Making it up as I go along

I’ve kind of been in ‘stock-taking’ mode for the best part of the past month. Being on the ‘wrong’ side of your 40s will have that effect on you anyway, but in my case, quite a few other things have conspired to make me even more reflective than usual. Going to an old family friend’s 80th birthday party was one; an old school reunion was another. Then there was the preview of Fast Girls last week, at which I got to meet Paralympic athlete Martine Wright, who’d lost both legs in the 7/7 Tube bombings. And then I came across a couple of blog posts: one written by Loretta Andrews and one by Steve Best.

But what really kicked it off was an invitation from some former workmates to a reunion with the ex-director of the company I was made redundant from in the early 90s. The reunion took place last Friday; about 20 of us met in the Ladbroke Arms in Notting Hill and had a fantastic time reminiscing, catching up and just talking about life in general. So maybe my lists of things I’m thankful for and things I’ve learnt/done should begin with that old job…

Things I’m thankful for

Printronic International was a direct marketing firm based in Wimbledon, which I joined in 1987 as a computer operator, and was made redundant from exactly seven years and two days later.

To say that I was gutted at being made redundant would be a massive understatement. This was my first proper job since coming back to the UK, having spent my childhood and early growing-up years in Sierra Leone (yes, there was the crappy burger place I spent a year and a bit in before that, but that doesn’t count). I’d started writing in 1990, and was still finding my voice, so to speak, when I lost the job. The combination of the security of a living wage and the convenience of a four-day week had given me some space to grow as a writer without starving in the process. Losing that was a massive blow.

But if I hadn’t left Printronic, I wouldn’t have ended up spending a year at the South London Press, learning the journalist’s craft full-time and realising that I didn’t want to spend my writing career asking mugging victims how old they were (the SLP’s then news editor had a thing about getting the subject’s age into every story – even when you couldn’t quite see how it was relevant!). I would probably have never got round to going to university either.

Weird as it sounds, going to uni in my 30s is something else I’m thankful for. It would’ve been nice (and considerably less of a financial burden) if I’d gone a few years earlier (my going to uni coincided with Tony Blair scrapping student grants). But at least I knew what I wanted to do when I went. And for all that’s been said and written about how rubbish media degrees are (a lot of it justified), mine has helped me land a great job, a handful of fun writing and radio gigs and a nice radio award on my mantelpiece – y tambien, ahora puedo hablar un poquito de Español. Not too shabby…

I’ve become very experience-rich since my Printronic days, and for that I’m thankful. There are other things I’m thankful for as well; I’ve put them in the “things I have/have done” list below…

Things I’ve learnt

  • Circumstances can change very quickly, and it only takes one bad experience to screw up your perspective on life.
  • What you like in school doesn’t necessarily dictate what you’ll end up doing when you grow up. That said, I still love maths (yes, I’m weird. Got a problem with that?).
  • Empty vessels really do make the most noise. Sadly, we still live in a society where he who shouts loudest gets the most attention…
  • That thing about stuff being for a season is true, but some seasons go on for longer than others.
  • We’re all our own worst critics. And we really do need to cut ourselves some slack.
  • Everyone needs a ‘Team Me’.
  • It might be true that everyone has a book in them. It might also be true that some books “just write themselves”. But you still have to type the bloody things…
  • Passion counts for a lot.
  • In 95% of life’s dramas, the most reassuring thing one can say is “I’ll put the kettle on”.
  • You really are never too old to learn something new. As I write, I’m listening to one of the zillion albums I get sent to review. It’s by an Austrian musician called Gottlieb Twerdy; an architect who only learnt his first instrument at the age of 53, and has just released his debut album – at 60!

Things I have/things I’ve done

  • Some good friends (I may not see some of them for lengthy period of time, but we’re cool)
  • A kick-ass music collection (any rubbish you find in it was either given to me or is meant to be ‘ironic’)
  • A church where the people aren’t right-wing, and God isn’t just there to make you a millionaire (yeah, I’m a God-botherer. As such, finding a church I can be me in matters to me)
  • A degree
  • An exotic drum collection (all right then, three djembes and a darbuka)
  • A passport full of stamps (there would have been even more in it, but I accidentaly stuck my old one in the wash after a trip to Spain, and had to start afresh with a new one. A very expensive mistake)
  • Had a ride on an elephant
  • Traveled to Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and seen how a little compassion and generosity can make a big difference to a poor child’s life
  • Played daft games with kids on all four afore-mentioned continents – and in the Middle East too
  • DJed at a rock festival
  • Written a book and co-authored a few more
  • Waded in a waterfall
  • Eaten a guinea-pig
  • Had a walk-on part in a crap film
  • Learnt to swim as an adult (falling into the Pacific Ocean was kind of a wake-up call; boy am I glad my mum isn’t on the internet to read this!)
  • Met a few of my boyhood heroes – and not been mentally scarred in the process
  • Sailed on Loch Ness (if there is a monster there, it’s an incredibly shy one)

Still on the “wanna do” list…

  • Visit Cuba sometime before the ‘Miami Mafia’ take control of the place
  • Visit Brazil and join a samba school
  • Maybe I should just be one of those ‘single and proud’ older guys, but I’m not really sure I want to totally give up on the love thing just yet…
  • No kids (yet) – we live in hope

Things I’d have done differently (or, “Regrets? I’ve had a few…”)

  • I wish I’d known about introversion and all that stuff while I was in school, or that it was talked about in the more constructive manner in which it’s discussed nowadays. It would have made those awkward teenage years slightly easier to navigate…
  • I would have started writing earlier – even if it was all rubbish. A lot of rubbish gets written on the road to becoming a great writer. It’s all in the rewriting – well, most of the time, anyway…
  • I would have read more, too. Making up for that now, though…

Note: This blog post is not complete. Like life, it’s a work in progress – and I’m making it up as I go along.