Category Archives: personal

Feeling better and pain free

For the first time, for two months, I am feeling better. The sciatica has largely retreated, leaving me with the occasional twinge in the knee, but that will hopefully pass with time and exercise. I had an excellent appointment with a specialist doctor on Friday, and her opinion was also that the sciatica has largely gone, and that we just have to watch the knee and hip, and if they don’t get better, action may be needed. I’m hopeful that it won’t be needed.

When you have been in pain for so long, you almost tune it out (although not when it’s severe of course). Sitting here and not feeling any pain is a revelation. At my worst, I couldn’t envisage working, let alone doing any form of creative planning. I am slowly getting that ability to think back, which is just as well, as I have projects to plan for just over a week’s time.

I have discussed with Angela how it all may have started. Certainly, having several hours in a very cold room a few days before I first noticed the symptoms can’t have helped. And carrying two heavy trombones backwards and forwards for several weeks for rehearsals and a concert that happened a week before then didn’t do any good either (and I won’t be doing that again – I will use the alto trombone where possible!) For now I am just grateful that this difficult time seems to be over.


A month ‘on the wagon’, 10 December 2018 – 9 January 2019

I have always felt the idea of ‘Dry January’ was somewhat ludicrous, especially as many people who do it fixate on coming off, and then go totally mad on 1 February, undoing all the good done by their month’s abstinence in one go. This post is not about Dry January, but about my own enforced absence from drinking for other reasons.

In November I got the first symptoms of what turned out to be sciatica (see post on ‘My Annus Horribilis’), but it wasn’t until 10 December that I was prescribed some painkilling drugs which specified ‘no alcohol’ (amitriptyline and later tramadol). So, I have been off the booze since then. I actually came off the medication about 10 days ago, but made the decision to stay ‘dry’ for a month, which takes me neatly to my birthday on 9 January. It means I didn’t drink alcohol for the whole of the Christmas/New Year period. It certainly made everything much simpler (no need to get wine supplies in etc.), and we discovered some excellent non-alcoholic alternatives, drinking the New Year in with a non-alcoholic mulled punch, for example. We are even thinking of doing the same next year, although I hope it won’t be under the same conditions!

I haven’t noticed any difference in the way I feel, probably because the sciatic pain was always there in the background, but it did seem a good opportunity to give my system a rest, and maybe recalibrate it. I’m an enthusiastic beer drinker, as well as enjoying wine and the odd whisky, so a month’s abstinence must have made a difference, especially as it has been my first ‘dry’ spell since I started drinking alcohol at age 18! Angela tells me that I will really notice the effect of the alcohol when I have my first drink, and that a little will go a long way. It will be interesting to see!

I have been paying lip service to ‘Tryanuary’, which counters ‘Dry January’ by encouraging support for the beer industry during January. I’m looking forward to making my support more real in a few days’ time!

My Review of 2018

I write this annual review in some discomfort; for the last two months of the year I have been suffering from sciatica, and although I am better than I was, it is still hanging on. I hope it won’t be too much a feature of 2019!

The first three months of 2018 saw me still as Head of School. It was a difficult time, as documented in another post (2018 – My Annus Horribilis), but I saw it through, while doing a reasonable amount of teaching, including the second run-through of my Digital Forensics module (which somewhat paradoxically didn’t go so well), and my MChem and 2nd year lectures.

In early April, having just finished as HoS, I attended a conference at UCL organised for myself and Steve Parker to mark our 60th birthdays (OK, a year late for me). It was very enjoyable, both from a social and scientific viewpoint, but on looking back, it might have been better (for me) if it had been a bit later, since I hadn’t yet shaken off the effects of being HoS! But I am very grateful to Richard (Catlow), Nora (de Leeuw) and team for organising it. After the Easter Vacation, I had some teaching to finish, and another trip to Canterbury to help the University of Kent appoint a Head of their School of Physical Sciences. This time they were successful, and the chosen person was my preferred one too. Exams started at Keele, and I had a trip to Dublin to do a PhD viva. In mid-June I had my external examining at Huddersfield (for the first time), and Sheffield Hallam (for the second time). (I did my Trinity College Dublin external examining by Skype as I couldn’t make the trip for health reasons). I didn’t attend Eurodim2016 because my time as Head of School had impacted on both my research, and enthusiasm for attending the conference (which can be very political, and I had enough of that!). Nevertheless I was grateful that Mário visited me for a few days after the conference, and we had some useful discussions about research. It was very good of him to visit, and it made up a lot for missing the conference

In August I had my annual visit to the GBBF, which was really excellent, and Angela attended some of the sessions, including the trade session. We stayed in the Holiday Inn near West Brompton tube, which once again proved very convenient for travelling to and from the GBBF.

I saw some excellent exhibitions in 2018, and details are in a separate post (Films, Exhibitions and Concerts 2018), but I will particularly mention the amazing Monet and Architecture exhibition at the National Gallery. Also mentioned in that post are the musical events I attended, but I particularly mention Don McClean and Joan Baez, both in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. I also heard Focus play for the second year running, in the 100 Club.

The autumn was as usual dominated by the new semester, with challenging teaching (5 project students again). Towards the end, when I had the health problems mentioned in my other post, I had to take some time off sick, and couldn’t attend my Christmas conference, (both for the first time ever). This was a serious thing to happen for me. I started the Christmas vacation in a rather poor state, and have been slowly improving, although I have good and bad days. Angela as always has been my rock, and I thank her for all she does, and especially in my bad days.

Thus 2018 finished badly, and I hope sincerely that 2019 will be a better year for me.

PS I should add that because of the medication I have been taking since 10 December, I have not drunk any alcohol since then. This has been my first ‘dry’ Christmas – New Year for a long time!

Books read in 2018

This is taken from my Goodreads account, and the contents of my Kindle, and should be fairly accurate!


The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon (a new author for me)

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton (new author)

This is Where I Say Goodbye – James Craig

Origin – Dan Brown

I’ll Keep You Safe – Peter May

Lullaby – Leila Slimani, Sam Taylor (new author)

Three Things about Elsie – Joanna Cannon

The Dry – Jane Harper (new author)

Force of Nature – Jane Harper (new author)

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig (new author)

Dead If You Don’t – Peter James

The Killing Habit – Mark Billingham

The Dark Web – Christopher Lowery (new author)

Fall Down Dead – Stephen Booth

Into the Darkness – Sibel Hodge

Take Nothing with You – Patrick Gale

Untouchable – Sibel Hodge

Careless Love – Peter Robinson

The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Kate Morton)

In a House of Lies (Ian Rankin)

The Comforts of Home (Susan Hill)


With 6 new authors, my reading was a bit more diversified in 2018.

As 2019 approaches, I have two books on my Kindle that might be looked at before the turn of the year, although they will be included in next year’s list:

The Warning – Kathryn Croft

The Rosicrucian Prophecy – John Paul Davies

Films, Exhibitions and Music in 2018

2018 has been a challenging year, with the responsibilities of being Head of School for the first 3 months, and then various health/personal issues intervening (documented elsewhere). I nevertheless managed to see some films, to play in a few concerts, to hear some music, and go to some nice exhibitions.

  1. Films

Darkest Hour – 10/01

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – 20/02

A Wrinkle in Time – 29/3

Peter Rabbit – 9/5

Mama Mia 2 – 30/7

Christopher Robin – 11/9

The House with a clock in its walls – 21/10

Cliff Richard 60th anniversary concert (recording) – 30/10


  1. Exhibitions

140 years of recorded sound (British Library) – 7/1

Cezanne Portraits and Taylor-Wessing Portraits (NPG) – 8/1

Picasso 1932 (Tate Modern) – 25/03

Football Museum and Manchester Art Gallery – 4/6

Monet & Architecture (National Gallery) – 21/7

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece (British Museum) – 22/7

Michael Jackson Exhibition and BP Portraits (NPG) – 6/8

History of Russian Football (Football Museum Manchester) – 8/9

Kelvingrove Museum and Pollock House (Glasgow) – 14-15/9


  1. Live Music

Eugene Onegin (Glasgow) – 29/4

Don McClean (Manchester) – 7/5

Chess (London Coliseum) – 19/5

Joan Baez (Manchester) – 24/5

Summer Holiday – 6/10

Focus (100 Club) – 10/11

Panto – Jack and the Beanstalk (22/12)

I also played in KPO concerts on 24/3 and 3/11, but didn’t play for the other orchestras due to timing/programme issues.

A few other events that qualify to be noted in this section were:

RSC Summer Party (Royal Academy) – 18/7

UCL 40th year reunion – 13/10

UCL Lab Dinner (with my after dinner speech) – 23/11

2018: My Annus Horribilis

It was in a speech in November 1992 that Queen Elizabeth II referred to the year just passed as an ‘Annus Horribilis’ (Latin, Horrible Year). The way this year has turned out for me led my wife Angela to suggest that 2018 has become an Annus Horribilis for me, and I should write about it. This will not replace my review of the year, which will have some more positive things in it!

It all really started before 2018 began, in November 2017, when my phone was stolen in London (see separate post). This really shook me. However, I got back on track, and enjoyed the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

For the first three months of 2018, I was still Acting Head of School. This coincided with a strike by the UCU, which affected my School quite seriously. Our Management expected Heads to ‘manage’ the strike, by informing them, and students, when teaching sessions were affected, but this was a no-go because striking staff had the right not to tell anyone they were going to strike! My attempts to implement this policy were met with bad grace (probably justifiably so, but I was in a no-win situation anyway). It affected relations with some colleagues, and for some there will simply be no going back. Eventually the strike came to a temporary pause, with the possibility of its extension into the summer exam period. But in the end it didn’t, so when my successor as Head took over on 1st April, it had finished. I had rejoined the UCU while Head (largely as an insurance policy, see ‘Part of the Union’ post), but I left as soon as I stepped down from the post. My experience of dealing with the Keele UCU was enough to put me off, plus it is quite an expensive insurance policy! (I wrote several posts about the strike, including re-posting one of Angela’s posts, so I refer to those for more detail).

The stress of the last three months of being Head of School probably contributed to a return of my anxiety issues, particularly relating to travel, but also my tendency to worry about all manner of things, whether I can do anything about them or not. This led me to try once again to get some support, and as described in another post, I got help from three sources, which I hope has helped me to face these problems. But I was in a very low state initially, and the counselling definitely helped.

For a number of years I have had hearing problems, mainly (I thought) due to a build-up of wax in my ears. Previous attempts to get my ears syringed by our local Health Centre had only been partly successful, and they were always very unwilling to do anything, possibly due to fears that they might damage my ear drums. I decided this year to do something about this, and I tried ear candle treatment at a Chinese Medical Centre in Newcastle. This helped a lot, but I had finally to go to Specsavers Audiologists to get the last of the wax removed by vacuum pumping. I then went to Amplifon for a hearing test, and discovered that I had about 60% hearing (in my best ear, less in the other one), even having had the wax removed. The result was that I had hearing aids fitted, at considerable expense (but worth it), and I now have what Angela refers to as bionic hearing when wearing them! (This is actually a positive development, but it took a long time to sort out, and contributed to the stresses of the year).

The final, and probably worst thing, happened (or started happening) in early November. I initially noticed low back pain, which spread down my left leg. I tried to ignore it initially, hoping it would go away with rest, but it didn’t. It became clear that I had to seek medical advice, and I was aware that it would probably take a long time to get the relevant appointments. So, to get things started, I tried the Chinese Medical Centre again. Annie (who runs the Centre) diagnosed sciatica, and gave me acupuncture and massage, which helped. I also booked an appointment with my doctor, who agreed with the diagnosis (although I didn’t mention it, of course!) He initially prescribed paracetamol and naproxen, which seemed to make very little difference, so after a couple of weeks when things got so bad I could hardly walk I went back, and he added amitriptyline (an anti-depressant!), which again didn’t make a big difference, although it was possibly working in the background. Finally, he agreed to prescribe tramadol, which is a serious painkiller (when things got so bad, and with virtual begging from Angela and then myself), and which at last helped to deal with the pain. This got me back on my feet, although I wasn’t up to going to my Christmas conference (for the first time ever in 37 years), and in the previous week I signed off sick for 4 days, again for the first time ever). And then, the sting in the tail! Tramadol has a known side-effect, constipation, and I got a bad case of this, culminating in the Keele Health Centre calling an ambulance for me on Christmas Eve afternoon. By the time it arrived, things were already looking better, but the paramedics gave me a thorough check-up, and arranged for me to speak to an emergency on-call doctor about my medication. This was an awful day which Angela helped me get through. As I write this, 2 days later on Boxing Day, sciatic pains remain. However, I would rather put up with them than risk another constipation episode. I will be seeing my doctor to decide on the best way forward, but for now I am OK, and hoping the rest of 2018 will be quiet!

A summer of counselling

Back in May, when I posted about ‘Anxieties – travel and otherwise’, I was in a bad place. My travel anxieties had returned, and I worried endlessly about the future. I decided to have another go at getting help, and sought out counselling as a way of trying to come to terms with everything.

My employer offers staff counselling, so I referred myself to them, and because I was aware there might be a delay in being seen, I also contacted an NHS service in my local town. I had also heard about a telephone service (US based) and contacted them. I must explain at this point that I wasn’t initially trying to get help from all of these, but it was just to have reserve options! In the end however, all three offered help, so I had initial appointments with all. It became clear that they all had slightly different approaches, so actually it was very good in that I learned about the different ways of dealing with my issues. What followed was a series of counselling sessions, some face-to-face, and some by telephone, and in the next paragraphs I’ll say something about what was covered.

One of the first approaches I encountered was Mindfulness. This approach has its origins with Buddhism and meditation, although it has since shed the mystic/religious aspect. Mindfulness is all about learning to observe your thoughts, including the troublesome ones, and rather than immediately respond to them, you can choose to let them pass. It helps to master a form of meditation which is based on deep breathing, and concentrating entirely on the act of breathing, and learning that thoughts are only passing phenomena. Having learned about it, I am now trying to master it, but it is difficult! However, I can see how beneficial it could be, so I will persist.

Another counsellor used Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This uses the idea that thoughts influence behaviour, so if you can, say, categorise worries into practical and hypothetical ones, you can stop worrying about hypothetical ones, and find solution to practical ones. It also suggests that if one has recurrent worries, you set aside a ‘worry time’ each day to take back control. I have used this latter approach quite effectively.

The telephone-base counselling sessions turned out to be the best of all. I had 6 45-minute sessions, and the counsellor believed in using a combination of approaches, including CBT and Mindfulness. This proved very beneficial to me, as it encouraged me to tailor the different approaches to my needs.

Now, with the new Academic Year in full swing, I am pleased to say that, generally speaking, I am in a better state than I was in May. Of course, I haven’t been able to put the different approaches to the test on anything very difficult yet. I have used the ‘worry time’ idea suggested by CBT, and I am trying to use Mindfulness to deal with my worries about the future. I have also recently read ‘10% Happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge and found self-help that actually works’, by Dan Harris, which provides a good illustration of how to apply Mindfulness in a stressful job. I certainly recommend it.

I’ll post again on this in a few months, hopefully to report on positive progress.