Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Action plan.

I have been trying to think about what we can do in these dark and difficult and rapidly deteriorating times. I have thought that there is a kind of template for action, that applies to any work to make the world better, and then there are the specifics of what needs to be done to counteract the actions of Trump as President of the USA, his administration and all those who support these destructive, hateful, inhumane ways of running our shared world. The template that has run through my mind has been:

1. Ready yourself

2. Educate yourself

3. Join with others

4. Show solidarity

5. Take action

6. Take direct action

7. Reflect

8. Re-energise

9. Sustain

Remember you're not alone. More are with us than with him.

Women's March in Dublin photos

More to come.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Traditions always evolve.

Traditions always evolve. I love cheese. Most years, I buy Christmas cheese, from Sheridan's cheesemongers in South Anne Street in Dublin. Whatever cheeses I want, to eat, to share, to give.

This year I bought Christmas cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy, in London, a city where I have ostensibly lived for the last three or so years.


Christmas cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy, London.

The next day I moved home to Dublin, Ireland, where I intend to live for the next little while. I took the cheese with me of course. And two days later I went to Sheridan's cheesemongers in Dublin, and bought my Christmas cheese.


Christmas cheese from Sheridan's cheesemongers, Dublin.

The cheese from London informs and coexists with the cheese in Dublin, here on my kitchen table in Dublin. I take what I have, and it comes with me. I am what I am, wherever I am. I eat, I share, I give. Utopia travels with me. Moving and being. Traditions always evolve.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Hard to believe this was only last month.


Lough Leane and the Macgillycuddy Reeks, Kerry, Ireland.

Seems like another era. A different time. A changed person. Last week does too.

I've climbed the mountain, Carrantuohil, the highest mountain in Ireland, that is somewhere in this photograph, among the Macgillycuddy Reeks. I've touched the water in this lake, Lough Leane, in Killarney. I've edited this photo to cut bits I don't like out, to make it look better, to make it seem more what I am trying to represent. But it remains what it is. The photo is crooked and right now I cannot change that. The water in the lake is always on the level. It was always balanced to my touch. I will always have climbed that mountain. I will climb many more. And I will always touch the water.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Water every where.


Regent's Canal, London.

It is all about the water.


Seapoint, Dublin.

It's always


Beach under Millennium Bridge, London.



Lough Leane, Killarney.



Grand Canal, Dublin.

the water.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Twenty twenty.

Are things better or worse than they were twenty years ago? That's a question I find myself asking myself, and other people bringing up, especially recently. Sometimes it's just the questioning of what is happening in the world today, which seems particularly bad, but we find ourselves wondering, how bad is it? Is it worse than five years ago, or ten, or twenty? Or is it just that we're more aware of what is happening or things are reported more? Or perhaps it is not the case but rather it is that we are continually being primed to think that current world events are a non-stop barrage of horror, violence and unnecessary suffering. We are told that this is normal, even acceptable or to be expected, rather than say occasional aberrations from an otherwise functional, healthy society. At the same time there seem to be few alternatives being demonstrated or compelling visions on offer, or at least the alternatives that do exist are not given much airtime, nor are nascent possibilities for a better world allowed much room to develop, solidify and reach a point where they could offer real alternatives. And there appear to be even fewer voices or forms of leadership, whether individual or collective, that seem able to articulate real alternatives, or who are in fact interested in doing so. Rather such leaders as there are seem focussed on profiting off the fear, hatred and hopelessness bred by repeated horrific events, imposed wide-scale financial suffering, man-made environmental crisis and rapidly changing cultural pressures. What is going on? And is it better or worse than twenty years ago?

When I think back to the 1990s it does seem like a more positive and hopeful time. I was a teenager and in my early twenties during that decade. For me, and for many of my generation, the 1990s began with two pivotal events. There was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. I remember watching this happen on TV, with my family, glued to the set in the living room as thousands of people broke free, climbed onto the wall or broke massive concrete sections down, singing and celebrating as they joined with their comrades and families from the other side. The oppressive form of Communism which had dominated eastern Europe for decades was essentially ended that night, and in the revolutions that followed. It felt like and was an incredible event. And it was peaceful. There had of course been violence for decades prior, both the Cold War and 'hot' conflicts, but it ended without violence, without conflict, without people killing or being killed, without shots being fired or bombs thrown. Seeing that happen, at a young age, was hugely influential for me, and was the time that I see as the beginning of my political consciousness.

Then there was the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. The freedom that he had long been walking to. As a new generation, along with so many others of every age, we witnessed the final piece of that walk, where he was set free. Again I watched that with my family around the TV, Mandela emerging into the sunshine from his prison after 27 years. I still remember how it looked, the fences, the people gathered to see this happen, Mandela himself. And while of course it could not wipe out the killings and horrors of decades of apartheid, it was in a way the end of apartheid, or the beginning of the end and the start of a new way of being for South Africa, and perhaps the world. That was the start of the 1990s. To me and to many others those two events set the tone for global affairs at that time.

Over the course of that decade, much less noticed of course, but alternatives began to gather steam and gradually to become more mainstream. The alter-globalisation movement became stronger and stronger, brought together people from the Global North and Global South and united a lot of disparate struggles into what really seemed to form a global consciousness and a global alternative to the neoliberal economic globalisation that was being imposed, often violently, worldwide. The Zapatistas staged their revolution in Mexico to mark the coming into force of NAFTA on 1st January 1994, and were so successful that they still run the state of Chiapas today. While initially violent, which I cannot condone, the EZLN did quickly lay down their arms, permanently. During the 1990s, killings and abuses by the CIA, oil companies and dictators in Latin American and African countries were appalling and were revealed to the world as never before, while the opposition, particularly by indigenous peoples in those countries, was globally supported as never before. The Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000 campaigns focussed attention throughout the 1990s on economic injustice on a global scale, and there was mainstream endorsement of the idea that impoverished countries should not be forced to pay crippling debts, particularly vast interest, to wealthy countries. The alter-globalisation (often known as anti-globalisation) movement that had been active in the Global South for at least two decades got the attention of the public and policymakers in the Global North on a huge scale with the 1999 Battle for Seattle, meaning the IMF and WTO could never again conduct their world changing, country-destroying political and economic business in secret. When direct action by protestors successfully shut down the IMF/WTO meetings in Seattle, preventing the next round of policies being agreed, it delayed and altered the course of the supposedly 'inevitable' neoliberal approach on a global scale.

More locally, there were significant achievements on social issues in Ireland – homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, divorce was approved by constitutional referendum in 1995 and went into effect in 1996, access to abortion information and the right to travel to another state to obtain an abortion were made legal in 1992, and even condoms belatedly became legally available to people under the age of 17, and easy to buy during the 1990s. It is of course shameful that homosexuality was not legal and indeed was still prosecuted prior to this date, that divorce was so long in coming, and that full reproductive rights are still denied to people in Ireland, but the 1990s was a marked improvement on decades before. The 1990s seemed a time of recognising the huge problems in the world and in Ireland, while working hard to challenge them and create a better world. And enjoying ourselves an enormous amount while we did so. Those alternative ideas were gaining popular support on an unprecedented scale, and it seemed for a while that together we might actually succeed in achieving 'rights for all', in 'making poverty history' and ultimately in creating 'another world'.

On a personal level, in the 1990s I was young and enjoying life, participating in everything to the fullest. I was making great friends with whom I remain close to this day. I was studying subjects I loved and doing plenty of literary and other extra-curricular activities. I loved the music and free party culture of that time and we made our own, often amazing, entertainment. I was directly involved in campaigns, protests and the hard work of creating a better world and manifesting alternatives, both on micro-local and macro-global scales. I was travelling the world as much as I could, going to amazing places and seeing incredible things and the amazing diversity of people and the planet. I was in good health – not something I thought much about at the time, as a teenager dancing and backpacking, but I later came to realise that my grandmother was right that your health is your wealth. It is the basis of everything else. I was certainly aware of global and local issues, and my life was personally good and enjoyable because it was bound up with tackling these issues and with creating fun and successful alternatives to the unhealthy, consumerist, environmentally destructive mainstream culture.

That's my perception now, twenty years later. I've worn glasses for around 30 years, but have they recently become rose-tinted? It's hard to say. Is it possible to objectively quantify what was happening globally and in Ireland then and now and compare them? Perhaps that's something I can research for another blog post. But perhaps it's impossible to say. How much of my feeling that things were better then and are worse now is a function of how I personally felt in the 1990s, as a young person, compared to how I feel today? I have a long term health problem now – a serious back problem and associated chronic pain condition, which have had major impacts on both what I'm able to do and my enjoyment of what I do. I'm twenty years older and I want and need different things – greater security, even stronger relationships, a decent place to live, probably more than a backpack's worth of stuff. I have more responsibilities. I have in some ways less financial security and would like more. I need decent healthcare and so do the people close to me. This would have always been the case but various health and non-health-related needs for me, and for others I care about, are much more pressing in the 2010s than in the 1990s. At the same time, my perception is that in many ways humanity and global society are not moving towards the kind of approaches and outcomes that I value or think are good ways to provide a decent life for everyone on our finite planet. There are some great advances being made, such as in gender justice issues, global communication, and awareness of and willingness to tackle climate change. But it is still far too little and the advances often appear fragile and are very limited in geographical and social scope. On the one hand we're bombarded with horror on a daily basis, and events and disasters that are traumatic due to their violence, unpredictability, scale and frequency. On the other hand we still don't hear enough about the catastrophes that unfold more slowly, such as climate change, ocean pollution, and the immense food crisis in Africa. These slow emergencies threaten us on a much deeper, more serious and more existential level and they are the intersecting crises that we need to be devoting ourselves to solving.

Whether or not things are objectively or just personally worse or better now than twenty years ago seems to miss the point. What is a greater contrast is between how we are doing now with how we could be doing. Our capacity to create not just a decent life, but an amazing life, sustainably for everyone on the planet, has arguably never been greater. Our awareness of the problems we face, and our access to alternatives, have never been greater. Our capacity to communicate on a truly global level and to collaborate on massive scales has never been greater. Our comparison should be to what we have the capacity to achieve now, not to previous times when things were possibly even worse or perhaps relatively better to today. In 2016 it is definitely within our capacity to create a great world, to meet the rights of all, people and non-humans alike, to maintain our planet as habitable, to live in abundance with enough food and clean water for all, to make peace and minimise violence, to have excellent healthcare and education for all, to enjoy diverse and vibrant cultures, in a social and environmentally sustainable way that can maintain humanity on Earth for centuries to come. In twenty years' time I hope we'll be looking back to reflect on how we achieved that world, together.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Dublin to London and back again.

Travelling between Dublin and London can be fairly cheap and fairly easy. This is my guide to how to do it. I live in London and I'm from Dublin, and at the moment I travel between the two far more than any climate conscious person really ought to, but I'm definitely a frequent flyer when it comes to love miles. My commitments to family and friends in both locations are strong, and occasionally there is even some pesky work that has to be attended to in person in one jurisdiction or the other. Lately I've been back to Ireland from the UK around once a month, and I've done it at different times by plane, boat and train, in and out of every airport in London, to and from Dublin and several other airports around the island. I've learned many tips and tricks on these trips, which can make it cheaper and easier (and sometimes even both at the same time) to make the journey, so I'm sharing them here. I also want to subtly encourage more folks from there to come and visit me here in London - it's quite the city. I've written some version of this guide many times over for friends planning a trip to Londinium, so I'm finally putting it all together here for easy access. I've framed it in terms of travel from Dublin to London, rather than the other way around, but it should not be beyond you to apply it in reverse. Hope it shall prove useful, and please add comments below.

Ferry and train from Dublin to London

One good option to travel between Dublin and London is by ferry and train. This has the major advantages of being fairly cheap, about €90-100 return, even if booked the day before you travel, and always being the same price, so no need to worry about price changes. You can even show up at Dublin Port on the day and buy your ticket, which has a slight surcharge for same day travel, and you'll be in London later that day. There are two ferry companies, Irish Ferries and Stena Link, running the route from Dublin Port to Holyhead in Wales, and connecting to trains to London Euston station, in central London. They connect up with a variety of train companies as the rail system in the UK is fragmented, but this doesn't much matter, your ticket will take you on the relevant train by whichever company or companies are running it. The trains meet the ferries. There are fast ferries which take about 90 minutes and slow ferries which take about 3 hours. However because of the way the trains are scheduled the fastest you can do the whole journey is about 7 hours from Dublin Port to London Euston, and more usually about 8-9 hours depending which ferry or train you get. Obviously this is a long journey, and there can be delays on the ferry or train but there usually aren't. It has other advantages such as being able to show up at Dublin Port say 30 minutes before your ferry, and for the train in London 10 or 15 minutes before it is due to leave. When you factor in travel to and from the airports for flights, and the time in advance of your flight you need to be there, travel between Dublin and London by air can easily take around 5 hours door to door. Also the train brings you directly into Euston station which is central London, so you do not have to travel in from outside the city or from a distant airport after you arrive, and there are no additional travel costs. There is essentially unlimited luggage allowed on the ferry, you can check usually two bags while carrying another one with you onto the ship, for free. The ferry-boat combo is called SailRail from Dublin to London, and sometimes called RailSail in the other direction. Travelling by boat and train is also more ecologically friendly than travelling by air, with far lower carbon emissions, depending on the capacity and occupancy of the ferry, mainly. I have travelled many times on the boat and train to and from London to Dublin and found it quite relaxing, entertaining, and good value, despite the fairly long hours. Worth considering, especially if it's close to your travel date and prices are climbing.

Flying from Dublin to London

Four airlines currently fly between Dublin and London: British Airways (BA), Aer Lingus, Cityjet and Ryanair. There are five major airports in London, all with flights from Dublin: London City (airport code is LCY), Heathrow Airport (LHR), Gatwick Airport (LGW), Stansted (STN) and Luton (LTN).

Tips and tricks:

Not all airlines fly to all airports. You will need to search on each airline's website for their flight routes. It is worth checking the individual routes for each airport with the airlines, as prices to one London airport can vary radically compared to another airport, even on the same day and almost the same time of flight. At the moment (August 2016) BA flies between Dublin and Heathrow, Gatwick and London City. Aer Lingus flies between Dublin and Heathrow, Gatwick and London City. Cityjet flies only to London City. Ryanair flies to Stansted, Gatwick and Luton.

Definitely consider buying one way with one airline and return with another airline, if it is cheaper. All airlines sell one way flights on these routes, usually at little or no difference in price compared to one leg of a return. And one airline and airport in one direction may be radically cheaper while its return is much more expensive, and vice versa. You can also fly with the same airline into one London airport and out of another. It may be cheaper and may suit you better or make no difference to you to travel in to one place and out of another. So consider buying two singles with two different airlines and/or two different airports, and you can potentially save a lot.

Return flights are sometimes cheaper than two single flights made with the same airline. But for some airlines the prices are identical. Other airlines, buying a one way flight is €5 or €10 more expensive than the price listed for that leg as part of a return. But sometimes, with the same airline, buying a single is much cheaper than the leg as part of a return. I do not know why this is (any ideas, airline employees?), but I've had it happen enough times to know it is worth checking one ways as well as returns. It may be because when you buy a return, if one leg of it only has seats available at a higher price, then both flights get bumped up to the higher price bracket, costing you more overall. There is not necessarily any advantage in buying a return. Again, it is definitely worth checking two one way flights.

On some of the websites, you can enter London (code LON) or something like London England Area instead of an individual airport and it will bring up all flights by that airline to all the airports in London, saving you having to check each route individually. This is because London has its own “all airports” code for the whole city, like other hubs with multiple airports such as New York (NYC), Berlin (BER) and Paris (PAR). Annoyingly this is not possible on every website, and strangely, does not work reliably on some – for example, entering LON on the Aer Lingus website will bring up flights to Heathrow and Gatwick but not London City, for which you have to search separately.

Most of these airlines and routes are either not listed or not listed correctly on aggregator websites, like Skyscanner or Kayak, though these can give an indication of who flies where. Occasionally a cheaper flight may come up on one of these websites but I have never found it to be the case. It is a bit time consuming and annoying having to check the four airline websites and their routes into the five London airports, and of course each website loves to do things in its own idiosyncratic and highly irritating way, but with a bit of patience and multiple tabs in your browser, you can sometimes save some serious cash.

Every so often another airline starts flying between Dublin and London. Up until recently, FlyBe flew this route, which was great because its propellor planes are much more environmentally sound, it was cheap, they have lovely staff and service, and they also flew to unusual regional airports around the UK – handy if you were going outside London. Occasionally an airline flies the route only at a certain time of year, or flies more often during certain seasons. I have the feeling that Easyjet and Aer Arann once flew this route, but I could well have imagined that.

Some of these four and other airlines also fly from London to Knock and Shannon airports in Ireland and to Belfast's two airports in Northern Ireland. I've flown some of these routes and sometimes they are cheap and fast, but there are usually one or maximum two flights a day. There are also flights from Kerry and Cork direct to London though I haven't taken any. Depending where you are coming from, flying out of a regional airport can work out well.

The flights themselves take about an hour to an hour and twenty minutes. There isn't much difference between flight times from Dublin to individual London airports. Your plane will probably only be in the air for between 45 and 60 minutes. Not lots of time to work or relax between the seatbelt signs going on, when you'll have to put your laptop away. Bear in mind that if your flight is delayed, early, or cancelled, being at a major airport (like Heathrow) can be an advantage in terms of getting another flight out, but a disadvantage in terms of missing your scheduled landing time and having to circle for ages.

Don't be misled by airlines that seem to fly this route but in reality are merely codeshares with one of the four airlines above, i.e. one airline runs the flight but another airline can share the code to also claim it as one of its flights. Air France is sometimes listed but is just a codeshare with Cityjet. Aer Lingus flights to London City are in reality BA flights in codeshare. Almost always buying the flight with the codeshare partner is more expensive than buying it directly from the airline that is actually flying the plane.

There are many other airlines that fly indirectly between the cities. If desperate, you could probably take a flight that stops somewhere else in the UK first, but that would definitely be time-consuming and probably be expensive. Alternatively if you want to pay hundreds of euro, spend five or more hours flying for a supposedly hour long flight, and 'stop off ' in Copenhagen or Paris airports 'en route' between London and Dublin, go ahead. Personally, I'd say that's unwise.

Obviously flights tend to go up in price the closer you get to your planned departure date, but very occasionally the reverse is true and a few flights at a cheaper price are released closer to the date. I have also noticed that sometimes Ryanair in particular reduce the price of their flights by a few euro during the night – literally the price will go down at say 10pm at night, if you buy it then, but then in the morning it goes back up to what it was before. Bizarre but I have made use of this. However in general I would say buy as soon as you can, as prices usually just keep climbing closer to the time you're flying.

For the best views, I recommend sitting on the right of the plane when flying into London. Especially into London City, which really is in the middle of the city, and where you sometimes fly basically along the Thames over the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, before landing on the runway which is built out into the water and makes you feel like you are about to clip the buildings on either side as you come in for your approach. On a clear day even a jaded jetsetter will find it hard to stop themselves glancing out the window.

My views on the airlines:

BA is generally an extremely pleasant airline to fly with and can be very good value, cheaper than some others. They have tonnes of flights per day between Dublin and London. It is usually relaxing, efficient and stressfree, and you even get free food. It is like flying used to be. I have realised part of the reason it is relaxing flying with BA is because the cabin staff are there to save your life and serve you coffee, not to try and sell you stuff like on the budget airlines. Essentially nothing is for sale on a BA flight so the staff are not stressing trying to flog you an overpriced panini and scratchcards. They are based out of Heathrow which has advantages. Also they have astonishing baggage allowances – see below. Aer Lingus is alright, usually pleasant enough and on time, and sometimes cheap, with lots of flights per day between the cities. No free food and lately a good bit of upselling to put up with as it competes to the bottom. Cityjet is quite remarkable as an airline in terms of price and service. They fly only via London City which is very handy – see below. Cityjet used to market themselves as a business class only airline. Despite this I have gotten extremely cheap flights with them at times. It seems to follow no pattern, as sometimes their flights are astronomically expensive (but then so are everyone else's) but don't be put off by their pretensions, it is worth checking them out, even if, like me, you are clearly not anything like the businesspeople they try to woo. Also pay by Paypal or they will slap on a hefty payment charge on credit cards, about €5. I have no idea why either. Ryanair can be fairly cheap, relatively on time, and have lots of flights from Dublin to their three London airports. It is important to factor in the cost of getting to and from these airports into the overall cost of your travel – see below. Even without this, despite the automatic assumption that Ryanair=cheap, I have found other airlines often beat them on price. You will need to be prepared to tolerate them not having enough space on the plane for everyone's (packed to within a gram of the limit) hand luggage, and being forced to check yours (for free) and thus wait for it on the other end. There is also their constant selling of everything including bus tickets and three cheese pizza (because they are too cheap to do the usual four cheese pizza – no 'quattro formaggio' here). But at least they now allocate seats rather than the mad free for all endless queue and melee 'system' of yore.

Bottom line is that all four airlines are fine, are safe, can all be cheap, and will most likely get you from Dublin to London without any hitches or delays, and with varying degrees of pleasantness and sustenance during the flight, which all take about the same duration.

Two other key factors in choosing your airlines and route are the issue of getting to and from the airports in London, and baggage allowances. So important are these that I've given them their own sub-sections. Because sub-sections are cool.

Getting to and from the airports in London:

London is a large and spread out city of about 9 million people and its five airports are in very different locations, mainly way outside the city proper. It isn't that large by mega-city standards, it's not that sprawling and its transport systems are very good, but getting to and from the airport is a major factor in terms of both cost and time in your overall journey. The city is divided into nine zones (really six of importance) for public transport, which go in rings from Zone 1 in the centre of London outwards to Zone 6 and ultimately Zone 9. Zone 1 and 2 are very central and it's rare to go beyond Zone 3. Public transport is made up of the Underground, commonly known as the Tube, and its integrated other forms including the Overground, DLR (Docklands Light Railway) and commuter rail. The public transport system uses Oyster cards which can be purchased for £5 at any Tube station – definitely do this as tickets are about half price with such cards, it is otherwise difficult to buy tickets for each journey, and you can give the Oyster card back and have the £5 refunded at most stations when you leave London. Alternatively you can use cash. There are also London Buses which are public transport and only take Oyster cards – as of at least 2015 they do not take cash. There are also private coaches, private/express trains and taxis (the famous London Black Cabs, as well as private hire and account services such as Addison Lee). London City and Heathrow airports are within the zones and accessible by public transport, making them cheap and quite fast to reach, while the other three airports are all outside the city, meaning it requires time and private trains, buses or taxis to reach them.

London City is the only airport that is really in London itself. It advertises itself as such, and it's not lying. It is pretty much in the central docklands of east London. It is in Zone 2 i.e. very close to the centre and there is a DLR stop at the airport. It is possible to get off the DLR train and be at your gate, including having cleared security, less than 10 minutes later – I have done this more than once. It's a small airport with the pluses that brings – easy to get to and around, fast, accessible – and the minuses – not that many flights, bit run down. London City also advertises itself as having the easiest check in/boarding time cut off of any airport – you can be at the gate 15 minutes before your flight. It's quite reasonable to reach the airport say 30-45 minutes before your flight if you've no luggage. The best/worst I've ever done was that I once got off the DLR at London City at 14.22 for a 14.25 regional flight to Scotland and still made the flight, though I had to bang on the locked boarding gate to convince them to let me on – I don't recommend cutting it quite this fine. The airport is convenient for anywhere in or outside London, particularly to the north or east. Because it's in Zone 2 and has a public transport station actually at the airport it is very cheap to get to and from it by Tube/DLR - a journey to Zone 1, 2 or 3 is about £2.50. It is also fast – there are trains every few minutes and it takes maybe 20-30 minutes to reach most places in central London by DLR/Tube from London City.

Heathrow is in Zone 6, a bit far off to the west, and also has a Tube station at it. This makes it very handy. It is a massive airport and takes quite a long time to navigate through or to move between terminals, ensure you leave plenty of time to get to and from it and to clear security. It is on the Piccadilly line on the Tube, and there are three stops for it, depending on your terminal – Terminals 1, 2 & 3, Terminal 4 and Terminal 5. It takes about 50-60 minutes to get to most places in central London on the Tube from Heathrow, direct on the Piccadilly line, with trains running every few minutes. This costs about £5 using your Oyster card. Alternatively you can get the Heathrow Express private train, which is fast – it takes about 15-17 minutes to Paddington Station and runs every 15 minutes – but expensive – about £20. There is also the less well-known Heathrow Connect private train which takes about 30 minutes and runs about every 30 minutes, and is, guess what, £10. I imagine there are buses from Heathrow too which may be cheap but hard to imagine they are cheaper or faster than the Tube, have never tried them. If you ordered a taxi or Addison Lee car between a few people it could work out ok. Heathrow is convenient for anywhere in or outside London due to its transport connections. If you are headed outside London to Reading or Windsor in the west it would make most sense.

Stansted Airport is far outside London to the northeast. You have to get a private train or coach there, there's no Underground. The Stansted Express train takes 36 minutes to Tottenham Hale Tube station or 47 minutes into central London to Liverpool Street Station (these are usually the only two stops). Tickets are usually £19 one way, but can be £8 if you get an advance, or about £16 for a WebDuo or group slightly reduced price for two or more people travelling together. Quite often the trains are replaced by buses, especially at weekends, so check their website for scheduled Service Alterations before you buy. There are a variety of private bus companies between Stansted and London, such as National Express. Buses cost from £5 to £12 to get into central London, depending where you are going, and take 60-100 minutes. It is not unusual to be on the bus for 90 minutes or to get further delayed. The coaches stop in a few places such as Stratford en route to Victoria or Paddington stations. I have taken these buses a few times. Have never taken a taxi but it is conceivably possible, potentially very expensive as it is a long distance. Stansted is particularly handy if you are going to the north east of London such as Hackney or Finsbury Park, because Tottenham Hale station where the trains and sometimes buses stop is in that vicinity.

Gatwick airport is outside London in the south. So it is handier if you are going to south London. You have to get a train or coach there, there's no Underground. You can take the Gatwick Express train which takes 30 minutes non-stop to Victoria station and runs every 15 minutes. It costs £20, sorry, £19.90. Slightly less if you get your ticket online or with two people travelling together. There are also standard commuter trains run by Thameslink which take about 50 minutes into central London stations and cost about £10. The Thameslink trains are not advertised so visibly as the Gatwick Express but they run about every 20 minutes and go to a variety of stations. There are also coaches, which I haven't yet tried.

Luton airport is way outside London in the north west. You have to get a train or coach there, there's no Underground, and it does not have an 'Express' service, making it a bit trickier to get to. You can get a Thameslink train to Luton Airport which actually stops at Luton Parkway and a shuttle bus takes you to the airport itself. Trains run to various stations in central London every about 15 or 20 minutes, take about 50-60 minutes including the shuttle (though this depends on traffic) and cost about £15 one way. If you don't specify Luton Airport on your train ticket, rather than Luton Parkway which costs the same, you will be charged another £3 for the shuttle bus. There is often traffic which can delay the shuttle bus quite a lot. While ostensibly as close as say Stansted, Luton just takes more time to get to, quite a long time to get through as an airport and is more prone to delays. There are also coach services direct to Luton airport, such as Easybus and National Express, which in theory take around 50 minutes to central London, but I have never tried them.

Baggage allowances:

The four airlines have quite different hand luggage and checked baggage allowances and costs. So if you are looking to take more than a few kg with you, factor this in. BA allows you to take 23kg for free as hand luggage. Yes, you heard correctly, twenty three kilograms. That is on either a hand-luggage-only fare or a fare with hand luggage and a checked bag. The checked bag allowance is also 23kg, which is included in any fare with a checked bag. So you could take 23kg hand luggage and a 23kg checked bag, no problem. I think you can also take a 'small' personal bag in hand luggage on BA, such as a handbag, manbag, laptop bag, or small shopping bag, in addition to the 23kg, but haven't checked this recently. Cityjet also give you a generous 12kg hand luggage allowance and 23kg free checked bag on all their flights, even the cheapest fares. They will not look twice at you also bringing a personal bag. Ryanair and Aer Lingus on the other hand have the standard 10kg allowance for hand luggage. On Ryanair nowadays you can also take a small personal bag in addition, and usually also on Aer Lingus but they didn't used to specify that, they may have updated their terms recently. Be warned that Aer Lingus flights to London from other airports than Dublin can be termed 'regional' flights and thus the hand luggage allowance is only 7kg. On Ryanair or Aer Lingus you must pay extra to check a bag, which can be anything from €15 to €30 per bag. If you don't need much stuff with you, none of this will matter, but if like me, you have emigrated and de-emigrated multiple times, or are splitting your life between two cities, then it pays to think all this through.

No doubt there is more to say on all of this, and updates and corrections to be made constantly, but hopefully it's pretty much correct as of this moment, and that's enough to be getting on with. Happy travels!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

My back story: one beginning.

I fell to the floor in agony and for some minutes I could not get up. That is one beginning of the story. The analogies pale beside the reality. The pain was like a dagger of fire stabbed into my back. I have never had a blade of flame plunged into my spine, I have only experienced that pain, that sudden, all-consuming, agonising, incapacitating pain. Like being shot in the base of my spine, like a bullet entering and exploding inside my back. But I have never been shot. I am painting a picture, I am drawing with words, I am gesturing in the direction of what it was like. To help you understand. To help myself understand. But there are no words for what is was like. I can't know if it was like these other experiences I haven't had. I only know it was what it was. It was pain.

Twelve years ago today I bent over to pick something up in my hotel room in Bangkok and I fell to the floor in agony and for some minutes I could not get up. I am writing about it here today because I need to tell one beginning of this story, my back story. Every story has many beginnings. That day in 2004 I was in Bangkok to attend the International AIDS Conference, where I was both working for an NGO and exhibiting some posters on my academic research. The opening ceremony of the week-long conference had taken place the previous night and this was the first morning of the conference proper. I had been up quite early, downstairs at the computer, working. Back up in the hotel room, still early in the morning, I was at one side of the room, near the door and the wardrobe, preparing to go downstairs to catch the early morning bus to the conference venue with a friend. I was alone. I bent down to pick something up off the floor, I think it was a small black bag. I was knocked down by the sudden, excruciating pain in the base of my spine, a little to the right side in my lower back. I fell onto the floor. I may have blacked out for a moment, I'm not sure. I remember the image of the thing I was reaching for, then I was on the floor in agony. I was lying on my side, but sort of face down, sort of bent over. The pain was completely unexpected and all encompassing. For a while the pain didn't stop. It went on, at that intensity, that agony, that unbelievable level, for minutes. After a few seconds I thought it would lessen, that it must stop, that the pain could not go on in that way. But it went on. Some part of me was thinking, it's not possible to experience this kind of pain for more than a moment, it must get less. But it didn't. It was if something was exploding in my back and was somehow continuing to explode, remaining at the same level of explosive pain, without increasing or lessening. It was pain.

After that a lot more happened. Details, some preposterous, some predictable, medical intervention, non-medical intervention, understandings, misunderstandings, greater understanding, greater mysteries, highs, lows, it continues. Twelve years later I'm in a very different place. The back problem is still with me, but much, much less, and I have a chronic pain condition associated with it. That's an ongoing story. That first day? One of many beginnings? Here's how it went.

After some minutes the pain did lessen, and then lessened much more. It had been shooting pain down my leg and up my back, it was concentrated in my lower right back but spread elsewhere. I don't remember now exactly what happened next, that morning, the rest of the day. When I feel more able I will look again at what I must have written about it, then, shortly after. In the hotel room alone, lying on the floor at first unable to move, I kept thinking that I had to get help, that I had to reach my friend and colleagues who were downstairs in the hotel. As the pain lessened I somehow crawled on my side across the room towards the bedside table where the room phone was. It seemed extremely important that I get to the phone. Unable to get up from the floor I reached up and pulled the receiver and then the whole phone down onto the floor. I don't know who I was trying to call, as my friend's mobile phone probably did not work in Bangkok, and if I called Hotel Reception how would they reach her anyway? Perhaps I thought that Reception would help me. I don't remember now if I got through to anyone on the phone. It seems unlikely. The pain was less. Eventually I managed to get up, onto the bed, after some time I could sort of stand. I felt desperately that I had to get downstairs, to my friend, to the bus which was leaving for the conference shortly and without which I would be stranded alone in the hotel for the entire day. The conference was a huge one - around 20,000 attendees - and the venue was far away in Bangkok traffic. I was convinced I had to reach a friend or someone before the bus left, to get help, to tell them something was wrong with me. The pain was less now. Somehow I got up, somewhat bent over. I think my back muscles had gone into spasm and my back was somewhat immobilised and this was helping. I must have managed to take my bag, or something, some papers, something. My boss was giving a speech that morning and I was still concerned that I had to get her on paper the final edits for her remarks, which otherwise she would not have. That seems crazy now but at the time it just seemed like part of my job.

I do not remember how I got out of the room, but I remember being in the corridor outside my hotel room door, holding on to the wall, trying to hold myself up, not able to straighten, the pain coming and going, and looking along the corridor towards the exit. The corridor seemed endless. I remember gripping the wall, which didn't have much to grip on to, and making my way painfully slowly along the corridor. I have only flashes, broken images of this process, intermittent snapshots as I made it further and further along the corridor and eventually to the lift. Downstairs I made it across the hotel lobby, I could see the bus outside the glass on the street, I made it outside, the bus was about to pull away! I tried to wave, gesture, I could see my friends on the bus, they started to bang on the window, they got the bus to stop. The door opened, I hobbled towards it, there was no time to explain, the bus was full and running late, I had to just get on the bus. It was a large coach, I somehow got up the step into it, the doors closed, it started moving off. My friends, unaware at this stage that anything was wrong, were greeting me from the near the back of the bus, where were you, we thought you were going to miss it. I pushed myself slowly along to them using the backs of the seats and sat into a seat next to my friend. I was in too much pain to speak. I was so relieved to be with my friends but now trapped on the bus for who knew how long. At some point in the room or on the bus I took an over the counter pain reliever that I had in my bag. It was Aleve, naproxen sodium was the active ingredient. I could not fully sit down because of the pain and had to keep pushing myself up off the seat using my arms. Each bump in the road was more sharply painful. I explained what had happened. My back, I said. My back. Clearly there was a serious problem but I had no idea at this stage how serious it was.

When we eventually arrived at the conference - it was some time more than 30 minutes, but probably less than an hour - they got someone to come with a wheelchair. I was helped off the bus. We were in a carpark, a dusty lot, surrounded by other coaches, quite far from the massive conference venue. With some difficulty I wrote a note on the speech for my boss, and gave it to my friend with instructions, that she must just go up to her before the talk, that she must give her the notes. She was great, she did exactly that. Someone took me in the wheelchair to the doctor on the conference site. My friends had had to leave to go into the conference. The conference doctor checked me over. He was Thai and his English was pretty good, unfortunately my Thai was non-existent. He gave me some medication. As I was about to take it he asked if I'd taken any other medication, I remembered I'd taken the naproxen earlier. Do not take, he said, taking the medication away. Very dangerous. Very dangerous, he said, with naproxen. Then he said, the naproxen is better. Evidently it was not advised to take the two medications together. I think they got a taxi to take me back to the hotel. I was met with a wheelchair there. I got back to my room. I passed out on my bed for several hours.

In the evening the hotel manager came to my room, having been told what had happened. I was still in a good deal of pain. I had been alone and unconscious much of the day. He called an English speaking paramedic. This paramedic examined me and told me I definitely had to go to the hospital. Because of the pain into my leg it was clear something had happened to my spine. She called an ambulance. I wrote a note to my friend, I remember I repeatedly wrote, don't panic, I'm at the hospital, don't worry, try not to worry. I imagine this was not in fact reassuring. The ambulance came, I was probably taken to it in a stretcher, I don't recall. I remember that it was only when I was lying in the back of the ambulance going through the streets that I thought, hmm, I'm being taken by ambulance to hospital in Thailand, this could be quite bad. Of course the hospital was great, excellent staff, spotless, efficient, well-equipped. I was seen fairly quickly by an orthopaedic surgeon. He seemed excellent and I was impressed that he was there seeing patients at what at this stage was quite late at night. Later I remember in his report he wrote "she could barely turn in the stretcher". Because the pain was going down into my leg especially it meant there was a problem in the spine. I'm not sure if I knew, or they knew, what the problem was at this point, although perhaps they did, or suspected. I realise now, 12 years later, that I don't remember exactly when I found out what had caused the extreme pain. They did an x-ray at some point. I remember the radiologist or a nurse, whoever the relevant health professional was, saying to me, over and over again, "congenital, congenital". That person didn't have much English unfortunately, so we could not communicate well. That was pretty much all they said. I lay alone in pain in the hospital in Bangkok being told there was a congenital problem with my back. At some point I discovered that what they were talking about on the x-ray was spina bifida occulta, a relatively unimportant issue where a vertebra forms with a gap in it. Something other than that was causing the pain. I was admitted to the hospital overnight.

In the morning I was taken to a different hospital for MRI scans of my back. They did scans of the entire back, three sections. This took over two hours. Being inside the MRI machine for that amount of time was, frankly, awful. I had never had an MRI before. I was in pain, lying on a metal tray, inside a tiny tube, in semi-darkness, partially strapped down, with the immense noise of the machine all around me. I was not supposed to move during these two hours. Occasionally the operator would come on the sound system to admonish me not to move, or to tell me not to "make water in my mouth" i.e. not to swallow. The pain worsened throughout the time inside the MRI machine. I used every relaxation technique I'd heard of, every form of mental distraction, every kind of meditation I knew, to get through the mental and physical pain of the two hours of scans. When I came out I cried. Of course. During this first day I also laughed quite a lot. I was still in pain. I was taken back to hospital.

From the MRI we got an answer. I had a herniated disc in my back. In essence this meant that one of the discs that lies between two vertebrae in my spine had ruptured and a piece of it had stuck out and pressed directly on the nerves in my back, causing the agonising pain. It had been a little over a day since the problem began.

That is one beginning of my back story, one way to understand how it started. The explanations, the lack of explanations, the (mis)understandings, the consequences, the responses, the next chapters, all came later. Those stories are still being told. There are other beginnings too. They are stories for another time. My back story goes forward.