Monday, 17 August 2020

A Letter to My Son

I’m writing this to you ahead of Thursday, when you’ll receive your GCSE results. I know you’re feeling anxious about this but I wanted to share a few words of reassurance with you because I know those feelings of uncertainty and worry very well. But now I’m a “proper grown up” I have some experience of life to share with you; things I’ve learnt about failure and disappointment, and how to cope with things when life feels very out of control.

The first thing I want you to remember is that you have been living through an extraordinary time recently – nothing could have prepared you to cope with a global pandemic. I’m proud that you’ve managed to live through the uncertainty, fear and boredom of many long months spent at home, dislocated from your normal routines and friends, and the everyday things that you enjoy. It’s very hard for a teenager to see their horizons shrink so suddenly, especially in a year that was meant to be filled with memory-making and milestones.

I know you’ve missed out on some special experiences and this makes me sad but I want you to know that so many other wonderful moments await you in the coming years – there will be time to make up for those lost opportunities. I’m proud that you’ve managed to, if not always smile through the experience, accept it and make the best of a difficult situation.

Secondly, be proud of the fact that you were making such great progress in your exam preparation – all your teachers had great expectations for you fulfilling your potential and I really think you would have shone in the exams. As one wrote to me: “It was such a pleasure teaching your son and seeing him grow more confident each week. He is such a brilliant young man and he has an incredibly bright future ahead.”

Now, a few words about exams, assessments and tests. It’s important to remember that exams don’t tell the full story of what makes you you, or what makes you special and unique. They are – like many things in life (driving tests, job interviews, for example) - a ‘necessary evil’ but they do teach us some important things; they help you learn how to manage your time, give something your full concentration and be resilient even when you feel utterly terrified by the prospect of sitting in an exam room.

But they can’t measure everything about a person – they’re really only an ‘indicator’ of your abilities and so I want to make sure you know that you are so much more than the grades written on the letter you’ll receive on Thursday. Exams can’t measure where your imagination goes to when you’re drawing something amazing on Sketch Up, or how your brain pulses with ideas and enjoyment when you’re DJing or making a new music track. They don’t test the emotional intelligence that you have by the bucket-load (and there are plenty of hugely successful people out there who don’t have an ounce of your empathy, kindness and deep engagement with the world around you) Exams are just part of the puzzle that makes up the journey through life, and there will be many more tests you’ll encounter on that journey.

So, here’s the important bit: exams are just one of the many tests that make up a life, and we can’t pass them all. There will be many times in life you’ll feel disappointed or experience feelings of failure. Even the most “successful” people have encountered many failures along the way; learning to accept failure is essential in accepting the reality of life, which is full of joys but sometimes disappointments. 

All we can strive for is giving things our best shot and accepting that sometimes the outcomes might, at first, not be what we want. But I’ve learned that life has an interesting way of reframing what we think of as failures (not getting the grade we expected in an exam, or not getting a job) to actually be of benefit to us in the long run…it can just sometimes take a bit of time for us to see that benefit.

Ahead of Thursday, please remember that 2020 has been an unprecedented year and there’s every chance you won’t have been assessed as fairly as you could have been. This is not a reflection on you and your abilities – we all know you’re a bright, interested, thoughtful and hardworking young man. And going forward, as you embark on the next stage of life, remember that all we ever want is for you to try your best; don’t let fear of failure hold you back or think “I can’t”; instead, how about thinking “I can try”…

I found a letter written by a writer to his son as he was about to leave for university – I think this excerpt is great advice that will serve you well in life, and encapsulates my hopes for you as you sit on the cusp of adulthood:

“If you can’t win the scholarship, fight it out to the end of the examination.

If you can’t win your race, at least finish—somewhere.

If your boat can’t win, at least keep pulling on your oar, even if your eye glazes and the taste of blood comes into your throat with every heave.

If you cannot make your five yards in football, keep bucking the line—never let up—if you can’t see, or hear, keep plugging ahead! Never quit! If you forget all else I have said, remember these two words, through all your life, and come success or failure, I shall proudly think of you as my own dear son.”

Lots of love now and forever,



Thursday, 19 March 2020

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I've often felt embarrassed about writing a blog. It frequently feels like a vanity to put your thoughts and feelings onto paper, preposterous to think that your own personal concerns are worthy of a wider audience. Why would anyone give a fig that you went to a few nice restaurants when you were in New York, or that you "personally discovered" a new face cream and it's doing wonders for your wrinkles. It's a question I've often wrestled with before putting finger to keyboard in this digital space.

But now we are in a strange new world and putting finger to keyboard, or pen to paper, has never felt quite so important. Sure, I'm still wondering why anyone would give my few words on my personal experience of the current situation a second glance, or that I'm elevating my status into some kind of 'documenter' of these turbulent times when there are many more basic yet elemental things that need to be done right now -  "NO! I MUST WRITE! PEOPLE NEED WORDS RIGHT NOW. You go and get the bog roll!"

I've always tried to present a realistic view of life in anything I've written - I have a natural tendency to self deprecation and am, in all honesty, a glass half empty kind of person. Under normal circumstances, I quite like reading not about things going right, with wonderful happy endings, but about things going wrong. I love art house cinema, for god's sake; one of my favourite films depicts the slow and agonising distintegration of a marriage ('La Separation', in case you're interested). Gallows humour and viewing the world through cynical eyes is something I'm totally comfortable with.

But it's one thing to write a wry blog post about a disastrous holiday or your struggles with potty training. Never did I ever imagine that one day I would sit down to try and process my thoughts around a terrifying global pandemic that currently threatens to dismantle everything I thought I knew about life. Sure, in the past I've idly wondered if say, I got cancer or a life limiting illness,  I'd feel compelled to write about it, but never have I thought: "If the world suddenly goes into almost complete lockdown and we are stranded in our homes for upwards of two weeks, I'll probably write a blog post about it".

But anyway, here we are. Only few weeks ago I was wondering if two lots of hand gel was enough to get us through a short trip to Spain, as news started to trickle in  about the increasing spread of what felt, back then, like something to just be vaguely aware of. We steered clear of the airplane seat trays, I warned the kids of the dangers of errant face touching and nose picking. We washed our hands more often. Life was as you'd expect in Spain - we had no sense that this was a country  teetering on lockdown and that just a few weeks later the restaurants, cafes and bars that we visited on our trip would all be shuttered up. What a difference a month makes.

Back home, life has quickly descended into a surreal suspension of pretty much everything. A week ago we realised we needed to self isolate, as coughs and temperatures began circulating in our household. By this point we'd seen what was happening in Italy and had begun to properly take notice of government advice. As friends and relatives in the country started to post updates on Facebook, we started to get a sense of what might be coming our way. 

Mentally, I'm not actually sure I have the power to process all the 'what ifs's, the 'whens', the 'hows' and the 'what the actual fucks' that are crowding my head now that the inevitable has happened here at home. Every day brings a new challenge at the moment, not least now that schools have closed and my son's GCSEs have been postponed. In many ways, it feels like we're in some very odd grieving process - grieving all those things that just won't happen this year - weddings, festivals, holidays, family well as ways of life that have indefinitely been put on hold while we try and work this immense problem out. 

I'm personally grieving the abrupt end of my son's secondary schooling. Who would have thought a 16 year old boy would be sad about the cancellation of exams? But that's exactly how he was feeling last night, as the ramifications of school closures really hit home. How to manage the realisation that a child has been denied the sense of achievement that comes with sitting exams, as well as the camaraderie and celebration that accompanies such a significant moment in a teenager's life - it's tough for them. I worry how social distancing will affect them when being part of a group is lifeblood to young people. We are quickly realising how the comforting routines of school and work are vital to our well-being. 

We'll all have a ton of personal stories of life in the time of coronavirus - I've got friends and families having babies soon, work colleagues with weddings on the horizon. My best friend left her job of 20 years this week to embark on a new career - but the expected extravagant send off was replaced by her colleagues, all now at home, joining her on google hangout, each member of the team reading out a special poem they'd written to mark her departure. Celebrating birthdays remotely and having care packages left on the doorstep has become the new normal.

For someone who - under normal circumstances - gravitates towards tales of things going wrong, I desperately want things to go right now. I'm lapping up videos of DJs belting out crap Euro house from balconies, old couples dancing in their front rooms and films being projected across apartment buildings. Things I probably wouldn't normally give time to.

I'm not a naturally community spirited person but I'm realising how vital it's going to be to pull through this together. I've been amazed at how friends and even strangers have come to our help as we've been in isolation - from dropping round essentials to finding a bag of Lidl's finest Pastel de Nada on the doorstep, our family has felt cared for from afar.  

Meanwhile, work 'continues' in a way I think we'll all take some adjusting too but I'm realising how glad I am to work for a company that makes films already proving to be a comfort for people stuck at home. I'm not sure I could say the same if I was pushing out communication for an asset management company or an insurance firm right now. It's heartwarming to hear of families in lockdown finding joy in watching Shaun the Sheep or Wallace and Gromit.

I guess we'll all have to be resourceful in finding pockets of joy in the coming weeks. As someone who tends towards cynicism, this isn't something that comes naturally to me but I'm up for the challenge. Joy isn't likely to come in the shape of holidays abroad, dancing in nightclubs or having breakfast at a favourite cafe any time soon.

But it will come in the shape of an unexpected message from a friend, finally learning that skill we've always wanted to try and the chance to spend unhurried, quiet time at home with those we love (and I say that with a true cynic's pinch of salt - there will be those of us who need our personal space more than others!) But seriously, we could perhaps consider this period at home like a strange, not altogether welcome gift, but one that we understand is important to acknowledge and take the best from. And I suppose we could have done with a reminder that it's so very easy to take normal, everyday life for granted. 

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