The Spaghetti Challenge

Imagine for a moment that you live in a part if the world that is desperately short of a natural resource essential for life. Let’s say that was spaghetti, and that spaghetti was a naturally occurring life sustaining substance.

You need spaghetti in order to sustain your life, you can’t go much more than a few hours without it. Spaghetti deprivation will ultimately lead to death. But you don’t only need it to sustain you, you need it for hygiene – you wash with spaghetti, clean your clothes with spaghetti, you nourish your crops with spaghetti, your farmed animals also need spaghetti just as you do.

Some parts of the world have spaghetti in abundance, and don’t use it carefully, they have so much they can waste it. Spaghetti is difficult to transport so you can’t very easily buy their excess. In any case because you have very little spaghetti it has affected your economy to such an extent that you couldn’t afford to buy it even if it could be shipped in sufficient quantities.

In some countries they have spaghetti piped to their houses. In your country you have to walk miles to gather enough spaghetti just for one day. Sometimes the spaghetti you gather isn’t very clean, you don’t have any method of cleaning it, so because you need it so badly you still consume it. Sometimes when you consume dirty spaghetti it has disease carrying organisms in it, some people (especially babies and young children) can get very sick from these and even die.

Some people do try and help – there are groups like SpaghettiAid who help poorer, spaghetti deprived countries, use technologies to make sure the spaghetti they do have is clean enough to consume. But they also help to find more spaghetti. Underground there are spaghetti sources, but these are difficult to reach without the proper equipment, and because you and your country are poor you can’t afford to buy the expensive drilling machines. These organisations raise funds for spaghetti drilling equipment. Once found a spaghetti well can transform your community. The kids and mothers, whose job it usually is, don’t have to walk miles to collect the daily spaghetti, so the kids have time to be schooled and the mothers have time to nurse and to prepare food for the family. Your kids have enough spaghetti to keep them healthy, so they can pay attention in school and grow up with a better education which, in turn, will help the community to prosper. People now have enough spaghetti to keep themselves clean, the resulting rapid improvement in health means that diseases that are spaghetti borne virtually disappear. Your crops flourish as they are regularly irrigated with spaghetti. Your animals are healthy as they have enough spaghetti, so your community has a better, more reliable, food resource.

Now imagine your community has gone from spaghetti starved, to relative spaghetti abundance, but you still have to use it carefully as you don’t have a surplus, so you don’t waste any spaghetti at all. How would you regard others in countries with an abundance of spaghetti who use it wastefully? What if the media, especially social media on the internet was showing people wasting spaghetti every day by pouring large chilled or frozen quantities over themselves and leaving it to drain needlessly away? What If the reason for this very public wastefulness was to raise awareness and funds for research into a life threatening disease? What if this wastefulness was even being endorsed by celebrity figures? Could you accept the wastage because of the cause? Would you see the wastage as unnecessary and insensitive given that awareness can be raised without throwing away such a valuable natural resource? Could more of the participants have factored in spaghetti waste saving to their stunts?
                                                                                                                    Please re-read this article and with every mention of spaghetti please replace it with the word “WATER”.


Facts about water deprivation

More than a billion people do not have access to safe water

Well over 2 billion people live without adequate sanitation

At any given time, more than half of the developing world’s population is suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with unsafe water and poor sanitation.
For children, the chances of survival dwindle in the absence of these essentials.

Every day, 6,000 children die of water-related diseases.

Young children are the first to get sick and die from waterborne and sanitation-related illnesses—including diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.

(Sources: UNICEF and

Facts about ALS

ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, it is another name for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) – a disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. ALS causes the brain to be unable to initiate and control muscle movement. It is largely irreversible and can lead to total paralysis.

ALS incidence and prevalence figures vary according to source, but it is estimated that prevalence (how many people are suffering with ALS at any one time) affects around 6 per 100,000 people that is 0.006% of the population.

The average age of onset is in the mid-50s

Life expectancy post diagnosis is 2-5 years

Most sufferers die from respiratory failure

The symptoms of numbing paralysis are said to be similar to the numbing feeling caused by being immersed in freezing cold water or ice. Hence the ice bucket challenge.

(Sources:, Neuroepidemiology 2013;41 (2): 118-30 – Chilo et al, FAST FACTS: ALS and the ice bucket challenge, Reynaldo Santo Jr at

WaterAid has also got in on the Ice Bucket Challenge act, they call it “cold water tipping” – but they provide the following advice:

“Worried about the water? You can make sure you don’t waste a drop by taking on the challenge in your garden (giving the plants a good watering as you go), in your local lido or swimming pool, or even in your pond…”


Disclaimer: this article is not intended to belittle the suffering of those with ALS, nor to detract from the need for research. It does not seek to discourage people from donating to ALS research or to any other disease research for that matter. It is however intended to be thought provoking in providing a global social context to a resource that many of us take for granted, but so many have poor access to. All facts and figures are researched using trusted sources, but I am not responsible for any errors.

Touching lives: the ripple effect

Once in a while we meet someone who not only touches our own life, but the lives of many, with immeasurably positive outcomes. Immeasurable just because of the sheer number of people that they have influenced. Extravagant actions, self promotion and high profile recognition are totally foreign to this person.

This is the person who we miss most when they are not there any more; who we might take for granted and only realise just how important they are to us when they are no longer in our lives. This individual see’s beyond their own day to day worries, they put their own needs aside when others’ needs are more urgent. And they listen.

This is the person who can organise, who encourages, persuades and gently cajoles. This is the person who coaxes others out of a bad place, who arbitrates in times of discord, who see’s the positive in all situations and the best in all people. And they will always remember you.

Often an unsung hero or heroine, they may not hit the headlines with raising funds for deserving charities, they may not be the one-time absailing or parachuting fundraisers, but if they have a cause it will be a long term commitment that they will support through thick and thin.

Surrogate mum or dad for those away from home for the first time, surrogate big sister or brother for those who have no family but need support in the way that a sibling might provide it. A deep sense of empathy and sympathy defines them, their good humoured nature a cover for their deep emotional intelligence. But above all this is a practical person – hands-on helper, supporter, fixer and enabler. None of their support and advice will ever allow the supportee to wallow in self pity for too long. They will pick you up, but more importantly they will know how to encourage you to pick yourself up. They will know how to focus and refocus you. And that is because they will really know you – because you have trustingly let them get close – your trust is never betrayed.

This person may have set you on your career path, because they believed in you, saw your potential when others did not, they may have pushed you to explore and to extend yourself beyond your own perception of your capabilities. They will have seen something in you that maybe even you did not immediately recognise.

This is a person who we never can, or ever will, forget. The happy memories will be long lasting. They endure over time, their presence and influence still keenly felt long after they have gone. Their absence may not be permanent, there may be reunions to look forward to, and those occasions are joyful ones that are filled with feelings of “picking up where we left off” irrespective of the amount of time that has passed. When the absence is a permanent loss, the inevitable feeling of sadness will eventually give way to fond memories, flashbacks to shared experiences, recollections of parties and fun days, lazy days in the pub, raucous nights in the clubs, and sore heads after partying too hard – but above all there will be laughter. There will always be laughter. The laughter may give way to tears – and those tears will be joyous and sadness combined in equal measure. And just as the laughter and tears between you in life were healing, so after life your own tears mingled with others will offer a healing, as you hear that person in your memories through the crying, and soon you will hear the laughter again.

I am of course writing this about a specific person, but in conversations with others I have come to realise that many of us have a person like this in our lives. In a world that is rife with troubles it gladdens the soul to know that there are people who can be role models, who can show the way, who can support others along the expedition of life and it’s twists and turns, up’s and downs. Perhaps more importantly, if they can do it – we surely should be able to follow their lead. Now that really would be a legacy. The opportunity to be the next ripple and ensure that not just the memory, but the actions, that epitomised that one person are carried forward and increased is ours to embrace.

Dedicated to JDAb. With the love of many.


A case of mistaken identity?

I am writing a novel. I’ve tried several times before and have at least three failed attempts to my name – failed in the sense that I gave up and lost interest and motivation. This time it is going to be different – at least that is what I have been telling myself. I am determined that it will be different, as I feel motivated to write and very inspired by my subject matter. I have my daughter Eve to thank for some of that inspiration, over the summer we have been to Stratford-upon-Avon – the birth place of England’s most famous literary son – William Shakespeare. Eve won a place on a course at the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and I needed to be her chaperone. This meant that for a whole week while she was working I had time to myself to write in Stratford-upon-Avon. We stayed in a cottage in a street actually called “Shakespeare Street” – failure to find inspiration and motivation in such a setting was almost impossible.

Shakespeare Street

Shakespeare Street

I walked all over Stratford-upon-Avon, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, and spent hours listening to the “Shakespeare Aloud” players, who can recite and act many scenes from plays and sonnets on request. I placed my hand on the stone that used to be the marker at the centre of this lovely market town, a stone that Shakespeare surely would have touched and maybe sat upon – it is one of the few relics that we can be almost certain was touched by his hand.

The Shakespeare Aloud Players

The Shakespeare Aloud Players

We watched Henry IV part 2, brilliantly acted at the RSC, using a thrust stage (I was unaware that was what it was called until educated by Eve), which would have been the style used in Shakespeare’s time, bringing the actors into the audience and providing multiple points for dramatic exits and entries. To say I was entirely absorbed by the play, which though I have read I have never seen before, is an understatement.

The "thrust" stage at the RSC

The “thrust” stage at the RSC

On a rising tide of enthusiasm I began to write. A plot, a sub-plot, characters names and personalities forming in my mind, weaving twists and turns into my storyline taking inspiration from what I had seen and heard during my visit. The outline came together quickly, I found using a notebook and a pen was the best way to capture the rapid changes of direction that my brain is wont to do, the written story outline has become punctuated by scribbled diagrams to represent the plot, notes in the margin mark where I had a sudden realisation that I’d missed something or that more embellishment was needed. I was on a roll, I hadn’t written like this in years. I described my ideas to Eve – she is a great encouragement (also a little annoyed that I didn’t finish my last book as she’d enjoyed the first chapters that I had written for her) –  and  thought I had the makings of a good story. Always championing equality Eve has also reminded me of the Bechdel test – a recently developed test to guard against gender bias – does my work contain at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? I pass. As a result I’m now looking even more critically at what I write, what other “tests” should I apply? It’s no good having  what I think is a great story if it doesn’t have “reader appeal”. My preferred genre is historical fiction – the attraction is that they are always historically accurate – the unwritten rules seem to be that there must be several characters who actually existed during the period and the story must revolve around some real events. Authors of historical fiction tend to explain in the preface that their work is not an accurate account, some events may have occurred in a different order, and the conversations and actions of many of the characters are imagined – but nevertheless the historical context is correct. I have set about researching the techniques and approaches that authors use more thoroughly, looking at what I can “get away with”, mine is a tale that traverses two time periods – so my challenge is making it believable, but there are more examples of this style than I could have imagined – there is certainly no shortage of ideas. I am starting to think that I can write, that I should write, that I am a writer. I have been mistaken for being an “actual” writer twice now since I started this novel. It’s a case of mistaken identity but an identity I’d like to believe of myself. The first occasion was in discussion with the lighting director at the RSC, a thoroughly interesting chap, whose art is to bring the stage alive with different lighting techniques, during our conversation Eve mentioned I was writing a book, which interested him and, although I briefly tried to deny that I was a writer, as the conversation continued I found myself talking as if I was – more to the point he spoke to me as if I was too. The second occasion was surreal to say the least. Eve and I had returned to Stratford-upon-Avon a few weeks after her course so that she could meet  with the course director again as a follow-up. That left me with an afternoon to myself. Having an open ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I could think of no better location to sit and write further. I installed myself at a wooden table on the lawn outside the cafe, with the house as the backdrop, and ordered a pot of earl grey tea. I then got out my notebook and began to scribble away. I must have been writing for two hours without a break – it was a perfect day for writing, with the sun shining, and some natural dappled shade from the trees, an occasional light breeze preventing the heat from becoming uncomfortable. In the garden next to me I could hear the Shakespeare Aloud players reciting one well-known speech after another – as the audiences came and went I must have heard “Two households, both alike in dignity…” and the rest of the prologue from Romeo and Juliet at least a dozen times! I was just about to lay down my pen to listen more closely to one of my favourite speeches from the Merchant of Venice (Portia’s “The quality of mercy…”), when twenty or so Chinese tourists came into the garden, I thought nothing of it as this is a regular occurrence, and I sat back and tried to listen. It was then that a Chinese gentleman approached me, pointing excitedly at his iPhone, grinning widely and saying “please”. As I am from the tourist city of Cambridge this was not unusual to me, visitors often ask if you would mind taking a picture of them and their friends or family against a famous backdrop – so I went to take the iPhone from him. But no, this is not what he wanted, he wanted his picture taken with me. I tried to explain that I was nobody famous, just visiting here myself, they spoke no English so that explanation was pointless. I even tried in French – the only other language I am semi-fluent in – as someone later pointed out to me, that scene may have  appeared somewhat farcical if ever played back to me – an Englishman telling a group of Chinese in French that he is not famous! That wasn’t the end of it though, having had my picture taken with this gentleman the rest of the group started queuing – a very orderly queue – to do the same. I must have had my picture taken fifteen times either shaking hands with a Chinese gentleman, or with a Chinese lady leaning on my shoulder (their preferred poses, not mine!). All this time the cafe manager looked on from the balcony somewhat bemused, but finding it rather funny. All I can imagine is that they genuinely thought I was a well-known writer, placed there as a resident author for the tourists. I am still intrigued as to exactly who they thought I was and I can’t help but wonder what captions and titles will be on their photographs.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Mistaken identity or not, I do feel more like a writer these days. I write most days. My day job is still the same, but in my head I am moving towards writing as a way of life. It will take some time, maybe I will never manage it professionally, but the more I write, the more I practice, and the more I get mistaken for being a writer, the more I feel that I could be one – no mistake! I wonder if my work will ever be translated into Mandarin…