Sunday, 17 January 2021

bushs and briars...

It's been a while, eh? How's your 2021? Seems so far to be pretty much the same as 2020, so I can't really say that I'm a fan... but it's early days.

Although I've been pretty slack with my writing generally, I do have a monthly zoom meetup with some of the guys from my creative writing course in 2019. One of the things that I enjoyed the most on that course was - surprisingly - listening to other people reading their own work. I still really enjoy listening to these guys reading whatever they've written over the last few months, whether it's a poem or a short story or the next chapter in an ongoing work. The meeting has also been a good spur for me to pull my finger ou and at least create something every month. 

Here's one of them:



It was one of those dank, gloomy September days; the kind of day that is oddly grey from dawn until dusk, as if the darkness has refused to fully retreat and is just biding its time until it can seize control again. 

The little girl didn’t seem to mind. 

She left her house towards the end of the afternoon and made her way towards the forest. In those parts and in those times, you were never far from the forest. Everything for miles around was dominated by those gnarled trees. It was ancient, so they said, and looking at those huge, gnarled trunks with their grasping branches, that was very easy to believe. Man came late to these parts and was not welcome. As the girl approached the treeline, tendrils of fog seemed to reach out of the forest and wrap themselves around her, pulling her in. Even before she had reached the trees, the forest seemed to grasp her claim her as their own. She quickly disappeared from view. 

If there was a path, there was little obvious sign, but the girl strode between the trees confidently and without any hesitation. The leaf litter lay thick upon the ground, the branches almost bare, but still no light penetrated through to the forest floor. Sound seemed muffled here, just the gentle swoosh of the leaves piled on the ground as the little girl walked through. She was watched as she walked: squirrels paused in the burying of their nuts to stare at her curiously with their liquid eyes, crows watched her without comment, their judgment plain. If there were songbirds here, there were none to be heard. If this troubled the girl, she showed no sign of it, walking purposefully through the wood. 

After a while, the path – such as it was – seemed to split in two. A junction. Neither way looked inviting and both seemed dark and overgrown. But the little girl did not hesitate: she choose the left-hand fork without blinking. Before long, she faced another fork, then another, each time making her choice without a heartbeat of hesitation as she worked her way deeper and deeper into the forest. By now, in spite of the chill of the late autumnal day, the press of the trees around her must surely have felt claustrophobic. In the gathering darkness, anything could have been watching; anything could have been waiting for this guileless child. Still she went on, plunging deeper and deeper into the gloom. 

Who (or what) lived in this forest? Wolves? Bear? Grumpkins? It was often whispered in warm, safe rooms filled with light that those who entered the wood carelessly were sometimes never seen again. Witches? Maybe so. Perhaps their cottages can still be found nestled deep within the trees, all made of gingerbread and with hot ovens ready to roast any child careless enough to wander too far from the safety of home. Perhaps this child? She walked on, steadily and without a hint of haste. She never looked anxiously over her shoulder to see what might be following or scanned the treeline for eyes tracking her progress. She walked steadily on into the forest. 

After some time, the girl came across a briar patch that stretched across the path. So thick had it grown that there seemed no way through, with thickly layered, thorn-covered tendrils tangled across the way. The girl stopped. Surely now, this must mean the end of her journey. No matter how determined she might be, there was now surely no way forward. She must turn back and leave the forest before the night closed in and abandoned her, all alone amongst those dark and forbidding trees and all the horrors that they might conceal. 

The girl did not flee; she did not turn on her heel to escape the oppressive darkness of the wood and to seek the safety of the warmth and the light. No. Carefully, and with no haste at all, she calmly and methodically began instead to reach into the briar thicket to pluck the ripe and juicy fruit to be found there. There would be blackberry crumble when she got home. With custard. Perhaps enough for bramble chutney too. 

Next week, she would return for the sloes. 

The forest was bountiful.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

marching on...

Long time readers will likely know a couple of things about me:

1) I like to run

2) I have been very lucky with my MS to be able to continue running.

I try not to take it for granted. I actually only really began taking my running seriously after my diagnosis. I think there was something in my head that made me more determined than ever to stay active. Multiple sclerosis is not something that I can really control; I can't change the way that my legs feel or the other ways that the condition is affecting me, but I do have some degree of control over my own determination to get out and to exercise. 

My first marathon was in 2015, and I've run six in total. My high watermark of this madness was between April 2018 and April 2019. In that time, I ran four marathons. At the beginning of October 2018, I ran the Chester marathon in a time of 3:58... that was a PB of something like 22 minutes. My last marathon was a glorious day spent accompanying my wife to a personal best at the Vienna marathon in April 2019. We got married in the city in 2007 and have some wonderful friends there, so it was a joy from start to finish. I haven't retired from running marathons and half intended to get one booked for 2020, but.... well, lockdown happened.

Actually, more than lockdown happened. MS seems to have taken more of a grip on me over the last few months. Since my symptoms first appeared in 2005, I've always had a certain level of loss of sensation/pins and needles in my legs and feet. It does feel weird to run on legs like that, but it's amazing what the brain gets used to. Over the years, I've increasingly had problems with cramp in my legs. Initially this was in my calves, but it's slowly spread so that I was getting muscle spasms in my thighs. There's also a fair amount of stiffness. I've been accustomed to staggering around a bit like an old man when I've been sitting at my desk for a while, but now this seems to be happening more and more often. After resisting for many years, I now take a very small dose of baclofen (a muscle relaxant) before I go to bed. I may need to start taking a higher dose soon.

I'm falling over a lot more too. The loss of flexibility in my left ankle and strength in my left side has always made me a bit prone to this. I drop my left side as I get tired and start scuffing my left foot, which leads to stumbles. This is happening more and more often, meaning that I now go out running wearing knee and wrist guards (my knees have taken a frightful pounding from this and are now sore most of the time). 

I could stop running, but I don't want to. In fact, although I might be running more slowly at the moment, I'm actually doing more miles in lockdown than I think I've ever done before. I managed about 1220 miles in 2019 and I've done 1382 so far this year with 7 weeks still to go. I'll probably go comfortably over 1500 miles for the year. I'm still capable of running more quickly, but my default pace now seems to be a rather sorry plod because I don't really trust my legs any more.

I'm not telling you any of this looking for sympathy. It's just that I'm starting to acknowledge something that I've tried to ignore for more than a decade now: my MS is progressing. The official shift in my diagnosis from relapsing-remitting to secondary progressive a few weeks ago was recognition of that simple fact.

My own sense of self and wellbeing is bound up in my ability to run. For better or for worse. I'm going to keep running. Of course I'm going to keep running. I'm just slowly starting the process of coming to terms with the fact that I'm not bulletproof and that I can't control the progress of this godawful condition.

 You adapt, though. What other choice do you have? I'll always have that 3:58 marathon, eh?

Thursday, 12 November 2020


I don’t really believe in bucket lists. I’m not a fan of keeping lists of things I want to do before I die. Partly, this is because it seems a nonsense, as the simple truth is that no one knows when they’re going to die. If you could die tomorrow, why are you writing a list instead of getting out of the door? Mostly though, my objection probably comes from how lucky I am to have done some incredible things in my life, so a bucket list seems kind of redundant. 

 I’ve swum in the chilly waters off Kaikoura in New Zealand as hundreds of dusky dolphins swam around me and leapt over me. I was told that you need to sing to them through your snorkel to keep them interested in you and to stop them just swimming off when they get bored. As a result, I’ve discovered that they’re big fans of “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. 

I’ve skydived from 10,000m above the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, where the big dunes of the Namib desert meet the ocean, freefalling for a seemingly endless 30 seconds before the parachute opened, surprisingly filling me with mild disappointment. Here I learned that it’s okay to pack your main parachute up in a slightly slapdash way as long as you’re careful with the reserve as that’s the really important one. 

I’ve done a lot of diving too: on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, in the Maldives with giant Manta Ray doing a graceful dance together no more than a meter above my head, or along the edge of a canyon into the deep ocean surrounded by literally three hundred sharks, all bigger than me and a few casually swimming along behind me as if to see if I was worth the effort of a closer look. It’s at moments like these when you really begin to appreciate your place on the food chain. 

I’ve walked with lions and wolves, seen sperm whale, humpback and orca, kayaked with baby seal, stood within 2m of an adult male grizzly bear, watched dawn breaking above the jungle temples of Ankor Wat… So there’s no question that I’ve been very lucky. 

All this brings perspective; when you experience the elemental beauty of nature first-hand like this, it’s not hard to understand your own existence as comparatively insignificant, in the most wonderful way. All our sound and fury ultimately signifies nothing, and that’s okay. 

The time I felt this most acutely was standing on the sides of Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador as it erupted. Ecuador is a small country, barely the size of the UK, but it contains in that space an enormous diversity of landscapes, from high Andean paramo all the way through to Amazonian jungles (not to mention the Galapagos Islands). We were on a three-week trip and wanted to cram in as much of this as we reasonably could. We hiked the high Andes up to about 5000m, we watched hummingbirds feed, fished for piranha in tiny jungle rivers, brushed tarantula off the benches before sitting down to dinner, drank fresh passionfruit juice and picked coffee berries straight from the tree. Banos is a city in the middle of the country and is renowned for its hot springs and adventure activities. I’ve never seen the appeal of bungee jumping, but we did mountain bike along mountain gorges and, on our first evening in town, we took a trip up the town’s volcano (as our guide would say, the hot springs are not for free) Now, when you think about active volcanos, the chances are that you’re thinking of Pompeii or Krakatoa, but not all volcanos are quite that explosive. Tungurahua means “throat of fire” in Quichua, and although it is erupting and you actually have to drive over the pyroclastic flows that have poured over the road to reach the town itself, you’re not seriously in danger of being overrun by lava. The town does have volcano warning alarms, but apparently the lava moves so slowly that you will have around three days to actually leave the town before you’re really in trouble. Mind you, the volcano dominates the skyline and, as you drive into the town, you can see the column of smoke and ash it produces from a hundred miles away. It’s quite an impressive sight. 

That first evening, we drove up the volcano before it got dark. It’s quite steep and narrow in places, and as we slowly wound our way up the narrow, wooded tracks, we came across a tiny, wizened old lady dressed in the traditional costume of the region, complete with natty woollen Spanish-style trilby hat (a legacy of the Spanish colonisation). There’s only one path up or down the mountain, so we stopped and – through our guide – offered this lady a lift, which she gratefully accepted. As we continued up the mountain, we began to be aware of the rumbling of the erupting mountain. “Ah,” said this tiny, birdlike lady, cackling delightedly, “Mother Tungurahua is putting baked potatoes into the oven for her children”. 

 Before long, we dropped her off to make her own way, and as she smiled and waved, we continued up the mountain. Not long after that, I was standing in the gathering dusk, listening to the sound of an erupting volcano and feeling the ground rumbling beneath my feet. I have never before in my life felt quite so connected with our planet whilst also feeling utterly insignificant. It was, in the most literal way possible, awe inspiring. 

Our precious planet is huge and beautiful and life is short. Later that day, I ate guinea pig for the first time. I don’t recommend it. Tarantula is nicer and neither are a patch on crickets fried in sesame oil served as a bar snack. Travel really does broaden the mind… as well as the palate.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

burn baby, burn...

I posted this here last year, but it seems apt to repost it on Bonfire Night. Please forgive the self-indulgence.


On a page in your journal, answer one of Neil’s questions from A Calendar of Tales. Now write a story from this answer. This can be as long or short as you like.

“What would you burn in November, if you could?”

Whatever happened to duffel coats? The question popped into Joel’s mind one warm, November morning as he walked towards the bus stop on his way into work. Joel was one of those people who always seemed to be cold, but the morning had been so warm and clear that even he had been forced to seriously consider leaving the house without a coat. He’d grabbed one on the way out, of course, but the short walk up the high street was already causing the first prickles of a sweat to bead on his forehead and to trickle down the small of his back.

Novembers didn’t used to be like this, did they? Joel certainly remembered duffel coats. Not the trendy, designer label ones that you occasionally see in the Sunday paper (‘This Season’s Must-Have Overcoats’), but the heavy, distinctly unfashionable ones that your mum used to make you wear with horn toggles and that covered you from head to knees and had a tartan patterned lining. They might even have been part of the official school uniform as everybody seemed to have one. If you tried wearing one of those on a day like today, you’d melt. Maybe that was why you don’t see them so much anymore.

And it used to be colder, didn’t it? Cold, crisp November mornings where you could see your own breath on the air and where the frost would sparkle as it reflected the thin, end-of-year sunlight onto the grass. Joel couldn’t even remember the last time he saw a frost. In February maybe? Only once so far this year? The world was warmer now.

As he neared his bus stop, Joel saw a pram dumped next to the old toy shop. As he got closer, he realised that it wasn’t a pram and but was, in fact, a strange contraption fashioned from ancient pram wheels and old crates. A go-cart! Good lord! Joel could scarcely believe his eyes. When was the last time you saw an honest-to-goodness go-cart? In the age of the micro scooter, it seemed like a glorious relic from a bygone age, yet here it was. Was it possible that… Joel got a little closer and peered inside. Yes! There it was! A pile of stuffed sacks dressed in raggedy clothes, with a painted-on face and a hat at a jaunty angle. Hanging around this approximately man-shaped pile was a cardboard sign with a simple, scrawled request:
“Penny for the Guy?”

As a cub scout, Joel could remember spending cold early-November evenings with the rest of his pack putting their Guy together. The best would be proudly pulled around town in a go-cart before being hoisted up onto the bonfire for burning. But when was the last time anyone saw a Guy? And what good was a penny going to do anyone anyway? The local Rotary Club or Round Table was surely going to need more money than that. Inflation meant that you couldn’t even buy a penny chew for 1p nowadays.

Almost without thinking, Joel began to smile and moved in for a closer look at this relic from his childhood.
Joel leapt back in astonishment, wrenching the headphones from his ears. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he could have sworn that the…
“Wotchoo looking at?”
The Guy was speaking to him, its twisted facsimile of a face didn’t appear to be moving, but he was definitely being addressed. Joel quickly looked around him, but the street was still deserted this early in the morning.
“Um…. Hello?”
This was pretty much as good as he could manage under the circumstances, all the while looking around the doorway and underneath the go-cart and the Guy to see if there might just be someone hiding under there, playing a desperately unfunny joke. There was nobody there.

“I’ve got a problem”.
Joel blinked, swallowed and then, for want of anything better to do, opted for a somewhat tentative reply. “Oh yes?”
“Yeah. I need a bonfire. I got to get burned, you see.”
Thousands of questions flooded through Joel’s mind all at one. He only managed to get one of them out. “Why?”
“Well ain’t that a stupid question? I’m a Guy. Guys get burned. It’s what we do. It’s what we’re for”.
Joel’s head swam as his reality began to collapse inwards. He shook his head and started to think that perhaps he should just walk away from this hallucination and just get on with his day. He began edging away.
“Where do you think you’re going? I’m talking to you and I need your help. I need to get burned.”
Joel froze and, a little reluctantly, turned his head back towards the Guy. “Well, how can I help? What can I do?”
“You need to find me a nice, big bonfire and you’ve got to slap me right onto the top of it and then I’ve got to burn”.
“Um. Okay. Can I do this later? It’s just that I really need to be getting to work now and my bus will be along any minute now…”
“Do I look like I can wait?”

And so it was that, somewhat against his better judgement and definitely confounding all his expectations for the morning, Joel found himself skipping work and instead hauling an old go-cart down to the river and the site of the weekend’s scheduled bonfire and firework display. The Guy didn’t really say very much now. Perhaps he’d said his piece. The day was really heating up now, so Joel had removed his jacket and, for a want of anywhere else to put it, had wrapped it around the sloping shoulders of the Guy.

As he sweated his way down along the riverbanks, Joel reflected how profoundly strange a tradition it was to burn the effigy of a Catholic on a bonfire every year. Perhaps it was an instinctive understanding of this that had led to the slow withering of the tradition. Perhaps it was just that the burning of the Guy was a late addition to an older, far more ancient fire ritual anyway, from a time when people huddled around bonfires to stay warm but also, more importantly, to stay away from the dark. Darkness was pretty hard to find now, real darkness, anyway. But even so, people still had bonfires and they still had fireworks at this tie of the year, even when the nights were warmer and the celebration of the torture and death of a Seventeenth Century Catholic was fading from memory. Oh, for sure, it was still called Guy Fawkes Night by some people, but mostly it was just Bonfire Night, and people turned up to bob apples and to watch the fireworks regardless.

The Guy spoke only once more as Joel hauled the effigy up the pallets and branches of the bonfire site at the rugby club. “You need to keep the spark alive for the long winter to come. To ward off the darkness”.

Joel reflected on this as he caught the bus into work at lunchtime, rolling up his shirt sleeves as the day grew ever hotter, and only then realising that he must have left his coat on the bonfire.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

in the midst of life...

A spot of fiction for a change of pace? I wrote this last month for the little writing group I'm in. You'll have to do your own accent....


Life is a sexually transmitted disease, so they say. Invariably fatal. Well, I suppose that all depends upon your definition of life...and your definition of death. In a world where gender is no longer binary, it’s curious that people remain so stubbornly binary about something as fundamental as life and death. It’s not as though the undead are easy to avoid, either: vampires are everywhere. In fiction, anyway. I can’t speak with any certainty beyond that. Dracula was published in 1897 and the undead have been in vogue more or less ever since, up to and including an honest-to-goodness, glittering-in-the-sunshine Edward Cullen. Lazarus, of course, was raised up some time before that. How does that work? One minute your friends are all wailing and gnashing their teeth at your passing, and the next you’re back up and about. Where do you go from there? Can you go back to life as it was before? It’s got to be more than just a talking point, hasn’t it? Being brought back from the dead? You can hardly blame people for wanting to talk about it, can you? Alive one day, dead the next, alive again the day after and then back to the office as though nothing has happened? I’d imagine that might make some people a bit stand-offish. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” I mean, that’s quite a lot to take in, isn’t it? What’s in the small print? 

Could you be alive and identify as dead? You’d imagine it’s easier that way around than to be dead and identify as alive, but who can say for sure? People talk about the will to live, but could your will be stronger than your actual death? 

What about the Grim Reaper? Death himself. Does he come to collect you at the moment of your death? Does he play an active part in your demise, or is he just a voyeur, waiting for it to happen so that he can show you what happens next? What’s that scythe for, if not for cutting that mortal thread? Perhaps it’s just for show, like all those hourglasses he must have squirrelled away in his robes. 

You might think that I’m unusually preoccupied with these matters, but these are strange times and death is all around us. The world is getting hotter, wars are raging and disease stalks the land. But, if you think about it, when isn’t death all around us? Is there really anything all that strange about spending your life preoccupied with your death? Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you avoid saturated fats and wear a seatbelt? Isn’t that really part of the same thing? The same fascination? Another cliché: you’re dying from the moment you’re born; your thread is spooling out from the very beginning. You can take all the supplements you want and spend a fortune on face creams and cosmetic surgery, but simple fact of the matter is that you’re decaying from the very beginning; rotting away in plain sight. 

You’re pulling a face. I’m sorry if you find this distasteful, but there we are. We used to be more connected to death than this; we used to put the effigies of rotting corpses into the carvings on our tombs; we used to have skulls as momento mori in our houses to remind us that to live was to die. When did we forget this? Is that progress? We might live for longer now, but we’re just as likely to die. Have you heard about those rich people who have themselves frozen so that they can be brought back to life at some point in the future when we have the technology. Have they really thought this through, do you think? Do they get frozen before they die, or do they think that we’re going to develop a cure for death at some point? Can you imagine? Would you like to wake up at some point in the future, thawing out on a table somewhere, to find that you’ve been returned to a world you no longer recognise and where everyone and everything you’ve ever know is long dead? No thanks. I don’t like being cold, for one thing. And no, I don’t fancy being uploaded into a computer either. I’ve seen too much sci-fi to ever believe that can turn out well. Better to die sooner and decrease the surplus population. 

Anyway. Here we are. Yeah. Contactless, if you don’t mind. There’s some hand sanitiser there too, just to your right. Yeah, that’s it. Thanks for wearing your mask too. They get a bit hot, don’t they? Still, what can you do? Bye now. Have a nice day and stay safe!

Friday, 18 September 2020

don't stop moving...

As they're obviously trying to keep (potentially vulnerable) people away from the clinic at QMC at the moment, I had my annual consultation with my neurologist over the phone today. Actually, it was a surprisingly effective way of doing it and was probably as helpful as any of the sessions I've had at clinic since I first started getting symptoms. 

The long and the short of it is that my disability has been slowly increasing over the last few months/years and today they've shifted my diagnosis from 'relapsing-remitting' MS to 'secondary progressive' MS. 

I think this sounds more significant than it is. Ultimately, it's just a label to describe the way my disease is progressing. Most people with MS have a series of relapses, each relapse bringing new symptoms and new problems which get a bit easier with time (without ever completely disappearing), before the next relapse arrives and starts the cycle again. Almost all the treaments for MS are designed try and slow down the frequency with which you have relapses, thus slowing the progress of the disease and increasing disability. There isn't a cure. 

I've never really had relapses and have just seen a slow, but steady increase in the severity of my existing symptoms. I haven't been on a disease modifying therapy for a couple of years now, so shifting my diagnosis is really only an acknowledgement of the way my MS seems to be progressing: I'm not expecting relapses, but I am expecting my legs to get stiffer (amongst other things). The shift closes the door to lots of treatment options, but may open the door to others. 

It's only a label... but at the same time, it can't help but feel like a significant moment. It sounds significant. 

Still, I have much to be thankful for: we're off on an 11 mile run tomorrow morning and I've run a little over 1,100 miles so far this year. Very little of that has been as fast as I would like, but I know that I'm still capable of running quickly when I really want to, and I was only a few seconds off my mile PB a few weeks ago. Whilst I now don't trust my legs to the extent that I won't go out without knee pads and wrist guards, running remains at least as important to me now as it ever has done and I cherish what I can still do. 

Every run, no matter how long or how fast, still feels like sticking two fingers up at this diease. Long may it continue.

Monday, 17 August 2020

remote control...

Not surprisingly, I've been thinking over the last few days about my own exam results. Of course, unlike this year's pupils, I was lucky enough to sit my exams in the usual way and to then receive my results at some point later in the summer. I got the grades I needed, so I went to my first choice University. It was pretty simple.

Then I thought about my experience a bit harder.

I expected to go to University. I was good at exams and therefore had a pretty crucial advantage that this was the preferred way of assessing someone's academic merit and deciding their future, both in the immediate term and almost certainly in the longer term too. But I expected to go.

My expectation went much deeper than simply expecting to get the results that would enable me to study the course I wanted at the institution I wanted: I just assumed that the way my life was mapped out, I would drift from school to University to job. Oh, sure, there were all sorts of uncertainties for me along the way and my exact future was clouded... but never for one second did I consider that my path lay away from further education. 

Of course, I didn't stop to think about this for a moment. I just went with the flow.

This privilege and expectation was a new in my family. My father was the son of a publican who ran a pub in the Plymouth naval docks. Dad didn't get especially good grades in his exams, but he was determined to be a doctor, and St. Bartholemew's hospital in London took a chance on him. By his own admission, he'd be nowhere near getting the grades he would need now, so the medical profession would have been deprived of 50 years of selfless service, with thousands of hours given not just to the NHS but volunteering for St John's Ambulance (apparently he used to do their pandemic response planning!). Even now he's retired and in his 70s, of course my dad put his name forward to volunteer as we went into lockdown. For my dad, this education was a gift and he's cherished it for his whole life (he's got a stack of letters after his name that often requires a second line on his latest certificates).

He wanted this gift for his children, of course he did. We didn't grow up wealthy, so my parents saved every penny they had to put their children through a private education. I was on a scholarship, but even so, for three kids, this was an absolutely collosal investment. The staycation is not a new concept for my family, that's for sure.

So, barely 25 years after my father became the first in his family to grasp at a further education, I was already drifting into it. He read Medicine and became a doctor, I read for a BA in Modern European and Renaissance History and then drifted into an MA in Medieval Studies and only didn't drift into a DPhil because I had the realisation that wanting to be called "Doctor" wasn't anywhere near a good enough reason to do four years of research into something that ultimately no one would care about, never mind to fund.

So I drifted through University. After 11 years at boarding school, being away from home wasn't a new or revelatory experience for me, and I actually found it a bit boring that so many people thought that it was. It was mainly an examined degree, so being good at exams was still an advantage for me, and I got a decent result without ever really throwing my heart and soul into it, whilst probably not being as good as I could or should have achieved (I ended up right on the cusp of a First Class degree). I can actually remember a conversation I had with the tutor who supervised my Masters dissertation ("Historical Precedent and the Deposition of Henry VI in 1471" - a page turner that showed the rise of parliamentary power in the sucessive removal of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI). I can write and I was interested in my subject, but this tutor could see that I was only really interested in doing a good job, not an exceptional one and he helped me to achieve that. Looking back, I can not only see his mild disappointment at this wasted opportunity, but I share it. If I was to go to University again, this time around I would approach it very differently... as more than just another box to be ticked as I drifted through life.

This privileged drifting seems all the more infuriating as I'd already rejected a lot of the behaviour of many of the people that I'd been to school with. I had a massive, visceral reaction against the kind of arsehole that we now see running the country, swanning around as if they owned the place and everybody else in it. I also hated the idea of going to Oxbridge. My intellectual vanity did mean that I ended up applying to Oxford, but I received zero guidance from my very expensive school, refused to sit the fourth term entry exam (remember, I was good at exams) because I didn't see why they thought they were so special.... and then ended up applying to a college where I was pretty much the only person who hadn't done the exam. Nice job, everyone. My dad actually had a close friend who was the admissions tutor of a Cambridge College, and he arranged a meeting. Rather than see this as a priceless opportunity, my takeaway was that this guy had spent the whole time trying to boast about how every undergraduate was a published author. In my teenaged stupidity and arrogance, I rejected this (perceived) bullshit by applying blind to Oxford.  What a prat.

I do think that not going to Oxbridge after 11 years in private education was very good for me. Warwick and York are both excellent universities in their own right, their history courses arguably better than their Oxbridge equivalents, but they are also much more socially mixed, and I'm sure it was good for me to breath some different air. I had a girlfriend from Stockport, for goodness sake. Imagine that! (she's now a lecuturer at King's College, London, I'm told. Another person who took their education more seriously than me).

So yes, I look at the scandal of this algorithim that advantages pupils from private schools and I think fuck them and fuck the system that perpetuates their preeminence. They --- I --- have had every possible advantage in their lives to date and they don't need a leg up when there are plenty of other people who just want an even crack of the whip. Of course this government didn't see anything wrong with this approach: they've benefitted from this system every single day of their lives for generations. 

If privilege can be that corrosive in the course of 25 years and one generation, imagine how destructive it must be over 250 years and 10 generations; over 500 years; over a millennia. This country is dying under the weight of all this privilege and has been for centuries. The very idea of British exceptionalism is ridiculous and an insult to all the people and countries and cultures we've pillaged as we tried to claw ourselves out of the mire by standing on everyone else. If we now want to jump back in, it's probably best to just let us go.

Just let us go.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

be brave...

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been called cynical. Cynical, negative and pessimistic. For a time, I was called it so often that I almost believed it myself and began to build my sense of self around it. 

The cynic. 

To be honest, I’m not sure that this has ever really been the case. It certainly is true that, as a younger man, I would throw stones and would criticise without feeling the need to offer up anything constructive. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in going through that phase. It’s also true that, when feeling frustrated or powerless at work (annoyingly often), I would sometimes deliberately seek to tear people down in a way that was ultimately self-destructive…. But I was young and stupid and I don’t work there anymore (which is probably just as well: some people choose never to forget the person you were fifteen years ago, even if you’ve long since changed). 

I think it probably boils down to this: I like to ask questions. These days, it’s usually to genuinely try to understand something because I’m curious. The problem is that lots of people don’t like to be asked questions; they don’t like to be challenged by someone because, if you don’t know the answers or you aren’t very secure in your opinion, it can feel as though you’re being criticised. No one likes to be criticised, right? I try not to be threatening about it, but nobody’s perfect and I’m probably not the finished article even now. 

I think my MS has changed me, actually. Or maybe it’s just revealed another side to my personality. Nobody knows what causes MS, nobody knows if it will progress for me or what my outcome will be. There’s very little that I can do to change any of these things. I’m not really one for serenity prayers, but I do think that this has taught me acceptance. To paraphrase Kipling, to meet with Triumph and Disaster and to treat those two imposters just the same. I’m calmer, more relaxed and better able to approach life on an even-keel (whilst also remaining perfectly capable of frothing in indignation watching the news. Nobody is perfect. My wife is doubtless scoffing as she reads this). 

What’s the point in being pessimistic? I’m well aware what MS might do to me and I know all too well what it’s already done. I simply don’t see how dwelling on either of those things does me any good at all. MS pages on Facebook seem full of people wrapped up in their own invisible pain and suffering. I don’t doubt that they suffer, but I simply don’t understand the attitude because I try never to allow myself to think like that. Perhaps that’s easy for me to say, but I hope it’s a philosophy that will stay with me, whatever happens. “The Road not Taken” by Robert Frost is one of my favourite poems; my interpretation of it is that you should never waste time regretting the path you didn’t take. 

They say that a pessimist is never disappointed. I think they’re always disappointed. Besides, I’m a runner, and as Kipling also said:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! 

Well, I can definitely do that. Maybe not as fast as I use to be able to do it… but I can still do it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

what a waste, what a waste, what a waste of time...

As the great email clear-up continues, I find myself in 2011 and with the first draft of a blog post. Just reading through it is a reminder of why I never want to find myself working for this sort of company ever again. Just look at this nonsense. It's surely a form of low-level psychological abuse. For some reason, I put up with this for more than 20 years!

"Intellectually intimidating"? Imagine giving someone that feeback, ffs.


As the financial year ends, I'm finding that the usually serene progress of my working day (**ahem**) is being somewhat interrupted by the sour inevitability of year-end performance reviews. A particular favourite of mine is the 'consistency forum', where the senior people in my department try to objectively compare the populations of each grade to decide who has exceeded expectations, who has met expectations and who has fallen short based upon a combination of what people have achieved over the year and their "behaviours".

Unfortunately, the outcome of this forum is important because it determines the size of any pay rise or slice of bonus that we get. Objectivity is, of course, impossible. I'm not even sure they really even aim for it, to be honest, as each manager tries to get their own people into the top right hand "exceed" box at the expense of everyone else. When it comes to the "behaviours" score, in particular, perception is king. Your customers might all think that you are the best thing since sliced bread, but that's not as important as the impression you've made on the colleagues who are judging you. You are supposedly only being ranked on your performance in the last twelve months, but in practice, this is cobblers: there's no time limit on the judgement these people have made on you and there's certainly no measure

Take me as an example: coming out of my consistency forum, I was told that although my behaviours had improved markedly over the last six months, I was still scoring slightly lower there because of the time before that.

Um. But I've only been back at work for six months after taking most of last year off. So, what am I being judged on, exactly?

I actually did quite well in my forum, and yet they've still managed to find a way to piss me off.

One other piece of feedback I got out of my session was that I am apparently "intellectually intimidating". I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with that, to be honest. Is that something I should be actioning? Is it even a criticism?

We waste our lives, we really do.

Speaking of the sort of nonsense people waster their time and money on in a work environment.... I saw someone on an MS charity's Facebook page today kick off a poll to see what myers-briggs personality types we all had to try to assess if there's a link between personality type (specifically the way we handle stress) and multiple sclerosis.


It's all made up, pseudo-scientific nonsense where people use confirmation bias to try and pick out how much their profile really reflects their true personality. There's no link between a myers-briggs personality type and your personality, so there's hardly likely to be a link with the severity of your MS, is there?

Monday, 6 July 2020

round and around...

In the process of clearing out the 10,000 surplus emails in my inbox, I've come across another post that I wrote for someone else (in 2009). As I'm loathe to let good(?) content go to waste, and because I find it interesting (even if no-one else does).... I'm (re-)posting it here.  Enjoy. I still have a soft spot for Nik Kershaw.


Memories Can't Wait.... a song that reminds me of a friend (originally written for Ben on Silent Words Speak Loudest, or possibly The Art Of Noise. I can't remember)

I didn't grow up in an especially musical household.  Neither of my parents are particularly into music and because it had never formed a large part of their lives, it was only natural that my two brothers and I didn't initially form much of an interest ourselves.  I've always found it a little hard to understand how two people, both just five or six years younger than Paul McCartney and presumably slap bang in the prime demographic for the Beatles, could have both have missed out on such a vibrant period of British music, but miss it they did.  My mum tells me that she owned a copy of Revolver and my dad had a pile of "Top of the Pops" LPs that he had inherited from his father's pub, but their hearts weren't in it and our house was largely devoid of background music.

My first real musical exposure, then, came instead from regular visits to the house of a friend just down the road.  Like me, Will had two siblings, although where I was a middle child, he was the youngest by several years.  I don't know if his parents were especially into music, but his dad worked for Rotel, manufacturers of high quality stereo equipment, and their house was naturally filled with top-notch hi-fis.  Although we spent a lot of our time together mucking about with computer games, playing with our Star Wars figures and riding our bikes outdoors, we did occasionally mess around with the record player and with his brother and sisters' 12" singles.  Although I can remember listening to the likes of Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok", a bit of Level 42 and "Hole in My Shoe" by Neil from the Young Ones, the artist that always stood out the most for me was Nik Kershaw.  Both "Human Racing" and "The Riddle" were released in 1984, and we used to sit entranced by songs such as "I Won't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", "Human Racing", "Wouldn't It Be Good", "Wide Boy" and - especially - "The Riddle".  Our listening coincided with our reading of "Masquerade", the book of illustrations for children by Kit Williams that concealed clues to the location of a golden hare hidden somewhere in the UK.  The book was first published in 1979, but the hare had only (apparently) been discovered in 1982, so the idea of riddles was fresh in our minds as we tried to work out what on earth Nik Kershaw was trying to tell us when he spoke of trees by rivers, holes in the ground and old men of Arran.

Kershaw has, of course, subsequently revealed that there is no meaning to "The Riddle" at all, but to our ten year old minds it was a puzzle well worth trying to solve.  Besides, it was (and remains) a fantastic record, and through it I began to discover a love of music that has stayed with me to this day.  I can't say that I listen to Kershaw very much any more, but he has the proud distinction of being the artist who created the first two albums that I ever bought with my own money.  Better yet, whenever I think of him, I can't help but think of the letter that I wrote to Jimmy Savile in the summer of 1984 asking if he could fix it for me and for my best friend Will to meet our hero.  Saville never wrote back, sadly, and he certainly never fixed it for me.  Although his parents still live down the road from my folks, I lost touch with Will a few years ago after we both went to University.  Musically we had drifted apart, with him baffled by my love of heavy metal and me a touch confused by his love of Lenny Kravitz.  We'll always have Nik Kershaw though, and whenever I hear the chiming opening chords of "The Riddle", I'm reminded of my first best friend.