I wasn’t expecting that

Do you have moments when the way you see the world changes, if only a small way? I’m not thinking so much about the Road to Damascus kind of moment as much as those times when reality proves that something you always believed was true is, in fact, wrong or at best an oversimplification of the truth. It can quite seriously shake you.

For most of my life I thought I was Mr Immunity. Unlikely to join the Avengers any time soon admittedly, but I had absolutely convinced myself that somehow through an accident of birth or development I was immune to most known child’s diseases. This somewhat low grade superpower meant that I could sit in the middle of a bunch of infected kids and somehow manage not to contract the various dreaded lurgies that seemed to afflict anyone else. Nothing could touch me. Measles, chicken pox, mumps… No problem for Mr. Immunity. True, there was a slight wobble with a very mild case of what I guess I should now call rubella, but that was clearly a special case and quickly dealt with.

Not that I was not ill as a child. Like any good superhero I had my weakness. Until I had various small parts of me surgically removed at the age of 8, I had tonsillitis pretty much constantly (there’s a clue in the condition as to what was removed). Incidentally that was a weird experience to be in a children’s ward in the 1970s; in my head it has a nightmarish quality now, including a hatred of soggy Rice Crispies (about the only thing you could eat post operation for several days) and what I recall as the mysterious disappearance from the ward of the girl in the next bed down out of the mixed ward I was on; although that may have been because she seemed obsessed with lifting up her nightdress to all the boys at every opportunity. Anyway, it all was made better by the blatant bribe from my parents of a Dinky Space: 1999 Eagle which probably is still favourite toy, if a little battered. (sadly, instead of the ships in the actual series the toy version did not have an unlimited supply of spare parts/pilots. Seriously, where were they keeping all those Eagles? The number of times that Eagle One gets totaled…)

Digressing again, back once more to reality shifts.

So, we were having a lovely holiday on the Island of Lundy, and we were just waiting for the boat back to Devon. I felt a bit ill, but put it down to a bit too much sun the day before (no, really, even off the Devon coast) and he fact I had managed to brain myself on a metal stairway while exploring the Island’s old lighthouse. That does not make you feel particularly well. But it was not until the next morning that I found the rash and found, after all, that my super powers had failed me. I had chicken pox. A good friend of ours had had shingles so maybe that was the source or maybe coincidence – in the end it did not matter. I was not immune after all. Immediately my world view had changed just a little bit. The obvious conclusion is that if I could catch this, then what about the others… And almost all common diseases of this sort are worse as an adult. Oh goody. Thankfully for me it was a mild case (the nurse on the end of NHS Direct line seemed actually relieved when my description of symptoms was not half as terrible as she might have been expecting) and even the recurrence – yes, folks, I have shingles at the moment as the damn virus is with you forever, is proving more an irritation (pun intended) than anything else. So maybe I am not after all Mr Immunity, but I’m certainly blessed in this case.

On a serious front it is a reminder, if I needed it, that complacency is one of the biggest things we need to worry about. Just because it has been fine for thirty odd years does not mean it is going to be fine tomorrow, so I’m taking it as a lesson to enjoy when the sun is shining a little but more, as it might not be shining tomorrow.


A Model Village

There are some things that are just too quirky or silly to admit some affection for them, not if you want to retain any credibility that is. Luckily, since I have never really had any credibility to start with there is nothing much to lose to say I have a fondness for what I think is a very British bit of weirdness; that massive contribution to world culture that is the model village.

If you’ve never been to a model village, or do not understand what I mean, first I should explain that this is model in the sense of a small representation of a larger original, as opposed to an ideal example of what that should look like, although there is an element of the idealised in their design (incidentally, my ‘perfect’ village is Bamburgh in Northumberland, which has every element that any good village should have, including nothing at all to do if you are a teenager).

No, model villages of whatever size are where buildings and other structures are created in reduced scale (usually something like 1:25 ratio) and laid out in pattern so that the visitor can, Gulliver – like (or, if, you prefer, more like a very careful Godzilla) wander through the landscape admiring the level of detail. Sometimes the buildings are copies of real examples, others are fictional ‘examples’ of what, say, a thatched pub should look like. In the more sophisticated sites, there is often electrically operated features; a train always makes a good impression, or a windmill with slowly revolving sails, or a bridge that lifts to let and equally miniature boat sail through, doomed to repeat the journey many times a day on its underwater line.

All this is very twee, and sometimes it might be difficult to see the appeal. But what I like most about most model villages is the attention to detail and sense of humour. No opportunity is ever missed to get a little joke in there somewhere so miniature posters, bill boards or banners are always worth reading. My personal favourites have been the tiny model workman who’s miniature van proudly has ‘no job too small’ emblazoned on the side and a house where a man clings onto the roof dressed only in spotted boxer shorts while an angry husband remonstrated with his sheet covered wife in the window below. This latter one was actually in the Mini Europe attraction in Brussels so probably should be disqualified, but considering the scene is pure British farce it must get an honourable mention. In fact this place is very weirdly British, as a tiny Tardis next to the House of Parliament shows as even in these days of the revitalised series Doctor Who is still something I tend to believe is largely a British phenomenon.

There are a mere handful of Model Villages in the UK. Probably the most famous is Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire (http://www.bekonscot.co.uk/) where the aforementioned helpful tiny workman can be located. They cost a surprisingly large amount of money to maintain (being outdoors and small and detailed are not good bedfellows for longevity) and are something we should cherish. Go visit and take children with you (although if you are short of them, as we are, then your own inner child does just as well).

Running Reflections

I guess my interest in running partly revolves around finding a form of aerobic exercise that I could do in my own mediocre manner and not let anyone else down, and does not involve swimming (which I don’t dislike as such but takes so much time to organise, involves fighting off everyone else in an overfull pool and, to confess, I needed remedial swim lessons at secondary school – if I ever manage to avoiding drowning at some point, I have a lot to thank a certain Mr. Gibson, who took the time to show me that water was not, actually, that scary and was willing with others to spend their lunchtimes helping those of us who were frankly useless to doggy paddle towards competence) and cycling – which I never learned to do as a child, and has therefore held me back ever since. For goodness sake push then and let them fall off and hurt themselves. They’ll thank you later.

A few years ago I did the London Marathon for the wonderful charity Mission without Borders, having been, um, persuaded by a friend in our church congregation. At that point I was the reluctant runner; something some friends of mine thought was a bit strange, as I run regularly. But, let’s be clear, there is a difference with running a few miles regularly in a desperate attempt to try and compensate for calorie intake and running a blessed marathon. I hate marathons. They are just too long to be fun and just turn into a boring parade of pain. I have limitless respect with those with the strength of body, and perhaps more importantly, strength of mind who are able get round those 26.2 miles and the time is a matter of semantics for me. I didn’t want to do it and the race and the training was not fun, even if the achievement was. This is the difference. It will take another whole level of persuasion to make me attempt a marathon again; I suspect that I have learned better now to duck when the ‘opportunity’ comes my way.

Up until recently, I felt comfortable with half marathons. Actually, that sounds as though they are easy. They’re not. On Sunday I completed the Great North Run and had to walk one mile of it; the unexpected sun and heat, and two nights of strangely disturbed sleep had sapped all my energy. In the last few miles I saw three or four men – younger and fitter looking than me – collapsed and being tended to. Tragically someone died. It is not a minor thing. But until this weekend I’d kept up an illusion that it was something I’d be doing forever.

As I stood at the start line – with 50 odd thousand others – I was struck by the number of young people and first timers. And I felt a little jealous. For them this was the biggest deal; for me, it was, in the end, a number and another finisher medal. There were no surprises on route, I’m never going to get close to my 1998 (oh God, so long ago!) personal best and while it is nice to revisit things you see as important, at the same time there is a point where you have to ask is it really worth the pain and the hassle to do something you have done so many times before? So this will be my last Great North Run – while I still love it. I’ll do it again maybe in a decade for old time’s sake; I’d do it again if any of my younger friends wanted to run and felt like having an old hand along. But I think it is generally time to call it a day on this particular part of my life which is absolutely stuffed with happy memories (oh, the pain fades, don’t you know?). I’ll probably do half marathons again. But maybe it time for my running adventures to take a different course.

Hey Small Spender

I’m not terribly good with money. Actually I’m terribly bad with it. My mother, I am fairly sure, realised this from an early age and rather than use with me ‘a fool and his money are quickly parted’ generally referred to my attitudes towards pecuniary matters as like a man walking along the edge of a cliff whistling and not looking particularly where he is going. So generally, things look and feel OK, until you put a foot a little too close to the edge, when you can probably guess that the results would be less than ideal.

She probably felt confident in make this judgement on one of her son’s many deficiencies because – for one – it was clearly true and – for two – she shared some of the same ‘something will come up’ attitude that I have, much to the mild annoyance of my much more careful father (who, I am pleased to see, has since thrown caution and thrift to the wind and is happily, as we joke, ‘spending the inheritance’ and getting things the way he wants them at home and garden. Coming through cancer certainly gives you a different view of life). 

 The problem I shared with mum is what I might call expenses creep.

 Rarely will any money go out from me on a big purchase. Those are a different world closely negotiated affairs in collaboration with the Lovely Wife, who will make sure that we’re getting the best fit at the best price, a counter check I value and need. No sudden new TV or tablet, and the car I drive away in will be the same one I drive home in.

 No, the source of the problem is the little purchases, the ones that could not possibly get you into any kind of financial trouble. You know what I mean, the ones that cost ‘less than a pint’ (although I understand that what this means in London in particular might be different to one, say, in Wetherspoon’s in Coventry). It might be a book. Maybe a second hand CD or three from Amazon or some other virtual or indeed real outlet, or a cheap wood carving set (A recent, as yet unused instant purchase. I found an interesting stick).

 However this is only part of the story. The other section could be headed ‘he never learns’. So despite the fact that my jaw can drop at the end of the month when the credit card bill arrives bringing with it the unpleasant news that all these little purchases do actually add up – I was never any good at maths concepts – I still can fall into that same trap month after month.

 Why this weakness keeps manifesting itself is a question I sometimes ask myself. Certainly like many well off people in the West I’m fascinated by stuff and the acquisition of stuff (most of which I do not need). The fact that if you take a step back and look at that behaviour in the context of people who cannot afford to eat it may be bordering on the obscene is something I can conveniently overlook a lot of the time – with a lot of other people. Second, I’m honestly suckered most of the time by the innocence of spending small amounts of money. Increments always literally creep up on us, whether it be my Amazon spending, the annual train fare increase or the final (of many) tiny annoyance that marks the end of a relationship. I do not beat myself up about it too much, apart from on my own blog – after all this also comes out of trait I have of spontaneity that is very much part of what makes me, me, and brings lots of other things that I am much happier about when I reflect on what I do. But it is just as well that the Lovely Wife is patient with me; in that sense I am very glad to be in debt to her forbearance.

Season’s End

No, this is not about the Marillion album from 1989, good though it may be.

The weather here – at least in South East England – has been pretty poor the last few weeks – dark and raining and feeling increasingly more and more like Autumn, and not even the Indian Summer situation we have been blessed with in some recent years but that dank, depressing, turn on the lights by 4pm kind of autumn that just makes you want to curl up back into bed, because in essence the day just seems, in the parlance of my generation, just a bit naff. Not terrible. Not blizzard conditions. Just a bit nothing, replacing the forlorn hopes of long warm summer evenings sitting in the garden (admittedly getting eaten to death by various biting insects), sipping the cider, smelling the Jasmine and waiting for the shift to change from the swallows and martins (the swifts have long packed and gone in disgust) to the bats – sadly absent this year from our garden it seems. Maybe it is the rain that puts them off too. Perhaps this is some sort of protection from the inhabitants of our common wasp nest in the roof, who have not really bothered us, mainly because we have not been around to be bothered but have instead been hiding in the lounge and wondering what holiday next year might look like.

Seriously, I’m worried about the bats. With the mild winters we have had recently there certainly is enough food around in masses of insects, but this supreme insect eater had been pretty absent where we live while they were pretty reliable visitors before. But while there is disappointment that they have been missing I’ve taken solace in the species of insects all over my herb garden; in particular I have never seen Meadow Brown butterflies in our garden (says something about the state our lawn has achieved, increasing biodiversity at expense of neatness) so that was a lovely surprise this year. We have had a regular gang of four… Juvenile blue tits, that have amused us no end by their boldness, their ability to actually perch (albeit briefly) on the washing line (before slipping and hanging upside down in a surprised but still accomplished manner) and at one point walking on water. They weigh that little when they fledge, bless them. I’m also pretty sure that the Great Tit family that were in our toilet exhaust pipe have come back to feed.

One of the few things that autumn and winter bring that actually keep me happy (other than of course it is almost Christmas, favourite time of the year, and I am including this comment just to annoy the Lovely Wife. Everybody knows that it is not really Christmas until Noddy Holder tells you it is, loudly and brashly….) is that the shyer wild life start to emerge a bit more regularly as the natural foodstuffs become rarer. Suddenly the goldfinches that have pretty much snubbed us all year will rediscover the joys of Niger seed. The foxes will spend more time picking up what they can get and who knows who else will follow their eyes and/or nose and wander into our territory in hope of a meal.

Actually I’m suddenly feeling a lot better about the change of season; there is so much to look forward too, if I just look.