Tumour Has It: Show preview

My good friend and fellow blogger Karen Hobbs (https://quarterlifecancer.com) is barking mad! Diagnosed with cancer at the age of 24 she has made a remarkable recovery through much chemo, surgery and an indomitable spirit. Sounds like any other cancer patients story? Think again – here is why. A few weeks ago I attended Karen’s one woman show “Tumour Has It’. I cried with laughter. I cried with sadness. I cried with empathy for her parents. Then I laughed some more. “Irreverent”could be Karen’s middle name. Karen has used her talents do talks with the Eve Appeal, been featured in local and national media and continues to raise awareness around cervical cancer and associated challenges. All at once funny, inspiring and thought-provoking, Karen’s ability to laugh at her cancer while not detracting from the serious issues associated with a cancer that is largely preventable, and highly responsive to treatment when caught early, is honest, hilarious and nothing short of courageous.


A born actress and comedienne Karen has now gone completely loopy by deciding to take her one woman show to the Edinburgh fringe. Is the fringe ready for vagina humour? Is the fringe ready for Karen Hobbs? Well I guess we will find out soon! It’s a brave move by Karen, and underscores her absolute commitment to raise awareness about cervical cancer and the need for screening and for the de-stigmatisation of sexual health issues. Did you know that 22% of women in the UK do not attend their cervical smear appointments and that 49% of women are too embarrassed to go to their doctor if they have a “problem down below”?! Yes, it’s true, in the supposedly enlightened 21st century women are somehow discouraged to take their sexual health seriously!

Of course there is a major problem with giving up your full-time job and taking on the fringe. It’s that other “dirty” word. Money! Lucre! Dosh! It costs around £7,000 to stage a show of this nature at the fringe. Karen doesn’t have that kind of money, but she’s risking it anyway! We hope she will sell enough tickets to cover some costs, but most shows don’t.

I have no doubt that Karen is a real star in the making – so if you’ve read this far I’d like to try to convince you to become part of the “crowd” that is crowd-funding Karen through this experience. It is probably best now to hear from Karen herself, so please take a look at her crowd funding page below, complete with funny video (with a couple of cameo’s of yours truly saying “penis” and “vagina” – it’s go to be worth viewing for that alone right?!). Once you’ve watched the video, please don’t just think “yeah that was funny” or “what a great cause, good luck Karen” – just click the link that says “Pledge” and join the rest of the crowd funders – every little helps, so maybe £5/$5 (which let’s face it are close to being the same value these days!) as a minimum donation. For backers outside of the UK Karen might not manage those personal appearance for pledges of larger amounts (unless you fund the trip!) 🙂

On average my blog gets two hundred hits, so at a minimum if you’re all generous we could raise another £1,000 to help get Karen’s show on the road, hopefully the associated press coverage will get the messages out there – I know I’m already “nagging” the ladies in my life to make and keep their cervical screening appointments, the more women that do the better, and the greater the chance for catching these cancers early before they get to ruin lives. Anyway, without further ado, here is what Karen says:




Happy Day

Today is Fathers day. I’ll celebrate with my children, and I know that they have prepared and wrapped presents for me. But I won’t celebrate it with my own father. I saw him yesterday, but the grip of Alzheimer’s disease grows ever tighter on his misfiring brain. He was unable to comprehend what Fathers day is for. It was funny at the time as he asked me would I get presents too. I should be sad. But I am not. He has been caught between a place of muddle and confusion and a place of occasional clarity for some time, but the mental mist now softens things for him. He is less aware of what goes on around him, other than those things that affect him immediately. He is living in the moment more and more. I am not sad about that, because I would rather he be happy in his mist, than muddled and confused when it clears. He is less miserable for it, though he forgets much. So it is a very different Father’s day this year, and I suspect next year he will be unaware as to why he is being given presents, though he will delight at opening them as he did yesterday. My own children gave him cause to laugh and smile when we visited as he recognised their faces, but names – even his own – are sometimes difficult to recall. They spoke to him with much kindness and a generosity of understanding – an understanding that I find hard to give – and so the smiles that they brought to his face was the best Father’s day present they could have given me. For all those of you that find Father’s day a difficult day for whatever reason, I hope you can find something to smile about too. Perhaps for my father and for many of us it should just be a ‘Happy Day’ wish – every day.

Time to be Nice

At this time of year many bloggers feel the need to put ‘pen to paper’ for the noble cause of commenting on New Years resolutions. There are tomes (do we still have tomes in this digital world I wonder?) of blog posts about how to lose weight, get fitter, stop smoking or just be a nicer person than we were last year.

So what about ‘being nice’? It may surprise you to learn that the current day meaning of the word is the exact opposite from when it was first conceived, when it meant foolish or silly  (for all you “word buffs”, here is a lengthy explanation of the etymology of ‘Nice” : “The Meaning of Nice”). This word is the bane of a writers life. It is seen as a rather boring word. A word that we use when we can’t think of a better adjective. “He was a nice chap”, is almost a damning indictment of the fellow who can rise only to being ‘nice’. Even my fancy piece of software that I use to check for cliche’s tells me ‘nice’ is one and to find an alternative.  But I beg to differ (cliche!) ‘nice’ is a good word to use, a positive word, used as an  adjective it means to be pleasing, agreeable or delightful (Oxford English Dictionary). Who wouldn’t want to be nice?

So in 2016 I am going to be nice. That’s it. That’s my one and only New Years resolution. I’m done with not being nice, that would make me unpleasant, disagreeable and ‘undelightful’. Surely no-one would ever have described me as such in 2015? Well not to my face anyway!

When I researched this post (ok, I just Googled “being nice”) I got lots of results, many articles on how to be nice or to be a nicer person to your partner, to your friends, to your colleagues and so on. Does that mean we all harbour a desire to be nicer than we are? It would be an interesting state of affairs if that were true. Imagine supposedly hard-nosed businessmen, used to outdoing each other in the tough guy stakes, trying to compete with each other by being nice – in a friendly rivalry of course. Amazingly there are some examples of really nice businessmen – I came across a number of articles about the US supermarket giant Costco or more specifically the CEO Craig Jelinek, calling for the minimum wage in the US to be raised – this against the backdrop of Costco bucking the trend and paying its CEO a lot less than Wal-Mart, but paying its employees a relatively high basic wage. That’s nice business leadership. There is a false perception that you have to be cut throat – and therefore not nice – to succeed in business. Look at TV shows like “The Apprentice”  where Alan Sugar in the UK version and Donald Trump in the US version pander to that stereotype, and contestants try to outdo each other in what ends up being a competition to be disagreeable, unpleasant, and anything but delightful. I’d love to see Craig Jelinek take over the duties!

There is even a website where you can sign up to “choose to be nice” – choosetobenice.com! I’m not sure that’s totally necessary but it won’t do any harm – certainly a lot of people seem to have signed up as part of their New Years resolutions. When I thought about it in more detail, it seemed to me that being nice is down to just a few things:

Empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is not natural for all of us, but the more you try it the more you begin to see the world from other’s viewpoints.

Friendliness – it’s far easier to be friendly than to be unfriendly. It won’t always be paid back, but in my experience most people tend to default to friendly if that’s how they are approached.

‘Smiley-ness’ – there is actually a lot of scientific research that shows the more we smile, the happier we are and that there are real health benefits.

Patience –  For most of this this is a learned skill (I’m still learning!), the phrase “don’t suffer fools gladly” should be rarely used as the fool maybe you if someone just doesn’t see the world as you do. Used together with empathy, patience can help us see new perspectives and even learn something.

Good humour – This seems obvious, but if we can approach all that we do, and all who we meet with good humour it sets a much more positive baseline than to approach life as a ‘grump’ (yes, I am working on that one too!).

Tolerance – Goes hand in glove with patience. If we consider the reverse – ‘intolerance’ – meaning a lack of respect for opinions or behaviours that you disagree with – it’s fairly obvious that tolerance is the better position to take.

Of course with all of the above it does not mean that you have to be a pushover in any walk of your life. Principles are important, and you don’t have to tolerate poor principles, bigoted opinions, or bad behaviour. Not putting up with those things, and making a stand on principles, contributes to making you a nicer person.




I’ve met lot’s of nice people in 2015, I wrote about friendships in my last post, but there are others that come into our lives, sometimes just for a brief time but these genuinely nice people can have a very positive impact on our own perspectives and values. So here is my own New Years honours list of some people who have nicely and positively influenced me in 2015:

Karen Hobbs – friend, colleague, blogger, stand up comedienne and all round nice and very smiley person – check her out here – quarterlifecancer.com  Twitter: @karen_hobbs

Paul Geen – golf coach, probably the most patient person I met in 2015! I will be back for more coaching in 2016 Paul! http://www.paulgeengolf.co.uk, Twitter: @PGGOLFTIPS

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (Specifically Mareike in the library) for answering many of my research questions for my novel in such detail – I will be visiting soon! www.shakespeare.org.uk, Twitter: @ShakespeareBT

BMW Motorcycle Club (East Anglia Section) – looking forward to some great rides in 2016. Thanks to Dik Langan for his friendly, smiley and enthusiastic welcome! www.thebmwclub.org.uk/eastanglia, Twitter @BMWClubEA

Wishing you all a happy and really nice 2016!

The Importance of Good Friends

FriendshipI seem to have got out of the habit of writing my blog on a regular basis, as I sat down to write I wondered why that is. Yes, I have been busy, work has been hectic, much has happened within my family requiring my focus and attention over the last few months. But I haven’t found time for some of the things that I enjoy and that give me joy. My writing here, and progress with my novel have all but halted. I’ve become distracted by things that drag me down, which have suffocated any creativity I was developing. It is temporary of course, but nonetheless frustrating that I have not felt able to do some of the things that I find most rewarding.

Having written that opening paragraph, which I will leave as it stands, it now feels a rather empty and hollow thing to have opened with. Because as I continue to write it is only a few days after the terrorist atrocities (I will not give them their own noun – they do not deserve that recognition) in Paris. Surely a time that reminds us all of how fragile our existence can be. That fragility is perhaps a reason not to give up on the things that make us happy, or the people who make us happy and, hopefully, who we make happy. Social media has been awash with messages along the lines of “love will defeat hate” – we should believe that, we should all believe that totally and squash the hatred. I am not going to focus on the terrorists in this post, rather I am going to remind us – myself mostly – of the importance of friendship – a type of love that brings us together and unites us against those who would divide us.

It doesn’t always seem that easy to be happy and content does it? Whatever events occur in our lifetimes, as individuals we tend to move through different phases, changes of job, house moves, sometimes major location moves, looking for what will make us happy. Quite often that is based around people. I am not the type of person that allows too many folks to get close to me. I like to think that I am selective, but in reality, although I am a fairly successful businessman and can network, socialize and “schmooze” with the best of them, I actually find more personal social gatherings and friendships less comfortable. That maybe because in business a lot of it is an “act”; I control what people see and what they know about me. Friends tend to know me better, some of them have been there through the good times and the bad times, they have seen the ‘real me’, or rather parts of me that I wouldn’t share with anyone else.

These people are few and far between. And when you have them it is important to hold them dear. This year as a family we travelled to Canada and then to our favourite part of the world – San Diego – to spend two lovely weeks in what is, for us, a perfect climate. It was made all the more perfect by our friends Ed and Betsy, both former colleagues we have stayed in touch for more than 15 years and in that time our children have become like niece and nephew to them. The night out at the San Diego ‘Corvette Diner’ (without mum and dad!) has achieved legendary status – it was a raucous affair by all accounts! This year our flight timings were not as friendly as usual so, while we waited for our apartment to be ready,  Ed and Betsy threw their doors open to us allowing us to invade their lovely home, use their bathrooms, and play with the ageing but delightful Chloe (their little dog) and on top of that they prepared us a sumptuous feast of all the things they know we like. On the homeward journey it was the same, even giving us a mini guided tour of parts of San Diego. Good friends indeed. Cherished friends.

A piece about friendship would be incomplete without Shakespeare's Sonnet 104

A piece about friendship would be incomplete without Shakespeare’s Sonnet 104

There are no conditions with people like this wonderful couple. At a time when I have struggled with conditional relationships with closer family this is very refreshing, and as I look around and become more aware of those people who have unconditional relationships with me I realise that they are rare, and very special people. It may be the work colleague who, noticing that I had been unwell and then unavailable for a while due to various health appointments checked up on me, for no other reason than that she was concerned about my wellbeing. It maybe the friend who, sensing my unease over something I am struggling with, places a steadying and reassuring hand on my shoulder.

The people who grace our lives enrich us. We don’t always tell each other anything like that, and maybe we should. It’s not just a case of telling your nearest and dearest that you love them, though that’s important. It’s also about appreciating friendships, sometimes these maybe fleeting as people pass through our lives, there maybe those that are longer lasting but peter out when someones moves, and some maybe lifetime relationships. It doesn’t really matter as long as while we are part of each others lives we take and make time for each other. I’ve tried to do that more in 2015, there are the friends I mentioned above, but I’ve also reconnected with old school-mates; Andy, Sarah, Gill and Terry. Amazingly that was like picking up where we left off, well maybe not exactly as it has been around 35 years since we were last together, but the conversations and laughs did flow!

What I am really getting at in this post is that friendships should be cherished and nourished. In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, with all the bad things that are happening in our world and the daily gloomy headlines, making time for each other, to talk, laugh, debate, have fun, reminisce, plan the next party or dinner, could, and perhaps should, be some of the most important and central of our priorities.

Remembering 7/7 2005

On July 7th 2005 I started my daily commute from Ely to London as normal. Except for one difference – I left an hour earlier to be in a client meeting for 8am. Any other day I would have caught the 7:25am train arriving at Kings Cross at around 8:35am, I’d be on the platform of the Piccadilly line at about 8:44am and on the tube  between 8:45am and 8:50am heading via Russell Square to Holborn. The significance of those times is starkly obvious. But that day I was sitting in a glass walled meeting room with my client from 8am for an hours presentation. At around 8:55am we saw the TVs go on outside in the open plan office and watched as the rest of my colleagues heard the news. My boss came to the door and explained what had happened. We all sat in a stunned silence. The topic of our meeting now an irrelevance. I phoned my usual travelling companion immediately – he was safe having arrived late and unable to get on the tube, but he was shell-shocked having witnessed the bus explosion in Tavistock square.


Later that morning we were advised to head home so, with London in a transport lock down I, and thousands of others, walked calmly out of central London heading for suburban stations where the trains were still running in order to get people out of the capital. I will never forget the silence of the crowds as we walked together. There was nothing to say. Some wept as they walked. Some tried to reach loved ones on the overloaded mobile networks. As the full extent of the bombings trickled through, the mood on that sunny summers day was sombre. Nothing anyone writes now could possibly capture the horror and devastation of lives and of families that happened on that day. Nothing can capture the sheer mass disbelief and shock of those in London on 7th July 2005. My words here are not intended to say “thank God I was early that day otherwise I could have been on that bombed train”, though that is true. I write this on the 10th anniversary of that horrific day and think of those fellow commuters, who I may well have seen before, going about their usual day, many of their lives changed forever through injury and post traumatic stress. Anniversary remembrance is all very well, but lets not forget those who suffered and continue to suffer until the next milestone. We should remember them always.

I remember the 52 who lost their lives:

Lee Baisden, Benedetta Ciaccia, Richard Ellery, Richard Gray, Anne Moffat, Fiona Stevenson, Carrie Taylor, Michael Stanley Brewster, Jonathan Downey,David Foulkes, Jennifer Nicholson, Colin Morley, Laura Webb, James Adams, Samantha Badham, Philip Beer, Anna Brandt, Ciaran Cassidy, Rachelle Chung For Yuen, Elizabeth Daplyn, Arthur Frederick, Karolina Gluck,Gamze Gunoral, Lee Harris, Ojara Ikeagwu, Emily Jenkins, Adrian Johnson, Helen Jones, Susan Levy, Shelley Mather, Mike Minh Matsushita, James Mayes, Behnaz Mozakka,  Mihaela Otto, Atique Sharifi, Ihab Slimane, Christian Small, Monika Suchocka, Mala Trivedi, Anthony Fatayi-Williams, Jamie Gordon, Giles Hart, Marie Hartley, Miriam Hyman, Shahara Islam, Neetu Jain, Sam Ly,  Shyanuja Niroshini Parathasangary, Anat Rosenberg,  Philip Russell, William Wise, Gladys Wundowa.

The Only Way Is Up

A friend of mine who is a Muslim has just returned from a pilgrimage. I spoke to him on the phone the day after he returned, to find that his journey had made a profound impact on him. A hard working professional man he sometimes has a tendency to over work, despite my constant reminders that work is a means to an end and that “real life” should always come first. He is close to the top of his profession, yet he is always striving to prove himself, although he has nothing to prove to his peers – because he has done it all.

The man I spoke to on the phone on Monday was changed. He has absorbed a new found wisdom, a calmness and a clear spiritual perspective. It is quite some time since I have been on a spiritual retreat, but I too recall the sudden clarity that can be achieved by taking time out to frame ones own life against the bigger context of a faith – a time when we acknowledge God as being more important than anything else. And when we do that, it can be life changing. However, by the very nature of our flawed humanity we will slip up in our improved behaviours, our more enlightened perspectives, and drop back into old insecurities and bad habits; until the next pilgrimage or retreat, or the next temple or church sermon that really strikes a chord in our hearts.

Multifaith 2

Pilgrimages and retreats can often lead to reflection on the nature of our maker. But that reflection can occur at any time – my friend and I have regular conversations about the differences and similarities between our faiths (I am a Christian) and the nature of God.  We rarely disagree, with each other, rather we say “my faith believes this”. More often than not we will both take an interest in the different theological interpretations behind a specific belief. We have discussed how history and scriptural interpretations portray key figures differently; Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed and so on. We have explored the evidence of a common ancestry through great religious figures such as Moses. Invariably, a fact or belief, will be revealed by one of us that opens our minds up to why one faith believes one thing and the other faith something else. Neither has ever felt that the other person is wrong; we are both too respectful of each others beliefs to be that patronising. Yet I recall a talk I heard from Ann Graham Lotz, the daughter of the evangelist preacher Billy Graham, some years ago in which she said that her Christian faith was so strong that she had to believe that “Muslims were wrong”; the only basis she had for that was that she believed her faith was right, she offered no real theology, no multi faith perspective, and no shared biblical ancestry. I knew from my own bible studies that I believed that Jesus is Lord, and the way to salvation is through Him resurrected. I still believe that. But do Christians have a monopoly over the truth? Does any one faith have a monopoly over the truth? Can there only be one truth or many? Are there more versions of the same great truth than our simple human minds can comprehend? Theologians and scholars with much greater wisdom and learnedness than I have debated this for centuries, but there are no evidenced based answers.  So if I believe that my truth is right, why and how could my friends pilgrimage have such a profound effect on him and his truth be wrong?

I had a dream only the other night, I won’t presume to call it a vision as that sounds way too grand, but it was a dream of some clarity, and really that’s the reason I chose to write a post on this particular topic. It was a pretty simple scene, myself and a group of other men and women of different faiths were gathered in heaven, sharing a meal around a large table in a room that I can only describe as “cloud like”. We were joined by God himself. In a moment he stopped our chatter as we debated the nature of Him. He spoke and said “None of you got it one hundred per cent right, and none of you got it one hundred per cent wrong, this..”, he swept his hand in front of him to reveal a scene of interwoven moving images that all at once unraveled the complexity of what we believed were our truths into something beautifully simple…”is how it was, is and always shall be”. We all looked at each other and laughed, cried, and embraced – and then we danced . The music was “The Only Way Is Up” by Yazz – probably because I had listened to it earlier in day, but it seemed to fit the occasion, particularly these words:

‘….things may be a little hard now

but we’ll find a brighter day…

..The only way is up, baby

For you and me, baby

The only way is up

For you and me’

You might like to listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtSTqGiZnMg

My interpretation of my dream is that, just as we know God by many names; Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, and so on, so perhaps we know the same truth in different ways and by different names. And that truth is partly revealed to us each time we open our hearts and minds to listening to Him, through pilgrimage, prayer or worship. One day we will know.

National Identity: Genetics, Ancestry and Rugby

National Identity and patriotism are important to most people. These are the things that make us feel like we belong. Things that give us a sense of being part of a bigger community – part of a team. This emotional response to belonging often comes to the fore in times of conflict when the shared identity serves as a rallying call of support. This is camaraderie – in peace time we see this most obviously in the international sporting arena.

Many people though have a mixed heritage, take Irish Americans and Italian Americans for example. They may have been born in America but they usually still retain a strong identity with the “old country” of their forefathers.  As I write it is Saint Patrick’s day and Irish patriotism is hard to miss in the media, where anyone with the slightest Irish connection seems to be wearing a shamrock.

The same is true of West Indian, Pakistani, and Indian immigrants to the UK, while those  born in the UK are deemed to be British, their ancestry and their cultural heritage are still that of their parents or grandparents countries of origin – something that has enriched the British communities that they have become part of for generations.

I have been investigating my own ancestry lately, in an effort to understand why I feel such a close affinity with my Welsh heritage on my mothers side. It’s not something new to me. In fact I have always been very conscious of the fact that I am part Welsh. I was born in England that’s true, but that doesn’t necessarily make me English – my mixed ancestry suggests otherwise. At best I am a product of Welsh and English genetics in equal measure, though it is more likely that my Welsh genes are the more dominant. My paternal grandfathers ancestry has been easy enough to trace back to the 16th century – all English. On my mother’s side of the family though it’s all Welsh. It’s no coincidence that I was christened “David”, after the Welsh national saint. My mother was born in Chester just across the border from Wales to Welsh parents, her father’s name was Rhys Powell Matthews and his lineage  goes back many generations to South Wales – the surname Matthews originates from Glamorganshire from around the 15th century. The family tree on this side has names such as Gwilym, Olwen and Gwladys (my mothers name) in abundance. And of course many of my ancestors were coal miners – you can’t get more Welsh than that!


Wearing my Welsh colours

Wearing my Welsh colours

On a sporting level this identity ‘dilemma’ has been with me since I was a young boy when, in the 1970s, encouraged by my mother, I avidly followed the Welsh rugby team during the halcyon days of JPR and JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and the like. I remember watching them on TV and my mother telling me that I had a lot of Welsh blood in me. Then, as I became more involved in sport as a schoolboy I ended up representing England on the athletics track – no-one ever asked me if I wanted to represent Wales, probably because my school was in England! When the time came to go to University there was only one place I headed for – Wales. I was particularly drawn to South Wales and spent a fabulous three years in Swansea. I recently learned that my great great grandfather was born in Swansea. While at university I did represent Wales at sport – my ancestry made that possible, and I had no hesitation choosing to compete for Wales. As fate would have it I met and married a Cardiff girl, who is passionate about her Welsh ancestry: as a result our children are probably about 70 per cent Welsh and don’t share my identity crisis! Our numerous trips to the valleys to visit friends and family has served to foster an even closer affinity with Wales.  Wales is a wonderful country, with a rich and assured collective national identity and, romantic though it sounds, it is a place where the people are warm and welcoming. It is also country that punches well above its weight on the rugby field – rugby is a way of life for most Welsh people. And anyone who knows me, knows that I am passionate about the game – perhaps that is also genetic?

This past weekend I have felt my ‘Welshness’ more keenly than I have done for a long time. I even learned to sing the Welsh national anthem in Welsh (albeit with the aid of some phonetics!) and belted it out with about sixty thousand other Welsh men and women a the Millennium stadium before the rugby match with Ireland. The atmosphere had a lot to do with it, but those spine tingling moments may also have been due to the genes asserting themselves on “home soil” – if I wasn’t at least partly Welsh I doubt that I would have felt the way I did while singing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) at the top of my voice and proudly wearing my red shirt! Whenever I visit Wales it  always feels like I am coming home. That has got to mean something.

The Welsh National anthem sung by a capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

For anyone outside of the UK this may all seem a bit strange, after all Wales and England are part of the United Kingdom. Wales is a principality and not a fully self-governing country in its own right. But that does not stop a fierce sense of Welsh national identity, built on centuries of history. We are a strange lot on this island, as the member countries of the UK we will, at times of adversity still collectively identify ourselves as being British, but at the same time, between ourselves, maintain our English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish identity.

There is more history and more politics to do with the make up of the UK than I have space to write here, and that’s not really the point of today’s blog. What I really want to know is: am I Welsh or English? To be honest I don’t really know. I won’t ever play international sport again, so it doesn’t matter from that point of view, but if I did, all the rules say that I could choose whether to represent England or Wales. If you had to have a Welsh passport I imagine I would have dual nationality. So perhaps I can claim that anyway? Perhaps I am Anglo-Welsh. However that  will just not be good enough when it comes to rugby, I can cheer Wales and England on against their respective opponents until they play each other – it is then that I find my national identity conundrum the most confusing. So for now I will continue to support both teams, and decide on the day who I support when they play each other – I know that’s a bit of a cop-out but it’s the best I can do for now!

February in 28 Words

Just for a little fun I thought I’d try to write a poem in 28 words for February – it wasn’t that easy and the result is not my best work! I wonder if you can do any better. Please feel free to post your efforts or links to them in the comments.

I’ve added a few photographs to brighten up the post, all were taken by Caroline Filer and are her copyright. They are not all strictly February photographs (well it is only the 2nd today!) but they illustrate the poem nicely and were all taken in the last two weeks.

February in 28 words

Snowdrops and daffodils

Battle through frosty earth

Spring flirts briefly with winter

But coal fires still burn in our hearths

Short days slowly lengthen

As February’s light strengthens


The daylight stays just a little longer

The daylight stays just a little longer

Snowdrops are the flower of the month

Snowdrops are the flower of the month

February flowers emerging through the woodland floor

February flowers emerging through the woodland floor

Early blossoms brave cold February days

Early blossoms brave cold February days

Stepping Out

Since the 22nd December 2014 I have walked over 200,000 steps, at an average of 6,000 steps per day. That’s approximately 91 miles based on my stride length. How do I know this? Because I have an app. Like most things these days anything that can be measured has an app. And now I am addicted to trying to keep my average up and reach 10,000 steps (about 5 miles) a day – which is the “magic” figure that the experts say we should walk –  lest we become sedentary creatures and allow all manner of illnesses to take their hold for lack of exercise. That’s probably pretty sound advice!

Until recently, I have had a real struggle with achieving a balance with exercise and general wellbeing. For years as a young man I was an exceptionally fit athlete, running at county level, competing for selection in the all England youth athletics team, and generally able to excel in just about any sport I chose. Now in my 50’s I just cannot attain the level of fitness that my ego would like me to – I can’t be as fit as I was when I was 22! But that has not stopped me trying. I have pushed myself hard at the gym, but each time I come home exhausted and therefore not feeling the full benefits of the exercise.

It was my partner Caroline who, knowing what motivates me, finally persuaded me to try something different. Walking. She has been doing this for longer than me and introduced me to the app, also persuading me to join her for a walk in the grounds of one of our local National Trust properties (Anglesey Abbey for those of you who know Cambridgeshire). We covered more than 10,000 steps that day, and it has become a regular weekend walk.

Coincidentally our good friend and fellow blogger Elizabeth Marro (Betsy), wrote a piece about her own walking ambitions and her intent to walk 15 miles a week – you can read that blog here – http://elizabethmarroblog.com/category/walking-dispatches-from-the-journey/. Betsy is an inspiring writer, and her article wriggled it’s way into my psyche, and spoke to me about just how good walking can be for one’s soul, she writes “When I walk, I will not listen to music or talk on the telephone. I will look, feel, think, seek encounters. I will smile at strangers. I will open myself up to possibility. I will take one step at a time and maybe, at some point, it will become clear to me why I am walking and where I am going.”

Caroline has continued to encourage me to walk – though now I have something to aim for in terms of average steps I don’t need  so much persuasion (reminding me that I am goal oriented!). But walking does more than get a few steps or miles under ones belt just to be able to say “I reached my numerical goal”. Walking takes you out. It takes you into the outdoors, and it takes you out of yourself. I am fortunate enough to both work from home and live in an area with easy access to country walks. I don’t even have to get in a car and drive a few miles to a ‘walking spot’; where we live we have splendid rural isolation as well as being able to choose routes frequented by others if we don’t want to remain entirely solitary. Although I have to admit that often it is the solitary nature of a walk in the countryside that is most appealing. Unencumbered with having to make conversation you are free to look and listen to the world around you –  the variety of what you can experience is surprising.

My local walk: Fields stretch to the horizon

My local walk: Fields stretch to the horizon

One day this week I set off on a lunchtime walk under fairly gloomy and wintry conditions. I walked 2 or 3 miles with nothing more spectacular to see other than a few ploughed fields stretching across the flat lands of the fens to a razor-sharp horizon in the distance. But half way round my 5 mile circuit I was in for a surprise. And as I turned a corner the dark clouds above parted just a little – enough for the pale sunlight to shine through. So narrow was this cloudy aperture that it looked as though a spotlight was shining from the sky. As the clouds moved the ‘spotlight’ appeared to move, shining on the magnificent cathedral in the distance. It illuminated the stone so brightly that the ancient building stood out in sharp relief on the Isle of Ely. Dancing over newly ploughed fields and copses of trees the shaft of light then briefly seemed to follow a flock of wood pigeons, or maybe they followed it, before finally fading back to grey. It was almost as if this ethereal illumination had been just for me, no-one else was around to see it.

The view of the distant Cathedral from a country lane in the village just after the ‘spotlight’ had passed

A route revisited is never exactly the same. Yesterday Caroline and I returned to Anglesey Abbey, the ground was crisp with frost and a dusting of snow. The snowdrops are now bursting through the earthy undergrowth, whole swathes of them give the woodland areas an appearance of a white polka dot carpet. The silver birches, planted to create a stunning visual display, reach for the sky like slender brushes painting white clouds on a blue canvas. 10,000 steps went by very quickly and enjoyably. Through the simple act of walking and being outdoors, I may well have found the solution to my need for exercise at a level that suits me. Thanks Caroline and Betsy of encouraging me to step out!

The slender silver birch trees at Anglesey Abbey seem to touch the sky

The slender silver birch trees at Anglesey Abbey seem to touch the sky

Anglesey Abbey: Snowdrops are appearing

Anglesey Abbey: Snowdrops are appearing

Anglesey Abbey: Polka dot snowdrop carpet

Anglesey Abbey: Polka dot snowdrop carpet

Holding on to Dad

Alzheimer’s is a wicked and vicious disease. There are no two ways about it. No life threatening, debilitating, wasting disease has any redeeming features about it, but Alzheimer’s takes the biscuit in how it gradually engulfs a person, a personality, and an individuals individuality with it’s silent attack on the stuff of memories, speech and recall; with its unrelenting impact on relationships, robbing not just the sufferer of themselves, but robbing friends and family of the person they knew. The person who gradually changes, gradually withdraws, gradually disappears. And finally can hold on no longer.

My father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Well, I say early stages, but the signs and symptoms have been there for two to three years, yet defied diagnosis until recently. My father is still there though, and he is still self aware, so he knows what is happening, he can’t necessarily put his fears and worries into words, but he doesn’t have to – I can see it on his face, I see it in the old man shuffle of this once proud and upright man. He clings on to dressing himself well, yet even that is beginning to wane, and for a man that put appearances above almost anything, this demise is cruel.

My father was a practical man. I use the past tense, because he has lost much of his ability to fix things and do things with his hands. He must find that loss hard to bear, he is so aware of it that he has begun to clear out his garage-cum-workshop and give various tools away – tools that have been his friends for fifty years or more. Tools that I grew up with. I will probably keep them, though I have no clue how to use many of them, but it doesn’t seem right to throw them away – it would be like consigning my father and his practical past to the waste basket. The time is coming when he will no longer be able to drive, and that final bastion of independence will be the hardest of all for him to give up, he knows in his heart that it will be soon, yet he clings to the car keys like a talisman. A lucky charm that keeps him independent, that staves off the march of the time driven disease that attacks him. He holds on.

Yet there are positive moments. Moments of sheer clarity that shine through his confusion and forgetfulness, like a beacon to the man that he was – to the man that he still is deep down. My father has given me much advice over the years, a great deal of it that I have not agreed with, an awful lot of which I have gone against – and to be fair my decisions have not always been bad ones when I have chosen not to heed him. Last week though, he gave me some advice that is probably his best ever. Discussing my job, and how hard I work, and the fact that I am now in my fifties, he told me that he took early retirement at the age of fifty-nine, because he just couldn’t stand the rat race any longer, he had run out of things to prove, he had been successful, made his money, and at almost sixty years of age he didn’t want to chase the numbers any longer. He said to me “when you recognise that time is coming for you, put your financial affairs in order, do not ponder too long, and just let it go”. If you knew my father you’d realise how significant his words were, as he has never been one to obviously plan in that way, he is always caught up in practicalities and just “doing stuff”, so to express advice that is more about quality of life is quite unusual. And that advice may have come with regrets, you see (and if you read my very first post on this blog you will know) my father lost his wife in April 2014.

My father and I have discovered a new trust, a new way of relating to each other. While I, and my sisters, have to do much for him, he trusts us to do that. He trusts me in ways that I never thought he would, he trusts that we will care for him and make sure he is cared for, of course he fights tooth and nail if he feels we are doing anything that erodes his independence, but ultimately he has trust in our decisions made on his behalf. He still relates to me as his son, but we hug  now, and he expresses his love more now than he ever has, he seems prouder of me now than at any other time of my life. Of course he gets angry, he gets stubborn, and he gets frustrated – but honestly, who wouldn’t?

Trying to hold on to the pieces Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Trying to hold on to the pieces
Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, because of my profession I know much about Alzheimer’s, how it progresses, what the disease does, how treatments work (or don’t work). So I know what is to come, but I know that he will hold onto his self awareness as long as he can, though I also know that he will ultimately lose himself as the disease envelopes him. As we watch this uncomfortably unfold, we manage his life for him, and we hold onto those moments of clarity, wisdom and advice, just as we treasure family photographs as memories of happy times, we will cling to words as well, because that is how you hold onto the person in those photographs.

Despite what I know, I look for the positives as well as accepting the inevitability of his decline. Learned behaviours are often the last to be affected, so he can still teach us the basics of ballroom dancing, an echo of his and my mothers dancing past (they once danced on the TV programme “Come Dancing” in the 1960’s) – and we have a had a few laughs doing that. He practices the piano twice a day, an instrument that he has played since he was a young boy, and he can still read new music, we’ve played boule and his hand-eye co-ordination learned and developed in his county cricketing days is still there – I am the only one who can beat him – because as a youth he taught me to be an even better cricketer than he was.

So I still have my father. He’s there. Sometimes the best of him is buried beneath the fuzziness of the low moments of the disease. Other times he rises above the disease and we have more of him.

Hold on Dad, just hold on as long as you can.