Three James’ Day

Yesterday was a special day in our home-it was the third birthday of my son James. For those of you who are familiar with my post Boonless In Southport (19th June) you will know just how much he is obsessed with balloons. Mention it being someone’s birthday, anyone’s birthday, be them seven or seventy, and his immediate response is “Boons!” So, of course, first thing in the morning he was confronted with balloons everywhere-helium filled, resting against the ceiling, tied to chairs and door handles, and breath filled, covering the floor in a carpet of colour. His presents and cards weren’t even afforded a second glance.

Cue Sinatra: For I only have eyes, for boons.

He loved being the center of attention for the day, offering long-lashed, bashful eyes in response to the obligatory ‘Happy Birthday’ song.

I have a diary, as I expect most of you do. Along with the usual entries, I also put into it significant dates from the past that are significant to me and to my family. Dates where I set time aside to remember and mark things that were, and still are, important.

Two years ago, on the day my son was one year old, we came together in the pale fresh light of early morning to mark this momentous occasion. His first ever birthday. Even if he was unaware of its meaning, we sung ‘Happy Birthday’ and opened his cards for him, showing him the colourful pictures. And yes, balloons. My cousin Lorraine participated in this milestone event, and then, when we had finished opening everything, she broke the news to my mother that her elder brother-James Brown, had died that very day. Lorraine’s father, my Uncle Jim.

Life’s two great inevitables demonstrated within a minute.

My uncle was a great man, friendly, family oriented. I remember when he met my future wife for the first time, a few days after we had become engaged. He shook her hand and said “Welcome to the family.”  Like an elder statesman. A family spokesman.

Another time, the telephone rang and the teenage girl that we were fostering answered it. Jim was on the phone, and spoke with our foster daughter for some time before she handed the phone over to me, commenting “Aw, what a lovely man!” They had never met, never spoke before, but in that first encounter she had got him to a tee.

I also include in my diary any information gleaned from doing my family history. On this same date, already chronicling my son’s birthday and my uncle’s death, I have also recorded:

James Denis O’Sullivan died, 1906. 

This was my great-uncle, the brother of my gran. What I haven’t added is that he was born in 1905. It doesn’t look right does it:great-uncle, when he only lived to be one year old. But in the horizontal and vertical nexus of lines that constitute my family tree, that is what he was.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with someone who was mourning the death of a friend’s baby son. Sometimes you struggle to come up with anything positive, or any words at all. All I could offer was:

Remember that the world is a different place because that child was born. It doesn’t matter if he was here for a year, a month, or a day. His brief presence has touched people, changed people.  Wherever his family go in life, they will take him with them. He will always be a part of their story”.

James Denis O’Sullivan, forever a part of my gran’s story. In 2007 I stood at his father’s graveside in Thessalonika. A victim of the first world war, he brought his son with him to the sun-kissed soil of Greece, where his own chapter closed.

One single day in August-three people named James. With one a celebration, and the excitement of a future unknown. With one a thanksgiving, for the role he played in life. And for another with remembrance, of a life sadly unfulfilled.

Three figures all connected by bloodlines and story.

All Change Manchester

I recently visited Manchester city center, which is just a twenty five minute bus journey from where I live. This is my city-where the modern kisses cheeks with the old, and has recently been voted for the first time as Britain’s second city, after London. Who would have thought that the IRA bomb which so decimated the area in 1996 would become the boon for it to rise, develop, and flourish so spectacularly?


The Corn Exchange, a historic Grade II listed building, was one of the buildings severely damaged in the explosion. At the time it was home to an ‘alternative market’, that was a beacon for the younger, hipper, and hairier generation. A place where you could find music, vegetarian foods, new age clothes and scapegoats. People would be sat around smoking, waiting to see tarot card readers and palmists, or just hanging out. I can recall going there with a school mate, who sadly passed away some sixteen years ago now. We went into an esoteric book shop that was also decked out with didgeridoos and ouija boards, incense burning on the top shelves. My mate decided he was going to buy a stone ash tray that was rimmed by skulls in an appropriate bit of symbolism. I pointed out “Gary-you don’t smoke.” He paused, reflected for a few seconds, then answered “Oh yeah,” putting the smilers back on the shelf next to the dog’s skull with candles in its eye sockets.

In the recovery from the bomb damage, Manchester lost this alternative venue as the Corn Exchange reopened as the Triangle, now filled with designer shops. Very up market, but I think all the poorer for it. Recently it has been announced that there is going to be more change for the building as it becomes home to a collection of restaurants and retail food outlets. Further change for a survivor of both German bombing and terrorist atrocity.

The old Cathedral is closed at the moment while under floor heating is installed for the perishing Christians. Nearby, the RSPB had a telescope trained upon the more modern buildings where Peregrine Falcons are so successfully nesting and breeding. So impressive, these ferraris of the sky swoop down regularly upon the docile pigeon population.There are not many who shed tears at this, just as long as the kill is not done under their noses while they eat their Subway sandwiches.


Opposite the Corn Exchange, where the Manchester Wheel used to be, I stumbled upon the ‘Dig in the City’-Manchester’s Urban Gardening Festival. The National Trust had a stall there, a woman trying to draw interest by doing a curious little dance and blowing a duck call. Surely not a wise thing to do whilst stood beneath Peregrine Patrol?  Kids were there making bird houses and dens, mud pies and kites, planting seeds and walking bare foot in sand. Not the kind of thing you normally see in the city center. The whole area was decked out in bunting and flowers and garden furniture, where you could relax in a welcome bit of greenery in the urban concrete jungle. It was as unexpected as it was pleasing, particularly for eager children.

One thing, though, that doesn’t change when I visit Manchester, is the obligatory hours spent in Waterstones book store.Three whole floors to get lost in. Afterwards I had a coffee, idly people watching, aware of the whole mix of nationalities and languages that now contribute to the soundtrack of my home city. The truly cosmopolitan DNA of its heartbeat emphasised further by the Spanish busker nodding in gratitude as loose change was dropped into his hungry guitar case.

On the journey home, my bus was invaded by a swarm of rabid students, cramming onto the upstairs deck, some lounging on seats and some lay awkwardly in the aisle. Raucous and excitable, we were soon introduced to an intermittent cry of “Bogies! Bogies!” I switched off, looking out of the window to spot all of the areas and locations connected to my ancestors who had lived in this area over the last two hundred years. As we crawled along in the rush hour traffic, one of the girls at the front spotted a lad down below walking along the street, wearing a Beatles top. “Look at him there-Beatles! If I could open this window I would spit on him.”

Charming lady.

Then, implausibly, they all began to sing ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver. They knew all the words too, not just the chorus. I am too old now to know what is cool, but obviously Beatles are ‘out’ and John Denver is ‘in’. What a curious alternative world this is. Nearing home, Miss Airs and Graces next spotted an elderly man crossing in front of the bus. “Let’s make him uncomfortable” her friend suggested, and they both started banging on the window, but they couldn’t attract his attention.

When I was their age, was I so loud? So obnoxious? I suspect that I was. Of course it is all the front and bravado needed to fit into the herd. For my part, I guess it has been since time immemorial the lot of one generation to not ‘get’ the next.

I got off at my stop, leaving behind one final salute of “Bogies!” by possibly Britain’s next female Prime Minister.

For the first time ever, after a trip to Manchester, I had returned home without having acquired a single book. But I was armed with a list, saved on my phone, of many titles to order for my Kindle.

Everything changes.


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As voyeurs we see a  man being passionately kissed, totally losing himself in the cradling, embracing arms of a lover.

But sometimes a photograph doesn’t tell the full story.

The two men captured in this photograph were power linemen. Doing the kind of routine maintenance work on top of a utility pole that they had probably done a thousand times, one of them, Randall Champion, was struck by more than 4000 volts when he accidentally touched one of the high voltage cables. That is double the volts used by an electric chair.

His heart instantly stopped, he hung their limply suspended by his safety harness. His colleague, J.D. Thompson, quickly reached him and performed mouth to mouth resuscitation, CPR being impossible due to their precarious position. He continued to do this until he felt a slight pulse, then unbuckled the stricken man and brought him back down to the ground, draped over his shoulder.

With the help of another colleague, CPR was given on the ground. Champion was revived by the time of the paramedics arrival, and, thanks to the efforts of his buddy, he survived.

Rocco Morabito,  taking photographs for another assignment, witnessed this struggle for life, taking the iconic picture in 1967. It won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

A picture tells a thousand words, the camera never lies. But the story combines to give context, making it into something beautiful. A symbol of love for our fellow man, and of our utter dependence on each other.

A Conspiracy of Kids

On any given weekend, my bleary eyes fix on the same, numerous complaints clogging up my Facebook newsfeed:

Why is it that all week I have to drag my kids out of bed in time to get ready for school, but as soon as it is weekend they are up at the crack of dawn?

I have often uttered this very refrain myself. These days I can exclude my eldest as she is now school leaving age, and sometimes I have to check-in on her, groping around in her darkened pit, just to make sure that her life support system is still on. But as for the others, once weekend arrives there is a seismic shift in their sleeping patterns.

It is like they are wired up for it.

On weekday mornings, the house remains silent. First I make sure that no signs of a carbon monoxide leak has been detected, (only after my coffee mind) and then I have to raise hell for school. My youngest, James, does a great, recoiling, Bela Lugosi impression when the blinds are opened. He flings a protective arm over his still unopened eyes, writhing in the new light. His sister Millie makes her own play for the Oscar by doing her dying John Wayne act, staggering around her toy strewn bedroom. Although the Duke did not take quite so long to drop. Not even in The Alamo. She sways from one wall to the other like she’s on a keeling vessel. And next in line Courtney comes somewhere between the two, recoiling and staggering, with a babble of barely coherent words strung together. Definitely unappreciative of the way we begin things by me shaking her pillow singing Morning Has Broken.

And then we have the weekend.

Long walks, late nights, it doesn’t matter. One Saturday the idea was for me to take them all on a long walk through the woods to tire them out. We went up hills, down hills, over bridges, balanced over fallen trees, splashed in puddles and waded across rivers. Faces were reddened and feet were aching. We returned home and the next thing I know Courtney was waking me to tell me tea was ready. Foolishly though, my wife and I thought that we would reap the benefits of that long slog in the morning. Nope-business as usual.

Nowadays in our weekend routine lie-ins aren’t even contemplated, never mind expected.  We just prepare for five days of dynamite beneath beds followed by two days of joining in the dawn chorus.

But even in this accepted way of how things are, we are instinctively, fearfully, aware of something else, something huge, looming large on the horizon. Something that you can feel getting closer and closer, and is marked off on the calender by three blood-freezing words:

Summer Holidays Begin




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Too late-they’re here. And don’t we know it.

We throw despairing, one-eyed glances in the direction of the digital alarm clock in the instant that we are awakened by screams or laughter or a mixture of the two. For this is no surreptitious sneaking around the house that we are speaking of. One morning, we were shaken from our slumber by the sound of ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’ booming around the house via the karaoke machine.

“Shannon!” I shouted, she being the eldest and so the most culpable.

“WHAT?” (echoing around the house) “WHAT..what…what…what…what…?”

“Turn that off, it’s six o’clock in the morning!”


Don’t be fooled into questioning my parenting skills. This madness is being played out worldwide. It is a conspiracy of kids. It is happening right under your noses, right now. Pay attention-it is going on in your town, in your community. Even in your street. It is Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a sleep-preventing twist.

Thinking of strategies on how to survive these seven weeks can tip us over the edge. We have to take it a day at a time, marking off the days with bloodshot eyes. We have to somehow keep our focus in the present, until we are close enough to dare to look ahead. Otherwise we will be broken by seeing no light at the end of the tunnel. Just the faint glow of daybreak.


(And Dads. Definitely Dads).

Manchester – a photographer’s dream

Two buildings stand in my home city of Manchester-separated by two hundred years. Great contrast of eras.

Things We Know; Things We Like

I was sifting through the next batch of photos for a new post on Manchester when I came across this one, which I felt merited a post all of its own.

As I have said previously, the Manchester canals linked with the Manchester Ship Canal, to bring raw materials right into the heart of the industrial north – the powerhouse of England at the time.  This old smelting works by the side of the canal would have taken raw material right off the barges for processing.  Now it offers a mirror image of the new Hilton Tower on Deansgate.

Almost a reflection of each other; just 200 years between them.

Manchester old and new



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