Monday, December 31, 2012

The New Year retrospective

If you are like most people in the world, as the clock ticks down to 12 on 31st December, you are probably preparing a couple of New Years Resolutions.

This in itself is no bad thing – we should be aiming to improve ourselves and what we can achieve each year.

Some of these resolutions will be about our fitness (especially post-Christmas), some will be about our personal life, and some our work life.

I like to thing really any resolution is about really wanting to address an area in life we feel we're not doing so well in. In order to do that we have to use the time coming up to 2013 looking back on the year.

We held a few retrospectives at work in 2012, and I found them overall positive experiences. We looked at the “positives” or what we'd done well, and also the “deltas” areas we need to improve in (notice we don't call them negatives, we are trying to positively look at changes we can make).

In the same way we need to look for those areas of change in our life, and decide to do practical ways that we can make change.

Back in March in the SoftwareMinefield, I was talking about people's resolutions, especially when it came to learning (a key subject in the book), and suggested whether in learning or elsewhere, the best kind of resolution was a SMART resolution …

Learning like diets is one of those things we often attempt to resolve to do more of. So like our New Year diets often involve "only eating salad and soup until Easter", our learning plans often go down the same "too ambitious" route ... "I'm going to read a book on software each week". Good luck on that!

Like any good plan, you need to have objectives, and they need to be SMART objectives. My version of SMART here being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound.
  • Specific - what do you really want to learn about? Testing in general? Test automation? Agile testing? What channels are you expecting to use? Courses, books, magazines, forums, Twitter?
  • Measurable - how will you know if you've made progress? This one is tricky when it comes to learning, as short of "taking a test", it's difficult to do. But it's important that you feel you're making some form of progress. It might simply be that you find yourself reading articles regarding a topic, and finding yourself more comfortable with the arguments than a year ago.
  • Achievable - is it possible to achieve your learning goal with the resources you have? Do you need more to achieve your goal? If you are planning to read a specific book, do you own a copy yet, or can get it from the library? If you are trying to learn about a certain technology, can you get hold of a sample of the application to aid your study?
  • Realistic - as I've said, it's got to be realistic. Your friend John might be able to give up 2 hours every night for study, but you have family commitments, and you can't match that. What can you realistically commit? An hour a week? An hour a month? Be wary of making a rash overcommitment, but also make sure you are actually putting the time in.
  • Time-bound - you need to revisit your aims and objectives. Set yourself a realistic time-scale to achieve in, and re-review what you've achieved and your future direction after so long. You set yourself to learn about Test Automation, but after 6 months found yourself reading more about Exploratory Testing. Should you go back to trying to study about Test Automation, or continue with Exploratory Testing? Remember they're your goals, but if your aim was to learn more automation due to a drive at work in the field, maybe trying to refocus on Test Automation is something you need to do ...

So before you start making a resolution in the New Year countdown, ask yourself, how can it push you, and yet be sufficiently sustainable, so that you're not embarrassed come April when people ask you “well how did that work out for you?”.

Last year I famously talked in my New Year about “why Superman must die”, meaning to be effective at work I knew I needed to gauge my limits and know when I really needed to stop myself from trying to help someone, simply because I was taking on too much. It was a post which continuously challenged me, and I have to admit it I don't think I always got it right on that score.

I was much encouraged by emails from my friend Bernice Ruhland on the subject, but also by a wonderful talk by Johanna Rothman on “when to say yes, and when to say no”, which so moved me it led me to get in contact with her and thank for for it.

Yes 2012 has been an emotional journey at times, but I've built up some great friendships to see me through the rough parts ...

Friday, December 28, 2012

So you want to move abroad?

This year I have received a number of requests  via various channels from people who have learned I migrated to New Zealand, and want to know more information about what's involved. I'm happy to help or at least direct where I can, and have got to know some of them quite well in the process.

I myself several years ago was in the same boat, and really relied on the same goodwill to understand the journey I was about to put myself and my family through. But just as a future resource, I thought it might be useful to write up our families experiences.

My life before migration

I graduated from University in 1992, and I have always had the experience of having to “move to where there is work”. Part of it was an after effect of living through the Miners Strike of the 80s in Great Britain, where pockets of high unemployment came about, and the only choice for many was to uproot and move to where they could find work.

So I found myself taking quite the gypsy lifestyle,
  • working as a teacher in Keighley, Yorkshire
  • doing a Masters degree at the University of Essex in Colchester
  • doing a six month research post into laser holography at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany
  • doing a years research into Optoelectronic Monitoring at the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Liverpool (where I met my wife)
  • my first software job at TMSL in Weymouth (for 3 years)
  • moving to Farnborough, Hampshire to work for EDS and BAe for 10 years

Moving is painful. It means leaving behind friendships and often starting again. My wife who'd always lived in Liverpool, and whose whole family still lives in the same suburb, found the first few years living so far away from her family a difficult experience (and that was 200 miles, not half way around the world). It echoed my own experience when I lived in Germany – I found living so far away and not being able to just “drive home” very difficult, especially when coupled with culture shock about living in another country. However over time I adapted, which is a key and important thing to do.

All this was really important, because it said to both me and my wife that we could cope and adapt to change.  My experience in Germany showed me that I struggled when we were in an atmosphere where English wasn't spoken, and doing our homework on New Zealand based on some friends who had migrated from there, it seems an ideal candidate for us.

So you want to move abroad?

So this article will be threaded with warnings – and here come the first one. Migration is not an easy process or a “certain” process. It will take time, and importantly, it will cost you a lot of money. Moving abroad is not a cheap thing to do, and in New Zealand I don't know of any company that funds it for you (in case you were hoping).

One of the most important things is to be realistic about the reasons you are looking to move. We all feel a bit that “in our country we're being ripped off... life is so much easier in [insert name here] country”.

Well let me tell you right now, EVERYONE in every country feels that about pretty much every other country,
  • people look at America, and think “wow your supermarket and phones are so cheap”. But your average American is going “cripes the cost of healthcare in this country is ridiculous”.
  • people look at Australia and think “wow, look how much they earn compared to us”. But your average Australian (especially in Sydney) is thinking “good God, the size of my mortgage repayments”.
  • people look at New Zealand and think “wow the house prices are cheap”. But your average New Zealand is thinking “why is the milk and food we grow here more expensive here than when the same food is sold in the UK or Australia?”

The bottom line is, if you think another country has it easier than you, try and befriend someone who lives there and ask them what they love, and what they dislike. Try to see the whole picture.  In particular, if you meet someone from that country living in your own, ask them why they moved. Try and take off the rose coloured glasses and see it warts and all.  If you are not seeing problems with moving there, then I tell you that you are missing something.

If you are thinking a move to another country is going to solve all your problems, you are in for a nasty shock. Do your homework, read as much about this place as possible. Try and read up the local news and concerns. If you can, go and visit it to see it for yourself – however beware. I used to live in a seaside town most people would think “wow it would be nice to live there all year around”. But even being somewhere on holiday is vastly different to living there.

Try and draw up a list of thing you'd feel would be improved by moving abroad, together with the things you'd miss. Don't forget to try and factor in things like friends and family into that. Ask yourself, do the pros outweigh the cons?

If you have done all this, and you still think New Zealand is for you, then read on, and I will talk you through the the stages that await you.

Lets Move to New Zealand

From our own story, we made the decision to move in 2006, and finally moved in 2009. For many people at least a year between making the decision and finally arriving is a minimum. You're not going to just fill out an application and be on a plane 2 weeks later. This is the reality.

To move to New Zealand for many people is a two-stage process. To come into the country you need a Work Visa. But before you have done this, you need to have filled in your Expression Of Interest.

An Expression Of Interest is a form you submit to the New Zealand immigration office that expresses your interest in migrating to the country. As with most stages of the migration process, you need to pay to have your form filled in.

In it you detail your personal details and relevant experience, as well as confirm you have no criminal convictions. If you do have any criminal convictions or major health problem, it's going to get phenomenally difficult (if not impossible) for you to move here. The Expression Of Interest allocates points against certain traits like qualifications, experience, age, personal status to weigh your eligibility to come into New Zealand, and can be a stumbling block to many aspirations.

Once processed (which takes several weeks), you are given the details of your weighting. Some lucky people are told they can proceed straight to “applying for a Work Visa” which allows them to come to New Zealand and look for work right away. But for myself and many others we were told we were elligable for a Work Visa as long as we had a supporting job offer.

For either route, it's a mistake to believe at this point you can start packing your bags. The application for a Work Visa is a much longer process than an application for the Expression of Interest.

Needing A Job Offer

Well this is definitely a difficult path. The easiest and quickest method is to approach a few employment agencies, fly over to New Zealand (on a visiting visa) and do a few job interviews. But it is far from the cheapest.  Indeed because you've arrived on a visiting visa, even if successful you typically need to leave the country and re-enter with you Work Visa.

Talk to as many recruitment agencies as you can (Google is your friend here). Some might know some companies who will consider you based on phone and Skype interviews. But the harsh truth is many will not. It's important to tell them you have a successful Application Of Interest, and this does help.

Applying For A Work Visa

So you have all the conditions on your Expression Of Interest, including perhaps a job offer. So it's a done deal then?

Sadly no, far from it. There are still a considerable number of immigration hurdles to clear.

First of all you have to compile together a Work Visa application – which means another cheque to be processed. To support this you will need also have,
  • a medical for each member of your family performed by a private doctor approved by the New Zealand Immigration board. This will also include a chest X-ray, and you will have to cover the cost of this yourself.
  • a Police background check, which again you will have to pay for.
  • copies of any qualifications to be evaluated.

Once all this is forwarded on, its a process of typically at least 3 months before you're approved by your local New Zealand embassy. Sometimes you will be asked to provide more information or checks, which will cause additional delays to this timeframe (I did mention it wasn't going to be a quick process). As a word of caution, I've known friends who have encountered significant delays at this point (it took 6 months for us ourselves).  It's frustrating, but moving country is a big deal, and the immigration office have a duty to be thorough about who they are letting in the country.

You can help the whole process of the paperwork for the Application of Interest and Work Visa by hiring an immigration specialist to advocate on your behalf. These can be expensive, but it's worth shopping around – you won't want the cheapest, but there are some parties out there which in my opinion are out to fleece would be migrants (we encountered a couple ourselves).

Alas there was one such company I'd recommend but sadly they've recently closed their offices.

I hope this helps anyone thinking of moving abroad to get “the big picture” and really think about it.

From my own experience, moving to New Zealand has allowed me access to a different jobs market and to experience I simply feel I would not have got back in the UK. But it also was significantly for my son, who I thought would get more opportunities in New Zealand than back home in the UK. For this there have been personal trade-offs, mainly being so far from the rest of our extended family. It's hard at times, having to cope with the death of by close friend Violet whilst half a world away, and likewise my wife had to cope with the death of her father back in Liverpool.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Project Christmas: The Elf Who Learned How To Test

I have had a busy year, no doubt about it, with a lot published in magazines like Testing Planet, Testing Circus and Tea Time With Testers.  There has also been my book, The Software Minefield.

I've recently put together another much shorter book, which is free to download called The Elf Who Learned How To Test, of which I'm particularly proud (great I now sound like Q from James Bond).

The idea started a long time ago with a conversation with Rosie Sherry about the idea of "Imagine there's no testing" back in August.  And that's just what I did with the leap of imagination required.  I imagined Santa's Workshop where no-one tested, and children received substandard presents, and an elf who discovered how testing could add value.

I've been told by others in the testing community I'm a great storyteller.  Indeed in The Software Minefield, I mentioned I'm always telling war stories or parables.  What pleases me about The Elf Who Learned How To Test is that it's a tale not just for testers, but for their children as well.

I think as testers we sometimes are great at joining together as a community and sharing our stories.  But perhaps where we fail is sharing what we do, not just with others who aren't testing, but especially our children.  And my book works as essentially as a Testing Fairytale which can be shared with children, with some thinking activities at the back which I feel the children are likely to score as well in as the adults!

This year has seen me peeling back the mystique around testing for my 14 year old son, who has come in to see what we do.  I keep trying to talk to him about what I do and why I do it.  I try and develop him a sense of analytical thinking, especially in our common area-of-interest which is history.  Unsurprisingly he did well with the activities in the back (which do not have any "right answers", but as more about seeing how you can expand on the story, and how you interpret some things which are not said).

You can download the book here,

In addition, I did a video of me reading it for YouTube, but it turned out too big, so I've decided to put it up as a podcast, which can be accessed below,

This is all aimed at encouraging donations to a very worthwhile charity, Starship, which supports sick New Zealand children and their families.  I have been helping to support this charity through work, and if you'd like to support them as well, please give a one-off-donation below,

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Saga Of The Stone


The Saga of the Stone is a short story I wrote back in 1997 (although it's been revised a bit over the years).

To me it's a very personal story – because the events and people in it are real. It covers a series of events that happened to me when I was 20, which very nearly cost me my life. But that said, it's also a story I find inspirtational, as so much of what happened during that night echoes a lot of the trials we experience in life.

As I've said before in The Problems We Can't Fix, we will all go through periods of our life when we experience deep personal problems. When I went through such a patch in 1997, I decided to look back to the events of the Saga of the Stone and write about the life and death struggle.  It felt like a powerful metaphor for getting through any kind of problem.

I think we all have a Saga of the Stone story in some way in our past. I certainly feel inspired hearing the tales of a friend named Jess Bromley talk about hers.  Her story and mine remind me that life is a gift, and one of the huge tragedies in life is, it takes tragedy or near-tragedy to appreciate it.

The Saga of the Stone

Dedicated to the memory of Violet Wallbank,
a friend in dark places.

They say in life that the only certainties are death and taxes. Yet as children - if we’re lucky we grow up shielded from both.

We might hear about murders on the television or of elderly relatives who we never really knew ‘passing away’. But they’re, too distant there’s no sense of intimacy, and no sense of loss. But sooner or later death comes into our lives, taking someone close, and it leaves it’s mark on us.

For me in happened when I was 20 and studying at the University in Sheffield. It was nearly Christmas, the countdown to festivities had begun, which pretty much meant for all of us it was partytime! But before we planned to hit the local bars, I had to phone my parents at home, for the weekly catch up.

It was then a bombshell hit when my mother said to me, “I was told by Mable at church that one of your friends from school’s died”.

My seemed to catch in my throat as I managed to ask, “Who was it?”

She didn’t really say ... James somebody I think. I think you used to be friends in school. It was something to do with drugs. I expect it’ll be in the Burton Mail.”

After a slight silence we finished off our phone call, said our goodbyes and hung up I headed back to my room, the news circling around my head. James - it could only be James Taylor. At school he’d been my best friend, for a while when our fleeting interested had matched. But teenage friendships can be fickle, and as we moved on to Sixth Form Colleges and then University, our connection had become broken.

That was until just a few months ago we’d been both working the same crappy summer jobs at the local factory. He was a different man though at school and after he’d been a lively character ever ready for a fight or a drunken dare, and much admired by many of the girls for it. He was a guy brimming with confidence and humour. Yet the man I’d met that summer had been subdued and almost haunted.

Life was not going well for him he’d got into trouble at University, with him getting kicked off his course. His parents wouldn’t have him back at home. And now he was stuck trying to work at the local factory to make ends meet. But his woes didn’t end there. He’d just found out he’d managed to get his girlfriend pregnant, and just felt he didn’t know what to do, trying to talk the girl into taking an abortion.

He admitted he didn’t drink too much any more it’d got him in too much trouble, as he was always getting angry when he did. But he did do some drugs and could do me a deal if I ever needed some, he had a few “connections”.

Maybe my choice of words weren’t the best thought out I told him he needed to sort his life out, and that drugs are for losers. Alas the textbook “good kid” response to the “kid gone wrong”. But stupid words that offer no comfort or help. A few days later he was fired, though on the factory floor the reason behind that varied from his attitude to him caught stealing

And now he was dead. A friend, a school friend, my age, dead. This wasn’t the way I thought life worked death was something for the elderly or something that happened elsewhere. Not something in Burton-on-Trent.

Deep inside I couldn’t help wondering if there was something I could have said, or done that would have altered his terrible fate. Something better than condemning his mistakes.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like partying anymore.

The world seemed different - it was the last week of term before the Christmas break, and my hall of residence was decked in lights, tinsel and decorations. The students around me were dedicated to celebrating the season to the last of their allowance and beyond.

The thought went over and over again in my head “He’s dead?”.

I needed to speak to someone, to be with someone. I tried so many friends, but they were either gripped with the merriment of the season, or else feverishly slaving over assignments due in later that week. I felt utterly alone - a gulf away from the party folk and revellers.

The atmosphere of celebration was like some foul air to me, on which only I was retching. I grabbed a coat and headed out, away from all the laughter and cheers, the small talk and antics. It was a cold, frosty December night, and the chilling, sobering air offered some small portion of relief and clarity.

I started walking - but still from the lampposts and windows hung reminders that this was a season to be jolly and merry, not to lament the passing of friends. Without thinking, I caught a bus that would take me to the outskirts of the city, and watched from my seat as the crowed streets of Sheffield dissolved into the harsh emptiness of the Moors.

I got off the bus to be greeted by the silence of emptiness, and headed out, away from the mad city gripped fervently in celebration, away from those who would tell me to ‘cheer up and have a beer’, away ... where I could think, and, perhaps, find some answers.

A light chill mist hung in the darkness as I set off, following the isolated chain of electric lamps which led like some mythical ‘yellow brick road’ to darkness and oblivion. The world was silent but for the terrible humming of the lamps above which made the place seem that much more empty and eerie. Behind me the city lights bathed the horizon in an orange phosphorescent glow, like a mechanical sunrise. Back there shone people and houses and all their petty hopes and dreams, ahead lay the darkness and obscurity which was my destination.

It was a long walk, but did nothing to settle or calm me. I was resolved now in my mind as to my destination - to stand in utter darkness, beneath the naked sky and there, maybe, standing between the Earth below and the Heavens above, maybe there I would find some revelation or perspective, to find out why my friend was dead.

This was a walk I’d done many times before, but never in such darkness or such cold. The landscape, so beautiful and lush in the sunlight, seemed in this blackness like that of some haunted, shadow world. It was eerie, but it matched my mood so well, so much better than the dazzling, happy lights of the city. I walked on.

And then the lights ran out - the edge of civilisation, beyond the grip of the city whose orange glow raged on behind me was like a inferno swallowing the horizon. Here now to one side stretched a large reservoir, with a sign, battered and abused saying ‘Yorkshire Water’ and warning people not to contaminate the water. For a moment I fought back the childish urge to urinate in the lake - to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who’d made me feel so alienated tonight, but it passed with a turning in the wind, and I renewed my attention to the road ahead, past the orange monochrome world, and entering dark shadows that waited ahead.

I looked back to see that last, lonely lamppost, its light reaching vainly out to me, like a lighthouse calling me back to the shores of civilisation and people. I took a deep breath that chilled me inside. The misty darkness was terrifying and unsettling now that I stood within it, and that last light seemed so warm and secure and open. But I had set my sights further afield, and swallowing my nerves with renewed resolve, I moved further into the darkness...

The darkness where it waited, as I knew it would. Aware as I was of it, my first sight of it still filled me with dread. Even in daylight it was unnerving, but swathed in the night it seemed more evil still.

At some point it had been a car, perhaps one which ferried children to school, carried shopping home and took families on holiday. But now, by some unknown twist of fate it lay here, nothing more than a burnt out wreck, a rust covered shell of an automobile, that reminded me all too much of a rusty medieval hanging cage where the corpses of men would be displayed as a warning to other travellers. I quickened my pace, faster, faster until the shadows and mist had swallowed it whole again, yet still I felt it watching me, and waiting.

I walked on, the reservoir on one side, a forest to the other, until at last the road unceremoniously ended and twisted off to the right to become a footpath through the trees. The frozen, muddy path creaked and scrunched under my feet ‘crunch crunch crunch’, and I stopped every so often, hearing something rustle in the woods to one side. I would gaze with the eerie feeling of being watched, staring into the still and silent trees, each time bracing for an attack from some swift, unseen assailant. But the only demons pursuing me were phantoms of my mind.

Little did I know it as I walked on, but danger, lurked from another, unseen but very real direction.

Eventually, the forest petered out, and before me stretched the endless emptiness of the Moors. At last I was alone, standing on land untouched and twisted to mankind’s purposes, a timeless land. I stretched out my arms, breathing in the gloriously desolate air as if being resuscitated by the breath of God, and threw my head back to view the night sky - clouded as it was with only faint, isolated stars peering through the dark clouds.

The footpath - not really a path, but a worn track - snaked and staggered like a drunken man, until at last it came to a huge rock, at which point it seemed to fork off. I lay down on the rock, and looked into the sky. It felt peaceful - and there I felt an understanding of life pass into me.

What happened James?” I wondered in almost silent prayer. And although the clouds never parted to reveal a holy light, still within me a stirring calmness seemed to answer my thought - life goes on ... my life should go on.

I could have stayed there forever, but the cold rock chilled my back, so I got up, and contemplated going on. Two paths were in front of me - though I never remembered there being two when I’d done this route in daylight! But the one on the left looked the most familiar, and so I set off.

The moors were calming - much more serene than the reservoir road or the path through the forest. It felt open, tranquil, safe - nothing lurking unseen, nothing to be heard but the wind and the ‘crunch crunch crunch’ of frozen mud and grass beneath my feet.

Crunch kerplunk’. I realised in my romancing of the moors how careless I’d been. And how very stupid - stupid and complacent. My right foot had gone through ice and into a trapped puddle beneath, the chilled water numbing all feeling there.

This was no path, but a marsh with a thin icy crust that I was walking on. I pulled my foot out and turned around. My path, the twisting winding path of which I’d been so certain of was gone like a mirage. In the faint night light I had mistaken a series of scuffs in the grass for a safe path. It was no such thing. Now I had no idea where I was or even which direction to head back in.

Panic. How could I find my way again? The frozen marsh would be all around me - I’d been lucky or rather unlucky to get so far that the fork in the road was far out of sight. I knew roughly which direction the other path was.

If I could head to that - surely I couldn’t miss it - then I’d be able to find my way back again.

I walked a few steps ‘kerplunk’ went one foot into the freezing marshy water, a few more steps ‘kerplunk’ went the other. On and on it went - and then the ground gave way this time it was serious.

The ground had swallowed me to my waist. This must have been a frozen marsh, the water an icy shock to the lower part of my body - freezing, paralysing.

I grabbed the edge, and slowly, tentatively pulled myself out, the ice around groaning and creaking and threatening to cast me back. I lay for a moment out of the water - shivering and terrified.

Cautiously I stood up, half expecting the ground to swallow me up again - I had no idea which direction I was headed in anymore, no star constellations were visible and the city glow was invisible now, obscured by far off trees themselves too far in the dark to discern. I turned around and around frantically, but all directions looked the same - their end obscured by the darkness and the mist.

My heart pounded - both Hathersage and Sheffield were equally close I knew, though lay in opposite directions. There was only one thing to do - chose a direction and keep on until I found something, anything that would find my bearings, and then find the safest route to either haven.

It was slow progress, and one after the other I put each foot down tentatively, testing the ground before putting my weight upon it. My drenched jeans - what a stupid choice of clothing they were - clung heavy about my legs, and were starting to freeze up in the sub-zero temperatures.

Cold and in the dark I stumbled on and on and on.

I’d walked the Moors before many a time. I was drawn to them with their timelessness and rugged beauty. Here I felt my relationship problems, work problems, money problems all melt away into the landscape. Now too it didn’t matter that Claire didn’t like me, that Mark wasn’t speaking to me or that Prof. Combley was disappointed in my work.

Here all that mattered was that I find my way out and survive.

It seemed like forever, going on and on in vain - every so often slipping back into the frozen marsh which for all my new found caution threatened to swallow me whole.

The darkness and the mist played tricks before my eyes, forming vague outlines of the track that I so desperately wanted to discover. But they were only phantoms, each one dashing my spirits a little more, surely and certainly breaking me. My jeans had frozen solid now, like an unbreakable rigid plastic numbing my legs as I stumbled on, tearful, hopeless and so very alone.

At last in the nothingness of grass and marsh something different came out of the mist - a single stone, shaped like some ancient pagan altar, stood alone in this wilderness. Pitifully I clung onto the stone as a drowning man clutches some flotsam in the hope of staying afloat. I called aloud to God to help me - but no divine intervention followed. I was stranded, freezing on the one solid island in this sea of uncertain frozen marsh.

With my body worn out I shivered more and more violently. I was lost, with no hope of rescue on this freezing night, and I was going to die. The idea of death didn’t worry me, not at all. But not this way. Freezing to death would not be an easy slipping away from this mortal coil - no I could look forward to hours of violent shaking and shivering before that happened - it would be a long, cold and lonely death. I tried to make myself comfortable face down on that stone, hoping to sleep and speed up the process. How I wish that death would quickly and swiftly come to me...

And there, on that stone I died.

Perhaps not in body, but the boy who gave up on that stone slowly faded away. It was not God, it was not the ghost of James that had lured me to this point. Tragedy had struck in the loss of James, but I’d chosen the path that led me to this calamity.

It was in that moment of utter hopelessness - of settling down to the inevitable fate of death - that something had stirred within me. A new hope came upon me I would not give in, I would go on.

I got up. The stone I had clutched in desperation and certain death I now released in hope to find my way again. I felt something familiar about this place now I looked with eyes turned to survival rather than fading in death.

The ground further on had little grass, and was quite stony. I followed it until, at last, it gave way to a cliff edge. At last I was found again, for down there would be a road which would lead me to Hathersage I was sure. I followed the cliff edge along until it came at last to a point I knew to be a relatively gentle, downwards path, which, if I was right, I had been truly fortunate to stumble across. My luck at last was changing for the better!

I made my way down slowly, arms supporting me as my legs, one by one tested the ground. I inched down the slope, all too aware I had made enough rash mistakes for one lifetime this night.

At the bottom, a lonely road waited for me. It was deserted, not a single car moved along it. But I knew it and it would lead me where I needed to go.

My mind was racing. Ideally I’d have been headed back to Sheffield where I had a warm room waiting for me, but at least Hathersage was off the Moors, the beautiful and deadly Moors.

There was no way I would risk going back through them to Sheffield! But once I reached Hathersage what then? Throw myself at the mercy of the first house I came to? What would they care for some dumb walker who’d got himself into trouble? But I was alive and off the moors, and what ever it would take now to stay alive I’d do.

I walked into Hathersage, a quiet, deserted town at this time. I saw by the village clock it was 3 o’clock - almost 6 hours since I left, and how many of them lost and despairing on the lonely, savage Moors?

I found a public phone - thank God I had plenty of change, the first thing I’d done right this night! I called several taxi firms in Sheffield, getting their numbers off the back of my Student’s Union card, only to be told I was out of their region. I tried several local companies, but in this quiet village they had closed down for the night.

But I was not beaten - not yet.

I made my way towards the train station - I’d survived hours on the Moors, I was sure I could survive the remaining hours until the next train. I read the badly lit timetable, scrubbing away the ice which had formed on it’s surface, to find the next train would arrive at 6:50 am. Now if I could only get some shelter - like the public toilets and then remove these freezing jeans which were sapping my strength to move in, then things wouldn’t be so bad.

I tried the public toilets but found them locked - what kind of place locks it’s toilets up at night? My only chance of shelter was a bus stop, exposed as it was on one side. I huddled there, but the bitter wind blew right through. “So this is it?” I thought “reduced to living little better than a vagrant?”.

I wandered around not knowing what to do. Wanting to sort myself out, not rely of help. Keep moving, keep warm, and take that first train.

Wandering the church, I noticed there before me was the grave of Little John - the reason I’d first come to this village. He was something of a hero of mine tall, legendarily strong and I always thought of him as an unswervingly loyal right hand man. Several places claimed to be the burial place of Robin Hood, who I thought of as probably a vain and egotistical leader, but there lay a man who in my eyes was solid, dependable, loyal - all the things I felt a man should strive to be.

This was no time to give up, and I had no wish to join Little John in his final repose. I decided I needed help, and hoped I could rely on the Vicarage to lend me some aid. I rang the bell, once ... twice ... a light came on upstairs, and then another, and another, this time downstairs. Then the clanking, twisting creaking of a door lock.

My heart leapt into my mouth and I swallowed hard, terrified of being turned away, so ashamed to rely so heavily on the unknown compassion and charity of whoever stood behind that door at such an unsocial. Would they rant and rave about being woken at such an hour? I certainly would. The door slowly opened, and a grey haired head of a man looked cautiously, blearily around, his face both strict and compassionate in equal measure.

Can you help me?” I shivered pathetically, “I’ve had a bit of a walking accident.”

You’d better come in” he said matter-of-factly. I followed him into the wonderfully warm house. A quiet, gentle Alsation padded up to me, and stroking him I felt life return to my hands. Quietly, the old man looked over me. “You’d better get out of those clothes. Do you want a drink?”

Er ... y-yes please.”

He put the on the gas fire, and disappeared into another room. I cut open my frozen laces with a nail clipper in my pocket, and struggled out of my icy jeans which turned slowly malleable in the new found warmth, and sat there in front of the glorious heat, clutching that dog and shivering the deep-set cold out of me.

I looked around the room - there were shelves of neatly arranged books on Christianity and faith. He returned and offered me a steaming stoneware mug of coffee.

I’m Jeremy, the vicar for this Parish.” he softly informed me. “So what happened?”

So I told him my tale of my lost friend, and how my reaction had led me into such danger this night. He asked me about James, and about myself, and with the lifting of the cold and the emotional burden, life seemed to take shape once more. And after a while, he got up, saying “We’d better take you home.” He left the room to get changed from his pyjamas and dressing gown, and came back properly dressed, passing me a pair of jogging bottoms. “Try them on.” he said.

There was mainly silence in the warm car trip home, save the odd directions.

When at last he pulled up to my hall of residence and I said “Thanks ever so much”. It didn’t seem enough. He’d saved my life, never complaining once about being woken up at such an unearthly hour, and words seemed such a little thing in return. I owed him a great debt, and he wished for nothing in return. I watched him drive away, passing away into the mist before returning to my room, the Christmas decorations seeming less oppressive than they had been hours earlier.

I woke the next morning still shivering, and looked around my room as if looking at it for the first time. I had lost a friend last night, but in trying to deal with it, I’d looked death in the face myself. Something had changed. I was a little wiser, but not that much. I would still make mistakes, I knew that. But I had looked into the depths of despair and came out the other side. And to survive, sometimes I had to look to myself, and sometimes I knew I had to have to courage to ask for help. There was no shame in needing help I knew that now.

This is not a tale about heroics or a man’s triumphant battle against the elements. This is a tale about a friend who died, a stone which gave me hope, and a vicar who came to the rescue.

James is long gone now, Jeremy has moved to another parish (though I did get the chance to visit him again at a more reasonable hour that summer and thank him again) and I am forever growing into an older, wiser man. With the odd bend in the track along the way.

Life moves on, and death leaves friends behind us. But the stone remains - like a seat on Mount Olympus it looks out over the cliffs and to the countryside of Derbyshire. It hangs on the edge of all that is timeless and eternal. And it waits for me still.

I’ve visited it many times - that strange stone that broke me and re-forged me. And each time I look at what I have done with the extra life and wisdom I gained there, remembering the night when my petty problems faded away and only survival mattered.

I last visited it with my wife, and explained its significance and what happened there, sharing the tale of my struggle against insanity and the elements. And knowing its importance, she promised me that when I die, she would return my ashes there.

It gives me comfort to know that in death I will return to the place that gave me back my life and my hope. For I am a mortal man, and I now know death must someday come to me, as one by one it comes for so many others who I’ve known along the path of life.

But the stone remains. The stone remains forever.


The story you’ve just read was based on real events, with some name changes.

Over twenty years have now passed, and on each December 10th I remember it, and count my blessings as I’ve been given one more year of life. And it feels a wonderful gift, though I say this against the tragedy of a loss of a friend.

This much I know in my story there are two people having problems and asking for help. My friend James was in trouble, and my reaction was to point out his mistakes. However when I was in trouble, Jeremy the Vicar listened and offered help.

I realise now that people in trouble sometimes just need to be listened to, they’re all too aware sometimes of where they went wrong. And often the judgement from another is enough to terrify people from opening up and talking. Life sometimes seems too full of people willing to judge, but it’s the people who’re willing to listen who make the world a better place.

The last year has been a tough one for me, as I lost another close friend named Violet. And in some ways I’ve found myself going through some similar motions as in this story dealing with her loss. Though this time my grief didn’t take me on such a perilous path.

But grief makes us act in strange ways. Sometimes it can seem to others as if a kind of madness has gripped us. But to us, we’re trying to make sense of a strange and very personal loss. I know with Violet I was all too aware of complaining how unfair her death was. As if God was some football referee who if we complained to enough would reverse their decision, and bring you back your beloved friend.

But life can’t work like that, though in grief we wish it could.

Ironically Violet helped me so much with the writing of this story, and now sadly I’m finding I’m adding her name to it, in a way I could never have imagined at the time.

Grief takes us to strange and terrifying places. A lot of times we have to weather the path by ourselves. If this tale has a message, it’s that it’s okay when you’re lost to ask for help.