There is hope (and a skip) and perhaps a jump?

One week on and apart from strange sensations in my right knee (no idea what is going on there, something is the matter by darn if I know what) I seemed t have survived the marathon experience. A lovely week up in the Tees valley helped, and I even managed to survive the spiral staircase in Scargill castle, although jokes about my wife being able to hear me coming from the plaintive moans of “ow” “ow” “ow” as I made my way up and down them is entirely true. Also, clambering over stiles is much harder when a most of your leg muscles and joints don’t really want to be flexible.
But it was still great to get out walking and away from crowds and just be in (admittedly windswept) countryside. All sorts of little revelations and memories…. I had expected to relive nostalgia of High and Low force waterfalls but had not figured on walking through the largest forest of dwarf juniper bushes in the UK. We saw so many lapwings, curlews, oystercatchers and snipes that at times it felt more like the seaside than the Durham dales. Standing up on the moors allowed you to just stop and listen to its many voices; the ever present wind of course, but the pheasants and black grouse, all distinctly vocal overlaid with the melody of the larks and a particularly strident Hen Harrier.
For me though the most fun moment was stooping for a drink of water and watching a stoat saunter out of a bush a few feet away and then go down a grassy bank out of our sight, and then watching in amazement as it came out again in the open, bumbled around completely unconcerned and then wandered off again. Of course we were upwind, so it could not smell us, but even so, a very special moment.
Thankfully it is not just the lovely wife and I that seem to have those moments. This weekend and back in St Albans we were walking in Verulamium Park and were accosted by a little girl, maybe six, pointing out to us in a typically excited way that “it’s a real bunny!!!”
Indeed it was, one of this year’s new arrivals, happily munching grass about a foot the overly excited poppet. In the park they are about as tame as they can be without actually eating out of your hand, but that doesn’t matter when you are six (and probably have frustrated desires for a bunny/puppy/kitten/penguin of your own).
What was lovely was not the cute little alien vermin (goodness, we had seen enough of those in the last week – and don’t get me going on the overdose of cute lambs I’ve recently suffered, although they are really cute when they are so tiny, if it wasn’t for all the diseases they carry) but just the joyous reaction and the need to share it with complete strangers that might be passing. Really marvellous and kept me smiling for sometime… In fact bunny girl should get together with the other precocious young female we passed a little later who we overheard asking her responsible adult “why does it do that?” in relation to a busking swan on the lake. True scientist in the making that one, observation and the subsequent quest to understand and I had to stop myself from unleashing my natural lecturer to interrupt and explain on the grounds I would probably be arrested for molesting the child with actual useful knowledge.
The enthusiasm for things seems to get crushed out of so many of us so quickly. How many people over the age of six have you seen skipping down the road? And yet when you are that age it seems impossible not to skip (and/or run headlong with no thought of the consequences). I have, to be fair, seen some dad’s engaging in a bit of furtive skipping with their daughters, but will they skip without a small pink thing attached to their arm? No, I don’t think they will be seen doing that.
Which is a bit of a shame really as the world would be a happier place if we skipped more, and were prepared to share our excitement of yet another bunny with passing strangers.


Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Panic

The four of them sat in the empty Taverna, quite deliberately avoiding eye contact with each other.
‘So,’ Senodo said slowly,’ what do we do?’
Silence reigned for a couple of minutes. Finally Calgacus gave a resigned sigh and got up, seemingly coming to a decision.
‘I’ll leave the city and take Vita with me. I’m a good worker – and with Empire constantly expanding there is more than enough construction jobs to go around.’
‘That is only if Vita wants to go with you,’ cautioned Senodo.
Calgacus looked at the girl.
Vita said nothing, but let her tiny fingers rest on his scarred and callused hand. Calgacus felt his heart was about to burst.
He saw Senodo smile although Calgacus felt there was sadness in it too. The girl had touched them both in such a short time, he thought.
‘Oh please, enough with the sweetness,’ snapped Exuperatus,’ Yet again it is up to me to be the cold fish of reality. You won’t be able to get her through the gates. If the soldiers are on alert and they know an Investigator is coming they’ll already be carefully checking anyone travelling on the roads. I mean, would you like to be the legionary who had to explain to a senior official that he had his prey and had let it slip through his fingers? He’d be pushed off a cliff faster than you could say “Decimation”.’
‘We could at least try,’ Calgacus protested.
‘Can we not just stick to the original plan,’ Vita said quietly.
The three men looked at her.
‘I can do this act, you know’ she went on,’ I can fool this Investigator. And maybe it is not really true – maybe the rumours are being circulated deliberately, to make me and anyone helping me panic.’
‘And reveal ourselves through acting oddly,’ Senodo mused.
Exuperatus looked at Vita keenly.
‘You may well be right. But I don’t like the idea, because I do not want this Investigator sniffing around my bar.’
‘Our bar, my friend,’ Senodo reminded him gently.
Exuperatus brushed the formality aside as if it were a fly.
‘You know what I mean. Both of us have enough to hide from the authorities. We need to keep as low profile as possible,’ he sighed and gave Vita a glare,’ but we will stick with plan as Vita suggests. She is right. For the moment it is the best we’ve got, the gods help us.’
Exuperatus took a sip of wine before continuing.
‘Here’s the story. The ‘boy’ here is yours, Calgacus. Congratulations, by the way. He’s the result of a liaison with a prostitute… She’s died of some horrible disease (luckily you did not contract it, eh?) and foisted the little bastard onto you, and you’ve taken responsibility out of some sense of misguided guilt.’
‘And you’ve managed to get him to work his way in our bar,’ added Senodo.
‘Because we are all heart,’ Exuperatus said without a trace of sarcasm.
‘That’s a bit farfetched, surely?’ Calgacus looked uncertain.
‘You are an innocent aren’t you?’ Exuperatus laughed,’ you’ve not been in the prostitutes quarter have you? This is an everyday story of whores and their unwanted children, my friend. Most of them starve or end up knifed. But you – everyone knows you are a bit of a soft touch. The farfetched bit is that you’ve been with a prostitute at all, which I doubt.’
Calgacus blushed and said nothing.
‘Vita understands, don’t you?’ Exuperatus asked Vita.
The girl nodded then frowned.
‘The only bit that sounds strange to me is that my father should help me… Rather than dump my body in a ditch. I think that would be the normal response I would expect.’
Calgacus looked at her open mouthed.
‘I would never do that, even if you were my unwanted child,’ he gasped.
‘I know,’ Vita said,’ but you’re a good man. There aren’t many around. That’s why I trusted you. I saw in your eyes that you were given to me by the gods.’
‘I feel sick,’ Exuperatus muttered,’ but now we’re now decided. Senodo – open the bar up. Being closed for too long makes people talk and we need to make a living. You, Calgacus, get back to your job. Vita, with me please, I want to show you how to make sausages. We have a business to run and I may be busy doing other things in the next few days.’
The older man led the girl into the cellar and took down a slab of cured meat and a large knife. He began to cut sections. Vita tensed a little, as she suspected Exuperatus had another message specifically for her. She was not disappointed.
‘Just to be clear Vita, if you give us away then both Senodo and myself will be executed. Not because of you, but… Let’s just say we both have history with the Roman authorities.’
‘I won’t fail,’ Vita said.
Exuperatus whirled around suddenly and the large knife hovered in the air before the girl, the point pressed gently against her neck. Vita looked surprised but held his intense gaze without fear.
‘I’m not like Calgacus, girl,’ Exuperatus warned in a whisper,’ Or Senodo. If I had my way you would be lying in a ditch now. And if I come to grief now because of you, I’ll drag you down into the darkest depths of Hades with me, this I swear.’
He lowered the knife.
‘Now, go get me some onions.’

Keep on Running

Well thank goodness that is all over. The 2013 London Marathon was a real… Experience, I think it is fair to say. I even enjoyed some of it. I particularly enjoyed crossing the line, though more on that a little later.
Marathons taken seriously – and this one is the first time I can really say that I did – dominate your life for a while. The training is the big part of that and it is absolutely essential. In my previous attempt in 2002 I fell apart and was very lucky to finish at all. But I was younger, fitter and cocky, and felt that doing half marathons was good enough training – which it isn’t.
A 10K or half marathon is a real challenge for me and others, don’t get me wrong, but they can be approached as a fun run if you are a normal casual runner or if you are pretty fit generally and have working knees. This means nothing (I know now) in a marathon.
Train for it specifically and put in the work, or suffer the consequences. You are going to suffer anyway. A marathon is not fun. If you have an aversion to pain, don’t do it. If you cannot be bored out of your mind plodding on for hours and hours, don’t do it either. I just about managed last weekend but really, never again. I’m just not cut out for this, and I am looking forward to shorter distances again and having them feel like a walk in the park. Roll on the Great North Run in September for that.
On the marathon organisation I cannot real fault that. It was pretty well marshalled and there was plenty of water and other facilities which were really needed on what was a relatively hot day – the reason for quite a few people posting a lot slower times than they might have hoped (that lovely training having been done in freezing cold rain, wind and snow rather than Sunday’s warm sun). The little kids competing with each other to give you water at the start was a nice touch.
Images for me on the journey – cheering so loud that it drowned out the iPod – and in particular my own support party managing to somehow get my increasingly failing attention (as the tiredness and pain began to dominate) three times along the route with much needed encouragement. The idiots drunk outside East End pubs that though it was funny to make fun of runners (I’d be amazed if some of them did not have their lights punched out by someone before the day was out.). The orange teenage girl looking bored at the water station, and being completely ignored by the runners (who went deliberately around her to the next person, so funny). Then there were the hundreds of wonderful people of all ages with jelly babies and jelly beans and orange pieces, desperate to help complete strangers with this ludicrous exercise in mass torture and mass fund raising for great causes. The fundraising should never be underrated. From all the big charities to an the woman I saw running for anti-knife charity foundation formed after her son was knifed at the age of 22… She was on the verge of tears as she finished, and it was not for the pain I am sure. She was thinking of her lost boy.
I crossed the line on the verge of tears too, though mine were happy ones. Having gone and done the stupid thing of predicting a time – normally I refuse – and said under five hours, I really felt the pressure. I prayed a lot in that last ten miles; I probably switched from hope to despair twenty times. But a last cheer from Jane on the sidelines, and a few common sense calculations in my head made me realise that if I just kept plodding for those remaining miles I might still make it. The last mile was agony, and like a lot of these races, it seemed to go on forever. Only that last 300m or so, when you turn into the Mall and can actually see the finish, do you suddenly relax. You’ve just about made it and ironically I managed to speed up once I knew I was going to be within the target (4 hours, 52 minutes, 56 seconds). I’m a practising Christian so praising God as I went across the line was easy, and whether you believe it was divine help or psychological crutch… Well, I’ll leave that to you.
But it is over now, there are two thousand pounds (thank you to all sponsors who might be reading!) heading to a family to get them out of poverty and I have a medal, a T shirt that is either brick red or maybe pink depending on your view, and a brief period of euphoria and muscle pain.
Thankfully we have a week away in the North East for our anniversary this week, in a place called Scargill Castle, which is a two person holiday in the remains of a fortified gatehouse – it was featured on Time Team some years ago.
And the bedroom is at the top of a substantial spiral staircase.
Oh dear, I didn’t think that one through did I?

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Decisions

Antonius rushed up to Calgacus. He seemed about to wet himself with excitement.
‘They’ve doubled the reward on that girl!’ he squealed, ‘I didn’t see that coming. Her owner must really want her back for some reason,’ the foreman nudged Calgacus,’ she must be a special one… Maybe she does tricks.’
Calgacus responded with a withering look which he tried to use to hide the panic he felt.
This wasn’t good news. The plan had seemed simple enough before. Hide Vita until things calmed down and then…
Actually, he had to admit to himself he did not know what to do after that.
In his heart he understood Vita could never live here in Verulamium and be safe.
Maybe they could move to Londinium. Or even Calleva Atrebatum.
And I’m going to have to move with her, he thought. She’s too young to be on her own.
‘Calgacus? Are you listening to me?’ Antonius was glaring at him now.
‘Honestly? No I’m not. I was away with the nymphs. What was it you were trying to say?’
‘It could earn us a lot of money if we find his little runaway squeeze. But we need to do it quickly. According to Vitellus – you remember him, the Centurion with only three fingers on his left hand, smells terrible – well, according to him the Legion is expecting an Imperial Investigator to come up to the city. That’s very serious,’ Antonius concluded over dramatically,’ apparently.’
‘It is?’
‘Yes – they never stop until they complete their mission – it is part of their code or religion or something. If we don’t find the whelp soon and claim the reward we could miss out.’
Calgacus knew he would have to warn Senodo and Exuperatus as soon as possible.
They had to come up with an alternative plan. Although maybe these Inspectors were not as clever as their reputation suggested. Antonius was an idiot who would and usually did believe anything he was told.
‘Apparently even the Praetorian guards are afraid of these guys. They answer only to the Emperor.’
That did it for Calgacus, it was serious after all. Action was definitely required.
‘I need the afternoon off, Antonius…’ Calgacus looked down so he would not give himself away,’ to, um, search for the girl. I… I know the kind of places she may have hidden herself.’
Antonius looked at him suspiciously.
‘You don’t just want the reward for yourself, I hope?’
Calgacus tried to stop himself from laughing despite the gravity of the situation.
‘No, of course not Antonius, you’re my friend. We’re a team, you and I.’
‘Right,’ Antonius whispered conspiratorially, looking around as though they might be overheard by the other construction workers,’ so go now then. No time to waste!’
Calgacus needed no more enticement and took off in the direction of the Taverna. Then he stopped.
What if Antonius was not as stupid as he normally seemed?
So he took the long way around, checking several times to see if he was being followed. As far as he could tell, that was not the case.
He got to the closed door of the bar just as Exuperatus opened it.
‘Right, open again…,’ the small man’s face fell, ’oh, it’s you.’
‘We need to talk,’ said Calgacus, tersely.
‘Yes we do. Come in,’ said Exuperatus but not before slamming the door apologetically in the face of another potential customer. There were cries of annoyance from outside.
Exuperatus sighed and felt he had better say something through the thick oak door.
‘Sorry, we’re closed again. There has been… there’s been a death in the family… Inconvenient, I know, but what can you do when that happens? Other than blame it on the gods of course. I usually do.’
And the bloody gods have certainly got a lot to answer for at the moment, Exuperatus thought with some venom.

Adventures in Radio Land

If you have fifteen minutes of fame, I have about 6 minutes left. Well, I’ve used up about 9 minutes in a fairly parochial way on an early Sunday morning on BBC local radio so maybe I can claim some of that back. Previously the most media presence I’ve managed is three seconds of coverage in the 2012 Great North Run when I ran in front of the poor man who was carrying a fridge just as he was being featured in the commentary.
So anyway; I get an invite to be a brief guest on Helen Legh’s early morning show (6am to 9am) on BBC Three Counties Radio, to talk about my reluctance in running and Mission Without Borders in preparation for the marathon. I’ve never done any kind of media for real before, although many years ago I went through some media training which could be summarised as ‘don’t trust the evil media people , you’ll be lucky to get out of the studio alive.’ I’m please to say my experience on Sunday was much nicer, although I’m not a politician, have something to sell (as such) and I think with all the Margaret Thatcher kerfuffle (aside: she’d be loving all the controversy, those of you that hate her – you’re just cementing her historical legacy, sorry) they probably wanted to have something with a lighter feel.
In fact getting into the studio was the most hairy thing. I’m sure Luton has some good points, but I’ve not found them yet. When I arrived outside the BBC radio building there, there was a young lad hanging around just around the corner who proceeded to meet with a very well dressed older man who gave me a distinct glare as I waited with increasing nervousness to be let into the building. So, early Sunday morning is a good time for drug deals it seems.
Thankfully they let me in, and I spent the next fifteen minutes getting increasingly worried as I listened to the show being piped into the empty reception area. Nice comfy leather sofas though.
Eventually, a very cheerful Irish bloke popped his head around the corner, shook my hand and invited me to come down. It turns out that other than the presenter, this chap was basically everything else about the show, and he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. So I got sat down in a studio next to the one that was on air, was offered coffee (refused politely) and was waved at by Helen in the adjacent studio. I began to relax a little. This was the BBC, and they are human beings.
I was formally reminded that the little light bulb when read meant “on air” so I made an unusual commitment to myself to keep my mouth shut unless spoken to. Now relocated during the news to the main studio my vision was largely filled by a giant green microphone. Watching them operate it was clear how much of this is timing, in particular judging when to come in with your microphone after a song, or as was said to me, the difficulty of judging when the news report was going to finish, so you get a smooth transition and no pregnant pauses. Ad to that the need to keep track of the piles of paper containing notes, texts and emails and it is definitely a job for those with a penchant for calm multitasking.
During Donna Summer (featuring Musical Youth, no less) warbling along about Unconditional Love, we had the pre-interview chat. This is the bit when they ask the politicians “you don’t really believe in this do you, go on, what’s the real story?” to which the correct answer, no matter how they smile and seem nice, is to say nothing except for your official agreed message track. I of course, spewed forth in usual style and therefore proved I would be the worst politician possible.
And then I was on air and you have one of those moments where you kind of say, “OK brain, over to you now, try not to screw up.” Apparently it went well according to the people who matter. I’ve listened to it once, and keep wincing at the ums and errs and the one use of the phrase “well, basically…” which annoys me a fair bit when other people do it so now I have guilt at my own linguistic sin.
But, all things considered, it could be a lot worse. And then it was all over, a wave goodbye and then ushered out.
Thankfully the drug dealer had moved on.
Was it fun? Yes, hugely. But goodness knows how nervous I would have been if that had been national radio or TV. As it is the listenership probably consists of a dog and my well dressed dealer, and I am sure most people decided to make the tea at that point and all the sensible people of course were asleep. But was what I suspect will be a unique experience for me.
Afterwards though I could not help wondering what people hearing 8 minutes of you talking about running and openly discussing your personal views about faith and God then draw up in their minds what sort of person you are. Come to think of it, I do it all the time on the basis of even less information.
So I think I’ll just stop thinking about that now, before I freak myself out, and instead just be thankful I am not in the public eye and never likely to be, because I am not sure I have a thick enough skin to cope with that.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Developments

Exuperatus came through the door of the Taverna as though Cerberus itself was after him. His eyes swept across the empty bar. He slammed the door behind him.
‘We’re closed,’ he said to the surprised man who had just been about to enter,’ we’re, um, stocktaking. Open again in an hour.’
He slammed the basket he was carrying on the nearest table.
‘And our apologies for any inconvenience caused! ‘Exuperatus added through the now closed door.
‘What’s the matter? Senodo asked.
Exuperatus ignored him and went straight over to Vita. Before she had time to react he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her violently. Vita yelped in pain.
‘What are you not telling me, girl?’ Exuperatus almost screamed at the girl.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Vita cried desperately, ‘I really don’t.’
A big hand landed on the smaller man’s wiry shoulders.
‘Enough. Let her go, old friend,’ Senodo said,’ you’re hurting her and that won’t help any of us.’
Exuperatus let go and sat down suddenly looking extremely tired. He looked over at the terrified girl.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said simply. Vita just nodded and looked at the two men with her eyes wide, unsure what was going to happen next, and wondering whether it was a good idea to run now.
‘What’s the matter?’ Senodo repeated.
‘She is the matter,’ Exuperatus pointed at Vita,’ or rather her former master. Something is very strange here Senodo. Apparently he has sent for an Imperial investigator.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Senodo,’ they only get called in for serious crimes against officials or acts of treason against the Empire. Not runaway slaves.’
‘Exactly – which is why I want to know from Stolen Goods here exactly what it is that she is not telling us.’
Both men looked at Vita expectantly. The girl just looked confused.
‘I don’t know why. I just ran away. I did not hurt anyone if that is what you mean or stole anything.’
‘I think she’s telling the truth,’ Senodo rested a hand gently, protectively, on the girl’s head.
‘I can see that,’ snapped Exuperatus,’ now. The man must just be obsessed. And unfortunately for us has friends in very high places. Why could you not be a runaway from some jumped up local yokel, girl? ‘
Vita shrugged and said nothing.
‘What do we do?’ Senodo asked.
‘Do? We do nothing. We stick with the plan and hope that the investigator, if indeed one comes, isn’t one of the brighter ones. Or one that “always gets his man” and doesn’t give up.’
‘It looks like you might have to be a boy for a bit longer than we hoped,’ Senodo said to Vita sadly.
‘That’s alright,’ Vita said, shrugging once more,’ I’m making good money on tips.’
Exuperatus looked at her in shock.
‘You didn’t tell me about that.’
‘I don’t have to. They’re my tips.’
‘Now wait a minute you little…’
‘That’s enough,’ Senodo interrupted again,’ Vita, please go and get some wine for my partner here from the cellar. The drinkable stuff I mean. And one for me while you are there.’
When she had gone, Senodo’s voice dropped to a whisper.
‘You’re thinking of turning her in aren’t you?’ He asked.
Exuperatus looked the Senodo straight in the eyes to make sure he understood.
‘Yes. Of course I am. If an investigator comes stomping around and finds her, he’ll start looking into us too. I know these people. They’re never satisfied until they know everyone’s secrets, even if they are not relevant to the case. And we have too many secrets, remember.’
‘I do,’ Senodo began calmly,’ but I won’t let you betray her. I believe that she is a gift from the gods. A chance at redemption… I will not give her up.’
‘Even if it mean you had to kill me? It might come to that you know. Where is your redemption in that?’
Senodo sighed.
‘She’s young and innocent and you’re not. But it is not going to come to that, is it?’
Exuperatus sighed. He felt he was sighing a lot recently.
‘No, I guess not.’
Vita returned with two cups of wine. Senodo picked one up and gave the other to Exuperatus.
‘Let’s drink to that, shall we,’ he said and both men downed their wine in front of a confused girl.

Behold! The reign of the machines is upon us (or is it?)

I’m of the age that cannot really believe the gadgets and gizmos that we have to play with these days from the computer I am writing this to, to my smart phone, to the computer that runs my car.
I’m running a role playing game periodically for some friends that is set in the mid 1990s and in doing the research for it – well, a same not taken seriously is not a game worth playing no matter how silly it maybe – I was amazed at how technology had changed in just that period of time and made to think about what things might look like in only 10 years time from now.
It is not just the technology itself but our reactions too it. It is especially noticeable in children. A friend of mine has a little daughter who must be around three or four now. His flat screen TV is covered with her fingerprints as she doesn’t really understand it is not a touch screen like his tablet. To her generation touch screens will be the normality and keyboards get the same looks of puzzlement as the typewriter does in the display at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire (where I sometimes volunteer) from the teenagers.
Is it all a good thing? Like anything else there are good and bad aspects. Technological progress should never be feared, is necessary for the human race to constantly better manage itself and continue to grow and evolve, but it does need to be managed. The overall impact has to be objectively, and ideally sometimes speculatively (the old “what if?” question can be appropriate, if you can keep away from scaremongering) assessed so that we don’t regret it later. I think that in two areas particularly we need to take care:

1. Forgetting who we are, and letting technology rule. Technology is just a thing, people are what matters. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be led by the machines. I’m not sure if the killer robots will ever try and wipe us out, but why bother, when we can easily become of our own free will slaves to them.
In trying to leave Cambridge a few weekend’s ago we received some useful help from satellite navigation to get out of the winding network of streets. But then we had a problem in choosing lanes when we found ourselves waiting for instructions instead of using our eyes and making a sensible prediction that if the sign said M11 to the right, maybe we should turn right before being told to by the polite lady in the dashboard?
2. Power. I think this is the one, as a lover of speculative fiction that worries me the most. Most of our technology needs power, and a lot of what we get our power from is a finite resource. Unless we can get the (ha ha) technology for energy generation to work many times more efficiently or develop new sources of energy at some point we will not enough to manage the worlds energy needs. Then bad things will happen. Asking people to cut back on energy usage will help if enough people do it but it is not going to be the solution. That’s just playing for time in the face of the inevitable.

I personally think that these issues will be solved eventually because I believe that we are an extremely ingenious species. But in the meantime I will be trying to think of ways – turning appliances off, spending just that little less time in the shower – to do my little bit to give us the time for the science to come to the rescue.