Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me. Officially.


I was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago by a specialist psychiatrist at a mental health clinic. I’ve felt for several years that I fell some way along the autistic spectrum, but my suspicions that I had Asperger’s became firmer this year as I realized I have characteristic oversensitivity to a number of stimuli that neurotypical people barely register.
You may have preconceptions about what a person with AS is like. I know I did. You might expect that we are emotionally dead, socially inept, and obsessed with repetitive hobbies. From the outside most of the preconceptions of AS are well-founded, based on how we behave and appear, at least in the most extreme manifestations. What I think is less well appreciated is what it’s like to have AS.
For me, it means I feel anxious all the time.
I don’t just feel anxious when there are lots of people talking, when there are bright lights, intrusive sounds, strong food smells, or certain sensations against my skin (although it’s far worse when any of those conditions apply).
I feel anxious all the time.
This explains why I started drinking alcohol whenever it was available at the age of sixteen, and didn’t stop until I was thirty-eight. It explains why when I stopped drinking I found myself in such a state of anxiety and depression that I was prescribed Fluoxetine for five years. It explains why upon coming off Fluoxetine I needed professional counseling for over a year.
And it explains so much more. I’ve begun reading about the condition and keep unmistakably recognizing myself every few paragraphs. Although I tried to look at first for texts pertaining to adult diagnosis (I’m 46 now), the descriptions of AS children are just as enlightening. They explain why I don’t have a Liverpool accent (AS kids copy the authority figures on the telly rather than their peers), why I didn’t play ball games, and why my intelligence didn’t translate into academic success until I specialized during higher education.
But these are external manifestations. What does it feel like for me, today, at 46 to have Asperger Syndrome? In a word, irritating. My compulsive pedantry doesn’t just mean I will correct your grammar or usage (under my breath or more audibly on a bad day) but that common errors and vulgar neologisms continue to grate against me just like the sensory overloads mentioned earlier. “Tune it out”. “Let it go”. I can’t. I wish I could. But I can’t. If your iPod headphones are leaking near me, or you have a habit of jingling your change in your pocket while you talk to me, it will torture me, but my social awkwardness renders me incapable of diplomatically asking you to desist. I gurn and tic a bit, especially when the anxiety builds up. It wears me out. When I visit you, if you have the television or radio on, however quietly, in the background, I will be unable to listen to what you are saying without a draining mental effort.
So, I crave solitude. That’s when I can find a kind of peace. That’s why I go running for hours at a time by myself. That’s why I play the piano (yes, the same few pieces over and over, and yes, I enjoy the scales and arpeggios as much if not more than the pieces), which is a solitary pursuit when you do it like I do. And that’s why I make excuses not to come to office nights out or leaving meals.
And yet, I’m married. Helen seems to be coping with the latest design fault to have emerged in her husband of eight years as well as she has with the others. I know I am an impossible punishment to live with. Can you imagine what it’s like settling down on a cold night to watch a DVD, only to be told that the central heating’s got to go off because of the noise? Or having a meal ruined because the table’s laid wrongly? Or having to repeat the simplest request because your husband is having an anxiety attack that has scrambled his auditory processing?
I’m the same person I was few weeks ago. How does diagnosis change anything? I’m not, and never will be normal. But I now know that in a sense, I’m not unique. I’m but one example of a closely studied phenomenon and that gives me some hope that I can find some mapped paths through this.
Having been diagnosed does not feel as exciting or special as I had hoped. The boring reality of AS, for me, is that I am usually anxious and exhausted. And unlike some glittering individuals with AS or high-functioning autism who proclaim that they are not disabled, but just different, I would swap this for being normal without a moment’s hesitation.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Rest and Reflection

When you hate your job as much as I hate mine, four days away from it make for a very therapeutic break indeed. This Easter was improved further by the occasion of my 46th birthday on Saturday. What this meant was a day free from compromise, and free from living up to the expectations of, or commitments towards other people. I didn't celebrate with a gram of cocaine and brace of courtesans, but instead spent the day with Helen, who I think was bemused at my paucity of indulgent ambition.

She brought me some smashing gifts from herself and her family in bed. How well they know me. If you ever chanced upon a high visibility cycling jacker, packet of liquorice allsorts, book on mindfulness, and yoga brick, you'd have a pretty good idea I was in the vicinity. Later, instead of committing to a grand day out in our walking boots, we tried some gentle urban exploration. A great fringe benefit of Green activism is that I have a much stronger sense of personal geography, and relish filling in the gaps on my mental map of the city I live in. We took woodland paths and local streets that don't lead anywhere, and I found rewarding new vistas less than ten minutes from home.

We were back on familiar birthday territory by the evening, although I had refused to book a restaurant in advance. I hazarded the opinion that I'd be comfortable somewhere that Frasier's Dad, Martin Crane would be, so we went where the diners were interesting, the food unpretentious, and the conversation unstilted. Then home, where, folk wisdom has it, married women do what their husbands fantasise about for the rest of the year with them. In my case, this is watching a complete early Doctor Who adventure. I chose "The Daemons", which is my earliest memory of the programme, from 1971, and it went down well, despite Helen's initial horror that it comprised five episodes.

Today is the 20th anniversary of John Major's election win, and my thoughts are cast back to who I was and what I was doing in Spring 1992. On my birthday, I went to London to see Spinal Tap play a low-profile afternoon  club gig, and I was reading Iain Banks' "The Crow Road". I was just embarking on a doomed, but fleetingly morale-boosting, dalliance, and rebuilding my self-confidence after having been bullied into leaving my job the previous Autumn. I think I would quite like my 26-year-old self, but oh, how I envy him his free time, and rather wish he could have applied himself more.

20 years later, I am still reading Iain Banks, specifically, his latest, "Stonemouth". I still care enough about music to be making trips to London to see one-off shows. And Helen and I have been together for twelve years, so I'm glad I wasn't put off looking for companionship. What's changed? Well, I have almost no spare time. I am making up for the lost time of my youth and trying to catch up and achieve what I realise I should have done earlier. That's why Easter feels special. I've even got time to write a blog entry.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Year of Spiky Introspection

Having come off Fluoxetine which was keeping me functional, if subdued, in mid-2010, after five years, 2011 has been a vivid year of intense highs and lows.
I am bitterly disillusioned with my job, which fails to engage me on any level. I actively dislike an improbably large number of the people with whom it brings me into contact. I’m in the wrong profession for my sensibilities and it is far too late to do anything about it.
My political awakening has accelerated. I joined the committee of the Edinburgh branch of my party, and worked on the campaigns for the Scottish Parliament election in May and the City Centre council by-election in August. Much of politics seems to involve running just to stand still, but I am fascinated to continue discovering what I believe in and what I think is worth fighting for. I remain inspired by the Green activists I work alongside.
Helen and I moved house in August, to a detached bungalow a mile further from the city centre than before. It better suits our needs, but I miss the community we left, and sense it won’t feel like home for a while. I took the opportunity to divest myself of a significant number of possessions, and am continuing to thin out my belongings. I feel lighter and more agile as a result.
Shortly before we moved, our cat Poppy died from renal failure. I cried every day for six weeks afterwards. The new house feels very empty and quiet at times.
Having started the year with an injured Achilles’ tendon, I followed a prescribed path of rehabilitation, and by the end of the year had run the Liverpool and Edinburgh half marathons, and the Edinburgh and Liverpool marathons. I’ve now run five full marathons, having never before run two in the same year. I ran Liverpool faster than I’ve ever run a marathon before, after a demanding training regime, which saw me out of bed before six, six mornings a week. There were a few more tears as I crossed the line.
I'm quite proud of my running, and also quite proud of my progress as a self-taught pianist. This year I passed my Grade Two and Three exams, and even bought a piano for our new home.
2011 was my seventh year without alcohol. Watching others dispassionately, I am ever more surprised at the damage it wreaks on individuals and groups.
Abuse of alcohol is one of the reasons I made 2011 the last year that I would go to watch tribute bands performing my favourite music. Contempt for the occasion from audiences mean that celebration has turned to desecration. Enough.
I still follow live music, though, and was lucky enough to be in the audience for Roger Waters’ performance of “The Wall” this year when he was joined by David Gilmour and Nick Mason, reuniting all the surviving members of Pink Floyd.
Like Pink himself, I am subject to funny turns, and without Fluoxetine, I had felt my underlying depression start to reassert itself, and have been referred for very helpful psychiatric counselling, which I continue to follow. I’ve also dipped a toe into meditation, thanks to the Edinburgh Sri Chinmoy Centre.
If there’s a theme to 2011, it’s been introspection. I’ve looked inward and audited my own assets. I feel less reliant than before on external possessions and approval.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Awakened

I can't sleep. This is annoying because I've been physically toiling all day, and have to be up at a healthy time tomorrow to run fourteen miles before breakfast. I can't sleep because my mind is a turmoil of anxieties, provoked, but not necessarily related to the fact that we're moving house in a day.

I really didn't want to move, not because this house is perfect, but because it's been fewer than eight years since we moved in, and we have no specific reason to move on. I've never electively moved before. Neither of us has undergone a change in circumstances, but we're still moving. I've taken a fortnight off work, cashed in my investments and given up my life savings to make this possible.

It's costing me a lot, so I have attempted to list the tangible benefits to me.

  1. Happy spouse (she gets French windows, a patio, and off-road parking)
  2. Faster, optical, broadband
  3. Bathroom on same floor as bedroom, thus dispensing with mid-night climbs
  4. A garage in which to keep my bicycle, as opposed to cluttering the hallway
  5. An ergonomic kitchen diner
  6. The move has prompted the purchase of a super-king size bed with allegedly intelligent mattress which may assist with uninterrupted sleep
  7. On the rare occasions I drive (usually collecting spouse from evening engagements, or somewhat ironically, when delivering election materials for the Green Party) the off-road parking will, I suppose make this less unpleasant
  8. Life in a bungalow will entail far less shouting from floor to floor
  9. Detached living will grant privacy to epic arguments and piano practice alike
  10. I have significantly edited my possessions
It's the final point that I'm actually happiest about. I've at last had a perfect opportunity to practice the minimalist leanings I've been developing. Getting rid of clutter, and possessions that I served rather than vice versa has felt like defrosting a freezer. Great parasitic chunks have been cleaved off letting circulation and efficiency build. I'm being ruthless and it feels fantastic.

It doesn't matter what I paid for something, how long I've had it, or what it meant to me in the past. The important criterion is whether I need it now. Here are some of the highlights.
  • Three terrestrial VCRs
  • Every VHS cassette in the house
  • Every vinyl LP we owned, including some signed to me
  • The turntable I had stored in the loft because one day I was going to digitise the LPs I couldn't find on CD
  • Music and TV cuttings dating from 1978
  • Magazine back issues
  • Superseded computer equipment, routers, and broadband modems
  • Textbooks
  • Magazines, including those with articles in which I wrote
When we move in, I'm going to carry on. I want my home to be a living, changing place, not a stagnant library, so I'm going to give away hundreds of books. Then, when I've made certain they're all safely ripped to multiple hard drives, I'm going to give away hundreds of CDs as well. Nothing, nothing, is going to be put up in the loft for the rainy day I might need it. That day never comes. 

If only I could declutter my mind of lingering old anxieties just as ruthlessly and rewardingly, then I might be able to sleep.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Playground of Yesterday

I've just spent the weekend visiting my Mum in Liverpool. She still lives in the house in which I grew up, surrounded by much of the furniture, decorations, and books that were there in the nineteen-seventies. Normally when I see her, it's a flying visit, one of many over the course of seeing my small family and Helen's large family in the North West of England, but this time I was unaccompanied and there for two days.
We don't run out of things to say to one another, although there are contemplative silences when we talk. There's no background of music, radio, or worse, television, so the silence this weekend was only broken by our thoughtful exchanges, and my return to my mother's piano.
It still stands against the rear wall of the front room, as it has throughout my life. When I was ten, this was where I would labour with grudging piano practice, waiting for it to be time to watch Doctor Who. In my teens, it was where I would experiment with polyphony and songwriting, my budget synthesizer having fallen short in both regards.
But this year, I returned to the piano able to play four short pieces and a multitude of scales and exercises, having, 33 years after my last lesson, finally sat my first Associated Boards exam. It's a hundred years old, my mother having acquired it second hand as a girl in Belfast. What must her memories of it be like?
My sister called round on Sunday bringing her three daughters, all of whom she has produced in the last seven years. They're delightful, but very lively. The effect on my nerves was such that after they'd gone, I announced to my mum that I was going out for a late-afternoon stroll. I left the house and headed down towards the Mersey, walking the route for the first time in at least two decades. I was soon overcome by a sense of geographical nostalgia, reacquainting myself with pavements, verges, and buildings that I had forgotten I had forgotten. I started trying to remember what I would see before rounding each turn, to see whether it would tally, but it was hard. I grew resentful of new buildings, more so when I could not recall what had been there before.
As I reached the river promenade, I turned south briefly, past the scene of an epic childhood bicycle accident, and towards the church around which much of my pre-teen youth activity revolved. The scout hut where I spent three eager years as a cub was still there, along with the adjoining church hall I had nearly forgotten.
These places are the landscape of my dreams, topographies I have visited nocturnally for years without really associating them with their real counterparts. As the late afternoon gave way to dusk, the experience acquired a wistful tristesse, and I felt compelled to walk on to my first two schools. Both Infants and Juniors still stood, and apart from a prevalence of security barriers and comic sans signage, looked exactly as they had in the seventies. I circumnavigated both as best I could, and welled up inside.
Not, you must understand, because I had been a happy pupil. Rather, it was because I had been carrying around memories of these places for so many years, and to see them again laid out in three dimensional bricks and mortar was overwhelming.
Returning to somewhere you knew as an adult could never be like this. The adult mind does not create vivid abiding memories in the way a child's does.
I walked home (home! well, towards what was once home, and in a way I used to resent, but now don't, still is) past what used to be a recreation ground and is now a posh housing estate.
I am amused to be able to say at last, "Eeh, I remember when it were all fields round here".

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In defence of the licence fee

I had cause to reply to a correspondent today who complained that, unlike satellite subscriptions, the television license was compulsory.

You only have to pay the license fee if you operate a television receiver. So it's not compulsory.

You have the choice to either pay the license fee, or to watch a television receiver operated by someone else, or in premises already covered by a license, or even not watch broadcast television at all.

I sense I may be wasting my time in this discussion, because I passionately believe that there should be publicly funded broadcasting in the UK, and that it should be funded by means-related non-government taxation. The license fee is a close enough approximation to do the job - it's paid for by the breadwinner in a household that can afford the luxury of a television set, so that household dependents do not have to contribute.

I don't have any sympathy at all with the argument that individuals who claim not to use public broadcasting should be exempt from contributing to its upkeep. I seldom listen to Radio 1, 2 or 3, or watch BBC3, for example, but I understand that they are worthwhile and unique endeavours and I'm happy to help fund them. It's rather like as the NHS - I don't pay for the provision of its services (many of which I hope I'll never use) as an insurance policy, but because it's the civilised, decent thing to do.

I observe that the BBC makes the UK more thoughtful, and better informed. It can do this because it follows a mandate that isn't driven by sponsors and advertisers. It isn't funded by business or by government, so it can be uniquely independent and impartial.

If the BBC had to resort to the same kind of funding as independent broadcasters, then it would lose most of what makes it so valuable.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Run Like Hell

I’ve now been running competitively for six years. 2010 has been a good one. This year, I’ve completed my third marathon, run in five other events, and achieved my best times in many of them.
However, I’m not going to crow about success, or how following training plans, and taking personal training sessions has got me fitter and faster. (“Yada yada yada”, as the Eighth Doctor would say). I want to record how I felt yesterday, so I can look back on it next year and learn from my mistakes.
My favourite length of training run is about sixteen miles. I can comfortably run it in well under three hours, and it’s just short of the twenty milers that precede marathons, and themselves take some recovery from. So, when the inaugural Scottish Kilomathon was announced, I thought “that’s the race for me, daddio”. A Kilomathon, by the way is a race of 26.2 kilometres - just as a marathon is 26.2 miles. I mention this because I’ve had estimates from my exasperated intimates varying from “a kilometre” to “a thousand miles”. It’s actually somewhere in between.
So, just five weeks after a vigorous Glasgow Half Marathon, I found myself on the bus out of town towards Edinburgh airport at 0630 on a Sunday morning. Not because I was flying anywhere (see later) but because the race started and finished at the Royal Highland Showground and Exhibition Centre. This is a strange place, which hosts garden shows and the Royal Highland Show (cattle and jam, whisky and crafts, shearing and mountain rescue demonstrations) every summer. Its sole justification for existence, so far as I can determine, is that Genesis played there in 1982.
Getting off the bus, a single-digit band of runners including myself walked along the barely signposted perimeter road to the showground. It was unlike any running event I had arrived at before, because it was still dark, there was hardly anyone there, least of all dressed as a steward, and there wasn’t a personality shouting well-meaning nonsense over a barrage of predictably up-beat pop records. It felt more like arriving at a UFO landing site than anything else. (And we all know that’s like, right?).
Eventually, there were some announcements, and having used a portakabin’s facilities for the necessary morning ablutions, I emerged into a hesitant dawn. There still seemed to be distressingly few people there. I executed my rehearsed change, swapping my rucsac for a Camelpak hydration system, and stowing my belongings in the tiny baggage tent. Following two occasions in training this year when my headphone lead had gone crackly and intermittent in one ear, I’d brought an unopened new pair with me, but as the ones I was using were fine (and I checked them to be sure) I left the new ones in my bag. We’ll be revisiting this decision later.
At 0745 we were summoned to our starting pens, and I learned that there were 2500 runners taking part, although possibly not all in the same race. Earlier this year I had run 13.1 miles in 01:39, so when entering this race had done my sums and put 02:00 for my expected time to cover 16 or so. We’ll also be revisiting this decision later. To my surprise on the day, I saw my forecast had put me in the elite field - the front pen, right behind the start line and the car with the big digital clock and the police escort. How exciting! I didn’t feel like an elite runner. I’d been harbouring a bit of a fever, and hadn’t completely recovered from the Half Marathon. It was very odd. It seemed a million miles from the big civic runs I normally do starting in the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh. I could have just walked back a few pens to be with the runners who thought they’d manage it in a 02:15 or even 02:30, but for some reason, mesmerized by the empty road ahead perhaps, stayed where I was. This is yet another of the many decisions we’ll be revisiting later.
We were off. I hit “Start” on my iPhone’s running application, stowed it in my armband, and a playlist of live material by Rush (subtle suggestion, there) spewed forth. It was amazing. I’d never crossed the line so soon after the gun. Off we raced, like greyhounds. Or in my case, an older greyhound, with a particularly inept training and management team. The others were ripping ahead of me, and those behind overtaking. I’d done some warming-up but not enough, it seemed. Before I knew it, we’d covered the first kilometre, and my phone app told me I’d done it in 04:36. I was going way too fast. There was no way I could keep this up, and I tried to slow down. But it was harder than it sounds. I was being overtaken relentlessly, and the instinct to race was hard to fight. I was really paying the price for not moving back a few pens, and feeling pretty rough, too. My fever was still apparent, and I hadn’t been doing as much of my training at this time the morning as I used to. And there were 25 kilometres of this to go.
The course was meandering up and down hill far more than I’d been expecting, and the terrain underfoot took in both kind tarmac and treacherous loose chippings. My joints were already aching. Now, there’s always a tiny little bit of wee in me when I start running, no matter how late I leave my last micturation. Sometimes it just goes away, but today it needed to come out, so I pulled over and let it, discretely sheltered by a bridge below the waist. I also took one of the many 400mg Ibuprofen tablets I would need over the next two hours. As I set off again, refreshed and refocussed, a steward asked me if I was alright. Did I look that troubled? I’m only 44. I run marathons. Honestly.
I normally wear black, and it was at this point that I began to suspect that my outfit for the day, red hydration pack, red running top, and red lycra stretch shorts had been a mistake. I looked like a tomato. A cooking tomato, if I’m honest. And looking down at the unmistakable stain at my groin, a cooking tomato that had been at the bottom of the fridge for too long. There had still been a bit of wee in me, even after the pit-stop. But now it was on me. Well I don’t do this to look cool, now do I?
I pounded along. The other runners flew like gazelles past me, but I just pounded. It felt as though the pavement should be cracking underneath me, as though I were the Incredible Hulk experimenting with a new colour for Autumn. I had toyed with the idea of replacing my running shoes a couple of weeks earlier, my present brace of pairs having seen me though the year’s previous five races and accompanying training, but for some reason thought they would be good for one more race. They weren’t. I have to take the removable insole out of them anyway to fit my prescription orthotics, which sacrifices some shock absorption, but this pair were bereft of any remaining bounce. It was like running in plimsolls.
The Forth Road Bridge finally hove into view, and I seemed to have found a comfortable speed. It was going to be OK. I’d get through it. After all, I had Rush, the most dependable  of hard rock motivators to keep me going. The titles said it all - Presto, Fly By Night, In The Mood, Working Man. It would power me on.
Just as I hit the bridge, my left earphone started crackling and became intermittent, and no amount of jiggling would bring it back. At this point I emitted a very coarse yet cathartic term I  acquired from a Shane Meadows production recently, and which rhymes with “Front Books”. Only seventeen more kilometres to go, and with not mono, but half-stereo, which is far worse. Only listening to The Beatles like this (“You two on the left, you two on the right!” “OK, George!”) could have offered lower fidelity.
The bridge was the centerpiece of the course, and affords a magnificent view of the Firth of Forth, the coastlines of West Lothian and Fife, and of course Brunel’s magnificent iron rail bridge running alongside. It’s also made of very hard metal and concrete and has no springiness to it whatsoever. My shins were suffering, and I wan’t halfway round yet. I was still being overtaken, pitilessly. Not just by elite athletes, but by couples chatting, a man taking a picture of the bridge on his phone as he ran, another man making a hands-free call, and a tall Caribbean man who seemed to be floating along in slow motion with no discernible effort whatsoever.
Round and back we went, passing the half-way point. Suckling my hydration pack, snaffling energy gels, and necking Ibuprofen like a hungover junior doctor, halfway back across the bridge, I finally, after 13 kilometres overtook another runner. 
We wound through the main street of South Queensferry, familiar territory for me, as I used to work at the electronics factory. The cobbles and flagstones were vicious on my inflamed knees and ankles. Once through it was time for the only hill I’d been anticipating, Hawes Brae (pronounced “Whores Bray”, and I’d have been joining in with them). It wasn’t anything like as tough an incline as I’d been expecting, but I wasn’t alone in walking for about a minute. I was now actively seeking out other lame ducks to run with so I wouldn’t stick out so much. It worked at school.
On and through Dalmeny and then Kirkliston, where the runners were tactfully funneled by stewards and police away from paramedics attending a competitor who’d fallen. You see this a lot, especially in summer races where the heat gets to people. But, as I passed, I unmistakably saw the paramedics administering CPR to the man. They only do that when your heart’s stopped, I thought. It was chilling. But we were all in the middle of a race and we all carried on with what we were there to do.
I’ve run three marathons, and this, at only sixty percent of the distance, was starting to feel like one. Not in terms of exhaustion, but that my joints weren’t working and I was in continual pain. Every time a foot landed a millimetre off true I let out an involuntary moan. The stewards and spectators were fantastically encouraging and I smiled back whenever I could.
I’d never been about to do this in 02:00 and as the pain grew, I wan’t going to get 02:15 either, but 02:30 had to be within my grasp. I was doing the sums and listening to my running app, but the 25 km marker didn’t seem to want to appear before me. It was going to take a bit of a spurt. But then, the one pleasant surprise of the day appeared in the form of the 26 km marker. I’d missed 25 km completely. Insanely, I still gave the last 200 metres a kick, threw back my head laughing, both at the absurdity of what I do to relax, and the impending joy of not doing it for a while, and went for it.
I crossed the line like an attention seeking oaf, imitating the aircraft landing next door, with my arms outstretched, veering in in an S-pattern, two hours and twenty-five minutes after I’d set off.
It was horrible ordeal. I really didn’t enjoy any of it. I was in pain all the way through, was serially humiliated, and saw a man who’d just died. But I’m still glad I did it, because I’ve learned the following.
  • If you’re going to run in the morning, train in the morning
  • Base your expectations on how you feel today, not your best ever performance
  • The Edinburgh Half and Full Marathons are very flat compared to out of town races and your times won’t necessarily scale to them
  • If you have been over-optimistic in your forecast, you are not required to set off with those who have not. Run alongside people you can meaningfully compete with.
  • If you’re not sure whether you need new shoes, then you definitely do need new shoes
  • If you take new replacement headphones to a race but run with your old ones, you are blaspheming against the god of irony and he will smite you down

Oh, yes.

  • Don’t dress as an incontinent tomato.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Free-Fall

I'm forty four now. Thirty years ago, I'd been to a Doctor Who convention, a Genesis concert, and trekked up a few hills. I'd unmistakably become the person I am today. I still do all these things. Where will I be another thirty years? If I'm still alive, I'll be seventy-four. If I'm very lucky, I'll still have most of my sight and hearing, and some of my mobility. Anything after that will be a bonus. Fortunately, I enjoy sitting in a chair with a book, talking or otherwise, increasingly one I've love in the past. If I avoid dementia, I'll be OK. I have no children on whom to become dependent. No heirlooms over which to fret. No nest egg awaiting maturity.
I'm thinking about this now, because with each year seeming to pass faster than the one before, I am objectively accelerating towards my dotage. It will be upon me before I know it, as every anniversary seems to be. The remainder of my useful life is going to pass by in a fraction of the perceived time that the preceding decades have.
What am I going to do with the second act before the curtain finally falls? Keep Buggering On. I don't have any great unfulfilled ambitions because I'm living all of them already. I share a living, growing, evolving marriage with Helen. I have a career which I mainly like, when it's not crushing me with anxiety. I'm kind to myself and the miraculous planet I was born on.
The thing that makes this realization, that I've now had most of my memorable experience bearable, is that it comes hand in hand with the maturity to cope with it. I think. Rather than striving and pining, I manage by making the best of what is beyond my control. I'm in free-fall and enjoying the view, even though I'm falling faster and faster, ironically never achieving terminal velocity.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Eating Snails


[ This post is 18 months old - I composed it offline and have just found it. Better late than never. You may disagree. ]

As a year ago, we've come on a short break away from Edinburgh, this time to Cumbria. We're staying just outside Kirkoswald in a big old hall that's been converted into modern apartments. It's very posh.
Last night we went to see in the new year with a swanky meal at a nearby Gastropub. The dining room was above the pub, and as we were called up after our complimentary glasses of champagne (two for Helen, none for me, then) it dawned on us that we were the only sober people dining that night by a very long margin. The other diners, all of whom were middle-aged or elderly, and in large family groups, were full of seasonal spirit, and laughing continually at the appearance of the party balloons. As there poppers went off, I flinched repeatedly, like a shell-shocked infantryman.
Still, the food was great. It occurred to me that the term “Gastropub” might be derived, not prom “Gastronomic” as I had thought, but in fact, from “Gastropod”, as the second course was snails. We'd never tried these before, and I'd been anxious for a couple of days that I wouldn't be able to leave a clean plate, but the old rule of vegetarian coooking (“drown it in garlic and it will taste delicious”) applied here. They weren't rubbery or bursty like wine gums as I'd expected, but more like the fatty end of a beef steak or mushrooms in a vol-au-vent. Yum. Helen wimped out and went for a cleansing sorbet instead.
We had planned to see in the new year at the pub, but downstairs was full of noisy locals, and it wouldn't have felt like a continuation of the evening. I tried to turn Helen's car outside, but couldn't, and started to tack the car back the way it had been facing so I could try again further up the lane. Some local lads decided to help me out, telling me where I had room, and moving some obstacles, so I felt obliged to go back to my original plan. My movements seemed to baffle the lads, who started knocking on Helen's passenger window. I became increasingly besieged and roared off (in several senses), cursing my lack of social ease.
Anyway, I had taken Helen out in her car, eaten snails, and managed not to kill anyone, so I felt that was a fair end to the year.
We saw in 2009 quietly at the apartment, marvelling at how awful the TV coverage was. The were some really big fireworks just outside our window, which we applauded like operagoers. Then to bed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Most Unpleasant Journey

Last Sunday evening, following a weekend in the North West of England, Helen and I were travelling by train from Manchester Piccadilly to Edinburgh. I had deliberately booked a direct service, and reserved us two facing window seats. I was looking forward to finishing Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow and also Daniel Blythe's X Marks The Box, while Helen did some school work on her laptop. Our reserved seats were in coach A.
The platform was crowded when the train arrived, with three coaches labelled D, E and F. We boarded coach D, and I observed that the reservation cards in the seats were marked for coach A. I concluded that the the reservations were valid, but that the external labels were wrong, possibly due to replacement rolling stock. I left Helen to mind our bags while I went down to see if our reserved seats, 31 and 35 were there.
I found them, without reservation cards, and furthermore occupied. I phoned Helen to ask her to join me, and she made her way with the bags through the crowded carriage.
I explained to the men in our seats that they were reserved and asked if we could sit in them. The more senior of them responded that they were not reserved as there were no reservation cards. I countered that I had documentary proof and showed him our reservations. They got up with poor grace, angrily swearing in our faces and calling us troublemakers. One of them faced me squarely, and making sure not to raise my voice, or swear, I asked him not to talk to me in that way. After we sat down, he tried to continue talking to me, but I firmly told him to leave me alone and that I would not be talking to him.
Helen and I were now seated in our window seats, a four-seater table between us, and another table over the aisle. There appeared to be two men with Lancashire accents, who I think were the ones who had been in our seats, and a group of younger men with Scots accents, who were more vocal. All were drinking alcohol, and as well as occupying the the remaining six seats, one or more were standing in the aisle.
Apart from exchanging mute glances of reassurance with Helen, I kept my eyes buried in my book, not daring to further inflame any of the men. One of the Lancashire men was sitting next to Helen, and I did not know who was sitting next to me. My heart was racing and I was full of adrenaline. I couldn't actually read, of course.
All the men were loudly exchanging coarse banter, crowding round a top-shelf Sunday tabloid and making vulgar comments about the contents. On top of this, there was a steady stream of comments about myself. When the subject of fellatio was mentioned, it was suggested that I would oblige with any male passenger. My earlier words, both when asserting my position with the other passengers and speaking on the phone to Helen were repeated. I felt humiliated, emasculated, and above all scared. We were to be on this train for three hours, and the men were not going to get any less drunk.
Despite their deafening stream of obscenities, threatening manner, and the distorted playing of music from a portable device, they were not challenged. It seemed the other passengers were all as intimidated as we were. After about forty minutes the portable devices was augmented with a set of powered speakers, pointedly placed at the edge of the table over the aisle from us. At this point another passenger did stand up and advised that the volume was so loud she could not hear here own headphones over it, but the men ignored her.
At this point, Helen and I made eye contact, and leaned if for a quick conference - we would pick up our bags and leave. We did this, with only a mocking offer of assistance helping us on our way into the next carriage.
We advised the conductor that we had been bullied out of our seats and what the position was in coach D. She committed to intervene and find us seats in coach E. As she went of to do this, I found my hands were shaking and my chest still palpitating.
The conductor came back and explained that if we elected, she could radio ahead and have British Transport Police meet the offenders at Edinburgh, and that whatever happened, she would lodge a report. Over the remainder of the journey we wavered several times between pursuing this or moving on. By the time we had decided to pursue it, it was too late to summon the police. I felt afraid of having to identify the miscreants to the police, or worse, face then in court.
At the time, I felt violated, impotent, and above all, scared. I'm calmer now - this was, after all, not the actions of religious extremists, cynical thieves, or anyone pursuing a vendetta against us. It was simple idiocy. If you put more than one imbecile in the same place, their oafishness is multiplied. If you fill an otherwise dumb individual with alcohol, he still has nothing to say, but says it loudly to anyone who will or will not listen all the same. If you allow sporting fixtures to decant fired-up male-only groups of low intelligence males on to the public transport infrastructure simultaneously, you are letting the rest of your public down. If it had just been me, I could have just applied what I've absorbed from outcome-based cognitive therapy, and rationally concluded that the only lasting negative outcome is that I didn't get to read my books, and had a fragmented and haunted night's sleep afterwards.
But it wasn't just me. My wife was there. I promised Helen's grandfather on the day I married her that I would look after her. I'm not sure I did this to the best of my ability. I'm over this for me, but not for her. She assures me she doesn't think any less of me as a result of my action or inaction, but perhaps I do. In an effort to seek some closure for her, I have reported the incident to the police, and we will be giving statements later this week.
I feel upset having just written about this. But it's been thought-provoking. It shines a light on my own nature - I don't seek vengeance, or even justice, because I don't think there's really such a thing as justice, or even human rights, other than as an ideal. I'm merely disappointed that there are such utterly unimpressive groups of men in existence, even if only fleetingly. And the one thing that does make just a small part of me want to utterly wipe out these crude sub-artisan hooligans is my love for Helen. So that's probably all quite healthy.
I did feel about 20% more right-wing immediately afterwards, but this has subsided. So I no longer feel we should have a futile land war, to which these animals could be despatched to meet their fate at a latter-day Somme. Ask me again when I'm 50.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Five Years

On January 8, I reached a significant milestone - I had been sober for five years. I don't believe in hiding one's lamp under a bushel, indeed, I think it's positively better to broadcast this. Not just to invite a round of welcome back-slapping, but more importantly to offer a tangible example to anyone I know who's in the same unhappy situation as I was when I regularly abused alcohol.

I want to declare that stopping drinking doesn't turn you into a recluse, a bore, or a holier-than-thou do-gooder. You don't have to join AA, take special medication, or wait until your marriage is in tatters and your career compromised, either. I still fraternise with drinkers, serve wine with meals, and take delight in recounting anecdotes of distant revelry.

The moment of clarity for me arrived on the morning of 8 January 2005, when I unequivocally realised that, on every level, I would be happier if I no longer drank. I kept this to myself at first, telling beloved spouse that I was just having a January lay-off. A few weeks later, when she'd got used to that, I admitted I'd stopped for good. Prior to this, the longest I had ever gone without drink was a week at a time during 1997 when I was on-call overnight for work, and a three month attempt to stop in 1991, which had foundered when I idiotically fell into the trap of thinking that if I could stop for a few months, I could start again, but drinking in what I told myself was moderation.

I only ever missed drinking on one regular occasion for a few weeks - at 6:15 on Saturday evenings, when I would customarily fix the first gin and tonic of the day while starting to cook dinner and listening to Loose Ends, declaring that the achieving part of the weekend was officially over.

Yes, I'm happier. No, I've never regretted it. And maybe I wish I'd done it sooner, although then I wouldn't be me, and maybe I wouldn't have made priceless friendships, come to Edinburgh, or met Helen. The Doctor (not that one) tells me that my liver isn't sautéed, so it wasn't too late in a purely physiological sense.

Psychologically, there have been a few wobbles. Drinking to excess, day in, day out, really does stunt your maturity, and I've only really entered adulthood in some senses in the last five years. I don't sulk any more, for example. I believe that one of the things which drew me to alcohol, beyond it's vampiric self-sustaining nature, was that it helped mask underlying conditions such as depression, and obsessiveness. But it's better to get these uncovered and work on them, work with them, in the latter case, than just paper over them while they fester and grow untreated.

If there's a most characteristic tangible benefit to stopping drinking, it's that you start to dig deeper and solve problems at root level instead of becoming oblivious to their symptoms. At work and home, I now actively relish being given a mess to sort out. That's got to be better than the old way.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Revolving Doors

I'll look back at this weekend as the eye of the storm of change that has defined 2009. I found out a few weeks ago that a significant restructuring at the company I've worked at for the past seven months meant my job was unlikely to exist in a few months time, and that I should expect to be made redundant. In contrast with last year's shake-up, I was advised by management that the outlook was acute, and that I should start making other arrangements as soon as possible. As a social formality, I updated my LinkedIn status to say that my job was at risk and I'd be interested in Unix positions in central Scotland.
Within days, a colleague from my preceding employer got in touch to ask if I'd consider a return, and a few days later, I'd formalised this with the company. Helen advised prudence regarding this company, who she perceives as having taken more out of me than vice versa in the past. This was good counsel, and led me to make sure that I continued to set up a meeting with another potential employer, and also negotiated the best conditions possible with the frontrunner.
Plan B crumbled, following an interview that reminded me far more than it should of The Apprentice, and I've agreed a quick exit with the current firm, so I'll be rejoining my old company on Tuesday. I'm mostly positive about this, because my present position was a bit of a compromise; the money hasn't been what I'd hoped for, and the role has been almost overfamilar. However, I've enjoyed the routine, and my colleagues have been fine fellows to a man. I will miss them, and especially my line manager, who has elevated being a good bloke to a vocation. I'll even miss the commute, because 45 minutes twice a day of private time with a book, an iPod and a thermos of coffee, while the West Lothian and Lanarkshire countryside speeds past, constitutes a series of miniature holidays.
The old firm are recruiting to staff a project which will involve spending much of each week away from home, in England. I have mixed feelings about this, as does Helen, but I'll try and make the most of it. I hope that being away will enforce some work/life hygiene and I'll be able to avoid working from home at all. Again, time spent travelling, and staying away from home, is good for catching up on culture and media. I shall, like Ghandi, be the change I want to see, and do all my travelling by train.
My last day at this job is next Monday. The day before, I will be attempting my second marathon. Two weeks ago, I really thought I wouldn't be competing this year, as a flu-like illness had demolished my training schedule, which was already badly deformed. However, infused with post-illness energy last weekend, I went out and proved I could run 24 miles, so I'm on for the race on Sunday.
This week has been an atypical one, then, of deliberate low effort. As well as starting nothing new at work, I've been deliberatively not running, as recommended, to recover from the training run, and mainly eating low-fibre carbohydrates, also as recommended. I think I could keep this up indefinitely.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Felix Edina Non Ambulatorum (sic)

The strangest week in recent memory culminated in a Sunday that I can't let pass without recording. I was on call for work, and Helen had a lot of preparation for school to do, so we hadn't made any firm plans. Time has a habit of draining away under such circumstances, so I'd guiltily drawn up a list of aims. After a couple of hours' displacement, I siezed the day, and announced to Helen that we were going to find Poppy.
Our lovely fifteen-year-old black cat has a tendency to wander off across the local back gardens, taking hospitality wherever she can, and every few months, we have to go and reclaim her from the lady whose garden backs on to ours. The garden she goes through has recently been surrounded by tall trellises for plants to climb. And cats. My pet theory, as it were, was that she'd climbed over, but didn't fancy climbing back. Round we traipsed, to learn that she had been there, but that she seemed to have a sore leg and wasn't there any more. Containing our worry, we went home and looked for her in adjacent gardens.
Helen eventually spotted her on an intervening patio, motionless, but thankfully, breathing. I called on my Scouse powers of, er, cat burglary, and trespassed over to retrieve her. We got her inside and it became apparent that she couldn't put weight on one of her back legs. Helen called the weekend emergency vet, who disappointingly didn't appear by helicopter.
We incarcerated the patient in her travel podule and drove her over to the practice. Possibly a dislocated hip, said the reassuringly competent and personable vet. She'd need an x-ray, and sedation beforehand, because asking a cat to stay still in the requesite pose is so hard that all the similes about things being hard to control already refer to cats, and therefore can't even be used as similes in this situation. We bid au revoir to Poppy and adieu to a significant chunk of a week's pay, and went home to wait for the news.
The worst case, we'd been told, was that she'd lose the leg. Her sister in Trafford gets by perfectly well with just the three, so this wasn't as shocking as it might have been. The call came, and Helen went to collect her. The good news was that it was just an inflamed hip joint, caused by a jolt which had aggravated some arthritic bone growth (she's a very old lady now). However, she'd have to be housed for a week or so in a run where she could move around freely, but not jump or climb at all, or the anti-inflammatory medication wouldn't be able to to any good.
An abortive prototyope based on clothes-airers and old sheets soon gave way to a kind of indoor fallout shelter made by pushing the dining table against the wall and blocking the other three sides with the sofa and framed prints. The mark two was refined by using just the glass from one of the prints so she got some light. In went her blanket, food and water bowls, and litter tray. It feels rotten to coop her up in there, and I just wish I could explain why and how it's for her own good.
Helen brought back the X-ray plates from the vet, which as well as showing that she's in good shape otherwise, indicate that she swallowed a mouse whole fairly recently – you can see its little skeleton inside hers. This is another reason she's been feeling a bit tender. And possibly, diving for the mouse was what set her hip off.
It's like having a feral great-grandmother living with you.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Round Two!

Where were we? God, I'm sorry, this form has been doubly usurped, first by Facebook, and now by Twitter. I rather regretted not diarising last year when doing interesting things, such as being made redundant and then finding a job just as the Credit Crunch bit. Luckily for me, it looks as though fate is giving me a second chance.

I'm having an interesting week. On Tuesday, I heard, out of the blue, via Friends Reunited from a very old friend, whose lifestyle means he's very prone to fall out of contact for long periods. The last I'd heard from him was nearly five years ago, when he acknowledged the invitation to our wedding. We've emailled a few times this week, and his tone seems to mirror my own euphoria.

The following day, there was a rush invitation to an all-hands briefing. We're quite sensibly merging our IT function with that in another sector of the parent group. There will inevitably be redundacies. Since my skills aren't specific to our business, I'm right in the firing line. I won't find out for another six weeks, which should at least regulate the runaway rate at which this year has been elapsing. It feels more shocking than last year. I'd had more of a instinctive feeling ahead of the announcement then, prompted by the feeling that being paid to be on the bench was too good to be true. But after informally being briefed that this employer was a safe harbour in which to weather the recession, this feels like a bit of a betrayal. I am angry at the way the job losses have been communicated. The first manager to address us yesterday hedged and dissembled, using the word “impact” until it gradually emerged that he meanyt redundancies. The last manager of the day actually tried to put a positive spin on events – the high level equivalent of David Brent's “I've got some good news and some bad news”.

There was some laudable stoicism among my peers, but this turn has upset me more than I could have forseen. I was very snippy at home that evening, and a mess of autovocalising insecurity the following morning. I'm really not optimistic about my chances, and preparing for the worst. The good side is that I'd welcome a couple of months garden leave, and that it may be time to look for a more high profile role than the one I have now. I'm 43 now, and my “port in a storm” job perhaps doesn't exploit as much of my experience as it could. I would miss Glasgow, though. I like the work/home hygeine the commute enforces.

Thankfully, I had an appointment in London on Thursday, doing some freelance Doctor Who work, which took my mind off more maudlin matters. It was blissful to spend four hours formalising my childhood memories on my netbook on the way down, deliver them to my client in the afternoon, and see some more old friends in the evening. By coincidence, it was the first Thursday of the month, which is when Doctor Who fans in the London area informally gather at The Fitzroy Tavern in Bloomsbury. I started going to this occasionally in 1984, and regularly from 1990 to 1996. It was highly evocative to be sitting in the same alcoves that held so many memories from my twenties, with, as it happened, many of the same people.

At eleven o'clock, I made my farewells and strolled up Tottenham Court Road to Euston to catch the sleeper train to Edinburgh. The Caledonian Sleeper service is one of the great secret treasures of Britain. If booked well enough in advance, it's far cheaper than a London hotel room. Departing at around 11:40, it delivers you to the other end by 07:00 in a frame of mind far calmer than if you'd been a polluting bastard and flown. Furthermore, it delivers you to the heart of the city you're visiting, so you don't have to disembark and spend another hour travelling in. I've been at London meetings by 08:00. The question I'm always asked concerns sharing a berth (that's the little sleeping compartments, containing an upper and lower bunk, confusingly also called berths). “Isn't it a bit, you know, intimate?” Not really. I book the lower berth, get there 20 minutes early, stow my belongings, and change into loose-fitting clothes. There's no point trying to sleep straight away, as you have to let your subconcious noise-reduction system sample and absorb the clanks and rattles of the train, so it's a good chance to read a bit, or listen to headphones. There's a shaver socket above the sink, so you can charge all your thirsty devices. I'd planned to watch The Prisoner last night, but felt drowsy after a couple of chapters, and nodded straight off. The berths have individual lights, so you can read without disturbing your neighbour. I have found said neighbours to be either mute or timid, and beyond exchanging a quick “Evening” or “Cheerio, then” seldom keen to share their insights. Invariably, on arrival at the far end, one of the sharers will depart immediately, leaving the other to wash, shave, and otherwise spruce himself up for the day's business. They don't kick you off the train until you've consumed the continental breakfast they've brought you in bed.

Having left it too late to book to Glasgow (where I work), I had booked to Edinburgh, and parambulated across the Waverly concourse to catch the commuter shuttle. I am now at a table for four which is fully-occupied and feeling my privacy far more compromised than I did with my mystery companion last night. I feel ready for work. Isn't that ironic?


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The New Routine

I moved to a new employer last year and now commute every weekday from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The trains are frequent, punctual, and well-maintained, but I would have expected little else at the fare, which is £2800 for a year's seaon ticket.
I have found that if I leave the house at six fifteen, I can get an hour on the gym, and still be at my desk for nine, which isn't too shabby. I get an hour and a half each day to read, listen to music, podcasts, or audio drama, of even watch TV of cinema on a variety of sub one-kilo portable devices, which I look upon as a gift. It makes me all the more dismayed to see how many of my fellow commuters occupy themselves day in day out with the insubstantial and environmentally unhelpful free newspapers that are dropped on Britains transport network each day like doodlebugs.

Posted by ShoZu

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Operation Delve

Having greeted my wife on her return from her grandmother's, I retreated to the smallest room to attend to some pressing business. "Dave?", she soon called. "A bad thing has happened". It transpired that while changing buses on the way home, she had, in the course of discarding her used rail tickets, inadvertently thrown away, with her used ticket, her unused tickets for the following weekend's trip to Manchester. Could I, at nine on this rapidly darkening Sunday evening, cycle to the bus stop in question (just in front of LIDL and the 24-hour garage) and retrieve the tickets from the bin?

Wordlessly, I donned my helmet and set out, having first rooted around for my bike lights, unused since April. "You are absolutely sure that you threw them in the bin and that they're not anywhere else?" I checked, and even though the reply was defiantly affirmative, I still jammed my bluetooth headset on, ready to field any call to indicate they had been found.

On arriving at the bus stop, I found that the bin was of formidable cast-iron construction, with the pillar-box opening at the top of its metre of height. I couldn't even see into it, let alone see any evidence of rail tickets. I 'toothed mission control to confirm this was indeed the target. If only, I thought, I had a mirror - then, I could hold it in the slot at an angle and look down at the bin contents. Exhibiting, though I say so myself, near-genius, I turned on the camera and spotlight on my mobile phone and held it over the rim of the slot so I could look in at the display. There was something that looked like a train ticket nestling atop a carrier bag. Putting fears of septicemia to one side, I knelt down, fed my arm through the slot up to the shoulder, and at full stretch, managed to grab the ticket. Hooray!

It was Helen's return portion from her journey that day.

Further phonecam surveillance indicated what might have been the crucial vouchers, but try as I might, I couldn't reach them. I had taken out the carrier bag by this stage, and the spectacle of a 42-year old man, bicycle leaning against the railings, wearing a helmet and headset, waving a mobile phone into a litter bin, and hooking out carrier bags, was beginning to attract bemused attention. It looked like a kind of Mission Impossible on it's uppers scenario, Jim Phelps, The Wilderness Years, if you like. I felt the urge to explain to the passengers waiting at the bus stop. "It's my wife. She accidentally threw away the wrong train ticket". They nodded sympathetically, but inside I could tell they were thinking "Aye, right. He's got a wife. Course he has".

I resolved to go and get the tools for the job, and returned to the operations hub to stock up my mission pack with a long-handled dustpan and brush, a wire coathanger, some blu-tack, and extendable metal tape measure, and an air duster. That should do it. Jim Phelps was banished. Now I was MacGuyver. I pedaled back off into the September evening. There would be a new queue of onlooking bus passengers, potentially more aggressive than sympathetic by now. Just round the corner, my headset trilled. "I've found it!" said mission control, going on to elaborate "I'd thrown it in the recycling".

I executed a U-turn and returned to base, standing down the alert to amber. I had expected many things from married life, but scrabbling in bins was not one of them.

"That usually comes later", mused Agent Owen, pouring himself a generous Earl Grey, contemplating a future, with eyes that had already seen too much. Far too much.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Everything's Coming Up Roses

Something dreadful must be waiting around the next corner, because I haven't felt this fulfilled in living memory. Here are three highlights.

I painted our front room. That may not sound like much, but we live in a 19th century colony house with high ceilings, ornate woodwork, and unforgiving access. I hadn't actually done any decorating for about a decade, so it was invigourating to dig out my rollers and brushes and also quite challenging to engage a specialist paint vendor to try and get a match for the work we had done last year. I seem to have found an equilibrium between prissy and slapdash, and am very pleased with the results. I shall do more later this year.

I ran a marathon. This had been hanging over me for the best part of a year. Fundamentally, it's just a matter of believing you can do it, and then training lots. The longest few training runs weren't much fun, if I'm honest, but I enjoyed myself on the day, and made a small fortune for charity. Everyone I know has been suitably impressed with me, except for the population of Sunderland, who seem to all be former elite athletes. This was my first, but not my last.

I interviewed Colin Baker. I had previously interviewed Doctor Who number six on stage in 1999, on a day when he may not have been in the best humour, and I misjudged the occasion, causing a car crash interview that people still talk about. I was doing a lot of stage interviews at an event in Gloucester last weekend, and agreed to cover Colin again. I came clean to him beforehand, and whether he remembered me or not, he was gracious and forthcoming, and even elicited a specific round of applause for me at the conclusion. A ghost was very much laid to rest.

So that's good. I have new glasses, a new tooth, some new clothes, and will soon have some new orthotic insoles as well. Everything in and around me is being unpacked, cleaned, and put away again tidily. It's all ship-shape. As I say, something appalling is bound to befall me, but I though I should stick a flag in the calendar on this day that it hasn't yet.