Own two feet


It all happened so fast.

First an email asking if I would be interested in filming a small piece about fatherhood.

Then there was a phone call. This turned into a mini interview with an assistant producer from Channel 4’s ‘4Thought’ programme – the series of two minute pieces they show after the news.

Then there was some to-ing and fro-ing, over dates and whether the filming would be in London or Manchester.

Then I was on a train heading to Manchester with my girlfriend Clea, and my son Dylan.

If I’m honest, I never really stopped to think through what I was doing properly. My only real thoughts and concerns were for my own parents, especially my dad.

When I told my mum in the kitchen on one of her weekly visits to my flat, she broke down. ‘I’m still so ashamed’ she wept.

‘Mum we’re not those people anymore,’ I said trying to fix the moment. But we both knew we were still those people or, at least, that we still carried those people within us.

The boy who couldn’t understand why nobody wanted him. The mother who was afraid of what she might do to the boy if he stayed: ‘I know you have to do this, I just wish things were different’.

My mum has fought a war with herself ever since she made that decision, twenty five years ago.

I have watched from the sidelines, unable to help her because ultimately this is a civil war, and only she can call the truce that will end it.

I have tried to let her know, while I can never quite understand how she came to that decision, I can somehow, in some way, appreciate it.

I know her story and I lived some of that story and the truth is I think she is amazing to still be here. Scarred and weary, still struggling at times, she is an inspiration everyday.

But she would never accept that.

I didn’t tell my dad about the programme until after I had filmed it. I was afraid. Not of him, but for him. Together, over the last few years, we have built bridges that have become strong.

We have built something brand new together. We couldn’t fix what had passed, but we could make something new and we did. Since my son was born this has only got stronger and, at the same time, he has softened.

He is vulnerable. He is human. He’s my dad.

I wanted to protect him as he is now, but I knew I had to talk about him as he was then.

I knew talking about the past would be difficult for all of us. As I lay in the bath that night after filming, I decided to phone him. He listened as I told him about the programme and how I had been approached.

I felt like I was stabbing him in the back. He had changed. We had changed. It felt like I was digging up the past, but at the same time I wanted to tell a small part of my story and his story: a story of change and resolution.

After I stopped talking there was a pause. ‘It’s ok’ he said ‘we’re all in harmony now’. A weight lifted off of me.

When the programme was filmed I spent 30 minutes in a chair talking about being in care, my dad, how I found Jesus for a bit as a substitute for a dad and then I talked about being a dad myself.

The whole thing was a blur.

Before the interview, I asked that they make sure that they included that my dad and I were in a very different place now, but they didn’t. As expected, 30 minutes was cut down to under 2 mins, but in the edit my dad was left battered and bruised.

Bits and pieces I had said to balance the story were now missing. I felt my story had been twisted, but at the same time I was proud of the piece as a document. At the end they showed my girlfriend and my son, and the experience of filming it together is a memory of now that we can cherish and protect.

I was worried, after seeing the film, about my dad. But he took it on the chin with a joke about how it being an ‘assassination’.

As I sit here now typing this out I think he is completely right, but probably not in the way he meant it.

It was an assassination. The man I talk of as my father in that film is dead. People do change. Families that are broken can be remade different, remade anew.

We still carry all the bumps and bruises and we still carry the people that we were. But I don’t hold onto this past because although that is somewhere I have been, it is not where I am now.

I dedicate this blog to my mum and dad. Thank you for living the change that it is so important for us all to believe in.

The 4thought piece is available to watch online.



HOMEWARD BOUND

I get lost in my mind a lot. Like many other minds, it’s a complex mess stuffed full of secrets and stairwells and bright lights and nights that can reach into the days.

I pretend I have control of it most of the time, but there are days and times when I am just a passenger. It is easy to lose myself and to lose the world around me. I think we all need to lose ourselves from time to time though, so we can find ourselves again, if only for a moment.

I lost myself getting onto the tube at Goodge Street station near to where I work. I wandered off in my mind and by the time I found my way back the train was pulling into Barnes. The change at Waterloo from tube to train escaped me. The hanging clock on the platform told me I was two hours early for a meeting at Roehampton University.

I started walking, slipping once again into automatic pilot and instead of heading for the university, I found myself cutting through Barnes Common and heading for the estate I grew up on before I went into care.

As I got closer my mind spilled screams from summers a long time ago. Water fell from balconies in balloons and tiny hands squeezed blasts of water out of old fairy bottles. I pushed away the stillborn dreams and broken promises. Sometimes the past needs to be pruned if you want to carry it a long way.

I crossed the Upper Richmond Road and my old tower block cut into sight. More memories. Racing our BMXs, bunny hops and wheelies. Cutting the bark of trees with our flick knives and the football kicked about deep into the night. As I walked up the newly paved curly hill I felt the pain only the past can inflict. The echo of lost time and a boy’s life that was once mine, but feels like a stranger’s. This was my home….at least I think it was.

I wandered the estate for a long time. We had both changed. The pit where I played football was gone. It had been filled in and paved over. The new bushes and trees that have been scattered around the place looked like refugees. The brightly painted metal railings and empty playgrounds looked like cheap make-up on a worn out face. This was not the place I remember.

Not so long ago, my mum finally moved off the estate, at least physically. She had stayed longer then she should have in the hope her daughter, a sister I have never met, would find her waiting. ‘Do you think she will come looking?’ my mum sometimes asks me. ‘I  have so much I want to say’.  But she has not come looking yet. I wonder what my mum would say.

Growing up in care often makes it hard to put down lasting roots. We hold onto the old roots, no matter how damaged they may be, because they are ours. Sometimes we have to change the story of those old roots. We forget what we need to and remember what we want to. But although our history is important, it is what makes us, it is also important to be able to say goodbye to parts of the past to make room for the future and for the laying of new roots.

Before I left the estate I went by the off-licence. ‘Hi John, this is surprise, how have you been keeping?’ Ali the shop owner was still there. A little older, a little heavier and more smiley. ‘I’m really well’ I replied.
‘And how’s mum?’
‘She’s really good’ I said, hoping I was right.

The estate faded as I headed off to my meeting. Fab lolly in hand, I thought of my girlfriend and my son and the home we are always making together. The bricks come from every place I have ever been, but we’re building something new, and this construction never ends.




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