Sunday, 15 December 2019

Sports Review of the year 2019

Gareth Thomas is sluicing through horizontal rain and lashing winds on a 500-mile errand to deliver this year’s SPOTY trophy to Aberdeen. Epic stuff, raising serious dosh for some fantastic Sport Relief projects. I think they’ve missed a trick, though: stick a pizza hot-box on the back of his quattrocycle and surely it’s a Deliveroo sponsorship opportunity? Oven-ready, you might say. You can have that one, Boris - hope it blisters your lips.   

I’m not really here to give more ether-space to BoJo’s self-serving deceit. Instead I have an overwhelming need to shed the lead-lined cloak of despair that’s been draped over my shoulders since Thursday. Time to lighten the mood. Gareth’s journey reminds me that this has been a superb year of sport. One that’s worth a personal reflection here – albeit with less glamour and glitz than the Gary and Gabby show - because I won’t be lucky enough to enjoy another as much as this for a long time to come. 

Cricket is the only place to start. Specifically England’s heart-racing, nerve-shredding World Cup Final victory. Actually, no. Tennis is the only place to start. Specifically Djokovic’s history-making, record-breaking Men’s Final win. That both these monumental slabs of sporting endeavour played out on the same day and reached their breathless climaxes within minutes of each other is remarkable. 

Tennis gets my headline billing because I was there, alongside Mrs A, in the rafters of Centre Court, gripped by a rejuvenated Roger Federer repelling Novac Djokovic’s onslaught. I had never been to the Championships before, never set foot inside the courts, never mind watch the final of one of the Nation’s great sporting events. Mrs A enters the public ballot every year and has done pretty well for early round tickets, although she has missed out totally on plenty of tournaments as well. This February we were offered Men’s Final tickets. It felt like winning the lottery; and at a stroke silenced my cynical bleating about the best tickets in these ‘open’ ballots being creamed off by corporates and insiders. 

Remarkably, Mrs A’s business partner Steve bagged two tickets for the final as well. What odds? Too big even for my value punting principles. I would have scoffed at the chances of that ever happening. So much so that the four of us briefly wondered if we had been the victims of a sophisticated scam. 

Of course, the other consideration had been who would accompany Mrs A? In those previous years, she had gone with a shifting cast of friends. I had not been amongst them. ‘Erm, who will be your Plus-1, my darling?’, I had uttered on more than one occasion.  I was on best behaviour for flippin’ weeks.

Poncing around The All England Club was a hoot, ticking off the sights and then the four of us necking gin & tonics under hanging baskets, lounging on wicker chairs (with cushions!) and generally doing cats-that-got-the cream impressions. 

Mrs A is a die-hard Federette, and the scenes in our house on the preceding Friday when Rog won his semi-final were bordering on unseemly. Watching him in the Final was pretty much a sporting nirvana for her. It was indeed the dream match up.  

The two icons traded blows for hours and the balance of power ebbed and flowed with more regularity than the queues at the strawberry-and-cream stall. 

Federer had two chances to win in the fifth set on his own serve. Did he choke when lobbing what should have a crisp winner down the line tamely into the tram lines? possibly. That last set became a feat of endurance and stamina. Conversation around us turned to the possibility of a tie break – ‘…didn’t they bring in a new rule this year?’, ‘Is it a tie-break at 10-10?’ Well, 10-10 came and went and the sluggers on Centre Court carried on their prize fight. I was exhausted watching them. We reached 12-12 before the umpire announced the tie break. The fifth set had seen enough games for full sixth. This was the first Wimbledon singles final to be settled in this way. 

There is nothing like live sport and despite England’s Cricket World Cup Final taking place right then up the road at Lord’s, I had stayed in the moment in south London, determined to enjoy the spectacle. Sure, a few people around us had been updating us with the score regularly and there was some on-going low-level banter, but I wasn’t hanging off my sport app every few seconds waiting on ball by ball coverage. That would have been wrong. 

Yet at about the same time the tie-break began, the already fevered atmosphere round us went up a few degrees more with news of developments at Lord’s. ‘It’s gone to a Super-over’…. ‘what the fuck is a super over…?’ and such like. Having watched the IPL in the Spring, I was able to offer some clarification. ‘Yeah, one over, one bowler, you can lose one wicket, most runs wins.’ ‘Oh, Ok. Not fewest wickets lost then?’ came one reply. ‘Shhhhh, can’t you see there’s a game of tennis going on’, came others. 

Djokovic made short work of the tie-break, winning 7-3. The match set a new record for the longest final ever staged. Four hours and 57 minutes. Mrs A was gutted for big Rog, but he had left nothing behind today. An amazing match to have seen. 

Only as we were descending the stairs after the presentations did word spread that England had won. We met Steve and Di in a garden bar and picked over the events, washed down by Stella Artois and accompanied by the Metropolitan Police Force band from the bandstand. Steve had initially wanted to avoid the cricket result to watch it later. But there was no chance of that. The bar and grounds were buzzing with incredulity over matters at Wimbledon and Lord’s. This was a great day to be a sports fan. This is why we love it. 

That Sunday had been the apex of a stunning and sometimes challenging week. On the Monday we had travelled down to Southampton and had a night out with Daughter No 1 in advance of her graduation the next day. Proud, proud family moment. On the Wednesday I was in Deptford for a day of gruelling interviews recruiting to a Charity Director post, locked in a hot, humid, fractious room all day. 

All the while my mate and colleague AK and I had been having some heavy to- and fro- about the possibility of acquiring tickets for the England/Australia World Cup semi at Edgbaston on the Thursday. I had been very keen, but the prices were rising fast and I had all but ruled myself out – partly cost and partly logistics. AK had just missed out on some legit resale tickets because of IT grief and now he was negotiated some less-legitimate resale options. At one point he thought he offered up a pair for a reasonable price and then found out they were for the Old Trafford semi! On the eve of the game, a couple more sources hove into view. I couldn’t resist any longer and with time running out, we two, plus two of AK’s pals bought five tickets at more than double face value in a batch of two and three. The sellers wouldn’t split them. We would have to sell one or find someone else to come with us. In the event neither happened. I reckon we paid over £250 all in. Eye-watering for a tight-wallet like me. 

Was it worth the price? Every last penny. Undoubtedly. The day provided England with a thumping, ruthless win. The game was an absolute stomp, played out before a febrile crowd who never tired of singing ‘Sweeeeet Caroline….so good, so good, so good’. Mrs A, how I love that woman, had dropped me over at South Mimms service station at some brutal time in the morning, for AK to pick me up on the trip to Brum. Paul and Curtis were already aboard. There’s nothing like the banter before a big game between four grown men who sub-consciously revert to excitable teenager mode, jabbering wildly and making rubbish jokes. Or was that just me?

Arriving at the Edgbaston outskirts, we were up against the clock.  Curtis spotted a couple of young men ushering vehicles into a car park for a tenner a pop. We didn’t have time to mess about, so we drove in, dished out the brown-back and lined up the Astra adjacent to the other rows of saloons. We jumped up, gathered our stuff and then realised that this was less asphalt car park and more of your actual civic park. As in Birmingham City Council recreation space, onto which these Edgbaston entrepreneurs acting on no-one’s authority but their own, had just invited us to park for a straight tenner. We counted up the cars, shrugged and grudgingly chuckled at this neat bit of business. We also did a quick calculation that concluded there would not be enough wheel clamps in the city to do all of us…

After a bit of AK-led cloak and dagger, the four us were able to sit together in the Eric Hollies stand, where the atmosphere was typically raucus all day. Archer and Woakes were roared in, Warner and Smith were crucified, and Root and Roy was serenaded. My cricket expertise unravelled faster that an Archer missile: 
-       “England are poor chasers”, I said. They ran down the target of 224 with 8 wickets in hand, at over 7 runs an over with Jason Roy crashing 5 maximums. 
-       “Rashid needs to come off, he’s getting pulverised”, I said. He took two crucial, momentum-jarring wickets in his next over.
-       “Smith’s bang out of form in this World Cup”, I said. He knocked up 85 easy runs, before a sensational piece of work by Buttler ran him out.

The car was still there and clamp-free when we returned. We all tried (and possibly failed) to keep AK awake at the wheel on the homeward leg. I’d finally run out of crap banter, having hit the buffers in my attempts to offload onto them some Wimbledon Mens Singles Final tickets I’d happened upon. Don’t tell Mrs A. Another stunning ‘I was there’ day in a once-in-a-lifetime week.

There were more golden moments of cricket nectar to hoover up in late Summer. As if a World Cup was insufficient, we had an Ashes series in which to indulge. The scorebook tells you that we failed to win back the urn, but a hard-fought draw was miles better than a series defeat. Stokes has had quite a year. It should be enough to lift the SPOTY gong tonight. But his 135 not out to win the Third test – back at Edgbaston - was the best individual performance I’ve seen anywhere all year. All decade. Words really do fail when something as extra-ordinary as that innings happens. Proper tingle-y.

Mrs A and I had been at a family celebration in Halifax and drove over to spend the rest of the August Bank Holiday with my Dad. The weather was superb and we had toyed with the idea of going out for the afternoon. And then the Stokes show began in earnest. Dad and I were hooked to the telly, broken only by me running outside to update in gabbling tones a mildly curious (at best) Mrs A. I don’t get back home as much as I’d like and being with Dad to cheer England over the line was special. 

A few weeks later, Bryn and I had tickets for the Sunday, 4th day of the 5th Test at the Oval. Until a few days before, it was uncertain whether we would get any play. I had an additional concern borne of enthusiastic participation in Keith’s stag do the very night before. We came through on both counts. The Ashes had gone, but we had a great chance to level to series. The day went almost perfectly to plan: a baking hot September day; quick England runs to set up the Aussies chase; and then regular wickets to keep them on the back foot.

I say ‘almost perfectly’ because Matthew Wade’s tenacious century took the game late into the day. Bryn had tickets to see Muse that night over at the O2. He cracked at about ten-to-six with three wickets left to take, and bolted for the exit. Inevitably, they fell almost the moment he left. In fact he was barely out of the ground when Matthew wade departed LBW and the spinners cleaned up in the next three overs. ‘Don’t ever tell anyone I left early, Davoski' texted Bryn. Quick as a flash, I replied, “No worries, mate. Your secret is safe with me”. 

Just one final cricket footnote. I won our Fantasy Cricket League this year. The comp has been running for over 20 years now, but I hadn’t got my hands on the trophy for about a decade. This may be the last outing as Nev is refusing to look after the stats anymore. The thing doesn’t work without his genius touch. Anyway, if it is to be the last renewal, I’m glad I was at my cocky, insufferable best in May at the Epsom Oaks meeting when I told both Nev and Bacchy that I would be winning the League this year, no question. I am obviously not going to enlarge here on all those other rash predictions that did not come to pass. It’s my blog after all. 

Which brings me to horseracing. Having rattled on for about four pages, this glorious sport gets only one unworthy paragraph. But I’m running out of time. The Cheltenham Festival, the Oaks meeting and the Sandown Tingle Creek meeting were the undisputed highlights. Top events in the company of some great, loyal, long-standing mates. I had good Cheltenham and Oaks betting campaigns. In the Barley Mow I may have been the only one cheering home Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup; but at Epsom there were many shouting for Annapurna (Oaks) and Defoe (Coronation Cup). These all came in at big prices and I do love celebrating a value winner. Outside these  glorious moments, the punting has been average to poor and I’m enduring a shocking run at the moment. It was nice to get out to some quieter venues during the year, too: with CB-D at Lingfield and with the fam at Southwell. Let’s here it for the gaff tracks! 

What else? Well, I loved watching the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup and there were some stand out moments in the World Athletics, bizarrely held in Doha. Dina Asher-Smith and KJ-T were superb. But if there’s any justice, Gareth Thomas is powering up the A80 to Aberdeen right now with the trophy and a couple of slices of Pepperoni pizza for Ben Stokes. For my money, he deserves it for his World Cup performance; for that Edgbaston innings; for rebuilding his career after public order offences; and for shouting down some of the worst gutter-press reporting about historic family news I’ve ever seen. 

Speed ye well Gareth. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

#Letstalkaboutmentalhealth


Credit: Natural Health News 
My clever, sassy, witty, vibrant, sociable, warm, feisty, feminist, artistic, beautiful Daughter No 2 has been diagnosed with Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder.

She rang me after her Adult Mental Health Services appointment in tears.  I was sipping a cappuccino in Marks and Spencers which went cold before I finished it. I muttered something about “it’s only a label”, and “this is still a really new area of medicine”, but the truth was I didn’t know very much about the term.  Mrs A had a similar phone conversation at about the same time.

We weren’t expecting this diagnosis. Neither was Daughter No 2. Her mental ill health had become more apparent over the preceding year and she had been seen, in hap-hazard fashion, by the county Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service, known as CAMHS. As we did, Daughter No 2 believed – hoped – that the anxiety, depression, panic attacks, recklessness and manic behaviour which were afflicting her on a regular basis were a ‘phase’; that the symptoms would pass. However, Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, EUPD, is not a ‘phase’, we learned from Google later that day. It is a life-limiting condition.

The first inkling we had about the extent of her declining mental health was about 18 months ago when she came back from the Doctor’s having been prescribed Citalopram. ‘A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor’, it said on the box. That’s an anti-depressant and panic attack reducer, to you and me.

Nearly one in four young women has a mental illness, with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety the most common. An NHS study recently found young women aged 17 to 19 were twice as likely as young men to have problems, with almost 24% reporting a disorder. Body image pressures, exam stress, home life and the negative effects of social media are all thought to affect girls disproportionately.

Despite these stats, which are becoming increasingly widely recognised, I was resolutely displaying all the classic signs of denial. And let’s be clear. This is a blog about me. About how parents struggle to accept, process, deal with and live through the mental health needs of their offspring.

The pretext for DN2’s initial visit to the GP was to tackle disruptive sleeping patterns. Storm in a tea cup, we said. Just get into a regular routine and sleep will come. “And turn off the bloody phone*/TV*laptop* (delete as appropriate) before you try to go to sleep…”

The lack of sleep was real. But it was a symptom of a more serious malaise; and also served as a smokescreen for her visits to the Doc’s. The smokescreen was successful in obfuscating uncomfortable questions and unwanted advice from parents. Buying enough time until she could unpick some of information that would come through from the professionals.

Apart from a realisation that DN2 was much more ill than we realised, this period also emphasised two other points which later became a pattern.

First - she wanted to be well. By self-diagnosing from the web and from within her peer group, DN2 knew she was more ill than she was letting on to us. Even through the dark times, when as parents, Mrs A and I are sick with worry and sleepless with fret, we know she desperately wants to do something about it.

Second - she was driving the process. As loving, caring, worrying parents with our daughter’s absolute best interests at heart, we found ourselves disempowered. We were not making the decisions and we were often not her first port of call for support. Some of her friends had similar symptoms of their own and and were better placed to offer an unconditional, informed ear.

Neither was I accepting of the realities. I was shocked when she came back from the GPs after a full mental health assessment with a rattling bag full of powerful drugs. Both Mrs A and I were scathing of the medical profession that would prescribe them. I was still banging on about lifestyle changes and mindfulness approaches. It was only when we sat down and listened to her – and it was not easy getting to that point – that I recognised the doctors had been pretty comprehensive in assessing her risks. They had not prescribed this stuff willy-nilly. They were part of a treatment plan reacting to her chilling responses in a detailed diagnostic mental health assessment.

As a Dad, it is hard to describe the stabbing despair of seeing your youngest daughter come down to breakfast with multiple razor cuts on her arms, or gouges on the back of her hand. Except to say that every slice and gash hurts me nearly as much as it does her. In some ways that is the point. In the dark and demon filled nights, self-harming is often seen as a way of releasing overwhelming emotions; a way of getting them outside. Mostly she doesn’t want to talk about it, but when she does, there is a sense that the physical pain of self-harm is easier to deal with than the emotional pain that's behind it.

When she is having a panic attack, and I look in to her eyes, I see real fear. Fear about losing control, about what she might do to herself, where it might all end. That’s where the worry comes from. Kicking straight back into the parenting mode, my thoughts are “what if I’m not there to help, to prevent, to divert”. Such thoughts are futile but inevitable.

Or the simple pain that comes from knowing that she has been crying all day.

We are a bit better about reacting to her periods of panic and fear now. Sometimes - though not always - Daughter No 2 will ask for help when she is tipping over the edge. One long and disturbing evening quite early in the journey proved to be a bit of a watershed in the way we all began to deal with the situation. Daughter No 2 came back from the pub in the midst of a panic attack, sobbing wildly and highly distressed about how she “couldn’t take it any more, I just can’t do it”. There was something here about feeling like an under achiever and relative comparisons, expectations and achievements within a large peer group.

But right then, that was not the immediate concern. She was at the end of her tether and wanted to go into hospital for a psychiatric assessment. This did not feel like the right step to Mrs A and I. DN2 had been given a helpline number by CAMHS and so together we gave it a try. What became clear was that there was no viable support network in place. Through protracted, dysfunctional phone calls with a series of out of hours services, the best offer was for DN2 to check in to A&E. At 11pm on a Saturday night. No thanks.

Mrs A, my daughter’s boyfriend and I sat up with DN2, talking and not talking, for as long as was needed. Several runs of ‘Despicable Me’ later, DN2 was calm and back in control. She went to bed and was close to ‘normal’ the next morning. Families and extended networks have a real role to play.

After several months, DN2 was referred to Adult Mental Health Services. In talking to other parents in similar situations, it seems we have been lucky. Many young adults slip through the yawning gaps between juvenile and adult services, leaving parents frustrated and bereft. This is often because the onus for action switches to the young adult. Parents can no longer drive the engagement. A subtlety we did not immediately grasp, given that our daughter had taken the initiative from the start.

We later discovered that CAMHS had made a provisional diagnosis of emotional personality disorder some time before her last contact with the service. The diagnosis remained provisional because only adult services could confirm this and sanction therapeutic responses, rather than counselling. So there had been months of treading water.

The diagnosis is a controversial one. There is a raging debate about how helpful the description of personality disorders really is. I find myself persuaded that the focus should instead be on what DN2 needs so that she can deal with her problems, not what category she is in or what stigma to attach to her. Even the term ‘personality disorder’ sounds judgemental.

My daughter now has regular therapy sessions, and they seem to be helping. She has a trustful relationship with her therapist who is encouraging coping strategies and healthy behaviours which will help to break down dissociation and the closing out of emotions and feelings; interrupting the erratic cycle of mania, depression, introspection and stability.

There are plenty of potholes, rocks and blind bends on the road to recovery though. And I’m talking about the responsible parenting thing again. I’ve learned that I’m not as immune to what other people think as I’d hoped. I can become very defensive when anybody criticises my daughter. Once, when this negativity came from a friend, I had no hesitation in cutting them out. As far as I was concerned, they were not trying to offer constructive support, but were making shallow judgements based on flippant observations - almost entirely on physical appearance – which were incredibly damaging. “Oh, I saw your daughter the other day. All those piercings and the hair colour. Sad really, she looks so hard.” This is mostly ignorance, rather than a desire to hurt. But still. (You may be able to detect that my approach to all this is still a work in progress… )

I’ve also learned that if DN2 doesn’t want to discuss things, there is no point pushing for answers. She still closes down very effectively when needed, despite the best intentions of the therapist. We’ve had rows of course. When frustrations bring difficult issues to the surface and heighten tensions within the family. Most often these issues highlight the clash between ‘old fashioned’ views about what recovery should look like and current understanding that recognises how depression impacts on motivation and creates barriers to achieving goals that others would consider minor.

There remains a lot of ignorance. I recognise the all too easy temptation to reach for epithets like “pull your socks up”, “just get on with it”, “We never had this in our day. We just had to deal with it.” These views have led to a lot of undiagnosed mental illness and grief over many years. I believe and hope that we are moving on from that. There is something of that spirit in this blog post. A path made possible by the brave words of earlier pioneers in similar circumstances.

This where I trot out the hackneyed old metaphor about the rollercoaster ride we have all been on this last 18 months. Right now, we are still in the car, clinging to the guard rail and peering down the tracks in the vain hope of picking out the next twist. But we are absolutely there for her, when she needs us, every minute of the ride.

My daughter and I have talked about this blog and she endorses it.
“It’s sad”, she said, “It isn’t going to be a fun read for anyone, lol!”
“Dunno”, I replied, “It’s like car-crash TV innit? Ha!”


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Stoking the fires

For a while over the Summer I thought I was falling out of love with the game. Back in August at Sandown, Mrs A and I met up with a few pals to see Nile Rodgers and Chic after racing. The evening was spectacular. Mainly because of a cataclysmic thunderstorm that broke the heatwave; and the unearthly light that followed it. For the first time I can remember, the racing was overshadowed by extraneous stuff.
In the last race on that card, I backed a winner that prevailed by a neck. Data Protection won at 7/2 and I had backed it at 6/1 earlier in the day. William Muir’s charge had been unearthed through a system I’d been working on with varying levels of application for a couple of years. I’ve written about it elsewhere.

The system seems to work. But for effective results, the beast needed feeding with attention most days. Big priced winners are found inconsistently and to maximise the return, there is a compelling need to shortlist the horses from each handicap each day. That shouldn’t be such a trial, especially when the stats show a decent return, but this Summer I couldn’t devote enough time. More pertinently I began to lose the inclination. The ‘system’ became a bit like punting by numbers. I’ve never been a fan of that.

The return of the jumps proper in October eventually stoked the fires. I realised that what I enjoy the most is watching the races, picking out progressive types and backing winners that I’ve picked out myself. What a thrill. I’d almost forgotten.

It’s good to be back. And it’s good to welcome back Philip Hobbs. I backed War Sound when he won a decent handicap at Aintree at their Old Roan meeting. A win that rehabilitated my enthusiasm and also confirmed that Hobbsy has a string of well handicapped hurdlers and chasers lined up. Rock The Kasbah’s gutsy (not a trait he has shown too often) win in the staying handicap chase last weekend confirmed that view. Although a return to form for the previously slick Defi Du Seuil was a trick too far. He looked about as poor as Lalor looked impressive. 

I also managed to snaffle Nietzche in the Greatwood Hurdle. This one was a proper long-term project. I’ve had Ellison’s hurdler in my watchlist for over a year, waiting for him to find the combination of the right ground and the right weight. I’ve lost a few quid in the process. I didn’t think the Greatwood was that ‘right’ race because he appeared to be too far out of the handicap. But a last-minute punt based on a drifting Betfair price (28/1) and an encouraging recent outing on the flat (when I also backed him) finally saw the project deliver. I would have been inconsolable had I not backed him.

Shifting fortunes: on Saturday my ante-post punt for this race had come out because of the ground. I'd backed Patriote at about 29 and had been happy with the selection. He's a nice one for another day.

I’ve already punted up a small slice of these early winnings on lunacy Cheltenham shouts. Why not?

  • Draconien (Mullins) for the Arkle, 20/1, now 55s so assume a setback or a different target.
  • Melon (Mullins) for the Champion Hurdle, 10/1
  • Great Field (Mullins) for the Champion Chase, 20/1
  • Pingshou (Tizzard) for the Arkle, 25/1 backed before the race in which Lalor excelled.

The Betfair Chase at Haydock takes top billing this weekend of course. Hard to see past Mite Bite, but I’d love to see Thistlecrack bounce back to his scintillating best.

Earlier on the card, River Wylde is on my shortlist for the graduation chase. Over at Ascot, the Coral Hurdle is disappointingly uncompetitive. I may look at Oscar Rose in the earlier mares hurdle now she goes in handicap company. I’ll probably get involved in the 2m handicap chase too. Otherwise, probably a quiet weekend. One to watch some of the novice action here and in Ireland.

Play the long game.


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Summer tripping

Mrs A and I are quite getting in to the idea of sneaky weekend trips away without the rest of the fam. We’ve just booked another. Flushed with the success of last year’s wet and windy visit to Westport on the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland with The Johnsons, we then followed up with a more genteel destination. Bruges didn’t require the same extreme hiking mentality, nor square-jawed, stiff-upper-lipped resolve to enjoy-despite-the weather as Westport. Neither did the Belgian town have the cacophonous accompaniment of Storm Brian.

What both trips did have in common, however, was unquenchable thirsts and raging hungers. We ate and drank well. Bruges is spectacularly able to meet both these needs. Days (and nights) were spent ambling through the medieval city’s pretty streets; exploring the canals (this was the ‘Venice of the North’ after all, doffing a respectful cap to other claimants for this title that include Amsterdam and, well, Wigan); and visiting the many fine landmark buildings.
Refuelling fitted in with this pattern well. Coffee by the chocolate museum, cake in the shadow of the The Belfry, brewery tour by the Dijver Canal, beers in the Duvelorium overlooking the Markt, moules marinieres by the Skinners House…. Aperol Spritz in the karaoke bar at the end of our road at 2am in the morning. To be fair the last named was only attempted by Sue who claimed to have discovered a liking for this luminescent, sickly alcoholic cough medicine concoction. Something we all doubted when she spent the day after our return ill in bed with gastrospritz aperolitis. Or something.
Duvelorium. Rude not to.
By that time of the night, the rest of us were invariably on ‘weak’ beers. That’s how the locals referred to anything below 6%. Earlier, we dropped in on a bar on the northern canals by the Bonne Chieremolen windmill for a spot of refreshment. To accompany a sharing platter of savoury-topped bread, deep-fried fish nibbles and posh chicken nuggets, the barman recommended to me a bottle of Triple de Garre Van Steenberg beer, which I accepted, until I learnt it weighed in at 12.4%! I bridled at the strength of a such a thing. Especially on a lunch time. Despite the barman’s insistence (“You can take it! You are English, no?”), I found the will to decline and settled for a mere 8% brew.

Fast forward to our next trip. We’ve just booked a weekend in Krakow in late January, when the average temperature appears to be around -4º centigrade. Westport may yet seem benign.

These breaks are not intended to replace family holidays. Far from it. Merely a welcome diversification spawned of life-cycle shifts. Indeed, the four of us spending a week away with Dad and Bruv is a regular and welcome fixture in the calendar.

But I have to ask. Who on earth takes a printer on holiday? I don’t mean one of those flash, palm-sized gadgets you attach to your phone. No, I refer to a traditional, clunky, early 21st century combined fax, printer and photocopier. The sort that if you managed to wedge it into the compact boot of a Hyundai i10, together with cables and cartridges, there might not be room for much other luggage.

Mrs A, myself and the girls had pitched up at our log cabin on the Norfolk coast to spend a few days with Dad and Bruv. After unloading our car of dog, food and holdalls, we helped Bruv lever out his printer and, with one of us at each corner, humped the beast into the cabin. It rested on the table, causing the legs to bulge slightly.

Between bouts of furious piss-taking and general hilarity, Bruv found the wherewithall to explain that the Wi-Fi was on the blink at home and that he was desperate to get his tax return completed, printed and posted so that he could bank his rebate tout-suite. Making space in the car for the printer was more important than packing, say, clothes, or anything else useful. Good job the barometer needle had swung firmly to ‘good’ with all immediate forecasts predicting a heatwave. 

We explored the cabin that was to be our home for the next few days: hot-tub, check; en-suites, check; BBQ terrace, check. Just one hitch. We were nestled at the bottom of a steep valley, shaded by conifers and beeches. Wi-Fi: uncheck. Intermittent at best. (Who knew Norfolk had hills?)

The weather did not disappoint, even if the IT did. There were some glorious cliff top walks to Cromer and Mundesley; and plenty of lounging around in the sun at genteel locations like Felbrigg Hall and Overstrand. I like Norfolk. 
The World Cup was underway. We saw a couple of games in the bar on site. But the real drama occurred not on football night, but on a club night when we ostentatiously smashed up the quiz and won the price of our meals. There’s nothing more satisfying than winning a quiz. Except possibly watching Daughter No 2 roasting the barman who tried to make a cheap sexist comment. One round had as its theme the meanings of symbols on clothing care labels. “One for the ladies only, I think!” he winked as he collected our empties. Daughter No 2 fixed him with her death stare and told him he was disgraceful. He wasn’t expecting that and muttered something about not meaning it. The swiftest backtracking seen since the last Brexit Secretary resigned. 

Bruv had fought the wi-fi and managed to finalise his tax return by the end of the week. He printed it off with a flourish wholly undeserving of the mad exercise.

I keep telling Mrs A that we should sell off our gaff in Berko and cash in on its ridiculously inflated prices and move to the coast. However, I’m starting to feel like we may have missed the boat. We’ve had a couple of trips to the north Kent coast this year to see friends. Already the price differential seems to be narrowing. Whitstable would still be near the top of my list. Built around fishing, tourism and tarmacadum, the place is famous for oysters, sunsets and real ale. Lovely though it is, the lively, independent and slightly eccentric feel is proving attractive to retiring London-types moving in and ramping up the prices. Our hosts beat the rush and upped sticks from South Hampstead about 7 years ago. Smart move.
Herne Bay, just along the coast still has some juice left in the market and has much going for it. What it lacks is the tousled, faintly Bohemian appeal of its neighbour. I can’t knock the substantial breakfast served by friendly staff in the Cook House café by the pier. But is that a sufficiently compelling factor to relocate? Almost…

To be fair, neither town is ideal for commuting to the Big City more than a couple of days a week. The rail journeys are still painfully slow this far east despite HS1. These are very much semi-retirement destinations.

Folkestone, though, is starting to benefit from HS1 and the steady increase in bullet-shaped trains. I paid an overdue visit in August, although buying a train ticket wasn’t as straight forward as I expected. And not just because the ticket-lady couldn’t stop looking at the purple pimple nestled angrily on my chin. No, depending on when you travel, there are various options including or excluding the high speed option; and in or out of peak hours; or a promotional offer, or the reckless desire to travel just any bleedin’ time you wanted.

Having negotiated the purchase which afforded me the right to traverse those precious HS1 tracks, I settled into my Javelin train. ‘Britain’s Fastest’ it said on the cab. That one was named in honour of Paralympic sprinter Jonny Peacock.

Rushed into service prior to the 2012 London Olympics, the Javelins have split open commuting times (for those that can afford them). Stratford, Ashford and Ebbsfleet comprise the ‘International’ stations on the fast line out of St Pancras International. Stations beyond have seen journey times more than halved: Faversham, Folkestone, Deal, Margate. But not to any significant degree, Whistable or Herne Bay.

Trouble is, Folkestone is a town of two halves. I jumped off the train and found the area close to the station and down to the front pretty grotty, rundown and not without an air of hostility.  A girl in her early twenties with multi-piercings and long ginger hair, wearing skimpy animal-print clothing was shuffling along in front of me, incumbered by broken-backed slippers. She halted her phone conversation to bark “Whachoo lookin’ at, mug?”, as a bloke overtook her and couldn’t resist a peaking back over his shoulder at this vision. Busted.

Then I skittered out on to the cliff top path like a cork from a bottle and suddenly breathed deeply. It felt like a different world. Folkestone seems to have a structural shift between the town and the coast. Over a giant cup of coffee and the crumbliest cookie ever baked, I relaxed on the terrace outside the Leas Cliff Pavilion overlooking a stream of liners entering and exiting Dover Harbour on the horizon. And wondered (only briefly) if I should pop back in October to catch Joe Pasquali live at the venue.

The cliff path dropped down to a wide shingle beach and I wound my way back to town past some glorious houses, splashes of public art, beach huts and man-made sea bathing enclaves. The port area sums up Folkestone very neatly: gruesome, decrepit 70’s flats overlooking a tasteful and ambitious refurbishment of the town’s old harbour. If I was a betting man, or at least one with decent-sized cajones (ahem), I should be taking a property punt on the town. Get ahead of the curve, that’s what I say. Except this is just wishful thinking. I have to gird my loins for a long-range Cheltenham Festival punt, so finding the grit to gamble the retirement plan on a town’s potential resurgence seems remote. Back to the racing ante-post lists, then. 
High Summer wound into a mild Autumn and we paid a visit to the homeland to catch up with Bruv for his birthday. Those brief 2½ days in Yorkshire echoed Westport in the intensity of weather. On the Castleton Road, the magnificent vistas of Farndale and Rosedale to left and right, we encountered snow and screaming winds, broken up by a vivid sunset streaming out from under a dramatic linear cloudbase. The moor beyond The Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge resembled the fire and freeze of Iceland.
We were on our way to the Raven Hall Hotel at Ravenscar, surely one of the most romantically perfect settings anywhere on the stunning coast. The building perches on a headland 200 foot above the broiling North Sea, purposefully setting its granite countenance against the sharp north-easterlies; and affording a view over the striking bay, scarified at the water’s edge from its days as an alum-mining port, towards the fishing village of Robin Hoods Bay tumbling down the opposite headland.

It's been estimated that 25m tons of shale and rock were hewn from the quarries along this coast to produce the alum that was used as a colour fixative in leather goods. Together with extensive ironstone mining further north, 19th century heavy industry has shaped the coast in these parts more than the thrilling, raw view from the Raven Hall Hotel might suggest.

A visit to Dalby Forest next day could not have been more different. Shimmering Autumn sunlight from crisp blue skies illuminated golden leaves, with barely a breath of wind to cajole them from the branches. The landscape here has been shaped by farming and forestry, rather than mineral extraction.

It was the first day of GMT. Daughter No 2 hadn’t come with us. She texted Mrs A who looked up from her phone and said “This is why you can’t leave children on their own…” The text said, ‘Mum, have the clocks gone back or forwards?’ The very phone on which she texted would have updated automatically.

And Bruv is still waiting for his tax rebate.