A year older. A year wiser? A year to see the years differently.

Another trip round the sun or whatever the phrase is. Undeniably, I am another year older. Whether I’m wiser? I would like to think so, though not as completely wise as I would like to be.

Trying to become wiser – through learning, experience or the value of those around us – ought to come as standard, a kind of built-in feature of life: don’t waste the privilege of being able to learn by then seeking to diminish that wonderful gift. And, if we’re going to learn, then it’s only right that we respect and acknowledge both the things we have learned and also the potential to learn more.

I’ve been around for more than 40 years and, in spite of having the fortune to be present and correct for all of those, I’ve never really been one for celebrating my birthday. That’s for two reasons: embarrassment and guilt.

As a child, I recall distinctly being reminded (apropos of nothing) by my mother how fortune my sister and I were compared too others; we never wanted for material items, support or the love of our parents. We struck lucky and I knew it. I got it – I didn’t need to be reminded. And yet I was (and still am).

What this led to was a kind of resentment of the privilege I understood that I enjoyed. I didn’t turn my back on it – I have embraced it and it has helped to carry me far – but it did engender a desire to do things for myself without reliance on others. To stand on my own two feet and ask for help only in the midst of the most dire circumstances. I also learned never to ask for anything and, as a result, always feel deep embarrassment at receipt of gifts, however heartfelt the intention that accompanies them. If I want something I buy it myself and I owe no-one anything.

But there is another guilt as well, one of which I rarely speak. And that’s a person and the life they missed out on.

On my 18th birthday I attended the funeral of my best friend. He had been seriously ill for nearly 18 months and never got to see in the momentous moment of formally becoming an adult. For more than 25 years I have carried both the memory of him – he’s the guy who gave me a love of Spurs (my goodness he’d love how they play these days) – and also of that birthday. Not because I was sad for me, but I will never forget how kind his mum was to me. That a woman who had just lost her son could find the space in her heart for me on that remains one of the most extraordinary human acts I have ever experienced.

For a long time I have associated my birthday with the sadness and grief of that family’s loss. The loss of what might have been – the future they didn’t get to share in. I got on with my life and it has – so far! – been pretty good. But each year in the week before my birthday I dwell one what might have been for my friend.

So, after a quarter of a century it’s time I learned something from this. I think that is to take hold of the joy of life more – the moments that matter, the people that matter to us and sheer wonder of being around to enjoy the privilege I have been round the sun many times already.

So, in future, less introspection and more celebration.


A coda: where was I?

Heading home from work this evening, a passenger in the car being driven by my partner northbound on the M6 (having just joined from the M62) the news came through: Queen Elizabeth II had died.

(No other comment – I’m no royalist, but bore her no ill. Just marking where I was at the time.

Actually, I wonder if this will mark a point in the life of the UK. As we break with this symbol of Britain’s past, will we turn left of right: to modernism and growth, or inwards and further rapid decline?)

A Constructive Summer

It is often said as a parent that we only get 18 summers with our children. Of course, that isn’t true for all, but it does speak to modern sense that value must be actively sought from every possible moment. Or it’s a neat way to sell books to paranoid parents.

But there is something magical to me about summer more than any season. Sure, Autumn brings with it the colourful flourish before we head into the long, dark challenge of winter. However, for me really it’s summer that lifts my spirits. It’s the combination of the seemingly endless light and warmer weather. Britain’s geographic positioning and pretty benign climate makes this for me.

That said, summer is a frame of mind as much as a meteorological measure of time. Indeed, there is a reason why Midsummer (only three weeks into the formal three month window) is so named – it’s like a bird that has hit a thermal and is effortlessly soaring higher, able to maintain that altitude without difficulty. It’s a feeling. The feeling of possibility. Of what might be and having the power to make it. And it’s a time to dream – one of the greatest of all plays takes us through a fantastical, soaring midsummer’s night.

Growing up in a small village meant transport was a bicycle and fun was heading off to see friends and bombing down the stony track to the nearby ford to wade and splash and lie around. We had few cares. Although those days brought boredom too. Parents at work and friends not available.

But from the flattening of the bored mind staring at the ceiling, so plans are hatched and ideas come to life. Build something – a go cart with wood from the shed! – allow the mind to wander and imagine a world. Sell the scheme to friends the next day. Nothing was impossible in my head in those days.

These days the tide has turned: I’m the time-strapped parent hoping for a child to have a constructive summer of achievement, of attainment. And this year promised that with a trip the All England Dance National Finals. The practice, the time spent in the studio, the effort towards a goal. The dramas of fellow dancers nearly not making it, of injuries and that sinking feeling as parents when we realised that all the effort was not going to deliver the longed for reward.

We combined that trip with an impromptu visit on the way home through the places of my childhood, where the summers were at their most powerful: schools and the house I grew up in. The schools themselves looked in glorious health and our daughter was rather awed by their air – so different from her own school in appearance.

But my childhood home was a different story: empty, unloved and dilapidated. My parents would be deeply saddened to see their hard work so diminished. For me, a mixed feeling of hose strong memories – the little motorbike zipping round the field, the secrets of the old railway cutting, the warren of tunnels in the hay bales, all products of constructive summers – and a sadness at the passage of time. Those memories are just that: markers of some of the 18 summers I had there.

Right now it’s early September. Autumn for some, but still summer for me as I cling onto that gossamer feeling of possibility and adventure. We have holidayed wonderfully as a family on England’s south coast, where the warmth and light gave so much energy. School has begun again, with all the promise that a new year brings. Work has started on the house, bringing change and newness to our lives. And we feel rested, ready to carry the solar charge of a constructive summer into autumn and beyond.

The title of this thread was inspired by the song of the same name by the Brooklyn band, The Hold Steady. It evokes the charged energy of what could be in the fractured teenage years where time passes at multiple speeds at once, together with a darker twist that reminds us of how quickly life can pass.

None of us knows how may summers we may have. Enjoy every one.