Interview: Emily is not playing

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a series of interviews on this blog… 

Meet: Emily J Macaulay

When I thought of/shared the idea of doing interviews, Emily is the first person that sprang to mind. We’re twitter associates, and haven’t yet met in real life. In Emily’s words, we ‘connected through a mutual friend talking about triathlon training and then discovered we both love Stella Duffy too’. Which is, frankly, a solid basis for a twittery friendship if ever there was one.

Over the course of our acquaintance, it’s become clear she is one of those rare people who puts her money (and body, and mind) where her mouth is. I’ve just realised that that sentence conjures up an odd picture, but the point is, she gets things done. And by things, I mean she has received an MBE for her services to equality and diversity, and she’s raised over £20,000 (actually, I think at least over £23,000 as of today) for the Jane Tomlinson Appeal by doing a properly challenging challenge almost every year. The Jane Tomlinson Appeal raises funds for childrens and cancer charities – Emily has cancer. She also works in a management position at Exeter Library, a job she moved to after nine years working in the criminal justice system, making use of a postgrad level degree in Criminology and Sociology. 

IMG_1326 (1)
Emily immediately after completing her 2015 Appeal challenge (running the equivalent of John O Groats to Lands End – more on that in the interview…)

That paragraph above is a list of things I’ve learned over the past couple of years, and it barely scratches the surface. I didn’t know much about the background at all, and this seemed like a good opportunity to learn more. Happily, Emily’s also been very supportive of this blog, and agreed to be interviewed.

If just that much has already piqued your interest, you can follow Emily on twitter, check out her blog (which will give you more info on her challenges past and present, as well as her MBE etc) or, if you’re interested professionally, LinkedIn. I’ll post these links again at the bottom of the post.

This is pleasingly long, by the way, so I’d suggest making a cuppa before you start reading, and then we’ll jump right in.*

*Please note, this is an emailed interview. Any awkwardness where I’m asking something that’s already been answered is largely down to my editing, of which I’ve not done a huge amount. Also apologies for any repeats from the introduction in the questions…



FH: When we twitter-met as part of the triathlon/half-ironman community a few years ago, you had broken your hand pre-Wimbleball, which screwed up training, but raced anyway and timed out on the bike leg – so you shrugged that off, picked up for Galway 70.3 and conquered it, which is a brilliantly resilient attitude. So when I think of you the first thing that comes to mind is that you’re an athlete, a stubborn one, and a lover of challenges – preferably tough ones. [For you non-tri readers, these race distances consist of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. And Wimbleball is reputed to have the toughest, hilliest bike leg of them all -BW] I know you’ve raised over £20,000 for the Jane Tomlinson Appeal at this point, so: Why Jane’s Appeal?

EM: Firstly I had to chuckle when you said I “shrugged that off” relating to Wimbleball.  I was AWFUL to be around at that time. I was gutted.  I’d trained so hard, so specifically, trekking out there many times in the preceeding weeks to improve the technical element of my cycle.  The hardest thing was my friend was also doing it so once timed out I had to trudge back to the start and then remain cheery/supportive for her whilst all I wanted to do was go and sulk.

Ok, back to the question in hand. 

I think I was aware of Jane Tomlinson when she first ran the London Marathon in 2002.  My Mum and Dad were running marathons around that time so I was interested in watching it.  It may even have been a year one/both my parents ran it so I was probably glued to the TV trying to spot them.  I thought she was an impressive woman, but in a real way.  There was no hint of celebrity about her and this was before so many people were public about their cancer and having a platform / following as a result of that.

Having been diagnosed with cancer myself I read as much as I good.  Not non-fiction / doctors / cures that kind of thing – I trusted the NHS to do the right thing – but I wanted to know about people’s experiences, I wanted to know how people felt about living with cancer.  So I read as many autobiographies as I could get my hands on.  Helen Rollason’s was an early favourite that I read and re-read.  Then I found that Jane and Mike Tomlinson had written one (and then two following) and it changed everything.  Suddenly there was an ordinary woman just getting on with it.  And this felt like my experience.  That her “getting on with it” was to set serious physical challenges just made it all the more captivating to me.  The blend also of having Mike’s input, as someone close by but looking in, was also a relatively rarely shared perspective.  The book referenced the establishment of the Jane Tomlinson Appeal and I knew, in some abstract way, that I wanted to help.  I like the idea that they haven’t set up yet another charity doing something in someone’s name, but as an Appeal they collate the money and then distribute it far and wide where the need is greatest at any one time.

When I got in contact around the time of my first fundraising challenge I was immediately struck by how real and personable the “team” (only one person at that time) was.  They kept in contact, sent encouraging messages, cheerleaded me and ultimately made me feel like what I was raising made a difference to others and mattered to them.  That hasn’t changed.  They are an amazing organisation that I am so honoured to be associated with, and will do all I can to help.

Cancer shelfie

How long have you been fundraising for?

I’d been applying for a London Marathon place for years and in those days if you were refused five years on the trot you automatically got a place the year after, and so I knew I had a place in the April 2008 race.  Jane Tomlinson died in September 2007 and I was sad.  Like really sad and yet I’d never met her, didn’t know anything more than I’d read about her in her book…but to think this woman was no longer going to be challenging what we think is possible, that felt like a bad thing to me.  I remembered the Appeal and contacted them, saying I wanted to raise money for them and they were happy with that.  I wanted to be part of the work to keep the legacy of Jane alive.

Do you opt for a challenge a year, or try to take breaks? Do you have one planned for 2016?

Ever since 2008 I have done a challenge every year except 2012.  In that year I decided that I would give all my friends a break from me asking them again and again and again for money.  Also I would give myself a break.  It was a bad idea.  I felt emotionally lost for a lot of the year, lacking focus and drive.  I did some great things instead (including having the opportunity to volunteer at the London Olympics 2012) but it wasn’t the same.  There was a real hole in my life.

I am in the final stages of planning my 2016 challenge. [Note: as soon as this is confirmed, I’ll link to it here, and in a new entry as well – FH]  I know what I’d like to do and am just mapping out how it looks over the year.  I will definitely be doing the Leeds 10K this year regardless.  It is the tenth anniversary of the Appeal’s flagship event (organised by their events arm ‘Run For All’) and it’ll be an emotional event to be a part of.

Usually challenges seem to culminate in a final race – like the Iron Man – but for 2015 you opted to run the distance equivalent of John O Groats to Lands End over the course of the year. Was it a different kind of pressure, taking an over-the-year approach?

I didn’t think so before the event.  In fact the whole reason I chose that approach was that in recent years (Yorkshire Marathon in 2013 and Dartmoor Discovery in 2014 – which I got timed out of at the marathon distance) I’d found that getting my body to perform on a specific day was becoming increasingly hard as my cancer affected both my training and on any given day could be a ‘bad day’. If that coincided with an event, it really heaped the pressure on.  So picking a reasonable distance to do over a year, but that would still be challenging, seemed like a good idea. What I didn’t really consider was how challenging this would become if in some months I was way off target.

Did you expect to be doing the final five miles at the absolute end of the year? Or did your original plan have the distance completed by the middle of the year?

Nope.  Particularly as my birthday is New Years Eve so it would’ve been better to not have to run at all.  I think the original plan was to broadly finish at the end of the year – doing low mileage repeatedly through the year – but it ended up all being December heavy (over 100 of the total 604miles done in the final month) so definitely didn’t go to plan. I was too poorly to run at all in February.  Did something like 10 miles in March and similar in November.  This meant I ended up taking it right down to the wire.  Health and general life (and a smattering of simple laziness too) meant that I made it even harder that it needed to be.  A couple of friends have said in many ways they think this has been my hardest challenge year.  I tend to think that title will always rest with the Ironman 70.3….at least until I do a full Ironman (!!??!!)  To do three sports, long distance, within cut off time limits and often on challenging routes. That’s tough. That’s Ironman.

Crossing the finish line at Galway 70.3.

I think you’re one of the most involved, politically and socially active people I ‘know’– always busy and always working to improve the world – and in 2014 you received an MBE for your services to equality and diversity. BUT twitter being twitter, and because you are also sometimes frustratingly modest about your achievements, I don’t actually know much about the background here. What have you been involved in?

Anything I can that matters.  The MBE was specifically for the work I did (beyond the day job) as leader of the Devon and Cornwall Gay Police Association.  The GPA exists as a self-organised voluntary staff support group for members of the policing family (including police officers and police staff) who identify as LGB/T.  As elected Chair I spent a number of years moving the group on from a position of an adversarial relationship with the senior management to one that looked at working with the organisation to improve equality for all.  This took time as many of the older members had experienced direct homophobia within their workplace, and on occasion to extreme levels, but also because the Chief Officer Group had not previously engaged with their own staff in this way (remember, some of these officers will have been police constables when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK). 

Working at relationship building and harnessing the enthusiasm of members I improved the professional image of the GPA locally resulting in our being seen as a credible and useful voice to be heard.  This meant we started to be invited to the most strategic meetings of the organisation and began to influence real change.  This often meant I had to directly challenge the most senior police officers in the force to critically look at their actions and take steps to be proactive in their actions to promote diversity such as tackling attitudes that resisted the introduction of equal opportunities monitoring. 

Once the Chief Officer Group were engaged it was clear to me that part of the struggle to genuinely improve the working experience for front line staff, spread across two rural counties, was to challenge the “banter” that was occurring across the area.  The “banter” that meant some LGB/T staff and officers, still, did not feel safe to be ‘out’ at work to their colleagues.  In some cases people that they would go into very high pressure situations with, trusting each other instinctively… but not enough to tell them their partner was of the same gender as them.  To tackle this I developed and led the group through a campaign referred to as “visible and everywhere” whereby we undertook a range of activities to promote the group, our collective existence, but also our reach.  We wanted isolated LGB/T colleagues to know they weren’t alone and there were group members across the geography and roles and departments.  We wanted narrow minded or old fashioned colleagues that did not identify as LGB/T to realise the impact their “banter” and thoughtless remarks had, and how people can perform better in a working environment when they can be themselves. And we wanted the organisation corporately to recognise the benefit for all of improving equality, encouraging action from colleagues that did not identify as LGB/T but could act as out allies.  Some of our activities were quite passive, such as screensavers promoting the group and having a profiles page on our intranet but others were more robust – going into stations and holding lunch time drop ins, acting as advocates in team briefings, challenging line managers to clamp down on office “banter”.

Changing hearts and minds, particularly of an organisation as entrenched as the police, is never an easy road – nor a quick one, and that work continues today but it is clear to me (and many others) that not only does the individual benefit in an organisation that embraces everyone, but their teammates benefit too because they get someone totally focused on the job and not worrying they may be “caught out”, and ultimately therefore the organisation benefits.  The need to stand up and be counted has not yet passed for the LGB/TI community.  Not everyone can be visible, but those that can, must – it is the only way progress and change will continue.

Emily Macaulay
Speaking at Nottingham Trent University after receiving her MBE


Beyond the MBE I’ve been involved in establishing the Exeter Branch of the Women’s Equality Party, years ago I attended a large public meeting in London arguing against the proposed anti-terrorism laws, I plan to march in February to Stop Trident.

This is a hard question!  Recognising what I do as things that other people would put in those brackets is challenging.

I’ve done a far bit of volunteering over the years.  I was a brownie, then a Guide and then a GirlGuiding UK leader.  I volunteered with the British Trust Conservation Volunteers (as they were then) maintaining environments including weekends spent doing larger scale tasks.  I spent a very special week with the John Muir Trust canoeing up the River Spey and learning about our role and balance with nature.  

But it isn’t all about big things.  I donate a proportion of my salary each month to charities.  I boycott companies that have acted significantly immorally (notwithstanding we live in a capitalist world so there’s a fair bit of immorality accepted as standard) such as Tesco and Nestle.  I make the effort to give food each week to the local foodbank and buy suspended coffees at the café at work.  I do believe that anyone can do something, and we all need to do that.  It is too easy to think that one person can’t make a difference, but every big difference was started by one person. (Gosh I sound like a right up myself prat!!! [No, you don’t! – FH])

‘It is too easy to think that one person can’t make a difference, but every big difference was started by one person.’

Can you remember when you first started wanting to make a mark on the world, make a difference? …

Yup.  When I was young Dad used to take myself and my sister to Chelmsford Library every couple of weeks.  It was our ‘Dad time’ and it first introduced me to the joy of the library.  One of his “rules” was that we could take our limit of books but one had to be non fiction.  I remember being around the age of 13 and taking our a book called “Know Your Rights”.  It was an eye opener.

Around the same time Stephen Lawrence was murdered and I remember reading all I could get my hands on.  I cut out the Daily *ail’s front page (my Dad bought it every day….I now recognise the horror of that) that had photos of the five suspects on it and the headline ‘Murderers’, challenging them to sue the paper for slander.  It was so impactive.

Somehow these started me knowing that I didn’t want to be a passive bystander as I grew up.

… or has that always been something you’ve done?

I think my parents would say I’ve always been challenging.  In latter years the focus has been LGB/TI equality but I’m also very motivated by social justice.

Do you have an achievement in this area that you’re most proud of?

Gosh. Ummm.  Most of the things I get involved with don’t have an end point.  Or I am such a small cog in a big wheel that I don’t feel “proud” as such of any of the achievements.  The MBE is incredibly special, the work I did (as part of a team) improving equality for all in Devon and Cornwall Police felt like a success and it was great to have that recognised by an objective observer.  Similarly I was recently awarded Alumna of the Year 2015 by Nottingham Trent University, my alma mater.  This recognised the work I had done to receive the MBE plus the startings of an ongoing relationship with the University working to improve its equality of access, and nods also to the fledging relationship I have in the Proud Lilywhites (the LGBT Supporters Group for Tottenham Hotspur FC).

There was a twitter-moment some months after we’d been connecting, where you told myself and another twitter-friend that you have cancer, having forgotten we didn’t already know. I don’t want to dwell on it as a subject, as it’s clear from your blog and life that you don’t, publicly, unless you actively have something to say (I’m thinking of your ‘cancer is not a fight, it’s part of me’ post from last year – which I suggest people read, because I think it’s an important stance in a world of pink ribbons and a seemingly recent influx of pretty ‘today I finished my chemo’ signs and smiling positivity photos). 

I’m by far not the first person to challenge some of the language used around cancer such as “battling” and “suffering” and “fighting” and the expectation that one will “rally” but it is something I feel strongly about.  Anyone using wordage like that is banned from having any voice to comment about me post death.  Actually, anyone is banned from any kind of eulogies.  Everyone will have their own versions of me, and some (perhaps many) of those won’t be positive…and that’s fine, that’s real.

I don’t know what type of cancer you have, or when you were diagnosed – and I’m not asking because I’m sure the info would be public if you want it to be.But I wonder, is it part of what pushes you to complete the challenges – to use your body because you can, as well as the fundraising?

I want to raise money, absolutely.  But friends tell me I could sit in a bath of beans and they would still sponsor me (though I still maintain they give a bit more when I do things that they think are difficult for me).

So there is definitely a personal element to the challenges.  Some of it is a focus – a goal to drive for (but the fundraising stops it becoming selfish).  But some of it is also a little masochistic I think. My body has quite a lot of control in many respects. Sure the drugs I take enable me to function (very well) on a day to day basis, but left to its own devices my body causes me pain. So I cause it pain… because I can. Because I choose when and where and why to feel pain.

Plus, as I think I’ve alluded to earlier (I’m not really re-reading what I’m typing) I need to feel like the bad days, the hospital days, are all worth it.  That it matters whether I get up on not.  And that’s all part of it too.

And how do you deal at the times that it ‘reminds [you] it can take control whenever it wants’ (from another blog post)?

I get really grumpy. Like really grumpy.  I’m a very impatient patient so if I’m sick in bed best run for the hills!

I think (a bit like Cameron Diaz’s character in ‘The Holiday’) that I may have long ago lost the ability to actually cry but I do definitely get sad about it on occasion.  I’ve had so many bad days, so many times when I think I may not get better (or well enough) that I guess I’ve kind of acclimatised to it. I have a couple of days in the year when I allow myself to take the ‘lid off the box’ and accept that it is incurable (preferable language to terminal) and look at the contents of the box, toss them around a bit, then put them neatly back and the lid pops on again.  I know that I am incredibly lucky that I can compartmentalise like that.  Similarly I never let anyone come near my hospital appointments with me.  It is very important to me that ‘hospital Emily’ is ever so slightly separate from the other Emily’s.  I’m also lucky to have a great counsellor.  To be honest we talk more about other stuff these days, I think everyone should have a counsellor… that space and time when it is ok for it all to be about you/me.

One of my mantras is “body of steel, heart of stone, brain of a gnat”.  That pegs me pretty accurately I reckon.  

‘One of my mantras is “body of steel, heart of stone, brain of a gnat”.  That pegs me pretty accurately I reckon. ‘

Speaking of the blog, you’ve been Live Journaling since 2001 – do you ever read back over past entries or worry about the you from 15 years ago being available out there? Rarely.  Sometimes I do check what I’ve blogged about if when I’m writing it feels like I’ve said it before.  Occasionally I look at my year summaries just to identify when something happened.  I’m a different person to who I was two years ago, let alone 15 so no, I personally don’t worry about that.  As long as my cyber self is always taken in the context of time that it was portrayed then it is an honest reflection I think. (Plus I figure no one will ever be that interested in me to read back that far.  And will be even less bothered enough to do anything with whatever they find).  Whatever I put in the public sphere I accept is that, public.



Books! Given the title of this blog, and since you work at Exeter Library – we have to have some book talk.

Favourite (or most impactful) book(s)? Top three books of all time – in no particular order. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island, Jane and Mike Tomlinson’s The Luxury of Time and Stella Duffy’s State of Happiness (who by the way is also an awesome woman and a big recommendation of mine to follow on Twitter @stellduffy and her blog

Recommendations? Gosh. Waaaay too many. I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline this year and immediately wanted to read it again.  A story of gaming, journeys, tests and honour.

Never-read-again-in-a-million-years? Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Seriously overhyped in my opinion.  Come on people, the emperor has no clothes.


Coffee! Do you drink it, and if someone wants to buy you a coffee, do you have a preference (you can take this right down to a specific brand/type)? I avoid coffee and tea on the advice of my doctors but I can hunt down a hot chocolate with ninja precision.  The bestest of all the best hot chocolates in the world is Boston Tea Party (large) – this is a south west of England independent group.


And that’s your lot. With many thanks to Emily for her time, I hope you, dear readers, found this as interesting, enjoyable and [emilylookawaynow] inspirational [sorry] as I did. Those links again – all worth clicking on:

One thought on “Interview: Emily is not playing

  1. I’m trying to persuade Emily that ‘admirable’ is an acceptable term to use, because she truly is a very impressive person. Just hide if she launches into her version of Wind Beneath My Wings or any of the other terrible power ballads she so dearly loves. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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