Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

Half Term Fun (1)

I managed to get a few days off over half term.  The Beautiful Armenian and I went out to the countryside and enjoyed the wonderful weather.  We shifted a load of stuff round the house in my continuing efforts to tackle the European clutter mountain.  And we drove up to London for a couple of days to see the Very Precious Daughter and specifically (just so that we didn’t let our anxiety levels drop) to let the Small Boy Wonder stay the night with her at the new student house.

Whenever we go to London, I get all responsible and suggest that we should make the effort to experience something new and vaguely cultural in one of the world’s great cities.  Earlier in the week I mentioned to the SBW that we could go to Camden Lock while we waited for the Very Precious one to finish her lectures on Friday afternoon. “It’s sh*t,” he said.  Remarkable insight, I thought, seeing as he’s never been anywhere near it.  But apparently he had this on good authority from a friend who had BBM’d him live from the place when dragged there by similarly hopeless parents earlier in the year.

Undeterred, and not being in receipt of any better suggestions, I announced when we were getting near the hotel that it looked like the Cabinet War Rooms had got the vote.  At least, that’s what I thought I said.   But judging from the strength of the reaction that emanated from the back seat, the noise of the road must have distorted it so that it came across as something like: “We’re going to spend the whole weekend looking at porcelain in the Victoria and Albert, you’re not going to stay with your sister and her very cool friends, we’ve cancelled Christmas and your birthday, we’ve arranged for all your GCSE’s to be brought forward to next week, and we’re taking your Blackberry away just because we feel like it.”

Camden Lock turned out to be much better than its “sh*t” classification in the Provincial Teenagers Guide to London.  And we had a lovely walk to it across Regents Park and along the canal.


We then met the VPD, her boyfriend and another of her friends (who is very dear to us) for an enjoyable meal, before leaving the Small Boy Wonder, and a much repeated list of what was and (longer section of the list) wasn’t acceptable, in their care.  We were fairly sure that their parting words were that he was going to be taken to his first house party.

Meanwhile we were to enjoy our first experience of a Premier Inn.  It turned out to be perfectly acceptable, although I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see Lenny Henry.  They offer a good night’s sleep guarantee – your money back if this isn’t what they deliver.   I slept very well; the Beautiful Armenian less so.  However, we decided that it would be stretching the terms of the offer if we had to explain when asking for our refund that this was because she was lying awake wondering just how much damage a group of lovable but fun-and (more specifically) alcohol- worshiping students could do to a fourteen year old boy.



The good ship Masters Degree is rather becalmed at the moment.  TBA has spent the last couple of months trying to set up a new placement, and coordinating the ones she is already doing, so that she can concentrate her working hours into a couple of days.  Half the world’s glaciers move faster than the administrative arms of some of the organisations she is dealing with, and progress has been slow.  She’s effectively lost half a term doing this, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the end of the voyage will be pushed out even further.

But although this has been frustrating at times, it has meant that life has been relatively normal since the beginning of the summer now.   C has been clocking up the voluntary hours, chipping away slowly at the huge number she has to get through before she qualifies, and doing some preparatory reading for the massive pieces of work yet to come.  But she can’t get started in earnest until the placements are sorted.  So the stress levels are relatively low.

Extending the finishing time by (I think) a full year will be rather a pain, but if it means that the experience from here on in is a little less intense, then it’s probably worth it.  Also, she’s starting to get some financial help with some of the supervision costs, and there is the prospect that for one of her placements, she may even be able to start charging clients in a few months.

However, I’m not going to start planning my retirement just yet.

The Teenager Vodka Supply Chain

According to my sources, the chain of events that may lead to the young person in your life, who not so very long ago had no greater ambition on a Friday evening than fish and chips for tea and a Star Wars DVD, getting his or her hands on the evil that is VODKA may go something like this:

  • The relevant crowd will compare diaries and identify the evening on which they are to get wasted.

    Evil VODKA - every little counts

  • Arrangements may be made for a camp-out, or sleep-over.  I suspect that the kid with the parents least likely to intervene, or most likely to be absent, may volunteer or be volunteered to be the host, just in case their oh-so-impressive and oh-so-funny efforts to disguise their inebriation should happen to let them down (although I can’t imagine how this could possibly happen).
  • They will find a supplier.  This will usually be an older brother or sister who is either of sufficiently advanced years to buy the stuff themselves, or who looks the part and can get hold of somebody else’s ID, or who knows/is going out with/has enthralled, in a way you wouldn’t want to know, somebody who is themselves old enough.
  • The little darlings at the bottom of the chain will club together (perhaps 3 or 4 of them) and each will need to get hold of a relatively small amount of money (say £5).  This is quite cunning.
  • The combined fund will find its way to the supplier.  It may pass through several pairs of hands, as may the VODKA itself on the way back down.  Every person in the chain will cream off a small commission.
  • Kids may get roped in simply because they travel on the same bus as, or live near, another player.  There appears to be a significant degree of trust involved, and an unwritten code of honour (as indeed there is in the trafficking of IDs amongst the older ones when they want to move up to pubs and clubs).  If you’re called on, you’re expected to play your part, because, who knows, you may be the one in dire or urgent need of cheap, potentially lethal neat spirits at some point in the future.  It’s strictly cash-based – handlers taking a couple of swigs as payment is regarded as completely out-of-order.  Inevitably social media networks play a big part in the organisation.
  • VODKA is highly favoured as a commodity, because it is (a) cheap (in units per pound terms), and (b) relatively easy to transport and disguise (it’s certainly going to be easier to bring into school and distribute in “tutor” than, say, 24 cans of Stella or a mixed case of Australian reds).
  • The booze in question will eventually find itself in the hands of the original consortium.  It’s quite possible that new shares in the consortium may have been issued in the interim, or that there may have been a buy-out or two, or some off-balance sheet trading in VODKA futures.
  • If you’re looking for clues, a tell-tale sign of involvement may be an unexpected and urgent, but surprisingly short-lived, need for your little angel to hook up with somebody who generally isn’t part of their immediate circle.   There may be a mumbled explanation about borrowing something or (if they’re really devious) homework may be mentioned.  This won’t be true.  The reason will be so that money or VODKA can change hands.
  • The whole thing is so organised and complex that you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if McNulty from The Wire turned up and started tapping phones.
  • When exchange and completion have taken place, the swag will be stored until the evening in question.  This will be a convivial and sophisticated affair, with the more worldy-wise choosing from a menu of casual, public and probably unprotected sex, squabbling, minor vandalism, and fighting.   Vomit will definitely play a part.  And there will be weeping.  Most of it (the evening and the vomit and the weeping) will likely be recorded for posterity on countless mobile devices.

I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but round our way this is called chilling, or having a laugh.

But on the bright side, I don’t imagine our future generations are going to want for entrepreneurs.

Peter Gabriel

I worked from home today, and took the opportunity to download the new Peter Gabriel album – New Blood – and listen to it a few times.  It’s a collection of earlier songs, reworked and performed with a full orchestra.

It works.  In fact, I think that some tracks improve on the originals – the orchestral style suits the music very well.  There are moments of serious beauty.  Mercy Street, in particular, is gorgeous.  I love Gabriel’s work with Genesis.  And I’ve seen concert footage which suggests he has remained one of rock music’s truly great performers.  But much of his solo work is, for me, a little slow in getting to the point, a little ponderous.  I think perhaps he needed the creative forces of the other Genesis members to control him, and bring out his best?

But boy does this collection also emphasise his dark side (not that it’s ever been particularly well hidden).  Songs like The Rhythm of the Heat and Intruder ooze threat and menace, verging on the disturbing.  He’s always had a fascination with the macabre.  If you want to see one of the great rock theatre performances of all time, look at this from 1973.

But if this analysis is right (based I think on the stories Gabriel used to tell between songs on stage, or possibly from old sleeve notes, rather than anything discernible from the lyrics), the subject matter of the song is as deeply unpleasant as the performance is magnificent.  I can’t actually bring myself to type the words which describe the story-line.

Of course, he’s not all darkness and shadows.  Peter Gabriel is capable of lighter things, and of very different types of theatrical performance.   I love this performance of Solsbury Hill.

But to me, what matters more than anything is the man’s artistic integrity.  Whether or not the theatre and the costumes, or the flesh-creeping themes, are your thing, you cannot deny that he is authentic.  Something rare.

I got into Genesis too late to see them with Gabriel.  I did see them in 1982 or 1983, at Wembley Arena, but by then they were starting to go seriously downhill.  However, a few years ago I did see this lot, a tribute band called The Musical Box.  They’re not just any old tribute band, they have worked closely with Genesis and they reproduce their performances from the early 1970’s note for note, word for word, and detail for detail (including many original props and backdrops).  It was a utterly fantastic experience, an unforgettable night.

One final thought on Peter Gabriel.  He comes across as quiet and rather shy person.  This piece has some interesting comments about introverts and performance.  In my own, very little way, I can relate to this.  I am a quiet and private person.  I particularly don’t enjoy events at which you have to make small talk, and I am often told that I need to push myself forward more.  But I am a very good presenter and public speaker.  Give me a platform and a subject matter I can make something of and, I am told, I become a completely different person, often causing much surprise.

Why this should be, I can’t even begin to explain.

Psychotherapy Course

Some time ago my wife (known here as the Beautiful Armenian, or C) started a masters degree in psychotherapy, with the intention of qualifying and practising as a person-centred psychotherapist.  Before this she had been concentrating on bringing up our three children, supporting me in a demanding job, and running our home.

It had always been her heartfelt wish to devote her time and energy to home-making.  When the children were younger, she couldn’t.  Our eldest son was born at a time when I was going through a career change.  Money was tight, and things hadn’t improved a great deal when the Very Precious Daughter came along a few years later.  And so C kept her teaching career going for longer than she would have wanted.  However, when our third child was born, my work was going much better, and not long after that she was able to give up work completely.

I think she might have been quite happy to continue living the life she then carved out for herself indefinitely.  She did a great job overseeing some home-improvement projects, she played a big role in running a community initiative, and she ran the home.  From my point of view, I was largely freed from domestic tasks.  But as the children grew up I began to challenge C on what she saw herself doing once her role as a full-time mother diminished, and also asked her to consider whether having more than one source of income might have advantages for us later on.

She listened.  She went through a training course to become a counsellor for a charity.  Then she signed up for a full-on, masters degree in psychotherapy.  It’s described as part-time, but that’s about as an accurate a description as Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute recipes.  The course has certainly involved far more hours and and far more effort each week, than I had to put in to my first degree, many years ago.

And it has been one of our big life events.  It’s up there in the top five – top three maybe – alongside things like the birth of our children, my career change, and our decision to leave the heart of London’s commuter belt.

Occasionally somebody says something which surprises you so much that you have to stop and think before you answer.  One of these moments happened about a year into the course, when C said to me that she could see that she had become bored in what she was doing before.  A big, big admission.  What would have happened if she had just let things drift?

If we look back at our lives so far, we might say that certain things – certain major things – have happened to us without us asking for them to happen.  Having a gay son; an anorexic daughter; multiple interactions with depression; miscarriages.  And more.

But it’s also clear that we don’t like just to sit back and see what life has got to throw at us.  We also like to hand it a few slings and arrows to hurl in our direction, just to see how we get on.

C doing this course is one of those things, and I hope to share some of the experience, and more importantly some of the change, which this has created through this blog.

Ringing out for common sense

I always like to listen to this guy – John Bell from the Iona Community – on Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day.”  He has a very balanced approach and oozes that most uncommon of characteristics – common sense.

Here he is this morning talking about gay marriage.  If you can and it’s still there, listen to it.  There is a lot of meaning conveyed by his delivery.  Particularly the line:

There is hardly a Christian church in the West which has not found itself riven over the issue of what to do with gay people whom God continues to bring into the world in significant numbers.

It’s very refreshing to hear a Christian speaker prepared to raise an issue related to homosexuality – in my experience, Christians who have a less rigid view on the subject than the “official line” will at best try to avoid discussing the issue.

I read this week that Thought for the Day divides opinion amongst past and current Today presenters, with some feeling that it may have had its day.   According to the article I read (in the Culture section of the Sunday Times), the main criticism is that the content is highly varied in quality.  That may well be so, and I do sometimes struggle to recall what was said minutes after listening to it on my way to work, but John Bell always catches my attention.

He is based on the island of Iona, off the tip of the Isle of Mull in Scotland.  This is surely one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I hope that the photographs on this page (taken on a couple of trips over the last few years) give some small impression of its wonder.  Iona itself was described as a “thin place” by George MacLeod, because so little separates the spiritual from the material.

In case the link disappears, here is the full text of what John Bell said:

There’s a bit of a stooshie in Scotland at the moment, which could become a stramash if it spreads further south. It’s about marriage, or more specifically gay marriage.

Last week the Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley took issue with Alex Salmond, the first minister over the SNP Government’s intentions to have a consultation on the issue, and implicitly suggested that if the SNP favoured gay marriage, 800,000 Roman Catholic voters might be advised to think carefully about their political preferences.

Things got worse at the weekend when the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats publicly upbraided Bishop Tartaglia.. And when we consider that last week at the Tory party conference, the Prime Minister said that he supported gay marriage, it seems that the range of clerically approvable parties is rapidly diminishing. Perhaps Scottish catholics will end up voting for the D.U.P..

Trip to Iona

The issue is neither confined to one nation or denomination. There is hardly a Christian church in the West which has not found itself riven over the issue of what to do with gay people whom God continues to bring into the world in significant numbers.

The Biblical arguments over a diminishing number of texts which allegedly prohibit intimate same-sex behaviour have been defended and refuted ad nauseam. Psychiatrists have long given up calling homosexuality a disease, and researchers studying the brain increasingly suggest that sexual orientation far from being a matter of choice or the result protective parenting , may well be determined by genetics.

The argument expounded by some is that gay marriage is against the natural order. You could similarly claim that having two eyes of different colours or an IQ of 190 are against the natural order. The natural order has always produced exceptions.

Others would argue that far from undermining marriage, holy wedlock between same-sex couples could enhance the significance of marriage as a publicly recognised relationship which encourages fidelity and commitment. This is the position taken by Professor David Myers, an internationally renowned academic psychologist and practising Christian whose own Reformed Church of America is hardly a trendy liberal institution.

Whether or not we agree or disagree on religious or moral grounds about the rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships, as citizens of our nations, I believe we have a responsibility to enable same sex couples who are deeply convinced of their mutual love to celebrate and safeguard that commitment with public and legal significance. A civil partnership can take care of the business side, but marriage is the true endorsement of love.

Eating Disorder – General Thoughts

Of all the issues we have faced, this one, for me, is the big horrible one.   C and I try not to, but we watch the Small Boy Wonder’s eating habits far too closely, looking for any slightest indication of the problems his sister had.  He knows we do, and it’s difficult because he is naturally a light eater, blessed with an attitude to food which means he eats only when he’s hungry, and when he’s no longer hungry, he stops eating.  But if ever I detect the tiniest possible warning sign of an eating disorder, it chills my blood.

And I seem to remember less about what we went through with the Very Precious Daughter on this than other things.  Blocking it out, I guess.

I think my attitude has something to do with knowing the utter futility of logic and reason in the face of a fully-fledged eating disorder.  You are completely wasting your time if you try to convince an otherwise rational person that their failure to eat properly, or their ludicrous over-exercising, is (1) real, and (2) dangerous.  Perhaps completely is a slight over-statement, because we did eventually persuade the VPD that she needed help, and this help was the most important factor in stopping any permanent damage.  But your chances of prevailing through reason are as lacking in substance as the person you are concerned about.  This, of course, won’t stop somebody whose life is driven by reason from continuing to try.  Madness all round.

Several years ago, there was a young woman (let’s call her Briony) who used to work in one of the offices in our building.  Briony must have come perilously close to death as a result of an eating disorder.  She visibly declined to a state where there was skin and there were bones but there was precious little else.  Nobody from our place knew her very well, but some of the women who work with me grew ever more concerned, angry even, as they watched her deteriorate.  I recount this only to recall my own attitude.  Almost complete indifference, driven by shameful ignorance.  I knew nothing of anorexia then, because it hadn’t yet touched my life.  To the extent that I gave Briony’s predicament any thought, it would have been something along the lines of, surely she will realise what’s happening to her and start eating.

I imagine this could be fairly typical of people in a similar state of unawareness.

We still see Briony and I occasionally have some contact with her these days.  Something, or someone – and I will never know who or what or how – must have put a hand on her shoulder and found a way of coaxing her round as she took her final steps towards complete self-destruction.  Because today she’s still with us, and of a proper weight.

I don’t really know her at all, but sometimes when I have seen her, I say something like a still, small prayer of thanks to myself– and I weep a little inward tear of happiness.  For her, but more, I think, for whoever those who love her may be.

Because I am now much better informed than I was.

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