Relax. We’re halfway between October the 28th 2020 and the same October date in 2021. It’s my 38 and a half year birthday. I had candles. The kind that deter mosquitoes. I had cake. A great student kindly gifted me a cupcake. Technically, it was a cake placed into a paper cup. Below the cake was a selection of fruits. Thank you Sofia!
There were horns. It was a video about a foghorn in Cornwall. There was even a card! I had to use my swipe card to print and photocopy. Several students even sang “Happy half birthday to you… ” which was rather creative and humorous.
I wanted to write this on Dad’s birthday. I procrastinated. A habit I possibly learnt from Dad. Let’s talk about my Dad. He’s half of the reason why I exist. Now, where to begin? Last week, I had a video call with Dad on his birthday. He was sat on his lounge sofa and the frustrations of being unable to get out were etched on his face. Dad’s never been a mountain climber or a road cyclist, but he’s always been someone who enjoys the outdoors.
Dad, as father to Shaun, Tina, Asa and I, hasn’t always been perfect. Who amongst us, can say they are free from mistakes or poor choices? This is life, and the consequences of one action or inaction ripple like a stone crashing into a millpond. Things between Dad and I haven’t always been gloss paint or even matt, or emulsion. There have been paint spillages. I still love my Dad and I feel his love too. I’m lucky. I can’t imagine life without a Dad, and I truly don’t want to feel the loss of my Dad (or Mum): that would hurt too greatly.
Dad mentioned, in our last call, he’d been ‘cutting back Himalayan barbed-wire‘ or in layman’s terms, chopping the plants of blackberries. It was good to hear that the garden was once again embracing Dad. I grew up at Joyce Street allotments listening to City’s away games, or playing with our dog Pup on the nearby Broadhurst Park. Dad always seemed to have his allotment patch (and at times, two allotments).
Before my teenage days, I was acutely aware that Dad bodged things together. A loose panel fastened awkwardly here, and a piece of perspex draped there. Never quite fitting. Always in a place that served purpose. Not pristine, always functional. Dad would show me blackbirds nesting in his grey monolithic-looking shed. He’d feed me coriander and thyme, unwashed from a patch of ground. I would eat delicious tomatoes, rich in flavour, second only to my Granddad’s – and truth be told, not by much! I recall eating cucumbers, strawberries and planting potatoes, dancing with goats, finding old toys in impromptu concrete paths and losing races to my older brother Asa. The allotments were a good place to be. With Dad.
During the summers, sometimes he’d help at the Joyce Street Farm and I’d get to feed ponies, gain the trust of feral cats, collect chicken eggs, much out the horses and play with ducks. The goats were always my favourite. They’d be loaned out to allotment holders to go mow their plots or let out to feed on an adjacent banking of grass. Chickens and poultry would scatter up and down on a free range grass plain. Sometimes I’d stay there and enjoy the peace. Other times Pup and I would go bonkers and break the peace.
Dad with Granddad would take us to Tottington for cuttings and chrysanthemums. We’d go to Chester for seeds. It wasn’t unusual to serve Granddad leaning over walls taking a few freelance cuttings of his own, from other people’s gardens. Dad, Asa and I would walk ahead seemingly oblivious but totally aware. Other days and evenings we’d meet his friends, the legendary John ‘The Ghost’, Ernie at the farm, locals at the Working Man’s Club, etc.
Whether it was spam butties, salad from the allotment, a pie at Newton Heath market or reduced to clear food, I can’t say I ever went hungry. Boxes of broken biscuits at Manchester Victoria station or vanilla custard slices were probably where I got my sweet tooth. What I’d give to sit down with a shandy at Newton Heath Working Man’s Club, or Two Dogs Alcoholic Lemonade at the defunct Castle and Falcon, and talk with Dad.
From an early age, caravan holidays have been a thing. Actually, since Nana and Granddad passed away, Dad has maintained a. succession of caravans in Morecambe. They’ve been a holiday home for family, neighbours and friends of the family. Ritz Carlton they’ve never been, but a stone’s throw from Morecambe’s famous Midland Hotel, they’ve always been cosy and convenient. Walking with dogs, Snowy, Suzie, Pup, Nomaz, Jerry, Nobby, Blue, and others, even cats Sky and Lucy, around the caravan park resort or along the beaches to Heysham have given a great sense of relaxation to many an Acton.
There’s no place like home. I miss Dad, equally as much as I miss my Mum and other tribe members. I live and work here in sunny Dongguan, and have no plans to leave here. I enjoy the challenges of my job far too much. I respect the freedom it affords me. I hope in this troubled year I can be home for Christmas. The COVID-19 pandenic has probably stopped a summer jaunt to Manchester. And even if I could go back, could I visit all the family at all their houses without myself being the risk of spreading this godforsaken virus?
Dad loves trains, and as a former painter and decorator of ‘anything but the trains’ he’d steam through stories about the places he’d been, witnessing snow on Winter Hill (in summer) and what painters do when watching paint dry. It took me a while to understand that the word crumpet wasn’t always food. These days the meaning would generate the #MeToo on Twitter. We’d visit steam trains or famous stations, as long as there was no cost. We’d ride in luggage cars, behind diesel trains or then speedy Intercity 125. Being sat on huge sacks of seaweed heading for Manchester’s gardens seemed normal to me. It was a pungent form of social distancing, far ahead of its time.
My Aunty Christine tells me Dad was a talented artist, and studied so. I’ve seen some of his works but it seems time has hidden them in Dad’s clutter. Uncle George, the youngest of Dad’s brothers and sisters, told many stories of them at Wembley, away games and Maine Road following the mighty Manchester City and occasional scraps with hooligan types. I could always see the family love in Aunty Irene’s eyes for Dad, but an awkwardness towards Dad’s habits. Our family, like many, has its quirks and oddities. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
One birthday, I pretended to sleep. I think I was disappointed that Dad hadn’t picked me up that weekend. Dad was supposed to pick me up every Saturday. My parents had divorced at, for me, an early age. I wasn’t in a broken home, thankfully, but the new norm for us all was different, yet not unheard of in Manchester. So, one night Dad opened my bedroom door and I was sleeping. But, I wasn’t. The gift was wonderful. I regret not sitting or waking up. I regret not hugging my Dad.
Gifts were always welcome. Books from the barrow at Manchestet Victoria Station, from Mum and Dad were always a treasure. Animal books, and adventures became habit. Over the years Mum would collect tokens and send off for hugely discounted books. I still have some here in China now. They’re both sentimental and functional. Dad would sometimes find stray Lego bricks and these little tokens (of an expensive luxury toy) fitted well. The two square road pieces with a helipad and three lanes were rarely out of use. I know that the once-paraffin barrel of Lego passed from me to Astrid and Paul, and then over to Shaun and Christina. So, a collection started by Mum and Dad has served well.
After completing the Morecambe Bay CrossBay run, I spotted Dad near the finish line and he took some photos of me looking shattered and void of energy. Cheers Dad! I was so happy to see Dad, that day, at Hest Bank. I think Christina and Shaun with there with the West Highland terrier Jerry. Either way after a mostly solo half-marathon distance through Morecambe Bay, it was a heartwarming sight. Also, it was at one of Dad’s favourite places, a sandy bank on the expanses of Morecambe Bay, complete with passing trains in close proximity.
There’s much more I can write about Dad. Perhaps I will one day.
I know being in lockdown isn’t ideal and staying at my Mum’s for the best park of a year isn’t so independent, but at least our kid is safe and sound.
Astrid has the unfortunate month of birth that falls in the shadow of Christmas and just after the January sales dry up, usually. This year has been testing and it seems the future is also difficult. I know my sister is strong and she’ll do her best to keep herself busy and relaxed. Copious amounts of Beyonce and other vocalists will probably be heard. YouTube will be in good company with our kid playing tune after tune.
Our kid has always been wonderful to me, sharing her Hotel Chocolat chocolates, buying me snazzy and fragrant soaps from Lush or simply watching movies with me and our brother Paul. Astrid has always and will always be my friend and sister. I can’t wait to catch her when I’m in the U.K. next. We’ll have a good natter and a party later. Until then, all my love and best wishes for? this special day.
Thank you kindly to everyone who has wished me well today. A few moments of kindness have made my heart feel warm inside. x
If I leave here tomorrow, I’ll travel far on your love. If I need strength to walk on, you’ll carry me further. If I find myself lonely, memories will strengthen me. If I stumble and fall, I’ll stand up once more tall. If all around me crumbles, you’ll be there to hold it altogether. Hope, relentless hope, you’re inside my heart. Dreams big, and small, realised and unreleased, you’re in my company. 38 years and I’m still here. 38 years and you’re still here. The years, we’re still here.
你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,
Today, I am 36 years, 11 months and 26 days old. That’s 443 months and 26 days of age, or in simpler terms, I’m a week shy of hitting my 37th birthday. To some, age is a worrying number. The bigger the number, the closer to life becoming death, to some eyes. These 1929 weeks and 4 days have not flown by, but with my mind and memories, some remain so vivid and others lesser. My mind is a wonderful store for 324,240 hours of my life. Life is precious and I have been lucky to know so many great people. Along the road, there have been tests. I don’t believe anyone can live without a test, but of the 19,454,400 minutes, there have been rewards – and I truly believe more will follow. The number, 1,167,091,200 isn’t the exact time spent discussing Brexit, or the accumulated added time at Old Trafford. It is the seconds of my life. Every second counts. The building blocks and foundations of the past led me to the present. The future is before me.
I was born on a Thursday in Autumn 1982. That October day’s weather was in a year which had the coldest night of the twentieth century. The internet tells me it was around 11°C and sunny on Manchester. There was no snow in Manchester and wouldn’t be for some time – although Ben Nevis in Scotland had already seen snow earlier that month. 14 out of 15 of the hottest years globally have happened in my lifetime. Droughts, flooding and climatic changes have been witnessed year on year since.
For Manchester, The Smiths, had been performing with drag artists and dance troupes, only a few weeks before I was born. Their debut gig would be followed be decades of musical recognition. These days Morrisey and my personal favourite Johnny “Fu****g” Marr are solo acts. The jazz collective Blue Rondo a la Turk ’s whereabouts faded, save for the current Matt Bianco jazz band link. BBC Radio 3 held a Manchester Midday Concert, direct from the Royal Exchange Theatre on October the 28th, 1982. As Vossi Zivonl played the violin and Roesemarie Wright on piano ploughed through Schubert Sonatina No 3, in G minor (0408), I was making my way into a musical world. Do you really want to hurt me? by Culture Club was top of the music singles charts, during the week I was born. The Beatles, with Love Me Do, held 4th. Tears for Fears with Mad World, Eddy Grant’s I Don’t Wanna Dance, and House of the Rising Sun by The Animals occupied the top 20 spots too. (Sexual) Healing by Marvin Gaye was new, but only entered at number 50.
1982 was a year like any other. Things happened as they often do. Manchester University Press published Puma, a sci-fi novel by Anthony Burgess. It talks about a future in which loss would be encountered – on a cultural and literal level. It is an immense piece of reading. The story echoes today. The Pope had visited Heaton Park. I’ve been lucky to see high points of history, some up close, and sad enough to see stuff happen that shouldn’t happen. Mankind has an often-conflicted relationship with being civil. I was born on a day that Spain’s socialists won/communists lost in the national elections and NASA launched the RCA-E. First Blood was on at the movies, as opposed to now, where Last Blood is showing. Good old Rambo. It does feel like original movies aren’t gambled on anymore – or become so niche that they hide in arts festivals.
Just 5 days before I was born, Old Trafford, home of Man Utd experienced a game of football. City hadn’t won there for 8 years – and wouldn’t until 2008. Manchester City’s Dennis Tueart and David Cross each scored to equal the home side’s Frank Stapleton’s brace of goals. The day before my birth, City beat Wigan Athletic in the League Cup, held at Maine Road. Two goals by Paul Power were enough for the squad containing big Joe Corrigan, Ray Ranson, Bobby McDonald, Kevin Bond, Tommy Caton, Dennie Tueart, Kevin Reeves, David Cross, Asa Hartford and Graham Baker. Unlike today’s listing of seven substitutes, no subs were noted for that game. Two days after my birthday, City won 2-1 at home again. The Division One (Old) goalscorers that day were Asa Hartford and Dennie Tueart. City were suffering a cup drought – and that continued until 2011. Now, times are different. That’s life. That’s time.