Thursday 15 September 2022

Thumbs (a glimmer)

As the ancient Chinese curse apparently has it, “may you live in interesting times”. While sounding superficially like a blessing, of course it’s nothing of the sort. When it really comes down to it, although we all talk a good game about wanting to lead exciting lives, don’t most of us just want to live out our time quietly in uninteresting times of peace and tranquillity? I suppose it all depends upon your definition of “interesting”. Some people like to do sudokus and to watch reality TV. Chacun à son gout, I suppose. Each to their own taste. 

Besides, the last five years or so have demonstrated quite nicely that we live in anything but tranquil times. Brexit. Trump. Johnson. Ukraine. Rampant inflation. Fuel poverty. Climate change. Mass migration. Wildfires. Mass extinctions. Police brutality. Race riots. Islamic State. Do I need to go on? Our certainty in the inexorable advance of liberal ideas has been suddenly badly shaken and right to abortion, the right to be gay or non-binary, the right to freedom of expression and even the right to freedom of speech all seem much less certain than they were not so very long ago. And as if all that wasn’t enough, the very foundations of British life were shaken to their core last week by the death of the Queen. Even mourning, it seems, is now a source of controversy. 

It’s a lot. 

Perhaps then it is entirely in keeping with these turbulent times that the expression “may you live in interesting times” has no equivalent in Chinese, no Chinese source has ever been produced for its origins and it is mostly likely to have sprung up sometime around the late nineteenth century. Still, a superficially authentic sounding aphorism that is widely known but turns out to be entirely apocryphal seems somehow appropriate, doesn’t it? Still, who fact checks anything these days? It's easy to be angry with the world at the moment, and much harder to take a breath and to see the beauty that is still around us. Amidst all the noise, it’s easy to forget that the majority of people are just like you and me. Decent. Kind. 

I was reminded of this at a music festival a couple of weeks ago. Festivals like this are bubbles at the best of times, but End of the Road is perhaps more cosy than most. It takes place in Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset and is small enough to feel intimate, with stages surrounded by trees and with peacock walking around amongst the crowds. Glastonbury it is not. It’s a comforting thing to be surrounded by people who are a lot like you and probably share a lot of the same opinions, even if only for a long weekend. Just to forget about the troubles of the world for a few days to drink cider in the sunshine and watch some live music. 

On the Sunday evening, we made our way to the Garden Stage. As the name suggests, this is a natural amphitheatre surrounded by trees and gardens. It has a relatively small capacity of perhaps two or three thousand people, and when we arrived at about 7pm, it was nowhere near full and the grass around the stage was covered with people just sitting with their friends, quietly drinking wine and waiting for the next act. We sat down on the grass towards the back. After a few minutes, a man perhaps a little older than me made his way into the space just behind us and set up three little chairs, before sitting down in his own chair and settling in for the evening. The next act was a singer called Lucy Dacus, I wasn’t familiar with her music, but she’s an American singer/songwriter and basically performed on her own with an acoustic guitar. It quickly became clear as she drew me in that she was really good, my musical highlight of the festival. At some point, the man sitting behind us was joined by two girls, each maybe about twenty years old, who sat down with him in the other chairs. I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about it, and I certainly wasn’t about to turn around and start staring, but I thought that one of the girls was this chap’s daughter, and the other was maybe her girlfriend. As Lucy Dacus played on and I became more absorbed in her music, I realised that her lyrical content was quite intimate and confessional. At one point, she warmly addressed the crowd and asked if any of the audience were gay and here with their partners. From the crowd reaction, it seemed that a lot of people there were (I subsequently learned that Lucy Dacus herself identifies as “queer”). Now, I’m a 48-year-old man and I was at the festival with my wife, but I’d also been wearing rainbow shoelaces on my shoes and rainbow wristbands on my wrists all weekend. I think inclusion is so important and it costs me very little to signal that I’m an ally. I know that I was in a bubble at this festival and maybe even as part of this crowd, but it’s a bubble that made me feel warm and happy in an angry, uncertain world. 

As the music continued, the two girls got up from their seats and came to stand just in front of me so that they could get a better view. It was now getting dark, and at one point, they were beautifully framed by the stage lights, gently holding hands and leaning into each other. It was a beautiful sight. I glanced behind me and saw that the man in his seat had seen what I had seen and was taking the opportunity to take a photo of the two girls as they were silhouetted in the stage light, lost in the music and in each other. He caught my eye and we exchanged a smile. What a beautiful thing that this guy was at the festival with his daughter and her girlfriend and that he was gently bursting with pride about this. It was a lovely moment. 

The moment stuck in my mind too because of the song that Lucy Dacus was playing. It’s called “Thumbs” and it’s about two people (lovers?) talking about the return of an abusive father. The final verse goes like this: 

I wanna take your face between my hands and say 
“You two are connected by a pure coincidence 
 Bound to him by blood, but baby it’s all relative 
You’ve been in his fist ever since you were a kid 
But you don’t owe him shit even if he said you did 
You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did”  

It’s a powerful lyric, but at the same time, it’s almost impossibly tender. Watching the two girls in front of me together sharing that moment together, and me sharing that moment with the watching father behind me, was wonderful and filled me with renewed hope. When there’s love in the world like that, how can you not feel optimistic? However dark it seems, there’s always a glimmer of light. That was my glimmer.

Tuesday 7 June 2022

think of all the things we could discuss...

I make no claim to any superpowers. 

None of the really good ones, anyway. I can’t fly; I’m not the world’s greatest detective; I can’t climb walls and I certainly don’t have super-strength. I do seem to have an unusual empathy though; an ability to really connect with another creature. I don’t mean humans. God! Not humans! Humans are illogical and unpredictable. Who would want to have any special insight into that? 

My wife tells me that my special power is to make people want to feed me; she tells me that I have a “please love me” smile that it entirely irresistible to ladies of a certain age. Well, perhaps that’s true. And if it is, surely there are worse talents to have. But I’m not sure that I agree. People I can pretty much take or leave. I’m here for the animals. 

I’m not sure when this first started, but I’ve always seemed to have the ability to connect with animals. They seem drawn to me, and I’m certainly drawn to them. It probably started out the usual way, with cats and dogs. My grandmother used to have a particularly spiteful cat called Twiggy. Twiggy was a farm cat who had lost her tail at some point in the course of her long life. I don’t know if this misfortune was the cause of Twiggy’s bad temper, but she was famously vicious; the kind of cat who would scratch your hand as you put her dinner plate down. As a result, every gave her a wide berth, which probably suited Twiggy just fine. I liked Twiggy. I wouldn’t say that we were best friends, but 5-year-old me and 15-year-old Twiggy rubbed along alright, much to everyone else’s amazement. Mind you, I liked all animals, Twiggy was just one of the first in a long and growing list. There’s a picture of me from about this time, sitting outdoors with my feet up, reading with one hand reaching behind me to tickle a dog. I think that’s still me in a single picture. 

Growing up, I was a member of the Young Ornithologists Club, the Tufty Club and pretty much anything else that involved animals. Well, okay, the Tufty Club was about crossing roads safely, but who wouldn’t want to be in a gang with Tufty Fluffytail, Minnie Mole, Willie Weasel, Harry Hare and Policeman Badger? I still have the badge… 

Did you know that every spider is Scottish and speaks with a broad Scots accent? Wherever they might be found in the world, they originally came from Scotland and migrated. None of them have lost their native accents. They’re all exactly as Scottish as Groundskeeper Willie in the Simpsons. We have a really big one that lives in our house. She’s so large that you can hear her footsteps when she walks on bare floorboards. She only has seven legs too, having lost one somewhere along the way in her adventures. Perhaps wisely, the cat gives her a wide berth. She’s called Aragog, and whenever I see her, muttering in her distinctive accent as she goes about her business, I’m certain that she’s the wisest creature in the house. 

Most animals have names. 

How I know this, I couldn’t say, but these names are definitely not my invention because that would be ridiculous. Every wood pigeon calls themselves Joe Cool and the only words they say, Groot-like, are Joe Cool. “Joe Cool? Joe Cool” 

A blackbird is called “Un oiseau noir avec un bec jaune”. A female blackbird is called “madame oiseau noir avec un bec jaune” (the French for Blackbird is actually “Merle”, but what do they know?). 

Robins are all called Winter George. 

Gray Squirrels are all known as “Fatty Lumpkins”. This one is based on how they can be seen every autumn gorging themselves on hedgerow fruits, but it suits them all year round. I do know a squirrel called “Lazarus”, but that’s because he rose from the dead and chose a more appropriate name for himself. Dogs have a variety of names, depending on personality rather than on breed: scuttlebutt, waggles, side-eye, soft-as-shite… that kind of thing. There are also a few dogs that can clearly talk, and probably have a library filled with leather-bound books and a smell of rich mahogany. One or two smoke a pipe. 

I think you probably get the picture. 

It is, of course, extremely rude to walk past an animal of any kind without saying hello in an appropriate tone of voice. If accompanied by a human, it is always the animal that should be addressed first. 

Please don’t think that I’m alone in my madness: my wife was brought up in France as a child and was taught to hiss at cats. These days, she has learned to approach them respectfully, address them by name and offer the appropriate courtesy to see if they deign to acknowledge her presence. And you can’t blame my good influences for the change, either. Her mother tells me that, when she was a child, my wife couldn’t walk past a herd of cows without giving them a cheery “Bonjour madames les vaches!”. Obviously, we both do this to this day. After all, we’re not savages. Did you know that rabbits are actually “lapin d’affaires” and often run successful businesses from their warrens? No? Well, not a lot of people do, because they’ve never taken the time to ask. 

Perhaps I’ve said too much. I don’t want to betray any confidences. 

I’m told that I have a particular soft spot for the animals that no one else loves: vultures, rats, hyena… In the Serengeti a few years ago, we came across a pack of hyena sitting rather sadly underneath the carcass of a gazelle that a leopard had stashed in the fork of a tree that they couldn’t quite reach. One was sitting very sadly with is head resting on his paws, and, as we passed by in our jeep, he turned to look at us and he was missing an eye, presenting us with a rather grizzly, empty socket. Of course, I thought this was marvellous and just loved him all the more. 

Lots of people love animals, I know. But how many talk to them? Really talk to them, I mean. And how many of them listen to the answers? You should take a tip from me and try it sometime. It’s surprising what you can learn, and your lunchtime walk will never be the same again.

Friday 13 May 2022

blood on the tracks...

TRIGGER WARNING: if you’re squeamish, you might want to sit this one out.


I’ve been intermittently self-catheterising for a few years now. For those not in the know, this is where you take a lubricated, 40cm long plastic tube and insert it into your urethra until it reaches your bladder, at which point your bladder drains. Why do I do this? Well, one of my least favourite things about multiple sclerosis is that the nerve damage it causes has affected the wiring between my brain and my bladder. What this means for me is that my brain tells me that I need to pee much more often than I actually do need to pee, but also means that my bladder doesn’t completely empty when I do pee. This is a pretty toxic combination, because retained urine can cause infection and also because it means that you can’t trust the signals from your brain telling you that you need to pee. Annoyingly, on top of this, I also get sudden bladder urgency, where I will go from not needing to pee at all, to desperately needing to go in the space of about 60 seconds. 

Annoying, right? 

Well, one solution to this is self-catheterisation. If you catheterise, you are absolutely guaranteeing that you have completely emptied your bladder. This means both that there is no unpleasant retained urine, but also you can know for a fact that any signal from your brain that you need to pee is a false flag. 

It might not sound ideal to be shoving a really-quite-long tube down what was previously a strictly one-way deal, but it’s amazing what you can get used to if you have to. 

Now, sticking that tube down isn’t actually that big a deal: it’s lubricated and there aren’t too many nerves down there to mean that you feel anything. You feel a little bit of resistance as you push through the prostate, but if you persevere then you’re pretty much there. You do need to be slightly careful to make sure that your hands are clean and that you keep the risk of infection as low as possible, but that’s not too much bother. I initially only did this once a day, just before bed. Just recently, I’ve started doing it a little more often than that, but it’s not really a big deal and it’s worth it just to be comfortable. The catheters are supplied to me free of charge, to my door by the NHS and it’s all good. 

Well. Until it’s not. 

On Wednesday this week, I decided I would cath before heading out to a choir practice. I felt a little bit of resistance a little higher than usual, but I was in a bit of a rush, so I just pressed on, pushing until I had reached and drained my bladder. As I pulled the catheter out, I caught sight of a tiny drop of blood flicking into the toilet, but I didn’t really think much more of it. By the time I got home a few hours later, there was blood inside my pants. 

Yes, it is a little alarming to be bleeding from the tip of your penis. The next morning, when I peed, my stream was a deep, bloody colour with a few clots before running clear. Nice, huh? I was pretty sure that all I’d done was to scrape my urethra and that it likely wasn’t all that serious… but even so, right? I rang the continence clinic before guiding my friend Alan on a 4.5 mile run, and they told me to head to the hospital. I completed my run, did a couple of hours of work and then headed into City Hospital, where they were expecting me on one of the wards. 

As has almost entirely been my experience of the NHS, all the staff were fantastic. I had to wait around for a bit, watching with a terrible interest as the doctor explained to the nice old gentleman at the bed opposite that the bladder normally has a capacity of about 1.5l before it starts to be in danger of bursting, and that they had just drained over 2l from his… 

It turned out that the doctors were more concerned about the dangers of me possibly retaining urine than they were about the bleeding. Had I catheterised since I’d started bleeding? Well, no. I was peeing normally. Bloody, but otherwise normal. I wasn’t in a hurry to shove another catheter down there until I knew that I wouldn’t be causing any further damage. After a consultation with the registrar, I was offered a catheter – something that I would have to wear, full-time, for the next two weeks. Not my 40cm tubes, but the whole nine yards with bags and everything. This would give my urethra a chance to heal whilst making sure that I wasn’t retaining any urine that might cause infection. 

Look, if I felt it was necessary, I would have worn the catheter. Hell, the day may come when I can’t avoid one… but I didn’t feel that this was the time. I catheterise mostly because I don’t want to be going to the toilet every half hour, not because I am in serious medical danger of an infection. Not yet, anyway. I have the luxury of being able to choose whether I catheterise or not; I find it helpful, but I don’t think it’s a medical necessity for me. I gently pushed the doctor back, and after consulting with his registrar, he agreed to let me go if I self-catheterised successfully before leaving the ward. Reassured that it was likely to be okay to do so and that I wasn’t about to reopen my wound and start bleeding profusely again, I happily did that and then we all agreed I could go home. On the way out, I poked my head around the door of the staff room to thank my doctor, who had been lovely throughout. It was a pretty small room, and it was filled by about six junior doctors (including mine) with their heads buried in textbooks, cramming for their exams. Sheesh. Who’d want to be a doctor? 

Thirty-six hours after the initial incident, I’d stopped bleeding and everything seemed to be back to normal, which I will admit is something of a relief. However, I have learned (or been reminded) of few important things:

 - The NHS is an amazing and precious thing. It was there when I needed it and helped me without question or charge. The staff are hard-pressed, under-rewarded and yet somehow (on the whole) manage to retain their grace

 - It’s amazing what you can get used to. A younger me would find the idea of self-catheterising awful, never mind the idea that I might one day find myself to be oddly calm and rational about finding blood in my pants (or that I might also have a wife who was equally calm and reassuring at the sight of the same. Although, to be honest, younger me might just be astonished that I have a wife at all. Does that mean I’m maybe having me some sex too?)

- If you find yourself self-catheterising and you encounter some resistance (above and beyond what you’d expect from your prostate), don’t push! 

The tl/dr version of this is that self-catheterising can be scary but it's really good.

I wasn't going to blog about this, but Steve had someone comment on an old post of his about self-catheterisation just the other day, and it occurred to me that this sort of information might be useful to someone in the future. There's a lot of unhelpful and often just plain negative stuff about MS online, which is one of the reasons why I've been determined to be honest but up-beat in the first place. If you have stumbled across this, I hope you found it useful and not frightening. MS can be a lot to take in, but I'm pretty sure you've got this. Feel free to drop me a line if you want to discuss anything I've talked about here. 

I mean, clearly, I have no boundaries.

Wednesday 9 February 2022

can't trace time...

Over the last couple of years, my MS has been steadily getting worse.

Every time I sit down to write about this, I always seems to fall into a kind of relentless optimism. Perhaps this is a defence mechanism, but I think it's actually how I feel most of the time. As I've said many times before, I honestly don't see the point in wasting my time and my emotional energy railing against something that I'm not going to be able to change. It is what it is. No one knows where this is going, and sitting down and crying about it simply isn't going to achieve anything.

Of course, that's not to say that I sometimes don't feel like crying about it...

On my last visit to the neurologist, I was told that I was a shining example of acceptance of my diagnosis. I think this is because I acknowledge that I have multiple sclerosis and that my disease is progressing, but I try not to let this get in the way of going about my business the best I can.

I suppose this is best illustrated in my running. I ran a bit before my diagnosis, but for whatever reason, started taking it a lot more seriously afterwards. I've run six marathons and countless other events since. My MS has weakened my left side and my left ankle is slowly losing its flexibility. This makes running harder, but thanks to the support of my MS team, I have been able to keep running using a series of different strategies, insoles and orthotic devices. The most recent of these is a pretty snazzy piece of kit that adds some spring-back into my ankle and seems to have stopped me from falling over.

Before this, I was falling over so often whilst running that I was beginning to cause myself some real damage. This brace works well enough that I've been able to go out running without wearing the wrist guards and kneepads.

 Even so, I'm basically fighting a losing battle. 

A consulant surgeon who specialises in sport (and who is a runner himself) told me about ten years ago that it probably wouldn't be my MS that ultimately stopped me from running; it was likely to be as a result of some of the compromises my body was being forced to make to compensate for weakness elsewhere. It seems that is likely to be the case for me. As well as the creeping stiffness in my ankle and the muscles of my leg, I'm told that the weakness in my left hip now means that my running gait has changed. Apparently, instead of driving my left leg through my running stride normally, I now "throw" it in front of myself because I lack the fine muscle control required. 

Running is hard and has got a lot harder over the last couple of years. My last marathon was in April 2019, and it now feels unrealistic to think that I could put my body through that kind of a distance, never mind the hundreds of miles of training. Perhaps more importantly, I'm not sure I have the kind of determination you need. Instead, I've found a joy in just being out and running at all. I can't run as far or as fast as I did before. Usually, at this time of the year, I'd be out with my club taking part in a local series of cross country runs. I've never been very quick, but they're very inclusive events and they are a lot of fun to run. There's a certain joy, I've discovered, in the mud and the hills. This year, I've sat them out. I just don't think it's realistic to put my body through that kind of stress and I'm just not confident that I'm strong enough to pick up my left leg over that kind of terrain for a 10km race.

All these things make me feel a bit sad, but I'm also determined to continue to focus on what I can do, rather than to dwell too much on the things I might have lost. 

I suppose this is what my neurologist means by acceptance.

He also told me that my MS progression was quite unusual: it is not at all normal for patients this far after their diagnosis to be as fit and healthy as I am (my first symptoms were in 2005 and my diagnosis was in 2009). This is obviously good, but it's also a bit depressing. Yes, I've been lucky, but I suddenly have a real sense that the sand is running out of my timer.

Over the last two years, my condition has progressed. I haven't really developed any new symptoms, but the symptoms I do have are getting worse and are affecting me much more in my daily life. I take drugs to help manage my bladder urges and I self-catheterise every night. I also take muscle relaxants to try and control the muscle spasms in my legs that have woken me up at night for a little while, but are now starting to affect the way that I walk and even make it hard for me to sit still in the evening. I walk stiffly and can feel that I swing my legs from the hip as I walk because I tire easily and don't have the strength to drive them through normally. I wouldn't be all that surprised if I needed to walk with a stick at some point in the relatively near future (I actually find walking a lot harder than running).

I am relentlessly positive about these changes, but that doesn't mean that they aren't on my mind. I am really disciplined about not allowing myself to wallow in where this journey might end. No one knows the answer to that one, whether they have MS or not. But.... it does make me a little bit sad.

I reckon I'm pretty strong and resilient, on the whole and maybe I am a shining example of disease acceptance...but these changes are still a lot to take in. 

Well, I'm doing my best.

Tuesday 11 January 2022

the law won

I wrote to my MP again.

Ruth Edwards replaced Kenneth Clarke in this constituency in 2019 and has been notably compliant with the Government whip on every vote. She's ambitious and doesn't want to do anything to rock the boat that might jeopordise her career in Parliament. I can actually understand that. I don't agree with her on almost anything and some of her voting has been ridiculous: she talks of her love and concern for the environment and then votes to allow the dumping of raw sewage into our waterways.... but still, this is how our democracy works. She can vote as she sees fit, and my recourse is at the ballot box.

I am genuinely interested to see how she lines up to defend this latest affront to common decency.


Dear Ruth Edwards,

I wrote to you in May 2020 about Dominic Cummings' trip to Barnard Castle with his family. You replied on 27/05/20, telling me how you were angry when you heard about it, but that

"As I listened to his media conference on Monday afternoon, I was struck by the level of detail and explanation offered by Mr Cummings, as well as the time he took to answer questions from the media.  His performance was not polished or flowing, they were the words of a husband and father who had tried to do the best for his family in very stressful circumstances. Mr Cummings made clear that he had taken steps to remain isolated throughout his journey and once he arrived at his parent’s farm.  I can understand why he thought it best to isolate himself, his wife and child where help was available to him should he need it and where accessing that help posed the least danger to other people".

You concluded that you felt that Cummings had acted reasonably, but added:

"Like any other individual, Mr Cummings is entitled to this due process and also to equality before the law.  If he has stepped outside of those lockdown rules (which should be equally applied to everyone), then the process for investigating breaches of those rules must also be applied with the same equality."

I wrote to you again in December 2021 to express my anger at news of the Downing Street Christmas parties in 2020. Again, you expressed your shock and anger at what seemed like a flagrant disregard of the rules that we had all been following. I told you I hadn't been able to see my elderly mother with Parkinsons and you told me about the sacrifices you had made:

"We did it because we were following the rules we had asked everyone else to follow and because we believed it was the right thing to do. I know many other people also faced significant challenges of adjusting their business model to allow people to work remotely and of trying to cover both work and childcare when schools were closed.  We all missed the camaraderie and friendship from working together in person with our colleagues".

Now, on the back of the news from a couple of weeks ago about a gathering in the garden in Downing Street (a 'work meeting', we were told), it seems that there was another drinks party in the garden on 25 May 2020. The invitation to this event, sent to 100 people, makes it clear that it was a social event with alcohol. It may have been socially distanced, but it was also clearly in contravention to the guidelines that were in place at the time. Matt Hancock made a point in one of that week's press conferences that we should resist the tempation to enjoy the good weather with our friends because we all had to do the right thing. Except it's clear that not everyone seemed to be clear what that meant. Whilst thousands of people were seeing their families through the windows of care homes, or attending strictly limited funerals, or washing their shopping and worrying about whether they were allowed out for a walk with their family if they had already taken some exercise that day, it seems that other people thought it was acceptable to have a garden party with alcohol.

I wonder what the Prime Minister's excuse will be this time; I wonder how he will try to duck responsibility or shift the blame onto someone else. What seems clear to me is that you and I are both being treated as fools. We followed the rules, and even as we were being urged to follow them, they were being egregiously broken by the very people giving us the instructions. What particularly galls me is that this particular party (and who knows, there may have been others we don't yet know about) is that it took place in the days immediately before that pious defence of Dominic Cummings by the government and many Conservative MPs, including yourself. That Rose Garden press conference took place within hours of this most recently revealed party, that defence of Cummings was masterminded by people who knew the party had taken place, and still they lectured us about rules.

How do you feel now about you defence of Cummings? Do you feel you have been taken for as much of a fool by these people as I do? When did you find out about these parties? At what point will you stop trying to defend them and start to represent the outrage of your constituents? We simply cannot tolerate a government or a society where there seems to be one rule for them and another rule for everyone else. I agree entirely with what you said in May 2020, "If he has stepped outside of those lockdown rules (which should be equally applied to everyone), then the process for investigating breaches of those rules must also be applied with the same equality."

The rules should be equally applied to everybody. 


I look forward to hearing your views on this,

Yours sincerely,


Thursday 30 September 2021

somebody I used to know...

For most of the time I've been in my monthly writing group, I've been doing a lot of "magical realism" style of fiction. I seem drawn to things like talking animals and a world that's like ours, only slightly different. In an attempt to try and get away from this, and in a style that's probably familiar to long-time readers of this blog, I've been delving deeper into my memories and dredging out things that I've never articulated before. It's been a rewarding and also occasionally alarming process. Cathartic, I think.

Anyway, here's something I wrote over the summer. It's all true, albeit obviously only viewed from my perspective. It's the story of somebody I used to know: Hugo.


To most people, Boris Johnson must seem like a character out of a book: he’s Billy Bunter made flesh; he’s Just William, he’s Flashman. It’s present in the ruffled hair, the snatches of Latin and in the classical references that pepper every speech. You can even see it in the way that, although he is clearly dressed expensively, he still somehow looks as though he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards. It takes a lot of money to look that scruffy. Yes. Johnson – Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – is every bit the caricature of the English public schoolboy of popular imagination. 

We should probably be used to this by now: since Robert Walpole became the first, Britain has been served by fifty-five prime ministers. Nearly all of those enjoyed a private education, and fully twenty of them (starting with Walpole himself and finishing with the present incumbent) were educated at Eton. Is it really any wonder that people with this sort of educational background often seem entitled, or that most of us think it’s normal to be governed by people like this? The history of our democracy tells us that both these things are true. 

Johnson likes to present himself as a man of the people. He loves to visit factories and warehouses and to dress up in the clothes of the normal working people of this country, to pretend that he’s just like us, when clearly, he is nothing like us. Can you actually imagine going out to a pub for a drink with Boris Johnson and trying to have a normal conversation with him? He doesn’t seem like a real person at all, does he? 

He might seem like an alien to many people, but he’s all too familiar to me, because I went to school with people like Johnson and I’ve seen this kind of easy, unearned self-confidence before. 

I first met Hugo when we were both thirteen and were being shown around our boarding house on the first day of term at our new school. It’s quite an overwhelming experience. Both of us had been to boarding schools before but being dropped off by your parents and being left alone with the eighteen-year-old prefects is legitimately terrifying. I’d been a pretty big fish in the small pond of my prep school: literally. As well as being head boy, a growth spurt also meant that I was also comfortably the tallest pupil in the school. That first afternoon being shown around my new school by two members of the school first XV rugby team (flanker and second row forward) was a pretty clear demonstration that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. 

There were fourteen of us in my year and Hugo didn’t make an immediate impression on me. I’m sure he didn’t make much of me, either. Probably we were both just overwhelmed by the whole experience. A handful of the other boys had been at my prep school, so I likely gravitated towards the people I knew. Likewise, one of the other new boys had been at Hugo’s old school, and I’m sure the two of them were drawn to each other as we tried to take it all in without drawing anybody’s attention. Now was a time for blending in, not sticking out. No one is that confident. 

It didn’t take too long after that for Hugo to make his mark. He was one of those boys who seemed to be full of boisterous energy and enthusiasm. He wasn’t as tall as me, but he was still a pretty big lad. At the age of thirteen, like a puppy, Hugo seemed to have huge paws, a massive head and a general lack of coordination, but he was also very physical and liked a bit of rough-and-tumble. He was pretty thoughtless and never really seemed to give any thought to any possible consequences, but he seemed to lack malice. He would act on impulse, get into trouble, but then be so charming that he always seemed to get away with it. 

It was hard to dislike Hugo. 

I liked him.
Everyone liked him. 

The environment at a school like this means that you spend an awful lot of time with the people in your house, and none more so than the people in your year. From that very first day onward, we would spend almost every waking hour of every day together, including weekends. We weren’t necessarily in the same classes, but we would eat together, play sport together, muck about together and sleep in the same dormitories. Over the course of five years living in each other’s pockets like this, you really get to know someone, for better and for worse. To make things even more interesting and to spice up the mix, most people also go through a lot of physical and emotional changes between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. There was very little privacy here and nowhere to hide. You learn to bury your emotions deep in an environment like this lest you show anything that makes you seem weak or makes you vulnerable. 

Hugo and I knocked along pretty well. We were very different people: neither of us were particularly good at sport, but I was pretty academic, and we tended to hang out with very different groups of friends. I spent a lot of time listening to music, reading and making a few, really good friends (many of whom are still my very closest friends today). Now I think if it, I can’t actually remember Hugo having any particularly good friends, but he was popular enough, and was certainly better-known around the wider school. As I said, there were fourteen people in my year in my House, around 100 people in total in my House and something like 900 people in the school as a whole. It was quite self-contained little galaxy of overlapping orbits. If Hugo hadn’t been in my year in my House, I’m not sure I would have had any reason to know him, and might actually have actively avoided him, but as things were, we spent a lot of time together and got on without ever really being bosom-buddies. At one point, we actually shared a two-bed dormitory. 

I think it was the arrival of the girls that changed everything. At our school, the first three years were entirely single sex, but as you entered the sixth form, girls were allowed to join the school (lucky them!). They had their own boarding houses, of course, but they joined our classes and they were assigned a boys’ boarding house for their meals. To the fourteen of us in my year in my house, now aged around seventeen, we now suddenly had four girls join us at mealtimes. It’s a bit of a shock for all concerned. It’s overly simplistic to say that it was the very presence of the girls that brought about the change in our relationships, but I think it’s fair to say that they were a prism that revealed a side of our characters that we’d never really been forced to look at too closely before. 

Like most teenage boys, we talked about girls all the time. Most of us had been at almost entirely single-sex boarding schools since the age of seven or eight, so we had no practical experience to speak of. The arrival of girls into our everyday lives was like the arrival of a foreign species. I can only imagine how bizarre an experience this must have been for the girls. For us boys, we suddenly saw these people with whom we had shared nearly every waking moment of the last three years, and thought that we knew pretty well, suddenly start to behave quite differently. 

For myself, I had very little idea how to begin to talk to these strange creatures, but I did have a fairly strong sense of how I did not want to behave. Hugo, who had often regaled us in the dormitory after lights out with tales of his supposed success with women, had a very different sense of how he wanted to behave. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a predator; women were not people in their own right but they were something to be pursued, consumed and then dropped. He was pretty cold-blooded about it too. I remember one poor girl, Alice, who soaked up the full focus of his charm. She was a year younger than us, seventeen, when he wooed her. She thought she loved him. Eventually, he got what he wanted and he more-or-less came charging out of his study to tell us all about it. He left her in tears and never spoke to her again. It felt wrong then and it feels even worse now I type those words. That is literally what he did, and I found it impossible to consider him charming when I knew that he was capable of this sort of behaviour. 

I haven’t spoken to Hugo since the day we finished our A-levels and left the school to head off to University. We have friends in common, of course, and he has sporadically tried to make contact with me over social media, but I’ve always declined. I think he has kids now, but after leaving school, he seems to have drifted through life on a sea of privilege and lack of consequence. As far as I’m aware, he hasn’t had to work too hard for anything that has come his way in life. Perhaps he’s changed. Perhaps he hasn’t. 

There were a lot of people like Hugo at my school. 

Barack Obama observed of David Cameron in his autobiography that he had “the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life.” That phrase really resonated with me. I know far too many people from my school days to whom that phrase could be equally applied, not least Hugo. Many ended up working in banking in places like Hong Kong and Sydney. None, as far as I’m aware, have gone into politics, but whenever I see Boris Johnson, I can’t help but think of Hugo and how much collateral damage someone like that is capable of causing to the people around them.

Friday 17 September 2021

Epizeuxis, Epizeuxis, Epizeuxis, Epizeuxis....

 It's been a little while, so how about we have a go at one of these?

Earworms of the Week

"Summer Breeze" - The Isley Brothers

To be honest we never really got too much of a summer, did we? I don't actually mind the changing seasons, and I quite like it when the nights draw in and we start heading into the cooler, crisper weather. It is nice to see a bit of sun though, eh? I'm hardly a sun seeker, so it's not that I've been pining for a beach holiday or anything like that... it's just nice, isn't it? Mind you, given that we've not really had much super-nice weather this year, and given that I'm almost always wearing some sort of hat, I still seem to be getting mottled, sun-damaged skin on my shaved head. Go figure. Another one of the manifold indignities of ageing, I suppose.

"Don't Let the Night Divide Us" - Manic Street Preachers

For a band that once said they would break up after releasing their very first record, this is now the fourteenth studio album by the dear old Manics. I hopped on board right at the beginning with copied cassette version of Generation Terrorists (NatWest! NatWest BarclaysMidlandsLloyds! Black horse apocalypse!) and I've been pretty firmly on board ever since. I'd still passionately say that The Holy Bible is probably still in my top three records. Some people say they've been dialling it in for years, but I actually love the way that their music has opened out and become more melancholic and elegaic as time has gone on. I've only listened to this album in full a couple of times, but it actually started to come to life for me when I was listening to some of the Nicky Wire demos on the bonus material. This song probabaly isn't the best on the album by any stretch of the imagination, and the "boys from Eton" lyric is maybe a bit obvious now, but the passion in Wire's demo really struck a chord with me and the song lodged itself in my cranium. You can't argue with that after all this time, eh?

"Never Enough" - Greatest Showman / "Be Our Guest" - Beauty and the Beast

I have never watched the Greatest Showman. I have no interest in watching The Greatest Showman. 

I have never watched Beauty and the Beast. I have no interest in watching Beauty and the Beast.

During lockdown and throughout the pandemic, my choir has been meeting on zoom and we've been recording tracks together, recording our own parts in our rooms at home, sending them in and then having the pleasure of listening to our work put together as a full choir. It's been brilliant and I've really enjoyed it. In the past, we've often done songs that I'm not that big a fan of, but they've almost always been great fun to sing. This last season, we've been singing medleys from the musicals: Mary Poppins (including a comedy cockey accent on the Bert bits), Les Mis, Jesus Christ Superstar. None are particularly to my taste, but they've been tremendous fun to learn and to sing. As well as those three, we've also been doing a Greatest Showman medley and a Beauty and the Beast medley. When I mention the former, people tend to get very excited and ask me which songs we're doing and if we're doing this or that particular tune. The answer, I'm afraid, is that I don't know because I haven't watched the film, don't know what the songs are called and couldn't tell you if the one you're thinking of is included or not. It's fun to sing, but please don't push me on this. When the weather was a bit hotter, we had some work done in our garden as the decking needed replacing. I was super-aware of the fact that I had my window open and was trying to record my part for Beauty and the Beast and was very, very conscious of the fact that this was probably shattering any delusions I may have had about being cool as a cod-French accent drifted out as I played the part of a singing candlestick (or whatever. Again, don't ask me as I've never seen it).

"The First Big Weekend" / "Compersion, Pt 1"- Arab Strap 

We attended the End of the Road festival a couple of weeks ago and it was magical. Even if I hadn't seen a single band, it still would have been worth it just to spend some time outdoors in glorious weather drinking cider with friends. As it was, I did see plenty of bands that I really enjoyed and we won the pop quiz by an embarassingly wide margin. On the journey down to the Dorset/Wiltshire border, we listened to the EOTR playlist on spotify and I discovered that I really like Arab Strap. There's just something about Aidan Moffat's soft, Scottish accent telling stories over music. We watched them at the garden stage on Sunday night, a natural bowl in the woodland at Lammas Gardens, and they were great. 

"My Pollyanna loves poetry, she thinks my heaven is hell
I come on strong with a limerick, she knocks me back with a villanelle
She has only one confidant, a psychosexual shrink
I think she's wasting her money, I think we just need a drink

 Excellent. They also finished the gig with a cheery "fuck the Tories", which is also something more people should adopt. I know I have.

"Mork n Mindy" Sleaford Mods feat. Billy No Mates 

Sleaford Mods were headlining EOTR on the Saturday night and Billy No Mates played on Sunday afternoon. Both were excellent. Sleaford Mods in particular have been a real breath of fresh air for me over the last couple of years; a really disintictive and powerful voice for the times. I think it also helps that Jason now lives just around the corner from us and we often see him out and about. When she was still commuting to work, my wife used to see him out walking his kids to school. She started nodding good morning to him because she thought she knew him, so he started nodding back, presumably thinking the same as she was nodding at him. Now they're just on nodding terms, probably with neither quite knowing why. It's a lovely thing.

 "Til I Die" - The Beach Boys

Surf's Up is an absolutely beauty of a record. Tasked with writing a hit, Brian Wilson must have caused a few confused faces when he turns in this cheerful little ditty.

I'm a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?
I've lost my way
Hey hey hey.

It's just wonderful and beautiful. I've included this on the latest birthday CD I did for a friend's daughter. I was asked to start doing this when she was turning 5 and she's just turned 13. Well, you're never too young for some Beach Boys, eh?

"Toxic" - Britney Spears

 The Guardian has just published a countdown of the 30 best Britney Spears songs. This isn't at number one and this is just plain wrong. As someone pointed out in the comments, "Yes. In this particular case, I would have it at number 1 and then left spaces 2-15 empty for breathing room to accurately reflect the chasm between that song and the rest of the Spears catalogue."


"We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together" - Taylor Swift

Speaking of bangers.

In my long festival going career, I've never really ever had the energy to get up to anything much after midnight. Even more so recently, I've had to be quite careful with how I manage my energy, and my bed is usually calling me long before any of the nighttime stuff really kicks off after the headliners have finished their sets. This year, not only did I make it to the silent disco, but we stayed until about 03:30! There are two channels on the headphones, and it's really fun to watch the crowd give the two DJs almost instantaneous feedback about which one is 'winning' in the way that they respond to each song. You only have to listen to know which one is working best as you can hear everyone just singing along. I had a lovely moment at some point after 02:30 where I realised that everyone I was with was dancing along to "You've Got The Love" or "Loaded" or some other stone cold classic like that, and I was grooving along to TayTay. 

I'm not even sorry. History will prove me right.

As a sidenote, the very best t-shirt that I saw at the festival was a mock up of the Sonic Youth album cover for Goo, featuring Taylor Swift and a cat in sunglasses. I want that t-shirt so badly.

"Rhetorical Figure" - John Grant

John Grant was headlining the Garden Stage at EOTR on the Friday night and he was on magnificent form. As it happens, I also had tickets to his rescheduled gig at Rock City on Thursday this week. He played a different set, but he was absolutely superb again. It was a little strange to be back in an enclosed indoor space with a crowd of a few hundred people, but Rock City wasn't sold out so it wasn't too oppressive and the music is just so good. Of the stuff from his new album, this one stood out at both gigs because Grant clearly loves singing it live and feeding off the energy of the crowd. He's a unique voice and an artist to be cherished.

"Hurt" - Johnny Cash

I've had the opportunity to sign-up to record a track solo with our choir master. I had a long think about what song to choose, and although I nearly chose "Marz" by John Grant, I settled on this. Cash has long been my go-to karaoke choice and sits sweetly in my register, but this song is just something else. Cash's performance is obviously iconic, and I'm not sure I could ever hope to live up to that... but I'm going to have a go. Watch this space, I guess.


Here we go, Reggie. A little later than promised, but these Earworms are dedicated to you.

Thursday 1 July 2021

all greek...

The way I remember things, I breezed through my school years. Academically, at least. 

I might still bear the emotional scars of every other part of my education, but I’ve always believed that I found the actual learning stuff part of it pretty easy. Well, apart from maths. I’ve always been weirdly, hopelessly - pathetically - bad at maths. I’m good with words but hopeless with numbers and always have been. Until, one day, maths suddenly became less about numbers and more about understanding and manipulating formulae, at which point the fog started to lift. Luckily for me, this was also the point at which the serious exams started. If you know how formulas work and you know how to use a calculator, you’re laughing. I went from set 5 (out of 6) to an A grade and a possible a-level almost overnight. 

These days, this cackhandedness with numbers only really annoys me when it comes to Scrabble and crosswords: when you’re good with language, you’d imagine that turning a jumble of letters into words would be simple, right? Wrong. It’s disappointingly mathematical. But I digress. 

I’m not a genius by any means, but I am curious, was blessed with a good memory and had a priceless ability to be good at the types of exams we use to assess our children. It’s no accident that, as my education proceeded, I increasingly specialised in essay subjects. It’s not a skill that’s been all that much use to me in my adult life, I must say, but I always seem to have been able to put together coherent arguments in long form writing under pressure. Lucky me, as my exam results all the way through to my Masters degree will testify. 

Throughout my schooling, at the end of every term, I would be sent home to my parents with a trunk full of dirty laundry and a little report booklet. This booklet would contain a handwritten update from every one of my teachers for every subject detailing my progress for the term. I’m sure lots of people dread this kind of feedback (and I’m fairly sure all teachers everywhere must find this to be a terrible chore and it’s no wonder many resort to tired old cliches. MUST. TRY. HARDER). I used to love it. How could I not? As I remember it, this was mostly a succession of accounts of how remarkable I was: top of the class and on track for great things. Who wouldn’t want their parents to see this? 

Except in Maths, obviously. Until the age of about 14, my maths reports mostly remained a succession of tired and frustrated teachers not understanding why they couldn’t be the one to unlock my potential in the subject. Then, at the end of my first school year before the run into GCSEs began in earnest, I completed a 90-minute maths paper in about 40 minutes. A bored (and surprised) teacher began marking it on the spot as the rest of the class completed their papers. He put my score up on the board behind him when he finished the marking: 98%. Everyone else, still working their way through their exam papers just groaned. My response? To ask what I got wrong. You can only imagine how much the rest of my class hated me in that moment. My maths reports got better after that. 


I was at my parents’ house a little while ago and they had a box of various bits and pieces on the kitchen table. I think they’d been looking for some old photos, but, for some reason, this box contained one of those old report booklets. I picked it up to have a closer look as I have two brothers and, sure enough, it turned out to be one of mine. It was the report for the Christmas term of 1986. I was in the scholarship stream at this point, being prepared for a set of exams that would ultimately mean that my parents got a fairly hefty discount off the bill for my next school when I was awarded an academic scholarship (my prize? I got to have my name in capital letters in the school directory and to be cordially hated by almost everyone else in a school not famed for its academic achievement and where the highest social status was reserved for the members of the school rugby team). I eagerly rifled through this report in its distinctive yellow binding, hoping to be able to show my wife what an intolerable swot I was at the age of twelve (she’d understand because she was, and remains to this day, by her own account, much worse). 

I quickly passed over all the good ones and came to rest on a report for Ancient Greek. Now, I only studied Greek because I had jumped a year at this school and was now in my second year of the sixth form, and the headmaster (who taught classics) wanted to give me as much intellectual stimulation as he could. 

At some point over the last thirty-five years, I have pushed this memory somewhere back into one of the dustier corners of my mind. Seeing this single, nearly transparent little piece of report paper brought it all flooding back to me. You remember I mentioned that I was inexplicably bad at maths? Well, I think I was worse at Greek. It was… well… it was all Greek to me. I remember sitting in that classroom on a dark winter evening and just failing to get my mind wrapped around this strange language that didn’t even use the same alphabet. It started promisingly when I learned by rote how to recite the alphabet. It’s something I can still do today and this skill has been surprisingly and unexpectedly useful to keep track of COVID-19 variants. That was as good as it got. When it came to writing that alphabet down, I couldn’t even get past epsilon, will all its preposterous curls. This single report told the whole sorry story, with this kindly and patient headmaster expressing his frustration that I seemed to have developed a mental block and was refusing to process any of the information he was trying to teach me. His frustration clearly came, not because he believed I wasn’t capable of learning Greek, just that I’d decided that I couldn’t and therefore wouldn’t. He finished by saying that, if this continued for much longer, he was going to have to – with great reluctance – remove me from the class. Not long after, this was exactly what happened. I remember feeling only relief at being put out of my misery. 

Reading this old report at my mum and dad’s table brought those memories back into focus. They aren’t unpleasant memories, by any means, but now they were challenging my long and somewhat proudly-held view of myself as having a more-or-less unblemished record of academic success throughout my school years. This is a key component of my image of myself and now it turns out to be not true. It’s not exactly untrue, and maths was probably all the evidence anybody needed to deflate that particular argument anyway. In fact, I’d say that it remains mostly true. 

That’s almost the same thing, isn’t it? Given some rounding to the nearest significant figure. That’s close enough for jazz, as my old maths teacher used to say. 


[written for my monthly writing group, June 2021]

Friday 30 April 2021

snapshot in the family album...

Me, the same month I started boarding

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to go to a boarding school? I bet you have, haven’t you? Maybe you’ve read Harry Potter and you like the idea of having banquets in a big dining room or having a house common room where you can snuggle down in your pyjamas and chat with your friends in front of a roaring fire before heading off to bed to continue the chat after lights out. 

It’s nothing like that. 

Well, maybe it is a bit. 

My parents sent me away to boarding school when I was 7 years old. One warm, sunny afternoon in September, I was loaded into the car with a trunk and driven for about an hour to the school where I was to spend the next six years. In my memory, with forty long years of distance, this came completely out of the blue: one minute I was playing at home and the next, I’m being sent away, never really to return before I moved out for good. That can’t be right though. I’m sure I must have known it was coming, because that trunk in the car was packed with a school uniform and towels and things like that, all with my name tape sewn neatly into them so they wouldn’t get lost in the school laundry. I must surely have visited the school itself too, although I have no memory of that either. All I remember is playing happily by myself all afternoon before being packed into the car and then, about an hour later, being dropped off at my new school. 

I was a pretty young seven, to be honest. I’m six foot five now, but I was small and nervous then, with NHS glasses and crooked teeth. I can still remember that first night so clearly. I was assigned to a dormitory called “Irving” with all the other new arrivals and my bed was right up against the window. There were around fourteen of us, all around seven or eight years old. The old, iron-framed beds had squeaky springs and were spaced about 2m apart. We were allowed our own duvet covers (I must have learned how to make the bed at some point over the summer too, as this is not something I had ever done before). If my memory isn’t playing tricks on me, the two covers I had brought with me were a union jack and a Peanuts cartoon featuring Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus and the gang. Lights went out on a strict timetable and we were left alone in the dark. A few people in the room started to sob. I think we’d been warned by the kindly matron or housemaster that some of us might feel homesick. I had wondered what that was, and now I was listening to the quiet sobbing of children missing their own families and their own beds, I still wasn’t sure. I hadn’t been away from home on my own before; this was all new, strange and a little frightening, but I still didn’t feel like crying. Perhaps I should be grateful that I never experienced home sickness in my time at school, but I do remember wondering at the time why I didn’t feel like that. Was something wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be missing my parents? 

We didn’t talk much after lights out, but none of us were really ready to sleep yet, so I suppose a bit of chatter was inevitable (if you weren’t crying yourself to sleep). I discovered that I could talk to the boy on the other end of the window if we both stuck out heads behind the curtain and whispered along the windowsill. I spent nearly every day of the next six years with most of those boys, but I don’t think I’m still in contact with a single one of them. I can still remember their names: Robert Munn was the boy across the other side of the window; Tim Smithson was the most homesick. In fact, Tim wasn’t able to shake off that homesickness in all the time he was at that school and he cried most nights. It seems a peculiar kind of torture to inflict on a small boy, doesn’t it? It’s character building, I suppose. Perhaps it’s far stranger for a seven-year-old separated from his parents to remain entirely unmoved. 

Now I’m older, I wonder how hard this must have been for my parents, especially my mother. To take your seven-year-old son – and I was a very young seven - and to drop him off at a boarding school for weeks at a time when you have never previously spent a night away from them? How much of a wrench must that be? You can console yourself all you like with thoughts that you’re doing the best thing for them in the long run, that this is going to be the education that gives them the greatest opportunities in life, that this will be the making of them… but on a very human level, you’re wrenching your own flesh and blood away from your side and leaving them to sink or swim in an alien environment that’s a long, long way from home. Mind you, I suppose that if not every boy was crying themselves to sleep with homesickness every night, it stands to reason that not every parent was sobbing over their lost babies either. Some families, after all, have been doing this for generations. It never did me any harm, etc. 

All my life, I’ve felt a kind of low-grade shame about my educational background. Obviously, it’s not something that I ever had any say in, but even now, I feel embarrassed about my schooling and I’m quite happy if it never comes up on conversation. I hate people’s preconceptions and I hate having them applied to me. Again, they’re not really my problem and they’re not something I can control, but if I can drift through life without anyone guessing that I had a private education, then so much the better. I’m happy to wear this invisibility on my sleeve as a badge of honour, which given how much my education cost, seems a bit of a strange reaction to say the least. 

As far as I’m aware, nobody in our family went to a fee-paying school before me and my brothers (I’m the middle of three. My elder brother started at this school on the same day as I did). My father is the child of publicans from Plymouth and he was never expected to go to university, never mind to medical school. The grades he got would be nowhere near good enough now to get him anywhere near a degree in medicine, but he studied at Barts Hospital in London, met my mum who was a student nurse and became a GP on the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire border. Fairly quickly, my mum gave up work to become a full-time parent and my dad became a GP in a busy rural practice. Clearly, to send all of your kids to a private school, they must have been doing alright, but I don’t remember us being especially affluent. We didn’t have fancy cars (not as fancy as most of the other parents’ cars in the school car park when we were picked up for half term, anyway) and we never went abroad on holiday. At the start of every winter term, kids would be talking about how they had been to Disneyland or wherever, and I’d probably spent a week in wales with my mum’s parents and a maybe also a week in Devon above my dad’s parent’s pub. Oddly, this never bothered me. I’ve never wanted to go to Disneyland. 

Maybe I should care more. My parents clearly made enormous sacrifices to send their children to boarding schools. For a fifteen-year period from 1981, my mum and dad put three sons through a private education. They did this to try and give their kids what they thought was the best possible start in life. They sacrificed their money and they sacrificed watching their children growing up. For what? For me to spend my time pretending that it never happened and, worse than that, telling them to their faces that there is no way on God’s green earth that I would put any child of mine through the same treatment. What an ungrateful little shit I am. 


I wrote this for my writing group in April 2021. I usually write some magical reality type stuff with talking animals and things, but I'd just finished Pete Paphides' "Broken Greek", and was inspired to write something a whole lot closer to home. Since I wrote this, there seems to have been a spate of people writing about their own experiences of boarding school, the complete opposite to how you imagine someone like Boris Johnson talks about his schooling. Lots of damaged adults still suffering the emotionsl repercussions. I'm not sure if that's exactly my story, but I did think that I had a story to tell. So here we are.

Sent Away from Rosa Fisher on Vimeo.

Thursday 1 April 2021

like a monkey with a miniature cymbal...

You’d imagine that the first time you die is something that you’ll never forget. Well, to be perfectly honest with you, all of my early deaths have mostly just dissolved into one big blur. After a while, you just stop keeping count and the details seem far less important. It’s probably for the best, all things considered. There’s only so much pain and suffering and loss that anyone can be expected to put up with before it becomes overwhelming. Mind you, if it does become overwhelming, what exactly are you going to do? Kill yourself? In a very real way, that just compounds your problem. If you think that life is pain, then you clearly haven’t died often enough. 

I’m okay with most of the later deaths. I can remember them just fine, but that really isn’t very impressive because the plain fact is that the documentation is simply better these days. If you can’t quite remember the details of exactly how you shuffled off this mortal coil last time around, it’s now the kind of thing you can always just look up. 

Maybe it’s my age, but looking back over my deaths now, old and new, I find that I’ve actually become a little nostalgic about the good old days. Everything is so clinical now. Oh for sure, nobody in their right mind would be sentimental about massive rates of child mortality, plagues, constant, blood-soaked warfare and a medical profession that killed more people than it cured, but there was something almost romantic about the way people died back then. 

Life might have been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, but people still died of a broken heart, or passed away from old age peacefully in their sleep. These days, you might live to be one hundred and twenty years old, but medical science will now know exactly what it was that finally carried you off. One of a thousand different cancers, perhaps; the failure of a particular valve in a particular chamber of your heart or maybe something rather less banal like an untreated dose of parasitic visceral leishmaniasis (I don’t recommend it). Some people probably think that this makes the Dictionary of National Biography infinitely more interesting to read, but I disagree. What’s life – or death - without a little romance? 

 I suppose it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Well, for most people. Hashtag YOLO. 

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live just one life. I’m not asking to live forever (although I do think that might be a lot simpler), I’m just becoming a little tired of this endless cycle of life and then death. Perhaps this happens to everyone? Maybe most people just forget and I’m doomed to remember. Well, to remember most of it, anyway. 

It’s not as though I’ve learned anything really useful, either. Nothing that I can really benefit from, anyway. Stock tips don’t work this way around and there’s only so many times that any one person should have to go through adolescence. Trying to wisely share the benefits of your lifetimes’ worth of experience with someone who has instant access to the entirety of the world’s knowledge via their mobile phone is a complete waste of time. It’s not that they could just look it up faster than you can tell them, it’s that they’re so bloody busy on Twitter that they’re probably not even really listening. You’re wasting your breath. 

So what have I learned? All this time and all those lives; what have I actually learned? Well, I I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; I’ve been virtuous and I’ve been dissolute; I’ve been famous and I’ve been utterly anonymous; I’ve lived long lives and I’ve died within a single heartbeat. What have I learned? 

As Hubert Selby Jr once said, “I knew that someday I was going to die. And just before I died two things would happen; Number 1: I would regret my entire life. Number 2: I would want to live my life over again.” Well, be careful what you wish for. That’s what I’ve learned. 

[for writing group session, March 2021]