June, 2015

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Stopping to read

I just stopped for a weekend. It was wonderful. No dance auditions – just some Highland dancing exams which were only fifteen minutes away and didn’t require me to stay. I had automatically packed a bag with my usual combination of laptop, books, camera, Kindle, paper and pens. And I took it all home, put it in the corner and read a book. Two, actually, both of which I had started but just not got through. My main incentive was that I had a draft book to “review” which I couldn’t start until I had got to the end of the other two. It was just what I needed. That and sleep. And I took a weekend off from writing, so it was close to a mini holiday.

The two books couldn’t have been more different.

The Scent of Lemon Leaves is the story of a young woman, Sandra, who finds herself pregnant on a beach in Spain, having left her job and boyfriend. There she meets an elderly couple from Norway, who take her in and look after her, and an equally elderly man, a survivor of a concentration camp who is one of the last remaining Nazi hunters. The book sort of worked for me. I wasn’t wildly convinced by the character of Sandra which didn’t help. And the plot felt like it petered out when it ran out of steam towards the end. Everything was tied up, but not in a particularly satisfying or credible way. But an interesting read from the perspective of how the plot was developed and revolved around putting two people into a situation and watching what happened next.

And then there was Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty. I heard him talk about this book a few months ago at an event in Edinburgh and finally bought the book (a lovely hardback with a gorgeous cover – ebooks can’t compete on that front!). The first twist in this book is (this is not a spoiler) that it takes place after Sherlock Holmes has tumbled over the Reichenbach Falls, so it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes book in anything like the traditional sense, although the writing of Doyle is well replicated. Including the fact that all the clues to what the second twist is are there in plain sight. You just don’t see them at the time. A brilliant read with a convincing and enticing ending.

And on the subject of endings, we watched The Time Traveller’s Wife at the weekend. I had read the book years ago and loved it. The ending in particular, which was the part which has stuck with me ever since. I spent the hour and a half or so just wanting to see how they filmed that ending as I had such a strong visual image of it. I was even crying at the memory of how the book ended. I don’t think anyone noticed.

And then they changed the ending. Not just the ending, but so much of the last few chapters of the book, all of which was unnecessary, in my view. Then I had to tell the girls what the ending should have been, but this time I was trying to do it through tears and was fairly incoherent. I then had to get the book back out again to reread the last two pages. I felt better after that. Although I realised that not everything in how I visualised the scene was actually in the book. There was no rocking chair in the book, for example, even though I know it was there. I think it’s amazing that we can all have our own mental image of scenes that someone else has written, and know exactly what the people and places looked like.

I remember telling someone a few years ago that I wasn’t going away for a holiday, but was going to read a few books instead. They thought it was a missed opportunity. I thought that for each of those books I was going to get to experience living at least one different life in a city and country I didn’t know. I wonder how many lives I’ve lived now?

And with that, I need to return to 1970s East Berlin to live a life I never had but am now living through the eyes of my twenty-something Natalie. You can tell me she doesn’t exist, that she’s just a figure of my imagination. You can believe that, but you’d be wrong.

Building the Wall Socialism

Cheap, cheerful and fun

Last week I mentioned writing with pen and paper, the way it was done for longer than word processors and computers have even existed. Not that anything would ever get published without technology, but there’s a lot to be said for slowing things down and thinking before committing words to paper.

So when it came to our summer holiday, I found myself thinking along similar lines about what camera to bring. There is not a scenario where I go somewhere without a camera of some description, even if it’s just the one in my phone, which has done me more than proud in the past when I suddenly saw something I had to take a picture of. This time, there’s no particular event that requires a particular type of camera, and I’m long since through with the tourist photos of Berlin. So what I wanted needed to be different. And feel different. Oh yes, and not cost much if I wanted to try something else out, mainly because I just want to be able to throw it in a bag and not worry about it, but also because I don’t want to be worrying about someone trying to steal it. So indestructible and small and light and cheap.

Right, that ruled out anything made since I was born then.

Which was just fine with me, because I wanted it to be a film camera, and I’m limited to black and white this time – I have more than enough colour photos of Berlin.

Hello, eBay (please tell me you see the irony of using an internet giant to find something pre-technology).

The answer in the end was really simple.




A forty year old Olympus with manual focus – just the job. But it also has automatic exposure setting, which should please the rest of the family as I don’t have to mess around with measuring the light all the time. Or guess it, which is a fun exercise.

And for the photo geeks – an f1.7 lens, how good is that?

£80. That was it. About as much as a couple of filters for a Leica.

Plus film is cheap in Berlin (what, you thought I hadn’t checked?) – about a quarter cheaper than the best I can get in the UK. So I don’t even have to take loads of film with me. It turns out Berlin is quite the place for photography. Not sure how I missed that before.

About week after it arrived, I had my first roll of film through it, answering the first question – it’s fun to use. And it just felt right, everything where it should be – and where it used to be when I was first messing around with cameras.

And I managed to get some shots I was pretty happy with. My hit rate was certainly better than I was expecting.


Yes, it’s hanging off the side of a building.




The side of Edinburgh you don’t see on postcards.

Mixing it up

If patience is a virtue, I am not very virtuous. I need to mix things up all the time, flipping between interests, ideally before I get too bored.

When you’re writing a novel, that is probably not a great set of attributes.

I have, I think, found a few things which are helping me deal with my potentially derailing natural tendencies.

Switching between laptop and paper and pen every couple of weeks keeps it feeling different. There is no question that writing by hand is a different experience, or that I really enjoy it. But then it’s nice to get back to the laptop, which is a lot faster. But I can see the difference that comes from slowing the pace by writing by hand (and trying to keep it legible). Theoretically, I should be able to type slower as well, but it doesn’t seem to happen. So I have a binder and electronic files at the same time. I should probably scan the paper and print the files at some point…

Rhodia writing

I find it good to have items which are used only for writing. My laptop falls pretty much into that category, most of the vast number of tabs I have open at any one time have something to do with writing. And I have a stack of beautiful Rhodia pads which are the best paper I’ve found for writing on. Especially when I’m using a fountain pen (has to be a Pelikan pen – one for at home, one for when I’m away and wanting to write) that is not allowed to be used for anything else. I think it’s a bit like having somewhere only for writing. Except that I have three places, which I also vary. Like I said, easily bored. They seem to tie in with how I’m writing – upstairs with a monitor for writing on the laptop, kitchen table for pen and paper, and a small table in the sitting room for when we have someone staying upstairs and I have to move out (it has the advantage for everyone that I have to clear everything up once in a while, even if our poor exchange pupils now have to sleep surrounded by my piles of books and papers, with photos of Berlin all over the walls.

I also vary between getting up an hour earlier to write, and spending my last hour in the evening writing. Ideally not back to back, so not staying up late then getting up early the next morning. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture and I can do without it. Early mornings are good because then it’s done, but staying in bed a bit longer in the morning if I write instead in the evening is also a small reward.

And I’m having to learn to move things along. Stop spending so much time in one scene and get on with it! I’m hoping that by keeping things moving at a better pace, I won’t have time to be bored. Because if the person writing it is getting bored, imagine being the reader! So maybe impatience will have its benefits as well.

Stopping for a moment…or a year

There was a time when you couldn’t start something with ‘There’s a TED talk’ and expect anyone to understand what you were on about. I’m not sure it was that long ago, actually.

Anyway, there’s a TED talk I wanted to share today. But wait, I have to wind back a bit first for two reasons.

One is the background. I’ve now come down after the marathon. And I feel like these sandals – worn out, a bit broken and a bit fragile.

Worn out sandal

I’m on a recovery plan for a couple of weeks – a few 20 to 30 minute runs at a pace which feels like I’m walking rather than running. One of the most common questions I get is why in training we don’t run the full marathon distance. The answer is that race pace and distance does temporary damage to your body. It’s fine, we recover, but we need to give it time. The next event is rarely less than a few months away, and we can lose some of the sharpness for a bit. The secret is that we will come back stronger if we acknowledge our body’s need to heal, to rest for a while.

And the second reason is because Camille said something a long time before this TED talk came out. Years ago, she wondered why we don’t reverse the process of learn, work, retire, and spend some of the ‘retire’ time earlier in our lives, for example when our children are younger. I think the question is still out there.

So, back to that TED talk. Here it is – Stefan Sagmeister on ‘The Power of Time Off’.

Sagmeister runs a design studio in New York City, and every seven years, he closes it for a year to recuperate and get new ideas. He sees it as taking five years of later retirement and interspersing them into the earlier working years.

But of course, he comes back from his year’s sabbatical with renewed energy and ideas.

Yeah yeah, fine for him I hear you say. Loads of money, typical artsy guy who has to be just that bit different.

So maybe we can’t take a year off – although this family did (and came back to the ‘real world’ with no income and all the usual bills). And perhaps that last sentence should instead read ‘So maybe we believe we can’t take a year off.’

But how do we spend ‘recreation’ time (more of an American than British word, I suspect, but I need it for the next bit) – for re-creation, or for something that just fills in time? Sagmeister’s sabbatical is for re-recreation in its truest sense. It might not be a year for most of us, but is there really not a little time we could choose to use to re-create ourselves and return stronger?

I’m enjoying my two weeks of virtual no-running. Did I mention that I’m allowed to eat and drink whatever I feel like in those two weeks as well? This is fun. And I’m finding time to read more, which is always a good thing. Right now, I’m going to go off into Anthony Horowitz’s world of Sherlock Holmes in ‘Moriarty’, a book I’ve wanted to read since seeing him at a book event months ago.

I’m still stuck on that sabbatical idea though. That might be long enough to get through the stacks of books that remain stubbornly unread.

The marathon blog

Wow. I ran a marathon in under 3 hours. In frankly horrendous wind for the last eight miles. There are two parts to this blog – my run down of the marathon, and some thanks to all the people who keep me going and help me improve.

So – the race. The last six months have been all about wind. Virtually every run I’ve done has been windy and I can think of a good few where a sane person would just have said, you shouldn’t even try to run in this wind, and certainly not try to run fast into it. But a plan is a plan, so out I went every time. And a strong wind remained my biggest fear for the day itself because it’s going to matter and, on a course which doubles back on itself, there is no good solution if it’s windy. Of course, we are all convinced that the headwind is stronger than the tailwind, but they are certainly not equal in terms of impact on performance.

And it was windy. Very.

My target was sub-2:45 hours. By mile 18 I knew that wasn’t going to happen. That would have been about half a mile after the turn, heading into the headwind, having already seen the runners at the very front struggling as they headed back. I was bang on pace up until then but I also knew that it was too fast for the whole thing, even without the wind. I think there’s a feeling you get in your legs that tells you you’re on the wrong side of your limit, and I knew I was getting it. Confirmation came at about mile 20 when I felt the first tiny cramp in my left leg. I’ve been there before – it happened in my first marathon, where I now know I just went off too fast. This time, I think the target was just out of reach, and with the wind factor, I simply had to readjust my expectations and do the best I could on the day. Being a pragmatist, I knew what I had to do. Slow down. To a pace that was the fastest I could go without the legs cramping up properly because when that happens, it’s all over. So I ran the rest of the way constantly testing what my limit had become, and working out that if I could keep going at that pace into the wind, I was still on track for sub-3 hours. The great thing was that I still felt that I had energy left, my breathing was great, my legs just couldn’t keep up that pace. Maybe I should have slowed down more when I hit the wind, maybe I should have…. I don’t know. It just happens. One of the Kenyans seemed to have injured himself during the race. It can happen to anyone. So I just kept trotting along – no way was I going to stop, I was going to run this all the way – counting down the miles and happy that I had done what I really wanted – my best on the day, and smiling all the way. Because when it comes down to it, I just love running. And the feeling of being up there with the “proper” runners was amazing. The spectators were wonderful as ever, some blasting out music, some just cheering, and I got my usual flip-flop comments. Sorry to anyone I didn’t see – I even missed my entire extended family on the way out, but got a blast of encouragement on the way back that made up for it. Best comment of the day was LoLo afterwards – “Dad, you looked liked the Kenyans, it was like you were just out for a jog.” That’s down to Jae (more on that below).


Trotting along at mile 16…

So it turns out I need a bit more training (and maybe just a bit of luck with the weather) to get sub-2:45, but I will. The wind yesterday was a real factor and you can see it in the winning time of 2:19, which is a lot lower than the normal fastest time, if still nuts. But I can’t do anything about that. I know what I need to do and, having as ever said to myself in the last five miles, this is really stupid, you should stick to half marathons, I’ll be back out there next year for another jog through East Lothian. My most encouraging stats of the day – 1:22 at the half marathon point and coming in the top 100 overall.

And now for some thanks.

When you think of elite athletes, we all know that there is a huge team behind them, most of whom we never hear anything about, but without whom the performances we see on the day would not be possible.

It’s no different for some of us normal people doing a sport in our spare time, and I wanted to tell the story of how I got to this point from virtual physical inactivity three years ago.

It all started with a work course, where the first thing we looked at was how to deal with the demands of work – and were asked the question of how we could expect to work in the way we wanted  to if we weren’t even physically fit. I went for my first run the day after we got back from the course. I still remember it. 2 miles of nothing but pain, lungs bursting, head pounding, legs aching. The second day was a little better. But not much. By the time I got to running three miles, I thought I was quite the athlete.

Round two of the same course involved me making the mistake of saying I was maybe sort of thinking I might want to run a marathon at some point. And then Carrie Johnson (who was running the 5k this Saturday – a lovely surprise to see her there, and as a spectator for the marathon) asked me why I didn’t just commit to doing it. So I signed up.

It didn’t go so well, mainly because I went off too fast – typical rookie mistake. But I realised I could do it better and faster. And by that time, I had done what all runners do sooner or later – read “Born to Run.” And then “Running with the Kenyans.” And although I couldn’t decide if I wanted to run like the Tarahumara (think obscure tribe in Mexico who run a lot, and in sandals they make themselves from old tyres) or a Kenyan, it didn’t seem to matter too much. Either way, I had concluded that I needed to change the way I ran and essentially start from scratch.

And then things came together in a lovely sequence of events.

Colin McPhail (of Footworks in Edinburgh – great running shop) organised the Scottish Barefoot Conference, including a fun run (you can wear shoes, I wore FiveFingers, those “funny toe shoes”) and some speakers. One was Barefoot Ted, one of the stars of “Born to Run”, who promptly sold me my first pair of his running sandals, which I’ve used ever since and which still bring a smile to my face every time I run in them. As well as a range of reactions from the people who see me in them. Sorry to the person who wanted to stop and talk about them just after the race yesterday – I was struggling to stay on my feet, never mind discuss my footwear, so my answers were rather monosyllabic. But no, they don’t hurt, no they don’t rub on the soles of your feet, and why would anyone run in them if they did? Had it been raining as the forecast had predicted, they would have been the best thing to have on your feet. But I’m glad it was dry.


The only one smiling at mile 19 is the guy in the sandals… just saying (even if they did finish well before me in the end!)

But wearing a pair of sandals doesn’t make you run like a Kenyan. Jae Gruenke does – the other speaker at the conference. She has without a shadow of a doubt had the biggest impact on my running, building my running form up from scratch and getting rid of my bad running habits I didn’t even know I had. She described it like peeling an onion – every time one thing was sorted, I came up with a new bad habit that hadn’t previously been visible. If you want to find out what it’s like to run much more easily, efficiently and happily, speak with Jae and sign up for her weekly e-mails on running.

Jae also helped me with the last part of the jigsaw – a coach. I discovered that generic training programmes didn’t work for me. I needed something that would get me to hit a target that seemed unattainable. Like knocking half an hour off my marathon time, and then going even faster the next time. Jae suggested an online coach in the US, Greg McMillan. And I signed up for a training plan, used it, and did marathon number two 30 minutes faster than the first time, and easily so, with a programme that explained what each of the runs was for, what to look out for, what to focus on, and just gave me tremendous confidence on the day. So much so that I signed up for a second plan for this marathon, this time for almost six months of build up and preparation. You have to have faith in your coach, even if he’s someone you’ve never met or even spoken with, and that allowed me to keep going on the bad run days, knowing that the next run would be better. And seeing improvements on a weekly basis, with new personal bests over some distance being set pretty much every week in the last six weeks. I’m going to use the exact same plan next time because I think I’ve now hit the right level of base fitness to be able to hit the next target.

And through Greg’s website, I discovered another ingredient which I hadn’t previously known I need to sort. Nutrition. I was Mr Gel Boy. Committed, three an hour in the race. Talk about sugar intake… Greg recommended looking at a different product that contained no sugar, gives a sustained release of carbs, and allows your body to adapt to burning fat as a primary fuel source. Yup folks, you can power your runs on all that fat you always wanted to lose. I am not going to comment on all the claims Generation UCAN make, all I will say is that I haven’t taken a gel in months, and ran a hilly 24 miler recently on nothing but UCAN before I set off and water during the run, and did it faster (and a lot easier) than my marathon race last year. So I’m a convert. And it was great yesterday, I ran the whole thing with no gels, just a couple of home-made UCAN goos along the way.

Donald, Sarah and Andy have been great running companions on our Friday team runs, making the run so much more enjoyable and showing me some new routes through Edinburgh that I didn’t know existed. Turns out there’s a lovely path from the West End of Edinburgh through to Granton!

The final thanks goes to the people without whom none of this would have been possible or worthwhile. Camille has put up with my need for ever increasing amounts of food over the last months, my virtual half-day absences on long run days, me getting home late from work when I’ve gone out for a run at lunchtime, and coming home stinking after a run. As well as the constant cycle of running clothes I hog the washing machine with, the sandals I leave in random places when I’m “too tired” to put them where they belong. And the girls always greet me with a “how was your run?” when I get back.

LoLo yesterday was my star support, along with her cousins who donated their coats in the cause of warming me up when I lay shivering on the ground (it wasn’t a pretty sight), even though that left them in only a t-shirt. My other support crew yesterday drove me to the race, took photos, got me some milk when I couldn’t face eating or drinking anything else, covered me in layers to warm me up, used umbrellas to keep the wind off me, and gave me big hugs when I came off the finish line, as well as literally lifting me back up off the ground when my legs couldn’t take my weight. Thanks Mum, Dad, Ros, Mat, Alexander and Stephanie… I’m afraid I’m doing it all again next year.


Walking was an issue at this point – how far did I still have to go to get my bag of warm clothes? – those lorries in the distance!