23 July 2007

Down in the flood

I was sure that there could be no rowing training today, even after seeing a crew out at Maidenhead on Friday evening, but I was wrong. In fact, the Thames was quite calm, and the main disincentive to going out on it was the rain. However, undaunted, we spent a thoroughly miserable forty minutes or so rowing less well than ever before, which made it seem like a really well-spent summer's evening. Except that in every respect it seemed much more like October.

Quartet for the end of time

July is the firm's peak sporting season. The netball and softball seem to carry on throughout the summer (between the deluges), but July sees both the Great City Race and the firm's Regatta. I took over the team captaincy for the Great City race, and it seems to have stuck with me but I don't mind that: last year I felt very proud of our 17 participants, and this year I shall feel even better with 26 taking part, which must surely make us one of the best-represented organisations in the race. However, I never asked to be the department's captain of boats.

That points to a unique feature of the firm. All solicitors' firms are different, but how many need even one captain of boats, let alone one per department (seven in total)? On Friday week, there will be fourteen crews competing for the trophy.

In rowing terms, it's not remotely impressive. There are some talented and experienced individuals, but their skills are well-hidden if they have three (or, if lucky, only two) inexperienced colleagues in their boat. But no-one has ever (in my hearing, at least) complained of not having fun, and although the potential hasn't been explored, it is the most effective team-building exercise there is. Half-an-hour on the Tideway is worth a week of building rafts from pieces of scrap.

On Monday I was out on the river with three colleagues, all with a modicum of experience (though one of them as a cox) but not having rowed together before. After twenty minutes or so rowing in pairs, then altogether but with squared blades, we were ready (our coach thought) to try the real thing. It would have been better had he reminded us what feathering was all about before he told us to do it, but we seemed to get the hang of it again fairly quickly (from the stroke seat I couldn't see much of what was going on behind me, but the occasional gales of laughter gave me an idea of it) and when he told us to push for ten strokes, then later for another twenty, we experienced that wonderful feeling of almost flying across the water. It only happened when all four blades were in time, and that was not on many strokes: we all caught our share of crabs, though only little ones: I am sure it looked pretty ugly: but for a few momets the four of us were a closer team than any the department has ever sent to a data room or put together for a corporate deal.

Before the flood

On Friday morning, my train had passed through the heaviest rain I can remember experiencing on a train journey. What made it memorable was the fact that the rain was drmming loudly on the windows and roof of the train even at 120 miles per hour, and looking through the rain-lashed windows there seemed to be thick fog lying over the surrounding countryside.
London, though, seemed reasonably bright and I even regretted not running to the office from Paddington. During the morning the skies darkened and shortly before midday (when I was due to leave for a meeting) the heavens opened, causing alarming gurgling noises from the voids above the ceilings in some rooms (rainwater squeezing through pipes designed for merely wet weather). Shortly thereafter the fire alarm shorted out, so instead of leaving for my meeting I was grabbing the promotional umbrella from my room to go and promote a firm of Canadian IP lawyers in do my bit as fire marshal in the Park.

Of course, near trees is the last place to be in an electrical storm, and outside in a torrectial downpour is not a good place to be at any time. Michael, the charming Ghanaian security guard from our building, soon appeared with a loudhailer which squawked and screeched but did not completely mask his message, which was to go back to the office. No confirmation at that point that it was a false alarm: it could just as well have been that a cost-benefit analysis had shown that we might as well fry indoors as drown outside. Later, the alarm kept going off so that eventually an email instruction was issued to ignore it (but, expressly, for one day only).

During the afternoon, for much of which I was ensconced in my annual appraisal meeting, alerts arrived by email and SMS from the railway company with increasing quantities of block capitals, containing the sort of useful guidance for which the British railways are rightly famous: PASSENGERS ARE ADVISED NOT TO TRAVEL is far and away my favourite. Nothing was going past Didcot, not to the West Country, not to south Wales, not to Oxford and not to the Cotswolds, but Didcot would do me.

I'd already discovered that the tube network was in tatters, but managed to make Paddington by an only slightly unusual route. It seemed that the deeper lines were least affected. The departure boards at Paddington were a litany of cancellations, leavened by a few "Delayed" promises and one or two platform numbers for departures. A stopping train for Reading was announced and I took a seat on it before the human deluge arrived, and slept most of the time it took to reach its terminus, waking briefly to check the Thames as we crossed it at Maidenhead, reportedly one of the worst affected places in the country. The river looked high, but there was a four out on it, demonstrating what a level of commitment is required of rowers.

At Reading, I was able immediately to board a westbound train, absolutely packed and made worse by the youth who took up enough space for three or four people with his luggage laid out on the floor against which he propped himself, comatose, with music plugged into his ears. The sardine-packed passengers in the lobby also had to contend with one obese first-class passenger who saw no reason to delay his visit to the buffet just because it would inconvenience a score of others: and of course he came back too, though with some satisfaction I noted that he was empty-handed. The train manager, crammed into the same lobby space, and whose turban gave him authority in such matters, lectured those within earshot about the monsoons.

At Didcot the train disgorged its passengers, or many of them, while crowds waiting on the platform tried to board (result, inevitably, impasse). It seemed that this would be the first train for hours to attempt the journey to Bristol. By now it was 8.30 and getting dark: I had my bike at the station, but no lights and no front-door key: Sarah was out working and Hilary had gone to assist Anthony and Rebekah, threatened by the brooks to the front and the rear of their house, and had predictably become stranded in Steventon, managing to park the car (containing the weekly shopping) on the causeway.

Anthony volunteered to collect me from the station, and after half an hour or so (during which I saw a taxi arrive from Chippenham to collect someone) he appeared in his Toyota RAV. It had not been easy to get out of the village, and getting back required us to take a circuitous route through Harwell, out to Rowstock where all the traffic from the A34 (aka the Cadiz to Tromso Euroroute) northbound was trying to negotiate a modest single carriageway, on towards Wantage but turning off north down Featherbed Lane (which necessitated cutting through the stationary traffic heading towards Rowstock and blocked by all the trucks heading from Cadiz to Tromso), then turning off onto a farm track which eventually brought us to the site of that weekend's Truck festival (a music festival, not a gathering of commercial vehicles; it derives its name from the stage, which at the outset presumably from necessity and in more recent years from tradition was formed from two curtain-sider trailers) just a couple of hundred yards from their house.

Truck was a complete washout, with rivers running down the farm roads and the camping field under several inches of water. Festival-goers might revel in mud, but this went far beyond that. It's postponed until September.

Past the church the road was completely flooded, and the fence alongside it gave a good indication of by how much: one rail after another disappeared beneath the surface as it sloped towards the lowest point between us and our destination. We could walk some of the way on the high grass verge, where Anthony derived some grim satisfaction from seeing abandoned a BT van that had sped past him earlier in the day and which now stood up to its wheel arches in the middle of the flood - no doubt with the inside of its diesel engine a mangled assortment of bent conrods and other components, the inevitable result of water inhalation. From there I took off my shoes and socks - Anthony, wearing knee-length boots, got further but still not all the way before having to go barefoot - and plodged through the surprisingly cold (why was I surprised? Only because I had not thought about it) water in which local teenagers were swimming.

After supper - the party totalled sixteen - we took the RAV and drove it out the way we had come. Traffic was still backed up from the Rowstock roundabout, though we joined it only after some clear road, but it cleared miraculously as we approached the junction. Back in Steventon the water level continued to drop overnight, but even now there's still some way to go, and other parts of Oxfordshire are in dire straits.

Slow train coming

The Great City Race this year was neither great nor a race, at least not for me. It was the worst run I have ever participated in, by quite a long way, but I enjoyed it as a social event once I got over the disappointment of having to run it slowly.

It all went wrong when I suggested a jog to the start, by way of a warm-up. No takers this year - memories of Shane expiring before we'd even reached the Bank of England, perhaps. Anyway. of the intrepid group that did it last year two have left the firm and Francis was making his own way to the event, he and Robbie taking in a client reception before racing and returning to it afterwards (using a nearby gym to change and shower). So there were only two others to support my reckless idea, and they decided to take the tube most of the way and run from Blackfriars. They had decided to leave at 6.15, though I had convened the others for 6.
In fact we left at 6.20, and met up with the bulk of the team at 6.50. Taking the obligatory group photo took a few minutes, and it only shows sixteen participants - two we knew of were missing, but another bunch were lost somewhere. So we headed for the start rather late, and by the time we reached the City Road the leaders had been running for 3 minutes. The contrast with last year's clean getaway from the front of the pack coundn't have been greater.
The first kilometre came up in 5:33, as we dodged between slower runners and walkers - two, side by side, from a firm that made me a rather attractive offer not many months ago: how embarrassing would it have been to have been in their colours.

Knowing that there would be no fast time for me, I settled down to a comfortable pace, which happily put me in the company of my regular and most glamorous running companion. Vanessa and I crossed the line together, our times being recorded as identical but with her four places ahead of me. Paul McAleavey, one of our trainees, passed us both in the last hundred yards or so, by which time my fast-twitch fibres had decided to take the evening off and a sprint was out of the question.

Back where we had pitched camp (leaving a colleague's daughter on guard duty) Rose had joined us, and greeted me with a great hug before we headed for a local pub where we had reserved space. The evening became a lot more enjoyable once the race was effectively forgotten. Nancy looked as if she was quietly fuming at the obstacles placed in the way of a personal best (as she has agreed to pay her virtual personal trainer on a results-only basis, which seems to me a significant disincentive to bettering your best time), but when the results were posted she had improved on last year. To me, it makes it more important to get my entry in for the Last Friday of the Month, which no colleagues are up for (one pleads by email that he is his department's rowing captain and therefore needs to be in top form for the evening's waterborne racing, to which I reply signing myself "Captain of Boats").

Running on empty

"The 0707 to London Paddington is running" says the announcer ominously, pausing to allow everyone's hearts to sink, "on time!"

Nothing did the previous day, because of a signalling problem at Acton: Steven, one of the staff at Didcot whom I have been on nodding ters with for years - from whom I have bought countless tickets - tells me that it was just as if someone was flicking a lightswitch on and off, they were changing from red to green and back for no reason and the maintenance people couldn't stop it happening.

At least I learnt about the problems in time to abort my journey to the station, and work from home instead. However, having been out of the office all the previous day (presenting on competition law compliance to the management of a client who has already faced plenty of competition law problems), and with tomorrow off too, I didn't need another day away from my desk.

I have so much work to do, and however carefully I try to husband the time it is never enough. It's easier now than it was in the Goldfish Bowl, but I still have a roommate to contend with. Then there are matters like the Great City Run next week, for which I am the team captain, and the firm's Regatta the week after, and I have ended up being the department's captain of boats. It falls to me to organise training rotas, and deal with requests from other departments to swop. I also have to deal with the fact that we seem to have been usurped by another department on our first visit to the river this year, which is an added complication.

I can't choose the pace at which I work, either, because matters acquire urgency independent of my actions. Never a great time planner, the older I get and the more crowded my life becomes the harder I find it to deal with everything that needs to be done - the harder to remember what needs to be done on any particular day. So today there were three things I had to do because I had already left them too long.

04 July 2007

Abdul and Cleopatra

I haven't made time to run since Friday's 5K race, and today there was a lack of running partners in the office so I joined the HMRC group who run regularly on Wednesdays, from Cleopatra's Needle up to Lambeth Bridge, then to London Bridge and back to the obelisk: 5.2 miles, according to Terry, who convenes the group. I met them shortly after they had started, so I ran a little less than that distance in about 36 minutes. For the duration of the run the weather was warm, not too bright, and with just a bit of headwind to make it hard work at times (and on other stretches to carry you along at a cracking pace). Terry, with whom I ran most of the way, reckoned it was a good pace overall: I still want more - perhaps I am turning (back) into a Warrior!

After a somewhat frustrating morning in the office - the aftermath of the office move, which resulted in among other snags the power pack for my laptop not being plugged in and an umbrella having to be searched for - it was good to get out in the open air, and I've resolved to do so more regularly. I need this weekly Wednesday run to measure my improvement.

As for the title of this posting, I have co-opted the only song title that springs to mind that has any connection with the subject matter, but at least that means I have the pleasurable experience of finding a collection of old Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers songs going through my head. "The Morning of our Lives" - there's one to conjure with. I guess that when I last heard it was in the morning of my life ... and I think the B-side when that was released as a single: "Roadrunner". Remember that one, I'll want to use it some time!

02 July 2007

A data protection kind of day

I dread running training courses on data protection, which must be one of the most tedious areas of law known to humankind. But I can do it, and actually make it fairly interesting for the delegates, even perhaps entertaining.

So I finished this evening and set off home in much better time than usual, planning to get tomorrow's presentation polished up on the train home and later in the evening. Was it a surprise to learn that the gods of the railway system had been conspiring against me, and lightning had struck the signalling system at Southall? Not a bit. I couldn't get on the only train that showed any sign of leaving Paddington, packed like a can of sardines, then another was announced, stopping everywhere as far as Reading, and along with several million other people (perhaps I exaggerate) I boarded it. The journey to Reading, 27 minutes on a fast train, took two hours, including a lengthy wait for a platform to become vacant, and most of it not just standing but unable to fall over had I wished to do so. The Rail Regulator reportedly considers this a safer arrangement than having people loose in the carriages, so perhaps I should have felt good about it.

Fortunately, I was able to take a traing from Reading to Didcot - a fast one, 12 minutes - pretty promptly after the first train arrived at its terminus. As for salvaging something from the evening, not much chance of that. I'll have to charge up my computer and work at it on the way to London in the morning.