Monday, 23 March 2009


One day a couple of years ago, I was at the supermarket, once again engaging in the fine art of supermarket strolling, and a shiny red and yellow packet of crisps caught my eye.

[Note to marketers: if you want to sell something to me, use red and then yellow, in that order].

The famous crisp company had come up with an interesting variation on 'cheese and onion' to catch my attention. It was something like 'Supercalifragilistic Peruvian Magic Dragon's Cheese and Onion of Truth'. The combination of the colour and the name made these crisps stand out from the crowd and I seemingly had no choice but to place them in the basket with my usual cocktail-barman style juggling flourish.

Later, as I was relaxing at home after a very pleasant run around the park at sunset, I took the packet of crisps down from the cupboard, ready to give myself a well-earned treat. As I was opening them, I noticed that printed on the back of the packet was the instruction: 'If you are not entirely satisfied, please write to the following address....'

I proceeded to open and taste the crisps and they turned out to be remarkable in every way. The texture and taste surpassed any other overly salty snack I had ever had the pleasure of popping in my mouth.

However, my hamster had just died, a horse I had laid quite a large bet on that afternoon came in fourth, and my girlfriend had, only the day before, subtly hinted she didn't like my haircut (managing very skilfully to not actually say so, so that she could completely deny it if necessary later).

I would have been deceiving myself and anyone else who cared to ask if I had considered myself 'entirely satisfied', so I got out a pen and paper and prepared to write a letter to the crisp helpline informing them of my various woes. I have to say that I was rather disappointed with the response which finally arrived three full weeks later. Although it was very gracious in thanking me for my interest in their brand of nibbles, it made no attempt whatsoever to rid me of the daily dissatisfaction which had been dogging me for so many years.

I was left wondering why on Earth they had got my hopes up by advising me to write to them in the first place, and from that day forth, I vowed only to buy extravagantly named blood-pressure elevators from their arch-rival brand.

Friday, 13 March 2009


I was feeling rather fed up the other day so I thought I would try a bit of that Comfort eating they bang on about on the telly.

Well, I have to say that I was very disappointed. It tasted all nasty like soap and didn't cheer me up at all. I added some salt and pepper, but it didn't help.

Next time I'm going to try Lenor.


I was listening to the news on local radio the other day. They reported on a story about a man who had gone on the rampage in Meadowhall Shopping Centre. The man apparently ran amock with a rusty old cheese grater, stopping random terrorised shoppers and rubbing the grater over their faces.

It was over half an hour before the man was apprehended by security staff and handed over to the police.

Appearing at Sheffield Magistrates' Court yesterday, the man (who had pleaded guilty) was asked by the chief magistrate if he felt any remorse for the fear and injury he had caused.

"No! Why should I?" The grater fiend replied. "It's no skin off my nose."

Friday, 23 January 2009


When I was sixteen years old, I took a trip to Leeds where my brother John was attending university and where I was to follow him a couple of years later. That year my brother was sharing a house with (amongst others) our inspirational friend Rob Aslett. Close to their house in Woodhouse was a pub called The Chemic on Johnson Street. This was an exciting time for me. I was away from my parents for perhaps the first time, and was expecting to have myself some mighty fun.

On a Saturday lunchtime, John, Rob and I took a stroll down to The Chemic to partake in some not at all well-earned liquid refreshment. I am not sure whether The Chemic is still like this, but at the time there were two sections to the pub: the lounge and the tap room. Before they all got turned into trendy open-plan bars with carpets, duke boxes which cost £1 for 2 songs and shiny metal rails at the bottom of the bar (what are they for?), quite a lot of pubs had this two-room arrangement. The lounge was normally the more plushly furnished of the two rooms. The tap room was usually a pretty basic affair with a stone or wooden floor, benches around the walls with adjacent tables, a few wooden stools in front of these tables, and two or three high wooden stools next to the bar. The high stools were for those who didn't like to venture too far away from the bar in case they wasted some very valuable supping time.

On this occasion we decided to go into the tap room and as there were three high bar-stools there, we settled ourselves next to the bar and ordered ourselves a pint each. This turned out to be a remarkable experience I would never forget. Sat in the tap room already were three elderly Yorkshiremen. With what seemed like a built-in ability to do geometrical calculation, they had sat themselves as far away from each other as they could possibly get. Each man sat in silence, staring into his pint. It was almost like walking into a cathedral. It felt like we ought to keep our voices to a whisper as a mark of respect.

Then every few minutes one of the men would call over to another.

"How's your Irene?" One would say, not taking his eyes off his pint for a moment.

"She's not so bad, Frank. Not so bad." The other would reply. Then both would nod their heads knowingly and return to the silence again for many minutes.

Some time after we arrived, another old man arrived. While he was at the bar, the other three men automatically shifted their positions in the room so as to make it possible for the newcomer to fit into a new perfect geometrical pattern, so that with four of them now present, each was still as far away from the other three as it was possible to get.

"Hey up," said the newcomer as he turned from the bar and went to take his seat.

"George," the others said in unison and then the silence resumed as George took his seat and commenced his ale meditation.

As I look back on this experience I feel a sense of sorrow that most pubs have been refurbished in recent years. One seldom comes across a genuine tap room any more. It really was as if this was a sacred ritual for these men. The one place they could come to find a bit of peace and solitude, to be alone with their thoughts, free from the cares of the world for a couple of hours. None of them seemed hell-bent on getting plastered as seems to be the case with my generation and those that have followed it. You might say there was a deep serenity to what they were doing.

It seems a shame that the spending power of the younger generations means that if they want to find peace and solitude, these men might now have to resort to going to a church, where everyone knows you can't get a decent pint of Tetley's.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Yesterday's inauguration of Barrack Obama was an historic occasion. His speech was very moving and I am sure it will go down in history alongside those made by other great leaders such as JFK and Martin Luther King.

However, one phrase which he used jumped out at me and made me a little disappointed about what was otherwise a great piece of oration.

"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Here was a reference to a very well-known part of the United States Declaration of Independence created in 1776.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

What am I disappointed about? I think that the phrase 'the pursuit of happiness' shows a fundamental misunderstanding or, if you have a little less trust in the essential goodness of people than I do, you might consider it deliberately misleading.

Why should people only have the right to the pursuit of happiness? Surely it would be much better if they had the right to the attainment of happiness. What use is the right to the pursuit of it?

"I'd like some happiness, please."

"Ha! Sorry, mate, we can't give you happiness. We do have a bit of it out the back though. We can let you chase after it for a while if you like, but you can't actually have it. Where would be the fun in that?"

I have read some opinions which argue that this was very deliberate wording, that governments don't want people to actually attain happiness. If all the people actually attained happiness, there would be no need for government.

I like to live in a world where such sinister machinations do not take place, and therefore I choose to take the view that this is just a misunderstanding about the nature of happiness.

Happiness cannot be pursued. It isn't round the corner, or in the distance. It can't be caught up with by making more money, buying more things, gaining more status, fitting in or finding that 'perfect' partner any more than it can be caught up with by taking alcohol or drugs. Happiness is a choice. It is a decision and anyone in any position or circumstance can make that decision right where they are without 'pursuing' anything at all. Indeed, the act of pursuing is very likely to prevent them from doing what they need to do to attain happiness, which is look inside and change their thoughts and beliefs about life.

It puts me in mind of someone trying to pick up water by grasping at it. The water continually eludes them until they relax, cup their hand receptively and simply allow the water to fill it.

Happiness is a choice you can make right now. Choose to love peepl (sic). Choose to be magnificent. Choose daily acts of kindness towards your fellow human beings.

No pursuit is necessary. Just stay right where you are, relax and open your heart.

Monday, 19 January 2009


This is a tribute to my brother Mike who has been struggling to like himself recently. I hope he gets to read it soon.

I remember it so very clearly. I will have been about 11 years old. I was trying to do my maths homework. We were learning some simple algebra and being asked to plot some graphs from simple equations. That night I was struggling to understand it, not something my little ego was used to and I got more and more upset the harder I tried. My mother tried to explain it to me, but I was too frustrated about not getting it to take in her explanations and eventually she gave up, exasperated. She left me in my room where I continued to cry with frustration.

A few minutes later my brother Mike came into my room and sat quietly in the chair which was across the room from the bed on which I had assumed the foetal position to comfort myself. Mike is several years older than me, so to me he was a young adult at that time. He did not say anything at all for a few minutes. He just sat. I could feel his love for me without him having to do anything. I knew that I wasn't being judged at all. He just sat and waited. Soon the calm presence he brought into the room soothed my troubled mind and peace and clarity began to return.

"All right?" he asked in a simple tone, putting me even more at ease. I began to explain what was upsetting me. Michael sat quietly and listened, occasionally looking into my eyes and smiling. He picked up my maths homework book and looked at the problems I had been set.

"I used to find this hard too," he said. "I remember crying just like you."

Mike then spent half an hour very patiently explaining to me how to do my homework. At the end of that time, not only did I understand my homework, but he had taught me how to do simultaneous equations, a full two years before it was on the curriculum at school. My teacher was astonished by my understanding at the next class.

Many times similar situations arose, and many times the total unconditional love, generosity and complete non-judgement that Mike embodied helped me through. A true quiet hero, never asking for anything in return, even when we were much older and I too was a young adult.

The troubles of the world often weigh heavy on those with strong compassion. They want to help everyone and of course they can't. They want to make a difference and don't realise what a difference they have already made just by being who they are. For once I now find myself in the position of the listener and those words ring out in my head loud and clear:

"I used to find this hard too," he said. "I remember crying just like you."

Today I look and see a man who has temporarily forgotten what it is that makes him a hero in the eyes of me and I am sure many others. The fantastic humility and patience, the ceaseless generosity and unconditional love. Never asking for anything in return, never seeking praise for his actions, just quietly lifting us up whenever we needed it, then going about his business as if nothing happened. What made it so easy for me to talk to Mike was that I knew I was never being judged. Not once, not ever.

Sometimes it is hard to block out the endless false messages which we are bombarded with day after day in the form of television, newspapers, advertising, religion and political propaganda. Those are all about judgement. Sickening judgement which destroys people's self-esteem, shamelessly luring them away from the way to true happiness. You are worthless unless you think this, do this, buy this, look like this, earn this much or believe this. You can't be happy until you achieve this, can afford this, have a house this big or have a relationship this perfect.

The hero that is my brother knew at a very young age that this was all bollocks. He knew where true self-worth came from and he knew how to effortlessly bring it out in other people too. As we all do from time to time, Mike has temporarily lost his way. Some judgement has crept into his thinking. Most significantly of all, much of that judgement is directed at himself.

I want so much to be able to tell Mike what a great impact it had when he sat silently across the room from me that night. The peace it brought, the understanding that I was loved no matter what I said, did or felt. I want so much for him to sit silently across the room from himself and give to himself the complete acceptance and the space to grow that he gave to me so many times as a kid and young adult.

Thursday, 15 January 2009


Many moons ago I was at my remarkable friend Tim Barber's house with my brother John.

Those were the heady days of youth, when my brother was lead singer in a band and I was chief roadie and daft dancer. We had been out on a bit of a long night on the ale, so long that our hangovers had not really kicked in yet and there was still much merriment in the morning air.

Tim made us a round of bacon sandwiches and I think a cigarette with interesting ingredients was being passed around the room also. I told you, rock and roll!

Suddenly, the phone rang and my brother John picked it up with a mischievous glint in his eye.

In his best Sir John Gielgud voice he said: "Good morning, Tim Butler's barber."

On the other end of the line, a very confused Tim's rather conservative father-in-law asked if he could speak to Tim's wife Liz (I don't remember whether they were actually married at that time). John quickly handed the phone to Tim with a look of horror on his face.

"Oh hi Bert, yeh, just some mates larking around," Tim excused John's faux-pas.

When Tim put down the phone, we all fell about laughing for about half an hour.