Sleepless at 3.45am

I’ve been awake for a while, although I am trying very hard to be in denial. It’s impossible to calibrate time when you are in that indeterminate fuzzy zone between awake and asleep, floating between reality and dreamland.

I try to drift casually back into sleep. It’s like I am lying in a rowing boat which has drifted to the shore of a beautifully calm lake and bumped against a bank of dry land. I want to drift effortlessly back out to the deep water, but I have no oars. So I close my eyes and hope the light breeze takes me.

It isn’t going to happen. I have lain and hoped for long enough. I have been trying to conjure up dreams to persuade my brain to go back to dreamland. In that semi-sleep zone, it’s sometimes possible to persuade your imagination to create unreal and fantastic images which beckon you back into that fantasy world of dreams and sleep.

But after a while, as my logical daytime mind steals space and energy from my disconnected night-time mind, I know that this battle is being lost, and some new tactic is required.

With looming trepidation, my now dominant waking mind asks the inevitable question – how serious is this? In other words, what time is it? and how many hours are there between now and the time I need to get up? The longer that time is, the less sleep I have already had, the more stressful the situation becomes, the less likely more sleep is. It becomes a nightmare you can’t fall sleep from !

So this is a question best avoided, as there is rarely a good answer. Like asking your boss how much your colleagues earn. The answer just gives you a bigger problem. Ignorance can be bliss.

In normal circumstances this avoidance tactic can work well. I can quite easily go to the bathroom without opening my eyes or looking at a clock. Then I can pretend it is whatever time I want it to be. Even in a strange hotel (which is half my life) my memory is sufficient to navigate into the correct closet reasonably safely, without visual help. The only tricky bit is finding the toilet itself and then standing at the appropriate distance – otherwise the consequences can be messy. So I walk with my hands out in front of me, as if sleepwalking, until I touch a wall. I have managed to convince myself I am still effectively asleep – just sleepwalking.

Tonight, I know that a mere bathroom visit will not solve the problem. So I look fearfully at my watch. It reports 3.45 a.m. A very poor answer indeed – my watch is not my friend anymore.

At 8am I will start a day of reasonably demanding meetings in an office 20 minutes away, and I need to shower, dress, pack, have breakfast and check out – ideally in that order.

I try simply rearranging the pillows and lying back in bed. I try opening a window. I try different sleeping arrangements with my duvet. Legs in, legs out. Head under, head over. Foetal or recovery position?

I try eliminating every source of light in the pursuit of total darkness.

Any tiny source of light can wake me up and prevent me from sleeping. The smallest spec assumes the magnitude of a laser beam in a darkened room.

The usual culprits are an early sunrise coupled with inadequate curtains. The first being determined to find the smallest chink in the second – like a thief finding the weakest point to break into a house. The slightest gap under, over or between the curtains will be exploited and a dazzling ray of light will penetrate and glare menacingly through my eyelids. I don’t believe that light travels only in straight lines, it is far more devious than that.

Tonight, there is a light on my phone charger, a light on the TV, a light on the hotel phone, lights on the clock radio, and even a light on the coffee machine. It’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here. Why does every piece of technology need to have a light to announce it is availability? Spare me from attention-seeking domestic appliances (the clock radio has a legitimate excuse, I guess)

So I did my best to fix all of the above. To be fair at 3.45 a.m. there is no sunrise yet, not even in July, and the curtains seem pretty effective in this hotel for once. Nevertheless I scrupulously check they are totally drawn in the unlikely event I fall back to sleep.

I have smothered the device lights with the multiple extraneous pillows and cushions that every hotel provides these days. They can no longer disturb me. I will plead mitigating circumstances for these murderous, suffocating acts.

After all of this attempted remediation, I lay back in bed for another 20 minutes. There is no light, and now in the darkness, dark anxieties and fears start to creep in. I have a number of these demons, which I won’t confess in detail, suffice to say they revolve around mortality, the past and the future and/or being trapped (no surprises there I hear you say).

I also have one where I remember a place I have been to – usually on some far distant holiday – which I can’t get back to, or probably will never go back to. I start to walk through it, as if I have returned as a ghost. I can sketch in a surprising amount of detail. For whatever reason, this creates a feeling of rising panic and I have to open my eyes to break free, to reconnect with the here and now. None of this madness makes sleep any easier.

The other distraction is an interminable song which keeps playing through my head. Tonight, for no particular reason it is “All the young dudes” by Mott the Hoople. The opening guitar sequence. Work that one out. Great song normally – but it’s on some deadly loop in my head, a one track iTunes playlist which repeats ad infinitum. How do I turn it off? And is it in your head yet?

In quiet desperation at 5am, I try plan Z, which is to get up, make a cup of tea and let wakefulness have its 20 minutes of indulgence, on the assumption it will then be content to pass the baton back to sleep-fullness.

I try that. I also tidy the room and put everything in its place, as if I were rearranging the chaotic contents of my mind into some semblance of order and calm. I realigned the duvet and pillows, and quietly snuggled back up to the pillow, armed with a flight magazine to read (nothing too demanding). The anxieties have gone, but the tune hasn’t. And now, finally, sunrise and the light is tunnelling under the curtains ready to launch a full dawn raid.

I have accepted the inevitable. I shall get no more sleep. I will be tired all day. The day will be a battle.

But I’ll get through, try to take it easy and try to stay awake until the next match between me and insomnia, which is scheduled for this evening. I will be back in my own bed so it’s a home fixture. Hopefully my sleep brain will put in a better performance lying on its own pillow.

To Drink non-Disorderly

7th January – and no alcohol has passed my lips for the whole of this year. People are asking me whether I am doing a “dry January”. To which I reply, “I’m not. I’m just taking a break from drinking”.

I’m not alone. Many resolve to take a break from alcohol after the excesses of the Christmas period, or simply as a popular New Year resolution. But to be frank, statistics show that Christmas is just the tip of the ice cube in the whiskey. Drinking is often an all-year round habit which leaves an increasing number of people “on the rocks”.

It is easy to find statistics to show the huge negative impact and cost of alcohol consumption. Try these for starters: –

 Alcohol Issues and Impacts

  • 7% of adults regularly drink over the Chief Medical Officer’s low-risk guidelines
  • There are 600,000 dependent drinkers.
  • Every year in the UK, alcohol: –
    • causes or contributes to 9,000 deaths (88,000 in the US)
    • is the biggest risk factor for death and health issues for 15-49 year-olds
    • accounts for 1.1 million hospital admissions, costing the NHS around £3.5bn
    • contributes to over 50% of all violent incidents
    • results in crime costing around £10bn
    • is responsible for driving accidents resulting in 8,000 casualties including 220 fatalities.

These are serious numbers affecting thousands and thousands of lives. It would appear that alcohol consumption is becoming epidemic these days, with increasing numbers of young people – particularly females and those with lower incomes – binge-drinking themselves to oblivion on a Saturday night.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive – and all of those assumptions and stereotypes are misleading. Have another shot of stats : –

 Alcohol Issues by age, gender and income

  • People are drinking less. Overall alcohol consumption has fallen by 18% since 2004. The proportion of people drinking and the amount they drink have also fallen. 21% of the population do not drink at all.
  • The reduction in overall alcohol consumption is greater among younger drinkers. Older people have the greater problem. The median age for people in alcohol treatment is 46 and alcohol related deaths are highest in the 55-64 age bracket.
  • The alcohol-related mortality rate of men is 4-5 times higher in the most advantageous social class. 77% of the highest earners report drinking in the previous week, compared to less than 45% of the lowest earners.
  • Men drink more alcohol than women.

So, the rather sobering truth is, that as a “higher earner” man aged somewhere between 55 and 64, I am in the highest risk group of over-consumption, health issues, criminal activity and violence. Stand well back!

Over-consumption, according to the aforementioned Chief Medical Officer, is to drink more than 14 units per week (5 glasses of wine or pints of beer) or more than 5 per day (two glasses of wine or pints of beers). It is also advised that we enjoy several drink-free days each week.

My favourite drink is a red wine. The good news is that red wine is practically a medicine and tastes a lot better than Benelyn. It boasts many well-established health benefits, due to the high level of anti-oxidants, specifically procyanidins, quercetin and resveratrol. Try this for the bottle of advantages which red wine delivers: –

 Health Benefits of Red Wine

  • reduces bad and improved good cholesterol
  • fights free radical damage – protecting against degenerative, cardiovascular, and autoimmune diseases, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis
  • protects against weight gain by blocking an immature fat cell’s ability to grow
  • may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, and work as a neuroprotectant.
  • Has several cardio-protective properties which boost heart health

Okay, so I admit that I cut and pasted some of that medical science, and I don’t entirely understand it. But, it was from a number of reputable sources, and the health benefits of red wine (and some other alcoholic drinks) are indisputable.

However, what is also indisputable is that none of these great benefits come from the alcohol itself. In fact, many of the beneficial chemicals can be found in very non-alcoholic dark chocolate, apples, grapes, passion and other fruits. It’s just that red wine is a particularly effective way of imbibing these substances.

Alcohol is in fact, an addictive mood-affecting and dangerous poison, and responsible for all of the aforementioned social and medical problems. Nobody ever got arrested for being under the influence of blueberries.

Enough of the science and the stats. One can conclude that drinking, like many things in life is okay, even beneficial in moderation, but potentially very damaging to self and others in excess.

There are many reasons why we drink and develop our own personal drinking habits. Some drink for the taste and variety – the wine tasters, cocktail connoisseurs and beer specialists. Others drink socially, persuaded that its helpful to get at least mildly inebriated to enjoy ourselves. Or we may simply want to to “join in” with the group. The “round of drinks” rule is particularly dangerous. I doubt that many of us seriously drink primarilly to improve our health.

For me, I like a glass or two of wine at the end of a long demanding day, to help relax my mind and switch off and float downstream – ultimately – into sleep. Or it can simply be a treat or reward for myself before bedtime, along with some chocolate or a plate of cheese and crackers.

I also enjoy a glass of wine or beer or two with friends in the bar or the pub – sharing stories, cracking jokes and putting the world to right. Or it might be a glass of wine or two with dinner in a decent restaurant. The problem is, that most evenings in my week qualify for one or more of these justifications. And sometimes the two glasses can become three or more, in the right company. “One final glass?” – is always hard to refuse, as can be the next one.

We have to be careful – and I remember this old song which is particularly pertinent to we world-wide travellers who spend too much time in and hotels and restaurants.

Liars Bar – The Beautiful South

I’m a travelling businessman, I just stopped in for one drink
You’ll find that I’m not like the other men
Their noses are red, whilst mine is only pink
And they didn’t choose their drink, their drink chose them.

And he’s a world-wide traveller, he’s not like me or you,
But he comes in mighty regular for one who’s passing through.

At my regular hotel, the barman worryingly starts to pour a large glass of Sicilian red wine as soon as he sees me approaching.

Our habits can develop and grow without us really noticing – and become unhealthy before we realise it. It certainly doesn’t help that alcohol percentages and wine glasses have both become bigger in recent years, and that alcohol is 60% more affordable than it was 15 years ago. How are we to manage this? I read a very helpful article in the New York Times.

Its Time to Talk about Drinking

“Many who struggle with drinking think that the only way to gain control over alcohol is to abstain. Facing such a severe restriction, they may not try to change unless they hit a mythological “rock bottom”.

Nobody wants to view themselves as an addict, and the fact of the matter is most problem drinkers aren’t. Many people are afraid even to discuss the topic with their doctors for fear of being labelled. But in fact, researchers have long shied away from using the term “alcoholic,” because it’s both negative and dated. The new term to describe problematic drinking is “alcohol-use disorder” — a clunky but more expansive phrase that denotes a spectrum of risky drinking from mild to moderate to severe.

Only about 10 percent of the estimated 16 million Americans who abuse alcohol fall into the severe category. While those in the severe category might need to abstain from drinking, the vast majority of others don’t.”

In another newspaper, I read an account of a woman who knew she was drinking more than was sensible. She had tried moderating herself – but after a few days or weeks of reduction, the situation reverted to where it was –  like a rock rolling back to the bottom of a crevice. She didn’t want to – or feel the need to – become a life-time tee-totaller. She didn’t classify herself as an alcoholic. Here is her story:-

“I started by stopping. I gave up alcohol entirely. I didn’t know for how long– it was a big, frightening change. What if I could never drink again?

As is traditional, I took it one day at a time. After just over a month of abstinence, I had a glass of wine at a dinner. Then another. Then I stopped. I didn’t want to drink a swimming pool of booze any more. I felt great about my month off. My head was clear and the anxiety was gone. I lost weight and my skin was glowing. I didn’t want to go back to old habits. In the end, it wasn’t easy, but it was simple. I had had enough

Alcohol is a dangerous and highly addictive substance. I am amazed people are ever moderate drinkers in the first place. Alcohol is a powerful adversary. We should be kinder to ourselves about taking it on and failing.

Drinking in moderation is not the answer to life, the universe and everything, of course. But I feel, on most days, capable of facing them”

Like many habits – we need to start by breaking them completely, then to establish a new pattern of drinking less, and celebrate the benefits. Here is another account of someone who did just that: –

Jane found her drinking spiralling out of control after her company went under in 2009. She used a harm-reduction suggestion of abstaining for 30 days — at first a challenge — and then re-introduced alcohol while chronicling her thoughts, feelings and cognitive abilities after each drink on note cards.

She recognised a stark pattern: she felt happy and lucid after her first and second drinks, but sloppy and maudlin after her third and fourth.

She taped the note cards on her refrigerator and kept them up for a year as a reminder of how bad she felt after that third drink. Years on, she still thinks about those notes, especially during these stressful times. More often than not, she switches to water.

“Happiness,” she said, “doesn’t come in a bottle.”

I guess as one who is not 100% compliant with the official advice, I have crept into the foothills of alcohol-use disorder. So, I am trying what these two women did. Starting with a period of abstinence.

I have another more personal reason for being very wary of alcohol. Someone very close to me was an alcoholic. To her eternal credit, and after many years of highly destructive drinking, she somehow found the determination and courage and to stop.  She was able to describe herself, with a typical slice of caustic wit, as an  “alcoholic (retired)”. Unfortunately, despite this, all the years of drinking had taken their fatal toll on her liver and finally caught up with her, and she died at the very premature age of 45.

At the end of January, it will be 40 years since she passed away. On that day, I will raise a moderate glass of wine, in her memory – and resolve to take it a little easier for the rest of the year, and the rest of my life.

A second chance in Amsterdam.

I was in the middle of Amsterdam for one night only. I had to get out and run. So at 6.30am I was stepping out of the hotel into the icy morning air. It felt more like the middle of the night. The cold water of the IJ lay black and and foreboding in front of me. I ran alongside it, winding up my recalcitrant legs and pumping up my reluctant lungs. My body was protesting at being prematurely dragged out of bed into the freezing cold and then forced to perform, for no apparent reason. By the end of the morning, they would be glad they were working at all. Somewhere else in the city, a tram was sliding along the rails with a few early morning passengers.

Once my body accepted that there was no going back, I was soon into my rhythm, running over the bridge across the IJ and into the old city. I was heading for the famous canals – to run alongside them along the narrow pavements. There were sparkles of light in the occasional window, on pedestrian crossings and in the early christmas illuminations hanging in the trees. But otherwise the air was grey and gloomy. One or two vehicles were taking advantage of the empty roads to skip around the city. A few early risers wrapped up in dark coats and hats, their heads down, their hands thrust into their pockets, headed somewhere.

And me – in my red lycra top, phone strapped to my left arm, and an American woman’s voice updating me on my performance through the wonders of GPS, Bluetooth and bone conduction. When you run you feel like a ghost, watching the world whilst nobody else is noticing.

She announced my first kilometer – 4mins 37 secs. A shocking time – I never run that fast ! Having said that I do seem to run faster in cities than in the country. Is that because its flatter, less windy or because my ego accelerates the legs when people are around? Unbeknownst to me, this exact time – the exact number of seconds – was about to make a big difference to my life.

By now I was running alongside the Kloveniersburgwal Canal. Amsterdam is a spiders web of canals, or more accurately half a spiders web with the IJ as its diameter. Kloveniersburgwal is be one of the main spokes. cutting through the concentric semi-circles. My plan was to zig-zag around a couple of canals and bridges and create a running map which would look like a man lost in a maze. I clocked up my second kilometer as I turned along Herengracht – apparently Amsterdam’s most prestigeous and chique canal. Im sorry, but at 6.45am on a cold November morning, it looked as dull and monochromatic as all the others.

I weaved through the lattice of narrow pavements and waterways. As the visibility improved with the aproaching dawn, a few more people were emerging from their beds and getting about their daily business. I had visited Amsterdam 15 years earlier on a day trip with my daughter – seemingly nothing had changed. Quaint little bridges, cobbled streets, an unbroken wall of picturesque waterfront buildings and randomly abandoned bicyles leaning against the black iron fencing. I hadn’t remembered the tramlines. Maybe they were new.

It was November 30th – the anniversary of my dad’s passing away, nineteen years earlier. Poignant – although I wasnt really thinking about this, as I turned left twice and headed back along the left-side of Princengracht – Prince’s Canal. Further out along this canal is Ann Frank’s house. I hadn’t the time or the energy to run out that far. I was in a rush. As I headed back towards Kloveniersburgwal, I clocked up my 3rd kilometer – I was still averaging 4.45 pace despite all the twists and turns, close to a PB.

Amsterdam, without a Metro, has one of the largest tram networks in europe – over 200km of track. As I appproached Leidsestraat bridge, one of them glided across, from left to right, in front of me. I paced it perfectly as I passed behind it.

I dont know whether I heard the brakes first or saw the enormous face of the tram, literally inches away from me as I looked right. Either way I had no time to think. I guess I might have stopped and frozen, put out my hand and taken the impact.

But without thinking, something in my mind activated the accelerator boost in my legs. Two life-saving strides later I was across the rails as the tram rushed behind me. It would not have stopped in time. If I had been one second later, or the tram one second faster, or if it hadn’t braked – it would have hit me. My lap-times had to be exactly what they were.

They say your life flashes before you. Mine did not. Nor did I freeze like a rabbit – literally in its headlights. Somehow I did the only thing that worked and enabled me to run forwards into the rest of my life.

I’ve had scares in the past – I guess we all have – but not as big as this by any stretch. Having to brake hard in the car, for example. Once, with no time to brake, I had to cut suddenly into an adjacent lane to avoid hitting the car in front. About two sconds after a near miss, you feel a physical surge of adreneline from the stomach up through the chest, accompanied by a rapidly beating heart and a dry throat.

There was nothing like this. I simply kept on running along Princengracht, stretching my legs, breathing in the cool air. Maybe it was the very act of running which enabled me to remain calm and process what had just not happened to me. More likely I as in a state of shock. I started to process.

How had I not seen the tram? Because it had been completely hidden by the tram going in the other direction. Because trams don’t make a noise. Because I didnt know there was a second line going in the other direction. Because the first tram was “on the wrong side of the road”, passing from left to right and there should be nothing behind it. Because it was dark. Because I wasnt paying attention. Because when you ar running, the last thing you want to do is to stop. Because when you are running fast, you can feel invincible. Or maybe because someone up there wanted to remind me how precarious and precious life is.

I turned right and crossed a bridge, no longer really concentrating on where I was going. I just had to keep on running

Next question – how close was I to being killed? One thing was certain in my mind, I was within half-a-meter and one second of being hit. Would I have been knocked to one side, glued to the front like some cartoon cat, or would have I been dragged underneath? If I had been dragged underneath, could I have been miraculously preserved as the line of tram coaches passed above me, or (most likely) sliced up like a joint of meat.

According to my running map, I turned left again. I have no real recollection of this. I was running through a latticework of questions and what-ifs.

How would they have identified my body? How long before my colleagues in the hotel would be notified? How long before the police in England knocked on my wife’s door and suggested kindly that she might sit down?

All of this was going through my head, and I was still running, running, running. My legs working, my arms pumping, my lungs expanding, my body alive and intact.

In fact I ran another 4km, around more Amsterdam streets and canals. But my mind was somewhere else. When I stopped to check on my phone that I was running the right way back to the hotel, I turned round thinking I had been running the wrong way and set off in the wrong direction. I eventually realised and found my way back to the hotel. All I could see in my head was the steel and glass face of the tram.

The rest of the day was spent back in the hotel in a big meeting, I almost forgot all about my near-death experience. I guess I locked it away somewhere in a secret corner of my mind. At the end of the day, a number of us went to the airport. I got very stressed with someone on the phone. But I caught the flight back to Birmingham, and felt fine.

As I stepped off the plane, I looked into the dark evening sky and took a deep breath of cool air. And suddenly the delayed reaction started to kick in. I was home, alive. I felt the juxtaposition of positive relief and the shock of what might have been. I cried a little inside myself as I dragged my case through the familiar airport corridors, and bought my wife a bunch flowers. She could have been buying flowers for my funeral.

And so we live out our lives for the number of days which have have been given to us, being grateful for each day of movement in our legs and breath in our lungs. I feel less worried about growing old than I was – it really is a lot better than the alternative. And remember, whatever happens, keep on running (and keep a better look out for the trams).

Opting out of the wild goose chase

There are a many situations in life where we run into a sticky problem and have to decide whether to carry on regardless or to back track. At what point does reason tap on the shoulder of determination and suggest an honourable retreat? And will our ego  allow common-sense a fair hearing?

I set off for a 12km run across a desolate area of open fields, woods and small dykes in Denmark. I had planned a route on google maps, stitching together a mix of official paths and unofficial paths only showing up on the photo view. Some parts of the route were familiar, but there was a web of paths in the middle which were unexplored. The pioneer in me decided this would be more exciting and assumed my mind and body would be up to the challenge.

I ran the route through my head and mentally photographed some landmarks and turns. And as a double insurance, I noted that my first uncertain turning was immediately after 3 kilometres. The magic voice in my head (I think it comes from my phone) announces every kilometre, along with the speed, so I would know exactly when to turn.

The hotel I stay in is 25 stories high, illuminated like a lighthouse. The area around is almost completely flat – we are in Denmark after all – so even with a few wrong turns, I can find always my way home.

I ran down the freeway to the fields, through the gate into the wilderness and onto a tar-maced path. I ran with energy – the delicious cool evening air gently massaging my body, replenishing my lungs and relaxing my mind.

There was a decent turning off to the right. The magic voice had noted 2km at least five minutes ago. I calculated that I had cut a few corners, so this would be the path I needed. It felt a little sharper than expected, but google maps can be a little wayward with its pencil.

I seemed to be running back towards the lighthouse. I needed the path to bend left, but it was not obeying orders. Reason tapped my shoulder and I stopped.

Stopping is not part of running of course. Anyone can run 12km if they stop enough times. The magic on my phone keeps an accurate record of my speed, but has a clever “auto-pause” which trips in when the satellite in space notices that it stopped moving. The trick is to stop suddenly, so the auto pause kicks in quickly and protects your statistics. It would be easy to lose a couple of seconds off the time by slowing down. That would never do.

Geese are territorial birds and are known to chase or attack humans who disturb their territory. While geese may chase people, an actual physical attack is fairly rare.

I consulted the map on my phone. I had turned too soon. I re-routed down some smaller paths into the woods. I restarted – accelerating as fast as I could before the satellite noticed, to steal a couple of free metres.

A few more kilometres and I was close to half way. Ahead was a group of walkers with dogs, not on leads. And one must be careful of walkers who are not on a leads. They can easily disrupt the run. I rather pointedly ran off the path around them, carefully watching for any over excited dog who might think it was a good game to chase my legs. I was safe.

I was heading in a straight line to the sea. The main path bent left ahead of me, but there was a smaller path straight ahead, leading into the woods. I went for this one, it seemed right. I knew there was a major road between me and the sea, but was confident it would be possible to go under or over it.

Geese don’t deliberately attack people — they react defensively to what they perceive as a threat, such as a person being too close when it’s breeding season or they have goslings to care for.

As I ran the path grew thinner, less distinct and more overgrown. It is hard to comprehend the concept of a disappearing path. Paths are created by feet repeatedly trampling the ground, destroying the vegetation and compacting the soil. For a good path to disappear suggests that most of the feet stopped and turned round. Reason insists that at least some feet must have come this way and arrived at some sort of destination.

And so I carried on regardless. The ground was wet and squelchy now under foot. To the right now there was a high wire fence preventing human access to the highway.

Now the path was, at best, flattened grass, at worst, puddles of standing water. I ran on picking out the best route through, until I realised that I needed to slow down if I were to avoid disappearing into mud and puddles. My shoes filled with cold water.

I stopped and waited for “autopause”. Reason persuaded determination to walk carefully rather than run carelessly. I hit “stop” on my magic phone. This part of the run would be excluded from my statistics.

You can stop a goose’s aggression by respectfully leaving its territory. Back away slowly, while remaining calm.

The wetter the ground became, the further off the path I walked, until the path faded into an optimistic figment of my imagination. Now I was striding through grass as tall as my head. I scanned for evidence of previous feet – maybe a broken reed or a flatter patch of grass. I selected clumps of grass as stepping stone through the marsh. One misplaced stride and I could disappear into a sink hole. I would phone for help as my legs disappeared into the quicksand – desperately trying to describe the route and the non-existent path, trying to remember my ” find my phone” password. Then a race against time as I was gradually sucked into the Danish outback.

In the failing light I could see no clear exit ahead – just a large field of tall grass and a few trees on the horizon. But still determination excluded all thought of turning back. So long as I followed the fence, eventually I would reach civilisation and dry land.

You may be able to get away before a goose becomes too aggressive if you see the warning signs of an attack. Pay attention to any potential signs of aggression when you’re near a goose.

I had drifted away from the fence, so I picked my way back. My feet were wet and my spirits waning. This was not the even paced run I had selected. I was fighting through marshland. But I would plough on. If we keep going forwards, and keep calm, we will get there. Slowly but surely. One step at a time. The tortoise beats the hare.

I was back at the fence, the ground was dryer, the path a little clearer. I could run again. I hit “start” on my magic phone and ran as fast as I could.

That’s when I  saw the geese. I stopped abruptly.

At first, a goose will bend its head back slightly. This indicates aggression. If the goose then bends its neck out straight, this shows the aggression is increasing. If a goose is about to attack, it will pump its head up and down. Geese may hiss or honk as well if they are becoming aggressive.

I stopped suddenly. “Autopause”. Not to protect my time, but to protect my body. There were two big geese and four little geese. I believe they are called goslings. The big geese looked startled – as well they might. Nobody in their right minds would come this way. Startled big geese with little goslings to protect are a dangerous proposition. My mind raced through its information about geese.

My brain is no Wikipedia. I didn’t have load of information to race through. Just the two points really. One is that geese can get very violent if they feel their babies are under threat. Two is that violent geese can cause significant injury to human limbs. And I had four of those – largely uncovered.

I looked at them and they looked at me. Both geese had stretched out their necks and their heads were bobbing up and down. This felt a little defensive, possibly aggressive.

Do not do anything that may escalate the situation, like yelling. Do not yell at the goose. It’s better not to say anything, as to avoid provoking it. You should also not make any physical gestures towards the goose. Do not kick, swing your arms, or throw anything at the goose.

This was the moment for a choice. Turning back and retracing all of those steps was a hugely unattractive option. It would be 30 minutes of fighting through the same grassy swamp, and an admission of defeat. On the other hands, I quite like my arms and legs and I knew that these geese could outrun me in their natural environment. And I think they can fly?

I had visions of sprinting through the marsh pursued by angry geese attacking me like a Hitchcock mashup of The Birds and North-by-North-West. At best I would be Cary Grant hiding in a field of grain. At worse a badly injured, catatonic Tippi Hedren.

Leave before a goose begins to chase you. If the goose sees you’re backing away, it may decide you’re not a threat. Back away slowly until you’re a good distance from the goose and it’s stopped making aggressive gestures. Stay faced towards the goose and use your peripheral vision to guide your movements. It’s very important you face the goose until it stops pursuing you. Keep an eye on the goose at all times. Do not close your eyes or turn your back from the animal. Watch the goose carefully until it backs off.Make sure to avoid anything you may trip over, as this may give the goose reason to attack.

I backed away slowly and carefully without making a noise. In my head I was repeating in my head “I mean you know harm, I do not want to barbecue your children”.

Remain calm. If you appear frightened or upset, a goose could take this as a sign of aggression. It’s a good idea to maintain a calm, neutral demeanor when backing away from a goose. If you’re struggling to remain calm, take a few deep breaths as you back away. Keep in mind that, while geese can be territorial, an actual physical attack is very rare.

If a goose sees you running, this may encourage it to chase you more. Also, running may make you appear excited or agitated, which a goose may perceive as aggression. Even if a goose is gaining ground, remain calm and take slow, careful steps to get away.

I was very conscious that I was a long way from any help, and if I were attacked I would have no easy way of getting medical attention.

Seek medical attention if you’re injured. In the event a goose bites you or hits you with its wings, seek medical attention. Geese are strong, and can cause injury when provoked. You may require stitches or a cast if a goose attacks you. Go to the emergency room for assessment as soon as you get away.

I backed away further, keeping eye contact with the geese. I turned round and surveyed the enormous field I had just crossed searching for alternatives. My spirits fell. I had come for an invigorating run, not a hack through a wet jungle full of dangerous animals.

I considered the fence. Maybe there was an escape route out onto the highway. I looked for any damage or a hole. But this was Denmark. The fence was strong and intact, with a nice piece of barbed wire across the top. As a child I became very adept at scaling all sorts of fences – climbing into a garden to retrieve a football or breaking into a “rec” (recreation ground).

Barbed wire is a type of steel fencing wire, constructed with sharp edges or points arranged at intervals along the strand(s). A person or animal trying to pass through or over barbed wire will suffer discomfort and possibly injury. The limited mobility of someone climbing a fence makes passing conventional barbed wire more difficult. Movement against barbed wire can result in moderate to severe injuries to the skin and, depending on body area and barbed wire configuration, possibly to the underlying tissue.

I weighed it up. The six foot fence was in two horizontal parts, with just enough of a foothold for me to climb up. A minute later, there was a 50-something man in Lycra running top and shorts, precariously perched half-way up a fence, looking down to a grassy bank. At waist level there was the small challenge of a strip of barbed wire. The way the fence was constructed, there was no foothold on the other side. I would have to launch myself and half-vault over the top. I could either rip the skin off my bare legs or twist an ankle or break a leg on landing. And then – even if I landed safely, was there an escape across the road – a fast moving dual carriageway.

Reason was shouting at me now. “Get down you stupid boy”. This was not the time for sitting on the fence. My goose was cooked. I acted my age, not my shoe size. I grew up and I climbed down, backed down, turned around.

I identified a line of trees leading to what looked like drier ground. I found a route into the woods and a better path.  So I had avoided a complete back track.

The second 6km of my run felt good. Firm ground under my feet, my limbs and flesh intact. The sun was setting through the trees. The marshland – and no doubt the goose family – basked in its warm orange glow.

Being adventurous and determined has its place. There is nothing as thrilling as taking a risk – conquering your inner geese, leaping the fences of fear.

But running on firm ground into the sunset feels pretty good too.

The Auckland Taxi Mystery

I was checking out of the last hotel on the final day of a week dashing around some islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Three of them to be precise. Australia, South NZ and now North NZ.

My colleagues had left at midday, leaving me with a fee afternoon to walk around Auckland. I’d been up the Sky Tower, chugged across on the ferry to Devonport and watched a contortionist do 30 minutes of impressive street theatre. Finally I spent the evening sat in a very classy Japanese restaurant eating sushi and steak, before returning to the hotel to complete my packing. I had enjoyed the “me” time.

Lone – who had made the travel arrangements back at the office – had very wisely booked me in for an extra night in the Crowne Plaza, which meant I could have the room until I was ready to leave. It was now 10pm and my flight was in three hours.img_8445

I leaned nonchalantly on the reception desk, all packed and ready to set off home, with my faithful black shoulder bag perched on top of my big brown suitcase behind me. Strange to be checking out of a hotel -rather than in – at this time of night. But all was good and in control – or so I thought.


Having approximated which items I had used from the minibar, I asked the nice receptionist for a taxi to the airport. She told me that there was one parked outside and asked me how would I like to pay? Normally I would just settle with the driver on arrival. But she offered me the option of paying in advance and adding this to the hotel bill. It would be one less receipt to type into the expenses claim spreadsheet when I got home, so I took the prepayment option.

That was my first mistake. She said it might take a little while for her supervisor to get a voucher for the taxi from the safe. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have bothered. But so be it – I was well ahead of schedule, and the taxi would wait, I guess. As she took my payment and printed off the receipt, a man came up behind me and offered to take my two bags to the taxi. I thanked him as he helpfully wheeled them away.

I began to get a little worried when the receptionist suggested I take a seat whilst I waited. The taxi was no doubt clocking up a fare already. The company would pay, so that was fine, but I was feeling a little guilty at keeping him waiting. As it turned out, I need not have worried about that.

After 5 minutes I began to wonder where the duty manager was and where exactly this safe was? Maybe in some deep underground vault? After 10 minutes I decided he must have forgotten the combination. I was starting to get irritated.

Heading Home

Finally the voucher arrived and the receptionist handed it over. I thanked her and said goodbye. I had enjoyed my stay in Auckland. The room had been lovely with a great view down the street to the harbour. The breakfast bar in the top floor (exclusive to elite members of the hotel chain loyalty scheme) had a stunning view over the city and the sea.

As I walked towards the hotel exit, I reflected on how much I had enjoyed the trip. But I was pleased to be taking the taxi to the airport for the first of three flights to take me home, back to the right side of the world. I had climbed the mountain, thoroughly enjoyed the view, but was now happy to be on the way down.

I smiled a goodbye to the commissionaire at the desk near the door and stepped outside to rejoin my luggage in the waiting taxi.

img_9301As with many hotels – the Crowne Plaza, Auckland has a crescent of road in front of the door where the taxis can drop you off and pick you up. I looked left and I looked right. There was no taxi waiting.

Lost Luggage, and no way home

I blinked and checked again. The road was empty. I felt a rush of adrenaline. Where the was my taxi? More to the point, where the was my luggage? Even more to the point, where was my passport?

The last question was the easiest. It was in my luggage. That had been my second mistake.

It took a millisecond to register all at once, disbelief, despair and distress. I could not be further from home. I had a flight booked, but no passport. And you cannot board a plane without a passport.

All I had been left with were the clothes I was wearing and my phone. And the only possible explanation – my luggage had been stolen.

How easy had it been for the driver to take my luggage, put it in his boot and drive away! An audacious, but stunningly simple manoeuvre. I wondered why I had never heard of it happening before.

Don’t Panic

When the Icelandic volcano erupted and filled the skies with ash, I was in Budapest. I had a flight booked then too – but it was cancelled along with all the other flights. I had thought I would never get home. Between you and me I had a bit of a melt down – a full sized panic attack. Eventually we hired a car and drove back to England. But the experience had left its scars. Ever since, I have had some anxiety about being a long way from home. I had managed it on the way to Australia, but never expected to have to manage it on the way home.

Budapest was a mere 1,800 km from home. This time I was 18,000 km from home, and as far as I am aware there is no easy way of driving from New Zealand to England.

So the first thing I had to say to myself – despite a seemingly hopeless situation – was “don’t panic”.

Despite the obvious absence of a taxi, I walked up and down the street to be absolutely sure. No hidden or invisible taxis were to be found. Like any bloke though, I was determined to keep looking for something I’d lost in the same place.img_8380

Calling all Drivers

Eventually, in despair, I went back inside and explained, calmly, my predicament to the commissionaires. They scratched their heads. Nothing like this had ever happened like this before, they told me un-reassuringly.

They said they only used one taxi firm and that they would contact them and ask them to put a message out to all of their drivers. I could not see how this could possibly help. In the unlikely event the thief was with this firm – he would be equally unlikely to respond to a polite request to return the stolen goods. Particularly there was a laptop, iPad and a nice pair of headphones in the bag with the passport. It would be like shouting after a mugger to kindly bring back your wallet.

I stood outside and messaged my wife on my one remaining possession. She had only questions and no answers. Ahead of me, days of waiting to get a new passport somehow and re-book all of my flights. It was a nightmare.

One of the commissionaires came outside and stood beside me. We stood together looking ruefully at the empty road. The message had gone out – maybe the taxi would magically come back. They had cameras – maybe they would catch him on the camera. He told me again that nothing like this had ever happened before. He was only trying to help. He went back inside. I was beyond help.

I wasn’t panicking yet, for some reason. I think I was suspending belief, living in denial.

Hope springs eternal.

And then, the guy came back outside and told me that they had identified the driver and the car. Not only that, he was on his way back to the hotel with my luggage. He would be ten minutes.

This was fantastic news – in the sense that it seemed like a fantasy. Why would a taxi driver drive off without a passenger and then respond to a request to come back? Had he just fancied a drive around? It made no sense. I would believe it when I saw it.

I stayed outside – and scoured the road. Five and ten minutes passed. But then – like a mirage – a smart looking taxi was coming down the road, turning into the hotel and drawing up in front of me. A smart man in a cap wound down his window and leaned across, “I have your luggage” he said. Maybe there was to be a price to pay, a deal to be made. But he didn’t look like a criminal.

Seeing is believing. I asked him to open the boot – and there it was. My black bag and brown suitcase neatly arranged. I was pleased, relieved and still completely perplexed.

And then he explained. Have you worked it out yet? I hadn’t.

The Case Solved

Very apologetically, the driver explained. It was a porter from the hotel had brought out my bags and the driver who had opened his boot for him to put them inside. The driver had waited a while – whilst I was waiting for the voucher. Then another man had come outside and got into the taxi. The driver assumed this was me, the owner of the luggage. Fortunately the man only wanted to be taken 10 minutes away. Then he had heard the message. And now here he was.

Three lessons. Firstly – always keep your passport within 6 inches of your person. Secondly – there is always an alternative explanation for everything. Thirdly – don’t panic until all other options have been exhausted.

The driver apologised again as we drove to the airport. He had no need to – in my mind he had transformed from being my worse enemy to becoming my best friend.





The Broken Bones of Christchurch

Arriving in Christchurch after midnight was like arriving in a ghost town. We drove quietly from the airport along deserted roads before finding the edge of the town centre. On our left appeared a temporary orange plastic fence behind which something was being cleared or constructed – it wasn’t apparent which. The road narrowed and deteriorated and we angled around a number of diversions. My navigation became less and less confident. Fortunately Angela knew the way to our hotel and we found our way to our hotel middle of the maze.

Angela, Adrian and I stepped out of the car – the darkness illuminated with the soft glow of the hotel lights and the moon. Against the charcoal background, we registered the other taller hotels of Christchurch. Each one was looming up like gravestones in the darkness. Ours was the only hotel in town with rooms – not because the others were full. On the contrary, they were empty – empty and desolate, empty and abandoned. Large cranes circled around them like vultures in the sky.

Christchurch is the largest city on the south island of New Zealand. It takes its name from the eponymous college in Oxford. It is famously English in foundation, history and character.

One day (it was February 2011) an intense earthquake 5000 meters underground caused massive destruction above the ground. Hundreds of buildings collapsed and the infrastructure of the city was destroyed. One hundred and eighty-five people lost their lives. This erstwhile picturesque, peaceful and prosperous town was assaulted and devastated physically, financially and emotionally.

Many of the buildings which remain standing are condemned and uninhabitable. Visitors and tourists no longer stay over, as they once did. Some locals refuse to come into the city for fear of a repeat attack. We met a woman who stays occasionally – but keeps her suitcase packed by the door of her hotel room. Earthquakes as a fact of life here – and it would only take another one of similar intensity to complete the mindless vandalism.

christchurcj-towersWe were booked into the one functioning hotel in the city centre. The Novotel did not survive the earthquake – it was built from new afterwards to the latest survival specification. Unlike the surrounding broken buildings, this one is stocky and solid. You get the impression the walls are several meters thick. Angela assured us it was perfectly safe. Even so, Adrian and I could not help but speculate whether we would prefer a room on a lower floor or a higher floor. To fall or be fallen onto?

As it turned out, I was given room 1008. I didn’t argue either way. It was well after midnight when I rolled my faithful suitcase into its latest hotel room. As I always do, the first thing I did was to pull back the curtains and check out the view.

We were in Cathedral Square – and there directly below I saw the headless body of the Cathedral. The nave looked relatively intact, but where the tower and spire should have been was just a pile of bricks. plus an ugly lattice of rusty iron supports keeping the remaining sad structure from collapsing out. I was looking down on a decapitated dinosaur – the grey scales of the roof covering its body, but with the neck and head completely missing.

It was like a building on a life-support system. A few hundred meters across the city, they have built a transitional church, like a massive ridge tent. They call it the cardboard cathedral. This is where people worship in the indeterminate limbo. The debate in the town is what to do with the original cathedral. The church want to switch off the life-support and put it out of its misery. Others want to attempt a rebuild of the original. Nobody can agree, and it has become quite acrimonious. Meanwhile, the structure remains broken and paralysed – and a constant reminder of the tragedy. I closed the curtains and hoped for a sound and secure sleep.

img_9235-copyUnderstandably the cathedral has become a symbol of the earthquake and a site of pilgrimage and tourism. The next day as I walked around, I joined the gatherings of people taking photos – with that uncomfortable mix of fascination and guilt which wrestle in our conscience when we observe human tragedy. As I stood at the head of the cathedral carcass, taking photographs into the exposed cavity of its chest – I wondered how many had been killed by the falling tower. How would they feel about the crowds collecting cheap souvenir images on their iPhones?

Christchurch cathedral had been the very foundation and centre of the city – literally and figuratively. It was a beacon standing proudly above the city, visible from miles away. Without a spire, it is as if the cathedral has lost its potency and the city has lost its heart.

Whilst we could understand the difficulty of making a decision about Christchurch’s most iconic building – we could not understand why so many other condemned buildings had been standing. Some were pretty ugly concrete hotels. Why not remove them? And yet, at every turn there we found desolate buildings surrounded by temporary fencing with foreboding KEEP OUT or DANGER signs. Some have no sides or no roof. Others looked intact but are merely cadavers – completely dead inside.img_9232IMG_9242 - Copy.JPG

Why had they not been removed? Are they not potentially dangerous? How likely are they to collapse with another earth tremor? We were tempted to cross the road when we walked past them, just in case. Surely the city needs to rebuild and redevelop in order to resurrect itself to something close to what it was? To rise from its own ashes? Its been over five years.

But more than all of this – surely the people of Christchurch want to remove these daily reminders of that nightmare day of death and destruction? And yet the memorials loom above them on every corner, the skyline dominated by condemned towers.

We asked a resident these questions and we realised our naivety. They had not been idle. They had spent five years clearing all of the rubble and removing hundreds of other unsafe buildings – the ones we could no longer see. We can only see the ones which were left. The City Mall, for example, has been removed and been replaced by ReSTART, a collection of shops trading out of steel shipping containers.

Christchurch is a city which understandably struggles to move on and rebuild. Earthquakes are, and always have been, a way of life here. The city was founded on a massive fault line. There are over a thousand earthquakes every year of different magnitudes. Angela’s “earthquake app” recorded several of them, even in the two days when we were there.

How do you find the strength – never mind the cash – to rebuild when the prospect of another major destruction is always ever minutes away? Residents move away, tourists tour elsewhere. But over 375,000 people still live here. But rather than worrying about empty hotel towers, many of these will be more concerned about rebuilding their lives after the death of a partner, parent, child or friend. Grief lasts for much longer than five years, and loss lasts forever.

For the first five years, the city gathered each year to remember the earthquake and to remember the dead. 2016 was the last time they chose to do this. Whilst there are reminders everywhere – we found no physical memorial for those who died. The only physical memorial – the Bridge of Remembrance – is a war memorial which rather miraculously survived the earthquake.

Maybe memorials are for history – so that we who have no memory can be reminded of past tragedies, acts of heroism and wars “lest we forget”.

Walking around Christchurch, there is no need for memorials. The earthquake is everywhere – in the landscapes, in the personal and corporate hearts and minds of all who live here. Some things cannot and will not ever be forgotten.

To fly, perchance to sleep

Counting time between proper sleeps – it was 48 hours. From waking up in my own bed in England (8am Saturday morning) to falling asleep in a hotel room in Melbourne (10pm Monday evening). We can argue about the definition of a day. The number of hours between these two times is theoretically 62 hours. The real number – subtracting the 11 hours time difference was 51 hours.

Let’s also establish that a nap is not a proper sleep. For me a proper sleep has to be 6 hours at least. For others, nothing under 8 hours would be given serious consideration. In that period, I think I had maybe 4 naps of between 30 mins to an hour. Hardly even naps – a mere sequence of napettes.

This had not been the plan. The plan was to sleep on the journey courtesy of the joyful provision of a “flat” business class bed. Flat of course is a relative term. As also, as it turned out to bed, is “bed”.

I don’t count myself as a fussy sleeper. i spend over 100 nights a year in various hotels in various countries and on the whole sleep well. The beds can vary in width, height, bounciness and sheet quality. None of these phase me, so long as I can untuck the linen, wrap it around me and adopt the foetal position. I’m a little fussier about the pillow. It need to be soft enough to be cuddled, and thin enough to be able to support my head without bending my neck.

But the bed does need to be smooth and big enough. By definition, a seat which turns into a bed will contain at least two lumps, where the bends for the human bottom and knees are positioned. No amount of flattening can seem to remove these. I’m no princess, believe me, but two small ridges become like mountain ranges when you are trying to lie on them. Also by definition, a seat is designed to accommodate your back and behind – not to lie on side wards in the foetal position on. I’m not a big guy by any standards – I’m short and wirey. But as soon as I lay down and bent my legs, I was pushing my knees or my bum against the uncompromising hard plastic of the sides of the seat-cum-bed.

All of this I could have coped with, I suspect. I pressed all the buttons to make my bed horizontal. I stood by as the nice flight attendant positioned my mattress. I had a nice small pillow and a blanket. I was all set. Thankful for the comparative luxury of a flattened seat. I got over the lumps – figuratively and literally and found a comfortable posture. And I shut my eyes.

Now, I confess to a degree of flight anxiety. I am not scared of flying as such – there is a greater chance of being killed on the way to the airport than on the plane. And I am no control freak. I was happy to trust the pilot, the crew, the engineers, the designers and the physicists whose frankly ridiculous hypothesis that a plane will take off because of the shape of its wings seems nevertheless to backed up repeatedly by the evidence of 120 flights last year.

No – my anxiety is a combination of claustrophobia, being trapped, and being a long way from home. All three of which were now asserting themselves. I was encased on this plane for 6 hours, with no sensible way of getting off. I was contained in a system which meant I would not escape into the open air for about 20 hours. I was hurtling away from home at 570mph. And I was feeling trapped in this small seat-cum-bed contraption, which made me feel like a baby confined to the prison of its cot. They do say these things are all traced back to early childhood.

When you close you eyes, you shut out reality. Reality is replaced by what is inside your head and memory. Your fears come out to play, rising up from the shadows, telling you all sorts of exaggerated horror stories.
All of which I had anticipated. Of course the problem with anticipating anxiety, is that it serves only to bring it forward and exaggerate it. Welcome to anxiety about anxiety.

Suffice to say, that I have learned a number of methods and techniques to cope with this. And suffice to say that they broadly worked to the extent that my mind became relatively calm, ready to drift into sleep. Another hurdle jumped.

So what finally stumped got me was the lights. When I sleep need (almost) complete darkness. A hotel room with curtains which let daylight through, or which don’t quite meet in the middle, is of no use to me. I am evangelical about this on TripAdvisor. There is a terrible hotel in Holland with slats on the window and a glass portal in the door. My regular hotel in Denmark has curtains which are so effective that, when I wake up, it is impossible to tell whether it is night or day. At home, we have blinds as well as curtains. I am obsessive about shutting them properly.

In a dark room, the slightest light illuminates like a laser beam, cutting through the blackness, inevitably targeting my face and tapping persistently on my eyelids. I hide the light on my clock, put my phone face down, take the black electrical tape from my emergency bag and stick it over the blue light of the television. Long ago I disabled the red glowing light in my portable USB charger.

Economy travellers may not sympathise, but this is where business class becomes a liability. The TV monitor glows.. So does the TV control unit – an iPad-style device. So does the alternative handheld TV remote control. The four buttons to control the seat glow. As do the power sockets. And the little shelving unit containing the bottles of water and fruit juice glows a soft yellow light.

I tried covering some of these with a combination of paper and books. It was as pointless as stopping the water flow through a colander with sellotape. I tried the sleep mask – not only was it disappointingly vaguely translucent, but it was uncomfortably tight around my head and ears, and I don’t believe I have an unusually large cranium. The final recourse was to pull the thin blanket over my head and hide from the evil of the lights. But then the heat and the lack of oxygen only served up a different set of challenges.

When, despite all of this I drifted into unconsciousness through sheer exhaustion, the final enemy was the noise. The noise which had not conspired to stop me sleeping, but cruelly let me dip into sub-consciousness and then wake me up. The noise of the people walking past my seat-cum-bed, the hum of the engines or – the ultimate irony – the heavy breathing of the man sleeping across the aisle, all assumed the proportions of a cacophony

In total across the two flights – six hours to Dubai and then twelve more to Melbourne, I fell just-about-asleep about four times, and each time woke again. each time I checked my watch, only to find time had moved on a mere 20 or 30 minutes. I tried everything from red wine to reading, to every combination of seat Incline and position. I tried lying on both sides of my body and even on my back. And that was probably the problem. The more you try to sleep, the less you succeed.

By the time we landed in Melbourne I had managed about three hours of light snoozing in the 40 hours since my last sleep. It was 630am. My taxi driver took me to my hotel, not to sleep but to drop my bags and shower. Then another car took me to the office, and somehow I stayed alert and awake for a full day’s work – although a few sentences came out scrambled at the first attempt. Nobody noticed the difference.

In the evening, determined to force myself onto Australian time, I walked through the city like a zombie, watched a little tennis on the outside courts of the Australian open, ate some pizza at the side of the river.

Back in my room, I face-timed my wife. She mentioned I looked a little tired. It was 9pm – another hour and I could just about go to bed on local time. So I popped downstairs for a small glass of wine. I sat in the corner with my phone. When I woke up I realised I had been the old guy in the corner of the bar asleep. On auto-pilot, I found the right room number and even cleaned my teeth.

And finally, finally, sleep, having been so elusive, drew me in like a warm blanket, wrapped its warm arms around me, and embraced me like a mother welcoming home a long lost child. Bliss.

Half a world away

The most confusing thing about international travel is working out what time it is. Even the one hour difference can trip you up – you can easily find yourself arriving somewhere an hour early or an hour late. On this trip, the difference will be variously 4, 8, 11 and 13 hours.

I’ve decided to keep my fitbit on UK time, so I know what time it really is. My anchor is home time. After all we, the British, invented time – Greenwich Mean Time. Then I will adjust my watch, laptop and phone to the local time. This is pretend time.

I am flying to New Zealand, via Australia and Dubai, then back through Singapore. For us British home birds, New Zealand is far too far away to be real place. It’s a big virtual reality pair of islands on the other side of the world – a dream destination. Like those pretend islands we used to make up and map out as kids. I’ll be back, feet on the ground, awake from my dream, reconnected with real time on one week. I’m already looking forward to it.

Flying is like being on one of those airport travelators – it’s unnaturally fast. Almost as fast as the spinning of the earth. Like fast-forwarding a film on double-speed. It feels like time travel. Its impossible to keep up with the change.

I don’t think we are designed to travel through multiple travel zones in one day. We aren’t meant to have to cope with days which can shrink or stretch by several hours. We left Birmingham at 9pm. I have already flown over western Europe, eastern Europe, Turkey and the Black Sea. According to the TV screen on my little business class pod- it is now 4am. I have lost 3 hours of my Saturday somewhere – I suspect the Black Sea has swallowed them up. Maybe I can pick it up from left luggage on the way home next Saturday.

As I was saying, New Zealand is a very, very, VERY long way away. Half a world away. To rephrase what someone once wrote – you might think it’s a long way to the chemist, but that’s nothing compared with New Zealand. In fact, I am going to the opticians, not the pharmacist. Several of them. Specsavers has the same number of store in New Zealand as it has in Finland. Soon Finland will have the same IT system. I am going to check it out in Auckland and Christchurch. I’m vaguely responsible for Finland – so it had better be good.

Finland is a convenient three hour flight from the UK with a two hour time difference. That’s just about manageable. Three hours into this journey and I’m only a seventh of the way to New Zealand.

It has been pitch black since we took off. When I check out the external camera on the TV screen, there is a red flashing light below us in the darkness. Some sort of warning light? Soon we will be above Iraq, Iran and Syria. On the map of our flight path on the screen, I can see the names Tehran, Aleppo and Basra in Arabic and English. Places in the news really do exist. At 40,000 feet we are too far disconnected to see or feel the horror and destruction. As with the time gap, so with space gap – it’s hard to connect to that reality. Half a world away.

I fly from Birmingham airport regularly, normally to Copenhagen. Today was different. I arrived with my wife, rather than on my own; in her car not mine. We parked in “drop and go” not in my space by the fence in Car Park 3. My suitcase was a large two wheeled Australian-style monstrosity, rather than my slick Scandinavian-design four wheeled spinner. It was like a dream – a familiar place with a weirdly different set of actors and actions. All very disruptive. Half a world away.

It is 2am real time according to my fit-bit. According to the TV in front of me, apparently its 5am at my “present position”. Go figure. The earth spins on its axis and dispenses a kaleidoscope of dysfunctional time zones and parallel universes.

Running with Pablo

I was running along the Atlantic coast in the cool remains of the evening. The sun, tired from its long day’s work was sinking towards sleep, dimming its light, brushing a soft orange glow over the darkening grey ocean. Laying its head on the pillows of the clouds.

I ran at a steady pace, my body refreshed from the luxury of consecutive nights’ of good sleep and some days of relaxation. I was loving the warmth of the air in my lungs. Only last week I had dashed through the cold of Copenhagen; the week before I had cut through the icy night air of Helsinki. I had been breathing in a fridge and a freezer, now I was inhaling in an oven. Just loving Lanzarote in the winter.

I always run alone – at my own pace, with my own thoughts, and serenaded by my own music. There may be other humans on the path – runners, walkers, shoppers, dawdlers – moving ahead of me at different speeds. If so, I close up behind them. They neither see me nor hear me. But I spy them. I anticipate their next move, calculate the gap to pass through and ease effortlessly past them. They only see me as I glide past, like an ice-skater.

I didn’t see the guy join the path behind me. He must have jogged down onto the coastal path from the town , falling silently like a shadow off the hill. No sooner did I sense his presence, hear his heavy breathing and the quickstep of his feet, than he was in front of me. He must have just started his run to be moving so quickly, gaining extra speed from the slope of the hill. He was like a car accelerating down the motorway slip road, determined to get ahead of the car cruising along the inside lane.

All of which, I thought, was rather rude. Did he not think it more polite to let the established runner have priority? To give way gracefully? Where was his race etiquette? Besides which, I was clearly more experienced than he was. What happened to age before beauty?

But then, he was yet into his rhythm like I was. Let’s see how fast he would be after another kilometer? Had he not read the story about the hare and the tortoise?

Unfortunately, as he settled in front of me, I realised that this guy was not only younger than me, but also in pretty good shape and had longer legs. So be it. I reminded myself – I run alone, at my own pace. It’s not a race.

But then again, no harm in tracking him, using him as a bit of a pace-maker. As we weaved in and out of other path users, I matched his speed, in all humility, without too much difficulty. I kept an even distance of about 3 meters behind him. I would follow him for a few minutes and then we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile I was breathing in the evening air and absorbing the beautiful sunset. On my headphones, “Don’t let the sun go down on me”.

By now he had noticed me. He did a couple of those disguised looks behind, tilting his head slightly whilst trying to hide his eyes behind his ears. But I spotted him. He knew I was there. And I knew that he knew that I was there. He stepped his pace up ever so slightly, not wishing to suggest he was competing. But we both knew the game.

I eased up half a gear to match him. He wasn’t going to shake me off that easily. I felt confident, maybe even a little smug. If that’s how he wanted to play, the race was on. Bannister and Landy, Prost and Senna, Coe and Ovett.

I had set off on a 6km run. I had run 1km already – so if I turned round after 3km, we would have 2kms to race. It was like the older Ovett running 1500m and younger Coe joining with 800m to go. And Ovett won the 800m.

We weaved in and out of runners, walkers, shoppers, dawdlers moving ahead of us at different speeds. We came up behind them – anticipating their every move, easing effortlessly past them like a couple of ice-skaters. Sometimes he would go one way round, and I would go the other. Zig and Zag. Torvill and Dean. Rogers and Astair. We danced through the crowds.

The voice in my ears (from my iPhone) announced the distance covered. We were approaching the final few hundred meters. Like runners on the top straight before the final bend. I was on his shoulder, ready to strike. Not that he was aware of where the finish was. No need for him to know. It would accentuate the surprise and disappointment when I overtook him at the imaginary tape.

I hadn’t allowed for the hill. I am a flat road runner. There are no hills in Denmark and I create flatness in Finland by running round the edge of a lake. This path by the sea is also meant to be level. It had looked pretty flat on the map.

I’m okay at cycling up hills as I have 20 gears to work through. Not so easy with one-ratio legs. All you can do is shorten your stride. I did my best, but he was gradually stretching ahead. Another surreptitious glance from him – and maybe a gleam in his eye as he pushed on. He was 5m ahead at the brow and suddenly I needed the finishing line to be a little further ahead than I had projected it.

I’m good at downhills. Some people apply too much brake. As a child I would run – I mean really run – down hills. I applied no brakes. My little legs would just relax and take over my body – going faster and faster without restraint. Like the clappers. Like Billy Whizz. Sometimes I would fall flat on my face, grazing knees and elbows. But the exhilarating feeling of effortless speed was worth every fall. It was the closest I could get to the dream of flying and freedom.

And so now I was reeling him in. My little legs going faster and faster. I would take him on the final straight. My excitement was hard to contain. The thrill of victory was about to be mine.

Just as I was about to draw level and overtake –  he turned his head. Not a surreptitious glance, not a frown of one about to be defeated, but a big beaming smile. He held his arm out and opened his hand as we slowed down side by side. I laughed – and accepted the warm, magnanimous gesture. My hand in his, we came to a halt – like two runners coming in together. Brownlie and Brownlie. Paula and a stranger.

Meet my new friend Pablo. He is Spanish and he lives in Lanzarote. He has a big smile and a warm handshake.

The sun was almost submerged now, skimming its crimson beams along the silver sea, picking out the tops of the gently rippling waves. In the glow of the evening, the warm sea breeze in our lungs, my new friend and I ran back together along the stone path, and talked.

Pablo runs 3 times a week, up and down this coast. He loves the sunshine, he loves the island. He loves to run. He grimaced when I mentioned Denmark and Finland. They were as alien to him as the polar ice caps.

He told me that he used to be a professional footballer. He played for Tenerife. I questioned him further. He had played in La Liga – the Spanish equivalent of our Premier League. He told me his name, carefully spelling it out “look me up on Wikipedia”, he suggested. Had he played against Ronaldo and Messi? I enquired. Indeed he had – Ronaldo, he thought, was the perfect player with a perfect physique. Pablo had been a defender. I smiled at my audacity – racing after a guy who had chased after Ronaldo.

Pablo ran marathons. I confessed that my distance was normally in the 5-10km range. The voice in my ears announced that we were tracking at 5:20 mins per km. We seemed to be evenly paced – if anything, in my fantasy world, he was slowing me down a little. I could track 5:10 mins per km on a good day.

I shouldn’t have asked him for his marathon time. When he said 4:45 – he was taking about his average speed per km, not his finishing time. This guy could run fast if he chose to. Today, he had just chosen not to.

Pablo did not have a phone or headphones or even a watch. He ran to enjoy the sea, the air, the view and the sunset. He had played football at the highest level. But it was me who was the competitive one – who had played football only at the lowest level. In fact Pablo gave it all up at 30, as the lifestyle was too demanding. He came back home to the sea and the sunsets and a languid run along the coast. And occasionally to find friendly conversation with strangers.

We talked about many things on the journey home. A bit more about him, a bit about me. He runs a small rural hotel on the island, I run some big IT for an international retailer. We both agreed that the important thing was to enjoy our work, not to chase after more money. Or for that matter “not to chase after other runners”, I thought to myself, wryly.

We stopped together outside the gate to our hotel. “Look me up on Facebook” he said, spelling his surname out for me again. I haven’t and I don’t think I will.

I think this is all better wrapped up as a serendipitous encounter with a very nice guy. A very nice guy who knows how to cherish what he has, and what he has had, rather than chase after something more, something that may flatter to deceive, and may just be out of reach.

The sun had tucked itself up under its duvet by now, switched off the light and drawn the curtains on a beautiful day. I sat on the sea wall and gathered my breath along with my thoughts. A refreshing, cool breeze drifted in from the sea.

Nice – 86 stars that no longer shine

We didn’t intend to book this hotel in Nice. Not this particular hotel. We just chose the one which seemed to have the nicest pool and rooms. We hadn’t intended to book the actual hotel, directly outside which a murderous 19 tonne battering ram truck was finally halted, having massacred 86 innocent people in 5 minutes of pure horror. People who didn’t intend to be victims of a crazed radical. They had come out to celebrate Bastille day, to watch an air display, to enjoy the music and the fireworks, celebrate the fraternity and the buzz of a summer party crowd on a promenade overlooking the sea.

Instead they died, brutally and callously mowed down by a lump of metal travelling at 55 miles an hour through the packed crowd, driven my a man with no conscience, no humanity, no discrimination and no restraint.

It ended with him being shot, and the killing spree ended, on the strip of road I can see from the balcony on which I sit. Three months later I am trying to fathom and grasp – whilst at the same time avoid – this horrific reality.

As I look down on the same sea, on the same road, on the same promenade – life continues for those for whom it can. Cars and lorries continue to drive, tourists amble along the pavements. Runner run and cyclists cycle. Pasta is served in restaurants, beer is consumed. The world has an unerring tendency to carry on, almost regardless. Nobody speaks of the tragedy, but it is in everyone’s minds – unspoken and unexpressed.

As we crossed the road yesterday, we noticed some fresh flowers by a tree and a Norwegian flag. Attached to the tree were two photographs of Saskia, a 29 year old German woman who was one of the victims. Handwritten, in the ink and tears of bottomless grief, the simple word “fur meine tochter”. She was called Saskia.

As a father of a daughter in her 20s, such a loss is unimaginable. And his child and was just one of 85 more. There were 10 children, 29 nationalists and poignantly, 30 Muslims. But we must beware of the headlines of numbers and statistics – a life is a life, a death is a death, whether it is one alone or one in 86. A murder is a murder. A life stolen, and countless lives around it vandalised irrreparably.

Yesterday as we walked into the old town of Nice, further along the same promenade, we came across the Kiosque a Musique – a circular bandstand. There is no band and no music here – instead it sounds loud with the music of tributes and memorials for the 86.

It is completely covered outside with banners, photographs, writings, memorabilia, stones and candles. We walked around solemnly, reading and absorbing the personal and corporate grief and disbelief. Heart rending expressions of sympathy, horror and defiance.

We walked up the steps – in the middle of the bandstand is a huge pile of of soft toys. Hundreds of teddy bears and other furry animals. It took my breath away. Each one was an expression of sympathy from family, friends and fellow humans. Not all of the victims were children – but these soft toys were for every one – whatever their age. All of them as vulnerable and loved as children. Some wore messages – one simply said “I love you”‘.
There is nothing like loss to strip bare the reality of our love for those close to us – however much we may hide it whilst they are alive.

We came here purely for a holiday – we had no connection with any of those killed. We had known of the attack, of course. But we had only thought of it in terms of our own safety. From the distance of middle england, we thought a place where there had been a recent attack was likely to be safe with a heightened level of security. Since we have been here, we have seen soldiers on the streets with guns.

What we hadn’t thought about was the impact of being so close – literally yards away – from 86 deaths less than 100 days ago. And being so close, it is impossible not to feel – however inadequately – some echo of the horror, loss and tragedy of this attack.

I went for a run down the length of that kilometre of death yesterday, westwards from the hotel, along the promenade. I didn’t plan it this way, but a song was playing in my headphones.

“She had high hopes.
She was a student of philosophy
Won’t you grieve with me
For my yellow rose
Shed a tear
For her bloodstained clothes”

I thought of Saskia, and the other 85. When I finished my run , I sat for a while on a bench outside our hotel, facing the sea. Behind me, painted in large colourful letters on the pavement:-

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

There is nothing there about security. Just Liberty. Which shall we have? Are we to secure ourselves against any possibility of attack at the cost of our liberty? How can we protect ourselves against the lone madman, who is hell bent on sacrificing his own life whilst taking as many other lives as he can? There is no gamble for the suicide terrorist. He will risk all, because he values nothing. He has no care for liberty, equality or fraternity. His is almost an impossible hand to defend against. But defend we must – for liberty demands security. Without security there is no freedom, only threat and fear.

As I sat there, on the Promenade des Anglais, outside the Palais de la Méditerranée, I imagined the horror of a maniacal lorry speeding towards me, just as one did, right here 3 months earlier. We cannot imagine it because it is unimaginable. We cannot make sense of it because it is senseless.

I shed tears for the victims, and wondered what I could do to help make this crazy world a little safer.