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There’s a first time for everything. Your first wedding anniversary. Your first child’s first birthday party. Completing a year at your first job. Events that are memorable for all the right reasons. But not all such landmarks are happy ones.

My father died on 5th April last year. Losing a parent is one of the most painful experiences anyone can go through but for me it’s exacerbated by having an almost photographic memory. I remember every moment from him being hospitalised last February until his death two months later. Being told he had terminal kidney cancer and the interminable meetings regarding continuing healthcare, all the way through to being told that the general doctor had misdiagnosed the cancer and that my father could go home – and him dying in that hospital bed three days later.

Every day I relive another episode. Asking why the word ‘cancer’ wasn’t mentioned in his continuing healthcare notes, arguing with the oncology doctors, repeating verbatim what I had been told about the tumour, insisting on further scans and then the final realisation that there wasn’t a cancer. Seven weeks. Seven painful, wasted weeks.

As my father died very late at night and without warning, I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. I had to wait 13 hours before being able to see him in the mortuary. No one can prepare you for the sight of a dead person let alone your parent but it gave me the opportunity to get some degree of closure. Writing this now starts to bring back the weight of emotion I felt at the time along with the clearest of memories of how he looked. Had I not known he was dead I would have thought he was sleeping. It was the most peaceful I had seen him in many years.

I also relive my mother being taken to the same hospital with a chest infection, being in the adjacent bed when my father died. Her delirium and refusal to take medication. Being told late one Monday night that she probably wouldn’t survive until the morning. She did. I even managed to get her into a care home where she lived for just five weeks until passing away last June. I have the reliving of those memories to look forward to.

There has to be some balance, some better moments to remember. Like my last conversation with him when he praised me for working with children, something he had never said before. And finding out three weeks after he died that he had been made a knight of the national order of the légion d’honneur. As a proud Frenchman he would have appreciated that. I received his medal and showed it to my mother at my last meeting with her before she died. The ladies around her were really taken with his award but my mother’s delirium had returned and she barely acknowledged it.

Reliving all these moments has taken its toll on me. I have lived under a black cloud of depression for the past month or so, unable to share what I feel with anyone. I have to accept that nothing I can say or do will make any difference to what has gone but has the very real risk of damaging the relationships that remain.

Yes, there is a first time for everything and over the next few months I will have to relive both of my parents’ deaths and their funerals. What I hope is that when the anniversaries return next year, the intensity will have started to fade a little.

First published on Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/first-anniversary-blues_b_9483004.html

Photo 2a

Demonstrating in 1987 with two Akai S900 samplers behind me

 

Tuesday 5 January 2016 marked the passing of Gerry Chapman. While Gerry would probably not have remembered me, meeting him had the most profound effect on my life.

Thirty years ago, my music life was at a crossroads. At 29 I’d been in and out of bands for years and the latest one, State of Emotion, had just created a decent set of demos. Engineering them had given me a taste for recording and the plans for a decent quality home studio slowly gelled. Fast forward six months and I found myself on the Akai stand at the British Music Fair at Olympia in August 1986.

The previous year I had worked with a keyboard player who had an Ensoniq Mirage. This was one of the first generation of affordable samplers, keyboards or modules that could sound like real instruments. The audio quality of the Mirage was pretty ropey to say the least but had led to the launch of enhanced offerings from other companies. I’d decided to base the new studio around a sampler and the BMF was the perfect opportunity to investigate.

Akai had launched a cheap sampler the year before but the S612 hadn’t been very successful – you really couldn’t do much with just eight seconds of sampling time. But the 1986 BMF marked the launch of its professional sampler, the Akai S900. Over a minute of sampling time, a standard floppy disk drive for saving and loading samples and programs, and advanced editing facilities including auto-looping made for an impressive machine. One of Akai’s chief competitors, Roland, also had a new sampler, the S-550, with even more impressive specs than the S900. It was going to be a difficult decision.

I took my seat at the Akai booth and in walked the demonstrator, Gerry. From the moment he opened his mouth he captured the attention of everyone in the room. It certainly wasn’t his command of the English language – he was the epitome of a rough diamond – but his passion and sheer bravado made the demo quite unforgettable. I stayed on the Akai stand for over an hour afterwards speaking to Gerry and various others and made the decision there and then to invest in Akai. I never even got to the Roland stand. Two S900s, costing around £1600 each, became the heart of my studio.

Purchasing those samplers set in motion a series of events that changed my professional life. I quickly became frustrated at the limited library of sounds and decided to create my own, leading to the setting up of Chameleon Services, the UK’s first commercial S900 sound library. With the help of Dave Caulfield and the late Steve Howell at Akai Professional, the library encompassed almost every classic keyboard sound and musical instrument. Over a period of two years, the company sold thousands of disks to a host of famous musicians, producers and studios. This led to an interview and feature in International Musician magazine in 1987 and being introduced to the editor from which my career as a journalist started. Over 40 magazines (including Music Technology, Home Studio Recording and Sound On Sound) have published over 1200 articles of mine along with two books. In the 1990s I demonstrated for Korg, Fostex and Hybrid Arts, set up the UK MIDI Association and Club Cubase UK, edited various industry books and ran seminars at audio schools and universities. And on the back of the journalistic pedigree this created, I also edited Atari ST Review and Mac Action magazines and spent 15 years as cover CD editor for Macworld UK magazine.

Chances are that none of this would have happened had I not spent that afternoon in the company of Gerry Chapman back in August 1986. And it took a message that Gerry had passed away to make me realise how different my life would have turned out without him.

Pathed

 

If ever there was a man who was meticulous about paperwork, that was my father. Until the onset of dementia, he knew where every piece of paper was filed, every bill, every document. About five years ago he told me I would have to sort out his papers once he died. Knowing his predilection for tidiness, I didn’t think much more about this – until he died and I took stock of the enormity of the task.

After getting rid of decades of utility bills, holiday receipts and car repair invoices, I was left with around 20 box files full of documents to sort out. And then I had a thought: could I finally find an answer to a question I had asked my father years ago and to which I had only received a rather enigmatic reply.

The question? Why hadn’t dad taken his new bride back to Paris in 1947 where he could have continued his accountancy career? Why did he choose to stay in England and work first as an unskilled tailor’s presser for 15 years and then as a telephone operator for a further 20 years until retirement?

His answer: “Because your zaida blackmailed me.”

Zaida was my mum’s father (long dead at the point I asked the question) and I remember the look on dad’s face as he said this to me and the disparaging glance my mother cast him as he said it. We never discussed this again. Years later, dad had a conversation with my wife where he mentioned that he had secured a flat in Paris after the war but that his father-in-law had told him that as mum was an only child he would not allow her to go and live in France.

A little background. Dad was born in Paris in 1919, the youngest of five siblings. Along with their Turkish parents, they all lived in a two-bedroom flat in Rue Sedaine in the area renowned for its Jewish schmutter trade – Paris’ equivalent of London’s East End. I remember dad telling me he had trained to be an accountant before the war. Aside from that and the knowledge that he had worked for Dunlop as a tyre fitter when war broke out, we never spoke about his childhood or the pre-war years.

When dad took early retirement from British Telecom in 1981, he investigated the possibility of obtaining a French pension for his work before the war and for his service to his country. I found the handwritten document where he had listed his occupations and this confirmed four years as an aide comptable (accounting assistant). He had served his apprenticeship with two companies (Maison Bocquet and Robert Frères) in Paris between 1935 and 1939. He certainly had a viable career to return to.

As a Frenchman and so technically an ‘alien’, dad had to carry his Certificate of Registration book with him in England after the war. Finding this gave me more info. After being demobbed in Paris, he was granted permission to land at Dover some 13 days before his wedding in March 1947 with a two-month limitation on stay and a preclusion of employment. Both of these were lifted a month later making him free to live and work in the UK. Reading letters, it appears that a business venture fell through. With a new bride and badly needing employment, he took a job as a ‘gents presser’ with Cohen Cassenbaum, my grandfather’s tailor shop in Whitechapel, later that month.

While my father’s English would not have been perfect, evening classes for his language and to update his accountancy skills would have been possible. But they never happened. He worked for his father-in-law 10 hours a day, six days a week until 1964.

In summer 1948 my grandfather bought a house for my parents at auction. He paid the deposit and obtained the mortgage, taking the payment for the latter directly from my father’s weekly wages. And as a young child I remember the regular Sunday visits from my grandparents and the delivery of meat, fruit and veg for the week ahead. Later, I found out that this was also in place of wages to my father. The upshot of this was that my father had very little disposable income and was totally reliant on, or at the mercy of, his father-in-law. This continued for almost 20 years until my grandfather’s death in 1967.

I also found the deeds to my parents’ house. Looking through the conveyancing I had to check the entries twice to make sure I’d read them correctly. In 1948 the house had been put into two names: my mother and my grandmother. For 20 years my father paid the mortgage and every bill and yet didn’t own so much as a brick.

Another document showed that a month prior to the wedding, and while dad was still in Paris, my mother signed away her rights to take automatic French nationality after she married. I took that to mean she didn’t want to live in France.

The control exerted over dad was complete. No equity from his own home coupled with insufficient income to build meaningful savings and a wife who wanted to stay in the UK meant he never had the opportunity to return to what would have been a better life in France. The fact that he put himself through 35 years of mundane employment was due to his total devotion and love for my mother.

But is that the full story?

Prior to the British Nationality Act of 1948 there was no dual nationality in this scenario. To take French nationality Mum would have had to relinquish her British nationality, a decision she wouldn’t have taken lightly just after the war. And as an alien, could my father have obtained a mortgage? Even if he could have, given his earnings potential what bank would have given him such a loan?

At least I now partly understand my father’s ‘blackmail’ comment and his frustrations with life. Whether he was right I’ll never really know.

 

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/the-toughest-decision-of-_b_8365264.html

Watch 2

As children, many of us were taught the old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But while broken bones heal, the damage done by hastily spoken words rarely does and the pain can be multiplied manyfold when words are left unsaid.

Around 1970, I remember going to Valentines Park in Ilford and hiring a rowing boat with my father. When we finished, the boy in charge of the boats (who was probably my age, 14 or so) somehow insulted us – I don’t recall exactly what happened. A short argument ensued and when my dad threatened to turn it physical, the boy apologised. As an ex-commando, even at 50 he was still a force to be reckoned with. As we walked away, I remember dad saying to me: “I’d have let you sort him out if I’d have had any confidence in you.” Those words have stayed with me throughout my life and are as painful today as they were 45 years ago. Did he mean them to be so hurtful? Probably not but at the time he was not in the best of personal places.

Through circumstances beyond his control my father spent 15 years as a tailor’s presser for my grandfather, using a heavy iron day after day to press cloth. When by the early 1960s this had physically damaged him, he managed to get a job as an international telephone operator for the GPO, now BT. Still technically an ‘alien’, having retained his French nationality, he didn’t receive a pension and wasn’t allowed to be promoted to supervisor until after 1973 when the UK became part of the EU. He continued there until 1982 when a major heart attack curtailed his employment.

It is difficult to comprehend how frustrated my father must have been. Prior to the war he was a trainee accountant in Paris yet after the war he spent 35 years in London doing unskilled or, at best, semi-skilled work. It is difficult to share the reasons here but let’s just say this was a choice he made for the sake of his new bride. It didn’t take a lot for his frustrations to rise to the surface and to be translated into physical situations, something my brother and I knew only too well as children.

Some time back my relationship with my parents became difficult. I found it impossible to tell them I loved them. I tried once with my father but the words stuck in my throat. A few years ago dad said to me: “I never told my father I loved him until it was too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did,” but his comments fell on deaf ears.

On the death of my parents earlier this year, I started to clear their house. One of the items I found was my father’s chunky Omega Genève watch that mum had bought him in the 1970s. At the time she worked for Ernest Jones in Ilford and would have got a hefty discount – even so, it would still have been expensive. Perhaps it was a silver wedding anniversary present, I’m not really sure. Dad really loved this watch and wore it until about five years ago when it became too heavy for his weakened wrists.

The casing was worn and the gold-plated strap had been eaten away by sweat so I set about trying to get it repaired. My local jeweller informed me that straps could no longer be purchased for this model. I spent a couple of weeks searching online, missing out on a stainless steel replacement strap on ebay, and even registered for a dedicated watch auction at the end of July.

Last week I asked myself the question: why am I doing this? It’s a heavy watch that I would never wear. In fact I haven’t worn a watch for many years, relying on my phone for the time. Then came the stark realisation that repairing the watch was my way of trying to bring my father back and it wasn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t be able to ask him why he’d viewed me as such a disappointment as a child. I wouldn’t be able to reassure him that I’d look after mum after he died. And it wouldn’t give me the chance to tell him I loved him.

He knew the pain he’d gone through with his own father and wanted to save me the agonies of making the same mistake. To my cost I ignored him. His words may have hurt me as a child but my unsaid words have hurt me far more as an adult.

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/../../vic-lennard/the-emotional-pain-of-words_b_7782938.html

DSC03944editsmall

It’s healthy to move house every 10 years or so and being forced into making decisions on what to keep and what to chuck away. Once the kids have left home, downsizing to a smaller house or flat requires even more discipline on the clearance front. But what happens when a couple have lived in the same house for 67 years?

If you read my previous blog you’ll be aware that both my parents passed away in a 10-week period between early April and mid-June this year. Some five years before he died, my father had warned me that I would have to sort out all his paperwork after he had gone.

Dad was a squirrel; he never discarded anything written on a piece of paper. While most of the documents were useful, did I really need to keep a 1996 electricity bill or the 1980s service report for a car sold 20 years ago? Even with a third of all items consigned to the shredder I was still left with enough to fill 20 box files. I had to work my way through ten bank and building society accounts, creating the relevant paper trails as I went. In the end, only one of them was still active. I found dozens of old photos including some of dad with his commando comrades-in-arms, postcards from my uncle Eli from when he was prisoner-of-war in a German stalag, and reports of the motorbike accident that shattered my father’s left knee in 1944. There were old passports, ID cards and expired copies of every document imaginable.

Once mum moved to a care home the decision was made to sell the house in order to fund the costs of £50,000 per year. Then, some five-and-a-half weeks later, she died. There seemed little point in leaving the house vacant so an estate agent was instructed and the task of clearing the house began in earnest.

Most of their clothes were nearly-new. Life seemed to stand still in 2006 when dad’s botched knee replacement operations curtailed their holidays and his ability to leave the house. We packed them into 15 bags and donated them to a local hospice and the care home mum stayed in.

Anyone who has ever had a similar clearance task will have discovered that just because something is old or was expensive in its day doesn’t make it valuable now. For example, dad bought mum a full-length Canadian squirrel fur coat in 1987 for their ruby wedding anniversary. The bill of sale from Philip Bendon Fur Boutique was for £1,100. Current value? Less than £40! Another item for the charity shop. Half a dozen lead crystal decanters, five bone china tea sets, over 60 cut crystal wine glasses, various pieces of 1930s dining room furniture, all virtually valueless.

Living in a two-storey house, a stairlift was essential from 2006 onwards. Cost: over £5,500. The company that installed it then wanted a further £425 to remove it. “Aren’t there any re-usable parts?” I asked. Nope. A bit of searching and I found a company that removed it at no cost. Clearly someone could re-use some of the parts.

The house was like a museum dedicated to the not-so-finer aspects of the twentieth century. A Belling bed warmer, Philips hood hair dryer and stand, Carmen heated hair rollers, Breville sandwich maker and a Zyliss Autochop, none of which had seen the light of day in decades. I even found the 1940s Underwood Champion manual typewriter I used to mess about with as a kid.

So many items really should have been discarded long ago such as the tin containing four Castella cigars. Nobody smoked in the house after my father’s heart attack in 1981; these cigars were so dried out that smoking one would have been like holding your head over a bonfire and taking a deep breath.

Mum was also a squirrel but in a different way. Drawers with over 20 pairs of old glasses including those that belonged to my grandparents. Every watch they had ever owned, including the broken ones, plastic bags full of old buttons, remnant strands of cotton, the sewing needle case I made in primary school: my mum couldn’t bring herself to throw away anything. Mantlepieces and radiator shelves full of tchotchkes, many of which I had bought: a pair of three-legged giraffes, the black cat that appeared in my barmitzvah photos, a number of Wade Whimsies, the fake Capodimonte from Brick Lane and a glass cherry tree were among over 70 such items.

I found a battered old 1950s cardboard box full of darning wool and needles. These were donated to Hettie, a fantastic 99-year-old resident at the care home who still knits and darns.

There were moments when I stopped dead in my tracks such as when I removed mum’s wedding photo from its frame and found a label on the back showing she had been entered for the 1947 Daily Mirror Bride of the Year award. And the 1997 letter from Buckingham Palace telling my parents that they had been too late in applying for an invite to the Queen’s golden anniversary garden party.

What really reduced me to tears though was opening a suitcase and finding every card they had ever sent to each other or received. Birthdays, anniversaries, mother’s days, father’s days – all the way back to my mum’s 21st birthday card from 1948. Over 1,000 cards in total including two from The Queen. There were cards sent from my brother and I that he had written because I was too young to be able to, and even cards from my grandparents to them. How can a collection like this ever be thrown away? At the moment it can’t. Perhaps there will come a day when I will be able to. Perhaps not.

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/inheritance_b_7739298.html

M&D 01 lo

It’s been an interesting year so far.

I achieved one of my lifelong ambitions by entering, and completing, the London Marathon despite some serious knee issues. In doing this, I raised over £1,600 for BackCare charity. I’ve worked with more maths exam students on a one-to-one basis than ever before and played around 20 gigs as a guitarist.

I’ve also lost both of my parents in the past 10 weeks.

When my 95-year-old father died in hospital in early April, I had no time to mourn or to grieve his passing. My mother had also been admitted to the same ward a few days before and the staff had decided to put them in adjacent beds. A thoughtful idea but one that backfired when my father’s heart arrested late one night. I can only imagine the psychological effect this must have had on her.

In the Jewish religion, a body has to be buried as soon as possible after death. My time was taken up with handling the funeral arrangements and trying to work out the logistics of where mum would go after leaving hospital. She had spent the last nine years as my father’s carer, a man she had been with for 72 years.

Over the previous few years, my mother’s fiercely protective nature had driven a wedge between us. She always knew what was best for my father. I disagreed on a variety of issues and wanted to improve his life. Despite his dementia, he always sided with his wife. I became distant from them – it was my way of coping with a situation I really couldn’t handle.

After dad died, mum remained in hospital for a few weeks. One Monday evening I received a phone call to say she might not last the night. She was still at death’s door next day so I sat with her and, in a quiet voice, I told her that I forgive her for everything that had happened between us, that I’ll be fine and that if she wants to leave that’s ok. At that moment, all my anger subsided. I’m not sure whether my words helped to bring her back from the brink but by the next day she had made an amazing recovery. I promised my father before he died that I would look after mum and was now given an opportunity to be as good as my word.

We found a really good care home for her and within 10 days she had moved in. She lived there for five weeks though never really settled. Her room had family photos and some of her favourite knick-knacks but they meant little without her husband. On a number of occasions I sat with her and held her hand, talking about dad. She even facetimed my son in America. But the death of her lifelong partner had removed her reason to live. Towards the end she was almost unrecognisable and started seeing my father in visions. Last Sunday she passed away. Her body was still warm when I kissed her goodbye.

The eulogy I read at my father’s funeral was very factual; the one at my mum’s was far more emotive. I struggled to complete it.

Yesterday I went to their home, the house I grew up in. I walked through the front door and called out “hi” as I always used to. I sat in the lounge, closed my eyes and could see my dad sitting in his chair. I turned round and saw my mum, and as I looked on I could see them speaking. Mum would frequently check that dad was ok; even though partially deaf, he would always reply. They had nicknames for each other. In my mind’s eye, I could see and hear everything.

I have a number of arthritic conditions that cause me daily pain but this dulls into insignificance when compared to the physical pain and mental anguish I am going through now as I mourn both my parents. It is with a very heavy heart that I write this. I know that time will help but at this moment I can’t see that far ahead.

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/when-a-broken-heart-cant-be-mended_b_7609726.html

The recent furore with one of the maths GCSE papers raised some interesting points.

There were a number of difficult questions including the now infamous one referred to as the Hannah’s sweets question:

“There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow. Hannah takes a random sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n²-n-90=0.”

The solution is within the ability of an A* student but the topic, probability, should be one that even average students would attempt. By combining the creation of a quadratic equation with probability, only the very best students are likely to have obtained the correct answer.

To really understand why the level of anger directed at edexcel, the exam board, was so high, it is important to know the grade boundaries for this exam. In June 2014, a score of just 26% resulted in a passing C grade, with 44% being enough for a B grade and 62% for an A grade. Even an A* only required a mark of 80%. With an average student obtaining less than half marks, it is hardly surprising that this question went viral on twitter.

What is really concerning is that questions like this may well become the norm in two years’ time. The Department of Education’s “Mathematics: GCSE subject content and assessment objectives” document, released in 2013, outlined the changes that must be made to the GCSE maths syllabus for students being examined from June 2017 onwards. It is the sample exam papers created by three of the exam boards that have come under fire recently for being too difficult. The Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) stated that while the higher papers would stretch the most able students, “OCR, Pearson and WJEC Eduqas need to refine their higher and foundation tier papers to sufficiently differentiate across student abilities.” In other words, the proposed exams are too difficult for the average student.

As part of its conclusion, Ofqual also stated that the boards’ higher papers “compare well with papers from a range of already high-performing countries.” Which countries is it referring to? Top of the list in the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) results from 2012 were Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, Korea, Macau-China and Japan. Where was the UK? Down in 26th for maths. Given this, it might be seen as being fair to aspire to the levels of some countries in the Far East. But is this reasonable? How do the educational cultures compare?

Take a look at education in Singapore. Figures published in 2005 showed that 63 per cent of those aged over 15 who were no longer students had achieved nothing better than a primary school education. What steps has Singapore taken to improve this situation? Around a quarter of all public spending goes on education, more than double that of the UK. Training drives for new staff have resulted in many classes having two teachers, and all new staff receive continuous personal training and development from senior teachers.

In English primary schools, teachers only need a C grade at GCSE to teach maths; in Japan, most teachers at the same level have a maths degree.

Making exams more difficult will not raise the quality of secondary education in the UK. Proper investment in specialist teachers in primary school and better qualified teachers in secondary schools would be a start. And when a quarter of all UK secondary school maths teachers do not have a maths degree, is it any wonder that our students are poorly taught and ill-prepared for their maths exams?

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/making-maths-count-in-the_b_7550528.html