Then we were 6

I was at a friend’s house this weekend who has a number of children, the youngest of which we had evicted from her bedroom for our use, leaving the six year old concerned to sleep in her brother’s bedroom. As time for bed came, she breezed through her very nearly twelve year old brother’s (shut) bedroom door initiating squeals of alarm from the poor lad, who was presumably in a state of undress.

‘You have to knock!’ was the shouted reminder.

Dutifully younger sister exited the room. She then knocked once, briefly, and walked straight in again without the slightest hesitation. More squealing follows.

When eventually I stopped laughing, it dawned on me that life is much simpler when you are six. Pretty much everything is done for you for a start – no need to think about things too much as that is up to Mummy and Daddy to manage. You are old enough to communicate but not yet old enough for people to have too many expectations of you other than perhaps to get yourself dressed and make sure you time the trips to the toilet properly, and eat at least some of what has been put in front of you by your serving staff (aforementioned parents of course). If all goes well, the worst thing that can happen is a scuffed knee after you have fallen over, which will of course be kissed better (and possibly milked for even more – even an ice cream! – depending on how many people are watching and how much you can get away milking it for all it is worth).

The Lovely Wife and I have a house very near to a school, and when working from home I am disturbed twice a day by the arrival and departure of parents with (often multiple) little charges. I am being a little unfair with ‘disturbed’ of course. Apart from the chaos caused by the multiple vehicles ‘parked’ in our road for the duration of the daily ritual it is actually one of the most amusing times of day. Small children are particularly delightful when you do not have to manage all the difficult aspects and can watch them skip along the road, chatter excitedly like so many sparrows about nothing in particular and leap onto pavements from the road as though it were some kind of Olympic feat. Which depending on the size of the child can sometimes be not too far from the truth.

That simple joy is something you rarely see in adults, and I think it is too our detriment. It does come out every so often… Kicking leaves around in autumn, the urge to make snow men (I do not think that ever really goes) and singing along to a song on the radio (providing you are sure no one is watching/listening). But after the age of about six, we never seem to skip any more (although it always seems to me to be a pretty efficient way of getting around on foot, but there you are). I guess many of us have been indoctrinated into acting like adults (whatever that is) and not acting childishly. I think, however, that while being childish is not something you might promote, we could all do with being a bit more child-like. If we can recapture some of the innocence (unlikely) and sense of wonder (now that should be possible) then maybe we can enjoy life just a little bit more.


If I told you, I’d probably have to kill you

This weekend I was back at my old university for an alumni weekend showcasing some of the current research into biological sciences that they are progressing, much of which was fascinating; it also reminded me of a lot of things I had forgotten, and brought back that feeling you get when you are in a place that you understand completely and feel as though you could slip back into routine again – albeit with a lot better facilities than I recall having to manage with, at least in the teaching labs. Of course not everything was the same or indeed an improvement… I am not sure the slightly soulless looking restaurant area is an improvement on the comfy chairs and coffee serving hatch of over twenty years ago, and while I entirely understand the change, the lack of any kind of library – its place taken by ranks of computers of course – did make me feel just a tiny bit sad.

I might go into more detail on what I learned on the day, but actually it was something more personal that struck me afterwards. I am sure I have written about it before, but once again I found myself in a bit of difficulty explaining what I do for a living in any kind of clarity and without seeing someone’s eyes glaze over and realising that in my zeal to make them understand I had gone just a little too far.

A few years ago the Lovely Wife and I went to a Lee Hurst gig and foolishly managed to be in the front row (a fatal mistake at most stand-up comedy gigs). Needless to say, at one point Hurst made the error of asking me what I did for a living. So off I started and with a few minutes he motioned me to stop and insisted that considering my explanation was so convoluted and opaque I must actually be a Secret Agent (the waffle obviously being my cover story). It got a laugh, I guess I have a stock answer to the question when someone asks me if I think it is just better to duck the question.

However, surrounded by scientists at the weekend the question came up several times and in that kind of context I felt I had to give it a go.

So what do I do?

Professionally it would normally be referred to as Regulatory or Regulatory Affairs. It is a technical function usually, and at the basic level involves ensuring that products meet the regulations laid down for the countries where that product is going to be sold. Those regulations may be down to what the product can and cannot contain, what the labels might have to have on them and/or some forms of administrative procedures that need to happen before or after putting a product on the market (such as notification/registration with a government body).

Most people do not realise (why should they?) that a lot of products they use are actually quite highly regulated. Mostly the reason for this is for. The other reason is to drive consistency and allow free movement of goods.

The most regulated categories would include medicines and medical devices, but in Europe at least foods, cosmetics and biocides also have specific so-called ‘sector’ legislation, and that is what I have to deal with. My particular area is cosmetics, and I am a close personal friend of the EU Cosmetics Regulation.

If you are not in the sector the word cosmetic is generally tied to lipstick and eyeliner and similar products. Actually it is much wider than that, with shampoos, skin creams, deodorants, toothpaste and sunscreen products all falling under the definition and regulated as cosmetics (pretty much everything in your bathroom).

But trying to explain all this inevitably starts to take yourself into some kind of lecture mode and you can see the attention start to slip away rapidly even before getting into the joy of International regulations, Trade Associations, Scientific Committees and all the, um, fun stuff beyond the dry bones of the actual Regulations.

So maybe I’ll just stick to the Secret Agent story.

Human Racing

The best moment on Sunday was right at the end. A middle aged Geordie gentlemen handing out the medals to exhausted half marathon runners took one look at my vividly red face and sweat drenched bull costume and just said:


And proceeded to shake my sweaty hand (poor man) before ushering me past into the ‘collect your T shirt’ line.

That was what Sunday was about for me really. Respect – for complete strangers who you have never met before and probably will not meet again. It flies in the face of game theory but then again it is one of the things – together with a highly developed imagination (some animals clearly do have some powers in this regard but not to the same extent we have – we are a class above) – that makes human beings special.

I felt many things on Sunday, including pain, being far too hot (a cheerful sign at half way round the run declared that the temperature was a mere seventeen degrees, which was blatantly not true) and anger focused at myself for not fixing some things about my costume in advance that would have made things a whole lot easier (preparation was never my strongest point). I also felt lots of love and a reminder of what I will miss from the great North Run; after twenty two consecutive years it is time to stop (and I really mean it this time).

I will not miss all the sitting around at the start (you really do need to get there early). I will miss the Red Arrows a bit, but I’ll see them elsewhere. The various landmarks and both depressing and invigorating mile markers (for the record, the 8 mile one is particularly good, appearing out of nowhere just when you are beginning to despair of it). The packed sweaty train ride back to the car can also be consigned to memory.

But the atmosphere among the vast majority of runners, that is irreplaceable. I really struggled in the heat and it was very obvious I was having a hard time. But I lost count of the times in those latter miles when people of all ages slapped me on the back and/or gave encouragement – often commenting on how glad they were not to be wearing what I was and how hot I must be. I think there is a clear element of ‘thank goodness that poor wretch is not me’ coming out but the support is quite genuine. As I struggled I suddenly remembered better years when I have done the same to people obviously at the end of their energy and, in particular the latter stages, a drive to see fellow participants make it to the finish, even if you have to carry them across it – and this does indeed happen all the time.

I once remember a 10K race which finished in a field, in which kids were kicking a football. I was coming into the finish as the ball strayed in my direction – I was enjoying the run and kicked it back to the lads, whereupon I was a bit surprised to find a complete stranger telling me off for ‘not taking the run seriously’. This is the opposite to the approach most people thankfully take to the Great North Run. Unless you are an elite athlete there is no way that a personal best is going to come out of the race – it is not the easiest of courses and too many runners to allow you to run freely. It is a race about completing it, not the time. It is also a race about community, both the community formed of the runners (as noted above) and for the local communities the race runs through. This is a big thing for these communities. In Marsden, near the finish, pretty much everyone seems to turn out and the atmosphere is more carnival than road race. To be frank, it is the big event of the year for this community and boy do they embrace it – and the participants. In the last few miles you could feast on unofficial supplies including oranges, jelly babies and (to the vast amusement of some of my fellow runners) custard creams. If you slowed to slap the hand of every child along the route that held theirs out you would never finish – but it is very easy to do so as they are so excited by the whole thing. For a second you are a minor celebrity – just about the right period of time for that I feel.

So I will miss this, but now my place will be taken by someone else, hopefully someone for whom this will be a new and landmark experience. If you do like running, give it a go. Just remember that it is much, much more than a road race.


Be Nice

Do you ever have that experience of doing or saying something and instantly regretting it or at least wishing you had done whatever it was differently? I certainly have, frequently. It can be in all sorts of contexts, but what is concerning me this week is in the light of the fleeting relationships we have with the people around us, with our neighbours (in the broadest sense). Recently I have found myself regretting not showing enough generosity of spirit to people around me, and seeing that kind of behaviour in others making me feel somewhat embarrassed by my own falling shorty of the standard that I would prefer to uphold.

For example, I find myself being quite a rule based person, and as well as following the rules myself, I do tend to feel everyone else should too. So when I see people littering, or blatantly ignoring signs for no cycling say, or not cleaning up after their dog, it makes me cross. Sometimes I have to say something. That is the point it all goes a bit wrong.

Now, I am not saying for one second that it is not right to point out to people that maybe something is wrong with their behaviour. Anything we do effects the other people around us and the environment to some extent or other and whether we see it or not. ‘Minding your own business’ is one of the worst concepts anyone ever came up with and eventually leads to much worse things happening than the dropping of litter. Society and each other are always ‘our business’ in my opinion.

What I sometimes get wrong is not what but how I react to this sort of thing. Too often it is some kind of low level righteous indignation that some miscreant is not following a rule and a burning need to point this out. In fact, it is a pompous, Pharisee like obsession with the rule, and not on the consequence or the person that I am attempting to reprimand. All I am doing is creating a place where embarrassment and anger can fester – on both sides – and not resolving anything.

But there is another way, albeit one that requires a bit more thought and effort. In many cases, a softer, gentler approach might be more productive. Gently pointing something out, even with a bit of forced humour is more likely to get a better reaction than a sharp reprimand. Even if it does not, it make me feel better about it because I can find it easier to let whatever it is go when it is clear that the offender is the kind of person that probably needs some kind of help. And yes, sometimes I should just let it go, because maybe I am not the right person to resolve this particular little problem (goodness knows there are plenty in the world to deal with).

I guess I am thinking here along the ‘loving your neighbour’ lines and recognising that when we have to pull each other up on something it needs to be from a place of love rather than anger or outrage. There is a time for anger, but in many of the interactions we have it is inappropriate and counterproductive. To be honest, I have a kind of fantasy of the kind of person I would like to be and am a long way from achieving it, but then there will always be some room for improvement and I would rather change things with a smile then a sharp word – if at all possible.