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This blog is dedicated to everyone who has ever tried and failed but never given up…

Back in the 1960s, an annual sports day was held for the various synagogue Hebrew classes. My parents didn’t have a car so the coach trip from Redbridge to Clapham Common was quite an adventure. There were all the typical races of the day including the sack race, the three-legged race, the 50-yard dash and my favourite, the egg-&-spoon race. I was never the most sporting of kids but I was happy to participate and it was a great day out.

I must have been about six years old when I took part in the egg-&-spoon race and came third. Third! For me that was an incredible achievement – until I realised that only the top two received a prize. But third – wow! About 10 minutes later I saw the boy who had come fourth walking around with his prize, a ball. Why did he have a prize for fourth when I didn’t get one for coming third?

I asked my dad why this was so. His reply? “He didn’t win the ball. His father bought it for him.” I have never forgotten those words or how it felt to believe that another boy’s father loved him enough to buy him a ball but mine didn’t.

Over the years I’ve tried, and failed, to win a sporting award. Swimming, putting, pool, darts, snooker… always the bridesmaid, never the bride!

Fast forward 55 years. Having had to stop running for almost 20 years with a serious lower back problem, I started jogging about two years ago and found little reaction from my back. Apparently the stiffening of ligaments due to age has stabilised my lower spine and allows me to run again. Since October 2015 I have completed two London Marathons and dozens of 5k, 10k and half-marathons including regular Saturday morning 5k parkruns.

On Saturday 9th September 2017, I was in America visiting my son and his wife. Being the 9/11 weekend, there were numerous commemorative 5k and 10k events including one in Bridgewater, New Jersey, the 9/11 Heroes Run for the Travis Manion Foundation. As this was only 20 miles from where I was staying I thought, “why not?”

America is never short of patriotism and the speeches before the 5k run inspired everyone. I was amazed at the number of first responders running who were dressed in full uniform including fire-fighters replete with oxygen tanks! I ran around 27 mins 30 secs, which was OK given the hills and heat, and placed 57th of the 200+ runners. I picked up a drink and a banana and drove home.

Next day I saw some photos of runners with a medal round their neck. I should know better – there’s always a finishers’ medal in UK events and I’d missed picking this one up. I emailed the organiser only to be told that medals were reserved for the top three in each age range. On checking the results, I was amazed to find that of the 13 people aged 60 and over, I’d come third…

At that moment, the memories came flooding back. I was a six-year-old again completing that egg-&-spoon race only this time I didn’t need my father to buy me a prize – I’d actually won one by right.

The organisers mailed the medal to my son. He must have thought I was mad when I asked him to post it rather than wait a few months until he came to London. I even insisted on him using a tracked delivery method!

Had my father bought me that ball all those years ago, I wouldn’t feel this sense of achievement. I realise now that it wasn’t because he didn’t love me. It was his way of preparing me for life’s disappointments and instilling in me the ethic that winning something has to be a worthwhile experience. Prizes have to be deserved. He was right.

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Sunday 16 July 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of Vel d’Hiv, the rounding up of the Parisian Jews to the local velodrome and eventual deportation to Auschwitz. Over 13,000 Jews were taken over a two-day period; only a few hundred returned.

While being the most famous of the Paris round-ups, it wasn’t the first. That occurred in May 1941. My father witnessed first-hand the events of the third one in August 1941. The first time I heard the story was when my son was 15 (around 2003) and wrote a biography on his grandpère for school.

In August 1941, my father lived with his parents (Vitali, 69, and Estelle, 61) in a flat at 77 Rue Sedaine in the 11th arrondissement (district), an area primarily inhabited by Turks. Life for Jews changed dramatically after the German occupation of Paris in June 1940. The publication of the premier Statut des Juifs prevented Jews from doing civil, commercial or industrial work, or from holding public office. At the same time, the law concerning Jewish foreigners was proclaimed and authorised the immediate internment of non-French-national Jews. The Vichy regime under Marshal Pétain wanted to be rid of all such Jews.

By late 1940, all Jews had to register at the local police station and wear the Star of David on their clothing. Although born in Constantinople, my grandparents were Sephardi Jews rather than Turks but made the decision not to register, as did my father.

Very early on the morning of 20 August, each end of Rue Sedaine was blocked off and the French police went house-to-house with a list of names from the register, arresting the Jews and taking them first to the police stations and then to the internment camp at Drancy where they remained until transported to Auschwitz to be murdered. Over 4,000 Jews were rounded up in two days.

Macron has stated that: “Not a single German took part.” While the German soldiers may not have gone door-to-door, they certainly manned the blocks at either end of the road.

My father saw what was happening from his window and made the decision to escape. He told his parents to bolt the door after him and not to open it under any circumstances. Being in their 60s, the chances are that they wouldn’t have been taken away as the round-up concentrated on those aged between 16 and 50 but younger children were certainly taken. For example, in the November 1942 round-up, records show that the Aboav family at the same address (Clara aged 43 and her daughter Jeannette, aged 2) were also deported to Auschwitz.

Walking out of the front door, my father saw one of his cousins lying in a gutter and dozens of friends and neighbours being herded to the end of the street. On walking up to the road block, he could see both French gendarmes and German soldiers. He knew that the gendarmes would recognise his accent as being French so he went to one of the Germans and asked what was happening. On being asked whether he was a Jew, he spat on the ground and said: “no, I’m an arab.” With that, they let him leave.

He made his way to Lyon in the Free French Zone to the south where, he said, he became the manager in charge of the national distribution of potatoes. From here, he made sure that a sack of potatoes was delivered to his parents in Paris on a weekly basis. Even after being informed on as a Jew and having to escape again, he ensured that the delivery continued until the end of the war. This single act saved his parents’ lives.

I was never sure whether this story was true or fabricated until after my father died. In a locked black briefcase I found all his documents from World War 2 including his National Insurance card for 1941, a season ticket for travel in Lyon and pay slips from the Bureau Départemental de Répartition de la Pomme de Terre (The Department for Distribution of Potatoes) dated from October 1941 to December 1942.

Between January and April 1943 he made his way to Spain, was imprisoned as a spy, escaped to Portugal and then made his way by boat to England where he joined No.10 Commando. I’m still researching the raid on the island of Sark of December 1943 in which he took part and received the award of Knight of the Legion d’Honneur shortly after he died in 2015. But that’s for another blog…

Sunday 9 July 2017 was a memorable day for two reasons.

The first was the Virgin Sport British 10k for which I had a place. Even at 61 I’m still competitive and I’m always looking to run personal bests so gigging the night before and getting to bed at 1am probably wasn’t the best preparation!

So, up at 6.45, porridge, shower and dressed to run, I made my way to a nearby underground station to get to Piccadilly Circus. Standing on the platform, I could see a number of other people carrying the special drop-off bag – over 10,000 people took part.

Being near the end of the line, getting a seat was no problem. With headphones and an iPod, I was soon in a world of my own, listening to Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence. I must have closed my eyes for 20 seconds or so. As I opened them, I was aware of the song still playing in my ears, and the person opposite me looking at me in a concerned manner. As I looked around I could see a number of other people also staring at me. Then I became aware of the air on my cheeks and as I touched them with my fingertips I realised they were wet. I’d been crying and given how wet my cheeks were, they must have been floods of tears.

Why else was Sunday 9 July 2017 a memorable day? My mum would have been 90 had she lived that long. She died two years ago, shortly after my dad, and while I think about my dad more often than her, she had been in my thoughts for the previous few days. Something about that song triggered a painful, emotional response over which I had no control. I sat there, a tad embarrassed, wiped away the tears and the journey continued. I thought a little about what I would have done to celebrate her birthday had she been alive. Perhaps a birthday cake or a trip to a local gastro-pub in a similar fashion to Father’s Day for my dad some years ago. For five minutes or so, time stood still as I allowed myself to dream about what could have been. Then we arrived at Piccadilly Circus and my thoughts turned back to the race.

The 10k was hard work in 25° of direct sunlight. I finished but way outside my personal best. In the scheme of things it didn’t really matter.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve written a number of blogs that have struck a chord with many readers. This is probably another one. Many of you will relate to being caught out by a memory, smell or action that brings on tears. You’re not alone.

I’m starting to believe it is wishful thinking on the part of some people that time is a healer. For some of us, it isn’t. The emotions are as painful as they were originally, perhaps a little less raw but just as strong. All you can do is roll with the moment until the feelings subside – and never, ever feel guilty that you are an emotional human being.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have written this blog had the circumstances been different. Last week was the second anniversary of my mother’s passing and Sunday was Father’s Day. Even though it’s also two years on, I’m still coming to terms with my father’s death and the discoveries I made about him after he died. So when an old school friend posted a photo of Goodmayes Hospital in a facebook group, I mentioned that I had been there for treatment. When prompted, I admitted that I had tried to commit suicide at the age of 18.

This is not common knowledge – my wife is one of the few people who know the truth about this – but if revisiting this event will help someone else then this blog has a purpose.

I have made mention in various other blogs of my childhood. It wasn’t a happy one. My frustrated father was physically abusive; my controlling mother, psychologically so. By the time I could have had a relationship with my older brother, he had left home. I spent some years being bullied at school on a daily basis. The result was an awkward youth with few social skills – I certainly didn’t know how to make friends or retain the few I had. That came much later. I was also prone to dark moods and outbursts of uncontrollable temper that continued until three years ago when I finally sought professional help.

I didn’t start going to a youth club until I was 16 and a year later I had my first real girlfriend. Eight months on when her younger brother had his barmitzvah in June 1974, I was invited. What happened that evening is somewhat sketchy but a black mood came over me and I went home early.

To understand what happened next, you have to try to put yourself in my shoes. I had few friends and I had just been a major source of embarrassment to my first girlfriend and her family. In that state of mind it’s not surprising that I’d had enough.

With my mother, I’d hardly had a good role model for treasuring life. A few years earlier I’d hauled her out of a gas oven to save her; she suffered from depression and often spoke about taking pills to end it all. She remained that way throughout her life. After she died, I found a large stash of painkillers hidden at the back of a drawer.

I remember mixing Veganin with red wine and trying to swallow it. It was so bitter that I retched. Instead, I swallowed the tube of painkillers, washed them down with the bottle of wine, laid down and passed out.

Somehow I woke up next morning. I shouldn’t have. I’d overdosed on painkillers mixed with alcohol. I really shouldn’t have been alive. I remember how disappointed I was at waking up. When I got up, I couldn’t balance. It took many hours before I could.

I must have spoken to my girlfriend about this because it got back to my parents. After seeing my GP, an appointment was made for me to be seen at Goodmayes Hospital, a mental hospital in Redbridge, and my father came with me to the first visit. I was intelligent enough to know that if I told the truth there was every likelihood I would be medicated or detained so I lied. I played down the events and said it was just a cry for help. Trust me, it wasn’t. After a second visit I was discharged.

Over the years, depression has hit me so hard at times that I have fallen asleep praying that I wouldn’t wake up. I’m not sure to whom I would have been praying as I’m an atheist but perhaps that reinforces the mental turmoil and anguish I went through.

It hasn’t always been like that. Having learned Reiki and meditation to counter the pain of being weaned off hormone replacement steroids 15 years ago, I tried to follow one of the five Reiki principles: “Just for today, I will not hold on to anger.” Sometimes I succeeded, often I didn’t.

What finally drove me to seeking the help of a professional counsellor was a typically pointless argument with my son that I had instigated and the realisation that unless I did something I ran the risk of ruining one of the most important relationships in my life. And that was on the back of over 30 years with my wonderful wife who has put up with sheer hell from me at times.

The three months I spent with the counsellor changed everything. She unpeeled my life like an onion, layer by layer, and got to the root of my continual anger. Although my parents both died within six months of the counselling, and I never really rebuilt my relationships with them, I bear no malice to either of them. My anger towards them has fully subsided.

If you have read this and any aspect rings alarm bells, do these three things:
1. Find a counsellor. It might take a few attempts to find the right one for you but it will certainly change your life for the better.
2. Apologise to those you’ve hurt. They will appreciate your honesty.
3. Reconcile your differences with those you love – before it’s too late.

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