Posts Tagged ‘personal’

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.

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.

And so we’re on the final day of 2019. And the final post of this countdown.

But yeah, the final day of 2019; as I mentioned a couple of weeks back, few will be sorry to see it depart.

But as with any year, even the worst, it hasn’t been totally, unreservedly, full of shit. There have been good things, objectively good things. Even in 2019, there have been things that have made me smile, made me laugh, made me forget the shittiness… just for a bit.

And that’s true both on the entirely personal, and in the larger sphere, in the world.

So, since there’s been some more personal entries this time around, here’s some personal stuff that under any parameters, under any objective look, must be filed under the ‘good’ category.

These are in no particular order, I hasten to add… not chronologically nor in personal importance.

So… Good stuff – Personal

Edinburgh

Not just the place, not even just The Edinburgh Fringe, but that I got to spend – for the first time in five years, my birthday in Edinburgh during The Fringe.

Yes, Edinburgh this year wasn’t exactly empty of drama, and yes, I spent one night in agony and in hospital.

But getting to Edinburgh every year (ok, seven years of the past nine, and every year since 2014) is unquestionably good for me. Not only does everyone else notice it, and tell me, but more astonishingly, I know it. None of this ‘well, I guess so’. No, I know that I return from Edinburgh somehow… better.

Of course after a few months, that knowledge tends to fade a bit. The importance, I mean. Because while I always kind-of-remember that I kind-of-like the place… it’s not until I get up there that it hits me once again with full force… that in fact I truly love the place, love every bit of it.

Yep. I love every bit of the fringe, and love seeing friends and acts I know, and discovering new acts… and I get to have coffee in one of my favourite places to have coffee.

And I get to see a lot of comedy, a lot of new comedy; new acts, new material, new shows.

This year was particularly good, both because I got to spend my birthday up there and also because of the quality of the shows I saw.

Yeah, this was, no matter what else happened while I was up there this year… A Good Thing.

Writing

So, I’ve done more writing this year than I have in ages. Both on here (about more of which in a moment) and elsewhere. I’ve written scripts; I’ve written some short stories that I’m still pondering what to do with; I’ve helped write a comedy show; I’ve plotted out an anthology of short stories with a single theme. I’ve pulled a couple of stories ‘out of the drawer’ and have started working on those as well.

More importantly, arguably, I’ve remembered how much I enjoy… making words do what I want them to, and when they won’t do what I want them to, I’ve enjoyed the ‘figuring out what’s wrong, and how to fix the problem’ as well.

So, yeah, I’ve been writing again; again, I’d assert, in fact I do assert: A Good Thing.

Blogging

Yeah, this place. For the first time since the end of 2016, I’ve been blogging this year, I started off, after two and a half years away from the blog, in late June, hoping to make it to my birthday.

Y’see, I’d started to get the itch a month or so earlier, but it really bit when I realised that I was coming up on fifty-five days before my fifty-fifth birthday. And I can’t resist a countdown, as long time readers will know.

And having learned from previous experiences that a countdown of some kind actively helped me in daily blogging, I started the 55 minus countdown which led up to my birthday in mid-August.

And then I… continued the daily blogging, with the 55 plus run, which ran for fifty-five days after my birthday…

…which finished just before the coincidental date on which I’d need to start if I wanted to repeat 2016’s year-end countdown. So I… just carried on blogging with the countdown that’s ending today: 2020 minus.

(No idea what happens next; I guess we’ll discover that together.)

Now, whether anyone else thinks me blogging is a good thing, I don’t know, and to a large extend I don’t care. (I’ve deliberately not kept an eye on the readership numbers; that in and of itself is probably A Good Thing,) But for me, personally, writing stuff again, putting stuff out there? Yeah, A Good Thing.

Merry

You don’t know who or what Merry is, or to what I’m referring. That’s cool. But friends of mine who have had an Australian labradoodle (best and most accurately described by one of them as a Special Needs Wookiee) got another puppy this year. She’s another labradoodle, but this time part-miniature poodle.

And she’s named Merry.

I can’t ever remember taking to a dog so quickly, but yeah, she’s adorable and fun, and she’s lovely. And she’s made things a bit better when I’ve visited or stayed over.

Now if she can just stop dividing the world into a) ‘things I can eat’, b) ‘things I can’t eat but am going to anyway’, and c) ‘people’s body parts I can lick’, that would be even better A Good Thing.

Phil back in London

My lad Philip, now 24, has been back in London for most of 2019; it’s been a genuine pleasure that he’s been local once again, that I can see him whenever we want, that he can come up to the flat to visit his old man to chat, to pass the time, to play backgammon, to watch some telly… just to hang out.

It’s been lovely, and unreservedly A Good Thing that happened in 2019.

The friends who are still friends

This year’s been rough for everyone, myself included, and it’s been good that there have been friends who have been there, who have been there at the end of the phone, or online, or who I’ve visited, or who’ve visited me, just for the pleasure – and sometimes relief from the world’s shittiness – of spending time in each others’ company.

Help when we’ve wanted it, advice when we’ve needed it, having each others’ back when needed. A Good Thing.

The friends who are no longer friends

Odd that I’d label this as A Good Thing, nu?

No, not at all. Because people I’ve fallen out with, this year, I don’t regret for a moment that we did so. Some were decades’ long friendships that ended over politics, or the election, or merely because it was time, long past time, that the polite fiction of our friendship that we maintained for far too long… ended.

If we fell out over politics, or antisemitism, or even just ‘stuff that happened’ this year, then I genuinely hope you don’t regret it, or wish it hadn’t happened. Because I sure as hell don’t.

Some truly excellent television

Yes, seriously. Some wonderful new tv series that I watched and enjoyed and that made life just a little bit better while I was watching; tv that I’m glad is in the world, and glad that I watched it. (Yes, of course there were new seasons of old shows that I enjoyed but I’m sticking to brand new shows just for a moment.)

Good Omens, Watchmen, Treadstone, Prodigal Son: All new, all flat out excellent, all led in unexpected directions, all must-see television.

But despite my previous comments about new shows… I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an especially huge nod and tip of the hat to Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal whose sheer wonder has given me hours of enjoyment and laughter. And with all the shit this year’s handed all of us, that laughter and enjoyment was dearly & desperately needed & appreciated.

All Good Things, indeed.

The Distraction Club

I’ve written about The Distraction Club loads of times in the blog but I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated, ever needed, it as much as I did this year.

I’ve been a fan of muscial comedy for as long as I can recall. Whether it was Richard Stilgoe crafting exquisitely perfect comedy songs on the radio, or watching Victor Borge at my grandparents’ (My grandmother would be reduced to tears of laughter watching him) or all who came later, or indeed before but that I discovered later…

…the first Tuesday in every month brings The Distraction Club, downstairs at The Phoenix in Cavendish Square.

Usually five acts including a headliner, and – I’ll be fair – as often as not, there’s one act I don’t enjoy. But that means there are three or four I do plus Mitch and the band, and that makes it more than worth it.

So many acts I’ve seen there, so many I now know to talk to, to chat with.

This is unquestionably A Good Thing, and 2019’s run of shows have been among the very best.

Radio 4

Not just Radio 4 as a whole, but two specific voices on Radio 4. Corrie Corfield and Carolyn Quinn, two voices whose appearance on the radio always… helps.

Two ultimately professional radio people, there have been times in the past few years, and especially this year, when hearing their calm, measured tones – Corrie’s a continuity announcer and news reader, Carolyn presents The Westminster Hour among other political shows – have… helped.

That’s all.

They’ve… helped. And that’s, I’d suggest, A Good Thing.

Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki & Ann Telnaes

Three from across the pond. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for The Rachel Maddow Show. It’s exactly the sort of detailed news/politics show that I love; the style, in some ways, echoes the great Alistair Cooke’s linking of ‘what is happening today’ to ‘what happened before’ and why it matters.

When I can watch, I do so; when I can’t watch, I’ll listen to the audio podcast the following day. She’s smart, funny, and incisive. And my favourite ‘explainer of what the hell just happened’.

Steve Kornacki is the single ‘elections explainer’ – on either side of the Atlantic – I’ll go out of my way to watch. He makes Peter Snow (who some of you will remember) look positively unenthusiastic about elections and his explanations of the quirks, anomalies and expectations make the ludicrous seem… well, if not less ludicrous, then at least understandable why they’re important ludicrosities.

Ann Telnaes is my favourite US cartoonist and caricaturist, bar none. I said a while back that her style is one of scathing whimsy and that’s all you should need to know about why I adore her work so much.

Three Americans whose work I’m very glad I got the opportunity to see this year. And I regard the work of all three, individually and collectiively, as A Good Thing in 2019.

Neil Gaiman

I got to catch up with Neil a few times this year while he was over, and talked to him more often than for a while. I’ve known Neil for more than 20 years and there’s no one on the planet better at guilt tripping me into writing more, into opening the ipad, opening a writing app… and just… writing, putting one word after another. And then doing it again. And again.

He also understands where I’m coming from re various stuff in a way that many don’t. And I’m always and neverendingly grateful for the Good Thing that is his friendship.

Mitch Benn

I honesty don’t know where to start with how much I owe my mate Mitch.

I’d been a fan of his work for years before we finally met, and when we did meet, it was when he was fairly busy, recording the video for (I’m) Proud Of The BBC. So we only got to briefly chat on that occasion.

Long story short, we became friends and it’s something I never cease to be grateful for. Later, he invited me to helped write his Radio 4 shows on Bowie, Dylan and Elvis, and that he trusts me to help with his Edinburgh shows is an annual Good Thing that always flatters and honours me.

But that’s not why I’m listing our friendship in 2019 as A Good Thing. He’s a nice man, a good man, and I don’t think there’s been a single conversation we’ve had this year (any year, come to that) where I haven’t come away from the chat having learned something.

Our interests, our experiences in life, are wholly different, and yet, somehow we managed to have shared interests to the point where he knows shedloads about a subject that I don’t know, even though I know shedloads about the same subject that he doesn’t.

(Honourable exceptions for ‘keys’ in music which I still don’t understand – don’t try to explain it, you’ll end up wanting to thump me – and balance sheets which I’m not entirely convinced he does. Oddly though, ‘substance over form’ is something from accountancy that Mitch does understand, though I’m not entirely sure he knows he does.)

Mitch; his music, his judgement, his advice, his intelligence, and his friendship. All, unreservedly, without mitigation, Good Things.

Clara, Roger, Micah and Astrid

Clara is Mitch’s ex, (and if you’re looking for ‘people who split up but remain the closest of friends‘, since you don’t know me and Laura, I’ll just point you at them.)

Roger’s Clara’s fella. Micah and Astrid are Clara and Mitch’s kids. And they’re who I spend a night a week, or so, with.

I won’t say I wouldn’t have survived 2019 without them, but their home, their friendship, their love and them being… them, has certainly made 2019 easier. I’ve laughed and smiled and reminisced and been silly and been drunk on single malt more in Clara and Roger’s company than in anyone else’s the past few years and it’s always been from a spirit of comfort and friendship.

Their friendship and love is always and forever A Good Thing.

My ex-wife, Laura

Laura’s one of my favourite people on the planet. As well as being Phil’s mum, she’s been a part of my life for coming up on thirty years. We catch up for coffee every week or so, and if for some reason we can’t, there feels something fundamentally wrong with the world.

She’s a lovely lady; smart and funny. And I like her enormously. I’m very pleased she entered my life in 1992; that she’s still in it is A Good Thing.


OK, that’s the A Good Thing stuff done for my personal stuff.

Now onto the A Good Thing for the non-personal, for the world at large stuff.

Hmm.

Er…

Well now.

I’m joking, of course. For all the shit that’s around, some things have got better.

Take a look at this, for example.

Britain went two weeks without using coal. First time ever.

And over the past few years…?

I wish everyone a good, happy, rewarding 2020.

See you on the other side of the year-end….

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.

Two weeks left.

Well, a little under two weeks, I guess.

A little under two weeks.

And then 2019 will finally be over.

Done. Dusted. We can put it to bed. Gently rest its head on a pillow. Cover it with a blanket. Then take another pillow, and carefully, deliberately, smother it. Put it out of its pain and misery. I don’t even think it’ll protest. It’ll welcome that longest sleep, and succumb quickly.

But it’ll be dead.

Except it won’t. Not really.

For the consequences of decisions taken in 2019, and of events that have occurred this year, will linger not only into 2020 but far, far beyond.

The obvious, I guess, since it’s the most recent in pain, hurt and time is the 2019 election we’ve all just… enjoyed. The consequences of that election, both direct and indirect, will affect us throughout 2020, and into 2021 and longer.

In 2015, as part of this blog, I wrote a countdown blog to the election and wrote more than forty entries about the election. I took almost all of 2017 off from blogging, and so didn’t write about that year’s general election. And I hardly wrote anything about this one; the occasional piece, sure. But not a full blown ‘ok, let’s take a look at what the fuck is happening’ series of entries.

Partly because I had nothing to add, partly because what I saw, what I witnessed, was too painful. Partly because I knew I was going to lose friends over the campaign period, and didn’t wish to gratuitously, needlessly, lose more.

Because the campaigns were poisonous on all sides, and the poison infected everyone. I’ve long bemoaned the political climate of ‘our opponents are not merely good people with bad ideas, but bad people with worse ideas’ but it reached its zenith in November and December. Or at least I pray it did. For if it’s going to get even more apparent and greater in scope, then that’s not a country and not a world I’m entirely sure I can handle.

The fallouts from that election on a national, and on a personal, level are still painful. And for once that’s not a netaphor, nor a conceit; it fucking hurts, inside.

And I am so fucking tired.

I shouldn’t have to wonder, every time someone I know, like and respect makes a ‘dodgy’ crack; I shouldn’t have to ask myself every fucking time: “do they realise what they’re saying, how it’s coming across? or did they just go for the quick joke and it’s essentially ignorance, not malice”.

Never before has ‘no candidate/party is perfect, so you vote for the least imperfect‘ clashed so obviously, so blatantly, with the ‘there are lines I cannot and will not cross‘.

So, yeah, I very deliberately didn’t write much about the 2019 election.

Which means, at least, unlike in 2015, I don’t have to write a mea culpa post afterwards about everything I got wrong.

And now we approach 2020.

On a personal level, the start of any new year is always overshadowed by an anniversary that takes place a week and a bit into that new year: the anniversary of my brother’s death in 1998. As I’ve written before, and no doubt will again, the advent of 1998 was the last time, the final time, I greeted 1st January with “well, whatever happens this year, it can’t be worse than this last year.”

Who knew?

But even leaving aside that intensely personal reason for not greeting each new year with unalloyed joy, four weeks into 2020 the UK will leave the European Union. Oh, there’ll be a transition period of almost a year, during which most stuff will stay the same. But unless an extension is sought by July, no extension is gonna happen at the end of 2020.

So there’s every possibility, probability even, that at the end of 2020, the UK is out without a trade deal… after which the brown stuff truly will hit the spinning round whirly thing.

I read today that after 31st January, official British government policy will be to stop using the term ‘Brexit’, presumably so Boris Johnson can claim that ‘Brexit’ was… done.

Our primus inter mendaces knows it’s not true. As does his entire government, his entire party. And saying it, and believing it’s true because it was said, is more often associated with the orange poltroon in the big round room across the Atlantic. But Johnson is banking on enough in the country being gullible enough to believe it. And, given the past few years, who can unreservedly claim that he’s incorrect in that calculation?

All the parties in the recent election, every one of them, relied on a certain amount of gullibility from the people from whom they were seeking votes; all that differed was how much.

Talking of America, and the orange poltroon, we get to see the trial of President Trump at some point. I’ve no idea whether or not the trial will happen in January. And right now, no other bugger does wither. Pelosi seems to want to not send the articles of impeachment the House voted to approve to the Senate until she gets a cast iron guarantee of how the trial will be conducted.

Which, given Mitch McConnell’s fundamental untrustworthiness, may take until after the 2020 Presidential election.

Oh yeah, we’ve got that next year as well. Which will once again show the world’s countries how – whatever their own fucked up politics and fucked up electoral systems – America really doesn’t like being second place in the table of countries with fucked up politics and fucked up electoral systems.

Just as it’s irresistible to look at the results of a horrible car crash while you’re driving past it, there’ll be an overwhelming desire to watch both the trial and the election, to witness history in the making.

Because, like it or not, both will be history in the making. They’ll be events that will make pundits and public alike look at, years later, and.. and what? Shudder at? Cry at? Wince at? Who knows.

But history in the making? Certainly.

But then there’s always history in the making.

I was born in mid-August 1964, a few months before America decisively rejected Barry Goldwater’s offer to the American people, and almost exactly nine months after JFK was assassinated and after the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast.

In the now over 55 years I’ve been in this planet, I missed some history being made, sure; I wasn’t even aware of anything outside what directly affected me and mine for the first, what half a dozen or so years of my life, and for the next half a dozen, didn’t care about them. So, President Nixon resigned in 1974, week or so before my 10th birthday.

At ten years of age, I’m not entirely sure I even knew it at the time. It’s possible my father might have mentioned it, and I heard it, but no, I have n memory of it. (I do remember the Beatles breaking up, six years earlier, but only because my aforementioned big brother was terribly upset.)

I honestly don’t know how much I’d have been aware of, though had social media and ubiquitous connection to the internet had been around in the 1970s…

But even if you say from the age of 13 – in mid-1977 – in my life, I’ve witnessed history being made dozens of times. Just off the top of my head, without thinking about it, in my teenage years, Elvis died, as did John Lennon. We had the first woman British Prime Minister, and shortly thereafter the miner’s strike. Soon thereafter, Labour showed how you catastrophically lose a general election, a lesson that took almost forty years to be forgotten enough… to do it again.

In my mid-20s, the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR started to collapse, and Nelson Mandela walked to freedom… and and and…

History is made all the time, and occasionally you realise it at the time, but almost never does it happen in such a way that instantly you know what the consequences will be.

You can guess whether they’ll be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but not much more than that.

And 2020 will bring more deaths; that’s inevitable. There’ll be much loved celebrities who die at the end of a ‘natural’ life span’, and some that go too soon; some that go far, far too soon.

Though, to be fair, there’ll be some who’ll die and my reaction will be… that I’m surprised they were still alive, either because of advancing age or, let’s say if Keith Richards dies, that they managed to last as long as they did.

My mother used to say that things came in threes… and if another thing happened, it wasn’t that things happened in fours, but that it was the start of a whole new series of three.

But you know, you already know, that when something – I don’t know what – but something will happen in the early says of 2020 – happens, plenty of people will cry in protest: “Oh fuck; I was hoping 2019 had ended…”

It did.

It will have.

This will just be the long, lingering smell of shit, like someone dumped a huge barrel of turds across the world in 2019.

Which, I suppose, in every important way… they did.
 
 
Something else, something happier, or at least smilier… tomorrow. And next week? Something on good stuff that happened in 2019, both personal and beyond.

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.

Of course, that title should continue “…a Londoner.” And, in a post I wrote in June, it did end that way. Kind of.

Short entry today; just some thoughts on London. Noodling, as James Burke calls it.

Because I’m not one, not a native Londoner, I mean. I wasn’t born in London.

I was born in Luton, Bedfordshire. Born in the Luton & Dunstable Hospital, so I’m told. But as you’d expect, I don’t remember much about the experience. Luton, as they say, might be a great pace to come from, but my experience is that it’s a lousy place to go back to.

Both parents were Londoners, though; my mum was born in Stoke Newington, and my father was a cockney. A proper one, ‘born within the the sound of Bow Bells’, and all that.

And yes there were some phrases my old man used that were straight out of a ‘how to talk like a cockney‘ handbook.

I grew up hearing something that wasn’t quite the done thing described as ‘bang out of order’ and hearing a suit described as a ‘whistle’¹, and feet as ‘plates’².

¹ whistle and flute = suit
² plates of meat = feet

That wasn’t the language and dialect my parents used when they didn’t want us kids to know what they were saying, by the way. My parents and grandparents – my mum’s parents anyway; never knew my father’s – used Yiddish. Not a lot, but enough so we didn’t know what they were talking about.

And, before they realised I could spell, they spelled out words. A family story is that at one point, they wanted me to go to bed before a specific television programme was on. And my mother spelled it out… only for me to vigorously protest because I wanted to watch that programme.

After that, though, it was Yiddish all the way when they didn’t want one of us kids knowing…

But I’ve lived in London since I was 21; in Barnet for most of it, in Richmond – well, Ham, really – for four years, and, for the past almost three years, in Abbey Road.

I like the Abbey Road area. It’s close enough to.… well, pretty much everything I want. Fifteen minutes from central london by bus, half an hour if I walk. And, despite the foot, I do often walk. Similarly, ten minutes from Kilburn by bus, half an hour from Golders Green, or Brent Cross; a bit longer to North Finchley, where I usually meet up with my ex-wife for a coffee and catchup.

But as I’ve mentioned before, central London is a place I really like walking around. Every street has ghosts, both the impersonal – events that happened at this place or not, in a long and not always distinguished history – and the personal; places I worked, places I met people, places that remind me of people I loved, and people I cared for, and people I disliked intensely.

And places at which I spent evenings drinking with all three of them.

I walk past coffee shops at which I spent what seems now an incredible amount of time; one shop was my regular ‘have a coffee before work’ for the best part of 12 years. Another was the coffee shop that everyone knew and so we met there for a coffee.

Yet another was down a little alleyway around the corner from work, and no one from work knew about it so if I wanted to guarantee I’d never see anyone I knew…

Nowadays, I have different coffee shops I go to; it’s not the same. I’ve changed, the times of the day I visit are different, and there’s nowhere I go frequently enough where I could ask ‘the usual, please’

London’s a great place to get lost in. And I don’t mean geographically, Well, not solely, anyway.

I read something a while back about the difference between being alone and being lonely. I’ve rarely read anything on the difference with which I agreed. (Notable exception for Stephen’s Fry’s masterly piece on the difference.) But this one stressedthe differences, and I agreed with them.

Because I’m both, on occasion, but prefer the former to the latter.

I live alone, and I spend most of my time alone, in my own company. It’s rare that I like spending time in others’ company, or subjecting others to my company, and even rarer for me for actively welcome it for more than a couple of hours at a time.

But then I realise, as I realised long ago: it’s not other people who are the issue, but other people who I know. Lots of other people who I don’t know? That’s different. and with vanishingly small exceptions, that’s what I find preferable.

And other than perhaps at 4 in the morning, when you might be the only person, or only one or two, in the all night place, in London, with its coffee shops, cafes, anywhere… you’re not going to be alone. Not quite.

You’ll be, or at least I will be, surrounded by people, none of who give the faintest toss about me, my problems, my company. And it’s reciprocated; trust me, it is.

I saw, online a couple of weeks ago, a suggestion to approach people sitting alone, and strike up a conversation. I’m not sure what it says that I greeted the idea, the very concept with unremitting and unending horror.

London’s a great place to get lost. It’s equally good as somewhere where you can lose yourself, if you want to.
 
 
Something else, tomorrow.