constantly travelled around Europe and back and forth to New York, so I was on my own a lot with only the TV for company. Also, we were all in our late 20s and had that sparkle and zest for life that often only comes with youth and liked one another from the very first.

Andrew was a budding entrepreneur, running his own pharmaceutical consultancy, Marcus worked in IT, my sister flitted from job to job before deciding to become a TEFL teacher like me and undergo some training and I was working for a local language company teaching people business English and occasionally beginner-level Japanese.

Inevitably, with a mix of two men and two women, there was a great deal of harmless flirting and banter whenever we met but this made what could’ve been a rather serious session of music making, into one that was light-hearted and much more fun. It was always pleasure before rehearsing: eating, drinking and conversation first, then playing music.

In our quartet, there was no rivalry between the violin players, which is so common and often detrimental to group dynamics. They were equally as good technically and would swap between violin 1 and violin 2 as they felt like it. My sister and I being far more experienced at chamber music than the others, would lead the rehearsals at first, advising Andrew and Marcus of the techniques of playing in a small group; the most important being to watch and listen to one another. As time passed, we gelled into a proper group who could play reasonably well and were all firm friends.

So where does Ravel’s string quartet come into this? As so often with me, it was hearing music on the radio that triggered all these memories. A couple of weeks ago it was the Easter break and my whole family had congregated down in Pembroke Dock for a week’s holiday.

One morning, as I was washing up after breakfast the sound of a string quartet playing on the radio gradually penetrated my usual early morning thoughts of: “Which beach are we going to today?” and “Is there any more coffee?” I stood still listening, thinking: “What’s that music, it’s so familiar?”

I walked into the dining room where my sister was reading the newspaper.”Is that Ravel’s quartet they’re playing?” I asked her.

She listened for a moment, “I’m not sure” she said, “it’s been such a long time.”

The more I listened though, the more I was certain that it was Ravel because it’s the one quartet that we worked exceptionally hard at. I didn’t need to wait for the presenter’s announcement at the end of the piece to know.

Like many people, I had no idea that Ravel had written a string quartet. Most people only know his Bolero. Think of Sarajevo in 1984 and Torvill and Dean’s ice skating gold at the Winter Olympics. Yes, that piece, with the most boring cello part in the whole of existence!

Before our very first quartet rehearsal, I’d volunteered to go to Reading Library and get some music out, as none of us had any. Among the usual copies of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart was Ravel. Intrigued, I flicked through the different parts and noted that though technically a challenge in places it wasn’t impossible and all four parts had an equal share of the tune. I was sold and took the music out on loan and bought a recording of it too.

We weren’t at all sure of this piece after playing through the first movement during our rehearsal though; it was so different to the composers we were used to. But the lyrical nature of the music, with its theme that is repeated later in the the quartet had got under our skin and we all decided that it was worth learning properly. Over time, the very fact that it was so different to anything else in our repertoire added to its appeal and it became one of our favourites.

Our quartet playing was very largely for our own pleasure but we did play in public a few times. One time my dad got us a gig at a garden party. My parents were away for the weekend, so we drove over to their house in Kent and all stayed over, so we could socialise with one another properly. As we were providing background music, it was largely up to us what we played. We chose movements from various quartets and some arrangements of well-known classical pieces too, that Dad had lent me.

Towards the end of the gig, our chair legs sinking into the lawn and clothes pegs battling to hold the music on the stands due to the wind, we looked at one another and the unspoken message was, “enough of pleasing the guests who’re all drunk and not listening, lets play Ravel” and launched into the first movement. We did convert somebody else to our love of this quartet that afternoon though. As we finished there was some applause and a fellow musician came over to ask what we were playing. I showed him the music and he thanked me and told me we played it well.

My one great wish is to get back to quartet playing. It was never my intention to stop playing the cello but a series of injuries and becoming a mother put an end to it. I have started playing again but not regularly yet, it’s mainly to help my son with his violin practice. Once my fingers have re-learnt where the notes are and my ability to read ahead has improved along with my counting, I’ll be confident enough to organise a group to play with. And one day, you can be sure I’ll play Ravel again.

 

Manners: They are how people judge you (and your children)

Scrolling through Facebook recently, a blog post caught my attention because it was about parenting and naturally it’s a topic I’m interested in. As I read this post, I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by the arrogance of it’s writer. In summary, it was a mother complaining about a restaurant who advertised itself as “kid-friendly” and then had “the cheek” to complain when her kids were behaving “like kids”. If only.

Now I don’t mind a bit of squabbling, chatting or joking, as long as it doesn’t descend into violence, I certainly don’t subscribe to the “children should be seen and not heard” school of thought, but hers were riding their scooter up and down the restaurant, fighting and running around and their mother didn’t try and stop them. In other words they were misbehaving and annoying the waiting staff and other customers.

But the fact that her children were being obnoxious didn’t seem to have occurred to this blogger. Not. One. Iota. She showed no remorse for her offspring’s behaviour at all. No, she was annoyed that the staff were complaining about her and her children as she was leaving. Good for them I thought.

I see more and more parents like this these days. Whose standard excuse for their, as I see it lazy parenting, is “kids will be kids”, “they’re only letting off steam”. If you try and intervene as their little darling barges past and spills hot coffee over you, they upbraid you for daring to protest at their kid’s behaviour, even if you’re being polite and reasonable.

Eventually some of these parents will get annoyed by their kids misbehaving and then they will erupt in anger, going completely over the top, when if they’d nipped their kid’s behaviour in the bud early, this would’ve been completely unnecessary. The rest of them, this blogger included, believe that their kids are entitled to behave this way for the simple reason that they are kids and f**k what anyone else thinks.

Well I’ve got news for you. What you don’t seem to  realise is that the rest of the world, me included, is judging you. We can’t help it because it’s part of human nature. Think about your sub-conscious behaviour when you first meet someone and you will realise the truth of what I am saying. Before they have even opened their mouths, you will have judged a stranger’s social group, how clever you think they are and if they are “your kind of person”, solely on how they look: their dress, hairstyle, make-up (if a woman) and whether they have a tattoo or piercings etc, etc. Once they speak, you will usually have your opinion confirmed. Their accent and the type of vocabulary they use will reinforce what you think about them and this first impression is the one that counts and tends to stay with you, even if you find out you’re wrong further down the line.

Well, people also judge your parenting in the first few minutes of encountering you too. They have sussed out in no time whether it’s you who are in charge or your children who rule the roost. And people usually pick up on what they see are the negative points, like when you can’t keep the kids under control, compliments are few are far between and always a delight to receive.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that this parenting lark is easy; no, it’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There is no how-to book, you learn by doing it and especially from your mistakes. I have two boys, whose standard volume is 11/10 and who love to wrestle and wind one another up; they are far from angels. But, I have always, from the time my boys were babies, had consideration for the effect their behaviour has on other people and I have instinctively felt that people were judging me on my parenting too.

If this blogger had tried to control her kids then my attitude would’ve been different, certainly more sympathetic, because there have been many times when mine have been acting up and I’ve heard the tuts and felt the disapproving stares as I’ve wrestled to control them. It was the fact that she excused their behaviour with “they’re only kids” that annoyed me. With an attitude like that what chance do the rest of us stand against those who think children should be banished from public places altogether?

We have been going out to eat as family since the boys were babies and right from the start we have considered the other diners. Many is the meal we’ve had when one of us ate and the other one walked the baby up and down because it was grizzling; even going outside to calm it down if it’d really kicked off, and then swapping over, so the other parent and the other diners could eat in peace.

When they were toddlers, we would bring a bag of stuff to do to keep them occupied while we were waiting for our food. It usually worked well. Any squabbling was quickly and firmly dealt with and most importantly we would tell them why. Something along the lines of, “there are other people in this restaurant who don’t want to hear you screaming/smacking your brother/ whacking your spoon on the table repeatedly. Why don’t you think about them?” And usually it was enough to get them to be quiet. If you take the trouble to explain your actions to children, they understand – even the little ones.

We have even carried out our threat to leave if they carried on misbehaving. It may sound a bit drastic but if you’re going to make a threat like that, you better be sure you’re going to carry it out, or you will never have any authority over your children ever again. Even a two-year-old can play a parent expertly if they know you will go back on your word continuously.

Parenting is hard, really hard and there have been lots of times I haven’t got it right but one thing I try never to do is give in. Once you let them keep winning, you have made a rod for your own back and it will become harder and harder to regain control. I have witnessed this first hand.

It was the total lack of courtesy that I found so irritating about this blogger, for what she was in effect saying was, “I don’t care that I disrupted your dinner and I’m not even going to attempt to teach my children any manners. My children are entitled to behave like that because they are children and their actions are normal.” Well in my opinion, her attitude was selfish and arrogant.

Sadly, what she doesn’t seem to realise either is that in a few years her children will be teenagers and their lack of manners will have turned them into rude and aggressive people, the kind of kids that there are far too many of at secondary school. The ones who believe they are entitled to behave however they like and how dare the teacher tell them off for acting the class clown, being rude or bullying other kids and so on. They are the bane of the teachers’ lives and disliked by those kids who do want to learn  but can’t because of their disruptive behaviour.

Time and time again, these parents fail to connect the dots between their poor parenting and how their children behave. “Oh, we’re going through the teenage years, all of them are like that”, they tell themselves. Er no, I know some really pleasant teenagers and I’m not talking about my own boys. They are courteous and polite and can hold a conversation with you. Yes, they have their off days, (with one who is nearly 13 we know that to our cost) but on the whole they are a reflection of their parent’s parenting.

So the next time you go out to eat and let your kids play hide and seek in the restaurant, smack their brother’s head repeatedly with a fork and ignore them when they swear continually to the waitress, know that I will come and yank that mobile phone that you can’t stop looking at out of your hand and ask you politely to control your kids.

I guess you’ll probably judge me as an interfering busy-body as I judge you for being a lazy parent but in reality what does that matter? We’ll never be friends, will we? And the next time your kids start misbehaving, if instead of ignoring them, you remember what I said and finally realise that your kids are not the little angels that you so misguidedly think they are, maybe just maybe you’ll start to parent them properly before it’s too late.

 

 

 

 

Dido & the Sad Tale of Peter’s Demise

It is a very long time since I’ve been able to listen to Dido’s “No Angel” album for one good reason: It reminds me of death. One death in particular, of a guy John worked with, that was particularly needless and shocking.

15 years ago, John came home from work and came to talk to me while I was washing the dishes in the kitchen. “What a strange day that was,” he said.

“Why?” I commented, putting the cup down I was cleaning, as he looked troubled.

“We had a phone call from the police at work to say that Peter* had been involved in a fatal traffic collision.”

“You mean he’s dead?” I said stupidly, not wanting to believe what I was hearing.

“Yes,” he replied. It turned out that Peter, driving too fast along the back roads to Egham, had overtaken a slow car on a bend and crashed his TVR straight into an unsuspecting lorry. The gearbox ended up in his chest and at 46 his life ended abruptly and violently, at far too young an age.

His sudden death hit me particularly hard because at 31, I’d never experienced the loss of someone I knew quite well and who I considered a contemporary. The strange thing was I didn’t even like him very much, as he was an awful womaniser and rude about John behind his back too. He would flirt outrageously with me whenever he saw me, whether John was in the room or not; a fact that the pair of us would frequently have a good laugh about in private. Of course I was flattered, for every woman, whether in a relationship or not, likes to know that she is attractive to the opposite sex but I never had any intention of reciprocating it.

The funeral was packed with friends and family, who like me, couldn’t believe that Peter had suddenly gone from their lives. His daughters, who were in their late teens, bravely gave a touching tribute to their father and his second wife, Katie* stumbled through the ceremony still in a state of shock. I felt desperately sorry for her but I had no idea what to say apart from the usual unhelpful platitudes.

As the congregation filed out of the ceremony, Dido’s beautiful song “All You Want” was played, chosen because it was the last thing Peter was listening to before he died; the CD still sitting in the stereo, while he lay in the morgue, cold and broken. For years afterwards I was haunted by that song and I would dissolve into tears whenever I heard it. Now finally, a decade and a half later, I can listen to it with equanimity and enjoy it how it was meant to be heard.

Katie and his daughters, wherever you are, I hope you got over Peter’s death and are living happy, fulfilled lives.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy

Mackenzie, the Cromarty Ship Master and the Conti Connection

Over 30 years ago, when I was 14 or 15, I went on a trip to Florence with my granny, Maggie, my Dad’s mum. An unconventional lady, her way of showing affection wasn’t to buy us lots of presents, or shower us with sweets and ice cream, as most people do. Instead, she gave me and my sister our cultural education, taking us to see the sights of Europe, such as the Palace of Versailles, the Duomo, the Eiffel Tower and the great art galleries, like the Louvre. She introduced us to different cuisines by taking us out to eat, encouraged us to work hard at school and practice our music, as well as taking us to the ballet in London at Christmas, or to see a play.

I visited France, Germany and Italy with her and our adventures would always begin by boarding the train to the continent in London, taking a sleeper train to our destination. Fiercely independent until the very end, it is from her that I learnt that women could do anything they put their minds to, as she had so ably done. She loved to keep a travel journal too and encouraged me to do the same. I’m so glad, as I still have some of them and now a few of hers and they make very entertaining reading, as well as transporting me straight back to my childhood.

Florence is the trip that I remember most vividly though; I’d never been to Italy before and loved everything about it, the beautiful red roofed buildings, the pretty countryside, the amazing art galleries and churches, the markets and the different culture, particularly their habit of staying up late with their children. Our little penzione was right in the centre of town, perfect for walking to all the sights. A gifted linguist, Maggie also taught me a little Italian, so I could converse with people and always a stickler for manners, how to work out a 15% tip whenever we ate out.

This trip was notable for one other reason: Maggie took me to meet our Italian relations. Some time before, when we’d been visiting Maggie’s brother Mac (Mackenzie), I’d expressed an interest in family history and he’d taken me to his study where he had sheets and sheets of family tree information, stretching back about 500 years. It was all a bit overwhelming and perhaps sensing this, he picked out one particular sheet that he thought I’d be interested in, our connection to the Conti family of Tuscany.

My seven times great-grandfather, John Mackenzie, born around 1681, was the ship master of Cromarty in Scotland and he’d been to Venice when he was younger and had a romance with a Venetian lady. One of his daughters, Jean, married Robert White who worked in the British Consul in Tripoli and they had a daughter called Janetta who married Cosimo Michelangelo the Conte di Conti (an Italian count ennobled in 1769) and she settled in Italy and raised a family. One of John’s sons, Alexander (Jean’s brother), born around 1728, is who I’m descended from through my father, with the family moving to and staying in London, around the Leytonstone area. Over the next 200 years the two branches of the family didn’t stay in touch with one another but Mackenzie family folklore always claimed that we were related to the Contis.

Contact was re-established in the 1920s through the meticulous research of my great-grandfather Stephen and his cousins into their branch of the Mackenzie family. Reading the letters between the cousins as they work out the family tree it becomes apparent that Stephen was friends with Piero Ginori Conti, his 5th cousin and a descendant of Jean Mackenzie, and they realised eventually that they were related. Sadly, it doesn’t say how they met. Serendipity perhaps?

Maggie and I stayed in Florence in the springtime and one sunny day we caught a bus out of the centre of town up into the wooded hills above the city. When the bus had taken us as far as we could go, we walked the rest of the way up the road until we reached a curved gateway in a long stone wall. It was the entrance into an old Florentine villa, with a large stable yard in front, stable blocks on either side and the house itself set back behind a further archway. Gosh these people are rich I thought to myself.

The owner of the property, Ginevra, came out to meet us, greeting Maggie like an old friend. She had two daughters, Selvaggia and Susi, who were around the same age as me and are my 8th cousins. We said hello shyly and realised that we were going to have problems communicating, as I only spoke a few words of Italian and they didn’t speak any English. With help from Maggie and Ginevra it was established that the three of us could speak French, so that was how we talked to one another that afternoon, all of us slightly embarrassed by the situation as only teenagers could be but making the best we could of it.

I don’t remember what we talked about that afternoon or how long we were there for. I don’t really remember what their house was like except I was overawed by their wealth. I don’t really remember my cousins very well either, after all it was a long time ago. What I clearly remember is this: a portrait of Jean Mackenzie, our common ancestor, hanging in pride of place at the top of the stairs. After nearly 300 years you’d think that the two branches of the family would have no knowledge of each other but not only do we know of one another’s existence, we have actually met: it was obviously meant to be.