Thursday, 23 July 2020

The Universe I want to be in, is the one where Bielsa is at Leeds

Why do I write? I mean, why do I write anything? Mostly, it’s because I want to, but sometimes it’s because I have to.  Because there’s something in me bursting to get out, which I have to say, which I CAN’T NOT SAY. And today, that thing that I CAN’T NOT SAY is about Leeds United.



Do you believe in parallel universes? Alternative realities? Well, this morning there are three I don’t want to be in.

Firstly, one where this season’s Championship was voided after 37 games, where this season would be all for nothing,

Secondly, another one where Leeds were promoted under Points per Game. And everyone would say that we didn’t really deserve it, and if the season had been finished we would have bottled it, done a Leeds etc, one where we’d have been watching reruns on a loop for all eternity of Ayling’s thunderblaster vs Huddersfield and Roberts goal against Hull, deciding which is the best., and bemoaning that that was as good as it got.

But the worst universe, the one I really don’t want to be in, is the one where Marcelo Bielsa didn’t come to Leeds.

Leaving aside those three realities, there is another one. It’s one I don’t believe in yet, even though I’m in it.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the last two weeks, but my brain can’t accept it yet.  One with Ben White channelling James Rodriguez, volleying in from the edge of the box and Illan Meslier tipping the ball over the bar like Gordon Banks. One where we cling on to beat Barnsley on a Thursday, get promoted on a Friday, win the League on Saturday, and beat Derby on Sunday. One where Alioski runs off to celebrate with the crowdies, while Fulham defenders are lying all over the floor. Where a 30 pass move against Stoke is finished with a Bamford stepover and Pablo slotting the ball into the corner, One in which Luke Ayling runs the length of the pitch in 11 seconds in the 89th minute against Swansea and Pablo scores a goal that dug down into my very soul and pulled out a primal scream of joy and relief and release, which may have been heard 15 streets away, also setting off a distant echo of Gordon Strachan vs Leicester in 1990.

In this reality, I keep expecting to wake up in the shower like Bobby Ewing, to find that the whole of Project Restart has been a dream, and that we're still in limbo, stuck permanently on 71 points and 37 games.

I remember when Steve Redgrave won his 5th Gold Medal in a row at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, his first feeling was relief. The expectation and pressure had been so huge, it was relief that came first. I think that's true for me too. In this reality, it was other teams that fell apart, and buckled under the pressure. But Leeds did not. 

My first experience of watching Leeds United was a MASSIVE, MASSIVE DISAPPOINTMENT. A feeling of absolute desolation. It was 1975 and I was 7. The European Cup Final vs Bayern Munich. The first football match I ever watched.  If that experience taught me anything, it’s that losing something as trivial as a football match can rip the heart out of you. Jorge Valdano said ‘Of all the things which do not matter, football is the most important’. And I agree with him.

So, losing to Wigan at home last year, and losing to Derby in the playoffs all seemed quite normal. Nothing extraordinary. Just everyday Leeds United. 

There have been so many grim times at Leeds, which are well documented elsewhere, so much to forget, and so much I don’t need to forget because I wasn’t interested enough to pay attention to it in the first place.

But I have paid attention to Bielsa and to this team. Because they demanded it. They blasted me out of hibernation. My brother has had a season ticket for the last few years, and he came back from the first game of last season against Stoke not quite able to believe what he’d seen.

The following game, away to Derby, I went round to my partner’s parents house while they were away at their caravan, and stole their Sky TV box with their Sky Sports subscription and plugged it into our Sky dish, to see if I could believe it either. It came on just in time for Leeds to be 1-0 up. And even the beginnngs of this team was like nothing I’d ever seen.  Gone was a decade and a half of mediocrity, this was Bielsaball. I’ve watched football my whole damn life, and as far as tactics go, I don’t really know what I’m looking at, but for the last two seasons, watching Leeds play vs watching anyone else has been like the difference between being alive and being dead.

Maybe because results have been so important this season, and the Championship is such an attritional nightmare to get out of, we haven’t been able to enjoy it moment to moment.  It was a lot like that in 1989/90. Similarly, I once cycled  from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and I always say that I managed to cycle the entire length of Britain without seeing any of it, with my head down looking at the map, trying to reach my objective. The last two games of the season, with the title won, the anxiety fell away, and you could actually see with stress-free eyes how good we are.

Those fans who’ve stuck with Leeds unflinchingly through it all, the good times and the bad, and who I admire for their fortitude, sometimes ask ‘Where were you when we were shit?’. Well, a lot of the time I was just doing other things. I have a finite amount of time and money, and sometimes Leeds just wasn’t worth it.

But like when Howard Wilkinson and Gordon Strachan blasted me out of whatever else I was doing in 1989, and demanded I take notice, and I went and bought a season ticket, so it is with Bielsa. You cannot look away. When Leeds are playing, you have to see it. Sometimes it kills you, and you think you won’t get to the end of the 90 minutes, and you’re glad that that shop next door but one has a defibrillator. But you have to see it. Even though you can’t explain why.

I saw Patrick Bamford interviewed on the pitch after the Charlton game, someone who has had his doubters everywhere, except for in Bielsa’s brain, and he was saying that he didn’t know yet what they’ve achieved. Well, I’ll tell you.

I’m 52 years old now. I was 22 when Leeds won the Second Division in 1990. And yet I have never forgotten that team of Strachan, Speed, Batty, Vinnie Jones, Lee Chapman and the rest. And I’ve never forgotten what I went through with them, during the 1989/90 season.

In the same way, these last two seasons under Bielsa will never be forgotten. Anyone who saw them, will remember them for the rest of their lives.  And they won't remember just the winning. They will also remember How They Won. By outrunning, outpassing, out-everything-ing  all the other teams. By being relentlessly persistent, and never stopping. 

Marcelo Bielsa has the nickname 'El loco', but, as Phil Hay, said about him on his podcast yesterday, 'When you get up close to him, there isn't any madness, just obsession and devotion'.  He's a cuddly grandfather like figure, who endlessly and patiently poses for selfies with adoring fans, who has turned perennial Championship mid-table languishers  Leeds United into a ‘Total Machine’  And like 'The Terminator', who would never, ever stop, and who had to be lured into a steel mill and crushed, and shot and melted, and even then, there was enough left over to make 5 sequels, his 2019/20 Leeds United could not be stopped either. Not this time.

And this is my new reality.  I haven’t quite accepted that I'm here yet, but I know one thing for certain.  The Universe where Bielsa came to Leeds, is the one I want to be in.



Friday, 1 May 2020

Running every day in April: for no particular reason - Just like Forrest Gump.

What have we lost since Covid 19? And where did it go?

And how do we spend our days under Lockdown? How do I? 

If February was spent anticipating losses, March was when they actually happened. Maybe the things I was worried about when the virus first hit seem trivial now, when so many people are dying. But in late February, the football season, a summer holiday to Italy, Parkrun, going to the cinema or to a cafe for breakfast, and being able to go to the office to do my job, were all important things that I didn't want to lose, During the month of March all those previously available choices were shut down, most of them in the same week. 

So, what to do in April? What was left? Well, one thing is exercise. The freedom to go outside, to walk, or to run. Once a day. So I did.  A bit like Forrest Gump, without exactly knowing the reason why, I set off running. And during April I ran every day.  The only rules (which I made up as I went along) were that I had to run a minimum of 4 kilometres a day, and that the total had to add up to 100 miles (or 162 km).  I know there are a lot of exercise challenges circulating on Social Media at the moment but this wasn't one of those. It was entirely personal. And because a big part of running for me is recording the data, here is the data.


I take Methotrexate to manage my Arthritis, and I can get sore if I run too much. My joints don't respond well to excessive impact.  Because my symptoms are well controlled I sometimes wonder how much effect the medication has, but during April I found out. For the two or three days following the weekly dose, my knees and ankles hurt less than the rest of the week. Methotrexate has its drawbacks, it can suppress the immune response, and along with having asthma (and being male and getting older all the time) that puts me at higher risk from Covid. On the other hand, keeping fit is supposed to increase your survival chances if you get Covid, so there's a balance to be struck.

Running every day in April was not something that I consciously weighed up the pros and cons of. It was beyond logic. I didn't do it for one specific reason I'm aware of, but when so much of what was previously 'normal life' is out of our control, it was nice to do one thing that was completely up to me.  Also, it made sense because I have been doing a lot less incidental exercise each day, now I am not walking to and from the car morning and night and around the office etc, And, because I live with people who have started doing a lot more baking since lockdown, I am eating more cake than before. As it is, my weight was exactly the same at the beginning of April as it was at the end, so the running has kept me in some sort of equilibrium.

It's easy to concentrate only on losses during lockdown. To think about things that are not allowed, and freedoms taken away.  But it's also important to take account of the things that go right.  And I noticed while I was running how beautiful April is. A beautiful month to be outside. Almost every day has been sunny, with birdsong and blossom everywhere, and some newborn lambs to see along my route. And in 30 days I have never had to run in the rain once. I've also seen a lot of courtesy too. People have moved aside or crossed the road to let me pass, and to maintain social distancing,  Also, the time of day when I have been running (mostly around 8 am) is a time that I would normally be sat in traffic, or in an office. Although the 15 hours I ran for during April made me sore sometimes, their benefit can't be measured.

I was toying with the idea of following up 'Running every day in April' with 'Running every day in May', but I have been advised against it, by Joy, as she says I need a bit of rest, and although I am stubborn, and I don't always listen, I have decided not to be an idiot about it this time. 

Even Forrest Gump stopped eventually.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Bielsa and Leeds United - Playing like you're 3-0 down, whatever the score

My first awareness of being a Leeds United supporter was waking up from a general anaesthetic, after an operation aged 7, to be presented with a colour poster of the 1974/1975 squad.


Shortly after that, I watched them live on TV for the first time. Unfortunately, that was the 1975 European Cup Final (daylight robbery, disallowed goal, penalty not given, heartache, Paris, fans ripping out seats and throwing them onto the pitch etc).  In the 45 years since, my experience of watching Leeds has tended to go in 15 years cycles of boom and bust, or in my case, bust and boom.

My first 15 years of watching Leeds was spent mostly being told how good they used to be. Then under Howard Wilkinson in 1989 everything changed   Looking back, the first time I felt swept along by genuine hope of better days ahead was Gordon Strachan's debut in March 1989. That was the first day when I realised that as a Leeds fan I would be able to stop living in the past. The promotion year of  1989/90 was the one and only year I've ever been a season ticket holder, and a lot of the enjoyment of watching that 1989/90 team was watching them hound and pressurise teams at Elland Road, watching Batty and Vinnie Jones and Speed and Strachan chasing them all over the pitch and boxing them in.


Shortly after that season's promotion, I moved away from the area so I became only an occasional visitor to Elland Road.  For about another 15 years they continued to be a team to be proud of, with new stars like Viduka and Bowyer and Alan Smith, but then after the financial meltdown and relegation in 2004, things went very, very wrong, and stayed that way for almost another 15 years.  After watching teams assembled during that time by Peter Reid and Dennis Wise full of loan signings who didn't seem to care, or even to know who each other were, I stopped caring too, and Leeds once again became a team of past glories, not present ones.  For a lot of years from the mid 2000s onwards, I didn't know the names of any of the players, I'd even stopped checking the results. I would occasionally go with my brother if I found myself in Leeds, but that was it, the one highlight being in January 2010 when they beat Manchester United in the FA Cup.

I suppose I find it harder to care about football in the modern era anyway.  In these times of wall to wall Sky TV, with games on every day, and with billionaire clubs and their millionaire players dominating everything, I find football and footballers harder to relate to than in the 70s and 80s.

A lot of the games I've found most exciting over the years have been games when Leeds have been behind and chasing the game.  Letting in 2, 3 or 4 early goals changes your mindset, and sometimes the most fun games to watch have been those when they've got nothing to lose.  Leeds 2 Ipswich 4 1989, Leeds 4 Liverpool 5 1991 Leeds 4 Stuttgart 1 1992 Leeds 4 Derby 3 1997 Leeds 3 Norwich 3 2017. I mean, watching all those flicks and tricks when they were 7-0 up against Southampton in 1972 is all very well, but sometimes what I've admired most has been them giving it a go in adversity.

The most exciting game I've seen live was Leeds 3 Millwall 4 in 2018. Leeds 2-0 down at half time and down to 10 men. For 20 minutes at the start of the second half they threw absolutely everything at Millwall and had them on the backfoot, scoring 3 goals. But then fatigue set in, and they couldn't hold on.

The best thing about the last two years of watching Leeds under Bielsa, is that now they play every game, whatever the score, as if they're 3-0 down and they've got nothing to lose. And they've got the fitness and the coaching to be able to keep it up for 90 minutes, instead of just 20 minutes running on backs to the wall adrenaline and then running out of steam.

These days, after so long stuck in the Championship, it's understandable that people are fixated on promotion, but sometimes obsessing over getting promoted makes it seem that results are all that matter. There's a danger (and I found this to be true in 1989/90 too), that you don't appreciate what you're seeing, because you're only thinking about the final score, and where that leaves you in the league table.  Now we're all stuck in a Covid 19 no man's land, staring at the league table is all we've got. But for the time being at least, we're on top.

We're on top because of Bielsa, and because of his unswerving devotion, to a meticulously choreographed, running is everything, striving for perfection brand of football madness, And that madness has blasted me out of my apathetic 15 year hibernation. I've never found them more exciting to watch than I have over the last two seasons. And I've never cared more about the team and what happens to them than I do now.  It's very possible I'm what you would call a 'fair weather' supporter. Maybe I only come out of the woodwork when things are going well. But on the other hand, after so much financial mismanagement, and a magic roundabout of not very inspiring managers, maybe I'm just a skeptic. For me 'seeing is believing' and I need to be seeing something 'out of the ordinary' before I can devote my time and attention to it.


So, thank you Bielsa. And thank you also to the players. Who have bought into his methods, and who are prepared to run for every ball, and to give it everything, from the first minute to the last. The current squad is now just as memorable to me, as the team of Bremner and Lorimer that I mostly only learned about in hindsight, and the one of Strachan and Batty and Speed from 1989/90 that I saw with my own eyes.


What I don't know, is how this season will end, or even if it will end. I don't know if we'll ever get promoted. But whatever the record books say, in the end that's just statistics, and statistics don't tell the whole story. Supporting a team is about having something to hope for and to look forward to; a way of playing that you can be proud of and that gets you out of year seat and inspires you, and gives you something to believe in. For a long time with Leeds that had got lost. Thank you Marcelo and the players, for bringing it back.


Thursday, 18 July 2019

Closing the loop - 30 years on. Graduating at 51.

Yesterday was my graduation from University of Leeds. And so I wore the customary gown. Here is me with my classmates. The year is 2019.




The last time I wore a gown before that was in 1986, when I was a prefect at Leeds Grammar School. Here is a picture of that too.



There are a couple of obvious differences. At school there were only boys. At Uni, at least on my course, there were only girls. The other main difference is that I'm now 51 and not 18. When I left school at 18, full of promise and potential, with a place at Uni in the bag, I went to see the Senior Master Mr Grainge to say goodbye. He was a very scary man, who commanded absolute respect. He once came into our classroom when the teacher was out of the room, and told us to stop wasting our time. That life was short and that youth doesn't last, and that we should make the most of the time we have. He knew what he was talking about, as not long after that he had to have part of his leg amputated, and by 1989 he had died from whatever illness had caused that. But I never forgot what he said. I also have never forgotten Mr Kino, my inspirational German teacher, who first showed me the beauty that is hidden within language. He died only a few years ago, but no-one who was ever taught by him will forget him.

Here is another picture from yesterday. Of my brother Phil and me. It's my new favourite picture of the two of us.



Here is my previous favourite. From 1973.



As you can see, I am still the one who has to wear a tie. If you look closely you can see that I tried to colour Phil's outfit in with blue biro. Our mum told me off,and so I tried to scrape the biro off.

I generally don't like formal occasions but for me yesterday was perfect. It was everything I could have wanted. Also, joining me on the day was my partner Joy, her daughter Eve and her parents Keith and Christine. Cue more pictures.







As well as my five guests, the other people who made the day special were my teachers, my classmates and their parents. Sadly, my own parents didn't live to see it. In a way I wish I'd have got my act together sooner and done my degree while my mum in particular was still alive to see it. She was always my biggest advocate and like a faithful hound she always thought the best of me even when I was making a mess of everything. But on the other hand it was partly her fault that I didn't take up my original place at Uni in 1986 as her life was in a mess at the time and I got a job instead to help her through it and then before I knew it 30 years had gone by.

Ironically coming back to Leeds in 2014 to be close to mum before she died set off the chain of events that eventually led to me applying to study Linguistics in 2016 so as well as getting in the way of my original plans, she also helped me to close the loop. Ultimately, my two decisions, not to go to Uni at 18 and then deciding to go at 48 were both my own. I cannot blame circumstances for either.

It had been my intention to go up to the Garden of Remembrance at Lawnswood yesterday, to the exact spot where my parents ashes were scattered 40 years apart in 1974 and 2014, to tell them about my day. Not that I believe that they're actually there in that small square of ground, it's just symbolic. But on the day, I decided that yesterday was about the living and not about the dead. It was about Joy and about my brother and about Joy's parents who have been through a lot with health problems in recent years. And it was also about my classmates and their parents, who were there and alive in the present moment. I thought I would feel more sad that mum was missing it but actually I forgot to be sad because it was such a joy to see the happiness and the pride in the parents of my classmates, and that, along with the people I brought with me, was more than good enough.

For 30 years not going to Uni, even for reasons which seemed right at the time, was like an itch I couldn't scratch, but now I've scratched it. Somehow that getting lost for 30 years and wandering off the path made me feel like I wasn't making the most of myself, as if I was wasting my potential. I feel better about that now.
I was a know-it-all aged 18, but being an adult and having to make adult choices turned out to be much harder than I thought.. At that time I thought I had all the answers but the practice of the last 33 years was harder than the theory. Which is my long winded way of saying how much yesterday meant to me. It says somewhere in the Bible (I can't remember where but probably in the book of James which used to be my favourite) that Success covers a Multitude of blunders. I always took that to mean that one good thing can make up for lots of things that have gone wrong. Well for me yesterday, being there with Joy, and her family, and my brother and my classmates and teachers and finally getting that Degree I had first wanted 30 years previously, was my one good thing. My big success. My day in the sun.


Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Running and remembering - Still trying to be better than my 18 year old self

On Sunday I ran the Leeds Abbey Dash 10K.  It's the 4th time I've done it, but the first time with Joy. It was really nice to stand around with her at the beginning chatting and feeling happy and being in a good mood, because that stopped me being so curmudgeonly about the warm-up aerobics and the chirpiness of the DJ trying to get everyone in the mood. Often when I stand around on my own, I feel quite grumpy about those things. It was also really nice that the official photographer decided to capture the moment. I sometimes find it hard to be both happy and relaxed at the same time, so it's nice to have some evidence of it.

Sunday was the 4th anniversary of my second date with Joy, when we went to Huddersfield for fruit beer and Mexican food, and so it was nice to spend the anniversary together doing the Abbey Dash.


I still have it in my head that, when I was 18, I ran a 10k in 47 minutes (with Fraser Pike in our school rugby shirts that we had borrowed from school and which we should have already handed back). Unfortunately for us, the 10k route went past the kitchen window of our rugby master's house, and he saw that we were wearing the shirts and asked for them back on the following Monday. I'd like to think that we weren't planning to steal them, but just that we were proud of our school, and of playing rugby for it, and that's why we wore them. In truth, the 47 minutes could be just a fake memory, because there were no timing chips in those days, and all I have is a vague recollection of looking at my watch at the finish and it being less than 50 minutes since we'd set off.

Anyway, I keep thinking that it's possible that my now 50 year old self can still run as fast as my 18 year old self, and each year when I do the Abbey Dash I try. So my ultimate goal is to run it faster than 47 minutes, but I'm working on it in increments, so this year I thought I'd aim for 50 minutes.

In my 3 previous attempts I've done it in 57:42, 51:05 and 51:30.  This year I was slightly outside my 50 minute target as I finished in 50:19. But I decided not to be disappointed with that, because I ran as fast as I could on the day. I didn't keep any effort in reserve. I used it all up.

Some people don't care about how fast they run, but for me it's a big motivating factor. And the fact that Parkrun is measured helps to keep me wanting to improve. For a really long time I couldn't run 5K in less than 24 minutes, but then this year I've done it about 15 times. There could be various reasons why I'm running faster this year, but maybe the most important thing is Persistence. I just keep running. And regularly.

I used to run when I was at school, but mostly only when they made us run cross country 3 times a year, and a few other times in the summer each year before the Rugby Season started but I never ran consistently.  Entering that 10k in April 1986 with Fraser was very much a one-off.

In 1994 I took up running briefly, but as was predicted by my wife at the time, I soon gave up. Again, I started briefly in 2002, but gave up then too.  And until I started Parkrun in 2014 I never ran again.  Now it's a really important part of my life.

Last night I got my 100 Parkruns milestone T-shirt in the post. I'm actually up to 143 but they've had a backlog at sending out the T-shirts. I think the fact that I've done 143 suggests it's not just a flash in the pan.

Two years ago the Abbey Dash was on the 2nd anniversary of my mum dying, and it was after moving back to Leeds in 2014 that I started running in the first place, in order to be doing something active in the time that I wasn't stuck inside my mum's house watching gameshows with her.  Her lungs and knees were knackered by then, and even walking to the car would leave her out of breath, so every time I run, then and now, I remember to value the fact that I'm able to do it. I'm not sure if Forrest Gump ran for any particular reason, or if he just set off, but for me, I run because I can.

Lawnswood Garden of Remembrance - Plot H8 180. 
Yesterday was the 4th Anniversary of my mum dying and I went up the Garden of Remembrance, to see the place where the ashes of both my mum and dad are scattered. I like to go up there on the birthdays and the other anniversaries and special days. It's not exactly that I think that my mum and dad are still there, but it helps to have a place to go, to acknowledge that I still remember them. I felt quite peaceful while I was up there yesterday. I spent some time texting Joy and my brother Phil, to tell them how I was feeling, and I ate a banana.

While I was walking round there yesterday, I did feel sad. But I felt happy too. I felt happy that I grew up in the house that I did, where I always felt loved, and where there was always laughter. We were always able to laugh at things, even sometimes awful things. And at each other.  It was the best gift I got as a child, that ability to not take setbacks too much to heart. Some people are so earnest about everything all the time, so outraged and offended at the slightest thing. We managed things by not being like that. In all the stories the three of us used to tell each other, we chose to mostly only remember the funny bits.  We let the sad parts go.

It's a strange feeling being at the Garden of Remembrance. It almost exists outside Time. I was 50 when I was there yesterday, but I could have been any age. I still felt like the child of my parents. Walking around with a rucksack full of books, I could have still been at school.

The crematorium at Lawnswood, where my parents went to rest, is right next door to the old school playing fields, where I first was made to run cross country. In those days I hated it, but who knew that one day I would do it for fun?  When I started running in 2014, it partly grew out of my experience of being indoors for long periods with my mum who couldn't get out much. Her main leisure activities had always been watching TV, going to the pub or going shopping. Getting outside and exercising only happened incidentally while carrying home bags of shopping. I feel lucky that my life isn't like that. That I have so many opportunities that she didn't.

I'm a student now, at Leeds University. I could have gone to Uni when I was 18, but for reasons that made sense at the time, I didn't. So now aged 50 I'm back at the same place in life I could have been then. In terms of Geographical space, I haven't moved very far in 30 odd years. My University is right next door to the school I used to go to.  I didn't know what the future held then, in 1986, I guess if I had any idea at all, it was that I wanted to be a success at something. I still want that now.

As for running, I still want to be a success at that too.  I don't know if I'll ever beat the mythical time of 47 minutes that my 18 year old self may or may not have run, but even if that time never happened, even if it's a fake memory, it's still good to have something to aim for.



Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Have I learned anything from two years at University?

This is me. Even though most people tell me I don't look it, I'm 50 years old.  And about to start my 3rd Year as a full-time student at University of Leeds.

This is me in 2018
I could have gone to Uni in 1986 when I was 18 but I chose not to, for reasons which made sense at the time, but which I regretted on and off for 30 years. I decided a couple of years ago, in 2016, that 30 years of regret was enough, and so here I am.

I'm studying for a BA in Linguistics and Phonetics and everyone else who started the course at the same time as me is a school leaver.  Although I did have some anxiety about the academic side of things, by far my greatest fears were about adapting to the social side.  I was scared of being stared at for being old and scared of being treated like an oddity. The desire to fit in is not unique to young people. I feel it too. I want to be accepted and valued, just like anyone else.

The first 6 weeks of Year One were the worst. I'm not blaming anyone on my course for that. If I was aged 18 and away from home for the first time, I wouldn't want to make it a top priority to befriend someone the same age as my parents either. At first, when they were all asking each other what halls they were in, and sending each other friend requests on Facebook, they would occasionally catch my eye, but then, unable to process my old face, look away. The few minutes before lectures were the worst, the standing around in the corridor, feeling self-conscious and like I was wearing a massive sign saying ‘I don't belong’, while everyone else seemed to be chatting away.  Although when I looked closer, not everyone was chatting and having fun. There were lots of young people standing around on their own too.

I think the reason it got easier after 6 weeks was that my classmates and I started talking about the subject more and so age wasn't so important. Also, it’s simple adaptation. You get used to things. I got used to the people on my course, and they got used to me. Now I’ve got to know them, I actually really like them, and time spent with them is good fun.  So I’m glad I stuck at it long enough to get to know them.  Looking back, I think the age barrier was a lot bigger problem inside my own head, than it was to any of my classmates. I don't think they ever got in a sweat about it like I used to.

Everyone’s experience of University is unique.  I know that lots of people face really serious challenges to their mental health during University, and I'm not trying to minimise that.  If you suffer from crippling social anxiety or you're in a deep depression, you're not going to just read something for 5 minutes and snap out of it. But maybe at least if you can relate a little bit to my ups and downs, you won't feel so alone at the times when things get on top of you.  

1.     University is not school

This was me in 1980
I loved school. I had a close group of friends who were the same age as me who I pretty much spent the whole week with. I had all my lessons with them, I played rugby with them at weekends and they were my social group outside of school as well. So school was great. At University, I often struggle to see the people on my course more than a couple of times a week. A lot of our lectures are only on Mondays and Tuesdays so after Tuesday I may not see them again till the next week. And most of the academic work I have to do, is just me alone in the library with some books and a computer. There's nothing social about it. Just getting the majority of my work done in that solitary way is very different from school. And the holidays are long. Mostly, the people on my course go home for the holidays and the library becomes empty, and without the structure of lectures, it can be hard to keep a routine and stay on track with revision and assignments. 

2.     It's okay not to have a good time.

Expectation can kill you.

I find birthdays, Christmas and going on holiday all stressful, because of the expectation that I'm supposed to be having a good time. University is like that too. A lot of people, especially young people seem to be told that they're going to have the time of their lives at Uni, which can make the difficult times even harder. I enjoy birthdays more when I tell myself that 'it's okay NOT to have a good time', It takes the pressure off and removes the weight of expectation. If you're not enjoying it, be honest with yourself. Don’t pretend.

3.     Join in but be yourself! And don't get drunk if you don't want to!

Despite initially not speaking to anyone on my course, I was quite pro-active in joining societies. I joined the Japanese Society (because I was interested in Japan) and I also joined the Mature Students' Society (because I'm old) and I also went to a lot of activities organised by the Lifelong Learning Centre. 

At Leeds, as I’m sure is typical of many universities, a lot of the social events revolve around drinking. Going on pub crawls, to clubs etc, mostly late at night. I don’t drink and I don’t like late nights, so these type of events are not for me. So, I don’t go. I don’t want to make my potential social awkwardness worse by being in an environment that makes me feel uncomfortable, so I don’t go. I’m much more likely to be able to hold a conversation if I’m in a place I can relax in. So I look for events in the daytime, or in the early evening (for example Global CafĂ©), events where I can drink coffee or tea instead of beer, and where conversation is possible because I am not surrounded by deafening music. And those are the things I go to. 

And when I do go to social events, I don't wait for people to talk to me. I often talk to them first. I'm open to the possibility that they might be feeling just as awkward as me, I’ve been to some social events where I’ve felt like I was stood around under a big sign saying ‘Awkward Loser’ where I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, but on the other hand, I’ve had some brilliant conversations with people from all over the world. Don’t let one bad experience put you off trying again. Just ask people you meet about themselves. And be interested in their responses! They might have completely different life experiences to you or they might inspire you by sharing a passion or enthusiasm for something that you'd never considered could be exciting. They might just teach you something. Be open minded! And listen!

4. Lack of structure and routine can be a problem

Many of the jobs I've had in the past were quite low paid and lacking in any responsibility outside of my set working hours. So, life was very clearly defined into Work Time and Free Time. I wasn't in any doubt which was which. Whereas a lot of Uni is bits and pieces. Lectures occasionally, but a lot of reading, researching, and also a lot of time just mulling things over.  The lack of structure is particularly bad for me in the holidays, and often the times you're supposed to be enjoying yourselves, like Christmas and Easter are when you're bogged down in revision and assignments. From the outside looking in, it seems like you've got lots of time off, but it doesn't work that way.

5.     Don't let yourself go to Extremes

In some ways, University for me has been a mountain top experience.  Sometimes I'm on top of the mountain, and sometimes the mountain is on top of me. But I try not to take either one too seriously.

If you have a bad hour, or a bad day, or a bad week, don't overreact. Similarly, if something goes great, a fantastic result in an assignment or a good exam mark, don't get too carried away. Ups and downs are normal, and sometimes they will feel extreme, but don't dwell on the extremes. Life is usually somewhere in the middle. Try and find a happy medium. Or even a tolerable medium. 

6.     If you need to run away for a while, remember to come back!

I often just wanted to run away, to get off campus, to not be anywhere near the University environment. And sometimes I did run away. For an hour, or for the rest of the day. I still feel like that. Sometimes I just can't stand it. So, if you feel like that, run away! But remember to come back! Just take some time out. Go to a park, or the town centre, or do something outside of Uni life.

7.     Get outside the Uni bubble: It will help give a sense of perspective.

In my first week at Uni, I joined a group called Students into Schools. I spend some time each week volunteering in a primary school, helping children with English and Maths. In the past, I've also volunteered at Conversation groups for old people, and refugees. It's a good thing if your whole life doesn't revolve around University. Don't forget the world outside the campus.

Talking to other people, and more importantly listening, and paying attention to them, can help you get a sense of perspective. Everyone has problems, try not to get bogged down in your own. Try not to obsess over your own anxieties. A lot of the children I work with don't have English as a first language. Some of them come to school on their first day and they don't know a single word of English. Trying to see life from their point of view helps me not to take my own worries so seriously.   I've also spent a lot of time talking to foreign students, who face all the same problems as UK students, except they're also much, much further away from home, in addition to which, they find themselves in a strange cultural environment, among the English, who if you look at them from the outside, do some pretty weird stuff.  Seeing myself reflected through other people and other cultures, stops me thinking that the way I do things is the right and only way.

8.     Facebook and Instagram aren't real

If you use social networking, remember that people mostly only show you the highlights on there. They don't show you 99% of the day to day crap they're going through. Just amazing holiday locations, and pictures of themselves in their best clothes, dressed up for a night out. Try to talk to people in the real world, face to face. It's a lot more real, and a lot more fun.

9.      Get out more

I once read a quote that said 'Despair cannot come to a man who walks'. I don't know if it's true, but I always feel better if I'm outside and moving. Getting some fresh air won't solve any of your problems, but it might make you worry less. I also take part in Parkrun every Saturday, which is another fantastic (and free) way of getting some exercise.

10.    Do some work!

I like having people to talk to, the social side of University, but I’m also here to study. And a lot of the time I have trouble getting my head round what I’m supposed to be learning. But I do apply myself to the work, because of
a)     The Joy of Finding Things Out. I really like learning new things, and particularly seeing patterns in language.
b)     It makes life easier if you understand things. One important step for me when learning is when I start to at least understand things well enough to be able to explain what it is I don’t understand. Actually understanding things comes a lot later if at all. One of my favourite quotations is from Einstein, who said that ‘If you can’t explain things simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. I like trying to understand things to the point where I could explain it to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it.

In terms of work, I found Year One quite hard, and Year Two much harder. In fact, I almost fell apart completely twice during Year Two, but in the end I managed to come out with good results, results which don’t reflect the turmoil I felt much of the time. Despite doing well, I’m nervous about starting Year 3, because it’s a clean slate and I have to do it all again. But I know lots of people now, who I'll be happy to see when I get back.  I’m also excited and enthusiastic about the subject, and hopefully that will help me through.

11.  Be grey, but don't let your grey turn to black

It’s possible that Uni isn’t for everyone. For some people the choice may be very black and white. Quite possibly there are people who love it all the way through. Then again there may be others who start it and then realise it’s all a horrible mistake and are 100% sure of that and give up right away, or alternatively, they don't come in the first place. 

But the people I’m concerned about are the Greys. The people in between like me, who sometimes love it and sometimes hate it, and whose experience could go either way during their time there, but who I wouldn’t want to see give up too soon. Because often things that are really difficult at the time are the things you look back on, and are glad you did them.  It’s those people I’m hoping to encourage to keep going, and not give in. 

12. Don’t stop looking for a place you fit into

The best thing about University is that it’s a big place. With lots of things to do, and thousands of people to meet. There’s something and someone for everyone, so don’t stop looking. Don’t let your insecurities hold you back. Even if it’s painful to keep trying to make connections, try anyway. 

It's difficult to sum up two years in a few minutes, but overall that's what it's been like for me. 

Good luck!

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.