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.