The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

The blog that's full of discussion, advice, travel and ramblings!

Category: Experiences

100+ Days of my Lockdown Journey

100+ Days of Lockdown

We in the UK have been in Lockdown for well over 100 days now. I look back at the emotional rollercoaster of my personal journey through Lockdown, from riding the busiest time in work to struggling with work-life balance to where I am right now. I’m sure we’ve all had our own unique journeys through this historical period, here are my musings of mine.

A prelude to lockdown

“Yep! Go ahead book them, we need to get this sorted ASAP” I muse to Hannah, our Admin for the department. It had been an incredibly pressured and busy week, somehow the task of finding flights and booking them had fallen onto my young academic shoulders. It had been hurried and less than ideal preparation for an international field trip for many reasons outside of our control. Still, we had managed to get things in place. We were excited, if not a little stressed about having our first international field course to the Netherlands with our MSc Students. When I gave the go-ahead to spend a substantial amount of money on flights, Covid-19 wasn’t even named. Back then in early February, it was a new virus in China. Oh, another one of those viruses I thought to myself.

We’d been here before, SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Ebola, we know the drill.

Somewhere else gets a virus, everyone panics about imminent doom, it barely reaches our shores and eventually they get on top of it, and it all goes away. Nievity. Nievity on a vast global scale. I guess that outdated view of the world was our downfall, we, at least in the UK have had so many false dawns of pandemics that in our collective minds it became something that really did not concern us.

I distinctly remember being in A-Level Biology during the Bird Flu crisis, I remember our teacher talking about social distancing, football matches being cancelled and restaurants closing. It was scary as she mentioned if it got out of hand, that’s precisely what would happen to us. We talked about it at length one lesson about disaster management, nothing more back then in my mind as a perfect hypothetical scenario. Of course, it never came to much in the UK and we moved on.

As the weeks went by I noticed news coverage dedicated to this new virus was growing, Wuhan was in Lockdown, conspiracy theories of biological weapons and labs were rife, governments on the sly blaming other governments. The wet food market was closed, racist undertones in tweets emerged along the lines of “serves them right for eating bats”. But again, as the death count rose in China, it was still the same story as the others, it’s over there not here. As our field trip got closer, the cases started to rapidly spread and eventually the sit up and take notice, was the Lockdown in Lombardy, Italy. I had travelled to that stunning location only a few months before for the Italian Grand Prix, spending many days on Lake Como marvelling at the view and sipping intense, authentic Italian Espresso as immaculate Ferrari’s darted in and out of traffic and everyone was dressed to impress.

The images of such a location were transformed into a ghost town, a town that from my memory was so full of life was nothing more than an empty shell, the images of flash cars and people replaced with the horror images of ventilators and people dying alone in corridors. This was serious.

Part of my original blasé attitude was down to my Father, a senior paramedic of close to 40 years, trained in triage and to deal with the worst possible cases when he was a bronze commander. “Don’t worry, it’s blown out of proportion, it’s just awful flu” was what he was told at the start of the pandemic. Then they had another meeting as soon as Italy went into full Lockdown. My Father is someone who doesn’t show his emotions much, but this was now gravely serious, sitting down in the living room after the latest meeting things had rapidly changed. “This is going to be a disaster” are the words I most remember. The virus was no longer just flu, it was deadly. The NHS was woefully underprepared due to poor management and procurement of PPE. We still had some stores of PPE from the Ebola outbreak, so we were good for now, but that wouldn’t last. Hearing the worst from someone in the know is terrifying, especially as I watch the UK walk blindly into this pandemic. This was no longer a distant virus on someone else’s shores, it was rolling in, rapidly and taking as many as it could with it.

“Okay, we desperately need a Plan B guys” I let our team know that while we can still travel in the UK, the situation in Italy was dire, the information coming from my Dad was even worse, talk of lockdowns being official, death tolls skyrocketing. Under 48 hours to departure time a blanket email comes from the Vice-Chancellor,

all travel on University business is cancelled with immediate effect.

We were one of the first universities in the UK to make such a landmark call. I was due to fly to Canada in a few months to lead a workshop and meet up with my family in Canada, people I desperately miss was now taken away from me. A field trip I had planned so much for and to be cancelled with less than 48 hours notice. As the UK had not banned travel yet, we lost a lot of money, something I felt a lot of responsibility for, but who would have known that this would happen?

Within 48 hours the team had developed from scratch a fantastic virtual online trip to replace what would have happened, an accurate measure of the dedication we as academics go through to make sure our students get the best experience. If you were to look at it, you’d be mistaken for thinking it had taken months to make. It was beyond amazing and a true testament to the skill of those I feel so very honoured to call my colleagues.

As the weeks progressed, it became clear that Lockdown was inevitable, that university would close. We would be shifting to online learning. Fortunately, as a department, we were in the best place possible. Part of my PhD was on online learning, and it was a significant player in me getting this position for the new MSc FRAME course, which was mostly delivered entirely online since October. As a department, we had months of experience of delivering lectures and pastoral care remotely through Microsoft Teams. At the time, an odd things to do, outsiders. Little did we know how vital those few months were as a department learning and adapting to online learning.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to us when the notification of needing to be out by a specific time and no one knew when we would go back, but it did. A University without students in it, unprecedented. I was nervous, my job is temporary, contract due for renewal in the summer I surely felt this would be the last time I would be in my office. I was scared about job security, afraid about my family working in the NHS on the frontlines, scared myself for catching it and ending up as a statistic.

I had spent over 18 hours working on a document, along with my closest FRAME colleagues documenting everything we’ve learned about online delivery, I made Youtube tutorials, a comprehensive report. A day later, our department had everything they had to know, I ran MS Teams tutorials with others in the department. Within 24 hours of notification of Lockdown, we were the only department to complete a full day of teaching online, not one single lesson was cancelled. Something that apparently by some, wasn’t a possible feat until Easter. Again, the absolute testimony to the professionalism, adaptability and student-focused mindset that all in Team GID have.

All of my office in one box.

We had a final meeting, we said our goodbyes to one another, the weight of my box of all of my office things in my arms. I didn’t know if and when I’ll be back, or if I’ll see these people in person again. I loaded my things up in the car on a grey, dull day and drove home.

Lockdown

That’s it, Lockdown officially enforced in the UK. Never in my generation or many generations before me had this ever occurred before. That hypothetical scenario we played out at A-Level was now a reality. Enforced staying at home, only essential shops open, air travel stopped, football cancelled. A new world had dawned.

At first, I was too preoccupied with getting into a rhythm of working from home. Something I absolutely detested the thought of. Home and Work-life are two separate things, and I always believed the two should rarely mix. I am an over-thinker, always thinking of things to improve and therefore work is never too far from my mind. However, on a less than ideal day in the office, I can physically leave that space, jump in my car for my drive home music blasting, and then I’m home, 37 miles away from the office, I can switch off.

Now, my commute was two steps from my bed to my desk. No escape. This very laptop which was once a symbol of expression and leisure where I would write my novels and my blogs and edit my pictures was now a symbol of work and stress.

In the first few weeks of Lockdown, it was scary but peaceful. Shops were quiet although wearing gloves and a mask was a new thing. Roads were blissfully traffic-free on my bike rides, the weather was glorious as I would spend my days off on 5-mile hikes to the local nature reserve making the most of my one pass a day to leave the house. You can read my musing about the start of lockdown here: Covid-19: We are living in the pages of future history books

Then it all went south, rapidly. My mental health and physical health took a nosedive, really struggling to cope with working from home, all while the pressure increased as the workload which started off small exploded into full overdrive.

Working from home had gone from a leisurely pace to a full-on mad dash within a few days.

Lockdown came at the worst possible time for me, as my first year in the role, becoming assessment officer it is your job to ensure all the marks are correct for the end of module boards so students can get their degrees. A job that takes numerous people weeks of looking over computer screens and print outs to get right. Now, it was to be done remotely, with 500 checks and procedures to do, all the while delivering online learning to your students, answering 50 emails a day, being asked to do impossible things in unimaginable time scales, we know you’re busy but get this done asap became the new norm, and having meeting after meeting. On the worst day of Lockdown, I worked 21 hours. If I didn’t, things that needed to get done would not have happened. For close to two months, I worked 6 days a week (I get paid in my contract for 3!).

I don’t think any of us had ever worked as hard as this before. By the time it came to MAB I was borking in the shower every morning from stress, I felt exhausted, Ill, I still feel dodgy to this day, stress does some bad things to the body which takes a while to recover from. Not to mention the added stress of my mum being rushed into hospital, desperately ill and being told to expect the worst (thankfully after nearly a week in hospital she survived and is well on the mend!). I found new levels of stress that week!

After the worst of days i took myself off to the beach and had a complete mindset change

Then just like that, the academic year was over. My first academic year had gone in the blink of an eye and what a crazy year it had been. All of a sudden, the email chatter died down, the MABs were done, we as a Team had worked to new levels. I know I am not the only one who worked stupid hours to ensure our students got the best experiences and that we delivered on our requirements. I had grown so much closer to my colleagues in those few months than I had in any of the months before. So much support and guidance from them. I looked forward to that 30 mins to an hour lunch club Teams call between us all.

I cannot stress enough how much I cherished the support and those moments as a team, some light relief in a soup of chaos.

I could not be more proud of the effort, dedication and support the whole of GID has put into lectures from Lockdown. We have worked as a fantastic and united team, every single one of us going above and beyond. People won’t see that, SMT won’t see it, Students don’t see it, but we know what we’ve done. During Lockdown, I managed to complete my first year, complete the MABs successfully, been apart of the FRAME team to get CiWEM Accreditation for many years to come, became Chair of the Ethics Committee and was nominated by my students for the Most Inspiring Lecturer of the year award. I am truly blessed. These experiences have made me more robust, and I know with this team behind me next year will be a breeze!

More time for walks and hikes

“Sometimes to reset your brain and recharge your soul, you need to climb up a mountain and be in nature”

Negatives and Benefits of lockdown life

In Lockdown I’ve missed birthdays of friends, I had my own quiet lockdown birthday turning 28. I’m used to spending my birthdays abroad but instead at home, although my family did everything to make it as unique as they could. I missed the birth of my best friends first child, I missed graduations and dear friends getting new jobs, all those moments missed. As stressful as it has been at times, there have been some real benefits to lockdown life, not least, the fantastic weather we’ve had! For the first time, I have a Tan! Even on the busiest and stressful of days, I made sure to spend some moments outside in the garden, admiring the blue sky, marvelling at the birds. Before life got crazy and since the term has ended, I’ve been on walks in nature, drinking it into my soul. From climbing mountains on my first day of leave to twitching owls in the evening to riding my bike and getting back into that again to recently taking up Yoga to get in shape and to shift the stress and crisp fuelled lockdown body.

Iron Men
Garden Squirrel
Evening Barn Owl

Who knows when we’ll be back in the office? It changes weekly, August, September, January, Never? I’ve gotten into a good routine now of working set hours again, I no longer hate working from home (perhaps that’s Stockholm syndrome) in fact, I quite enjoy it. No longer the need for 5.30 a.m alarm calls and hour-long drive commutes. I’m saving a fortune on petrol which is helping me save for a deposit on a house. Walking downstairs, my Nespresso machine is right there, perfect coffee on tap, every time. When the workday is done, I don’t have to wait an hour to have food or to do something after the drive. I can close the laptop and head out on the bike or drive the 15 minutes to the beach to destress.

I’ve gotten into a pattern, a routine, a working life balance now that I appreciate, that works for me but by god has it taken a long time to get to this place.

We’ve all had our challenges in Lockdown, some at the start, some in the middle, some at the end. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a lot of support from others during this time. Those who haven’t bothered with you, you now know who you can rely on when the going gets tough. There is a collective we’re all in this together, we all share in each others pain and suffering as well as the little highs and wins along the way. It’s also okay to be productive one day and procrastinate the next. We’re not working from home, we’re living at work during a global pandemic.

Perhaps at the start of Lockdown, I was too harsh on myself, too much of that overachiever mentality of having to do everything perfectly and to standard. It’s a global pandemic, perhaps doing just enough is the new perfect?

While Lockdown slowly lifts, it will still be on for a while. I won’t venture to pubs or restaurants anytime soon. There will be a second wave, especially in winter, as the drum beats of that get louder just like they did before Lockdown. I won’t be ignoring those signs this time! I still hope that Emma and I can get to Iceland after our numerous cancelled trips this year, I hope we can in November. As a year without travel for me is unprecedented, but I guess it has helped my carbon footprint.

Hope for a brighter future

I expect to be in Lockdown again and working from home to be the new normal. I’ve gone to the edge and back, and now I know the limits. I’m confident that I can survive this new normal, I hope you can too. I had two weeks off to recharge, and I’ve been back at it for a few weeks now, preparing for the new term and year ahead, both in-person and virtually.

To all my readers, I wish you safety and the best of health, and hopefully, soon my blogs will be filled with travel and adventures again. Until then, stay safe.

Tony

Covid-19: We are living in the pages of future history books

The gentle and ever-present hum of the tyres beneath me, steadfast and unwavering unlike my legs and laboured breathing. Breathe. Hold for two seconds. Release. My eyes focusing on the only two meters of tarmac in front of me, I don’t dare look up. Look up, and the game is up, the voice inside your head would switch from encouragement to defeat. One step at a time and this will all be over eventually. Finally, the top of the hill appears, the cadence increases, the burn in the legs decrease as your velocity picks up. The hum grows louder as does the click of the sprockets as you freewheel downhill. The wind rushes across your face, it’s coolness tickling the newly formed sweat on your brow. You feel temporarily weightless, your body absorbs the jolts and the knocks as you rattle over the uneven road surface. You’re flying.

By the time you pull the brakes and you come to a stop at the end of a hill, it makes all that effort of the climb worth it. I smile to myself, the sun beating down on a big stupid grin that now crosses my face…before it returns to normal. That didn’t last long at all. I click back into the pedals, one big push and away I go again, head down, the hum, the steady breathing. Cycling goes on, as does life.

For that split second hurtling down the hill today, I forgot what was going on in the world. For those few brief minutes of weightlessness, the rush of air, the quietness of the chatter inside my head. Normal. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill that brief paradise of solitude and quiet was replaced by the realisation of the chaos in the world today. Normal…what is normal anymore? The set up is the same, the sun is shining, the flowers are blossoming, the sky is blue as it always is, the fields are lush and swaying in the gentle breeze. Normal.

Except it isn’t. The finer details are no longer present.

The blue azure spring sky is crystal clear, not a cloud nor a vapour trail insight. No crisscrossing of people travelling to new destinations on holidays, no business people at 30,000 feet planning their strategy meetings, no families waiting at the airport to greet loved ones. An empty sky.

A shrill call of a Buzzard I can hear above the wind as I slowed down to a stop next to a large open field. I watch it circle, it’s wings spread, another call, effortlessly floating in the sky, it swoops down behind a tree, and I lose sight of it. I guess life goes on for everything else. It hits me how quiet it is, no distant humdrum of traffic, no beeping floating across the air, the air is cleaner, it smells different today.

Other than the long-empty winding road that sweeps before me, rising and falling, snaking in-between the large oak trees and green fields that are waking up from their winter sleep. There is no sign of human life anywhere. By the time I rose up another hill and into the usual busy market town, sure the cars are parked outside houses, the bunting flutters quietly in the breeze between shops in the cobbled high street, signs of life but no people to be seen.

It was Erie today. Cycling in a lockdown while fantastic due to no cars, was oddly satisfying and terrifying at the same time. We live in unprecedented times. Scary unprecedented times. I have family working on the front lines of this horrific global pandemic, each time they leave the door I fear they may get it, with underlying health issues it’s not all rosy if they do.

Queuing outside supermarkets and people are masked up, standing two meters apart, the new normal. I find myself holding my breath like I used to do as a kid when I walked past someone. I’m 27 and I’ve reverted back to a child who holds their breath to not catch a disease. Marking on the floor denote where you can stand, lines separate people in the aisle, every person you see you’re wary of. Do they have it? You look down at your hands which are starting to crack from all the washing and hand gels you’re subjecting them to. A cracking of skin trying to hold It together like you are inside. There is little optimism in the air. I see the eyes of the elderly who wonder if every step out the house is their last. A deadly enemy no one can see. I’m frightened by it, deeply so. For a number of reasons.

I’m frightened of what I’ve witnessed, people hoarding and looking out for themselves. People stealing milk from doorsteps and fighting over toilet paper in shops. A civilised society is so evidently fragile and how quick we are like animals to revert to our basic instinct to secure our own survival first.

Never in my lifetime have I ever had such freedom taken away from me. To be told to only leave your house for essential shopping or one form of exercise is something my brain is still trying to process. Never did I ever think that such a fundamental right and something we very much take for granted would be taken away. At least with cycling that one exercise can get me out for a few hours a day.

I’m frightened for my job, one that is unlikely to be renewed in this new financial crisis world. With my temp contract up in August and with it already dubious due to budgetary constraints pre Covid-19, I’m less optimistic than ever it will continue. Work itself, while I mostly teach online anyway to my Masters’ students, the shift to online teaching for all classes was not much a change of way of life for me, job wise. I guess I’m one of the very few academics who were prepared having taught this way since October. While some have been less than appreciative of my offer for help and expertise, others have gladly been very welcoming. When the pressure is on true characters emerge.

However, I am frightened of what this pandemic means for Academia. For me, Academia cannot solely be conducted behind a computer screen. I have built great relationships with my Masters students online having never really met them all in person (and probably at this rate never will) but nothing replaces Academia in a physical setting. Academia is not about the delivery of learning via lectures be that onsite or in the virtual realm. The heart of Academia is the quiet words of encouragement you can give a struggling student at the end of a lecture or the Adhoc advice you give about stats or careers advice in your office. It’s the passing conversations with colleagues in the corridor or over a hot cup of coffee in the breakroom where you can release your stresses of a hectic and pressured environment. It’s the gossip that goes on behind closed doors or the plans and projects you discuss with often misplaced optimism in this current Higher Ed system.

Academia and University without staff or students in it is not Academia. Trying to work from home when you’re used to a busy and social office life is hard. I’ve been impressed by some aspects of how Academia has handled this crisis, and I’ve also been profoundly appalled and apoplectic about it at other times. The concept of Academia running on “Good Will” is safe to say mine has been severely tested as of late, where at times I wonder why I’m in this job.

As a planner, this uncertainty kills me every day.

Holidays have been cancelled that I’ve saved up for months, conferences which would have boosted my academic job potential gone to the wayside. Family overseas I so desperately couldn’t wait to be reunited with on hold. It sucks but small sacrifices we all have to make to ensure we get through this in one piece.

I’ve volunteered to head to the front line to do my bit if I’m required. Hospital logistics. To transport medical supplies between hospitals, GPs and Pharmacies and to deliver medicine to the vulnerable. I’m nowhere near as on the front lines as my Sister working in a Pharmacy or my Dad, a senior Paramedic but I want to do my bit. I’m a Doctor but not that type of Doctor, but it’s good to give back while you can.

It’s not lost on me that we are whether we like it or not, living through one of the world’s key moments in history. We are writing the pages of the history books as we speak. An unprecedented global crisis. Make no mistake that the world has fundamentally changed. It can never go back to the way it was. Our lives have irreversibly changed. Whether for good or for bad, we won’t know until the dust settles and the new world order rights itself. For the better, it might see more people work from home, which reduces pollution, cars on the road, more flexible learning and therefore better work-life balance, child care etc. For the worse, global monopolies, a deepening polarisation of the have and the have nots, a faction of looking out for yourself, a worldwide pandemic of selfishness.

What we knew as normal is no more.

When this curse of Covid-19 is gone (which won’t be for another year at a minimum), when we can finally leave our homes whenever we want, when the markers on the floor have long been pulled up, when we can hug our friends without fear of passing on invisible microbes, when we get out of this. When just like at the start of this pieces, the slog up the mountain is complete. We can embrace a new world, take stock and enjoy that feeling of joy of racing down a hillside. Smile more, love more, tell people you care about that you do care. Look up more often at that blue sky, take notice of the birds and the way the wind tussles the green grass. Look up from your phone and live in the now. You never know what you have until it’s gone.

We will reach the other side of this, but like that ride today, things will be familiar, but the little details will be different. A new world is upon us.

I’d like to wish all of my readers good health. Stay indoors where you can stay safe. To our NHS and careworkers, you have my utmost respect and gratitude for what you do. To my loved ones, know that I care deeply about you, my friends I cherish you.

May we all stay safe, may we all reach the top of this climb together, keep looking that 2 meters ahead of you, keep pushing, don’t give up, one day soon we will feel the rush of that air over our faces again, the rush of freedom in a brave new world.

2010-2019 the decade of change and achievement

2019…The end of a terrific year but also the end of what has been quite the decade! Looking back on the past decade it’s actually been quite the whirlwind. If my 2010 self was to read what I was to do and become in the next nine years, I don’t quite think he’d believe it. I’ve been on a journey of transformation, I’m a million miles away from that jaded and lost boy in 2010. 2010 me was I feel looking back, an outsider who never really fitted in. Present but vacant, slightly out of sync with everyone else. Someone who knew what they wanted to be but was not in a place where they could be that. I started the decade, lost.

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Some Happier 2010 times!

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Some Happier 2010 times!

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Some Happier 2010 times!

Its been well documented those who have followed me on this journey from day one about my disdain for sixth form and what went on in a particular classroom. This blog, while a million miles away from those early days of blog writing as a release and as a weapon, has its roots from the immaturity of sixth form. My passion for writing blogs was born out of that shitshow. There were many gems from Maricourt but there was a toxic group that I could not wait to leave behind.

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Life was better at Uni!

My life got significantly better when at the start of the decade I went to University. I had felt like I was hemmed in, in school. Learn hard, put the effort in, get the grades, get out. That’s what school was to me. One of my standout moments of this decade was and will always be that first-year residential field trip to Slapton in Feb of 2011. This decade I’ve had a few vital and pivotal moments where if I had chosen the other side of the coin, the other decision, life would be vastly different today. The first of that, was that February night on a cold, windswept Slapton beach. I still remember it vividly, the fresh sea breeze that tickled your face, the gentle and rhythmic pulse of the distant lighthouse casting a beam of light across the sand. Looking up and taking in a deep breath of air, exhaling and watching it disappear into the most unbelievably clear sky I had ever seen. It felt like the entire universe was out that night, the bluest of blue stars twinkled above like diamonds.

Before that night, I was ready to quit University. I had made up my mind, it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t challenged enough, I was constantly ill, I hated the commute. I was all but done. This first-year field trip was in my mind, a swansong. It just turned out to my surprise to be the start of an epic journey in academia. That night as we pulled up some driftwood and sat on large boulders, laughing and sharing stories into the night. I suddenly realised that with this group of people, we were all broken in some way and for the first time in my life, that wasn’t an issue. For the first time in such a long time, I had people around me who actually didn’t care about who you are or where in high school. They all had flaws as did I, and they didn’t care. They were human. I formed friendships that night that have lasted the sands of time. That field trip changed everything. I fell back in love with Geography because of that field trip, I realised that I could be who I wanted to be here, with these people.

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Sitting here now having completed a BSc, an MSc and recently a PhD, it seems crazy to me that I was so close to giving up all of that if it wasn’t for that goddamn beach and the chats that night. Not to forget Susan (you had to be there).

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Undergraduate years of 2010-2013 was a period of some crazy emotions. Once I committed to academic life, I found a place I could call home. I found something I was good at and oh boy it was one hell of a good time! Every day in Uni was a laugh with my Uni pals, Anthony, Alex, Mary, Hannah, Chloe, Stacey. The latter, well we all know how that particular episode of the decade turned out. I had fallen in love.  I let my walls down 100% again for someone for the first time in a few years and for those two years it was awe-inspiring, it was beautiful and it was terrifying all at the same time. As time has passed and the wounds have healed, I can look back on those times with a real warm glow. Now longer jaded by heartache and bitterness.  I owe her a lot for building the foundations of the person I am today. There are a lot of aspects of me today that define me that were unlocked by her. For one small example, cooking. I couldn’t cook beans on toast before I met her and would never venture outside of any dish that wasn’t made in the British isles! Yet with an Italian passion for food, that was unlocked in me. Food and cooking is a huge part of who I am now. I love to cook and I’m always cooking food for family and friends and dishes from all over the world!

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Then in 2013, as I was feeling on top of the world…it all came crashing down. The rug was whipped from under my feet. The breakup hit me out of the blue and knocked me for six for years! 2013-14 was brutal. I was depressed, everything was a struggle. Looking back now, I see why I struggled so much with it. As a very guarded person, I felt like I was betrayed when I let all of my walls down, the real emotional me was vulnerable and to then have that heart stood on in the fashion that she did was tough. Did it help that she got with the guy she was ‘just friends with at the party’ that I didn’t go to, two weeks after she broke it up out of the blue? No. No, it didn’t. Did it also help my recovery that we shared every class together and friendship group for that final year? No, that didn’t help either.

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Happier times in 2013

Truth be told though I was seething, I was angry, I was hurt. But actually, I was mad at myself. I am an achiever. It’s what I do, I set a goal and I will achieve it. I have a long list of honours, accolades and achievements. Yet, one had always evaded me. I would trade in all of my awards to just be loved by someone, to grow old with them and to have my own family. When she ended it, to me, it was a colossal failure on my part. It’s something that I did or didn’t do, it was my fault in some way is how I perceived it. I had a taste of that ultimate goal for it to no longer exist. It was tough.

2013 was by far the most challenging year of the decade for me. A week after I was hit by that out of the blue break up, I was informed that my eyes where 0.5 outside of the limit for becoming an Air Traffic Controller. A dream job that I had worked towards ever since I was little. My choices in school and even degree level were all geared up towards becoming an Air Traffic Controller. It’s all I ever wanted to do. In the space of 7 days, I had lost two dreams, out of the blue. I was once again, lost.

From 2010 to the start of 2013, I had discovered for the most part who I was as a person. I grew very self-assured of myself. 2013 knocked me right back to 2010. I didn’t know me anymore. I had spent years having such confidence in myself to looking in the mirror and not even recognising who I was. Every day was an effort. Academia became a lifeline again, amongst all of this dissertations had begun. The only way out of this hole I thought was to put everything into that dissertation. One last hurrah. Do well in this, get a good degree, build myself back up again, reinvent me again. I used all those emotions of anger and hurt and turned them into productivity. Which worked. I aced that dissertation and in the process fell in love with research. I was selected to go and present it at the biggest undergraduate conference in Plymouth. Backed by my supervisor and my friends, I didn’t think I was worthy but they believed. They pushed me to do it. From the back of that, I was selected to present that research in Parliament and came in the top 20 UK undergraduate researchers of the year. Not bad work for when I was at my lowest. That was the slow road to recovery.

Final year was a slog, but I finished with a 2:1. The goal was done. I had never felt prouder than that first graduation day, looking back at the certificate. It didn’t to me denote a degree, whenever I think back to my BSc days, it indicates all those made changes in my life, the soaring highs and greatest of lows. To me, it reminds me that I’m glad that I have that no matter how shit I feel, I have that inner stubbornness that just will never, ever, give up. No matter how much the odds are stacked against me. You pick yourself up, you keep working hard, you never give up.

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2014 and 15 were all about my Masters Things they never tell you about when starting a Masters Degree. Because I was still recovering from 2013 I don’t think at the time I really appreciated those years for what they were. A period of reflection, rebuilding, rebranding, regrowing. By the time our first residential to the desert in October came around, I saw the MSc as a new start. That summer I had clarity, I had dealt with a lot of stuff, I for the first time actually accepted me for me. I now knew what I wanted out of life and one of those things was to collect degrees. I loved research, I wanted to become a researcher. I wanted to help people in a way that I knew I could, via research. The MSc was academically very challenging but I adored that challenge. Being pushed every day intellectually was fun! It was such a great topic to study and my fellow classmates where legends. I feel really bad that we all never really stayed in touch but they were so perfect for that part of my life. I am grateful for every single one of them. That desert field trip without a doubt is the funniest field trip I have ever been on. God, I loved that course!2014…a year of rebuilding and success!

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2015 came another of those giant what-if moments, those crossroad decisions, a flip of a coin, a fork in the road of life. I’d finished my Masters, I’m now healed, I’m back to myself, I have the whole world ahead of me. Then the two jobs come at once. 29k 3 year contract in Nottingham with a global consultancy firm, or a 16k part-time tempory one year job as a research assistant. I was utterly torn between the logically me and the emotional me. Head and my Dad, wherein the consultancy job. No question. Financial security, job security, job progression, independence, moving out, new city. Yet, my heart wasn’t in it. I had fallen in love from Undergrad with research, but it was a lot of work, it didn’t pay well and there was no guarantee it would last longer than a year. I was conflicted, my parents were conflicted. Take the Nottingham job and I would be leaving home, I’d be leaving Liverpool, my life and I’d be on a career path in environmental consultancy.

On the other hand, take the RA job, stay at home but do something I was madly passionate about and really enjoyed but for pretty crap pay.

Then that talk at the river happened. Both of us, me and Chloe at a crossroads in life, both with massive decisions to make. Chloe, I have no doubt is my guardian angel. At the beach in Slapton, there during the hard times, there again at the river now a big life decision was to be made. My confidant, my guiding light, my soundboard. I summed Chloe up and the rest of my close friends up so well in this blog here:My dedication to the inner circle! After hours for the first time in a while, I had clarity over that decision. My mind was made up all because of her, I made the decision. I declined the consultancy job and for the first time ever the logical me went with my heart. I took the RA job. I turned onto the path of academia which has led me to where I am today.

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2015-2016 where the RA years (My 2016, a cracking year! ) (My Facebook status’ of the year and what a story it tells of 2015.) An incredibly rewarding, stressful, intense training I could ever receive being an RA in the department. I thought my development rate was staggering from BSc to MSc, but as an RA, I developed more in those years there than I had all the other years combined. I adored that job, as much as it was mental! It cemented to me that this is what I wanted to do as a career now. The research was home, I had found not where I expected to be but clearly where I was meant to be. I worked on a vast amount of projects, learnt so much and got to work with the most incredibly supportive colleagues a young RA could ever ask for! I was pushed to my limits and beyond in that job. It only became apparent when I started my PhD how much training I had unknowingly been through as the departments RA. I was a seasoned researcher soldier by the time the PhD wars came. I felt like a general when I walked into PhD life. To this day, those intense years where the best in terms of training for research and my career and it put me in a great position.

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Here we go again, three-year cycles in life, all going well and here comes the downer. Funding cuts across the University. RAs well we’re disposable. First to be cut was me. Here I am again, back at this familiar road. Find something I’m good at and I like and here comes something to take it away. Oddly, I was different this time. The disappointment didn’t come as a surprise, things were going too well so I was expecting this to occur. But more than that, after so many disappointments and setbacks in my life I was just like meh, okay, it’s another one, I’ll deal with it like I always do. No worries! I was gutted to be leaving the department but I also felt that maybe this was a blessing in disguise. A new chance to see this as rather than a setback, a new adventure, a new challenge. Since 2013 I’ve had the mindset of turning negatives into positives, even if that is only a small positive. I had learnt all that I could there, I couldn’t progress without a PhD. So PhD it is.

I’ve always been a firm believer that if you have the right attitude in life, if you work hard, then you build a door. If you do that, then life will give you opportunities and if you’ve worked hard and in the right way, then the opportunity will come and knock at that door that you’ve built. The day after I was told I was going to be unemployed, the PhD scholarship at LJMU was posted. My boss saw it, sent it to me. I quote “Jesus Tony, this PhD looks like it’s been written for you! Drones in fieldwork! You should apply”. There was an opportunity, knocking very loudly! I was so very nearly not going to apply until my work mum Sara knocked some sense into me (one of the very many unsung heroes of this decade for me! Thank you Sara!). I applied, did the interview, got the scholarship and the rest is history as they say!

2016-2019 and that’s where we end this decade. The PhD years. These past three years would never have happened without that decision way back in 2010 or that one in 2015. It’s a weird life when you think about it. If I had my way, I like to think I would have been an air traffic controller now, with a wife and maybe a kid. But life has a funny way of getting you where you need to be, not where you want to be. Here I am, in 2019, as a Doctor. I never thought or even entertained the thought that one day I would be Dr Cliffe, I’d be an editor of a Journal and a Senior Lecturer at 27 years old. Yet, for all of that journey, I am immensely proud that I am here. That I never gave up and that I feel I am where I’m meant to be right now. The past three years have undoubtedly been the best of the decade. I have so much love for my time on the PhD and the people who were in it My final day and my goodbye. I have grown again as a person to someone who I feel is the best and most rounded version of me there has ever been. The past three years have been the most intellectually challenging journey. It’s also been the most personally challenging as I’ve worked towards the highest academic qualification you can get. It’s been a fabulous time, especially all the friendships, relationships and travel that it brought me!

However, the past three years would not have been possible without my fellow PGRs, especially H105. They have been my rock throughout all of this! Friends that I know I will have forever! The battle of the Viva and my ode to H105  A perfect weekend: A wedding and Friendships Yet, they’re not alone in my thoughts as I look back on this decade. You see, for every fail and trust me I have 1000 fails to every one of my successes. You see, whether I’ve failed or I’ve achieved I’ve never been alone. I’ve had people in my life for those ten years who’ve been through everything, I’ve had people who’ve come and gone. Each time was leaving a piece of them with me that has changed me. People have left me with positives and some with lessons. I’ve had so many unsung heroes on this journey, so many people who when I lost faith, put their faith in me. I’ve had the most amazing mentors who backed me when I didn’t back myself, who pushed me beyond my perceived limits to see what I was truly capable of. This decade is littered with the most amazing, kind-hearted, dedicated, and loyal people I have ever met. I have had friends like Chloe, Emma, Hannah, Luke, Laura, Vic, Katie, the list goes on who have stood by me through thick and thin. Who has never waivered, who always believe in me and what I stand for. Without out, I wouldn’t be possible.

I feel as I end this decade that I am incredibly wealthy in terms of the company that I now keep. 2010 me was a lost boy who didn’t fit in. 2019 me is a man who has found a home, a family. I may not be where I thought I would be, but I’m where I feel I’m meant to be.

Let’s see what the new decade holds, 2010-2010 was the decade of achievement…I’m ready for the adventure of this new decade. What it will be called I guess I’ll find out in 10 years, but I am ready for it to be written!

 

Decade of Achievement

  • A – Levels
  • UK’s first parliamentary school speaker award winner
  • UK Good Citizen of the year award
  • BSc Geography
  • Novel published on Amazon
  • Top 20 UK undergraduate researchers (2013)
  • MSc Sustainability
  • Outstanding Academic Support staff overall winner 2016
  • Editor of IJSaP
  • 4 papers published
  • PhD
  • Driving Licence
  • Senior Lecturer
  • Deputy Chair of Ethics
  • Post Graduate Assessment Officer

 

Autumn is around the corner. My four likes and dislikes of this season.

The nights are now getting longer, and thus, the days are shorter. There is a noticeable coolness to the winds that flow in off the Atlantic now, the first detectable signs of change in the colours of the leaves. Autumn is just around the corner.

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For some, autumn brings people joy and cheer, a change in the season, those turning colours of the leaves a welcome sign to usher in the colder weather as a respite from the summer. Not that we’ve had a particularly good end to the summer! It’s felt more autumnal in August this year than it does in November! Autumn, or fall, if you like saying words wrong, if I had to rank it, I’d place it at number 3 on my list. Spring is by far my favourite season when everything is warming up, nature is coming alive, and there is an excitement for the summer ahead, the longer days, the hot weather, and days out in the sun. Beautiful! Autumn, however, don’t get me wrong has its perks, way more than winter does (god I hate winter!) but it’s not as good as spring or summer. So, before you can say pumpkin spice latte, autumn will be here. So here are my four not so favourite things about this season and my, to its credit, four things I do like about this season.

Dislikes

I’m aware that many of my dislikes for autumn are probably some of your favourite things about it. You’re wrong, but that’s fine, I can live with that. Oddly, some of my dislikes have an alter ego side to them and form the basis of some of my likes for this season. All will become clear, I promise!

  1. The Long Nights and the Weather

In at number one is my number one dislike of autumn. The shorter days and long nights. It does my Seasonal Affective Disorder no good at all! The long days of summer, I pine for, the bright blue azure skies and the twilight of what little darkness hours exist in the summer. Autumn that all changes. You get up in the dark and by the time you get home from work, it’s nearly dark. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a lightless cardboard box. Grim. I’m the type of person who runs hot to touch, which means I always feel cold, so I dread the colder weather coming in. At least now I don’t look out of place wearing jumpers and gilets, so silver lining I guess! I love the weather, but I suppose you might have already figured that out if my social media posts are anything to go by. Sure, I love storms they’re exciting, especially thunderstorms but in autumn the heat and the energy in the atmosphere dissipates, the high pressure forms low pressure and we go from clear blue skies to occasional epic thunderstorms, to an endless conveyor belt off of the Atlantic of cold wind, torrential rain, and endless days of cloud. If you’re lucky it might be spiced up with some fog or as they say in Newfoundland, Canada, you’re blessed with a million-dollar day. Which basically means it’s a blessing when you get a sunny day.

Wind and endless rain and no blue skies makes S.A.D. worse. How anyone can enjoy cold, wet and grey weather is beyond me, I think you need to be sectioned. There is nothing fun about it at all, and I cannot fathom why anyone prefers that over warm blue skies!

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Sunset and raindrops

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  1. Everything is a variety of Pumpkin

I get it, a critical autumnal event is Halloween and the tradition of pumpkin picking and carving is I admit, a fun thing to do. Pumpkins are there to be carved, have a candle shoved inside of it for one night and then disposed of into the compost heap because that’s where these weird orange balls deserve to be. They smell horrific when you’re carving them, and they taste as good as they smell. Awful. In recent years and I can only imagine this is the U.K.’s attempt to become more mainstream America (we have kids graduating with cap and gowns now from Nursery now, so why the hell not, next we’ll be buying guns in our supermarkets and blaming video games for mass shootings) that autumn signals retailers to add Pumpkin Spice to ordinary things. Pumpkin does not belong in coffee, how dare you tarnish the wonders of that beautiful hot bean juice with that filth! A delicious blueberry muffin is replaced by a Pumpkin Muffin. Candles are sprinkled with Pumpkin spice, Pumpkin bread, Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Pumpkin! I don’t actually think anyone actually enjoys a Pumpkin spiced anything, they just say they do to look like they’re cool Autumn Hipsters. Sorry, I feel I may have needed to get that off my chest.

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Cliffe pumpkins

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  1. Excuses for public transport

Granted, hopefully, this year now that I’ve passed my test and will have a car that this won’t be such a bugbear of mine, but as the seasons change, I can hear that big fat book of public transport excuses opening with a thud. Autumn brings in the wonderful excuses for those who operate public transport, (not naming names or pointing the finger here, well known North West train company *cough*) to cover up for their lack of service providing.  “What shall it be today, John? The 16.45 is cancelled because we forgot to staff it”… “Meh. Autumn? Oh yeah! Leaves on the line! Remember, it’s the wrong type of leaves! Don’t forget to tell the passengers that!”

“So this week we’ve had, the wrong rain, the wrong ice, the wrong wind, the wrong frost and now the wrong leaves? They suspect nothing!”

Autumn just gives people an excuse to cancel things, cancel plans and gives everyone the perfect excuse, just blame it on the weather!

  1. The changing of the leaves

Number four is one of my likes for a different reason, but here I will address why I dislike it. I hate it because I find it so incredibly sad! Spring and summer are so full of life and autumn is a swan song for all the plants and animals. Some creatures only survive the summer before dying, and the leaves on those big old mighty Oak show off with their most dazzling and spectacular colours, all that pizazz just before they lose it all.

One reason I absolutely despise winter is that everything is so bare and dead. Lifeless trees, lifeless light and gloomy clouds. Eugh! I just always feel despondent in autumn when the leaves change, the exotic birds fly back home leaving our shores, and bird song which is so loud in summer is replaced by the odd chirp here and there. Depressing!

Likes

Admittedly, those four dislikes above used to be a lot more, but as I’ve grown older while autumn will always remain firmly in 3rd place, I have grown fonder over the years of it. So, here are some of my most liked things about the season.

  1. Photography

Mirror of the lake

A passion of mine is photography and autumn to me, is the best time of the year for it. Sure, summer you can get out more to photograph things, but often it’s the wrong type of light. Summer sun can often be too bright, too harsh, which ruins your contrasts in shots and it has a cool feeling to it. Plus, landscapes are often very monochromatic, they’re just blue and then bright green for the leaves. Autumn is full of colour, the sky changes to a different blue, the green of the trees changes to deep reds, oranges, purples and pinks and the light is softer. It gives a photographer a treasure trove of photographic opportunities.

Sunrise on the canal

I love autumn for the colours it gives you, while it does make me sad I take comfort in capturing natures beauty before it goes super bland in winter.

Fisherman on the Leeds Liverpool Canal

  1. The Sunsets and the night sky

In a similar vein to Number one, my favourite time of day is twilight, always has been. There is something extraordinary about everything being backlit and silhouetted against the sky. In autumn, twilight gets dragged out as the angle of the sun gets lower, and due to this, before nightfall in autumn often offers up the most spectacular of sunsets and sunrises. With colder, denser air and the low angle of the sun, more light rays get scattered, giving me one of my favourite sights, Mother Nature, at her most glorious. Autumn offers up the most amazing colours you could ever see in the sky, and that makes me happy! Long after the sun is set, the night sky often has a deep soft glow to it before turning purple and then black. Stunning.

Those of you know me well know that a big passion of mine is Astrophotography. Astrophotography for me starts to come into its own in autumn. Yes, technically winter is the most perfect time for it due to it being the clearest of skies in the atmosphere and the most exciting in terms of what to see, at least autumn offers some form of warmth. I can spend a good few hours outside in the autumn photographing the stars compared to maybe an hour or so in the winter.

Norwegian Winters night in the forest

In summer, there is often too much haze for clear night sky photography, not to mention that this far north that you may not know this, but in Liverpool, we don’t officially have night time from about Mid-June till September.

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We stay in Nautical and Astronomical Twilight, so it’s often not dark enough to photograph stars. While it may seem dark outside to you, the camera still looks like it’s almost day time. So hurray for night time, never hear me say that again in any other context!

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Caught a satellite tonight!

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  1. The Cosy Feeling, cold weather and warm jumpers

The weather, oh, we’ve been here before, right? Obsession alert! While often the weather is pants in autumn, it does usually offer up some of the clearest and bluest of skies. Not to mention those sunsets and star-studded skies I love so much. But, there is also something incredibly cosy and special about autumn that, as I’ve got older, I’ve grown to look forward to. While nothing will ever replace the feeling of warm sunshine and wind on my skin, I love wearing shorts and t-shirts! I must admit that I secretly look forward to wearing chunky knit jumpers again. I love wearing big thick boots, warm jeans, gloves, scarfs, mix and matching many blazers and coats in an outfit and above all, the cosiness of a beanie hat.

Plus, it’s the perfect excuse for me to go full Geographer and wear boots, fleece lined walking pants and various fleeces and waterproofs. Yes! Love the adventurer look!

There is something special about that nip in the air, that cold that stings your cheeks when you get inside, the smell of the fire crackling or the warm caress of the heating, the crunch of the frost underfoot and that no better feeling of when it is frosty outside or the wind and rain is howling against your window, and you look outside from the warmth of your bed. Bliss!

There is something also about autumn that brings the kid out in you. Piles of leaves on the floor are impossible not to kick, pumpkins have to be picked, and fireworks set off. Autumn still awakens that little kid in me, the one who knows that just around the corner is winter and winter means Christmas. Yay! Autumn is super cosy.

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Crunch of the frost

  1. The food

With colder weather means a better appetite. Throw out those salads because you no longer need a beach-ready body, you need a hibernation ready body! Jumpers and thick coats hide a multitude of sins and food is just way better in autumn and winter.

When it’s too hot, you turn your back on cosy and comforting foods for salads, B.B.Q.s and vegetables. In winter, there is nothing more comforting than a giant bowl of chunky soup and crusty bread to dip into it. Hearty meals like scouse, stew and pies become the go-to on a cold day. Drinks all suddenly appear to be mulled, and I get to drink my favourite autumn/winter drink, Hot Ribena.

Yaaaas! I’m ready for it! While summer isn’t over yet (did it ever really start? Am I right?!) There will still be the occasional hot spell for us to enjoy, but the inevitable is just around the corner. Autumn is nearly here, the long nights, the pumpkin spice and the big coat season is fast upon us!

Is Autumn your favourite season or is it your worst? Let me know in the comments and why!

 

A dedication to the mentors

A sign in my kitchen states ‘Behind every successful person lies a substantial amount of coffee’ while I agree that may well be the case, it is missing a sentence. That sentence should be “and a series of mentors who have inspired, developed and took a chance on that person”.

In my latest new series of dedication blogs, the first of which is dedicated to these five amazing individuals: My dedication to the inner circle! this one is dedicated to many people who, in a professional context have either inspired, developed or taken a chance on me as mentors. Despite being full of over-self confidence, I’m fully aware that my successes are not down to me alone. Hard work, a massive slice of luck and a number of dedicated mentors, have made me who I am today. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the guidance or the backing of a number of good mentors over the years. Too many, sadly to put in this blog. I’ve had mentors from football coaches as a kid to my recent supervisory team, all of whom have played an equally important part in my development. For example, my last supervisory team have had a considerable hand in my PhD success, but they know that and I’ve written about them in my PhD blogs. But, just like the first dedication blog I thought I’d pick this time, six people who I’d like to say thanks to, who I don’t often write about.

When you think of a typical mentor, you probably think of usually someone who is older, wiser and ultimately someone who you respect. Mentors can inspire you to be better, they can demand and push you to be better and ultimately, every mentor sees something in you that you fail to see in yourself. Mentors you don’t have to get along with or even like necessarily (but it does help), but you respect them. The mentors in this blog some I got on really well with and ultimately had a great working relationship with, some even became friends. Some, I had no formal working relationship with, and some I absolutely hated!

Inspiration 

A good mentor will often unlock hidden potential, or part of yourself that you didn’t know existed before. They’ll ignite a fire and a drive in you because they’ve been so inspirational, either in their demeanour or in whatever it is they do. For this, I often think of two teachers that I had in High School who inspired two significant parts of my identity, Geography and Writing.

Ask any Geographer and long after their degrees they’ll still strongly identify themselves as a proud geographer. Regardless of age, fierce debate and banter between the fractions of Geographers will always be had, and god help it if you proclaim a Human Geographer as a Physical one! Or vice a Versa. I’ve always had a passion for Geography as a subject, and it’s not solely down to my Geography Teacher Mr Naughton. My love for the subject started way earlier when, as a small child, I discovered this vast, imposing dusty Atlas in our attic. I can still smell that book now as I turned its pages, it was old, so ancient! But I remember flicking through the pictures of all the different countries, reading about the vastly different landscapes and it’s people. I was hooked. The sense of adventure, a world was waiting for me to explore. Of course, this was in the days of pre-internet, a dusty Atlas and Encarta 95 was all my child mind had in my pursuit of epic travels and adventure.

Mr Naughton, however, brought the subject to life. No longer was it on the pages of a dusty Atlas and a fanciful overactive imagination of my child self, it was now real. I’ve never met a teacher who was so enthusiastic about the subject, the proudest of Geographers. Mr Naughton really fostered that passion for the subject, little did I know that I’d go on to do it at GCSE, A-Level, Degree Level, Masters Level and then finally, PhD level! My long journey as a proud geographer started with the inspirational Mr Naughton.

So while I’m a proud geographer and always will be, I’m also a passionate writer. I write blogs and novels for fun, and that comes down Mrs Bygroves. Mrs Bygroves was a strict teacher, the scousest of scouse accents, hard but fair. As I explained in my blog about why I write: Why do I write blogs? It’s a window to the emotional me! It was her who pulled me to one side after my English GCSE coursework and told me I had a gift for the written word and that I should write novels and stories for others to enjoy. So I did. I wrote my first novel and published my second on Amazon. I had discovered a critical skill that I never knew I really had, a passion for conveying stories and emotions, something that is now a massive part of my identity is all down to Mrs Bygroves and her seeing something in me, that I didn’t know myself.

Push you to your limits

So while mentors should be inspirational and make you see something in yourself, they can often go about it in different ways. Some will nurture and foster it in a friendly manner to get you to be the best you can be. Others will be harsh, demanding, thankless and at times make you hate them with every fibre of your being. At the time you wonder why they’re picking on you, why are they so harsh on you compared to everyone else and why do you not get the praise that everyone else does. Then you realise when you do reach the top of your game that they did that to push you. They saw your maximum potential and that you were way below their standards and the only way to get you to push past what you thought was your limit was to be cruel to be kind.

I’ve had two mentors like that in my life, my old commanding officer in the Air Training Corps and my former Personal Academic Tutor who became my boss as an RA. Two older men who’s stature and stance oozed authority and wisdom. Two men who have pushed me further mentally than anyone has before and probably ever will. Two people for some unknown reason I desperately wanted to impress, to prove myself to and to be acknowledged. But this mentor taught me the very definition of pushing the limits.

It may come as a shock to some of you to know that I wasn’t always the over self-confident, outspoken person I am today. In fact, many years ago, I lacked a lot of confidence in myself and around others. That all changed with one man. As one of my COs, he was always on my back throughout training and day to day life. Throwing me into the deep end with things, leading tasks, getting my voice heard. ATC rarely gave out compliments to any of us, I guess that’s the RAFs way of making you want to be better. When it did come, it was often short and curtailed (tradition of stiff British upper lip I suspect) but rarely was it ever directed in my direction. Which conflicted me. I keep getting asked to do these new tasks for which I seemed to be good at, but there was no confirmation or praise from those above. That irritated me in a way that made my already stubborn self, even more determined to succeed.

A turning point in my self-confidence comes to mind as clear as day. We were on deployment for a week on an SAS training camp in the depths of Shropshire on a bitterly cold and snowy February. We’d spent all day and night evading the infamous Landy force across the vast rolling hills and outbuildings of the training ranges. I’d been put in charge of navigation, faces covered in camo paint, boots covered in slush and mud and near hypothermic, we achieved our objective. Rescued the downed pilot and got back to base without being captured. My first real sense of achievement by putting myself out there in a position of leadership. By the time we arrived back at the barracks in the early hours, we barely got any sleep before being rudely awoken by a room inspection. I’d been chosen by him to be in command of our small dorm in a barracks. Again, I felt woefully underqualified. He comes in, nods to others a job well done, looks at my boots which to me were spotless “Dirt on them, Cliffe. Do them again! Press-ups outside, now”. “Yes, Sir!” I replied through gritted teeth. He hated me, I thought!

A few hours later, we were kitted up to go on the range. By this time the snow had started again, an icy wind ripped through the standard-issue kit with such ease I might as well have been naked for all the warmth it offered. After dissembling and cleaning the L98 and SA80 rifles in record time (still no recognition for that) as a troop, we headed out into the freezing snow on the range. To this day, it is still one of my most epic and coolest memories, the sound of gunfire, the snow falling, a Lynx army helicopter hovering off to one side, the recoil of the weapon in your shoulder. So.Much.Awesomeness!

While firing down the range, my fingers turning to frostbite (You’ve never felt anything colder than a trigger on a rifle in the snow!) in my peripheral vision I could see hands raised to the left and right of me, muffled shouts of “Jam!” and the range officer coming over to each individual. I was an awful shot, a sniper or expert marksmen I most certainly was not but I kept firing, with each shot pulling the bolt back and watching as the expended shell casing flicked and spun in the air. Load, breathe, hold breath, squeeze the trigger, recoil, bolt. Repeat, until that click on the rifle meant all my rounds in the rifle had been expended into the target a few hundred yards away. I raise my hand and raise my rifle over my shoulder to show the range officer that my rifle was empty. “Jam?… Oh, all done? Report to the CO” and with a slap on my back I exited the range, still noticing various hands raising and the range officer moving in to unjam the guns. The rest of the squad still laying prone into the snow.

Then there he was, immaculately dressed, a warm thermos in his hand steeming in the cold weather, as I present my rifle to him through chattering teeth, god I had never been so cold!

“Sir. All rounds fired, no Jam. Sir”

He gave a raised smile, which was so rare that I didn’t know if I had indeed become delirious with hypothermia, and in the most typical British Officers voice exclaims “Only one not to Jam your weapon, Cliffe. I expected absolutely nothing less from you. You’d have been the only one not to be killed. Congratulations. Dismissed”.

To me, that was the biggest compliment I had ever been given by him! That night we received word that some of us where being selected to head down south to RAF Lyneham to fly in a C130 Hercules. An unbelievable opportunity! He read the names off of the 10 lucky few, I was number 10! The next day I remember looking out of the back of the C130 as we raced over the Bristol Channel at 1000 feet. Over the rush of adrenaline, air and incredible noise of the four engines he says “Cliffe! This is what happens when you believe in your abilities. I pushed you so hard so that you’d become that. You’ve pushed yourself and others this trip to be better, I’m proud of you. Enjoy this! I’m putting you forward for the NCO course” and with a salute and a handshake it finally all made sense. I had a perceived physical and mental limit, but his was way beyond that, and I needed that tough love to reach it. It was the first time I backed myself and truly knew my capabilities. From then on he was still as hard as ever but was more forthcoming with the odd compliment, I flew with him often, practising flying over the North West of England, always demanding but boy did I learn a hell of a lot from him! I owe a lot to my years to him and to the RAF ATC in general. It taught me mental strength, leadership, the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of others, teamwork and plus the fantastic days flying aircraft and shooting weapons. Closest I ever got to be being a badass! They were the best of days!

Take a chance

So some mentors inspire you and some push you whereas others they toss their chips into the ring and take a gamble on you. This is a dedication to the mentors who placed their faith in you by taking some sort of risk and hoping it would pay off.

The epitome of that was my Maths teacher, Mr Coggin. He made a decision, a gamble, that ultimately had such a significant influence on my academic career. Coggin was a bit weird, a proper eco nut, way before it was socially acceptable or hipster to care about the environment. He was strange but really cared for his students, he had an engaging teaching style, but ultimately, maths was life to him. Maths, well we’ve never really got on, that and spelling are often my Achilles heel. Give me time and a pen and paper, and I’m okay, mental maths? Nope. No chance! As we got closer to year 9 SATs exams things were not going too well in maths. For those of you who don’t know, SATs were a form of exams taken in year 9 which based on your performance you got put into sets, 1 being the top, 5 being the bottom. Only sets 1 and 2 would be entered into the higher GCSE papers where you could get from A* to fail, whereas sets 3 to 5 would be entered into the intermediate and lower papers where the top grade you could achieve was a C. Therefore, in principle, easier exam but no higher than a C regardless if you aced it.

Each teacher in English, Maths and Science had to make a decision on sets before the SATs exam. I was struggling in maths and not for my lack of trying either. I knew how essential maths was as a subject. At this point, I still had dreams of being an Air Traffic Controller, I wanted to do science at GCSE and A-Level. While a C in GCSE maths is fine, I didn’t want to be a C student, I wanted to be more than that. I knew I needed a good SAT score to get into a top set, so that I could take the higher papers and get the As and Bs I wanted for A level and therefore get into University. I remember him breaking the news to me that he was considering dropping me down a set so that I’d find it more accessible, it wouldn’t look too good to have a Set 2 student do poorly. Yet, he knows I’m putting the effort in, that I wanted to be in a top set and just needed some more guidance. So, he said he was holding off on the decision, he’d give me a few weeks to improve despite the pressure from above to drop me a set. He gave me extra work, would always ask me to answer stuff in class, and I worked the hardest I ever had. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, but above all, I wanted to repay him and him putting his neck out on the line for me.

SATs came around, and I got straight 7-7-7. Top marks. I did it! I’d just got my results as I walked down the corridor and I bumped into him and told him the news. “Knew you could do it!” with a beaming smile. What a gamble! If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone on to do the higher papers in Maths and Science at GCSE and ultimately would never have taken my science A levels. While I still always struggled with Maths, I was happy to be a B student in it. Technically, you needed an A in maths to do the A levels in Quantum Mechanics and Astrophysics, but somehow I was let on with my B. I strongly suspect Coggin had a hand to play in that. I still always love and feel super nerdy that I have A levels in Quantum Mechanics and Astro Physics! That and Biology and Geography. All not possible without that gamble by him!

 

Look out for you

Mentors can often be one of those things above or all of them at once. Often what combines all mentors is a sense of looking out for you as a person and having your best interests at heart. Sure, they come at it from different angles based on their experiences and their personalities, but ultimately they want what’s best for you. Luckily, I think all of my many mentors have had that element about them, certainly my academic mentors from the entire GID staff to my former supervisors at LJMU, they’ve been nothing but supportive. Two mentors, however, stand out to me as being all those things discussed so far, inspirational, dedicated, driven, trust in you but finally, looking out for you. Dr Ruth Healey and Dr Katharine Welsh have been two of my biggest academic mentors for 9 years. I’ve gone from being a student of them both, to them both being my boss at various times, to colleagues, office buddies and then friends.

Ruth and Katharine have been incredibly supportive from day one as a student. As a boss, they were keen to develop me as best they could but in such a way that I was always looked after. A real rare commodity in this day and age when bosses actually care for their employees! Both of them had always looked out for me, especially when I moved away from Chester to do my PhD, they were still keeping in touch, being a soundboard for advice and always thinking of me when opportunities arose. Be that to present my work, do a research project here and there, work as an editor for a major journal or even job applications. I’ve been super fortunate to have many mentors like that, but the two of them have become to me, at least, the epitome of a perfect example of what a mentor should be. Whenever I mentor someone, be that students, fellow colleagues of friends, I take a leaf out of their style of mentorship. They have a bit of each and every one of those mentors discussed so far, but they put their own flair and spin on it.

My academic career thus far would have looked so very different if I wasn’t backed, supported, gambled on, guided and encouraged by those two.

Ultimately, a mentor should part wisdom, encourage, and after spending time with them, you become a better person. They and all of my mentors I owe for that! So, thank you, thank you for making me who I am, thank you for gambling on me, backing me, pushing me and seeing things in me that I didn’t see. Without you, I wouldn’t be me.

Thank you!

 

 

My 2019 so far: January to July

A blog I tend to do every year is an end of year blog and a mid-year blog where I look back through my Instagram and reminisce about the highs, the lows and some of my favourite shots of the year so far. As we head into August and get closer to the darker nights, the crisp cool air and the twinkling of frost on the ground, I thought it would be an excellent time to review 2019 thus far!

January

Sadly, 2019 didn’t get off to the best of starts. The second half of 2018 was slowly sliding into a pile of crap compared to the first half, it accumulated in one of the worst Christmases in living memory, and I had high hopes that 2019 would be a fresh, new, positive start. A reset. Well, that didn’t go to plan. My beautiful feline best friend Tammy sadly passed away after being my cat of over 21 years. I was absolutely heartbroken. She had gone rapidly downhill in December and only saw the first week of 2019 before moving on to a better life. I still miss her terribly. Tam was my cat, she hated everyone else but me! She’d greet me at the door, she’d sleep on the pillow next to me every night, and I dearly miss having my furry little hot waterbottle to fall asleep to every night. You were a massive part of this family and me for 21 years, a beautiful little thing.

While the passing of Tam was a tough one to take, at least the PhD was on track. With the deadline of June looming, I had worked hard over Christmas, and on the 11th of January after so much hard work, I finally had something tangible, a first completed draft of my thesis. This was a huge mental milestone in the PhD life, the first glimmer of hope that I might actually finish this mammoth piece of work. While I knew I had months of editing and rewriting to come, to finally have all those bits of work into one document is the official beginning of the end.

On a freezing January day, a nice change of pace and excitement from PhD life when I arrived at Altcar military training base to view some special forces Chinooks and other assets as they departed after a special forces exercise in the area. Huge shout out to Altcar for allowing me on base to photograph these awesome machines and crews!

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Wokkah!!!

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While I hate winter, I do love the crisp, clear nights for stargazing. This January we had some exceptional clear skies and a few ISS passes I managed to catch on camera!

 

February

Feb was a quiet month as I worked away on my PhD edits. The only notable things were spending some downtime outdoors in new landscapes and photographing such exceptional star-studded skies!

I spruced up some personal home décor with a lovely addition to the bedroom!

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New plant for the bedroom!

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Love my Bonsai!

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In Feb, I discovered a hidden gem of a nature reserve that was only a five-minute drive from my house. A super place for photography, wildlife (particular bird watching), with rivers, woods and wetlands to explore.

March:

March, well everything got a bit real. The end was finally in sight! My thesis was printed, bound and ready to hand in for submission.

My few words on International Women’s Day. It’s 2019, and you still get taxed on essential lady things, absolute fucking disgrace IMHO! A huge shout out as always to all my awesome, amazing, beautiful, dedicated female friends!

When life just likes to troll you. I was so close to getting 10k a month but was one ball away each time. Absolutely livid and I still am to this day!

March got a lot brighter when my yearly meet up with Han and Dan, or should i say Mr & Mrs Watson, came about!

It was also my first ever Escape room! Han and Dan being veteran escapees we absolutely smashed not one but two escape rooms! They are my new favourite thing, they’re so fun, and I think we absolutely nailed our teamwork!

It was all well and good surviving an escape room, but I’ve not known fear like getting the viva date confirmed. D-Day now had a date, a very very near date! The day every PhD student dreads the final battle, the 3 hours where you either fail or succeed. The battle of the Viva loomed.

To take the fear of the viva away, I was still spending my downtime out in the countryside photographing nature at it’s best. This is one of my favourite pictures taken this year, I love the road leading you down to the lake and the gloomy storm approaching in the background. I felt as the viva loomed that I was walking that path towards the impending storm!

Best mothers day card, ever.

April:

Mark, my awesome cousin from Canada, popped in for his first visit to the UK and Liverpool after a European business trip! So great to spend the day with him showing him around this beautiful city and keeping those close family ties across the pond. Just a shame Liverpool decided to give him a welcome of torrential rain and wind! Hope to see you again Mark and thanks once again for taking the time to come visit!

My favourite shot of the year!

However, all things must come to an end, and I had my final day pre-viva in the office, a building that had been such a huge part of my life for the past 2 and a bit years.

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A lovely last day in the office today before my viva next week. Time to leave the comfort of H105 and have one final epic battle. V-Day fast approaches! Just under 3 years worth of hard work, 250,000 words, stress, imposter syndrome and over coming numerous failures and an unhealthy amount of coffee all comes down to a 3 hour viva where i have to defend every word and every decision made in those years to a panel of experts. PhD or no PhD all rests on that. The PhD has been the most intellectually and emotionally challenging thing i have ever done, it's been one epic journey that's made me grow as a person more than i ever have. I've made friends for life who without them life and the PhD would have been so much worse! I've been fortunate to travel to new countries and new cities and I've ticked off my life long goal of getting a CAA approved pilots licence ( i know it's no PPL!). PhDs are not about how clever you are, they're about how resilient you are and how stubborn you are to not give up when you're in a research world where it keeps knocking you down and you have to keep getting back up. A journey i hope next week i can end on a high otherwise it's been for absolutly nothing 🤣1st of September 2016 i started this journey to get the highest academic award possible. I set myself the stupid personal goal of finishing my PhD under 3 years and before my 27th birthday because no one sets more unattainable goals than my stupid brain. Now I'm days away from it all coming together. I want to do but i also don't because the viva if it goes well is the end. The end of the PhD, the end of my long life as a student. An end to an identity I've had for so long and is a part of me, i always want to learn and achieve more. It's also most likely the end of me in academia as I've made the decision that I'm unlikely to pursue a career in it. Forget the avengers, this is my end game! No pressure. In the words of Leeroy Jenkins, "Alright. Lets do this!" . . #PhDchat

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The battle of the viva was brutal, difficult, challenging, but ultimately rewarding! After just over two and a half years after starting the PhD, I had survived! I had made it to the end, the end game of being Dr Cliffe had been achieved! April 24th, 2019. What a day!!

May:

I may well now be a Doctor, but that didn’t earn me any more respect from my family, as evident by my birthday wrapping paper.

This badge was a fun joke given to me by my sister, but I was so unbelievably proud to wear it! Fun fact, the head of the Doctoral Academy loved it so much that they put an order in for them, so all new Drs will get one! A lovely little legacy!

Each weekend me and Ro would go an explore new places to visit and walk and we stumbled across another little local nature reserve. It was quaint!

I was given three months to do my post viva corrections to my thesis, but I completed them in 3 weeks. It felt so good but also sad to finally finish!

I discovered a Llama/Alpaca in my coffee cup! Little did I know in a few weeks I’d be surprised by my family to go walking with them in the lake district!

May saw me heading down to RAF Duxford to watch some preparations for the 75th D-Day anniversary. A brilliant event, so many Daks on the ground and plenty of warbirds!

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Ready for D-Day anniversary para drops

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June:

Well, June started with a win, a massive win! 6 times, baby! European Champions!!!

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Yaaaaaas!!!! #LFC

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The PhD was officially confirmed and approved. I had finally done it!

Visiting the Philharmonic is always special, but listening to John William scores of Speilberg films was another level!

In June, one of my favourite night time phenomenons occurs. The rare Noctilucent cloud formations! Formed a few weeks either side of the summer solstice, sunlight below the horizon lights up ice crystals high in the atmosphere turning night time into daylight. It’s an exceptional sight to see, I was lucky to have a few days of it, but this particular night it lasted for hours and was such a strong showing of them!

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I travelled down South to just North of London to go to one of my all-time favourite humans and one of my closest and dearest friends wedding, Chloe’s! I also had to screenshot my Insta story of that day, which sums it all up!!

chloe

From one end of the country to the other! I was back in the Lake District, one of my favourite places in the UK! Spending a few days away with the family was a perfect little getaway and something we haven’t done together for so long!

I was surprised by my family with a two-hour walk with Alpacas. BEST DAY EVER!

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What a day! Alpaca walking ❤

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Nice few days away with the fam

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July:

Graduation day arrived!!

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Time to graduate!

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Graduation photos have arrived!

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Mission Accomplished!

This family are awesome!

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Great afternoon with the fam!

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A week on from officially becoming Dr Cliffe, I went and passed my driving test after only 18 hours of driving! Yaaaas! Some people thought this day would never come but just shows you when I set my mind to something, it gets done!

So far *touches wood* 2019 has been a good year and I’m excited for what lies ahead for the latter half of the year! Where will the adventure take me?!

 

 

 

My dedication to the inner circle!

I wrote a blog many years ago, which just happened to be one of my all-time favourite pieces I’ve ever written. It was an in-depth look into how females and particularly female best friends have had such a profound impact on my life and the person I am today. It was at the time one of my most-read posts, and it’s those kinds of dedication blogs that I rarely write, but when I do, I absolutely love it. I’m pretty terrible at telling someone how I feel in person, but I can express it and immortalise my respect, gratitude and love to them through the written word.

Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of that blog. That old blog site was closed down without warning years ago (thankfully paying for this blog I have the peace of mind that these blogs will stay!) and I’ve long since got rid of that PC. I contemplated rewriting that for this post but take note Disney, that a well-received classic should never be remade, ever! No matter how hard you try, it will never compare to the standard or the heart of the original.

I think I signed off one of my recent blogs talking about how I am a wealthy individual, not in terms of monetary value but in terms of the company that I keep. I’m big enough, ugly enough, and wise enough to know that I’m not the easiest person to have as a friend. I’m always on the go, I demand the best from myself every day, and therefore I’m pushy and demanding of you to be the best that you can be. I can be direct and brutally honest at times…okay, all of the time. Where friends often use little white lies or disguise their disagreement with their friend’s actions to make their friend happy, that doesn’t happen with me. If you ask me my opinion on something, I’ll tell you even if you don’t like my answer. I can be incredibly stubborn at times and set in my ways. What you see with me is what you get, that honesty and black and white stance on things some people can’t handle. They prefer to be pampered or only have their own thoughts validated. So those who have stuck around first and foremost, thank you! I probably come across as a right twat don’t I? But despite those flaws, I do like to think that I am one of the most loyal, dedicated, protective and loving person to those few who I do let in.

I have many good friends, I have close friends, and I have a group of friends who sit in the inner circle. Those who over time their friendship has never faulted or waivered. These beautiful individuals all enhance my life greatly in a variety of ways, each one of them incredibly unique, each one my life would be decidedly empty and less fulfilling if they were not in it. There are many people close to me that I could and should thank (so please don’t be offended if you’re not in this blog! You don’t mean any less to me than these people!!) but I thought it would be nice to give my gratitude and thanks to those who’ve been through it all. They say that those who have been friends for between 7 and 9 years become friends for life. Thus, I think that’s a good cut off point for this blog because it just so happens that those who I’ve been friends with the longest just so happen to be those inner circle of people.

When I say inner circle it does sound a bit cultish or an elitist club, right? But that’s not really what I mean, the inner circle is simply a designator for those who I have no walls up for, for who know my many flaws and accept them, who know my hopes, dreams and desires and who knows my darkest secrets. I trust these individuals with my life, they have shown complete loyalty and dedication through the good times, but more importantly throughout the years and the hard times, they’ve never shone away from standing by me, either picking up a sword to fight alongside me or holding an umbrella up while I weather a raging storm. Some people rely upon and put all of their eggs into only one person, usually a boyfriend or girlfriend, at the expense of their friends. Me, well I much prefer diversity and a well-oiled machine around me, a team. Each one of these people is vastly different and all the better for it. So, without further exposition, let’s get into it!

Luke:

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My bro!

Holds the honour as one of the only males to make it into the inner circle! Luke isn’t a friend but is instead, an adopted big brother that I never had. We’re not friends, we’re Bros! My parents simply refer to him as “second son”. I’ve known Luke for what feels like a lifetime, we’ve practically grown up together. For context, Luke is a couple of years older than me and was my sister’s friend in high school. He popped round for tea one day and we got on really well, except our first conversation was an argument! An argument about the position of the vertical stabiliser on an F-18 vs an F-15. Nerdy or what but as a fellow avgeek we knew we’d be friends! From then practically every day during the summer holidays and weekends we’d spend together, climbing trees, buildings go-karts, fighting side by side in the infamous Hunt Road waterfight wars and generally just being lads!

As we got older, Luke was always the big brother I never had. Always there for me, protecting me, looking out for me, guiding me, and always on point with his advice. On paper, we’re vastly different people. Luke is athletic, outgoing, loud, a doer, incredibly funny and someone more of a risk-taker. Me I’m not athletic, not that adventurous, I’m more of a person to write the manual than actually to do it, and I’m risk-averse. Yet, it works! One thing i’ve learnt is to never play sports with Luke, he has an uncanny knack of using whatever sporting instrument be that a cricket ball or an air hockey puck, and getting a direct ‘accidental’ hit in my nuts. Bastard! We get on so well together, and my life would be completely different if I didn’t have my Bro in my life. Kudos to Amy, his beautiful wife, who still allows him to disappear every other Saturday so we can still hang out for a few hours!

Luke forces me to go out of my comfort zone, to be more adventurous and more outgoing. I can’t thank him enough for all of the times he’s been there for me through the good times but especially the dedication and encouragement through the bad times. Just an example of the kinda standup bloke he is, when I did go through that awful breakup, he left work early that day to hang out and take my mind off it and kept coming up with random things to do on weekends to keep me occupied until I was back on my feet. A true genuine legend. A true brother. I love you, Bro! Every guy needs a true bro, and I’m so very thankful that it’s you!

Chloe:

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My fav spud

Chloe or more accurately Spudette (I’m referred to as Spud!) has been one of my rocks and a pillar in my life. I met Chloe properly during our first year residential trip to Slapton and boy am I glad we did! From the early days of ripping each other for our accents, in scouse i say graph like it ends in a F whereas Chloe would say it as if it had too many A’s! Teaching her to say purple in scouse is still one of my personal highlights! Common vs Posh English! For eight years, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped laughing since! Chloe is one of the most beautiful people I know, not just in terms of looks (like all my female friends, they’re absolute babes!) but in terms of personality. I’ve never met someone who is as dedicated, loyal, caring and kind-hearted as Chloe. Not just towards me but everyone in her life, we all need a person like Chloe in our lives! From day one, we struck up a fantastic rapport, and from day one, I’ve always felt that no matter what, Chloe has my back. Chloe is the first person I turn to in a crisis or when a significant decision needs to be made. I often rarely ask for advice or seek council because I think I can do everything myself ( I can be pigheaded that way!), but any big decision gets run past her because she has such clarity and my best interests at heart that I value her advice and opinion so highly.

I recall spending hours at the river in Chester us both discussing what I should do, take the job in Nottingham, a £27,000 three year contract job or to stay in Chester and become a research assistant for £16,000 on a temporary year contract. I had conflicting thoughts, the logical rational me was a no doubt to take the Nottingham consultancy job. Yet the emotional me knew my heart was in research, so I wanted the Chester one, but that was an irrational and illogical choice. My Dad was pushing for me to take the Nottingham job, my Mum was pushing for the Chester one. Confusion and confliction everywhere. Everywhere until Chloe and I met up, finally, clarity. The weird thing about Chloe is there is a calmness that I don’t get with anyone else, she just gets it! At the end of the day, I took the illogical and irrational decision to take the Chester job. A decision I have never regretted! Thank you, Chloe!

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I’m not a religious person or that spiritual, but I do believe in the Universe, and it’s little nuances. I read many years ago about each of us have three assigned people, a soul mate (in the romantic sense), a soul mate (in terms of platonic love) and a Guardian/Protector. They can be one individual who is all three, or they could be three separate people. I’ve always thought since the day I met Chloe that she is the platonic soul mate and quite possibly the protector. There has always been an energy that we were meant to be best friends, from day one, it’s always been easy! I adore being in her company, and even though she now lives on the other side of the planet, our friendship is as strong as ever. I wrote a fun blog years ago about what the perfect woman would be like, Chloe’s personality formed a basis for comparison in terms of traits. An incredibly loyal, smart, dedicated, caring and super-intelligent woman! I love you Spudette, thanks for always saying the right things and always without hesitation, having my back. I so appreciate that, and I’m thankful that you’re apart of my life!

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Emma:

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My sister from another Mr!

If Luke is my Bro, then Emma is my sister from another Mr While I have a wonderful if not infuriating at times actual blood related older Sister, I’ve always seen Emma as a sister of my own age. A sister that I can talk to about everything, you know the things that you’d never really want to discuss with your family haha! When friends progress past friendship and enter the family tier, you know you have a friend for life. I’ve known Emma since year 9, so we’re looking at around 13 years! I think its testament to our friendship that in those many years, we’ve changed so much as individuals, we’ve both gone through so much and yet the bond between us has never faulted or waivered. Emma really is a friend for life. If you had to define what a true friend looked and acted like, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than Em!

You might be starting to notice a pattern here, that each one of these people is incredibly trustworthy and loyal. Em has stood by my side throughout everything, even at times in school, she rose above the mediocracy and idle gossip of others to stand at my side. She has a fantastic accurate moral compass. Em is always one of the first to message with congratulations when things are going well and consistently one of the first to offer assistance when it’s not going so well.

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Putting up with my shit since 2006!

That’s the thing I love about Em so much is that dedication and well maybe our unique sense of humour! Em is one of those people who doesn’t ever see how awesome she is, always playing herself down. Em is one of the best people that I know, and I couldn’t think of a life without her. Who would I message every day? Who could I moan to about stuff without judgement? Who would I share my love of Wagamama trips with!?

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I’ve enjoyed travelling to European destinations with Em, I’ve enjoyed our weekends away to the Lakes climbing mountains and our trips to London, above all else, I just really enjoy her company. In all the time I’ve known her, we’ve never fallen out. Sure at times, I’ve wanted to kill her, case in point trying to find platform nine and fucking three quarters in Kings Cross in 30c heat in London. Or when that bitch 😉 beat me in crazy golf to win the window seat on the plane to Amsterdam (grrrr. Still bitter! One point!). Emma is a stalwart of my friendship group, another one of those people who have just become such an immense pillar in my life. Her friendship means everything, I’m forever grateful for you and everything you stand for. I look forward to our monthly catch ups when we’re in our 90’s and laughing so much our teeth fall out!!

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Han:

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My fav midlander!

Back to undergrad friends now and like Chloe, Han has been a constant in my life since the first year of Uni. Han is one of the funniest people I know, whether she realises her humour or not, I do not know, but I find her hilarious! I get on so well with Han that every day we spent together was an absolute laugh, and even now we message each other every day without fail, and there is always a laugh to be had! Han is one of the most loyal and level headed people that I know. When her best friend and I broke up in Uni, it could have been very easy for her to pick a-side post break up but credit to Han, she never did. She had time for us both and never made anything awkward! As we’ve got older, I enjoy that Han is the one I have a daily moan to. Usually about the general public being idiots or football-related chats! Plus she’s the legend who loans me her BT account, so I can watch the football! What an epic person she is!

I’ve had so many fun times with Han, she introduced me to B movies, particularly any B movie titles with superlatives before sharks in it (Mega shark vs giant octopus was the first one she made me watch and oh boy is that still the best B Movie ever!). It’s also thanks to her that I’ve witnessed someone do the seemingly impossible and burn carrots! I can still taste that smell, haha! I love that we get to catch up every year and I’m proud of where you are in life right now, married to the awesome Dan and a little one on the way. You two are absolutely going to smash parenthood! That kid (baby Divok, you have to call it that!) is going to grow up with the two most loving, loyal, devoted, family-oriented parents. Han, you are beyond excellent, thank you for always being there!

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Ro:

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My fav ginge

Rochene, Ro, my fave ginger, whatever I call her, I love her. Unlike the others in this list who I’ve interacted with in-person from day one. Our friendship was for the first few years entirely based via Twitter! It was not until I offered to help her with some SPSS that we met up in Costa did we actually talk face to face! Ever since then, Ro has been one of my closest friends, and despite my love-hate relationship with SPSS, I thank it for the relationship we have now! Ro probably takes the title of being the most strong-willed and minded person I know. I thought I was strong-minded and stubborn, but boy does she give me a run for my money! Plus she’s probably the only person who truly competes with me on a sarcasm level. So. Much. Sass. She’s always very keen on keeping me grounded and putting me in my place!

Ro is definitely one of those people who sees the big gooey soft marshmallow side of me, and she puts up with all of my weirdness! Like all the others, loyalty in spades and is someone who has become another constant fixture and a pillar in my life. She is someone I will forever stand beside and back, regardless of the situation. She is by far the most complex person I know (in a good way), she’s a warrior, she’s brave, she’s independent, she’s incredibly funny, and she’s incredible! Weekends wouldn’t be the same without our coffee catch-ups, trips out walking to various places or just the simple task of running errands. Life would be pretty dull without you around! I cannot express how proud I am of you, for what you’ve achieved, what you’re doing, and what you stand for. You’ve taught me so many things that I don’t know where to begin. Thank you for always being around and putting up with me! For someone who is so small in stature, you’re an absolute giant to me!

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Final words:

There are so many people I could carry on about here, from old school pals like Shaun my cycling buddy, old uni friends like Mary and Sophie, to new ones from the PhD such as those from H105. They too are all incredibly special and are huge influences in my life, but oddly enough I probably tell them that more than I do the four above. I think I take them for granted at times, and that is why I’ve written this blog, to express my deepest love and thanks to four pillars of my life. I cannot imagine a life without you guys in it. A group of individuals who guide me, keep me grounded, help me achieve success, pull me out of the crap and above all else, a group of individuals that I am so unbelievably proud to say I know and that I am friends with.

Thank you!

This isn’t going to be my only dedication style blogs this year. Those others i mentioned there, don’t worry you’re getting your own blog post! I’m also going to be doing one about mentors and those who’ve influenced me to date. Keep an eye out for them! Above all, tell the people who you love that you appreciate, love and are thankful that they’re in your life. Share the love today!

Why do I write blogs? It’s a window to the emotional me!

For someone who is well known for their public speaking, I’m often pretty damn awful at conveying emotion to people in speech, at least my own emotion. Sure, I think back to my closing speech as head boy, an address full of emotion and I hoped at the time, inspiration. Inspiration for what was at the time, the next most significant step in our lives. I can recall numerous passionate speeches or talks I’ve given over the years to an audience of 2 up to 1000. I can always find the right words and execute them without bother, to be emotive in speech. Yet, ask me to talk about my feelings, and I can’t do it, I get lost for words.

But, I can write them.

I’ve always been a writer in some form or another, in fact, I was very young when I penned my first short story in primary school as part of a project about “what your parents do for a living”, needless to say, it wasn’t my finest work. Put yourself in the shoes of my primary school teachers who read with wide eyes a story about how “My Dad brings a Doll home called Annie and he jumps up and down on it.” My Dad is a senior paramedic of over 35 years and at the time way back then, was either doing advanced training himself or was training others and therefore would bring home the Resus Annie Doll to practice various medical procedures with tubes etc. etc. Innocent enough! Thankfully my teachers knew what job my Dad did and apparently it gave great amusement to the entire staff room for about a week!

I always loved writing little stories here and there for projects or assignments in English but never thought much of it until as part of our GCSE English coursework we had to write a story. My path to writing was down to one woman, Mrs Bygroves, my English teacher, who asked me to stay behind after class. It was her words of encouragement and telling me I had a gift for conveying the written word and that I should write stories that ignited a fire that had been simmering. The following year I published my first novel and then spent the next few years writing my second one for Amazon.

While a pilot or air traffic controller is always my dream job, to be an established author has always been the dream goal!

Writing stories, however, is a lot easier in some ways because you can base characters on people you know, or make them up! You can make things up, you can create worlds, and the emotion the characters portray is not me. It’s them. Blog writing, on the other hand, well, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

I started writing blogs way back in sixth form when I was backed into a corner, while I’m glad those days of the infamous blogs about the daily carryon of morons are well and truly over, it gave me a vessel to explain how I felt about people that I couldn’t express in any other form. People would message me and agree with my points and wait eagerly for the next instalment. Each post was me poking a hornet’s nest which fuelled more blogs and so the circle went on. Then I realised that two things were happening. (a.) I was getting things off my chest and thus feeling better and, (b.) people liked the honesty of it all, and I had so many private chats with people about similar things in their ‘friendship’ groups that they could relate to, or I started to add little nuggets about things outside of sixth form or advice about things that again people could relate to. I began to see that maybe my words could help as well as hurt. A dangerous at the time, combination!

My blogs moved away from the subject of others (thankfully) by time I left sixth form (thankfully that blog site was closed down years ago, and all such posts have since been long lost to the internet graveyards. A dark time indeed that was!) and I started to use it more positively, as a way to document my life, my highs, my lows, my travels and above all else, I hoped that someone would get at least one small thing from each blog that I pen. Be that to know you’re not alone if you’re going through something I went through, or maybe you might have tried that piece of advice I wrote about and it worked or even if I inspire you to go visit the places I’ve been.

Writing is to me, incredibly personal. While the birth of my blogs was born out of a crap toxic time, it was liberating to wear my heart on my sleeve and how vulnerable that can make you feel. In-person, I have many walls, and as a person who usually people just open up to me, I listen and then give logical, rational advice, I often end up getting to know a hell of a lot about you. However, I have that knack of you thinking you know me really well when actually you know the surface. That’s in part, down to a well-tested defence mechanism, at least until I trust you or you pass the Tony Test! Slowly those walls come down and you get to know the real me.

Writing blogs for me is always I see it as a little window into the real me. Little glimpses and access to who I am. Close friends and family know me and who I am, but many people see me in person, at least, as probably one of the most calmest, rational, logical and unemotional people you’ll ever meet. I do take pride in that part of myself. I don’t think I’d be doing myself a disservice if I asked my close friends to list the top 3 things they love about me, I would bet my life that they would say something along the lines of one of the points being “You tell it to me as it is. A spade is a spade. You have such clarity to cut through all the emotion of a problem and look at it rationally, logically and objectively. Then you’ll base your advice off that”. I do love how I can cut through all the emotion in a problem! Plus I love giving advice too!

People can often be put off at times at my seemingly outwardly blunt approach to problems, especially if you’re a very emotionally driven person. You very rarely see me overly joyous nor sad, or angry much in person. People can mistake that for being unemotional or as a nickname that has now stuck over the years The Robot or Tony-Bot as I’m effectually called by some! What people don’t realise is I am probably the most emotionally intense person you’ll ever meet, it’s just I have such strong control over them that outwardly you don’t see the range of emotions that go on inside. That’s when I did fall in love all those years ago it was a beautiful yet terrifying few years because that was an emotion that I couldn’t just keep inside and control of and it was like a floodgate! Scary yet awe-inspiring.

As I said, I often find it difficult to express words of how I feel in person. Not to loved ones or close friends, I’m actually a big soft gooey soppy romantic! They know that. But to those who are not in that inner circle which I’ve dropped walls for, to others I do come across as that stoic, driven, logic guy. Actually, I’m just a big marshmallow with a tough exterior wall!

So for me, writing blogs is a window into the emotional me, the guy who sits behind that exterior facing wall. Writing, therefore, is super personal for me because of every word, every emotion I’m feeling I put it into each sentence, I mean every word that I type.

These blogs are fun to write because they vary so much. The humorous ones where I get to let out that fun side of me and showcase my funnybone. The advice ones I love doing because I can use that big old Tony-Bot logic to give objective advice that may help someone. The travel ones satisfy my inner adventurer, and the emotive ones become my ultimate favourite ones.

The emotive blogs come in two forms, either happy or sad. Writing is a release for me. Some people talk to others, some drink, some have a big old cry. For me, I write. It clears my head, gets things off my chest. When I write happy emotive blogs be that dedications to people or writing about something that has happened be that an epic trip with friends or recalling something in my life it’s my heart bursting with love and joy on the page for everyone to share. Although I still get super nervous when I write about people because I never know how they’ll react. In-person no-one ever tells the other person how they perceive them, but in blogs you do. So I’m always nervous that I hope they appreciate my sentiments and how I see them! Always a relief when they message you with positive feedback, only a few times I’ve had to post edit the odd post. Oops!

Yet for me, the hardest to write and the hardest but most rewarding to read back are when life isn’t so great. I’ve never been on in these blogs or social media to only ever talk about the good stuff. This has always been about me as a person, the good and all the bad. I feel some of my best-written work has been those emotionally charged ones when either I’ve been seething with anger, or I’ve been typing through tears from being absolutely done in and heartbroken. Weirdly enough, they’re often my most read by people, either people enjoy reading my misfortune because of the event, or they appreciate that every word is dripping in emotion! Not sure which aha!

Too many people in modern-day life and especially on blogs and social media paint a perfect life, they’re wonderful, they’re doing this well. It’s false. A perfect life doesn’t exist. It’s irrational and illogical to think it’s true. I’ve documented some terrible personal lows through my blogs, eulogies of passed on relatives, discussions about leaving places and moving on, heartache words of falling out with a friend, to my emotions and recovery of that breakup which at the time ripped my heart into pieces and where I spent the best part of two years teetering on depression and my well-documented recovery of that process.

Life is a rollercoaster and we all go through shit in life. So when times are hard, I want people to read it and be like yeah he doesn’t have his shit together at all. He’s normal. And I also want people to read it and take solace if they’re going through shit too. Plus, as a side note, although annoyingly this is my 3rd blog site now and the other two where deleted without warning! That I look back at those blogs written as a document of my life. I read again all those happy memories in the happy blogs, and I see how far I’ve come from the sad ones.

Writing blogs is an excellent way for me to document things, get things off my chest. As a reader, I don’t know what you get from these blogs, various ramblings from a distinctly average, ordinary guy! I have no idea. I hope that you read them and at times laugh, sometimes cry, I hope you get inspired, comforted, or advice is taken on board.

So when I’m asked, why do I write blogs? I write for myself, a voice for that big old emotional me who sits inside the Tony-Bot. Thanks for reading!

P.S. check back in at the end of the week because speaking of emotion, I wrote a blog many years ago about how female friends had influenced my life. That sadly vanished when my old blog closed down and as its been years since I had that P.C. it’s now gone. It was one of my all-time favourite emotive dedication style blogs. So, this week I’m writing a different one but on similar lines. A dedication to those who broke down the walls.

My final day and my goodbye

The final day

Every journey must start with a small step. Every relationship starts with a simple hello. Every memory recalled must have been lived. For three years I’ve crawled, walked, run and flew. I’ve learned how to fail through bitter experience a thousand times but how to get up 1001 times. The funny thing about journeys is you’re always aiming to get to a destination, a final fixed point in time or locality, always on the move, always getting closer. Often the destination is the ultimate goal but its how you get there that’s usually better than the place you’re trying to get to. While every journey must begin with a small step, it must end with one too. Every hello always ends in a goodbye. Today is my last official day as a PhD researcher and the last day of being a student.

I walked back through the doors of that grand old house, Holmefield, my home for the past three years today. Since day one, the strong white stoned pillars guarding the entrance with nobility always gave me a feeling of assurance. As assured as the giant sprawling trees that lined the lush patch of grass outside of the door, who’ve watched countless students throughout the years. In three years not much has changed, the chandeliers still glint in the shaft of light that trickles through the window illuminating the specs of floating dust, a never-ending dance in the air. The staircase that clings to the wall I must have walked a million times up to my office and now it was to be my last time. Punching in the code and pushing that oak door open, I was greeted by silence. My desk untouched since viva, a mass of paper and copies of my thesis, an untouched coffee cup and notepads. The other desks were just as I last remember them, a mass of books, paper and post-it notes, evident signs of feverish work that goes on in here. With each book I placed into my bag, each file I copied from the pc and with every pull of a picture or of a poster from the wall it hit me like a dagger. I’m dismantling my life with every item that goes into the box. In no time at all the only signs I was ever here is a small polaroid picture I placed with a firm thumb on the wall. A picture of H105 occupants dressed in Christmas jumpers posing for a photo, the caption underneath simply read

H105 standing together, forever

I walked down the quiet corridor and popped my head into my old office, the office where it all started in H003. Again, empty and silent, I walked towards my old desk, taking the last steps in the same steps that I took my first on this journey. I’m surrounded by the ghosts of my memories, I watch as I recall my first hello with Laura, then Vic, the Cara, Hannah, Rosie, then Katie, then the rest of the PGRs. I laugh to myself when I look out of the window and recall walking to the shops with Rosie in hurricane force winds. It’s nice to see that crack in the window had been repaired since, a shiver ripples through my body when I recall that first bitterly cold winter in that office where water and wind would rattle through the gap in the door and the broken window pane. I recalled each individual hello as if it were yesterday, the feeling of being apart of a team and getting to know them, in the beginning, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

With a sad goodbye, I left the old office and walked back up to H105, the office where it really cemented our friendship. I longed to turn around and hear that chirpy morning voice from Laura signifying it was time for our daily trip to the café to drink coffee for longer than we should, discussing everything from life to work. I miss mine and Rosie’s chats about TV shows that my mum and she might like or have watched along with plenty of banter. I miss that I’ll no longer hear footsteps up the stairs and be like with a smile, oh this must be Vic! For the door to the flung open and her smile and greeting to light up the room. I’ll miss Katie’s sarcasm towards me and the many inappropriate jokes/comments that only our childish minds would find funny. I’ll especially miss drawing little post-it note doodles to fill up her wall, I never did reach my goal of trying to cover it floor to ceiling!

I take a look around looking at all of the memories in this place. Sure, it’s just an office, it’s nothing special its four walls and a door. To me, it was home, it was safety in all of the chaos of PhD life. A life raft in the stormy seas. These four walls saw us grow as individuals, its been an honour to have grown with these exceptional individuals, kind-hearted, dedicated and loyal. These four walls it saw us achieve big things, it saw us fall many times, it saw us pick each other up. It’s seen us cry and its seen us in tears with laughter. Oh, the laughter, how that room was always so full of the bellowing sounds of our laughter.

I feel a huge lump in my throat as the silence takes hold, the clatter of keyboards have fallen silent, the laughter fading. This truly is the end. Walking back out of that door for the final time with the confirmation of the heavy click of the lock. My time had come, my journey was over.

My Dad helped me load the rest of my things into the car and we drove away, that part of my life now over. “Are you sad?” my Dad asked as we drove away I managed to muster a “Yes” fighting back the iceberg-sized lump in my throat “Of course you will be, it’s been a huge part of your life” he replied.

He’s right. I’m not just saying goodbye to friends, I’m not just saying goodbye to PhD life and the travel, the coffee and the experiences, nor am I saying goodbye to the best version of me. I’m saying goodbye to a part of me that’s been me for eight years. Eight years I’ve been a student or a staff member in higher education. Now, I’m saying goodbye officially to my identity as a student. Really, while the PhD has been a three-year journey, this journey really started way back in 2010 when I was a lost boy who needed a new challenge from that of high school. A much needed new start when I arrived as an undergraduate Geographer, finally with my wings unclipped to be who I wanted to be not what school clicks and politics deemed you to be. All of the highs of finding yourself on a cold windswept beach in Slapton under the clearest starry night sky and for the first time in my life feeling like I’m valued and as part of a genuine team. To laughing until I nearly threw up in a desert on my Masters. To all the lows of breakups and failing medicals for ATC and all the stresses of work and sacrifices of an RA, at times it felt like I was stepping out into the night with only a positive attitude and hope to guide me. All those at times dead-end alleys were actually a straight line to where I’m meant to be today.

So today, I said goodbye to my life as a student. A life that’s seen me change with each new adventure and chapter. My undergrad, I found out who I was and who I wanted to be, my masters I consolidated that and grew more confident in myself, in my RA years I became far wiser and more mature and the final series, the PhD has taken all of those three things and has turned it up to 11. I am a changed man from the man I was at the start of this journey. It’s impossible for this experience not to change you fundamentally. The most brutal of worlds, the most intellectually and emotionally challengings thing a person can ever do, it’s bound to change you. But it’s changed me for the better. As sad as I am to leave, I leave as the best version of me. That’s all down to the office of H105.

Vic taught me to lighten up and find the joy in life and when things are terrible, you can always make a joke about it and smile. She’s taught me the real value of loyalty and selflessness and treating others as equals. Katie has brought out the fun side of me, the Jokey Tony instead of “Sensible Tony” which was my nickname in Chester. She also taught me how to soften my very direct nature at times and how sometimes my direct unemotional prefer logic approach might not always work for very emotional driven topics and issues (I’m still working on it! Tony the Robot!). Rosie taught me to stay true to myself and my principles, to be steadfast and stoic towards a goal, oh and I now know a lot about TV and I still don’t eat sweets before 12pm!  Laura actually taught me to love again and to find self-worth again in myself. Laura became a true best friend, a confidant, while we’d argue…a lot!…we’d always resolve it through well-reasoned debate. I miss our non-date date nights, I miss our Sunday cycles, our times spent righting the world over a coffee, and I miss travelling to new places with her. I think I speak for everyone in H105 when I say the office was never the same without you when you moved away.

I leave the PhD a wealthy man, not in terms of wealth (I wish) but in that I’ve won the lottery when I’ve had the opportunity to be surrounded by people like that, people who I can call true friends and friends for life. Not just them but friends I’ve made outside of H105, the fellow PGRs who I know will be friends for a very long time.

So tomorrow I will walk across that stage for the final time, I’ll shake the VCs hand and I’ll get my doctorate in hand. The destination reached. There is despite everything, a truth in that we must all face, whether we want to or not is that everything eventually ends and everything has its time. I’ve worked hard for so many years to reach this goal, and I’ve worked my hardest with the right attitude and commitment, doing it the way I wanted it, with compassion and by building others up instead of stepping on them to get where I needed to be. I hate endings, I hate that every hello always ends in a goodbye. I hate that ending. I hated the last day of summer before a new term started, the end of a perfect day with friends or the turning of a final page of a great book. Endings are a fact of life, the seasons change, the sun will rise, and the stars will shine. Life simply goes on around you. Tomorrow is one of those days, an ending, a closure. I say goodbye to everything that was familiar, everything that was comfortable, I’m moving on, taking my final steps on this journey but new ones on a new adventure. While it hurts to say goodbye, just because I’m leaving some people and experiences, have become so ingrained in me that they’ll be with me no matter what. I don’t know what the next chapter of my life holds, I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll do but I do know that in amongst all the chaos of life I have a sanctuary, a solid ground in those select few who I dropped walls for, for those who fought by my side. They will forever be my moral compass, my guiding star and that voice that will always be there for me.

As I hate endings, I’ll simply say with a heavy heart and a tear in my eye, thank you to everyone who’s been on this journey with me. Instead of goodbye, “I’ll see you around” xxx

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How to prepare for the PhD Viva

The Viva, the word that is never far away from a PhD students mind. The mythical almost legendary word that looms over everything that you do. When you start the PhD, it seems a long and distant prospect and as you progress, the Viva looms ever larger like a storm cloud bubbling up on a clear summers day. The Viva is the final battle all PhD students know they must face but never want to. The Viva is the most important battle a PhD student will face as if all the other constant battles weren’t enough already! A hill to either die or survive on, the outcome of you becoming a Dr relies on your ability to survive a two to three hour (on average) defence of your thesis with at least two experts.

Many people outside of academia are simply unaware of what a PhD is or even the amount of work, sacrifice and challenges that come with it. Simply too many to list in this blog that’s for sure! However, many people are aware that by the end of your PhD, you will produce a thesis of substantial word count, for example, including references and appendices my thesis came to 212,000 words! If I had to include all my rewrites and deleted and changed words over the course of the PhD, I’d be looking at having written over 300,000! Yet, people don’t understand outside of academia that writing of the thesis is less than half of the PhD, the rest comes down to the Viva. The word that sends a chill up any PhD student (sorry fellow PhD students for the trigger!).

The term ‘Viva’ is actually short for ‘Viva Voce’ which is Latin for absolute hell. I joke. It actually translates to “by live voice”. In layman’s terms, you’ve walked written the walk, now you need to talk the talk. Every country is slightly different, but in the UK at least, it’s an oral exam, a defence of your thesis between usually an external and an internal examiner behind closed doors. They will have read your completed written thesis multiple times and now you sit in a room where they’ll ask you many questions about it for which you have to justify every decision and action made in the time you’ve been on the PhD. As a general rule of thumb, the examiners are looking for three things (1.) Is it your own work and have you written it (2.) Do you understand what you’ve written and what your results are saying and (3.) Does what you’ve done actually contribute new and original knowledge to the scholarly community.

So, how do you prepare for this showdown to get your PhD? Below I’ll outline how I tackled my Viva preparations and if the Viva is on the horizon for you, I hope it may give you some ideas about how to get yourself in the best shape possible for it.

Read, re-read and when you think you’ve read enough, read one more time

By now you’re probably downright sick of your own writing and if you’ve been editing, you’re perhaps resenting your own work with having read it so many times. However, it is vital that you go back and re-read, multiple times from cover to cover. There where three critical aspects that I took to my viva prep re-reads. Firstly, I read a chapter or two chapters a day, making no notes, just reading, remembering and understanding my work. It may seem obvious, but some of your writing is over two years old and with so much going on and so much different sections that you’ve written its good to refresh your brain. After reading it thoroughly, I then went back through and re-read it under a critical eye. I looked for any formatting, spelling or grammatical errors. If you’ve rushed to get your thesis in you’ll probably find a lot of them but even me, someone who spent three solid months of editing and checking my work prior to submission I still annoyingly found 13 errors including an utterly wrong graph!

I hear that many people don’t want to re-read their work for fear of finding exactly that, a mistake. It happens and the examiners will know it happens too. You’re writing in excess of 100,000 words there is bound to be mistakes. Of course, in your edits its best to catch as many as you can but even if you’re diligent you’ll still miss one or two. Chasing the perfect error free thesis is chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a nice idea but ultimately, a futile one. If you submit a thesis that is strung with spelling and format errors because it’s been rushed or you failed to re-read it before submitting it doesn’t mean the Viva will go badly, but it will cast some doubt in the examiner’s minds I’m sure. You’re giving them more ammunition if you’ve failed to check your work. Use software, colleagues, supervisors and friends and family to check before you submit! If, however, you still find mistakes, relax! Make a note of them (I highlighted mine) so that if the examiners point them out, you can be ahead of the curve as you’ve identified it (my examiners didn’t even point out the mistake in the graph which I was stressing about so much, so don’t worry!). Also, it’s super rare that the outcome of the Viva is no changes, you’re most likely at a very minimum getting minor corrections so don’t stress, you can correct those errors in the post-viva corrections phase!

Highlights and sticky notes

After reading my thesis multiple times, I went back through again and brought out my trusted highlighters and post-it notes. I used different colours to represent various aspects of the PhD. Green, for example, was a simple identifier for me of where each chapter began, thus in the Viva when referring to individual chapters if needed, I could just flip to it straight away. Orange I used as fundamentals, i.e. research aims, questions and critical results where purple I used as potential sections of note be that an important paper or parts I feel they may well grill me more on or want to know more about. Find whatever works for you, you don’t want to over complicate it and highlight absolutely everything in your thesis, it’s best practice to only refer to the thesis in the Viva if absolutely essential. So highlight what you feel are the key things and use a system that you know.

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My thesis and appendices with my post-it notes

Prepare Questions and Summary

While making your post-it note decorations on your thesis, I opened up two word documents. The first one I used to summarise each of the key points of that page. For example, when summarising your methodology outlining the key papers and 3 principal pros and cons of the method chosen. This helps in your re-read to focus your brain, and the day before the Viva I found it really helpful to just focus on those summary notes because that gave me the key points I needed to focus on without getting too lost in all the details.

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Example of my summary pages

As I went through, I also came up with questions that they could potentially ask me about those sections and I wrote them down. I also utilised some fantastic sets of questions out there online about viva preparations. The most effective way of preparing for the Viva was actually to be asked the questions so that I could answer them verbally. It’s all well and good preparing your answers in word, but it’s far better to practice verbalising them. My friend Rosie skyped me a set of questions from her Viva cards, I made a note of that question and then answered it. It’s seriously great practice! For example, she asked me what the theoretical implications of my study where and I gave a very long winded and pretty terrible answer. We discussed together how I should tackle that and be more focused and low and behold a similar question came up in my Viva, and I was able to nail it because I had been prepared. So get a friend, a supervisor or even your family to throw as many questions your way as possible. Below is the 19 random questions Rosie used from her cards to help me prepare. After answering all 19 that came to just under an hour of talking, so you can see how quickly a viva can go, especially as these are generic. Sadly, you can never truly prepare for the very specific and in-depth questions the examiners may have!

  1. Why did you narrow your focus of enquiry to this?
  2. How did research questions emerge?
  3. Which previous studies influenced your work?
  4. Who or what was most influential?
  5. What is the area in which you wish to be examined?
  6. How did you choose your methodology and were there any constraints?
  7. Limitations of your method and study?
  8. Did you encounter any problems?
  9. Talk us through how you analysed the data?
  10. What steps did you take to mitigate errors and bias the data in your qualitative methods?
  11. Do you believe your methods entomologically aligns?
  12. If you could start again, what would you do differently?
  13. How did your thinking develop as you went through your research process?
  14. How do your findings challenge the established literature in this field?
  15. How long do you expect your work to remain current?
  16. Where did you go wrong?
  17. What are the theoretical implications of your findings? What are the policy implications of your findings?
  18. How can it influence your findings?
  19. How do you intend to share your research findings?

Give yourself some space

I can’t stress this enough, it seems counterintuitive that as you scramble to cram as much in and practice as much as you can for the Viva that you should give yourself some time off. But seriously, trust me. Do it. Take a day off, go for a walk, go do something you enjoy. A tired brain is not a brain that’s going to perform well in the Viva. I know that its really hard to do because your mind will keep going back to viva prep, but you need to force yourself to do something differently, even if for an hour. I am forever indebted to my friend Ro who gave me no choice but to go out for a walk or my parents who forced me to go food shopping to take my mind off it. It seems small and daft, but it really worked. It gave my brain a few minutes of breathing space and especially on that walk realising that, yes, while the Viva is probably the most significant thing you’ve ever done to date and yes, so much is riding on it. That you have so many people who support you and there is so much more to life than getting three letters after your name. It does put things into perspective.

The day before try not to throw up and get some sleep

I read that some people say not to touch any viva prep the day before to give your brain a rest. I agree in principle, but I still did some prep. I read those summary pages a few times throughout the day and then gave it a rest. There comes the point where you know you’ve done all you can, and you feel as prepared as you can, so doing more won’t help. I spent a lot of that day sitting in the sun listening to music and trying to take my mind off it. Whatever coping mechanism you use to deal with stress now is an excellent time to use it! I also read and made notes of the latest papers that had come out since I submitted my thesis. A read a lot of these viva prep blogs who placed so much emphasis on you knowing every single paper since you’ve submitted. Please do not spend a load of time on this! Examiners can ask you to make sure you’re aware of how your research fits in, but they cannot directly examine you on any paper that’s been published post submission. Focus on your own work, I wasn’t even asked about any new literature in my viva. Imagine if I had dedicated so much time to that, what a waste that would have been!

Go and smash it and some final tips

The Viva is undoubtedly massive, and there is no denying that the day is enormous and massively stressful. You will feel like you’re crap, that your thesis is rubbish and you’ll feel vastly underprepared despite being the most prepared you’ve ever been for anything. It happens. I felt awful before my Viva! I think any PhD student who says they’re not nervous about the Viva is either a liar or incredibly naïve, or at worst has delusions of grandeur. Well, they’ll just set themselves up for a fail. Remember, and again I read this before I went into the Viva but didn’t really believe it until after the Viva, the examiners are not there to trick you or catch you out. They’re doing their job and your examiners should ask some very tough questions, you should expect them, it is a PhD after all. But any question is never a personal attack and its never to catch you out. Remember, despite the feeling of imposter syndrome, you really are the expert in the room. You should try and enjoy it as much as you can too. My Viva was brutal and tough but it was really enjoyable once I got into it. There is no other time in your life as a student where someone outside of your supervisory team will have read your thesis cover to cover, and you can sit in a room and discuss it at length with people who are just as enthusiastic about it as you are. My parents, for example, have only read my acknowledgements of my thesis so, yeah, make the most of two strangers taking an interest in your work because your family don’t!!

I found it vital in my preparations to be critical and honest with the thesis. What is good about it and what are my weakest points. I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to know before I went in what I was going to defend until I was blue in the face and what I was happy to let go. You need to know what battles you’re going to pick in the Viva. You don’t have to defend every word, in fact, if you do you could be posing more problems than its worth. An example, if I defended the term pedagogy in my title and following sections, I have no doubt I would have had major corrections instead of the lower end of moderate. I was wise enough to know it was my weakest part of the thesis and the examiners saw it too, I was happy to not defend it, I’m glad I didn’t. On the flip side, my examiners weren’t that excited about my large section on UAV regulations and asked not once, not twice but three times was it critical. This, to me, was a fundamental aspect of my argument in the thesis and one of my mantras in the conclusion so three separate times, I defended it in the viva. I would have justified it a 4th if I had to because that was one part of my thesis I was going to defend until the end. Of course, by time they asked me a second time there was a flicker of “they’ve asked me this again, should I concede?” but no, it was a test to see me stick to my argument and defend it. By time they asked a 3rd time I was more adamant than ever to keep it in!

Be honest. Seriously, this is my final point and one that is vital in the Viva. Be honest. In mine I was asked if I was familiar with a particular set of literature which to them was essential if I had mentioned one thing, I really should have mentioned this. I was honest that I wasn’t familiar and they simply said thanks for being honest, one of your corrections is to do a small section on it. Then that was it, happy days we moved on. If I had tried to blag it, it would have caused so many more issues! You’re not meant to know everything in the Viva, you’re human. If you don’t know it put your hands up and admit it, they’ll be absolutely fine with it. If you don’t know it and you try and blag it well, they view that very dimly that’s for sure. As the old saying goes, it’s better to be thought of as a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

So try and enjoy the Viva, if you’ve had the right attitude, if you’ve prepared well enough then I am sure you will survive, and you will get what you’ve worked so hard for, you’ll be a Dr! Good luck and godspeed to you!

If you have any questions or even if you want me to read anything or even Skype you with some viva prep questions, let me know in the comments or get in touch on social media @TonyCliffe210. I’m currently in the process of writing a book about my PhD experience and how to tackle the many issues it throws up, so get in touch if you want to be involved in that! Or you can read about my Viva experience here: The battle of the Viva and my ode to H105 

Or read here my thoughts i penned before the viva: Some thoughts about the PhD journey as i near the final battle.

If you want to chat about the PhD or viva, get in touch, us PGRs need to help each other out to survive.

Go and smash it guys! You’ve got this!

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Post viva you get to wear cool badges!