Numbers

I didn’t know I had it the wrong way round: I had to provide life with love before it gave me any back. We have to give away what we care about.

I struggle with balance. To my detriment, I can be all or nothing. My personal challenge this week has been to let go of thinking about structure and simply running and stopping when I want. No smart watch, no Strava, no numbers. It’s been the perfect counterbalance to these uncertain times.

There have been times over the last few weeks when I’ve felt despair. As the numbers of dead have increased I have wished I could do more, be more, help more. The grim graphs, charts, facts and numbers fail to capture the human cost that this crisis is charging us all. I look on at the many hundreds of deaths each day and feel nothing other than a dull numbness. Perhaps we all do.

This virus is going to leave its mark on all of our lives. We will be stained by the tragedy of tens of thousands dying. But our lives can still also be coloured by beauty, by love, and by light. I have had a period of my life, some years ago now, where I wanted out. I lived as if life couldn’t provide me with any of those things. I didn’t know I had it the wrong way round: I had to provide life with love before it gave me any back. We have to give away what we care about.

However we are dealing with the uncertainty, the pain, the illness, the numbers, the fear and the need, we shouldn’t lose sight of what we can still give life. Life is beautiful and so astonishingly incomprehensible that, sometimes, all we can give is our commitment to take it one step at a time, continue to remind ourselves how precious it all is, and to look up at the trees.

Turquoise shell suits, sunlight, David Icke

“Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.”

E.M. Forster, ‘A Room With A View’

I remember David Icke from his football journalism days. My Saturdays would be spent watching wrestling at lunchtime, football on the Saint and Greavsie show, followed by Grandstand in which Icke would pop up at various points reporting on the various sporting events that, at least in my eyes, Saturday afternoons seemed to revolve around. The world seemed much smaller then, constricted, as it was, by routine, by school, by the fact that everywhere we lived seemed like a copy of the last suburban avenue we’d lived on. Grandstand was a weekly ticket to somewhere different.

David Icke opened a window into another world. He’d pop up in different places. In 1988 he reported on the Olympic Games in Seoul, a place which seemed so impossibly far away that I would devour every last scrap of coverage that I could just to glimpse a setting that my limited imagination struggled to bring into focus. Images were scarce. When my weekly Beano arrived I would stare transfixed at the pictures and the colours in such a way that hours would pass before I’d come back to the realisation that I’d finished the comic hours ago and was now simply reading and rereading. It’s impossible to underestimate just how few images we had in the 80s. All of that sports coverage took me to the places I wanted to visit and to the people I wanted to be like.

Then he started wearing turquoise shell suits and the rest is history.

Except it isn’t.

These are bewildering times. We’re bombarded with images, data, facts, opinions, comments. Who knows? Where to turn? What to do other than stay put? Stay at home, save the NHS, save lives. 

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. History teaches us that we don’t need to be. People can already be messed up enough. Adding an additional story to the depravity that we can, at times, collectively sink to just seems like narrative overkill. Maybe it’s my own shocking lack of curiosity about the world we live in. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t think that tin-foil hats are a good look. Maybe I just can’t be bothered to peep in to the rabbit holes that conspiracy theorists seem to love. It’s all of those things.

Of course, the David Ickes of the world are pumping out lots of theories about why COVID-19 has struck us at this point. It’s a Chinese plot; it’s the new 5G networks; it’s something to do with how vaccinations control us. Lizards are disguised as bankers. It sounds even better when voiced over an urgently thrumming baseline on a YouTube video. By better, I mean even more bonkers. If you gaze into the abyss…

A few years ago I taught E.M. Forster’s wonderful novel A Room With a View. It’s a coming of age story. At the centre of the novel lies the metaphor of the room. It’s about how we need constriction to frame our lives and about how without such constriction, there is no freedom. The one needs the other, both conceptually and literally. I’ve been thinking about it a lot while we’ve been homebound. Our freedoms seem curtailed, and yet we’re more free than ever to share what we like. What we choose to share should, in Forster’s words, be able to be spread out in the sunlight. It’s the light that we should be drawn to: the evidence, the objective, the science.

Icke now believes that a genetically modified human-hybrid race of reptiles called the ‘Babylonian Brotherhood’ controls us all by manipulating global events. Quite how that stands up to the scrutiny of the sunlight is beyond me. And yet amongst some conspiracy theorists his views have gone viral.

Interestingly, it would appear that the virus is destroyed by sunlight.

Top of the hill

I forget just how far I’ve come sometimes.

It’s never a particularly good sign to be vomiting at just after nine o’clock on a Saturday morning; it’s even worse when you do it repeatedly. Each week, when I first started doing Bolton parkrun, I’d veer off the course at the top of what is affectionately known as Cruella D’Hill and leg it, as fast as my wobbly legs could, to a bush on the left hand side of the path just after it gently curves away. Behind there I’d wretch and writhe, emptying the contents of my stomach on to the ground below.

I’d invariably have had some beer and wine the night before. Perhaps a curry. Definitely more beer; probably more wine. And then more beer. I’d waddle round to parkrun for reasons which, some 8 years later, are only really starting to become clear to me. Then I’d run, or at least I’d attempt to run, round the course before feeling the sucker punch at the base of my stomach extending up through my back and, somehow, into my burning lungs. To say that I was unfit is somewhat of an understatement. I was unfit to run, and unfit to really function properly on a Saturday morning.

All that feels like a long time ago now.

Yesterday, I ran round parkrun. I’ve done nearly 250. But yesterday was special because I felt like I was running. I’ve been quicker. I’ve been much quicker on different courses. But yesterday felt like I was actually running again, and it felt great. Really great. Progress can feel fantastic.

I forget just how far I’ve come sometimes. Today, as I write this, I should be running. I should be running 23 miles as part of my training for the Bolton Marathon which is just 10 weeks away. I didn’t sleep properly last night: writhing and wretching again. This time, not through alcohol, but through one of those pesky stomach bugs that keep you from wandering too far from the bathroom. When I messaged my friend to say that I couldn’t make it, I felt like I’d let him down, and I felt (for the briefest of moments) that I’d also let myself down. My mind can sometimes play tricks on me and convince me that I still drink, still smoke, still eat everything in sight. Running calms me and this morning, for a moment, I really needed to run…but couldn’t. I felt that everything that I’ve managed to somehow do over the last few years had gone simply because I couldn’t make it out of the house.

In psychology we call this ‘catastrophic thinking’. Running has helped me to deal with such a disordered way of viewing the world. I (mostly) no longer think in these terms. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has helped to change my life.

Yesterday’s Bolton parkrun was fantastic. I no longer veer off the course to be sick. It is not who I am or what I do anymore. I do nod to the bush at the top of the hill each time I pass it though. Not because I want to dwell on what I used to do, but because I’m grateful that, like the hill I’ve just run up, it’s behind me.

A way with words

I suppose that this is a promise to a mum who I can’t fully remember. She died before the iPhone, she never appeared in any Instagram story.

Although I can’t remember the way that her voice sounded, I do remember her saying, ‘You’ve a way with words, you have.’

One of the most painful of losses is that of memory. I can’t remember the way that my mum talked. It hurts. She died in 2004. I wish that I could still hear her voice.

I do remember some of the things that she said and this offers me moments of consolation, particularly when I want to pick up the phone and talk to her. I remember being a very nervous boy. One day, at around the age of four, I plucked up the courage to try and explain why I didn’t want to go the the playgroup because I’d rather stay in the library that we often visited beforehand. Unless my memory is playing tricks with me the library sat in the shadow of St Botolph’s Church, otherwise known as Boston Stump, and it was here that I’d spend as much time as I could getting my hands on books and getting my head elsewhere. My explanation must have been convincing, ‘You’ve a way with words, you have.’

I never saw it like that. I just wanted to be away with words: elsewhere, somewhere, detached, not here in my own life. Away with words. I still want this.

I’ve written a lot. It’s all hidden away in electronic documents that speak to my haunted sense of my own past. It’s electronic gothic. At some point I know that I’ll need to be away with words if I’m ever going to put them into some sort of order. There’s a book in there alongside notes about running and how I came to terms with my fear of death. There are reflections on teaching and memories that I’d rather stay away from. Of course, there are truths that I’d rather not tell. It’s all humdrum and banal, but it’s all I’ve got to show for my time spent with stiff shoulders staring at a screen.  I know that I need to do something with it all. Perhaps I knew all along and have been too scared to admit it.

I suppose that this is a promise to a mum who I can’t fully remember. She died before the iPhone, she never appeared in any Instagram story. But still… I can still make a promise to her that, yes, reluctantly I may indeed have a way with words and I should do something with them. I should shape, craft and mould them into some sort of order. I can’t promise her that they will be any good, but I’m at that stage of middle age where I’m liberated from all that angst and uncertainty. I might not be able to hear her voice clearly anymore, but I’m finally OK with my own. Perhaps her own endlessly loving words taught me that.

This used to be the future

I’m not crippled with anxiety any more. I have my moments, but I know how to manage it.

It’s Sunday. I’m walking over a shopping precinct in Swinton trying to remember where I’ve parked my car.

I’ve just finished recording the audio to a radio show in which I’ve been interviewed about running, mental health, happiness and, well, life. It’s sunny. It wasn’t when I arrived, but now, some ninety minutes later, the sun is warm enough to feel on my face and bright enough to illuminate the shady corners of this 1960s vision of what the future might be.

I find a Greggs and buy a coffee. I buy some water too as I’m thirsty after a morning of talking, thinking, and nervously worrying about what I’m going to say. Do I admit that I’m really a bundle of nervous anxiety? Do I give voice to the fear that I still succumb to of dying? And then I remember how far I’ve come since I laced up my running shoes and replaced nights on the booze with nights on the road, on the trails, the tracks and the treadmills. I’m not crippled with anxiety any more. I have my moments, but I know how to manage it. I’m not full of fear of the unknown anymore. I sometimes forget this.

I sip my coffee and take a photo. The sun is peeking through the February cloud cover. For the briefest of moments I realise that my anxiety is a relic: I’m not anxious without reason anymore. I’m happy. I’ve no idea what I used to be so fearful of. Many was the Sunday that I simply couldn’t face the world.

This used to be the future.

Burning the heather

I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help.

I am at the Doctor’s surgery. It’s full. Monday morning full.

I’m not here for myself, though. I’m here with my youngest who has a raging temperature, a rash, and most worryingly, is periodically struggling to breathe properly. He needs an inhaler to help him. He needs something stronger than Calpol to bring his temperature down, and I need to know he’s OK.

He rocks gently to and fro on his chair. A much older man is seated to my right. He too sounds like he needs help with his breathing: he rasps noisily and I repeatedly suppress the urge to cough on his behalf. Sat in the order that we are we look like a living, breathing, aching, wheezing timeline. Stuck as I am in the middle, I can’t help but think to myself that I’m not as young as I once was, nor as old as I could be. I’m immediately embarrassed by the banality of what I’m thinking.

Perhaps it’s all the fault of the Pet Shop Boys that I’m being overly reflective. They have a new album out in January and, by the sound of their newly released track ‘Burning the heather’ they could well be back to their lyrically mature and sombre best. Suede’s Bernard Butler plays guitar and Stuart Price’s production is subtle, almost muted. It’s certainly lacks the banging quality of the last two albums, which if I’m honest, is no bad thing. I’ve always wallowed in the beautifully engineered tracks of 1990’s Behaviour, while 2012’s Elysium saw me stop more than once while driving to cry with the sheer unbearable weight of grief.

My life isn’t shot through with the pain of loss anymore. I’ve accepted the fact that ‘autumn is here and time’s moving along’. I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help. The persona in the coda of the song finds that he’ll ‘consider staying’. I’m glad that I did too.

Beyond PEE

We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

King Lear’s plea is, perhaps, one of the most fundamental in all literature.

It’s also a deeply personal question for there is no mistaking that he is referencing himself; this is not a question about what it means to be human, but a question about the Lear-ness of Lear. We read for similar reasons: to find the us-ness of ourselves. We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.

Of course, all literature has, ultimately, the aim of moving us, of subtly shifting our positions towards both the material we read and our own identities as we engage with the text. This is often at odds with the teaching of GCSE English Literature which often strives for an answer. In many cases teaching and learning is still indebted to the largely mechanical PEE paragraph or some other such framework. The issue that I have with this is that it fails to capture the struggle, the grasping for meaning, the essence of reading literature which (with regards to GCSE at least) is the quest for critical exploration. When viewed in this light, some of the most fundamental philosophical questions cannot be consistently reduced to point/evidence/explain. The clunky and static nature of responses framed in this way both denies students the exploratory joy of engaging with literature and precludes their access to higher grades.

I remember the birth of the PEE paragraph well. As a participant in a New Labour initiative called ‘Excellence in Cities’ back in the very early noughties, my department had no choice other than to follow the highly prescriptive National Literacy Strategy. This dictated both materials (anyone remember My Father was a Polar Bear?) and pedagogical approaches. The simplest of these such as the starter, plenary, the four part lesson, and of course, the PEE paragraph have stuck around not because of any tangible usefulness, but largely as testimony to just how conservative the profession can be. With a shiny white and yellow folder, and a new inspection regime to go alongside it, it’s clear that the teaching of English was happy to be told who it was, and literary exploration became something to be framed, to be somehow made to fit the needs of politicians, inspectors, and consultants.

The way beyond this is to remember three simple questions that should be asked endlessly of students:

What is the writer telling us about the character? (Or the setting? Or the theme?)

How is the writer using language to do this? (Or using structure? Or using form?)

Why is the writer doing this?

This approach will nearly always liberate the students from the unhelpful (and completely reductive) burden of attempting to make their thoughts about a work of art fit a redundant framework conceived in Whitehall in the late 1990s.

Writers create character and settings. The ways those characters and settings interact will reveal some underlying (or maybe explicit) theme. Those writers use language to do so, and exploring this will enable students to negotiate the text as literature. They can start with any of the questions. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the quality of thought about the text will almost immediately improve once the trap of the three part answer has been taken away. The questions also encourage students to have a series of thoughts, some of which may be in conflict with each other. This is the Holy Grail of literature teaching: students who can see the shades, students who can express the maybe, students who are comfortable with their own doubts about what they have read.

Remember, the PEE paragraph was born in a particular political context: that of the sound bite, that in which political communication strategy became a thing, and a time in which confidence in a young political movement was high. It’s no surprise that the three-part point/evidence/explain caught on so well, particularly when it could all be wrapped up so neatly in a paragraph.

Tony Blair may well have campaigned on Education, Education, Education. It still seems seductive. Resist. Teaching literature is both more complicated and much simpler than that.

Candy floss of outrage

If you’re not angered by the smash and grab raid on our democracy, so be it. It’s not for me and my words to persuade you.

Today, in possibly the one of the most sycophantic interviews I’ve ever listened to, Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed my (and possibly your) anger at the suspension of Parliament as ‘a candy floss of outrage’. Whatever that means.

What cannot be in doubt is the way in which Parliament and democracy is being trampled over in order to, ultimately, serve the needs of the few. Nobody can even pretend that this is anything other than a coup.

But, hey ho, it’s not anger that I’m feeling. It’s a candy floss of outrage… for Rees-Mogg has decreed it so. You get the feeling that he’s used to it.

It’s not so much that we are living in a post-truth, Trump world, but rather that we are living in a nightmare where the very relationship between language and the things to which our words refer is broken constantly by the far right. How else would terminally ill people be sent for work assessments? How else to explain that Trump can barely speak or Johnson’s use of English is vacuously inflated. The relationship between their language and the stuff that it refers to is twisted, perverted, subverted, and vandalised. Therefore, it’s not anger I’m feeling that my democratically elected MP will have a reduced (or almost non-existent) period of time to subject any preparations being made for Brexit to any parliamentary scrutiny – it’s a candy floss of outrage. Rees-Mogg has decreed it thus.

Of course, they get away with it because that’s the environment they have been born into. Has anyone ever told them to shut up, stop talking, and come back when they have meaningful sentence to utter? No. Not ever. 

And therein lies the secret of their popularist appeal: they keep on talking. It doesn’t matter that their words don’t refer to the truth (£350 million, anyone) because the popularist position is not to care about language, it’s to care about power. Example: did Johnson care about language when he referred to spending money on historical child abuse investigations as ‘spaffing it up the wall’? Clearly, no. Worse, not only did he not care, he verbalised contempt for the vulnerable in a classic popularist linguistic power grab. It’s anything goes, take me as I am, I tell it as it is, that’s just me init, ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ (oops, Johnson didn’t say that, it was Trump).  You get me?

If you’re not angered by the smash and grab raid on our democracy, so be it. It’s not for me and my words to persuade you. You’ll be fine when they come for whatever you value – it’s all candy floss init.

Pure shores

Predictably enough, I read Alex Garland’s novel The Beach in Greece some 22 years ago. When Danny Boyle’s adaptation hit the screens any excitement I had at watching it soon disappeared that wet Sunday afternoon in Bolton. Even Virginie Ledoyen couldn’t really warm it up. Where the novel sweltered its way towards the secret mythical beach, the film seemed stilted and contrived.

The soundtrack is a different matter. It’s an eclectic mix of early naughties: from Moby to Blur via Richard Ashcroft. Brian Eno and Angelo Badalamenti feature along the way. The highlight is All Saints’ track ‘Pure Shores’. With William Orbit arranging the vocals, the harmonies journey through deserts and along shores ‘to a place I can call mine’. Lovely.

A constant theme of pop music is the escaping from an urban environment. ‘Pure Shores’ reminds us that when pop does it well, we travel through sonic landscapes as moving as their physical counterparts.

Falling upwards

To suggest that we can instantly turn disadvantage to our favour just will not work. It’s a bit like telling someone to cheer up

A colleague once told me: if you are going to fall, fall upwards.

I like my philosophy on the practical side, particularly at seven in the morning. She went onto explain that it’s through falling that we can grow, get better, live a more fulfilling second half of life.

We will all fall. Sometimes through our own mistakes and stupidity, sometimes through our inattention and neglect, and sometimes because someone or something has taken a sledgehammer to everything we hold dear.

Falling upwards is terrible advice. To suggest that we can instantly turn disadvantage to our favour just will not work. It’s a bit like telling someone to cheer up. It’s a lazy and inadequate response to distress. But, and here’s the thing, falling upwards is not advice; my colleague wasn’t giving me any. It’s more of a perspective that we can, over time, gradually inch towards. She was simply pointing this out. There is no joy without profound sadness, and the human condition is to know and accept both. We can’t rise without knowing what it is to fall.

After lunch I take a snap of a boat that has fallen; it’s simply been left. I can’t help thinking that the view is, somehow, all the better for it being there in all of its sunken glory.