Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Nineteen Years

Posted: 9 January 2017 in family
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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.

*I’d pay so much money to read a Quincy comic book written by Warren Ellis.

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.