Friday, 19 December 2014

Vive la difference.

I take after my father in so many ways, some good, some bad. My height and my jet black, lustrous locks come in on the good side, my big nose and miserable demeanor on the bad.

One way in which I differ from my father is my parenting abilities. He wasn't perfect, but was pretty close. I, on the other hand, am absolutely shit at it. I tried, I wanted to be good at it, but when push came to shove I was shit. My son's are both happy and healthy, but despite my input rather than because of it.

When they were young I spent a lot of time in the car with them. My ex-wife had moved over to the other side of the mountains a couple of years after our divorce and, when it was my turn to have the boys for the weekend, I would drive over and pick them up. Generally, it being a fortnight since the last time I'd had them, there was plenty of catching up to do. The journey back to Salford would fly by as I was regaled with tales of playground skirmishes, football matches and minor misdemeanors. My youngest lad would bring his favourite CD with him to play in the car. For a good chunk of this period it would be the same album every week, "The Eminem Show", but the more child-friendly version with all the swearing bleeped out that his mother had insisted I buy for him. Unfortunately, my ex-wife's attempt to censor the lyrics was rendered redundant since the highlight of our journey was my shouting out "...fuck you, Debbie..." when the edit kicked in on that particular part of Mr. Mathers' poetry. 

Shit dad.

During one of our journeys my youngest son was giving me directions from his place riding shotgun by my side. I noticed he kept holding his hands up just before telling me to turn left or right and, when he saw my quizzical look, he explained that his teacher had taught him how to tell left from right, a basic life skill that had never occurred to me to teach him.

Shit dad.

"If you look at the backs of your hands with your thumbs out, dad, one looks like a "L" so that's left. The other doesn't, so that's not left."

An ingenious, yet beautifully simple, technique, and one that no one had ever shown me. I'd been taught a far more convoluted method, aged six, by non other than 70s heartthrob Mr. Lee Majors.

Lee had been star of one of my most favourite television shows as a child. He was Steve Austin, AKA the Six Million Dollar Man. (This was back in the days when six million dollars was still considered a lot of money.) 

Steve was an astronaut who'd received devastating injuries crashing a test plane. A man barely alive. A secret government agency had the technology, and the capability, to rebuild him, to make the world's first bionic man. Better... stronger... faster and, most pertinently to this tale, with a new, man made left eye.

I wanted to be Steve Austin. 

My mother bought me the tee-shirt from a stall on Swinton market, my granddad bought me the annuals and then, on September the tenth, 1976, I got the holy grail of birthday gifts. The Steve Austin action figure from my parents, along with a Six Million Dollar man space rocket that doubled as an operating table and a Steve Austin action figure sized space suit.

The action figure had a button on his back to operate his bionic arm, capable of lifting the engine block that was included, and a rubber, foreskin like sheath on the right arm that could be rolled back to reveal the circuitry hidden beneath. The face of the doll was uncannily like that of Mr. Majors, except for the left eye, which was a lens. There was a hole in the back of Steve's head through which to look and the lens made everything look really far away. 

This was the only disappointment. What the fuck? That's not how it was supposed to work. 

Still, I was the first in my school to own such a toy and I was as happy as a proverbial pig in a pile of proverbial shit.

To look through the bionic eye, it being on the left hand side of his head, meant using my own right eye, et voila. From then on, whenever I needed to know which side was right I simply had to imagine holding my favourite toy. I knew right from left. No more making a twat of myself limping to school with the shoes on the wrong feet, no more going to the wrong drawer when my teacher sent me to get paper or pencils and now I knew what my dad meant when he said I was "cack handed".

Thank you, Mr. Majors.

I still rely on this method occasionally. As I've aged I've started to get confused far easier than I did when all I had to worry about was getting home in time for "Battle of the Planets" or finding enough broken pallets to build my next den. I struggle to remember words that I've used a million times before. Occasionally I refer to my children by the wrong name or, as is becoming more common, by the name of one of my dogs, but Mr. Majors' method of remembering left from right keeps me from getting lost or run over when crossing the road. Without Mr. Majors method I'd have been flattened by a speeding motorist years ago. The Tufty technique of looking right, then left then right again is less than useless without it.

At about the same time that I was learning left from right, a grocer's daughter from Grantham was making history. The country was "on it's arse" as my father so eloquently put it. The grocer's daughter had become leader of one of the two main political parties and some people were very excited about it. The other party, the party in charge, were in power and some people weren't happy. There were strikes, protests, riots and power cuts. I was too young to give a shit about most of the upset, but I did enjoy the power cuts. My dad bought a little, black and white, portable television and a spare car battery which he left, on a piece of newspaper to protect the carpet, in the front room and connected to a trickle charger. Whenever the power went off, the candles would come out and my father would wire the portable telly up to the fully charged battery, et voila. We were the most popular house on the street, our living room filled with neighbours all laughing and watching with us.

Eventually, it was time for a general election. The grocer's daughter won, becoming our first and, to date, only female Prime Minister. She wore a blue frock and spoke dead posh, like my Auntie Sheila who I imagined was a member of the aristocracy and not really the sister of my sweary, pub landlady grandmother. To my young mind, that was the difference between the two parties. The grocer's daughter's party wore blue and were posh, the power cut party wore red ties and were as common as dog shit. The two sides were poles apart, blue grocer's daughter on the right and red, pipe smoker lot on the left. Piece of piss. I didn't need any ingenious toy-based system to know who was who.

As I got older I became more sophisticated. I read newspapers, watched the news and listened to my schoolteachers. The red pipe smokers liked the working man, the blue grocer's daughter's chums liked the bosses of the workers. Their opinions and views were poles apart and, depending on the viewpoint of the voter, one lot was good and the other lot bad. For those that weren't sure which side they were on, there was another lot, a sort of orangey hue, slap-bang in the middle. It was all so easy. Chalk, cheese and a little bit of chalky-cheese (Let's call those chaps "cheek", or "chase", whichever you prefer.) in the middle.

Chalk, cheese and a cheeky chase, easy peasy.

Whichever you chose, you hated the others. If the others had a good idea, you hated that. You invested so much time and energy into backing your own side that you found you had to oppose every idea that came from Left field or Right out of the blue. Even when your own side were failing to perform you steadfastly stood strong and, like a sufferer of Stockholm syndrome, stayed loyal. You knew where you stood, and you stood behind what you knew. Men all over the country drank in Conservative clubs or Labour clubs, their allegiance sometimes for noble reasons and sometimes because they were ha'penny a pint cheaper. Whichever side you were on was good.

In recent years it's become harder to know which club to join. The cheeky chasers put on a bit of weight and the Left and Right rolled inwards toward them. Eventually they began to melt, slowly at first, into each other until now, as a result of this and of my rapidly rotting grey matter, I struggle to tell one from the other. They don't even try to be different anymore. Now, the other side's idea is no longer a bad idea, they dare not say that. Instead, the other side's good idea is so good that they take it and say it was theirs all along. 

Nowadays, should an individual be naive enough to say what he or she thinks, rather than be derided in a smoky bar in between hands of crib or frames of snooker by the other side, they are castigated, pilloried in public, spoken about globally in conversations that all can see, All, including themselves. They allow themselves to be bullied into submission until, now, none dare say what they actually believe. They say what they think will cause them the least upset. They chicken out, scared of the opinions of those that will hate their ideas however inspired and well-meaning they may be, the opinions that people already held, have always held and will always hold. Now, we have no real choice other than to choose the least bad. There is no Left or Right and no right or wrong. Just one, huge, amorphic blob of platitudes, excuses, name calling and derision.

I used to vote, my choice based on which side I believed would be better for the country I love. I would still vote, if there was something worth voting for. Or if they add another box at the bottom of the ballot paper. A box that indicated;


Where's Steve Austin when you need him?


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