Here you go, hold this.

Anyone who has grown up with male siblings, I have two brothers, knows that any phrase starting with, “Hold this…”, doesn’t usually end well. It is up there with the truism that most teenage boy’s trips to A+E are usually prefaced with a yell of, “Hey everyone, watch this.” 

Getting diagnosed with MS felt just like being passed an unidentified but definitely suspicious device by someone far more trustworthy than my brother. Based on that trust I took it, unquestioningly. Bad idea. Greeks bearing gifts and all that… You gave it a metaphorical shake, heard ticking, saw the faces of the others around you and realised that this was not a good thing. No one was sure what was going to happen, but you were certain from the looks that nothing good was going to come of it. It was more a question of If rather than When it was going to explode.

This is a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. There are no backsies. This unexploded brain bomb is yours for life and at no point can you hand back this uninvited contribution to your self. From that moment on you are no longer just You but You and MS, and what happens from that moment onwards is that as well as dealing with life you are now committed to trying to manage this unpredictable addition of an unexploded brain bomb. Oh, and by the way, just en passant, it is rare that other people can even see this new addition to You. Your new ‘forever’ ticking bomb.

I cannot emphasise enough that an MS diagnosis is made so much worse by thes unpredictability and it is the real mental grinder for me. I have had MS for 27 years now and not a day goes by without me wondering, several times a day, if this is the Last Good Day. You know it is ticking. You know it is going to go off. You know it won’t kill you. And You know it will just make your life immeasurably worse.

Good Day, by the way, is a relative term. With MS you start to judge yourself against what you know can happen when the bomb decides to go off in your brain. Over time the things that you considered to be a normal state of affairs are just concepts in the rearview mirror. For example, deterioration of certain eyesight and balance functions mean I can no longer safely cycle, ski, ride motorbikes, play squash, or shoot. It is small but it is enough to stop me. I try not to hate the MS and I try not to dwell on my many losses but I can never forget that they are the fault of my MS.

No one sees me not doing those things. They see me walking a lot and think to themselves that I must be fine. I know it is displacement to walk a lot and I am fortunate to be able to do that (with poles, obvs). I love walking but I only got into it when I lost the ability to do the things that were my passions.  The cheery optimist in me tries to focus on the benefits but the nihilistic realist in me can never forget what brought on this state of affairs.

Nihilistic I may be but I decline to get annoyed that people don’t take into account my hidden illness. The clue is in the word hidden. The vast majority of folks don’t want to hurt, offend, upset, or discriminate and the vast majority of healthy people are made a little bit uncomfortable, as at some level they are forced, even for a moment, to consider their own health and ability. To get and remain annoyed with perceived insensitivities entails working up some venomous thoughts and retaining them, and that injures me far more than anyone else.

Call me selfish but I am increasingly in life for the mental health of No.1. It is harsh, I don’t like it but I need to ensure that I don’t upset this increasingly, and usually hidden, delicate balance. For this damn bomb could go off at any time.

Tick Tock. Tick Tock

MS Forced My Marriage. To A Neurologist.

Receiving your MS diagnosis has to rank up there as one of the suckiest things imaginable. For most of us it is about sheer uncertainty that follows the words, “You have Multiple Sclerosis”. You may have known it was coming but you didn’t really expect it. To win the Really Bad Luck Lottery.

One moment you are wondering what is wrong with you and the next you are thrust into a mental washing machine of terrifying thoughts and emotions. What does it mean? What will happen? When will it happen? How bad will it be? Can I take it? What if I can’t? What about my relationships? What about my ability to support myself? Will I need a wheelchair? And so on. For the rest of your life there are never-ending variations of worrying about the what-ifs. It is very dull.

I have broken several bones in my life and each time I have been given an accurate prognosis based on the type of break, the fix, and my engagement with the rehab. It isn’t perfect, but it has rarely been inaccurate. Either way, there seems to be a certain clarity that neither I nor any of the people I know with MS have ever been fortunate enough to receive. If you bust a bone the orthopaedic doctor replies in a way that answers the broken-bone equivalent of some of the questions in paragraph one. However loosely. A relationship with the Orthopaedic Surgeon is a time-limited experience. They fix it, dispense rehab advice, and move on. We have both had a forced relationship that we could both end.

However, the standout feature of having a chronic condition that won’t kill you is the nature of your relationship with healthcare professionals and the healthcare system. It is entirely different. From the day of diagnosis you are forced into a long-term relationship – whether you like it or not – where your new partner is usually dictated by the geography of your local hospital.

Digest that for a moment; your new long-term partner is a function of where you live. Where. You. Live.

An MS diagnosis makes us the victim of a forced marriage – not arranged – where we never even got to meet the other half first.

One of the issues with MS is that you don’t die from it, you die with it and that fact seems somehow to make it less serious in the eyes of many. That is wrong, as anyone with MS will tell you. It is sad to say, but there have been odd occasions where death has seemed momentarily preferable to the MS. That is how much it sucks to have MS.

This unconscious downgrading of the seriousness seems to underpin a perennial confusion held by many of those treating our MS or having to deal with our MS. It is between understanding how MS feels and how it actually feels to have MS

Talking of feelings, nothing is more frustrating than not knowing if something is within your control. I have never ever met a patient that hasn’t wanted to intervene in some way in an attempt to control their newfound forever friend. We cast around, instantly becoming less risk-averse, read everything we can find, hear all the input from people ‘just trying to help’, and become far more suggestible to woo. After all, who doesn’t want a magic cure? I certainly do.

More than once in my 27y of MS, I have woken up feeling like I have never slept, or there is a new unexplained buzzing in my ears or pain somewhere. Is it MS? Everything now runs through the ‘is it MS’ filter. It is natural to seek an explanation for these new weird episodes in your life and who seems the most likely person to do this?

Why, it’s your new partner, the neurologist. That’s who. That incredibly learned person that you were forcibly married to at the point of diagnosis. And because we are now in a long-term relationship I want them to understand a bit about me; my hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears and so forth,. I expect them to shed a bit of light on what is going on, and I want the them to ask me how far I am willing to go, and offer me treatment based on my risk tolerance, not on their risk tolerance. It is me who has to live with it day to day, not them.

So, as my new partner, I expect quite a bit. Additionally, of this magic needs to happen in twenty-minute segments once a year. Perhaps unrealistically, but there you go, most long-term relationships have unrealistic expectations in them. Mine are clouded with genuine fear and worry because that is what MS does to you. I am not always the rational one any more.

In a rational world, I would like to think that my neurologist understands my frustrations, my fears, my uncertainty, my attitude to risk etc that I am feeling, but it doesn’t feel that way. Whilst medical school these days emphasises the patient more than it ever did, it still doesn’t cover forced long-term relationships. I get that it is a tricky balance as I realise us patients can be tricky buggers, over-egging things, being hypochondriacs, dangerous know-it-all’s educated by Dr Google and so on. It would be great to think that nestled in the vast amount of schooling that they have received the topic of long-term relationships with patients who don’t die quickly but get sicker and deteriorate over time is included. So far, I am not aware of any relevant training prior to being forced into a relationship with us. Awks for them as well, but then they don’t have MS. The fact remains that in choosing Neurology they have entered a field where they too are forcibly wed to patients by the vagaries of geography.

In a quest for answers and a bit of certainty, MS patients will also look to their doctors for emotional as much as purely medical help. All doctors will have heard variations on the question, ‘What would you do in my shoes, doc?’. Usually, they swerve them neatly as I am pretty sure this is a scenario covered off in ‘Being A Doctor 101′. To pass that beginners module they soon learn to cleverly redirect it, refuse to answer it etc but they rarely say, ‘I don’t really know the answer, but let me go and find out and I’ll get back to you’. That is because many still exist in a hierarchical world where that is simply an unacceptable ceding of control and a display of weakness.

We are not trying to wrestle the intellectual high ground from them, say ‘ha’, or gloat over something we know and they don’t. We are scared and worried about the future and have been thrust into an unplanned long-term relationship with them, and we look to them as the font of all knowledge. However unfair that may seem.

We would very much like to be treated more as an equal and not an annual inconvenience where our partner half fixes a smile, says how lovely it is to see us again, asks after the interest of ours they may remember about, makes understanding cooing noises, pokes and prods us for a bit and then come off as the font of all knowledge with everything to do with us and our condition.

“See you in twelve months; send in the next patient.”

We want more from this relationship. It can’t be transactional, we all need to be all-in, all the time.

Flipcharts and Marriage Guidance

For a chap who likes to believe he is fairly good at things he puts some effort into, it seems I am pretty crap at relationships. My current wife excepted, obvs – love you so much honey. Mwah mwah. I do care. Really, I do. Despite my efforts to cultivate a gruff exterior I am really quite a thoughtful fellow. Honestly. At times. When I remember.

I guess that is what you get when raised by a strong woman with no regular father figure present. My mother, for the record, was the Governor of a Maximum-Security Men’s prison. I remember her telling me a story of taking over a prison, getting the guided tour by the Guards, and when the inmates saw that it was a woman, they all started swearing and cursing  to rattle her. She walked to the end of the Wing, turned back and addressed them all with a little smile and the observation, “Gentlemen, you’ll have to do far worse than that to upset me. I have raised three boys and they can all swear better than you.”

But back to relationships for a moment. I really don’t get why people pay so much for therapy. Having ‘A Therapist’ strikes many of us Brits as a certain type of American peculiarity. If you face into thoughts/feelings/emotions etc and be honest with yourself (I grant you that it is not easy nor pleasant, but it is certainly cheaper and not as cringeworthy as telling it to another only for them to reflect it back to you asking you what you think it means and then charge handsomely for it) then you can come to a reasonable conclusion about the serious things.

My ex-wife, when we realised things were tough, convinced me to come with her to a marriage guidance counsellor in Oxford and I agreed. Hell, we were getting nowhere, knew things weren’t that good and were at a loss for suggestions. I bit back my inner cheap-gene feelings about paying someone to tell me what I knew, albeit suppressed nice and deep like any good English person does with emotions, and went along with an open mind. The Marriage Counsellor was very pleasant, welcomed us in and started by explaining that she’d like to get to know us better. So far, all very reasonable sounding. We smiled and nodded obligingly. She started by producing a flipchart and explaining that she wanted to chart our families in order to understand us better. One for each of us. “Let’s start with you, Dominic.”

I can say definitively that that is the exact point where things started to go downhill. You see, at that time in my career I was facilitating a lot of workshops, several days a week for three years. It was mostly my job and I knew just how much information fit on a flipchart sheet and just how small you can write with a flipchart marker. In short: I this was an area where I felt qualified to make this type of simple judgement.

At this point I interjected and, smiling back, observed that she’d need more than one piece of paper for mine. My ex-wife also smiled, nodded, and agreed. For she too, being in a corporate job, was no stranger to the limits of a flipchart. The Counsellor smiled back – there was an inordinate amount of smiling by this stage – far too much in my book. Neither I nor my ex did the overly smiley stuff. Nonetheless, artificial facial muscle distortions aside we both knew that one sheet of paper was simply not up to the task for my weird and wonderful family tree, no matter how small she could write with those chunky markers.

The Counsellor– still bloody grinning like a demented Cheshire Cat, are they trained/ordered to smile. All. The. Time? – demurred and explained that she was more than capable of doing this. I smiled back and reiterated again that this was not only unlikely but impossible. She scoffed, doubled down, poised her pen, and dragged the flipchart closer.

It was at this point that we lost faith in her entirely. I was suddenly overwhelmed by that feeling you’d have if someone started in on your hard earned cash and was setting fire to the notes one by one. The only small relief was that we had not pre-purchased a block of sessions with this demented grinning woman. Thank God for small mercies.

Whatever we may have thought of one another – the clue to the outcome is in my application of the prefix “ex” – at that moment we were quite united. Whatever we may have disagreed over we both knew that my family tree was one giant shitfight and would defy a single flipchart page. Still, we both silently thought, it was going to be great fun seeing her try. In the end it went to three full pages and neither of us was so graceless as to indulge in a ‘told you so’. We didn’t have to. She knew.

Looking at the bright side, it turned out that we had spent £50 on an hour of pretty good schadenfreude. I just patiently answered her questions, and, at my insistence, we only went from my parents to the present day. If she had bothered to ask before marching so far out on her limb of flipchart defiance and setting out her stall of certainty, I could have explained that my mother had been married three times, my father four, I have one full brother, two half-brothers, one of whom I have never even met, a stepfather, two stepmothers, a step-brother, and a step-sister.

Face Masks. What is the beef?

I have had the misfortune to find that some people I respected, I don’t respect as much anymore. The reason why is rooted in their knee-jerk refusal to wear a face mask, often for the thinnest and most transparent of reasons. And, I do realise that this is hardly a new topic and that I am a lagging and unimportant commentator. As someone with Multiple Sclerosis who looks utterly normal I am v concerned.

These reasons seem to mask, excuse the pun, a petulant and often childlike refusal that, ‘no one is going to tell me what to do’.

The simple fact is is that if everyone were to wear a mask in confined spaces – shops are a good example – then the disease transmission rate is cut dramatically. Approx 70% and that is taking into consideration that us ordinary members of the public don’t get it right all of the time.

Not getting it right is touching the mask, failing to wash it regularly and the like. Nonetheless, 70%. I’ll take that.

Wearing a mask is no more an infringement on your rights than not playing your music too loud in anti-social times circumstances, throwing litter from your car, being required to drive on a particular side of the road or covering your gentitals in public.

I can remember the societal squawking at some other large step-changes. Seatbelts, speed limits, the metric system in Canada: hell, the abolition of slavery (long before my time) if you want to be inflammatory. All of these events were met with many pseudo-reasoned arguments all purporting to be based in logic and common-sense. All bullshit.

So, all you naysayers, please get a grip. It isn’t that big a deal. You are doing it for other people and perhaps that is the issue? Other people, the weak and the vulnerable in society, are depending on you growing up and thinking of others for a moment. While you are at it, clean your hands regularly.

Can you do that without too much fuss? Please.

PS: There is no need to wear a baseball cap in such a silly manner!

People are strange

I realise that by logical extension I am odd too, but I’m not. I am normal. Ordinary even. I have no doubt that some people think I am odd and that is their prerogative, but they are wrong. This is not a new thing, I have known this for a long time. The reason I am writing about it now is that I received a stark, if not humorous, reminder today in of all places – wait for it, you’ll gasp – Twitter.

Before you chime in with the, “but any fule knos that Twitter is full of oddballs”” and variations thereof, I agree. In its defence, Twitter also has as many non-oddballs, is a great source of news, support, community, academia and so on. However, like many open platforms the oddo’s seem to be that much more excitable than usual. Being easily excited, getting worked into a froth, having no perspective, and generally raging against the machine consumes far more energy and requires a disproportionate amount of space and attention. Like a bigger flame requires more oxygen, the shoutiest, meanest, and the most thoughtless people on Twitter consume more than an equal share of the bandwidth. This in turn means that the reasonable voices are less well heard as they are being suffocated by the lunatics. The loons drown out the sensible people. T’was ever thus.

On this particular occasion I was reading a thread about the fact that one of our glorious government cabinet members had apparently announced something, in an apparently laughably inappropriate setting, about the latest wonder drug for Covid-19 sufferers, dexamethasone. Notwithstanding the fact that the photo may not have been of this, for there was no way of telling, it hadn’t prevented people from piling in. One of them had even gone to that paragon of reliable information and screenshotted the Wikipedia list of side effects. Before I knew what had happened I had arched an eyebrow and dashed of a response similar to, “Wiki is the source you choose to cite?”. A relatively polite to and fro ensued where it became increasingly evident that they had no idea what they were talking about and then, apropos of nothing I had said, advanced the idea that they would like to see ‘natural’ remedies or even homeopathy being endorsed by the government as viable Covid treatments. I bit my knuckle and refrained from replying. They were sounding just slightly ill-informed and as it turns out they were a Grade-A oddball masquerading as a normal person. Homeopathy has been scientifically discredited beyond a shadow of a doubt. Serious advocates of it as a treatment option are obviously very odd.

All is good. I have declined to engage and neither do they.  Scroll forward 24h though and a message pops up from a randommer who had read my little to and fro with the believer in homeopathy and just gets stuck right in with the abuse. Knowing nothing about me they have gone all in, “I have read your blog, it is terrible, you think you are good with words, don’t give up the day job, how dare you sneer at Wikipedia etc.” I stopped, thought for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

I have no idea of their relationship with the original interlocutor, I know nothing about them and frankly, can’t be arsed to dig into some random frother on Twitter to try and get a, “my dad is bigger that your dad” retort filed. But, they obviously felt it necessary to do so, read some of my blog and then do their best at a vile response. Quite what they had hoped to achieve escapes me. It did, however, give me this idea for a short post and for that I am grateful.

Twitter is like the flame for the oddest of moths and sometimes it is good to be reminded of the dual role of news, banter, pithy remarks for some set against that of the seemingly bottomless cesspool of unpleasantness it is for some others.

Moscow. Baby.

[Updated 1.6.20 for clarity]

People say. People say this and people say that and rarely do I pay them any heed. But, more than one person has said to me I ought to share this story. I do concede that on occasion I am guilty of enhancing a story. Not to make me look better but because it is a yarn designed to amuse and inform. What I am about to tell you is as close to the truth as I can remember.

At the turn of the century, things eventually started to go my way when I had a ‘Through The Looking Glass Moment’ in my career. I was in my v. early thirties and relatively recently married. I was doing a job I didn’t enjoy but one that provided the income I required, mostly because I had been idle at school and had relatively fewer options. Having suitably hampered myself by not lifting a finger at school and not going to University because I already knew it all, I couldn’t walk into a plumb ‘degree only’ job and so started with a bump at the very poorly paid bottom of the heap. Sales was where one made any money in this case. I was moderately good at it but really didn’t enjoy it. This next job was the exception that proved the rule. The ‘Looking Glass Moment’ I mentioned earlier was when I somehow blagged a job with a small sales consulting firm in the early 2000’s.

God knows how it happened but perhaps it was a case of ‘Fortune favours the brave’ or, more likely, the IT world was quietly going mental in the dot-com boom? Or, perhaps, they weren’t paying too much attention and I snuck in under the radar? I won’t bore you with how I got there but get there I did and I found myself on the receiving end of a conversation that involved the words, ‘We’d like to offer you a job’ and, ‘I’m afraid the starting salary is only $167,000.00?’ One-hundred-and-sixty-seven-thousand-dollars. For listening to the sound of my own voice? Yes please. You may ask why it was US Dollars? They were far too busy ploughing forward taking over the world with ‘e-everything’ to bother with local currencies, so it was US dollars, take it or leave it. I most firmly took it and managed to struggle out the words, ‘Well, I suppose that is fine as a starting salary’ whilst doing my best at holding what I imagine was an extremely poor poker face. It was the time of complete corporate madness.

Money wasn’t real, everything was going online and everything was overvalued. Not by a little but by a lot. Talk about The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was simply surreal. We travelled everywhere in Business Class, often being upgraded to First as it was always full fare and always fully flexible. The client was paying, and so you bought the ticket that gave the best Airmiles. I earned Airmiles like they were going out of style. Lots and lots of Airmiles and with the Airmiles came the highest frequent flyer status. Having a BA Gold Card was very helpful for the frequent traveller, as we are about to find out.

Like all booms, the dotcom boom did just that. It went boom in a spectacular way. How’s this for speed? speed?  My four-hundred-thousand quid of share options lost all of their value in three days, and by the fourth I would have had to buy them back. For some time, the more sensible financial press was looking askance at the wisdom of twenty-somethings tearing back and forth to the US. I mean, they are clever, enthusiastic, hardworking and more susceptible to being fawned over and told they are simply the cleverest but they seemed barely out of nappies, had no solid business experience and yet had become the Masters of the Universe for many. One of the main players was an online fashion retailer called Boo.com and when everything imploded, the Financial Times had the best headline. It simply read, “Boo Hoo”.

My wings were clipped back in a brief meeting with the European Operations Director (also a John if memory serves but definitely not a cool one) in which he told me there was good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was sacked: and before I could get a word of query out, he told me that the good news was that I had been rehired as an Independent Consultant on $1500 US a day plus all expenses. At the then exchange rate this was just shy of £1000 a day. I signed the paper with nary a thought. Amongst the collapse my lot seemed to be getting better and better. What I had failed to spot was that this was them trying to unload overhead and make me into someone who could provide a service to the end of their existing contracts and then be cut loose. Things rapidly moved from 10 days’ work a month to scraping around and begging the scheduler for the dregs. A few days here and there. Not the worst money but quite limiting as you were always poised, ready, like a coiled spring, as it turned out for nothing to happen.

One of my final gigs was for Fujitsu Siemens in Russia and it was for 3 days of course delivery. Something I was good at, enjoyed even.  My then wife then was pregnant and very close to dropping our sprog, closer in fact than either of us imagined and money in the bank was a Good Thing. By then, even the myopic and naïve young me could see the writing on the wall and the futility of scrabbling around for the scraps with much more experienced consultants who had been doing this far longer than I had. The previous time I had gone to Moscow (for another client), I was less than amused as, when leaving, I was arrested at the airport. It scared the living shit out of me and I felt terribly foolish as I had not realised it was merely the usual thing of trying to extort a bribe from a suitable looking Westerner. I didn’t end up paying anything because it did not take them long to realise that they had picked the wrong target. I was just terrified and didn’t know what was going on so must have seemed like a total dipshit who wasn’t just playing hard to get but was genuinely stupid. All I could picture was me in an unacknowledged cell deep under the Kremlin having my fingernails pulled out. I blame this level of internal panic and overactive imagination on watching far too many James Bond movies growing up. After a credible Herr Flick lookalike (sans evil monocle) got so exasperated with my dumb responses I was just thrown out of the room that the other copper had detained me in before summoning the scary goon. I just stuffed the contents of my freshly rifled suitcase back in willy-nilly and tore over to the BA Check-In desk. I could not leave fast enough and swore I’d never return to this corrupt hole.

Still, I needed the money and at $4500 for 3 days’ work I’d put it down to experience and have my bribe money ready for my next pass through the airport. As it happens, I didn’t need it as my departure this time would be even more extraordinary than the last. I had been facilitating a workshop all morning and for some reason my phone had been buzzing away in my trouser pocket. On the fourth or fifth buzz I got to wondering who it may be and suggested that a coffee and cigarette break was in order. I sauntered outside and fished my phone from my pocket and saw at least 7 missed calls from my wife! As she knew the style of my work and is a pretty together person who rarely needed to call, this could only mean one thing. Something was wrong vis-à-vis the pregnancy.

[Before my departure she had urged me on when I was vacillating, based on the fact that the local GP with his little wheel thing had predicted a very early September birth, and the fact that this gig got me home on the 29th of August meant everything would be dandy, and we would be $4500 better off. I was always suspicious of his competence for all things doctoring – think more general bumbling idiot – which should have raised my suspicions. My doubts were further compounded by the fact that the Michaelides clinic in London had based their earlier estimates on some very high-tech and expensive scan where the spine length is measured. This then allowed the dark computational wizardry to give a due-date prediction that reckoned that things would come to a head in late August, and not early September as the idiot GP was maintaining. Common-sense, as is so often the way, was clouded by the promise of the filthy lucre.]

Our conversation was brief, and an abbreviated version follows: ‘Hi, what’s up?’, ‘Nothing to worry about, sorry for calling.’, ‘But you called seven times. That isn’t like you. Are you sure everything is ok?’, ‘Well, my waters broke an hour ago. But it is ok, nothing to worry about as Lydia is taking me to the hospital.’

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck and doublefuck. My wife is in labour and I allowed myself to be seduced into going to Moscow for $4500 dollars. Fuck.  What a tit. I am going to miss the birth of my child.

All I could manage to say was that I’d do my best to get home as soon as I could. Simultaneously, I was overwhelmed with such a strong emotion that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and that knocked me for six. I did what any seasoned hobby-smoker would do and cadged a very strong ciggy from the Russian fellow next to me. I demolished it whilst running endless scenarios through my head. None of them involved making it back on time and all of them involved a very pissed off client with no fee for the workshop and business class flights to Russia and a nice hotel falling at my feet. Including the loss of the fee, I reckoned that to get home in the next 24 hours was going to cost me the thick end of ten thousand quid. Still, there are times in life when you just have to suck it up and do the right thing, regardless of cost. It is family and that is that.

I drew breath and walked back into the room to find the client principle there, the CEO of Fujitsu Siemens in Russia. Oh goody. I like to think I explained it all rationally, but I suspect that I just babbled. A lot. As a contrast, he was straight-faced and ice-cool. I was crapping myself further at this point. He paused, looked me up and down, drew breath and asked, ‘Is it your first?’ I nodded stupidly and he beamed at me and ordered me to take his car and driver and get to the airport as soon as possible. I was so grateful he didn’t murder me that I just burst out that I wouldn’t charge him for all the wasted time, flights and hotels etc. He laughed and told me to charge him for the full three days and that he’d sign off all the other expense and why was I still standing there? His car would be waiting outside when I got downstairs. True to his word it was. A bloody great BMW 7 Series limo with properly blacked out windows. A regular mafia mobile, but pretty typical for the Moscow elite in those days.

I remember very few things from the trip to the airport. One is that there is a central lane on the massive freeway to the airport that is reserved for VIPs. It turns out that a great big German limo with black windows is automatic qualification. The driver, a very large gentleman who I’ll call Yevgeny, just pulled into this lane and buried the accelerator and I sunk back into the seat. Blimey, those 12-cylinder engines from Munich really have some welly.  I don’t know how fast we were going but I do know it was considerably quicker than most of the other cars I saw. The other thing I recall is trying to get across in basic English that I was arrested for a bribe last time. Yevgeny seemed to be failing to grasp this, and seemed very dismissive of what was to me an extremely important point. Finally, I rang the BA Gold Card line and asked for a place on the next flight. The lady was a little bit hesitant but when I blurted out that my wife was in labour, she changed immediately. ‘Sir, get yourself there. I’ll get you on the next aircraft. Leave it to me.’ That was an amazing bit of service that I will never forget and to this day I get a twinge of guilt if flying any other airline than BA.

It turns out that Yevgeny was listening to me after all and he just pulled up in front of the main terminal. In the UK that would have elicited many armed police and much eating of gravel, hands behind the head and speedcuffs. Moscow in those days had a proper Wild West feel and stopping in front of the terminal in a threatening looking car didn’t raise an eyebrow. Yevgeny uncoiled himself from the driver’s seat and gosh, he was a proper big and scary looking fellow. I think he said, ‘follow-me if you want to live’ but I can’t be certain. Anyhow, Yevgeny just starts barking orders at anyone in a uniform and they stiffen up and let us pass by unimpeded. It was extraordinary. He had either told them I was some sort of vvVIP or else I was radioactive. Either way, they averted their gaze and we just sailed past, me and the giant. He parked me in front of the BA desk without further ado, said something congratulatory in Russian and patted me on the back. Except, in patting me he nearly knocked me over. Strong lad too. They were expecting me so there was a brief glance at the passport, no tickets or any other boring paperwork was issued. A man appeared in a suit and I was ushered to the lounge.

The next flight to London was departing soon and I hadn’t had time to get a drink when the same fellow escorted me to the gate. I got on, turned left (other people’s money, always fly Business, until told not to), sank into a big seat and for the first time in several hours I allowed myself to relax as I was faced with three and a half hours of confinement in which I could do nothing at all. A steward appeared, asked if I was the man having the baby.  I started to correct him but when I tried the only sound I made was a big sigh. I gathered myself a bit and ordered a scotch and just sagged as the enormity of it all started to hit home. When requesting my third rapid-fire scotch, he politely observed in a Jeeves sort of way that I may want to go easy if I have to drive to the hospital. I explained that I had a driver, and could I please just have the scotch? He demurred and I had a third and then a fourth one. A little voice in my head  said four was ample for midday drinking, regardless of the excuse, and I didn’t want to be a dribbling mess before I even arrived. The free booze relaxed not just my body but my sense of time and in no time at all we were landing in London. My mind shifted back into gear and I started checking my watch. My wife’s water had broken at 7:30 in the morning UK time and I was now landing back in the UK at about 6:00pm. 9.5 hours gone and there was a sliver of hope.

I leapt out of my seat to see that the cabin-crew was stopping anyone else from getting off before me. I had something thrust into my hand and when I looked at it they had collected all the remaining bottles of the small screw-top Piper Heidsieck champagne they serve in Club World and stuffed them into a double-bagged plastic bag for me. I legged it up the jetway clanking with free champagne to the shouts of good luck floating up behind me. As I clanked my way through Heathrow, all the time wondering if the handles would hold I resolved to just keep going if they broke. I seemed to be on a roll as, despite my initial fears, the handles seemed to be holding. I must have been waved through immigration but in truth I just can’t remember. I do remember piling out into the Arrivals hall to see the welcoming face of my driver, Derek.

Derek also had a massive German car. For him it was the Stuttgart mob in the form of a big silver S-Class Merc. Derek had been driving me to and from the airport, a weekly occurrence, for the last 18 months so we had an understanding that I would sit back and just leave him to listen to terrible music and drive. I plonked into the back seat and realised that what the Merc lacked was the Gangster Black tinted windows of the Beemer. Because in England, unlike Russia, that is quite de trop. Some tint yes, fully blacked, no.

Derek was very reassuring and just said to me, ‘I’ve never missed any of mine son, and I’m damned if you’ll miss yours.’ All I really remember of that drive is that he hurtled up behind car after car, looming there with his bloody great German tank about 6 cm away from their rear bumper, flashing his lights, hooting the horn and gesticulating. I felt like a Red Sea pedestrian with Moses at the wheel on the M40 that day. That car must have had a big motor too as we were properly shifting and all I could blurt out was that I didn’t want to meet my new child from the A+E department. He just laughed and kept the beast going flat chat to the hospital. Frankly, the time was nearing when I knew I’d arrive. I recognised familiar landmarks as they shot by near to the speed of sound and everything else was starting to become a bit of a blur.  I do know that we made it from Terminal 4 at Heathrow to the door of the maternity unit at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford in 42 minutes. Normally a 60-minute drive at the best of times when making progress.

I pelted into the maternity unit towing my carry-on behind me, dressed in a good shirt, chinos and a jacket, and clanked up to the reception desk. The ladies manning the desk, who must see all sorts of freaking out fathers pitch up, looked up calmly as I blurted out who I was there to see. They paused, took this odd sight in and then one of them, having noticed my baggage, rather archly observed that I couldn’t stay the night. I explained that I had come straight from Moscow and they seemed mildly impressed. Score one for me. I’ll bet they don’t get that every day. I was shown to the room, it was 7:30pm and my wife seemed faintly surprised to see me. I had a quick scan around and realised that our family still consisted of only two, heaved a massive sigh of relief and barely refrained from announcing, ‘Ta da’ and doing a twirl. It didn’t seem appropriate given she looked understandably as if the burden of the real work – things like breaking waters, contractions, being sick, having pethidine, being sick some more etc  – was being done by her ,with undoubtedly the best still to come. The fact I had made it in time seemed slightly and understandably obscured by the fact that, for a brief moment in time, I seemed to have got rock star treatment. Almost free money, chauffeured limos, on-demand jets, lots of whiskey and a ton of free champagne. Still, I thought I had done well but it was probably best to leave it eighteen years or so before really gloating.

 I looked at the midwives, told them to make best efforts and thrust the bag of champagne into their hands. My gorgeous daughter arrived at 4:30 am the following morning and as that adventure ended another one began.

It Is My Cargo

I wanted to hate it and I am told that I should hate it. Hate it like one hates a sworn enemy, that I must fight it and that a true fighter calls themselves a warrior. However, I do not hate it and I am certainly not a warrior. Truth be told, I always feel much closer to a devout coward than any sort of warrior.

Hating it and fighting it consume so much of the energy that I ought to conserve to manage my life, and who wants to live life on a permanent war footing anyway? That must be tiring and living is tiring enough; I am idle and lazy, and am not getting any younger so where is the fun in that?

If it is a war, it is an unwinnable one. Given that we often work so hard to deny the inevitable endpoint by avoiding the topic of the hard stop faced by all of us, we end up skirting the unwinnable part of any war on It.  But the journey always ends, for everyone. That is the only certainty. That and taxes. However bumpy the journey and whatever the cargo we carryif it is treated as a series of skirmishes and not a grand battle (the kind that needs a warrior) then it becomes far more manageable and far less tiring.

Reverting to the topic of youth for a moment longer, there are benefits in getting older and it is worth noting that when skirmishing with it, youth and enthusiasm are rarely as effective as age and guile. It is the application of cunning and intelligence, combined with a good dose of backstabbing and trickery, both tactics of age, that are more effective and can be a great deal more satisfying at times.

To manage it effectively one must first understand the classic ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ conundrum. You cannot do this in one sitting. Instead, you must cut it into bite-size pieces. And (to stretch the metaphor we’ll make it an everlasting elephant), in order to keep things interesting, you must learn to make a variety of dishes. Some are grand efforts and others are best served to the dog. That is the way of things and the way of life. Whatever additional or different wrinkles get added to your life, the tactics remain the same. Deal with it piece by piece. Long-term plans are for fools. Ask anyone who has tried.

The additional cargo can also be viewed as interesting, because it is. It grants us a journey that stands out from the other boring and regular ones that most of our fellow travellers have. It requires a special understanding, a greater level of engagement. And, if you do engage and do not look away then it makes a better person out of you, it sharpens you. It does not dull you.  It may be a biological bully of an enemy, but it is the type of enemy that I want to keep closer than any friend.

I want to know its strengths, its plans, and I really want to know its weak points. We will not stand off against one another posturing on a battlefield of prejudice and misunderstanding. I will speak sweetly to it, wrap my arms around it and bring it in close whilst making soothing sounds. Then I will hit it hard, where it hurts the most and where It is weakest. It is a bully and a they are never swayed by verbal bluster, they are defeated with by your actions, your lack of fear. Even if, underneath, you are petrified. Soon you become less afraid and that is liberating.

My actions will bend it to my will. I will poison it with the most potent elixirs that science can find, and I will adjust my life to hurt it and hinder it at every turn. This is not a one-time event; this is an ongoing series of skirmishes. I may not win them but if I can hold it to a score-draw then I will take that.

After all, the journey ends the same way for all of us, despite the different and interesting cargoes we carry. I intend to enjoy the rest of my journey. It is not all about the cargo. The journey through life itself is a many splendored thing that I can shape to my will. If I do not, then it will become heavier and heavier and I will see and feel nothing but my cargo: and I will have lost.

Dominic Shadbolt May 2020

Brexit – Where Can I Start and Where Will It End?

This is one of those sorts of posts where it is just cathartic to write. I don’t have any viable solutions, I think I understand the problems and I am certain that I am not alone in the feeling of abandonment of the people by their elected representatives.

I didn’t want to leave the EU, I still think it is a very poor idea with nothing but an overall negative effect on many parts of the UK. Not just financially, but if a vote is re-run then societal as well. The effect on society seems to be entirely overlooked, and because it is not as easily quantifiable in economic terms it falls into the, ‘something that can safely be ignored because there are no good soundbites to be had from it’ sort of issue. It is a sociological sort of issue and those sorts of issues are not the stock in trade of our elected representatives.

I voted leave but would not characterise myself anymore as a Remainer. There are several points that really trouble me and make me feel unable to support a second referendum.

The first is that, regardless of party, the vast majority of our elected representatives appear to have treated the entire process as a means for them to further a mix their own and their party’s political agenda. Whether it was the early leadership challenges in the Tory party, the LibDem stance of standing on the sidelines repeating versions of ‘I told you so, it’ll never work, we always had a better idea’ to Corbyn and Labour ignoring it all in the first instance and lately playing brinkmanship so the old school socialist revolutionaries can realise their misplaced belief that the subsequent turmoil will upset people so much they’ll have a revolution.

The second remark is a development of the previous observation. If there was one time in the history of the post-war United Kingdom that really necessitated a coming together across party and ideological boundaries to make the best of a bad thing, Brexit is it. The vote was to leave the EU and however much I feel that this was the wrong outcome I respect the decision. On that basis I had a rather naive expectation that the political establishment also appreciated the seriousness of the decision and – like the EU did – have a negotiation strategy and a team to implement it. Instead, all we heard was a bunch of blowhards posturing and making further false claims. Much of the Leavers behaviour seemed rooted in the, ‘Britain is so bloody brilliant that all those whingeing Johnny Foreigners will come to their collective senses and form an orderly queue to beg us to make deals with them’ mindset. It seems to be seeping into their collective consciousness that this isn’t the case. With 60 odd days to go. No one is overtly admitting this but there is a great deal of manoeuvring and double-speak in an attempt to back away from all the bombastic remarks. The Remainers have also behaved extraordinarily poorly on the most part. Two examples from Twitter – not my sole data source I assure you – are the Labour MP David Lammy and the Lib Dem MP Tom Brake. They are very vocal and repetitive with their sole contribution seeming to be around trying to stir the pot and cause upset. Never have either of them said what they are doing that is constructive. Agitating for a so-called People’s Vote/second referendum whilst doing nothing else is not a respectful way to treat their constituents who stand to be affected.

Thought of the social divisions that stand to occur if a second referendum were to be held seem to be being avoided. The feelings on both sides of the debate are running pretty high already, so imagine if one side (it was near enough 50/50) felt they were being ignored? There are valid arguments on both sides and there is a lot of value in being mature enough to admit error and change ones mind. That makes perfect sense. However, the structure that was used to conduct the referendum is what it is, it wasn’t illegal. The allegations of misconduct on both sides are there. No one likes losing. Especially if it seemed so obvious to so many that leaving the EU was, overall, detrimental. Martin Lewis recently called the referendum a black and white vote on a rainbow of issues. The big issue is in just how poorly the vote was structured, because no one took the idea of losing seriously. In and Out was the only option on the ballot paper but in reality those that voted did so for a variety of reasons. Some were based on complete falsehoods, others on very legitimate concerns. Few people voted for exactly the same reasons. 

What is overlooked by the bulk of the Remain camp is that where by and large their choice to remain was closer to black and white, the Leave voters articulated many more reasons for their choice. They won the referendum and to re-run the vote until we achieve the ‘correct’ answer is akin to replaying a Test Match until the team that was stronger on paper triumphed and that is definitely not a Britisher’s idea of fair play.

A core factor that does unite remain voters is the sense of identity as British. The idea that this once proud nation of which they are part of is anything less than wholly in control of its own fate is an anathema to many. To see the power of identity in politics, one only need look across the Atlantic and see that the victory of Trump was driven by his ability to strike the right identity note (You are American, You are being ignored by the ‘Elites’ and You are no longer great. I, Donald Trump, will Make America Great Again – MAGA – and by extension I will make You great again). Our referendum was pitched by the Leave side as all about ‘Taking Back Control’, which was the masterstroke of the Leave contingent. It was a simple but powerful message that Leave voters could identify with.  People appreciate simple messages and most do not want to be mired in the complexity of politics. A Yes/No choice is great as far as they are concerned.

The so-called ‘Elites’, the ruling classes who govern the country were painted as having ceded an unacceptable degree of control to the European Project. It isn’t important whether this was accurate. It stuck with people and made the choice a simple one, especially for the older voters. Here, at last, was probably their final chance to grab back control for Great Britain. And no matter how much the liberal elite squeaked a vote to leave was the right thing to do.

If the referendum is re-run in any form there will be a great big chunk of the population that will be very unhappy. The Elites will be ignoring their heartfelt desires to take back control. This time this contingent will have lost control not only to the Europeans but to their own citizens. I’m not sure how well they’ll take that.

 

 

 

Praise For The Polymath

I recently read a very thought provoking post on LinkedIn by Alberto Brea (a v. senior bod at Ogilvy NY) that made a compelling argument for depth.  It got me and many of the other readers reflecting, as I view myself, and pride myself,  on being a polymath. Doing my degree as a mature student has been an illuminating glimpse into subject focus and the super-smart wonks you come across in good universities.

Knowing a lot about a lot of things means that it is very difficult to be perceived as a subject matter expert on any one particular thing. No single thing has been a life’s work. The most I seem to know is about the construction of identity and how that can/may be changed.

To be clear: a polymath does not mean that the person is a chronic bulls****er. The fact is that I like knowing stuff. Lots of stuff: how a jet engine works, a clutch, the reasons for weather, some of the law, drug metabolism, the eye, how to make a golfball, etc etc. Not to lord it over others (as tempting as it can be when you hear someone talking rubbish about something) but because I hate the feeling of weakness that accompanies the situation where a power imbalance can be created by a knowledge imbalance.

Sure, it lets you bluff at times and I happen to think that in some circumstances it is a very useful skill. To bluff to intentionally deceive to gain an unfair advantage for purely personal gain at the expense of the other is wrong. However, to be able to credibly bluff when you are at risk of being dominated and weakened by someone who is using their in-depth knowledge of a topic to run roughshod over you is something else entirely. It is is how to deploy ones intellect in a different way.

Recently, I compiled a list of all the jobs I have done and the significant experiences I have had, to read it as if another was listening to me warble on. If someone else bought the same to me my initial reaction would be extremely sceptical, it reads as fantastical invention in places. It makes me alternately proud and horrified. The fact is that all these experiences haven’t killed me and I have used them to learn from and strengthen myself.

At the risk of sounding like a personal puff piece I am using myself (for I can hardly be alone in the 11 schools, multiple industries and some cool pick-up roles along the way) as an example that those of us who have had interesting and varied careers/lives are not automatically flaky and dangerous to have in an organisation. On the contrary, if we are employed in the right role we can tolerate some sameness and routine. What makes the polymath thrive is being able to constantly learn and to be able to share their experience for the benefit of others.

When is comes to decision making, the person that is super-knowledgeable on a single topic can add valuable context through their knowledge. But, and it is a big but, the polymath can see the issue from angles that the depth person simply cannot conceive of doing. Yin and Yang I guess.

There is no doubt that a polymath can cause a subject-matter expert to feel very uncomfortable. They may seem shallow and flighty and for a person that defines themselves by their in-depth expertise this often causes significant cognitive dissonance. To assuage this one often sees  employers and clients shying away from the polymaths instead of asking themselves why they feel uncomfortable and then trying to see if they can use the polymath as a useful addition to a team. Asking the oddball questions and saying the strange things. Not for the hell of it but to add to the effort and make the output a better thing.

 

In case you missed it, Alberto’s article, a nice short and snappy piece for LinkedIn, is here.