Influential People

Follow the link if you wish to see TIME’s 100 most influential pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons of 2018

I heard a report on the radio about the list whilst driving from visiting my father in hospital.

He’s been in one ward or another now for over a month, tended by any number of nurses and health care assistants. These people have washed and shaved him, changed his clothes, sat him up in bed and made him comfortable. They’ve given him his pills and injections, mashed his food, helped him to eat and drink and done everything they can to help him get better. He spent his 80th birthday in hospital and the ward staff baked not one but two cakes, decorated his bed and even bought paper hats for him and the other patients.

Now, I’m not claiming that all nurses are angels. Not all the staff I’ve encountered have displayed the same level of dedication, but I find it hard to believe that anybody could be doing the job unless they really wanted to look after people. And at the end of the day, they’ve actually done something. Their patients are cleaned, fed and have had their medication administered.

And so, as I drove from the hospital listening to the radio, it occurred to me that I really didn’t care how influential the people on Time’s list are. I didn’t care what they’ve tweeted, what speeches they’d made or how many disaster areas they’d visited. At this point in time, I don’t care about the films the people on the list have starred in, the books they’ve written or how their art inspires others.

Right now, I’m not interested in lionising people who tell others what to do. Right now, I’d rather hear about the millions of people who just get on with their job. I’m annoyed by the list’s tacit promotion of exceptionalism.

Ideas that change things for the better aren’t the preserve of the exceptional few, look around and you’ll see that they’re already being carried out unnoticed every day by the vast majority. Ideas aren’t any the less valuable for that.

Or to put it another way, any half competent nurse is already doing more for the world than at least half of the people on Time’s list.

Nine Lessons and Carols 9

I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day.

You know the song.

Even as I child I knew that if it were Christmas every day then it wouldn’t be Christmas.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had some big moments in my life: getting married, the birth of my children. Selling my first novel. Travelling. These times are not typical of life. If they happened all the time they wouldn’t be special.

I remember the big moments, but the weeks and months that I look back on with most fondness are filled with times spent laughing at the dinner table, or sitting with friends in the pub after work. I remember walking to work through the snow, breakfasts at conventions chatting with friends, chance meetings in town…

And, in keeping with the theme of these posts, I remember playing in rock groups, jazz bands, folk groups, brass bands, in duets, trios and so on.

I’m a writer. Something compels me to sit alone at a keyboard writing stories and articles. It’s odd, because looking back I don’t remember the reviews – good or bad – the sales, the signings, the fan mail. What I remember are the friends I’ve made, the places I’ve been too, the nights spent chatting with other writers.

Most of all I remember the walks I’ve taken when seeking inspiration. Climbing over the hills in the wind and rain, coming home for a hot bath and dinner.

I think it’s a mistake to have a bucket list, to attempt 100 things before you die. There are too many things to do already that are so much more enjoyable.


I was inspired to write this series of posts by a concert I took part in at a Methodist church. I enjoyed the evening, it got me thinking about happiness, music and performing. Listening to the lessons read out that night, I thought it would be nice to write something positive for a change.

Clearly I’m not alone in thinking this: I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of positive messages I’ve received about these posts.

I’m off soon to for my last gig of the season: playing the accordion for a Christingle, seeing faces lit up by candlelight. It promises to be great fun.

Merry Christmas!

Nine Lessons and Carols 8

Eight lessons in. Where are the carols?

I’ve been playing carols every day in December. I’ve played them in churches and chapels; in school halls, church halls and masonic lodges; outside supermarkets and inside railway stations; on street corners and in town centres. I’ve played them on the piano, the organ, the accordion and the baritone. I’ve even strummed a few chords on the guitar.

Last night, whilst playing carols at my new band’s Christmas party, I was reminded about one big part of banding: children. Their eyes just seen over the music stands, their feet not reaching the floor as they sit up straight on adult seats. The training band were invited up to play at the interval, their proud parents videoing them as they played in public for the first time. Those children have yet to realise that the concert nerves will never leave them, that they’re being trained on how to live with them. They’ll learn that even if something scares you, you can still go ahead and do it.

I’ve seen many children grow up through bands.
There’s something very special about a process that begins with you pointing out the place in the music to a child sitting on your right, and ends a few years later with a young adult sitting on your left shyly giving you hints on how to improve your technique. As I tried to imply yesterday, it’s not about being the centre of attention, it’s about being part of something bigger.

Whilst I’m on the topic, I should mention playing in a trio with my own children every Christmas. They’ve enjoyed it over the years. I think they’ll have to have their own children to appreciate just how special that really is.

Nine Lessons and Carols 7

I separated from someone this year after a relationship that had lasted several years. My baritone partner moved to playing tenor horn.

I’ll miss sharing a joke with her in rehearsals whilst the conductor is picking on the back row cornets, I’ll miss us whispering "eight" or "sixteen" in unison when we’re counting rests. Most of all, I’ll miss simply playing in harmony with her.

There are two baritone players in a brass band. You’ll see them sitting between the tenor horns and the euphoniums. They’re the top of the lower band, they fill in the middle parts. They don’t usually play solos, but you’d miss them if they weren’t there. In a band, as in life, everyone plays a part. You don’t win contests being carried by one or two heroes, you win by everyone playing together. You don’t have to be the centre of attention to be making a difference.

Some players choose between playing a solo part in a third division band or a supporting part in the first division. It’s a matter of matching your talents to what’s best for the greater good.

One of the nice things about playing in a band is the range of people. Age, race and creed are no indication of where someone ends up sitting. Bands are generally meritocracies, you can tell how good you are in relation to others. It’s not your job to be the best one there, but rather to practice and play your best so that you don’t let everyone else down.

That way, you have a band that people want to be a part of, and that others want to listen to.

Nine Lessons and Carols 6

A friend of mine wrote the following in response to the first post in this series. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I think this is beautiful, much better than what I’d planned to write today.

One Lesson, No Carols and Another Parish Hall

Eleven days before Christmas I’ve been at just such a venue – a parish hall in Huddersfield at an English class for refugees and asylum seekers. Even though the activity was different, people’s contributions made the atmosphere the same.

I love these halls, dotted around local villages or attached to churches, built on faith and nineteenth century goodwill. This one is connected to a church built by the great architect George Gilbert Scott, but it’s a bit run down now. It’s no longer at the centre of local people’s lives, but still open and welcoming enough with shabby furniture and a sparsely equipped kitchen that people turn to whatever use their events call for.

It was sleeting when we arrived. Some regular students came early, glad to get inside and help us by setting out the folding tables and chairs. Others drifted in alone or in small groups. We never know exactly who or how many will come, or how much English they already know. By 2.15 there were twenty men and two women from ten different countries. They had eight languages between them, and all but one of them were Muslim.

Our theme today was Christmas. We started tentatively. Did they know the date and the significance of the season? What have they noticed in shops and around the town? Have they seen Christmas celebrated in other countries? Would they like to hear the story of Jesus’s birth from The Bible?

I needn’t have worried; they are eager to know and understand their new country. We contrasted the Islamic prohibition of images of Mohammed with the ubiquitous representations of Jesus, and I used my children’s knitted figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus , shepherds and wise men to illustrate a simple re-telling of the Christmas story. These students were strong on camels and donkeys, but we had to unpick the confusing iconography of holly wreaths and Santa Claus. We decorated a Christmas tree and tried to explain about sprouts and mincemeat.

There was real goodwill and warmth here. They helped each other to understand, and explained to us some of the traditions and festivals of their own countries. By four o clock they’d learned a lot of new vocabulary and been introduced to Rudolph. Yves, a French speaker from the Congo, remembered a snatch of a Christmas carol he used to know. He hummed a couple of lines, and we recognised “Gloria in excelsis deo” well enough to sing it with him. At the end, they stacked the chairs and tables, shook our hands and went out again into the cold.

For next Thursday we’ve planned a Christmas party with food, music, games and gifts for them from a real Father Christmas. I hope they can all join us; it’s what these halls were built for.

Nine Lessons and Carols 5

One of my favourite concert performances this year was that given by András Schiff at the BBC proms. He sat down at a piano and played through book one of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. That was it. One man on stage with a piano, no introduction, no explanations, he simply played one piece after the other.

Modesty aside, I’m a good piano player. I’m very good. I practice, I try out new things and I get better all the time. And the better I get, the more I’m aware of the gap between me and people like Schiff. Though I can play the pieces he played, I will never play them so well, nor so effortlessly. That’s not me being modest, that’s simple fact. Schiff has practised more than me, he has more talent than me. The more I play, the more I listen to someone like him, the more aware I am of it.

But knowing that is not a reason for me to ever stop playing or performing. I don’t play to be the best, though that doesn’t stop me trying to get better. I don’t expect the audience to hang on my every note, I know they’re only listening some of the time. Sometimes they’re not listening at all. Every performer has experienced this.

And so what? Not everyone can be the best, but everyone can enjoy what they’re doing, and everyone can seek to improve.

We also serve who only stand and wait.

Nine Lessons and Carols 4

I’ve played the organ for quite a few church services this year. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed it. I’m still finding my way around the keyboards and pedals, I’m still working out the best stops to use. I don’t like the fact that the organ appears to be a purely technical instrument: it doesn’t allow expression in the way a piano does.

Worst of all, I don’t like the context in which I’m playing. I find playing for a congregation very difficult, and consequently I get nervous in the time running up to the service. I feel very exposed, there on my own with nowhere to hide. I’m not playing for myself, I’m there to cue in the congregation and to keep them on track as they’re singing. I’ve got to follow the service carefully and immediately play the appropriate piece at the appropriate time. Even keeping track of the number of verses in a song can be tricky. (Someone suggested that I say the number of the verse out loud as I begin playing it. That works)

My wife asks why do it if I don’t enjoy it. The answer is that I hope to enjoy it someday. I was nervous the first time I stood up to perform, the first time I sent a story off to a publisher, the first time I spoke to girl I liked (and pretty much all the subsequent times). As has become a theme in this series of posts, the things that give me the most pleasure tend to be the things I’ve invested in. There’s not much fun in things that come too easy.

Apart from going for a walk of course. Everyone should walk more.

Nine Lessons and Carols 3

I got a Christmas card from a friend this morning with a picture of a steam train on the front.

No surprises there, my friend loves steam trains. Since retirement he’s worked as a volunteer on a heritage railway line, mainly restoring old carriages. It keeps him happy, but face it. It’s not the sort of thing most people would choose to do with their spare time. It’s not a cool thing to do.

It occurs to me that few, if any, of my friends are cool. So far this week I’ve had cards from brass band players, Sunday School teachers, a cub scout leader and possibly the uncoolest of the uncool: a Science Fiction writer. I’ve had cards from the sort of people who are generally figures of fun, an easy laugh in a standup routine.

There’s a name for the hobbies and pastimes described above: guilty pleasures. According to Wikipedia "a guilty pleasure is something, such as a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard, or is seen as unusual or weird."

The term is a recent one. The concept, however, has been around for a long time.

In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Screwtape the devil says "you should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the best people, the right food, and important books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions."

I don’t believe in devils. People are perfectly capable of acting against their own interests without the intervention of supernatural entities. Why else would anybody feel guilty about listening to a piece of music they enjoy? Or indeed working with steam trains.

If you think about it, it takes a certain strength of character to not care about doing things that most people think are ridiculous.

It’s worth it. In my experience, these sort of people tend to be a lot happier.

Nine Lessons and Carols 2

Here’s one of my favourite lyrics, one that you’ll hear at this time of year

"There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy,
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie"

Bonus points for naming that tune before reading on.

I like these lines for two reasons.

Firstly, I admire the economy of the writing. It only takes one line for the imagination to conjure up a room full of people. Taken in context with the rest of the lyrics, ("Sleigh Ride" if you didn’t name that tune) I have an image of people in colourful jumpers, their faces filled with excitement and happiness having come in from the cold. They’re chatting brightly, delighted to be amongst friends. All that from one line. That’s good writing.

Secondly, and more to the point of this blog entry, (and following on from yesterday’s entry), the lyrics illustrate that happiness is increased when you’ve invested in it.

Like most people who grew up in England, I have no experience of eating pumpkin pie at Christmas. I do, however, appreciate how much better a cup of coffee tastes after you’ve been out in the cold. I imagine that coffee tastes even better after an exhilarating sleigh ride. (Not that I’ve never taken a sleigh ride, but I know coffee tastes better when drunk after building a snowman with my kids.)

Advertisers know this. That’s why they like to show their clothes, perfumes, food and drinks being worn, eaten and drunk in parties or at family dinner tables. They’re not selling whisky or watches, they’re selling the promise of friendship. It’s all a lie, of course.

You can’t buy friendship with gifts at Christmas or any time. You want friendship, you have to invest in the people you know.

This is so obvious it hardly seems worth writing down.

Nine Lessons and Carols

Tonight I played as part of a nine piece band at an event in a Methodist Church. I’m not sure what to call the evening, it wasn’t exactly a service, it wasn’t exactly a singalong, but that was part of its charm.

It followed the format of a typical Carol Service – a song and then a reading, but very few of the readings came from the bible. Nearly all were light hearted poems or excerpts from books or little passages written by the congregation themselves.

This was my favourite gig this Christmas. It was about half way through the evening before I figured out why. Quite simply, every one there was enjoying themselves. The performers, the audience, everyone had just come along to enjoy the evening.

I don’t know how many little churches and social clubs I’ve played at over the years. The tea and mince pies, the practically undrinkable Fair Trade Coffee, the homemade watercolours that hang on the walls, the fact that everyone keeps their coat on until it warms up, the two or three people who keep everything running… These are what the venues have in common. What distinguishes them is how seriously the patrons take them. You want to have a good night out, you have to invest in it. Some people think that means buying a ticket or a new outfit. Those people are wrong. Investing in an evening means participating. Singing along, making the tea, getting up on stage to read out a poem you’ve found on the internet or just standing at the door and collecting tickets. People always seem to have a better time at little venues.

At the end of the evening the organiser happened to mention how the same readings came up again and again at these services. Okay, I thought, there are nine days to Christmas. I’ll accept the challenge. I’ll see if I can write something each night for the next nine nights.

Keep watching this space…