An honour to coordinate with Jo on this. What was it like growing up gifted and mentally ill in the UK? Not a barrel of laughs thanks to the lack of support in the education system
This is the text of a talk I gave at a recent event on pursuing a career in academia for Oxford Students’ Disability Community. It felt like an apt thing to share for Bipolar Awareness Day
The only thing I ever wanted to be was an academic. Ideally one of those, as I thought, magical beings – a public intellectual. As a child in the 1970s and 1980s, my mind at its most malleable was shaped by Feynman, Sagan, Greer, and the grandest panjandrum of them all, Doctor Jonathan Miller.
Fast forward to 2000, and that dream was beginning to take shape. I had a first in Theology and Philosophy, a distinction in my Masters, and some convoluted but promising work on Puritan erotic discourse, feminist psychoanalysis and the place of subjectivity in the great taxonomical debates of the 17th century. That summer I had won the World Intelligence Championship. I was well on my way. I was within touching distance of my dream of becoming a pale imitation of Alain de Botton.
Of course, it hadn’t been a smooth ride, but didn’t that go with the territory? There had been the 6 months as a 15 year old I hadn’t talked to anyone. Literally. At all. And the Michaelmas Term of my 2nd year when I acquired 23 translations of the Bible, practised bridge till 4 each morning before being up for 9 o’clock lectures, and drank so much alcohol that on the night that led to me getting expelled from the Great Britain Juniors Bridge Team for bringing the game into disrepute, half the amount I consumed would have been a fatal dose for almost any normal person. But that was normal, wasn’t it? Academics are meant to be a bit eccentric. And besides, people kept on telling me what they’d told me all my life. “You’re clever. You’ll be fine. Just work hard.”
So I can’t have had a problem. Can I? The day after day after day when I physically couldn’t move from the corner of the room where I’d rock with my hands over my ears and my eyes shut because that was the only way to keep the world out. That can’t have been a problem. Because I didn’t have problems. It felt like a problem when I looked at the pile of letters I hadn’t opened for 6 months because the thought of what might be in them and the absolute, final end it might bring to my world made me physically ill. But people who knew told me the same thing: I was clever, I’ll be fine. So when the chapters didn’t get written that can only have been laziness. And I was told again and again that any gaps in the CV would put an end to my hopes. So I clearly just needed to work harder. And when my body and my mind screamed they couldn’t I just needed to thrash them, often literally, until they would.
Of course, I wasn’t fine. I had bipolar disorder. A decade and a half of trying to make my willpower the unstoppable force to batter through the immovable object of my illness had left me with thousands of pounds of debt and utterly burned out. And that was the end of that. It was another 5 years before I had the strength to get a low level admin job.
If you are struggling the way I did, then you are not fine. Do not let people tell you you are fine. Do not let people say that because you are clever you will be OK. Invisible conditions are awful because people will not believe you. When you are also incredibly bright, you can multiply that up exponentially, because you will, almost all the time, look absolutely fine. You will be achieving things many couldn’t imagine achieving if they had every battery running on 11. So many people will not believe you have problems. But you do. And there are people here who know that and will listen. Things may, or may not, turn out OK, but if you don’t seek help because you believe the fault somehow lies with you, with your motivation or your effort, you will be a lot less OK than if you do.
When you are bright, you are led to believe you can work your way through anything. You can work your way through the most complex problems academia can throw at you. But you can’t work your way out of mental ill health. Take the time you need to get the support you need. Because a month, or a year, or even a few years, won’t necessarily put an end to your dreams. But leaving it too late will.
transcript, with some slides, of a talk for University Mental Health Awareness Day – there is a full video, including questions, here. You can download a pdf of the words here. Many thanks to Verity for permission to reproduce her words and her photos.
The Consolation of Solitary Sports
Dan Holloway and Verity Westgate
It is somewhere between midnight and 1. It is three hours since I watched the last streaks of daylight disappear and it will be three hours more before I see them again. I have just a bubble of light a few feet wide in which every moth on the Ridgeway has come to join me. On the horizon maybe I make out the glow of a floodlight and the hum of a generator marking one of the tiny occasional outposts that provide warm tea, cold, flat coke, and a miniature cornucopia of sugary salty goodness before I disappear back into the night.
I have been running for around 16 hours. I will be running for several more. When the hedgerows clear and the perspective is right I may see the occasional torch in the distance. More often, on the soft summer breeze I hear a rustle. Not so long ago water drenched desperate burning bodies and buffs and bags were deployed as futile shields, but after dark in July the temperature falls away like a cliff and those who ditched all but vests by day struggle, as running turns to a slow walk, to retain any warmth they can with foil blankets that provide the only reminder that hundreds of shredded bodies stretch over tens of miles.
Every time my feet hit the ground, pain shoots across the sole and up the side of my calf. At least one toenail is loose, and much of the skin is rubbed raw. I am so utterly exhausted my mind has stopped wandering anywhere but the footfall in front of me and the struggle on the rutted rounded path to stay upright, not from fear of injury but because the effort of hauling myself up from one more fall is more effort than my muscles can bear.
It is at this moment I begin to sob. Loudly and uncontrollably. Not from the pain; not from the despair; but because for one of the only times in years I realise I am, in this moment, truly and absolutely happy.
Exercise and mental health are regular bedfellows in our conversations. But if we treat their relationship too glibly, we can end in some uncomfortable places. So it is important to begin by explaining very briefly what I am not going to say.
The most obvious preface is to point out the obvious. I may have bipolar disorder, but in other ways I am very lucky. Despite appearances, my physical health is extremely robust. I can throw things at my body and my body will take it. Many people cannot. And while, yes, there are many ways of incorporating cardiovascular exercise into one’s life, many people are not as fortunate as I am. For that, as well as the fact that it’s never a good thing to do, shaming those who cannot exercise, or those who can but for whom many of the activities I will talk about today are out of reach, is not acceptable.
That is why I will not be saying, today or at any other time I should hope, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” You can’t. The implication behind the statement is not inspirational but shaming and mean spirited. I would much rather say that what sports like ultramarathonning in particular can teach you is that that you can often do things you never thought you could. And that will do me fine.
Second, exercise is great. The great outdoors is super fabulous great. But many of you may have seen this meme online [picture of forest with caption “this is an antidepressant” and of pills with caption “this is shit”]
And that is neither super nor fabulous nor great. Which is why, thankfully, there are also many more balanced counters. [picture of forest with caption “this is a forest (useful if you are having a bad day)”, and pills with caption “This is medicine (useful if you have an illness)”
I will not be shaming anyone who cannot exercise. Nor will I be shaming anyone who needs to take medication.
Bad at Games
At school I was bad at games. I wasn’t just bad at games, I hated sport. As far back as I can remember, sport and mental health went together for me. But in those early days the relationship was negative on every level.
I was always different. I was terrified of the other kids at school. They were like alien beings. I had no idea how they functioned, just that their purpose in life seemed to be to make my life hell. And the more different I was, a difference increasingly built on anxiety, depression, ritualistic tics, and outrageous behaviours that seem, looking back, to be the early markers of what would later become manic episodes, the worse it got.
PE and games increasingly became opportunities for other children in my year to use physical activity as a mask for deliberate acts of violence. Teachers’ eyes couldn’t be everywhere. Though sometimes, because in this world I didn’t understand sport seemed to matter – desperately – often it was less a case of bullying slipping under the radar and more a case of games teachers steeped in some kind of Darwinian machismo seeing a rewarding humour in this relentless pursuit.
Because I was so miserable, I never paid any attention to the actual sport. Combine that with an increasing tendency towards comfort eating in an effort to find some, any kind of relief, and my performance suffered more, I was even more the cause of embarrassment for the teams who got lumbered with me, even more an object of humiliation.
But even through this, there was something I could not quite let go of about running around outside. More specifically, running around in deserted outside places on my own. At weekends my parents would take me to the Forest of Dean and I would dart into the trees and lose myself for hours. In the summers I would wander out of town to the scrub of semi fields and the dilapidated concrete and brickwork of bridges and warehouses and drainage systems, and create worlds in which I could lose myself completely.
There was something about being outside, moving, far away from people, that felt, more than anything, like home. But as my mental health worsened, that world was lost.
When I came to Oxford, I managed assiduously to avoid all forms of exercise. It was more than a decade after leaving school that I found myself, starting my DPhil, living in Linacre where one night I stumbled, by accident, into the basement where I discovered a 24 hour gym. I sat down, in my jeans and shirt, on the indoor rowing machine and started pulling.
The response was almost instantaneous. Although bouts of ill health meant that my progress stopped and started for the next decade and more, I knew straightaway I had found something almost magical, even if at that stage I had no idea what the magic was.
Fast forward again to 2013, and although a series of episodes of severe mental ill health had left me 19 stone and inactive, the connection I had made on the erg that night had never gone away. When I went for my 40 plus check up at the GP to discover that – I told you I was lucky – my heart, my cholesterol, and my blood sugar were all right in the middle of the healthy range, that was all I needed. I asked my GP if there were limits to what could do. No, she said. I asked if she was sure. Yes, she was sure. Even if I exercise really hard, I asked. Yes, even if I exercised really hard.
9 months later, I rowed 108 kilometres on the indoor rower at the University Club, and a year after that I completed my first 100 kilometre ultramarathon run.
What running, and indoor rowing before that, has done is bypassed the horrors of the sportsfield, the association of exercise with teams of which I could never be a part, with a world that is strange and frightening. It has reconnected me instead to the young child inventing his own world in forests made of wood and concrete.
Not only has running reconnected me with a world in which I can feel at home and so a refuge from the world in which I live the rest of the time which is confusing, exhausting, and full of people who, however well-intentioned, will never quite understand.
There is something – or rather there are two things – about the actual physical act of running that are transformative in very similar but very different ways.
When you strip it down to its basics, running is one of the simplest things you can do. You might adjust a little on the hills, but essentially every step you take is like every other. At first, it won’t feel like that. For the first month, every time I ran my feet screamed, my legs begged no and my chest half collapsed under the weight of its own wheezing. And when I say “ran” I mean about 100 metres of very slow foot dragging. Every step felt very different from the one that had preceded it – in the sense that the pain had ramped itself up another level of magnitude. But after a couple of months something happened. I started not to notice time passing. I would look around and realise I was somewhere completely different from where I had been the last time I looked. What was happening was almost like alchemy. That simple, unconscious action of putting one foot in front of the other was taking care of all the physical irritations and distractions and anxiety inducements of life, and my mind, no longer playing games of dare with itself, was free to wander.
And there are also times where the opposite is true. In running this can come on a steep rocky trail, a particularly muddy path, or just when your legs hurt so much you can barely bring yourself to let your foot touch the ground. And it’s there all the time in a sport like parkour, when you are learning to jump, fall, grip and hang in ways you would have though impossible. These are the times when what you are doing requires your attention to such an extent that it is literally impossible to think about anything else.
The need for no concentration at all, and the need for total concentration have the same effect, that of losing yourself completely in flow.
And some other perspectives on sport and mental health
The running world, in particular the world of extreme endurance, furnishes us with stories similar to mine at every level, right to the very top of the sport.
I guess it should come as no surprise that a sport where events often take in excess of 24 hours without a break with training schedules to match should contain a number of former substance addicts in its top ranks. Timothy Olsen, like so many, began drinking and taking drugs to self-medicate his depression. And like so many he woke up one day, an addict, realising they had made his mental health so much worse. When one of his friends and fellow users committed suicide, Olsen joined a running group in an effort to get clean. A handful of years later, before his 30th birthday, he won the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States, a 100 mile race that includes more than 5 kilometres of elevation gain, in a mind boggling record time of 14 hours and 46 minutes.
Last summer, a number of athletes took part in The Icebreaker Run, taking them right across America on foot, running under the simple and familiar banner “Beat the Stigma.” The most vocal of the group was ultra running legend Catra Corbett, who chalks up a 50 or 100 mile race most weekends and is most widely known in ultra running circles, and increasingly outside of them, for running everywhere with her pet rescue dachshund Tru-Man.
Corbett, who at 51 has now been sober for 21 years, has found, like Olsen, the long intense periods of solitary endeavour have been key to the battle with substance addiction.
It is not just addiction that is found among endurance runners. One of the world’s most celebrated athletes, New Zealand’s Anna Frost, is open about her battles with depression, and has become an ambassador for mental health and the promotion of positive role models for women through the wonderful global initiative Sisu Girls.
And of course, just last year, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year’s Helen Rollason Award for outstanding achievement went to Ben Smith, whose mental health had suffered after homophobic bullying at school, who ran 401 marathons in 401 days to support Kidscape and Stonewall.
Verity Westgate on open water swimming
I took up Openwater swimming in 2009 when I entered a one mile swim in the lake district to raise money for charity. I had been a twice a week, forty lengths head up breastroke swimmer, since leaving university, so swimming itself was not alien to me, but I had never swum out of doors before. Taking part in this event proved quite a defining moment for the things I would do in the next 8 years and in adding a really key tool for managing my recurrent depression. There has been a huge rise in the number of people doing openwater swimming in the UK over the last few years and the benefits to mental health are often cited.
I’d like to start by reading a few lines from a book called Waterlog by Roger Deakin which describes a journey of swimming around the British Isles
“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it….when you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world…you see and experience things when you are swimming in a way that is completely different from any other…Natural water has always held the magical power to cure. Somehow or other it transmits its own self-regenerating powers to the swimmer”.
Why swimming for me?
Swimming is different from running in that there is more sensory deprivation; you can’t really see very far around you if your head is out, if your head is in the water, you might not be able to see more than a few cms away. But at the same time, the senses that you have are more intense. You feel the temperature of the water
Like running, the repetitive action of swimming is very soothing. You get into a rhythm, repeating your strokes over and over again. And as you focus on this, and the feeling and sound of the water, eventually, you can start to still your mind. I get into the water and my mind is busy; as I swim, my brain starts to solve problems lurking in my subconscious; if I keep going long enough, my mind no longer starts to wander but achieves a stillness where all that matters is the feeling of the water and the sound it makes as I move through it.
Over the years, I have completed a number of increasingly long “marathon” swims, culminating in a two-way Windermere swim in 2015 where I swam down the lake and then back up again for a total of 21 miles. So besides the beneficial nature of swimming itself, I find having a goal and a sense of purpose very helpful for my mental health. It anchors swimming as an important part of my daily routine providing a small sense of achievement even when my mood is low.
Where to go?
My favourite location has to be the Lake District as there are so many watery spaces with different characters and amazing scenery. Many areas are remarkably unspoilt and you can get a whole lake to yourself if you are lucky!
Around Oxford, most obvious location is the Thames. The Open Water Swimming Society have a Wild Swim map which will give you some ideas of where to head, and not just in Oxford, but all around the country. The Outdoor Swimming Society website also has information about how to swim outside safely.
Swimming in the sea is a totally different sensory experience, but there is something rather lovely about being buffeted by waves whilst you are swimming.
And if you don’t feel brave enough to take on a wild swim, simply swimming in an outdoor pool feels quite different to swimming indoors, almost like a mini holiday where you are surrounded by fresh air. Hinksey Outdoor Pool, down the Abingdon Road, and open during the summer months, is a lovely place to go, especially on an overcast day when it is not too busy!
Being outside as a way to be an outsider
I want to use the last part of this talk, as the slides take you on a tour of some of Oxford’s wonderful spaces, by going beyond the “get out and be inspired” clichés into which it would be so easy to fall.
I want to put forward two very simple propositions that on the one hand offer reasons why this kind of physical activity seems to have such a profound effect on mental health and on the other furnish us with reasons to explore extreme sports that take away the whiff of the boot camp that can be so debilitating:
- Being outside gives us a way of being an outsider
- Extreme sports are less about exercise or fitness and more about finding a unique vantage point from which to view the world in which we find ourselves
Many of us who have experienced periods of mental ill health will also have experienced, connected in one way or another to that ill health, life as outsiders, feeling we don’t belong, ostracised by stigma or anxiety or expectation or simply the refusal of our neurology to cooperate with what society demands of it, convinced, as the title of Milan Kundera’s work puts it so poetically, that Life is Elsewhere.
The world we find ourselves in is changing, and in many respects, for those of us with the often complex needs that accompany mental ill health, those changes are for the better. But the changes we need in order to function in the world in ways many of our colleagues would recognise as “normal” remain in many respects distant prospects.
And so we find ourselves constantly reminded that we are outsiders. In places like this, especially, our otherness can feel as though it is always in the foreground. Casual conversation with colleagues who seem, intuitively, to know what to say, the expectation that a cheery demeanour is part of our job description, the well meaning yet gaslighting reassurances from colleagues that in 7th week “we get tired too”. All of these and so many more require us constantly to use energy we do not have to conform ourselves to a world that will not use the energy it does have to accommodate us.
What I have found in endurance running is a place where I do not have to try and be on the inside. I’ve also learned something I never expected about the impact decades of mental ill health has had on me. As always, this is my experience, it may not be yours, but I have encountered it elsewhere in the ultra community. It’s there in a certain look when a mountain looms and the legs are shot and there is as far yet to run as you have already been. It was the look on my wife’s face when she tore her thigh muscle after 40 kilometres of a 100 kilometre race, got the medics to tape her up, and completed the last 60 kilometres despite being barely able to walk.
It’s a look that turns conventional running wisdom on its head. The key to running long distances, group after group, column after column, will tell you, is to train your mind to believe. Your body can go the distance if only your mind doesn’t win with its constant cries to stop. For some of us at least who have spent decades using every weapon in our mental army just to resist the desire not to be alive, or to stay clean and sober, that resilience is already there, and it makes us uniquely suited to feats of extreme endurance. Making yourself keep going for 20, 30, 50 kilometres more when your body screams no – compared to facing the world on your darkest days, that’s nothing. The problem comes with the finishing line, with the inevitable return to a world in which your mind once again begs you no.
The beauty of solitary sport is that there are no rules or pressures or expectations or demands upon you – even the demand to be competent! There is only the world you create according to your own needs and desires. Where a neurotypical world might see loneliness, for many of us there is a beautiful liberation, a freedom from the need to try and construct a version of yourself for social consumption. You can just be an outsider. The trails don’t care.
Flexibility and fun
The joy of solitary sport is that you can make it what you want. Many people who take up exercise say the value of being in a group is that they feel an accountability. Their peers are the reason they still go out on the days they really don’t feel like it but know that they should. Whatever “should” means. Anyone who has anxiety in any form, let alone social or communication issues, might, of course, experience that in a slightly different way. For many of us the cocktail of guilt and fear, or simply having to handle coping with the complexity of being with people, far from being the thing that gets us out of the door can be the thing that keeps us inside.
Shedding that whole layer of expectation and pressure can be remarkably liberating. Why the assumption we need that kind of motivation? Those of us with mental health issues spend enough of our lives trying to educate people out of the myth that we are fundamentally lazy left to our own devices will settle into an equilibrium of inactivity through some kind of volition. We need to make sure we’re not buying into those myths ourselves.
And that brings me to my final point, which is that we are familiar with the sticks used to beat us – by the media, family, shops, workplaces. We need to quit using shaming to get us to do something as wonderful as exercise. Forget “I ought to lose weight” or “I need to be fit” or “I have to counter the side effects of my meds.”
The simple thing of it is that these sports are amazing because they give you an entirely new perspective on the environment you inhabit every day.
Literally a new perspective. Whether you are following the practice of parkour to look up and around to find new paths and discovering the joys of Oxford’s roofline, exploring snickleways and paths, seeing the city from the waterline, or simply experiencing its passing at a different speed, solitary sports transport you to a myriad parallel worlds that you don’t have to go anywhere to be able to explore.
I’ve never really taken my mind sports side very seriously. It is, basically, just doing puzzles. On the one hand, the one I use for “intelligence” competitions, logic puzzles. On the other hand, the one I use for “creative thinking” competitions, thinking up eschatological quantities of utterly useless weird stuff.
But then I was thinking about it. Get someone doing basic creativity puzzles – how many uses can you think of for a “…” (a burst balloon, say) or exponentially better, for “a … and a …” (a burst balloon and an empty honey jar to give a very famous example) so they have to think of uses that somehow combine two things. All just silly fun, getting people good at nothing more than “thinking up eschatological quantities of utterly useless weird stuff.”
Then show someone say the “3 hat problem”. Which goes like this – I’m sure you all know a version. (To clarify parameters for all my fellow pedants, all people involved can see, and can hear, and can speak. There are only the number of people involved who are specified. All have basic logical skills. The knowledge of the nature of the problem is communicated in some way that has no material impact on the problem). There are three people, each of whom is wearing a single hat. The people are lined up one behind the other and facing the same way so that each can see only the hat or hats of the person in front. They know that there are 2 white hats and one black hat; or two black hats and one white hat. As soon as a person has worked out what colour hat they are wearing they must shout out “eureka.”
The puzzle is this. You are the person in the middle. Do you call out “eureka or not?”
The answer is very simple, and if you know the problem you will get it instantaneously. If you don’t, then you may be flummoxed for a moment until you think it through. Your thoughts might start – “I can only see one hat. I can’t deduce anything from that. I could be wearing either. At some stage you have the “aha!” moment – the puzzle isn’t just about you. There are two more people involved, both of whom are puzzling too. Sadly, all is lost for the front person. But what about the person at the back. They can see your hat AND the hat of fronty. If the two of you are wearing different colour hats, back person is clueless – they could be wearing either. But if you and fronty are wearing the same, then backstop *knows* they are wearing the other colour, so they shout out.
What that means is this – if back person says “eureka” you know you are wearing the same colour hat as the one you see in front of you. If back person says nothing you *know* that’s because they’re clueless, and they are clueless because you’re wearing the opposite to the person in front. *Either way*, you know which colour you are wearing.
The 3 hat problem is a really fun logic puzzle. But it also teaches a really important idea – the information you have in many situations is more than just what you can observe. It includes what other people can observe, and the inferences they draw from them. Sometimes, other people’s silence can be the key piece that solves a puzzle.
Now do this. Put those two “what to do on a rainy afternoon” fun things together. Ask not about honey jars and balloons but “how many other situations might there be in which the key piece of information is something I can’t know but someone else does, and where I must combine my knowledge with what I can deduce about their knowledge?”
Add to that some flourishes – the celebration of failure, for example, which goes with creative thinking. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the ideas you generate might be – just get them out there. The more the better – you can come back and evaluate whether they’re daft, useless, or even utterly inaccurate examples, later. Then crowdsource – ask other people to come up with ideas. And then pick each others ideas apart. Move the ones that don’t work to the bottom of the table – without discarding altogether. Maybe someone can build it into something better. Expand, play, modify.
And before you know where you are you will have ended up with some incredibly interesting questions – and you will have figured out exactly what data you need to gather in order to test them – including data you may have completely overlooked had you not come at it this way. Now you can get experimenting.
So, these fun little diversions turn out, when you apply them and do the creative thing – stuff them together – to provide you with the raw materials for an immensely powerful toolkit. Maybe there’s something in them after all.
- Unity is not a value, it is a strategy. Unifying can be used to impose control or to resist it (from within by subversion or as a group of disparate overlapping interests from without), but its value resides only in the values around which the unity is built or the utility to which it is put.
- “Pushing through” is not a good in itself. Just as your body needs to distinguish between good muscle pain and bad muscle pain so your mind needs to know that there are some “difficult things” it is essential to keep doing and some you need to pull right back from.
- Your horizons are not marked out by other people’s norms or abilities. In any direction. “That was really good” and “that was really poor” are judgments about your performance only you are qualified to make.
- Uphold science in the face of irrelevant relativism. Uphold agnosticism and relativism in the face of inappropriate certainty. Learn the difference.
- There is no shame in weakness. If you have the strength, use it to make the world better for those who do not. If you do not have strength, it is as much your right to expect of society as it is society’s duty to deliver.
- Listen more.
- Make the world more beautiful and more just but remember – beauty without justice is a hollow shell; justice without beauty is a start.
- Failure is a wonderful, beautiful thing, but also a great privilege that many cannot afford. If you want to deliver justice and beauty, work towards a world in which everyone has the freedom to fail without fear.
Happy Halloween, everyone. This story was commissioned by Oxford Playhouse and performed at the Burton Taylor earlier this year as part of Bedtime Tales, a showcase of adult fairy stories. I will be performing it, surrounded by an amphitheatre of Stradivarii, as part of the Ashmolean’s Fright Friday. To download the pdf of this story, click here.
Every journey begins with an itch you just have to scratch, and it was no different for Taylor. Only for Taylor the itch wasn’t a metaphorical one.
Taylor couldn’t remember falling asleep. It was the same every night, sneaking back from the library at sunset, watching the windows of their own house from the street outside until the kitchen light was off and slipping silently inside, tiptoeing to their basement room, heart stopped in their mouth as they listened for the noise of housemates, every step calculating whether the quickest route to safety was back out of the front door, or forward to their room.
Once inside, the door to their tiny room closed behind them, kettle boiled and mug filled with steaming coffee, face splashed at the tiny sink in the corner and curtains checked tight against wandering eyes, Taylor booted up the computer and logged into the chatroom Huis Clos, No Exit, where the lonely and the lost of the internet gravitated in search of companionship and consolation.
They headed for the side room called Bitter Tears where Alix was already logged in. Alix claimed to also live in Oxford and as the two of them talked Taylor liked to think of Alix locked in a similar basement in a similar house, maybe close enough that the warmth of another body almost flowed across the cables between them. They knew it was probably a lie but sometimes lies don’t matter as much as it matters that you want them to be true.
Last night they were talking about art, like they did at least half of all the nights. They watched the Steve Roggenbuck video Make Something beautiful Before You Are Dead together and then talked about how hard it was to make art that was beautiful and how beauty was like a sharp sweet drop of acid in a corrosive alkaline world and how the moment you exposed it to the air it would fizz and die but how even, they guessed, the way those dying bubbles caught the light was beautiful in its way and how the fact that someone tried was the most beautiful thing of all, and they shared platitudes like “we are alive at the same time” which was a line from the Steve Roggenbuck video and “some of our stars are the same” which was Alix’s favourite line from The Silence of the Lambs, and Taylor typed
Maybe being beautiful is the easiest thing of all. Maybe just staying alive is the most beautiful thing of all.
And Alix typed
But isn’t that the hardest thing of all?
And they were both silent for a time after that. Alix had laid down two rules the first time they logged on together.
If we are going to be friends, there’s just two things. You never ask to meet, and when it’s time for me to leave, you never try to stop me.
Taylor had said, yeah, of course, and that was the last they said about it, but it was always there below the surface of their friendship and sometimes it bubbled to the top.
In the silence, Taylor touched the screen and imagined Alix doing the same, and after a while they got talking again, this time about Jean Michel Basquiat and how someone so young could do so much and so brilliantly, and at some point Taylor fell asleep.
Taylor had woken just before sunrise to a tiny but insistent throb between the shoulder blades, the kind you get when you’ve got a spot coming on. By breakfast they’d forgotten about it. Sitting in the Radcliffe Camera with their copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness after their third coffee the irritation was back. Until lunchtime as they rubbed against the back of their chair and fidgeted the book in their hands they were able to convince themself it was just the caffeine triggering the nerve cells under their skin. But as they hunkered against the wall of St Mary the Virgin chewing on a slab of bread pudding, they just couldn’t ignore it any more and sat there, rubbing insistently against the stone till the cloth of their t-shirt began to tear.
Sweat started beading on their palms. They couldn’t go home. Not in the day. Never in the day. What if someone was there? What if they saw them, spoke to them, told them how vile they were, told them they needed to go, needed to be dead? But the need to stop the incessant itching was even greater than the fear.
They headed away from the anonymous buzz of the city centre, pausing at Queens Lane, staring up the narrow street with its cobbled sides, the inviting turn that led you into the belly of one of the labyrinths in Oxford’s heart, over the plague pits of New College into the almost hidden entrance to the Turf. The lane was sided by high, imposing walls they’d often wished they could scale so they could sit in unseen safety and watch Oxford pass beneath them.
Invisibility. That was the thing they longed for most. The freedom to move without their presence being questioned. The freedom to occupy spaces other people seemed to fill as though it was their birthright. The freedom to explore, to live without the constant glances that sneered “What are you doing here? This is my space, loser.”
The freedom that being truly alone would give them from the loneliness they felt eating them from the marrow of their bones outward every time they were among people, a loneliness only barely more manageable than the fear they felt of being seen by someone they knew, by someone who wanted to hurt them, who wanted their life to be over.
Despite the fear that rose with every step Taylor took closer, no one was home and soon they were locked in their room with coffee.
As soon as the drink was inside them, Taylor’s skin began to jump. The itching was far worse than before, and it was no longer confined to the spot between their shoulder blades. But all the spiders’ feet on their nerve-endings were dancing out from that one small place. This was more than a caffeine kick out of control.
Heat started to flush Taylor’s face. Sweat pooled in the small of their back. The epicentre of the itch had begun to move away from the tickling part of the spectrum, and was beginning to register firmly in the burn. They threw their back against the sharp metal corner of a bookshelf for relief and held it there, pressure cauterizing the nerves for a few moments of relief, but all the absence of pain achieved was to give their head space to panic hard.
In their mind, every documentary they’d ever seen played on fast forward, pausing only to zoom in on the most disgusting details and the words, “slow, lingering death” and “conscious till the last terrible moment when blood from every vital organ leaks uncontrollably from the body.”
The relief was only temporary. A steady, insistent itching had already started up again. Taylor’s arms shook as they lifted themself from the shelf, drew themself to the other side of the room where they stared at their reddened, sweating face, a battle between panic and pain punching their mind one way then the other.
They closed their eyes, took a deep breath, and peeled the t-shirt from their body. They allowed themself to exhale and began to turn, stopping themself, starting again, turning back, oscillating as fast as they could flex their shoulders.
They blinked, hard, took a last gulp of air, and turned their back to the mirror, craning their head over their shoulder, and opened their eyes to see…
Surely this was a trick of the light? Their back was on fire and the point of origin felt like it was melting their spine. They expected to see at least red raw skin, if not flesh peeling away under the pressure of pus.
But there was nothing.
They turned the lights off and moved closer, twisted and turned.
No, thought Taylor. That’s not right. For a moment they forgot the pain that had been between their shoulders all day, even the pain that had been throbbing in their head since they turned fifteen. They were determined to find out what the hell was happening to them. They tried to reach the spot with their hand. A life spent with books and computers had stripped the flexibility from their limbs. They tried the other hand, and tripped, backwards onto the bed, their elbow buckling beneath them.
But buckling into that last inch of space they hadn’t been able to reach. Sure enough, their skin was perfectly smooth, untouched. But there, beneath the pad of his finger. Something. Something raised, like a nodule of hard pus.
“What the fuck?” Taylor’s heart began to drum in their ears. They explored the contours of the lump with their finger as they had spent many hours exploring the myriad tiny temporary deformities in constant flux on the teenage body. As they felt their way around it they started to notice something very strange indeed. Whatever it was, it was symmetrical. More symmetrical than anything a body would throw up left to its own devices.
The itch was building again. Instinctively, Taylor scratched. They felt whatever it was, almost there, just below the skin. They scratched again. They felt it move against their touch.
They sat up and wheeled their arms, flexing their shoulder muscles. They pushed their left arm behind their lower back, and used their spine for resistance as their fingers crawled up inch by inch, muscles and ligaments turning in less and less natural angles until finally they came up against the hard edge under their skin. Now the right arm. They swung it to the back of their neck. This time their fingers crawled down until they reached the top edge.
“OK”, they said. “Here goes.” They ran their nail along the edge, scraping their skin, gently at first, failing to break the surface. Their finger was caught in that delicious tension between the moment of potential relief and the knowledge of the certain pain that would precede it, between the desire and the fear of falling gloriously over the edge of the abyss.
This time they dug, furiously, letting out a short, hideous scream as the skin broke and they felt what could only be described as a pop of something coming free. Blood drained from every extremity and they feinted back on the bed, their hand falling to the cloth beside them…holding onto a bloody object.
Taylor pushed themself groggily upright on their bloodstained sheets and stared down at the bloody mess in their hands. They could have sworn they knew what it was but it made no sense. It couldn’t be. They smeared some of the blood away with their finger. Surely it couldn’t be.
Taylor stared at the black square in the palm of their hand, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
They booted up their laptop and slid the card into the drive. The machine whirred and a pop-up asked what Taylor wanted to do with the video file.
They clicked play and mediaplayer opened on the screen.
Taylor was still trying to catch up with what was happening when the black background turned crimson. The crimson of a neon light. Music in the background, a heavy otherworldly industrial sound. A club, maybe. An empty club. No, not empty. A figure made its way from the corner of the screen, back to the camera, wearing a black hoodie, moving centre screen and turning. From the darkness of the hood a face so pale it glowed stared out, deep pools of dark green make-up around the eyes and on the lips.
Taylor felt cold, clammy, their world turned upside down. What came next almost stopped time in its tracks.
“Hello, Taylor,” said a sure, high voice.
Silence, and the dark lips curled up. “OK, now you’ve recovered let’s start again. Hello, Taylor. My name is Stitch. You are watching this because you want something so desperately that you are prepared to mutilate yourself to get it. Something worth so much you would put yourself through that pain for even the possibility of attaining it.
“Now this is where you really need to listen.” Stitch leant forward. Taylor felt the dark red eyes drilling into him. “This is what you want.”
Taylor couldn’t even blink. What the hell was happening?
“You want to reach out to those who are absolutely alone, and you want to make their dreams come true. Listen to me. Do what I say, and I will give you the ability to do that. I know that sounds like nonsense. But remember this. You just pulled a memory card out of your skin and on that card is a video of someone you have never met telling you something about you that you may not even have figured out yourself.
“I have been watching you for two months. Every day. Every night. If you are watching this the day you felt the first itch then last night I came into your room, and I placed the card under your skin without leaving a mark.
“If you want your dream to come true, meet me at the underpass on the Thames Path between Iffley Lock and Sandford at 2am. I will be there every night until you come.”
The screen cut to black and a small message asked if Taylor wanted to replay the video.
Taylor logged in to Bitter Tears and found Alix and typed.
Help. I can’t explain but something unbelievable and extraordinary… And very frightening. Should I?
Eventually a few characters broke the silent screen:
Was all Alix typed.
Typed Tyler, closing down the computer as the message uploaded.
Heading south on the towpath out of Oxford after dark is like entering Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. Tarmac and asphalt and the bright lights of the Abingdon Road give way to compacted track and the occasional window of a boat house, then the distant whirring light of traffic which recedes as you drift past the Isis Tavern, unreachable by road, and the last civilized building of Iffley Lock and into darkness, woodland and mud.
By daylight the bridge that carries Oxford’s Eastern Bypass is an intimidating piece of crumbling Brutalism, scarred and full of corners into which you can’t quite see. By night, there were simply shadows and deeper shadows beyond them, spaces inhabited by anything the imagination could conjure.
Just a day ago, Taylor would have run terrified from the first steps beyond the safety of the college boathouses. Today they felt fear leaking from their body with every step. It was as though the dark unknown was pulling them over a velvet cliff. When the world cast you out, where the world saw fear was where safety lay.
Taylor stopped, just as the bridge engulfed them on all sides. The night was empty except for the occasional car rumbling overhead. Clouds hid the stars and left the river a gently rippling black. Taylor smiled. For the first time they could remember they were somewhere they felt at home.
“Hey, Taylor.” It was the same voice as the video.
They looked into the darkness in each direction.
Taylor looked over their head. A figure was sitting on a cross beam, masked by shadows. From the silhouette it looked like they wore a hood.
The figure dropped from view, appearing a moment later upside down, her smiling face just a few inches from Taylor’s.
“What the hell…” Taylor stepped back. “Are you a vampire or something?”
“Ha!” Stitch laughed and pivoted up from the waist, hands reaching to the beam where her feet were holding her up, and flipped to the ground. “Nope. Just parkour.”
“The art of always moving forward,” she said. “Finding interesting ways of getting past obstacles. Like this.” She ran straight at one of the columns holding up the bridge. Taylor was about to shout a warning when she seemed to launch upwards, planting first one then the next foot on the column, like she was running upwards, kicking off, twisting sideways in the air, planting a foot near the top of a second column and bouncing off again to land on the beam she’d been sitting on when Taylor arrived.
Taylor shook their head.
“It’s not magic,” said Stitch like she could read their mind. “Not the parkour, anyway. Just training.”
“Will you show me?” asked Taylor.
“Of course!” Stitch leaped down, feet first, landing as soft as a feather, easing into an effortless roll and surfacing on her feet. “But first you need to follow me.”
She led Taylor back up the Thames Path, turning just occasionally to make sure they were still keeping up, stopping for a moment when they fell too far behind. Taylor followed as fast as they could. It had been years since they ran but now they found themselves floating effortlessly over the ground, as though Stitch’s company had released something inside them. The night air on their skin as they cut through it was cooling and exhilarating and they imagined a dizzying future watching Oxford pass by beneath them as they skipped from spire to spire.
At Donnington Bridge Stitch peeled off the Path and led Taylor through the labyrinthine alleyways of south East Oxford until they were almost dizzy and utterly disoriented and stood in front of a rusty corrugated iron door which took them into one of a series of crumbling industrial units.
Inside they were greeted by a giant, bald-headed man in a Pierrot suit who smiled and bowed and in one smooth motion reached behind his back, pulled out what looks like a large metal mace that glowed purple. He blew on it, towards Stitch, as if he was blowing her a kiss, and a two foot, bright pink flame flew at her.
“Hey, Pawel,” said Stitch, throwing her arm around him and nestling her head only just above his stomach.
They followed Pawel into a large, dark room with walls lit in red receding into corners Taylor cannot see, the slow, heavy thud of industrial music throbbing gently in the background. Taylor recognises the room at once from the film on the memory card.
“Where is this?” asked Taylor?
“The Alice Room,” said Pawel.
“Appropriate name,” Stitch corrected.
“Something to do with Alice in Wonderland?”
“Something,” she said and smiled. “This is the place where we discover the motor that makes you tick, your deepest desire. And this is where we make it come true.”
“But only if you want,” said Pawel. “Only if you say yes.”
“To what?” Taylor looked back and forward between them until Stitch finally spoke.
“Blood. Just a drop. If I take it from the fleshy part of your shoulder you won’t even notice. One sip of your dreams will draw them out of you and make them real.”
“Drink me,” said Pawel. “It’s why we call it The Alice Room.”
“Drink?” said Taylor. “You want to drink my blood? What the hell is this?”
“Not want,” said Stitch. “Need.”
Taylor looked into her eyes for a sign of doubt, for a reason to distrust her and run. They found none.
Gently, Stitch pulled the cloth of Taylor’s t-shirt aside, exposing a pool of pale flesh in the crimson light. “Drink me,” whispered Taylor and Stitch sunk her mouth to his skin, piercing it so gently it was barely more than a breeze brushing against them.
Stitch pulled back and Taylor watched as her eyes went the widest, deepest black like a pair of giant screens where the fil of his dreams played out inside her.
“You want,” she said quietly. “You want to reach out to those who are alone, and you want to make their dreams come true.”
Taylor thought about it, and then they nodded. It was so obviously true. “And now you’ve drunk my blood I can make it happen?”
Stitch bowed her head. For the first time she looked afraid. “Yes.”
“I know where I want to start.” Taylor felt their pulse quicken. Scenes flashed through their mind, every kind of sensation, but most of all warmth. Comfort. The happiness of making someone else know they were not alone.
Stitch looked up. Her smile had an air of resignation. “I will only ask this once,” she said, “But are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” said Taylor without giving it a second thought.
“I’ll take you to Alix,” she said.
Taylor opened their mouth, but whatever the question was it was gone before it reached their lips.
“But first you record a message.”
“Like the one you left for me?” asked Taylor.
“Like the one I left for you. And then I’ll take you, and we’ll leave it for Alix like I left it for you. And if Alix wants something badly enough to scratch the itch and comes to meet us and lets you drink then yes, you will make their dream come true.”
“I think I need to sit down,” said Taylor, and before they had hit the chair Pawel placed a drink in their hand that almost glowed electric green.
“It’s a lot to take in,” said Pawel matter-of-factly. “This will help. It’s a weeping angel. Absinthe, white rum, and lychee, with a sprinkling of dried miso.”
The burning liquid coated Taylor with warmth that spread from the inside and over their skin. “OK, let’s film.”
Stitch set the camera up on a tripod on the wooden bar and inserted a fresh memory card.
“Wait,” said Taylor as Stitch’s finger reached for the record button.
“It’s all right,” said Stitch. “I’ll record. You never ask to meet, right?”
“How long do you think I’ve been watching you?”
Taylor didn’t know what to say, but the glow of the weeping angel inside them made the questions seem somehow not to matter.
“Now, let’s record.”
Stitch popped the card from the camera and into a small plastic case the same as the tiny bloody box Taylor had been staring at only hours before.
Dawn was still hours from the edge of the sky as Stitch led Taylor through the maze of East Oxford. This time they found it easier to keep up, as though their muscles had been learning the moves for months instead of minutes, as though the thought of finally bringing Alix warmth, belonging, consolation was an engine driving them onward into the orange grey haze.
They came to a stop on a small street on the top slope of Headington Hill. On one side was the perpetual light of the John Radcliffe hospital, everywhere else the unkempt grass that lapped against functional student houses. No basements here, thought Taylor.
As if reading their mind, Stitch craned her head up. “Follow me,” she said, silently vaulting a wooden picket. Nearby a dog barked and Taylor froze but the dog fell silent, another took up the chorus a street further off, and another in the distance. This was simply part of the white noise. Taylor vaulted the fence as effortlessly as Stitch had done, and followed her up a black metal drainpipe. It was only when they found themselves squatting effortlessly on a narrow gutter looking at the street below they blinked and realised what they had done.
Stitch pressed her finger to her lips. “Wait here,” she whispered. Taylor stooped over the lip of the gutter as Stitch prised the window open and slipped inside. It was dark in the room but Taylor could make out the plain white sheets of a bed where Alix slept, could make out the silhouette of Stitch as she crossed the room and bent for what couldn’t have been more than a minute over the sleeping figure.
The next night Taylor logged in to Huis Clos and found Alix in Bitter Tears. Conversation flowed as if nothing had happened. Taylor dropped hints and opened avenues, possibilities for Alix to mention anything strange that might have happened, anything they might, you know, want to talk about! But Alix only wanted to talk about poetry and music and the rhythm of speech and the rhythm of life and whether the two were the same and what it would mean for life to end on the uptick of a question and didn’t seem to think anything was strange when it came half past one and Taylor said goodnight.
That night Taylor barely felt the breath leaving their lungs as they flowed through the city. It was like they were rain washing over the buildings and down to the Thames. They caught Stitch by Iffley Lock and together they ran to the bridge, stopping to run up the trunks of trees they could only half see, to jump from branch to branch, from fencepost to fencepost.
Taylor was home before dawn. Without Alix.
The same routine played out night after night. Each time Taylor’s footing became surer, the city became more and more a playground, the daylight world and all its fears became more distant.
Even Alix was changing, subtly. Online chats seemed happier. Almost positive. Alix had started talking not just in the abstract but the concrete. Not just about art but about the art they might make. About the future.
Until a week after that first night when it was Alix who broke off the conversation:
You know, maybe there’s hope. Sleep tight, Taylor.
That night, Taylor’s heart beat faster. Stitch seemed to pick it up because she was different too. Anxious, fidgeting like she was channeling her adrenaline.
They both turned when there was a crack from the path. A figure came out of the gloom.
“Hey,” called Stitch.
The figure looked around.
“Up here!” called Stitch and the figure looked up.
“That’s me.” She swung round and landed on the floor in front of Alix.
Taylor swallowed hard and jumped. “Alix!”
Alix stepped back. “Who? Taylor?”
Taylor looked sheepishly at the floor. “I didn’t ask,” they said.
“I know.” Alix smiled. Their face lit up the dark under the bridge. “It’s OK. I guess I figured you might be behind this. So what happens now?”
Taylor kept stride with Stitch as they weaved their way back into the city, stopping every few hundred metres for Alix to catch up before turning and pulling away, the three of them making Oxford the canvas for their beautiful, flowing brushstrokes.
“Welcome to the Alice Room,” said Pawel, handing Alix a weeping angel.
“So this is where my dreams come true?” said Alix, their voice light and clear, free from any of the hesitation Taylor had imagined in the months they had spent online.
“Only if you really want,” said Taylor.
In the corner of their eye Taylor noticed Stitch still shifting agitatedly from foot to foot like she wanted to leave. Pawel slipped away and returned with a drink taller and more potent-looking than anything Taylor had seen before, which was gone in one long gulp.
“Yes,” said Alix. “Oh yes, I want.”
“Then this is how it works,” said Taylor. “One drop of blood. Your blood. It draws the dreams out of the centremost part of you, draws them into me. Makes them real.”
“Do you know what it is you want?” asked Taylor.
“I think so,” said Alix.
“Only the weird thing,” Taylor continued, “Is I really don’t think I did. I mean, before Stitch told me. I knew I wanted something but I had no idea what.”
“That makes sense,” said Alix. “Shall we start?” Alix was already pulling the fabric away from their shoulder.
Taylor was vaguely aware of Stitch and Pawel leaving the room as they lowered their head. As their lips touched Alix’s cold flesh they still had no idea what came next. It was like the skin gave way to Taylor’s mouth, like Alix’s blood was answering a call from somewhere deep, deep inside Taylor.
Taylor drew back as the thick liquid slid down their throat. Alix smiled and Taylor felt an overwhelming pressure behind their eyes. The room went black. No, not the room. It was Taylor’s eyes. Black like a computer screen about to play. As if on cue, a whirring noise like a film starting up, but the screen in Taylor’s head was still blank.
No, not blank. The film was playing. Only it wasn’t playing anything Taylor could make out. It was an absolute, complete, and overwhelming
And silence. Broken only by a slowly rising sound like fizzing.
Taylor pulled back in horror as the realisation crept up on them.
The film was still whirring in their head, but somewhere, out of reach beyond the screen, the warm weight of Alix’s body was already becoming heavier in their arms, and the blackness was still rolling as a final, distant “thank you” faded into the night.
An updated version of a poem I first wrote for my very first spoken word performance 6 years ago now. Just the second verse remains.
This is Oxford
City of eternal disappointment
You wear the dreams of your anointed like a sleeve of glittering jewels
Delustre them and leave them with the litter at the evening’s end
For the pitiful and pissed to pick over for sympathy and pennies.
Nightmaring spires where choirs caress you to your rest
And dress you for your final journey
Everything burns but the lingering lies
In his cataract eyes
A sick old man in a shabby gown
John Huston at the end of Chinatown
Swaddled in gaslight
So even the night is never truly black
And silence is fractured by the toccata of the organ scholar’s call
Summoning the chosen ones
Behind the high stone walls
To claret-spattered drinking rooms
Where Rhodes will never fall.
But that is not my Oxford
The university of lost causes and last chances
Where tears and razorblades are not ashamed
To cradle one more crazy dream before it dies
Where broken people stitch themselves together in the shadows
And myths mooch jowl to jowl with memories
Head south beside the river
Where parkour crews kick tricks from brutalist bridges
Making shapes that make the hairs on the nape of your neck stand up
Where the city’s blood beats syncopated bars
And graffiti coursing through capillaries of concrete inks its skin
Turn left by the Angel and Greyhound
Down the lane
Where angels with thickened veins do trade by burned out cars,
Where cider softens scars on arteries that would not open
And paths of glass climb broken brickwork
Far above the city’s choking snickets
To rooftop highways
Where poets primed in Primark paint spit anthems birthed in beautiful anger
To the gaudy and the gorgeous of the night.
This is Oxford
Last kisses licked from filthy lips
The desperate drips of promises and sweat
Whispers to the ones who might just make it yet…
This is Oxford
This is Oxford
This is Oxford
19 years ago, a very nervous version of me turned up rather sheepishly to the Royal Festival Hall to dabble my toe in the water of something I’d read about in a Sunday paper. My first Mind Sports Olympiad – *the* first Mind Sports Olympiad – was basically one long ohmygodwhatamidoinghereheeeeeeeeeeeelp experience. Even though I was only there for one day. I was bemused and clueless and wandered around the massive open spaces not quite sure where I should be going but managing, just, to find my way to a seat in time for the morning’s IQ test, which was an utterly beflummoxing paper full of alphanumeric codes and Roman numerals, and the afternoon’s creative thinking challenge, which included (just a week or so before her death) the question “What does Princess Diana have in common with an orange?”
I was further shell-shocked to realise the afternoon’s events were being hosted by William Hartston, whose televisual chess musings had formed many of the pathways of my childhood geekery. And beyond discombobulated to discover that I had finished third, and come away with a bronze medal, presented by Hartston himself, who shook my hand as he presented it to me with the words, “You have a very sick mind.” To an impressionable 20-something uncertain of his future after the years of study came to their inevitable end, this was a defining moment, the highest praise I could possibly imagine. It was the start of a relationship with the Mind Sports Olympiad that lasted another 4 years during which time I managed a few more medals, in 2000 becoming the World Intelligence Champion (no Roman numerals this time!) and the following year becoming the first “grand master of intelligence”, which is sadly a lot less Smileyesque or Lovecraftian than it sounds. But those words stayed with me much longer, ultimately becoming the engine that would propel me into the literary labyrinth I’m still trying to navigate.
Doing something that has a title, or a medal, or even just a name attached to it is very strange. It has an effect that I can only describe as demystifying. That is to say, “if I can do this it can’t really be something worth doing, because I’m just me, and even I managed it.” In the years following that initial foray into the world of Mind Sports, experience has done nothing to dampen the demystification. The job offers hardly came rushing in when I became World Intelligence Champion. Which isn’t exactly surprising – doing IQ tests (basically a combination of spotting mathematical sequences, abstracting from general knowledge, and being able to tell which randomly-decorated polygon should come in the next picture) is hardly one of those skills the world is queuing up for – World Programming Champion, for example, now that’s gotta get people’s interest. Mind sports are, essentially, just a hobby like any other hobby, like fixing up old lawnmowers or growing exceptionally large marrows.
Being good at head stuff has, ever since I was a child, left me feeling somewhat melancholic alongside the elation that comes naturally with doing, however fleetingly, something you really enjoy. There’s what I guess is the obvious to start with – that being good with your head is bad for your head – never accepting what you’re told, never believing platitudes, questioning way too much – especially when you have a borked brain chemistry – is never going to lead you to good places, and it has led me to some very very dark (wading through Kierkegaard in the middle of a breakdown) and angry (literally walking down the street, seeing people smiling, and wanting to scream in everyone of their smug faces “how dare you walk like you have the right to breathe, like oxygen is your entitlement, you’re no more than insensate rotting molecules fast-tracked to entropy just like I am, how dare you be so shallow and downright stupid as to believe anything else?” – hmm, yeah, not quite over that one there, clearly) places.
But it’s more than that. It’s the hypocrisy. The Dunning Krugerness of the world. The world at large never purports to be hungry for the growers of exceptional squashes or gigantiform rutabagas. But from the earliest we are sold the lie that the world, and not just its zombies, wants our brains. The world tells us, “you’re bright, you’ll be OK.” And yet the accretions of self-helping misfits I have encountered through my teenage and adult years has suggested exactly the opposite – that the world’s sewers are straining against the blocking fatbergs formed from all the brilliant minds it has flushed away “starving, hysterical, naked” or just worn out and tired of rejection and mockery.
For all the world tells us if we’re bright we’ve got it made, and even ignoring the trend that’s thankfully being talked about more these days of high functioning kids and teenagers with serious mental ill health failing to get a diagnosis because they “manage just fine”, the one place I never found affirmation that doing stuff with your head was really rather cool was where you might have thought it would happen most – school. Let me explain. Where I *was* lucky at school is that one of our maths teachers just happened to be one of the country’s top bridge players. And an incredibly good teacher. As a result, the school had a thriving bridge club, which really took off just around the time I had discovered it was a good way to get to stay inside at lunchtime. And we weren’t just thriving, we were actually quite good. As in reaching national finals, winning county senior events, and representing the country level good. But for the three years I was involved at school, we had a constant fight to get anything but a cursory mention in the school magazine. And we were cocky, gobby little shites – we were pleased with what we’d done, the kind of pleased that kids who’d worked damn hard and achieved something really rather cool should be pleased. But did we get a mention alongside the rugby team in assembly? Once. In three years. Just once, grudgingly, as an afterthought. The message couldn’t have been clearer – doing stuff with your head that wasn’t homework really wasn’t the kind of thing kids should be indulging in.
I’ve been having an itch to get back to mind sports for a year or so now. And what cemented the decision to return was getting into running, and through it extreme challenges. A while ago, I resolved that next year I would do an “impossible binaries” challenge, doing things that are supposed not to go together – a 100 mile run, a powerlifting contest, and world championships in creative thinking and mental calculation. And as it was coming up, I thought I’d have a little look to see how the Mind Sports Olympiad had changed in a decade and a half.
Which is how I found myself sitting down in a room full of people with Bill Hartston (who hasn’t aged a day!), doing four twenty minute rounds of deliciously absurd puzzle solving. Between each round we milled, several of the junior competitors animatedly sharing some truly wonderful ideas with voices filled with an enthusiasm I hope they never lose, while a journalist mopped up the gloriously arcane tactics of the competitors who’d been around all week vying for the Pentamind, the ultimate challenge where your scores from five different events across the week are combined. There are, it seems, endless tactical possibilities – points depend on position and size of field in the event, so there is always a balance to be struck between competing so as to beat your overall opponents and taking part in another event so as to deplete the field your opponents can beat – such possibilities are, of course, almost as much of an attraction as the events themselves for people who like nothing more than calculating countless simultaneous scenarios.
The puzzles, for you to flex your strangeness synapses, were (presented in much more elegant prose)
– uses for – 13 odd socks, an odd glove, and an odd chopstic
– how do we ensure GB’s medals in Tokyo cost less than the £5m each they cost in Rio
– two drawings from the patent office, stripped of their labelling, that are linked by a word – what are they, and what is the common word?
– put the following quotations into a story – “from this hand to this shoulder round the back of the ball cage”; “so I ended up naked and holding the lobster things over my boobs”; “It’s nice to step in and step back out again sometimes”; “Excuse me, are you the man from Gogglebox?”
Age must have given me some kind of gnarly Gene Hackman type wisdom because I ended up winning three of the four rounds to take the gold medal. I can’t remember all my answers (if I could I’d have taken part in the memory event as well!), but they included
Round 1 – building a lunar calendar clock using the chopstick as a gnomon and the socks as markers while the glove impersonates the coxcomb of a cockerel so as to remind the moon of the need to go for a rest so as to come back recharged.
Round 2 – rather unoriginally I opted for a variety of sabotage strategies, from arranging for Oxfordshire County Council to win the infrastructure creation bid for Tokyo so that all the teams bar the poor, accustomed GB personnel would arrive at the venue motion sick, further enhanced by having Lady Gaga design our outfits from a combination of sparkles and rotting meat – whilst our team was immunised by making Greggs our official training camp caterer – to swapping the official recording of the USA national anthem with a Jedward remix to disincentivise their top prospects.
Round 4 – this was a storyteller’s dream (though 20 minutes is shorter than even I’m used to working with). Once I’d decided the lobsters weren’t of the crustacean kind but were actually copies of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster it all sort of flowed, the schoolboy who turned up on his doorstep instead of the reporter from London Review of Books, the melcncholy conversation, the musings on gardens as a metaphor for the quantum states narrative and metanarrative find themselves in, the secret obsession with Faraday and its use against the all-pervading tide of Freudianism, and so on…
And that’s where the cogitating started. Along with more vaguely disconnected self-doubt, of course, of the “oh, I thought creativity was something special, something desired and cherished, but it turns out it can’t be” kind. But I don’t want to wallow too much in that, because I understand completely that the comeback is “you’re so creative, create a way to make it work.” And that brings me back to the cogitating.
And it was the same cogitating that I’ve been doing a lot recently, that underpins what I’m tentatively looking to do through Petrichor, and with the work I do with Rogue Interrobang. It also goes back to my decades long obsession with outsider art. And the main object of the cogitation is this – that there must be a massive group simply bursting with creativity and the intellectual skills to contribute a beautiful brushstroke in the painting of a better future for our world. People who are, for reasons beyond their control, outside of those streams where society looks for its creatives and researchers, desperate to get in, to bloom, but lacking the mechanisms to allow them in, be that for reasons of health, lack of money to allow them the energy, lack of access to training and resources. What I’m particularly interested in, because of my own experience and because that experience probably gives me the best chance of successfully creating something that might work, is what feels as though it must be the simply huge tranche of people who have been unable to pursue academic dreams as a result of poor mental health.
Now to figure out how to do that, and how to combine that with maybe, finally, finding a way to earn a living by doing something I enjoy and seem to be OK at – and most of all trying to believe that all those teachers, and all my self doubt, is wrong – that maybe it’s OK, even valuable, to be creative. Maybe being creative can ultimately lead you out of the dark, angry places it takes you into (though I’m not necessarily holding my breath on that one yet!).
As a writer I am all too familiar with the concept of sophomore blues or, as it is sometimes called, “that tricky second book.” It has been interesting to see just how much of that strangeness has trickled into my second year of running.
Last year, my wife and I took 9 months to go from being able to run for about a minute to taking on, and beating, the 100k Race to the Stones. This year has been tough. In large part the reasons are the same as those writers and musicians face. Everything, every ounce, has gone into making that first time a hit. The tank is empty. And, in the case of running, there just wasn’t time to refill it over the winter. We took our shoes off after the Snowdonia Marathon at the end of October, at which point the body refused to cooperate with anything till the end of January. So much for banking solid winter training. After that much of a shock the body just needed rest.
So, lining up at the start with the inevitable under-preparation, it was always going to be a tough one. What helped immensely was a fabulous time at Race to the King three weeks earlier. We’d only done one day but that had reminded us just how fabulous Threshold events are. They really are a slickly-oiled machine, but without an overly corporate feel. Food is copious, a great mix of unprocessed and the kind of junk you crave, there are full-trained medics everywhere all of whom get the foibles of ultra runners and will listen, treat you, and do everything they can to get you on your way. You feel in control of yourself, making your own choices and never having them made for you by people who don’t quite get the endurance mindset.
A further complicating factor this year was the cool summer. The one warm day I can remember we went for a 21k run on the course from Barbury Castle to Avebury and back, but unlike last year there has been no chance to get used to the heat, so when summer decided to get under way for real on Saturday, a *lot* of people suffered (race stats show a greater than 20% attrition rate, and I’d wager most of that was heat related).
So, the race itself. I’m not sure I’ve ever learned quite so much about myself as I did in the 25 and a half hours I was out on the course. The setting was as spectacular as I remembered it, the iconic corn field was as stunning as last year. There were the same queues to get through the kissing gates on the first section, and the stretch by the Thames was beautiful but sweltering. This year I had more suitable shoes – my Altra Olympus were sufficient to cope with the trails but protected my feet from both the tarmac sections through and around Goring and the endless flint-laden chalk – I wasn’t having to watch my every stride to make sure the soles of my feet weren’t shredded. As a result, a day after finishing I have a couple of small blisters and no pain in my feet at all.
Not everything went so well. It was clear by aid station 2 that fuelling was a problem. I very thirsty, and trying to take sips every 10 minutes while running so as not to overdo it, but I still ended up needing to drink so much I just couldn’t face food. It was a situation that continued through the entire race with the exception of base camp where the presence of endless quantities of milk meant I could get hydrated whilst also packing some calories. I’m sure the lack of fuel contributed to what happened later.
Early pace was steady and promising – pretty much on target for something between 18 and 20 hours, which would have been a nice consolidation after a tough winter following last year’s 19:42. But the absence of eating like I should was a ticking time bomb – my tally for the entire race duration: 4 quarters of an orange, 2 bananas, 1 packet of crisps, 1 cereal bar, 2 packs of sausage rolls, a cupasoup, 1 finger of fudge, and at basecamp half a bowl of pasta (compared to last year’s two bowls of pasta, bread and soup, and pudding gulped down in about 5 minutes). I’d struggle to get through a normal day on that – let alone a day and a half of burning 10,000 calories on top of base metabolic amount.
When I did get to base camp and went to text Ann that I’d arrived, I found a message saying she was in trouble. She was with medics at the previous aid station, utterly depleted with rapid heartbeat and wildly fluctuating temperatures. We did a lot of discussing of options but the long and the short of it was that she clearly had a virus, and to continue even to base camp would be stupid. I waited there for her while Threshold sent a car for her, making arrangements to get her back to the finish line where her drop bag with warm clothes and sleeping bag awaited. All the Threshold crew were amazing. So professional, so organised, and so willing to listen to you and let you take the lead on what was needed. Hats off to all of them. When Ann arrived I fetched her milk, and we discussed options (the staff were even prepared to let her overnight then start again in the morning but it was obvious that the only way to sort out the temperature and the heartrate was to get her back to the safety of the finishing area). Once we had established that the crew would get her to safety, and that if she was resting she would be OK (and on site with a qualified medical team) we agreed I should carry on and meet her at the end.
I set back out after 2 and a half hours at base camp, very disappointed for Ann but so so proud of her for getting through more than a marathon while on her sick bed!
There is something magical about heading out onto the second half of the race. It is the point where the event changes from being rather fun to something else entirely. As I headed out (no doubt refreshed by the unexpectedly long break) with one of my favourite inspiration tracks blaring from the speakers (confession time – Mumford & Sons’ I Will Wait), I felt the thrill of leaving civilisation behind for what I knew would be about 12 hours. If you’re my pace, setting out from base camp to run the race non-stop means that however warm and light it is when you leave, you know you are heading into the night. In itself that is a rather magical feeling. Add to that the kudos you get from all those staying at the camp overnight, and the crew who usher you back out, and it’s a very special feeling indeed.
It was fully dark by the time I hit the next aid station. Running at night is a truly wonderful thing – it’s just you, a tiny pool of light, and the inevitable moths. By this stage both distance, and the numbers camping who are safe in their sleeping bags, mean you will probably not see another person between aid stations (though when you arrive, their presence announced first by a blaze on the horizon, then the rumble of generators, you find yourself surrounded by 10, even 20 of your fellow athletes who will become your intermittent fellow travellers through these strange hours). For me night running has an added weirdness, because for some reason I can’t run with a head torch – I just can’t get it to cast any kind of shadow so I end up with no depth perception at all, so I strap my torch to my hand to give myself the best chance of avoiding a turned ankle.
It was the kilometre or so before the first aid station out of base camp that I had my first real mental battle. I was overwhelmed with worry whether Ann had got safely to the finish, racked with guilt, and 90% sure that I was going to pull out to make sure she was OK. When I got there, the first thing I did was get the crew to ring base camp and check up. It took an hour to get an affirmative, all the time a mix of worry and relief that I had a valid reason to pull out and avoid the hardship ahead vying with each other. It was an incredible relief to hear she was OK, and now safe and sound and where she needed to be, but I was also aware I had just been stripped of my excuse for pulling out. I headed out of aid station 6 both physically and emotionally drained. Fortunately the next section was short and straightforward, but that was the last time anything about the race would feel anywhere near normal.
The level of solitude you experience running at night in the country will always start to play tricks with your mind. The regular thump thump of your backpack does nothing to lessen that. Nor the strange things the shadows from your torch do – because you are striding not driving smoothly, shadows dance and jerk, they move like small animals and it is almost impossible to avoid performing a tired-footed tarantella to avoid treading on what you imagine are poor unsuspecting shrews scurrying for their lives that turn out to be nothing but seed heads of grass. But not all the weirdness is imaginary. The 70 kilometre marker was set up, in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a Winnebago that was lit up like a Christmas tree playing drum and bass – this at well past midnight.
The section between aid stations 7 and 8 is one of the most hateful sections of race I know. Not only is it relentlessly hilly, there’s a really long stretch up a main road that crosses the M4, followed by a diversion into a field, the exit from which is so steep there was an unexpected member of race crew there to lift you out of it!
The section that followed I knew was tough – not only was there more road but there was a relentless hill back up to Barbury Castle at the end. Heading out, I was struggling to remember the basics of putting one foot in front of the other. By now it was nearly dawn and I was tired. Not the kind of tired I get after a long day at work but the kind of tired where even my internal monologue wouldn’t put two words together coherently. Where the concentration to focus on where your feet were being placed on rutted ground guided only by a torch that was now veering about because I couldn’t hold it still was not just failing but in danger of being sent back to repeat the year. As the course crossed another busy road, there was a lovely security guard who earned my eternal gratitude by offering me 10 minutes in his chair, then broke the news that it was 6.1 kilometres till the next aid station. The part of my lizard brain that was still functioning new that this was a kilometre more than the marker at the previous aid station had announced, and something that trivial nearly destroyed me. I’ve always shaken my head reading accounts of ultra runners getting distraught for going a mile off course – if you’re going that far what difference does it make? The answer is that when your brain has told itself to prepare for precisely this long then even a metre feels as though it is the last straw that will make you fail.
Even sitting down hadn’t really refreshed me. My engine was running on its last few fumes. Then, on the streets through Ogbourne St George, I found myself for the first time with company. At first, I thought the red light I saw ahead was from a lamp on a fellow runner’s backpack. Then I realised it was actually coming from the eye of a dog. And the dog was with someone, who was dressed all in white. For a moment I was terrified, convinced I was about to be attacked, then I realised the person was holding a second dog cradled against its shoulder – he was kindly keeping his dogs under control while I passed. I was about to say thank you when I realised this was no ordinary person but a monk. I was wondering where the nearest monastery was when he disappeared. Fortunately I was just about in control of my faculties to know that the Phantom Friar of Ogbourne St George was, in fact, a hallucination (of course, if this was an urban legend or one of my books, I’d get home, google “monk Ogbourne St George” and find that an escaped serial killer had fled dressed in white robes). But I was equally sur such lucidity wouldn’t last. It was time, I knew, to call it a day before I ended up veering off course to help an imaginary monk find his dog and ended up goodness knows where, comatose in a remote ditch.
It was disappointing to be so close, but the decision to pull out felt like such a relief, especially as I knew how hard the last section was.
But for some reason as I stumbled deliriously into aid station 9 the words that came out of my mouth weren’t “I’m done” but “Do you have a tent I can sleep I for an hour – I’ve just been hallucinating and I think it might be a good idea to clear my head before I set off.” “I think you’re right,” said a lovely medic, and the crew showed me to a tent, zipped me up, and promised to wake me in an hour if I wasn’t up. This is one of the thing’s that’s so special about ultramarathons that sets them apart from even the most hardcore marathon. You can have these truly violent lows, but because everything happens at the sporting equivalent of geological time, you can almost always do something to come through them. And subconsciously I’d figured the time was there, what possible harm could it do to rest up before I pulled out, and maybe, just maybe, it’d get me through. And, an hour later, as I stirred about 6 teaspoonfuls of coffee into a paste, the medic came up and asked me, very simply, “where are you?” “I’m at aid station 9,” I said, confused, until I realised what he was doing. “Excellent,“ he said, adding, “My next question was going to be who’s the prime minister” to which I responded, “I haven’t seen the news for over a day, it could be anyone,” eliciting a response of “which is the right answer.”
And with veterinary doses of caffeine inside me, I texted Ann to say I was on the final stretch and was underway. I took it very easily but now, with daylight firmly set in, nothing was going to demoralise me, not even the dreaded loop back, which sees athletes pass the finish line and be sent off in the opposite direction to the Avebury Stones before heading back. The only real difficulty between there and the end was some severe white-out on some of the baked chalk, which made depth perception as hard as it can be by the light of a head torch, and 2 hours 29 minutes after setting out I had a medal round my neck, was reunited with Ann who was much rested and full of tales of the wonders of night time at the finish area, changed into clothes that were ever so slightly less rank, and curled up in the corner of the finish barn wondering, as much as my nearly blank mind would wonder, if that had really happened.
Bring on 2017!
This is an abstract from a white paper I’m writing in response to the need to “do something” positive, collaborative, and world-bettering. It also pulls together a lot of things I have been working on over several months. The paper will serve as the basis for funding proposals to various stakeholders. Any and all comments very welcome. And if you are interested in ideas like this, please join the Facebook page for Petrichor (here).
Climate change, the automation of repetitive tasks and its effect on the landscape of labour, food scarcity, access to clean water. We face problems that cannot be tackled other than on a global level, through collaborations of the best minds available working with all available resources to bring every available perspective to …bear, to explore the resulting possibilities, and implement the most promising. At this time of greatest need, many of the minds best placed to contribute to solutions are locked out of formal research networks – through ill-fortune or ill-health, through circumstance, through structural funding deficits, or through never having had the opportunity to engage with or become part of that community in the first place. This paper proposes a mechanism for unlocking the potential of those minds to address these issues in order to improve lives, to provide hope and opportunity, to find ways of working on the global and extreme local scale so as to build a progressive and sustainable world. That mechanism is a tripartite exchange platform that provides on the one side multiple funding streams to cover the costs of providing technology, training, travel and time for people outside of formal research, on a second side a forum for anyone who wishes to pitch ideas for research backing from those streams, and on the third side a means for those within a formal research environment to provide resources to enable that research, from skills training to materials. This model is able to function on a very small scale, allowing it first of all to serve as a proof of concept for a much larger, global iteration of essentially the same structure. Tangible outputs would comprise a series of open access working and white papers and proceedings from events that would provide the basis for further research from those within and outside of the scheme. As important would be the results mentioned above that come from such an unlocking of human potential.