A friendship taken.

26 Mar

This is gonna be a short one. Probably…

I’m sitting on the boat back from Scotland to Belfast as I type. It should have been a trip away full of joy and excitement at spending time with my brother and his family. Then a few days of work and providing all went to plan, a jaunt to Dublin to see one of my oldest and dearest friends again, to help him sort a bunch of stuff out.

As it happens I’m heading down now in the morning. But not under the circumstances I’d envisioned. For I got word over the weekend while I was away that he had died rather suddenly during the week.

I’m still processing this information. I don’t think I’ve taken it in yet. Since that phonecall I’ve been hit with waves of guilt, regret, disappointment. I can’t allow myself to grieve until the funeral. I won’t allow myself. Until then, it all seems so surreal, so abnormal. It isn’t unusual for us to go a month or two without contact, and then a flurry of communications. Our last text exchange was about film memorabilia and my upcoming visit, and me promising I’d be down. I have been trying to reason through things, work out what has happened, where his head was been at, and just whether or not I was as good a friend to him as he’d been to me for the last 18 years.

18 years. That’s half of my life I’ve known him. Since we met there’s barely a week has gone by where I haven’t talked about him to someone – sharing his wisdom, or tales of our friendship and occasional adventures. The last couple of years had been difficult, I hadn’t been to see him as much, and his work schedule meant that we didn’t get talking on the phone like we used to. We chatted at Christmas, when I hadn’t felt up to seeing him in person. I’d spent a few days with him last month, rearranging a trip to do so, because he’d called me in a bad way. By the time I left he seemed to have lifted, and when we spoke on the phone a few days later he seemed in very positive form.

I’ve had friends from school die while I knew them, or indeed after. And its been a shock. But without being harsh, they weren’t friends I knew well. I lost my grandfather a few years ago, and wrote about it in a couple of blog posts at the time. It was a traumatic experience, and my first real experience of loosing a loved one. But we’d know he was sick for two years, and I was there with him right through the night he passed. This one has come out of the blue, as a total shock, and to someone that seemed to be in good health and showing no signs of shuffling off anytime soon.

In the hierarchy of friendships I used to say I had a tier of best friends, and there were three vying for that status. Now there are two. My trinity were there for very different parts of my life, and while all had some overlap, had witnessed a multitude of mes over the last two decades. He’d been a tireless supporter of my researches, my enthusiasm for film, and in particular Hammer and horror cinema. He’d facilitated meetings, helped me acquire materials, and pointed me in new directions. When I fell out of love for the subject amid a period of personal difficulty, he was still there to gently nudge me back when the time was ready, and over the last few months as that love rekindled he was on hand – always admonishing me when he spotted another source I’d never pursued.

One of the hardest things now is that he wont be there when I do make a new discovery. When I’ve found a particularly fertile path to explore. We wont be urging each other further. No more jaunts across to England together to attend some random film screening or get together. No sharing stories as he busies himself cooking in the kitchen, or while I help him prop up some timber in the garden. When my relationships went wrong he was there as my friend to help encourage me back into the world. When his went wrong, I tried to do the same for him.

We met through a shared interest in fandom, and he took pride in nurturing another generation. I started out fascinated by his tales, his knowledge, and his professional life, and gradually we became proper friends – the conversations being less and less about the films, and more and more about each other. He was like an older brother or uncle, a mentor, a confidant. I remember him calling me the evening his mum died, simultaneously level headed and heartbroken. I stayed with him over the few days surrounding her funeral, and the day after she was buried, my nephew was born – I got the text as I lay on the blow up mattress in the front room. Life and death intertwined within our stories. But then isn’t that how it is for everyone?

Right now I’m struggling to work out how I should present myself. I am devastated for the loss of a dear friend, and I have many questions which remain unanswered, which I will be seeking out in the days and weeks to come. But I cannot stop for him. I don’t think its what he’d want. In private my emotions are up and down, but for now I’m trying to deflect and just keep on ploughing through. I’m pretending to be normal. To do normal things. But it hurts too – someone I loved dearly has left this world and our story is just about ended. The memories remain, and there’s an epilogue to follow, but for now I’m disappointed that our time together has ended.

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The emptiness of Father’s Day

18 Jun

Its Father’s Day here in the UK today. All day long my social media feed has filled with messages from doting children talking about how great their fathers are, or how much they miss their dead dads. Friends and relatives closer to my age are celebrating recent births and there’s hardly a bad word to be spoken.

My own relationship with my father is frequently fraught, long-time readers know this already. But it is my own status that leaves me a little torn up as each father’s day passes.

I’m not a father. I haven’t passed on my genes into a miniature person. I’m still very much alone in the world, and while that’s mostly okay, its also a little sad. I’ve been a stepfather, I am a godparent, I am an uncle. But it isn’t the same. Every father’s day I find myself dwelling on the children I didn’t have. Not the decision to not reproduce, but a series of miscarriages between me and partners. I’ve talked very little about this publicly over the years out of a desire to protect myself, and the other people involved. Not all the incidents as it turns out were pregnancies at all, and that has left its own mental scars. But at least one seems to have been an actual foetus that terminated its journey. I’m still reeling from that if I’m honest.

We talk so much (and rightly) about women’s experiences with miscarriages – they are the nurturing vessel that protects the developing child, and the ones with the most intimate bond. But we too often forget that fathers-to-be have a place in the stories too. The knowledge that we created a life that came and went too quick, is overpowering. I wept, wandered confused, completely stricken by the events that unfolded for me. Looking to confide and talk to a partner that was also trying to deal with the situation in her own way. I still wonder what might have come of the relationship and that family unit had events not overtook us. I wonder was that my last chance at bringing a life into the world with someone I actually trusted and cared for, and knew would be a good mother. It wasn’t in the life plan at that stage for either of us, but I am sure we would have made it work.

The only way to keep going seems to be to push it to one side. To bury the feelings that a conversation about it encourages. I’ve had to write off biological fatherhood in my head, as something that simply isn’t for me. The reality is, that after being lied to, to then go through the whole process again with someone who was being open and sincere, I’m not sure I could cope again. One day I guess I’ll have that conversation with the person I need to.

So Father’s Day – the day that reminds me that I’ve failed at being a dad. Meh.

 

The Beginning of the End of the Six County State

4 Mar

So here we are. For the first time ever Northern Ireland’s government isn’t unionist dominated. Unionism has repeatedly failed its ‘people’, focusing too often on single topics rather than wider issues. It isn’t enough to just want to be part of the UK, you need to do more than lip service – rim jobbing the conservatives in London isn’t being particularly British, but it is what unionism seems to have become. When you’re out of thinking with the rest of the country you so badly want to remain part of on issues like women’s rights, marriage equality, and anything to do with the LGBT community, eventually the voters will desert you.

35% of those eligible still didn’t vote this time round, and their apathy is in part because of the failure of politicians to be forward thinking or responsive. Sinn Féin have succeeded by refreshing the optics, preaching equality (though as I wrote on Friday, I’m concerned about how that will play out for non-republicans once they’re in ‘control’ ) and motivating their populous. Unionism sits on past glories, complacently assuming that the public will come out and vote for them.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont, 2009.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont, 2009. Image © 2017 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

They now have three weeks to reach an agreement for power sharing. SF have already said they won’t accept Arlene Foster until the investigation into the heating cock up is complete. Arlene refuses to budge. With no agreement then we’d face yet another election or go back to direct rule from Westminster. The latter won’t please republicans, and would surely motivate a return to violent protest and terrorist manoeuvres from the likes of the IRA. But with our assembly now no longer Unionist-controlled I expect the DUP to force through a situation where direct rule is enforced, breaking any progress from the peace process. The DUP is like Nero fiddling while the country burns, willing to fuck everyone and blame the fall out on anyone but themselves. It’s not enough to be linked to the £1/2 billion wasted  through the RHI scheme, the fortunes wasted in court battles over gay blood etc, why not waste yet more in a pointless series of elections until everyone snuffs it or simply grows bored of the whole damn thing.  I could be wrong, but then power balance is shifting and the Unionists know this. The DUP in all probability would rather collapse Stormont than allow a nationalist rule.

Thanks to Brexit  I suspect within ten,  if not five years,  we will have a vote in favour of a united Ireland. And with that a return to civil unrest from small vocal factions. But none of this should surprise. Northern Ireland will simply be following the examples of the other colonies in the former British Empire, redefining itself as a nation shaped and influenced by the British presence but with its own culture. We just aren’t economically strong enough to stand without help from outside.

What would it be like for a Northern Irish Brit in a united Ireland?

I suspect odd. Its hard to imagine that the territorial imagery would disappear, but one suspects there’d be a lot more tricolours flying and that would probably rankle hardliners. None of my protestant friends in the south of Ireland ever seem particularly bothered, and I don’t even recall any of them of British descent complaining about being on the end of prejudicial treatment, and that’s exactly how it should be when reunification finally happens. Defining one’s nationality is a complex business, and most of us have at least one strand of ancestry that is imported from outside the island. Self-identifying as Irish or British shouldn’t stop you living a normal life in either country, or being allowed to display paraphernalia that relates to your nationality. There’s no reason why the Orange Order couldn’t continue to march and celebrate its past (they already do in displays across the Irish republic, which are closer to peaceful pageantry than anything in the North). And finally we could all celebrate St Patrick’s day as a shared heritage.

But I think British residents will be scared, paranoid, and anxious, and likely to fall into antagonistic language and behaviour with little provocation. They know the perceptions of the past just as well as the republicans. Hopefully they won’t be intimidated out of areas or out of the island. In the past, the British might well have treated the native population appallingly, but one needs to remember that we are not responsible for our ancestor’s antics, only our own. Certainly the thought that I might be persona non grata simply because I carry a British passport is most uncomfortable. And I don’t wish to be ridiculed because of my heritage, any more than republicans wish to be for theirs.

Uncertainty breeds fear. Fear breeds anger. Anger breeds trouble. And that is the situation I foresee. This summer’s parade season could be a real melting pot of pent up anger.

Undoubtedly the change is now on us. And I find it hard to believe that things will swing the other way any time soon. We should all begin to prepare for the possible outcomes of an ideological swing and a new national identity. Border poll or not, I will remain Northern Irish – proudly aware of my mixed heritage and upbringing informed by bother British and Irish culture. And I only hope that whatever happens, we are able to retain that sense of identity as the very face of Europe alters.

Power is about to shift…

3 Mar

As I write this, 70 of the 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly Election for 2017 have been announced. And it makes for an interesting glimpse into a changing country. Sinn Féin hold the largest number of seats with 24, and the SDLP have 9. The DUP have 18 and UUP 9. Taking Aliance out of the proceedings that gives a nationalists a five seat lead.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Disappointingly the country appears to have shunned the opportunity to usher in a change in our country’s leadership – the embittered, stubborn, starkly green and orange parties Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party are still on top. And its hard to see how anything is going to change while that remains the case. Northern Ireland is a shared country whether you like it or not. And the only way to move forward is through mediation and negotiation and compromise.

But then I’m a broadly liberal leftist long lapsed from a background of unionism, so its easy for me to say. I don’t hate my fellow citizens because of their religion or their politics or what language they wish to converse in or what way they define their national identity. But it matters to many others out there.

Without a change, I can’t help but wonder if the assembly will not just be brought down again? And if it does, then surely direct rule from Westminster is inevitable? And to do that would be foolhardy, because that will give many militant republicans the excuse they need to reactivate a campaign of violence against the perceived British threat in the country, and take us all back to pre-1997 times. Its not as if the leaders of the two biggest parties actually give a toss about the Northern Irish people anyway, and our democratic views. The DUP backed Brexit in spite of the majority of Northern Ireland voting to stay IN Europe, and Sinn Féin still refuse to sit in Westminster for ideological reasons, which means they aren’t actually helping to represent the people either. A right golden shower the lot of them.

And I’m sitting here thinking about something that I haven’t actually heard voiced yet. But what happens if Sinn Féin come away from this election as the largest political party in Northern Ireland? Ignoring their catalogue of cover-ups (notably with regards sex abuse cases) and their power-hungry control of republican ideology in Northern Ireland (there’s as many kinds of republicans as their are unionists), we’ve never had a republican party as the largest in NI. The balance has always (by design more often than democracy) lain in the hands of the unionist parties, and for decades the unionists and loyalists have been happy because they’ve benefitted in things like employment, funding, rights etc. The republican voice has been silenced (once upon a time, literally), oppressed, which in turn has only helped to stir up support.

Right now we’re at loggerheads, with both sides bashing each other where possible, positioning themselves as ‘us’ and ‘them’. They put down propositions made by the others because of the potential for small victories. They turn simple things into massive issues. They allow prejudice to dictate policy and propaganda does the rest.

Whats scares unionists is what will happen when the power finally switches. It seems rather improbable that a republican dominated political arena is going to sit back and allow loyalism to continue its triumphant marches and shouting and brow-busting. That call for a referendum on a united Ireland can’t be far away now, and that scares the unionists because it might actually go through. Most of us don’t want to leave the EU, and joining up with Ireland is a sure way to ensure we don’t. Britain doesn’t actually care about Northern Ireland. We’re a population of 1.8million out of some 64 million across the islands. We’re a massive drain on resources, particularly bearing in mind our habit of fighting on a regular basis, incurring vast policing costs etc, every time we have a “celebration”. Will the republican brothers and sisters treat the unionists with open arms, and remind them that Ireland has already embraced Protestant culture as symbolised in the orange on the Tricolour? Sadly, probably not. Instead, the sort of hostility that has been shown to many of them is likely to be returned. Its the way of the wild. Captive turns captor. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, not actually how you were treated…

I’m slightly scared for people like me. Those of us who sit somewhere between the ideologies. Not necessarily undecided, but who are aware of our backgrounds, and the complex web that we were born into without say. Northern Ireland is occupied – the politicians decided to remain as part of the UK, not the people themselves, and so a border poll would be interesting, to finally give all of us a say. We aren’t all going to get our way though, and as Brexit has most recently reminded us (and indeed the US elections), when voting is split, things can get nasty. I don’t want to return to violence. I don’t want to be scared of visiting friends across sectarian divides, or to be picked out because I don’t see eye to eye with official lines of whatever persuasion.

Its time to stop being complacent. Time to learn to moderate, to co-operate, and to stop wallowing in the past. Think about the people.

Alone on Valentine’s Day

14 Feb
Source: Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America on Flickr Commons

Source: Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America on Flickr Commons

The post has been and gone. My message box is empty. The telephone remains silent. What else could it be but another typical Valentine’s Day, a manufactured marketing ploy by cake, card and confectionary companies to maximise profits. A day in which it seems that the entire world scrambles to find some smattering of affection and goes overboard with public displays of affection to prove just how ‘special’ their relationships are. And yet, in spite of my deep-rooted cynicism of the whole tawdry thing, I can’t help but take my outsider stance as proof of my own failure.

With the exception of a few years in the mid 2000s, my Valentine’s Days have been pretty miserable. I’m either a definite singleton, or I’ve been in an unhappy place with the person I’ve been seeing, and the whole thing becomes an overpowering chore. In the past I’ve sent cards to women that I’ve been harbouring crushes on, but the overwhelming silence and/or rejection that follows means I am no longer likely to do this. Its kind of creepy anyway, especially if one does it anonymously, and in our days of psycho stalkers one has to be mindful of respectful distances.

This year has been harder. I’ve been dreading it for months, and that hasn’t subsided. Mostly because I found myself falling for someone last year, and those feelings have refused to shift in spite of all attempts to do so. Unrequited love is a painful pleasure – the euphoria of intensity of feeling is at loggerheads with the excruciating agony of rejection and rebuttal. Its not as if I’ve had my affections spurned before, I have, but the way this has been handled and where it has ended up doesn’t make sense. It’s perfectly possible to remain friends with someone you’ve declared an unreciprocated interest in, or had a relationship with. And it isn’t like I haven’t made inroads into moving on from that relationship either, but you can’t help how you feel, and I’ve no desire to bury those feelings because they’ll just sit there stewing and eventually will erode anything else that comes along. Better to be honest, to embrace them, to see what happens.

I suppose I must have had a tiny hope that perhaps things would change. That this wonderful woman that I still have a bubbling chemistry with, might have taken a (second) chance on us, but instead its gone the other way and I’m deeply saddened by the extreme measures taken. Not because we don’t get on, not because we don’t like each other, not because we couldn’t actually be friends, but it strikes me because of all of those things. The positive attributes are exactly the reason why she isn’t talking to me. And that’s especially awkward because our circles are closing in on each other and eventually paths will cross in the flesh again. As long as she’s happy and doing what she wants, that’s all that really matters. My personal happiness isn’t dependant on her, but she definitely brought a great deal of happiness to my life. I just wish she was part of the 2017 me, a much improved take on the person she knew. Though every bit as sincere.

Damn regrets. I tried so hard to keep a safe distance only to find myself slipping deeper and deeper into a vat of affection until I was washed with love. I always seem to fall for the wrong person. People who live impractical distances away, or have unworkable schedules. Social and economic backgrounds and thinking that struggle to accept mine. People who are also damaged, kindred spirits, who are hell-bent on rejecting something with potential because it scares them – only to seek out the same sort of damaging relationships that have ruined their lives and selves in the past. I’m trying not to be that person anymore myself, trying not to repeat my mistakes.

So today I allow my mind to wander for a period through bittersweet sadness, heightened by an unnecessary silence. I distract myself with music and writing and memory. I’ve no friendly benefits to claim, no cuddle buddy to snuggle up to, no human touch. I don’t really know any better. So you can take your Valentine’s demonstrations and keep them to yourself. Unless that is, you want to share them with me…

My Valentine (imagined)

13 Feb
citylights

City Lights (1931)

Dear woman in my dreams – the one who caught my eye and my heart, and who has bewitched me. Would that circumstances allow. But they don’t. And so I must conclude that you don’t exist. At least I assume you don’t. I don’t appear to exist within your world, so logically you must be a figment of my imagination. Shared exchanges, looks and words, are all simply the product of my over-active mind, along with the still-ringing emotions, heartbreak, and confusion.

I don’t believe in using this one day of the year to focus all one’s amorous energy, it should exist on a daily basis. But there’s something about this whole farcical ritual that demands we give it attention, acknowledge feelings and sentiment that is in danger of going unremarked. Sitting here, my thoughts return again to you, as they do so often, dear Figment. An admiration from increased and needless distance, an honest heartfelt affection, an affinity denied. A love that has been battered and neglected but has not died. I cannot let the day pass by without giving voice to this pained desire

I don’t make wild promises of everlasting devotion, or make grandiose gestures I cannot possibly meet – manipulations of expectations that doom us to failure. I seek not to control or bind the recipient of my affection. I will never ask you to do something you don’t want to do. I can only tell you that I care for you more than I have any right to, I love you beyond the point it hurts, that each day without you diminishes me. It’s a mistake letting you know I care at all, that I’m still here. But if we’re honest, you’ve always known that. You’ve always known my sincerity, however much you deny it. There is no hidden agenda, no falsity, no leading you on.  At some point today you’ll think of me too, and you’ll wonder.

The problem with being the recipient of a valentine, particularly when there’s an anonymity involved, is that one never quite knows how to respond. What if you’re wrong about the identity, and you say the wrong thing to the wrong person? What if you missed a clue, messed up? What if they’re exactly the person they claim to be, and all your fears are unfounded? What if being sensible means that you miss out on something special for the sake of something safe?

I could pretend I felt some other way, but what good would that do? I could lie to myself and to you, tell you that I feel nothing, but eventually that will come back to haunt us both. I have nothing to be afraid of, I have already laid myself bare before you, so humiliate away with your silent rejection of the whole of me. Deny the truth that we both know exists – my futile affection isn’t without foundation…

But dear Valentine, you exist only in my mind, so there is no point in me singing your praises, declaring adoration, or vowing passion, platitudes and pleasure. It is redundant for me to appeal to your emotions, and call upon you to open your shuttered heart. The clock ticks ever closer to the day when it will all be too late, when I am finally lost completely. Until then you live on in my dreams – beautiful, wonderful, unreachable – and I remain (unreciprocatedly) yours.

You’re asking the wrong question 

8 Jan

You know how it is, you have to weigh up the possibile outcomes of a given scenario and determine the risk and whether it’s worth it. “What’s the worst that can happen? ” you utter. 

I do it myself. I open the argument with a negative possibility and instil a fear of bad things. If it’s something I care about there’s a good chance I won’t risk it. 

But we’re asking the wrong question – especially if the risk is big. Stop. Think. Now ask yourself this instead…

“What’s the best that could happen? ”

The worst might be pretty crap, but if the best is infinitely better then maybe that’s where we should be looking. A positive outlook and goals to aim for. A radical rethink and something to get excited about. I think I’ll take my chances on the best outcome…