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.

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....

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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.