Category Archives: Family

When We Were Young

“I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you are grown.”

That little rhyme by WB Yeats was brought sharply to mind as I was watching the infants’ nativity play at the local primary school where my children began their education, and where I am now a governor.  It’s all too easy to be overcome by nostalgia.  In a few short years, my adorable tots have been transformed from innocent little angels dressed in white pillowcases, with tinsel halos falling over their eyes into…teenagers!

Nursery NativityAs they have forgotten the words to Away in a Manger, they have learned every swear word in the book and developed a well-honed skill in delivering crushing put-downs to each other and their long-suffering parents. Instead of making gingerbread stars or sticking sparkly spangles on cardboard crowns, they now enjoy texting people they’ve only just parted with, instagramming embarrassing photos of themselves to all and sundry and watching X-rated TV shows on the family tablet when they’re supposed to be asleep in bed. How did this happen?

Amid the tantrums and exam angst (the daughter is doing ‘mocks’ as I write), it can be easy to overlook some of good things about living with teenagers. Without them, I’d be more intolerant, less well informed (particularly about music) and definitely more set in my ways. Every day, I’m getting a clearer picture of the mature adults they’ll soon be, and while yes, I miss the little children they once were, I’m also looking forward to what I hope will be a wonderful friendship between grown-ups just a few more years down the line.

Some of the conversations I’ve had with my teenagers recently have been amazing. The things they come out with are not only surprising but often profound and incredibly thought-provoking. It’s hard not to feel privileged to be able to share their thoughts and feelings as they learn about the world and their place in it. Politics, celebrity, freedom of information, the nature of justice, why slavery still exists… we’ve discussed all these things and many more over the past year. You name it – they have a view on it.

Periodic table of texting

While they like to parade a veneer of world-weary cynicism, not far below the surface, you’ll find a pair of idealists and dreamers, two young people full of potential who genuinely want to learn and make a difference in the world.  As I enter the middle stretch of life’s journey, I want to tell them to enjoy every moment, live life to the full, and not be afraid to reach for their dreams, while all of life’s choices are still open to them.  In sharing their hopes for the future, they remind me that, if I can borrow a little of their optimism and good faith, it’s not too late for my dreams to come true either.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Children, Family, Teenagers, Writing

Let there be music

If you actually think about it, making and listening to music is one of the more bizarre things that the human species does. It’s an idea that’s explored in depth in Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia. As he suggests, aliens arriving from another planet would be utterly bewildered if they somehow found themselves at any sort of concert. What exactly is it about a stream of apparently unconnected sounds that captivates us and produces such a powerful emotional response?

Piano playing

One of my favourite things is listening to my daughter practising the piano in the room next door. First of all, it’s lovely hearing her gradually improve. For some reason, I never get bored of listening to the same pieces again and again; each one always sounds a little bit different with each new rendition. I really like having someone playing live music in the house – it feels like a real privilege.

Most of all, though, I love the way the sound of the piano takes me back to the time when I was growing up myself. Scales and arpeggios invariably remind me of my mother cooking onions in the kitchen and my father coming home after a hard day’s work and the sense of being part of a busy, bustling household.

It wasn’t me that learned the piano way back then, however, but my brother and sister. My brother still plays regularly; music has remained a life-long passion with him. I was supposed to be learning the violin, but was never terribly good at it. As a result, I gave it up fairly soon after leaving home, something I’ve always regretted.

These days, my attempts at music making mostly consist of singing in the shower and warbling at the back of the Alto section of a local choir. It has to be admitted that we’re not exactly on a par with BBC Symphony Chorus or any other professional musicians, really, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just nice being able to share music with a roomful of likeminded friends.

Warming UpWarming Up

Perhaps if I’d practised my violin a bit more and been a bit more dedicated, I could have made more progress with it. I decided I wasn’t very good, and so stopped trying. If only I’d known then what I know now about making the most of your opportunities!

I struggle to make my children understand that the chances open to them now may never return and that they should make the most of what life offers them. I don’t want to pressure them into doing things they don’t want to. I want to give them the time and space to think, reflect and make up their own minds. But despite that, I also want them to realise how easy it is to let your chances in life slip away and to make sure they grab them with both hands!

2 Comments

Filed under Family, Friends, Music

Head or Heart?

The observant among you may have noticed it’s been a while since I posted on this blog. This is because, like many others, we’ve been partaking of the annual mass migration from north to south in the hope of finding a bit of sun, meals we don’t have to cook ourselves and some quality family time together.

Somewhat eccentrically, we prefer to avoid airports and planes in favour of stuffing the family car with everything we could possibly need – and much that we don’t – and taking a leisurely drive through France towards Italy, where we have friends and relatives.

William the Conqueror's Castle, Falaise, Normandy.

William the Conqueror’s Castle, Falaise, Normandy.

Done properly, the travelling is as much a part of the holiday as the time we spend at our destination. We’ve got it down to a fine art; crossing the channel in the evening, spending the night in one of the picturesque towns in Northern France such as Falaise or Reims and then heading on south.

I enjoy the car journeys. I’m lucky because the spouse prefers to do the driving, so I can spend the time watching the countryside gradually change as I plot out story ideas in my head. On the way there, you have the anticipation of what’s to come; on the way back, the sense of eking out the time away just that little bit longer.

Amiens Cathedral

Amiens Cathedral

We’ve got into the habit of spending our last night away in Amiens, which has a stunning 13th century cathedral and an attractive river frontage lined with a plethora of bars and restaurants. A slap-up dinner is always a nice way to bring the holiday to a proper conclusion.

We spent quite a lot of the time away discussing the relative merits of France and Italy. I love them both for different reasons. Italy is warm and convivial – especially as we tend to spend much of the time with family. The food is incomparable and the landscape stunning.

Al Mare in Tuscany

‘Al Mare’ in Tuscany

However Italy these days has a run-down air about it and our friends complain about declining public services and the difficulty of finding work, especially for young people. France always feels slightly cooler and less welcoming, but just seems to work better, with excellent roads and the sense of things being well organised and generally better managed.

If I had to choose between the two, it would be a tough decision. My heart would always plump for Italy, but my head tells me that France would definitely be more ‘liveable.’

6 Comments

Filed under Family, Friends, Screenwriting, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing

All Grown Up

Today, the daughter of some very dear friends of mine turns 18. Thinking back to the day of her birth, it seems barely possible to believe she’s now an adult. That hot July day back in 1996 feels like it was a couple of years ago at the most. But then again, I look at my own kids, with another school year all but under their belts, and I realise they aren’t so very far from that landmark either.

Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, has been a gargantuan project. Filmed over the course of some 12 years, it tells the story of an ordinary boy, Mason Evans, as he grows from the age of six to adulthood. Nothing really huge happens. The family moves to Texas, Mason’s mum goes back to college then finds work as a lecturer. She remarries and divorces twice and we see Mason experience the variable geometry of modern family life as step-dads and step brothers and sisters come and go. The constants remain his mum, his sister and above all his dad, Mason Sr, played by Ethan Hawke, who although no longer living with the rest of the family, is a constant loving presence in Mason’s life.

Boyhood - film posterInstead of a story in the traditional sense, the film presents an incredibly intimate portrait of contemporary American life unfolding in real time. It’s fascinating to see Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, change over time, not just physically, but in his understanding of the world, his preoccupations, and growing emotional maturity until he reaches the point when he’s ready to step out into the world alone.

Initial experiments with girls lead to first real love, and first real heart-break. A fractious relationship with his sister grows into friendship. A clash with a teacher forces a new attitude to school and leads ultimately to success and a possible future career as a photographer.

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

The whole thing is edited seamlessly so that, as in life, the viewer barely notices the passing of time; the characters gradually change and age, grow, gain weight, turn grey and yet are essentially the same. For all its ups and downs, Mason’s family is loving and strong. At the end of the film, we are left with a moving portrait of an overwhelmingly decent young man, both completely unique and utterly ordinary, as he stands on the threshold of adulthood.

What’s ordinary reality for Mason, is the stuff of fantasy for the kids in The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro), Diego Quemada-Diez’s film about impoverished Guatemalan youngsters trying to make their way to the US. For the three protagonists, the US is an idealised land of the imagination where they cannot help but grow rich and happy.

La Jaula de Oro poster

Canny, adaptable and single-minded in their determination to reach their destination, they are nevertheless no match for the cynical adults that prey on them, exploiting them to harvest sugar cane or smuggle drugs and stealing even their shoes. One of the kids is a girl, but despite efforts to pass as boy, she’s hauled off by gangsters with the suggestion she’ll be forced into prostitution. When the remaining pair finally make it to the US, one is promptly shot dead by vigilantes and the other ends up working for peanuts in a stinking meat-processing factory. All the hopes and dreams of the three kids, all their energy and imagination are crushed with absolute ruthlessness. 

Where Boyhood leaves the audience with a feeling of optimism, The Golden Dream has the opposite effect.  Seeing both films in the same week I couldn’t help but be struck by the vast disparity in the lives and opportunities available to children whose destinies are decided by which side of a border they happen to be born on.

5 Comments

Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Screenwriting, Stories

Setting off alone

In a few days time, it’ll be the longest day of the year. For me, there’s something very magical about the long June evenings. Even down here in the south, it’s light until ten o’clock at night. I love being able to go for a walk after supper when everyone else is settled down with their tablets or the TV. The streets outside are quiet and there’s a secretive, mysterious quality to the woods and alleys around where we live.

In Scotland, where I lived as a child, at this time of year, it doesn’t really get dark until half past eleven and by half-past two in the morning, the first glimmers of light are already streaking the sky.

Rowardennan

Rowardennan

When we were teenagers in Glasgow, occasionally my parents would consent to an evening barbecue on the shores of Loch Lomond up in the Trossachs. We’d drive up to Rowardennan, heap a big pile of drift wood onto the pebbly beach and fry sausages, bacon and tomatoes or perhaps a few Arbroath kippers.

In the ashes, we’d toast sweet sticky marshmallows and afterwards watch the sun go down behind the mountains, while the midges swarmed around us and a heron fished from a rock by the shore. Often we’d linger until the last embers had died away before getting back into the car and returning somewhat regretfully to the modern world.

Much better toasted

Much better toasted

Often on those occasions, I liked to imagine I was on the cusp of a terrific adventure, as if I was about to step into a JRR Tolkien story. Part of me longed to set off into the wilderness and connect with the natural world in all its timeless, elemental grandeur.

As a child, I was convinced I could survive by depending on my own resources and what nature afforded. I knew how to light a fire, how to catch a fish, where to gather nuts and berries. I loved building dens in the back garden and felt confident I could construct some sort of shelter to keep the worst of the weather at bay.

Of course my life took an entirely different path, but even now every so often I feel a strong urge to escape the complications of urban life and get back to something simpler and purer.

I recently saw the John Curran film, Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, the Australian girl who in 1977 took off into the wilderness in order to trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Despite the harshness of the terrain, Robyn did survive, but not without her four camels, her dog and intermittent support from Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who fell in love with her. Smolan helped to secure the funding for Davidson’s trip, but the quid pro quo was that she would agree to be photographed.

Mia Wasikowska in the film 'Tracks'.

Mia Wasikowska in the film ‘Tracks’.

The film is definitely a slow watch and some have found the main character hard to like, not least because of her ambivalent attitude to Smolan, often rejecting him but ultimately relying on him too. However that’s the miss the point; despite her desire to be alone, Davidson never entirely manages to escape human contact and caring. Ironically, after her story was published, it provoked a huge wave of public curiosity and turned Davidson into something of a minor celebrity.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that however much we want to strike out on our own and connect with the natural world, it’s in our relationships with other people that we find the real purpose and meaning of our lives.

 

11 Comments

Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Scotland, Screenwriting, Writing

Friends and Family

It’s the holidays and the kids are off school. I like having them around, even though it means a constant stream interruptions in the vein of; “Mum, where’re my black jeans?” or “Mum, will you make me some toast?” or “Mum, can you drive me to the shops?”

Distracting though this is, I enjoy being in the midst of a bustling, noisy household. Although we’ve only got two kids, when they’re off school, the chances are one or half a dozen their friends will be round at our house. My son in particular has a tendency to invite his friends over, usually with the minimum of notice – ie I’m lucky if I get a phone call ten minutes in advance.

On occasion this can be trying – especially if I’ve just spent half the day tidying up. Last week, I’d barely stowed the vacuum back in its cupboard and sat down with a well-earned cuppa, when the dear boy arrived unannounced with a whole bunch of mates, and promptly took occupancy of my newly immaculate front room. (OK, I concede that “immaculate” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but at least it was dust-free and the cushions were plumped up and placed neatly on the sofa.) By the time they left, it was back to its usual shabby state, and I and the spouse spent the rest of the evening retrieving sweet-wrappers, empty coke bottles and miscellaneous socks from the deeper recesses of the three-piece suite.

Of course, I could tell the children not to invite their friends over; I’d certainly have a tidier house, and there’d be less risk of finding the biscuit tin empty. But in the truth is, I like having an open house, and the sense that we’ve created a home our children can share. It’s their home too, after all, not just mine.

I confess it gladdens my heart that my children both have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, because surely it’s this, more than anything else, that makes life meaningful and fun? Of course it’s important for the kids to do well at school and be successful academically, but in all the focus we give to the relatively narrow set of skills developed through the traditional school syllabus, it’s easy to overlook the life-skills that come with building successful relationships in the playground and beyond.

It’s just as important to be able to negotiate, persuade, compromise, empathise and give and receive support, as it is to learn geometry or how to conjugate French verbs. Similarly, what I miss from the time when I worked in an office, aren’t the day-to-day tasks but the relationships with colleagues – the gossip, laughter and making common cause against rivals in another team or department. In many ways, an office is like a village; it’s not uncommon for people to end up having closer, more enduring relationships with their colleagues than with anybody else, including their spouses.

It’s a truism that writing’s a lonely business. At one level it has to be, since the aim is to articulate one person’s unique vision of the world. But at the same time, writers have to be firmly rooted in the community in order to be able to reflect it truthfully and to be relevant to it. You have to be connected. Some people like to write in cafes or other places where there’s a sense of bustle and people around. Personally, I find it easier to write in solitude, with only the washing machine churning away for company. The kids are a great reminder that there’s a real world out there, and for that, I’m truly grateful.

4 Comments

Filed under Family, Friends, Screenwriting, Writing