I caught the last fifteen minutes of Simon Reeves' programme on the Mediterranean the other day: he was in northern Corsica, admiring a beautiful marine reserve where fishing is banned and where you cannot dive without a special scientific permit. Reeve spent the day in the reserve with a ranger, and as well as admiring the diversity of life, they spent the day chasing around after people in huge yachts who were illegally landing on the beaches, using banned jet skis and generally ignoring all of the rules that were designed to help life wildlife thrive.
It made me sad.
At the beginning of September, we spent a week in Sardinia, just an hour or so by boat south of where Reeve was in Corsica. We were there to dive the marine protection area off the North of the island. The Mediterranean is famously a bounteous ocean that has been teeming with life since ancient times. I have to say that this isn't my experience. Although the volcanic topography over and under the water makes this a stunning place to dive, the water isn't exactly teeming with life. Why? Well, perhaps some insight into that comes from the owner of the agriturismo where we were staying: he was a lovely, jovial man, but he told us that the dive shop who were taking us out each day didn't really like him or his friends because they would come diving to hunt grouper. The fact that fishing was forbidden in these protected waters clearly wasn't a problem for him. As Simon Reeve said in his programme on Sunday night, groupers are the top of the food chain in these waters, and their presence indicates that the ecosystem was healthy. I saw one solitary grouper when we were in Sardinia. The waters are increasingly barren.
To be fair, it was a little better when we made the trip one morning to dive off Corsica. Fishing isn't banned here, and we saw incongruously huge drag nets under the water, but there are quotas. Unlike in Italy, the French clearly respect these quotas and there was noticeably more life under the water, including several grouper. I've dived in the med a few times now: off Sardinia, off the Aeolian islands down by Sicily and off Malta, and it's basically been the same story each time... beautiful water and very little marine life.
I learned to dive off Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef in 2010. This is so extraordinarily beautiful, that it probably ruins you for diving anywhere else. It breaks my heart to think that subsequent global warming means that many of those dive sites are probably now filled with bleached coral and a catastrophic decline in marine diversity.
Just as my blogging here seems to be dying off, today I had cause to remember something we did together way back in 2005. Do you even remember 2005? I ask because I've just employed someone who had graduated and was born in 1996. You know, 2005: when everyone blogged and had a magnificent nom de plume like SwissToni, Urban Fox or Lord Bargain? 2005: when the internet wasn’t only used to reinforce your own increasingly firmly held opinions and to throw anonymous hatred at people with slightly differing but equally entrenched views? When the USA didn’t rip children away from their parents and keep them in a cage?
Ah, good times.
Well, it was so long ago that you probably don't remember, but way back in those halcyon days, we did a handwriting analysis thing. We had participative, inclusive fun then, didn't we? No fewer than 18 people submitted a handwritten song lyric to me for analysis by B1rdienumnum (who had read a book on the subject and was thus more of an expert than any of the rest of us). What marvellous fun we all had reading that analysis and trying to guess who had chosen which lyric.
You can read the whole saga here (and just in case you can't stand the suspense, the results are here)
You just don’t see quality content like this any more, do you? Who has the time?
Unlike many Facebook memes, I've been really enjoying the one that sees people posting up an album cover a day for a few days to give us an insight into the records that have really meant something to them over the years. The original meme suggests no explanations, but I think it's hearing what makes a particular album special to someone that really brings it to life... so, to hell with the rules, I've been busy encouraging people to explain.
I've just finished putting up my ten choices. To be honest, I think people were mostly just pleased to have a ten day break from the relentless running posts and pictures that I seem to put up.... but, for your delectation, dear reader, here's a special earworms list compliled of songs from the albums that I chose.
I haven't just chosen my ten favourite albums or the ten coolest records I own; I've tried to pick ten albums that have been landmarks in my life.
I had a few albums on cassette when I was growing up. I think the very first was Kings of the Wild Frontier by Adam and the Ants, but also in there was The Riddle by Nik Kershaw, Silk and Steel by 5 Star and Scoundrel Days by a-ha. To be honest, I’ve not listened to those other albums much in the last 35 years, but I do listen to a-ha fairly regularly, and I’m constantly struck by how little the music has dated. There’s something about their sparse, melancholic Scandinavian soundscapes that seems to have stood up well. I’ve seen them live a couple of times, once playing this album in full, and they filled huge screen behind them with an image of a rolling ocean: it seemed to fit the music very well. At the age of 8, I probably bought this because I liked the singles I’d heard on top of the pops…. Or just maybe I had impeccable taste in music even then. Yeah. You’re probably right.
This is an album that set the course of my musical direction for the next few years, perhaps forever. I bought it on cassette because I liked the cover, but pretty soon followed it with Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and from there into Metallica’s …and Justice for All, the Monsters of Rock festival and the comforting world of heavy metal. My first CD was the metal compilation Protect the Innocent (opening four tracks, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, Paranoid, Fireball, Ace of Spades). Not long after, I got my first leather jacket. Good times. Maiden are probably also the band I have seen live most often, bar one other artist.
You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby. You’re gonna die! For about 12 months across 1988/89, I essentially only listened to two albums: Pump by Aerosmith and Appetite for Destruction. I haven’t listened to Pump all that much recently, but this one is on a regular rotation. The other week, I watched Guns’n’Roses play live for the first time since Wembley Stadium in 1991. Unlike in ’91, they arrived onstage on time (early, in fact) and played for over 3 hours. Was it a perfect gig? No.. but at their very best no one can touch them. This remains an extraordinary album and still sounds dangerous today. They might have risen with the hair metal bands of the 1980s, but I’d imagine that Poison wouldn’t have attracted quite the same attention if they’d been headlining Download. This song opened their set and they just took it from there. I can live with an interminable Knocking on Heaven’s Door if they keep playing stuff like this. It was good to feel like a teenager for a few hours with one of my oldest friends who has been on this journey since the very beginning. Also, is Slash the most iconic rock guitarist ever?
Not the first album I owned by Red Hot Chili Peppers (that would be Mother’s Milk), nor is it my favourite (By The Way), but this is the album that made the biggest impression on me and took me further away from hair metal and towards bands like Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine. Why this song? The heartbreaking guitar solo. This was released in the same week as Nevermind and Screamadelica but has ultimately made more impression on me than either of those other records. Plus, you never quite realise how much swearing is on this album until you’ve put it on in in the car with your mum.
…and now for an abrupt change of direction. In my youthful wisdom, I was scornful of lots of bands; I assumed that the likes of The Cure, The Stone Roses and The Smiths must be crap because of the type of people who liked them and because they weren’t metal. Imagine my surprise when I turned out to be one of those people. I’m hardly the first teenager to fall hard for The Smiths, but at 18 years old – later than most – they just seemed to speak directly to my soul. At the time, their back catalogue was incredibly hard to get hold of: my CD copy of this album is a French import that I bought at a record fair at the NEC. Imagine that, millennials! I like Hatful of Hollow because the session versions of these songs have an urgency that the studio versions do not, and Morrissey's voice is pleasingly growly. Of course, Morrissey is clearly now a twat of the highest order, but The Smiths are probably the one band that had the biggest impact on the music I listen to, even today.
I think I owe my love of Billy Bragg to a cassette copy of this owned by my friend John in about 1989. He made some impression during my heavy metal years, but it was only really a little later, when my ears were open, that he sank into my heart. I’ve seen Billy performing live far more often than anyone else… I think about 20 times at Glastonbury alone… and I never get tired of him. He’s famous for his politics, but all of his best songs are about love. Love him or hate him, and he’s very polarising, he’s a genuinely warm voice in an increasingly cold world. He is the Milkman of Human Kindness. He will leave an extra pint.
Manic Street Preachers- 4st 7lb (from the Holy Bible)
Prickly, difficult, wordy… this might just be my favourite album of them all. I saw the Manics perform this at the Reading Festival in 1994 and stopped at Milton Keynes on the way home to pick up the album on its first day of release.. but as it was a bank holiday, every shop was shut and the shopping centre was locked. Remember those days? Record shops, shops that closed…? I think this really hits my musical sweet spot with ferocious guitars and hugely ambitious themes and lyrics (this song was inspired by a BBC documentary on an anorexic/bulimic girl close to death and features clips of her talking about her illness and desire to fade from existence). It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s catnip to me. Everything Must Go came next and made them famous, but this is the essence of the Manics for me. I used to listen to this on cassette on my Walkman (with Dog Man Star on the other side) as I walked back through the deserted streets of Venice at 2am in the morning as the fog rolled in off the Lagoon at San Marco when I was studying there. Magical.
It was my housemate Mark at University who first introduced me to the honeyed bass-baritone of Noel Scott Engel and I can’t possibly begin to thank him enough. He insisted that the Manic Street Preachers were “Welsh heavy metal” and tried to show me there were different paths, introducing me to Walker, to “The Man Who Saved the World” and to Johnny Cash (just before the American albums began to be released). It was in his room, over the corridor from mine, that I first discovered the extraordinary collision between *that* voice and his songs of love, existentialism and death. It’s a short step from there to his magnificent first few solo albums and his Jacques Brel covers (I think that Jackie was my gateway song, actually... before the Seventh Seal closed the deal). Walker stands alongside Iron Maiden and The Smiths in a highly unlikely trio of acts that completely changed my musical life. Thanks Mark.
Coldplay – Politik (from A Rush of Blood to the Head)
I fell out with Coldplay at some point after Viva La Vida: after that point, although they were bigger and more popular than ever, they seemed to me to have lost an important part of their identity. Before then, there was something about their gawky, wide-eyed “music for bedwetters” that really struck a chord with me. I liked Parachutes, but here the scope and ambition felt so much bigger. Yes, Chris Martin always seems to lyrically have puzzles missing pieces and things that are broken he cannot fix, but there’s something so English about this apologetic grandeur. They mailed it at Glastonbury 2002 too, headlining the Pyramid Stage a few months before they released this album and when almost no one believed that they had it in them. Perhaps this isn’t a choice for musical connoisseurs/snobs, but my love of bands like Elbow, The National and Everything Everything probably started here and it would be dishonest not to include them. I suppose I can probably just relate to being gawky, awkward and uncertain. I haven’t had a Gwyneth Paltrow phase, mind.
As the owner of a Medieval Studies masters degree, the cover of this album alone was probably enough to pre-dispose me to like this record, even before you get to the singing that sounds like it could have come straight from the lips of a medieval choir. Hell, White Winter Hymnal even sounds like a medieval rondel. Looking back at this list of records that have shaped my life, I’m very aware that there’s not very much from this century. The Coldplay album was 2002 and this was released in 2008, although to be honest, it sounds like it could have come from 1508. Oh well. At times, most notably on By The Way, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have produced some beautiful harmony work, but they’ve got nothing on these guys. Even the bloody drummer (Josh Tillman, now much better known as Father John Misty) has a lovely voice to add to the layers of harmony. This is a quietly lovely record. Perhaps it’s out of step with the modern world, but then again, so am I. You can’t listen to grime all day every day, can you?
So, there ends a nice little jaunt down my record collection. Tag yourself, if you're interested in such things.
Like most kids who grew up in the 1970s and early 80s, I have vivid memories of a gentleman by the name of Joey Deacon. Joey suffered from cerebral palsy, and in 1981, the International Year of the Disabled, he was the focus of a feature on the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter as an example of someone who had achieved a lot with his life in spite of his disabilities. Of course, kids being kids, the term “Joey” and the phrase “Spaz” immediately became shorthand for someone who was stupid… so much so that the Spastic Society changed their name to “Scope” (which obviously led to kids adopting “Scope” as their new insult for a stupid person).
I’ve had cause to think about spasticity quite a lot recently. Although I’ve been pretty lucky with my multiple sclerosis, one of my most persistent symptoms has been stiffness and cramping in the muscles of my legs. I’ve actually had a physio film my calf muscles as he couldn’t quite believe how much the muscles seemed to pulse and ripple of their own accord. The rippling itself seems fairly benign, but I also get night cramps in my legs, quite often waking up on agony. Mostly, this is confined to my lower leg, but the stiffness and the occasional twitch has spread up into my thighs, much to the irritation of the cat when she’s trying to get comfortable. I’ve been diagnosed some baclofen to help combat these cramps and twitches and the muscle stiffness, but as a runner, I’m a little bit wary about taking any sort of muscle relaxant: it might help me sleep, but what about the impact on my muscles when I don’t want them to be relaxed? Perhaps the acid test for me at the moment is that I’d rather put up with the cramps and the stiffness than risk anything which might have a knock-on affect on my running.
My MS is technically classified as relapsing-remitting, but I couldn’t honestly tell you of a single defined relapse. Instead, I seem to have a set of symptoms that seem to be fairly steady but slightly on a downward trajectory. By running two full marathons in a thirty day period, as well as the hundreds of miles of training, I know that I’ve asked my body to do a lot this year. It probably wouldn’t be all that surprising if the increased spasticity in my legs that has me staggering around like an old man whenever I get up from my desk at work is related to that. That’s quite a lot for anyone, never mind someone who suffers from multiple sclerosis and I need to be mindful that my body needs to rest, no matter how much I want to be out there flogging it. If my body wants to let me know the consequences of what I’ve done, then that’s probably fair enough. That said, I’m actually considering entering another marathon in October, so now is very much the time when I have a window of opportunity to rest up a bit before my training starts up again in earnest…. I’m hoping that the muscle stiffness is going to ease off, but let’s be honest: I’m not going to let it stop me one way or another until I can’t even manage a shuffle.
Meanwhile, I’ll just keep reminding myself how lucky I am when I feel like cursing my stupid, failing body.
How did I discover this? Because it was jumps night up at the track.
I now spend my Tuesday evenings helping coach the kids up at the track with my running club. Mostly, it's crowd management and trying to use the hour we have to wear them out before we hand them back to their parents.... but we also try and introduce them to the rudiments of the various athletic disciplines. Yesterday was jumps.
As well as introducing the kids to the delights of the long jump pit, we did some standing jumping. As pictured above, that's putting both feet together, jump up onto the top of the mat, jump down... repeat with bigger and bigger mats. Sounds easy, right?
Well, the kids certainly made it look easy. Some of them could jump up to almost their own height. Pretty impressive.
Me? Well, I discovered that my ability to jump up more than about 6 inches has essentially just disappeared. Maybe this is due to the fact that my body is still a bit battered and sore from running two marathons in the last few weeks (which it most definitely is - it's taking my knees about two miles into a run to warm up at the moment!). Unfortunately, I think it's also probably something to do with my general loss of muscle and flexibility thanks to my MS.
Is standing jumping something that I'm likely to miss? Not really. After all, I only noticed I couldn't do it when I was trying something that I probably haven't done at all in the last 35 years.... but even so, it still seems like a tangible marker of something that I used to be able to do that I now can't do.
As I can run a marathon, perhaps I have no right to grumble, but still... I like to pretend I haven't been affected by MS much at all, or at least try to ignore it most of the time.
Sometimes though, it just makes its presence felt.
Throughout my adult life, I have often been accused of being cynical.
I actually don't really agree with this assessment at all, but I've probably only got myself to blame. I prize critical thinking very highly indeed, and I'm also blessed with an almost complete inability *not* to say what's actually on my mind. On the rare occasions that I have been able to keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself, I have sadly been unable to keep exactly what I'm thinking from being easily readable on my face.
I admire this quality in other people, but I have to say that it hasn't been particularly good for my career.
Anyway. Safe to say that I don't think I'm generally seen by people as a glass-half-full kind of a guy.
I was speaking to someone that I've known for more than a decade the other day, and he was genuinely taken aback when I suggested that I was a cynic. He seemed to think that I was pretty much the case-study of an optimist.
Well, how else did I explain my attitude to life since my diagnosis with MS and the fact that I started running marathons?
Now I was taken aback. I've been called lots of things over the years, but I don't think anyone has ever accused me of optimism before.
Well, it's been a little over three weeks since I ran the hottest London Marathon ever. Since then, I've been managing a dodgy ankle, a black toenail (incredibly the first one in my running career!), a strained glute muscle, a sore knee, a possible inguinal hernia and a nasty lingering cough.
Oh, and MS.
This coming Sunday, I'm going to be running the Liverpool Marathon on what is apparently forecast to be the hottest day of the year.
Perhaps it's my age, but I find myself becoming irrationally angry when I see a child on a motorised scooter or mini-buggy or something. It's becoming increasingly common to see them on the paths and playing fields around the river near me. The council have recently built a lovely little mini-roadway around there, complete with pedestrian crossings and traffic signals, designed to help kids become more road aware on their bikes and things. Yesterday, seeing a little girl motoring around there on a scooter with an engine just made me feel cross and a bit sad.
Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I would have absolutely loved to have one of these when I was a kid... but not having one meant I was forced to get out on my pushbike under my own steam, and I'm pretty sure that didn't do me any harm in the long run.
That girl on the mini-roadway wasn't paying any attention to the traffic lights, either... and I hope she never takes that scooter out onto the roads.
Is it any wonder, I found myself chuntering to a friend as we were doing a warm-up before an interval session on the playing fields, watching a slightly tubby child driving around on a miniature four-wheeled, motorised truck, that type 2 diabetes is such a plague and that our kids are growing up fat?
**Pause for reflection**
.... rather than just growing up skinny and judgmental like me.
I'm suddenly feeling a bit emotional at the thought of running a marathon on Sunday.
I've run this marathon twice before, so I'm not intimidated by the distance and I know I've put the hard work into my training. I've run the hard yards through a pretty brutal and relentless winter and know that I've earned my place at the start of what looks like it might be the hottest London Marathon on record (typical, right? You train through the Beast from the East and end up running in a heatwave).
I'm feeling emotional because I've been humbled again by the generosity of the people donating money on our fundraising page. Our friends, family and lots of total strangers have been dipping their hands into their pockets and have nudged us towards a fantastic total -- currently over £7,000 before gift aid. The MS Trust is a fairly small charity, but the impact that they have on the lives of people with multiple sclerosis and their families is massive. I was attending an MS clinic the other day, and the nurse that I saw was trained by the MS Trust (many others are also partly funded by the Trust), and the leaflets I was given to help me with some important decisions were funded and produced by the MS Trust. The money that we raise here will make a genuine difference.
As usual, I've deployed my tired old sob story in an attempt to emotionally blackmail people into donations. In 2016 I was an official London Marathon blogger, but this time around, my story was picked up by the Daily Mirror and run both online and in the printed edition. This has been more than a little surreal, not least because the bottom 25% of the page I'm featured on tells the story of someone running the marathon without functioning kidneys.
As well as helping me give people another nudge towards our donation link, this sort of exposure is so important for the charity in helping them to increase their reach. It was a little weird to see myself in a mass circulation tabloid, mind. They describe me as "fun loving Tim", possibly because I'm wearing a tutu.
I'm obviously not shy about deploying my story like this, but it's strange to see people talking about how remarkable I am, how my PB is "Brilliant" (well, I'm hoping to beat it this year, for starters...weather permitting). I don't feel particularly inspiring or amazing.
I mostly just feel lucky.
My race number for Sunday is 24120. Look out for the tall, skinny chap in a blue tutu.
There's a documentary series - Hospital - on at the moment that was filmed at the beginning of this year at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham. It follows the staff and patients of my local hospital as they struggle to cope with the demand of a particularly brutal winter. Watching it is an emotional experience: I get a surge of pride when I see what a wonderful institution the NHS is and how these dedicated staff are able to give the best possible care they can to every patient, but I also get very angry when I see the impact that decades of cuts are having on this service and how they compromise that care at every turn. They say that the more direct experience you have with the NHS, the more you appreciate it.... but it's heart-breaking to see the impossible decisions that doctors are forced to make when we simply don't have the resources to provide the right level of care.
This week followed a surgeon who specialised in head and neck cancers. He loves his job and had extended a six month posting to cover eighteen months, but he was working in a ridiculous short-staffed department of two surgeons (when there should have been four). With his wife already working as a plastic surgeon in the USA, he took the decision to give the department five months' notice that he was going to leave the UK and follow her. Although the NHS is a wonderful and precious thing, he said, in the USA he would have the time and resources to provide a better quality of care to a smaller number of patients. What he didn't say was that this care would only be provided to those with the insurance to be able to pay for that care... which, for all of its failings, is not true of the NHS, even if it's what some of our politicians seem hell-bent on delivering for us.
During the course of this week's programme, we watched this same consultant being asked by the camera team if a delay to surgery to one lady had played a role in her cancer becoming inoperable. Conscious that he was being filmed, he picked his words carefully: well, it's difficult to say for sure and absolutely impossible to prove... but if someone had told me that this is how my mother had been treated, I would be very angry. Enough said, I think. The lady herself was heartbreakingly phlegmatic: "I'm old, I've had a good life, done everything I wanted to do and been to every part of the world I've ever wanted to visit...". I was in pieces watching this on my sofa.
As chance would have it, I was in QMC myself this morning. I stopped injecting Avonex after the possible allergic reaction that I had in January, so this was an appointment to check in with the MS Nurses and the consultant neurologist to decide what we do next. A trip to the MS Clinic is sobering: as I walk into the clinic, I look around the waiting room and see people with walking sticks and wheelchairs. This morning, one lady arrived in an electric wheelchair, accompanied by her carer. She had a big head support that held her head in place, and when she tried to speak to the nurse, she was only able to communicate with moans and grunts rather than actual words. I try not to think about it very hard, but this is what the future might look like for anyone with multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, I was warmly greeted by the consultant with a cheery "Ah, it's the patient who runs marathons!" I'm a fairly unexceptional runner, but I certainly stand out here. (My wife would also probably like me to point out at this point that the consultant then apologised to her for not remembering this, but she looked athletic, so was she a runner too? She was thrilled. If an eminent medical professional thinks you look athletic, then.... well, you must be.. right?)
As we left, C. asked me how I felt. I've got a few decisions to make about whether I want to resume my injections, or if I want to continue taking nothing and six monthly MRI scans to check that my disease is continuing to progress as slowly as it has seemed to for the last ten years. Do I want to go back onto the treatment I've been using for the last ten years, or do I want to roll the dice? It's a tough one.
But how do I feel? Honestly? Well I don't know if I know the answer, or if there are any right answers here, but how do I feel? Lucky.
I feel lucky.
I'm running the London marathon in a couple of weeks; I'll also be running the Liverpool marathon in May too. We're raising money for the MS Trust. At my appointment today, the nurse who saw me was trained and partially funded by the MS Trust; the leaflets that we were given to take away to help with our decisions are written and produced by the MS Trust. This small charity provides a crucial support to the medical teams that support patients with MS, and they provide support and information to the families of people affected by the disease. I'm so proud that I'm able to do something to help them continue their work and to continue to support the NHS and people with MS.
You can sponsor us here! The money that you good people have donated so far will make a massive difference to the lives of people with MS and their families. No one should have to go through this alone.