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.


GBBF 2018

Last week I had my annual pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival. I’m pleased to report that it was as good as ever. As with last year we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Earl’s Court (near West Brompton station), and also as last year, we took food to sustain us during the day while at the Festival). Angela joined me for the trade session again, which is really the best part of the event (less people there and generally a more knowledgeable crowd). The Champion Beer of Britain (CBOB) was announced then; this year it was Siren Craft Brew Broken Dream (6.5% abv), which I didn’t try to sample at the Festival (a bit high in abv for my carefully paced drinking!), although it’s one to look out for in the year to come. This year I exclusively drank one-third pints, which made it possible to sample more beer without risking after effects. Last year I mainly drank halves, so this is progress! I should record here that it was Angela’s sensible persuasion that converted me to this. An entire beer festival without drinking a whole pint of any beer is something that should be recorded …

This year I tried so many good beers that deciding on a favourite or favourites is near impossible (although a few notable ones are starred). Instead I list them all below (as usual fellow beer aficionados will find full details on my Untappd account).

Tuesday 7/08/18

Black Iris – Snake Eyes 3.8%

Castle Rock – Black Gold 3.8%

Good Chemistry – Kokomo Weekday 4.3%

Great Western – Alpha Centauri 4.37%

Bristol Beer Factory – Espresso Martini 4.5%

Bowland – Bumble 4.0%

Ossett – White Rabbit 3.8%

Adur – Hop Token: Citra 4.0%

XT – HopKitty 3.9%

Thornbridge – Salted Caramel Ice Cream Porter 4.5% *

Crafty Beers – Sauvignon Blonde 4.4%

White Rock – Pushang 3.8%

Baker’s Dozen – Electric Landlady 5.0%

Wednesday 8/08/18

Milk Street – Taiheke 4.3%

Turpin – Golden Citrus 4.2%

Prescott – Super 6 #3 4.5%

Staggeringly Good – StaggerSaurus 4.0%

Great Newsome – Elderflower Power 4.6%

Rother Valley – Ruby Wheat Beer 4.4%

Cerne Abbas – Watercress Warrior 4.5%

Colchester – Brazilian Coffee & Vanilla Porter 4.6% *

Lacada – 9 Rubies 5.5% *

Brass Castle – Hazelnut Mild 4.2%

Purple Moose – Elderflower Ale 4.0%

Rudgate – Brew No. 34 Dinga Dinga 4.0%

Panther – Berry Bite 5.5%

Brewster – Hophead 3.6%

Three B’s – Pinch Noggin 4.6%

Thursday 9/08/18

Incredible – Coriander & Lime 5.6%

Elliswood – Just One More 4.2%

Fuzzy Duck – Bramling Cross 3.7%

Tillingbourne – Surrey Sour 4.2%

Thornbridge – Strawberry Lucaria 4.5% *

Thornbridge – Jessamine 4.7%

Enville – White 4.2%

Rat – White Rat 4.0%

Saltaire – Triple Chocoholic 4.8%

Knockout – Irish Red Ale 4.5%

Potbelly – Pigs Do Fly! 4.4%

Budvar – Dark Lager 4.7%

This year on each day we attended (including Thursday, which was just me), we set up base camp in the seating area to the right as you come in to Olympia. This is a good location, as it is within fairly easy reach of most of the bars including those in the National Hall, and is worth remembering for future reference.

Finally, a few words about the GBBF itself. Although it is too early to say what the overall attendance was this year, it was very busy while I was there, and each morning the queues to get in at the 12:00 opening time were long. My impression is that it continues to be a very popular event, showcasing cask ale in all its many forms. But CAMRA and the GBBF seem to be an easy target of the press, although it often appears that those writing the articles are not cask ale enthusiasts anyway. During the Festival, I came across a piece in the Morning Advertiser entitled ‘London Craft Beer Festival v GBBF: which came out on top?’ Comparing these two festivals is pretty pointless in my view as they feature different products and probably cater for different audiences. But I definitely take issue with the implication in the article that the UK’s most exciting brewers are those producing Craft Keg! You have only to spend a few hours at the GBBF, and sample some of the diverse range of beers on offer to appreciate that there is plenty of excitement and innovation in the cask ale market. Long may it continue, and here’s to GBBF 2019!

The EURODIM conference and the World Cup Final

For most of my recent career I have attended a conference series on defects in insulating materials, which is, essentially, my research area. These conferences take place every two years, and alternate between a European and an ‘international’ destination (which can also include Europe). The European conferences, known (possibly unfortunately) as the ‘EURODIM’ series, occur in World Cup years, and mostly take place immediately after the Final, so that it has become a tradition to show the World Cup Final at the welcome reception on the Sunday night before the conference starts. This happened in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014, and I will describe each of these occasions, including a couple of photos.

But let’s start by going back 20 years, to 1998. That year I organised the conference, EURODIM1998, at Keele. The World Cup was held in France, and the final was between Brazil and France. That year the conference had already finished by the time the final took place, and I wasn’t travelling back from anywhere, so we watched it at home. My Brazilian colleague, Mário, who had helped me organise the conference, watched the final with us, and was disgusted by the result, which saw France win 3-0, and featured Brazil’s star player at the time, Ronaldo, clearly playing in an unfit state. (Mário was also present at all the subsequent occasions described below).

In 2002 the World Cup was held in Japan, and the conference, EURODIM2002, in Wrocław, Poland. We arrived in Wrocław on the Saturday before the final, and watched it in our hotel the next day. This time Brazil beat Germany 2-0, so Mário was much happier, and much Polish beer was consumed!

EURODIM2006 was held in Milan, Italy, and that year the World Cup was held in Germany. The final was actually between France and Italy, so Milan (and probably most of Italy) closed down for the final. I remember that we got to our hotel late afternoon, and found a pizza place that was showing the final. Mário is of Italian descent, and after the final whistle (Italy won on penalties), we lost him for a few hours! He probably joined the celebrating crowds in the city…

In 2010 it was South Africa’s turn to host the World Cup, and EURODIM2010 was held in Pécs, Hungary. The conference organiser arranged a big screen at the conference reception venue to show the final, which was between Spain and The Netherlands. Spain won this 1-0, in spite of very rough play (as I recall) by the Dutch, but my main recollection of the evening was another colleague, Alan Chadwick, getting frustrated because he couldn’t get an English commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live online, and using his cigarette lighter to try to see what he was doing in the darkened room. Well, it was funny at the time, especially if you know Alan (photo below taken by Mark Read).


And so to the last World Cup, in 2014, which was held in Brazil, while EURODIM2014 was held in Canterbury, Kent. Once again, we watched the final, which was between Germany and Argentina, at the conference opening reception. Germany won 1-0, leading to much celebration by the German delegates at the conference (see photo featuring Volkmar Dierolf). Fortunately there were no Argentinians present. The fact that Brazil were not in the final didn’t go down well with the Brazilian delegates!

EURODIM2018 will be held in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and due to the conference timing, the World Cup Final (from Russia) will take place after the conference has finished. But I am not attending this time (my Head of School duties earlier in the year made any kind of preparation impossible). So I will watch the final at home. Mário will be visiting (after attending the conference), and will arrive in time to watch it with us. Let’s hope for a better result for Brazil (and dare I say it, England) this time. However, Brazil have just drawn their opening match with Switzerland, and England have yet to play, but it’s early times yet. The significance of this year is that it will be the first time in at least 20 years that I will able to watch the final and enjoy the tournament as a whole without having to prepare for a conference and travel to it at the same time!

Incidentally, EURODIM2022 is likely to be held in Ghent, Belgium at the usual time, but the World Cup in Qatar will most likely be held in November/December (due to the climate). So it may be some time before these events coincide again!

Anxieties – travel and otherwise, and their possible origins

With Mental Health Awareness Week just over a week ago, I finally admitted in a Facebook post that I had been suffering from anxiety about travel for many years (which at its worst led me to miss some research trips and conferences). I thought the problem had largely passed, or if not, that I had developed effective coping strategies, but I realised recently as I was contemplating my schedule for the next month or so, that it was definitely still there. I am trying to do something about the anxiety now (I have seen my doctor, I am arranging counselling sessions, using a meditation app etc.)

Discussing with my wife about the possible origins of my anxieties she suggested a number of contributory factors that I had either forgotten about, or didn’t see the connection. It’s all too apparent now. I should say that I am fine with travel within the UK, and it is just when going further, particularly flying, that the problems occur. There are also some non-travel issues that have contributed to these anxieties.

The first of these ‘factors’ was being stopped by US immigration at least 5 times when travelling there for conferences or holidays. Each time it was apparently because my name flagged up – there must be a Robert Jackson out there who is on some alert list. And each time they eventually let me continue my journey after they had established that I was not the person they were concerned about. But this kind of experience does nothing for confidence when travelling! Since it last happened, in 2012, I have a new passport, so if I ever travel to the US again, maybe I’ll be spared the ordeal? Only time will tell.

The next factor concerns my travel in Brazil. I have been there several times for research collaborations and conferences. On more than one occasion my travel plans have been disrupted because of various factors. On one occasion I arrived at Sao Paulo to be told my onward flight to Lisbon and London had been cancelled but they would ‘put me on a flight to Madrid’. There were other occasions like this, none of which helped my confidence. Added to this are the long waiting times and the considerable distances flights cover, which adds to this. Finally even when I last travelled there, English was not widely spoken even in the international airports, making it difficult to get any information. This is a great pity as I love the country, and would like to to go back there!

I also need to mention a trip to South Africa (in 1997) when I was supposed to be doing research collaboration with a colleague in a university there. This trip was very problematical for me, and I ended coming back early. The reasons included less than ideal accommodation, being assigned a student who was not interested in working with me, and the general palpable sense of unease about the place. I only returned there 3 years later because I knew I would be travelling with friends and would always have company.

Moving on to issues related to travel, there is the nightmare that is involved in using an airport now. Everything that is involved, from having get there so early, going through security, etc just makes the whole experience more difficult. As this has got worse my sense of disquiet and alarm has increased, to such an extent that even going to an airport is an ordeal.  Not long ago I set out on a trip to Hannover and was turned away at the departure gate (!) because my passport only had about 4 months validity left on it! This was actually an incorrect interpretation of the rules (I found out later), but didn’t help me at the time. It added to my general disquiet about travel!

Finally, not related to travel is my very personal perception of politics and the UK’s position on the world stage. As an international traveler (well certainly until recently) I am acutely aware of how we are perceived in other countries, which doesn’t make me feel good about travelling. And the political situation locally has dented my confidence. Those that know me will know that I take my politics very seriously. For many years I felt I had a home in the Labour Party, but no more. I tried the LibDems for a while but didn’t find that worked for me either. The consequence is that I feel politically homeless. With Brexit coming up, and my old party ignoring the majority of its members in supporting the government line, I feel detached from everything and depressed about the future. This only feeds my anxieties further.

I hope very much that things will get better, but I am unsure what good counselling can do, as it didn’t really work before. But it does seem my only hope. My doctor has been very helpful, so I am getting support there. My family are wonderfully supportive, but there are limits as to what they can do. Some aspects of my world are very dark at the moment, and I hope to see some light soon.

A mad 6 weeks ahead

The next 6 weeks will be ‘interesting’, to say the least, and the thought of them makes me feel a bit dizzy. Maybe writing it down will help – it sometimes does!

Although teaching finished a week ago on 4 May, we are now in the exams period, and I have marking coming in steadily. I also have some responsibility in administration here, since while I was still HoS I ‘allocated’ myself the job of Acting Exams Officer for Chemistry while a colleague is on maternity leave. More of those responsibilities later.

Next week I am doing a PhD viva in Dublin. The viva will be fine, but getting to Dublin and back with our diminished bus services and inconvenient flight times has gone from a one day trip to nearly three (I have to travel to the airport the night before and stay over otherwise there’s no chance of getting the flight on the day of the viva, and the return flight from Dublin is too early for comfort, so I have to stay over and catch a flight the next day).

The following week we have our final year project vivas. I had five students this year (no remission for HoS!), and as well as them, I am doing two more as the second marker. I still have to find time to read and mark these dissertations – perhaps on the flight back from Dublin?

Then, after a brief respite, thanks to the Spring Bank Holiday, it will be time to fly to Dublin again, this time for undergraduate external examining. This is once again nearly a three day trip mainly because of flight times.

Once I’m back from Dublin (for the second time), I have a fairly quiet week, which will give me time to prepare for doing external examining at Huddersfield the following week, plus chairing our own exam board later that week (the last time I did that was four years ago, so I have some learning to do). Thankfully the Huddersfield trip involves just one night away.

And so we come to the sixth week, when I have another external examining trip, this time to Sheffield Hallam (one night away again). Once I am back from that it will be time to return to normal, although with still readjusting from being HoS, I’m not sure what normal means yet!

I’m not sure if this has been a helpful exercise, but at least it’s recorded for posterity. I’ll have something similar next year, but probably without the PhD viva and the local exams officer role.

Augmented Reality Therapy

The last few months have been challenging with my Head of School responsibilities on top of everything else involved in my work. I have found distraction from an unexpected source, Augmented Reality games like Pokémon Go and Ingress (and more recently Delta T, although I am at a fairly early stage with that). I started playing Pokémon Go (PG) in August 2016 (and I mentioned it in a post here), and after a suggestion from a fellow PG player, I downloaded Ingress in October of the same year. At the same time as I started playing these games, I started going for early morning walks around campus, playing initially PG but later Ingress as I walked. I quickly got familiar with the Pokéstops and Portals around campus, and progressed in both games. The fact that I was getting out almost every day (weather permitting) was itself beneficial. It was useful to think about current problems as I walked around, and sometimes I came up with solutions before the end of my walk! The games provided an incentive to get out, but also, especially in the case of Ingress, gave me a non-work related strategical exercise to work on, which was and continues to be genuinely helpful. Instead of worrying about a particular issue at work last thing at night, I would think about my strategy to reach the next level in Ingress (for example). I can genuinely say that having these distractions helped preserve my sanity!

So what about the games themselves? Well, I started with PG and progressed up the levels by catching and evolving Pokémon. I didn’t then, and have never since taken the game to the next level of battling in gyms. I started playing Ingress seriously in late 2016/early 2017, and quickly caught the ‘bug’, initially trying to get to level 8 (which is where things start getting interesting). I paused playing PG for a while, because when my HoS responsibilities really started building up, I simply didn’t have ‘room in my head’ for two games, and the strategic planning aspect of Ingress was particularly beneficial. I reached my current Ingress level, 11, in November 2017, and am now slowly progressing towards level 12 (which needs two more gold badges than I currently have), and I resumed playing PG when I was coming to the end of my HoS term. I am currently about half way through level 30, and enjoying hunting the new species of Pokémon that have appeared during my absence. Also, in the last week I have had a go at Delta T, which has fairly recently been launched in beta format on Android, However, I still don’t really know what I am doing with it, and I haven’t found any of the helpful documentation that exist for PG and Ingress.

Ingress has a social aspect to it too; the local ‘Enlightened’ faction meet regularly, and they have been very helpful to me. PG has many Facebook groups where people highlight interesting Pokémon finds etc.

All in all I have really enjoyed these games, and they have helped me too. Who would have thought that at my age I would have become a fan of augmented reality gaming?

My thoughts on 16 months as Acting Head of School (1 December 2016 – 31 March 2018)

As I post this, a week has passed since I stopped being Acting Head of School. The new Head officially started on (Sunday) 1 April (2018). Monday was a bank holiday, and I was away at a conference from Wednesday afternoon until Friday, so this is the first opportunity I have had to write down my thoughts on the whole experience, including both positive and negative aspects.

The first thing to say is that I never expected to be given the responsibility of a post like this, and it was a privilege to accept that responsibility. I felt it gave me a bit more ‘visibility’ in the University, more recognition, and possibly some more respect (although I won’t push that one too far!) I got to know the other Heads of School in the Faculty, as well as key people in the Faculty, HR and Finance. During my tenure, I was invited to several events that I would never have been invited to otherwise. So, at least for the first few months I felt very positive about the role.

My School, Chemical and Physical Sciences, only officially became an independent entity shortly before my appointment, so there was much to do to get things set up. From January 2017 I was fortunate to have the help of a newly appointed Senior School Manager, with whom I established a good working relationship. I had to set up committees and appoint chairs of these committees, and try to ensure there were good lines of communication in the School, which I did by setting up a School Management Committee (which we didn’t have previously). This all went smoothly. Other things I had to do in the first few months involved arranging contract extensions, variations and a promotion for teaching fellows. Budgets had to be set for the coming year (a complex process), but all this was done with the assumption that a permanent head would be appointed who would take over before the new academic year started in September 2017. However, the first round of interviews, early in 2017, did not succeed in making an appointment (I wasn’t on the panel for these, but that’s another story), so it became clear that I would be in post for longer than initially expected. In May/June there were professorial appraisals to carry out (and not being a professor myself, this was an interesting experience), and later in the summer the general appraisals (SPREs) had to be done. I did most of these, but got some help from senior colleagues with this process (as there were so many). The contract to build the new Central Science Laboratories (CSL) was awarded, and building work started, necessitating my attendance at planning and progress meetings. There was also the plan to ‘repurpose’ the Lennard-Jones Laboratories once the CSL comes on stream, and that involved more meetings. With the start of the Autumn Semester 2017-18, there was the annual call for promotion applications. As Head of School I had to write supporting statements to go with each application. There was one Professorial application (which was successful), and later, four applications for promotion to Senior Lecturer. In the latter case, I had to attend a meeting chaired by the Dean, and speak in support of my applicants and their applications. This meeting sticks in my mind because it took place on the Monday following the weekend when my phone had been stolen (see a previous post), and I was still struggling with getting communications working properly. But anyway, I got all my candidates through the meeting, and the applications then went to external referees. I learned just before my period as Acting Head finished that three out of four had been successful, which I regard as a good result. Finally, in October 2017 there was a second round of interviews for Head of School, and an appointment was made (to start on 1 April 2018). I was on the panel for this, so felt a bit more involved in the process.

It remains to mention the things that didn’t go so well, although most of these have already been the subject of earlier posts. The first was the difficulty experienced in arranging cover for staff taking maternity leave, and the criticism received of the School’s handling of the situation. The second was the UCU strike connected with the USS pension scheme. Heads of School were expected by Senior Management to manage/mitigate the effects of the strike, which was largely impossible, making this a very difficult time for me. As it is, the strike is likely to continue, and although I won’t have the management responsibilities mentioned above, it will still affect me as I have taken on temporary responsibility for Exams in Chemistry/Medicinal Chemistry, and marking may be affected, with possible consequences for graduation.

In summary, here are the positive and negative aspects of the post and my experiences:


– getting to know/be known by some senior staff in the university, and generally raising my profile (potentially useful)

– success in contract extensions, promotions, and some equipment bids

– approval given for two new lectureships (one in Chemistry and one in Forensic Science). One has been appointed and one was advertised before I finished as Acting Head.


– being faced with difficult situations, like those mentioned in the last main paragraph above

– having to spend many hours in meetings concerned with matters I have no knowledge or experience of (e.g. buildings, finance, health and safety)

– seeing face to face how some university decisions are made, on investment in appointments and facilities

– at times being overwhelmed with commitments and responsibilities

I certainly learned a lot from the experience, but wouldn’t want to do it again unless my other responsibilities were reduced, as it became very difficult to keep everything going (and this got worse towards the end).

Chemistry, Academia, Travel, Technology, Politics and Music