Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

I Know I’ll Often Stop And Think About Them…

This is no ordinary garage.

Oh no.  If this garage had been in garage therapy with the world’s most celebrated garage therapist, it would be her most celebrated case. Because this is a garage transformed. A garage that has left its troubled past behind.

I would like to show you a picture of what this garage looked like before its transformation. However, the world is still waiting for photographic technology sufficiently advanced to be able to depict the full extent of the chaos, the carnage, that existed before.

And I forgot to take a photograph.

But now, after hours of effort by yours truly over many weekends, it is restored to this unbelievable state of order.

Although the chain of events that led to this revolution in outbuilding storage began with the Very Precious Daughter leaving home, it was memories of the Big Boy Wonder’s formative years that came back time and again as I toiled away.

First of all there was this collection of spades.

Have you ever noticed that you never need to teach a child what to do on a beach? No child was ever rubbish at it. Children just know instinctively that they are supposed to dig holes and run down to the sea. We have had some wonderful seaside holidays as a family over the years, in Cornwall, the North-East of England, Pembrokeshire and Western France. And just as kids don’t need lessons in beach-craft, neither do they ever really grow out of it – last year all of ours were still happily burying each other in sand at our favourite spot in the world – Carbis Bay near St Ives.

And it was a memory of Carbis Bay from nearly a quarter of a century ago that these spades brought back. A memory of one of those simple, simple things that brings enormous pleasure to parent and child. One afternoon, I dug a hole in the wet sand near the water’s edge, set the spade up as a very low hurdle in front if it, and then marked out a runway. The Big Boy Wonder thought it was nothing short of amazing to charge down the runway and leap over the hurdle into the pool of water, over and over and over again.

The BBW with his assault on the world low-jump record

We still recreate the game in memory of that golden afternoon.

Then there was this electric heater.

We still keep it in the garage (did I tell you how tidy it now is?) as a precaution against boiler-failure. When we acquired it, it was far more than back up. We’re still not quite sure how we managed it, but the first house that the BA and I bought didn’t have proper central heating. It had some ridiculous warm air system that only really worked in one room. And into this house we brought our first child. And then, inevitably, the English weather rewarded our decision-making with two harsh winters.

In those days, we had no money. I was studying – going through a career change that left me with no income for two years. The BA was working part-time in a public sector job. This heater was a major investment for us, but sorely needed to bring some degree of comfort to the BBW’s otherwise unheated room. We’ve got so may photos of the poor mite wrapped up in enough clothes to keep a set of triplets warm in any normal house.

Incidentally, the heating problem was solved by a friend of ours – an older lady with very little to her name – lending us a significant part of her life savings, interest free, so that we could have central-heating installed.

Next, there was this bike.

Now I’m cheating here a bit. This is actually the Small Boy Wonder’s current bike. The BBW memory it brings back is of the time I was very nearly responsible for his death.

As he grew up, I had to work quite hard sometimes to find things for he and I to do together. On a Saturday morning, he had a piano lesson, and before that (he was always up at the crack of dawn) we used to for a bike ride together. Despite being artistic and sensitive, he was also completely fearless when it came to things like that. He’s also very strong-willed (which is indulgent Dad-speak for “he never listens to a bloody word I say”).

Our Saturday morning route took us along some very quiet country lanes. Towards the end was a long, steep, downhill bit. The BBW loved going down this as fast as he could, but I usually managed to keep things under control, shepherding him carefully so that I was just ahead of him, keeping him well in to the edge of the lane, on the opposite side from any possible on-coming traffic (although I think you probably only get two or three cars a day going up that hill).

But of course, one day I lost concentration at the vital moment, and he got ahead of me. Going far too fast. On the wrong side of the road. Heading towards a bend in the road, ignoring my frantic shouts for him to get over to the other side.

And of course, this was the one Saturday morning out of all of them when a car did actually come round the bend.

I still don’t know how he missed it. And it still makes my blood go cold to think about how I could possibly have explained to the Beautiful Armenian, and to everyone else, what had happened if it had gone wrong.

This is the hill in last month's snow

But the main memory is of the act of clearing out the garage itself. If you’re anything like we are, it won’t surprise you to know that this garage-clearing happens once every few years. It’s been tidied up to house guinea-pigs, electric train sets, weight-lifting equipment and temporary art studios. Once we even managed to get a car in there, for goodness sake. Every time I vow that it won’t be allowed to get back to its previous abysmal state.

But every time it does.

I don’t know how I remember, but I know that I was in the middle of one these periodic garage clear-outs the day after the BBW, aged 13, first told us that he was gay. I was clearing out the garage as I went through what I’ve subsequently read is a very common experience for a parent in that situation – a feeling akin to bereavement.

I don’t know why this should be the case. I’ve read some complete rubbish about it – by people who claim that it’s part of something a parent does to absolve themselves of “blame” for the fact that they have a gay child. It’s not this at all, but the feeling does happen. It certainly happened to me.

But it didn’t last long, and it now seems strange that it should have happened at all. Because the BBW being gay is just as much a part of him as his fearlessness on a bike when he was ten, his unquestioning acceptance that the world was a wondrous, if sometimes rather cold, place when he was a baby, and his love of hurtling down a beach and leaping into a pool of sea water when he was four.

In the words of the John Lennon song from which the title of this post is taken: “In my life, I love you more.”

You Do The Math

According to a study published today, half of the adults in the UK have maths skills no better than those expected of a primary school child.

That’s all very well, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the skill levels of the other two thirds.

Blogging very restricted at the moment because of demands of work.  It should quieten down a bit next week.

Being Mugged by the World’s Worst Mugger?

Things have been very quiet as far as the Very Precious Daughter (VPD) is concerned for the last couple of months.

As a parent, this is a Good Thing.  As a blogger, this is a Bad Thing.  I’ve written before about how I thought the VPD could be relied on supply me with endless potential material, but how she is letting me down.

This week, she has been like a complacent super-group coming out of semi-retirement to make an unexpectedly pleasing album.  There has been a return to form.

Last Saturday she “basically” got mugged.  “Basically” what happened was as follows:

  • she went on a big night out, and stayed over at an old school friend’s house;
  • the next morning, she got on the tube to go home;
  • this apparently sophisticated inhabitant of one of the world’s great cities managed (a) to get on the train going in the wrong direction, and (b) to fall fast asleep;
  • she woke at the end of the line to find that she had been relieved of her passport, bank cards, Oyster card, money and other things.

Now it may be my highly-refined sixth sense, but I suspect that the big night out did involve the dreaded Vodka, but didn’t involve much sleep.

The VPD is very lucky in that when things like this happen, she has access to a service called VOAM – Victims of Avoidable Misfortune.  This provides the following:

  • a 24 hour helpline;
  • her own dedicated case worker;
  • emergency funds;
  • consolation and advice.

The VOAM service was able to identify very helpfully that the most urgent thing on this occasion was not, as the VPD thought, to find something to replace her passport as a means of proving her age when trying to access London’s vast array of pubs, clubs and bars, but to make sure that her identity wasn’t stolen.  It also supplied some cash and some useful information.

The VOAM service also trades under the name of her dad.

Taking some consolation from the fact that for a couple of weeks at least, she would no longer have access to London’s vast array of pubs, clubs and bars, and wondering also why her phone hadn’t been stolen, I left her to it.

Then yesterday a miracle happened.  Everything turned up.

There are three possible explanations.


Like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the thief became consumed by guilt.  His conscience – that thing which separates us from the animals and provides one of the strongest arguments for the existence of a god – gnawed away at him, causing sleeplessness, delusions and endless torment.  Eventually, after six days of living hell, he could take no more.  He presented himself to the authorities.  He not only asked for many other offences to be taken into consideration, but also promised that once he had served whatever punishment society thought fit, he would devote his life to visiting schools and dissuading errant youngsters from a life of crime.


Immediately on the crime being reported, a sophisticated police operation snapped into action.  Using psychological profiling, advanced data mining techniques and good old-fashioned instinct, the law enforcement agencies gradually closed in on the thief.  Following a dramatic boat-chase down the River Thames, the perpetrator was surrounded and arrested in front of the Houses of Parliament, that enduring symbol of an ordered and democratic society.


The VPD wasn’t mugged, either “basically” or at all. In her state of disarray she dropped all her stuff as she was getting on the train.  Some kindly stranger picked it up and handed it in.

I’ll leave you to work out the most likely explanation (but I wouldn’t spend too much of your weekend on Theory A or Theory B).

I, meanwhile, will be spending my weekend trying to get the emergency loan back from the VPD (to be fair to her, she has already offered repayment).

If you’ve not read Crime and Punishment, it does reward the effort.  I think it’s one of the very few books I’ve read twice.  I also think Raskolnikov is such a great name for a character.

24 Hours in Cambridge

King's College from the river

One of the many things my wife’s new career has done has been to throw me and my youngest son (the Small Boy Wonder) closer together. I’m close to his elder siblings as well, but in different ways – in their cases adversity has often been the mother of connection. The SBW and I are much more like each other in terms of personality than any other two members of our family.  And as a result of the sometimes intense distraction of the Beautiful Armenian’s course, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the last few years.

This week he and I have been in Cambridge. His mother is writing an essay, I had a few days’ leave to use up, he has half-term, and I said we were going to do something vaguely improving.  He turned down walking in the Yorkshire Dales, on the basis of it involving both walking and the Yorkshire Dales.  He also declined a trip to Chester, having apparently developed an inexplicable aversion for anything too far north.  So, having informed the BA that in a man’s world “what goes on on tour, stays on tour,” we set course for the city of my student days.

Trinity College

St John's College from the river

A week ago, if you had believed the weather forecasts, you might have been a little nervous about the possible incursion of polar bears into these normally tranquil parts.  Yesterday morning we were punting along the River Cam in almost spring like conditions. And we managed to avoid falling in. In between times we got upgraded at the hotel, had a walk round some of the Colleges, rejected the ubiquitous chain restaurants for a great little cafe/bistro (with the added attraction of a waitress who the SBW said was at least an eight out of ten – bless him, he had about as much chance with her as I did), went to the cinema to see Chronicle (bad news for the waitress, this got a straight ten out of ten) and looked at paintings and porcelain in the Fitzwilliam Museum. I also pretended that the whole trip was calorie-neutral by spending an hour in the fitness centre (can you lose weight in the sauna?).

I would be misleading you if I said that my student days at Cambridge were uniformly happy. The Beautiful Armenian and I had decided even at that young age that we intended to spend the rest of our lives together, although we might not have been quite bold enough to say it to each other, and being apart wasn’t always easy. I also found the place so very, very different from the small-town grammar school from which I had emerged – there were a lot of unbelievably pretentious and capricious people there (and still are from what I could see this week).

Courtyard at Pembroke College

But in time I found my feet and made good friends, and overall the experience was very positive. Not least because I had an understanding of how lucky I was. I had access to fabulous facilities, I had many of the normal hassles of student life looked after for me, and I lived for three years in one of the most beautiful of places. And as far as I can work out, I ended up there for no other reason than that I had a knack for doing well in exams. Believe me, I am no great intellect.

Each time I go back, that sense of good fortune strengthens. I wasn’t lucky to have gone there. It was an incredible privilege.  And I think I’ve taken away from it a confidence in my own abilities, which counters my natural shyness, and has served me well.

I think any of my children could have followed me to Cambridge, but nobody has to date and I think it unlikely that the SBW will.  It hasn’t seemed the right place for them.  Their talents all lie in areas which Cambridge doesn’t serve.  But it’s still a wonderful place in which to spend a couple of days.

Another view of St John's


Queen's College from the river

Do Our Children Need to Watch More Sex and Violence on TV?

We had a letter home from school this week about the Small Boy Wonder’s (SBW) behaviour.  It’s always with some trepidation that I open an envelope with the school’s postmark on it.

It’s probably been a tough week for teachers.  The last week before the half-term break, and the weather doesn’t help – we’re still in the grips of a prolonged bout of harsh winter weather (even if the Arctic Armageddon and related breakdown of society forecast for Thursday night actually manifested itself as a light dusting of snow and a moderately hard frost – we do like our over-reactions to these things).  This may allow the lovely area where we live to shimmy up the cat-walk in a rarely-seen white gown of beauty (done no real justice by my third-rate photography).  But it doesn’t make things easy in school.

However, I’m not sure the teachers make life easy for themselves.  We’ve now had serious winter conditions three years in a row, but this time we seem to have avoided extensive school closures, airports shutting down, the imposition of martial law etc.  Even the head of the SBW’s school – who in previous years has shown a hair-trigger tendency to close the place completely and put his feet up in front of a roaring log fire at the merest suggestion from that lovely Carol Kirkwood on breakfast TV that it might be getting a bit nippy – has managed to keep the show on the road.  But this created the situation last week in which hundreds of boisterous teenagers were itching to get out and mess around in the snow, but a staff of teachers fully inducted into the zealous cult of health and safety were trying to stop them.  Apparently it culminated in a full-blown, but generally good-natured, rebellion as students and teachers clashed head-on in a struggle for control of the means of production of snowballs.

If I were in charge I would simply say, yes, you can play in the snow, but if anyone does anything stupid, expect big trouble.  Maybe that’s just too sensible?

More about the SBW and his behaviour letter shortly.  What about the sex and violence promised in the title?

That lovely Carol Kirkwood

It’s got nothing to do with Carol.  I just thought that seeing as we’ve mentioned her, we should have a picture of her as well. (Welcome at this stage to anyone who’s arrived here by searching for Carol Kirkwood and sex on Google – sorry if this isn’t quite what you were hoping for, but why not read on anyway).

One of the things we’ve noticed as parents is that since the Very Precious Daughter left home a couple of years ago, the Small Boy Wonder has in effect become an only child.  This has required quite an adjustment by myself and the Beautiful Armenian.  I’m very conscious that we have to be careful that we don’t subject him to too much scrutiny and over-bearing attention, but it also leaves him with a lot of time by himself, with no siblings around to provide any form of distraction.  He’s got lots of interests and lots of friends, but there are still many hours to fill.

The SBW is a teenager living in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century and so his first inclination is to spend that time interacting with a screen.  So is his second inclination, his third inclination and many subsequent inclinations as well.  We also have to contend with the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out) which afflicts most teens today.  All this means that given time to himself the SBW will in all likelihood spend it on a computer, a games console, an iPOD or glued to his Blackberry.

As I’ve said before, I worry about this sometimes, but I’m not entirely sure what to do.  But I do think that trying to offer him something more interesting to do is a better tactic than instigating bans or harsh time restrictions.  And something that has proved fairly successful in our house in this regard is watching DVDs together.

We’re quite big on gangsters (the Mob variety rather than urban rappers).  Last week we watched Carlito’s Way  in 30 minute instalments.  The SBW particularly liked this, identifying with the small-time criminal trying to go straight.  We’ve also watched all the Godfather films, Scarface and The Untouchables.  And last year we worked our way through every single episode of The Sopranos. That’s something like 75 hours of television. If you had told me before I came across The Sopranos that not only was it one of the best shows ever made, it was also a mixture of gangland action, family inter-play and psychotherapy, I would have thought that you were just trying to be nice to me.  As far as this family is concerned, there could be no better combination.

We do other things as well: the Rocky films, some spaghetti westerns, the occasional Dickens adaptation or low-budget movie.

But the content isn’t really that important. What matters is that we watch these things together. And that means that we talk about what we’ve watched. And it also means that the SBW is with us and not engaged in solitary screen activity, although he does have a remarkable capacity to keep up with whatever’s  new and interesting in the local teenage world via his Blackberry (although I can’t for the life of me imagine what that might be) and to watch with us at the same time and take in more detail than I do.

Now my worry is that sometimes I’ve let the SBW watch more sex, violence and swearing than I should. We’ve got friends who wouldn’t dream of watching some of these things with their kids.

But then I tell myself that I shouldn’t worry. Most of these things are high quality productions that deal with real life issues. And in this day and age, you simply can’t shield your children from X-rated content. Even if you do manage to control what they see in your own house, you never know what they’re doing when they’re round at their friends. The one thing which the SBW found distressing about the Godfather films was when old man Corleone keeled over and died of a heart attack amongst the tomatoes. Because it happened in front of the little kid. The SBW actually told me I was a bad parent for letting him see that bit!  Silly me.  There I was worrying about harmless things like a severed horse’s head, Michael’s wife getting blown up, and somebody getting shot through the eye.

It’s ironic – but a sign of the times – that I should regard the television, which everyone feared was going to ruin my generation when I was growing up, as something which can help hold a family together.

OK then, Superdad, you may be thinking. You’re trying to suggest that all this adult content is actually good for young people, but aren’t you the one with the letter home from school about your son’s behavior?

Indeed I am. It arrived on Saturday morning. Once I’d read it, I called the SBW away from his computer (fittingly enough), asked his mother to join us and and told them what had happened. The SBW looked dreadful – he was clearly very worried. I then handed him the letter and asked him to read it.

Dear Mr and Mrs Toby,

We are writing to thank the Small Boy Wonder for his cooperation and good behavior on our recent trip to Belgium and France. His mature attitude and sensitivity during the visit was intrinsic to its success.

It went on in a similar vein for several more paragraphs.

So maybe all that exposure to Tony Soprano isn’t such a bad thing. Who know?

But I can’t help wondering what it was that made the young lad look so worried when he thought the letter was bad. What have I missed?  Any ideas, Tony?

Tony Soprano

Good Times For A Change…

Some bits of really good news this week.

First, my nephew, H. This is a young man with a very tough home life. His mum has advanced MS. His little brother has quite pronounced physical challenges, and although he’s an exceptionally cute little lad, is very demanding of his parents’ time. H gets lots and lots of love from his family, but they don’t have much money and live in a council house in an inner city.

H is just coming up to the end of primary school, and the thought of him trying to survive in one of the inner city comprehensive schools for which he was bound was not a happy one. But this week we heard that he has won a full, seven year scholarship to the very prestigious private school which was the port in a storm for my eldest son when he was driven out of our local school by homophobic bullying. H did this all by himself – no coaching, no tutoring – and if there is a prouder, happier uncle anywhere in the world right now, I would very much like to meet him. If ever a family deserved a bit of good fortune, H’s family is that family.

It’s disappointing that the state system couldn’t offer H or my son any more support, but that seems to be the way of the world.

Next, my dad. He’s been discharged from the care of his psychiatrist. Whilst he’s still something of a shadow of the man he was before depression put him in hospital two years ago, he’s much recovered, and we do seem to have avoided a double-dip depression (I wish I could claim credit for that phrase but have to tip my hat to my mum).

Finally, my wife, the Beautiful Armenian. After weeks and weeks of frustration and set-back she has finally been given the go-ahead to start writing up the transcript of a counselling session that is one of the requirements of the final year of her course. That’s a bit of a two-sided coin. The frustration of waiting is over. Now comes the joy of living with her in writing mode.

Back on the subject of depression, but to end on a lighter note, I was watching England play rugby on Saturday and moaning mildly about the dark nature of Brian Moore’s (ex-England player) TV commentary. But, I explained to the Beautiful A as she passed through the room, he was abused in childhood, has suffered from depression and has had the courage to write a book about it all.

Her response was priceless. She did check herself towards the end of her question, but she definitely said it and I definitely heard it:

“Oh,” she said, looking at the television. “Is he the one who committed suicide?”

She isn’t blonde, but I do wonder occasionally if I ought to get her a wig.

School Trip

The Small Boy Wonder (SBW) went on a school trip this week.  A rapid visit to the First World War battlefields in Belgium.  He’d been looking forward to it, and it was clear just what effect studying the horrors and tragedy of that most awful and misguided of conflicts has had on him.  Because for him it all boiled down to one simple question.  Just one thing he needed to know before he left on this potentially very moving journey.

Do they have nightclubs in Ypres?

Good luck with this lot, we thought as we handed him over to his teachers, along with two coach loads of his peers at half past four on a bitterly cold morning.  Yes, you did read that right: half past four in the freakin’  morning!  We were at least pleased to see that it wasn’t just our darling heading off to the big freeze of continental Europe with feet protected by nothing more than a pair of light, canvas shoes and an aversion to wearing anything remotely uncool (like a couple of extra layers).

More on this later.  In the meantime, the Beautiful Armenian and I headed off to Norfolk for a couple of days of rest and relaxation.

Now I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that we live on what has been described as the most beautiful island in the world.  The kids always look at me as if this is final proof, if any such proof were needed, that I am completely demented when I say this.  I suppose most people hear the phrase “beautiful island” and imagine some tropical paradise with coral beaches and clear blue sea.  But what makes the British Isles stand out so much is its sheer variety.  Yes, the weather may be lousy at times, the infrastructure creaking, and many urban areas drab and over-crowded.  But the countryside is diverse and often spectacular. Particularly if you know where to go.

North Norfolk is one of those places.  It’s an area of very typical English villages, where rolling countryside meets a coastline of vast marshlands, sandy beaches and big, big skies.  It’s become very fashionable in the last 20 years, a little too dominated perhaps by banker bonus money.  But you soon leave the bankers behind if you head for the wilder beaches and the more remote countryside.

“Why do you two always go away when I do?”  the SBW asked the day before we all left.  “Oh I know why.”

I pointed out that with the house to ourselves we didn’t need to go away for “sexy time” (his words).  He didn’t look convinced.

Maybe he’s got a point.  But something else we like to do in Norfolk is to catch the little coast bus a few miles east or west and then walk back.  A couple of years ago we walked from Wells-next-the-Sea to Brancaster Staithe – this has got to be one of the best walks anywhere in the world.  Amongst many other things, you cross this ridiculously over-crowded beach.

Banker-free beach

This time we went the other way, catching the bus to Stiffkey and walking back to Wells.

The village of Stiffkey

Looking towards Blakeney

Norfolk marshes

Back at Wells, I was able to indulge in the supreme afternoon luxury of sitting in a bar, drinking a couple of pints of local beer, and reading some blogs.  In a busy life, a little moment to be treasured.

Later that evening I had one of those “how am I ever supposed to get things right” incidents which I assume afflict all married men from time to time.  The BA would not deny that the intensity and pressures of her course has pushed her weight upwards a little over the last three years.  But more recently, she’s lost a few pounds.  That evening she put on a dress which made her look as good as she has done in a while.  She looked fabulous and I told her.

“So you’re saying I’ve been looking rubbish up to now?”

No, that’s not what I meant.

“Are you just trying to get inside my knickers then?”

Obviously, but only because I always am.  Again, you’ve misunderstood.

What’s a man supposed to say?

Norfolk is also one of the best places in Europe to watch birds and we came home via the reserve at Titchwell.  Boy, there are some serious bird-watchers around.  We felt quite out-of-place without 3 telescopes each, camouflage clothing and an obsession with the length of our bird list.  But we did get a good long look at a marsh harrier quartering the reed-beds – they’re fairly common in those parts, but we thought it was exciting.

Frozen Titchwell

Snow on the beach

So back to the Small Boy Wonder and his foreign excursion.  When we picked him up (different time of day, same freezing weather) he seemed in good spirits.  Most of his chatter was about mucking about and banter with “the lads.”  But I think the battlefield experience had had some impact.  He thought the reconstructed trenches were cool (high praise indeed) and the fact that they still stop the traffic and sound the last post every day in one of the cemeteries quite impressive.

They’d also each been given a cross to place on a grave, and he had found around 30 graves with the same initial and surname as his.  I don’t know exactly what he thought of that, but it made me well up when he told me.

I do find things related to the world wars very moving.  I cry at Remembrance Day parades, and also at the lyrics of this song.  There are many different versions, and this is just one.  The leaders of Israel and Iran, or (sadly) even the UK and Argentina, could do worse than listen to it and reflect as they consider what they do next over the coming weeks.

An Evening of Long Goodbyes

Sometimes it’s because it’s interesting. Sometimes because it’s funny. Sometimes it’s because it’s challenging, true-to life or beautifully crafted. It may even be because you think it will improve you.

Yes, there are many reasons to like a book. The reason I liked, and came to love, this one, is because it was just so damned enjoyable. In the over-used expression of the enthusiastic teacher, it was a pleasure to read. The nearer I got to the end, the sadder I became at the thought that it would soon be over.

It wasn’t at all what I expected. And if somebody had described the plot to me beforehand, I might never have bothered to read it at all – the story of an upper-class, Irish layabout who could be something out of P.G. Wodehouse, fretting about losing his family home and also about his sister’s romantic liaisons, whilst steadily drinking his way through what’s left of his father’s wine cellar and a series of gin gimlets (I didn’t even know what one of those was before I looked it up).

But, if that doesn’t float your boat, ignore it. It’s brilliant. Wonderfully written, with a vocabulary that’s erudite and sometimes even exotic, but which never gets in the way. There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments; some characters unlike anything else you’re likely to find in a modern novel; and a plot which may appear to meander but which actually knows exactly where it’s going and why.

But more than anything, it’s very touching. The more I read, the more I began to care – really care – for this rather pathetic hero and his highly-strung sister. And to realize that, in an entirely natural way, he was profoundly in love with her.

I don’t have a sister, but if I did I could easily imagine feeling as strongly about her as Charles does about Bel. I do sometimes wish that I had had a sister.

I rarely read books twice – there’s not enough time to read anything other than a small proportion of those I would like to read once – but this is one I may well return to.

But in the meantime, one of the joys of having a Kindle is that within minutes of finishing “An Evening of Long Goodbyes” I was able to download Paul Murray’s other novel, “Skippy Dies.” This has a different feel to it, but (about 4 chapters in) it’s looking very promising.

RSPB Bird Watch

This may be one the (many) things about us Brits which bemuses our friends from overseas.  This weekend, more than 600,00 of us will spend an hour watching the birds in our garden and logging the details to a website.   Our European neighbours like to catch and eat small birds.  We like to feed and watch them (the birds, obviously, not the European neighbours).

In the town where I live there is a market on a Saturday.  There is a stall which sells all manner of seed and feed for wild birds.  There’s always a queue, and on cold days they sell out (i.e. they sell everything they’ve got, not they start to make bland, commercial albums, betraying their original fan base).

I make no apology about it.  I am seriously into this peculiar British obsession.  This was my Christmas present from my parents.

We do occasionally visit nature reserves to do some more serious bird watching, but it’s the garden birds I really love. Also, the Beautiful Armenian seems to have a fantasy about having sex in a bird hide and can get a bit giggly and skittish when we’re out.

Anyway, we seem to do very well for garden birds. Our garden only just scrapes into the RSPB large category (size of one tennis court), but we are very near lots of countryside and we have an old field hedge as one of our boundaries which birds love.

These are some of my favourite visitors to our garden.


Bullfinch (photo courtesy of Hilary Chambers from Flickr - Hilary has no link with this blog).

The Small Boy Wonder has about as much interest in birds as I do in Blackberry Messenger, but even he said that this was a “pretty cool bird” when I pointed one out to him. I think they are beautiful – that combination of slate grey back and rich pink breast.

They have a special place in my heart, because when I was a child our next door neighbour used to shoot them in large numbers, I think to protect his fruit trees. He was an odious man, and it makes me very happy to see them apparently making something of a comeback, at least round here.


Starling (photo courtesy of John Glass (madmcmojo on Flickr) - John has no link with this blog).

You’ve got to be joking, I hear fellow bird-lovers say. Those hooligans of the bird table, who descend in an unruly gang and go through the food like a swarm of hungry teenagers?

I love them. Yes, they do make a big mess, but that brings other birds to the garden who clear up after them. Again, there’s a childhood connection. There was a wood near where I grew up where starlings used to congregate in their thousands and thousands to roost. All through the late afternoon you could watch flock upon flock heading for the woods.

Starlings have declined by about 70% in the last thirty years or so, and so they are welcome in my back yard any time they like. Also, Chris Packham says they are very cool, and I wouldn’t argue with a word he says about wildlife.  I’ve never seen the spectacular flying displays of the vast flocks, but it’s one thing I would love to see before I die.


Blackcap (photo courtesy of Hilary Chambers from Flickr - Hilary has no link with this blog).

I was so excited a couple of years ago when I realised we had these in the garden. However, it’s probably a sign of global warming, and ours seem not to have read the Handbook of British Birds, which clearly says that they feed from bird tables. Come on chaps, stop skulking around in the hedge.


Goldfinch (photo courtesy of cazstar from Flickr - cazstar has no link with this blog).

Another bird on the up. These are the bling-merchants of the bird world. Gaudy and over dressed, but with a beautiful song.

House Sparrow

House sparrow (photo courtesy of HermiG from Flickr - HermiG has no link with this blog).

Like the starling, this may raise some eyebrows. But like the starling this once very common bird is in decline. If starlings are teenagers, these guys are toddlers – noisy, lively and in to everything.


Redwing (photo courtesy of Richard Toller from Flickr - Richard has no link with this blog).

Again, having these around makes me very happy. We don’t see them often, but they love the berries in our hedge and seem to be able to eat their body weight several times over.

Long-tailed Tit

Long Tailed Tit (photo courtesy of snapp3r from Flickr - snapp3r has no link with this blog).

Another bird that visits us in little gangs.  They’re like little mice with wings, scurrying up and down the nut feeder, but never staying very long

Now, look away if you are a small bird reading this blog. Because my last favourite, you won’t like.


Sparrowhawk (photo courtesy of Keith Laverack from Flickr - Keith has no link with this blog).

This guy is smart. We feed the little birds, making them plump and complacent. The sparrowhawk eats the little birds.

But how lonely must it be to be a sparrowhawk? Every other bird in your world detests you. Everywhere you go, you make others flee.

I also think it’s one of those profoundly wonderful things about nature that small birds are hard-coded to recognise the shape of a sparrowhawk.

As I say, I think we do very well. On a really cold day, it’s like freakin’ Springwatch out there.  You half expect Packham to turn up with Kate Humble (about whom the Beautiful Armenian has something of a girl crush who my wife says is the sort of girl she would find attractive if she were a man).

Packham and Humble

There’s a Narcissist Round Every Corner

Narcissus as depicted in the mosaics at Paphos

One thing I’ve learned a lot about as the junior partner in my wife’s studies is narcissism.  It’s not a nice thing, but it’s good to understand it.  If you ever come across a narcissist (and it’s likely you will), you’re going to need all the help you can get.

How do you know if you’re dealing with a narcissist?  Here are some of the signs:

  • He or she will have a strong sense of entitlement – a feeling that the world owes them.   They will expect special treatment.  And, boy, will they know their rights.
  • They will exaggerate their own achievements, and take the credit for everything they can.
  • They will have at least one, and probably a little crowd of followers.
  • There will be no conversation or topic that they can’t rapidly bring back to themselves.
  • They will say I more than you (think about it)
  • At first they may be charming and compelling, cosying up to you and inviting you to be part of their world.
  • But if ever they are criticised, their reaction may be out of all proportion to the situation.
  • They will go to great lengths to deflect responsibility if they do anything wrong – it will be somebody else’s fault, or something outside their control.
  • They’ll tell you lies, tell you sweet little lies – if you listen closely, the stories of their accomplishments will have holes and inconsistencies (although they will deny this).
  • They may have a long green body and a bobbing yellow head.

That last one’s not true.  That’s a narcissus flower (or daffodil).  Not the same as a narcissist.

But the term narcissist does come from the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology.  The beautiful youth who became so obsessed with gazing upon his own reflection in a pool that he died of starvation.

Now don’t worry if you’ve read the list above and thought, hang on, I do that. And maybe that sometimes as well.  We all have a little of the narcissist within us – who doesn’t like to be adored occasionally?  You need to tick most of the things on the list, and a few more besides, to be a card-carrying member of the narcissist party.  And if you’ve recognised that you may have faults, you’re probably not a narcissist.  Narcissists aren’t good at acknowledging their faults.

Narcissists do need followers, like those little fish that swim after sharks.  And they need followers because they need approval, admiration, adoration.  Adoration is like a drug to them, a fiercely addictive drug which turns them into monsters if ever you stop being their dealer.  If you criticise them, expect trouble.  Expect narcissistic rage.

My encounters with narcissists have largely been at work.  I’m pretty sure I’ve worked for a narcissist.  I suspect I’m working with one now.  And I’ve definitely had a narcissist working for me.  Am I some kind of narcissist magnet?

The one who caused me the most trouble by far was the narcissist who worked for me.  She caused me trouble out of all proportion to her value to the team.  It turns out that I fell into many of the classic traps:

  • Initially I was charmed by her.  I assumed she would be like most of the other people who have worked for me – dedicated, uncomplaining, driven – and so allowed her special treatment early on.
  • When I realised my mistakes and started drawing boundaries, this caused the horrible situation in which I became afraid of allowing all the other wonderful members of my team to do things (carry some holiday forward outside policy, go home early when they’ve worked endless late nights and weekends, work from home when their children are ill) because I just knew the narcissist would be watching, and storing it up, and waiting for her “me too – I’m ENTITLED!” moment.
  • I think I came close to losing one of my really valued team members when she had to get involved in managing the narcissist.  This seems to be a well-known occurrence – like a cuckoo, the narcissist drives out others with their manipulative and destructive behaviour.
  • I began questioning my own judgment, thinking that the problem maybe lay with me.

In the end, we all struck lucky and she left of her own accord, apparently to fulfill some lifetime ambition (another trait of the narcissist – living in a fantasy world).

Encountering a narcissist at work can be bad enough – awful if they are in a position to bully you.  But encountering one in a family or romantic relationship is another thing entirely.

Because one of the things which really defines a narcissist is an inability to show empathy.  They see the world through their own eyes only, cannot conceive that someone else may have different views or feelings.  Sadly for them, this means that they may find it difficult to love.  Part of love is wanting to possess, but much of it is wanting to give.  Can you truly love someone if you can’t understand that they may have feelings?

As I said earlier, I am pretty sure that I am working with a narcissist now, and he is certainly someone who would love to see me fail. I know that it will be difficult and frustrating to work with him, but this time I don’t feel too worried, because this time I think I know what I’m dealing with. This understanding feels like a shield, and it’s also helped me make sense of some experiences from the past.

Much of the understanding has come from my wife, who has had narcissism loom large in her life at times, and who has had to learn a lot about it on her course.  It is a recognized personality disorder, but there does seem to be quite a spectrum of sufferers – it’s more pronounced in some than in others. If you want to know more about it, just Google “narcissism” or “narcissism in the workplace.”

But with this increased awareness does come one slight problem: we do sometimes start thinking we see a narcissist round every corner. Thankfully that isn’t actually the case, and we do both believe that most people in the world are good people.

Even if the narcissists would sometimes make us believe otherwise.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

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