Monday, 19 March 2018

Beware the Ides of March

This is my second attempt at writing this blog post.  The first attempt was exactly 6 years ago today.  The words were different then, but the sentiment is the same.  My life was different then too, but that's not important right now.  Six years ago I'd just watched Airplane the night before.  This is my favourite bit from that film.   airplane iron boot

It's ironic that I was watching Airplane six years ago, because in an alternative version of my life, I'd be on a plane right now.  From Manchester to New York. On a holiday that was booked last Autumn.  But in this version of my life, I broke up in December with the person who booked it, so I'm not going.

Anyway, however I feel about that, I'm not having as bad a day as Julius Caesar had on 15th March 44 BC.  That was the day he got assassinated.  In the Roman calendar of the time, 15th March was known as the Ides of March.  And it's where Shakespeare got the expression 'Beware the Ides of March'.

I read a statistic years ago that said that early Spring is a time when suicides increase, the theory being that people hang on through the grimness of the Winter but then the beginning of Spring gives them just enough energy and impetus to end it all.  It may seem counter-intuitive, however, I have a theory about that.  It's all to do with expectation.  My own view is that psychologically speaking, March is a very difficult month in Britain.  After September, we strap ourselves in for the Autumn, the cold and dark of October and November, and then love it or hate it, we're preoccupied for all of December with the car crash that Christmas can be, and then we also steel ourselves for January and February, knowing that's when the Winter is supposed to be.  But then when we get to March, we think we've almost made it!  And we think it will get better.  But then especially this year, it's like living in Siberia!  I've lost 3 hats this Winter.  For some reason I never lose keys or my wallet, but I often lose hats.  Last Winter was a One Hat Winter, I only lost one hat.  This Winter I've lost three, which indicates its severity.  I'm not buying another one, and yet two thirds of the days in March I haven't been able to feel my face.

I believe it's the expectation that kills us. I'm at University at the moment, and I think part of the problem with being here is also expectation. Especially young people are told they'll have the time of their lives, but then when it turns out to be a giant dog's breakfast it's much worse.  It would be better if people said to them. 'University will be just like the rest of your life.  Sometimes really good, sometimes shit, sometimes both at once'.  I find there's a similar problem with expectation and the cinema too.  Some of the best films I've seen were the ones I saw because I went with someone who really fancied it, and seeing it was easier than arguing.  And some of the worst ones were the ones I chose, and which I really looked forward to, which were a massive let down.

Mothers' Day is in March too.  And that can be just as much of a car crash as Christmas.  It's great if you've got a mum, or if you are a mum, and your relationships are functional, but it's a lot less fun if your mum's dead or she's alive but you don't get on, or if your kids hate you.

I like April though.  Along with May they're the best two months we have in England.  And my birthday is in April, so I'm usually in a good mood for most of the month.  Although I hate the day itself, because like Christmas I put myself under pressure to have a good time, and I think things like 'I haven't enjoyed myself in the last 10 minutes, this is a disaster'.  I need to remember (and so do you) that it's okay to have a terrible birthday, just like it's okay to have a terrible Christmas, and a terrible Mothers' Day.  There are plenty of other days, enjoy some of them instead.

So, anyway, although no-one has ever tried to stab me while I was wearing a toga, I generally hate the period around the middle of March.  I hate it, because it's never as good as I expected.

Six years ago I had been feeling depressed and hopeless in the middle of March, like I have at times this year.  I felt useless and like my life didn't have a point.

But then in the evening I watched Airplane.  And it was as silly as ever.  And I laughed, especially at the end where Robert Stack asks Robert Hays if he knows what it's like to be face down in the mud getting kicked in the head with an iron boot and then he says, of course you don't, no-one does, because it never happens.  And I laughed.  And I realised it's not happening to me either.

airplane iron boot,

I have an analogy I like to use about mental health.  It's like in life we have two buckets.  One bucket is labelled 'Reasons to give up', and the other bucket is labelled 'Reasons to keep going'.  In the Reasons to give up bucket we can put all our sadness and all our regrets, all the people we've lost who we miss, and all the things we used to have which we don't have any more, all the mistakes we've made and all the times we've failed.

And then in the other bucket we put the 'Reasons to keep going'.  People we still love, things we enjoy doing, things that make us feel alive'.  And as long as there is more in the 'Reasons to keep going' bucket we'll be okay.  And if there isn't enough in the 'Reasons to keep going' bucket, we need to look harder.

The aeroplane I could have been on to New York has, while I have been writing this, left the gate.  Because I threw that chance away, I wasn't on it, I was in the library at Leeds University, where I often am these days.  Sometimes I come here just to get warm, and to look for missing hats.  But also because I like learning and trying to understand things.  And 'The Joy of Finding Things Out' is one of the things that is in 'My Reasons to keep going' bucket.  Along with running, and learning Spanish, and seeing good films, and teaching children how to speak English, and going to the football with my brother (even though Leeds United are terrible).  All of that doesn't seem very much at the moment, but for now it will have to be enough.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Success and Failure - Brother and Sister or Distant Cousins?

I got some exam / assignment results yesterday.  Some were really good, and some were not.

But before I talk about that, here's a clip from the Matrix.

He is the one

Before you get excited, I don't think I am the one.  But if you look at what happens 1 minute 4 in, to me that's what learning is.  You've been fighting with something and staring and staring at it for ages, and then suddenly you get an insight, and it starts to make sense.

I'm currently sitting in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, a place I spend most of my time these days.  The year is 2018.  In 1986 I got kicked out of this exact same place by Security.  I was at school, doing my A Levels, less than a mile away and I came in for a look round, with my friend Andrew.  The fact that we were wearing ties should have been a clue that we weren't students.  Anyway, they didn't have electronic barriers and keycards then, and I can always remember what the Security Man said to me.  He said 'Get out, you don't belong'. 

I had a similar feeling of not belonging when I missed the UCAS deadline in February 2016, and the Admissions Team here were doubtful about letting me in, because my A Levels were so long ago.  They sat on my application for about 2 months without giving me an answer, and they wanted me to do a Foundation Year Degree instead.  Eventually because I kept pestering them, they offered me a 15 minute Skype interview, to shut me up, but that just annoyed me and I said 'Look, I want to do Linguistics, and I live a mile away.  Either I'm worth seeing in person, or I'm not.  I want to come in and speak to someone in person, and if I'm going to get turned down, at least turn me down in person'.  And that could have gone either way, they could have said 'Get lost', but they saw me, and now I'm here.

Another memory from school.  I used to do Art but I was rubbish at it, too rubbish to even do O Level.  I once drew a picture of a tree and my Art Teacher Mr Gedling said to me 'I've been an Art Teacher for 30 years and that's the worst picture of a tree I've ever seen'. 

The third memory from school.  When I was doing 'O' Level Maths I really struggled with calculus, and by the May half term before the exam I really wasn't getting it, so I brought home a load of past papers and spent most of half term at the kitchen table, doing them over and over again.  And at some point I understood it.  I kept looking and not understanding, but then somewhere in there, I could see the patterns and the rules.

Revising for Syntax a few weeks ago was a lot like trying to understand Calculus.  All I could see was complexity.  But I kept staring and staring, and I thought, if even two years olds can master how to put a sentence together, the rules must be in there somewhere.  And after staring for days and days it started to look a lot simpler.  Things started to connect into patterns and rules and I started to see the structure.  It sort of clicked.  It was the best part of learning, it was the 'Joy of Finding Things out'.

Einstein, who could see patterns no-one else could in the Universe, said that 'If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough'.  And with Syntax that became my goal. To understand it well enough to be able to explain it.  Syntax is also about drawing trees.  And at first my trees were as bad as my terrible Art Tree from 1983.  But the more I practised, the easier they got.  And I realised Mr Gedling, that when you taught me in 1983 it wasn't that I couldn't draw trees, it was that I hadn't found the right kind of tree to draw yet.

And so I did well in my Syntax exam.  I got over 90%.  For a while at least, I was like Neo at the end of the Matrix.  I didn't just see the Matrix, I saw the structure behind it.  And when I feel like that, I know what I'm here for, and I belong.  The problem was, I should have left it longer after getting the good result to look at my other ones, because as near to the top of the class as I was in Syntax, well that was as close to the bottom as I was in some of my others.  So overall, I am fairly average, and therefore not 'the One'.

Sometimes, I wonder why I'm here.  I wonder if University is a colossal waste of time and money, and whether I'm just going to wind up penniless and under a mountain of debt in the future, for no reason.  And that's pretty much how I feel when I get bad results.  But when I stare and stare at the structure of things, and it starts to make sense, I know what I'm here for.

There's no consistency in me.  I feel both those things almost every day.  Both that I'm doing the work I was born to do, and also that I'm wasting my time.  Sometimes I think both those things in the same minute. 

I'm capable of drawing the best trees and the worst. I don't belong and then I do.  I fail and fail and then I pass, and then I fail some more.  I stare and stare at complexity with no idea of what I'm doing, and then occasionally I get a snapshot of the simplicity inside.  I suppose that's what Education is, and also Life too.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Going to the gym - A lot like crawling around on the floor looking for a lost contact lens

I've started going to the gym recently in Leeds.  It was Joy's idea really, I started off just tagging along with her for a free session.

I've been a member of a gym before, but it wasn't too successful.  Although at that time I was allocated a personal trainer, I basically just had one session with him where he worked out a program for me and then after that, if I ever bothered to turn up at all, I would just go and do the workout he'd recommended minus all the boring bits or the bits I didn't like, and then go to the cafe next door and have a slice of cake and a latte with full fat milk, so it didn't really do much good at all.

The new gym I've joined is called Tribe, or at least I think it is.  It has a fancy logo TRIB3, which I think is supposed to spell Tribe, but it may indeed simply be TRIB3.  There is no actual gym there where you can just turn up and do your own thing.  There are only classes.  I've never really known what circuit training is, but I imagine that's what it that I've been doing for the last few weeks.

Generally we start on the treadmills for about 5 minutes and run till we're out of breath and till our heart rates reach their maximum, which is measured based on your weight and age by something you wear round your chest.  This information is relayed to screens all around the gym so you know how close you are all the time.  The ideal is to be in the Red Zone, which is above 90% of your target heart rate.

Then you go and pick up some dumb-bells for about 5 minutes and do various Resistance exercises with them.  It's pretty dark in there and there are 3 sets of dumb-bells; 5kg, 7.5kg and 10kg.  The first time I picked up two out of the dark I could barely lift them so I assumed they were the heavy ones but they were only 5kg.  I've never really attempted to do anything with my upper body.  I naturally have big thighs and a big backside and mostly over the years I've done running or cycling or sports like football and rugby but I was always a lot more interested in cardiovascular fitness than muscle definition or strength.  I've never been any good at stuff like press-ups and so lifting dumb-bells with my two floppy bits of celery that I have instead of arms was hard at first, although it seems to be getting easier.  And although I'm still flabby round the middle, it feels less so than when I started. Working with dumb-bells is very good at keeping me in the moment, because I constantly have to remind myself not to drop them on my foot or my face, and the higher in the air they are, and the more sweaty my hands get, the more afraid I am of doing that.

The third station is called Intensity.  It's very varied.  It can be running around in a little box drawn on the floor, or doing squats or starjumps or jumping about with no bodily coordination whatsoever as if you're a drunken disco dancer or touching hands fingers knees and toes to other body parts.  Or it can be lifting kettle bells or medicine balls and throwing them around (without letting go obviously) Whatever it is, it usually leaves me with legs of jelly.

In an average 45 minute session you usually go round each area 3 times.  Often I finish with Intensity and that means that I generally end each session crawling around on my hands and knees with jelly legs and sweat in my eyes as if I'm looking for a lost contact lens.

The sessions are quite expensive at £15 each, although so far I've had some free sessions and also they have multi-buy offers which make it a bit cheaper.  I don't know if I'll be able to afford it long-term but I've been enjoying it while it lasts.  Although the sessions are demanding, the trainers who run them are really supportive and unless I am a poor judge of character, they don't appear to be sadistic maniacs.  They are really friendly and happy to advise and correct mistakes and seem genuinely interested that we're getting something out of it.

I thought I might be more self-conscious in there because a lot of the time I lack the coordination or the flexibility to do the exercises properly but a) it's dark in there so no-one else can really see you and b) everyone else is in their own world of pain, so they're too busy for sight-seeing.

The changing rooms have free lockers and showers with shampoo and body wash and deodorants and moisturiser all provided, so there's no need to lug around a big bag of toiletries with you when you go.  Also, if you order it in advance you can get a recovery shake for when you finish.  These cost £4 each.  The sessions I've been to so far have generally been early on a Sunday morning, or last week I went to the 6.30 am session on a Wednesday.  Although I don't like the getting out of bed part, once I'm there I get to feel virtuous that I'm doing exercise while lots of people are still asleep.

For me, the main point of the gym is to help improve my fitness for running, and I think that's already happening.  My times are already improving on my regular runs and as well as that it doesn't take as long to get my breathing back to normal when I finish running now.

Overall, even though I just copied this idea off Joy and didn't think of it myself, it's been a good experience.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Linguistic Determinism and Japanese - Going back in time

I had my Japanese oral exam this week.  I took it in the Liberty Building at the University of Leeds. The Liberty Building was built on top of my old school swimming baths.  I never really liked swimming, it didn't seem like real exercise if you couldn't tell that you were sweating.  I went to Leeds Grammar School between 1979 and 1986, and at that time the school was on Moorland Road on the edge of Woodhouse Moor in Leeds.  It's moved now to a bigger site outside the city and they let girls in now, but when I went there that's where it was.  The buildings that the school used to occupy have been swallowed up by the University, and so I'm effectively back in the same place I was when I left school.

Just next to the Liberty Building used to be the old gymnasium where I took my A Level exams.  So in 31 years I've moved about 50 feet.

I'm studying Linguistics now at the University, and we've been reading about Linguistic Determinism, the idea that the language you know affects how and what you can think.  I've been taking Japanese as a Discovery Module, along with Spanish.

Taking Japanese has been a humbling experience.  I've always been quite good at languages, as long as I could read them.  The mixture of Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana that make up Japanese writing have left me at times feeling like I was 4 again, before I could read English. Certainly in the Japanese exam I took before Christmas I felt illiterate, because I could barely read or write anything.

Usually with languages, it's the speaking part I find the most difficult, but with Japanese it's the other way round, because at least with speaking I don't have to read anything.

As part of my exam last week, I had to do a mini presentation.  I was allowed to take in 3 photographs to help me.

Despite my struggles with Japanese, my teacher Sensei Manami has always been on hand with good advice.  When I told her before Christmas I was really struggling, I expected some sort of soft soap and sympathy approach, but her advice boiled down to just two words: work harder!  It was good advice.  Her advice before the oral exam last week was to realise that we only know a limited amount of Japanese, so the best thing is to construct sentences out of the Japanese we know, rather than trying to translate our English into Japanese.  We just don't know enough to do that.

I chose to do my mini presentation about my Lejog trip of 2014.  Constrained by lingustic determinism this is what I said.

Kore wa shashin san-mai desu.  Kono shashin ni wa watashi no jitensha desu.  Ni-sen ju-yo-nen ni nagai ryoko jitensha de ikimashita

Here are 3 pictures.  In this picture is my bike.  In 2014 I went on a long journey by bike.

Kono murasaki iro no gyo sen-mairu deshita.  sen roppyaku kirometeru.  mainichi hyaku kirometeru. muzakashikatta desu.  kantana dewa arimasen.

This purple line 1000 miles is.  1600 kilometres.  100 kilometres each day.  It was difficult. It was not easy.

Hitori ikimasen deshita.  Issho tomodachi to ikimashita.  Ju-hachi nin deshita.

I did not go alone.  Together with friends I went.  18 people there were.

Kochira wa Erwan san.  Watashi no tomodachi desu.  Mareishia-jin desu.  Isha desu.  Byoin no Sukoterandu de shigoto o shimasu.

Here is Erwan.  My friend.  He is from Malaysia.  He is a doctor.  Works in hospital in Scotland.

Nimotsu wa basu de ikimashita.  Kochira wa untenshu deshita.  Namae wa Chris desu.

Luggage went by bus.  Here is the driver.  Name is Chris.

Ju-nana yobi deshita.  Tenki subarashikatta desu.  Hitobito subarashikatta desu.  Totemo tanoshikatta desu.

17 days it was.  Weather was wonderful.  People were wonderful.  It was a lot of fun.

I was pleased with what I managed to say.  It didn't come anywhere close to describing the experience in full.  For that you can look here   I used my mother tongue for that, and it contains a lot more detail.  Chris was so much more than a driver, for example.  But limited as it was by Linguistic Determinism, it did at least contain some fundamental truths.

I may not have moved very far in 31 years.  On Thursday I was sat doing an exam just next door to where I've taken lots of other exams before.  From my entrance exam in 1979 to my final A Level exam in 1986.  You might say that although in Time I'm going in a straight line, in Space I'm going round in circles.  But at least I'm still learning.  And I'm still trying to describe the world as best I can through the languages I know.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Reasons to love English - Part One

I started a degree in Linguistics a few weeks ago, 30 years later than I originally intended to go to University.  I just couldn't get rid of this nagging feeling of having missed out on my education, so I thought I'd better go now, rather than add to that 30 years of regret.  I keep being told that University is about more than just an education, so amongst other things, I've involved myself in running a language group for some overseas students, who are all from either China, Japan or Korea.  Partly to welcome them to Leeds, and partly to try and explain some of the peculiarities of English to them.

What's written below is something that started out as a lesson plan for this week's session, but then it morphed into more of newsletter type thing.  I'm putting it on here in case anyone else finds it interesting.  Particularly people who I've already struggled to explain things to and who know me through English Steps might enjoy it.  Anyone else, please feel free to skim through it or not read it at all.

Compound nouns are the Cat’s Pyjamas!


If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. I think Albert Einstein said that, and I agree with him. Even though I’m a native English speaker, I sometimes find it hard to explain English to others in a way that they can understand. Here is my latest attempt.

A bit about me

My name is Jonathan. I grew up in Leeds in the 1970s. It wasn’t easy; all the carpets and curtains had terrible patterns on them and I had to wear a tie for the whole decade. Also, I mostly wore really itchy cardigans made of wool that was the colour of mustard. My mum had bought a massive ball of the stuff and she wouldn’t stop knitting me clothes made out of it. 

To add insult to injury, I was never allowed a haircut until it was at least 3 months overdue, and even then it would be a bad one. 
See above picture for evidence.

In the 70s there were only 3 channels on TV and apart from the news, it was mostly westerns and re-runs of Laurel and Hardy. There was nothing much to do in my spare time except run around and play football. That was great fun and it also helped me not to get overweight. Another plus about running a lot was that it helped me to keep warm. We had no central heating, only a gas fire and for six months of the year our house was freezing. Just to be able to go to bed on a night I needed hot water bottles and electric blankets. If you don’t know what they are, maybe I’ll explain that another time.

In those days, even reading involved exercise, because if I wanted a book, I had to go to the library to get one. And there was no internet, so if you wanted to know something you had to a) ask someone who knew the answer b) look in an encyclopaedia or c) remain ignorant.

But hey, I survived and here I am in good old 2016! And what am I doing now? Well, I’ve just started a degree in Linguistics at Leeds University and for a bit of extra fun I decided to run a language group with the intention of helping some foreign students with their English, and hopefully to make them feel welcome in my hometown of Leeds.

But just to be clear: I’m not an expert... on English or anything else. I’m at the very beginning of University life. The campus is full of people with giant brains who are experts on all sorts of things, so if you need an expert, go find one! But what I am is English. I’ve lived in England for a really long time, and some of that time has been spent ‘noticing things’. Anything you find written in this document is just a result of my observations of my own life. I haven’t fact-checked it with any boffins on high.

What are my aims for this language group?

This language group is only 1 hour a week for 5 weeks, so let’s be realistic. Even if I was a really good teacher, I couldn’t teach anyone the whole of English in 5 hours. But at the very least, and as the title of this newsletter suggests, I want to try and find some ‘Reasons to love English’. I love English myself, and I would just like to try and point out some of the reasons why. 
Is English easy or is English hard?

I would say it’s about 50/50.  Lots of things are easy about English. There’s only one article (‘a’ and ‘the’) and no complicated verb endings to learn (only -s for third person singular). But some things are very hard, for example the non-existent link between spelling and pronunciation, word order, stress, prepositions, tenses, phrasal verbs etc.

Some of the difficulty I think is that we have so many little words. For example, we use lots of little multi-word verbs (phrasal verbs) instead of using big words. Like instead of ‘disappoint’ we say ‘let down’ and instead of argue we say ‘fall out’. Knowing the individual meanings of the two separate words doesn’t help, because put them together and they mean something else entirely. And we use lots of prepositions, and we put them all over the place, even using them to end sentences with. Like I just did!

We had an interesting discussion in today’s group about whether academic English or social English is easiest to become competent at. Academic English being a challenge in that it’s quite technical but then it’s also focused in a particular range of vocabulary whereas social situations could demand a very wide range of topics being discussed.

Are English people friendly or unfriendly?

It’s hard to make generalisations, but from my own point of view English people are quite a friendly bunch, and I think Leeds in particular is a friendly place to live. But I’m a local so maybe I’m biased. Leeds is also very cosmopolitan, with a really wide mix of cultures and nationalities. I like to think of it as a smaller, friendlier version of London. However, there were mixed views in the group. Generally, the staff at the university were perceived as being very helpful but in the wider community it was a bit hit and miss.

Nobody calls me chicken!

During today’s language session I warned the students not to worry if they get called things like sweetheart, love, honey, darling, dear, pet, chicken, duck, mate or pal. Although it might seem odd to be called by names that are more appropriate for your partner, or for an animal, I assured them that it’s quite an affectionate thing. I’m glad I explained that because in China especially it would be quite insulting to be called chicken or duck. I promised them that in England no offence is intended!

Here in England, you’ll often be addressed that way by complete strangers in shops and people in the street! But don’t be alarmed! It’s generally meant in an affectionate way. Often these things will be said by older people to younger ones, but it could be anyone to anyone, so watch out!

Is English a boring language or is it fantastically creative and flexible?

Definitely the second one. To me, it’s an amazing source of creative ideas. For example, I love compounding, or word combining. Words like brainstorm, brainchild (one of my all-time favourites) weather bomb, bullshit, wallflower, superstar, feelgood, freestanding, heartbreak, sweetheart, tea bag, sleeping policeman, sugarcoat, speed bump, speed freak, nutcase, nutjob, weatherbeaten, swimming baths, idiot-proof, birthday suit, highlight, lowdown, suitcase, nutcase, headcase, nightmare, meltdown. Just reading that list gives me a warm glow of happiness inside. Those words alone should be enough to make you love English. We had a lot of fun with brainchild, birthday suit and idiot proof in particular in the group.

What I did on Saturday

On Saturday I went out for a meal to an Indian Restaurant in Headingley called the Cat’s Pyjamas. Which got me thinking... And I didn’t stop thinking for quite some time…
I started thinking about animal based idioms and phrases. For example.

He’s the cat’s pyjamas, he’s the bee’s knees.
You’ve made a right dog’s breakfast of that. See also pig’s ear.
Why can’t you sit still? Have you got ants in your pants?
Mum’s not speaking to me. I’m in the dog house.

I think English is brilliant at this sort of creativity. But I have a theory that this creativity is partly a substitute for being direct. English people are often hesitant about saying unpleasant or uncomfortable things plainly and straightforwardly. We shy away from talking about death for example, so we say that someone has ‘kicked the bucket’, ‘shuffled off’ or ‘passed away’ instead of just simply ‘died’.

Similarly, many English people don’t like to openly get annoyed, or ‘make a fuss’. We’d rather sit and eat cold soup in a restaurant than speak up and send it back, but then we’ll go home and say to each other ‘Well, I won’t be going back there again’.

Some of this is to do with childhood conditioning. If I ever complained or got angry as a child, I was made fun of and told off by my mum who would say things like ‘Stop whining’ and ‘Ooh, temper, temper!’. So much so that I find it hard to be openly annoyed to this day.

We discussed in the group, the fact that this desire to be polite and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ and to avoid confrontation isn’t necessarily compatible with being direct about our wants and needs. Even asking someone to pass the salt in England when you’re eating a meal with them can turn into a pantomime of ‘Would you mind awfully, if it isn’t too much trouble, passing me the salt?’ In the right tone of voice, it’s perfectly fine to say ‘Pass the salt, please’ but we don’t seem to realise this.

It’s one thing that I find refreshing about mixing with non-natives, they do tend to be quite direct and it’s good to hold a mirror up to my Englishness and realise that I find that same directness quite difficult. But, if we’re not careful, by not being clear and stating our real feelings we can easily end up being a bit ‘two-faced’ as we’re eager not to give offence when speaking to someone, but then we might go and have a moan in private afterwards.

Topical news - Halloween and Bonfire Night

On Halloween in Britain (31st October) children (mostly children, some adults too) hollow out pumpkins and put lights inside them and dress up as witches and skeletons and go round knocking on people’s doors saying ‘Trick or treat’ and usually adults give them sweets or money. By the way, trick or treat basically means ‘give me something nice (a treat) or I’ll do something nasty to you (a trick)’. Mostly in England people are tolerant and give out treats and so it rarely gets to the trick stage.

Apparently, this tradition stems from an old Irish folk tale. There once was a man named Stingy Jack (stingy is a word that means mean and ungenerous with money and it’s nothing to do with ‘sting’ like a bee sting). Jack was a pretty horrible person, and one time he played a trick on the Devil. Along with some other very bad behaviour, this eventually resulted in him not being allowed into either Heaven or Hell. As a result, he had to wander for all eternity in the darkness. But the Devil at least threw Jack a burning coal out of hell and so Jack hollowed out a turnip and put the burning coal inside and used it for a light. Over the years, partly I imagine because turnips are almost impossible to carve, and because the legend spread to America where pumpkins were more common than turnips, people started using pumpkins instead.

The story of Bonfire Night however, is based on real historical events from the year 1605. That year, some Catholics tried to plant explosives (gunpowder) underneath the Houses of Parliament in London. They were plotting to kill the Protestant king in an explosion so that they could put a Catholic King back on the throne. This was known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’.

On November 5th the plot was discovered and the plotters were arrested. The man who was going to set off the explosion was called Guy Fawkes. He was charged with the crime of treason and thrown into prison. He was scheduled to be executed in a pretty horrible way so he jumped out of a window and killed himself instead.

Each year in Britain people go to Bonfires (originally this word comes from the words bone and fire as people used to burn animal bones to keep evil spirits away) and set off fireworks. It doesn’t seem to be as common as when I was a child, but people also often make replica ‘Guys’ by stuffing straw and newspaper into old clothes and these guys are thrown on top of the bonfires before they are set alight. Groups of children often make a ‘guy’ together and in the run up to Bonfire Night they take this round asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy’. A bit like ‘Trick or Treat’ people generally give them some money for their efforts.

Because these are traditions that I grew up with, I never really questioned them too much, but I did wonder this week whether they might appear strange to a non-native who encounters them for the first time.

The magic of word stress

English is a stress timed language, and altering the stress on different words in a sentence can change the meaning, even without changing any of the words. For example. Would you like a cup of tea? If you stress different words, it can imply very different things.
Would you like a cup of tea? making it clear which one of a group you’re addressing.
Would you like a cup of tea? Are you even bothered?
Would you like a cup of tea? Or would you prefer a pot?
Would you like a cup of tea? Or would you rather have coffee?

It’s hard for this to make sense written down, but if you say them out loud, you’ll get an idea of the different stresses and what they mean.

Well, that’s the end of week one. Thank you to all the group members for joining in so well and so enthusiastically. Without you it would have been a very dull hour! More exciting stuff next week, I hope.  I may even try some jokes!  Oh no!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Leeds Half Marathon - Am I a runner yet?

I did my first half marathon on Sunday.  I've run plenty of 10Ks in preparation, so I told myself it's just two 10Ks back to back and then a bit more.  But it really wasn't.  

Normally I run in the early mornings when it's about 5 degrees if I'm lucky, but on Sunday it was hot enough to prepare a cooked breakfast on my own head on the way round.  

I don't like forced jollity, so listening to the DJs from Radio Aire (or it might have been Radio Leeds, they're all the same) being super jolly for 45 minutes before the start put me in a bad mood.  I suppose they were only trying to do their jobs and whip up some enthusiasm, and they were good enough to remind us about every 20 seconds that it was hot and to remember to drink loads, but then they handed over to some aerobics instructor who tried to get us all to wave and pretend to ski in unison, and I thought 'Bollocks to that, I'm here to run, not to do the Birdie Song'.  

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt
As I was standing round at the beginning, I saw some people being interviewed and I imagined that someone was interviewing me and saying 'So, Jonathan, why are you running the Leeds Half Marathon?'.  And I thought about what I'd say.  

I thought I might say 'I'm doing it for lots of reasons, but I'm also doing it for no reason at all.  I'm not doing it in memory of anyone, or to raise money for anything.  I'm only doing it for myself, to see if I can.  I did a lot of cycling for 10 years, until I got sick of it, and so I decided to run instead, because it's simpler and you need less equipment'.

Until recently I wasn't a proper runner.  Despite 60 odd Parkruns over 2 years, I haven't quite adapted yet.  I've still been wearing cycling shorts and carrying a bike computer, as if I was only pretending.  But for my birthday Joy bought me a proper runner's Garmin that goes on my wrist, and then on Saturday I finally got rid of my falling to bits 11 year old cycling shorts.  And also on Saturday, I went and bought a runner's bumbag so that I wouldn't have to have an inhaler and a phone and keys digging into my legs through the pockets of my flimsy new running shorts during the run.  And Joy also lent me a hat, to keep the sun off.  I've never been so close to being a runner.

If I was in a DJ induced bad mood before the start of the run, I was transformed during the first couple of miles by seeing all the well wishers at the roadside who'd come out of their houses to cheer on the 8000 plus runners. Some were kind enough to set their garden hoses on us (hopefully they're not on a water meter), and many had prepared bowls full of jelly babies and Haribo and oranges and an old lady was holding out some grapes towards me, but I was too tired to reach them.

A couple of the residential homes along the way had brought some of their residents out in wheelchairs to wave at us. There's nothing makes me feel so grateful for running as seeing people who don't have the option.  And there was a Sikh man playing a big trumpet (fairly badly it seemed) and a steel band. 

There were lots of kids on the route too, stood in lines trying to high five as many runners as possible.  If they were close enough to reach I was happy to oblige.

It may have been nerves, but even though I went for a pee just before the run started, I was desperate for another one as soon as we got going.  I really didn't want to lose any time by stopping to use a toilet, and I did toy with the idea of just peeing myself deliberately at one point, but then I saw some bushes alongside Meanwood Road, and so I ran in there and things were much better after that.  

I knew that the route was uphill a lot in the first half, and in theory I thought it would be easier in the second half, but that's not how it turned out.  I did the first 10K in 58 minutes which is the same time as I ran the Abbey Dash in November. At the halfway point I was still optimistic (for about two minutes) that I could do the whole thing in under 2 hours, but then between the 8 and 9 mile point I could feel my legs just fading away.    

I don't normally drink when I run, but because it was such a hot day I took on water whenever possible.  A lot of it I tipped over my head.  There's an old film called the Games with Michael Crawford in that I saw about 30 years ago where he's trying to run the Marathon in less than 2 hours in the heat, but he goes a bit mad in the attempt and starts stumbling around in the road falling into spectators and I tried not to end up like him.  When I realised I couldn't do it in 2 hours I decided to try and run it in around 2 hours 3.  I was inspired watching the serenity and fluency of Eliud Kipchoge in the London Marathon a couple of weeks ago, and I thought it would be nice to run half as far as him in the same time, even if it was with a lot less style.  But even that became too much.  

I got some nipple chafing from 10 miles, and the last 3 miles were really hard and very stop / start.  I heard some people around me saying 'Never again!', but even though I was suffering I just kept thinking 'Yes, I'll do it again, but hopefully on a flatter route and in the cold and I might then be able to break 2 hours.  

If the stats aren't recorded, it didn't happen
As it was I did 2 hours 6 minutes which was pretty good in the circumstances. Because I was very tired, I didn't fully appreciate all the good stuff that was happening at the roadside as I was running, and although I thanked the ones who gave me sweets and used hosepipes on me, I wasn't able to thank everyone, even though I wanted to.

It was lovely that so many people turned out to make it a really good event, and it made me feel pretty good about the City of Leeds.  The last half mile or so was probably the best, because there were so many people cheering us home.  And thankfully Joy came to meet me, and drive me home, and that was lovely too, not just because it stopped me from having to walk too far or look at bus timetables. 

At the end, when I was slumped on the ground drinking Powerade a man said to me that it was the hardest half marathon he'd ever done, and I asked him how many was that out of and he said a hundred, and so I didn't feel so bad for finding it hard, when it was my first time. But hopefully not the last.

They gave me a T-shirt and a medal at the end, and the medal was so big it nearly smashed the screen on my mobile phone, and it says something like 'I finished the journey' on it.  I think in some ways it would be better if it said 'I survived the journey'.  And unlike people on reality TV who say they've been on a journey even when they've never left the studio, it was nice to have actually been on one.  

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Parkrun - There's a clue in the name but it's more than just a run in the park

Although I grew up in Leeds, I didn't live here for 24 years between 1990 and 2014.  I came back here in April 2014 to offer some support to my mum, because she was seriously ill.

To enable me to come back, I gave up my job and moved away from my circle of friends.  I'd built a network of friends on Teesside, which largely grew out of St Francis Church Ingleby Barwick. People I'd been on holiday with, and on crazy cycling expeditions, and spent Christmas at their houses, and had countless Sunday dinners with (and Saturday mornings and Friday and Saturday nights).

When you go somewhere new, it's hard to replace those kind of connections overnight.  But you have to start somewhere.  Going to places where other people are is a start.  Especially when you live on your own.

Apart from the mum-helping part, I felt a bit lacking in purpose in Leeds.  I can't remember now why I looked up Temple Newsam on the internet, maybe I was trying to reconnect with familiar places. Anyway, I noticed this thing called Parkrun.

I hadn't run for over 12 years.  The last time I remember running was around 2002, after entering the Great North Run.  I started training for it, but found it really hard to improve, and so I gave up.  Later that year I started getting swollen feet after walking my dog, which turned out to be Rheumatoid Arthritis.  At first my symptoms were really bad, and even walking downstairs was painful.  Running was out of the question.  Just getting out off the bath, unscrewing the lids off jars, and tipping water out of a saucepan were challenges enough.  The hospital did put me on some drugs and that improved things a lot, but I still never considered I'd be able to run again.  I just thought the impact would be too much.

Anyway, from about 2009 I started taking some bigger and better drugs (Methotrexate) and the pain in my joints wasn't so bad after that.  But I still hadn't considered running again, until I moved to Leeds.

The first Parkrun I did was over the first May Bank Holiday in 2014.  I thought about training for it, but I only got my Parkrun barcode printed at the very last minute, and so I never got round to it.  I was amazed that I managed to run (I say run, that may be false advertising) the whole 5K without stopping.  My time was 35 minutes and 46 seconds.  It was a hot day, and on the finishing straight a girl called Sarah shouted to me 'Try doing it without a jumper next time'.  Good advice, I thought.  I went for a coffee afterwards at the Park cafe, and I got chatting to Sarah.  It turned out she lived in the same place as me, and she offered me a lift home.  She was training for a marathon, and subsequently she gave me some good advice about local routes to get some practice in.

Here's me almost beating a young girl at running.  These days I can't catch her anymore, she's really improved...
So far so good, except for at least 3 days after that first Parkrun, I couldn't move.  My muscles and joints felt like they'd been smashed to pieces.

However, because I'd opted for the cunning plan of doing a really slow time on my first attempt, once I started putting in a bit of midweek training, I found that I could beat my PB each week by about 30 seconds.  So my first 9 Parkruns at Temple Newsam were all PBs.  That's the kind of statistic that has to plateau eventually...

One week in July 2014, Temple Newsam wasn't on, and so I looked for the next closest run.  It was at Woodhouse Moor in Leeds, a place I'm familiar with because I went to school right next door to it for 7 years (when Leeds Grammar School was still in central Leeds).

Leeds Grammar School Under 16 Rugby Team - 1983-1984.  Graham Tyler (front row, third from left is now my Parkrun nemesis)
I have lots of memories associated with Woodhouse Moor from those schooldays.  Most of them involve balls and violence.  I once went Crown Green Bowling there with George Yap in 1979, before he emigrated to Toronto.  We couldn't be bothered with any of that using the magnets on the side of the balls to curve them in to their targets, we just preferred to thrown them as hard as we could, and try and knock the jack completely off the green.

I also once got kicked really hard in the unmentionables by Rakesh Anand during a game of British Bulldog on Woodhouse Moor, but more satisfyingly, I also hit Duncan Owen in the back of the head with the perfect snowball there too.  Life is full of ups and downs.  In my sixth form years, I used to meet girls from Leeds Girls' High School there at lunchtime, (or rather I used to go there with people who were meeting girls and try to somehow get noticed in my own right.  With limited success).

I left school in 1986, and until that July Parkrun I hadn't been back since.  Coming back to Woodhouse Moor after all those years, it felt like coming home.  Anne and Sam and the other Parkrun organisers give it such a welcoming feel, that it always cheers me up being there.  It also has the massive plus that it's a flat course.  Temple Newsam has the so-called Hill of Boom, which you have to run up twice, and it's a killer.

Another plus about Woodhouse Moor Parkrun is the involvement of Wrangthorn Church (St Augustine's), which borders the park.  They put on free teas and coffees (real coffee too, you know like in cafetieres, not just instant) and cake on the first Saturday of each month, and this has turned out to mean much more to me than just a hot drink and a sitdown after the run.

Garmin - Never leave home without it!
The first time I went there was in July and as well as talking to the Vicar Joanna Seabourne for about 5 minutes, which would prove important months later, I also got chatting to a Polish girl called Marta.  She'd only just moved to Leeds, so I offered to show her round, to help her settle in.  We met up quite a lot over the summer, and at one point she even did a small amount of housesitting for me while I was away at Youth Camp.  The only thing that changed over time was my perspective.  I realised I was probably the one who was most in need of the friendship, and the help settling in, even though I was the one in my own country and home town.

In November 2014 my mum died, very late at night one Thursday.  Although still in shock I still went to Parkrun as usual on the Saturday, and I remember it being a beautiful day, and I felt so glad to be not just alive, but able to run.  Over coffee afterwards I chatted to Anne and Roy and Daisy, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy, and again Parkrun did its magic, and I realised that life goes on.

During the week that followed I was trying to arrange my mum's funeral.  Because she wasn't part of any religious faith my brother and I thought it would be appropriate to hire a humanist minister to do the funeral.  We couldn't have been more wrong.  We told him what we wanted, and he went away and he must have copied out the verses from about 100 Helen Steiner Rice greetings cards, and cut and pasted them all into this ridiculous order of service which bore no relation to the mum we remembered (the only saving grace was that he sent us the draft for approval).  We were separately appalled, and with less than 48 hours to go before the funeral, we decided unanimously to sack him, whatever the consequences.  We said we'd rather just do it ourselves if it came to it.

I know lots of priests, but I didn't know any in the Leeds area.  Oh, except for one.  Joanna Seabourne, who I'd met after Parkrun 4 months earlier, for 5 minutes.  At Wrangthorn.  5 minutes was long enough to know that I'd trust her with the funeral.  By some fluke (or possibly miracle), she had a vacant slot at just the time we needed her, and she gave us exactly the funeral we'd wanted all along.

I've now done 51 Parkruns.  There was a double header on New Year's Day, where I managed to do numbers 49 and 50 back to back, and I did my 50th back at Temple Newsam, where it all started, which pleased me no end, since I'm such a fan of symmetry when it comes to numbers.  29 of them have been at Woodhouse Moor, 11 at Temple Newsam, 9 at Wakefield, including a Valentine's Day run with Joy, and 1 each at Huddersfield and Roundhay Park.  

For quite a while, I got obsessed with how fast I was at Parkrun, and from that initial limp-a-round that I did in nearly 36 minutes, I did get my time down to under 25.  It has gone up again recently, but these days I'm happy to go around in 27.  It might be two minutes longer, but I save the time I used to spend being doubled up at the end.

I recently completed a 10K (The Leeds Abbey Dash).  For a long while, I held out the hope that I could run it as fast as the 10K I did in 1986 (around 47 minutes) but in the end I was satisfied with 57.  I didn't think 10 minutes longer was bad considering I've added 30 years to my age.

I'm not as fast as I used to be.... But then I'm not as slow as I used to be either
I sometimes think I'm too driven, and too single minded about Parkrun, but then I'm so wishy washy in so many areas of life, that it's nice to have something I'm so certain about wanting.  I got properly obsessed with getting to 50 and as a result I've done every one available since early September. Some weeks between then and now have been properly rubbish for me, to the point where I've had whole weeks where the only half an hour that made any sense to me was the Parkrun half an hour.

Although it's coming up for 2 years since I moved back to this area, my life still lacks direction, and I'm still finding it hard to put down solid foundations.  But Parkrun is one of the few things that gives me a purpose and some stability in my life here.

I've moved around a lot since 2013, and struggled to find anywhere that really feels like home.  A few weeks ago I thought about going back to Teesside, and trying to pick up parts of that life I left behind, but I don't want to give up on Leeds just yet.  It takes a really long time to build up a network of friends and contacts in a new place, and to put down roots, but that square of green at Woodhouse Moor, next to where I spent so much time between ages 11 and 18, and where I now run round and round at almost the right age to book a Saga Holiday feels as much like home as anywhere these days.

Despite my inability to settle down in other ways in life, when I'm running in the Park I always feel like I belong there, and that I'm part of something bigger than myself.  And it stops me navel gazing for a while, and keeps me looking at the bigger picture.

This Christmas Day I walked to the Park on a beautiful clear but cold winter morning, did the run, then I stood around chatting with a hundred people in Santa hats and dressed as elves, who like me were drinking coffee and eating chocolates that had been brought by volunteers and set up on a makeshift table in the middle of the Park.  And at that moment, I felt that I was in the best place in the world.

And that's how I felt the other 50 times too.