Songs in the key of life

I got to do something I almost never get to do last night. I was fortunate enough to play in a 12 piece big band ( I’m not sure if 12 constitutes ‘big’ but fuck it). It was in a field in Kent with 11 people only 1 of whom I’d met before. We had free food and a free bar and for the most part the sun was shining. As I said I don’t get to play with this many musicians on a gig that often but when I do I absolutely love it. As a guitarist it’s a joy not to be told to cover: the brass parts, the backing vocals, piano parts, string lines whilst at the same time fending off some pissed bloke who wants to get up and play Wonderwall with us.

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I want to say how much fun it was and how much I enjoyed it. But that doesn’t do it justice. The truth is; it was pant wettingly, ball bouncingly, head bangin riot, arse shakingly good fun. It was like having your arse tickled with a feather. We grooved, we rocked, we jazzed and there was even a rap. Any mistakes were quickly picked up or were brushed under the rug, no one noticed because we were cooking. There were no egos and no prima donnas. We were all there for the collective good. Making the songs sound great and making sure everyone left happy and a little sad that it was over.

With 12 in the band it meant that we all had to work less. That’s right, LESS. I didn’t have to worry about anything other than the guitar parts, as there was a piano and 3 part horn section. I didn’t have to worry about filling out the space. I just concentrated on sitting in the groove. The same also applied to the piano player. With 4 vocalists I didn’t have to worry about backing vocals, plus the singers as individuals didn’t have to worry about their voices getting tired. With a percussionist along for the ride this freed the drummer up to sit back and hold the groove down, which he did impeccably. The icing on the proverbial cake…trombone, sax and trumpet. Sprinkling musical magic everywhere we went.

It was a beautiful evening. 12 people coming together, unrehearsed, for the common good. We had jazz musicians who had studied in some of London’s finest schools playing next to musicians who couldn’t read a lick of music and who referred to musical parts as ‘the bit that goes doo de dee da da bat bat bum’. We had players that had toured the world with big name artists trading licks with people who still practice with the remnants of their children’s breakfast on their unwashed tee shirt. We were of different backgrounds. We were of different sexual orientation. But we were there playing for the song, not the individual. It is a testament to what can be achieved when like minded, focused and dedicated  people come together with a single goal in mind. And it was fantastic.  It’s a shame large factions of the world don’t adopt these principles. We have psychotic sociopaths vying for power and control at the expense of the rest of us. Carving us up into fractions, continuously pointing out our differences and forcing us to focus on our differences rather than our similarities. As part of my daily recovery from addiction, I meditate. It’s not something I profess to doing well or daily for that matter. But when I do I try to picture myself sitting crossed legged on the Moon, looking back at the earth. Watching it spin so elegantly. Gazing at the vast oceans. Watching the thunder storms in South America, the deserts of North Africa and the seemingly invariable rain in the U.K. One thing I don’t see…Borders. Flags. Countries divided by religion or race. Cities divided by sports team. Towns divided by popular talent shows. Because those divisions only exist if we let them. We and we alone have the power to eradicate them. Does that mean we should be held accountable?

I often get tarnished with ‘Left wing dreamer’ brush. I have a belief that the world could be a better place if we all put our differences aside and worked together for the common good. The trouble is we all have a different opinion of what ‘Good’ is. It’s subjective. I get tired of writing it; us coming together. I want to find something less trite, something more inspiring….but when it boils down to it that phrase sums up what I’d like to see. Less murder, less poverty, less war, more education, more love. And that’s good

Maybe you think I am a dreamer. Maybe you think that we can’t come together. Maybe you think that our division runs too deep and we will forever be a race split. But it’s out there, it is possible, I’ve seen it. It happened to me last night.

 

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Getting started..

I’m torn. I’m torn between subjects that I passionately love. I’m currently taking an online course run by the Arizona State university in Astronomy. I have burning passion for astronomy, physics and all things science. The only trouble is that my Maths is shit. Now, at 35, I wish I had paid more attention in maths class instead of daydreaming about what knickers Sandy Blake had on and  how do I get my hands in them.

I also love literature. I buy books constantly. I currently have, to name a few, titles by Orwell, Dickens and Twain sitting on my shelf not being read. It’s criminal. Not to mention a few casual books on social engineering, card tricks, a killer shark and an almost finished book about Abraham Lincoln and the American civil war. My problem is:

I want to know about everything. But the more I learn, the more I realise how little I know about a great many things.

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So I signed up to re take my GCSE/O level/High school maths. I start in October. £45. Bargain. One of the questions I have to answer to is “Where do you want this qualification to take you?” I’m tempted to answer “To the edge of the universe” but feel I might raise a few eyebrows considering I can’t do long division without a calculator. So I’ll probably stick to “Further education”

As a musician I always have the urge to set my guitar up and record. I find the hours fall away when I’m engrossed with recording. I’m very lucky, now that my children are at school, that I have a great deal of time on my hands during the day. But I fear when asked what I did today ‘Recording ideas for songs’ might be misinterpreted as ‘fuck all’

I enjoy writing. Blogs, stories, articles you name it. I haven’t written for a long time and it gets me all knotted up inside. I find it soothing, a bit like hoovering really. It releases anger and stress. So I need to do more of it.

I love to learn. I love learning new things. I love to explore. I like to say yes. Saying yes invites the possibility of new things, experiences and people into your life. Saying yes opens the door into an otherwise undiscovered world. I don’t know where I stand. I feel like I’m in the minority. I feel most people don’t necessarily want to learn new things. New skills. New lessons. I feel most people just want to reinforce what they already know. Even if it’s untrue. Maybe I’m talking wildly out of turn or maybe I’m bang on the money. I just don’t know.

All I know is I want the world. I want every taste, every sound, every emotion and every experience I can before my short time on this ball of water is over. It won’t start tomorrow because it’s already started.

Regardless of what atmosphere we are living in the conservation of knowledge must be accelerated. For without it we suffer in stagnation.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” – Carl Sagan

 

F.E.A.R

I woke up on a lovely, late summer’s Monday morning to a social media frenzy. Like hungry sharks in a tank they circled wanting to take a chunk of flesh out of my day.

There was apparently a warning from either the MET police or MI5 that the threat level for a terrorist attack and been raised from MODERATE to SEVERE and that every MET officer was called in to work at 4.00am AND that an attack was likely to happen on the tubes in London’s west end. So like a good citizen I locked the doors, closed the curtains (which happen to be bomb proof) turned off the lights and informed EVERYONE I know of the imminent danger. I also urged people not to travel into London unless it was essential. It’s better to be safe than sorry…right?

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Better to be safe than sorry! There is something about that phrase that makes my teeth ache. It’s like a reset button for rationality and reason. It’s the ace up one’s sleeve. Because, of course, it IS better to safe than sorry. AND THAT’S HOW THEY GET YA!

So I did a modicum of investigating. The MI5 website DID have a heightened alert for the UK. But here’s where it gets interesting. England and Northern Ireland are set separately. The threat level for N.I was raised to severe while G.B stayed at Moderate. Thus raising the threat level from international terrorism to U.K to severe…at least that’s how I understood it. When I read that information I was still on my first morning cuppa so if I have misread, misinterpreted or just plain not understood please forgive me and please enlighten me.

When the internet gorillas got hold of this nugget of information they of course had to add a little chilli powder and cajun spice. And i’m sure Chinese whispers played a huge part in this overblown Facebook charade. You are more likely to suffer at the hands of the Metropolitan police than to be a victim of terrorism…so if the streets were full of extra police, some with guns (which someone on Facebook alerted me to) then statistically the streets of London have just become more dangerous.

Raising the threat level of a terrorist attack is as pointless as it is stupid. It’s like telling people to top up their car with petrol. Remember that? Queues at petrol stations for no reason a few years back. There was no need yet people hopped into their cars and topped up the tank. People are fucking dumb and will practically do anything their told. So telling them the threat of terrorist attack is likely is like covering your genitals in honey and kicking a bear in the bollocks. Because bears love honey.

There’s no way of knowing when or if an attack is coming. Just like you don’t know when or where someone will be hit by bus. I’m fairly certain that international terrorists don’t leave their pocket diaries lying around in casinos for 007 to sneak a look.

But FEAR keeps us in line. It keeps us from deviating too far from the garden path, it keeps our larders stocked and our petrol tanks full. It’ll keep the curtains twitching and our heads turning. Living on earth is like living on a knife’s edge and it can be taken away as easy as it was dished out. Yes there are things to be scared of and we should be vigilant against all acts that wish harm us and our brothers and sisters. But don’t stay home scared of what might happen because the chances are they won’t.

Stay safe, be cool and don’t be a fear monger.

The Down’s Delusion

As I read Richard Dawkins apology for his remarks regarding Down’s syndrome/Abortion I could hear a sharp intake of breath through gritted teeth from the Down’s Syndrome community. I could then feel the eyes…. waiting for my (re)action.

I have been a great admirer of Prof. Dawkins for a few years now and It was with great sadness that I read his apology letter.

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My wife and I have a two year old daughter, Chiara, with Down’s. During the pregnancy we didn’t know anything of her condition but my wife and I always said that if we found out that either of our children had Down’s (Or any other condition) we wouldn’t opt for an abortion. I could tell you that having a child with Down’s is no different or how much joy she brings to us. I could go on for hours about how much we love her and the wonderful  dynamic she has added to our family. While all of the above are true and self evident I feel they miss the point slightly.

Prof. Dawkins remarked that “if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare”

While I can understand Prof. Dawkins views I certainly do not agree with them.

Is it immoral to purposely give birth to a child with Down’s citing the child’s welfare as your reason? I would have to say no. You could go one further and ask…

Is it immoral to give birth to a child citing the child’s welfare as your reason? After all any child could grow up and be diagnosed with a range of conditions later in life. Autism, Multiple sclerosis, asthma, etc. Of course the answer is no. Having children is a risk, you don’t know what the future will bring.

With the advancement of medical science foetus’ can be diagnosed with a variety of conditions as well as being put in a high risk category for other conditions. Would someone opt for abortion for the latter? Sadly I feel some would. Termination before diagnosis. Execution before trial. Sounds very totalitarian doesn’t it? Something I know Prof. Dawkins is fervidly against.

Since having Chiara I can say that we are happy, as is she, and there is very little in the way of suffering. Except when she’s hungry and she turns into a right little moo cow. Yes I will have to care for her until the day I die… But the same applies to her sister and any future little Loves that may pop along for the ride. Parenting is job that’s 365 days a year, very few breaks, long hours and it lasts until the day you die… and the pay is shit! The parameters have shifted only slightly with extra Doctors appointments, physiotherapy and numerous classes. As for what happens to her after we’re gone… I guess we’ll have to just wait and see what life throws at her. But she will grow up in a stable, happy and loving environment and she will be given every opportunity to live an independent life.

And finally Prof. Dawkins I consider you a champion of the secular movement. Helping society to shed the cloak of religious dogma and bring the truly wonderful world of science and nature to the people. Bringing a shining light to the darkness. I truly hope that one day I can do the same for you… You’re welcome for tea anytime.

 

 

Reasons to be cheerful…

I’ve been away for a few weeks, both mentally and physically. Physically my family and I took a trip to New york. My wife is a native of Long Island NY so we went over with the kids to visit her mum and three sisters. Living so far away it’s difficult for our children to form a bond with the American side of our family. So it was lovely to see them scampering around the garden with their aunties and grandmother. I also took the opportunity to visit a few guitar stores to pick up some discount goods. My wife and I also took a few evenings off. We spent a night in Manhattan, saw a Yankees game and sipped drinks on the roof top bar of our hotel whilst gazing at the Empire state building.

Mentally, I took a break. I took my eye off the ball. I read, I drank, I ate and watched football, the nations biggest distractor. But I’m back.

Now I usually use this small platform of mine to highlight certain issues, express myself or simply bitch…usually about religion or governments.

I could talk about the absurdity of the Hobby Lobby story that has been a hot topic of late.
I could talk about people not knowing the difference between having your civil rights abused and not getting your own way all the time.
I could even talk about our government secretly pushing another bill through parliament to retain our private information. But I wont. Largely because I’m sure they are being covered by the excellently thorough (And thoroughly excellent) Adam Pain or Dale Cooper.

Today I want to share with a story that literally took my breath away.

There’s a small place in the USA called Tim’s place. IT’s a small restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico owned and run by Tim Harris and his family. Tim was born in 1986, he attended Eldorado High School and was voted home coming king by the highest margin in the schools history. He was also voted student of the year by the staff and faculty. After high school he attended Eastern New Mexico University where he earned certificates in Food Service and in Office Skills. He also worked at a variety of local restaurants including CiCi’s Pizza, Golden Corral, IHOP, and Peppers Bar and Grill. Tim enjoys a variety of sports, including basketball, volleyball, poly hockey, track and field, and golf. Tim is also an olympian and to my knowledge has won more medals than Michael Phelps.

Tim was born with Down’s Syndrome. 

As you can see he has in no way let his disability (maybe it should be renamed ability?) hinder him achieving his goal of being a restauranteur. He greets his customers with a hug and has dubbed his restaurant ‘The world’s friendliest restaurant’ and it’s open for breakfast, lunch and hugs. To date Tim has issued over 42,000 hugs since opening in 2010. Tim Says “I thought my restaurant would be very popular and that lots of people would come to see me. I was so excited when it came together. I got to watch the place unfold into my dream”

So many people today like to bitch and complain about where they’ve ended up in life. But it’s their choices that have led them to where they are now. If you have a dream then you owe it to yourself to follow it, whatever it may be. I know I’ve said it in previous posts but it’s worth saying again. You’re not going to get to the end of your life and someone will say

“Ok Mr Smith that was your practice run, are you ready for the real thing?”

So whatever it is that you want to do…do it. For FUCK sake DO IT!
There are ways and means of getting around any obstacle and what’s the worst that can happen? You fail and go back to the job you’re already doing?

That’s good advice that I could do with taking on board at this time in my life.

To find out more about Tim and his restaurant you can visit their website here

Or watch this Video

My wife and I have a daughter with Down’s syndrome. Our greatest hopes are that she’ll be independent,  self sufficient and above all happy. Seeing what Tim has achieved gives me an enormous amount of hope for her future.

I’ve always said that our greatest limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves.

Until next time…Love

Education, Education, Education

I hated school when I was a kid. From the second I stepped into Mrs Thrussell’s classroom at age 5 to the last afternoon when I walked out of secondary school having finished my final exam. I was free. I spent over a decade in various classrooms daydreaming about ways in which I could escape the monotony of school life. These ranged from a jet engine under my seat to blast through the school roof to bringing in a very big coat on a windy day, catching a gust and it carrying me home to my Transformers collection. The problem was I was never engaged. I never wanted to learn, at least not in a classroom, and I was pretty much allowed to coast through school without any real great academic success. My school reports ALL read the same.

 

Very bright, has great potential. He just needs to concentrate and stop daydreaming/chatting. 

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I can count on one hand the times I was truly excited about school:
In my second year of secondary school we learnt about The Great war and I couldn’t get enough of it and If I remember correctly I aced my exam, but decided to study Geography instead…TWAT.

In my fourth year as part of our science module we had to learn about astrophysics. This was more exciting and fascinating then anything I had ever learned. I was truly in awe  by it and what’s more I had a superb teacher, Mr Newbury. In fact all his science lessons were exceptional. This is a passion I still carry with me today.

That’s it. They were the only times I was actually excited about learning and I find it terribly upsetting. Firstly because I squandered an 11 year, free education when there are people in the world who receive none. But also because every single one of my teachers saw that I had great potential and I was left to slide away. Of course I’m not trying to blame anyone else but me, to this day I need a kick up the arse to get going. What’s also sad is I’m not the only one.

Everyday thousands of children begrudgingly trundle into school to endure six hours of boredom. And I don’t blame them. I don’t blame the children for feeling disengaged and I certainly don’t blame the teachers. What I do think is at fault is the system that both teacher and student have to endure.

The public education system was developed towards the end of the 19th century to meet the demands of the industrial revolution and it hasn’t really moved on since. Of course there has been an influx of lessons ranging from Japanese to Economics but the school system is still based on the same model from that of the late 19th century. A model that is based on group learning, the memorisation of dates, numbers and facts, standardised tests, the stopping and starting of lessons with bells and whistles, structured breaks, uniforms and desks lined in rows.

All children learn differently, adults too. Some work better in a group, some on their own. Some work better in the morning whilst others flourish in the afternoon.  Some are visual learners whilst others only need to listen to instructions to understand. So our schools need to be structured in a way that accommodates all the different ways we learn. A school that is open from 8.00am to 8.00pm where students have as much autonomy as the teachers. A school that doesn’t have children sitting in rows and being herded from class to class every hour like cattle. A school where a child can take a break whenever he or she feels the need to. A school where the emphasis on Music, Drama And Art is just as strong as it is on English, Maths and Science. A school where a student’s pathway can be devoid of the three Rs and will suit their needs. A true school of the future.

I think if we’re going to reform our school system, and we need to, then we need to take lessons from countries like Finland. Finland outstrips the UK in Reading, Maths and Science year after year. There are no tuition fees and compulsory education starts at age 7, so as not to interrupt childhood; and finishes at age 15. Early education focuses on life, respect towards others, and social attitudes. Classes are usually small, no more than twenty, and there are no standardised tests. The end of year exam usually consists of a verbal assessment. Children will learn two foreign languages and 4-11 periods a week are dedicated to arts and craft. Homework is kept to a minimum to enable students to participate in extracurricular activities. There are state subsidised music schools and for a minimal fee students can learn a musical instrument along with music theory. Reading for pleasure is also highly encouraged. Finland currently produces more children’s books than any other country and there are free school meals for anyone in full time education.

Teachers are selected from the top 10% of academics and all teachers must have a masters. Their salary reflects the importance of schooling children which is why competition for teaching jobs is fierce. They are given far more autonomy than their British counterparts and they are simply instructed to “Do what ever it takes”
There is no drop out rate and if a student does fall behind they receive one to one tuition and a brought back up to speed and it’s almost unheard of that they hold a student back a year.

It’s practically the mirror opposite of what we do the UK. Our current education secretary Michael Gove is in favour of putting more emphasis on tests rather than coursework, longer school days and getting back to the three Rs (Reading, writing and Arithmetic) There is no doubt that Maths, English and Science are important. But are they any more important than Music? or History? Certainly not. Especially if one wants to be a musician or an historian.

Children who are starting school this year will be retiring in 2083 and we need to ensure that they are as well rounded and as well educated as they can possibly be because we have no idea what the world will look like in 2020 let alone 2083.

I’m happy that I live in a country that has a public school system, it just needs updating. It needs to reflect 21st century life and it has to keep children engaged. It has to be an environment that children want to learn in and that teachers want to teach in. This isn’t going to happen if we keep pumping money into an outdated, victorian model. There is too much emphasis on getting a job and this isn’t the business of education; and too much pressure on children from teachers and parents asking “What are you going to do when you leave school”…..My answer? Whatever the fuck I want!!

Children need to be taught HOW to think not WHAT to think.

 

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”- John Lennon 

 

What makes us human???

This is a question that is being asked by Radio 2 and they have had a great deal many artists, writers, scientists and clergy attempt to answer it.

So I thought I’d give it a go.

So what does make us human? To me the answer is in the arts. In music, poetry, art, drama and dance. The arts are what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. When you see an original Dali or listen to an orchestra sway their way through J.S Bach, the words of T.S Elliot or when Pearl Jam opened up their secret London show, to which I had front row view, with ‘Sometimes’. To me the emotions that are stirred are what it is to be human. Are achievements in science and technology are extraordinary but if we were ever to be taken back to the dark ages we would still have our art.

I read a story from a former SAS Sergeant who said when they were on operations behind enemy lines they weren’t allowed to talk, they had to communicate through various hand signals, eat cold army rations, go to the toilet in a bag and live in a ditch filled with water, sometimes for up to a month. All this so they could live as close as possible to the enemy without detection. He said that when they got on helicopter/jeep to take them back to base they would fill their faces with chocolate and tea then they would sing…He said the singing brought them back ‘home’ it lifted their spirits immeasurably. Similar stories from groups of people who have been stranded a rife. Singing songs around camp fires to help keep morale up, documenting your ordeals onto paper.images

I don’t think anyone would argue that some of the finest poetry came from some people living or surviving in the most horrific conditions, Wilfred Owen’s  Dulce et Decorum Est immediately springs to mind.

Art is intrinsically engrained upon our psyche. From our earliest beginnings we drew, we danced and we sang. From Aboriginal cave art to Pink Floyd’s Sonic landscapes our means of expression have always been and will always be our most spectacular achievement.