Casual ageism… and why it’s bad

This is another thing I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and something I saw posted by a couple of friends on Facebook has spurred me on to finally do it.

I’ve always found it slightly curious that ageism often doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously compared to the other -isms. There are countless articles online about things you shouldn’t do once you’re over 30*, for example, and although many people do find them annoying, they rarely provoke more of a reaction than that. Yet just imagine the uproar if there were breezy lifestyle articles on popular sites entitled “20 Things Black People Shouldn’t Do”, or “10 Things Gay People Need To Stop Wearing”.

The difference in response just seems odd to me… after all, you can’t choose your age any more than you can choose your skin colour or your sexuality, so why should it be considered more acceptable to judge and pigeonhole people according to age?

(* Full disclosure: the specific article that got me thinking about all this again was actually entitled something like “30 Things Women Over 30 Should Stop Wearing”. Now, I’m not a woman so I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the sexist aspect of the article – why “women over 30” and not just “people over 30”? – but I still feel entitled to stick my oar in when it comes to the ageism. In any case, I’m not really going to focus on that particular article much, it was more just a catalyst that got me back to thinking about the whole issue).

The underlying message of that kind of article always seems to be the same: you’re 30 now, so your life is over. Stop pathetically trying to enjoy yourself and get in the box we’ve made for you.

Let’s be honest: I’m the sort of person who probably gives those article authors nightmares. I’m nearer 40 than 30 now, but I still go to gigs; most days I still dress pretty much the same way I’ve dressed since I started high school (jeans, trainers, T-shirt); I love going on roller coasters; I explore abandoned structures that I’m not supposed to be in, just for fun; I had a massive buffet of Haribo sweets at my wedding reception; I still go to dance events where most of the attendees are students; I hang out with people for whom a good party is one that involves stripping naked and running into the nearest body of water; I called my largely pointless blog “Gcat’s World of Stuff”; when I go travelling I stay in cheap hostels like a gap year student, not because I desperately need to save money (though that is a nice side effect), but because I feel more at home in places like that. In short, “acting my age” is not really a concept that exists for me.

Front row on Nemesis

Front row on Nemesis

I have zero intention of stopping doing those things any time soon. If and when I do stop, it’ll be because that’s what feels right for me at the time, not because I happen to have been alive for some arbitrary, meaningless period of time. Hell, I didn’t even start doing about half of that stuff until I was already over 30!

At this point you may be thinking “Hang on, it’s not fair to compare ageism with racism and sexism. It’s different, because everyone gets the chance to be young once, so it’s reasonable to judge people who failed to get the ‘young person stuff’ out of their system at an appropriate age, people who refuse to grow up and move on”.

And I, in turn, could respond by pointing out that not everyone does get the same chances when they’re young. Many people’s childhood and adolescence are blighted by abuse, mental illness, physical illness, or any number of other circumstances that might make it difficult for them to spend time on enjoyable activites. In my own case those circumstances included bullying as well as very long lasting depression and anxiety… and now that I’m finally making real progress on getting over all that, I’m damned if I’m going to miss out on having some fun at long last, just because it makes some judgemental idiots squeamish to see over 30s enjoying themselves.

But I think to go down that line of argument would be to miss the more fundamental point. I’d be trying to justify something that should require no justification, buying into the underlying assumption that I should somehow be ashamed of what I’m doing, that I should feel I have to make excuses for my behaviour. I don’t have to make excuses, because there is nothing to excuse: I’m not hurting anyone.

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I suppose people might argue that I’m hurting myself, though, and missing out on proper adult experiences by not acting my age. I disagree. I’m married, I work in a fulfilling and highly skilled job, I own a nice house and a nice car. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything… and I think the people who believe you need to stop doing what you love and start putting on some dull, soul-destroying act of “maturity” in order to succeed in the fields of dating and career are utterly, utterly wrong. You have a MUCH better chance of finding a partner or a job that’s right for you if you’re happy, relaxed and enjoying life than you do if you’re uptight, repressed and wasting all your energy on putting up a front to the world. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience!

It seems highly ironic to me that people who claim to value maturity so much are often the ones who judge others based on trivialities like what clothes they choose to wear or what activities they enjoy in their spare time. That doesn’t look much like mature behaviour to me… in fact that looks very much like someone who’s desperate to appear grown up to cover up the insecurities underneath, but lacks any understanding of what being grown up actually means. I’m reminded of the famous C.S.Lewis quote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things… like the fear of childishness, and the desire to be very grown up”.

But why does it matter?

You’re probably wondering why I chose to write a blog entry about this. After all, I could have just ignored it… I could have rolled my eyes, muttered “idiots” under my breath and moved on. And that is what I usually do these days, because if I let every ignorant comment get to me the way I used to, there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth on the internet to convey all the things I wanted to say back.

But this issue, I thought, merited a response, because I think it could easily turn into more than just an annoyance, to some people at least. I mentioned above that I was clinically depressed for a long time. There were a number of factors that helped me to get better a few years ago, but by far the most important one was re-learning to listen to my feelings and do things that would make me happy, regardless of what I felt I “should” be doing. In other words, it was mainly starting to do all of those supposedly age-inappropriate activities I listed above that finally lifted me out of the depression I’d been mired in for well over a decade.

Mattresses

In light of my experience, I think it’s downright irresponsible for anyone to be dishing out “advice” that amounts to telling people to give up on the things that make them happy. I’m sure the article authors would retort that they’re not forcing anyone to take their advice, and that’s true; but knowing what it’s like to be in a deeply depressed and vulnerable state, I suspect that the people who are least likely to be able to brush off things like this are also the most likely to be damaged by them. Of course some vapid, click-bait list that even the person who wrote it probably doesn’t really believe isn’t going to ruin someone’s life in itself, but I can easily see it pushing someone over the edge if they’re already in a precarious state. So I stand by what I said: it is irresponsible.

But then I’m 36 and I still wear trainers, so I suppose that disqualifies me from talking about responsibility anyway.

I Now Pronounce You Mr And Mrs Gcat

Laura and I got married on the 28th of May. Since I’ve previously decided that going for a walk by a river, fitting new spark plugs to my car and finding an Android music player app that can do gapless playback were important enough life events to merit writing blog entries about them, I decided that this probably was too.

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For a long time, I didn’t used to think I’d ever get married. To be brutally honest, if it wasn’t for the rise of internet dating I probably wouldn’t have; I may be a bit less neurotic in some ways than I used to be, but I’d still rather ingest live slugs than attempt to chat someone up in “real life”. So it’s a good job I’ll never have to, now!

We’re just back from honeymoon (well, mini-moon… we might still do a bigger holiday later in the year) and it’s all still a bit of a blur. So far the most noticeable difference between being engaged and being married is that once you’re married you no longer have a wedding to organise, which believe me is a very welcome difference right now. But I guess since we’d already been living together for four years, bought a house together, adopted cats together, and so on, actually tying the metaphorical knot was never going to suddenly change everything the way it would have back in more conservative times.

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But enough waffling: what was the big day like? Well, the main thing I noticed was that it was over so, so quickly. After all the months and months of planning things, booking things, preparing things, I was left reeling at the end of the day thinking “Was that it?”. That’s partly because our ceremony was so short (not being religious, we went for a humanist-ish one, and didn’t have any long readings or anything like that), but even the other parts of the day seemed to be over in a flash.

That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, though. The venues excelled themselves and everything was perfect, just the way we wanted it. The ceremony itself, for all its shortness, was quite moving and about halfway through I found myself wishing I’d had the foresight to put some tissues in my sporran. (Judging from the loud sniffing noises emanating from the rows of people behind me, I wasn’t the only one). I didn’t even mind being the centre of attention as much as I thought I would. I think the adrenaline and the sheer joyousness of the occasion was carrying me through, so that I was still able to give smiles and hugs to the guests long past the point where I would normally have slipped into sour-faced, monosyllabic mode and wanted to go lie in a darkened room.

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One of the highlights was the fantastic best man’s speech that Alex wrote. Here’s an excerpt:

“I think who [gcat] is, really, is a very caring and non-judgemental person… and a bit of a nerd. And for me, that word has no negative connotations whatsoever. He’s not one of those trendy new nerds who are basically normal people who like superhero movies. He’s a proper, old-school nerd who gets absolutely obsessed with the most obscure subjects, regardless of whether anyone else is into them or not”.

I’m pretty happy with that summing up of myself, though he did then go on to make me sound completely insane by following it with a list of several of my obscure obsessions from over the decades, including some that I’d almost forgotten about myself. (I gave a short speech myself just beforehand, but that mostly consisted of puns referencing the fact that we got married on a canal boat).

Another thing that struck me was that the whole process of getting married wasn’t all as romantic as you might think. A lot of the time is taken up with practical and logistical stuff: making sure the cats’ litter trays have been cleaned out before you leave the house for the night, spending what seems like an eternity in a kilt hire shop watching your fiance’s uncle winding up the staff, and so on.

The Mini Moon

Due to June being very busy for both of us, and the wedding itself being quite expensive, we weren’t sure if we’d have the time or money to go on honeymoon straight afterwards. So we decided to compromise and go on a little trip up north the week after the wedding, possibly going for a more traditional holiday somewhere hot a few months later, once our savings had had time to replenish a bit.

Strangely, whenever I’m packing for a trip where I’m going to be “doing nothing” (and I certainly intended this to be one of those) I end up taking far more stuff with me than I do for trips where I know I’ll be working, or doing a lot of sightseeing, or whatever. I think I just worry that I’m going to get bored, and feel the need to take a large selection of books, DS games, etc.

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As it turned out, we couldn’t have asked for a better holiday home, or better weather. We stayed in a cottage in the midddle of nowhere (well, technically it was next to one of the main roads through the Highlands, but main roads through the Highlands can still be quieter than our residential backwater in Edinburgh, so we weren’t disturbed much by the traffic). Although it had a few interesting features – cold taps that sometimes ran hot, a staircase so steep that a sign on the wall warned that it was best to use it as if it was a ladder – that was all far outweighed by the lovely location and great facilities.

And the hot tub.

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We spent a lot of time in the hot tub, and a lot of time lying in the garden in the sun afterwards. I made a valiant attempt at clearing the huge backlog of transport-related books that I’d been meaning to read, but it was no use – due to buying yet more of them in Kingussie and Aviemore, the backlog ominously grew even bigger.

Although we’d generously been given a huge selection of presents from our not-very-traditional wedding list on Amazon (which included plenty of board games and other fun stuff in among the more normal household items), we’d also been given quite a bit of money and gift vouchers, and we took advantage of the cottage’s surprisingly good wifi to spend some of that.

In addition to buying some sensible items, we also blew some of the money on hoes 😉 .

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Our main outing on the mini-moon was a day out on the Strathspey Railway, which runs regular steam trains from Aviemore up to Broomhill, stopping at Boat of Garten on the way. In addition to the lovely views of the Cairngorms there was some interesting old railway equipment in various states of repair to look at as we puffed our way along the valley. We had lunch in the restaurant car on the way. Doing things like that always feels classy to me, as if I’m in Murder on the Orient Express… or better still, on the Excess Express from Paper Mario: the Thousand Year Door.

steamtrain

 

Sonic Triangle: Back from the dead!

Well… I have to admit, when I first opened this blog with a post about my band, Sonic Triangle, I didn’t expect it to be nearly five years before we released anything new. Five years!! How the hell did that happen? :O

But better late than never, as they say. (I sometimes think I should adopt that saying as my motto, as it applies to so many things in my life). We finally released a song! Two songs, in fact. One’s called Mercury, and it has a video as well! The other is called Homesick, and it doesn’t have a video. (Actually, it sort of does, but I doubt that that video will ever see the light of day, so we’ll just pretend it doesn’t). We’re pretty happy with both of them, and I hope you enjoy them too.

As to why it’s taken five years, I’m not actually sure. It’s not as if we haven’t been doing stuff… Alex sent round the first demo of Homesick way back in spring 2011, and we’ve actually been working on it (and about seven or eight other tracks, some of which we might finish and release at some point) on-and-off pretty much ever since then. We’ve just all been quite busy with other things, and haven’t got to the point of having anything we feel happy enough with to release until now.

A shot from the Mercury video, featuring our very talented singer.

A shot from the Mercury video, featuring our very talented singer.

Our process of recording hasn’t changed a great deal since I first wrote about it. Most of the instruments are still played on my Casio keyboard, though when I moved house a few years ago I brought the Technics electric piano that I inherited from my uncle out of storage, so the piano parts are now played on that, which is a big improvement. We did some recording with the glockenspiel, but it doesn’t feature on either of the new tracks. I think the way Alex creates the MIDI demos and edits the final versions has changed a bit, but I don’t know the details. I just play my keyboard and piano, then Alex goes away with the sound files and a few hours later a marvellous mix appears that leaves me thinking “Did I really play all that?”.

We’ve now dragged ourselves into the 21st century and created a Facebook page, supplementing our rather minimalist website. I think we always had a Twitter account, it just hasn’t been used much.

(In other music news, I’m looking forward to seeing Belle and Sebastian live next month… they’ve been on my list of bands to go and see for even longer than it’s taken us to finish Homesick 😉 ).

New car

I decided it was about time to upgrade my ageing Skoda Fabia to something better. The Fabia’s been a good car mostly, certainly better than the Fiat Punto I had before, but it was getting to the age where it was accumulating niggling problems at an ever increasing rate: one of the back doors had got jammed shut (again) which, aside from being annoying in itself, would have needed fixed before the MoT; the body was no longer watertight and I would frequently find the carpets saturated with water or the inside of the windscreen soaking wet after a rainy night; the screen wash tank had started to leak and there was possibly a slow coolant leak as well as I’d had to top it up a few times in the past year or two; the engine was sounding more and more reluctant to start and I was worried that some day it would no longer start at all; the handbrake seemed to fail every year and need expensive repairs no matter how gentle I tried to be with it. Worst of all, the stereo I installed had broken and I was stuck with an old one with no aux input to connect my phone to!

The engine itself still seemed to work OK (it had been pretty reliable, only needing a few replacement ignition coils over the years) but had racked up over 110,000 miles which is a fair amount for a small petrol. So, with the wedding budget finally under control, it was time to look at new cars.

I didn’t expect to buy one so quickly. But on our very first afternoon of browsing car supermarkets, this grabbed my attention:

car

I’d been wanting to upgrade to something much more fuel efficient, and this eco model Seat Ibiza seemed to fit the bill nicely. Its carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre are so low that it’s exempt from road tax (even better than Laura’s £30 road tax Leon), and whilst I wasn’t naive enough to expect it to actually manage the quoted 80 miles per gallon on realistic journeys, it would certainly be a lot more economical to run than anything I’d owned previously. It also met my other requirements – 5 door, no smaller than the Skoda… and of course an aux socket on the stereo! Plus it’s a much nicer colour than my old beige car, which probably swayed me a bit.

I arranged to buy it the same day, after a quick test drive to make sure the 3 cylinder 1.2 litre engine (very small for a diesel) wouldn’t feel too underpowered. It was fine – while it’s not going to win any awards for acceleration, it actually feels quite a lot more powerful than either of my previous cars, so I was happy with that. I also checked the crash safety ratings after reading that one of the reasons this model is so efficient is that it’s unusually light – but thankfully, it has very good Euro NCAP ratings, so there’s obviously more to crash safety than just the weight.

(I won’t bore you with the details of the long saga of waiting for the small dent in the bonnet to be repaired that ensued after that. Ordinarily I would have been pretty annoyed and frustrated to have to wait two weeks longer than planned to pick up my new car, but since I ended up being stuck in bed for most of those two weeks with a horrible dose of flu followed by a chest infection, I had other things on my mind. I also lost my voice for a while, which gave me a good excuse not to have to bother with all the interminable phone calls to the dealer and get Laura to deal with them instead 😉 . And at least they were nice enough to throw in a full tank of diesel and a packet of Mini Eggs as compensation for the delay).

Of course, the most interesting question for me was: what would the fuel consumption actually be like? I didn’t expect to get 80mpg (except possibly when driving downhill at a constant speed of 45mph in top gear with a strong wind behind me for miles and miles) but I was hoping it would at least be impressive compared to my own car. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve had the car a few weeks now and have been keeping a close eye on the miles per gallon indicator on the trip computer*. On journeys in town, with a lot of stopping and starting and waiting at traffic lights, the mpg still usually gets into the high 40s (the Skoda would have been at about 30mpg on those trips). On medium length journeys with a mix of city streets and motorway/dual carriageway type roads, it manages well over 60mpg – in fact, nearly 70 on my journey to work this morning. Pretty good for a standard non-hybrid, reasonably sized car.

The trip computer shows a miles-per-gallon value that the Skoda's one could only dream of. If trip computers can dream, that is. They're probably not that advanced yet.

The trip computer shows a miles-per-gallon value that the Skoda’s one could only dream of. If trip computers can dream, that is. They’re probably not that advanced yet.

One of the fuel saving features, though, is slightly disconcerting. If at any point you put it in neutral with the handbrake on and take your foot off the clutch, the engine turns off to save fuel. The first time this happened I thought it had stalled and was about to hastily try to restart it before the lights turned green, but as soon as I put my foot back on the clutch the engine came back on very quickly. At first I shied away from letting it do this, scared that the engine wouldn’t come back on and I’d be stranded in the middle of the road, but after experimenting with it a bit I got less cautious. I use it all the time now when I’m going to be stationary for more than half a minute or so, and the engine always restarts quicker than I can even put it back in gear. Sometimes it restarts itself before I put the clutch in – I assume this is to make sure the battery doesn’t get drained too much.

(I think memories of my mum’s long drawn out attempts to start her ageing Fiat Uno on damp days probably contributed to my anxiety that the engine wouldn’t restart! Actually I had similar worries when I first got a gas boiler without a pilot light, that it wouldn’t be able to light the burner reliably. One of these days I’ll convince my brain that this is the 21st century and being able to start a diesel engine or light a gas burner automatically is really a solved problem now).

The most important improvement over the Skoda! Seen here with tasteful purple cable attached.

The most important improvement over the Skoda! Seen here with tasteful purple cable attached. (Sidenote: it turns out that Windows really doesn’t like it if you try to call a file ‘aux.jpg’!)

One thing though: no Haynes manual for this model! I guess that’s no big deal as I never ended up doing as much work myself on my previous cars as I’d planned to do (just replacing the spark plugs and coils, changing the oil, and fixing the heater blower) but I’ve always had a Haynes manual… I feel lost and disorientated looking under the bonnet without one. Much as I like some of the other books that Haynes have branched out into, it seems they’ve dropped the ball a bit on their core business of keeping up with new car models, sadly (I noticed they don’t do one for Laura’s car either).

* yes, I know trip computers tend to overestimate the miles per gallon, so it’s probably not really quite as good as it looks from those numbers, but it’s still by far the easiest way of seeing roughly how much fuel you’re using on each individual journey.

 

Uppsala and Stockholm (again)

I was in Sweden last week. I seem to have been there a lot lately; that was my third work trip there and I’ll have my third midsummer trip in a couple of months as well.

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Although I usually like to explore new places while I’m away, I was more in the mood for just chilling out and doing nothing this time, what with life getting very busy back home with work, Beltane and wedding stuff all at once. So I decided after the meeting I would book myself into my favourite hostel in Stockholm for a couple of days and spend them doing nothing at all. (Sometimes I find it easier to relax and unwind away from all the distractions and half-ticked-off To Do lists at home). The work part of the trip felt familiar as well, as I was staying in the same hotel and having a meeting in the same venue as I did two years ago.

At first it looked as if I was going to have to be at least a bit adventurous after all: when I first looked at accommodation options, my normal hostel was fully booked for the nights I wanted. But there must have been some cancellations as when I went back to actually book, they had two beds available. I booked one quickly before they changed their minds again. Although some of the other hostels looked alright, I knew that this one had a good lounge for relaxing in, whereas some of the others apparently didn’t have much common space, or didn’t allow alcohol in it. Plus City Backpackers is supposedly the best hostel in Sweden so I felt that going elsewhere after staying there twice probably would have been a bit of a come-down.

The Journey

I booked onto a nice quick direct flight to Stockholm Arlanda. As luck would have it, not just one but two things came along later and annoyingly clashed with my chosen flight: firstly, an all staff meeting at work. I wouldn’t normally be too upset about missing a meeting, but this was an interesting one as there’s a lot going on right now (reorganisations, pending move to a new building). Ah well. I’ll read the minutes later.

And secondly, the London Transport Museum announced that they were releasing tickets for their next wave of tours of abandoned tube stations and hidden tunnels, which I really wanted to go on (I like that sort of thing, you see) but which I was sure would sell out insanely quickly. The time that this would go live? 10am Tuesday, exactly the time I was boarding my plane. Grrr. Why did they have to pick the ONE day in several months that I wasn’t able to be in front of a computer at 10am?

(Laura kindly volunteered to try and get me tickets instead. Despite a surge of demand reminiscent of the Raspberry Pi launch 4 years ago, she succeeded in getting us tickets for the Down Street tour, the one I most wanted, and apparently the most sought-after one by far. So that’s something to look forward to, although it’s not til December. It’s expensive, but what the hell, you have to treat yourself sometimes. I have to admit I find it slightly amusing that the last people to be caught sneaking into a disused tunnel in London were apparently fined less money than I’ve just paid for a legitimate underground tour).

Anyway. On the plus side, it was a lovely clear morning for a flight (a rare treat when flying from Edinburgh), and the plane was amazingly empty (a rare treat when using a budget airline), which is always nice. I had a whole three seats to myself and was able to enjoy the view of West Lothian spread out below me like a map (though not get any decent photos of it, since the window was very dirty and a jet engine was blocking a lot of it). I was also able to see miles and miles of stationery traffic on all the local motorways, even though it was way past rush hour time… apparently it’s been chaos due to accidents this morning, though thankfully I avoided most of the chaos on my way to the airport. I wonder if the plane was empty because all the other would-be occupants were stuck in the jams down there.

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We made it to Uppsala, where our meeting’s being held, pretty easily (though it seemed slightly bizarre that we had to enter our names into the ticket machine when buying tickets for a less than 20 minute train journey! It also seems slightly bizarre that, in contrast to the blandly corporate or edgily cool jingles they use to precede the announcements in most airports and stations, the one at Arlanda sounds like Grandpa Flump playing two quavering notes on his flumpet). Uppsala is actually the fourth largest city in Sweden, but it really doesn’t feel much like a big city at all to me… though it only has about a third of the population of Edinburgh, so I suppose it is small compared to what I’m used to. The hotel was nicer than I remembered, and it turns out it has fast Eduroam access in the rooms which is great for me – when Eduroam’s available it usually seems way faster and more reliable than whatever random public networks you can find. So I didn’t have to attempt any accidental dodgy hacker tricks in order to get online this time. Ahem.

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I noticed the disgusting old white sock and the miniature Jaegermeister bottle on the lower storey roof outside my window straight away, but it was a bit longer before I noticed the (bare foot!) foot prints in a chaotic pattern on the other half of the roof. There surely has to be a story behind those…

The Meeting

We were treated to some lovely Swedish weather (clear and sunny, though still cold) as we walked down to the meeting venue, on the Uppsala University campus. The walk was a picturesque and relaxing one, along the river with its pretty bridges and boats (although it’s not quite so relaxing if you do what one of my colleagues and I did the first time we came here and walk right down the wrong side of the river, assuming there’ll be another bridge further down, then find there isn’t). I always think the campus itself looks more like a woodland summer camp than one of the top universities of northern Europe (in case it’s not clear, I do mean that as a compliment!). Apparently it was originally built as some kind of army base, so it makes sense that the layout is a bit unusual for a university.

The meeting itself was an interesting one, and since I’d actually got a decent night’s sleep for a change, I didn’t even come close to falling asleep at any point during the proceedings. It seems to do my brain good being away for a bit, because I always seem to come up with lots of new ideas for all my projects when I’m travelling. I made sure to note them down for later.

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Our dinner was in an old station building. It was in slightly better condition than the old stations I normally find myself in.

The Holiday

After the day and a half of meeting, it was off to Stockholm for my little holiday. The train was on time and very nice, as they usually seem to be in European countries other than Britain, and after finally excusing myself from a crazy old woman on the platform who seemed determined to talk to me in Swedish and completely unconcerned by the fact that I couldn’t understand a word, I was on my way.

Coming back to somewhere I’ve visited before sometimes does strange things to my perception of time; I remember on my second visit to Madrid it felt like ages since I’d been there before, when in reality it was only just over two months, but coming back to Stockholm after 18 months, I didn’t feel as if much time had passed at all. The hostel “upgraded” me from the eight bed dormitory I’d booked to a 6 bed “apartment”. They were using the apartments as extra dorms, probably because they were so busy, so I still had to share with other people. But it did mean we had our own private loo, shower, small kitchen, and even a sauna (which I didn’t dare to use as I didn’t have a clue how to work the thing, though one of my room mates did manage to get it working).

I slept better than I normally do in a hostel room. I hadn’t had any plans for Friday at all, but when I discovered my pyjama top was missing, and confirmed via email that it was still at my hotel in Uppsala, I decided I was going to go and get it back. (I’ve no idea how I managed to do this; I’m normally ultra-careful not to leave anything behind when I stay in a hotel, to the point of even checking inside cupboards that I know perfectly well I’ve never opened before I leave). I probably wouldn’t have bothered as it would have been cheaper just to buy a new one than to pay for the extra return train ticket, but I felt bad as it was a present from Laura. Anyway, I didn’t really mind relaxing on the train for a couple of hours. There are worse ways to spend a morning.

I spent most of the time just relaxing, either in the hostel lounge or in a nearby bar, and was glad that I’d ripped my mother’s Reginald Perrin DVDs to my laptop to keep me entertained. It was what I felt I needed. Of course, I’d done most of the important stuff around the hostel on my previous visits here anyway – for example, photographing the local tunnel:

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And the local unfortunately-named cafe:

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My second day in Stockholm was slightly more energetic, though I still found the time for plenty of Reggie Perrin as well. I went for my first run since the horrible flu/chest infection/laryngitis that I was suffering from last month. Although I’d worked up to being able to run for 40 minutes non-stop before the illness, I didn’t want to do anything that strenuous after over a month’s break, so I did a gentle 20 minutes (with short pause to remove gravel from my trainer). It went surprisingly well and didn’t even cause me to have a coughing fit, so I was happy. I also went for a wander along the sea front, far enough to see Langholmen (a nice, mostly rural-feeling wooded island that’s surprisingly close to the city centre), but I was too tired to cross over to it this time.

The Return

My return flight left at 7:55, so I had to be up before 5am to get the bus. (It was the only direct flight of the day, so it was that or waste about 5 hours getting home). As always seems to happen when I need to be up early, my hostel roommates, who’d been perfectly well behaved throughout my whole stay, decided to pick the final night to make a lot of noise and keep me awake. All I can say is I hope they enjoyed the sound of my 4:45 alarm… I certainly didn’t.

The flight was the first time I’ve ever used wifi on a plane. I remember when the internet was only in the uni computer labs, or at home via excruciatingly slow dial up modem. Now, the number of places that you can escape from it is ever-diminishing: planes have wifi; my last two phones have been waterproof so being in the bath or shower is no excuse; hell, even one of the abandoned railway tunnels I explored had a perfect 4G signal (though admittedly that’s probably just an accident of microwave propagation rather than any deliberate desire on the part of Glasgow City Council to let urban explorers broadcast their crew shots more easily).

I came home feeling happier and more relaxed than I had done in weeks, thanks to the couple of days of doing nothing at all other than what I felt like. I decided I should book my next unwinding trip straight away (well, after next payday) so I have it to look forward to.

A little light relief

This blog’s been getting a bit intense lately… a lot of the last few entries have been long rants in response to things that have annoyed me.That’s fair enough, one of the reasons I started the blog was so I’d have somewhere to post those, but it was also to give me somewhere to write about more light-hearted and fun stuff that interests me. So here’s a post about my walk today. Look, this one even has pictures!

View from Almond Aqueduct

I couldn’t decide what to do with myself today. Laura’s out at her hen do (much more of an event than my “stag do” was, it would seem!) and Alex is through in Glasgow editing, so I couldn’t do anything with them. I’ve been exhausted all week and I’m away in Sweden most of next week so I didn’t want to overdo things, but at the same time I felt like getting outside and taking some photos, something I haven’t done enough of lately. In fact I sort of felt like doing an explore, only I wasn’t in the mood to drive far or to risk a confrontation if things went wrong, which ruled out most of the sites on my list.

Then I remembered about this walk I’d been meaning to do again for a while, from the Almond Aqueduct on the Union Canal, down the river to the next couple of bridges. Alex, Gavin and I did it about five years ago (I’m not sure why, I think we were just bored and looking for something to do) and I enjoyed it a lot. It felt surprisingly adventurous considering how close to home it was – although that was before I started clambering into derelict hospital buildings and railway tunnels for fun, so my threshold for what constitutes “adventurous” has probably gone up somewhat in the meantime. But anyway. I decided it would be worth trying it again. I might get some better shots of the bridges now I had an SLR, at least.

Canal Feeder

After stress testing my new car’s suspension on the impressive collection of potholes on the access road, I reached the start of my walk: the Almond Aqueduct. Back when I first got interested in bridges and canals and stuff, this used to be my favourite bridge. Although the Avon Aqueduct on the other side of West Lothian is much bigger and more impressive, there’s something very nice about the setting of the Almond one, and it’s also impressive in its own right (though annoyingly hard to get good photos of, I discovered!).

Almond Aqueduct top

As I went down underneath to cross to the north side of the canal where the towpath is, I noticed that the access gate into the interior of the structure was open. I probably would have had a peek inside if I could, but it’s pretty high off the ground so I wouldn’t be able to get in there without some sort of equipment. This video, on one of the best YouTube channels ever, gives a pretty good impression of what it’s like in there.

Almond Aqueduct Access Gate

At the far side of the aqueduct, I turned off into the trees, along a rough track which may or may not actually be a path. (One of the nice things about Scotland is that thanks to the right to roam, you don’t need to worry too much about whether something is or isn’t a path – as long as you don’t damage anything or walk into a live military or transport site, you can pretty much go wherever you want). The first part of the walk was a gentle, quite picturesque stroll through the trees, with the river down a steep bank to my right.

Woodland stream

The last time we were here, I actually saw a deer cross the path ahead of us and then swim across the river. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my phone camera ready in time, but it was amazing even just to see it – I normally think of deer as being something you get up in the Highlands rather than something you can see while walking through a narrow strip of woodland only a few miles from home. I didn’t think I’d be so lucky a second time, and indeed I wasn’t. I did see quite a large bird of prey, but it had disappeared into the woods before I even had time to get my lens cap off.

(Speaking of last time, I’m sure we also had an orange helium balloon with us when we did this walk before. I think Gavin had insisted on stopping for ice cream at the Newbridge McDonalds on the way and had somehow acquired it in there. As you can probably guess, it didn’t survive the walk).

Mill lade entrance

The path got narrower, more hilly and more muddy as I walked further from the canal. I seemed more difficult going than I’d remembered, but maybe that’s just because I was on my own this time. About halfway along was a feature I remembered: an old mill lade, now so full of earth and vegetation that the water wasn’t high enough to get into it anymore. Next to it was a very rough, but still clearly manmade, weir in the river itself. I was curious about this so I checked an old map when I got home… the lade used to run for quite a distance, powering a mill called Bird’s Mill, roughly where the viaduct of that name stands today (more on that later).

Old Mill Lade

Part of the lade, though, has been obliterated by construction of the M8, which crosses the river on a high concrete bridge. The area around this bridge always feels curiously desolate to me, I guess because it’s quite difficult to get to, and the quiet and stillness down below contrasts nicely with the traffic constantly thundering over the top. Thousands of vehicles a day pass overhead, but I wonder how many people have stood underneath since I was last here five years ago?

Under the M8

There’s only one bit of graffiti on the bridge (that I noticed, anyway), and it hasn’t changed in the five years since I was last here. I remember we found it strangely unnerving. There is a lot of rubbish either side of the bridge, but none at all actually underneath, indicating that it’s all been thrown down from the road above rather than dropped by anyone on foot.

Graffiti

Just beyond the M8 bridge is an older, slightly nicer looking bridge: the Bird’s Mill Viaduct. Until recently this carried a fairly minor single track branch line from the main Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway to Bathgate; but in late 2010, the previously-closed line was reopened from Bathgate to Airdrie, and the whole route was electrified and double tracked at the same time, creating a new line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, so frequent electric trains now pass over the viaduct.

Birds Mill Viaduct

It was annoyingly difficult to get decent photos of the viaduct due to all the surrounding trees. This was about the best I could do.

At this point I retraced my steps back to the car, not wanting to overdo things. As I picked my way slowly up a slightly precarious slope, with the river quite a way down a steep bank to my left, it struck me that this walk is probably actually more dangerous than some of the urban explores I’ve done (you’d have to try quite hard to come to any significant harm in Kelvindale Tunnel, for example), Yet if you tell people you’re going for a walk by the river they go “Ooh, that’s nice”, but if you tell them you’re going in an abandoned rail tunnel they look horrified!

I enjoyed my day out and I’m glad I decided to do this walk again. I didn’t get as good photos as I’d hoped, though; too many trees in the way of the bridges. This was the best shot I could get of the Almond Aqueduct from my path.

Almond Aqueduct

On the way home, I stopped off to do something I’d been meaning to do for a while: namely, take photos of the new Edinburgh Gateway station that’s currently under construction at Gogar. (My interest in railways is starting to get out of control now. Yesterday I spent a whole 20 minutes watching a YouTube documentary about the Intercity 125 on our new Chromecast – this one, if you’re interested).

Edinburgh Gateway Station

The works currently underway to build an underpass so that people can safely cross the road to get to the station made it nearly impossible for me to safely cross the road to get to the station.

 

In defence of “Safe Spaces”

Also, why a broken brain is a bit like a broken leg. And why I’m suspicious of people who don’t like trigger warnings. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while… but recent events have made it feel a lot more pressing, to the point where I felt like I wouldn’t be able to rest until I’d written it out, just to stop it from bouncing around in my head.

Lately, “Safe Spaces” are coming in for a lot of criticism online. The discussion around them generally seems pretty one-sided: the anti-safe space side tend to set themselves up as the voices of reason, staunchly defending free speech and all that is rational from the hysterical, hand-wringing, over-emotional, politically correct do-gooders on the other side. I don’t think this is right, for several reasons. In this piece I’m going to argue that there are good, logical reasons to support safe spaces, and that some of their vocal opponents who appear to pride themselves on rationality and pragmatism are actually being quite irrational and idealistic.

 

What are “safe spaces”, and what’s wrong with them?

First things first: I’m aware that not everyone might be familiar with the term “safe space”… so what is a safe space? Basically, it’s when a group or institution has a policy that tries to make certain groups of people feel safer and more welcome by disallowing conduct that those people might find threatening or anxiety provoking. (I know that’s not a fully comprehensive and correct dictionary definition, but for the purposes of this blog it will do). These groups may include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, sufferers of mental illnesses (such as anxiety disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), members of ethnic minorities, survivors of various sorts of abuse, and so on. (From what I’ve read online, it seems safe spaces may have originated as homophobia-free spaces, but I’m going to talk about them more from the point of view of mental illness sufferers, since that’s where my personal experience is). For this blog post I’m going to draw on the Safe Space Policy of my local students’ association as an example – I don’t think they’ll mind as it’s posted online in a publicly accessible location, but if it is a problem please contact me and I’ll remove any references to it.

Skimming through the safe space policy (it’s only 3 pages long), the first thing that struck me was how basic and uncontroversial most of the points are. They’re things you’d hope civilised adults would do anyway without having to be told. You could pretty much sum the policy up as “Don’t be a dick” (in fact, one organisation that I know of actually does sum up its policy using those four words!). The main points are: don’t discriminate against people on the basis of factors such as age, gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc.; don’t talk over, interrupt or heckle people during meetings, or make rude gestures; be respectful towards other people. That’s about it.

Given how straightforward and benign the policy actually is, why do “safe spaces” generate so much animosity? From what I’ve seen, the main arguments against them boil down to: 1. they restrict free speech; and 2. they mollycoddle people who should be facing up to the realities of the world rather than being shielded from them.

I’ll talk about the free speech argument first. I think a lot of this stems from people misunderstanding what safe spaces actually are. You see a lot of ranting online about “special little snowflakes who can’t cope with hearing opinions that are different from theirs”, but this view doesn’t seem justified going by the safe space policies I’ve read. Both the policies I have open right now are very explicit that expressing differing opinions is fine, even something to be encouraged. It’s expressing them in disrespectful or intimidating ways that’s a problem. In fact, surely in some circumstances safe spaces could actually increase people’s exposure to different points of view, by allowing people to take part in debates who might otherwise feel too anxious or uncomfortable to participate.

And while I would agree that national governments clamping down on free speech would be worrying and should generally be resisted, the clubs and societies setting up “safe spaces” are not governments. They’re independent organisations and as such they have every right to decide for themselves what sort of behaviour they’re willing to accept at their meetings and on their premises, and people who don’t like their decisions have every right to go elsewhere or even set up their own organisations with different rules instead.

It strikes me that the sort of conduct that’s typically prohibited in safe space policies has also been prohibited (in practise, if not in any formal written document) in many work places for decades without anyone really batting an eyelid. Most people wouldn’t expect to be able to go to work and heckle their boss during meetings, flip them the V-sign, or make racist and sexist remarks without any consequences. Yet when a voluntary or educational organisation tries to hold its members to the same standards and calls it a “safe space”, certain people go nuts about it.

 

The other argument is, I think, more complex and more interesting. Let me tell you a story about how I tried to overcome some of my own difficulties, and in the process completely changed my opinion on the subject of “mollycoddling”…

 

“Tough love”, and why it doesn’t work, no matter how much you’d like it to

Many years ago now, I joined an internet support forum for people with certain mental disorders, having been struggling with depression and anxiety for a while. One of the most heated debates that would rage on the forum from time to time was what I’ll call the “free speech vs. mollycoddling” debate. On one side were the people who felt the forum should be strictly moderated to remove personal attacks and other things that members might find upsetting; on the other were the people who felt it should be mostly left unedited and shouldn’t try to shield people from reality. (The poor moderators, of course, were caught in the middle of this and couldn’t win no matter what they did… either way, whether they deleted abusive posts or left them up, lots of people were unhappy about it!).

At the time, I was firmly on the “free speech” side. Although I was in a very low and unstable state emotionally and frequently did find posts on the forum upsetting, I felt it would be counter-productive for those posts to be removed – after all, if I was ever going to get better (and I wanted to get better more than anything), I would have to get used to the things I found difficult… what was the point in avoiding them?

Most of the anti-safe space commentators seem to take a similar view to this. If they do ever give advice to people who are struggling emotionally, it tends to be in the form of a curt “get over it”, “man up”, “grow up”, “pull yourself together”, or “stop being pathetic”. Let’s be charitable for the moment and assume that this really is intended as advice (“tough love”, if you like) rather than as kicking people who are already down: what would it look like to try and follow that advice? Well, that’s pretty much what I tried to do all those years ago, so let’s return to my story.

For years, I pushed aside my bad feelings as best I could and just got on with life. I forced myself into situation after situation that I hated and really wasn’t ready for. When I found things online that upset me, I didn’t avoid them, in fact I would keep reading them for hours at a time, looking for other similar things, convinced that no matter how painful this was I would eventually become desensitised, eventually become a man, become an adult who could deal with anything life could throw at him without flinching. I did the same in real life as well: I kept going back into situations and social groups that all of my feelings were telling me were completely wrong for me, but I ignored them and did it anyway. After all, feeling were for wimps, for people who thought they were “special snowflakes” and deserved special treatment, right? I wouldn’t need them anymore once all my hard work finally paid off and I became a Real Person, fully pulled-together, manned-up and no longer pathetic.

Although I did hear alternative, less extreme suggestions for things that might help me from therapists or self help books from time to time, I ignored everything that didn’t fit my preconceived narrative and carried on with my plan. I knew it had to work eventually if I could just keep going for long enough!

But… it didn’t work. It never could have worked, not if I’d kept at it for 50 years. I can see that now.

After several years of this, I still wasn’t feeling any better… in fact with hindsight I can see that I was actually in a much worse state than I had been before I started trying to get better. Although the intense anxiety had mostly gone, it had been replaced by a constant, never-ending morass of depression, resentment and apathy. I’d lost the ability to enjoy anything, even things that used to really excite me. I seemed to have lost the ability to feel sadness as well – losing two close family members had frighteningly little effect on me. So in a sense, I had got what I’d thought I wanted – I had lost most of my feelings, but it hadn’t made me better. It had just made life feel like a pointless, soul-destroying drudge.

At this point you might be thinking “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can’t blame that on people who said harsh words to you! They may not have been very helpful, but they didn’t force you to do all that!”. And no, I don’t blame them, not entirely at any rate. But my point is: if your only advice to people who are struggling badly is along the lines of “grow up”, or “get over it”, what do you expect them to do with that? It’s not exactly much help, is it?

Maybe you think those people aren’t really struggling badly but are just acting out for attention, and need to be shown that they’re not going to get any sympathy for it, then they’ll stop it. But here’s the thing: some people really are struggling badly, probably far more of them than you think, and being overly harsh with them is not just unhelpful, it can be intensely damaging.

 

If tough love doesn’t work, then what does?

Well, that all got a bit intense and gloomy, but keep reading, it’s about to get better. I’m happy to report that I did eventually find a way to reverse the damage and I’m now well on my way to recovery. In order to explain what worked for me, and why it’s even relevant to the topic of this blog entry, I’m going to use an analogy with physical illness and injury, something that I find is often helpful when trying to explain mental disorders.

Rather than viewing my emotions like an adversary that needs to be crushed because it’s too pathetic for any kind of redemption, I prefer to look at my “broken brain” in much the same way as I’d look at a broken leg. Just as a broken leg can’t perform its normal functions of holding up the body’s weight, walking, and so on, a broken brain can’t necessarily cope with things a normal brain would be able to. But there’s no point getting judgemental about either of them – they are what they are, and hurling abuse won’t change that. Calling someone with an anxiety disorder “pathetic” won’t stop them being anxious any more than calling someone with a broken leg “pathetic” will make their leg instantaneously mend itself.

There are quite a lot of similarities between the two. Broken legs can heal, given time and the right treatment… and so can broken brains! But time and treatment are both crucial here. What I was doing in the past when I kept pushing myself into difficult situation after difficult situation with no respite was the psychological equivalent of getting up and trying to run across the room on a broken leg every five minutes – it not only puts you in a lot of unnecessary pain, it also disrupts the healing process and puts you back to square one (or worse) every time. One day, if you give your leg a chance to heal, you’ll be able to walk again, and you might even be able to run a marathon on it. But that day isn’t going to come if you don’t let it heal properly first.

Further trauma doesn’t help either broken legs or broken brains. Trying to help someone “get over” a mental disorder by being harsh with them is a bit like trying to help them get over a broken leg by hitting it with a sledgehammer (and then acting like they’re the one who’s out of order when they don’t immediately leap out of their wheelchair fully cured).

The key in both cases is to take small steps, baby steps if necessary. It may take longer, but in the long term it’s a much more reliable way to get better than overreaching yourself and potentially making things worse. During this process, it’s a good idea to listen to the signals coming from your leg/brain. A little bit of pain and fatigue is to be expected if you’re doing something you haven’t done in a while or that you find particularly difficult… but if it’s screaming at you that you’re going to collapse if you don’t take the weight off it right now, you should probably listen to it. One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned was that I could listen to what my feelings were telling me and use them constructively to get more of what I wanted in my life, rather than trying to shut them out.

In both cases, you might need professional help in order to get better (a physiotherapist for your leg, a psychotherapist or counsellor for your brain), but there’s no shame in that.

In both cases, you need a combination of rest, and gently pushing yourself when you’re able to. You need to push yourself sometimes or you won’t make any progress, but the resting is just as important, because your leg/brain needs time to recuperate if it’s going to build up its strength again. Back when I was pushing myself way too hard, I was keeping my brain in a highly stressed and anxious state pretty much the whole time. When it’s in that state it’s just focused on surviving – it’s not receptive to making the kind of constructive changes required to recover from a mental disorder.

(I’m still bad for pushing myself too hard and too fast and not taking enough time to rest. I’m a lot better than I used to be, though, and it shows in terms of the progress I’ve made recently).

Finally, depending on how badly damaged it was, a broken leg or a broken brain might never quite heal 100%. You might still get twinges of pain from it years later, or you might still have trouble coping with situations that other people manage more easily.

 

Nice, but what’s this got to do with safe spaces?

Viewed in light of the “broken brain/broken leg” analogy, safe spaces become not places to hide away from reality forever, but places to build yourself up ready to face it. They can be wheelchairs and crutches for the broken brain, until it’s ready to walk unaided. In my experience, being able to take gradual steps towards coping with more and more situations is absolutely critical to overcoming an anxiety disorder, but that is only possible if there are relatively non-threatening situations available to start from, as well as places where it’s safe to switch off for a while and relax without having to worry too much about people doing things that trigger your anxiety. The people who advocate removing safe spaces and making everywhere harsh and unforgiving are, whether it’s their intention or not, advocating creating a much more difficult world for people who want to recover from psychological problems.

You might say “Well, it’s not the job of a university to provide that sort of space. The sufferers should create that space for themselves with help from their family, friends and therapists”. The problem with that is that not everyone has supportive family or friends, or access to therapy. Even the ones that do could probably benefit and make faster progress by having more places they can feel safe.

Or you might be thinking “Fine, if everyone used safe spaces that way I wouldn’t have a problem with them. But most of those people have clearly got no intention of getting better, they’re just hiding away in the safe spaces, avoiding things that make them feel uncomfortable”. In response I would say: how on earth can you possibly know that? Are you close friends with everyone who uses a safe space? Do you know the intimate details of all their lives, so that you know which ones are trying to get better and which aren’t? Or are you just looking at them and making a sweeping judgement that happens to fit your world view, based on very little actual information? I find it highly unlikely that anyone is “hiding away” in a safe space… safe spaces make up such a tiny proportion of the social world that it would be virtually impossible to live your life completely within them.

In any case, I don’t see anything wrong with spending some of your time in safe spaces even if you’re recovered or mostly recovered. It’s just nice to relax in situations where you don’t need to worry too much about getting hassle from people. Think of it this way: you may not need a wheelchair any more once your broken leg’s healed, but that doesn’t mean you’re never going to sit down in a chair again, does it?

 

So what about “trigger warnings”?

“Trigger warnings” are when people put a note at the start of a piece of writing (usually an online post of some sort) warning about any content within that certain groups of people might find upsetting – for example, references to child abuse, or homophobic terms. The idea of them seems to generate a lot of derision from the same sort of people who dislike safe spaces.

To be honest, while I can just about understand the “free speech” argument against safe spaces (although I don’t agree with it), I’m really struggling to get my head around how anyone could rationally object to trigger warnings. They don’t stifle free speech, in fact they don’t do anything at all unless you let them! No-one is going to force you to put them on your own writing, or to take any notice of the ones other people have put on theirs. They’re like the “May contain nuts” warning on a chocolate bar – if you don’t have a nut allergy, just ignore it and move on with your life.

The fact that so many people object to trigger warnings despite their total innocuousness makes me question their motives… for all the lofty talk of defending free speech, I can’t help thinking that for a lot of people this is motivated more by contempt (or even outright hatred) for groups they perceive as weak and undeserving. They hate trigger warnings because they hate the thought of those people being given the tools to avoid something that might upset them and take control of their own recovery. They’d rather watch them suffer and fail than have them be able to make their own decision about whether reading a particular article at a particular time would be beneficial for them or not.

 

Leave the EU? Sorry, not convinced

It’s still over three months until the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU or not, but there’s already plenty of lively discussion online about it. What I find interesting is how much comment sections seem to be dominated by pro-leavers, despite the fact that (a) most opinion polls are showing either a lead for remain or a very close result, and (b) no-one, least of all the leave supporters, seems to have a clue what life would realistically be like if we left. I think that’s what prompted me to write this, in order to do a small bit towards redressing the balance.

Of course, the EU isn’t perfect – nothing so big and complex ever could be – but I find it alarming how many people seem desperate to get out when there is so much uncertainty about what would happen, and when most of the arguments for leaving are so paper thin. I’m going to respond here to most of the reasons I see put forward for leaving the EU.

UK and continental power sockets existing happily side-by-side, just like their respective countries within the EU. (Stop laughing at the back!)

UK and continental power sockets existing happily side-by-side, just like their respective countries within the EU. (Stop laughing at the back!)

“The EU is undemocratic”

I find it pretty ironic that people who complain incessantly about the EU being undemocratic want to return all of its powers to Westminster instead. That would be the same Westminster that, last year, elected a majority government that only 24% of the electorate actually voted for, and which left the Green Party and UKIP with only one MP each despite them getting 5 million votes between them (and don’t even get me started on the unelected second chamber). At least the European parliament is elected using a proper modern proportional system that avoids this kind of grossly unrepresentative result.

“But it’s not just the parliament, there’s a huge unelected bureaucracy alongside it!” I hear you cry. Um, doesn’t every parliament have that? I don’t remember the last time we voted on the make-up of the entire UK civil service, for example, and it’s a good thing too – imagine the chaos if we got rid of everyone who knows about the practicalities of running the country every time there was an election.

Ultimately, if the Eurosceptics are feeling that the European parliament doesn’t represent them, maybe they should try voting for MEPs who will actually engage as best they can and try to make the system work, rather than ones who are just going to moan from the sidelines like sulking children *cough*UKIP*cough*.

This doesn't really have anything to do with the article, except that it's in the EU, and it's nice.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with the article, except that it’s in the EU, and it’s nice, and I wanted something to break up the huge wall of text a bit.

“We need to regain our sovereignty”

A lot of Eurosceptics are adamant that we need every last bit of our sovereignty to be brought back from Brussels to the UK parliament. But they’re also usually adamant that they want to trade with other countries and not withdraw into isolationism, and there’s a contradiction there. The world doesn’t work that way. These trade agreements that the “Leave” side claims to want so much are all going to impose some sort of conditions on both sides. We’re not going to be free to do absolutely everything we want unless we cut ourselves off North Korea-style, and the Leavers are always quick to point out that that’s not what they want.

Once you accept that sovereignty isn’t an absolute thing anymore (maybe it never was), and that interacting with other countries is inevitably going to involve some compromises, it becomes easier to judge an arrangement such as the EU on its merits, rather than just throwing a tantrum about it stopping you doing what you want. The conditions imposed by international trade deals and treaties wouldn’t necessarily be any less onerous outside the EU – in fact, they could easily become a lot more complicated and demanding, since we’d probably have to negotiate a multitude of separate deals with various countries instead of just being party to a single EU deal.

“The EU is a failing institution”

I see a lot of “Leave” voters claiming that the EU is a “failing” institution and we need to get out so as not to be dragged down with it. I’m curious as to what definition of “failure” they’re using here – by almost any reasonable measure, the EU member states are very successful countries – prosperous, safe, healthy, well educated. If you rank the countries of the world in order of economic prosperity, life expectancy, literacy, equality, incidence of violent crime, or practically any other important factor, the top twenty is dominated by EU countries. If that’s their idea of “failure”, I’d love to see what success looks like!

Of course, some would probably claim that this is nothing to do with the EU and that all of those successful countries would be even more successful without it. There’s no way to ever know for sure since we don’t have a second Europe that’s identical except for EU membership to compare with, but what we do know is that the EU certainly hasn’t prevented all these countries from becoming successful, and has very likely helped at least in some ways.

399237_3750125864787_650010195_n

“We’ll still get access to the single market/visa-free travel/etc. if we leave”

Most Brexit supporters seem adamant that even after we leave the EU, we’ll easily be able to negotiate a deal that gives us all the “good stuff” (like access to the single market, and ability to go on holiday to France without needing a visa) but without any of the “bad” (having to accept immigrants, all those pesky human rights and environmental regulations). I’m at a loss as to why they think it’s going to be so easy. The principle of free movement, for example, is pretty central to the EU. No country gets full access to the single market without also allowing free movement, as well as having to comply with a lot of the EU regulations, and I see no reason why they would make an exception for Britain.

Yes, we could probably maintain access to the market and visa-free travel if we entered into an arrangement similar to Norway’s. But it’s not clear to me why that would be to anyone’s advantage; we’d still be stuck with most of the elements of the EU that the Eurosceptics hate, but without a presence in the European Parliament we would have much less influence over them.

“The EU costs us too much money”

Several points here: firstly, the amount of money we pay to the EU is very small relative to the UK’s expenditure as a whole, so even if we were able to claw it all back it wouldn’t make a huge difference to anything. Secondly, that money doesn’t just disappear – we get a lot of it back in farm subsidies, funding for science and technology projects, development funding for disadvantaged areas and so on. And thirdly, it would be pretty pointless leaving the EU in order to avoid paying this money if in doing so we cause the economy to shrink by much more than that amount (which seems quite a plausible outcome).

Finally, be wary of the outlandish claims for how much we would save by leaving that are being put about by the various Eurosceptic groups. I saw one claim (I think it was by the Taxpayers’ Alliance) of an impressive number of billions of pounds that we could save by leaving the EU. But when I actually read the details, it became clear that the money Britain pays directly to the EU was a relatively small component of the total – they’d also included the cost to UK business of complying with all the EU regulations on workers’ rights, environmental protection, and so on. So we wouldn’t just have to leave the EU in order to save that money – we’d also have to massively weaken our employment and environmental protections. Good for the people who are rich enough to own tabloid newspapers or fund the Taxpayers’ Alliance, no doubt, but not so good for the rest of us

This actually wasn't part of the EU when I took the photo 3 years ago. But it is now.

This actually wasn’t part of the EU when I took the photo 3 years ago. But it is now.

“We need to control our own borders”

Border controls seem pretty fundamental to the argument for leaving, but as always there is a lot of misinformation in this area. Most obviously, we already have full control over immigration from non-EU countries, but successive UK governments have done relatively little to curb it – there’s plenty of lively debate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s hardly the EU’s fault either way. It’s true that the EU does require us to freely allow immigration from other EU countries (and in turn they allow Britons to move elsewhere in Europe, which a lot of people do take advantage of), but it’s far from certain that this would change in the event of a “Leave” vote. If we want to continue to have access to the single market, as most Eurosceptics claim they do, it’s likely we’ll need to continue to allow freedom of movement as well.

There’s also been speculation about whether the UK would need to introduce border controls on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if we were to leave the EU, and about whether this could cause the tensions there to flare up again. I’ve seen some Brexiters claim that this is just scaremongering and of course we wouldn’t introduce border controls with Ireland, but surely they can’t have it both ways… if controlling our own borders is so fundamentally important that we have to withdraw from the EU over it, it makes no sense to be so relaxed about having an uncontrolled land border with a country that’s still in the EU.

Regarding the current refugee situation, it’s possible that leaving the EU would actually make it more difficult to “send back” refugees. (Personally I find the idea of sending away people who have fled from a war zone abhorrent, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment and talk about the practicalities). At present there are agreements in place that refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they come to, so if refugees arrive in Britain having clearly come through France (for example), they can be sent back to France relatively easily. But if Britain cut itself off and closed its borders, those arrangements would no longer apply – the French would be fully entitled to say “Sod off, they’re your problem now”.

“We want rid of the European human rights laws”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether it’s sensible for people to be clamouring to have their own human rights protections removed, the much-maligned European Convention on Human Rights is actually nothing to do with the EU – it pre-dates the EU by several decades, and leaving the EU would not take us out of the ECHR.

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“The EU is bloated and financially irresponsible”

I’ve worked on EU-funded projects, as well as on projects funded by various other means, and this has not been my experience at all. It’s fashionable to bash the EU as being wasteful with tax payers’ hard-earned money, but I’ve actually found the EU funding bodies to be the among the most rigourous about making sure their money is being spent properly (at least on the science and technology side, I don’t have any direct experience of the rest). On our EU projects we have to keep the funders updated regularly with detailed information about our work, as well as attending regular face-to-face reviews where we present our progress to them and answer questions. The reviewers have the power to immediately halt projects that aren’t delivering what they promised. By contrast, none of the UK or Scottish funding bodies or commercial companies that I’ve worked with have applied this level of oversight.

Of course, some would argue that all these science and technology projects are a waste of money anyway, and we shouldn’t be spending anything on them at all. I disagree whole-heartedly. We SHOULD be taking part in visionary projects, like the Human Brain Project. They may not bring tangible results straight away, but in the long term the benefits could be immense, and it probably takes an organisation like the EU to fund projects like this. No commercial company would spend so much money on something so risky, and it would be too big for most individual countries’ research budgets as well. For me this is one of the EU’s strongest points and something I find very inspiring.

“The EU is good for the rich elite and bad for everyone else – look at TTIP, and the treatment of Greece”

There are people on the left of the political spectrum who want out of the EU, citing the imposition of austerity on Greece, the now-infamous TTIP trade deal, legislation that might make it difficult to renationalise public services, and so on. I have some sympathy with their views, certainly more than I do with the anti-immigrant, anti-human rights mob on the right, but I think they need to be realistic about what would actually happen if we voted to leave. The Tories are going to be running the UK for at least the next four years and quite possibly for a lot longer, and the Tories are on average much more fanatically pro-austerity, pro-TTIP and pro-privatisation than the EU are – handing them absolute power to do whatever they want isn’t going to help us with any of those issues. The EU may not be perfect, but right now it seems like one of the few powerful institutions that might actually help to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism.

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“We want freedom from the EU’s red tape”

I think the people who want to get away from the EU’s regulations need to be careful what they’re really voting for. They might imagine with misty eyes an elderly village shop owner, free once again to sell irregularly shaped bananas in pounds and ounces without interference from the Eurocrats, but in reality, the politicians campaigning for Brexit quite likely have different ideas about exactly which strands of red tape they’d like to cut.

At this point, the Leave supporters maintain that no UK government would ever dare to (for example) cut paid holiday entitlement or relax health and safety legislation, because they’d be annihilated at the polls for doing so, therefore we don’t need to EU to protect those things for us. I’m afraid I don’t have as much faith in our electoral system as they do. Of course the UK government could protect all those rights without any help from the EU, but the more relevant question is, would it? Frankly I don’t trust either the Tories or the system that elected them to do what’s right for ordinary people, so I’d rather those rights were protected at as high a level as possible and were as difficult as possible for the government to take away.

There are plenty of UK government decisions that are deeply unpopular but that we’re stuck with anyway, either because none of the parties that can realistically gain power have offered to reverse them, or because they simply lie about what their plans are, or because those particular issues aren’t the main deciding factor for most voters – the privatisation of the railways and the recent NHS reforms in England are two that come to mind. I can easily imagine the same thing happening with employment rights if we were to leave the EU – the Tories doing their “we really hate to do this, but there’s no alternative, we have to do it for the good of the economy in the long term” act as they remove the right to paid sick leave, then Labour (assuming they’ve ditched Corbyn and gone back to being New Labour by that time, which seems quite likely) not daring to reverse it in case they appear “anti-business”.

Anyway, this whole argument can just as easily be turned on its head: if no UK government would ever relax those regulations anyway, why not keep them protected at the EU level? Why would you want to remove that protection unless you’re planning to revoke those rights?

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It seems to me that a lot of Brexit supporters just hate the EU on an emotional level, and at this point are probably not going to be swayed by any kind of rational argument. It’s become a scapegoat for everything they don’t like about the modern world – immigration, human rights, environmentalism, meddling bureaucrats, and so on – and now they’re hell-bent on getting out, regardless of whether leaving would actually change any of those things, and regardless of what other damage might be done in the process.

And, as much as people claim that their views have nothing to do with xenophobia, I find it hard to see any explanation for some of the Leavers’ stances other than just not liking foreigners very much. They are fine with the fact that, for example, the people of Cornwall (or Scotland) might not get their preferred government in Westminster, because Cornwall only contains a minority of British voters (likewise Scotland). But when Britain doesn’t get everything its own way in the EU Parliament, because Britain only contains a minority of the EU’s voters, they go nuts about how undemocratic it is. Why? What is the difference between these two cases, other than the fact that in the first example everyone is British, but in the second example there are foreigners involved as well? I’m not trying to stir things up here, I just genuinely don’t understand.

Why we can’t just go back to the “good old days”

You know, the good old days when men were men, and although life was harder, people just got on with it. They didn’t complain about their situation, and they certainly didn’t go and get themselves diagnosed with a mental illness, or rely on medication to get them through. They just stiffened their upper lip and carried on.

You don’t have to look too far to find sentiments like this expressed online. In fact some variant of this opinion tends to come up in pretty much any discussion involving mental health sooner or later. It seems to be a commonly held belief that mental health problems are over-diagnosed these days; that some of the supposed illnesses aren’t even real health issues at all, just people being lazy or weak; that people in the past were much stronger than today’s cry-babies; that we as a society are medicalising things that shouldn’t be medicalised; that drugs such as anti-depressants are prescribed much too freely to people who don’t actually need them at all.

In this piece I will argue that this way of thinking is misguided and, in fact, quite self-centred.

Actually, that’s not entirely true… there are a couple of points there that I sort of agree with. Firstly, the over-reliance on drugs: I do think there is too much reliance on anti-depressants for treating depression and related conditions, but not because I don’t think the recipients need treatment: rather, because I don’t think drugs are the right treatment for everyone, and tend to be prescribed a lot because they’re relatively cheap and simple (compared to, for example, long term talking therapy) rather than because they’re actually the most effective.

And secondly, I think it would be great if there was more tolerance at all levels of society of people who are different in some way, rather than immediately labelling someone as having a problem and needing treatment just because they don’t fit in with those around them. This would undoubtedly have a very positive effect on many people’s mental health, but it wouldn’t eliminate the problem completely.

The other points, though, are nonsense, and destructive nonsense at that.

For a start, let’s lay to rest any notion that today’s mental health problems didn’t exist back in the 1940s, or 50s, or Victorian times, or whenever this supposed golden age of stoicism is meant to have taken place. Of course we’re never really going to know for sure how many people were suffering from clinical depression, or social anxiety, or ADHD several decades ago, because there wasn’t really any awareness of those conditions back then. But what we do know for sure is that a lot of people ended up killing themselves, or turned to destructive coping strategies like alcohol or drugs, or spent their lives locked away in grim asylums. The same problems that we have today almost certainly existed, and wreaked the same havoc on people’s lives that they do today if left untreated. The only difference is that people back then didn’t talk about how they were feeling or have a name for it.

Of course, a lot of people did just “get on with it”. They didn’t have any other choice, because often their conditions weren’t well enough understood to be diagnosed, and even if they were there wouldn’t be any effective treatment available. A lot of those people would have lived pretty miserable lives, constantly battling demons in their own heads and getting no help or understanding from those around them. But is it reasonable to demand that people should do that now, just because that’s what people had to do in the past? The situation has, after all, changed dramatically. We understand mental illness a lot better than we did even a few decades ago, and there are treatments available that can relieve or even cure many conditions. To me, saying that the mentally ill shouldn’t get help now because their ancestors had to go without is as pointless and cruel as suggesting that people undergoing major surgery should do without anaesthetic, because that’s what people had to do before anaesthetic was discovered.

Even if there has been a genuine increase in the incidence of mental health problems in recent decades, it doesn’t follow that it must be because people now are somehow “weaker” than in the past. Whilst many aspects of life have undoubtedly got a lot easier and more comfortable in the past 50 or 100 years, that doesn’t automatically mean that everything is becoming more conducive to good mental health. The human brain evolved to live in small hunter-gatherer tribes, but that society has been turned upside down in a remarkably short timescale, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and the pace of change shows no sign of slowing. Although most people would probably agree that the changes are largely for the better, if you look at the bigger picture we really haven’t had a lot of time to adapt – it doesn’t seem at all surprising that some people are struggling.

I think a lot of the antipathy I was describing at the start stems from people not really understanding how and why mental health problems are diagnosed. They’ll read a description of, for example, social anxiety and think “That’s just shyness! It’s ridiculous that people are being given therapy and medication just because they’re shy! They just need to get over it!”.

It’s true that social anxiety does have a lot in common with shyness… but the key deciding factor between the two is more about the impact on someone’s life and happiness rather than any innate biological difference. One person might be quite happy with being shy and mostly keeping to themselves, and in that case no-one is going to force them to label themselves as “clinically socially anxious” or to accept treatment for it. But another person might find their “shyness” to be seriously getting in the way of what they want to do with their life and causing them a lot of distress (like I did), and feel powerless to change it on their own, in which case they would probably welcome the chance to get some help. This seems entirely reasonable to me – I don’t understand why anyone, other than a terminally grouchy misanthrope, would object to someone getting treatment for a condition that’s massively impacting their quality of life, even if it’s not something that would have historically been considered a medical problem.

It’s true that the bar for a diagnosis of depression or social anxiety might be set lower than you’d expect: I’ve seen estimates that a full 7% of adults are suffering from clinical social anxiety at any one time, and 25% of adults will experience some form of mental health issue in any given year, which does sound a lot. But there’s a good reason for this, namely that even relatively mild cases of these disorders can cause a huge amount of disruption and distress to sufferers. As Dr David Burns says when talking about a scale for measuring levels of depression in his famous book Feeling Good, “Don’t be fooled by the term ‘moderate’. A score in this range can indicate pretty intense suffering”.

And I’ve always remembered something similar that was once said to me about social anxiety: “‘Mild’ social anxiety isn’t necessarily mild in terms of its impact on your life. It can mean, for example, no love life” – in fact, in my case that was exactly what it did mean. My social anxiety was “mild” compared to some people’s in the sense that I was able to leave the house and (mostly) function day-to-day, but even a mild case was enough to essentially close off an entire area of life (and, I think most people would agree, a pretty important and rewarding one) to me until I had treatment to bring it under control.

I find it quite disturbing that so many people seem to think they are qualified to decide whether others have mental health problems or not, whether they deserve treatment or not, despite having next to no knowledge or experience of the subject themselves. Personally I would rather trust the professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to studying and treating psychological disorders, and the direct experience of the people who live with such disorders every day, but it seems as if there is a growing distrust of experts in all sorts of fields lately (climate science being another big one just now). Thing is, it’s fine to be sceptical. It’s fine to research things yourself rather than just blindly believing whatever you’re told. And it’s fine to acknowledge that so-called “experts” have been spectacularly wrong sometimes in the past. But what’s not so fine is starting from a position of assuming that the experts must be wrong, assuming that they’re either incompetent or corrupt and that you know better, based on no evidence whatsoever, just because you don’t happen to like the implications of what they’re saying. Science may not be perfect, but it’s still far and away the best tool we have for understanding the world and making it a better place.

Ultimately, I think the people wishing we could go back to the “good old days” before mental illness existed are being very selfish. Because there never were any such days. What most of them really mean is “I wish we could go back to the good old days when I didn’t have to think about mental illness, when sufferers knew their place and kept their mouths shut, before they started getting all uppity and wanting to talk about their experiences, wanting people to understand and help them”.

Or, to put it another way, “I want ill people to suffer in silence so that I can maintain my comfortable illusion about how the world works”. Well I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Couch to 5K: my experiences

I’d normally be going for my Tuesday lunchtime run about now, but I think I’m getting a cold so I’m going to skip it in case the exertion makes it worse. So I decided the next best thing would be to write a blog about running instead… maybe I’ll get slightly fitter by osmosis just from thinking about exercise? … OK, maybe not, but I’m going to write this anyway.

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I started the Couch to 5K plan back in late May, in the hope that regular exercise might help me not to feel so tired all the time, as well as a vague sense that it would be nice not to be dying from preventable health problems before I hit 60. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, it’s a beginner’s running programme designed to do exactly from the title says: get you from not running at all to being able to run five kilometres, in the space of only nine weeks.

The programme appealed to me, firstly because by the sound of it it’s designed to be achievable for people even less fit than I was at the start; secondly because I could do it outdoors and wouldn’t need a gym membership (I find gyms expensive, uncomfortable and boring… I’d much rather brave the weather, even in Scotland); thirdly because I could do it myself with the aid of just a phone app. I wouldn’t need to join a group or anything, which I didn’t feel like doing yet – I didn’t want that level of commitment or pressure.

So I downloaded the NHS Choices Couch to 5K Android app to my phone and got started. The app is designed to be listened to on headphones while you’re running, with someone called Laura telling you what to do (nothing like my normal life, then… har har). I believe you can also get the programme in the form of MP3s that you can listen to, but the app has a few advantages, such as being able to track how many runs you’ve done, and showing a countdown clock on the screen so you can easily see how long you’ve got left in the current run.

The app mostly seemed pretty good, though I think it must have been pretty new when I started, as there were a few quite major bugs: the countdown timer ran at the wrong speed when the phone screen was off, so to begin with I had to run with the phone in my hand and the screen on the whole time, needlessly draining the battery. Then later on, the app started to crash every time I completed a run. To the developers’ credit, they did fix both of these issues within a few days, and it seemed a lot more stable after that.

But enough about the app… how was the actual running? Surprisingly painless, actually. As I was pretty unfit, I’d expected Couch to 5K to be much more of a struggle than it turned out to be. I think the level of build-up must be set just right as I didn’t have serious trouble with any of the weeks, not even week 5 where the length of time spent continuously running suddenly jumps from 8 minutes up to a very daunting 20 minutes in one go. At first I thought it was strange that the programme reaches 20 minutes with a full four weeks still to go and then ramps up to 30 pretty gradually after that… at the beginning I thought, “surely once I can run 20 minutes non-stop, 30 minutes can’t be that much harder, so why take a full 4 weeks to get there?”. But I think it does make sense; the purpose of the programme isn’t to get you to struggle through a 30 minute run once and then collapse in a quivering heap moaning “That’s it, I’m never running again!” – it’s to make 30 minutes actually seem manageable and give you some confidence in your ability.

The most difficult bit was actually finding the motivation to go out running three times a week and not getting distracted by other things. Once I was actually out there and got going, I almost always enjoyed it. Overall I managed to fit the runs in around the rest of my life quite well, even though I was doing a lot of travelling over the weeks of the plan – I ended up doing runs in Berlin, Glasgow, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Ghent as well as at home. The only thing that majorly disrupted me was an illness that struck when I had nearly finished (I think I had just started week 8) and then dragged me down for several weeks before I was finally rid of it. At that point I did what the instructions suggested and backtracked a couple of weeks, but I was able to build my momentum back up reasonably easily, and then went on to finally complete the programme. Since then I’ve managed to keep up running for around 30 minutes three times a week, a big improvement on the level of exercise I was getting previously.

Overall, I was pretty happy with Couch to 5K, which succeeded in getting me running greater distances than I would have imagined possible. I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my general fitness – at Alton Towers, a few of us decided to sprint uphill to the Nemesis queue line to try and ride it one last time before it closed for the night, and a few months ago I know that by the time I got there I would have been doubled over and feeling like I was about to die. But as it was, I felt fine, not even particularly out of breath.

One slight disappointment is that I haven’t lost any weight since I started running, though it’s only a slight disappointment because weight loss wasn’t really my motivation for doing it. I suspect that to lose weight I’d need to actually cut back on what I eat as well as exercising – I’ll probably get round to it one day, but for now I’ve decided there are other priorities, and that I’d rather be slightly overweight than be hungry and irritable all the time (which was what happened last time I made a real effort to lose weight). Anyway, weighing 100 kilos but being able to run 5km has surely got to be an improvement on weighing 100 kilos and not being able to run at all.

This is a very minor, nit-picky point, but I think the programme would be more accurately named “Couch to 30 Minutes”, because it actually measures the time you run for rather than the distance, and I’m not convinced I can actually quite run 5K in 30 minutes – if my rough Google Maps measurements of my normal running routes are accurate, I’ve been doing closer to 4K. But that’s splitting hairs really, because I suspect most people who’ve managed to complete the programme would be capable of running for 5K by the end, even if it takes them a little longer than 30 minutes.

I haven’t decided where to go next with the running. I definitely want to at least keep it up at around this level. Maybe I’ll try doing an actual organised 5K run soon, and then try to build up to a 10K? That seems a daunting prospect, but nowhere near as much as going from nothing to 5K did.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in starting running. It starts with a nice gentle introduction but builds you up to being able to do some serious distances, which is all you can ask really. But be careful with your choice of route: ideally you want somewhere with not too many obstructions (so that you don’t have to keep slowing down or stopping), not too many hills (unless you like a challenge!), but most of all, no concrete or tarmac paths! I made the mistake of running round the neighbourhood on the pavements for one of the early runs, but my legs hurt like hell after a few minutes of that. Gravel paths or grass are much, much easier on the shins. I tend to just do laps of my local park. The wooded hill nearby is a nicer location, but the steeply sloped paths add an extra challenge so I have to be feeling energetic for that.