Adam Bird

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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Outreach with Caring Hands

Caring Hands

I have known for some time that the people of Caring Hands in the Community provide a wonderful service for homeless people in Medway. I’m also aware that whilst their hard work hasn’t gone unrecognised, there has been a lack of information available online about the work that they do. This reason, out of many is why I asked my Uncle Matthew if I could be involved in re-purposing their web offering. On Monday evening, I witnessed for myself a small element of their work which reinforced my opinion and desire to succeed in the project we are working on.

Caring Hands was initially started by my Uncle Matthew over ten years ago after a conversation he had with a man outside King’s Church where he worked whilst sweeping the drive. The man was homeless, and without wanting to go into specifics (see the website when it launches!) Matthew felt compelled to do something and shortly afterwards Caring Hands in the Community was born.

In conversations over the years Matthew has always been keen to share with me and the family the things that are going on and things that have happened. On numerous occasions I’ve visited the building, but always out of hours and have seen an empty building that of a night echoes with the ghosts of human despair. I had my first proper visit two weeks ago, briefly, and during the day whilst everything was in full flow. The first thing I noticed was the change in atmosphere, gone was the darkness and replaced instead by hope, by gratitude and a warmth that was comforting despite my own apprehension.

Which for me is where the problem lies. I always feel uncomfortable around homeless people, whenever I see someone asleep on the street when I walk to the office, or sitting on the pavement asking for money I’m unable to look them in the eye knowing that I’ll never truly be able to understand what it is that they are going through or relate to the issues that led them there in the first place.

Homeless people aren’t homeless for any specific reason, each person is different and has a different set of circumstances behind them, each has a story to tell and each one is as heartbreaking as the other. Homelessness is also not a modern day affliction, people have been without food, without shelter from day one and sadly it will never ever go away.

On Monday evenings, on top of the Monday to Friday daytime operations a team from Caring Hands go on “outreach”, where they go on the road and supply food, drink and warmth to those who need it. I was invited to attend, along with a chap named Joel Buckland who is in town for the week producing a video piece for the new website. Attired in a high-vis jacket with glow strips I felt rather apprehensive making my way along New Road whilst having bushes pointed out to me as to where people were known to live. This became all the more staggering when I realised that the road I was walking along is the old London to Dover route and still today, the main route through the Medway towns. How many people pass by on a daily basis oblivious to what is happening only a few feet away?

We reached our desired spot on the main road, a layby of sorts when the Caring Hands van turned up and people started arranging an assortment of tables laden with teas, coffees, soups and sandwiches. Shortly afterwards a small group of men arrived who’d obviously made this event the main part of their Monday evening. The group of men were apparently from Poland, they’d been made homeless in their motherland and come to the UK, not in search of a better life, but survival. The cruel winters in Poland would have killed them and they are, apparently, legally allowed to come here and be homeless, but not allowed to work or seek benefits of any kind.

Whether or not I agree with the legal ramifications or the politics that saw these men arrive on our shores is neither here nor there. What I do admire though is the kindness and compassion of the people involved who look through and above the legalities and politics and provide these men with some form of survival. The Polish men too were terribly appreciative, offering broken words of gratitude and thanks and offered handshakes to those who had fed them.

The night was not as busy as normal, a noticeable Police presence in the area had made the normal clientele apprehensive. Afterall, being homeless means people will do anything to survive; petty crime, prostitution and paths into alcoholism and drug addiction become viable alternatives to dull the steady pain of their reality. So although I didn’t see the full state of affairs, I did see enough. I saw a group of people looking out for, helping and providing for the people society have forgotten or chosen to ignore.

All of the people I watched on Monday evening, working on behalf of Caring Hands in the Community are Christians and are performing God’s work on behalf of Him. Even though I have no real religious ideals personally, I have a huge sense of admiration and respect for those that do. At the same time, it should also be recognised that there are many, many people who also do great and wonderful things for society without religious motivations.

Which is why all of us, whatever our religious backgrounds must do more. I have no idea what the more is, but people like those at Caring Hands in the Community certainly do. Take me for example, can I overcome my own prejudices and misconceptions, make a start by offering a friendly word and a listening ear to a stranger on the streets? It may not be much, but what is it that they say? Every little helps.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Alone with the Emirati

Emirates Stadium

Being a Gillingham fan isn’t glamorous. We don’t play beautiful, flowing, intricate football. Nor do we play football in an arena fit for gladiators, surrounded by stands that rise up to the God’s in homage to the heroes what ply their trade on that stretch of finally manicured turf. Which is why, when the chance comes along to see a different side to the game, I try and take it when I can.

On Monday, I paid my second visit to the Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal as they met Newcastle United in the Premier League, live on Sky. Arsenal have been in great form of late, chasing down third place Tottenham Hotspur, their fierce local rivals in battle for the automatic entry into the prestigious Champions league.

My friend Will is a season ticket holder at the Emirates and due to work commitments was unable to attend the game. My email response to his invite was “I’ll go, but if nobody more deserving wants to”. As it was, there were no other, so it was I who made a lonely pilgrimage to North London from the office to take Will’s place watching the team he loves.

Now I must confess, I’m not much of an Arsenal fan. In fact if I was to write a list of my top 92 football clubs, Arsenal would be flirting with relegation to the Blue Square Premier - but it’s not everyday you get the chance to watch top flight football in such spectacular surroundings and the Emirates Stadium truly is that - if nothing else.

Overall it was an enjoyable experience, but watching football, for me is a team game. You go to a ground with a couple of mates, maybe have a beer, maybe not. But those you go with have a shared interest - the team you are going to watch. I’ve been to several Gills games on my own and have enjoyed them hugely, but I didn’t quite have the same experience watching Arsenal. When Newcastle scored I wanted to jump up and go wild, but I had to make do with a quiet “whoop” which I shouted at the top of the voice inside my head. Not that I had much time to revel in my own private joy as Arsenal equalised just moments later!

The game itself was enjoyable, Arsenal deserved to win the game with Newcastle happy to escape with a draw. It was a pleasure watching Robin Van Persie continue his rich vein of form and Theo Walcott running full pelt down the wing, even if he is a little bit one dimensional. I was also impressed by a couple of Newcastle players. Ben Arfa looked a real player and he will go onto much bigger and better things, whilst Cheick Tiote is another to keep an eye on.

Unfortunately I missed all the excitement at the end with Arsenal scoring a 95th minute winner! I was meeting Reaso, my Gillingham supporting season ticket buddy who ironically was also at the game. We had decided before hand to leave before the rush, which many people around me had also decided to do. In fact, there were people leaving long before me which I’m sure felt more aggrieved when Vermaelen scored the winner than I did.

My biggest complaint, and I mentioned it before after my first visit - was the real lack of atmosphere. I don’t know why, but I have this constant dream of sitting at a football match and having the hairs stand up on the back of my neck in awe at the shear volume of noise coming from the stands. During the game, there were sporadic chants of “Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal” and when Robin Van Persie lined up for free kicks there was an unimaginative ditty about how he scores when he wants, but overall, the majority of the game was played against a fairly quiet backdrop of people mesmerised by the pretty triangles played out around the pitch. I don’t think I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist as I know that it does. I’ve been to Wolves when they’ve chorused out “Hey Ho Wolverhampton” and Stoke when “Delialah” has been sung at full voice and it is a truly staggering, but with twice as many people in the ground on Monday night, the volume levels were really quite poor. Even Newcastle and the famed Toon Army were not in particular fine voice, I was hoping for a stirring rendition of the Blayden Races, but their wasn’t really a high enough number of supporters to get their voices heard, even if they certainly did when they scored! But having said all of that, I did leave early and I’m sure that there was an almighty roar when the winner hit the back of the net!

Having a love for football, whoever it is, I could sit and watch a game and enjoy it. But I’ve learnt that it is far better inside a stadium then watching on television. I’ve learnt that it’s also better with friends, but sitting alone amidst the Emirati regulars, I realised you don’t need big, plush leather seats and synthetic pitches. You don’t need Jumbotron television screens and a PA system that blasts out Elvis and the Wonder of You at volumes that makes you wish you really were deaf. You don’t even need mulit-million pound players or foreign mercenaries. You don’t need history, or statues of the greats outside your ground. You just need to feel a sense of belonging, a place to call home - even if it is a shit ground with no fans.

For the record


Arsenal
Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Gibbs, Rosicky (Ramsey - 76' ), Arteta, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Gervinho - 68' ), Song, Van Persie,
Substitutes:
Fabianski, Santos, Djourou, Ramsey, Benayoun, Gervinho, Chamakh,

Newcastle United
Krul, Coloccini, Santon (Perch - 46' ), Simpson, Williamson, Cabaye, Ben Arfa, Gutierrez, Tiote (Guthrie - 81' ), Obertan (Sh Ameobi - 61' ), Ba
Substitutes:
Elliot, Perch, Guthrie, Gosling, Vuckic, Cisse, Sh Ameobi

Attendance: 60,095

Friday, 9 March 2012

Premature Perfection

Mini-me

Towards the end of last year I entered a writing competition. The subject was 'life-writing' which for me is what this blog is all about, however uninteresting it appears to anyone from the outside looking in. Unfortunately, I didn't make the final long-list, but in celebrating my 200th post last week I thought that now would be as good a time to share it as any. The following "story" for me, encapsulates everything I've learned about myself in the previous two hundred posts.

Premature Perfection


Gravesend 1980. July the 26th if I am going to be exact. I don’t remember it. Of course I am not expected to, nobody does. It was the date of my birth. Nothing remarkable about that. People are born every minute, every hour of every day. It’s life. Like mine; nothing really remarkable about that either. I am married now, I have a child. Have another one due next month. Married for just over a year to the women I started dating thirteen years ago. I have a semi-successful job which brings in an above average wage, live in a house that is a similar value to the national average and drive a pretty non-descript car of a weekend when my wife isn’t ferrying groceries to and fro from Tescos. But those events are of today and are ones we can look forward to until tomorrow. I’d like to go back, just for a minute, to 1980, and back to Gravesend where it all began – at least it did for me.

I was, or am, or should be, sensibly grateful – by rights I shouldn’t have made it. My premature arrival at the end of July was in fact two months too early. I wasn’t due to arrive until eight weeks later at the end of September, but my lack of patience, which has been evident throughout my life, was obviously apparent during gestation as I arrived unexpectedly in the early hours of the twenty-sixth day of the seventh month. My mother was just seventeen years old, and despite what I just said, it wasn’t my fault.  There was a science behind my arrival, my mother had a weak cervix so the chances of her ever carrying a baby full-term was slim. She didn’t know that then, nor did the hospital really know what to do with a child born two months too early. This was 1980, they can perform miracles now, they could perform them back then, they just didn’t know it – they expect it now. Nothing is worth giving up on nowadays. They gave up on me. Or so my mother told me. I couldn’t possibly remember the minute details, so these are as fine as I can make them, very much second hand from the mouth of my dear Mother.

Maybe it is the vicar that I should thank, the friend of my youthful parents who came in and offered them paternal support. They didn’t get it from their own parents. Not back then. Parents were different then, from a different era – I won’t ever leave the sides of my own children, through thick or thin. People have babies younger now; they didn’t so much back then – or at least so obviously. My own parents were pioneers, got together too young, were vilified by my father’s parents, “wasting your life away”, “it’ll never work”. But it did – until this day and so did the vicar, his words of prayer, his hand on my heart when it stopped and he’d whispered softly the last rites – a death too soon, but clawed back from beyond by the medical staff, or the vicar’s ecclesiastical boss, the man upstairs, the man holding all the cards.

You could forgive me then for being particularly religious, except I’m not – despite my own parents unwavering faith in His name. I have looked for Him, but haven’t found Him yet. Maybe one day, but that, possibly, is another story for another day.

Instead, I return to my birth, the aftermath and despite being told the account of my premature arrival on numerous occasions as a child I never really thought about it too much. In fact I am probably lying. The truth is, that I didn’t think about it at all. Not until my own son was born five years ago.

Fast forward, back to today and my modern reality. My son and I – we look alike, sound alike, walk alike, and despite his tender age we share similar personality traits. Except his birth was in contrast to mine, he was two weeks late, enjoying the warmth and comfort of his own mother’s womb. But looking down at him in his little crib under a neon bright lamp an hour after his arrival I had a deep moment of thought and questioned the meaning of it all and tried to put the miracle of birth into some form of context.

I’ll happily admit to you in a moment of honesty that I am still trying to find the answers to some of those questions I posed to myself that day. In fact, being honest again, I know that I’ll never truly answer them all – the one thing aboard this train of thought filed away in the carriage marked certain.&

Like the one about my brother, who like me was dangerously premature, but even more so. He never survived and as damaging and emotionally wrenching it was for my parents, who were still too young to lose a child, for me a brother that I never knew and for a mind as deep and searching as mine it was always a case of why him and not me? Or my sister, herself a miracle if you consider the fact that she came when everyone said that she never would.

I am content and have accepted that things happen for a reason and that we shall never be able to explain or understand the reasoning or the cause of these events. The words fate and destiny, short in length as vocabulary goes but behind them hold vast worlds of thought and philosophy which I could spend a lifetime learning and never understand, not fully. But for me, my life will forever be defined by those two missing months at the very beginning of my time.

September is a crucial month, not just for me, but for every child in the UK born since the rules were written that classified children into age groups and, depending upon your birth, when you started school. Had I been born when I was supposed to, I wouldn’t have started school for another whole year, and would have had another year with my mother who was a stay at home parent. Most mothers were back then, it’s only my generation who can’t afford to stay at home anymore – that too is another story for another day.

Instead, I spent my first year at a school in Chatham where we used to live, but the stress of being married so young and the financial troubles of the early 80’s forced my parents into a temporary separation. We moved back to Gravesend and lived with my Grandparents for a short while, the three of us; my mother, my sister and I all sharing a room. But had I been born when I was supposed to, I would never have been at that school in Chatham, would never have made the friends I had, or been separated from them and forced to make new ones. I would instead have made friends at the time when my peers were making friends for the first time, not being marked as the “new kid”, starting from scratch at the start of a new school year, in a place I barely knew. I was the one with the NHS spectacles and the funny name that’s named after an animal – not them. I stood out within the macro society of infant school and became the classroom’s newest victim.

The name and glasses were permanent, the jibes were temporary, or at least perhaps until one day when I’m lying upon a sofa in a psychiatrists office and they assign my personality defects to those harsh early experiences. But I’ve never struggled to make friends, have been quietly confident most of the time particularly in my youth before regressing and finding my natural level, or adult level which I am happy to remain.

I wonder how I would feel, if I was born in October, instead of December, would that have made any difference to the outcome of my life? Or the other side of Christmas, an arrival in May instead of July – I don’t think that it would, I’d still be mixing with the same people, nothing would have been different. Like those people born at one minute past midnight on 1st September – how different would their path of life be if they’d been born just two minutes earlier? Different school years, different characters, different teachers, different mentors, different friends, it equates in my mind to separate life stories – different branches of the same tree. We keep our personalities, our moral compass, but they are shaped by our surroundings.

I believe strongly that the friends you make in life are the ones you really learn from. Parents are role models, teachers are mentors, but friends are those people who guide your life in the direction in which it inevitably goes. We are not just bundles of DNA whistling in the wind, particles of matter, chemicals, science, unearthly bodies guided by stars and runes, or collections of prophecies in so called Holy Books. Which is why for me, the difference between those two months is significant. The friends I am close to now, are the same people that I grew up with through school, through my teens, into my twenties and now, all the way into my early thirties. If I’d gone to a school a year later, would my friends have shaped my life differently? Would it have been better, could I have been a rock star, or a famous politician? Would I be lying on a urine stained floor with a needle in my arm enjoying the fake warmth and gentle caress of heroin’s kiss instead of writing this – thinking too deeply about what might have happened instead of cherishing what did?

Keeping with my school days for a little bit longer, but later on in life when the choice of secondary school opened up for me. Had I started school when I should have, a year later I would have been eligible for the eleven plus; an exam that was taken to secure grammar school status and opening up a world of adult possibilities that were never afforded to me. Instead I didn’t, had to rely on the thirteen plus which was based upon a selective criteria, which ultimately I never met. I stayed where I was, in a mainstream high school and did the best I could with what was available. Made the friends I did, passed the exams I took and left when I could in search of work, where I met my wife instead of the alternative – higher education and the world of university. Baked bean dinners topped up with cheap eastern European Vodka.

Meeting my wife then, another event which I’m almost certain wouldn’t have happened had I been born when I was scheduled to be. I’d got a weekend job at a supermarket at the edge of town and you needed to be 16 to apply. I was old enough, just. Started pushing trolleys around the car park before moving inside and working the tills. She was a queue-buster, resplendent in a yellow bib with a bright red Q, which matched her bright yellow car parked outside which had a bonnet that was sky blue. She’d crashed it apparently, after only a week. She loved her Telly-Tubby car, named her La-La, which was an appeal to me, not the name, the independence she offered. She was older than I, which of course, was all part of the attraction.

My friends met her friends, we formed a clique, grew up together, slept together, drank together, holidayed together, fell apart, some of us broke each other’s hearts but the only thing that remained was the relationship between my future wife and I. We led the way in some cases, moved out first, had the first child whilst the others followed with lavish weddings instead. The birth of my son changed my mind about the institution of marriage as well as forcing me to look back reflectively on which side of August my coin had landed. As I say, I’d never been particularly introspective, but fatherhood changes the soul of a man and I’d started searching in earnest for answers to these things.

It wasn’t until the eve of my wedding last year, when I finally accepted my lot, counted the blessings that I have and the sudden realisation that I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’d understood finally that I wasn’t ever destined for a September arrival; it was just a number, like a lottery ticket given to my mother as a target in which to hit. I arrived in July just like it was designed, as it was always intended.

It was a moment of romance that confirmed for me the feelings I’d had, that had lasted for four years, from the moment my son was born until that moment – which occurred quite unexpectedly.

I was sat on a beach, the last night of my stag weekend, the hedonistic pre-wedding ritual that is an act of martyrdom for the groom – one last hurrah for masculinity that is drowned out and forgotten amidst the alcohol that the groom is forced to consume according to groomsman law.

It was a beach on the Balearic island of Ibiza, the White Isle as it is affectionately known by many, a clubbers paradise which I found heavenly not just for the music but the ambiance and the atmosphere which was in contrast to the madness and neon extreme I’d pictured in my mind for as long as I can remember. In fact, I owe a sincere thank you to my best friend, who accommodated my desire to visit Ibiza, which we managed to achieve on a budget along the lines of other stag weekends we’d previously enjoyed.

On the last evening of our stay on the island, we’d enjoyed an early celebratory meal at a bar stroke restaurant we’d fallen in love with along the ‘Sunset Strip’ for the final time. For dessert we went instead and sat upon the rocky beach to enjoy the event which gives the location its name. Sat alongside thousands of others in the nightly ritual of watching the sun go down over the islet that sits gently in the distance, half-way to the horizon, accompanied by a soundtrack that is mellow, “chill-out” they call it –  a softer beat that isn’t as hard as what’s played later on in the boom boom boom environments of the legendary nightclubs.

It is one of those must see White Isle experiences, not because of the event of the sun setting which it does every night; but the audience of two thousand people dotted along the short stretch of coast line – hanging out of windows, clinging on to rocks and applauding in unison at the precise moment the sun disappears from view, leaving the hues of oranges and darkened blues reflecting on the sea, which the night I witnessed it was as still as a mill pond. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I didn’t expect the applause, or the cheering that started off at one end of the beach and worked its way down to the other.

I was a wreck by then, already emotional that my weekend was coming to an end, that I had fulfilled a long held dream with my closest friends at my side. That my father was there with me and my uncle, a man of sixty who had embraced the spirit of Ibiza and let the passage of time rewind for a few days as he pulsated and convulsed on the dance-floor better than any of us men half his age. The sun setting was symbolic, an analogy for how I was feeling, the poignant marking of the end of my youth, the next morning I was to begin the coming of age process, flying home to be a husband finally to my long term girlfriend. I was already a father and now I was to become legally, in the eyes of the law, responsible for the lives of two people like my father had before me and like the one that my son will one day hopefully become himself.

And in those moments I asked myself what I would change if I could, and the answer was absolutely nothing. I was reminded of the circumstances of my birth and what would have happened if things had gone the other way. I no longer cared nor let it worry me, and have never since pondered the question. There always will be the case of what could have happened, but I shall never ever know. I know what wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have what I’ve got and the consideration of how that makes me feel is too raw and painful to think about.

All I do know, is that I should be thankful to the person, or group of people that brought me back from the brink and allowed me to enjoy what it is that I have now. A young family with another baby on the way and a collection of memories and life experiences that I shall forever cherish. I’ve been lucky that my life has seen more brightness and light than dark days – of which, no doubt they will ultimately come. But right now, at not yet the halfway stage of a life, that if I keep living a life of averages – I can be happy with my lot in the knowledge that yes, it could have been oh so very different had I not been so premature.

But really, would it have been so perfect?


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Life Lessons

Oliver in Zante, 2009

Having had the last week off work due to holiday accrued during 2011-2012, I sit asking just where the time as gone! I know exactly where, working hard on the rebuild of the King’s Church Website which has been the focus of my blogs over the past few weeks. I wanted to take a step away from the project for a while and have a look at some of the other things I’ve done whilst being away from the office.

On Monday nights after school Oliver has a swimming lesson at Cascades, our local swimming pool and with me being home for the week it was a perfect opportunity for me to see how he was getting on.

As a family, we are not well known for our sporting process. I hardly have any great anticipation that Oliver or Phoebe will grow up to to become sporting legends but both Stephanie and I understand the importance of being healthy and active even if we aren’t the worlds finest examples at putting our principles into practice.

Even so, through our children we have a great chance to reverse the trend of the past few years, through our courtship where we forgot the lessons we were taught by our own parents and became slaves to sloth and gluttony instead.

Being able to swim is one of those valuable life lessons which will only serve Oliver in good stead as he grows up. It’s actually quite sad in some cases when you hear of even adults who have a fear of water due to not being able to swim. When I was a kid, I'd spend long, fun filled days at Cascades, riding the slides and hitting the waves, even if now I don’t consider myself to be a particularly strong swimmer, whereas Stephanie still takes pride in having earned a ten mile swimming badge back in her youthful days!

Watching Oliver on Monday night as he struggled to get to grips with the technique required I took positives from the fact that he had no fear, and showed steely determination to succeed - even if was only to earn himself a packet sweets! I had a brief reflective thought on what I was witnessing and what I’d left behind back at home. Phoebe who of course isn’t yet ready for this type of education I realised that as parents Stephanie and I were on completely different parental stages. Even so, I realised that what we are doing for Phoebe at the moment is just as important as what we are doing for Oliver. What we are doing for Phoebe we have to do, we have no choice, but with Oliver what we choose to do is entirely in our own hands - almost as if we have a piece of play-dough and are moulding it in our own image.

Both Stephanie and I have ideas about what makes “good” parents and we do try to live up to our own expectations. Sometimes we fail and get it wrong, but that doesn’t turn us into bad ones overnight, it just makes us human, but by giving our children the basic building blocks i.e. confidence, opportunity and encouragement they’ll hopefully use those as a foundation for all the lessons that come along in life, whether it is sporting, academic or dealing with one of the many step-backs along the road.
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