Friday, 26 August 2011

A week off. And I mean REALLY off

I am off work next week. In fact, slightly more than that. I am officially unemployed.

Well, given I'm being strict in what I say, I should say - I am officially under contract with my old employer until next Wednesday but have a couple of days holiday booked. Then the contract with my new employer kicks in a week on Monday.

A week off between two jobs is the ultimate in relaxation. With the old job behind you, there's no stress about what will be waiting in the inbox when you return. With the new job not yet started, there's only the excitement of a new job and no stress yet.

Last time I tried this, a year-and-a-bit ago, fate intervened and my Dad died at the start of the week and I spent the week organising his funeral (and other paperwork) then made a dash to London at the end of the week and drove back to London just 36 hours before starting work in the new job.

But this next week I intend to relax completely. Of course there are people and places I'm going to miss from the old place. And there are questions and a sense of excitement about starting at the new place. But for now, I'm going to forget about all of that.

So this next week I'm going to unwind, relax and enjoy myself. Expect lots of care-free tweets for the next week or so...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Bats in the cemetery

This evening we went up to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for one of their bat walks.

The park itself was, until 1966, one of London's big cemeteries to rival Highgate and Brompton. But with no burials since the mid sixties, and years of greenery growing over the gravestones, the park is now the archetypal cemetery typical of any 80s goth music video.

I must admit, until today, I didn't even really know the park existed - let alone just how interesting it is.

This evening, after reading about it on the park's Facebook page we decided to go along for one of the organised bat walks.

I have to say, it has been one of the most fun evenings I've spent in London. The cemetery takes on quite a spooky feeling after dark - if I believed in mad things like ghosts, then it'd probably be a fairly scary place to be. As it is, it feels like walking through the set of a horror B-movie. And that's without the bats.

After a short talk from Ken (the ever-enthusiastic bat-lover) and getting to find out lots of facts about bats, it was off into the cemetery as night fell to point our bat detectors at the trees and listen for the wet slapping noise which means there's a bat.

Bats use echolocation at frequencies way above what we can hear, so Ken handed out lots of bat detectors for us to point around the place. A bat detector is a little device which reproduces sounds at a much lower frequency. The echolocation of bats sounds like someone clapping their hands quickly with wet hands. Really.

We hadn't even left the clearing by the visitor centre before our bat detectors started slapping. Then a characterist black shadow flew past.

We headed into the cemetery and although the place wasn't teeming with bats, everyone got to see at least one bat - and with a group of fun, chatty people - the atmosphere was fun and convivial - and occasionally interrupted by the slapping noise from a detector. I got a great view of a pipistrelle swooping across a clearing at the back of the cemetery.

So - I'd highly recommend that if you're the kind of person who thinks snooping around an old cemetery in the dark looking for bats is fun (who doesn't?), then I highly recommend getting yourself up to Tower Hamlets one summer weekend and spending an evening with Ken.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Homeward Bound

Over the past year and a bit, my job has taken me to and from Manchester on a regular basis. I've grown rather used to the sight of Euston station at 7am and standing around waiting for the shops and the lounge to open so I can grab a cup of coffee to rid me of my slumber before falling onto the train and shaking myself to life before I get to Stockport and need to give directions to the cab driver.

I've spent time in Manchester before. A previous job used to bring me to Birchwood, taking a taxi from Warrington Bank Quay, on many an occassion. This time, it's been a cab picking me up from Stockport and taking me over to Ashton Under Lyne. But it feels the same.

In both cases, I would repeatedly switch between staying at a hotel close to the office, and a hotel in the centre of town. I'd stay close to the office, and then be sitting in the hotel thinking to myself "this is boring" and so next time I'd get myself booked into a hotel in the centre of Manchester. A week or so later, I'd be sitting in that hotel in the centre of Manchester thinking to myself "I'm still just sitting in my hotel room, why on earth don't I stay closer to the office?". So next time I'd stay closer to the office again, and think "this is boring" - you get the drift...

Staying in a city centre on your own is, in some respects, more lonely than staying in a hotel just outside a city on your own. At least in the latter case you can blame your boring evening on the location rather than looking out the window at an exciting city centre of which you don't feel part.

The life of business travel sounds exotic. The places I've been with my career over the year sound exciting and conjure up images of wonderful sights and interesting foods. Beijing. Tokyo. Stockholm. Ronneby(!). But in reality, they are all pretty much the same when you just go from the airport to the hotel and back again with just a few hours in the office to distract you from the humdrum.

Of course, going back to these places as a tourist adds a whole new aspect, but when you're travelling on business, it's all the same no matter where you are in the world.

I'm not a natural traveller. I like places which feel homely - and the most homely place of all is home. I enjoy restful places where I can relax and feel comfortable, but there's still a part of me which feels even more relaxed when I'm back home. No matter how exciting the views, or how fantastic the company in a far-flung location, I can always feel the desire to go home tugging at me and pulling me back towards London.

London is home for me nowadays. It's not where I was born, and it may not be where I grow old and die, but for now it's certainly home. It's never made sense to say "going home" when I return to visit my childhood back on The Wirral, as that really doesn't feel like home anymore. Since my Dad died last year, the house where I grew up is no longer somewhere I can go, and so whilst there are places and people from my childhood, the last remaining reason for me to call it "home" has disappeared.

When my Dad was ill, I spent a lot of time up there, but still I felt the tug back to London. It was hard to leave him and come home, but home was the only place I could relax and take in what was happening. It meant a lot of time spent on the train to and from Euston, but at least I got to spend time at home.

For me, home is a special place. I can go there and shut the door and the world is outside. I love to see things, and I love to visit places. But most of all I love coming home. And fortunately, I'm about an hour away now and heading back down to Euston...

Monday, 15 August 2011

A step too far...

This morning, I was in the First Class Lounge at Euston station ("ooo, get me!" etc) and popped to the bathroom before my train was due to leave.

I opened the door, and the gents was dark. So, I thought, maybe it's one of those "motion detector" arrangements where the lights come on in response to somebody jiggling about in front of a little magic eye. So I gingerly stepped into the gents and flung my arms around trying to get the lights to come on. I didn't want to move so far away from the door that it would close behind me, as I wasn't sure I'd be able to find it again in the dark. Still nothing.

So I wandered around to the front desk, and asked if they could switch the lights on. I was told to walk in there, and the lights would magically come on. In fact, the guy from the front desk came around with me and walked boldly in. He had to walk in at least 10ft away from the door before the lights came on - did they really expect anyone visiting the loo would close the door behind them and walk 10ft into a blacked out room before the lights came on?

I'm generally not a fan of things which do something automatically. Taps which turn themselves on, urinals which flush themselves as soon as you walk away, lights which turn on when you enter the room, doors which open as you approach them. I understand the convenience argument and indeed the hygeine argument for some applications, but I intensely dislike the social akwardness which can arise when you presume something is automatic, but it does nothing as you approach.

If you are walking towards an automatic door, there's always that moment of doubt that it's not going to open and you'll end up walking face first into the glass. Worse still are the automatic escalators - rare in the UK but quite common in Sweden - which appear to be static steps but suddenly start moving as you step onto them. One can't stand still on the escalator though, as if they didn't start moving, you would be left standing on the top step of a static staircase - which would just be silly.

When approaching a set of automatic revolving doors, there is the question of speed. Obviously they take some time to get up to speed, but once you've stepped close enough to get them started, your are close enough to the doors that you are somewhat committed to stepping into them. As you step in, they revolve slowly, but even in the half revolution until you step out again, the speed can pick up significantly, meaning you have to speed up to keep in time.

But places where automatic doors would be useful, they never seem to be fitted. Train doors for instance. When faced with a door button with two hands full of luggage, it would be rather nice if the doors automatically opened if someone was standing by them when the train stops. Similarly, the doors between carriages on trains - when carrying a couple of cups of coffee from the shop, finding an elbow or nose spare to press the button with can be tricky. Though these doors are even worse; they don't even have movement detectors to stop them shutting, so if you happen to be standing halfway through in a queue to get off the train, they will continue to poke you in the side and spring open again rather than stay open until you've moved.

But the worst, for me anyway, is the idea that there are automatic things in the toilets. I am very British about all things lavatorial, and the idea that there are magic eyes watching me and making things happen when I move makes me feel somewhat self-conscious and as though I'm being watched. It's bad enough when it's only the taps, but toilets which flush themselves as soon as they know I'm walking away is just a step too far for me...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Why I'm not running the marathon

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably familiar with my frequent tweets about running. I was never much of a runner until recently, but in the past year or so, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve become addicted to running.

I aim to do a 20 mile+ run every Sunday, and try to squeeze in a couple of gentle 10km jogs during the week, too.

Almost every time I write something on Twitter after one of my long Sunday runs at least one person will ask if I’m training for a marathon – and if not, why I don’t consider doing one. The answer to the first question is a simple “no”; the answer to the second is a little more complex.

A few years ago, I did consider entering the London Marathon for charity. I told family and friends I was going to enter and then never did. At the time, I think a lack of self-belief that I could ever run that distance was a large factor – but looming equally large over my decision not to enter was the knowledge that people would be watching me run, texting me afterwards to ask how I did, and asking me what my time was. In short – I’d be setting myself up to be judged on how I did in the marathon, and that was enough for me to abandon the plan to run it.

These days, running the marathon distance would be possible. I regularly run 20 miles around the parks and towpaths of East London and occasionally stretch that to a 40km run if I’m feeling particularly energetic or if the mood takes me on a given day. I’d never say running that distance is easy and even though I’ve done it many times, running 20 miles is still a both a physical and mental challenge; that’s not to deny it gets easier then more I do it, though – I just don’t think it will ever be “easy”.

But still, even though I know I could do the distance, the thought of the London Marathon fills me with dread. So if it’s not the distance, what is it? Well the part which fills me with dread is the part which people who’ve run the race tell you will act as an encouragement – it’s the spectacle of the event and the crowds lining the route. Let me explain – or at least try to.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with sport, and a general distaste for anything which involves being watched by other people. I’m sure a psychologist would have plenty to say about incidents in my childhood which may precipitate such things, but let’s just take those as a given for now. Sport in general was always difficult for me. Never a coordinated child, I excelled at all things academic throughout school, but was never the sporty type. I still can’t kick a ball in a straight line or throw a tennis ball with anything other than wild inaccuracy.

Objectively, I’ve never been fat. I’ve carried a few extra pounds at various points in my life, but I’ve never gone above a 34 inch waist. But still, I’ve never been happy with my size and so a few years ago decided that exercise was the solution. My first choice of sport was badminton. I had played a few times socially, but decided to start taking it seriously and played regularly. It was great fun, but in the end I realised I was taking it too seriously and wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, and so my playing fizzled and I’ve not played for a few months now.

Around the same time I started running. Initially I was just running a very short 2km route from home, around Wapping and back home again. It was hard work, but eventually I got to running it without stopping and that felt like an achievement. I got up as far as running 10km around a different loop, and ran that distance regularly. Then one day I decided to try going a bit further until I ran around the loop three times for my first 30k run, earlier this year.

But running around the same loop three times is very boring, and so eventually I decided to try a new route. I walked the route first, as familiarity with the route was important to my self-confidence in running it. Eventually the regular Sunday morning run grew in length until it reached 20 miles – from Wapping up the Lee Valley Navigation and back with a little detour around Victoria Park on the way.
When I’m out running, I get myself into a little world of my own. I put on an mp3 player and turn the volume up loud enough for me to be lost in the music – but not so loud as to drown out the world around me. I focus just on the path ahead, and don’t look sideways as I’m running – quite literally. My route is chosen so that there are as few people around as possible. Most of the other people on the route are cyclists who appear and disappear quickly or other runners as absorbed in their own world as I.

Even if there are people idly sitting by the side of the canal watching everyone as they wander past, if I think they are watching me, I start to feel tense and lose my stride. My usual response is to speed up to be past them as quickly as possible. I know that they aren’t really watching me, but even the feeling that they may be is enough to make me self-conscious and speed past them.

So imagine that feeling multiplied by however many thousand people watch the London Marathon from the sidelines as the runners go past. Whereas many people would see this as an encouragement, to me it would just increase the sense of competition and weaken my confidence in finishing the race with a respectable time.

I could run a marathon if I had an invisibility suit. If nobody could see me do it and I couldn’t hear the crowd at the sidelines. I would wear blinkers and stare straight ahead. I would put on my mp3 player (yes, you are allowed to wear them during a marathon...) and ignore the crowd. I wouldn’t have my name on my shirt for people to shout, and would probably wear sunglasses so that people couldn’t see my eyes. I would aim for a time of between 4 and 4 and a half hours so as to be amongst many other runners who would surround me and hide me from the crowd. And most importantly, I wouldn’t tell anyone I was doing it – that way, nobody would expect to see me and nobody would be looking for me. I would just be another anonymous runner amongst the thousands slowly making my way around 26 miles in the April sunshine.

So there you have it. I’m not going to do a marathon. I’ll happily run the distance and I’m sure I’ll run 26 miles more than once this summer during my Sunday outings – but I’m not going to enter an organised marathon in the foreseeable future.

And when I do eventually enter one, I shalln’t be telling anyone about it before, during or afterwards.