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Cutting the grass

I hold a hand outstretched while peering at the hazy blue sky. Despite my attempt to look doubtful we all know that rain is very far away. It’s a sunny Saturday and that means jobs in the garden. I could plead that this morning on the telly is the opening session of the World Snooker Championship but I suspect I won’t get a sympathetic hearing.

I try an old stalling tactic, walking up and down the little path with my hands on my hips, shaking my head and tutting over and over. But mummy is wise to the trick and gently points me in the direction of the garden shed.

I get to it. The shed is tidied, the barbecue wheeled out and scrubbed, the patio washed and the flowers watered. I’m beginning to consider that I might make it inside in time for the afternoon session at The Crucible when mummy comments on the length of the grass. And not in a flattering way.

Back when I worked full time I used to pay a man to cut the grass. When I left my job it didn’t really make financial success to keep this arrangement going but I liked the chap who did the job and didn’t have the heart to tell him that I couldn’t afford him anymore. So he kept cutting my grass. Then later, when he discovered I was unemployed, he kindly offered me a job working for him. This raised the bizarre potential situation where I would be paying him to pay me to cut my own grass. I refused the offer and let him go. Now I cut my own grass.

Mummy has to take our son to aikido class so she leaves me alone to do the job. Before she goes she makes a plea.

‘Please be careful. Just don’t do any Jonny things. Don’t cut your foot off or anything.’

This is borne of compassion, not cruelty. My wife knows how clumsy I am. Just yesterday we were preparing supper. Mummy was slicing tomatoes for a salad while I cut some bread. I looked over and watched her technique with disapproval. I knew I had to get involved.

‘Just be very careful with that knife,’ I advised.

Seconds later I jumped high in the air and howled with pain as I sawed the bread knife right into the top of my thumb.

I wheel the old mower out. It’s an electric mower which means a confusing entanglement of leads and plugs. As I begin to straighten the cords I can hear the dull roar of several other mowers. It seems that about half of the householders in my little estate are also mowing today. I don’t feel so alone anymore.

The back garden is quickly navigated. Then I take the mower outside of the yard to start on the long thin strip of grass at the side of the house. Exactly whose responsibility this strip of grass is has always been a bit of a grey area. It’s outside my fence but I’ve long been aware that if I don’t cut it then nobody else will. Last week a streetlight on this strip of land fell over. Within a day an official van had arrived to remove the pole. But they didn’t cut the bloody grass while they were here.

As I take my mower out onto the road I notice that several of my neighbours are similarly active. In the next house up from me the husband is also cutting the grass while his wife is weeding the flower beds. The man who lives across the road is also mowing his lawn.

I have to take the extension lead over my wooden fence to reach the mower outside the yard. As I walk past the woman next door looks up and smiles expectantly.

‘Great day,’ I say.

Then I put the plug into the extension lead and begin to walk back to the mower. As I walk past the woman next door looks up and smiles expectantly again.

‘Powerful heat,’ I say.

Then I begin to mow. Up and down. Each time I pass the women next door she looks up and smiles expectantly. I smile back. Unfortunately the noise of the mower spares her any more of my banter.

As I mow I become more and more conscious of the other two neighbours mowing in the other houses. It is hard not to notice that their mowers are substantially larger and more powerful than mine. While my little electric machine coughs and splutters its way through the long grass my two neighbours are effortlessly cutting neat straight lines into their lawns.

In my mind I become convinced that my two neighbours are unfavourably judging my grass cutting efforts. I’m flustered now and this means that my mowing becomes even messier than before. I keep missing bits and then having to go back over to fix it, creating an untidy patchwork.

Then I have to go and empty the grass cuttings into the compost bin. As I come back see that my two neighbours are now finished and have come together for a conversation. The way normal people do. 

I pass them as I walk back to my mower. They look up and smile expectantly.

‘That’s some day,’ I say.

And I return to the grass. But it’s even worse now because the two of them are standing just yards away, chatting. It’s obvious to me that they are discussing my mowing prowess. One makes a remark, the other laughs and I burn with shame.

But I struggle on until I’m finished. It’s messy but at least it’s done. The two neighbours are still talking as I begin to tidy up. As I start to wrap the extension lead I begin to relax. Now I’m wondering why I allowed to myself to become so flustered, why I became so obsessed at what they were thinking. Now I’m thinking that I might even join my two neighbours for a chat. I’ll gather up my things and go over and say hello. The way normal people do.

Then I step back. On the grass is a round, plastic reel which my extension lead winds into. My foot goes into a gap in the receptacle which is just large enough for my heel to become wedged. It’s like a giant shoe or a cast on the bottom of my foot.

I jump forward but my foot is stuck fast. At this point I should really sit down and remove my shoe, but I’m still self-conscious about the two watching neighbours. So instead I try to walk normally, as if giving the impression that having my foot stuck in a reel is all part of my plan for the day.

But this movement succeeds merely in pulling the extension lead, which is still plugged into my mower, taut. It wraps quickly around my legs and I fall face first into the grass. The newly cut grass.

I rise quickly, brushing bits of grass off my face and clothes and spitting fragments of soil out of my mouth.

I pass the two neighbours and the woman weeding the flower beds. They all smile expectantly at me.

‘Aye, that’s some day,’ I say.

Then I go back inside to watch the snooker.

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The risks of journalism

As my wife and I settled down to sleep last night we were enchanted by a rare and precious form of excitement. The Easter break was upon us and we were just days away from a long-anticipated family holiday. More immediately, our son, a constant presence in our routine, was having a sleepover at his grandparents’ house. With no work commitments on Friday we were in the most unusual but welcome of situations.

‘Do you know,’ I said as I rested my head on the pillow, ‘that tomorrow morning we can lie in for as long as we want?’

But, as ever, circumstance was to intervene.

I woke early this morning, earlier than usual when being roused by my son. For a moment I was confused, even afraid. Then I realised something strange was happening with my phone. A solitary message was unlikely to wake me but the prolonged buzz of the mobile beside my pillow was enough to disturb my slumber. I checked the phone and, sure enough, there were multiple messages sent through a range of different apps and social media accounts from friends. While the exact wording may have differed the central message was uniform.

Lyra McKee has been shot dead in Derry.

I stared in confusion. At first I think my brain believed that two different messages had been mistakenly combined as one. I knew that there had been trouble the night before in the Creggan. Perhaps some poor innocent had been murdered. And then there must be a separate message about Lyra.

But as I read variations on the same text over and over the truth inevitably descended. I gently shook my wife awake and told her.

We got on with the day. We had breakfast, collected our boy and tried to make the most of the sun as a family. But nothing was quite as bright as it had seemed before, as if a thin layer of dust now covered everything.

To be clear, I did not know Lyra McKee very well. When I worked in daily newspapers I met her occasionally. We were Facebook friends and occasionally she would make a kind remark about something I had written. Once she asked for my help with a project she was working on in the area of mental health.

Recently I received another message from her. She knew that I was trying to write a book and she was making contact to offer any support or assistance she could give in getting it published. It was a selfless gesture entirely, it seems, in keeping with the nature of the person.

And now she was dead. I knew that I was feeling shock because a person I was acquainted with had been killed. But the sense of trauma was undoubtedly deepened by the fact that it was a journalist who had been murdered. My wife did not know Lyra at all but shared my feeling of gloom.

This was a journalist shot dead while doing her job, doing something that almost everyone who works in that trade here over the years will be familiar with.

One of the tragic ironies is that the first ever death of a journalist at a public order situation here has occurred at a time when that form of street violence is comparatively uncommon. That’s not to diminish the very real fears that it could return, that is always a fine line. The merest nudge in the wrong political or social direction could easily see a return of widespread unrest. 

There is no absolutely safe way for a journalist to cover a riot. No matter where you stand, or who you know, there is always an element of risk when dealing with large, volatile crowds intent on causing damage and harm.

While I was never hurt myself I have witnessed in distant years lines of heavily armoured police officers standing just yards in front of me being scattered like skittles by the force of missiles raining down on them. On another occasion I had to pull a female colleague (later to become my wife) off a roof as petrol bombs flew over her head during a republican riot at a flashpoint. We were also chased out of the Woodvale area once by an angry loyalist masked mob after we had witnessed them hijacking a double decker bus and setting it on fire (we had a strange form of courtship). As I was covering the rioting that followed the rerouting of the Whiterock parade in 2005 my trusty Renault Clio was completely destroyed in a petrol bomb attack.

But, in truth, I only truly became concerned about the human cost of covering riot situations when I later was appointed as a news editor and became responsible for sending other young journalists onto the streets to observe violence.

I sent my wife to the Ardoyne during one difficult Twelfth of July parade and she returned later with a large cut and bruise on her head after being attacked with a stepladder that a rioter had stolen from a photographer.

During the flag protests late in 2012 a young journalist asked me to be allowed to cover one of the demonstrations. I agreed, despite knowing that violence was likely, and sent him off with a warning to keep his distance and to be careful. Later in the evening he was manhandled and pushed off his feet by protestors. He fled on foot and returned to the office in tears. Two nights later he asked to be sent back out. This time I refused.

What was consistent then and now was the determination of the reporters to be able to understand, to tell the story. Even in the face of potential threats, intimidation, injury or even death.

In modern society the reputation of journalism as a profession has often taken a battering. Sometimes that is the fault of the journalists themselves, but more often it is caused by forces outside of their control. The job is poorly paid, the hours can be crippling to any hope of a work/life balance and reporters are set up to be regularly sneered at and mocked on social media.

But, when practiced by someone who truly understands the art, there remains a core nobility to the job. At its best the selfless struggle to provide a vital public service in the face of ever steeper odds and occasional danger can become a form of heroism.

Lyra McKee personified that nobility and heroism as well as anyone I have ever met.

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Black holes, and paying the credit card

Last week, along with many others, I watched in amazement as the first ever image of a black hole was unveiled to the public.

As I saw excited scientists explain how a network of eight ground-based telescopes around the world had collected data to produce the image of the circle of energy I found my mind becoming a bit dazed by the sheer, unfathomable scope of what had been achieved.

But that was the problem. I don’t have even a basic grasp of science. I want to understand, but no matter how much I read or watched I found that I couldn’t wrap any tentacles of comprehension around the central concept of what I was looking at. It was too big for my brain to process and I was troubled by my ignorance.

As a writer I knew that I needed a reference point. Something which could make the scale of the idea relevant for my brain. I considered what I had read. A black hole is unseeable. It is impossible for anything to escape from. Its gravitational pull sucks in everything in its path. All matter is sucked into the depth of the hole. It grows incessantly by absorbing mass. Conceptually we know it exists even if we can never properly witness it.

I pondered all of that. Then a notion popped into my head – my credit card debt. I let the comparison settle, it seemed to fit, both theoretically and in terms of sheer dimension. Hardly scientific but it certainly allowed me to make the hypothetical idea of a black hole more real.

Of course there may be another reason why the credit card debt slipped into my consciousness at that exact moment. It may have been due to the fact that while I was watching the black hole press conference I also received an email from my credit card company telling me that it would really be in my best interests to make a payment sometime soon. 

It was clear that the black hole algorithm was a dazzling technical achievement, a team of great minds overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to produce the image and further out understanding of science. I knew that similar ingenuity, persistence and raw luck would be needed for me to make the payment.

 

After several days of stalling I sat down with my phone today and opened the link sent by my credit card company. The first thing presented was a message.

‘Good news! We’ve made some changes to our website to improve your experience!’

I stared hard at the message. I feared that the finance company’s definition of good news was very far from my own. Undeterred, I ploughed on. After several minutes trying to navigate the unfamiliar site I found the ‘Log in’ link and clicked it. I was immediately asked for my Username and Password. I scratched my chin. Modern life is full of passwords, PIN numbers and codes. Which one was this? Was it numbers or letters?

I noticed that at the bottom of the screen my phone was making helpful suggestions about what my password might be. Perhaps it knew something I didn’t. I typed in the suggested password and a message flashed up. ‘Password not recognised’. I cast a reproachful glance at the bottom of my phone screen. Nothing, not even a sorry.

After some minutes of deduction and blind guessing I worked out my username and password and, like a contestant on The Crystal Maze, moved on to the next challenge.

Now the screen was asking me to insert the second fourth and seventh characters from my ‘memorable phrase’.

I stared.

Now I consider that I have a reasonable memory. I can even recollect some vague fragments from being in the cot as a baby. When I was 12 I had to learn by heart ‘Jacque’s Seven Ages of Man’ from As You Like It and then recite the soliloquy in front of my bored classmates. I reckon with a few drinks in me I could still do it.

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women…’ (Dramatic pause for effect. Pulls a face of grave authority)….’merely players.’

But despite it all nowhere in the dark or dusty corners of my brain can I ever remember entering a ‘memorable phrase’ into this account. Indeed I’m forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that my selection of a memorable phrase must have been the least memorable thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because I can’t bloody remember it.

I scratch my chin again. I’ve got that familiar feeling that the world is leaving me behind. I wonder if the black hole team of scientists had to overcome this sort of difficulty. Of course they did. I try to think what I’d likely select as a memorable phrase. Nothing comes to mind.

Finally I type in ‘Stick your memorable phrase up your…’ before I run out of character spaces.

Then I have to click on the button which admits I’ve forgotten my own details. The modern day equivalent of the practice of lepers having to carry bells.

The phone segues onto another screen, with larger lettering. First it asks me to enter my username and password. But, despite my breakthrough in entering them just five minutes ago, I’ve forgotten them again. I have three goes before I enter the right choices. Then I have to give my name and some other personal details before I’m asked to come up with a new memorable phrase. I do my best.

Then a new screen tells me that the company will now have to phone me to confirm it is me accessing my account. When they do I will have to repeat a four digit code which they are about to send. I click OK.

Within seconds my mobile begins to ring. I’ve just answered it when I hear the beeping sound that informs that a text has arrived. A recorded, mellifluous voice tells me to to say the code out loud when she stops talking.

But I can’t retrieve the code because it’s in the mobile. The same mobile on which I’m currently having a conversation with an automated voice. I try to hold the call while I go in search of the text. As I fumble with buttons I hear the lovely voice repeating.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that…..I’m sorry I didn’t catch that.’

I crack on the fourth or fifth occasion she says it, using the angry tone I usually reserve for my sat nav.

‘You didn’t fecking catch it because I didn’t fecking say anything because I’m still trying to get the fecking code that you sent to the same fecking phone that you’re talking to me on!’

There’s a moment of silence, then….

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’

Then, in growing anger, I hit a button which inadvertently cuts the call. Now I have to start the whole process again from the beginning. Website, user name, password, come up with a memorable phrase (I pick another new phrase because I’ve forgotten the last one), the phone call, the text, the voice.

Of course it’s not straightforward. Technological innovation isn’t supposed to be. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

I manage it this time. I’m sweating and angry but I’ve finally accessed my account.

Then I see my balance. I revise my earlier opinion. The black hole makes a lot more sense than this.

I spend another ten minutes working out how to make a payment on the new, user-friendly site. I select the options and I’m asked to insert the details of the card I’m using to make the payment.

My phone, perhaps keen to atone for its earlier incompetence, automatically suggests the digits I should put in the box. I go along with this.

But it turns out that the card my phone is trying to use to make the payment is the same card that I’m currently trying to pay off and the credit card company isn’t having it. I take over and do it manually, using my debit card.

Eventually the payment is accepted and I’m able to log out.

I’m a little disturbed by the trauma of the whole process so I decide I need a distraction. I read a little more about black holes and come across a discussion online about what would happen if a human fell into a black hole.

One scientist suggests your body would move into a state in which it resembles ‘toothpaste being extruded out of the tube’. Another says your head would feel massively more gravitational pull than your feet so you would be stretched horrifically (‘spaghettification’ this is called). It ends with you being squashed into an single point of infinite density.

Or, to put it more simply, how I feel after paying my credit card.

1

Why are you so mean to me?

It’s Saturday afternoon in the toy shop and the air is pregnant with tension. Harassed parents keep glancing at watches and children are trampling all over boundaries. My son looks directly at me and speaks with a clarity which seems to carry his words into the furthest corners.

‘Daddy, why are you always so nice to other people and so mean to me?’

There’s a young mother walking past and she laughs involuntarily. Then she gives me a sympathetic smile and a glance which seems to say ‘I’ve been there, you’ll get through it.’

Why are you always so nice to other people and so mean to me? I have to admit as an insult it’s better than average for a five-year-old, certainly a level above the usual ‘I hate you!’ I can’t deny that some thought has gone into this, some consideration of how best to wound.

The context is this. My son is carrying two toys. In his right hand is a small blue robot which I bought for him less than five minutes before. In his left hand is a small red robot which he has now decided he wants as well. I’m holding the line, refusing to give in this time. We’re only in the flipping toy shop because he threw a tantrum when we told him we had grown-up shopping to do. So while mummy is off getting supplies I’m involved in a Mexican stand-off with my five-year-old son and two toy robots.

I told him he could have one small toy, but he’s decided that’s not enough. I’ve even offered to exchange one robot for the other but that has also been rebuffed. He gazes at the small wooden objects in either hands and then at me, his eyes heavy with tears. Mechanically I repeat the same line every time he looks at me.

‘We agreed you could have one toy buddy. You’re not getting two.’

I know we’re on the verge of a major incident in the most public of places. He is seething as he spits bitter words towards me.

‘You’re the worst daddy in the world!’

 

Usually on this blog I write about the joy of parenting. The fun and laughter, the little triumphs, the building of a precious bond, the shared understanding. How it is the greatest privilege of my life.

And that remains now and forever true.

But the truth is that sometimes it can be completely awful. And it seems pointless not to tell these stories as well. How some days I am left on the edge of tears and mentally pulled to pieces by the complexities of the challenge. How on others I have to bite my hand to stop myself from roaring in frustration. Or how I’m often left lying on the bed, an emotional husk while the pile of demands from my son grows steeper and steeper.

Because even when I’m enjoying the shared intimacy of his warm little hand holding mine I’m aware that the avalanche of shouted insults, bitter arguments and slammed doors creeps constantly at the edges of all our time together.

Some days I think parenting can be defined as the struggle to find reason in a mind where the concept has not yet fully taken hold. A mind where thoughts and experience are occurring faster than he has the ability to process or understand. I can’t make sense of it all most days, so how can he be expected to?

So we have situations like the time at the school gates last week when he screamed at me because we couldn’t go to the park that day, while I vainly tried to point out that we had gone there on the three previous days.

Or the time when he roared when I gave him Rice Krispies because we’d run out of Coco Pops. Or the day he yelled when I asked him if he needed the toilet. Or any number of tantrums when I tell him it’s time for bed, bath or school or to finish his game.

Or even the row last night. Mummy was meeting friends for dinner and I told my son that we could drive her to the restaurant. He bawled in protest. Immediately I flipped and told him we could instead stay home and get a taxi for mummy. His outburst was just as vituperative. Some battles I’m just not meant to win.

In darker times parents used cruder methods to control children who defied their wishes. Little boys and girls could be battered or yelled into submission. An immediate problem was navigated, only to store up much worse problems for later in life.

We’re in a better place now but that doesn’t mean it’s easier.

I’ve used incentive to try and control the worst excesses of my boy’s temper, threatening to take away toys or treats in return for good behaviour. It works to a certain level but I’ve often had to consider, in these situations, that my son is too upset to be bargained with. And I’m often troubled by the concept of alleviating his unhappiness by heaping further misery on top.

Which leaves nothing other than trying to appeal to reason when he doesn’t yet understand the concept. Hoping that he will take the higher ground when he is not yet tall enough to reach the verge. Keep teaching him the right things, repeat the messages again and again and then leave it to him to process them and find the answers in his own time. Keep being patient and supportive and suck up the blows when they come.

Of course, I’m repeatedly told to ignore the insults, that’s he’s just a kid and doesn’t really know what he’s saying. But that can’t work. When my child hugs me and tells me that he loves me I don’t just shrug my shoulders and write off the words as infantile and meaningless. It works both ways. Parenting is a challenge you enter with your heart open and your defences down. When the person I love, alongside my wife, more than anyone else tells me he hates me it definitely hurts. I understand it and accept it as part of the growing process. But it still hurts.

Imagine a boxer who meets his adversary in the ring with his hands by his sides. He gets battered to the canvas only to rise, smile, tells his opponent he loves him and understands what he is doing. Then he invites him to punch him on the nose again. No matter how many times he is knocked down, the pugilist keeps getting up and smiling.

 

The situation is veering towards dangerous. My son is holding the two robots with fierce determination, his face is flushed and his little body is trembling with emotion. I fear a major confrontation is coming and I’m not sure how to meet it.

There are many things I could say. I could try appealing to some sense of perspective, telling him he already has more toys than he’ll ever need, how these robots will quickly be forgotten and added to the pile of plastic junk currently cluttering up our house. I could explain to him how lucky he is, how he has no real concept of hardship, poverty or want. How he doesn’t understand value or worth. I could tell him he is acting like a spoilt little boy.

But I inherently sense that it’s not the time. My job is to make him feel better, not worse. Keep it at a level he can relate to.

I smile while remaining firm. I tell him again that we had agreed one toy. When he shows aggression I meet it by telling him that I love him and that I understand that he is angry.

Then he goes quiet. He stares at the toy robots in his hands for some time and I’m not sure what’s happening. I have a moment of weakness where I think ‘Just buy him the fecking robot, a couple of quid for a quiet life’, but something stops me. A sense that the situation is becoming bigger than the sum of its own parts.

Finally he turns towards a shelf full of toys. He puts the red robot on the shelf. Then he picks it up again and puts the blue robot on the shelf. Then he picks it up, hesitates, looks hard and puts the red robot back on the shelf.

He turns towards me, no words or gestures are exchanged but I know it’s over and we begin to walk away. I put an arm around his shoulder and tell him a couple of times how proud I am of him. But he’s still a bit scuffed from the encounter and remains distant and uncommunicative. I give him some room.

It’s several minutes later when we’re outside the shop and searching for mummy before he moves beside me, slipping a small warm hand inside mine. It’s a perfect fit, as always. Soon we’re playing games and jokes, as usual. After a while he asks me to hold the blue robot. His interest has transferred elsewhere.

Maybe what happened in the toy shop is progress or a connection. Maybe it’s nothing. We walk on, holding hands.

1

The little ninja

Some of my most uncomfortable and upsetting times as a parent have come in the area of extracurricular activities.

Like other parents we want to give our wee boy the chance to experience as many opportunities as possible. The range of classes available to children these days is quite dizzying in its scope – yoga, ballet, football, piano lessons, advanced welding.

We’ve tried quite a few of them and suffered the misery of watching our shy and sensitive boy fail at the social challenges. At junior rugby he insisted on holding my hand through the class, at tennis he refused to leave mummy’s side. I’ve written here before about the pain of our drama class experience (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/20/getting-into-character/https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/26/from-the-mouths-of-babes/).

To be clear I have absolutely no difficulty in taking part in the activities myself if I believe that that will help my son to enjoy them. But when it becomes clear that he is not having fun, that the structure of the activity seems to be causing him distress, then it is time to withdraw.

Both mummy and myself have been scarred by the process and occasionally reduced to tears. Guiltily I’ve found myself wondering ‘Why can’t he be like the other boys and girls? Why is he different?’

And so, about a year ago, we stopped trying to send our son to classes outside of school. We had to admit that he just wasn’t ready.

And that could have been the end of it. Except my wife refused to abandon the idea completely. My son was going through a ninja phase recently and mummy started to look around for a martial arts class that he could join.

When she told me in January that she had found an Aikido studio in Dromore my stomach filled with dread. While I was quite certain of the potential benefit of the class, I simply could not envisage any way that my son would be disciplined or focused enough to study a martial art. I feared the worst.

Undeterred my wife took him to his first class at Martin Acton’s Aikido Institute two months ago. I was out of the country at the time but when my wife phoned me late in the afternoon to say that he had loved the class I was surprised. Delighted, but surprised.

Soon I began to accompany my son to the classes and learnt a little about it. Aikido is a Japanese martial art that practitioners can use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

I quite liked what I saw. As well as the self-defence techniques Sensei Martin Acton schooled the children in Japanese vocabulary and spent time talking to them about what to do if they found themselves being bullied. The exercises seem designed to help increase confidence.

Naturally, my son was shy at first, often silent and unable to make eye contact when directly addressed. But he seemed not to be intimidated by the structure and ethos of the activities. Indeed it was immediately clear to me that he was enjoying it.

While the classes demanded focus and discipline, it was never forgotten that the participants were young children and that they should be having fun.

As the weeks passed mummy and I kept taking him to the classes. Soon, I had to acknowledge, the most unlikely metamorphosis was taking place. From being silent, he found his voice and began to speak out. He laughed freely and without any sense of self-consciousness. He began to play jokes.

Sometimes I cringed at the back of the class when he encountered a new technique which he couldn’t immediately master. I had to fight the urge to jump off my seat and throw arms of comfort around him. Instead he merely tried it again and again, shaking off the mistakes until he got the move right.

But the most startling change was outside of the class. Our boy, who previously hid behind his mummy’s leg in every social situation, emerged from the shadows. I watched, stunned, as he began to speak out without apparent fear to adults he had never met before. I had got used to always answering on his behalf. Now I had to teach myself to shut up and let him speak for himself.

He became much braver in his play, losing much of his fear of climbing and jumping and began to mix with children who previously had intimidated him. We took him to a school disco, often a tricky encounter on previous occasions, and watched with admiration as he spent two hours dancing happily on the other side of the room. Other parents, who have known him since nursery, came to us and spoke about him being ‘a different child’.

Which brings me to the obvious question, is Aikido responsible for this seemingly miraculous transformation in the character and confidence of my child?

Probably the truth is a little more complicated. To use the cliché, it was in the right place at the right time. A year ago, I don’t think he would have been ready for it. In January he was ready and the aikido has helped to unlock the personality inside my little boy that was bursting to get out. Mummy and I witness it every day, but now he is showing it to the rest of the world.

But he is still our little boy. His teacher reports that he is still quiet and shy in the classroom and he still never travels too far without a nervous glance over his shoulder to see where we are. He still gets afraid when he sees geese.

But now the direction of travel has been set and there is an undeniable momentum to his development. I believe this is to a significant extent because of Aikido and because his mummy insisted on giving him the chance when I was too scared to do it.

 

It is Saturday morning and mummy and I are sitting among other parents at the back of the Aikido studio. I’m ridiculously nervous and keep taking my anorak off and then putting it on again.

After eight weeks of class my son is about to undergo his first test which will determine whether he obtains the green and white belt.

The green and white belt has been the main source of conversation in our house for several weeks as my son has practised the techniques over and over, showing previously undiscovered levels of persistence and determination.

But now that it’s here I feel a little sick. He’s too young, I find myself thinking over and over. What happens if he freezes? If it’s all too much for him? I have to fight off the urge to run and grab him up and flee the building.

The first test is to remember and recite eighteen words of Japanese vocabulary. But it is not the fact that he gets them all right which makes me almost choke with tears, it is the clarity and confidence in his expression. The absence of any fear or doubt in his voice.

He is similarly confident when discussing strategies for dealing with bullies, the second part of the test. Sensei is with him at all times, giving him words of encouragement and congratulation.

Which brings us to the three techniques he must perfect to obtain the belt. The first is known as 1,2,3,4,5,6 – a series of punches and raised knees. Each part of the move has to be delivered with the correct hand and with the feet in the right position. He does it without difficulty, both when delivering the blows and blocking them.

Then it is stopping a slap, a move which culminates with the student forcing the attacker to the floor. This has been the most difficult technique for my son. He struggled for several weeks to get the intricate hand and feet positioning correct. Several times, as we practised at home we thought we had mastered it, only for deficiencies in his technique to be exposed when he got back onto the Aikido mat. Sensei kept encouraging him to do better.

So my son kept going. Doing it again and again until the move became like a part of his consciousness, as natural as breathing. Sensei attacks him with slaps from both sides but my son holds the form that he has been taught to force his teacher onto his back.

The final part of the test is to stop a strangling attack. Again he executes the move with confidence, his face showing fierce concentration.

And then it is over. The Sensei announces that my son has passed the test and he is given a round of applause by everyone in the room. I can’t see his face at this moment, but I know from his posture and his dancing feet that he is glowing inside.

I’m not aware of it but, at the moment it is announced he passed the test, my wife later tells me, I emit a sound. Part gasp, part squeal, part cheer. It comes from somewhere deep inside.

We take our wee man for a celebratory lunch and ice cream. He’s clearly exhausted now, although he won’t admit it. He keeps saying ‘I’m a real ninja now, aren’t I mummy?’ We can’t give him enough cuddles today.

He did the work, passed the test and deserves his reward. The parenting test goes on every day for me. I hope I can meet it with the same composure, the same confidence and the same desire to learn and do better as my son.

2

The thin of it (politics)

It’s early evening. Mummy is upstairs putting our son to bed and I’m having some precious relaxation time. I’m sprawled on the sofa, balancing an extra large bag of chocolate raisins on my stomach while watching re-runs of the masterful political satire The Thick Of It.

Then I hear the crunch of footsteps on the ground outside our front window, just behind where I’m lying. I freeze, a chocolate raisin pinched between two fingers just an inch from my open mouth. I live in a semi-detached home with a little front garden. The only people who walk directly past my front window are postmen or people delivering unwanted junk leaflets; in other words those taking a short cut between my next door neighbour’s front door and mine.

I hear the sound of an object being roughly shoved through my letterbox and then footsteps walking away. I relax.

Later I’m roused from my stupor by the need to carry out a task (fetching another bag of chocolate raisins) and decide to check what junk literature has penetrated my front door. It’s a political leaflet, introducing me to my local DUP candidate for the forthcoming local government elections. There are photos of a young man on both sides of the leaflet. In one he is sitting beside MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. The young candidate is wearing a tortured, forced smile. The sort of smile that is familiar to me every time I pose for a photo.

(‘Just smile Jonny.’

‘I am smiling.

‘No, I mean a natural smile, like you’d do in real life.’

‘This is natural, this is how I smile.’

‘Really?….Jesus.’)

I read the leaflet. It is light on relevant detail, containing not a single word on policy or proposal. In fact, reading over the text the only thing I can ascertain that the DUP seems to be in favour of is the incorrect use of punctuation.

The following day another leaflet arrives, garish yellow, the colour of The Alliance Party. This one is presented as ‘Your local council update’ from a sitting Alliance councillor, although I’ve no recollection of receiving any previous such updates from him.

This leaflet is heavier on detail. There’s a photo of the councillor picking up litter, and another of him putting bottles into a recycling bank. All very worthy. Disturbingly there’s also a photo of a mucky red bin with a sign which reads ‘Clean it up! No litter please’ next to the image of a headless dog. I’m often annoyed by dog fouling but cannot support the decapitation of innocent animals as a deterrent.

I put the Alliance leaflet on the windowsill in the kitchen next to the DUP one. I’ll keep all the leaflets I receive together and take them out nearer to election day to have a proper read.

I expect to get lots of leaflets. But I’m less confident that I’ll get many, few or any knocks on my door.

I make this point because I’ve long noticed an inconsistency in local politics. In many years of covering elections as a journalist I’ve never yet met a candidate who didn’t tell me that they have ‘knocked on thousands of doors’. Indeed most answers to media questions at election time are prefaced by ‘Well, what we’re hearing on the doorsteps is….’

But despite this nobody knocks on my door. Indeed in more than a quarter of a century of being eligible to vote, and having lived at a variety of addresses, I’ve only ever had my door knocked by a political canvasser once.

This was a young woman who told me she was canvassing on behalf of then Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea. I asked her a question which she met with a frown and a puzzled expression. She then told me she would have to find Basil, who was in another street, ask him and then come back to my door with the answer. She never returned. I desperately hope she is still not wandering the streets looking for Basil in the mistaken belief that he’s still an MLA.

Some of my friends have told me that their door has never been knocked while for others it is a rarity. But it does happen. One former colleague informed me that he opened his door on one occasion to find a well known Sinn Fein MLA on his step.

‘Are there any Sinn Fein voters in the house?’ the politician asked.

On being told that there were none, the politician thanked him politely and left.

Which started me thinking on the pointlessness of the encounter. Presumably the value of a political doorstep, if there is any, is to attempt to persuade or change minds, not to reassure yourself with those who are already converted to the argument? Are there any Sinn Fein voters in the house should really be the closing gambit, rather than the opening. And what did he intend to do if he found Sinn Fein voters there? Engage in a communal, self-congratulatory hug?

I know another family who invited a UKIP candidate into their home for a cup of tea and some Rich Tea biscuits. They are strongly pro-European but felt desperately sorry for the unfortunate candidate who told them he had spent the day being verbally abused and chased from front doors.

Which hints at how traumatic the experience can be for those carrying out the knocking. I was acquainted with one political candidate who told me he lived in fear of rapping doors at a previous election lest he got asked a question he didn’t know the answer to.

On one such occasion he was quizzed by a grumpy householder ‘What’s your policy on people breaking into homes?’

After some moments of flustered incoherent mumbling he finally responded ‘Uh, well, we’re against that.’

I suspect (completely without proof) that most politicians, like people in general, take the easier route more often than not. Stick the leaflet through the door and move on to the next house. It’s just less painful for all. Perhaps just knock on the doors where you know you’re going to get a good reception.

After all I really believe that caught off guard at my front door, wearing my Superman pyjamas, is not when I’m likely to engage in my best political discourse. Rather, I’m so socially awkward and eager to avoid confrontation that I’m likely to agree to any old nonsense just to get them to go away.

‘We’re strongly in favour of the compulsory force-feeding of Ready Brek to fishermen and the nationalisation of geese.’

‘You’ve certainly got my vote. Bye now.’

Probably the very act of writing this blog ensures that my door will be knocked repeatedly by politicians between now and election day. Perhaps I should desist.

 

0

The letter

I was moving through my house today when I noticed the outline of a small figure outside my front door.

I saw what looked like a card being shoved through the letterbox. As it was Sunday I knew it couldn’t be the postman and assumed that it must be a private circular or flier being delivered offering gutter cleaning or dog walking services.

But when I lifted the small brown object I quickly noticed this was something different. It was a proper, old fashioned envelope, the sort you might imagine your grandparents once used.

There was an intricate gold design on the interior of the envelope and what seemed to be a grand coat of arms or crest bearing Latin words on the rear.

Inside was a stiff sheet of high quality writing paper bearing the same symbol with the Latin writing (I was later informed that it is actually the crest for Hogwarts out of the Harry Potter stories).

The formality and majesty of the stationary was belied by the writing on the front and inside. It was obviously a young child’s hand. A missive had been tentatively started on one side only to be abandoned for a new effort overleaf.

The letter was addressed on the envelope to three names – my wife, my son and myself.

I began to read. This is what the letter said….

‘Dear Jonny

Can you please kick back my purple smiley face ball. I accidently kicked it into your back gargen.’

The letter was signed ‘Yours sincerly’ and named.

Next door to me lives a happy frizzy-haired girl, just a year or two older than my son. She had delivered the letter.

Promptly the ball was retrieved and I hand-delivered it to the beaming child. Her mother told me that she had volunteered to knock on our door to get the ball back but the little girl insisted on writing a letter.

‘I didn’t want to discourage her,’ she told me.

I nodded along. More than that, the letter made my day.

Later I tried to think when was the last time I received a letter. I get mail every day – an incessant series of impersonal statements, bills, appointments and unwanted offers for credit cards.

But an actual letter? Something that someone has taken the time to sit down and write by hand? I honestly can’t remember. Probably several years ago.

My whole life is dominated by communication – texts, emails, articles, social media and (God forbid) blogs. But the method of communication which requires extra effort and which can reveal most about the identity and personality of the author is virtually extinct from my life.

And as I sat and re-read over the letter the little girl had taken the time to write and deliver through my front door, I couldn’t help but think that I’m a wee bit poorer because of that.

Life is engineered to be full of short-cuts. But there’s still much appreciation to be found in sometimes taking the long way round.