Why I run (or, more specifically, why I can’t stop running)

I think I’ve been rumbled. I thought I’d managed to hide it, but it appears that the cat may be out of the bag. At some point during the last couple of years, I’ve somehow become a runner. Not just someone who goes for a run from time to time, but an actual runner. A proper runner. With all the shorts, mud and chafing that comes with it. Continue reading

A sense of place

It’s the question that I dread above all others. A conversation starter that stops me dead in my tracks. Four little words that confuse and conspire. An innocent enquiry that sends me spiralling into an abyss of self-doubt. I’m thirty seven years old and I’m still not able to answer that most simple of queries: ‘Where are you from?’

I want to say that I was born in Suffolk, that I grew up in Dorset and that I went to university in Staffordshire. That I have lived in England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. That I currently reside in Somerset but have no idea how much longer I’ll be there. But all that comes out of my mouth is ‘Oh, all over, really.’ And what I mean is ‘I haven’t a clue’.

We all have many attributes that define us, from our gender and our physical appearance to our taste in music and our choice of career. But our geographical heritage lies at the heart of who we consider ourselves to be. Whether we’re a northerner, a southerner, Yorkshireman, Cornishman, Liverpudlian or Bristolian, these are still the ties that bind.

I can see why this was such a big thing in decades and centuries past, when people rarely moved more than a few miles from where they were born. But in this age of cheap travel, insecure employment and wide-eyed globalisation, what does it mean to ask someone where they are from? Do we mean where they were born? Or where they live now? Or where they have lived for the longest period of time? Can any of us, in fact, now even claim to be from anywhere at all?

I think we can. But it’s not as simple as it used to be. Some of us have a clear idea of where we are from. It might, for a privileged few, be the ancestral family home in Oxfordshire or the Scottish highlands. For others it is the house in which we grew up and where our parents still live. Indeed, I have several friends in their thirties, all with houses and families of their own, who still refer to visiting their parents as ‘going home’.

Others of us, meanwhile, lead a more nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in response to the demands of family, career or simple curiosity. We collect addresses and residency permits like our childhood selves used to accumulate stamps or football cards. Some places pass fleetingly through our consciousness, but others leave an indelible impression on our soul. They become part of who we are.

I challenge anyone, for example, to spend time in the wilds of Scotland and not develop a sense of awe at the majesty of nature. Or in Russia and not learn to reflect on the darkness of the human condition. Or in rural Provence and not long for the simplicity of a life built by one’s own hands.

Just as scientists can tell from our bones, our hair and our teeth much about when, where and how we have lived, the places we have called home all make a difference to how we think, feel and behave. We absorb a tiny part of that place’s culture, traditions and values, adding them to the ever-growing repository of ideas and attitudes that we call ‘me’.

So if you want to learn what makes me tick, ask me about the things that have influenced me the most. Ask me about the people I have known, the things I have done and the places I have been. Ask me where I have lived, where I have loved and where I have felt most alive. Just don’t, please, ask me where I’m from.

Climate Change: Actions speak (much) louder than words

As part of my drive to get fit and to be a bit more healthy, and as regular readers will already know, I’ve recently taken up running. When the sun’s out and I have nothing pressing on my to-do list, I like nothing more than to pull on my trainers and get out for a brisk jog through the countryside. But if the weather is bad or if I have lots of other things to do, my resolve tends to weaken a little.

This plays havoc with my training programme. Especially when I have taken the perhaps rather ill-advised step of signing up for a 10km rather hilly off-road race in just over a week’s time and, quite frankly, need all of the running practice that I can get. So while I started off with plenty of time to get in the desired mileage, with every missed run the amount of training I need to do before race day gets more and more. And the chance of me actually doing it becomes less and less.

For Red Dwarf fans, this will sound remarkably like Rimmer’s revision plan. When preparing for his astronavigation exam, holographic crew member Arnold Rimmer spends so much of the available time developing an elaborate revision timetable that he now has significantly less time for revision itself. As a result of which he develops a new, compressed revision schedule. Which means that he now has even less time. And so on. Needless to say, he fails the exam. Eleven times.

It also sounds very much like our current approach to combating climate change. We start by setting some impressive looking targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a point in the distant future. We then slump back in a chair and feel very pleased with ourselves, forgetting for the moment that setting targets is not the same as actually doing something.

So we make some plans. We analyse where our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from and who the main polluters are. We produce reports explaining what will need to change if we are to meet our new emissions targets. We even create depressing scenarios of what will happen if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But still concrete action remains elusive.

Rather than direct our efforts to things that reduce our carbon footprint, we devote our time to finding ways to look like we’re doing something without actually having to make any of the difficult decisions. We develop complex emissions trading schemes that allow us to do what we’ve always been doing. We export carbon intensive activities to other parts of the world. We encourage each other to ‘offset’ emissions rather than reduce them.

And we get mired in arguments about technicalities. We go to great lengths to explain why it’s OK to continue to burn fossil fuels, while dismissing the potential of renewable technologies. We quibble with the way greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon dioxide are measured, as if the damage we are doing to our planet is but an artefact of the statistics we use. We wring our hands and question whether it’s even our fault at all.

Yet with each day that we do nothing, the challenges that lie before us become greater. We have more and more to do, but less and less time to do it. Our targets, once so full of promise, become a constant reminder of our inability to change our ways.

We cannot combat climate change by doing nothing.  We cannot hide behind our spreadsheets, our statistical analyses and our economic forecasts. We need to make difficult decisions. We need to change what we do and how we do it. We need to be willing to make sacrifices in the short term, so that we can ensure our longer term survival.

Our grandfathers knew all about hard work and sacrifice. Our fathers taught us that nothing good comes without great effort. But today we live under the fatal assumption that we can live without diligence and endeavour. That our technological prowess insulates us from the consequences of our actions. That our mastery of our world is such that the rules under which we have lived for millennia no longer apply. Well, we are wrong.

Whether it’s running, revision or reducing greenhouse emissions, unless we actually make an effort and do something, we have no hope of achieving our goals. Success does not come to those who sit quietly and hope for the best. Rather, it comes to those who have a goal and who give their all to achieve it. If we really want to protect our planet – and ourselves – from the ravages of climate change, we must all take action. And we must take it now.

Welcome to the microfarm

I’m always a little bit jealous of people who work full time as farmers, growers or gardeners. Sure, the pay is terrible and they can’t put things off just because it’s raining. But they get to devote themselves to what they love. They can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, rather than putting it off for weeks at a time because other things get in the way.

I appreciate that I’m perhaps idealising the horticultural life a little too much here. I also recognise that such a career has more than its fair share of ups and downs. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to introduce some of this ethos – of working to the plants’ timescales, rather than to my own – into how I relate to my own little patch of earth. I’ve stopped thinking of it as a tatty greenhouse and a few raised beds, and started thinking of it as a micro-farm.

I started off by making a list of all the jobs that need to be done at the moment. And I mean everything that needs to be done, not just the things I want to do. Even things like emptying the slug traps and weeding around the shed. Needless to say, it was a fairly long list. And I’ll keep adding to it as successional batches of seeds need to be sown, seedlings need to be potted up and shrubs need to be pruned. (I’ve got my list on a little A4 whiteboard, so it’s easy to keep it up to date.)

My next step has been to devote an hour each morning, as soon as I’ve got back from walking the dog, to working through some of the tasks on my list. So far, this ‘little and often’ approach has been rather enlightening, giving me a real feeling of satisfaction as I storm through the huge number of tasks that have been bugging me for ages. It also leaves the weekends, which I’d usually use to try to catch up on absolutely everything I needed to do in the garden, for larger projects, like building a new cold frame.

I’ve now got all of my seeds planted, except for the ‘sow in mid-May’ ones, which are on the list for this week. Here are just a few of them.

Seedlings

The courgettes and squashes are just starting to sprout their first proper leaves, so they’ll be off out into one of the cold frames soon, to toughen them up prior to being planted out into the garden.

Courgette seedlings

In addition to my regular range of flowers, fruit and vegetables, I’m trying a few more exotic things. Below are dahlia seedlings, freshly pinched out to encourage them to be short and bushy rather than tall and lanky. (My garden, being long and narrow, has the characteristics of a wind tunnel.) I’ve read in James Wong’s book ‘Homegrown Revolution‘ that you can eat dahlia tubers, so I’m keen to try this out. At James’s suggestion, I’m growing cucamelons, electric daisies, inca berries, alpine strawberries, elephant garlic, quinoa, mooli and watercress, too.

Dahlia seedlings

I’m also trying to give my regular outdoor vegetables a bit more of a chance against the slugs by starting them off in little plugs, which I’ll plant out once they’re a decent size. And with the winter here lasting until about two weeks ago, planting out directly hasn’t really been an option. I can sow a second batch directly into the beds now, though, and can see how they compare with the plugs.

Vegetable seedlings

I have a slight tendency to focus on my vegetables at the expense of my other plants, so I’ve been careful to look after the non-edibles, too. For example, I’ve trimmed the dead leaves off my ferns and have potted up the little offshoots that have sprung up.

The ferns

I’ve also taken the significant step of pruning the older stems off my Euphorbia rigida, a rather messy job that I’d been putting off for several months. Needless to say, once I’d found my gloves and dug out the secateurs, the pruning itself only took ten minutes. The feeling of achievement that accompanied it, though, lasted significantly longer.

Euphorbia rigida

Ditto for having tidied up and potted on the various Euphorbia and Hebe cuttings that I’d accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I’d taken loads of cuttings about two years ago, potted them up and then left them to go feral on the gravel between the willow hedge and the shed. I’d felt really bad about neglecting them, but clearly not bad enough to actually do anything about it. Well, now it’s done. I had to ditch some of them but the rest are looking good, even if I do say so myself.

Hebes

I’ve even made seed bombs.  Yes, seed bombs. I bought a book on making wildflower seed bombs (‘Seedbombs: Going Wild with Wildflowers’, by Josie Jeffery) some time ago, together with a bag of clay powder that has been sitting in the living room ever since. So one morning last week, I put on an old jumper and got my hands (and the jumper, the shed and the dog) dirty making seed bombs. (And yes, I was careful to use native, non-invasive flower seeds.) Here are some of my inaugural batch.

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And here’s my first test subject, nestling into the bark chip underneath one of the apple trees by the vegetable garden. I’ve also cautiously ‘planted’ a few on some of my regular dog walking routes around town, so that I can see how well they fare. Exciting stuff.

Seedbomb

So while I’m not a farmer and probably won’t ever be a farmer, I’m trying to bring a little of the farming ethos into my life. Nothing excessive, just a small amount of planning, a tiny bit of coordination and a little hard work every day. Welcome to the micro-farm.

I’ll be a runner yet

Regular readers of my blog will know that for the past few months I’ve been doing a bit of running. Nothing special, just a few miles three or four times a week. So the weekend just gone marked something of a watershed moment – my first proper race! Yes, it was the long-awaited Bristol 10k. No hills. No muddy scrambles. And no having to stop to wait for the dog to finish rolling in something disgusting. Just six and a quarter miles of flat, traffic-free roads.

Obviously, I was nervous as hell. I was fairly confident I could run the distance, as I’ve covered 10k a couple of times already in training. But I’m not so good with new situations or crowds. Both of which the race brought in spades. But I had my race number, my race plan (Try to enjoy yourself. Try to finish in under an hour. And try not to get overtaken by anyone dressed as a piece of fruit.) and my support team*. So I was good to go. In fact, here I am…

Before the start

I was towards the beginning of the first of two waves in the mass start, so there were all sorts of runners around me. Some were clearly quite experienced, very focused and hoping for a personal best. Others, like me, were less experienced and just hoping not to disgrace themselves in any way. And there were a lot of us. Somewhere north of nine thousand, in fact. Here come some of them now…

Let the race begin

I found my pace fairly quickly, though the first couple of kilometres involved a lot of weaving in and out of slower runners and getting out of the way of faster ones. After that, however, I found myself in a group of people all going at roughly the same speed as me, which made things a lot easier. As did the huge crowds of people cheering us on, which gave me a real boost. Here’s me doing my thing… (Yes, I really am that ungainly. Sorry.)

On the move

My support team seemed to be zipping around the course about as quickly as I was, as she managed to catch me on camera on a number of occasions. She also seemed a little stunned that I wasn’t right at the back (as, to be honest, was I), but managed to wave and make encouraging noises. Though she did say afterwards that I didn’t look as knackered as I should have done, so clearly wasn’t running fast enough. Nice.

Mission accomplished

As you can see from the photo above, I finished the race and got my medal. I even managed a bit of a sprint down the home straight. And having covered the course in 56 minutes and 9 seconds, I was pleased with my time. (Although it sounds a little less impressive when I point out that came 4,375th!). But I enjoyed myself, I finished in under an hour, and I didn’t get overtaken by a single piece of fruit.

* A rather unimpressed Natalie, who had been planning on a lie-in until I realised that the first train into town was too late to get me to the start on time and that I’d need a lift. Typical comment from my support team: “Oh, I didn’t realise you were running in fancy dress.” I wasn’t.

What it’s like to work for me, by me

I’ve been working for myself for a little over a year now, so I thought it was about time to reflect on what it’s been like so far and how I see things going in the future. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I run a small business consultancy that works with organisations across the public, not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors. I used to work for a much larger, international consultancy, but had always harboured a desire to set up on my own. And early last year, I finally took the plunge.

Overall, it’s been a hugely exciting twelve months. Having started off with no clients and no money, I’ve now built up a small client base and have worked on some really interesting projects with some great people. I’ve enjoyed the work, my clients are happy, and everyone’s paid their bills on time. I’ve even managed to pay myself a salary, which is a great relief. (Not least to my wife and to my bank manager.)

The best thing, though, has been the flexibility. Sure, I’ve worked harder over the course of the last year than I have ever worked before, but I’ve been my own boss. I’ve been able to do things my way, to decide what I will do and when I will do it. This does, though, that I also bear all the responsibility for everything. So no delegating the tedious things to some hapless minion, unfortunately. But I do, for the first time in a long while, have complete control over my day and my life. Which is a very liberating – if somewhat terrifying – feeling.

As the owner, director, manager and sole employee of my company, I’m involved in all aspects of what it does. From finding new clients and planning the work to sending the bills and preparing the accounts, it’s all me. This has brought some new challenges. For example, while I’m good at the actual work I do, I’ve always been a little less confident when making contact with people and seeking out new clients. But now I have no choice but to grasp the bull by the horns and just get on with it. And, thankfully, I’m slowly getting better at the business development side of things – and have developed a whole lot more confidence, too.

So where do things go from here? Well, I certainly can’t ever go back to working for someone else. No way. I love what I do and I love my (admittedly still quite new and quite small) company. And I want it to do well. And, perhaps, to become a little less small over time. I need to continue to find new clients and to look after the existing ones. I need to get out and meet more people. And I need to get the company’s name out there a bit more, for example by writing articles and getting invited to speak at conferences. All very exciting. And all, quite frankly, a bit scary. But all, without a doubt, most excellent fun.

Most definitely not an apology

There have been a slew of books in the past few years promoting what I would tentatively term a kind of ‘militant atheism’. The sensitively titled ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is a prime example, though authors such as the late Christopher Hitchens and others have also contributed heavily to the genre. In fact, Hitchens termed himself an ‘anti-theist’, which is perhaps a more appropriate description of the message that these writers – and organisations such as the British Humanist Association – espouse.Unapologetic

While not an overly religious person myself, I have no objection to those of faith. And even as a physicist I am tending towards the view that science cannot explain everything and should perhaps stop pretending that it can. But I am highly dubious of any individuals or organisations, faith-based or otherwise, that try tell people what they should think, what they should do and how they should behave.

So it was with great delight that I stumbled upon Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’. Short enough to be read over the course of a couple of lazy afternoons, it is a very personal – and well-written – account of the author’s relationship with Christianity. While it does not seek to defend Christian ideas, it does – as Spufford points out – spring to the defence of ‘Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity’. And it does so with style, wit and grace.

At the heart of the author’s narrative is the ‘Human Propensity to F**k Things Up’ (HPtFtU).* We all, he argues, screw things up from time to time. Usually, we can recover from these calamities fairly quickly, but sometimes they have more profound or far-reaching consequences. This doesn’t make us ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. It just makes us human. We’re bombarded constantly with images and ideas of how we ‘should’ be, which inevitably make us feel like pathetic excuses for human beings**, but we need to accept that we are who we are. We need, in short, to embrace our HPtFtU.

From here, Spufford takes us on an almost ‘stream of consciousness’*** exploration through his own spiritual and religious experience. It’s not really an argument ‘for’ or ‘against’ religion or the existence of God, but rather the author’s own personal voyage of discovery into what he himself describes as not ‘the kind of thing you can know’. I’ll resist the temptation to go into more detail or to quote my favourite bits, though, because (a) the narrative – and, indeed, the topic – doesn’t lend itself to being summarised, (b) there’s no index and I can’t find the bits I want to quote, and (c) you really should read it for yourself.

I suspect that this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yes, it does meander a little. And yes, it does resort to pop culture references a little more frequently than is perhaps necessary. But it is an intensely personal account of something that clearly makes up a large part of who the author is, so I think we can allow him to write it how he wants. And while Spufford doesn’t try to get us to share his beliefs, merely to understand them, I can’t help but feel that his conclusions resonate for all of us, theists, atheists, agnostics and anti-theists alike. We are all going to f**k things up from time to time. But that shouldn’t mean that we approach life tentatively or with trepidation. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says. ‘Far more can be mended than you know.’

* If you’re looking for a nice cuddly book to read aloud to elderly relatives, don’t choose this one. It’s a bit sweary. Or rather, it’s written how most of us speak most of the time…

** Or this might just be me.

*** Most of the book, the author mentions in the notes at the end, was written without much in the way of research in a Cambridge branch of a well-know chain of coffee shops. (Don’t we all want to write like that?)

And then the rains came

Until last weekend, it had been raining here non-stop for the best part of a month. Now, we’re quite used to a bit of bad weather, but when a significant part of your annual rainfall arrives over the course of just a few days, things don’t always work as they should. Which is why much of the area around here has been a little bit on the damp side.

In some places, it has been quite dramatic. I drove into Bristol just as the worst of the floods had started, and was a little surprised to see torrents – and I mean torrents – of water gushing down the hillside and onto the main road. And when I returned a short while later, this and several other roads had been closed by the police, as they were simply impassable.

Some of the lower-lying villages have been practically cut off, such has been the scale of the rainfall. Because it has been so wet for so long, when the rain falls there’s just nowhere for it to go, so it forms huge pools wherever it gathers – on field, on roads, in people’s houses. Not great. And for the third time this year, too.

When the rain finally stopped last weekend, Natalie, Molly and I took a stroll down into the valley to see how things were doing. Here’s the team ready to start…

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The sports field across the road was half covered with water, which made for great photos and fantastic paddling, but probably wasn’t much good for football.

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We could also see some brand new water features dotted around the landscape. See the lovely lake behind the trees in the picture below? It’s supposed to be a field (and a road). I’m writing this a week later, and the water’s still there.

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As we walked across the field down towards the road, Molly found a very exciting stick, so we had to take a short break.

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Which turned into a slightly longer break.

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Which became longer still when one of Molly’s friends (Bud) arrived to share in the action.

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But we eventually made it down into the valley, where our town almost meets the next village. And where the train station is. Only two hours (direct!) to London – not bad, huh? Anyway, this is the lowest lying part of the town, so it was no surprise that there was a lot of water. This is (I think) a glacial valley and is essentially a flood plain, so there are numerous rhynes that drain the land and keep it usable.

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This one here is usually a babbling little brook, but today it was quite a lot more than that. I half expected to see some teeny weeny kayakers whooshing down it.

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You can see the footpaths across the fields, as these were the first bits to fill up. The water’s just not draining away, so if there’s any more rain, then the field will disappear.

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You see the grey barn in the middle of the picture below? And the small cottage immediately to the left of it? Natalie and I used to live there. We remember, during a similar bout of torrential rain several years ago, standing on the doorstep, watching the flood waters creep their way slowly across the field towards the house. Luckily, they stopped several metres short, but it was not a good feeling. Unsurprisingly, we have since moved quite considerably uphill.

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The nature reserve on the other side of the road was similarly drenched. Usually a little lake with a small drainage ditch running alongside it, the site was now a large lake with a tiny peninsular of land running down the middle.

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The local wildlife was clearly loving it.

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But, for everyone else, the whole episode was a bit of a nightmare. As I mentioned before, this is the third time it’s happened this year. And still, we insist on building housing estates on flood plains and ignoring the warnings of scientists about climate change and extreme weather. Honestly, how much more of a sign do we need?

There goes the sun

We’re having some great sunsets this week. Here’s yesterday’s. It might not look that brilliant, but after several weeks of non-stop cloud and torrential rain, even the tiniest bit of sunshine is worth celebrating…

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And just look how it made the church glow…

IMAG0104Which reminds me, I went out at the weekend and took some photos of the flood water. Our little corner of Somerset looked for a while just like the Lake District. And some bits still do. I’ll get the pictures online soon. (Mega-hectic work week…)