Welcome to the World.

Arianthe was born late Thursday afternoon, unfortunately soon after being discharged my older sister Sophie and her husband Dom had to return to the Royal Sussex Hospital. Their new born daughter wasn’t feeding properly and so a few nervous days of observation, antibiotics and a bed side vigil on her parents part followed. It was a worrying turn, but to get a text from my brother-in-law asking me to come to the children’s ward to meet my new niece was a real relief. I rightly assumed being invited up was a positive sign of her improvement.

Next Morning was Sunday, Kol and I arrived at the Royal Sussex around eleven. After soliciting much-needed directions from the lady behind the tea and coffee counter we began our way through the various levels to find the children’s ward. The Royal Sussex is a Victorian hospital surrounded by subsequent construction. Consecutive generations have consolidated Brighton’s Health care structures until today one super Hospital sprawls up the hillside in ranks of high-rises. Visitors being led through a circuit of winding corridors, narrow staircases and confined outdoor spaces.

Not long into my attempt to find Arianthe’s ward I emerged into one such outdoor space, little more than a back yard between two buildings. Passing under the stained glass windows of the Chaplin’s chapel I began to climb a set of concrete stairs at the back of the old hospital which rise up aside an untended, easily ignored, border of soil, only a few feet wide at most, knitted over by brambles and flowerless weeds.

The reason I mention this is that I have been to this hospital a number of times over the last few years and the last occasion I climbed this particular distinctive stair way was to visit my Nan a year and a half ago. She had suffered a fall the day before and having been at her home when she tripped I joined her in the ambulance. I stayed beside her long into the night and returned the next day taking this same route to visit her before the operation scheduled for later that afternoon. I had no idea at that moment but it would be the last time I would see her alive. The woman that had done more than anyone in the world to support me through my life and who would leave an immeasurable void once she left us would not survive the operation.

It was a late winters day eighteen months ago when I last climbed the cement stairs. For what its worth I remember seeing an early growing daffodil piecing through the frost-bitten brambles beside the steps. At that time it was a welcome reminder that the cold months were drawing to a close. Now the daffodils were gone, the bulbs no doubt secure in the soil still but seeing where it grew I thought of Nan, how sudden it had all been, how unfair and crushing it had been to lose her in this building. But now I was retracing that path with a fresh hope, to meet a new life this hospital had brought safe into the world,

Fate as it reveals itself sometimes appears to have a synchronism about it. No more planned than any flash of a shooting star on a clear night, or the brief glimpse of a wild creature seen through the tree line on a long journey. A synchronicity random in nature yet no less welcome for it. This was one of those days climbing stairs I had last climbed to say goodbye to one Mary, re-climbed again, only now to say hello to a new-born Arianthe Sophie Mary, baring the same name and carrying some of the same blood in her heart as her great-grandmother.

She was sleeping as we arrived. Sophie and Dom both had an injured look about them. They had passed through a testing and incredibly tough few days in many respects. Saying that, Soph still seemed well presented considering but Dom was paler and tired out. Arianthe was through her first few days but after nine months of relative peace and quiet she had emerged squinting, making out for the first time the unfamiliar people and objects that filled the world around her. She lay sound asleep on a large hospital cot. Its blue metallic sides lowered, her tiny hands and head covered in woollen mitts and hat, only her face tucked out from her colourful covers, aside two floppy eared toys her little cousins had brought to her a day earlier.

Sophie was in need of a much-needed break. The plan was for her and Dom to get some hot food somewhere, leaving Kol and I in charge for a few hours in-between feeds. After they had gone Arianthe awoke giving Kol and I the chance to hold her.  I made the point of looking out of the window with her in my arms, her whole head cradled comfortably in my hand.

The panoramic view from the ninth floor is a impressive one, better than a penthouse suit at the grand. Trying to avoid getting the summer sunlight on her pale, almost transparent skin, we looked out together. Inspecting the gathering glimmering rooftops, apartments, flowering balconies, the crowns of trees and obsolete chimney pots.

Down on the flat roofs there were seagulls nursing their own young aside the sky lights and ash felt. The open mouth of Brighton marina lay some way to the east. Single sail yachts tacked out into the channel. Into a Dalmatian sea, where potholes of dark green shadow poker dotted unto the horizon before them. The two very different piers lay to the west. One full of Sunday sight-sears, the other no more than a dramatic steel perch for the pigeons. Down through the narrow streets I could see a small section of beach front, the waves being driven in puffs of sea spray up into the air, anoracked onlookers leaning into the wind as they walked.

Arianthe drifted from extreme yoga limb stretching to more comical facial exercises, like an actor in a silent movie she worked her way through countless expressions. As beautiful as she is, her new-born mannerisms mirrored those of my late grandfather. He would slump over as he slid into a peaceful sleep, a tilted head lowering to rest on a collar bone, a lower lip protruding far in front of his upper jaw. A comfortable sleep enjoyed after a few moments of stillness. Sleep and waking being a behaviour loop passing the lion share of his day. As I sat down with her she stared intently at my features. This appears to be number one on a babies ‘to do’ list, exercising her facial recognition bio-technology, making some sense of the subtle movements that make a smile different from a frown.

I have no idea what constitutes conscious and when confronted by a child as young as she is there is a powerful the sense of her beginning a great journey. Billions of atoms have come together and constructed her. Individually each are old, born of the big bang and countless subsequent supernovas, atoms that spent tens of millions of years inside stars that lived and died billions of years ago. Yet in her all is new, each particle pulsing afresh again. Perfectly joined in a manor still too complex for mankind to fully comprehend in order to bring conscious somehow into reality. I could think of all things she would see and do? What people, places, occasions would she meet along her life’s course? I thought of the children of children whom she may hold long after I have gone. The Years of growth and education under a watchful parental wing, the childhood, adulthood, even god willing her old age.

At this point while I entertained thoughts of the complexities of what makes us what we are she brought an end to my pondering by braking wind, loudly and while staring right at me. I could just imagine her father saying ‘that’s my girl, popping your uncles’ pompous bubble on queue’. Kol and I smiled while Arianthe squinted at bit, yawned and then rested untroubled.

As her mother’s little brother I hope she got the volume of her mum’s genome that contains her bloody minded nature. I’ve always thought it was one of Sophie’s strongest and most admirable traits. She has a lot more, kindness, intelligence, loyalty, having a dashing younger brother being another but being head strong stands out. Its  allowed her to achieve great things. I’ve always been proud of her achievements, currently she is finishing her PHD at Sussex Uni and she’s already raised two small boys while in the process of her studies. Hopefully Arianthe will grow up to share those welcome traits but who am I to say, at this point it was just a pleasure to meet her. My role will probably continue to be the sometime sentimental, eccentric Uncle. While my sisters’ get on with the tireless and fairly thankless task of raising a family. The endless late nights, the years of self-sacrifice that pass unmeasured. This is their job and for now I can be thankful to be a small part in their children’s lives (even if I feel they are a big part of mine).

Dom got the best Father’s day gift he could wish for and I got to introduce myself to Arianthe Sophie Mary, not that she will remember it. Her hands no greater in width than an acorn shell at this moment holds a world and all it offers within them.

Welcome to the world Kido.


How not to see the Jubilee.

Despite gloomy predictions by the weather forecasters the sun had arrived over Brighton, navigating its way between the islands of cloud above the platform as Kol and I waited for the train. Soon after leaving for London however dotted streaks of rain appeared on the carriage window. The weather was beginning to take an unpleasant turn. Not since Princess Diana’s funeral fifteen years ago has unbroken sunshine attended a British affair of state. The national celebrations performed through the streets of (or in this case the river that segments) London stay rooted in tradition and unfortunately for the long-planned jubilee pageant today’s weather was turning out to be as traditionally British as beef eaters, cricket greens and riotous teenagers.

On the outskirts of Brighton we past the occasional union jack, tied to a door frame or sello-taped on the inside of a bedroom window, welcome reminders of why we were northward bound. A damp cellar smell came rushing into the carriage through the many open windows when the train bolted through one of the long tunnels that cut through the downland hills. A distinctive smell of old brickwork and dampness prompting thoughts of the men that built the railway we were travelling on. The ‘Navvies’ as they were known dug out by pick ‘n’ shovel the deep sidings and warren of tunnels enabling the speeding commuters to pass from coast to capital. A suitable subject for day dreaming as these were industrious men of Victoria’s reign and she was the only other queen to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee like the one we were hoping to take part in. As was the station we had just left at Brighton, another lasting memorable to her inventive subjects. Isles of iron, steel riveted arches topping off slender Gothic Pillars. A frame that echoes the construction methods of an Anglo-Saxon manor house made of oak  more closely than anything constructed in post war England and before long we would arrive at our destination to witness what Queen Elizabeth’s own industrious subjects had created for her in comparison a century after Victoria’s Diamond jubilee .

By steam, sweat and sail a thousand crafts were primed to pass through the heart of London, from Battersea power station to Tower Bridge. A chandelier of ships with the diamond queen at its head upon the ‘royal barge’. A promising sight for all those descending on the Capital. Kol (pictured above) and I decided we couldn’t deprive the Queen of our company and so at the last-minute we jumped on a train heading North in the hope of finding a dry spot on the river bank to watch, wave and whistle from.

We arrived at London bridge station around two thirty greeted by the sound of passing police sirens in the distance. It didn’t help our cause that like an ill-informed tourist I had confused London Bridge with Tower bridge and arrived some way off from our desired location but it wouldn’t matter we were near enough to see the flotilla pass as long as we could reach the near by river bank soon. Leaving the train terminal passing relaxed groups of police and optimistic picnickers clutching carrier bags of sandwiches and soft drinks I brought a union Jack flag off a man selling them at the entrance for two-pound. Later I realised the flag had the logo of ‘Hello’ magazine emblazoned in the centre and was probably a free give away with the publication, a free give away I’d just paid ‘dell-boy’ two pound for.

I asked a young guy stood by the side of the road ‘which way to the river?’ He pointed over my shoulder to the vast mass of union jack clad sightseers all going in one direction and said ‘I guess it’s that way’. We started a confident march to the river bank which slowed to a shuffle as soon as Kol and I ran into the back of the masses heading in the same direction. We clearly weren’t alone in our wish to wave at the water bound sovereign, thousands were now edging up the pavements in front, behind and beside to the bottleneck of London Bridge. Chinese tourists, laughing lads with beer cans, bus pass pensioners, mothers with kids, fathers with kids, mums and dads without kids but most with flags.

Forward planning and an early start were essential if we had any chance of seeing today’s festivities and we’d done neither yet I remained optimistic that despite worsening weather and impassable crowds we’d find some unexplored crevice of the south bank to find purchase on. Our steady advance on the river was going well until hitting the buffers in the form of fluorescent jacketed party-poopers otherwise known as ‘Crowd safety and control officers’. Unsportsmanlike blocking off the way forward, forming lines baring the approaches to the river banks, blocking our path batting away the advancing sightseers like luminescent Legionaries.

Realising that we weren’t going to get any closer and still seeing no more than the back of a lot of peoples heads I decided to attempt to out fox the authorities by going further along the water way to an access point the men in night glow jackets would not have closed. Firmly gripping Kol’s hand and dragging her behind me through the crowded street we doubled back along the alleys a joining the Thames, all the while listening to the bell’s of Southwark cathedral ringing out atmospherically over head.

Despite my optimism a pattern soon emerged, all roads leading to the river were closed. The authorities had taken the decision that at an arbitrary time all lanes, alleys, back streets and cut troughs would be closed to new comers and no-one would be able to talk their way pass the officials blocking the way. Time and again we prodded the various avenues to find a point of weakness. It was all the more frustrating as I could hear the crowds cheering as the flotilla was passing. All we wanted was to say we had seen the Queen on her Jubilee, not through the T.V or on a commemorative T towel but for real.

Crowds at the river bank were free to leave but none were free to return. If I’d had a little more local knowledge at hand perhaps I would have been able to blagg our way through, inventing a convenient ‘Uncle Angus’ at twenty-two ‘some where close to the river street’ that I had an urgent appointment with but the lines of increasingly annoying ‘Public safety and crowd control officers’ (their title emblazoned on their high viz jackets just to remind us all how important they were) weren’t buying it.

By now the rain had turned from tolerable to the torrential. Cold water turning pavements to seas of muck’n’puddles, gargling gutters and abandoned Union Jacks. Time and again we tried and time and again we failed, with all the determination of a fly speeding head first at a pane of glass for the hundredth occasion. Despite the fact we could see swarms of people filing homeward early due to the awful conditions the authorities still refused to let any one through to the now emptying view points.

I heard the defeated pleas of many Nations as we trudged back and forth. The Police, the weather and the depressing nature of the south banks concrete structures sending Germans, Irish, Americans, French and many other nationalities reeling for cover and warmth. I overheard an American girl complaining she’d have been better to of stayed at home and another demoralised tourist agreeing it was time to leave  and who could blame them.

We passed a coffee shop that had television coverage on a screen in the corner and at the risk of con-seeding defeat we sat down on the outside seating of wet chrome chairs. Huddling under the brolly I couldn’t hear the sound but it was actually a relief to see something of the river festivities. ‘Well at least they can’t stop us from seeing the boats on the TV I thought’, at which point a member of the bar staff on the other side of the window turned the TV off perhaps realising it was attracting a steady flow of miserable looking pedestrians to leer like zombies through the glass and putting their paying customers off their Sunday afternoon nibbles.

Moving on frustrated but refusing to give up. We hadn’t come all this way to not even see enough of the river to fill a bed pan. Persevering, increasingly cold, wet and weary, lunging puddles, the remaining nomadic bands of frustrated tourists trudged back and forth from one dead-end to another.I couldn’t help feel sad for the Queen more than anyone else. This event was so long in the planning and meant so much to her yet it was hard to imagine a worse set of meteorological charts to of engulfed England in June. With no relenting of the terrible conditions even the recently completed ‘shard’ sky scraper which would have made a magnificent backdrop to the armada of little ships was now impaled on the low cloud, its upper floors lost in the mist.

Eventually we returned to the spot we had started from at the southern end of London Bridge and began to head over it in one presumably futile final attempt to see the river and what remained of the flotilla. We approached the luminescent officials that had bared our way all day, down to our last round.

Instead of a frontal assault I tried a classic outflanking move. Avoiding eye contact we kept moving. Glancing to my left the few remaining guards briefly stopping one other couple but with amazement we were able to slip successfully around them. Kol unfurled a soggy ‘Hello magazine’ Union Jack as we crossed through the barriers and finding with the tune of the British Grenadier in mind we lifted our chins and headed forward until the river and a great number of craft lay before us.

When centred on the causeway oft in the distance there was the river running benignly under our feet, its banks cloaked in cloud, the many vantage points along the Thames like stands at Lords cricket ground when play is abandoned for the day, leaving rows of plastic seating empty. We and a few other cagouled onlookers of all ages and nationalities had made it. I unknowingly stood with two feet in a puddle over a blocked drain and we watched a sizeable number of the flotilla pass. The pipe of the steamer docked near us blowing its horn and distantly too far to see must have been the Queen watching the barges with the rest of the royal family.

Who could do what she has done? Politics aside the Queen is something remarkable. It could be said she’s a living representation of the medieval despots that led and bled the British Isles for their own ends. But then we’ve all got ancestors that did pretty good and pretty bad deeds and all institutions of state have evolved over the centuries. Instead think of her devotion to a nation, taking on the role, then dedicating her life to it.

Perhaps in the greater scheme of things Royalty is an illusion. A power hangover from the past but isn’t all power illusionary? Those with big bank balances, those with political axes to grind, don’t they all end on a power trip. Liking to be seen as important, a breed apart. At least monarchy is an obvious slap in the face illusion, filled with contradictions fairly easy to ridicule, power at the end of a tickle stick. The power of money in the hands of invisible men on ego trips is the illusion that’s harder to see. At least in Britain we make our elites float down rivers in the rain, putting on funny costumes and interbreed with each other to the point of cruelty.

Well the Queen didn’t deserve the rain in my mind, nor did the street parties and the old dears camped out all night to see her but it’s a reminder whose the real boss. Our monarch may have reined for sixty years but the British rain has been around a lot longer and will outlast the lot of us. Wetting heads of state for as long as we have them. The scene on the streets was like Bugsy Malone’s grand crescendo at the end of the movie, when all the characters end head to toe in custard cream. The good guys, the bad guys and all in between reduced to the same mucky mess.

Around us were the remnants of the thronging crowd from earlier in the day, a soggy union jack tied around an old ladies neck, a man in a bowler hat, waterproofed families and children in prams, flags painted on faces, the colours running down cheeks, a girl with British flag high heels on regretting her choice of footwear and the occasional impeccably dressed dignitary, a few medals swinging from his chests who evidently hadn’t seen a drop of rain all day.

Lack of planning, being late, arriving without knowing where we were going, characterised my Jubilee experience, a cock-tale bound to end badly but I have never found London such an unwelcoming host, even the weather was firmly Cromwellian. I know the organisers must give order at such events but I wonder if the Queen will ever realise how many people who came to see her left  despondent due to over zealous crowd control. When the sun shines London’s brutal twentieth century architecture is tolerable but on Sunday 5th of June London seemed remorsefully ugly. Eastern European tenements are more endearing than the avenues of concrete and plate glass not because they are that ugly but due to the fact that they were constructed on an ancient earth that once held far greater wonders now lost.

To see today’s London is like walking through a museum where the remaining islands of elegant structures are separated by cold cases of steel and glass, islands of objects removed from their meaning and history by the sterile surroundings. If the weather is on your side then you can forgive post war planning on route to the next attention grabbing attraction, finding a small oasis of greenery to rest upon, to soak up the sunlight but on jubilee Sunday there was nowhere to hide. The Nazi’s may have demolished old London but in my opinion it was the English architects infatuation for modernism that destroyed it.

Rants about town planning aside we caught the tube to the tower from monument station to warm up and get a hot drink. On emergence we made it down to the river bank. The jettie for the ferries were still officially closed to the public but there seemed little security so we made a be-line to the end of the long walkway that led out into the Thames. No-one stopped us and seeing some of the sail ships moored near by we took some shots up and down the river. To the east beyond the raised arms of Tower Bridge lay the queens Barge, docked where the queen had stood to watch the flotilla. This was the closest we had got to the her majesty all day but it didn’t look like she had waited for us.

We returned to the higher ground near the entrance to the Tower of London. By now the rain had drenched me. The lower quarter of my body couldn’t have got any wetter if I had stood in a paddling pool. I’d foolishly given the brolly to Kol to carry as I thought it was better one of us stayed reasonably dry. As we all know the tower of London is an ancient and emblematic attraction but yet again the cities restless planners had got there before us and built steel and glass angular/rectangular blocks to house the Gift shop and two (yes two) greasy spoon chip shops. The kind of buildings you’d find in a gulf state shopping centre.

Just because I didn’t like the building the chip shops were in didn’t mean I didn’t like the chips they were selling. We brought a plastic polystyrene tray load, stirring the contents with a white plastic fork. I say stirring because Kol had gone ketchup crazy, squeezing out enough sauce for a school party and creating a sauce soup with tad of added potato.

We stood a while out of the rain under the concrete overhang of the chip shop facing the strong outer walls that ring the Tower. Groups of hardy Tourists generally looking as disappointed as we were by the weather and lack of old world charm so close to the landmark passed us by until a group of British students stopped in front of our eye line. It was a group of three or four girls and a couple of boys. The women were of university age and the blokes having a similar number of candles on their birthday cake as I have (late twenties early thirties).

They were smiling, laughing, full of life as if the sun was beaming down on them and no one else. They caught my attention because I began to think how emblematic that small band of students were of a generation. Gripped by a continual frenetic session of photo taking. Stood in front of us they launched into the obligatory scatter gun of posed smiley snap shots on I-phones and digital cameras, a past time that occupies the obsessions of a great number of people in this first century of the new millennium.

When I was a kid generally people took photos of things, ‘a somewhere’, generally ‘a something’ of meaning. If you’d turned up in a pub with a camera for no reason people would wonder why but due to Facebook for every one shot of a recognisable thing or place there will be ten other photos of the owner of the camera, probably taken at arm’s length. Generation 2012 is set in an accelerating circle of self obsession, not because we really love ourselves or are vain but because we’re searching for that ego fix of a photo that makes an average mug look just half as good as everyone else’s mug photo shopped and expertly edited before publication.

In the past people you knew would see you in the flesh, numbers were exchanged by hand. Where as now whole relationships exist in a context where you never actually meet. The only vantage point of what these on-line friends or old drinking partners you haven’t seen in ten years actually look like remains the peep-hole provided by Facebook. Every photo carefully censored till only a glimmer of reality remains.

These strangely excited twenty something uni students went back and forward in front of us as my innards warmed in deep-fried potatoes. One of the guys in the group caught my attention when I heard him say to his girlfriend as the pair got a bystander to take yet another photo; ‘I’ll make you my wife one day’.

I thought it was quite romantic, to which the girl with blond hair and model standard looks replied perhaps jokingly,’you wish’. In that rebuff I could imagine for a moment the dynamics of their relationship. She was fresh out of college, maybe on her third year at st martins or Chelsea Art school. He on the other hand was older maybe even close to my age but due to his slender build and his die-hard adherence to the tragically twenty something fashions of Top Man e.g the skin-tight black jeans, the black plimsolls, the distressed grey stretched T-shirt under a mod tight fitted jacket- he had been able to stay young enough in manner not to seem out-of-place when holding hands with a taller, younger and far more attractive girl.

I knew his type, going back to Uni to enjoy the fruits of summer before his demographic leans towards the tutors age and not the freshers because I had been that man just a few years ago. To be honest he wasn’t good-looking but he’d had time to lose the awkward edges that characterise interactions of boys fresh from sixth form with girls their own age and that’s why he was with her. There was a desperation in the way he gripped her hand as the pair skipped down toward the key side for another photo beside a red phone box. Desperation because here was a man back in the sweet shop after years of filling papers in an office, cashing giro checks and P45s, happy now to be filling his pockets with the confectioneries of youth before times shifts and drifts his street wise ‘topman’ toting ship far from it’s gratifying shore. But for now he’d anchored himself safely in the royal academy or Greenwich school of design, somewhere to surround himself with objects of beauty, far from the real world.

‘People watching’ passed and as the rain eased slightly we headed back, back to London Bridge station. I couldn’t live in London. It reminds me of all the reasons I dislike central Brighton on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a people city. A great edifice filled with those throwing dice to see where their future will lead them. Self satisfied at times, most come from somewhere else, yet believing nowhere else exists once they get here. A vast machine that feeds on peoples lives. A swarm of human congestion, driven careers, in single minded homes stacked one on another, rich,poor absorbed in unrelenting schedules, social occupations and stress induced stress.

Stood on the platform at London Bridge for the 1941 to Brighton were small sodden groups filing back from no mans land. Regiments of well wishes broken by the weathers ferocity and dare I say it; the crowd control officers. Remnants of day trippers, orderly Korean kids in yellow and blue uniforms, mothers un-peeling the tin foil of sandwiches perhaps meant for an optimistic sun lit lunch beside the Thames that never happened. In the tiny coffee shop that segments the platform there worked an incredibly tired Indian attendant. He was reaching the end of a long day stood in front of an even longer queue, still serving the flood to passengers, like an orderly in a field hospital relentlessly attending the weather wounded.

Above all the sights of this day one stood out above all and it happened while stood on the platform awaiting the train. A tremendously elderly couple came edging past Kol and I, audibly shuffling on the wet tarmac. She must have been near ninety and he probably older. She had a blue anorak, he had a long trench coat. The kind my grandfather used to wear with a tie under his collar. She kept her head down, holding his hand and lower arm tightly. He was here guide, tall though hunched forward now. Their shuffle through the busy crowd paused near me. He looked up ever so slowly to the train times on a monitor above us, then with out a word spoken between the two he lowered his head, shuffling from one foot to the next, leading his wife on, presumably in search of a seat.

I couldn’t take my eyes of them untill they had gone from sight and I began to think in more detail about who they were. He was her lighthouse, she held his left arm so tightly that you could tell they were like a lock and a key rusted together. Mechanisms that no longer worked with out the other. I could imagine the lives they have lived together and it’s fair to speculate that all sixty years of the Queens reign remain mirrored in this couples days together. Their working lives, family lives, distant youth, myriad celebrations, jubilation, war and subsequent loss.

I may not of seen the Queen that Jubilee Sunday but I caught sight of this old couple, all sixty years wrapped up in them and their generation as was the case with my sorely missed grandparents. No cameras will come to film their anniversaries, no news banner will flash up on BBC1 when they die but when they do go as much of  Britain will be lost with their passing as with any monarch no better no worse.

It was reasonable to guess that they had made supreme effort given their age and the violent weather to see the Queen one last time. I was watching old Elizabethans pass by beside the platform, just as a Jacobite or parliamentarian at the start of the seventeenth century would have seen. living remainders of the Drakes, Rayleigh’s and Walsingham’s of the Virgin Queens line in stiff neck collars, in old fashions, shuffling decrepit pass. Tired bodies in this world, their lives left in the lost ways of another.

Their affection, dedication to their monarch and above all evidently to each other was the prized image I will take from this day. A momentary passing, just a glimpse no longer in length than we had of the flotilla but that like the young couple at the tower of London, this older couple had illuminated far more about this nation’s character in the way they walked, the way they held each other tight despite the world roaring around them and the resolve to be apart of something dear to their hearts. This was far more illuminating than any medal pinned Admiral or gold leafed Barge how ever charming passing the embankment.

So Elizabeth the second on her Jubilee cruise down the Thames hadn’t passed us but had passed at least two old Elizabethans on the river. To them ER is more than a queen or a torso-less head on a stamp, she is their youth and in contrast to the young was a diamond opportunity to make another Facebook album, what else.

We travelled back on the damp, busy train. I made some notes on the day using my phone and a young couple with a little boy barely a year old sat next to me. He grinned and called over to as babies do. That day we had all been like him, like little children waving at boats filled with strangers, encouraged by the occasion to smile (despite the weather) at people we’ve never met and never likely to meet again. I suppose that’s why these great affairs of state are conducted in the first place, they provide us all with a chance to communicate with the greater tribe, be it a street, town, or country, to wave at a stranger and not get a funny look in return.

Well we’d done our fair share of waving at U.F.O.s (unidentified floating objects) and at least now on the way home to defrost, dry-out and ‘eat in’ I could see my cute, grinning, travelling companion on the seat next to me seemed satisfied how the day had gone and the baby seemed to like it too.


The day of the Brighton marathon in a sixty pound Armour.

Sunday April 15, scheduled to begin at 9.30 the third Brighton Marathon was just minutes away. Some fifteen to twenty thousand runners had already descended on Preston park. I got there with my Armour in hand accompanied by my race day mechanics Kol (my partner) and my wing man Matt (fight club) Stapleton, a compatriot from martial arts training who’d agreed to carry the water supplies and help collect on route donations.

A few heads turned amid the crowd of pale legs and brightly coloured trainers. One man even said to another runner ‘there’s that guy doing it as a knight’. All we needed was Sid James to pop up and we’d of had all the elements for a cracking carry on film.

There was a carnival atmosphere at Preston park as I headed to the main stage where we had agreed to meet  the fourth and last member of team full-metal-jacket-Dad.  We found him as planned hopping with cold from one foot to the other trying to fend off the worst of the chilly wind. I had arranged to meet some ‘important people’s’ from the press before hand but I only managed to find the Brighton and Hove Football team manager Gus Poyet. Not being much of a football fan I wasn’t as excited as my companion Matt but I still know a quantifiable celebrity when I see one so we gravitated toward him until he had no choice but have a quick chat and photo. I consciously delayed being show horned into the Armour until the last-minute  enabling me to show him the 30lb breast-plate. ‘O my god’ was his response in a sharp Dutch accent, ‘you mad man’.

Looking around I could see thousands of people of different ages, representations of social groups, all stretching their Achilles and ham strings as one. A bit like a flock of neon coloured flamingoes deep in the throes of an unusual mating ritual, pulling strange poses, contorted expressions as they pushed against trunks, balancing on one leg or groaning in the last leg lunge. Underneath the excitement there were countless personal stories leading these people here, motivating them to undertake the months of gruelling training through the coldest months of the year. For some it was the understandable wish to complete a marathon whilst they still could but I’m sure for many maybe even most this event had a far deeper meaning. The relentless pestering of friends and family to support they’re chosen good cause was to every-ones relief over and these people (like myself) had finally arrived at the beginning of a testing climax to many months of preparation.

Loud music pumped out from the main stage that Heart FM had erected. Carrying the sounds of pop pesticides like JLS and ‘The wanted’ over the multitude of confined runner’s heads. The music was a deterrent for all those thinking of bailing on the marathon by staying behind at Preston Park. At this early hour it could be reasoned that 26.2 miles was an attractive prospect against listening to 103.4 heart FM for another hour.

I was slow to realise that people were already gathering at the start line which lay far off to our left and I hadn’t even begun the tedious process of putting the kit. It normally takes a good twenty minutes to complete, luckily my girlfriend’s recently acquired diploma level knowledge in fourteenth century Armour assembly came into action for the last time and with the help of a carefully concealed small bathroom mirror I was successfully assembled .

From this point on there would be no way back, to remove the Armour before reaching the finish line would be to signal defeat. A failure which for many reasons was unthinkable. I was now strapped in (literally), encased in a steel roller-coaster from the top of my head to my upper legs. A sixty pound meat grinder that would cut, bruise and crush my spine, limbs and anything else it could rub against with all the weight of a working washing machine.

At least the weather was promising. A weak Sun obscured by hazy cloud, with a noticeably chilled wind fresh from its transit of the North sea. In past years it had been twenty something degrees already by mid April, toasting to a twiglet many a marathon runner but this year I’d be fortunate to avoid rain or overpowering heat.

The main bulk of the runners had bolted before I could even see the start line but I wasn’t the only slow coach. Quite a number were undertaking an unconventional marathon. Notably Danny Miller, a thirty-four year old all round cheeky chappy Essex lad who’d set himself the incredible task of moon walking a marathon on behalf of his close friend’s charity; ‘The legacy project’. Another guy who’d run seven consecutive marathons and this would be his eighth. Plus someone in a full size Rhino costume who’d go onto climb the tallest mountain in Africa (Killamangiro) returning to do the London Marathon one week on from the Brighton Marathon. Surprisingly I hadn’t heard much about his epic feat in the Press build up where as I’d become familiar with the other nut balls like myself about to spring a marathon man trap on their unsuspecting bodies.

I should have been more organised. Everything had been last minute as far as the Armour was concerned. I’d even had Kol stressing out till the early hours of the morning after callingn her skills sew chain mail on my combats but then anyone that knows me will confirm that’s this lack of punctuality is nothing new, leaving till the last-minute is written large on the double helix of my Anglo-Irish D.N.A. I’m sure I’d have been the last one out of the jacuzzi in Pompeii’s public baths when mount Vesuvius blew its lid in 79AD and that in earlier generations evolutionary processes would have weeded me out by now but I’d made it to thirty-two and was pushing my biological nine lives once  more this day, survival of the thickest perhaps.

The preparations compleated, wayward press interviews were over, every crook and cranny of my body filled with carbs all that was left was to find a start line and someone to point me in the right direction. Around half an hour after the other runners had left team Full-metal-jacket was finally rolling out on the streets of Brighton and Hove.

The first part of the marathon set the rhythm for the rest of the day. We were way behind the main crowd and even the spectators seemed surprised to see me passing. I held what would become the awkward and painful flag pole that depicted how an on looker could text in donations to my sponsorship page. Later I found out that this had been a bad idea as not a single donation came in from the advert where as we did take several hundred from the on route buckets of change through Kol and Matt’s hard graft.

A few inches of visibility through the visor was all I had and I used this to keep dads ankles in sight. That was the only way I knew where I was going. Crowds were welcoming and encouraging and Dad was clearly enjoying the attention, Giving what resembled a royal wave to anyone that cheered or clapped. In classic Dad style he told one pretty volunteer stewarding the course at the old stein that she had ‘a beautiful smile’ as he passed. In fairness to him he is well over twice my age and remains betting looking. A sixty something flirt and yet he would be mortified should anyone describe him as one.

We passed Danny the Marathon moon walker shortly after starting. He had an impressive entourage including stilt walkers and many funky thirty some-things giving stirling encouragement. He was getting into his moonwalker stride and we did a left-handed shake as I over took. (His own mad cap marathon went well and he set a new world record for the longest continuous moonwalk to boot).

The route at this early stages twisted around the centre of town and I had no idea where I was going. Luckily Dad had been up into the wee hours swatting up on the route, without it we would have ended the day in Crawley! The streets were empty of vehicles and roads that would on any other day of the year be packed tight with exhaust pipes and pedestrians remained deserted.

This was the theme of the day, sporadic bouts of applause, beeps and whistles of encouragement followed by episodes where pavement dwellers would seem less than bothered or unimpressed in equal measure as we passed. I was told later that we attracted more attention than I realised, I just couldn’t see or hear very much. The wind was continually loudly whistling through the various orifices of the Helmet and the Armour in motion made a loud rhythmic clank like a belt buckle in a washing machine.

Eventually around four or five miles in the course took us down to the Seafront. A welcome sight on my part, from now on I knew it was my job to head east till we hit Ovendean some five miles away. During most of the next twenty miles the welcome panorama of the sea would be by my side and being a local lad my internal compass or GPS (Grand Parade to Seafront) is orientated according to where I am in relation to the sea. 

It was during this eastern sector that one of the most memorable moments of the whole day occured. As soon as our small team turned on to the duel carriage way heading east we were faced by the bulk of twenty thousand Nylon clad runners coming straight at us from the west on the other side of the road (as the traffic would flow with vehicles). There were spontaneous smiles, waves, cheering and clapping. Many holding out sweaty palms for a steely high-five. The pathos was incredible even when I could see the discomfort in many of their faces they still kept the applause up and some even called my name.

Memorably one particularly cool dude with top gun shades and a ‘Apocalypse now’ bandanna quoted Monty Python, yelling in perfect John Cleese English ”K’NIGGETS” (a famous line from one of my favourite scenes in Monty Python and the Holy grail) Bringing a genuine laugh about on both our parts.

I suppose in the run up to the marathon many of the entrants would have become aware of the more psychologically challenged competitors among their ranks if only to know whom on the day to avoid, they could have perhaps seen some bits in the paper or on the news about the guy in Armour and so on the whole I was greeted as a friend to encourage and pity in equal parts.

I felt incredible along Kingsway. I’d expected some support from the spectators but it really never crossed my mind how kind and encouraging the other runners would be as we crossed paths. In my whole life and through out my entire marathon experience this was the hour or so that I will never forget. I can’t imagine many new experiences in my life will ever compete with it, the warmth and good will emanating from the thousands of runners was incredible. I saw no difference in what they were doing and what I was doing. Twenty six miles in Armour or twenty-six miles run, both are arduous challenges of an equal measure which gave a greater resonance to the applause they sent my way on mass. It energised me for at least five miles and for a soppy sod it was really quite moving.

Unfortunately though raising my hand to wave or give a thumbs up became a kind of torture. After a while my arms being clad in layers of steel were growing heavier and harder to raise. The continual lifting to respond to well wishers became like raising a dumb bell over and over, drawing on my reserves.

I reached Ovendean on the far eastern extremity of greater Brighton by twelve. The welcomed companion ship of the other runners dwindled as I headed away in land to loop back on my self, to return along the sea front. There outside the semi-detached family homes that pressed against the road we met many families having marathon day picnics actually using their front gardens for something other than an over night parking facility.

As the course turned I saw some friendly and welcome faces in the shape of my sister Charlie, my brother-in-law Paul and their daughters or as I like to call them ‘my nieces’  Izzie pop and Jessie. I slowed as they approached then I attempted to lower myself down to say hello to the little ones. Not my best idea because without warning I felt like someone had shot a bullet through my right leg. With no control I fell back hitting the lamp-post behind me with some force, ending propped against it, my head now at the same level as my nieces. 

They seemed understandably bemused about what Uncle Nick was up to but thankfully they are not quite old enough to feel the full weight of teenage embarrassment to be seen in public with what looked like a drunken extra from a car insurance advert. Cramp had sent my leg into spasm and gravity had done the rest but with over sixteen miles still left on the clock it was the first sign that my body was beginning to react to events but all the same ten miles was done and busted.

After a short while and a few emergency jelly babies later I was levered back to my feet and the day could continue. We took our first break on top of the cliffs on the way back. The road reopened to traffic and we were now moved to the pavements for the first time. Dad was frozen stiff, visibly shaking, as the temp up on the cliffs plummeted from chilly to genuinely cold. Mean while Kol’s feet were starting to really hurt her but at least Matt being the toughest of the lot seemed to be just enjoying the exercise and the numerable chances to chat up the ladies we passed for a hand full of change in the collection buckets. 

The white cliffs that begin to the east of Brighton gave me the chance to look back over the city. It seemed from those heights as a very far off place with the spire like chimney of the power station which awaited my arrival at the twenty-mile mark a mere twig in the far distance. My sense at the time was that the marathon was happening down in that town but not here with me. I was a sailor over board watching an engagement take place from a far, desperate to take part in but watching from side lines.

The sun was trying to break through but even if it had the northern winds were hitting our little team with great force driving all the heat out and pushing me back and forth, just holding the banner was an effort up there. In training I’d been dripping with sweat yet now on the day itself I was being air conditioned so well that I was in no danger of over heating any-more, quite the opposite and in the hours to come this lack of sweat was to bite me in the arse big time. 

Around two in the afternoon and we were heading back along Kingsway toward the centre of town. On pavements while enjoying sporadic support or more often going unrecognised through the multitudes that had gathered to welcome the bulk of the runners toward the end line. I kept close to dad and called back to Matt and Kol to see if they were all OK but they seemed busy rinsing passers-by for change. Unbeknown to me that would be my only sight of the finish line, by the time I was to return many hours later the entire apparatus had been dismantled with only the empty water packets and a few barriers left to indicate there had even been a race that day but that said things looked up for us as we pasted the pier.

The roads Hove bound were still closed to traffic and a great many people were there supporting the poor runners on their finale leg (in some cases literally). This was the second ‘happy time’ I was back on course and surrounded by well wishers on both sides of the roads. A guy announced my name and my charity over the loud-speaker as I passed the Queens hotel. This was the half way mark for me but for the rest of the runners coming in the other direction on the opposite side of the road this must have been hell.

They were on the last few hundred meters and looked like they had just swam ashore from a sunken cross-channel ferry. Even now when they were clearly in agony many of them took the time to wave and clap, cheering me as I passed. A guy hobbling nearing the end of his mammoth run even crossed the barriers to put a ten pound note in Matt’s bucket. These people were incredible. If your faith in humanity ever flags then enter an event like this.

The adulation was quite intense at this point, I even over heard Kol saying to Matt ‘doesn’t it feel like we’re famous!’ A little over the top granted but after thirteen and a half miles this is what we needed and such lines on her part meant I had plenty of classic comedy material to pull her up on in the preceding days.

I continued back into my home turf of Hove, where the bulk of my friends and family were ready to ambush me on route. I ran into friends of friends as we headed along the seafront toward grand avenue. Friends of my sisters like Joe Fulford who’d come all the way down from Tumbridge wells in Kent just to say Hi. Sadly though the course turned northward at the heels of Queen Vic’s statue at the bottom of Grand avenue, away from the returning runners. From now on it was a three men and one pretty lady race.

I reached the beginning of Church road, which incidentally is where I live. Passing by a steward, he said ‘I think you’ve got quite a fan club over there, they’ve been waiting for you’. I turned semi delusional expecting to see Hugh Hefna in evening gown and pipe surrounded by peroxide blond bunny girls or if not then I’d settle for the Brighton and Hove cheer leaders club. Instead it was two of my three sisters who’d been waiting in the coffee shop for me. In truth they were a welcome sight better than pom poms.

My little nephews Axl and Attlas emerged on scooters in full Knights costumes. A little further on some of my friends from the local Co-op had been waiting for hours to say high and I stopped briefly to speak to them before heading on into the hinterland of suburban central Hove, its private clinics,bowling greens and unaffordable town houses.

Church road leads to the inventively named new church road. A broad leafy avenue of sizeable, desirable Victorian villas. A street straight enough to impress a Roman engineer and long enough to make a marathon runner shudder. We had to go all the way along its length do a turn past the bemused shoppers on the lower end of Portslade high street, past it’s parade of pound shops and cash converters, then come all the way back again to the same point on the sea front where we had turned in land, a real road to nowhere.

In retrospect I was really hurting by now. I’d carried the armour further and faster than in any of my training days. Every tiny sore, cut or ache was becoming magnified. Discomfort in all my senses transmitted through my nervous system to the brain. I had strapped myself into a giant Chinese burn machine. 

The highlight of church road aside from the beeping cars (most of which were in support I hope) was the little boy whose parents had dressed him as a Knight and waited all day to see me. I felt like father Christmas, the boy looked at me as if I had stepped right out of a fairy tale. I imagine he believed I was a real knight fresh from a summer season in once upon a time land slaying Dragons and galloping to the aid of distressed dames.

Slowing to a halt like a steam train huffing and puffing, making all sorts of alarming groans and clanks. Using what really felt like the last of  the last of my reserves I lowered my frame down to his height so that his parents could take a photo trying not to show the toll the day had taken on me. Thankfully I wasn’t struck by cramp and was able to rise up again. I wish I could thank that family, they came out on the street and greeted me so warmly and I hope the little boy wasn’t too disappointed by the sight of a grizzled groaning guy like I, turning up instead of prince charming.

I may not of been prince charming but Kol was a damsel in distress at this point and on the occasions I looked back I could see her hobbling. She had supported me through all the fundraising efforts which alone were tiresome and sometimes thankless, and now on the day itself regardless of medals or recognition she was not leaving my side despite the pain.

I really couldn’t have been more proud of her or of course the whole team . Like the gentleman he is Matt took Kol under his wing, much to my relief and Dad continued the steady piloting of his offspring with all the ability of a control tower guiding a jumbo into land.

Eventually we made it back to the sea, leaving behind the bemused Sunday shoppers of central Hove to sip cappuccinos undisturbed. By around half-four we began the long trudge toward the power station in Shoreham after turning back to the seafront. This was the last seven or eight miles and by now the experience was one of pure endurance for us all. The waves from strangers given from windows, the beeps from cars and the smiles from passers-by kept me going but we were heading into Shormam Harbour now an industrial no man’s land where we would be lucky to find a drunk fisher man on the side of the road let alone any well wishers. Just before we entered the harbour I was greeted by a welcomed sight. My first cousin Andrew stood in our path. A hard-working and kind-hearted man whom had loved Nan and Grumps (my recently lost grandparents) every inch as anyone in the family.

Since they passed away a distance had developed between the two remaining sides of the family stemming from his Mum and my mum’s strained interactions around the funeral, leading to less contact between his family and mine. I was so pleased he came and we walked together toward the lagoon. I told him in-between huffs and puffs what I could only tell him. That all this madness was for Nan and Grumps and I think he understood. Just the mere thought of them was enough to make me well up by this point in the day and he made some generous remarks about what he believed they would have thought now. I try never to cry and the older I’ve got the less inclined to public shows of emotion I’ve become but I was almost fighting back tears. A cock-tale of physical pain, exhaustion and suppressed emotional pain from loosing Nan and Grumps so suddenly was bursting to be released. I didn’t cry but I could have done. Supposing this marathon was a personal kind of pilgrimage to venerate the memory of two people lost suddenly that I cared beyond words for. Doing for them after death what I had utterly failed to do while they lived.

To see Andrew reminded me of the greater family that they had held together since I was a child and writing this now reminds me of how important it is that our family stay close. Despite the suppressed tensions that erupt in every family it is  important to overcome the negatives and remember who we are and what we have. That common past spent together constructed in the company of Nan and Grumps and it is the most precious thing they left us to responsible for.

Andrews company was touching, along with his family who greeted cameout to clap and cheer as we passed the local pub and with a renewed determination I continued into the aggressively baron concrete colder sack, the rusted ring fencing and pallets of recently off loaded commodities that make up the bulk of the Harbour. Don’t let the word harbour mislead you. It brings to mind images of brightly coloured fishing boats, rustic key sides with weathered seamen mending nets and lobster pots aside white washed cottages because you won’t find a postcard of modern Shoreham harbour in the tourist information centre. Shoreham at this end of town (unlike in the older west) has all the rustic charm of a knuckle duster with the words made in china stamped down its spine. Here you’ll only find the detritus of twenty-first century globalisation and the business end of a modern economies appetite. Vast open warehouses and heavy industry, great pyramids of aggregate and sand for the concrete that will underpin the expansions of motor ways and the vast timber stores that fuel the manufactures of furniture and hard wear stores up and down the land.

At this late stage in the day the sun had seen off the clouds and I had forgotten just how big Shoreham Harbour is. I kept looking up thinking the great exhaust chimney of the power station would be just in front of me and yet it appeared no closer. It may well have been as remote as when looking down from the cliffs at Ovendean earlier that day but it was my focus as soon as I entered its long shadow I’d be close to turning round and heading for home. Every step was moving the liquid that had built up under the soles of my feet from one end of my left foot to the other now. A single magnificent blister had taken shape where the skin on my foot once had been. I was moving slower in these last few miles, almost hobbling forward and I felt a sensation that the air was no longer a substance I could pass through with ease but instead it was beginning to thicken, becoming hard to pass, a rubbery air like wading pushing back at me, as if stepping through a liquid. Each and every movement taking a concise will to complete. Whipping a tired animal to keep it moving my mind was now in charge, forcing its will on the rest of my body to keep moving forward.

This was where I knew my eldest sister Emily and my brother-in-law Jim and their two little boy’s Max 7 and Sammie 3 were due to join our marathon experience. They had been on a holiday in Dorset and would be driving back along the south coast all day to meet me. I reached the welcome turning point and the furthest west I would travel. facing my back on the power station at last but still with no sign of the anticipated Cowan Clan. I began to wonder if they would turn up at all until finally we emerged onto the long road beside the beach where distantly I could see a group of four figures. Two large and two small, the cavalry had arrived seeing little Sammie and Max ahead. They began a war like charge at full speed to greet me. I stopped as they neared and began to lower my body once more. Immediately and as if a currant of electricity was passing through the lower limbs killer cramp struck both my legs hard. With the foundations sliced from under me and without a fortunately placed lamp-post to save me I fell awkwardly backwards, hitting the concrete.

Poor Max and Sammie had to see me fall and I began to well up, unable to contain the pain any more  being signalled from nerve-ends around my body. If this was Star trek then we’d be at the stage that photom torpedos were striking the Enterprise sending Kirk and Spock in all directions. Little Sammie who’s a gentle soul and only two and a half lent over, reached his little arms over the cold steel breast-plate and hugged me as best he could. I remember looking up at the blue sky then into the eyes of my companions and being unsure if I could continue. Matt took one my legs under his arm and being a trained fitness instructor he began the process of shaking the cramp out of them. 

I took a few deep breaths and held out my hand to be hauled up again. I was OK and kept moving accompanied not only by my nephews but also by Jimmy in the car playing at full volume over the deserted industrial dirt way the full cannon of Lennon and McCartney’s CDs. Here comes the sun, a day in the life, Eleanor Rigby winging it’s way from the vehicles speakers. A welcome relief  and at least they didn’t play McCartney’s ‘Long and winding road’.

I removed the helmet for the first time and held it in my hands. Feeling the wind and sun on the back of my neck as the strong gusts were now on our side and not a hindranceI had no corners to turn, nothing in my way just the last four or so miles.

ABOUT TO HIT THE WALL.

When we finally found ourselves near to leaving the Harbour stretch I had to stop. I found somewhere to sit on, perhaps just the curve and gathered myself. Others had arrived to join the last leg. Charlie one of my other sisters and her friend Katy. I looked toward Charlie and said what I thought I’d never say ‘I don’t think I can go on’. She understood as did every one that I may have to stop now. Dad was really suffering too, after all he is in his sixties and yet had without complaint led the way for over twenty miles said ‘Well we can get the car, you can stop if you want’ I looked semi consciously at Charlie and she said ‘But your so close’  after a moment I thought about Nan and Grumps, they weren’t there in person but were with me in spirit. I couldn’t let them down more than anyone else.

‘Ok then, I just got to keep going’

Getting up and putting the helmet back on I started the last leg along Hove and Brighton sea front. Little Max had a determination to stay with me to the line now and he became a valuable member of the team. Every marathon participant needs an enthusiastic seven-year old spurring you on. While his Mum ‘Em’ also took on fund raising duties relieving Kol of her duties to focus on just getting to the end. Many members of the public responded putting notes and pounds in the buckets.

I can’t remember much from this point only that I was almost gasping every breath back and forth, in and out. the piers began to draw closer and to my amazement as we entered the last mile a rainbow appeared over the finish line arching out into the farthest reaches of the sea.

It’s plainly irrational but I felt at the time as if that rainbow belonged to Nan and Grumps, that it was their way of telling me I’d done it. I don’t suppose spirits can arrange for rainbows to appear any more than you or I could but it felt incredible to see it after six months of preparation and pain arching over the finish line ahead. Perhaps it was just a coincidence or as I like to think of it a little blessing but all the elements of the past and present and the great unknown over which I have no comprehension came together for a second and the agony lifted. 

The rainbow led us into the last mile past the west pier and then the palace pier too was passed until only yards lay between my self and lasting successIn all the confusion the people I was to contact on route to have a photographer meet us and the race organisers  had not been done but I didn’t care who was there or indeed whether we got a medal.

I took Max’s hand and as a team with Kol, Matt and Dad we crossed what would have been the finish line. There was no evidence of where exactly the finish was until one of the guys clearing up pointed it out. I stepped over the last yard of empty water bottles and banana skins and fell to my knees with complete exhaustion.

Charlie and Em cheered, some people passing by clapped and yet all I wanted was to remove the armour as if it’s touch was like something hot scalding my skin. I had to get it off, Someone pulled the Helmet off along with the gauntlets. My flesh had swollen meaning the arms were too tight to be remove normally. Matt had to really tug hard to get my arms free.

As soon as I could when released from my Full-metal-jacket I got back to my feet, found my Meningitis Trust t-shirt jammed at the bottom of the ruck sack that Matt had patiently lugged around all day. Put it on, then lifted Max and Sammie up into the air, one in each arm to celebrate. Moments later I was hugging Dad and Matt as if we’d just destroyed the death star and I said how I couldn’t have done it with out them and I mean it. We were a team, I may have started the day looking like Luke skywalker but I ended it resembling Darth vader when they remove his Helmet but together after nine and a quarter incredible hours we had done what a lot of people had said was impossible. 

My bother-in-law and best bud Jim was at the finish lineand took some shots of the moments just after I’d crossed the line (below).

I wish this was the end of the story but my night was far from over. Leaving the armour in the care of Em and Jim I didn’t want to go straight home. Kol and I were in no fit state to look after each other, so Charlie stepped up to the plate agreeing that we could come with her. In the car back I could see the sun setting beautifully, my aim was to make it back by sun down and we’d done it. Resting my head on Kol’s shoulder I was out of it, feeling like I’d never had and shortly after reaching Charlie’s home I lay on her front room sofa. She ordered a Pizza, left the room and it was now that I began to feel strange. I knew by instinct that I was in trouble as the adrenaline began to wear off and without hesitation I told Kol ‘get a doctor’.

I could feel myself getting worse, sweat poured off my temple and I began to find it hard to breath. The sensation in my left arm completely went numb. I said get an ambulance and within minutes I was drifting in and out of consciousness. My mind and body were shutting down, I couldn’t breath and I remember not being sure if I was actually breathing at all. I can recall seeing Izzy playing on the floor with her toys, then seeing Kol crying, then Paul pulling Izzy out of the room. Charlie knelt in front of me, with the phone against her ear, the medical staff on the other end whilst the Ambulance was on its way. I started to lose the feeling in the left side of my face. ‘This is it, I’m dyeing’ I thought, ‘my brain is being starved of oxygen’ and I will be like this forever, ‘what a fool’ I thought to myself, ‘taking on a challenge that would take away your life leaving your family to pick up the pieces’ believing that I was in the process of dyeing I simply looked at Kol told her as my voice began to slurr ‘I love you’ and then as Charlie tried to keep my eyes from closing and I drifted in and out of awareness of my surroundings. I slurred the words ‘I love you’ several times to my sister thinking they would be the last words I would utter. I could see her eyes filling with tears but I was helpless now all I could do was be a bystander as my body shut down and hope the ambulance could get here before I had gone.

And that’s it. I remember nothing more until around two in the morning when I awoke in intensive care with Kol exhausted by my bed side her head in her lap. I was naked but for a thin sheet and I was covered in cuts and black bruises in-between a multitude of sticky pads linked up to a beeping machine. I was alive and despite feeling like I had just been chewed up then spat out by King Kong I was thinking and moving again. Still dazed and a little confused I asked Kol what had happened?  She said that doctors had diagnosed over Hydration. I’d drunk so much liquid during the marathon that I had diluted my salt levels to a point where my body had stopped functioning and my vital organs had begun to fill with water. To be honest my first thought was of Kol. She hadn’t stopped all day and must off been exhausted on as many levels as I was. Not only that but she had nursed me through the Meningitis and it must have been heart breaking to see me back in a hospital bed.

Many busy nurses passed by. I asked one of them (apparently the ambulance driver who had thoughtfully come back to see how I was) to take care of Kol. He replied something like  ‘Don’t worry, she’s fine’. I’m pretty sure Kol wanted to bite his head off Ozzie Ozbourne style for that harmless remark. For any guy’s reading (if you didn’t already know) here is an important potentially life saving slice of health and safety information: Don’t tell a woman she’s fine when they’ve, not eaten, rested, just completed a marathon as you may not leave the room with your reproductive organs still operating as nature intended. She felt far from fine and yet it was me getting all this attention.

I asked another nurse if I could go to the toilet? She replied you’ve got a cafeter fitted. I raised the sheets to see the alarming sight (and without getting too anatomical) of a thin clear tube inserted where no man wants anything to be inserted. They needed to remove all the excess liquid from my bladder and as one Doctor poetically put it ‘I’d been going like a horse all night’. Despite me asking in my dazed state if Kol could jump in the hospital bed with me and ‘stay over’ (something I’m sure kept the nurses amused over their tea break) she had to leave as soon as it was clear I was OK. So at two in the morning a taxi was rung and she spent the night back with her Mum.

I felt drained in every sense of the word I’d eaten nothing after the marathon and now I was having all the water removed from me. This of course meant I was coming down with a hang over Oliver Reed and Keith Moon would have winced at but all said and done I was thankful it wasn’t far more serious. The intensive care ward is a strange place filled with electrical noise, staff conversing with one another and the groans of those in real discomfort. A bit like being bed bound in a super market isle. The staff took great care of me and by morning I was ill but not sick which meant I could be taken home. It was a close shave and I was so incredibly pleased when the head doctor told me I could go. Having low sodium levels is a bit like downing a bottle of vodka, your out of it for a few hours, remember very little, and feel like you’ve been pushed by Mr T and followed then by an epic hangover solved by a day or two in bed. How much was the low sodium and how much was the marathon I’ll never know and I hope I never do.

So all in all by the time Charlie had come to pick me up the next morning I’d barely slept, not eaten and was unable to keep down any liquid I tried to drink. My body that was still reeling from what I had put it through and my feet felt like I’d walked across red-hot coals. Soon enough I was back home. Kol hadn’t gone to work and came straight round, curled up in bed next to me and went to sleep. The next day on the Tuesday I had a cup of English tea around twelve. It was the first thing I had consumed since Sunday morning and I felt much better after it. By that afternoon I was back in the front room with the bed covers on the sofa and I still attribute my swift recovery to the cup of tea.

On reflection it was strange and perhaps fitting that my challenge to raise money for the Meningitis Trust began a year earlier when in hospital with Meningitis and exactly one year on I had been given another night in the same building. Also in a peculiar twist I was left with a deep cut by the armour on the inside of my left arm, bizarrely in the exact place that the first blood blister had appeared in the early stages of Meniniacocal Septicaemia (Meningitis). It was that little red mark that probably saved my life I noticed it when coming back to bed whilst being ill and seeing it led me to look for other marks on my body. In turn I was able to get medical advise through NHS direct which went on to save my life. So strangely the marathon has left me with one lasting scare on my body and it is in the exact place that the Meningitis started. I almost feel like I was taken full circle, with the challenge taking me back to the point of death, where I had been twelve months earlier. The many cuts from the Armour like exit wounds where splinters left in me by the Meningitis had been finally removed and after the ordeal of pain and return to the hospital I felt I could finally feel I had closed the loop and exorcising the memory of that illness through the ordeal of the Marathon, coming home from the hospital this time not a victim like I had been one year earlier but as a victor having achieved a resounding positive success bound to stay with me forever.

I and the team received our medals on BBC radio Sussex from Tim Hutchings the man in charge of the Brighton Marathon. I almost felt at home now in the studio, comfortable talking to the presenter in stark contrast to my earlier encounters with a microphone. At home after six months of working toward success for a charity I feel I have repaid my debt to.

Now I’m free to decide weather to continue challenges, after all I’ve got my life back with a renewed sense of how brief the future we take for granted could be, also I’ve got a bloody big suit of Armour stood in the corner of my front room. I better make good use of it somehow.

Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

 





The Run up to this years Marathon.

The Marathon in armour was an idea that came to me last September. I had recovered from the ordeal of Meningitis by the end of the summer and had even taken a short holiday with my girlfriend to Looe in Cornwall. We went to see the place Nan and Grumps had spoken of so often over the years and it felt right to go to the place that my grandparents loved when organising the holiday that marked a return to some form of normality after the chaos of the previous six or so months. Just before she died in Feb last year I had begun to plan this holiday with her to Cornwall. We were to travel together to see the fishing village of Looe that I felt I already knew from the oil paintings depicting it’s harbour that had hung in my grandparents lounge but her sudden loss left me determined to go there anyway, to celebrate her and my Grandfathers long and fruitful lives.

The story of that holiday I’ll save for another time but I returned with a drive to focus my energies into a task that would challenge me for the next six months and bring a defiant positivity from a period of negative experiences. A task that on the face of it would seem crackers and unachievable but I knew once I undertook it I’d make it happen somehow.

It was around this time that I started to think of my childhood fascination with all things medieval. The seriousness of the preceding years grief and illness had given rise to seeking comfort in things I used to love like my long time obsession with history. It was once my passion and it’s not surprising that at a time of greater anxiety my character was trying to revert back to the pursuits from a less complicated time in my life.

The idea of a marathon in armour began to take general shape over many hours thinking late at night when my girlfriend would be sleeping sound beside me. It was like having a bunch of keys and trying them in the mechanism of a locked door waiting for that one that fitted perfectly and eventually this one mad idea fitted. I was soon convinced in myself at least of a marathon in armour’s merits as a personal goal and charity fundraiser, now all I had to do was convince the marathon organisers too.

Later my gut instinct was vindicated, I found that having this project to centre my life around was like a kind of therapy and helped rebuild a structure that may well stay with me for some time, opening roads to destinations I never considered until I undertook the pointlessly epic marathon.

At first though if I’m honest the thought did slip through my mind that I must be sliding towards post-traumatic stress disorder or some slowly maturing mental instability to consider such an unconventional challenge a natural next step after all I’d been through. All the same once I had made my decision I then had to face the reality that of all the things I did own I was pretty sure a six-foot fully articulated steel Armour wasn’t one of them and I had little idea of where to get one nether! Thirty years ago that would have been a solid stumbling block but thanks to the black hole of self obsessions AKA the internet I was soon able to start the long process of locating and purchasing a wearable replica Armour.

I had been left a small amount of money by Nan in her will and I wanted to use this to fund the charity challenge in her memory and raise sponsorship for the Meningitis Trust. It was this particular charity that gave me access to trained nurses in the immediate aftermath of my release from hospital,  knowing they were there was invaluable during the post treatment paranoia when your sure that Meningitis is going to return.

I knew I’d needed more than what Nan had kindly left me on top of whatever change I could grab from down the back of the sofa so I began the process of selling anything I had of value. First to go was the vinyl collection, all my beloved original Beatles, Bowie albums, the Who and Hendrix all had to go. Next up under the post office stamp went my childhood Star wars figures fresh from a decade or two being swapped between various lofts and garden sheds. They were sold on Ebay to a guy in the back waters of Belgium and then most of the childhood coin collection had to go, including most of my Roman coins, again collected on summer holidays with Mum to the west country as a boy.

I managed to scrape together the bulk of the funds and after some prolonged email action with the Brighton marathon race organisers ‘Grounded Events’ I finally got the green light to take on the challenge just as I was beginning to lose heart amid the dark long winter evenings.

Around this time I had to learn most everything there was to know about the bizarre and (expectedly) geeky world of on-line medieval re-enactment and all the various forms of armour available. Of course I could look through the pages of pole axes and LARP (live action role play) with the anthropomorphic detachment of a biological scientist studying unfamiliar behaviour for a noble cause but deep down I couldn’t kid myself that it wasn’t great fun to set free the suppressed ten-year old kid within. Letting the little guy that used to spend summer afternoons making replica swords and shields out of coco pops boxes and loo roll tubes take charge once more.

By the time it came to ordering the steel suit I confidently knew my pauldrons (shoulder protectors) from my bavors (lower jaw guard) and my gauntlets from my cuirass (breast-plate) and on a larger scale my Gothic from my Milanese styles and I’d even had email communications with overseas suppliers as far away as India and china but as the name of many of these companies were something like ‘Mr medieval Armour’ or ‘master of nautical weapons’ I decided to stick to the UK based businesses.

Throughout this time my girlfriends patience was remarkable as she would put up with me discussing out loud the pros and cons of various re-enactment distributors and giving running reviews of the challenges of locating the best articulated armour within our price range what must have seemed night after night. I’m acutely conscious of the better uses for the money I was spending, from the less glamorous but necessary requirements of the veracious utility companies or spending it on a well-deserved (on her part at least) two weeks in Tunisia for Kol and I.

Eventually though I managed to find the Armour I required at ‘The Knights shop’ a reliable on-line merchant of all things shiny and chivalrous. I’d found myself developing a bit of a man crush on one particular armour with the rather geeky name of ‘The Lancelot Armour'(as pictured above). It looked like the suits worn in one of my favourite films, John Boormans 1981 dark age epic ‘Excalibur’ and in fact was the cheapest wearable armour on the site at £1250 (which believe it or not is actually cheap as for such an Armour and I managed to get £250 off the price).

Eventually though I managed to find the Armour I required at ‘The Knights shop’ a reliable on-line merchant of all things shiny and chivalrous. I’d found myself developing a bit of a man crush on one particular armour with the rather geeky name of ‘The Lancelot Armour'(as pictured above). It looked like the suits worn in one of my favourite films, John Boormans 1981 dark age epic ‘Excalibur’ and in fact was the cheapest wearable armour on the site at £1250 (which believe it or not is actually cheap as for such an Armour).

The film probably gave me the inspiration for the project on a sub-conscious level after having watched it again (and again) on DVD while re-cooperating at home.

Excalibur is worth a brief mention in this blog as it lies at the heart of what inspired me to take on this challenge. It re-imagines one of history’s most retold stories, that of the mythical British King. From his dubious conception to his last bloody battle against Mordred, the son bore to him by his half-sister Morgana. It’s the kind of troubled family that would get the producers of The Jeremy Kyle show on speed dial and the social services at the door with a court order in a heartbeat.

My eldest sister Em first played the pirated VHS recording of the film to me at her then boyfriends house when I was just ten or eleven and it quickly became a firm favourite. since then there have been a number of years when cider and cigarettes certainly held a greater attraction than swords and shields but the passions of your childhood having been planted first have deep roots and can remain dormant in all of us until such a time that occasion causes their re-emergence through the withered remnants of less enduring pleasures.

The film is top a drawer popcorn fodder if a little rusty under the hood being over thirty years in age). Courageously scored by the likes of Wagner, it’s pre CGI cinema-photography rooted in the fairytale end of the historical spectrum, it’s a world of perma-suited knights in normally misty, often muddy, winter wood land just what Hollywood packs best in two hours of celluloid from an eleven year old boys perspective (especially if you add in the odd flash of flesh along the way).

If my only point of reference for how people actually wear armour is the above mentioned film where the characters are remorselessly in full suits of Armour no matter what they’re doing, be it feasting, picnicking in a summer glade or even having it off with ‘damsel’ whom even if she wasn’t distressed to start with she certainly was after having a beardy bloke in a hundred pound of armour baring down on her, well then I was in for a reality check in. As soon as I began to train in the armour of a very similar kind it became obvious that unless you like inhabiting an articulated cheese grater then only a mental case with SAS levels of stamina could withstand the toll such contraptions of war take on a body 24/7. From my reckoning no one would have gone anywhere much outside the confines of the training grounds or the battlefield in it.

Anyway that’s me looking back on my experience of the armour but at this point in the story I still had to buy it. I gathered my pennies from what I’d sold, from Nan’s money and the eBay, called in a few favours and was able to order the Lancelot Armour at last from the knight shop. I couldn’t wait for its arrival and eventually I received the battered and amazingly heavy boxes from a bemused delivery man some weeks later and,,,, at last,,,, by late Jan I was ready to get this show on the road for real.

Even when the armour arrived my main training derived from putting on heavy back packs and heading off for long walks along seafront on the shingle. My favourite time for these walks was dusk, with the occasional sun setting at my back and most often alone I’d put the I-pod on, wrap up against the worst that the late winter weather could throw my way and head eastward toward Brighton along the edge of the sea to the sounds of Daft punk and Beethoven and all in between.

This time of training in the evenings reminded me what an incredible experience it is when alone in front of the sea. You can turn your back on the world and look out over a ‘terrain’ as unaltered by the modern age as any virgin rain forest or deserted desert. In fact you would survive far longer in the Sahara than you could if dropped into the channel’s waves.

To wonder along its edge when cold and darkness keep others away is a surprisingly peaceful experience. The lower the tide so the greater the amount of the muddy sea bed becomes exposed to walk along, giving the motion and sound of the waves a new temper. Occasionally beside the breakwaters I noticed the sea had the habit of exhaling a low and unusual mist. It would sit no more than thirty foot in width creating a brief other worldly atmosphere as I’d look up through it to the  strings of street lamps and the lights of apartment blocks of Brighton’s blush seaside residences. 

On such walks I it was easy to let an imagination take off at the thought of ulcerated tentacles following up the dark sands, ready to drag you through the mist and out beyond the foaming waves. More often than not the waters of the channel were a wild enough creature without the need for my imagination. Like a chained guard dog, biting and spitting but never quite able to reach you regardless of how violently or volcanically its waters seemed they’d all end with a thundering crash on the same spot just where all the lines of waves fell with the on looking land lover like me staying safe of the shingle and sand.

These long walks serviced until the arrival of the Armour as I was able to start the training proper whilst wearing it. Getting used to its weight and the uncomfortable pressures it placed on my arms etc was a slow but necessary process. Also I set up the Justgiving page. Naming the challenge ‘Fullmetaljacket’ after the famous war Movie, it just seemed to fit and I sent out the word to friends by phone Facebook what I was doing and why.

I had become used to the strange look of bemusement or even disapproval when I mentioned my plans. Occasionally you’d get the upward eye brow look of worry followed by the words ‘Are you sure it is a good idea?’ In fact the reaction was one of people being universally perplexed. Only rarely would someone be enthusiastic. Most notably my girlfriend  and Auntie Teresa were 100% behind the challenge pretty much from day one. Auntie Tree even started a scrap-book of printouts of donations and press clippings that she would show me when we visited her and my grandpa wood, he flew spitfires during the war and later he flew passenger air craft all over the world. He seemed impressed by the idea hiding his reservations well but thought I was putting allot on my plate.

Dad soon came on board once he was aware I would make this happen he decided he’d be there both on the day with a tin can opener in case of emergencies and to help with lifts (or logistics as I’d call them). Then as those around me realised I wasn’t going to back out the whole family came on board offering what help they could in Emails and sponsorship.

I did my first training day in the Armour at Charlie’s house soon after it arrived. I’m the youngest of four kids, with the three elder sisters being Emily at the top, Sophie in the middle and Charlotte just four years older than I am. They all have two kids each now and live busy lives around study, business and tennis lessons. I can’t imagine having me turn up in the morning with a suit of armour was what Charlie really wanted but as she had a funky motorised treadmill she was press ganged into letting me use it. I got going doing three km stints at a time, stumbling off sweating like I’d been doing aerobics in a sauna. I felt dizzy and a little sick. Each time I’d go back on the treadmill I’d try to get into a rhythm. I found myself whistling my granddad’s old big band numbers or the tune to ‘The great escape’ and ‘The bridge over the river Kwai’ anything to pass the time as I watched the digital distance counter’s total accumulate slowly.

I managed twelve km some quarter of the real marathon distance that day. Charlie asked me in the car on the way home ‘So you think you can do it?’

‘Absolutely, 100% confident” I replied and yet inside I knew this challenge would be a close call at the very least. The weight of the armour when on was some sixty to seventy pound most of which pointed down through my shoulder blades, the helmet was like having mousetraps being sprung on the most sensitive elements of the ear lobes and the arm Amour was so tight and heavy that just raising a hand to scratch my nose was like lifting the weight of the weekly shop.

I convinced myself I could do it but whether I was being foolhardy wasn’t beyond suspicion. I became aware that there were plenty of conversations going on behind my back where relatives expressed their disapproval (perhaps understandably). I knew by the words they spoke to my face that behind them were many opinions that remained private. Well at least I’d given them something to worry about but I just hoped that in time all doubts would be put aside because I needed their support to make this a success. I needed them to get what I was doing and then drive my challenge forward amid their mates, to encourage others to sponsor or share the link on Facebook.

I got 1500 business cards printed with all the details of the challenge and a buttock clinching photo of yours truly in the Armour (taken in the kitchen with pots and pans clearly visible in the background).

I had posters printed and began to send out emails. In my naivety having never done fund-raising before I convinced myself that once the posters were up and the cards firmly placed in punters palms then my job would be half done, I could just put my proverbial vembraces up sit back and watch the sponsorships roll in (giggerdy),,,, how wrong was I.

This was the first rule I learned…

PEOPLE DON’T LIKE HANDING MONEY OVER TOO EASILY TO CHARITY, YOU GOTTA REALLY WORK FOR IT!

The second rule I learned is that…

PEOPLE DON’T LIKE HANDING MONEY OVER TO CHARITY EVEN IF YOU REALLY BLOODY WORK FOR IT!

Even if you’re a blood relative it still feels like prizing teeth to most of us (including me) to hand over legal tender especially in an era of economic meltdown, even though in all likely hood that five-pound you give wasn’t destined to keep your family fed and watered but was more likely to of ended up in the local Tesco till drawer in exchange for a tasty trio box of Magnum ice creams.

That said the donations to the trust did begin to trickle in and I began to think of charity fundraising not as a spectator pastime but as a do or die contact sport where it was my job to out fox the competitors, action aid, Amnesty international they were going down. Any trick you could pull to nab that loose change from Joe Bloggs then I could do better. Sure I didn’t have much more than a couple of donation buckets and a remarkably patient girlfriend but I’d use my noggin to think up a few new tricks. If I had any chance of getting more than a thousand pound for my challenge then I was going to have to think fast and hard of what other options lay open to me. I only had a few months and recent experience had taught me that what worked was exchanging something for a donation. That’s why charity shops work because your buying something for your charity gift, it’s what you’re getting that puts the money in the charities hands not a sense of altruistic duty. Also my mind was buzzing with what the internet could do. If I had more time I would have developed a viral campaign trying to draw people to take a look at my sponsorship page. I had ideas also of guerilla advertising, this would have been doing things like hiring a laser projector and projecting the details of the web page on public buildings with images that caught the public attention and I would have tried to be inventive to create a small buzz on twitter and Facebook. There is also a huge cutting through the chalk hillside as you come into Brighton station and it would have been the perfect place to of created some form of advertising with or without the councils permission. These ideas would have been worth a try but time was against me and I was running out of money to do anything extravagant. In the end the best route was three-fold….

….Bringing friends on board, so they could encourage friends of friends and work colleges to take interest in what was happening and perhaps sponsor but again this was a lesson learned late and I was unable to fully explore the potential of this method.

….Second was calling on the goodwill of shop keepers and local supermarkets to ether allow some fundraising tins they would place at the tills or let me apply to stand out side collecting donations (which I did once after some email chatter with the manager of the largest local supermarket. He granted me a spot in the lobby on Easter sat. It was very successful and brought in two hundred pound. A little longer at hand and I could have had many days like this one set up which would have made a massive impact on my last total)

….Thirdly was taking advantage of the unseasonably warm spring and the fact I live two minutes from the ever busy Hove beaches by hitting the sea front with a cloud of colourful balloons with the Mrs. We’d get donations in exchange for balloons for the children and invariably we would bring in something between thirty to ninety pound each outing.

I had two months left until the big day. The armour was here, the sponsorship apparatus was beginning to take shape, the training was under way through backpacks and torturous days on the manual treadmill (I had at home) combined and the Meningitis Trust were on board. They had sent through some donation buckets, balloons and loads of symptom cards to keep me going but they never really got behind the venture, perhaps because it was the Brighton Marathon and not the flagship London marathon I was using for this challenge or more likely I was dealing with a hectic operation that had many a fundraising event under way. I was in constant email communication with various avenues trying to get fund-raising days off the ground myself and exploring who could help me. My girlfriend would be watching Eastenders after a long day at work and I’d be typing away an email to someone somewhere with varying levels of success. Most of the knowledge acquired during this time came a little late (as I said) but I did have a number of successes with the Argus and other local papers. The press officer at the marathon organising company was setting up the odd lead and helped to get the ball rolling with a meeting with the local paper. Before they could print the story they needed some pictures and I decided the seafront was a better back drop than the garden shed or the two-seater soda of my one bedroom flat.

I was so nervous running up to that day I’d never had any contact with the press but I knew I had to do the interview and meet the photographer. I thought I would do this challenge with as little press attention possible but it was obvious that it would have to get out there (in retrospect I could have done without the press coverage because at least at a local level it didn’t bring in much in the form of donations).

The meeting with the local papers photographer was arranged and my father hurried over at short notice on the bright February morning helping ferry the armour down to the seafront where we’d arranged to meet next to the king Alfred swimming pool by the beach and the middle-aged male photographer turned up just as I was putting the kit on and began to take photos.

He had me posing in some random stances, putting my leg up on the Victorian railings. I think there are few things that the Hove prom hasn’t seen in its two hundred year history but perhaps my steel-clad appearance was a likely first. Not since the days of the hundred years war had an Englishman stood on the Sussex shingle dressed to meet a shower of arrow heads and pole axes. Fortunately in resent years the French have swapped cross-channel war ships for container shipments of chanel perfumes and chefs (personally I’d prefer the war ships) and in the end all we had to contend with were the alarmed shrieks of sea gulls and women of a certain age who’d had their morning walk disrupted by an alarmingly dressed man barring their way with a sword.

The Argus photographer meanwhile seemed to enjoy this unusual assignment and even got dad to run past pretending he was a jogger for the marathon angle of the story although he did have to tell him (several times) to refrain from waving at the camera as he passed.

A few days later the story was in the Argus. They put it on page three and gave me a good write-up filled to brim with puns ‘A hard days Knight’ and ‘slaying the opposition’. Endearingly when my girlfriend saw the article she tried to tell me they had made a terrible mistake with the spelling of the word ‘just’ in the headline which read ‘Joust going for a run’. I told her not to worry and had to explain what a joust was. Well she is twenty-five and they must have dropped the lessons in medieval terminology from the national curriculum by the time she was at school. Over the coming months I had my ‘press speech’ sharpened up and more professional. I cancelled down the ‘why’s’ and ‘what fors’ to a few pointed anecdotes and explanations about my chosen charity, the illness and my reasons for undertaking this challenge.

Siobhan Ryan (the reporter covering the marathon) had cut a couple of my more comprehendable sentences together and used all her skill to craft a fun little article around it which went out prominently on page three . A later article went out on the centre fold of the paper which means I can tell the grand kids I have been both on page three and been a centre fold in my younger days.

I learnt slowly however that press doesn’t bring in donations. I did a whole load of local papers and a few radio interviews with radio Sussex (each a little less stressful than the last) and none of them brought in donations except for the radio which did reach roughly one per interview willing to sponsor.

Almost by accident we stumbled on the perfect way of fundraising. My sister Em brought down a couple of helium canisters and seeing how the Trust had sent a whole load of balloons I decided to chance it and blow up the balloons and take them down to the sea front while we wore our Meningitis Trust T-shirts.

Bribing kids into pestering their parents into giving donations to the Trust for a colourful balloon worked out better than I could have expected. The kids loved the balloons and we got the sponsorships plus and perhaps even more importantly we also got to give out the symptom cards. These are designed by the Trust to give you some vital information that help with the early diagnosis of Meningitis although I did see many a parent doing all they could to prevent their bundle of joy from seeing the balloons probably knowing that once spotted then they’d be cajoled into shelling out yet another pound or two to keep them happy till they crossed the path of the next ice cream van or amusement to spoil their afternoon stroll.

We even went into the centre of Brighton one windy cold Friday night. We didn’t know how it would go as twenty something’s are generally less impressed than toddlers by the sight of balloons but we still managed to take about thirty pound in donations and handed out the ubiquitous symptom cards as ever. On our way into Brighton we passed three homeless guys sheltering in the doorway of the old post office. They called over for a balloon and I decided to cut a few and handed them over and to my surprise one of them unzipped a pocket on the sleeve of his jacket and took out what change he had, dropping it into the bucket. As you can imagine this homeless individual’s generosity was very touching. He had nothing but still he was able to give something and in return on our way home we cut the remaining ten or so balloons and handed them over to the three homeless guys.

Our stint of balloon bribery wasn’t such a bad thing as perhaps one day a symptom cards we handed out could be used to help someone in need and of all the things we did these fund-raising days were the most constant success. The two avenues that seemed to bring the best results were the face to face work and getting support from local companies like the co-op to have collection tins in the shops.

During this time we spoke to so many people who had their own first hand experience of Meningitis. There were too many to mention them all but a few stood out to me like a man we met on the sea front. He stopped to take a symptom card, he studied it intently for a short while and then started to explain how his wife was wheelchair bound by meningitis and when fundraising for the day over at the Holmbush shopping centre I had a young woman about my age come by in her electric wheel chair and tell me that her disability was as the result of recurrent bouts of viral meningitis. It was heart breaking but also uplifting to see how resilient she was as she went about her business with her daughter. That same day a mother put a handful of change in the collection tin and then before I could offer her a symptom card told me how her baby was up the hospital that very day still under going life saving treatment after contracting this illness. The people most effected were the most generous and would tell me about either a grandchild, spouse, son or daughter, mother or father whom had either survived the illness or tragically been taken away by it.

Few illness strike so fast and have such wide-ranging after effects from brain damage to the loss limbs. We may not have poisonous spiders or snakes in England but Meningitis can strike with the speed and venom of the worlds most dangerous creatures, killing or crippling in a matter of hours.  Just like a deadly insect bite it’s all about time from contraction to treatment as to whether you survive and in my case I got to the hospital just in time. The nurse treating me saw the head consultant of infectious diseases whom just happened to pass along the corridor on which my cubicle was situated only a matter of minutes after initially being admitted to A and E. She got him to take a look at me and within moments he had given a preliminary diagnose and prescribed immediate doses of the life saving antibiotics and the powerful steroidal injections into my arm.

The illness is so traumatic and long-lasting in its ramifications on the person and their family that after hearing such harrowing testimonies while working for the Meningitis Trust I feel I got lucky. I got the right treatment from the right people at the right time and ultimately I got to go home, to see my family again and I was able to make a full recovery.

Maybe one day I’ll tell the story of my experience of meningitis but not yet. I can write about it like a place I have been to and returned from where as others all over the country and world never get to return to the place they knew before it entered their lives. Instead they have no choice but to adjust to a new life, in a new world, filled with hardship and tests of their incredible endurance, simply as a result of having this debilitating illness. Being given my health back was an incredible gift, a  fateful twist that could have been very different but I fully intend to use this near miss to support those that don’t have or have ever had what fate has given back to me.