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. 

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Wormholes - Running Through Space-Time



Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
(‘Burnt Norton’ - T. S. Eliot)

One of the greatest pleasures of being able to run is your ability to experience space.  Space in motion, shifting perspective, the same, but always different.  If you are going to do 11 miles on a particular day, the limitations or the entrapment of having-to-do-11-miles enacts for you a kind of wonderful freedom.  At mile three today, I turned a corner and right by me was a passageway that I had never seen before.  A wormhole.  I still had 8 miles to do.  I could turn in any direction I liked.  The new pathway could take me anywhere.  It would not matter where.  I could run it for 4 miles and if I was lost, easily retrace my steps back.  I had strayed a couple of metres past it, but I was already within the event horizon, so turned sharply and entered the passage.  In my head was John Barry’s haunting waltz, the soaring and tumbling score to The Black Hole (listen to it here – and turn it up as loud as you dare).  This little turn took me to the thirteenth century, to hanged highwaymen, to the French Revolution, and to another kind of bustling vortex, and all because I decided to go right, instead of straight on. 
Wormholes are are a kind of speculative or hypothetical offspring from the coupling of topology (the metaphysical study of place) and astrophysics.  Much like the inability of the inhabitants of Abbott’s Lineland to conceive of two- or three-dimensionsonal space, so with wormholes.  We are stranded in our four dimensions, with its superstructure of metaphors and syntaxes built entirely to make sense of those parameters, not to describe what may lie beyond them.   In its simplest terms, we might think of them as two black holes joined by a spinning blend of the laws of physics that as yet are not understood.  Think of water swirling down a plughole, now imagine that at the other end of that pipe is not an outlet but another swirling plughole that seems to be sending water back up towards you.  What happens between the vortices? 
Strange things.
I have done this before, seen a passageway, turned and explored it.  The effect is uncanny, much more so than one might imagine.  You leave one part of London, follow a trail and find yourself in quite another.  The feeling is certainly accentuated by the act of running because one’s experience of space happens, well, faster.  A few miles into a run you are also more susceptible to any form of hypnotic ecstasy, or psycho-spatial displacement.  The slow parabolas of London’s miniature avenues and passageways, and the fact that they are housed and tree-lined, make it difficult for the runner to keep a firm sense of direction.  Moreover, when the visual clues of sunlight, or exposed trees that bend towards the north-east (trampled upon by the prevailing wind), without puddles (which sometimes help to reveal north), or the lopsided foliage-growth of a tree (which sometimes helps to reveal south), when these things are gone, and you have been running the passage for a mile or so, you could be anywhere.  ‘Anywhere within a mile’ you might reasonably argue.  Well, no actually.  There is a corner that I turn on a quiet road in south-east Blackheath.  On a satellite map I am a couple of hundred foot away from Kidbrooke (what a beautiful name for a place).  I could vault a few fences, dodge some guard dogs, climb a tree or two and I would be there.  I am not going to do this.  If I wanted to get to Kidbrooke it would be at least a two mile walk between those two practically adjacent points on the map.  Our experience of the space around us is not purely two-dimensional because all sorts of legal boundaries circumscribe it.  In such circumstances, it is much closer to one-dimensional travel, a maze of interconnected tubes.  So if you find a wormhole, it could take you somewhere you did not imagine possible.  I do not mean Costa Rica, more like a completely different part of Southwark you could not have believed was so close. 
It has happened to me before.  A run from Lewisham, through Ladywell (a terrible name, but still not as bad as Mudchute), I took a turn, headed into some streets - pop, Catford Gyratory.   
What about that fourth dimension? ‘That which hath been is now;‘ (Ecclesiastes 3:15).  My wormhole today brought me out in a suburban sprawl.   Once out of the passage, the sun in the sky was clear and I could easily read my heading if I needed to turn back. I still had a couple of miles to borrow from the bank so I persevered.  Masses of twentieth-century housing, bright red brick, white panelling, tower blocks, scruffy veterinary practices, and ‘that roar’.  That roar could only be the A2, the main road between Kent and London (the one that Bond chases Auric Goldfinger on in Fleming’s 1958 novel, Goldfinger), and it was getting louder.  I couldn’t see it but it was close.  The few children I had passed had all disappeared here.  All was still, forced indoors by rage and carbon monoxide.  Then, escape.  There is a footbridge.  I drive on this stretch of road a hundred times a year, or more, and I have seen it from two vantage points: heading east, heading west.  Today from on high I get to see it stretch for miles in either direction.  The Shard, still unfinished, is evidence of London’s creep ever higher to dominate the view for miles around.
The sound is astonishing.  How and why do people live here.  The houses are in good condition.  This is no suburban shanty-town (like where I live), and this road out to Kent has been here long before any of these houses.  I am not thinking this, of course, as I trample along, trapped into having to run parallel to the road, but I know that escape is coming soon.  To get back on to ‘my‘ land I need to cross a roundabout.  It is a roundabout that has interested me ever since the first time that I used it.  It is a big roundabout with a circumference of several hundred metres, and I have never been anywhere near it on foot before so I am surprised to see that there is a pedestrian subway.  
This is Shooter’s Hill.   
I first heard of it many years ago when I was reading A Tale of Two Cities.  The dramatic beginning of the novel, set in the eighteenth-century, has a mail coach lumbering up Shooter’s Hill on a dark and stormy night, and it is being chased by a man horseback.  The passengers well know why it is called ‘Shooter’s Hill’, because it belongs to the highwaymen.  But it was already called Shooter’s Hill, long before the daring Turpins of the eighteenth century.  The name is first recorded in 1226, having acquired it at some point before then - so presumably roadside robberies have been a tradition here for over a millennium.  
I run down the ramp and find myself at the still centre of a roaring vortex of traffic travelling north, south, east and west.  Any direction and any destination is possible from here.  It is a concrete crucible with beds of flowering lavender, but who could possibly come here to piss?  Many it seems, for it crowds out everything else.
Time folds here, slowly, like layers of chalk.  Some tagster has sprayed ‘PEST’ on a wall so clean and white that it must hide numerous strata of these urban signatures.  For me, there is the memory of irony; of being stuck here in a traffic jam for nearly three hours, late for my very first lecture of the previous year.  A lecture on time, history and A Tale of Two Cities.  The confluence of geography and circumstance few would sanely believe: jammed at precisely the spot where the novel begins. 
Time folds again and it takes us from Dickens’s writing of the novel in 1859, to its setting in the 1790s.  This was the Dover Road - the mainline in and out of revolutionary France.  
Again the strata of memory folds backwards and the hanged highwaymen are here.  Strung up in the eighteenth century and before to deter robberies, when surely the effect must have been to terrify the passengers on the mail coach.
Deeper and we can see the marauders hidden amongst the trees of the dark ages that must first have given this place such a name.
It folds forwards, too, to the very beginnings of the internal combustion engine.  The earliest cars were tried out here.  Alexander Gordon in A Treatise Upon Elemental Locomotion and Interior Communication (1834) recalls, ‘In 1826, Mr Samuel Brown applied his gas-vacuum engine to a carriage, and ascended Shooter’s-hill to the satisfaction of numerous spectators.  The great expense, however, which attended the working of a gas-vacuum engine, prevented its adoption.’
Oh no it didn’t, Mr Gordon - the internal combustion engine had to wait for the right time, but being here, there is a great deal of growling sensory evidence of its world domination.
Leaving via the opposite ramp, still on the A2, being out of the engine tunnel it already seemed quieter.
In a title to one of his best books, Stephen Jay Gould drew on a metaphor of time that he saw employed and deployed repeatedly in science for the last few hundred years.  The metaphors are Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle.   These places, wormholes, are imbued with stratigraphic layers of history and meaning.  The places are still there and so are the traces of what they have witnessed.  Our experience of space is circumscribed by social forces beyond our immediate control; they prevent our free movement within and around the landscape.  But if you look down through time, you will find that you are quite free, there.  Nothing prevents you from feeling the presence and weight of the past and the future.  All of it is there, and it is for all of us, all of the time. 
Time is not an arrow.  It is not a circle.  It does not loop neatly back like an oxbow and continue.  It is a corolla, endlessly looping away from the moment, thrown out of its trajectory, and endlessly, endlessly returning.  
Within a hundred metres I was back on ‘my own’ ground.  The place I had orbitted perhaps a thousand times in my car was now permanently defamiliarized by the memory of the few seconds I spent running through it.
Reading Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge later that day, I was struck by one of his narratorial comments. ‘Time, the magician, had wrought much change, here.’
There is an infinity of possibility and presence in the moment, exquisitely and deeply lived.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Gounod and the Death Star

      The sky was cool glass. A giant cloche had been placed over the world and only sunlight breathed into it, at least that was until I stepped onto Blackheath. There is always a breeze on Blackheath, no matter how hot or still the day the world never stands still up there. The roar of the pulmonary A2 is never far away, but it loses the fight for dominance amongst all this grass and sky. Caught at the right moment, you can get nearly all of it to yourself.
      I had set out that morning with a thin desire to go past Gounod’s house. ‘Go past’ is incorrect. I have been past it many times, this morning I intended to notice it for the first time. It is a Georgian villa tucked away in a suburb southeast of the heath. I run through the area quite frequently. It sits between the A2 and the South Circular and once you are there, you would never know that either road existed, or even that you were in the twenty-first century, barring a runes-throw of cars and streetlights. You can run in the centre of the road where there is no camber, do a mile and a half, snaking one’s way up to the heath and you will be disturbed by perhaps only one car. It will be so polite and quiet that you probably won’t need to move aside to let it pass. It is the interloper here, not you, for we are no longer in the twenty-first century.
Prince's Dock - Hull
      The houses! There is little or no uniformity. Bomb damage from the war probably accounts for a number of the newer builds but altogether these houses look like they have mad wives locked up in them, or jewel thieves disguised as Lady’s maids awaiting the right moment to swipe, or illegitimate daughters planning to marry back their stolen inheritances. These houses belong to Wilkie Collins, Mary Braddon, Charles Reade, Dickens even, and they always remind me of Atkinson-Grimshaw paintings - perhaps because his work is so often used on their covers as classic editions. The paintings (and the houses) have a sub-Turneresque quality, with a clearer and more distinct line, and they are nonetheless decidedly odd. Turner could turn his hand to almost any visual language. He was a stylistic polyglot.   The Turner that we talk of when we say ‘Turner’ tends to be late Turner, the one that depicted snowstorms, hostile rainclouds, steam trains crashing through dense landscapes like raging bulls, all in barometric vortices of light, paint and colour. Atkinson-Grimshaw’s paintings are less emotionally ambitious but what is queer about them is their light and setting. The streetscapes that he would become well known for are always defamiliarized through colour. Docks, roadways, houses take on the hues of pond-slime brown, nicotine yellow, or that dirty emerald that became the pallette for Tretchikoff’s retro-trendy green lady that disturbed me from many a wall as a child. The paint always looks dirty. Horse and carriage tracks in which water has collected reflect the deadening glare and suggest life long gone. In the paintings there are always houses from which light spills from the windows onto a rain-soaked street. There is no life, though. The figures, sometimes none, often one, and occasionally many, have their backs turned to us or hide their faces. The houses are closed to them and us. The paintings tell us that we are merely the houses' observers. The lights are on, somebody is home, but not to us. Real life is elsewhere.
       There are greater parallels between Atkinson-Grimshaw and eastern Blackheath than you might imagine. Re-read the last couple of hundred words and they describe, with surprisingly few adjustments, what it is like to walk or run through this area at dusk. There are so many striking houses, windows so large they would not fit on any fascia of my flat. All that glass and no one to look out of it. No one ever tends a garden, washes their car, chats to a neighbour, hunches up their drive with a brace of Sainsbury’s bags. I have seen security that guard the entrances and exits to the road from undesired traffic, but never who or what it is that they are securing. I have run these streets probably over a hundred times, and never have I seen someone looking out of these windows. I wonder how different these houses are to the bourgeois fortresses in Victorian sensation fiction, places of confinement, where, like Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, or Madame Bovary, one might find themselves suddenly and quietly buried alive.
In his day, Atkinson Grimshaw was criticised for endlessly recycling the same image, sometimes to order. Exercises in light and colour, his painting thrummed always in the same minor key. But for me it seems that his work represents something else altogether about bourgeois communities. In the paintings, the houses are always walled off from their onlookers. They seem to fight so fiercely for isolation and disconnection; to make-believe that they are not where they are, in central London, but elsewhere. Today we have alarms and fences keep the world out so that their owners can deny their place in the earth, so that they can pretend that their roots reach into some different ground?
       As Carlyle said, "Courage, dear reader, I see Land!"
Charles Gounod
       Towards the northern end of this area is where Gounod stayed when he first came to London. Like the bourgeois characters in Maupassant's 'Boile de Suif' (which we will pop back to on our return – we’ll see how we are for time), Gounod came to London to flee the Franco-Prussian War, and found himself embroiled in a wicked plot that Collins or Braddon would have been embarrassed to use. For those interested, it is on Morden Road (it was '8', but is now '15') and it is the house that he stayed in after arriving here, before he and his wife moved in with Georgina Weldon at Tavistock House (demolished) in Bloomsbury Square. Their relationship was probably a platonic one. They knew each other through the opera (Weldon was a celebrated soprano). A decade previously she had married William Henry Weldon and was consequently disinherited by her father. Her husband, though – like her father, refused to allow her to follow a career on stage and she was limited to amateur theatricals and charity concerts. The couple had no children, and by the time she met Gounod, the marriage was failing. Bored and frustrated Weldon (Georgina) set up a school for orphans and the children of the ‘deserving’ poor. After she persuaded Gounod to move in with her and her husband the two became very close. He was impressed with her vocal talent and he promised her the title role in his opera Polyeucte which he was writing during his stay with them. No one knows why Gounod left Tavistock House when he did, but when he returned to Paris Weldon refused to send on his belongings – including the first draft of Polyeucte.
Georgina Weldon
       The Weldons’ marriage continued to limp onwards. In 1875 they separated but after only 3 years Harry tired of the annual £1000 that he had agreed to settle on her, so he tried to use her interest in spiritualism to prove her insane. If proven, she would have been locked away in an asylum. She was duped into being assessed, forms were signed and they came to take her away. Realising, at last, what her husband’s plan was she escaped and went on the run. The state of Victorian civil law meant that she was unable to bring a case against her husband so she decided instead to publicise her story. She could get into court if her husband tried to sue her for libel. They didn’t. The law eventually caught up with her. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 permitted her the freedom to bring a case against her husband. She won. For the next six years she was in and out of court constantly bringing all of those involved in the Weldon Affair to justice. At one point, she had 17 cases going at once and in all of these refused counsel. Her character as a wronged woman, so clean that she was used in a Pears Soap advertisement.
       One of the major attacks on the sensation fiction of the nineteenth century, the ones that use the Atkinson-Grimshaw images as covers, was that they were too far-fetched. In the Weldon Affair, via The Woman in White, art had become life.
       Blackheath at last – where a man scowled at me for looking at his kite.
I had another 5 or so miles to do of the run so headed across the heath to the park. Making my way down towards Greenwich I was struck by another view, and the first thought that sprung to my mind was 'How nice to be here and not there, today.'
From the exact point in the Park
       From the fortresses of the past, to one of the future. As you approach from south, the ground falls away from you quite suddenly and there is a view so specific that it looks to have been carved out of the park. It is One Canada Square, or Canary Wharf as it is more commonly known. It is one of those views that appears as if through a magnifying lens. It looks much closer than it is, than it can possibly be. The whole scene is like some anachronistic vision of Humphrey Repton. A carefully organized park and woodland from which to view...? Canary Whart. At the Greenwich Observatory tourists crowd around to photograph and record this vision of mediocrity. Steel and concrete blocks built to house London's manufacturing (sorry, I couldn't resist) nothingness industry that the country pays billions and billions to preserve. Most of these buildings are characterless, but Canary Whart does belong here. Just like Henrietta Stackpole in James' The Portrait of a Lady, it has the stench of the future. From a distance it looks like a prison from science fiction. There ought to be guards hovering ouside the tower wearing jet packs. If London were in Star Wars this would be the Death Star.
       It is not from the future, though - if only it was. Instead, it hails from the 80s; it is firm, robust, solid, shiny. If architecture could be haute-couture this would be its shoulder-pads. True to its toughened pretensions, it thinks rather highly of itself. The tower's point has a blinking searchlight, either keeping an eye on us mere mortals who dare to look upon it, or ensuring that it can announce its mediocre height in the dark, too. It is not the tallest building in the world, it is not the tallest building in Europe, it is not the tallest building in the UK, it is not even the tallest building in London. Yet it still had the temerity to evacuate on September 11th, like this steely Whart could see itself as a target in the same league as the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. Such a move committed a grave and self-aggrandizing disservice to the memory of hundreds that died that day. The evacuation of the building shuffled for elbowroom that it did not deserve on that day’s overcrowded newsreels.
       My run was nearly done. I was in the final mile (of 9, I think it was). By the duck pond in Manor Park (shhh... it's a secret) there is a sturdy iron fence, with a small gate, about shoulder high. As I approached children, fathers, mothers, and their fathers and mothers, all simultaneously appeared, like traffic in The Truman Show, from both sides wanting in- and egress. They were pigeons having eyed a discarded bread roll. I had come too far; I wasn't going to stop and patiently wait my turn. Without breaking pace, and well out of the way, I leapt and levered myself over the railings, barely touching them. A kid said 'cool!' Was that pride I felt, just briefly, to be told 'cool' by such a little stranger as I ran off.
       Vanitas vanitatum.
       I wonder if it was at that moment, landing too hard on my ankle, that I gave myself the minor sprain which I have been tending to ever since.

(Sorry, Maupassant’s Lard Ball will have to wait for another time.)

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Going Back - with Mr Carlyle and Mr Lawrence

Going back is amongst the most difficult things for a runner to do.  The momentum that they build up over their weeks, months, or years of training is their greatest weakness.  Ignoring obstacles, or even the possibility of their existence, the runner's propulsion drives them onwards towards a real or imagined finish line.  Once fixated upon it, it may as well have been engraved in the granite in their minds if you try to convince them to cut back or be more realistic with their expectations.  You roll the dice; you get injured and find that you have not landed on a ladder, but a long and slithering snake. You can slide down back to the shallows, or in anger you can toss the board aside and forget your disappointment with some other, less fulfilling, activity.
Recovering ground is difficult on so many levels. You are not only forced to acknowledge that you are suffering the indignity of sliding down a snake, there is also the promised boredom of revisiting the same milestones during your training on the slow climb back up.  This second, third, or eighth journey shows you a familiar, but there is a shadow upon it.  This time round you feel fear.  You know that as you crawl back (months later) to where you were, that this was your limit - your absolute limit.  This is the point where the whole miserable fucking process is likely to begin again.  You set out in trepidation and await the verdict.
On the 6th March 1835, the philosopher, John Stuart Mill with some trepidation knocked at the door of his friend Thomas Carlyle.  The door opened to reveal an agitated and distraught Mill.  He had with him four charred pages. This was all that was left of Carlyle’s first handwritten manuscript of the epic and poetic history of The French Revolution that he had lent to Mill to read - although it was only the first volume this still amounted to about 100,000 words.  The maid had mistaken the pages for waste paper and thrown the lot on the fire. Both Thomas and his wife Jane peered over the brink of nervous collapse.  Mill was forgiven even though the loss was seemingly irrecoverable and Carlyle set to work on the second volume of the history.  He completed it a year later in March 1836, going back to the first volume anew.  He finished at 10pm on 12th January 1837, he wrote ‘ready both to weep and to pray’. The French Revolution was an enduring success, loved and loathed by many to date.  Carlyle’s career continued apace.
Despite his reputation today, D. H. Lawrence was not particularly well known or widely respected in his own lifetime, not that is until the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928.  Up until then, novels like Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love were read by relatively few (very few in the case of The Rainbow).  Despite continuous and pressing financial worries that plagued him, Lawrence never published anything until he was satisfied with it.  This is not a writer who wants to check for typos and plot points – not an easily distracted worker, like Shakespeare.  Throughout his career Lawrence always demonstrated an astonishing determination not to let go of a novel until he was sure that it was right.  No, not 'right', perfect.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover exists in three separate and complete versions (all quite different), but it was the third that Lawrence published in Florence to avoid the insulting strictures of censorship that his earlier work had encountered in Britain (his publisher's offices had been raided for copies of The Rainbow).  Sons and Lovers was written no less than four times, originally entitled Paul Morel.  The stamina, determination and commitment to an artistic vision that we see in Lawrence are things witnessed surely less than once in any generation.
Both men, in their different ways, demonstrate a kind of doggedness in their ability to go back to the beginning and start again.  This ability amazes me.  I will let you into a secret, I am here, and I am doing this.  You know I am; look, you can see me doing it.  I should actually be working on a 100,000-word manuscript that I have already written.  All I need to do is to get my head down and correct it, titivate it, rewrite a few bits of it so it can go back to the academic press so they might publish it.  I can apply for promotion, I can move on to another project.  I would never have to think about, or explain, The Epic of Gilgamesh ever again.  What I should actually be doing right now is going back. I just can't.
Have you heard of the 1867 novel The Poor Man and the Lady?  It is a ‘striking socialist novel’; at least that is what Hardy called it in his self-penned biography (not autobiography, it is published under his second wife’s name). That is almost all we know about it.  Only a handful of people have read it: Hardy’s friend and mentor, Horace Moule (who thought it rather coarse), and a handful of publishers all of whom rejected it.  The book was put away, forgotten about, eventually to be burned. But out of the ashes of The Poor Man and the Lady an entire career was born.  Once the novel was put aside, Hardy set to work on a much more market-friendly sensation novel begun in 1869, published two years later (Desperate Remedies).  This was not the right kind of work for Hardy; he had not yet worked out how to knit melodrama and realism in the subtle manner that he would in novels like The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Tess of the D'Urbevilles.  Next to be published was Under the Greenwood Tree (1872).  This is a slender and lightly comic novel with a rural setting that shows Hardy’s roots as a novelist reaching deep into the earth of his upbringing in the West Country.  The first paragraph is instantly recognisable as a mature Hardy's first steps.
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall.
A phoenix did not rise from the ashes of The Poor Man and the Lady; it was an entire writer’s career.  His life as a novelist was begun.  The Poor Man and the Lady reached forward in time, remnants of it are found in Hardy’s poetry, and it was worked into a novella ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’; it also became the source for his most infamous novel, Jude the Obscure.  This fact is not to be underestimated in the context of his career as a writer.  It is often heard around people that do not know much about Hardy that Jude was his last novel, and he was so incensed by the critical response to it that out of pique he refused to write another.  Neither assumption is true. The Well-Beloved, which had started its life as a short serial in 1892 was completely reworked and published as a novel two years after Jude in 1897. Also, Jude was, by far, Hardy’s greatest financial success. He became a monied and a lettered man and for the first time in his life was free to choose what he might do.  He had always wanted to be a poet, and that is just what he became.  The Poor Man and the Lady became Jude, and Jude was what enabled Hardy the novelist to become Hardy the poet.  In refusing to go back, Hardy's career drew its structure from his 'failure'.  Had his first novel not been consumed by the flames, then he may not have felt the need to revisit the themes of injustice and class inequality that became the mainstay of his long and productive writing life.
Going back, turning back and admitting defeat, that you cannot finish your planned route, that you have to stop your training, retrace your footsteps home, to Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – surely the four ugliest and least-poetic words in any language - you feel like Sisyphus letting go of the boulder at the top of the hill only to watch it tumble all the way back down.
You could just do it all again, like Carlyle, and you may find that next time you make it, but to what?  That mileage that you did not achieve last time?  Then what?  More mileage until you injure yourself?  Your injury emerged out of your behaviour and your physiology, if neither of these things change, why would you believe that the outcome would be significantly different to the first time round?  If you are like Lawrence, you will do it again and again until you get it right.  I tried this for most of my adult life, though I found that I do not have an ounce of the stamina that he did.
Scar tissue heals most weakly.  It repairs quickly, like physiological superglue, and it lies brittly in wait for the next strains of tension so that they can tear. (That sentence works just as well with 'psychological' in the middle of it).  Dogged determination is all very well if you have both superhuman stamina and strength to keep you going.  Few do.
Hesitating to use the metaphor in a blog so clearly about the love of the natural world, you could instead recycle the experience.  Like Hardy, you could put away that particular game and do something else.  Same genre, different form.
If running that way has not worked for you then do not stop.  Recycle your knowledge and experience and use that momentum to prepare yourself for something new.  Just try doing it a little differently. Who knows, you may even try taking your shoes off...