The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go often askew

(Robert Burns, To A Mouse, 1785, English translation)

Behind the curtain (meta stuff)

It’s almost exactly a year since I published the first post on 50FootHead (the Pre-Amble). It’s been a very quiet winter on here, in spite of the expectations I had. The most recent post was four months ago, immediately before making the site public. Since then I’ve been considering ideas for mental health posts. But the four I did write last autumn were hard work emotionally, and I looked for an excuse to ease up.

I found it in something called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), which is a tool to help your page rank higher in Google searches. This is far too boring to write about in detail. Suffice to say it involves some painstaking tasks such as re-writing text to avoid overlong sentences and paragraphs and reduce passive voice. You also choose key phrases for search engines to pick up, and tailor your page to those.

With that out of the way, I returned to my original plan for the next three posts. H6 and H7 would look at a couple of events from my past, and how they contributed to my eventual breakdown. H5 (which you’re reading) would be a placeholder, a chance to look forward before returning to those past events and trauma. And so, the title was…

What’s next?

I planned to write this post at the end of January 2020. It seemed ideal for two coincidental reasons. My second favourite podcast, The West Wing Weekly, had just reached its finale episode after almost four years. President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet‘s catchphrase “What’s next?” was used as a sign-off by the presenters and guests at the end of every podcast. And, on 31 January, Britain entered a new and uncertain future as it officially left the European Union. Also, after almost four years… filled with political wrangling, controversy and farce.

So there was your ready-made theme. The other priority at around the same time was to book my walks for 2020. Once this was done – early February – I’d add the planned route through southern Scotland, the Central Belt and the West Highland Way to this post as a convenient reference point.

Best laid plans…

Fittingly enough, one of the most famous lines of the Scottish National Bard has come back to haunt me. For, as it turns out, Britain’s life-changing event of 31 January 2020 was not leaving the EU, but this.

I am writing almost two months on, the day after a national lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister, in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. This afternoon the number of confirmed cases in the UK rose to over 8,000. I am not going to write in depth about something this frightening and horrific on my blog. H6 and H7 will proceed as planned, although they will inevitably seem trivial and possibly even plain stupid in light of current events. That’s what I have to face though: an even more poignant sense of regret. When these mistakes were made, when you went to your personal hell, how could you possibly have foreseen a global pandemic arriving on these shores within a few years of your recovery?

Interlude: what were those plans?

It is almost certain that I will have to cancel the walks booked for April and May. It is likely that those planned for September will have to be postponed as well, unless we return to normal quicker than expected and I can catch up on southern and central Scotland. Additionally, I’d set my heart on climbing Mount Olympus in June and joining a Greek island tour, and that will not be happening this year either. So here, for the record, is what I’d lined up:


Sunday 26 April – Kirk Yetholm to Jedburgh. The planned title “I’ll See You In Scotland” is a quote from Darius Jedburgh, from my all-time favourite television drama series, Edge of Darkness. I don’t intend missing that opportunity.

Monday 27 April – Thursday 30 April: Jedburgh to Edinburgh via stops in Galashiels, Innerleithen and Carlops. A weekend in Edinburgh was planned, including Arthur’s Seat.

Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 May: Edinburgh to Falkirk, then to Kilsyth

Saturday 5 September: Kilsyth to Milngavie

Wednesday 16 – Thursday 24 September: The West Highland Way (Milngavie to Fort William), with stops at Balmaha, Inversnaid, Tyndrum, Inveroran Hotel, two nights at Kingshouse in order to make a side-trip to Glencoe, Kinlochleven, and two nights at Fort William in order to climb Ben Nevis, weather permitting.

Sometime around the end of the Central Belt and start of the West Highland Way I intend to reveal my real name, in a series of posts that have been planned for longer than almost anything else on the site. And now I’ll just have to tantalise you still more…


Friday 8 – Monday 11 May: Lake District, with family. Shorter holiday than usual because I was saving annual leave for Greece (below). More Wainwrights. Almost certainly cancelled now.

Late June – mid July: Greece, starting with a three-day hike on Mount Olympus. Around 3-4 days in Athens, then to Mykonos to join this tour. This itinerary was fully planned out, the tour price was cut by 45%, I’d cleared the annual leave… and then the virus became so imminent a threat that any holiday plans swiftly receded to the land of fantasy.

And so, to what’s next

These dreams have been replaced by an unprecedented nightmare. I’m not going to moan about it. My mindset changed rapidly around 10-14 days ago. None of the above plans seem important now. There’s a very realistic prospect of not finishing LEJoG before the age of 50, of course, so perhaps the site should change its name! Such levity is a natural human response, because you cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of something far worse. Here’s another article published today which captures our universal feeling of dread and lack of control over events:

The Year of Living Distantly: The Stuff That Happens Somewhere Else, by Christina Patterson

I want to quote from the final paragraph:

I wake and think it can’t be true, this terrible, new reality can’t be true. But it is. And we will all have to cling on to any beauty we can find, and to anyone we love, in any form our isolation allows, to stay sane and get through it.

That sensation of thinking that this terrible new reality can’t be true is exactly what I explored when describing the aftermath of my breakdown in H2 and H3. But now the second half of the quote is far more important. It was Mothers’ Day on Sunday: one of the ways in which I tried to cling on to any beauty I could find, and to anyone I love, was to compose a tribute to my mother on my newly-created Twitter account. Later I wrote it all out for her and enclosed it in her card.

It’s been an emotional few days. Scotland can wait. For now I hope we all stay sane and get through this.

Picture (taken 24 March 2020) shows a drawing of Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet, from The West Wing. The drawing is from the front of my West Wing T-shirt purchased in 2016 from Hellwood Outfitters. Appropriately enough, the design is inspired by the episode ‘Two Cathedrals‘, in which Bartlet faced his greatest trial.

And emerged a stronger man.

2 thoughts on “H5: “WHAT’S NEXT”, INDEED…?

  1. Ben, thank you for sharing the tribute to your Mum. It is beautiful.

    I look forward to continuing to read your posts.

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