Wanna Be Your (Action) Man

A few years ago, I convinced Mrs E that the way to enjoy her mid-forties was to hop on a bike constructed by her husband in his spare time, and pedal round as much of the Scottish western isles as we could manage in a week. Never one to scorn a challenge, she duly agreed, and we set off for a number of days of knackering hills, scary descents, mechanical challenges (make that really scary descents), more than our share of rain, and a certain amount of fun. 

Towards the end of our holiday/challenge, Mrs E started to complain of unbearable shooting pains in both her wrists and her ankles, both of which were quite important to completing the trip in one piece. There is another blog to be written some time on what happened next, but the quick version is that shortly after we got back she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a really crappy auto-immune disorder that doesn’t really have much to do with what most people think about either rheumatism or arthritis. What it does seem to do is stop people doing anything particularly active. Fortunately, there are some pretty good drugs that allow patients to muddle through and some brilliant people in the NHS who seem to be able to pull the right levers to manage pain relief against side effects. And there’s Mrs E herself, who completely refuses to be defined by her illness, which I guess is both a blessing and a curse if you’re trying to treat or live with her. 

So as a result of all that, we didn’t do any more cycling holidays. 

But one evening in February this year, we started talking about getting away. Mrs E declared that she would need some proper sun, but not the sort of sun that you enjoy by the side of a pool. 

We started looking at walking holidays, on the premis that they wouldn’t be too challenging because (and I quote) ‘I manage to walk the dogs for a couple of hours a day’. 

We signed up for 4 days walking in the south of France, travelling to Nice, taking a train north for a couple of hours, then making our way down from La Brigue to Menton. We got a load of information about walking terrain, essential equipment and navigating, all of which we completely ignored, and waited impatiently for the end of June. 

If you’ve been in Europe this June, you may well have noticed that the temperature has been a little bit on the warm side. We landed in 35 degrees and the temperature kept rising, so that our first day of walking took place in around 37 degrees, most of which was in direct sunlight. We walked for about 5.5 hours, generally feeling that we were not only inside an oven, but one where the grill had been left on as well. Worse, temperature-wise, on the next two days (6.5 hours each) and a nightmare on the last day, where, after 7.5 hours, Mrs E said she was truly cooked and starting to hallucinate, and I had to remind her that we still had an hour left to go. 

All of which we put to one side when we look back on the trip, which was more fun than we had any right to expect. We saw parts of the French Alps that were jawdroppingly beautiful; huge green mountain passes, beautiful streams and gorges, and, as we got to the end, fabulous sea views. We lived inside these picture postcards almost on our own – in the four days we were walking we saw one runner and three walkers travelling in the opposite direction. Parts of the walk had so much sunny butterfly action that it was like being on the set of a Disney film. And, without getting unduly soppy about it, we had a good time just being with each other. There is no-one I would rather have long discussion with than Mrs E. And no-one I’d rather play silly games with (eg day 2 – name a herb or spice in popular culture – a clear winner in Ike & Tina Turmeric).

So it was wonderful. But, as I said, really really hot, and that did have a bit of an impact on our tanning plans. I spend quite a bit of the summer wishing I had a healthy tan about me. I normally manage a reasonable glow about the face, but my chosen leisure activities rather get in the way of anything that you might want to see on a beach. To illustrate this, I’ve taken the wise decision of using a stock photo rather than any actual pictures of myself, which would need to carry a public health warning. So this is what I’m going to go with as a base:

action-man-1966

Firstly, let us consider the cyclist tan. You’ll see this quite a bit around this time of year, and it’s defined by the very clear lines of the bib shorts and short-sleeved shirt. In very keen and accessorised cyclists, you’ll also see tanlines around the cycling goggles, which make for a bit of a startled panda look:

A less forgiving tan is worn by the keen summer runner. Summer is a time for short shorts and vests in the running world. It is not an excuse for anyone to take their shirt off and run – there are certain male runners (mainly triathletes) who ignore this rule and look ridiculous, especially if they choose to keep their chest straps on. Although they would claim that they’ve avoided the even more ridiculous summer running tan:

Unfortunately, some of us have both of these tans working, as it were, in tandem. Even more unfortunately, those of us who have spent some time hiking of late have discovered a third tan type, which you get when you wear walking boots, socks, long shorts and no shirt, but still carry your double strapped rucksack.

So, I’m the proud owner of three competing and ridiculous tans, none of which work particularly well as a badge of honour. Unfortunately, also I’ve decided to try to learn to swim over the next couple of months. If anyone has a wetsuit I can borrow, I’d be very interested.

 

 

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Hirsute you, Sir

In fashion news this month, #4 has started to wear a woollen hat at all times, indoors, outside, and in all weathers. Under close parental questioning, he tells us that he is planning to ‘grow his hair out’. This concerns me, not least as the thought of long hair brings back associations of hippies and prog-rock, neither of which are to be trusted, in my humble, and vocal parental, opinion.

Given that #4 is the last remaining bubba in the house, he is being treated as single child, and we’ve had to adjust parenting accordingly. Sometimes we even try and reason with him. Irritatingly, he reasons back:

Mrs E ‘You’d look so much better if you had a haircut’

#4 ‘Mmm, that’s just your opinion, and mine’s different’

Mrs E ‘But what will happen when you need to apply for your driving licence?’

#4 ‘I’ll take my hat off’

Incidentally, not the first time we’ve run into legislative challenges with him and hats. We had to go over to France in the summer of 2002, and had arranged rather optimistically to take all the family, with #4 having arrived only a month before. This meant that I had to take him to get a passport sorted out when he was 3 days old. Knowing that he would struggle to remain upright in a photo booth (not to mention operating it), I laid him on the bed in a babygro and fetching beanie cap, took his picture, had it printed, got it witnessed, and hightailed it down to the post office to have all the papers approved.

‘Sorry Sir, we can’t use this one, your son is wearing a hat’

‘But he’s only 3 days old’

‘Sorry, but the only way we can allow it is if he’s wearing the hat for religious purposes…’

‘Ok, so let’s say he is then’

‘…and in that case he’ll have to wear the same hat every time he goes through passport control’

I seriously gave that consideration, but then thought about the slight disagreements we might have if we lost his hat on holiday and had to leave him in Dover. Not to mention whether the hat would really suit him in ten years time. Although reflecting on it now, we could have saved a fortune over the years in headgear.

Back to the conversation then, and we all agree that this interim process of growing the hair out may well be the worst bit, hence the hat. The problem with this stage is that it kind of goes through a wild bedhead/mullet/fluffball stage, managing to be several unpleasant styles all at once. I can’t quite put my finger on it, until #2 pops round one evening, and surveys the situation.

‘He looks a bit of a hillbilly’

Which is pretty spot on. I mention to Mrs E that I half expect him to be wearing dungarees and playing guitar next, and to my surprise a couple of days later, wander up the garden to find him doing both of those things.

The other slight discomfort I have around this whole growing thing goes back to the very idea that men should have anything approaching a ‘style’ in relation to their hair. I appreciate that there’s a danger that I slip into the middle aged outrage that I’ve been trying to avoid for most of my life (although I found myself enthusiastically singing along to George Thorogood’s ‘Get a haircut and a proper job’ the other day), but while men’s hair is concerned, I reserve the right to be a bit Kim Jong Il. Which means it’s all a bit awkward at Emu Towers at the moment.

Kim Jong Il famously only allowed 15 haircuts on his watch (well, 16 if you included his own, which no one else could have), and there wasn’t actually a great deal to choose between any of them:

Most of my hair cuts ever since I can remember, have been in either style 2 or 5 from the poster above.

I’ve stepped away from the North Korea barber book only a couple of times. Before austerity was all the rage round these parts, and early in our marriage, Mrs E decided to save the £3 that I frittered away every month on haircuts by buying some clippers which would ‘literally pay for themselves in a year’. The cutting normally took place on a Friday night, and she had to have a couple of drinks to steady her nerves. As a result, I had a good couple of years of the worst haircuts imaginable, while she tried, and failed, to master the art of fading from a number 1 to a number 4. Had I travelled to North Korea around 1985, I would almost certainly been convicted of crimes against the state.

The other time was in the early eighties, when I mistakenly assumed that the ideal cut for a wannabe blues singer was a flat top. A flat top is very much like a crew cut, but with the top bit, well, flat. Draw a line on top of #15 above if you want to get the general idea. In order to maintain the cut, it needs to be trimmed once a week, otherwise it will start getting a bit messy, so it’s important to find a barber who a) can cut an accurate flat top and is b) cheap.

Fortunately, round the corner from where I lived at the time was Ted (known, unsurprisingly, as ‘Ted the Head’), who ran a barbers shop from the front room of his house. There was one chair, next to which was normally a assortment of kids bikes, lawn mowers and hifi components that he would offer to sell you as part of the barbering transaction. Ted had a range of two cuts – short back and sides, and flat top, which he’d learnt by cutting the hair of US airman during the war. To cut a flat top, you need a client who could keep his head completely still, a flat top comb, which laid on top of the hair, a set of clippers, and two very steady hands. Ted was getting on a bit when I met him, and he couldn’t really manage even one steady hand, so the cuts were a bit hit and miss, but we got there in the end.

A well cut flat top is a thing of wonder though, and quite the style for a rock and roll weekend. I decided to move on partly for maintenance reasons, and partly as during a particularly cold and rainy walk to work on winter morning, I found that a small sheet of ice had formed on top of my head. The next haircut would have to be able to accommodate some sort of hat.

Which brings us neatly back to #4. I guess things will work out in the end. He’ll do his own thing, with or without a hat. And things could be worse; he could have been born 40 years earlier and be trying to fit in with the fashion then….

Taking a punth

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the trend for renaming perfectly good months to repurpose them. My extensive research for this blog tells me that this practice has a name all of its own – these new months are called ‘punths’ – which is actually vaguely clever – it’s a word describing a pun, which is actually a pun. Sadly, that’s about as impressed as I get.

It started off with Movember, where men were encouraged to grow ridiculous moustaches in order to show their support for male health issues, but which gradually morphed into a competitive exercise when the vainest of the vain would place pictures of Terry Thomas, Jimmy Edwards or Windsor Davies on their mirrors, and groom themselves accordingly for a month. I’m all for increased conscious of health issues, although I do struggle with how my next door neighbour trying to look like Nigel Mansell for four weeks is going to heighten my awareness. About the only great thing about Movember is the first week of December, where we all collectively laugh up our sleeves because the comedy moustaches that we’ve been pointing at for weeks weren’t, after all, being grown as a joke.

Movember is preceded by Stoptober, when lots of people who don’t really smoke very much stop smoking. It’s followed by December, when all bets are off on doing anything worthy, unless you want to take part in Decembeard, in which case you can throw away your razor entirely and thus magically increase awareness of bowel cancer by looking like Brian Blessed. Then comes both Dry January, when people who don’t really need a drink make a big fuss about not having one, and Veganuary, when you get your ear bent by some twit in the pub drinking orange juice telling you how much he really misses cheese. We’ve just enjoyed Februhairy, when, possibly inspired by Movember and Decembeard, women have thrown away their razors in order to raise awareness of gender-based violence. You can insert your own comment about cause and activity here as you see fit. 

So, with the world of the punth in mind, I would like to suggest an alternative alternative approach to the calendar. I appreciate that these things will take a little bit to organise, and that you’ll all have to set up your crowdfunding and charity donation sites, so I’ll start the year in April….

Which will be re-named Staypril. As I write, 1st April is only a couple of weeks away, and marks the point at which we should (depending on your point of view) break free of the schackles of the EU or dramatically shoot ourselves in the foot and overtake the USA as the laughing stock of the rest of the world. Staypril will allow everyone who is keen on the whole EU thing to pretend that none of this actually happened. Expect an influx of artisan German sausage makers and French cheesemongers in your local market place, EU flags flown proudly from the windows of Renaults and Citroens and BMWs, and an unseasonal enthusiasm for bistros serving mange-tout, bouillabaisse and crepes.

Staypril will be followed by Brian May. I’ve resisted the temptation to celebrate Theresa May, as May is my favourite sunny month, and every time I look at a picture of our PM at the moment I’m chilled to the bone. Instead, Brian May will be celebrated by loose perms for all, and re-runs of The Sky at Night for astronomy enthusiasts. If you have a partner, make sure they have a matching perm and don’t mind answering to the name Anita for a few weeks. If you want to really celebrate, make a high profile biopic of your life, describing your career as a series of events in which you were almost too lovely to be true.      

Flaming June will encourage awareness of the word flaming as a substitute swearword. There’s a bit more opportunity here than you might think, if you consider the word ‘flaming’ to be an entry point to the lost art of cursing. We seem to have sadly settled on very few swear words in our vocabulary, and you very rarely hear the more imaginative words that we used to use, largely to avoid going straight to four letters. So, during June, we can have flaming, pillock, flipping, knob, blimey, bellend, bint etc. And for every nostalgic swearword used, a pound in the jar for the plain English campaign.

After all that blasphemy, it’s time for Julielo, in which the entire populations, both criminal and non-criminal can spend the whole month staying indoors, keeping a low profile. Staying below the radar in the way will allow the police force to all take the month off as holiday, returning refreshed in August to start hitting their arrest targets.

And what a series of arrests they’ll be making, as the nation celebrates the sizzling summer with the month of Orgyust, when normally straight-laced couples throw their car keys onto the coffee table, and nurture the pampas grass in their front gardens (apparently). I’m quite excited about Orgyust, because, in the past, I’ve only ever found out about orgies after they happen. Apparently there was a thriving swingers scene conducted from the touchline of one of my boy’s sports teams a few years ago, and I didn’t even notice. So it will be nice to have this on the calendar.

Sepptember will announce not only the start of the new football season, but by honouring Sepp Blatter, an opportunity to cram all the season’s financial irregularities and blatant cheating into a single month. This will allow the rest of the season to concentrate on actually playing football, but Sepptember will be a feast of stories of cash handed over at motorway service stations, Far East syndicates linked with huge bets on the number of corners in the second half of non-league competitions, drug cover-ups and exposes on the business activities of pretty much every premiership chairman. Expect to spent most of this month tuned into TalkSport for the incisive wit of Alan Brazil and Ian Abrahams. 

 

Doctober is very much a month to honour the poor sods who choose to train for years to be good at making people better, just so they can be worked to breaking point, trying to fix the unworthy, the ungrateful and the unhygienic. For just a month, patients will be prohibited for taking their internet printouts of their ailments to their GP appointments, and to limit themselves to no more than 3 ailments at a time. All patients should bathe or shower before asking a Doctor to examine them. Patients will be encouraged to keep a small supply of paracetamol in the house in case this is the prescribed cure for their illness. Also a selection of plasters for the little cuts that otherwise seem to find their way to A&E. If you have an urge to celebrate Doctober with me, you can borrow my soapbox.

Lowvember. When David Bowie passed away in 2016, Mrs E wore black for a full year, and the (very) many albums that made up Bowie’s body of work were on strict rotation in the kitchen. There was the odd exception, eg she’d be out on a dog walk and return to me listening to some early Elmore James, and without even asking ‘what’s this nonsense?’, she’d pop on the first Tin Machine album before she’d even fed the dogs. Partly to stir things up a bit, Lowvember will aim to celebrate the Dame in a more measured way, by playing a different album each day of the month. I have to be a bit careful here, and make sure I’m not in the same room as Mrs E when she’s reading this, but I don’t quite go along with the idea the DB was a creative genius for every single minute of his life (Mrs E, incidentally, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of each of these minutes, so I know I’m on shaky ground). In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Bowie was pretty good until 1970, utterly brilliant until 1977, then, with a couple of exceptions, fairly average afterwards. And the 1977 demise happened towards the end of the first side of the Low album (which, in Lowvember will be played around the 11th of the month). It’s just my opinion, and as I said to Mrs E only last night, opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one and they all stink.

Kiki Deecember follows, and we can enjoy the runup to Christmas dancing along not just to ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ but also to every other Elton John duet. Sing along with EJ and Josh Stone on ‘Calling It Christmas’. Wipe a tear as George Michael croons his way through ‘Don’t Let The Sun’.  Ask yourself what planet you’re on, as Ru Paul reprises Kiki Dee’s role on ‘Don’t Go Breaking’.

And it’s into the new year, with even more retro-enthusiasm. I’ve been around for long enough now to see some interesting fashions that lose their appeal with age. I don’t mean the age of the fashion, more the age of the wearer. When I was a kid, some of the funniest people I saw were Teds in their 50s, still wearing drape jackets but with really thin quiffs. A few years ago I ended up at a skate-punk gig next to a guy who was spilling out of his anarchy t-shirt and trying desperately to coax his male pattern baldness into a mohican. All very sad. So expect more of the same in The Jamuary, where mods of all shapes and sizes will pour themselves into their tonic suits, sta-press trousers and mohair sweaters, and bounce along to Woking’s finest.

And from Woking to the World Wide Webuary. WWW, as it will confusingly be known, will be an opportunity to enjoy life as it used to be without the world wide web, and thereby appreciating it all the more afterwards. So, assuming we can get the necessary permits in place, we’ll be switching off the internet for a month, and thereby also allowing some upgrades to take place. Let’s face it, the internet hasn’t been powered down for ages now and it must be getting ever so tired. For four short weeks we’ll celebrate by going shopping in shops, talking to people without feeling the need to copy in the world or shouting, and by reading books. We’ll not stop people taking pictures of interesting cats or every single meal they’ve ever consumed, but they just won’t be able to share them for a month.

And so, into our last month. For those of us of as certain age, enjoying the music of the Smiths has been a bit of a roller coaster exercise of late. Chronologically, the story goes 

  • The Smiths burst onto the scene playing music that was unparalleled
  • Step above the copyists and write some more fantastic songs
  • Morrissey becomes spokesman for generation
  • Generation largely responds by going vegetarian and hanging on his every word
  • Band splits up a bit
  • Band splits up a bit more
  • Morrissey continues ‘spokesman for generation’ role
  • Generation still tolerates Morrissey despite some awkward moments
  • Morrissey produces several wonderful solo albums
  • Generation confidence is restored
  • Morrissey produces ‘Autobiography’, to ‘polarised’ reviews      
  • Generation is confused
  • Morrissey starts spouting on about race, rights, politics, immigration and anything else that he seems to find entertaining
  • Generation says enough is enough, please please please can you stop sounding off at us

So, my suggestion is that we all enjoy listening to the music of the Smiths for a month in the full knowledge that we’d feel guilty if we tried to align ourselves with Morrissey. Instead, we’ll just say that we’re enjoying Johnny Marrch. 

 

Tune in next month for more Puntastic fun x

The Curse of the Numskulls

I like my dentist. He’s a friendly man who seems to take very little delight in exerting the sort of pain that only dentists can deliver. He’s kind of the opposite to the Steve Martin character in Little Shop of Horrors. And if you’re not familiar with this, or just need a reminder, here you go….

If you watch the clip, take note at c1:30. We’ll be coming back to that later.

Despite his friendly persona, my dentist does have alarmingly strong forearms, which hove into view just after one of his glamorous assistants puts on the strange safety sun-goggles that are all the rage in dentists these days. On me, not him or her, you understand. In the good old days, I don’t think we had these glasses, and ostensibly they’re to stop odd bits of drilling debris flying into your eyes, and also to protect you from the full size  5000 watt follow-spot that is pointed towards you. I think in years gone by I must have kept my eyes closed. Or maybe previous dentists just used a bit of natural light and the odd Ever Ready torch. Who knows. Anyway, I always find the sight of these forearms slightly concerning, particularly if they’re holding a needle, a drill, or one of those spikes that dentists use to punish you for not flossing. They’re the sort of arms that, if they were attached to a fist in a busy pub and travelling in your general direction, you’d not fancy your chances of slowing them down by, say, offering a replacement pint.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I pitched up for an appointment and after a certain amount of probing about from said forearms, was told that I needed some root canal work. I’d had this sort of work done in the past, and had spent a lot of time worrying about it. ‘Don’t worry’, said people who were in the know, or not really interested, like Mrs E. ‘You’ll be fine, ‘cos you’ll have loads of anaesthetic’. And come the day, I did have loads of anaesthetic, but possibly in the wrong part of my mouth, because I can remember a jaw-jangling pain part way through the procedure which neither me nor my dentist were expecting.

So I can be forgiven, I hope, for feeling a bit nervous when I pitched up for the next appointment.

‘How are you?’, said the owner of the big forearms.

‘A bit nervous’, I said, staying true to the narrative of this blog.

‘It’ll be fine’, he reassured me, ‘we’ll get you nice and numb before we go right into the tooth’. Words which managed to jar with his calming intentions.

He introduced me not only to his assistant, but the assistant’s assistant, who’d come to see the procedure for herself. Maybe they were selling tickets, I don’t know. I was surprised to see that by the time I sat back in the chair, all four of us were wearing safety goggles. A large needle came into view, attached to a long syringe, held by that trusty right arm. Conservatively speaking, I think there was about two pints of anaesthetic in the tube; it took at least a couple of minutes to get rid of it into my mouth, so he’d obviously taken the nice and numb bit to heart.  After poking about a bit with a bit more metal, and being assured that I couldn’t feel a thing, he fired up the drill, and started work. The first couple of minutes sailed by. Radio 2 was playing some saccharine country and we were all (at least mentally) whistling along. And then it happened.

Before I describe what ‘it’ was, I need to to cast your mind back to days when you read the Topper, the Beezer and the Beano. In the unlikely event that you didn’t read them (what on earth were you doing in your youth?), then you should know that you missed one of the great cartoons ever – the Numskulls. The Numskulls story revolved around a boy, and the five Numskulls inside his head that controlled him.  As you can see from the picture, Brainy took care of the brain, and was chief Numskull. Blinky controlled the eyes, Radar was in charge of hearing, Snitch controlled the nose, and Cruncher was in charge of the mouth department.

I’ve been surrounded by medical professionals all of my life, but despite their patient efforts to explain to me how the human body actually works, I still think this is almost exactly what goes on inside my head.

Where me and the medical profession do join up, however, is on the points of communication between the different departments. I think it’s something to do with nerve synapses, and they happen very very quickly. And for the purpose of this blog, it’s necessary to expand something that happened into a very short space of time into the rapid inter-departmental messages that went on after my couple of minutes of pain free dentistry.

Brainy: How are things in the mouth, Cruncher?’

Cruncher: ‘A bit awkward, but nothing too bad to report’

Brainy: ‘Roger that’

Cruncher: ‘Oh, hang on, that’s….ow ow ow’

Brainy: ‘Sorry, lost you there for a moment, are you in some kind of trouble?’

Cruncher: ‘This Is The Worst Pain I Have Ever Experienced. I Am Capitalising My Comments Accordingly. It Feels Like Several Thousand Volts Are Going Through Lower Left Seven. Repeat, Lower Left Seven.’

Brainy: “Do You Have a preferred response?’

Cruncher: ‘Well, what options have I got on the blasphemy front?’

Brainy: ‘It all depends. On a scale of 1-10, how serious is your pain?’

Cruncher: ‘It’s off the bloody scale’

Brainy: ‘Hmmm, let’s have a look. If it was 9, I’d suggest the F word, which you used when you put your back out, and when Norwich missed a penalty against Preston last week. If it was 10, then you could go to the C word. You last used that in November 2005, during the Orleans marathon.’

Cruncher: ‘I’m sorry, Brainy, it’s worse than that. Do you have anything for 11?’

Brainy: ‘I’ll have to look it up. We’ve not really been here before, we’ve spent the last 56 years trying to create an aura of pleasant calm and common decency. Ah, here we are. It starts with the word Mother. Ready to go?’

And so it was, that the Radio 2 infused calm of the dentist’s room, and that of the waiting room next door, and the delicate ears of the dentist, the dentists assistant, and the dentist’s assistant’s assistant was disturbed. I’m not especially proud of the expletive that came out, but came out it did, together with an instruction from Brainy to my right arm knock Mr Muscle and his drill out of my mouth and some way towards reception.

A still calm came over the room. I was embarrassed, and possibly not the most embarrassed one there.

‘That didn’t go as planned’, said the dentist, recovering his composure, together with his balance. ‘I think we need to take a different approach’

The different approach was to send me to another dentist on the other side of town, who specialised in difficult root fillings. Also, putting a good three miles between us might mean that he’d not hear me next time the drill went in. All was fairly well in the end, and years of working as a business consultant meant that I could fairly easily read my own patient notes at the new dentist, upside down on a screen across the room.

‘Mr Revell is a lovely man’, the notes said, ‘but rather apprehensive of dentistry’.

As Cruncher might say: ‘No Shit, Sherlock’…

 

Town in a Box

Greetings from Majorca, where Mrs E and I have spent a relaxing time not worrying about marathon running.

The initial plan was to come over and run the marathon, which took place a couple of days ago in blazing hot sunshine, and with a ‘what could possibly go wrong’ approach, we booked travel and hotel about six months ago, just as I started yet another athletic comeback. 

Naturally enough, I got injured with about 8 weeks to go, and so concluded that it would be a bit daft to try and run the race at all, and after seeing the poor souls who hadn’t got injured plodding the roads around Palma on Sunday, I was secretly happy to have pulled out.

Waking up on Monday morning without any of those normal post-marathon, not-able-to-walk-down the-stairs-and-feeling-horribly-sick feelings, I decided to go for a run, looked out of the hotel window, and saw, about two miles away, the biggest boat I’d ever seen. Actually, calling it a boat feels a bit reductive. It  was more like a small town had suddenly plonked itself on the side of the island. Naturally I ran towards it, to see if my eyes had been playing up again. It was a windy morning, and the breeze was coming off the sea, and as I got about a quarter of a mile away, the wind just stopped, which was a bit odd, until I realised that the MS Symphony of the Seas (for it was she) was acting as a bloody enormous windbreak.

Anyhow, the MS Symphony Of The Seas is, according to my sources (that’ll be the internet then) the largest and most ambitious cruise ship ever built. I’ve already mentioned that it casts quite a shadow, but here’s some other stuff of note:

  • it’s 362m long
  • it has 18 decks
  • it can carry 9,000 people
  • it has a crew of 2,200
  • It has 40 restaurants and bars
  • it has 23 pools
  • it has two west-end sized theatres
  • it has a full size basketball court
  • it has two 43 foot climbing walls
  • it has a ‘central park’ with 20,000 tropical plants
  • it has an ice skating rink

and it cost $1.35 billion to build. 

Let’s just dwell on a couple of those for a moment. A 43 ft climbing wall? Sorry, my mistake, two 43 ft climbing walls? Is one more challenging than the other, or do they worry about double bookings?  I’ve not done that much climbing in my life, but when I have, the one constant that you could be fairly sure of was the rock face. That, an appreciation of gravity and a rough rule that you need to keep three limbs on the rock as much possible, is pretty much all you need to know in order to go climbing. Then along comes the MS Symphony of the Seas, and chucks in another variable, ie a rock face that moves every time you hit a big wave. 

Then there’s the ice rink.  I’ll fess up at this point and say that I never understood ice skating as a recreation. I find it quite hard to balance on ice at the best of times, without being strapped into ankle breaking pixie boots with knives attached to the soles, and being asked to stand upright. It’s not as if getting good at it will achieve much either, you either go down the route of sequinned jumpsuits or into the world of mental Canadian sport, where every player seems to be hell bent on beating up members of the opposition at any given opportunity. Anyway, my previous point still stands. All of that would be bad enough if the ice stayed in one place, but crashing around on the ocean wave? Well, that seems like you’re asking for trouble. 

Later that afternoon, and me and Mrs E are walking down to the town, and headed for the cathedral – probably the most jaw-droppingly beautiful bit of architecture you’ll see on these islands, made yet more so by being surrounded on three sides by some pretty brutal hotel towers. On the other side of the road were parked up a fleet of coaches, all marked as pick up points for the MS Symphony of the Seas passengers, so we were able witness first hand a good cross section of those 9,000 people who’d come aboard to sample the wonders of Majorca for a few precious hours. And we did, because we’re nosy like that.

I guess the first thing that I’d comment on would be that the ratio of restaurants and bars to climbing walls seemed a bit generous. Perhaps because the passengers were contrasted against a population who seemed to be cycling, jogging or recovering (remember this was the day after the marathon) along the beachside, they just seemed so, well, unfit. Not just in a corpulent ‘elasticated-waists-have-never-gone-out-of-fashion’ sense, but in genuinely seeming to have a problem with the concept of moving their own bodies without motorised assistance.  There’s a danger of getting a bit fat-cist here, and I don’t really mean to, because the main observation I’d make was much more important – everyone looked so incredibly miserable. Without exception, everyone, puffing away towards those air conditioned bus steps, was grimacing like their cat had just been put down. Which seems perverse, given that they’d been whisked from their floating palace to see the most amazing building on the Balearic Islands, before sauntering down past lush gardens and fountains and up to bright blue water and glittering beaches. What’s more, this, was supposed to be their jolly holidays. 

It costs about £7,500 for a 12 night cruise for 2 from Barcelona to Miami on the MS Symphony of the Seas. This is the equivalent of 3 months salary for the average UK family (which would include anything that said family would put away for their own holidays). Just thought I’d wrap a bit of context there, before I sign off with an inevitable ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ line. It can, however, buy you a go on a 43ft climbing wall. And if you ever find yourself aboard the MS Symphony of the Seas, I reckon that’s free most days.

The Acid House Gynaecologist

Despite trying to write about other topics, I’ve just checked the stats for the Emu, and realised that my readership* is interested in:

  1. Dogs
  2. Running
  3. The joys of family life
  4. Nothing much else

With this in mind, here is a blog about 1 & 2, partly in a desperate bid for attention, and partly because, well, this just happened.

Several years ago, we finally agreed to start having our lives pulled apart by becoming dog owners. About the only stipulation I had in the debate was that I needed to have a dog I could run with, and I spent many happy hours poring over websites telling me which were the best dogs for me, the family, and as running companions. There was a pretty significant flaw in my selection process – I naturally chose the dog breed that was best suited to my running ability at the time, with no consideration that I might conceivably get slower over the next few years. Which is exactly what happened.

Mrs E is nothing if not possessive about the dogs, and allowed me to run with them only after I’d fulfilled all H&S criteria, and critically when the dog in question was at least fourteen months old. Otherwise, apparently, I could cause irreparable damage to fragile knees and paws (the dog’s, not mine). So it was that a couple of years ago, I was able to start running with Luna, first on a lead, then a harness (her not me), and then, when Solomon was deemed fit to do so, I ran with him as well, eventually ending up with a harness around my waist and both dogs pulling me along, often in the same direction.

I can’t describe how much fun this is. Part of the fun element is the very real chance that it could go horribly wrong at any moment, what with traffic, pedestrians and squirrels to contend with, but there is a point on every run, where everything just comes together, and we’re all running together at roughly the same place, where it’s just brilliant. If I had a tail, then three of us would be wagging at the same time.

I run with the dogs at least twice a week, and always when Mrs E is working late. This means I need to pedal home from work at breakneck speed to get changed and out the door by 5:30, which is about the latest their schedule will allow. Any later, and unfortunately at least one of them will start doing laps of the furniture. Now, in this neck of the woods and in winter, 5:30 also means complete darkness. Rather than waiting for the nights to draw out and take my two charges for a relaxing walk around one of a number of excellent well lit and dog friendly parks nearby, I decided it would be much more sensible to buy a head torch and run with them on some of the more enjoyable off-road routes that combine a few muddy hills, some woods, a bit of river footpath, and marginal cellphone signal. I’d light up the path ahead, and the dogs would run along to the light, and we’d all wag our tails. I nipped onto Amazon and bought a bargain headtorch for £7.99. It arrived, I tried it on, I felt like a bit of a knob (particularly after Mrs E called me ‘The Acid House Gynaecologist’ after coming back from my first run, with headtorch shining and too much fluorescent lycra), but no matter, this was to enable fun night-time running with my four-legged chums, with the trail lit up like a spotlight for the three of us:

running n the darkWhat could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you could imagine, quite a bit. But first, a little diversion. In March, 1972, my Dad took me to my first proper football match. We were visiting family on the South coast and Southampton were playing Liverpool, who, under Bill Shankly, were already the stuff of legend. For a wide eyed nine year old boy obsessed with football, it was a pretty good way to break my duck. As far as the game was concerned, I remember very little except for perhaps a 30 second video in my head that I’ve been able to replay precisely ever since. Attacking from my right, one of the Liverpool midfielders stroked the ball onto the far touchline to Steve Heighway, who took off like a train down the right wing. Just before he got to the goal line, he crossed the ball very hard and very low, about a foot off the ground, towards the penalty spot. At this point. the ball met the head of John Toshack, who had started his dive from some distance outside the penalty box, and had travelled, parallel with the ground for a number of yards, like some sort of guided missile, and didn’t actually land until after the ball had whizzed past the helpless Southampton keeper. I’d never witnessed anything so athletic and so powerful in my life, and, looking back, I’m still not sure I have since. I spent quite a bit of the following few months trying to perfect my own technique of flying like a torpedo to meet an imaginary cross, but without any real success – I just seemed to land a bit early – sometimes before my feet had actually left the ground. I think I concluded that there were people in the world who were John Toshack, and there were people who weren’t, and I was definitely in the second group.

Diversion over, on a darkened run, I was being pulled along at a fairly brisk pace, down a muddy hill towards the river, when my right foot met a rabbit hole. What followed was an almost exact replica of the dive that John Toshack made at The Dell in March 1972. I took off, partly fuelled by the momentum of being pulled along by the dogs, and partly by the hill. I travelled parallel to the ground for a number of yards. I landed, painfully, in the mud, and continued my journey for some time, until the dogs realised that pulling a dead weight wasn’t nearly so much fun as one that was trying to keep up with them. I reckon the initial dive was at least the length of Toshack’s, but the subsequent slide would have taken me well past the goalkeeper and crashing into the net.

The dogs were fairly bemused. They actually made a point of coming back and licking my wounds, which was both sweet and disgusting. Having ascertained that I was still breathing, they both sat down and waited for me to get up. They weren’t actually tapping their toes on the ground, but they weren’t far off. So I got up, gingerly broke into a jog, and resolved on the way home to keep this whole mishap a secret between the three of us.

‘How was the run’? said Mrs E as I followed two excited dogs into the house.

‘Fine’, I said, stepping into the kitchen, and realising in the light that I’d managed to bring most of the muddy hill home with me, and that I’d need to fess up.

‘Well, I did fall over quite badly’

‘Oh no! Are the dogs alright?’, she asked, rather predictably.

I tried the next couple of runs around the park, but it wasn’t the same, So, a couple of weeks later,  I decided to run very slowly and very carefully around the off road route. The dogs seemed much keener on this, and we trotted along happily (and safely) together. Past the muddy hill (watching my step), on the river path (making sure they kept to the left), through the grass track (keeping an eye out for the rabbits), into the first little wood (keeping feet away from tree roots), across the path (watching for cyclists), into the second wood (where I forgot the bit about tree roots).

Never forget about tree roots when you’re running through a forest, particularly at night.

What happens is that you hit the root with your leading foot, curse with pain, then catapult forward and down, often onto another tree root. It can be really painful.

‘Can be really’ as in ‘was horribly’; I landed with the force of a WWF wrestler, and managed to hit leg, elbow, shoulder and head all in one ugly movement. Worse; my head torch went flying off my head. Worse than worse, it managed to switch itself off in the process.

So I’m lying face down on the ground (again), with the dogs coming back to have a look (again) but this time we’re all completely disoriented, and in the pitch black. After a bit, the dogs get a bit bored of the ‘pained hound with quizzical look sitting mournfully by their master’ look, and decide to wander off. Unfortunately they’re still attached to my waist, and deciding to go off on separate directions. Luna probably said something like ‘I’ll go down to the river, you see if there’s anything in the woods, and we’ll meet back when he’s found that ridiculous searchlight’, but obviously I can’t be sure.

Anyway, I find a way to release them, and am left to fend for myself. Fending for myself takes the form of crawling around aimlessly, sweeping my palm ahead of me in the vain hope that I’ll find the torch before I find the river. I continue this exercise for about 5 minutes, and it’s no small relief that there’s no one there to witness it.

I give up at this point, and go for plan b, which involves finding my phone, which is handily strapped to my arm, under three layers of clothing. Retrieving my phone therefore means getting undressed in the middle of the forest, and that’s what I do, until I’m down to my tights and bare chest. A sentence I never thought I’d write, and a look I never thought I’d get away with. Fortunately again, I’m the only one able to see this new fashionable low. I thank the genius who decided to integrate a flashlight on my phone, and almost immediately find my head torch, which had landed exactly where I hadn’t been crawling. i put the torch back on my head, switched it on, and to my grey relief, lit up my little part of the trail with a reluctant yellow beam.

Incidentally, the reason for all of his nonsense was in buying a £7.99 headtorch in the first place. If you’re ever tempted to buy one, look for something with a strap that is vaguely tight, a battery pack that pulls the torch back rather than forwards, and a switch that you have to get your finger in to work. Mine possessed precisely none of these features, although the replacement one, which, so far has stayed both on and on at all times, does.

Anyway, I called the dogs, and, remarkably, they attended the scene almost immediately. We ran home, very slowly, and with and improved leg lift and, remarkably, without further incident. We got home and in the back door, where, like a 5 year old coming home from the park, I told my wife that I’d fallen over again, and was in some degree of pain.

‘Are the dogs alright?’, she asked, unremarkably.

 

 

*You know who you are x

 

They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Mainwaring

2017 was always going to be designated as a ‘milestone birthday year’, albeit not in the way that other birthdays had happened. Quite a long time ago, I remember going out for drinks on my 21st, drinking and smoking my way into a terrific hangover, and thinking that life was unable to get much better than this (I was completely wrong). When I was thirty, I sent out invitations to celebrate, or commiserate, passing into middle age, and we had a huge party, reforming the bands we’d been in a few years before, in the realisation that we were all headed for some sort of rock & roll decline (which we were). Another party for my fortieth, but this time with a more expensive suit, and a further band reunion, but, worryingly, sitting down to play. And then, a few years ago, 50, which, unnervingly, is least clear of all, lost in a haze of extreme running, ice baths and ill advised tequila competitions with kids who were young enough to be my children. Which, of course, they were.

Being 55 was different, but notable in its own special way. Firstly, there were a series of letters reminding me that years ago, I’d suggested that May 2017 would be an excellent time to retire, and I would save every last penny I had to make that happen. I kept my promise on the savings front, but unfortunately others in my life didn’t*, and I found myself woefully short of the sunset retiree lifestyle that Michael Aspel and Gloria Hunniford seem to witter on about, given half a chance.

Then came more letters, the first one the day after my birthday, inviting me to take out insurance for my declining years (with free Parker pen, but only if I reply now!), then offering holidays, to be taken with other over-55’s, probably so we could have long chats about Brexit and the youth of today. A horrible prospect indeed, a bit like an 18-30 holiday but with less energy, less tolerance, and less wet T-shirt competitions (I’d hope).

And then, the letter I’d been looking forward to least. Because, at 55, you get put on a special health screening list. The first letter is fairly innocuous, welcoming you to the world of the NHS, and giving you assurance that early screening of bowel cancer is a fabulous way of getting old gracefully. Or, I suppose, at all. The letter is beautifully put together, with soft words around screening and images and prevention, and makes very little reference to the main point of the exercise, which is to put a smallish camera up your backside, with a longer lead than you might imagine possible.

So what you do is fill in the form, because you figure that you do really really really want to know if you have the other c-word in your life. And you put the appointment in your diary and try not to think for a few weeks, and, largely, you don’t. And then, a couple of weeks before you need to start remembering about the appointment that you’re trying not to remember, a parcel arrives.

I still love getting parcels, especially unexpected ones. A few years ago, I got a book posted to me about great naval battles of the Second World War. Inside, it said ‘To Kevin’. Nothing else, and no clue who’d sent it, other than a Manchester postmark. It remains one of the most brilliant moments of my life. Last week I got a parcel from my parents, just as unexpected, which had two packets of smoked mackerel in it. Not as weird as it sounds, but just as delightful. So when this parcel arrived, I pounced on it like Michael Fallon at a Young Conservatives rally.

I tore the parcel open, and (you might be ahead of me here) was disappointed to see nothing about great naval battles and no sign of smoked mackerel. Instead, there was a tube, a plastic container full of clear fluid, and a set of instructions on how to use your enema.

I’ve never had an enema before, but my wife, a woman with the patience and black sense of humour shared by many in the nursing profession, told me that there was nothing to worry about. In fact (and I should have smelt a rat here), she offered to help administer the enema, to make sure that it was ‘working properly’.

When the diary date finally arrived, I knocked off work a bit early, got home and reread the enema instructions for about the 50th time, and Mrs E kindly suggested that she could help with what she charmingly called the ‘introduction’. For a while, I wasn’t absolutely sure what she meant, and then suddenly I very much was. There was a definite imbalance on the enthusiasm of the two of us taking part. I don’t think she actually shouted out ‘Geronimo’, as she ‘introduced’, but she might as well have done.

If you’ve had one of these enemas, you’ll be fairly aware of what happens next. Not very much for the first 10 minutes and then, fairly suddenly, something that feels like a small volcano in your lower intestine. Fortunately in our house there are only a couple of dozen buttock-clenching strides between the sofa and the toilet, where I realised the true sensation of what I understand is called an evacuation. When, as Lionel Ritchie once said, there was ‘nothing left to give’, it was time to go to the hospital. In a plan that was either macho, naive or stupid, I’d planned to cycle there, but agreed with Mrs E that it might be, after all, worth taking her up on her offer of a lift.

Mrs E dropped me off at the hospital, arranged to pick me up at some vague point in the future, and I distinctly heard her cackling away to herself as she drove off. Found my way to the gastro ward without asking for directions (always a win), and opened the door to the waiting room. My appointment was for 18:15, and I suppose I expected a small room with 3-4 people awaiting their evening appointment with a sigmoidoscope. Much to my surprise, the door opened to a really large waiting room, with maybe 50 chairs, and almost each one occupied. I sat down at one of the chairs, and looked around. I noticed that everyone else was looking around surreptitiously as well; I wasn’t really sure why until it suddenly struck me – I’d not been in this situation since I was about 15.

Just to be clear, no-one shoved a camera up my backside when I was 15, but that was probably the last time that I’d walked into a room of people of exactly the same age. And then, like now, everyone was looking round, while trying not to catch anyone else’s eye, to see, well, how the last 40 years had gone for everyone else. Slightly different thoughts to the ones when I was 15, perhaps a bit more ‘looks like he had a good Christmas’, and a bit less ‘crikey, where did he get those shoes/trousers/haircut?’, and some new thoughts too, like ‘I wonder why he brought his wife along, particularly if she’s going to look so bloody miserable’, and ‘ there’s an odd place for a tattoo’. And we were probably all having these thoughts as the receptionist kindly matched called out names to match faces. I seemed to get called about 10 minutes after checking in, which did make me wonder how I’d jumped the queue. Maybe this was just somewhere that a selection of 55 year old men go on Wednesday evenings for their own entertainment. Perhaps some of them had enjoyed the process so much in the past that they’d turn up hoping for a cancellation.

Then you’re shown into a small room and asked to undress, put one gown on backwards, another one on forwards, and keep your shoes and socks on, and put your clothes in the shopping basket provided. You emerge from the little room, carrying your basket, and sit down next to the other men who have just been through the same process. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a supermarket scene in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, but if there is, we were reenacting it, sitting there with gowns and modesty barely intact, still wearing unlaced boots and socks, and each clutching on to a shopping basket. It’s not a look I’ll be planning to replicate, but it’s definitely one to remember for a while.

Another call, and this time into a room with a proper door, and serious equipment and people inside. There were four of them, and I was introduced to each one in turn. One was going to make me feel comfortable from the front, the next was to keep an eye on things from the back, the lead role was to be taken by a kindly soul who would be wielding the camera, leaving Steve in the corner who was going to be doing the ‘impressive stuff with the computer’. Well, they all looked very relaxed about the whole situation, especially Steve, who had an especially comfortable looking office chair. I asked if they normally heard or told jokes during this sort of procedure. They didn’t, but would be very happy to hear any material from me. I said I’d not really prepared anything specifically for this event, so I told them a bit about the enema and how it reminded me of a John Cooper Clarke line:

‘Like a recently disinfected shithouse
You’re clean round the bend’

Steve pitched in with his favourite joke, which wasn’t necessarily a gag as you or I might know it, but ended with some sort of a punchline from Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones ; ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’.

With all parties sufficiently relaxed, a nervy silence crept into the room, only to be broken by the lead role:

‘What you’re going to feel next is my finger’

Which I did.

If you’re lucky enough to have the over-55 invite still to turn up in your post, rest assured, because the rest of the exercise is relatively pain free. In common with teenage sex, watching Norwich City at home and the final couple of Clash albums, the excitement of anticipation isn’t really matched by the following reality. There’s a bit of discomfort; a really disconcerting video stream in front of you showing your healthy pink insides and a phenomenal feeling that you’re going to poo yourself in front of four people. There were a few encouraging ‘please relax’ shoves from behind, and a few calming words from the front, telling me that all would be well, and admiring my resting pulse. ‘Are you a runner?’ said the voice in front, and, naturally enough, the next few minutes passed by in a very convivial fashion, with me talking about my favourite subject to a captive audience.

And in no time at all ‘All clear’ was announced, with everyone in the room aware of the double meaning. I started to move off the table, and was met with firm holds on three sides.

‘We’ll just give that a bit of a wipe’

And I think I would have last heard those words, in that context, about 50 years ago.

Sometimes I guess we all feel a bit nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have to bother about self-dignity. I guess that might be something else to look forward to as we get old.

 

 

* In no particular order, the others in my life who stopped me from retiring were : Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, and Fred Goodwin, along with the hilariously well-rewarded 2007-8 Risk Committee of the Royal Bank of Scotland.