Friday, 31 October 2014

Mahatma Gandhi, the heavyweight champion of the world, Wagon Wheels and me.

Once upon a time, a mighty long time ago, Ocada didn't do home deliveries and Amazon was a river. If we wanted to eat anything more substantial than a handful of nuts and berries we had to spend a day or three following a poorly looking mammoth or a sabre toothed tiger with a limp, accompanied by half a dozen or so of our closest friends all armed with pointed sticks, and we waited for our chance to pounce, en masse, on our prey, kicking it to death.

Then came the hard part.

Without a squeaky trolley to transport our game to our motor vehicle, and without a motor vehicle, we had to carry our shopping home. Having followed the poor creature for several days we generally had quite a slog ahead of us before we arrived home, exhausted, to be greeted by our womenfolk who had spent the time while we were away cleaning, chastising our children and spending our coloured pebbles on shite to make the cave look pretty.

Eventually, once there was no more room in our increasingly cluttered caves for scented candles, picture frames in the shape of love-hearts and little glass bowls that serve no function other than to piss me right off, we were forced to up sticks and find more suitable accommodation. We piled up stones and fallen branches, we used animal skins and mosses to make the interiors of our new, bespoke caves more comfortable and we were happy. For a while. Then our neighbours built extensions, so we had to, too. We needed increasingly large boulders and branches and we struggled to drag these from the caves and forests where they were handily placed out onto the plains where we had to build our homes because "ooh the views are so lovely, and it's really close to that good school".

The necessity to improve our homes in this way brought forth the necessity for invention. Clearing paths to make the dragging of the stone easier gave us tracks and pathways. We lay logs on these roads to drag the stones over, meaning we could drag even larger boulders back to our increasingly sprawling villages. Someone, somewhere, invented the wheel. The wheel, contrary to popular opinion, was a pointless invention.

It leant against the inventors garden wall, unused and forgotten, until some bright spark invented an axle, et voila, the wagon came into existence.

Now we could move more, and move more more easily, we began to pretty the place up a bit. A monolith here, a statue there, headstones to mark our final resting places and some of those enormous, stone dominoes balanced in a circle for no other reason that to confuse the archaeologists of the future. The wagon wheel brought the axle, the axle brought the wagon, the wagon brought the materials and the materials brought manufacturing. Manufacturing completed the circle many centuries later when Burton's biscuits brought forth the Wagon Wheel, a delicious, chocolate coated, mallow and jam topped biscuit that could be stripped apart and eaten in ingenious ways.

Personally, I break off and eat the biscuit base first, then strip the chocolate from the jam tinged mallow which I save until last. Nom nom.

As a child, I remember buying a Wagon Wheel every morning from the tuck shop at my school. My eating technique developed over the years. Initially I would hold the confectionery in two hands and eat it in the "normal", boring way. As I grew, the Wagon Wheel shrank. Now, rather than needing two, the biscuit fits comfortably in the palm of one of my hands. This happened so slowly that I didn't notice.

As an even smaller child, with a yet smaller child for a sibling, I can remember dragging a kitchen chair over to the larder and climbing upon it to steal the Farley's rusks that my sister loved and that I wasn't allowed to eat from the top shelf. Just like the Wagon Wheels that came later, I would hold the rusk in both hands and sit munching away, giggling at my guile and cunning as I feasted on forbidden fruit, occasionally suffering an almighty bollocking from my mother if she got off the phone in the hallway long enough to come and check what I was up to.

Eventually, my sister was too old for these most delicious of delicious treats and so my parents ceased purchasing them. In time, I forgot all about them until, years later, my then-wife brought home a box of them for our infant son. I spotted the box, up high in the larder, and frantically tore it open, eager to experience that delicious deliciousness again. I was so disappointed.

The rusk was every bit as tasty as I remembered but now, a couple of decades later, they'd shrunk significantly. A tiny, light, crumbly, dry treat, no more than two mouthfuls rather than the two handfuls I remembered. I had to eat the contents of the entire box to even begin to feel satisfied.

The bollocking I received from my wife was even more ferocious than those I'd received from my mother, although she drew the line at tanning my arse with a hairbrush.

The rusks seemed smaller because I'd grown. The disappointment at their tiny size was accentuated by the fact that it seemed to happen all of a sudden, rather than the glacial transition of the Wagon Wheel.

At some point between Farley's rusks and Wagon Wheels I lost a grandparent. My father's father died when I was two years old. Initially, every Sunday my father would take me to his grave to clean it up and to chat to him. I thought my grandfather must have been a very important man to have such a huge headstone, towering above me with an engraving of a cross and a stained glass window and the words that my grandmother had chosen carved into it's brilliant, white stone. Over the years our visits to the cemetery in which he rested became less and less frequent until they ceased altogether.

Once my father had joined his father and shuffled off this mortal coil we had to decide what to do with his ashes. It wasn't a difficult decision. We arranged to have his remains buried in the same plot, his name added beneath that of his father. On the day of this second funeral I arrived at the cemetery, early and alone, and began to weave my way along the little paths that criss-crossed between the immaculately manicured plots. I remembered the way from my visits there as a small child and I spotted the silver birch tree that grew next to the grave and under which I would sit whilst my father chatted to his father about Manchester City, the bloody kids and how much he missed him.

As I approached I began to feel a knot in my stomach. It was gone. The huge, grand, polished stone that I had helped clean with water from a nearby tap was missing. I began to jog, then to run, toward the tree, knowing my mother would be arriving soon and panicking.

In the place where once this grand monument to a great man had stood now stood a tiny, cheap looking, dirty headstone. I looked around frantically, hoping I was just mis-remembering the precise location, but no, it was gone.

Except it wasn't. The tatty, old stone that stood waist high before me was my grandfather's. Like the Wagon Wheel and the rusk before it, it had shrunk. The day was already an emotional one and this disappointment was the catalyst that sent forth a flood of tears. Tears that dried before my mother arrived with the little, wooden casket but that left me with eyes too red to hide my sadness.

Everything changes. Some things, like the rusk or the headstone, become less important in our absence. Others, like the Wagon Wheel, become less significant before our very eyes. But in all three examples the changes aren't caused by that which has changed, but by us. The world doesn't change, never has and never will. It's just our perspective.

Bad experiences become less harrowing with distance. They say "time is a great healer", and they're right. Sort of. Unfortunately, good experiences become less pleasing in the same way. The rusks that filled our tummies whilst we were sitting strapped into out high chairs becomes nothing more than a mouthful. The Wagon Wheel that once lasted right through play time would take no time to eat now were it not for the fact that we piss about peeling mallow from jammy biscuit and the headstone that was once so imposing and impressive becomes nothing more than a marker for a long forgotten ancestor.

The further we move from the things we love the smaller the things we love appear, and it's the same with the things we hate. We all change constantly, both physically and emotionally. A great man once said...

"The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years." 

We don't try to eat the tiny mallow filled disc with two hands, nibbling away at the edge so that it lasts longer, we peel and piss about. We don't eat a rusk and feel unsatisfied, we eat a whole box.

I once asked a chap I worked with, having found out he was pushing forty even though he looked and acted twenty-five, what his secret was. He explained that we don't start to age until we stop changing. You'll all know someone who, even though it went out of fashion many years ago, still wears the uniform of his golden years. The aging Mod in the Fred Perry tee-shirt and the Sta Prest trousers that listens to nothing but Paul Weller or the octogenarian Teddy boy with the slicked back hair who carries a comb. Their outmoded fashion and steadfast refusal to accept the validity of any new music marks them in time, thus emphasising their advancing years.

Some go the other way in a desperate attempt to cling on to their youth and try to keep up with the fashions of the day while the fashions of the day mock them. The middle aged man wearing shiny, black shoes and cheap, shapeless Jeans or the woman in the pub that gets a tiny tattoo on the tit that gravity is trying to claim, both steadfastly clinging on to what once was while what is yet to be beckons. They fear aging, they fear change and they try to fight it.

They never venture forth from the cave of youth into the hut of modernity. 

The world around their cave remains the same in every way but size. They watch as the log-lined tracks carry the future toward, and straight past, them. Eventually, tracks become rutted by the passage of the wagons and they complain that it's all so unnecessary and why didn't we just stick with the logs that they had previously disliked.

It's important that we never forget the past, whether it was good or bad. The bad stuff will get smaller as we view it from further away. The good stuff will do likewise, but we can do the good stuff again if we like.

We adapt, we change and we grow. As we grow, our perspective changes. The bad things, like the death of a loved one and the stone that reminds us they lived, become smaller. Some good things, like Wagon Wheels, we never leave behind and some, like Farley's rusks, we eventually revisit.

It's okay to change your opinion. It's okay to learn. Like the useless, wooden wheel that became a delicious, biscuit based snack it's okay to totally reinvent yourself.

When I was a child, in the 70s, it was okay to call our corner shop the "Paki shop", it's a phrase I used without once thinking about it. Later, once I'd thought about it. I stopped referring to it in such a way. This took a conscious effort, having been uttered so naturally for so long, and I slipped up now and again, but I think I've got the casual racism under control now.

In a similar way, I no longer call my mates "poofs" if they act anything less than macho or if they cry, but I have done, and worse. I have never been either homophobic or racist, but I behaved in the way that those around me, the older ones sat peering from the mouths of their caves, behaved. Eventually I climbed a hill and looked back at those caves, saw it was wrong and altered my behaviour. I changed, the world didn't.

An even greater man once said...

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." 

All very glib, I know, but you can't argue with the logic. It's the epitome of democracy. If enough people agree with you then it becomes the norm. If fewer people agree with you, maybe you're wrong.

Or maybe you're just one of the first to be right.

Don't fear change. Be suspicious, suspicion is good, but not fear. You don't have to BE something simply because you've BEEN something, nor do you need to do something just because you did it. Did you do it because you were it or because others did it? There's no shame in having been wrong, only in not realising you were.

As I mentioned, I left behind socially "acceptable" (to most, and at that time) racism and homophobia. To be fair, I didn't really know what either were at that age. Unfortunately, as some of you may have guessed from the opening few paragraphs, I still struggle with sexism. I'm trying to be a feminist though...

...You've got to if you want to get a shag these days.


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