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To bastardise Oscar Wilde, losing one artistic hero is unfortunate, but losing two in the same week is careless. I’m still basking in the warm glow of so much superb music following the death of David Bowie, but now I’m also lamenting the uncannily coincidental passing of Alan Rickman, one of my favourite actors. Both men were 69 years old, both died of cancer. Apparently Stephen Spielberg is 69. I hope he’s not harbouring any secret tumours, I’m not sure I could cope with another icon passing anytime soon.

Alan Rickman is always worth watching: he’s always good, often great. I can’t say he’s good in films that aren’t, because he (a) made really good choices, and (b) he makes a film better by being there. To prove my thesis, let me illustrate

…and that’s the more famous ones. Those alone would be more than enough for most careers, but I will always remember Alan Rickman from his film debut, as the eminently-quotable, always watchable, so-good-you’re-almost-rooting-for-him-so-long-as-Bruce-Willis-gets-his-wife-out-too, European uber-thief Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Hans Gruber Alan Rickman Die Hard

How good is this character and Rickman’s portrayal? Let me count the ways…

The benefits of a classical education…

Hans Gruber is an intellectual and cultural snob. He berates John McClane as another American who grew up watching too many movies, he (mis)quotes lines about Alexander the Great, recognises great tailoring when he sees it, and gives off a sense of European existential ennui. But always in a good way.

I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative…

Hans isn’t a terrorist (although he’s happy the FBI see him that way). He’s only in it for the money, and enters Nakatomi Plaza like he’s there for a meeting, albeit accompanied by bag-men with automatic weapons. His opening speech to the hostages is delivered while he’s clutching a notebook, like he’s trying to remember the key points in a presentation.

There will not be a four…

But for all his mannered class, he’s not averse to a bit of killing, and getting his hands dirty. And this is key to his villainy. If he were just the cleverest man in the room helped out by burly henchmen with guns, he’d be less formidable. But it’s clear early on that he an immense threat all by himself. He immediately dispatches anyone who is no longer useful (video NOT suitable for children)

You asked for miracles, Theo, I give you the F.B.I.

Hans Gruber is a very funny guy. He has great lines throughout the film.

I read about them in Time magazine.

Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there.

When they touch down, we’ll blow the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.

I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

Hans Gruber is an exceptional character, formed from brilliant writing and a terrific performance.

Alan Rickman was an exceptional talent and (by all accounts) human being. He has left us a huge variety of rich pickings to enjoy. He will be missed. My thoughts and best wishes are with his friends and family.

 

I may be the wrong age to have been a real David Bowie fan. He had his created and killed off Ziggy Stardust before I even understood music, and by the time I was a teenager he was in his Let’s Dance phase, which made him feel to me no different from the rest of the pop charts. Sigh.

Luckily for me I grew out of that feeling, mainly by discovering most of what he did in the 1970s, a decade in which he released 10 albums of original material, a collection of covers and two live recordings. Let’s just say I Reckon he’s about as important as The Beatles or Robert Johnson, that sort of level.

We know Major Tom’s a Junkie…

When Bowie’s first hit Space Oddity was re-released in 1975 this young boy loved the storytelling and the astronaut. He might have missed out on the alienation and tragedy. A few years later he thought he was older and wiser, until he encountered the deranged Pierrot clown walking with some very strange-looking people along a beach, with a bulldozer, in the Ashes to Ashes  video.

David Bowie Ashes to Ashes

Most of the lyrics still made no sense, but

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie

was a hook like no other. The electronic soundscape of the song sounded like it came from the future, and I’m pretty certain my parents didn’t get it. This was the start.

Didn’t know what time it was, the lights were low, I leaned back on my radio…

In the years that followed I learned more about Bowie through late-night radio. Radio Luxembourg on 208AM and John Peel on Radio 1, volume low so as not to alert my mum, cheek pressed against the corner of the radio. Many times I woke up with the radio, now drained of batteries, still pressing into my face.

The intimacy of no distractions helped feed my growing sense of musical snobbery. The arrangements and production in everything Bowie did are amazing. His early work features lush strings and saxophones. The stylophone drone and glissando in Space Oddity makes me smile every time I hear it. The ‘rattlesnake maracas’ in Jean Genie, that Rebel Rebel riff, Robert Fripp’s guitar on Fame and Heroes, it’s almost overwhelming. He wrote great songs but he had a f**king amazing band to deliver the vision. There’s more skill and creativity in one middle-eight section of a Bowie song than in many pop careers.

Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry…?

Not only did Bowie write great songs, he was a bad-ass singer. He could turn himself to almost anything and make it sound perfectly natural. There is no single Bowie sound, but everything he does, from the Philadelphia Soul of Young Americans to the foot-stomping Rebel Rebel  to the pop-tastic Let’s Dance immediately sounds like Bowie.

He has a fabulous rich baritone voice, and a crystalline falsetto. This line from Young Americans is his equivalent of Freddie Mercury at the climax of Somebody to Love: it sends shivers down my spine. But then, so does the high tenor of Heroes, somewhere between ecstasy and anguish. He nails it in any octave you care to mention.

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues…

Noone alive and with access to Radio 1 or Top of the Pops in 1983 could fail to recognise this line, and the iconic video that went with it. I didn’t care for it at the time. WTF is serious moonlight anyway?

david bowie let's dance video

Turn and face the strange…

In recent days I’ve most appreciated the way Bowie reached out to young people in so many of his songs. I was the wrong age to appreciate this at the time, but it’s there in so many songs.

Oh you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane…

And these children that you spit on as they try to change their world are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware what they’re going through.
Changes – Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Changes – Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it…

Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let the children boogie.

Turn on with me, and you’re not alone…

And then there’s the fabulous Rock’n’Roll Suicide. The closing track of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, it follows the barnstorming title track, and is at once a searing depiction of alienation and an uplifting message of hope for his fans. I’m pretty certain Pink Floyd’s The Wall used Ziggy as a template.

I reserve the right to change my mind, but I Reckon this is my favourite Bowie song. Or possibly Heroes.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohhh, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide

You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clock waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don’t eat when you’ve lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suciide

Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road
But the day breaks instead so you hurry home
Don’t let the sun blast your shadow
Don’t let the milk float ride your mind
You’re so natural – religiously unkind

Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone

Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on and be not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful
Oh gimme your hands.

So this was my Tuesday evening, another gust in the shit-storm that has been 2015.

Hello…

Hi Dad, how are you?

Oh, not so bad.

How was the appointment? What was the news?

Oh, not good news … the cancer is back … in the bowel, causing a partial blockage … and in some lymph nodes … the cause of all my symptoms recently, lethargy, pain, not sleeping … it’s inoperable.

appointment next week to talk about options … another stoma bag … chemo … balancing quality of life against quantity of life … 

Meanwhile, Rachel is in Bridgend, again accompanying her recently-widowed mother to a hospital appointment, on top of which we think she may have had another TIA.

I’m not asking for sympathy, I know there are millions of people going through their own private shitstorms. I have so much to be grateful for, but I just want you to know that if I’m a little off, I’m sorry. If I’m off in a Bad Way, tell me.

We’ve not told the girls yet, we’re waiting for the appointment next week. If you read this and see them, please keep it to yourself. Thankyou.

RIP Bernard Kenny; 3rd April 1931 – 14th September 2015

Beloved husband, Father of 4 daughters, Grandfather of 7, eldest of 10 siblings.

His father was a shipbuilder in Birkenhead, like his father before him, whom we’re pretty certain had worked at Harland & Woolf in Belfast while the Titanic was under construction.

Aged just 8, he was evacuated with his younger sister from Birkenhead at the start of WW2, only for his Roman Catholic mother to retrieve him from rural North Wales when it became clear he was attending a non-Conformist Protestant Chapel every Sunday. That would never do.

Still, it became clear that living so close to the shipyards of Birkenhead was no place for a young family in 1940, so he left with his mother and siblings to stay with his paternal Grandparents in Belfast. They were only able to stay there a short while, before having to take lodgings in a Protestant area. While walking to and from the Catholic school he was often stoned by the local Protestant children.

We soon learned to pick the stones up and throw them back…

It was only a matter of months before Belfast became within range of the Luftwaffe, and having fled Birkenhead they then lived through the Belfast Blitz with no air-raid refuge, only a kitchen table to shelter beneath…

A young man in search of a career...

A young man in search of a career…

He met the love of his life, Sheila, when he was 18, in 1949. He was working for a shipping company which meant he had to travel far and wide. After they were engaged in 1953, he left her behind to travel and work in South America for nearly 2 years. After he returned and they married on 1st October 1956, before they both travelled by ship across the Atlantic and up the Amazon to Peru, where they lived in Iquitos, before returning to Manaus for several years.

He served as British consul in Peru, reporting on rebel troop movements and once taking tea with Fidel Castro. In Manaus at that time there was barely 100m of surfaced road and little or no refrigeration, yet they managed to have two daughters there before returning to England.

He continued to work overseas, as he spoke fluent Portuguese and Spanish, and pretty decent French. He was an interpreter during the 1966 World Cup as the North West hosted both Portugal and Brazil, when he met both Eusebio and Pele. He worked extensively in Africa, escaping from Uganda after having his passport confiscated during ‘troubles’ there in the 1970s.

He had high blood pressure practically all his adult life, and had heart bypass surgery in the 1980s. He was a miracle of modern medicine, but medicine complemented by a tremendous human spirit, joie de vivre and optimistic outlook on life.

BernardandSheila

At Eleanor’s 3rd birthday party in 2008

His doted on his grandchildren, and they on him. Our daughters were his youngest (the older ones are in their mid-20s now), and they have such fond memories that illustrate his character.

He always wanted us to bring him a stick of rock from wherever we went on holiday…

he was brilliant at word games, he came up with words no one else had ever heard of, and he was always right…

he liked tripe!

And I need to thank him for my beloved Rachel, whom I first met in 1991. I always felt welcomed into his home and, coming from a small family myself (my parents are both only children), into the wider family. He introduced her to music, which influenced how we met. He introduced me to Laver Bread, now a staple (if occasional) weekend treat. I appreciated and admired (if not entirely shared) his love of opera singers, and his astonishing collection of 78s.

Bernard Kenny

By the end his heart had finally worn itself out. The smallest task was exhausting, and his decline sapped even his reserves of optimism.

At first glance you might have been mistaken that he was just another octogenarian who had lived a long life, and perhaps he was. But behind every octogenarian is a wealth of experiences that we would all do well to absorb and learn from. I am humbled before the things he endured as a child, awed by the fortitude and young courage that took him across the world in a time when that meant weeks and communications were primitive.

But all those achievements would mean less to him than his family, his almost-60-year marriage, his daughters and grandchildren. His attitude to life, his gentleness and his compassion for his fellow human beings will outlive him through his children and grandchildren. We will all miss him, but we will try to be inspired by his example.

I married my wife in a Catholic Church 17 years ago, where we both promised to raise our children as Catholics, and I’m sticking with that promise. I try to live by a lot of the teaching and messages in the Christian texts, even if I don’t accept the literal story or messenger. Last Sunday I attended Mass for the first time in a while, and listened to a reading from the Letter of St James (2: 14-18)…

How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation? If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, “I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,” without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that? In the same way, faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.

Paris is worth a mass…

My thoughts immediately turned to politicians who claim that God inspires their every action. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago the Protestant Duke of Bourbon, on becoming King Henri IV of France, found that it would significantly strengthen his position if he were a Catholic: so he converted to secure the support of Spain and the Catholic League.

Especially (but not exclusively) in the US, being a God-faring Christian seems a hygiene factor to be an electable politician. The TV screens are full of mostly rich white men invoking God and Jesus at every opportunity. But their so-called Christian attitude seems largely unrelated to what I remember from the preaching of Jesus Christ: no compassion for women, even those who have been raped, who might want or need an abortion, no “Good Samaritan” attitudes to people living in poverty, ample protection and rewards for the rich at the expense of the vulnerable.

Setting the agenda

This week, the UK press has truly shown itself (as if any further proof were needed) to be ‘holier than thou’ bullies rather than enquirers after the truth. Jeremy Corbyn was elected by a massive majority to be leader of the UK Labour Party, surprising almost everyone with the scale of his democratic triumph, yet it seems that almost noone in the press (even the left-leaning Guardian) likes him, which has led to some shameful ad hominem attacks that don’t even get close to being worthy of the name ‘journalism’.

He’s faced criticism for wearing a jacket that didn’t match his trousers. He was pilloried for appointing a Shadow Cabinet in which no women held the so-called ‘Top 4’ posts, ignoring the fact that more than half of his total team are women. Currently just 1/3 of David Cameron’s Cabinet are women, and the last two Labour Prime Ministers (Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) ended their tenures in Downing Street with barely 1/4 women among their Ministers of State.

Surely it’s not about the bike…

Nothing seems too trivial or too tenuous to slip in a jibe, even if you’re the (sic) respectable broadsheet The Times of London. Mr Corbyn likes to ride a bicycle to get around his Inner London constituency. But because he’s left-of-centre, it’s now apparently acceptable to refer to his “Chairman Mao-style bicycle”… but look! David Cameron rides one that’s quite similar.

Chairman Mao Bicycle Jeremy Corbyn David Cameron

If that’s the Chairman Mao, is Dave riding the Pinochet?

Sing Up!

But that was Tuesday… Wednesday’s front pages were dominated by the scandal, the national shame that at a service to honour the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Mr Corbyn did not sing the National Anthem. I’m prepared to concede that this is a PR mistake and lack of foresight, and even an error of judgement. But is it really more important than the facts that in the last 48 hours the UK Parliament has debated and passed two bills which both seem to target the hard-working people the Tory Party so vocally championed during this year’s General Election?

Don’t blame me…

The latest Trade Union Bill will require unions to give at least 2 weeks’ notice of an intended strike, allow employers to use agency staff to replace striking workers and require picketing strikers to give their name, address and email address to police. The tone of Government presentation of this bill would have an outsider believe that the country is held to ransom by Trade Unions. In fact, the days lost each year to strike action over the last 5 years has averaged around 650,000. This might seem a lot, until you understand  that it is 95% lower than when the country really was held to ransom during the 1970s and early 1980s.

During this same period there’s reams of evidence demonstrating how the top 1% or 10% receive a far higher proportion of incomes. The banks who caused the credit crunch have been bailed out to the tune of billions and austerity measures have frozen pay for public sector workers and ushered in an increasingly new normal of zero-hours contracts. I Reckon we are still being held to ransom, but it sure ain’t the unions that are the problem now.

Work to live…

Just a few months ago The Conservative Manifesto trumpeted that

We offer a good life for those willing to try — because we are the party of working people. The next five years are about turning  the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family.

Except the new tax credits bill that was debated and passed yesterday will cut supplementary benefits for low income or part-time earners, by as much as £1,000 per year, and could affect 3 million of these precious hard-working families.

When is a refugee more than just a scrounging immigrant? When he sells papers…

Jeremy Corbyn’s suits have made the plight of the Syrian, Libyan and Sudanese refugees suddenly “so last week”. Then the media and politicians were brow-beaten or guilt-tripped by grass-roots groups into taking any kind of action. From scathing indifference or outright hostility, they suddenly discovered a streak of compassionate, all encapsulated in one horrific picture of a dead toddler washed up on a beach. Now they’re wondering why Corbyn wears brown and not a nice midnight blue.

The UK Government and press are alike in behaving like St James’ examples of a man with loudly-proclaimed faith, but no good deeds. They preach about making “right” choices to the people who do not have such luxuries of choice. They judge poorly those who don’t fit their simplistic paradigm, By doing so, I Reckon they demean us all.

For years I’ve been an armchair cycling fan, following the Grand Tours on ITV’s excellent coverage, and everything else through a terrific range of podcasts including The Cycling Podcast (hosted by proper journalists) and Velovoices (run amazingly by passionate amateurs).  But for the last 6 weeks I have been the proud, obsessed, small-boy-excited owner of a spiffy new road bike. I have become a MAMIL.

Cannondale Caad8

My new favourite thing. No, not the chair.

Where’s the Harley?

Perhaps this is the third phase of my ongoing midlife crisis, which started with this blog just as I turned 40. I try not to think of this blog as a slightly crosser version of my teenage diaries, but with a name like What I Reckon and my built-in tendency to rant, I realise I’m not fooling anyone. The middle phase perhaps started with my fitness/weight loss drive a couple of years later, which then morphed into occasionally taking part in Obstacle Course Races. That has now become a more esoteric and possibly fair-weather pursuit along the gorgeous lanes of the Cotswolds.

As a brilliant spoof article exclaimed, midlife crises ain’t what they used to be. Instead of a boozy trip to Vegas or the guttural roar of a sports car or motorbike, I’ve instead opted for losing 2 stone (and keeping it off), sessions of circuit training and paying for the privilege of getting filthy and knackered, and now Sunday morning outings on a very expensive, but beautiful piece of engineering and design.

Just set up a separate bank account…

Perhaps in an earlier century, middle-aged middle-class men would have sought outlets for their angst in the arms of younger women (OK, I’m thinking of Roger Sterling from Mad Men). Nowadays we’re still finding ways to spend our money, just in more family-friendly ways. There’s a lot of kit involved. Having not really cared too much for my gym/obstacle course appearance (we all look the same when we emerge from a filthy swamp), I now find myself getting very choosy about colour-coordinated tops and bib shorts, even socks and sunglasses… there’s always new tyres, gears, brakes, shoes to consider, not to mention the branding.

It appeals to my inner statto

While I’m less obsessed about the telemetry of my bike (give it time, I’m still a newbie), the whole process of planning routes and measuring my ‘performance’ really brings out my geek tendencies, and there’s no shortage of technology to help me. Apps like Strava are heavenly, measuring segments of rides where I can compete against myself or others. It’s like I’m 16 again, doing the scoring for the school cricket team, looking at patterns in bowling performances or great batting statistics (have you read my posts about cricket!?) .

A bit of self-awareness

Just a few weeks of being a MAMIL has made me more self-aware and aware of others on the roads. I’m understanding how I enjoy climbing hills for the challenge, but also regaining my exhilaration at speeding downhill (just not so much on the steeper, twisty, narrow, sandy lanes…).

When I’m driving I find myself much more aware of potholes and the state of the road surface. I’m more considerate of cyclists, but also more frustrated when they occasionally ride poorly (3 abreast on a busy road, really?).

It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster…

These words of wisdom were offered to me recently, after I had remarked that I could already feel I was improving after just a few rides on my new bike. I’m smoother in my pedalling and gear changes, maintained momentum better on rolling roads, and I haven’t got my shoes stuck in the pedal clips and fallen over while stationary for at least a couple of rides now…

…but last Friday my growing confidence was truly put to the test in the Tour de Creston, an annual event organised by my company’s ‘parent’ group. About 60 of us set out from our offices in Bristol to ride 57 miles to Amesbury (near Salisbury). This was easily the longest ride I’d attempted, and it also included the longest and steepest climb I’d ever encountered.

For the first 2/3 of the ride I was doing just fine. I took it easy to start with, I felt great on the long climb, I enjoyed flying downhill at every opportunity. As we climbed up onto Salisbury Plain, the terrain got lumpier and more exposed, and in 80º sunshine we also faced a breezy headwind that really made me understand what is meant by “leg-sapping”. It was harder to maintain 13mph in the afternoon than it had been to ride at 18mph in the morning. I rode with four colleagues who were both patient and brilliant at pacing This Old Man up the hills. I was broken as we rode into the finish, but my memories of the day are hugely positive. I want, I need to get better at this…

Tired. Happy.

Tired. Happy.

And now the 2015 Tour de France has started. There goes my productivity for the next 3 weeks. I’d better get route planning for their rest days…

Thank you.

Thank you to the people who read my last post about my daughter’s experience and response to being bullied.

Thank you that none of you commented on Facebook’s wonderfully inappropriate choice of photograph to accompany the post. I deliberately left the post without any photos. But I assume its algorithm couldn’t help itself, and alongside the opening line “my daughter has been bullied“, appeared my WordPress blog avatar, a gem from a long time ago…

TwoThumbsUp

Thank you to everyone who liked or commented or offered gestures of goodwill, solidarity and love, who expressed their respect and admiration for her, and who reached out with human kindness to support her and us.

Thank you to those friends and colleagues who revealed their own personal history of being bullied, who offered us their own personal evidence that it can and will and does get better. Thank you especially to the person who wrote her a letter, despite having never met her, recounting their own experiences from decades earlier, encouraging her to look to the future with hope and optimism.

Thank you to everyone who shared the post, so that your own friends and networks could read it. We’ve received the kindness of strangers in the last couple of days. It has been at once humbling and heartwarming, but also heartbreaking to learn of so many other stories of bullying. It is not a new thing. It does not seem to be going away.

Thank you for moving me to tears repeatedly over the past few days. I was quite capable of doing it myself, but now I have you all to help me. You are helping us move forward with positivity and hope, with drive and enthusiasm.

Hannah celebrated a fabulous 13th birthday on Tuesday. She starts at her new school in 10 days’ time and almost literally cannot wait to get cracking. She seems two inches taller than she was a few weeks ago. We’ve not miraculously transformed from misery to happiness, but we are on our way.

Thank you.

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