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."

Fact.

"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. 

Anyway. 

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]

Friday, 5 March 2021

the distant future...

After fifteen years of sterling service, we said goodbye to our first ever dishwasher last week. 

As a slimline, MFI own-brand ("Diplomat") that came as part of our extremely cheap kitchen overhaul more than a decade ago, it's fair to say that this appliance vastly exceeded my expectations (just as the kitchen did itself. RIP MFI).  Not only did it do a perfectly acceptable job cleaning the dishes, but it also displayed a surprising longevity.

As with many things, I didn't know quite how much this had become a part of our lives until its seals failed and we were suddenly forced to handwash everything. It's not that I especially mind doing the dishes, it's just that I'd forgotten quite how much they pile up when you can't just stack them into the machine out of sight.

A friend was telling me last week that he knows someone who doesn't even bother having cupboards in his kitchen any more; he just has two dishwashers and uses one for storing dirty dishes, and the other for storing clean. I suppose you have to admire that sort of commitment to minimalism, even if it's probably not for everyone. My wife, for some reason, doesn't even subscribe to the idea that a dishwasher dries everything well enough that you can just put them straight into the cupboard and insists on a wipedown. I roll my shoulders and agree to this, on the understanding that she realises I don't bother doing this when she's not in the room.

A replacement appliance was pretty easy to source, even during a pandemic. John Lewis quickly came round with a new machine, installed it and took the old one away for recycling. 

So long and thanks for all the clean dishes.

As you'd expect, the new one works in much the same way as the old one, although the shelves aren't shaped the same way and I haven't yet quite worked out the most efficient way of stacking things as they don't fit in the same places in the same way as they used to. This is a very small, albeit mildly vexing, problem.

What's really taken me aback though is the fact that this new device is connected to the internet. As the keen owner of a brand new appliance, I dutifully connected it to my WIFI and can now contemplate at leisure the wisdom of this... who knew that there would be a need to receive so many push notifications about the salt and rinse aid status of my new machine, or that I would need to know, to the second, what stage the cleaning cycle was at and when it would be due to finish? It also projects a HAL-like red light onto the floor when it is in operation, so you don't distrub it by opening it before its work is done.

When the machines take over, as they surely will, I for one will be amongst the first to welcome our new robot masters.

I should do more middle class consumer reviews here, no?

Thursday, 18 February 2021

a vine that can strangle life from a tree...

I’ve never really been particularly sporty. I quite enjoyed playing team sports when I was at school, but there was never any sign of great talent. I wasn’t being picked last for our playground games of football, but I definitely wasn’t being picked first either. Running, however, I loathed. Every week, I think on a Tuesday or Wednesday, we would be sent out on a cross country run. Whatever the weather, we would run three or four miles across muddy fields and along the footpaths out around the school. I say run, but really, as long as I was fairly sure that there was no one looking, I would walk. I absolutely hated slogging my way through the mud and wanted no part of it. It would have been over more quickly if I’d run, but it all just seemed too difficult and too painful. Far better to trudge along miserably in the rain. If I thought I could have got away with hiding in a bush just out of sight, I probably would have done it. The idea that anyone might do this sort of thing for fun just seemed utterly ridiculous. 

Fast forward thirty years, and now it’s the idea that I might have to stop running that really scares me. I sort of fell into running when I stopped playing organised sport and started drinking beer. Popping out once a week for a rather laboured jog was a purely defensive measure designed to stave off an incipient beer belly. 

I didn’t actually start running more seriously until I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009. My journey towards that diagnosis began one morning in July 2005, when I woke up with a numb hand. Over the course of the next few weeks, that numbness spread through my body and down through my legs and feet. Running when you can’t really feel your feet is an unnerving experience: you feel with every stride that you might miss your step and break a leg. I thought then that I might have to give up running, but it’s amazing how adaptable the brain is and how quickly you can get used to something that seemed insurmountable. 

As well as a loss of sensation, one of the most common symptoms of MS is fatigue. It sounds counterintuitive, but I discovered that going for a run was incredibly helpful at helping to shake off this fatigue. When you’ve been running, at least you know why you’re tired. Running made me feel better about myself. MS is a chronic illness with no cure and with uncertain outcomes, but running gave me a sense of control. Visiting an MS clinic at the hospital is a sobering experience; to be surrounded by people in wheelchairs, struggling to speak or to swallow is to be confronted by a possible future. I can’t predict or control how my MS might affect me, but I found that to be a powerful motivation to work my body whilst I can. I joined a running group and began to run with other people. I still wasn’t particularly quick, but it’s funny how running with other people makes you run faster than you thought might be possible. 

MS affects everyone differently. In my case, as well as the numbness and pins & needles, I have a loss of strength on my left-hand-side and a loss of dorsiflexion in my left ankle. This didn’t stop me from running, but as I quickly learned as I began to run more often, this changed my gait and made me more susceptible to injury as my body tried to compensate for the loss of strength and power. The further I run, the more I drop my left side and the more susceptible I am to falling over. A sports specialist consultant surgeon told me that I would probably struggle to run much more than 10km and that, although it might not be my MS that stopped me from running, the compromises my body was making probably would. Naturally, I ignored him and kept running. 

In 2015, I ran my first marathon. 

To be honest, the 26.2 miles itself wasn’t my biggest concern: I was worried how my body would hold up to the 500 miles of training and the load of running 5 or 6 times a week. I didn’t set the world on fire, but running side-by-side with my wife, we made it round and raised a pile of cash for the MS Trust (we’ve raised around £40,000 in total, an amount that mainly humbles me because of the support and generosity of our friends). 

Since that day, I’ve run another 5 marathons. At Chester in 2018, I even dipped below the magical 4 hour mark (a 22 minute PB!). I’ve joined an athletics club, picked up my coaching qualifications and taken enormous pride in the achievements of the athletes I coach as they have worked their way from a couch to 5km programme to running competitive cross-country races and half marathons. 

Meanwhile, slowly and remorselessly, my MS has got worse. My legs and left ankle have slowly stiffened; I take a muscle relaxant at night to help me to sleep and I now fall over so often that I run wearing knee pads and wrist guards; my pace has slowed and my shuffling, uneven gait is causing me problems elsewhere in my body (as that specialist predicted). Stopping, you might think, may be the obvious thing to do. 

I’m not going to stop. 

Running is part of who I am. My friends are runners. Running is something that I do together with my wife. It’s vital for my mental wellbeing every bit as much as my physical wellbeing. I’m not just going to stop. 

Sure, I wish I was faster. What runner doesn’t? 

I wish I didn’t fall over so much, but really, what choice do I have? 

Do I want to stop and feel sorry for myself and the things that I’ve lost, or do I want to keep on going as best as I’m able? Is that really even a question? Precisely because it’s become harder for me, I am more aware now than I have ever been of exactly how much running means to me and I cherish every single time I get out. It’s not the falling over that’s the most important thing to consider, it’s the getting back up again. 

I have a tattoo on my weaker left ankle by the Japanese novelist and marathon runner, Haruki Murakami: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. 

The full quote, from “What I think about when I think about running” is: 

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.” 

This runner can stand the pain and isn’t done quite yet.

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:

 -

Briars

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

potatoes...


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.
“Alright”
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.