Ten years - a whole decade! - since I attended the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, I'm on my way up to Glasgow to take in a few days of the Commonwealth Games. We've got some tickets for a couple of sessions of stadium athletics, some hockey, some rugby 7s and a bit of weightlifting. You've got to love a bit of lifting. I saw the big men in Athens, the little women in London, and I'll be starting my games experience tomorrow watching the little men competing for a medal at the Clyde Auditorium. Love it.
Rain is forecast, but apparently it's always sunny in Glasgow, so we'll see.....
"You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners" - Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
On Wednesday evening, it took the State of Arizona an hour and fifty-eight minutes to carry out the execution of a prisoner. As the Guardian reported:
"Joseph Wood took an hour and 58 minutes to die after he was injected with a relatively untested combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone. The procedure took so long that his lawyers had time to file an emergency court motion in an attempt to have it stopped. For more than an hour, he was seen to be “gasping and snorting”, according to the court filing".
Wood was sentenced to death in 1989 after the double-murder of his girlfriend and her father. Apparently, after the injection was administered, Wood continued to gasp and snort for over an hour. An eye-witness to the execution reported that he counted no fewer than 660 gulps and gasps from the condemned man as he lay strapped to a gurney. The execution began at 1.52pm and Wood was finally declared dead at 3.49pm. They're using untested cocktails of drugs on human patients to see what works. The EU actually started to ban the export of these drugs to the USA because it objects to the their use in executions... the ban created shortages (because they are no longer made domestically), and some correctional institutions are now using out of date drugs that they have stockpiled. As the New Statesman reported, "In Oklahoma in January this year, 38-year-old Michael Lee Wilson, convicted of beating a convenience store manager to death in 1995, was executed in what appeared to be considerable distress. His last words, 20 seconds after the execution began, were: “I feel my whole body burning.” It begins to sound like a cruel or unusual punishment"... Cruel and unusual punishment by the way, is specifically forbidden under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
Predictably, the relatives of Joseph Wood's victims were unmoved by the manner of his passing: "What I saw today with him being executed, it is nothing compared to what happened on Aug. 7, 1989," Jeanne Brown, Debra Dietz's sister, told a reporter after the execution. "What's excruciating is seeing your father lying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister lying in a pool of blood."
I suppose you can understand that view. But at the same time, how can anyone call this a civilised response? What does it say about a society that treats a human being -- whatever he might have been guilty of -- in this way? Eye for an eye? Well, that was specifically refuted by big JC himself, wasn't it? (Matthew 5:38, if you're interested. I'm an atheist myself, but if you're going to go around slinging the Bible at people....)
Funny how the sanctity of human life can be such a selectively applied principle, eh? Look around the world: Gaza, Ukraine, Death Row.... life seems pretty cheap to me.
I've been doing my injections now for a little over five years. That's more than 250 times that I have gone through the weekly ritual of mixing the Avonex in its little vial with the distilled water in the syringe, screwed on the huge scary needle and shoved the whole thing into the thigh muscle of one of my legs.
I've never missed a week. Occasionally, I will forget one evening, but I have so far always remembered the next day. Mostly. I inject myself on a Tuesday night. I'm not supposed to vary that day by more than a day or so either side, so unless I'm travelling or something like that, I'll just try to stick to a Tuesday because it just seems easier not to keep shifting it about. There's no real logic behind picking that day, only that it's the day I had my appointment at the hospital where the MS nurse showed me how to do it and off I went.
It's not that difficult and I've injected myself across the world, the most memorable time probably being sat outside a tent in Etosha National Park in Namibia, the same day that we had been almost supernaturally lucky and seen an astonishing array of animals up-close, including a leopard from about 2m.
I think it's fair to say that I've got used to the whole process. I'm supposed to alternate legs every week, and in the beginning I used to take each box of four syringes and write "1 - L", "2 - R", "3 - L", "4 - R" on the packs so I would always remember. I don't bother any more. Now I just try and work out which leg I used last week by the bruising the injection often leaves. I suppose I have to plan a bit more now too: I have to remember to carry my doctor's letter if I'm taking syringes onto a plane (cabin baggage only as the water in the syringe might freeze in the hold), I have to arrange to take delivery of the drugs (which are quite valuable and get couriered to me), and I have to make sure I have enough. The NHS has been amazing. Each jab is worth several hundred quid, and they usually give them to me in boxes of four, but when we were away in 2010, they actually gave me about four months supply in advance to take to the southern hemisphere.... a little bag that was probably worth more than everything else we had between us in our campervan.
By all accounts, I'm one of the lucky ones and I tolerate the injection well. Lots of people experience side-effects that are so bad that they stop taking the drug altogether as they would rather face the possible consequences of their MS. For me, I take some paracetamol, some ibuprofen and inject myself at night so I can sleep through the worst. Occasionally I get a headache, and the next day I often wake up feeling as though someone is pushing me back down into the mattress, but apart from that, I just get on with things. It's a part of my normal routine. It's no big deal.
Except that, really it is.
I start thinking about my next injection at some point around Sunday evening. I don't really like injecting myself very much, and the thought of doing it starts to creep into my thoughts several days before the actual injection. I don't like to have too much planned on the night of an injection, and I often find exercise a bit of a struggle the day after because I simply don't have the energy. In fact, I can often feel the damage where the needle has been, deep in my thigh muscle, with every step I take as I go out running over the next week, and the following week the pain is in the other leg. From start to finish, the injection process only takes me a couple of minutes, but there's always a slight hesitation as I hold the needle, poised, above my leg. I know from experience that it's best to give it a bit of a run-up so that it goes into your muscle before you've really had a chance to think about it, but my brain always applies the brakes and I end up pushing it in slowly. Sometimes, I hit a nerve and jerk straight out, having to start the whole process again; sometimes I'll scratch a vein and start to bleed; sometimes it's weirdly hard to push the plunger down, as if something is blocking the end of the needle.
Then it's done. I mop up, put the syringe into a sharps bin and move on with my life. In my head, the countdown to the next one has already begun.
Actually, is this just a middle class problem? I have MS, but I'm relatively symptom free, I get supplied with an expensive drug free of charge and have it couriered to me, I tolerate it well and have relatively few side-effects. What the hell have I got to be complaining about?
There was another article in the Guardian the other day about boarding schools. "The damage boarding schools do". It's a follow-up piece to something published a few months ago, where journalist Alex Renton wrote about the abuse he suffered at boarding school. As the introduction to this new article says, "Among the hundreds of emails he received from men wanting to share their experiences, there were others from women – wives, mothers, sisters - who have watched in horror as the men they love struggle with their demons. Here, he tells some of their stories"
I think I've written about this before somewhere, but I was sent to boarding school when I was seven years old, and I never really lived at home properly again afterwards. I was never sexually abused at school or anything like that, and I wasn't even terribly homesick; I just adapted and survived. It's what most people do. I read some of the stories in that article, and it's eye-opening to see quite how massive a part school had in the lives of some of these people, and the real and lasting damage they think it caused them and the people around them.
I don't think I harbour any resentment towards my parents for sending me away when I was so young. My dad was a GP, and we weren't wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. My parents scrimped and saved to be able to send me to fee-paying school. We spent our holidays with my grandparents in Plymouth and the only time we ever went abroad was when we went camping in Brittany when I was about fifteen. If I feel anything, I feel humbled by their sacrifice; they clearly wanted the best for me and for my brothers and felt that this was the best. Can you imagine how hard it must have been, especially for my mother, to send their seven year old son away? How could I resent that? My mum once asked me if I would ever send any children of my own to boarding school, and she got quite upset when I said no. That no is an implicit criticism of her decisions, I suppose, but I've honestly never harboured them any ill-feeling for their choices.
That said, I never would send any children of mine to a school like this. They've changed out of all recognition, I'm sure. They have girls and everything now.... but I still wouldn't do it. I boarded between the ages of 7 and 18 and, by the time I went off to university, my personality had been formed and shaped by the experience. It wasn't until I got to university that I began to notice the differences. I went to Warwick University, and the majority of people there had not been to fee-paying schools. I was massively self-confident in some ways - for many people this was their first real time away from home and they revelled in the freedom; for me, this was old hat - but in other ways I was almost terrifyingly ill-formed. Girls. I had absolutely no idea.
Whilst I don't feel that my school experience has formed a huge, ever-present shadow over my life like some of the guys in that article, it definitely left its mark. I find it hard to express or respond to emotions; I think I'm quite a closed person and I definitely bottle things up and clam up, putting my head into the sand and waiting for the storm to break around me. It must be infuriating... but I'm trying.
Of course, all the best insight on an article in the Guardian can be found in the comments. My favourite here is this one:
"Emotional damage caused by these schools is a feature, not a bug. It's meant to produce cold, heartless, emotionally stunted and cruel Tories like the ones running the country right now. It works quite well."
How dare you: I will never be a Tory. I may be cold, heartless, emotionally stunted and possibly even cruel, but NEVER Tory.
Apparently, Morrissey has just ranked his discography in order of preference. Being the contrarian that he is, he hasn’t put anything by the Smiths anywhere near the top, and has instead decided that his most recent albums deserve places in the top three, with his current album being his favourite. Well, I suppose that’s his prerogative, but he’s wrong. I listened to “Vauxhall and I” this morning, and it’s a lovely album with some brilliant songs on there – this one is hypnotic, but I could equally have picked “Now My Heart Is Full”. His voice has rarely sounded better than it does here. Sure, it lacks the lightness of touch and the deftness of Johnny Marr, but it’s a strong record. By coincidence, I heard “Istanbul” from the new album playing on the radio this morning. I won’t comment on the quality of the lyrics, but the instrumentation was just awful, lumpen, clunking rubbish. Mediocre at best. Quite why Morrissey has put up with such sub-standard backing for so long is a mystery. Perhaps he’ll never find a Johnny Marr, but his refusal to work with an equal partner in song-writing just seems self-defeating and wilfully perverse. Yeah, that pretty much sums him up though, doesn’t it?
I often say that I can’t listen to classical music because it seems to very quickly make my head hurt. In the nicest way possible, Muse affect me like that a little bit too. Their particular brand of symphonic rock is fantastic, but I often struggle to listen to an album all the way though. Still, they’re a fantastic band and one of the best live acts I have ever seen. I could probably live without the Queen impersonations, but otherwise they’re great.
I watched Pulp Fiction on BluRay about a month ago. It was great. When this song popped up in my head the other day, I had to stop and think whether I was earworming the Neil Diamond original or the Urge Overkill cover from the film. In the end, I couldn’t decide, so I’m listing them both. My colleague were, I think, pleasantly surprised… I often sit at my desk humming “doobie doobie-doo” in idle tribute to the Sinatra version of “Strangers in the Night”…. Not this week. This is an altogether different class of in-office, at-desk singing material, isn’t it?
This song – like a lot of songs by Bragg – means so much to me that it actually brings a tear to my eye. He’s often thought of as a political singer, but basically all of his best songs are about girls, aren’t they?
I heard a reggae cover of this on the radio as we took the cat to the vet the other day. Not Jimmy Cliff or Nouvelle Vague. Female singer. Pretty good. It took me a few moments to recognise the song, and it’s hardly a surprise that it sounds good when played in this style, but it’s just goes to show that it’s hard to ruin a properly good song, isn’t it? Actually, that’s probably nonsense, isn’t it? As Billy Bleach said on the Fast Show when referring to “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” by Paper Lace. One day someone will cover that and ruin it.
Johnny Ramone was the last of the originals. I know they’ve sold a lot of t-shirts (and I wonder how much money any of them actually made from those…. Not much, I would bet), but people forget what a good band they were. My favourite is “Rockaway Beach”, which is practically a 1950s rock n’roll song, but the song that introduced me to the band (via Skid Row) was “Psycho Therapy”. I actually started learning that on the ukulele. I should pick that up again. The Ramones and Johnny Cash on the uke. Yeah, I like the sound of that.
I’ve listened to an awful lot of Manics this week, both old and new. I’ve written about them here already this week, so I won’t labour my point too much here. Suffice it to say that they’re a bloody excellent band. There was an article on the Guardian the other day about great albums with one duff song. I would nominate “SYMM” from “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours”. It’s a horrific, clumsy song that jars appallingly on an otherwise excellent album. My good friend Flash would actually nominate “The Intense Humming of Evil” from “The Holy Bible”, which just goes to show that his ears are painted on.
I like t-shirts. I have a lot of t-shirts. Too many, my wife would tell you. As habits go, I reckon that you could do a lot worse than collecting t-shirts. I wouldn't say that it is a compulsion, but there is something appealing about being able to display your taste quite so obviously to everyone else. I read some really cool books and have astonishingly good music taste, but you'd probably have to know me a little bit to be aware of that. Your t-shirts, however, are a very public form of display. Just as life is too short and too precious to waste eating crappy food, I feel much the same way about the t-shirts that I wear.
Every single one tells a story, whether it's of a great gig that I attended, a band or film that I love or just something that makes me laugh. A quick peak into the sports section of my collection and I have souvenir t-shirts from two Olympics (2004, 2012), celebrating rugby, skiing, running, cricket, ice hockey, scuba diving, sky diving...; I have a burgeoning geek section (Ghostbusters, Anchorman, Alien, the Incredible Hulk, Superman, Rocky, Star Wars....); bands (Metallica, Iron Maiden, Madness, Billy Bragg, Scott Walker, Led Zeppelin, Young Knives....)
Yeah. I've got a lot of t-shirts alright.
But I don't have a t-shirt of a vampire cat wearing a cape and bow tie, standing in front of a blood moon.
I first saw this t-shirt in a shop window in New York in January and I was so taken with it that I nearly bought it on the spot. Foolishly, I walked away and regretted it almost immediately. Seven months later, something made me think of it again, so I actually started looking for it in earnest on the internet. Google is amazing, isn't it? But honestly, using search terms like "vampire cat red bow tie moon" brings you back a surprising amount of results to wade through.
... but I got there! You can buy it here (along with some other cool looking shirts). I ordered it last week, and it arrived today.
I’ve been listening to Manic Street Preachers a lot this week. They’ve just released “Futurology”, their 12th studio album and it’s really very good (although I actually like the demo versions of the album that were included as a bonus with the download even more).
They’re one of those bands that I’ve followed almost since the very beginning, listening to “Generation Terrorists” and listening to the likes of “NatWest-Barclays-Midland-Lloyds”, “Slash and Burn” and “Motorcycle Emptiness” as a teenager with my best friend at school. Unbelievably, they’ve been together now for twenty-five years and have made many more albums without Richie Edwards than they ever did with him (he disappeared, presumed dead, in 1995).
They’re not the band they were back then, and “Rewind the Film”, their album from last year, was positively elegiac, the sound of a band reflecting on the past. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Then again, I’m not quite the same person as that awkward teenager either.
For me, their absolute high point (so far) was their third album, “The Holy Bible”. I saw them performing songs from it at the Reading Festival in 1994, and actually stopped at Milton Keynes shopping centre on the way home to try and buy it. Back then – and readers under the age of thirty may struggle to believe this – although the album was released that Monday, it was a bank holiday and literally all of the shops were shut and I had no way of making the purchase. Amazing, eh? Imagine that.
It’s incredibly bleak and unflinching in its examination of some of mankind’s darkest moments and urges. It’s not always an easy listen, but in twenty years of listening, I’ve never grown tired of it. I was studying in Venice for a few months from September in 1994, and I often listened to a cassette of the album as I walked back through the deserted city in the small hours of the morning. Some of the lyrics are remarkable. How about this, from “4st7lb” as a description of anorexia:
“I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint. I want to walk in the snow and not soil its purity”
“6 million screaming souls Maybe misery - maybe nothing at all Lives that wouldn't have changed a thing Never counted - never mattered - never be”
I’ve always been a lyrics man, but that’s in a different ballpark to some of their contemporaries, isn’t it?
“What a life it would be If you could come to mine for tea I'll pick you up at half past three We'll have lasagne”
Wow. Deep, Noel. Deep. Mind you, I’d rather Oasis wrote songs on inconsequential subjects as, to be honest, I’d rather not hear them attempting to tackle the Holocaust. Can you imagine?
The Manics have been playing material from the Holy Bible in their live sets recently- they played a couple at Glastonbury – and there’s talk that they might take a 20th anniversary tour out onto the road in the winter. I’m all over that, if it’s true. What a band.
My running club has a loyalty card: every week you turn up, you get a stamp. It is valid for exactly a year from your first stamp. After a defined number of stamps, you get some loyalty rewards. Five weeks is a technical club running t-shirt; twenty-five weeks is a nutrition pack; thirty is a foam roller and fifty - that's attending at least one run a week for fifty weeks out of a possible fifty-three - is the big one. It changes from year to year, but last year it was a Garmin GPS watch worth more than £250, and this year it's £100 towards a pair of trainers. Worth having, I'm sure you'll agree.... but it's quite a commitment to get that far.
I'm very proud of the fact that I got my watch last year.
Last week, the day I got back from Glastonbury, I earned my 50th stamp for this year and thus qualified for the trainers. If anything, I was even prouder of my achievement this year because I have never been so injured and yet apparently I'm stupid/determined enough to keep on running.
I'm sure a psychologist would have a field day, but I'm determined to keep on running and there's very little that I will let stop me from achieving my goals: weather, injury, multiple sclerosis or anything else.
It's that last one that's probably the most significant: multiple sclerosis. Although I'm relatively very lightly affected by my MS so far, it still triggers fatigue, pins & needles, numbness and - this year's discovery - muscle weakness. My right leg is now apparently noticeably more muscled than my left. When I get tired, my left side drags and I'm starting to pick up various niggles in my foot, knee and hip. One day, this might stop me running. But not yet.... and whilst I can run, I damn well will.
I learned an important lesson at Glastonbury this year: the Festival is massive and you spend loads of time walking miles and miles around the site and standing up all day. As if that wasn't enough, at the start and end of the festival, you lug enormous amounts of stuff around on your back to and from the car parks. It's exhausting.
But you know what? The six days I spent at the Festival were probably the longest amount of time I spent all year without going out for a run. The festival wore me out, but in a very real sense was less taxing than the normal routine I flog myself with week after week. As a result, all those annoying little niggles stopped hurting and then began to disappear altogether: my hip, my ankles and the plantar fascia in my left foot all stopped aching. It was brilliant, and it also taught me that sometimes.... just from time to time... not going for a run can be a good thing.
So what did I do when I got back? I went for a run. It felt good. Nothing started hurting. I went on several more runs, mostly between four and five miles. They felt good too. Resting is good! Then, yesterday, I went out for an eight mile run with running club, the first stamp on my new card; the first stamp of what will probably be - come hell or high water - another fifty stamps.
I'd spent the five days before that sitting in the sunshine at Trent Bridge watching the cricket and drinking beer with my friends (well, with a short run thrown in on Thursday morning, obviously). After all that, I was itching to getting out for a proper run. Then about six-and-a-half miles into this eight mile run, I realised that I'd gone far enough. Over the course of the remaining mile-and-a-half, my hip started to hurt again and I started to lurch as I began to drag my weaker left side.
So, after what I learned at Glastonbury, am I going to rest or take it easier for a while? No. Of course not.
I've run 417 miles so far this year. A little over halfway through the year, and already 69% of the way towards my target of 600 miles by the end of December.
Rest? Are you crazy? I should be well towards 800 miles if I carry on at this rate.
My secondment in my current job role finishes at the end of September. In the ten or eleven months that I've been doing the job, I've really rediscovered my enthusiasm. I was a little bit reluctant to take up the role, oddly reticent to leave the IT department, but it's been brilliant. I've loved having a role with a wider influence, working on a project I believe in, and I've especially loved having responsibility for a great team of bright young sparks. All good things, it seems, must come to an end.
I'm not particularly worried about going back to the IT department. My last eighteen months there were miserable, sure, and I only have to read my posts on the subject here at the time to know that it was a dark period for me. In truth, though, that was mostly down to the man who was managing me through that time, and that man has now left the business under something of a cloud (caused by his own toxic incompetence, but there you go. He's gone now). There are good people working in IT, and I have a lot of friends there. I have no fears about a return.... although I have learned in the last year that I should probably look for a job elsewhere because the things that I clearly find fulfilling are more easily found in other places. It has to be the right job though, and there's no rush. After all, it would be worse to jump into the *wrong* job than to return to my old job. At least I can say that I know myself better and understand better what it is I want from a job. The secondment has been worth it just for that.
That said, I had a meeting with my old boss today to discuss my return, and it is painfully apparent that he has done absolutely nothing to prepare for my imminent return and was distinctly diffident about the fact that I'm coming back. I present him with a problem that he clearly doesn't want to think about: he didn't know what he was going to do with me and he even went as far as to say that he was worried that I would be bored, frustrated and would become a disruptive influence.
Well, I think that's a bit premature, to be honest, and more than a little unfair.
He's a decent guy and I like him, but the meeting was a reminder that he's not a good line manager, however well-intentioned he is. He's well thought of in IT and is actually on a leadership development programme. Good for him and good for them, but after fifteen years in the same department, twelve months working somewhere else has given me a fresh perspective on these things and I don't really like what I see when I look back.
I'll go back in the short-term if I have to, but how many more signs do I need that I ought to be doing something else?
Just any kind of sign. I'll keep on looking for it....
There have got to be worse things to be doing on a Wednesday, right?
.... and a Thursday. And a Friday. And a Saturday. And a Sunday.
If there's a better game than cricket, then I don't know what it is. There also can't be many better places in the world to watch a Test Match than Trent Bridge.
The first Test Match I ever attended was here in 1993. It's not really a coincidence that, after I moved to Nottingham, I made sure that I lived within easy walking distance of the ground. Fifteen years later, and I'm now a member and I'm getting into the habit of attending every single day of the Test here. Every day is different: Wednesday and Thursday, I'm attending with my father-in-law. After the success of doing the same thing at the Ashes Test last year. He loves cricket and lives in France, so it's really special to be able to spend time with him watching a game we both love. He watched Dennis Compton batting here, you know.... The weekend is different, and I'll be watching with my friends and drinking beer and talking nonsense. Various other people I know are up for the game too, and I'll pop out during the lunch and tea intervals to catch up with them and to have a drink. You have to love a sport that stops for meals, right?
The best thing about being a member? I get access to the pavilion and can have decent pint and a civilised toilet break away from the hustle and bustle of the hoi polloi. At my age, it's the little luxuries like this that make life tolerable.
It's the Australians visiting for the fourth test of the Ashes series in 2015... so something to look forward to already. Even if you don't particularly like cricket, then this is still a splendid way to spend a few days, sitting in the sun, drinking beer and chatting to your mates. Perfect.