Thursday 28 November 2013

The Meaning of Life - Mini Me

First marriage – then kids.

This seems to be another rule that is self-imposed upon the human race.

“So when are you gonna have kids then?” is a question that is asked to the bride and groom literally five seconds after the phrase “You may now kiss the bride.”

I never considered the possibility of fatherhood. I had no urge to procreate and, like marriage, it crept up on me and before I knew it I was a dad.

I still remember the day I was told.

“What?” I said, “Are you sure?”

I was the stereotypical father, the man who does not believe his wife when she tells him that a tiny explosion of life has begun within her. It was only when she started to throw up every morning for three weeks solid and then grow over the next nine months that I realised my life was about to change.

And it did.


I have two kids – or should I say "adults" now.

And their resemblance to me is uncanny, which of course you would expect.

Through all the mayhem that descended when Stephen, my eldest was born, followed by even more pandemonium when my youngest was born, I discovered two things:

(a) I love kids

(b) I am a giant kid myself

I don’t want to dwell on the bad points of having kids (changing nappies at 3am, foul substances exploding out of every orifice – usually on me) - simply because the good points far outweigh them.

I discovered fairly quickly that the best way to deal with children is to become one yourself. And that is the easiest thing in the world for me.

Some people hate kids because they demand so much of your time. For me, however, although tiring, kids are terrific fun and are easily pleased.

I found myself rediscovering childhood toys and TV programmes that were quite entertaining. I knew everything about Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, and Stephen couldn’t understand why I laughed so much at a particular episode called Thomas Comes To Breakfast where a runaway Thomas crashes into the station master’s house. With the whole house wrecked, the station master’s wife says:

“You miserable engine! Just look what you’ve done to our breakfast! Now I shall have to cook some more!”

Not one word about the semi demolished house – only the breakfast.

And when it came to birthday parties, I joined in. One time, in our house, I was surrounded by around ten four year olds all screaming their heads off. The answer was simple. I did what I do best – devolved into a four year old child myself.

I got up out of my chair and knelt in the centre of the lounge.

“I bet that nobody can push me over!” I declared in a loud voice.

Before I could say anything else, all of them, as one, grabbed my arms, pushed me, pulled me and tried to knock me over. They giggled as they struggled, one lot of kids pulling one arm, the others pulling the other arm – competing against each other rather than me.

We all had a lot of fun.

All you need to do to have fun with kids is play silly games with them, draw silly pictures, build things, watch kiddy films - anything that kids love.

I love films like Toy Story and Shrek and I would never have seen them had it not been for the kids. In fact, I reckon I enjoyed them even more!

They are all good fun.

There is a part of me that is sad that my two lads are now grown up (Mike is 17 and Stephen is 20). Our relationship has changed and I still try to stay at their level even though they are now adults themselves.

Mrs PM calls them the clones and I can see why when I look at photos of us together. In fact, I am a clone of my dad too. When I look at photographs of him in the years just before he died, the similarity between us is almost spooky.

Ultimately that is the true appeal of children for me. They are an extension of yourself and when I see them growing up from babies, to toddlers, to boys, to teenagers and now to adults, I can see myself in them.

I know that when I am a cranky grumpy old cantankerous old git, I will still have a child within me somewhere. Hopefully I will also be able to see their kids start out in life too and I imagine that I might have to allow a bunch of four year old kids to try to drag me round the lounge again.

One thing is for sure, though; I will dig out that old episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and giggle with them again – even though my sons will almost certainly say:

“Dad, when are finally going to grow up?”

I can answer that now:


And for any "kids" out there - here is the episode I am talking about.

Over to you, dear reader.

Do you like kids?

How many have you got?

Are you a big kid yourself?

Saturday 23 November 2013

The Meaning of Life - Wedding Bells

I’ve recently been watching a TV show featuring the strange outlook on life of Karl Pilkington a fellow Mancunian championed by Ricky Gervais as the funniest man on the planet, simply because his perception of life can be very strange and it comes across as highly amusing.

His new show is called The Moaning of Life and in it, he travels the world looking for meaning in five key areas of life, namely marriage, children, happiness, vocation and death.

Rather than repeating the bizarre viewpoint of Karl Pilkington (and believe me it is sometimes highly bizarre), I thought it would be fun to offer my reflections on these so called key elements of life.

I therefore present to you, dear reader, the meaning of life as seen from the perspective of a plastic Mancunian - starting with marriage.

When I was a kid it seemed to me that marriage was the law; every male person on the planet had to find a female person and they two would join in an explosive ceremony full of pomp and beer. My first wedding was that of my aunt and uncle and as a six year old, I was somewhat bemused by what was going on, having rarely seen so many adults gathered together in one place where, for once, I was not the centre of attention.

I only really started to understand the concept of marriage when friends of mine suddenly lost interest in teenage pursuits and started to chase girls. Of course, being an angst ridden spotty teenager overwhelmed by hormones, I succumbed to this drive as well.

Except I was no good at chasing girls. As a late developer, I found myself left behind as girls started falling for my bigger and better looking mates. I couldn’t speak to girls, I couldn’t impress them enough to persuade them to even kiss me on the cheek – and my goal of being in a steady relationship seemed to be the most unattainable thing on the planet.

Yet somehow I managed to stumble into a relationship with a woman who actually wanted to marry me. Before I knew what had hit me, I had received a marriage proposal and from that point onwards, I felt like I had been sucked into a tornado, buffeted around, my life completely out of my own control and being forced into a slot that I simply had no choice but to fill.

I succumbed to it all; I visited a church I had never set foot in before just on the off chance that a church-going person may know a deep dark secret about me that may jeopardize my forthcoming marriage. Three times I went to that church and three times the local vicar urged me to become a regular visitor. And this wasn’t even the church I was getting married in.

Before I knew it, I was being dragged around shops, looking for a new suit, new tie, new shoes and  a new way of thinking. My wife to be demanded that I look totally presentable and this involved a haircut that consigned the long-haired 1980’s Plastic Mancunian into a little box that said “Never ever have a mullet again”. My work colleagues thought I was going for job interviews when I returned to work on Monday with my lovely locks removed and destroyed by a sadistic young hairdresser.

More terrifying than the prospect of a wedding was the prospect of the obligatory stag party.

Initially it was meant to be a single party on a Saturday night but it inevitably turned into a stag weekend. My mates from university all arrived in Manchester on Friday night and insisted on taking me for a pre-stag party drink, which resulted in my waking up on Saturday, the day of the stag party, with a colossal hangover and my will to live seeking sanctuary inside the fridge. The day continued with yet more beer and more mates as I watched the F A Cup final in a house full of drunken nutters before suffering the humiliation of being subjected to a gorillagram (who was a female work colleague who had somehow been persuaded to totally humiliate me) and then yet more dirty ale on an evening of debauchery, dancing and curry in Manchester city centre.

I woke up on Sunday morning and my will to live had vanished; my house was full of equally hung over mates who decided that the best remedy for a hangover was to go to the nearest pub and drink yet more beer.

The wedding itself was wonderful and, being a bit of an introvert, I found myself at the centre of attention being pursued relentlessly by a crazy photographer and an even crazier video cameraman with the words “just pretend I’m not here” ringing around my head for the entire day. There were so many guests that one trip to the toilet took about 45 minutes as I had to stop and chat to everybody between the toilet and my table.

I sang Save your Love by Renee and Renato to my new wife – as a joke, while kneeling on one knee with a rose between my lips, much to the amusement of everybody there.

While it was a totally special day, I cringe when I think of all the money spent because, sadly, the marriage didn’t survive.

And I still have a feeling of guilt, that simply refuses to go away.

Nevertheless, I have been to many weddings in my life and I have had a thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable time at each and every one of them. And equally, I have joined in a few stag parties too, without the fear of being stripped naked, tied to a lamppost and prodded by passers-by. I have even been the crazy video cameraman saying “just pretend I’m not here” to the bride and groom who asked me to do it for them. I thought my efforts were rubbish but they loved it and insisted on keeping the entire tape – including the bits I wanted to edit out.

The stag party, these days, has become more than a rite of passage – it is an major ordeal that has to be survived; all of your mates are with you and you absolutely know that every single one of them wants to make you drink so much alcohol that you can barely recall your own name – which I suppose is a good thing given the inevitable public humiliation that will follow.

When did stags start travelling abroad for weekends and sometimes an entire week of total debauchery and humiliation? Who made the decree that the stag party would cost an arm and a leg? With the hen party and wedding also costing an arm and a leg, it kind of leaves the poor bride and groom utterly limbless and wallowing in debt before they have even begun.

That said, I love a good wedding and the vast majority have not been as disastrous as mine was. On the contrary in fact – only one or two have failed to survive.

I am all for other peoples' weddings – but not another one for myself.

Every time Mrs PM and I go to a wedding we are inevitably asked “When are you two going to tie the knot?”

The thought of being a stag again at my age fills me with dread and I wonder whether I could survive. Also, we would have to pay for the entire thing and given the astronomical cost of weddings these days, I simply cannot justify the expense.

Mrs PM thinks the same, thankfully. We have been together for 15 years and we are both content with our lives together exactly as they are. If I were to get married again, I would make sure that it was a very tiny event with only our closest friends and family in attendance. Either that or jet off to Las Vegas and let Elvis marry us.

In fact, if the truth be known, I would rather get on a plane and enjoy a first class round the world holiday than spend (probably more) money on another enormous wedding like my first.

That said, with two sons I daresay that I will have to hand over a vast wedge of cash to help them out when they inevitably seek matrimony themselves. And if called upon, I won’t be like Scrooge and be a miserable old git reminiscing about my own past; I will be extremely happy and be the most enthusiastic father I can be.

It’s a shame, actually, that etiquette dictates that I can’t make a speech myself – I doubt my sons would let me anyway, thinking that I would no doubt try to humiliate them in my own inimitable and  puerile way.

The truth is I probably would – but I would also be extremely happy to tell them how proud I am.

That is – as long as I don’t have to go on their stag parties.

How about you, dear reader – are you a fan of marriage? 

Do you think that two people in love have to get married or is it fine to live together?

Does marriage really matter?

I would be interested in your thoughts.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Doctor Who - The View From Behind The Sofa

This post needs a soundtrack so please press play on the following You Tube link.

I am not a big fan of seaweed – I may have mentioned this before. In my youth I hated the feel of it and it actually scared me. These days I avoid it.

The source of my fear is a television programme that celebrates 50 years on Saturday 23rd November 2013. I refer, of course, to Dr Who, the tale of a Time Lord who is able to anywhere and anywhen in a spaceship cum time machine that looks like a 1950’s Police Box. Dr Who, or the Doctor as he prefers to be called, is an eccentric alien who travels around the universe and history usually with a human companion, resolving problems, saving entire civilisations and generally protecting people from nasty, marauding and belligerent monsters. When fatally wounded, he can regenerate into a different person, thus allowing different actors to portray this mad alien.

My fear of seaweed stems from an episode when I was about 6 or 7 which involved sentient seaweed coming in through air vents and strangling people to death.

I am sure that if television writers put that idea forward as an idea nowadays, it would be laughed at. However, the reality of the situation is that the programme is now the longest running science fiction programme in the world having been first broadcast on 23rd September 1963, when I was almost one year old.

I have watched most if not all of the episodes in my lifetime. As a young boy, the show actually scared me – not enough to give me nightmares, but enough to make me watch from behind the sofa.
Here in the UK, the show is a national treasure and the lucky actor who plays the part of Dr Who is effectively made for life. Eleven actors have played the character and each of them is revered by a different generation of Whovians (Dr Who fans).

Everybody remembers their first Doctor – for me it was Jon Pertwee the third Doctor Who. My kids, who are also huge fans, will no doubt consider Christopher Ecclestone or David Tennant as the quintessential Doctor. For Mrs PM is was the fourth Doctor – Tom Baker.

Whichever, Doctor is your favourite, few can deny that the show is stitched into the British fabric as an iconic and characteristically British show. The Doctor is a flawed hero, with all of the stereotypical eccentricities of Britishness, as well as the humour, the peculiar behavioural characteristics and the deeply flawed and hidden dark side that we sometimes see.

Even the villains are comical. Who would have thought that a Dalek, a creature living inside a mobile tank that resembles a rather large and strange looking pepper pot, would become a British icon?
The show has not always been popular and in the late 1980’s TV producers all but killed the show by broadcasting it at the worst time possible. There was an outcry when it was subsequently taken off the air, and after a brief reappearance in the 1990’s, Dr Who returned in 2005 and the series has gone from strength to absolute strength.

Modern special effects have replaced the hilarious costumes of the 70’s and 80’s and even the Daleks have taken on a new menacing tone.

On Saturday, the 50th anniversary special will be shown with the current Doctor, Matt Smith, and the previous Doctor, David Tennant combining with John Hurt in a special adventure that will provide a few surprises.

I can’t wait to be honest. Call it sad if you like but I will be ready to watch it and I will be excited, just like I was as a kid sitting down in front of the telly with my dad – who was incidentally also a fan, and whose first Doctor was William Hartnell, the man who started it all.

If you have never seen the show, you have missed out. Here are some highlights from the more recent series.

So, dear reader:

Have you ever heard of Dr Who? 

Who was your first Doctor?

Did the show scare you as a child?

Here is the trailer for the 50th anniversary show:

I will be watching – and I won’t be behind the sofa - honestly.

Sunday 10 November 2013

A Thousand Words

A couple of months ago, I read an article on the BBC website about a campaign called The 1000 Word Campaign, which was created to encourage British people to learn at least 1000 words of another language.

The campaign was born out of concerns that we, as a nation, have extremely poor language skills and as a result we are losing out on international business opportunities and jobs as a result.

I have to say that I whole-heartedly agree with this, not necessarily the fear that we are struggling to win business abroad but because, generally, your average Brit can barely string together a sentence in a foreign language.

We have become lazy. We are spoiled because we can converse with Americans and Australians easily enough and a lot of European countries speak at least a smattering of English, certainly enough to be able to have a simple conversation with an English speaker.

You can pop to Holland and have a fantastic conversation in English with many people.  The thing is, I would like to be able to chat to a Dutch person in their own language rather than English or at least flip between the two.

In my last post about school, I lamented my choices not to pursue French to fluency. The next part of that particular post will also mention German, a language I studied for three years but again forgot as soon as I had the chance to give it up.

I am better than a large percentage of my fellow countrymen. My French is passable and I have survived numerous trips to Zurich where German is the spoken tongue, being able to ask for my hotel key, order coffee, read a menu and even order food.

However I am far from fluent and had to carry a dictionary with me all of the time so that I could cope with unexpected needs. I certainly couldn’t chat with people in German other than to impress them with odd words stolen from the lyrics of Rammstein songs, such as zerstören (which means to destroy - typical of a Rammstein song). In fact Rammstein songs have helped my vocabulary, albeit with words that I probably would struggle to use in a conversation given my limited German.

My French vocabulary is more impressive than my German but I still struggle to hold a conversation with a French person, simply because it is difficult to understand their accent and words that are delivered at approximately 1000mph towards my ear.

I have managed to make myself understood but as soon as the person has replied, my brain has failed to understand the words I heard, spoken at such a velocity that I could barely decipher them, let alone trawl my addled mind for their meaning.

This is the one flaw with the 1000 word campaign; being able to understand a native speaker.

I have spoken to some foreigners in English and they have had to ask me to speak more slowly so that they can understand the words I am saying. And I always thought I spoke pretty slowly anyway.

Obviously I don’t.

I am taking slow steps to improve and have started to take steps.

For the past year or so I have been stumbling along trying to teach myself a brand new language: Spanish.

And slowly but surely I am picking it up.

Well, when I say “picking it up”, I mean forgetting fewer words and allowing more of them to stick in my addled memory.

The secret to learning a new language is to stick with it and practice as often as you can. And for the past few months I have tried to step up a gear and at least try to pick up the basic elements of the language every single day – even if it for just ten or fifteen minutes.

What I have discovered is that words slip out your mind but return when you look them up again – and eventually they stick.

I am using a free online tool for the past couple of months to help me and it does seem to be working slowly. I have managed to retain a whole bunch of new words although I have forgotten a few I learned last year. The tool keeps a running total of the words you learn and throws phrases and sentences at you over and over again until some of them stick.

According to the tool I have learned over 600 Spanish words. In reality, I imagine the total is a lot less than that simply because I sometimes fail to get questions right when I test myself.

But it’s a start.

The tool also includes other languages, including German and French and my aim is to reacquaint myself with those languages too – but as a background activity.

The internet does help. There is a plethora of material out there as well as a huge proportion of Spanish television, articles, blogs etc. for me to delve into if and when I feel confident enough to do so.

The one problem I have is that I do not know any native Spanish speakers who can help me to understand everyday speech and make myself understood when I try to ask for a meal in terrible Spanish with a pseudo Mancunian-Black Country accent.

I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

Learning a language is difficult, I can’t deny that, but the rewards are magnificent. Whenever I travel I try to master a couple of phrases in the local language just to let people know that I have made an effort.
I can order beer, say “Please”, “Thank you”, “Hello” and “Goodbye” in Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Dutch and even Japanese.

And even though my vocabulary is limited to one or two phrases, the local people really seem to appreciate the effort.

And yes – I can say the same words in American and Australian too. I might even try to write my next blog post in one of those two languages.

How about you, dear reader?

Can you speak a foreign language? 

If so which and how fluently?