16 July 2015

Found fiction

Discovered this whilst procrastinating/in the midst of a meltdown. I have a vague memory of writing it (probably some years ago) when I was supposed to be doing something far more important...

A dinosaur pooed in my shoe.

I know it was a dinosaur because I heard it while I was inside looking for the other shoe. It made a noise just like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

It was definitely a velociraptor.

I couldn't wear the shoe. It had poo in it. My mum said you should never touch cat poo in case it gets in your eyes and makes you go blind. I think velociraptor poo is probably a bit like cat poo.

There weren't any pictures of velociraptor poo on the internet. There was one of some brontosaurus poo. I thought maybe I could take some pictures of my shoe, and the poo, and put them on the internet. Just in case dinosaurs were pooing in other people's shoes. Maybe they would want to know whether a brontosaurus or a velociraptor had done it.

252 people liked the picture of the poo in my shoe. Some of them didn't believe a velociraptor had done it. But I told them: “I heard it. It sounded just like the one on Jurassic Park.”

One person asked how I knew it wasn't a unicorn. I don't know about unicorn poos. But it didn't sound like a unicorn.


20 May 2015

Birds in the basket

Sorry if you've already seen these photos (and read the story) multiple times via my Twitter and Facebook profiles, but I just have to share...

Yesterday afternoon:

So I was just putting my bike away and turned around to see the same old blackbird perched on the top of the door to the bike shed. "Silly bird," I thought. "Is it still trying to make a nest in here?" I carried on putting my bike away, but when I turned around again I saw the bird's tail poking out of the top of someone's bicycle basket. I got my phone out and crept over to see if I could get a funny picture of it sitting in the basket... Imagine my surprise when I peeked over the rim and saw these!

There followed some discussion among Facebook friends as to whether I should do anything about the situation. After consulting the RSPCA website, we decided that as the birds were healthy and being fed by their mother there was not too much cause for concern. However, I said I would attach a note to the bike - to warn the owner, in case they should suddenly turn up (after several weeks absence, clearly) with the intention of flinging a bag into the basket.

This morning:

Well, I tried.

Unfortunately, Mother Blackbird didn't very much like our plan and quickly despatched the note as if it were an unexploded bomb, onto the grass outside. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to photograph this, but I was just standing there open-mouthed as she pulled off the (three pieces of) sticky tape with her beak and then carried the whole thing away.

Half an hour later, I recounted the story to my own mother over the phone. She is a bit of a twitcher and advised that the nestlings would be out of the nest within a couple of weeks so it was probably best to leave them to it. I'm also sure that putting a note anywhere else - like on the front of the bike shed - would draw too much attention and risk stressing out Mrs Blackbird even more. (She already has a loud, creaky gate and constant to-ings and fro-ings to contend with.) They seem okay where they are, so I will keep an eye out and report back once the chicks have (hopefully) flown the basket!

10 March 2015

The perfect proposal

I am in the midst of writing a book proposal. When I say "in the midst", I mean I have been thinking about it for over nine months and not actually written a word of it yet, so whether you consider this the start, the middle or the end of the process is really a matter of opinion. Anyway, I have come to a point where I feel it would be useful to put my feelings about this process into words. So this is mostly a pep talk / message to my future self, in case I ever find myself in this position again. But just in case it is of benefit to others, I am sharing it.

Following a heart-to-heart with a good friend, the question I have been asking myself just in the last couple of hours is: Why do I really want to write this book? This, I realise now, is the most important question of all.

Do I want to write this book in the hope that it will become a best seller and make me enough money to buy a small island, which I can flounce off to each winter in order to write more best-selling books that will rake in the cash? Or do I want to write this book because it means I can spend several months of my life learning about something that fascinates me and wake up every morning knowing that I have the time and space to write, which is a thing that I genuinely enjoy doing?

If the answer is the small island, then all I am thinking about is how to write the perfect proposal for the best-selling book. All that's in my head is how I'm going to convince the publisher that my book is going to be the Best. Book. Ever. When they read my proposal they need to be thinking, "Man, if we don't accept this proposal then we are ID-I-OTS. Send a courier with a cheque* for six figures immediately."

The book that buys the island is the book that the publisher has been waiting for all their life.

But if the answer is more about fascination, and time and space to write, then I need to view the proposal in a completely different way. I'm thinking about how to attract a publisher who wants to publish my book. This might sound like the same thing, but it's really not. If my aim is to write a book that I'll enjoy writing, I have to write the proposal for that book, not the book that I think the publisher wants. Otherwise, I could end up spending months of my life working on something I'm not particularly excited about and, okay, I might have a small island at the end of it, but will I be HAPPY when I'm flouncing off the following winter to write my next stupendously popular book in the knowledge that part of my soul will have to die in the process?

[Long pause for thought.]

If I go with the second type of book, the gamble is that there might not be a publisher who is as fascinated with the subject matter as I am. Is that likely though? Am I a complete loon who is only interested in stuff that doesn't interest anyone else?

What I think I have concluded is that unless I actually want little pieces of my soul to start disappearing, I have to write the proposal for the second type of book. That way, if it is accepted, I'll have (more of) a guarantee of spending time on something I'll enjoy. Besides which, the mysteries of publishing are such that it can be impossible to predict what it is that the publisher actually wants. If I write the proposal for the book that buys the island, whether the publisher actually likes it or not may have just as much to do with who they had lunch with last Friday as with how I describe the potential market.

The only sensible option is to write a proposal that passionately communicates what fascinates me about the subject matter, and to write it in a style that I will enjoy writing in for tens of thousands of words.

Obviously, I'm making this a bit too black and white. I can't totally ignore what a publisher might want to see in a book proposal. If I am really fascinated with the population dynamics of a very rare species of cockroach and have convinced myself that there are more than a couple of other people in the world that want to read 600 pages on the subject, then I have probably strayed too far from the book that the publisher has been waiting for all their life. But ultimately, there's very little point submitting a proposal about ladybirds when what I am really interested in is cockroaches.

There. I think I have justified to myself the type of proposal that I REALLY WILL start writing tomorrow. My soul will remain largely intact. Purveyors of small islands need not contact me just yet. But who's to say that the book I want to write isn't the book that buys the island? Or at least a patch of garden to put a two-metre square writing hut on...

*I don't know why they wouldn't just log in to internet banking and send the six figures electronically. But publishers can be strange creatures.

27 January 2015

Horrible Histories

So I'm a bit behind the times, but I've only just discovered the genius that is Horrible Histories. It actually contains quite a lot of science (see below). Word is that it's not completely accurate, but, hell, it's certainly funnier than most comedy programmes on the telly at the moment...

23 January 2015

Sports and periods

So, a quick word on all the sports and periods stuff that has been bandied about in the last week.

To recap: British tennis player Heather Watson loses a first round match at the Australian Open, makes a casual remark about "girl things" affecting her performance and now she's broken "the last taboo" in tennis.

The BBC followed up with a lengthy discussion of whether periods really affect sporting performance and Runner's World encouraged Paula Radcliffe to speak out on the subject. Middle distance runner Jess Judd has been drawn into the debate too, after it emerged she was prescribed drugs to delay her period - with apparently unhelpful side effects - during the 2013 World Championships. The Telegraph chipped in with an awkward piece that started "Poor Heather Watson" and ended in what some might describe (I wouldn't) as a "joke" about PMT.

Honestly, I don't whether to laugh or cry. It's as if no one ever considered that having blood streaming out of you, being kept awake at night by stomach cramps and all the other general inconveniences that come with being on your period, might not be the best thing for someone trying to push their body to the limits of human performance.

So good on Watson for just coming out with it. But she clearly didn't expect her remarks to cause such a stir, and they shouldn't have. Being a modern kind of woman, she probably didn't consider that mentioning a thing that affects 50% of the people on the planet would be such a big deal.

OBVIOUSLY, the reason most female athletes don't talk about their periods publicly is because they don't want anyone to think they're trying to make excuses. But that doesn't mean female athletes aren't talking about them at all. The idea that Watson's remarks were "the first time in history" that someone has referenced periods as a reason for a poor performance is plain ridiculous. Er. Perhaps, women just aren't talking about them to the national sports media, because they're afraid someone somewhere will say, "Yes, but can she really put that crappy match/race down to her period? Maybe she just didn't train hard enough." (Unfortunately, I suspect that is what some people will now be saying.)

So while I think we should talk more openly about periods, I wonder how Jess Judd, for example, will feel about some disappointing performances being so publicly put down to periods. Perhaps periods were a big factor but I'm sure both Judd and Watson will have other thoughts about why things didn't go to plan and they'll have discussed them in private with their coaches.

Plenty of women in sport ARE talking about periods - to each other and to the teams around them. I know a running coach who expressed some concern about my periods and potential symptoms of anaemia. I've talked about periods numerous times with team mates at my running club. I'm sure I'm not the only one here.

Honestly, I don't think anyone really knows whether having a period makes you suck at sport. I haven't done a thorough search of the literature, but from what I can tell the studies are quite limited in scope - this one, from 2006, covers basketball, volleyball and martial arts but it's quite common in sports science for studies to be small and for methods to vary from one study to the next, making it difficult to come to solid conclusions.

Doubtless, there's a psychological aspect to it as well. There have been plenty of times I've got myself into some sort of shape for an important (by my standards) race and then realised it was on a collision course with the first day of my cycle. It puts you off but if, say, you've trained for a marathon for six months, well, you just have to get on with it. Which I think is what Watson was saying - "Hey, what can you do?", rather than "Oh, poor me".

Yes, it would be good if we knew more about the effects on sporting performance and how to safely avoid those effects. But I don't think we need special allowances for period days or anything. We've be dealing with them for, like, millions of years, after all, and we're mostly competing against other people with the same problem.

It would just be nice, though, if these sorts of statements didn't come as such a shock. By the media's reaction, you'd have thought we were still in an age when ladies were only let on to tennis courts in full length frocks and it would be unthinkable for a woman to try to run a marathon. So can we all just talk about this stuff enough so that periods are no longer a taboo.... but not so much that amazing athletes like Heather Watson and Jess Judd have to be pitied or excused for having a period? No, not "Poor Heather Watson"! Amazing Heather Watson! Who had a bad day and is probably over it now because she's a strong, intelligent woman who works really freaking hard.

  • Blood Speaks discusses the stigma attached to menstruation in other parts of the world.
  • Salty Running is home to numerous articles about running, periods and fertility written by women who run.

16 October 2014


The weather has changed, the days are getting shorter and I won't be able to get to my allotment after work any more. Not without a head torch, anyway. So I thought I'd share a photo of some of the fruits - or vegetables - of this summer's labour. I'm suddenly a big fan of chard. It was easy to grow, mainly because the plant was given to me by a neighbour, but it didn't seem to require much attention once in the ground. The horseradish was found wild among the parsnips - we had grown our own but the wild plant fared better. We managed to have an entire meal out of this lot, though we did have to add some beef brisket to make proper use of that horseradish...

17 September 2014

The value of editing

I just remembered that at primary school I tried to put on a play of The Little Mermaid. This followed on from a number of successful productions that had received critical acclaim from teachers and classmates alike. A few of us were collaborating regularly as writers, producers and actors, and now we were ready for the big time.

(Yes, I was precocious. I also wrote three books at primary school, one of which I typed up, illustrated and sold to my friends' parents for £1 a go. But don't worry, by the time I got to the third year of secondary school, I'd had every last ounce of confidence knocked out of me by acne and the bleep test (ironic).)

Until The Little Mermaid, each of our plays had been short, carefully scripted and well-rehearsed. There was one that I remember as a kind of parable about stealing and another that involved making giant, cardboard dinosaur heads. In hindsight, I probably should have made a few cuts to the lengthy dinosaurs-eating-each-other scene in the latter, but I think it may have been there to illustrate a point about the futility of existence...

The Little Mermaid was different. It was an adaptation of the popular Disney film by the same name, featuring all the same characters, the exact same script and an approximately similar running time (83 min). We were obviously working to a much tighter budget than Disney, which resulted in several of our mums being driven up the wall by our endless pursuit of silver milk bottle tops for the making of mermaid scales.

Somehow, I had taken charge of this epic production and it is still a source of embarrassment to me that as a year four junior, I did not recognise the value of a good edit. Possibly I hadn't even heard of editing. Had I done so, I swear that play would have been at least 75 minutes shorter. I can distinctly remember standing in the school playground trying to direct another shambolic rehearsal that never progressed beyond the first 15 minutes of the "script" (which was largely in our heads), while distracted nine-year-olds snuck off for games of "horses". The thought did flit through my mind that we might not be ready, but as the performance drew closer, there seemed to be no question that it must go ahead.

When the curtains opened (metaphorically, because our theatre was the void of the school sports hall), we must have been intending on performing some of the play completely unrehearsed, banking on the fact that all of us were so familiar with the content of the film that we would be able to wing it. I was playing Sebastian the crab, as well as a number of other characters that I can't recall now. I feel so sorry for everyone involved but especially the teachers, who were not aware of the running time, the number of costume changes or the fact that at some points we would be wearing bikinis. Oh god.

As it was, the 83 minutes never played out in full because, fairly quickly, a teacher decided enough was enough and called a halt to it. The experience must have been pretty mortifying because I think that was the last time I ever acted in anything. With the exception of a dance production about electrical circuits penned by our headmaster, in which I was assigned the minor role of A Wire and made to tiptoe about to music from The Nutcracker. (This was a far less distressing role than the one selected for my best friend, Sarah, who played The Bulb.)

Anyway, having shared this traumatic episode with you, I feel that there is at least something we can all learn from it about the value of editing. Which is that editing is crucial and often just as crucial - particularly when you are ripping off an entire Disney film for a school play - as the writing process itself.

Also, any intended philosophical point to a scene about dinosaurs eating other dinosaurs is probably going to be lost on nine-year-olds, so you should edit accordingly.

5 September 2014

Journal poems

Whilst browsing the contents of a recent issue of the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research (funtimes!) I came across an article entitled "Poem: On Sustainability". Assuming it wouldn't be an actual poem, I clicked on it. Turns out the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research publishes poems. Or at least this one:
Sustainability, an age-old concept,
A complex, daunting puzzle;
Many questions beg for answers -
Sustainable for whom? For how long?
At what rate?
Static or dynamic?
Economy, environment, population,
Taste and preferences, the resource base -
All undergo change;
Science, innovation, new thinking
Sprout, spread, proliferate, march on;
As the poet put it, 'Old order changeth
Yielding place to new' -
Change is the only constant!
Take GNP for instance -
At some point, secular stagnation sets in.
Sustainability, like derived demand, is
A function of exogenous factors,
Not a stand-alone;
Ceteris Paribus, but other things
Seldom remain the same!
Sustainability, in reality
Is tantalizing, though elusive -
A noble goal, nonetheless,
Always worth pursuing!
Chennat Gopalakrishnan 
There was some disagreement on Twitter over whether this could actually be considered a poem or not. But people also argue about whether a cow in formaldehyde or a messy bed is really "art". So...

Anyway, this conversation brought to light a few other examples, so should anyone wish to delve into the strange world of journal poetry, here are some links. Knock yourself out.

Comparative mobility of halogens in reactions of dihalobenzenes with potassium amide in ammonia by Joseph F. Bunnett and Francis J. Kearley Jr.

The detection of shocked CO emission from G333.6-0.2 by J.W.V. Storey

CT Scan by Elaine Greensmith Jordan (and other gems from CHEST Journal's Pectoriloquy section)

The Public Health Call by Gabriel Scally (written as a folk song, but works as a poem)

8 April 2014


I recently published this piece for Mosaic magazine. It’s about what happened to me in the run-up to Brighton Marathon, as I tried to get to grips with my own limitations as a human being and a runner, and with the limitations of science to explain them. I want to say a little bit about what I was trying to do with this story and how that influenced the way I wrote it. In writing this story, little pieces of my life became tangled up in the process of my research and my writing. It’s not an overstatement to say that it has changed the way I think about running, about writing and about my life.

It was never my intention to write a straightforward explainer on the science behind marathon running. Yes, I wanted to try to understand what makes a good marathon runner. Yes, I wanted to explore what genetics and physiology and biomechanics and psychology can tell us about what’s going on in the body of someone who is training for a marathon - me. But it was always clear to me that there were going to be no easy answers and the more I looked into the research and the more I talked to experts, the more complex the picture became. I think, actually, people often forget that science doesn't have all the answers. Sometimes answers take years or decades to emerge and sometimes they’re not the answers we want to hear. I tried to bring a sense of this to my writing. It wasn't a piece that was saying: science is brilliant because it’s telling us this, and this. It was a piece that was saying: science is difficult and confusing and frustrating, but hey, so is life.

I also wanted to present the people involved in science in a different light to the one we often see them in. I wanted to show them not as names on a list of study authors but as real people with their own characters and opinions. I could be criticised for thinking too much about people and stories, and not enough about the science. But for me it wasn't about creating some false balance of expert viewpoints. In an area as complicated as this, you can never really speak to enough scientists or read enough papers – and I did read a lot of papers – to reach a reliable consensus. And anyway, what a boring read such a story would make for. What I tried to do was give the reader a sense of the complexities scientists are dealing with and how they feel about them. By interacting as one human to another, I wanted to make people relate, in their own ways, to the questions as I was asking of them.

Finally, I tried to be honest about my own difficulties and confusion and frustration in understanding the science, as well as about everything that was going on in my own life at the same time, as I prepared to run my marathon. In truth, I'm a little uncomfortable with how honest I ended up being, but anything else would have felt wrong. I wrote months of diary entries. If I visited a lab or talked to a scientist I would make sure I sat down that evening to collect my thoughts on the meeting. If there was something I wanted to remember about my run on any particular day, I would write that down too. As I progressed through my research and my training, these entries came more easily to me and I found I was writing for myself as much as the magazine. What is included in the final story is just a fraction of what exists. Some of it has changed very little in the editing process, so it’s as raw as when it happened to me. In other parts, I’ve had to cut chunks of text or insert explanations, but everything that’s there actually happened and I'm pleased with the more intimate, more honest story that this way of writing has led me to tell.

In some ways, this was the easiest story I’ve ever written. In others, it was the hardest. 7,000 words – the longest single piece I’ve ever written – fell onto the page in a matter of two or three days, but they were all the result of long conversations, long hours spent reading or just thinking, long runs and, although no blood was shed, real sweat and tears. It was an epic task. And at the same time I was going through a really hard time in my personal life. I didn't want to talk about that too much in the story, but the story itself was personal so it was impossible to ignore completely, and there was a sense in which writing about it helped.

Anyway, enough. I'm finishing with one diary entry I really wanted to include, but that didn't fit anywhere in the story. It’s just a personal anecdote about running and it’s exactly as I wrote it when it happened – no editing – but I like the way I contrasted all the drudge and the hardship of training for a marathon with the feelings of purpose and satisfaction. There’s absolutely no science in it, but reading it again today, it made me wonder whether maybe doing science can be a bit like this too.
“On New Year’s Day, having slept - to the disbelief of [Mr Hayley] - through our Spanish neighbour’s noisy party, I rise at 10am, still full of sherry trifle, and start rummaging through drawers, searching out running tights and top. There’s no hangover to appease. On account of the 14-week countdown to marathon day, I celebrated with a sip of cava and a single gin and tonic. However, there’s still a soaking to be had. 
As I pad gently to my warm-up spot behind our block of flats, rain is already finding its way into my barely broken-in trainers. At least three or four times on my 15k plod, they fill with water as I trip through a puddle. Usually on an easy-paced run like this, I’d stick to grass, but today Durdham Downs is so soggy that I'm forced to tread the pavements. Tarmac may be more tiring on my calves and thighs but at least it provides something more than sludge for my feet to push against.
At some point on the run, I notice that I can hardly feel my legs and yet, going by my watch, I appear to be striding along at a decent enough pace. I don’t battle or grind against the wind and rain. I just endure it. And keep on. Still, by the time I reach the familiar flat of Sefton Park Road, around 14k, the cold has seeped into my very bones and my pace is tempered by the weight of all the water my clothes are holding. In the last 500m, I pass a yellow-clad man whose only discernible features in the pouring rain are a balding head and a smile. He sees my plight and shouts “Happy New Year!”. Cheered infinitely by this small act of goodwill I quicken my pace just enough to make the last kilometre my fastest and return home to stretch and pack my trainers with newspaper. The steaming hot shower and chicken pie that follow are simple but sublime reward.”
Oh, and also, if you liked this post or the story itself, please direct your enthusiasm at Arthritis Research UK.

Images by Lydia Goldblatt, originally for Mosaic magazine.

2 April 2014

Most of what I know about writing...

"Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate - and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? ... How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?"

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p81-82