Wednesday, 8 June 2016

EU referendum: choosing one terrifying elite before another

Sorry, all. But I feel like adding my tiny triangle to the orchestra of memes, blogs, videos and posts about the EU referendum. If you've already decided, then I don't imagine any arguments I make or questions I put might make any difference, but if you're undecided perhaps there's some room for discussion.

One big theme that seems to have reared up during the campaigns is how much emotion is a factor in the vote, that it doesn't matter how contradictory the various facts and figures quoted are as people are going with their guts - their scared, angry, confused or serenely determined irrational decision-making equipment. One of the lessons the twentieth century underlined (through advances in psychology and therefore marketing and political strategy) is that people generally do not make rational decisions - about anything. Not about whether they want a Mars bar or not, nor about who they should sit next to on the bus, nothing. So, I take any points that begin with 'here are the facts' with a considerable chunk of salt. I think it's become a question of which story or stories about the EU and brexiters I find easiest to believe, that I irrationally want to believe.

The choice between IN and OUT could be reduced to a choice between two ideas of elites - the bureaucratic, banana-straightening, gravy-boat commandeering Eurocracy with their contempt for national identities and the democratic will of places like Greece; and the public-school-educated, public-services-decimating, expenses-guzzling yet benefits-capping, First Past the Post Mother of Democracies with its rather uncomfortable relationship with the right-wing press. Neither of these options really tickle my vote, and this is why I initially had no real idea where I'd plant my tick come the 23rd. But not voting was not an option, so I had to make up my mind.

Many people seem to agree that the economic and immigration aspects of the debate can be debated down to the marrow without a very clear picture emerging: xenophobia and a rather self-righteous contempt for perceived xenophobia seem to dominate the action. The ideas about sovereignty and border control seem fairly cloudy too, especially as I feel neither of the aforementioned elites have my best interests at heart. Not to mention the best interests of people far more vulnerable than me. It might be that the EU is a failed model and we should extricate ourselves from our half-hearted involvement: I don't think anyone can be certain, and I don't see a truly plausible alternative model for prosperity post-Brexit.

So, as the vote either to stay or leave the EU involves a fair amount of risk, I think I'm voting on the basis of which threat seems the most immediate: Westminster or Brussels.

My paranoid, doom-laden personality traits have no problem digesting the idea of a New World Order, a neo-liberal project to allow the markets to set up and then run the global economy like a manufactured El NiƱo, decimating the poorer parts of the world to feed the profits of a shadowy 1% that sit gobbling at the top. I can see how the EU serves those vested interests, and it makes my guts surge when I think about it.

But I find it much easier to focus on the efforts of the tax-dodging media barons to fill the news stands with as much barely-filtered right-wing, xenophobic muck as possible and their plain desire to shape the news agenda to meet their own needs. That seems much more local, even if their tax havens aren't, and a much more immediate threat to me and mine, which at the same time is perfectly in tune with the same neo-liberal ideas about market forces being allowed to rage unchecked. When I think of how, it seems to me, that our country's lurch right-wards towards mistrust of others, contempt for the poor and the surrender of publicly-owned bodies to private profit has been nurtured and sponsored by papers like the Mail and the Sun, I feel sicker yet. There's a real element that I feel worse about the effects on the UK because I don't have to deal with the really sharp end of this global factors, droughts through climate change: oppressive working conditions or arms sales to the likes of Assad or Saudi; my largely comfortable life has only be affected by pricks of conscience and a sense of society sliding in the wrong direction. But I'm voting with my gut, aren't I? And isn't the whole point of Brexit that it is supposed to benefit us on this island? No one is suggesting any global benefits.

When I think of the public figures that are urging me to help separate the UK from the EU, I don't picture warriors for social justice, trying to find a way to balance the books to make sure A&Es stay open and schools can be properly funded; I see a crowd of plundering vandals, trying to liquidate everything they can get their fleshy paws around into sweet, sweet cash that they then share with their cronies and store away off-shore, untouched by the needs for investment in services and infrastructure at home. I'm not head over heels in love with those claiming we should stay either - whether they use an appeal to the same selfish ideals as the other shower, or generate warm, fuzzy feelings about peace and speciality cheese and other things that would likely still exist in a world without purple UK passports.

You could argue, and I might agree, that I'm only focussing on the local, the national, and that in the bigger picture the EU are worse yet, driving up employment across the continent through cruel austerity policies and worse, trying to shut up shop to desperate refugees while still manoeuvring to exploit developing economies - but I really believe that those canvassing for Brexit are just as keen on austerity, exclusion and exploitation and would rush all the more quickly in that direction.

If I was a juror, I'd be expected to reach my decision without any reasonable doubt. I can't say without reasonable doubt that the UK should leave the EU; I can't say without reasonable doubt that I trust Westminster more than Brussels. I don't think it is worth the risk. So I'll be voting REMAIN this month and I hope to the vengeful sky-god that enough of us will that the UK remains within the EU.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

'Wild Things' - longer (unpublished) version of an article for DUPE Magazine's forthcoming Wild Issue

If there’s one thing that rock and pop have tried to teach us over the years it’s how to be uncivilised.

We’ve been shown how to grow our hair, free our restless genitals, offend the cloying sensibilities of previous generations, to frug through the night to “so-called” music composed of little more than primal rhythms, to open up our wild sides or at the very least pay saucer-eyed factotums braver or more damaged than ourselves to work the magic by proxy.

Classic, greasy-quiffed rock ’n’ roll aficionados enjoyed plastering the word about.  Jerry Lee Lewis puffed out his cockerel chest as the original “Wild One” (with plenty of biographical data and manic piano-hammering to back up his claim). Martha Reeves & The Vandellas swooned over the brooding, misunderstood, leather-jacketed “Wild One” that society just couldn’t tame.

Freedom-loving outsiders were nothing new though. Folk music staple “The Wild Rover” had been crashing boozily about since the mid-nineteenth century.  Louis Armstrong started hot-jazzing “Wild Man Blues” in the 1920s. As long as there’s been civilisation, there have been barbarians banging at the door for last orders.

The “wild man” arc reached its natural conclusion with GG Allin, a hardcore punk/performance artist whose stage shows would end with him literally covered in blood and shit (mostly his own) after assaulting his audience and stripping naked. He died of an accidental heroin overdose at a party in 1993.

“Wild” broke whichever cultural taboo needed the most urgent attention. When Nina Simone wanted to describe what happens when “you touch me“, she reached for “Wild is the Wind” to subtly get her point across. That and mandolins. Tone Loc wasn’t quite so subtle when he shared his experience of the “Wild Thing” with us in his proto-gangsta braggadocio. The Troggs were at least a little more romantic (“You make my heart sing!”).

Once the seismic sexual shift of Elvis’s pelvis began to cool, “wild” represented personal freedom, a natural state that we were all born into before the Man ruined our nice vibrations with his wars and monogamy and narcotics legislation. Enter the Steppenwolf like true nature’s children with “Born to be Wild”, running their motors off into the psychedelic frontier at the nightmarish edge of the American Dream.

Youth helps; acting like children, even better. Iggy Pop was a rather wrinkly “Real Wild Child” reboot of the Wild One model in the 1980s. Skid Row’s poodle-noodles nodded and pouted as they demonstrated the awesome power of “Youth Gone Wild” and skin-tight jeans.

The frontier is another favourite idea: a porous space between here and there, us and them, where men can be men and women can be women and Adam & The Ants can be “Kings of the Wild Frontier”. Pantomime crazies The Prodigy had a weekend break at the “Wild Frontier”. Lou Reed sketched the “Wild Side” with anthropological detachment. Bow Wow Wow suggested we “Go Wild In The Country” when the fashion-conscious restrictions of London got too much for them.

But what exactly does this frontier separate nowadays? The boards of rock and pop have been trod by so many “wild” men and women the meaning of “wild” has become flattened under the weight of their collective hooves. Duran Duran anyone? (“Wild Boys!”)

Unruly behaviour itself has become worn down by repetition, the pavements of the citadel jagged with defenestrated TV sets. There was always money to be made in selling rebellion, but marketing so cleverly slipped its virus into the DNA of rebellion when it worked out that you can sell anything to anyone if you tell them it will help them “express their individuality” that there are no restrictions. The pop/rock impulse became a distended black hole sucking the whole culture inside itself.
There is still one border to cross though.

Rock/pop is an urban phenomenon, dependent on a specific density of punters and performers, huddled around the bars, clubs, record shops and venues to stay alive. But out there, beyond the walls, lies … the countryside! There be monsters. Rock stars gape in horror out the windows of their tour bus, clutching their bottles of JD with white fingers, at the kind of unimaginable deprivation that bluesy share croppers and yodelling hillbillies invented R&B and Country & Western to escape.

But there are some for whom the countryside, the Wilderness if you will, has an irresistible allure. Some are country lasses and lads who still feel the tug of the hinterland in their shiny metropolitan hearts; others are city types who feel the need to escape and recharge their batteries. 

The Kinks got as far as “The Village Green Preservation Society”, as manicured as carefully squared cucumber sandwiches. Blur (pre-Cotswold cheeses) could only sneer at a “Country House” with no immediate intention of moving into one. But Bow Wow Wow saw the benefits.

Led Zep spent so much time at Bron-yr-Aur in Powys, recording tunes about the magic of mountains and hills, that Robert Plant spoke Welsh. Pulp gradually shifted away from overlit, lip-gloss Britpop to find somewhere green and restful on their leafy “We Love Life” album.

For actual country folk, the countryside was less a mythic escape than a daily reality to be negotiated. Lead Belly and other bluesmen had worked in it (“Cotton Fields”). “Scratch” Perry has cows bumping through his dub mixes. Super Furry Animals sang about being “Mountain People” on the margins and recorded a whole album about the slow death of rural communities before Gruff Rhys marched off solo into the American wilderness. 

The continental expanse of the US gifted Messianic types (U2, the Boss) with room for a rugged, big sky aesthetic of self-reliance and spirituality among the prairies, deserts and giant Redwoods. Smog were happy to move to “the Country”. Canned Heat packed their flutes and jaunty time signatures too. “The Woods” held little terror for Sleater-Kinney. Grandaddy spelt out a childishly simple life in their “Nature Anthem”. Even Jay-Z and Kanye seemed relieved that there was “No Church in the Wild”.

But the Romantic poets left the British a legacy of terrible awe at nature, and Northern nature at that. For The Smiths, the moors always offered gloomy escape to desolate hillsides and child graves. Wild Beasts (from the Lake District) shiver breathily about “Wanderlust” and “Nature Boy” while British Sea Power (also Cumbrian) quivered with Ted Hughes visions of “Carrion” and “Favours in the Beetroot Fields”. Southerners Bat for Lashes (“Winter Fields”) and Metronomy (“The Reservoir”) also capture an eerie sense of human life caught in moments of nature-bound panic.

The post-punk generation found the spooky wilderness inside themselves and projected out into “A Forest” (The Cure) or just “Wilderness” (Joy Division), devoid of life exactly as the countryside isn’t.

But the gold star for combining the unpredictable performance of wildness with its high-country backdrop goes to Kate Bush. “Wuthering Heights” hits the spot: bird-flutter vocals escape out the bedroom window to dark, heartless nature; internalised alienation and childish excitement paired with brooding moorlands.

The last word goes to Jeffrey Lewis, or rather to the voracious “Bugs & Flowers” whose zillions of tiny souls will mean there will be “no room for us” in heaven. The real message from nature is that our wild performances and awe-struck contemplations will mean absolutely nothing; we are “infinite dust”. 

Try frugging your way through that paper bag.

Top Ten Gone Wild

The Dubliners – The Wild Rover
Louis Armstrong – Wildman Blues
Gruff Rhys – Walk Into The Wilderness
Bow Wow Wow – Go Wild in the Country
The Troggs – Wild Thing
Jay Z/Kanye West – No Church in The Wild
Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – Bugs & Flowers
Sleater-Kinney – Wilderness
Pulp – Wickerman
Kate Bush- Wuthering Heights

Monday, 12 January 2015

Uncle Coc's tardy 2014 round-up

Howdy, chumpsticks!

Difficult to qualify exactly why I'm doing this, as it seems that I've barely had two minutes to sit and listen to any tunes over the last twelve months (and longer). It's been 6Music, vintage vinyl and increasingly reductive Spotify playlists.

Nevertheless, some tunes have made their way through the parental membranes that have closed over my ever-more-hirsute ears. They are tunes with enough hook in their fabric to dig into my inattentive gristle-holes and lay their little eggs. On the down side, I probably haven't got any great lyrical insights to offer.

So based on the frequency on the old And in reverse order...

#13 - Young Fathers - GET UP

It's a bit like Eurovision: you remember the tunes from the beginning of the year and from the end, but the middle can get a little doughy. Also, going on the basis of what I've played the most over a year will favour tunes that have been around for longer - but those are the breakbeats.

This tune is welded to January in my head - frosty Mancunian mornings, the beginning of my Dadly career and the glorious freedom of an ersatz study with 6Music on tap and "all day" to listen to it. Living the dream. It's a woozy paranoid headrush of an anthem and it was a classy surprise when they won the Mercury Prize, even though it has become a crud-stained tankard over the years.

#12 - Cate le Bon - I Can't Help You

Even though you'd imagine a move to Los Angeles would've taken the edges off her Welsh accent, Cate le Bon still sounds so foreign. Like a re-imagined Nico at the middle of a re-configured Velvet Underground, re-written from distant, hazy memories. Quirky, bird-twitchy pop and very cool. This track aside, I haven't listened to her stuff nearly enough.

#11 - Mungo's Hi-Fi - Bike Rider

Carries the smack of a novelty single, this track. But then what is a pop hook without novelty. I kept waiting for this tune to annoy me, but it never did. I kept expecting to hear it around and about, but it never seemed to happen. I love a song that takes a tangent in its teeth and runs it down to its illogical conclusion.

#10 - Metronomy - Reservoir

My favourite track from one of my favourite albums of the year, even if it didn't quite reach the shimmering heights of The English Riviera. Icy and alienated and oddly suburban, this could have been the soundtrack to a time-travelling summer of teenage heartbreak - tiny obsessions stretched out over long, languid months. And at the bottom of their black heart, sweet seething resentment.

#9 - The Kooks - Down

A bit embarrassing this one. They are a bit of an embarrassment as a band, aren't they? And it was almost a surprise to hear they were still making tunes. It's also a bit of a stupid song, lyrically; do we need another woman-done-done-me-wrong tune? No, we don't. But it nagged its way into my head and I'd feel dishonest if I didn't include it. After all, pop music can be as dumb as rocks and still soar, can't it?

#8 - White Fence - Before He Met Her (Decomposing Lime)

Mossy, doomy fanfare to kick things off and then off it drifts in a softly zig-zagging fractal pattern with vocals pleasingly sliding about, buried in the mix. Trebly guitars scribble in the margins and, like a Spike Milligan sketch, it warbles off into a slow-motion exit when it runs out of ideas. It might be psyche-by-numbers; it might be available by the yard from any respectable psychemongers - but it tucked itself into a niche in my memory banks and made itself at home.

#7 - Warpaint - Disco//Very

I was surprised that this got listened to as much as it did - although maybe I wasn't listening as closely as I should've been. A dubby, yelping excursion into half-asleep menace. Like a Starbucks version of The Slits in ways I can't quite explain: slick but propulsive. And who wouldn't warm to a video of people dicking about in slow motion in irony-faded t-shirts. (They know they're dicking about, right?)

#6 - Lizzo - Batches & Cookies

This might be from 2013, but the album is definitely 2014 and I certainly didn't know anything about Lizzo before then. You'd think after listening to it for a few months, I'd have an idea of what it's about; I very don't. Oddly self-conscious about having such a "street" tune in my year's listening, feels a little too anthropological on my part. But the whistling hook drove into my lazy ears and I think I sniff a touch of the Missy Elliotts, which covers two senses in one short phrase. Synaesthetic.

#5 - Colourmusic - Dreamgirl '82

It felt like there was a lot of moody, reverby music hanging around my noggin this year and oftentimes it was this track that was rattling my mental furniture. Slight pinch of 80s metallic dirge (although that might be the title coluring my perceptions) and a nagging Cure-like guitar line. Not sure I would actually want this tune soundtracking my dreams, whether they featured girls or not, but it soundttracked a chunk of my 2014.

#4 - Aphex Twin - minipops 67 [120.2] [source code mix]

Like David Bowie's Titanic emergence from the murky depths in 2013, the Man Dem Aphex got me feeling trepiditious about his return to the world of albums. This lead track did a whole heap of reassuring before I got the chance to listen to the whole thing. It's a blinder, an envelope-licker and paradigm-tweaker. It's Aphex's Dayvan Cowboy in that it is recognisable but has moved away from the obvious markers. Nothing made me want to dance more all year this tune. I don't think I've been able to stop myself listening to it at least twice each time.

#3 - Flyying Colours - Not Today

Guilty pleasure/pain, this one. So much like the snippets of Ride, etc. that used to pop up on the Indie Top Ten on the ITV Chart Show that it actually hurts. I feel all of the 25 years that divide here from there, but they are blurry with youthful velocity and hurtle. They are Australian, I think, so they've got catching up to do, but I have no excuse for such warm-bath wallowing. It simply pushes too many of my buttons. Their tune "Wavy Gravy" is also a belter with a far superior title.

#2 - Automat - THF

This is a big, brooding Teutonic beast of a tune that I've conscientiously failed to find out much about. This is but a 40-second taster of what keeps leaping up on my randomised Spotify playlists and gets turned up every time. It reminds me more than a little of the infra-dark dub of Meat Beat Manifesto, millenial miasmic malcontent with room for dented cowbells. Could've been released anytime in the last twenty years but it choose to make 2014 its home.

#1 - Gruff Rhys - American Interior

I'm a fully-paid up member of the cult of this remarkable personality, so this can't be much of a surprise choice. But, head and shoulders the most listened to track of the year, this song about the heartbreak and hallucinatory isolation of exploration also became the quasi-official soundtrack for our move to Leeds due to a combination of heavy airplay at the beginning of April and its melancholic tone. It carried us to a new world and any time I listen to it in future will carry me back to that old future once more. Beautiful stuff.

I even managed to scrape together an idea of five albums that managed to make an impression on my mind over the course of the year. I've no great analytical insights to bring, as per usual, but in reverse order of impact...

#5 - Jane Weaver - The Silver Globe

Creeping in under the wire but making its presence felt very keenly as the year faded away, this was an album I'd meant to listen to for a while - due to various psychedelic buzzwords and good reviews that Twitter had thrown my way. It is packed with cool surprises, and not as out there as I'd expected, which turned out to be a strength.

#4 - Fuyija & Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners

I tried to get into Todd Terje for months - with some progress - but this was my ageing synth-electronica album of choice of the year. A bit more bite, both sonically and lyrically, than the Nordic maestro while still sounding (artificially) sweet and a bit playful. Partially filled the gap that waits hungrily for another album from The Chap.

#3 - Aphex Twin - Syro

Already said much of what I can summon up for now about this album, but the rest of it matched up nicely to the invention and class of minipops. This track was another highlight.

#2 - Gruff Rhys - American Interior

Close call between the top two, which Gruff almost edged on the basis of the painfully weighty American Interior film. A truckload of steel guitar, noble sentiment and his clear, warm voice performing its usual low-key pop wonders. The album never strayed more than two feet from our turntable for months until it was usurped by the #1 choice.

#1 - Metronomy - Love Letters

A beautiful, sligthtly twisted pop machine with all the right noises in all the right places. Metronomy were the only band to play intelligbly through the muddy, muddy sound at the 6Music Festival in Trafford because of their crystalline sound. Devon knows how they make it so dreamy.

And with that, I shall melt into the 2015 night...

Your pal,

Coc x

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #4: One Year Progress Report

So, a year ago today, I completed my final day of work in my customer service contact centre job and joined the long-term self-employed: full-time Daddyhood. I've been meaning to blog again for a while - there seems a lot going on in my little head - and this seems a good occasion/excuse.

After Dadding it up, there was another big change three months later: a move from Manchester (where I'd lived for twelve years) to Leeds (where we knew no-one). This meant the first three months from January until 1 April were a kind of Phoney War, a ghostly sketch of how our life together was going to be. There was no real point joining any playgroups for such a short amount of time, and I would've felt strange signing up to a shiny new social life when I thought I already had one. However, I did discover something of a new daytime city, a city of parents and young children that I'd only glimpsed in the non-shadows. Parks became cultural hotspots; museums morphed into lifelines, places where hanging around felt permitted and where there was even something to ruffle the embers where my imagination once glowed.

Once we had moved to Leeds, the game changed and Jasper and I were faced with an intimidatignly blank social canvas. I actually lost some weight from walking up and down hills all around our corner of North Leeds* - the hills being a considerable change to flat, rambling Mancunia. I "threw" myself (relative to my sedate standards) into SureStart centres, singing groups for toddlers at Opera North, and eventually a local playgroup (run by parents). I decided to put myself forward as an organiser to try and get involved and get to know people. There was still the awkwardness of effectively asking people out, albeit on playdates in the park: I'd never been too hot at making the first move, so a few nerves were wracked. My previous method of striking up friendships had been sitting next to people in the pub and drinking. I was pleased with myself for the efforts I made though, and Jasper and I do have a few budding friendships on the go now.

When we were alone in Leeds, however, things got harder and darker.  The days seemed longer and a sense of desperation often swelled in my belly a couple of seconds after waking up in the morning. It's hard to understand exactly why this was - but my mental health was thrown into sharp focus. When Jasper was a very recent arrival (and with exhaustion ramping up the fears and tensions), there was depression, there were panic attacks and a lot of anxiety and dread jangling our nervous systems and weary minds - but as a routine and a sense of capability slowly formed, the angst eased and a sense of normality pinked up once again.

This was different though: I felt thorough alienation - a natural result of moving to an area without any friends. But on top of that was the dread of being unable to "do it", of not coping - which steepled up into a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Loving Jasper but also despairing at being stranded with him, and feeling terrible guilt about any resentments or panicky anger that would bubble up. My strategy was to try and break through the anger to tears as quickly as possible, to expose the raw nerve underneath my behaviour. Jabber came and cuddled me on several occasions when I was in tears - still does when I get upset now - and while I was partly delighted that he was so caring and would see his father as a human being, I worried that he would inherit some emotional instability from my example. I hate the idea of such a small person having to absorb so many huge emotions.

And the worst thing, the most horrible to try and deal with, was getting angry with the little human that was just trying to work out what life was about. This is what has brought things to a head - my head has brought things to itself. The anger came (comes) most likely from the sense of not being able to cope - depression, anixety and anger swilling around together - hormones narrowing my vision, overriding my furry nurturing mammalian instincts. Mealtimes were a flashpoint - related as much to issues I have about feeding myself as to any worries about Jasper's diet; when Lou came home from work, I felt compelled to report on how the day had been, and if I felt that I hadn't done enough (a very easy feeling to allow to take hold) then that would become another source of tension. Barriers are thrown up exactly where and when togetherness is most sorely needed by both of us.

I'm aware how absent Jasper is from this account. Of course, he can't blog about it; he can't really tell me how he feels about things, probably can't know himself. But I'm barely mentioning the object of all this fathering. This seems to illustrate just how far up my arse my head is - how much things are still about me, and not him. However, the feelings are so powerful that it's hard to break out from them, perspective is dizzyingly out of kilter. One critical voice chimes in with the shouty chorus that has berated me since forever.

And the emotions feel very old. I look back to when I was a kid and trace my sense of inadequacy and frustration to impatience from my Dad and I think the anger too. And I have wondered whether my Dad picked up these same frustrations from his childhood - the way he described his relationship with his Mum - a single parent, a wartime widow with two children to look after, a keenly intelligent woman who may have resented the lack of opportunity to express herself. I never met her, as she died just after my parents married, and my Dad has also been dead since I was 24 - so a lot of this is guesswork. But it feels intuitive. And I want to break this chain: I don't want Jasper to be trying to figure this same stuff out for himself in 40 years' time. I can't be sure that I'll be around to talk through it with him either.

So, I have been using cognitive behavioural therapy to try and re-programme myself, to try and take this anger out of the equation, to turn the depression inside out and focus on the many positive points of light in my everyday life as a Dad. And aside from the techniques to help me focus on the moment and not fret about the past and future, I've been instructed to challenge myself to provide evidence for my fears: focus on how well Jasper is doing, on how well I am doing. Instructed to reject the assumption that I am doing something wrong. Then I can relax and not assume that Jasper is doing something wrong. And the adrenaline will melt away and Jasper will continue to smile and grow into a happy(ish) human being. That's the plan.

I'm determined to make this fatherhood deal work - and if I squint a bit, I feel I am doing a good job, a job that I'm very lucky to be able to do. And I feel very lucky that Jabber is such a lovely lad. I'm still having to count to ten a couple of times a day when he feels less than co-operative, but I've tried to make a bit of a game of it and count with him. If he learns that trick at least, that'll be worthwhile.

This has been written largely in the past tense, which is inaccurate. A lot of these struggles are still very present, very immediate. But I think it helps me not to become overwhelmed if I can draw a line between Coc then and Coc now. And I need a lot of help at times - it's all big stuff.

Another frustratingly inarticulate post. I will have another crack at it, but it's taken so long for me to say this much that I need to get it out.

Yours in paternalia

Coc x

* The walking was less to get to places we needed to be than to fill hours that I needed to fill. Walking often helps to calm me down, although it can develop a bit of a manic aspect at times.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #3: Daddy Day Care


Apologies for the unimaginative title, but I couldn't really think of a snappier one quickly enough.

So, our attempts at minimising our gender footprint also include the big one: childcare. This is the one that literally separates the men from the children.

Over the last twenty-one months we've tried to keep things as balanced as possible. Lou had six months of maternity leave from her job and was able to go part-time for another six and I was able to get a month off as a new father, combining holiday and my own statutory leave.

After the initial chaotic three months or so, where time felt close to nothing and sleep and feelings were fuzzy cousins to our reality, we settled into a routine of each of us looking after the little wizard every other night and me doing the bulk of the after-looking when I wasn't at work, while Lou watched over him while I sweated over a hot call centre. Noone got enough sleep and we were living against the clock, but it sort of worked. And Lou's parents helped out enormously, looking after him two days a fortnight, which meant we still had precious couple time and Lou could work.

We had fears about where our dollars would be coming from in a few months' time when Lou's job would be finishing, so when the opportunity for a full-time, permanent position came up in Leeds, we agreed the time had come to leave Manchester. Relocation, relocation, relocation. The job was considerably better than paid than what she was already on, and this opened a new door for us: a door we'd talked about for quite a while.

The wage I was earning was effectively the same as what we would be paying for full-time nursery care, and it wasn't a very expensive place where Jasper was spending his couple of days a week. It was a lovely place, but we felt we had a choice. We could try to carry on as we were, dropping the little bundle off and picking him up, with Lou somehow commuting the hour or so, and so on; orrrrrrr..... I could give up my work, we could move to Leeds and I'd look after Jabber full-time. Simplicity itself.

We talked about it a bit: my job was quite frustrating, I didn't really see myself progressing through the company, and Lou was sitting on some serious career tracks. It wasn't as though I was one of the country's leading neurosurgeons or a talented baker or a particularly enthusiastic traffic warden. And more "importantly", it would be a chance to walk some walk after talkng the talk for a while: some attempt at gender balance.

So, in January this year, the job was quit and I enrolled at Parenting High full-time. We were living "The Dream", but it was a dream with some dry, curled-up edges. Having been someone who spent most of his twenties and thirties unsure whether I could look after myself, it seemed a strange career move to look after a fifteen-month old creature. And here was something that I should have realised beforehand that still only dawned on me after a few weeks: I hadn't been trained for this stuff.

I know no one is trained for parenthood, I know. But this whole gender thing still has some teeth, I think. I can't pretend this is a universal truth and that every man is similarly poorly-equipped as I am in to take care of others; on the other hand, it feels as though there is a gender element to the whole preparation for life. That girls are encouraged to think ahead, see to the details and take care of business, while boys can explore and ponder their schemes for self-fulfillment. I've become more acutely aware of how others have seen to these details for me - and how often those others have been women. I've had to somehow make myself aware of what needs doing. So, that's a steep learning curve right there, which I've been clinging to despite enormous gravitational forces and my own incompetent fingers.

I don't want this to read like an excuse. I'm fully aware that as a grown-up adult, I should've been very much aware of what needed doing every day and who should have been doing it. I'm not sure how this happens, how these jobs become so invisible, but I want to try and disrupt the signal on the cloaking device for Jasper. Even if I don't feel like I know what I'm doing, by doing it I'll hopefully give him a positive example. And I'll make sure that I'll point out to him what needs doing as he gets older, so that he doesn't have even that excuse.

I'm pleased that I'm on the learning curve, that I feel I'm following my principles (which is a weird feeling to which I am not accustomed), but I cannot tell myself that a lifetime of applause and shiny medals awaits, because people just get on with bringing up families all the time.Just because I'm finally starting to grow up, it doesn't mean I can stroll about the world expecting my hero hugs. But I'm still pompous enough to have some ideas as to why we've gone this route as a family and I'd like to share these with you now.

The reward will hopefully be that Jasper sees things differently, that he feels more responsible for the details in his own life and takes care of things and other people accordingly. Hopefully, he will think that it's perfectly normal for a Dad to look after his kid all the time, which it is - really: even if it doesn't always feel like it. Conversely, the plan is also that he will be quite happy not to be the main breadwinner or blithely assume that his career will come first, take precedence over those careers of the women in his life.

Lou read some interviews a few months ago with women who had been confronted with the decision between childcare and career. She told me how fortunate these women felt that their partners had given them the choice between having a career or staying at home to bring up the children. Either of these options would certainly involve some sacrifice for the young families, not least fiscally, but it was remarkable to Lou that the third option of the husband looking after the child was not considered. Once the breastfeeding stops, it could be argued, there isn't much that the father shouldn't be able to do that the mother does: it ceases to be about anatomy but the culture and politics remain. In our case, the practicalties swung the role of primary carer in my direction.

The other thing which I've noted is the length of the "working day". Jasper generally wakes up between 6.30 and 8am, usually around 7.30. (We're very lucky that he sleeps as well as he does.) My day starts with his, as a rule. Our deal is that I also look after the house - the bulk of the household chores - although Lou still cooks frequently and will normally chose the menus for the weekly shop. After his lunch, Jasper sleeps for a couple of hours and I can get some work done - I'm also doing proofreading and writing CVs to earn our spending money - and then it's housework and keeping the littlun fed and entertained until he goes to bed around 7.30pm. Then, I often have proofreading or similar work to do for a couple of hours, soemtimes quite late into the night. I could be better organised and get things done quicker, but that's the shape of things so far. A full-time job of childcare and household chores plus a part-time job. All my sparetime is now monetised: the clock is ticking and it sits in the kitchen. I've no threshold to cross to go back to work; it's always at home.

Sounds a lot, and it can be knackering and a little alienating, but this is largely because I consider a job the kind of things that more responsible folk do when they get home from work anyway. It's another case of my dodgy mindset: why is doing a load of washing work? Everyone has to do washing. It's the assumption that I'm entitled to hours sitting on my broadening backside watching TV that's causing the problem.

Anyway, I must go to bed. This blog hasn't quite covered the points I wanted, I don't think. I may well have another attempt later in the year to undo some of this clumsiness. But part of the issue with my new role is that there's always something I could be doing with my time, something less self-indulgent.

Peace out.

Your pal in daycare,

Coc x

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #2: Tongue of their Fathers - Passing on my Bad Welsh to the Next Generation

Howdy! (as they say in Rhostrehwfa)

As the last half hour or so of St David's Day/Gwyl Dewi Sant trickles down the sandhole of time for another year, I'm shoehorning in the opportunity to explain a little bit about another one of the DECISIONS that was made about bringing up our little lad: namely, that I decided to speak Welsh to him.

I should explain that I'm not fluent in Welsh and not a native speaker: my Mam is from County Clare in the West of Ireland and my Dad was from Macclesfield, not far from Manchester. It was a happy accident that we as a family ended up at a kind of cultural midpoint between the two places - on the Isle of Anglesey. It was handy for the ferry, no doubt.

It isn't even that I'm capable of any decent length strings of Welsh sentences. Or proper communication at all, really. Intermediate language skills glisten atop some distant peak far up above my poorly-equipped base camp. I must sound like a complete idiot.

I did, however, grow up in Welsh-speaking Wales. I did learn it at school and even got a GCSE in Cymraeg: Ail Iaeth (Welsh: Second Language), although at Foundation level. I did acquire a near proximity to a good accent when speaking Welsh as a result. I did leave school with better German than Welsh, despite the fact I had lived yng Nghymru for thirteen years and never once been to Germany or Austria or Switzerland or even brushed their umlaut-draped borders.

I did think Welsh was a language for chapel-goers and committees and teachers and nought that was cool for most of my school years until various Welsh-language bands like Datblygu and Llwybr Llaethog showed me where I had been going wrong. And that's the "I did" section neatly covered.

So, why did I decide to pass on someone else's culture to my son, who seems likely at the moment to spend his entire childhood living in the North of England? Dyna'r cwestiwn...

Firstly, even though I was an immigrant to Wales, I realised when I did finally travel to the former Holy Roman Empire and other mildly exotic parts of the world that I did actually identify myself with Wales and Welsh people, that I did have some knowledge of Welshness - even if as an outsider. I was maybe a bit like those colonial types who grew up in Kenya or Sri Lanka and were caught between the mother country and the locals - fish that swam comfortably in neither water. I am, as my bio suggests, living at least partly in the Wales of the mind.

Secondly, and perhaps this is related to the first answer, I feel that a language is a tremendously valuable thing to let die out. There are languages in places like Australia that are almost literally on their last pair of legs, as the final native speaker is old enough and unique enough to breath the last living words of that language any time soon. With the disappearing language goes a whole view of the world, a whole philosophy encoded in the very words themselves that is almost impossible to replace. I frequently feel the need for continuity and this is one of those times.

Thirdly, I like Welsh - the way it sounds in my half-stopped ears and feels in my clumsy mouth. There are some great words and ideas, and I love the fact that knowing there is more than one language early in life means you understand that much more quickly that a chair isn't a "chair", it's something some people call a "chair". If that makes sense.

The secret fourth reason (a secret reason only dimly perceptible to myself) is that it feels a clever thing to do and all the more so for my complete inability to perform the task. I like the sense of difference, of awareness of alternatives that it can lend. But like I say, that's a dark path of thought I chose not to follow in public...

As I say, my Welsh is appalling: a combination of ineptly-taught and poorly-received GCSE Welsh, some song lyrics, some internet resources and watching S4C every now and then with straining ears. I cannot hold a conversation, cannot add clauses to a sentence convincingly and can barely remember how to use past and future tenses.

My friends and family-in-law that speak Welsh mostly live in England and rarely speak it - except in phone calls to their own families. It's always a slight annoyance to me that the census doesn't even recognise the fact that they exist as Welsh speakers with the relevant section omitted from the forms outside of Wales. The fact they don't speak Welsh to their children is sad but completely understandable as the kids are very unlikely to use it. My best friend effectively learnt English at primary school and his Pennsylvanian mother learnt the language on arriving in Wales, and yet he rarely has a Welsh thought pass through his head these days after over twenty years living in England.

And yet, I think to myself that if I say enough words often enough, then at least the perception of another language is there. Even if it's a non-Welsh Welsh-like Daddy Language rather than the real thing. I try and speak some to him every day - mostly "Are you OK?"/"Come here."/"Do you want some milk?"; simple questions and instructions. Sometimes a random (and no doubt grammatically disastrous) sentence will pop in my head and I'll let it drop out of my mouth. I tell myself that if he at least tunes his ears into it, he will able to pick it up more easily and pronounce it more convincingly if he ever takes an interest in future.

My Mam had her entire schooling in Irish (as was the received political wisdom at the time) despite the fact her parents claimed they had no Irish and none was spoken at home*. She loved it and has often told me she felt as a student there were some things she could express in Irish that were impossible in English. By the time I was old enough to notice, all that was left were a few welcoming phrases, toasts and descriptive words: the rest had been swept away. She wasn't even able to really read it very confidently as the spelling and the script had been changed since she was at school. Another linguistic dead end: there are loads of them around when I stop to look.

So far, there has been one minor triumph for the project: Jasper says "dooo" for water, which I choose to interpret as being like "dwr", the Welsh word for the same. He's not really using words yet, so you could argue it's a stretch in logic, but it's a stretch I'm happy to make.

I've no idea how much he might pick up. His cousin has English and Japanese spoken at home and all his schooling (still at pre-school, but all the same) is in Welsh, as they live on the Lleyn Pensinsula. I'm fascinated to see how that will develop. My brother says he has recently become aware of the different languages and which word belongs where, so it'll be interesting to see what choices he makes.

What I can describe more easily is the way that I use the language with him even in a one-way verbal exchange, which in itself is really interesting. When he was very little, most of the use was when we went out together - sometimes whole trips to the swimming baths would be in mumbled, inept Welsh. Now that I'm spending most of my time with him at home while Lou works (another post in the offing for that one) my use of Welsh acts as a very reliable barometer of how much pressure I am feeling: the more Cymric vocabulary that spills out, the more on top of things I feel. This makes me even more determined to speak in Welsh in order to convince myself how very well I'm doing as a parent.

So we'll see how I get on: it's been sixteen months of Welsh every day so far with a proto-word in response. I am nourished by the (probably apocryphal) story of the architect of the Hebrew revival in Israel in the 1940s and beyond, who was so convinced that a language based on the Hebrew sacred texts was the future that he refused to speak anything else to his family the moment his foot stepped on the boat to the Holy Land. And now there are millions of speakers, where there was once a dessicated religious language as dead and restricted to scholars and priests as Latin. He must have been impossible to live with, but you have to take your inspiration from where you find it.

And as I type this, his raw gums are kicking in and parental duties call again. Best be off!

Hwyl fawr!

Eich cyfaill,

Coc x

* I did see a copy of a County Kerry census not so long ago that dated from 1901 and said that my infant grandfather did have Irish, so there is a story to be told there one day.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Hairy Dad Chronicles #1: Naming the first born

So another mouth bleeds unimportant business into the blogosphere. This on top of the already unimportant stuff that I bleated about albums a couple of years back. Sheesh!

But I never learnt to knit or draw or sculpt or paint or network to the point of it becoming a science: all I know is words, spoken ones and written ones. And so begins my piece...

Lou, my wife, and I have been trying to do this whole marriage and family life deal with as even a couple of pairs of hands as we can manage. We got married in August 2011 - the ceremony was as DIY as possible on the Irish Sea coast in extreme Anglesey, which was only possible because of the generous donation of time, talents and energy of our friends and families. We did all we could to keep things as balanced in terms of gender as we could, because it was the way that made sense to us.

We were both given away by parents, rather than Lou being handed over to me. We both kept our names, rather than any double-barrelled business or sublimation of one name into the other: we both liked** our names as they were, we identified ourselves by them, and didn't feel the need to change them. We both spoke at the wedding feast and we both had Best People, even sharing one: this made for a lot of speeches, but we felt we had a lot to say. (We almost always do have a lot to say...) It all felt like we were making the decisions, that we were arranging our marriage and our futures the way that we wanted.

Then, a few months later, Lou was pregnant, which is what we'd dearly hoped would happen - although we were a little surprised it happened so quickly. We gradually realised that there were a few issues to be resolved for the next generation if we wanted to do everything we could to preserve the gender balance. First up, names: we didn't know if they were a boy or a girl, so we looked into possible names for either result.

The name Jasper came to us out of the ether and I don't think either of us is still sure how it arrived*. It sounded cheerful - it's actually quite hard to say Jasper in a grumpy way, although I personally have had a great deal of practice since he arrived - and it was a little unusual without being obscure. After all, this is what every aspirational middle class parent wants, isn't it? A uniquely branded kid, tagged with a name that oozes elegant originality. (Sheesh!) It was also the name of a lot of family pets and a range of Marks & Spencer tables, but you can't plan for this stuff. (You can.)

The girl's name though was more of a poser: we couldn't agree on one for ages. One of the main issues was the vast number of names that meant "beautiful" or "princess" or were simply a feminisation of a male name: however hidden the original meaning, that kind of etymological shit sends a message, and we wanted it as unDisney as possible. We searched various languages, hovering around Welsh for a long time for reasons that will become clearer in any future blogs - but all the girls' names I read aloud were quashed by Lou for sounding too weird, for want of a better word on my part. Angharad probably doesn't have the same ring to it if you weren't raised within the sound of Menai Bridge: a bit of a duff and rusty ring, perhaps.

Eventually, we found Mabli - the Welsh version of Mabel, which comes from the Latin for "loved". Still perhaps a bit passive, but without doubt along the right lines. It sounded a bit stranger, a bit more foreign than Jasper - but was still as cheerful. And it wasn't a name I'd come across growing up in north Wales either, which appealed to us both.

So, we were sorted for first names. But the thornier issue lay ahead - the family name. We were pretty sure that we weren't going to go down the route of calling them either Harvey (after Lou) or Egan (after my family), as it would be choosing one parent's line over the other. Again, this is not a criticism or a judgment against how anyone else has named their kid. There are a lot of good arguments for the whole family having the same surname; it just didn't make sense to us to choose one of ours. We take names very seriously, as many people do, and we didn't want the identification tag to sit on either the father or mother.

We couldn't settle on a double-barrelled name. It felt like we were just putting the decision off to the next generation. And we didn't really like the sound of either Harvey-Egan or Egan-Harvey. (Incidentally, we have some friends called Wright and Mighty who got married recently; in their case it would seem a travesty for them not to go by the name Mighty-Wright.) The idea of fusing them together into a new surname like Harvigan seemed a little outside our comfort zone. We talked about it with many of our friends and privately banged our heads against subtle brick walls about how we could resolve this.

Welsh culture came to the rescue again. Many of the people I knew at school and a friend of Lou's from the Lleyn Peninsula went by different surnames than their siblings, often a second first name, rather than the Jones or Williams that was generally their official surname. For example, a Dafydd Thomas could be known as Dafydd Wyn  - or perhaps Dafydd Mon if they were from Anglesey (Ynys Mon in Welsh). So we set about trying to think of a suitable surname for our firstborn.

We lived at the time (and still do for the moment) on Henley Avenue and so Jasper Henley became a possibility, recognising their Traffordian roots and the fact that we were so happy in our family home on that road. But Mabli Henley didn't really tick our boxes, so we put Henley to one side and thought on.

After some months, we suddenly thought of using the name Firswood - the small suburb of Trafford where Henley Avenue lies - and it felt as though something clicked. Jasper Firswood sounded like a woodcutter; Mabli Firswood sounded like a mysterious, witchy kid - both sounded good to us. It was also a very normal sounding name: Firswood. We'd found what we after!

The next stage was discussing it with our respective in-laws - after all, it was as much a decision to spurn their names as it was ours. The issue came up of identification - the idea that the child would be confused if they didn't have the same name as either Mam or Dad. It seems quite common for a kid not to share a name with at least one parent, but then that doesn't mean it cannot be used as a bully stick for beating them. The other objection was that it simply wasn't the way things are done.

We don't mind so much not doing things the done way - and this issue of identification seems important enough to stick our neck out for. Although we are aware that it isn't just our neck we will be sticking out. Perhaps a few other people have come to the same conclusion and it might become a more normal thing during the child's school career anyway. (That's what is known as wishful thinking, but if you can't start a kid's life with some hope, when can you be hopeful?) We decided that any other children we had would also be Firswoods, so that they could identify and be identified with each other. We also designate ourselves as the Family Firswood, even though Lou and I won't be changing our names to Firswood either.

If the worst came to the worst, we could change Jasper or Mabli's surname when they get old enough to want to anyway. A decision had been made.

So come October 2012, a little lad arrived - almost a month earlier than expected but big enough and beautiful enough to look after himself already. He arrived by C-section and as he was passed over to Lou and myself, his final name took shape - Dominic Jasper Bertie Firswood.

You might have noticed something. That first name that has somehow slipped into pole position: Dominic. See, the gender battle lines still had another kink to keep us on our toes. It was possibly the most pernicious and divisive issue that we had to work out, skulking about in the shadows the whole time.

The third name - and we always wanted two middle names - was the name of our friend, who was a student midwife at Manchester and was there to receive Jasper into the world. The fact it was a woman's name and also a bit gender-playful was also good for our purposes. However, that was the easy bit, the sideshow to the main attraction.

My first name is Dominic. So was my Dad's. And his Dad's. His Dad was also Dominic and it seems likely his Dad before. Despite the idea of a patronymic being pretty much the completely opposite attitude to all the other gender-based positions we'd adopted, I didn't want to be the one that dropped the name ball. (A suitably daft sporting metaphor for what is arguable a daft masculine thing to cling to.) His given name was always going to be Jasper, but Lou and I discussed the Dominic issue over and over again, never really resolving the conversations one way or the other, the mood occasionally being punctuated by a hurt silence or weary sigh. It was a choice between letting down my dead forebears or my egalitarian-minded principles: it shouldn't have been any choice at all. But the nagging feeling wouldn't leave me alone...

When that noon in October arrived, however, bringing a long, reddish pink Jasper with it, I confessed to Lou as we cuddled our first of many tens of thousands of cuddles with our new Firswood that I wished my Dad was there. He had died in 1997, so long ago that the vast majority of my friends (Lou included) had never met him. I felt acutely that I wanted him there, to let me know that this whole Dad business was going to be alright - in the way only a Dad could. Lou agreed that Jasper could be DJB Firswood*** and (barring a wobble at the registry office a coupe of weeks later) that was the decision made official.

It still sticks in Lou's ears, nose and throat a little, I think, when "Dominic Firswood" is called at the doctor's, but his everyday name is Jasper (or Jibber, or Jibber Jabber, or Jaspergers, or Jasperilla, etc.) Firswood - and he seems happy enough with it fifteen months later.

We managed up to a point to sell the name Firswood to our folks with the idea of it being a very old way to name a child - "Jasper of Firswood", and they seem sold on the reality of the name, at least, if not the idea behind it. My Mum still sends letters to Mr & Mrs Egan anyway, so she's unlikely to catch up completely, but she doesn't complain about it when she does remember I've kept the Egan name virus to myself.

One other happy coincidence of the whole thing is that common as it sounds, we haven't been able to find anyone with the name Firswood on the internet or local 'phone books. It seems we've accidentally stumbled on a surname that sounds as English as oak and chips, but is virtually unique. So, lucky auld Jibber there, eh?

Anyway, this post has been considerably longer than I intended - and I need to go and wake him from his post-prandial snooze. But I will strike again! Next time, perhaps, the topic will be my abysmal attempts to pass on my abysmal Welsh to him.

Am y tro nesf!

Your pal, Coc


* There was a possible link to Jasper Tudor, uncle of Henry VII and a descendent of the powerful Tudur family that came from Anglesey themselves.

** I apologise for the lazy and liberal use of "we" in this post. We don't think in unison like some Stepford unit, no matter how similar many of our ideas are. There is much discussion behind each joint decision: discussion far too tedious and protracted to share, even on here.

*** This is also the way his name appears on the cricket scorecards and literary masterpieces of our imagined futures for him. (Triple sheesh!)