Parkrun Adventures

If your New Year’s Resolutions involve getting more outdoor exercise, parkrun is an excellent opportunity for it. Since it happens every Saturday morning, it can be factored into your routine; there are plenty of other people there to keep you motivated; and you can run or walk as fast as you like without feeling under pressure. With hundreds of different parkruns around the UK, it’s also likely that there’s more than one within easy reach of you (see here for a map) so why not also be adventurous and head beyond your local event for some parkrun tourism?

Having now been to twenty different parkruns myself, I thought I’d give a summary of my experiences.

Preston – first run 24/11/2018
This is my nearest parkrun, located at Avenham Park by the River Ribble. It’s a three-lap course with a steep hill – challenging, but it certainly helps build and monitor your endurance!

Lytham Hall – 19/01/2019
Still being a relative newbie when I ran this one, I was struck by how much flatter and easier it was than Preston – in spite of the winter mud – and I ran it considerably faster than I had done at Preston up to that point. I’ll have to run this one again soon.

Peel – 06/11/2021
This parkrun is located a short walk from Salford Crescent railway station – I was coming to Manchester to see astronaut Tim Peake at the Lowry and thought I might as well get in a new parkrun at the same time. This one was easier than Preston as well; I set a new PB.

Lancaster – 11/12/2021
Located in Williamson Park, this was a challenging one, particularly with it being winter; lots of uphill sections, and a great deal of unavoidable mud to contend with. I’d like to see what it’s like in dry weather.

Blackpool – 15/01/2022
Another flat and relatively easy one; Stanley Park is lovely and I definitely intend to come back at some point.

Witton – 22/01/2022
The woods here are very scenic, but there’s a lot of rough terrain going both up and downhill, so you have to be careful. It may be best not to get the train to or from Cherry Tree station: my train home was cancelled, forcing me to take a bus into Blackburn to get the train from there.

Warrington – 26/02/2022
This parkrun at Victoria Park features Lake Victoria, a ten-metre section of path that floods after enough rain. You can either try to go around it in the damp grass, or say “The hell with it” and run straight through. I did the latter, twice; luckily my running shoes dried out quickly.

Morecambe Prom – 05/03/2022
If you’re looking for a PB, it doesn’t get much better than Morecambe. The promenade is flat, and wide enough to allow plenty of room; plus the scenery is lovely. It may just be a bit windy and cold.

Haigh Woodland – 09/04/2022
The start of this parkrun featured background music coming from a nearby cafe. Another scenic woodland run, though there was hard uphill work in the second half.

Hyndburn – 16/04/2022
In spite of the uphill sections, it was very pleasant to be running through woodland just as the day was starting to warm up. Plus there was cake at the end!

Clitheroe Castle – 25/06/2022
This one was harder than it looked at first glance, with no less than five laps; not only did the uphill sections become progressively more draining, but with lapping people so many times, it was very difficult to tell what position I was in until the end – when I found out that I had finished third!

Fleetwood Promenade – 09/07/2022
This one is very similar to Morecambe: flat, scenic, well suited for fast running, and so windy that I decided not to risk putting my cap on.

Ormskirk – 23/07/2022
Taking place on the campus of Edge Hill University, this one was one of my favourites. There’s a mixture of scenery: you start by running along paths with bushes on either side, before going twice around a nice open field. The volunteers were especially friendly: the run director actually did a poetry reading before the start. Feeling highly motivated that day, I ended this run sprinting for the finish, in an epic duel with another one to claim 24th place.

Kew Woods – 13/08/2022
I ran this one on a very hot day. The route was pleasant enough, but as well as the heat, narrow trail paths and having to dodge dog-walkers made things difficult.

Bushy Park – 20/08/2022
The place where parkrun was founded in 2004 is considered a pilgrimage site for parkrunners, so I thought I’d better get there myself. After a long period of dry weather, the park was looking rather parched, but there were still several red deer roaming around. From my position, I was only able to appreciate just how many people were there when the run began and a whole bunch came thundering in from the left of me. There were over 1,100 of them in total, and the crowding made for a slow start, but I was able to make up time later on.

Blyth Links – 10/09/2022
Having gone all the way to the North East for the Great North Run, I thought it would be a waste not to do a new parkrun at the same time. With the half-marathon coming up the following day, I was sensible and didn’t go too fast; despite being damp and windy, it was very nice to run beside the sea.

Southport – 17/09/2022
I counted three other runners with Great North Run T-shirts at this event. Hesketh Park is a lovely place to run; there are lots of little corners around the lake which need to be navigated, but it’s otherwise a flat and speedy course. I finished in a time of 21:07, my fastest parkrun yet; my smartwatch recorded a distance less than 5km, but apparently that often happens on this course due to the trees interfering with the GPS.

Bolton – 15/10/2022
This is not an event for going particularly fast. The narrow muddy trails slowed me down, though I was able to make up time on a flat tarmac section later. There are also a few hills, including a particularly long and steep one named Cruella which you have to go up twice.

Alexandra, Moss Side – 22/10/2022
This Manchester-based parkrun, about two miles from Oxford Road station, takes place in a small and open park where you can see a lot of the course from the start line. Relatively flat and simple.

St Helens – 31/12/2022
Despite the weather being wet and gloomy, this was still another pleasant place to run, only about a mile from the railway station. As with Preston, you have to go up a hill three times – but it’s considerably less steep!

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Looking Back on 2022

Even with the issue of Covid-19 being scaled back (though far from eliminated), 2022 has been a tough year all around: the cost of living going up, the war in Ukraine, extreme weather, disruptive strikes, and the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. As far as my own life goes, I’m remembering to be grateful for what I have, and focussing on the things I have control over.

In terms of my running, 2022 has been a year with plenty of achievements. This year, I’ve run 32 parkruns (I’m planning to get one more in on New Year’s Eve), three 10Ks, and four half-marathons, including the Great North Run – and I’ve set new PBs in all three distances! (21:07 for the 5K, 44:12 for the 10K, and 1:43:39 for the half-marathon.) I’ve reached an overall milestone of 50 parkruns, and a total of 19 different parkrun events – again, with the intention of going to number 20 on New Year’s Eve.

It’s not all been about running at these events, though: I’ve really gotten into volunteering at parkrun, which I now try to do at least once a month. It’s a lot of fun: there are many different roles to try out, and unlike a lot of face-to-face roles I have previous experience of, just about everyone is happy to be there.

In May, I finally made it to Costa Rica, a wildlife-watching trip that was supposed to take place in 2020 but was delayed for obvious reasons. We went to several different places in the country, and compared to other tropical excursions I’ve been on, it was almost too easy to see wildlife: snakes (including Bothrops asper, which I was disappointed not to see in Guatemala), lizards, frogs, an American crocodile, parrots, toucans, coatis, peccaries, sloths, monkeys, and a tapir. I did have some issues with the trip, however: at some points, it was hard to snatch a moment of downtime or privacy, and I spent a lot of time waiting for other people to be ready as deadlines were almost never strictly adhered to. As brilliant as all the wildlife was, and as friendly as the other members of the group were, I just wasn’t suited to the other aspects – particularly as an autistic person – and it reinforced my desire to go on a solo holiday next year.

Later in the summer, I took some time to head down south for a brief staycation, as I’ve done the past two years. In London, I ran Bushy parkrun (Bushy Park is where parkrun first started, in 2004), visited Hampton Court and had a run along the Thames Embankment, but my biggest reason for going was to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford. Just about everyone I’d spoken to who had been to this place recommended it, and they weren’t wrong; I think every Harry Potter fan should go at least once. Seeing all the familiar sets, props and costumes, as well as explanations of how scenes were filmed, was wonderful; easily the highlight was the magnificent scale model of Hogwarts at the end.

And there were a few other things too:

  • After watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and then Pinocchio, on Disney Plus, I felt inspired by Rachel Wagner and Stanford Clark’s Talking Disney Classics podcast and thought, “Well, I might as well keep this going.” I ended up watching or re-watching every Disney Animation Studios film and producing a full ranking, which was a very enjoyable project.
  • I wasn’t sure I would reach my Goodreads reading challenge target of 80 books, as I’ve had some slumps through the year – particularly when I was on holiday – but I just about managed it.

My Favourite Films of 2022

6. The Batman
Easily one of the better Batman films, certainly on par with Batman Begins. Robert Pattinson pulls off Batman beautifully and I look forward to seeing him expand on the role in future films.

5. Belle
This is technically a 2021 release but was only released in the UK this year. This film boasts absolutely gorgeous animation combined with a deeply emotional story that provides a unique and engaging Internet-based take on the classic Beauty and the Beast tale, with a few homages to the Disney film thrown in.

4. Avatar: The Way of Water
Clearly James Cameron has a talent for making sequels better than the first film. The filmmakers were simply trying to make a satisfying, entertaining cinema experience, and that’s what it is. There’s an engaging family dynamic between the main characters, as well as great world building: the film makes full use of its aquatic environment, with fantastic visuals and the more peaceful scenes in the second act being very comforting.

3. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
With the same low-key, slice-of-life style as previous Richard Linklater films, this film paints an intimate picture of suburban life in 1960s Houston, combined with a boy’s fantasy of walking on the Moon that feels pretty familiar for someone like me who was a space nerd at a young age (albeit one who wasn’t around to watch the Apollo landings).

2. Everything Everywhere All at Once
This is a really brilliant film – it has a great, complex story, is extremely creative, and manages to both be crazy and make sense at the same time.

  1. Top Gun: Maverick
    The sequel we didn’t know we needed; it exceeded my expectations, and is now the only film I’ve ever watched three times in the cinema. The story, the aerial sequences, the music, the performances of Tom Cruise and everyone around him – everything comes together into a practically perfect piece of entertainment.

Favourite Fiction Read in 2022

7. Titanic Voyage by Julie Bihn
I very much enjoyed this unique Titanic-themed story. It succeeded in drawing me in and making me wonder what was going to happen next; I liked the main character’s emotional journey; and I found the logistics involved in trying to change history interesting.

6. Super Powereds: Year 4 by Drew Hayes
A fantastic and satisfying conclusion to the Super Powereds series, with loose ends tied up, all of the characters getting their moment to shine, and a suitably epic climax.

5. Winter of the World by Ken Follett
Another great historical novel from Follett that, like the ones I’ve previously read, serves as much as a history lesson as a good story. With characters based in Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States, Follett is able to give a comprehensive rundown of the political forces driving events before, during and after World War II, while often having his characters directly witnessing important events like the attack on Pearl Harbour. The real horrors of the war, not least under the Nazi regime, are included in painful detail. Holding it all together are a number of well-woven plots with plenty of romantic drama.

4. The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice
This is closer to a traditional story than the first two autobiographically-styled Vampire Chronicles books, though still not quite traditional, since a good chunk of it is backstory. I liked pretty much everything about it: from the delicious prose, to the fascinating cast of characters, to the exploration of the philosophy and psychology of vampires.

3. Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
I liked this second book in the First Law series even more than the first one. War, questing, political intrigue, unlikely companions, stories of mysterious magic, and no thread less interesting than the others – this has got it all for a fantasy fan.

2. The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith
Like the previous Cormoran Strike novel, this one is long and takes its time, but I hardly minded: I enjoyed seeing what the characters were getting up to, and the complex, fascinating mystery exploring Internet trolls and a toxic entitled fandom.

  1. The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan
    I enjoyed this series even more than the original Percy Jackson series that came before it. There’s some brilliant world-building with the introduction of the Roman demigods and Camp Jupiter; and the mixture of third-person narrators keeps things fresh. Once the old and new characters come together, it makes for an engaging group dynamic where everybody gets their time to shine. And each book works very well as both its own adventure and as one chapter in the central story. I fully intend to keep going with Riordan’s other works.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2022
(Honourable mentions: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton; The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones; How To Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford)

10. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James
This book combines a biography of the herpetologist Joe Slowinski – culminating in a detailed account of the expedition to Burma where he received a fatal snakebite – with facts about snakes, and observations on scientists and what drives them. Both sides are very interesting: Slowinski was certainly a fascinating person, a deeply passionate scientist but with a reckless and even thoughtless side as well.

9. Beyond by Stephen Walker
This book is the story of the first manned space flight, Vostok 1, and everything leading up to it; from what I knew of the book before reading, I was expecting it to be focussed on Yuri Gagarin, but in fact it includes a lot from the American side of things too. It provides a lot of details I wasn’t previously aware of, delivered in an enthralling style; the author demonstrates that he dug very deep for his research.

8. Bitch: The Female of the Species by Lucy Cooke
A fascinating and enlightening biological book which details how female animals drive evolutionary change rather than simply existing to be fought over and mated with, as well as how biological sex actually defies easy categorisation; it certainly emphasises the fact that the natural world is a complicated place. At the same time, it reveals a lot about how many scientific “truths” actually result from conservative outlooks and bias toward ideas like male animals being more evolutionarily active. I really like Lucy Cooke’s writing style, which is emotionally engaging as well as informative.

7. Locked in Time by Dean Lomax
I find the inference of extinct animal behaviour from fossils to be one of the most interesting parts of palaeontology, so this is pretty much the perfect book, with a long list of fascinating fossils showing evidence of different behaviours, with descriptions of how those conclusions were reached. I really liked Dr Lomax’s writing style, engaging and informative without ever wasting words.

6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Anyone who likes running should find something worthwhile in this short book. It contains a number of relatable observations about running, and food for thought about the inevitability of getting older and less physically fit; I particularly liked the author’s comparisons between running and novel writing.

5. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
This book is not only an interesting examination of how geography has historically shaped the development of the countries we recognise today, but for someone like me who has a limited understanding of global politics, it gives a useful basic guide of how things stand between different countries and where they are likely to go in the future.

4. Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster by Steven Biel
This is a really fascinating book that examines the Titanic disaster from a sociological perspective: from how the events were interpreted at the time from different standpoints such as religion and feminism, to how these perspectives have altered in the following decades. It definitely encourages more analysis of Titanic-related media, and thought about how much validity the themes and metaphors familiar to Titanic enthusiasts really have; ultimately, the bigger meaning of the Titanic disaster depends on who’s talking about it and stems from our need to attribute a meaning to everything.

3. Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker
This book about mathematical errors throughout history, in fields ranging from engineering to computer programming, also has a lot to teach about things like systems, the underlying operation of computers and why Excel shouldn’t really be used as a database – I found it extremely useful and thought-provoking.

2. Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane
Mike Mullane’s story of his time as a NASA astronaut has plenty to recommend it. Unlike most astronaut autobiographies, he gets into the ‘space stuff’ relatively quickly, covering most of his pre-NASA life at relevant points throughout rather than keeping it strictly chronological. This is also a lot cruder than the typical astronaut memoir – which is where a great deal of the humour comes from – and Mullane is brutally honest about such subjects as the deficiencies in NASA management or the chauvinist attitudes of himself and his fellow military astronauts. There are lots of interesting details about astronaut work and Space Shuttle missions, and some deeply affecting moments such as Mullane’s descriptions of viewing the Earth from space, and his friendship with Judy Resnik, who would die in the Challenger disaster.

  1. Falling to Earth by Al Worden
    This is an excellent astronaut autobiography on multiple levels. On the one hand, it’s very frank: Al Worden is honest about his own shortcomings – such as with his family life – and has quite a few stories about the poor behaviour of people he worked with, though without naming and shaming. He goes into detail about the Apollo 15 postal cover scandal, and his anger and bitterness – at himself and others – about the whole thing are very clear. On the other hand, the parts of the book regarding space flight are more positive and beautifully delivered. I enjoyed the little details that Worden provides about Apollo 15 itself and the preparation for it – his background as an engineer certainly comes across in his style here – as well as his personal thoughts during the flight. He makes the job of a command module pilot, the Apollo crew member who didn’t get to walk on the Moon, sound much more appealing than it does at first glance.

My big resolution for next year is to run my first marathon, which I’ve already started training for. Beyond that, I’d like to do the Great North Run again if I can get in; I’m making plans for my next holiday; and I need to figure out how to apply the same resolution behind my running targets to my writing targets.

Here’s hoping for good things in 2023.

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Short Story: Voyage Interrupted

I wrote this historical short story back in October, before NaNoWriMo. Thought I’d put it on here.

Voyage Interrupted

As Muriel Stockley registered that she was awake, she hoped that this time, it would be at a decent hour; a sign that she had finally gotten accustomed to the shipboard routine, a few days after setting out across the Atlantic. But when she opened her eyes, she knew that she was out of luck; there was no sign of sunlight from behind the porthole curtain, and Ben was still slumbering beside her.

Groping blindly at the dresser to retrieve her pocket watch, she realised that the cabin wasn’t quite as dark as it ought to have been. There was a sliver of light poking from under the door. Not only that, but she could hear footsteps in the corridor outside. The lights in the corridors were always turned off at night, so perhaps it actually was morning, though clearly very early morning.

Muriel peered at her watch, but there wasn’t quite enough light for her aging eyes to make out the time. She reached for the light on the dresser and flicked the switch, intending to check the time as quickly as possible before turning it off, to avoid disturbing Ben. But when the light came on, the watch made her pause in bewilderment; it said half past one. It wouldn’t be the same as the ship’s clocks, which were changed at midnight every night, but the difference should always be less than an hour so it hardly mattered in this case.

What on earth was anyone doing in the corridor at this time of night?

She was still considering the matter when she registered movement next to her; the light had roused Ben. Bleary-eyed, he looked at her and grunted, ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m not doing anything,’ said Muriel. ‘But somebody’s up to something out there.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Half past one.’

Ben groaned. ‘Then it’s no concern of ours. Turn off the light and go back to sleep.’

Somebody else went past the cabin door – and from the sound of their footsteps, they were positively hurrying.

‘Well, I’m going to take a look, if you won’t,’ said Muriel.

When she pulled the cover off and got out of bed, she was struck by something else: the cabin was freezing cold. Muriel practically leapt toward the heater, and found that it was like stone under her fingers. Tentatively, she turned the knob. There was no trace of heat, no sound to indicate that the heater was even trying to work.

‘It’s broken,’ she said.

‘Well, this ship is hardly the pinnacle of the fleet,’ said Ben. ‘If you didn’t want any hiccups, we should have booked the Mauretania. Come back to bed if you’re so cold.’

‘For goodness sake, Ben, think about it,’ Muriel whispered. ‘It’s the middle of the night, the lights are still on, people are running around, the heater’s not working…something must be wrong with the ship! In fact…’  She paused and concentrated, considering the vibration through the cabin; then she placed a hand on the mattress, just to be certain. ‘I’m sure the engines are rattling more than they have been before.’

Ben now summoned the energy to sit up in bed and look at her. ‘They do seem to be going a little harder, now that I…’

Before he could say anymore, Muriel resolutely snatched her dressing gown, put it on, and opened the cabin door. She peered into the corridor, and almost immediately saw someone heading in the opposite direction. It was a crewman, laden down with blankets.

‘Excuse me!’ Muriel called after him. ‘What on earth is going on?’

The crewman didn’t even glance at her; he just disappeared down the corridor before she could call again.

Muriel went back into the cabin and saw Ben getting out of bed, shivering as he crossed the room toward her. ‘Someone is out there, then?’

‘A crewman went marching past and he completely ignored me,’ said Muriel. ‘Ben, something’s wrong. You can’t deny it.’

‘Very well, something out of the ordinary seems to be afoot, but the crew would let us know if there was a serious problem.’

‘Would they? What if they just don’t want to cause a panic?’

‘It’s their job to take care of us, Muriel,’ said Ben, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘Try not to be so highly strung, dear – we’re supposed to be going on vacation, remember?’

But that was just it. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen on vacation. It was supposed to just be a nice, simple voyage to the warmth and jolly comfort of Naples; the sort of thing you could afford to do when you were getting on in years and the children had all left home. When you got on an ocean liner, you were supposed to simply relax and leave everything in the crew’s capable hands – but now, with the shipboard routine being interrupted without explanation, Muriel couldn’t relax at all.

Her mind filled with unpleasant possibilities. Suppose there had been some sort of malfunction down below – that might explain the abnormal sound of the engines – and the ship would have to turn around and go back to New York? What were they supposed to do about the vacation then? Could they get their money back?

And what if it was more than just a malfunction? The cold brought a more frightening possibility to mind.

‘Ben…aren’t there supposed to be icebergs at this time of year?’

‘If we’d hit an iceberg, we would feel it, Muriel,’ Ben sighed.

‘Would we? What if we hit one, and now they’re trying to get to another ship or something before we sink? What if all those blankets the sailor was carrying are to plug a hole down below? I’m sure I remember a story about a ship where they had to do something like that….one of those Collins Line ships from years ago, don’t you remember?’

Ben now had both hands resting on her shoulders. ‘Muriel, stop panicking.’

Suddenly, every sound around them seemed ominous. Muriel thought she could make out urgent voices, muffled by distance and the cabin door. There was a sudden clunk from above them – was there activity up on deck? She now felt more aware than ever that they were on a precarious ship in the middle of the dark ocean, and if that ship wasn’t going to stay afloat, and no help was nearby…

‘Why hasn’t someone told us what’s happening?’ she cried.

‘Possibly because they’re busy,’ said Ben, his voice soothing.

‘I’m going back out there. Maybe there’s another crewman who’ll actually bother to speak to us.’

‘In that case, I’ll accompany you.’

A moment later, the two of them stepped back into the lit corridor in their dressing gowns. Actually taking action made Muriel feel slightly better, just as it always had – and this time, there was indeed another crewman standing at the end of the corridor: a uniformed steward, this time. Before he noticed them, his face was looking grim, which only seemed to confirm Muriel’s suspicions.

Finally, he heard their footsteps and turned, putting on a more courteous expression. ‘Is there anything you need? I’m afraid the captain has asked for all passengers to remain in their cabins at this time.’

‘Then there is something going on!’ Muriel exclaimed. ‘Now please give me a straight answer: are we in danger?’

‘Madam,’ said the steward, ‘you don’t have to worry. There’s nothing wrong with this ship.’

‘But then why are all the crew rushing about? And the engines don’t sound right…’

The steward looked grim once again. ‘Right now, every bit of steam we have is going into those engines. Full speed.’

‘Full speed toward what, exactly?’ Ben asked.

‘All I know is that we received a distress call over the wireless. Another ship is sinking out there – struck an iceberg, apparently. We’re heading for their position to do what we can.’


 When dawn broke, the engines were no longer running.

Muriel and Ben, along with the other passengers, had finally been allowed out on deck. The cold was biting, but Muriel had been compelled to witness this – the aftermath of the night’s events, happening not so far away, right when she had first woken.

Not so far away….and yet still too far.

There were the lifeboats, so small on the vastness of the sea, all seeking security in their direction. A few had already pulled up alongside, and their occupants were either climbing or being lifted aboard.

And there, off in the distance, were the icebergs, glistening in the sunlight, regarding them all imperiously.

Something floated close to the hull; for one horrible moment, Muriel thought that it was a body – but it was an empty life preserver, which was almost as bad. The bodies were undoubtedly out there, though; the ghost-like, horror-struck faces of those coming aboard testified to that. Every now and then, the quiet murmuring on the deck below was broken by the sound of a sob.

‘What do you think’s going to happen now?’ she asked quietly.

‘No idea,’ said Ben. ‘I can’t imagine we’re taking them all the way to Europe with us. Maybe we can put them on another ship, or maybe we’ll turn around and take them to New York ourselves. That’s where they were supposed to be headed, after all.’

An abandoned vacation suddenly seemed very unimportant. Muriel felt a powerful urge to see her children’s faces again as soon as possible.

‘Ben,’ she said, ‘let’s see if we can make any room in our cabin. Perhaps we can put someone up for a little while. Those poor souls need all the help they can get.’

Ben nodded, and they turned away, departing the sombre deck of the Carpathia.

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National Novel Writing Month – Year 14

Yesterday, I finished National Novel Writing Month for the fourteenth year in a row! This year’s story was titled An Englishwoman in Hollywood, and was the fifth instalment in my historical fiction series which began with the Titanic in 1912, and went on to cover the Lusitania, the Russian Revolution, and some adventuring in Egypt in the 1920s. With the 1930s being the natural next step, it seemed a perfect opportunity to write a story set in Golden Age Hollywood – plus, if I set it in 1937, I could throw in the Hindenburg disaster as well.

Before November started, somebody in the NaNoWriMo group on Facebook commented on how they had completed NaNoWriMo so many times that they needed some way to spice things up and make it less straightforward. Well, other people may see it differently, but even after so many years, despite having a good idea of what works and doesn’t work for me, I’ve never found NaNoWriMo to be easy. Finding the time isn’t necessarily difficult if November is going smoothly, but keeping up so much writing for 30 days takes effort and forward planning. And as it turned out, this November didn’t go particularly smoothly. I caught a bad cold; I had some real-life commitments to deal with; I had a couple of days where I was so stressed that any creative function in my brain temporarily shut down. Then, in the last weekend of the month when I was planning to make a big push and finish before Monday, I strained my shoulder, which made it very uncomfortable just to sit at a computer and type.

On top of that, I was struggling to maintain consistent enthusiasm for my story. Beforehand, as well as the historical aspect, I was interested in how my protagonist, Sylvia, was going to develop this time round; with her now being in her forties, I had her experiencing a mid-life crisis, combined with various family and professional woes. For instance, her daughter Sophie, a sweet little girl in the previous story, is now a moody, opinionated teenager. My feelings about writing such character development scenes tended to vary: sometimes they were interesting, but other times it all felt a bit gloomy. The middle of the story sometimes felt unclear to me as well, and I ended up skipping back and forth a lot between individual scenes I felt like writing on a particular day.

In the end, it was a crawl over the finish line – but I crossed the line regardless.

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The Great North Run – 2022

In the days leading up to the Great North Run, I had two targets. The first was to try and at least get a time similar to my half marathon PB (1:43:39, set last month), even if I couldn’t be precise given that the GNR would present a very different environment. The second was to soak in the experience and enjoy it as much as possible.

On Sunday morning, I joined my sister and some of her running friends in taking the bus into Newcastle. It was when we stepped onto the gathering point on the Town Moor that the sheer scale of the event hit home; sixty thousand people were gathering to run, and it was a job to keep track of each other when moving through the throng. In spite of this, dropping off the baggage and making a final toilet stop proceeded smoothly, and then we split up and headed to our respective start zones.

Leaving the Town Moor and heading onto the A167, it felt like a very long way past the start line to my zone. Naturally, the pre-start buildup was rather more sombre than it might have been, with the passing of the Queen earlier that week, an event that had made it uncertain for a time whether the run would go ahead at all. There was a minute’s silence, a rendition of the national anthem – now God Save The King – and then, far ahead of me, the race began. At that point, it was a matter of waiting and slowly drifting forward, my autistic side feeling decidedly uncomfortable amongst the packed crowd of strangers and with the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

Then, finally, my wave reached a point where we could start running – and instantly, just as at previous events, the running was all that mattered.

I was pleased to find that I had room to run at my intended pace right from the start. Spectators were lining the route to cheer everyone on, and would continue to be present for almost the entire distance, along with several music stations; they certainly served as great motivation. For the first half, I was doing so well that I wondered if I might not snatch another PB after all.

In the second half, however, it became rather more gruelling. It wasn’t an easy course; there seemed to be one uphill section after another. The need to constantly seek out gaps to pass other runners in the crowd, or slow down when another runner would suddenly cut in front of me, was also draining. The fact that it was a surprisingly warm day probably took its toll, although I was less conscious of that.

With around two miles to go, we came to a particularly long uphill stretch in South Shields, and I just had to pull over to the side and walk, finally taking advantage of the spectators’ generous offerings by accepting a welcome slice of orange. I still find it difficult to accept when I don’t have enough energy to run continuously during an event – but at least I didn’t have to walk for as long as I did at previous half marathons before I was able to start running again, at a slower pace.

Knowing that there would definitely be no PB that day took away some of the mental pressure, and when passing the next water station, I slowed to a walk again for a leisurely drink. A few moments later, the North Sea finally came into sight; driven on by the sound of kind strangers calling my name (from my running number), I kept running, and even managed one last little sprint over the finish line.

My time was 1:48:17 – not quite what I’d hoped for, but out of the five official half marathons I’ve now run, it was still the second best. (I still seem to be alternating between running a very smooth half marathon and what feels like a more challenging one.) Aside from a sore back, which quickly got better when I was able to sit down on the metro, I didn’t feel too bad either. The Great North Run was certainly very challenging, but I enjoyed the majority of the experience, and I would like to give it at least one more go to see how I deal with the less comfortable aspects with better anticipation.

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A New Half Marathon PB!

This September, I’ll be taking part in the Great North Run, one of the biggest half marathon events in the world. I’ve never been to a running event of that size before, and as I don’t know when I’ll get the chance again – standard entrants are selected by ballot due to the numbers involved – I intend to make the most of it. That, among other things, means being able to run the distance as well as I can.

With my half marathon events so far, there’s definitely been a lot of learning involved. Following a virtual HM just after lockdown in 2020, my first official event was in November 2021; running in freezing conditions, I set off too fast, and finished the course barely able to speak, feeling a bit sick, and unable to properly appreciate my time of 1:49:39. For my second HM event in January, I was able to keep a better eye on my pacing thanks to the smartwatch I got for Christmas; I finished slower at 1:52:02, but feeling a lot happier. Then things went downhill again at my third event in Morecambe, where everything seemed to be going against me: it started raining (after a week of fine weather, naturally), I got cramp early on, and we had to run on sand at one point. Reduced to walking by the end, I was surprised to finish in 1:52:05.

In the last few months, however, I’ve gotten into a different place with my running, through a combination of regular push-ups and dietary recalibrations. I’ve been setting some great parkrun times, and before taking on the GNR, I wanted to know I could run an HM where I set a time in line with my current abilities without totally exhausting myself. So I signed up for the Windmill Half Marathon in Lytham, setting a personal target of 1:45, roughly eight minutes per mile. Based on my more over-enthusiastic training runs, I might have been able to go faster, but taking things gradually is another lesson I’m currently taking onboard.

If everything seemed to be wrong at Morecambe, then everything at Lytham looked perfect from the get-go. There were no problems with getting there or parking, and the weather was clear and bright, with an excellent view of Southport across the Ribble Estuary. Setting off, I quickly settled into my chosen pace and felt fairly comfortable. The route was mostly flat, and with plenty of spectators cheering everyone on. The main difficulty was having to run into the wind for about half of the course, which required a significant effort on the second lap of the two-lap course. Yet even this wasn’t all bad; the wind kept me cool in the sunshine, and also happened to be behind us following the turn-around point – you could both feel and hear the difference.

By Mile 10, I felt like I was cruising steadily. By Mile 12, I was definitely wanting to finish, but wasn’t feeling so bad that I had to slow to a walk. The sorest part of my body was my feet; I wouldn’t want to be feeling that way at the halfway point of a full marathon, so I can only hope that the necessary training will toughen them up. (Plus, I suppose, I won’t be going quite as fast.) The final quarter-mile was mental agony, as it was a straight stretch toward the finish line, which was looking very far away. Following some advice I’d recently received on finishing the GNR, I tried not to look at the finish as I ran the final section.

In the end, I accomplished exactly what I wanted: my chip time was 1:43:39, better than I expected and well beyond my previous PB – and while I certainly felt very tired by the end, it wasn’t to the point of feeling like I was dying. It was a great run, one which has definitely boosted my confidence leading up to the GNR. In the meantime, I have more parkrun tourism planned – including a visit to Bushy Park, the location of the very first parkrun – before the fun in September!

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Film review – Jurassic World: Dominion

The third Jurassic World film has now come out, and despite critics and reactions on social media being generally negative, I felt I should still go and see it to form my own opinion. And…yes, the consensus is correct with this one.

The ending of the previous film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, left us with a potentially interesting premise: following the destruction of Isla Nublar, the surviving dinosaurs from Jurassic World are now running wild on the mainland. Jurassic World: Dominion starts off by re-establishing this fact – while also having this rather small collection of dinosaurs establish sustainable populations and spread worldwide, which rather stretches credulity (no more than anything else in this franchise, I suppose). Clearly, there is plenty to explore in this dynamic; it’s a high-stakes situation with no easy solutions, worthy of the conclusion to a trilogy.

Yet, inexplicably, the film shrugs its shoulders and simply can’t be bothered with doing anything interesting with what’s been set up. The main conflict of the film doesn’t revolve around the dinosaurs: instead, it involves InGen’s rival genetics company, BioSyn, unleashing a plague of genetically modified locusts which eat any crops that aren’t BioSyn-produced. Oh, and there’s also some shenanigans involving Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), the clone girl from Fallen Kingdom. (It’s worth noting that the film re-introduces BioSyn chief Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott), who briefly appeared in the first Jurassic Park and has a role in the original Michael Crichton novels – and rather than a worthy villain, he is an ineffectual idiot; though that’s the least of this film’s problems.) Part of the reason I stopped watching the Netflix series Camp Cretaceous at Season 4 was that the conflict of evil corporations mistreating the dinosaurs and using them for their own ends felt like it had run its course – but at least that conflict still involved the dinosaurs themselves!

For the most part, the dinosaurs are just obstacles to be utilised in action scenes, like enemies in a video game. All those new prehistoric beasts that we saw in the trailers are just there to be used briefly in one or two scenes, and then they’re gone. When it comes down to it, Jurassic World: Dominion is little more than a standard action movie that happens to feature dinosaurs; there’s little to nothing in the way of deeper themes, interesting character journeys, or building on the franchise’s overarching story. To make matters worse, it’s one of those action movies where all tension gradually dissolves, as you realise that the characters never actually get hurt and you stop expecting that they might be. Even the special effects aren’t that good compared to the previous films: for example, there’s an early scene involving Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) riding a horse across a snowy plain, where the green screen effect is pretty obvious.

One of the big selling points of this film was that it brings back the three main characters from Jurassic Park – Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum respectively). This aspect certainly isn’t too bad: these three old hands get to interact with each other (unlike with another recent trilogy from a certain big film franchise), have a significant chunk of screentime, and make solid contributions to the plot. Yet having seen a far superior sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, so recently, I can’t help but compare this to how that film utilises established characters and their histories. As pleasant as it is to see the old gang of Alan, Ellie and Ian back together, interactions between them are either focussed on the plot or just small talk: there’s nothing comparable to Maverick’s scene with Iceman, or the tension between him and Goose’s son, to make us care for these characters in the here and now; there just isn’t any heart. Not to mention, nostalgic affection for Alan, Ellie and Ian easily usurps whatever feelings may exist for protagonists Owen Grady and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and re-emphasises what weak characters the latter are in comparison.

I would give Jurassic World: Dominion a lower score, but while it may be little more than an action movie with dinosaurs, it’s still an action movie with dinosaurs and therefore has some entertainment value. (I’d still rather watch this than Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.) Yet it’s sad that this is what the Jurassic Park franchise has been reduced to. It certainly doesn’t feel like an epic conclusion; but then, thanks to the power of money, the franchise probably won’t become extinct just yet. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Film review – Top Gun: Maverick

The original Top Gun holds a special place in my heart; it’s the first film that I can remember truly falling in love with. Whenever my dad upgraded the sound system on our TV, this is the film he would use to test it; the sound of an F-14’s afterburners lighting up, before launching straight into Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’, is still associated with movie magic in my mind. Packed full of iconic quotes, incredible aerial photography, and with a soundtrack that I still love listening to, Top Gun is basically untouchable to me. But what of this sequel, more than three decades on?

I was certainly pleased that there was going to be another Top Gun film, but also tried to be realistic; I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as the first film, particularly in the current age of film where unnecessary and underwhelming sequels and remakes are ever more frequent. On the other hand, even if it was a disappointment, the original would always be there. Following multiple delays for obvious reasons, and then the fact that I was out of the country for the release date, I was positively itching to see Top Gun: Maverick by the time my dad and I finally got to the cinema.

Was it worth it? Yes, and then some.

It’s difficult to say whether Top Gun: Maverick is better than the first film. Naturally my long-time love of the latter is going to influence my thinking, but there’s also the fact that the two films have been produced in very different times. What can be said is that Top Gun: Maverick successfully takes the original concepts and translates them into the modern day. The film’s opening scene illustrates this perfectly: it’s essentially a remake of the original’s opening – modern F-18 jets taking off from an aircraft carrier, viewed from seemingly every glorious angle, accompanied by the ever-reliable ‘Danger Zone’ – which certainly helps to show the audience that they’re in for something both engagingly fresh and reassuringly familiar. The film as a whole has just the right amount of enjoyable callbacks to what came before, without overdoing it and coming off as lazy or forced.

The story reflects this approach as well; rather than just rehashing, clear effort has put into making it a natural, satisfying follow-up. Our hero, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), is now a Navy test pilot, unwilling to either retire or be promoted into a non-flying position. Unexpectedly, he is called back to Top Gun for a teaching role: a group of graduate pilots has been selected for a special mission over enemy lines, and Maverick – having experience of engaging enemy aircraft – has the necessary experience to train them. It’s certainly not an easy assignment: not only is the mission itself exceptionally difficult and dangerous, but one of the pilots being considered is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s best friend Goose, whose death still haunts him.

Just about everything works to make the film entertaining from beginning to end. The flying scenes, produced mostly with practical effects, are intense and immersive, putting the audience right there in the cockpit with the actors to the point that you can almost feel the G-forces. If what’s on screen wasn’t enough, the power of the sound effects – from the very first scene – make it clear why this needs to be experienced in a cinema. Harold Faltermeyer returns to handle the musical score, accompanied by Lorne Balfe, Hans Zimmer and Lady Gaga, and the result is wonderful.

Tom Cruise, naturally, is the heart of the film, smoothly settling back into the role of Maverick: from when he first appears on screen, everything about him reassures us that while he may be older and more mature, he’s still the same Maverick at heart. It’s not all about cocky smiles and defying orders, however, as Maverick has plenty of emotional baggage to deal with: his identity as a pilot and what his future looks like; the lingering impact of Goose’s death and the tension between him and Rooster; and his relationship with his old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly). Cruise brings it all across excellently, even if the love story is a slightly underdeveloped weak link compared to everything else. The rest of the cast handle their roles perfectly too, including Val Kilmer, who makes a welcome appearance reprising his role as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, in one of the most affecting scenes in the film.

On an objective level, Top Gun: Maverick probably has more emotional layers and intensity than the first film. Subjectively, I can simply say that I enjoyed watching it just as much. It is everything that a Top Gun sequel ought to be, and more. Rating: 5/5!

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Film review – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Fantastic Beasts film series has not exactly been a success, at least as far as critical reception goes. The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was merely mediocre; the second, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, was an absolute disaster that left me both angry and laughing at how bad it was. With this third film, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, it does at least seem like Warner Bros took onboard some of the criticism; while J.K. Rowling got the sole screenwriting credit for the first two films, here she shares it with Steve Kloves, who wrote the scripts for most of the Harry Potter films. So, with a more experienced screenwriter helping out, does The Secrets of Dumbledore mark a turning point and give hope for this series? Well….no, not really.

Granted, it’s a definite improvement on Crimes of Grindelwald (not that that’s saying much); Kloves’s influence on the script is clear, as the story feels a lot more cohesive and does flow better. The trouble is, it’s still not an especially well-presented story. As Story Writing 101 tells us, a protagonist needs a goal, but as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his allies set out at the start of this film, it’s not made clear to the audience just what they are trying to achieve. Yes, we know they want to stop Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), but we’re left to gradually work out exactly what they’re stopping him from doing and how.

I had gone into this film with cautious optimism as the trailers did suggest some intrigue, but in fact the first and second acts are rather boring, partly because of the aforementioned unclear overall goals of the characters. The first bit of interesting action doesn’t come along until about an hour in. The film doesn’t even look very nice, presented mostly in a dull, faded hue. A few isolated scenes that hint at more interesting world-building and character development, and even indulge in the same sort of wild magic as the original Harry Potter films, just highlight how this one is failing to live up to its potential. The third act, at least, is significantly stronger with an established direction; meanwhile, the big revelation from the end of Crimes of Grindelwald – which greatly annoyed me at the time – is explained here in a way that at least isn’t as major a violation of canon as it first appeared, but does still feel a bit forced.

With Johnny Depp having been dropped from the series, Mads Mikkelsen takes over as our villain, Gellert Grindelwald. He immediately scores points for not having such ridiculous hair as Depp, and his performance is certainly a better fit for how Grindelwald was described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; the parallels of his maneuvering in this film with the rise of Nazism in Germany – happening around the same time in-universe – are clear without being shoved in the audience’s face. Professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams) is the strongest addition to the cast, providing many of the film’s most enjoyable moments. Otherwise, the characters feel pretty underdeveloped: Credence (Ezra Miller) doesn’t really feel essential here despite how important he was supposed to be in the last film; and the resolution of Jacob and Queenie’s relationship ends up being rushed, though Alison Sudol does put on a convincingly conflicted performance with what screentime she’s given.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is disappointingly vanilla, and not especially magical. It happens to end in a way that suggests Warner Bros are reconsidering adding more films to the series, and if they decide to just leave it there, I certainly won’t complain. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Film review: The Batman

With continuity in the DC Extended Universe having become so messy that it’s difficult to keep track, Matt Reeves’s new film The Batman keeps things refreshingly simple by steering clear of any connections to the DCEU and – for now, at least – standing alone as another reboot for the Dark Knight. So, after so many other live-action Batman films, what does Reeves bring to the Bat-Table?

When this film begins, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been active as Batman for two years, long enough to become a source of fear for Gotham City’s criminals, and form a tense alliance with police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Now he has a new case to deal with, when the mayor of Gotham is murdered by a masked man calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano), who appears determined to draw Batman into some sort of twisted game. As the Riddler continues to target other city officials, Batman follows the clues and is led deeper and deeper into a complex web of corruption and painful truths.

Clearly trusting that the audience don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down for the umpteenth time, Reeves drops us into a point in Batman’s career where he’s established enough to have gained a reputation, but not so established that he’s fully found his feet; the police and public’s general mistrust of him makes for some extra conflict, and he occasionally questions whether he’s really making a difference for the better. The overall plot – Batman’s pursuit of the Riddler and the deeper revelations that this leads to – takes the form of an intriguing crime thriller which grows increasingly complicated as the film progresses, though it’s not too difficult to keep track of the main threads. It’s a long film at nearly three hours, but most of the time it keeps moving at a satisfactory pace. It differs from the likes of The Dark Knight in that it’s very plot-driven and any character exploration or development is kept to a minimum – for the most part, it’s just Batman doing his thing. With this approach, the film is still mostly fulfilling, just not as much as it could have been; maybe Reeves wasn’t sure if he could contribute much new material in terms of exploring who Batman is at his core.

In terms of aesthetics, this film gets live-action Batman just right; there’s no rubber suit or chain-smoker voice here. The Batsuit looks like effective armour, while still retaining the recognisable Batman look. This version makes me think of the Batman from the Arkham video games more than anything else; not just in terms of appearance, but also the array of interesting gadgets that Batman employs specifically for detective work. Gotham City itself appears to be a balance between the modern look of Christopher Nolan and the run-down cesspool of Joker, with a dash of more gothic architecture here and there. The city generates its own grim atmosphere, with the most of the film taking place in the dark, though thankfully it’s never so dark that we struggle to see what’s going on – unless the director intends it that way. I particularly liked one of the early scenes where we see a series of criminals going about their business in Gotham, then fearfully staring into the shadows, half-convinced that Batman could emerge from any of them.

Beforehand, I did have my doubts about Robert Pattinson; as versatile as he undoubtedly is, I wasn’t sure he had the look for Batman or Bruce Wayne. In the event, the latter hardly matters, as Pattinson spends most of his time onscreen in costume (this film is the opposite of The Dark Knight Rises in that regard). He is at least able to pull off Bruce Wayne the brooding recluse well enough, but I’d like to see what he does with Bruce the playboy in future films. In the meantime, Pattinson fits into the Batsuit very nicely, and delivers everything that we expect from Batman as a character: stoic, intimidating, unwilling to let his emotional walls down, and determined to deliver justice whatever the cost to himself.

Paul Dano is a far cry from the traditional green-suited Riddler who lives to fuel his own ego; instead, he’s more of an emotionally unstable basement-dweller, and is certainly volatile and dangerous enough to make for an effective villain. True crime buffs – or fans of David Fincher – will easily recognise the influence of the real-life Zodiac Killer on this version of the Riddler, from his costume to his love of ciphers and cryptically taunting the authorities. All of the side characters play their parts very well: Zoe Kravitz as a cynical and combative Selina Kyle, Jeffrey Wright as a Jim Gordon who is prepared to work with Batman without being able to fully trust him, and Colin Farrell being practically unrecognisable as the Penguin, who manages to be a highlight as one of the side villains.

The Batman is definitely one of the better Batman films – certainly on par with Batman Begins, if not The Dark Knight – and I look forward to seeing what comes next for this version of the character. Rating: 4.5/5.

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