Grateful for my Brother

Dear Greg, 

On the eve of your 28th birthday, I just wanted to say how grateful I am for you.

Thank you for letting me boss you around no end as a child; for allowing me to be a complete and utter drama queen whilst you sat there politely letting me style your hair for ‘Hair Raising’ (a fantastic production which I am baffled did not get picked up by the BBC), or tell you what you were ‘supposed to say’ in our family holiday video. 

We had the perfect childhood; you annoyed me like crazy, as any sibling does; countless accusations over which one of us hadn’t done the washing up properly, or who broke what, but we have always been a brother and sister that got on well. We enjoyed so many family holidays and days out as our perfect unit of four; long journeys in the back of the car with our Bumper Value Jotters and felt tips or our Walkmans (probably with Top Loader CD on loop). Special memories that I’ll treasure forever. 

When, at 15, you joined a Ska Punk band, I wanted to burst with pride. Having never encountered this jolly, trumpet-y style of music before, we were both suddenly immersed into a world of black and white checks, loud drums, dingy venues with sticky floors and pints in plastic glasses. For the first time, we were socialising in the same circle of friends – I came to all your gigs, completely changed my dress sense, bought a million CDs and learnt all the words. I absolutely loved it.

I feel so protective of you Greg, even though a lot of the time it feels like you’re the grown up with your own house and partner, and I’m the child renting a room alone in London. In infant school, I remember writing a letter to one of your classmates who had made a mean comment to you – I couldn’t bear the thought of anybody upsetting you (although goodness knows what this person thought of me when (if?) you gave them the letter!). When you fell and cut your hand on the eve of your 21st birthday (definitely no alcohol involved), Mum, Dad and I rushed to pick you up from uni. You looked so sad over Skype, unable to even open your birthday cards with your damaged hand, we rushed out and bought extra birthday presents to bring for you; just wanted to do something to make you feel better. I check your whereabouts on the Find Friends app every day. Yes, I am a complete stalker, but it gives me the peace of mind that you’re going about your day, getting on with your life. 

People say I’m a positive person, but they clearly haven’t met you Greg, because you’re the most positive person I know. You joke that even your blood type supports your mantra: ‘B positive’. You live by the rule of making somebody laugh every day, and I doubt you’ve ever failed, and I doubt it’s ever just one person (even if half the time the quota is filled by Hazel, who adores you so much). You’re one of the most relaxed people I know (which yes, does drive me absolutely crazy sometimes); friendly with everybody you meet, and rarely stressed – unless there’s some sort of DIY disaster, a regular occurrence when you and Dad get together (which never fails to make me smile – no matter how annoying that smashed window or cracked tile is for you). I love how you have inherited Dad’s love of making things; how you two sit and methodically work out a problem together.

You moved back in with Mum and Dad to save for a deposit, but the timing was perfect and I’m so grateful that you were able to be there throughout Mum’s illness; to make her smile, to hold her hand, to play her a new song you thought she’d love, to run up to Sainsburys to find that specific item of food that might not make her nauseous. My heart breaks in two whenever I think of your face on the day Mum died, such an unusual sight to see you so overcome with grief. How we muddled through those first few days I’m not sure, but we stuck together and we managed it. 

If there’s ever anything you need to talk about, you can always talk to me. Of course you have Hazel (and I’ve never seen a pair better matched; you have such a wonderful relationship), and you’re normally the one comforting me – your calm, warm voice always makes me feel a little better – but I’ll always be here for you. 

Thank you for all the car rides singing our heads off to Mad Caddies or John Mayer or Lethal Bizzle; thank you for all the practical support you give to Dad, for all the laughs that you bring to our family and for your sunny, no frills outlook on the world. Thank you for being all the things a brother should be: caring, practical, frustrating and kind; a friend to everybody, the life and soul of every party. Someone who completely clicks with my sense of humour, who will laugh with me forever at ‘oh, sorry’ or ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’: stupid little things that nobody else gets, jokes that we share from a lifetime of laughs. Even when I’m mad at you for being late or disorganised or forgetful, it can’t last for long because you’re such fun to be around. Thank you for being my brother Greg; I’m grateful for you every single day.

All my love,

Burge

Grateful for the little things

This week, whilst cooking an extremely adult meal of fish fingers and baked beans, I described to a friend a ‘Nannie meal’: fish fingers, boiled potatoes, tinned sweetcorn and peas, all covered in white sauce and served in a Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit bowl. It doesn’t sound like much – and I imagine half of its appeal was probably the amount of salt used to flavour things in a way that only people of my grandparents’ era did – but this meal was a staple of my childhood and one that sticks solidly in my memory. I only knew my Nannie – my father’s mother – until I was about eight, but I started thinking about the rich collection of memories I hold for all four of my grandparents, and how so many of these tiny little things have shaped my life in some way or another.

A regular conversation amongst myself and my friends at the moment is around the pace of change in the world today. This most likely stems, in part, from my current obsession with re-watching the TV series Mad Men; set in the 1960s, I am constantly taken aback by how different the world looked just sixty years ago: how gender roles and social status’ were – for many – so set in stone, how the glass ceiling was so much thicker than it is today, and how keeping up appearances was essential at all times; even just how everybody wore a hat any time they stepped outside. I find it crazy to think that my grandparents were part of this world, and to imagine how overwhelming it could be for their generation to deal with the world as it is today, with the technology, the politics, the freedom.

My Grandma Evelyn – my Mum’s Mum – was a worrier; a trait I have certainly inherited from her, and I know today’s world would have caused her much anguish. When I see older people travelling around London, I’m reminded of my little Grandma and Grandad; I often wonder how they’d have managed to mind the gap between the train and the platform edge with their little legs, how they’d have coped with the hustle and bustle. London isn’t made for older people, for people who can’t move at top speed. But then I’m reminded that my grandparents lived through much harder times than me, through the war, rationing, times of great change (they also bought their three bedroom house for £1,000, but that’s another matter!).

My Grandma was the kindest, most generous lady; she loved the theatre, music; singing and dancing. Grandma visited every single Monday, always leaving pocket money for myself and my brother, along with other gifts – gel pens, hair clips, chocolate teacakes, old dancing shoes for the dressing up box. She and my Mum would spend the day shopping; Grandma would choose something nice from M&S to take back for her and Grandad’s tea. Then she’d wait for us to get home from school and we’d wave her off on the bus home. Three rings on the phone when she got in, just so we knew she was back safe.

I still make my Grandma’s corned beef hot pot on a regular basis – another one of those very simple, hugely comforting meals; a meal that comes from her childhood, growing up in a Yorkshire back-to-back house where money was tight and corned beef was the cheapest option. Corned beef, potatoes and onions, served with red cabbage, brown sauce and a slice of white bread to mop up the juices: heaven.

My Grandad Norman, always the joker – he loved Morcambe and Wise: ‘What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!’, Frank Sinatra (we played Strangers in the Night at his funeral; a beautiful song, even the thought of it brings tears to my eyes), roast lamb with mint sauce made fresh from the garden. He loved smoking his pipe, even though it drove Mum and Grandma crazy; carbolic soap (yes, that stinky, burgundy coloured soap that they used to use in school toilets!), because it reminded him of his childhood. My brother inherited his red hair and his cheeky demeanour.

I used to joke that Grandma and Grandad had a better social life than me: they had ‘the dance’ on Monday, ‘the club’ on Thursday; regular ‘Tinsel and Turkey’ holidays or coach trips with friends. Outings with familiar duos (to me) like Ken and Joyce, May and Dennis, Jill and Bob. They’d travel around Birmingham on the bus, enjoying days out together, always a story to tell. They came as a pair; Grandad was never the same after Grandma died.

I wish I had more photos to include here – and this makes me realise I have no photographs of my grandparents in my home – there are boxes and boxes in the loft at my Dad’s house; photos from a simpler time when you just smiled and were happy with the first shot. I love looking through these nostalgic snapshots, imagining what was happening at the time they were taken. It breaks my heart that some of the faces in these photos will be nameless to me forever. My Mum was my grandparents’ only child.

My Dad’s parents, my Nannie, Betty and Grandad, Ken hold yet more memories for me. I remember my Nannie’s soft and gentle voice and her magic jar of Zambuc, a waxy green ointment that cured any ache or pain. I remember being jealous of her bright white Marks & Spencer plimsolls and her modern electric typewriter; how she taught me to sew one evening whilst babysitting, a delightful little basket full of coloured threads and chunky needles. There was the most fantastic library of Enid Blyton books at Nannie and Grandad’s house, endless choices, each story more exciting than the last; myself and my cousins would check books in and out each time we visited. Nannie would record episodes of Noddy and The Borrowers for us to watch on video, arrange little tea parties in the summer house with plastic bowls of marshmallows, chocolate buttons, pink wafers. She always did things properly: I remember a holiday on the Isle of Wight where we had fish and chips on the seafront: Nannie brought plastic plates, napkins, knives and forks. No eating out of the paper for us! I know that she became very ill, but I don’t remember really noticing it at the time; to me, she was always put-together (I think she wore a wig, but I don’t think I knew that at the time), always refined and poised.

Whenever I smell that turps-y, woody-y, garage-y smell, I’m reminded of my Grandad, Ken. He loved making things, fixing things, finding solutions to problems; he was always in his garage, filing something with a lathe, gluing something back together with araldite. He used to say ‘Oh crumpy!’ if something went wrong. No surprise that he was an engineer; he was even awarded an MBE for his achievements. After my Nannie died, Grandad kept himself busy, completing courses at the local college and even beginning a History of Art degree at Warwick University. It breaks my heart that he didn’t finish it, but I know that having that sense of purpose meant so much to him. At one time, three generations of my family – my cousin Emily, my auntie Anne and my Grandad – were all studying at University. How intellectual! I remember many family get togethers at my Grandad’s house; rock cakes, trifles, birthday cakes thick with icing. I remember Grandad making toast for breakfast and cutting it into crazy paving for me, each little piece thick with butter.

I’m reminded all the time of the cruel nature of old age, but I don’t want to remember my grandparents by how they left this world; I want to remember all they achieved in their eventful lives, how they travelled from one period in history to a completely new one. I want to remember all the love they gave to those around them; all those funny little quirks they passed on to their children and then on to me – the things that make my family my family. I’ll hold on to these tiny memories forever.

Grateful for fighters (in the metaphorical sense)

Through work, I have been familiar with the former athlete Derek Redmond for some time now, but I must admit that I hadn’t got around to watching the video of his most renowned moment up until this week. Derek Redmond is the athlete who, in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, broke a hamstring in the final moments of his race, but persevered across the finish line despite being in immense physical – and no doubt emotional – pain. Watching the pure anguish on Derek’s face as he soldiers on, a burst of pain with every step, gave me chills – but what really hit me was when Derek’s father fought his way onto the track to help his son through the final steps. What an amazing display of determination and solidarity. I just loved watching that wonderful bond between father and son; nothing was going to stop the father helping his son finish what he had travelled to the Olympics to do. I must admit I felt slightly tearful at my desk (thank goodness I sit at the back of the office, hidden from plain sight!).

Despite that particular example having taken place when I was just 6 years old, we need people like Derek Redmond in our eyesight. People who take such pride in their work, who have such deep determination and courage that they will persevere until the bitter end. Fighters who, regardless of their goal and it’s outcome, show us what passion and strength really mean.

We hear so much these days about how Millennials are the lazy generation, the generation who expect their futures handed to them on a silver platter – but every day I hear stories to the contrary. How about Stephen Sutton, who raised millions of pounds for charity following his terminal diagnosis; who shared his smiling face with the world right up until his death at just 19, in order to raise awareness of the Teenage Cancer Trust and help so many others? Or the young women campaigning against Ireland’s 8th Amendment, fighting for women’s rights to decide the future of their own bodies? Or Saroo Brierley, upon whom the film Lion was based. He searched for years to find the family he was displaced from as a child, never giving up despite the seemingly impossible and momentous task (if you’re looking for a tearjerker, this is most certainly it. I sobbed like a baby!). Or even those YouTube sensations such as Zoe Sugg, or Zoella, who have made a fortune, developed an entirely new type of career from in front of a camera in their bedrooms? A quick Google of ‘inspirational millennials’ brings up scores of articles detailing the successes of this much-maligned cohort. 

And it’s not just millennials, or those who have done amazing things for good causes that can be inspirational. Just seeing someone striving hard for success, seeking to constantly improve in order to achieve their goal inspires me. Even something as fluffy as BBC’s Masterchef! Watching the finals this week, I’m always amazed at how during the first rounds of the competition some of the contestants can barely cook a piece of chicken (and let’s be honest, some of them never move beyond that stage), but by the final rounds those remaining have elevated themselves to the standard of Michelin starred chefs.

And no matter what your politics are, I can’t help but admire the people who feel so strongly about the upcoming UK election that they are willing to get on the streets and shout about it. I admire how these people are so stoic in their beliefs; so able to counter a statement or provide a persuasive argument. I’m not saying that they’re right or wrong, and I’m not condoning or condemning the Facebook warriors out there campaigning for their causes. But I respect their passion. 

In today’s throwaway fast food world, it’s easy to feel lethargic, to feel disconnected from reality and the world around us. News reports of daily atrocities across the globe blur into one depressing montage – and we can sometimes feel completely desensitised to what’s happening around us. Isn’t it sometimes easier to look down? To be drawn like a moth to the flame, towards that glowing, scrolling world of Snapchat filters and staged Instagram photos and right-swipes? Life feels so much simpler when it’s reduced down to a Like or a laughing face emoji. But we need to be inspired, we need to know (and we need the next generation to know) that there’s something somewhere that’s worth fighting for. 

I struggled to think about what the title for this week’s blog should be – am I grateful for inspiration? Well the world always has and always will be full of inspiring people. Perhaps I’m grateful for the technology that enables me to access these stories. And I’m certainly grateful for the fighters who show me that it’s always worth trying. No matter how big or how small your goal, it’s important to feel that fire in your belly for something – anything; whether it’s to make a difference to somebody, to better yourself, or simply to make it out of bed and out of the house today, if that’s something you’re struggling with. As the famous quote says, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about’ – but battles are there to be won. I’m grateful for those who inspire me to fight those battles; to find strength on the hard days, to be unafraid in the face of uncertainty; to look up at the world and feel passion and determination and courage; to care.

Grateful for My Childhood

Watching a documentary about the disappearance of Madeline Mcann this week, 10 years on from that well-documented night in Portugal, I was reminded that a happy childhood isn’t something that’s guaranteed for us all. Who knows what happened to poor Madeline – or whether we’ll ever know – but regardless of your opinions on the culpability of her parents or the likelihood of her still being alive, what often gets forgotten here is than an innocent five year old was ripped away from her own life that night. 

Why as a society do we have such a morbid fascination with crime, murder cases, missing people? I won’t deny that I’m one of those people who is gripped by the BBC documentaries or drama series such as The Missing. I guess it makes us feel better about our own lives. But these images on our TV screens – so far away and yet sometimes so close to home – also remind us not to take what we have for granted, to hug our loved ones just a little bit more tightly when we see them next.

As a child, you think you’re untouchable, that the horrors of the world are reserved for somebody else that you only see on the news. And why shouldn’t you think like that? Once that innocence is gone, it’s gone forever – and I blame no parent who wants to try and keep their child in rose-tinted glasses for as long as they can. How my heart breaks for the millions of innocent children in Syria who have had their childhoods brutally torn away from them, who have seen things that no child (or human) should ever see. For the children who have never known anything other than a life of fear and poverty; for those born in refugee camps or whilst on the run, for those who have lost their families in the blink of an eye. 

And of course it’s not just happening in Syria. A happy childhood is not guaranteed for anyone, regardless of where you’re born in the world, how much money you have or how loving your family is. 

I’m therefore so grateful to have been blessed with what I would class as a perfect childhood, to have been sheltered from the horrors of the world for as long as possible. To have been able to be a child right up until when I didn’t want to be one any more. Myself and my younger brother never wanted for anything (but we were never allowed everything we wanted in Toys R Us either – gravely unfair, I know); we had a hot meal on the table every day, we had holidays, days out, birthday parties and ‘happy day presents’ – and we had two parents who loved us unconditionally. There was genuinely nothing to worry about, except for the distressing unfairness of my brother not doing the washing up properly, or that time when we were chastised for cutting off an Action Man’s leg with a hacksaw and throwing him over the fence (Dad promptly marched us to the shops, where we each had to spend our pocket money on a brand new toy to donate to charity. It did not happen again!). 

Losing a parent is horrifying at any age, but I’m so thankful that I had my Mum with me right through my childhood. To have had her taken away from me at 28 means that I won’t have my Mum at my wedding or there for the birth of my children; that I won’t get to call her and tell her I’m engaged, or ask her advice when I have a baby. That I’ll never get to share another hug in happiness or excitement, sadness or fear. These thoughts cause me unbearable pain, but thank goodness I had her there as I was growing up. 

I’m so grateful to have known my Mum and to have been able to grow into the person I am today because of her. I love it when people tell me that we’re alike, I’m thrilled to know that I might have even just a tiny bit of her personality within me, and I’m so grateful that I had her for those 28 years. That I had her to take me shopping for my first purse before starting infant school (I can remember it vividly: mint green with a little bow on the front, the perfect size for my lunch money), to proudly come and support me in the school play even though I was only the prompt, to get up early with me every school day so that I could take my acne medication an hour before eating breakfast, to help me persuade Dad to let me get my ears pierced aged 16. To talk to me about becoming a woman, to stay in a hotel overnight on my first day at uni in case I felt alone, to rush out to buy a pregnancy test for me at a moment of panic, to cry with me after a break up and to subsequently help me move house. Thank goodness that I had my Mum there to help me navigate the tricky path from childhood to adulthood; my heart breaks for anyone who didn’t. 

It’s not about the material things, the things you have or don’t have as a child; it’s about being given the freedom to grow up in a world that looks bright. To wake up and think only of what games you’ll play or what friends you’ll see that day. To be hugged by your parents and told that everything will be alright – and to believe them. Who knows how things will turn out really? That’s not important. I’m so grateful to have had exactly that childhood.