Archive for the ‘family’ Category

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 ‘Phil’. 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 two 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: ‘tha’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.