Thursday, March 24, 2011

From A to B

I'm looking forward to cycling this... mmm...

One of the most pleasing aspects of my job is that I get to oversee our community programme.  Every year, hundreds of people across the company raise money by shaving their heads, walking over mountains, or  whatever challenge captures their imagination.  Others volunteer their time, sharing their expertise or simply getting involved with some hard graft when a good cause needs it.

And every year, I don't set the best of examples... too much on; too many pressures - too comfortable more like!

So as I approach my fiftieth birthday I've decided to do something about it. This June I'll be joining some of my colleagues and riding a bike from our most western depot in Aberystwyth, to our most eastern, which is called Bertrams in Norwich. So from A to B... then on to the coast, just for the heck of it.

That's about 360 miles and I know it's going to hurt - a lot. But actually, it'll be great fun too and already I'm enjoying the training. Last week as I rode through the lanes I glimpsed a Bullfinch calling from the hedgerow, its great puffed breast a sure sign of spring.

And I thought, how lucky am I?  I've riden bikes since I was six and always loved them. From my first wobbles down Holystone Avenue, to cycle touring as a lad, to crossing the Pyrenees on a tandem and the Alps with my son - whose effortless climbing brought me to tears.  Bikes are so simple, yet they've given me more freedom and joy than any other piece of technology I can think of.

But not everyone is so lucky.

And that's why I'm riding for Whizz-Kidz. It's a charity we've been involved with for some years and they do a fantastic job helping disabled kids to have some of the mobility and independence that I've taken for granted.  Their website sums it up well:

Whizz-Kidz provides disabled children with the wheelchairs and other mobility equipment they need to lead fun and active childhoods. But that's just the start. All around the country disabled children are meeting and making friends at a growing network of Whizz-Kidz clubs. They’re having fun around obstacle courses, knocking over skittles, doing wheelies and learning about boring but important things like road safety. They’re also forming campaign groups and meeting MPs, contacting the press, and designing campaign badges and posters. And because growing up can be a bit scary, they’re taking part in work placement programmes and life skills events.

In riding from A to B I'm hoping to raise at least £2000 from personal donations, and as a group we're targeting up to £50,000 by the time we've called in a few favours with suppliers and supporters at work. But every encouragement counts, and all the more so if it comes from friends and supporters.

If you'd like to leave a message of support that would be great, or to sponsor me click my just-giving pageBut most of all, think of me the next time you get in the car to drive anything approaching 360 miles - it's a long way by bike.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Apple Pear Plum

The back of my garden - pre pruning

Yesterday I saw my first Spring butterfly, a glimpse of acid lemon in the dappled light of my garden. It was a Brimstone, one of our longest lived species; the adults survive the winter by roosting in woods  before breeding in spring. This one flew strongly, spiralling above the trees then heading to the park.

I came to this house last October and have not felt entirely at home since. Jane loves the Edwardian feel, the period doors and leaded windows; my bigger boys like the extra space; Dylan, his room with a secret cupboard. As for me, I was happy where we were, felt no need for any of these things - but I have always liked the garden. When we came to view, I spent more time outside than in. There's a raised fish pond, two walnut trees, a wisteria over the entrance. The day I agreed to the move, I counted twenty butterflies on the buddleia.

But the garden was overgrown. If I was kind I'd say the previous owners had a wilderness approach; more likely, they couldn't be arsed or it all became too much. It took four truck loads to clear the first pruning, I found enough soil down the side of the garage to fill a raised bed; now the borders are cleared we have all manner of shoots and bulbs responding to the light.

I'm too impatient to be a proper gardener. At least that's what Jane says. I ought to wait a year, see what comes through and plan it properly. She's right I'm sure, but this winter I needed progress. I wanted to clear the debris, establish a scheme and reverse the neglect. So in four months we've rebuilt walls, cleared the ivy, dug out dead trees and finally, last week, I went to buy some plants.

I chose three fruit trees - an espalier apple, a matching pear and a prolific plum. They are for the rear lawn, the one area our predecessors had cleared, because in so doing, they were able to create a building plot. What they left was a blank canvass and a twenty metre fence with three climbing ivy (as if they didn't have enough). It will take years to mature. When the borders are sorted I plan to add a cherry, perhaps a damson too, eventually I'll have my own little orchard.

In the meantime, I've press-ganged the teenagers into helping. Yesterday I watched the two of them, six feet tall now, laughing as one sprayed the panels and the other dabbed his brush with a practiced incompetence. Dylan rushed amongst them, fighting monsters and insisting they hurry. Me and Dad are going to camp here tonight, he saidAre you sure, his brothers asked?  Of course we are, Dylan cried, we're going to camp hear for years and years, aren't we Dad?

As I write this post Dylan is asleep in his bag and my back is easing from eight hours on a thin mat. In the tent we read stories, listened to the rain, and talked of how one day he'll be as big as his brothers. But it was only as I tiptoed past the new the trees that I made the connection.

I could have bought something easier: faster growing, less expensive, simpler to mange -  plants with a more instant gratification. These trees will take years, I thought; I'll be in my dotage before they're at their best. What's more, I know next to nothing about growing fruit. My dark side said, I'll probably get it all wrong...

But it can't be that difficult surely? They are pretty robust things are fruit trees. No doubt, they'll need some pruning, the espalier especially, and I expect I'll be as frustrated by their progress as I'm delighted by their blossom. Frankly, fruit will be a bonus. More than anything I know they'll take time, care, and a commitment to place that I hadn't expected to make.

And with that thought, I felt more at home than I have for months.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Past Imperfect 7 - University

Me in 1982 - et in Arcadia ego?
A letter arrived on Friday, redirected from my old address. It was from Leicester University Alumni Association. After thirty years they'd found me; probably want some money, I thought.

But I was wrong, the Alumni is free to join. There was even an apology that many students from the Seventies and Eighties had, for so long, been overlooked. Using modern tracing techniques they were contacting ex-students and they hoped I would join. Perhaps I'd visit the University for the 'Homecoming' event in July.

I went to Leicester in 1979, a northern boy with a world of opportunity. It was an awakening, and like many people of my background and generation I look back with deep affection for the three years I spent  studying, partying, earning and learning about life. Ten years ago I happened to be in Leicester on business; I took some time to visit the campus and as I strolled back to my car I was not surprised at the hot tears rolling down my cheeks.

Nostalgia is heroin for old people, my eldest son once chided me. He has the confidence of youth and a healthy disregard of his father's sentimentality. Yet last Christmas he insisted on travelling two hundred miles to be with his girlfriend on their 'anniversary'. And last week my middle son was sitting with his girlfriend cooing at old photographs - we're reminiscing, he said. At fourteen, I laughed! We all of us, I suspect, have a yearning for times that can never come again.

It was always my ambition to return to university. In my last year at Leicester I won a scholarship to study for an M Phil in Philosophy. They would pay my fees and I'd have a full post graduate grant - that sort of funding would be unheard of now. But it was 1982, there were three million unemployed and whilst many of my friends were struggling to find work I was offered a well paid job by a newspaper. I remember the letter I wrote declining the postgraduate course, my heart is in further study, but my head says I have found too good an opportunity.

I was twenty years old when I wrote that. Astonishing to think I'd graduated, started my career, bought my first house and still had a month to wait for my twenty first birthday. And therein hides some of the imperfection. For if university had felt like Arcadia, home was not. During the three years at Leicester my father's depression had worsened; my mother had finally divorced him and was living in a small flat - she had no room for me and boyfriend problems dominated her time.  No one came to see my graduation; I watched my friends from the stalls and understood I was essentially alone.

And in truth university was not entirely Arcadian. I suffered from severe anxiety attacks, triggered by a student prank with a Ouija board, but rooted in a childhood riddled with fear. I seldom went home; I was emotionally dependent on my girlfriend from school, who had little idea of what I was getting up to at college. We were married three years later, divorced by my late twenties - not my finest hour, but I hope forgiven now.

After the letter arrived on Friday I looked for the first time in years at Friends Reunited. And amongst the hundreds of names were a few that I recognised; an old girlfriend (two actually), a flat mate, a drinking pal whose remembered wit still makes me smile. I even found the chap with millionaire parents, whom for all my adult life I have regarded as the perfect example of why private education is unfair - it turns out he became a teacher. (I once wrote about him here)

And as I looked at the list and read of their lives and achievements, I was reminded of that scene in Dead Poets Society when the inspirational John Keating (played by Robin Williams) shows his pupils the faded photographs of long dead students. They were just like you, he says, full of hormones, invincible, destined for greatness. Lean closer, he whispers, listen to their legacy...

Carpe diem; seize the day - and make your lives extraordinary.