Living and dying in 2016

I’ve never found New Years’s Eve a time for celebration. For some unknown reason I always harbour a melancholy feeling deep inside. A sadness for the year that’s gone. My Mother is the same; perhaps it’s a celtic thing. A darkness in our souls that rears it’s head in the depth of midwinter and blinds us to the truths that are all around.

But of all years, this is the one that I should be glad to see the back of. Shouldn’t it? You don’t need me to tell you that 2016 has hardly been a vintage year for the World, we all know what’s happened. Whatever your political persuasion, the likes of Brexit, terrorist attacks, Trump’s election, and the ongoing situation in Syria have far-reaching effects for all of us. And sadly, many people seem to have nailed colours so firmly to their own particular mast, that they seem incapable of being mature enough to agree to disagree on things, and respect the fact that others may have another opinion to themselves.

Though despite all this, reflecting on what 2016 means to me personally has been quite surprising. Early in the year we walked around the 700 year old wonder that is York Minster, and even four very young children were moved to awe inspired silence at the gothic beauty and splendour inside. A similar wondrous silence occurring just a month later as they witnessed for the first time lambs being born at a friends farm. I don’t think I’ll ever forget their collective joyful smiles at seeing the new life emerge before them.

I have lost one dog, and gained another. The first being stolen from our farm one night, and not being seen since. A low point for our family not just for this year, but for our lives. But our new Welsh Sheepdog Gus, could just turn out to be one of the high points. He is an unbridled joy to be around, and is already universally adored by the entire family. He has ‘it’. That special talent and instinct that some working dogs have deep within their bones, and it’s exciting to see what he can become with time.

I held in my hand a Roman coin that a man with a metal detector found on our farm from 68bc. 68BC! It was an old coin even before the Romans arrived on this island. As a hopeless history geek I can’t begin to tell you what a thrill this was.

We have harvested excellent crops of grass, maize, and spring barley, but very average crops of winter wheat and particularly winter barley. Though the weather, and therefore soil conditions when doing so were unusually good, making the whole job relatively stress free. And throughout 2016 the best flock of hens we’ve ever had have performed like champions, laying well above average egg numbers for their breed. Cattle prices have held up reasonably well, and we’ve begun to see some of the benefits of expanding numbers over the last few years. Our hard work is beginning to pay off in that department.

I’ve spent a joyous long weekend with old university friends and their families, and watched our children hare around together forming fledgling friendships that will perhaps last for even longer than ours have. The thought of this brings a tear to my eye. I have taught my two oldest Daughters to ride a bike. And in fact, I let go of them both for the first time on the same day. And what a day it was. I suspect that I will remember the feeling of pride and elation as they zoomed away on their own for the rest of my life.

We Christened our youngest Daughter in the Church where we got married, my Parents got married, and my Grandparents are buried, surrounded by our family and friends. And afterwards we drank beer, ate hog roast, and toasted the health of our beautiful baby girl together. A day of laughter and celebration, followed by a day of more than a few sore heads. Memories are made of such things.

I badly tore the ligaments in my right shoulder, which has made farming and parenting a challenge all year, though it’s finally on the mend. We spent a memorable week in North Devon, playing on the beach, splashing in the surf, and eating pizza and drinking wine in the dunes (Us, not the kids. They don’t eat pizza.) And met in person the first of several twitter friends. Shout out to @newlandfarm and family who welcomed us to their farm in deepest, darkest Exmoor and even provided our Girls with a pony to ride. They’re still talking about it now. The kindness of social media friends never fails to astound me.

I have ran two half-marathons, and loved *almost* every second of both. Taking part in such large events surrounded by similarly minded and positive people was an incredible experience, and I’m proud of the money that I raised for Save the Children. I hope I enjoy the marathon that I’m training for in April as much. Though at the moment, after a week of Christmas excess, the thought of it makes me die a little inside. I’ve also been interviewed and appeared on my new favourite podcast (Shark Farmer Podcast, hosted by the one and only Rob Sharkey – check it out on iTunes) and made many new friends from that experience in the good ol’ US of A.

I stood with my one great love in the pouring rain at the Etihad stadium in Manchester, and watched my other great love perform for two and a half hours the songs that are the soundtrack to my life. My Wife, and Bruce Springsteen; I can’t separate the two. We danced together to Dancing in the Dark, just as we did at our wedding, and I’ll never forget that moment if I live to be 100. You can’t start a fire without a spark, folks.

I watched England and Sri Lanka play cricket at Lord’s with my Brother in Law, with Her Majesty The Queen flying overhead in a Chinook helicopter. After the match we met my Sister at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, off Fleet Street. The former watering hole of such luminaries as Christopher Wren and Charles Dickens. I could’ve happily stayed there with two of my favourite people in the World drinking Guinness and wallowing in the history of the place for days.

I’ve attended two good friend’s weddings and celebrated their love and marriage with the best of them on the day. At the first of which, I got to see my beautiful Wife and Daughters as bridesmaids. We’ll be looking at the photos and reminiscing about that day for the rest of our lives together. I’ve also seen our 3rd Daughter, who turned 3 in August, both terrorise us and delight us at the same time throughout the year. We all know that 3 year olds are assholes, but my goodness she’s a character with it. I find I can forgive anyone almost anything, if they have a wicked laugh, twinkly eyes and an invariably grubby face.

I have started this blog! Eventually. I’ve been wanting to do it for a few years, but wary of criticism I haven’t had the nerve. I’ll keep working at improving it, and I’m conscious that I’ve a way to go, but here it is, grammatical errors and all. And you know what? I’ve bloody loved it. And I’ve even been offered some paid writing jobs for next year on the back of it, which is a bit of a head-kicker for me and far more than I ever expected. It’s also partly got me into a new project, which I’m tremendously excited about. You never know what’s around the corner if you’re willing to give new things a go eh?

And lastly, I’ve said Goodbye to a few much-loved family members. Two weeks before Christmas, both my Wife’s Grandmother, and Grandfather (on different sides of her family) went on their merry ways. They both lived the exact lives they wanted to live, worked hard, raised families and had no regrets, but they’ll be very sadly missed by all of us. Yesterday I read the eulogy and carried the coffin at her Grandfather’s funeral, and I can honestly say that he was one of the finest men i’ve ever known. I will miss him immensely. So it’s been a very sorrowful end to 2016 here.

So there you go/ dyna ti. In 2016 I have loved, laughed, lost, and above all, lived. Tomorrow night my Wife and I are staying in together at home on our family farm, and when the animals are all fed, and our Children are tucked up in bed asleep, we plan to drink a bottle of pink champagne that we’ve been saving, and count our numerous blessings. Life is wonderful, and there’s so much to look forward to in 2017.

A very happy new year to each and every one of you.


My Daughter, the Jedi.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (1983, Chester Odeon to be precise) my Mum took me to see Return of the Jedi and a life long love affair was born. It captured my imagination in a way that nothing previously had, and paved the way for a childhood spent bombing around our house, garden and farm with my prized toy Millennium Falcon pretending to be Han Solo.

So imagine my delight when my 6 year old Daughter Gwen arrived home from school one memorable day a few months back and asked me the question that every nerdy Dad wants to hear –  ‘Daddy, what’s StarWars?’

Yes, suddenly, completely out of the blue, Frozen is yesterday’s news. StarWars is well and truly where it’s at now.  And despite my long held love for the original trilogy, I haven’t pushed her into it at all, she’s discovered it for herself. According to Gwen, her ‘boyfriends’ (She has 6 of them, and yes you’re bloody right I worry) are crazy about it and talk of little else in the playground, and especially the new film, The Force Awakens.

In the latest incarnation of the movies, the lead role is a teenage girl – Rey, and it’s her who Gwen wants to be. So much so that she excitedly asked for a Rey outfit and a toy blue lightsaber for her birthday. So far, so completely 6 year old normal.

And then, the almost inevitable happened. She was told by someone at school that ‘STARWARS IS FOR BOYS.’ (Coincidently now she only has 5 boyfriends. HA!) But where does this come from? Parents? Grandparents? Retailers? The ridiculously outdated pink for girls/ blue for boys indoctrination that we’ve all been subjected to from birth?

A quick look at major toy store websites shows that they generally no longer separate toys by gender, so attitudes are beginning to change, if painfully slowly. Though on a recent, once in a blue moon visit to a local supermarket, I found myself having to shield my eyes from the wall of garish, bright pink crap at one end of the toy aisle, whilst at the opposite end all the cool action, adventure and building toys abided. The obvious message there being that little girls should be demure and pretty princesses, whilst little boys should be boisterous go-getters.

And it isn’t just toys either. I trawled for hours online in vain to find a t-shirt with Rey on it for Gwen’s birthday. There were thousands of cool ones available with male StarWars characters on, but the only ones I could find of Rey were pink (and cut for Girls; but that’s a whole other blog post). I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t recall seeing Rey wearing pink when she was fighting against Kylo Ren and the galactic empire in The Force Awakens.

What does it matter what a child plays with or wears? Why have we brought gender into children’s play for so long? One of my 5 year old Godson’s favourite things is his toy kitchen, but he’s also an absolute whizz at building technic Lego.  Gwen’s 4 year old Sister Ffion is rarely seen without her tiara in her hair and fairy wand in her hand (even if she’s climbing a tree, or helping to feed a baby calf at the time). As long as their imaginations are fired, and they’re learning that’s ALL that matters.

Gwen and I have a Daddy/ Daughter dinner and movie date planned in December to see the new StarWars movie – Rogue One. Another female lead, and a new hero. And I can’t wait.

In her 6 years on this planet my funny, caring and kickass daughter has wanted at various times to be a doctor, farmer, vet, taxi driver, and firefighter. And now? Now she wants to be a Jedi. And you know what, that’s absolutely fine with me.

Because I’ll tell you what, the force is strong in my baby Girl.









The Great British Nativity Play

There are many in this heady and excitable post-EU referendum Britain of ours that have it that if you don’t subscribe to the Daily Mail, heartily sing along to God Save the Queen at every chance you get, and have a picture of Boris or Farage as your screen saver, that you’re an elitist unpatriotic liberal un-British Europhile.

Well I don’t do any of those things. I don’t own a barbour jacket either. I’ve never watched Bake Off or Strictly Come Dancing. Neither do I eat a roast dinner every Sunday, and I try to talk about other things than the weather from time to time.

However, I do participate wholeheartedly (through my children) in what I consider to be perhaps the most quintessentially British thing of all. The annual school or playgroup Christmas nativity. And what an unadulterated delight it invariably is. All over the country right now, teachers and parents are giving up their spare time to coax very young, and sometimes reluctant, children into learning the words to Away in a Manger, Little Donkey and We Three Kings so they can perform them in front of an audience of adoring Mums, Dads, Grandparents and extended family.

And it’s the absolute chaotic randomness of it all that makes it so wonderfully special. Yes, there’s the classic nativity story itself, but when you’ve got a lot of children to make up parts for you also have to improvise a few supporting characters too. They can’t all be Mary, Joseph or an Angel. Some of them have to be a space alien, lobster, tree, or in the case of our 3 year old last week – a penguin. But it’s the stereotypes that I appreciate the most. The little characters who grace and light up with their presence every Nativity across the land.

There’s the one who freezes and forgets their line, and the one who rises to the occasion like a pro. There’s the one that falls off the stage (always my favourite part), and the one who’s concentrating so hard that you swear they’ll burst a blood vessel. There’s the one that smiles and waves to their Mum constantly, and the one that has a face like a smacked arse throughout. And all draped in tea towels, paper crowns, tinsel halos and dressing gowns (theres a poem there somewhere), with a plastic dolly in a manger as a centre piece. Or alternatively if anyone has a handy newborn, as we did last year, they’re roped in to play the baby Jesus. I’m not sure that JC shat himself as he was being presented with the gold, frankincense and myrrh like our Branwen did though.

But it’s not just the children. All adult life is represented too. There’s the harassed head teacher, or dotty vicar with hearing aid and glasses introducing the show, and the invariably older lady enthusiastically bashing out the music on the ever so slightly out of tune piano. There’s the Mum who got there two hours before the start to triumphantly bag a seat in the front and centre, and the Dad in a flash suit with one eye on the show and the other checking his emails. There’s the one with the really expensive camera with a 5ft long lens constantly snapping away throughout, and the one who gets summoned by a teacher to comfort their upset child backstage and has to commando roll around the front so as not to block anyone else’s view.

There’s the first-time parents. It’s all new to them. They hold hands and smile at each other whenever their child is involved, and the grizzled veterans with 3 or 4 kids, a thousand-yard stare and a much more laissez faire attitude to the whole thing. There’s the cheerful couple with the matching Christmas jumpers, and the parents that you just know will go home and critically appraise the whole bloody thing like they’d just been watching a performance of Othello by the RSC at The Globe. And in our case, there’s the farmers at the back, they’ve rushed straight there from milking, arriving half way through the performance and smelling mightily of cow shit.

But they’ve all made the effort and got there. And that’s the thing. In an age where Christmas has been thoroughly commercialised and we’re bombarded with adverts trying to sell us plastic crap that we don’t need from late October, the wonderfully shambolic Great British Nativity play remains the one thing that tells us what it’s all about. What Christmas really means, and why we celebrate it. It brings people together in a way that perhaps nothing else can at the moment and unites communities, however fleetingly, with a shared pride and warm glow inside.

So here’s to us all. To the children. To the Parents. To the Teachers. And everyone else who contributes to the glorious, chaotic, wonderful, random, shambolic, Great British Nativity Play. After all, it’s what Christmas is all about..