Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Yes, I want my country back, too

It was a warm summer night in 2012 and I was feeling emotional.

The London Olympics had just started. Danny Boyle's opening ceremony was coming to its conclusion and, to be honest, we were all breathing a collective sigh of relief that it hadn't been terrible. In fact, it had been wonderful. We'd had nothing less than a celebration of Britain's place in the world in the 21st century.

There had been nods to the Industrial Revolution, a loving tribute to the NHS, plentiful recognition of a country that was accepting of its past, aware of the present, and mindful of times ahead. A country that felt comfortable in its skin.

As the 204 individual petals of Thomas Heatherwick's cauldron came together to produce a united Olympic flame, and the final chords of Pink Floyd's 'Eclipse' rang out across London, I felt proud to be a modern Briton.

But in the last few months, as the EU Referendum debate has raged on, I've honestly wondered what has happened to my country. A Britain that has previously thrived on being warm-hearted, open and internationalist. That has demonstrated time and time again the value of talking softly, not just reverting to the big stick. A nation that has faced tough times in the past and hasn't reacted by kicking over the table and stalking out of the room in a hissy fit.

I've heard what passes for debate. I've watched as proven mistruths get peddled, time and time again. I've read the papers continue their drum-beat of innuendo and smear. I've seen the accusations and counter-accusations. In comment sections and on social media it's been played out repeatedly.

And at no time have I recognised the Britain that we all joyfully celebrated in 2012. Civility has been replaced with sloganeering, understanding with conflict, fact with hyperbole.

This isn't my Britain. This sneering, closed-minded artifice isn't the country I love.

So on Thursday I will be voting. And I will be voting for Britain to play its part within Europe, remaining within the EU.

I've read the economic cases, the detailed legal analyses, the arguments that attempt to reduce real human beings to mere numbers. You'll have your own views on all of that, but that's not what's making me put my 'X' in the Remain box on Thursday.

It's this. I'm well aware that the EU isn't perfect. But I hope that when the dust settles, and the choice is made, we can look back on this few months of madness. Roll our sleeves up and work in partnership with our neighbours. Because you don't fix things by turning away.

That's not the British way.

Friday, 2 October 2015

This man can

I hate bicycles. I hate cycling. Cycling is a silly idea. A bloody daft pastime.

All of these phrases were to be heard coming from my lips last Sunday. Well, I may have edited out the profanities, somewhat. I was mining a whole, fresh new vein of swearing, if you want the truth. There is now an area of Worcester (just around Feckenham, ironically) where the air is permanently blue.

The reason? I was about two-thirds of the way through a 100km bike ride. And it was beginning to get a little uncomfortable.

Let's re-wind a little, shall we? In July I rode 70km (about 43 miles, you Imperial people) in support of the British Heart Foundation. It was about 50% more than I'd ever ridden before. But I was quite happy about the whole thing. Here I am, being quite happy:

Note the slight concern on the face of the gentleman behind me. To be honest, given his view at the time I'm not too surprised. But despite the rather damp weather, I made it around and beat my personal best for my longest ride.

But looming on the horizon was a large cloud called 'Personal Challenge'. And like most clouds, this one could have bought on stormy weather. Or it could have contained silver linings.

I feel the cloud metaphor is a bit overdone. Let's move on.

When you've done 70 of anything, the next target has to be 100, hasn't it? I knew that there was what cyclists call a sportive coming up in my area that covered 100km and was meant to be perfect for the first-timer. To the uninitiated, sportive simply means: "It's organised, there will be lots of people doing it, but it's on public roads and we definitely can't call it a race so we'll come up with a vaguely exotic-sounding name for our cycling event."

This particular non-race was the Tommy Godwin Challenge Sportive, remembering a local chap, one-time Olympic cyclist and famed Birmingham bike-shop owner. In his last days he'd been cared for by the Marie Curie Hospice in Solihull; the sportive is now run annually to raise funds for it. They advertised it as a great introduction to sportive riding. In a moment of weakness I signed up for it.

I did some training. I think the operative word here is 'some', however. I went out every weekend on my bike. Apart from those weekends when I didn't. I rode to work (about 22 miles) a couple of times. Then drove back home. The most I rode in one go was about 35 miles. So it's fair to say I was a little nervous when I lined up alongside several hundred racing snakes, all kitted out in Lycra and gore-tex, outside the Marie Curie Hospice last Sunday.

Luckily, I had Team Lard on my side. You'll remember them perhaps from last year, when I reached the giddy lengths of 18 miles with their assistance. And I was taking nutrition seriously, with my pockets stuffed with various energy bars, gels and such.

To nick a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson, we were somewhere around Barston, on the edge of the borough, when the adrenaline began to take hold. "Slow down," called out Leanne. "Don't get too excited." We pushed on through Warwickshire, heading for Stratford-upon-Avon. The weather was perfect, dry but not too warm. Leanne counted out the ride in five-mile intervals; at each one I'd take a bite of energy bar and some water. Richard realised there was a long way to the scheduled stop point, he needed the toilet, and he was wearing bib shorts.

A note about bib shorts. To you, they look ridiculous; cycling shorts attached to sort of overall-straps that you wear over your shoulders. But wearing them means you don't have a waist-band digging into you. They do make emergency exits somewhat tricky, though, as Richard was finding out to his peril. We made sympathetic references to dripping taps, waterfalls, etc, and carried on.

By now we'd been overtaken by most riders. They'd let us go in groups of 20 or so, at two minute intervals. We'd now been passed by people who had started some 20-odd minutes later than us. They'd come by, in a stupidly high gear, their tree-trunk legs barely seeming to spin. I think it was meant to be inspiring, but each one was like a dagger to my motivation.

But it was after the halfway stop when I faced my wall. Or in fact, my hills. The organisers of the ride clearly thought it would be nice to chuck in some challenges. But not at the start, when everyone was fresh. Oh dearie me, no. The inclines (for there were plenty) came in when my tank would have been past empty.

I'd thrown some Shot-Blok energy gels down my throat. The reviews said you needed to take these some ten minutes before you needed the boost. Unfortunately, my metabolism was clearly still working at a glacial pace, so I saw no benefit as I hit the hills. I'd grind up them, puffing and blowing (and swearing like a Welsh poet), then hit the top and receive a completely un-needed energy boost when gravity alone would have done the trick. Lesson learnt.

I think Rich and Leanne sensed I was struggling. Other then the swearing, my witty repartee was sadly lacking. They gathered around, keeping the chat going and telling me that my old, fat, wheezy body was doing wonderfully well. We even had time for a selfie:

Heading back into Warwickshire, I staggered my way through Studley, heaved past Henley-in-Arden and soldiered on to the Solihull badlands. As I began to recognise local roads - roads I'd trained on that summer - there was a barely-perceptible lift to my legs.

And then I saw another cyclist.

They were right on the edge of my vision, going along the same road. This was my chance. My chance to pass someone. I'd overtaken one rider beforehand, but as he'd just swallowed a wasp I don't think that counted.

I put my head down and clicked into a higher gear. My co-riders must have wondered what had come over me. But this was my chance. This was my opportunity to not be the last in, the makeweight, the Johnny-come-lately. I thought to myself: I've spent a lifetime being the last one picked for the sports team, the one who doesn't volunteer for anything physical, the one who doesn't compete. It's not going to happen now.

One thing I can rely on is physics. Especially the bits that talk about momentum. Once I'd begun to gain some speed I could see I was slowly closing the gap to the other cyclist. You are mine, I thought. I'm playing the long game, yes, but this is the day when Phil does not come in last.

I got closer, Leanne and Rich urging me on. We were in Solihull properly now. Well, we passed a Porsche garage. The other cyclist was still going, unaware of the shock-and-awe that Team Lard was about to unleash. This was it! This was my moment! This fat bloke can do it!

The effect of all of this of this was slightly undermined when we found out that the cyclist in question was a kindly-faced woman in her late fifties, riding a bike that probably carried a basket on it during weekdays.

But I'm still marking it down as a victory.

We swept into Solihull Town Centre, heading back to the Hospice. Rich and Leanne held back as I approached the finish line, oblivious, just wanting my burning legs to make one more rotation, two more rotations.

And then it was over. They gave me a medal. I had a bit of a moment.

And that's about it. That's the story of how an overweight, uncertain, inexperienced cyclist went and rode 100km in one go. Yes I was slow, no I was not pretty, and yes I probably was a hazard to traffic. But I only went and flippin' did it, didn't I?

I quite like bicycles. I'm pretty fond of cycling. Cycling is a great idea. What a worthwhile pastime!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

I refuse

Like many of you, I saw those photos today. Pictures of that young lad, washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach. I'm generally unsentimental, but those pictures were a kick to the guts to me. I'm not going to share the pictures here; you can find them if you want. 

But in the shock of the moment, it made me think. I'm going to get a little deep. Sorry about that.

When I'm around other people and see or hear their thoughts, in the real world and online, I notice that many of them seem to get their opinions from certain newspapers and outlets. It saddens me.

Of all the things that people could do with their time, particularly when they could read millions of things for free, they read the Daily Mail or similar. And they believe it all, too.

The headlines these days are simply generic immigrant/asylum seeker/refugee/welfare claimant hate pieces. Every day, the media screams hatred. “It’s the Muslims, it’s the immigrants, it’s the poor, they’re a swarm, they’re a burden, a drain.

This drip, drip, drip of scaremongering and hatred poisons us. No matter how immune or clever we think we are, we’re all vulnerable to it. We are all human beings, after all.

However, not enough of us question the constant drip of this awful hate mongering and we need to do that. If we as a species cannot be compassionate towards ourselves, towards the disenfranchised and disempowered, towards the planet, it’s over.

I refuse to hate refugees. I refuse to hate suffering families. I refuse to hate Muslims or Jews or Christians or Americans or Europeans or Africans or Arabs.

I refuse to hate you. I refuse to hate the poor. I refuse to hate the rich. I refuse to hate animals. I refuse to hate the planet.

I refuse to hate myself. I refuse to hate people of a different colour or sexual orientation or body size.

I refuse to be brainwashed by the hate mongers and headline writers.

Compassion. Mercy. That is what I believe in. I see good people all around me. 

Send a signal, read something else.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Two legs good, four legs better

I suppose I should have noticed the signs earlier. However, being (a) male, (b) quite dim and (c) easily distracted, there was always going to be only one conclusion.

It started when She Who Must Be Obeyed cocked her head to one side and started talking. I should know by now, this combination almost always leads to me getting the blame for something. Or spending money. Or getting the blame for something and spending money.

On this occasion she said, angularly:"Do you reckon Eric ever feels lonely?"

Eric, for those of you who haven't been keeping up to date, is a gentle soul. He is an out-of-work Left Bank Parisian philosopher that lives with us. Currently he is occupying the body of a black cat. In answer to SWMBO's question, I reckon Eric probably feels a number of emotions, although it's sometimes tricky to tell. He's impassive unless food is involved; then he becomes quite vocal.

But lonely? I wasn't so sure. So I said so. "I'm not so sure," I said. I'm good at that kind of thing.

"We're out at work all day," she said, her head having now reverted back to its default level setting. "Surely Eric would like a friend to play with?"

"I'm not so sure," I tried once more, hoping despite past experience that blatant repetition would work. "Cats are notoriously territorial. I don't think he'd like another one coming onto his patch." This at least had some basis in truth. We came into his service as he wasn't getting on with another cat in his previous home.

SWMBO left it there. I thought that was the end of it. But really, conversations like this are like unexploded bombs. They're rarely defused at the first go; they have a habit of hanging around ready to blow up when you least expect it, causing structural destruction and significant loss of life.

I feel I may have overplayed the 'unexploded bomb' analogy in that last bit. Let's move on.

SWMBO had the opportunity to volunteer for a charity several months ago - in this case it was the Cats' Protection League. I realised where this was going and thought I'd head it off at the pass. "Just make sure you don't end up coming back with a car full of cats," I said, trying to adopt a casual, nonchalant air.

"I'll be shovelling cat-crap all day. They probably won't let me anywhere near an actual cat. Don't worry."

She did not come back with a car full of cats. She did, however, come back with a phone full of pictures of cats. Including one of Fleur, a small, delicate little creature with huge eyes.

Time passed. A brief conversation took  place. At least one of us had their head on a slant. The earth span a couple of times on its axis. We removed 40 bags of rubbish from the spare room. And then we became a two-cat family. I was stitched up, ladies and gentleman. Stitched up, boxed up, stamped 'Gullible' and marked for life.

We've gone through the whole exhausting New Cat Protocol, where you constantly have to remember where each animal is, whether they have access to food and litter, each other or the outside world. There's no rest; you have to think about whether the cat flap is locked, what happens if you open this door, who's behind it, etc. It's a bit like that 3D chess game they play on Star Trek.

Eric has taken to the interloper with good grace, so far. He tolerates this young furry whirlwind, up to a point, then does the nearest feline approximation of a shrug before going out to discuss matters with Statler and Waldorf, two long-haired black cats that live diagonally opposite. After they have set the world to rights, he'll come back in, studiously ignoring Fleur as she drinks from his water bowl, before placing himself where he can be sure she'll not be able to ambush him. She does that a lot.

Fleur runs up and down the stairs like a dwarf elephant on meth, 24 hours a day. She constantly tries to annoy her elders. She produces a quite startling amount of poo, to be frank with you. You know, I'm not sure if this was a good idea.

Oh. Ok then.

Friday, 26 June 2015

In which I write another interminable post about cycling

I'd like to introduce you all to my current instrument of torture. Don't worry. It's not going to be that sort of post. Here it is:

The bit I want you to concentrate upon is the tiny pedal-y thing with 'Shimano' written on it. It's what's known as a 'clipless' pedal. Which seems odd, as the basic idea is that you clip your feet into it, but I'm sure someone far more knowledgeable than me will be along to explain why in a distinctly adenoidal way.

When I got this bike a month ago, it came with the standard plastic flat pedals that we're all used to seeing. A pretty simple concept. You put your feet on them and push down one at a time until you can't. Repeat until you have reached your destination, then stop and have some cake.

But people told me that I needed to go clipless. Physically attaching my feet to the pedals would make things so much more effective. I could pull up with one foot while pushing down with the other. It would make me faster. Hills would flatten. Lengths would shorten. I would become a Cycling God.

First of all I needed to purchase a pair of cycling shoes. These are ridiculous items which fail on almost every level when it comes to assessing the usefulness of footwear. They even have holes pre-drilled in the soles. And they look very, very silly.

You're not meant to point this out, of course.

One of the things I've learned about cycling is that you have to make yourself look silly. But it's an unwritten rule that this shouldn't be brought to anyone's attention. All of a sudden, the scales would fall from everyone's eyes, the artifice would crumble and we'd all be looking at each other, saying: "What were we thinking? Wearing skin-tight manmade fibres, crouching over bikes that weigh the same as a crisp packet, our feet pushing down on tiny metal stumps with disco slippers."

But I digress. So, earlier this week I replaced my pedals and set out to test the whole concept. Beforehand, I sat on the bike, propped up against the open garden gate, and practiced the whole 'clipping-in and clipping-out' thing. Because it's quite handy to be able to put a foot to the floor when you've stopped. I don't know if you've noticed this, but bikes are inherently unstable. The last thing I'd want to do is fall over, isn't it?

I think you can see where this is going.

So I went out. I followed a 25-mile circuit I hadn't done for some time, since I'd been under my doctor's orders to not over-exert myself. It wasn't the length, more the elevation. This route included a road called Rising Lane, named in a completely non-ironic manner by someone several hundred years ago. I was keen to see how I got on.

And it was good, largely. The pedals made a difference. When I came to any junctions it was relatively easy to unclip my left foot and lean over that way. All was good.

I headed back home and was coming through the leafy suburbs of Solihull when I thought I'd pull off the road to stop and have a drink. I'm not one of those flash Harrys who can reach down for their bottle, drink and ride at the same time. Baby steps, and all that.

So I rode onto the pavement and slowed. I unclipped my right foot. I leant left. There was a brief period of time when quite a lot of things happened.

Gravity is a cruel mistress, isn't she? Mind you, paving slabs aren't much more benign.

So I now have a little less skin on my left knee and elbow. And what have we learnt, dear reader?

Cycling. It's a bloody silly pastime.


There is some method behind all of this. As well as being generally beneficial to my well-being (comedy elbow and knee scrage notwithstanding), I'm using my new-found liking for cycling for good. Next month I'm doing the British Heart Foundation's Heart of England Bike Ride with the mighty Team Lard and if you'd like to sponsor us, that'd be peachy.

The link is here. Ta everso.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The story of the shirt - an update

You won't remember this. I wouldn't expect you to do so. But five years ago I made a bit of a promise. And it was all because of a shirt.

I'm not going to expect you to go back and read a five-year old post. But it went like this. For Christmas in 2008 my parents bought me a very nice shirt. What we call a 'going-out' shirt. It was a little on the small side so the plan was for me to take it back to the store and change it. This was derailed somewhat by the sudden death of my father, three days later. The shirt went into the back of the wardrobe and I forgot about it.

In October 2010 I wrote about how I'd stumbled on the shirt again - the last present I ever received from both of my parents - and how I was going to use it as motivation to lose some weight.

Well. That went well, didn't it? Almost as well as the promise I made to walk Hadrian's Wall (current status: I bought some maps). Or the one about completing the Three Peaks Challenge (current status: I completed 0.6 of a Peak). I've even made various pledges about writing more often (this is the first post I've made in six weeks; knock yourself out, folks).

But a stopped clock is right twice a day. A promise made can become reality, given enough time. And so it was with the shirt. My mother reached her 80th birthday the other week. Having finally started the long process of losing some lumber, I wore the shirt.

I can't make any claims towards sartorial elegance. Quite frankly, for me clothing performs the dual functions of stopping me getting arrested and giving me somewhere to keep my keys. But, wearing the shirt for the first time, honouring the promise I'd made nearly five years previously, was a bit of a moment.

There is more to do. The carbs are still lurking, ready to make me put the shirt away in the back of the wardrobe again. I'm not going to make any promises this time. I have a bit of a poor track record where that's concerned.

But for the present time, let's celebrate the little victories. And in the meantime, does anyone want to buy some maps of Cumbria?

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Poundland Ironman

I realise it must be a little worrying for some of you. I write about some health issue or other, and then you get nothing but radio silence for over a month.

I mean, for all you know I might have already pitched face-first into my soup, clutching at my chest and whispering some final truths to my dining companions, together with the logon for my internet banking so Katie could cancel the direct debit for the Mens Health magazine subscription.

Of course, in these days of social media we never truly disappear, so most of you will know that I am, in fact, still vaguely upright. I have been prescribed a veritable cornucopia of pills. And I'm here to tell you that those inexpensive blood pressure monitors you can buy in Boots are cheap for a reason.

I religiously logged my BP for a month. As the doctor ordered, I chose different times. Sometimes I monitored in  the morning. Sometimes I monitored in the afternoon. Sometimes I monitored in the...well, you can see where this is going. I was a monitoring fool. But the numbers remained stubbornly high until I went back to the doctor for a follow-up. I'd literally just measured my pressure at home beforehand and marvelled at the numbers which suggested my heart was working away like a fire appliance. So when I asked him to do it at the surgery, there were mixed emotions when the numbers he got from his old-fashioned but clinically calibrated device were significantly lower than the lump of plastic at home that had tormented me for the preceding four weeks.

So I'm back on the bike, having solemnly sworn to She Who Must Be Obeyed that I would avoid hills and other general silliness. This makes me happy as I feel like I'm doing something positive, and my 1,000 mile challenge is back on. I'd quite like to do something impressive, cycle-wise, later this year and getting out there regularly is a step in the right direction. I'm beginning to feel guilt if I don't get on the bike, so emotional self-blackmail is back on the menu.

As you'd expect, I'm not out of the clutches of the medical profession yet. This week I'm back at the hospital again for something called an Ambulatory Blood Pressure Test. Essentially, after a certain amount of prodding and poking, they're going to strap a blood pressure monitor to me, which I'll have to wear for 24 hours. Throughout the day - and, worryingly, the night - this thing will go off at regular intervals so they get a true picture of how my internal plumbing copes over a longer period.

They say I'm not to stay at home, but to go about my normal business as they need to see how I cope with the rigours of everyday life. Of course, given that my everyday life isn't normally interrupted every 30 minutes by beeping and the muffled sound of inflation and deflation, this is by nature a little artificial, but I'll do the best I can.

When it beeps, I'm actually meant to drop what I'm doing, stop what I'm doing, sit down and raise my arm to keep the cuff at heart height. Which, of course, will be nicely unobtrusive and not at all a disturbance. Driving is going to be fun, given that whole pesky 'turning the steering-wheel and changing gear' thing. But the kicker is this - I'm not allowed to speak while the monitor is doing its business. I'm thinking of wearing a sign. I have meetings at work that afternoon. My colleagues aren't used to seeing me go quiet and then hearing the sound of rushing air coming from my person.

Well, not since I ditched the high-carbohydrate diet, anyway.

In a way I've been here before. Several years ago when I had sleep problems, the very same hospital strapped another set of monitoring equipment to me to wear in bed. We came the the conclusion that one of the things likely to stop me sleeping was having medical analysis equipment attached to me. I remarked at the time that I was gussied up like the Poundland Darth Vader; this next week's experience will be somewhat similar, but I'm imposing it on my co-workers too.

They are lucky, lucky people.


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