Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year Turns - 14 Weeks to Go

Every Christmas, Helen and I spend a few days with our families in and around Liverpool and Manchester. For the past few years, I’ve also just started training for a Spring marathon at this time, and have to lead a double life; as well faking neurotypical gregariousness and playing at being an Uncle and an in-law, I’m also getting up early and putting the miles in. It’s a strange lonely sort of ritual. It doesn’t seem to afford the same sort of comfort as running at home, perhaps because after each run I’m returning to someone else’s house where I’m living out of a bag and where my post-run protein comes in someone else’s crockery.
The disrupted weather this Christmas has led to some odd runs. I have no idea what to wear, and have donned a windproof jacket for a sixteen-mile run only to wish I could discard it after ten minutes. And this week, I set out two hours before sunrise in 50 mile per hour gusts in a single flimsy layer and didn’t feel the need for any more because the gales were so unsettlingly warm.
It’s not just the weather that’s been odd and unfamiliar. This five-days-a-week regime continues to surprise me. Not only are my muscles that aren’t having time to recover, but my skin as well, and I’ve experiencing chafing at far shorter distances than in my usual regime. I continue to feel tired and sluggish when running, but oddly the day after that treacly sixteen-miler, I zipped through another eight at what would be a respectable race pace. I have no idea why.
My calves and quads are still sore, and both my achilles tendons are aching although so far this feels like a sustainable discomfort and not an injury in the making. I’m daring to hope that because I’m fitter and stronger than the last time I attempted to run so frequently, I’m correspondingly less injury-prone.
After the Doctor Who Christmas special went out, I placed a reminder on social media that its writer, Steven Moffat, had supported me and I was gratified by the number of donations which came in on Christmas and Boxing Days. In the new year, I’ll be making more targeted appeals and also approaching donors directly. We’re not far off £3000 now and I still believe we’ll get to £5000.
I’ve run my last miles of 2015. Tomorrow will be the year I turn fifty, and the year I run an ultramarathon. Both occasions have been occupying my thoughts for years but are hurtling towards me now.

Money Raised: £2,753.77
Money to Raise: £2,246.23
Miles run: 132
Miles to run: 832
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Long Haul - 15 Weeks To Go

I’d like to say I’m fighting fit. In truth, I’m fighting to fit training in. Other things are being sidelined - piano, social correspondence, bothering to iron work shirts. Keeping to the training targets comes first. I feel the benefit of the runs, especially the brace of long ones each weekend, and my mind is more still afterwards, but this isn’t honestly an enjoyable kind of running. This five-times-a-week repeated punishment gives me no time to recover and run with fresh muscles. Each individual performance feels as much of a struggle as the sort of training I used to run five years ago before I became fitter. I can feel repetitive stress injuries, quite literally, nipping at my ankles as I run. Each time, I pledge to stretch and use the foam roller more and more. And after each time, I don’t because there just isn’t enough time. Look at how often I’m using the word “time". It’s the miracle ingredient I crave.
What’s does this feel like? It’s like suddenly running with a passenger. There’s more effort and less result. These are each individually disappointing runs. Only taken as a series, ninety runs, five a week over eighteen weeks, does the achievement emerge. Each week the achievement is still being on my feet and just about uninjured at the end of the fifth run. It’s degrading my other activities too - yoga’s harder and on Saturday afternoon as I scaled tenement staircase after tenement staircase in the cause of activism, my calves and quads were screaming at me to stop.
I’ve worked out a way of fitting this in around Christmas obligations. Christmas can be a challenging time for an Aspie. There are lots of overlaid sensory and social landscapes and the temptation is to curl into a ball and wait it out. But I’ll have some solitary meditative space as I go out and train. I love running on Christmas morning, and finding a return to the childhood thrill of being first up and discovering what has been left for me.
I must record the strange weather this December. At this time of year my usual running enemies are cold exposed skin and feet sliding around on ice. But this year, I’m facing high-speed gusts of warm wind. Wind is the enemy of runners seeking target paces, but for the next fifteen weeks, they’re not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for stamina, and the ability to keep running when I’m exhausted. These are perfect conditions, then - a 45mph head-on gust can make even running on fresh legs feels as though one’s entering the fifth hour. 
I’ve rediscovered the dawn this week, twice setting out before sunrise. At this extreme of the year, the return of daylight each morning is to be celebrated and there is no better way than to be out in it, ideally running south-east into the new day.
And soon, into the new year.

Money Raised: £2,445.77
Money to Raise: £2,554.23
Miles run: 86
Miles to run: 878
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Pressure Mounts - 16 Weeks To Go

This is what I looked like
about an hour after
after my tenth marathon
This week, I've properly appreciated for the first time what a significant volume of training I've committed myself to. Before my best marathon yet, I trained three and sometimes only two times a week. I usually had two or three days to recover between each training run. If I maintain the training pattern I've set out for the ultra I will be running five days every week, snatching just two days recovery between them. And on each of those recovery days, I attend a high intensity gym class.
It feels like a recipe for fatigue, a suppressed immune system, and overuse injuries.
I'm not backing off yet, but there's great comfort in knowing I can do so if I choose.
This week was an oddity, because it followed the spontaneous 23-miler the previous Saturday. I ran a couple of miles straight after my gym class on Tuesday and felt fatigued and wobbly. Things had improved by Thursday when I joined a charity run at work at lunchtime and, festooned in tinsel, ran a competitive four miles against a bunch of competitive IT professionals. I think I'm going to be able to cope with these clusters of three short runs from Tuesday to Thursday if I don't run any of them straight after a gym class again.
This weekend held my first two longish back to back runs, eleven miles on Saturday and seven on Sunday. Encouragingly I was more energetic and speedy on Sunday.
However, I usually feel crap. This volume of training has had me craving high-energy food and my weight has crept up a couple of kilos. I'm tired, and finding it hard to get up in the morning. I have an upset tummy and a blocked nose a lot of the time.
I'm not just going to put up with this and hope it goes away. Between now and Christmas I'm hereby imposing an in-bed-by-ten regime and watching what I eat so that my blood sugar doesn't spike. If that doesn't help enough, I may look at dropping one of the midweek runs. I have to maintain the two back-to-back runs at the weekend though, and in just a few weeks, they'll amount to a combined distance of thirty miles. It will be a real challenge to fit them in around other people's ideas of what I should be doing over the Christmas holidays.
I've changed what I listen to when I run. As I'm not chasing speed on the long runs, I can afford to listen to audio drama rather than energising music. I've been greatly diverted this weekend by, amongst other things, Big Finish Productions' audio revival of 1970s post-apocalypse drama "Survivors".
Reading the above, I realise I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself. Some of this is my resistance to change, and some of it's the low mood that comes with tiredness. I think that there's a part of me that doesn't actually believe that this five-day-a-week training programme is the right thing for me and that it's risky and contradicts the lesson of success I've been having by running less and faster.
Maybe the two problems - exhaustion from the volume of training, and a shortage of days over Christmas when I can run - are actually solutions to one another.
It's not just in my legs and joints that I'll do well to cultivate flexibility.

Money Raised: £2,273.27
Money to Raise: £2,726.73
Miles run: 55
Miles to run: 809
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, December 06, 2015

On The Waterfront - When Dave Met Desmond

To make life seem less repetitive and mechanical it’s good to have adventures, to keep doing new things for the first time. I spent this weekend visiting my mum in Liverpool, which is mainly a comforting nostalgic break from the cumulative rigours of routine, but I decided to deliberately explore two new experiences.
Last year when visiting I brought my bike with me and as I was riding back from the southern suburbs to Lime Street station, cycled past an enticing deep sunken garden behind the Anglican cathedral. And unexplored place! I found that this was St James’ Garden, excavated when much of the stone that the city is built from was hewn, that it hosts a spring, and that it’s a graveyard. So this time, quivering with the elective power of taking a weekday off work, I went to explore. It felt like entering a secret kingdom, and a quiet one too - apart from its own sepulchral calm, it has all the peace of a walled garden (but a biblical rather than a Victorian one) and bathes in the stillness from the cathedral that towers above, floating in the air like a gothic mothership.
There were a few other explorers, exploring the garden quietly with cameras like me, or sitting and exploring their own inner landscapes.
I stayed for about forty minutes. The place will stay with me for life. I can close my eyes and retreat there any time I choose.
Don’t worry, blokey readers. This will get a bit less poncey now.
My sister and her husband live with their three young daughters in Formby, a quiet coastal town about twenty miles north of the Liverpool suburb where we come from and where my mum lives. After having followed a training plan for two marathons this year which stipulates a twenty-miler every couple of weekends, I’m ready to run that distance at the drop of any proverbial hat that I might hear fluttering earthwards. Inevitably, I resolved to run from Mum’s to Rachel’s next time I was down.
Twenty miles should take three hours at a leisurely nine minutes per mile I reasoned. The only risk was the weather. I’d be running up the Mersey coast and winds of up to 45 mph were forecast. This was the weekend of Storm Desmond. (On behalf of all Pink Floyd fans can I entreat that when they get up to T, we can have Storm Thorgerson?) But they seemed to be from the south east. I wore a windproof jacket and gloves and set off. My mum lives half a mile from the banks of the Mersey at Otterspool Promenade, and as I approached it, my iPod played “Stanlow” by OMD, their solemn hymn to the oil refinery over the river whose lights I could see as I ran. And as the OMD boys hail from “over the water” as they say in Liverpool, i kept them playing as a surveyed the towns of the Wirral on the other side of the choppy river. The wind propelled me forward from behind and as I passed the spot where I collapsed with cramp on the Liverpool Marathon in June, I felt happy. When I was a boy, the promenade just stopped here, at the landfill sight, but over the decades that’s become a garden festival and then housing and even marinas. It’s an impressive rebirth and as I headed north I felt a sense not just of the Irish Sea ahead of me but the Atlantic and Liverpool’s historic links with the new world. This fired my imagination as a boy and did again as I ran. I love landscapes, history, movement, and the absence of crowds. This is where I’m most alive.
And so, now it’s all joined up, I can run from the house I grew up it to the Pier Head, with all it’s new developments and the Liver Buildings. Here’s I turned inland, going east for what was an optimistic piece of memorised navigating, up Water Street, where my father worked for Bibby Brothers shipping when I was a boy, and along Dale Street, barely changed since then. I soon found myself where I’d never been before, looking for Vauxhall (Lots of planets have a Vauxhall) where I joined the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
Here I managed a serendipitous error. Thrown off by the domestic labyrinth and shearing wind, I turned the wrong way on the canal, and heading west towards the docks was treated to an astonsihing ladder of locks, as the canal descended between enormous dark brick warehouses over a century old. The scale of this intrusion of historic industry into the landscape was breathtaking and as I regained my bearings and headed northeast again I was grateful for the happy accident.
Up then along the well maintained towpath. There was a kind of grim beauty to the landscape I passed through, countless scrap yards and businesses where blowtorch and swarfega are always to hand. A fire in a skip added to the sense of ruin. In the whole section along the canal, I didn’t see a single vessel on the water, a stark reminder that I live in a genteel varsity town where rowing teams and longboat holiday makers revel in life on the water. Beyond the canal were places I’d only had the most fleeting engagement with in my youth. My father had an uncle and aunt in Bootle, and it hadn’t ever been a place I’d imagined visiting on foot. 
At Crosby I left the canal and tacked back over to the coast. I’d missed some sleep during the week and was starting to feel it. But I was over half way and on schedule. As I headed towards the sand dunes at Crosby I realised how fierce the wind was. I was enjoying the novelty of running where I’d never run before but feeling apprehensive about the conditions. The promenade seems to run through the middle of the dunes and had accumulated blown-in deposits almost too high to jump over. The wind coming in from Liverpool Bay was whipping in from my side and found the best way was to run with one eye closed to keep the sand out. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had my calves blasted by sand like this. In such circumstances, the thing to do is grit your teeth (although the wind was actually doing this for me) put your head down and get on with it. 
I’s been going for about two hours by now and although I didn’t know it at the time, made a catastrophic mistake. I turned inland again too early rather than continuing north along the coast and found myself passing through well-to-do residential areas. I now realise that after two hours, my reasoning and planning had gone to pot, and even when I referred to the mapping app on my phone I wasn’t looking for the big picture.
I had a point to aim for that my sister had told me about at Hightown station where I could catch an off-road path all the way up to Formby, but I ended up taking an insane dangerous route to it along a busy road with no pavement, hardly any verge, and tight corners which meant that I had to keep changing side just to be seen. Common sense commanded me to take my earphones out and stop and leave the road when oncoming cars approached. This I later learned is a notorious place just for motorists. As a pedestrian I had no business being there. And I still hadn’t worked out that this wasn’t the route I’d been planning. I was becoming exhausting and angry that that run seemed to be longer than the twenty miles I had planned.
I finally made it to Hightown, tired and angry, but at least pleased that I was off-road again and could put my earbuds back in an bask in the stadium rock anthems of Asia. If you’re not allowed a guilty pleasure in these circumstances, when are you?
I phoned my sister, who is one of the most chatty and loquacious people I know. I think I may have cut her dead slightly with my just-the-facts-ma’am progress update.
I arrived, via this odd little sub-space wormhole, in the middle of a residential part of Formby and felt my spirits lift as I trotted the last few streets to the house. The numbers on my watch just didn’t make sense. I’d maintained a pace of about 08:45 a mile and yet was arriving half an hour late. It dawned on me that I’d run far more than I’d planned, well over twenty-three miles. Another half hour and I’d have covered a marathon.
My nieces excitedly cheered my arrival. I handed my phone to their mum and lingered outside the front door for two minutes, stretched and relishing the last solitude I’d enjoy for several hours.
The first two hours of the run had been exquisite mental and physical nourishment. The last hour and a half had been tough. I was glad it was over.
Now, a day later, I appreciate it a bit more. I’ve created a link between two places. Whenever I think of the two houses my family live in I’ll be able to contemplate a continuous path of footsteps linking them. 

Human-powered transport joins places up. It’s a deliberate way of weaving something valuable. 

The Big Launch - 17 Weeks To Go

There’s an embarrassment of riches to report this week. I had expected that I’d be writing about a deliberate diversion from the training schedule, where instead of running 8-9 miles on Saturday and 6-7 miles on Sunday, I yielded to the impulse to run over 20 miles between my mum and sister’s houses along the banks of the Mersey. But there’s such other good news to report that I’ve hived that off into its own entry.
My fundraising approach has been to recruit high-profile supporters first, so I can shamelessly cite them to publicise what I’m doing to raise support in the spheres where they’re well-known.
I’m really pleased that in this first week, I’ve managed to solicit support from several areas that are important to me.
First, I came for the comedians.
Toby Hadoke is celebrated as a Doctor Who interviewer and and audio actor, but that shouldn’t diminish his day job as a stand-up comedian and MC. He put a smile on my face this week with sponsorship and endorsement. And keeping it fishy (Hadoke/Haddock, get it?) , another comedian, Richard Herring also chipped in. (“Chipped” in. Ha ha. I am funny). Richard is best known for playing the bean-faced postman in “Time Gentlemen Please”, but has a place in my heart for his documentary stand-up show “The Twelve Tasks of Hercules Terrace” over a dozen years ago in which he recounted labours including running the London Marathon. This inspired me in 2004 to run my first ever 10K for charity, so he is part of this reason you’re reading this.
Then, I came for the politicians.
My ward, Fountainbridge and Craiglockhart has a couple of the best local councillors you could hope for and they stepped up admirably. Cllr Gavin Corbett (Green) claims (wrongly) (and repeatedly) to be responsible for my marathon success by ordering me to climb tenement stairs delivering hundreds and thousands of ward newsletters. But I’ll allow him this fantasy because he’s very much part of the success of this initiative by sponsoring me first. And across the chamber is Cllr Andrew Burns (Labour) who leads the city council and despite having described me as “a lost cause” politically sees some worth in this apolitical endeavour and has included me in his budget. A metaphorical tick in both their boxes.
Then, I came for the businessmen. In their suits and ties.
I’ve worked for Dave Foreman for much of the last decade. He’s led me through some challenging projects but always by making me want to earn his support. And Neil Davidson is something of a role model in the astonishing charity challenges he puts himself through. They’re both inspiring leaders who make me feel good about working for them. I think they usually use some form of sinister mind control, but they've done it here with their donations.
Then, I came for the Doctor Who writers.
There are literally too many of these to mention in person, so I’ll single out the famous ones who written proper Doctor Who on the telly. Way back in 1980, Andrew Smith made me green with envy by becoming the youngest-ever writer for the series. His subsequent police career has been built on knowing right from wrong so I’m flattered he’s chosen to back my appeal. Paul Cornell has written some of the best episodes for the Eccleston and Tennant Doctors and as a vicar’s husband knows a thing or two about fundraising appeals. He can come to me next time the church roof needs fixing. And finally, Steven Moffat, the man who for the last half-decade has been the lead writer and executive producer on Doctor Who (as well as doing a similar job with “Sherlock”) has been more generous than I could ever have dared hope. He’s a big-hearted, passionate man, and here is just another example.
So, I’ve got the (local) government, the law, the church, business, the satirists and the storytellers behind me. I am going to shamelessly milk their patronage via a series of manipulative graphics on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, timed to coincide with paydays, and use their names to drum up more support. Damn! I’ve let slip my secret plan.
The very good news is that fundraising has exceeded my wildest hopes. I anticipated that I’d get support by writing to people I know individually, but social networking has done its stuff and wonderful people I know, some of whom I’ve only met in person once or twice, have been generous in the extreme.
With only 33 donations so far, I’m 44% of the way to my £5000 target. The average donation has been staggeringly high although this is due in no small part to a certain television executive. 
While all this has been going on, I’ve been doing my part. It dawned on my heavily that there will be around 90 training runs for this race and that I’ll be running five times a week. I began the first week’s training with what seemed to be absurdly short distances - just two miles on three consecutive days. And yet, by the third day, I was feeling an undeniable muscular fatigue and craving a day’s rest. This is because my previous training regime involved running no more than three times a week and having at least a full clear day between runs. I’m going to be feeling tired and sore for the next few months, and I’ve realised that this Saturday’s indulgence - an unscheduled 23-miler - will have to be a one off. I’ll have to respect this schedule or I’ll become injured. And I’ll have to keep listening to my body, not just my muscles, but my heart, my lungs and my gut (you really, really, don’t want to know the awful details) and not fall into damaging habits. 
I’ve been thinking about what to blog about for the next seventeen weeks (Running 23 miles provides ample time for such speculation). I’ve decided to go and interview some of the staff from Number Six and report first-hand how services funded by Autism Initiatives help and enable people with autism. And why don’t I talk to one of the organisers of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Ultramarathon about how first-timers get on? And, yes, if I can persuade her, I’ll interview my wife Helen about what it’s like being married to someone with Asperger’s who obsessively runs long-distance races and blogs about them.
I watched Doctor Who with my mum last night. When Steven Moffat’s name up on the opening credits I inwardly cheered. 
His cunning plan has worked.

Money Raised: £2,213.27
Money to Raise: £2,786.73
Miles run: 29
Miles to run: 835
Sponsor me here:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Starting Line - 18 Weeks To Go

It’s Monday 30 November 2015. Today, I begin eighteen weeks of training for 2016’s Glasgow to Edinburgh Ultramarathon. On 2 April, I’ll be running 55 miles between Scotland’s great cities. I've never run more that 26.2 miles before.
Ahead of me lie 864 miles of training. That’s an imposing distance, awesome in the proper meaning of the term.
Another significant goal is the £5,000 I intend to raise for Autism Initiatives UK. That’s a big request to make of my extended circle of friends and colleagues in the different spheres of life I occupy, so the least I can offer in return is a series of blog postings.
I’ll be tracking the progress of my training and fundraising each week. I’ll try and share what it’s like to train for a long-distance event through the Scottish winter. I’ll look at what motivates me, and remember the journey that got me here, from my first competitive race in 2004 and the ten marathons I’ve since completed.
It’s a couple of months since my last race. the Loch Ness Marathon. Since then, I’ve taken a couple of weeks to recover, and then resumed running without really training, just going out a couple of times during the week for some intervals or a brisk tempo run, and then going for a long slower run at the weekend, up to 20 miles. I’ve no significant injuries or niggles. If I don’t run one day, I feel a hunger to run again as soon as I can. It’s the right time to adopt a prescribed training schedule and I’ll relish having structure again. 
The main difference between training for a marathon and this is that for an ultra, you run two long runs at weekends. Instead of a day of rest, you go out and do it again. This builds up your ability to stay on your feet longer and get used to running in the second half of the long race when you’re already depleted.
The week ahead offers tiny distances, hardly worth lacing up my shoes for. But there are runs on five days. I guess I’ll be giving my body notice that regime is changing and rather than sporadic fast runs, I’m going to be building up cumulative endurance. 
This is a radical change of strategy for me. In the past couple of years I’ve reduced my injuries and increased my speed by running faster but shorter and less often. Now I’m going the other way. My fear is that this volte-face is likely to injure me. My physiotherapist has already been warned.
I hope that’s introduced the requisite element of jeopardy into this adventure.
And we're off!

  • Money Raised: £565
  • Money to Raise: £4,435
  • Miles run: 0
  • Miles to run: 864
Sponsor me here:

Monday, July 06, 2015

Chris Squire 1948-2015. So long, and thanks for all, The Fish

One cold Saturday night in Autumn 1980, barely into my teens, I stood in the shabby shed called Deeside Leisure Centre, just over the border from home into North Wales. After what seemed like hours, the lights dimmed and Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" heralded the appearance, among some giant fibreglass sculptures of plants on stage, of five men around the age of thirty. The acknowledged our applause and moved to their instruments. As the classical tape ended, the one on the right, tall, thin, with streaked hair, and wearing a glitter version of a teddy boy drape started off the group's performance by producing an elusive yet hypnotic repeated figure on his bass guitar. The rest of the band crashed in behind him, and the bass continued to wobble and pulse beneath, around, and above their solid beat.
Three hours later, I had witnessed the first of my couple of dozen Yes concerts, and my hearing was temporarily attenuated by the bass frequencies produced by the man on the right, especially during his eponymous showcase piece, The Fish, when I had actually felt my chest cavity resonate.
That man was Chris Squire. In the previous year, his partnership with Yes co-founder Jon Anderson had run its course, not for the last time, and he had assumed the mantle of de facto leader of the band.
Yes dissolved a few months after this tour, being reincarnated a few years later and have existed in some form ever since.
I still wasn't a fan. Not in the way I was a fan of Genesis, say, loving every moment of every album. I'd first heard them in 1978, via C90s from friends and then the first ever edition of BBC Radio One's Friday Rock Show which comprised a 1978 live gig. It was clever music, and I liked the science fiction album covers and avoidance, usually, of love songs. Prog rock's appeal to emotionally-constipated teenage boys is well-documented. But I didn't yet get what they were trying to do a lot of the time.
Still later, Yes fissioned, and Jon Anderson's half got as far as recording and touring. Chris Squire's half seemed to be taking their time. I went to see Jon Anderson's half and thought that this was quite a hard band to be a fan of. They kept reconfiguring, changing personnel, and not touring the UK.
I think I became a Yes fan one evening in February 1990, in a motel room in Norwalk, Connecticut. I was listening to a cassette of that first Friday Rock Show. I suddenly realised that this version of Yes was perfect, and that the band would never be perfect without Chris Squire. The lighter whimsy of the others needed his tougher weight underpinning them. Anderson's Mozart needed Squire's Wagner.
A miracle happened a year later. They patched up their differences and all toured together. I know I was a fan now because I went to see the same band play the same songs on two consecutive nights.
In Spring 1998, I hadn't seen them live for seven years. They'd been pissing around with line-ups again. But they were back now. I sat on the second row of Newcastle City Hall. They'd now entered the phase where they would bring back much-loved old songs that hadn't touched for years. I smiled so broadly that evening that my jaw ached afterwards. Chris Squire, on stage in front of me noticed this, and I knew that he's noticed. It established a connection of loyalty.
I met him a couple of times. Once, at a signing session with the rest of the band, and then a few years later at a fan-run meet-and-greet after a show in Edinburgh. I shook his enormous hand, and introduced him to Helen, who I would later marry. I mentioned that I'd introduced her to the music of Yes and that since our meeting the regular audience had increased by one. He suggested I sow my oats a bit and fill their concert stalls with my many girlfriends. Helen eventually saw the funny side. I think.
I've become less patient with the concert-going experience. People around me, it seems, are less respectful of the occasion. They seem to drink more, talk inappropriately, and create distractions with their mobile devices. Some of this is due to social mores changing, and, I acknowledge, much of it, for me, is that I stopped drinking ten years ago and feel other people's revelry more painfully. I made one of my grand all-or-nothing decisions this and vowed that 2015 would be my final year of concert-going.
Yes provided me with a perfect test case for my resolve, by announcing that in 2016 they would be touring not only Fragile from 1971, but also Drama, from 1980, my favourite Yes album, the one that's driven by Squire more than any other, and the one they were touring that cold night in 1980. I didn't waver. At first.
A month ago, Chris Squire announced he had a form of leukaemia, one which upon swift research didn't appear very survivable. I was very upset. The facts, that he was probably going to die some time this year, didn't seem to match my belief in his robust indefatigability.
I made a playlist, of Yes material that emphasised him, and also his one and only solo album which I prefer to several full band albums, and headed out for a three-hour marathon training run. "This is what I do now", I thought. "I make my own gigs, and enjoy the music by myself how I like." I smiled and cried a bit as I ran.
A week ago, he died. If you think that it's just that someone who made some records I liked in the past has died, and that it's a shame and no more, then you don't understand the immediacy and the connection. My social media feeds were swamped with people I know expressing the same sadness and loss as me. And professional musicians as well. And all his colleague and former colleagues from Yes. Yes are, remarkably carrying on, and it seems that this contingency was planned for, with one of the former members stepping in to perform his parts on stage.
We have to mark people's passing. It feels incomplete and unresolved if we don't. My own father was such a difficult bugger that there was no funeral, and I feel that it is those of us in his immediate family who have paid the price, whether or not we actually liked him, because we didn't have that ritual to follow.
I need a ritual, a marking, a ceremony. So that's why I deliberately broke my resolution and bought a ticket to see the surviving members of Yes next Spring. The show will happen in the month I turn fifty. I sang Happy Birthday to Chris at his own fiftieth birthday seventeen years ago.
I feel much much better having made this decision. It will be an emotional night, especially when Billy Sherwood plays "The Fish", Squire's instrumental piece with which he shared a nickname.
On my running playlist I included "It's Love" a very early live Yes track, which concludes with a joyous bass guitar and scat vocal exploration from Chris. As they wrap up, Jon credits him: "Chris, there. Rumbling away on bass."
Last week, Scotty, Chris' widow announced online that his cremation would take place that day, at 11pm BST, and that it would be a good time for anyone who felt like it to play their favourite piece. I played "Can You Imagine?" in which he seemed to muse on what lay beyond this life.
An hour or so later there was a summer storm over Edinburgh, with thunder and lightning waking up lots of people.
I will permit the fanciful part of myself the conceit that that was Chris, sound checking his new rig. It's a comforting fantasy.
"Chris, there. Rumbling away on bass."

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Ten Years : Ten : This Is The Day

It is the morning of Thursday January the 8th 2015.
Exactly a decade ago, on Saturday January the 8th 2005, I woke up feeling awful. My last memory of the previous night was sitting next to Helen on the sofa in front of the television, and her having to dive to catch the tumbler of gin and tonic that had just dropped from my hand. This was not a remarkable occurrence.
Later that following morning, I loaded Helen’s car with some recycling to take to the depot and in so doing, allowed our cat Poppy to leave the house from the front door on to the busy street. There was no sign of her. My temper became frayed and a row escalated between Helen and me, before I drove off to the depot. My thoughts and feelings were of remorse and anxiety. I didn’t want to feel like this. I wanted to do something, take a decisive action, that would stop me from feeling like this so much of the time.
When I got home, Poppy had returned unharmed and Helen and I were reconciled. That felt like life’s acknowledgement of my offer to do something decisive.
So prompted, I decided there and then that the previous night’s tumbling tumbler was to have been my last drink, ever.
We went to a party on the other side of Scotland that night, surrounded by people who’d got there by walking, all merrily carousing. It was the right thing to do. I managed to hide my resolution from our hosts and even from Helen by being the driver.
What kept me going through the first few days and weeks was that sense of reclaimed control. I’d made a decision and it was mine to enact, conceal, and selectively reveal as I chose. I gradually mentioned to smaller and larger groups that I was having a dry month, and when they’d got used to that idea, a dry life. As I passed a week, a month, and then wonderfully, a year, I became very attached to marking off the time.
Asperger’s, or possibly just being a Doctor Who fan, draws me powerfully to the habit of marking anniversaries. The only way to measure not doing something is to count the elapsed time you have not done it. I can’t tell you how many units of alcohol I have not drunk, how many brain cells I have not destroyed, how many stares have not lingered inappropriately, how many productive hours have not been lost, how many working days not abandoned, how many times I have not pissed myself in public, how many domestic or family arguments I have not started, how many hotel and restaurant toilets I have not vomited in, or how many times I have not been asked to leave or not refused entry to licensed establishments.
But I can tell you how many days I have not drunk for. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-two.
I can also tell you how many times I have regretted stopping drinking. Zero.
This fixation with anniversaries has meant that I have wanted it to be today for a very long time indeed. One year ago, my mind was dominated by the thought that there was just another year to go before I could tell people that I had reached this milestone. That remaining year between then and now somehow felt more important than the previous nine. To reach today, it seems, is very very important indeed to me.
Today, I feel a sense of euphoric relief, even though there hasn’t been any jeopardy, ever really, that I’d falter. That’s partly down to Asperger’s – I’d have felt utterly uncomfortable diverging from any sort of plan, or compromising the new identity I chose in 2005.
I don’t think I’m unique in celebrating anniversaries. Perhaps, like birthdays, they’re a hangover from a less predictable time when reaching another year was something that could not so readily be relied upon. They’re not about celebrating what has happened, but that unspoken fears have not come to pass.
But today, I celebrate more than just the absence of negatives. Having considered and observed what the last ten years have brought me, I can see growth, maturity and kindness, to others and to myself. I no longer feel the remorse of ten years ago.
I have reached the point on the horizon towards which I have been walking.
Today, I give myself permission to smile.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ten Years : Nine : Not Going It Alone

As I write this, I’ve flourished without drinking for nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days. In that time I’ve run eight marathons, and I’ve lost over three stone in weight. I’ve become politically active and I’ve rebuilt my relationship with my family. I will allow myself to feel some self-satisfaction at all this. I’m only human.
But I mention these just because they are mere trifles compared to the thing from which I derive more comfort than anything else: I have been married to Helen for nearly eleven years. Yes, I derive comfort, but also a significant and separate sense of accomplishment.
A respected friend recently commented that he couldn’t see any distinction between what I’ve been calling sobriety and what he sees as simply growing up. I agree with him. My growing up has enabled and itself been further enabled by my removing alcohol, but they practically amount to the same thing.
I’m usually an introvert, often a loner, and seldom a partner or a joiner-in. As soon as it was financially viable I lived alone, and in my entire bachelor working life, I spent fewer than six months living in multiple occupation. I never countenanced living with a romantic partner, and in any case tenancy agreements were seldom short enough to serve those mayfly dalliances.
After Helen and I had been partners for a few years, she came to meet me for lunch near work one day. By the end of the al fresco meal, we had somehow agreed that we’d cohabit as soon as possible, and marry as well. I’d never partaken in such a momentous undertaking.
It felt completely right yet also paralysingly scary.
When I lived alone I was described several times as “selfish”, a barb that stuck and wounded. What I think I was sensitive about was that by staying in my own space I was failing to develop the ability to share anything – not just space - with other people. As an Aspie I find most other people quite hard work most of the time. Even if you are someone I like, I will need to take you in small doses and go away and recharge by myself even if we’ve had the most convivial of encounters. My home was a refuge. If I let anyone else into it, it would be on my own terms.
Marriage has involved deliberately giving up that autonomy. I think it’s the most courageous change I’ve ever made. And deliberately letting go and trusting someone else is undoubtedly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done.
When we started to share a home I was excited and happy that a new phase was beginning, but also felt that this was optimistic, a long shot. There was a significant chance it might not work. There were sparks, teething problems, and (to finally settle on an appropriate rehousing metaphor), snagging issues to resolve. All because of me, I stress. I’m the hermit crab, and Helen’s the mother hen. But we muddled through it, married in May 2004, and having yoked our fortunes started to find adversity less sharp when shared.
I threw a spanner in the works in January 2005 by suddenly, unexpectedly and unilaterally ceasing drinking. We immediately stopped being a couple who both drank and instead became one containing an alcoholic in recovery. Helen’s birthday a few days later was not one of the most conspicuously carefree she’d had, as I struggled to feign jollity and learned how to do that thing where you put your hand over the wine glass in a restaurant. Mineral water flowed freely, but conversation did not. I felt, undoubtedly that I was doing the right thing for my own wellbeing, and by extension ours, but it felt sinister that by owning up to having a real, grown-up proper problem, I had pathologised the condition, and formally declared to Helen that her husband was damaged goods.
And in the longer term, what then? My alcohol intake had moved from lots to zero and therefore nearer to Helen’s modest consumption, but the difference between some and none is an infinite ratio. We would settle down to a new dynamic equilibrium, but would it be one which preserved our established intimacy?
In some ways, we had to repeat the process of moving in together, and broker a new set of bargains and interfaces.
We’ve healed together. I’ve thrown away my crutch and we proceed as though in a three-legged race now, and I think I would fall over without her. Modest husbands sometimes say “I don’t know what she sees in me”. This husband thinks “What can she possibly have seen in me then?”, so hard is it to reconcile the way were with the way we are now.
Against my pessimistic self’s expectations, we are still, after nearly fifteen years, a couple. We’re still together because we’ve acknowledged that the grown-up thing to do is to let go. To let go of comforts, of preferences, of habits, of superstitions. These attachments inhibit growth and change.
I now accept that change happens, and that it might not be the change that I would initiate if I weren’t part of this couple.
That doesn’t scare me any more.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Ten Years : Eight : Coming Home To The Present

Every time I’ve spoken to a mental health professional, a counselor, and therapist, or a yoga teacher, the word “mindfulness” has come up. In the past decade I formed a nebulous idea that this is a state I ought to aspire to, but why was a drawn to it? Everything I’d heard said that this was a path to peace and stillness, and away from worry and anxiety. Sobriety had edged my taste away from orally-administered calm, so I was predisposed to the aurally-administered alternative.
At first found the concept hard to grasp. It’s easier to summarise what it isn’t. It means not frantically doing lots of things at once, on autopilot, not being taken over by thoughts that steal your attention away from the here and now, and not becoming harmfully attached to things you judge as good and averse to those you judge as bad.
That’s me on a bad day, when my mind and my body are a long way apart. I forget I need to eat and get tired and ratty, or don’t notice that I’m already full and carry on eating. I worry about things that are a long way or a long time away. I find myself replaying bad scenarios, some of them worst-case imaginary ones. In the shower in the morning, I might find myself arguing out aloud with my late father or an old boss. I am allowing my mind to take me away from the here and now and punish me.
Mindfulness is an acquired discipline. You can gradually teach yourself to deliberately attend to what your senses are telling you in the current moment, to be present and aware. You can form the habits of kindness, to others and yourself, and of accepting things as they are, without judgement. It confers an ease of being.
It emerged as an independent discipline when research indicated that Buddhists who meditated were less anxious and stressed than others. Having read about it, early in 2014, I took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, based on a programme devised by several academics. At the time, I told the group “I’m here because I want to spend less time reading about mindfulness and more time practicing it. I want to develop some good habits.”
The course more or less followed the content of Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. I could have just read the book, but the chance to interact with other learners and with our teachers, Avinash Bansode and Anne Williams made a world of difference. There was homework, so this wasn’t something to do for a couple of hours once a week, but rather something that took a sustained commitment.
To an observer, much of the homework would have looked very undemanding. You’d have seen me sitting in a chair or lying on a mat with my MP3 player, eyes closed, silently doing nothing for up to an hour at a time, six days a week. I was practicing meditation. Meditation is another word beginning with M that is easier to describe in terms of what it isn’t.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t concentrating on one thing, or entering a trance, or escaping from the present, or trying to actually do anything. Instead, it involves being deliberately, yet non-judgementally attentive to what you are feeling here and now. In a body scan meditation, for example, I slowly and deliberately pay attention to each part of my body in sequence, without trying to change anything. I observe what sensations I feel, and am sometimes astonished that parts of me are crying out in ways that I had not noticed, and conversely that I feel nothing whatsoever from parts of me I know to be present. I’m not trying or striving to do anything. There is no objective to be achieved now. This is simply a practice. I am getting into the habit of noticing things. My mind will wander, away from the guidance prompts I am listening to, or even away from my body entirely. I don’t berate myself for this, but just gently guide it back, because another habit I am getting into is noticing without judging. (I observe that I keep slipping into the present continuous tense in describing this. That seems utterly apt.)
The eight-week course brought me into the habit of meditating every day, and I’ve kept this up whenever possible, and I go to drop-in group sessions and day retreats. But, you ask, if you’re not even trying to do anything, what’s the point?
I think there are two benefits worth describing. The first is apparent as soon as I open my eyes and stand up. Before I start meditating I can be like an underpowered computer with too many programs open, thrashing away, and competing for resources. After I meditate, I am like a computer that has been defragmented and rebooted. New programs launch effortlessly, and run without contention, seemingly having the full computer at their disposal. There’s even a specific quick-reboot meditation I use several times a day, called the Three Minute Breathing Space.
The other benefit is more cumulative. The habits form and stick. You become persistently more mindful. You notice things. It becomes unmistakable. You are living in a continuous present, acknowledging what is around you. I now find myself emptying the dishwasher without having to find a radio programme to listen to at the same time, going for a run with just the sound of birdsong to accompany me, and sometimes not merely single-tasking, but zero-tasking. Simply being rather than doing.
Without exaggeration, I now live in a different world. The summer of 2014 saw me dramatically noticing what was around me and I drank in nature, sunsets, birdsong and architecture in a way that made me feel as though I must have had a bag over my head beforehand.
Equally, I am now a changed person. I’m not free of anxiety and I still experience stress, but I’ve learned to notice what’s going on inside as much as outside. It’s a continuous process of exploration rather than a step change.
The discipline of mindfulness seems to draw together all the changes I’ve experienced since I stopped drinking. Drinking to excess was both an attachment, to booze, and an aversion, to everything else. The very language of it, “Out of it”, “Getting out of your head”, speaks of its disconnection.
I don’t want to be out of it. I want to be in it. In my head. Here. Now. Present.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Ten Years : Seven : Twenty Percent Off

My GP and I considered AA as an option when I stopped drinking in January 2005, but decided to hold it in reserve should my resolve start to waver. I didn’t need it, but did read a lot about the movement over the following months, and one thing which prompted a smile of recognition was learning that there’s always a plentiful supply of biscuits on hand at meetings.
At the time I stopped, we lived opposite an incredibly-handy late-night deli-cum-convenience store that stocked plenty of flapjacks, yoghurt coated fruit and nuts, and two-for-one offers on giant bars of chocolate. That spring, I became a familiar face at the counter, often following my evening meal with a spontaneous street dessert. I’d be taking a mug of drinking chocolate to bed with me later as well. I reasoned that I deserved to spoil myself - I’d stepped away from the most harmful indulgence, after all, and I actually put on weight. This is quite common in recent ex-drinkers. Having spent a lifetime of evenings chucking down booze, our bodies are used to a very quick fix of easy-to-digest carbohydrate, and the accompanying elevated blood sugar is part of the habit-forming reward.
For much of the next decade, I had a pluralistic relationship with being overweight. Part of me was attached to it – here was a vice, an imperfection, that I was allowing myself to maintain, and my self-satisfaction at sobering up had bought me an all-you-can-eat pass.
Another part of me was sensitive about it, though. Somewhere within me, I knew that I was making marathon running a lot harder by carrying excess weight with me. When a podiatrist, assessing me for yet another set of orthotic insoles to prevent damage to my joints, boldly described my problem as inevitable because I was overweight, I felt stung and humiliated. However, the comment that eventually spurred me to action came from my mother, as adherents to Doctor Freud will not be surprised to hear. She sat on this for an entire weekend when I was visiting her, and only as she kissed me goodbye on the doorstep, finally got off her chest that she thought I had a bit of, you know, a pot belly. Ouch.
I already knew intellectually what I had to do. I’d read enough to know that “eat less and exercise more” is an unhelpful oversimplification. If you haven’t read enough to know this, then read The Diet Trap by Doctor John Briffa, and if you have a job, read his A Great Day At The Office, and if you’re a man, read Waist Disposal.
What I’ve learned from Doctor Briffa is that eating fat doesn’t make you fat. What makes you fat is elevated blood sugar. This raises your insulin levels, and that in turn makes the mobile fat that would otherwise pass out of you get fixed in your fat cells making you fatter. And that’s it.
The way to lose weight is to stop disrupting your blood sugar, so that you keep insulin at bay. And it really is just as simple as that.
How do you avoid disrupting your blood sugar? Eat smaller meals (but more of them, if you feel like it), and don’t eat food with a high glycemic load. If you eat natural, unprocessed, unrefined food, you will be fine. It's the processed foods with unnaturally high glycemic loafs that are the problem.
I did it in stages, hitting the high priority problems first. So, no more sugary fizzy drinks, and no more fruit juice either (these require almost no digestion and smack up your blood sugar horrifically). And no more sweeties, chocolate, cake, or biscuits, either. I noticed the difference at once and started to lose weight immediately. I can date the starting point of my shrinking to when I read Iain Banks’ final, posthumous novel, The Quarry, because his protagonist, like me, had a terrible relationship with his father, Asperger’s Syndrome, and weighed over 100kg, a figure he found mathematically pleasing. I was 102.5kg at the time, and on dipping below 100kg vowed never to return.
I noticed that dropping the refined sugar stopped me from craving it any more. I genuinely don’t miss these foods or feel deprived. That broken circle sounded very familiar indeed to me.
I wanted to lose even more weight so I followed more of Doctor Briffa’s advice. It was here here that my ingrained beliefs about healthy eating were turned on their head. I had been brought up to believe that fried and fatty food was bad for you and that bread, wholegrain cereals, pasta and rice were holy, untouchable, middle-class manna. Nothing exemplifies my shift more than breakfast. I moved from sugary granola with low-fat (this almost always means “with added sugar”) fruit yoghurt, to muesli with skimmed milk, to porridge, and then to bacon and eggs. The bacon and eggs disrupts my blood sugar least. It stops me feeling hungry for longest. It might contain more calories than the cereals, but it makes me less fat, because my body has no interest whatsoever in the calorific value of what I eat. It is only interested in the glycemic load.
I no longer eat any kind of cereal. (That’s the crops in the fields, by the way, not just the products in boxes in the kitchen cupboard.) So that’s bread, pasta and rice out, and I don’t eat potatoes either. I have taught myself to cook and eat fish and eggs which barely featured in my diet before. I don’t feel I’m excluding anything I miss. I have a rich and varied diet and can eat out almost anywhere. Well, almost anywhere – there is virtually nothing solid on sale in Starbucks, say, that does not violate the consumer’s blood glucose.
I’ve now lost over 20kg. (That’s over three stone in people units.) At the gym recently, I picked up 20kg in weights and found it hard to believe that I’d run seven marathons carrying this. No wonder I got faster in 2014.
I’m not telling this story to solicit congratulation, or to create a narrative that having beaten the booze I have mastered abstinence as a non-specific relocatable skill. Really, I’m not. No, really.
No, I’m telling it because my experience has taught me that there’s an unavoidable similarity between many people’s inability to cope with alcohol and their problems with modern food. Neither occurs in anything like their processed potency in nature, but both are widely available and heavily marketed to us. They offer an instant hit of habit-forming reward. Not all of us can cope with this and we become addicted. Lots in modern life is like this – alcohol, processed food and even porn all offer consumers highly-concentrated hits that stimulate the reward centres which evolved to keep us alive and healthy and pass on our genes, but returning to these highly-concentrated extracts instead of their natural sources has the exact opposite effect.
I think there is a general problem that industrializing what we put into ourselves can take the human animal to an environment it can’t reliably adapt to. Alcoholism, obesity, and even anxiety could be viewed as just specific cases of this broader, and growing effect.
That’s what it feels like to me, anyway. It would seem that I’m just an old-fashioned kind of guy.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Ten Years : Six : Cracking The Vicious Circle

I’ve suffered from recurring anxiety and depression for much of my life. From my early twenties to my mid-forties, I’d been bouncing between psychiatric therapy and prescription antidepressants. The therapy had become ever more specific, and the drugs had become stronger and the regimes longer, most notably a sustained five years on Fluoxetine (Prozac). I was a high-maintenance kind of bloke.
Antidepressants aren’t very pleasant for me. They make me fat, sleepless and impotent. But that’s better than opening my wrists or jumping off a viaduct.
They’re also an after-the-fact medication, for treating symptoms. Within a few weeks, one can become functional again. That’s great – life-saving in many cases – and it can be all some people need to bump out of a rut and achieve lasting mental health.
Not so in my case. Every time I came off the drugs I’d feel clear-headed and efficient for a few months and then, always, one day, without fail, I’d notice that my reactions to events were wrong, out of proportion, unhealthy. I became very attuned to this – it was sometimes almost as literal as finding myself crying over split milk.
There was an underlying cause to my depression. Therapy and reading indicated that it was anxiety, but I didn’t understand why I was so prone to it.
I think that stopping drinking in 2005 brought a clarity which helped me towards the answers. We recovering alcoholics talk of clarity a lot, and it’s easy to interpret the word as simply being the opposite of blurring and slurring. For me, this clarity means consciously noticing things and being honest about them.
As a result of this clarity, two really vital things happened. The next time I detected the return of depression, I asked my GP not for another prescription but for a referral for counseling. I mentioned that I’d already undergone CBT (Cognitive Based Therapy) and found it helpful and applicable, but wanted to try something else. He referred me to a voluntary counseling organization, which assigned a mindfulness-based therapist to me. So began a productive partnership.
We began tuning in to what my thoughts and feelings actually were, stripping away the layers of interpretation the higher mind places on them. The mindfulness part of the discipline involves, amongst other things, stepping back from your thoughts in order to consciously become aware of them happening. It’s like using the Task Manager on your computer to see all the processes running, with the perspective of a supervisor, instead of letting each one fill the whole screen as though it were the only show in town.
What a family, an orchestra, a circus I found going on in there. All these thoughts clamouring for attention. All these aspects of my personality needing to take the stage for enough of the time. All the arguments between them. I needed to treat it less as a war zone and more as an ecosystem.
After a year of regular sessions, I’d discovered, returning to the computer metaphor, how to bring up Task Manager or Control Panel and see what was going on. 
This new internal insight led to the second really important development. Spouse and I moved house. I had always been a bit obsessive, sometimes a bit emotionally disconnected, always pedantic. I’d thought I might have OCPD or similar. But in our new house, I found that the sounds of the building really bothered me. The acoustics of the dining room made it hard for me to follow what anyone else was saying, and my anxiety levels were rocketing just from the sounds of traffic outside. It didn’t bother her at all, and she didn’t seem to even notice any of it.
I did some reading, and it dawned on me over a couple of days that this hypersensitivity (and I get it with light, smells and touch as well as sound) together with the aforementioned personality traits and of course my sustained anxiety levels indicated that I had Asperger’s Syndrome.
I’m autistic. This was swiftly confirmed by an expert consulting psychiatrist, following another GP referral.
I had somehow reached the age of forty-six with this significant developmental disorder completely undiagnosed. You can read my initial reaction here.
How could this have lain undiscovered all my life? Predictably, the answer is alcohol. Take a hypersensitive, socially introverted pedant and put him in a social situation. It’s terrifying for him, until he has a few drinks, when not only does the terror recede, but he loosens up enough to pass for normal, not only with others, but to himself. And the following morning, when the sun burns like an atomic bomb, and every newspaper page turned on the bus sounds like a mainsail in a hurricane? The sensations of Asperger’s hypersensitivity and a well-fuelled hangover are astonishingly similar.
I believe that my Asperger’s is the root cause of all of this. It sustained an anxiety level that pushed me to abuse alcohol as soon as I was old enough. And that alcohol abuse meant that when I was with other people I passed as neurotypical. The cruel cycle is that my Asperger’s used alcohol to hide itself behind, helping it stay undiagnosed, and therefore continue to promote my drinking.
Only when I stopped drinking and broke the circle did the Asperger’s become exposed and unmistakable.
My diagnosis in 2012 was a turning point. I came off antidepressants for the last time shortly afterwards, and I’ve only had one significant depressive episode since. I have semi-regular therapy sessions, which I regard as preventative mental keep-fit.
Not only is there still a stigma about mental illness, but there’s a kind of stiff-upper-lip British attitude that talking, even thinking, about oneself on such terms is not proper, not for a chap. We leave that sort of thing to the Viennese and the New Yorkers.
Bollocks, I say. Look under your bonnet. Find out how your head-engine runs. Talk to a mechanic. Learn how to service it yourself, or at least identify the squeaks it makes when it needs looking at. 
You’d be mental not to.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Ten Years : Five : From Body to Mind

The changes and new habits that come with a decade’s sobriety are interrelated in indirect but observable ways. I can’t say that drying out led immediately to my embracing yoga, but the chain of events is unavoidable upon even cursory inspection.
Having seized on running with the fervour of the reborn, yet also with the considerable body weight of a carbohydrate lover, the sudden cumulative impact on my lower joints was traumatic. In the late Spring of 2005, I started to develop a limp, and one Sunday morning, found that I couldn’t put any weight at all on my left leg without feeling so much pain that I fell over. After improvising a crutch from a broom, descending the stairs on my bum, and being borne to A&E by spouse, a houseman told me I should probably not run again, and referred me for physiotherapy.
The physiotherapist was more measured. I was prescribed orthotic insoles, and given exercises to return myself to full mobility. I would, after all, run again.
“You might want to consider trying yoga”, she offered, as a parting piece of advice.
Yoga. Blimey. I felt a simultaneous attraction and aversion to the idea. Attraction, because it sounded a bit counter-cultural, hippyish and un-blokey. Like me. Aversion, because it would involve turning up somewhere new without a drink in my hand and attempting something that I might not necessarily be any good at. Eek.
I checked. The gym which spouse had signed me up to when we moved in together did run yoga classes. A vague resolution thus became a firm plan.
What I found when I did turn up was that not being any good at it isn’t really a problem. Yoga is about intent rather than striving; about finding out what you can do, and what it feels like, rather than competitively whipping improvement out of oneself. And for the most part, it is practiced by far more women than men. For me, this means it’s a beautiful respite from the competitive male world. I’ve been practicing regularly ever since.
Superficially, yoga answered my physiotherapist’s call by providing a regular chance to stretch seldom-moved joints and muscles, and to increase my upper body and core strength, as an antidote to both sitting at a desk all day and repetitively running in a straight line for recreation.
I soon learned that beneath the surface, yoga offers even more. Having stopped drinking, and thus withdrawn my daily self-prescribed anaesthetic, I felt at times anxious, hyperactive and troubled. Yoga has reminded me to do one thing at a time, to focus my attention on the here and now. At the risk of sounding faintly ludicrous, I will claim that before practicing yoga, I had not learned how to breathe properly. On the phone, people would ask if I had just run upstairs to pick up the call, and I used to actually hold my breath when lifting or pushing. Now, having taken the time to notice what my thoughts, breath and body were actually doing, I could learn to calm them and bring them together harmoniously.
I don’t have any religious faith. However, I do acknowledge the human hunger for observance, for ritual. I admit that I feel better, somehow, after having repeatedly followed a yoga sequence such as sun salutation, or when thinking about concepts such as prana (life force) or chakras (energy centres in the body) when practicing yoga. These ideas act as a focus for the practice and even if I don’t literally believe that they correspond to anything in nature, they contribute to the stillness and calm I come away with.
You can pick from all sorts of flavours of yoga to practice – some firmly grounded in physiotherapy, others more informed by the ancient, or the holistic. My own practice has introduced me to stillness, and focusing on the present moment, rather than frantically multi-tasking and striving for new attainments.
After nearly ten years of yoga practice I can now touch my forehead with my knees (this came in a hallelujah moment around year eight). Although of little practical application, this bodes well for my mobility when I reach my dotage.
Far more significantly, I have been learning to achieve peace without getting it out of a bottle. And this bodes well even more generally.
And yoga isn’t the end of this causal chain that began with sobriety, recreational running, and an injured ankle. It’s in turn led me to be curious about peace, stillness and the present moment.
I have embraced what is called Mindfulness. It deserves a blog post of its own.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Ten Years : Four : Standing Up To Be Counted

I believe I have been green since I was at infant school in the early seventies. My young, malleable mind was captured by the Doctor Who scripts and books of Barry Letts, Robert Sloman, and Malcolm Hulke. Their accidental mixture of Buddhism, environmentalism and communism informed my earliest values – that we must conserve the common good, prevent irrevocable damage to the environment, and promote peace and understanding.
These values took a bit of a hammering under the onslaught of alcohol and my coming of age in the free-market, home-owning eighties and early nineties. By the age of twenty-five I was an endowment-mortgaged, car-commuting business flyer, and my student political stance of “anyone but the Conservatives” had been numbed into a cynical “don’t vote for any of them – it only encourages them”.
By 2005, I’d started voting Labour again, and then stopped after Blair’s support for Bush’s foreign policy. I voted Green now, in indignant protest that the party I’d though was on my side wasn’t.
In 2001, I had had a serious car accident, in which I caused a head-on collision, and had my licence taken away until I’d passed an extended test (twice as long as the new drivers’ test, and many more times harder as hard to pass). I persevered with this until I’d regained my license, but after two years without a car had learned that private cars are almost completely unnecessary. 
Then, in 2004, the plane from Heathrow to Edinburgh I was on developed a mechanical fault and had to make an emergency landing. I only flew once again after that. I realized that, like running a car, travelling by air is almost completely unnecessary.
Those were the seeds. By 2005, when I stopped drinking, I realized that my values were distinct to most of those of the people I worked with. And significantly, different to those of the people in government and in big business. I was concerned that the people in power weren’t paying attention to the matters I regarded as most important.
Enter Doctor Who again. I’d enjoyed the original Doctor Who novels of Daniel Blythe, and, still more, his literary novels for Penguin. In 2010, he released “X Marks the Box : How To Make Politics Work For You” a guide to the UK political process for the na├»ve or formerly-apathetic. It is a work of effortless clarity. The week I read it, as a direct result, I joined the Scottish Green Party.
By a remarkable coincidence, one of the driving forces of the party lived a few streets away from me, and I found myself roped in to help canvass for the 2010 General Election. That autumn I attended the party’s annual conference, and the following year joined the Edinburgh party’s committee. I have now held an impressive-sounding list of national offices and roles.
My professional life has collapsed in the past decade. I no longer work directly for an employer, but am instead employed by a series of consultancy companies who sell my time on to their clients. I have no sense of professional identity, or of belonging to a shared endeavour. I am grateful to my employers for passing some of the money they make on to me, but that’s about it.
By contrast, the party gives me a tremendous sense of purpose, and I’m willing to put in stints of long hours and suffer high anxiety to help further our aims. I bring the zeal of the recovering alcoholic, the urge to get things right, and the sober aversion to decadence and indulgence that’s needed to sacrifice an evening in front of the telly to instead staple posters to boards in a cold garage, or stay up until the small hours redrafting election leaflets or authorising local candidates.
Looking back, it’s hard not to attribute my political awakening to sobriety. Not only does a clear head bring more usable hours for volunteering, but post-alcohol, I’m motivated to actively bring about what I want in society rather than passively turn away from what I don’t. 
I sometimes feel a bit of an old phoney in the party. I’m conspicuous by being neither a defector from Labour’s ranks or a grown-up former student activist. I’m instead someone who woke up and got involved in his mid-forties. (I wonder if I’ve ever been suspected of being a mole.) Perhaps if I hadn’t had a debilitating drink problem from the age of sixteen, I would have become politically active as a student, and have followed a more orthodox path to politics.
But I got here in the end, and I draw comfort from that. 
That’s what’s emerging as the common lesson of all my ten-years-sober accounts. 
It’s never too late.