Some time in the past, ten years ago or probably more, someone told me they thought I was quite a moral person. I can’t even remember what it was in relation to, but it has always stuck with me. Mainly because, at the time, I don’t think it was particularly true. Sure, I thought of myself as broadly a good person, but what good did I actually do? How often did I do what I thought was right above what I actually wanted to do? What did I do help others? Did I have a moral code, and if so, did I try to live by it?
It hurts more when it’s close to home. When lives are lost in faraway parts of the world, people on social media ask why we pay less attention to those tragedies than ones which happen nearby. And they’re right, of course, a human life is a human life, those who are close to us are not more valuable than any other. But the fact remains, whether it’s fair and just or not, that it hurts more when it’s close to home, when we can imagine it happening to us.
Manchester is not my home now, but it was for over a decade, from age 18. It is the place where I found my closest friends, some of whom live there still. It is the place that took a shy, miserable teenager, and showed him how joyful life could be. There was no better city to be a young music lover. My life in Manchester revolved around concerts, record shops and nightclubs, at venues from the tiny Star and Garter to, inevitably, the Manchester Arena.
I get a lot of people coming up to me for a chat when I’m with my daughter, so it wasn’t a surprise when we were sat in the cafe and a woman, perhaps in her sixties, wandered over to us. Her opening gambit was to stare at my daughter in a mildly unnerving manner, which worried me a little, but when she started talking to me it was the usual questions “what’s her name?”, “how old is she?” and so on. This woman had a tendency to repeat herself, and her memory seemed like it might to be starting to go a little, but it wasn’t the difficult conversation with the crazy stranger I had been concerned it might be.
A few minutes later, a man she was with, a little younger, wandered over too, his conversational skills consisting mainly of non-sequiters like “we’ve been to Derby on holiday”, but he was pleasant enough, and my daughter happily munched away on her croissant while I chatted with these strangers. Presently the man wandered off, and the woman seemed as if she was going to leave too, but changed her mind. She started to talk about the man, it becoming apparent he was her son. “He has that Aspergers, have you heard of it?” “It was hard, because they didn’t know for a long time” “It was hard”, she kept repeating.
It’s that time of year when we start to think about change, and how we might do things differently in 2016. Even if you don’t believe in resolutions as such, it’s hard not to take stock of your life at the start of a new year. As well as the usual vague plans about doing more exercise, eating more healthily, reading more etc. etc, my main aim for the year is more nebulous, to be a better person and do more good.
I like to think of myself as a good person (and who doesn’t?), but what do I actually do to make the world a better place? I hope I’m a decent husband, father and friend, and everyone of those things in its’ tiny way does make the world a little better. But other than that? Not so much really. I haven’t especially gone out of my way to perform charitable deeds, or to live my life in an ethical manner, and my attempts to be a good person are mainly limited to trying to avoid doing bad things, rather than actively doing good.
Fatherhood has been one of the triggers leading to me wanting to become a better man. When children first develop a sense of right and wrong, it tends to be very black and white (although they are also rather good at ignoring it when it suits them), as they have not yet been exposed to the inevitable compromises of the adult world. When my daughter grows old enough to ask moral questions, I want to be able answer them without (always) feeling like a hypocrite. Which means that I need to spend more time doing what I believe is right.
As an example, a little while back I stopped eating meat. I’d been concerned for a long time about the meat industry, and also the impact of meat consumption on the environment, but I’d never done much about it. I’m certainly not to claim eating meat is inherently wrong. I did for 35 years, and may well end up going back to it. Plus, I still eat fish and dairy, which plenty of people would think is poor form. The point is that I did what I thought was right, even if it meant giving up something I enjoy. So more of this kind of thing is my aim in 2016.
Fatherhood, however, can also be an excuse for not doing the right thing. Many a person abandons their principles in the name of doing what’s best for their family (an example being people who profess their hatred of the inequities of private education, then send their children to private school anyway when they can afford it). Also, my time is more limited than ever and my number one priorities are my wife and child, so it can be hard to find the time for good deeds and helping others. I suppose what I’m looking for is, in the words of Homer Simpson, something noble but easy. I suspect, however, that this may be hard to find.
No doubt 2016 will be a year of compromise, as every year seems to be, but I hope I can find ways to live up to my own moral code and the time to do the odd good deed. I shall have to read this piece again on 31st December, and see those hopes were fulfilled. Happy new-ish year everyone.
2015 has been a wonderful year for many reasons, not least watching my daugher grow from baby to child. I feel perhaps more contented this year than I ever have before. But it’s also been a year of loss, with death and mortality never too far from my mind.
The first piece I wrote this year was on Broadcast’s Trish Keenan, love and loss. My father, who passed in 1996 has been in my thoughts more than usual, now that I’m living back in Leeds, just round the corner from his old flat. A more than usually high number of friends and colleagues seem to have lost people close to them this year, although perhaps these things are just affecting me more now than they ever did before. Most significantly, back in March, my friend Nick Mann was killed in a tragic accident, and he and his death have been on my mind ever since.
Once you start thinking about death, you’ll find reminders everywhere, often where you least expect them. I remember sitting down with my wife to eat a takeaway the week after Nick died. We were searching for something light to watch with our meal, and settled on Series 2, Episode 2 of Inside Number 9. If you’re not familiar with the series it’s a comedy, dark and macabre at times, but essentially pretty silly. However, this particular episode proved to be one of the most devastating half hours of TV we’d ever seen, especially given the news we’d just had (I won’t spoil it, but it deserves to be seen if you haven’t already). By the end of the episode I was weeping into my falafel wrap, but also half laughing at what a spectacularly bad choice of entertainment we’d made.
Even watching Peter Kay’s Car Share, which is about as gentle as comedy gets, made me sad when they started talking of what song they’d have played at their funeral. I used to joke that I’d like the theme music to Johnny Briggs as it seemed the most jaunty and inappropriate tune imaginable for a funeral, but it’s not a subject I’ve wanted to joke about so much recently.
With mortality so much on my mind, I’ve found myself pondering more than usual what life would be like if I lost someone close to me. It’s not unusual or wrong, I think, to worry about these things, but I’d rather enjoy the company of those I love than spend time worrying about what would happen if they were no longer around.
The one person whose death I have never been able to think about is my daughter. There’s no reason I would want to think of such a dark topic of course. However I now know a number of parents who’ve lost children in vastly different circumstances, from my friends who lost their son Theo, after just a few hours of life, to Nick’s mother, losing her oldest son completely out of the blue. So, in a way, it wouldn’t be surprising if I imagined losing her. However, when I say I it’s impossible to think about my daughter’s death, I don’t just mean that it’s difficult or tragic to do so, I mean I literally cannot. If my mind even begins to wander in that direction, it shuts off or changes tack completely, a protection mechanism of sorts, I guess. I’ve even found it hard to write this, feeling somehow that death, especially the death of a child, is a taboo subject, but the one thing that everyone I know who has lost someone close has said is that they want people to talk about it, to not be afraid to bring the subject up.
Today, in Mexico, is the Day of the Dead, a festival to celebrate and remember those we have lost, and that seems a much healthier attitude to death to me, even if it is an attitude that I sometimes struggle to hold. I’ve just read back the tribute I wrote for Nick back in March, and my main emotions are the time were sadness and anger. That’s still the case today, but I feel it’s starting to change. Should I be sad that Nick is no longer around, or happy that I was lucky enough to know him for 15 years? The latter, of course, even if it is easier said than done.
So today, and this day every year, I’ll be with the ones I love the most and remember those we have lost. I’ll remember Nick and smile at his ways. For some reason the time he chased two burly men who had stolen his chips up Oxford Road in Manchester always springs to mind, as do his fits of giggles at the clown college episode of The Simpsons. I’ll remember the good times with my dad, the trips to the seaside, the games of football in the garden, the staying up late watching Monty Python. I never met Theo, but I’ll remember his funeral, and how much love and support from friends and family was in the house of my friends that day. And everyone else we have lost, or will lose as the years roll on, I will remember them too, until I become one of those who is remembered.
Just as importantly, I’ll think of all those I love who are still here and how lucky I am to have so many people in my life who make me happy, even if I don’t see all of them as much as I would like. Some of those people will be reading this, and if so, I hope you know who you are, but if not I promise not to wait until it’s too late to let you know.