Monday, 21 April 2014

Thought for the day: Easter Monday

Life has often been a disappointing or, worse, downright frustrating experience for me.  A possible reaction to such an experience would have been to travel the path of darkness, to strike back at a society which has metaphorically struck me down many times.  Were it not for the moral framework provided by my faith in God, I believe this would have happened many times over.

Our beliefs, whatever they may be, guide us and shape the person we are, have been and are yet to become.  When others question these beliefs, they are effectively saying a part of who we are is wrong.

We are all different and, in our own ways, believe different things: these are pieces of the puzzle that makes us unique.  Never give in to the pressure to conform.  Be yourself, always.

Strontium Dog

I recently bought a collection of Strontium Dog stories.
As a child, I would rush to the newsagent every week to buy 2000AD: my favourite comic, or comic book, as the Americans would have it.  The main character in that publication, and the most popular, has always been Judge Dredd.  It wasn't that I didn't like Judge Dredd, but I found the stories of Nemesis the Warlock, and especially Strontium Dog, more compelling.  Looking back, I can see that the stories of Johnny Alpha had quite an effect on my young and impressionable mind.

In the 1980's, the area in which I lived had become a hotbed of racial tension.  I'm going to remain silent on the reasons for this, but the divisions were there, and those divisions were strong.  From some quarters, there was pressure to conform, and displaying anything other than hatred for those from another cultural, and often religious, background made you a traitor against your own people.  This attitude was by no means universal, but it was more widespread than I had imagined.

It is questionable whether I would have eventually been pulled into the aforementioned school of thought.  In many ways, I was the typical nerd, isolated by the time I spent learning to program a computer or obsessing about Star Wars.  A good point to make about science fiction fans is that we spend a lot of our time reading about alien civilizations, so our fellow humans seem somewhat less threatening to us.  However, like a lot of science fiction geeks, there was a feeling of exclusion, of being on the fringes of society: that, I believe, is where the interest in the tales of Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog, originally came from.

If you have never read Strontium Dog, it is set in a future where a radioactive shower has caused mutations in a section of the population.  Rather than sympathy, the mutants face hatred from the humans who were not affected by the radiation.  A recurring theme is that of exclusion, most importantly from employment, leaving the job of bounty hunter as the only viable option for a mutant.  Johnny Alpha is one such mutant.  For anyone who feels like they don't fit in, it's powerful stuff.

My young mind made the obvious connection between the intolerance shown to Johnny Alpha and the intolerance shown to ethnic and religious minorities.  Clearly, they are not mutants, but the hatred displayed towards them was just as incomprehensible to me.  I couldn't help but notice that the behaviour displayed by the bigoted humans in the comic was mirrored by the bigots I encountered on a daily basis.  In one story, a little girl says she does not understand why her mother doesn't like Johnny, only for her mother to scold her and hurriedly remove her from his presence.

It's arguable that Marvel did much the same thing with X-Men, but that was somewhat less appealing to me.  Reading the stories again, what strikes me is that they were incredibly violent, but the message about intolerance is incredibly clear.  People talk about books changing their lives.  Well, every week I would go and buy 2000AD, and it made a lasting impression on my young mind.

Saturday, 12 April 2014


For what I think was my 10th birthday, my mother bought me a model of an F-104 Starfighter.  It was one of the self-assembly types popular at the time.  The effect this had on me is ably demonstrated by the fact that I remember the name of the plane.  I've probably got the year wrong, but I remember the circumstances.

The thing I remember, and it's an important point, is that my father had recently left home.  Something about life in Britain, during Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, caused the divorce rate to sky-rocket.  We were always at the lower end of the income scale as a family, so Conservative policies affected us more than most.  It was a time of great hardship for us and, looking back, I realise how hard my parents tried to shield us from the reality of our situation. In no way does that excuse my father's behaviour: even with two young sons at home, he decided that the questionable charms of another woman were too much to resist.

I had told my mother that a birthday present would not be necessary, because I saw how much harder things had become for her, and I was as aware as a child could be that she was suffering from episodes of depression.  Such things were not talked about in those days, but I was dimly aware that she was not the same.

I didn't understand why I had a model aeroplane as a birthday present.  I had always been bookish and aloof: quite the opposite of the other members of the family.  My father had once made some money, and bought a second-hand motorbike for my brother.  Mine came the following year and, much to my father's bemusement, was rarely used.  My mother worried that, with my studious nature and small frame, I would be a target for bullies.  As things turned out, I was a target, as my mother feared but, thanks to the Judo lessons her and my father had insisted my brother and I attend, rarely a victim.

Though I didn't understand the reasons behind the gift, I spent what probably seems longer than it actually was gluing the tiny pieces of grey and clear plastic together.  The picture on the front of the box was a painting of an F-104 in action, which made me eager to complete the model.  Most importantly, my mother saw that I was happy with the gift.  I don't know when I realised that I would never have the optional pots of paint to make my Starfighter look like the one on the box, because I didn't dare to mention it to my mother, but it didn't matter.  This was something I would never have asked for, and that made it a more thoughtful gift.

I can't remember what happened to that model aeroplane.  The difficult teenage years have been and gone since then, including the time my voice broke, and the small-framed son she had worried would become a victim of bullying came home from school one day with the voice of a man.  I know this amused her, because she often laughed about me being so small and having a voice "in my boots", as she put it.  At the same time, I could see a sadness in her, because the little boy who relied on her was slowly disappearing before her eyes.

Ultimately, the model plane doesn't matter.  It sat on a second-hand school desk in the room I shared with my brother, waiting for the coat of paint it would never receive, but that doesn't matter either.  The memories attached to it are what matter: my mother seeing me patiently glue the pieces together, the thought behind the gift and, perhaps most importantly, the gratitude I showed for the gift and the thought behind it.