Thursday, 30 November 2017

Looking forward to a happy X-mas - Day 1

Day 1 (Friday 1st December 2017)
One single Yule log was the celebrated heart of the household in times gone by
- in Northern Europe, at the darkest part of the year, it was traditional for a tree to be cut down
and dragged into the house to be burnt. It provided warmth and cheer and encouraged feasting.
A small piece was saved to the following year to act as kindling for the new log.
When Christianity took hold this pagan tradition was amended - in Germany it
became the Christmas tree. Nowadays it is often represented by a log-shaped cake.

Painting by Sir John Gilbert depicting Henry VIII greeting the Yule Log
It is the first day of Advent. It is with great pleasure that I welcome to the 2017 Advent Blogs Series, with pieces written on the theme of Darkness and Dawn. It is both a privilege and an honour to host this annual event. I know from people's comments, when they submit posts, and also from the observations that have been made on social media, that this series has become a much loved and eagerly anticipated annual tradition. I can promise you some wonderful blogs over the next few weeks. Last night I attended the most beautiful carol service, held by candlelight in St Bartholomew's church near Smithfield, the oldest church in London. It was exquisite, so much so that it reduced one of my colleagues to tears. It is an annual event, hosted by LHH Penna, and I always used to say that it was "the start of Christmas". Now that milestone has been usurped - the launch of the Advent Blog series is the commencement of the festive period for me. It gives me great joy to bid you "Welcome!"

The first post in this year's Series is written by Mark Hendy. Those of you who read his Advent Blog post of last year will probably remember that he lives in Wales and is a devoted dad to young Oscar, indeed being a father made him reevaluate his priorities. Mark is a highly respected HR professional and is a lynchpin in the HR social media and wider community. He established #HRHour, which takes place on Twitter every Thursday at 8.00pm GMT and is an excellent forum for the sharing of ideas and opinions (you can find out more by following @HR_Hour on Twitter) and I am sure that Mark would be delighted if you joined in. In addition, he is an active participant in  discussions every Friday at 8.00am GMT on Twitter via @L&DConnect (his Twitter handle is @markSWHRF) and he both founded and chairs the South Wales HR Forum. He writes an excellent blog - Hendys HR Blog. In addition to HR and enhancing work and the workplace, Mark is an avid music fan (and musician) he also enjoys boxing and supporting Swansea FC (not at the same time). He is a genuinely an all-round good guy and well worth getting to know.

Mark's post touches on his love of being a parent, but be warned, it is a sobering read as well as reminding us that "this is the seasonal time for giving"...


I’m writing this piece in November, at that point in the month where thinking about planning for Christmas is necessary. I’m at that particular mid-point between being jealous of those annoying people who cheerily brag about having completed their Christmas shopping (get a life!), and not being one of those who runs around on a fool's errand on Christmas Eve like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie ‘Jingle All The Way’..

Before having a family, I was a ‘do everything the week before’ type of person.

Not anymore.

I think about Christmas during my commute to work, a one hour drive in darkness across the South Wales Valleys, a route that rides parallel to my home town of Neath and across the Neath Valley, before it takes me up over Merthyr, where I drive on a dual-carriageway that runs above Merthyr’s Gurnos Estate, a notorious and vast council estate unfairly denigrated over the years, but undoubtedly a place with social problems. It is probably also filled with oodles of love and citizenship too, but people don’t seem to talk about that.

I think about a lot when I’m driving. I think about things I need to, things I want to, and of course, with the brain being a complex thing, I sometimes think about things that I could do with not thinking about. I’m human, and that’s normal.

But recently i’ve been thinking about Christmas.

Each year at this holiday season, my workplace supports a charity called The Mr X Appeal which started in 1959 when a gentleman from the South of England decided to do something. Mr X started with the aim of ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds across the region who might not otherwise receive any presents on Christmas day, would wake up to at least one gift. The scheme transferred from the South of England to South Wales when Mr X relocated to the area some years later.

Mr X remained anonymous his entire life until he passed away at age 92 in 2016 when his identity was revealed as Mr Tom Bravin. Mr Bravin wanted to remain anonymous for this work as he did not want any of the spotlight to be on him, but to be on the good charity of those who donated gifts, and to focus on the plight of poverty across the country.

Mr Bravin, you are a hero.

Tom Bravin
The charity has continued since Mr Bravin’s passing, through a team of volunteers that he had assembled a few years before his death, and so his legacy lives on and each year more children are supported.

The way that the scheme works is that public bodies and charities provide to the team at Mr X the first names and basic details (gender and age) of children across South Wales who would be unlikely to receive any gifts at Christmas. Mr X acts as a middle-man to assign each child to someone who wishes to take part in the scheme and provide a gift/gifts. Obviously anonymity and safeguarding of real identities is extremely important. Many businesses and individuals across South Wales take part and last year over 4,500 gifts were donated.

Mr X Appeal - the facebook page is
So last week I made my annual phone call to the team at Mr X to be given the details of the children we could support this year. Usually we take the details of 2 children and so this year we have the same. The team at Mr X gave me details of the first child. A little girl who is just over a year old.

Then came the details of the second child. A boy near enough the same age as my son, 4.

This hit me like a dagger in the heart that manifested itself in an awkward silence. A lump in the throat formed and a tear grew. Something hit home that affected me and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since.

I’ve been thinking about how a child like my son might have received nothing if we hadn’t made that call. I’ve been thinking about what the little boy knows and understands about Christmas and how difficult it’s going to be for him and/or his family.

Does he understand that he might not wake up to a gift?

Does he write Christmas lists in a school classroom for Father Christmas that he understands are likely to be irrelevant? Does he feel compelled to lie to his friends about what he thinks he’s going to get, whilst other children embellish enthusiastically as little children do, about what Santa is going to bring them?

Does he see and experience the heartache likely to be felt by his parents who watch on helplessly knowing that they are not in a position to provide a gift this year whilst most other children will receive something?

Does he even want anything, or would he prefer his siblings and parents receive something instead, if, of course, he has any?

Where will he wake up and what will Christmas morning be like for him?

And I think and worry about the parents too, not that I know whether he has any, and about what they must be going through. How are they surviving at this time of year? How much pressure must they be under and how cruel is it that this merry season has been commercialised to the extent that it creates this form of weight on the shoulders of so many.

And I think about my little boy, and how I would hate to be in the position of not being able to provide for him at Christmas. I think about the soundbites that say that most families are only ever “2 pay cheques away from poverty” and how I’m going to work so hard for the rest of my life to give him everything that he needs.

And then I feel guilty, because whilst it is awful that any child might wake up without a gift to open, the one I seem to think more about of the two children nominated for us, is the little boy, which I rationalise is due to the fact that I have a son the same age.

Each day, I leave the house and it’s still pitch black as I set off at around 6.45am for my journey to work. Each day as I drive in the darkness I think about this little boy who I don’t know and is the same age as my son. Each day I wish, somehow, I could do more.

Around 25% of the UK’s population is in relative poverty after housing costs, and that figure is closer to 30% when we look at children. Recently, The Independent reported that “the number of looked after children hit a new high of 72,670 in the 12 months to March 2017”. Over a million people used food banks between April 2016 to March 2017, and the horror stories are getting worse as the new Universal Credit benefits system continues to be problematic.

This is a tough time for so many.

But there is light, even, if not more so, at Christmas. There is dawn.

All across the country, people are doing stuff to help others at this time of year. 

People are taking part in the Mr X Appeal, volunteering at homeless shelters and donating to food banks.

People are rallying around family and friends and doing all they can to offer support and kindness.

People are making plans for elderly loved ones to make sure they’re not lonely.
People in care homes and at refuge centres are working hard to make people feel and experience the true spirit of Christmas, to feel loved, wanted, happy, warm and safe.

Outstanding acts of kindness and selflessness take place such as Sarah Millican’s #joinin twitter discussion on Christmas Day where people who are alone can have company online and talk with others throughout the day.

Amazing people are doing, and plan to do, amazing things. This is beautiful and is the very best in humanity. Because whilst it’s not perfect out there, there are many, many acts of kindness that help a lot of people in so many different ways. If the tough times are our darkness, only kindness can be our dawn.

(*Poverty Stats from the DWP, Households Below Average Income 2015/16 report, food bank usage from the ons website)

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Advent Invitation

A year ago today the Americans elected a new president – what a lot has happened since then. I don’t think anyone could describe Trump’s first twelve months as “dull” – new laws (many now mired in dispute or which needed amending), Trump has signed over 40 bills, promises have been made but not yet delivered, scandals in the White House and beyond, no sign of a wall but less people are trying to cross into America from Mexico, and a constant flow of gasp-inspiring tweets. 

The USA is not alone in having complex political problems: here in the UK we have had resignations from two Cabinet ministers within the past week and a weak government (since the misguided decision earlier in the year to call an election in the hope of cementing a Conservative majority), sexual harassment and abuse testaments/allegations are rife and we seem to be making slow progress in negotiating Brexit. 

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an investigation into top-level corruption. Europe has its own issues; following elections there are still no formal governments in the Netherlands or Germany and there is social unrest and economic concern in many areas across the region.

In the past twelve months there have been many terrible events, including:

  • the terrorist bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, on May 22nd;
  • the repeated testing of missiles by North Korea and a mounting crisis that could be devastating for us all;
  • the on-going wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq;
  • the Nangarhar airstrike in Afghanistan, when the U.S. dropped the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon on an ISIL base;
  • humanitarian issues in Miramar and Yemen;
  • rioting and deaths in Kenya;
  • floods in South Asia killing over 1,000 people;
  • Hurricane Harvey caused mayhem and death in August, followed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria – that devastated the Caribbean;
  • the rising tensions between America and Russia;
  • the horrific earthquake in Mexico in September, killing 369 people;
  • Las Vegas shooting in October;
  • the vast truck bomb in Somalia;
  • terrorist attacks using vehicles as weapons in Israel, Sweden, France, Canada, America, the UK and Spain;
  • 76% decline over 27 years in flying insects according to German scientists; and
  • the list goes on

For many it feels as though we live in dark times.

However, all is not bleak. In 2017 there have been many amazing scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, including final proof of gravitational waves, which validates Einstein’s theory of general relativity; hugh strides in gene comprehension with scientists in Portland successfully editing out a heart condition from a human embryo; metallic hydrogen has been created for the first time which could enable better technology through a more efficient superconductor; regenerative medicine (where we are able to grow new organs and human tissue in a lab) is now becoming probable - scientists at Wake Forest have found ways of speeding up the process, in the future it may even be possible to grow a limb; Google's Deep Mind is making extraordinary strides within AI with technology now able to navigate complex environments and learn from itself; new species of animals and plants have been discovered including a luminous frog, a new species of orangutan and a pistol shrimp that makes such a noise it has been named Synalpheus pinkfloydi; 

a therapy has been discovered in the Netherlands that reverses aging in mice; a spider's venom has been discovered to potentially halt stoke damage; after much searching a new antibiotic may have been found in the mucus secreted by an Indian frog; more than 450 Stonehenge like formations have been found in Brazil that may shed light on our past; an eighth continent has been found, beneath New Zealand, in the south Pacific and may be named Zealandia; there are so many new discoveries and breakthroughs that the future undoubtedly looks exciting.

So, to the point - why don't you do your bit by adding to people's knowledge, But, some things do not change – The Advent Blogs Series will be published again this year and I am both delighted an honoured to be the host. However, I cannot do it without your help…

By way of an explanation to those who are new - traditional Advent calendar windows start being opened from the 1st of December, with a new surprise being revealed daily. The Advent Blog series is the same, in that a new post is published each day. However, despite being called the Advent Blog series, these blogs are not a religious countdown and the series is not limited to just 24 posts. In recent years the contributions have continued well into the New Year, with people contributing posts from around the world and from a mixture of backgrounds and outlooks. All authors are welcome. I remain indebted to Alison Chisnell for founding the series back in 2011; it is a credit to her and all the contributors’ enthusiasm that the Advent Blogs have now become a much-loved annual tradition.

Last year’s series, under the heading of “Heights, Hearts and Hollows” was amazing, with people commenting on a range of personal highs and lows, as well as individual family reminiscences and topical observations. This year’s theme is “Darkness and Dawn”. I hope at least one or both of these will resonate and inspire you to compose a piece to be included for the pleasure of all who follow and read the series.

So, what is the story that you want to share this year? What dark times have you endured, what new exciting projects have you been involved in?

Perhaps you find the warm hug of darkness a source of comfort

and find the view of the future disturbing, waking you into action like a terrifying alarm clock.

The Wake Up Machine - invented by Simone Giertz, an alarm clock with slapping rubber arm

What light have you shed over the past 12 months?

Has someone else helped open your eyes to a new way of being?

What are you aiming to achieve next year, what do you want to be different or better?

For me, one of the best things about the Advent Blog series is that people use it as a place to be themselves – open, honest, no sales or spin, just a global group of individuals, from diverse backgrounds, doing something together, simply for the pleasure of doing so and for each other. Each contribution is unique – every submission makes its own personal impact, and as a whole they create an extraordinary series.

If you would like to be part of it, please get in touch with me via the comments section below, on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or by any means that you can find to track me down. I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say.