Posts by Russell M Parkes

father | husband | mentor

New Year resolutions?

As the year ends, many of us turn our thoughts to making New Year resolutions. My advice: don’t or at least not until you have carefully worked through what each goal will mean to you. Think about the benefits to your life, the joy it might bring and the cost of getting to the end. Making changes in our lives is no casual thing.

So many of us start out with good intentions to reform our lives at this time of year. The idea behind new year resolutions is that we want to add a new skill or pursue a new relationship or change some aspect of our lives for the better. It is a noble desire to want to set ourselves a target for the year. But to achieve success, we need more than good intentions and a wave of enthusiasm as we herald in another year.

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The trick with achieving new things in our lives is to understand that few of them just happen. We have to be intentional, and being intentional means that we need some sort of intention; a plan.

Studies have shown that over a quarter of us will have abandoned our quest after one month, and less than 10% achieve any level of success. One study has shown that only 8% of people achieve their year-end goal. It’s all rather depressing when we read these results. What, I wonder, is the secret of the 8%? The answer is not altogether clear, but there are some common strands to their success.

Faced with these results, I have reviewed what will dramatically improve our chances of success. Achieving a goal requires us to change our behaviour for the better. Reform is far more challenging than we often imagine and requires a serious plan to make it all work. I have spent some years refining my plan. Here is what I have learned.

1 Small is beautiful

In setting a goal, we have a tendency to promise ourselves sweeping changes with big gestures. Frankly, we are tempted to go for the big goal. Research shows that it is much better to set an achievable goal. But what is achievable?

An achievable goal is one we have considered and deemed doable. It has to be small enough to manage. When one of my daughters was at university, she came home one weekend with the title of her first essay, threw her arms around me and cried, “I can’t do it!” As she clung onto me, I started to think about what I would say to her, to help her through her crisis. I simply asked her “How do you eat an elephant?” At first, there was a pained look on her face. She was thinking, she later told me, ‘what does this old fool know about my life?’ Then she looked pained and puzzled at me, I said, “One bite at a time.” With that, she laughed, and I helped her to set about making a plan, even though I knew nothing about her subject. The big must become small.

I’m the sort of person who needs to consider a commitment before choosing to embrace it. I need to turn it over in my mind, visualise what achieving the goal looks like, and see the setbacks I might encounter. Once that is done, I move onto the next stage. If I find that my goal is more easily achieved than I first thought, it becomes an early success.

2 The few versus the many

One of the key drivers in achieving our goals is to limit ourselves to a few well-chosen ones. I suggest no more than five. Too many will mean that we will have difficulty managing them. The final number we choose might also depend on the type of objective we have in mind.

If I have five resolutions for the year, I find it helpful to have perhaps two easier ones to achieve, leaving one more meaty goal and another that will stretch me. I think it is better to have too few than too many. One can always add another goal later if you want. Choosing the right number of goals for the year is a matter of knowing how you respond to challenges of this type.

We live in a world filled with choices. Too much choice can be bad for us since we will find that decision making is more draining and difficult. Narrowing our choices helps us to decide what is really important. In turn, this means that we must have the courage to reject perfectly worthy options in favour of one or two goals.

The secret to choosing our goals is to restrict our options. Restricting our options helps us to focus on those things that are the most important to us. Positive restriction makes managing our choices easier.

It helps to visualise achieving the goal, but we can make the mistake of thinking that achieving a goal is the same thing as living in the goal’s success. Our most significant objectives must be places where we can live. For example, let us suppose that I want to lose some weight and set a target. Is my goal to reach the weight or to stay at that weight permanently? Reaching the weight is one thing; staying there is quite another. This is the main reason why I might narrow my options. I don’t want to visit my goals; I want to live in them.

3 A powerful pen

Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer wrote, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Most of us will not change the world; we will have enough trouble changing ourselves.

We can apply that principle to our goals for the year. Writing down my goals does several things. First, the very act of recording our goals makes our commitment to them stronger. Writing clarifies our thinking and strengthens our resolve, and it does not matter whether we use a pen or a keyboard. Second, writing down our goals for the year means I have a record of them, giving me a visual cue to remind me of them and their phrasing. Thirdly, writing them down helps me cement my decisions, and improves the chances of keeping them in the front of my mind.

If we choose small enough goals, narrow our selection to a few well-chosen ones, and write them down, then we are well-placed for success. With these considerations finalised, our chances of success increase with every small refinement. We have moved from the crowd and towards the 8%.

4 Monitor and manage

Most of us need some way of keeping our goals in mind. Take, for example, my goal of losing weight. I have set a goal weight to reach and to make sure that I continue my downward trend, I monitor my weight every day. I build the weigh-in into my morning routines and hand-write the result in my day-book. This goal requires measurement every day. I chose to record my weight every day because I know how easily my work can be undone.

In another example, I have some investment goals for 2021. In this case, I record the performance of my investments each Saturday morning on my spreadsheet. As the weeks pass by, I can soon see how they perform, building a picture on how well or otherwise they are progressing.

Every goal requires a unique response to monitoring progress or regress. It is only through close monitoring that I can see what is happening. In my first goal, I want to lose; in the second, I want to gain, but it is only through monitoring the situation that I can see if I am moving in the right direction. I use my task manager to remind me of my resolutions. Every three months, I set an automatic reminder, and I have an embedded a link to the file so that review is easy and never more than a click away. I have found that the way the goal is monitored is just as important as the goal itself. It can make all the difference between success and failure.

5 Long haul or short haul?

My examples are long-term goals and appear in my list for most years. I have lost over seventy-five pounds in weight over the last few years, and since I have chosen to lose weight permanently, I decided to lose weight slowly. My achievement takes me to within a few pounds of my weight when I married some forty-two years ago. So far, I am pleased with the result. I recommend breaking larger resolutions into manageable chunks, each smaller success is a milestone on a long journey. The win comes in achieving the smaller units of the larger objective.

And finally

If I have a setback and I have had many, I am resolved to treat myself with self-compassion and kindness. By sticking with our resolutions, we can achieve worthwhile changes in our life and enjoy the journey. And now, I must finish my resolutions for 2021 – the new year is fast approaching.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior Sealed

The Times, 19 November 1920:

Last night the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was sealed, and there was an end of the great pilgrimage of the public to see the coffin that has become a memorial to all the British dead. The pilgrimage started soon after the Burial Service finished on Armistice Day.

Altogether about a million people must have passed through the Abbey. The queue yesterday was again very large. For the greater part of the day people stood six abreast, and although they passed through the Abbey at a quicker rate than on preceding days the queue steadily grew longer. It was intended to close the doors at 3.45, but there was a quarter of an hour’s grace, and even then there were still many people unable to pass through.

At the very last moment a lady came to the Deanery bringing a maple leaf that had been sent from Canada by a soldier who had earned the Victoria Cross at Lucknow. She asked that this should be placed on the coffin before the grave was sealed up, and her wish was carried out.

The grave was filled with soil brought from the battlefields of France and Flanders.

Within half an hour the nave had been cleared of people. The Abbey was nearly in darkness, and the Unknown Warrior was at last alone. For three hours the coffin was not touched. An organ recital had been arranged, and it was decided not to close the grave until this had finished. For nearly two hours the organ pealed out, and the Warrior received a fitting last requiem.

The recital over, a beginning was made with the work of burial. The grave was filled with soil brought from the battlefields of France and Flanders. The inscription on the temporary slab has been printed in The Times. It will now be possible to get close enough to the grave to read it. The barriers have been narrowed, and the procession of mourners will in future pass directly by the grave. The Dean of Westminster hopes that it will be possible to reopen this part of the Abbey to the public today.

The queues at the Cenotaph were very little smaller yesterday than on preceding days. It is now a week since the memorial was unveiled, and in that time quite a million and a quarter people must have filed past it. During the afternoon a number of men on wheeled chairs, some of whom had lost both legs, laid wreaths. One of these was inscribed with the words, “Lest we forget”.

From The Times Archive, retrieved 19 November 2020.

Armistice Day 1920

1920 – Westminster Abbey – 4 military sentinels and 4 wax tapers surround the tomb of the unknown warrior.

On Thursday, 11th November 1920, an unknown soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey in a poignant ceremony to commemorate the immense loss of life during The Great War. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is now known throughout the world, though the soldier’s identity remains a mystery. That the soldier is unknown deeply resonated in 1920 and continues to do so to this day. We are the inheritors of their sacrifice. The British Army lost 886,000 killed during the war. Most died on the battlefields of France and Flanders, and over one hundred years later, they are almost total strangers to us.

We may have one or two servicemen in our family histories who fought in the Great War, who were wounded or killed, as I have, but these are the exceptions, albeit very personal exceptions. And that’s the point of the tomb of the unknown soldier – he is by nature unknown to us and probably will never be identified but represents the loss we all suffered. He is unknown and yet known. Indeed, if we discovered his identity, something of the poignancy of his ‘unknown-ness’ would be lost. Sometimes being unknown is the message.

Let’s back up a little. Armistice Day always falls on 11th November each year and is quite distinct from Remembrance Sunday, held on the second Sunday of November. Armistice Day commemorates the cessation of hostilities of the Great War on the 11th November 1918, at 11:00 am. Remembrance Sunday is our national commemoration of the same event, but because Armistice Day is usually a weekday, a Sunday is more convenient for the nation to remember. Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday work hand-in-hand.

Armistice and Remembrance Days

On Armistice Day in 1920, our nation witnessed the burial of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, London as a permanent memorial to the casualties of the war. Our hero was certainly not the only unknown soldier: sadly, there were many more, too many.

Deeply regret to inform you

Among the killed was my relative Arthur Parkes who died in 1916 in the battles of the Somme; never survived, never found, never buried by his comrades, encased in the mud bogs of Belgium. He was an ordinary man, from the village of Lowdham, Nottinghamshire, and at only five feet three inches tall, he was a small man.

Arthur signed up as a regular soldier in 1912, serving as a Private in the Sherwood Foresters from the start of the war. In March 1916, aged 26, he left the army on completion of his service but was then conscripted the following month. Seven months later, and back in Flanders, this time with the Lancashire Fusiliers, he was killed blown to infinity by an exploding shell.

“Deeply regret to inform you that Pte. A. Parkes, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, was killed in action on 23rd October. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy. The War Office London.”

The dreaded GPO telegram

And that was it. Your son is dead; no coffin, no funeral, no opportunity to say goodbye, and no grave to mark his life. Perhaps a letter to his mother from the Padre a few days later? If so, it has not survived. A loss like this happened to so many families, and the scars live on to this day.

In London: an idea is born

The idea for a lasting memorial to the unknown casualties of the Great War was birthed in August 1920 in London; it’s a fascinating story. But by early November plans to commemorate the vast loss of life started to take shape. (The full story can be found here) On the night of 7th November, the grim task of selecting an unnamed candidate fell to the Commander of the troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier-General Wyatt.

Four exhumed bodies were brought to a chapel at St. Pol, Flanders, on the night of 7th November 1920. Brigadier-General Wyatt and Colonel Gell went into the chapel alone. Union Flags covered the bodies. General Wyatt selected one, and the two officers placed the remains in a plain coffin.

In the morning Chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service in the chapel. The body was placed in a specially made two-inch-thick oak coffin made from a tree grown in Hampton Court Palace garden. The casket was covered with the flag used as an altar cloth during the war and known as the Padre’s Flag, which now hangs in St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey. The body was then shipped back to London.

The burial

On the morning of 11th November, the coffin began its journey through the crowd-lined streets, making its first stop in Whitehall where the Cenotaph was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. 11th November 1920”.

The King, now at Westminster Chapel, stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin from a silver shell as it was lowered into the grave. The hymn “Abide with me” was sung at the close of the service. Other eminent members of the congregation were Queen Alexandra, the queens of Spain and Norway, the Duke of Connaught, politicians Lloyd George and Asquith, and Sir Douglas Dawson.

The grave was then covered by an embroidered silk funeral pall, with the Padre’s flag lying over this. Four sentries kept watch over the grave while thousands of mourners filed past. The Abbey organ played while the church remained open to the public.

The Westminster Abbey service was recorded, but only part of the recording could be used for a record for the public to buy. Although the recording was only partially successful, it was the first electric recording made for public sale in Britain.

The grave was filled, using 100 sandbags of earth from the battlefields, on 18th November.

A powerful symbol of loss

The unknown soldier remains a powerful symbol of the Great War, made more potent by the fact that he is the only repatriated serviceman at that time. The tomb serves as a potent reminder of the grief and loss felt so powerfully across our nation in 1920. It continues to this day. We will remember them.

See how The Guardian covered the story in 1920

Purple with rage?

Photo by Mudassir Ali from Pexels

It’s happened again. And why? I’ll tell you why: for no reason at all. It’s the clocks; stealing my daylight and pitching me headlong into the dark tunnel of winter gloom. It’s bad for my health; bad for my routines; bad for my mood, increasing my risk of yet another deep depression. As if I need another depressive episode. What are the benefits of this annual ritual? None.

For the last twenty years, I have been unable to restrain myself about its useless and harmful imposition. My self-control evaporates, my blood pressure soars, and anyone in earshot gets a salvo, as I ride my hobbyhorse into the afternoon gloom of 3 p.m.

Name me one good reason why turning the clocks back an hour benefits our nation? I’ve searched the land from north to south, and east to west, high and low, and have yet to find one compelling argument. There isn’t one.

You might counter that Scotland would be plunged into very dark mornings. That’s true, I’ve lived there. Well, the Scots want independence, let them have it, and then they can do what works best for them. And anyway, there is no particular problem with two time-zones in one country. Lots of countries have two or more time-zones and manage very well.

You might counter that leaving the clocks on GMT+1 exposes road users and school children to the dangers of morning darkness. This is an old chestnut, but a miss-informed view. Studies have shown that more school students and road users will die because we have moved the clock back to GMT than otherwise would have done if the clocks had been left at GMT+1 (British Summer Time). The reason cited is that road users and children are more alert in the mornings and prone to be tired when they travel home, thus increasing their risk to poor road-safety judgement.

There I’ve said it. What do you say? Stick or twist? Yes or no? Back or not? When will we come to our senses? I’m not hopeful for change – no one is listening, but I feel a little brighter for writing about the subject again. I’m just a rather nice shade of lilac now.