Please God …

Dear God,

Please, when in the future I meet someone going through what we’re going through now, let me not share with them my horror stories.  Let me not tell them of my experiences or my distress; let me not use the words ‘awful’ or ‘horrendous’.  Let me not talk to them about myself. how sad I am for them or what their situation reminds me of.  Let me not weep at them.

Instead, please Lord, let me hold their hand in silence while they talk; let me put an arm round their shoulders while they weep, and provide only tissues to wipe their eyes and blow their nose; let me bring them flowers, and be at ease with them.  This is their grief, not mine; their fear, not mine; their loss, not mine.  It is theirs and it is not the same as mine; as mine is not the same as others’.

In the meantime, Lord, please protect me from the conversations that, unwittingly or unthinkingly, do more harm than good, put images in my mind that I do not need or drain my scarce emotional resources.  Please, instead, bring me the conversations that somehow are just right, and help my friends and those around me to find the words that bring comfort, and support, and strength.

Please Lord.

Amen.

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25 years and 96 souls: a memory of Hillsborough

There’s a photo somewhere in a cardboard box:  me, aged 27, in my parents’ garden.  It was a beautiful, bright crisp day, the sort you only get in mid-April; a day just like today.  I was wearing a fuschia pink silk blouse and a grey skirt, sitting on the garden wall, smiling straight at the camera.  About an hour after it was taken, a football match started a few miles away.  A couple of hours after that (and a quarter of a century later the exact time is still to be determined by a new inquest) ninety six people were dead.

 

On 15th April 1989 I had dropped in to have a cup of tea with mum and dad before I went to officiate at a wedding in a little church somewhere up in the moors on the fringe of Sheffield.  I was a new registrar; I got the Saturday afternoon duties.  My parents lived on the north edge of the city, and whenever I was out that way on a Saturday in season I’d have to fight my way through the football traffic around the Hillsborough ground.  This week had been no different.

 

Mum loved the colour of my blouse, and wanted a picture.  She took the photo, I had my cup of tea, and I headed off.  The wedding was at three, half an hour and my duties done and dusted, and back to mum’s for another cuppa.  I’ve no idea why they had the TV on; neither of my parents were football fans, but in those days Grandstand was the background noise in most homes of a Saturday afternoon.  Mum was standing in front of the telly as I walked in the room.  She looked worried.  ‘They’re saying someone’s died,’ she said.  ‘No-one seems to know what’s happened.’

 

By the time I headed home, traffic was starting to flow back out of the city, heading back towards Liverpool.  Several had football scarves still fluttering from the windows, pennants on the aerials.  But the faces of the drivers, of their passengers – were like stone.  Ashen.  White.  Deeply shocked.

 

By the time I got to Hillsborough I must have known more about what was happening, presumably from the car radio – I don’t remember.  Hillsborough is a busy shopping centre on the best of days, and on a match day the pavements are clogged with people.  But everywhere I looked there were groups of men, most of them young – drifting. Lost. They didn’t know where to go.  They stood huddled, in small groups, on the steps of a building that had opened up to shelter them, around the shop fronts.  A coach came up behind me; in my rear view mirror I could see the same faces I had seen earlier – ashen.  White.  Deeply shocked.  There was a sense in the air, something indescribable.  No-one could have been there and not known that something truly, truly awful had happened.  Equally, no-one who hasn’t experienced something similar, can understand just what impact it had.

 

Later, as the news headlines began to flesh out the details, we heard of the people of the streets around the ground opening their homes, making cups of tea and phone calls, offering beds – doing what Sheffielders tend to do best, being human to strangers in need.  The next morning I was up at dawn, drawn to the Catholic Cathedral in the city centre by the need to be with my community, to share grief, and to pray.  The congregation was far bigger than usual.  I went back that evening; the only day of my life where I needed, really needed Mass more than once in the day.  I think that evening service was broadcast; I was proud of my city and my community for offering support and succour to families we didn’t know from another city away over the hills.  On the Monday, I felt impelled to buy flowers and take them to the ground.  Don’t ask me why.  I’m not overly sentimental as a general rule.  But I needed to show those hurt and grieving that they were not alone, that we would not forget them.  I was not the only one.  When I got to the gates of Hillborough there was a steadily moving crowd – placing flowers and keepsakes, reading messages, crying, praying.  Little conversation.  Many of the crowd were men, leaving their football scarves and shirts tied to the fences.  They wept openly and unashamedly.

 

Much, much later, when the inquests had been held and certificates finally issued my colleagues made a plan for registering the ninety six deaths.  I was a slightly less new registrar by then, but I wasn’t included in the plan.  At the time I’d have liked to play my part; to carry out my duties with care and respect for the dead.  Now, I am grateful that I wasn’t included.  That I didn’t have any part in misrecording the deaths of those men and women, boys and girls.  I hope, and pray, that the new inquests will bring, finally, some sort of peace to their families.  And justice for the ninety six.

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A York virgin

This weekend I’m attending the Festival of Writing in York, for the first time.  I’m told by many Twitterfriends that it will be in turns amazing, inspiring, awesome, exhausting and life changing.  There also appears to be a lot of drinking involved.  No guarantees that I will blog consistently, but for the sake of posterity, I’ll try.

Chapter 1:  Cocktail dress

Cocktail dress.  I have to take a cocktail dress. I don’t DO cocktails.  No, wait, my little black dress, that’ll do.  And I can wear my red necklace and my red earrings and I’ll look exactly like I do in my Twitter avatar and everyone will think I have no imagination.  What else? Ear plugs.  Someone said to take earplugs.  Have I got ear plugs?  Why have I got ear plugs?  Why have I got TWO PACKETS of ear plugs?  Never mind, never mind.  Focus.  Shoes.  Trainers.  Comfy.  Trainers will be comfy.  Don’t know how much walking around there’ll be, so I’ll take my trainers.  And my boots.  It’s bound to rain.  What’s the weather forecast?  Everyone’s talking about taking warm clothes, is it going to be cold? I read a blog somewhere where someone who went last year said it was freezing at night.  Better take PJs. And a coat. OH SHIT! Have I got my map? I don’t know where I’m going when I get there! Hell.  Switch the printer on, I need to print that map.  Where is it?  Why isn’t this thing working?  WHY ISN’T MY LAPTOP WORKING? Oh.  Ok.  It’s on now.  Right.  Shoes.  OH MY GOD, WHAT SHOES GO WITH MY LITTLE BLACK DRESS? And tights.  Need tights.  What else?  Little black dress, jewellery, shoes, tights.  Make up.  Right.  That’s sorted.  That’s everything, yes?  No, you daft bint.  It’s a writing festival. You can’t go to a writing festival without a notebook.  And a pen.  What size notebook?  A big notebook? Or a little one?  How much will I be carrying around?  Do I need a handbag or my rucksack? Shall I put my handbag inside my rucksack? OH MY GOD I NEED A CLUTCH BAG TO GO WITH THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS! Thank God I thought of that.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  Underwear.  Easy.  Toothbrush.  Easy. Paracetamol.  Loads, in every pocket of my suitcase.  Easy.  WE’VE GOT TO GO SOON. Tickets.  Where are my train tickets?  Have I put them in already?  Where?  What time’s my train? Ten past.  OK.  Plenty of time.  Ten past.  Hang on.  BUGGER, TRAIN GOES AT TEN TO.  NEED TO GO!  Check list. Yep. Two notebooks, one big, one small.  Ear plugs.  Paracetamol.  Warm clothes.  Hang on.  It’s not that cold.  Why was everyone saying it was going to be cold?  Because they’re all coming up from the south, you idiot.  You’re used to it, you’re going to be too hot.  Chuck in a T-shirt just in case.  And another one.  Maybe make it three altogether?  So.  Got everything.  Let’s go.  HANG ON I HAVEN’T HAD ANY BREAKFAST YET!  I FORGOT BREAKFAST!  And lunch?  What do I do about lunch?? Hadn’t thought about lunch.  Will have to pick up something from M&S at the station.  Is there an M&S at York station?? There’ll be something.  It’s York.  There’ll be a Waitrose.  GOT TO GO, NOW!  Right, everything’s in the car.  Let’s go.  Go the back way, avoid the traffic.  No, that way.  Left here.  Left.  Left!  Oh, OK, I meant right.  HANG ON, I’VE FORGOTTEN MY PHONE!  Turn round, drop me off, turn the car round, it’s OK I’ve got the spare key, just wait here a second, IT’S ALRIGHT IT WAS IN MY POCKET.  Right.  To the station.  There’s a lorry.  There’s a lorry turning round in the station car park.  There’s a lorry turning round in the station car park and it’s stuck.  It should never have tried to turn round in the station car park.  There’s not enough room for it to turn round in the station car park.  We’re going to be late.  I’ll get out here.  It’s OK, I can manage.  Honestly.  Love you, see you Sunday.  Don’t forget the washing.  Yes, love you too.  WATCH OUT FOR THE LORRY!

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Not in my name

Hello?  Hello?  Yes, hi – is that the English Defence League?

Great.  Yeah, I’m thinking I might join, but I just wanted to check a couple of things first.  Is that OK?

So, first question. You know you say ‘English’?  Well, I’m quite a lot English, but I am half Welsh as well, and I think there might be a bit of Irish too – way back though.  Is that OK?

Brilliant.  Yeah, like you say, we’re all a bit of a mix, aren’t we? And my husband’s family go right back to the Vikings, you can’t get more English than that, can you?

So I just wanted to check who it is you’re defending us against.  ‘Cause, you know, I don’t want to get the wrong people.  It’s Muslims, isn’t it – because of their religion?

Right.  Only – I just wanted to ask – you know when the IRA was blowing up bombs in England, and killing soldiers outside their barracks and stuff, would you have protested against the Catholics – you know, outside Catholic churches and the places where Catholics get together, maybe thrown bricks through their windows, that sort of thing?  It’s just – well, like I said, there’s a bit of Irish in the family and I am a Catholic myself.  Well, I’m a lapsed Catholic.  Still go to mass at Christmas.  Not been to confession for a while though, I have to confess, haha!  But wouldn’t really want to get involved if you were having a go at the Catholics. That wouldn’t feel right at all.

Oh, so it’s not actually about the religion then?  What is it, then, the skin colour?  I mean, they look different to us, don’t they?  Like a dark colour?  But what worries me about that is, my sister’s just had this really bad fake tan done, you know when they come out looking like a really dark orange?  I told her she shouldn’t go to that salon, they’re rubbish, but – well, I don’t want to have to threaten her with a baseball bat or anything.

Great – so it’s not really just the colour of the skin that makes the difference.  Phew!  I was worried there for a minute!  No, you’re right.  It’s more about being different from us, isn’t it?  Like, it’s in the blood, the way they were born? Yeah, I can see that.  There’s a lad down the road was born with no arms.  You mean like that, a sort of genetic thing? Only – well, he’s a nice kid.  It’s not his fault he was born like that.  I wouldn’t want any harm to come to him.

So, perhaps not quite like that.  Is it the threatening our traditional way of life? You mean like Tesco’s Express?  Hey, I could go round and paint some obscene slogans on the front of the new supermarket down the road!

Oh.  Oh, OK.  Sorry, it’s taking me a while to get my head round this but, you know, I want to be sure I’ve got it absolutely right.  Don’t want to pick a fight for no reason, do I?  That would be just daft! So if it’s not just their religion, or the colour of their skin, or the fact that they’re just different to the rest of us –

Right.  Yes.  Some individuals motivated by wrong headed religious and political thinking committed a truly horrific murder.  So you need to defend us against people who think and act like that.  Yeah, I see where you’re coming from there.

Only … Well, that sounds like you’re saying that the people who are paid and trained and constitutionally established to defend us against people like that – you know, the police and the armed forces – well, it sounds like you don’t think they’re up to the job.  Like you think they aren’t good enough to manage it without your help.

And that sounds to me a bit like you’re undermining them – you know, the people who put their lives on the line to protect and serve this country.  The people who perhaps have more right and reason to carry a British flag with pride than either you or I could ever hope for.

In fact, it sort of sounds like you think they don’t deserve your support.  Because you think it’s your job to defend this country. Because they’re just rubbish at it.

So have I got that right?  The English Defence League is here to defend us against the incompetent forces of law and order in this country?

Great.  I’m so glad I’ve sorted that out in my mind.  That makes so much more sense than, y’know, mindless violence and unfounded prejudice.

But – well – sorry, but I don’t think it’s for me.

Because actually, you don’t really make any sense at all.

Not in my mind.

And not in my name.

Thanks anyway.

Bye.

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This week in politics

It’s been quite a week on Twitter – and yes, it is still only Wednesday.  And I’m angry.  But not for the obvious reasons.

The death of Margaret Thatcher unleashed, predictably, a storm of opposing views – cheers from one end, mawkish hagiography from the other, and somewhere between the two a bunch of nice people saying ‘please don’t be nasty’ and trying to keep the two sides apart like primary school teachers between two gangs of six foot teenagers.

Full disclosure:  I hated Margaret Thatcher’s policies, and the effect those policies had on our country, our culture, our economy.  I missed by six months being allowed to vote in the election that saw her become our first woman Prime Minister.  I remember sitting up till the wee small hours to watch the results with my landlady;  Hazel, a true blue Somerset Tory, was cheering.  I was sitting with my head in my hands.  And moving to Sheffield a year or so later, I became much more aware of the effects of that election win.  One of my early memories of living up north is of people knocking on my front door asking for donations of tinned food for the striking miners’ families.  I gave them soup and baked beans.  Travelling to Doncaster in a battered old mini to buy a new front door, we were stopped and turned back by the police – a routine event at the time, as they tried to prevent people joining the picket lines.  And absolutely, when Margaret Thatcher finally left Downing Street I was not sorry to see her go.

But whilst Thatcher was the dominant personality and figurehead, it was the policies that mattered to me, not the person.  Christianity separates the sinner from the sin; I tend to take the same approach to politics.  Once Margaret Thatcher was gone from power she didn’t matter to me any more.  If, as Russell Brand did, I’d spotted her watering the roses in Temple I’d have goggled at her in the same way I would any other famous face.  And I would wish her no more harm than I would any other human being.  The fact that the policies were still in place, that the administration in charge was still the same flavour, that was what mattered. So it wasn’t until later, when finally in 1997 it was the Conservative government as a whole that was thrown out, that I actually cheered.

Anyway, so much for all that.  These are the discussions that have raged across the Twittersphere and other bits of the media for a couple of days now, and inevitably the really hateful are still really full of hate (because they always will be), and the hagiographers are being mawkish and sentimental (because they always will be) and the primary school teachers and the teenagers are starting to have the ‘was it me that upset you?’ ‘yes but I still love you and actually I don’t entirely disagree but perhaps you could look at it from this way?’ conversations. And I didn’t write this blog just to reiterate all that.

I wrote this blog because today, even more than I was on Monday, I am angry.  Really, really angry.  Because, guys, you know what’s just happened?

All that protest that was building over this week’s changes to benefits and our welfare system?  Wiped out of the news.

All the articles and debates about the bedroom tax, cuts to DLA, children in poverty, families at food banks, single people unable to survive, a young journalist freezing to death while trying to experience a week of homelessness?  Wiped out of the news.

Complete disbelief and abhorrence of the misuse by David Cameron and George Osborne of the tragic and murderous death of six children?  Wiped out of the news.

The delivery of a petition signed by over half a million people calling on Iain Duncan Smith to stand by his comment that he could live on £53 a week?  Wiped out of the news.

This, with the deepest and most dreadful irony, is Margaret Thatcher’s final political act.  Unwittingly, randomly, she has provided the ultimate smokescreen for the first Conservative government in a generation to act with impunity.  The bubble of public opinion that was building has been popped, and will probably now never reach an effective climax.  The news agenda has moved on.  Changes to our welfare system have been in the public domain for a long time, but people only really started to get angry as the date of implementation drew near – because that was when they hit the headlines.  And then the headlines changed.  Oh boy, did they change. Full page cover pictures, twenty page pull outs, an ongoing stream of historical analysis and reminiscence and memoir, all linked and retweeted and argued over, again and again and again.  And we all fell for the distraction.

So the moment passed, and by the time the funeral is over Twitter will have forgotten, the chattering classes will have been enraged by something else, and the poor will just have to put up with being bloody poor.  And starving.  And cold.  And above all, voiceless.

And that’s not just about the poor.  That’s about how, just as Margaret Thatcher changed the fabric of our society and made it something many of us hated, David Cameron and George Osborne have just done exactly the same thing.  They have built on her legacy and compounded the damage.  Right here, right now, they are doing exactly that, and holding a funeral and a memorial debate in the House of Commons isn’t going to distract them for long.

But while Margaret Thatcher got the poll tax riots in response to her policies, Cameron and Osborne get a Twitterstorm about the death of an elderly lady.

I suspect that on Monday, somewhere deep in Number 10, someone poured themselves a glass of whisky and raised a toast: to the passing of Margaret Thatcher, their much loved former leader; and now, at the last, their political saviour.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what’s made *me* angry this week.

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Coffee break: for Ian

I’ve always enjoyed the work, written and spoken, of Ian McMillan.  The Bard of Barnsley, the poet with the rumpled voice, he approaches words with a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his step and passion in his heart.

Following him on Twitter (@imcmillan) I have learned that there are always opportunities to find glints of poetic gold in the most ordinary of situations, if only one chooses to notice.  One day, maybe, I’ll write a collection of short stories based on Ian’s ‘morning stroll’ tweets, his simple observations of his surroundings, 140 characters of pure poetry drawn from the supposedly mundane.  And there’s the potential for a fabulous film noir to be drawn from his accounts of his railway journeys crisscrossing the Pennines from Yorkshire to the den of iniquity that is Media City.

In the meantime this is a small tribute,  a moment that, inspired by Ian, I chose to notice.

Coffee break

A coffee shop in the middle of a shopping centre in the middle of a middle sized Yorkshire town.  The clientele: me, writing; groups of older middle aged women, chatting and eating slices of chocolate cake with their tea.  The coffee shop staff bustle and chat with the customers, many of whom seem to be old friends.  Arms are put around shoulders, trays are carried to tables, bags of shopping are peered into with interest.

A man dressed in freshly pressed jeans and a checked shirt, the sort with large, pastel coloured pink and blue checks, sits alone at a table.  He has a pot of tea, a hessian bag-for-life and a large bottle of mineral water.  Arranged in front of him on the table is a selection of family photographs, each in their own plastic sleeve, propped up against the tea pot; a girl, a family group, the same girl again, this time with someone more likely a friend than a sister to judge by the skin colour.  On the chair next to him, a large pile of CDs. One of the CDs has a cover patterned with bright pink flowers against a bright blue background.

The man wears earphones, small black earphones, and is singing along gently to himself. He looks around frequently at the passing shoppers, the movement of his head exaggerated, and he smiles broadly as though having a conversation with a good friend.  There is no-one with him.  Every now and then, presumably as the music builds to a climax, he sings a loud phrase, a few notes, wordless and not entirely tuneful.  Sometimes it is an ‘ah-ahhhh’, sometimes a ‘wooooooh’. Then he looks around again, and smiles again.  No-one in the café takes any notice.

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The in-between year

It’s been bothering me for a while now; pretty much the last few months, as the end of the year started to draw into sight, the darkness of the nights and the anticipation of Christmas heralding the shifting of the earth into winter’s chill. Something didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

But I’ve just worked out what it is. 2013. That’s it. Twenty thirteen. It’s an odd year. I don’t mean odd as opposed to even. Those come around with predictable regularity. I mean it’s an odd year.

It’s a year that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. The 21st century has had its infancy (all champagne and fireworks at its birth), and made it through the terrible twos, the first years of nursery and early learning. By the time it was ten it thought it was the biggest kid in the playground, and then it suddenly had to adjust to not being quite as great as it thought it was. By the time it was twelve it knew life wasn’t always easy, but it could still look back and see the 20th century watching over it.

But thirteen. That’s an awkward age. It’s that point where you know you can’t go on being a child but you’re not yet a proper teenager. It’s not the first year of double figures, but it isn’t quite time for high heels and makeup. It’s the year that is awkward and uncomfortable, full of uncertainties and doubts, when no-one quite knows what to give you for your birthday any more so all you get are tokens and vouchers. It’s the year for starting to explore your identity, to work out who you are, how you want to look, what sort of music you like. It’s the year to start practising to be older than you are, but the year when you’re not going to let go of being a child. It’s the lost year. The one where you tread water, get through, draw breath and worry a lot before knuckling down to the really hard work.

It’s an interim year. A year that doesn’t really matter in itself, but that has to be there, to provide that bridge between one thing and another, one stage and another, one life and another. It’s the year for doing your homework, for taking in new knowledge, not for the sake of the knowledge itself but for the insight it will give you later. It’s the year that leads to fourteen, which is when things start to get really interesting.

Now I’ve worked that out it’s not bothering me any more. I can relax; it’s fine. I could do with an in-between year. I plan to make good use of it.

Twenty thirteen? That’ll do. Bring it on.

 

 

 

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