Adam Bird


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Sunday, 5 April 2020

In Unprecedented Times


At the end of every year when the clock strikes midnight, a thousand hopes and dreams nestle in the heart as you look forward to the forthcoming twelve months. Holidays, birthdays, plans, milestones and expectations that the year ahead matches the desires that have been joyously painted in the imagination. But as Big Ben struck midnight at the end of 2019, who on earth would have imagined the reality of what the new year had in store, not just for me, but for every person on this earth?

This blog was always intended to be a kind of digital keepsake of things that we had done as a family as well as a creative outlet for my writing. But as the years have gone by the habit has worn off and the blog posts have dried up. Appearing less frequently as social media has grown and memories are shared easier and quicker as single snapshots of moments rather than long drawn out waffle of words. But with the world undergoing a global pandemic, this post is an opportunity to record a small personal snapshot of events for posterity.

I grew up with anecdotal tales of the second world war and have been to visit the Great War battlefields of France and Belgium, witnessing the aftermath of what I consider to be ‘history’, Our lives have been fortunate in that we’ve generally lived outside of anything of true global historical importance. Events of September 11th 2001 are probably the closest we got, but we sat and watched as voyeurs rather than active participants. Events in-between; wars, disasters, recessions and even Brexit appear insignificant when measured against the truly historical events on a global scale.

Working for a tour operator that runs escorted tour holidays to the Far East and specialises in trips to China thanks to the origins of the business owner, the Covid-19 virus started impacting on my day-to-day much earlier than most.

Strangely, looking back, it may well have been even earlier than that, albeit under a different name. When I was in China at the back-end of last year, my sister sent me a message jokingly warning me not to get the plague after reading a headline in the Times newspaper. The headline was an eerie foresight of what was yet to come.

As January ended, the development team and office in China had been locked-down and staff forced to isolate themselves through fear of spreading what was now clearly a highly contagious and dangerous disease. A promising start to the year for the business took a nose-dive as the scale of the issues unfolded and China started to put measures in place to close down and isolate. A colleague of mine from the Xi’an office had travelled half-way across China to spend time with his wife's family at Chinese New Year and was locked-down unable to leave and forced to spend fourteen weeks in self-isolation with his mother-in-law. No matter how bad things were going to get here, I knew that there was always someone worse off.

There was an alarming sense of inevitability that the virus would reach our shores and as it reached Italy it was always a case of not if, but when. Days started to take on a surreal feel as the morning trains got quieter and the daily stand-up bulletins in the office grew sombre and plans put into place for how the business was to remain operational under lock-down conditions.

We were divided into two teams; team A and team B. One team would work out of the office whilst the other team would work from home, alternating until told otherwise. As it happened, myself included, team B only worked out of the office for a day before Boris Johnson came on the television and changed our normal for the foreseeable future.

There was something about watching Boris that felt otherworldly. LIke watching an apocalyptic disaster movie from Hollywood as day after day things we knew, civil liberties we enjoyed were taken away one by one. Criticisms grew about things that were put in place, or things that weren’t put into place. Watching Italy close down caused alarm and dissenting voices, “why weren’t we doing the same things?”. But Boris and his team of clever looking scientists told us via simple graphical illustrations and layman scientific terms that we had to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. Our time would come, now was not the time. The days passed quickly and so did the information we were given.

Despite all of the advice and all of the preparation the general public, instead of lockdown went into meltdown. Supermarkets were emptied and the great toilet roll emergency unravelled. Australia’s unique supply problem went viral and it became our problem not theirs. Online booking slots for food deliveries sold out and mild panic/hysteria ensued causing another round of memes across the internet which was struggling to cope with the number of meme worthy subjects which was accelerating faster than people could keep up and read them.

I was quite looking forward to working from home. I don’t normally like working from home as I get bored and am too close to the fridge for my liking. But having Stephanie at home conjured thoughts of office romances and making the most of the kids being at school, but that fantasy was short lived as news of the dreaded school closures came once again from Downing Street and ashen faced parents across the country shared my horror, a collective slow-motioned W... T... F... as the reality and terror slowly dawned upon us.

But as the schools began to close and we worried ourselves with how we’d simultaneously home school our children and work from home full-time my office threw me a lifeline. I was offered the opportunity to take three months leave or redundancy. Which, yeah would have solved our childcare issues, but at the same time caused a hell of a panic financially. This news was delivered to us on the same day as the Chancellor's expected announcement to help businesses through this crisis. So not only was this news not great, it was not great timing as it meant a change of policy the following Monday. Instead of the previous two options on the table, we’d all be furloughed instead, adding yet another word to the lexicon of recent words that none of us will forget in a hurry; unprecedented, furlough, self-isolation, social-distancing to name but a few.

As March turned into April, I faced the reality of a minimum of four weeks leave that was expected to last eight, but might be as long as twelve. Whilst the financial institutions put into place allowances for the unprecedented nature of the economy, there still lie so many unanswered questions as to how the furlough scheme would work in reality. But rather than worry too much about it, I took the positives out of a bad situation. Decided that this would instead be a unique opportunity to spend time with the children, homeschool them and spend quality time with them that otherwise we’d never have been afforded. I signed-up and volunteered for the GoodSAM scheme and wrote to the local MP volunteering for the local government initiatives, wanting to try and give something back to the government who had done everything to support workers like me who had been furloughed for the duration.

We had two days left of term and after the first day I was exhausted, feeling like I’d taught Hayden and Phoebe everything I had ever learnt myself and wondering just what the hell we’d do after the Easter break. The office came to the rescue once again, I received a call only half-way through the second day of furlough, which was unexpected to say the least. I was told to come back to work and my furlough period had been temporarily terminated.

All the financial worries had been eased for a month, as there is every possibility that they could furlough me as quickly as they pulled me out. But all the planning for the children has been thrown into disarray as we’ve now got to go back to the original question of how we both work full-time whilst simultaneously home-schooling three children. I had accepted the fact that I would be out of work and relished it, but now it is back to the original plan of grinning and bearing it, doing what we can without expecting miracles. All thoughts of volunteering will need to be shelved until such time as I can make myself available again.

I can’t complain though, not really. Okay so the situation hasn’t exactly been handled in the best possible way, but I’ve got to remain fortunate in that I am able to work when there are hundreds of thousands of people with uncertain futures. A record of events for the purpose of historical context is allowed to contain truths and cannot be polished over - irrespective whether people like it or not. But issues of work weren't the sole purpose of writing this, the purpose of this post was to celebrate family and record how we’ve coped in times of unprecedented historical upheaval.

It is important to count our blessings at times like these, especially when the health of ourselves and loved ones is under such jeopardy. The stories we’ve heard, first-hand or via the media of loss and the pain of people unable to grief or communicate with those that have been hospitalised. It puts everything into context. We have counted our blessings and pray that we continue to do so.

The children, we’ve got to give them so much credit. It is easy to focus on the minutiae of our day-to-day. Moaning because the house is in a mess, or the children have got toys out and not put them away. But the children have had their routines taken from beneath them. The dancing clubs, the swimming lessons, rugby and football, friends and school friends. You wouldn’t really know it though with how the children have been. Whilst us parents have been reaching for the beer or the wine and making time somehow go quicker, the children have been keeping themselves amused for the most part and dealing with it all much better than us!

It is still incredibly early days, three weeks in lock-down conditions more or less with the prospect of at least another four at the very least. It may well get worse before it can get better with people still not quite understanding the concept of social-isolation who knows what the future holds. A future that is preserved for us by a breed of hero that has always been there, but just never appreciated in the same way as they’ve been these past few weeks - our amazing NHS.

We were in tears during the first week of isolation, when standing on our doorstep, the neighbours out on theirs and clapping in support of the greatest health service in the world. Steph and the kids could hear the fog-horns from the ships on the River Thames and the outpouring of thanks was visible as all up our road as people stood clapping and making a racket in support.Which ultimately, is the real thing we need to remember when all of this is over. Whilst at times we’ve never been so alone, we’ve also never been so united. By doing as we are told by those who are running our country, we are collectively coming together for the greater good. To defeat an invisible enemy and to support those who are on the front-line fighting on our behalf.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Remembering George Garth Bird

George Garth Bird

I knew that my Grandfather was special from a very young age. Everyone at school had a Grandad, whereas I had a Gramps.

He was the man with the cheeky laugh and smile who used to give us satsumas whenever we visited. I can't peel an orange, or smell the peel without being transported back to Nan and Gramps's house and their dimly lit front room.

After the free fruit it was rock cakes. Depending on how high the oven was turned up depended how much your teeth hurt as you bit into one of his sultana filled surprises.

Gramps was always generously giving out something or another. Food, bottles of pop or one of his endless supplies of knick-knacks he'd obtained from Readers Digest. In fact Gramps had everything stashed away somewhere. "What do you want one of them for?" He'd say, "I've got one of them". Before disappearing and coming back with whatever it was you'd been talking about. Invariably the item would be brand new, 40 years old, but brand new and still in the box. I'd leave the house with a sense of guilty shame trying to leave and 'forgetting' one of these hesitantly received gifts.

It wouldn't be right talking about Gramps and not mentioning the number one passion in his life - Stamps.

Gramps and stamps go hand in hand, there is not one without the other. A day time visit you could guarantee that he'd be sat at his table with his glasses or magnifying glass in hand or in moments of excitement, both. Studying one of his recently acquired specimens and consulting his Stanley Gibbons journal.

His love affair with stamp collecting began from a young age and was a truly life-long obsession. He'd show me a stamp he was filing and supply me details of its origins and consult his Stanley Gibbons bible on its approximate value. I'd marvel at the price of this small, sticky piece of paper and sit gobsmacked at watching him place it in the thick, heavy file on a page that had another twenty or so of the same stamp. My head would hurt trying to do the maths whilst scanning the room filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling with endless books and files of stamps.

Before each holiday he'd remind us 'dont forget the stamps'. Which meant running around foreign destinations looking for a post office. It had its benefits though. I can ask for the post office in about six different languages now.

Although whatever we did bring back, he probably had it in duplicate, no doubt sourced from his own travels in the navy. "Where are you going?" He'd ask. And almost without exception he'd been there, seen it and drank the bar dry many years ago.

It was a sense of pride listening to his stories, of bars, drinking and high jinx's in a time I never knew or would not recognise. His stories were well rehearsed and retold over the years and ended with his face screwed up in laughter and amusement.

I was fortunate enough to travel with him and Dad as guests of cousin Ross when HMS Illustrious was docked at Greenwich. Gramps came alive as we toured the ship and he bantered with the crew and felt at home amongst the military. I half expected him to start giving orders or taking the ship for a leisurely cruise along the Thames.

He definitely was a man of character, that there is no doubt. His cheeky side was his most endearing and dare I say it, sometimes embarrassing.

Nan was in hospital in East Grinstead in a plastic surgery ward having her wedding finger removed. I was sat one side of the bed and Gramps the other. Gramps pointed at the women opposite and said 'shes having a breast reduction', and pointing at the women in the bed next to him 'shes having a breast enlargement, all that money going to waste, they should just swap em around'. Cue cries of 'Geeeeoooorge!' from my nan and cackles of laughter from everyone on the ward. I just went bright red and didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

He certainly had his perspective on the world that's for sure!

In recent years conversations would generally start with, or end with 'what people don't realise...'.

Gramps had a wide and varied repertoire of grieviences with the modern world. People, politics, business, pharmaceuticals anything and everything. In mostly all cases he would have a point, except the point didn't stack up in modern society. His arguments both for and against things contrasted with recent ideas and innovations - or they'd already been invented by Gramps himself in some cases! Which made him come across as stubborn and cantankerous.

But I'd defend Gramps all day long and for me I never saw the stubbornness in him. I saw a man who lived through nine decades, in a world that has changed considerably across that time. Of a man who was my last connection with the devastation of war and carried trains of thoughts that were embedded, scared and deeply engrained. He stayed true to himself and never changed who he was as the world changed around him.

I believe that there is a certain honour in that.

There's nothing wrong with looking back and feeling nostalgic. We do it on Facebook, recalling haircuts we had a year ago and sharing other similarly mundane things. But we only have a window as wide as our digital memories go back.

Which is why we should treasure the memories and stories Gramps told. Keep saying 'pigs arses and rice pudding' when anyone asks what's for tea just as he did. Remember a story he once told and retell it onwards, and drink a whiskey and dry every now and then, as I've still never met anyone else who does that.

Sleep well Gramps x

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

From Princes Park to the Nou Camp

Nou Camp

During my self-imposed blogging sabbatical I started writing several posts, all half-heartedly and never got around to finishing them. I had a look through to see if any were worth saving - then I came across this one. Oliver’s ninth birthday and a trip to the Nou Camp. Now a little out of date contextually, but all finally finished for the record.

I’ve long held aspirations to mix two of my favourite things; travel and football. A wannabe tourist if you like of the beautiful game. But life as a Gills fan comes with restrictions, there are no European nights against the continent's finest. The closest we are ever likely to get to any form of foreign opposition is the odd pre-season game in northern France against a local side, which is treated as nothing more than a glorified training session. But last weekend I ticked a big box off of my footballing bucket list, namely a visit to the Nou Camp stadium, home of FC Barcelona. An experience far, far removed from the previous ground that Oliver and I attended just two weeks earlier.

Oliver has been growing ever more competent in his goalkeeping, mainly in part to the work that he has been doing with Deren Ibrahim and the coaching staff at Dartford Football Club who have shown a lot of faith and encouragement in him. We felt that it would only be right and proper to show some support back, so with the Gills away in Shropshire playing against Shrewsbury we had a free footballing weekend. A perfect opportunity for me to revisit Princes Park and for Oliver to watch his coach in action against Whitehawk in the FA Trophy, a competition I'd never seen live before.

Princes Park opened in 2006, shortly before Oliver was born, reuniting the football club with the town finally after a nomadic existence on the back of the financial fallout caused by a failed groundshare with Maidstone United in the early 1990’s. With a capacity of 4,100, there was plenty of room for the 601 hardy souls who stood on the freezing cold terraces being serenaded by the non-stop chanting of the Whitehawk Ultras.

In fact, Oliver and I nearly became honorary Ultras for the day, albeit unsuspectedly. Standing behind Derens goal before the match, watching him go through his pre-match training routine Oliver and I found ourselves on an empty terrace. The opposite side of the ground was filling up quiet nicely and the Dartford colours and scarves were making themselves known. Feeling rather isolated and sticking out like two sore thumbs I felt slightly conspicuous and wondered how we were going to move into a more populated part of the ground without upsetting Oliver who was quite happy watching Deren being put through his paces.

Whilst I was slowly formulating a plan of action, we were finally joined by other members of the human race, which was a blessing as it made me feel quite normal and part of something again. But these guys were a throwback to another age. With skin-heads, tattoos and Dr Martin boots, skinny jeans and tight leather jackets I was immediately transported to The Football Factory, ID or another one of the hooligan based movies whose stereotypes were visually now alive and representing “The Hawks” right in front of me. From feeling lonely, to normal, to slightly afraid in the space of thirty seconds I had found my escape route “Oliver, we are in the away end - we are going!”

Far from the stereotypes as portrayed on screen, the Whitehawk fans were a credit to their club and the lower league game. Chanting, singing and banging their drum for the whole ninety minutes, the look of the football casual might still be alive in certain parts, but the menacing behaviour and attitude was long gone - and a firm reminder to me that one should never judge a book by its cover!

The game didn’t go according to plan, with the Darts losing 2-1 and exiting the trophy at the first hurdle. The Darts looked fairly solid in the most part without much threat in the final third, but a defensive lack of judgement from the full-back conceding a soft and rather needless penalty for handball meant that the Darts had too big a mountain to climb. However, the highlight for us and certainly for Oliver, was a spectacular second half save from Deren which had everyone in the ground clapping, including the Ultras, drumming ever louder in support behind his goal.

On the bus on the way home after the match, I asked Oliver if he had enjoyed himself. He looked up at me agreed that he had. “Barcelona up next mate”. I said, he smiled, the irony completely lost on him.

Dartford: Ibrahim, Gardiner, Onyemah, Vint, McNaughton, Noble, Hayes, E Bradbrook, T Bradbrook (Simmons 65mins), Cogan (Pugh 79mins), Harris. Subs not used: Adams, Wynter, Burns.

Whitehawk: Ross, Sessegnon, Braham-Barrett, Deering, Leacock, Lorraine (Gotta 71mins), Neilson (Stevens 79mins), Torres, Robinson, Mills, Martin (Mendy 53mins). Subs not used: Ijaha, Rose.

Childrens birthdays don’t come cheap. If you want to arrange a party there is the expense of a venue, plus food, plus entertainment, party bags, cakes and decorations. There are ways to minimise costs, but even when you add everything up alongside presents it can easily equate to hundreds of pounds. As a way to highlight comparable value, I did some research.

Looking up ticket prices to watch Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Juventus and Bayern Munich, plus adding up flight prices for two to each of those cities, I was staggered at how affordable it all was. When looking at hosting a party earlier in the year for Phoebe we had a quote for £300 for a women to arrive at the party and pretend to be a princess for two hours. Whereas Oliver and I could fly to Barcelona, watch a match and stay overnight for nearly a hundred pound less than that.

So that’s what we did.

We knew that it was only going to be a whistle-stop tour, in and out. Just as we do on Saturdays when we watch the Gills play away from home. I’ve been to all of the major cities in the UK, but I’ve not seen any of them. You arrive, watch a game and come home again.

When Dad heard what I was planning, he wanted in too. Had it just been Dad and I we could have done it the same trip for less, with an early arrival on Saturday morning and even earlier departure on Sunday we’d have not bothered with the hotel room, but gone out, got drunk and slept off any alcohol at the airport. But with Oliver in tow we needed a base to drop our heads for a couple of hours. Which gave me a logistical challenge of finding somewhere that was central, near to the underground station so that we could get to and from the airport and also to the ground as efficiently as possible. With time being a premium the perfect place looked to be an Ibis neighbouring the Sagrada Familia. If we were going to see very little whilst we were in town, we may as well see the most iconic building of them all.

In the end, it worked out perfectly. We didn’t bother with the underground from the airport, a taxi was an inexpensive option direct to the hotel where was able to see the city in the early morning light. From dropping our bags off at the Ibis, we took a short stroll around the corner via a Christmas market for a walk around Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. It really is quite something. Work started on its construction in 1882 and it isn’t due for completion for another ten years - mind blowing when you think about everything that has happened in the intervening years. Oliver seemed fairly impressed, or at least the selfies say so.

We brought our match tickets online from the clubs official website two weeks before (after much searching and anxiety that three seats were going to remain available!), but walking around tickets for the match vs Deportivo de La Coruña were readily available from street vendors and ticket offices around the city. If we ever go again, which I am sure that we will - I don’t think that I’ll bother with advance tickets and will get them whilst we are there, it’s what everyone else seemed to be doing, in fact I was quite taken by the frequent availability of last minute match-day tickets.

A short stone's throw away from the hotel was an FC Barcelona exhibition which we came across completely by chance. We lucked out in our discovery as it was well worth a walk around, whetting our appetite for what was about to come. Pictures of teams past, players immortalised as legends and their role in the fabric of the club. Oliver had his photograph taken with Messi in action in the background as well as Koeman, Lineker, Xavi, Iniesta, Cruyff and Ronaldinho. If Oliver was unaware of just how big Barcelona is in world footballing terms, he certainly had his eyes opened to a few new things.

Before making our way to the ground we stopped off for some lunch. It may well have been December, but the air was quite mild and we were able to sit outside in the streets dining al-fresco. We still needed our jackets on but we were more than comfortable, far removed from the temperatures of a freezing Princes Park and the smell of fried onions in the air. I knew that Oliver wouldn’t particularly fancy a series of tapas dishes so I played the safety first game and ordered him a chicken burger as you cannot possibly go wrong with a chicken burger. Or so I thought. When it arrived with a sesame seeded bun and fiery hot sauce and mustard Oliver’s first Spanish dining experience turned into a feast from his version of food hell. It didn’t get much better as the day progressed, with various levels of fussiness and turned up nostrils at perfectly edible fare that turned Dad into a grump and Oliver ever deeper into a hungry depression. Until we came across a churros stall where Oliver’s attitude changed and he devoured hungrily several donutty sticks oozing in chocolate. Spanish cuisine may well have left an indelible mark of negativity on his first real tourist experience but in time all will be forgiven, and forgotten -  as the real treat of football at the Nou Camp was something to treasure.

From the underground station at the edge of the city, with townhouse style buildings obscuring any views of the stadium the first glimpse of the mighty colosseum came as we walked around a bend and it stood before us imposingly like a giant concrete carpark. From the outside, the height, whilst visibly evident lacked the architectural wow factor that much smaller stadiums can sometimes convey. The grey, industrial blandness of the underside of the tiered rows stood like inverted stairways up to the Gods, promising little but a sense of anti-climax. If you hadn’t see inside of the stadium, or photographs of the birds-eye view you’d be wondering what the fuss was about and feel sympathy with the clubs plans to spend millions of euros on bringing the ground up to date with a new, modern synthetic skin.

The stadium might well be showing its age from the outside, but entry was super-modern with tickets stored on my phone in my Wallet App, a few swipes and a flash of infra-red gained us entry into the stadium complex and the long walk up to our seats ahead. The concourses, on the outside of the building with a maze of staircases and levels dotted with retail outlets that were functional without offering anything meaningful. But once at our required level we walked through a cold concrete doorway and the vast expanse and sheer beauty of the Nou Camp await. Like the Whitehawk Ultras, the outside appearance told a contrasting story to what lay beneath and the Nou Camp stadium is undoubtedly a thing of mesmerising beauty.

Vast, wide, tall and steep, over 90,000 people sat in an oval bowl watching a collection of the finest footballing talent in the world. Dad, Oliver and I all stood silently trying to take the magnitude of the views in and soaking up the alien atmosphere as cheers, claps and Spanish chants rang out under the roofless twilight skies. With the altitude, the open air stadium in a cooling December evening left us feeling ever more chilly but the sights of Messi, Suarez and Iniesta below gave us a warm glow. Neymar was injured, so we missed an opportunity to witness the famous trinity of goalscoring talent.

But I could live with Neymars absence, it was Messi who I really wanted to see, another name added to the collection of players that I’d seen play live. I could now add Messi to Ronaldo, the two finest players of their generation. Messi scored one of his long-range trademark free kicks after 39 minutes and my weekend was complete. It was an otherwise uninteresting first half and Messi’s goal would have graced any match in any game in the world. But if Messi was the making the headlines it was Iniesta who drew my praise.

Watching Iniesta was a thing of majesty, like Paul Scholes in his pomp, Iniesta made the game look easy. He had more time than anyone else on the pitch and his movement was unhurried, strolling around the park, receiving the ball and passing with pinpoint accuracy in one movement. It was a joy to watch and the backdrop of the Nou Camp was the perfect canvas to watch a real artist at work.

Rakitic scored early in the second half and it seemed as if it was game over. But a down and dead Deportivo showed impressive fight and determination. They pulled a goal back through Perez after 77 minutes and the game came to life. A scattering of Deportivo fans at the opposite end of the stadium to us, high, high up in the Gods awoke at the same time as their team who rewarded them with a deserved equaliser after 86 minutes. The game was far from over as they attacked the Barcelona rear-guard and threatened a shock third. But it wasn’t to be. Darkness had descended over the Nou Camp and our footballing Odyssey had come to an end.

It was a unique trip and for Oliver a special experience, if only to prove a point. The Spanish food might not have agreed with him, but the football certainly did. “Daddy, after I’ve played for Gillingham and then Liverpool, I want to play for Barcelona now” he said. True to form it was my Dad who had the last word “You won’t be able to Oliver, you’ll go hungry”

Barcelona: Bravo, Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba (Mathieuat 77mins), Rakitic (Sergi 72mins), Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, L Suárez, Ramírez (El Haddadi 68mins). Subs not used: ter Stegen, Bartra, Adriano, Vermaelen,

Deportivo de La Coruña: Lux, Sanabria Ruiz, Arribas, da Silva Junior, Navarro Corbacho, Juanfran (Nunes Cardoso 70 mins), Bergantiños García, Fajr, Correia Pinto (Domínguez Lamasat 45mins), Rodríguez Portillo (Luis Alberto 58mins). Pérez Subs not used: Gracia Calmache, Medunjanin, Lopo, Fernández Muñiz

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

New Year, New Plans

Some news from me

I started blogging over ten years ago as a means to document becoming a father for the first time and coming to terms with growing up. It took me on a magical mystery tour beyond accounts of childbirth, marriage proposals, family trips and unlocked an interest in writing and prompted the beginnings of a novel and other journeys into the world of creative writing. But then as suddenly as it started, it stopped and real life took over instead.

18 months of unpublished thoughts lay left unsaid and whilst that time hasn’t been filled with notable tales of adventure, dismay and excitement, the preceding years before it hadn’t either. It was merely the minutiae of an ordinary, everyday life left behind as a legacy to remind myself and those closest to me what had happened, when it had happened and how we all went about it. Any comments, likes and shares were a welcome surprise and gladly received, but the motive behind my words was not for others benefit, it was for mine and mine alone - an accessible way to rabble on irrespective of who was listening.

But lots can happen in 18 months and the start of a new year seems the perfect time to pick up the keyboard again and waffle into the vacuum of cyberspace. We’ve lots happening this year and have drawn up plans and changes for the future. We’ve started a fairly major renovation project on our house after years of talking about it, and in the grand scheme of our relatively inconsequential existence it is something of a major milestone. The ethos behind the blog was to record the significant events as they happened, and for us this is an event worthy of the record.

With house prices in the local area going up at an astronomical rate, finding a suitable living space for our growing family proved to be a challenge that we could not meet. There is the added sentimental value of living in the house I grew up in, the house we bought off of my parents and slowly put our stamp onto, turning it from Mum and Dad’s house into our own. But as it stands at the moment, we have challenges in the near future that if we don’t act now could cause us headaches further down the line.

Hayden’s arrival changed the dynamics of our family and our needs as five are far different than those of four. Had Hayden been born a different gender we could have adapted without too much change, but two boys nine years apart meant that sharing a room between them was less than ideal. I appreciate that people do it all the time, but with equity available to us we are fortunate to be able to make the adjustments that we believe we need to, and by doing it now, in good time, it gives us the freedom to do it without pressure.

The plan is a fairly straight-forward one. To build a single storey extension at the rear of the house with an enlarged family room and remodelled kitchen. Place a downstairs washroom in part of our existing kitchen area and convert the loft into a bedroom with ensuite. Stephanie and I will move into the loft, Oliver will have our old room and Hayden will keep the boys room which we only finished the year before last. Phoebe will then have the remaining bedroom, giving us all room to grow without any future upheaval or desperate need to relocate. With house prices rising steadily around us, the challenge for the children as they grow older to move out will be even more difficult than it was for us, so making it as comfortable as possible for as long as possible for them has been a major consideration behind our plans.

Being novices at this and having no previous experience of major home renovations inevitably means that this journey will be fraught with obstacles, mistakes and wonderful surprises. But so was the start of this blogging adventure, becoming parents for the first time and not having a manual to guide us through it. It is all part of the fun of the journey and if anything learnt can be shared then that can only be a positive thing.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Lesson in History

Buttes New British Cemetery

For several years, mainly whilst drinking in the British Legion Club before Gillingham home games, my Dad, my friends and I would talk about visiting France or Belgium to tour some of the battlefields and visit the cemeteries of the fallen during World War One. We talked about Belgian beer and how we might be able to combine the two for a weekend of history, culture and light entertainment. But after talking about it once too many times, a decisive action was required and plans were drawn up once and for all.

History as a child didn't interest me, not in the slightest. I had to choose a humanity subject when I chose my options and the joy of dropping history felt wonderful. It was all in the past, black and white pictures that had no relevance to the ‘real-world’. It was nothing more than ignorance and whilst I wouldn't say that I've developed an insatiable thirst for the subject I've learnt that its relevance cannot be understated and in actually fact, our very existence owes a debt of gratitude for the actions of those that have gone before us.

It was only really as an adult that I started showing an interest, after Dad had joined the Territorial Army and he returned back from weekends away and talked of his trips and re-told some of his discoveries that I began to pay attention. I even accompanied him on one of his trips to Europe, a brief whistle-stop to Vimy Ridge for the afternoon with my grandfather that was a mere extension to a ‘booze cruise’ where we shuttled over and made the most of the cheap duty-free beer at the time. But that brief experience provided so much, and to see it in more detail became a genuine thing to do as opposed to simply appeasing my Dad’s requests.

Our first stop was Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, the final burial place of Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, one of only three men in history to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice. The cemetery is located within a small hamlet on a roundabout and is one of 205 cemetery’s in the Ypres Salient area.

It felt strangely out of place, we arrived early in the morning and we were by far and away the earliest visitors of the day. The cemetery lies tucked away behind the gardens of neighbouring houses on a road void of tarmac and under construction or repair. That first visit is the worse one emotionally, suddenly seeing the immaculate line of gravestones and reading the messages that have been left from all over the world, “We will remember you forever, Lucy, age 6, New Zealand” and seeing the words inscribed on the headstone “A soldier of the Great War - known unto God”.

For all the men that are revered and talked about and have Wikipedia entries under their name, there are hundred of thousands of others who are soulless bodies that have had their name detached from them and inscribed on a monument some place else.

If I come across suddenly knowledgeable, like claiming to know the story of Noel Chavasse then I apologise. Everything written here I've either learnt from my Dad who played our guide over the course of the weekend, or is further information that I've looked up online in response to those new discoveries. Gareth and Foordy, my two friends who accompanied us on the trip were equally grateful for the depth of knowledge and information that Dad shared. With it being Father’s day on the Sunday I couldn't have wished for a better time to feel a huge sense of pride in him and thankful that I've still got someone to look up to at the age of 35, two years older than Chavasse was when he was killed.

With so much to see and the scale of everything so truly difficult to comprehend it is helpful to try and put some context to the situation. We visited the Passchendaele memorial museum, which is a collection of replica trenches, dugouts and collection of memorabilia housed in a rebuilt châteaux. Included in the museum is some rather haunting artwork depicting some of the hopeless scenes from the battlefields which provided some difficult answers to my main question ‘how did so many soldiers become ‘known only to God’?’. The answer isn't easy, but seeing raised hands pointed to the ceiling from a field of mud offered a profound experience as any felt at any point over the weekend.

After a morning of reflection and dark discoveries, it felt like an appropriate time to enjoy what the other half of the weekend was about - Belgian hospitality.

Now my knowledge of Belgian beer is as good as my history, namely non-existent. So when presented with a ‘bierkaart’ which carried nearly 100 names I took what I believed to be a logical approach. The same way I choose horses from the list when the Grand National comes around. If the name sounds good, the beer must be good! So a bottle of Kwak it was! Which arrived with a rather odd wooden contraption attached to it - all part of the wonderful journey of discovery that travel brings.

Talking of which, another thing that I learnt... ordinarily when ordering food from a menu, the words ‘cheese and ham toasted sandwich’ would get sniffed at and something more adventurous would be chosen. But label the same item as “Croque Monsieur”, they become immediately more appealing… so much so we all had one...

It wouldn’t have been a bad idea had someone suggested staying in De Volksbond for the rest of the afternoon, but there was still so much to see.

Nearby lies the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British Military Cemetery in the world. 34,887 names are listed on a giant wall which forms the northern perimeter of the plot of land in which the cemetery sits. Each name commemorates a soldier missing in action, which is in addition to the 11,954 graves that make up the cemetery census. Of those 11,954 graves, 8,367 as marked as unidentified burials. This statistic was repeated over and over again over the course of the weekend and continued to be the biggest thing for me to get my head around.

Tyne Cot and each of the other cemeteries we visited over the course of the weekend are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an organisation set up as a direct consequence of the first world war. There are cemeteries all over the world, all maintained and looked after by the CWGC and judging by what we witnessed over the weekend they do a staggering job. Each and every one of the graves was immaculate, with information and visitors books supplied at each site. There has been a push over the past few years to ensure that they are at their most pristine, what with the centenary events that are happening over the next few years, but even once the commemorations are over the CWGC will continue to do what they've done for the past 100 years.

Our accommodation was in Ypres, a city that was destroyed and rebuilt exactly as it stood before hostilities started. It is also home to the Menin Gate, another memorial to the fallen and home to another 50,000 names of those whose graves are unknown. At 8pm, there is a processional ceremony of remembrance where the Last Post is played and a story of a soldier is told to the crowd - even if nobody is in attendance. This homage has been performed daily since 1928 and is intended to continue in perpetuity.

As the minute silence passed by and the dignitaries laid their poppies I felt slightly ashamed of myself. This event had been happening every day for nearly 100 years and I had never heard of it. 13,000 men were buried less than 3km away and goodness knows how many more in the wider area, and I never knew about it either. Grainy black and white images that had no relevance to the real world? What a stupid boy I was!

It wasn't until the following day, whilst visiting the Liverpool Scottish memorial stone at Bellewaarde that things began to make a semblance of sense. The stone is much like many of the memorials dotted around and that we visited. But this was in the middle of a field next to a copse of trees and a mine crater which acted as a permanent reminder of war. Out of all the places we visited this one felt the closest to the picture that I had built up in my mind of where I imagined it would be. Dad was telling another one of his stories and if you closed your eyes you could vividly imagine the noise of shelling and bombing overhead, it was that atmospheric. The generation of World War One survivors has long since passed. Leaving ghosts behind, names and those more fortunate, stories of their existence. Those stories Dad filled us with all weekend are those that have been passed down and immortalised for us, and for those who live long after us. I may well have been naive, ignorant and not interested as a child, but as an adult have been given a responsibility to ensure that those stories are continued. That when Oliver, Hayden and their generation grow up, that despite their personal ignorances they are given the opportunities to listen, learn and discover the past as I have done.

Human beings have committed gross atrocities against one another throughout history. But the first world war was a four year battle of attrition that neither side particularly wanted. Millions of lives were lost, for what? The answers, unlike World War Two are less clear, but they fought for us and gave their lives so we may live in peace. We say that we shall remember them and it’s all very well doing it once a year, but come November 11th this year I will truly mean it.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle


I started writing a blog out of an interest in writing and technology, which over the past nine years has helped document events in mine and my family’s life. It has helped me come to terms with becoming a dad, a husband and document things that have happened, my role in them and its helped me learn more about myself as a man as well as a father. Except I’ve let life take over for a bit, more living, less writing, which is why there is a bit of a gap - a nine month long one.

After all, it isn’t like I’ve not had anything to write about, in fact I could easily have filled the pages of this blog with news on a daily basis, but if I had to write one post about the past nine months it would be summed up with the title of “Eat, Work, Sleep, Repeat”, all the rest is merely a collection of sub-plots, namely:

- Phoebe’s Little Sister Dreams
- Oliver's Footballing Ambitions
- Stephanie’s Birthing Nightmare

Which brings me nicely up date.

When we found out that we were expecting again, underneath the surprise and shock of the reality-hit, was the underlying emotional response to the news - fear of giving birth all over again.

It started with the result of the test and it built all the way up until the Monday evening of February the 23rd. As is now traditional, the baby had hit its due date and sailed right past it, warm and comfortable in the confines of Stephanie’s womb. We were sat watching a film called Fishtank, ironically enough when half an hour towards the end Stephanie’s waters finally burst - with it, nine months of fear escaped and a petrified mother-in-waiting took its place.

Being old hands at this racing off to the hospital lark I knew exactly what to do. With Oliver it was a hundred mile an hour dash of excitement as I brushed my teeth and packed a suitcase at the same time, Phoebe was more leisurely, but I was bitten by that experience, so with authority I readied all that needed to be ready, packed the car whilst waiting for the mother-in-law to arrive and to reassure a crying, anxiously shaking Stephanie who didn’t want to make the inevitable journey, efficiently or not.

We arrived at the hospital shortly before midnight, where Stephanie was attached to the usual machinery measuring contraction levels and the babies heartbeat. Rather than approaching the rather major subject of fear and how she might be made to feel more comfortable through pain relief, Steph decided to tackle the non-existent elephant in the room, namely how she might be able to give birth and not push anything else out at the same time, you know, that thing we all do anyway irrespective of whether you are a boy or a girl... but that, along with the current horticultural state of her ‘lady area’ were issues that were decidedly more important, and I had to sit and listen to them on three separate occasions with three separate midwives who probably have now, like me, finally heard it all.

Despite enjoying a rather entertaining hour at the hospital, we were sent home to wait for the contractions to speed up and were asked to return once they had, or if not, 24 hours later we’d be medically induced. Needless to say, we didn’t need to wait that long!

Having arrived home at 1am and returning back to the hospital an hour later and wired up again to the same contraptions we finally managed to talk about what was needed to get through the next few hours. It was a brief conversation, a simple ‘yes Stephanie no problem’ when the midwife was told politely “I NEED SOME GAS AND EFFING AIR!”

After what happened with Phoebe I knew that events were once again going to be quick. But after what happened last time around I felt the same level of anxiety that Stephanie had displayed earlier. I didn’t want to be put in a temporary room again, or the cleaning cupboard. I asked if there was room available at the inn, and there was - fortunately. The same delivery suite as Oliver was born in and with that my fears and worries, for the time being evaporated as suddenly as they had descended.

Phoebe arrived quickly, very quickly, whereas Oliver was a long drawn out affair. This time around speed was to play an important role.

Just as the nurses were readying Stephanie with various needles and attachments into the veins in her hand she needed to start pushing. Gas and Air was inhaled deeply and her breathing was fast and everything was as before. Stephanie had done this twice already and she was doing it brilliantly all over again with the fear seemingly gone and running on her maternal instinct.

Where I was standing I had the contraption behind me that was monitoring the contractions and the baby’s heartbeat. With Phoebe there was concern with her heart rate dropping and things got nervous for a little while so I was alert to what was happening around me. With Stephanie pushing and the baby arriving any minute now, things started to get tense.

The room filled with more people and the growing crowd at the bottom of Stephanie’s feet started to get more concerned. Looking over my shoulder I could see that the baby’s heart rate had dropped and it had been low for a little while. With a concerned atmosphere in the room I knew that they needed the baby out and quickly and as safely as they could.

The delivery suite is a chaotic place. It starts of calm except for the beeping of machines and the deep breaths of the mother-to-be. People come in and out and a lot of the time it is at a leisurely pace, at smoking pace if you were outside in the park and watching the world go by. Until the exact moment when the baby is visible, thing change, the energy levels ascend instantly and it all begins to happen.

It was all happening now, instruments were passed around, starting with small ones, big pushes and disappointed faces. Further instruments were passed along the line to the midwife at the front, getting bigger in size and more evil with their intention. In the background more people were arriving, they are wearing suits with hastily thrown on scrubs which indicate they are the serious brains and the go-to people when something goes wrong. They are preparing for all eventualities and this is all communicated in secret body language and signals as the worried looks get more anxious.

The only way I can describe what was happening is by reverting to slap-stick. It was a game of tug-of-war and the queue of people at the foot of Stephanie's bed were getting stronger in number, pulling one way as Stephanie pushed downwards for momentum. Further instruments appeared, more mechanical in look and ever larger. I had my head buried in her chest, half in fear and half in encouragement. My elbow was resting on her protruding stomach, which fell suddenly as the pushing and pulling finally met its goal.

We were told much later, that during the birth the baby was side on and they couldn't turn it around in time as they needed to get it out safely. Had the heart rate been fine, ordinarily they'd have taken Stephanie into theatre, had an epidural and made all the more comfortable before attempting to move the baby into position.

But with the baby now safely out, I didn’t know what we were having. Stephanie suspected, or she knew from peeping during an earlier scan. I didn’t need to be told once I had seen. We had another boy, who just as Oliver and Phoebe had before him needed some air inside his lungs before we could hold him. The atmosphere in the room, the energy, the nervous looks and glances and my relief that he was out expressed themselves in the form of deep, dry sobs as we waited to hear our new-born son cry.

I couldn’t watch with Oliver, I wasn’t in the room with Phoebe and I nor could I watch this time around. So I watched the midwife. The one with the posh voice who kept apologising to Stephanie in an “I am so, so sorry” voice, enunciating the “I am” as opposed to “I’m”. Her face was etched in worry, a concerned look which didn’t help me, but I needed something to concentrate on as looking at Stephanie would have been too emotional. With hearing the baby cry the midwifes face changed, she breathed out heavily and Stephanie and I did too.

She needed a little help after the events of the previous hour, so I went and met our son. The nurse was there holding the umbilical cord in her hand. I hadn’t the opportunity to cut the cord with Oliver or Phoebe, so this was a special moment for me. It might sound strange, but for me cutting the cord is a defining time for a father and to have missed out on all three children would have been a disappointment. But I did, third time lucky and I looked at him for the first time. With Oliver it was a shoulders out pride at a first born son and with Phoebe my heart melted in an instant. But right there, right then, the feeling was different, it was like everything made sense, the missing piece of the puzzle if you are a fan of clichés - and it was. The boy in my arms, who looked like Oliver and Phoebe all mixed up made everything fit together as if we’d been waiting for him the whole time.

Hayden Aaron Bird. A second son, known for nine months as ‘Oops’ in loving acknowledgement to, as Stephanie said to me - the greatest decision we never made.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Two's Company, Three's Proud


When Stephanie and I discussed children, our magic number was always and never any more than two. We were blessed with a beautiful blue one, and a pink one completed the set. Our lives were happy and content, until a recent late night bum squeeze under the covers turned into something a little more energetic, which is where we find ourselves once again... at the beginning of another nine month long adventure.

Oliver had a code name, “Baby Bird”, Phoebe was imaginatively labelled “Baby Bird 2”. Our as yet unborn third child has been given, the (perhaps unfair) moniker of “Oops”. Which, in the event that he/she reads this in the forthcoming years is a term of endearment (we promise), but we won’t hide behind the fact that when we do eventually meet he or she, it will be behind the eyes of a blessing that we never expected.

Inevitably, I guess, when something happens that catches you by surprise is a sense of denial and perhaps a sense of regret that we’d done things differently, not at all or whilst wearing safety equipment. But I’ve always been a believer in things happening for a reason, for a purpose defined not by me but a greater force that knows the greater meaning of things and that we are to face the challenges head on and reap the rewards of successfully overcoming them.

Which is why when Stephanie told me the news the only answer I could give was a shrug of the shoulders and mutter “oops” as there wasn’t anything more I could possibly add, no consoling words would change the situation and a show of enthusiasm would have been in stark contrast to the vibe at the time. Stephanie being the more emotive of the pair of us had a moment or three and needed a period of reflection to allow the news to sink in.

During our discussions on adding to the flock we always tended to look at the negatives; less room, need for a bigger car, holidays would be too expensive, we’d be ancient and past it by the time we were grandparents, five is an odd number and other such trivialities. My belief is that our continual focus on the negatives was the cause of Stephanie's initial reaction. It wasn’t that we never not wanted another child, we had simply prepared ourselves for the probability of not having any more.

Now that we have had the time and sense to digest the news, the worse our initial reaction is beginning to look. I’ve found myself looking at Oliver and Phoebe in a different light, more closely and analysing their personalities, behaviours and achievements. Every success they have, we have that to look forward to all over again. Even the naughty and annoying things like Phoebe colouring her legs in with felt tip pens - it will happen. It will make us cross, but even writing the words brings a smile to my face as in the cold light of day its actually quite funny!

But like all great trilogies, the biggest anticipation is for the final chapter. In a funny, roundabout kind of way, I’m actually more excited about meeting Oops then I was either of the others. Oliver was new, exciting and a leap into the unknown. Phoebe was a return to familiar territory, but this time, with that sense of inevitability about the conception, the fateful sense of serendipity and the ultimate feeling of reaching a definite conclusion I can’t actually think of a better way to bring the curtain down - they’ve certainly got a lot to live up to!

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