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Beat The Beast Challenge

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Day 178 is a mash up of the most wonderful 7 days in London which has seen 13.2 miles walked, family and friends met, mucking about on boats and options for the future direction of travel considered.

I have been in London supporting Allie as she pursued her research further towards her PhD.  This entailed a further 3 interviews which were interspersed across the 7 days.  And therefore a golden opportunity to catch up with family and friends, who for both of us live so very far away from Scotland, while walking to keep the Beast at bay and learning so very much about the incredible city of London.

We arrived after a long 7 hour train journey started with a rapid change of trains after the first developed a fault.  This entailed the rather difficult merging of two sets of train seat bookings into one train with the inherent clashes that such a merge entails.  We were fortunate that there were no such clashes on our seats and then even better found ourselves sat in front of the most delightful woman, Susan who was most captivated by our story as I introduced her to the challenge and the extraordinary set of circumstances that brought Allie and I together.  Then we learned of her extraordinary work as a Trustee with Scottish Love in Action, which is a Scottish charity which cares for and supports vulnerable children in India.  It was incredibly inspiring to hear of the work that they were doing over there and left its mark with me as I grappled with my own, most unexpected, dilemma. 

Once in London I became indoctrinated into the world of Oyster.  I am now the proud owner of an Oyster card and felt it a bit like the coming of age as Allie showed me how to buy one then set it up and make it work.  I loved breezing through London like a seasoned Londoner rather than queuing incessantly for travel cards every day.  Oyster card bought and ride on the underground complete we were walking the short distance to Sinora’s house to be welcomed most warmly by Sinora and her children, Jessie and Nathan.  Great friends of Allie’s, I had met them before but never had the time to truly get to know them.  I was so looking forward to it and my hopes were warmly met.  After a tour of the house and a few moments to unpack we were brought downstairs to the kitchen to welcome in the Jewish  New Year with apple, honey, a cup of tea and the toast ‘L’Shanah Tovah’ for a good new year.  Over the next 7 days I thoroughly enjoyed learning so much more about the Jewish culture and the Hebrew customs and language.  I learned so very much about an ancient people and culture on which I knew so little and feel greatly enriched for that learning surrounded by my new friends.  At the start of each meal as we gave thanks for our food and our friendship and prayed for grace, our friendship grew stronger as we ate together and learned more about each other.

Monday saw our first walk in London and took us through Regent’s park.  In the park is a boating lake and being a lover of water I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take Allie rowing on the lake.  It was another day of sunshine so we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves as we pottered about the river before meeting with another great friend of Allie’s in which I again was made to feel so very welcome. 

Tuesday saw my brother Euan making it all the way up to London to come and meet Allie.  It was another gloriously sunny day.  While Euan and I chatted and caught up with each other Allie conducted her first interview of the trip.  It was a successful interview so we met for lunch before going for a walk along the River.  I saw a boat trip up the river being advertised and hoping it might have oars convinced Euan and Allie to join me.  There were no oars.  Just two socking great engines but it was open top, sunny and hosted by a crew member on the microphone who looked and sounded just like David Beckham with an extremely dry sense of humour.  We were thoroughly entertained as we enjoyed the delights of the city from the river.   

Wednesday saw Allie interviewing in the British Library while I searched for a book of walks around London.  I found a book very quickly.  In fact more than just a book.  It was a compendium of 3 pocket sized books containing 50 medium length walks packed full of the history of the area.  At 50p a walk I couldn’t resist them and it is these books that later led me on a trail of deep thought and understanding and I thoroughly recommend them should you visit London, even if only occasionally.  ‘London’s Hidden Walks.  The London We Know Is Just The Surface!’  So my first walk took me on a 4.5 mile tour of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury in which I Iearned of the exploits of the Bloomsbury group and some of the seedier practices of Aristocratic and artistic London and that gave me further food for thought.  I also learned of the sight of the extensive network of underground buildings that had once formed a headquarters for General Eisenhower during WWII. 

The evening saw a gathering of the clan.  Spread around the country and all working hard it is really difficult to get the family together outside special family occasions but on Wednesday evening, with the help of our host for the evening, one of my oldest friends Polly and Will, I was able to bring together some of my brothers and sisters, Sarah, Alistair, Euan, and Caroline to meet Allie.  It was a fabulous evening which capped off a delightful day of working and walking with a meeting, a deeper understanding and a warm embrace into the family.

Thursday saw for me a growing clarity for my future.  Since the 30th of September, in which I wrote about the dawning realisation that I might actually be healed, I have found myself in a most unusual quandary.  From the first few months post diagnosis of the brain tumour, consultant after consultant after consultant confirmed that the tumour couldn’t be shrunk or healed, killed or cured.  Each consultant reduced my prognosis further and further as they grew to understand the size and shape of the challenge I faced.  I had to, over a period of time, prepare myself for the inevitable demise of my cognitive and motor function until the lights went out.  Not wanting to curl up into a ball on the mattress and wait for the lights to go out I resolved to get that mattress off of my back and take the fight to the beast.  Having done that I was determined to support the oncology team to try and buy me as much time as they could through the 5 Fs strategy described in my post from the 30th September and although Faith and my belief and hope for healing played a big part of my strategy it was as if a large canvas bag had been placed over my head on diagnosis.  This was a large beige bag that could not be ignored.  No matter how hard I tried to believe that I could be healed, that I could beat the beast, the canvas bag would catch my eye and remind me that I had a life-limiting disease that would one day, in the not too distant future, prove to be too much of a burden and drag me under. So despite my smile and resolute determination to beat the beast I had conditioned myself for the likelihood that this challenge truly was to be limited in time.  That I could only fulfil my promise to take on activity 5 days a week, four weeks a year for as long as ever I can.  I had prepared my life plan for my eventual demise and end of life care, ensured my wills and powers of attorney and trustees were all in place to make life easier for all when the time comes.  I had made the mental preparations in the full expectation that I was going to be meeting my maker at some point in the near future.  I was conditioned for failure in my attempts to beat the beast.  But now, suddenly, I found myself in a real dilemma.  If I truly believed myself to be healed, while I couldn’t declare it officially until the brilliant oncology team were in agreement, which might be for some years, if ever, how could I ask people to sponsor me to beat the beast that I thought that I might have beaten?  I could ask people to sponsor me to keep the beast at bay, but now I pretty much had the epilepsy under control, the tumour stable and with a strengthening cognitive and motor function post treatment, where was the challenge that would inspire and encourage further sponsorship?  I felt that the challenge was in danger of flat-lining yet I was in no position, without that medical tick in the box confirming that I was in remission, to find the sort of work that would fulfil me.  I wasn’t even sure that I could yet manage a busy working day in a fast moving environment without becoming overwhelmed by the whole.  I still find a large and busy supermarket particularly cognitively draining.  I had a long way to go but so desperately felt the need to ensure that the few extra years that I have been given were for the benefit of somebody beyond myself and immediate family.  That I could still try and improve the lives and life chances of so many more people.  But I wasn’t quite sure how.  This was a situation I had never thought that I would find myself in and a dilemma that I thought that I would never have to face.  I had done no planning on what to do in the event of a successful outcome from the challenge.  I just didn’t truly believe it possible!!

Allie had another interview in the centre of London so I took myself off for the 2 miles of the Southwark and Bankside Walk.  These 2 miles were probably the most productive 2 miles walked in my life.  As I walked I continued to ponder the shape of a productive future while still inspired by the story of Scottish Love in Action helping the vulnerable young children in India.  One of the first stops for me on the walk was Guy’s Hospital which was founded by Thomas Guy. He founded the hospital to accept patients that other hospitals had decreed as incurable.  He wanted to try and find a way, while if not managing to find a cure, to at least help them see out their dying days in peace, comfort and with dignity.  I found his statue with the following epitaph:

Epitaph of Thomas Guy
The Epitaph of Thomas Guy

‘Thomas Guy, citizen of London, member of Parliament, and the sole founder of this hospital in his life-time.

‘It is peculiar to this beneficent man to have persevered during a long course of prosperous industry in pouring forth to the wants of others, all that he had earned by labour, or withheld from self-indulgence.  Warm with philanthropy, and exalted by charity his mind expanded to those noble affections which grow but too rarely from the most elevated pursuits.  After administering with extensive bounty to the claims of consanguinity.  He established this asylum for that stage of languor and disease to which the charities of others had not reached.  He provided a retreat for hopeless insanity, and rivalled the endowments of Kings.

He died the 27th of December 1724 in the 80th year of his age.’

I found this epitaph tremendously inspiring.  While I had no money to pour forth, what I had was much more precious.  Perhaps I could pour forth all that I earned through the labour of the challenge.  Life, energy and will.  I could reinvest the extra time I had been given into good works.  I had always been inspired by youth.  I had been inspired by the story of the Scottish Love in Action story and prior to my diagnosis I had been working hard with a friend on building a not for profit organisation called the ‘Future Nation Foundation’ (FNF) whose sole aim was to remove that element of chance that too often permeated the lives and life chances of our vulnerable, disadvantaged and disengaged young people. My diagnosis and treatment plan saw me withdraw from FNF to concentrate on my treatment. I had written the Strategic Plan for FNF after months of deep research while drawing on the near 20 years of experience in the Army.  I was convinced that FNF was the final piece of the jigsaw that would see all the hard work of the wonderful training, support and welfare organisations finally bear fruit in seeing the incredible potential of these young, but struggling men and women be realised.  The nation needed their potential for our future and perhaps I needed the FNF for my future.  There was no doubt that this new challenge would fulfil me and build the bridges towards a future career within the foundation should FNF manage to secure funding towards an initial pilot to prove the concept, and then further funding towards the delivery of a foundation that had such potential to grow and deliver such benefit to our vulnerable young people, and in so doing, our nation too.  It was an exciting prospect. My resolve to deliver the FNF as a funded project grew further in me as I walked around the Cross Bones Graveyard in which the bodies of thousands of unnamed disadvantaged people, from across all generations, were interred without Christian burial from the mid-1500s until 1853.  But there were so many questions to be answered and so much to think through before further action could be taken.  I was sure that the Future Nation Foundation was what I should be doing, but wasn’t sure all, at the same time. 

Crossbones Graveyard
The Crossbones Graveyard

I carried on with the walk as I turned this question over and over in my mind.  The challenge had been like a sea anchor for me through the horrors of my treatment and was doing well.  I didn’t want to abandon it.  Not now.  But soon enough on the walk I came across the wonderful Borough Market whose busy bustling market stands filled my senses with the wonderful sights, sounds and smells of an old market. The cries of market traders came ringing out loudly above the hustle and bustle of the market, the sharp crack and Ssscccchhhhh from the dropping and sliding of plastic pallets as wares were sorted, displayed, and the pallets slid under the displays, the beeping and revving of engines from reversing delivery trucks all mixing with the incessant, muted but booming tones of hundreds of people trying to talk to each other and make themselves heard over the background noises. The smells of spices mixing with the smells of teas and coffees and beauty products and wood smoke, and the smells of cooking food from a food stand and all around me the delights of London and the surrounding countryside: wild beef, organic lamb, cheeses, leather goods, crafts and artistic splendours for purchase, fruits and vegetables of all kinds, clothes and luxury items. I allowed my senses to become immersed in the wonderful sights and sounds of this market as I meandered around it, but as I checked some of the prices my mind was immediately brought back to the have nots. I was lucky, in that I could afford to buy the organic fruits and vegetables I felt I needed in order to help try and beat the beast, but there were so many who could not even afford a mocha. There were young people growing today who were trapped in a cycle of reoffending, and fighting just to survive on Britain’s streets. Young people who had so much potential but just couldn’t seem to break free from chance and disadvantage. Didn’t know how to and might never be able to venture into a market such as this unless it was to seek opportunity to profit from ill-gotten gains. There was so much more that I could do with the challenge, that I should do, but the pull back to FNF and our vulnerable youth was strong.  I reached the church of St George the Martyr, a socking great building but went inside to pray and seek guidance.  I got it, but in the most unexpected guise.  After praying I stood from the pew and walked close to the altar on which a piano was positioned for a looming concert.  I wanted to look closer at the wonderful artwork but felt a presence behind me.  I turned and approaching me with his shopping trolley loaded with the accoutrements of a homeless existence was a man who looked remarkably like Morgan Freeman.  He came up to me and engaged me in conversation sounding remarkably like Morgan Freemen.  I started to wonder whether or not he was.  Should I be looking for a camera?  Was this a spoof?  But then I caught the smell.  This was the real deal but he stood there in this church with his trolley and asked me if I knew of the wondrous gifts of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When I replied that I was just learning about such wonderful gifts such as healing this man proceeded to tell me, in great detail about his own healing after a car accident that saw two of his vertebrate in his spine crushed and him wheelchair bound for 30 years.  As he did so I realised that what I thought was a shopping trolley was in fact his old wheelchair.  It was a powerful story and seemed to come in answer to prayer because then he said to me, in Morgan Freeman’s accent, ‘You know.  When I was healed I asked God why I was healed.  After I asked that I was told to sing.  I couldn’t sing but God told me to sing,’ he continued.  And then he said ‘here listen’, and as we stood right in the front of this church he threw his head back and out poured the most wonderful baritone voice.  I was astonished and thinking again that this must be a ruse just as the vicar came up and said hello, confirming that this man was well known in this church.  Then the man looked me square in the eye and Morgan Freeman said to me.  ‘You know Archie, when God gives you extra time he gives you a gift.  You have to follow the path he sets before you.  You have to use that gift.  I sing.  I sing his praises.’ 

Church of St George the Martyr
Church of St George the Martyr

This was a powerful meeting with a powerful message.  I have quite possibly been given extra time and the gift was perhaps, just before diagnosis, the eureka moment in which I saw the simplicity of the possible solution falling out of the complexity of the problem facing our vulnerable young people today.  Perhaps the path that he wants me to tread is with the Future Nation Foundation.  I am passionate about its potential and it makes so much sense.  Perhaps it makes for a powerful story in which a man who is possibly beating a brain tumour and managing to keep it stable uses that extra time to help our vulnerable young people beat their own beasts that had been holding them back from a positive, fulfilling and productive future.  Maybe I could ask people to sponsor me to keep the beast at bay by eating healthily, and physically training, and organ playing to sit on the beast and keep it stable for as long as ever I can, while attempting to improve the lives and life chances of our vulnerable young people by removing that element of chance for as long as ever I can.

It is a lot to ponder with so much to consider but I am really excited by its possibilities.  Perhaps my possible healing is a dilemma no more but a dawning opportunity to be seized. However to have a strong chance of success in the search for funding for a pilot and then of course the delivery of the pilot I really need the help and support of my dear friend and mentor Heather MacLeod. Throughout the challenge her advice has been of the highest order so my first port of call is a meeting with Heather to seek her wise counsel to explore the art of the possible.

That was a lot to fit into a Thursday morning and early afternoon so I met up with Allie excited by the path that I felt I was being guided onto. We were going for tea with Allie’s Mum as she was on a short visit to London. As we walked we talked and Allie was as always my calm conscience. She loved the idea and could see how energised I was but also understood, as I did, that I would need Heather with me on this project. Allie was also concerned that I mustn’t abandon my strategy to beat the beast. Whilst I was convinced that I had been healed, my brilliant Oncology team were not nearly so convinced and their cautious advice was ringing prominently in my ears as Allie reminded me of their take on this miraculous disappearance. Allie wanted me to survive and as my 5 Fs strategy to beat the beast was working so well I must continue with that strategy to sit on the beast and keep it stable. Please do not now throw caution to the wind. This was of course good solid advice from someone who understood completely my desire to do something worthwhile and also understood my sense of urgency, but had also heard the advice first hand from my oncology team, but it was hard to hear after such a powerful morning with the smell of that homeless chorister and guide lingering in my nose. Tea with Allie’s Mum was delightful and the perfect distraction from the childlike determination to succeed and slight disappointment over advice that while I didn’t like it I knew it to be good advice. I had to have breakfast first. The evening saw another wonderful meeting with another of Allie’s close friends and was the perfect way to end a perfect day.

Friday saw us grab the fleeting opportunity for a coffee with another dear friend of Allie’s who so very kindly found some time in her frantic day for us at the Salvation Army Centre on Oxford Street. It was a wonderful meeting to get to know another of Allie’s friends and to be welcomed so warmly while at the same time learning of the wonderful work that the Salvation Army does every day with the homeless and disadvantaged. Then we grabbed the opportunity to go for a walk together and this time chose to walk the 2 mile route around Soho. It was a fascinating walk full of the history of more aristocratic frivolity of the time, followed by the frivolity of the rising aristocracy of popular culture punctuated by many sad stories of the ravages of excess. But perhaps most importantly at this time, in which we deal with the uncertainties of a world awash with mass migration, I learned of the role played by Soho in the hosting of refugees from a different age: French Huguenots fleeing Catholic France in 1685; Greeks escaping persecution by the Turks in the late 1600s; Germans and Italians fleeing revolutions at home; Jews building new lives away from the Pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Chinese seeking a new, better life with a chance for prosperity. As the walk ended, as I learned of the poverty and vicious cycles of disadvantage people were caught in in history, I was reminded of the continuing plight of all these innocent and wonderful people caught up in the refugee crisis of the modern age. I was thankful that I continued to raise money for the British Red Cross but with the uplifting story of the Salvation Army’s work, I became more resolved throughout the day that the Future Nation Foundation was what I should be doing.

Saturday saw a wonderful 4.7 miles walked with Sinora, Jessie and Nathan around Hampstead Heath followed by a wonderful lunch after which I called my friend and mentor Heather to set up a meeting. Heather was delighted to hear from me and to hear of my thoughts but I am to go to South Africa with the family, have a really good break and we can meet and discuss our options when I return in November.

Sunday saw us journey home to Edinburgh but not without the provision of significant food for thought. Allie and I went to church with Sinora, Jessie and Nathan at the church of St Mary’s Bryanston Square. It started with a bacon and egg bap, pain au chocolat and a cup of tea. A perfect start to a Sunday morning and it was a great service full of inspiration and worship through music. At the end of the service Allie and I sat listening to the final song the band were playing so quietly and I took the time to reflect on all I had learned this week. As I did so the Rector John came and sat with us both. He talked to Allie about the PhD then he asked me what I did. I seized the opportunity to tell him about the diagnosis, my challenge to beat the beast, my possible healing and my recent realisation that perhaps I should be following this new path set out for me that led towards the Future Nation Foundation. I was anticipating that this man of God would see as clearly, as I was at that time, the healing and my belief in it, and how I felt that God was perhaps, when combined with the recent events of the week, leading me back to the Future Nation Foundation. Instead, he said most clearly that while it was a wonderful story, he saw no dilemma. Sit on it for now and continue on the path of the challenge that you are currently on. You cannot say that you are healed until your medical team give you a piece of paper stating as such. They have said that they believe that it will flare up so listen to that and keep doing what you are doing. The challenge is good work and of significant value so keep at it. While the Future Nation Foundation is undoubtedly good and of significant value don’t jump too early. Be medically sure that you are healed first. Put your medical needs first. I was stunned by what I at first saw as a lack of faith from this man of God but saw it perhaps as a dose of reality perhaps from a voice of experience. This voice tallied with Allie and tallied with my oncology team so needed to be listened to. I was so disappointed. I so wanted to be healed, I so wanted to know that God had healed me and that I could do more with any extra time I was given that perhaps I could finish what I had started on leaving the Army. But maybe the challenge is far from flat-lining. There is still so much to do. After church we walked to lunch with Sinora, Jessie and Nathan at a wonderful Restaurant with the most excellent food. It was a wonder of local knowledge to be here and a wonderful way to finish such a great week hosted by Sinora. As the meal ended I felt that I ought to try to pay as a thank you for giving us beds to sleep in, wonderful food to eat and such warm company all week. Sinora wouldn’t hear of it and instead asked that I make a tally of what this week in London might have cost and pay that instead into the challenge. Brilliant and a huge thank you to Sinora and her wonderful family.

The beautiful ceiling of the Church of St George the Martyr
The beautiful ceiling of the Church of St George the Martyr

I clearly have a lot of thinking to do. I need to listen to all this most excellent advice that I am being given and listen hard. Nobody is saying don’t do the Future Nation Foundation. They are just saying consider your options carefully. Think of yourself and Allie. Think of your health first and stay firmly sat on that Beast. I will of course listen. I am of course listening and fully intend to stay physically active and to eat as well as I can and train the brain as hard as I can for as long as ever I can. The question of course is whether or not I need to be climbing mountains or doing long walks every day as well. Can I not achieve the same physical affect with lunchtime physical training and walks at weekends? Can I not therefore find time to drive forward FNF as well? There is a huge amount of advice to consider and to ponder. Perhaps the question that I need to answer is whether or not I let my heart rule my head. I am off to South Africa thanks to the enormous generosity of my family and I have every intention of enjoying it while staying firmly sat on the beast and considering carefully the future. Considering the future. What a fantastic position to be in!!