Tuesday, 28 July 2015

rule number two...

Fairly early on into my training course for my PADI Open Water diving qualification, I was introduced to the two golden rules that all scuba divers must live by:

1) Never, ever hold your breath

2) Always look cool.

The first rule is easy to explain: air expands and contracts in your lungs as you change depth underwater. If you hold your breath whilst diving, the air can expand within your chest as you ascend and explode your lungs. Okay. Alright. Important safety tip. The second rule says an awful lot more about divers as a whole: you need to look cool at all times. A heavy wetsuit, flippers, a BCD and a whacking great cylinder of air make perfect sense when you’re underwater, but it’s a damn sight harder to work it as a look when you’re not actually diving. In those circumstances, an excellent pair of sunglasses and an air of studied nonchalance can go a long way.

I’m starting to realise that cyclists have a similar set of rules. It’s probably not so critical that you don’t hold your breath on a bicycle, but there’s a definite sense that you must maintain your poise even when wearing the most absurd clothing. I’m not sure that there is a man alive who can really pull off an outfit involving that much lycra, a padded backside, a bike helmet and those daft shoes that clip into pedals. I solve the problem by not even trying: never wear lycra as a top-layer and stay away from cleats. Other cyclists take the opposite approach: the success of British cyclists at the Olympics and in the Tour de France has led to a proliferation of cycle clubs, and the little drag of cafes where I live absolutely swarms with middle-aged pelotons sat at the outside tables with their legs apart and a pint of Peroni on the table in front of them. Some of them seem to spend a good deal more time wearing their lycra at cafĂ© tables than they do on actually on their bikes. Sadly, many are also classic examples of middle aged men in lycra (MAMILs), but you have to admire the chutzpah that sees them attempt to style out their bulging lycra in the face of all taste or good judgement.

There are plenty of these guys in the changing rooms at work too, clopping their way in from the bike shed on their cleats wearing their Team Sky lycra. It’s a fifteen minute cycle into work, not a time trial up Mont Ventoux, for goodness sake. (some of them apparently don’t even break sweat on their rides to work in their full gear. At least, that’s why I assume they don’t have a shower before peeling off their pro-cycling gear and putting on their work clothes for a full day in the office, anyway….)

I saw one guy in there the other day, getting changed out of his work gear before he cycled home in the evening. Somehow, he had managed to put his sunglasses on first, before any of his other cycling gear, so he was standing at his locker with his wraparound, mirrored visor on, changing out of his trousers and into his cycling shorts. Now that is an admirable commitment to rule 2…. well, apart from looking entirely ridiculous standing indoors at your locker wearing only your pants and your sunglasses….

Honestly.  People, eh?

Monday, 27 July 2015

play among the stars....

I spent a good part of my Sunday afternoon reading "One Night in June" by Kevin Shannon and Stephen Wright.  It was loaned to me a little while ago by mother-in-law before a trip to Normandy that we unfortunately had to cancel.  The book tells the story of the British Glider Regiment and their role in Operation Tonga.

As wikipedia says:

"Operation Tonga was the codename given to the airborne operation undertaken by the British 6th Airborne Division between 5 June and 7 June 1944 as a part of Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings during the Second World War. The paratroopers and glider-borne airborne troops of the division landed on the eastern flank of the invasion area, near to the city of Caen, tasked with a number of objectives. The division was to capture two strategically important bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River which were to be used by Allied ground forces to advance once the seaborne landings had taken place, destroy several other bridges to deny their use to the Germans and secure several important villages. The division was also assigned the task of assaulting and destroying the Merville Gun Battery, an artillery battery that Allied intelligence believed housed a number of heavy artillery pieces, which could bombard Sword Beach and possibly inflict heavy casualties on the Allied troops landing on it. Having achieved these objectives, the division was then to create and secure a bridgehead focused around the captured bridges until they linked up with advancing Allied ground forces."

In spite of poor weather, communication difficulties and some poor navigation, the Operation successfully completed all of its objectives and significantly hindered the German response in the crucial early hours of the D-Day landings. Of course, that summary obscures the extraordinary heroism and sacrifices of the troops involved. Apart from anything else, the gliders used in the operation were made of very lightweight wood, were laden with the heavy equipment needed by the paratroopers - light artillery, jeeps, bulldozers and the like - and were helplessly towed into enemy territory through flak and by planes that they couldn't always reliably communicate with. As if that wasn't bad enough, their target landing zones were tiny, hard to locate and often protected by telegraph poles that had been specifically put in place to prevent exactly this kind of attack. Many of the gliders and supporting paras landed as far as two miles away from their objectives, so the completion of all of their primary and secondary objectives becomes an even more remarkable achievement.

The book has the first-hand accounts of many of the pilots involved in the operation and all have extraordinary stories to tell, many told with the kind of understatement and stiff-upper lip that you imagined only existed in the most hackneyed war films.

What gives this story all the more poignancy and relevance for me - albeit indirectly - is the fact that one of the pilots involved in the operation - was my wife's grandfather. He flew glider 100 and was fatally wounded by enemy fire during the landing. His story is told by his lead pilot, and his memory and sacrifice are thus commemorated and remembered.

Of course, in the wider context of the war, this was just one small piece of a much larger story, and just one lost life amongst thousands lost on that day alone... but it was a crucial piece of that story nonetheless and it deserves to be remembered and re-told, and not just by his family.

Friday, 24 July 2015

it takes guts to be gentle and kind....

Multiple sclerosis has affected my life in many ways. Not surprisingly, when talking about my MS, I tend to talk about the negative things. No matter how much I might try to make the best of them, there’s ultimately not much positive in the way that the condition has affected both my brain and my body. Yes, I have been able to run a marathon, and I’m not sure I ever would have done so if I hadn’t been spurred on by a stubborn desire to show my body who is boss....but, given the choice, would I get rid of the pins and needles, muscle weakness, fatigue and all the rest of it? Of course I would. Who wouldn’t?

That said, I am starting to slowly become aware of the positive ways that my MS has affected my life. I have changed as a person and, on the whole, I think that I’ve changed for the better. As a younger man, I was often angry and frustrated; I would get annoyed at ridiculous things and let them bother me. I’ve never really been much of a ranter or raver, but I was stubborn, opinionated and outspoken. Some of those traits are still very much present and correct (and I can see the people who know me the best laughing as they read that…. ), but I honestly think that I’ve become more tolerant and phlegmatic than I used to be.

I used to think that hell was other people and that I was an island, but as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that that just isn’t true at all. I’m an introvert who, if I’m ever enticed out to a party (doubtful), will likely spend my time looking at the bookshelves and records rather than engaging a stranger in small talk, but at the same time, I love to be around people. The best part of my job  by far is the team I work with.

So what’s MS got to do with that change? Isn’t all of that just a normal part of getting older (and hopefully) wiser?

I didn’t know what my future held when I was diagnosed with MS. I still don’t know. What I do know is that I have an incurable condition and that there is very little that I, or anyone else, can do to affect my future outcome. If I wanted, I could choose to focus on all the negative changes this has made to my life and to worry about all the negative impacts it might have on me in the future. Goodness knows, plenty of people do.  Really though, what would be the point of that?

Yeah, so my muscles have wasted on my left hand side and both legs feel weird when I run, blah  blah blah. So what? If I want to run - and I do – then you just have to get on with it and run, don’t you?

Do it, or don’t do it.

That’s basically all there is to it. There’s absolutely no point moaning about something that I can’t change.

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s changed: I’ve become much better at letting the little things go and I try only worry about the things I can change. I’m not saying that I’ve become Buddha or anything like that, but I think it’s a change that’s helped make me a calmer, happier person.

Maybe that’s not all down to my MS and perhaps I’m just older and wiser, but MS has definitely played a part in helping to get me there.

....it’s either that or the MS has fired up my stubborn side and I just steadfastly refuse to let its many indignities drag me down.

One or the other.  Maybe both.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

room without a roof...

I was described today as someone who looked happy in their work. I was lost in thought at my desk, pondering a spreadsheet and didn’t notice that a friend of mine had quietly dropped by. Not wanting to interrupt my flow, this friend was sitting patiently by my desk with a cup of coffee, waiting for me to surface for air so he could say hello. When I belatedly realised that he was sitting there and tore myself away from my work, we had a little chat about what I had been doing, and I must have been so passionate about it all that he remarked that I must be a happy man to be so enthusiastic about my job.

I hesitated.

Who honestly describes themselves as truly happy in their work? Would I come here and do this if I wasn’t being paid for it or if I had anything remotely better to be doing with my time? Doubtful. But, you know what? He’s actually right: I am happy in my work at the moment. I like the people I work with, I get on well with my boss and I feel as though I’m in a position to make a real difference. Oh sure, there are lots of little things I could be carping about, and there are probably many, many better things I could be doing with my life (I had an idea about a book earlier this week, for starters)…. But right here and right now, it’s nice to be able to take a step back and to admit that I actually quite like what I do.

It’s been a long old time since I’ve been able to say that about my working life. My work definitely doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the broader scheme of things, but things could definitely be a whole lot worse.  Whilst I don't exactly jump out of bed in the mornings when my alarm goes off, that's more to do with aching muscles than any lack of enthusiasm....

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

(A.E. Houseman, "A Shropshire Lad II")

Sometimes, you need to take the time to appreciate the cherry tree hung with snow.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015


We’ve been invited to a reception at the House of Lords in October. It’s an event that’s been organised by the MS Trust as a thank you to their fundraisers, and we’ve been invited along because of all that money we raised -- thanks in large part to you guys -- in running the London Marathon (around £7,000, once you factor in Gift Aid). It’s on a Wednesday night during a normal working week, but how do you turn down something like that?

Much to my wife’s amusement and slight irritation, the invitation was addressed to “Mr and Mrs swisslet”. It’s become something of a running joke in our house that, for all that she did brilliantly well to raise all that money and to run a marathon, it will apparently always be me that’s the inspiration in this particular area of our lives. She’s in Paris at the moment and was delighted that her visit coincided with a trip by some of our Viennese friends. Over dinner, apparently, one of the recurring topics of conversation, so my bemused wife told me over the phone later on, was how much of an inspiration I was, and how much adversity I overcame, and how determined I was, etc. etc. etc.


It’s funny. If I thought of myself that way, then at the very least I’d need a good talking to, and probably a good slap…. But instead I find it amusing and ridiculous and baffling and humbling all at the same time.

Coincidentally (or not), the MS Trust have been emailing me this week, dropping hints about how they are now accepting applications for their team to run the 2016 London Marathon. One email thanked me for asking to be kept updated with the latest news from their running club and telling me where to find the application form for a place in their marathon team…. Information that I hadn’t actually requested, but thanks for the hint, guys.

When I crossed the finish line on the Mall in April this year, I was fairly sure that I didn’t want to run another marathon. I was worried about how my body would withstand the training, and although I got through it alright, it totally dominates your life for the best part of six months. Did I really want to go through that again? But before we had even got to the post-race reception, my brain was already beginning to wonder how fast I could do one if I ran on my own. I tried to kill the thought, but it has kept coming back to me, creeping into my head even as I’m slogging my way around a 10 mile run on a Sunday morning and feeling like I'm wading through treacle. Why on earth would I think about running 26.2 miles when I’m struggling to get my pace up over less than half that distance, goodness only knows… but there it is.

In the run-up to the marathon, I had a few sessions of sports massage.  After the marathon, I had one last  one to loosen out my poor, aching muscles. My massage therapist, on the basis of those four or five sessions, told me that he reckoned that I wasn’t the kind of person who would be happy with just one marathon.

Damn him, but he was right.  I knew, deep down, that he was right then... but it's taken me a few months to accept that to myself.

So, here it is: I’m in for 2016 and I’ve formally put in my bid for a gold bond place with the charity.

I feel tired just thinking about it.

Monday, 20 July 2015

red squirrel in the morning....

Whatever happened to lie-ins?

I ask because I was having a conversation with someone this morning who has teenage sons, and she was saying that she finds it almost impossible to get them out of bed. Yesterday, her nineteen year-old didn’t actually surface before 7pm… which is a pretty heroic effort if you ask me. She was remarkably phlegmatic about it too, it has to be said. She just shrugged her shoulders and said they could do what they liked.  He'd been up all night on the internet, apparently.  I bet he had.

I’m not expecting to be able to go back to being a teenager and to just lounge around in bed until lunchtime and beyond… but I don’t really seem to get any kind of a lie-in anymore and that makes me feel a little sad for days gone by. Apart from anything else, those few extra hours sleep at the weekend just help you recharge your batteries for another week at work...and that mostly seems to have disappeared from my life.

It’s all my own fault too. You see, the thing is that I’ve picked up activities at the weekend that require actually getting out of bed and leaving the house. No one's making me get up to do this stuff: they're activities that I volunteered to do, so there's no one to blame but myself.  If you had suggested to the teenage me that I would voluntarily be getting up at 7:15 on a Saturday morning to get up and ready for a 5km run at 9am, then I would have laughed in your face. If you were to then add that I would be doing more or less the same thing on a Sunday morning too, only this time it was a ten mile run, then I probably told myself to get a grip and then burst into tears.

Whisper it quielty, but I suppose it’s actually quite nice to be up early and to have been for a run and still have the best part of the day in front of you…. It’s just that thinking like that is so old, isn’t it? You wouldn’t catch all that many young people thinking like that.

I’m old and I get up early in the morning. If you'll forgive me, I feel like I need to mourn the passing of my youth.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

sing, sing, sing...

When I first joined the choir, I hadn’t really done much thinking beyond thinking that it might be quite fun to do a bit of singing. What I hadn’t really considered was the amount of extra effort I would need to put in to learn my part well enough to be able to hold up my end at any performances. It was a bit of an eye-opener, as we approached the concerts at the end of my first season, including one in front of a paying audience of 600 people in the Sheffield Octagon, to suddenly realise that I was going to actually need to put some serious work into listening to the MP3s of my part and learning the words.  Come to that, I hadn't even really thought about the fact that my part wouldn't always follow the melody line.  You think you know a song....

When I was at school, I really didn’t like Latin classes very much, and I went through a phase of going to extraordinary lengths to cheat in the weekly tests by writing vocabulary lists down in tiny handwriting and then taping it to the back of my watch or stapling it to the back of my tie or similar. After a while, it dawned on me that it was actually much easier to put the effort into actually learning the words than it was to laboriously write them out. My marks improved too. I’ve been through a similar experience with choir: you can actually take your book of music into most (but not all) of the events we have, and you can certainly make yourself a crib sheet with prompts like first lines and so on. In the end though, it’s much easier to just learn your part as best as you can and then spend your time watching the musical director as you sing, because he gives us so many prompts and cues and generally makes the whole thing much easier than trying to look at your book, look at him AND to sing.

We had ten songs in my first season, together with a couple of extra ones we learned for the big concert. We’re doing a “best of” season currently, to celebrate 5 years of the choir, and we’re doing a song from every season. In total, that’s about 50% more songs than usual, which is fine if you’ve been in the choir for a while and have done most of them before, but is a nightmare if you’re new. Out of the fifteen songs in the season, I knew one.  As well as the sheer volume of songs to learn, it’s the fact that, with so many to get through, two hours on a Tuesday night isn’t really enough to cover any of them in any depth. There have been a few extra sessions at the weekend, but I’ve only been able to make one of them.

Needless to say, I’ve spent most of the last two weeks spending every spare moment trying to learn my part. I bought a number of albums when we got back from Glastonbury the other week, but I simply haven’t had any time to listen to any of them because I’ve been listening to the recording of my part.

We had our end of season concert in Nottingham on Tuesday and…. it went really well. We weren’t perfect, by any means (honestly, we’ve been told a hundred times that, if we can’t reach the high bass part at the start of “The Rose”, then we just shouldn’t sing at all… but a few people around me where absolutely miles off it on Tuesday night, bless them).. but I think that overall, we sounded really good. I had a couple of moments where I was able to step outside of what I was singing and really hear the sound of the choir as it came together and we sounded brilliant. There were about 100 of us in the choir on the night, and when we came together, I think we made a splendid noise.

Some of my colleagues came to watch, which was lovely of them. As well as just offering support by being there, they were whooping and cheering and shouting out my name… so now some of my fellow basses think that I’m something of a celebrity, which is kinda nice (even if it never, ever happens again). To be honest, I think the girls in my team were nearly as excited as the children present when we started singing “Circle of Life” and “Let it Go”. They were certainly disappointed when I didn't do an air-grab at the key change in "You Raise Me Up".

I’ve a couple more concerts lined up over the next couple of weeks, starting with a much smaller performance in a church in Bolsover tomorrow night. I snatched the chance last night to listen to some local punk music for a review in a forthcoming Leftlion, but as of tonight I have to get back on my MP3s to make sure I polish up a few songs… “Lean on Me” and “World in Union” definitely need some work, and I could be more certain of a couple of bits in the Phantom of the Opera medley too.

It’s hard work, but in a good way.

I think.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

best of you...

Sweatshop just asked this question on their facebook feed:

"Who remembers their very first run? How far have you come since then... and how much have you improved? Share your story!"

There are lots of great stories on there already, but as I've just completed a magic mile as part of the interval training run by the Colwick parkrun team on the Nottingham Embankment and because I got a new PB of 6:28:1 -- an improvement of a shade under two seconds on last year -- I felt compelled to comment:

"I used to hate cross-country running at school and walked at every opportunity. I reluctantly ran for fitness after that, but wouldn't say I was any more than a dabbler until maybe 2002/3, when I did a couple of sprint triathlons. The bug really got me when I started started getting the symptoms of what turned out to be MS in 2005. The running made me feel like I wasn't just waiting for things to stop working and gave me a good, honest fatigue instead of the awful, weasely fatigue you get with MS. I joined SRC in 2012 and have loved running with my running buddies, further and faster than ever before. In 2013, I thought I was going to have to stop because of an accumulation of issues caused by my MS, but kept going and completed my first marathon at London this year. Running is far more important to me than just a physical exercise, and I'm inspired by the friendship and generosity of the people I've met at SRC and at parkrun. You guys are the best!"

TL;DR, right?

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

scratch my leg....

In the summer of 2005, one of the first symptoms of MS that I experienced was numbness.  It started with a numb hand, but over the course of a few weeks, slowly spread around my body.  As you might imagine, this was a fairly strange experience.  Perhaps the weirdest part of it was when I tried to go running: it's a very disconcerting sensation to be running along when you can't properly feel the muscles in your thighs or feel the ground beneath your feet.  For a while, I was convinced that this was going to mean that I jarred my leg so badly by missing a step that it would break.  I didn't stop running though, and over time, my brain just learned to tune out the weirdness and not being able to feel my muscles as I ran became my new normal.  So much so, in fact, that I barely think about it at all.

Yesterday, I went out running as usual with my running club.  It was a pretty humid night, but I've been working hard to try and shake off the marathon and to get myself back up to what I would call a decent speed.  I managed 4.25 miles at a pace of a shade under 8 minutes / mile and was well pleased.

Somewhere along the way, I had a bit of an itch in my left leg.  Without looking, and without stopping, I had a quick scratch and carried on.  As ever, it felt a little bit weird to have the sensation in my fingers and the sensation in my thigh feel so different as I scratched, but that's normal so I didn't think any more of it until I stopped and saw what I'd done to my thigh.


(and please don't worry: I am wearing shorts in that picture.  I'd hate you to have nightmares.)

No real damage done, and the real story here is how I can still run at that sort of pace, but all the same, it's just another little reminder of the damage that MS continues to do to my body.

Monday, 13 July 2015


My wife isn’t a big drinker. It’s not that she doesn’t drink, it’s just that she’s quite happy not to drink. When we’re out of an evening, more often than not, she’s more than comfortable to order a cup of tea as everyone else around her sinks deeper into their cups. Our very best friends have long since worked her out: she might not drink much, but she does like to drink champagne. If they want to get her tipsy, all they have to do is to dangle the temptation and leave the rest to her.

We were down in Oxford this weekend, catching up with some friends of ours who are over with their kids for a visit from Adelaide. It was a special occasion, so a bottle of champagne was purchased, and later, some prosecco. It was a splendid evening, but the next morning, my wife had a hangover. As she doesn’t drink much, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to her very often. From the way she was talking about it, you’d think it had never happened to anyone else before either. It was quite sweet, in a way.

She insisted on coming out with me on a five mile run that morning, but was keen to ensure that I knew about all of her various ailments (although, to be fair, she did run all the way around, including up the notorious hill into Headington without stopping, so she wasn’t doing badly, given her parlous condition).

After some careful consideration, she was fairly sure that the hangover was caused by the switch from champagne to prosecco.

“Pope killed by inferior wine”, she said, displaying an even greater ambition than normal.

I suggested that it might have been that cup of tea she had in that last pub. You can’t be too careful, mixing your drinks like that.

(and we could both have done without the 90 minute journey home taking 5 hours, too....)