I’ve always been a sentimental old fool. I only have to hear Vanessa Redgrave’s voice-over at the start of Call the Midwife and I start to well up, knowing the everyday trials and triumphs of East End childbearing during the fifties and sixties will leave me drained and limp. So I should have known better when we decided on a distracting afternoon at the flicks to watch Lion. Based on a true story, it’s a heart-churning tale of a five-year-old Indian boy who, by tragic happenstance, finds himself lost and alone on the mean streets of Kolkata, far, far away from the dusty plains of home. Following near misses with the truly unthinkable and a stint in a teeming orphanage, he’s plucked from the crowd by a well-meaning Australian couple and re-homed in comfortable Tasmania. Job done, lucky boy, you might say. But 25 years later, haunted by vivid flashbacks of his childhood, he sets out to find his long lost family in an attempt to calm his troubled mind. Lion speaks volumes, not just about the casual horror of life on the streets but also the cultural dislocation and guilt felt by those airlifted to affluence. Dev Patel is excellent as the man on a mission to rediscover his past. But the undisputed star of the show is the extraordinary Sunny Pawar as the lost child. Take a box of Kleenex. You’ll need it.
Attending the annual Families in Global Transition jamboree in Amsterdam last month (#FIGT16NL) got me thinking about my own minor experience as a ‘third culture kid’ (TCK for short) – children and young people who are raised in a culture different from that of their parents for a significant part of their developmental years. For good or ill, we live in a world of mass migration and the term can apply to anyone along the #TCK continuum – a child desperately fleeing a war zone clinging to a hopelessly overcrowded dinghy or children flying business class hanging on the coattails of an executive parent. Such things present their own emotional challenges, though I’m sure we all agree the plight of a refugee child is way off the scale.
I was born in married quarters and was an army brat for the first ten years of my life. My Dad was posted here and there and I attended four different primary schools, three of which are still molding young minds. The fourth, Mountbatten Primary School, Terendak Camp, Malaysia, is long gone. Malaysia was my one and only experience of living abroad as a child. I have no deep or wise words about our semi-colonial tropical idyll except to say I had a ball. I ran around Mowgli-style half naked and shoeless, climbed exotic trees (and fell out of a few), got stung by nasty red ants, crashed a homemade go-cart into a concrete monsoon drain (I still have the scar to prove it), played Chinese hopscotch with our maid, built a den out of army-issue packing crates under lofty coconut trees, learned to swim and got all my badges, tasted my first vanilla milkshake and played I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours with the girl next door. The only cultural dislocation I remember feeling was when we arrived back at RAF Northolt in West London. It was a cold and wet November day and I didn’t like it one little bit. And I never got to play Chinese hopscotch ever again.
Here are some old, well-worn and torn snaps – Mum in her best sequined frock and Dad looking dapper in his dress uniform, me with my little sister just after she was born, an undersized me posing with my oversized scooter, me with my best friend and a strapping Aussie lad (right) who tried to mug me out of my pocket money and made me cry, and a really hazy image of Mountbatten School I found on Digger History.
All in all, not a bad gig.
We all know Christmas is big for business so Christmas ads must be big too. John Lewis, that bellwether of the British high street, usually leads the pack. Its lavish TV offerings rarely fail to tug at the heart strings or loosen the purse, and this year is no different with a theme centred round the loneliness of old age. Like I need reminding that, childless as we are, our incontinent years might be a little bit crap. John Lewis has been criticised for spending so much on a TV campaign when they could have donated to charity instead. I’m all for bashing the corporate world for not paying their dues and not doing their bit. But in this case, the reproach is a tad misplaced. The campaign is supported by Age UK and has resulted in thousands of extra volunteers for the festive period. Besides, it’s our collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable, not a shop’s.
We also know Christmas is all about over-excited kids brainwashed into wanting bigger and better, faster and flashier. It’s all down to cynical marketing and playground peer pressure: pester-power is the biggest bang in the advertiser’s armoury. Or is it? Grab a tissue and watch this clever message from IKEA Spain. It had me in floods.
The moral of my story? Spend more time with your kids and spare a thought for the two old fairies at the bottom of the garden.
With thanks to John Lennon for the title of this post.
After small town resort and the tale of Can’t Sing for You, Brighton came a jolly to the big city and time to party. My nephew and namesake, Jack, was celebrating his coming of age with his first legal drink. We helped his nearest and dearest deck out a hired hall in tinsel, balloons and streamers, transforming a working men’s club into a glitzy fairy’s grotto. As we uncovered the party platters, I asked Jack if we were to be the only gays in the village that night. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there may be a couple of bisexuals popping along for a boogie. No big deal.’ How times have changed since I got the keys to the door. Jack was nervous (he’s a sensitive soul). Would anyone actually turn up to his 18th? He needn’t have worried; the streets of South London were empty that night.
There’s a lot of debate these days about the degenerative condition of Britain’s yoof – you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve sired a lost generation of lazy, selfish, illiterate, shallow, celebrity obsessed mediocrities. Well there was little evidence of that poor state of affairs at Jack’s bash. Apart from a few very minor skirmishes caused by raging hormones, the trendy young things were polite, respectful, considerate and obliging. Boisterous? Certainly. Feral? Hardly. Mind you, when did eighteen year olds get to look twenty five? The hipster whiskers didn’t help. Naturally, birthday boy got horribly drunk on his first lawful binge, but the care shown by his friends was impressive and rather touching. The next morning, he rose from the dead with not so much as a twinge. Oh, to be eighteen again.
The fragrant Grace, the long term squeeze of Jack’s elder brother, is a bit of a photographer on the side and set up a photo booth for the evening. Here are some of her best shots…
It’s National Coming Out day today. I highly recommend it. It’s good for the soul. Easy for you to say, you might think. After all, I grew up in metrosexual London not the bible-bashing Prairies or Koran-thumping Steppes. New York may be the city that never sleeps but London is the city that doesn’t give a shit. And, to a certain extent this is true. It was relatively painless for me to trampoline out of the closet, disco dancing to ‘I am what I am,’ (The Village People anthem not the later more famous song from ‘La Cage aux Folles’). Still, it wasn’t quite the walk in the park some might imagine. It was the Seventies and, at the time, few people joined me out in the cold. And anyway, this post isn’t about me. I’m old hat. It’s about those still struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. So to mark National Coming Out Day, I am republishing my classic 2012 hit ‘Letter of Hope to LGBT Teens’. If it helps a bit then I’m glad.
Dear 15 Year Old Me,
That was Then…
Jack, what the hell are you doing? She’s a nice girl and all that but, really, you know you’ll never get beyond heavy petting. Come on, be true to yourself. You’re leading her down the garden path to frustration and disappointment; she deserves better. Just admit that you don’t like ‘it’. Her pretty bits are all in the wrong places, aren’t they? Okay, it’s 1975, it’s the decade that fashion forgot and you’re only fifteen, but you know you know. It’s not just a phase.
London may well have swung through the Sixties when androgynous men wore makeup and liberated ladies burnt their bras, but it’s not stopped you thinking you’re the only one. Yes, trendy Chelsea is just across the river but it might as well be on a different planet. Pick up a newspaper, any paper, and it’ll scream ‘pervert’ at you. ‘Paedophile’ even. The thing is, you don’t feel like a pervert and you’re certainly not interested in pre-pubescent boys. You’re just different from your brothers and the other boys in your class. Stop beating yourself up and get a grip. It’s okay to be different. Your parents will love you regardless, though I admit the conversation might be awkward, perhaps painful. They won’t like it. There may be tears and recriminations. No parent wants their child to stand out from the crowd for all the wrong reasons. It might be dangerous taking centre stage in a hostile world but you’re strong enough to take the flak. Come on, Jack. You learned real pride and you learned it at your father’s knee.
This is Now…
Jack, what the hell are you doing? Turkey’s a nice place and all that but, really, it’s a Muslim country and you and your partner are living openly as a gay couple. You are 51 and resolutely ‘out’ to everyone, take it or leave it. I hear you got ‘married’ back in 2008, a splendid fanfare of friends and family. So, they came round then? You’ve had a life full of peaks and troughs, good times and bad. This is life as it should be. So, your sexuality is only one of the things that define you but it is one of the important things. You’re a happy, rounded individual. You don’t compromise. You change attitudes just by being you. You see? You did it.
My sister rang with glad tidings about her boys. She has four (not counting her saintly husband – sis and I are very alike so believe me he is). First born, Dan the man, has got himself a cracking new job with prospects and a pension. Second in line, brainy Jack, has just received a sparkling set of exam results. Third sprog, brawny Tom, is now playing semi-professional football at the tender age of 15 (they groom ‘em ever younger these days). But what of Josh, the baby of the clan? Well, he moves up a gear to secondary school next month and is showing quite a lot of promise himself in the kick-about stakes. Who knows? In a few years, we might have two players in the top flight. Time to pop our corks and toast to a comfortable dotage of wine and song. Remember, boys, we are your favourite uncles.
A few weeks ago I wrote a little piece on the etymology of Norwich’s River Wensum (old English wandsum). I got quite excited at the prospect of a poetic connection between my current digs and Wandsworth, in South London, where I spent my late childhood and most of my teens. I saw a link between ‘wandsum’ and ‘Wandle’, the Thames tributary that runs through the heart of the London borough. It was not to be. Ye Olde Wandsworth was known as Wandesorde or Wendelesorde at the time of the Domesday Book which means ‘enclosure of (a man called) Waendel’. Shame, but it did take me on a gentle mince down memory lane.
After my father was discharged from the army, he took the tenancy of an off licence cum general grocers. It was called a ‘Bottle and Basket’ for those who may remember the chain, part of the Watney Mann brewery company. We lived above the shop and it surely must have been the start of my love affair with the Devil’s sauce. I used to pilfer bottles of Bulmer’s cider from the shelves to share with my spotty pubescent pals. The liquor trade provided a decent living and kept me in booty hugging florescent loon pants and five inch platform shoes. My canny Dad made a killing during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. We had a booze, bench and bunting beano in the street and Geordie Jack wisely kept the tills ringing for the duration. For my sins, I earned an honest crust as a Clark’s shoe shop Saturday boy in the Arndale Shopping Centre. It was the scene of my undoing and a slippery slope from which I was never to recover (thank the Peter Lord). I had a torrid fling with one of the maintenance men. His name was Dave. Dave was married, of course; it was always the way back in the day. My midday breaks were misspent sampling his greasy cut lunch in a lift shaft machine room on the roof, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Going down?’