Sunday, 28 February 2016

Review of the Cancer Research Manchester #WinterRun – 28th February 2016

I would never have run the Cancer Research Manchester Winter Run if it had not been for an old school friend, Clare, insisting that I do it with her.  Clare was travelling all the way from Hull to Manchester to take part.  She said the medal was “the best she had ever seen” and with the race being all for charity, I coughed up the pricey £35 entrance fee for this great cause.


My last (and first) 10k had been in Leeds back in November which had not really gone to plan.  Still high on the wave of my first marathon that April, I thought that with very little training I would whizz round the Leeds course effortlessly, which really was not the case. Despite achieving a finish time of 54:55, I had spent a lot of time stopping during the race, cheering on other runners, and posing for photos.  It was a tough race, and I was determined to be serious about my next 10k.  With no daft photos (hmmm).

So, in the run up, I made a conscious effort to avoid Cadbury’s crème eggs, mini eggs and alcohol, and had a boring Saturday night drinking tea and eating pasta.  I also had a sports massage the previous Wednesday and had tapered off a little.  I was taking it all so very seriously.

So, yesterday when I woke up with a sore throat, which then also became a cold this morning, I was not best pleased, but consoled myself with the knowledge that it was early days and had it been a full blown cold I may have had to pull out of the race altogether.  After much internet research, and even waking up my other half (sorry), I felt confident enough that I could safely take lemsip before the race which did help me feel, well, less sick.

Getting into Manchester, I hopped on the tram and it was not long before I saw other runners.  I got chatting to a couple; the lady wore a tutu and the guy was such a fan of the Winter Run series, he had done them all.  Due to arthritis in his legs, he is not supposed to run the races, so he power walks through them all, which I thought was quite an achievement.

Departing from the tram, I walked up the stairs with some other runners and there was a lady on her own with her headphones in.  Now I know all about nerves, so I tapped her on the arm and got chatting away.  It was her first ever 10k and she was nervous as hell but we talked about her training and it was great to visibly see her relax a little.

Meeting up with my lovely friend Clare, and after promising not to push her over like I had done when we met for the first time in nursery, aged 3, we had a hot drink and chatted.  I have to admit, my nerves were so bad, I could not concentrate fully on what was being said.  We had a photo taken (that's me on the right).


I handed in my bag to the lovely/fantastic/awesome (you’ll see why later) volunteers who quite happily secured my wristband to my arm as I was so nervous, I was shaking.  Clare laughed at me, and I laughed too, but it’s true, I was THAT nervous! I pulled a bin bag over my body, and we walked off toward the start line.

Now I had not done a warm-up, but my nerves were making me go haywire so I jogged a little and just concerned myself with getting to the race start where we were also due to do a warm-up.  I jumped a lot on the spot and did a little dance to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ which was belting out of a speaker behind me.


Taking off my bin bag, I then realised to my horror and dismay… I had forgotten my race number.

Disaster.

Just as Clare started to reassure me, I legged it back to the bag people.  A thought crossed my mind that I was in fact now getting the warm-up. 

Arriving, they were brilliant.  Still shaking, they helped me retrieve the number from my bag and even put the safety pins in it for me. I legged it back to the start line, and found Clare again near the front. 

Clare revealed her new running top – an Angry Birds little number, and I thought I’ve to get myself one of those and then we can be angry birds together.

We did a Mexican Wave and then I started dancing again.  My tram buddies, tutu lady and arthritis guy were there in front of me! It was very cold.  After a short warm up, the commentator then asked everyone to take a moment of reflection.


He asked us to put our hands up if we knew someone affected by cancer.

Everyone put up their hands.

He then asked if anyone had been personally affected by cancer.

A lot of people put up their hands.

He then asked if anyone was still fighting cancer.

I saw at least three people around me put up their hands, but what amazed me was a lady directly in front of me put up her hand.  She looked no different to you or me, and here she was, about to take part in a 10k race.  A lady next to me, and myself included, both patted her on the back/shoulders and I simply said what I was thinking, that she was amazing.

Then the countdown started!

“TEN!”

I hugged Clare good luck.

“SEVEN!”

The snow started to cover us all.

“THREE… TWO… ONE…!”

Then that was it! We were off!

After a short uphill stretch we veered to the left of the Ethiad stadium.  My legs were a little sluggish and I willed them into a steady pace.  My running tights felt loose around my waist, and my bra was not as tight as it could have been.  Clearly, I had lost weight in the run up to the race but thankfully, nothing was falling down!

Despite my gloves, my hands were cold and I flexed my fingers to get the blood flowing. I then did my usual thing of questioning myself.  Would I be able to run all of this? Why oh why was I putting myself through this? The pace I was doing felt steady but I questioned whether it was fast enough then surmised that I was working really hard so to just stick with it, if I could. I saw the lead runners coming up the other way and I thought that they were not too far ahead and that I was doing well.

Then the 1k sign went past and a little part of me inwardly died.  It was so, so hard.

A guy accidentally clipped me (and he apologised) and keeping to my pace, I managed to pass him later. The thing that surprised me was that there were not many people around me, and those that were, were tall, stocky, fit looking guys.


“Believe in yourself, Jane,” I told myself.  There’s a reason why there were not many runners (or women) around me, and that’s because I was running a good race.

Passing the 3k sign I started to look for my “competition” in the race.  That’s the girls.  It is very difficult to compare yourself to a guy if you are a girl runner because of their natural physical advantage.  I counted three women in front of me, but managed to take on one of them, sending myself into third place.  I did not allow the sheer excitement/enormity of being in third place to hit me, I knew I still had a way to go and I was finding it very hard.

But then suddenly, the course went downhill and it was great! But what goes down…

…Must come up.  And I knew the hills on the return leg (the race was two laps of a 5k circuit) would be tough.

My mojo was being constantly challenged and I willed myself to keep going.  To stop would have been horrendous.  I would never forgive myself.  I had to just keep up the pace.  I resorted to my race “tactics”. On downhill slopes, use gravity to go as fast as you can, on uphill stretches, go into denial and tell yourself it’s flat and your eyes are playing tricks on you!

At one point I got covered in snow but I ignored it. For the most part, I ignored the other runners and the crowds and just focused on running the actual course.  It was easy in a way as the lead runners had a trail of followers so we all ran the course efficiently. I did spot three kids who were with their parents just standing and watching and I’m a big believer in inspiring the younger generation when it comes to sport, so I held out my hand and pointed at it with my other hand and they got the message and all went for the high-five!

We reached a running track manned by penguins.  Not real life penguins, but dressed-up ones.  At the end of the running track, one penguin came in for a high-five but I missed, I was finding it so tough. 

I saw the lead girl come back and pass me on the other side and I eyed her, willing the awe in my eyes to be transferred to hers – she was an amazing runner.

Soon (not soon enough), we got to the halfway point and there were a lot of marshals, I suspect to encourage us and prevent us from stopping when we came to the hill at the start again.  But I kept my pace.  I did not dare look at my Garmin, despite it faithfully clocking away the miles.  I was too scared – what if it said I wasn’t doing well?  What if I misinterpreted the time? I consoled myself – I was doing the best I could do and no Garmin time could change that. 

At 6k, I did a body check.  Despite finding the race incredibly tough (and questioning my sanity at every point), everything felt remarkably good.  My legs were strong and steady, I tried to drop my arms a little as I have a tendency to keep them hunched up, and my back and shoulders were moving comfortably (as possible).  My toes were a little sore but that is to be expected.


Focusing on getting to 7k, I ignored the runners who started to overtake me and who cut corners.  For example, there would be a traffic cone and I always made sure to go around it, whereas some runners chose to go inside the cone.  I don’t know why this bothered me, as they are only cheating themselves, but I am stickler for accurate race times and was put out that others thought it acceptable to, well, cheat.

My chest/lungs felt a little tight at around the 7k mark but I told myself to stay calm and just ride it out.  I did not take any water here, even though it was on offer.

Reaching the running track, I knew two things. One, that there was not far to go.  And two, there was an overly excitable penguin waiting for me at the end.  I overtook a guy who was breathing really heavily, but then he came back, and I watched as he approached the penguin.  I could see he did not want to do the high-five but everyone else had, so at the last second, he held out his hand. 

Miss. Penguin saw me coming this time.  I held out my hand.  And missed.  

Leaving the running track, there was a hill and I noticed that women were starting to overtake.  When I saw how toned and slim these women were, I saluted their perseverance in trying to get ahead.  It really is inspiring to see people running so hard and trying to be the best they can be.  Plus, they were a lot younger than me.  (ha ha!)

I could feel the pressure on my broken toe around about the 8k mark.  It was not going to stop me from finishing (or slow my pace) but I became conscious of it around this point. 

We got to the starting hill again and I could see the finish in the distance.  We still had the last 1k to do, but I knew this was nothing in the scheme of things.  I knew at this point that there was no stopping.

I took a first look at my Garmin. 

It said “46” something.

I could not believe it.  I was aiming for under 52 minutes, but figured if I could keep it together, an unbelievable sub-50 was possible.  

I focused hard on form and pace.  There was a little bit of wind against me but I worked my arms harder. 

I could smell the finish.

But then fear hit me.  What if I came in at just over 50 minutes?  What if I had been so close to a 40-something finish? The photo belows shows the second that fear hit me...


I could see the finish.

I was so pumped.

And this is the part where I went a little mental.

The commentator went wild, and I soon realised he was talking about me.

“Someone’s going for it!! Look! She’s really going for it!!! She’s making a break!! Look at her go… really, really working hard…”

My legs stretched out and I’m counting everyone I’m passing. The course curved and I sped ahead to the crowd of people all watching at the finish.

“COME ON!!!” I yelled, to nobody in particular (probably myself).

Then, with one hand, I punched the air as I passed the finish line and leapt into the finish.

My Garmin read 49:22 (but my final time was 49:16).  I was made up.

I got handed coconut water and my medal.  And had lots of polar bear hugs.  It was great.  There was a lot of laughter at the finish.

Grabbing my bag from the lovely bag volunteers, I impressed them with my time, and then started to make my way back to the course so that I could find and cheer on Clare.

It was not long before I saw her.

“Come on Clare!! Come on!! The medal is GORGEOUS!”

She yelled back!

“What’s your time?!!! What time?!!”

I laughed.  “I’ll tell you when you finish now MOVE!!!”

I found Clare five minutes later – she was close to tears.

“I did it! I did it! I did sub-60min!”

We celebrated both our PB’s with photos and a hug.




Jumping on the tram to go home, I reflected on the day.  My achievement hit me about halfway home.  Not only that, but when I thought about all the people on the route who had been running with names on their backs, those with “For my Mum,” or “For my Mum and Dad”, or for sisters, brothers, kids, even for themselves, it got me completely choked up.  To have been part of something so special, so inspiring, was really, really out-of-this-world.  And surrounded by Man United fans going to Old Trafford, I could not help but shed a tear.

Many thanks to the organisers, Cancer Research UK, for such a lovely Sunday morning.  Keep up the good work!

Follow me @JWilbyPalmer

PS. If you would like to sponsor my friend Clare, the link to her sponsor page is here


Thursday, 18 February 2016

Review of TEDx Manchester - 14th February 2016

As a fan of TED talks generally, when a friend (Lucy) posted on Facebook a few months ago that TEDx tickets for Manchester had just gone on a sale, I jumped at the chance to attend.  Failing to make the last TEDx talk in 2009, I was excited to get involved.  TEDx events are produced independently of the TED conferences (which cost thousands of dollars to attend) but the event is based on the same TED format and rules.


A few weeks before the event, the main speakers were announced, and to be totally frank, I was not overly impressed by the list.  I did not recognise anyone, and nothing 'jumped out' as particular subjects of interest.  Following a very enjoyable experience at the Hay Festival a couple of years back, part of me had perhaps hoped for something similar.  Despite this, I assured myself that being open-minded and embracing the unknown would be good for me.  Even the allure of meeting new creative types would be worth the trip out, and I longed to show off my new business card.


On that promise, I wrapped myself up against the cold and headed for HOME in Manchester.


After a much needed (free) coffee, and meeting my friend Lucy (and a couple of her friends, Sarah and another Lucy), I joined the queue to the lecture theatre, hoping that my attendance at TEDx on my own would help secure me a seat near to the front row. On the way in, I chatted to another 'single' attendee, Claire, who, like me, had a partner at home not interested in TEDx (shock, horror!).  We chatted amiably about my love of writing and Claire impressed me no end when she said she was as a youth community worker.  Delighted that I had met my first amazing stranger of the day, my excitement was further compounded when I managed to secure a single seat in the second row from the front!  I said hello to Fiona and Adam, a lovely couple who really gave the whole of my time at TEDx that romantic, Valentine’s Day feel, as they held hands for the entirety of the show.

Founder of TEDx Manchester, Herb Kim, graced the stage and made his introductions and then very quickly we moved on to our first speaker of the day, Tom Cheesewright.

Tom was vaguely familiar from his photo but it soon became evident that I did not really recognise him.  But he was one of the speakers I had wanted to see.  A futurist, he spoke about his @bookofthefuture and gave us an insight into whether or not, we, in the audience, were bionic.  Tom argued that the human brain is a robot and that we are all cyborgs, and in a way, I could see his point.  We do facilitate information available to us (ie. from search engines) to get to a result.  Furthermore, Tom looked at everything becoming autonomous with self-driving cars knowing where to come and find us at a particular place and time, and our decision-making processes being taken away from us with technology replacing the toilet roll holder without us having to ask! Tom finished his talk on asking us 'how far do we really want to go?' then concluding that in fact, we had already passed that point on the moral debate.

It was really quite an interesting concept, one, admittedly, I had already used in my book (for those of you who have read it, the ‘psi-kick’ is the futuristic autonomous model of today’s mobile phone which predicts your actions), but I was still interested to learn more.  But before I had a chance to muse further on the idea of us all becoming cyborgs, my daydreaming was suddenly quashed by the appearance on the stage of BURNING trees set against a backdrop containing the words 'DIGITAL WILDFIRES'.

Then entered the next speaker, Rob Procter, a computer science professor from Warwick University.  He walked on the stage without a smile and as if to compound the 'hell and damnation' images I had conjured up in my mind, a lectern was brought on from him to preach, erm, sorry, speak from.

Rob, did in fact, provide a really compelling discussion about controlling social media.  Whist social media has helped improve management of crises, such as the London riots in 2011, it has revealed an underclass of 'trolls' who publish provocative content.  Rob’s term, 'digital wildfires' was used to describe, essentially, the moment when a piece of social media goes viral on the internet which contains misleading or provocative consequences.  He used examples from the Guardian newspaper which had identified fake tweets, such as 'rioters attacked London zoo and release animals' (not true) or 'rioters attack Birmingham’s children’s hospital' (also, not true).  A full report on 'reading the riots' can be found here. The research, argued Rob, showed an immediate increase of these tweets being published online after initial release, but then over time, their claims were refuted by people questioning their reliability.  Local knowledge proved very important in disputing these rumours. Rob talked about dealing with internet trolls, citing particular accounts which are known for such practices, and explained how the bar for prosecution via the police is very high.   Interestingly, Twitter are establishing a council of experts to deal with the delicate balance between freedom of expression versus the harm of unmoderated expression.  I, like Rob, look forward to seeing this take effect.

From the future and the technological revolution, we moved on to our first female speaker, Aala El-Khani.


Up until this point, the speakers had been engaging, informative and interesting in the delivery of their talks, but as well as this, Aala brought something new to the conference – she brought emotion.

Well, of course, given the content of her session - a look at the mental health of children who had experienced armed conflict – it did not make for easy listening.  1.5 BILLION people are experiencing armed conflict in the world right now.  There are 15 million refugees.  Children as victims, develop catastrophic emotional problems.  Aala spoke in a way that was clearly very passionate, and it was obvious she had real belief in the work she does.  Sitting so close to the front, I could see on several occasions her eyes glaze over.  Aala explained that research had shown that the quality of care given to children within family units greatly improved the protection of their mental health.  A drawing from a ten year old child who had experienced armed conflict was put up on the screen and it was not until about a few minutes in that I really understood what I was seeing.  Of course, as a mother, I am used to seeing kids’ pictures, but not like this.  Not with stick figures lying next to red crayola’d splotches.

Parent training programmes on how parents can help their children deal with the horrendous mental after-effects of living with armed conflict was one way to help the refugees.  Aala was able to send 3,000 psychological first aid leaflets encased in bread wrappers to refugees in just one week.   Aala challenged us to think of the faces, to think beyond the news images and appreciate the refugees for who they really are: as people.

Aala’s thought-provoking talk was followed by the next speaker, Ruth Daniel, who also looks at ways to help those people who have stories to tell, but were not able to share them on the stage.  In scruffy denim shorts and big hooped earrings, Ruth did not impress on first appearance, but this proud Mancunian explained about her creation, 'Unconvention' and how music can change the world around you.


Ruth gave examples of how music had changed the lives of people who had less opportunity than herself.  She talked about how in Columbia, hip hop movements had provided alternatives to children destined for life in the drugs trade. She explained how hip hop workshops were being used in prisons in Uganda to stop people from reoffending and returning to prison.  Ruth explained that in Brazil, a small start-up business by 4 students creating a micro exchange economy system for musicians had grown exponentially to generate $44m a year. Touching upon Aala’s talk, Ruth then warned us all not to be too complacent, arguing that the war in Syria affects us all and that we need to learn how to innovate from the oldest, indigenous populations of the world. She asked, what could we do to change our world?

From war torn conflict, our final speaker, Sam Aaron took to the stage, and I did not envy his 'last slot' position during Session 1, just before lunch.  Nevertheless, he bounded to the stage and smiled through minor initial set up delays, but I am sure in hindsight, no one would argue with me when I say he was worth the wait.


And what did Sam want to talk to us about? Computer science, in particular coding.  When it emerged that this guy works at the University of Cambridge, I admit, my brain started to wander to thoughts of whether I should eat the egg and cress sandwich in my bag or try the soup…

But! A little voice inside my mind told me to 'stick with it' and I listened to Sam’s explanation that just because you study English, you are not necessarily a writer, and just because you study computer programming, it doesn’t make you a computer programmer.  He asked, why do we code? To reduce cost (you can use raspberry pi as an alternative to a computer, and free software, Sonic Pi @sonic_pi); to reduce how complicated it is (yeah, right, I thought); and to create motivation. I congratulated myself on recognising that 'raspberry pi' is not spelt with an 'e' at the end.

He then started to show us how easy it is to code.  And I admit, it did, AT FIRST, look pretty simple to understand.  ‘Play 80’ plays a beep.  The higher the number, the higher the beep.  Using ‘sleep’ separates the beeps.  And then you have a tune.  But then you can add to it. Using Sonic Pi, you can add different layers such as ‘Rerezzed’.  Sam started to play a little tune, then added to it with a bit more coding, and it was all very clever.

Herb Kim (our compère) then jumped up to the stage and asked us if we wanted to hear more and there was a raucous cry of 'yeah!' Sam had explained that he had a live Thursday night show and often played in clubs, but to be honest, I thought this geek was just name dropping a little and probably played a few 'cody-like beats' from his bedroom. In his mother’s house.

But I was proved wrong. So wrong.  Sam made the geeks in the room look cool.  You only have to see the internet traffic he generated during his performance to know how good he was.  We could have been in a nightclub.  Seriously, this guy was so good, he even coded in his exit speech to the song. Genius. (There is apparently a competition for coders via the raspberrypi.org website with the EU Space Agency where you can get your coded song played in space! Yeah, you should check that out!)


And then it was lunch.   After a furious discussion with friends Lucy, Lucy and Sarah(!) about what we had just witnessed (and a little bit about all of us filtered into the discussion), we made our way back to the lecture theatre and I (yay!) managed to get back into my seat behind the front row.

Next up was the flat capped, long-haired Jeff Coghlan (@jeffcoghlan)

Jeff argued that play is essential to us as a species and whilst I do have a secret Sims addiction, I do not necessarily agree with this statement.  But I was interested to hear more about Jeff and his company ‘matmi’. Jeff said that computer gaming encouraged teamwork, maths and physics intelligence.  I do have a friend who learnt how to speak English (fluently) from time spent playing World of Warcraft so I appreciate the relevant points regarding learning.  We learnt that thanks to Candy Crush there are more female adult gamers than boys under the age of 18 and that 68% of gamers are over the age of 18.  We looked at gamification, the reasons why people play and how different types of play appeals to different people.

Jeff then showed us a film where a bottle bank was made into a game (the more bottles you put in the bank the more points you got) and how it increased the amount of people visiting the bottle bank.  We were then told that he had worked on the new Alton Towers ride Galactica (how, I am not entirely sure).  He did discuss an interesting idea about how actually accessing a theme park can be turned into a game, where park visitors will be told as part of their 'game mission' to get to a ride (which will at the time be not too queue heavy) and in turn, thus reduce the amount of queue times.  

Next up was Ian Forrester, a self-proclaimed serial dater who presented a talk on 'dating against humanity'.  He explained that he had met someone online in the US, and got married the same year, only to be divorced after 4.5 years.  He then showed other photos of other women and gave a lesson on the pitfalls of internet dating.  We watched a short film from Neeve of ‘Catfish’ fame explaining what a Catfish is. I don’t really have too much to say on Ian’s talk because as someone who has also had quite a lot of online dates in the past, there was not much for me to learn from him! One thing that did grab my interest was the 'birthday paradox' – if you have 23 people in a room together, there is a strong likelihood two of you will share the same birthday.  The same applies to dating sites – you will eventually meet someone you connect with, based on the fact people are congregating in the same place.


After Ian’s presentation, we were then treated to a video from TEDx in Bloomington about shared experiences and shared thoughts.  It was brilliant and I would encourage you to give it a watch. It was about a company called ‘Improv Everywhere’ who pulls stunts to try and brighten peoples' day through a shared collective thought process.  For example, on a New York subway, a guy gets on a train in just his boxer shorts, then another guy gets on at the next station, also in boxer shorts and so on.  They film the expression of one particular female passenger, and it isn’t until she shares her mortification with another passenger… rather than me explain all this… just watch the film. It’s here. PS. Rob wants to give you a high five.

We then had a short musical interlude from Hayley Parkes, a world-class pianist who introduced herself briefly, admitted she was nervous, and then proceeded to play a piece of music on a grand piano that I had never heard before, and which had a title so long I couldn’t write it all down!  She then told us about a piece of music she had played at the age of 14 and how she had been amazed by an elderly lady saying it was her 50th wedding anniversary that day, and the music she was playing was the song she had walked down the aisle to. Hayley asked us to guess the song (but didn’t tell us the answer!) It was Clair de Lune by Debussy by the way – my mother is a pianist, and I listen to a lot of classical music.

Following Hayley’s expert performance, we were treated to Jan Blake, a real-life storyteller.  All that was missing was a campfire and marshmallows.  She explained stories are a way of us understanding what it means to be a human being.  Jan told us the story of 'The Fisherman: A Tale of Passion, Loss and Hope' which was as exciting as it sounds.  I questioned if there was a meaning to the story, or a moral lesson, but I guess that is the while point of storytelling, and something for me to dwell on over the next few days.


A brief break followed, but I stayed in my seat and waited expectantly for the final session.  A tall guy paced the floor in front of me, and I wondered whether he was one of the speakers as he acted so nervous.  He drummed his fingers on the stage.  He changed his trainers to shoes.  A lady looking after the stage laughed at his sudden change of footwear, and he reminded me of how nervous I always get at the start of races, and how I obsess over my footwear.  Leaning forward, I smiled. 'I prefer the lime green trainers,' I confided in him.

He went with the lime green trainers after my suggestion that there was less chance of him tripping up on the stage in them.  We had a brief chat about whether or not I was the radio frequency engineer due to speak on the stage (clearly not me) and I laughed and said I was in fact, a sci-fi writer but it would be a dream come true to present on stage.  Completely and utterly winging it (check out my blog on 'winging it'), I passed him my business card, and told him to google me.  After giving lots of praise for my 'cool-looking business card', he was called away and it was only a few minutes later I realised that I had been speaking to Lemn Sissay, the Chancellor of the University of Manchester.  To be fair, the gold necklace with the word ‘Lemn’ round his neck should have given that away.

As the audience returned to the room, we were then treated to a video of different people saying the words to the song 'Hello' by Adele.  After that completely weird and random moment, we delved right into the world of engineering, courtesy of Danielle George.

Oh my gosh, Danielle was bright.  She said she believed that everyone was born a scientist.  Those that question 'why' grow up to be scientists. And those that ask 'how' are engineers.

Danielle then went on to explain that she uses radiowaves to engineer scientific discovery…

… after 30 seconds of not understanding what was being said, yet understanding that the subject content had gone completely way over my head, I heard the fact that 2.8 BILLION people in the world are without water and Danielle was working on a way to solve that crisis.  To do this (bear with me here) she uses RFID technology in the form of nodes buried into soil and a RFID reader on a tractor which takes measurements and tells you what you need to do with the soil to make it arable for crops. RFID stands for 'radio frequency identification'. She explained that RFID was being used in public buildings to guide blind people to braille signs using apps from the second they walk through the door. That sounded amazing.


Danielle then talked about a supadupa (technical term supplied by me there) ‘ska’, a square kilometre array, which is a telescope 50 times more sensitive than any other instrument.  The dishes of this telescope alone will generate over ten times the amount of global internet traffic and will be used to explore further into space.  Admirably, Danielle explained she had stayed in an academic career (although also does research) so that she can help to inspire the next generation of engineers and get more people interested in it as a career.

Thankful that my brain cells no longer had to use my limited scientific knowledge anymore, we were then introduced to Ed Carter who showed us how architecture and music is linked.  He encouraged us to look at buildings and see how we can play music from them, and vice versa.  He showed us, using scientific measurements, how we can play a composition using the Lowry buildings.  I can’t say this is something I will ever consider using in my day-to-day life, but it will definitely challenge my thinking on what constitutes a piece of architecture.


Next up was my new found friend Lemn Sissay, the newly elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester.  He even got a cheer when he came onto the stage.  I had no idea what to expect, but I prayed he did not fall over in his lime green trainers, or drop my business card. He started to tell us what he called a 'love poem' in honour of Valentine’s Day but then seemed to go off on a tangent about process, and bureaucracy, funding, and criteria.  Then we got onto a discussion about race, and how he is not black, but a human being, unless he is applying for funding (which got a lot of laughs) and then he questioned why people say they don’t see colour when they say it when they actually do see colour.


He talked briefly about being fostered as a child, and how he was called ‘Norman’.  As a black speaker with a huge head of afro hair you can see why this is [sadly] funny but from his discussion it became evident that he was in care for most of his childhood.  He then went on to talk about racism and how it is learned behaviour, not something we are born with, and how everyone should get together and all be racist together, and kick the s*it out of each other then have group hugs.  This got a lot of laughs.

Lemn treated us to the poem 'invisible kisses' which merged into a poem referencing Martin Luther King.  It kind of had me in awe.  It was such a passionate retelling.  Lemn used his entire body to eject the words out at us.  He spoke with a steady rhythm, which verged on the use of a hip hop beat, and then he forced out the words which seemed trapped behind his teeth.  His head shook.  Lemn’s entire body bent over double at least twice.  He convulsed on stage.  I would even go as far to say that if you did not realise he was reciting poetry, you would think he was demonically possessed.  Someone in the audience laughed out loud.  I was transfixed, amazed at the complete and utter confidence of creativity being shown on stage.  The final seconds were of complete silence.  Lemn came to an abrupt stop on the stage and EVERYONE stared.  And then he simply said, 'thanks.'

It was clever. It defied convention. I liked it.

The final act was a 19 year old girl, Yandass Ndlovu, who was billed as a performer.  Yandass had a natural talent for speaking to an audience, and she was instantly likeable because of her youth and passion for what she did.  Her shoelaces kept coming undone and she stopped to retie them, but this made her oddly, even more likeable.  She is a born dancer.  Completely self-taught, Yandass can dance a variety of styles simply because she lives and breathes dance.  It is evident the second she appears on stage that she is an athlete because she looks so superfit.  Her facial expressions shows she believes in every single dance move.  I always remember, as a Michael Jackson fan, an interview with him where he said that to learn to dance, you had to listen to the beat of the song and dance with your heart.  This is what Yandass does.


The conference ended on a high, with a room still packed full of people. Would I go again? Definitely.  It’s never just about the people you meet on stage, it’s about the people in the audience too, and what you can learn from them! Thanks so much to TEDx  Manchester organisers and HOME for hosting the superbly organised event!

Follow me @JWilbyPalmer

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Haunted II - An Example of My Work


Stephen Fry loved, and hated that photo. It was a photo that showed him everything he had had, and everything he had lost.   

The effervescent Mrs. Fry, a Hollywood glimpse of white teeth gleaming at the camera, her laugh partially captured; limbs smothered by his arms.  He looked handsome in that photo; strands of afro brown hair flopping over his eyes, their legs intertwined, a moment of togetherness captured in a two dimensional square, now treasured on a marble mantelpiece over a worn out fireplace.

Julia had been dead for nine months, three days, 11 hours and 53 minutes. 

His hair was no longer brown; since Julia’s passing, greyness had stealthily crept like a disease through wisps of his stubbly beard and rooted itself in the ends of his eyebrows. 

Stephen sighed. People had suggested he find someone to talk to following his wife’s unexpected death, but he did not need a shrink to tell him what he already knew.  Loneliness scavenged away at his life.  It hung heavy in his stomach, fattening out his paunch and deepening the lines encasing his face.  Everything had changed since she had gone.

Movement at the end of the kitchen caught his attention.

‘Come on then, Duke.’

Slinking along the table, Duke gently head-butted Stephen’s cheek, and his tail brushed against the gold gilded photo frame.

‘At least I’ve still got you, Duke.’

Stephen wiped away a stray tabby-brown cat hair from the glass covering Julia’s face.  He watched as the tip of his thumb blotted out her smile.

A chime interrupted his thoughts.

‘Six o’clock already, Duke.’

With his thumbnail, Stephen scraped at a groove in the oak kitchen table.  He thought of the old oak tree he had chopped down last year and how he had admired the dendrochronology within the trunk.  That tree had been in his garden for generations, yet here was his old oak table which had been around for a lot less, but which he treasured so much more.  His Julia used to lean against it, sipping coffee every morning.

‘Perhaps you left me some DNA before you died, Julia.’

Or perhaps despite not being able to see her, he just had to believe that she was there.  

His nail snagged a piece of wood, and he stopped his scratching. The old boiler pipes creaked and groaned, as if the stone encasing them had become too heavy.   

Pushing his chair against the floor, Stephen steadied himself.  He stared at his whiskey glass.  

Empty.

‘I’m out, Duke.  Some more?’

The cat gave him a look that only other cats knew how to interpret.

‘That’s a yes then,’ he said, softly, reaching into the cupboard next to the fireplace.

Pouring whiskey into his crystal cut glass, he did not bother to admire the golden jewelled liquid.  Gold suggested wealth and prosperity – and despite whiskey always being in plentiful supply in his house, he had long ago accepted it had become a consolation prize for living.

His chair squeaked as he returned to his sitting position, as if giving a voice to the pain in his lower back.  No amount of alcohol could hide the aging brittleness of his bones, and the inability to stay seated in the same place for more than a few hours.

Trying not to make eye contact with Duke’s watchful eyes, Stephen moaned as he stood.  He lifted his arms in the air.

‘Ahhh, that’s better, Duke.’

Patting the table for his drink, his fingertips located the whiskey and with one hand reaching ahead, he took a lunge through the kitchen door and into the main hall.

The grandeur of the main hall had long ago been forgotten by Stephen.  It was only when a passing salesman or Jehovah’s Witness came calling, did he get reminded of how impressive Droylsden Manor appeared to others.  On the rare occasions when he could be bothered to answer the door to strangers, he often found distracted gasps of awe when they saw the grand stone fireplace surrounded by intricately carved pairs of animals in wood careening toward the ceiling.  They inevitably wanted to come inside to see more; the curved rich mahogany staircase glided up one side of the wall, luxurious heavy red rugs decked out the stone floor, and portraits of his ancestors hung on the dark wood panelled walls.

He never let anyone inside now.  The Manor had been in his family for generations, but now it was just him.  Everyone who got a glimpse inside never saw the things he did.  The crumbling walls, the leaky roof, the mishmash of history muddled together and caught somewhere between medieval and religious stories from long ago.

The visitors that really amused him were the film directors, always wanting a new location for their next horror film. 

Oooh, just imagine Mr. Fry, your house could be next on the big screen, imagine what it would do for the property value if some big Hollywood star worked here for a few weeks!

Stephen always shut the door in their faces. 

The funny thing is, all the talk of ghosts and ghouls in a haunted house was supposed to be fictitious.  

These film directors who came by wanting to use his house had absolutely no idea about the rumours.  It had been a secret in his family for generations. 

Stephen had never told anyone the truth.  No one had ever stayed in the house on All Hallow’s Eve. No one. No one had dared.  It was one of those family secrets which had been passed down until no one could remember who had said it in the first place, but then no one wanted to test the theory.  His Grandfather had once told him about an Uncle going mad after staying in the house one Halloween, but he suspected this was a story made up to frighten a schoolboy.  There was no evidence of such an Uncle – he knew – he had checked all the medical records. 

But he had never stayed in the house on Halloween before.  He had never tested the theory that the house came alive on 31st October.

True, there had been a time as a boy when his parents had tried to take him on a visit to family in Whitby but he had forgotten his new remote controlled helicopter. Despite his parents’ protestations he had run out of the car and back into the house. It was the coldness that had struck him first, but before he had had a chance to look, his Dad had literally dragged him by the neck and marched him back to the car.  At first he told himself that maybe the heating had been switched off, but it had been the look on his Dad’s face that told him everything he needed to know.  That was the day he had seen fear.

But that was then and this was now and he no longer had anyone.  All he had, or did have, was his Julia.  With Julia gone, perhaps his only way to combat this unhappiness was to see her one last time.  To ask her why she left; and why she had to go. To get closure.

Stephen took a glimpse through the window.  Dusk had reclaimed the outside, stealing away the remnants of the day.  The lights inside the house gleamed brightly, shining truth into any hidden corner, or darkened cubbyhole.  He had already moved most of the furniture against the walls, there was no hiding here.  Even a power cut would not stop the light; he had two torches as back up, although he had resisted lighting candles as he found them too eerie. 

He had checked both torches multiple times but still could not resist the urge to check again.

‘On off. On off.’

The old Grandfather clock chimed a tuneless half note – six thirty. 

Stephen walked toward the window overlooking the drive.  Leaning against the wall, he stared out into the oncoming night, ignoring his reflection in the window panes.  He tried not to look too close – he knew all about faces appearing in the reflection of window panes in horror movies, and he was not going to be caught out by that. 

He could almost sense his ancestors screaming at him to get out the house.  He sipped at his whiskey and tried to take pleasure in surveying his grounds.  It had started to snow.  Wisps of whiteness glided from the darkness, alighting on his concrete driveway.  Illuminating the ground, the flakes folded crumpled and in unison, taking away the minute detail of his outdoor flowerbeds into something more subtle and mono.

A flicker in the distance grabbed his attention.

‘Trick or treaters.’

Stephen smiled to himself.  The kids in the neighbourhood always dared each other to come up the driveway to his house.  The rumours about the grand mansion were well known and it was considered a rite of passage into adulthood if you were able to walk the driveway and ring the front doorbell on Halloween.  He had stopped putting signs up years ago warning them to stay away.  It just made their challenge all the more exciting.    

A cool draft rattled the windowpane and Stephen took a step back.  He didn’t want to be seen by the outside world tonight. 

Nevertheless, he could see the torchlights congregating at the bottom of his driveway.  That was the problem with having all the lights on inside the house; everyone knew he was home. 

The Grandfather clock chimed seven o’clock.

He looked at his glass, it was nearly empty.

‘Best get a top up before the kids arrive…’

Sighing, he started to make his way toward the kitchen, but the shrill ring of his doorbell stopped him.

Perhaps it was best to get rid of them.

The heavy oak door seemed to shudder with age under his grip.  The brass door knob was always cold, but tonight it seemed colder.

‘Look kids…’

There was no one there.

‘Hello?’

Stephen peered around the concrete pillars on the forecourt of his porch. 

There was definitely no one there.

The snow had started to fall a little heavier, and Stephen ventured out.

Gosh it was cold.

Wrapping his arms into his chest, his hunched up body strode along the porch toward the driveway.  

Stephen squinted at his gated entrance.

He thought he spotted something moving near the bottom of the drive. 

Cool air stung his lungs. 

There were footsteps on the driveway.

Fresh impressions, side by side, trailed next to his frozen flowers.  What was not so clear was where they had come from.  The prints seemed to have appeared from the middle of his driveway, etching black grooves into the snow.

Stephen’s eyes followed the trail. 

Sweat settled above his top lip. Both pairs of footsteps stopped on the bottom of his porch. 

They had stopped, at the entrance to his house. 

‘Hello?’

His voice sounded dry.

‘Hello?  Is anybody there?’

Venturing back toward his front door, he could see the soft furnishings of his red armchairs against the walls inside the main entrance hall.  Taking a few tentative steps, he spotted the familiar portraits of his parents pinned to the wall.  Everything was bathed in an orange glow. 

His fingers tingled.  He longed for the warmth.  But more importantly, he longed to see Julia.

‘Come on, Stephen, get a grip.  Probably just some kids messing you about.’

He looked at the footprints again.  They had nearly disappeared.  

Entering the house, he did a quick survey.  Nothing seemed amiss.

With his back to the door, he nudged the door closed with his right foot. He listened for the click confirming the shut door.

And then everything went black.

‘CHRIST!’

Flinging his body against the door, Stephen’s spine moulded itself against the wood. But his legs trembled so much so, that he slid to the floor. He could hear his breaths, one after the other, in quick succession. 

‘Calm down calm down calm down calm down calm down…’

Perhaps this was not such a good idea after all.  Why had he decided to do this?  Everyone knew it was forbidden.  From a young age it had been ingrained into him – you hold someone’s hand when crossing the road, you don’t talk to strangers, and you definitely do not stay at Droylsden Manor on All Hallow’s Eve.

He allowed his hand to venture out into the darkness.  His fingers crawled along the grooves of the door, and he reached for the door knob.  He had to get out.

‘Damn damn damn damn damn…’

Grabbing the metal, he tried to yank it open but before he could even register this fact, blinding pain shot down his arm.

Stephen sucked in his bottom lip in an attempt not to cry out.

A freezing imprint of ribbed iron had been left on the palm of his hand, the smooth burn taut and shiny on his skin.

‘Okay okay okay… so you’re not getting out of this just yet…’

His breathing told him he was terrified.

‘Stay calm stay calm… come on Stephen, calm it down…’

He tried hard to think.  His mind blurred by alcohol, he forced his mind to remember where he had left his torch.

On the table by the front door. On the table by the front door! Yes!

Slowly, he moved from his crouched position and with his hands held out in front of him, he stretched into the darkness.

Within seconds, he had located the table.

‘Oh thank you God, thank you thank you…’

His face fell as his injured hand brushed against the plastic tubular torch.

It clattered to the pine flooring.

The noise seemed to echo through every door in the building.  Stephen could have sworn that the walls vibrated.  Could he have been any louder?

Dropping to the floor, he reached under the table, allowing his injured hand to pat in a wide circular motion.

Success!

He did not care how much it hurt to hold onto the torch with his burned hand; all he cared was that he had the thing, and that it was not broken.

But then something touched his leg.

His scream lasted perhaps two seconds. 

He could not move.  Fear had paralysed him.  His arms clung around his leg.  Something had touched his calf.  Something solid.  He felt like crying.  He knew his eyes were wide open.  All the courage gained from the alcohol seemed to have left his body. Sweat slid down the back of his neck. 

He wanted to put the light on, but he was too scared of what he might see.

Aware that his breathing seemed so loud in the emptiness of the blackness he placed his forehead on his knees.  The table leg dug into his back, but he did not care.  He had to calm down, or he feared passing out.

Tears brimmed on his eyelashes. At first he thought the growling sound was coming from him, but then he realised it wasn’t.

His breathing stopped.  He strained to hear. 

The low rumble sounded some distance away, and he was thankful for that.  The rumble grew into more of a cry, and then he smiled.  He recognised that sound!

‘Duke!’

Perhaps it had been Duke who had touched him!

With shaking hands, he fumbled for the torch.  He had to see. 

The brightness cut into the blackness.

‘Duke, it’s okay…’

He could hear his cat hissing inbetween guttural growls.  Venturing from under the table, Stephen tried to steady the torch light.

There he was. By the fireplace.

Pinpointing the light onto his cat, he clung to the torch. 

Duke was terrified.  His claws dug into the pine flooring, and the fur on his back was so high it looked like pin pricks.  Bushy-tailed, Duke bared his fangs, hissing and growling.  But what scared Stephen was the fact that Duke’s eyes were wide and fixated on empty space ahead of him.  There was nothing there. 

‘Duke!’

Stephen tried to gain his companion’s attention, but Duke paid him no attention.  Stephen watched transfixed as Duke retreated backwards, as if he was being forced to move by some unseen force. 

Stephen jumped.  With a howl, Duke scarpered.

‘Duke, DUKE!’ Stephen whispered, his voice sounding harsh.

Sweeping the torchlight across the entrance hall, Stephen looked worriedly for his feline friend.  There was no sign of him.  He checked the corners of the room with the beam, even the inside of the fireplace, and then finally, the stairs.

There was someone standing on the staircase.

Stephen switched off the torch.  His fear was now complete.  There was someone standing on the stairs.  He knew it was not his Julia.  There was someone standing on the stairs. This was a man.  A dark shadow of a man.

Stephen did not care anymore.  He was at the point he had often reached in nightmares – when the fear was so much he just wanted it to end. 

The soft chime of the Grandfather clock interrupted the stillness.  Nine o’clock.

He would wait.  Stephen decided that he would wait.  There was no way he was going to move from this spot.  He was going to wait for whatever that thing on the stairs was, to go, to leave him.  Or… come to him… but that was not worth thinking about.

Stephen tried not to think about being watched.  Of course the man knew where he was, but Stephen was so scared, he was riveted to the spot.  Fear had seized his bones.  Nothing moved.  Adrenaline surged through his veins, sweat still bled from every crevice of his body.  It pooled on his stomach. 

Stephen was going to wait until morning.  The curtains were open.  The sunlight would make everything okay.

Ten o’clock.

He wondered what had happened to Duke.  Was he okay?  Then he thought of Julia.  There was no way she was here in this house with that thing on the stairs.  If she was here, he would have known by now.  All he could feel was the coldness coming off that thing on the stairs. 

Eleven o’clock.  Even the chiming of the clock sounded more heavy and oppressive.

Once he got past midnight, it would be okay.  Stephen felt sure of it.  His body shook.  Cold sweat caused goosepimples to rise on his arms.

A single chime signalled eleven thirty.

Thirty minutes to go.

Steeeepheeeen.

CHRIST! What was that?

Steeeeeepheeen…

Julia?

Squinting in the darkness, Stephen thought he saw a light.

Was it Julia?

Perhaps he should wait.

Steeepheeen…

But then he remembered his Julia.  He remembered the little things.  The way she had tucked her chestnut coloured hair behind her ear.  The way she always stirred her cup of coffee in a clockwise direction three times.  The way she always kissed him at 8.35am and at 7.15pm, just the way he liked it.

‘I’m coming Julia.’

Flicking on the torch, a beam of light lit the way to the stairs.  Daring with all his strength, he ventured the light upwards and with a sigh, he saw that the staircase was empty.

‘Steeeepheen…’

Gripping the table lip, he pulled himself to his feet, trying not to cry out at the pain in his knees.  His Julia was here, and he had to see her.

Limping, he dragged his legs to the stairs, trying to ignore his heavy feet.

Hand on the bannister, he raised his foot up and looked.

Nothing.  Staircase was still clear.

‘Steeepheen….’

He saw a white light, like a floating star, drift in the doorway of one of the bedrooms off the landing.  

He could not believe it.  His Julia was really here.

‘I’m coming my lovely, I’m coming!’

Amazed at his own braveness, he quickened his steps to the landing.

Then the light disappeared.

Stephen clung to the banister.

‘Julia?’

His voice faded.

Then there, in the black stillness, he saw a figure emerge. At first the lines of a silvery silhouette appeared, curved and delicate.

‘Julia!’

He recognised her.  The wavy hair, her dark blue eyes, her silk nightdress, clinging to her body down to her knees.

She smiled. 

‘Oh, Julia…’

Tears trickled down his cheeks.  He raised his hand to her, his shoulders a shivering judder.

Arms outstretched, he sensed her presence, the smell of her Dior perfume wafted over  him.

‘I’ve missed you so much, Julia.’

And as he let himself rejoice in the reverie of their meeting again, Stephen Fry’s imagined words from his Julia at their reunion were not forthcoming.

Instead, there were no words.  Just one, almighty, push.

When clearing the first three steps, all Stephen could think of was the ‘o’-shaped circle of his mouth.

Knowing he was going to hit steps four, five and six, he waved his arms like a drowning swimmer but nothing could stop his spine from hitting the edged wooden steps.

There was a sound, like splintering wood, but Stephen knew it was not wood.

Giving in to his fate halfway down the stairs came as a relief.  So this was how it would end.

And it wasn’t until his battered body started to crumple into the bottom of the stairs, did he really start to understand why she had done it.

The lies.

The obsession.

His grief which blinded his guilt.

And his rage. His never ending rage that he had failed to control the day his Julia had died.

He could see his Julia more clearly now.  The sadness in her eyes was more apparent. But he saw something else.  His anger was now part of her.

And as her lifeless spirit made its way to meet his as it left his incapacitated body, he saw something else behind Julia which forced the last few beats of his heart to peter out into stillness.

The dark shadow of a man, he recognised as the man from the staircase, the man who came out once a year to haunt this house and plague the unfortunate souls who dared to remain in it on All Hallow’ Eve.  And he was grinning.