1

The one which tells how it all began

imageEr, 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.

0

The old sledge

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.

* This article first appeared in the News Letter

0

The Irish tenor and the potato peeler

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.

This article first appeared in the News Letter

 

 

1

Tackling technology

While certainly old-fashioned in outlook and instinctively suspicious of change, I am not opposed to progression.

Me. Several times

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.

* This article first appeared in the News Letter

19

Coming out

There’s a confusion in the evening October air. It’s neither mild nor bitter, the harshness of the winter has not yet fully taken hold. It’s like the weather can’t settle on a direction and is being pulled both ways. It mirrors the turmoil going on inside my head.

I’m wandering the dark sloping streets off the Stranmillis Road in Belfast, like a lost man. There’s some comfort in the anonymity of walking in the shadows.

I pass a house where there is loud music playing. Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison. I see there is a group of young people having a party in the front room. Students, I assume. It pricks something deep inside me, a memory of a time before the burden of responsibility weighed me down. I keep on walking.

I spend some time like this. But time never stands still and soon I know that I have to choose a direction. I move towards the grand, imposing building that is the Lyric Theatre. As I get closer I think my steps have slowed until it feels like my feet are shuffling forward unwillingly.

I reach the point at the bottom of the steps which leads into the theatre. I peer inside. I see the crowds and the bright lights, hear the throbbing of animated laughter and the excited buzz of conversations.

I turn and flee.

I move back onto one of the dark streets, near where I have parked my car and try to control my breathing which is much too fast. I take a box of cigarettes from my pocket. I’m not really a smoker but in times of anxiety and distress my nicotine habit often returns.

I notice a slight trembling in my hands as I put the cigarette between my lips and hold the lighter up.

I’m filled with a certainty that I need to get back to my safe space. I have to go home.

The process which bought me to this place began a few weeks back.

Unexpectedly, I received an invitation to a book launch. The event was to mark the publication of Burned, a new book from the News Letter’s Political Editor Sam McBride which tells the inside story of the catastrophic failure of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which led to the collapse of the Stormont executive and assembly. The ‘cash for ash’ scandal.

I remember staring at the invitation. In truth I was astonished to receive it. It has been several years since I’ve worked in news journalism, I know how fast that world moves, and I wondered if a mistake had been made. Was I asked along because they thought I still operated in that media world?

But I was also deeply moved. I knew and briefly worked with the author at the start of his career. We haven’t kept in touch but I’ve always admired his journalism and, occasionally, he would make a kind comment about something he read on my blog.

I determined that I should attend the event.

But as the days passed doubts and insecurities moved across my brain like locusts. It had been several years since I had attended any sort of media gathering or been in the company of journalists or any professional people.

All of my social engagements for a long time have revolved around care of my son. Visits to the park, school discos, play dates. I wasn’t sure that I even remembered the man that I once had been. I didn’t know if I’d be able to blow the dust off.

I was aware of the potential stress of attending such an event, the risk that it could be deleterious to my fragile mental health.

As the days passed the thought of attending the launch stretched high and daunting in front of me, just like the Lyric Theatre on this October evening.

But there was another reason why I tortured myself about going. It took some time for the thought to crystallise in my brain so I could properly understand it. But then I did.

I was ashamed.

Ashamed to step into an environment designed specifically to celebrate the best of journalism. I knew that I had failed wretchedly in the same profession, that mental health problems had destroyed my career. I was embarrassed to go and look former colleagues in the eye and confront this failure.

I made no decision on whether to attend until the day itself, in fact it was only when I discovered just two hours before it began that a close friend would be attending that I finally convinced myself to go.

But now, here, smoking a cigarette with an unsteady hand I know that I’ve made a terrible mistake. My car keys weigh heavily in my pocket and I’m having a conversation with myself. It’s quite pathetic. What is mundane and routine to normal people becomes like Everest in my scarred mind.

‘You can do it….you can do it…..you can do it….don’t be afraid.’

I throw the cigarette butt onto the damp tar of the road. I take a last look at the car and I move back towards the theatre. This time I don’t stop to think, to allow the fears to disable me, I go straight inside.

And, at once, I’m overcome. All of my protection has been ripped away. My brain is moving too fast for me to understand thoughts or to distinguish faces or sounds and coherency has left me.

I head straight towards the toilets and lock myself in a cubicle. I collapse onto the toilet but my capacious arse immediately sets off the automatic flushing mechanism, soaking the rear of my trousers.

I jump up and try to escape but can’t open the door. I frantically push at it for several seconds in growing panic before I realise the door opens inwards. It would all be quite comical if it weren’t so serious.

I go back upstairs. The book launch is taking place in the bar area of the Lyric and there is a huge throng of people. All of the seats are occupied so my plans to find a quiet corner in which to hide are dashed.

I don’t know quite what to do so I just stand there. Some of the people I don’t know, but I see a number of recognisable journalists, politicians and lawyers.

I make eye contact with a couple of people I’ve met over the years and smile at them. They hurriedly look away. Someone I once knew walks past and stops to shake hands. He tells me that I’m ‘looking well’ but I can see the pained pity in his eyes and he quickly moves on.

Of course, this may not be how it actually happened. It’s merely the way my mind chooses to process the information. I’m constantly fighting against the warped messages of the critical brain, telling myself that in this room full of people they are not all passing judgement on my failings.

I go to buy a copy of the book. It gives me something to do with my hands, a cover. I flick through it pretending that I’m already engrossed in the contents and hoping that nobody can see that the tremble of my fingers has now progressed to a definite shaking in the hands.

I retreat to a pillar and rest my back against it. Then, just as the event is beginning, a friend of mine arrives and stands beside me. It’s not the same friend who messaged me earlier but I’m so glad to see him. I’ve known this man for two decades and he has always treated me the same. To his eyes I’m just Jonny.

We chat and share some jokes and soon I begin to feel better. We laugh together as the host, Tim McGarry, delivers a riotous opening speech. I find myself getting drawn into the event, forgetting myself, listening intently to every word from every speaker.

There’s a contagious energy in the room which seems to be flowing through my body now, replacing the marrow inside my bones.

At the end I join the queue to get my book signed by the author. There’s a prominent politician in front of me and an environmental activist behind me and I chat to both. She talks to me about the danger of industrial scale pig farming and he talks to me of his hope that we haven’t accidentally strayed into the queue for the bar.

When I get to the front I’m expecting the author to merely sign my book and move onto the next person. There’s a long queue for him to get through.

Instead he invites me to sit beside him and talks to me, thanking me for coming along.

Then he tells me a story. Of how when he was a young, nervous journalist starting in the trade he had worked alongside me. He remembers the first ever story he wrote and how I had commissioned it, as if it were some sort of faltering origin for his later accomplishments.

He signs my book ‘To Jonny, you commissioned my first very poor piece of journalism! Sam McBride’.

I’m deeply humbled and, for a moment, fear that I may lose my composure. He knows that I’m also working on a book and tells me how much he is looking forward to reading it. We shake hands and I step away.

I move through the crowd and meet my other friend, the one who had messaged me earlier in the day. She hugs me warmly and starts to introduce me to people. Soon I’m chatting to people I’ve never met before. I’ve no real idea what I’m saying but I’m doing my best and I’m almost enjoying it.

I meet a couple of people who ask me if I’m in the market for some work. Details are exchanged.

And then I drive home. I’m definitely in a different place now although it’s nothing as corny as a complete reversal of my earlier feelings of dread. My head is still spinning and my limbs feel alien, but my overwhelming feeling is one of a pleasurable relief that I got through it.

When I get home my wife and son are already asleep but I’m much too animated to consider rest. I get into bed and begin to study Sam’s book.

Then a question pops into my mind. What was the last book I read?

To my own shame I find that I cannot remember. I pull my old Kindle out from under the bed to remind me. The red cover has been turned white with dust. I try to turn it on but there is no power, the charge has long since deserted it, a sure sign of neglect. I consider how I used to be an avid reader in my youth.

And then I begin to read Burned. The first chapter dealing with former DETI minister Jonathan Bell’s encounter with Stephen Nolan is as gripping as any thriller. It quickly becomes clear that the tome is a monumental work of reportage, combining the authority and attention to detail of an academic with the elegance and lightness of touch of a bestselling fiction writer.

I devour 150 pages before my body eventually succumbs to sleep. Unusually, I sleep through the night without waking.

In the morning I tell my wife all about the book launch, the tough parts and how I got through it. I can tell she was a bit concerned about me going but supportive of any effort which helps to integrate me back into professional society.

She asks ‘Are you glad you went along?’

‘Yes,’ I respond. ‘I really am.’

0

Exchanging pleasantries: A cautionary tale

Im not a great conversationalist.

It’s fair to say that any limited eloquence and elegance that my brain produces usually flows in the direction of my typing fingers rather than my voice box.

This is not to suggest that I’m not an adequate talker. Indeed I can bore for hours on subjects which seem inane and trivial to everyone but me.

But the particular skill of holding a conversation eludes me; of knowing when to talk, of listening to what the other person is saying, of making an appropriate response, of displaying empathy, interest and compassion.

Most conversational situations reduce me to a state of discomfort akin to a slug having a bath in salt water.

But, despite it all, I do try. I make smalltalk with my neighbours, exchange anecdotes with the parents of the other children at school, stop and chat when I meet a former work acquaintance in the street. I smile and force myself not to say stupid things. I ignore the voice in my head which tells me everyone despises me. I try not to scare the other person off.

And so today I was walking in the street with my son. I had just picked him up from school and he wanted to visit the play park.

On the way we passed a barber shop. The owner was standing out the front having a smoke. He’s not my regular barber but has cut my hair on occasion. He saw me with my son and smiled.

I stopped to say hello.

We exchanged banal pleasantries, inquiries about families and work, comments on the weather.

And then, just as the conversation began to flag, he asked my son if he would like a lolly.

My son said yes.

I stood confused for a second before the barber guided me into the shop. I found the large jar of lollies and asked my son which colour he preferred.

And then I turned. And saw that the barber had followed me into the shop and closed the door. Immediately I felt trapped and under pressure.

Then he began to prepare the barber’s chair for me and offered to take my coat. I now found myself in the awkward situation of having to decide whether to go along with it or explain to him that I had just been making smalltalk in the street, I really didn’t want my hair cut. I was just being nice.

I gave him my coat.

He guided me towards the chair.

I thought that I had better stop this before it got out of control.

And then I sat on the chair.

My son stood beside me wearing a confused expression.

I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t need or want a hair cut.

An idea entered my head.

‘Do you take card?’ I enquired.

‘No, I don’t have a machine.’

‘I’m really sorry, but I’ve just realised that I don’t have any cash,’ I said brightly.

‘It’s ok, there’s a cash machine in the shop next door.’

‘Ah, that’s good.’

My son was now shifting impatiently beside me.

‘I’m really sorry,’ I began, ‘but I don’t think I have time to get my hair cut just now. I’d forgotten I have an appointment I have to get to.’

The barber looked suspicious as I clambered out of his chair.

‘Well then, would tomorrow suit? In the morning?’

‘Uh….um….yeah ok.’

‘About ten?’

‘Er….that’s perfect.’

He started to write something in a book.

‘Name?’

‘Eh?’

‘Your name? For the booking.’

I seriously considered giving a false name but my brain was so scrambled all I could think of was Mr Bump.

I gave my name. My real name.

The barber happily waved me off.

‘See you in the morning then.’

I took a few dazed steps. Then my son said to me.

‘Daddy, did you get my lolly?’

I returned to the shop. The barber generously handed over a red lolly.

I left again and took a few dazed steps. Then my son said to me.

‘Daddy, where’s your coat?’

I returned to the shop again. I was sure I could see a hint of apprehension in the barber’s eye this time.

I put on my coat. My son looked up at me. It was a curious glance, one that I thought expressed his desire to be like his daddy, to learn from my wise counsel, to be firm, assertive and steadfast. Then he went back to licking his lolly.

1

Jumping off the edge

I’m in an unusual situation.

I’m high in the air, standing on top of a tall, tall, green pillar. I’m not sure exactly how far away the ground is but my son below has been diminished to a speck in my eyes.

The platform supporting me is just about wide enough to accommodate my feet. I peer down and, the truth is, I’m paralysed by fear.

My boy is jumping around on the ground far below. He keeps shouting up at me.

‘Just jump off daddy! Just jump off!’

‘Yeah, right,’ I think.

The story that brought me here started a few days back when I received an email asking if I would bring my son to a newly opened indoor play facility.

As a (ahem) renowned blogger I get invitations like this occasionally. It sounds like a good deal but in reality I’m always a bit conflicted.

My fear is that once I go down the route of accepting freebies then the integrity of my blog is compromised. I’m expected to write something, and of course the organisers prefer me to write nice things.

But my blog operates on the basis of truth. It may not have much of a following, it makes me no money, I’ll never be mistaken for an influencer and it often feels like more trouble than it’s worth, but I keep it going for that reason, it’s a faithful account of my adventures in parenting.

Previous experiments with ‘sponsored’ blogging have usually ended badly. There was the time I was asked to write about healthy eating by a public body and then got chastised for mentioning a particular brand of breakfast cereal.

Last year I received an invitation to a visit a new adventure trail for children in a popular walking destination. We turned up at the appointed time, my son looked at the man dressed as some sort of medieval beast who was leading the trail and fled in terror, refusing to return.

I presumed this wasn’t the sort of stuff that the organisers really wanted me to write about so I just left it.

For similar reasons I’ve declined a couple of offers for advertising to appear on my site. There are plenty of other bloggers happy to accommodate this sort of material and good luck to them.

But still, ever so occasionally, the offers arrive. A while back I got invited to attend Fashion Week in Belfast. The train of logic in inviting me to this was one I could not follow and I politely declined.

And then, this week, I received the invite to come along to High Rise in Lisburn.

Quickly I was able to establish that High Rise is a new venture launched by Employers for Childcare. I began to feel more relaxed. Employers for Childcare is a social enterprise and charity and all of their profits go into their work supporting parents. Nothing I could write about this could be construed as supporting a private individual or company making money. It was a good fit so I accepted.

However, having satisfied my ethical concerns I was now left with the practical worries.

High Rise is all about climbing. The facility includes an excellent soft play area and cafe and has sensory and quiet rooms for the whole family, but the climbing area is the undoubted star of the show.

The area is large and includes a range of climbing walls and challenges for children and adults. I’ve seen climbing walls before but never anything quite like this.

And here’s the problem. My son, historically, has never really liked climbing. It’s one of the areas where I’ve seen him fall behind other children. Until recently he was too scared to attempt to ascend a tree and his efforts on the climbing frames in play parks have always been modest.

It is true that in recent months I’ve noticed him becoming bolder with challenges which involve getting his feet off the ground, but, as we were being harnessed up by the instructors, I worried that I had taken him a step too far. Many steps too far.

I had sold this day to my boy as a new adventure playground. I hadn’t said anything about climbing walls. Now, as he cowered behind me while we received our safety briefing, I could tell he was afraid.

So I kept whispering to him, ‘It’s ok buddy, daddy will be with you all the way. I’ll be right there.’

And he turned to me. I could see the fear in his eyes.

‘And will you do it too daddy? Will you go on it first?’

‘Uh…..’

It was more than I had planned but, as ever, I found myself slipping from the role of spectator to participant. Now I was harnessed up as well.

We moved into the climbing area. A dazzling, colourful display of climbing walls stretching towards a far distant ceiling. Each wall presents a different level of challenge, combined they represent a masterpiece of invention.

Some of the other children in attendance were already climbing. My son preferred to walk around for a bit first, getting his bearings. Then he selected one of the walls which looked easiest.

‘You go first daddy.’

An instructor attached me to the rope and I began to climb, slowly at first and then with more confidence. I reacquainted myself with long-forgotten muscles and discovered a few others which I did not know existed.

And then I was at the top.

So what now?

Well, the recommended option is to straighten your arms, lean back and simply let go, allowing the rope to gently bring you back to the ground.

Which sounds great when you’re in the briefing room.

But here, ten metres or more in the air and rapidly remembering that I don’t like heights, it didn’t seem quite so straightforward.

I clung tightly to the wall and considered the potential ignominy of having to be rescued.

And then I remembered why I was on that wall in the first place, to give my son the courage to have a go. I leant back, said a small prayer and released my hands from the wall.

The descent was not graceful. My son howled with laughter when I ended up on my backside on the ground. Still, it had been steady and safe and I had shown (I hoped) the way forward.

So then he had a go. First time his feet barely left the ground. Then he went a bit higher. And then a bit more.

And then he tried another wall. And another.

In truth he never got more than eight feet off the ground, but it was a start and more than I could have hoped for.

What was most important was that I could see the fear had left him. The fact that he was now chatting happily to the instructors away from me revealed that he was happy and relaxed. He seemed to enjoy the process of swinging back down to the ground and did it again and again.

And then we came to a new, even more daunting challenge.

It’s called the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and consists of a series of thin, circular, green poles which ascend in height. You walk as high as you can bear and then leap off, putting your faith in the rope attached to your harness.

For most of the session my son was too intimidated to go near the imposing structure. But, close to the end, his fear thawed until the point where he wanted to have a go.

After several attempts he was able to make it to the fifth pole before swinging happily back to the ground.

And then he said.

‘You have a go daddy.’

‘Uh, no. I’m not sure this one’s for me buddy.’

He looked at me.

‘It’s ok daddy. I’ll will be with you all the way. I’ll be right here.’

Oh balls.

Unsteadily I started to scale the steps. My son leapt with joy. After six steps I stopped and gave him the thumbs up. I hoped he would agree I had gone far enough.

‘Keep going daddy! See if you can get to the top!’

Oh balls.

I kept going higher. Soon my legs began to feel weak and my head was swimming. My son was howling with delight far below.

The step onto the highest pole was quite a stretch. My muscles ached as I ascended it with a short leap.

And then I stood, like a live version of Nelson’s Column, surveying all around me. I figured I would just stay up here forever.

And this is where I started this post. With me standing there stupefied on top of a giant green pole and my son dancing happily below.

I could hear him shouting up to me.

‘Daddy, can we come back here another day? It’s awesome!’

And then.

‘Just jump off daddy! Just jump off!’

A lot can go through your mind in a short period of time. I began to think that this is what parenting is, what being a child is, what life is. Gathering the courage to step off the edge even when the voices are telling you not to.

I put one foot out in front, where there was nothing but air.

And then I jumped…….

* Full details available at http://www.highriseni.org