The Long Tail of an Abusive Relationship

I am a survivor of an abusive relationship, and parts of that experience affect the way that I engage in romantic relationships… but I have difficulty quantifying exactly how much. Insert obvious (minor) trigger warning here, and scroll past the kitten if you want to read more.

An adorable long-haired calico kitten. Instant eyebleach.
Mew.

I’m fine, by the way. It took… a long, long time, like in the region of a decade, to be completely fine about it, and I appreciate that compared to many people, I got lucky. Like many victims (and especially among men), my recovery was hampered by the fact that I found it difficult to see the relationship as having been abusive in the first place: that first step took many years all by itself. I’m not kidding when I say I’m fine, by the way: no, I don’t need to talk about it (with many of my circles of friends made up of current and former helpline volunteers of various types, I feel the need to make that doubly-clear: sometimes, one just can’t escape from people who care about you so much that they’ll offer you a cup of tea even if they’ve only got saltwater to make it with, if you catch the drift of my needless in-joke).

But I wanted to share with you something that I’ve gradually realised about how I was changed as a result of that relationship. Something that still affects me today and, for all I know, probably always will: a facet of my personality whose origins I eventually traced back to that dreadful relationship.

A man investigating the inside of his own (mechanical) brain.
Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading the (brilliant) Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. As somebody who loves to take apart his own brain to see how it works, I loved the story of an automaton who more-literally does exactly that.

A major factor in my attraction to people, for the last decade and a half, has been whether or not they demonstrate being attracted to me. I’m sure that’s the case for everybody, at least to some extent – there’s a necessary reciprocity for a relationship to work, of course – but in my case there’ve been times in my past when the entirety of my attraction to somebody could be described in terms of their attraction to me… and that’s a level that definitely isn’t healthy! It stems from a lack of belief in my own worth as relationship material, which had grown to such an extent that feeling as if I were even-remotely attractive in somebody else’s eyes has, regardless of whether or not I’d be interested in them under other circumstances, made me feel as though I ought to “give them a shot”. Again: not healthy.

This, in turn, comes from a desperation of considering myself fundamentally unattractive, undateable, and generally unworthy of the attention of anybody else in any relationship capacity… which is highly tied-up in the fact that I had a relationship in which my partner repeatedly and methodically taught me exactly that: that I was lucky to be in a relationship with them or indeed with anybody, etc.

Given enough time, persuasion, and coercive tactics, this is the kind of shit that sinks in and, apparently, sticks.

Dalmatian wrapped in barbed wire.
If this picture makes you sad… then you shouldn’t have scrolled past the kitten, should you?

I don’t mind that I’m a product of my environment. But it bugs me a little that I’m still, to a small (and easily managable, nowadays) extent the product of somebody else’s deliberate and manipulative efforts to control me, a decade and a half after the fact.

Now I’ll stress once again that I’m fine now: I’ve recovered by as much as I need (or at least expect) to. Some years ago, I finally got to the point that if you let me know that you’re attracted to me then that isn’t by itself something that makes me completely infatuated with you. Nowadays, I’m capable of actually engaging my brain and thinking “Hmm: would I be interested in this person if it weren’t for the fact that they’d just validated my worth in some way?” But I’m still aware of the sensation – that nagging feeling that I’m acting according to a manipulative bit of programming – even though I’m pretty confident that it doesn’t influence how I behave any more.

It’s funny how our brains work. At the end of the relationship, I made a reasonably-rapid bounceback/recovery in terms of my general self-worth, but it took far, far longer to get control over this one specific thing. I guess we all react to particular stresses in different ways. For me, somebody who’d spent his childhood and teen years with perhaps, if anything, a little much self-worth, it might have been inevitable that I’d be unable to rebuild the part of that self-image that was most-effectively demolished by somebody else: the bit that is dependent upon somebody else’s validation.

But who knows… as I said, I have difficulty quantifying how much that abusive relationship impacted me. Because it is, of course, true to say that every single thing I’ve ever experienced will have affected me in some way or another – made me the person I subsequently became. How can I justify blaming a single relationship? I know that I wasn’t “like this” back when I first started my dating life, but I can’t conclusively prove that it was the result of any one particular relationship: for all I can claim, perhaps it was something else? Maybe this was always who I’d become? Or maybe, of course, this entire paragraph is simply the result of the fact that my brain still has difficulty with the term “abusive relationship” and is more-than-happy to keep trying to reach for whatever alternative explanations it can find.

Once again though, I’ll stress that I’m okay now and I have been for many years. I just wanted to share with you an observation I’d made about my own psychology… and the long tail that even the “tamest” of abusive relationships can leave.

Devon – the trip we’ll never forget

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Update: following feedback from folks who found this post from Twitter, I just wanted to say at the top of this post – we’re all okay.[/spb_message]

Our holiday in Devon last week turned out to be… memorable… both for happy holiday reasons and for somewhat more-tragic ones. Selected features of the trip included:

Croyde

A Fish & Chip shop in Croyde
This pile of breezeblocks on the edge of a camp site was perhaps the sketchiest fish & chip shop we’d ever seen. Not bad grub, though!

We spent most of the week in Croyde, a picturesque and tourist-centric village on Devon’s North coast. The combination of the life of a small village and being at the centre of a surfer scene makes for a particularly eccentric and culturally-unusual place. Quirky features of the village included the bakery, which seemed to only bake a half-dozen croissants each morning and sell out shortly after they opened (which was variably between 8am and 9am, pretty much at random), the ice cream shop which closed at lunchtime on the hottest day of our stay, and the fish & chip shop that was so desperate to “use up their stock”, for some reason, that they suggested that we might like a cardboard box rather than a carrier bag in which to take away our food, “so they could get rid of it”.

Annabel on the beach with Ruth and JTA
“You’ve never seen a beach before, have you? Isn’t this exciting?”
/stares in wonderment at own thumbs/

The Eden Project

Annabel looks out over the Eden Project
In the right dome, a Mediterranean climate. In the left, a jungle. In both, lots of things for Annabel to try to grab hold of and put in her mouth.

Ever since it opened in the early 2000s, I’d always wanted to visit The Eden Project – a group of biome domes deep in the valley of a former Cornish quarry, surrounded by gardens and eco-exhibitions and stuff. And since we’d come all of the way to Devon (via Cardiff, which turns out to be quite the diversion, actually!), we figured that we might as well go the extra 90 miles into Cornwall to visit the place. It was pretty fabulous, actually, although the heat and humidity of the jungle biome really did make it feel like we were trekking through the jungle, from time to time.

Annabel gets a drink in the cool room.
The jungle biome was a little hot for poor Annabel, and she was glad to get into the cool room and have a drink of water.

Geocaching

Stile to an overgrown path; Devon.
In Devon, nipple-high grass counts as a “footpath”.

On one day of our holiday, I took an afternoon to make a 6½ mile hike/jog around the Northern loop of the Way Down West series of geocaches, which turned out to be somewhat gruelling on account of the ill-maintained rural footpaths of North Devon and taking an inadequate supply of water for the heat of the afternoon.

Very badly-maintained footpath in North Devon.
Seriously, Devon: if I need to bring a machete, it’s not a bridleway.

On the upside, though, I managed to find 55 geocaches in a single afternoon, on foot, which is more than three times my previous best “daily score”, and took me through some genuinely beautiful and remote Devon countryside.

Dan with GC24YCW - Way Down West 105
GC24YCW (“Way Down West 105”) was the last in my 55-cache series, and my body was glad of it.

Watermouth Castle

We took an expedition out to Watermouth Castle, which turned out to be an experience as eccentric as we’d found Croyde to be, before it. The only possible explanation I can think of for the place is that it must be owned by a child of a hoarder, who inherited an enormous collection of random crap and needed to find a way to make money out of it… so they turned it into something that’s 50% museum, 50% theme park, and 100% fever dream.

ABBA Robots at Watermouth Castle
A group of animatronic robots playing automatic-organ versions of ABBA songs greet you at Watermouth Castle. And then things get weird.

There’s a cellar full of old bicycles. A room full of old kitchen equipment. A room containing a very large N-gauge model railway layout. Several rooms containing entertainments that would have looked outdated on a 1970s pier: fortune tellers, slot machines, and delightfully naïve peep-show boxes. A hedge maze with no exit. A disturbingly patriotic water show with organ accompaniment. A garden full of dancing gnomes. A hall of mirrors. A mock 1920s living room. A room full of primitive washing machines and their components. The whole thing feels schizophrenic, but somehow charming too: like a reminder of how far entertainment and conveniences have come in the last hundred years.

Baggy Point

Ruth, JTA and Annabel on Baggy Point
The tip of Baggy Point gave me vibes of Aberystwyth’s own Constitution Hill, with the exception that it was sunny at Baggy Point.

We took a hike out to beautiful Baggy Point, a beautiful headland stretching out into the Atlantic to make it the Easternmost point in North Devon. It was apparently used by soldiers training for the D-Day landings, but nowadays it seems mostly to be used to graze goats. The whole area made me reminisce about walks to Borth along the Ceredigion coast. Unfortunately for Ruth and JTA, who headed back to our accommodation before me, I’d failed to hand them the key to the front door before we parted ways and I went off to explore the rest of the headland, and in my absence they had to climb in through the window.

The Collision

For all of the wonderful things we got up to in Devon, though – everything above and more besides – the reason that we’ll no-doubt never forget this particular trip came as we set off on our way home.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this section discusses a tragic car accident.[/spb_message]

About an hour after we set off for home on our final day in Devon, we ended up immediately behind a terrible crash, involving two cars striking one another head-on at an incredible speed. We saw it coming with only seconds to spare before both vehicles smashing together, each thrown clear to a side of the road as a cloud of shattered glass and metal was flung into the air. JTA was driving at this point, and hit the brakes in time to keep us clear of the whirling machines, but it was immediately apparent that we were right in the middle of something awful. I shouted for Ruth and JTA to see what they could do (they’re both Red Cross first aiders, after all) as I phoned the emergency services and extracted our location from the SatNav, then started working to ensure that a path was cleared through the traffic so that the ambulances would be able to get through.

Police car in Devon
Ambulances, fire engines, and police cars arrived quickly, or so it felt: honestly, my perception of time at this point was completely shaken.

A passer-by – an off-duty police officer – joined Ruth and I in performing CPR on one of the drivers, until paramedics arrived. My first aid training’s rusty compared to Ruth and JTA’s, of course, but even thinking back to my training so long ago, I can tell you is that doing it with a real person – surrounded by glass and oil and blood – is a completely different experience to doing it on a dummy. The ambulance crew took over as soon as they arrived, but it seems that it was too late for her. Meanwhile the driver of the other car, who was still conscious and was being supported by JTA, hung on bravely but, local news reported, died that afternoon in hospital. Between the two cars, two people were killed; the third person – a passenger – survived, as did a dog who was riding in the back of one of the cars.

The emergency services from a distance
Once we’d handed over to the emergency services, we retreated to a safe distance and, for perhaps the first time, began to contemplate what we’d seen.

I am aware that I’ve described the incident, and our participation in its aftermath, in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s because I’m honestly not sure what I mean to say, beyond that. It’s something that’s shaken me – the accident was, as far as I could see, the kind of thing that could happen to any of us at any time, and that realisation forces upon me an incredible sense of my own fragility. Scenes from the experience – the cars shattering apart; the dying driver; her courageous passenger – haunt me. But it feels unfair to dwell on such things: no matter what I feel, there’s no way to ignore the stark truth that no matter how much we were affected by the incident… the passenger, and the families and friends of those involved, will always have been affected more.

It took hours for us to get back on the road again, and the police were very apologetic. But honestly: I don’t think that any of us felt 100% happy about being behind the wheel of a car again after what had just happened. Our journey back home was slow and cautious, filled with the images of the injuries we’d seen and with a newly acute awareness of the dangers of the glass-and-metal box we sat inside. We stopped at a service station part-way home, and I remarked to Ruth how surreal it felt that everybody around us was behaving so normally: drinking a coffee; reading a paper; oblivious to the fact that just a few tens of miles and a couple of hours away, people just like them had lost their lives, doing exactly what they were about to go and do.

It’s all about perspective, of course. I feel a deep sorrow for the poor families of the people who didn’t make it. I feel a periodic pang of worry that perhaps there were things I could have done: What if I’d have more-recently practised first aid? What if I’d more-quickly decoded our position and relayed it to the operator? What if I’d have offered to help Ruth immediately, rather than assuming that she had sufficient (and the right kind of) help and instead worked on ensuring that the traffic was directed? I know that there’s no sense in such what-if games: they’re just a slow way to drive yourself mad.

Maybe I’m just looking for a silver lining or a moral or something in this story that I just can’t find. For a time I considered putting this segment into a separate blog post: but I realised that the only reason I was doing so was to avoid talking about it. And as I’m sure you all know already, that’s not a healthy approach.

Right now, I can only say one thing for certain: our holiday to Devon is a trip I’ll never forget.

Hello 2013: Goodbye 2012

This post has been censored at the request of Sundeep. See: all censored posts, all posts censored by request of Sundeep.

This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.

2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.

RT @misterjta Dear 2012, Fuck off. Sincerely, JTA.
My retweet of JTA’s sentiments, shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, pretty much covers my feeling of the year, too.

It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.

My sister Becky with Puddles, on a train.
My sister Becky with Puddles, both younger and more-foolish than they eventually became. I don’t know why Puddles is wearing a t-shirt.

The sudden and unexpected death of my dad while training for his Arctic trek, was clearly the event which had the most-significant impact on me. I’ve written about the experience at length, both here on my blog and elsewhere (for example, I made a self-post to Reddit on the day after the accident, urging readers to “call somebody you love today”).

My dad, climbing Aladdin's Mirror in the Cairngorms.
My dad, climbing Aladdin’s Mirror in the Cairngorms.

In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).

Sandals (with socks), shorts, checked shirt.
My dad’s clothes for his funeral. My sisters and I decided that he ought to be dressed as he would be for a one of his summer hikes, right down to the combination of sandals and socks (the funeral director needed reassurance that yes, he really did routinely wear both at the same time).

Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.

Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S****** suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.

VARLEY Margret Of Doddington Lodge, Hopton Wafers, formerly of Newcastle-on-Clun, on April 28, 2012. Funeral Service, at Telford Crematorium, on Tuesday, May 22, at 2pm. Inquiries to LINDA DAWSON Funeral Director Corvedale Road Craven Arms Telephone 01588 673250. Originally printed on May 17, 2012.
The notice of Ruth’s grandmother’s death, as it appeared in the online version of her local newspaper.

Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.

As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.

My sister Sarah and I at the christening of a bus named after my dad. Click the picture for the full story.
My sister Sarah and I at the christening of a bus named after my dad. Click the picture for the full story.

When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.

A hillside. A sunset. A fast, hard cycle ride. A beer and a Mars bar, just like old times. Wish you were here. Still miss you, Dad.
On the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I cycled up a hill to watch the sunset with a bottle of Guinness and a Mars bar. And sent this Tweet.

You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.

A delicious-looking BLT.
It’s been a while, old friend. A while since I used this delicious-looking photograph in my blog, I mean! This is the sixth time… can you find them all?

Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).

The "F" is for "Fuck me you're going to put a scalpel WHERE?"
The “F” is for “Fuck me you’re going to put a scalpel WHERE?”

I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…

Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).

Ruth's pregnancy test, showing "pregnant".
One of the many pregnancy tests Ruth took, “just to be sure” (in case the last few were false positives). Photo from Ruth’s blog.

As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.

A kitten.
In Ruth’s blog post, she’s used kittens to make a sad story a little softer, and so I have too.

But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.

Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.

I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.

Ruth and her father at High Green.
A few days before the miscarriage became apparent, Ruth and her dad survey the back garden of the house he’s rebuilding.

And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.

Here’s to 2013.

Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.

Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.

Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.

The Coroner’s Inquest

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this post contains details of the nature of the accident that killed my father, including a summary of the post-mortem report and photographs which, while not graphic, may be evocative.[/spb_message]

Last week, I attended a coroner’s inquest, which (finally) took place following my father’s sudden death earlier this year. It’s been five months since he fell to his death in the Lake District, while he was training for a sponsored trek to the North Pole this spring. Despite the completion of the post-mortem only a week or so after his death and the police investigation not running on too much longer after that, it took a long time before the coroner was ready to set a date for an inquest hearing and finally put the matter to rest.

Legal gavel and books and stuff.
A selection of “lawyer things” notably absent from our minimally formal inquest hearing. Photo courtest s_falcow (Flickr).

I made my way up to Kendal – presumably chosen for its proximity to the coroner who serves the hospital where my father was airlifted after his fall – in a rental car, picking up my sisters and my mother in Preston on the way. We were joined at the County Hall by my dad’s friend John (who was with him on the day of the accident), Kate (a partner of my dad’s), and – after his complicated train journey finally got him there – Stephen (one of my dad’s brothers).

Mostly, the inquest went as I’d anticipated it might. The post-mortem report was read out – the final verdict was that death was primarily caused by a compression fracture in the upper spine and a fracture of the base of the skull, which is a reassuringly quick and painless way to go, as far as falling injuries are concerned. John’s statement was summarised, and he was asked a series of clarifying questions in order to ensure that my dad was properly equipped and experienced, in good health etc. on the day of his accident.

The route up Blea Water.
The last walk my dad ever made: the yellow line shows where he and John walked. The magenta line shows the path of my dad’s fall.

This was clearly a painful but sadly-necessary ordeal for John, who’d already been through so much. In answer to the questions, he talked about how he and my dad had rambled together for years, about how they came to be where they were on that day, and about the conditions and the equipment they’d taken. And, in the minutes leading up to my dad’s death, how he’d been coincidentally taking photographs – including the one below. He’d been in the process of putting his camera away when my dad slipped, so he didn’t see exactly what happened, but he looked up as my dad shouted out to him, “John!”, before he slid over the cliff edge.

Later, we heard from the police constable who was despatched to the scene. The constable had originally been en route to the scene of a minor road crash when he was diverted to my dad’s accident. He related how the two helicopter teams (the Air Ambulance hadn’t been able to touch down, but paramedics had been able to leap out at low altitude, so an RAF Search & Rescue helicopter was eventually used to transport the body to the hospital) had worked on the scene, and about his investigation – which had included seizing John’s digital camera and interviewing him and the other ramblers who’d been at the scene.

My dad, climbing, moments before his accident.
This photo of my dad, approaching a snow bank as he scrambles up the hillside, was taken only moments before he slipped and fell.

That’s all very sad, but all pretty-much “as expected”. But then things took a turn for the unexpected when Kate introduced herself as a surprise witness. Making an affirmation and taking the stand, she related how she felt that my father’s walking boots were not in adequate state, and how she’d told him about this on several previous occasions (she’s now said this on her website, too).

I’m not sure what this was supposed to add to the hearing. I suppose that, were it not for the mitigating factors of everything else, it might have ultimately contributed towards a possible verdict of “death by misadventure” rather than “accidental death”: the subtle difference here would have affected any life insurance that he might have had (he didn’t), by giving a reason to reject a claim (“he wasn’t properly-equipped”). John’s statement, as well as subsequent examination of my dad’s boots by my sister Sarah, contradicted Kate’s claim, so… what the hell was that all about?

A Search & Rescue helicopter hovers above my dad and the paramedics with him.
A further photo by John, showing one of the two helicopters that were involved in the operation, hovering above the spot where my dad is attended by paramedics. A selective blur filter has been added.

We all handle grief in different ways, and its my hypothesis that this was part of hers. Being able to stand in front of a court and describe herself as “Peter’s partner” (as if she were the only or even the most-significant one), and framing his death as something for which she feels a responsiblity (in an “if only he’d listened to me about his boots!” way)… these aren’t malicious acts. She wasn’t trying to get an incorrect verdict nor trying to waste the courts’ time. This is just another strange way of dealing with grief (and damn, I’ve seen enough of those, this year).

But I’d be lying if it didn’t cause quite a bit of concern and confusion among my family when she first stood up and said that she had a statement to make.

Anyway: regardless of that confusing little diversion, it’s good that we’ve finally been able to get the coroners’ inquest to take place. At long last – five months after my dad’s death – we can get a proper death certificate I (as an executor of his will) can start mopping up some of the more-complicated parts of his estate.

Top of the World

This Saturday, my dad finally made it to the North Pole. Or, at least: some of him did.

Members of the polar trek team in training in Norway, last month.
Members of the polar trek team in training in Norway, last month. With thanks to Geoff Major (click photo for his blog post about the training).

My dad was killed in February while training for his planned exhibition to the North Pole, fundraising for charity TransAid. Since his funeral last month, my life’s been a whirlwind of emotional ups and downs and administrative challenges with the handling of his estate, of which I’m an executor.

Geoff Major's tweet about my dad reaching his destination.
Geoff Major’s tweet about my dad reaching his destination.

So it was a really special moment to discover that, this weekend, my dad finally made it to the pole. My sisters and I had arranged that a portion of his cremated ashes would be carried with the polar trek team and scattered at what must be one of the most remote places on Earth – the very top of the world. It’s nice to think that not even death was enough to stop my dad from getting to the planet’s most Northernmost spot, even if he had to be carried for the last 600 miles.

My dad, "dressed for cold weather", according to my sister.
My dad, “dressed for cold weather”, according to my sister.

Meanwhile, donations flooded in faster than ever to my dad’s fundraising page, taking the grand total to over £12,000 – significantly in excess of the £10,000 he’d hoped to raise. My family and I are gobsmacked with the generosity of the people who’ve donated, and incredibly grateful to them as well as to the team that took him on the last ten days of his journey to the Pole.

The fundraising total, according to JustGiving.
The fundraising total, according to JustGiving. A significant amount of money was also raised offline, via donations at or around my dad’s wake, and is not included in this already-impressive total.

It pleases me that my dad gets to trespass somewhere he shouldn’t be, one last time: this time, breaking the international conventions that require that nothing gets “left” at the North Pole. The remainder of my fathers ashes will be scattered by my sisters and I from the top of a particular mountain, as he’d sometimes said that he’d wanted.

And after all of these adventures, I think he deserves to get what he wants. With no apologies for the pun: he’s urn‘d it!

Personal Effects

Since my dad’s funeral, a little over a month ago, I’ve been responsible – as executor of his will – for leading the efforts to deal with the distribution of his estate. By necessity of the complexity of the case, we’ve had to draft some friendly lawyers, but there’s still been an awful lot to be taken care of by my sisters, my mother, my dad’s partner, and I, among others. Some bits have been easier than others.

TV Licensing, for example, have been particularly useless, as evidenced by this cheque.

Standard Life‘s pensions department, for example, made my dealings with them very easy: they explained exactly what they needed from me, exactly what they’d do with it, and how quickly they could act upon it. TV Licensing, on the other hand, seem to be working against me rather than for me, issuing me a cheque made out as it is to “Executor of MR P HUNTLEY”, which was subsequently rejected by my bank on account of being in the name of nobody at all. I suppose I could easily change my name in order to accept that cheque, but that seems like the wrong solution. Plus I’ve always felt like more of a “Dan” than an “Executor”.

For some reason, my dad kept his copy of the (rather thick) book “Internet Explorer 4 At A Glance”; a book whose necessity I would have questioned even back in 2001, when it was published.

I’ve begun packing up the contents of my dad’s house, too, so that they can be meaningfully distributed to whoever ought to have them. This leads to an inevitable clash, of course, between the lawyers and the local council. The former want us to remove as little as possible before they can appraise the value of the contents, which is relevant to the assessment of inheritance tax. The latter demand that the house be left unfurnished so that it does not become liable for council tax. In order to walk the fine line between the two I’ve been packaging things up based on their types: his vast library of transport books in these boxes, etc. And despite great efforts (such as the work it took to disassemble the rusty old trampoline in the back garden), it still feels like there’s a long, long, long way to go.

Ashes to Ashes (The Funeral of Peter Huntley)

Friday was the day of my dad’s funeral. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to see my blog post about his death, and a second article about the things that have been hardest, so far, in its aftermath. I’m not inclined to say too much, so I’ll be brief and let pictures, and a video, tell the story. As usual, you’ll find that you can click on the pictures to enlarge them.

A convoy of buses arrive to deliver attendees to the funeral.

A remarkable number of people turned up to mark my dad’s passing on this sad occasion. I was genuinely surprised to see how many lives he’d touched (and to hear about a great many more from people who couldn’t make it). About 350 people struggled to fit in to the cramped crematorium, and many had to stand outside where – thankfully – there were repeater speakers.

The buses with digital display boards, provided by Stagecoach, had been reprogrammed to show my dad’s name and years of life.

My sisters and I were determined that this event would be a celebration of our father’s life. So rather than focusing on his tragic and premature death, we made every effort to commemorate his achievements and reinforce the lessons that we can all learn from his time with us. In a similar vein, we’d told everybody that we had the chance to that there was no need to wear black for this funeral: that people should wear what’s appropriate to them for their personal act of mourning and remembrance.

In memory of my dad, I wore his old-style bus driver’s license badge, as well as wearing both socks and sandals together, as he often would.

We’d hired a former minister, Ken Howles, to provide a (thoroughly secular, under threat of non-payment!) framework for the service, but we “rolled our own” so far as possible. Seven individual tributes and eulogies were given by people representing different aspects of my dad’s life: from my mother, from his partner, from the friend with whom he was walking on the day he died, from the managing directors of the company he founded and the company he last worked for, from the chief executive of the charity he was fundraising for, and – finally – from me.

(if you can’t view the YouTube video above, or if you want to share it with others, you can also view it on YouTube)

The contrast between the different tributes was stark and staggering, reflecting the huge variety in the different facets of my father’s life. From guerrilla gardening to trainspotting, lessons learned to tyres pulled, we collectively painted a picture of the spectrum of my dad’s life. The tributes given were, in order:

  • My mother, Doreen (watch), who talked about their adventures together as young adults and the roots of his career in transport
  • His partner, Jenny (watch), who shared the experiences they’d had together, and mourned for those that they would not
  • His friend, John (watch), who let us in on the things that they’d talked about during my dad’s final hours
  • Adrian, the managing director of the company my dad founded (watch), on his success in the world of transport consultancy, and working with him
  • A break in the middle to watch a video of my dad singing karaoke
A picture of the “Celebration of Life” order of service that we distributed at the funeral. Click on the picture to download the original (which includes a list of some of the charities my dad supported) as a PDF.


  • Kevin, the managing director of Go North-East (watch), on the subject of my dad’s recent career and influence on British transport
  • Gary, chief executive of TransAid (watch), announced the future creation of the Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, and thanked my dad and his supporters on behalf of the dozens of charities my dad helped
  • And finally, me (watch), contrasting all of the above by talking about what my dad was like as a father and a friend, and the lessons we can learn from him

If you can’t watch YouTube where you are, you can also read the full text of my personal eulogy here.

JTA serves butter pie, mushy peas, and hotpot – classic Lancashire comfort foods – to guests at the wake.

Afterwards, we held a wake at Grimsargh Village Hall which, on account of the sheer number of bus industry attendees, rapidly became a micro-conference for the public transport sector! It was great to have the chance to chat to so many people who’d worked with my dad in so many different contexts.

Mourners gather near the (convenient!) bar at Grimsargh Village Hall. I’ve decided: all wakes should have a bar.

Between hot food provided by a local caterer, cold savories courtesy of Jenny’s daugher Eppie, and a copious quantity of cakes baked by Ruth, there was an incredible superfluity of food. These two, plus JTA, Paul, and Eppie’s boyfriend James, provided a spectacular level of “behind-the-scenes” magic, keeping everything running smoothly and ensuring that everything happened as and when it was supposed to.

Among other things, Ruth baked biscuits in the shape of buses, decorated in the colours of the different routes that my dad rebranded during his time at Go North-East.

We set up a “memory book”, in which people could write their recollections of my dad. I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but one of them stands out already to me as a concise and simple explanation of what we achieved at the crematorium that day. It reads:

“Great funeral, Peter. Sorry that you missed it.”

It was certainly a great send-off for a man who did so much for so many people. Thank you so much to everybody who made it such a success, and to everybody who, in the meantime, has donated to TransAid via my dad’s JustGiving page (or by giving us cash or cheques at or after the funeral). You’re helping his memory live on, for everybody: thank you.

My dad didn’t teach me to drive. But he did teach me to read a bus timetable. Thanks, dad. I love you.

Little Things

It’s all about the little things.

My dad died almost a fortnight ago when he lost his footing during a climb in the Lake District, and – since then – it’s felt like I’ve been involuntarily transplanted out of my life and into somebody else’s. I’ve only been in and out of work, and I’m glad to have done that: it’s added a semblance of normality to my routine. But most of my “new life” seems to consist of picking up the pieces of the jigsaw of my dad’s affairs and piecing them together into a meaningful picture.

An endless outpouring of sympathy cards adorn shelf after shelf in my dad’s house.

The big stuff is easy. Or, at least, it’s easy thanks to the support of my sisters and my mum. The big stuff isn’t small, of course, and it takes a significant effort to make sure it’s handled correctly: arranging a funeral and a wake, pouring over the mountains of paperwork in my dad’s files, and discussing what’s to ultimately be done with his house… those are all big things.

But the small things: they’re tough. The little things that sneak up on you when you least expect it. Last night, Becky and I were watching television when an advertisement came on.

We were both trying to work out what it was an advertisement for – perhaps some kind of holiday company? – as we watched a scene of a family (father, mother, and two teenage daughters) packing their bags and moving them into the hallway. The kids squeezed past their dad on the stairs and hugged their mother: “It won’t be the same, without dad,” said one.

The commercial was for life insurance, and it pulled a Sixth Sense (spoiler: Bruce Willis is dead the entire time) on us – the girls’ father wasn’t there at all.

That we happened to see that advertisement was a little thing, in the scale of things. But it’s the little things that are the hard ones.

Funeral’s tomorrow. I’d better finish writing this eulogy.

Full Stop

Update: the funeral will take place at 4pm on Friday 2nd March, at Preston Crematorium.

On Sunday, my dad died.

And honestly, I’m not sure what else to say. There’s nothing else left to say. It felt like my tweet – like all tweets – said too little, too. But I didn’t want to keep anybody in the dark about this tragic news, so… well…

As I mentioned in December, my dad had planned a sponsored expedition to the North Pole, this April, in order to raise money for TransAid, a charity about whose work he was passionate. As part of his training, he was up on High Street, a fell in the Lake District, with his friend John. There, he lost his footing and slipped, falling over a 200 foot precipice. He was discovered to be dead when the air ambulance arrived; almost certainly killed pretty much instantaneously by the fall.

My dad, doing what he loved the most: taking on the world and braving the elements.

Since then, I’ve been in Preston, where my sisters, our mother, my dad’s partner, and our friends have been trying to come to terms with this tragic loss, and to make arrangements for his funeral. We’re keeping busy, which is probably for the best, right now. I’d like to say thank you to everybody who’s sent cards, emails, or text messages: your thoughts and sympathies are really appreciated, and I apologise that there simply hasn’t been time to reply to you all individually.

My dad died doing what he loved: exploring the outdoors, walking, climbing, and pushing his limits, in aid of a worthy cause that meant a lot to him. He was in incredible physical fitness, and I’d always suspected that 15 years from now, with him in his 70s and I in my 40s, he’d still have been able to outpace me on a scramble up Helvellyn’s Striding Ridge.

I’m sad that that’s a theory that I’ll never be able to put to the test. I’m sad that my dad never lived long enough to see if he’d have any grandchildren. I’m sad that the world is so cruel as to deny us all those conversations left unfinished and those mountains left unconquered. I’m even sad that I’ll never again get an out-of-the-blue call from him on some Saturday afternoon because he  can’t work out how to use his printer, or fix his Internet connection.

And I still don’t know what to say. So for now, at least, that’s all.

Update: Added photo and funeral info.

Seven Billion

[disclaimer: this post appears just days after some friends of mine announce their pregnancy; this is a complete coincidence (this post was written and scheduled some time ago) and of course I’m delighted for the new parents-to-be]

In October, the world population is expected to reach seven billion. Seven fucking billion. I remember being a child and the media reports around the time that we hit five billion: that was in the late 1980s. When my parents were growing up, we hadn’t even hit three billion. For the first nine or ten thousand years of human civilisation between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, the world population was consistently below a billion. Let’s visualise that for a moment:

World population for the last 12,000 years.

How big is our island?

Am I the only one who gets really bothered by graphs that look like this? Does it not cause alarm?

We have runaway population growth and finite natural resources. Those two things can’t coexist together forever. Let’s have a look at another graph:

Reindeer population on St. Matthew Island, from the comic of the same name.

This one is taken from a wonderful comic called St. Matthew Island, about the real island. It charts the population explosion of a herd of reindeer introduced to the island in the 1940s and then left to their own devices in a safe and predator-free environment. Their population ballooned until they were consuming all of their available resources. As it continued to expand, a tipping point was reached, and catastrophe struck: without sufficient food, mass starvation set in and the population crashed down from about 6,000 to only 43. By the 1980s, even these few had died out.

There are now no reindeer on St. Matthew Island. And it looks like this 40-year story could serve as a model for the larger, multi-century, world-wide population explosion that humans are having.

Game Theory

Humans are – in theory at least – smart enough to see what’s coming. If we continue to expand in this way, we risk enormous hardship (likely) and possible extinction (perhaps). Yet still the vast majority of us choose to breed, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that this is Not A Good Thing.

But even people smart enough to know better seem to continue to be procreating. And perhaps they’re right to: for most people, there is – for obvious evolutionary reasons – a biological urge to pass on one’s genes to the next generation. During a period of population explosion, the risk that your genetic material will be “drowned out” by the material of those practically unrelated to you. Sure: there might be a complete ecological collapse in 10, 100 or 1000 years… but the best way to ensure that your genes survive it is to put them into as many individuals as possible: surely some of them will make it, right? Just like buying several lottery tickets improves your chances of hitting the jackpot.

A stack of lottery tickets. If I buy enough, I’m sure to win, right?

On a political level, too, a similar application of game theory applies: if the other countries are going to have more people, then our country needs more people too! Very few countries penalise families for having multiple children (in fact, to the contrary), and those that do don’t do so very effectively. This leads to a “population arms race”, and no nation can afford to fall behind its rivals: it needs a young workforce ready to pay taxes, produce goods, pay for the upkeep of the retired… and conceive yet more children.

The same tired arguments

Mostly, though, I hear the same tired arguments for breeding [PDF]: cultural conditioning and social expectations, a desire to “pass on” a name (needless to say, I have a different idea about names than many people), a xenophobic belief that the world needs “more people like us” but “less like them”, and worry that you might regret it later (curious how few people seem to consider the reverse of this argument).

For me, the genetic problem is easy enough to fix: if your children’s genes are valuable to you because of their direct relationship (50%) to your genes, then presumably your brother’s (50%) and your niece’s (25%) are valuable to you to: more so than that of somebody on the other side of the world? I just draw the boundary in a different place – all of us humans share well over 99% of our DNA with one another anyway: we’re all one big family! We only share a lower percentage with other primates,  a lower percentage still with other mammals, and so on (although we still share quite a lot even with plants).

The similarity between you and your children is only marginally more – almost insignificantly so – than the similarity between you and every other human that has ever lived.

If you’re looking for a “family” that carries your genetic material: you’re living in one… with almost seven billion brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts! If you can expand your thinking to include the non-human animals, too, well: good for you (I can’t quite stretch that far!). But if you’re looking to help your family survive… can you expand that thinking into a loyalty to your species, instead, and make the effort to reduce population growth for the benefit of all of us?

My family tree. Have you met my great aunt baboon? Oh; sorry – that’s my sister before she brushes her hair on a morning…

The other argument I frequently see is the “replacement” argument: that it’s ethically okay for a breeding pair of humans to have exactly two children to “replace” them. This argument has (at least) three flaws:

  1. The replacement is not instantaneous. If a couple, aged 30, have 2 children, and live to age 80, then there are 50 years during which there are four humans taking up space, food, water and energy. The problem is compounded even further when we factor in the fact that life spans continue to increase. If you live longer than your parents, and your children live longer than you, then “replacement” breeding actually results in a continuous increase in total population.
  2. Even ignoring the above, “replacement” breeding strategies only actually works if they’re universal. Given that many humans will probably continue to engage super-replacement level reproduction, we’re likely to need a huge number of humans to engage in sub-replacement level or no reproduction in order to balance it out.
  3. It makes the assumption that current population levels represent a sustainable situation. That might or might not be true – various studies peg the maximum capacity for the planet at anywhere between one and a hundred billion individuals, with the majority concluding a value somewhere between four and ten billion. Given the gravity of the situation, I’d rather err on the side of caution.

Child sandwiches

“Do you not like children, then?” I’m sometimes asked, as if this were the only explanation for my notion. And recently, I’ve found a new analogy to help explain myself: children are like bacon sandwiches.

I’m sure I’m overusing this picture of a BLT.

Children are like bacon sandwiches for five major reasons:

  1. Like most (but not all) people, I like them.
  2. I’d love to have them some day.
  3. But I choose not to, principally because it would be ethically wrong.
  4. I don’t want to prevent others from having them (although I don’t encourage it either), because their freedom is more important than that they agree with me. However, I’d like everybody to carefully consider their actions.
  5. They taste best when they’re grilled until they’re just barely-crispy. Mmm.

Now of course I’ve only been refraining from bacon sandwiches for a few months: that’s why this is a new analogy to me… but I’ve felt this way about procreation for as long as I can remember.

The reasons are similar, though: I care about other humans (and, to a much lesser degree, about other living things, especially those which are “closer” family), and I’d rather not be responsible, even a little, for the kind of widespread starvation that was doubtless experienced by the reindeer of St. Matthew Island. Given the way that humans will go to war over limited resources and our capacity to cause destruction and suffering, we might even envy the reindeer – who “only” had to starve to death – before we’re done.

Leslie Nielsen was admitted to hospital earlier this month

You: To Hospital? What is it?

Me: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

Sad to say, he died yesterday. The world has lost a fantastic actor and comedian.

Just a short post, here: the wedding this weekend was amazing, but I’ll be writing about that at a later point, once I’ve caught up on all the work and email I’ve neglected over the last week or so.

My Friends Are Amazing

I’d just like to take a moment to say how amazing my friends are. It’s likely to be a little sappy: for those of you who like your blog posts on the other side of the wall, please switch off your eyes now.

Earlier this month, I blogged about Claire and I’s break-up. For many of the people I know, this will have been the very first they’ll have heard about it. Over the 36 hours or so that followed, I was completely swamped by consolations and concern: by comment, text message, Facebook, instant message, e-mail and phone – as well as in person from those I’ve seen in the meantime. Every single one of those messages is appreciated so very much. Thank you all.

And that’s not even mentioning the check-ins that people have made in the weeks since. It’s so kind of you all. I hope that Claire’s feeling as supported as I’ve been lucky enough to feel.

So how’s it going? That’s what everybody asks. Well…

…it’s still difficult. I’m not sure why I might have expected anything else: Claire and I were together for a quarter of my life so far. I still cry quite a lot, especially when Grooveshark Radio conspires against me and decides to queue up a whole series of songs that remind me of her. I don’t see as much of her as I used to, and I miss her, but when we’re together I often find it quite painfully awkward: even just down to little things, like the times that I realise that for the last few minutes I’d forgotten we aren’t a couple. I’m intensely keen on us being friends, and at least salvaging the awesome friendship we’ve shared for most of the millenium, but it’s not as comfortable as I’d like.

As I’ve said to a handful of people, now: without Claire, there’s no compelling reason for me to stay in Aberystwyth, so in the New Year, I’ll be aiming to leave town. I’m not sure where I’ll go, yet, or what I’ll do, but I’ve got some ideas. Today, I told my boss about my situation and that I’d like to start taking steps to make sure that the company can do without me: the joy of small-team development, eh?

When I first came to town, I promised myself that I wouldn’t get caught in the trap of being “stuck” here. I realised that Aberystwyth was a place that I could really fall in love with, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t stay more than ten years.

That was ten years and two months ago. I think it’s time to leave my love behind.

The Break-Up

Yesterday, Claire and I broke up.

We’ve had several rough months, and several even rougher weeks, and this seemed to be the best solution to a variety of difficulties we’ve faced recently. It’s hard to answer the question as to whether the split could be described as mutual, but it can certainly be described as amicable, if that’s enough. If not, then perhaps it might help to understand that we’re both, little doubt, unhappy, but that it’s better to end things now in a friendly way than, say, in six months time in an unfriendly way.

I’m sure that neither of us want to go in depth into the issues behind this break-up in the public forum, but I’m sure that those of you who are our friends are more than welcome to ask privately, “what happened?” I apologise to everybody for whom this comes as a shock (i.e. most of you, from what I gather).

I’ve no doubt that Claire and I will continue to be close friends and will kick arse in all the fabulous ways that you’re used to, whether in one another’s company or apart. And I expect I speak for both of us when I say that there’s a slap on the wrist waiting for anybody we catch “taking sides”: there are no sides to be taken.

Virgil wrote that omnia vincit amor – love conquers all – but he was wrong. Despite our love for one another, if Claire and I had carried on the way we were, people would have ended up hurt. I’m feeling drained and miserable, but it’ll pass, and all will be well again. For a quarter of my life thus far I’ve been Claire’s, and she’s been mine, and through one another we’ve done so much. For the last seven and a half years I’ve been thankful for the great richness of experience that my relationship with Claire has brought. There will always be a special place in my heart for her.

Thanks for reading. I think I shall go and sit quietly for a while, now.

Edit @ 21:20 01-Nov-2009: Claire has a few things to say, too.

Fry’s Dog

Remember Jurassic Bark, Futurama series four, episode seven? It’s the one in which Fry’s dog, Seymour, left in the present-day when Fry gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the far future, sits outside the pizza parlour where Fry had worked, waiting for him to return. Turns out it’s based on a true (sad) story, of a dog called Hachiko. Read about Haciko’s life here.

Thought I’d share for all the rest of you Futurama-junkies out there.

On My Grandma And The Nature Of Time, Space, And Models Of The Universe

I’d hoped to finish writing this post before my gran died so suddenly yesterday, but I guess I was a bit slow. I realised that there were so many changes of tense to be made to make the article make sense that it was actually easier to start again. So I did.

On The Nature Of Models

I have a certain model of the universe and the way it works in my head, just as you do in yours. Some people’s models are more complex than others, and some are more complex in different areas. A great example of model complexity comes from the usage of a car. A great number of people are able to drive a car – they know what pedals to press and what levers and wheels and switches to operate to make the car go faster or slower, to make it turn corners, to park it safely, and to turn on things like the lights, indicators, and windscreen wipers. The majority of these people do not understand – or need to understand – anything beyond the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine, or a car’s electrical system, or the algorithm used to determine if ABS should be activated. This doesn’t make them bad drivers: this makes them bad mechanic… but not everybody wants to be a mechanic.

A mechanic has a somewhat deeper understanding of the car. Technically speaking, being a car mechanic doesn’t necessitate knowing how to drive (although it probably helps with learning the trade and it’s certainly conventional). He knows that if it makes a particular bad noise to replace a particular part, and how to test different components. The car’s owner probably barely looks at the engine, except to appear manly by the roadside after a breakdown by opening the bonnet and staring at it without the slightest comprehension of what is actually wrong, and occassionally to check the oil or refill the water. But the mechanic knows how the car actually works, how the engine powers the wheels and how the mysterious gearbox actually works and why the brakes squeak on old cars and how to pad a bill.

The mechanic probably can’t tell you how the electromagnets in the centrally-controlled door locks or the light-emitting diodes in the dashboard actually work, because that’s into the realm of the physicist, and so on. We all have different models for different subsets of the universe, and the way that it works. And in particular, I’m about to talk about my model of the fundamentals of the universe as a whole.

A Model Of The Universe

My model of the universe is a particularly clinicially scientific one. Like about 4% of the world’s population, I am an atheist – I believe that there are no deities. I am, at the most fundamental levels, a determinist – I believe that with a good enough model everything could be explained and predicted, although I appreciate only one such model of the universe will ever exist, and we’re standing in it. However, my determinist ideas are so fundamental that the question of free will doesn’t really come into it: while, technically, I don’t believe in free will, I also don’t believe that it’s possible to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty either way, which makes my disbelief in free will a matter of faith, rather than of scientific reason.

My model is more simplistic than that of many theoretical physicists: I don’t claim to understand string theory, or spacetime curvature, or any number of other things. For day to day use, my model of gravity is Dan’s Simplified Gravitational Theory, which has one rule: “things fall down” (although at a deeper level, I’m quite happy with the idea that mass attracts other mass, and can comprehend orbits and expansion and stuff). But it’s a well-packaged and strong model without holes, and I’m a firm believer in it. It’s my belief that humans naturally build models in their head to explain the way the world works and make it more predictable. The “things fall down” theory of gravity is more than enough for a spear-throwing caveman to use to catch an animal to skin and eat, and it’s fine for me to go and play frisbee on the beach, but it’s not enough to put a man on the moon. To do that took some far more powerful models of the universe which had been refined by very clever people over hundreds (if not thousands) of years.

For a single paragraph, here, I’ll take what I feel is an intellectual high ground over many theists (particularly, right now, anti-evolutionists), and state that one thing I do like about my model is that it’s malleable by science. When we’re talking about fundamentals like those discussed above, it is, to some degree, a matter of faith and “what feels right” because it’s hard to prove either way whether free will exists, for example (and, in my mind, a pointless exercise anyway). But on other matters, scientific study can really shine. Like many people (atheists and theists alike) I believe that the universe began taking it’s current form after an event long ago called the Big Bang (which is a silly name, because it was neither big – depending on how you define it – nor did it make a bang). Scientists often talk about three key theories about what’ll happen at “the end” of the universe: the Big Crunch (whereby the universe falls back in on itself and collpases into a single, tiny point), the Big Freeze (whereby the universe keeps expanding forever), and a “sweet spot” in-between, and scientists are split on the three. There’s evidence for all three, and, as yet, no consensus. As a philosophically-minded individual, I like to hypothesise about the possibilities, and come to conclusions. My belief is that the universe will eventually collapse into a Big Crunch. It became apparent to me recently, however, through a thought experiment during a conversation, that I had failed to fully grasp a key concept of the Big Freeze and had dismissed it because of this. This lead me to a whole new re-assessment of the possibilities, in which I eventually still settled on the Big Crunch as being the most likely option, in my mind. My model (a loose model, in this case: I don’t think I have enough information about the Big Crunch to argue convincingly that it is certain, it’s just what I suspect) was shaken by new evidence, which caused me to re-assess my position. In this case, as it happens, I came to the same conclusion as before. Nevertheless, I feel that one of the strengths of my model is that it allows itself to be challenged, and broken, and re-assembled. Right; end of anti-blind-faith-rant.

Needless to say, my model does not have space for ghosts or spirits. While I appreciate that these things could exist, I feel that argument for them makes as much sense as argument for unicorns, fairies, aliens “living among us”, and God. I’ll certainly agree that “there are things beyond what we know,” and I hope that always remains the case (the world is full of mysteries, and that makes it beautiful): but I don’t think there’s any reason to jump onto superstitious beliefs to justify them.

So Where Does My Gran Fit In

So you’ve probably noticed the title of this article. Yeah; I’m getting to that.

In the days leading up to my grandma’s death, I’ve engaged in a couple of conversations with Claire about my gran’s beliefs and how they link in with this whole “models of the universe” thing.

For as long as I can remember, my gran would always talk about her children and her grandchildren in a particular way: “I love all of my children and my grandchildren,” she would say, “but Dan is the special one.” This singling out – this thinly-veiled favouritism – caused some embarrasment until it started becoming “just one of those things old people do,” like talking about the war or complaining about the forms of entertainment/dress/communication enjoyed by young people today. I spoke to my gran on a handful of occassions about what she meant by this strange statement, and she would explain: “You’re the one that I’ll talk to after I’m dead.”

As a young child, this filled me with a sense of both dread and pride: dread that “she could be right” (my godless, souless model of the world was not so hard-set as a child as it was once I’d realised that higher-level physics, philosophy, and psychology held a lot of answers that evidenced it) and pride that, if she was, I had been “selected” as the “special one” to receive the “gift” that she believed she had: the gift of talking to the dead.

Her spiritualistic beliefs, though, combined with my skeptical worldview, lead to some conflict. For example, one time I was talking to both my gran and my mum, when my gran was relaying how she intended to communicate with my from beyond the grave (or, as it happens, beyond the grate: she wanted to be cremated):

“You’ve got to look out for bad spirits,” she warned me, “But you’ll know that it’s me that’s talking to you because I’ll call you my little white rabbit.” [a nickname she had for me when I was very young, perhaps because of the intensely blonde hair I sported]

“But that won’t prove anything,” my mum, who is also an excellent skeptic, although I sometimes wonder whether her models are too concrete, and I argued, “Because I could now imagine I’d heard that. What you need to do, to prove that it’s you, if you’re right, is to tell me something that I couldn’t possibly have known otherwise: something that you hadn’t told me before you died, but which we could later verify.”

It took a little while to explain this concept to her, and we gave her an example of some information that we didn’t know, but that she did and we could potentially find out after her death, if necessary. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said, and promptly told us the information. It seemed that she hadn’t quite grasped the concept at all. So, we had a few more drinks and left the conversation to finish another time.

My gran’s raving spiritualism rarely got in the way of anybody. Sure, she made me promise never to use a Ouija board (she had a particularly terrifying experience while using one and since decided that they were dangerous) and there was that one time she argued with her grandma about fireworks, upsetting my sisters, but in general, she seemed to appreciate that her beliefs were hers and not those of many others.

Models, Meet Grandma; Grandma, Models

And so we come full circle back to mental models, and my conversations with Claire. We were saying about how having such well-defined and rarely-challenged mental models of the universe as we do is, in a way, a boring stagnation. It’s rare, these days, for our models to be challenged by anything that can not be (very easily) explained, and that’s uninteresting (I disagree with Claire that it made the world boring, because there’s still plenty of mystery left that lacks any conclusive evidence whatsoever), and we came on, in the days before my grandma died, to discussing her curious prophecy that she’ll continue to talk to me from the afterlife.

And so, the skeptics that we are, we came up with a suite of experiments to help provide evidence for or against any voices that I hear, dreams I have, or whatever, actually being my post-death grandmother. I don’t believe it for a moment, but I wouldn’t be a very good skeptic if I wasn’t skeptical about my own beliefs, too. We came up with well defined hypotheses for different scenarios and sensible ways to collate information. It’s kind of interesting to develop experiments to test data that you never expect to obtain for a hypothesis you don’t believe in, but it’s the nature of science to question things, and, even if the only evidence so far is that “my gran said it”, our construction of a virtual laboratory in which to test a crazy theory (if the data is ever delivered) made a long car journey quite a lot more enjoyable.

And honestly; it’d be as interesting to prove as to disprove. Now all I need is to start hallucinating.