Sunday, 11 September 2016

On this day each year...

So, 15 years ago 9/11 happened.  Cleverer people than me have written on the political/environmental/socio-economic impact of  that horrific day.  So I will let them continue to do so.
This is my take on how it affected me.  Egotistical maybe, and millions of people were affected far more directly than me, but New York is a place I love, I have since the second I set foot off the bus at the Port Authority bus terminal in October of 2000.

I had just finished university, felt like I deserved a treat, took myself off to a hostel in Manhattan for nearly a week, by myself.  I flew into JFK, arriving in the early evening, jumped on my bus and headed off into the city. We drove across the bottom end of Times Square, and as I looked out of the window, I just felt at home.  Stepping off the bus I just got this feeling, like a calm coming over me, like I was where I belonged.

Over the course of that week, I explored the entire city, just me, my headphones and a well battered wallet.  I took the Staten Island ferry, I saw movies in Times Square, I wandered Central Park, I bought comics in St. Mark’s Place, I inhaled the city.  It was during this week I truly fell in love with New York.

I spent the following summer, of 2001 in Philadelphia, working in a summer camp.  It included a few visits to New York, including a long weekend at the start with an old schoolfriend of mine.   After travelling down to Tennessee to attend a wedding, I took the train back to Manhattan.  It took 19hrs non stop, worth it to spend another afternoon in the city.   I just had time to squeeze in a trip to a couple record shops, then I dragged my luggage to the AMC cinema just off Times Square, grabbed some Milk Duds and relaxed with Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back before flying home.
We scrub up ok!

4 days later I got off the bus in York on my way to work to see a crowd of people standing outside an electronics shop, watching the TV screens.  I saw the towers, I saw the smoke, but I didn’t really take it in until later. The city I had just left, the city I loved was in chaos.  I spent the next two days, just like the rest of the world, in shock, but also awaiting any news of the couple of friends who I knew had been in the area.  Eventually I got word that they were okay, but one had been walking towards the WTC and got covered in dust, and the other who was on a plane at JFK about to fly back to South Africa.  Obviously, they didn’t fly, but in a pre-facebook world, getting information was hard.

On the Staten Island Ferry
The following year I returned to Philadelphia for the summer.  I flew straight into Philly that time so no NYC stopover.  A couple of weeks in, we took the kids on a Saturday day trip in, to see a Broadway show.  We drove down past Ground Zero on a giant yellow school bus.  I have genuinely never seen a group of 11-15 year olds show so much respect, each of them falling silent as we went past. I’ve never been more proud of my camp kids.

Maybe I shouldn't have wished to be big!
In the years since, I have returned several times, and have always, always felt welcome in New York, whether I was in a bakery in Queens or buying T-shirts in the HBO shop.  I have so shown my mum, my sisters, my then girlfriend, my now wife all my favourite spots, from  the obvious (FAO Schwartz) to the less well known (SouthStreet Seaport), from the beautiful (Washington Square Park) to the mundane (Queens Boulevard) and never felt more at home than on the streets that great city.
While I can’t claim to have been physically affected, every year I load up my NYC playlist, raise a toast and shed a little tear for that city I love. 

Do you know what? I really do Heart NY.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

'To Kill A Mockingbird' - and a stupid politician!

So, Michael Gove hates ‘Of Mice and Men’? Well, I’m pretty antagonistic about him, but apparently that doesn’t stop being in charge of the education of our young people. 
To remove Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ from the GCSE syllabus is typical of a man who seems to know nothing about education, or the need to instil the values, morals and ethics demonstrated by the two in our young.
 In today’s increasingly shallow and amoral society, introducing 15 & 16 year olds to Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, George and Lenny seems to me to be one of the few ways in which we can teach them about doing the right thing, about maintaining a strong moral code, about being a decent human being. 
I studied ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ when I was just a little 15 year old Steve, but I read it, and I read it well ahead of the rest of the cast.  I was drawn in by the injustice of a man being put on trial for something he didn’t do, but would accept the consequences imposed on him by a prejudiced world.  I wanted to be Atticus Finch for a while, I even contemplated law as a career, but more crucially, I wanted to know him, or someone like him.  He was someone who was brave enough to stand up for a wronged man, someone with a strong enough sense of morality to say ‘No.  This is unjust.’  
As someone who has been involved in the teaching profession, however briefly, and who has a degree in English (just like Michael Gove), I want the next generation to understand that people used to stand for something, not just want to be famous.  I want kids to know that humanity and compassion are better things than a fake tan and having people know your name. 
Someone on twitter said to me today that Gove hates these texts because ‘humanity cannot be sold off for profit’ and I think they are right.
When I have children, regardless of if the books are on the GCSE syllabus, and they should be, my children will be reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and they will be reading ‘Of Mice And Men’.  And not only will they be reading them; they will be talking about them, and exploring the characters and the decisions and choices that they have made.  I want my children to know, that in the world there exists good and evil, and that there exists a right and wrong.  My children will know that everything is not a shade of murky grey; that they should stand up for the little guy, and fight for what is right.
So, after all that, Michael Gove, don’t deprive our children of learning something which will make the world a less crappy place to be, just because you didn’t like them, doesn’t mean generations of kids shouldn’t have role models as strong as Atticus and Scout (a great female character with guts and brains).  Put these texts back on the reading lists. And if you could go away after that, that would be great...

Friday, 10 January 2014

Benefit Street? If only it were that easy...

With all the media coverage of the TV show ‘Benefit Street’, I thought it might be a good time to look at what life is actually like on benefits in York.  As you may know, I recently lost my job when my employers closed the shop I was managing without telling me, leaving me owed a lot of money, just before Christmas. As a 34 year old, educated, experienced man I figured I would be able to find a new job relatively easily, I have always had a job, never needed to sign on.
My first experience of signing on was relatively positive, but the following couple of visits, not so much. I want a job, I want to work, but the guy next to me at the Job Centre has arrived for a 10am meeting already drunk.  I’m glad my appointments have been in the morning, after being there in the afternoon I never want to go back to that!
Now, eight weeks later I am increasingly reliant on my £71 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance and am at a point where I might have to move out of my flat because I only qualify for £11 housing benefit.   My wife has a job, which is good, but she doesn’t earn much more than the minimum wage, however that is apparently enough to mean that I can’t get any help from this government.   According to the Benefits Agency a married couple needs £137 a week (after deductions) to live off, not including rent or council tax.  Because my wife earns around this much, I am not entitled to anything more than my JSA.  Not entirely sure where I am supposed to find the £600 a month, which is roughly average for York, to pay the rent, or the £150 a month in council tax.  
I’m not entirely sure where the people of ‘Benefit Street’ are getting these funds, because after spending 18 years paying tax and National Insurance, I can only get £11 to help pay my rent.  Thank whatever deity you believe in for the fact I have an amazing support network of wife, family and friends, without whom I would already be homeless!           
Going to the Job Centre once a week is probably not going to help me get a job, it helps me leave the house. The reality of being ‘on the dole’ is that I spend two or three hours every morning looking for jobs, I usually spend my afternoons being ignored by recruitment consultants who have never worked in the industries they are recruiting for and trying not to leave the house, because even spending the bus fare into town is more than I can really afford.  I have had some interviews, been rejected for many jobs without interviews and never heard back from at least fifty applications I have made. I have applied for an average of three jobs per day, most of them I am horribly overqualified for, but I need and want a job.  There are only so many afternoons you can spend watching TV, I’m finding myself less and less motivated to do anything other than look for jobs.   Long story short, if I could work out where to get some of this alleged benefit cash, I too would take it!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Thursday, 26 September 2013

See How They Run - Review

See How They Run was first performed in 1944, the year before World War 2 ended and has become one of the classic British farces.  Director Juliet Forster (Blue/Orange, Angels & Insects) has brought See How They Run to York for a new run; farce is undergoing something of a revival as a genre in the Theatre apparently.  The play is a tale of confusion, mistaken identity, vicars, soldiers, maids and more.  It is also a very cheeky comedy.
We opened with messages emblazoned across the curtain, flickering like those old newsreels you see in movies, setting the wartime scene nicely.  Once those curtains opened, we were in the Vicarage of small town Merton-cum-Middlewick, a massive set of some complexity.  In essence the set is a living room, but as we were to find out later, many doorways leading off it would come into play.
Retired actress and niece of a bishop Mrs Toop (Faye Winter) is now married to the local vicar, living with small town gossips, shocked by her lively personality, who receives a visit from an old actor friend, now a soldier, and decide to go for a night out.  To tell you much more would rob you of some of the highlights of the show but suffice to say, at one point there are four men dressed as vicars, a parish lady in a cupboard, a Bishop (Matthew Rixon) in his pyjamas and a whole lot of shenanigans.
A very game cast, give it their all in a very physical show, running in and out of doors, up and down stairs, changing outfits and pulling unconscious people around the set.  All this while maintaining composure with some very silly dialogue (in a good way).
My wife and I enjoyed ourselves immensely, and the biggest laughs were pulled out by Lucy Phelps as the cheeky maid Ida, and Philip Mansfield as replacement vicar Humphrey.  The whole cast got big laughs and this productions ensemble is excellent, balanced perfectly between the physicality of the slapstick and the clever wordplay of the script.  Precise timing is required to pull off gags like these, both verbally and physically and they nailed it. The commitment from the actors means this play deserves a big audience, I would happily bring anyone from 8-80 to see it, great fun.