Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Yogic reflection 3. On hips

Before I begin the last reflection, I should clarify one thing: I've spoken disparagingly of some of the hippy--speak that can surround yoga. I don't want this to be taken the wrong way -- I'm a bit of a hippy myself, really, and as the previous entry demonstrates, I know that some of my distaste stems from blind, misplaced prejudice.

However, I **do** still think that you can find a lot of bollox spoken about yoga (I guess if you search the internet hard enough, you can find a lot of bollox spoken about pretty much anything), and I suppose this bothers me so much precisely because I think yoga has such potential to bring positive benefits to those who practise it. I don't want daft nonsense to put people off!

ANYWAY, to hips: one thing I've come to understand only recently about ashtanga yoga is its starting assumptions about the state of our hips. Put simply, the primary series is built for practitioners who are assumed to be able to sit easily in full lotus.

Now this may be a reasonable assumption when developing a yogic-system in a nation where people routinely sit on the floor, but I am A MILLION MILES away from being able to do this. So, ashtanga isn't for me then?

On the contrary, I can and do practise ashtanga on a regular basis, but I need to make several concessions to my stiff white-boy hips:

1. ALTERNATIVES TO LOTUS: Some of the poses in ashtanga involve putting one's feet in lotus, and then "doing stuff" (balancing on your shoulders, suspending yourself on your hands etc). Generally it's pretty clear how to do alternative versions of these with crossed legs, although it also seems clear that the alternative versions are much less effective at stretching and moving the body in the way intended. Still, something lost, but not much -- these asanas are not numerous.

2. BE CAREFUL! This is the really important point: although many of the poses may not explicitly require lotus position, the assumption about flexible hips is built in to their form. If one doesn't have this flexibility, then the full form may not be possible.

For me, one of the main offenders here is TRICHONASANA, the triangle pose. Many, many people practise this pose in even very elementary yoga classes (not just in ashtanga). Beware! The danger with trichonasana is that one straightens that front leg too strongly at the start, and then tries to turn the body through 90 degrees, so as to enter the full pose. If one does this with reduced hip flexibility, then one is in danger of twisting **through the knee**, and the consequences on the knee joint (which is not designed to twist) are severe.

I'm pretty sure that some of my knee problems a few years back were caused by malpractice of this most basic of poses. I now practise trichonasana with a pronounced bend in my front leg, the bend held until **after** I've twisted my body and straightened my arms, with the bend finally decreased once the rest of the body is in position (but never to a completely straight leg, always with a "micro-bend").

This type of adjustment is rather subtle and would not necessarily be picked up on a first pass through the primary series. How important, then, is the spirit of curious inquiry that I talked about in my first post! One needs to be alert to inappropriate stresses throughout the body, and to be ready to adjust one's postures so that these stresses are not damaging.

Importantly, this **isn't** a reason to avoid ashtanga: our bodies need to be exercised, and any exercise can cause injury. If done well, yoga is perhaps the safest way to do exercise on dry land because it is undertaken with an engaged mind that is alert and listening to the sensations and signals of the body. Looking back, I think the damage I did to myself was rooted partly in my testosterone-stoked desire to progress fast in the practice, an approach that polluted my attention with thoughts of future achievements, rather than allowing focus on the present-moment experience of being on the mat.

3. COMPLEMENTARY PRACTICE. Because ashtanga assumes we have open hips, it doesn't tend to include poses that promote and develop open hips. In the last 12 months I've started to do yin yoga, and I've found the benefits rather dramatic. These benefits range over many aspects of the yogic experience, but in particular there is a lot of time spent opening the hips.

So, for instance, a typical hour of yin--yoga may involve...
  • 5 minutes in the two COW-FACE postures (incredibly intense, and with a number of interesting variations)
  • 5 minutes in each of the two PIGEON postures (again very intense; also the worst pose I know on the knees if practised badly so should be done very carefully and consciously);
  • 5 minutes in FROG posture (I prefer to do this with my feet jammed under something like an open bottom drawer on a chest-of-drawers, otherwise my feet float up as I try and sink the knees down; this posture always feels obscene to me, like I'm trying to fuck the floor beneath me but, hey, it also feels great on the hips, so let's go with it).
... and there are a bunch of others that you probably know.

Starting an ashtanga practice with some amount of yin, or else swapping out one of your regular ashtanga sessions for a yin session, seems like a very good move to me.

*            *           *

Let me conclude with a final thought on hips that also demonstrates that I don't mind some of that hippy-chat too much :-) A yoga instructor once remarked in a class I attended that "the hips hold a lot of emotions, and so it can be emotionally helpful to work on opening them." That's some serious hippy nonsense right there.

Still, the instructor's observation was corroborated by my mum who was warned by her surgeon, before undergoing a hip replacement, that people often cry a lot after hip surgery and it's nothing to worry about. Sure enough my mother was a basket case for several days after her operation, much to her bemusement. My mother, and her surgeon, are both very far from being hippies!

I've wondered what this might mean for my emotionally-constipated self. Like many men, I have a great deal of trouble crying -- it doesn't come naturally to me, and I sometimes feel rather compromised by its lack in my life. I've wondered if working on hip-opening might help with this but, to this point, I have no spectacular bouts of weeping to report.

Nonetheless, I have been rather taken aback by the profound mental effect that an hour of yin yoga can have on me, particularly when it involves the three strong hip-opening poses that I detail above. I often get to the end of such a session in a markedly disembodied state, as if in a trance; as if, indeed, I've taken some pretty damn good drugs. I heartily recommend it.

Yogic reflection 2. On locks

The "lock" terminology that is used often in yoga used to turn me off rather, as it has a whiff of chakras and other hippy--speak that I tend to find rather empty of content.

I have, however, come to understand that my prejudice in this department was rather misdirected -- there is a lot for me to learn about the locks (or "bandas" as the Indian yogis term them), and how to use them.

Roughly speaking, "locks" are rings, or regions, of muscle around our body that we can learn to control as we practise our asanas, in order to bring greater stability to our asanas. The three locks that I have gained some understanding of are as follows:

1. The throat lock: this is the muscle at the back of the throat that we constrict if we want to do "darth vader breathing", more correctly known as "ujaya breath". I won't explain how to do this, as it is fairly straightforward if you are shown in person, and I've been using it for years -- I tend to use ujaya breath with the mouth closed and breathing only through my nose throughout my whole yoga practice.

The ujaya breath has the benefit of stabilizing my neck as I move, and of constricting oxygen flow through the throat. The latter effect causes my body to heat noticeably fast, making for a much more effective warm-up at the start of the session. (I've also used it before swimming in cold water, to prepare myself!). Conversely, if I want to cool down rapidly because of overheating (for me this is usually when cycling, not doing yoga), then the opposite cooling breath involves breathing through the mouth with the tongue sticking out with the sides curled up.

A friend of mine, new to yoga but experienced in capoeira, remarked to me that he found the neck-stabilizing effect quite remarkable -- it noticeably aids balance (very important in capoeira); my guess is that this is because it decreases neck flexion and so connects the labyrinth in the ears more directly to the main weight of the body in the torso.

2. The belly lock: this is the ring of muscle around the abdominal region which we turn on by seeking to draw the bellybutton closer to the spine. As I mentioned above this is very useful for enhancing forward bends.

I've also noticed that the belly lock is very important for avoiding an over-arch in the lower spine: typically, when we do a standing forward bend we are told to "lead with the sternum", rather than the chin (or, as yogi-Nic put it, forward bends should include an "essence of back bend"). The problem with this instruction is that it can mean the practitioner simply puffs their chest out as they bend, creating an exaggerated arch in the lower back. This is a big problem because it puts a lot of strain through the lower back as we go forward, and all the weight of that top-heavy chest can create stress around the top of the pelvis.

If, on the other hand, the belly lock is engaged, then the belly-button is pulled closer to the spine, and the lower-back straightens out. This stops the over-arching, as well as providing stability as one descends in the bend -- the abs are turned on and working, steadying the descent. Engaged abs also loosen up the back (a la quads and hamstrings, as discussed in the previous post), and they can let one draw the head down closer to the floor. So the benefits of the belly lock in forward bends are manifold.

Another example: the standard quad stretch before exercise like football or running is to stand on one foot, with the other foot held in the hand behind the buttocks -- this is the start of dancer's pose in yoga. If you do this pose without the belly lock, then you will feel a mild stretch through the front of the thigh, and a pronounced arch in lower back; if, on the other hand, one engages the belly lock during this process, then the arch disappears and a strong stretch is felt through the centre of the quad -- a big improvement alround!

In fact the recommendation is (I believe) that one engages the belly lock throughout one's practice... I'm a long way off this, but I am trying to make it one of my internal mindfulness-bells: As I perform my practice I try and conduct regular mental tours of my body, checking that various bits are doing what they are supposed to. High on my list is "belly-lock on?" The answer is usually "It wasn't, but it is now!".

3. The perineal lock: this is the muscle between genitals and anus. Most of us know how to turn this on and off -- blokes can just imagine they are trying to suck their balls up into their body, and they will immediately feel the "lift" down below that engaging this lock creates. There is no doubt a female version of this instruction, but I won't speculate here what it might be :-)

As with the belly lock, I'm just starting to use this in my practice -- it's becoming a regular stop on my body-tour. The only observation I have at present is that it seems to connect rather directly to the libido -- try turning it on and off a few times in the privacy of your own bedroom, and see what thoughts come to mind!!

Beyond this rather elementary observation, though, I don't yet understand what it brings to the practice but, adopting a curious spirit of inquiry, I intend to find out.

Conclusion: use your locks! I've discussed the three that I have some understanding of. I imagine that there are others and it seems to me that understanding how to use them is a very worthwhile aim.

Yogic reflection 1. On curiosity

About a month ago I spent a week in retreat at El Convento yoga retreat centre in the Sierra de las Nieves in Spain. We started each day with a 3 hour ashtanga yoga session, directed by retreat-leader Nic Freeman. In this entry and the two that follow, I want to briefly record some of the thoughts that came out of this week of yoga.


Nic made a remark at some point during the week about the importance of "curiosity" in the practice of yoga. I don't always pay much attention to the hippy bollox that gets spouted in a lot of yoga sessions... But Nic is a yogi of relatively few words, and I realised pretty early on that they are generally words worth listening to.

So, at some point, I started to muse on the place of curiosity in yoga, and it became clear to me that Nic was hinting at something very important.

It seems to me that if we step onto the mat without curiosity, then our yoga practice will necessarily be poor in quality. We can perform the asanas, do the breathing and all that comes with it, but we will not be alive to the possibilities that this process brings to our human organism.

Let me give an example from my own practice: one of my first priorities when I started yoga was to touch my toes (I think this is true of many practitioners). To that end, I did a lot of forward bends in an attempt to loosen my hamstrings and to bring greater flexibility through the hips. This approach was pretty effective and rather soon my fingers were on the floor. At this point, though, my progress plateaud -- no matter how much I practised, I couldn't get my hands all the way down.

At some point it was suggested to me (I think by Katie) that I should turn my attention to the behaviour of my quads: these can be thought of as the "opposite" muscle to the hamstrings in the sense that, when one turns on, generally the other turns off. Now if my forward bend was to progress then this would involve relaxing the hamstrings -- a hard thing to do consciously, but it can be achieved if I instead focus on tensing my quads. This, in turn, can be done by trying to "lift" my kneecaps up my legs, a thing that most people can do with a little thought. I tried it and, voila, my hands descended a little further.

Years have passed and my palms still don't touch the floor but in this same spirit of curious inquiry, I've learnt a bunch of other tricks that have allowed me to enhance my forward bend: I've learned to tense my belly muscles (one of the locks -- see the next entry), to lift the arches in my feet, to allow the skin to slide over my hips and so on. I'm still not there, but the process of inquiry continues.

I find this process incredibly enriching: it transforms my practice from a resented torture session to an often surprising exploration of my own body. Nic mentioned at some point that we have to "work with what we've been given," and I think this also points at the same insight -- if we view our bodies as a gift that we have received, then we more naturally avoid resentments at its limitations and tend, instead, to cultivate curiosity into its potential.

Another yogi once told me that yoga is much more about "control" than it is about stretching or the like: we are learning how to pilot the craft in which we dwell. To do this we have to understand the many pulleys and levers that make this craft move...

Let me finish with another example of a "body inquiry" that has taken place over years of yoga: like anyone who has practised ashtanga for any length of time, I've spent a LOT of hours in downward dog -- my body in an inverted V with my weight spread evenly across the hands and feet, and my bum in the air. One of the things one tries to work on in this position is for the heels to move down to the floor. This relies on loose hamstrings, flexible hips, loose back muscles and a bunch of other body properties that don't come naturally to me.

Still, cultivating a curious spirit, I've spent a lot of time exploring the shape of my body in downward dog, and trying to understand what is keeping my heels from touching the earth. One day, a couple of years ago, I tried (for no good reason) turning my hands outwards a little, rather than having the middle-finger pointing forward as recommended. I immediately found that this allowed my shoulders to rotate a little further out, which released some tension in the latissimus down the side of my back, allowing my pelvis to tilt down a little further, and dropping my heels a good couple of centimetres closer to the floor! Glorious surprise!

I've since discovered that I can achieve a similar effect without turning my whole hand: instead I simply "over-spread" my hands so that my little finger points as wide as I can possibly manage it. I would never have imagined that the position of my little finger could so much affect the form of my downward dog. What other hidden levers remain to be discovered in this wondrous yoga machine that I have been given?

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Up until this week, I knew Oliver Sacks' book "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" only as an excellent option when playing charades (book, 9 ( NINE!) words in the title, first word... ).

Turns out it's outstanding, certainly the best thing that I've read in some months. Sacks is/ was a professor of clinical neurology, and the book is nothing more than a collection of short descriptions of, and reflections on, a selection of Sacks' patients. What makes this collection so interesting is that:

(a) Sacks writes beautifully -- vigorous, visceral prose with an abundance of rich allusion and literary reference (but not to the point that his prodigious learning gets on your tits -- I'm thinking of you, Saul Bellow). More importantly, Sacks' writing is warm. It has a very human quality that speaks to the deep empathy that the author feels for his subjects; in this regard, it reminds me of how it feels to read Tolstoy.

(b) Sacks' patients are to a (wo)man deeply interesting and his discussion of their situations is moving and profound.... And has implications for the way all of us of our lives.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence: all of the patients in this book have a deeply unusual sense of reality -- in different ways, each patient has a "pathology" that affects a particular connection to the outside world in an extreme way. In studying this pathology, Sacks sheds light on aspects of our human condition that are so fundamental, we don't even realise they are there.

We all, for instance, occasionally make mistakes in our visual categorisation of the objects around us (is that object arse or elbow?), but now imagine if virtually all of your visual categorisations are wrong (as in the case of the eponymous hero of this book)? How do you relate to the world if you, LITERALLY, have been known to mistake your wife for a hat?

In trying to respond CLINICALLY to the travails of his patients, Sacks quickly finds himself needing to respond philosophically -- to contemplate, for instance, what it is about visual categorisation that is so vital in our lives, and how we might cope if we find ourselves without it. (Note: the patient in question has perfect vision, but is unable to effectively process the images that he receives....)

The story that most struck a chord with me (and I use that phrase deliberately) is a discussion of two twins who, though deeply mentally retarded, were able to perform certain prodigious feats of mathematics through mere contemplation (like finding 12 digit primes for instance). You should think "Rain man" (and, indeed, one of the incidents that Sacks relates involving the twins clearly inspired the matchbox incident in that movie)... but I must admit that that movie left me a little cold, whereas Sacks' discussion is truly profound.

In particular, as a mathematician, I was greatly moved by the twins' emotional relationship with numbers, with their activities as contemplators of numbers in some absolute way. On a shallow level, the twins' feats of computation are extraordinary.... but fundamentally rather robotic and unenlightening. Much more interesting is the way that, as Sacks describes, the twins see very profound beauty in (for instance) prime numbers, and they move a "landscape of number" that connects profoundly to their essential humanity (a humanity that is, by some measures, deeply broken).

In the course of Sacks' discussion, there are two particularly interesting passages. The first, below, is a quote from another author on the place of music in humanity's search for meaning. Sacks uses this as a departure point for a similar reflection on the place of number in that search -- and the second quote is from this reflection.

`Whoever is harmonically composed,' writes Sir Thomas Brown, `delights in harmony... and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed Lesson of the whole World... a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God... The soul... is harmonical, and hath its nearest sympathy unto Music.' (p. 204)
Quote 2:

('The philosopher seeks to hear within himself the echoes of the world symphony,' writes Nietzsche, `and to re-project them in the form of concepts.') The twins, though morons, hear the world symphony, I conjecture, but hear it entirely in the form of numbers.
    The soul is 'harmonical' whatever one's IQ and for some, like physical scientists and mathematicians, the sense of harmony, perhaps is chiefly intellectual. And yet I cannot think of anything intellectual that is not, in some way, also sensible -- indeed the very word `sense' always has this double connotation. Sensible, and in some sense `personal' as well, for one cannot feel anything, find anything `sensible', unless it is, in some way, related or relatable to oneself...
    The twins, I believe, have not just a strange `faculty' -- but a sensibility, a harmonic sensibility, perhaps allied to that of music. One might speak of it, very naturally, as a `Pythagorean' sensibility -- and what is odd is not its existence, but that it is apparently so rare. One's soul is `harmonical' whatever one's IQ, and perhaps the need to find or feel some ultimate harmony or order is a universal of the mind, whatever its powers, and whatever form it takes. Mathematics has always been called the `queen of sciences', and mathematicians have always felt number as the great mystery, and the world as organised, mysteriously, by the power of number. This is beautifully expressed in the prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography:
       With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.

These two quotes point towards an existential impulse behind the process of mathematics, and it is one that I find deeply reassuring in my day-job as a pure mathematician. I am frequently assailed with questions of the "why am I doing this?" sort.... pure mathematics can seem a deeply self-indulgent, rather pointless way to spend one's life... and yet perhaps it is also one of the most fundamental activities any human can undertake.

If I were a musician, would I be assailed with the same doubts? Perhaps, but I think it is more generally accepted that the making of music has a place in our struggle as humans to make sense of our existential condition... It is pleasing for me to hear Sacks asserting, too, the place of mathematics in this struggle.

And it is deeply moving that this affirmation emerges out of a contemplation of two deeply "broken" human beings; two human beings in possession of intellects that lack many of the basic functions we take for granted and yet that , in a very beautiful and dramatic way, shed great light on our place as humans in the universe.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Needy Dad?

I am in Nepal teaching maths for two weeks. I caught the train to Heathrow at lunchtime on the Saturday and by the time I arrived I was already missing my boys...

A few days later, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students. We were walking home together from one of the classes that I had given, and we got to chatting about our respective lives. It turns out that he also has two children, and they are exactly the same age. We laughed when we found that out -- it was striking for both of us to meet someone from so far away, and with whom we shared something so much at the centre of our lives.

As we continued talking though, I realised that our parenting experiences are fantastically different -- Suresh is studying in Kathmandu, while his children stay at home with his wife in the village where he comes from. He used to go home every second week-end, but the journey is too taxing and he is currently going home only one week-end every month.

My first reaction to this was to reflect on how tough that would be -- to see one's children so infrequently, and to be constantly dealing with the sense of isolation that that brings. I have found these few days away from my children very trying and would hate to have to do this routinely...

As I mused more through that evening, though, another response arose inside me. I remembered a couple of incidents that had happened back in Wales in the month or so before I left: in the first I'd become furiously, insanely, completely irrationally angry when Anton had decided to go off with Katie one Saturday, after I'd been planning an activity for me and him and had organised my week-end around it... My anger scared and shocked him, and he said sorry later for going off with his Mum -- of course, he had nothing to say sorry for, while I had a LOT!

And then there's Joseph, who is struggling at the moment when asked what activity he wants to do of a week-end, or in the evening. This is particularly acute when he feels that by expressing a preference, he's giving priority to one person over another -- especially when those people are his parents. He's only seven, and he worries about hurting our feelings! I've told him numerous times that I don't mind at all if he'd rather do something with his Mum one evening, but I think he sees deeper than the words and knows that, in some sense, I do mind, of course I do...

What has brought us to this? I've always taken as a given that it's a good thing for a Dad to be hands on, to be involved and close to his children. I still believe this, but my discussion with Suresh and these reflections have given me pause: am I creating a situation where I seek affirmation from my children, where I am imposing a kind of guilt on them if they seek space from me?

This, clearly, must be avoided: all children need to find independence from their parents and this need will only grow greater for them as they grow older. I must not, even accidentally, derail their pursuit of independence; I must not saddle them with guilt for seeking what is essential.

Katie and I have talked many times about the need for us to be independent within our relationship: we cannot be all things to each other no matter how we try, and we need to be deliberate in seeking meaning apart from each other. That word "affirmation" crops up again -- if all of our self-affirmation comes from one place, we're heading for trouble: we can usually tell when we've got the balance wrong, because there's a rise in the narky conversations, the lingering pissed-off-ness, the resentment...

Well, now I realise (8 years in) that a similar principle needs to be honoured in my parenting. I cannot rely on my children for my entire meaning-making structure in life, and I need to be deliberate in finding separateness from my children, and letting them find separateness from me.

I'm going to end this reflection with a line from Khalil Gibran that Katie and I have reflected on many times in the context of our relationship. It seems that the wisdom therein is something that I need to attend to as a parent also -- I'm in a priviled first-world position where I get to spend more than a week-end every month with my children. Now I have to make sure that this time contains enough space for all of us to grow -- together, but also apart, and in love.

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow." From The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

Monday, 30 November 2015

Don't bomb Syria

I cannot believe that we are headed for another military adventure in the Middle East. The blood hasn't dried in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and now we head out again.

I sent the following letter to my MP today. God knows if it will help.

Dear Wayne David,

I am one of your constituents - I live in Llanbradach. I am writing to

I listen to the radio incredulous that we are being led into yet
another military adventure in the Middle East, so soon after Iraq,
Afghanistan and Libya. Military action can only lead to yet more blood
shed, more bereavement, more widows and orphans, more anger and
resentment and chaos. Please, I beg of you, do all you can to ensure
that the proposed military action does not go ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Two things I learnt from a year in Costa Rica

At the start of 2014, I moved with my family to Costa Rica. A year later we moved back to the UK after a memorable 12 months. I learnt a lot of things in that time, but here are two that seem particularly important.

On immigration. This move to Costa Rica was EASY: I had a nice job lined up in a good university; I caught a plane straight there with my family; I had my papers all sorted; I had some money in the bank to ease the travails of moving; I was healthy as was all my family; we'd had plenty of time to prepare; I'd been learning Spanish but the university let me teach in English for the first six months; my wage might have been low by Western standards but it was pretty nice compared to your average tico; Costa Rica is a stunningly beautiful place with great food, great beaches, great weather; a bunch of people at the university went out of their way to welcome us, make us feel at home, look after us, and give us advice.... But despite all that, this easy move was HARD.

Which is hardly surprising, because moving across the world to a new place is inevitably damn difficult. We had a load of times when we felt lonely, disconnected and abandoned; when we just wanted to flee screaming back to where we came from.

So now imagine what it must be like for those without all those advantages. People bang on endlessly in this country about all the immigrants swamping the country. It's bollox from start to finish of course. But even if it weren't, how bad must things be where they're coming from that they're prepared to move across the globe to some alien new land, where they will be received with suspicion, rejection and blame for all of the ills of the place where they find themselves?

A little empathy would go a long way.

On housing. Our housing in Costa Rica was a tale of two halves: for the first six months we were in a tiny two-bedroom flat with a piece of concrete outside and some razor wire; for the second six months we had a big flat with a magnificent garden.

What's interesting is that the two-halves experience of housing also made for a two-halves experience of parenting. In the first six months I shouted at my kids a lot. They were continually making noise in my ear just when I needed some calm; there was nowhere for me to go to avoid them; there was nowhere for them to go to avoid me. I ended up being a very angry daddy.

And I didn't even realise what had been happening until we'd spent our first month in the nice new flat. A whole month had gone by and I'd hardly needed to raise my voice. If things got hairy I just walked out the door into the garden, or kicked them both out and told them to play football for half an hour. Suddenly I was a good dad!

It made me realise just how much the state of our housing affects our quality of life. I want to be a good dad more than just about anything else in the world... but I just couldn't do it in that first place (and it wasn't even that bad; lots of Costa Ricans have it much worse). It made me realise anew that when governments and councils and powers-that-be short-change people on basic needs like housing, the effects are not just the physical discomfort of a shit place to live, but the damage of fundamental family relationships.

I have in my head a classic stereotype of a working-class mother screaming at her kids as she pushes a buggy down the road; I'm walking by in my middle-class bubble trying to be sympathetic but secretly, snobbily, disapproving. Well for six months, I was that mother. I don't want to blame all my bad parenting on living in a shit flat, but I know for a fact that it didn't bloody help. If I was a better person, my parenting would still have been OK... But unfortunately I've got to start from where I'm at, and it turns out that I find it hard to parent if I can't get away from my kids every now and then. Who'd've thunk it?