Er, is this thing on? Ok here goes…..It all started on a grey weekday afternoon. Mummy was at work. I was cuddled up on the sofa with my young son watching He-Man on Netflix.
I could tell his attention was starting to waver as he began to ask me deep questions, which was unfortunate because it was getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacked Castle Greyskull.
He looked at me (my son, not Skeletor), golden curls framing his little face, eyes filled with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and asked: ‘Daddy, what’s a daddy for?’ I gave a throaty laugh, the sort which is supposed to mean ‘It’s truly adorable that you are so precocious but could you please shut up now.’ Jocular and proud, but with just a tiny hint of threat. But he kept at it, asking again, ‘But Daddy, what is a daddy for?’ the inflection in his voice rising at the end of the question as if he was pondering the utter pointlessness of the whole concept of daddies.
Worryingly I couldn’t think of an answer immediately. My usual tactic when faced with a tricky question (‘Ask mummy’) seemed not to be appropriate at this moment. Instead I settled for diversion tactics, bashing him repeatedly over the head with a cushion while doing my best evil giant voice and telling him I was going to use his bones as toothpicks.
However, the whole episode did start me thinking in a new way about the absolutely terrifying beautiful maddening wonder of being a parent and how it changes everything about your life. Usually when I start thinking I start writing. This blog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
I was walking through the thick crowd of mourners at a funeral when I saw on the other side of the road a man who looked uncomfortable wearing a suit. He was nodding in my direction.
The individual made his way through the throng, grabbed my arm and addressed me by name. I was at a disadvantage in that while I was sure I should know who he was, I didn’t immediately recognise him.
I stammered as I tried to cover my foolishness and embarrassment, but my face must have given the game away because the man immediately realised my predicament and seemed delighted by it. He began to laugh. It was the warmth of the mischievous smile which gave it away.
‘Brian’, I said. ‘Brian Hutton’.
That meeting of two journalists last October, was on an occasion of almost unbearable sadness. We were in Creeslough to cover the final funerals for the victims of the terrible explosion which had devastated the tiny Co Donegal village. However, even on that most sombre of days, meeting Brian was enough to bring a chink of warmth into my heart. We had not seen each other for the best part of two decades and quickly agreed to grab a coffee.
I first met Brian Hutton in the early years of this millennium when we were reporters at the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. I had been the youngest male journalist in the Belfast newsroom until Brian, a proud Londonderry man, arrived. Being of a similar age and unmarried, we began to socialise together. I remember that he didn’t know a lot of people in the city and we enjoyed a few evenings laughing over pints in the Duke of York bar.
Brian loved to go for long walks (a pursuit I was happy to join him in) as well as to swim in the sea (in which I was happy not to join him). He also loved to eat and I loved to cook, so I made dinner for him a few times. He seemed completely intrigued when he discovered that I baked my own bread and I remember one evening he watched captivated as I kneaded dough as if it was a practice of some mystical importance. When I made loaves, I would often bake an extra one and then wrap it in tinfoil for Brian.
The passing of time means that most of the details of the time I spent working or socialising with Brian Hutton have faded. What I do remember is the shared laughter and his insatiable desire to absorb all the details of a good story. He would listen intently when you told him a yarn or an anecdote, sucking in the details like they were oxygen.
He was also dedicated to his work. On one evening shift he was sent to cover a riot in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. He must have got too close because he ended up injured and was taken to the emergency department of a local hospital, becoming the subject of the story rather than the author.
I suppose over a period of about a year we became friends. If things had kept going in that direction, we may have become very close friends, but I sensed from early on Brian’s restlessness. He seemed to quickly outgrow Belfast and wanted a new challenge. After little more than a year working alongside me, he left the paper in search of different opportunities. We shared a last few pints before his departure and said all the usual things about staying in touch. I have no doubt that we both meant it.
Brian went to work as a reporter in Dublin. I saw his byline in countless newspapers covering major news events over the ensuing years. Perhaps as some sort of acknowledgement of the time we had spent together, I always took an extra few minutes to read a story when I knew he had written it.
And then, on that cold and windy day in Creeslough, he was again sitting across the table from me in a little café. It was far from ideal circumstances for blowing the dust off an old friendship. We were both undoubtedly affected by the surfeit of human suffering we were in the middle of, and both likely felt weighed down by the responsibility of having to file copy from the funerals. I know that I am not the best company when I have imminent work commitments which must be met.
But, despite it all, we chatted warmly for about half an hour. There were a few ‘d’ye remember the day when…’ tales exchanged. We tried to work out the amount of years it had been since we had last spoken and commented on how careless we had been in letting the acquaintance lapse. We talked about adventures in parenthood and how our lives had changed since becoming fathers. I sensed immediately how devoted he was to his young daughter.
I studied the now middle-aged man who sat across from me. The hair was slightly longer than I remembered. There was more weight around the neck and middle and lines at the edges of his features. However, the sense of mischief in the eyes was undiminished, the kindness and love of hearing the details of human experience remained. I felt better for seeing him.
We exchanged numbers before we parted and said that we would make a point of meeting again. I have no doubt that we both meant it.
It was just two months later, in the final hours of 2022, that I got a message informing me that Brian Hutton had died. I was with family to celebrate the end of the year. After I got the message, I retreated to a quiet room as I attempted to absorb the information. I shared the details with my wife and we both sat silently.
Perhaps there was a selfishness in the shock. I have known a few people who have died, but not from my own generation, not someone I had worked and shared so much common experience with. Brian was younger than me.
‘It’s too soon,’ I mumbled to my wife. ‘Far, far too soon.’
To give an idea of the vintage, it has been in my possession for roughly twice as long as my son has been alive – and on his next birthday he will reach double figures. I bought it second-hand when I was a young man in my 20s.
The method is simple. There is a little filter on the top into which I place ground coffee. Then I add water and fresh coffee drips into the clear jug below.
I like black coffee with no sugar and have never developed much of a taste for instant brands. I would estimate that I have used the old machine to make thousands of cups of the bitter, steaming black liquid over the years. I drink a coffee first thing after I wake, another around mid-morning, another at lunch and maybe one in the afternoon. I try to avoid coffee at night because I have enough trouble sleeping. I have few ambitions left in life, but one is certainly to just once more get through a night’s rest without having to rise to go to the toilet.
I would freely admit that the old coffee maker is not a thing of beauty. It is large and clunky with a garish silver and black exterior which looks like it belongs to another time. It takes up a lot of space on the kitchen counter and my wife complains incessantly about how ugly it is. When we have visitors, she insists that I hide it.
It is also high maintenance. After each use I have to remove several parts to be rinsed and washed. This has to be done a number of times every day. The wet ground coffee is messy stuff which has a troubling habit of spilling out when I’m cleaning the machine and ending on the floor like the droppings of a prolific mouse.
And, like myself, the machine is starting to show its age. It doesn’t do things quite the way it once did. Sometimes it makes a gurgling noise and emits steam, but no coffee appears. When this happens, I turn it off and on and hit it with several hearty slaps until normality is restored. The coffee does not taste exactly the way it once did, certainly it is unrecognisable from what it served in cafes.
The situation deteriorated further a few months back when I dropped the plastic jug while removing it from the dishwasher. Part of the black handle snapped off and a long crack spread across the surface. My wife assumed that this would put the machine beyond use, but she underestimated my persistence.
I began to stuff the area around the machine with kitchen roll because black coffee now leaked slowly from the crack in the jug. Moreover, because the handle was no longer intact, I had to use oven gloves to hold the jug when I poured the boiling liquid (please do not try this at home!) Worse, because the fall had snapped off part of the lip of the jug, it meant that every time I tried to pour a cup the majority of the coffee would end up on the counter, the floor or over my trousers. Every time I wanted a cup, I had to produce about three times as much coffee as I needed. My wife despaired, but still I went on.
And then, on one black and frosty morning in December, my machine stopped producing hot coffee. I went through the usual torturous routine only to discover that the end product was freezing cold. I tried again and the result was the same. I endured the processes of turning it on and off and walloping it with my hand, but nothing worked. I had to admit the sad reality – it was dead.
‘There’s something wrong with this flipping coffee machine!’ I shouted upstairs to my wife. She did not respond, although I had a strong suspicion that she had heard what I said. I went to the front room and sat on the sofa in the dark, sadly contemplating the rest of my life without coffee. I might have cried a little.
On Christmas morning there were two brightly wrapped presents for me under the tree from my wife and son. I eagerly ripped them open to discover one contained a new coffee machine, and the other coffee capsules.
I eyed the machine suspiciously. It was not the same as the old one. It was smaller and this device worked through the insertion of the little capsules, rather than ground coffee. Furthermore, the instructions said it made Americano, cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate and multiple other drinks. Sniffily, I set the box aside and put my mind to other tasks.
Later in the day I set the machine up on the counter. I had to admit it looked better, being more compact, shinier and sleeker. But the instructions seemed to run to several hundred pages and were mostly indecipherable. I left it again.
I didn’t sleep well that night, tortured by dreams of my old machine. I rose disturbingly early on St Stephen’s morning and headed determinedly for the kitchen. I had braced myself for an ordeal but discovered instead that the new machine was simple to use. It was also much more practical and cleaner. But the most compelling point was the coffee, I had to admit it was far superior.
As I sat at the kitchen table contentedly sipping the black liquid, I went through a process of self-reflection. I thought about how my stubbornness and inability to change had ensured that I had held onto the old machine for years longer than was surely sensible. I shuddered at how annoying my habits must be for those who live with me.
I fear change, but often it turns out that change can make things better. This seemed like a useful lesson to take on board at the start of a new year. I ran excitedly upstairs to my wife who was sleeping.
‘Wake up! Wake up! I’ve figured out the new coffee machine! It’s awesome!’
‘Come on, get up! I can offer you Americano, cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate….’
‘Go away, let me sleep!’ she protested, pulling the duvet over her head.
The evening is crisp. The clouds cannot entirely cover the brilliant illumination of the moon. To the delight of my son, our cold breath is visible in the night air.
As the car engine reluctantly grumbles into life, I fiddle with the dial on the radio. I know that even on my ancient vehicle there is the facility to automatically store the channels I like to listen to. But still I am drawn to doing it manually.
I find something I like and turn the volume up slightly. Not quite in tune, I mumble the words of the familiar old carol under my breath.
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone.
I don’t get much further as my son complains about my choice of music. He wants to listen to something electronic on mummy’s phone. I smile indulgently and click the radio back to silent.
It is a short drive to the centre of the village. The same drive that we undertake every morning on the way to school. I am still humming the melody composed by Holst as the car crawls up the hill.
We are early and I’m half expecting us to be the first to arrive at the Christmas tree. Instead, as I drive past, I see that a small crowd has already gathered and a brass band is playing. I drive on a bit, passing a few empty parking spaces and pretending not to hear the playful protests of my wife and son. On a bitter but dry Sunday night, it is a shame not to have a short walk.
As we dander back down the hill I see the little bakery has stayed open late, offering free hot chocolate for under 12s. We enter and order steaming drinks and a cookie iced to look like a reindeer for my boy. My wife chats briefly with the shop owner.
By the time we get to the tree, several hundred people are there. The crowd is bigger than I had expected. I think about how, due to Covid, this is the first time in three years we have been able to hold this event. Perhaps we appreciate it a little bit more now.
A woman hands out little books with the words of carols. I remove my gloves and take one. I brought the gloves to protect my hands against the harsh winter chill, but I can’t turn the pages or take photos on my phone when I’m wearing them. They become just one more unwelcome thing to carry.
I study the handsome large tree with the oversized golden baubles in the little clearing in front of the crowd. The brass band, now playing Away in a Manger, are seated to the side. Some children run around the tree and we exchange greetings with other parents.
Take away the Covid years, and this is an annual tradition. I think about how I stood in much the same spot when my son was still in a buggy. Another year when mummy carried him sleeping through the ceremony. Another when he sat high on my shoulders to get a better view of the tree. Another when he rolled his eyes and complained throughout that he was bored.
Now, he is standing almost as tall as his daddy. I put a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he turns around and gives me a quizzical stare.
A brief prayer service begins. There are clergy here from the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Catholic churches. I have a slight feeling of being an imposter, in that I do not follow any faith. I comfort myself with the sense of welcoming which comes from being within a crowd. Messages of concern are expressed for those who are struggling to cope this winter. This is a sentiment which is common, I hope, to those with faith and without.
Then the carols begin. I open the little white book and begin to belt out the lyrics of Once in Royal David’s City as a giant tuba honks beside me.
I have always had complex feelings of insecurity about my own voice and a fear of singing in public. I have been known to lip-sync during renditions of Happy Birthday at parties. Perhaps now, close to 50, I have reached a point where I just don’t care anymore. I summon the notes from somewhere deep inside my lungs and project them high into the cold night air.
I notice that the louder I sing, the more it seems to amuse my son. This encourages me to increase the volume even more. Soon he is opening his mouth wide and waving his arms in a comic impression of an opera singer as he mimics my enthusiasm.
My lusty efforts continue through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night. By the time we reach Mendelssohn’s Hark! The Herald Angels Sing I believe I am rivalling the deep blasts of the tuba.
The mayor comes to the microphone to herald the lighting of the Christmas tree. He leads the children in a countdown from five. When he reaches zero nothing happens and there is mirth within the crowd. The mayor begins another countdown, this time from 10. Eventually the tree is illuminated to cheers and applause. The shimmering vertical lines of white lights sparkle like tiny, distant stars.
The brass band comes to life again, this time with a more playful feel. They play Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I notice that my son is bouncing up and down in time to the melodies. I try to capture some footage of him on my phone, but he quickly notices, and I have to put the mobile back in my pocket.
The service finishes and the crowd quickly disperses. A small queue has formed outside the bakery. I hear a couple of men enquiring of each other about the score of the England match.
We walk up the hill towards our car. The air on this night in the bleak midwinter retains its harsh bite, but we all feel just a bit warmer now.
I am not an avid TV viewer, but I do have the capacity, when I discover a programme that I like, to become deeply immersed in the medium.
Recently I have found myself becoming enamoured, perhaps obsessed would be a better word, with the BBC show The Repair Shop.
For those unfamiliar with it, the premise is that people bring old family treasures which have seen better days to a team of experts who operate from a large wooden shed. The workmen and women use an array of traditional crafts to restore the irreplaceable items back to their former glory.
There are a couple of reasons why the format appeals to me. Firstly, I am fascinated by people who can do creative things with their hands; perhaps because I am so utterly unable to do anything remotely useful with my own.
The craftspeople display patience, tenacity and no small amount of ingenuity to solve practical riddles and achieve outcomes which would be beyond the majority of us. Skills and experience (and having the proper tools), combined with the steadiest of hands brings old teddies back to life, awakens clocks which have not ticked in years, makes ancient furniture shine and restores brilliance to flaking and crumbling paintwork.
But the labour is the smaller part of the attraction of the show for me. The second, and more important reason why I love it is because I am clearly turning into a sentimental old fool.
Each item brought into the wooden shed comes attached with a deeply personal memory for the owner. Those memories are shared with the restorers, who use it as motivation to achieve the best outcome. The moments when the treasures are returned to their owners, once again in the state that they fondly remembered, can be raw and uplifting.
The more that I watch the show, the harder I find it to control my emotions. Several times my wife and son have come into the room to find me pretending that I have something stuck in my eye before enduring their puzzled glances as I explain that a crack in a vase has been repaired or an armchair has been neatly re-upholstered.
What I am left with, after I wash my face, is a realisation that deep feelings can be attached to inanimate objects. A chair might be just a chair, but if it is a chair that a beloved family member who is no longer around once loved to sit in, then it becomes something much more valuable.
Which brings me to the next theme; that of age, decay and carelessness. The items are brought to the restorers because they are broken or worn out. Not always, but often, this is because the owner was not as careful as they might have been in younger years. Now that they are older, they more fully appreciate what has been lost and are desperate to retrieve it. It is memories, as well as old furniture and toys, which are being dusted off and polished.
I know something of this sense of youthful carelessness. I have always lived my life in the present, not troubling myself to bring much of the past along with me. All of my old teddies, toys, books, clothes, are long gone. Some memories remain, but there has never been anything physical to attach them on to.
And then some months ago I was rattling around in my dad’s garage when I noticed something which I had not seen or thought about in several decades, something which I had no reason to believe was still in existence. Proudly hanging from the wall was an old wooden sledge.
The story behind the sledge (or sled, or sleigh, if you prefer) is this. When I was a young child growing up on top of a hill in rural north Antrim my dad built it. I was so young that I have no memory of a time before the sledge and I assumed for years that it had been bought in a shop rather than made in our old garage.
It was rough but sturdy; a plywood sheet, hose tubing for runners and a length of baler twine attached to the front.
In those days snow seemed to be a more regular occurrence and was often formidable. I have one keen memory of a snowfall so deep that the drift came to the top of our front door and we were temporarily cut off from the rest of the world.
During every snowfall, the sledge was hauled out. My brother and I spent countless hours breathlessly pulling it up hills and across fields and howling with delight as we hurtled down the slopes.
I have a distant relationship with my older brother now, but there was a time when we were small enough to fit on the sledge together and held each other tight during the thrill of those descents.
There seemed to be no threshold of boredom with the sledge, no point where we had had enough. We would always have to be called in late at night because our hands were freezing and blue, our clothes were wet, and snot dripped from our noses. Often, when it snowed, finding us in the dark and icy conditions would be an ordeal for my dad because we had travelled far from home, dragging the sledge behind us in search of new adventure.
When you are experiencing this type of youthful abandon it is natural to assume that it will always be this way, that it will last forever. But it does not.
As I grew older the sledge was not hauled out of the garage so often, and then eventually not at all. We moved on from our country house and I didn’t think about it any longer, assuming it had rotted away like everything else I once owned.
But here, more than four decades later, I had discovered the sledge in my dad’s garage, almost entirely unaltered by time. As I stared at it, I was temporarily overcome and unsettled by the surge of memories and emotions which rushed through my mind faster than we used to descend the snowy hills.
I spent a long time looking at the sledge on that day, taking it down, running my hand across the rough surface, feeling the rub of the twine once more through my fingers.
It was just wood, nails and string, not much to look at. But it was also a bridge back to a different version of me, and to memories that were buried deep, but not quite gone. I was grateful to my dad for building the sledge, but even more for keeping it for all these years, for understanding better than I did the value of having a signpost back to the past.
Each time I visited my dad’s house after that I always had to get a look at the sledge. It wasn’t long before he gave in and told me to take it. It is in my house now, annoying my wife, who says a dusty old sledge shouldn’t be kept in the good room.
But I like to know it is there. I long for the next proper snowfall, so I can haul it outside once more, put my son on it and listen to him squeal with delight in the way that I did when I was a young boy.
As I said, I’m clearly turning into a sentimental old fool.
After several days of incessant rain, I am enjoying the relative novelty of the warm November sun on my face. Patches of blue have finally broken through in the sky and the day is crisp and clear.
However, in the distance I can see thick grey cloud obscuring the domed tip of Knocklayde, like a thick sauce poured over a steamed pudding. I know it will not be long until the next storm arrives.
I am in Armoy. It is a place which is at once familiar, yet alien to me. I grew up just a few miles from here. I travelled through the village every day on the school bus as a child. I still come this way when I am visiting home. I must have passed through here hundreds of times, but as I walk along the streets there is not much I recognise. It occurs that however many times I have been through Armoy, I never had much reason to visit Armoy.
I pass two men talking outside a shop. The familiar sing-song lilt of the north Antrim rural accent. I like to think I have maintained my brogue, but when I come anywhere near home and hear it expressed properly, the full majesty of the elongated vowels, the glorious twang of the couldnaes, didnaes and shouldnaes, I feel like an amateur.
I am with my son. We step off the street and down a set of steps which takes us to a damp path which is out of the direct sunlight. I hear the squelch of the wet autumn leaves under my feet and can feel some moisture coming through the soles of my shoes and into my socks.
The path takes us along the route of the river Bush. At one point the water seems to be barely moving at all, so leisurely is its journey. Then there is a change in its level and the river becomes a furious foam which gives way to an urgent rushing of water as the stream narrows. I stop to watch and listen for a few minutes.
We come to a small circular garden. There are signs and sculptures dedicated to motorbike riders, signifying the deep links between the small village and road racing. But this is not what I am looking for.
My son runs ahead, eager to solve a conundrum and gain my approval. He comes to a black bench and excitedly waves me over. There is a small silver plaque attached to the bench. It is in a state of neglect and the lettering is beginning to fade. I am just about able to make it out.
It reads: ‘LOVELY ARMOY. CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF UEL DEANE. WORLD FAMOUS IRISH TENOR. BORN IN ARMOY 1935.’
I do not know much of the story of Uel Deane. I do know that after his family left Armoy, they moved into a house in east Belfast next door to my grandparents, close to where George Best grew up.
There is little that can be found online about the career of Uel Deane. A few scant biographical details about his acting and singing career, a couple of old album covers and photographs, a small number of newspaper articles. He was successful in the 1970s, made numerous TV appearances and later settled in France. He died there in 2006.
In the early 1990s I was a broke student in Belfast. So severe was my poverty that I would regularly visit my granda’s house to scrounge a dinner. My granny had died some years earlier and my granda, who was blind, lived alone. I would help him to prepare the meal.
Despite his solitary state, my granda often had visitors. Once, when I arrived, there was a well-dressed man sitting in the front room. My granda introduced him as the ‘world famous singer Uel Deane’. I was initially sceptical as I had not heard of him and was unaccustomed to encountering world famous singers in the front room of my grandfather’s east Belfast terrace.
However, it soon became clear that this man had an imposing presence. We quickly bonded over our shared experiences growing up in north Antrim. When I told him that I was studying the poetry of Yeats at university he began to speak with authority on the work of the author. He was unfailingly gracious when it quickly became clear that he knew much more about the subject than I did. He told me, without any sense of self-importance, a little about his life in France and his career travelling the world as a singer. I regret that I cannot remember more about the encounter.
What I can remember clearly is getting instruction from my granda when it was time to go to the kitchen to start dinner. He had recently been given a new gadget which was aimed at making the process of peeling spuds easier for a man with no vision. It was essentially a basin with a hose attached. The end of the hose fitted onto the tap and water made the basin spin around. The potatoes were placed inside where a sand-paper-like surface removed the skins.
My granda was very proud of his potato peeler and, living an insular existence, believed it to be the pinnacle of engineering achievement. While I was in the tiny kitchen, Uel Deane entered and stood beside me. In good humour he explained that he had been ‘ordered to come and see this marvel of technology’. Thus, it came to pass that in the little kitchen of my granda’s Cregagh Road terrace I showed an internationally renowned Irish tenor how to peel potatoes as he wonderfully gave his full attention.
A few months ago, this dusty old memory resurfaced in my mind. There was no particular context or event which triggered it, just a recollection of something I had not thought about in years. I suppose the story represents someone who was very successful but had not forgotten where he had come from.
As I said, it proved to be infuriatingly difficult to find out more details about Uel. If he had been born 50 years later, I suppose there would be countless clips of him on YouTube. Instead, I found an old newspaper article which said there was a commemorative bench in Armoy. So, I decided to find it.
And here I am. I wipe some leaves off the seat and make a clumsy attempt to clean mud from it. I wonder how many people know the bench is here, how many come to visit and link it with a memory of the man described on the little plaque and by my granda as world famous. Beside me, I can sense my son is getting impatient. He wants to move on in search of new adventure. I take one last long look at the bench before we leave.
While certainly old-fashioned in outlook and instinctively suspicious of change, I am not opposed to progression.
If it becomes evident that an advancement or development has improved a product or service without any obvious drawback, then I can usually be won around to its value quite easily. It is why I am such an enthusiastic supporter of seedless grapes.
Recently, I received a letter advising me that my driving licence would soon expire, and I needed to apply for a new one.
I tend to live my life by the motto ‘Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today – put it off until next week instead’. And so, I stuffed the letter underneath my computer keyboard and erased it from my mind.
But I knew that eventually the ordeal would have to be faced (not to mention paid for). Renewing a driving licence is not a task one undertakes often in life. I had vague recollections of it being an arduous process, involving having to go to the chemist to get a photo taken, filling out a long and difficult form and then waiting in a queue in a government building.
But the world has moved on. I noticed from the letter that the application could be completed online and, to make the process even easier, I could even upload my own photograph. This seemed to be remarkable progress and, feeling quite light at such a sure sign of societal advancement, I left the job to a later date than was surely wise.
With a few days to spare before the expiration date I sat at my computer and began the process of applying for a new driving licence. The correspondence provided the information which allowed me to get through most of the stages quite quickly. I was in fine form.
I came to the section in which I had to provide a photograph. I whisked out my mobile, snapped a quick selfie, emailed and uploaded it. My mind was already racing ahead, beginning to think about what I would have for dinner.
The website rejected my photo.
I was slightly surprised and, to be honest, a little stung. As both the skills of the photographer and the features contained within the image were my own, it was hard not to take it personally.
Clearly, I was going to have to give this a little more thought. I went to my wife, handed her my phone and asked her to take a picture of me. I emailed and uploaded it.
The website rejected my photo.
This time I paid closer attention. The advice said: ‘This photo has failed the automated checks for the following reason: The lighting is too dark or uneven.’
I went back to my wife and told her they needed more light. I stood closer to the window. She took another picture. I emailed and uploaded it.
The website rejected my photo.
The site repeated the advice about the photo being too dark, but it had also detected a new offence. It read: ‘It looks like your eyes are closed.’
I stared at the photo. It was clear that my eyes were open. I scratched my head and returned to my wife. Now she displayed some frustration but took another photo. I emailed and uploaded it.
The website rejected my photo.
The warnings about the lighting and my eyes persisted, but now a third flank had been opened. It read: ‘There are reflections on your face.’
I looked hard. Reflections of what exactly? A hand shadow of a rabbit? The silhouette of the Sydney Opera House? Whatever the reflections were, I could not detect them.
I returned to my wife, who was by now understandably irritated. She reeled off a series of photographs of me. One by one I emailed and uploaded them.
And one by one the website rejected them.
The previous offences of being too dark, having eyes closed and reflections on my face remained, but some new ones were thrown into the pot.
Now it said: ‘It looks like your mouth is open.’
I went through all the photos. My mouth was defiantly closed.
The website usefully added: ‘Sometimes this is caused by facial hair.’
I scratched my head once more. I’ve been driving for 30 years, I would like to continue doing so. Up to now having a beard has never been an issue.
The website provided more useful information. At one point it advised: ‘You must keep your head straight and in the centre of the photo.’ Later it advised me that I should inform them if there is a ‘medical condition why you can’t open your eyes’.
By the end of it all my wife had taken 28 photographs. All had been rejected, and I was facing up to the prospect of a future relying on public transport.
There was only one option left. The website stated that I could go ahead with the application if I believed there was a compelling reason why my photo should be accepted (‘eg, a medical condition’). But it warned that this could delay the process, effectively leaving me with no licence.
I am naturally cautious. This seemed a cavalier step. I had no other choice. I ploughed ahead.
It warned me once again why my photo was unacceptable, listing the offences like a charge sheet.
‘The lighting is too dark or uneven.
‘There are reflections on your face.
‘It looks like your eyes are closed.
‘It looks like your mouth is open.’
Then, as if in some grand legal drama, I was invited to respond. There was an empty box in which I had to argue why I believed the photo should be used.
I knew I had to come up with a compelling argument, something which would draw upon the deepest reserves of my creativity and linguistic flair. I thought for a few moments. Then I typed…
‘The lighting is not dark or uneven.
‘There are not reflections on my face.
‘My eyes are not closed.
‘My mouth is not open.’
I submitted the photo and my dazzling arguments. Another page popped up with a further question.
‘Do you have a plain expression? Your mouth must be closed, and you must not be smiling, frowning or raising your eyebrows.’
I was frowning and raising my eyebrows as I read it.
I was asked to pick one of two options.
‘Yes, I have a plain expression’ or ‘No, I have a slight smile or frown.’
I looked around just to check that Jeremy Beadle was not hiding somewhere in my kitchen before ticking the first box.
Then I submitted my application. I was asked for my payment details which the software seemed to have no difficulty at all in accepting.
I waited nervously for a few days. Had I acted rashly? Was I to face a future without ever driving again? I hauled my rusty old bicycle out of the shed.
And then an official looking envelope fell through my letterbox. I opened it and my new driving licence tumbled out. I examined the document and admired the printed photograph. My eyes were open, my mouth shut, fully bearded, no shadows and not a flicker of emotion.
I returned to the envelope and searched for the letter I was certain must be there to accompany it. The letter of apology for my ordeal. The letter of thanks for the efforts of one brave man in standing up against the machine, of exposing the flaws in the system, of overcoming overwhelming bureaucratic odds to succeed. Part of me even wondered if I ought not to be nominated for an award of some sort.
I looked deep into the envelope. There was no letter.