Alices Run 2011 Result

So, I also managed to do Alices' Run this year. Set around Mytholmroyd, it is an on- and off-road 10K race that involves a lot of hills, slippy northern cobblestones, and quite a few potholes. I don't want to make excuses, but I have some anyway: I was knackered from all my gardening (still!), there was little time to go jogging, and I had just come back from an enjoyable time in Edinburgh, where the diet was rich in lovely, yummy fatty things.

Frankly a time of 1:09 was pretty good, given the circumstances - until my boss pointed out to me that a guy in his seventies managed to finish two minutes faster.

Truth or Reassurance

Over the course of the past several years since moving in, I have been the recipient of 'the good news' several times. In conversations distinguishable only by slightly varying opening gambits, the purveyors du jour of the Watchtower share with me their thoughts, or at least those thoughts that don't involve telling me how I will be going to hell if I don't repent my ways.

I was visited once more a little while back. A middle-aged man with a local accent stood next to a squat, white-haired older gent who I would later discover when he finally spoke, to be American, possibly on a trip over to see how his English brethren are getting along at brainwashing the unwary.

The conversation started predictably with all the wrongs in the world, and whether I was religious, and quickly moved along to matters of creation and the 'crisis that evolution was in'. There was the usual back and forth of finding watches on the floor, hurricanes blowing through a scrapyard, and theories versus proofs. A transcript would read like a thousand impassioned internet discussions.

But one thing stood out that day. Throughout the experience, I was assured that the men stood before me represented a movement that stood for the truth, a fundamental value in a faith system whose people were able to see with eyes unclouded, unlike those from 'the other religions' - the stark reality of what is out there. Those people who have looked on the world, seen the evidence for and against this and that, and come to the wholly rational conclusion that young-earth creationism explains fully our existence. On a particular point of evolutionary development we moved onto the subject of whales. In particular, their hind limbs, a vestigial part of their anatomy that is a tell-tale sign that they are descended from four-legged, land-dwelling animals. Long-since encased in the whales' immense blubber, they have no other reason to be there other than an artefact of their past.

Upon questioning, I was assured that the younger man had indeed visited the Natural History Museum, and he was fully clued up on evolutionary theory - in fact he assured me he was an expert.

I asked him about the hind legs of a whale. He shook his head. 'Whales don't have hind legs', he said with a snort.

I assured him that they did, but they were encased in blubber, and were a perfect example of an evolutionary adaptation to life in the sea, mentioning on the way that, current whales are a living example of an intermediate species - between a long-extinct land mammal with legs, and a future whale-like creature whose legs have completely disappeared.

Again, he shook his head. The elderly American gent folded his arms. It was clear that this information was encroaching on their cosy worldview, so I gave it another little shake.

'You can look on the internet, or in any museum where a whale skeleton is on display. They even looked at one on the 'Inside Natures Giant's' series. You say you have no proof of evolutionary change - well here is an example of something that you can see for yourself with your own eyes.'

Both men stood there, in silence. The older man was silent. The younger man, who I had spent most of the time talking to and thus getting the brunt of my passions had his arms tightly crossed. He was smiling a painted smile and shaking his head.

And then it hit me.

It was kind of obvious in retrospect that 'the truth' isn't really what these guys are interested in finding - a statement given more weight with their quip shortly afterwards that they 'didn't like the idea of having a monkey for an ancestor' - but in that moment it became clear to me just what it was that they wanted. 'The truth' was only something that had value to them if it did not go against their doctrine. In other cases, it was something else they desired - a form of reassurance.

The Jehovas' Witnesses are a minor cult whose beliefs are a bit left field of a major religion. Consequently their groups are isolated and naturally under pressure by the lives of people around them who seem to live happy lives seemingly without godly retribution. A bit of basic group psychology on your average cult identifies two main actions applied by the group on itself - maintain the integrity and stability of the group in the face of outside influence, and find inner peace that by joining the group, the individual has made the right decision.

The first one takes the form of the leaders often forcing their flock to renounce ties with the outside world, often at the cost of friends and family units being abandoned as they are deemed to be a corrosive influence, or even labelled 'mentally diseased'. This causes the members to have less opportunity to get outside influence that might make them have doubts and ask questions.

The second action comes from the individual, vindicating their choice to believe in the required doctrines, by getting other people to believe in them too. And it was this that was happening here. The 'truth' - that thing that can in certain circumstances be demonstrated with empirical evidence - only had value for as long as it could be made to look like it agreed with their beliefs - a growing consensus on the acceptance of their beliefs was their one true goal.

It almost doesn't matter what it is they are believing in, so long as they can feel cosy within the warming embrace of a group of like-minded thinkers, and this can be more or less applied to all religious groups, though it seems stronger in the smaller, tighter communities. These feelings of belonging are addictive, and it is this that ensures the survival of the cult through the generations, almost like a living entity. And of course as soon as they detected that they were about to have their eyes forcibly opened like in the example of the whale bones, they stopped dead in their tracks and went no further. Certain excommunication from their group was too much of a risk to chance taking it any further.

The conversation ended on a stalemate not long afterwards, but I was strangely satisfied with what I had learned. I held onto the hope that the two men had a spark of doubt that their faith was the all-providing security blanket they thought it was, but it looked pretty unlikely in the light of my minor revelation. Still, the mystery of why some people join these religions and spend a good portion of their lives trying to convert others was a little clearer now.

I Will Not be a Revenue Stream

This has been vexing and stressing me out for a while now. A couple of months back, my local railway station was packed out, and being late for work I stuck the old jalopy in the only place I could - down one of the barriers at the side of the car park, leaving a gnats crotchet of space between the car and the barrier so I was not blocking anyone from getting in or out. I've parked here a dozen times when there was no space elsewhere. In fact, a whole line of cars can do it without causing a problem.

You know what I was going to find on my return. Yes, a ticket. Despite the fact that people had parked in these spots for years on end with no recriminations, and there was nothing on the barrier or road to say 'don't park here'. The closest sign was across the area; a small notice, with verbose, poorly written text which I didn't spot when running for the train like a madman that morning, and that I actually had to stand and squint to read the following morning since it was halfway up a lamppost.

I was in a pretty sour mood, not least because this reminded me of a ticket I was issued in Cambridge a few years back. Staying at a B+B, they had a system set up with the council for visitors: I paid the owner a quid per day and I could get a parking permit to park outside. But on my second day, she had run out of permit cards, and so scribbled out the old date on the card from day one and put the new date on. I hesitantly paid my quid for the day but was assured it would be fine, and headed to the film festival.

Guess what. A £50 fine was waiting for me when I returned. Not knowing any better, I spent some premium rate phone time explaining the situation to a council representative who listened patiently and then chanted the mantra 'you still have to pay the fine'. Through gritted teeth I wrote the cheque.

But this time, I had recalled some stuff Martin Lewis was saying on the subject on his web site (always a good place to go if you want to save some cash). My car was parked on private land, so the ticket is not issued by the council or the police, but by a private company. Thus it's part of the largely unregulated private parking industry. That means they are free to pretty much do what they want, but it also means that we as the public can do the same too. Thus there is an awful lot of room to refute any charge you happen to find in a sticky envelope later that day.

Martin Lewis has got a page dedicated to this wholly inexact science of parking fines. I read up about my rights and what I should do, and downloaded his template letter to use as a basis for my case. I had several points in my favour:
  1. My car was not blocking access. Since the ticket said I was, it is immediately null and void as it's incorrectly issued.
  2. It was not parked in a spot where it said I couldn't park. No signs, no markings.
  3. The notices were inadequate, poorly written, hard to spot and could be interpreted a number of ways.
  4. The catch-all: Parking is free, and one of the few rules set out to these firms is that the fine must reimburse the landowner for the trouble caused. £50 was way over the top, as the landowner lost nothing, and I didn't cause any trouble.
I took some pictures of the sign and where I'd parked, and sent it off. I heard nothing for a month or so.

Just as I was hoping that it had disappeared I got a letter. A very patient woman had took the time to write back addressing some of the points I'd raised and seemed to concede at least that I had a point about the severity of the fine. She cut the fine in half, to £25. I should pay promptly.

One half of my brain said: 'Victory! Pay and have done with it'. The other half said stick to your guns. To pay would be an admission of wrongdoing, which I am adamant that I have not. I had not parked illegally, I was not blocking others or causing a hazard. Thanks to the dime bar who wrote the notices, I could easily argue that I had not broke any rules as laid out in their verbose signage. Finally, since this department rep had only answered some of the points in my letter, and inadequately countered some of the others in my opinion, I decided to call their bluff and ignored the request, suppressing the urge to send another letter telling them what was deficient with their response.

Which brings us to the present day. About a month went by, and now I have in front of me a 'Final Demand' notice. It's one of those template things with my details filled in. However, it is a carbon copy of the one that this guy received after going through a similar kerfuffle. He is about a month ahead of me in the chain and sticking to his principles, so I have chosen once more to ignore the 14-day notice, on the reasoning of the other responders to that thread.

To be honest, I'm bricking it a bit. They mention court proceedings and byway notices and fines with a few zeroes on the end, but it stands to reason that these people are calling my bluff and I need to keep calling theirs. A court proceeding will result in more then £50 on their end, especially as I intend not to lose, and they're doing an awful lot of 'considering legal action' given that I had to cough up the cash ages ago. To lose such a court case wouldn't look good for them either, I'm betting they would much rather calmly drop it.

Most people who receive these penalties will choose to cough up either straight away or after the first round of explanations when scary key words like 'court' and 'bylaw' start to crop up. That is where the revenue comes from, and the private company tasked with netting all this cash will act as threatening as they can get away with on their correspondence to ensure they get their pay. However, they are not the law and do not represent it and this is easy to forget. The worst they can claim is in the small claims court, and they need to have a good case to win it. And that's expensive.

Ergo, I have reasoned that I should not pay.

They have about 3 months left to take action or they lose by default. I will keep you posted.

Losing my Fringe Virginity

One of many excuses I have for my lax blogging of recent (sorry) is that I have been spending time with a rather gorgeous, funny and sexy woman whose constant smiley face has caused me to forget large portions of my life in the pursuit of fun times together. Consequently my bloggage went down the pan a bit.

However, for various reasons, we have a quiet patch coming up until Christmas, where we will be jetting off round the other side of the world. No, not Japan this time (although I hope to persuade her at some point of it's merits), but somewhere hotter and more exotic. I'll say more nearer the time.
So, we have just got back from a week in Scotland - our first major time off together, seeing whether we gel, or whether we drove each other nuts. We chose this week to take in the sights and sounds of the fantastic Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We were both fringe virgins, (which was appropriate since Virgin were covering the place with blanket sponsorship) and so was a completely new experience for the both of us. We watched a few plays, went to some music gigs, but mostly it was the comedy that took up our days. Just about everyone you could think of was there, and that only made up a fraction of the acts.

In the evenings we retired to our little pod in the cheekily-titled Adventure in the Meadow campsite, a place full of teetering wooden tents and outside washing facilities. It looked half complete and some people's pods were down a track in a mud pit, but we got lucky with ours as it was right next to the main house and largely on the level, so it was for the most part pretty reasonable, and their breakfasts were big enough to be able to hold down a medium sized carnivore. A quick jaunt to the nearby park and ride, and we could saunter in on Edinburgh's excellent bus system for midday.

Some Highlights

Our choices of acts were almost universally brilliant. After missing the delights of sound machine Michael Winslow (Police Academy), we started with the unusual but excellent poet and comedian Tim Key, who in amongst recitals of his usual brand of existential humour, dunked his head and more in the foamy bath he had placed on the stage in front of us.

The pin in the catalogue choice Laundry Boy turned out to be another highlight. It was a really well performed play about a lonely man who grew up leaving his childhood dreams behind and blaming his father, while forming intimate relations with a vacuum cleaner. All the actors were excellent and didn't put a foot wrong in their performance.

David Sedaris, for anyone who has heard him on Radio 4 was hilarious; building up the humour - a mix of gentle and quietly anarchic - in stages until the audience was completely helpless. At the end, I got a booked signed by him and had a quick chat! It was worth the queue.

Mr. Darwins Tree was a fine play that we caught on it's last day. Performed entirely by Andrew Harrison, he charted with passion the life of the man and his work, bringing over just a little of the personal struggles he faced along the way.

Sarah Millican and Andy Parsons were both headline acts at the assembly halls and managed to pack the place out both times. They were as funny as ever (at one point I had actually become unable to laugh any more), although SM had toned things down since I managed to see her earlier in the year which may have been for the best. Dave Gorman narrowly beat them both though, packing out the university with his powerpoint presentation, a much welcome return to his roots. I can't walk past an advert for a phone without scrutinising it now.

There was also Lights, Camera, Walkies - a pretty good play about a movie where the main part is a dog - without any dogs present. Many characters played by just three actors who all earned their pay. Elsa Jean McTaggart was our only music act, and though she had a strong but velvety singing voice and could set the strings of her violin and guitar alight with her playing, the small audience she attracted in the mid afternoon didn't do her justice.

Tim Vine chatted with members of the audience who were unlucky enough to be picked and had a guest spot by Brian May, and Henning Wehn managed to make a mockery out of our view that the Germans have no sense of humour. Robin Ince had a gig in the Free Fringe section which was brilliant value. Not only did we get the Ince, but several other fringe acts, including Dave Gorman, came on and did a bit of stand-up too. (at the end, I also asked about Nerdstock since it was missing last year - and it's back on!). Finally, the Free Fringe also turned up Fraser Millwards, who played a copper, a relationship counsellor and a coach driver - the latter bundling the audience outside to the coach that had been 'stolen' - and nearly getting himself hilariously knocked down (in an unscripted way) while running off in all directions looking for it.

Finally - also in the Free Fringe - The Gherkin Fantasies were a pair of comedians who we went in to see on a whim and they turned out to be refreshingly Yorkshire, which obviously scored points with us - although they were also very funny in their own right too, playing a pair of middle-aged male butchers, among other creations. I'd put a safe bet on that they will be on the telly in a couple of years.

There was really only one rubbish one, and that we had managed to go into thinking it was something else. The Culture Bucket quartet reviewed other shows on a daily basis, and I'm guessing that it changed daily, so they had little time to practice or even make their show - but it was a pretty dire thing to watch even so. We stayed to the end but scrambled for the door as soon as we could.


After staying an extra day to catch some additional acts, we headed out into the Scottish Highlands. Our time was a little constrained, but we managed to head up to Loch Lomond

(a beautiful place where we were attacked for our sandwiches as we sat on the beach by an overly-confident swan family) before ending up at a pleasant little B+B in Arrochar, located snugly in a valley at the tip of Loch Long in the shadow of it's own set of alps.
On the next day we drove a little down the length of the Loch, before ending up at Benmore; one of the four Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.

Out here we would have expected it to be dead, but a coachload of passengers got in front of us in the queue to get in. Inside is a mixture of nicely kept mansion gardens, with hillside pathways and a wilder flora. The view from the platform at the top is beautiful and as quiet as you could ever experience.

We took the ferry at Hunters Quay back to the mainland and headed home just as the heavens had opened and the rain was falling harder than I'd ever seen it.

We both loved our first Fringe, and it definitely wont be the last. We are already planning on how to fit it in next year!