Friday, 25 November 2011

How can a cloud evaporate into a cloud?

So you wake up, and you have no idea what the day has waiting for you.  The pace is recognisable; the landscape is a familiar Sunday.  Then you go for a run and instead of the pain and exhaustion that you have been trying to run through for weeks, your veins suddenly run champagne.
It has been a bad month or two.  My asthma got so bad that I leant on some steroids for about a week.  They made my head feel wrong.  I lost sleep because I would ping awake at three or four in the morning, so would get up and get ahead with my work and emails.  By four in the afternoon I would be exhausted, but my asthma was perfect.  After a few days I felt ready to run again, but I only managed a couple before I was taken down with a cough that everyone seemed to get.  Another ten days or so.  I finally felt ready to run, did a couple.  Then, after spending a morning hunched in bed, writing, my back gave out, so I couldnt run for another two weeks or so.
I gave myself the all-clear about a week ago, so set out.  I couldnt believe what had happened.  
In September I did and 18.2 mile long run and was managing a 40 mile week.  I hit a few speed-bumps, and all that was left of that fitness was, 4 hard and icy miles.  My legs were sore; I was tired; my ankle swelled a bit; my illiotibial band hurt.  'First run jitters', I thought?  The next day I only managed three miles and I was utterly spent.  I had the following day off to recover.  I went back the following day and I managed all of two miles.
This was a major setback. How could my calves hurt so much after all the mileage I had put into them?
I had just got to halfway with my marathon sponsorship and it felt like all my hard-won fitness had the longevity and sustainability of a Greek Euro.
I didnt stop.  I have been two days on, one day off ever since.  Doing what I can manage.  They have been hard, unfulfilling, runs.  None of them reminded me in the least of why I was doing any of this.
I don't quite know where the day went, but it was suddenly the middle of the afternoon and I was supposed to have headed out in the morning.  I quickly change as some of the light is already going, and I am angry with myself for having, yet again, to run in the dark when I had wasted the day sat at my computer.  
I step out, and my legs, for the first time in a couple of weeks, don't feel tired.  I follow my familiar route.  The sun is setting.  I will be finishing this run in the dark. Again.

The air's heavy and dank. Not too cold.  Everywhere droplets glisten, but this water fell from a cloud and hasn't moved since it got here, days ago.  The atmosphere is too heavy for it to evaporate into.  How can a cloud evaporate into a cloud?
It is not until I turn onto Blackheath that I see the thick banks of fog that gather, just like cumulus clouds, directly above the point where moisture is trying to escape.  Where there's grass, there's fog.  The sun is setting, too, leaving bright pink candy stripes across the sky that shimmers through the mist.  I laugh because the thing that it looks most like is candyfloss. Summer has leap-frogged autumn and met winter.
Wordsworth loved mist precisely because of the manner in which it prevented him from seeing.  The 'Mont Blanc' sequence in The Prelude is when he is at his  most eloquently disappointed by 'the desert of the real'.  For days he climbs The Alps, his anticipation swelling with every crunching step towards the summit. The clouds part.  The summit of Mont Blanc is lain before him in bright sunlight. And, he 'grieved to have a soulless image on the eye.'  The hierarchy of perception dictates Wordsworth's relationship with the place. He expects an aesthetic experience, but he gets a natural one.  He prefers the mist.  It is intellectually fructifying.  The boundlessness of his imagination is free to envision this moment of communion in numerous ways, but Wordsworth's 'real' experience reduces it to one.  Mont Blanc is revealed. It is bald, plain. Only on the descent do the limits of his imagination begin to shimmer once again as they fail to recall the reality of his memory.  As his descent continues, he is able to take ownership of the place by forgetting its actuality.  In an inversion of Friedrich's The Wanderer above the Sea and Fog, Wordsworth descends below the clouds so that he can become the self-proclaimed conqueror of his land once again.
There is something unpleasantly coercive in Wordsworth's relationship with nature. He seems to want to not want it. His idea of it is more important.  Nature cannot exist on its own terms, and here it seems to become a psychological construction.  A theatre in which Man may celebrate his divine powers of creativity.  A proscenuim to frame his own ideology. 

I love fog.  Obviously not because the air is even more difficult to breathe than normal.  And not because it keeps a 'soulless image' from my eyes.  Or is it?  I think I love it because it randomnly selects and deselects aspects of the landscape that we would never think to rest our eye upon.  Unlike snow, it does not come to rest in predictable places.  In seconds, it can change everything.
I should be sensible and keep my run short.  But I can't not divert into Greenwich Park with the heath looking so magical.
Erasure and focus. Telescope and microscope. Grayscale and technicolour.
Fog alters the way that we can look at a place. But if you close your eyes, it sounds different, too.  The acoustics are not so eidered as they are by a quilt of snow.  It's more like a century or two of forest has sprung up around you. Open spaces are suddenly private and enclosed ones.  Pathways in your vision suddenly close and your eyes must find a new route. Like the landscape has become braille, you have to feel your way through it.  
When I first enter the park it is a disappointment; this is not why I am going overdrawn in my energy bank.  Too much of it is hidden from view. The path goes off in three directions, but they are so stunted that they look more like the tines of a fork than long and winding waythrus.  Just like on the Heath, the fog has landed on the ground like dollops of mashed potato and in seconds I'm through and the landscape is renewed.  
Canary Wharf, a clutch of buildings I usually dislike because of their sturdy dominance of the London skyline (like two tectonic plates of Meccano collided a few millennia ago), looks fantastical.  The fog rests so heavily that the ground and the river that separates us has disappeared altogether leaving the buildings to float above this sea of clouds.  The sky is still pink from a setting sun.  The interior lights of One Canada Square usually look steely-white against a night sky, but the grey of the fog does something altogether different to them.
Grey, even as a metaphor, is supposed to signify absence.  Without colour, without character, it is grey.  But the grey of the fog seems to lend itself to its surroundings.  For this dusk, the lights of One Canada Square sparkle with a deeply affluent gold.  The building next to it is trimmed with neon tubes of shimmering teal.  These are the same lights that have always been there, so the grey of the fog cannot be 'no colour', but one that gives itself to others. Grey is only grey because it has given itself away. It has made this magnificent cloud city.
I turn my back on this sight and head for home, into the mist.  And as I run into another cloud on the land, for the first time in months, I feel not like I could go on forever, but at last, that I might want to.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

"Cry 'Havoc'!"

Handle, up; it honks like a goose as the lock is engaged into the PVC doorframe of the porch - I spin the key and then fold it neatly into my shorts.  The house is on a steep hill at the North end of Brighton.  The sky is clear, odd on a day as hot as this - with miles of view you expect to see gossamer films of mist, but it’s a day when all the landscape can see itself in itself.  The Isle of Wight must be fifty miles from here, it looks just as close as Worthing pier.  Both shimmer in the heat.
I have lived here for three years.  It is a big house, a beautiful one, but it isn’t mine.  It has more character than any house I have ever seen.  It has a solid oak staircase.  In every window there is stained glass, and in every window pane the stained-glass design is slightly different.   The garden is full of mature roses, peonies, lilac, the borders are lined with sweet woodruff and lavender.  But these are someone else’s plants, someone else’s idea of what a garden should be.  This was the forever house.  It was one to grow old in.  How could it possibly have lived up to that?  
At the last house, I had made a garden out of nothing.  It began as builder’s rubble with a thin skin of recently unrolled turf. After a couple of years, on almost any day, you could see jays, wagtails, greenfinches, sparrows, robins, wrens, blackbirds, goldcrested finches, blue tits, rooks, hedgehogs, jackdaws, swallows, great tits, dragonflies, toads, hummingbird moths, or bats.  Here, there is nothing.  Pigeons occasionally land in the centre of the lawn like they are counters on a square of Snakes and Ladders, and in seconds, with the look of one who has mistakenly grabbed someone in the street they thought they knew, they are gone. 
The house is empty and leaving it always feels better than returning.
I am not a very good runner.  I have a big appetite, though.  I want to run more than I can, and for the moment I see this as a physiological desire, like hunger, rather than an emotional one.
I climb to the brow of the hill and turn north onto an artery clogged with the earth's adipose deposits, cars.  I imagine the queue of traffic running for two solid miles all the way to the NCP Car Park in the town centre.   Brighton Sundays, everyone seems to want them.  Not me, not today, it’s air I want, not sea.
After a mile up this road, the traffic suddenly turns hard East or West and you are left suddenly alone.  A couple more hundred metres and you cannot hear it.  A democracy of pathways lead you towards the long peaks from which you can see most of Sussex and Surrey.  The South Downs are an escarpment of chalk deposits, folded like soft dough, some sixty million years older than either you or I.  They stretch for hundreds of miles.   The nineteenth-century poet and naturalist, William Henry Hudson wrote that ‘during the whole fifty-three mile length from Beachy Head to Harting the ground never rises above a height of 850 feet, but we feel on top of the world’.
It is summer, 2006.  I have been running for a few weeks, eight perhaps, and I am able to do about six miles.  I have been here before, many times before.   
My body is about to reach a very familiar point when an injury, so common as to be named after the activity itself, will break cover to stop me in my tracks: runner’s knee.  Not today, though - and probably not tomorrow, but somewhere in these long grasses I know it is stalking its prey.
Weight has been falling away.  I haven’t been trying to lose it, but I find that it is being burned quickly by something.  People often think that running is a good way to lose weight, but it isn’t really.  Most of the energy that’s consumed in the run is glycogen that will be replaced by the next meal or two you eat.  It is a little like saying that a car has lost weight in it's drive across town because it has used some petrol.  No, I think that both have the same cause: I want to run because of something else, I am losing weight because of the same ‘something else’. 
The Romantic poet, Charlotte Smith, devoted a sonnet to this place - although like many Romantics, the place became a means to explore herself.   In ‘To the South Downs’ she hopes, 
Ah! Hills beloved - your turf, your flowers remain;
But can they peace to this sad breast restore,
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a breaking heart to throb no more?
While the lexis and lyricism may seem recognisably, perhaps tiredly, melancholic - the rugged syntax, a jigsaw piece forced into the wrong position - the poem knowingly sees in this place an inoculation against something that cannot be borne.  The poem ends bleakly in a wish for the oblivion of death as a liberation from pain.  A desire for the heart to stop ‘throbbing’ is also found in Hardy’s 1898 lyric to sexual frustration. ‘I look into my glass, / And view my wasting skin, / And say, “Would God it came to pass / My heart had shrunk as thin!” If only we might stop feeling, both poets seem to say.
But here, when I touch the first grass of the Downs, I feel like I have stepped onto a web.  That my movement has set it tingling.  That my footsteps are like tiny tremors, detectable for miles around. That this spun fabric is all connected and it can see me from every angle.  That I have left one community and am communing with another quite different one. That it is a labyrinth in which I am not lost.  That it is not today, but everyday, any day in the past or future. The last thing I feel is the desire for it to end. To not feel this.
In mile three, I am still headed away, and I arrive at The Dyke.  How many times have I been here?  A thousand, perhaps? I am used to telling people that I go there, not for the hundreds of square miles of view of the Sussexes, but that it is the same place and I have never once seen it looking the same.  I know every pathway and wobbling styal, even today I could find some puddles and mud.  The acidity of sun-baked cowshit pinches at my nose.  In the distance I see Havoc with his owner tearing behind after him.  I chatted to the man a couple of years before.
'Havoc? Why Havoc?'
His eyes bulged.  He took a breath. ‘ “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Julius Caesar, Act 3.  Do you know it?’
'Yes.' I didn't.
'And yours?'
Feeling suddenly inadequate.  'Oh. He's called Ben.' Hearing his name, he looked up at me.  I scratched his head. Mr Havoc seemed unimpressed.
On days like today, the Downs take on a strange timpanic resonance.  As my feet strike the ground of this 500ft crease in the landscape it sounds empty, like my footsteps may be heard for miles around - perhaps even in the villages on the Weald, below.  People will have been farming the land here for thousands of years.  Others in that time will also have wondered at this echo from within the hills, it makes the earth seem unreal somehow.  And with every beat of this drum a breath of white dust is thrown up by the chalk as it reaches the point when it cannot separate into any more constituent parts.  Only water and unthinkable tectonic pressure, an event so dramatically catastrophic - just like one that will have made these hills reach for the heavens millions of years ago - will bring these micro-grains together again to form solid ground.  A new ground for the future, one whose landscape is unimaginably different to today’s, but is fundamentally made of the same parts.
It does not occur to me that, of course, I am not thinking about the landscape at all.  After only a couple of hundred metres my runner's leash is at full stretch.  I turn my back upon the world, retracing my steps South, and home.
It has only been a few weeks, but I am already addicted to this powder.  At first it was free, but I am beginning to realise that it has a price.  It is expensive, and I cannot afford it for long.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Welcome to 'The Zone'

Today was a strange one. A day off yesterday so a run was on today. I had a very light breakfast.  Worked a little. Then, 

ENOUGH! It’s Sunday for God’s sake.  I put on my trainers, said I would be gone for 60-90 minutes and stepped out the door, not knowing how far I was going to go. 
The Ferrier Estate, in glorious full colour
The first mile passes a little quickly.  Am I going a bit fast?  Then something odd happens.  Instead of turning up towards Blackheath, to snake up to it through Atkinson-Grimshaw land, I find that I have gone straight.  The road is awful (Lee High Road).  I drive on it all the time and I know that it is shite and has nothing whatsoever to offer me, but here I am.  Today, for some reason, I don’t mind the noise at all and am driven by wanting to do something a little different.  So I do.
After a mile, I turn North off the main road and head towards Kidbrooke.  I have driven through here a few times, but I don’t really know it.  I have seen the council estate from the road and it looks, huge - like a city in itself, one that it is about to collapse at any moment.  Mile 2, done.  At last, I touch concrete that I’ve neither seen nor sensed before.  The road is deserted.  The estate is boarded off, solid metal fences block pathways, deserted flats have had doors and windows covered by huge metal panels, their numbers graffitied on them in freehand figures.  I suppose it is all being demolished.  The road is quiet.  It is straight, and it is long.  I run down the middle of it.  
This landscape is amazing.  This is life in black and white.  No, that’s wrong.  This is life in grayscale.  There was a deep cerulean sky, now there are only varying shades of colourlessness.  The buildings are such a deeply hostile grey that the sap the colour from the few trees that surround them. 

They are all connected by intestinal walkways.  Some have prosthetic growths, huge grey boxes that hang from the side of the blocks.  Everything is piped, vented, rivetted.  Some are connected by ladders that were once painted pink, a long time ago.  They have hoops all the way up to protect a climber from falling.  But to look at, the first rung would crumble to rusty ashes if someone was to step upon it.  The concrete on the blocks is so jaggedly ridged that it would rip open your skin just to feel it.  Tarkovsky would not have needed an art-director to shoot here.  No set dressing would be necessary.  Welcome to The Zone.

I circumnavigate the entire estate.  It is going to be developed.  Everywhere are banners and borders shouting that new life is about to begin.  But that is all.  I run for well over a mile around the complex, and I see no one.  A bus goes by.  What the fuck for?  Nobody’s here. The bus is empty.  I find it hard to believe that anyone was actually driving it.  My iPod has been on random, and this is the moment that I first hear Ghostpoet’s ‘Survive it’.  It is a sort of ambient dub-step and it sounds so much like it belongs here that it is sweating from the pores of these condemned buildings.  Curtains hang in windows, not ‘hang’, but hang from maybe two hooks.  My God!  Some of these flats are still occupied.  Some have no windows - I don’t mean that they have been smashed.  I mean they have no windows.  No glass.  No frames.  Just a wide open aperture looking out onto an erupting A2.  I see a poster, so big that it is the size of one the blocks.  
‘For today, for tomorrow, for the future’.  
I don’t know what this means.  For whose future?  The council tenants that have been turfed out so the valuable commuter land could be sold to developers?  
The developers are making space for the new buildings. Some areas on the eastern side of the site are fenced off by solid panels, green and glossy like trees just into leaf. They are eight foot tall and plastered with empty marketing rubbish like 'for greener living'. There are pictures too.  The boards continue in an unbroken motif for hundreds of metres. 
  1. A woman, in her twenties, is hunched over her bike. She concentrates hard. Her cheeks balloon slightly as she exhales hard into a chimp's 'ooo'. She is wearing oyster-coloured Lycra.  Her earphones are clipped and taped efficiently to her body.  She concentrates hard on her balance.  But she is surrounded by blurred taupe.  She is inside.  The bike is in a gym that doesn’t exist yet.
  2. The next is of a young man. He lies back on some green grass, fingers interlaced behind his head. He has a blissful, or is it a smug, smile on his face like he is being sucked off out of frame. He wears a huge pair of silver headphones. His eyes are closed. 
  3. Next, a Taxi, stylistically blurred, speeding through the reddened night of London's streets. 
  4. Then a landscape with … a blue river.  A nondescript one.  A generic one.  The simulacra of one.
  5. And finally, the Cutty Sark - a tea schooner in Greenwich which has been under cover from public view for at least four years. 
All of these images are an absolute denial of place. One works hard to escape on a stationary bike, performing with considerable intensity and focus, an exercise that will get her nowhere. Another shuts his eyes to close himself off from the world and drowns out the noise with fuck-off ‘phones. The other three are definitively about not being here. And all this primary-Technicolour seems like it is a distraction. A magician's sleight of hand to distract visitors from seeing what their luxury new apartments are destined to become.  Live here long enough and you will see it become The Zone once again.
Then something odd. On my left is a height cross-wire fence looking out on to some fields. Right by my head as I bounce along is a squirrel. It runs with me on the top of the fence. At first I wonder if I have startled it and it is trying to run away from me, but it is stuck in the one-dimensional world of the wire of the fence-top. But it could have run the other way. It has a hazelnut in its mouth. It matches my pace for a few metres, then like it’s fallen from a great height, splats its limbs at a tree, quickly climbs and is gone. Does it gambol like this because the landscape is so static and unpeopled. I have had enough of this devastation and I need air. I have a narrow desire to get up high somewhere.   I head North out of Kidbrooke and the first thing I see is a giant Homebase.  I laugh aloud - what a terrible advert for that shop to have such a state on its doorstep.
A couple of days before, Adam and I were walking out of Hilly Fields and he asked what that hill was in the distance.  I hadn’t the least idea.  It took us a few minutes to work out that it had to be the old A2 and Shooter’s Hill.  It looks so big with a huge watertower on the summit.  I don’t care how far it is, that’s where I’m going, now.   
After the run I check the climb.  Had I known it was 500ft, one of the highest points in London, that the climb went on for over a mile, would I have done it?  Hmmm...
The climb seemed interminable and I was reminded of the fact that for well over a thousand years, marauders have hunted here, preying upon exhausted horses and their rich passengers.  They were still doing it 800 years later when Dick Turpin hunted here. Pepys remarked upon seeing the deterrent of men hanged from gibbets (11/4/1661).  But none of this stops me from wanting to run to the top of the world and look over the precipice.  To see land.  To see something that isn't concrete.  To touch a void as a remedy to all this tightly-compacted civilisation.

Silent comrade of the distances,
Know that space dilates with your own breath

Saturday, 13 August 2011

How not to do LSD

Click here for the map.
    Two days after my riot-run and I am primed for my LSD. In the morning I have nine miles to fuel for and run before midday. I eat cereal, toast, a banana and sit down for a couple of hours. Rain begins to fall. I never like stepping out into it, but love running in it once I am warm and calm - too long though, and the soles of your feet begin to wear away inside your shoes. I hope my feet don't get too wet too quickly. London is still recovering after its nights of rioting so I head towards Peckham (where there have been riots) and adjacent Dulwich, Lady Thatcher's old constituency, where there haven't. But there is something wrong. By the time I reach the bottom of my road (about a hundred metres) my legs feel like they are running on some stability-testing fairground ride. I am breathing heavily. I turn the corner and outside the Riley's snooker hall on the wide pavement there are sizeable dollops of horse shit. It is hard to think of a landscape less suitable for horse riding than the raging noise, metal and concrete of this junction. But here they must have been, crowd controlling Lewisham's bottom feeders. Within half a mile I am beginning to think that I might be sick. In fact, for all the full stops in the rest of this post read thus: 'and I still feel that I am about to puke'. I struggle through the first mile, convinced that the heaviness of my lungs and heart will pass at any moment .(. - and I still feel like I am about to puke).
    The weight of whatever it is sticks to me, hangs on me. I fight. I could cut this run to four miles, and sneak in this nine tomorrow, at some point - though I don't know when. No, you came out for nine, that's what you'll do. Bing, mile three. Some boarded up shops and estate agents off Peckham Rye, but I'm not interested. Mile four. I feel like I am carrying a cannonball on my stomach. I am carrying water, which I HATE having to do, but I cannot drink any of it, feeling more stuffed than during post-prandial games on Christmas Day. So I have to carry the full bottle and I can hardly breathe my heart is beating so hard.
Into Dulwich and there are no signs of riot damage. I pass a bright blue and old-fashioned drop-crossbar ladies' pushbike chained to a lamppost. It has had its front wheel stolen - I hubristically wonder if this is as bad as it got, here. But Dulwich has two things to say in return. One, no - and I know this because twenty yards on I can see a big queue outside a shop. The high street is deserted except for this. As I get closer, I see that it is not housewives queueing for rations in the 1940s, they are waiting their turn at the local locksmiths. Two, revenge. Leaving Dulwich and heading south, there is a huge hill. All of the miles so far have been run slower than 10 minutes. I climb this hill so slowly that I might have walked up it, backwards, at a faster pace. How have I got so far and held my breakfast down? The scene is suddenly offset by the sight of Enid Blyton's house. It all seems so far away from the endless summer of her vision of England. Climb. Climb. Climb. I pass the Horniman Museum, a name that always makes me snigger for puerile reasons. Left, my head tells me this must be north. The sun in the sky is only a dim memory behind this thick concrete of cloud (and still I ...). The hill cannot possibly continue further up, any higher and I will be through the cloud cover. Then, ahh, Mrs Jordan's house. I always knew she was hidden away around here somewhere. Mrs Jordan was an actress in the early nineteenth century, and was the mistress of William IV, one of the two incompetent kings fathered by George III. The thought strikes me, could it be this horni-man that the museum is named for. My spirits obviously easing. The road slants away from me, slowly. It is a blissful sight. I am over an hour into the run, and although the nausea eases, it does not subside entirely. Now it is only helped by the slow and easeful pace aided by the curve down to Forest Hill.
     This is the worst run I have done that did not end in, or was cut short by, injury. I made numerous mistakes. I ate too much. I went out too quickly. I ignored the fact that I was struggling. I was putting unnecessary strain on my heart. I could have brought on an asthma attack. Less fuel, more fun. But the most basic rule that I ignored was that the run was supposed to be an LSD. There is nothing about the concept of Long, Slow, Distance that fits with it being done in a hurry, being done in even a slightly curtailed timeframe. Instead, what I had done was fusion running. I had taken a Michelin starred dish of delightful LSD and remixed it as fast food. Of course the result was utterly nauseous.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Run. Riot. Riot-run.

Run. Riot. Riot-run. (click here for the map)
It’s early August in 2011.  I am visiting my sister in York.  We set out with a personal trainer that she has begun seeing and go for a run round the Knavesmire (almost a year to the day after I first tried to run on my forefoot, there).  I don’t do all my runs barefoot, but I now try and do half of my 30-mile week either barefoot, or with a zero-drop minimalist shoe like the Vibram Five Fingers.  Today though, I go barefoot.  There is a concrete path round the racecourse on which we run.  The weather is highly changeable, raining on one half of the racecourse, sun on the other.  It is a bad asthma day.  My mother is visiting York, too, and she is wheezing this morning.  My sister, Erika, is breathing heavily, we have to stop so she can take a hit of salbutamol.  I had taken extra before I came out.  Because I usually run alone, I have forgotten how much noise runners make.  She and her trainer clomp the concrete.  They don’t stomp or slap it, but there is still a noticeable noise.  I try to listen to the noise my feet are making.  I’m quite short so they are quite nearby.  But I can’t hear them.  Pompously, I point this out to my sister. ‘This is why barefoot running doesn’t fuck your knees. Listen.’  But she is too busy breathing deep and calm.  Some older folk, dog walkers, eye the three of us. ‘Did you forget to put your shoes on?’, one of them smiles.  ‘They’re too expensive.  I don’t want to wear them out.’
Eight hours later.  I have packed up my things and I’m returning home.  My phone bings a text, it is a friend asking if there is a riot in Lewisham?  The train is just pulling in to the station.  I step off the train.  In seconds I can see from the platform that in both directions cars clog the main artery into London.   There are police on the concourse of the station.  Immediately, I step back on to the train.  However far the next stop is, I can walk back from there.  As the train crawls away from the station, it goes over a bridge a few metres from my house.  There are lines of police.  They wear helmets, have truncheons and riot shields.  They are blocking my road.  Riots and Tories; add one letter and they are anagrams for one another.
I get off the train in thick south-east London suburbia.  There is nothing happening here.  I am hot and tired from my journey.  My bags pull harder at my shoulder with every step.  Something is in the air.  Small groups are magnetically drawn back into Lewisham.    The atmosphere is that of a carnival.  The streets, usually empty when I run them, are populated.  The pub that always looks closed is very open.  There are mothers with young families, they are going to this fair of violence and chaos.
We spend the evening watching the police from our balcony.  Then we go in, shutting the door to drown out the noise of hovering helicopters.
Riots break out all over London.  On the map they look symmetrically balanced between the north, south, east, and west.  Buildings are burned down.  A man is shot.  Widespread looting is reported.  Is this David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society?
The next day, I have six miles to do.  I decide to take a tour of the high streets of Lewisham, Greenwich, and Blackheath.  I want to see how and where people are.
In Lewisham, McDonalds’ windows and doors have been smashed.  There is no market.  About a third of the shops have not reopened.  The shutters are down on the electrical shops.  Even the pound shops are closed, the ‘99p shop’ though has had its windows smashed, for undercutting its competitors? - I wonder.
The street is busy with riot tourists, just like me.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron, tells us that there will be 16,000 police on the streets of London tonight.  As I pass the largest police station in Europe I see three men in uniform marching.  As I get closer, I see they are policemen carrying something.  Closer still, they are large trays of assorted cakes.  They are buzzed through the thick metal gates before I can ask them who they are for.
I crease and climb through a few streets and in a couple of minutes I am on Blackheath.  Nature, here, is immune to the craziness.  Almost everything would have been the same a thousand years ago.  It is quiet, the crows, strung out like pebbles in the landscape.  There is one exploring its territory every ten metres or so, for as far as I can see.
I cross the heath and descend into Greenwich.  It looks like a normal sunny day.  I circumnavigate the one-way system and everything seems as usual. The market looks quiet, but then, it is a Tuesday.
Turning south for the park, cars and pedestrians compete for space.  The pavement is narrow.  Weaving between tourists I take to the edge of the kerb, inches from oncoming cars.  Three abreast walk towards me.  A stocky man is in my path and I can see a car approaching him from behind.  I cannot step into the road; I will be hit.  I am between two and three miles into my run.  This is just the point when the runner’s high should kick in.  Instead, something else happens.  The euphoria is poisoned.  I angle my shoulders to make more space for us to bypass one another.  He does nothing, perhaps expecting me to step into the oncoming traffic that he cannot see.  With my trailing shoulder, I hit him so hard that I nearly knock him down.  Idiot.  Fury rises.  My shoulder burns, but I was braced for it.  What must his feel like?  Five more steps and a silver GTi ejects from a driveway into a tight turn directly at me.  The twenty-something driver has a diamond earring which is all I can see of him because he is looking in the opposite direction.  I jump out of the way, punching his wing mirror with a loud crack as I recover my direction.  Fucking Idiot.  Ten more metres and I’m in the park.  I stop to slip off my shoes.  The static tension, probably building for miles, is suddenly earthed when my bare feet touch the ground.  You fucking idiot.  I have occasionally manhandled an unattended umbrella from poking me in the eye, but I have never taken-on a car. 
Barefoot, regretful, I skip off.  I am already on a different run.  I barely notice climbing the park’s 200 foot hill.  It is one that usually leaves me exhausted, but before I realise that I am climbing it I am back on the flat approaching the heath. There are more dogs in the park than normal.  These are not South-London dogs, but recognisable breeds.  Are they Greenwich and Blackheath mutts getting their exercise because their owners don’t know when they may venture out again?  Marshall law is descending.  
I cross over the eastern side of the heath for the last two-mile leg of the run.  I want to see Blackheath.  I head into the village on the pavement and for the first time in a year’s barefoot running I find myself in a pool of broken glass outside a clothes shop.  Before I know it, I am dancing through it like I’ve hit the tyres on an assault course.  I escape.
The pavement has been polished smooth with wear and it is a delight to run on.  Outside a shop there is a sudden stew of pushchairs and pedestrians, and we all fall upon apologies to one another before any of us knows what’s happening. The know quickly unties and we are all on our ways.
Heading south, I start the steep ascent out of the village, brimming with energy.  ‘Look at that fucking idiot’.  I am astonished.  The voice that said it was old. Proper old with no recognisable accent.  Did I really hear it?  This London air is toxic.  But with the sea-change of my run effected by going barefoot at the forefront of my mind, I shout my nonsensical and sincere reply.  ‘You should try it.‘  
Perhaps she should.  She sounded like she needed earthing, too.  
At the top of the hill, I decide that she may be right and I put my shoes back on.  The last mile or so and the only thing I see out of the ordinary is a waddling traffic warden.  He seems brave.  It might be a bright and sunny weekday lunchtime, but I wouldn’t be caught ticketing someone today, never mind being seen in that uniform.  The strangeness of the day is restored when I see that he is accompanied by a policeman.
When I plug in my GPS at the end of the run it displays, among other things, my heart rate.  On the graph, there is a sharp red spur, like an electrical surge, just before I entered the park and took off my shoes.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

It has a big sign that says ‘PRIVATE’, but unfortunately I don’t see it.

Harrow run - click here

After two days’ celebrations I’m a little the worse for wear.  It’s hot.  Dehydration is only a missed water opportunity away as my body is already primed for it.  I am in, not West London, but West-west London: South Harrow.  Even though I am returning to South East London later that day, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity to tramp unfamiliar ground.  I look at the map.  Foolishly refuse to take a phone or water and set out for Harrow-on-the-Hill and the School where Byron led a rebellion against the new headmaster in 1805, and Trollope attended as a ‘free day-boy’.
The pavement decoration of my childhood was sweetwrappers, fag butts, and white dog shit.  In adulthood, it is gnawed and discarded chicken bones.  They punctuate the pavement like commas strewn across a page.  This street is busy.  It is lunchtime on a Sunday afternoon and there are people everywhere.  There a few recognisable shops.  My favourite is the gall of  “Hollywood Pizza - Kebabs and Burger’s”.  I have never been to Hollywood.  Maybe it is just like this there.  A few people I run past are startled, not hearing me coming up behind them because of all the noise.  One boy in a vest must have shown the tattooist a fake ID to get all that arm work done.  I turn off the main street and head up the hill.  Nowhere else in the world does geography work in the same way as London.  One moment you are slipping on takeaway wrappers, the next you may as well be in a quiet village in the Cotswolds for all the Elizabethan architecture and carless streets.  
I struggle to the top of the hill - it’s about a 250 foot climb - and head where the traffic is not going.  On the right, a mews falls away from the road.  I laugh when I see the road sign for it: Obadiah Slope - the most unctuous of villains from Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles.  Vanity kicks in so I laugh louder than I need to.  Like I want all the dwellers of Obadiah Slope to know that I got the joke, really, really, I got the joke - I belong here.  But, anyone that laughs to be heard at this sign, just like Trollope, does not belong.  They are a usurper.
The whole street is like turning down one of those alleys in Cambridge and finding yourself in the fifteenth century.  I have crowned the top of Harrow’s Hill and the road begins to slant and curl away.  An old couple are crowding the pavement coming up the other way.  And, like she’s featuring in this Edwardian drama, she has a sunbrella.  She falls behind her husband to let me pass.  I do the most unaccountable thing.  I have never done this before.  I find that I am also featuring in the same Edwardian drama.  I salute her.  She smiles wide. 
The sun, hard on my face.  I am starting to feel a little thirsty.   I am not willing to give up all this hard won height so quickly.  I turn back the way I came, but I cross the street so as not to alarm the Edwardian couple.  Through a narrow crack between two of the school buildings, I catch a TV screen of stunning view.  The buildings I can see are like letters in an agnaram.  All the characters are there.  You know the word, but it looks completely different.  The London skyline looks odd from here.  There is the bowing arc of Wembley stadium, the Nat West Tower, the unfinished Shard, the Gherkin, but they are all mixed up by their new perspective and arrangement. I must see more.
A few yards further and there is a gate ajar.  It has a big sign that says ‘PRIVATE’, but unfortunately I don’t see it.  There is no chance of a stealthy look because I am now running on a gravel path that wheezes a smoker’s cough with every step.  The TV screeen of London spreads to a super-wide Cinemascope.  Wedges of green field spread out beneath me.  But someone is here.  They are watching me.  They are sat on a bench reading.  I try to act like I am supposed to be here.  I bid them good afternoon and ask them the quickest way down to the fields.  Without missing a beat, they tell me.  I’m off again, crunching down the gravel path.  Working my way between the folds of the buildings.  Some kids are photographing some others who are wearing what look like dunce’s caps.
It looks like Sussex, not London.  It is so green and deep it's like you could swim in it.
Then, another corner, and straight ahead of me is a running track.  I can’t not.
This is my first time on a running track since school.  Perhaps the first since my terrible ‘mile’ in the house match at the age of 14 - when I came in last.  There are countless coloured markings that I don’t understand but I am tempted to take my shoes off it is so soft.  I go round once.  There are hundreds of windows overlooking me and people are playing tennis in the next field.  Surely I can’t get away with this.  
I go round again.  I spy someone walking fast in my direction from the car park.  Time to leave.  I don’t look behind me - why would I? - I am supposed to be here.
I branch off onto a rugby pitch heading still for the London skyline.  But there’s a ha-ha.  The ground dips steeply into a shoreline of breaking nettles.  And, “ha ha”, there is a surreptitious couple here lain on the grass.  Who are they hiding from?  They certainly are not schoolchildren.  I have to run past them, dance through the nettles and I am into another field that looks like farmland.  
The sun is high.  My throat burns for water.  I am at least three miles from base.  
And still, there are more people.  Walkers this time, a family? I pretend to myself that I am brave in these situations, but I am uncomfortable.  I run straight towards them - of course I would, I am supposed to be here.  I smile a welcome but they ignore me.  Over a stile, a field, over another stile, another field.  A gate.  Then, a nest of brambles.  No one has picked them.  They don’t need to forage, here.  The bush is full of inky black fruit. I pull at one to taste.  It is as sweet as honey.  Within seconds I am grabbing at them feeding myself with both hands.  Each one bursts in my mouth - water!  Only this way can you get the full flavour of the fruit, with the traces of grit and spiderweb that seem to accentuate the deep, deep, sweetness.  Warm, still, from the heat of the sun.  They remind me of the grapes in Poussin’s, Autumn from his Four Seasons, where bunches of berries are bigger than the torsoes of the pickers.  

Over another stile and I am suddenly back in the white and noise of suburbia.  A few more metres and it is a dual carriageway, like the fields and fruit were a dream.  I am lost.  I can’t retrace my steps, it’s too far, now.  The risk of being caught on the school grounds was worth it for a first look, but not for getting back.  I run to the lights in the hope that one of the junction’s options will look familiar.  They don’t.  The place names are all softly  familiar, but I can't situate myself in relation to them. The traffic stops.  The car windows are open in the heat.  I ask a driver and girlfriend of a glimmering Audi for directions.  His voice is absolutely London, but his manner is not.  He is prolix and careful in his response.  I had expected him to wind up his window, eyes forward.  Instead, he explains the landmarks that I must look out for.  He can see that I am tired and hot.  He apologizes for sending me up a steep hill.  ‘Are you sure you will be OK?’, he asks.  His car is facing the opposite direction but his intonation is clearly offering me a lift.  In the sun and on the run the normal rules don’t apply.  I feel like he would have opened his wallet if I’d asked. 
"I'll be alright.  Thank you." The lights change and they are on their way again.  And I am on mine.
I make my second climb up Harrow's Hill.  I hit a bend in the road that at last I recognise.  I run faster and faster and faster, giddy with the excitement of the run - or was it just the crimson sugar of the blackberries hitting my bloodstream.
The shape of my run is lost to me. I cannot visualise it.  Only when I return will the magic of GPS reveal exactly where I have been.  On the map, my runs are superimposed in red, arterial tracks in the landscape, but I am not their lifeblood.  It is of course these landscapes that now run in my veins. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

On the run for three decades.

It’s 1984. A school-skipping, Nike-sponsored-breakdancing, minor-law-bending fourteen year old is sitting in a classroom when the bearded teacher announces that they are going to be doing ‘a criticism’ of ‘The Lake Isle Innesfree’.  He (for it was a ‘he’) hands round some first-generation photocopies; they are the sticky purple ones that turned my stomach because they smelt just like the dentists’.  There it is; a short poem.  Now I must do my ‘criticism’ of it.  I wonder what that might be?
Silence falls; they are all so busy ‘criticizing’.  Nobody talks, flicks wet snot from their ruler onto the teacher’s back, kicks over their neighbour’s desk, or dances around the classroom like a chimp in the throes of a caffeine-fuelled frenzy.  What am I doing here?  What has any of this got to do with me?  If only some angel could have whispered in my ear ‘Er, the poem’s about the desperate need to escape.  I would have thought you might be quite interested in that, Vybarr. Your middle name is ‘Innes’ after all.’  The silence, though, endures and it is painful.  What I write is painful, wrung hard from what little resources I have.  A slow forty minutes passes.  The books, collected.  The lesson over. The classroom empties.  I have been asked to stay behind.  The bearded teacher hands me a book with a bright orange spine.  It has a golden cover with some sheep on it.  It looks shit.
Holding out the book he tells me, ‘This is what we’re doing.’
I think he wants me to read it.  But it’s massive. ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’? What does that mean?
I had washed up at a private school, where I was to discover that all of the teachers had beards, including our aged and chronically-asthmatic history teacher.  In assemblies she pounded her piano in the style of Les Dawson, always sternly immune to the forest-fire of suppressed hilarity this caused.  Still today, it brings me a flicker of laughter to think of the majestic crescendo of ‘And… Was…Jerrrroosulemmm…’ only to topple down in ruins, destroyed by the hammered accompaniment of those bum-chords. 
My mother, in a bold attempt to try and help me through my exams, had whipped me out of the comprehensive and threw what little money she struggled to earn at the last eighteen months of my education.  To my shame, I detested it.  My fellow pupils had been together since they joined the school’s nursery; they had known one another for about three-quarters of their lives.  But it was not that they were unwelcoming or unkind, just that I was a stranger and I did not belong.  They knew it; I knew it – my mother didn’t.  I went on to skip at least one day a week – and out of boredom I would go shoplifting. 
I sat my exams and in my O’ levels (I think it was the last year that they had them) I scored a ‘U’ in everything except Maths (E).  A ‘U’ for those interested is ‘unclassified’.  This meant that I scored between 0-14%.  As far as the Joint Matriculation Board were concerned I need not have bothered turning up for the exam, my grade would still have been the same. 
This is what my mother had struggled for.  Her disappointment on results day compounded by my insistence that we give one of my schoolmates a lift – he got ten As.
Our set text of Far From the Madding Crowd was never read in preparation for my classes, or indeed my final exam.
I am now forty-two and it is still unread – for a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature this is like never having seen Star Wars.
I have been on the run from Hardy for nearly thirty years.

The comprehensive was not great.  I had a lot of friends and was comfortable there, but I knew that I was not going to do well.  I put up no resistance to moving school.  As my mother likes to remind me, I was rather keen on the idea.
The one great thing about the private school was the sports.  Everything was done on such a small scale (I think there were only twelve in the class) that it was much more personable than the casual debilitating brutality of the larger school.
Earlier that year, one of the last things I did at the comprehensive school was compete in sports’ day.  I was to run ‘the mile’ in the House match. There were six competitors; one for each of the school’s houses: Hadrian, Marlborough, Tudor, Warwick, (X?), and mine, Elizabethan.  I was not a particularly talented little runner.  In fact, I was hopelessly naïve about my abilities.  There was a photograph on the dining room wall at home, there so long that it was part of the furniture.  It was a black and white eight by ten of a man stepping over a finish line, pain written deep on his face and body, looking like he had been shot in the back.  No shoes, and blisters the size of walnuts ballooned from beneath his feet.  This was my uncle (my mother’s big brother) getting a gold in the 1966 World Championships.  He had run the marathon.  Running, then, I believed was my genetic inheritance.  I was wrong.
One of my competitors that day belonged to Hadrian and he was a terrible runner – he was that common blend of extreme arrogance and incompetence.  I was no sports whiz, but I could have beaten him at anything.  The gun fired and after about 100 yards I was already in trouble.  Hadrian boy was well in front of me and the rest of the pack  were already away.  My chest burned from the inside like flames were licking up at my throat.  It is a very particular pain, like the air has become almost too hot for you to breathe.  The diaphragm pulls downwards to make space for the rush of gas, but nothing comes in.  Numerous times throughout my childhood I had witnessed the effects of asthma. Two people in my school had died of it. My sister, Erika, had also struggled with it and I envied the attention she got, and even more so the wonderful whistling Intal Spinhalers that she was provided with.  Little capsules, half clear, half orange, filled with white powder had to be loaded, then popped and spun to deliver their charge with a comic whirring whistle that sounded a little like they were ridiculing the wheeze of the sufferer.  We played with her nebuliser that she had brought back from the hospital on one of her trips there.  It could be an instrument of torture for the spies that you had captured.  It was a great prop to play hospitals with.  You could be a fighter pilot, an astronaut, or an alien just landed. 
But the asthma began to spread.  I started to show symptoms of it just before my teens, and my brother was later hospitalized with it.  Unlike my sister, I was not having to regularly medicate against it, not yet, but it did still take me by surprise.
My body was not going to let me compete that day, but determined, with most of the school watching, I struggled against it.  This makes it worse.  I knew from the many cross-countries I had run that the best thing to do was to relax and try to forget about it.  Not run harder because people are watching.  I fell farther and farther behind.  On one of the corners I heard somebody shout ‘Drop out. Why don’t you drop out?’  On the next lap, the same – this time I realised that the calling from the crowd was my brother ashamed to share blood with this pathetic show.  I was determined to finish, proving what, and to whom, I was and still am unaware. 
By the time I crossed the line the race was long over.  There was no attention on me.  Passing the post, I fell to my knees and grasped at the air for breath.
I was in contravention of the single and only fact that I had been taught about running at school – when you get to the end, don’t sit or lie down, stay standing.
There is quite a lot to learn about running, but I did not learn any of it at school.   Like most, I had to do it for myself.
At some point between ’84 and ’85 I did actually give Hardy a go.  On one day, in our lounge, in a comfy chair, I sat down in silence to read.  This was something I never did.  The act of reading had become associated with me with schoolwork, with something that you ought to do.  Not counting the books that we read in class at school, up to the age of twenty I can think of two novels that I read.  Both were film tie-ins for movies that I was too young to see.  Nobody I knew read.  My sister, Erika, was highly intelligent, studious, but not bookish.  There were books around us, but nobody seemed to sit still with one.
On that morning, when I could have been spinning on my head, in my Nike gear, on some lino outside Tesco with my friends, I decided instead to read Far from the Madding Crowd.  There I was, alone in the house, in my tracksuit, poised in the traps of ‘playing out’, and I was going to read about some milkmaid in Victorian Dorset fretting endlessly over which sheepshagger she should or should not marry.
Hours passed.  I was very impressed with my performance.  I did eighty pages.  I had read about a fifth of the novel.  The thing is, I had no experience of reading novels.  And it soon transpired that I didn’t know how to do it at all. Not the least idea. 
Like running, reading was something that you did in school, but technical competence was all that mattered.  As long as you could run, it didn’t matter how you did it.  As long as you could read, it didn’t matter how you did it.
I remember this feeling well.  I got up from my hours in the chair and I couldn’t recall anything that I had just read.  The words, sentences, pages, chapters, all had passed before my eyes.  They had been visually ‘read’.  But there was nothing.  My mind had wandered, not in the Dorset countryside, but everywhere, anywhere else.
I never went back to the beginning.  So disgusted with how that novel had sapped my titanic effort to read it, I never went back to it again. And so I got a ‘U’.
School, or rather my experience of it, all but destroyed two of the finest and most important things there are in life: running and literature. 
Who could have made sense of Hardy for me at that age?
Who could have made sense of cross-country for me at that age?
No amount of explaining, arguing, demonstrating or showing could have made either of these things appeal to me.  They had nothing to do with my life.  And I desperately needed something that was to save me from hanging around in shopping centres, robbing records and fucking up my life by flirting with petty crime and dropping out of school.
Cross-country is now practically a thing of the past.  It belongs to days when schools owned acres of land that its pupils could trample over before the local education authorities sold off the lot to housing developers in the late 80s and 90s.  The one good thing about posh-school was that it had no money, so had very little land, so no cross-country.  At the comp., the school would annually organize a cross-country that all ages could run together.  The last thing that anyone wants is for 1,600 Manchester kids doing something ‘all together’, unattended.  Gangs of older children would charge first years, stripping them, throwing them in thigh-deep pools of glutinous mud, shoving them into barbed-wire fences, flinging mud in their faces.  If you were lucky you might skip all this, but you’re running kit would still be three-times the weight it was when you brought it in that morning.  All that filth has to be worth it.  If you played football the mud was worth it.  For those that liked rugby, the filth was worth it.  Nobody enjoyed cross-country running except for mean-spirited Neanderthals that didn’t enjoy it either for the ‘running’ or the ‘cross-country’.  Brutal, stupid and pointless.
School made it impossible to fall in love with running or literature.  I was too young and naïve to make sense of them, and there was nobody that could explain them to me.  So I shoplifted a bit more till I got caught.  I stopped breakdancing because it was ridiculous. I failed my exams for a second time.  I suddenly found, at the age of eighteen, that I had nothing.