Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Leaving aside the whole ‘How can it be the end of 2021? We’re still in March 2020?‘ thing, it does kind of feel like at least eighteen months since I updated this annual post.

And given the lack of opportunities for new photos – I’ve probably been ‘out’ (as in out in company) less this year than I have any other year, ever, including 2020 – I’m almost surprised I’ve got any new shots to include.

But unlike last year, I never really considered skipping it this year. Hey, we survive by our traditions, and after this long – my gods, we’re slowly approaching two decades of this silliness – that its appearance won’t, or shouldn’t, surprise anyone.

As I stress every year, this whole thing only started as a bit of a giggle in 2004, something to amuse and horrify in equal measure; I never intended at the time to do it again… and again… and again.

But, somehow, it evolved into an annual tradition for me. (As well as for others, given the usual responses of “awwww” at the admittedly cute pics of me as a small child.)

I’m occasionally asked Why do you do it? I mean, it’s not as if I think I look great as a teenager, or at any point since then, really, although I’ll readily acknowledge that I looked at least passable once I got married. But a) I’ve been about as embarrassed as I’m ever going to get by the pictures, and b) people who haven’t previously seen them get the unfettered joy and silliness of joining in the mockery…

And this year more than most, people can do with something silly to enjoy, and something enjoyable to be silly about.

So… preamble over, it’s The 2021 update to A Life In Pictures.

As always, I’ve removed just a few shots from those that were in previous years’ posts, and added some new ones from this year. And, as in recent years, there are some new ‘old’ pics – newly digitised pics from my past – that appear in this post for the first time thanks to the usual technical wizardry.

So, without any further ado… in chronological order…


Those are the earliest photos I’ve got of me… looks like they were taken the same day; my older brother is in the background.


3 years old


Three brothers – must be around 1967 or 1968, so I’d be around 3½ years of age?


Aged 4

 


Not exactly sure when this one was taken but might have been the same day…


I’m five, I think, here in this shot and the next one.


It was 1972, ok? And I was at my brother’s bar mitzvah. I was eight.


I knew that I broke my arm around now, and I knew that I went on holiday with it in a cast; wasn’t sure I had any photos, though. Well…


My son takes great delight in this shot – I think I was 10 at the time.


Me at age 11. I still remember the wallpaper; very, very odd gold pattern to it.


The main ‘man’ – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Three brothers – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Starting the dancing – my barmitzvah, August 1977


Just after my 15th birthday


August 1980, I’m 16 – yes, that is a curly perm. Shut up.


November 1982 – Freshers’ Fair at Manchester Poly


1983 – me at the PULP office, 2nd year at Manchester Poly.


A year or so later, at home for Easter…


Age 21, at a work leaving do, having left Manchester Poly a month or so earlier.


1985, at my brother’s wedding… at which I was best man. Yeah, 21 again.


At my dad’s 60th birthday in 1989, aged 25, more than thirty years ago. Shocking.


Three brothers – 1991, I believe


1994 – A nice one, from Laura’s and my wedding day – aged 30


A low res shot from the wedding that I discovered in the archives…

I love that I found this next pic. Laura’s still one of my favourite people on the planet. And this is another great pic of us on our wedding day. And yes, ahhh I had dark hair back then…

This next one’s an odd one for lots of reasons; first off, it’s obviously my BBC pass from when I was writing for WeekEnding on Radio 4; secondly, when I visited New York just after 9/11, it was better as ID for getting me into buildings, places, meetings than my actual passport… even though it had expired six years’ earlier…


The earliest pic I have of my lad Phil (excluding ‘scans’). Me, a new dad, aged 31. And so, so tired.


Me holding my son… he’s 18 days’ old here.


Me in New York, January 1998, just after we lost Mike


Part of a formal family shot, mid-1999


June 1999 – my spiritual home


August 2000; taken by Phil – he was five years old at the time


October 2001; New York, six weeks after 9/11; visiting Ian


May 2002, Hypotheticals – not a happy Budgie


Bristol, 2003. You can see the greying hair now…


July 2004 – working at the office


December 2004 – at my nephew’s bar mitzvah. See? I scrub up nicely occasionally. Three generations of Barnetts.


Not exactly sure when this was taken but would have been around now…


August 2005 – at Brighton. First picture for ages that I’m genuinely happy with.


September 2005, last picture of the Nissan before I crashed it…


April 2006, at the flat.


Again, mid-2006.


Me in December 2006… looking slightly more relaxed.


May 2007, Bristol, Saturday night, at around 2 in the morning… very relaxed… aided by what Alistair Cooke used to call ‘The wine of Scotland’.


May 2008 – Phil and me at Comic Expo


May 2008 – Me interviewing Dave Gibbons at Comic Expo


October 2008 – Me and Phil, studio shot for the bar mitzvah


November 2008 – formal pic for Phil’s barmitzvah.


July 2009 – At the BERG 40th Anniversary Apollo 11 drinkup (pic by Matt Jones)


November 2009 – Me and Phil at a friend’s son’s barmitzvah.


July 2010, on Mastermind. No, not an illusion; you’re not allowed to wear black for the show…


August 2010, at Laura’s


October 2010, from Phil Tanner’s Photos – Mitch Benn ‘Proud of the BBC’ video shoot) The actual video’s here.


December 2010, after the office party


October 2011, trying out a beard… not quite yet… but give it a year…


Laura took this one in April 2012 – not a bad shot of me, all things considered.

And then I had my hair cut…

Lost my father in October 2012 – here’s the progress of the shiva beard before trimming it down

Sequence of shots, demonstrating Lesson 1 about falling asleep in a friend’s house where children live. Don’t
(November 2012)

This final one attracted the title “… and all the woodland creatures gathered around, for they had never seen a creature such as this in the forest.”


Me, at The Leveson Inquiry. The reading of the summary, not giving evidence…

The delightful Clara Benn proved that I’m tiny when sitting next to Mitch Benn…

Isn’t perspective fun?


Met up with an old friend, and wandered around Camden with him. A nice afternoon…

And so to 2013…

Well, in March, I did a charity event where I wrote twenty-four stories in twenty-four hours for Comic Relief.


That’s Mitch Benn in the background, writing his comedy album, which he did also within twenty-four hours.

Phil turned up to support us…

And I got progressively more tired, and more silly, as the hours passed…

A small accident with the beard trimmer led me to shave off the beard I’d had for roughly a year…

Most people were glad I grew it back almost immediately

Towards the end of the year, there was something new… a mini-me. Or to be precise, I was scanned for a 3D printing of myself. Very strange to see myself post-scanning on a screen…

But that was nothing to seeing the actual result…

In July, managed to catch up with an old friend, at his reading of The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains at the Barbican. One of my favourite photos, entitled Two beards (old friends attached).

Around the same time, I wrote a post on the rising tide of overt anti-semitism in the UK, and that I’d personally faced. I used the following shot to illustrate it. I was and still am very happy with how it turned out.

Some time ago, remember, the delightful Clara Benn had taken a shot which proved I was substantially smaller than Mitch, tiny in comparison, in fact. November 2015, she proved it again…

Once again: isn’t perspective wonderful?

Never liked the next shot in colour, I do, however, really like it in black and white. From mid-2016.

Anyway… Moving on…

Towards the end of the 2016, close friends had a baby, and I got to say hello both in October and November. I’ve never hidden how soppy I am about babies. I suspect these photos prove it.


And this is the shot, at the end of 2016, that convinced me that if I ever do get a hat, it’ll be a Homburg, not a Fedora…

And in December 2017, this one of the new[er], short[er] haircut.

In August 2018, my lad Phil was in town for a few days. We realised it had been a while since we’d had pics taken of the pair of us. So here are two.

And, of course since we had that pic, and I had a similar one from almost exactly ten years’ earlier, I was kind of obliged to put the two together. I really like this image.

In October, I attended a protest march for a People’s Vote. It ended up with 700,000 people… plus me. No idea why my hair looks so… flat in this one, almost skullcap-like, in this shot, but I really like how it looks. Oh, yes, of course, that’s Mitch as well.

And so to 2019…

It’s rare there’s a pic of me that even I will reluctantly admit is a good shot, especially if it’s a selfie, but you know what? I really really like this one…

Of course, that was after a haircut.

I look decidedly less good immediately before a haircut…

(2020 edit: When I took, and stuck up, the above shot, as always it was just for a giggle. It genuinely didn’t occur to me that in 2020, there’d be pics that made the above ‘before’ shot look coiffured.)

I just wish any pics from Edinburgh didn’t look like I’d photoshopped me into previously taken shots…

Oh yeah, I was in hospital in Edinburgh. I wasn’t impressed…

Here’s another post haircut pic…

And so, to 2020… with everything that you’d expect: ie very little happened that involved taking photos.

Although, Mitch’s 50th birthday in January was one such event. I mean, I could have put a dozen shots up from it, but here’s just one, with Phil:

Operation Haircut performed in March; quite like this ‘portrait’ shot.

March 2020: Who knew it was to be the last haircut for a while…? OK, I was one of the lucky ones; I had a haircut just a couple of weeks before lockdown. But lockdown then came, along with this fun prezzie/mask from Phil:

Lockdown lifted in July 2020, but it was possible – if another lockdown came, to be quite some time before I had another haircut, so I went short this time.

One more mask shot. You know, had you asked me before this year whether I’d look worse in a hat or a mask, I think I’d have said a mask. Now? I’m genuinely unsure.

US Election night; November 2020; me and the Benn’s labradoodle Merry.

 

And so to 2021, another ‘hardly any reasons to have photos of me’ year; I mean, Mitch didn’t have another 50th birthday party. (Though I think he should have, you know?)

So, let’s just jump to the first ‘odd’ pic of 2021. In March I had a hospital appointment which there and then (as in ‘don’t go anywhere, we’re doing this now…’) led to a small mole removal. Well, the mole was small; the removal, not so much.

(And yes, I try to keep this an all ages blog, but I mean, dammit, that’s going to leave a weird scar.)

To be honest, any other pics of it just show it healing. And yes, it healed with a very weird scar.

After that for 2021, I’m afraid we’re back to the ‘oh, good god, how the hell did you walk around with hair like that? In public!’ shots.

And even a ‘you used to all around like that, with your son? And he still talks to you?’

And even

Before I managed to get a long awaited even-shorter-than-usual haircut…

Fortunately I got to get another pic with my lad after I’d had a haircut…

Equally fortunately, haircuts as a thing returned to at least a semi-regular occurrence

And towards the end of the year, I even managed to get my ex-wife Laura to appear in a pic; I mean, I do tell people we do regular coffee and catchups and that she’s, one of my favourite people on the planet.

Remember Merry, the Benns’ labradoodle? Complete photoslut, I assure you.

 

 

But to end this year’s shots, bringing this completely up to date… this was from the other night. I include it here now merely to wish you and yours a happy new year, one as full of love, joy, health, and silliness as you can fit in. And the fervent hope that the year to come will be better for us all.

 

And now the traditional invocation:

Mocking may now commence.


(Oh, since I’m regularly asked: the iPhone app I’ve used in recent years to digitise printed old snaps and photos from old photo albums, so that they’re effectively high resolution scans, is a free Google app called Photoscan. I genuinely can’t recommend it highly enough. IOS version; | Google Play version)

9,497 days

Posted: 2 November 2021 in 2022 minus, birthday, family, life, phil
Tags: , , ,

Twenty-six.

It’s an important number, you know.

It’s the atomic number of iron for one thing, and where would Tony Stark be without knowing th– what’s that you say? It’s not made of iron? Well, why the hell is he call… no, forget it. I digress.

Well, 26 is also the only integer that is one greater than a square (5² + 1) and one less than a cube (3³ − 1). Did you know that? Moreover, while a 3 × 3 × 3 cube is made of 27 unit cubes, only 26 of them are viewable as the exterior layer.

Oh, and in base ten, 26 is the smallest number that is not a palindrome to have a square (26² = 676) that is a palindrome.

None of which is particularly important or relevant today, or at least they’re of far less importance and relevance than the fact that today is my son’s twenty-sixth birthday.

Yeah, I know. Twenty-six.

Wow.

I’m not as surprised as I was when he hit 25, to be honest, but I’ll let those of you who’ve known him for some years, especially those of you who met him when he was ten years old, attending his first comics con, take a second or two to do a mental brain-flip while you accept it.

Because Phil is now older than some of my friends – noted comics pros – were when I met them.

Philip Samuel Barnett – known to almost everyone bar his mum as ‘Phil’ – was born on 2nd November 1995, at half past nine in the evening. In 1995, he was 8lb 3oz, and 21½” long. He’s a wee bit heavier than that now, and a whole lot taller.

Twenty-six years old.

I’ve said many times – and it remains as true today as it was the day he was born and every day since – that being a father is the most fun thing I’ve ever done, bar none. Nothing else comes even close to the pleasure, the joy, and the sheer fun of being a father, of being his father.

Now let’s get the obvious one out of the way: anyone who says being a parent is easy is either ignorant, lying or a masochist. It’s not easy, far from it. Responsibilities are not meant to be easy, but this one is a responsibility that I love performing and undertaking, and the reason for that is simple: it’s solely because it’s Philip who’s my son.

As I’ve witnessed, helped (and hopefully not hindered too much) his progress through life, from baby to toddler, from toddler to child, from child to young adult, from young adult to a grown man…

Alongside wonder, my emotions have been, and continue to be, those of pride and pleasure in the man he’s turned into. The credit for an incredible amount of that must go to my ex-wife Laura; she’s a wonderful mother. And I’m constantly filled with justifiable hope and confidence for the adult he’s become, and the life he’ll experince in the next few years to come.

He’s currently living in Cardiff, and I don’t get to see him in person nearly as much as I’d like. But one of the very few silver linings in the aburdity of the past couple of years has been the weekly Zoom chats he, and his mother, and me, have shared and enjoyed. It’s been a continuing surprise to me just how much I’ve liked them, how important they’ve become, and have been, to my week, that I get to see them both, and especially Phil, on a screen.

And to chat, and laugh, and spend time – virtually, I acknowledge – in his company.

As always, however, I have no idea how he went from:

to

to

to

to

to

to

in what as always seems like an astonishingly short space of time.

Appy birthday, Phil. I love you, son. I hope the year to come is one full of fun, and joy, and wonder, and loveliness.

Dad
x

[Feel free to add your birthday greetings and wishes here, or tweet him at @phik_vicious…]


This post is very much not part of the series of blog entries, counting down to the new year. But you can see them by clicking here.

(Yes, that is a confusing photo that accompanies this post. It’s meant to be.)

Certainty, as I wrote, a couple of years ago, makes it easy to get angry; too easy, as it happens. And social media makes it easier than ever to do so.

With strangers. With people you don’t know. With people you kind of know but not really. And with celebrities you don’t know, will never meet and who wouldn’t recognise you in a line up considering of two people.

With friends, however, it’s disappointment that leads to irritation, frustration, upset and anger. Usually, anyway.

And I don’t mind getting pissed off with people (including myself) for stuff that’s definitely their (or my) fault.

It’s a part of the social contract, I guess. I do something that pisses you off, you’re entitled, more than entitled, to be pissed off with me.

And if you do something that pisses me off, I’m equally entitled to be pissed off with you.

Now, at no point do I say, or aver, whether or not the person being pissed off has any objective justification for being pissed off. But objective justification or not, there surely has to be a reason (or reasons) to be pissed off with someone, yes?

And when I say ‘objective justification’, I mean, well, whether or not someone would agree the reason is a sensible, rational, one… Because there has to be… a reason, justifiable or not, shurely?

For example. Let’s say we arrange to meet for coffee. One of us doesn’t show because we’d forgotten about it, or something else comes up and we forgot to let the other know that we could no longer make it. But not turning up, while the other person is waiting – patiently at first, less so as time passes… yeah, I don’t know anyone who’d argue that the person who got stood up isn’t justified in being pissed off at the person who didn’t show. Now you can extend that to a meal, a date, a business meeting.

If you’ve agreed to show up and you don’t, without notice, that’s worthy of a ‘pissed off with you’ reaction.

On the other hand, same hypothetical, We arrange to meet for coffee. One of us turns up ten minutes early. The other turns up on time. It’d be as ludicrous for one to get pissed off at the other for being early as it would be for the other to be pissed off that someone turned up ‘on time’.

Because it’s not – in that second scenario – that there is a reason and all we’re debating is the weight of that position; the reason doesn’t exist, objective or otherwise. Unless one of you decides to get angry and uses that as the excuse.

But then there’s the other thing, the thing that angers me; anger – I hasten to add – that’s aimed squarely at yours truly.

Once in a while, I’ll tweet something like the following; when tweeted, it’s nothing but the unfettered truth, and yes, it speaks nothing well of me.

I wish I knew why I’m like that, why I too often get upset at people for stuff, about stuff, that’s 100%, unreservedly, totally, not the other person’s fault, not anyone’s fault at all, bar possibly mine.

I genuinely wish I knew.

I mean, I have my suspicions. For all my many flaws, I am, I like to think, reasonably self-aware.


Sidebar: It’s a genuine delight when I learn something new about myself, though, whether or not the thing I learn is a ‘nice’ thing or otherwise; knowledge is always valuable. A psych once identified why I did ‘a certain thing’ with such clarity, such simplicity, that it was a pleasure to witness the discovery. It wasn’t, I hasten to add, complimentary about me, but at least ‘something about me’ made sense that really hadn’t before.


There’s stuff, personal stuff, as well as the non-personal, that I long ago accepted would likely , overwhelmingly likely, not be part of ‘my life’. Usually it’s a fairly good natured resignation to it. Sometimes – less rarely as the years pass – I’m bad-naturedly resigned to it, very bad-naturedly.

And sometimes it’s wholly trivial, which almost makes the level of my genuine upset even more ludicrous, even dafter, than it is in and of itself. Which takes it to a whole new premier league of daftness. Kind of an exponential growth in the anger.

Take food, for example. While many of my friends might describe themselves as “foodies”, they’re not expert cooks nor bakers; they’re not epicureans when it comes to food. They just enjoy, genuinely enjoy, cooking or baking… and they definitely take pleasure in consuming good food. They might enjoy it more if they made it, but whether or not they made it, they enjoy good food. And they take equal pleasure in cooking for someone else, and even more enjoyment in that person expressing their pleasure in it.

All of which makes sense to me in a technical, objective, way. And none of which applies to me in any way whatsoever.

For all sorts of reasons, I tend to regard food as.… ‘fuel’. For me, food’s solely there to ease the ache of hunger. I’m – usually – as ok with a couple of slices of buttered toast as I would be with a cheese omelette, or as ok as I would be with a bowl of cereal, or as I would be a posh three course meal. It’s… food.

Sure, there’s food I actively dislike; I have a fairly bland palate, so I dislike spicy food, and strong, overwhelming, smells turn me off any type of food faster than you’d believe.

Mentioning odours, more than one friend has suggested my busted up nose might have something to do with my apathy when it comes to [nice] food, but a) I do have a sense of smell b) I do have my ‘favourite’ smells, and c) my indifference to food long pre-dates my nose being broken.

My mum was for the most part a very plain cook, and made very plain food. My old man liked the food that way. I’d say blame them for my lack if interest in food, bar for two things. First off, my dad really liked his food. He didn’t have a broad range but what he liked, he really liked. And mum encouraged all of us kids to experiment with food, to see what we liked. She was very much not a ‘this is what I’m serving, so this is what you’ll like. Also very much a ‘try it; if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it again, but try it now…’

So, yeah, food and tastes are not really a thing I do, Honourable exception for coffee, and again for scotch whisky. Not sure why those two in particular, but yeah, I do actually enjoy consuming both. Tea on the other hand, and most cold drinks, are again there solely to slake thirst. I like Oasis Citrus Punch, can drink loads of it, but if they stopped making it tomorrow, wouldn’t bother me in the least; I’m equally as happy drinking still water.

(Which reminds me of one of the sillier gags I like: “Waiter, I’d like some water, please.” “Certainly, sir. Still water?” “Yes, I haven’t changed my mind.”)

But much as it would be ludicrous to be upset at people enjoying a party that I didn’t care about attending, and indeed would have declined an invitation to had I received one (and yes, I’ve done that as well), it would be, and is, nonsensical for me to be upset at people enjoying food I wouldn’t care to eat.

And, yet, there have been times when I’ve felt exactly that.

Utterly daft, isn’t it?

Another example: there are genuine, long standing issues which I care about, politically. And that others might not care as much (as I said last Sunday) is something I’ve long gotten used to, as they have about me not caring as much about issues they put their energy and passion into.

And while there are any number of subjects and topics that I might query the priority someone regards it with, sometimes someone will care, obviously deeply care, about something that I genuinely cannot understand why anyone cares about it. I can’t get arsed about sport 99.999% of the time but I completely accept that makes me an anomaly. And I ‘get’ why it’s important to some. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Neither can I get arsed about where someone’s grandparents came from. Not to any extent beyond mild curiosity and, given the history of so many who died in the holocaust, that. I don’t really care about my own. I mean I know the basics of where my own grandparents came from, but not really much more than that. And I don’t care to learn more.

(Huh, I don’t really care about my family more than a couple of generations back, and I don’t enjoy food. Let me just check in my trousers to confirm I’m still Jewish. Ok, yes. Let’s continue.)

Combining the two above, a teenager named Emma Radacanu won a tennis tournament last night. I can’t say I truly watched it. It’s as on the background while I did other things; it was, for me, wallpaper television, to which I paid attention on occasion: the set points, long rallies, championship points.

From what I witnessed, she’s a fun, clever, teenager with an astonishing talent. The same applies equally to her opponent.

Radacanu is British; born in Canada but she moved to the UK as a toddler. And people have today been talking about where her parents came from, where her grandparents were born, either to proclaim with some sense of triumph that it shows Britain is great, or less pleasantly to cast doubt on her somehow.

I genuinely don’t care where her grandparents came from. Couldn’t give a toss; as far as I’m concerned the only people who should give the slightest damn about it are Ms Radacanu and her family. And it not only puzzles me that anyone else does, it angers me, for no accountable reason. It’s not other peoples’ fault that they’re interested in the cultural heritage and background of the first British woman to win a Grand Slam major in 40 years, and it’s none of my business that they are.

But it irks, to put it mildly. And I have no bloody idea at all why.

Two caveats to the above:

  1. As I was typing the above, something popped up on my twitter feed; ‘one of those exceptions that proves the rule’ things. The Mayor of London celebrated that she’s from London. I perfectly understand why he did it: politics. But I realised I should add a line: I completely understand people’s interest in where she comes from, and even where her parents originated. I am still at a complete loss to understand any interest intake background of her family beyond that.)
  2. Developing 1. above, where people come from, I understand an interest. Indeed, one could not support refugees without it. Where their parents come from, sure. But anything further back from that, I don’t understand. Someone born in the UK, say, today, whose parents immigrated or whose grandparents did, or whose great-grandparents did is exactly as British, no more no less, than someone who can trace the English, say, background to the 1200s. No more, no less.

Ok, now I’m done.

See you tomorrow, with… something else.

Fifty-seven more days. Fifty-seven more posts. One fifty-seventh birthday just had.


I’m trying something new with this run. I’ve signed up to ko-fi.com, so if you fancy throwing me a couple of dollars every so often, to keep me in a caffeine-fuelled typing mood, feel free. I’m on https://ko-fi.com/budgiehypoth

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting up from my fifty-seventh birthday on 17th August 2021. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here. (And you can see the posts in the run counting down to the birthday here.)

Occasionally, a tweet from somoene I follow will set off a train of thought.

More rarely, it won’t set off a thought, but, well, this’ll happen…

And this tweet was from someone I follow who doesn’t follow me, doesn’t really know who I am, and who will once in a blue moon will respond to a reply. She tweeted something that… hit home.

(The original tweet contained some personal information, so you’ll have to forgive my summarising it rather than reproducing the actual tweet.)

She lost her father a couple of years ago, and mentioned that she’ll still, every so often, miss something he did or said, or hear a piece of music and think that he’d have liked that. And she rhetorically wondered if that would ever end.

Although most responses were of the negative, ‘no that won’t ever end’, they weren’t unkind, but even within that, the immediate reactions fell into three types:

i) The “No, but would you ever want it to? While you remember him, he’s not really gone” reaction

I understand both the intention and sentiment behind such a response; of course they don’t mean that whoever died didn’t really die. But even so, it’s an position that I really have no time for.

And, in some ways, doing the whole ‘they’re not really gone’ can be cruel, Memories inevitably fade, both in strength and in detail: that is the way of memories. And if you do sign up to the whole ‘while you remember them’ thing, then as the memories fade, there’s gonna be some [undeserved, unjustified] guilt. Because some people are going to believe that it’s their responsibility to continue to remember their departed relative or friend, in order to ‘keep them alive’. And that by not being able to remember them quite as clearly, or in such detail, they’re somehow letting the deceased down. But they’re not.

I’m reminded of a rabbi of my acquaintance who – while they struggled with the reasons for this rule ot that law – very much liked the idea of the Jewish stonesetting. When Jewish people are buried, the headstone isn’t erected at the same time. It goes up later, usually around 11 months later but I’ve known shorter and longer periods. My rabbi friend said there was a reason for it, far beyond the strict religious justification; social ‘life goes on’ reason of which he very much approved.

For those who had not moved on, who were still grieving rather than mourning, the stone setting was a concrete (sorry) reminder, a reminder and an admonition to them: they died, you didn’t.

And for those who might have moved on a bit speedily, it was an equally strong reminder, an equally stern admonition: Hey! Someone you cared about died, you know!

I’m not entirely sure I go along with all of that, but I do very much believe that once someone has gone, you need to genuinely accept it, in all the ways that matter, and know that the memories aren’t an unbiased representation of the person who died; not really. Because they couldn’t be. They’re your memories; filtered, sorted, and sometimes censored, but they’re your memories of them, which might not be strictly accurate.And that’s how it should be; they’re what comes next.

ii) The “No, but what triggers it will change over the years” reaction

Oh, I have a lot of time for this one. Very definitely. It only makes sense to me, because as memories fade, they also fade in different ways. I can no longer truly remember how my brother sounded in normal speech. I mean, ok, it’s been 23 years, and I have very little of his recorded voice. I have one snippet, from my wedding, during which he was making a toast, so it’s not exactly his ‘normal speaking voice’.

So the ‘hearing someone that sounds like him’ trigger evaporated long ago,. I have no idea what music he would have liked now, though occasionally I’ll hear music we both liked at the time.

For the first few years after Mike died, it was most often personal news that I wanted to tell him about, jokes I heard that I wanted to tell him, or even jokes I heard that I knew – I absolutely knew – that he’d have told me first.

Now? Well, I’ll get onto that in more detail in a moment, but it’s often stuff about which we wouldn’t have necessarily talked about then but would now…. Confusing, I know, but bear with me.

iii) The “no, it won’t change, but how you react to it will”

And this one hit home.

Harder than I expected it to when I read the comments saying this, and the feeling grew over the rest of the day.

I’m a huge believer in people being the sum of their own experiences, and I guess memories play into that. How I react to something, anything, now isn’t how I’d have reacted a decade ago, or two decades ago… or 23 years ago. Because I’m a different person now. I’ve a decade’s, or two decades’, or 23 years’, worth of experiences and memories that have changed me.

I don’t know what I’d be like had my brother not died in January 1998, but I’m damn sure I would have been… different in some ways, probably in many ways.

I’ve heard it said that ‘time heals all wounds’. Metaphorically of course, because I can look at my foot with a two-decades’ old three inch scar on it, or my upper chest with a three month old two inch scar on it. They healed over time, of course, but left obvious, blatant, physical marks.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, or at least not without leaving scars, physical or otherwise.

What time does do, I’ve come to realise and appreciate, is that with every passing month, every passing day, rather than healing all wounds, the passing of time merely lessens the temptation to pick at the scab.

Because what happened at some point, and I’m damned if I could identify exactly when, was that my reaction on hearing a joke, or reading a story, or listening to the radio, or watching television, stopped being “Oh, I wish I could tell Mike this…” and instead became, “Oh, Michael would have really liked that…

It happens a lot in Edinburgh (and I think that he’d have really enjoyed me getting up there, would have enjoyed my getting to write with Mitch for the radio and for Edinburgh) but not only then.

It happened a lot during the past 18 months, especially whenever I watched Michael Spicer’s marvellous “The Room Next Door” pieces. Not once was there a “Oh,I wish I could call Mike to tell him about this”; it was always “man, Michael would have loved this…”

It’s happened with tech a few times as well. I’ll think, while being amazed at some piece of tech or another, particularly my iPad, and what it can do, how much Mick would have enjoyed having a play with it.

It happened not that long ago. I was walking back to the flat from Central London. It’s not that long a walk – well under an hour – and if the foot is behaving, and the weather is nice, then sometimes I’ll walk back.

And it happened indirectly because I cleared out a load of stuff I had on my computer. I needed to clear some room on my hard drive and came across a load of ancient radio recordings, some of them from A Week In Westminster, Westminster Hour, and similar type programmes.

I deleted loads, but came across something called “Tales from the Cutting Room” by the journalist Michael Cockerell. I kind of faintly remembered enjoying it, but didn’t recall it clearly.

Now, when I started what I refer to online as the #DailyConstitutional, my daily hour or more’s walk, my rule was: no current affairs, no current news, no recent politics news, for reasons previously mentioned.

But this wasn’t modern, this wasn’t recent. It wasn’t even recent when it was broadcast; Cockerell was talking about his decades’ long career as a political journalist, and interviews he’d conducted, and especially what got cut in the edit. So there were clips from interviews that had never seen the light of day.

This clip was about Jim Callaghan, British Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979, and the only person to have held all four great offices of state: Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary.

As the programme closed, Cockerell related a conversation he’d once had with Roy Jenkins, wherein Jenkins said [about Callaghan, who hadn’t gone to university] that he’d never before come across such a powerful personality linked with such a lack of intellect.

Jenkins, of course, was one of four university educated men that Callaghan had beaten to the Labour Leadership, and to the office of Prime Minister, when he went for it in 1976. When Cockerell then quoted Jenkins to Callaghan, and said that the view was shared by others, Callaghan had laughed, and then he came out with one of the greatest political quotes I’ve ever heard:

“It’s true, although I think I was probably cleverer then they thought I was. Yes, I haven’t got a huge intellect. But then again, I became Prime Minister… and they didn’t.”

And that’s when I laughed and thought… “yeah, Michael would have liked that; he’d really really have liked that”.

I don’t think of my brother every day; I’d be lying if I said I did. But when I think of him, there’s not been a single time I’ve not missed him.

And I kind of think he’d have liked that as well.

 

See you tomorrow, with… something else.

 

 

Fifty-seven days. Fifty-seven posts. One fifty-seventh birthday.


I’m trying something new with this run. I’ve signed up to ko-fi.com, so if you fancy throwing me a couple of dollars every so often, to keep me in a caffeine-fuelled typing mood, feel free. I’m on https://ko-fi.com/budgiehypoth

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-seventh birthday on 17th August 2021. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

Twenty-three years

Posted: 9 January 2021 in family, personal
Tags: , ,

Twenty-three years. And, yes, time for some changes.

It’s twenty-three years since my brother died.

I decided on the twentieth anniversary of his death that I should celebrate his life whenever I think of Michael, not mourn his death on the anniversary. And I’ve tried to do that, the past few years, as much as I can.

I mean, on the day itself, I don’t apologise for – nor do I seek forgiveness for – thinking of his death, remembering the awfulness of that day, of losing my big brother. But that wasn’t all there was to having him as a big brother, and maybe it’s unfair to his memory to imply that it was, even on this day.

So while I mark the anniversary, acknowledge it, I was thinking that maybe I should include some more stories about him. Stories I may have told previously on other occasions, in other entries, but stories I should tell again today.

Because he wasn’t just his death. He wasn’t just the day of his death.

So… first some stories about Michael, then…

…what happened twenty-three years ago today.

Yeah, this will be just a bit longer post than has previously been common.

Strap in.


 
Michael Russell Barnett. My big brother. 

Michael would have been 61 last November. He’d likely have been completely white on top by now; his hair was already greying a bit in his mid-30s. Like me, when I started going grey, he pretended it didn’t bother him. Like me, it did, just a bit. He had red lowlights for a short while, but quickly stopped bothering about it. If it bugged him after that, I never knew about it.

(And yes, he once suggested to do the same for me; red highlights. I… declined the offer.)

The increasing grey of my own hair made us look more alike. We never looked that much like each other; we bore just enough of a resemblance, though, that people quickly guessed, accurately surmised, that we were brothers.

But he was far better looking than me.

I don’t say that out of any false modesty, I stress; we three brothers used to joke among ourselves that Mike had the looks, I had the brains, and our younger brother had the practical abilities.

(That wasn’t and isn’t true, of course; my brain was better at numbers, and at poking holes in arguments, but my younger brother had – and has – a brain for how things worked practically that left mine and Mike’s in the stone age. And Mike was no slouch on ripping a lazy argument apart.)

But yeah, he was the good looking one. I can’t even remember a time when Mike didn’t have girlfriends, or when he wasn’t surrounded by a crowd of friends. And he was a great big brother to grow up with: silly when he could be, serious when he had to be, a peacemaker between his younger brothers on so, so many occasions.

He enjoyed school, both the social aspect and the academic side of it… in theory anyway. He’d have been the first to admit that he wasn’t the most diligent of students; he always did enough to get by. He got good grades, but never spectacular ones. He was fit – up ’till his early 20s anyway; more about that in a moment. He played squash at school and sixth form college, and was pretty good from all accounts, until he started getting suspiciously short of breath while playing. Again, more about that down the page.

He played the guitar, with more enthusiasm than talent, but I clearly remember the genuine pleasure Mike took in grabbing the Complete Beatles Songbook and playing the classic songs in his bedroom, while we two younger brothers sang along. (That same book is on ny bookshelves as I speak; it’s a pleasure to look at it and just remember.)

But Mike loved music; I can’t remember a time when his bedroom wasn’t filled with music, either last week’s charts, which he’d taped from Radio 1, or albums he’d bought. Or him just playing for the sheer unadulterated pleasure of doing so.

I’ve said on many occasions that I couldn’t have asked for a better big brother, and it’s true. It’s simply… true.

I stuck him on a pedestal, a dangerous place for any sibling to stand, but he never did anything to forfeit that respect and love. I called him Mike. To most everyone else, he was Michael. He was my big brother and I loved him unquestionably.

I remember when I was about 13, maybe 14? Either way, was around my bar mitzvah, 1977/78-ish. I had – understandably – began to notice things about my body, and that of the girls that surrounded me. This was in the days when sex education in British schools mainly consisted of the single word “Don’t“.

I was terribly shy, terribly confused, terribly nervous. But I was fortunate. I was lucky. I had Mike. (Yes, I was a late developer; Mike was anything but. As I say, he’d had girlfriends from when he was an early teenager.)

He took me to one side, one Sunday afternoon, prompted by my parents. He gave me a booklet to read and told me that when I’d read it, I’d be even more confused, but to come find him. He was right. After I’d read this booklet – I remember it had a purple cover, with pictorial representations of a naked man and naked woman – my reaction was mainly one of “Wait. I do what with what?”

I found him in his room, he grabbed dad’s car keys, and we went for a drive, to a pub, about ten miles from home. Once there, he got me a soft drink and we repaired to a bench in the beer garden far from anyone else.

“OK, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Just that. No “I know you’re nervous.” Just a matter-of-fact “ask away”. He knew I trusted him.

Looking back, he could have had so much fun with me, told me any urban myth, and stuff and nonsense, and I’d probably have believed him. He was my big brother, after all, and I trusted him.

Instead, he told me the truth, to anything I asked. Some stuff he blushed when telling me, but he told me what it was like the first time he’d had sex. He told me how shit scared he’d been, how convinced he’d be that he’d ‘get it wrong’. He said he’d had a number of girlfriends – which I knew – but that afternoon I was to assume that he’d had one, “Miss Ermintrude Abernathy” he called her, and that anything he told me about anything… it was Ermie.

He kept adding biographical details to Ermintrude’s life as we spoke, and after the serious stuff was over, that continued; by the end of it, we were crying with laughter about how he’d abandoned her to a life of misery in the grinding poverty and chalk-mines of Luton, Bedfordshire.

Skip forward a couple of years to the first of the ‘being mistaken for each other’. Our parents were out, and Mike was looking after me and my younger brother; we were playing Monopoly. His girlfriend Lynne (later his fiancée, still later his wife) calls on the house phone (no mobiles back then). Mike talks to her for a few minutes, then – without warning – hands the phone to me with a grin. I ‘get’ it immediately and for a minute or so just go “uh-huh” and “really?” to Lynne, then hand the phone back to Mike once he’s played his move. 

He carries on the conversation for a couple of minutes then hands the phone back to me while he shakes the dice and moves his piece. This continues for about ten minutes before we’re obviously – and audibly – failing to hide the by now no longer stifled laughter. He makes an excuse then finishes the call…

(Lynne never discovered this until just before they were married. She… wasn’t pleased, though mainly because she panicked that she’d said something entirely inappropriate to me… she hadn’t.)

OK, jump forward to 1981 or 1982; I’m watching television with the family, an episode of Quincy. By then, I’d become used to picking up a doctor’s prescription for Mike for something called “digoxin“. Didn’t have a clue what it was, of course, and since the one time I asked Mike what it was for, I got a genial “mind your own business” and I didn’t have the internet back then… I left it… figuring it wasn’t that important. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

So, we’re watching Quincy and after autopsying a body, Quincy just comes out with the following line:

“OK, we found digoxin, so we know he had heart problems…”

Wait.

What did he just say?

My head whips ’round to look at Mike, my eyes growing wider with every nanosecond and finding his. He shoots me a look that essentially but emphatically repeats his message from a few months previous: shut up and mind your own business.

And I left it alone. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

Another year or so goes past. It’s June. Mike had been ill, very ill, off work for a while, no energy, in bed all day. Our parents had, reluctantly, gone on the holiday they’d booked months earlier. Our local doctor came – yeah, they did house calls back then – and the next thing, an ambulance is called, Mike’s in the local hospital and they’re talking about transferring him to Harefield. And that’s when I found out my brother needed a heart valve transplant at 23 years of age.

He was in Harefield for a couple of months, and was finally operated on in September 1983; though my parents were allowed to see him almost immediately after the operation, it was a day or two before I was. My big brother was there, unconscious, a yellow tinge to his skin, tubes and drains inserted into various parts of his body, with what looked like a fat, angry, pink-red worm stitched to his chest.

Yeah it wasn’t pleasant.

Lynne and Mike had split up by then, but they got back together during his recovery and in 1985, they married. Mike asked me to be best man; I didn’t realise at the time how much of an honour that was, for him to choose me. He had any number of friends he could have asked, any of whom could have done the job, but he chose me. To this day, the thought chokes me up.

At the wedding, one of Lynne’s customers arrives late, sees me dancing with Lynne and makes an assumption. Later, half cut, and only semi-jokingly, she says to Lynne (out of my hearing) “Ooh, is the brother [she points at Mike] available? He’s much better looking… You should have married him!” Lynne retorted “I did marry him!” And then immediately seeks me out and, with a superlative and not quite malicious joy, gets her own back on me for the ‘Monopoly’ phone call so long ago by telling me…

By then, Mike had left a potential career in accountancy (he never enjoyed it) and joined the family hairdressing business. He was good at it. Lynne and he had a couple of boys, and he was happy. He loved his wife, he loved his kids. He was happy.

He enjoyed his life. And he enjoyed enjoying his life.

He liked Laura immediately when I started going out with her and took immense joy in both my getting married and in us having our own child, Philip, in 1995.

Mike loved being an uncle. He told/warned me more than once that being a parent is a mixture of joy and heartache, that especially: when your child has a temperature, you’re the one who sweats… But he absolutely revelled in being an uncle. And he took immense pride in Laura and me asking him to give Phil his first haircut.

I bitterly regret that my lad never got to know his uncle. Mike died when Phil was two years old.

He called me about 14 years after his first operation, June 1997. We’d been joking for months that if his valve transplant lasted 15 years, he’d throw it a party. The call was to tell me that we wouldn’t be having the party. The valve wasn’t going to last 15 years. It wasn’t going to make it to 14. He was going in for a double valve transplant the following week. He hadn’t wanted to worry me before then, but now I had to know.

I remember being totally calm during the call, then basically falling apart as I hung up the phone.

Mike had the operation, and was doing well, recovering… He went on holiday with his family in the October; had a great time. We had Christmas at his place and the last picture I have of him is holding his nephew up, smiling with pleasure at the sheer joy Phil’s expressing.

He was doing well, recovering…

And then he wasn’t. Less than a fortnight later he wasn’t.

Less than a fortnight later, he was dead.

And we’ll get back to that in a minute.


 
1975
I started at secondary school, aged 11, what was called ‘senior school’ in my day. I was in the most junior year, obviously; Mike was in the most senior. I’d clearly told Mike, my big brother, that I would walk home by myself; I didn’t need, nor want, to be treated like a baby who needed his hand held.

Some lads from his year, four years older than me, decided to have a bit of fun with the new kid, and, I guess, have a vicarious pop at Mike as well. I remember being genuinely terrified at what these 16 year olds had planned for me when they surrounded me as I came out of the school and found them waiting for me. Whatever it was, it was going to be painful, let’s face it.

I was shaking, almost crying from fear. My nose was running.

There was a loud cough. And they turned to see Mike, never the weightiest of builds, leaning against the wall, apparently completely relaxed. Five lads, all of them his size or bigger facing him.

“On your way…” Mike says, almost bored.

For a moment, I don’t know who he’s talking to, me or them. But then, as I start to move, Mike shoots me a look and barely but definitely moved his head from one side to another. I stay there.

“On your way, lads…”

The bullies look at me, Then at Mike, figuring out their chances.

They fancy their chances, obviously.

“You think you can beat us?”

Mike laughs. “Of course not. There are five of you. I can’t beat you.” He stands up, from the wall, holding half a brick in his hand. “I can just break a nose or two, poke out an eye or two, maybe fracture a kneecap, before I go down, though. Now leave him alone. And fuck off.”

First time I’d ever heard my brother say that.

They swore at him. They shouted at him. They even, if you can believe it, cast doubt on the validity of our parents’ marriage.

But they left.

Mike walked over to me, handed me a tissue, said “wipe your nose, then come on…” And we walked home, me now almost crying, but from relief now. He never mentioned it again, never blamed me for being scared, never criticised me for being tearful, never did anything… other than convince me I’d always be safe while he was around.


 
1982
In 1982, I went to Manchester Polytechnic to study accountancy. I lived in a self-catering hall of residence. The ‘hall of residence’ won’t surprise anyone; the self-catering bit might. But I moved in not because I enjoyed cooking my own food; I didn’t then, and I don’t now. But no, but mainly because I wanted to eat when I wanted to, not when someone else wanted me to. And it was fun; I loved my time away from home. Mike came up for a vist after I’d been there a few months.

I was living, at that time, with 8 other people, from all over the UK. A fella from Derby, a couple from the South Coast, a lad from Northern Ireland, one lass from Leeds. And me. And I never ‘heard’ my accent. I never even really considered I had an accent. I mean, ok, if you’d have pressed me, I guess I’d have reluctantly acknowledged that I must have had an accent, but I never ‘heard’ it. I never thought about it.

Then Mike came to visit. But hearing him talk to my friends, and the contrast between every word that came out of his mouth and theirs, between his accent and everyone else’s… Yes, I heard his accent, but again, not mine, not really.

Until one evening, when we were chatting with friends and one of them commented how similar our accents were, mine and Mike’s, how almost identical they were, in fact.

And then it hit me. Of course I had an accent, and of course it was the same as Mike’s.

And I appeared to be the only one in the room to whom this came as a surprise. Because my brother, my dear sibling, was wholly on my friends’ ‘side’ on the matter. He couldn’t believe I’d been in Manchester, had lived with these people, for months… and the penny hadn’t dropped.

But I had, and eventually… it did.

And there followed, of course, the requisite amount of mockery and silliness.

And at one point, I stopped dead, noticing how Mike had effortlessly fit in with my friends. They were my friends, and that was all he needed to accept them fully, and without reservation.
 


 
1993
I’d felt an itch to write for a while, and was doing something about it. I’d started writing for the BBC, a topical weekly radio comedy show entitled Weekending. My younger brother had no interest, which was cool; he never had much of an interest in current afffairs. My mum was similarly uninterested. I could have told her I was writing Doctor Who, or writing sketches for a student rag. Mum’s reaction would have been the same: ‘that’s nice, dear.” No interest in what I was writing, who it was for, or whether it was any good.

My father had far more interest, and was delighted for me, and even – very occasionally – listened to the show. He was very pleased for me, but had no actual interest in what I wrote.

Mike, on the other hand, was fascinated by every bit of it. He listened every week, if not to the original broadcast, then always the repeat. And he’d call me up to congratulate me, and to guess which bits I wrote, and to ask about how I wrote this sketch or that gag. He never tried to rewrite it or suggest ‘better’ gags; he was always respectful that this was my writing, my gig.

And he eagerly read the prose I wrote, asking me ‘what’s the next thing? What are you writing next?’

He took great pride that his brother, his younger brother, was writing, was creating, and was good at it.
 


 
The bullies were long ago. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed Mike to protect me from them.

The friends from Manchester Poly are similarly long gone; I haven’t spoken to any of them in decades. But the friends I have now? I wish Mike knew them, and I wish they’d have got to know him. Comedians I know, writers… friends…. He’d have liked them, and they’d have liked him.

I still write; I wish he could read what I write. I really, really wish he could.

And I wish I could reminisce with my brother once again.


 
I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother. And miss him again.


 
If you, or anyone you know, was born in the second half of the twentieth-century, then at some point or another, as a kid or teenager, you calculated how old you’d be in the year 2000… a long time distant, but yeah, it seemed very old.

Until January 1998, I had the same ‘well, I’ll be so old’. Not long after Michael died, however, I found myself working out on exactly what date I’d wake up… and be one day older than my big brother reached. Yeah, that particular day was a very odd 24 hours.

But that day was in 2002.

Mike was thirty-eight when he died; in a couple of years, I’ll be twenty years older than he was when he died.

And that’s a thing you never get used to. Never. You’re always aware, in a kind of low level way, that you’re now older – and as the years pass, you’re substantially older – than someone who once was older than you.

You’ll hit a birthday, or attend an anniversary event, and somewhere, in the back of your mind, is the thought ‘yeah, another milestone that he or she didn’t get to‘. My grandparents died in their 60s, and my father died when he was over 80. So, the only experience I have of that feeling is Michael. And sometimes… it bites. It bites hard.

Twenty-three years after his death, though, it’s not even really the birthdays themselves that he never reached that strike home, as much is it is me experiencing those birthdays; waking up being one more year older.

Waking up one more year older than he ever reached.

It’s the experiencing of anniversaries, experiencing the life, the years, the culture and changes that he never got to see.

It’s everything, from the age-related stuff that he never had – odd aches and pains when you stand up, annual checkups that you get when in your mid-50s – to those cultural and political changes that he never experienced but that he would have been fascinated by, and with.

I wonder what Mike would have thought of the current political situation, which movies he’d have liked, which he’d have been disappointed with, which bands he’d like, which tv shows he’d have absolutely loved.

And the long and enjoyable discussions we’d have had about all of it… about life.

And that’s leaving aside that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost seeing my lad Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know his uncle. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

Phil was barely two years’ old when Mike died. He’s twenty-five now and Mike should be someone he could call for advice, or to tell him a gag, or just when he’s throughly pissed off with me or his mum. Mike should be someone who’s there for advice, or for a laugh, or just to chat to. And he should be there for Phil to get pissed off with, if his Uncle Michael happened to agree with me or his mum rather than him.

They’ve both missed that.

Then there are the friends I’ve met, friends I’ve made, over those more than twenty years. Friends I have every confidence would have liked Michael, and he’d have liked them. I can easily see Mitch and Clara and Roger and Neil, sharing a laugh with Michael; very easily indeed as a matter of fact; most probably at my expense, the way you allow the closest of friends to get away with doing.

Some people take the turn of the year to revisit past decisions, to do a mini audit of where their life has taken them. Some Jewish people do it on Yom Kippur. Others do it on their birthday. Me? It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I tend to do it today, on the anniversary of Mike’s death.

I can smile, albeit reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have, at various times, cheered him, made Michael laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation.

He was my ‘big brother’ and I loved him – what else would you expect?

I said on the twentieth anniversary in 2018 that I could almost hear him saying, Twenty years is long enough to mourn me on the day of my death; time to celebrate my life whenever you think of me, Lee. Whenever you think of me.

And that for once, brother, I was listening.

I miss you, Mike, but I did enjoy having you as my big brother. Thank you for that.

So, twenty-three years…

Rest easy, brother.
x


 
A few years ago, after I mentioned losing my brother, on the anniversary of Michael’s death, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened.

But all asked the simple question: What did happen? Here’s what I put up in response.

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked by his widow, by my sister-in-law, to write something about him.

And here’s what I wrote:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

My mate Mitch

Posted: 20 January 2020 in family, life, personal
Tags: , , , ,

It’s Mitch Benn’s 50th birthday, today. Happy birthday, Mitch.

No one reading this is going to be unaware that we’re close friends. That we’ve only known each other since 2010, however, does seem to surprise; most people assume we’ve been friends for a lot longer.

Even yesterday, at Mitch’s birthday bash, a couple of people expressed their astonishment that we only met a decade or so back.

But that’s perfectly fair; it still sometimes takes me aback, and saddens me, that Mitch never knew Mike, and never knew me when Phil was bar mitzvah’d. Would have been lovely to have him there for both.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most Saturdays, since I restarted the blog in June last year, I’ve done a set of what I call Saturday Smiles; commonly, I’ll put up half a dozen funny or amusing videos just to lighten the mood, to give readers of the blog a smile or six after another week of ‘oh, what the hell has the world done now?’ I’ve done it off and on since I started blogging here in 2011.

And when I restarted them seven months ago, I made the decision to always include a song from Mitch. There’ve been some personal favourites in there, sure, but there’s always been something, if for no other reason that I like his work and I think more people should be exposed to it.

Because I do like Mitch’s work, his songs, his comedy. It’s why it was a joy to discover that I liked Mitch as well as his work when I met him.

And his 50th birthday seems as good a time as any – ten years after we met, and nine years since we became friends – to write something about my mate Mitch, and our friendship.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t like Mitch the moment we met, but that was under fairly frantic and pressured circumstances, and…

No. Wait. Allow me to go back a bit further. Pre-blog. Pre-Mitch.


I can’t remember when I first became a fan of musical comedy and of comedy songs. As early as I can recall, there were funny songs I recall learning the words of: playground songs, songs my dad sang, songs from I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again on radio, and comedy albums… everything from Alan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (properly entitled Camp Grenada) to Ernie, The Fastest Milkman In The West; Benny Hill’s comedy songs are great, by the way.

I’d happily sit and watch Victor Borge on the tv at my grandparents. Hell, I’d watch anyone who made me laugh, while singing a song or playing an instrument, or both.

One year, I remember I was bought an album of comedy songs for a birthday or Chanukah; one of my favourite presents as a child, ever. I played it over and over, driving my parents, and my brothers, loopy. And my older brother – who I’ve mentioned before played the guitar with perhaps more enthusiasm than talent – did the whole ‘funny lyrics to existing tunes’, which I joined in with, with equal… enthusiasm.

And then there was Richard Stilgoe, and The Goodies, and Phil Pope, and Victoria Wood, and Not The Nine O’Clock News and Monty Python, and Who Dares Wins

But I’ve always loved radio comedy. My old man introduced me to The Goon Show (which had musical interludes but they weren’t comedy songs as such) and then… and then… Well, I’d been a fan of Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis through their work on The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Jasper Carrott’s shows.

So when they helmed a new topical radio show entitled The Now Show, I listened to it.

Well, ok, yes, it’s a bit more complicated than that; I used to write for a Radio 4 topical comedy show entitled Weekending; a few years after I stopped writing for them, it came off air… to be replaced by a new show entitled The Now Show.

It ‘starred’ Punt and Dennis, along with Marcus Brigstocke, Jon Holmes, Laura Shavin, and this fella named Mitch Benn who did the funny songs.

And they were funny; clever ideas, fantastic wordplay, glorious rhymes – which I later learned Mitch refers to as ‘stunt rhyming’ – and superb homages/parodies of music styles, and of specific artists.

Mitch let us into his life just a bit on the show. I learned he was married, that in 2005, almost exactly ten years after my lad was born, he and his missus had their first child. He was a huge Doctor Who fan. As was I. And a comics fan. Well, obviously. And loved sf as much as I did. And when he occasionally let his anger show in a song, it was never gratuitous, but always razor sharp, and he hit his targets. I liked his humour, and I liked the show.

I went to see a couple of the Now Show recordings in 2008 & 2009. And yeah, the personalities on stage were about what I expected: funny, silly and the cast obviously liked each other enormously.

I started using Twitter properly in early 2008, having signed up a year earlier. It didn’t take too long before I discovered Mitch on there. And his missus. And for the next couple of years, it was fun, whenever the show was on, seeing Clara nag Mitch – who’d be playing hashtag games on a Wednesday night when he was supposed to be writing his Now Show songs. The fun they obviously had, teasing each other online… well, they always lightened a Wednesday night.

I chatted to both of them, very occasionally, but no more than they chatted to other people, I guess. I remembered that Mitch had played at the Eagle awards one year at Comic Expo in Bristol while I was in the bar… but we never met.

And – it turned out – that had happened a couple of times; we’d been at the same place at the same time, but just never got around to meeting. It happens.

I knew Mitch and I had a mutual friend, but I’ve always been a bit wary of asking mutual friends for an introduction, not when they’re both celebrities in their own rights.

So, we just never met.


Several hundred words through this, we come to late September 2010. Work was hard, and I was putting in long hours, working six day weeks and most Sundays. Twitter was my… break from mundanity, I guess? Back then it was silly, and fun, and I dunno; maybe the memory plays tricks but it was… fun.

Mitch had written a song entitled (I’m) Proud of the BBC, and was doing a video for it; he invited his Twitter followers, if they were available, to come down and take part in the filming.

My office in Newman Street was about ten minutes’ walk from where they were recording part of the video, outside the BBC. I was going to be working on the Sunday of the recording – near where I’m currently typing this, as it happens – so I dropped them a message and said I might turn up.

Mitch and Clara’s reaction was – in part, I’m sure because they wanted to have a decent turn out – an enthusiastic “Yes! Come along!”

I duly ‘came along’, and ended up appearing for about a second and a half in the video, before I – having met Mitch, Clara and the kids, and liked them all – returned to the office and the month end accounts, and the three year budget, and the financial modelling, all of which I was then simultaneously wrangling.

And that was that; that could have been that. I’d met them, I’d had fun, and who knows, maybe I’d meet them again at some point?

It could have been no more than that.

And my life would have been very different, substantially worse, than it turned out.

Because when I mentioned to our mutual friend how much I’d enjoyed meeting Mitch et famile, his reaction was immediate, along the lines of: “How do you both not know each other? You two should definitely know each other. You’ll like each other.

Shortly thereafter I received an invitation to pop round to the house one day and meet them properly. As memory serves, and memories of that time are, I’ll acknowledge, a bit blurry at times, I was in the office on another Sunday, taking a break, and they said if I finished early enough, to drive around to them, to meet them properly. So I drove over to their place. Had a lovely evening, full of laughter and silliness and fun.

And then ‘popping round to see them’ after work became a regular thing, an oasis from work, and a welcome chat and time of relaxation.

I’d never ‘done’ Christmas really. I’m Jewish for a start, but it had never been my thing, and – after my marriage ended – I tended to go into work on Christmas Day itself. I’d clear the backlog of correspondence and work in the blessed silence of no telephones ringing, no emails disturbing me, no one popping by my office to ask me stuff. (For various reasons, I’d pretty much cut ties with my parents and remaining sibling by then.) So, yeah, I had every intention of working that particular Christmas Day until late in the evening.

Neither Clara nor Mitch particularly liked that idea, and they… well, I’d say they invited, but that’s not strong enough. They pretty much insisted that I join their family for their Christmas.

And I did. In both meanings.

Mitch and Clara invited me to join their family in oh, so many ways. Not just for Christmas, but to always be welcome at and in their house, to view their place as somewhere safe… another home.

They became my closest friends in an astonishingly short period of time.

And I needed friends.

I needed somewhere else I could think of as home, somewhere where I would be… ok, or as ok as I got back then.

Because I was in the process of cracking up.

And not in a ‘cracking up with laughter’ way; cracking up as in a ‘falling apart’ way.

I didn’t know it at that time, but I was. I mean, ok, everyone else – especially those at Chez Benn – knew it, or at least strongly suspected it, but me? Not so much. It’s easiest to describe what happened as a fairly comprehensive nervous breakdown. There’s more to it than that, but that’ll do for the moment.

And when I lost where I was living, Mitch and Clara invited – again, that’s so little a word to describe it – me to take over the spare room at their place, and to live with them, as part of their family. Partly to look after me, to care for, and about, me. Partly to allow me the time to get through the crisis that was… me being me.


I met Mitch in 2010; we became friends in 2011, and there’s not been a day since when I haven’t learned something from him. Stuff about life, about family, about comedy. About friendship.

(Oh, and a lot about Doctor Who. No, I meant it: a lot about Doctor Who. Seriously, so much about Doctor Who.)

One of the things Mitch and I discovered fairly early on was that we both knew an awful lot about the same subjects, and interests. But there was shed loads he knew that I didn’t, and vice versa. In ten years, there’s not been a single conversation we’ve had where he’s not surprised me with some nugget of relevant information, or shown me a side of an argument I’d not considered. Doesn’t mean we always agree; hell, as often as not, our conversations are attempts to persuade the other that we’re right and the other is… well, if not wrong, then not wholly right.

I can’t begin to list all the things I owe him, for which he deserves – but won’t ever accept – my thanks.

But here are a couple.

Mitch knew of my comedy writing career (such as it was) and when he was snowed under with work – The Now Show, appearing as Zaphod Beeblebrox in the stage tour of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, writing a novel – but had been asked to do some Radio 4 shows, he asked me if I wanted to help write them.

Whether I wanted to? Of course I wanted to. Took me about ¾ of a second to say yes. And ½ a second of that was me going ‘wha–?’

And the past four years, it’s been enormous fun, and incredibly satisfying, to work on his Edinburgh shows, to see him craft an idea, then a routine, then a show; to watch at close hand why this gag works, but this one doesn’t quite; to see why this word caps the routine, but that word would drain the energy from it; to watch an audience being taken along the journey that is an Edinburgh show.

I have no musical ability at all; I can just about pick out a tune on a keyboard, but not so as anyone would, y’know, recognise the tune. It’s a delight to see someone who knows what they’re doing… create musical comedy, and… make people laugh while they’re doing it.

Writing with Mitch has been the hardest, and yet the most fun, writing I’ve ever done. And enormously, wonderfully, fantastic.

Writing something else in the same room as Mitch, on the other hand? That’s just plain weird.

January 2013: Mitch has been away, doing a gig; I pick him up from the airport. We’re driving back, and he mentions he’s doing something for Radio 3, for Comic Relief, something with Simon Russell Beale.

Mitch adds that he quite fancies doing something else as well. Maybe… creating a muscial comedy album from scratch in 24 hours, with – we’re just chatting, you understand – maybe the song titles being chosen by the Now Show audience, curated by the Now Show cast?

The idea’s a fun one, and we bat it back and forth for a bit before I say something like ‘huh… you know, whenever I’ve done the fast fictions, I’ve done loads of extra challenges within it, but I’ve never done a timed challenge. Heh. Can you imagine? Me writing 24 stories in 24 hours?’

It sounds harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?

And yes, you can see where this is heading.

I mean, I’d said it merely as a ‘Huh… here’s a daft idea.’

But by the end of the car journey, Mitch is already working out where we could do this thing together; him writing, performing and releasing, a comedy album in 24 hours, me writing 24 stories in 24 hours, my challenges coming from celebrities, both raising money for Comic Relief.

By then, I’d lived with the Benns for six months or so. I stayed for another four years, before moving out in February 2017. I doubt there’s been more than a couple of days since when we’ve not exchanged messages, or chatted, or… something.


Mitch has no time for the sentiment: ‘never meet your heroes’; his view tends towards “get better heroes”.

Mitch isn’t my hero but he’s my friend, one of my closest friends. And I’m hugely, wonderfully, phenomenally, grateful for that.

I was a fan of his work before I met him and it was, and remains a delight to me that our friendship quickly developed to cover so much more.

Happy birthday, Mitch.

And thanks for being… well… you.

Housekeeping: I put up a post earlier; deliberately didn’t include it as part of the ‘2020 plus’ run, for what might seem obvious reasons, but I’d welcome you reading it anyway. Thanks.


Not a surprise that I’ve been thinking about ‘those left behind’ today, of those who have to, in the old phrase, keep buggering on after someone had died.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking of humour. And not only of laughing in the depths of despair and depression, but of finding things funny, whether in the ‘funny ha ha’ sense or the ‘ouch, I mean, funny, but ouch’ sense.

We sat shiva, in the Jewish tradition, when Mike died. We’d just lost a young man aged 38, and there wasn’t much to do other than just sit there, drinking tea and coffee, hoping for the day, and the shiva, to end.

You’d not think there was much we could laugh about.

And yet… and yet…

We’re weird things, us humans.

There were the cringingly awkward things said to us, as a family and individually, and laughing broke the tension.

There were the inappropriate comments when someone said something without thinking – someone saw my then two year old lad Phil walking around the house looking for Michael and they commented that at least it’d keep him busy – and the sheer absurdity of it cracked us up.

There were overheard comments and sotto voce observations that one or other of us heard. And there were children, far too young to understand, or at least fully appreciate, what had happened and they were just being… children. They were silly and wonderful and wanted hugs and tickles and to be played with.

And there were reminiscences, both sad and, yes, funny. There was the time when Mike did [funny story] or when he said [funny thing] or even, do you remember when he [did something very silly that reduced us all to tears of laugher]?

I’m not sure whether laughter in such circumstances is a safety-valve or whether it’s just… people being people.

I do know, however, that any guilt at laughing while in the depths of mourning was ameliorated – in part or in full, depending on the individual circumstances – by the knowledge that Michael, while wanting us to mourn him… would have enjoyed the laughter as well.
 
 
Something else, tomorrow.

Twenty-two years

Posted: 9 January 2020 in family, personal
Tags: , ,

Twenty-two years.

It’s twenty-two years since my brother died and, I decided a couple of years back: I should celebrate his life whenever I think of Michael, not mourn his death on the anniversary.

Mark it, certainly; acknowledge it, of course; but no mourning.

Once again, I’m not sure this post entirely does that. But I hope this post marks the anniversary in a way that at least acknowledges that I’m missing him rather than grieving or mourning.

Towards the end of 2016, as part of my blogging project that was a seventy-five day countdown to 2017, I wrote about what it had been like to have Michael as a big brother.

And in the countdown that just ended, I wrote something else, with another couple of stories about Michael.

Although I write something every year on the anniversary of his death, I’d not really written about his life, about what it was like to have him as a big brother. So I did so, in those two posts. Spoiler: it was bloody great.

As I wrote in that earlier piece:

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

If you, or anyone you know, was born in the second half of the twentieth-century, then at some point or another, as a kid or teenager, you calculated how old you’d be in the year 2000… a long time distant, but yeah, it seemed very old.

Until January 1998, I had the same ‘well, I’ll be so old’. Not long after Michael died, however, I found myself working out on exactly what date I’d wake up… and be one day older than my big brother reached. Yeah, that particularly day was a very odd 24 hours.

But that day was in 2002.

Mike was 38 years old when he died; in a couple of years, I’ll be twenty years older than he was when he died.

And that’s a thing you never get used to. Never. You’re always aware, in a kind of low level way, that you’re now older – and as the years pass, you’re substantially older – than someone who once was older than you.


You’ll hit a birthday, or attend an anniversary event, and somewhere, in the back of your mind, is the thought ‘yeah, another milestone that he or she didn’t get to‘. My grandparents died in their 60s, and my father died when he was over 80. So, the only experience I have of that feeling is Michael. And sometimes… it bites. It bites hard.

Twenty-two years after his death, though, it’s not even really the birthdays themselves that he never reached that strike home, as much is it is me experiencing those birthdays; waking up being one more year older.

Waking up one year older than he ever reached.

It’s the experiencing of anniversaries, experiencing the life, the years, the culture and changes that he never got to see.

It’s everything, from the age-related stuff that he never had – odd aches and pains when you stand up, annual checkups that you get when in your mid-50s – to those cultural and political changes that he never experienced but that he would have been fascinated by, and with.

I wonder what Mike would have thought of the current political situation, which movies he’d have liked, which he’d have been disappointed with, which bands he’d like, which tv shows he’d have absolutely loved.

And the long and enjoyable discussions we’d have had about all of it… about life.

And that’s leaving aside that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost seeing my lad Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know his uncle. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

Phil was barely two years’ old when Mike died. He’s 24 now and Mike should be someone he could call for advice, or to tell him a gag, or just when he’s throughly pissed off with me or his mum. Mike should be someone who’s there for advice, or for a laugh, or just to chat to. And he should be there for Phil to get pissed off with, if his Uncle Michael happened to agree with me or his mum rather than him.

They’ve both missed that.

Then there are the friends I’ve met, friends I’ve made, over those more than twenty years. Friends I have every confidence would have liked Michael, and he’d have liked them. I can easily see Mitch and Clara and Roger, Neil and Amanda, sharing a laugh with Michael; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow the closest of friends to.

Mike was one of the few people in my life who I ‘put on a pedestal’; he never did anything that would have forfeited that place, and I celebrate that fact, while curious whether he’d still be up there, or whether the passage of time would have changed that from ‘love and respect’ to ‘love and proper, sibling, friendship’.

Some people take the turn of the year to revisit past decisions, to do a mini audit of where their life has taken them. Some Jewish people do it on Yom Kippur. Others do it on their birthday. Me? It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I tend to do it today, on the anniversary of Mike’s death.

I can smile, albeit reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have, at various times, cheered him, made Michael laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation.

He was my ‘big brother’ and I loved him – what else would you expect?

I said in 2018 that I could almost hear him saying, Twenty years is long enough to mourn me on the day of my death; time to celebrate my life whenever you think of me, Lee. Whenever you think of me.

And that for once, brother, I was listening.

So, twenty-two years…

Thank you, and rest easy, brother.
x


A few years ago, after I mentioned losing my brother, on the anniversary of Michael’s death, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened.

But all asked the simple question: What did happen? Here’s what I put up in response.

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; And, here’s what I wrote:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

One of the inevitable consequences, an entirely expected consequence, of my blogging on a pretty much daily basis since June was that I knew that sooner or later I’d likely run out of things to write.

Oh, there’s been the blog entries where I’ve ducked out of the day’s posting, putting up just a

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And a full week of feeling like crap illness where I just put up extra ‘fiction from the vaults’. No one seemed to mind.

But, sometimes, there are unexpected consequences of things happening. Not merely unexpected consequences of decisions you take; the one certainty is that every decision has unexpected consequences, and the best you can hope for is to mitigate for the deleterious consequences that you can foresee.

But I find myself, this afternoon, with a coffee by my side, sitting in front of the iPad screen, thinking about the viccitudes of life; pondering how unanticipated events can throw out of planned complacency not only a day, but a life.

“Events.” Yes, such a small big word.

It was Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, who was reputed to have answered (although he probably never did) the question

“And what do you most fear?”

with

“Events, my dear boy, events.”

But ‘events’ is as good a word as any for those unforecast, unanticipated things that happen which cause all your assumptions to evaporate, change your paradigm, and throw every one of your plans into disarray.

At one end, the huge, massive events – whether on the political stage, or the personal – an unexpected death would do the trick. No matter whether it’s assassination, or accident, or even the final act of a long life, a death changes everything. Not only for those left behind who loved and cared, but others, far beyond the immediate circle.

Take John Smith, the Labour Leader for a short time in the mid-1990s. Had he not died, although I don’t agree he would have won the 1997 election with anywhere close to Tony Blair’s victory, the first Labour government would have been hugely different from that of Blair’s. Different priorities, different policies, different people doing different government jobs.

Take my brother’s death in 1998 – undoubtedly life would have been different had he lived for his family. And, yes, for me.

Or take something far more objectively trivial but subjectively hurts like hell: your car is stolen. Fewer changes in the long term, surely, but think of everything that would happen, that would have to happen, in the next 24 hours, the ensuing week, that’s different just because of that small, little, change in your life and circumstances.

Or your house is broken into; because of that single event, one member of the family has such a reaction that you move home to get away from the scene of the crime. And so many consequences arise from the decision of that burglar on that night on that street.

Or take my then best friend’s wedding, in 1992, and my decision that since I was Best Man at the wedding and likely to be busy all day and evening, and I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, anyway… to attend said celebrations without a date.

A small decision, with large consequences.

During one dance, (yes, I danced, don’t make a big thing of it) with the bride’s aunt, she mentioned that she’d have to, just have to, set me up on a blind date. She viewed it as fundamentally wrong, almost offencive, that I wasn’t dating anyone at the time, and so she took it upon herself to remedy that.

Usually, as friends will confirm, I regard – have always regarded – anyone attempting to meddle in my private life with unadorned scorn and dislike¹. On that evening, suffused with enjoyment for my friends, or because I was enjoying it anyway… For whatever reason, possibly because I thought she was joking, I said ‘yes’… instead of running away from the idea as fast as my then-undamaged feet would carry me.

OK, the first blind date was a disaster. No, seriously, a disaster; the sort of date where, after twenty minutes, you’re both sneaking looks at your watches wondering at what point it’d cease to be an embarrassment to call the evening to a halt. When we did eventually bring an end to the torture, the relief on both our faces as I dropped her back at home – and didn’t go in for the perfunctorily invited coffee – was plainly obvious for the other to see.

And that was supposed to be it; I’d had a blind date, it hadn’t worked out. Except that the lady in question – Marsha – came up with another name and another potential blind date for me. And again, I said yes. And as if the fates were conspiring against me, after we’d arranged it, Marsha’s husband died and the shiva dates covered the proposed meeting.

So we cancelled.

And rearranged.

And, a few days after the date had originally been planned, a week or so after we’d spoken first on the phone, I turned up, knocked on a door, and the woman who I’d only agreed to meet at all because I’d not taken a date to my best friend’s wedding opened the door to me.

Of course it was Laura, the lady who, a couple of years later, did me the singular honour of marrying me.

And because of that small decision (the non-date at Ian’s wedding, not the marrying me), so much has happened to me and in my life.

Obviously, there’s Laura herself, and though we’re no longer a couple, she’s still one of my favourite people on the planet. One of my closest friends, and partly but not wholly because of the life we shared, one of the people who knows me best.

And of course, there’s our son, Philip, now 24 years old.

I can’t imagine having the success I did have in my former life as an accountant, financial controller and financial director without Laura in my life. I can’t imagine my life would have been remotely similar to how it’s turned out. So many unanticipated consequences of a single decision.

And to think, I remember, at one point, early on in the proceedings at Ian’s wedding, thinking “I wish I’d brought a date.”

Who knew, eh?

Who knew?
 
 
Something else, tomorrow…


¹That hasn’t changed, by the way; nor has my ‘single’ status; I’ve been effectively and actually single for most of the fifteen years since the marriage ended, and wholly and completely single for the past decade or so. Not strictly relevant, but it’s nice to ensure there’s no-one thinking they should do something about it.

After the past few days when you’ve had nothing from me.

Well, naybe not ‘nothing’ as in I skipped the days, but nothing containing any real content.

I’m at least feeling more like ‘me’ now, having thrown off all the reactions from the sedative, and I had – for the first time in several days – a decent night’s kip overnight.

Probably more than a decent night’s kip; I woke up this morning feeling like I’d caught up on about a week’s sleep.

So I wanted to give you… something today, something you’d not read before, not a piece of old fiction, say. I prevail upon your good graces quite enough every Tuesday, so nothing of that today.

And I did not want to present another Q&A Livejournal type meme. Oh, the temptation was there, I assure you, but I’ve resisted it. That’s ok, you can thank me another time.

Instead, here’s something about names, specifically mine.

If you were to refer to me while talking to a mutual acquaintance, how would you refer to me? Most people, undoubtedly, would say ‘budgie’. A few would say ‘Lee’. One person or another would say ‘Barnett’. And there’s probably a few, I’ve no doubt, who would insert an obscenity before any of those. And there’s one person who uses a name that – as far as I know – no one else can, or does, use.

Y’see, I’ve been known by several names over my life, in different circumstances.

(And no, I exclude the less flattering epithets used by people who are, justifiably or not, less than delighted with me…)

Those names?

Lee

Yes, obviously, my given name. The name fewer and fewer people call me with each passing year, which is how I like it. But more about that in a moment. In Jewish tradition, well, Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, you name after the deceased. In my case, I was named after my maternal great-grandmother, Leah. My mum’s mum’s mum.

I don’t know much about her, to be honest. To be equally honest, I’ve never been that curious to know, either. Three of my four grandparents came to the UK as toddlers, in the early part of the last century, as their parents escaped from pogroms or state sanctioned antisemitism in the countries in which they were born.

Leah and her family, though? No. Her family had been in the UK for generations. I don’t remember my mum talking about her grandparents that much; maybe she did and I just wasn’t paying attention. More than possible, but I dunno. And since I’ve not been in contact with her or my surviving brother for some years – my choice, I stress – I’m not likely to discover which it is now.

But I never liked ‘Lee’ as a first name. I’d have switched to using a middle name years ago, decades ago… had I the option, but my parents didn’t give either me or my younger brother middle names. I joke that “I don’t have an middle name; my parents couldn’t afford one” but again I’ve no real idea why my older brother got a middle name and I didn’t.

So I was stuck with ‘Lee’. And in the 1970s, for every kid that knew of the actor Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man, there was some wag who knew of the actress Lee Remick.

I’m sure it didn’t occur to my parents the hassle they were landing their kid with, giving him an androgynous name. But I soon learned to dislike the name immensely. I’m not sure that quite captures the dislike, but yeah, it was intense.

Things weren’t improved when I was 12 and received through the post a complimentary package of items that might have been of great help had I been a 12 year old girl and of no use whatsoever to a 12 year old boy. I recall my mother seeing first my excitement at getting a letter addressed to me (it was rare in those days) then my puzzlement at its contents, then my genuine upset at realising what it contained…

…and her then taking the package away, saying something like “its ok, it was obviously a mistake…”

And I soon learned to put a smile on my face every time I received a letter addressed to Miss L Barnett.

So, yeah, I wasn’t sorry when I gained a nickname. Or two.

When I went to Manchester Polytechnic, I genuinely considered just ‘changing my name’, introducing myself with a self-chosen different name, or creating an invented nickname, but I was too nervous to do so, assuming it would merely lead to more mockery when my ‘real’ name was discovered. Fortunately, time took care of the former without leading to the latter. But again, more about that in a moment.

These days, very few people call me “Lee” to my face. My ex-wife, people who live in the same block of flats. Oh, and people who can’t stand nicknames, which I don’t really understand, unless they call our former Prime Ministers James Brown (Gordon’s real first name) and Anthony Blair… what is ‘Tony’ if not a nickname of his choice?

The only advantage my ‘given name’, complete with no middle name, has granted me is… it’s really fast to fill in forms when they ask for your full name. Ten characters, and I’m done.

L E E    B A R N E T T

Which brings me on to…

Barnett

Yeah, my surname. Now, I’m not including anyone who calls me Mr Barnett, like the bank etc., That’s not calling me by that name as much as it is using the standard courteous salutation.

I’m talking of people who called me just… “Barnett”. Since I’ve never been in the armed forces, and I was fortunate enough never to have worked for a company where the standard was surnames only, the only people who’ve called me by my surname were my teachers.

Not all of them, by any means, but some of them yeah. Oddly, I never objected to it, because it was never personal. They were older teachers in the main who called lads by their surnames and girls by “Miss…” followed by their surname.

But yeah, its been more than forty years or so since anyone’s done that.

It won’t surprise anyone with even the faintest knowledge of immigration to this country that the family surname wasn’t originally Barnett. I’m not about to say what it was – apart from anything else, it looks like the final line of an eye chart when typed out – but my paternal great-grandfather chose to change it when he brought his family here; Barnett was apparently the Polish first name of a friend of his from ‘the old country’.

Three more.

The obvious one: Budgie

OK, getting it out of the way immediately: if you don’t know where the name came from, best to read this first and then come back.

That’s ok, honestly.

We’ll wait for you.

Ok, everyone up to speed? Good.

Yeah, no surprise that I prefer this as my name, and indeed, if anyone asks how they should introduce me to new people, I always – well, nearly always – prefer and pick this one.

I guess to a large extent, it’s because not only do I think of myself as Budgie rather than as Lee, but Budgie‘s someone I created. Not the first time, maybe, but I chose to use the name from the mid-90s, and he’s a much more relaxed person in company than Lee ever was.

And as for the ubiquity of its use, while I was used to people having me in their phone’s contact app as ‘Lee (budgie) Barnett‘, I was delighted some time ago to discover that more than a few have me in there as ‘Budgie (Lee) Barnett‘. I much prefer that.

So, yes, for the avoidance of any doubt, if you want to call me ‘Lee’, go ahead, I’m not going to correct you. But if you want to be courteous and bear my own wishes in mind, I’d prefer ‘budgie’, every time. Thanks.

Yehuda ben Abram Shmuel

OK, one you’re probably not used to seeing, and that might need a bit of explanation. If you’re Jewish, you have a hebrew name as well as an ‘English’ one. Unless you use the former as the latter. But your hebrew name is of the format ‘[child’s name] son/daughter of [parent’s name]’

It’s used for religious purposes; when you’re called up in synagogue, for your bar or bat mitzvah. It’s used when you’re married, or divorced. Or on your headstone when you’re buried.

And, often though not always, that’s also the ‘named after the departed’ bit.

In my case, my parents chose Lee as the ‘naming after’ bit for me, not the ‘Yehudah’ bit. (My late older brother, though, was named Michael and Meyer, after our dad’s dad, who himself was Michael and Meyer.) My father’s forenames were Arnold Sidney, the Hebrew was Avram Shmuel, hence my own name being my own forename [son of] his forenames.

Very logical language, Hebrew.

OK, the last one. And there’s only one person on the planet who uses it. By now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Dad

I’ve only one child, a 24 year old son named Philip, who I’ve called Phil from the day he was born. (I instantly knew he was a ‘Phil’ rather than the formal ‘Philip’. How I knew that? I have no idea. But I did. At once.).

He’s great. No, seriously, nothing I could say about him that would add to that. He’s lovely. OK, maybe one or two things. But he is. And after the usual ‘Daddy’ stage, he’s been calling me ‘Dad’ since then. (And of course, as parents throughout history have discovered, when they revert to a multi-syllable ‘Daddeeeeeeee?’ at the start of a phone all, it’s usually because they ‘want something’.)

I kind of like being called Dad.

(His girlfriends have never quite known whether to go with ‘Lee’ or ‘Budgie’ when talking to or about me. It’s more amusing to me than it probably should be that they go back and forth on which to use.)

Anyway, names… now you know mine.

The usual Tuesday ‘something else’ tomorrow.

Couple of months ago, I wrote in a post:

Chess / Backgammon
For the past few years, it’s been backgammon every time. I do prefer it as a game, and I’ve enjoyed Chess less over the years but that’s wholly laziness on my part. I haven’t played chess regularly for years, and when I do play, I don’t treat it with the seriousness in which the game should be played. It’s been far too long since I knew he was I was doing on a chess board. I play it with a ‘well, let’s see’ attitude which always seems disrespectful to the game, somehow.

 
I used to play chess, though; a lot.

Never competitively, you understand. Not in formal competitions; I was never on the chess club’s team.

I was never on any team repressing the school at anything. Though I was on the fencing team at Sixth Form, which still surprises the hell out of me, and everyone else, decades later.

But even when I played in the school’s chess club, I was never that good at it. I could play, and play well enough, but not that well enough. I was good enough to win more games than I lost playing my brothers, and my father. But Dad played chess, and enjoyed it, only as a way to pass the time.

I’d say that he enjoyed playing chess in the same way as others might enjoy reading a book, though since he was a voracious reader as well, that’s maybe not the best analogy.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to write that he enjoyed chess the same way as someone else might enjoy taking a long walk on a spring day. One of those days where the sun’s shining, and there’s just enough of a breeze to blow across your face… when you take a walk for the sheer pleasure of doing so, with no real aim in mind. I mean, I’m sure he actually enjoyed winning at chess on occasion, but that was never his real aim when he played. It was a way of passing time until he did something else.

And, when he played with his sons, a way of spending time with his children, playing chess, solving the problems of the world, including several problems the world didn’t know it had.

Maybe that attitude, growing up seeing that attitude to chess, didn’t exactly help my own game. I know I should have found chess more interesting, but I never¹ really did. I mean, I wanted to win, sure, but losing never¹ bothered me that much, and I never¹ found how I lost to be of that much interest.

(¹not entirely fair to say ‘never’; I remember a short period in my very early teens when I was utterly and completely fascinated by it all. It didn’t last.)

Whereas pretty much every chess player I know, who enjoys, who really enjoys, chess,… they’re fascinated by every part of it, not only who wins, but how they win, how they set up the win, how – if they lose – how they lost, what mistakes they made, how – eight moves before, they made an error which gave their opponent the game.

I sometimes wish I cared as much about it as they do.

But the rot set in for me when I discovered backgammon.

My uncle, my mum’s brother, played it, played it for money, and introduced my older brother and I to the game. Though, I hasten to add, he stressed never to play for money unless you were sure you knew what you were doing. To be fair to my uncle, he held that view about all gambling: not that he was against it – he was an inveterate gambler on horse racing – but that far too many people gambled from ignorance, both of their own abilities, and those of others.

I’m not sure what about backgammon attracted me, but there’s no doubt that I enjoyed it from the very first time I played, and that’s an enjoyment that’s lasted forty-odd years (ok, forty very odd years) since then.

And although I’ve always had both wooden chess and backgammon sets wherever I’ve lived, it’s the backgammon I’ve played more the past couple of decades.

In fact, thinking about it, the only time I’ve played chess since probably… 2000?… has been when children of friends have been learning and have asked me to play, when they’ve discovered the game.

In full disclosure, in the interests of transparency, I should acknowledge that it’s not actually that difficult to beat most pre-teenage kids when they’re new to the game. And with equally full disclosure, the pleasure they get from winning – even if you ‘let them win’ – hugely dwarfs any discomfort at being beaten by a 10 year old.

But backgammon? Ah, that I can play for pleasure, for money, or play as a way of passing the time, or even merely to teach someone to play.

I’ve heard it said that chess is an easy game to play, and a difficult game to play well. The same applies to backgammon, though it’s less said of it.

And, yes, while I know few people who play chess for money, I’ve known several who play backgammon for stakes, and only play it for money.

I’ve only rarely done so, and only then for pennies. Although, since ‘doubling’ can take a game to 64 times the original stake, pennies is as far as I’m ever willing to play for.

At one time, back in the days of day jobs, I carried a small backgammon set in my bag, and I offered to teach anyone who wanted to learn. A couple for friends took me up on it, and I’d meet them for lunch every few days: teach them the first hour, refresh on the second… and thereafter we’d play a couple of games whenever we met for lunch.

It’s been a while since I’ve played regularly, and for no obvious reason, I’ve started wanting to play again.

There are, of course, some decent back gain apps; I’ve got one on the iPad and iPhone, but it’s never the same. Unless you’re learning, and don’t mind being beaten again and again while you try to improve your play.

But backgammon should always be played with friends, or played for enjoyment, whether or not there are stakes, whether or not you’re in a pub, or a home, or a casino.

It’s a game, and that should be remembered.

Something else tomorrow. Something on politics; no not about the election, though I may write something about that on Wednesday. But something about being an MP that should change. And change soon.

“I like to reminisce with people I don’t know. Granted, it takes longer…” — Steven Wright

I didn’t write about my brother a couple of days ago, even though it would have been his 60th birthday. Mainly because I didn’t have anything to say that I hadn’t said before.

Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I’ll put something up here, in the blog. This was what I wrote in January 2019.

I’ve rarely written what it was like to have him as a brother though, what was great about him as a big brother. Occasionally, but only occasionally, like here, in 2016.

But maybe because it would have been his 60th birthday, with everything that implies – birthday party, get togethers and the rest – Mike’s been on my mind a lot the past couple of days.

I have no idea what he’d have made of British or American politics right now. For all that we chatted about world affairs and stuff, every so often, he died in January 1998, less than a year after Tony Blair took office. Bill Clinton was still President back then, Bush Junior hadn’t even really started running for President yet.

So many of the people who are now ‘in charge’ of weren’t even in their respective legislative chambers back then, and I suspect that had you or I at that time predicted that Donald Trump would be President, that Boris Johnson would be Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn the Leader of the Opposition, Mike’s reaction would have been to look for whatever the hell we was smoking, and to remove it from my grasp.

And I wish I could go back through the memories of Michael, with Michael.

I can’t.

He’s dead. He’s been dead for almost twenty-two years.

But, since he’s been on my mind the past 48 hours, here are three short memories of Mike, stories I don’t know whether I’ve told before, but that I want to tell today.

1975
I started at secondary school, aged 11, what was called ‘senior school’ in my day. I was in the most junior year, obviously; Mike was in the most senior. I’d obviously told Mike, my big brother, that I would walk home by myself; I didn’t need, nor want, to be treated like a baby who needed his hand held.

Some lads from his year, four years older than me, decided to have a bit of fun with the new kid, and. I guess, have a vicarious pop at Mike as well. I remember being genuinely terrified at what these 16 year olds had planned for me when they surrounded me as I came out of the school. Whatever it was, it was likely to be painful.

I was shaking, almost crying from fear. My nose was running.

There was a loud cough. And they turned to see Mike, never the weightiest of builds, leaning against the wall, apparently completely relaxed. Five lads, all of them his size or bigger facing him.

“On your way…” Mike says, almost bored.

For a moment, I don’t know who he’s talking to, me or them. But then. As I start to move, Mike shoots me a look and barely but definitely moved his head from one side to another. I stay there.

“On your way, lads…”

The bullies look at me, Then at mike, figuring out their chances.

They fancy their chances, obviously.

“You think you can beat us?”

Mike laughs. “Of course not. There are five of you. I can’t beat you.” He stands up, from the wall, holding half a brick in his hand. “I can just break a nose or two, poke out an eye or two, maybe fracture a kneecap, before I go down, though. Now leave him alone. And fuck off.”

First time I’d ever heard my brother say that.

They swore at him. They shouted at him. They even, if you can believe it, cast doubt on the validity of our parents’ marriage.

But they left.

Mike walked over to me, handed me a tissue, said “wipe your nose, then come on…” And we walked home, me now almost crying from relief. He never mentioned it again, never blamed me for being tearful, never did anything other than convince me I’d always be safe while he was around.
 


 
1982
In 1982, I went to Manchester Polytechnic to study accountancy. I lived in a self-catering hall of residence. The ‘hall of residence’ won’t surprise anyone; the self-catering bit might. But I moved in not because I enjoyed cooking my own food; I didn’t then, and I don’t now. But no, but mainly because I wanted to eat when I wanted to, not when someone else wanted me to. And it was fun; I loved my time away from home. Mike came up for a vist after I’d been there a few months.

Now I was living, at that time, with 8 other people, from all over the UK. A fella from Derby, a couple from the South Coast, a lad from Northern Ireland, one lass from Leeds. And me. And I never ‘heard’ my accent. I never even really considered I had an accent I mean, ok, if you’d have pressed me, I guess I’d have reluctantly acknowledged that I must have had an accent, but I never ‘heard’ it. I never thought about it.

Then Mike came to visit. But hearing him talk to my friends, and the contrast between every word that came out of his mouth and theirs, between his accent and everyone else’s… Yes, I heard his accent, but again, not mine, not really.

Until one evening, when we were chatting with friends and one of them commented how similar our accents were, mine and Mike’s, how almost identical they were, in fact.

And then it hit me. Of course I had an accent, and of course it was the same as Mike’s.

And I appeared to be the only one in the room to whom this came as a surprise. Because my brother, my dear sibling, was wholly on my friends’ ‘side’ on the matter. He couldn’t believe I’d been in Manchester, had lived with these people, for months… and the penny hadn’t dropped.

But I had, and eventually… it did.

And there followed, of course, the requisite amount of mockery and silliness.

And at one point, I stopped dead, noticing how Mike had effortlessly fit in with my friends. They were my friends, and that was all he needed to accept them fully, and without reservation.
 


 
1993
I’d felt an itch to write, and was doing something about it. I’d started writing for the BBC, a topical weekly radio comedy show entitled Weekending. My younger brother had no interest, which was cool; he never had much of an interest in current afffairs. My mum was similarly uninterested. I could have told her I was writing Doctor Who, or writing sketches for a student rag. Mum’s reaction would have been the same: ‘that’s nice, dear.” No interest in what I was writing, who it was for, or whether it was any good.

My father had far more interest, and was delighted for me, and even – very occasionally – listened to the show. He was very pleased for me, but had no actual interest in what I wrote.

Mike, on the other hand, was fascinated by every bit of it. He listened every week, if not to the original broadcast, then always the repeat. And he’d call me up to congratulate me, and ask about how I wrote this sketch or that gag. he never tried to rewrite it or suggest ‘better’ gags; he was always respectful that this was my writing, my gig.

And he eagerly read the prose I wrote, asking me ‘what’s the next thing? What are you writing next?’

He took great pride that his brother, his younger brother, was writing, was creating, and was good at it.
 


 
The bullies were long ago. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed Mike to protect me from them.

The friends from Manchester Poly are similarly long gone; I haven’t spoken to any of them in decades. But the friends I have now? I wish Mike knew them, and I wish they’d have got to know him. Comedians I know, writers… friends. He’d have liked them, and they’d have liked him.

I’ve written more the past year than I’d written in the three before that.

I wish he could read it. I really, really wish he could.

And I wish I could reminisce with my brother once again.

 
 
Something else, tomorrow.

21 years

Posted: 9 January 2019 in family, personal
Tags: , ,

So, it’s 21 years since Mike died, and as I said last time around, it’s time to celebrate his life whenever I think of Michael, not mourn his death on the anniversary.

Im not sure this post entirely does that; it’s still marking his death, after all. But it’s doing so I hope in a way that at least acknowledges that I’m missing him rather than grieving or mourning.

Towards the end of 2016, as part of my blogging project that was a seventy-five day countdown to 2017, I wrote about what it had been like to have Michael as a big brother. Mike’s birthday was 20th November and I realised that although I wrote something every year on the anniversary of his death, I’d not really written about his life. So I did so, there.

As I wrote in that piece:

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

Mike was 38 years old when he died, over fifteen years’ younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to, never. You’re always aware in a low level way that you’re now older, substantially older, than someone who once was older than you.


You’ll hit a birthday, or attend an anniversary event, and somewhere, back of your mind, is always the thought ‘yeah, another milestone that he or she didn’t get to’. My grandparents died in their 60s, and my father died when he was over 80. So, the only experience I have of that feeling is Michael.

Twenty-one years after his death, though, it’s not even really the birthdays themselves that he never reached that strike home, as much is it is experiencing those birthdays; waking up being one more year older. It’s the experiencing of anniversaries, experiencing the life, the years, the culture and changes that he never got to see.

It’s everything, from the age related stuff that he never had – odd aches and pains, annual checkups that you get in your mid-50s – to those cultural and political changes that he never experienced but that he would have been fascinated by and with.

I wonder what Mike would have thought of the current political situation, which movies he’d have liked, which he’d have been disappointed with, which bands he’d like, which tv shows he’d have absolutely loved.

And the long and enjoyable discussions we’d have had about all of it, about life.

And that’s leaving aside that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost seeing my lad Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone. Phil was barely two years’ old when Mike died. He’s 23 now and Mike should be someone he could call when he’s pissed off with me or his mum. Mike should be someone who’s there for advice, or for a laugh, or just to chat to. And he should be there for Phil to get pissed off with, if his Uncle Michael happened to agree with me or his mum rather than him.

They’ve both missed that.

Then there are the friends I’ve met, friends I’ve made, over those twenty-one years. Friends I have every confidence would have liked Michael, and he’d have liked them. I can easily see Mitch and Clara and Roger, Neil and Amanda, sharing a laugh with Michael; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow of friends and close ones.

Mike was one of the few people in my life I put on a pedestal; he never did anything that would have forfeited that place, and I celebrate that fact, while curious whether he’d still be up there, or whether the passage of time would have changed that from ‘love and respect’ to ‘love and proper, sibling, friendship’.

Some people take the turn of the year to revisit past decisions, to do a mini audit of where their life has taken them. Some Jewish people do it on Yom Kippur. Other folks do it on their birthday. Me? It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I tend to do it today, on the anniversary of Mike’s death.

I can smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have, at various times, cheered him, made Michael laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my ‘big brother’ and I loved him – what else would you expect?

I said last year that I could almost hear him saying, Twenty years is long enough to mourn me on the day of my death; time to celebrate my life whenever you think of me, Lee. Whenever you think of me.

And that for once, brother, I was listening.

So, twenty-one years…

Thank you, and rest easy, brother.
x


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; And, here’s what I wrote:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Twenty Years

Posted: 9 January 2018 in family, personal
Tags:

Twenty Years. Time for a change. But that’s for later on in this post. You’ll know it when it comes.

Towards the end of 2016, as part of my blogging project that was a seventy-five day countdown to 2017, I wrote about what it had been like to have Michael as a big brother. I’d realised that although I write something every year on the anniversary of his death, I’d not written about his life. So I did, there.

But, I knew when I wrote it that I was only a couple of months away from January 9th, from the anniversary of the day Mike died. I wrote in that piece above,

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

For obvious reasons, the memories hit hardest on January 9th, on the day he died. It’s twenty years today since he died. That’s still something that throws me. How can it be two decades since he died? And yet it is.

It’s just after noon on 9th January 2018, but spend a moment with me, back on the morning 9th January 1998: I’d gotten into work very early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so later, just after eight, someone from the office came to get me; a call from Laura, “about your brother”; this was long before I had a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, fifteen years’ younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to, never – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving aside that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost to seeing Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve friends I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones.

I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have, at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those twenty years gone? Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty-two, an adult, and he’s in Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there than with his old man. And of course that’s how it should be.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Twenty Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I rediscover with every passing year, is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time. Every so often, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But they’re memories, and it’s time, long since time maybe, that I acknowledged that. Twenty Years.

I mentioned at the start that it’s time for a change. And it is. For the past twenty years, friends, loved ones, colleagues – they’ve all known: stay away from Budgie on 9th January. You don’t call him, you don’t bug him, you leave him alone. Let him remember his brother in peace. I’ve cut myself off from everyone, just for 24 hours.

No more. It’s been twenty years. Mike died twenty years ago today and I miss him, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger. But now I can almost hear him saying, Twenty years is long enough to mourn me on the day of my death; time to celebrate my life whenever you think of me, Lee. Whenever you think of me. And for once, brother, I’m listening.

Twenty Years.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; And, here’s what I wrote:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Nineteen Years

Posted: 9 January 2017 in family
Tags:

A couple of months ago, as part of the countdown to 2017, I wrote about what it had been like to have Michael as a big brother. I realised that although I write something every ear on the anniversary of his death, I’d not written about his life. So I did, there. 

But, I knew when I wrote it that I was only a couple of months away from today, from the anniversary of the day he died. As I wrote in that piece above, 

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

For obvious reasons, the memories hit hardest on January 9th, on the day he died. It’s nineteen years today since he died. That’s still something that throws me. How can it be almost two decades since he died? And yet it is. 

Turns out this week is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. He’d have loved the iPhone, my brother would have. He was like a kid with a new toy every time he got a new ‘personal organiser’, although he broke his Psion twice to my certain knowledge, fluently swearing with consummate skill on each occasion. It’s strange to think of what’s happened in the world, and tech-wise, in the past nineteen years that he missed through the unfortunate circumstance of being dead. I could picture him enjoying blogging though looking at Twitter with a mixture of horror and fascination. Oh hell – he’d have enjoyed YouTube, but he’d have thought Netflix was invented just for him. In politics… well, funnily enough, I don’t know what he’d have thought; I don’t ever remember discussing politics with him. I mean, I’m sure it came up at one time or another, but I don’t remember the conversations at all…

It’s 9th January 2017, but just for a moment, let’s go back to 9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, almost fifteen years’ younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones. 

I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those nineteen years gone? Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty-one, an adult, and he’s studying at Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there with her than with his old man. And I don’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Nineteen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died nineteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

<

p style=”text-align:center;”>“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Been too long…

Posted: 7 December 2016 in family
Tags:

I mentioned the other week that one of my favourite comedy evenings is The Distraction Club; last night was the Christmas bash, and it was as wonderful as ever. I’ll probably write about it specifically later in this run. 

But my son and I took the opportunity to finally remedy a problem that had bugged the pair of us for ages… we’d not had a photo taken together for… well, neither of us could remember the last time it happened. 

And so, as I say, we remedied that. I’d usually save it for the update to A Life In Pictures blog post which normally comes the back end of the year, but it’s been too long already.

So, here’s me and my lad Phil. 

2017 minus 42: Mike

Posted: 20 November 2016 in 2017 minus, family, personal
Tags: , ,

Anyone who’s followed my blog for some time – either this one or the one that preceded it – knows that January 9th is a bad day for me. It’s not as bad as it used to be, back when everyone would stay the hell away from me on the day, and I’d answer queries and comments with monosyllabic grunts, but not good, no.

Almost 19 years ago, I lost my big brother at the horribly young age of 38. And every year, on the anniversary of his death, I put something up about him. This, for example, is what I wrote about him this year. 

Occurs to me though that I’ve rarely written about his life, and what it was like to have him as a big brother.

And, since he was born on 20th November 1959, today seems as good a time as any to do so. Warning: this post will probably skip around a bit in terms of tone and times, and for fairly obvious reasons, it’s about Mike and me. Just a heads-up.

Michael Russell Barnett. My big brother. 

He’d have been 57 today. He’d likely have been completely grey/white – his hair was already greying a bit in his mid-30s. Like me, when I started going grey, he pretended it didn’t bother him. Like me, it did. He had red lowlights for a short while, but quickly stopped bothering about it. If it bugged him after that, I never knew about it. 

The greying made us look more alike. We never looked that much like each other; we bore just enough of a resemblance though that folks quickly guessed we were brothers. But he was far better looking than me. I don’t say that out of any false modesty; we used to joke among us three brothers that Mike had the looks, I had the brains, and our younger brother had the practical abilities.

(That wasn’t and isn’t true, of course; my brain was better at numbers and figuring out things, but my younger brother had – and has – a brain for how things worked practically that left mine and Mike’s in the stone age.) 

I can’t remember at time when Mike didn’t have girlfriends, or when he wasn’t surrounded by a mob of friends. He was a great big brother to grow up with: silly when he could be, serious when he had to be, a peacemaker between his younger brothers on more occasions than I can think of.

He enjoyed school, both the social aspect and the academic side of it… in theory anyway. He’d have beeen the first to admit that he wasn’t the most diligent of students; he always did enough to get by. He got good grades, but never spectacular ones. He was fit – up ’till his early 20s anyway; more about that in a moment. He played squash at school and sixth form college, and was pretty good from all accounts, until he started getting suspiciously short of breath. Again, more about that down the page.

He played the guitar, with more enthusiasm than talent, but I clearly remember the genuine pleasure Mike took in grabbing the Complete Beatles Songbook and playing the classic songs in his bedroom, while we two younger brothers sang along. He loved music; I can’t remember a time when his bedroom wasn’t filled with music, either last week’s charts, which he’d taped from Radio 1, or albums he’d bought.

I’ve said before I couldn’t have asked for a better big brother, and it’s true. I stuck him on a pedestal, a dangerous place for any sibling to stand, but he never let me down. I called him Mike. To most everyone else, he was Michael. He was my big brother and I loved him unquestionably. 

I remember when I was about 13, maybe 14? Either way, was around my bar mitzvah, 1977/78-ish. I had – understandably – began to notice things about my body, and that of the girls that surrounded me. This was in the days when sex education in British schools mainly consisted of the single word “Don’t”.

I was terribly shy, terribly confused, terribly nervous. But I was fortunate. I was lucky. I had Mike.  (Yes, I was a late developer; Mike was anything but. As I say, he’d had girlfriends from when he was an early teenager.)

He took me to one side, one Sunday afternoon, prompted by my parents. He gave me a booklet to read and told me that when I’d read it, I’d be even more confused, but to come find him. He was right. After I’d read this booklet – I remember it had a purple cover, with pictorial representations of a naked man and naked woman – my reaction was mainly one of “I do what with what?” So, I found him in his room, he grabbed dad’s car keys, and we went for a drive, to a pub, about ten miles from home. Once there, he got me a soft drink and we repaired to a bench in the beer garden far from anyone else.

“OK, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Just that. No “I know you’re nervous.” Just a matter-of-fact “ask away”. He knew I trusted him. 

Looking back, he could have had fun with me, told me any urban myth, and stuff and nonsense, and I’d probably have believed him. He was my big brother, after all, and I trusted him.

Instead, he told me the truth, to anything I asked. Some stuff he blushed when telling me, but he told me what it was like the first time he had sex. He told me how shit scared he’d been, how convinced he’d be that he’d ‘get it wrong’. He said he’d had a number of girlfriends – which I knew – but that afternoon I was to assume that he’d had one, “Miss Ermintrude Abernathy” he called her, and that anything he told me about anything… it was Ermie. 

He kept adding biographical details to Ermintrude’s life as we spoke, and after the serious stuff was over, that continued; by the end of it, we were crying with laughter about how he’d abandoned her to a life of misery in the grinding poverty and chalk-mines of Luton, Bedfordshire.

Skip forward a couple of years to the first of the ‘being mistaken for each other’. Mike was looking after me and my younger brother; we were playing Monopoly. His girlfriend Lynne (later his fiancée, still later his wife) calls on the house phone (no mobiles back then). Mike talks to her for a few minutes, then – without warning – hands the phone to me with a grin. I ‘get’ it immediately and for a minute or so just go “uh-huh” and “really?” to Lynne, then hand the phone back to Mike once he’s played his move. 

He carries on the conversation for a couple of minutes then hands the phone back to me while he shakes the dice and moves his piece. This continues for about ten minutes before we’re obviously – and audibly – failing to hide the by now no longer stifled laughter. He makes an excuse then finishes the call…

(Lynne never discovered this until just before they were married. She… wasn’t pleased, though mainly because she panicked that she’d said something entirely inappropriate to me…) 

OK, now I’m 16 or 17 and I’m watching television with the family, an episode of Quincy. Long before then, I’d become used to picking up a doctor’s prescription for Mike for something called “digoxinDidn’t have a clue what it was, of course, and since the one time I asked Mike what it was for, I got a genial “mind your own business” and I didn’t have the internet back then… I left it… figuring it wasn’t that important. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

So, we’re watching Quincy and after autopsying a body, Quincy just comes out with the following line:

OK, we found digoxin, so we know he had heart problems…

Wait.

What?

My head whips ’round to look at my big brother, my eyes growing wider with every nanosecond. He shot me a look that repeated his message from a few months previous… And I left it alone. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

Another year goes past. Mike had been ill, very ill, off work for a while, no energy, in bed all day. Our parents had, reluctantly, gone on the holiday they’d booked months earlier. Our local doctor came – yeah, they did house calls back then – and the next thing, an ambulance is called, Mike’s in the local hospital and they’re talking about transferring him to Harefield. And that’s when I found out my brother needed a heart valve transplant at 23 years of age. 

He was operated on in September 1983; in one of those odd moments of synchronicity, the operation took place on Yom Kippur, during which there’s a bit recited about those who’ll die in the next year. I remember thinking “gee, thanks…” Though my parents were allowed to see him almost immediately after the operation, it was a day or two before I was. 

My big brother was there, unconscious, a yellow tinge to his skin, tubes in various parts of his body, with what looked like a fat, angry, pink-red worm stitched to his chest. 

Yeah it wasn’t pleasant.

Lynne and Mike had split up by then, but they got back together during his recovery and in 1985, they married. Mike asked me to be best man; I didn’t realise at the time how much of an honour that was, for him to choose me. He had any number of friends he could have asked, any of whom could have done the job, but he chose me. To this day, the thought of that chokes me up.

At the wedding, one of Lynne’s customers arrives late, sees me dancing with Lynne and makes an assumption. Later, half cut, and only semi-jokingly, she says to Lynne (out of my hearing) “Ooh, is the brother [she points at Mike] available? He’s much better looking… You should have married him!” Lynne retorted “I did marry him!” And then immediately seeks me out and, with superlative joy, gets her own back on me for the phone call by telling me… 

By then, Mike had left a potential career in accountancy (he never enjoyed it) and joined the family hairdressing business. He was good at it. Lynne and he had a couple of boys, and he was happy. He loved his wife, he loved his kids. 

He enjoyed his life. 

He liked Laura immediately when I started going out with her and took immense joy in both my getting married and in us having our own child, Philip in 1995.  

Mike loved being an uncle. He told/warned me more than once that being a parent is a mixture of joy and heartache, that especially: when your child has a temperature, you’re the one who sweats… But he absolutely revelled in being an uncle. And he took immense pride in Laura and me asking him to give Phil his first haircut.

I bitterly regret that my lad never got to know his uncle. Mike died when Phil was two years old.

He called me about 14 years after his first operation, June 1997. We’d been joking for months that if his valve transplant lasted 15 years, he’d throw it a party. The call was to tell me that we wouldn’t be having the party. The valve wasn’t going to last 15 years. It wasn’t going to make it to 14. He was going in for a double valve transplant the following week. He hadn’t wanted to worry me before then, but now I had to know. 

I remember being totally calm during the call, then basically falling apart afterwards.

He had the operation, and was doing well, recovering… He went on holiday with his family in the October; had a great time. We had Christmas at his place and the last picture I have of him is holding his nephew up, smiling with pleasure at the joy Phil’s expressing.

He was doing well, recovering…

And then he wasn’t. 

And then he was dead.

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother.

Or it’ll be his birthday.

And I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him so hard it hurts.

Tonight, I’ll pour myself a drink, wander outside for a moment, raise the glass to the heavens, and thank him for being my brother for 33 years.

Rest easy, brother. x 


This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Twenty-one.

It’s an important number, you know.

For example, you may or may not know that twenty-one is a semiprime number. Also that it’s a Fibonacci number. But were you aware that it’s the sum of the first six natural numbers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 = 21), making it a triangular number?

It also has an important role in Blackjack.

None of which is particularly important today, or at least they’re of far less importance than the fact that today is my son’s twenty-first birthday.

Yeah, I know. Twenty-one. I’m having some problems processing that fact myself, and I’ll let those of you who’ve known him for some years take a second or two to do a mental brain-flip while you accept it.

Philip Samuel Barnett – known to almost everyone bar his mum as ‘Phil’ – was born on 2nd November 1995; at half past nine in the evening if you’re curious. And today, it’s 2nd November 2016.

In 1995, he was 8lb 3oz, and 21½” long. He’s a bit heavier than that now, and a whole lot taller.

Twenty-one years old. And engaged to his girlf-, no, his fiancée, Rhiannon, who – in one of those sparks of synchronicity that makes you wonder – is twenty-one herself, tomorrow.

Twenty-one years old. Wow.

I’ve said many times – and it remains as true today as it was the day he was born – that being a father is the most fun thing I’ve ever done, bar none.

Now let’s get it straight: anyone who says being a parent is easy is either ignorant, lying or a masochist. It’s not easy, far from it. It’s not meant to be easy, but it is a responsibility that I love performing and undertaking, and the reason for that is simple: it’s solely because it’s Philip who’s my son.

As I’ve witnessed, helped (and hopefully not hindered too much) his progress through life, from baby to toddler, from toddler to child, from child to young adult, alongside wonder, my emotions have been, and continue to be, those of pride and pleasure in the young man he’s turned into. The credit for an incredible amount of that must go to Laura; she’s a wonderful mother. And I’m constantly filled with justifiable hope and confidence for the adult he’s become, and the adult he will become in the next few years.

He’s currently studying at Aberystwyth University with Rhee, and I don’t get to see him nearly as much as I’d like. But fortunately, I got to spend last night with them both at The Distraction Club – which I’m going to write about more in a later blog entry – and it’s time I wouldn’t swap for anything… 

As always, however, I have no idea how he went from:

to

to

to

to

to

to

in what seems like an astonishingly short space of time.

‘Appy birthday, Phil. I love you, son.

Dad
x

[Feel free to add your birthday greetings and wishes here, or tweet him at @phik_vicious…]

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

Eighteen Years

Posted: 9 January 2016 in family, life
Tags: ,

Eighteen years. Almost two decades. Or to be more precise, eighteen years and four and a half or so hours since my brother died.

And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those eighteen years gone? Eighteen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now twenty, an adult, and he’s studying at Aberystwyth with his fiancée, far more interested in spending time there with her than with his old man. And I don’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Eighteen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died eighteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

Not exactly a thousand, not even nearly, but as in “a picture tells…”

I’ve never been happy with how I look. Sure, as a child, I looked cute, but then most children look cute in pictures. Some don’t, but most do, especially since the photographs that parents put up online are those in which their children do look cute. I’ve often said that my lad Phil (unaccountably known to some as ‘Philip’) was lucky that Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist when he was a toddler, as his utterings would undoubtedly have been foisted upon you as friends of mine are wont to do with their own. The very best of these, though I may biased are @ThingsGretaSays, @StuffAstridSays and @tallulahlouise.

I did have Livejournal from 2002 and yeah, there was the odd (some very odd) photos of him put online; most of the pics, though, were of the ‘awwwww’ variety, often as part of a birthday entry, emphasising how he’d grown, and changed over the years.

      

And since I’m approaching – not quite there folks, but it’s getting closer – the time when I’ll update my “A Life In Pictures” post, I’ve been thinking of visual images today.

Particularly, I’ve been thinking of the single image by which people choose to represent themselves online: their avatar, icon, profile pic. Call it what you will; I’ll stick with ‘Twitter pic’ for Twitter and ‘profile pic’ for anything else, I think. Whether it’s facebook, twitter, Blogger, WordPress, or any number of message boards, everyone has the opportunity to use an image to represent them… or of course to not use an image and stay with the default image. On Twitter, it’s an egg. (I don’t know why Twitter uses an egg, unless it’s some kind of reference to an unborn bird, and Twitter’s brand logo is a bird? I suppose that makes as much sense as any other explanation.)

If you do have the default ‘egg’ as your twitter pic, it’s generally seen as a sign that either you’re a newbie and haven’t got to grips with Twitter yet, or that it’s a deliberate attempt to remain anonymous so you can be as offensive as you like. After almost eight years on Twitter, they’re fair assumptions.

Most folks I follow on Twitter fall into one of three categories where their Twitter pic is concerned (I’m excluding brands who – fairly obviously – use their own brand’s logo):

(1) the account uses a picture of themselves, the person who operates the account. Most journalists use a headshot, often the headshot that accompanies their pieces, in print or online. Many of my friends do the same. I don’t think anyone can justifiably object to this as a working principle. It combines the advantages of an explicit statement that this is who I am and of I’m standing behind everything I say. Occasionally, folks – John Rentoul is a prime example – will use a headshot, but a photoshopped one in an amusing or self-deprecating way. Again, perfectly reasonable.

(2) the account holder is a writer or artist; in these cases, many of them will use a pic of a piece of work they’re promoting or of which they’re particularly proud. Takes a while sometimes to get used to the new pic when they swap for a more recent work, but again, completely understandable.

(3) something entirely unrelated to them; an image they just… like. I would say I’m puzzled by this but I’m not really; it’s often less about what they’re showing, and more about what they don’t want to show… i.e. their own face. Now, there people are in the main not attempting any form of anononymiuty; their bios will usually show links to their blogs, their personal sites (where there often are pics of themselves). They just don’t want to have their face as their Twitter profile pic. 

I guess on Twitter, I fall into that third category, but with an element of the second, and even a smidge of the first (at a real stretch).

As I said above, long ago, I had a Livejournal account and I had the oppportunity to use for each blog entry one of up to several hundred images; I had this option, but rarely used it. Very rarely; I used a headshot for the main blog entries; the headshot changed every year or so when I had a new one I liked. For posts specifically about comics, I used a drawn headshot of me that appeared in a friend’s comic book. For posts specifically about an online column I wrote an image I created (later to see fresh life as the main icon for the going cheep tumblr account I maintain.) And for posts about hypotheticals, I used the image designed for it by Dave Gibbons, my collaborator on the panel.

See, many years ago, I ran (from 2000 to 2011) with Dave a panel entitled hypotheticals at the then main British comics convention. If you know all about it, fine; if not, well I may write about it further at some point. The first year’s panbel didn’t have an image. When we were invited back the following year, not having a logo seemed somehow wrong, so I created one, rough and ready. It did the job but wasn’t exactly… erm… good. Dave then came up with a superb logo, and that was the image then used to promote the panel; on t-shirts, on bookmarks, online. 

After we did the final panel, Dave sent me an amended version of the hypotheticals logo, just as a thank you for the work I’d done on the panel over what turned out to be 12 years (neither of us expected it to last anywhere near that long). And it’s that logo I now use for most of my online life; it’s the image I use for Twitter, for my ‘main’ tumlr account, for this blog and for most if not all of the few message board to which I still belong. It’s become even more relevant the past few years since I left the world of financial director-ing with the inevitable consequence that the proportion of people who know me by any other name has fallen through the floor.

So, yeah, it’s budgie and that’s a pic of… budgie.

I don’t hide what I look like, even though I’m still not exactly delighted with how I look in photos, but then again, you’ll all soon see how I look in photos now, how I looked in photos as a child, and then again how I look(ed) as an adult soon, won’t you…?

2015’s update to A Life In Pictures – coming soon (whether you like it or not.)

I’ve been thinking.

I know, I know – I’ve been warned against it in the past but what can you do?

I’m a time travel junkie. Not that I actually travel in time, you understand, other than one second at a time, the way that you do as well. But I’m a time travel science-fiction junkie. Any science fiction story that involves changes to history and the effects thereto will have me cutting the story a break even before I’ve picked it up to read. The story itself may be crap – it often is – but I’ll try it out. I’m not quite the Doctor Who addict that Mitch Benn is but I’m close. (One of my favourite Mitch observations is that he was a Who fan back in the 1980s when it was crap so you can imagine how made up he is now that it’s actually good!) Yeah, I kind of dropped out during Colin Baker’s run, and didn’t really come back until Chris Eccleston. I missed McCory’s run entirely. And I treated the Paul McCann telemovie as a curiosity, no more. Still do. (I felt the six minute Night Of The Doctor was more Who than the entire movie, but hey ho.)

So, yeah, I love time travel science fiction. Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol short stories? Yeah, I’m there. Give me a collection of time travel short stories and ignore me for a while; I’ll be busy absorbing them.

And, yeah, every so often, like any fan of time travel fiction, I wonder: where would I go? I’ve no one answer; to be honest, I’m in all likelihood to come up with a different answer every time I’m asked. An historical event? I’m not so sure. Certainly not one that has happened since the advent of television. One of the weirder things I’ve come to realise is that those watching often have a better view than those there. Think of any televised gig; yeah, there’s a lot to be said for being there, but as for a view, you’d get a better one sitting at home. Mission Control, July 21st 1969? What the fuck would I do other than get in the way? Anthing prior to about 50 years ago, I’d be completely lost anyway; slang, clothing, haircuts for heaven’s sake, reliance on tech? All completely foreign.

Murder Hitler? How do I know what and who would replace Hitler wouldn’t be worse? I’ve read enough alternative history to know the only thing you know is you can’t know for certain.

But then another question occurs: what if I could go back and change some major event in my life that I regretted? Would I do it?

The answer, to my partial surprise, is always a firm “no”.

The obvious example, to my mind, isn’t spending more time with my late brother before his death. I’m pretty sure that no matter how much additional time I’d have spent with him, I’d still end up regretting that I didn’t spend more.

No, the one pivotal event in my life that I could have done something about, undoubtedly, was my degree.

Because I failed it. No, I didn’t merely fail it. I failed it as bad as if I’d have gone out of my way deliberately to screw it up. My first year at polytechnic, I did well; the second year wasn’t too bad either, though with exam results not quite as good as the first year.

Then, as my father later put it, “I forgot I was there to do a degree”. I had a great time in my final year, a really good time, but ended up throwing the degree away. (I was offered resits but due to a bad case of glandular fever, I was unable to take them up on the offer).

That was 30 years ago, and there’s no doubt that had I passed the degree, my professional life at least would have been very, very different. For a start, I would have been on the road to qualification a lot earlier; even assuming retakes, the odds are that I would have qualified a good five years earlier than I did, with the consequent affects upon my career, my remuneration, my prospects. (For years, the first major question I’d get asked in an interview would be ‘how come you failed your degree?’)

But…

But…

The odds are also that, for various reasons in part to do with the fact that I wasn’t qualified at the time, I would never have met Laura, the lady who became my wife in 1994, was my wife for a very long time afterwards, and who tolerated my enjoyment of online life, comics, hypotheticals, and writing. We separated in 2005 and finally divorced this year.

Not knowing Laura? That alone would put a negative answer in the frame. But no Laura equals no Philip as well. And that’s just unacceptable.

If someone offered me the chance to go back and guarantee that I’d pass my degree? I’d say “thanks, but no thanks”.

But that bit about “spending more time with Mike?” That’d be tempting, you know.

Sixteen years. Over decade and a half. Or to be more precise, sixteen years and two and and a half or so hours since my brother died.

And yes, I rewrite this every year. I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt nor concern; Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I’d gotten into work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road at my then favoured café. Thirty minutes or so after sitting down, around five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. I know, this was long enough ago that I didn’t possess a mobile phone. I went back to the office with a growing sense of dread; a call from my wife, mentioning my brother didn’t sound like good news. It wasn’t; a call to the hospital led to a growing suspicion from the immediately understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, over a decade younger than I am now. And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re now older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that; knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve got friends who I’ve met over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can easily see Mitch and Clara sharing a laugh with Mike; very easily indeed as a matter of fact, probably at my expense, the way you allow friends and close ones to do that. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell have those sixteen years gone? Sixteen years… Of course, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now eighteen, an adult, and he prefers to spend his time with friends, and college mates, and with girls, far than with any family member. And I can’t – and won’t – blame him for that.

Still and all, where have the years gone?

Sixteen Years.

I’ve said before – and I maintain – that it’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve discovered – and I rediscover with every passing year – is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; his wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for playing the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, and I hope he knew how much I respected him as a person, not just as a brother. I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died sixteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.


A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response..

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him; I’ve linked to it before, but figured it was about time I put it on this blog as well. So, here it is:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

 

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

I knew exactly what I was doing today: a bit of shopping, a bit of writing, some correspondence I had to deal with, some more writing, catching up on a couple of podcasts, some more writing (this time for something specific I’ve been asked to do), and this blog.

Oh, and the dozen or so other things that anyone might have slotted into their lives among the obligations they have.

And yet today got blown out of the water, and I’ve spent the past twelve hours doing something else entirely, about which I may or may not write about here as part of a larger blog entry.

So, everything I had planned have been put off until tomorrow, the next day and, in one case, next week. And I find myself, at almost nine o’clock in the evening, sitting in front of the iPad screen, thinking about the viccitudes of life, and how unanticipated events can throw not only a day out of planned complacency, but a life.

Events. Yes, such a small big word.

It was Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, who was reputed to have answered (although he probably never did) the question of “And what do you most fear?” with “Events, my dear boy, events.”

But events is as good a word as any for those unforecast, unanticipated things that happen and cause all your assumptions, every one of your plans into disarray.

At one end, the huge, massive events – whether on the political stage, or the personal, an unexpected death would do the trick. No matter whether it’s assassination, or accident, a death changes everything. Not only for those left behind who loved and cared, but others, far beyond the immediate circle. Take John Smith, the Labour Leader. Had he not died, although I don’t agree he would have won the 1997 election with anywhere close to Blair’s victory, the first Labour government would have been hugely different from that of Tony Blair’s.

Take my brother’s death in 1998 – undoubtedly life would have been different had he lived for his family.

Or take something far more trivial; your car is stolen. Less changes in the long term, surely, but think of everything in the next 24 hours, the next week, that’s different just because of that small little change. Or your house is broken into; because of it, one member of the family has such a reaction that you move home to get away from the scene of the crime. And so many consequences arise from the decision of that burglar on that night on that street.

Or take my best friend’s wedding, in 1992, and my decision that since I was Best Man at the wedding and likely to be busy all day and evening, and I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, to attend said celebrations without a date. A small decision, with large consequences.

During one dance, (yes, I danced, don’t make a big thing of it) with the bride’s aunt, she mentioned that she’d have to set me up on a blind date. For whatever reason – usually, I’d have run away from the idea as fast as my then-undamaged feet would carry me – I said yes.

OK, the first blind date was a disaster. No, seriously, a disaster; the sort of date where, after twenty minutes, you’re both sneaking looks at your watches wondering at what point it’d cease to be an embarrassment to call the evening to a halt. When we did eventually bring an end to the torture, the relief on both our faces as I dropped her back at home – and didn’t go in for the perfunctorily invited coffee – was plainly obvious for the other to see.

And that was supposed to be it; I’d had a blind date, it hadn’t worked out. Except that the lady in question – Marsha – came up with another name and another potential blind date for me. And again, I said yes. And then, after we’d arranged it, what do you know, Marsha’s husband died and the shiva covered the date. So we cancelled. And rearranged. And, a few days after the date had originally been planned, a week or so after we’d spoken first on the phone, I turned up, knocked on a door, and the woman who I’d only agreed to meet at all because I’d not taken a date to my best friend’s wedding opened the door.

Of course it was Laura, the lady who, a couple of years later, did me the singular honour of marrying me.

And because of that small decision (the non-date at Ian’s wedding, not the marrying me), so much has happened to me and in my life.

Obviously, there’s Laura herself, and though we’re not longer a couple, she’s still one of my favourite people on the planet. One of my closest friends, and partly but not wholly because of the life we shared, probably the person who knows me best.

And of course, there’s our son, Philip, now 18 years old.

I can’t imagine having the success I did have in my former life as an accountant, financial controller and financial director without Laura in my life. I can’t imagine my life would have been remotely similar to how it’s turned out. So many unanticipated consequences of a single decision.

And to think, I remember, at one point, early on in the proceedings at Ian’s wedding, thinking “I wish I’d brought a date.” Who knew, eh? Who knew.

Terra

Posted: 17 July 2013 in family, fiction
Tags: ,

It’ll be no surprise to anyone reading this, I’m sure, that Mitch Benn, that superbly funny, clever man who writes clever, funny songs for BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, is one of my closest friends. Anyone who follows me on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook couldn’t have failed to note our friendship. It was with Mitch that I did my Twenty-Four Hours of Fast Fiction challenge for Comic Relief, while he was creating a comedy album in the same room during the same twenty-four hours.

I’ve been a fan of his work for far longer than we’ve been friends – we met at the filming of his masterpiece I’M PROUD OF THE BBC*, and becoming close has led if anything to a greater appreciation of his work, and how damn hard he works to get it… right.

I couldn’t begin to describe how many hours of pleasure I’ve had listening to his songs, how many laughs I’ve had at his lyrics, and the gags.

And now he’s written a novel. And it’s a cracker. And all the pleasure, all the cleverness, all the heart, all the fun… it’s there in the book in spades.

How’d the book come about? Well, Mitch tells the story better than I could. All I’ll add is that I’ve read Dreaming Dragons and I really want him to do something with that as well. It’s charming and clever and funny and sweet.

Not exactly by coincidence, they’re also words I’d use to describe Terra, the novel which is officially released tomorrow, but if you’re very lucky, you’ll be able to find on the shelves of Waterstones already.

I was fortunate enough to be able to read Terra at various stages in the writing, and it’s been an honest joy to see the final story evolve and arrive.

I’m not sure what I could say about the book that hasn’t already been said by others far more qualified to review books.

Things like:

“Wonderfully human and close to home, with a warmth that glows like ET’s heart” — THE TIMES

“Instantly engaging”, “One of the best debuts I’ve read this year” — Geeks Friday Reads

“there’s also a tenderness, gentleness, poignancy and vulnerability. We not only laugh out loud and sit on the edge of our seats when the suspense hits, but we cry too.” – Bookbag.co.uk

“A brilliantly unique tale of aliens with a poignant message for humanity” — SciFi Now Magazine

What’s the book about? It’s about 272 pages… thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week… yeah, you can see why I leave the gags to my friends.

So, the story is about a baby, thought to be abandoned by her parents (fairly understandably, they panicked when a brightly lit spaceship suddenly appeared directly above their car… perhaps less understandably, they left the baby in the car when they ran away…). The alien’s named Lbpp (get used to the lack of vowels, they’re going to be important) and he’s a scientist, a biologist; the deliberate abandonment of the baby fits in with his view of humanity from his observations, and rather than leave the infant, an impulse takes him and… yeah, you can see where this is going. Far more than Lbpp.

Twelve years later, the baby, named Terra (in part because of origins, in part because it’s a name that even the vowel-less speakers of the planet Fnrr can pronounce) is ready for what we’d call ‘big school’. Alienation is something that hits all kids – how much worse is it when you’re the alien.

No one ever dreamed what would happen next. And there’s a reason for that.

Terra is about alienation, about families, about growing up, and how you never ever stop learning about yourself, your family, your friends and even those you don’t like.

Every single character in this book is changed by the situations in which they’re placed; every single line drives the story forward. And the tale is all the better for it.

There are thrills, there is fun, there are genuine laugh out loud moments.

And Mitch’s voice shines through the writing… particularly so if you get the audiobook… The unabridged audiobook is read by the author and though there are a few surprises therein (who knew that character sounded like that? I thought he sounded like THAT…), again, you get the pleasure from an author who really knows who his characters are, and how to let the readers/listeners know.

A couple of things to end on.

Here’s a trailer video, animated by Bill Greenhead, with music by – of course – Mitch Benn:

What? You still need convincing?

Here’s the first chapter, read by some people who ought to be familiar faces… and familiar voices.

You can buy Terra here:
Amazon Waterstones Audible (Audiobook)

Fifteen years. A decade and a half. Or to be more precise, about fifteen years and seven or so hours since my brother died.

Despite rewriting it every year, I stick up something about Mike annually on this day with not a smidgen of guilt or concern.

Michael deserves a public remembrance from me every year.

9th January 1998. I was in work early and, having dropped my bag at the office, was having a coffee across the road. About five-past eight, someone else who’d been in early came to get me; a call from Laura. Then a call to the hospital, the growing suspicion from the understandable reticence of the doctor to tell me anything over the phone… and then the knowledge – the horrible, horrible knowledge – that my brother had died.

Not a good morning.

Mike was 38 years old, ten years younger than I am now… And that’s a thing you never get used to – that you’re older than someone who was older than you. It’s a genuinely strange feeling, realising that, knowing that you’re seeing birthdays that he never reached, experiencing birthdays, anniversaries, life, that he never got to have.

And that’s leaving to one side the fact that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost the chance to see Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know Mike. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

I’ve friends that I’ve made over the past few years who I absolutely know Michael would have liked to have met, and they’d have liked to have known him. I can also smile, reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have at various times, cheered him, made him laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation. He was my brother and I loved him – what else would you expect?

Where the hell has fifteen years gone? Fifteen bloody years! Well, I know the answer to that: I look at my son, and know the final family photo taken of Mike was with Philip, when the latter was a little over two years old. And Phil’s now seventeen, and he prefers to hug his girlfriend than any family member. Still, where have the years gone?

Fifteen Years.

It’s utter nonsense to say that ‘time heals every wound’. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even come close. What it does do, I’ve rediscovered with every passing year, is lessen the temptation to pick at the scab.

So with every year that passes, it hurts a little less… most of the time.

Every so often, of course, it bites; it hurts terribly, and I miss him so fucking much; the wry humour, the love of comedy we shared, the cool way he’d examine a problem from every side, then laugh and say “fuck it, go for it…”

Michael Russell Barnett wasn’t perfect, far from it. He loved puns, just didn’t ‘get’ comics at all, had problems carrying a tune in a bucket, and his enthusiasm for the guitar wasn’t in any way matched by ability.

Still, as a brother, Mike was as good as they get and if I’d have gone to Brothers ‘R’ Us, I couldn’t have picked better. He taught me so much, including the most important things in life, like the proper glass out of which to drink scotch: “one with a hole at one end, and no hole at the other.” I was best man at his wedding to Lynne, and that he trusted me (at the age of 21) with that responsibility honoured me then, and it still does. I’ve still many wonderful memories of Michael, but those few hours on the morning of his wedding when it was just me and him… ah, they’re memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

He died fifteen years ago today and I miss him dreadfully, especially today. I miss him always, but today, it’s a bugger.

Rest easy, brother.

A few years ago, after I posted something similar to the above, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened. Both asked what had happened. Here’s what I put up in response.

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked to write something about him – this is what I wrote.

5,844 days

Posted: 2 November 2011 in birthday, family, personal, phil
Tags: , ,

Sixteen.

It’s an important number, you know.

For example, you presumably know that the number sixteen is a composite number, and a square number, being 42. But were you aware that it’s not only the smallest number with exactly five divisors, but that because it’s a power of two, it also has an aliquot sum one less than itself, fifteen?

And never underestimate the importance of sixteen as a quantity, either. There are sixteen frames in the moving image to your right. Just sixteen.

Sixteen is also the age at which many things of import occur, including – of course – having to suffer Neil Sedaka’s Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen being sung to you on your birthday.

Yeah, I’ll take care of that later; for today, you see, is my son’s sixteenth birthday.

Yeah, I know. Sixteen. I’m having some problems processing that fact myself, and I’ll let those of you who’ve known him for some years take a second or two to do a mental brain-flip while you accept it.

Philip Samuel Barnett – known to almost everyone bar his mum as ‘Phil’, and to one friend who corresponds with both Laura and me as “Phil(ip)” – was born on 2nd November 1995; at half past nine in the evening if you’re curious. And today, it’s 2nd November 2011.

In 1995, he was 8lb 3oz, and 21½” long. He’s a bit heavier than that now, and a whole lot taller, currently a shade over 5′ 9″, and yes, it won’t be too long before he’s taller than me. That’s cool. That’s good. A son should be taller than his father. That’s natural. That’s how it should be.

(Readers are solemnly invited to remind me of those lines when, in years to come, I have to reach up to him to pass him the requested car keys.)

Sixteen years old.

Wow.

I’ve said many times – and it remains as true today as it was the day he was born – that being a father is the most fun thing I’ve ever done, bar none.

Now let’s get it straight: anyone who says being a parent is easy is either ignorant, lying or a masochist. It’s not easy, far from it. It’s not meant to be easy, but it is a responsibility that I love performing and undertaking, and the reason for that is simple: it’s solely because it’s Philip who’s my son.

As I’ve witnessed, helped (and hopefully not hindered too much) his progress through life, from baby to toddler, from toddler to child, from child to young adult, alongside wonder, my emotions have been, and continue to be, those of pride and pleasure in the young man he’s turned into. The credit for an incredible amount of that must go to Laura; she’s a wonderful mother. And I’m constantly filled with justifiable hope and confidence for the young adult he’s become, and the adult he will become in the next few years.

As always, however, I have no idea how he went from:

to

to

to

to

to

in what seems like an astonishingly short space of time.

‘Appy birthday, Phil. I love you, son.

Dad
x

[Feel free to add your birthday greetings and wishes here, I’ll make sure he sees them…]