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.