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Eerie as the dreams of ghosts: Swimming with Manta Rays in the Maldives

1 Nov

A boat tentatively works its way through the shallow reef system of the Maldivian archipelago. Two hours earlier, the same boat had been awash with the excited voices of its passengers. Now, no one is speaking, everyone is huddled beneath thick beach towels lost in their own thoughts or in the digital displays of a variety of underwater cameras. Every now-and-then someone gasps, but no one looks up, there’s no need, we know what they have seen, we saw it too and it’s still reflected in the wonder of our eyes.

Two hours earlier we had jumped off the boat into the deeper waters fringing the Maldives reef system. No more than 6 meters of water, this would still be the deepest piece of ocean I had ever swam in. Looking down through my mask I was immediately struck by the clarity of the water and how much I could see below: huge living coral gardens and shoals of fish of more species than I could name. The same fish had provoked wonder the first times I encountered them on our resort’s reef, here they barely register with me, I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for something…bigger.

We have been in the water for about 15 minutes before she materialized out of the dark blue distance, eerie as the dreams of ghosts. Mottled in a way that allowed her to blend well with sea water shimmering with ribbons of gold from the bright overhead Sun; she is quite close to where I am swimming before I realise what I am looking at: Manta Alfredi – The Reef Manta Ray.

The Reef Manta is the second largest of all Rays with wingspans approaching five meters when fully grown it is only just smaller than Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta, whose wingspans can reach in excess of seven meters. History first recorded Manta Rays as ‘Devil Fish’ due to their colossal size, physical power and truly alien appearance, however such a fearful moniker could not be less well deserved. All the Manta family are filter feeders, spending their lives grazing on tiny plankton and they possess a natural curiosity of swimmers, often seeking-out limited human interaction especially at feeding spots.

I have wanted to swim with Manta Rays for as long as I can remember and as the giant animal passed me for the first time, though a cliche, I had to remind myself to breath. Just as she was in-line with me in the water column, she turned on her side and curved back around, like a skilled sailor tacking on a stiff breeze, her turning circle was impossibly tight and she soon passed me on my other side. I truly have not seen a animal so graceful nor one that has left me so truly moved by allowing me to share her space.

People have asked me if I was afraid, being in such close proximity to such a big creature. Whilst it was unsettling, the first time I saw a Manta swimming directly at me with its mouth so wide open, I was not afraid. From my first encounter, I was overcome with a sense of calm that I rarely experience in waking life, something at once meditative and elating. My eyes had been welling for a while and had begun to fill the inside of my mask with tears. Even underwater, a smile so spontaneous spread across my face and water began to gush around the new gaps between my lips and snorkel, forcing me to surface, briefly.

Moments after this first encounter, having cleared my mask of tears, I slipped back beneath the surface and immediately saw the first Manta had been joined by four more. I watched as they formed into a near perfect circle about midway down the water column. Each animal maintained a distance of a couple of feet from the tail of the one in front and they swim in this strange pattern for a few minutes and then they dispersed, disappearing back into the dark blue; all except one. She stayed around to dance for us for a further 20 minutes.

The behaviour we had witnessed, research has shown, is a Manta feeding frenzy. The space in the centre of their circle was likely full of highly concentrated plankton, which the Manta were mercilessly devouring. When the prey was consumed, that was the point that they broke their formation to find better grazing elsewhere.

The remaining Manta treated our group to some startling aquatic manoeuvres. Sometimes she would hanging close to motionless in the water whilst at other times perform fast, impossibly-tight turns and barrel rolls showing both her grey back and her white, eight-gilled, tummy with black spots in the lower quadrants. These black spots are unique to each fish and used by scientists for identification purposes.

Eventually, she too swam away marking the end of my first swim with these stunning creatures as our tour guide began the near impossible task of getting a large group of dispersed snorkellers and free divers back to the boat.

Back on the boat, dripping wet and huddled beneath a resort beach towel My smile had lost none of its shine and I was crying again. This time my tears were for Tristan. Trivial as it may seem, the thought of never being able to have this experience with him immediately felt like hot steel through my heart. It still does.

Back at the resort, I got off the tour boat convinced that if it was possible I would make the trip again before returning to the UK. At the back of my mind I was wondering if doing it for a second time would turn out not to be as magical as the first time, I would be in for a very pleasant surprise…

Here is some footage from my first swim:

Two days later I was back at our resorts dive school, mask, snorkel and flippers in hand and my excitement bubbling, barely contained, beneath the surface. While the first tour had been hugely over subscribed, only six of us were booked to go on the second and I was the only proficient swimmer armed with an underwater camera. My excitement peaked realising that, if there were Mantas present, the chances of getting decent footage, something which had been difficult on the first trip, would be pretty good.

While our first tour had taken us to a more open water location due to the absence of Manta in the much shallower Hanifaru Bay, this time Hanifaru Bay was teeming both with plankton and giant, hungry, Manta. Even before stepping from the boat into the beautifully warm and crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, we could see manta wings breaching the surface everywhere we looked. What would follow would be the two of the most remarkable hours of my life.

As soon as I entered the water of Hanifaru Bay I was aware what made the day so remarkable. Everywhere I looked the ocean was teeming with just visible black specks of plankton, like a cloud of suspended underwater dust and the primary food source of Manta Rays. I soon became less aware of the plankton and more aware of the Manta Rays.

Everywhere I looked were Reef Manta, at least 20 animals, swimming in every possible direction and all specimens at the upper limit of their size range. Each animal that passed me was approaching five meters across from wing tip to wing tip. I didn’t know where to point the borrowed Go-Pro, that had been attached to my arm for the vast majority of our Maldives adventure, next.

For two hours each tableaux unfolded into the next and each more stunning that the one it proceded. Reef Manta swam within inches of me, sometimes taking me totally by surprise, passing directly underneath me so that their huge mass filled my entire field of view. Manta swam directly at me, mouths wide then at the very last second, when collision seemed an inevitability, they peeled off left or right, up or down showing almost unnatural control over their hulking body’s position in the water column so that, although close, we never came into actual contact.

I’m not sure how long I had been in the water enjoying the giant grace of the Reef Manta before I noticed something even bigger in the depths. A Manta had just passed under me and I was still looking directly down when I saw a fish with a wing span that must have been close to 7 meters, unmistakable as Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta Ray.

After spotting the first Oceanic Manta I noticed 3 more close by. They performed the same breathtaking maneovuers as their smaller relatives but performed their aquabatics much lower in the water column and much further from the people gathered above. I made several attempts to free dive and have a closer look but my initial spot would be the best view I had – most often, I would arrive at the bottom to see the rear of their vast disk and stubby tail disappearing into the blue. I saw enough to make me appreciate just what an incredible place Hanifaru Bay is. A truly unique location in that it allows for sightings of both species of Manta and often in huge numbers (reports of 200 animals around full moons are often repeated).

Our two hours in Hanifaru Bay flew by and it was with great reluctance, largely due to the presence of so many, still active, Manta, that we swam back to our boat and left the Bay when our guides called time. The next day we would fly back to the UK, it’s been two weeks since I was in the water with these beautiful animals and I still go misty eyed and distance when I think about the experience or watch back my footage.

Here are the Manta in Hanifaru Bay:

Intelligent Ocean Stewardship

Both species of Manta that I encountered in the Maldives are on the list of endangered and monitored species, both listed as vulnerable. Their slow reproductive rate and use in Chinese medicine makes them at particular threat from extinction. Although known about for some time, there is still a limited amount of data on migration and population numbers – especially in relation to the Giant Oceanic Manta – so the exact figures on species number are not known. It is reasonable to assume we may enter the next century without either of these majestic creatures gracing our oceans.

We’re probably at the tipping point right now (some will argue we have already plunged over the edge) where it might not be too late to do something. Our current relationship with our oceans is highly atavistic and is now becoming unsustainable. I believe, to maintain anything like the levels of aquatic biodiversity that we enjoy today we must adopt a model of intelligent ocean stewardship before it’s too late.

If you are in any way inspired by my accounts and videos of swimming with Manta and want to go and swim with them yourself I would highly recommend it, but do it as a Steward for our seas. This means do your homework, look for locations where Manta are protected, not exploited.

One of the reasons I have so much respect for the way the Maldivian People operate access to Hanifaru bay is that they allow swimmers like me access to such incredible creatures while maintaining an environment that Manta have visited for thousands of years and will continue to visit for millennia to come.

One of the big steps that has been taken in Hanifaru Bay is the banning of scuba diving which has been shown to have a negative impact on the migratory habits of both Manta Ray and Whale Sharks. This is a measure that is taken at many of the Manta and Whale Shark hotspots around the world and is intelligent ocean stewardship in action.

I want as many people, not just current generations but subsequent generations, to be able to enjoy the seas in the way that I have. Gone are the times we can pretend it possible to have these experiences and not give thought to how we impact on these, often fragile, ecosystems. It’s up to us. it’s always been up to us, the only difference is now it really is starting to matter that we each act as responsible ocean stewards. The future thanks you.

Learn to swim

It’s something that I have always taken for granted, from an early age, moving in water always felt as natural to me as walking on the ground. I have gone through life so far largely assuming every one I meet will be able to meet the basic requirements of a swimmer ie not drowning.

Being on a resort with predominantly Chinese, Japanese and Korean holidaymakers aged under 30 I was struck by just how many were totally unable to swim. If I had to estimate, I would say 90% of guests from these countries lacked even the basics of swimming proficiency, not sure if this is reflected in wider populations in these countries but stark contrast to the UK where I’d estimate the same number would show 90% with a reasonable level of swimming proficiency.

If you are reading this and you are not able to swim, what are you waiting for? If you are determined you are not going to learn to swim, but have children, please encourage them to learn. The (possibly irrational) fear you have of the water won’t be shared by your children and there is no better time for them to learn than while they are young.

Big Fish Bucket List

As I am getting older and more accurately aware of the fragility of human life I’ve been thinking about the things I want to do before I die. This list includes swimming with a variety of different fish and below is my big fish bucket list:

  • Whale Shark
  • Wild Dolphins (Captive Dolphins don’t count)
  • Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (Manta birostris) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Wild Minke Whales
  • Oceanic Sunfish
  • Barracuda – April 2012, Riviera Maya, Mexico
  • Wild Stingrays (Southern Whiptail) – October 2015, Baa Atoll, Maldives
  • Wild Dugong
  • Great White Shark (caged dive)
  • Basking Shark
  • Wild Orca

Some links

Here are some links that you might find useful either to find out more about Manta Rays and their conservation or to plan your own trip:

Well that’s me done on this one, if you’ve swam with any of the above and have any tips on where and when is best to do the same, let me know and remember, if you don’t like these thoughts, stick around, I have others…

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Tristan Paul Coxon – April 5th 2015

27 Jul

Trigger Warning: this post contains information and pictures relating to the neonatal death of our son Tristan; If you are pregnant or any of these issues are a trigger for you please think carefully before continuing.

For Lot’s Wife

This is a story.

It begins: Listen! Paul Coxon has become unstuck in time

And it ends: Mummy and Daddy love you Tristan.

Listen! Paul Coxon has become unstuck in time.

It is said that Hassan al-Sabbāh (1050s-1124) trained his fearsome Ḥashshāshīn (Assassins) from his mountain stronghold of Alamut (now in North-West Iran) by first showing them paradise on Earth through a heady mix of strong Hashish and even stronger sweet wines. Once his devotees had grown a taste for this paradise, Al-Sabbāh withdraw the wine and the dope promising access would be returned if they carried out some small tasks for him. These small tasks usually involved infiltration, sedition or murder of some description, which his devotees jumped at the chance to carry out; thus is the allure of paradise. I have seen paradise, held him in my arms and lost it again almost as quickly. For the first time I understand its allure and would do anything to get it back.

“So how did you get on? How is fatherhood treating you?” My dentist asked in all innocence. She didn’t know, she couldn’t know, but it’s too late. I’m crying uncontrollably, anguished sobs rippling my body, sysmic shocks through jelly as I try to gasp my story before I slip beneath the weight of memory and drift…

As I write this, I am trembling uncontrollably, I have lost count of the times I’ve had to stop, eyes clouded with tears to compose myself before continuing. I need to finish this story, I need to set it free into the world where it will stay. This is not something I can keep inside, I am afraid of the consequences if I do. Sometimes the fire burns white hot, I can’t move, think and barely breath. I fear my core will begin creating iron in ever increasing quantities, then other heavy elements…Yeat’s Falcon in the widening gyre: ‘things fall apart their centres cannot hold’…and I will collapse in onto myself and then, fractions of a second later, explode. Supernovae, my fire will consume the world and I will be no more. So, this is a pressure release, painful as it is to write, this is therapy, strange and clumsy, but therapeutic.

For Kurt Vonnegut Jr, it was witnessing the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war during the dying days of World War Two that would temporarily sever his connection with time and which would form the basis of his cult classic novella, Slaughterhouse Five. I didn’t witness the collective, largely civilian, population of Dresden being bombed mercilessly by U.S. Warplanes, or walked with the wounded and dying through the remains of a huge city levelled in a few nights of concentrated malice.

No, my Dresden was a much quieter affair, though perhaps no more or less horrific. And it’s that easy, blink my eyes for too long and it’s the 6th April, a nurse with a kind smile advises me, “make sure you take lots of pictures.”

I didn’t hear her at first and so she prompted again. Nesting in the incubator before me, at the centre of a tangle of wires and tubes I am looking at my son for the first time:

image

This is Tristan. Isn’t he beautiful? I feel so proud that he is our son; even now my heart swells with happiness showing him off to you, my friends, though that happiness is followed quickly by deep horror and a sadness that regularly sweeps over me. It is brutal, it takes no prisoners, the Teller in a bank, my dentist, the little boy who tells me my superman trainers are ‘soooo cool’ I have cried at them all.

The neonatal consultant explains that our son is in a protective hypothermic state and what all His wires and tubes are doing. He shows me Tristan’s brain activity, says the next hours will be crucial if he is to make any sort of recovery. Starved of oxygen for close to 20 minutes, he doesn’t have to tell me how low the odds would be of a full recovery.

It’s 1:30am on Sunday 5th April and I have never been so frightened in my entire life. My beautiful wife, Lara, is fighting for her life in a theatre somewhere within the bowels of Coventry Hospital having suffered huge internal bleeding during the final stages of labour, no one is able to tell me this though, everyone who might be able to tell me this is busy with the practicality of saving Her life. I must wait another 5 hours before I find out she is stable and being moved to intensive care.

I spend the time leaning over Tristan’s incubator telling him all the things that I had waited 9 months to say. Swinging between giddy excitement and poorly stifled tears, I gabbled near stream of consciousness, “Your name is Tristan and I’m your Daddy…You need to get strong because when Mummy wakes up she is going to be so excited to meet you…your Granddad is here too to meet you…Until you and Mummy are strong Daddy is here and I’ll be your sword, I’ll be your armour”

Sometimes I would fall silent, simply put my index finger in the centre of his tiny open palm and will for any increase in pressure that would indicate a voluntary response on his part. There is nothing.

I sing to him, quietly and self consciously at first but eventually louder, all the songs my parents sang to me as a child, the songs I loved. I apologised for being tone deaf and told him that if he wanted me to stop he need only wake up and stop me. But there was nothing.

Realising time was passing us by, I watched his brain activity displayed on the monitor above his incubator and willed it to be more than it was. After 4 hours, it was clear that the little hope that entered the neonatal care unit with Tristan had slipped away, there would be no recovery now. It’s 5am and suddenly I know our baby will die and fear my wife will too.

I find myself wondering, If by some miracle she is okay, how do I tell her about Tristan? What if he doesn’t make it long enough to meet her? I am shaking, everything is spinning, I duck out of the neonatal care unit and into the family room, where, sat on the floor in the small gap between a sofa and chest of drawers I break down.

It is here that he finds me, the head of surgery who has been overseeing Lara’s surgery. His name is Mr Kaey and he is my hero. He gives me the first good news that I have had and even that stretches the very definition of good news to near breaking point. He explains in a voice that is tinged with emotion I am seldom used to hearing from medical professionals that my wife had to be cut extensively in order to find the source of her bleeding.

He tells me that having explored most of her internal organs the bleed was located and stopped. He tells me in the process she had received close to 7 litres of transfused blood, a near complete ‘oil change’. He assures me she should make a full recovery but that recovery would be slow. He said he was so sorry that this had happened and how incredibly rare it was (less than 200 cases recorded in medical literature). I thanked him for saving her life, I thank him every day and will continue to thank him until my last days.

After Mr Kaey had gone I went back to the neonatal unit and told Tristan the good news. I told him Mummy was going to be okay and would want to see him as soon as she was awake.

It would be another hour or so before Lara would wake up from the large dose of anaesthetic she had received. I remember seeing her for the first time in Intensive Care, a large tube down her throat attached to almost as many tubes and wires as Tristan and looking as pale and frail as anyone I have seen. There is nothing that can frighten me now, no horror worse than those moments before Lara opened her eyes.

Even coming round from the anaesthetic and unable to talk from the tube still helping her breath, Lara raised her arms above the bed as if cradling and invisible baby and her eyes pleaded with me for answers. I told her Tristan was  very poorly but that she would be able to see him soon.

A few hours later Lara would be moved from intensive care to the maternity ward where she could be close to Tristan and kept under observation every hour. I had a bed next to hers and it is here I would spend the best part of the next week.

With Lara awake, I allowed my hope to be renewed. I reasoned that in actual fact miracles do happen from time-to-time: people many years in comatose states wake up, people starved of oxygen in excess of 10 minutes sometimes make full recoveries. We told each other that if we gave him enough time perhaps we would allow some germ of a miracle to begin to grow and Tristan would be okay.

The wonderful staff at the University Hospital Coventry ensured that we could see Tristan as much as we wanted. This was no mean feat in itself as each visit meant moving Lara, who was still not able to walk, in her hospital bed along with her numerous drips, sensors and machinery to the neonatal ward where Tristan was. This is how the next few days would pan out, back-and-forth between maternity and the neonatal ward, in between times we rested. We took lots of pictures during our visits, some of these are below:

  
  
We didn’t cry too much, I seem to remember, numbness was more the order of those first few days, though we’ve certainly made up for it since. Visitors came and went, for beautiful and precious moments we were normal parents, proud as punch as we show off our new born son to excited family and friends. It seems slightly surreal looking back, like a choreographed act of normality with tragedy, ever-present, just beneath the surface. I kept thinking that if this continued demonstration of love and togetherness from all our friends wasn’t enough to kick start the miracle that we so needed then nothing would be. Tristan’s condition did not change.

It’s Tuesday 7th April 2015 and early in the morning. I pay Tristan a visit in the neonatal ward and propped in front of his incubator is a picture of his big feet with the caption: ‘Even the smallest footprints have the power to leave everlasting imprints on this earth.” It is perfect and it lifts my spirits. I do not know it yet but today I will need all the strength I can get:

  

In the night, Lara had taken a turn for the worst. If you move someone’s bowel it will often freeze causing dangerous amounts of bile to build up leading to any number of serious complications. They had to insert a tube down Lara’s throat and into her bowel in order to drain it, this would be the start of my favourite story from the whole ordeal:

To say Lara was unhappy about having the tube down her throat would be an understatement, she complained about being uncomfortable and feeling worse-off as a result. The surgeons who had inserted the tube insisted that it was a necessity that couldn’t be removed until it has done its job. When they had left, I warned the nurse observing Lara that if left alone that tube was going to get pulled out. Seeing an opportunity while an X-ray on her bowels was being performed – which incidentally revealed that the tube had become twisted against the bowel wall – and just as I said she would, Lara  removed the tube herself. I confess I am proud of her for that, I’ll-advised and reckless as it was, it makes me smile thinking about it.

The surgeons returned and agreed to not reinsert the tube at that time but advised that it would need to be put back in sooner or later if Lara was to get better. “We’ll see.” Was all my she said to that and the same day we would overhear the surgeons puzzling over how Lara was making leaps and bounds towards recovery without them reinserting the tube into her bowel, the one thing they had been certain would not happen. I am reminded there is a lot to be said for will-power, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness, three things that my beautiful wife has in endless supply.

As Lara was making giant leaps towards a recovery, Tristan had taken a turn for the worst. We had been advised already that the little hope our Son had was gone and we needed to give serious thought to turning off his ventilator and allowing him to die. Tuesday morning, we were still not ready to make that call, but Tristan made it for us when the tube that was providing oxygen to his lungs had become dislodged. We were advised that the tube could be reinserted but that the procedure would be invasive.

Together, we made the decision that we must let our beautiful son go and not have his breathing tube reinserted. Though I know it was a humane, medically and ethically sound decision to make at that point I feel the crushing weight of it on me every day. We definitely did the right thing, it is not that I have doubt of that, it’s just sometimes the right thing really sucks.

For the first time Tristan would be brought to us free of wires and medical technology and we would do the things that we had craved for days, the hallmarks of parental normality. We got to give him a bath, change his nappy and dress him in some of the beautiful clothes that we had got for him to wear:

  
  
At about 5:30pm on Tuesday 7th of April Tristan’s heart had stopped and our son died, peacefully in our arms. He would stay with us for the remainder of the day with the great support of hospital staff and the next morning we would give our consent for his body to be moved to the chapel of rest.

I remember putting our son in bed next to his Mummy while I went to the toilet and on coming back was presented with the below scene:

  

I don’t think I’ll ever take a better picture than this, it was like capturing the exact moment a star turns supernova. Everything exists in duality, it is at once the most beautiful and most deeply horrific thing that I have ever seen. Life and death as they exist, on a knife edge, and it is here that we walk.

Over the next few days, Lara would continue to make huge steps towards recovery, surprising all the medical staff who would visit her. On Thursday 9th April we would be moved to one of the hospitals lovely family rooms and the next day we would have to attend the hospitals registration office where we would register Tristan’s birth and death at the same time.

Though purely administrative, signing those certificates would be one of the most painful experiences that we would endure. Having things spelled out on official paper makes them seem so much more real and final. The same day we registered Tristan’s life and death, Lara would be discharged from hospital and we would return home to a nursery that was waiting expectantly for our son. I don’t have adequate words to explain the sadness of an empty nursery without a child to fill it, but you get used to it. I say that a lot: you get used to it. Nothing is anywhere near the things we expected when Lara went into labour, this is not normal but a new type of normal that you get used to because there are no other options.

We arranged and held a funeral for Tristan on 24th April, which was attended by all our friends and family. I wrote the below poem which I was able to read on the day:

You will be loved

Sweet darling boy, our beautiful Son,
You will never get to see the wonderful world that we have built for you
And Mummy and Daddy, their hearts are broken
That your first words will forever go unspoken
That your first steps will never tentatively be taken
But you will be loved little baby Tristan, you will be loved.

We’ll never get to teach you to tie shoe-laces
Never take you to the dentist who will never say you need braces.
But you will be loved, you will be loved.

You will never know the simple pleasure
Of trailing a hand in still water at leisure
Watching the ripples as they expand
Though your life was short, your ripple travels far
I look up, watch for our newest star
And you are loved.

– End –

Since then, we have been supported by so many people, I’ll be forever grateful to those who have lent us their time, shoulders and ears when we have needed them, I’ll be writing more on this later. 

it’s not been easy. There have been days where simply getting out of bed has seemed like climbing a mountain, but we’ve got up and faced each new day together. I am in awe of how well Lara has dealt with everything the universe has thrown at us over the past few months, her strength and courage is inspirational.

It’s been difficult watching friends, who were pregnant around the same time as Lara, give birth to perfectly healthy children while all we have is a teddy bear that contains our son’s ashes and a deep, enduring, pain. I don’t begrudge them their happiness, easy as it would be to succumb to such base emotions, but their joy at the wonder of new life throws stark relief on our sorrow.

So here we are, it’s Monday 27th July and today I begin a phased return to work after a 4 month absence. I am looking forward to it, slowly we are allowing normality and routine to root us back into time. It is painful and at times brutal but life must go on.

Those of you who know me will know that I have an interest in coincidence and synchronicity, so how’s this: Tristan was born on the same date as my Brother’s son, Josh (5th April) and died on the same day as my Mum (7th April).

Kurt Vonnegut Jr ended the brilliant introduction to Slaughterhouse 5 with the following half-apology:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.

I’ve always liked that and it sums up how I feel about this post. I promise, dearest reader, that the next one will be more fun. All that remains to be said is:

Mummy and Daddy love you Tristan.

Give Blood

Lara received a lot of donated blood and Tristan was also treated with blood products to help his blood clot. The UK blood service are always crying out for doners, find out more about giving blood here: Giving Blood in the UK

that #ff thang #2 He Who Licketh the Skip

6 Sep

I’ve never had to point a firearm at someone and make the decision to pull the trigger. I hope I never will. My Granddad did. It was a decision taken, not out of anger, or fear (though he was afraid) but from duty and the instinct to live. ‘Here be man’s most monstrous’ he’d write in margins. It was horror that he could not find words to express, at first. He awoke screaming for the rest of his life and never spoke of the war if he could avoid it. Granddad died before anyone knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was. My Granddad was a hero.

I’m posting this a bit earlier than Friday to meet the real (not one of the squidgier variety) deadline for this week’s Weekly Blog Club. It’s such a great initiative aimed at encouraging people (especially in public & 3rd Sector) to write. Each week, there are suggested topics for any writers who are struggling to come up with something to write about, one of last week’s topics was Hero’s and it reminded me I should post this one. Anyway, I highly recommend checking them out on Twitter and visiting the site, they always have a lot of great content from some really brilliant writers.

My mate Skip’s a hero.

He’s seen darkness far worse than anything Granddad saw, but took the same action and lives with a similar consequence.

SkipLicker, to use his own description,  Is:

King of the Stickmen. Hardcore Troll. Carried a rifle once, then got shot at… Fuck off and be offended somewhere else

It’s the Hardcore Troll bit that gets some of my followers hot under the collar and not in the groovy, post-watershed way. To them, Skip’s just a Troll and Trolls are bad. mmkay? There is only one other person* I am warned about more for following and talking to on Twitter than Skip.

I like Skip, I have from the first time I read one of his blogs and chatted to him. I take people as I finds them and Skip has always been lovely to me. More than this though, Skip has a lot of very interesting things to say about a lot of different things. He is a fantastic writer with a voice that swings, often disarmingly, from sneering, acidic wit to warmth and empathy.

I’m most interested in his thoughts on war. You see, Skip’s writing a book about his experiences and, just as I think she’d approve of my granddad’s journals, I think Mary O’Hare would approve of Skip’s portrayal of war…

If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, it probably means you haven’t read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. You should rectify that situation immediately, it truly is a brilliant book. Vonnegut was writing a War book too – an anti-war book in fact, as perfectly pointless as an ‘anti-glacier’ book – he was reminiscing with an old war buddy, when the man’s wife interrupted:

“You were just babies then!” she said.
“What?” I said.
“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
“I — I don’t know,” I said.
“Well I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies. – Slaughterhouse 5 – Chapter 1

I think we can be certain that wars are not even party encouraged by books or films but, just in case, Skip’s writing will have no role for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. Read this: Words in a Skip: Hang em’ High and this: Words in a skip: Holes and Me

Quite recently, Skip has been a voice of reason in the growing cycles of online ‘outrages’  following trolling and is amongst a group of interesting folk asking important questions about Freedom of Speech. One of the few things that the Left and Right of UK politics seem to agree on is the need for freedom of speech applied to some and not others. You can threaten to blow up an airport and get away with it, but don’t dare threaten an Olympic Diver…

Skip thinks you should be able to say anything you want and he’s right, I think. That is how Freedom of Speech works? I’m asking, not telling. Either everything is okay to say, or nothing is. Read this:  Words in a Skip: Frankie Says Relax and this: Words in a Skip: Sticks and Stones.

Skip suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That didn’t come from nowhere, it came from the things he saw and did at war and the things done to him in preparation for war. Skip is not alone, there are likely huge numbers of troops returning from war with mental scars invisible to the naked eye, but that are as debilitating as lost limbs. Read more of my thoughts on War and the armed forces

So there we have it, follow my mate Skip…but not literally, that probably won’t end well.

*The dubious honour of ‘Person I am warned most about on Twitter’ goes to Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero), Editor-in-Chief at The Kernal. I like him too, he’s a brilliant writer with an acerbic tongue and yes, if you’re going to tell me about the horrible things he’s said…I know. He’s said a lot of things that I find pretty awful, but I suspect a lot of them he has said because he likes to shock and, besides, he’s always been sweet with me, as I said before, I takes ’em as I finds them. Also rumour has it that he is a great deal nicer in real life than how he sometimes chooses to present himself in print.

You Know the score: If you don’t like these Thoughts, stick around, I’ve got plenty of others.

Today I cried and then I smiled

6 Apr My Mum writing her journal in Kenya

Eight years ago today, I was sat beside my Mum, Jaki’s, hospital bed holding her hand as she lost her fight with Pancreatic Cancer. Her ravaged body barely rippling sheets, I remember it like it was yesterday, every moment right up until the end. People always tell you that the grief gets easier over time, this is a beautiful lie, my pain today is the same as it was back then. It’s just no longer an open wound, but an ache in my heart that I carry around with me every day, I wouldn’t trade this pain for anything. But this is NOT a post about pain or about death, that is not what my Mum would have wanted; I told her I was proud of her when she was in the hospital, she told me to stop being so bloody morbid. So this is not a post about death, it’s a post about life, my Mum’s life, it is a celebration of that.

It’s funny the things we remember…

I remember she used to make up a flask and picnic for me and my best mate Mark even though we were only going round the block and would never be more than 200 meters from our house.

I remember she’d watch me and my little brother like we were made of gold and the look in her eyes, drenched with love and pride that we were her sons.

I remember her making me Snowballs at Christmas, my first tastes of alcohol.

I remember the way she used to laugh, without restraint, and the way it would to light up her face, I used to love making her laugh.

I remember she used to come and watch me play Rugby; even though she hated the game and thought I’d only end up getting hurt, which I mostly did, she’d be there on the touchline cheering me on.

I remember the efforts she went to to teach me a moral code that I spent so much time rebelling against in my teens but a code that I now try to live by every day of my adult life.

I remember her faith, belief in a God that I’ve never found, but that gave her strength.

I remember every time I let her down, the momentary dimming of her adoration was often more than  punishment enough for my transgressions. I remember the warmth of her forgiveness.

I remember she used to hate just about every girlfriend I ever brought home, listing the reasons it would not work out…she was mostly right, though often for the wrong reasons.

My Mum was the first person to recognise I had talent as a writer and encouraged me to read widely, she is one of the reasons that I still write today. I always had the desire to write, but my Mum (my Dad too) spent hours reading the things I wrote and time thinking of comments on them, to try and help me. She used to swell with pride that she could not hide when I used to talk about length about how one day I’d be a famous writer. She would listen to me ramble on and then smile, telling me that she had no doubts that I could do and be anything that I put my mind to.

My Mum wasn’t perfect, she had a temper on her, there was a fiery intensity, I have that immutable fire burn inside me too. We used to fight a lot, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realised most of our fights stemmed from our similarities, not our differences. She did not want an easy life if that meant not doing what she thought was right; I have that too and it gets me in trouble from time-to-time just as it used to do for her, I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I stand up and challenge something I think is wrong (I certainly don’t always get it right) I can feel her words coming out through my open mouth and it is these times I feel closest to her now that she has gone.

I’m not happy with this post, perhaps I will add to it over time, perhaps I won’t. The memories flow so quickly that it’s hard to pick them out and focus on a single one long enough to write it down, but this is the problem with a flawed post written by a pillar of salt. We are not intended to look back too much, we lose focus on the present, but today I cried and then I smiled, remembering my Mum.

I love you mum.

I miss you…

Eva Cassidy – Fields of Gold

Check out the great work work done by the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Research UK, two charities very close to my heart.

I’m adopted and you can hear me talking about my adoption on my Audioboo account

Confessions of a Shy Guy

3 Feb

The guy in the picture on the mic, that’s my Dad, Pete. You would like my Dad.

I appreciate this is a bold statement to make, you are forgiven for wondering how I could possibly know you’d like him. It’s simple really, everyone likes my Dad, it’s almost impossible not to like him even after only a brief meeting. He’s charismatic, bubbly, funny and generous with both his time and his praise, but my Dad has a deep secret: he suffers from crippling shyness. No one ever believes my Dad when he tells them that he’s shy mainly due to the outward appearance of his personality traits; I’m shy too, but no one ever believes me either, in fact not so long ago a friend said the following when I told him, ‘You’re not shy Paul, you’re a gobshite’. He was right and ultimately wrong.

We all ‘know’ the things that shy people don’t do: they don’t work in Public Relations which is littered by Type A personalities; they don’t speak confidently in front of large groups of people; they don’t, due to fear of conflict, challenge things that they think are wrong ; and they don’t go out of their way to meet new people. I’m shy and I DO and have DONE all these things.

It has been one of the best lessons that my Dad has ever taught me. He made me realise that while I may never overcome my shyness and my self-doubt that I don’t have to let it stop me doing the things I want to do. Watching him, I learnt how to create a public face, as mask if you will, that was all the things that, naturally, I wouldn’t be. At this point some of you may be thinking that this is deceptive and, if you see the world in blacks and whites, I guess it is. It’s a deception that means I get to do the things that I want to do and achieve the things I want to achieve and no one gets hurt, so on the scale of things I’m okay with it being slightly deceptive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently as I have a couple of friends who are incredibly shy.  They both have the capacity to do great things and the desire to do them, but the likelihood of that happening is decreased unless they overcome their shyness (by whatever means). So I thought I’d write this post as fess up on my own shyness and share some tips I have used and still use:

  • Practice public speaking in front of a mirror. It will be uncomfortable to start with (very few people fully like the person staring back) but it works to overcome anxiety as it shows you what people see when you give a presentation or similar;
  • Don’t let opportunities pass you by. Luck does not exist, this is a fact, it’s a pointless construct human’s have created. People, who we think are lucky, simply take advantage of more of the opportunities that come their way;
  • Force yourself to meet new people, in person, at least once a week and talk to them. You have nothing to lose from this and you might actually gain new friends;
  • Challenge things you disagree with. It’s rare to regret challenging, but unfortunately common to regret not challenging. Always be as polite as you can but fear of a disagreement should not be enough to keep you silent.

My final thought to anyone shy, like me, is this: don’t tell yourself (or let anyone tell you) that there are things you cannot do because you are shy…it’s fundamentally not true, me and my Dad are proof of that, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy all too easily. In most situations the truism of Francis Bacon’s saying (though popularised by Roosevelt’s inaugural address) stands:

The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. 

Update

Since writing this I’ve been touched and surprised by the amount of people who have contacted to me on Twitter to thank me for writing this post and to say that it could have been written about them. I have been especially surprised by the number of people working in Public Relations, people I’ve spoken to for ages and assumed were vastly more confident than myself, who told me they suffer from exactly the same type of shyness and have also constructed similar public masks to overcome it. Far from being the AB Fab clones that many choose to imagine PRO’s as, there are plenty of type B personalities like myself working in the industry.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to respond, share their experiences and methods for overcoming shyness, I really appreciate it.

Memory through Music

22 Nov

I was inspired to write this post by Jules Jackson who wrote a brilliant post called The Soundtrack to Your Life, which I’d recommend that you read…

Despite a total lack of any musical talent (anyone who has heard me singing in the shower can attest to my total inability to carry any form of tune) music has always played a huge part in my life and I find it one of the greatest evocations of memory.

Here are ten memories and the associated soundtrack:

I’m 8 and we are going away to Cornwall in the caravan; it’s the first time I can remember my Dad treating us to his tastes in music. He sings along, capable of carrying a tune and sometimes Mum chips in too; she sings a line here, a chorus there. We listen to the Beatles, Electric Light Orchestra, Cat Stevens, The Carpenters…I remember Follow the Sun by The Beatles most of all: hopeful but sad and a taste like Werther’s Original.

I’m a little older, maybe 10; we’re going away in the caravan again and I’m allowed to sit in the front seat next to my Dad, who is driving. Mum and little brother, Rob, sit in the back. Roy Orbison is Mum’s choice, one of her favourites. There is the repeated refrain ‘Mercy’ at the end of verses and, each time, Mum tickles my ears, which makes me giggle…we all laugh.

It’s 1996 and I’m 14; this is my favourite track from the first music album that I ever buy, the debut, self-titled, album from Savage Garden. I listen to it constantly for months, it’s exciting and it’s mine. Years later I will still remember this feeling each time I buy a new album.

It is 1999 and I’m 17; I’m in the Gatecrasher Superclub in Sheffield. My hair is long, but gelled into hugely improbable spikes and I have swirling patterns made from dots of UV paint all over my face. People have travelled from all around the country (and some much further) to be here on a Saturday night. It feels like being a part of something amazing, a huge mass of people intent on nothing more than dancing and having a good time. This track is playing and a man I’ve never met before tells me he loves my hair, we exchange a sweaty hug and he dances off into the near-dark, grinning broadly. I grin too.

It’s 2001 and I’m 19; I’m at the University of Warwick studying for my degree, the serendipity of chance leads me to meet a fellow student who plays me this track, I’m enthralled, want to hear more and so begins a love of Trip-hop and especially Tricky. The student’s name is William Snow, we spend hours-on-end chatting and laughing together. Neither of us know it, but the future will see us become the dearest of friends; he is Best Man at my wedding, my thousandth man, as Solomon says.

It’s 2002, I’m 20 and the time is 5am; Will and I are walking back to our summer home, across the exposed Gannel Estuary after a night in Newquay’s clubs and beach parties. We are both intoxicated, giggling, silly as we stumble across stones and wet sand sharing stories and secrets like gold and jewels. We start singing this track by Roots Manuva, alternating a line each, until we have finished when we begin again. Before turning in we agree it’s some of our best work, we laugh; we both have work in 3 hours, but it does not matter.

It’s 2004 and I am 23; I’m at a bar with friends when I first see her. It is like I have never seen another human before, I stare, I can’t look away. My friends are talking to me, but I don’t hear, they have faded away and it is just me and her. She comes over to speak to me and it’s exciting but familiar. One day this vision of beauty, spotted in a bar, will be my wife. From the beginning she is the reason I wake up happy, she is my friend and companion, lover and confidant, she is the radiant light melting the frosty dawn and I love her eternally.

It’s 2005 and I’m 24; we are in the church in the village of Wales where I grew up and we are surrounded by all our friends and family. Everyone is sorry, everyone is tearful, we are all gathered there to say goodbye to my Mum, Jaki, who has lost her short battle with Pancreatic cancer. I am touched by the sea of faces that occupy every single pew, that lined the side of the church when the seats ran out. Eva Cassidy sings Fields of Gold and I finally crumple, cry against my family. I am afraid that the tears won’t stop, I come to learn that they don’t, they only slow as the happy memories return. I miss my Mum.

It’s 2006 and I’m 25; we are surrounded by our friends and family again, this time the circumstances are much happier. It is our wedding day, it is the happiest day of my life so far, we are dancing our first dance to James Blunt’s Your Beautiful and I am carefully avoiding treading on Lara’s feet. At the end of the dance, she smiles at me and it’s amazing; I know I will carry that smile down the ages, that it will light my darknesses and warm my nights. I am content.

It’s 2011 and I’m 3 days away from my 30th Birthday; Mos Def’s Umi Says is playing on my laptop as I write this blog. I have never grown tired of this song since it was first played to me and it never ceases to make me smile. I’m smiling now, remembering and smiling.

So, now to finish, just like Jules:

So what I would like to know is:  What is the soundtrack to your life or your life?

We all have them so share…

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