The two faces of an English September …

It’s September and it’s a bit shit outside. This is England and our lousy summer is over.

A summer that started so promisingly, with BBQs firing and drinks fizzing as far back as May. And back then we all thought this was it, this was going to be just like the summer of ’76 – that sizzling, scorching, dream of a summer when us kids played out for six long, glorious weeks, from dawn until dusk.

We think of ’76 every year, but like every other year, this one wasn’t to be. June was hotter than average, but wetter than average too, and this pattern repeated through July. August was cool and wet. Rain never seemed far away these past months.

And so here we are, the week that children, teachers and MPs return to school and work, the week our roads and public transport networks regain their familiar bloated, unkempt and overcrowded personas.

After a summer of over indulging, it’s time to can the booze, time to wheel out those empty promises of healthy eating and regular exercise in the safe knowledge they will be long discarded once again before October is out.

The clouds are forming, the first leaves are falling alongside the raindrops and the central heating is starting to creak and burp into life.

Deep breath ladies and gentleman, here we go.

Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. September is Janus with two faces, one looking back, reflecting on the summer that’s gone, one looking forward, excitedly planning for the autumn and winter to come.

Less than four months to Christmas, initial plans are afoot – who should we invite? what days shall we take off? what about new years eve?

Is that boiler actually working?

It’s time for jumpers, time for soups, casseroles and stews. Time for hot brews, time to snuggle down and watch TV, time for good BBC dramas, time for decent films at the cinema.

Sod the boiler, it’s time for log fires. Put the lawn mower in the shed, get out the rake. Time for rosy cheeks and wellington boots, time for long walks in scarves and gloves. Look at those leaves turning brown and gold. Let’s make a fire!

It’s September and it’s a bit shit outside. This is England and our beautiful autumn is just beginning.

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Late onset vegetarianism?

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I played at being vegetarian in my mid 20s when I shared a house with one, and I was about 85% successful, having occasional lapses whenever I returned home to my parents for a Sunday roast, or gorged on a kebab after a heavy session on the beer. I was ever so pretentious back then, and whilst I claimed I did it for moral and ethical reasons, I am fairly sure I did it because I couldn’t be arsed to cook my own tea. It lasted about a year, and then after the novelty faded I lapsed back into my old, omnivorian ways.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and hopefully stripped of most of the pretension I carried through my youth, I now find myself once again thinking more and more about vegetarianism.

I think initially it was for health reasons.  Health, and specifically healthy eating, are topics I spend a lot of time researching these days. Ageing is another topic I think about a lot too, and I think it was this impending fear of death that spurred me on to find healthier ways of living, and better ways of eating.

However, the more I looked into meat, the less convinced I was that it was bad for you. Certainly eating too much meat isn’t good, and smoked/processed meats seem to be particularly dodgy, but I couldn’t find much argument against eating modest amounts of high quality meat. After all it’s filled with stuff we need – iron, protein, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, the list goes on … and so I couldn’t logically discount meat on health grounds, at least not in moderation.

But reading up on this stuff further, I learnt more about the way our meat is farmed. The ladybird book of our childhood depicting a farm where the calf frolics with the piglet whilst the hens sit playfully on the red tractor, is seemingly a long way from the truth. I’m not going to go into what I discovered here, it’s all online should you want to know more, suffice to say I found it very disturbing indeed.

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I watched videos of slaughterhouses, not extreme cases, but everyday slaughterhouses. I forced myself to do this, on the basis that if I eat meat I should at least be aware how the meat is produced. But it was hard. Should you want to take a look for yourself, here’s one example from Belgium. This is how your pork is made. It’s very, very difficult to watch. So difficult in fact that it has forced me to seriously reconsider vegetarianism, not on health grounds, but on the basis of cruelty. If that’s what a pig has to go through so I can eat sausages, then I’m not sure I want any part of it.

So that’s animal cruelty, but what about the ethics? Is it right to kill animals? Well not really, although one can argue that if we rear animals for eating, we are creating lives that otherwise would never have existed. If we take the grim, slaughterhouse cruelty of death out of the equation and assume instead that the Ladybird book of farming were true, where Farmer Giles leads the family cow into a field, has a quiet word in his or her ear and painlessly ends its long and beautiful life, it’s still questionable to me whether that’s ethical. Speciesism says that it’s OK to kill that animal (the cow), but not that animal (the dog), unless you live in Korea where it’s OK to kill both. We eat chicken, pigeon possibly, but not squirrels or rats. Or guinea pigs. Double standards everywhere, no coherent logic, no consistency. Speciesism, ageism, racism – think about it for long and you spot a certain trend.

And then there’s the environmental aspects of the meat industry: Cowspiracy. Once again, utterly shocking. We shower instead of bathing, we research more environmentally friendly cars, we recycle our carrier bags, yet none of it even comes close to countering the environmentally disastrous and potentially catastrophic impacts of large scale, global factory farming. Cowspiracy is a well made and humorous film and well worth a watch (free on Netflix), and I urge you to watch it. Don’t worry, it’s not grim like the slaughterhouse.

And so here I am, aged 52. I still eat meat because its easier to eat meat than not eat meat, particularly in a house of meat eaters, but it’s getting harder. Whilst I enjoy the taste of meat, whenever I eat it now it’s tainted with a growing sense of guilt and dare I say some shame and slight disgust.  I ate meat twice this past week. You can’t be a little bit pregnant I hear you say, and you’re right. I’m a hypocrite. Whether I ate meat once, or 21 times in a week, makes no difference ethically. One could argue it makes a difference environmentally perhaps – if everyone ate less meat, less animals would be killed due to falling demand, etc. Less meat consumption also means less cruelty, but you’re still endorsing cruelty. Hypocritical

Oh and then there’s dairy farming. Milk and egg production are arguably just as cruel and ethically wrong as meat farming. Some claim even more so. And I have huge issues here too, and more exposed double standards. I gave up drinking cow’s milk two years ago, yet I still eat cheese, and I eat eggs.  I could at least source eggs locally, eggs that haven’t been factory farmed exploiting chickens locked in dark cages. And by consuming less cow’s milk I can claim I am making at least some impact on the numbers of dairy cows, but it’s still hypocritical, and it’s still only a start.

I really don’t know if I’m brave enough to ever become vegetarian, let alone vegan but morally, ethically I feel I really should try. A possible halfway house is to become pescatarian, eating fish only, but this is still dodgy ground for any moral crusader. Like it’s OK to eat a fish but not a cow or a pig? But, it might be argued, it’s a start. It’s a move in the right direction along the ethical/cruelty spectrum that goes something like this:

Omnivore -> Pescatarian -> Vegetarian -> Vegan -> Fruitarian.

Becoming a fruitarian is just silly, becoming a vegan is very, very hard and vegetarianism is extremely challenging. Pescatarianism might be a stepping stone, but if you’re heading that way for moral and ethical reasons it’s difficult to make that your end stop.

 

 

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

In July 2004, London was sitting in 4th place out of the 5 contenders to host the 2012 Olympic games, but just a year later, on 6th July, 2005, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London.  I know exactly where I was at that moment. My eldest son was off school sick, he was tucked up in bed watching TV and I was in the room when a live news bulletin interrupted our viewing to announce the 2012 Olympics decision …

The London 2012 bid team had played an absolute blinder, and set in motion a series of events lasting more than seven years, culminating in one of the greatest Olympics ever held. It didn’t end with the campaigning, it was also in the planning, the preparation and the execution. Historically, olympic projects have always been beset with financial problems and delays, but somehow London 2012 was delivered on time (if not quite to budget), regenerating a part of London long forgotten to many, even those that lived in the UK and even those of us that worked in London.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Team GB athletes delivered the greatest athletic performance the country has ever seen.  For GB (~60 million population) to finish third in the medal table behind USA (>300 million) and China (>1.3 billion) was just staggering. It was as if the momentum of the successful bid and the enthusiasm the nation wore like an overcoat, somehow fuelled the athletes to also overachieve.

We had government funding and we had a willing public, not just the fans that filled every nook and cranny at every event, but also the army of volunteers who helped, supported and advised, from Heathrow in the west, all the way across town to Salford in the east.

Being British, national pride has often been tinged with guilt for me, as it often brings out an ugliness that seems to have its roots in our imperialistic past when Britannia was arrogant enough to believe she truly ruled the waves. The Union Jack has long been associated with extremism and thuggery, yet somehow at London 2012, the flag was reclaimed as simply the colours of a very proud nation.

London 2012 was a great example of humanity at its best and Britons at their finest. It wasn’t just about the medals, it was also about collaboration, about community, about belief and passion, about friendships, and most importantly about pride.

Fast forward four and a half years to 2016, the same people, but now divided, tangled up in a messy divorce from the EU. Much of that national pride has turned to anger and discord, and politics once again feels dirty and corrupt, no longer a lottery funded cause for the greater good. And unlike 2012, where we opened our borders and outstretched our arms to the world, post-Brexit, we seem to be once again pulling up the drawbridges and closing our doors, not just to outsiders, but to our neighbours too.

We seem to consume our daily news these days through gritted teeth and half closed eyes, wondering what on earth will happen next. We have a government which appears incompetent and ill prepared for Brexit and the challenges that lay ahead. Brexit seems to have beaten us down and created a disharmony that feels a world away from London 2012, and our 2012 passion seems lost in a difficult and uncertain 2016.

But it needn’t be this way.  National pride can, and should, be a force for good, free from any strain of politics, government or economic circumstance. And pride should never be about superiority. French people should be just as proud to be French, Americans to be American, Germans to be German, as I am to be British. London 2012 just reminded us British that we have a lot to be proud of, in the same way other nations should rightly be proud of their own achievements – achievements that should be openly shared and celebrated across a unified world, not envied in a divisive one.

Whatever happens in the coming months, post-Brexit, I’d like to think we in the UK can all regain our own sense of national pride, in whatever way seems fitting for us. Pride can be misplaced and misinterpreted, but it can also be a good thing when kept in context.

The following video encapsulates perfectly what pride meant around London 2012. It’s as funny and quirky as it is beautiful, and it’s joyously optimistic too. It portrays a better time perhaps, but one that can be reclaimed, even in today’s turbulent times.

And we don’t need our governments to do that for us, we can start doing that for ourselves, in whatever way feels right for us.

What have you done to make yourself proud today?

 

 

 

A 7-day Intermittent Fasting experiment

fasting-plate

I’ve been interested in Fasting ever since I saw the Michael Moseley Horizon programme in 2012, not just for weight loss reasons, but rather the claimed health benefits – lowering the risk of developing diabetes, dementia and cancer.

Fasting purportedly diverts energy and resources away from food digestion, focussing instead on doing useful housekeeping things like cell repair, reducing insulin levels and generally ridding the body of toxins and other debris. It also re-teaches the body the lost art of deriving energy from fat, as opposed to from the carbs in our belly – a process called Ketosis. Most of us carry enough fat to survive several weeks without food, which is why fasting is safe, and why many people have successfully conducted 21 or 28 day fasts without any harm.  It’s also popular in many religions and spiritual practices – Islam (Ramadan), Buddhism, Bahá’í, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism … the list goes on.

Even outside of religion and spirituality, fasting has been a natural part of human existence for as long as we have been around, primarily because food was scarce and so early man had to eat when he/she could, forced to fast in between hunts and catches. We are therefore designed to cope well with fasting, it’s in our genetic make-up, even if it does feel a little alien to the modern psyche which has been raised on the 3 square meals a day regime (3SMAD). The introduction of 3SMAD has its roots traced back to 19th Century America – it was a symbol of civilisation to sit down with friends and family at fixed times to eat, an attempt to differentiate the ‘civilised’ white man from the indigenous natives. It could therefore be argued that fasting is more natural to us than 3SMAD.

Nevertheless, many people will still argue that 3SMAD is best for us and that fasting is sheer madness. People will claim they feel ‘shaky’ if they miss lunch, and cite this as evidence they need to eat, but there is a counter-argument that your body has just become so dependent on deriving instant energy from food carbs that it’s forgotten the lost art of ketosis which fasting allows.

I therefore decided to give it a go for a week. Instead of the traditional 5:2 diet which I followed for a year or so but found rather difficult, I decided to try just eating one meal a day, every day, limiting my calorie intake to a couple of hours each evening. That means eating nothing whatsoever for 22 hours – no sugar or milk in tea, certainly no snacks or fruit, just water, tea and an occasional black coffee. You could call this the 7:0 diet – a little extreme maybe, but if the theory of ketosis is sound, I figured it wouldn’t be anything more than a psychological challenge. If you want more detail on this, I got the idea from the following video Eating Once a Day.

Important to note I placed no restrictions on what I ate (or drank) in these two hours. I didn’t cap calories or consciously cut out any food groups.  I even allowed alcohol because I know if I had banned it, I would have fallen at the first hurdle. What is interesting, is what happened:

My Diary

Day 1 – not surprisingly this was easy, after all I had a corpulent body full of yesterday’s 3SMAD excess calories to keep me going. I didn’t want any alcohol and just ate a moderate plate of veggie grub.

Day 2- felt good, loved waking up and not having to worry about food all day, a feeling that persisted throughout the week. Interestingly I only had (only wanted, only needed) a light meal, although it was accompanied by a glass of wine. Day 2 was a Friday, and had I banned alcohol in this experiment, I may have felt resentful and rebellious. However, without any alcohol ban I was free to enjoy a glass, and because I felt good about the fasting, I wasn’t tempted to drink any more, ending the evening feeling unusually virtuous and sated.

Day 3 – felt good, went for a long walk during the day (4 miles), had a veg stir-fry for dinner plus two glasses of wine (it was Saturday night). I didn’t really enjoy the second glass of wine – one would have been enough but in a perverse mindfcuked reasoning kind of way that only I could muster, I convinced myself I should have a second glass to prove to myself I wasn’t restricting alcohol.

Day 4 – hard, very hard. Perhaps it was the wine? Who knows, but I had a persistent headache all day, felt tired and sluggish despite sleeping well and craved food throughout, occasionally staring balefully at the cheddar cheese in the fridge. I only just made it through to tea-time, but interestingly didn’t have (or want) any alcohol. Veg Thai green curry (no noodles).

Day 5 – much better. I was busy which helps a lot and I just had a light veg dinner. No alcohol. I definitely felt lighter and I’m definitely sleeping better and eating much healthier food through choice/desire. No cravings whatsoever for junk food (odd for me) and most surprisingly of all, despite not restricting alcohol, I’ve only had 3 glasses of wine in the first 5 days, including a weekend, and anyone that knows me will know that’s quite uncharacteristic.

Day 6 – all went well, seems to get easier. Had a light veg based dinner, no alcohol. Sleep continues to improve. Once again my focus and concentration was immense, far better than usual and my work productivity has undoubtedly increased. Managed a 2.5 mile run.

Day 7 – felt harder. Perhaps knowing this was the last day made me psychologically weak, like I sensed the finish line. But that makes it sounds like it’s been a hard slog and it really hasn’t. I’m only stopping today because I set myself a 7-day target for this experiment and the more I look at it, the more I believe I could continue further. I survived and rounded off the 7-day fast with an oven baked jacket potato and cheese like mama used to make. Enjoyed a 3-mile walk.

In summary

I would say on average I have consumed well under 1,000 calories a day, probably closer to 600-700, and interestingly have eaten smaller portions and higher quality evening meals than I ever did on 3SMAD. I also rarely craved junk food and 3 glasses of wine was well under par for me for a weekly total. I also ate total vegetarian – due in part to a bountiful supply of garden produce, but certainly not a conscious action at the outset of the experiment, perhaps this was pure coincidence.

Of course 600-700 calories a day isn’t sustainable long term, but I guess that’s where ketosis comes in, at least in the short term. I have AMPLE fat stores to draw upon, as do most of us fortunate enough to live in the western world, and so such a challenge over a relatively short period of time is only ever a psychological one I think. This was never going to be, nor ever planned to be, sustainable, I just wanted to check if it was doable, and it was. It’s foolish to draw any firm conclusions, but it has proved to me you don’t have to eat at set meal-times, it’s OK to skip a meal (or two), and in fact it might even be good for you to listen to your body rather than the chimes of the clock.

I have no idea what it has done for (or to) my health, all I can say is I felt better afterwards than I did at the beginning. I felt like I had more energy and my brain was definitely sharper – I could concentrate for longer and didn’t feel sleepy during the day. For the record I lost 3.4kg (7.5lbs) in weight. No doubt much of that will go back on when I return to normal eating, although, and here’s the crux, I’m not entirely sure I will return to my normal 3SMAD eating, but perhaps somewhere in between.

I’m certain many of you will think this was a silly and dangerous thing to have done. All I can say is I survived and as described above I felt better than I did previously. Best of all I believe I now have a much better perspective and handle on my, admittedly rather quirky relationship with food (and maybe also drink).

 

 

A letter to my 17yr old self …

In response to A letter from my 17yr old self.

2016

Dear 17yr old Andy,

Thanks for your letter. Well, here we are. We survived, we are still alive and kicking! The good news is we generally did pretty well. I’m not going to tell you the details as it will spoil it for you, but we get through, so keep on keeping on young man.

What I will say, is that those guilty pleasures of yours – singing in the band, making people laugh – they’re not just lusty and pointless, so don’t keep dismissing them. Those are beacons in the dark, sirens in the quiet still of night. Despite what you might think, they are your soul speaking to you.

I just realised that last sentence might freak you out. Sorry, let me rephrase. Those are the things that make you what you are. Reading your letter brought back many memories for me, how we believed and trusted unerringly in our elders, and by consequence, how we felt anything we experienced that didn’t align with them was somehow incongruous, somewhat deviant and unhealthy.

I remember now, thanks to your letter, how we lived our life by a set of rules devised purely by teachers, parents, lawmakers, guidelines always laid down in tablets of stone. Our success was measured not by happiness, but by how well we stayed on that path of righteousness as prescribed by ‘them’.

If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to stop always looking to others for guidance – instead start to look inwardly at your self, at our self. You know that ‘gut feel’ you get, but always push back if it doesn’t conform to The Book? Well, stop doing that. Stop it now. Immediately. Listen to the voices inside – I bet that spooks you too? Don’t worry, I am sane of mind, I just see life differently, through a less filtered lens.

I don’t mean to suggest you ignore The Book altogether – there’s a lot of great and sound advice out there, advice that’s built on thousands of years of hard earned experience – but complement it with your own thoughts and beliefs. Believe it or not you (we) are unique, and we do have talents that would horrify you if I were to tell you them now.

And so I won’t tell you, for you must find them on your own, because the journey is the biggest part of any experience, not the destination. That obsession of getting somewhere, stop that too. Retune your beliefs, redefine your passions and act accordingly. Most importantly, stop obsessing with trying to define the end point all the time. Instead set the rules (your rules), and let your own moral compass navigate.

By the way – I still don’t get electricity, it just works, and the sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t need to understand everything, the better it will be.

Forget destinations and just enjoy the journey, young man, just make sure it’s your journey and not anyone elses.

Love,

Me (2016)
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If I could turn back time …

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I suspect this is a question which has piqued us all at some point:

If you had one turn in a time machine, where would you set the dial?

What a wonderfully indulgent thought, to be given the opportunity to set the record straight, to right that wrong, to write that book. Would you go back to last week to relive that argument with your best friend? Would you go back to your last job? Your first marriage? Back to school? Even back to the crib? Or as far back as the womb?

I’m tempted to say I would go back to being a baby and do everything again. I’d grow up eating healthy food, I’d pass on the deep fried spam fritters and 1/4 pound bags of kali (northern English word for sherbert) that undoubtedly rotted my teeth beyond redemption. I would have continued running, cross country running was my thing, I was good at it as a kid, as a teenager. I found running easier than walking, and I should have exploited that, not neglected it.

I would have been more confident, less shy. I would have asked girls out at school and I wouldn’t have turned down that kind offer from Jane T. in 1981. I was bright and fairly academic, but I wasted my education. Had I applied myself I would have certainly attained better grades and that in turn would have led to better career choices and more money and … and …

So many choices, how far back do I turn the dial? So many choices! However, university was probably my greatest tragedy – 3 years of drinking beer and very little else, probably the single, greatest downturn in my life, certainly the period I look back on with the most regret, and so that seems to be a good place to return to in my time machine.

But wait, I met my wife at University. The Butterfly Effect, borne out of chaos theory, tells us that infinitesimally small changes can have huge longer term effects. Had I not been a beer monster, I may have turned left into the library rather than turn right into the top bar at Essex University. Had I done that I wouldn’t have seen her, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the girl that rocked my world. We would never have married, and in turn, our children would have never existed, and that’s unthinkable.

If I step into that time machine, whichever point I choose to return to, I risk losing everything I now hold dear. The butterfly effect tells us that anything we do differently during our trip back in time, risks changing everything from thereon in. If I stop eating kali, perhaps I replace it with something else more sinister – I may have nicer teeth on my 2nd attempt, but perhaps I have a more addled brain. If I start running more in my second life, perhaps I end up at a different university, studying a different subject, and most certainly never get to the top bar at Essex University in the spring of ’82, and never actually meet that girl in the green combat trousers.

To imagine, or to wish for a different outcome from our past, is to risk changing everything going forward, including all that one holds dear. I don’t think we can pick and choose, we just act spontaneously and we must therefore live with the consequences of our actions. You pays your money, you takes your choice, and you have to accept all that comes with it.  I might wish I had better teeth and a flatter stomach but would I risk everything for that? To change anything about us is to change ourselves forever, and that has unintended consequences.

On reflection I think I’m OK after all, so I think I’ll pass on the offer of a spin in the time machine, thanks.

In pursuit of rubbishness …

My blog hasn’t gone viral, my blog barely has a runny nose and an imperceptibly mild rash at best, but there are bloggers out there, seemingly ordinary people that blog everyday things, just like me, yet every now and then something they say resonates with their readership and beyond, far beyond – when everything goes a little mental and interstellar.

In this blog which can be found here, Cheri looks at four bloggers, four everyday blogging people who at some point said something remarkable and extraordinary. Cheri sums up what happened to them in her opening paragraph:

You wake up one morning, check your phone, and spit out your coffee. You have thousands of likes on Facebook, hundreds of retweets, and an inbox that has exploded. Your little blog — which normally gets a dozen views per day and has an audience of exactly two, your spouse and mother — has been shared all over the internet, and that post you wrote last night, in your pajamas, has gone viral.

Twelve views would be a good day for me, a fist-pumpingly awesome blogging day in fact, and I have to reluctantly admit to frequently having that gorgeous ‘what-if’ indulgent thought where my imagination runs wild, imagining a parallel world where I wake up to a chirping phone, lit up like the BBC switchboard on comic relief day – a day where my blog goes interstellar.

As a kid I dreamt of scoring a goal at Wembley, as a teenager I was the singer in the band at Wembley (a different Wembley day to the football I hasten to add – even for my egocentric imagination, scoring the winning goal to win the FA Cup and also serenading 100,000 singing Hey Jude, all on the same day, is a little far-fetched). Nowadays I imagine writing a blog that sparks the imagination of people across the world, just like the four bloggers outlined in Cheri’s blog.

They’re all amazing stories of everyday tales from everyday folk. Their blogs haven’t made them rich, but they have made them visible. They all now have a voice, a raised platform, a heightened status, a metaphorical megaphone and a substantial audience which spreads right across their social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. They’ve made it!

But then you read their back-stories, and you realise that all isn’t rosy in the garden of blog superstardom. As ever, success seems to come at a price. Suddenly these people are having to deal with trolls – people that write nasty, spiteful, hurtful and personal insults, and in every case they felt a pressure to maintain their newly found and elevated levels of success. Your next blog can never be as good, such a feat can never be repeated and the truth is the only way forward is down. You have peaked. That’s it, you’ve done it now – pressure, anxiety, expectation – these appear to be the new norm, the consequences of your new found popularity.

Whereas me, I can carry on dreaming, hoping, aspiring, sitting cross-legged at the bottom of my hill staring balefully skywards. My blogs can easily get better, I don’t have to try very hard to make improvements, and that’s the beauty of being rubbish. It doesn’t take a lot to cheer me. Even one new follower perks me up, I’m ever so easily pleased down here in my valley of loneliness. Any shard of light – a comment, a like, a new follower – I lap them all up graciously and covet them.

It’s good down here in my sun-starved blog-valley where the light is obscured by the majestic peaks of successful others – great and worthy, epic bloggers.

I pity them, their future looks bleak up there in the bright sunlight, and the truth is it kind of feels OK down here, hidden amongst the gloom, being ever so slightly rubbish. Yes, I like it here.

Yay for me! Yay for my rubbish blog!Slide1

My name is Andy and I’m a blogger …

Of course you knew that, regular readers, but you see I’m doing a ‘Blogging 101’ course through the kind people at WordPress, my blog hosts. I want to try and improve my blogging, and my first assignment is to re-do my introductory blog, to re-visit and re-answer the basic question:

“who I am and why I’m here”

When I first did this at the very beginning of my blog back in 2012, which can be found here, I made up all sorts of excuses about how random and unpredictable my blog would be.  But I was right! It is random, sporadic, unpredictable. My blogs are like London buses, nothing for days and suddenly two come along at once.

So why do I blog? Because I love the edginess of blogging. I could write in a diary or journal, and in fact I used to do that but I found it too easy to become sloppy. I often wrote in shorthand and used bullet points and abbreviations. I scribbled in my already shoddy handwriting. I didn’t have to explain or justify things and it all felt rather staid and loose. Worst of all I wrote about the same things – about how I was feeling, about my likes and dislikes but always in a very insular way, and even I got bored.

With a blog you can at least pretend you have an audience, you can imagine critical eyes being cast over your writing and that demands a certain level of effort. Being accused of being boring is quite an insult for me, and so with a public blog I am forced to try and say something original, something new, something funny or interesting, or at the very least thought provoking.

An analogy would be working from home versus going into an office. When I work from home I can wear a scruffy t-shirt and jeans, I might wash my face but may not shower, I may not brush my teeth until mid-morning. When I go into the office I always wear pants, I will always wash, always brush my teeth, wear sensible shoes and clean clothes and generally make more of an effort.  To me that’s writing a diary/journal versus blogging – one can live a pantless, scruffy, unshaven existence but it’s not very nourishing.

Blogging therefore challenges me more than writing a private journal ever would, and from challenge emanates a degree of personal growth. It enforces a level of discipline on the undisciplined me. Often I get the urge to blog long before I have a subject, and in such situations I just write from a blank page and am constantly amazed at how stuff just appears. It’s not always great, but is forever unexpected.

Sometimes I just have a spark of an idea, and I use the blog to work and expand that idea further. Often I might not have a strong opinion or even a conclusion to my thought, and sometimes through the act of blogging I may even change my original point of view – I thought I believed A but in fact through blogging realise I believed in B, and I love that sense of personal discovery.

I also get a kick out of any blog interaction as few and far between as they may be. Comments from people who have taken the time to read my blog never cease to cheer my wearisome soul. People lead busy lives and there’s a stack of stuff to read and do, and so if through my blog I can solicit a comment, it means I have stirred something in someone else, somehow moved some electrons somewhere else in the universe, and that’s a lovely thought which makes me feel alive, makes me feel connected.

And yes, I have an ego too. I may never be famous, but through my blog may I never be forgotten. Please, not that.

The driest of Januarys …

Edit: I only just realised by re-reading some of my old blogs that I did dry January 3 years ago! I have no recollection of that, so apologies, this wasn’t in fact the driest of Januarys, but certainly one of them.

As I’ve blogged previously, the new year is always an important time for me, a time to start afresh and right the wrongs from the year just gone. And in recent years I have been following other people’s Dry January with interest – a challenge where folk try go the first month of the year without any alcohol.

Unfortunately for me, my birthday is on 2nd January which makes Dry January extremely challenging. Of course my wife who has a healthy outlook on such things, just suggests I start Dry January on the 3rd day of the month and continue through to 2nd February. As always she is being hyper logical, but to my OCD mind that’s a horrific nonsense and a complete non-starter. That would make Dry January not at all Dry January but Dry-for-most-of-January-and-a-little-bit-of-February which is just plain silliness.

For some reason this year I really wanted to do Dry January and through December it was all I could think about. I was bored and tired of boozing, having reached the point where I was drinking out of habit. I was drinking good stuff too, quality wines, not cheap plonk, yet I was still feeling indifferent, somewhat ‘meh’ about the whole thing, like what was the point?

And so, at midnight on New Years Eve, I toasted in 2016 and put down my Prosecco glass. It was actually 12:07am which made me feel slightly sick, but I managed to convince myself that’s OK, it was a drink that I began in 2015 and it was New Year’s Eve, so I cut myself some slack and started the clock, managing to navigate a dry birthday on day 2.

By way of background, let me add that my previous alcohol-free, all-time-since-I-have-been-an-adult record was 17 days achieved in January 2011. I know that because I record these things and have done since I was 22 when I started to jot ‘AFD’ on the corner of my pocket diary on each day I had no booze (alcohol free day). What happened in January 2011, after 17 consecutive AFDs, was that my wife and I were invited next door for dinner and I couldn’t say no to some wine. My journal entry for the following day was littered with self loathing to levels even extreme for me.

January 2016 felt different, and it was. I remained dedicated to the cause, I remained full of resolve and breezed through to Feb 1st with only the slightest wobble on a business trip to Athens on 25th Jan when I was offered a glass of Ouzo to toast a new business relationship. I surprised myself by politely declining it and toasted instead with my glass of Athenian sparkling water.

Apart from the challenge in and of itself, I found the 31 day journey quite enlightening. My sleep was definitely of a higher quality, and I noticed early on how my mental state of mind had improved. I felt less paranoid if that makes sense? Maybe it only makes sense to paranoid folk, but I definitely felt it, and I felt much calmer, more relaxed, less on edge. I was also eating better, resisting the urge to snack on crisps and other snacks which always went hand in hand with a pint or a crisp glass of wine.

I also lost weight, around 11lbs (~5Kg). I wanted to lose weight, I needed to lose weight and so that was a great bonus and incentive for me. I know the caloric reduction from no booze wasn’t the only factor, but not drinking made me eat better, exercise more and sleep better, all factors which contributed to the weight loss.

So what now? I panicked on February 1st, imagining my first drink undoing all the good from January. I actually dreamt waking up on Feb 2nd at 4am in a prison cell with no pants on, I was clearly 5kg fatter with popcorn stuck to my gob and curry sauce on my chin. As you may recall, dear bloggers, I don’t do moderation very well and so I knew it wouldn’t just be one drink, it would be a bottle and possibly more.

Drinking would of course also mean breaking my AFD run, I would be back at square 1, I would have ruined everything so what would be the point in doing anything after that other than drinking more? Awful scenario. My mind works in mysterious ways.

So here I am, Tuesday 2nd February 2016, still 2016 clean and very much enjoying it. I have decided however not to set any more targets, no more goals (for now), instead I will just take it one day at a time.

If I want a drink, I shall have one. The thought of never drinking again makes me feel sad, perversely the thought of having a drink also makes me feel sad, and so I am taking it one day at a time, each day on it’s own merit, and perhaps one day in the near future I will decide the time is right to have that drink.

And I sincerely hope that when I do, I don’t wake up naked in a prison cell.

The club membership paradox

Groucho Marx famously resigned from a Hollywood club, and in his resignation letter he said  ‘I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member’.

In the brilliant Annie Hall, Woody Allen, as the persona Alvy Singer, references this quote, explaining that this was the key tenet of his adult life that summed up his personal relationships with women. Alvy Singer believed that if a woman fell in love with him, she must be flawed to overlook/accept his flaws and was therefore an unsuitable partner – a self defeating outlook that resigned Alvy to a life of loneliness and isolation.

Alvy

This clever, self-diagnostic and self disaparaging joke plays on the vulnerabilities and flaws inherent in the human psyche, suggesting the these flaws we identify in ourselves are an integral part of ‘us’, and therefore if you accept me ‘warts and all’ then you must by definition be flawed and therefore unsuitable and most certainly not what I’m looking for.

Like Groucho, I have had a lifelong problem with clubs/societies and this might go some way to explaining my issues with Facebook. As a young boy I was sent to cubs – I loved the outdoors, games, camping, climbing trees – and so cubs sounded ideal, yet I hated it. I dreaded Tuesday nights when I had to don my uniform and badges and shamefacedly walk to the church where the cubs took place. I felt self conscious in my uniform and grew frustrated with the rules and the conventions – the ritualistic raising and lowering of the flag, the pledge of allegiance, the formality of it all. And yet I liked my friends at cubs and the cub leaders, all good people in their own right, but wrapped in a rulebook bound inside a formal organisation I felt stifled. I particularly disliked the fact that I had to be there at 7pm every Tuesday.

It wasn’t just cubs, I hated swimming club (although I loved swimming), I hated school orchestra (but enjoyed playing the clarinet and saxophone) and as an adult my reluctance to join any club or society has remained strong – running club, university athletics club, walking club, chamber of trade society, local historical society – I’ve given them all a wide berth despite (in many although not all cases) a genuine fondness or interest for the underlying activity (running, hiking, local business, etc).

I was a member of Olney running club when there were only about 5 members and when it was gloriously informal. We would meet around 7-ish in a car park, have a bit of a natter and wait for folk to turn up and then we’d chat some more before setting off rather randomly for a run of sorts. I loved it, but it then grew in popularity and it rightly had to grow up, institutionalise itself and become more formal. It started at 7pm on the dot with a prescribed and pre-planned route with differing levels – easy, intermediate, advanced. You couldn’t be late or you missed it and it all became rather complex and stressful and for me a lot less fun, and so I left.

I could never be a member of a political party – partly because my beliefs are not aligned to one part of the political spectrum, but even if they were I don’t believe I could ever wear a rosette and attend meetings. I shudder at the thought, whatever colour the rosette.

At university I joined the Julian Cope fan club, this was 1984 when it was all paper based and I think I saw an ad in the back of the Sounds newspaper. I loved Julian’s music, but once I joined his fan club I felt embarrassed. What on earth was I thinking? I was 19 for goodness sake and had just joined a fan-club for a pop star? I don’t recall what I paid to join but I do know that I never renewed.

Famously at university I became Chairman of the University of Essex Athletics Club (1985-86). I never attended a single track meet or club meeting, I think I applied by post. I was like Howard Hughes, no-one knew who I was although I have to admit it did look rather dashing on my CV.

To this day I find it difficult to ever imagine joining a club that would ever have me as a member. I’ve always wanted to be a spy and have applied several times to MI6 for a job but have frustratingly never succeeded. I shall continue to apply, but paradoxically, in true Groucho Marx stylee, if they do ever offer me a job I’ll almost certainly politely decline their kind offer.